Phillip O'Connor
Phillip O'Connor; drawing by David Levine

You are walking down a street, probably past a bar. A man shambles up to you, puts his face very close, and begins talking. He talks and talks. He is aggressive and not at all charming. He despises everybody and everything, but especially the bourgeoisie. This includes himself. On the other hand he knows he is almost the only person in the world who understands it. He is telling you the story of his life, which is unusual in its beginnings, but gets more and more ordinary—terribly predictable, in fact—as he goes along.

As Stephen Spender says in his introduction, “the ‘systematic derangement of the senses’ has become a cliché of living, as well as of poetry.” Still, the tale might be bearable if the furious ancient mariner were not also expounding his thoughts. They are mostly banal and transparently derivative, except that, from time to time, explosions of originality throw up fragments of brilliant perception: they are soon borne away on gusts of messianic hot air. Messianic is O’Connor’s own word for a recurrent state of mind. His talk jolts along in misshapen sentences caked with metaphors. Some of the metaphors are startling and illuminating, but all the same you just wish he would stop. He doesn’t, of course. So unless you manage to get away, you will have finished Philip O’Connor’s Memoirs of a Public Baby.

As described by himself, O’Connor is often drunk and sometimes mad. R.D. Laing has suggested that madmen are saner than we are, and from 1958, when he first got his book published, O’Connor himself has been a proto-Laingian: “Those who withdraw from normality,” he wrote, “may have better reasons for doing so than are apparent to the ‘normal world’s’ secular priests.” The sneering quotation marks are typical—though unusually restrained—of O’Connor’s contempt for the normal and the bourgeois, whose territories completely overlap on his map of the world. There is a lot of truth in the Laingian paradox, of course, but it is not new. Shakespeare was a proto-Laingian, and so was Tourneur when he wrote:

Surely wee’re all mad people, and they
Whome we thinke are, are not, we mistake those,
Tis we are mad in sense, they but in clothes.

The trouble with drunks and madmen, though, is that they are terribly boring. The great and famous mad and drunken geniuses have mostly done their writing in sane and sober moments. Stephen Spender, who has been inveigled not once but twice (in 1958 and in 1988) into writing an introduction to O’Connor’s Memoirs, put his finger on the problem. Talking about poems that O’Connor had published in various anthologies before the war, he said they were

both good and not good. Good because they were automatic products of a most anti-mechanical personality, not good, because their author had no self-requirements of style by which he could “work” at them.

Exactly the same could be said about the Memoirs, only the poems were probably shorter. Besides, poems can have something to gain from obscurity.

Philip O’Connor was born during the First World War. He never knew his father, an Irish surgeon who abandoned his mother about the time the baby was born. He had a sister seven years older than himself. Mrs. O’Connor was very much a lady in reduced circumstances, which she tried to improve by setting up various kinds of business schemes, first in France. When O’Connor was three she parked him for a couple of years at Madame Tillieux’s patisserie in Wimereux. It was probably the happiest time of his life, partly because of the patisserie, and partly because Madame Tillieux was affectionate and uninhibited. She let the little boy sleep in her bed and listen to “the crash of her urine in the enamelled pail.” Reviewers have zoomed in on this episode, and assumed, as O’Connor himself does, that his disgust with the hypocrisy and dainty vulgarity of the bourgeoisie stem from his early happiness with an earth mother. His second foster mother kept a brewery in Calais. Mrs. O’Connor seems to have gone for calories in her choice of surrogates.

Eventually she collected her children and brought them to live in a squalid basement on London’s Dean Street, which she shared with “Uncle Haslam,” a failed but distinguished-looking theatrical gentleman. From here Philip went to live with his “guardian”—the exact connotation of the term isn’t explained, but this nameless character appears to have been a kindly, half-educated, and not very bright civil servant, who lived partly in the dreary suburb of Clapham and partly in a holiday hut in a Surrey wood. He was an eccentric fellow, and from him O’Connor learned to think of himself as an eccentric too:


There is a turning point in the history of an eccentric; the first time when what he is doing or saying seriously, is greeted with laughter; laughter which indicates his failure to communicate his meaning; he will thenceforward speak and act increasingly oddly and humorously.

The guardian sent his charge to various undistinguished schools, which he hated. He pinned down his feelings in one of his most coherent set pieces:

The exercise book cover had the air of a frozen pond; their blue lines were threads of confined skies; one looked, and couldn’t focus, one’s gaze went on for ever. The desks, in their runnels, were heaped with solid time, little points into which undigested time had stuck; when the door opened the whole room seemed to expand its chest, and wither at its close. Schoolmasters’ flesh looked like old pastry. You could study it until you felt as sleepy as it; their eyes dim in your study of them were relieved of life, and you saw bits of blue water, and old strings of their head, and their foreheads like silly boxes, and their jaws like shop-tills opening and shutting with a chink of money, and their words as unmental as their emissions of anal gas. The whole of them was wheezy, pedestrianly assembled thing called man that worked ill, perfunctorily, having nothing to do with what it said but the dull tones it used; it was steam escaping, taps dripping, it gave madness through monotony and the crown of its dullness was its power. Only the hypocrites and the mentally deficient took it seriously; it appreciated mediocrity, spoke to it man to man, called it a good chap and wished it well. It eyed the rest as policemen play cat and mouse with burglars.

The wheeze of lower-middle-class aspiration escaped with the gas.

Class and snobbery continued to be problems. O’Connor admits he never managed to get rid of either. Meanwhile his guardian joined the Communist party in mild, genteel Wimbledon (of all places), and O’Connor was very taken with the members’ simplicity, sincerity, and, in the case of the Indian MP, Shapurji Saklatvala, saintliness. But he realized that communism was not for him: he needed too much applause for himself as an individual to join a mass movement; “the mental aberration, also, of ‘Messianism’ was a strong undercurrent in my make-up.” One day he left school:

I “had a funny feeling” on the platform of the station waiting for my train to school. When it came in I looked at it merely, detaching myself from the inevitability of getting in it.

His guardian was displeased but set him up in a room in London so that he could “write.” He also painted a bit.

O’Connor now moved to Fitzrovia, a dire neighborhood enjoying a revival of interest in the UK at the moment. Its geography was defined last year by Valentine Cunningham in British Writers of the Thirties, and this year in War Like a Wasp: The Last Decade of the Forties and The War Decade: An Anthology of the Forties, both by Andrew Sinclair. At a West End Theater you may see—if you can get a seat, which is difficult because they are usually sold out—a dramatized version of Jeffrey Bernard’s weekly column in The Spectator. Bernard is a latter-day Fitzrovian lush. When he is too much under the influence to get his piece together The Spectator carries the message: Jeffrey Bernard is unwell.

This is also the title of the show in which Bernard is played by the glamorous and charming Peter O’Toole. Fitzrovia itself is neither glamorous nor charming, a down-market bohemia not a bit like Mimi and Rodolphe’s because most of its inhabitants are old and alcoholic. It is mainly a conceptual territory, though there is a Fitzroy Street and Fitzroy Square and even a Fitzroy Tavern in the northeast corner of Soho—the drink zone of this sleazy quartier, as opposed to the sex zone south of Oxford Street. The most distinguished inhabitants of Fitzrovia have been Dylan Thomas and Francis Bacon, the one most famous for being a Fitzrovian was MacLaren Ross. In the Thirties, Fitzrovia had established an important outpost in Chelsea, and O’Connor functioned, insofar as he functioned, in both places. Sinclair refers to him ritually as “the perennial Fitzrovian.”

O’Connor’s ideas were a stale mixture of Lawrence, Nietzsche, and surrealism, with Lawrence predominating and creeping indelibly into his prose. He sponged on various people, was admitted to a mental hospital and diagnosed as a schizophrenic, but released after a few months, rather to his regret. Toward the end of the book he finds a rich young girl who seems to have been a nymphomaniac and a masochist. She was loving and insanely generous, and O’Connor genuinely admired what he called her “purity,” i.e., her independence of bourgeois anxieties and values. O’Connor’s obscurity gets particularly inspissated when he writes about her, so it’s hard to make out whether they were lovers or simply obsessed with each other. Either way, his obsession wore off first, though he loved living off her money, and hung on for five years. Then she went mad and tried to kill him. He took her to a hospital.


I left L. at the hospital in a state of manic exaltation and depression. I felt tremendous power and independence at being without her…. I had gone with her, and my body careered away like an empty removal van.

It’s a wonderful image, and one admires—throughout the book, for that matter—O’Connor’s sadistic honesty about himself.

All the same, when you put it down, you feel exactly like that removal van. And no wonder, because the Memoirs ramble on just like O’Connor himself, when he was living on the Côte d’Azur with L.:

…my oratory of the second bottle became fully developed, in two daily sessions; I imagine I was attempting to talk away my life…. Everything but talk bored me, and everything to do with other people. Here L. frequently betrayed me by taking an interest in them, at which I was always deeply indignant.

There is a touch of self-irony here, and there are quite a lot of others—not nearly enough, though. When Spender came to write his second introduction to the Memoirs last year it struck him that in the first one he had forgotten “to mention that this is a Chaplinesque comic masterpiece.” He explains what he means: both Chaplin and O’Connor behave in what they think is a “sensible, logical” way; but it turns out to be the opposite of what other people think is sensible and logical. Another version of the sane/mad paradox, but if I had to choose a comic double for O’Connor, it would be splenetic W. C. Fields, not gentle Charlie Chaplin. Neither really qualifies, though, because of their silence: Chaplin’s imposed by his medium and Fields’s by his surliness. Perhaps a cross between Fields and Woody Allen at his most solipsistically garrulous would fit the bill. But one has to remember that Chaplin, Fields, and Allen all intend to be funny. I don’t think O’Connor does or is.

At its first appearance in 1958, Memoirs of a Public Baby got some admiring reviews, including, perhaps surprisingly, one by Dorothy Parker; and not surprisingly at all one by the English critic Philip Toynbee, who wrote his own rueful autobiography in verse and called it Pantaloon. Peter Levi, in Encounter, produced a stunning analogy for the Memoirs: “It reads like an account of the labyrinth by an inspired minotaur.” The present American edition comes with hyperbolic praise from Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Paul Bowles, Richard Wilbur, William Burroughs, and Joseph Brodsky, who says: “The mind and tongue I would gladly swap for my own.” Can he really wish for the tongue? Here are some examples of how it mutters on:

I didn’t successfully return from the journeys on the trolley; something of the meaning of that play-metaphor informed my being: real journeys were a scratch on the skin of that one, and involved only a fraction of me. The expression of the trolley has something in common with that of church gargoyles—a journey at the expense of fear. A drainpipe lay beside our trolley, and perhaps in rehearsal for the greatest show on earth, Reality, we would crawl through it.

Or this:

Memories of twilight in Wimereux return home in a glass of wine; little beans of warmth from the heart’s pod pop throughout the network of nerves to the mnemonic nerve-stations.

To me, the book seemed like a groping for ways to express shades of feeling, shades of meaning, shades of thought; the preliminary spadework for something to be written in the style of Proust, or Joyce, or Djuna Barnes, or Virginia Woolf, or, of course, D. H. Lawrence. But whatever it was didn’t get as far as the assembly stage, and getting through the raw material was, to me, like trying to swallow the contents of a cement mixer a quarter of an hour after it has been switched off.

This Issue

February 1, 1990