Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 757
Mark Robins (the “red,” or Marxist) and Charles Dyat (the diehard reactionary) became friends when they attended Oxford University together in the early 1920’s. They were both from professional, upper-middle-class families. As students, Mark was the conservative and Charles was the radical, sporting a red tie. Twenty-five years later, in...
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Mark Robins (the “red,” or Marxist) and Charles Dyat (the diehard reactionary) became friends when they attended Oxford University together in the early 1920’s. They were both from professional, upper-middle-class families. As students, Mark was the conservative and Charles was the radical, sporting a red tie. Twenty-five years later, in the aftermath of World War II, Great Britain has a Socialist government, and Mark has swung to the Left, while Charles has swung to the Right. However, they have remained friends: As the story opens, Charles is visiting Mark and has just spent the night in Mark’s “Rotting Hill” apartment in the suburbs of London.
Wyndham Lewis’s portrait of postwar Britain is comically grim: It is a satire of the same sense of cultural and material debasement, shoddiness, and deterioration conveyed more somberly by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). In Mark Robins’s apartment, the water heater has broken down, the bread is gray and hard as brick, the buttonholes on his shirts are too skimpy to push buttons through, his shoelaces are too short to tie in bows, and his nail clipper falls apart when applied to his nails. The telephone lines are fouled up, and food shortages continue, leaving nothing but bad tea, bad butter, and bad jam. All this adds up to a bad mood for Mark, who nevertheless represses his mood, dismisses the problems, and believes that soon enough the progress of socialism will cure these ills.
Unlike Mark, Charles places no faith in the current regime. As they begin to talk over breakfast, their political differences quickly become apparent, over the topic of tipping, or “oiling palms.” Charles confesses that in order to get preferential treatment he always gives tips, but Mark is scandalized by this vestige of upper-class patronization. Their conversation takes up the question of the food shortages: Mark thinks that they are actual, Charles declares that they are part of a Socialist plot to beat the population into political submission. Mark declares that Charles is an “egotist” with an “individualist itch to pick holes,” and Charles retorts that Mark is a “yes-man” who has opportunistically but foolishly joined the Socialist cause.
Still, they leave the apartment in good spirits, “jabbing each other mirthfully with their forefingers,” and begin a round of errands in downtown London. Mark must get a blood test, and Charles needs an eye examination, which sets up a running debate concerning the National Health Service and the question of socialized medicine. Then Mark exchanges a shirt shrunken to an unwearable size after one wash. Charles attempts to make conversation with his eye specialist by criticizing the welfare state: The doctor ignores him and then sends him to a public glasses shop. This episode puts Charles’s pretensions to gentility and his prejudices against the lower classes in general and women in particular into action: He ends up in a private shop where his ego can be appropriately massaged.
Late that evening, the two are back at Mark’s apartment discussing a film they have just seen, a French existentialist film called “Time the Tiger.” Mark finally lets all the day’s irritations get to him, and Charles sees his chance to score some ideological points. They debate life, time, and progress, with Charles nostalgically evoking the year 1900 and Mark maintaining that popular culture is not all bad. They talk about the powers unleashed by technology, “the fantastic power conferred upon the politicos in this new era of radio, automatic weapons, atomic bombs.” Charles denounces the legacies of Karl Marx and Charles Darwin, and Mark denounces the British Tories: They reach no agreement.
A reunion with Charles’s widowed sister Ida, whom Mark dated many years before, has been scheduled for the next day; that night Mark dreams about her. When the three of them actually meet the following afternoon, Ida appears to “step out of a dream,” seeming to Mark not to have aged a bit. Their conversation dwells on visions of their more youthful days, and all the while Mark fantasizes about marrying Ida and bringing her into his new way of life. Then “Time the Tiger” leaps: “Ida—an Ida at least twenty years older—was denouncing the Socialist Government. . . . His love transformed herself with nightmare suddenness into a Tory soap-boxer.” The reunion falls apart: Mark will never see Ida again; rather, he resolves to make a date with a Socialist woman of his acquaintance. Several months later, Mark replies to a letter from Charles, “I suggest you find some other correspondent.”