Edward Upward: No Home But the Struggle
This is is the third and final book in Upward’s The Spiral Ascent trilogy and continues the story of Alan and Elsie Sebrill. When we left them in the previous book, they had left the Communist Party over doctrinal differences. Alan confirms these differences early on in the book. The British Communist Party sees the path to power through parliamentary elections. The Sebrills see it through revolution (though not necessarily violent revolution). Moreover, Alan now confirms that he is well aware of Stalin’s misdeeds and he can no longer support the Soviet Union.
At the start of the novel, Alan has finally retired from teaching and he and Elsie are living in a house he has inherited by the sea, presumably Sandown, where Upward lived. He is enjoying his retirement and enjoying living by the sea.
The previous two novels had two main themes. The first, of course, was the political struggle and, indeed, much of those books was spent on political and doctrinal discussions. They are no longer members of the Communist Party but have now become well aware of the threat of nuclear weapons and, early on in the book, they join the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). They are concerned at first because of their Communist antecedents, as many CND members were definitely not Communist but this does seem to be much of an issue.
The second key theme of the earlier books was Alan’s poetry. Upward was a keen poet but little of his poetry was ever published and if he is remembered today it is for his prose fiction, not for his poetry. However, Alan sees himself first and foremost as a poet. Alan continues with his poetry, particularly as he now has more time but still worries about the same issue as he worried about in the previous two books. How can he marry his poetry to the political struggle and, moreover, should he? However, he shows us what he likes by citing one of his favourite poems: John Clare’s Love Lives Beyond the Tomb .
However, this book differs in one key way from the previous two, as Upward gets in touch with his inner Proust. (He reads Proust throughout this novel.) Much of the book has him ruminating over his childhood and his early adulthood. He generally has a good childhood, getting on with his younger brother Hugh and, usually though, of course, not always with his parents. He and Hugh play with their soldiers and invent stories, as the Brontes did with their Gondal and Angria. He likes his eccentric uncles, particularly the pacifist Uncle Vernon. He quite likes the nursemaid but she turns out to be a thief. The brothers go to a prep school which they do not like and we learn why. We learn about his first love and why he took to poetry. Only later do we learn of his parents’ continual squabbling and the mental health issues of his younger brother, Vaughan.
However, he is sent off to boarding school and he hates it. He is bullied. The school is in decline. Most of the new boys spend the night crying. He then moves to a public school(i.e. posh private boarding school) – Upward actually went to Repton School but is called Rugtonstead in this book. Jeremy Clarkson, who went there, said it made him suicidal. There is a a persisting nastiness in the school. Before going there, his mother gave him a book called What a Boy Should Know which states the inmates of asylums constantly practised self-abuse and that therefore boys who did so would be likely to end up in asylums. While this might explain the behaviour of some of our politicians, I would suspect that 99% of boys who went to public school practised self-abuse (i.e. masturbation). Alan certainly does and he readily admits that his fantasies are not always female. He tells us of two homosexual loves he has and also about a headmaster who gets fired for his paedophilic activities.
It is not all bad. It is there that he starts his poetry writing, something that, throughout the book, is shown to be very important to him, on a par with his political activities. It is also there that he meets Richard Marple, whom we had first met at the beginning of the first book in this trilogy. Marple is based on the writer Christopher Isherwood. They become firm friends. Nevertheless he does adopt a philosophy he calls a philospohy of gloom.
He wins a scholarship to Cambridge University but it is not all joy there. Cambridge is a blasé monster which attacks you when you are off your guard and before you know where you are all poetry and individuality have been drained out of you, and you become a motor-bike or history maniac. Marple is also there, though Alan becomes friends with someone called Desmond. He is developing both in his political views but, most importantly for him, in his poetry. He actually starts reading history but later changes to English. (The thing beyond all else that made us hate History as it was presented at Cambridge was what seemed to us its fact-grubbing passionlessness, its dull indifference to human suffering, its lack of love, generosity, beauty or poetry.)
It is while he is reading English that he attends a lecture by B. K. Wilshaw (based on the famous critic I A Richards). He wanted a poetry which would use the rhythms of normal speech and would be compatible with a scientific outlook on the world. This very much influences Alan’s point of view.
However, his view on politics versus poetry that has been repeated throughout the trilogy will re-emerge. What validity can there be in my imaginings or in my poetry at a time when American imperialism every day is bringing slaughter and torture and destruction to Vietnam?. He later elaborates on this:
According to my theory a tragic view of life, formerly essential to the writing of the greatest poetry, had ceased to be possible during the period since the ending of the 1914 to 1918 war, and no one now however much of a genius could hope to write tragic poetry on a level with Wilfred Owen’s; on the other hand, if the poet were to write nothing but non-referential verse he would be ignoring the continued existence of griefs and horrors in real life.
In his personal life, which we follow up to where he started the trilogy, we learn about his early attempts at teaching, which he does not particularly like, and his brother’s mental health problems which, in part leads him to thoughts of suicide.
The trilogy essentially covers two themes. Both are ideas he returns to again and again and struggles with. The first is his political engagement. Can Britain have a Communist revolution to save it from capitalism and imperialism? To us, the idea seems almost ludicrous and by this final book, he has accepted that, primarily because of the failure of the British Communist Party to seek such a revolution and because he has realised that the Soviet Union has also failed, there will be no such revolution. In this book, his attention has turned to the CND and why nuclear disarmament is important. The issue plays very little role in this book, perhaps because there is little doctrinal infighting. All members, whatever their backgrounds and views, agree nuclear arms are wrong – wrong for the UK, wrong for the US and wrong for the Soviet Union. Slight criticism from members of the public is the only controversy we get.
The second key theme is his struggle to marry his poetry to his political views, an issue that comes up time and time again throughout this trilogy. Political poetry is not unknown in English poetry – Wordsworth was certainly political on occasion – but politics certainly do not play a key role in the poetry of most English writers. Sebrill/Upward is well aware of this and, like the other poets, would rather write about traditional poetical subjects, such as a love of nature, but he feels feeling this would be a betrayal of his ideals. Somewhat ironically, his poetry is now forgotten and generally unpublished and if he is remembered, it will be for his prose and not for his poetry.
This trilogy is not generally accepted as a great work of English literature and certainly cannot compare with other multi-part works being written in the years after World War II by English writers such as by. Lawrence Durrell, Anthony Powell and Henry Williamson. All three touched on politics in their works but the politics was not key. Upoward’s obsession with politics certainly makes for interesting reading but not necessarily for great literature. I certainly enjoyed reading this work but, I suspect, it will eventually fade from the English literary canon.
Copies of this book and the other two books in the trilogy can be obtained in epub/azw/mobi/pdf format from this site.
First published 1977 by Heinemann