Not going

A New Year's Eve message from J B Priestley

In between writing more than 100 novels (including The Good Companions), a number of implicitly socialist plays (including An Inspector Calls) and broadcasting as the "national voice of common sense" for the BBC during the Second World War, J B Priestley also wrote extensively for the New Statesman. A small selection of his articles (including a brilliantly grumpy seasonal message -- "I shall enter 1964 with the conviction that there is too much genius about and not enough talent . . . Happy New Year!") can be accessed here.

He was, unquestionably, one of the 20th century's most prolific men of letters -- and yet he did not see himself as such. In a gloriously self-indulgent little essay entitled "Smoking in a Hot Bath", Priestley reflects:

People still say to me "The way you work!", and behind the modest smirk I laugh secretly, knowing myself to be one of the laziest and most self-indulgent men alive. Long after they have caught the 8.20, opened the morning mail, telephoned to the managing director of the Cement Company, dictated yet another appeal to the Board of Trade, I am lying in my hot bath, smoking a pipe.

This essay can be found, along with 113 others, in Great Northern Books' recently published 60th-anniversary edition of one of Priestley's most popular collections of short pieces, Delight. As a former editor of the New Statesman, Paul Johnson, put it: "His essays, many of which I published . . . were in the grand tradition of Hazlitt and Lamb, Chesterton and Belloc . . . these wonderful essays are among his finest."

So, it makes perfect sense that Cultural Capital (re)turns to Delight for our 2009 New Year's Eve message. Here, courtesy of Priestley on particularly curmudgeonly form, is exactly the justification you've been looking for, for "Not Going" to that utterly uninspiring party at which you'd hitherto felt obliged to make an appearance. Happy New Year, all!

One of the delights known to age and beyond the grasp of youth is that of Not Going. When we are young it is almost agony not to go. We feel we are being left out of life, that the whole wonderful procession is sweeping by, probably for ever, while we are weeping or sulking behind bars. Not to have an invitation -- for the dance, the party, the match, the picnic, the excursion, the gang on holiday -- is to be diminished, perhaps kept at midget's height for years. To have an invitation and then not be able to go -- oh cursed spite! Thus we torment ourselves in the April of our time. Now in my early November not only do I not care the rottenest fig whether I receive an invitation or not, but having carelessly accepted the invitation I can find delight in knowing that I am Not Going. I arrived at this by two stages. At the first, after years of illusion, I finally decided I was missing nothing by not going. Now, at the second and, I hope, final stage, I stay away and no longer care whether I am missing anything or not. But don't I like enjoying myself? On the contrary, by Not Going, that is just what I am trying to do.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear