Philip Toynbee, a British literary novelist and critic, died 30 years ago today. Best remembered, perhaps, for his reviews in the Sunday broadsheet, The Observer, he also left behind two published diaries written after a debilitating period of depression and electroconvulsive therapy. The diaries record, more than anything else, Toynbee’s search for some meaning in his life.
Toynbee was born in 1916 in Oxford, the son of the famous historian Arnold Toynbee. He was educated at Rugby (from where he was expelled for rebellious behaviour) and Christ Church, Oxford, where he was the Union’s first communist president. He worked as a journalist and then, during the war, served in the intelligence corps before being seconded to the Ministry of Economic Warfare. He was promoted to captain and joined the staff of Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force in France and Belgium in 1944-1945.
It was during the war years, that Toynbee published his first novels A School in Private (1941) and The Barricades (1943). After the war Toynbee joined the staff of The Observer as a foreign correspondent, and later became that paper’s literary critic, a job he held for the rest of his life. He also continued writing novels, some of them considered experimental.
Toynbee’s first marriage - to Anne Powell - produced two children (one of whom is the journalist Polly Toynbee) but ended in divorce in 1950. He then married married Frances Genevieve (Sally), a member of the American embassy in Tel Aviv whom he met while reporting from the Levant. They had a son and two daughters, and eventually settled in Gloucestershire, near Tintern Abbey. Toynbee, however, suffered from chronic drinking problems and recurrent depression.
For a few years, in the mid-1970s, Toynbee and Sally tried turning their home, Barn House, into a community, but the life did suit Toynbee, and his depression got worse. In 1977, he underwent electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). He died a few years later, on 15 June 1981. Wikipedia has a biography, but there is not much other freely available information about him on the internet (the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, requiring a subscription or library card access, has a good article).
In 1977 (having just completed his ECT), Toynbee began keeping a diary, recording, to a large extent, his search for some spiritual meaning. This was published in two volumes - Part of a Journey: An Autobiographical Journal, 1977-79 and End of a Journey An Autobiographical Journal 1979-81 - by Collins in 1981 and 1982.
In his introduction to the first volume, Toynbee says: ‘What is presented here [is] a frank and intimate record of my daily life over a period of just over two years; but this does not mean that it is wholly spontaneous; still less that I have ‘told all’. I have been a professional writer for forty years, and as soon as I begin to think of possible publication it was inevitable that I would immediately use all my acquired skills to make it as good a book as I could. . . But in spite of . . . various adjustments and omissions I believe that this is not only as honest a book as I could make it, but also a truthful journal.’
Here are a few extracts, including the very first entry.
1 August 1977
‘More than two months have passed since I finished a course of ECT at Bristol, and for the past six weeks I have been almost entirely free of depression. No exorbitant elation, thank God, but the dazed incredulity of a prisoner suddenly let out into ordinary daylight after three years in a dungeon.
But I must beware of such extravagant images as this; for whatever purpose this diary is meant to serve it certainly won’t serve at all unless I keep it as simple and as truthful as I can. The depression, which began in a desultory way about seven years ago, was acute from 1974 to June of this year. (But the word ‘acute’ is also a dubious one, for although I was sometimes incapacitated for days on end I was often in reasonable working order for a week or more.)
Yes; but even on the best days there was that perpetual fear of a form of possession which sometimes came as suddenly as a blow.’
3 August 1977
‘How absurd it seems to me now, all that ‘humane’ outcry against ECT: as if a few electric shocks administered to an anaesthetized patient were more of an ‘outrage against the person’ than cutting open his stomach and removing his appendix. If the treatment works, as indeed it does in many cases, no experienced depressive is going to worry about the reason why.’
30 June 1978
‘Yesterday my worst depression for more than a year. Stirrings at lunchtime - always the worst of the day - carefully kept in order as we drove to Gloucester. But seeing Emily at Coney Hill, among those wrecks of old men and women, almost made me break down then and there: not at all the place for such a display. ‘Who are these?’ asked the black staff nurse. ‘These are my old master and mistress,’ said Em, proudly. ‘Your friends, Em!’ I said, knowing that this had to be said, but hearing the dreadful hollowness of those words. ‘One of the family,’ we used to say: and so did she. But also our hard-working paid servant: at the going rate.
By the time we got home I was weighed down by that heavy lassitude, that aching exhaustion which I used to know so well. I tried to meditate; but the effort was too great. I tried to pray, but all I could say was ‘Lord, have mercy, lord have mercy, lord have mercy, lord have mercy . . .’
Because I left off my anti-depressant pills? Perhaps it’s a foolish kind of pride to hate that dependance so much. Perhaps God also works through Ludomil. He certainly works through my wife, whose hand in mine is the only effective anti-depressant that I know.’