Mortmere: Upward, Isherwood, and the English horror of the countryside

When I wrote about Edward Upward a few weeks ago, I promised I’d go on to report on the mysterious Montmere Stories he wrote with Christoper Isherwood. I’m pleased to say that I shall now do so.

To recap, Upward and Isherwood were bosom chums at Repton and at Cambridge: huge admirers of each others’ work, and partners in a conspiracy of imagination against the stuffy world of school and university between the wars, and the larger society it both echoed and helped to build. Isherwood, who went on to become both better known and more highly regarded than his friend, wrote of Upward (as the disguised Chalmers in Lions and Shadows) that “He was a natural anarchist, a born romantic revolutionary; I was an upper-middle-class Puritan, cautious, a bit stingy, with a stake in the land. Chalmers had refused to be confirmed.”

Such were the opportunites for outward rebellion available to young men of the time; but Isherwood and Upward conducted a more private rebellion in their withdrawal from University life and the creation of a shared fantasy world that found expression in a series of stories and fragments of stories: the world of Montmere. Many of these were later destroyed, but the surviving episodes were eventually published by Enitharmon in 1994 – with the help of Upward, then enjoying a late creative renaissance, and eight years after the death of his friend.

The stories, such as they are, frequently tail off, unfinished, after a few pages, giving only a glimpse of the strangeness of Montmere and its approximations: a village, somewhere in England, perhaps in Derbyshire or Lancashire but far from anywhere else, with the usual complement of Lordly Hall, accompanying estate, Rectory, School, pub and railway station. They are enough to see that the village is a doomed, damned place: every fragment contains some fresh abhorrance: a gruesome murder at a manor ball; a gallows masquerading as a quiet railway signal; armies of electrically-controlled mannekins; huge air-ships with scarlet-throated steam-sirens and quick-firing guns.

It’s in the complete stories that the full delicious flavour of Montmere comes through: “The Horror in the Tower”, “The Garage in Drover’s Hollow” and “The Railway Accident” showcase a Lovecraftian appreciation for unnamed, nameless abominations, and the kind of disgust and horror of the rural that England specialises in.

Christopher Hitchens wrote in his introduction to Scoop that he had always thought that Straw Dogs and Withnail and I represented the finest counterpoints to “the apple-blossom propaganda of the countryside idyll”, but Evelyn Waugh had “both of these two hellish expeditions mapped out in advance” in Scoop:

There was something un-English and not quite right about ‘the country’, with its solitude and self-sufficiency, its bloody recreations, its darkness and silence and sudden, inexplicable noises, the kind of place where you never know from one minute to the next that you may not be tossed by a bull or pitchforked by a yokel or rolled over and broken up by a pack of hounds.

But Scoop did not appear until 1938: Isherwood and Upward had got there first, but by their own, private routes. Isherwood’s “The Horror in the Tower”, of 1925, follows a young man on a visit to a friend at Wranvers Hall, where he is subjected to an incestuous conspiracy of such scatalogical horror as to rival Mirbeau, de Sade, or Lovecraft himself. But then, the omens weren’t that good:

I shall find it difficult to convey to you anything more than a faint impression of Wranvers. In the opaque light of dusk, it resembled one of those old factories, long since deserted, memorials to the pioneers of the eighteenth century… A single tower, slender as a column, and not lacking in a certain incongruous beauty, rose high above the crooked chimneys, the sharply pointed gables and the narrow dormer windows of the mansion. It was impossible to detect the spot at which this tower left the main building… The front door was small and heavily studded with iron nails. Many panes of glass had been smashed in the mullioned windows, but they were far too narrow to admit of the passage of any human body, however thin. Above the entrance an inscription had ben chiselled in the stone. It had now been almost obliterated, but I thought I could discern the words “Ursus Ipse” and, some way farther on, “Mortis”. The mist streamed between the horse’s legs like water. The ground beneath our wheels was invisible.

Likewise in “The Garage in Drover’s Hollow”, two young men find themselves trapped in a remote gas-station, the back wheel of their “powerful and costly machine” ripped through by “a small spiked object made of steel and not unlike a burr in size and appearance.”

“You seem to have expected visitors,” said my friend, a trifle sarcastically.

“Well, yes, sir,” replied the foreman, bending over the kettle. “We do get a good many in, expecially this time of year, when the roads are so dark. Little accidents will happen. Of course, we scarcely get a car for garaging from one year’s end to another. It’s all repairs.”

“And no wonder,” said the doctor, exhibiting the burr-like object, “when the road is littered with things like this!”

The foreman examined it.

“Well, now,” he exclaimed, with an ingenuousness which was almost reptilian in its unreality, “to think that I’ve been in the business all my life and never seen one of them things before! I wonder what it could be, now? A new type of ball-bearing, do you think, sir?”

“Ball-bearing be raped!” said Dr Mears abruptly, for his temper was still ruffled. “Let’s get on with our tea and go and see about the car.”

Needless to say, it doesn’t end well.

The stories are also stuffed with malicious and mysterious characters who reappear throughout, often in different guises. What began as caricatures of their least favourite dons and fellows become archetypes of minor English tyrants, like Shreeve, headmaster of Frisbald College, and Wherry, train-wrecker and architect to Mortmere Rural Council.

Upward destroyed most of his Mortmere stories, but his surviving “The Railway Accident” is the longest and most accomplished among them. On the long train journey up the branch line to Mortmere, Shreeve unfolds a tale of such bureaucratic, avaricious and shameless complexity that it would beggar belief, if it did not so perfectly illuminate the mindsets of both conspirator and conspiracy theorist, locked in a dance of mutual depravity and corruption.

The imaginative supernatural—always Isherwood’s forte over Upwards’—is here overlaid as an afterthought, to give some higher meaning to the base graspings of its little protagonists. Figures flicker in the undergrowth, ghost stations rush by, deserted, a corpse swings from a warning-light – “an omen, a warning in the quiet of the day, a visible prefiguration it may be of death as we comfortably roll through the frozen countryside.”

The climax, when it comes, is more mechanical and physical:

An iron echo approached us. Clambering the lower rocks, I turned. The express had taken the points. Booster-fitted, excessively rolling, the racing Mogul engine rounded the curve, bounded into the rear of the carriages we had left. Coaches mounted like viciously copulating bulls, telescoped like ventilator hatches. Nostril gaps in a tunnel clogged with wreckage instantly flamed. A faint jet of blood sprayed from a vacant window. Frog-sprawling bodies fumed in blazing reeds. The architrave of the tunnel crested with daffodils fell compact as hinged scenery. Tall rag-feathered birds with corrugated red wattles limped from holes among the rocks.

Much of the Mortmere mythos is highly entertaining juvenilia, body shock and plain old creepiness. But a passage like this, where Upward takes the reader from the first echo of the train’s approach, through vicious impact to bloody aftermath and the breathless hush that follows it, in the space of a single paragraph, demonstrate the writers’ abilities.

So Mortmere is a wonderful place to visit, and a fascinating rescue job on a strange corner of literature. But more than this, it illuminates the hidden contours of its writers’ lives, personal and political. Frustrated Upward, a lifelong Communist, and Isherwood, repeatedly implicated by Anthony Blunt in the Cambridge spy ring, achieve in language what their contemporaries Burgess, Blunt and Maclean failed to do in life: rupture the quiet placidness of English life and reveal the hypocrisy and corruption of “poshocratic” society.

Posted April 9, 2009 | Comments Off on Mortmere: Upward, Isherwood, and the English horror of the countryside.
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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 | Comments Off on Edward Upward and The Crisis.
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