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Dancing to the Music of Time: the intriguing and elusive Anthony Powell

In Hilary Spurling's biography, as in his life, Powell is seldom centre stage.

“I have absolutely no picture of myself,” said Anthony Powell. “Never have had.” The first description of Powell’s physical appearance in Hilary Spurling’s compendious and sympathetic biography comes more than 400 pages in – during the “postscript”, in which Spurling reveals that in Powell’s later years she became a friend of his.

Her admiration and affection are evident, but Tony (as she calls him throughout) remains an elusive presence. Spurling gives us a glimpse of his clothes – tan trousers and “chukka-type boots” in the country, a “battered suit” for trips to London – but explains that they were “practically uniform at the time for a writer of his generation”. She records snippets of his conversation, yet praises him not for anything he said but for being “the best listener I ever met”.

In this book, as in his life, Powell is seldom centre stage. If he is, it is as a still point around which swirls a colourful crowd. He is an observer from the sidelines, or a reserved, almost invisible passenger through a throng. The same is true of Nicholas Jenkins, the narrator of Powell’s great novel sequence (or rather novel – he always insisted it was a single work), A Dance to the Music of Time.

Powell’s devoted readers will inevitably scan this biography for prototypes of their favourite characters, but Spurling is dismissive of attempts to read Dance as a roman-á-clef. Its best-known character, Widmerpool, resembles Denis Capel-Dunn, secretary to the wartime joint intelligence committee, whose assistant Powell was in 1943. Capel-Dunn was “stout, graceless, totally lacking in humour, superlatively good at his job” and, like Widmerpool, possessed of “almost boundless personal ambition”.

But, as Spurling points out, Powell knew him only for a few months. No such fleeting acquaintanceship could yield more than a few ingredients of Powell’s protean creation. What is remarkable about his characters is that they exist in the dimension of time. They rise and fall; they loom enormous, then fade into the background; they seem now ludicrous, now sinister, now charismatic, now pathetic, as they weave in and out of a narrative spanning nearly half a century.

Powell was the social novelist par excellence. Perhaps the reason society, with its ceaselessly shifting relationships, so fascinated him was that he came to it late. He grew up in a largely silent household, as the only child of an irascible soldier father who was often absent and a reclusive, much older mother who was kept awake at night by ghosts summoned up by her unquestioning belief in them.

He went to a prep school where he was so miserable that years later it was still giving him nightmares; in one, he killed the headmaster. Then came Eton, which suited him, not because he had any sentimental attachment to the institution – its venerability, its elitist glamour – but because it was, in a very practical sense, home. In the first two years of his existence, his parents moved house, as army families must, nine times. “Boarding school,” writes Spurling, provided young Tony’s “first fixed address”. It was also the first setting in which the isolated boy could observe the complex interactions of a large number of people – eccentric or dull, exasperating or beguiling.  His life as a social being started there, and so, later on, did his masterpiece. The narrative of A Dance to the Music of Time begins with a schoolboy in the wrong kind of overcoat plodding up Eton High Street on a foggy afternoon.

It would be many years before Powell got down to writing that passage. The early volumes of Dance evoke English life in the interwar years, but – begun in 1946 – it is an entirely postwar work, a remembrance of things past. In the months before he started writing it, Powell reread Proust. Vastly different as their works are in style, both authors were retrospective writers, evaluating and re-creating experiences that take on in hindsight (the author’s hindsight as he writes; the reader’s as he or she progresses through the narrative) a musical patterning and a distinctive, dark patina compounded of irony, resignation and regret.

Oxford bored Powell, but once he moved to London his life began in earnest. His first love affair was with Nina Hamnett, a painter and ex-lover and model of several other fine painters. Hamnett took him to boxing matches and to dance the tango with strippers in Montmartre. Things were looking up. Soon, Powell was travelling abroad with a rumbustious gang of friends including the painter Edward Burra, the ballet dancer Billy Chappell, a cabaret artiste who called herself Hodge and the bisexual graphic artist Barbara Ker-Seymer. The dance was on, and at its centre stood what one of Powell’s new friends unkindly called “a colourless young man with some humour” – Tony, coolly curious, storing it all away.

The wit and energy of Spurling’s account of these years are derived from her main source: Powell’s memoirs. Her pen portraits are deft and vivid. We encounter Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell Sitwell (“Battle is in the curve of their nostrils,” said Arnold Bennett); Constant Lambert, the composer “with the aura of a conjuror” who could play “God Save the King” by “forcing his breath through his punctured eardrum”; Enid Firminger, whom Tony loved hopelessly; Varda (she was called Dorothy but only ever used her surname), the writer and party-giver whom CB Cochrane recruited for his chorus line, proclaiming that she was “the most beautiful woman on Earth”.

Spurling writes that towards the end of his life, the younger generation of literati (who perhaps had not read him) viewed Powell as a snob. In fact, he viewed social pretension with quizzical amusement. His descriptions of a milieu in 1930s London, in which young men would attend deb dances at the start of a night before moving on to rackety parties in cramped flats in Fitzrovia, repeatedly disrupt assumptions about class and propriety. Here are some words that recur frequently in Spurling’s book: “shabby”, “seedy”, “desperate”, “drunk”.

Writers were all around. Powell’s best friend since prep school was Henry Yorke, who published his first novel (as Henry Green) when they were both still at Oxford. Powell’s adult working life began as a publisher’s editor at Duckworth. At the Holborn Polytechnic, where he had been sent to learn printing, he came across an acquaintance, Evelyn Waugh, who was learning carpentry. Powell arranged for Waugh’s first book to be published by Duckworth. Waugh’s father scoffed when he was told that his “hopeless” son had been given an advance: “I suppose I’ll have to make it good.” When Decline and Fall came out a year later, it was dedicated to “Tony, who rescued the author from a fate worse than death”.

What fun it all was! The regular lunches with clever friends at Maxim’s Chinese restaurant; the parties; the jaunts abroad; the dressing up and charades; the exchanges of satirical doggerel in rhyming couplets; the private views at Freddie Mayor’s gallery, startlingly stripped down to become the first white-cube space in London. What fun, but how fatiguing. There comes a point, for the reader of this biography, when one craves a respite from the whirligig, but just as that point is reached, Powell seems to have concluded, too, that the time had come to settle, to marry and to work.

In 1934, he met Violet Pakenham. Within a month, they were engaged. Powell had found himself an entirely congenial wife. Years later, Violet wrote that on their first walks, they began a “conversation which has continued unabated to this day”. The once-lonely boy had also acquired a family, a large, noisy one whose members ranged from the dotty to the distinguished. (Violet described the many writers in her family as “volcanoes in more or less active eruption”.)

The couple were divided by the war. While Tony was with his regiment in Ireland, or working a six-day week in London, Violet kept their babies safe from the Blitz, staying with friends and relations in the country. The war over, they bought a house in Somerset, the Chantry, notable for its 18th-century grottoes. For the next quarter of a century, Tony worked at his books in the mornings and spent his afternoons slashing at brambles in the garden, going up to London twice a week or so to jobs as a reviewer for the Telegraph or Times Literary Supplement, or as the literary editor of Punch.

In a writer’s life, the period of greatest productivity is often the least interesting biographically. As Powell settles on to the old chaise longue, on which he liked to lie while working out his plots, Spurling wisely gathers speed. She is an accomplished biographer – beady in seizing on telling details, brisk and bold in her evaluation of a character or retelling of an incident. Her comments on Powell’s writing are always illuminating.

Powell’s first ambition was to be a graphic artist. Spurling remarks that “his imagination was essentially pictorial”. Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow, first seen when he was 20, impressed him profoundly with its “breathtaking structural perspective”. A couple of years later, he watched Burra working at a rickety table, cluttered with “the remains of petit déjeuner”. “An immensely complicated design would begin in the bottom right-hand corner of a large square of paper… moving in a diagonal sweep upward and leftward across the surface of the sheet, until the whole was covered with an intricate pattern of background and figures. If not large enough, the first piece of paper would be tacked on to a second one – and would almost certainly be joined by several more.”

As Spurling writes: “This passage describes the way Tony worked on the Dance.” He, too, was making an “intricate pattern”, one charged with vitality by his discovery that: “All the awful odds and ends taking place around one are, in fact, the process of living.” Powell may have had no picture of himself, but his remarkable novels add up to a panoramic picture of the world he knew. 

Anthony Powell
Hilary Spurling
Hamish Hamilton, 496pp, £25

This article first appeared in the 05 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich got richer

Credit: Arrow Films
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The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”