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Recent Reads: Hearing Secret Harmonies by Anthony Powell

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“People think that because a novel’s invented it isn’t true. Exactly the reverse is the case. Because a novel’s invented, it’s true. Biography and memoirs can never be wholly true since they can’t include every conceivable circumstance of what happened. The novel can do that … A novelist may inescapably create all his characters in his own image, but the reader can believe in them, without necessarily accepting their creator’s judgement on them.”

Well, after a year of reading “Dance to the Music of Time”, I finally finished the last book, “Hearing Secret Harmonies” on Boxing Day morning – and to paraphrase, what a long, crazy trip it’s been! And a hippie style phrase is not wholly inappropriate when considering Nick Jenkins’ final outing – but more of that as we go on!

The opening of a Powell is always disconcerting, but the opening of “Hearing Secret Harmonies” is so unsettling that you might be forgiven for thinking that you were in a different sequence of books altogether! Nick and Isobel are crayfishing in the country – an odd enough beginning to start with – but they are in strange company. A group of young people have stopped by for a visit, including the Jenkins’ niece Fiona, and a very strange young man called Scorpio Murtlock. A self-styled hippie cult leader, Scorp will be a recurring factor in the book. Nick and Isobel are now living in the country, in an area which is threatened by quarrying and which also is near some ancient standing stones known as the Devil’s Fingers. Is this *really* “A Dance to the Music of Time”???

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Fortunately, the familiar soon rears its head, in Nick’s reminiscences, and Fiona is of course the daughter of Susan and Roddy Cutts – so we are soon back on track. Unlike the previous volumes, which usually had three or four long chapters, HSH has several short ones, in which a lot of things happen, including:

* Widmerpool is appointed chancellor of a new university after spending much time in the USA
* the Quiggin twins attack him with paint, and then promptly become his acolytes
* our Ken goes a bit weird and becomes a hippie
* Nick visits Matilda Donners, who shows him photos of the Seven Deadly Sins tableaux from the pat
* Nick re-encounters Gwinnett while he is part of the panel for the Donners Memorial Prize – Russell has finally written a biography of X. Trapnel
* at the prize dinner, Widmerpool washes up with the Quiggin Twins, starts to make a speech and then the whole thing is disrupted by the Quiggins letting off a stink bomb
* Scorp Murtlock dips in and out of the story and eventually Widmerpool joins forces with him
* there are numerous pagan rituals going on, some quite dodgy sounding
*Fiona marries Gwinnett and turns up at the reception of another wedding being held at Stourwater
* she is quickly followed by the arrival of Widmerpool, leading a cult run in bizarre clothing, who is then removed by Murtlock

And the final chapter deals with many endings – this *is* a packed book!

So where to start? HSH is quite a difficult book to discuss and I think has had a mixed reception. Certainly, it stands apart from the others in many ways – the subject matter is really quite dark (pagan sex rituals, necrophilia, psychological control) and initially these subjects might seem a little out of keeping with others in the sequence. I can understand that HSH would polarize opinion, as when initially read it seems anachronistic, but reflecting on it a few days later, I feel that there is a consistency with Nick’s earlier experiences. There are hints of perversion (for example, with Donners) all the way through the series, mysticism and the darker underbelly of life. The strange cult in HSH has parallels with the mysticism of Trelawney and Erdleigh, only in a modern setting, and in fact Powell makes several comparisons of Scorp’s cult and Dr. Trelawney’s earlier group. Initially I was unsure about the modern aspects of the novel; I tend to feel the same way when reading latter-day Agatha Christies – contemporary elements are allowed to creep in and they can be discordant. However, reflecting on the book I think I can see what Powell was trying to do by putting his themes and characters in an updated setting. Because although the external trappings may change, human being remain the same whatever the setting, Powell’s sense of the theatrical sees life as a performance or play:

“In any case, it was impossible to disregard the fact that, while a dismantling process steadily curtains members of the cast, items of scenery, airs played by the orchestra, in the performance that has included one’s own walk-on part for more than a few decades, simultaneous derequisitionings are also observed.”  

The full-circle element of the books is very clear, with the book ending with images of a bonfire and workmen, much as it opened. If I had to be picky I would say there was perhaps a little *too* much of loose end tying up so that it began to look a little forced, as another demise was dropped into the narrative in passing. Yes, we want to find out what happens to a lot of the characters, but the constant reporting of deaths almost as asides was slightly awkward.

You will notice that I haven’t yet got to the one big subject of this book – what happens to Kenneth Widmerpool. He *has* been the dominant character throughout the series (and I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, since he was there at the very outset); and I did wonder how Powell would deal with his character after his decline during the previous book. He was always an odd character, but he’s become more and more weird as the books went on. He was always supremely prone to humiliation (from his school days, through the sugar-on-the-head incident and all the horrors of his marriage to Pamela) so in many ways his behaviour in HSH is not entirely unexpected. Ken has spent his life exerting his willpower to overcome circumstance and get what he wants – which seems ultimately to be power – but with the death of Pamela things turn against him; he embraces the new culture in a rather ridiculous way, makes an idiot of himself and loses a struggle for power with Scorp.

There is much emphasis on nudity in this (and the previous) book and I’m not altogether sure why. Certainly, there have always been hints of masochistic strangeness attaching to Widmerpool; a mother complex and a tendency for voyeurism. There is talk of the indignities which Ken has experienced at the hands of Scorp but fortunately these are not given in detail – as Powell so astutely observes:

“One’s capacity for hearing about ghastly doings lessens with age.”

I did feel at first that Powell might have stretched Ken’s character out of shape a little here, but thinking about it now I can see that the seeds for his rather sad demise had been sown quite early on in the books. I was sad to see him decline and end the way he did, but I suppose in many ways he got his just deserts, bearing in mind how badly he had behaved in the past and how many people he had damaged or destroyed.

The writing in this volume is lyrical and elegiac – giving a real sense of something momentous coming to an end, which in many ways it is, and HSH wraps things up very well!

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So, my final thoughts on the series!

It has been a real joy reading these books. It took a little while to adjust to Powell’s way of telling a story – the detachment of his narrator was unusual but understandable once I realised that Nick is the ultimate observer; and this was hardest thing to get used to (apart from style of his writing) This doesn’t rob his work of depth or poignancy, though, and following the sequence from beginning to end gave me the wonderful experience of feeling that I had lived through a large part of the 20th century. Although Nick is an observer, his character was allowed to change and his voice as an older character is different from that as a younger man, although still the same person – much as we change our views and attitudes as we age but still retain our individual personality.

Powell can be an astonishingly perceptive writer, but with Pamela Flitton he did seem to have a blind spot. He *is* very much a male writer at the end of the day, although there are plenty of women in the stories; and mostly they are well portrayed and avoid cliché, but I feel he failed with Pamela. We needed to know what motivated her, what had damaged her so, why she was so bitter and twisted; it is not enough to create a monster, we have to know the cause.

But despite this one small caveat, it has been a pleasure and a privilege to spend time with Nick Jenkins this year. I’m sure “Dance” would benefit from a second reading and I have no doubt that I will revisit this wonderful series again in the future!

Recent Reads: Books Do Furnish a Room by Anthony Powell

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Lovely first edition cover, featuring X. Trapnel's swordstick!

Lovely first edition cover, featuring X. Trapnel’s swordstick!

Well, what a fabulous title, to start with! This is the tenth book in the “Dance to the Music of Time” sequence, and I must say it is one of the ones I’ve enjoyed most.

The story starts just after the end of WW2, with Nick demobbed and trying to take up normal life again. He revisits his old university to do some research on the writer Robert Burton, and encounters an old friend in the form of Sillery, as well as meeting Ada Leintwardine, who will have quite a major part in this volume. Ada is notionally acting as Sillery’s secretary as he prepares to publish his diaries, although she has literary pretensions herself. In fact, much of the book focuses on literature and publishing, as we are treated to the reappearance of one of my favourite characters, Quiggin. He has set up a new publishing firm with Howard Craggs, naturally enough called Quiggin and Craggs. The firm is also starting up a literary magazine, with which Nick becomes involved, very topically entitled “Fission”. Also involved is Ada, plus behind the scenes the firm is being bankrolled by Rosie Manasch and Widmerpool. Add into the mix the fact that Lady Craggs is the former Gypsy Jones, and you have a recipe for quite a publishing operation with a lot of personal axes to grind!

There is sadness too, as Nick’s brother-in-law Erridge dies suddenly, and there is a spectacularly awkward funeral where the Widmerpools, Quiggin and the Craggs’ appear noisily. Erridge had been going to fund “Fission”, and so the group feel obliged to attend, but Pamela Widmerpool (née Flitton) is in her usual contentious form, and ends up being sick in a rare vase back at the house – which leads to a comic scene of Nick and co trying to clean the vase without breaking it.

I think one of the reasons I liked this book so much was because of the appearance of a new character, the wonderfully-named novelist X. Trapnel (apparently based on writer Julian MacLaren-Ross). If I recall correctly, Trapnel has been mentioned before, though this is his debut proper. Trappy, as he is known, is a fabulous, larger-than-life figure whose antics dominate much of the book, and he has a rather dramatic effect on the lives of several characters! He’s got strong opinions and is happy to have a go at anyone, in particular hapless book reviewers:

“How everyone envies the rich quality of a reviewer’s life. All the things to which those Fleet Street Jesuses feel superior. Their universal knowledge, exquisite taste, idyllic loves, happy married life, optimism, scholarship, knowledge of the true meaning of life, freedom from sexual temptation, simplicity of heart, sympathy with the masses, compassion for the unfortunate, generosity – particularly the last, in welcoming with open arms every phoney who appears on the horizon. It’s not surprising that in the eyes of most reviewers a mere writer’s experiences seem so often trivial, sordid, lacking in meaning.”

The biggest effect he has is on that unlikely couple, Kenneth and Pamela Widmerpool. To be honest, you have to ask yourself what motivated either of them to marry the other in the first place; however, putting that aside for a moment, Pamela the predatory female is once again on the hunt, and this time not only does she captivate Trappy but she also leaves Widmerpool for him! This is mildly surprising, as she hasn’t left him yet despite having a succession of relationships, and swapping comfort for the squalor he lives in doesn’t seem quite her line. However, she doesn’t stay with him for that long before stomping back to Kenneth – but not before taking out her anger on poor Trappy’s work….

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Unsurprisingly, the “Fission” journal collapses, and there is fall-out amongst the personnel. The book ends with Nick returning to his old school, scene of his first encounter with Widmerpool all those years (and books!) ago, to enrol his son. Here he runs into Le Bas, his old housemaster, now old and acting as librarian. Despite the passage of time and the loss of many of Nick’s friends and contacts during the war, some things are unchanging.

And the title? Not as you might expect a hostess describing a lovely residence, or indeed Trappy talking about some grubby lodgings! This is actually the nickname given to Bagshaw, an old acquaintance of Nick’s who is to be editor of “Fission”; the nickname being given in one of two rather scurrilous scenarios!

“Bagshaw was for ever fascinated by revolutionary techniques, always prepared to explain everybody’s standpoint, who was a party-member, fellow-traveller, crypto, trotskyist, anarchist, anarcho-syndicalist, every refinement of marxist theory, every subtle distinction within groups. The ebb and flow of subversive forces wafted the breath of life to him, even if he no longer believed in the beneficial qualities of that tide.”

I’m actually starting to find it hard to review these books, because I’m running out of superlatives! Certainly, this is one of my favourites in the sequence so far (if not *the* favourite – I can’t say till I’ve read them all). I found the portrait of literary life in the late 1940s fascinating and entertaining, and the escapades of Pamela and Trappy were a hoot. The book captures brilliantly the post-war atmosphere of insecurity and austerity. The humour is lovely – Pamela’s behaviour shocking and funny at the same time.

X. Trapnel is wonderfully portrayed, a person always acting a part, driven by conflicting forces and desires:

“Trapnel wanted, among other things, to be a writer, a dandy, a lover, a comrade, an eccentric, a sage, a virtuoso, a good chap, a man of honour, a hard case, a spendthrift, an opportunist, a raisonneur; to be very rich, to be very poor, to possess a thousand mistresses, to win the heart of one love to whom he was ever faithful, to be on the best of terms with all men, to avenge savagely the lightest affront, to live to a hundred full of years and honour, to die young and unknown but recognized the following day as the most neglected genius of the age.”

I did wonder whether Powell was putting his own thoughts about writing into Trapnel’s mouth, as he goes on to express doubts about realism vs artistry in novels:

“There are certain forms of human behaviour no actor can really play, no matter how good he is. It’s the same in life. Human beings aren’t subtle enough to play their part. That’s where art comes in.”

On the subject of the dreaded Pamela comes my one reservation about the book. I haven’t really had an issue with Powell’s portrayal of women up to this point in the sequence, accepting that he is perhaps a little old-fashioned but not finding anything too objectionable. However, Pamela is portrayed as a real Praying Mantis – an angry man-eater who plays with the opposite sex; they fall at her feet left, right and centre and yet she is mostly indifferent. But at the end of the story, after she has ditched Trappy, he reveals the root of her problem, in quite crude terms – she is frigid, and the constant partner-changing is presumably being portrayed as a search for satisfaction (though I would be more likely to suspect the cause as being insensitivity on the part of some of the men she associates with). I confess I found this somewhat clichéd, even allowing for the stereotypes about women and sexuality which might have circulated in the past. And frankly, I think the deep psychological issues she has (displayed in her violence towards Odo Stevens when she descends to physical aggression) can’t just be explained away by the fact that sex is failing her. She’s a lively and fascinating character and I found this attitude let me down a little.

However, putting this one item aside, “Books…” was a fabulous read. The mysterious and often dramatic marriage of the Widmerpools; the vicissitudes of “Fission”; the eccentricities of Trappy; all this and much, much more made the book a real unputdownable. Roll on the next Powell!

Recent Reads: The Military Philosophers by Anthony Powell

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Yes, I’m still a month behind with my Powell reads, but I have just managed to squeeze book 9 in before the end of October so that I don’t get even further in arrears! The Military Philosophers is the third in the ‘war trilogy’ and contains a lot of events, emotions, changes and losses.

As we start the book, Nick is now working in military liaison, looking after a varied bunch of foreign attaches and dealing with the pettiness and politics of military life.He is based in London, looking after the Polish contingent, working under Pennistone and Finn. Needless to say, he crosses paths with the dreaded Widmerpool, as well as a number of old acquaintances such as Sunny Farebrother and Templer. He also encounters old haunts, and in a chilling reminder of how things are changed goes off on a visit to the Polish HQ in London, which turns out to be Uncle Giles’ erstwhile home, the Ufford Hotel.

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We are memorably introduced to Stringham’s niece, the notorious Pamela Flitton, who is working as a driver for the army; she reveals that Stringham was captured when Singapore fell. The war rumbles on, Nick is promoted to supervising Belgians and Czechs, and then during an air raid he runs into Pamela and her current man, who turns out to be Odo Stevens. Her temperament is rather violently displayed here as they row dramatically. Also present is Mrs. Erdleigh who is in full soothsaying mood.

Then Nick finally makes major and is assigned to accompany a group of assorted foreign attaches round Normandy and Belgium, through war zones, devastation and some very moving Proustian scenery. The book ends with peace at last arriving and a thanksgiving service at St. Paul’s Cathedral. The war is over and Nick, like so many others, has to return to civilian life.

Reading TMP is something of an emotional rollercoaster, as we follow the ups and downs of the ending of the war and the corresponding ups and downs of the various characters. Indeed, in the war trilogy Powell paints a brilliant and moving picture of wartime Britain and the effects of the long conflict on people and places. There are so many losses, so many lives turned inside out, and this is really brought home in these books. His somewhat laconic style doesn’t hide up the pain and hurt which is going on around him and I think I’ve come to realises that the books are just not really about Nick, but those around him – he is simply the carrier, the method of telling the tale, so we should not expect any inner monologues about his emotions. Nevertheless, we do come to care about him, despite Powell’s refusal to allow us to get too close!

It’s going to be difficult to write in-depth about this book without giving too much away, but let’s get on with specifics. Once again, there are some really wonderful characterisations in TMP, and my favourite has to be the ultimate civil servant, Blackhead, whose convoluted paperwork and refusal to allow anyone to have anything has to be unrivalled:

“The stairs above the second floor led up into a rookery of lesser activities, some fairly obscure of definition. On these higher storeys dwelt the Civil branches and their subsidiaries, Finance, Internal Administration, Passive Air Defence, all diminishing in official prestige as the altitude steepened. Finally the explorer converged on attics under the eaves, where crusty hermits lunched frugally from paper bags, amongst crumb-powdered files and documents ineradicably tattooed with the circular brand of the teacup. At these heights, vestiges of hastily snatched meals endured throughout all seasons, eternal as the unmelted upland snows. Here, under the leads, like some unjustly confined prisoner in the Council of Ten, lived Blackhead. It was a part of the building rarely penetrated, for even Blackhead himself preferred on the whole to make forays on others, rather than that his own fastness should be invaded.”

Pennistone warns Nick: ‘Until you have dealings with Blackhead, the word “bureaucrat” will have conveyed no meaning to you. He is the super-tchenovnik of the classical Russian novel. Even this building can boast no on else quite like him.’ And later:  ‘Blackhead is a man apart,’ said Pennistone. ‘Even his colleagues are aware of that. His minutes have the abstract quality of pure intention.’

Powell captures him beautifully, as always – he really is a master at nailing character with words! And his writing is just exquisite – for example, this wonderful description of Donners:

“In the seven years or so that had passed since I had last seen him, Sir Magnus Donners had grown not so much older in appearances, as less like a human being. He now resembled an animated tailor’s dummy, one designed to recommend second-hand, though immensely discreet, clothes (if the suit he was wearing could be regarded as a sample) adapted to the taste of distinguished men no longer young. Jerky movements, like those of a marionette – perhaps indicating all was not absolutely well with his physical system – added to the impression of an outsize puppet that had somehow escaped from its box and begun to mix with real people, who were momentarily taken in by the extraordinary conviction of its mechanism.”

So many of our old favourites reappear, with in many cases a certain amount of poignancy, and of course the dreadful Kenneth has a prominent part in the events that take place in the book. Widmerpool’s behaviour and quest for power attains monstrous proportions in TMP; but then he is a completely self-serving egotist, so it is no surprise when he hooks up with Pamela Flitton who seems to be driven by nothing but anger and her own desires. And Widmerpool has been a man driven from the opening pages of the first book, our first encounter with the man where his personality was already on display, and here his nature is fully displayed. His actions, if what is alleged about him is true, are shocking and appalling. Truly, he and Pamela deserve each other.

Presumably the dreadful Kenneth!

Presumably the dreadful Kenneth!

It’s fascinating seeing Nick moving in the higher echelons of power, and his description of a visit to a secure meeting in a bunker-style room is very telling:

“In this brightly lit dungeon lurked a sense that no one could spare a word, not a syllable, far less gesture, not of direct value in implementing the matter in hand The power principle could almost be felt here, humming and vibrating like the drumming of the teleprinter. The sensation that resulted was oppressive, even a shade alarming.”

The military attaches, with their various temperaments and peculiarities, are an engaging bunch and the interplay between them is a joy. And then there is a very unexpected reunion at the end…

Saying much more will risk spoilers so I won’t; all I *will* say is that the more I read of Powell, the more convinced I become of his mastery as a writer – the blurb on the back of my edition calling the sequence “the greatest modern novel since Ulysses” and “one of English fiction’s few twentieth century masterpieces” doesn’t exaggerate!

Recent Reads: The Kindly Ones by Anthony Powell

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Well, I’m relieved to say that I *did* manage to get my June Powell read before the end of the month, although the review is a little late – life getting in the way of blogging again! However, this was a thoroughly enjoyable, entertaining and involving read so though late, very welcome!

First edition

First edition

“The Kindly Ones” is about the coming of War, and Powell wrong-foots us instantly by whisking us back to a time before the first book in the series “A Question of Upbringing”, to his life as a boy, living in a country house called Stonehurst. Once we’ve re-adjusted to the new setting (getting into a Powell book is never entirely straightforward!), we meet a whole new set of characters from Nick’s childhood – his parents, nurse and various very entertaining servants including the soldier Bracey, cook Albert and maid Billson. This eternal triangle provides one of the funniest sections of the series so far, when poor Billson has a nervous breakdown and appears naked at dinner. General Conyers, making an appearance in younger form, rescues the situation admirably but things are destined to change as on the same day news reaches Stonehurst of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the First World War is signalled. The title, incidentally, refers to a nickname given to The Furies, presumably in attempt to placate them!

“One of the worst things about life is not how nasty the nasty people are. You know that already. It is how nasty the nice people can be.”

During this first chapter, we meet the rather wonderful religious quack Dr. Trelawney and his followers, and he will recur throughout the book. The second chapter jumps forward to 1938 where we meet once again Moreland and his wife Matilda, now living in the country near Stourwater, Sir Magnus Donners’ country place. Nick goes for a visit to the Morelands and they are taken off for dinner at Stourwater, bizarrely being chauffeured by Templer. The night at Donner’s mansion is also bizarre, ending up with the somewhat risque-sounding Seven Deadly Sins tableaux. Bearing in mind the constant hints about Donner’s dodgy private life I guess we should not be surprised, but this is all too much for Templer’s highly strung second wife who also has a bit of a nervous breakdown – nerves being something of a recurring theme here.

We then move on to 1939 and one of the main regular characters in the sequence so far, Uncle Giles, makes his final bow. Although Nick claims not to have been close to his uncle, Giles turned up on a regular basis, and it is rather sad to see him go. Poor Nick has to travel off to the seaside, where his departed relative has been staying in a seedy hotel coincidentally run by Albert, the ex-cook. Here he re-encounters Dr. Trelawney and Mrs. Erdleigh – the constant, wonderful, unexpected juxtapositions of characters are just fabulous! Nick also runs into Bob Duport, who was married to his first love Jean Templar, and there are a number of painful and surprising revelations.

“One passes through the world knowing few, if any, of the important things about even the people with whom one has been from time to time in the closest intimacy.”

By the final chapter war has arrived, although it has not yet brought chaos, more a strange kind of calm. Nick is knocking about a somewhat deserted London, trying to gain access to the army as an officer, and tries to enlist Widmerpool’s help (to no avail). Our Kenneth has become even more insufferable and pompous – he was obviously made for army life and is really becoming more and more unbearable as the books go on! But we are soon steered back to familiar territory, at Lady Molly’s, where a number of characters reappear, there are more revelations and Ted Jeavons’ brother proves to be of great help to Nick.

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This volume in the “Dance” series really shows an author who has complete mastery of his material. The strand and complexities of everyday life are reflected here, with some characters making just cameo appearances (Quiggin and co), while others dominate the story. I was really pleased to see something of Nick’s childhood and family, and some of the sequences in this chapter were a hoot – particularly the appearances of Dr. Trelawney (as well as his later manifestations in the novel!)

This is a very atmospheric book – almost elegiac in places – as Jenkins and his circle face up to the forthcoming fighting. The two pre-war periods are contrasted in the early and later parts of the story, and I found it very surprising that Nick was so keen to enlist. Having seen the aftermath of WW1 it might be thought that he would be keen to avoid military action, particularly with Isobel expecting a baby, but not so. Powell is fair enough to acknowledge that there is an opposing view, allowing a memorable appearance by Gypsy Jones, campaigning against mobilisation; but his terminology when describing the protestors makes it clear where his loyalties lie.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a “Dance” novel without Widmerpool. And it’s fascinating to note how as the series develops the reader is able to look back over the characters, whom Powell has portrayed so consistently, and see how early characteristics (such as Widmerpool’s driven nature) develop as humans come to maturity. Kenneth is obviously a man who will flourish during the conflict. We see much of Moreland and Matilda, and also the wonderful Erridge!

“Erridge, a rebel whose life had been exasperatingly lacking in persecution, had enjoyed independent of parental control, plenty of money, assured social position, early in life. Since leaving school he had been deprived of all the typical grudges within the grasp of most young men. Some of these grudges, it was true, he had later developed with fair success by artificial means, grudges being, in a measure, part and parcel of his political approach.”

Powell is as always concerned with chance and destiny and the Dance. It is an apparently random meeting with Jeavons’ brother which will enable Nick to finally get into the army. Powell’s feeling is that there is an external fate which always takes a hand in life; and I often feel these books should be subtitled “the-seemingly-random-but-actually-not-random-at-all memoirs of Nick Jenkins”! This volume was one of the most moving and entertaining of the series so far, peopled with wonderful characters and marvellous writing – I can’t wait for the next, although I fear there may be sadness ahead…

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