A witty, appealing, and often outrageous portrait of some of the twentieth century's most influential and creative minds
Subtitled "An Education in the Twenties," Lions and Shadows blends autobiography and fiction to describe the inner life of a writer evolving from precocious schoolboy to Cambridge dropout-at-large in London's bohemia. It contains thinly veiled portraits of Christopher Isherwood's contemporaries W. H. Auden, Edward Upward, and Stephen Spender, whose intimate friendships and cult of rebellion shaped the literary identity of England in the 1930s. Witty and outrageous, Isherwood pokes fun at the stars of his generation, above all himself, even as he testifies to their unique early gifts.
About the Author
Christopher Isherwood (1904-1986) was born in Manchester, England. His life in Berlin from 1929 to 1933 inspired The Berlin Stories, which were adapted into a play, a film, and the musical Cabaret. Isherwood immigrated to the United States in 1939. A major figure in twentieth-century fiction and the gay rights movement, he wrote more than twenty books, including the novel A Single Man and his autobiography, Christopher and His Kind.
Read an Excerpt
Lions and Shadows
An Education in the Twenties
By Christopher Isherwood
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1947 New Directions Publishing Corp.
All rights reserved.
TO look at, Mr. Holmes was a short, stout, middle-aged man with reddish hair just beginning to get thin on the crown. He had closely folded, rather prim clergyman's lips and a long astute pointed nose which was slightly crooked. His glance was cold, friendly and shrewd. When he had made a successful joke and the whole form was laughing, he would clasp his hands behind his back under his gown and look primly down his nose at his small neat brown shoes.
I can hear him now:
"Napoleon the Third angled for war with the greatest a-acumen and subtlety. Unfortunately for himself, he was soon to discover the highly r-regrettable fact that you cannot serve both M-Mars and M-Mammon...."
He spoke quietly and deliberately, with an instant's hesitation — too slight to be described as a stammer — in pronouncing certain words. These words usually occurred with increasing frequency towards the climax of one of his anecdotes or the springing of one of his aphorisms, and as he said them he would screw his head comically to one side, as if ducking under some invisible obstacle. The head movement and the instant's hesitation may have been the traces of a nervous tic: more probably they were quite deliberate. They produced a pleasingly pedantic effect which charmed many of us; and we often tried to imitate them. I sometimes catch myself trying the pseudo stammer on strangers, even to-day.
Almost everything Mr. Holmes did or said contributed to a deliberate effect: he had the technique of a first-class clergyman or actor. But unlike most clergymen, he was entirely open and shameless about his methods. Having achieved his object — which was always, in one way or another, to startle, shock, flatter, lure or scare us for a few moments out of our schoolboy conservatism and prejudice — he would explain to us gleefully just how this particular trap, bait or bomb had been prepared. His behaviour thus became a parody of itself; and this continually disconcerted us. We liked the staff to have its mannerisms, of course — there was the Boss's snort, Johnny's roar, Jimmy's wail; there were Hutchinson's fancy waistcoats, Butcher's sermons, Capel-Williams' conversations with the grocer's horse : all these, we knew, were genuine. We could laugh at them safely, wholeheartedly, unkindly, as spectators. We couldn't laugh wholeheartedly at Mr. Holmes, because even laughter would put us, we felt, under a kind of obligation to him; would, in some way, subtly involve us in his plans. Besides, we were never quite sure that he mightn't be laughing at us.
Quiet, astute, disconcertingly witty, he was never widely popular. His brand of humour, and indeed his whole personality, was an acquired taste. A large percentage of his pupils bored him and he showed it, unobtrusively but most insultingly. He had arrived at our school a couple of terms after the end of the War. It was a difficult period for a new master, proposing to begin work on untraditional lines. The Sixth was still composed of boys who had only just missed being conscripted, potential infantry officers trained to expect the brief violent career of the trenches: they had outgrown their school life long before they left it. And now, suddenly, the universal profession of soldiering was closed to them; and the alternatives seemed vague and dull. So the Sixth-formers let things drift and didn't much care. They regarded the school curriculum with benevolent amusement, broke bounds, ragged work and games, cut chapel, wrote daring love-poetry, strolled about the place in various forms of mild fancy dress or lolled round their study fires with their feet on the mantelpiece, smoking their pipes like grandfathers. There was a story of how Ponds, the head of our house, was visited by our house-master one evening for a serious discussion of house politics. The house-master, warming to his subject, talked and talked. Ponds, muscular, lazy, untidy and profoundly bored, agreed with every word: "Oh, quite definitely, sir ..." he kept repeating: "... yes, quite definitely...." Presently, with the utmost sang-froid, he fell asleep.
Such was Mr. Holmes' audience when he entered the Sixth Form room to deliver his first history lecture — faintly patronizing, not unfriendly, prepared to be comfortably amused. Mr. Holmes had not, however, come to amuse his hearers; and he seems to have made this plain, mildly but firmly, from the very beginning. He expected them to attend to what he was saying — worse still, to remember it. Breaking an unwritten law, he asked them direct questions in turn, saying : "Next ... Next ... Next ..." as though he were taking a class in the Lower School. The Sixth was first dazed, then resentful. Its self-conceit had been wounded and its lack of knowledge brutally exposed. Nor was this all. It was said that Mr. Holmes, in the Masters' Common Room, had actually referred to his pupils as "idle and ignorant." Indignation against him reached boiling-point and I seem to remember that there was even some sort of overt demonstration. If so, Mr. Holmes crushed it, no doubt, efficiently enough. Later, several members of that Sixth became his personal friends. But all this was before my time.
As for myself, I accepted Mr. Holmes' influence all the more readily because, during the first four or five terms of my school life, I had had scarcely any personal contacts with the staff at all. I had arrived at my public school thoroughly sick of masters and mistresses, having been emotionally messed about by them at my preparatory school, where the war years had given full licence to every sort of dishonest cant about loyalty, selfishness, patriotism, playing the game and dishonouring the dead. Now I wanted to be left alone. The boys I could deal with, more or less, as long as I kept my wits about me. The masters I deeply distrusted: remembering those "fatherly" pi-jaws and the resultant floods of masochistic tears. So I made friends with a very tough character named Dock — a black-haired Liverpool boy with a pale goatish face, older than myself, who wore thick pebble glasses on gold wires. Dock did me a great deal of good. He restored my self-respect. Through knowing him, I ceased gradually to believe that I was — as my preparatory school headmaster had done his best to persuade me — greedier, lazier, more selfish, less considerate and in general more unpleasant than anybody else. I certainly wasn't lazier than Dock, nor such a liar, nor half as greedy : yet he would have been the very last person to regard his own character with disgust or remorse. He was highly satisfied with himself.
In the Officers' Training Corps, Dock played an important if unobtrusive part : he was one of a group of saboteurs whose influence was out of all proportion to its numbers. Alone, he was capable of demoralizing an entire platoon. Because of Dock, I never disliked O.T.C. parades: as for field days, they were among the happiest of my school life. But it was during the period of the O.T.C. summer camp that Dock and his friends really came into their own. I can see them now — loosening the guy-ropes of the big canteen tent, scaring the horses of nervous masters unaccustomed to riding, creeping up behind a smartly turned-out sentry from another school and suddenly planting a large melon on the point of his bayonet. They were caught, of course, and reprimanded, but nothing more. The authorities were embarrassed: they didn't want to spoil the jolly holiday atmosphere with punishments. The Guards officer who interviewed them, a very nice man, talked unhappily about the team spirit and looked far more distressed than his prisoners, whose faces were as expressionless as their ill-polished buttons. "Private Dock," ran the official report, "failed, for the third time, to obey orders." That was it — Dock just failed. There was nothing to be done with him and his kind — unless you were prepared to shoot them. The school contingent left camp with a bad name.
During my third year, I became attached to the History Sixth. This was in 1921. From that time onwards, Mr. Holmes was the director of my studies. Except for divinity and a little classics, I worked for him entirely. It had been decided that I should try for a history exhibition at Cambridge at the end of the autumn term.
The History Sixth shared with the other branches of the Sixth Form the important privilege of doing its private work in the school library. Here we were supposed to read text-books, write essays and copy out our notes. The library was a handsome room, thickly carpeted and furnished with most comfortable arm-chairs. In addition to the standard works of history, literature, biography and science, there was plenty of miscellaneous stuff to be dipped into, including five or six of those rare flowers of semi-pornography which always contrive to bloom (like the edelweiss, in some high inaccessible nook) amongst even the most carefully pruned collections. There was no actual supervision; though from time to time, one of the masters might enter, quietly and unexpectedly. However, a number of small bookcases standing about the room provided excellent cover, and it was nearly impossible, if you were awake at all, to be taken by surprise. Dozing in one of the arm-chairs, with Lord Acton's lectures open and the right way up upon your lap, you might pass a very agreeable hour, and only once in a while a sudden well-placed kick, probably from the Headmaster, would remind you painfully that you were not already a grown-up member of a London club.
The library privilege was abused in a number of ways. There were those, like Sargent, who simply ragged — launching gliders across the room, lobbing ink-bombs over the bookcases or trying to hurl eachother from the tops of the ladders. We, the quiet ones, disapproved of these: they might easily have got us all turned out, to sit on a hard bench in a classroom, for good. Then there were the idlers who chatted, wrote letters and slept. And there were the studious few who were really busy — but for the wrong reasons. Chief among these was Linsley. He had long been engaged in writing a novel of public school life. The novel was no secret. Plump, smiling, always affable, never in the least upset by criticism however adverse, Linsley was at all times perfectly willing to answer any questions, show us the manuscript and outline the forthcoming phases of the plot. Donald Stanton soon became our common property: gleefully we searched its pages for spelling mistakes, double entendres and marvels of grammar. We were seldom disappointed. Mrs. Stanton, who is packing, tells her son: "I've put you in four tins of fruit and two tins of sardines." A page or two later, she succeeds in getting "a wry smile" into a suitcase already very full. "Mrs. Stanton," ran a favourite passage, "knew the organist very well — though Donald did not know it, he was almost his son." Linsley had undoubtedly been influenced by David Blaize, his soliloquies were in Mr. E. F. Benson's most luscious manner and, lacking the polish of their original, considerably more embarrassing. I myself had revelled in David Blaize (though by this time, already, I would have died rather than admit it): my sarcasms at the expense of Donald Stanton were all the more bitter in consequence. I even covered the margins of the patient Linsley's manuscript with didactic or would-be humorous notes: "... and so the matter dropped." (Where? Into the Thames?) We thought ourselves very clever, but not one of us could do what Linsley was doing: he provided the library with almost daily entertainment for two whole terms. Donald Stanton flourished, despite the brutality of its literary foster-parents; by the time its author left the school, it was 123 pages long.
One day, Linsley was caught at work upon his novel by Mr. Paddington. We expected trouble. But Paddington merely asked: "Did you write all this yourself?" "Yes, sir," said Linsley, much discomforted. "Indeed?" said Paddington, without a trace of sarcasm, and obviously meaning to be kind: "very creditable indeed." And he walked away. Mr. Paddington was the Maths master and Linsley was reading modern languages, so perhaps his lack of indignation may be explained.
Another library author was Chalmers. But Chalmers wrote poetry and, unlike Linsley, didn't show his work to the public; unless, as sometimes happened, it was published in the school magazine. He had recently won the school poetry prize on the set subject: "The Surrender of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow." Chalmers' poem began: "The Prussian watched the sombre winter sea." This was its first and last reference, throughout, to anything German: as for the fleet itself, it was never mentioned at all. Chalmers filled the remainder of his six Spenserian stanzas with his favourite properties: wan blood-red mists, meaningless cries of invisible sea birds and the inaudible moanings of the drowned. But his entry was so unquestionably the best that it got the prize, nevertheless; despite the suspicion that it was merely one more expression of the author's limitless quiet contempt for the authorities and all their works.
Chalmers was a pale, small, silent boy, a year older than myself, strikingly handsome, with dark hair and dark blue eyes. On the rare occasions when he got excited and began to talk, his face became flushed; he spoke so quickly and indistinctly, with nervous fumblings of his fingers against his lips, that it was very difficult to understand what he was saying. His nervous energy made him extremely good at football; and, if he had taken more trouble, he might easily have got into the school eleven. People in his house liked him but didn't altogether understand him. He was rather isolated there and had no intimate friends.
No sooner had I come into contact with Chalmers than I determined to get to know him well. Never in my life have I been so strongly and immediately attracted to any personality, before or since. Everything about him appealed to me. He was a natural anarchist, a born romantic revolutionary; I was an upper-middle-class Puritan, cautious, a bit stingy, with a stake in the land. Chalmers had refused to be confirmed, explaining quite simply to his housemaster that he was an agnostic. I had been through the confirmation process a few months earlier, working up all the emotions prescribed in my little black leather "companion" and delighting the master who prepared me by the complexity and ingenuity of my religious "difficulties." Now already I had to admit to myself that, as far as I was concerned, the entire ceremony had been altogether meaningless. If only I had been more honest with myself and avoided it, like Chalmers, from the very start!
Above all things, Chalmers loathed the school, to which he invariably referred as "Hell." His natural hatred of all established authority impressed me greatly and I felt that it was a weakness in myself not to share it; to be guilty, indeed, of having sometimes kissed the rod. It wasn't as if I had been a success as a public schoolboy. I only fitted uneasily into the system. But I was adaptable; I could always find my feet. And, on the whole, I quite enjoyed my life in a community where cunning and diplomacy could always so easily defeat brute force.
One of the most admirable things about Mr. Holmes was his attitude towards Chalmers. Mr. Holmes can only have viewed with impatience his pupil's contempt for the public school system: he himself belonged to the system body and soul. He did not care much for poetry, and Chalmers' Francis-Thompsonish verses must have struck him as painfully puerile. But he was a true connoisseur; he knew a good thing when he saw it. So he intrigued to secure Chalmers for the History Sixth and, having got him there, artfully curbed and spurred him on by turns, preaching now revolution, now moderation, and encouraging him to write anything and everything which came into his head. On the whole, the treatment was a great success. Chalmers soon ceased to be on the defensive; he even became cautiously friendly. Under Mr. Holmes' supervision, his school essays began more and more to resemble prose poems; they were filled with weird dream-like phrases such as "After 1848, Europe became a filmy hospital of dishonoured causes." Most schoolmasters would have waxed very caustic over the "filmy hospital" and perhaps enquired whether the surgeons were opaque or transparent; but Mr. Holmes merely smiled. He was perfectly satisfied. He was working along his own peculiar lines for a certain definite result. And nobody could better appreciate than he the market value of the Odd.
Excerpted from Lions and Shadows by Christopher Isherwood. Copyright © 1947 New Directions Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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