False Bottoms

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Once met, I rarely dislike a person. But the idea of a person often fills me with dislike and even abhorrence. So it was with Wyndham Lewis. I never met him but I might easily have done so, since I often begged J. R. Ackerley, the brilliant literary editor of The Listener and a close friend of us both, to effect an introduction. But Ackerley, always oddly fearful that, if he brought any two of his friends together, he might lose both of them, did nothing.

It is easy to see why my younger self – so different from the ancient one now writing this – should have disliked the idea of Lewis. Then on the far left, I was, like almost everyone of my generation, an ardent supporter of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. I thought that Mussolini, Hitler and Mosley were quite simply monsters, and that the greatest living English novelists were Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster. I was also a pacifist.

Lewis, so far from accepting such opinions, abominated them. Democracy was, he maintained, merely a tyranny of the masses. A supporter of the British Union of Fascists and of Franco, he wrote a laudatory book about Hitler. His chief reason for detesting the ‘Bloomsberries’ was that their ‘war-work’ during the years 1914–18 had been performed in the comfort and safety of Garsington Manor. If these reactionary views repelled me, so too did the accounts that I heard about his character and behaviour. Here, apparently, was someone who always ended up by sinking his poisonous fangs into the hand of anyone who had helped him; who kept his put-upon wife in purdah from his friends and frequently betrayed her with other women; and whose intermittent paranoia persuaded him that even his intimates were plotting against him and doing him down.

In the light of the above, it is hardly surprising that when in the late Forties an Oxford undergraduate friend of mine, Desmond Stewart – a disciple of Mosley, later to become a write

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About the contributor

Francis King is now in his eighty-second year. When people ask him ‘Are you still writing?’ he replies ‘Are you still breathing?’ He is convinced, he then explains, that writing, and not modern medicine, is what continues to keep him alive. Last year his novel The Nick of Time was long-listed for the Man Booker.

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