Tag Archives: 60s Britain

The Only Story: Julian Barnes

Love, even the most ardent and the most sincere, can, given the correct assault, curdle into a mixture of pity and anger.

At the beginning of the novel The Only Story from Julian Barnes, the narrator, an aging man named Paul asks this question:

Would you rather love the more and suffer the more; or love the less and suffer the less? That is, I think, finally, the only real question.

Took me all of a second to answer that one.

It’s the 60s. Paul, the son of a solidly-middle class family, is home from university for the summer, and his mother suggests he join the local tennis club. This simple decision alters the course of his life. Paul, our narrator tells his story, his love story from the perspective of time and experience. Deeply philosophical, the story explores the nature of love, responsibility, choices, and how first love charts the course of the rest of your life.

At the club, 19 year-old Paul meets 48-year-old married, mother of two, Susan Macleod. Although Susan is about the same age as Paul’s mother, to Paul she seems completely different. There is no generation gap; she’s not like anyone else he’s ever met. They become tennis partners, friends, companions and lovers. Susan makes it clear, just a few weeks into their acquaintance that there are problems in her marriage to irritable, blustering Gordon, otherwise known as Mr EP (Mr Elephant Pants).

I was hanging up his clothes and he’s got these grey flannel trousers, several pairs of them with an eighty-four-inch waistline and I held up one pair, and thought to myself, that looks just like the back half of a pantomime elephant.

Mr EP, a man who appears to thrive on being obnoxious, munching a bunch of “spring onions” every meal time, appears to tolerate Paul’s presence, but there’s an undercurrent of nastiness. While gossip rips through the tennis club, Mr. EP seems oblivious about Susan’s relationship with Paul. But is he oblivious or just unwilling to explode his life?

Eventually Paul and Susan live together in London, and while it’s not hard to predict that their relationship will not last–strangely it does for some years, but it’s the slow disintegration of their relationship, the implosion of their love that comprises the centre of this novel. Paul recounts his decisions in hindsight, mulling over his actions, his intentions and the consequences. At times he edits or self corrects his memories, and recalls how they both started lying to each other. His lying, he explains was “something to do with the need to create some internal space which you could keep intact and where you yourself could remain intact.”

Particularly brilliant are the scenes when Susan explains to Paul certain life wisdom–not in a lecturing way but from the viewpoint of experience.

I like Joan I say. I like the way she swears

Yes that’s what people see and hear and like or don’t like. Her gin, her cigarettes, her bridge game, her dogs.

Her swearing.

Don’t underestimate Joan.

I wasn’t, I protest. Anyway, she said I had good hands.

Don’t always be joking Paul.

Well I am only 19 as my parents keep reminding me.

Susan goes quiet for a bit then seeing a lay-by turns into it and stops the car. She looks ahead through the windscreen.

Susan explains to Paul that while Joan, in middle-age may appear to be this washed-up, boozed-up breeder of Yorkshire terriers, that is just an “act.” Joan has an interesting past that nearly destroyed her, and that past is now buried in the trivia of a boring, almost cliched life. Susan explains: “We’re all just looking for a place of safety, and if we don’t find one, then you have to learn how to pass the time.” The act is a way of to “deflect curiosity.”

I’m going to change Susan’s use of the word “act” that to “cover story” (or narrative). Susan explains to Paul that we all end with an “act.” While much later in life, Paul has a story to explain his position in life, looking at his narrative as a series of stories nesting within each other, is his love story with Susan a cover story for his other failed relationships?

I’ve been thinking about this book since I finished it. Some of Paul’s actions–while not exactly murky–tell one side of the story. Paul says that“love is the only story,” but there’s a double meaning here—we only get Paul’s story. We never get Susan’s side of things. Does she struggle with guilt after leaving her family? Was she threatened by Paul’s burgeoning career and the vast age gap? Did she feel horribly guilty after leaving Gordon? Was she tortured by buried insecurities (there’s that mention of Paul snogging another woman fairly early on.) Was her relationship with Paul a symptom of something else (not just an unhappy marriage and no sex life)? Were the seeds of Susan’s destruction sown somewhere in her past–planted before she met Paul?

It seems safe to say that Susan is Paul’s curve ball, detouring him from a relationship with a peer. But isn’t Paul Susan’s curve ball, knocking her out of her safe boring life in Suburbia? Finally there’s Joan who remains a constant figure in both Paul and Susan’s life. In Paul’s final meeting with Joan, she has an elderly dog, a “dog for the road.” I loved that. The Only Story will be make my best-of-year list.



Filed under Barnes Julian, Fiction, posts

Funny Girl: Nick Hornby

Nick Hornby’s novel Funny Girl follows the life of Barbara Parker, a young woman from Blackpool who idolizes Lucille Ball and dreams of becoming a comedienne. It’s 1964 when Barbara enters the Miss Blackpool beauty pageant, and even though she gains the title, she knows it’s not what she wants. Society favours looks over talent all too often and Barbara decides she can’t trade on her looks. So off to London where she gets a job at Derry and Toms on the cosmetic counter. Many of the young female employees, would-be actresses, read The Stage. Barbara is “anxious for news of anyone who had found some sort of secret show-business tunnel out of the store.”

Living in a grimy bedsit with a flat mate and working a boring job only leads to more acting dead-ends until she meets agent, Brian Debenham on a night out at Talk of the Town. Brian signs Barbara for her stunning blonde good looks and voluptuous figure, and while many consider these assets, Barbara runs the risk of being type cast. At first Brian doesn’t understand that Barbara really wants to act. He tells her to “smile. Walk up and down. Stick your chest and bottom out.” Brian sees Barbara as cheesecake:

Sweetheart, you only have to stand there and people will throw money at me. Some of which I’ll pass onto you. Honestly, it’s the easiest game in the world.

Barbara’s faith in herself leads her to a casting call for Comedy Playhouse where she meets writers, Bill and Tony, Dennis the junior comedy producer and actor Clive. It’s meeting that marks the turning point of her life.

Success comes to Barbara when she is cast in Barbara (and Jim) as a Northern girl from working class roots who meets and marries a posh London tory. The series smashes norms of the times by cashing in on class, education, and political differences through its two main characters. The novel draws in many cultural icons of the times, Till Death Us Do Part, Hancock’s Half Hour, Steptoe and Son and that perennial favorite, Radio Times. Hornby recreates the shifting social scene of 60s Britain with the BBC facing ITV as a competitor, and formerly taboo subjects making their way onto the TV screen.

It’s all very well done and it’s a great trip down memory lane. The novel is expository so we don’t get into Barbara’s head as much as follow her life, her career, and her personal choices. It’s a fun light read but will have more appeal to British readers for its cultural references. All I could think of was Barbara Windsor….

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A Song for the Brokenhearted: William Shaw

“Violence had its echo.”

A Song for the Brokenhearted is the third volume in William Shaw’s Breen and Tozer trilogy. The dynamic between these two main characters, both outsiders for different reasons, are a major draw for this series. CID CS Cathal Breen, known as ‘Paddy’ doesn’t ‘fit in’ with his Division, and Helen Tozer, never taken seriously by her male colleagues, is a young female policewoman, Temporary Detective (“Probationer,”) who hails from the countryside. In the first book, She’s Leaving Home, the mismatched team of Breen and Tozer tackle a murder case, in The Kings of London Breen investigates the murder of a wealthy art collector, and this final book in the trilogy, opens at the Tozer farm. Helen has given up on her career and has returned home to work. Breen is there for.. well read The Kings of London for that one.

The series is unique for its 60s setting–Tozer, in the first book is the source of many sexist comments and expectations from her male workmates who think she exists to make their coffee and giggle over their jokes, and meanwhile Beatlemania rages through Britain. Shaw’s characters are firmly rooted in their time, so we have speculation about why a nice girl like Helen Tozer wants to be a policewoman, but the answer to that lies in her past.

a song for the brokenhearted

That brings me to A Song for the Brokenhearted–anyone who read the first and second books in the series knows that Tozer is haunted by the brutal, unsolved slaying of her sister Alexandra. This vicious crime is the root cause for Tozer’s career choice, and the murder is so deeply embedded in the character of Helen Tozer that we know its solution had to occur somewhere in the series. With Breen bored out of his mind on the Tozer farm, he grasps how the unsolved murder permeates the household. He begins poking around in the cold murder case.

Murdered people never really go away. They stay with you. If you never discover why they were killed, or who the killer was, it’s worse. As a policeman he knew this from the families and friends of the victims that he’d met over the years. Now living here, the dead girl was all around him in this house.

Using Tozer’s influence, he accesses the old files and discovers that information regarding a key witness, one of Alexandra’s many secret lovers, is missing from storage. After discovering the name of this witness, a wealthy local married man, Breen begins digging into the case, and the past comes back with swift retribution.

As with the previous two books in the series, the author does an excellent job of recreating the 60s atmosphere without nostalgia, and since this entry in the trilogy is set, mostly, in the countryside, the 60s references are more social values than star power, so at one point, for example, we see a pregnant woman puffing away at a cigarette–funny how that seems shocking these days, and hear about jury selection for the Kray brothers’ trial.  Shaw presents the generational gap between Breen and Tozer as the world of the 50s clashing with the 60s. This is a world in flux with rapidly shifting values. In this novel, there’s an additional element of colonialism, and the Dirty business carried out in Kenya washes up in unexpected ways in spite of, apparently, being swept under the rug.

Review copy.


Filed under Fiction, Shaw William

The Kings of London by William Shaw

She’s Leaving Home was the first in a proposed trilogy from British author William Shaw. Set in the 60s, She’s Leaving Home introduced CID CS Cathal (“Paddy” to his workmates) Breen and Temporary Detective (“Probationer,”) Helen Tozer. Breen, an outsider in D Division, and Tozer, a female copper who wants to cross gender boundaries and work in the Murder Squad, make an interesting team. In She’s Leaving Home, Breen and Tozer investigate the murder of a teenage girl found dead under a mattress. While the crime under investigation in this first novel was engaging, the book’s strength came from the crackling dynamic between Tozer and Breen. This is the Swinging 60s and Breen is feeling left behind and out of touch with the new subversive elements of society whereas Tozer, subjected to continual harassment from her male colleagues, opens doors that close in Breen’s face.

She’s Leaving Home is a solid introduction to the Breen-Tozer team, and so here we have the second in the series The Kings of London. Once again, there’s an absence of 60s nostalgia, but this is late ’68, and in this world of shifting morality and changing attitudes, both Breen and Tozer find themselves, once again, butting up against laws and shifting attitudes towards abortion, sexuality, and narcotics.

Kings of LondonBreen investigates the death of Francis Pugh, living on a trust fund, a man who played the field with an endless stream of married women, and who collected art. He’s found dead in his home moments before it, and any possible evidence, explodes into a fire. Francis was the son of a Welsh politician, and so pressure’s on for Breen to solve the case, but also to not make noise when seeking witnesses.

She’s Leaving Home took this reader straight back into the 60s–a strange time–a time when meaningful social change occurred but was somehow tragically derailed by the drug culture. In The Kings of London, the cultural references were occasionally, just occasionally, more like name dropping rather than bricks in the solid wall of genuine atmosphere. The story has a strong 60s feel, and it’s mostly ugly: Tozer’s boss doesn’t hesitate to grope her, Tozer lives in segregated housing, Breen must suffer the bother of feeding the electric meter, people fire up cigarettes casually in restaurants, the now vanished rag-and-bone men (immortalized by Steptoe and Son) make an appearance, and a disabled child is ordered to leave the library by an employee. It’s these well-worked in references that build and create atmosphere, placing us effectively in the attitudes and expectations of the Age. The more obvious references–especially to the rockstars, added too much name-dropping tinsel and felt forced.

The strength of She’s Leaving Home is absolutely in the dynamic between Tozer and Breen. There’s a sexual attraction from Breen towards Tozer, but she, a child of the 60s has an entirely different attitude towards relationships. In The Kings of London, Tozer, who’s decided to leave the force and plans to return to the family farm in Devon, is somewhat sidelined, but every time she appears in the book, that central dynamic resurfaces. And what’s so interesting here is that even though just a few years separate Breen and Tozer, they are clearly the products of a different age. Unfortunately for Breen, he’s caught between floors; he doesn’t fit with the Establishment and its values, but neither can he adjust to this new world of hippies, Hare Krishna, Free Love, and the Psychedelic 60s.

Breen is the main focus here, and we see his character shift as he’s forced to either allow the Establishment to roll over his career or to take steps to manipulate his future. There’s some unfinished business at the end of the novel, but even more intriguingly we see Breen developing and, as he fights for his career, wondering if this is how corruption begins.

He was fifteen minutes early for the 11:52 at Paddington. He stood on the platform end. He was back at work. He was a policeman again. He had something to do. But he was also a little appalled at himself. First Tarpey, now Creamer. This was the way it started. A slow corruption.

Many of the characters first seen in She’s Leaving Home continue their stories in this second volume. The unpopular “old-school policeman,”  Inspector Bailey, who never seems to connect with D Division, is still as out of touch as ever, Division secretary Marilyn still has a thing for Breen, and the ferrety Jones still can’t quite align himself with impending fatherhood. Given that one on-going thread/mystery in this novel concerns Breen’s arch-enemy, bent, but popular copper Sergeant Prosser, to get the full impact of The Kings of London, She’s Leaving Home should be read first. Fundamentally this is a novel about change–at the fore, of course, is the dynamic, constant shift of the 60s. New Scotland Yard has relocated to posh new digs and the Drug Squad is the place for the ambitious to make their careers.

The Drug Squad was still recruiting. Carmichael wanted Breen to follow him into it. But they were a loud team, brash and confident. Always getting in the papers. Not only were they fighting a whole new type of criminal, but the ones they were arresting were usually far more glamorous than the usual CID fare.

Underneath that main emphasis of the shifting 60s, William Shaw creates characters who must face changes in their lives, whether they seek those changes or not. Tozer is very much a New Woman–a woman who rejects the traditional path of marriage and children. Breen sees Inspector Bailey as a good man but largely ineffectual and fossiled in the attitudes of the past. The big questions remaining at the novel’s conclusion: Can Breen change with the times? Are Breen’s aggressive career moves simply self-defense or is he on a slippery moral slope?

Rock on volume 3….

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Shaw William

Little Monsters by Charles Lambert

A few years later, Jozef said that I could make my life whatever I wanted, but I didn’t believe him. I thought he was simply repeating words that other people had said to him, words of consolation. I sometimes think most consolation comes to that, repeating things we know are unlikely to be true, and will almost certainly never be true for us, because otherwise everything we have lived through will be meaningless.

First the backstory to the review: Last year I won a copy of Charles Lambert’s novel Any Human Face from The Fiction Desk and enjoyed it a great deal. I enjoyed it so much, I decided to read the author’s first novel Little Monsters which came highly recommended by Kevin. Unfortunately and annoyingly Little Monsters is now OOP. A trek through several bookshops yielded a big zero, but I finally found a copy and meant to read it in 2010. Fast forward to 2011.

Little Monsters is an intriguing book and certainly one I can’t neatly slot into some genre category. This is an intensely readable book, and part of that readability is due to the fact I had no idea where the book was taking me. Another reason that  Little Monsters is such a good read is explained by the explosive plot bombs dropped on the pages. More of that later. Here’s the book’s first line:

When I was thirteen, my father killed my mother.

How’s that for a grabber first-line?

The novel’s narrator is Carol. After her mother’s murder and her father’s arrest, she’s sent to live with an aunt, her mother’s sister, Aunt Margot–a cold, bitter, unpleasant woman who runs a pub, rather romantically called The Mermaid. Under better circumstances, perhaps Carol would see life at The Mermaid as an adventure, but when she arrives there, hustled through the procedure by strangers who drop her off with a hastily packed suitcase, Carol is really too numbed to feel much at all. She heard her parents’ last fight–one of many as it turns out, and feels partially responsible for what happened. When she first arrives, she’s in a state of shock and cannot really grasp the direction her life is about to take.

Aunt Margot doesn’t exactly welcome Carol with open arms, and Carol’s first days at The Mermaid are painful. Margot is married to a Polish man named Jozef, and it’s an arrangement of convenience. Margot’s husband was killed in WWII, and as a single woman she’s not allowed to run a pub. She marries Jozef, and he has an underling role in the relationship. Margot also has a son, Nicholas–a boy about Carol’s age who’s obsessed with the army and can’t wait to sign up.  Margot introduces Carol to Jozef, “Uncle Joey,” and then follows up the politeness with curt work orders. This clever scene signifies Margot’s utilitarian attitude to relationships and also lets the newcomer (Carol in this case) know just how Jozef rates in the scheme of things. If there’s any doubt about Jozef’s lowly status, it’s further clarified by Nicholas who describes Jozef : “He’s nothing. He’s a bloody Pole.” Margot’s bald, unemotional approach to her relationships sets the tone for the novel, and while it appears that the relationships between the main characters are clearly and bleakly defined by impenetrable demarcations, as the story unfolds, there’s a dark eerie undercurrent of things not known and not fully understood running beneath this splendid, unsettling story.

There are some people who are so unpleasant, they dominate and set the tone for the household, and this is true of Aunt Margot. She shows no tenderness to anyone, and she directs her acidic, critical comments to her family while her sly smiles and well-worn flirtations are reserved for male customers. Jozef responds by hiding out in the basement and working on gliders. Nicholas’s refuge is his dream of escape & promise of masculinity through enlistment in the army, and no one in the family seems to find the fact that Nicholas covers his walls with pictures of Churchill, Stalin & Hitler in the least bit disturbing.

Life at the pub is contaminated by the toxic atmosphere of resentments, anger, and disappointments.  There are no emotional bonds between the people who live there, and their relationships function solely to run the pub:

Nowhere was worth staying in for more than a few moments; nowhere held me. I though at the time that it was the bareness, the shabbiness, the way the furniture was pushed up against the walls. But now I think it was because the pub took over everything. Boxes of crisps in the corner of the living room, which was never used except for storing things; crates filled with ginger beer and tonic water behind the kitchen door; even when The Mermaid was closed you could smell the sickening sweet mixture of beer and smoke. before long my clothes were permeated with it, although I didn’t realize this until I was outside and suddenly smelt myself, shocked.

None of us had a home. We lived and ate and slept around the borders of a public space that influenced everything we did; our lives were peripheral to its needs, its hours. It always puzzles me to read about pubs or hotels with a family atmosphere. How do they manage it? What do they know that we didn’t? What we had was the opposite: a family with the atmosphere of a pub.

At 13, Carol is dropped into a household where she has no place–no defined role. Carol isn’t ready to accede to her aunt’s dominance, and that’s partly because the dominance includes a very nasty view of Carol’s mother. Sensing Nicholas’s loneliness, she strikes up a tepid friendship with him, but the relationship between Carol and Jozef is that of equals. Margot directs her taut, bitter disappointments towards Carol, and while Carol doesn’t set out to defy Margot, the two inevitably clash. To Margot, Carol is a “little monster.” Here’s a rather terrifying portrait of Margot tarted up for a night in the pub flirting with the male customers who are passing through:

The first time she walked downstairs I didn’t recognize her. She had piled her hair on top of her head and sprayed it with lacquer. With the light of the landing behind her, it shone like candyfloss. She wore a lot of make-up, more than anyone wears today, green eyeshadow, thick mascara and pale pink lipstick. She had on what she called a cocktail dress, stiff shiny material that reached to her knees, with lacy white stockings beneath, but nothing on her feet. I found out later that she kept a pair of slippers behind the bar and a pair of white patent high heels by the flap that led to the other side, so she could put them on when she had to go out into the lounge and collect glasses, or join a customer for a drink. She often did that, sitting on a stool with her legs crossed at the thigh, letting a shoe swing from her foot.

 Little Monsters taps into 60s Britain, and in this well-crafted, multilayered novel, nothing occurs without a reason. The insertion of the seminal film Whistle Down the Wind, for example, is no chance selection. Is there a better film that portrays children caught up in events beyond their moral comprehension?

I don’t care for a child-narrator, but in this case the story is told by a now-adult Carol who’s living in Italy with Jozef (yes, one of those plot bombs I mentioned earlier). The novel goes back forth between Carol’s life at The Mermaid and decades later when she meets her own “little monster,” a 13-year-old refugee named Kakuna. Unfortunately Carol’s childhood experiences have created a void of vulnerability, and in an effort to repair her own childhood, she’s unable to deal with Kakuna objectively. Author Charles Lambert asks whether we ever completely heal from our darkest & most tragic experiences:

Sometimes I think there in only one authentic loss, and the rest, the other deaths and departures, are echoes of it: we learn how to deal with loss just once, then apply what we have learnt until it becomes a sort of skill. But if this is true, it must be the nature of the first loss that determines how we handle later ones, and this is what frightens me.

The plot-bombs planted in the story render this tale a great deal of its power, and the fact that the author does not feel compelled to connect all the dots only increases the novel’s readability and subtle air of mystery. This powerful, quietly disturbing tale of displacement is forgivably marred only by the last few pages, but apart from that, this really is an excellent novel.


Filed under Fiction, Lambert Charles