Thursday, February 19, 2009

Edward Upward- Farewell to a Gentle Man.

I wish to say farewell to the writer, teacher, and communist Edward Upward who has died recently in Pontefract at the remarkable age of 105, which adds further to my theory that all these active politically committed comrades seem to have quite long lives . I see that there have been a number of serious obituaries about him most notably the one in The Times. There has also been a good obituary to Edward in The Guardian , one that deals with his political commitment with the greatest clarity is that which appears in the Morning Star

I wish to merely record how it was in rather bizarre circumstances that my path crossed with that of Edward Upward. The remarkable thing was that the day that I met him 1981 I had just the previous night finished reading the third volume of the dialectical triad 'The Spiral Ascent' so it was rather like finding oneself talking face to face with the main character from the book that you have just finished reading, which was a little surreal, I also met his wife Hilda who is of course a key figure in the novels, which does not try too hard to pretend that the characters are all fictional, it is clear that the three volumes, 'In the Thirties' 'The Rotten Elements' and 'No Home but the Struggle' were all pretty close to auto-biographical.

Anyway I was selling a quire of the
Morning Star in Kings Heath high street in Birmingham with a girlfriend and comrade. I was approached by a well spoken elderly man in navy blue corduroy cap, who stood looking at me and said after a while...'I used to do that a lot'...fearing he was a'nutter' or at best a current opponent , I ignored him...He repeated the comment and added "my wife and I used to do that an awful lot you know"...convinced now that he was indeed 'a nutter' of some sort I asked him what he was on about and he started to chuckle..I then realised he was having a bit of sport with me..'selling the Daily Worker of course, you two remind me so much of us at that age'..Well a conversation commenced and I as it happened just happened to mention that I had just finished reading an excellent triad of novels about life in the CPGB in the 30's and 40's which I supposed, he being an elderly former CP member might find of interest. He started to laugh once again and said...'really now what were those books called?' and asked me to tell him more about them. At length I twigged that he knew about them and in a while he revealed that he was the author, this was getting very very bizarre.... He invited us back to his son's house 'for tea and cakes', his son was a lecturer at Birmingham and is since sadly now deceased also . I was charmed by Edward Upward's gentle humour and his wonderful diction and beautifully precise speech. I was also fascinated by his life story and his encyclopedic experience of the literary world. He told a hilarious tale about going to the Woolfs home in Bloomsbury for a meal and to be given his cheque for a contribution he had written for their journal. Virginia instructed hubby to draw up the cheque but Upward recalled, ' it visibly pained him, and his hand shook and his face was agonised as he slowly drew out the cheque, at long last, reluctantly handing it to me before I left for home'...he also recollected his close association with the likes of Auden, and Spender, the latter he was scathing about for his political conversion to the right and his association with a CIA sponsored magazine in his latter years. Christopher Isherwood he spoke of with great warmth though. On another occasion I, forgetting precisiely his age, asked him had he known Burgess or Philby et al..he said ' oh no...I had long left Cambridge before they came up'...a comment which emphasised to me his extraordinary longevity...he was already the senior member of the group consisting of Auden, Spender and Isherwood at that stage and they regarded him as THEIR mentor. I am glad to say, that with the exception of a gap in the 1990's which was my fault, we maintained contact until he moved to Pontefract from his beloved Isle of Wight. He liked greatly the retrospective of his life which I wrote about him in in the Morning Star,which I was particularly pleased succeeded in appearing on his 100th birthday, He joked to me that it felt a little like a sort of 'rehabilitation'. He would talk at length about a wide range of subjects, and never lost the political edge that his grasp of Marxism and Leninism afforded him.He was convinced that the US 'empire' was in terminal decline, drawing parallels in his conversations with me to the fate of the Roman Empire. He had an utter contempt for Tony Blair, who he referred to only as 'Toady Blair'..I thought at first that he had a slight head cold when he said this first , but after the joke was repeated a number of times, I realised it was not just a humorous play on words but a studied insult that he delighted in.
The last thing he asked me to do was to take down a message from him to be written into the memorial book on his behalf at the visitors book at the museum to the International Brigade in Spain, which I did. I was honoured to have met him, I am pleased that I will be able to continue to read his wonderful novels and short stories long after his passing...I am convinced that his stature as a writer will continue to grow long after his death, I also believe that much of the negative criticism of his literature was in fact a literary and critical form of political opposition to his chosen form of creativity, and of course a dismissal and a contemptuous dismissal at that, of any attempt to employ the socialist realist or written documentary form. A dismissal that was primarily political in its motivation, in reaction of course to the profoundly political issues raised by his writings and his aesthetic sensibilities themselves. Whilst he did indeed suffer from writers block, it is wrong to ascribe this to his embracing of
Marxism. On the contrary in the conversations I had with him he was always clear that it had been his political commitment which had saved him from the powerlessness which could so easily, he knew, slump into depression.Upward related that, "in those days, even using the word 'capitalism' was enough to damn you, so not much was said. But I carried on my political work in the evenings selling the Daily Worker, and politics was my salvation. I was miserable and couldn't have borne the life of a teacher without it."

My memories of him are warm, he contributed something of value to my life, and I am grateful to him for that, he allowed me to understand some of my own feelings about the nature of political commitment, and how it can be redemptive, he was most interested when I told him that I was very struck by the phrase he created as the title of his third novel 'No Home But the Struggle' since I felt that it rang a chord with me, he knew exactly what Iwas driving at. I fear that so many of the literary critics will never really understand that sentiment either, since it is in fact alien to their own experience. I believe that he is home now. SALUD!

39 comments:

Antony Upward said...

As one of Edward's grandson's I really appreciate your personal perspective and wonderful stories - it matches well my memories of him. He was buried today (Feb 20) next to his Wife Hilda on the Ilse of Wight.

Thank-you

Mick Hall said...

Gabriel,

This is wonderful, the best account I have read about Upward since his death. I blogged the Guardian obit, but if I had read this at the time, I would have simply pointed people in your direction.

What I find interesting about many of those who met Upward is how he inspired people, a great gift.

Thanks again.

Tim Oxton said...

Thanks Gabriel, I agree with Mick Hall, this is the best obituary of Edward Upward that I have seen.

It is good that such a good man lived to such a venerable age. It doesn't always happen but Edward deserved it.

My wife's grandfather Eduardo, a lifelong Italian socialist, lived to 103. And one of our grandsons is named Gabriel. So I read your words with particular pleasure.

Nick Matthews said...

I strongly agree with your assessment of Edward. The Trilogy was a painfully honest account of his life that could probably only have been expressed in the format he chose. I too believe criticism of his writings was largely political rather than literary.

Greywolf said...

Gabriel,

I've just came across your article on Edward Upward while doing a post about Christopher Hitchens's rather dismissive piece about him in the Atlantic. And I enjoyed what you wrote so much that I've borrowed a paragraph and put in a link in the hope that at least a few other people will read what you've written and get a better impression of Edward than the one presented in Hitchens's piece. I hope you don't mind what I've done.

http://christopherhitchenswatch.blogspot.com/2009/07/upward-path-how-hitch-hunted-down-last.html

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