Wednesday, 9 June 2021

And then there were two…

So The Donald has given up on his blog after a mere month, leaving Dominic Cummings and your humble correspondent as the final providers of semi-long form content on the open web (I'm not counting those guys - and they are mostly guys - on Substack: it's a rigged deck and it's a subscription service. Asking you for money would only cheapen the deep and abiding relationship between us, right?). I'm not surprised Donald can't hack it - churning out 400 words of eyeball-grabbing mediocre content on a semi-weekly basis is tough, especially if your daily routine consists mostly of cheating at golf and sexually assaulting passing life-forms. It's the same for me. I sit in a room doing admin, with occasional breaks to read books, polish my bald spot ('burnishing my crown') or sit haplessly on a bicycle - the only aspect of my life in which 'career' has any relevance). And yet here I am, a thirteen-year veteran of the Blog Wars, atop a pile of my so-called rivals' skulls. Where are they now? (On Instagram, mostly). 

I therefore declare victory, in the Agricolan sense: as Tacitus claims Celtic warrior Calgacus put it in his speech about the Romans in Britain: 'they make a desert and call it peace'. The question is, what to do with this space now it's all mine? There's always the Father Ted option:

On second thoughts, perhaps just the usual mix of second-hand opinions and second-rate lo-fi. And books. I've retreated back to my happy place recently - the interwar period. I'm on work by two immigrants to Britain at the moment: Michael Arlen's short stories, These Charming People and now I'm on the new unexpurgated diaries of Henry Channon. The Arlen is interesting. He was an Armenian who wrote a hit novel The Green Hat, essays, film scripts, plays and short stories mostly revolving around the somewhat unmoored lives of the post-war aristocratic set. Quite a change from my usual 1930s diet of proletarian Welsh fiction, but culturally significant nonetheless. The stories are interesting and not, as I expected, entirely adoring of the smart set: there's an outsider's perspective that throws the inner lives of his subjects into sharp contrast with the horrors their older siblings endured. 

The Channon diaries are very different. This is volume 1, 1000 pages of an American incomer's account of his life in the real equivalent of Arlen's cast. The censored version published in the late 1960s caused a scandal; this new edition exposes the names and adds some racier details to his voyage through the beau-monde. Channon was wholly funded by other people's money and never once worked for his living, had sex with a lot of titled people of both sexes, wrote a couple of bad novels and was a Conservative MP for a while, hence his relevance to my politicians' novels project. It's replete with racism ('the black races start at Calais' sticks in my mind), the most appalling social climbing and snobbery (quite a lot of kings, queens and dukes are described as 'vulgar'), and the endless stream of footnotes document the very long lives of triple-surnamed cads and butterflies almost all of whom should have had an early date with the guillotine while constantly denigrating others for their social-climbing and snobbery, and a real, heartfelt fear and hatred of the working-class. Labour Party victories and strikes are seen as the start of socialist revolution, while Channon yearns for absolute monarchy, the violent suppression of the workers and the worst excesses of Catholicism, a church he adores while being too cowardly to join, aware that Jews and Catholics are less welcome in the great houses of England. 

The one thing that Channon gets right, ironically, is his analysis of the wannabe-fuhrcer Oswald Mosley, whom he knew well. Channon shares an awful lot of Mosley's prejudices and became a huge admirer of Mussolini and Hitler, but perceives Mosley's egotism, arrogance, neediness and lack of principles pretty early on. It's not the politics he objects to, but the person embodying British fascism. 

It's kind of interesting reading the Arlen and the Channon simultaneously. The diaries are relentless, eventually running to 3000+ pages even with editing. There are occasional risqué thrills, but the repetitive nature of Channon's vicious superficiality and the endless cycle of balls, gossip, fallings-out, misguidedly confident political and social judgments and so on very quickly form the case for the prosecution rather than - as he fondly assumes - a celebration of the ancien regime. The enormous gap between the roles played by many of the cast - as government ministers, advisers or public figures - and their inner lives or lack of them is brutally exposed by Channon's chronicle of their daily activities. The very shape of the Arlen's work casts them in a much better light. Slightly reminiscent of Katherine Mansfield's allusive style, Arlen depicts his aristocratic characters as thinking, feeling people possessed by deep melancholy, unmoored from purpose and broken to some extent by the mass slaughter of the first world war and social change that they don't understand. It might be that Channon's account is accidentally more truthful: the few toffs I've met have been emotionally capable of little more than celebrating pheasant-murder, but Arlen at least affords them the potential to feel deeply their loss of agency, and awareness of their increasing marginality. Not that they became socially or economically marginal, despite the advent of death duties etc., but they have been comprehensively outnumbered and culturally isolated. So in some ways the Arlen is reminiscent of Lampedusa's The Leopard with more jokes. He played up to the dandy image in 1920s Britain, driving a yellow Rolls and wearing outrageous clothes, but there's a Wildean satirical sensibility in play I think, a kind of doubleness if you pay attention, whereas Channon is so needy, so self-hating (he was deeply ashamed of being an American) that he lacks any critical distance from his own or others' behaviour, at least in the diaries. I'm trying to track down copies of his novels for my project but none have popped up for sale yet. 

Would I recommend either of them? Definitely the Arlen. The Channon diaries are a substantial historic record and hurling it away in frustration would constitute a decent work-out. As a stylist though…no.