The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives – Sebastian Faulks

TFEThis book looks at some promising Englishmen who lived life to the full, with passion and ambition and who all died young.

Cocteau, who kept youthful by taking young lovers, loved this book.

Despite winning two world wars, Faulks seems to think that, since 1914 we have been numbed by war. Boys at school each morning had heard the names of boys of only the term before being killed in battle. There’s an evident fascination for the incredible changes that war creates inside the individual.

Painter Christopher (Kit) Wood (1901-1930) was four years old when his father returned from the front. Wood, it is said, was as beautiful as Rupert Brooke and went abroad at age 19 and was later proud to call himself “the first English painter to have made it in France”. He observed that the English have little appetite for painting or psychology. Aesthetic Catholicism at St. Sulpice in Paris caught his eye.

England ignored continental thinking about homosexuality. Havelock Ellis’s work was published in 1897 in the US but not in England until 1935.

He got a girlfriend who worked as a mannequin, then a tom boy who he saw as pure, denying any sexual element. His gamine sexuality was towards those who were slim, often boyish, any wide-eyed young woman who is, or is perceived to be, mischievous, teasing or sexually appealing. He gloried in his “immorality”; a cadger, catamite, sybarite, cherished by the rich of Paris, taken on wonderful journeys by millionaires of taste, threading through war-zones without concern. Once, stuck in traffic in the Centro in Rome, he found himself looking into the eyes of Mussolini in the car alongside him. Both men looked away. He never returned to his family home in Huyton or his beloved mother and took no notice of the gathering storm. But he worked furiously even on the romantic holidays. The Euro-trash never got at his painting.

Despite the stock exchange crash he never dreamt of taking a job.

He became manic, not eating, increasing his opium use, up all night, hearing suicidal voices and ended up throwing himself under a train at Salisbury, aged only 29. (In deference to his mother. his death was often claimed to be accidental) Others wished they’d seen the cues and paid for some treatment, though he was older than most men when 1st symptoms appeared.

He left forty wonderful paintings, done in his last summer in Brittany before returning to England.

Max Jacob spent time with Wood. He had Jewish parents but became a guilty catholic and kept in his missal names to pray for. They shared opium, believing it makes things seem more profound, that the Chinese can cope but the Brits are nervous about it. He seemed like a sinister seminarian dancing in cassock and pink socks, engaged in their smoking ritual which takes away all the thoughts swirling round head, removing all dross so as to make room for real; insight.

My favourite story was the second one, of Richard Hillary (1919-1943), an Australian born with an Australian wanderlust, English by adoption, the fighter pilot. He had been to boarding school but was emotionally open. His mother taught him ‘to be a man’. His English teacher was the most important influence on his life. He developed self-sufficiency and superiority and showed displays of learning like suede shoes. Left-wingers despised the middle-classes but could not gain access to world of labour and gave orders only after democratic consultation.

There’s a vivid description of the planes and their narrow confines, of pilots shot down mesmerised.  He was glamorous, handsome and arrogant. This changed during the War, when he joined the RAF and flew as a fighter pilot. He was shot down over the English Channel and horribly burned on the face and hands. In the course of his recovery he underwent several operations at the hands of the famous New Zealand plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe at East Grinstead.  His parents leave him in hospital just as they did at school – self-controlled partings. He was highly attractive before the burns and it was, thus, hard to sort out who his real friends were. Now, he needed to revise who he was as he could no longer rely on looks for sex. Hillary worked maniacally. Not men, women nor his horribly burned body got in the way of his flying, or his writing (his self-portrait in The Last Enemy with its descriptions of flying and its lack of self-pity.) Hillary determined to fly again, although, owing to his injuries, he was not able to control a plane. The RAF allowed him to retrain to fly bombers, but he crashed fatally one night in Scotland, taking his navigator with him. (The medical officer’s letter which warned AGAINST any further flying – his hands were reportedly not capable of properly grasping a knife and fork, let alone managing the complicated controls of an air craft – was left unopened so you wonder ‘What if?’)

He is today remembered at Trinity College, Oxford, by an annual lecture in his honour, in the Gulbenkian Lecture Theatre. It has been delivered by Ian McEwan, Philip Pullman, Julian Barnes, Mark Haddon, Jeanette Winterson, Sebastian Faulks and Howard Jacobson.

Jeremy Wolfendon (1934-1965), went to QEGS, Wakefield, where a friend of mine used to teach and where all pupils were thrashed. He was a fag to Douglas Hurd (reviewing the book in the Daily Telegraph, Hurd was adamant that he had never beaten Jeremy Wolfenden). He never seemed to work but always came top (he wrote about half a page on his entrance papers to All Souls).  He got a poor degree so schoolmastering was a likely career but he was an early reader.

He said that he was not a good mixer as you have to lower yourself, that he was not conceited but realistically arrogant. He despised ready meals and flatpacks as he was not going to spend Sunday morning with bradawl and spanner. He had vodka for breakfast and rarely ate. The last person he’d marry was a girl who left school at 15. He was an outspoken homosexual at a time when this was a criminal offence. His appetite for small boys worried even Eton.

He became the Moscow correspondent of the Daily Telegraph. He spoke Russian, possessed “a brilliant mind”. During his tenure, the Berlin Wall was built, the Cuba crisis exploded and Orleg Penkovsky went on trial as a British agent. Drinking like a fish and being blackmailed over his sex life by both the KGB and MI6, he could work when drunk and terrified. He died of drink at the age of 31 (in what appeared to be suspicious circumstances. It was claimed he had fainted in the bathroom, cracked his head against the washbasin and died of a cerebral haemorrhage. It is now thought likely that he died of liver failure brought on by his excessive drinking. Some of his friends believe that MI6 and the KGB between them had driven him into such a state of desperation that he had lost the will to live.)

His father was an unsophisticated gradgrind, who found homosexuality distasteful (using the phrase ‘Huntleys and Palmers when chairing his report.) His blackmail could affect millions of fellow Brits. After his son’s funeral, he played word games.

Is this a case of ‘tragic waste of lives’ or ‘They who the gods love die young’?

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