Temporary Kings By Anthony Powell – Warning To An Age Where Everyone’s A Monarch For Fifteen Minutes

Temporary Kings is the penultimate novel in Anthony Powell’s A Dance To The Music Of Time sequence. We have followed Nick Jenkins through school days and young adulthood, into his early career as a writer. Temporary Kings opens with Nick having become a rather successful author, eminent enough to make up the numbers at a fancy writers’ conference in Venice. Success, however, has not gone to his head, the schedule of talks on such topics as the role of the writer in world government, holding little interest for him. Instead he prefers wandering about in the pleasant company of Dr Brightman, a very knowledgeable historian. She takes Nick to a Venetian mansion, to see a ceiling painting – Candaules and Gyges by Tiepolo. They both stare up at Greek king Candaules, secretly showing off his beautiful wife at bedtime to his friend Gyges, hiding behind a curtain. This painting sets the tone for the book, where voyeurism is a central theme.

Voyeurism is about having a special and unusual view into other people’s lives – a bit like reading a book really. Certainly, for Gyges, chief officer and friend of King Candaules, the opportunity of seeing a naked queen does not come along everyday. But Gyges also realises that the chance to see what is usually hidden, comes with danger attached, only reluctantly agreeing to the plan at the king’s insistence. As it turns out, Gyges was right to be worried. The queen spots the voyeur when he tries to slip away. Furious at her husband’s self-satisfied act of betrayal, she confronts Gyges and offers him two choices: he can either be executed, or he can marry her and murder Candaules, reigning in his place. There isn’t much choice but to accept the latter option, which makes the servant into a king he never wanted to be.

As I read on through the book, the issues in the painting did not seem to be confined to the musings of intellectuals in Venice. Recent history is a process where once rarefied experience becomes accessible generally. Royals wear something, which people adopt as popular fashion. Stately homes are opened to everyone to enjoy, which can only be a good thing. Increasingly, a world confined to a few, particular people becomes available to many. But what happens at the extremes of this process? There are all kinds of monarchs of many different worlds – political, scientific, medical. Can we peek into these worlds, via YouTube videos perhaps, and think we can rule those territories ourselves? Is that peek, that little bit of knowledge, a dangerous thing? When there are no monarchs left, could that be a risky situation? In the previous Dance volume, we met the publisher, Books Do Furnish A Room Bagshaw. Time has moved on, Bagshaw moving with it. He is is now a TV producer. I think Temporary Kings sees television as a voyeuristic medium, more so perhaps than books which require a greater measure of involvement from the reader. As Tiepolo’s painting makes clear, voyeurism has been with us for a long time. Books themselves can act in this way. Even so, it might be said that Temporary Kings is a meditation on the consequences of cultural changes that emphasise voyeurism.

Meanwhile, mild-mannered Nick Jenkins, as usual, does not claim profound insight. Typically his writing is humble in its approach, dealing with day to day events. Even as a well-known writer, he ignores those conference talks on the writer’s supposed role in world government. Temporary Kings is a meditation around the idea of accepting our limited view of the world, and using it to better appreciate how things really are. Nick ends his book walking through London watching an antique car rally go by. This might not seem like a dramatic denouement, but after witnessing the fate of characters such as Kenneth Widermerpool, and his scary wife Pamela, who were both voyeurs, perhaps we come to further appreciate the value of Nick’s more polite outlook.

Temporary Kings is funny, dramatic in a restrained kind of way, and intriguingly relevant to a modern situation where many people believe that after peeking into rarified worlds of knowledge via a few videos, they can be rulers of those worlds, seeing what the king sees. This book presents a more traditional sense that some views are privileged and should stay that way. In the typical moderate Nick Jenkins manner, you would need to be careful how far you took that point, which the book’s complexities allow for, but given present circumstances there is much we could take from Temporary Kings.

The Morning Show Season Two – The Show’s The Thing Wherein I’ll Catch The Conscience Of The King

There are spoilers in the following review. Please bear in mind before reading!

In my article on the first series of The Morning Show, I recalled a university tutor who taught me that Shakespeare never really said anything. “All you can do is maintain the paradoxes”, is how she put it. Overall Shakespeare says nothing because multiple sides of an argument cancel each other out, leaving a tangle of contradiction. Characters try to make progress in a certain direction, only to run into all kinds of snags, which leave them right back where they started. Hamlet trying to make up his mind what to do about his murderous uncle is a good example.

The second series of The Morning Show describes a Shakespearean kind of situation, where people attempt to move on, only to find steps forward becoming backward stumbles. Former news anchor, Mitch Kessler, sacked from The Morning Show for his behaviour towards women, has taken refuge in a lonely Italian villa overlooking Lake Como. Here he tries to come to terms with himself, and work out a way of moving on. He is fortunate to meet an Italian woman, Paola Lambruschini, a struggling documentary film maker. After forming an uneasy but supportive relationship, Paola neatly summarises Mitch’s dilemma as a cancelled celebrity. If he apologises for his conduct, he’s insincere. Do-gooding acts are self-serving. Continuing to live his life is callous. Choosing to end it all and shuffle off this mortal coil, is the coward’s way out. He just has to suffer. So, does Mitch have any control, any ability to improve himself and his life, or does he simply have to let fate take its course?

In the end Mitch doesn’t quite take any of the choices Paola offers him. Driving alone at night, tortured by doubts, he swerves to avoid an on-coming car, and then allows himself to crash. This is not really an accident, even though an accident is part of what happens. Mitch makes a choice, which is combined with what was happening anyway.

Now we turn to the fate of his long-time partner at The Morning Show, Alex Levy. She is threatened by looming revelations of her past intimate relationship with Mitch, and the fact that she knew what he was like but said nothing. First she begs Maggie Brenner, the writer of a tell-all book about The Morning Show, for mercy. That doesn’t work. Then, just before Mitch takes that fateful, final drive, Alex turns up at his villa and demands that he write a letter saying they never slept together. Although they enjoy a sweet interlude of rekindled affection, no letter from Mitch is going to save Alex. She returns to America knowing the book will soon be published, exposing her as the willing mistress of a sexual predator.

At this point, Alex does seem to take a step forward in accepting her situation. After learning of Mitch’s death, she attends his bleak memorial service. Alex feels compelled to give a speech revealing very real feelings of affection for her former partner, admitting the complexity of a situation where a bad person has good qualities. But if this acceptance seems like growth it soon turns into a backwards lurch. The Morning Show presenter Bradley Jackson does a great job of blunting the impact of the revelatory book – interviewing Maggie Brenner in a way that paints the author as a ruthless opportunist, while Alex comes over as someone trying to do better. Alex seems to be saved, Twitter giving praise for trying to move on – relief that lasts only until footage of her memorial speech is leaked on-line. Now Twitter turns, condemning Alex as the same person she has always been, sleeping with the enemy. In panic, Alex falls over a shoe, bangs her head, and ends up in hospital where she tests positive for covid. Was she infected in Italy, and did she then recklessly expose her co-workers on The Morning Show to the virus? Could things get any worse? Everything Alex has attempted in an effort to improve her situation fails. Trapped and alone in a dark, luxury apartment, she descends into a feverish, covid nightmare.

At this point, Alex’s loyal producer, Charlie Black, provides one last chance at redemption. He offers to put her covid experience on television, allowing people to see her pain and empathise with it. And in a finale to camera, vomit cleaned up, hair brushed, makeup reducing a febrile pallor, Alex confronts the world and herself. This represents a similar step forward to that seen at the memorial service. She accepts who she is, though this time she does so in public. There is no hiding now. But once again acceptance is ambivalent. By understanding her nature there is obviously a chance to change. Some of her confessional self-analysis has that feeling. Equally, though, her acceptance of who she is also has the feeling of, ‘this is who I am, I’m not going to be ashamed, get used to it.’ We are back with paradoxes rather than answers.

In Shakespeare’s Richard III, Brackenbury says

“Sorrow breaks seasons and reposing hours, makes the night morning and the noontime night.”

The Morning Show says the same thing. In an age that wants closure, clear judgements, black and white answers, this is a show that, for better or worse, recalls the tradition of Shakespeare where the real nature of life is an endless paradox where light can be dark, night can be morning, and there is always hope for another day, a new edition of The Morning Show to describe another twist in the tale.

Is it better or worse to present life in this way? Personally, I feel it is closer to reality than assuming that there are final answers to the problems of people living together. Life goes on, which does rather work against the idea of finality. It’s always a kind of cobbled together compromise. At least compromise is something that is naturally open to moderation and understanding. The Shakespearean approach has this going for it – the promise that life will continue. There will always be something else for The Morning Show to talk about.

Books Do Furnish A Room, By Anthony Powell – The Power Of Decorative Bookshelves

Books Do Furnish A Room, is the tenth instalment of Anthony Powell’s A Dance To The Music Of Time.

In the immediate aftermath of World War Two, narrator Nick Jenkins attempts to gather the threads of his old life as a writer. He joins a small publishing firm called Quiggin and Craggs. The mild-mannered, middle-of-the-road Nick is rather out of place at a company that specialises in radical, left wing political material. But a job’s a job, especially in these dark, austere, post-war years when publishing is at its lowest ebb, “owing to a shortage of paper, and governmental restrictions of one kind or another”. Nick does his best, producing book reviews, and in an echo of his wartime military liaison job, looking after relations between the company and its star writer, X. Trapnel. In his spare time he works on a study of Robert Burton’s An Anatomy of Melancholy.

The post-war setting of Books Do Furnish A Room is undeniably bleak. Friends have been lost in tragic circumstances, bomb damage is everywhere, there are food shortages, power cuts and freezing weather. It is little wonder that Nick has turned his attention to Robert Burton’s famous work about sadness. Nevertheless, Books Do Furnish A Room retains the familiar humour of the Dance series. I often found myself chuckling. How to find happiness in a time of misery? That’s the question Nick seems to be trying to answer.

War has produced the dark world in which Nick now scrapes a living and looks for his secret of contentment. As during the war, he finds himself surrounded by people holding divergent and sometimes extreme views. The possibility of conflict is as real as ever. Nick, in his usual middling place, is trying to keep the peace. At least he is not alone there. He is joined in many ways by the manager of his publishing company, a man known as ‘Books Do Furnish A Room Bagshaw’. Books Bagshaw takes an approach to management favoured by some politicians – studiously never really giving away what he believes in, if indeed he believes in anything. As people argue about their strongly-held views, you begin to wonder if the best books, the ones most conducive to increasing the store of human happiness, might be those that don’t express very much. After all, Books Bagshaw keeps his volatile staff together by bantering his way along in a superficial manner. His nickname – which incidentally is perhaps derived from words uttered when drunken attempts to retrieve an inaccessible volume brought a massive bookcase down on his head – is not a phrase suggesting significant and meaningful relations with books. They serve as pleasant wallpaper. Given the troublesome passions stirred by significance and meaning, ‘books do furnish a room’ could be the mantra for those of a moderate disposition at a time when the world has been wrecked by conflict.

Fittingly, Books Do Furnish A Room shows writers not as great artists creating deathless, meaningful prose, but as chaotic, variously flawed individuals leading less then ethereal lives. The portrayal of writer X. Trapnel, for example, is a masterpiece in hilarious characterisation. An eccentric young man who loves the romantic idea of being a writer, he hams it up for all he is worth, acting out different, contradictory versions of the creative life, while living in squalor. The superficial charm of Trapnel’s author glamour persuades a sequence of young women to live with him. They all leave, once they experience the reality of not having enough money for the electricity meter, and sitting in pubs listening to the exposition of endless, boring literary theories. It is Trapnel’s misfortune to finally fall in love with the dreadful Pamela Widermerpool, a sociopath who spreads disaster wherever she goes. Between the effect of Pamela’s baleful influence and his own chaotic lifestyle, Trapnel fails to produce great work. Nevertheless his sad story coincides with reassurance that greatness is probably not the way to happiness. Books will end up looking decorative on a shelf, no matter how mediocre or great they are. There is something in that very lack of significance which, in the end, is the best promise of peace and happiness following a time of war.

So if Nick finds happiness, he does not do so via any esoteric wisdom, but in the day to day events of life, which are available for anyone to enjoy. In that sense Books Do Furnish A Room is reassuring, a deceptively light novel with a message that light novels have something important to impart. This book, as part of a massive twelve volume sequence, is hugely ambitious, and yet humble and self effacing. As usual the awful, self-congratulatory recurring character of Kenneth Widdmerpool, continuing ever upwards in his ambitious trajectory, shows what happens when humility is missing from aspiration. It all makes for a beguiling combination which I very much enjoyed. I’ve loved all the Dance books, but if pushed I have to say this might be my favourite so far.

One Two Three Four By Craig Brown – The Story Of A Musical Earthquake

Craig Brown’s One Two Three Four, is a history of the Beatles. It’s also an account of someone trying to get to grips with the whole Beatles heritage business, with its religious relics, and pilgrimages to shrines. Craig Brown is like Chaucer reincarnated to write the Beatles story, puncturing pretensions with cheeky wit. By standing back and making this an account not only of the story, but also of trying to understand it, we actually get a more sensitive feel for the indefinite nature of this history, and any history. Paul McCartney is quoted, reflecting on some vexed question of Beatles lore: ‘In an earthquake, you get many different versions of what happened by all the people that saw it. And they’re all true.’

Whatever the particular earthquake an individual might recall, we can generally agree that earthquakes are harrowing events. So it is with this story. The tale that emerges over 640 odd pages, is occasionally exciting, often funny in a Keystone Cops kind of way, but ultimately sad, ridiculous and traumatic. Rarely has a group of people been so successful, creatively and materially – and rarely has success coincided with such farce and disillusion. This tale of dark contradiction is movingly portrayed through all kinds of sources, from the diary entries of fans, to the reminiscences of young policemen called in to shut down roof top performances in the middle of London.

The narrative’s trajectory is really encapsulated by the compelling and tragic final pages, where we work backwards, from band manager Brian Epstein’s death in 1967, through events over the previous five years leading up to it. Usually we assume that we make progress moving forward. In this story things are getting better going backwards, from a dreadful denouement involving depression and drugs, through gathering problems where success leaves someone vulnerable to manipulative individuals, to early excitement and promise. It’s like the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool, one of the world’s most famous luxury hotels in the 1960s, dated and mouldy by 2019, when Craig Brown visits to explore a tacky fair selling overpriced Beatles memorabilia.

Towards the end of his Beatles career, in his song Across The Universe, John Lennon wrote “nothing’s going to change my world”. This is a line resulting from living through his own earthquake. Earth-shattering fame and fortune did not bring any real change to his life. All that was bad about it remained, and perhaps, as with Brian Epstein, was actually magnified. And yet if life never changes, then you never really lose the good things about it either. All those remembered joys which the Beatles looked back on with such aching nostalgia – inspiring songs like Yesterday, In My Life, or Get Back – were somehow still there.

One Two Three Four is the kind of story that makes you feel better about your lot. To quote a Beatles song title – Baby You’re a Rich Man Too. By the end of the book that is how I felt. It’s fine to try and achieve something, but always be thankful for what you have.