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Novelists at Arms
January/February 2012

His vast book is not an epic but a long, diffuse series of episodes, lacking plot or purpose other than the diurnal drama of life, spiced up by Uncle Tony's taste for coincidence, of themes with variations and poetic justice. It is not a war novel either, in its entirety, since it covers the whole of Uncle Tony's life, from school at Eton (A Question of Upbringing) to the crazy Sixties and their tragic aftermath (Hearing Secret Harmonies). The narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, remains omnipresent but largely invisible, rather as John Freeman, during his famous series of early 1960s TV interviews, was positioned off-camera, with only the back of his head occasionally showing.

Nevertheless, the war is central, the hinge of the book, for nothing before it is the same afterwards in retrospect, and all subsequent events are conditioned by it, both for the narrator and his world. Three volumes deal directly with the war, and the first of the three, The Valley of Bones, is the best in the entire dozen. Set in the Welsh infantry regiment with which Uncle Tony served, it has a merit rare in English war novels (but much commoner in American ones) of dealing not merely with the officer class but fully and convincingly with the Other Ranks. Uncle Tony took advantage of one of his literary personae — the Welshman of ancient if humble lineage — to bring about this minor miracle of fiction. In addition, in the volume called The Kindly Ones, Uncle Tony has a lengthy flashback to the eve of the First World War, to show a service family at Aldershot in July 1914, through the sharp eyes of a child — himself, only offspring of his father, then an infantry captain. This is the second best volume in the saga, and suggests that Uncle Tony was happiest when using his own direct experience to write intimately of army life.

The only character who accompanies narrator Jenkins throughout is Kenneth Widmerpool, who begins as an unpopular boy at Eton with the wrong overcoat, and ends as a full colonel, a university chancellor and Labour life peer worked to death on a forced march in a weirdo post-Sixties "community". I do not believe Uncle Tony, when he began the book, intended Widmerpool to be quite so prominent and all-pervasive. But he gradually took over, as characters in fiction tend to do, and anyway proved easily the most popular figure in the saga, so that readers counted the number of pages his appearances occupied in each novel and complained if there were too few. The Earl of Longford, head of the Pakenham family, claimed to me that he was Widmerpool, and seemed proud of it. But Uncle Tony would not have it: "No, no, no! Frank is Erridge, if anyone." A more plausible candidate is Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller, one-time Attorney-General and later, as Viscount Dilhorne, Lord Chancellor. He had fallen foul of Uncle Tony, both at Eton and during the war. But the truth is that Widmerpool blossomed out as a horror-everyman of our time, and is too ubiquitous to be anything but mainly fiction.

His wife, née Pamela Flitton, was certainly real and known to us all as Barbara Skelton. She was not the overpowering beauty that Uncle Tony presents, but certainly attractive, sexy, promiscuous and, in her own way, as destructive as Pamela. For a time she kept literary London in fits by oscillating like a yo-yo between Cyril Connolly and George Weidenfeld; one of her lovers was King Farouk of Egypt. But I cannot see her destroying Trapnel's manuscript as Pamela does. Indeed she created one of her own, a superb book of memoirs called Tears Before Bedtime. As for Trapnel, he was based on Julian Maclaren-Ross, but again heightened, embellished and made more fascinating, for Ross was a familiar Soho scrounger, more avoided than welcomed when he appeared, swordstick in hand, at the French Pub.

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Seamus Dolphin
February 2nd, 2012
9:02 AM
An interesting and enjoyable article. I am surprised that there is no mention of Catch 22 or any appropriate non-UK European novels. Surely there must be some?

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