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Why I’ve been written out of Anthony Powell’s history

27 January 2018

9:00 AM

27 January 2018

9:00 AM

You’re in the index, but not in the book. This ghostly sensation has been my experience since 1990 after commissioning Auberon Waugh to review Anthony Powell’s Miscellaneous Verdicts.

Waugh’s verdict appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on 20 May that year. Next morning, Powell resigned in a celebrated huff from the sister paper, of which I happened to be literary editor.

When, seven years later, Powell published his Journals, I wanted to know how he dealt with this incident which had caused acute distress. The index directed me to page 40, yet my name wasn’t there. Nor any entry for 20 May 1990; nor one for Auberon Waugh, as promised, on page 49. The absence hinted that lawyers may have been at work.

Then, in 2007, I had to issue a legal threat myself after receiving a proof of V.S. Naipaul’s A Writer’s People. In his posthumous assassination of Powell, his friend of 40 years, who died in 2000, Naipaul wrongly claimed I’d been sacked as literary editor because of Waugh’s review. Actually, I’d stayed on another 15 months, before leaving to pursue a career as a novelist. Naipaul’s remaining proofs were consequently pulped. When his book was published, my name had been erased — again — from the text.

In the hope of learning what Hilary Spurling had to say in her authorised biography, I read ‘Shakespeare, Nick, 423’ in the index and flicked to the page. Once more, though flagged, my name’s not there.

So what on earth happened in May 1990 to cause these vanishings?

*****


Anthony Powell divides opinion more than any of his contemporaries. It’s become routine to perceive him as a form of literary Patum Peperium: you relish him or you don’t. He himself divided the world into ‘fans’ (the word appears on virtually every page of his Journals) and ‘shits’.

I fell in between. I was guilty of not having brushed up on my Shakespeare lineage when I first met Powell in April 1985, for a BBC Arena trilogy I was making on Evelyn Waugh; and I did sit in slight amazement as, stroking his cat, Powell talked of Graham Greene as ‘a third-rate detective writer’. But I respected his novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time and the seriousness with which he approached his craft. In our subsequent encounters, after I became the Telegraph’s literary editor in 1988, he perceived me as ‘quite agreeable, reasonably intelligent’ — i.e. neither fan nor shit.

For the next three years, Powell was my chief reviewer. In his fortnightly notices, he dispensed both bouquets — for instance, to Joan Collins, a former neighbour — but also brickbats, like the ‘pasting’ given to Geoffrey Grigson, ‘for which I am not at all sorry, most other reviewers lacking the guts to do so’. His refusal to review contemporary novelists was regrettable, but his name on the page was always a mark of distinction. I didn’t share the opinion of my predecessor David Holloway, who told Naipaul: ‘I would pay to stop him writing.’

All went swimmingly until the maladroit decision to merge the Daily and Sunday papers. I was asked to take over the Sunday books coverage, so saddling my team with the preposterous duty of running two sets of books pages on successive days. Not long afterwards, Max Hastings asked if I would also take on Waugh as the Sunday’s chief reviewer. This I was more than happy to do. I’d interviewed Bron (as friends called him) for the Waugh Trilogy, and admired his writing. I had no knowledge of any antipathy towards Powell. Nor was that apparent when I telephoned to see if Bron would kick off by reviewing Miscellaneous Verdicts.

In a thin week, there was no obvious contender. Anyway, what could be more apposite, I reasoned, than the new chief book critic of the Sunday Telegraph reviewing the collected reviews of his veteran twin, so to speak, on the sister paper? Plus, I had commissioned for the Daily Telegraph a review by Powell’s most ardent fan, Hilary Spurling; and, in the Sunday Telegraph, an interview with Hugh Massingberd, unarguably his second greatest fan. I had no idea what Waugh would write, but I was confident it would be well-written, independent, interesting. The review was not commissioned, as Hastings wrote later, ‘in a moment of madness’. On the contrary, asking Bron to do it seemed at the time, without the powerful binoculars of hindsight with which shortly everyone was equipped, almost in the natural order of things. I then went off on holiday.

I was on a camel in the Moroccan desert when the fateful article arrived. My deputy, John Coldstream, printed it unaltered: ‘I remember thinking, “This is not only a spanking piece of writing, but also a pretty good instance of our policy of showing no special favours to our own contributors!”’ As I lay under the stars, unsuspecting and uncontactable, the shit, as it were, hit the fan. Among insults, Waugh (who maintained that his piece was merely ‘jokey’) criticised Powell for his ‘abominable English’ and likened his famous novel sequence to ‘an early upmarket soap opera’ which had enjoyed a cult among expatriate Australians. Promptly, Powell resigned from the sister paper.

On my return, Max Hastings hauled me in. Conrad Black, the proprietor, was hopping, he said. Surely everyone knew about Waugh’s hostility to Powell?

‘Well, I didn’t,’ I replied, ‘and I made three films with these people.’

Further, I pointed out, the review had not appeared in Powell’s own paper. Plus Waugh had been Max’s appointment. Still, this unfortunate turn of events — an inevitable consequence, I felt, of the merger — had happened on my watch. ‘Do you want my head?’

Max was sanguine — to a degree to which I suspect he might even have been relieved. ‘No. Tony’s probably perched too long on the branch anyway.’

After I returned to my desk, the telephone rang. At the other end, a high-pitched chuckle. Bron. ‘Have you been sacked yet?’

I wrote to Powell to apologise, but received no reply. A propitiatory bust was commissioned of him which lurked for a while on a filing cabinet. In 1991, when the titles re-separated, I handed over the Sunday’s books coverage to Miriam Gross (a fan), and the daily’s coverage to John Coldstream. Even so, I remained curious to know what manner of man it was who could dish out pastings for half a century and yet be so affected by adverse criticism. When his Journals were published, securing him, in John Carey’s words, ‘a reputation for vanity and pomposity’, it wasn’t merely my name that I found had vanished, but my curiosity too.

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