by Dennis Potter: Gollancz, 18s.
dennis potter’s “scattered, highly impressionistic and youthful description of a few of the social and political problems of present-day Britain” had so much national reviewing space and talent lavished on it at the time of its publication that there ought not to be anything left to say. And in fact, when allowances have been made for the occasional middle-aged obtuseness that refused to see that the book was about anything at all (and for the strange and personal vindictiveness of the Guardian reviewer who, though not yet middle-aged, refused to see that the New Left was about anything at all either), there was a remarkable agreement in critical judgments from which, for the most part, I have no wish to dissent. But the very fact of this reverential treatment, with the implication that here at last is the authentic voice of the New Left (which therefore deserves to be listened to seriously and even, being still small, to be patronisingly encouraged), may well make the New Left wonder whether to regard The Glittering Coffin as an asset or an embarrassment. The serialisation in The Daily Sketch can hardly have done much good to anyone’s reputation.
Potter’s excoriating attack on the complacencies and rottennesses of present-day British society recalls nothing so much as John Osborne’s essay in Declaration: the style is as exhilarating and the feeling as genuine. But where Osborne seemed almost obsessively convinced that nothing was usefully to be done in political terms, Potter gives an appearance of sobriety and purpose to his attack by his equally unthinking faith in the Labour Party as the proper instrument of positive progress—despite the fact that his disillusion with actual Labour politicians seems at least as complete as Osborne’s. In neither case are any intelligible connexions drawn between the main stream of the polemic and the associated attitudes to contemporary political activity: in terms of what follows, Potter’s opening confession that he would like to become a Labour Member of Parliament seems just about as bizarre as Osborne’s snorting dismissal of all politicians as Social Salvage Units hovering around his sty. Potter’s allegiance to the Labour Party stems, obviously and understandably, from certain very important personal loyalties: it was the aim of the essays in Conviction to try and see how what is valuable in such loyalties could be carried into concrete political action; The Glittering Coffin is a step backward from this attempt (at least) at constructive political thinking in so far as, in terms of the book itself, Potter’s ultimate belief in the Labour Party is too uncritical to allow him to raise the important problems.
For lack of constructive new thinking, in fact, The Glittering Coffin very nearly falls into the category of the pure ‘attitude piece’, offering neither new ideas nor new knowledge, but merely plastering praise and blame across the face of an already familiar world. The need on the left, following Conviction and the earlier numbers of ULR and The New Reasoner, is for something more than this: anything that is to build on and develop our existing analysis must provide either new concepts or new facts, and mere expressions of feeling can serve little purpose but to maintain emotional steam among the converts and perhaps generate it in others. This is obviously an important function: if ‘mere expressions of feeling’ with the strength and honesty of this one were to appear every three months or so things might begin to move rather faster; but only if the voice of the New Left was saying something else as well. I think, though, that there are several passages in the book which do redeem it from this otherwise damaging criticism. In particular, the account of social changes in the Forest of Dean seems to me to be sensitive and understanding and to tell us something genuinely new and important: this kind of work, like that of Hoggart and Williams, is vital to any historical understanding of twentieth century Britain, and it is encouraging that Potter has promised us a full-scale study at a later date.
It is significant that in this part of his book, Potter’s writing attains a quietness and even humility which contrasts sharply with the surrounding rhetoric, without ever degenerating into sentimentality or folklorism. The contrast of style betrays, I think, the central underlying tension: the only connexion between these pages on an old working class community and all the other pages on recent trends in class politics and culture is a personal, autobiographical one. There is no obvious logic to show why the remedy for the latter should lie in the traditional politics of the former—or how. And part of the trouble is almost certainly that Potter’s observations, far from being too personal (as some critics have suggested), are often not personal enough. The last part of the book, especially the sections on films, art and journalism, leans heavily on views that have already been expressed elsewhere: Lindsay Anderson, Orwell, Raymond Williams, Peter Shore and many others are directly or indirectly quoted, and the cumulative impression is that Potter is arranging these excellent quotations in order to close the gaps in his own thinking. If the rhetoric here begins to wear thin it is probably just because of this too-liberal recourse to second-hand vision. One gets the feeling that Potter has somehow never really focussed and reflected on these problems for himself: the images of working-class culture and of the new affluent society have never been able to merge into a single picture, and so the contradiction between his strictures on Labour politicians and his professed ambition to become one himself remains unresolved. It is because this contradiction lies at the heart of the new thinking on the left that Potter’s failure to throw any genuine personal light on it is so much to be regretted. Shall we support Mr. Gaitskell? Has Potter really imaginatively entered into all the criticisms that he has retailed to us? “For me and millions
In his closing manifesto, Potter emphasises the need for educational reform, control of advertising, the revitalising of local government, and summarises the task of mid-twentieth century socialism as that of “restoring or creating the feeling—and the reality—of participation in all the stages of social and industrial existence, to close the gaps between the governed and the controllers at all levels”. These are aims with which many on the left would sympathise, but the crucial question of how they are to gain wider acceptance is nowhere explicitly treated. Which, in other words, are the focal points at which the ideas need to be directed? Given the trivialisation of politics of which Potter speaks, and the fact that M.P.’s will in general be too harried, whip-ridden or unimaginative to make any serious contribution of their own, ideas will tend to percolate through to the parliamentary Labour Party only from focal points outside. These include—besides constituency and trade union politics—the universities, broadcasting, literature, films and journalism: in time all might be expected to have some effect, both direct and indirect, on official Labour Party thinking. If the time were too great or the channels too congested it would be necessary to think in terms of other forms of political action. And in this way a theoretical question of analysis and interpretation can become a sharply practical one of the chosen political methods. Potter is rightly contemptuous of the Labour Party’s “reasonable, practical policies that will appeal to ordinary decent people who are not Socialists”, but he has too little to say about how to appeal more deeply with different ideas.
And yet his book is itself a part of such an appeal— perhaps, therefore, a part of the answer. There is a sincerity and directness in Potter’s writing which is far from common in political discussion and which may carry his convictions to those who do not already share them. This is sufficient reason to be grateful for the book and not to condemn it too harshly for failing to do something it never set out to do in the first place. The problems remain, but there is every hope that Potter at least will manage to avoid, in his own words, “the usual gracious and always so damnably logical shuffle away from the demands of belief and commitment” for quite some time. I think this is an encouragement.