Sunday, 14 April 2013

On Henry Green

In a 1958 interview in The Paris Review, Henry Green described the inspiration for his great 1945 novel Loving. It's stuck with me since I first read it. "I got the idea of Loving from a manservant in the Fire Service during the war. He was serving with me in the ranks, and he told me he had once asked the elderly butler who was over him what the old boy most liked in the world. The reply was: 'Lying in bed on a summer morning, with the window open, listening to the church bells, eating buttered toast with cunty fingers.' I saw the book in a flash."

Part of the appeal of Green is that he's a low-output writer - ten novels produced over thirty years of which Living, Loving and Party Going are solid modernist masterpieces. I'm re-reading Party Going (1939) and struck again by how brilliantly economical he is with his sparing detail. The setting throughout is a hotel room overlooking a fog-bound railway terminus, in which a group of privileged travellers kill time waiting for a train. It begins thus:

Fog was so dense, bird that had been disturbed went flat into a balustrade and slowly fell, dead, at her feet.

Omitting the articles which should logically appear as the first and fifth words is slightly shocking - to achieve such dislocating strangeness with so slight a means. Green does this all the time, and makes the familiar new and unsettling. Party Going is entirely static - there's little in the way of plot but one is  absorbed by the momentous sense of nothing happening, in what the French call temps morts. Outside the upholstered comfort of the railway hotel thousands are gathered on the dark concourse, where life goes on, teemingly, all the time.

A painting called The Arrival of the Jarrow Marchers in London, Viewed from an Interior by Thomas Cantrell Dugdale would make a perfect cover illustration for Party Going. It hangs, or used to hang, in East London's Geffreye Museum and I wonder whether Green saw it before starting work on Party Going and may even, as was the case with Loving, have seen the whole novel in a flash.

The Arrival of the Jarrow Marchers in London, Viewed from an Interior (1936)
© The Geffrye Museum

The painting represents a very particular moment in history - the arrival in London on October 31 1936 of 200 marchers from the depressed town of Jarrow to present a petition to parliament calling for action to create employment and end poverty in the town. The 300-mile Jarrow March is fondly remembered by those on the left in British politics although (and this tends to be conveniently unremembered) the Labour Party of the day opposed it, and the Trades Union Congress advised its members not to help the marchers.

The Jarrow Marchers enjoyed widespread popular support from the public despite campaigns by the press barons Beaverbrook and Rothermere to portray them as Bolshevik subversives and worse. But I'm getting a long way from Henry Green. What's my point? I'm writing this blog on a warm April Sunday morning and to the sound of church bells, which prompted the choice of Green as a subject about half an hour ago. This led to thoughts of the 1930s and looking around today's Britain there's a growing sense of déjà vu that began with last summer's Olympic boondoggle. Thoughts of the Berlin Olympiad in 1936 were never far off, and since then we have undergone precipitous economic decline, cuts to essential public services, increasing poverty and social division accompanied by the rise of an ugly plutocracy - sleazy billionaire oligarchs now seem to have the freedom of London. I hate to finish on a gloomy note - but you'll remember how the thirties ended up.

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