Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 24 Oct 2017

Journey To the Border by Edward Upward

At the age of 29, Upward was a teacher at an independent school in Dulwich and in the same year he also joined the Communist Party. Coming from a middle class background, having been educated independently before going on to Cambridge, this might not have seemed to be the obvious route for Upward to follow. He had, however, met and become friends with Christopher Isherwood whilst at university and was clearly moving in that stratum of intellectuals who found their political identity in communism and socialism - or were at the least fellow travellers.

Despite arguments with numerous factions within CPGB, Upward would never lose his radical instincts throughout his long life (he was 105 when he died in 2009) but, just as significantly, he stayed in his teaching job for over 30 years. Journey To The Border was his first novel published in 1938 and clearly has a good deal of autobiographical content and is especially influenced by the seeming contradictions inherent in the relationship between his political beliefs and his job.

Journey To the Border is in many ways an experimental novel which is by turns daring and imaginative but also, in terms of its overall impact, very hit and miss. It tells the story, from his exclusive point view, of a private tutor to a rich vulgarian’s son and is filled with self-loathing for finding himself dependent on the decadent, often brutish upper classes for employment. His rage is fuelled by the fact that he’s also attracted to the advantages of wealth and finds he lacks the backbone to escape the gravitational pull of power and money.

The action, for what it’s worth, takes place around a day trip to the races where the tutor will find himself thrown into proximity with the upper classes in full cry – and with members of the working class he longs to identify with. The tutor has, on face value at least, socialist views and principles but lacks any sense of how to make a connection with the workers he desperately wants to make common cause with.

The frustration of his position forces him into paroxysms of self-disgust and almost uncontrollable anger. What we are watching as the book continues is a man so torn in two that it threatens his sanity. Slowly the boundary line between fantasy and reality starts to become indistinct as the tutor descends into a pit of political and spiritual chaos.

In a dialogue between these two halves of himself – the committed socialist and the middle class tutor unable to act – he plays out a solution to his problem. Like Hamlet, the answer to his dilemma lies in taking action rather than just allowing circumstance and private fantasies to govern his life. Resolving that he must go in search of the working class and throw his lot in with them, the book ends with him seeing how to harmonise his middle class status with his desire to make a difference for the working man.

He has made a journey to the border of sanity and found his way back.

Some of this works splendidly and you will be struck by what a daring piece of work this is. But in truth there are some really clumsy parts of the book that reflect its status as a first novel. Writing it from the tutor’s exclusive point of view places us inside the characters head and that’s a dangerous thing to do because it has to be very convincing to make us go along with the whole fantasy/reality confusion. Sadly, he doesn’t always pull it off. The tutor’s emotions are so extreme, his self-hatred so visceral that you can’t help disliking him yourself. It’s almost as if you feel compelled to grab him by the shoulders and say ‘please stop moaning and over dramatizing yourself - just pull yourself together and go and get another job!’.

If this is Upward’s extended self-justification for staying in the independent education sector his final resolution isn’t very convincing. However, having said that, there’s plenty to admire about his writing ability and his willingness to take chances with the form of the novel. Upward later goes on to write his fabulous Spiral Ascent trilogy which is a fictional semi-autobiographical account of a radical life in the Fifties, Sixties and early Seventies and I very much admire those books. I think it will enhance your appreciation of those if you also read this one, despite its flaws.


Terry Potter

October 2017