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Bill Hopkins: The Divine and the Decay (later: The Leap)

This novel is known, if it is known at all, because its publishers, MacGibbon and Kee, pulped all remaining copies of it when there was a complaint about its fascist themes. It is now difficult to obtain though it was reprinted in 1984 as The Leap. It is set in the Britain of the time, i.e. mid 1950s. The hero is Peter Plowart. Plowart has formed a political party with Sir Gregory Bouncey, called the New Britain League. Plowart is now proposing to stand in a forthcoming by-election in Whitechapel and is confident of being elected. (His modesty extends to the fact that he considers himself the greatest man alive.) As he is tired, he is planning to have a month’s holiday before the election though, as we will learn, there is also another motive for his absence. His tiredness stems not only from his campaigning but also, as he admits, excessive drinking and because of a tumour he had removed from under his armpit a few years previously. His holiday will be spent in Vachau, a fictitious island ten miles off the coast of Guernsey in the Channel Islands.

He takes an overnight boat to Guernsey and arrives in the morning and sets out to find a boat to take him to Vachau. When he tells the boat owner that he is planning to spend a month there, he is advised against it. He then goes to a café and, with the owner’s permission, puts his radio on to hear the news. Three fishermen come into the café and one accidentally knocks over his radio. Plowart becomes quite aggressive about this and starts a fight, fending off the fisherman with a knife. He is then informed that the fishermen are from Vachau and told that, if he now goes there, he will face serious problems and, moreover, no-one will put him up. He is advised that there is one possibility, Christopher Lumas. When he arrives, he makes his way to Lumas’ house. Lumas is in a wheelchair, having fallen off the cliff when drunk and broken his legs. His wife, tired of his drinking, had planned to leave him but had agreed to stay, provided she can stay under her terms, which means that she will regularly meet her lover, a tomato grower, called Bernard Lachanell. Lachanell comes twice a year to Vachau for a fortnight, which he spends with Anne Lumas. Plowart is put up in an attic, reached only by pull-down steps. He later learns that it is where Lachanell sleeps when he visits as Lumas cannot reach it. Lumas wants Plowart to help him get his wife back.

Through two twin boys, Jonathan and Benjamin Capothy, Plowart will meet Claremont Capothy, their elder sister. All three are the children of the Seigneur of the island, the absent Sir Arthur Capothy. Plowart and Claremont Capothy start a strange relationship, with some hint of sex but also discussions about life and religion, with Claremont taking what we might call the modern, conventional approach and Plowart the more pre-Christian, even pagan approach. In discussion with Claremont, whom he partially seems to see as a sort of psychiatrist, he himself describes his problem (his only problem) as self-division and he is looking for unity. Without his radio, which cannot be repaired, he is forced to go to the local tavern, where he meets with a generally hostile reception, except from the publican, who is more pragmatic. While there, he hears of the murder of Sir Gregory Bouncey. He immediately tries to get an alibi, by talking to Claremont and it soon becomes apparent that he might be more involved in Bouncey’s death than he is admitting. The police certainly think so as an officer is dispatched from Guernsey to interview him about it. The rest of the book is concerned with his interaction with Lachanell, generally of an unpleasant and aggressive nature, and with Mr and Mrs. Lumas about their marital situation, his dealings with the police officer and his ambiguous and almost fatal interaction with Claremont.

Plowart certainly shows fascist tendencies. He is casual about the lives of others and is happy for those that do not meet his needs to be removed. However, it is not entirely clear what the political views of his party are, though they do seem to be of a fascist nature. However, for it to be pulped seems extreme. His views are certainly no worse than those of, say, Wyndham Lewis or Celine, both of whose works were in print in England at that time. As a novel, it certainly is not great literature but it is very much a fascinating read, fairly unusual in tone and subject and giving a view of England which is not generally found in books of the time. It is a pity that it is out of print.

Publishing history

First published in 1957 by MacGibbon & Kee