Frederic Raphael – Against The Stream (Carcanet)
Manchester. Cucumber sandwiches left out by Helen, but the bread was of a low standard. I turned to the business of F.
Carcanet are up to Volume 7 of this fellow Frederic Raphael’s published journals already, but I haven’t read any of it. So for me it’s a journey into a world both old and new, which dazzles with its light, but stings the eyes.
I can see why it is all being published. It’s the kind of detailed record-keeping a talented, expensively educated person undertakes, and he reflects on the times in which he is writing.
But F. is unremittingly bitchy, to understate the case greatly. He is The Genius in the world and all other humans are mere flies, irritants buzzing around, sometimes worth the comment, but those comments are nearly always intellectualised flyswats.
This volume opens with a colleague of F’s who, in his eyes, is a mere drudge, lucky to be promoted way beyond drudgery, and her partner is a sort of human turd. Each description of this man’s tastes, opinions and behaviour drips with revulsion.
George Steiner gets the rolled up newspaper THWACK merely for asking for a synopsis of some research, and not the whole thing.
In some ways this material is as important as that left by Mr Pepys, but instead of ‘it was washday for my wife, so I slammed her coney, and so to bed’, we get:
‘Eric Paice has recently retired as Chairman of the Writers’ Guild, depressed by the erosion of drama slots on the networks, he proposes to emigrate to the novel.’
Perhaps as a consequence of the ‘erosion of drama slots’, Ed Reardon’s Week has now occupied F’s mode of discourse almost completely. I half expected a cameo from Jaz Milvane and a scene where Raphael and Felix get trapped, completely pissed, in the revolving doors of the Connaught Hotel.
In some ways that scene is in Against The Stream, it is one modelled on a sequence from Will Hay’s Oh, Mr Porter!, where hapless fools are trapped on the windmill shouting ‘help!’ for far longer than it is funny.
F. predicts a rash of morbid books about the decline of ‘standards’ from people such as Paice, which is brilliant and prescient. But then he describes Paice, pipe smoker, in his mackintosh, as ‘splay-toothed, yellow faced, his eyes look out from a wince of narrowed lids.’
Clearly F. is a great writer, but ‘curmudgeonly’ doesn’t get near. He makes me watch people he thinks are idiots stuck on the relentless windmill of his life until I loathe him for it.
F. is the kind of egoist who also has an ego. There is a difference. There are people who are egoists, but who are not egotistical. F. is both and his ego is at war with itself as well as everything else.
He also has hair like the stuffing coming out of the peach seat of the old sofa left in the street outside, the transplanted eyes and eyebrows of Robert Maxwell and a false grimace of a smile absolutely in keeping with his psychology and its diarised output.
Clearly he will relish this picture of himself just as much as he routinely enjoys turning description into a form of character assassination.
The blurb actually tries to sell its author’s vitriol as virtue, with the bizarre analysis that his nastiness holds a mirror up to him. But sometimes a brilliant but nasty person is just a brilliant but nasty person. This double or triple take, or second guessing him as insecure, surely this is just for his analyst? And pity that person. Pity.
So I will say it and you can stop reading at this point if you want to: F is a brilliant but nasty person. A raconteur intellectual with a viper’s bite.
But the larger contours under all the details are those of the so-called British class ‘system’, and that is interesting, and that is worth looking at leeward, from the angle of 100 years hence, if there is a 100 years hence.
Here is proof that the upper-middles get away with blue murder and still think the world owes them a living. But if I tried that on I would probably end up living under a bridge. If I converted F’s journal content into my voice and milieu and had it published I’d be ostracised.
If you sift out the nastiness and ephemera, all that is left is a snobbish intellectual fetish, under which is class fetish.
From the mid-twentieth to the twenty-first century, we have so many British voices to preserve, Doreen Massey, Stuart Hall, Alan Sinfield. Clever, been right through it, but admirable in spirit, whatever their background.
In the end, no matter how interesting the glimpse into the Thatcher years, through this most brilliant of minds – and it clearly is – the double disclaimer and weird validation of a mirror held up to the author is bunk.
Perhaps the next volume will be called Pissing Off Beachy Head.