Sunday 23 August 2020

Masking and Unmasking

Will anyone ever get round to writing Anita Brookner's biography? It is less likely than it might have been once. The golden age of literary biography was in the last century. Simply, the economics of publishing probably wouldn't support a latter-day Bevis Hillier or Norman Sherry, whose multi-volume John Betjeman and Graham Greene lives respectively were the fruit of decades of work (Sherry was said to have visited every place Greene ever set foot in).

Then there are the lesser 'hack' biographies that often appear more quickly after an author's death. These are culled largely from material already in the public domain. Such a biographer might find so private and retiring figure as Anita Brookner a recalcitrant subject for such a job. She was a public figure, but only up to a point, and only really from her fifties onwards. Any more comprehensive life would entail a lot of research and a lot of interviews.

She herself gave few interviews and rarely appeared on the radio or TV. One gets a sense of her 'curating' her life as it happened. Such endeavours are doomed to fail, but can frustrate the unwary. But one of the incidents over which she had less control was her involvement in the Anthony Blunt affair. In short, her boss and mentor at the Courtauld Institute, former Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures, and pillar of the Establishment, Sir Anthony Blunt was unmasked in 1979 as having worked as a Soviet agent. There was a media furore and Blunt was stripped of his honours. Brookner remained loyal, visiting him in his enforced retirement, and supplying him with art books from the Courtauld's library. It was only later in the 1980s, with the publication of the notorious Spycatcher book, that Brookner learned of how Blunt had used her in a small way in the 1960s to obtain information unwittingly from a minor person of interest. Brookner's horror when she realised the full personal extent of Blunt's treachery and double-dealing was immense. She expressed her wounded feelings in an excoriating Spectator article in 1987.

One cannot but think that such dismay must have informed, affected, confirmed a worldview already familiar within her developing fictional oeuvre. And yet how would others see the matter? How was the Blunt scandal seen at the time? Ungenerously, it would appear, if a recently collected poem by Sir John Betjeman is anything to go by (Harvest Bells: new and uncollected poems, 2019).

I've never found Betjeman altogether hilarious, though I confess a liking for his later persona, but that's because I like most things from the 60s, 70s and 80s, love that time and that world.

In 'Lines on the Unmasking of the Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures' Betjeman is at his most jovial and sniggering:

Poor old Bluntie! So they got him,
'Mole Revealed' they say 'at last'.
On a bleak November morning,
What an echo from the past!...

Who'd have guessed it - 'Blunt a traitor'
And an homosexualist?...
... Now the nine-day wonder's over,
Back he goes to Maida Vale.
In his comfy little Rover,
Home to gin and ginger ale...

The volume's editor seeks in a note to explain the tone. Apparently Blunt made Betjeman feel he had wasted his talent in the pursuit of popularity; the poet felt, he wrote in a letter, 'trivial and shallow' beside his old acquaintance.

The Maida Vale detail is incorrect. In fact Blunt (no longer Sir Anthony) retired to a flat near the Courtauld: at the cocktail hour he would entertain old colleagues, Brookner among them (though she doubtless left early and didn't partake). Putney Vale Crematorium, a few years after 1979, was the scene of Blunt's funeral. If you type 'Anthony Blunt funeral' into a search engine you'll find photos of the affair, including one in which Anita Brookner is identifiable.


  1. I've been wondering this ever since she passed. I would settle for a sort of John Bayley Iris approach where a close friend of hers writes a personal recollection of her/his friendship with Brookner.

    1. Yes, I think that a memoir is the most likely. No publisher nowadays will shell out the sorts of advances given to the great biographers of the postwar years


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