Fall Equinox Roundup

The Sunday Times contributes another assessment of the literary achievements of Queen Elizabeth II’s years. This is entitled “The books that defined the Queen’s reign.” It is written by Dominic Sandbrook, who begins with a consideration of T S Eliot’s World War II visit to Buckingham Palace while Elizabeth was still a princess. It did not go well.  Sandbrook then proceeds to the years of Elizabeth’s reign, beginning with the 1950s:

…Some candidates pick themselves. Of the books published in the immediate aftermath of her accession, the most influential on the world’s imagination was surely JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The best? Hard, I think, to look past William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, indelibly stamped by the horrors of the Second World War.

Yet perhaps the best glimpse of life in the early Fifties, and certainly the funniest, comes in Kingsley Amis’s debut, Lucky Jim, which recounts the misadventures of a young history lecturer at a redbrick university. Published in 1954, it might seem irredeemably tweedy today, with its smoke-wreathed pubs, high-minded folk singers, beret-wearing artists and tight-sweatered bluestockings.

At the time Lucky Jim’s sheer irreverence, as well as its unrepentant masculine hedonism, caught the mood of a Britain emerging from the rigours of austerity. Evelyn Waugh thought it symptomatic of a “new wave of philistinism”. Somerset Maugham, more bluntly, thought its grammar-school-educated hero and his contemporaries were “scum”. “Some will take to drink, some to crime, and go to prison,” Maugham wrote. “Others will become schoolmasters and form the young, or journalists and mould public opinion. A few will go into Parliament, become Cabinet Ministers, and rule the country. I look on myself as fortunate that I shall not live to see it.”

Sandbrook continues through the years, mentioning such notable books as Angus Wilson’s Last Call, John  Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course, and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. For the concluding years, Sandbrook reservees judgement but thinks something by Jamie Oliver or Joe Wicks might well be noted.

The Critic in an article by CD Montgomery about Boris Johnson (“A critical man without any plan”) offers a comparison with Waugh’s assessment of a politician (something he rarely stooped to):

…[Johnson] disappointed those who had hopes of him, but what of those who merely had expectations? Even then, his premiership contrived to end more miserably than Theresa May’s. For she at least was ground down by events. Whereas Boris Johnson was undone by the pettiest form of himself: the little man breaking free from the great man of history.

With his ear for a quip, this prime minister was fond of recalling Evelyn Waugh on Churchill (“simply a radio personality who outlived his time”) but now posterity claims the sometime Archie Rice of Downing Street: a man who will forever be associated with the moment he missed and the destiny he failed. The waters will close over him, and the idea of “Boris loyalists” will soon seem preposterous. There shall be no Borisites tending to his cult… 

–In the latest installment of BBC’s University Challenge, Waugh came up in a Bonus Question. The questions related to fictional places and the one involving Waugh asked to name his novel in which William Boot was sent by mistake to Ishmaelia. The answering team responded Decline and Fall and lost 5 points. The correct answer was of course Scoop.

–In the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly magazine, James Parker explains how he

…fixed his insomnia with whiskey and audiobooks. Seriously. I was a terrible non-sleeper, once upon a time. In the small hours, in the little pointy hours, wife asleep, son asleep, dog asleep, when the whole apartment seemed to creak and bulge like a vessel rigged for oblivion, I would creep onto the couch and torture myself with last-man-in-the-worldness. But then I discovered it. I synthesized it: Jameson, headphones. The antidote. The warming, blurring-the-edges whiskey—a shot or two, no more—and the human voice.

First it was John le CarrĂ© novels. English voices murmuring about espionage—to a boarding-school boy like me, a cracked product of the Establishment, intensely soothing. Then it was Linda Hamilton (yes, Linda Hamilton of Terminator) reading Martin Amis’s Night Train; Michael Cochrane reading Evelyn Waugh’s The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold(a performance of extraordinary Pinfoldian energy—when Cochrane enunciates the word parliamentary it has six syllables); and John Moffatt reading Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Believe me, nothing lays you out like The Faerie Queene. I don’t think I’ve ever made it to the second canto…

–In the Literary Review of Canada Mark Kingwell recalls his life of book buying and reading:

What are the highlights on this most recent journey of self-rediscovery? For one thing, I’m struck by how much I associate certain books with where and how I bought them — and sometimes with whom. I found my first edition of Brideshead Revisited in a Toronto used bookstore. It was beyond my means, but my friend Matt Parfitt pressured me to splurge. (He and I were mesmerized at the time by the Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews television adaptation.)


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