Roundup: Agony Aunts and Metroland

–In the Daily Telegraph, Rowan Pelling muses over whether novelists would make good advice to the lovelorn “agony aunts”. Pelling has always thought Edith Wharton would be excellent and notes that Simone de Beauvoir and Anaïs Nin in fact functioned as such, inspiring letters from readers of some of their writings, but is not so sure about other writers:

In fact, most famous authors would make terrible agony aunts. As Graham Greene rightly pointed out, good writers tend to have “a splinter of ice” in their hearts, which allows them to look dispassionately at unpleasant people and happenings and turn their observations into art. Greene himself would have been rubbish at proffering advice because of all that Catholic angst. Anyone who can make God the third person in a love affair, as he does in The End of the Affair, should be barred from counselling others. […]

In fact, speculating which writers would make good agony aunts, and which would not, makes an excellent parlour game for book lovers. I ran into the academic and Scott Fitzgerald aficionada Sarah Churchwell in the course of writing this article and we spent a delicious half-hour running through various scenarios. Churchwell’s top tip was Zelda Fitzgerald, on the grounds there was no experience she hadn’t lived through, including severe mental illness. We agreed you wouldn’t want to go near a man who’d taken advice from overly macho, wife-deserting Ernest Hemingway, nor one who modelled himself on Evelyn Waugh because of the repressed homosexuality and the snobbery (you’d feel you’d need to own a rather lovely country pile before he’d take any interest in your quandaries). Yet Henry James’s fine observation of errant behaviour, his ear for subtext – let alone his incredible insight into women – would put him right up there with his friend Wharton as a counsellor.

–In The Times, Deputy Books Editor James Marriott expresses his concern that exam results have become too pervasive in the university admissions system:

The West’s modern, exam-based meritocracy is an unsatisfactory answer to the old system of advancement based on wealth and family connections. In the years before the Second World War, Yale University admitted 90 per cent of its applicants. If you had the right sort of background and attended the right sort of school, you were almost guaranteed a place.

As late as the mid-1950s, an alumnus of an elite American private school was able to report that “Every member of the class got into his first-choice college except one, who was thought to be brain-damaged.” If Evelyn Waugh’s account of the rampaging Bollinger Club in Decline and Fall bears any relation to reality, 1920s Oxford was happily admitting even the brain-damaged, provided that they boasted suitably impressive lineages.

In the postwar years, our education system was rearranged to reward intelligence, not wealth. Oxford scholarships reserved for the pupils of particular private schools were abolished. Rather than accepting the poshest candidates, universities would accept the most able. The most convenient measure of merit to hand was exam results. Places at elite British and American universities became fiercely competitive. Nowadays Yale’s acceptance rate is 6.3 per cent. At Oxford it is 17.5 per cent.

This system soon infected politics and government services. The article concludes:

Unless we revert to a system of offering university places on the basis of aristocratic rank, exams are here to stay. They are a fact of modern life. But they needn’t be so central a fact. The grades GCSE students are assigned today will be arbitrary and unjust, regardless of whether or not an algorithm has screwed them up.

–A recent book review by James Baresel in the Roman Catholic weekly The Wanderer compares the writings of Ronald Knox to those of an American theologian:

Evelyn Waugh once wrote that one of the authors whom he read most frequently was Msgr. Ronald Knox, from whose books he could, at one and the same time, receive both spiritual edification and literary pleasure. Even in an age when that combination was not uncommon, Knox was able to achieve it to a truly rare degree, surpassed in English prose only by St. John Henry Newman. Today that tradition is largely a matter of history. Largely.

There remains one Anglophone priest who has maintained it, whose works are at least the equal of those from the pens of all but its greatest exemplars and can even be spoken of in the same breath as those of his handful of superiors and who is, moreover, the greatest contributor to that genre the United States has ever produced — Fr. George Rutler.[…]

Anyone not yet familiar with his works will find an excellent introduction to his thought and style in Sophia Press’ The Wit and Wisdom of Father George Rutler. Those whose familiarity with his writing is already extensive will find many of his most incisive and penetrative insights at their most memorable, amusing, and pungent best.

–Sam Wollaston writing in the Guardian thinks that the changes to work habits brought on by the Covid-19 epidemic may destroy the “commute” as a well-established subject of English literature. He mentions for example the:

…Metropolitan line, which brings commuters in from the more affluent (and further afield) mock-Tudor suburbs that became known as Metro-land and were celebrated by Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. But, again, there are very few commuters today. The capital – normally the lungs of the country, sucking in workers in the morning and exhaling them in the late afternoon – is breathing like a hibernating bear.

The tube has never been a place for striking up friendly conversations. With masks and distancing, it is more eyes-down-make-no-contact than ever. Social media is an easier space to approach strangers. My eye was caught by a tweet from a passenger on the 8.08 from Surbiton to Waterloo, usually one of the busiest commuter trains in the country, with a video clip showing the empty carriage. Surbiton, AKA Suburbiton, is quintessential commuter belt, home to Tom and Barbara in the 70s sitcom The Good Life and likely the inspiration for the fictional Climthorpe, where the salaryman Reggie hit his midlife crisis in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.

He’s got it right about Betjeman and the classic TV series but I am not sure what work of Waugh he has in mind that makes anything much out of London commuter life. He is probably thinking of Decline and Fall where there is a character named Margot Metroland and her politician husband but they don’t commute on public transport.

–Finally, the Daily Telegraph carries a column by Simon Heffer who reminds us that the BBC4 is running the 1960 Face to Face interview of Evelyn Waugh this evening at 1105p. He recalls the innovations brought to TV broadcasting by that interview series:

For all his achievements, Freeman was no egomaniac. The programme was about his subject, not about him. He was chosen because he was a serious man who would ask serious questions, but not in a way that would cause offence. All one saw of him, if one saw anything, was the back of his head. They may have been what we would now call celebrity interviews, but the interviewer was not the celebrity.

The questions were designed to reveal, and not to goad, trap or humiliate. Freeman’s formal, gentlemanly and brisk manner, as much as the allure of some of his subjects, was why the programmes were so feted, and why they make such compelling viewing still. […]

What distinguished Face to Face from later television interviews was that the interviewees agreed to be questioned about themselves, in an almost psychiatric fashion, and not about a book, film, record or show. Freeman used the same method of interrogation with Carl Gustav Jung and Lord Hailsham as he did with Albert Finney and Adam Faith.

No one was patronised; nothing was played for laughs; there were no softballs to help bring along the audience. Above all, there was no need for soundbites, because there was so much time; no one else came in and sat on a sofa and joined in the banter.

As noted in a previous post, the interview will follow BBC4’s screening of the 2008 theatrical film of Brideshead Revisited at 9pm.

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