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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

"You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion." G.K.Chesterton

"As you perhaps know, I haven't always been a Christian. I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that."C. S. Lewis

"I blog, therefore I am." Anon

Thursday, July 21, 2005

the strange case of Kenneth Tynan and C. S. Lewis

Fame and its price

The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan edited by John Lahr. London: Bloomsbury, 2001
Irreverent, indiscreet, wildly funny, sad, shocking and inspiring, the legendary diaries of Kenneth Tynan are above all compelling literature. His diaries - so resplendent with griefs and gossip - bear superb witness to the fame he courted and the price he paid for it.

I have just finished reading "The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan" which cover the last decade of his life (1970-1980). Tynan is of course lauded as one of the finest drama critics of the twentieth century. He is also remembered for his tenure alongside Laurence Olivier at Britain's National Theatre, his production of the long running but infamous full-frontal nude revue Oh, Calcutta! and his ubiquitous presence on the social scene with the "in crowd" of the "jet set". He was also the first person to utter the word "f**k" on British television, which hardly seems a big deal nowadays but was something of a seismic event back in the sixties when we were all fab.

All in all he was something of a poseur with his affinity for stylish clothes and the carefully calculated way he held a cigarette between the third and fourth fingers of his hand. Certainly he was the darling of the aforementioned elites. According to Lahr's book he was a brilliant and feared critic,... [a] daring impresario... a notorious eccentric, a louche sophisticate: connoisseur of cuisine, wine, literature and women. Considering the circles in which he moved Tynan was also something of a rarity, an unashamed heterosexual, though, as a stereotypical product of the English Public School tradition, he had a lifelong prediliction for spanking, thus making up for his lack of interest in that other English public school tradition of homosexuality.

He was an inveterate name dropper, simply because for over three decades, on both sides of the Atlantic, Tynan was at the hot centre of the theatre and film worlds. he knew everybody; and everybody wanted to know him. The diaries literally contain hundreds of names of the rich and famous with whom he attended a never-ending series of meetings, weekend gatherings, dinner parties and overseas jaunts: Gore Videl, L.O.(Laurence Olivier), Marlene Deitrich, Mel Brooks, Princess Margaret, Harold Pinter, Antonia Fraser, Germaine Greer, John Geilgud, John Osbourne, George Harrison, Robert Morley, John Huston, Tennesse Williams,... and so on.

Not just names but gossip, of course, usually of the who did what with whom and where and under the influence of what drugs type: one can read about Marlene Deitrich's tryst with JFK at the Whitehouse, Paul Getty's near fatal episode of priapism, etc., etc. Tynan was indeed a clever writer with a flair for words and a consummate skill for spotting and dissecting cant. Which is surprising considering the contradictions in his own lifestyle.

Whoever invented the term "Chardonnay Socialist" (was it Barry Humphries?) must have had Ken Tynan in mind. His committment to the creed of Utopian Socialism was breathtaking and unrelieved by reality. Safely inured by a lifestyle among the rich and famous, his only insights into the working class were therotical and abstract. He was a self-described "libertarian liberal socialist" which seems to have meant "I can do whatever I want socially and sexually without restraint but the Government should control every other aspect of society." (i.e. minimal sexual restraint accompanied by maximum political and economic control of the lives of the people.) But Tynan, the elitist, was hardly one of "the people".

In those heady socialist days prior to the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of Communism he was the classic leftist elitist snob, mixing his pursuit, via the Michelin guide, of exquisite wining and dining in France, his love of attending the bullfights in Spain and Mexico, vacationing in the south of France, and his globe-trotting to avoid the British taxman, with solemn pronouncements about the evils of capitalism, paens to the the joys of life in Castro's Cuba and the virtues of the National Health System, or unstinting praise for the proletrariat. Ironically his own contacts with male members of that class (seeing as, unlike several other well- known celebrities he didn't seek rough trade)usually involved them threatening a punch up or stealing his wallet. On the other hand proletarian women made fine spanking partners or excellent carers thus his praises for working class bottoms and the virtues of Irish and West Indian nurses who dominated the wards of Britain's NHS hospitals during his frequent hospitalisations for chronic empysema. Needless to say Tynan was a lifelong smoker... and it killed him in the end. An old story: living fast, he died relatively and tragically young. It further emerges from the diaries that many of the pretty young things around him also met early and tragic ends while the beastly boring bitches he despised often lived on.

Such is life.

The avowed anti-capitalist was always worrying about money, though no amount of lack in that department seemed to prevent him from inveterate globetrotting. In a breath-taking piece of self-exculpation he explains in his diaries that he is NOT a capitalist because capitalists live off the blood and sweat of the working class whereas as he, as a socialist socialite, journalist and theatre critic, while enjoying a lifestyle virtually imdistinguishable form that of these capitalists, does not.

To say Tynan was a contradiction is an understatement. Pieces of seering self-analysis appear in his diary alonside bits of shallow leftist rhetoric. Alongside pornographic spanking fantasies are found insightful discursions into the human condition. After accounts of the joys of family life he could write about wife-swapping and divorce as if these were casual events.

But one of the most interesting - and surprising - features of the libertine Tynan was his strong affinity foe the writings of C.S. Lewis, one of the twentieth century's premier Christian apologists and moralists. While at Cambridge in the late 40s Tynan was tutored by Lewis and the two developed a friendship. Tynan's respect for Lewis is evident in his many positive comments about the character of the man and about the wisdom of his writings. Tynan was an avid reader and the works of Lewis had a profound and particular philosophical impact upon him, though not in a way that translated into a change of lifestyle or a conversion to Christianity. At times it seems as if Tynan may be "almost persuaded" by the words of Lewis to consider Christianity but he always veers away. This teetering on the edge before careening back into the old lifestyle adds pathos to the self-portrait of an epicurean living under the cloud of his own mortality.

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Mark 8:35-37

12:08:00 am