Edward Upward and The Crisis

Edward Upward, who died in January aged 105, was an intimate of Isherwood, Auden and Spender in University days. With Isherwood, he wrote the strange and fantastic Montmere stories, finally published by Enitharmon in the 90s. As Nicholas Wroe wrote in the Guardian: “It was Stephen Spender who recalled that as a young man Auden was, for him, the “highest peak”. For Auden himself it was Isherwood, and for Isherwood “there was a still further peak” – Upward.”

I’ve come, obviously, rather late to Upward, but there’s much to enjoy in the first volume of his now out-of-print masterpiece The Spiral Ascent. In The Thirties chronicles the the spiritual, political and sexual journey of the young Alan Sebrill – that familiar literary figure of his time, the restless poet. Sebrill is enthused by the same left-wing conciousness that drove Upward himself into the Communist Party, where, unlike many of his bourgeois Marxist fellow-travellers, he stayed until he was expelled for “deviating” from the party line. Much of The Spiral Ascent is autobiographical, and its documentary style, popular in its pre-war setting, did not endear it to the critics of the Sixties, setting a pattern that saw Upward fade into almost total obscurity until a last creative burst in his eighties brought a slight reassessment to his place in English literature.

There’s almost a strange echo of the present, reading In The Thirties now. The Marxist analysis of the lead-up to the Second World War – the great imperial powers, forcing the workers into another bloody horror to secure their own resources – and the scoffing reception of most of the populace, rings strangely familiar:

Alan laughed, perhaps a little too eagerly. Aldershaw went on less genially, ‘What is this Educational Workers’ League of yours?’

‘It’s the organisation which is calling the meeting, ‘ Alan said non-committally.

‘Yes, I grasped that. But who exactly are they? What are their political affiliations?’

‘They’re a group of teachers – women as well as men, so they couldn’t call themselves schoolmasters even if they wanted to – who are interested in the present economic situation.’ Alan tried hard not to sound disingenuous.

Aldershaw gave him a wily and sceptical smile. ‘I see that the subject of discussion at the meeting is advertised as being “Teachers and the Crisis”.’ He looked distastefully at the leaflet. ‘Don’t you think “crisis” is rather a big word?’

‘It’s rather a big thing. Nearly three million unemployed in Britain, ten million in America, five million in Germany, and so on all over the world.’

‘I don’t deny that large numbers of men are for various reasons out of work. What I’m objecting to is the putting about of catchwords like “the Crisis”. If they’re repeated often enough they can help to produce the very condition which their propagators assume to be already existing.’

‘So you would say that the crisis, in so far as there is one, is psychologically caused?’

‘Partly, and partly it’s caused by the fact that we’ve been progressing too fast and have been enjoying a higher standard of living than we can as yet afford. But if by the word “crisis” you mean to suggest, as I suspect you do, that our economic system’ – Aldershaw’s tone here was sardonic, as though he disbelieved that the economic system was anything other than a phrase – ‘is heading towards a final collapse, then I deny there’s a crisis in that sense at all. Though no doubt the organizers of your meeting fervently hope for one in that sense.’

Alan ignored Aldershaw’s last sentence, and said, ‘I’ve read somewhere that business men in America are wearing badges in their buttonholes with the inscription “We don’t talk Crisis”. That seems to me complete superstition. Psychological factors may help to accelerate the crisis, of course; but they could never be its primary cause.’

I must get one of those badges. I disagree utterly with the obituary in the Telegraph, which portrays Upward as a wasted talent, and lean more towards Stephen Spender’s judgement that, of all the Oxbridge generation of the 1930s, Upward was “the one whose life has been most in keeping with his principles and ideals, the most deserving, as such, of being honoured.”

Posted March 10, 2009 by . Comments Off on Edward Upward and The Crisis

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