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1st June 2020

A Barrack-room (1942) by Keith Vaughan - Public Domain

I discovered Jocelyn Brooke a couple of years ago via a brief mention in the memoirs of my favourite novelist, Anthony Powell. He judged Brooke to be ‘one of the notable writers to have surfaced after the war’. My curiosity was piqued: I had never heard of Brooke and wondered why such a writer had more or less vanished.

I intend to return to the subject of Brooke in future columns, but his brief biography goes like this: born in Kent in the early years of the twentieth century, he went to Oxford, tried and failed to accommodate himself to running his family’s wine merchant business in the Thirties, had some sort of mental breakdown, served in the Second World War, re-enlisted afterwards then bought himself out when his first book was published in 1948. After that he published more than a dozen titles in rapid succession and did odd jobs for the BBC, before retreating to Bishopsbourne, the Kent village of his youth (where the great Joseph Conrad also once lived). At his death, aged 57 in 1966, all his books were out of print. His best and best known work is The Orchid Trilogy, three super subtle autobiographical novels of a Proustian flavour, concerning his preoccupations with botany, fireworks, the Kent landscape and soldiering.

On first glancing at his oeuvre I wondered whether it was my cup of tea: someone banging on about flowers: the canon of English lit has quite a lot of that kind of thing already. However, I was soon hooked on Brooke’s witty, melancholic prose with its evocation of mysterious landscapes and the lost paradise of childhood.

I soon discovered the likely reason for his disappearance: the huge left-wing literary and cultural movement, which started in earnest in the Thirties, gathered traction after the war and has gone on to this day, left him cold. The gay side of this long march, whose symbolic head was WH Auden, was gently mocked by Brooke as ‘homocommunism’: that would never do, then or now. It would be hard to pin homophobia on Brooke because he was himself gay, but I dare say some enterprising academic could frame him up on the grounds of sexual self-loathing or some other speculation.

And it cannot have been easy in those days to adjust to being homosexual. The Image of a Drawn Sword, a book very different to Brooke’s other work, is testament to that.

I turned to it after several weeks of lockdown. Remember those fantastical days in April? Eggs were hard to come by, as were toilet paper and noodles. Fatuous commentators in the media cited these minor privations and various social restrictions as reminiscent of the Second World War. The pandemic was in no way comparable except for, perhaps, suddenly plunging one into new and disturbing events taking place against a backdrop of unchanged civil ordinariness.

This is the predicament that Reynard Langrish finds himself in at the start of Sword, which was published in 1950. He is a bank clerk who lives with his deaf mother in a small country village in a Kent with all the names changed. Langrish had served in the war but was invalided out.

One evening during a rainstorm Roy Archer, a good-looking young  army captain who has lost his way, knocks at Langrish’s door. From this first encounter he strikes up a friendship with Archer, who suggests there is an imminent ‘emergency’ which Langrish will be required to fight in. Soon he is being trained for the mysterious crisis with other soldiers at a Nissen hut on a clifftop. He notices that all the soldiers have a tattoo on their forearm of a ‘red and blue snake curled round a naked sword’. Archer says the ‘emergency’ is imminent and Langrish must join up on December 1. However, Langrish decides against it and when he next encounters Archer, the captain blanks him. Later while out walking in the woods he stumbles across an army camp, is arrested, and despite his increasingly hysterical protestations is pressganged into military service. As part of his initiation into the unit he is forced to have the snake-wreathed sword tattooed on his forearm …

In today’s world of commonplace psychology and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders it seems easy to point out the subconscious storms from which this extraordinary and intense book come from. Though published after The Military Orchid, Sword appears to have been written first, sometime just after the war. But it seems to me that its roots and complex symbolism lay much further back, in the breakdown Brooke suffered as a young man and his childhood fantasies about soldiers. It seems fairly clear to the modern reader that Brooke was a man with a longstanding anxiety disorder and a masochistic attraction to soldiers. Their aroma of stale sweat and urine are mentioned more than once and at one point in the novel he is stripped in a barrack room and loses control of his bladder. Elements of this sort of thing appear elsewhere in Brooke’s work. In his late, forgotten novel Unconventional Weapons a young character has an orgasm while being spanked. However, the overarching atmosphere in Sword is not sexual but one of fear and hallucination. Anyone who has suffered a prolonged period of intense anxiety will immediately recognise the strange intensity with which Langrish sees things:

‘He was aware once again, disquietingly, of the sense of “unreality” which he had experienced during his walk home; an Indian bowl, his father’s photograph, the spindle-berries, seemed to tremble like a mirage upon the verge of dissolution; it was as though his personality – or the sensory images which gave it form and solidity – were undergoing some process of disintegration…’

Langrish’s arrest without offence prompted reviewers at the time to diagnose the influence of Kafka, but as Powell notes, Brooke had read no Kafka before writing it. In any case, the Kafkaesque element of the book is its least important aspect. The novel is an intense piece of art, a working out of psychological and sexual problems.

As it builds to its horrifying conclusion there is, in the scenes of the countryside, the mist enshrouded village and his ruined home, a sort of sombre beauty reminiscent of the English neo-romanticism of painters of the era such as Paul Nash, John Minton, Michael Ayrton and Keith Vaughn. All of whom would be swept away, just like Brooke, under the oncoming juggernaut of new cultural trends from the Fifties onwards.

A few days ago a news story appeared about the wreck of a Second World War Bristol Beaufighter combat plane being briefly revealed by shifting sands on a beach in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire. Looking at the stark remnants of the plane rising from a remote period of conflict and chaos is not unlike reading The Image of a Drawn Sword. The book is a souvenir of madness which no student of the Forties should miss.

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