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Wyndham Lewis: Rotting Hill

This is one of those books that is not really a novel. Wyndham Lewis appears in it under his own name. It also consists of as series of short, separate episodes. However, apart from Lewis himself, the other characters are fictitious though, in several cases, based on real people and the episodes are all linked by a common theme. The common theme is very clear – Lewis’ hatred of the post-World War II Labour Government under Clement Attlee. In his view (and the view of others), Labour’s post-war reforms were causing untold harm to the country. All his stories illustrate this. One of the stories concerns Lewis’ flat. He had a rented flat in Notting Hill. Lewis and his wife spent all of World War II in the United States, returning to Britain only after the end of the war in 1945. When they returned to their flat, they found that it had been unoccupied during the War. As a result, damp had got in. Though there had been some war damage, most of the damage was caused by dry rot. The flat had to be virtually rebuilt around them. Lewis uses the idea of the dry rot for this story, for the title, but also as a symbol of what he sees as the rot spreading throughout the country.

His method is to tell a series of stories , all of which serve to illustrate his main theme. We start with The Bishop’s Fool, the story of the Reverend Rymer, the vicar of an obscure living called Bagwick. Rymer earns only around six pounds a week but has saved up enough to buy one of Lewis’ drawings which he does. One of the key issues is that a local vicar is no longer dependent for his living so much on the local squire but on the nouveaux riches farmers, who are not in the slightest religious. Rymer is struggling to get anyone to come to church. However, he is of strong left-wing views, which means that he is sympathetic to the farm labourers. This causes him problems with a local farmer and, to his surprise and horror, when he gets into a physical fight with the farmer, the labourers support the farmer and not him. This is the longest story of the book and clearly one Lewis felt strongly about.

Lewis is not averse to a dose of sympathy for one’s fellow-men, particularly the down-trodden, but his book will go on to show his contempt for the British workman, communism, nationalisation and virtually everything the Labour government is doing. The National Health Service is rebuked in more than one story, though he seems to have contempt for most of the medical profession, private or State. For example, we have a very amusing story about a well-known historian who has a nasty abscess in his teeth and how the only hospital he can get into (and then only with a bit of influence) is one run by nuns. He is particularly willing to go to this hospital as there is no telephone in the room he will be in. His experience, however, is somewhat mixed. Other themes are the quality of manufacturing in Britain which, in Lewis’ view, has clearly deteriorated, as we see in a story in which the quality of shirts is to the fore and another one concerning toys. The educational establishment is, of course, excoriated, in the form of Mr. Gartside, an art teacher in Rochdale, who allows his pupils to paint the walls and produces plasticine (a type of modelling clay, equivalent to the US Play-Doh) phalluses.

However, his criticism of the educational establishment comes in what is, in my view, the most interesting of the stories, Parents and Horses. It concerns the changes in education in Britain (which were actually introduced during the war, under the coalition government and sponsored by R A Butler, a Conservative but, as a fairly left-wing Conservative, a man who comes into a lot of criticism from Lewis). One of the changes was that there were separate schools for those over eleven years old, based on their educational achievements. As a result, these tended to be located in towns, as villages did not have enough pupils for the various types of schools. The story concerns the fictitious village of Blatchover, where not only the school for those over eleven has gone to the town but also the primary school. A local vicar has set up a village school but there have been problems with the educational establishment (whom Lewis damns) but also some of the parents. Lewis uses the story to pay tribute to an England long since past.

Parents and Horses is a fine story but I also very much enjoyed the title story, telling, as it does, of the rot in the country and the rot in his flat and the attempts of the British workman and the authorities, who have to authorise supplies, to get it repaired. Lewis has an acerbic wit and is not afraid to use it against those he perceives as his enemies and the destroyers of traditional English values. It is an enjoyable book, whatever your political views, though it had little success for, by the time the book was published, the Labour government had been defeated in the 1951 election and would not reappear for another thirteen years, long after Lewis’ death.

Publishing history

First published 1951 by Methuen