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Crusading for Cary

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The novelist Joyce Cary shall never be forgotten, I have vowed, upon the heads of his two grandest characters, Gulley Jimson the English painter, and Mister Johnson the Nigerian clerk.

Why such determination to keep their memories alive? Only forty years ago – a moment or so for some of us – Cary’s books and his two wayward characters we re the light of our world. Every artist in Chelsea, it seemed, hoped to be another Jimson – yet rather feared it. Every writer in Hampstead wished to turn out another Johnson – yet feared they might fail. Not a critic, not a bookworm but adored Cary and his works – above all The Horse’s Mouth, Jimson’s story as told by himself, and Mister Johnson, featuring that wicked though lovable Nigerian clerk. It seemed inconceivable then that these characters would not reign supreme for ever. But sadly, that has proved to be the case. Having recently polled readers, savants, reviewers, academics – all card-carrying members of the intelligentsia and all under 50 – I found that a dismaying percentage did not know that Cary ever existed, weren’t even aware he was an author, nor a man at all – some wondered whether I meant that actress in Brief Encounter.

What are we to do about it? Let us not stand by and wring our hands. Let us launch a campaign to have Cary reinstated among the regularly read.

So what am I on about? Well, let’s start with Mister Johnson. Cary wrote the book after an adventurous early life through several wars and several changes of career. He based it on his time as district officer in the wilder parts of Nigeria, when Britain was busy extracting profit from her colonies by opening up the interior and ‘civilizing’ the natives. ‘Mistah Jonsohn’ was modelled on his own clerk, a rather adorable man whose head, though, is filled with a little knowledge – a dangerous thing when running a huge territory on behalf of ‘dat ol’ King of England

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The novelist Joyce Cary shall never be forgotten, I have vowed, upon the heads of his two grandest characters, Gulley Jimson the English painter, and Mister Johnson the Nigerian clerk.

Why such determination to keep their memories alive? Only forty years ago – a moment or so for some of us – Cary’s books and his two wayward characters we re the light of our world. Every artist in Chelsea, it seemed, hoped to be another Jimson – yet rather feared it. Every writer in Hampstead wished to turn out another Johnson – yet feared they might fail. Not a critic, not a bookworm but adored Cary and his works – above all The Horse’s Mouth, Jimson’s story as told by himself, and Mister Johnson, featuring that wicked though lovable Nigerian clerk. It seemed inconceivable then that these characters would not reign supreme for ever. But sadly, that has proved to be the case. Having recently polled readers, savants, reviewers, academics – all card-carrying members of the intelligentsia and all under 50 – I found that a dismaying percentage did not know that Cary ever existed, weren’t even aware he was an author, nor a man at all – some wondered whether I meant that actress in Brief Encounter. What are we to do about it? Let us not stand by and wring our hands. Let us launch a campaign to have Cary reinstated among the regularly read. So what am I on about? Well, let’s start with Mister Johnson. Cary wrote the book after an adventurous early life through several wars and several changes of career. He based it on his time as district officer in the wilder parts of Nigeria, when Britain was busy extracting profit from her colonies by opening up the interior and ‘civilizing’ the natives. ‘Mistah Jonsohn’ was modelled on his own clerk, a rather adorable man whose head, though, is filled with a little knowledge – a dangerous thing when running a huge territory on behalf of ‘dat ol’ King of England’ or indeed when speaking the King’s English. But could the fellow be faulted for his comic pidgin when there we re virtually no schools in his country? Sadly, he over reaches himself in his loyalty to England – ‘My country, my home all on de big water, and dat King of England is my king’ – so that in the end the Resident, though he holds him very dear, is compelled by authority of ‘dat King’ to execute Johnson – and by his own hand. Altogether an entrancing novel, but in later years suffering the scoldings of the upholders of political correctness, who see Mister Johnson as poking fun at the ‘educationally challenged’ and at the African race, it has been found – oh dear! – patronizing. And it does rather seem that Cary, writing over half a century ago during the British imperium, took the African to be a member of an inferior class of humans, however endearing his poetic Creole English. This hardly seems the most serious case of racism, though – don’t we all laugh at our own race’s failings? Yet today political correctness has pilloried the most unlikely authors – Monica Ali has been accused by Bangladeshi leaders of depicting the people of Brick Lane in a ‘shameful and despicable way’. He a vens, I myself in my first novel, Second Class Taxi, a satire on apartheid published in 1958, and banned in South Africa, had later to bear criticism by some for patronizing my black hero. But this isn’t enough to explain the neglect of The Horse’s Mouth. Gulley Jimson is English and not disadvantaged, not uneducated. He is a sort of failed Francis Bacon or Stanley Spencer, giving all to art and a good deal to alcohol and caring nothing for keeping up appearances, for all his un-inferior origins. Jimson finds early success, with paintings bought by the Tate and an enthusiastic collector. It is not to last; yet we his first readers took undiminished pleasure in his madly, grandly crazy goings-on, and in the way things slowly fall apart. An existentialist, a Bohemian, he ends a down-and-out, while his phenomenal energy and creativity are devoted to finding ways to avoid working. He allows himsel f dreams of fame and for tune and of a masterpiece, seeking a wall on which to paint a grand visionary mural. He persuades himself and his followers, and his old patron, that he has this big picture in him, which he will supply if bankrolled first. The cash goes straight back into reckless living, but finally he finds a wall, part of a chapel already in the process of demolition. Defeat comes while he is working up on a scaffold, pursued by churchmen, town councillors, police and firemen, for in the end the demolition men have him, and he crashes to the ground. A stroke, hospital . . . and the death of an optimist. The very style of Jimson’s narrative – visceral, down-to-earth , painterly – is one of the book’s greatest glories.
And I went out to get room for my grief. It was a high sky on Greenbank. Darker than I expected. But the edge of the world was still a long way off. As far as Surrey. Under the cloud-bank, sun was in the bank. Streak of salmon below. Salmon trout above soaking into wash blue. River whirling along so fast that its skin was pulled into wrinkles like silk dragged over the floor. Shot silk. Fresh breeze off the eyot. Sharp as spring frost . Ruffling under the silk-like muscles of a nervous horse. Ruffling under my grief like ice and hot daggers.
But read the book yourself – again, if you already have. Read Gulley’s upside-down life, his wacky and wandering personal philosophy and his wise painting philosophy. Be sure in passing to take the advice he gives to himself when his actions lag behind his resolution, for it’s a lesson on how to deal with blank canvas that anyone will find beneficial: ‘If you can’t paint – paint.’ My heroic author was highly principled, out to change the world, but in reader-friendly ways, not wanting to be seen as thrusting philosophy down our throats. He called his life’s work The Comedy of Freedom, subtly engaging readers through comic writing, suspense, emotion, characterization and sheer style – then he smuggled in his real agenda. The Horse’s Mouth and Mister Johnson are the supreme examples. He wrote a lot of other fiction too, and poetry, and many a work of analysis on art and reality and the function of the novelist, and political theorizing on African freedom and the case for freedom generally, and then there we re drawings and paintings and little echoes of musical composition. There seems to me nothing in Cary’s work itself that carries the fatal germ. Perhaps it comes from some wider infection attacking the best literature of the past. I believe we must blame the philistines who are killing off writers like Forster, Hardy, Steinbeck, James and Dos Passos and nurturing the Ian Flemings, Jeffrey Archers and J. K. Rowlings. The time has almost come when people will think that the classics begin and end with Superman. Not Shakespeare but The Simpsons, not A. A. Milne’s Pooh but Disney’s. So join my campaign. We will rally readers, write letters to editors, bully our bookshops, march through the streets with banners saying ‘Bring back Cary!’ And literature itself.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 1 © Sylvester Stein 2004


About the contributor

Sylvester Stein is one of the world’s slow developers. He wrote his first novel almost half a century ago, while his latest book, Who Killed Mr Drum, about a South African black magazine he edited in the 1950s, was published less than a year ago. He is now a publisher of newsletters on education and sports science, and is currently Britain’s fastest sprinter for his age.

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