Cyril connolly

The identical twins who captivated literary London

The dazzlingly beautiful identical twins Mamaine and Celia Paget were born in 1916 and brought up in rural Suffolk – not the greatest springboard, you would think, for lives at the intellectual heart of the mid-20th century. Yet the list of their friends reads like a roll call of literary notables: Dick Wyndham, Peter Quennell, Cyril Connolly, Bertrand Russell, Sacheverell Sitwell and Laurie Lee. Between them, the twins were proposed to by, among others, Arthur Koestler and George Orwell; had liaisons with Albert Camus and the formidably clever Oxford philosopher Freddie Ayer; quarrelled with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir; and received love sonnets from the historian and poet Robert

The many lives of George Weidenfeld, legendary publisher and ladies’ man

‘You can go ahead,’ said the voice at the other end of the telephone. ‘The DPP has decided not to prosecute.’ It was the call that allowed the publication of Lolita, one of the greatest gambles of George Weidenfeld’s career. The moment George – it is impossible to think of him as anything other than George – had read this controversial book, available from the Olympia Press in Paris, known for its pornographic list, he had wanted to publish it himself; but as the law then stood, it would have been pulped immediately, owing to its story of a middle-aged professor who becomes obsessed with a 12-year-old girl and kidnaps

Barbara Ker-Seymer – Bright Young Person in the shadows

English Modernism was graced by five daring and gifted women who were in many respects well in advance of their native male counterparts: Virginia Woolf and Anna Kavan in prose, Edith Sitwell in poetry, Elisabeth Lutyens in music and Barbara Hepworth in sculpture. Barbara Ker-Seymer is not remotely in this class. She took some attractive photo-portraits before the war in her studio above Asprey’s and that was it. After leaving St Paul’s Girls’ School, Barbara was soon drinking, drugging and dancing round town Not that Barbara cared. Though trained at the Chelsea School of Art, she had a deprecating attitude to her activity which was characteristic of English amateurism and

How two literary magazines boosted morale during the Blitz

William Loxley’s lively account of ‘Bloomsbury, the Blitz and Horizon magazine’ begins with W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood emigrating to the United States in January 1939 and ends with George Orwell dying in University College Hospital in January 1950. Between these two events Loxley explores the often interconnected professional and personal lives of a number of British writers, publishers and editors — principally Orwell, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Cyril Connolly, Stephen Spender, John Lehmann and Dylan Thomas — during the second world war and its immediate aftermath. Faced with criticism in both public and private for his and Auden’s ‘defection’, Isherwood attempted in January 1940 to justify his action to

Low life | 17 January 2019

We drove down from the hills to visit friends of friends with a house by the sea and on the journey I experienced all the usual mixed feelings of a trip to the coast. On departure: the not unsnobbish excitement at the prospect of a day out on the glamorous French Riviera. On arrival: the disenchantment with the traffic queuing in the cramped streets, the hideous, jerry-built apartment blocks, the boulder beaches, the dog shit, the prevailing chill of vulgar, insentient wealth. Always the disenchantment brings to mind that passage in Cyril Connolly’s only novel, The Rock Pool (1936), which is set on the Côte d’Azur. The central character is

Pondering the flowers

This new book, from the NYRB’s publishing arm, is in a non-fiction genre I love: short entries dedicated to an integrating purpose; approaching a subject via concentrated, separated stabs rather than extended unfolding text. In philosophy this is called the aphoristic technique. In wider literature, it can range from the concise notebook to prose poetry. It is a genre whose masterpiece in English is Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave, but it is more often found in continental literature; and the French especially have made it their own, where its progenitor is usually said to be Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris, described as prose poems and published in 1869 after the

A sensual Greek goddess

Joan Leigh Fermor died in 2003, aged 91, after falling in her bathroom in the house on a rocky headland of the Peloponnese which she had financed by selling her jewellery. Afterwards, whenever Joan’s husband and companion of nearly six decades reclined in her place on the sofa to read, eight of her 73 cats would gather round him in a recumbent group — but after a few minutes slope off. Paddy (who died in 2011) wrote: ‘They had realised they were being fobbed off with a fake.’ This biography, by the archivist who went to sort out Paddy Leigh Fermor’s papers before they returned to England, makes a charming

His own worst enemy | 27 July 2017

One fail-safe test of a writer’s reputation is to see how many times his or her books get taken out of the London Library. Here, alas, John Lodwick (1916–1959) scores particularly badly. If The Butterfly Net (‘filled with a lot of booksy talk and worldly philosophising,’ Angus Wilson pronounced in 1954) has run to all of five borrowers in the last five years, then The Starless Night (1955) seems not to have left the shelves since 1991. All this suggests that the title of Geoffrey Elliott’s valiant attempt to reconstruct Lodwick’s lost, vagrant and sometimes violent life is painfully accurate. Why should this writer, who published nearly a score of

Bringing Camus to book

In 1975 the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, in a lecture at the University of Massachusetts, identified Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as the work of a racist. Achebe objected to a story that used Africa as a setting for ‘the break-up of one petty European mind’, and depicted Africans as nameless savages. Achebe’s lecture — a masterpiece of special pleading, false analysis and anachronism — is now established as a founding text in the post-colonial school of criticism. On reading the cover blurb for The Meursault Investigation, one might have the impression that in this debut novel, Kamel Daoud, a native of Oran, has carried out a similar assault on

We had so many books we had to hire a structural engineer to prevent us being buried

My father Anthony Hobson, whose books are to be sold at Christie’s in two sales next week, claimed that the book collector’s greatest joy was the sight of an empty shelf: a vacuum begging to be filled. Such a thing was a rare occurrence in our home, so freighted with literary matter, mainly upstairs, that the advice of a structural engineer had to be sought: were we all about to be buried beneath an avalanche of bibliographical rarities? On the landing stood the vast tomes on Renaissance book binding, my father’s lifelong study – serried dark objects stamped with words that sounded to my young self like spells: Sigismondo Boldoni,

The frog prince

It would not have surprised their friends in the 1930s when Peter Watson had a fling with my grandfather, Robert ‘the Mad Boy’ Heber-Percy. Both gorgeous young men were known for their risky sexual escapades. What did ruffle feathers, however, was when Watson subsequently gave the Mad Boy a car. Cecil Beaton was so jealous that he demanded one too. And it was forthcoming: ‘Do please select any roadster which catches your fancy,’ replied the exceedingly wealthy Watson, who inspired lifelong unrequited love in poor Beaton. The Mad Boy’s long-term partner was Lord Berners, the famously eccentric composer, painter and writer, who retaliated by pinning Watson to the page of

Dylan Thomas: speeches for Hitler, balderdash for Walton and the true meaning of Under Milk Wood

My father came across Dylan Thomas in a Swansea pub in 1947. ‘Chap over there,’ said one of the regulars ‘is a poet.’ ‘What’s his name?’ asked my father. ‘No idea.’ That Thomas’s celebrity was rather patchy, even in his hometown just a few years before his death, illustrates how much his fame owes to the fans and memorialisers who have stoked the legend ever since. His centenary falls on 27th October. He was morose, shy, florid-faced and hyper-sensitive. He described himself as having ‘the countenance of an excommunicated cherub’. His first poems, published in the 1930s, were greeted with cautious interest. Edith Sitwell championed him. So did Cyril Connolly. Sceptics

A Stone in the Shade, by Violet Powell – review

Evelyn Waugh once recalled the anguish with which he greeted Edith Sitwell’s announcement that ‘Mr Waugh, you may call me Edith.’ I experienced similar misgivings on the occasion, some years ago, that Lady Violet Powell suggested that I might like to call her ‘Violet’. It was not that Lady Violet — Violet — made the least fuss about her title (‘as unswanky a Lady as could be imagined’, Kingsley Amis once declared); merely that she was the relict of a man whose eye for the social niceties made Lady Catherine de Bourgh look like a bumbling amateur. It was as if George Orwell, knocked into at some Fitzrovian party, had

The Garden of Eros, by John Calder – review

John Calder is Britain’s most distinguished living publisher, and at the age of 86 he’s still at it. He first set up in business in 1949 and went on to publish 18 Nobel Prize winners, as well as classics and works on music. Why doesn’t he received a knighthood? Perhaps because his distinction lies chiefly in his role as champion of the avant garde. At a time when the heights of literary achievement are said to be the kitsch historical novels of Hilary Mantel, it is salutary to be reminded of a period not long ago when literature was a vital part of the contemporary world, replete with glittering transgressive