Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Battered Penguins - Cards of Identity by Nigel Dennis

Simon Leys begins the foreword to his book Other People's Thoughts by quoting Oscar Wilde:

 "'Most people are other people,' Oscar Wilde remarked, 'their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their life a mimicry, their passions a quotation ...'"

As so often Wilde here articulates succinctly what other people - in this case Nigel Dennis - take an eternity - in Dennis's case a lengthy novel - to try to make clear.

In Cards of Identity Dennis tells the story of the Identity Club, whose members take over a large house in the country; persuade, (somewhat implausibly), various locals that they are not who they think they are but actually the club's domestic staff; hold a conference at which they read papers to each other about imagined identities they have studied; and finally persuade the locals/domestic staff to dress up and put on a cod-Shakespeare play, called The Prince of Antioch,  during the performance of which the club's President is murdered by the other members.

The novel could not be described as emotionally satisfying. Given that none of the characters are fixed or permanent - that is the whole point:; identity is a frail thing - it would be hard to really allow any individual to achieve enough depth for the reader to care about them. All the same, the book is cleverly written - the Shakespeare play that makes up its last part is, from my very limited knowledge, a fairly good bit of parody - and often very funny, my particular favourite section being the paper given by Dr Bitterling and devoted to the story of a Co-Warden of the Badgeries.

The Co-Warden of the Badgeries, it transpires, is an ancient position which involves no involvement with badgers, beyond 'a token badger' which is 'a stuffed one of course.' It is only ever taken out 'on the death of the Lord Royal' or for the annual ritual of Easing the Badger, when the thing is inserted into a symbolic den and eased out with the official emblem, a symbolical gold spade. At the funeral of the Lord Royal, the badger is placed on a trolley and dragged through the streets on silken ropes. Everything to do with the role is either 'token, symbolical, or emblematical' and its importance is precisely because it is ritual rather than based in reality. As the paper explains:

'When you've got a grip on something that really exists and is comprehensible, you don't have to bother with symbols. But once the reality begins to fade, the symbol is needed to recapture it. If all barristers had brains, there would be no need for wigs. Our rituals exist to reassure people that no serious defects are possible ... Like old churches, [the Badgeries], are nostalgic, photogenic and give a sense of security to those who hurry past them.'

Perhaps this appealed to me in the light of my recent experience with pageant and my puzzlement in the face of it.

WH Auden praised Cards of Identity, (at least I think he did - his exact phrase was, "I have read no novel in the last fifteen years with greater pleasure or admiration", which is a statement that only qualifies as praise if the other books he read during that time were any good). I admired it for creating an attractively sinister atmosphere reminiscent of early (Emma Peel era) Avengers programme. It is also interesting for the traces it bears of life in post-war Britain - despite its veneer of fantasy, it is actually something of a period piece in this regard. However, its central thrust - the author's attempts to play around with the question of identity - struck me as a bit confused.

While Dennis may have been striving for some greater complexity, ultimately the whole thing boils down to Shakespeare's famous observation that 'all the world's a play' - or, to quote The Prince of Antioch, 'tis all a play for our improvement'. Dennis seems to think he is being sophisticated and profound but, to paraphrase - as he is so fond of doing - Shakespeare, Cards of Identity ends up being much ado about nothing very much. On the other hand I wouldn't have missed the Badgeries, which are worthy of Peter Cook and EL Wisty's dreams of having his own Royal Newtkeeper. 


  1. As soon as you began to describe the plot, I thought of a black and white Emma Peel episode - possibly because my younger son and I are watching old Avengers episodes at the moment (he wants to be John Steed when he grows up - a worthy ambition).

    I was interested to read that Dennis was married to Phyllis Bottome, whose books have made a consistent contribution to my bins. I see that he also worked for MI6.

    1. I feel ashamed that I didn't find out those things - in my defence, I never look up anything about the books I read, in case I'm influenced against them. Where do you find these old Avengers episodes? I am going now to look on You Tube, although I have to admit I seem to be less adept at finding things there or anywhere on the Internet for that matter than other people, I don't know why. The algorithms of Google must not be in sync with my rhythms of phrase in asking questions.

  2. I actually bought a boxed set on DVD of the fourth series - Emma peel's first - and it was money well spent. The scripts are very witty, the plots are refreshingly eccentric and the chemistry between McNee and Rigg makes every scene watchable.

    I was heartened to see how well an eight-year-old boy reacted to a black and white television series from 50 years ago.

    There don't appear to be any old episodes on YouTube.

  3. My husband's birthday present is now decided. Hurray. I think he is sick of me giving him books