Obituary - Edward Upward

Alleyn’s School was fortunate in having two very distinguished members in its English department in the 1950’s. One was Michael Croft, who went on to found the National Youth Theatre, the other was Edward Upward, friend of WH Auden and Stephen Spender and friend and literary collaborator of Christopher Isherwood.

Eighty years separated the publication of Upward’s first and last books, an incredible record until one realises that the author lived to the age of 105. Educated at Repton with Isherwood, the two schoolfriends were united in their unconformity, a characteristic they carried on to Cambridge where they formed a literary alliance based on the fictional bizarre village of Mortmere which they peopled with a surreal cast of characters.

Upward destroyed most of his stories in 1952, during a period of disenchantment with the literary extravagancies of his youth; possibly the onset of a nervous breakdown. Those that remain reveal him as a writer of hallucinatory power and as a savage caricaturist of an upper and middle-class imperialistic pre-war England. The surviving Mortmere stories were eventually published in 1994. He was amongst the most prominent of the pre-war New Writers.

In 1932 Upward had moved to Dulwich and joined the staff at Alleyn’s where he remained until his premature retirement in 1962, having accompanied the school in its wartime evacuations to Maidstone and Rossall. For some years he and his wife lived in Turney Road following their marriage in 1936. He keenly felt the influence of the 1930’s with its mass unemployment, the rise of Fascism and later horrors and it developed in him a commitment to Marxism and he became a member of a Communist party cell at Bethnal Green. He remained faithful to Marxism after the war, despite resigning his membership of the Communist party in protest to its policy of supporting the Labour government. With his wife they became founder members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958.

Upward kept his political activities quite separate from his teaching responsibilities at Alleyn’s and to fellow staff members he was a modest and patient colleague with a sense of humour. As head of English at the school for twenty years, it is difficult to understand why he persisted in teaching the subject to the middle school when he might have employed his talents more effectively with the Sixth form. Whatever the reason, and it may have been the approach of his nervous breakdown, Upward took early retirement and began his trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels called The Spiral Ascent and featuring his alter ego Alan Sebrill. The first was In the Thirties (1962) which provides a faithful picture of the activities of a communist branch in London before the war with doorstep canvassing, endless leaflet distribution, demonstrations and political intrigue all set against the background of mass unemployment and rise of dictators. The Rotten Elements (1969) charted his alter ego’s disenchantment with the party line after the war. In the final novel, No Home but the Struggle (1977) Sebrill finds a new cause to support - CND, which also becomes a means of expressing himself again, this time in prose-poems.

His last book, a collection of short stories; A Renegade in Springtime (reviewed in the Newsletter) was published in 2003. In 2005 Cecil Upward was honoured by the award of the Benson Medal of the Royal Society of Literature and made a Fellow of the Society. His archive was acquired by the British Library in 1994.

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