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Sinister Street – Compton MacKenzie

August 24, 2015

SS 3This book was banned by libraries. The author did not hesitate to explore controversial and topical issues, particularly such themes as homosexuality, infidelity, religion, Scottish nationalism, and espionage activities during World War I. (In his ‘The Four Winds’ Emil Stern is a 16-year-old ‘Jewish beauty’ and intellectual when we first meet him in love with Ogilvie at St Paul’s (St James’s in the novel). Emil will become a fervent Marxist, a British consul in the Levant and successful espionage agent in the war. Later he will suppress his homosexuality by an act of will, marry a humourless Swedish woman, and go to prison in the Twenties for attempting to incite mutiny in His Majesty’s Forces. (Mackenzie himself would be charged under the Official Secrets Act and tried at the Old Bailey after the publication of his own war memoirs.)

It’s a detailed account of a boy growing up in England in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s. It’s pre-great-war England and the Boer war fills the boy’s heart with patriotism and fervour until a beloved uncle dies in the conflict.

SS 2We first meet Michael Fane as a small boy, who has just moved from the country to a house in London. His childish delights and concerns are believable and vivid –including the dreadful nanny who told him terrifying stories about what happened to bad boys, stories which he wholeheartedly believes. From childhood, he grows to boyhood–school days, fraught with battle–treats from the tuck shop–his favourite books—his enthusiasms, defeats and triumphs. Along the way, he learns to love his sister, a talented pianist. The first book ends with his entry into university, and his sister’s triumphant debut concert. So many stories, so much matter!

He and his sister Stella were both born out of wedlock, something which was frowned upon at the time, but from rich parents.

The details of childhood and adolescence, the agonies of social embarrassment and the happiness of boyhood adventures–including a beautiful and ethereal first love–are lovingly assembled and examined. England’s green and pleasant land is ever present in the background, with its lush fields, charming water meadows, spinneys and copses–and of course, the seaside, the cliffs and beaches.

The section that reverberated with my experience was a thinly veiled reference to St. Stephen’s Bournemouth. Michael is cycling along the copast and has an invitation to go there. Mackenzie portrays what amounts to a pick-up of the teenager at Solemn Evensong by a slightly older bank-clerk called Prout, closely followed by Michael’s initiation as a processional torch-bearer into the exotic world of the Anglo-Catholic sacristy: “The sacristy was crowded with boys in scarlet cassocks and slippers and zuchettos, quarrelling about their cottas and arguing about their heights. Everybody had a favourite banner which he wanted to escort and, to complicate matters still farther, everybody had a favourite companion by whose side he wished to walk.”

It is the vision of a whole elaborate social world–now long departed–that I found so fascinating. We encounter both dire cruelties and precious refinements unheard of today. The schoolboys say things like “beastly rotters”, “I say, this is awfully decent!”, “How jolly ripping!”

Max Beerbohm said of it: “There is no book on Oxford like it. It gives you the actual Oxford experience. What Mackenzie has miraculously done is to make you feel what each term was like.”

George Orwell loved it – one explanation, by his biographer Gordon Bowker is “It was not surprising that Sinister Street should so rivet young Eric. Its hero, Michael Fane, is studying Classics at a prep school, and moves with his mother from the countryside to Kensington (close to where Orwell’s Aunt Nellie lived). He spends holidays in Cornwall (as Orwell’s family did), visits Bournemouth (where Orwell’s Uncle Charlie lived), and meets a girl from an Anglo-Indian family whose father is away in Burma. He visits Eastbourne and thinks what a lovely place. (Hollow laughter from Blair and Connolly, no doubt). Fane envies a wild looking unkempt boy he sees wandering down Kensington High Street and longs to be ‘a raggle-taggle wanderer’.”

Literary critic Frank Swinnerton: “It is the picture of the development of a very precocious boy into a sophisticated young man of the nineteen-tens, and the picture is painted with a detail and wealth of reference unattempted by other authors of Mackenzie’s experience. It illustrates most of its author’s gifts, and all his faults. It is lavish, it contains rodomontade, it is literary, sentimental and florid. But it has no timidities; it is large and confident; it is a picture of something more than a single life. It is a record of a departed generation.”

John Betjeman: “This has always seemed to me one of the best novels of the best period in English novel writing.”

Henry James thought it to be the most remarkable book written by a young author in his lifetime.


‘Oxford was divided into Bad Men and Good Eggs. The Bad Men went up to London and womanised – some even of the worst womanised in Oxford’.

‘the great point of Oxford, in fact the whole point of Oxford is that there are no girls’.

How wonderful! The dim Gothic gloom, the sombre hues of stained glass, the incense-wreathed acolytes, the muttering priests, the bedizened banners and altars and images. Ah, elusive and particoloured vision that once was mine.

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