Tag Archives: 1950s britain

A Little Love, A Little Learning: Nina Bawden

“Women in the house like rabbits, looking at me reproachfully.”

In Nina Bawden’s wonderful novel, A Little Love, A Little Learning, it’s 1953, the coronation year, a year, as it turns out, which will irrevocably alter the lives of a doctor’s family. The story is told, in retrospect, through the eyes of the doctor’s step-daughter Kate. Kate, aged 12 when the story takes place, is the middle child of three daughters: Joanna is almost 18, and wild little Poll is the youngest. Before the children’s mother, Ellen, married Dr. Boyd, she lived with her three daughters in rather unfortunate circumstances. After moving from the country to a flat in a bombed out street full of  “half-derelict houses,” Ellen met Dr. Boyd while taking Poll for medical care, and they married within a month. The novel finds the family living, happily, in a large house at Monk’s Ford, the town where Boyd grew up. Boyd, orphaned at age six, was brought up by his unpleasant uncle, “the sort of man who would bury nails in his front lawn to teach the errand boy not to ride his bicycle over it.

The family’s lives begin to change when ‘Aunt’ Hat arrives to stay. Aunt Hat is a large, garrulous middle-aged woman who befriended Ellen during their evacuee days. The introduction of Aunt Hat to the household exposes children to adult situations and moral dilemmas touching such issues as death, insanity, domestic abuse, poverty, abortion and sex.

A little love a little learning

At first glance, Aunt Hat isn’t the sort of person anyone would pick as a friend of Ellen’s. The friendship though, is fermented in past shared misfortune. Both Aunt Hat and Ellen have known hardship, but this time, Aunt Hat has been put in the hospital by her third husband, an “infrequently employed dock worker,” and her stepson was so badly beaten that he too ended up in hospital. Aunt Hat’s volatile husband is now to stand trial, and in the meantime Aunt Hat is penniless and has nowhere else to go.

Aunt Hat’s presence in the house upsets the delicate balance of daily family life. Aunt Hat has a generous spirit and is supposedly well meaning, but nonetheless, she has a tendency to gossip and sentimentalize. Aunt Hat’s terrible life experiences, and her interpretation of those events, resonant with Kate.

Aunt Hat was unaware of the difference between a false emotion and a true one. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that Aunt Hat was unaware that falsity, that worm in the bud, existed even: there was no feeling too tinny, too worked over or second-hand, that Aunt Hat could not accept, and treat, as purest gold. It would never occur to her that emotion could be used as a device for getting attention, or merely for one’s private pleasure.

It’s not long before the children capitalize on Aunt Hat’s weaknesses.

She always contemplated the beautiful, enriching sadness of life, and hearing that sigh–I knew– though I could not have out it into words then–that she had retreated on to that plane, not so much of fantasy as of fictionalised truth, from which she found it comfortable to survey the world. 

This is a story of just a few months in the household: Joanna’s love life falls apart and she turns inwards as a result. She “goaded Ellen, the way a bored child will pull the wings off flies,” suddenly wanting to know information about her father. Kate, the story’s central character, faced with emotions she doesn’t understand, fabricates stories that have terrible consequences. Little Poll, who is deeply attached to a child who lives in a grubby caravan, mostly creates camps in the garden of the house next door–a house belonging to Claud Fantom and his reclusive sister. The Fantoms live in an enormous house that’s a shrine to the Fantom family’s glorious past in colonial India. The brother and sister despise each other and communicate only through written messages. Miss Fantom lives in her own part of the house with her Abyssinian cat, and her brother lights joss sticks to “cover up the smell.” It’s a cold war between the Fantoms, but Claud Fantom, who reads “yellowing back-numbers of” The Times of India, dominates the house with his sister a shadowy presence:

“Can’t stand the woman. Never could. Haven’t spoken to her in years.”

There’s another neighbour, frustrated spinster Miss Carter, Polly’s teacher who pushes herself into the Boyd household. She’s yet another of Boyd’s many female “middle-aged” admirers. With her stole of marten’s heads on her shoulders, giddy with infatuation, she finds any way she can to insinuate herself into the household, into Boyd’s sphere, sinking to extreme flattery and fake friendship.

There’s a wonderful, gentle sense of humour in this novel–mostly evident through Kate’s attempts to deal with adult situations:

Here followed the familiar lecture on how necessary it was that we should not fritter our time away, but work hard at school and get into good universities so we should always have “something to fall back on.” We often felt, though I think this was not Ellen’s conscious intention, that we were only being educated so that later on we could run away from our husbands if we wanted to. 

And while the humour makes this novel wonderful, there’s also the edge of painful adulthood nipping at Kate. As she’s confronted with various moral dilemmas and the complications of adult life, Kate learns that sometimes there are no simple answers. “Truth often sits on the fence,” and actions are not just black and white, but somewhere in between. She learns some painful truths about human behaviour:

I realized something for the first time: that a woman can convey to another woman however young, age being of no account in this, only sex, how she really feels without any man present being aware of it. 

I tend to avoid books with child narrators, but childhood stories told in retrospect can, if written well, be phenomenal. A Little Love, A Little Learning falls into that category. This will make my best-of-year list.

 

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Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe

It’s just that you must understand–this knees-up in Brussels, well, it’s a wonderful idea in principle of course, but there are dangers involved.”

Early on in Jonathan Coe’s novel Expo 58, we are told that our main character, married bureaucrat Thomas Foley bears a striking resemblance to both Gary Cooper and Dirk Bogarde. This isn’t the only time in the novel that the resemblances are mentioned, and it’s fairly easy to imagine that Thomas is a romantic hero here, but in reality Thomas isn’t a hero at all; he’s a civil servant swept up into Coe’s comic spy caper, and while Thomas goes off the rails for a period, he’s largely oblivious to the significance of the events taking place right under his nose.

expo 58Thirty-two year-old Thomas Foley has worked, since 1944, in the Ministry of Information, now called the COI. He’s a junior copywriter and a great deal of his job is spent “drafting pamphlets on public health and safety, advising pedestrians of the best way to cross the road and cold-sufferers of the best way to avoid spreading germs in public places.” Depending on his mood, some days he thinks he’s done well in life but “other days he found his work tedious and contemptible.”

Little does Thomas suspect that life is all about to change, and not necessarily for the better. Expo 58 is scheduled to be held in Belgium and the COI has “overall responsibility for the content of the British pavilion at Expo 58 and this had immediately led to a frenzy of headscratching and soul-searching around that maddening, elusive topic of ‘Britishness’. What did it mean to be British in 1958? Nobody seemed to know. Britain was steeped in tradition, everybody agreed on that: its traditions, its pageantry, its ceremony were admired and envied all over the world. At the same time, it was mired in the past, scared of innovation, riddled with archaic class distinctions, in thrall to a secretive and untouchable Establishment. Which way were you supposed to look when defining Britishness? Forwards or backwards.”

The COI is faced with a “conundrum” when it comes to organizing the content of the British pavilion. Everyone knows that both the Americans and Soviets “were bound to produce national displays on a massive scale,” so the dilemma centres on the image Britain wants to project.  Amongst a lot of muttering about the “bloody Belgians,” one firm idea emerges: there must be an authentic pub, and so it’s agreed to build a British pub next to the British pavilion. This is where Thomas comes into the picture. Thomas’s father ran a pub, and was married to a Belgian woman. Thomas’s  boss decides that Thomas, with all that ‘experience,’ is the perfect man for the job and that he should oversee the running of the pub at Expo 5–an establishment that will be called the Britannia and which will offer traditional British fare:

as British as bowler hats and fish and chips, representing the finest hospitality our nation can offer.” Mr Ellis shuddered. “Those poor Belgians. That’s what we’re giving them, is it? Bangers and mash and last week’s pork pie, all washed down with a pint of lukewarm bitter. It’s enough to make you want to emigrate.”

If that sort of ribbing about British traditions appeals to you, then there’s a good chance that you will enjoy this mostly good-humoured book which is laced with just a twinge of bittersweet regret. The book captures beautifully the nuances and attitudes of the time. The 60s have yet to arrive and Britain has emerged from WWII, the emphasis remains on tradition–not change, and meanwhile the menace of rock & roll and the cold war colours all official attitudes.

So Thomas is put in charge of the pub at Expo 58, and his new position means that he will have to stay there for approximately 6 months. Since he has a wife and a young baby, he’s given the option of taking them along, but Thomas decides to leave them at home, and it’s a decision that illustrates Thomas’s desire for freedom and change. Thomas’s personal life becomes mixed up with skullduggery and some rather exotic characters at Expo 58, including  the fascinatingly assertive American actress, Emily, Belgian hostess Annecke, and a member of the Soviet delegation, Mr Chersky–a man who develops a passion for British crisps. Meanwhile, Thomas’s wife Sylvia, resentful that she’s been left alone while her husband is off partying in Belgium, encourages a relationship with a neighbor who’s only too happy to step into Thomas’s place.

The novel’s emphasis, especially initially, is on humour. There’s one scene, back in London, still at the planning stages of Expo 58 when the discussion of a display which covers “A history of the British water closet,” is shot down by COI officials. An argument then rages concerning the fact that  “Britain’s contribution to the disposal of human waste has never been recognized,” and that we all do “number twos,” even the queen. Definite Carry On material here, but most of the humour directed at fussy establishment tastes and what it ‘means’ to be British is much subtler. Then there’s two spy chappies from MI6, Radford & Wayne, who reminded me of Tin Tin’s Thompson & Thompson,  sniffing around Thomas trying to vet whether or not he’s a commie:

“Ah yes. The classics. Nothing like a bit of classical music, is there? I expect you like Tchaikovsky?”

“Of course. Who doesn’t?”

“What about the more modern bods? Stravinsky, say?”

“Oh yes. First rate.”

“Shostakovich?”

“Haven’t heard much.”

“Prokofiev?”

Thomas nodded, without really knowing why. He couldn’t see where any of this was heading. The waitress brought their coffees and they all stirred in their sugar and took their first sips.

“Of course,” said Mr Radford, “a lot of chaps would rather read than listen to music.”

“Curl up with a good book,” agreed Mr Wayne.

“Do much reading?”

“A bit yes. Not as much as I should probably.”

“Read any Dostoevsky? Some people swear by him.”

“What about Tolstoy?”

“I’m rather parochial in my tastes. I like Dickens. I read Wodehouse, for a bit of light relief. Do you mind telling me what this is all about? You seem to be asking me an awful lot of questions about Russian writers and composers.”

But the British aren’t the only ones whose zest for their own culture reveals fusty archaic attitudes and prejudices; the Belgians have the bad taste to build a fake Belgian Congo exhibit for Expo 58 which involves the creation of an entire village and even importing Congo natives to man and ‘authenticate’ the display.  No bets accepted about how this ends up. Since Expo 58 is part spy novel spoof, a sly reference to that ultra smooth spy 007 creeps into a discussion between Thomas, Mr Wayne and Mr Radford.

“Well, Foley, it’s very good of you to come all the way out here to join us,” said Mr Wayne at last.

“I wasn’t aware,” said Thomas, “that I had any choice in the matter.”

“My dear fellow,” said Mr Radford, “whatever can you mean?”

“We thought Wilkins was bringing you out here.”

“He bundled me into a car and pointed a gun at me, yes.”

“A gun?”

At this, they both started to chortle.

“A gun! Dear me!”

“Poor old Wilkins!”

“Really, he is the end.”

“He’s the absolute limit.”

“Lives in a fantasy world, poor fellow.”

“Reads far too many of those books. You know the ones I mean.”

“I know the ones. What’s the author’s name?”

“Fleming.  Have you read them, Foley?”

“No, I can’t say that I have.”

“Having a terrible influence, you know … on the chaps who work in our department.”

“Pure fiction, of course. Gadding around the world …”

“Bumping people off without so much as a by your leave …”

“Sleeping with a different woman every night …”

This detail, it seemed, struck both of them as especially implausible.

“I mean, dash it all, Radford, when was the last time you did that?”

“Bump someone off, you mean?”

“No–sleep with a different woman.”

Expo 58 is a light, gently comic read–the story of an Everyman who steps out of his comfort zone into a dangerous world of spies, assassins and perhaps even a femme fatale. Coe’s novel The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is a humorous novel which explores the issue of relationships in the age of the socialverse, and Expo 58, with a similar style of humour successfully spoofs British attitudes , ethnocentrism, & the Establishment in the cold war 50s. The quotes give a good sense of the novel’s tone, so if you find yourself smiling at the quotes, you’ll probably enjoy the novel.

Review copy.

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Noose by Bill James

“Quite often narrow squeaks are what shape our days, aren’t they?”

I’ve been meaning to read author Bill James for a while now, so his latest novel, Noose arrived at the right time. In spite of the cover, this is not a crime novel, and instead while a noose  is mentioned in the tale, for the most part, the noose is figurative. It’s a sense of moral obligation on the part of the protagonist, Ian Charteris, who when the novel opens, is a reporter.

NooseIt’s 1956. The novel opens with Ian receiving a call at home from the Mirror news desk to cover a story, the suicide attempt of a young up and coming actress named Daphne West who was found in a gas-filled room. The “customary PR gab” insists this was an accident, but there are some ugly rumours about Daphne’s involvement with “big-deal theatre producer” Milton Skeeth. According to the Mirror, Ian is the perfect man for the job:

That’s one of your flairs, isn’t it–getting folk to confide, blub on your shoulder, reveal all? You sport that kind of sympa face and chummy voice. You could become an agony aunt when age sets in and your career starts to run down. I want to hear the flagging of her gas-strangled heartbeat in your stuff, Ian.

But there are indications that Ian is already involved in this story in some way, and this could partly be explained by Ian’s suspicion that Daphne is his father’s illegitimate child and therefore his half sister.

Noose is a clever, very neatly organized novel, and the story’s trajectory begins to appear following Ian’s somewhat unethical presence at Daphne’s hospital bedside. From this point, the story’s arc extends back more than 20 years to Ian’s childhood with his “amphibious” dad–a very strange fellow. Noose explores the seminal incidents of Ian’s childhood which take him on a very specific path to adulthood, a murder which Ian witnesses, a hanging, and a woman saved from drowning. Seemingly disconnected events weave a safety net of privilege around Ian’s future, even as we see that Ian cannot escape his past, and it all begins with Ian’s father saving a young woman from drowning after she falls from a paddle ship. This story of heroism is a mainstay of Ian’s childhood, and it’s rolled out like an old familiar carpet every so often. Ian is trained to provide his father (who even snaps his fingers as though he can’t remember a crucial detail), with prompts, and of course Ian has the story memorized.

‘But back on that special day, you dived in from the port deck rail, determined to make a rescue.’

‘Had to.’

‘The woman’s coat and other wet clothes tugged her down.’

‘The sea there. Murky. Hard to spot anyone at depth.’

Ian’s father’s proudly owns a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings from the day he saved the young woman from drowning, and he’s jealously protective of his heroic action. Even though Ian’s just a child, he recognizes that his father has to be the centre of attention, and this makes for an awkward moment when Ian and his father attend a memorial service. Here’s Emily Bass, the reckless young woman saved by Ian’s father:

She said: ‘Often I speak to my husband and my friends of the undaunted captain who flung himself into the dark, dark sea in a valiant though doomed effort to save me, while also mentioning your father, Ian, naturally. It’s really fairly unusual to have a distinguished man die for you, isn’t it? Off came his cap with gold braid on it, I believe. Oh, such an occasion then, and such an occasion now.’

‘I got you out, you know,’ Mr Charteris remarked again. ‘Many a newspaper cutting I have at home describing this, haven’t I , Ian?’

‘Many,’ Ian said.

There were a couple of moments when I wondered why the novel began with an attempted suicide and then went back into Ian’s childhood, but the author keeps tight control over the story, all loose ends are neatly addressed, and we come to see that Emily plays a very significant role in Ian’s later life. Take L.P Hartley’s quote, “the past is a foreign country,” and that simply has no relevance to Ian’s adulthood. He may think he’s a man with Free Will but every step of his life is shaped by his past–specifically his father’s past–sometimes he’s aware of that and sometimes he just suspects it.  A sense of moral obligation, of “debt,” is the noose that motivates Ian. According to Ian, it’s his “nicer side,” and he has to do a “bit of reciprocity.” While most of this sense of obligation stems from his father’s past, Ian also feels guilty for his role, as a child, in sending a man to the gallows, and later, he has cause to feel guilty about a fellow RAF officer.

Noose reminded me more than once of an Evelyn Waugh novel–perhaps the Sword of Honour had something to do with it, and that certainly brought Waugh’s name to mind, but no, it’s more the quirky characters–the Bells who own a chip shop, the woman at the hanging who knows all the relevant details and advocates the cat-o’-nine-tails first, and there’s one marvelous, extremely funny scene in which Ian, conscripted for his National Service engages in mock battle with a rival for the Sword of Honour, Bain. Ian senses that Bain is inherently the better candidate for the Sword of Honour, yet does the best man (whatever that means) win or does fate in the shape of his father’s past intervene yet again? Spanning a couple of decades of British history, this is a novel in which Ian seems to be one of the few normal people, and he’s surrounded by eccentrics in an off-kilter world. Noose argues that we pay for the sins of our parents, for it’s in Ian’s adulthood, that he finally understands some of the more mysterious incidents in his childhood.

Here’s Ian’s father angry when newspaper reporters show up to talk to his son:

“I knew it, I knew it,’ Mr Charteris said. He punched the hall dado rail with his fist three times quickly. Ian’s mother hated fist work against walls or furniture. She considered it showing too much excitement, like foreigners, especially in hot countries where people got so steamed they forgot control. She went to the spot on the dado rail and brushed it with her hand, as though to give it comfort or make sure her husband hadn’t contaminated it by getting his skin broken in the blow and leaving blood.

“First down the police station in the middle of the night , and now this,” Mr Charteris said. “They want to know everything and spread it. Don’t tell me they won’t spread it. Why are they called “reporters” if they’re not going to spread it? They’re going to spread it to people who buy the Echo.”

“Spread what, dad?” Ian asked.

“Oh, yes, spread it,” his father replied.

I really didn’t expect this novel to be gently humorous and I was pleasantly surprised. There’ll be more James in my future.

Review copy

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Happy Xmas to Emma: A Virtual Gift Exchange

Some weeks ago, Emma from Book Around the Corner and I decided to have a virtual gift exchange for Xmas. This sprang from admiration for Caroline & Lizzy‘s joint venture: German Literature month 11/12. For various reasons, Emma and I scaled down our joint project, and this brings me to the virtual gift exchange.

Here are the rules:

1)We each select 4 books for each other

2) We announce the selection on Xmas day

3) We read and review them.

I chewed over a lot of possibilities for Emma. Dilemma: should I select books that are sure bets (Thomas Hardy)? Or should I take a chance? When we select gifts for people, do we buy things they’d buy for themselves or do we stretch in our choices?

So here’s the line-up

1) Washington Square by Henry James (free on kindle)

I’m sure Emma would love Portrait of a Lady, but I selected Washington Square as it’s not mammoth, but it’s a tight well-drawn story of one woman’s narrow life. Emma read What Maisie Knew earlier this year, and I think Washington Square will give another, better view of James.

 2) Miss Mackenzie by Anthony Trollope (free on kindle)

I’m sure that Emma will enjoy the droll humour of Trollope, but I don’t want to stick her with an 800+pages. This made my choice a bit more difficult (as the natural choice would be Barchester Towers), but I finally landed a novel of reasonable size, and I think Miss Mackenzie, a sleeper Trollope novel, is the perfect introduction. The novel isn’t talked about much, but it’s marvellous. It’s the story of a woman considered an ‘old maid’  who inherits a little bit of money, and suddenly she has several suitors. With his customary wit, Trollope shows just how money changes this woman’s life. Trollope was, btw, interested in women’s rights and how they got shafted on the issue of inheritance.

3) Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

I love this book. It’s my favourite Hitchcock film, but the book’s considerably darker than the film. I think Emma will enjoy the novel’s dark, twisted psychological aspects, and the emphasis is not on violence but on personality.

4) An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge

Of the four novels I selected this was the most difficult due to the fact I wanted to pick something modern, and that left a huge range for selection. This novel is set in 1950s Liverpool and is the story of a young girl named Stella who joins a seedy repertory company as a sort of go-fer, and Stella is unleashed into the adult world. This is one of Bainbridge’s best. Funny, poignant, and vicious all at the same time.

Anyway, Happy Xmas Emma. Thanks for your friendship, and I hope you enjoy these books. And if you get bored, 3 of the 4 are available as film versions.

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