Do Labour really want peace? A letter from Cecil Day-Lewis: 7 March 1936

From our correspondence.

7 March 1936

SIR,—The Labour Party has now banned the Authors World Peace Appeal. This is a body so loosely organised that it cannot be said to have a membership. It was founded by a dozen respectable, worried writers, mostly of the generation on which the 1914 war had such a shattering impact. Some seven hundred signatories have signed a declaration which says: “We writers believe that our civilisation is unlikely to survive another world war. We believe that differing political and economic systems can exist side by side on tile basis of peacefully negotiated settlements. As writers we want peace and through our work will try to get it: and pledge ourselves to encourage an international settlement through peaceful negotiation. We condemn writing liable to sharpen existing dangers and hatred. As signatories we are associated with no political movement, party or religious belief, but are solely concerned with trying to stop the drift to war.”

Now, does the Labour Party intend all signatories who happen to be Labour Party members to write and say they don't believe our civilisation will be upset by another war: that they don't believe that differing Political and economic systems can exist side by side that they don't want peace and won't try to get it through their work? Or what?

The organisation, in so far as it exists—it is extremely hard to organise writers at all, as the Labour Party has found in its day—consists of an executive committee elected at an annual conference, and several working panels or groups of writers who volunteered for some kind of work. Thus, one such group considers hate and war themes in children's books; it has been extremely efficacious in so far as it is now, since the publication of the AWPA evaluation list (very similar to that of the American Cincinnatti committee—which has, we think, survived all purges in the States!) almost impossible to buy any of the really shocking comics from the multiple stores and bookstalls which used to stock them freely. It also hopes to start a cheap children's paper, so as to provide better alternative fare: are Labour members not to write in it? If a Peace Book Club is started through AWPA, are Labour Party members not to belong?

Now let us consider what happens to any of the banned organisations if Labour Party members are withdrawn lest they should be corrupted by Cormmunists. There remain a few Communists, some “fellow travellers”, a few Liberals, a few dissident Tories (unless the Conservative Central Office takes a leaf from Transport House), some convinced pacifists and Quakers and a great many well-meaning non-political persons who can usually be pulled round by the politicians. But the old hands from the Labour Party who can, on the whole, see what they are doing and why, and are prepared to argue and be tough in a friendly way, are to be taken away. Not enough dissident Tories, Liberals and pacifists are left, and the Communists will doubtless be able to pull the organisations their way.

Is this what the Labour Party intends?

We writers can do a good deal in the way of interpreting the various angry ideologies to one another. We can do a great deal in the way of establishing relations with writers in other countries. We can cool the war, which is hotting up against the real wishes of all but a tiny minority, with irony and laughter and even with that most dangerous thing, truth (or, to use Beatrice Webb's phrase, “a few facts”). We can do it better if we are in a professional organisation. Does the Labour Party not want us to do these things? If so, is it so sure that it really wants peace?

C Day Lewis
Naomi Mitchison

Cecil Day-Lewis with his wife, daughter and son Daniel. Photograph: Getty Images.

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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