Novelist, poet and playwright (1920-1978)
Paul Scott was born on the 25 March 1920 in the upstairs front bedroom of his parents’ house at 130 Fox Lane. His father, a Yorkshire man, had come to London two decades earlier, and worked as a commercial artist to the fashion trade alongside his unmarried sisters (their studio was in Southgate High Street in a three story Edwardian gabled building called Wyphurst).
The family, says biographer Hilary Spurling, felt themselves to be somewhat above the neighbours – Tom Scott was the only ‘professional’ man at their end of Fox Lane. In reality, his mother came from the wrong side of the tracks (in this case the dreaded south London), and had a sister in service. Frances Scott was acutely aware of their precarious social standing, at a time when it wasn’t unusual for ostensibly respectable families suffering financial embarrassment to suddenly disappear following a moonlight flit. Maintaining the veneer of respectability was all consuming.
In Paul Scott – a life published in 1990, Spurling writes extensively and entertainingly on the stifling atmosphere of Scott’s first years of Fox Lane
‘People suspected of far less serious failings – eating in the kitchen, for example, or doing the washing at the weekend – found themselves forced by the pressure of their neighbours disapproval to pack up and leave the district. The inhabitants of Fox Lane and the suburban streets roundabout were a rootless people whose insecurity made them hostile to anyone but their own kind. None of them had been there for long. …the most urgent need was cohesion, and the prime virtue conformity…..Ranks automatically close against intruders who might weaken the neighbourhood’s fabric, or lower its social tone”
Scott often said that the social divisions in India were little different from at home, and that his early life had in some ways prepared him for what he found when he journeyed to India in 1943, and the themes he explored in his writing.
“In Palmers Green when I lived there we were as aware of social distinctions as they were in Mayapore.”
Paul and his brother were initially educated at a prep school linked to Winchmore Hill Collegiate School, in a hall just a few steps away from their house (as far as I can ascertain, this was in Amberley Hall, once of the north side of Fox Lane, now demolished). Cinema going – to the Queens on Green Lanes – became a passion, and he and his brother Peter created their own film shows at home.
The Scotts were forced to leave Fox Lane in 1933, as the depression hit, and moved in with the aunts at Wyphurst, where the first few months were difficult and the rows frequent. By 1934 financial difficulties meant that Paul had also to leave school, though he was not yet quite 15. Spurling notes that forced departure from school ‘under age, over educated, under qualified’ is a recurring theme in Scott’s books.
His career path, as an accountant, was dictated to him by his father, who was keen to assure him a stable future. Scott, though stung by his fathers insistence that he take up the career he would least like for himself, charmed his way into employment at C T Paynes accountants in Regents Street, and set to learning the tricks of the trade at evening classes. The family were able to leave Wyphurst in 1936, moving to a property on Cannon Hill at 15 Cannon Road (father and son celebrated with a pint of beer in The Cherry Tree). In June 1939, finances improving, the family moved again, this time back to Palmers Green, to 63 Bourne Hill, on the south side of the road near the covered reservoir.
Paul’s room in Bourne Hill was at the front, above the garage – he spoke of it as the room where he ‘really began to write’. It was also where he met the poet Clive Sansom and his wife Ruth, who lived next door in a flat at no 61 Bourne Hill and who were to have a considerable effect on his early life and writing. (At the time, says Spurling, the Sansoms were rehearsing a part sung, part spoken recital of T S Elliot’s The Waste Land).
Scott joined the army as a private soldier in July 1940, as the bombs fell on Southgate. Though far from the worst hit in London, one hundred and 18 bombs and two mines fell on Southgate in October 1940 alone, including one which hit and demolished two houses in Fox Lane. Later that year, tragedy struck when Wyphurst was destroyed by a time bomb which had lain unexploded in the house. Both of his remaining aunts were killed, one outright, the other as a result of her injuries.
Scott rose to lance corporal, but was busted back down to private in early 1941, following a mysterious incident which seems to have related to a sexual indiscretion with another soldier and caused a near nervous breakdown. His life changing posting to India as an officer cadet came in February 1943 – he eventually rose to Captain in the Indian Army Service Corps.
The war over, Scott returned to London in 1946 and resumed work as an accountant before becoming a literary agent, representing Arthur C Clarke, Elizabeth David and Mervyn Peake among others. He published his first novel, Johnny Sahib in 1952,, devoting himself to writing from 1960 onwards and beginning work on the Jewel in the Crown, the first novel in the Raj Quartet, at his home in Hampstead in 1964. The story, beginning with the rape of Daphne Manners inside the Bibghar Gardens and its consequences, is set against the background of the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan, one of its key themes, life as an outsider in your own country. It was a theme, says Hilary Spurling, that he had not chosen – rather, it had chosen him.
Scott struggled for most of his career to make money from his novels, plays and poetry and often supplemented his income with journalism. If The Raj Quartet is the work for which Scott eventually achieved greatest fame, it was his last novel, Staying On, for which Scott achieved widespread recognition, with the award of the Booker Prize in 1977, just a year before his death. Six years later, the Raj Quartet was made into a 14 part TV series under the title Jewel in the Crown by Granada TV; it continues to be one of the most highly rated television dramas series of all time.
Scott died in 1978, aged just 57, following a struggle with cancer of the colon and the effects of a longstanding difficult relationship with alcohol. By that time he had not lived in Palmers Green for many years, but his parents appear to have remained here, possibly into the 1960s. Tom Scott died in 1958, and Frances in 1969.
By Paul Scott
Poetry: I Gerontius
Novels: Johnny Sahib, The Alien Sky, A Male Child, The Mark of the Warrior, Chinese Love Pavillion, The Raj Quartet: (The Jewel in the Crown, The Day of the Scorpion, The Towers of Silence, A Division of Spoils), Staying On, The Bender, The Corrida at San Feliu
About Paul Scott
Paul Scott – A life Hilary Spurling