Books: From the Land of Shadows : Richard Ingrams at Doubting Castle |
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Richard Ingrams at Doubting Castle

God’s Apology: A Chronicle of Three Friends by Richard Ingrams (Deutsch, London)

It seemed an unpromising enough idea for a book. Richard Ingrams, inky editor of Private Eye, writes about the friendship between three literary journeymen — Hugh Kingsmill, Hesketh Pearson and Malcolm Muggeridge — and in defining their values defines his own. Such as they are. Having been keelhauled by Ingrams when he reviewed one of my own books, I confess that when I accepted the commission (all right: begged for the opportunity) to review his latest volume my heart was not entirely free of the desire to take revenge. It is with mixed feelings, then, that I find God’s Apology a substantial and interesting piece of work.

Hugh Kingsmill was an adept at spotting the gap between a writer’s real-life personality and the personality which that same writer projected on to the paper. He thought that no writer could successfully put into words more virtue than he practised. Bad character would reveal itself as pretentious writing. This basic critical precept was the main thing which Kingsmill passed on to Hesketh Pearson. They both passed it on to Malcolm Muggeridge. Muggeridge passed it on to Richard Ingrams. An apostolic succession of antipseuds.

Ingrams succeeds Michael Holroyd in helping to complete the process of enrolling Hugh Kingsmill among the most celebrated of neglected modern writers. Holroyd’s anthology — and earlier biography — had already demonstrated that Kingsmill’s talents lay towards the aphoristic. After respectfully absorbing Holroyd’s anthology, you could see no reason for turning to the books from which it was culled. After respectfully absorbing God’s Apology, you will see no reason for turning to Holroyd’s anthology. Ingrams has appended a brief section entitled ‘Sayings of Hugh Kingsmill’. These, coupled to the portrait of their author provided in the body of the book, give you the essence of the man. He was clearly a penetrating moralist. The best of his aphorisms have La Rochefoucauld’s realism tempered by La Bruyère’s humanity. Some of them even have Santayana’s or Lichtenberg’s philosophical depth. The aphorism is a revealing form, to the point that anyone who cultivates it deliberately is almost certain to be no good at it. Kingsmill was good at it.

Suicide: The coward’s way in. Spiritualism: Spiritualism is the mysticism of the materialist. Talent and Genius: A man of talent thinks more highly of himself when he has a success, a man of genius thinks more highly of the world. Shyness: Shyness is egotism out of its depth. Fanaticism: Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.

The last example is from Santayana. I don’t see that Kingsmill’s efforts are shown up by it, except perhaps for the one about shyness, which has a tinge of Wildean mascara. (Most of the shy people I know suffer from the opposite of egotism.) Kingsmill’s place in the short list of valuable aphorists can from now on be regarded as secure. Success, of course, has come late. Ingrams argues forcefully that Kingsmill was a man out of his time. In Britain during the 1930s a literary journalist had to be seen to care about public affairs and politics. Kingsmill, who was indifferent to them, disqualified himself from being in demand even as a hack. Compiling pot-boiling anthologies, spending the derisory advances for books he never got around to writing, he lived the classic pawned existence of the unworldly literatus. His was the Grub Street of George Gissing, writ even smaller. Like Edward Thomas he wore himself out producing books that were successful only in the completeness of their failure to do him justice.

But Ingrams overstates his case by linking Kingsmill’s frustration solely to his lack of sympathy with the spirit of the age. There are Kingsmills in every age. On Ingrams’s own evidence, Kingsmill was a recognisable literary type. Grub Street can always boast a quota of hacks ready to erect their own fecklessness into a moral code. Obviously Kingsmill was better than that, but Ingrams might have argued harder to prove it. It is clear that Kingsmill was genuinely unworldly, genuinely hated the will to power, genuinely distrusted success. But he was capable of lapses from his own standards.

Ingrams introduces such lapses as if they were lovable touches of character. Possibly so, but the reader can’t help wondering what Private Eye’sunforgiving editor might have made of them if his purpose had been demolition instead of hagiography. Kingsmill envied the more successful Pearson and quarrelled with him because of it. After half a lifetime of poking fun at Bernard Shaw’s materialism Kingsmill was not above touching the despised sage for ten quid. Even in the Australian school of literary morals, we weren’t allowed to slag a man and put the bite on him simultaneously: it had to be one or the other.

But on the whole Kingsmill was true to himself. His failings were only human, even though he might have found those same failings ruinous in his enemies, and in his enemies Ingrams would be certain to. Kingsmill was against Dawnism — he distrusted any political movement which offered happiness to all mankind. It is easy to say now that he was right. At the time there were still intelligent idealists who needed convincing. Hesketh Pearson was one of them. Kingsmill helped relieve Pearson of his illusions about millenarian prophets such as Bernard Shaw. (It was at a later time, and in even more straitened circumstances, that Kingsmill helped relieve Bernard Shaw of ten pounds.)

The friendship between Kingsmill and Pearson was close, surpassing the love of women. (Again one can only speculate about the tone Ingrams might have taken if his intentions had been hostile: Lord Gnome’s clean-living organ has traditionally given poovery short shrift.) Kingsmill idealised his women and usually had a thin time. Pearson, a handsome charmer, suffered from abundance. For nine years he was torn between wife and mistress. For nine years the mistress begged him to ask for a divorce but he couldn’t bring himself to hurt his wife. He chose the moment after their son had been killed in the Spanish Civil War to ask his devastated spouse if she would let him go. She let him go. The mistress told him it was too late. The wife agreed to take him back. The best you can say about the hero of such a story is that even if his instincts were right, his timing was off.

Ingrams says that Pearson never forgave himself. What Ingrams doesn’t say is whether or not we should examine Pearson’s writings in the light of his behaviour. All we are told is that Pearson’s unfortunate experience gave him special insight into Hazlitt. Granted, but one would have thought that the main thing raising the author of Liber Amoris above the Hesketh Pearsons of this world is the ability to keep failure in mind as well as take it to heart. There is no comment left to make on Hazlitt’s foolishness. He said everything himself. It helped him to become wise. In doubting himself, he understood the world.

As transmitted to us in this book, Kingsmill and Pearson doubt the world. Neither is shown to be very good at understanding himself. Actually Kingsmill’s aphoristic subtlety suggests a greater degree of self-knowledge than Ingrams allows him. Hampered by parochialism, Ingrams is plainly unaware that in every language and epoch even the most gifted poets have always idealised the object of their love, not because they see less than other men but because they see more. The secret of Kingsmill’s critical power lies as much in his receptivity as in his nose for pretension. In this respect Ingrams sells Kingsmill short. But perhaps that was inevitable, since Ingrams is so eager to stress the embattled stance these men adopted against the follies of the age, a posture made familiar to the present generation by the youngest and now only living member of the trio, Malcolm Muggeridge.

Ingrams hasn’t much to say about Muggeridge, which is lucky, because as an exemplar of selfless utterance Muggeridge can scarcely bear much examination. He fits neatly enough into the line of homespun philosophers, leading from Kingsmill down to Ingrams, who are not gulled by popular enthusiasms. But he does plenty of gulling on his own account. If you accept Kingsmill’s distinction between the charlatan and the thinker (‘A charlatan makes obscure what is clear, a thinker makes clear what is obscure’), then Muggeridge is a charlatan. He has never raised an issue without leaving it more clouded than it was before. Far from being stimulating even when wrong, he is misleading even when right. His intransigence is really a way of indulging himself.

But all Ingrams allows himself to see is the intransigence. And indeed there is something attractive about the picture he paints of a tiny band of brothers defying the spirit of the age. At its best, this book is an engaging celebration of independent men — sceptics who defended intelligence with humour. But there was something cosy about the way they applied their test of sincerity — which is, though always a necessary, never a sufficient measure of value. It left them scornful of almost everything except each other. Private Eye radiates the same cosiness. Contemptuous of the will to power, it misuses its own power without a qualm. The division is in its editor’s nature: like his three heroes, he is a reactionary, in the sense that he is sure only of what he is against. He and the Eye crew forgive nothing to anyone else and everything to themselves. So it is that Ingrams is able on the one hand to write a book as sensitive as this, and on the other to let one of Private Eye’s anonymous gossip columnists fulfil a lifetime’s ambition, which is to tell dirty stories about the people he envies, and send their children crying home from school.

New Statesman, 1977