A nightmare about the English

Peter Parker

Filed under: Biography

Peter Parker considers the vision and career of Edward Upward - RSL Review 2006.

Edward Upward has long been seen as the Fourth Man to Isherwood, Auden and Spender. Peter Parker considers his vision and his long career

There have been many distinguished winners of the Society’s A.C. Benson Medal (including Lytton Strachey, Philip Larkin and Nadine Gordimer), but few as venerable as Edward Upward, who was presented with this prestigious award just three weeks shy of his 102nd birthday. He was at the same time elected a Fellow of the Society – ‘Better late than never,’ as theIndependent rather unkindly put it.

The Benson Medal is awarded ‘irregularly’ with the intention of honouring a whole career, and few other writers have had a career spanning so long a period. Upward’s earliest published work appeared while he was an undergraduate at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in the early 1920s. His most recent book, a selection of his short stories published to mark his centenary, appeared in 2003. The 80 years that separate the three poems published in the Michaelmas term issue of Benedict in 1923 and the twelve stories gathered in the aptly-titled A Renegade in Springtime were not always productive. As well as having a full-time career as a schoolmaster, mostly spent at Alleyn’s School in Dulwich, south London, Upward suffered periods when he found it psychologically impossible to write. This was largely the result of trying to write an autobiographical novel about his involvement with the Communist Party of Great Britain at the same time as becoming disenchanted with the organisation and its leaders. He eventually overcame his block, and a nervous breakdown, to complete the three volumes of The Spiral Ascent, the major achievement of a remarkable career.

The other literary endeavour for which Upward became famous – if not notorious – was the Mortmere stories, concocted with his lifelong friend Christopher Isherwood when they were both supposed to be studying history at Cambridge. An imaginary village of the sort familiar from the golden age of British detective fiction, Mortmere was populated by an assortment of grotesque characters pursuing the sort of activities that made the stories unpublishable at the time. While Isherwood’s gift was for pastiche (his contributions combining the best of Conan Doyle and Havelock Ellis), Upward’s was for a sort of visionary surrealism, beautifully realised in the most famous of these stories, The Railway Accident. Upward later destroyed many of his Mortmere stories, feeling (in Isherwood’s words) that ‘the kind of literature which makes a dilettante cult of violence, sadism, bestiality and sexual acrobatics is peculiarly offensive and subversive in an age such as ours – an age which has witnessed the practically applied bestiality of Belsen and Dachau’. At Isherwood’s insistence, however, Upward eventually allowed The Railway Accident to be published (pseudonymously, slightly bowdlerised and in America only) some 25 years after it had been written. It was subsequently collected inThe Railway Accident and Other Stories (1969), in which it appeared alongside the wonderful short novel Journey to the Border (1938) and a handful of exceptional stories which had originally been published in such seminal periodicals as New CountryThe Left Review and Penguin New Writing.

Isherwood described The Railway Accident as ‘a nightmare about the English’, and this would stand as a description of much of Upward’s work, in which dreams, hallucinations and paranoia are a frequent element. Having joined the Communist Party in 1934, Upward came to believe that unless a writer ‘has in his everyday life taken the side of the workers, he cannot, no matter how talented he might be, write a good book’. In his subsequent career he struggled to reconcile his literary gifts and his political beliefs, as does Alan Sebrill, the protagonist of The Spiral Ascent (1962-1977). This semi-autobiographical novel combines an intense lyricism with Marxist dialectic, its principal theme sounded in the title of the final volume: No Home But the Struggle. It is perhaps the best account we have of the involvement of the British middle-class intelligentsia with grass-roots left-wing politics.

It was difficult finding a publisher in Cold-War Britain for such overtly political fiction, and Upward was persistently overshadowed by the leading figures of his generation, becoming as it were the Fourth Man behind Isherwood, Auden and Spender. He nevertheless continued writing stories, mostly published by Alan Ross at irregular intervals in the London Magazine. The title of one of these stories wryly summed up Upward’s feelings about his current literary standing: An Unmentionable Man.  He underwent a remarkable renaissance, however, after a profile of him appeared in the Independent magazine to mark his 90th birthday. Stephen Stuart-Smith of the Enitharmon Press reissued Journey to the Border and published several new works, including a collection of The Mortmere Stories, brief memoirs of Auden and Isherwood, and three volumes of previously unpublished or uncollected stories, many of them written when Upward was in his eighties and nineties.

Having lived since his retirement on the Isle of Wight, Upward recently moved to Pontefract in Yorkshire, where he now lives in a care home very close to his daughter and son-in-law. It was here that Maggie Gee and I travelled by train, carrying the Society’s huge leather-bound book in which newly-elected Fellows sign their names, Byron’s pen and Dickens’s quill, a carefully  stoppered and wrapped bottle of ink, and of course the Benson Medal itself. The conservatory at Carleton Court had been placed at our disposal for a buffet lunch attended by Upward, his daughter and son-in-law Kathy and Jeff Allinson, his daughter-in-law Janet Upward (widow of his son Christopher, who was also a writer), Stephen Stuart-Smith and his partner Marco Livingstone. Various residents wandered in and out to offer congratulations, admire the medal, and look at the book, in which the signatures of our royal patrons attracted rather more attention than those of the writers.

There had been some anxiety that, given his political views, Upward might hesitate before being elected to a royal society or accepting one of its awards, but he was delighted to receive these honours from his fellow writers, and was particularly impressed by Maggie Gee’s knowledge of his work. He selected the pen of his fellow-rebel Lord Byron in order to sign the book, and posed patiently while a photographer from the local press snapped away. He reminded us that this was the second medal he had received: the first was the 1924 Chancellor’s Medal awarded to him for his poem Buddha. He added gleefully that the medal, which had traditionally been made of some precious metal, had been downgraded that year to pinchbeck. (The Benson Medal is, of course, silver and struck at the Royal Mint.) He talked entertainingly and acutely – not to say mischievously – about his literary generation and quoted lines from Auden’s A Summer Night (‘Out on the lawn I lie in bed…’) word perfect. He confessed that he was no longer able to write, but he nevertheless had a book in mind. His political beliefs undimmed by the passing years, he suggested just as we were leaving, ‘We shall now sit down and write a masterpiece: The Decline and Fall of the American Empire.’

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Peter Parker 1997