The Phoenix Generation - Critical reception

 

 

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Critical reception:

 

The publication of The Phoenix Generation was presaged by this short survey of A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight that appeared in the Western Morning News on 18 September 1964:

 

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John O’London’s, March 1965:

 

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Bristol Evening Post (Anthony Gower), 28 October 1965:

 

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Western Morning News, 29 October 1965

 

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Sunday Telegraph (Rivers Scott), 31 October 1965:

 

Henry Williamson has reached the twelfth volume of his sequence of novels about the writer Phillip Maddison. It stretches from the Labour landslide of 1929 to the outbreak of war ten years later.

 

This is the quirkiest portrait of an age . . . and Phillip himself, perhaps the most quietly selfish character in modern fiction, is the quirkiest of heroes.

 

He is seen in this volume having acquired three adoring females (is it too late to hope that one of them, one day, will tell him where to get off?) But such is Mr. Williamson’s amazing craftsmanship that every line of the picture seems authentic and in place.

 

The Guardian (Norman Shrapnel), 5 November 1965 (reviews first Oliver Manning, Friends and Heroes):

 

So the Balkan Trilogy is over, but the “Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight” goes on. . . . it would be interesting to see a readership survey of those who find the books profoundly moving. It must be many more than those who knew the Great War at first hand. Perhaps we have only lately realised what that war did to us, the self-inflicted and perhaps mortal wound. Here Mr. Williamson writes about the generation that survived, or thought it had. His style is strangely impressive. On the face of it the book is discursive, shuttling across the twentyish landscape like some restless social ballet against the black backcloth of war. In fact its impact is integral as well as strong. Mr. Williamson is more than a preacher or file-rummaging realist. He does more than just lament the emergence of a world without feeling. He actualises it: we watch stone changing into concrete, the leaping rivers subsiding into chemical death.

 

He is a pantheist before he is a chronicler – certainly before he is a politician, and much of the political ranting in this book will be distasteful to many. The important thing is that he commands, and is able to turn to artistic ends a powerful and mournful sense of the near past that has shaped or distorted us into what we are.

 

The Observer (John Coleman), 7 November 1965:

 

Henry Williamson continues his manful resurrection of times past. Phillip now moves into the 1930s and such worthies as Michael Arlen (heavily under wraps) and Mosley (less so) pass by. The Phillip-figure becomes a mountingly unsympathetic mystery, nested round with a compliant second wife and a couple of mistresses, almost superbly uncaring . . .

 

As one man’s collage, I find the total recall about cars and conversations compulsive reading. The cloaked autobiography is rich in flavours and echoes, infinitely more rewarding than the seigneurial memoirs of the twenties that we are used to reading in Sunday papers. I suppose it’s too much to ask of such unique scrap-bookmaking that it should risk more than an occasional dip beneath the surface of its snaps.

 

Daily Telegraph (Elizabeth Berridge), 11 November 1965:

 

Phillip Maddison is remaking his life after the upheavals of the 1920s and the death of his first wife, Barley. The book opens with Labour coming to power in 1929, and the disillusion of the 1930s finding its voice in Birkin, the Fascist leader. . . .

 

One cannot altogether like Phillip Maddison: he appears to be both deprecating and self-congratulatory, quick to blame his shortcomings on childhood deprivation of affection. So. Although this sequence has its admirers, I still prefer Henry Williamson the unsurpassed observer and chronicler of otter and salmon, badger and peregrine.

 

Express & Star (Laurence Meynell), 12 November 1965:

 

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The Spectator (Nicholas Davenport), 12 November 1965:

 

Perversely Henry Williamson’s The Phoenix Generation suffers from too much reality. Like its predecessors this current novel is rich in the complex and living detail of modern society but the characters who move through this world seem strangely lifeless. . . . Phillip consciously avoids commitment or direct action, rejecting a disillusioning past but unable to accept any of the ready stances of the present. His position in this novel is essentially static, despite the numerous crises in his private life, and it is finally overwhelmed by the Sargasso of public-life details. The novel’s reluctant documentary value is unquestionable, but here documentation is achieved at the high price of art.

 

Illustrated London News (Patricia Hodgart), 13 November 1965 (reviews first Gunter Grass, Dog Years, Secker & Warburg, 42s.: ‘an enormous, sprawling, marvellous book’ about post war Germany):

 

[The reviewer opens The Phoenix Generation review with quotation of HW’s description of Hitler’s face, with HW’s own question – is this the face of a tyrant or a saint?]

 

Which indeed? . . . A documentary of the ‘30s . . . it opens with an election party at Selfridge’s in 1929, the year which brought a Labour government, and ends on the eve of war. Maddison, whom I have always found a particularly odious character, sees a solution to the troubles of the times in the figure of Sir Hereward Birkin, leader of a new party of greyshirts, a thinly disguised Sir Oswald Mosley. [With sarcastic nicety the reviewer questions the thesis here, and includes Phillip’s affairs as ‘embarrassing’.]

 

What is good are the descriptions of the countryside and its creatures, and here Mr. Williamson’s writing is as tender and observant as ever. Otherwise a great deal of ancient moonshine.

 

Birmingham Post (Elizabeth Harvey), 13 November 1965:

 

. . . covers the years between 1929 and 1939, with Phillip Maddison, emotionally scarred by the war, writing nature books and living with his second wife Lucy, but having a child by Felicity and involved with a very young girl, Melissa. Lucy’s acceptance of his infidelities is surprising and it is a fault of the book that her attitude is not explained.

 

This is a rich, flowing tale with the seep of a nineteenth century novel, resurrecting a whole era powerfully before us and lacing the compelling, almost day to day chronicle with beautiful descriptions of nature and the countryside.

 

Liverpool Daily Post (Rosaleen Whateley), 17 November 1965:

 

Henry Williamson, one is tempted to think, will always be famous for his animal books. “The Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight” which has been going on for twelve novels is quite another matter. Phillip, the hero, has reached the period immediately before the war of 1939, but he still looks back to his war of 1914-18 and sees himself as one of “The Phoenix Generation”. He is an unlikeable man, completely self-centred, with wife, children and mistresses that are mere adjuncts to his personality. The ancient sunlight is filled with dusty motes.

 

North Devon Journal & Herald, 19 November 1965:

 

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Glasgow Herald (L.V.B.), 20 November 1965:

 

. . . This volume begins with Labour precariously in power in 1929 and ends with the outbreak of war in 1939. Maddison, besides the burden of unsatisfactory relationships with four women, and the incubus of an unwritten war novel, flirts with fascism, and as the thirties proceed becomes a more and more puzzled man. He is impressed with Hitler, and becomes a follower of the English “leader”, Hereward Birkin (an easily penetrable disguise), and of more disreputable adventurers.

 

There are many well-remembered scenes from the anxious ‘thirties, but except when he is watching swallows or a sparrowhawk Maddison seems not quite present. It is as if, well into middle-age, he is still a boy: cruel, ingenious, selfish, and living in a private imagined world that never was.

 

Punch (Eve Burgess), 24 November 1965:

 

. . . In this, his twelfth novel in an apologia of the twentieth century named “A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight” Henry Williamson makes Phillip Maddison at once the symbol and the narrator of the 1930s. He is a hero, at the same time cynical and, as it seems in hindsight, naively idealistic in his stubborn belief that the horror of 1914-18 cannot be repeated.

 

This novel is a cumulative and atmospheric build-up of the 1930s which I found absorbing in its total social detail; it is a microscopic examination of the middle-class intelligentsia of pre-war England. Naturally, a lot of the book is concerned with politics. It begins as Labour comes to power in 1929. Considerable space is devoted to a very sympathetic portrait of a fictitious character called Birkin, a Fascist leader, public speaker and propagandist. It is irritating, although understandable, that although a number of people appear in the book under their actual names, the Fascist Birkin, who is the chief political figure, has to be given a discreet pseudonym.

 

As an intensely subjective anthology of the 1930s this is fascinating; as a novel it is less satisfying. Phillip, the self-absorbed writer and politician manqué, who is supported emotionally by three exceptionally self-abnegating women, is chilly company for a long novel. The very mass of detail makes this a shapeless and sometimes repetitive book, and I kept looking in vain for the discipline which characterises Henry Williamson’s nature books.

 

The Sunday Times (Michael Ratcliffe), 21 November 1965 (The reviewer opens with an interesting comparison between Nicholas Monsarrat, whose Something to Hide is also reviewed (4½ column inches to HW’s 11½”) and HW):

 

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[Phoenix] . . . is infinitely more fascinating. Covering [the 1930s] . . . Troubled waters which Mr. Williamson charts with a kind of careful courage. Questions, if not entirely answered, are not begged either. . . .

 

The Phoenix Generation – a bitter misnomer, since it scarcely kept its own embers alive – comprised those survivors of the Great War who sought to re-establish the ancient priorities of the land in peace: the generation of Maddison/Williamson, of “Sir Hereward Birkin” (Oswald Mosley) and Adolf Hitler. Williamson sets down the Fuhrer and his fictionalised Mosley as he found them at the time: the Fuhrer an exhilarating man of peace, Mosley an inspiration, persecuted by the Press. There is no admission, in conclusion, that Phillip’s equation of National Socialism with the Natural Life might, by 1939, have become a dangerous delusion. . . . Herein lies the ambiguous tension of this rather brave book . . .

 

Phillip [whatever he is doing] generates a brooding, nervous indecision: a figure of total isolation, ever-stalked by the spectre of failure, attended by his tolerant wife and attendant mistresses, constantly under siege from slightly crazed correspondents.

 

The weaknesses of the series remain: obsessive agricultural detail deployed to the detriment of the narrative; the women who are almost without interest; the dialogue, much of which reads like a wildly unreal radio play. The strengths are considerable and should allow this volume considerable survival [plums picked out] . . . best of all, the death of Philip’s mother the night the Crystal Palace burns down. The end of the Palace, a tremendous totem in the earlier books, is a thing of awe.

 

“The Phoenix Generation” is a vital, if seriously flawed, document of belief. What a complex man is Maddison.

 

New Statesman (Robert Taubman), 26 November 1965:

 

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Evening Standard, 30 November 1965:

 

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Western Times, 17 December 1965:

 

This volume covers a longer period . . . It makes fascinating reading, this re-creation of the troubled 1930s with intriguing glimpses of public figures, sometimes appearing as themselves and sometimes in fictional garb.

 

This is the broad canvas on which we see Maddison, a complex, restless, war-hunted creature, and his family.

 

Rochdale Observer, 1 January 1966:

 

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Thornton Cleveleys Times, 18 February 1966:

 

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Southern Evening Echo (William Hill), 7 January 1966:

 

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Books and Bookmen, January 1966:

 

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Countryman (Ronald Blythe), Spring 1966:

 

The huge March of Time sequence which so profoundly obsesses Henry Williamson creeps towards the abyss of Hitler’s war with THE PHOENIX GENERATION. Here is Phillip Maddison during the shameful ‘thirties, half of him committed to his sane country muse and a book about trout (‘Salar the Salmon’) and half of him fascinated by the saviour potential of Sir Hereward Birkin (Oswald Mosley). Here is Nuremberg and the hypnotic Nazi rallies, and, obversely, Suffolk during the slump with the fields choked and the farms disintegrating. [Curious that Blythe should mistake ‘Suffolk’ for ‘Norfolk’!]

 

Contemporary Review (Donald Cook), September 1966:

 

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The Aylesford Review, Vol. VIII, No. 1 (Oswald Jones), Summer 1966:

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The same issue of The Aylesford Review included HW's 'Reflections on a Theme'; it should be explained that this is a version of a letter sent by HW to Fr Brocard Sewell, the editor of The Aylesford Review – who, by excising some parts of it, changed the sense slightly.

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The 1967 Panther paperback received several notices but most were short and add nothing to previous comments. Among those slightly longer are:

 

Evening Standard (Anthony Hern), 1 January 1968:

 

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Doncaster Evening Post, 6 January 1968:

 

“The Phoenix Generation” written by Henry Williamson, author of such best sellers as “Tarka the Otter” and “Salar the Salmon”. It bubbles with Fascist meetings, a tour-de-force description of the Nuremberg rally, trout fishing and Phillip Maddison, Williamson’s sensitive hero, deeply involved with three women.

 

Birmingham Post (Peter Midforth), 2 March 1968 (Interesting, and included here because of the books particularly included in the total column, and the overall title given: ‘Courage’. HW refers to Lord Moran’s book in his final volume of the Chronicle; and the reviewer uniquely and tellingly couples HW’s book as an ‘appropriate epilogue’):

 

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