Monday, 27 November 2006

Corridors of Power

This phrase was first used by the novelist C P Snow fifty years ago. After it had been taken as the title of an article about his work by the critic Rayner Heppenstall, Snow decided to use it for a novel he was writing at the time. As he said, if a man hasn’t the right to his own cliché, who has?

This was one of a sequence of eleven he wrote between 1940 and 1970. They are essentially political novels depicting intellectuals in academic and government settings of that period; although the series has been read as a study of power, or as an analysis of the relationship between science and the community, it is primarily a perceptive and frequently moving delineation of changes in English life during the 20th century. The principal characters are mostly academics, scientists, politicians or civil servants.

This makes them sound pretty dull, and certainly they are not read much today. But I was impressed by them in my twenties and I am enjoying re-reading them now. They are not without their longueurs; Snow frequently has his narrator analyse a character’s motives and psychology at enormous length, based on a casual word, thus:
“Yes”, he said: he was not bitter, but quietly resigned, and with his memories of the events of earlier days still intact, though fading. I could tell that jealousy played no part in his sadness, and that given time he would probably be reconciled to the situation, and yet there was in his voice a hint not so much of regret but more of a dawning hope which….. And so on for half a page before the conversation continues. (This is not a quotation, just a pastiche.)

Corridors of Power is not one of his best, but is interesting in that the major public issue which arises in the novel is disarmament. The hardware was different (the atomic bomb rather than nuclear missiles), and the view that Britain should retain its “independent deterrent”, as it was, and still is, quaintly called, was easier to defend at the height of the Cold War than it is today, but the matter is topical fifty years later and it is fascinating how little the arguments have changed.

Apart from his novels, Snow is chiefly remembered for the Two Cultures debate which he initiated. This too is relevant today, though in a slightly different form, and gives me an idea for a later post.

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