Vivat! Vivat Regina!
Filed under: Non-fiction
It is no longer fashionable to divide history into monarchs’ reigns. But if we take the last 60 years to be the second Elizabethan Age, what characterises its literature? As the RSL’s Patron celebrates her Diamond Jubilee, seven writers give their views
When the New Elizabethan Age dawned in 1953 a wave of optimism swept the land. The Festival of Britain had been brave and austerity-defying, but a young and beautiful queen with a handsome consort promised to bring yet more glamour and cultural riches to the nation. Bizarrely, my memories of this epoch cluster around what we would now call a teen magazine. Collins’s Magazine for Boys and Girls was respected, respectable and well-edited and had been running for some time, eagerly read by thousands of schoolchildren and their approving parents. At the time of the Coronation it decided to change its name to the Young Elizabethan. This was a bold bid for the future. The word ‘Elizabethan’ glittered. We loved it. And what did we get? We got John Braine, Kingsley Amis, John Osborne, Philip Larkin. They didn’t glitter much. The teens stayed cosy in their time warp of ballet and ponies and Just William, but the glum postwar men created a gloomy realist world of heavy clouds that hung over us for decades. Elizabeth the First wouldn’t have wanted them at her court. Where was the colour, the adventure, the glory? We had to wait for the late Elizabethans for that, for Sir Salman Rushdie, a fine riposte to Sir Walter Raleigh. He was a buccaneer and he glittered. And in his wake sailed many writers from overseas, venturing boldly to colonise the Old Empire and renew the old language. Elizabeth II has been a conservative monarch, a woman of dignity and propriety, more Victorian than Renaissance in demeanour, but as a woman she has also presided over an extraordinary explosion of fireworks from feminists, some Britishborn, but some, like Doris Lessing and Fay Weldon, with strong links to the Commonwealth. Her long reign has seen women’s writing flourish and sparkle. It has also seen a revival of children’s and teen fiction, eagerly read by adults. Some of it would not have been out of place in the Young Elizabethan of the 1950s, in a world of boarding schools and nostalgia, but some has taken on the more violent dissonance of the 21st century. J.K. Rowling and Jacqueline Wilson are both immensely popular with the public. I wonder if our Queen reads them, or any of the writers on whom she has bestowed honours. We do not know what she makes of the writing of her realm. It is said that she and Lessing, in their têteà- tête at Buckingham Palace when Lessing became a Companion of Honour in 1999, gravely discussed the plight of the droughtstricken hippopotamus of Zimbabwe. They were on safe territory there. Alan Bennett or Sue Townsend or Adam Mars-Jones could write the script for this regal encounter.
What single word would I use to characterise the literature of the Second Elizabethan Age? Diverse. As the composition of British society has itself become increasingly mixed, and the ways that we are able to communicate with one another have become more and more varied, so the old hard-and-fast ideas of what might or might not be ‘the best’ have given way. This is an Absolutely Good Thing, and has led to all kinds of freedoms, differences, and cross-fertilisations. Contemporary fiction brings its own proof every publishing season. So does contemporary poetry. Actually, and figuratively, we can now say that live in the world of Dylan and Keats; women laureates and male ones; margins and centres; interruptions and stories; our own country and the world.
In the Elizabethan Age, literature – on the stage – flowered as Britain expanded its horizons reaching out for the Americas, Africa and Asia. The last 60 years could be seen as another period when literary history in Britain was entangled with geography: the age when Asia, Africa and America discovered Britain, and literature – fiction this time – from America, Africa and Asia expanded the horizons of Britain. The result: a change in the English language which may prove to be the cultural hallmark of recent decades. Languages start local but become nomadic. They travel easily and live to be shared, but it is rare for a language to change ownership. It happened with Latin. The ownership – not just usage – expanded. With English, in the twentieth century, it went further. Literacy broadened. The celebration of the English language that had started with Chaucer, and flourished in Shakespeare, spread around the world. The language burst its boundaries. English was liberated. What once had been a weapon of control became a tool of democracy, and changed hands. In the long hot summer of 1976, I was in the strange tent-shaped building of the Commonwealth Institute, next to Holland Park, with its once futuristic architecture and already antiquated exhibitions, looking in the library for books written by Sri Lankan writers. They were not easy to find in London, back then. But on those awkwardly placed bookshelves I discovered many, in English. And then more from India, Nigeria and the Caribbean. I began to see that the English language belonged to those who used it. I wasn’t the only one. This had been happening for decades in Asia and Africa, just as it had earlier in America. The Second Elizabethan Age, if anything, might come to be seen as the time when the centre stage in literature could be taken by writers from all over the world – Achebe, Lessing, Naipaul, Rushdie, and many, many more – writing here, there and everywhere, linked by the language we now all own.
For me the big literary achievement of the last 60 years has been the recapturing of poetry from the modernist avant garde. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century it went without saying in literary circles that poetry should be unintelligible. Profundity and obscurity were thought to be necessary partners, and to write poetry that could be understood by ordinary readers was to relegate yourself to the status of versifier. The most notable poets of the first half of the century, Auden and Dylan Thomas, were both perfectly capable of making sense, and when they did so they both produced poems that have become part of our cultural lifeblood – Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night and Auden’s Lullaby (‘Lay your sleeping head…’), for example. However, they often wrote gibberish out of obedience to the received norm. The change has come about, mainly, through three poets. After making a false start with the Yeatsian The North Ship in 1945, Philip Larkin found his own voice in the Less Deceived, 1955. Two years later Ted Hughes published his first collection, Hawk in the Rain. Larkin and Hughes came from different poetic roots – Larkin from Hardy and Auden, Hughes from Wordsworth and D.H. Lawrence. But they had intelligibility in common. Their poems could be – and quickly were – read and understood by schoolchildren. They both earned the respect of the non-literary establishment. Hughes became Poet Laureate, Larkin could very probably have done so but refused to have his name put forward. The third revolutionary poet, Seamus Heaney, can hardly be counted an ‘Elizabethan’ since he is firmly Irish. But, like the other two, he has brought poetry back to the common reader, and it was reading Hughes, as he has acknowledged, that inspired him. Like the other two, also, he avoids erudite allusions and literary mannerisms and chooses to write about the commonplace and transform it by his writing. Without these three poets the last 60 years would be immeasurably poorer.
In the 1950s, optimistic journalists often ventured analogies between the new reign and the English renaissance under Elizabeth I. But the adjective ‘Elizabethan’ had no difficulty in hanging on to its old meaning and the only situation in which anybody today would try to find cultural resemblances between the two periods would be a game after a rather desperate dinner party. I mean no disrespect to the Queen, who seems to do what’s left of her job with dignity, patience and a willingness to seek good advice and to heed it. In the arts, her commendably undisguised lack of interest hasn’t meant that grace-and-favour appointments and awards – not only in literature but in music, curatorship and other fields – have often gone to the wrong people. But our national problem with having had Elizabeth I, not to speak of the Empire, is that we’re unwilling to accept that things have changed. The place where most of the world’s greatest artistic feats since the 1950s (since the 1890s!) have originated is, of course, the USA. No British or Commonwealth poet of the period quite measures up to Elizabeth Bishop, no such novelist to Saul Bellow or Philip Roth, none of our film-makers, composers, painters, whatever their gifts, to their best American counterparts. Which doesn’t mean that, regardless of as well as unregarded by the Monarchy, British and Commonwealth literature hasn’t had considerable successes. A few years after the Coronation, Colin MacInnes published two novels which said as much about then-new and, as it’s turned out, future Britain as anything written since: City of Spades and Absolute Beginners. But it would be unrealistic to suggest that the Queen had anything to do with this.
Of course, World War ii was the real loss of innocence. Yet there seems to have been a sort of Fifties lurch: into greater cynicism, away from the sort of transcendence general readers still associate with poetry. The presiding note, rationing’s long-drawn-out attrition, has surely set the tone for poetry’s next sixty years. The Movement, its stripped-down, rather domestic verse so redolent of utility furniture, may have been conceived by the Spectator in 1954, but it came to term in 1955 with Philip Larkin’s The Less Deceived. His vision of the ‘Toad work’ helping us ‘down Cemetery Road’ may have been what the Group, coming hard on its heels, attempted to enlarge. Yet a certain no-frills honesty is the hallmark of that generation: think of Alan Brownjohn, Elaine Feinstein or Peter Porter. And by the mid-Nineties it was back again, in the hands of Cool Britannia poets like Don Paterson and Jo Shapcott. You could be forgiven for believing the mystical-royalist Laureate Ted Hughes had never existed. Still, arguably, the quiet success story of this era has been the shift from retrospective imperialism to post-colonial shame. The Seventies saw a surge of free-verse inventiveness, some of it with a Caribbean accent, much of it by women. Perhaps this produced today’s poetic diversity. Certainly, from the deeply thoughtful Sean O’Brien to unlikely eco-heroine Ruth Padel, and from language activist Bernardine Evaristo to dreamers like John Burnside or David Harsent, we’re enjoying the ‘peace dividend’ of six settled decades.
If every age stands on the shoulders of giants, the New Elizabethan has as its underpinning colossi three novelists already well established when the Queen came to the throne: Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and Anthony Powell. All of them were male, English-born and closely attuned to the Establishment – credentials which would become less persuasive in each of the following decades. The Sixties were imbued with the democratic northernness of Alan Sillitoe, Keith Waterhouse, Stan Barstow and John Braine; the Seventies with the formidable female intellectualism of Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark and Margaret Drabble; the Eighties with the polished provocation of Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Fay Weldon. As for the years since, theirs has been (as a children’s book of 1952 might have put it) the story of writers from many lands. Two other genres – biography and travel writing – have grown enormously in stature (reflected in the RSL’s choice of Presidents). But perhaps, like the first Elizabethans, we have been luckiest in the age’s abundant array of dramatists. Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood; Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party; Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia; Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey; Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On; Peter Nichols’s Passion Play; Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen; Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser; and, testing the Irish border, Brian Friel’s Translations and Stewart Parker’s Pentecost – these are among the creations that have most vividly illuminated the era.
Fiona Sampson’s ‘Music Lessons: The Newcastle/Bloodaxe Lectures’ and a new edition of ‘Percy Bysshe Shelley’ (Faber) appeared in 2011.
Romesh Gunesekera’s new novel ‘The Prisoner of Paradise’ is published by Bloomsbury.