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A Bed of Flowers

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Robin Clark, London, 1985
(price: 4.95; 256 pages)
first published by Michael Joseph, 1972

dedication: for my sister, Margaret, and my godson, Orlando

The blurb on the back:

In the beautiful Somerset countryside, a collection of refugees from modern life have created an alternative society under the patronage of John Robinson, one of the richest and most powerful men in Britain. For some, this means contemplating the world from the serene detachment of a drug-induced peace of mind. For others, it means following their instincts, whether in a private search for the Holy Grail or merely in a release of their abundant sexual energies.
While Roasalind and Orlando act out their love affair as a mid-summer's idyll on the sun-drenched slopes of Williams's Farm, the outside world conspires to destroy their happiness. Most particularly while the Williams Community is busy cultivating its bed of flowers, a crime of unprecedented brutality is planned in the cold and godless corridors of Whitehall. Only the philosophers of Williams's Farm seem able to recognize the crime for what it is; but they are also the people least equipped to do anything to alter the course of events...

opening lines:
Few Englishmen would care to be reminded that as recently as the night of March 31st 1966, there was no colour television in the British Isles. Perhaps there are other, even more disreputable truths to be revealed about England's recent history, but these are known only to a few people.

Auberon Waugh's fourth and final novel was far and away his best, and the one that suggested he might emerge as a serious rival to his father as a writer of fiction. As the sleeve-notes suggest, this is essentially a re-working of As You Like It, re-located to late-1960s England, and it's a solid gold classic.

We start on the night of the 1966 General Election, when Harold Wilson won the biggest of his four (count them, Tony) victories, and when the hopeful ship of parliamentary socialism had yet to founder on the rocks of devaluation and In Place of Strife. As the story develops, we follow a motley collection of hippies and drop-outs retreating into the depths of the West Country, seeking enlightenment in the company of a former Jesuit priest, whilst being bankrolled by a conscience-stricken industrialist. Perhaps surprisingly, Waugh's depiction of their stoned idealism is far more gentle than the treatment he metes out to the business and political establishment: he's clear that they offer no real alternative, but acknowledges that at least they recognize some of the sicknesses afflicting the Western world. Even more importantly, the blood of the Biafran people is not on their hands. (The Biafran War was one of his great crusading campaigns and forms the global backdrop to the latter stages of the book.)

It survives as an almost sympathetic portrayal of the late-60s counter-culture in Britain, but also - of course - as a fabulous piece of social and political satire, crammed with typically Waugh jokes. I'm particularly fond of a newly elected Labour MP explaining to his sceptical brother that, in the wake of the massive election victory, 'the fatstock subsidy will be restored as a matter of first priority'. A page later, he's claiming that the distribution to the Third World of a new synthetic source of nutrition will be the first priority, and when his brother protests at this divided agenda, he turns on him scornfully:

'You could never hope to understand someone as fundamentally different from yourself as Harold Wilson. For him, everything has first priority.' (p.66)

Sounds familiar, somehow.

Waugh abandoned novels after this, and concentrated on his journalism, reaching a peak with his Diary column in Private Eye, which remains perhaps his supreme achievement. But this one really shouldn't be forgotten.


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John Fortune & John Wells, A Melon For Ecstasy
youth cults