Now we are 100
Jim Herrick on two writers reaching their centenary
If creativity goes on into old age maybe it brings longevity, as has been the case with these two centenarians. The short stories of Edward Upward span his writing life from the 1930s to the 1990s. The extracts from Blackham's volumes cover an equally lengthy writing life.
A RENEGADE IN SPRINGTIME
Edward Upward is a noted short story writer and novelist, who started writing in company with Isherwood and Auden in the 1930s. His muse has visited irregularly: between the early short stories and the later novels and further stories there was a long intervening period when the need to earn a living as a teacher squashed his literary power. Maybe the need to reconcile his fantastic style with a realism more in keeping with his left-wing political views was another reason for the long hiatus.
A Renegade in Springtime is cased by two railway stories. The first 'The Railway Accident' is the most surreal of his writing, the last 'The Scenic Railway' shows a more realistic imagination at work. Upward has the capacity to write with the logic and exactness of detail of Lewis Carroll and the unexpectedness of the film-maker Bunuel. There are moments when the dialogue has the delightful inconsequentiality of the Theatre of the Absurd.
Some of his characters seem to be in a state of amnesia or unconsciousness. It emerges that a man watching the procession of a painter is watching his own funeral and wondering why the painter abandoned the realistic fantasy of his early work. This is the often-referred-to dilemma of Upward how to join his instinctive fantasy with his desire to promote his left-wing political views. Two early pieces, 'Sunday' and 'The Island', show the putrescent people created by the capitalist system and the cyclists who talk of social revolution.
Two stories, in which a man who has been knocked out follows an improbable sequence of events, bring the fantastic and the real together. He is interviewed by a journalist who criticises his completely out of date Marxist views; he is then led to an artistic group The Excrementalists who use shit to paint with to represent the anti-human values of murderous rulers. He finds himself on a luxury cruiser where he meets a representative of a group engaged in progressive anti-capitalist activities and learns from the Chief Engineer that the ship has major faults you are never far from metaphor in Upward.
In the last story 'The Scenic Railway' the surreal train of the first story has become a fair-ground ride, which an aged voyager imagines is taking him past the Christmas Truce during the First World War and the battle of Jarama during the Spanish Civil War: this imaginative realism is far away from the unreal fantasy of the opening story. Upward's fiction has travelled a long journey and his centenary and this publication are a good opportunity to study his remarkable work and to value his unique voice.
Blackham, like Upward, has said he would have liked to be a poet; do all writers aspire to the purest form of writing?
H J Blackham was a leading figure in the development of humanism in the second half of the twentieth century. He was distinguished as a writer and as an activist, playing a leading part in founding the International Humanist and Ethical Union and in the early stages of the British Humanist Association. The considerable range of his writing showed him developing the philosophy of humanism.
It is claimed that his writing is at its best in extracts, because of the density of his argument. I do not agree: although these quotations are worth perusing, it is best to grasp Blackham in the depth of the argument of his paragraphs and chapters. Nevertheless Blackham's Best contains satisfying aphorisms such as "Humanism is about the world, not about humanism" and, less neatly, "But to take seriously our responsibility for human fate is to take seriously the temporality of existence, that is the soberest text of humanism, with all the tremendous implications". It is this sense of responsibility and awareness of the temporality of existence which gives both writers weight and strength.
A Renegade in Springtime is available from Amazon (UK)