Thursday 14th August 2003
All content © New Journal Enterprises, 2003

Edward Upward
Ever Upward with renegade Edward
Author Edward Upward was always too political and too experimental, even for his literary peers, which included Auden, writes John Calder

A Renegade in Springtime
by Edward Upward
Enitharmon, £15

The last surviving member of the Auden generation is still alive and writing at 100. When an undergraduate at Cambridge he created, together with his friend Christopher Isherwood, fictional stories about an imaginary village, Mortmere, typical of Home Counties England, and although they wrote separately their styles are remarkably similar.
Upward was a major influence on the poets and novelists we associate with the 1930s, has himself written much but published little, and we must be grateful for the excellent Enitharmon Press for their valiant effort to reprint and to present new work.

An idealistic communist from the days when it was intellectually fashionable, he remains unreconstructed, never turning publicly against ‘the God that failed’ as did Spender, Koestler and so many others during the 1940s when the cold war came into being, and his commitment to the left continues up to the present. Inevitably, this collection of stories, ranging from 1928 to the millennium, are dated in background and subject matter, but the style is always elegant and readable if perhaps a little long-winded for modern taste.

The author goes in for atmospheric description to set the milieu of his stories and his characters, which are obviously based on his own life and observations and those of his friends and old comrades.

The political commitment is always there, but it is the polite and muted attitude of the Cambridge apostles, Fabian rather then revolutionary, and very intellectual middle-class, that surfaces. The non-English movements of the 20th century have passed him by. There is no expression or stylised Beckettian realism, no misogynist conflict, no fantasies involving time or the vagaries of human thought and stream of consciousness.

Edward Upward is an impressionistic naturalist writing at a distance from events. The first story The Railway Accident sees horror in a train crash but it hardly touches those lucky enough to escape and go to a vicarage tea. Another train story closes the volume, but this is a fairground train and it is nostalgia and grief for the dead, not unmixed with guilt at one’s own forgetfulness, that is the point.

Mr Upward has seen more than one generation pass away and this knowledge is always apparent in the later work.

But although there is no obvious anger in these stories, there is much regret, especially at the failure of those seeking a more just and happier world to bring this about up to the present, and at the continuing presence of poverty, ignorance and growing inequality.
And there is also a wistful look at his own career with its many years of neglect, which in one story he depicts as the corpse of a painter at a funeral procession. An established and successful artist explains: “It is the corpse of the better artist you had it in you to be, but never were.”
He goes on to say that he might even have become in some ways better in a later style, but the style did not catch on.

“It is the same for all of us – not just the artists, but everyone alive in this century, even the luckiest of the lucky, and three quarters of the human population of the earth are not among the lucky. We are none of us able to be what we have it in us to be.”

It is impossible to say if the name of Edward Upward will rank with his peers, not just Auden and Co but the likes of J B Priestley, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and Aldous Huxley. He has most in common with George Orwell in temperament and outlook, although Orwell turned against the left in bitterness. Even his old friend Isherwood is now largely forgotten, his novels out of print, best known for a musical Cabaret, based on one novel.

But Upward deserves to be remembered and read, because there is a sincere artist at work in these stories and in the other work that his publishers have revived.

Writer who fused art with politics

Edward Upward is one of the last surviving members of a literary group who, with W.H Auden and St John’s Wood resident Stephen Spender, fused leftwing politics with art.

The Spiral Ascent, Upward’s epic trilogy that took him twenty years to complete, is a semi-autobiographical journey through a lifetime’s involvement with leftist activism, from the anti-fascist demonstrations in London to the CND marches to Aldermaston.

Publishers Enitharmon Press, based in Caversham Road Kentish Town are Upward’s sole publishers. Formed in 1967, the company’s aim is to publish overlooked and up-and-coming writers and artists, says Director Stephen Stuart-Smith.

Upward was a committed Marxist and member of the Communist Party of Great Britain through the 1930s. During this time he wrote polemics for the party, but left in the 1940s, disillusioned at the reforms the party was making. In the 1960s he returned to fiction.
Between 1931 and 1961 he taught at a school in Dulwich and lived in south London.

Andrew Walker