Thursday, 14 February 2013

The Adventures of Margery Allingham by Julia Jones

The great thing about e-books is that you can update them very easily when new information becomes available.  Julia Jones’ biography of Margery Allingham was first published in 1991 by William Heinemann and has just been republished under her own imprint ‘Golden Duck’ with new photographs and updated information.

The title is a little misleading, since Allingham’s adventures are ‘mental and moral’, and mainly on paper, channelled through her hero Albert Campion in the groundbreaking thrillers she wrote through four decades. I read her books when I was in my twenties and liked them more than Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers - there was always an element of humour, clowning, with an undertow of morality.  They reminded me a little of the old Mystery plays - a mix of buffoonery and serious discussion of Right and Wrong, the one highlighting the other.  Albert Campion - the mysterious, aristocratic figure at the centre of the plot, is both the buffoon and the moral compass of the novel.

I was always interested to know more about the author who wrote the novels, but somehow missed the publication of Julia’s book first time out (where was I?)  Fortunately I’ve now managed to rectify that omission.  Reading this biography of Margery Allingham has illuminated the novels for me in just the way I would have hoped. 

I’d already read about Margery’s disfunctional, workaholic, journalistic family in Julia’s new book ‘Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory’, which shows Margery’s father’s heritage, writing serials for ‘penny dreadfuls’, and depicts his marriage to Margery’s mother as turbulent and unsatisfactory. Em Allingham didn’t care much for marriage or motherhood and had huge mood swings that were difficult to live with.  Margery was a precocious child who grew up nervy, and insecure, with a pronounced stammer.  She didn’t thrive on education and left school at 16 to her parents’ disappointment. Encouraged to write as a young child by her parents, there seemed no other career she would ever consider and she began to submit to periodicals, as her father had done, and wrote reviews and story-lines for a film magazine.

The plot of Margery’s first novel,  published while she was still a teenager, was ‘found’ during a seance with her family around a Weedja board.  Her subsequent plots were rather more thought-out, but she was always an instinctive writer.

If Margery was professionally precocious, she was emotionally much slower to mature.  There was a youthful ‘crush’ on a young female friend, a brief love affair with a man, before she married someone she’d known for years - the son of a woman her father had almost married in his youth - the artist Philip (Pip) Youngman Carter.  He was socially confident, handsome in a silent movie ‘spivvy’ kind of way - the kind of man depicted in cartoon casually folded against a wall, smoking a cigarette in a long holder, wearing a striped blazer and white trousers, being charming to women.  He had no regular work, but designed Margery’s book covers and gave her editorial feedback. They lived in a kind of student menage with two or three other friends, all mainly supported by Margery’s writing.

She had been brought up with a workaholic writing ethic - her father wrote thousands of words a week come hell or high water until he died, worn out by the treadmill.  Margery did the same.  She was overweight and in poor health - probably because of thyroid problems that often went untreated.  This was partly her fault - she hated consulting doctors - and partly because the doctors she did consult seem to have been less than competent.  At one point she was sectioned and given electro-convulsive therapy for depression probably caused by her thyroid condition.  As well as health issues, she was constantly pursued by the Inland Revenue and lived, until the end, haunted by the fear that she was going to be made bankrupt by their demands. Margery wrote book after book to pay the tax bills racked up by her previous publications.

Her marriage to Pip, which had begun with such cheerful, youthful optimism, soon stagnated.  Pip was extremely selfish, unwilling to have children, and a serial adulterer.  While he philandered in London, living the high life (he was in the same social circle as Prince Philip), Margery stayed in her Essex home and wrote.  When doctors found a lump in her breast, she ignored it.

Julia at the Book Launch
After her death, Margery’s papers and those of her father, were left to her younger sister Joyce, who had lived with her during the final decade of her life, and - through Joyce - they were made available to Julia Jones.  The results are two carefully researched and beautifully written family stories - 'Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory: the Working Life of Herbert Allingham', and ‘The Adventures of Margery Allingham’.  I enjoyed them both and, as a good biography should, have been tempted to re-read the novels.                                        

Thursday, 7 February 2013

A Russian Jew of Bloomsbury

A Russian Jew of Bloomsbury: The Life and Times of Samuel Koteliansky
Biography by Galya Diment

Koteliansky - Kot to his friends - has always fascinated me.  He hovered around on the fringes of Bloomsbury - an unlikely figure - and was influential in the lives of Katherine Mansfield and DH Lawrence.  He was also a passionate advocate of Russian literature and translated a great deal of it into English, introducing some little known authors to a western audience for the first time.

Most people were in awe of his moral integrity and passionately held principles.  'Kot was not a comfortable man,' wrote Leonard Woolf in his obituary.  Kot had a crushing handshake and such an air of 'rightness' that some people maintained it wasn't possible to tell a lie in his presence.  Lawrence nicknamed him 'Jehovah' and Katherine Mansfield said that he reminded her of an Old Testament Prophet.

Until I read Galya Diment's biography, I hadn't understood Kot's complex personality or his background and I was completely unaware of the struggle he had to establish himself in London and support himself as a refugee with no skills other than literacy.  I was also unaware of the extent of anti-semitic feeling and prejudice in England at that time.  Virginia Woolf used to refer to her husband Leonard as The Jew in public, and even in his presence - Leonard did not interpret it as a playful nickname - he was grimly aware of how he was regarded.  Virginia had told him in a letter that it was 'his Jewishness' that she disliked and which had given her second thoughts when she considered marrying him.  In her 1915 diary she wrote; 'How I hated marrying a Jew!'

There were a number of other Jews hovering around the fringes of Bloomsbury at that time - the painter Mark Gertler was one of them and he too was a close friend of Kot, regarding him as something of a father-figure.

Samuel Ivanovitch Koteliansky was born in 1880, a year before the major Pograms against the Jews began in Russia.  He was born in the Pale of Settlement, in Ukraine, where Jews had been condemned to live by Catherine the Great (hence the saying 'beyond the pale').  Kot's father was a merchant and the family owned a mill, but their fortunes were declining with those of their race.  Kot studied at Odessa and Kiev universities and was politically active as a student, earning him the nickname of 'the anarchist' in London.  Anti Jewish feeling was growing in Russia and there were massacres and surges of hatred that led to Jews being accused of murdering Russian children in order to drink their blood.  Kot fled Russia in 1911 and came to Britain where he worked at the Russian Law Bureau, helping similar refugees.  For several years he lived in one room 'above the shop'.
DH Lawrence
 Kot had violent attachments and detachments where people were concerned. He idolised DH Lawrence, believing him to be a genius.  It was on a walking holiday in the Lake District that Kot sang the Hebrew psalm that gave DHL the idea of calling his utopian writers' community 'Rananim'.  Later Lawrence portrayed Kot as 'Kangaroo' - the character in the novel of the same name.  Lawrence had a habit of casting his friends as actors in his fiction.  The biography points out that the love between Kangeroo and Lawrence's alter-ego in the novel, Somers, may well have put into words the love, un-named and unacknowledged, that existed between Lawrence and Kot.

It seems probable that, although Kot had loving feelings and attachments for women, they were not of a sexual nature and that he was actually attracted to men.  As a puritan, a Jew with a Hasidic background, these homosexual leanings could not be acknowledged.  Certainly sexual repression and loneliness were big factors in Kot's bouts of severe depression and mental breakdown.

To Katherine Mansfield he was a constant, loving friend who forgave her all kinds of misdemeanors.  After the death of Katherine Mansfield's brother in France in 1915, Katherine couldn't bear to live in her beautiful house at 5 Acacia Road.  It was sub-let to Kot and a Russian friend and Kot was to live there for the rest of his life, opening the garden occasionally to fans of Mansfield who wanted to see the pear tree which had featured in her story 'Bliss'.  

Mansfield and Kot in the garden, by Beatrice Campbell
 Kot collaborated with Katherine on Russian translations - their last meeting only a few months before she died.  When her husband John Middleton Murry published Katherine's private journals and letters to himself, Kot was disgusted and regarded it as a complete betrayal of Katherine.  He had always disliked Murry and now he hated him with the kind of energy only Kot could put into the emotion.

Kot scraped a precarious living from journalism and translating, rarely having enough money for more than a bare existence.  He was helped by generous friends - Lawrence supplying a 5,000 word introduction to one of his translations knowing that his article would sell the book;  Julian and Juliette Huxley and May Sarton all tried to help his work; and HG Wells' daughter Margery looked after him as his mental and physical health declined. 

In 1936 he had a complete nervous breakdown and in the years that followed was subjected to several episodes of electric shock treatment.  His friend Mark Gertler committed suicide in 1939, Virginia Woolf in 1941, and the horrors of the second world war weighed heavily on Kot's emotional health.  Many of his friends and relatives died in his home town in the Ukraine - victims of ethnic cleansing.  In 1947 Kot also tried to commit suicide by cutting his throat with a razor.  He was unsuccessful, but his physical health never recovered from it and he was an invalid for the rest of his life.  He died from heart disease in January 1955.

This is a very well researched biography, crammed full of historical and personal detail.  It brought Kot alive for me, and gave me much more of an insight into the difficult, fragile existence of Europe's political refugees.  Our attitude to asylum seekers hasn't changed a jot.  They are tolerated, but not really accepted into our communities with a whole heart.  They live on the fringes of our society and can never feel completely secure.  Many regard them as a kind of parasite, without realising how much they have contributed - culturally and in many other ways.

A Russian Jew of Bloomsbury:  The Life and Times of Samuel Koteliansky
by Galya Diment

Katherine Mansfield:  The Story-teller
by Kathleen Jones