Anthony Powell, Dance, vol. 4

Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time. Collected edition vol. 4 (Arrow Books)

Vol. 10: Books Do Furnish a Room (1971) The strange title derives from the nickname for the seedy left-wing jobbing journalist, Bagshaw (later involved in television; the final three volumes of Dance portray the rapid changes in British cultural and social life in the decades after the war). It became attached to him according to one of two variations on a sleazy sexual encounter he’s alleged to have been involved in.

Nick has returned to university to research a book on Burton (author of Anatomy of Melancholy – a strong literary influence on this final trio of novels). Various characters from the early Oxford novels in this sequence reappear. But the key developments in vols. 10-12 are to do with the curious denouement of the fiery relationship between Widmerpool, now a Labour MP, and his destructively volatile and promiscuous wife, Pamela.

In vol. 10 we learn that Nick’s wife Isobel has given birth to a boy, but we hear very little about their personal lives. There are passing mentions of their children as they grow up, but the narrative focus is on the dance of characters taking place around them.

Vol.11: Temporary Kings (1973) In the summer of 1958 Nick attends a cultural conference in Venice. A number of new characters emerge, many of whom become entangled with key dancers from previous novels – especially the late novelist X. Trapnel, and the Widmerpools. Pamela’s extra-marital affairs exacerbate her husband’s problems in his professional and political life.

Vol. 12: Hearing Secret Harmonies (1975) This novel takes place during the peak of the era of youthful counter-cultural rebellion in the late sixties and early seventies. I found it the least satisfying of the Dance sequence. Powell’s satirical depiction of the cult of hippies that features centrally seemed to me uncharacteristically crabby and heavy-handed. He portrays its charismatic but sinister young leader, with the unlikely name of Scorpio Murtlock, as wielding a corrosive and autocratic influence over his gullible, besotted followers. Because he and his cult members play a major role in this final volume of the novel sequence, my response was to feel slightly disappointed that it ended this way.

Widmerpool’s life and career has taken a new and unlikely turn: he also falls under Murtlock’s spell. A biography of X. Trapnel by one of the characters introduced in the Venice section also causes much of the drama here. Some of the other threads involving earlier characters in the narrative are more successfully tied up. A priceless Modigliani drawing neatly does this job as far as Pamela and some of those who became disastrously entangled with her are concerned. Art and artists (as well as music to set the tempo for the dancer-characters) play an important, deftly symbolic part in Dance.

One of Burton’s ‘torrential passages’ from Anatomy rounds of this superb sequence of novels with a pleasing flourish; it sums up (and reflects) many of the key themes of the twelve novels and highlights Powell’s method as a unique literary artist and master of language; here’s a short, edited extract from a long and brilliant quotation:

‘I hear news every day, and those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions…daily musters and preparations…which these tempestuous times afford, battles fought, so many men slain, monomachies, shipwrecks…peace, leagues, stratagems, and fresh alarms. A vast confusion of vows, wishes, actions, edicts, petitions, lawsuits, pleas, laws, proclamations, complaints, grievances, are daily brought to our ears…Today we hear of new Lords and officers created, to-morrow of some great men deposed…’

Wouldn’t ‘Ordinary Rumours’ make a great title for a Powell novel?! My thanks to Cornwall Libraries for supplying Vols 2-4 of this novel sequence.

Tom Baldwin’s biography of Keir Starmer

Tom Baldwin, Keir Starmer: the biography, (William Collins 2024)

Tom Baldwin’s biography of the current leader of the British Labour opposition party, Sir Keir Starmer, follows a fairly conventional chronological pattern. It starts with his upbringing in a small Surrey town.

His father was a skilled toolmaker. This would have positioned him, in our British class-conscious social system, as working class, not meriting the esteem accorded to the privileged beneficiaries of inherited wealth and a private school education. A stern, undemonstrative man, his father’s patriarchal approach to family life led to Starmer becoming ostensibly an emotionally reticent person – except with the rest of his family and his close friends (including fellow footballers – a sport he is genuinely passionate about), who are all still very important to him.

His mother suffered from a serious illness which rendered her more or less an invalid for most of her adult life. Starmer was deeply influenced by her fortitude and her resilient response to her disability, and her refusal to wallow in self-pity or curtail those physical activities of which she was capable, such as hill walking in the family’s beloved Lake District, where they spent most of their holidays. He grew up with a deeply ingrained set of moral values, as well as a sense of decency, probity and integrity.

After reading law at the universities of Leeds and then Oxford, he became a top human rights lawyer who worked on some famous high-profile cases. When he became Director of Public Prosecutions, he was often accused of betraying those principles by which he had previously lived and worked: he was seen by some to have changed sides by turning prosecutor. Having vigorously upheld the right of all, even those accused of serious crimes, to a proper legal defence, he was portrayed by some as demonstrating double standards and shifting his moral position – an accusation also levelled at him frequently in his more recent political career.

Baldwin carefully shows that the truth is more complex than this black-and-white view. Starmer is obsessed with the nature of justice: it involves treating everyone caught up in the legal process with fairness and even-handed decency. That means that just as all accused of crime have the right to a proper defence, all victims have the right to a legal system that operates without prejudice or bias in its prosecution of perpetrators of crime.

This deeply principled foundation has continued to serve him in his subsequent career as a politician and member of parliament. When he became leader of the Labour party, he worked immediately to eradicate the antisemitism that had become endemic in parts of the membership. His determination to do the right thing, having carefully weighed – as a good lawyer should – all evidence, resulted in his removing many Labour members from the party. This included dealing with his outspoken and controversial predecessor, the left-wing Jeremy Corbyn; Starmer had him barred from active involvement in parliamentary politics. These were moves that provoked outrage in some quarters, and the left of his party turned on him aggressively.

So far he has ridden the storm and managed to demonstrate to all but his most blinkered critics that his political positions are determined by the deeply-felt convictions and principles mentioned earlier – not by the factionalism, posturing and grandstanding that tend to characterise the performance of most of our recent politicians.

This is largely a ‘warts and all’ portrait: it is not a hagiography. Baldwin acknowledges that Starmer can seem when in the media spotlight to be lacking in charisma, and overly lawyerly in his style of politics. Many doubt, as a consequence, that he is prime minister material. But Baldwin, in my view, successfully dispels such doubts.

Starmer is not the stereotypical showman politician, the charlatan, the boosterish prankster who takes nothing seriously, least of all the laws and standards they profess to uphold (certain recent populist Tory PMs come to mind). It’s maybe a strength in his demeanour that he doesn’t indulge in showy rhetoric or soundbites that conceal a lack of substance or political or moral rigour. If he is at times over-cautious, and is capable of changing his mind in the light of new developments or information, that’s maybe no bad thing – not a sign of weakness or infirmity of purpose.

Some biographies, especially those featuring politicians, can be stodgy, plodding reads. Baldwin’s portrait of Starmer is well-evidenced, balanced and highly readable. No matter what your politics, I’d recommend this biography for its depiction of a serious, thoughtful politician.