–Charles Moore writing in the Daily Telegraph has a story entitled “Not even the Queen’s Jubilee is safe from BBC preaching: There are good writers all across the Commonwealth, but Auntie insists on telling us that it knows best”. He is referring to a BBC list of 70 books as recommended reading of books published during the period of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign (10 for each decade). Moore finds the list quite odd if only because he hasn’t heard of half of the listings. Here is his discussion of the first decade (1952-61)
Seven of them deal with issues of slavery, racism, immigration and empire. All important themes for fiction, but a bit obsessive in such concentration. Only one of the ten, A House for Mr Biswas, by V.S.Naipaul, could be described as famous.
Yet the decade in question was prodigious for British fiction. In those years – Ian Fleming’s James Bond burst upon the world in 1953 with Casino Royale and continued at the rate of one a year. Kingsley Amis’s debut, Lucky Jim, was the comic hit of the decade. Raymond Chandler (British, though living in the United States) produced The Long Goodbye. Graham Greene published Our Man in Havana.
It was an era of great fictional projects too. Evelyn Waugh wrote his Sword of Honour trilogy, which many see as the greatest English fiction to have emerged from the Second World War. It was in the 1950s that Anthony Powell brought out the early volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time. Mary Renault got going on her novels of the ancient Greek world (including The King Must Die), which are nowadays recognised as classics of gay literature. It was a period of tremendous literary diversity. Sad to leave so much out.
An even odder omission is The Lord of The Rings (1955). J.R.R.Tolkien’s construction of an entire mythical world has sold more than 150 million copies. Perhaps the selectors saw his trilogy as children’s books, which they exclude. If so, they were mistaken, although of course many children love Tolkien.
He finds similar omissions in other decades and concludes:
As so often in current culture, I fear that we, the reading or would-be reading public, are being preached to about what somebody thinks would be good for us rather than encouraged to read what we would actually enjoy…
–A more nuanced view appears in The Critic. This is by Alexander Larman who eschews charges of wokery in favor of considering the selections (or lack thereof) on the merits. He notes obvious omissions (“One whistles for Waugh or Wodehouse, both of whom produced work in the past 70 years — although alas, little of it their best — let alone Kingsley Amis, David Lodge or Edward St Aubyn”) and concludes with this:
…it is hard not to feel that this carefully curated selection feels like a missed opportunity, with box-ticking winning out over great writing. Genuine imaginative art that stirs spirits and moves hearts has lost out to the inclusion of a novel that just happens to have originated from New Zealand. Ranking books as if they were horses is never a brilliant idea. But this uninspiring, Gradgrindish assortment still feels like the least inspiring selection in recent memory. First Prince Andrew, and now this: what a disappointing 2022 the Queen is having.
–Another Telegraph reporter, Allison Pearson, thought she could make a more useful list with the help of the paper’s readers. So she did just that. Her list (posted 21 April 2022) includes Waugh’s Unconditional Surrender for 1961 (“greatest fiction to come out of the Second World War”). Also on the list are books from Waugh’s contemporaries Graham Greene (Our Man in Havana) 1957 and Anthony Powell (Dance to the Music of Time–all 12) 1970. Nothing from Nancy Mitford, however.
–The Daily Mail has added another review of Daisy Dunn’s book Not Far From Brideshead. See previous posts. This is by Kathryn Hughes who begins with a discussion of frequently mentioned links to Waugh’s novel and then continues:
Dunn’s particular interest is the way in which the spirit of inter-war Oxford, for good and for ill, was shaped by the classical syllabus. Her unlikely hero is Maurice Bowra, the clever, closeted classics scholar who is the obvious person to become the next Regius Professor of Greek, at the time the most prestigious academic role in the country. The problem is that not only is his scholarship a bit old-hat, but Bowra was also gay at a time when homosexuality was a crime.
News of his social adventures in anything-goes Berlin meant that it was E. W. Dodds, an obscure Irishman from Birmingham University, who got the job. To say that Oxford was upset is putting it mildly. Dodds, a genuinely clever man, found himself sent to Coventry. People walked out of rooms when he came in, and some dons refused to let their undergraduates go to his lectures. Bowra congratulated Dodds through clenched teeth and went out of his way to make his life as unpleasant as possible. Sharp-eyed Waugh, meanwhile, was taking notes. He put Bowra into Brideshead as Samgrass, an Oxford academic who is a social climber and a bit of a bore. Bowra recognised himself and claimed to be flattered.
This might all sound parochial, but as Daisy Dunn shows, there was something greater at stake. Hitler and his henchmen were busy building the Third Reich along what they fondly imagined were Ancient Greek lines. They particularly admired the Spartan practice of killing off weak children and invalids – a kind of rough-and- ready eugenics. Other, home-grown fascists such as Oswald Mosley went out of their way to win Oxford over to their cause.
–Emily Hill in The Spectator describes her experience with the purchase a few years ago of her “part-buy, part-rent, one-bedroom eco-home.” Until recently she bemoaned her misfortune in being stuck with an unfashionable, cramped dwelling where she sweltered in the summer heat and couldn’t open the windows. More recently, she has reassessed her situation as her own fuel bill increases have proven considerably less burdensome than those of her acquaintances in their more commodious, conventional structures. She can now take a more nuanced and ironic view of her situation:
Anyone who has a father who read Evelyn Waugh novels for parenting guidance will have been raised, like me, in a culture of lukewarm baths used by two previous occupants. The thermostat in our draughty house was positioned right next to the hearth so the heating went off if it was cold enough to light a fire.
–Harry Mount, editor of The Oldie, writing in the Daily Telegraph’s “Comment” section, defends Oxford’s Bullingdon Club from its OTT portrayals in recent dramas. These include Laura Wade’s play and film from 2010 (Posh) and 2014 (The Riot Club) and, more recently, the Netflix series Anatomy of a Scandal. As he explains, these works unfairly describe a fairly minor and relatively harmless institution and exaggerate its importance in Oxford social life and national politics. The article concludes with this:
You could write another series about how Presidents of the Oxford Union debating society have dominated post-war politics, too. They include Michael Foot, Ted Heath, Anthony Crosland, Tony Benn, Jeremy Thorpe, William Rees-Mogg, Michael Heseltine, William Hague, Michael Gove and one Boris Johnson. The Oxford Union has been a much more fertile cradle for politicians than the Bullingdon. But it doesn’t have the same lethally attractive cocktail of class, privilege and white-faced tailcoats.
So we can only expect more lazy crime dramas about the club. If only modern writers borrowed from the only author who ever got the Bullingdon right: Evelyn Waugh, who mocked it as the Bollinger Club in Decline and Fall (1928). Waugh wrote that Bollinger members included “epileptic royalty from their villas of exile; uncouth peers from crumbling country seats; smooth young men of uncertain tastes from embassies and legations; illiterate lairds from wet granite hovels in the Highlands; ambitious young barristers and Conservative candidates”.
Waugh took the truth of the Bullingdon Club and made it funny. Anatomy of a Scandal turns it into a series of wicked, lazy falsehoods.