Latest Readings - Clive James (2015)

Treasuring Osbert Lancaster

I HAVE ALWAYS thought Osbert Lancaster’s little book Drayneflete Revealed to be one of the great British comic achievements. Usually, anywhere I lived, I had two copies, one to read and one to give away. Lately I have once again read it through, and marveled as if Lancaster still breathed and had only just now thought of recording Drayneflete’s history.

The point of Drayneflete’s history is that it isn’t up to much. In Roman times it started off as a crossroads of secondary importance and since then, steadily throughout the centuries, one architectural excrescence after another has been added to its agglomeration of mediocrity. These various historical stages and changes of style are recorded in Lancaster’s wonderfully conceived illustrations, one of them per chapter, so that each chapter works like a long caption. But the capital joke of the narration is that every step in this long saga of vandalism is presented as if by a spokesman for the current town council, scraping with quiet desperation for any trace of historic interest. The book has the effect of a PR brochure that doesn’t know how implausible it is when claiming status and dignity for the kind of progress which is really the gradual destruction of all value. When a hideous new cinema gets built, it is quietly hailed as a brilliant example of the modern style.

What happens to the town happens also to the inhabitants. A few families come down through the centuries. By the twentieth century, the family that forms the center of local society is called de Vere-Tipple. The eldest son, Guillaume de Vere-Tipple, is a poet. In the 1930s, to mark his solidarity with the working class, he calls himself Bill Tipple. He writes a poem about the Spanish Civil War, called “Crack-up in Barcelona.” I can confidently recommend it as being a parodic masterpiece in the class of Max Beerbohm. Back in Sydney in the late 1950s, all the would-be writers in my circle were familiar with it, and my late friend Robert Hughes could actually recite the whole thing from memory, without a mistake. I can still see Hughes relishing the last lines about Maxi, the poet’s friend, “knocked off the tram by a fascist conductor / who misinterpreted a casual glance.”

What Lancaster was saying, when he invented the de Vere-Tipples, was essentially what Thomas Mann was saying when he invented the Buddenbrooks: a grand family forfeits its power when its younger generation gets more interested in the arts than in business. But Lancaster treated the theme in a small space, glancingly. In his prose as in his graphics, compression and suggestion were his best tricks. (He did stage sets that could suggest whole eras, and they were all done as simple painted flats, with no machinery: a triumph of stylistic accuracy.) In command of encyclopedic knowledge of the history of the arts and the applied arts, he could weave a texture out of nothing but allusions to what he knew. In that way his writings remind you of Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose key book A Time of Gifts I have just bought off the stall for my elder daughter. I might borrow it from her when she has finished it and read it yet again: the paragraphs evoking his first walk in the Wachau valley of the Danube are like poems. But although I possess all of Lancaster’s books, including two copies of the marvelous Home Sweet Homes, I had for some reason never read his slim volume of reminiscence about the years between the wars, With an Eye to the Future. Now that I am at last reading it, I don’t want it to end. Here are all the originals for the people in Betjeman, Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, and Anthony Powell. Here are the stately homes, the London flats, the evening clothes, the cars, the drinks. In the wonderful illustrations, sometimes bled out to a full page, you can see the teeming population of marginal cultural figures mentioned in the text: that fat-faced gourmand must be Cyril Connolly, and that exquisite young man with the snooty profile must be Brian Howard, the almost entirely poisonous aesthete who later went on to write one of my favorite poems, “Gone to Report.”

As I read, I can feel it all slipping away into time as I am myself. Probably all this stuff—this last stretch of a privileged social history—will never again come back into favor. Perhaps we loved reading about it out there in the colonies only because we, the colonized, were even more reluctant than the imperialists to let go of a dying empire. John Carey, the cleverest of all critics in a generation of clever critics, has always hated that whole self-consciously arty era, to the point of arguing that it wasn’t artistic at all. He thought that all good things were in the grip of a lucky elite, and needed to be prized loose. He was probably right. Certainly the whole cozy shebang is hard to explain to Americans, who live in a proclaimed democracy, and not in a stratified society whose top layer gives up its advantages as slowly as it can. But even Carey was obliged, when picking out his fifty most enjoyable books of the twentieth century, to admit that Waugh’s Decline and Fall was one of them. It’s one of the good things about the study of literature: taste trumps prejudice. I feel the same way about Osbert Lancaster’s lineup of slim volumes: I ought to disapprove, but I can’t leave them alone.