A Literary Survivor

Edward Upward A Renegade in Springtime Enitharmon Press £15

As one grows older the images of men you knew in youth - the politicians, writers, poets, actors - slip away into the mist and you are surprised when a beam of light falls on one still there. I remember a conference some twenty years ago on ' Writers in the Thirties' where Tom Harrison (of Mass Observation) was speaking, with Stephen Spender in the chair. "Poor Jack", said Harrison of a Euston Road painter, "killed in the war", "Tom", Spender gently intervened, " he's still alive. I had lunch with him a month ago". Not a wit abashed Harrison continued. "Delighted to hear he recovered from his wounds".

Spender as a focus of memories is appropriate for this book by a man who, in the Thirties, was counted along with Spender, Auden and Isherwood as a star of the literary Left. It was Edward Upward who, as it happens, recruited Spender into the Communist Party, was the closest friend of Isherwood at Cambridge and co-author with him of the Mortmere fantasies which made a stir just before the war. And it was there that Upward remained as a literary figure when others moved on - a Marxist still when they had defected, a man remembered for one novel of that period (Journey to the Border), and some stories. He didn't then write much for thirty years, came back with a similar range of stories as he aged, and is still at the typewriter as he approaches his centenary. Yet he worked as a dedicated schoolmaster of a now vanishing type, and this is how many men in Dulwich will remember him: head of English and a housemaster at Alleyn's for thirty years.

It is hard to judge a volume of stories written at intervals since 1928. They retain much of the sense of fantasy which marked Upward's earliest work; they have, intermingled with the poetic prose, flashes of sharply perceived realism which remind one that he never really lost the radical impulse that, for a short period, made him an icon of the Popular Front. And they are paradoxical in a way that show him always trying to resolve the tension between the two elements of his life. The most striking thing about his writing, and I find this sad, is a sense of lacking fulfilment; it expresses itself in the implicit but recurring self-question - why have I not been a success, what is it that has denied me the recognition I have sought? Survivors tend to feel like that as the world moves on: even a man who has lived such an admirable professional life as Upward can still feel that as he carries the baggage of his youth with him through the years.

Norman MacKenzie

(Professor MacKenzie is the only surviving member of the list of 38 suspected communist sympathisers compiled for the British Government by George Orwell in 1949. and released earlier this year. He was a founding member of the SDP and is the author of several books on the Fabians)

A Thing in Disguise

The visionary life of Joseph Paxton by Kate Colquhoun

The "thing in disguise" is glass, the structural use of which was Paxton's most spectacular contribution to Victorian England. The ghost of the Crystal Palace stills seems to hang over Dulwich, glinting above the horizon. While the monument of Sir Christopher Wren is still visible in the Thames valley below, that of Paxton can no longer be seen. It was, in its transparency and slender ironwork, six times larger than St Paul's Cathedral and half as high.

There is almost nothing left of Paxton's impact on South London. Brian McConnell recalls being sent as a schoolboy to try to find the site of Rockhills, the house on Crystal Palace Parade which Paxton occupied while the Crystal Palace was being transferred from Hyde Park. Even then it was difficult enough to discover traces. The whole site has remained virtually derelict for the past sixty years. The ornamental grounds below it have been fragmented, its stupendous fountains stifled. Nevertheless, we continue to be amazed by the sheer scale of the ruins on the hill.

Kate Colquhoun has used the extensive archives at Chatsworth and contemporary public records, to write a clear, thoroughly researched biography. Paxton, as a man steps vigorously out of its pages; from his economic and social background, with which we may have thought ourselves familiar, to be the authentic Victorian prodigy who could turn his hand to anything. He had great charisma and this coupled with his extraordinary practical capability made him a figure the public almost worshipped. "Ask Paxton" became a popular catchphrase for any major new project needing flair and application.

This was a remarkable apotheosis for the son of a Bedfordshire farm labourer who left school, at thirteen. As soon as Paxton began work as a gardener's boy on the Duke of Bedford's estate at Battlesden Park he started to absorb practical and aesthetic information like a sponge, from every source and to use it to maximum effect. He was the supreme example of Victorian self-help and created his own luck and fortune as he went. His personality, conspicuous intelligence and powers of application secured his appointment as superintendent of the gardens at Chatsworth at the early age of 23.

There, characteristically, he hit the ground running on arrival at 4am, after an overnight carriage journey, climbed the outer wall, surveyed the estate on foot, put the garden staff to work at 6am, met the housekeeper for breakfast, and by 9am had fallen in love with her niece, Sarah. He proceeded to marry her and set a pattern for the rest of their lives, at a pace which he maintained often to her dismay for most of the next forty years.

Paxton also impressed his new employer, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, equally quickly. With an aesthetic taste that matched the Duke's, he intuitively carried out the former's ambitious plans to regenerate the Chatsworth Estate. The close friendship that developed between him and his patron was soon followed by rapid social ascent.

Paxton created a spectacular illuminated water entertainment at Chatsworth for the young Victoria in 1832 and capped this by meticulous preparations for her state visit as Queen in 1843. This brought him to the favourable notice of the Duke of Wellington who admired Paxton's capacity for large scale organisation. He was soon called upon to undertake a succession of national tasks.

Paxton's role in establishing the framework and character of the 1851 Great Exhibition became legendary. The Duke of Wellington's approval for his submission helped. Paxton's first sketch was made on a piece of blotting paper during a meeting about something else, detailed plans were prepared in a week and construction completed in five months. The Queen loved the design, the public loved the design. To cap even that, the Exhibition made a profit which contributed to establish the Albert Hall and the Royal Colleges and museums of South Kensington.

The book is a sobering account of what one man can be called upon to accomplish. We are also reminded of just how effective, at a price, the Victorians could be. What they did in months we seem unable to achieve in as many years. This concentration of economic power and Vulcanian release of new industrial energy may never come again. Perhaps the great ball of fire over Sydenham Hill is the most fitting final symbol of Joseph Paxton. Mere mortals might now at last think hard about what could possibly measure up to this out of the ashes of the Crystal Palace.

Bill Higman and Brian McConnell

A Thing in Disguise by Kate Colquhoun is published by Fourth Estate £18.99 h/b 307pps.

See What's on in Dulwich for details of lectures and exhibition in connection with the Crystal Palace's 150th anniversary.

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