There are two kinds of people* – those who like forewords, introductions, prefaces, author’s notes, footnotes, appendices, bibliographies, notes on the text, maps etc, and those who don’t. But we’ll get back to that shortly.

* there are more than two kinds of people. Possibly infinite kinds of people. Or maybe there’s only one kind; I’m never sure

A few times recently, I’ve come across the idea (which I think is mainly an American academic one, but I might be completely mistaken about that) that parentheses should only be used when you really have to (but when do you really have to?) because anything that is surplus to the requirements of the main thrust of one’s text is surplus to requirements full stop, and should be left out. But that’s wrong. The criticism can be and is extended to anything that interrupts the flow* of the writing. But that is also wrong. Unless you happen to be writing a manual or a set of directions or instructions, writing isn’t (or needn’t be) a purely utilitarian pursuit and the joy of reading (or of writing) isn’t in how quickly or efficiently (whatever that means in this context) you can do it. Aside from technical writing, the obvious example where economy just may be valuable is poetry – which however is different and should probably have been included in a footnote, because footnotes are useful for interrupting text without separating the point you’re making (in a minute) from the point you’re commenting on or adding to (a few sentences ago), without other, different stuff getting in the way.

*like this¹                                                                                                                                                                ¹but bear in mind that people don’t write footnotes by accident – the interruption is deliberate²                        ²and sometimes funny

Poly-Olbion – that’s how you write a title page to pull in the readers

I would argue (though the evidence of a lot of poetry itself perhaps argues against me – especially the Spenser’s Faerie Queen, Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion kind of poetry that I’m quite fond of) that a poem should be** the most economical or at least the most effective way of saying what you have to say – but who’s to say that economical and effective are the same thing anyway?)

** poets, ignore this; there is no should be




Clearly (yep), the above is a needlessly convoluted way of writing, and can be soul-achingly annoying to read; but – not that this is an effective defence – I do it on purpose. As anyone who’s read much here before will know, George Orwell is one of my all-time favourite writers, and people love to quote his six rules for writing, but while I would certainly follow them if writing a news story or article where brevity is crucial, otherwise I think it’s more sensible to pick and choose. So;

Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. Absolutely; although sometimes you would use them because they are familiar, if making a specific point, or being amusing. Most people, myself included, just do it by accident; because where does the dividing line fall? In this paragraph I have used “by accident” and “dividing line” which seem close to being commonly used figures of speech (but then so does “figure of speech”). But would “accidentally” or something like “do it without thinking” be better than “by accident?” Maybe.

Never use a long word where a short one will do. The key point here is will do. In any instance where a writer uses (for example) the word “miniscule” then “small” or “tiny” would probably “do”. But depending on what it is they are writing about, miniscule or microscopic might “do” even better. Go with the best word, not necessarily the shortest.

If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. Note that Orwell wrote ‘always’ here where he could just have said If it is possible to cut a word out, cut it out. Not everything is a haiku, George.

Never use the passive where you can use the active. Surely it depends what you’re writing? If you are trying, for instance, to pass the blame for an assault from a criminal on to their victim, you might want a headline that says “X stabbed after drug and alcohol binge” rather than “Celebrity kills X.” You kind of see Orwell’s point though.

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. Both agree and disagree; as a mostly monolingual person I agree, but some words and phrases (ironically, usually ones in French, a language I have never learned and feel uncomfortable trying to pronounce; raison d’etre or enfant terrible for example) just say things more quickly and easily (I can be utilitarian too) than having to really consider and take the time to say what you mean. They are a shorthand that people in general understand. Plus, in the age of smartphones, it really doesn’t do native English speakers any harm to have to look up the meanings of foreign words occasionally (I do this a lot). The other side of the coin (a phrase I’m used to seeing in print) is that with foreign phrases is it’s funny to say them in bad translations like “the Tour of France” (which I guess must be correct) or “piece of resistance” (which I am pretty sure isn’t) so as long as you are understood (assuming that you want to be understood) use them any way you like.

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. It’s hard to guess what George Orwell would have considered outright barbarous (and anyway, couldn’t he have cut “outright”?) but anyone reading books from even 30, 50 or a hundred years ago quickly sees that language evolves along with culture, so that rules – even useful ones – rarely have the permanence of commandments.

So much for Orwell’s rules; I was more heartened to find that something I’ve instinctively done – or not done – is supported by Orwell elsewhere. That is, that I prefer, mostly in the name of cringe-avoidance, not to use slang that post-dates my own youth. Even terms that have become part of normal mainstream usage (the most recent one is probably “woke”) tend to appear with inverted commas if I feel like I must use them, because if it’s not something I would be happy to say out loud (I say “woke” with inverted commas too) then I’d prefer not to write it. There is no very logical reason for this and words that I do comfortably use are no less subject to the whims of fashion, but still; the language you use is part of who you are, and I think Orwell makes a very good case here, (fuller version far below somewhere because even though I have reservations about parts of it it ends very well):

“Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it. This is an illusion, and one should recognise it as such, but one ought also to stick to one’s world-view, even at the price of seeming old-fashioned: for that world-view springs out of experiences that the younger generation has not had, and to abandon it is to kill one’s intellectual roots.”

Review of A Coat of Many Colours: Occasional Essays by Herbert Read. (1945) The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell Volume 4. Penguin 1968, p.72 

the fold-out map in The Silmarillion is a thing of beauty

Back to those two kinds* of people: I am the kind of person that likes and reads forewords, introductions, prefaces, author’s notes, footnotes, appendices, bibliographies, notes on the text, maps and all of those extras that make a book more interesting/informative/tedious.


*I know.


In one of my favourite films, Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan (1990), the protagonist Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), says “I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists’ ideas as well as the critics’ thinking. With fiction I can never forget that none of it really happened, that it’s all just made up by the author.” Well, that is not me; but I do love a good bit of criticism and analysis as well as a good novel. One of my favourite ever pieces of writing of any kind, which I could, but choose not to recite parts of by heart, is the late Anne Barton’s introduction to the 1980 New Penguin Shakespeare edition of Hamlet*. I love Hamlet, but I’ve read Barton’s introduction many more times than I’ve read the play itself, to the point where phrases and passages have become part of my mind’s furniture. It’s a fascinating piece of writing, because Professor Barton had a fascinating range and depth of knowledge, as well as a passion for her subject; but also and most importantly because she was an excellent writer. If someone is a good enough writer**, you don’t even have to be especially interested in the subject to enjoy what they write. Beyond the introduction/footnote but related in a way are the review and essay. Another of my favourite books – mentioned elsewhere I’m sure, as it’s one of the reasons that I have been working as a music writer for the past decade and a half, is Charles Shaar Murray’s Shots from the Hip, a collection of articles and reviews. The relevant point here is that more than half of its articles – including some of my favourites – are about musicians whose work I’m quite keen never to hear under any circumstances, if humanly possible. Similarly, though I find it harder to read Martin Amis’s novels than I used to (just changing taste, not because I think they are less good), I love the collections of his articles, especially The War Against Cliché and Visiting Mrs Nabokov. I already go on about Orwell too much, but as I must have said somewhere, though I am a fan of his novels, it’s the journalism and criticism that he probably thought of as ephemeral that appeals to me the most.

*All of the New Penguin Shakespeare introductions that I’ve read have been good, but that is in a different league. John Dover Wilson’s What Happens in Hamlet (1935, though the edition I have mentions WW2 in the introduction, as I remember; I like the introduction) is sometimes easy to disagree with but it has a similar excitement-of-discovery tone as Anne Barton’s essay

** Good enough, schmood enough; what I really mean is if you like their writing enough. The world has always been full of good writers whose work leaves me cold

a scholarly approach to comics

All this may have started, as I now realise that lots of things seem to in my writing did, with Tolkien. From the first time I read his books myself, I loved that whatever part of Middle-Earth and its people you were interested in, there was always more to find out. Appendices, maps, whole books like The Silmarillion which extended the enjoyment and deepened the immersion in Tolkien’s imaginary world. And they were central to that world – for Tolkien, mapping Middle-Earth was less making stuff up than it was a detailed exploration of something he had already at least half imagined. Maybe because I always wanted to be a writer myself – and here I am, writing – whenever I’ve really connected with a book, I’ve always wanted to know more. I’ve always been curious about the writer, the background, the process. I’ve mentioned Tintin lots of times in the past too and my favourite Tintin books were, inevitably, the expanded editions which included Herge’s sketches and ideas, the pictures and objects and texts that inspired him. I first got one of those Tintin books when I was 9 or so, but as recently as the last few years I bought an in many ways similar expanded edition of one of my favourite books as an adult, JG Ballard’s Crash. It mirrors the Tintins pretty closely; explanatory essays, sketches, notes, ephemera, all kinds of related material. Now just imagine how amazing a graphic novel of Crash in the Belgian ligne claire style would be.*

*a bit like Frank Miller and Geof Darrow’s fantastic-looking but not all that memorable Hard Boiled (1990-92) I guess, only with fewer robots-with-guns shenanigans and more Elizabeth Taylor

a scholarly approach to cautionary 1970s semi-pornography/horror: the expanded Crash

A good introduction or foreword is (I think) important for a collection of poems or a historical text of whatever kind. Background and context and, to a lesser extent, analysis expand the understanding and enjoyment of those kinds of things. An introduction for a modern novel though is a slightly different thing and different also from explanatory notes, appendices and footnotes and it’s probably not by chance that they mainly appear in translations or reprints of books that already enjoyed some kind of zeitgeisty success. When I first read Anne Barton’s introduction to Hamlet, I already knew what Hamlet was about, more or less. And while I don’t think “spoilers” are too much of an issue with fiction (except for whodunnits, which I have so far not managed to enjoy), do you really want to be told what to think of a book before you read it? But a really good introduction will never tell you that. If in doubt, read them afterwards!

Some authors, and many readers, see all of these extraneous things as excess baggage, surplus to requirements, which obviously they really are, and that’s fair enough. If the main text of a novel, a play or whatever, can’t stand on its own then no amount of post-production scaffolding will make it satisfactory.* And presumably, many readers pass their entire lives without finding out or caring why the author wrote what they wrote, or what a book’s place in the pantheon of literature (or just “books”) is. Even as unassailably best-selling an author as Stephen King tends to be a little apologetic about the author’s notes that end so many of his books, despite the fact that nobody who doesn’t read them will ever know that he’s apologetic. Still; I for one would like to assure his publisher that should they ever decide to put together all of those notes, introductions and prefaces in book form, I’ll buy it. But would Stephen King be tempted to write an introduction for it?


* though of course it could still be interesting, like Kafka’s Amerika, Jane Austen’s Sanditon or Tolkien and Hergé (them again) with Unfinished Tales or Tintin and Alph-Art


That Orwell passage in full(er):

“Clearly the young and middle aged ought to try to appreciate one another. But one ought also to recognise that one’s aesthetic judgement is only fully valid between fairly well-defined dates. Not to admit this is to throw away the advantage that one derives from being born into one’s own particular time. Among people now alive there are two very sharp dividing lines. One is between those who can and can’t remember the period before 1914; the other is between those who were adults before 1933 and those who were not.* Other things being equal, who is likely to have a truer vision at the moment, a person of twenty or a person of fifty? One can’t say, though on some points posterity may decide. Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it. This is an illusion, and one should recognise it as such, but one ought also to stick to one’s world-view, even at the price of seeming old-fashioned: for that world-view springs out of experiences that the younger generation has not had, and to abandon it is to kill one’s intellectual roots.”

*nowadays, the people who can or can’t remember life before the internet and those who were adults before 9/11? Or the Trump presidency? Something like that seems right



cycle; woods and fields and little rivers


With apologies to Paul Gorman, whose beautifully written accounts of bike rides partly influenced this article, although Paul actually knows about cycling and I don’t; this is essentially a surrogate fast walk.

setting off

I thought I’d take to the roads early (just before 7.30 am) because it was a beautiful morning that was forecast not to become a beautiful day, and because, even in 2021 there’s not much traffic on the road early on a Sunday morning. A recent bout of not atypical heavy rain and not unprecedented (one of the overused words of the last 18 months of so) but still definitely unusual-in-May extreme hailstorms left the roads shining in the morning sun and the fences strung with light-catching water droplets; it was very pretty.
Once out of the village, the landscape here is so flat as to look almost Dutch, aside from the Lomond Hills; still half buried in morning mist. In fact, despite living here most of my life, this was really the first time I had considered that this must be what is meant by the ‘Howe of Fife’ and indeed a quick googling confirmed it; “The term ‘howe’ is derived from an old Scots word meaning a hollow, valley or flat tract of land.” The Lomonds themselves, and Bishop Hill on the far end (not visible from my viewpoint) are really not particularly big, but almost give the impression of mountains from the vantage point of the plain below.

the Howe of Fife looking towards East Lomond

The nice thing about rural cycling is that, although much faster than walking, it doesn’t disturb anything much around you, and on a quiet morning (on my 8-10 mile cycle I was passed by one car, one proper cyclist and rode past one dog walker and a jogger) like this, nature seems not to pay much attention to you. It turns out that this area is infested (not the right connotations, but there were so many of them) with Yellowhammers, looking almost canary-like in the spring sunshine, plus innumerable sparrows, blackbirds and the odd village idiot-like pheasant shouting in the middle of a field.
The natural landscape is pretty enough on its own, but because, presumably, of the sort of person I am, I love the unexpected moments of geometry caused by human interference (ploughed furrows deep in shadow in one field, strips of plastic sheeting over rows of berries* in another) and of course the semi-wildlife, like a paddock with three huge, but mellow looking bulls that made me think of the work of Rosa Bonheur.

local bull

Although her work – and her life – is 19th century in almost every respect, Bonheur is a potent figure for the 21st century. Brought up in an egalitarian Christian-Socialist sect by Jewish parents, Bonheur was a troublesome child who developed a love for animals and for painting and as a young woman studied animal anatomy (in abattoirs) and dissected animals at a veterinary school as well as studying live animals. She was openly lesbian at a time when it was, if not illegal, certainly frowned upon by the French government; so much so that she had to request permission from the police to wear trousers, as cross-dressing for women was forbidden by law (until 2013!) Her official reason was that it was better clothing for attending sheep and cattle markets, where she made studies, but although that was certainly true, she was generally known among her friends for her masculine clothing and short hair; both very much against the conventions of the time. Nevertheless, she went on to become a mainstream success and in her own way an establishment figure, both in France and (especially) in the UK, where she met Queen Victoria and painted some anachronistic Highland scenes; she may have been revolutionary by nature and personality, but she seems to have been quite conservative by taste and inclination; never underestimate the complexity of people.

*I mean, maybe berries? Despite growing up in the countryside and actually on farms for a fair bit of childhood, I’m none the wiser about that

Rosa Bonheur – Ploughing in the Nivernais (1849)
geometry imposed on nature
and again; with plastic

Looking at the scenery, the wildlife, the roads, you have to wonder; why would anyone not care about this? I don’t mean the Howe of Fife, or Fife, or Scotland, or Britain, or Europe, or the world (although those too); just wherever you happen to be; place. Landscapes should and must change, as we change; not just the geometries and geographies we impose on them, like the furrows and plastic (though it would be nice to do away with the plastic itself), but everything. 500 years ago the Howe of Fife was covered in forest and the monarchs of Scotland hunted wild boar here. A thousand years ago, a Scotland that was different in shape, size and culture was being ruled by Alexander I, then near the end of his life, having recently lost his wife Sybilla of Normandy, the French child of Henry I of England; Alexander would be succeeded by his brother David, then Prince of the Cumbrians; by James’s time all of these details would seem strange. Two thousand years ago, the Howe of Fife was part of southern Caledonia, that is the land to the north of the river Forth; at least the Romans, still fifty years from their attempted conquest, called it Caledonia, whether the inhabitants of Caledonia had any name for the landmass in general, as opposed to their own local chiefdoms, isn’t recorded.

These back roads are quiet, but although nature is everywhere, it’s deceptive, hardly a natural landscape at all. It has been shaped by generations of human beings, by agriculture and the politics of land ownership, no less in King James’s day, when forests belonged to the King and had their own laws, than now. It reminds me both of my childhood love of Tolkien and of a line from The Fellowship of the Ring; where Bilbo says “I want to see the wild country again before I die, and the Mountains; but he [Frodo] is still in love with the Shire, with woods and fields and little rivers.” Tolkien loved both the wilderness and the smaller, more familiar (Oxfordshire-like) scenery of the Shire, but in his landscapes change is almost always bad; both on the larger scale of the desolation that evil brings to Mordor and the fiery chasms opened in the earth when the Dwarves delve ‘too deep’, and on the local level where the Shire is ruined by the arrival of industry. Michael Moorcock writes perceptively in his I think overly scathing (“The Lord of the Rings is a pernicious confirmation of the values of a morally bankrupt middle-class ‘Epic Pooh’, in Wizardry and Wild Romance, Gollancz, 1987, p.125), but often right and always funny essay about Tolkien, Epic Pooh (1987) about the essential conservatism of much of heroic fantasy fiction, and the points he makes are even more relevant today. The climate emergency will – regardless of the political will to do so – at some point need to be dealt with, as the pace of change outstrips the ways in which our society functions, and it’s important that the necessity to move forward doesn’t become an attempt to turn the clock back; always attractive in ever-nostalgic Britain. What Tolkien only reluctantly accepts – or accepts in a tragic way that fits with the more fatalistic (and Christian) aspects of his vision – is that change is inevitable. In Moorcock’s own heroic fantasy fiction, he not only takes change for granted, it becomes the backdrop against which his series of heroes who make up ‘the Eternal Champion’ fight their never-ending battle for equilibrium in a multiverse where change – in itself neutral – is the only constant:

“Then the earth grew old, its landscapes mellowing and showing signs of age, its ways becoming whimsical and strange in the manner of a man in his last years – The High History of the Runestaff”

(quoted from Count Brass, 1973, but appears lots of other places too)

the Lomond Hills after the mist burned off

The landscape of the Howe of Fife is not yet – the odd wind turbine aside – whimsical and strange, but there was a certain surreal quality in the way the beautiful spring morning (which felt more like early spring than early May) followed days of hailstorms and thunder. Surreal anyway to someone old enough to remember when seasons seemed to have a set pattern. In another twenty or thirty years will British Christmas cards still have snow scenes on them, even though most of the heavy snowfall seems to happen now in March or even April? Human culture is perhaps slow to catch up with the changes it creates; bearing in mind that the traffic on the roads today is light because even after decades of change there’s a convention that people don’t work on a Sunday, for the most archaic of reasons – but I’m still glad of it. These kinds of thoughts, and Rosa Bonheur too, were partly on my mind because this week there were elections which, although not regime-changing, were important. The results were locally, fairly positive, nationally (Scotland) pretty much as expected and extra-nationally (UK: not quite international, yet at least) a bit disappointing. The collapse of any real kind of left-wing movement has been happening over a long period of time and I suppose at this point all you can say is that people in general don’t want one; or not enough of them to make it happen. On the other hand a general liberalisation has taken place that possibly just makes it seem unnecessary to large numbers of people. And of course, the left eats itself, as always; yesterday I saw online a list of “people that socialism needs more of” (working class people essentially) and “people it needs less of” (non-working class people, basically), whereas surely the whole point is, it needs all people, if it’s going to work. But whatever.

the remains of yesterday’s rain

A nice thing about cycling is that, aside from looking around, you can’t really do very much. It clears the mind in a way that car travel, with its technical aspects and its music or radio, doesn’t usually do. It would be possible to listen to the radio while cycling, but probably not very sensible; and in an election week the lack of human noise is very welcome. After watching/listening to/reading political propaganda and analysis before and after an election it becomes clear just how versatile “the media” seems to be. This week I’ve seen people criticise it essentially to suit their own viewpoint; it’s too right/left wing, too politically correct, too reactionary, too critical, not critical enough. Which makes it seem as though the UK media is pretty good at covering all bases. But TV, radio and the newspapers are a distorting mirror at best. Witness the way that the ‘working class’ – whether positively or negatively – is treated as a monolith. The viewpoint of the media (understandably, given most of its staff and ownership) is middle class; and therefore on TV, on the radio and in newspapers the middle class becomes the norm from which everything and everyone else (both working class and upper class) are observed and commented upon. “Reality TV” features the rich or the poor as something other, something to be looked at and entertained by. But it’s a norm that ignores the facts. The working class, insofar as there is still such a thing (I am of it and I’m not even really sure) is technically the norm, in the sense that it’s the majority, just as it always has been. The UK is (albeit in a less precise way than a century ago) a pyramidal structure, with monarchy and government at the top, the middle class – bigger and both richer and poorer than before, but still identifiable – in (yep) the middle, and the working class as the wide base, incorporating a layer of underclass which fluctuates depending on which government is at the top (it’s bigger now than it was a decade ago). How do you change that false picture the media presents? You don’t really; not without changing the society. Marx and Engels wanted the means of production to belong to the workers; in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that stood for something real and meaningful, but while its egalitarian spirit is eternally relevant, in the 21st century the statement itself needs so many qualifications as to be almost meaningless. What are the means of production? Producing what? Who are the workers? The working class of Marx’s day would barely recognise the working class of today – and they might well look at our lifestyle and be encouraged that the struggle wasn’t in vain. And of course it wasn’t, but that doesn’t mean that the post-industrial 21st century is really much more fair than in the industrial age, certainly capitalism is even more rapacious and entrenched than ever before, and as callous too. The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the tedious saying goes.

the flatness of the Howe

People of course do want change; the right kind of change anyway. And elections are one way of securing it. But this week people who were asked on TV for their reasons for voting gave ‘change’ as a reason for voting for parties who have been in power for 14 years (Scotland) and 9 years (UK) – which seems at best like wishful thinking or at least suggests a lack of exciting or convincing alternatives, to say the least. Arguably of course, a vote for the SNP in Scotland is a vote for a bigger change than just who currently sits in parliament, but familiarity breeds indifference and at this point it’s probably good for their cause that they are no longer the only party in favour of an independent Scotland. And in a depressing kind of way, circumstances have aided them too. In 2014 it was easy, personally speaking, to vote against independence on several grounds; a disliking of Nationalism as a principle, so closely related as it is to xenophobia and intolerance. As someone who was very happy to belong to the EU too, independence seemed (laughably in retrospect, though still not wrongly) to endanger Scotland’s membership, since the UK and not Scotland was the member. And there were niggles about the economy, not because Scotland couldn’t function outside of the UK – one of the most irritating arguments for the status quo; I think it’s pretty obvious that it could and can – but because the Salmond leadership seemed to be saying (ie he was saying) that he wanted nothing to change regarding the currency etc. Which would seem to put Scotland in the surreal position of being a supposedly independent nation which has its economy regulated by the Bank of England. Why the Bank of England would accept that, or anyone on either side of the border would want it is mysterious, to say the least. But anyway, here we are in 2021; nationalism and xenophobia look like being worse and more virulent in the UK than outside of it. We are already out of the EU and, while an independent Scotland being a member state is far from a foregone conclusion, the UK rejoining is definitely not about to happen anytime soon. And Covid-19 has given the economy a beating that will take a lot of recovering from, whatever we do. So why not independence? I would of course prefer to have a democratic socialist party in charge of it, but not having a rabidly inept right-wing one would be a step in the right direction.

apparent rural idyll

Without wishing to get bogged down even more in the minutiae of British politics, the story of the Labour Party (it’s probably not quite dead yet; it always has a far more cyclical life than the Conservative Party) is an instructive one. There’s always been a tug of war between the left and centre elements of the party, but since the 90s there’s always been the dubious argument that veering to the right is the way to win votes and power. But although New Labour was definitely uncomfortably right-wing for a supposedly socialist party, that wasn’t what brought it success. It was the ‘new’ part; drawing a line under history and saying ‘the past ends here and this is what we stand for’ was a big, optimistic step at a time when British politics – as now- had become stagnant and unappealing. The Corbyn left managed something similar, with a younger demographic, but for all its radical ideas, it was immediately familiar to anyone over a certain age. Much as Blair and co’s propaganda looks vapid and empty in retrospect (because it essentially was), not invoking Marx or even socialism was a key to their success, not because of where they or their supporters sat on the political spectrum (I think it’s true that the majority of the British public probably don’t think of themselves being especially political), but simply because people will, every now and then, give new ideas a chance, if they look exciting enough and if they’re bored or disgusted enough with the status quo; It’s worth bearing in mind. None of which has nothing obvious to do with this road on this morning, with the patches of bluebells under the trees, which might be left over from the great forest of King James’s time; where wild boar hid, evading the men and the dogs, before they were hunted to extinction.



Someone Of No Importance: Evelyn Waugh and inter-war Futilitarianism


The news that one of your favourite novels is being made into a film or TV show is never straightforwardly pleasurable; yes, there’s an excitement about seeing scenes from the page (and from your own imaginings of them) on screen, but there’s a certain amount of apprehension too. Nobody will look right (at first anyway), they may not sound right, and if you don’t like them you may be stuck with them whenever you re-read the book (especially if you didn’t have a particularly clear image of them in your mind in the first place or if, like me the image you do have often bears strangely little relation to the writer’s actual descriptions). Then there’s the tone and authorial voice/point of view, the inner life of the characters… It’s actually surprising there are any good adaptations of books. But there are many, the best of which (to me at least) are those that capture the essence of the book without necessarily being ‘faithful adaptations’ (Catch-22, Ghost World) or which use the book as a launchpad for the filmmakers’ own ideas (Blade Runner, Jaws). Most adaptations are of course neither of these. Which brings us to the BBC’s ‘not bad’ version of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall.

It’s first of all a strange book to have chosen; a black comedy whose fans – as with fans of JG Ballard’s Crash, William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho – know in advance to expect an approximate, rather than precise rendering of. Decline and Fall is not an extreme book in the graphic sense that those three are, but, like at least two of them, its humour is grounded in its unremitting unpleasantness and in the end it’s a bleak, essentially misanthropic, nihilistic kind of comedy, tellingly completed before Waugh’s conversion to Roman Catholicism. For a variety of reasons, though, ‘bleak’ isn’t how the TV version feels.

But before moving on to the show, it’s worth looking at why the book is the way it is. Firstly, and most importantly, it’s an exaggerated reflection of certain aspects of its creator’s personality and an expression of his sense of humour. Even post-conversion, when there is a modicum of compassion for some of the characters in his work, Waugh’s books – with the exception of Brideshead Revisited – are mostly funny but extremely mean-spirited black comedies full of caricatures and snobbishness made extremely funny by his writing style, and in his first few novels that’s pretty much all there is. The surprising depth of feeling in even these books comes from the fact that Waugh allows that his characters – even a relative cipher like Decline and Fall’s bland non-hero Paul Pennyfeather – have human emotions, even if they are rarely respected by others or the author. In Decline and Fall , the snobbishness, misogyny and the – to modern readers – strange treatment of child abuse in which certain pupils seem partly culpable in their encouragement of the paedophile (I hope that most of us would now agree that the victim of child abuse can’t really be complicit in it), can be explained pretty simply: it was the milieu that the young Waugh knew. His education at an all-boys public school and his subsequent university life and work as a teacher in (again) an all-boys public school were overwhelmingly male experiences and child abuse was, if not actually legal or even acceptable, then at least a tacitly accepted if not much written about part of public school life. Nowadays, we might find it odd for a writer to include that kind of thing in a book where the original author’s note reads ‘Please bear in mind throughout that IT IS MEANT TO BE FUNNY.’ but although the novel was self-consciously outrageous, the aspects that most trouble modern readers; abuse, misogyny, racism, were probably not that much dwelt upon in the late 20s.

The reason that Waugh’s comedies are so rarely successfully adapted into other formats is that their action is farcical, but not complicated. In 1920s comedy, PG Wodehouse is the obvious star, and his work lends itself naturally to stage and television adaptation thanks to his intricate joke-like plots (complete with a punchline at the end). The comedy is there in the story and the writer’s style is the dressing that brings it to life. Waugh’s early plots meanwhile are loosely constructed to non-existent and chaotic and often implausible (yet somehow also more realistic than Wodehouse) and his writing style is everything. It’s a weird, slightly unworkable comparison, but now that I’ve made it; with Wodehouse, his stories are like a kind of pantomime or fairytale, played out by characters the author loves and which are completely ludicrous but make perfect sense on their own terms. With Waugh, it’s often as though a real (perhaps even tragic) story about real people is being told by someone who finds the whole thing funny and has little to no sympathy for the fools and the predicaments they find themselves in. Wodehouse orchestrates the events like a stage director, while Waugh reports them like a condescending gossip. To me, he is the funnier of the two, but his presence is also necessary; if you remove Wodehouse the narrator from his stories, you are left with characters that embody the warmth and silliness of the narrator’s voice, acting out stories which are in themselves funny. If you remove Waugh you are left with people you never really know making fools of themselves in painful ways. If you had never read Waugh but only watched adaptations of his work, one might expect his books to read something like a posh version of Tom Sharpe; which they definitely don’t.

The other main reason that Waugh’s early books are the way they are is because he was part of that couple of generations who lived through the First World War, but who were too young to take part. The impact this had is undeniable and the British literature of the 20s and 30s is filled with very different books by very different writers which nevertheless have various things in common with each other and which I like very much.  The early 21st century may be in some ways a far more cynical time than the 1920s, but in effect it is both nicer and nastier. Most of us no longer accept the inequalities of the class system, or discrimination in race and gender. We are also no longer surprised that human beings can slaughter each other in their millions in mechanised ways; but while being used to that idea, it’s also true that, unlike Waugh’s generation, we (at least we in the UK) haven’t had the experience of half of the adult males that were there in our early childhood simply not existing anymore, or living in a country where almost every town and village doesn’t have a monument to those killed in a war we remember. A large part of the literature of the 20s and 30s consists of writers either trying to find meaning in a society whose way of life has been changed forever, whose old beliefs; in religion, in tradition, no longer seem to have any meaning, or of trying simply to escape the realities of modern life altogether. In the mid-to – late 1930s, politics would take centre stage in British literature, but for a period from around 1920 to 1935 the anxieties of the country’s younger writers were revealed in a series of strangely formless but oddly similar novels, which were once labelled ‘futilitarian’.


These are my favourites, might as well do this chronologically…

Aldous Huxley – Crome Yellow (1921), Antic Hay (1923) and Point Counter Point (1928)


Huxley was in fact slightly older (20 when WW1 broke out, whereas Waugh was only 11) but he could not take part in combat due to his chronically bad eyesight. His early novels (I think Antic Hay is the best) make a very interesting comparison with Waugh’s, because at first they seem fairly similar; modern comedies where the storylines (such as they are) mostly revolve around the social lives of young, wealthy and irresponsible people. But the tone and content is very different. While Waugh was at school during WW1, with not only all the jingoism and propaganda that that entailed, but also the noticeable absence of adult male teachers and role models, for Huxley, WW1 was the period of Bloomsbury (he worked as a farm labourer at Garsington Manor, home of the society hostess and patron of the arts Lady Ottoline Morrell. For him, social life meant intellectual conversation; the discussion of art and modernism, conscientious objection, philosophy, pacifism. The comedy in novels like Antic Hay comes mainly from his satirical portrayals of the kinds of people he was mixing with but they are funny in both a broad way (the hero Theodore Gumbril’s invention of ‘pneumatic trousers’) and a deeper one (relationships and their difficulties). The main difference from Waugh is that whereas the comedy in a book like Waugh’s Vile Bodies arises from the somewhat desperate attempts of the main characters to have fun in the face of the meaningless void underlying modern life, in Huxley’s works the comedy arises from the characters’ often farcical and pretentious attempts at finding meaning through conversation, art and philosophy. The contrast between Huxley’s novels and an apparently very similar one – Wyndham Lewis’ great satire The Apes of God (1930) is especially striking because the milieu the books are set in almost identical (they knew many of the same people) and because, like Huxley, Wyndham Lewis was not nihilistic. He was however, immensely negative and the fact that he had seen active service in WW1 and was also himself a pioneering artist made him extremely impatient with what he saw as the wishy-washy dilettantism of the Bloomsbury artists and writers and their detachment from real life. The contrast between Antic Hay and The Apes of God is the difference between an affectionate Max Beerbohm cartoon and a merciless James Gillray caricature.

Evelyn Waugh – Decline and Fall (1928) and Vile Bodies (1930)


What makes these books distinctively post-WW1 is the nihilism at their heart. The younger generation of the 1920s were probably more different from their parents (products of the Victorian era) than any generation before or since (excepting maybe that of the 60s) and the tone of Waugh’s novels is resolutely modern and, despite its insistence on/preoccupation with social class, the feel is one of fragmentation and instability, especially in comparison with pre-War literature. When older people are presented, it is almost always as an archaic survival from a distant era. If the war is mentioned at all, its in an almost nostalgic way by people for whom it was the backdrop of their youth or childhood. The most surprising thing about Waugh’s books is the unexpected poignancy that comes from his mostly unsympathetic handling of his characters; Vile Bodies, probably his most determinedly unpleasant book, is also his funniest (aside from the grotesque later masterpiece The Loved One).

Anthony Powell – Afternoon Men (1931)

afternoon men

Of all the books here, Afternoon Men feels perhaps the least ambitious, but makes me laugh the most. I have read some of Anthony Powell’s other books (and started but not finished his Dance to the Music of Time series), but they just aren’t the same. The story is almost identical to those of Huxley and Waugh – a group of young people meet up socially and drink a lot, have affairs etc – although the social class of Powell’s protagonist William Atwater is lowly enough that he actually has a normal, office-based job – a rarity in any of these books. Atwater’s friends and acquaintances are the usual mixture of bohemian high society people but it is Powell’s abrupt, lightly modernistic writing style and feel for dialogue that makes it work so well:

“’I work in a museum’, said Atwater. He was getting sleepier and felt he ought to say something. He had begun to be depressed.

‘That must be very interesting work, isn’t it?’


‘Isn’t it really?’

‘I often think of running away to sea.’

‘I think it must be very interesting.’

‘Do you?’

* * * *

‘What about your books?’ Atwater stood up. He could not do all the stuff about the books. He was too sleepy. He said:

‘There are these. And then there are those.’”

(Afternoon Men, p.35-6, 1963 Penguin edition)

As a writer, Powell is far more deadpan and less misanthropic than Waugh, but he creates a similarly poignant effect; it would be quite possible to film this novel and, used verbatim, the dialogue might still be funny, but what essentially makes the book work is the style in which it is written.

Cyril Connolly – The Rock Pool (written 1935. published 1936)


The Rock Pool is the only novel by Connolly – best known as a literary critic – and it is one of my favourite books. Connolly was the same age and (more or less) social class as Evelyn Waugh, and the novel is the portrait of a snobbish young man of means who goes to the French Riviera to observe life in an artist’s colony, with the explicit intention of writing a period piece about the kind of carefree1920s-style life of leisure that no longer existed in the London of the 30s, but might still be going on there.  In fact, it isn’t  – and instead he finds himself drawn into the lives of the impoverished artists, conmen and bar owners there until it becomes clear that he is not the detached ironic observer he imagined, but has in fact found his niche and his people, whether he wants to have or not. In comparison with Waugh and even Huxley, Connolly is far more sympathetic to his characters and the tone is completely different from Waugh’s slightly contemptuous detachment:

“’Tell me, why do you come here if you are such a snob?’

‘Who said I was a snob?’

‘Why, everybody… I’m sure it must be very amusing.’

He felt old and miserable, going through life trying to peddle a personality of which people would not even accept a free sample.”

(The Rock Pool, p.90-91, Penguin edition, 1963)

The fact that The Rock Pool is a product of the mid-30s and not the 20s is part of its charm. While Connolly’s contemporaries and peers were becoming interested in philosophy and science (Huxley), religion (Waugh) or politics and social commentary (George Orwell, Christopher Isherwood, WH Auden etc), Connolly accepted, with insight, the aimless, aesthetic worldview of his 20s generation, even as it became obsolete.

Christopher Isherwood –  Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935)

mr norris

Isherwood’s first two novels, All The Conspirators (1928) and The Memorial (1932) are also relevant here, but Mr Norris… (probably best known, with its semi-sequel Goodbye To Berlin (1939) as being the inspiration for the musical Cabaret) have more in common with the books described above. While both of his earlier books dealt specifically with the generation gap that had resulted from the First World War (and The Memorial is explicitly concerned with the effects of WW1 on British society), Mr Norris is, although very different in tone, essentially similar to The Rock Pool – a comical story about the adventures of a young upper class person out of his element. Although famous for its evocation of the politics and life of late Weimar and early Nazi Berlin, the novels were born from Isherwood’s desire – in 1929/30, rather than the mid-late 30s of the novels – not for any kind of social or political commentary, but to escape the milieu of upper class England and experience the hedonistic lifestyle of Berlin. As with most Waugh and Powell, the book’s main protagonist is less vividly drawn than the more extreme characters who surround him, and in many ways Isherwood accomplishes a kind of heightened, occasionally grotesque realism something like the Neue Sachlichkeit artists (Otto Dix, Georg Grosz, Rudolf Schlichter, Christian Schad etc) who were working in Germany in the same period, and whose paintings have often adorned the covers of his books. The fact that his books are partly autobiographical (and written in the first person, as ‘William Bradshaw’, Isherwood’s own middle names) means there is little of the distancing effect of Waugh and although there is much humour in Isherwood’s early novels, often at the expense of his characters, they are written with a warmth and compassion that makes them translate to the screen without losing too much of the feel of the novel – with the exception of the narrator himself, who suffers by being mostly a nondescript bystander, so that in Cabaret, the Christopher Isherwood/William Bradshaw character has to become the very different Brian Roberts.

oh – not chronological now, but also – Stephen Spender – The Temple (written 1929, published 1988)


While Isherwood was in Berlin with WH Auden, their friend Stephen Spender found his way to Hamburg, seeking not only the hedonistic freedom of Weimar Germany, but also freedom from censorship. As Spender wrote in the introduction to the (very) belated first edition of The Temple, England in 1929 was a country where James Joyce’s Ulysses was banned, as was Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. In going to Germany, his motives were at least partly artistic, and as he noted, “The Temple is pre-thirties and pre-political.” The same could be said of all of the novels discussed here. In that sense, The Temple sits strangely, but appropriately, in the company of the books of Waugh, Anthony Powell and co. In comparison with Isherwood’s Berlin stories, Spender’s novel is far more concerned with the inner life of its narrator and his Hamburg is less vividly drawn, but at the same time the book is far more explicit about sex than Isherwood (though to be fair Spender revised The Temple before publication in the 80s so it isn’t clear how much of the explicitness existed in 1929 – enough to prevent it from being published though). It’s a summery, if slightly troubled book, not improved by the author’s retrospective awareness of how fleeting the freedom it describes would be. Also, although Spender was himself far from humourless, there’s an earnest quality that makes the tone of the book unique in this list; it’s far more of a considered portrait of a time, than a story about some young people.

Decline and Fall – the TV show


So, finally – to that TV adaptation of Decline and Fall. It wasn’t actually bad at all (vastly better than the mystifyingly titled 1969 movie adaptation, Decline and Fall…of a Bird Watcher), but despite all the positive reviews it wasn’t (to me anyway) right either; how come? Firstly, the book was published in 1928 and had a contemporary setting. That means that it is now a period piece, which on the screen, gives an instantly distancing effect. The twenties in particular (actually, the twenties and thirties; TV rarely discriminates between the two) has evolved a certain lighthearted and somewhat cosy screen presence on television over the years, from the nostalgic adaptation(s) of Waugh’s very different Brideshead Revisited to gentle Sunday evening drama of The House of Elliot to Jeeves and Wooster and even You Rang M’Lord.

Thanks to these shows and others like them (not to mention films like Bugsy Malone and The Great Gatsby in its various versions) there’s a kind of visual shorthand for the twenties, consisting of; striped blazers, flapper fashions, art deco, the Charleston and hedonistic and/or gormless aristocrats, the fantasy of being independently wealthy, plus the odd Moseley-inspired fascist and monocled lesbian; all of which fits Decline and Fall pretty well, in a superficial kind of way. But while nostalgia is, appropriately, an element in all of the aforementioned programmes (not so much The Great Gatsby, ironic given how the film version traded on the visual aspects of its high society settings etc), it should really have no place in Decline and Fall. Nostalgia can’t help being present though, just through the accumulation of period detail and the kind of broad acting that a comedy set among the upper classes in the 20s seems to require. This broad approach is again fair enough in a way, since Decline and Fall is essentially a novel where the characters are close to being caricatures anyway.

The most obvious place the book differs from the television adaptation is that in the book, the mostly innocent and bland fish-out-of-water main character, Paul Pennyfeather doesn’t have to be – and often isn’t – particularly likeable; the reader doesn’t have to like him or identify with him to find his story funny and anyway, Waugh makes it explicit that we are not seeing Pennyfeather at his best or most typical or indeed in his element at all. Considering the ridiculous (and at times heartbreaking) circumstances he finds himself in, his outbursts of bitterness are surprisingly few and far between. Presenting a not-very-likeable character having misadventures with even less likeable characters is not, however a particularly ratings-grabbing idea, so it’s not surprising the BBC didn’t play it that way. It would never have occurred to me to cast the comedian Jack Whitehall in the leading role, but the hapless/diffident/youthful/naive sides of Pennyfeather’s nature are not that far removed from Whitehall’s usual persona and I don’t mean it as an insult when I say he captures the somewhat one-dimensional, nonentity-like aspect of Pennyfeather quite well.

But, in the bigger picture, the fact that the BBC is spending money on an Evelyn Waugh adaptation at all may not really be a good sign. As Jon Savage wrote in 1986 (re. the TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited):

Waugh’s elevation into legend – as the house god of literary London – has come at the same time as, and may have fuelled, a concerted ideological attack on the social gains of the whole post-war period.” (Jon Savage, Waugh Crimes, The Face, September 1986, in Time Travel – Pop, Media and Sexuality 1976-99, Chatto & Windus 1996, p. 206).

The adaptation of Decline and Fall in 2017 says as much about the current rise of conservatism as the success of Brideshead Revisited did about Margaret Thatcher’s mid 80s, both about the nature of the conservatism itself, and the ways society has changed since the last strengthening of the right.  The choice of Brideshead to capture a conservative zeitgeist was an obvious and safe one; Waugh’s least characteristic, if most successful novel, it is (or at least it can be easily adapted as) a straightforward nostalgic paean to/romanticisation of the leisured life of the aristocracy in the pre-WW2 period, the last time they could be seen as  the leaders of fashion and in a real sense ‘the ruling class’, with an Empire and subordinate classes to (literally) ‘lord it’ over. Then as now, the appeal of traditional ‘Britishness’ was strong, both with the kind of conservative, older elements in society/in charge and those who see progressiveness only in terms of threatening change/instability. Back in 1986, the ‘golden age’ of Brideshead Revisited was still remembered by the older generations, including many who were still active in the political life of the country.

But although the BBC made a costume drama, perhaps the most conservative television form, and although Waugh was a lifelong conservative and reactionary, Decline and Fall the novel, as discussed above, is hardly conservative at all; it doesn’t stand for anything, and its guiding principle seems to be that people are foolish and stupid and ruin their own lives and the lives of others without caring or even noticing. It’s a book which mostly gets away with its casual misogyny and racism because of its overwhelming misanthropy; if these people are laughable and stupid and ridiculous then at least he doesn’t show us anyone that isn’t; the fact that one of the book’s most likeable comic characters is a teacher who is not only a bad teacher, but a serial child abuser shows just what an odd choice it is for a BBC costume drama. The way the BBC tackled the more problematic aspects says a lot about where society is in 2017. In the novel, the (in modern terminology) paedophile teacher Captain Grimes’ abuse of the children in his care is seen by the other characters as distasteful and disreputable, as well as criminal, but is still seen as something one can be funny about. Somewhat surprisingly, this element made it to the screen more or less untouched, albeit without the flirtatiousness of Grimes’ favourite victim (as we, but not he, would see it), Clutterbuck. It is interesting though, to note that when reviewing the show, the word paedophile has almost always been replaced by the equivalent but somehow less inflammatory word ‘pederast’; somehow enjoying the comical exploits of a fictional paedophile might not be okay. It’s presumably the respectability of the source material (Decline and Fall may be outrageous, but Waugh is a pillar of British literature), the broadness of the comedy and the relative vagueness of the acts that makes it acceptable. And I think that’s right in a way; the element is there in the novel, it’s supposed to be and is uncomfortably funny in the novel (Waugh really was a kind of anti-Wodehouse at that point in his career), even though child abuse itself is obviously not funny. It can be assumed I think that the makers of the programme are not condoning anything, and hand-wringing self-censorship would not make the programme better; but there seems to have been a certain amount of that anyway, as we shall see.


As the misanthropy of the novel is reduced in the TV version largely because of Jack Whitehall’s sympathetic portrayal of Paul Pennyfeather, the misogyny of the book more or less evaporates onscreen, largely because the female characters are no more or less caricatures than the male ones, and are played by real women. In the book, the women are mostly predatory in one way or another and are strictly there to be admired, feared or despised – and the admiration always ends in disillusion. In Waugh’s mature books (even his best ones like A Handful of Dust) it could be argued that this feeling never significantly changes.

Where the BBC seems to have been most squeamish is with the novel’s racism. Although the anti-Welsh feeling made it to the screen more or less unchanged and again, partly neutralised by the fact that almost all of the characters were played so broadly, the episode featuring Margot Beste-Chetwynde’s African-American boyfriend Sebastian “Chokey” Cholmondley is more problematic. In the adaptation, Chiké Okonkwo plays the character exactly as written; he is articulate, urbane and enthusiastic about ecclesiastical architecture; but, when he says in the novel, “You folk think that because we’re coloured we don’t care about nothing but jazz. Why, I’d give all the jazz in the world for just one little stone from one of your cathedrals”, it’s supposed to be funny, not just because of the naivety of the lines, but because they comes from a black character. His entry into the book as Margot Beste-Chetwynde’s companion at the school games sets the tone for the whole episode:

“’I hope you don’t mind my bringing Chokey, Dr Fagan?’ she said. ‘He’s just crazy about sport.’

‘I sure am that,’ said Chokey.

’Dear Mrs Beste-Chetwynde!’ said Dr Fagan; ‘dear, dear Mrs Beste-Chetwynde!’ He pressed her glove, and for a moment was at a loss for words of welcome, for ‘Chokey’, though graceful of bearing and irreproachably dressed, was a Negro.” (Decline and Fall, p. 75)

Throughout the scene that follows, Chokey talks about church architecture, music and his race, and did so in the TV version, but the fact of his articulacy and the idea that his presence among high society people is in itself funny remains inescapable in the novel.  Also, what the BBC understandably didn’t include, was the way that almost every other character present comments on Chokey’s presence, or the abusive terms they use when doing so. I’m not sure what else they could have done while remaining at all true to the novel. On the one extreme, removing the single black character from a TV show in the name of  not upsetting people with racism would make no sense, and on the other, having Jack Whitehall say, as Paul Pennyfeather does in the novel, “I say Grimes, what d’you suppose the relationship is between Mrs Beste-Chetwynde and that n—–?” would – to say the least – have spoiled the show and made Pennyfeather a less sympathetic character than the BBC want him to be. But possibly they should have?

When writing about Waugh in 1986, Jon Savage wrote;

“It is extremely important that British culture develops a way of addressing the present and the future rather than the past, that recognises our pluralistic, multiracial society and our position, finger-in-the-dyke of trends in world politics” (Time Travel – Pop, Media and Sexuality 1976-99, Chatto & Windus 1996, p. 207)

and that’s still true – indeed, it’s more true now than it was even five years ago. But Decline and Fall isn’t it. Obviously, its anarchic vision isn’t as straightforwardly nostalgic and conservative in 2017 as Brideshead was in the 80s, but that’s partly because popular culture, post-Brass Eye, post-I’m A Celebrity and post-Operation Yew Tree is massively more coarse and more receptive to deliberate bad taste than the 80s was, or the 20s were for that matter. In its concern with period detail and its twee Jeeves and Wooster-ish execution, the makers of Decline and Fall have swapped the viciously funny nihilism of Waugh’s 1920s for a slightly cosy bad taste pantomime world which is equally as uncomfortable in its own very different way and leaves a comparable, but again different funny taste. Still; it wasn’t awful.