Posts Tagged ‘Noel Coward’

pomp and circumstance noel coward 001Pomp and Circumstance by Noël Coward ~ 1960. This edition: Pan, 1963. Paperback. 287 pages.

My rating: 9/10

Havoc under the sun…

Samolo – a lazy, sun-drenched island in the South Pacific where nothing ever really happens…
Until suddenly it is announced that the Queen and Prince Philip are to pay a state visit. From then on chaos reigns. And the arrival of the curvaceous Duchess of Fowey, who brings out the beast in every male, only adds confusion to confusion.

Here we have an easy candidate for the most unexpected book of 2014.

I can’t quite recall where I acquired this tattered and very well read paperback; it just sort of appeared one day at the top of a book stack, like the frothy sort of thing that it is, effortlessly rising above the (comparative) heavyweights below.

As this seems to be my year of reading mostly lightweight novels, and its year of publication was so-far blank in the Century of Books list, what could I do but succumb?

I was initially a little uneasy as to whether I could sustain my interest for the whole thing, as it started off at frenetic high speed, all very much a-laugh-a-minute, and that sort of style can get tiresome early on, especially if the writer bobbles, but Coward, old pro that he was by his point in his career, kept up the pace marvellously well, and completely won me over.

“Charming” is an overused term in describing the light novel, but in this case it is most apt. With a bit more consideration, charming isn’t complex enough, for there is a lot of snark here, too, of the most readable sort.

Maybe a page scan is in order, to give one a sample of the contents.

First, an overview.

The curtain rises over the (completely fictional) small South Sea island of Samolo, an idyllic tropical paradise populated by a happy-go-lucky native population and a large colony of British nationals who make up the bulk of the government. For Samolo was never conquered in the warfare sense of the word; the inhabitants merely welcomed the superior managerial style of the inhabitants of that other, colder isle and gladly made way for a dual society of semi-equality. The native upper classes mingle easily with the Brits; the ones a bit farther down the social scale are apparently quite thrilled to provide staffing for the expatriates in their various cottages, villas and stately homes. Everyone is very hail-fellow-well-met, with a bit of resigned-but-not-bitter bitching about the occasional laziness of the servants and their tendency to wander out of paid employment when the mood strikes them providing reliable tea table and cocktail party conversation. (Yes, this is most definitely a fantasy.)

Our narrator, one Grizelda Craigie (Grizel), is the happily married forty-something wife of banana grower Robin. Coward sustains the first-person voice of his female narrator beautifully, something I had serious qualms about when I realized that this was what he was undertaking.

Grizel moves in the upper social circles of Samolo, being on best-friends basis with the British Governor’s wife, Lady Alexandra (Sandra), so of course is the first person to be confided to when the news of the impending Royal Visit breaks.

This is just the start of the drama, for in quick succession Grizel must cope not just with the professional stresses (so to speak) of her highly placed friend, but with an incident in which her small son is mixed up in a very below-the-belt assault on a schoolmate (either triggering or in retaliation for a sharp knock on the head by the other party; the parents on both sides predictably receive conflicting stories from the superficially wounded lads), by the sudden confession of a bachelor friend that he has used her name in telegrams inviting his latest (aristocratic and very prominently married) paramour for a visit, with the intent that the lady actually spend her nights with said bachelor while pretending to occupy Grizel’s guest room, and by involvement in the island’s amateur dramatic association as it plans an elaborate aquatic pageant to be presented to the Queen and her consort, despite prognostications of squally weather soon to come.

Mix in an assortment of Samolan and expatriate characters of all walks of life – from gardener to Prime Minister to journalist to ex-secret-service-agent-turned-sugarcane-planter to aristocratic Duke, and add for good measure a brusque English nanny, numerous beloved-but-high-maintenance visitors, maddening letters from Mummy back home in England who always seems to know the latest Samolan news well before there-at-the-source Grizel, an intense lesbian who is openly smitten with our narrator, the various clashing personalities of the Dramatic Society members, and an epidemic of chicken pox striking in the most unexpected quarters.

It’s all highly silly, but increasingly enthralling. There are moments of sincerity here and there: the portrayals of both Griselda’s and Sandra’s marriages are warm and believably true-to-life, and the family scenes with the children are hugely enjoyable. Most of the sarcasm – which is in relentless but in general quite gentle – is reserved for Grizel’s outer circle of friends and acquaintances, with some deep digs being got in here and there at anti-monarchists both in Samola and back home in England; Noël Coward’s staunchly pro-monarchy patriotism is unabashedly on view.

Several homosexual couples play significant roles, with stereotypical behaviour paraded in full technicolour. I felt just a bit ashamed to find these characters and episodes so amusing, but comforted myself with the thought that the depictions were coming from a writer of that persuasion himself, for Noël Coward was well known to be gay, though always politely reticent about his private affairs.

Pomp and Circumstance was Coward’s one and only attempt at novel writing. One rather wonders what inspired this project, amidst all of the plays and musical compositions. It definitely works, and in my opinion deserves to be shelved alongside the older but similarly giddy Wodehouse tales, as more than slightly goofy, cheerfully amiably, decidedly literary entertainment.

I had a difficult time deciding where to take a page scan from, as much of the joy in this thing is in the building of the story and the connections and contexts of each succeeding episode, so perhaps a bit of Chapter One will be best. This will give a taste of what is going on here; it definitely gets better.

And keep your era-appropriate sense of humour dusted off. One can find much which might be viewed as potentially offensive and politically incorrect these five decades on. Disturbingly vast quantities of alcohol are consumed, mostly in cocktails with oddly evocative names – the “Horse’s Neck”, presumably a long sort of drink, seems exceedingly popular – though sometimes straight from the bottle. Cigarettes are prominently smoked during every emotional and romantic moment, too.  If these sorts of things bother you, best to stay clear. Everyone else, it’s a richly glorious vintage romp.

Pomp and Circumstance has been reissued numerous times since its first appearance in 1960, though it appears to be out of print at present. A quick look online shows it easy to find, and I’m guessing the larger library systems will still have copies. Enjoy!

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