Julian Flanagan logo

Edward Upward, The Independent On Sunday

“I wrote to Auden and said I thought his genius was second-class work. He never forgave me.”

Edward Upward will be 100 in September. He’s had a busy century. In his spare time he’s written four novels, five collections of short stories and 77 volumes of his diaries, built and broken friendships with W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender and formed an intense, lifelong bond with Christopher Isherwood. His day job was teaching, including 30 years as a housemaster and Head of English at Alleyn’s School, Dulwich. A wide-ranging collection of his stories, A Renegade In Springtime, appeared in May.

Visit Upward, and the journey grows gentler as you approach. After the speedy thumping of a hydrofoil across the Solent, everything slows. A grumbling, two-carriage train waits by Ryde dock. It carries you over a spindly Victorian pier, then through tidy stations and untidy fields to Sandown. Upward has lived here, in his grandparents’ Regency house, since he retired 40 years ago.

The view from Upward’s doorstep is of misty, Isle of Wight downs. His daughter-in-law Janet opens the door. He waits a few feet behind, sandy-haired and smiling, hands neatly by his sides and dwarfed by the high hallway. A tweed jacket hangs off him; his eyes shine in big square glasses.

Chatty and scrupulously polite, he leads me in. He shoves open a French window to the show the ivy-walled garden and conservatory then offers tea in a soft, patient voice. We settle in the study with its bulging bookcases.

The gentleness is deceptive. He remains an unreconstructed Marxist, albeit one who could charm for the revolution. The Prime Minister is “Toady Blair” and his relationship with Bush receives utter contempt. “I abominate the capitalist system,” he says, hands together as if praying, “In my mind we are entering a period like when the Roman Empire began to break up, a real mess.” He sighs. “But on the whole I don’t believe the human race is going to destroy itself. Come jolly near.”

Talk of Christopher Isherwood makes him happier. In Isherwood’s autobiographical novel Lions And Shadows, Upward is Chalmers, “a natural anarchist, a born romantic revolutionary”. They met at Repton School, where it was Upward who got the beatings and Isherwood who could play the system. Their friendship deepened at Corpus Christi, Cambridge. (Oxford receives his jovial scorn: “They were much more sort of `literary’. People like Evelyn Waugh.”) Upward and Isherwood became a clique of two: they started writing diaries on the same day, revered the same authors and together wrote the surreal, satirical Mortmere stories, creating bizarre, quarrelling characters like the Reverend Casmir Welken and Gaspard Farfox.

The relationship was platonic, but Upward is heterosexual. Isherwood’s inclinations weren’t so clear: “He certainly had a brief affair with a woman. And enjoyed it. Elsewhere he said `If there hadn’t been boys, I would have had to invent them’.” They corresponded until Isherwood’s death, each the other’s most respected critic.

Upward’s most demanding critic is himself. At Cambridge he won the Chancellor’s Medal for English Verse but abandoned the form because “I could never write a poem that would satisfy me.” He destroyed his copies of The Mortmere Stories for not being good enough and left the Communist Party because it was not Marxist enough. His writing has been hamstrung by perfectionism and writer’s block so severe it led to a breakdown in his late thirties.

Through Isherwood, he met Auden, who at their first meeting, “held forth about people afraid to sit on lavatory seats. I was one of those. The reason was, at Repton the seats weren’t proper water- closet ones; they were rough, rough seats. Someone noticed they used the boys’ manure on the grounds.”

Auden was younger and sent Upward his poems for comment. They grew close. After university they both taught at prep schools and swapped jape-filled visits. Once, as Upward strolled to meet Auden, the future Oxford Professor of Poetry hid up a tree, calling out like the voice of God as his friend passed below “Mr Upwaaard! Mr Upwaaard!”

So why their rift in the Thirties? “Because he’d begun running down poetry itself. `Not a single Jew is saved from the ovens by a poet.’ It wasn’t only that. Any kind of personal emotions he seemed to think should be sat on. When Auden and Christopher decided they’d get out of it and stop being anti-fascist, I wrote to Auden and said I thought his genius was second-class work.” Upward chuckles at himself. “And he never forgave me. But Christopher said `It’s all just like Mortmere really.’”

Isherwood and Auden left for America in early 1939. Did Upward think they were running away from the coming war? “Well, it hadn’t been long before that people like Beaverbrook were saying there wasn’t going to be a war. And so that partly excused them. In the end I said: `Well, I’ve said some stupid things in my life and I’m going to write to Auden again.’ But it so happened he died before I could. And I’ve still got the letter somewhere that I wrote. I was very much upset by his death.”

Isherwood’s death hurt less. The letters from America had stopped and “I’d realised already that Christopher must be dead. He wouldn’t have left me. The trouble with getting older and older is you know fewer and fewer people.” Upward doesn’t think there will be an afterlife to see Isherwood in, or his cherished wife Hilda, who died eight years ago. “Although I would never dream of belittling anyone lucky enough to believe in one.”

With retirement, writing came easier. He started a trilogy, The Spiral Ascent, and offered the first novel to Leonard Woolf at Hogarth. “He said: `There’s too much communism in it. If you drop that, you’re there.’ My answer was that for me, my work must be in trying to write well. And secondly, what matters most is the state of the world, humanity.” It was Woolf’s loss. Published between 1962 and 1977 the trilogy met with much critical acclaim.

After an hour of talking, the phone rings in another room. Janet answers it but Upward becomes preoccupied, wondering who has called. It’s time to go and he leads me out. Then I remember the copy of The Mortmere Stories in my bag and ask if he’ll sign it. Delighted, he takes me into the sitting room. The Morning Star lies on the television. He likes to watch England games, having played football for Corpus Christi. Upward finds a pen and bows over the book, writing slowly, taking care with the words.

3 August 2003

Powered by Netfirms