A Twitch upon the Thread 4

281 custody of the children
These are the divorce negotiations, conducted on Celia’s side by her brother Boy Mulcaster. Charles feels no sense of bonding with his children and does not dispute what is in any case a hopeless cause.

281 Robin
Celia’s new boy friend. It is not clear if he is the man with whom she had the affair before Charles went off to Latin America (and therefore the possible father of Caroline), though Charles does remember him.

283 Press lords
British newspaper publishing at the time and for most of the century was dominated by a handful of men, all of whom were eventually ennobled. The Daily Beast’s Lord Copper is one of them.

283 Fleet Street
the street in London which was then the centre of newspaper publishing. Nearly all the major newspapers had their offices there or nearby. Now none of them do.

283 big bank running … the table
A reference to the gambling which is Rex’s recreation is appropriate for the gamble that is his career now.

283 flag-lieutenants
a junior officer who serves under a flag officer. A flag officer is a naval officer of admiral level who is entitled to fly the flag or pennant of the Royal Navy, so a flag lieutenant is in effect an admiral’s aide-de-camp. Julia thinks that his wife gave Admiral Muspratt’s officers the run-around.

283 the black sheep
the disreputable member of the family. (A black sheep’s wool is worth less than a white’s.)

284 Neville Chamberlain’s return from Munich
On his return from Munich after giving way to Hitler’s demands, Chamberlain waved a piece of paper bearing Hitler’s signature saying that it was ‘peace in our time’.

284 Rex made a rabid speech
We must presume this was against the Munich Agreement. In this way he made sure everybody knew where he stood, insofar as he rationally stood for anything. He certainly made himself known, and his career benefited when war did come.

285 Evidence was taken against Julia and me in my flat.
The objectionable process by which divorces were conducted at that time required one party to produce ‘evidence’ of infidelity by the other. This was generally done by arrangement, the ‘guilty party’ (usually the husband chivalrously offered himself for the part) allowing himself to be noted entertaining a ‘friend’, often a hired prostitute so as to protect his real lover from public shame. EW had already created a comic scene out of this practice in his novel A Handful of Dust. Some people thought the procedure civilised.

285 First, the convent
Cordelia has obviously tried her vocation in the years following the death of Lady Marchmain. She seems to have needed a more active life than enclosure in a convent provided.

286 helping in the prison-camps
The suspicion that Cordelia is merely an unthinking supporter of the Fascists in Spain is dispelled by this information. The people she helped in these camps must have been republican prisoners. This fact accounts perhaps for the slightly cool reaction the new government shows towards her as they send her home. They would not want observant foreigners on site while they got round to the rigours of interrogation and punishment.

286 burning love spending itself on serum-injections and de-lousing powder
Charles has still got a long way to go in understanding the nature of love. In the previous paragraph we have just heard that Cordelia served in the camps and helped to get people home! Her motives and her achievement cannot be restricted to the purely material appendages that Charles finds disgusting. But at least Charles recognises that Cordelia possesses burning love.

286 as to lose the finer shades of pleasure.
But not the finer shades of compassion and love, as she manifestly proves in the next day or so.

286-7 the Peerage
This could have been Burke’s Peerage, but we know that Nanny has Debrett. The two publications were rivals. The description of the cover certainly suggests Debrett.

287 going to war with Munich
just Nanny’s confusion

288 perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols
Charles is beginning to detect that there may be something beyond this life. ‘What can Julia be a forerunner to?’ is a question beginning to emerge in his mind.

289 the fathers had found starving
Cordelia doubts the full truth of this report, but it demonstrates the extent of Sebastian’s inability to look after himself. We know that he was receiving his allowance regularly. Possibly he is spending it all on drink.

289 Carthage
the ancient city in modern Tunisia, now virtually a suburb of the city of Tunis

289 lay-brother
a man who has taken vows in a monastery, but does not take part in the full liturgical programme. He serves as an ancillary or manual worker.

289 absinthe
a liqueur made from wormwood and alcohol, with aniseed or fennel added to try to disguise the foul taste. It is naturally green but turns cloudy and off-white with water, which was usually added by dripping it through a cube of sugar in a desperate attempt to sweeten the drink. Absinthe became very popular in France in the second half of the nineteenth century and had a certain cachet among decadents and romantics everywhere, partly because it was thought to make you drunk very quickly, to give you hallucinations if you were lucky, and to kill you in time. A cult developed in France : the drink was known as la fée verte (the green fairy) and the cocktail hour became l’heure verte. Its more frightening characteristics led to a scare which resulted in the French government banning the sale of absinthe in 1915. At one time it was banned in the United States and most of western Europe (though not in Britain, where it has only ever had a small cult following).
The official attitude towards the drink has changed since about 1995. Scientific tests have proved that it is not toxic as was once believed, and that it does not cause hallucinations. Its reputation was based on foolish if frightening scares rather than the reality. Several countries have again legalised it, and even in the United States the first legally available absinthe was approved for sale in 2007.
Sebastian is nevertheless in a parlous state if he is reduced to drinking absinthe in quantity.

290 Central Africa
The Superior dwelt in the jungle regions of Africa, or just possibly in a desert area (or both). He has come to a much easier climate at the end of his life.

291 Then they went to Greece when Kurt got well.
If Kurt recovered by 1927 and was not picked up by the Germans until 1934, Sebastian and he had about seven years together in Greece.

292 storm-trooper
a member of the SA, a private militia of the Nazi party in Germany famous for employing intimidation through violence

292 Six years of Sebastian
More likely eight or nine, taking into account the information in the entry two above this one and the fact that Sebastian had known Kurt for some time before Charles visited them in Fez in 1926.

292 concentration camp
The Nazis authorised concentration camps within a month of assuming power in Germany in 1933. Dissidents and criminals were liable to be imprisoned in them without trial.
The Nazis got the idea from their use by Britain during the Boer War (1899-1902), where the purpose was to concentrate the civilian population away from military areas so that operations could proceed unhindered. Their military success is unquestionable but the suffering of the inmates was great, especially as little care was taken to look after them properly.

293 a governess who jumped off this bridge and drowned herself.
Another of the shadowy figures who inhabit this world. Anthony Blanche mentioned her during his malicious conversation with Charles at Thame (page 54). We never know why she took this action.

294 the last sacraments
The last sacrament was then known as Extreme Unction and is now known as the Sacrament of the Sick. Lord Marchmain will receive it in the next chapter. Since she mentions sacraments - the plural - Cordelia may also be thinking of Penance (Confession), though in Catholic doctrine Extreme Unction itself remits sins.

294 It’s not such a bad way of getting through one’s life.
Brideshead had said something very similar (page 158 : ‘I hope it is dipsomania … There’s no moral obligation to be Postmaster-General’), but in his cold and rational manner it had sounded repulsive. Cordelia’s exposition of the same point is full of love and understanding.

294 It’s the spring of love
Cordelia’s point that love is inextricably bound up with suffering demonstrates that she has a subtle understanding of Catholic mystical theology. This is not the place for a full exposition which I am not fitted to give, but briefly, its basis is : Love is tested and displays itself most fully in the acceptance of suffering (supremely in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross); and conversely acceptance of suffering allows love to flower and express itself, as Cordelia expects the next war to prove.
Even in secular terms there was a notable growth of community spirit in World War II : those who lived through it remember the ‘Dunkirk spirit’, that particular blend of defiance, sacrifice and charity which enabled the British to bear suffering at a time when they had little means of striking back.

295 another image
The last paragraph of the chapter presents us with an image of colossal proportions whose full significance is seen only at the end of the next chapter. An earth-shaking revelation is near.


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