Saturday, 20 August 2011
Never Yawn in Profile
Dear Popsy: Collected Postcards of a Private Schoolboy to His Father, E. Bishop-Potter
This book is a little like a cross between the Captain Grimes chapters of Decline and Fall and a manual of sexual pathology, with Saki’s Clovis Sangrail as fairy godmother. It might even have suggested by a passage in Decline and Fall in which a boy in his early teens sits up well past his mother’s lover’s bedtime:
Downstairs Peter Beste-Chetwynde mixed himself another brandy and soda and turned a page in Havelock Ellis, which, next to Wind in the Willows, was his favourite book. (pt 2, ch. III, “Pervigilium Veneris”)
Waugh is not reporting that maternal neglect with approval, but Basil, the protagonist of Dear Popsy, might well have thrived on it, mutatis mutandis. He’d prefer chartreuse to B&S and Firbank to Havelock Ellis, being catamitic rather than heterosexual. Not that he would ever confess so crudely to his status: his postcards flirt and tease, hinting at what’s going on rather than ripping the lid orf. Firbank is definitely another influence: one can recognize his technique in the way the postcards build up a series of private jokes, make glancing reference to some naughtiness, glide away, glide back:
P.S. Yesterday Bletchworth killed a stray cat with his bullwhip! That boy!
Bletchworth will be in
Harley Street on Thursday to see a specialist. Can you put him up for the night? I have told him that you will. Be sure to keep the cats away from him.
This evening the Brides collected Mrs Durham from the nursing home, then went to the Last Faerie for a coming out party. Bletchworth was there in his leather and looked quite crocodilean. How he creaked! Mrs D gave a little whimper when she saw him.
In a more densely written book it would sometimes be difficult to know what was going on, but here every message could literally fit on the back of a postcard. Some would need smaller writing than others, that’s all: Basil is charming but selfish, self-centred, and pleasure-loving, and doesn’t want to waste time writing letters to his father. He doesn’t want to write anything at all to his mother, but she’s an important part of the highly improbable plot, losing a leg to gangrene after a failed operation for varicose veins. She is given an artificial leg by a “Dr Oosterthing” and adds another exhibit to Dear Popsy’s catalog of paraphilias. She has come to “loathe” Basil’s father, blaming him for her son’s effeminacy, but when he has his ear bitten off in prison, her cooled affections are fanned back to life by his artificial ear:
Popsy, Mother’s affection is not for you, it is for your ear. HER PASSION IS SURGICAL PARTS! It’s all too scary. When I was having lunch with her on Saturday, a man with one arm sat down at the table next to us. Mother stopped eating, looked at him for at least 10 seconds, then turned to me and said, “What I couldn’t do with that fellow!” Macabre wasn’t the word!
Basil’s later encounters with tripe and hanging fetishists are pretty macabre too, as is the sex-slaying by the crocodilean Bletchworth:
Courtney Durham’s mother has been found dead in a ditch two miles from the school. Police say she was murdered! Isn’t it ghastly? The head has told that detectives will be here tomorrow to speak to us... P.S. Courtney Durham had to identify the body and took his crochet along! He said it was in shreds - the body that is.
Vice escalates, you see, and Bletchworth, soon condemned as criminally insane, isn’t the only example. In real life, Basil might have ended up in a lunatic asylum too. In print, he and his best friend Gemini Tarqqogan (“yes, two q’s, though he spells it with three!”) can work in a child brothel and then disappear overseas with rich paederasts as the scandal they’ve caused threatens to bring the government down. The book climbs skilfully to that crescendo, striking delicate notes early on on traditional decadent themes:
Just back from Mass; too yawnsome for words. (Why is the Elevation of the Host always such a let-down?)
Gemini lost an eyelash in a bowl of lobster soup and was in a ghastly mood all day.
Last night Gemini slept with two orchids in his armpits!Paul Cox’s line-drawings capture the book’s playfulness well, from the artificial leg adapted as a hanging basket for “dreamy blue lobelia” to Basil scribbling a postcard in the bath he takes after an itchy fortnight preparing for a “customer” with a “passion for urchins”. All I can think of to improve the book would be to have the full text printed in the cursive font used on the back cover of my Penguin edition. It would capture the light, gliding, frivolous spirit of Basil better than ordinary type. And of Gemini too, who believes that “there is only one lesson to learn in one’s youth and that is never to yawn in profile.”