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Anthony Powell - A Buyers Market

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Anthony Powell - A Buyers Market

A Buyers Market
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Anthony Powell's universally acclaimed epic A Dance to the Music of Time offers a matchless panorama of twentieth-century London. Now, for the first time in decades, readers in the United States can read the books of Dance as they were originally published-as twelve individual novels-but with a twenty-first-century twist: they're available only as e-books. The second volume, A Buyer's Market (1952), finds young Nick Jenkins struggling to establish himself in London. Amid the fever of the 1920s, he attends formal dinners and wild parties; makes his first tentative forays into the worlds of art, culture, and bohemian life; and suffers his first disappointments in love. Old friends come and go, but the paths they once shared are rapidly diverging: Stringham is settling into a life of debauchery and drink, Templer is plunging into the world of business, and Widmerpool, though still a figure of out-of-place grotesquerie, remains unbowed, confident in his own importance and eventual success. A Buyer's Market is a striking portrait of the pleasures and anxieties of early adulthood, set against a backdrop of London life and culture at one of its most effervescent moments.

“I see the Chinese marshals have announced their victory to the spirit of the late Dr. Sun Yat-sen,” Widmerpool was saying.

He spoke rather as if he had himself expected an invitation to the ceremony, but was prepared to overlook its omission on this occasion. Tompsitt, pursing his lips, rather in Widmerpool’s own manner, concurred that such solemn rites had indeed taken place.

“And the Nationalists have got to Pekin,” Widmerpool pursued.

“But who are the Nationalists?” asked Tompsitt, in a measured voice, gazing round the table with an air of quiet aggression. “Can anyone tell me that?”

Neither Archie Gilbert nor I ventured any attempt to clarify the confused situation in China; and not even Widmerpool seemed disposed to hazard any immediate interpretation of conflicting political aims there. There was a pause, at the end of which he said: “I dare say we shall have to consider tariff autonomy — with reservations, of course.”

Tompsitt nodded, biting his lip a trifle. Widmerpool’s face assumed a dramatic expression that made him look rather like a large fish moving swiftly through opaque water to devour a smaller one. Sir Gavin had begun to grow restive as scraps of this stimulating dialogue were wafted across to him, and he now abandoned the subject of Salopian pheasants in favour of trenchant examination of Celestial affairs.

“To speak of treaty-revision before China has put her house in order,” he announced rather slowly, between puffs of his cigarette, “is thought by some — having regard to the status quo—substantially to put the cart before the horse. The War-Lords—”

“A cousin of mine in the Coldstream went out last year,” Pardoe interrupted. “He said it wasn’t too bad.”

“Was that at Kowloon?” asked Widmerpool, speaking somewhat deferentially. “I hear, by the way, they are sending the Welsh Guards to Egypt instead of a Line regiment.”

“You spoke of treaty revision, Sir Gavin,” said Tompsitt, ignoring Widmerpool’s adumbrations on the incidence of the trooping season. “Now it seems to me that we should strike when the iron is hot. The iron has never been hotter than at this moment. There are certain facts we have got to face. For example—”

“Some of them were under canvas on the race-course,” said Pardoe. “Not that there were any starters, I should imagine.” And, presumably with a view to disposing finally of the Chinese question and turning to subjects of more local interest, he added: “You know, legalising the tote is going to make a big difference to racing.”

Sir Gavin looked dissatisfied with the turn taken by — or rather forced on — the conversation; possibly, in fact certainly, possessing further views on the international situation in the East which he was not unwilling to express. However, he must have decided that time did not allow any return to these matters, for he made, as it were, a mystic circle before himself in the air with the decanter, as if to show that the fate of China — and of racing too, for that matter — was in the lap of the gods.

“Nobody having any port,” he stated, rather than asked. “Then I suppose we shall be getting into trouble if we don’t make a move. Anyone for along the passage?”

“Yes,” said Tompsitt, setting off impatiently.

While we waited for him, Sir Gavin expatiated to Pardoe whom he seemed, for some reason, particularly to enjoy lecturing, on the advantages to be gained for the country by mustering young men of Tompsitt’s kind.

“Had the smooth type too long,” he remarked, shaking his head a number of times.

“Need something crisper these days, do we?” inquired Pardoe, who, standing on tiptoe, was straightening his white tie reflected in the glass of the barometer hanging under Boyhood of Cyrus.

“All very well a century ago to have a fellow who could do the polite to the local potentate,” explained Sir Gavin. “Something a bit more realistic required these days.”

“A chap who knows the man-in-the-street?”

Sir Gavin screwed his face into an expression calculated to convey that such was the answer.

“Where does he come from?” asked Pardoe, who did not seem absolutely convinced by these arguments, and still fiddled with his tie.

Sir Gavin seemed rather pleased by this question, which gave him further opportunity for stating uncompromisingly his confidence in Tompsitt’s almost congenital bona fides.

“Goodness knows where he comes from,” he affirmed vigorously. “Why should you or I be concerned with that — or any of us, for that matter? What we need is a man who can do the job.”

“I quite agree with you, sir,” said Widmerpool, breaking unexpectedly into this investigation. “Professionalism in diplomacy is bad enough, in all conscience, without restricting the range of the country’s diplomatic representation to a clique of prize pupils from a small group of older public schools.”

Sir Gavin looked rather taken aback, as I was myself, at such a sudden assertion of considered opinion regarding the matter in hand — and also at being called “sir”—even though Widmerpool’s views seemed so closely identified with his own. However, Widmerpool did not attempt to amplify his proposition, and circumstances, represented by the return of Tompsitt, prevented a more exhaustive examination of the problem.

In his distrust of “smoothness” and hankering for “realism,” Sir Gavin once more reminded me of Uncle Giles, but such reflections were interrupted by the necessity of making a decision regarding means of transport to the Huntercombes’ house. The Walpole-Wilsons’ cars were both, for some reason, out of commission — Eleanor had driven one of them against the mounting-block in the stable yard at Hinton Hoo — and Pardoe’s sports-model two-seater was not specially convenient for a girl in a ball dress; although I could imagine Barbara wishing to travel in it if she had a chance. As it happened, Pardoe’s general offer of “a lift” was immediately accepted by Tompsitt, which settled the matter so far as the rest of the party were concerned: this residue being divided between two taxis. I found myself in Lady Walpole-Wilson’s vehicle, with Barbara, Miss Manasch, and Archie Gilbert; Eleanor, Anne Stepney, Margaret Budd, and Widmerpool accompanying Sir Gavin. We all packed ourselves in, Archie Gilbert and I occupying the tip-up seats. The butler slammed the taxi door as if glad to be rid of us.

“I hope the others will be all right,” said Lady Walpole-Wilson, as our conveyance moved off uncertainly, though I could not guess what her fears might be for potential ill that could befall the group under the command of her husband.

“Aren’t we going to be too early, Aunt Daisy?” Barbara said. “It is so awful when you are the first to arrive. We did it at the Cecils.”

I thought I could feel her foot against mine, but a moment later, found the shoe in question to belong to Miss Manasch, who immediately removed her own foot; whether because aware of a pressure that had certainly been quite involuntary, if, indeed, it had taken place at all, or merely by chance, I was unable to tell.

“I do hope Eleanor will not insist on going home as soon as we arrive,” said Lady Walpole-Wilson, more to herself than to the rest of the company in the taxi.

As we covered the short distance to Belgrave Square, she dropped her bag on the floor, recovering it before anyone else could help, opened the clasp, and began to rummage in its depths. There she found whatever she had been seeking. Archie Gilbert was sitting next to the door by which we should descend, and now she made as if to offer him some object concealed in her hand, the thing, no doubt a coin, for which she had been searching in the bag. However, he strenuously denied acceptance of this.

“Please,” said Lady Walpole-Wilson. “You must.”

“On the contrary.”

“I insist.”

“No, no, absurd.”

“Mr. Gilbert!”


“I shall be very cross.”

“Not possibly.”

During the several seconds that elapsed before we finally drew up, delayed for a time by private cars and other taxis waiting in a queue in front of our own, the contest continued between them; so that by the moment when the taxi had at last stopped dead in front of the Huntercombes’ house, and Archie Gilbert, flinging open the door, had reached the pavement, I was still doubtful whether or not he had capitulated. Certainly he had ejected himself with great rapidity, and unhesitatingly paid the taxi-driver, brushing aside a proffered contribution.

There seemed no reason to suppose, as Barbara had suggested, that we might have come too early. On the contrary, we went up the carpeted steps into a hall full of people, where Sir Gavin, whose taxi had arrived before our own, was already waiting impatiently for the rest of his party. His reason for personal attendance at a dance which he would not have normally frequented was presumably because the Huntercombes lived near the Walpole-Wilsons in the country. In fact there could be no doubt that a good many country neighbours had been asked, for, even on the way up the stairs, densely packed with girls and young men, some of them already rather hot and flushed, there was that faint though perceptible flavour of the hunt ball to be observed about some of the guests. While putting away our hats, curiosity had overcome me, and I asked Archie Gilbert whether he had, in fact, refused or accepted Lady Walpole-Wilson’s money. At the coarseness of the question his smile had been once again somewhat reproving.

“Oh, I took it,” he said. “Why not? It wasn’t enough. It never is.”

These words made me wonder if, after all, some faint trace of dissatisfaction was concealed deep down under that armour of black-and-white steel that encased him; and, for a moment, the terrible suspicion even suggested itself that, night after night, he danced his life away through the ballrooms of London in the unshakable conviction that the whole thing was a sham. Was he merely stoical like the Spartan boy — clad this time in a white tie — with the fox of bitterness gnawing, through stiff shirt, at his vitals. It was a thought in its horror to be dismissed without further examination. Such cynicism could hardly be possible. His remark, however, had for some reason recalled the occasion when I had been leaving the Templers’ house and Mr. Farebrother had added his shilling to the chauffeur’s tip.

“Have you ever come across someone called Sunny Farebrother?” I asked.

“Of course I’ve met him. Quite interested in the metal market, isn’t he? He is rather well known in the City for his charm.”

I saw that I had been right in supposing that the pair of them had something in common. Archie Gilbert had, indeed, sounded surprised that I should ever have been in doubt about his knowing Farebrother. Meanwhile, we had proceeded almost to the top of the stairs and were about to reach the first-floor landing, where a big man-servant with a huge bottle nose was bawling out the names of the guests in a contemptuous, raucous voice that well suggested his own keen enjoyment of the duty.

… Sir Gavin and Lady Walpole-Wilson … Miss Walpole-Wilson … Captain Hackforth … Mr. Cavendish … Lady Anne Stepney … Miss Budd … Miss Manners … Mr. Pardon … Mr. Tompsey … Lady Augusta Cutts … Miss Cutts … Lord Erridge … Miss Mercy Cutts … Lord and Lady Edward Wentworth … Mr. Winterpool …”

It was a fearful struggle to get through the door into the ballroom. Even the bottle-nosed man, familiar with such tumult as he must have been, had to pause and smile broadly to himself once or twice; but whether amused at the confusion of the crowd, or at the hash he was himself making of their individual names, it was impossible to guess. The whining of the band seemed only to encourage the appalling tussle taking place on stairs and landing.

“I took one look at you—

That’s all I meant to do—

And then my heart — stood still …”

Hanging at the far end of the ballroom was a Van Dyck — the only picture of any interest the Huntercombes kept in London — representing Prince Rupert conversing with a herald, the latter being, I believe, the personage from whom the surviving branch of the family was directly descended. The translucent crystals of the chandeliers oscillated faintly as the dancers below thumped by. A knot of girls were standing not far from the door, among them Eleanor, who, in a purposeful manner, was pulling on a pair of long white gloves. These gloves, always affected by her, were evidently a kind of symbol assumed in connection with her own attitude towards dances; at once intended to keep her partners physically farther from her, at the same time creaking ominously, as if voicing the audible disapproval of their wearer, whenever she moved her arms. We took the floor together. Eleanor danced well, though implacably. I asked how long she had known Widmerpool, mentioning that we had been at school together.

“Uncle George used to get his liquid manure from Mr. Widmerpool’s father when he was alive,” said Eleanor curtly. “We tried some at home, but it was a failure. Different soil, I suppose.”

Widmerpool’s old acquaintance with Barbara’s family, and his own presence that night at the Walpole-Wilsons’, were now both satisfactorily explained. There could be no doubt that the fertiliser mentioned by Eleanor was the basic cause of the secrecy with which he had always been inclined to veil his father’s business activities; for, although there was, of course, nothing in the faintest degree derogatory about agricultural science — Lord Goring himself was, after all, evidence of that fact — I had been associated with Widmerpool long enough to know that he could not bear to be connected personally with anyone, or anything, that might be made, however remotely, the subject of ridicule which could recoil even in a small degree upon himself. He was, for example, as I discovered much later, almost physically incapable of making himself agreeable to a woman whom he regarded as neither good-looking nor, for some other reason, worth cultivating: a trait vested, perhaps, in a kind of natural timidity, and a nature that required a sense of support from the desirable qualities of company in which he found himself. This characteristic of his, I can now see, was an effort to obtain a kind of vicarious acquisition of power from others. Accordingly, any sense of failure or inadequacy in his surroundings made him uncomfortable. The mere phrase “artificial manure” told the whole story.

However, when it became clear that Eleanor did not much like him, I found myself, I hardly knew why, assuring her that Widmerpool, at school and in France, had always been quite an amiable eccentric; though I could not explain, then or now, why I felt his defence a duty; still less why I should have arbitrarily attributed to him what was, after all, an almost wholly imaginary personality, in fact one in many respects far from accurate. At that time I still had very little idea of Widmerpool’s true character: neither its qualities nor defects.

“They had a small house on the Pembringham estate while experimenting with the manure,” said Eleanor. “Aunt Constance is frightfully kind, when she isn’t feeling too ill, you know, and used to ask them over quite often. That was where I first met him. Now his mother has taken a cottage near us at Hinton. Barbara doesn’t mind Mr. Widmerpool. Of course, she has often met him. I don’t really care for him very much. We were absolutely at our wits’ end for a man to-night, so he had to come. Have you ever seen his mother?”

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