Category Archives: Maugham, W. Somerset

Willy Maugham’s kind of hotel

screen-shot-2016-09-12-at-07-32-47On a flight to Bangkok, Dalrymple falls into conversation with the passenger next to him, a washing-machine salesman. By coincidence, Dalrymple and the salesman are staying at the same hotel, the Oriental.

DALRYMPLE: Joseph Conrad and W. Somerset Maugham stayed there too.

SALESMAN: Who?

DALRYMPLE: Just some writers.

SALESMAN: Oh. The only trouble with the Oriental is they don’t allow women — hookers — in there.

DALRYMPLE: I don’t think that would have troubled Somerset Maugham much.

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A Hoxha votary amid the dust and mould

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 05.48.33A second-hand bookseller Dalrymple knows is

a fervent believer in Enver Hoxha’s Albanian paradise.

The bookseller

thinks all forms of modern communication are instruments of monopoly capitalism, designed to exploit the common man, who consequently has not a clue about the value (or should I say the price?) of a first edition of Liza of Lambeth.

He

is furious that his black customers, old women mainly, are more interested in concordances to the Bible than in Hoxha’s vituperations against the Titoites.

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The need to read

Screen Shot 2015-11-08 at 09.09.15Dalrymple writes that, like W. Somerset Maugham,

I would rather read a railway timetable than nothing at all.

On occasion,

I have even resorted to telephone directories, in the days when they still existed, and found them to be not without interest.

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From a 1910 Bradshaw

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How to use the apparatus

How to use the apparatus

The secret of the British economic problem

English cuisine

Emetic: English cuisine

A service economy without the service

The British no longer have the faintest idea how to prepare or serve food, either in establishments they are pleased to call restaurants or in their own homes. According to W. Somerset Maugham, the only solution when in England is to eat breakfast three times a day. But the English can no longer manage with minimal competence even to prepare a halfway-decent breakfast.

British eating houses, bar-grills, cafés and other places where dining (of a kind) goes on, from the humblest truck-stop to the most exalted, starred restaurant, are easily the worst in Europe. It is better, for example, to go to bed hungry than to risk an evening meal at, say, an English public house.

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Suburban Tudor

The Moon Under Water it isn’t

Dalrymple is reminded of this when, hungry one evening and with no other dining establishment in the vicinity, he enters a pub (which, like many from the 1920s and 1930s, is built rather pleasingly in the suburban Tudor style), and is greeted by

the flashing lights of fruit machines

and

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 10.45.20numerous large flat screens disposed in such a way that it was impossible to escape them. It was as if one had a duty to watch.

Drivelscreens

At least, he says, they

were all showing the same thing — a football match, football being a 24-hour activity.

Dalrymple dare not complain. British popular culture is

crude, unpleasant and inescapable; if you criticise it, you are taken for an enemy of the people.

The Codfather. Bon appétit!

The Codfather. Bon appétit!

The smell in the pub

was of stale beer and even staler fat in which standard British prolefood had been fried.

He peruses

the grubby menu, a triumph of quantity over quality. The fish dish was called The Codfather, size trumping taste. Everything came with chips, of the frozen variety.

Soupe à l'oignon

Soupe à l’oignon à l’anglaise

The table is

sticky and long unwiped.

Dalrymple orders soup. It is

packet soup which had not been properly dissolved, so that it had little balls in it that if bitten exploded into a kind of salty dust.

He orders steak, and asks for it to be rare. When it comes, it

would have been regarded as incinerated in any other country.

Fried mushrooms: at least their own weight in fat

Fried mushrooms: at least their own weight in fat

The fried mushrooms

contained at least their own weight in fat of some type.

The next morning

I woke with a strange and unpleasant taste in my mouth.

The meal

The flashing lights of fruit machines

The flashing lights of fruit machines

wasn’t even cheap.

This is the vital point. British food is not just atrocious — it is execrable value.

During the meal,

the man who had taken my order came over to my table.

Everything all right?‘ he asked.

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 11.02.01‘Yes, very good,’ I replied.

Dalrymple concludes:

The slovenliness, the bad quality, my pusillanimity: voilà the secret of the British economic problem.

Expressing esteem for Maugham is inadmissible in polite company

Floc'h & Rivière, Villa Mauresque, La Table Ronde, 2013

At the former home of the chaplain to Leopold II of Belgium: Floc’h & Rivière, Villa Mauresque, La Table Ronde, 2013

Admitting to an admiration for W. Somerset Maugham is a bit like announcing how much one enjoys pornography, Dalrymple suggests. To an intellectual, it is

what voyaging overseas once was to an orthodox Brahmin: it leads automatically to a loss of caste.

It is like

expressing a preference for Offenbach to Bach.

Why?

Maugham’s insistence on clarity and economy is a factor, Dalrymple explains.

The demand for clarity makes intellectuals uneasy, for it renders originality so much more difficult to achieve. Clarity comes to be identified with superficiality and obscurity with profundity.

Superficiality is one of the charges laid against Maugham by his fierce critics, says Dalrymple.

Among the many others are

  • cynicism
  • misanthropy
  • callousness
  • snobbery
With catamite: 1941, George Platt Lynes photo

With catamite: 1941 George Platt Lynes photo

Dalrymple believes that people

have tended to confuse Maugham’s character in real life — or what was reportedly his character in real life — with what he wrote. If he was a sour, prune-faced man who was unreasonably outraged by the smallest breach of etiquette, and who was excessively worldly into the bargain, it must follow that his writing partook of the same or cognate qualities. But this is wide of the mark.

Maugham clearly favours

common human pleasure against the demands of a too rigid morality, or moralism. His dry condemnation of the suppression of native dancing — a suppression that really did take place — means that he did not share the sense of providential cultural and moral superiority that fuelled colonialism.

The short story Rain

is anti-colonial, though not stridently so. Colonialism harms the natives by depriving them of their culture and traps the colonialist in the amber of self-importance and priggishness. These were not views that were universal in 1916 when Maugham voyaged, or even in 1920 when he wrote the story. And there are plenty of Mrs Davidsons among us today, though they direct their moral enthusiasms in other directions than the suppression of dancing.

Resolutely anti-sentimental and realistic, Maugham

nevertheless demands of his readers that they extend their emotional range, the very opposite of cynicism and misanthropy.

Sadie cruelly flaunts herself

Sadie cruelly flaunts herself

The men of brains shall be slaves — slaves to the men of character

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 01.14.21This was the credo of those tasked with recruiting for the Colonial Service. It is the theme of the 1931 Maugham tale ‘The Door of Opportunity’ (to be found in the 1933 collection Ah King).

Dalrymple touches on the theme in a discussion of a newspaper headline he came across that read: ‘Young people’s money woes are down to lack of education.’

He points out:

The problem is not one of education but of character.

The indebted

know that nothing much will happen to them as a result of their default, nor is there any shame or social stigma attached to living above one’s means. Certainly no government, or no public employee, feels such shame.

The article, he says, was

an example of the overestimate of the importance of formal education by the overeducated. They assume that everyone can be taught to behave in the same way that everyone, more or less, can be taught to read. Prudence, providence and probity, however, are character and cultural traits more than they are intellectual accomplishments. It is not that people don’t know; it is that they don’t care.