The Killing of Butterfly Joe- Rhidian Brook

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The Killing of Butterfly Joe defies categorisation. It’s of no known genre, original and unsettling. The reader has nothing to guide them, no comfortable stereotypes or clichéd plot lines to help them through.

When after 50 or so pages I told my wife I was not sure I could finish it, she agreed. She had given up at that point too. BUT I think she made a mistake.

The Killing of Butterfly Joe is described on the cover as a wild eyed crazy road trip across America. But that’s just an attempt to classify it, to put it in a mould and make it easier for the reader to digest. It’s not a road trip at all.

The Killing of Butterfly Joe is the story of a broken family, and about what it means to grow up. Lew, aged 23,  visits his aunt in the Catskills, New York state. Dozing over a novel by the riverside he is entranced by the appearance of Butterfly Joe and his semi-naked female accomplice. They steal his book, only to return it later, and invite him to work for their family business selling butterflies.

Lew agrees. They christen him Rip after the hero of the stolen book, and he goes to live in their ramshackle gothic house in the mountains. But it’s not a gothic tale despite the fact that Joe’s mother is a disfigured monster. She was scorched and scarred in a house fire because Joe rescued his father’s butterfly collection first, having been told by his dad how valuable it was. Only then did he pull his mother out of the flames!

The father is long gone, abandoning his family so he can collect and study lepidoptera. The mother is bitter and angry, and will have no mention of him in the house. She has poisoned her children against him.

There are two sisters. The first is the  water nymph, erotic and sexy. The second, Isabelle is more prudish. Puritan might be a better word, moral would be best. The protagonist learns through experience what these differences mean, and eventually realises which is for him.

But these two are minor characters. The book is about Joe, a larger than life figure with a comic kind of verbal diarrhoea and challenging philosophical views. Joe really does tithe, giving away ten percent of all he earns, but never to a charity or an official organisation. He is generous to ordinary people, not always the poor. It’s just the abundance of God.

Rhidian Brook is a regular contributor to Thought for the Day, a five minute slot on Radio 4 morning news. Butterfly Joe fits this mould: he is not perfect but has a Christian message for the modern world. He shows disdain for organised religion and the hypocrisy of institutions, and is in touch with the truth and spirit of the gospel. Of course this is especially relevant in the USA where organised religion has become so politicised and moral rules so entwined with social conformity.

I liked the way the character of Joe challenged orthodoxy in this way. The ideas were not new, but the message was clear and pretty sound.

Joe is desperate to make a living from his father’s butterflies. He sells parts of the collection, and breeds more, setting them in display boxes in the family house, which is also a butterfly factory. But on the road, selling, he won’t bend to the rules. That would be to give in to convention, and to deny his version of the truth. It’s inevitable that he will land in trouble, and he does. He is jailed, accused of selling mounted specimens of rare and protected species. Rip decides the only solution is to find Joe’s father who had collected the specimens in the 60s, before it became illegal.

Rip is confident he can reunite the family and rescue Joe at the same time, but he discovers that this might not be as easy as he thinks. Feelings run deep, and he is in over his neck.

The Killing of Butterfly Joe is a first person narrative, written by Rip in his jail cell. This device does create some suspense in fairly obvious ways, but I wasn’t really gripped by that, and the plot and resolution is a bit weak.

But this is a book about character and ideas. And they are interesting. The characters embody moral values in a simple way: eros and agape, motherhood, compassion. But there is more than that. Joe is complex, broken by his father’s absence. Mary, eros, needs to be loved. Isabelle also wants to please her father, even though she refuses to meet him when she has the chance.

In this respect The Killing of Butterfly Joe is a book about families, about what they mean, and how important they are, how they make us what we become.

 

 

 

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Hearing Secret Harmonies – Anthony Powell

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Powell puts his finger on the essence of the late sixties in this last volume of A Dance to the Music of Time. The joyous rebellion of the mid sixties had given way to a much nastier sense of abandonment by the end of the decade. The contrasting festivals of Monterey and Altamont summed up the change in mood. Monterey was part of the 1967 summer of love, but the Altamont festival in December 69 was ruined by the violent death of a teenage spectator within twenty feet of the stage where the Rolling Stones were playing.

In William Golding’s Lord of the Flies the boys marooned on the island dance and celebrate the killing of a pig. Simon, the visionary, stumbles into the group and is slaughtered when they reenact the pig’s death. The death at Altamont has echoes of Simon’s death. Without rules there is chaos, and by 1970 the dream of freedom had gone sour. The ironically titled final volume Hearing Secret Harmonies reflects this. It describes the final tragi-comic sequences of Widmerpool’s life.

Nick meets a group of hippies on the way to a stone age monument which they claim has mystic powers. We meet Scorpio Murtlock, the charismatic and domineering leader of the group. There are magical rites and mystical behaviours that bring to mind Dr Trelawney from earlier volumes. Fiona Cutts, Nick’s niece, is part of the commune.

Widmerpool has become chancellor of a new university. He is unkempt, dirty and untidy in his dress, and has taken the side of the rebellious students of the time. He rejects all rules and regulations, all of society’s norms. Two students throw paint over him at a university ceremony and he praises them for their daring, and for challenging authority. Powell implies he is naive, riding the currents of the 60s counterculture, his judgement clouded by cranky new fangled modern ideas.

Nick is now a member of the awarding panel for the Donners Memorial Prize given for biographies of modern men of influence; Widmerpool holds the purse strings for this award as he used to work for Donners. This year they are short of qualifying biographies. Eventually the prize is awarded to Gwinnet for his biography of X Trapnel. There is some doubt whether Widmerpool will attend the prize giving, as his wife was Gwinnet’s lover.  Powell even hints that she might have killed herself to pander to Gwinnet’s interest in necrophilia!! Could he face the shame?

But Widmerpool does turn up. At the ceremony he gives a long and tedious speech about the bourgeois nature of sexual taboos. Later his interest in alternative lifestyles leads him to Murtlock. Widmerpool invites Murtlock’s commune to live at his country property, and falls under his control, but Fiona escapes and marries Gwinnett.

Sometime later there is a family wedding. Bored and restless Nick wanders outside where he sees Widmerpool, dressed in a blue robe, and leading members of the commune on a run. There are more, deliberate echoes of Dr Trelawney, who Nick witnessed leading similar runs when he was a child. Murtlock uses the same pantheistic greeting, and has similar new age views.

One of the runners is Bithel, the drunken old fool who was such a comic character in the war years. He is still drinking, and still a figure of fun. Widmerpool had Bithel sacked from the army for drunkenness, and Murtlock has insisted that Widmerpool carry out penances for this. You get the sense that Murtlock is keeping Bithel around just so he can punish Widmerpoool, who is a pathetic and broken figure by now, filled with guilt and terrified of  Murtlock.

Throughout there have been intimations that Widmerpool had a masochistic streak, and these recur here. Finally Widmerpool dies in mysterious circumstances as a result of his involvement with this group.

Once again Powell entertains and amuses. Glad to have finished this marathon now though.

 

 

 

Temporary Kings – Anthony Powell

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Temporary Kings sees Powell develop his attack on left wing politicians in the persona of Labour MP Widmerpool and his wife Pamela Flitton, by making a series of not very subtle hints about their deviant sexual practices.

Thematically the novel revolves around an imaginary painting of Candaules and Gyges by Tiepolo, which is supposed to be on the ceiling of a palace in Venice. Candaules, the King of Lydia, boasting of the beauty of his wife, invites his general, Gyges, to observe her naked, and possibly to observe their lovemaking. This last seems to depend on the version of the myth you are reading.

Powell implies that the Widmerpools take part in similar sexual practices. At the same time he gives further hints about Pamela’s frigidity, and about the strange and unsatisfactory state of the Widmerpools’ relationship. These criticisms are an attack on the MP’s virility and morality, not his ideas. Powell laughs at him, questions whether he is a man, but has nothing actually to say about Widmerpool’s socialist policies.

In fact we do not see much of Widmerpool in this volume. He is condemned mostly in absentia by the behaviour of his wife. There are some intimations that he is involved as a go-between with eastern European communist regimes, and from his enemy, Farebrother, there are suggestions that he is a spy. This brings his political reputation into question in parliament, but the details are never revealed, and he is never prosecuted.

Michael Foot and Jeremy Corbyn have both suffered from these kind of attacks, and Ed Miliband was attacked in the right wing press simply for having a father born abroad. In that respect these sorts of controversies seem par for the course for left wing politicians in the British press.

Widmerpool was a fellow traveller, naive and a bit of a fool, but his claim that he was merely attempting to sow harmony between nations has a ring of truth. The political issue is marginal though, vague and indeterminate. It is only hinted at in a typical Powell dialogue, in which the truth is obfuscated by its gossipy quality and the second and sometimes third hand nature of the sources within the fiction. There are no actual political ideas or issues discussed.

It all comes down to the person, and throughout this 12 volume enterprise Widmerpool, quite unsubtly, has been lampooned and ridiculed. Powell could have just as easily made him an avaricious and lewd Tory MP – there are enough examples in history from this period and later – but his political agenda is clear.

This volume opens at a literary conference in Venice where Nick meets Gwinnet, an American scholar who wants to write a biography of the author X Trapnel. By coincidence Pamela Widmerpool, Trapnel’s former lover, is also in Venice, where she is shacked up with an American film mogul called Glober. Nick is able to introduce them. The coincidences become almost surreal, and certainly quite laughable when the same day Odo Stevens arrives in Venice on a leisure cruise. He is now married to Rosie Manasch, a former rival of Pamela for Odo’s love.

In a final series of coincidences, Nick’s old boss from his art publishing days, Daniel Tokenhouse, is now living in Venice, painting unsuccessfully in a variety of styles and currently imitating the Soviet realists. Nick meets him and they go for lunch, where, coincidentally they meet Glober and Pamela.

They return to Tokenhouse’s flat to look at his paintings. The style of the paintings reveals Tokenhouse’s political leanings. These are condemned not on the basis of the political ideas themselves, but because of the naive and amateurish hand of the painter. Glober agrees to buy a painting, almost as a joke, saying he will put it with his collection of primitives. At that moment, again coincidentally, Widmerpool arrives at Tokenhouse’s flat. The two have mysterious acquaintances in common from Eastern Europe and meet in Venice occasionally but this time the meeting has been cancelled.

Back in England, Gwinnet is obsessed with stepping into the shoes of X Trapnel so he can write his biography, and so goes to live and drink in Trapnel’s old haunts. He embarks on a love affair with Pamela for the same reason. She is found naked in the middle of the night at Bagshaw’s family house, where Gwinnet is living. Realising how unpredictable and dangerous Pamela is, Gwinnet distances himself from her, literally.

There is a charitable event at which Moreland is conducting an opera. This allows the cast of the novel to gather together again. At the end of the party there are fireworks when Pamela confronts Glober who is with a new lover. Pamela pointedly explains to the assembled company that Glober is in the habit of snipping a few pubic hairs from the women that he has slept with, and that he has used these to fill a cushion. It’s quite a shocking, but very funny moment.

Then we learn that a renowned left wing French writer – Ferrand-Sénéschal – died whilst in bed with Pamela, and that Widmerpool was there, observing their love making. Portraying Ferrand-Sénéschal in this way is another example of Powell condemning left wing politicians for their sexual proclivities, not their politics. Anyone who lived through John Major’s government, or like Powell himself, lived through the Profumo affair, would realise how partisan this approach is.

Later Pamela commits suicide by taking an overdose. Finally Nick bumps into an unrepentant Widmerpool on his way to the House of Lords.

You can tell that this novel was published after the Lady Chatterley trial. Powell is much more open about the sexual peccadilloes of his characters. He never writes about the experience of sex, or indeed really about love, But he uses sex as a stick with which to beat his characters, a simple yardstick of their moral probity.

All in all I have to say that I’m really glad I never met the man. He tells a good story, and can make you laugh, but these novels breathe privilege and noblesse oblige. I imagine he was quite a snob. That certainly comes through in his treatment of Widmerpool, and in earlier novels his treatment of Quiggins.

Books do Furnish a Room – Anthony Powell

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Miranda Richardson as Pamela Flitton in the TV adaptation

Books Do Furnish a Room is the tenth volume of Powell’s epic A Dance to the Music of Time, and the first set after the second world war.

Back on Civvy Street Nick is researching a biography of Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy. It’s a suitable topic deliberately chosen by Powell to reflect Nick’s state of mind, and the depressed and depressing state of post war England.

Nick is on the fringes of the literary world, and involved in the publication of a new magazine entitled Fission. Characters from earlier in the series write for the magazine, including Quiggins, and Widmerpool, who is by now a labour MP. It is funded by Erridge, who dies before publication of the first issue. New characters are also involved with the project, including researcher Ada Leitwardine, novelist X Trapnel, and Bagshaw the editor, who is a journalistic hack. Odo Stevens makes a return, with an account of his wartime exploits written for the same publisher.

But the main focus of this novel is Widmerpool. He is always the butt of jokes in A Dance to the Music of Time, usually at the climactic part or the denouement of each novel. The whole series opens with an incredibly unflattering description of him as a schoolboy. Powell describes a series of humiliating events and explains how Widmerpool was bullied and scorned by Nick and his pals at that time.

In later episodes Widmerpool makes crass errors of judgement, paying for and covering up a mistress’s abortion, and failing as a husband and lover. He is dominated by an overbearing mother and succeeds in his career only by being oblivious to others’ needs, completely insensitive to their feelings, and prioritising bureaucracy over humanity.

Widmerpool makes few political comments during the novel, but is portrayed as a fellow traveller, ridiculed when he returns from a visit to Eastern Europe to declare, obviously incorrectly, that there is no such thing as the Iron Curtain.

Widmerpool’s choice of wife, the beautiful Pamela Flitton, also reflects badly on him. She has not changed from the earlier novels, and shows her selfishness and cruelty at Erridge’s funeral where she embarrasses Widmerpool publicly. She seems to love to taunt the men she has relationships with. Widmerpool is not able to control her, but seems intent on keeping the relationship going. It seems she is a trophy bride, used to confirm his virility.

Pamela runs off with the impecunious novelist X Trapnel to live in a run down flat. In a coincidence typical of Powell, Nick happens to be at Trapnel’s flat when Widmerpool arrives to confront Pamela. Later Nick is also there when she leaves Trapnel. Trapnel is afraid to return to the flat alone after an argument, and enlists the support of Nick and another friend to give him courage. What a dragon she is!

Spoiler alert!!

By the time Trapnel gets to the flat Pamela is gone. She has once again taken with her the Modigliani she so treasures. More controversially and quite cruelly, she has thrown the only manuscript of Trapnel’s novel into the canal!

Powell rarely comments on the sexuality of his characters, but he breaks this rule in describing Pamela. Trapnel is infatuated with her but says making love to her is like making love to a board. He passes on to Nick Pamela’s description of her sexual relationship with Widmerpool, who does not come out of it well. Their marriage must have been hell.

The novel ends back at Nick’s old school where he has gone to register his son. He meets Le Bas. In his eighties Le Bas is still the victim of children’s pranks. Widmerpool is there too, hanging around. He is back with Pamela who has an “assignation” with a young man at the school, possibly a pupil. Widmerpool is instructed to wait outside for an indefinite time until she is ready to return.

The intimations here are obvious. To be frank it is a bit crass, and again coincidence plays such a significant part in the meeting that some literary critics such as Powell’s enemy and rival FR Leavis would dismiss the event out of hand.

Powell embodies leftwing politicians and thinkers in disreputable, foolish and cruel characters to make political points. Choosing to make Widmerpool a Labour MP is an example of this. His criticism of Quiggins throughout the series also underlines Powell’s essentially Conservative political allegiances.

Nevertheless he continues to entertain with his soap like characters and plot lines and the dialogue rarely fails to be amusing and to ring true.

The Military Philosophers – Anthony Powell

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The volume brings to the end Nick Jenkins’ experiences as a soldier in the second world war. He has taken a step up the military ladder and is working as an allied liaison officer with the Poles in London. That takes him to the war office, the heart of war time London, though his role there is rather minor.

Once again we meet characters from Nick’s past, including old school friends and members of Nick’s extended family. The novel brings these two threads together in an amusing little story involving Widmerpool.

At the beginning of the novel we meet this recurrently inept and ridiculous character in his new job in the war office, where he has important duties to perform ensuring the safety of the nation. Yes, just as now, we were in safe hands.

Nick arrives at a meeting chaired by Widmerpool. Farebrother is there and it seems that his star has been outshone by Widmerpool’s. Peter Templer is also there, disgruntled and fed up with his role in the war. Widmerpool accompanies Nick walking back to the office, and it’s apparent that this moment of companionship is all an exercise in impressing his old school friend. Nick though is not really interested in Widmerpool’s politicking.

Later Nick finds himself driven around London by a beautiful young woman called Pamela Flitton. She is Stringham’s niece. We learn that he has been taken prisoner at Singapore, and is thought to be dead.

Pamela is magnetically attractive, with dark hair and very pale skin, but she is a difficult woman. Nick surmises that she gets off on torturing the men who fall for her. Even Peter Templer, ace seducer and womaniser has not been able to tame Pamela, which is one of the reasons he is so down about life.

Pamela is bad tempered, plays fast and loose, and seemingly ignores all the rules. Soon there are hints of her involvement with a foreign soldier, maybe an agent, of indeterminate nation, though claiming to be Polish. It seems that this indiscretion loses her the job as a driver, but she finds other fish to fry.

Later we meet her again. She is sleeping with Odo Stevens, Priscilla’s old lover, and now some sort of secret agent. Nick meets them in night time London, seeking escape from the interminable noise of the flying bombs by pacing the ground floor of their hotel. Odo is bullish and full of himself as usual, but Pamela cuts him down to size by cruelly describing his inadequacies in bed.

Another rave from the grave is also ambling round the foyer of the hotel: Mrs Erdleigh, Uncle Giles’ old flame, and one time spiritual accomplice of Dr Trelawney. She causes ructions by making predictions about Odo and Pamela’s future, leading to a massive row and the end of the relationship.

Later Nick is promoted and goes on a tour of Normandy and Belgium with various noteworthy representatives of allied nations. He meets the field Marshall – I guess this might be Monty as Nick makes various comments about his dress sense, referring to the famed sweater.

One night Nick stays in the hotel described by Proust in A La Recherche du Temps Perdu. I might be inspired by this to finally read a novel I should have read at university as part of my French course, but typically at the time, never did. I’m currently looking for an English translation with the French on opposite pages, if anyone knows of one.

Finally back in London we discover that Widmerpool is engaged to be married to Pamela. Talk about doomed relationships! She messes him about at a posh war office reception, arriving late, in scruffy clothes, and not bothering to be introduced, at the same time being late enough to ensure that Widmerpool will be late for a dinner appointment with some important government minister.

To further discomfort him she blames Widmerpool for Peter Templer’s death in the Balkans. Widmerpool had obviously been spilling state secrets and getting himself in a bit deep in an attempt to impress Pamela with his important role in the war. He tries to absolve himself of blame by saying he was not directly involved in the actual decision to abandon Templer to his nasty end, but Pamela has her nails in deep and keeps on pinching.

Finally at the service in St Paul’s to mark the end of the war Nick helps a South American diplomat to find a seat. Later this man introduces Nick to his wife who turns out to be Jean, Templer’s sister and Nick’s old flame.

Once again it’s a small world. Too small really. I may have said it before – but I could see why Powell hated FR Leavis so much. Leavis would have hated all these coincidences, and would have said so. For him novels had to adhere to psychological realism, and plots should never depend on twists of fate.

It’s just a different philosophy I suppose. A Dance to the Music of Time is not really a novel in the sense that Leavis would have meant. For him great writers showed human life in a way that ultimately would teach us how to be, one that would reveal moral values and universal truths.

Powell does a bit of this, but reading these books is more like sitting next to an old pal  on the sofa, and opening another bottle of port whilst he rambles on about his life and tells you about all his old pals. I like it for that.

The Soldier’s Art – Anthony Powell

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There is irony in the title The Soldier’s Art, because it’s obvious that many of the skills Nick develops and the tasks he completes in this volume have little to do with being a soldier, and even less to do with any art or skill. Nick is simply a military bureaucrat.

Nick’s boss, Widmerpool, attended the same school as Nick, and was the first character we met in volume 1. He was bottom of the pecking order, the butt of schoolboy jokes, and generally regarded as doomed to failure. So it is ironic that as the saga develops he becomes the most successful of the old boys Nick meets intermittently on life’s long journey.

It’s clear there is something special about Widmerpoool. His success is down to being single minded, hard working and seemingly without empathy. This allows him to navigate life in the army, and indeed life itself without allowing personal feelings or conscience to intervene or drive him off course.

And when Nick’s old school friend Stringham turns up as a waiter in Nick’s mess hall, we get a clear message that early success, manifest charm and popularity at school do not always lead to a happy and successful life. Stringham is off the booze now, but is a hollowed out figure, grumbled at and bullied by the officers as he serves them food, and clearly a spent force.

Nick feels some compassion and a little embarrassment at finding his old school pal serving him at table. He mentions this to Widmerpool, who instructs him to be more professional, and to get over it. However Widmerpool thinks again and transfers Stringham to the mobile laundry, despite knowing he is sending him off to a more dangerous post in the far east. Once again Nick worries about Stringham’s future but Widmerpool shows no such concerns. He simply does not feel empathy; he lacks a human dimension.

I suppose this inhumane element of army life is reflected in the way Powell opens this volume with descriptions of the army base and its offices. Here he compares the various functionaries to different Egyptian gods. To be honest I found this section a bit boring, and skipped through it.  I wanted to get on to what I think Powell writes about best, human relationships. But it might be worth going back to reread these pages at a later date. I can see that Powell put some considerable thought into them, using Egypt and its strange gods as a metaphor for the dead hand of bureaucracy. After all it was in Egypt that bureaucracy began. Ask Joseph.

I found the power play between Widmerpool and the other officers more interesting though. Anyone who has worked in a large institution will recognise the machinations and arm wrestling that goes on behind the scenes. The real agenda is always about personalities, and personal success, and rarely about the job in hand.

True to form this volume ends with an amusing confrontation in Widmerpool’s office in which Nick witnesses the changing fortunes of Farebrother, Hogbourne-Johnson and Widmerpool himself. First one and then the other appears to have gained victory in some minor struggle for power and advancement. Widmerpool sees success within his grasp, and to some extent it is, as he is promoted to the War Office in London, but not before he has to deal with some of his own personal failings. Powell does not let him off, and Widmerpool’s arrogance makes his momentary downfall even more entertaining.

Once again Powell introduces characters from across the army in this volume. Widmerpool sets out to prove that Diplock, Hogbourne-Johnson’s right hand man is embezzling money and goods. But Diplock is pretty smart as it turns out. And there is Stringham, and a drunken Bithel. Stringham and Nick attempt to show Bithel some compassion, and carry him through the streets to bed. But when Widmerpool gets involved he seizes on the opportunity to dismiss him. It’s the correct, professional choice, but not a humane act.

Another minor character commits suicide in The Soldier’s Art, and once again it is linked to marital infidelity, a theme that runs throughout the saga. This time it is Biggs, an officer in Nick’s mess, who is found hanging in the cricket pavilion.

Then Nick spends time in London where he meets Chips Lovell, Priscilla’s estranged husband. He tells Nick of his plans for a reconciliation and goes off to find her, but minutes later she comes in to the pub with her lover Odo Stevens. He is egocentric and a charmer, seeking adoration and praise from everyone in the group, including Audrey Mclintick, who is now living with Moreland. She is a flighty piece. In a previous volume she was receptive to Stringham’s drunken charms. Then she ran off with another musician, her lodger, leaving her husband to commit suicide. Now she is with Moreland, but is clearly flattered and possibly tempted by Odo Stevens.

Powell kills off one or two of these dissolute characters at the end of this volume, wielding the sword of justice in the form of a German air raid. Never say he is a man without a moral compass.

The Valley of Bones – Anthony Powell

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On into World War 2 with Powell’s saga of life in Britain in the twentieth century. It’s The Valley of Bones, and Nick has joined the army – a Welsh regiment. Powell also joined a Welsh regiment, and claimed he had a royal Welsh family history, so it’s hard not to see this as just more confirmation of the autobiographical nature of A Dance to the Music of Time.

Certainly The Valley of Bones gives Powell all kinds of opportunities to use Welsh cadences in his dialogue, and he’s very convincing in this respect when describing the barrack rooms, messes and hostelries he spends time in during the early years of the war.

Bithel, a fellow officer, claims a family relationship with a soldier awarded the Victoria Cross, and pretends to have been a rugby international, or at least of international standard. We meet him in the bar when blind drunk. His fellow officers rig his bed and watch the consequent shenanigans with amusement.

But rather than being shamed and undermined by the trick Bithel dances drunkenly around the bed as if making love to it. The officers are impressed by his ability to laugh off the unwanted joke by joining in so comically. But when Nick speaks to him the next day he realises that Bithel was too drunk to remember what happened, and clearly had no idea what he was doing at the time, in fact no idea at all that he had been the butt of a joke.

Bithel turns out to be a complete fraud and is terrified of the others discovering that he has no ability whatsoever as a rugby player, and no family links to a VC. He is just one of several new characters Powell introduces in this volume as he continues to explore the vagaries of human nature in many of its forms.

Nick’s commanding officer Gwatkin is an ambitious soldier. He wants to move on from the territorial regiment that they are currently in. But he makes a mess of a couple of things on manoeuvres when the company move to Northern Ireland for training, and his hopes take a crash.

Later Gwatkin falls in romantic love with a local barmaid. He confides in Nick and considers embarking on an affair, despite the fact that he has a wife at home. Gwatkin places the barmaid on a romantic pedestal, which amuses Nick, who thinks she is nothing to write home about. The reader is also amused when they bump into the barmaid having sex on a park bench with another soldier. Gwatkin comes down to earth with an amusing thud, realising he has failed in many military duties because he was busy dreaming about this girl.

Whilst most of this volume is set on army bases Nick does manage to get some leave, ending up at the home of one of his wealthy friends, and meeting various characters from his past including Jimmy Brent, a former lover of Nick’s old mistress, Jean. Nick listens with interest but does not comment as Jimmy spills the beans about his affair with Jean.

Odo Stevens, who makes costume jewellery, enters here, making a big impression on Priscilla, one of Nick’s relatives whose husband is away at the war. This episode echoes the recurrent theme of marital infidelity, as does the incident with Gwatkin. Indeed one of the sergeants in the regiment finds his life destroyed when he realises his wife has been unfaithful whilst he has been away. A neighbour writes to the regiment to divulge all, and the sergeant goes home to try to sort things out, but to no avail.