Luke Upward: Belle Lettriste (with the accent on the “triste”)
The name of Luke Upward has melted with the snows of yesteryear. His critical reputation neither rises nor falls. In today’s literary salons and cultural forums he is no more likely to be analysed, or even mentioned, than Colley Cibber or even James Pye. But in his time, his belles-lettres were positively the dernier cri of the avant-garde of the nouvelle vague.
Details of Upward’s life are hard to come by: most, if not all, of those he supplied himself were invented. He claimed on occasion to be a cousin of Christopher Isherwood’s school chum Edward Upward, who wrote some solemn novels about life in and out of the Communist party. However, he himself professed adherence to the Viennese Anarchists who, before the Great War, registered themselves with the police as the Party Of Moderate Progress Within The Limits Of The Law.
Upward spent a great deal of money, much of it on zithers, of which he had the largest collection in private hands. His predilection was curious since he was never able to progress himself beyond the first two bars of the Harry Lime theme. He was often a victim of unscrupulous zither dealers who made him pay fabulous sums for miscellaneous instruments of doubtful attribution (later catalogued as Stradi, various). When reproached over any extravagant zither purchase, Upward always had a dramatic and unarguable reply: “it was cheaper than having a nervous breakdown.”
The origins of Upward’s money were obscure. He claimed to have made it in Nicaragua, adding delphically: “I was drawn there by the potassium.” If an unwary stranger protested “there is no potassium in Nicaragua,” Upward would smile gently and reply “I know, I mined it all.” At other times he claimed to be an Archimandrite in the Sesquipedalian Church or an adviser to the President of São Tomé e Príncipe, but when I visited this beautiful accented archipelago some years ago the name of Luke Upward was as unknown to them as those of Nahum Tate or even Lewis Theobald. His great rival, Walter Downer, claimed that Upward made his money composing copy for birthday cards and Christmas crackers. He may have been right. At Christmas time, Upward was always suspiciously eager for people to read out all the mottoes and jokes when crackers were pulled, and he would himself guffaw heartily at the unlikeliest samples.
Upward planned an auotobiography, but this got no further than his intended title: The Importance Of Not Being Earnest. This was also the fate of his planned trilogy of novels, beginning with Over A Million Copies Sold, followed by Nobel Prize Winner and concluding with Banned In Five Continents. Upward made several sketches of covers for these novels, in which the titles appeared in larger and larger type, but the setting, the characters, the plot, the dialogue remained a blank.
Upward’s oeuvre therefore consists entirely of his belles-lettres, small aperçus and apophthegms (“my apps” he called them for short) sent daily to a very select circle of privileged subscribers. These were printed on pre-war rice paper (Upward claimed to have cornered the last bushels of pre-war rice) with the aid of a John Bull printing outfit, a popular children’s toy of the 1950s (Upward’s collection of these occupied almost as much space as his zithers). From time to time Upward felt that his literary life was futile. He himself provided the description of his occupation which I have used as the title of this portrait. He affected to despise all of his apps. But these moods were immediately dispelled when he thought of the next one. Sometimes he could not wait to print a new app on the rice paper but would bellow it from his Bermondsey balcony through a megaphone which he claimed to have stolen from some Sitwell.
Upward is no longer with us. I was among the sad followers at his funeral service, for which he had prudently written his own eulogy in advance. It had echoes of David Copperfield (I am born… I begin to observe the world…) and lasted some four hours, accompanied by no fewer than seven of the world’s leading zitherists.
Rice paper decays, but Upward’s apps will not perish with it. I have assembled, with the generous help of other devotees, what I believe to be the definitive collection, rejecting some evident forgeries by the jealous Downer. I have decided to publish one each day, just as he sent them to us.
To complete this reminiscence, here is my first selection: “memory is a cosy on the teapot of time.”