The Kindly Ones By Anthony Powell – The Dark Depths Of The Superficial

The Kindly Ones – book six in Anthony Powell’s A Dance To The Music Of Time sequence – begins around 1914, with an extended description of Nick’s boyhood in an isolated hilltop bungalow near Aldershot. His home-tutor tries to teach Nick a few facts about Greek mythology.

At lessons that morning – the subject classical mythology – Miss Orchard had spoken of the manner in which the Greeks, because they so greatly feared the Furies, had named them the Eumenides – the Kindly Ones – flattery intended to appease their terrible wrath.

While young Nick Jenkins has lessons with Miss Orchard, his family have minor crises. Mr Jenkins endures hassles related to his army career. He has to prepare the house for a visit from his friend, General Conyers. The maid is in love with the cook, but the cook doesn’t love her back. There are embarrassments related to a neighbour who, having set himself up as a guru, takes his followers on runs through the hills near the Jenkins’ house. These problems are generally blown out of proportion by Mr Jenkins, the sense of over-reaction strengthened by the approach of a problem called World War One. Then we jump forward to Nick’s life in the late 1930s, when he has established a desultory career as a book reviewer and not very famous author. This time of personal trials – awkward parties, the death of a difficult uncle whose paltry affairs it falls to Nick to put in order – is once again overshadowed by the threat of war, World War Two this time.

As always, the charm of Powell’s A Dance To The Music Of Time books lies in the easy-going nature of Nick’s narrative – the way he deflates pretensions, whether displayed by pompous school friends, international business tycoons with odd relationship tastes, womanising stockbrokers, or gurus leading his people to enlightenment in the hills above Aldershot. Even war has its pomposity punctured when, through the eyes of young Nick, a possible German invasion is viewed as something like “a visit to the dentist or ultimately going to school.”

And yet it is quite clear that war is not really like going to school or the dentist. Young Nick is to learn that many of the fathers of children he plays with will become casualties. It’s also the case that the minor problems which Nick contrasts with the looming threat of war, are themselves not as minor as they seem. There is undoubted pain in some of the small, household dramas described in the first part of The Kindly Ones. The maid, Billson loves the cook, Alfred. When Alfred decides to marry a woman from Bristol, Billson has a breakdown. She appears naked in the living room, and has to be shepherded away by General Conyers. The story of Billson is a kind of family joke, which doesn’t mean that it isn’t a story of real pain. Especially so in the strait-laced social context of the time, a person appearing naked in a drawing room on a formal occasion when guests are being entertained, would represent a most terrible sort of collapse. In both the big and small events of life, Furies appear disguised as Kindly Ones.

In the early months of World War Two, nothing much seems to happen. Nick finds it hard to concentrate on writing. He does his best to pull strings to get into the Army, because it is the done thing. There is nothing as dramatic and painful as Billson’s collapse. Conversation typically combines such diverse topics as marriage problems, the welfare of displaced cats and the threat of air raids. Big and small things are balanced together with skill and sensitivity. The book has a kindly voice, which hints at darker depths, and also lifts a reader out of them. If you are living through ordinary times and want to read about Earth-shattering events, The Kindly Ones has something for you. If you are living through significant events and want some light-hearted relief, The Kindly Ones has something for you. And finally, if you are enduring apparently ordinary times which have their own hidden stress and drama, which no one acknowledges, then The Kindly Ones has something for you.

Interview With Martin

This is part of an interview I did recently with the author and writing coach Lorraine Mace.

Tell me something about yourself your readers might not know?

I am a trained sports massage therapist. This was the answer I gave to the same question, asked at an interview for a Christmas job at Argos. It seemed to work quite well on that occasion. They offered me the job.

Do you Google yourself? What did you find that affected you most (good or bad)?

I don’t Google myself, always assuming there’s nothing there. Let’s have a go now… This is fun. Graham Norton does this sort of thing with his guests. Well, Jones is a common name so there are lots of Martin Joneses. My blog is listed, along with entries for a number of other Martin Jones authors, who seem to be doing very well with their writing. There’s an archaeologist who has written ninety seven books, his latest about why humans share food. What have I been doing with my time? And there’s someone who writes horror stories. So not much to see with regard to me personally.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Reading, obviously. I have this scheme which alternates classic novel with new novel. Music has always been a passion. Cycling the byways of Kent is my favourite form of exercise.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?

Hmmm. Interesting. Perhaps the most surprising thing I learned was the way confidence can exist alongside an equally profound level of doubt. Within candy floss clouds of diffidence, there is a small rock of determination – not so much a rock as a chunk of neutron star. It’s odd how these opposites can exist so naturally together.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?

At primary school it was astronaut, fireman, and very briefly glazier, after a man came to fix our school window and seemed happy in his work. I thought about being a musician for a while – making some pocket money in my sixth form years playing the French horn in show bands. But writing ambitions always lurked, and had completely taken over by the time I finished school.