Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 21 Dec 2017

Four Absentees by Rayner Heppenstall

This book is a real little curiosity. I’m willing to bet that there aren’t too many people who have ever heard of Heppenstall and that’s because he’s rather less than a margin note in the history of English literature. But for about a dozen years from the second half of the 1930s until the end of the Second World War he happened to find himself enmeshed in a network of writers and artists who all went on to have significantly more esteemed careers than he did.

Two of these men – Eric Gill and John Middleton Murry - were somewhat older than was the 25 year old Heppenstall when he moved to London. Eric Blair – or George Orwell as he became known – was slightly older but he was probably the man he knew best and Dylan Thomas was his contemporary. All four influenced or were influenced in some way by Heppenstall and all were long dead by the time he wrote this memoir in 1960.

So although the author seems to be reflecting on these ‘four absentees’, it seems to me that a fifth person, the writer himself, comes out of this in a much more substantial way. In truth, at least three of these relationships seem to be pretty shallow and not terribly interesting and its only when he gets on to talking about his rather on/off/on friendship with Orwell that we really get anything substantial to chew on.

Having said that the author is the unacknowledged fifth person in this book, I have to admit I grew to thoroughly dislike Heppenstall as the memoir went on. I always worry when I come across someone who is prepared to offer us verbatim quotations from conversations that he had some twenty years earlier because questions of veracity always arise in such situations. I can barely remember the content of conversations I has last week let alone those that happened twenty years ago. And Heppenstall seems too ready to snipe and to remember and report conversations that put his subject in a rather bad light – oddly enough we seem to get little or nothing of what it was that made the men companionable acquaintances if not friends.

Most biographical profiles note that Heppenstall drifted to the Right after he moved to Deal in Kent in his later life, developing very sniffy attitudes towards his working class neighbours. This really doesn’t surprise me at all given the tone and nature of his memoir in which he often comes across as thoughtless, shockingly self-centred and extraordinarily callous. Somewhere near the end of the book Heppenstall notes that ‘I am, on the whole, less well liked than my wife’ and it’s not hard to see why that might be. Having acknowledged his unlikability and that a girlfriend of Dylan Thomas’ found him unpleasant, he can’t resist his own bit of petty pay-back when he refers to her as ‘fat-lipped’. And this is a typical example of his approach to people and his seeming indifference to the plight of anyone other than himself. Even Orwell who he counts as a ‘friend’ is dismissed as a writer of pot-boilers and he rather relishes the story of the time Orwell evicted him from the flat they shared after beating him with a shooting stick. Had I been in Orwell’s position I might not have been so restrained…….

The book is only a couple of hundred pages long but what keeps you reading is the fascination of seeing characters like Orwell (a name Heppenstall irritatingly insists on putting speech-marks around) going about their day-to-day business rather than being presented all the time as a significant author. The fact that you get the distinct  feeling that you can’t rely on the stories you’re reading lends the book a sort of irresistible feeling of gossip. By this point you realise what this book really is - literary celebrity tittle-tattle.

Unless you’re an Orwell fanatic (guilty!) don’t waste your time with this.


Terry Potter

December 2017