Reading-as-a-Midlander 2: Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time

23 May

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This week I have been reading – or, should I say, Reading-as-a-Midlander (see blog dated 18 May) – Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time.

There are twelve volumes so I haven’t had time to do much else over the last seven days; the cat is looking considerably thinner as a result. But on the plus side the new academic discipline of lecture midlandaise has taken enormous strides forward.

I don’t have the time to tell you the plot – it would fill around twelve volumes. But I can assure that it’s very good, so do read it if you’ve got nothing else to do until Christmas. You know the way people you thought you’d never see again keep turning up, surprisingly transformed? It’s very good on that.

Anyway, down to the serious bit: the explicit Midland content. Here I have the pleasure of reporting that A Dance to the Music of Time turns out to be a very interesting study case. Powell has often been dismissed as a snob, and if that’s true then I have to say his snobbery is wholly (or broadly) positive in regard to the Midlands. No, he doesn’t sing the praises of Nottingham, aka ‘the Queen of the East Midlands’, or locate long sequences in Lichfield (as milieux, London and Venice are more to Powell’s taste). But he’s not afraid to reference the Midlands all the same, and often in contexts where less sharp-eyed observers would specify the North. For instance, the young Oxford social misfit Quiggin is said to have claimed that ‘his father used to work on the railway line outside some Midland town’, while the painter Mr Deacon’s patrons are described as ‘mostly business people from the Midlands’ and the narrator is described as going to meet ‘some Hunger-Marchers arriving from the Midlands’. A great novel, and the Midlands consistently named ahead of the North – what more could you ask?

*                  *                  *

In truth, in the wider world as in literature, the word ‘Midlands’ doesn’t crop up much outside specialised or technical contexts. It occurs most frequently in weather and travel reports (there are a lot of roads in the Midlands). Beyond that, it pops up in the camp argot of a certain vintage: in his letters, the (London-born) classical actor John Gielgud refers to the zone between his legs and midriff as ‘the Midlands’. We all come from there at a biological level, of course, but geographically there’s little social cachet in announcing yourself as hailing from the nation’s meat-and-two-veg.

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