In a passage about the Ministry of Information in WWII, I recently read a reference to the author Hugh Walpole, and was encouraged to pick up a biography of him by Rupert Hart-Davis at the university library in Wilmington. Now, I have never read a word of Walpole’s in my life, although I do recall a rather stout and daunting work, ‘Rogue Herries’, in my father’s grand bookshelf at home. (What did that title mean? What was ‘herrying’ anyway?) In his time (1884-1941) Walpole was surely one of the most popular and fertile authors in England, but I doubt many people read him nowadays. And then, on learning more about his life from Hart-Davis, I discovered that he possessed a familiar pattern of characteristics: an almost photographic memory, especially for other authors’ plots and characters; a highly creative mind, which allowed him to visualise complete novels before they were written; a passion for collecting things, and a love of lists (he would at the end of each year compile a list of his fifteen top friends – one for you, Mark Zuckerberg); a very prickly personality, and a clumsiness and lack of tact in dealing with other people. In short, he showed all the symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome (see Orwell’s Clock).
I don’t believe that anyone else has made this assessment before. And it doesn’t really matter. I believe that the autism spectrum is very wide, and that even many among us who would never think of ourselves in that category can reveal aspects of the behaviour. Asperger’s wasn’t identified until 1944, and Hart-Davis, who wrote his biography in 1952, could not have been expected to be aware of it, since it came into prominence only thirty years later. (And now, some of the experts are trying to eliminate it as a separate nameable syndrome.) But what was astonishing to me was how frankly and pointedly Hart-Davis hinted at Walpole’s homosexuality. Such behaviour was still illegal in Britain at that time, as the recent publicity surrounding Alan Turing (‘The Imitation Game’) reminds us. What is really shocking to me is how inconsistently homosexuals were treated at that time, with the hero Turing (died 1954) being hounded despite his contributions, while the exhibitionist scoundrel Guy Burgess (defected to Moscow 1951), who boasted about his treachery, was tolerated and entertained.
My practice of updating my Commonplace Book at the end of each month will remain in place . Starting now, I shall post the last month’s entries in a separate page, so that visitors may inspect them without having to delve down into the document containing everything for the current year. Thus see Recent Commonplace Entries. (My thanks to Mrs. Ethel Blenkinsop of Murmansk for this excellent suggestion.) [November 30, 2014]