Memorial Day/Spring Bank Holiday Roundup

The Spectator has posted a memorial tribute to its recently deceased columnist Jeremy Clarke. This is by David Goodhart who writes that he gave Clarke his start as a journalist. Clarke’s longest and best known gig was the Low-Life column in the Spectator which he took over from Jeffrey Bernard. Here’s an excerpt from Goodhart’s tribute:

…a favourite English teacher, a raffish ex-journalist, happened to be standing behind Clarke as he was surveying the library books. The teacher plucked out a volume and said to Jeremy: ‘Read this.’ It was Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. And so began a lifelong love of Waugh and English satirical fiction and a determination to become a writer.

Just a few weeks ago, as he lay on his bed in the upstairs room of his home in Cotignac, looking out on to the blue skies of Provence and the Massif des Maures mountains, he returned to Waugh, watching YouTube videos of his literary mentor interviewed by Elizabeth Jane Howard.

Their clipped upper-class accents contrasted with his own Essex twang and, as he always insisted, lower-middle-class upbringing. His father John was a bank clerk turned sales rep and heavy drinker; his mother Audrey, with whom he always remained close, a nurse and devout Christian.

After Jeremy was seduced, aged 17, by Waugh’s silky, sardonic prose, he adopted a kind of restless double life that lasted a couple of decades. He took odd jobs often inspired by the literature he was reading – factory jobs (Steinbeck), assistant in a mental hospital (Kesey). His affable manner helped him fit in everywhere, but he rarely let on that he went home after his shift to immerse himself in literary novels, lest he be considered soft.

A notice in the Daily Telegraph adds this:

… it was Evelyn Waugh who inspired his quixotic application to read English Literature at Waugh’s Oxford college, Hertford, after taking A-levels at night school. When that failed, he gained entrance to SOAS in London to read African studies.

Among other things, Clarke wrote travel pieces probably inspired by an extended trip to central Africa described by Goodhart. He was never able to put together a full length book, however. The full Spectator article is worth reading and is available at this link.

The Washington Post does a literary analysis of the HBO Succession series before the start of the last season. Here’s an excerpt:

In the end, … perhaps the show’s most enduring literary legacy will be the one we are quickest to laugh off: its astonishing art of invective. Anybody can insult anybody, but it takes a certain kind of genius to hone insult into poetry, and nowhere has that genius been better cultivated than in Great Britain — a lineage that includes the late Martin Amis on “Don Quixote” (“an indefinite visit from your most impossible senior relative”), Virginia Woolf on E.M. Forster (“limp and damp and milder than the breath of a cow”), Evelyn Waugh on his 6-year-old son (“I have tried him drunk & I have tried him sober”) and that master of all registers Shakespeare (“I do desire we may be better strangers”).

Small wonder that the creator and many of the writers of “Succession” are British. But what gives their work its special zest is how deftly they harness both Anglo-Saxon obscenity and American idiom to create a distinctly mid-Atlantic vituperation. Logan to his chief financial officer: “Karl, if your hands are clean, it’s only because your whorehouse also does manicures.” Shiv, catching a whiff of her little brother’s fragrance: “Oh, what is that? Date Rape by Calvin Klein?” Logan’s disaffected brother, upon learning there will be a Logan Roy School of Journalism: “What’s next? The Jack the Ripper Women’s Health Clinic?”

–There have been several follow up stories on Martin Amis after his death last week. Here is the opening of an obituary of Martin Amis by Mathew Walther in the Roman Catholic journal The Lamp:

“Among living writers of English prose there are few who attempt magnificence.” When Evelyn Waugh pronounced this severe sentence upon his contemporaries in 1955, he admitted only two exceptions: Sir Osbert Sitwell, whose delightful memoirs are almost entirely forgotten, and, perhaps more surprisingly, Winston Churchill, who even now enjoys a wide and devoted following among a certain kind of older male reader whose other interests include submarine warfare and reviews (consulted aspirationally) of very expensive cigars.

Waugh did not define the quality whose absence he lamented, but by “magnificence” he seems to have meant the prose of the eighteenth-century: stately periodic sentences set to Handel-like rhythms, decorous semicolons, and occasional dashes leaping across the page like a fox driven to hounds.

Martin Amis, who died on Friday at the age of seventy-three, did not aspire to magnificence in the Wauvian sense. But he almost certainly would have recognized what Waugh meant when he said that in his own age “elegance tends to be more modest.” Unlike many of his contemporaries, especially in America, Amis aspired to—and, I think, ultimately achieved—what Waugh had proposed as a universal ideal for writers: the dutiful cultivation of a highly individual and readily identifiable style…

–Dr James Alexander in The Daily Sceptic opened his obituary with this:

Martin Amis is one of the two classic ‘nepo babies’ of the English literature of the 20th Century. As everyone knows, Evelyn begat Auberon, and Kingsley begat Martin. And what was remarkable is how both the Waugh and Amis sons admired their fathers, and, to some extent, imitated them. I spent this morning looking through about twenty of Martin’s books and saw nothing so clearly as that the novels of Amis fils now remind me of those of Amis père: not in what was perhaps most characteristic of Martin: the turbo-charged and exuberant scabrousness of his whimsical version of Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism; but certainly in the sentiment, situation and relentless humour, also the attention to language, and, finally, in the occasional intrusion of weighty themes – admittedly more weighty in the case of Martin than in the case of Kingsley.

Now, in this pantheon of great literary fathers and sons I have to say that I rate Martin the lowest. Evelyn Waugh was unparalleled: there is nothing like any of his early novels; and nothing like what is possibly his best single bit of writing, the long opening musing – essentially autobiographical, despite what he said – of The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. Auberon rather failed as a novelist in the 1960s, being out of time: but imposed his sense of absurdity more closely on his time, especially in the famous Private Eye diaries in the 1970s, but also in his journalism, where he was a rare case of someone who was able to express serious thought in amusing terms. (Consider Heath in drag; working-class children being supposed to eat lumps of coals, fish fingers and dogdirt; politics identified as a form of displaced psycho-sexual depravity.) Kingsley, of course, made his name with Lucky Jim: which bewildered Waugh as much as Decline and Fall had bewildered G.K. Chesterton. Such was the change in the sense of humour across the generations. But Kingsley wandered closer to his characters than Waugh (or drank with them); and there was more affection, more sentiment, less spite. I think Stanley and the Women was an achievement; not, as Martin thought, a stain. But the Amises both wrote much about cock anxiety, a subject avoided by the Waughs. Martin inherited the humour of his father, the language, and the sentiment: and added to it, as I say, scabrousness and, perhaps, a European or American taste for occasional experiment…

–Finally, here’s an excerpt from one in The Times by James Marriott entitled “Snobs like Martin Amis do society a valuable service”:

…Such was the vehemence of his campaign against mediocrity that he came to believe his intolerance of stupidity amounted to a mental disorder, a kind of “dementia”. A whole vicious and despairing tradition of English satire, from Alexander Pope to Evelyn Waugh, is founded on the fear that the forces of idiocy are overwhelming the fragile bastions of culture and good sense. Such elitism is eminently capable of being mad and unpleasant. It is very often wrongheaded…

Snobs are rarely nice people. The role requires a certain arrogance and in some cases a positively psychopathic indifference to public opinion. Waugh was not a pleasant man. Neither was Flaubert. Amis’s own life was hardly an essay in intellectual humility and sexual continence. His hostility to Islam in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings was deplorable. But in a week of headlines about Phillip Schofield, and the death of Rolf Harris, we might also recall that there is often something sinister about the light entertainer…


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