Cyril Connolly is the patron saint of literary under-achievers. For all young English graduates who ever believed they had a novel in them but didn’t; every journalist with an edgy work-in-progress hidden in the bottom drawer of his desk; every would-be McEwan or Mantel who has spent frustrated years subbing other people’s words on the Wythenshawe Gazette, Connolly is the figure to whom they cleave for comfort. Because if ever a man had an obvious talent to write it was he.
Part of a prodigiously gifted generation – he was at school with Orwell, and at Oxford with Waugh, Betjeman, Graham Greene and Anthony Powell – Connolly could have equalled or eclipsed them all in literary achievement. At St Cyprian’s he won the English and History prizes (beating Orwell in both) and a scholarship to Eton. At Eton he developed a reputation for intellectual brilliance streets ahead of his peers and picked up a history scholarship to Oxford, where he was taken up by the Deans of both Balliol and Wadham, ‘Sligger’ Urquhart and Maurice Bowra. He was, wrote his contemporary Kenneth Clarke,
obviously an extraordinary person, with a width of knowledge and a maturity of mind of an entirely different class to the rest of us . . . He had read the Greek and Latin authors, including those of the Silver Age, with a subtle, questioning mind; he had read the French poets and critics of the nineteenth century; he had even read the Christian Fathers. All this learning was almost entirely invisible below a surface of wit and intellectual curiosity.
At Oxford, however, he began to go off the rails. Much of his student career was spent travelling through Italy, Spain, Greece and the French Alps. His work suffered, he left Balliol with a third-class degree, and he spent his twenties writing occasional reviews for the New Statesman and visiting friends in Europe. A pattern emerged: he’d pitch an
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