D.A.N. Jones

D.A.N. Jones was formerly assistant editor of the Listener.


D.A.N. Jones, 5 November 1992

For the British, South America is perhaps the darkest of the continents: only rarely and faintly has it entered our history, provoked our armies, disturbed our empire and commonwealth. ‘Ford Cortina,’ said the late Poet Laureate, rather sniffily: ‘it sounds like a South American.’ We can’t easily imagine what it’s like to be one: their fiction is obscured by the charms of Magical Realism. Their political spasms trouble us less than those of Europe or Africa, Bosnia or Somalia. We might meet them in our student days. I remember a Chilean who rebuffed the college manciple: ‘Are you asking me or are you telling me – peasant?’ Similarly, Tony Gould met a Chilean caballero, when they were Cambridge undergraduates, some thirty years ago. He was called Cristian Huneeus, a young man of landed family, a gentlemanly left-winger and already a published novelist. In those days, British readers were not so interested in South American fiction as they have since become, and few indeed were those who took an interest in South American politics – apart perhaps from worrying about the imperious interventions of North Americans, so eager to counter the threat of Communism in their hemisphere.’

Old Ladies

D.A.N. Jones, 20 August 1992

Marguerite Yourcenar was a highly honoured French writer, the first woman to be elected to the Académie Française, but her mother came from the Low Countries. The mother died in 1903, eight days after the daughter’s birth: her married name was Fernande de Crayencour (from which the pen name ‘Yourcenar’ was constructed) and her maiden name was de Cartier de Marchienne. In 1974, Marguerite Yourcenar published Souvenirs pieux (the first volume of her memoirs, Le Labyrinthe du monde), but it is a ‘memoir’ that never deals directly with the author. The book is about Fernande, her family and ancestors, over several centuries in what is now called Belgium. They were people who could take the concept of ‘pious memories’ quite seriously or, at least, formally.

Top Sergeant

D.A.N. Jones, 23 April 1992

Fred Zinnemann’s movie, From Here to Eternity, came out in 1953. I saw it in 1955, when I was a conscript soldier in Hong Kong. Since it was a story about a peace-time army in an exotic station (Pearl Harbor, Hawaii), eventually surprised by the Japanese attack of 1941, it seemed to me and my fellow-rankers markedly relevant to our situation – though we were less unprepared for invasion and insurrection than those surprised Americans at Pearl Harbor. The movie (and James Jones’s novel, on which it was based) presented that peace-time army as a community wherein a vicious and slothful officer might neglect his duties, turning over his responsibilities to the Top Sergeant, while the Other Ranks (or the Enlisted Men, as the Americans say) might be unjustly convicted of trumped-up offences and made to suffer cruel and unusual punishments. A young British soldier might say to himself: ‘Yes, it is all true. Armies are like that – so why are you rather enjoying this life?’’

’Oly, ’Oly, ’Oly

D.A.N. Jones, 20 December 1990

Only one of these five memoirs can be fairly called secular – quite unconcerned with the consolations of religion, untroubled by the complications. This is From Early Life by the oldest of the five authors, the novelist and scientist ‘William Cooper’: he was born in 1910 and brought up (as Harry Hoff) in the town of Crewe in Cheshire. Seniors in his family were determined chapel-goers, but Cooper-Hoff looks back at his childhood, over eighty years, with the quiet smile of a tolerant agnostic: his light, amused impressions illustrate the way England has become more secular than other nations, during this century. Though he claims to have an unreliable memory, he can remember being a beautiful baby of two, in 1912, and screaming at a parson who approached his pram, saying: ‘Hello, my little man.’ He can remember moving up from the Infants to the Big School, where the headmaster brandished his cane at the morning assembly, announcing: ‘You’re going to sing “ ’Oly, ’Oly, ’Oly” – I’ll cut some of you in two.’ The boys were trundled across the road for an Anglican church service once a week. He remembers being baptised when he was nine, at the instigation of his piano teacher, who wanted him in the church choir. Young Harry was quite pleased with the fuss. Though his father came of a ‘good Baptist’ family and his mother from a ‘good Wesleyan’ family, neither was ‘given to going to chapel’ and only rarely did they threaten young Harry: ‘If you go on like this, you’ll be sent to Sunday School next week!’’

Motiveless Malignity

D.A.N. Jones, 11 October 1990

Ever since 1958, when his play The Birthday Party opened in London, Harold Pinter has been admired by the judicious for the witty realism of his dialogue and the engrossing mystery of his omissions – particularly his omission of motive, his blank refusal to explain why: why his characters are behaving so weirdly, why they are saying such terrible things. He had written a novel, The Dwarfs, in the early Fifties, before he began writing plays, but he did not offer it for publication: he turned part of it into a play (with the same title) which was, he now says, ‘quite abstract, mainly, I believe, because I omitted the essential character of Virginia from it’. Last year, he went back to his old novel and prepared it for its present publication, mainly by cutting it down: despite the omissions, there is not quite so much mystery as usual about the motivation of the principal characters, Virginia and the three young men, Pete, Len and Mark, all Hackney people. Being of the same generation as Pinter and, like him, a London grammar-school boy, I claim to understand these young people of the Fifties, to recognise them with a sort of nostalgia, to take pleasure in their realistic conversations, their cross-talk or stichomythia.’

Remembering the taeog

D.A.N. Jones, 30 August 1990

Rightly admired as a critic, an interpreter of ‘culture and society’, Raymond Williams was disappointing as a writer of fiction. The Eggs of the Eagle is the second volume of ‘People of the Black Mountains’, his uncompleted ‘historical novel’. There are 17 short stories or sketches, rather dismal slices of life in south-eastern Wales, between the Wye and the Usk: they are set in six different centuries, from AD 82 to 1415. There is a thin linking narrative about a youth in the 1980s who meditates on the history of this Welsh border-country, while searching for Elis, his grandfather, lost and injured in the mountains. The author had intended to continue the historical trail through five more centuries, concluding with Elis’s service in the Second World War. Perhaps Raymond Williams identified himself with poor old Elis.


D.A.N. Jones, 12 July 1990

Men who get their memoirs published are generally confident enough to report, gleefully, their victories over particular opponents, and to try to explain any defeats. There is another sort of memoir in which the author tells how he has failed to fit in, or slot in, or lock in, to something called ‘society’, how he has been made to feel an outsider, a fish out of water, an oddball. All four of these books tend to the latter sort. Adewale Maja-Pearce has strong grounds for taking this line: he is an English-born novelist, the son of a Nigerian father and a Scottish mother. In How many miles to Babylon? he tells us that he came home from his London school complaining that the other children called him a wog: his Scottish grandmother gave him the well-meant, useless advice that he should tell his schoolfellows that the word meant ‘gentleman’. He published another memoir in 1987, In My Father’s Country: as an adult visiting Nigeria, he had been harassed by the African children chanting Oyinbo! – which means, roughly, ‘Paleface!’’

Rough, tough and glamorous

D.A.N. Jones, 24 May 1990

This quaint and inconclusive book is a compilation of tape-recorded interviews, presented as a discussion of professional crime in Britain, primarily London. A montage on the dust-cover promotes a man called ‘the Prince of Darkness’: we may wonder if this satanic figure is ‘Mister Big’ – a successor to the famous Kray brothers, a capo of the Mafia, a leader of the Yardies or the fiendish Chinese Tongs. But no: he is a veteran crime reporter, diabolically nicknamed for his habit of wearing a long black cape. He is the subject of one of Duncan Campbell’s 23 interviews. The other subjects ‘on the right side of the law’ are a judge, a barrister and a solicitor; three policemen and a prison officer; an Indian victim of crime, a (female) ‘victim supporter’ and a (black, female) probation officer. Although Campbell works for the Guardian, there are not many women in his book, and they are only there to provide the pathos.’

When students ruled the earth

D.A.N. Jones, 17 March 1988

Twenty years is a long time in politics. To me, the flavour of the year 1968 is still ‘anti-Fascism’. The meanings of ‘Fascism’ and ‘National Socialism’ are quite well discussed in Roger Scruton’s cold-hearted Dictionary of Political Thought (1982). For me (born in 1931) and for many of my generation, ‘Fascism’ means a system of government which angers us and reminds us of the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini. A fear of ‘Fascism’ was quite natural in 1968, that year of wild crowds and top people’s plots. I was interviewed by a Swiss television team: ‘Don’t you think England might go Fascist, Mr Jones? A quiet English sort of Fascism?’ ‘Abs’lument pas!’ I snapped (quoting from a favourite French film), ‘Abs’lument pas!’ – with a confidence I could not muster today. Then, a contemporary at a college reunion (a conservative chap, working for the Ministry of Defence) said to me sweetly: ‘I think you’re a Fascist.’ I billed: ‘Oh, you don’t!’ He cooed: ‘But I do!’’

Powerful People

D.A.N. Jones, 15 October 1987

Chinua Achebe’s masterly novel concerns three powerful Africans. They are drawn on the dust-cover as three green bottles, from the English song: ‘If one green bottle should accident’ly fall …’ One is the President of an African state, generally known as His Excellency, though his old schoolmates remember him as Sam. Another is Ikem Osidi, editor of the National Gazette, a fiery journalist and admired poet. At school, Ikem was considered ‘the brightest’, but Sam was the cricket captain and the ‘social paragon’. Sam went to Sandhurst and achieved the Presidency through a military coup. The third schoolfellow holds a rank midway between Ikem and His Excellency. This is Chris Oriko, former editor of the National Gazette, now promoted as the Honourable Commissioner for information, meeting His Excellency frequently and sometimes being ordered to pass on instructions to the recalcitrant Ikem. The three have known one another for twenty-five years, from the day when they ‘first met as new boys of 13 or 14 at Lord Lugard College’. Nigeria is suggested by the name of Lugard, but Achebe has set his story in an imaginary state, called Kangan, smaller than Nigeria. There is a general feeling that these three schoolfellows ought not to be working closely together, resenting one another. Lord Lugard boys should be lonely leaders, living in isolation like District Commissioners, educating or governing the common people.

Mountain Novel, Hitler Novel

D.A.N. Jones, 1 October 1987

The first thing to notice about The Spell is that it is a good, readable story. Hermann Broch is considered ‘very hard to read’, wrote Martin Seymour-Smith in his useful guide, Novels and Novelists. ‘He used most of the Modernist technical devices available to him, but mainly stream of consciousness.’ Broch’s work has often attracted comments like that and they sound, to the general reader, like the kiss of death. Nevertheless, The Spell is as straightforwardly readable – and haunting – as the stories of Walter De La Mare, say, or as Emily Brontë. Secondly, it is a reflection on the largest public event in Broch’s life – the takeover of Germany and Austria by the Nazis, heralding their attempt to conquer the world, using ‘crowd-psychology’. Thirdly, it is uncompleted, though it may not seem incomplete. Broch worked on it for almost twenty years, while completing other work. More than one version of The Spell has been published. One of them is called The Tempter.’

Bright Old Thing

D.A.N. Jones, 23 July 1987

Conrad Russell was a nephew of the ninth Duke of Bedford: every publisher in Great Russell Street and Bedford Square must have wanted to publish his selected letters, if only from simple loyalty to the landowner. Russell’s life was not remarkable, on the surface. Evelyn Waugh said he was ‘exquisitely entertaining’, but this is ambiguous: he may have meant that Russell was a figure of fun, like William Boot. When Russell died in 1947 he was described in the Times as ‘that most endearing of Somerset farmers’ – the best tribute they could come up with. Russell was ever a countryman, proud of his mangels: raised in rural Surrey, he was discomposed in towns. He wrote to his sister in 1902 when he was 24: ‘I have never found London life so unattractive before. The young men at Scoones do not amuse me much but I seem to amuse them for they laugh consumedly every time I open my mouth. I think it is because my voice is different from theirs.’ Worse was to come. In 1937 he wrote to Diana Cooper about a member of his London club who had raised an objection about Russell ‘talking farming’. The complaint ran: ‘It’s really unbearable. I sometimes think I’ll scream, it suffocates me.’ Russell concedes: ‘Well, you never see yourself as others see you. I’m THE club bore and never knew it.’’

Vies de Bohème

D.A.N. Jones, 23 April 1987

For almost forty years Nadine Gordimer has been publishing gallant and sensitive stories deploring the apartheid system in her native South Africa. Every book is received with respectful, almost ritual lamentations by London reviewers, reminded of the days of their youth – for the apartheid regime has a longer history than Nazi Germany or even Franco’s Spain. One cannot admit to being bored with the problem but may wonder what else there is to say. In A Sport of Nature Miss Gordimer breaks out of the enclave with a novel about a Jewish girl who makes love to black Africans, travels around the world and returns to her homeland, ‘the new African state that used to be South Africa’, as the wife of the Chairman of the OAU (the Organisation of African Unity). This is an optimistic conclusion, perhaps a pipe-dream. The story is told in a rather hazy way, often as if a biographer was seeking to establish facts about a well-known person with mysterious gaps in her history, sometimes breaking into italics with gnomic utterances: ‘Winter is burial … What has been, what was, what will be: nobody else can decide … ’ Sometimes we are unsure what country Hillela, the heroine, is in. She does not talk much and she feels like a fantasy figure. Only the scenes in white-ruled South Africa are presented naturalistically. The lusus naturae of the title seems to be Hillela, not apartheid.’


D.A.N. Jones, 5 March 1987

‘We are not concerned with the very poor,’ wrote E.M. Forster, with heavy irony. ‘They are unthinkable, and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet.’ He was almost thirty when he wrote this, thinking about the unthinkable, in Howards End. Some fifteen years later he met (and apparently fell in love with) Police Constable Harry Daley, twenty years his junior. Forster’s ironic paragraph of 1910 had continued: ‘The story deals with gentlefolk, or with those who are obliged to pretend that they are gentlefolk.’ He was introducing an imagined character, Leonard Bast, who ‘stood at the extreme verge of gentility. He was not in the Abyss, but he could see it, and at times people whom he knew had dropped in, and counted no more’: therefore, the unlucky Bast ‘was obliged to assert gentility, lest he slipped into the Abyss where nothing counts’. Blundering through the ironies, we gather that the Abyss means the world of the working class, the world of most people, and that Forster was suggesting that it was impossible in 1910 for gentlefolk and novelists to connect with that large world – ‘that huge body of individuals that generally goes by the name of the People’, as Hazlitt put it. For some reason Forster was unable (or so he posed) to connect with anyone ‘lower’ than Leonard Bast, low-class, anxious for promotion, fearful that he might drop into the Abyss. It may have come as a relief from all these ironies when Forster connected with PC Daley in the Twenties – for Daley was a working-class man, quite as cultivated and artistic as Leonard Bast, but not at all anxious for promotion, quite happy with the Abyss, where all the good-looking people are. Daley was not a capitalist or a monetarist (nor, of course, a racist or a sexist): he was a looksist.’

What women think about men

D.A.N. Jones, 5 February 1987

Let us be sexist. The Progress of Love is a woman’s book, particularly interesting to men who want to know what women think of them and know about them. Alice Munro is a 56-year-old Canadian who has been married twice: she is particularly concerned with the knowingness derived from broken relationships. One of the 11 skilful stories in this book (her sixth collection) is called ‘Lichen’ – a fungoid growth or eruption used as an image for the progress of love. A civil servant called David, his grey hair dyed, has come to visit his ex-wife, Stella: he brings with him his new partner, Catherine, but he is already sick of her and obsessed with a third woman, the pleasingly trollopy Dina. David accompanies Stella on a visit to her aged father in the Balm of Gilead home. As they leave, he thinks that this troll-like woman, to whom he was married for 21 years, knows him too well: ‘He could never feel any lightness, any secret and victorious expansion with a woman who knew so much. She was bloated with all she knew.’ Nevertheless, he embraces Stella in the hospital corridor – and, just then, a pretty nurse passes, pushing a trolley and calling: ‘Juice time. Orange. Grape.’ David feels a very slight discomfort at being seen by such a young and pretty girl in the embrace of Stella. It is not an important feeling – ‘It simply brushed him and passed’ – but Stella knows about it. She says:’


D.A.N. Jones, 8 January 1987

These tales of mob and gang will be appreciated by man and boy, but especially by those of us who have survived fifty-odd years of life in Britain. Our day-school years in the Thirties were much influenced by the public school system, expressed in schoolmasters’ aspirations and schoolboys’ comics. Simon Raven’s notorious devotion to that system began when he was only a seven-year-old comic reader, as he admits in The Old School, a loving but mordant survey of the dormitory schools: he went on avidly to Charterhouse and he fancies other men will envy or scorn that experience, as he himself scorns or envies men from rival dormitories. Such is the gang spirit. Then, in our teens or twenties, we entered the mob, post-war conscripts in the years of National Service: here the public schoolboys came into their own, hogging the Queen’s Commission and acquiring conscript valets. Trevor Royle, a serious young Scot, describes ‘the National Service Experience, 1945-63’ in his worthy book, The Best Years of Their Lives: he feels sorry that he was too young to meet this challenge himself.

David Robert Jones, alias David Bowie, is now in his 40th year. His creepy, chilling phrases pop out of pub juke-boxes, and extracts from his movies catch the eye on pub videos, whether he is embracing a Chinese girl or being executed by Japanese soldiers; his image appears in the Sunday-paper magazines, artistically displayed in sundry poses. As actor, mime, musician and crowd-poet, he has chanted his eerie music and frightening stories in thronged arenas; he has strutted in high boots, wearing strange masks. This is what I call ‘crowd-poetry’, not mere words. He can make up catchy tunes to go with his half-heard words and he can blow them or sing them while he shows off his costumed body. He is more like the old Athenian crowd-poets whom Aristotle praised for their command of spectacle and song, pity and terror. ‘Aeschylus tragical on stilts,’ sighed Aldous Huxley. ‘Bawling sublimities through a tortured mouth-hole!’

Bad Nights

D.A.N. Jones, 23 October 1986

When Heinrich Böll died, last year, we had come to respect him as a Roman Catholic pacifist, a Nobel Prizeman speaking measured words to young idealists. We may have forgotten the work of his youth, the two post-war novels based on his experience of service with the German Army in Russia. The 22 stories in The Casualty were written in the immediately post-war period, 1946 to 1952, so that they are ‘old’ stories, but satisfyingly youthful, physically aware of particulars, not seeking generalisations, hot-tempered, desperate and ashamed.


D.A.N. Jones, 18 September 1986

There is an old belief still prevalent in West Africa that many women send forth their souls on night-flights while their bodies are peacefully sleeping: they meet other women’s souls, their okra or sunsum, on the tops of banana trees, where they work magic. The Ghanaian novelist, B. Kojo Laing, makes use of this theory in his story of modern Accra, Search Sweet Country. It might be tempting to treat his novel as an example of ‘magical realism’, in the Latin American mode, but it is too realistic for that: people really believe in such things. Kojo Laing tells of night-flights in a disconcertingly unsurprised way. He was educated in Scotland, where witches like Stevenson’s Thrawn Janet used to follow the Black Man, but he does not follow the Scottish tradition in telling eerie tales. The Scots narrators are always awed by the strangeness of their story, craftily persuading sceptical readers of its truth. Kojo Laing is matter-of-fact, as if his story was not eerie at all.

The Old Feudalist

D.A.N. Jones, 3 July 1986

Some of my best friends have been moved to tears by the 1985 motion picture which takes its title from the Baroness Blixen’s 1937 memoir, Out of Africa. These suckers will be taken aback if they ever come to read the old book on which they wrongly suppose it to be ‘based’. The memoir has been reissued by Penguin Books, with movie advertisements on the cover, and so have some other books by the Baroness, written under her pseudonym, Isak Dinesen. Here now is another reissue, from Century Hutchinson, hard-backed and elaborately illustrated, striving to connect the book with the film, to encourage sentimental nostalgia about British settlers in Kenya and to strengthen concern about the conservation of African wild life. The much-hyped new movie is an old-fashioned women’s-weepie, with no laughs but plenty of scenery, lugubriously relating a version of the Baroness’s love affair when she lived among other white settlers in British East Africa (1914-1931). The Baroness’s memoir has the same setting, but it is mostly about black natives, and her love affair is never discussed: it is hinted at in a rather tantalising way. There is much humour, of a sardonic sort, in the book, several good stories and surprises – none of which have reached the screen. It would be a mistake to suppose that the unsurprising movie was ‘based’ on this book. What it is really based on (very loosely) is Judith Thurman’s workmanlike biography of the Baroness, Isak Dinesen: The Life of Karen Blixen, which Penguin Books has happily reissued, with a picture of ogling film stars on the cover.’

Et in Alhambra ego

D.A.N. Jones, 5 June 1986

‘The Hazlitt of our time’, said the Manchester Guardian, announcing the death of James Agate in 1947. An extravagant compliment, but the famous theatre reviewer did have one or two of Hazlitt’s characteristics. Though his journalism now seems too pompous-frivolous even for the theatre world, his reports of actors’ performances are often vivid and persuasive: he was quite learned in his subject and could communicate his own enthusiasm, making drama seem important – more important, perhaps, than it seems to us today. He was shamelessly egotistic and his self-importance attracted readers to the theatrical excitements he publicised. In his autobiographical Ego books he was less candid than Hazlitt was, but then he risked imprisonment. James Harding reveals Agate as a reckless hunter after unlawful pleasures. It is a dismal tale, but James Harding tells it cheerfully. He calls Agate ‘an English Baron de Charlus’ – which seems almost as extravagant as ‘the Hazlitt of our time’.’

Nuclear Fiction

D.A.N. Jones, 8 May 1986

Four of these novels are political, not to be taken lightly. Acts of Faith and The Nuclear Age are concerned with the terror offered to us all by the nuclear deterrent. This is a large theme and it is proper to adopt a grave, tongue-biting tone, as our ancestors did when considering H-11 and the D-v-1. Unlike ‘terrorism’ – which it otherwise somewhat resembles – the nuclear deterrent is presented by state authority as a measure for preserving the great peace: it is customary for state authority thus to associate peace with terror. In Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, the King’s infant daughter is praised in a powerful prophecy: ‘She shall be loved and feared,’ and her royal attributes shall be ‘peace, plenty, love, truth, terror’. Our disputations about the nuclear deterrent are connected with the suspicion that it terrifies the tender but not the tough. The narrators of the first two novels, middle-class American citizens, admit to being terrified out of their wits: they fear that the martyr-venerating warriors of Islam and the rough Catholics of Latin America may not be deterred from small-scale warfare by the threat of international escalation. Acts of Faith, Hans Koning’s scenario, warns of a danger of global nuclear war arising from the Hispanic connections of the United States. Tim O’Brien’s more discursive narrative, The Nuclear Age, breaks out in desperate little cries, like: ‘Beirut was a madhouse. The graveyards were full … ’ This narrator is not really concerned about the deaths of Beirut citizens: his terror is that a Middle East crisis might ‘escalate’.

Comprehending Gaddis

D.A.N. Jones, 6 March 1986

There seem to be about a hundred characters in The Recognitions, most of them United States citizens, but some of them change their names, escaping from law-men, and others have no known name at all. They have to be recognised by a tone of voice or a favourite catch-phrase which might pop up anywhere in the 22 chapters of this long novel, like a running gag. In the same way, certain themes or obsessions pop up, in a frivolous or portentous spirit, and they are often relevant to the concerns of William Gaddis’s later novels, JR and Carpenter’s Gothic.

Horrors and Hidden Money

D.A.N. Jones, 6 February 1986

Would we buy a used car from Norman Lewis? He certainly seems to know a lot about them. There is a picture on the dust-cover of the young Lewis (he was born in 1918) proudly at the wheel of a Bugatti, and he describes, too briefly, his dangerous experience with such a machine at Brooklands in 1939, his last adventure in serious motor-racing. In the Thirties he used to buy second-hand cars in Italy, to be done up and sold in Britain. We might guess, from his novels and travel-books, that Lewis would make a persuasive salesman; but this ‘Autobiography’ might also persuade us that he is inclined to exaggerate. He has often written in a cool, unsurprised, almost entertaining way about gruesome events in four continents – like a Martian anthropologist, sometimes. It comes as a relief when he expresses astonishment or indignation: his traveller’s-tales are made more credible.’

History and Hats

D.A.N. Jones, 23 January 1986

Marguerite Duras describes a crowd in French Indo-China (in 1930): ‘The clatter of wooden clogs is ear-splitting, the voices strident, Chinese is a language that’s shouted the way I always imagine desert languages are, it’s a language that’s incredibly foreign.’ This impression is familiar to me, from National Service days in Hong Kong and the British New Territories. Yet, at the same time, Chinese poetry does sometimes seem to translate more readily into English than French poetry does, partly because its beauty does not depend so much upon the sound. Chinese ‘ideograms’, as the dictionaries put it, ‘symbolise a thing or an idea but not a particular word or phrase for it’. When Cantonese audiences watch a film in Mandarin, they have subtitles (printed vertically, on either side of the screen), for they cannot understand the sounds: but they share the same ideograms for the things and ideas. This fact about the Chinese language, or languages, has a bearing on both the style and the subject-matter of Dai Houying’s impressive novel about modern China in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution: the poetry is in the things and ideas, the clash of ideograms in challenge and response, not in sounds, echoes, national resonances. Stones of the Wall, though deeply concerned with love between men and women, is quite remarkably different from The Lover – and ‘goes into English’ more easily.’


D.A.N. Jones, 21 November 1985

Security is the problem that exercises both Philip Roth and Raymond Williams. The sort of ‘security’ I mean is the sort that spreads a feeling of insecurity – a fear of surveillance, bugging, secret cameras, interrogation, the false smile of Mr Nice and the sincere snarl of Mr Nasty. Security men are sometimes clumsy and might cause us inconvenience through their category mistakes. For instance, in the Middle East last year, I decided not to post an urgent letter to a man in America whose Germanic name ends in ‘berg’: some conscientious Arab policeman might hold up my letter for careful, stupid scrutiny, assuming (like an Arab terrorist) that ‘berg’ equals ‘Jew’ equals ‘Zionist’. This is the kind of insecurity that Philip Roth explores in The Prague Orgy. His American hero, the famous Nathan Zuckerman, spends a few days in Czechoslovakia in 1976, is bugged the whole time and finally ushered out of the country by a passport officer with the courteous farewell: ‘Ah, Zuckerman, the Zionist agent. An honour to have entertained you here, sir.’ When Zuckerman is talking to a Czech who wishes to marry him, she gestures toward the bugged chandelier and passes him a note: ‘You cannot trust Czech police to understand ANYTHING, even in Czech. You must speak CLEAR and SLOW and LOUD.’’

Sergeant Farthing

D.A.N. Jones, 17 October 1985

A girl and three men are riding westward from London when a fifth rider joins them, a man in a red coat and dragoon’s hat. The year is 1736 and they are on horseback. Arriving at a Devonshire country inn, they tell the innkeeper and an intrusive parson about themselves and the purpose of their journey, but we suspect them of lying. They are an odd set, by the standards of both 1736 and 1985.

Magical Realism

D.A.N. Jones, 1 August 1985

It is obvious that Isabel Allende’s novel about Chile, The House of the Spirits, has something about it that appeals to women readers: but I cannot imagine what that something is. ‘Magical realism’ is the vogue-word: but this seems to me a farrago of fantasy-triggers. I was astonished when Marina Warner asserted on television that the book ‘gives you an astonishing understanding of a political situation’. On the same day, Marilyn Butler was equally effusive on Radio 3 and Hermione Lee assured us in the Observer that the author has ‘impeccably heroic socialist and feminist credentials’. My daughter-in-law brought home Cosmopolitan with a long extract, prettily illustrated, and an astounding comment from Emma Dally: ‘Although it is not a “women’s novel”, the strength of the female characters is quite astounding.’ Isabel Allende herself on television has described these figments as ‘strong women who are somehow opposite to violence and torture, all this male world’. They had struck me as rather ineffectual ladies.

Grande Dame

D.A.N. Jones, 18 July 1985

Marguerite Yourcenar was born in Brussels in 1903. She became a US citizen in 1947 and has lived for more than thirty years on Mount Desert Island, off the coast of Maine. Thus when she was proposed for membership of the French Academy, it was natural that some Frenchmen would make an issue of her nationality, in order to prevent a woman joining their club. However, the justice minister granted her dual nationality on the grounds of her ‘evident cultural links’ with France, and in 1980 she became the first woman member of the Academy. In that same year, Les Yeux Ouverts: Entretiens avec Matthieu Galey was published in Paris. Galey, a French journalist, had been to interview her on Mount Desert Island. The title of the book was a quotation from Mme Yourcenar’s novel, Memoirs of Hadrian: ‘Let us try, if we can, to enter into death with open eyes.’


D.A.N. Jones, 23 May 1985

Some of the stories in Secret Villages were published in the New Yorker, some in Encounter and some in Punch. It is interesting to compare the three styles. Those for the Americans make Scotland seem a wee bit exotic, romantic, with an unobtrusive sprinkling of factual information, as if a local were explaining to the tourists, the summer people. For Punch readers it is assumed that Scotland is already pretty familiar, and the stories may have a punch-line. The Encounter stories are more allusive, elliptical, up-market.

Wharton the Wise

D.A.N. Jones, 4 April 1985

For 27 years Michael Wharton has written the ‘Peter Simple’ column in the Daily Telegraph. He was only 43 when he secured this good, steady job and now he has published an autobiographical account of his 43 apprentice years – dissident, drifting, bohemian years, marked by a lack of will-power, what the Greeks called aboulia. His title, The Missing Will, refers not only to his aboulia but also to an agreeable fantasy of his mother’s: she was an almost illiterate but very pretty York-shirewoman, called Bertha Wharton, who had married a German Jew from Bradford, called Paul Sigismund Nathan, presented here as something of a schlemiel. When Bertha was annoyed with Paul, she called him a ‘fleyboggard’ and then brooded romantically about her ancestry. Michael recalls: ‘A shadowy greatness gathered. She hinted at connections with the Whartons of Wharton Hall in Westmorland … She even hinted at a Missing Will. I listened and pondered.’’

Here in Canada

D.A.N. Jones, 21 March 1985

Josef Skvorecky left Czechoslovakia in 1968 and is now Professor of English at Erindale College in Canada. His new novel is about a Czech called Danny Smiricky who also emigrated to Canada in 1968 and who has become Professor of American Literature at Edenvale College. The invented name, ‘Edenvale’, illustrates Smiricky’s mixed feelings about his academic life in Canada: it might seem idyllic, paradisal, to a Czech who spent his youth under the Nazis and then the Communists, but he often catches himself thinking that his students and fellow teachers are too innocent, like Adam before the Fall, too naive, too credulous.


D.A.N. Jones, 20 December 1984

There is a seaside resort in New South Wales, with a ferry connection to Sydney. In 1788 it was named Manly Cove by a state governor, impressed by the proud bearing of the aborigines. They seem to have deteriorated since then, according to Lillian, the heroine of Last Ferry to Manly: she peers at aborigine children through the wire fence of an institution, and notes ‘the shrinking, stick-like way their bodies move’. None of the men of Manly live up to the 18th-century name. There are surfing boys on the beach, but they seem too young for middle-aged Lillian. She meets a man on the ferry from Sydney and he urges her not to jump overboard. He is a neatly dressed man called Bruiser, with an ugly, battered face and tattooed hands. A member of Alcoholics Anonymous, he says: ‘I used to love me metho.’ Lillian takes rooms in the same boarding-house as Bruiser. Another tenant is known as the Bad Man, because he is deranged, hostile to women, threatening them with violence. Other men look after him, because he has ‘been through the Pacific’. Drunks lurch along the coast, shouting obscenities. These, says Lillian, are ‘not the men Sydney women are searching for, but the others, the ones who actually inhabit the land’.

Hons and Wets

D.A.N. Jones, 6 December 1984

Nancy Mitford’s first novel, Highland Fling, is about a young British gentlewoman in the late 1920s, wriggling uneasily but divertingly in the generation gap of her time and class. Her parents’ generation seems to be stuck in the mud of the grouse-moors: tough as old boots, the elders blaze away, pausing to reminisce about World War One and the filthy Hun. Her young friends (rather camp, resembling Driberg and Betjeman) offer a different life-style, a gossip-column world of night-clubs, Continental cities, private views and political dissidence. Caught between bright young aesthetes and grim, dim old hearties, the girl thinks wistfully, romantically, about her chic and forceful Victorian grandparents – and she is encouraged in this ‘nostalgia’ by her most Betjemanic young friend, Albert (‘Memorial’) Gates, a surrealist artist who annoys the elders with his modern, pacifist dissidence, as well as his eccentric reverence for ‘Victorian monstrosities’. The girl tells another chum about her splendid Victorian grandparents: ‘Brains often skip a generation, you know, and come out in the grandchildren. Poor mummy and daddy are both terribly stupid: darlings, of course, but narrow-minded and completely unintellectual.’ This engaging fantasy tells something about the imagination of Nancy and her five sisters, the Mitford girls, affectionately scornful of their parents, eager to emulate the grandeur of their grandfathers.’


D.A.N. Jones, 1 November 1984

These novels, all in the literary-prize-winning league, tell us of areas with which we are probably unfamiliar. William Kennedy’s Ironweed is about Albany, capital of the State of New York. Julian Barnes writes about the France of Gustave Flaubert, as discussed in an irrational, pedantic manner by a British admirer of Flaubert’s work. Anita Desai, daughter of a German mother and a Bengali father, writes about the world of Indian poets, a very male (not macho) group devoted to the Urdu language as it struggles against ‘that vegetarian monster, Hindi’. This novel, In Custody, is for me the least ‘foreign’, the least ‘alien’: it is Commonwealth literature, pertinent to Wales and Africa and the West Indies.

Royal Americans

D.A.N. Jones, 4 October 1984

Six o’clock on a cold February morning. Three suspicious characters step warily from a train at a rundown American railway depot. The tallest, a man of 52, has a slouch hat pulled down over his eyes, so that other passengers can see nothing of his face except for a strong nose and high yellow cheekbones above his upturned coat-collar: they cannot even see the newly-grown black beard of this wanted man, looking now so different from his pictures on the walls and hoardings, pictures that make him a target for killers. This is Abraham Lincoln, the newly-elected President, come to Washington to take over from Buchanan and become a warlord.

Fiery Participles

D.A.N. Jones, 6 September 1984

Hazlitt is sometimes rather like Walt Whitman, democratic, containing multitudes, yet happy with solitary self-communion. In a pleasant essay called ‘A Sun-Bath – Nakedness’, Whitman remarks: ‘Here I realise the meaning of that old fellow who said he was seldom less alone than when alone. Never before did I get so close to Nature …’ Who was the old fellow? It might have been Hazlitt (who died when Whitman was an office-boy), for he once wrote: ‘Out of doors nature is company enough for me. I am then never less alone than when alone.’ Or it might have been Byron, or Byron’s favourite, Samuel Rogers, both of whom put the solitude paradox into verse. It might even have been Cicero, quoting Scipio Africanus: nec minus solus quam cum solus esset. Hazlitt and Whitman did not much care who the ‘old fellow’ was who first coined the phrase: he had contributed to the ‘common sense’, just as they did, while enjoying their sunny solitudes, rhapsodising about Nature, Liberty and the People. Their self-love, their very egotism, stimulated their disinterested sympathy with others.–

Raven’s Odyssey

D.A.N. Jones, 19 July 1984

The tradition of the Commedia del’ Arte is apparent in all three of these novels. A repertory company of stock characters is presented to an audience already familiar with many of the masks, half-knowing what to expect of them, and the maskers seem to improvise witty or pathetic dialogue, according to an agreed story-line. D.M. Thomas remarks that he is indebted to Germaine Greer for supplying him with information about the tradition of the improvisatrici in Italy: he has constructed Swallow (‘the second,’ he says, ‘in a series of improvisational novels’) in the form of a story about an ancient and honourable literary contest, at which great storytellers of all nations improvise a fictional narrative in accordance with a theme chosen by the judges. The odd thing is that D.M. Thomas is not a storyteller. Swallow is the sort of book that attracts descriptions like ‘metafiction’, ‘fabulation’ and ‘self-referential’ – words that came into vogue at the same time as ‘ego-trip’. Plausibility is not attempted. None of the tales told are any good. They break off in confusion. They smell of midnight oil, not of improvisation. Two of them are in verse, with hard-sought rhymes. One of them is disqualified on grounds of plagiarism. ‘Even the author of Swallow,’ as the blurb bemusedly admits, ‘becomes involved indirectly, through a memoir of adolescence he has written.’ Swallow is a novel to be discussed by lecturers, not read for pleasure.–

Diary: In Baghdad

D.A.N. Jones, 5 July 1984

On Good Friday 1984 I found myself laying a wreath at the Monument to the Unknown Soldier in Baghdad. This was to me extraordinary. I belong to the Church of England and have no wish to take sides in the quarrels of Muslims. Although I have always been attracted to Arabs, I am conscious of my pro-Jewish bias when considering political and military affairs in the Near East or Middle East. Yet here I was laying a wreath at a handsome monument in Baghdad, commemorating the deaths of Iraqi soldiers in their war against Iran, and I was escorted by smart Arabs in olive-green uniforms, much like the ‘jungle green’ I wore, thirty years ago, as a National Serviceman dropping in on Aden and Port Said, on the way to the New Territories of China.

The Enchantment of Vidia Naipaul

D.A.N. Jones, 3 May 1984

‘Indian’ is a word which our English-speaking forebears have scattered rather too casually about the globe. V.S. Naipaul is an ‘East Indian’, but not from the Dutch East Indies; nor is he an Anglo-Indian, a Red Indian or an Amerindian. He is of Hindu stock, born and bred in the West Indies. His grandfather went to Trinidad from Uttar Pradesh, as an indentured labourer; his father became a reporter for the Trinidad Guardian and a writer of short stories – ‘not for money or fame (there was no local market), but out of some private need,’ writes Vidiadhar Naipaul now. ‘Not formally educated, a nibbler of books rather than a reader, my father worshipped writing and writers. He made the vocation of the writer seem the noblest in the world; and I decided to be that noble thing.’–

Doctor, Doctor

D.A.N. Jones, 19 April 1984

Three of these novels might almost be called thrillers, their plots resembling sensational news items. With Norman Lewis we read of plans to assassinate statesmen in Egypt and Libya, with evil American agents blackmailing honest Britishers. John Collee tells of a wonder cure for cancer devised by a Hindu mystic in a Scottish city where surgeons’ knives are used too readily and callously. Randolph Stow’s The Suburbs of Hell deals with ‘juicy murders’ committed in a Suffolk seaside town peopled by retired gentry and genial fishermen. All three are sufficiently intelligent and sensitive to make the reader feel, almost guiltily, that the horrors and terrors should not be treated quite so entertainingly.


D.A.N. Jones, 5 April 1984

There is a church in Fleet Street, almost opposite El Vino, where Richard Baxter used to preach in 1660. Baxter’s reconciling, ecumenical attitude toward churches and public worship is still maintained here, at St Dunstan’s-in-the-West. The first thing you notice is an exotic Rumanian screen, for St Dunstan’s is much used by members of a Rumanian Church in communion with the Church of England. There are gramophone records of Rumanian church music on the table, next to a pile of prayers composed by John Donne (who also preached at St Dunstan’s). This sturdy English church is encircled with chapels for several of the independent Churches which are in communion with the Church of England, Coptic and Ethiopian, Polish (with a figure of the redoubtable Black Madonna of Czestochowa) and Old Catholic.

Chinaberry Pie

D.A.N. Jones, 1 March 1984

James Wilcox’s charming comedy is set in rural Louisiana, among people who read the Bible in an engagingly amateurish way, associating religion with the conventions about drinking and dancing enforced by their anxious parents, and sometimes tempted to ‘modernise’ their lives, while still seeking God’s guidance. These lively middle-aged innocents of the 1980s seem like naughty English choirboys and girls of the 1940s. Can Modern Baptists be true to life? We may hope so.

Fighting Men

D.A.N. Jones, 2 February 1984

Vernon Scannell is not the first British poet to have been keen on boxing and, apparently, quite good at it: we may think of Lord Byron and Robert Graves. But few others, surely, have written and worried so concernedly about the ethics of this sport, its moral justification. Ring of Truth, his first novel since The Big Time in 1965, returns hungrily to Scannell’s old problem. Can deliberate wounding be good sport? Scannell tells of dangerous, exciting weeks in the life of Dave Ruddock, a boxer from Leeds, acknowledged as Middleweight Champion of the World. ‘He had not lost a fight since he was 13 … Schoolboy Champion of Great Britain, Junior ABA and Senior ABA Champion, a Lonsdale Belt, the European title and then the pot of gold, the Championship of the World – 11 years without dropping a decision.’ Dave Ruddock is feeling pretty good. We read on the dust-cover that Scannell himself has been a National Schoolboy and Senior Amateur Boxing Champion: he has also done a little professional boxing (under the name of ‘Johnny Bain’) and travelled with a fairground boxing-booth. While writing about Dave Ruddock, he must have been thinking: ‘I too could have been a contender!’–

Sour Notes

D.A.N. Jones, 17 November 1983

Sir Peter Hall is a man of Notes. He is a director of plays who has become Director of the National Theatre. The skills of play directors are not those of performers (like his predecessor at the National, Lord Olivier). Play directors pride themselves on their ability to give what they call Notes. This sort of Note (scarcely recognised by dictionaries) is not the sort manual workers make, in notebooks or on notepaper: it is mouth work. Sometimes it is like the tuning note given to a band by piano or woodwind; sometimes like a note of disapproval or approbation uttered by a schoolmaster to his class, or a professor to his seminar. So now, in Sir Peter’s diary, we find the National Director descending upon the actors rehearsing Horvath’s play, Tales from the Vienna Woods, under the direction of Maximilian Schell:

Saint Jane

D.A.N. Jones, 20 October 1983

Peter Prince’s admirable novel, The Good Father, is about a group of professional-class people in the London Borough of Lambeth, trying to see themselves as liberal and left-wing. They were students together in the late 1960s and are struggling to maintain in the 1980s the package of liberal values (or ‘received ideas’) which they shared so confidently in their youth. The trouble with such package deals is that when one item loses its authority the believer may throw out the whole lot, bag and baggage, baby and bathwater: he may rush to the opposite extreme, seeking out illiberal values to embrace with a fervour that embarrasses old conservatives. Bill Hooper, the hero of The Good Father, was once an excessively keen feminist: now, in his thirties, separated from his wife and denied custody of their four-year-old son, he becomes a fighter for men’s rights – and rather a dirty fighter, unchivalrous, ungentlemanly.–

Gentlemen Travellers

D.A.N. Jones, 15 September 1983

The cool, courteous Alexander Kinglake and the hot, contentious George Borrow are two of the best-liked and most influential travel-writers of the 19th century. They were contemporaries for much of their long lives (Borrow died in 1881, aged 78, Kinglake in 1891, aged 82) but play very different roles in the 20th-century imagination.

Veni, vidi, video

D.A.N. Jones, 18 August 1983

It would be easy to overpraise Dangerous Pursuits. This is a comedy of surveillance, dealing with in-store video monitors, hardware and software, amateur and professional police espionage, counter-terrorism, peeping toms and voyeurs. Everyone is bugged. Nicholas Salaman has plotted his book so deftly, with almost plausible pranks and conspiracies, surprises and reversals, sexual depravities and savage cruelties, that it sometimes resembles a first-rate spy thriller. But, despite the melancholy conclusion, Dangerous Pursuits is truly comic, dipping easily into absurdity when events become too nauseous to be taken seriously. There are passages that read like a parody of such long, morbid, humourless para-political thrillers of espionage as Monimbo (copyright Mossgrave Partnership) or Charles McCarry’s The Last Supper – so ambitiously titled but with all the human interest of a computer or a ventriloquist’s dummy. Charles McCarry must not be confused with Edgar Bergen’s famous doll, Charlie McCarthy, since he is never intentionally funny: but his narrative and dialogue benefit by being read aloud, in a quacking, inhuman voice, without movement of the lips.–

Passage to Africa

D.A.N. Jones, 7 July 1983

When I took up work in Nigeria, the day after their Independence ceremony of 1960, I had with me two old British books to introduce me to the country – or, at least, to my seniors’ appreciation of it. They were as different, almost, as Cocteau and Baden-Powell. One was picturesque and picaresque, Africa dances: A Book about West African Negroes, published by Geoffrey Gorer in 1935 when he was 30, after a rather Waugh-like tour of French and British territories: he had been guided by Féral Benga, a ballet dancer from Senegal whom he had met in Paris. The striking pictures included a smoky painting of handsome Benga by his friend, Pavel Tchelitchew, who had introduced him to Gorer. Before his passage to Africa, young Gorer had already published The Revolutionary Ideas of the Marquis de Sade and his mood was still dandy-left, rive-gauche, smoothly dissident and shocking. Africa dances is now reissued as a paperback, in regrettably abbreviated form, with no pictures. We may trace in it the shifts and jumps of Gorer’s developing political consciousness, dancing uneasily between the back and the front half of the New Statesman. He was inclined to see (and love) his ‘negroes’ as sculptures, objets d’art, patterns of dance, to be described to British readers in an amoral aesthetic way: but there were spasms of humane indignation at the French mode of government and, as a concomitant, a growing respect for the British system, despite its comically stodgy ‘This England’ aspects.–

Story: ‘Popping’

D.A.N. Jones, 2 June 1983

It was my 53rd birthday and so I strolled, as was my custom, out of my Quanco office into Hyde Park to look at the statue which had been set up on the day of my birth. Curiously enough, the maintenance of that statue had become part of my ever-increasing Quanco duties – only the cleaning and repair, of course, despite Quanco’s ever-decreasing funds: the task of changing the advertisements and the labels on the statue belongs to the Commercials. I like watching the Commercials perform this weekly rite: it brings a touch of colour and razzmatazz to our fusty little park.–

Boss of the Plains

D.A.N. Jones, 19 May 1983

Paul Fussell’s 34 essays were written in different moods and time-zones for different British and American journals, between 1967 and 1982. Some are boyishly truculent, politically partisan, denouncing wrong-headed fellow Americans (so that the British reviewer whistles between his teeth, thinking: ‘They can’t be as bad as all that’). Others are what he calls ‘ironical’, with complaints against Americans who misunderstand his tone: he seems to expect British readers to do better. Still other essays – about warfare and his own military experiences – are so confessional and impassioned that the British reviewer feels he needs to be very tactful.–

Saturday Night in Darlington

D.A.N. Jones, 1 April 1983

Darlington is not like Bermondsey: it has not been ruined yet. In Bermondsey you could see the local community industry, the dockland, turned into a building-site – with the traditional community leaders and politicians quarrelling fiercely over the future of this land: older and younger members or ex-members of the Labour Movement were at each others’ throats in an extreme local version, a microcosm, of the national split. You could see the blocks of council flats – many of which have housed the families of young dockworkers quite happily – boarded up, scorned and despised: for the young men and women have moved away. You could see older small houses, once workmen’s cottages, now extremely desirable for young professional people. In came a bright young professional man as candidate for the Social Democratic Party, cutting between the quarrelling ‘socialist’ factions, and boosted by the London media-men (conveniently near at hand and poised to foment and exploit the Labour quarrel). This candidate scooped the pool, assisted by the votes and abstentions of elderly Bermondsey people bewildered by the ruin and general beastliness, not sure why good old Bob Mellish was being so rude to nice young Peter Tatchell. The vicious graffiti about Tatchell were gleefully reported: not so the more libellous graffiti about Mellish.–

Beltz’s Beaux

D.A.N. Jones, 3 March 1983

Aliza Shevrin has served her apprenticeship as one of the dutiful translators of Isaac Bashevis Singer, along with Ruth Schachner Finkel, Rosanna Gerber, Dorothea Straus et al. She seems no less expert with the Yiddish of an older master, Sholom Aleichem, best-known to English readers as the chronicler of the Jewish poor in the shtetl of the 1880s, the low-life, high-thinking world of Fiddler on the Roof. The world of Marienbad, in 1911, is more classy and farcical: plenty of high life and low thinking. The Bohemian holiday town is thronged with merry Jewish ladies from Warsaw, reluctantly let off the leash by their merchant husbands, slaving away in Nalewki Street. Marienbad is felt to be as dangerous to marital fidelity as Bath and Scarborough were for Restoration playwrights.

Musical Beds

D.A.N. Jones, 30 December 1982

Thrice has Anthony Burgess begun a novel in bed, with intimations of impropriety and guilt. Getting out of the dreadful thing was the problem posed for the bold bigamist of Beds in the East, the third volume in his Malayan trilogy: ‘Either side of the bed was the wrong side. True it was possible to get out of it by inching slowly forward, on one’s fat brown rump, to the foot; but that, for some reason, often woke both of them … ’ Syed Omar, we find, is tight-wedged between his sleeping wives – ‘most irregular, uncleanly, contrary to the strict Islamic custom’.

Mixed Blood

D.A.N. Jones, 2 December 1982

It was surprising to see the resemblances between Her Victory and This Earth of Mankind. Alan Sillitoe’s new novel is about 50-year-old Britons feeling rootless. Pramoedya Ananta Toer is concerned with young people of the Dutch East Indies in the 1890s, almost choked with different roots – religions, races, cultures, classes – all sprouting wildly. The resemblances struck me when I started reading the Indonesian novel as an invigorating respite, after the slow melancholy of Sillitoe’s first chapters, ‘Making a Break’ and ‘Home from the Sea’: the first of these is about Pam, a bored, friendless housewife in Nottingham, trying to get away from her husband; the second is about Tom, a bored, friendless Merchant Navy officer making his way to the flat of his dismal maiden aunt. In the third chapter, ‘Meeting’, Tom finds Pam in a dreary North Kensington flat, trying to gas herself with an unlit fire, and dutifully slaps her to life. He is a man of duty, thus described: ‘The system of forethought by which he lived made sure that on the next watch, or by the morning after, he would find all necessary items for life and duty laid out in perfect navy order. Such drill, when working with a thoroughness too ordinary for him to admire, made existence easy, for sufficient preparation meant less to think about when the moment of necessity came, though he didn’t doubt that if assailed by an unexpected happening his training and intuition would channel him into the right actions. There was no other way of doing things.’ It will be recognised that Sillitoe’s paragraphs need to be read slowly.

A Good Girl in Africa

D.A.N. Jones, 16 September 1982

Buchi Emecheta’s novel is dedicated to her 1981 students at the University of Calabar. Double Yoke is a tale of student life at that university and evidently the teacher has learned a great deal from her pupils, pulling out passages from their essays and exercises to make her own point about their lives and ideas. This is not an English-style comedy of university life, like Chukwuemeka Ike’s Toads for Supper: it belongs to another genre of Nigerian fiction – the self-confidently didactic style of S. L. Aluko, the engineer who wrote One Man, One Wife and One Man, One Matchet, informing the outside world about Nigeria and telling Nigerians how to behave: two burdens, perhaps, a double yoke.

Everybody’s Friend

D.A.N. Jones, 15 July 1982

When William Cobbett was about forty he brought out a weekly paper that has dictated the style and shape of British and American journalism ever since. Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register came out almost every week from 1802 until his death in 1835. According to George Spater, this once powerful paper is now largely forgotten ‘except by historians who occasionally take a hasty glance here and there into its vast bulk of some 42,000 pages’. The existence of that bulk represents part of the difficulty in writing a fullscale biography of this brilliant and influential journalist. One needs to know about all the things Cobbett wrote about.

Wodehouse in America

D.A.N. Jones, 20 May 1982

Lying in bed with a cracked rib, I have been much consoled by these genial books about Wodehouse. The only dangerous one was Wodehouse on Wodehouse, since I was compelled to laugh aloud, boyishly, provoking the old knife-in-kidney sensation. Should any other member of the Ukridge idiot school chance upon this review, after being tipped off his bike by a London omnibus, let him heed this warning, as he lies in bed with his cracked specs and cracked rib. The belly-laugh is no laughing matter. The rib will respond to a Wodehouse joke with the painful predictability of a clapometer or a studio audience, even before the punch-line.


D.A.N. Jones, 4 March 1982

Two characters in pursuit of their author: such are George Neville and Witter Bynner, two chunks of raw material, anxious to tell the world about their cook. George Neville went to school with D.H. Lawrence and supposed himself the ‘original’ of George Saxton in The White Peacock: in his memoir he congratulates himself upon his useful contribution to Lawrence’s conception of true manliness. Witter Bynner met Lawrence in later life, in Mexico, and was forced to recognise himself as Owen Rhys in The Plumed Serpent: in his letters we find him deftly defending himself against the accusation of unmanliness which Lawrence had brought against him.

Michael Foot’s Fathers

D.A.N. Jones, 4 December 1980

If Jennie Lee, Aneurin Bevan and Michael Foot had achieved Cabinet rank together in the 1960s, the United Kingdom would be in better shape now. ‘That is my truth,’ as Bevan used to say. ‘Now tell me yours.’

The Powyses

D.A.N. Jones, 7 August 1980

Big guns (J. B. Priestley, G. Wilson Knight, George Steiner, Angus Wilson) have been booming the name of John Cowper Powys for many years, outraged that other big guns will not join the salute. In the first number of the Powys Review, in 1977, George Steiner blamed Dr Leavis for praising Theodore Francis Powys above John Cowper, thus denying J. C. his meed of lectures, tutorials and research students. Nevertheless, the book-addicted young, the Colin Wilsons of our time, find John Cowper instantly available in the heart of London, at the Village Bookshop, hard by Piccadilly Circus, that alternative campus.



17 March 1988

SIR: The article, ‘When students ruled the earth’ (LRB, 17 March), was presented as my review of four books about 1968. Not so. I was reviewing only three. I quoted very briefly from a fourth, Nineteen Sixty-Eight: A Personal Report, by Hans Koning, and described it as a ‘book published in America, last year’. A British edition of this worthy book was published in London, by...

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