Scottsman Article on "A Renegade in Springtime"

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Upward and Onward

Andrew Biswell 

Tuesday July 15, 2003
The Scotsman


This year we have been celebrating the hundredth anniversaries of the births of George Orwell (who died in 1950) and Cyril Connolly (who died in 1974). But there is another novelist of the same vintage who is still very much alive and writing as well as he ever did in his 100th year. Edward Upward, who was born on 9 September 1903, has just published a new collection of short stories, A Renegade in Springtime, and there is every sign that fresh pages will be emerging from his word-processor for a few years to come.

Upward originally found fame as one of the so-called "Auden Generation" of the 1930s, when he was part of the loose group of Leftist poets and novelists which included WH Auden, Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, Cecil Day-Lewis and Christopher Isherwood. He appears, thinly disguised, in Isherwood's novel Lions and Shadows as the character "Chalmers", who "knew all about opium, absinthe, Lesbos and the metamorphoses of the vampire". As well as being the last survivor from this generation of writers, Upward was the only one among them who retained his Communist convictions after 1945 - I suspect the reason why some critics have been hostile towards his work. Yet he has also had sympathetic followers, such as Anthony Burgess, who wrote that Upward was "part of that big revolutionary optimism of the Thirties, a fable, a myth". Rod Mengham of Jesus College, Cambridge, the author of a new book about Upward, says: "His work has never ceased to be prescient and revisionary in ways that are startlingly fresh".

Upward began his literary career in 1924 when he was a history student at Cambridge, where he collaborated with Isherwood on a surreal and comic fantasy narrative called Mortmere. Between them, the two writers invented a grotesque, nightmarish vision of an English village where the rector was a closet Satanist, human blood fell from the skies, monsters lurked in haunted towers and there were sudden outbreaks of coprophagia. The Mortmere stories, which circulated for many years in manuscript form - since they were considered unpublishable - drew the attention of the poet Auden, who dedicated a long poem to Upward in 1930. Virginia Woolf later became his editor at the Hogarth Press, and she published his first novel, Journey to the Border, in 1938.

As I take the train to Sandown on the Isle of Wight to meet Upward, I am nervously aware that he has a particular interest in railway disasters, which he has written about in stories such as The Railway Accident (1928) and The Coming Day (2000). There is a reason for this apparently morbid preoccupation with train crashes, and it is related to his Marxist political views: the speeding train coming off the rails is a metaphor in his fiction for the destruction of capitalist society.

When I arrive at Upward's large Victorian house, I am surprised when the front door is opened by a man who appears to be not much older than 60. He has a good head of hair, perfect hearing and no need of a walking stick. He is short, neatly dressed, bespectacled, alert and gently amused by the prospect of being interviewed. "On my last birthday they published my photograph in the Times," he says. "The Times! I can't imagine why." After years of being ignored by the literary establishment, he is secretly enjoying the attention that age has finally brought him.

We sit down in his large study, which is dominated by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. He is happy to reminisce about his famous literary friends, especially Auden and Isherwood. "Auden talked with scorn of people who were afraid to sit down on lavatory seats for fear of getting gonorrhoea," he reveals, rather unexpectedly, "and I wondered whether Isherwood had told him that I didn't sit on them. I've always crouched." He speaks with great enthusiasm about the indecent Mortmere stories that he wrote back in the 1920s: "I'm afraid I destroyed most of those. I remember one in which some green stuff blocking the urinals suddenly enlarges itself and becomes a Leviathan. Then the hero discovers he's got some awful disease." He is beaming as he says this, and it is easy to imagine him as the young author of 80 years ago. But he is keen to tell me about his current projects, too: "What I'm writing now is the diary of a nonagenarian, and my problem here is how true it is to be, or not. I don't want to upset people unduly."

He has never found writing easy, and he endured a 20-year-long creative block which he finally cured in 1962 with the help of a Jungian psychoanalyst. There has been deep sadness in Upward's long life, particularly with the recent deaths of his wife, Hilda, and his brother, who lived in the house next door. Yet the stories he has written in his nineties point to a rediscovery of sexual love after bereavement.

Although he no longer calls himself a Communist, Upward remains a supporter of CND. He is angry about social injustice, political sleaze, the Blairite betrayal of the old left and "the world with its multiplying wars and racist exterminations and its poisoning of the air and seas". As for writing, he insists that his best work is the autobiographical trilogy The Spiral Ascent, published between 1962 and 1977, in which he documented his involvement with revolutionary politics and the creative arts. "I'm hoping that one day someone will decide to republish it. I've said that I'd like the title changed. I think it's too much like a pun on my name. I'm going to call it No Home But the Struggle."

The symmetry of Upward's writing career only becomes apparent if we compare the stories of the 1920s with the work he has published in his eighties and nineties. As he approaches the end of life, he has returned to the phantasmagoric political fables with which he began, but the recent fiction is more deeply charged with the pain of loss and long experience.

When I ask him if he follows the work of younger writers, he speaks of his admiration for JM Coetzee ("rather decent"), Bernice Rubens, Jonathan Coe ( "a brilliant writer") and Martin Amis ("reasonably good"). Of his own 1930s generation he says, regretfully, that "those who have been neglected are largely the women, the women poets anyway".

Does Upward ever feel gloomy that he is the last of his contemporaries who is still with us? "I remember saying before they'd all gone,  I have an awful feeling that I might outlive you all'. I don't know why I felt that. By rights I shouldn't be here. But I still am."

Edward Upward's A Renegade in Springtime is published by Enitharmon, 15.