John Lehmann opens this issue’s Foreword by apologising for the sudden disappearance of the coloured plates. They’d vanished in issue 31, presumably a last-minute or force majeure decision, because in this issue the reasons are discussed. All the good colour printers in Britain are booked up for months at a time, so there is no room in the queue without unacceptable delays, affecting the whole magazine’s schedule. It’s a pity, but I expect that readers would have preferred reliable delivery and black and white photographs, rather than uncertain and unpredictable beauty.
Another reliable factor for Penguin New Writing is the steady increase of fiction and reportage grumbling about the lack of servants, or the impossibility of servants’ behaviour. Some of the biographies of the new contributors also reflect this unquestioning privilege: ‘… was educated at Charterhouse and Balliol College, Oxford’. Like territorial cries across the pampas, these are signals of class, position, expectation and niche.
P H Newby’s ‘Khamseen’, however, isn’t about predictable English privilege, but unaccountable and alien privileges. Fawzia is sold to the Widow Hamed as a child, and after a week of eating well is revealed to be a child of twelve rather than a scrawny seven or eight. She is the servant-of-all-work, but she comes to dominate the household, and her estranged mother begins to haunt the street outside, aware now of a daughter’s value as a very saleable trained beauty. The men in the story seem to be ineffectual and hated: the three women prowl around each other’s spaces, debating ownership.
Nigel Heseltine’s ‘A day’s pleasure’ is the story of a chaotic picnic party in which the children run wild, say rude words, cheek the nurse who will have her revenge, but also bring along the forbidden best cups. It’s a thoroughly miserable and agonising story. The impotent fury of the thwarted children’s nurse is a portrait of unjust tyranny.
In Alan Pryce-Jones’ ‘Inheritance’ the daughters of the house are the servants, and they and their mother are quietly, disloyally longing for the death of their father, who has been lingering for a very long time. Their tea-party visitors talk about what the ladies of the family might do if the head of household dies: buy a small, convenient, comfortable flat they can afford to run so the daughters don’t spend all their time servanting. But we get the feeling that the father (apparently well into dementia) is not going to go except at a time of his own choosing.
The critical essays are very, very boring, even Rosamond Lehmann (ooh, who’s she, John?) on Mrs Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters. The paintings by Lucian Freud are fresh and powerful.
Modern French tapestries by Saint-Säens and others are sparkling, like crisper, more colourfully precise Chagalls.
Angus McBean’s photographs of Twelfth Night at Stratford upon Avon (starring Beatrix Lehmann: another sister, John?), Paul Scofield and Walter Hudd show a sturdy, primary-coloured production with some odd hats.
The best contributions appear at the end of the issue, by which time people will be flicking through the pages sleepily. Dunstan Thompson’s ‘A traveller to Deptford’ is reportage of a journey he took by train to Deptford. He was advised to get a train to New Cross and then to walk, since it would be faster than the direct train an hour later. Having once lived in Brockley I know exactly how long it takes to walk to Deptford from New Cross, so this intrigued me. Turns out he was ill-advised, and enters a foreign land. His account of a bombed-out and desolate urban wasteland teeming with savage children is so close to Rose Macaulay’s The World My Wilderness as to corroborate all her descriptions of the devastated City churches. Thompson is looking for St Nicholas, Deptford, and Marlowe’s grave, and finds it a ruin. The vicar lives ‘very far away’, nowhere near this milling bombsite of graffiti, broken tombs, chapel alcoves used by prostitutes and ruined stonework. The curate is exhausted, with no hope of restoring the site. ‘His voice was passionless with the weary right accent: he was from some university. There was nothing to be done, he said. Everything that had not been bombed had been stolen. “They have taken the last of the timber for firewood.” I asked “Can no one stop the children from breaking into the graves?” This is post-war London, very far away from Mayfair and the servant problem. This is also post-war Europe.
The final story, Jiří Mucha’s ‘Roots’, translated by E Osers, is charmingly, pleasantly bucolic. A farmer is digging in the good earth, he is pleased that the roof of the old farmhouse is now mended, and that he’s got new gates fixed in the farmyard with the old ones chopped for firewood. His wife arrives with his lunch in a basket, and while he stops work to eat, she waits, and they think about sex, basically. She wants more children, he’s determined to set down roots in this new country, where vines grow healthily and the soil is good, and the land is empty. Then the church bell begins to toll, and the wife pulls her shawl over her head and disappears back to the house. The funeral procession approaches, and the farmer removes himself from the grave he’s been digging. Why is the village empty? Whose land was this? The thrusting, gentle progress of life returning to a deserted place contrasts with the hollow feeling inside the reader when we wonder where the people are, who used to live here. Again, this is post-war Europe.