Tag Archives: British abroad

Before the Party: W. Somerset Maugham

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a W. Somerset Maugham fan, so when I saw a 47 page short story available for the kindle for a mere 99 cents, I couldn’t pass it up. Before the Party, published in 1922, is classic Maugham territory–the relationship between a man and a woman set against the backdrop of colonialism.

The Skinners, a middle-aged married couple, are preparing to attend a garden-party, and we know almost immediately that there’s been a death in the family–the Skinners’ “poor” son-in-law Harold has been dead now for 8 months. In attendance at the garden party will be his young widow, Millicent, and her sister, Kathleen. The preparations for the party mostly concern the appropriate clothing and whether or not Millicent intends to appear in mourning.

This central theme of appearances–the keeping up of appearances and also the issue of how appearances can be deceiving–are at the heart of this simple little story in which Millicent who’s been “strange since her return from Borneo,” is clearly holding back a great deal of information about the dearly departed Harold and exactly how he died.

Maugham sets up the story perfectly. It’s a beautiful summer day and the event which the Skinners plan to attend is a garden party organized by Canon Haywood. Here’s a perfect quote that epitomizes the occasion:

It was going to be quite a grand affair. They were having ices, strawberry and vanilla, from Boddy the confectioner, but the Heywoods were making the iced coffee at home. Everyone would be there. They had been asked to meet the Bishop of Hong Kong, who was staying with the Canon, an old college friend of his, and he was going to speak on the Chinese missions. Mrs. Skinner, whose daughter had lived in the East for eight years, and whose son-in-law had been Resident of a district in Borneo, was in a flutter of interest. Naturally it meant more to her than to people who had never had anything to do with the Colonies and that sort of thing.

The English summer day and well-trimmed lawns are a far cry from the jungles of Borneo, but as time wears on before the party, Millicent brings the darkness of her home life in Borneo into the staid, respectable lives of her family and gets little thanks for it. Before the Party is a clever little story for its plot but also its wisdom. Yes those in support of the Empire can attend their little ‘fact-filled’ parties and nod with enthusiasm and self-righteousness about the missions, but when the dark facts behind the glamour are uncovered, ‘decent’ people would rather not know….

In Maugham’s wonderful novel, The Painted Veil, we see how some a couple of British people, far from their home shores, behave rather badly, and that’s the same idea found in Before the Party. Whereas as in The Painted Veil, a tale of adultery turns into a tale of redemption (with an aside into self-destruction), the plot in Before the Party is primarily about appearances. Of course, if the topic is the behaviour of exiles living on far-flung shores, we must also consider that some people who lived abroad were sent there because they either didn’t fit in with society’s norms and that the various colonial outposts are seen as last-ditch attempts to reform. This topic: exile to the colonies and various corners of the Empire for reform is found in M. E. Braddon’s Henry Dunbar , the story of a dissolute banking heir who’s packed off to India as punishment for engaging in forgery. In the non-fiction book, White Mischief, we see a community of ex-pats, many shunned by society, establishing their own notorious culture in Happy Valley.

It’s always fascinating to read about the dominant, ruling races running amok among the natives. Take Bernardo Atxaga’s Seven Houses in France , for example, an excellent novel set in the Belgian Congo. The atrocities against the native population are horrendous, but indulging their bestial natures dehumanizes the officers and the soldiers stationed at the crude outpost. And that’s the thing about colonialism; it’s bad for everyone.

It’s probably no coincidence that after finishing Before the Party, I immediately picked up Joseph Conrad.

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Us by David Nicholls

Regular readers of this blog are aware of my fascination with books set against the backdrop of holidays. There are, of course, reasons for this. People cast adrift from their usual surroundings will sometimes test the boundaries of their behaviour–in other words, they behave in ways they wouldn’t at home, and that can make for an interesting story. But there’s another facet to holiday books I enjoy–if you send a family with problems away on holiday together, chances are the pressures of a confined space and 24/7 intimacy will make the cracks in the family relationships blow wide open, and this is the scenario in the engaging novel Us from British author David Nicholls.

UsDouglas Petersen and his wife Connie have been married for almost 3 decades when she announces, without warning, that the “marriage has run its course” and that she “think[s] she wants to leave him.” 54-year-old Douglas, the narrator of the novel, is stunned at the news. He’d thought that the marriage was happy, but with their only son, Albie, about to leave for a three-year photography course, Connie argues that their son is the reason why they’re together.

“I try to imagine it, us alone here every evening without Albie. Because he’s maddening, I know, but he’s the reason why we’re here, still together…”

Was he the reason? The only reason?

“…and I’m terrified by the idea of him leaving home, Douglas.

I’m terrified by the thought of that … hole.”

What was the hole? Was I the hole?

“Why should there be a hole? There won’t be a hole.”

“Just the two of us, rattling around in this house …”

“We won’t rattle around! We’ll do things. We’ll be busy, we’ll work, we’ll do things together–we’ll, we’ll fill the hole.”

“I need a new start, some kind of change of scene.”

“You want to move house? We’ll move house.”

“It’s not about the house. It’s the idea of you and me in each other’s pockets forever more. It’s like … a Beckett play.”

I’d not seen a Beckett play, but presumed this was  a bad thing. “Is it really so … horrific to you, Connie, the thought of you and I being alone together? because I thought we had a good marriage…”

I loved that quote because it reveals so much about the marriage and the dynamics between Connie and Douglas. He’s the product of a very reserved conservative, undemonstrative home, while Connie grew up in a large noisy, supportive family. These two people are completely unalike, but their marriage worked–at least for a while, but there’s always been the sense–agreed upon by both spouses–that Douglas was ‘lucky’ to get someone like Connie. The quote also reveals that Connie is the power figure in the marriage; she calls the shots and Douglas scrambles to catch up. Not only has she declared that she thinks she wants to end the marriage, but she fully expects Douglas to participate, without any awkwardness and no demands, in the last family holiday before Albie leaves home. Given Albie’s interest in Art (Connie is a failed painter and now works in a museum), Connie has organized what she calls the modern equivalent of the Grand Tour to “prepare” Albie “for the adult world, like in the eighteenth century.”  This month-long holiday includes stops in Paris, Amsterdam, Venice, Padua, Verona, Florence and Rome.

Douglas’s first reaction to the news that Connie wants a separation is to cancel the holiday which he predicts will be like a “funeral cortege” with the imminent separation “hanging over” the marriage. Connie argues that it will “be fun,” and that Douglas should not be “melodramatic.” Albie isn’t thrilled by the holiday either and argues that “if it’s meant to be a great rite of passage and you’re both there, doesn’t that sort of defeat the object?”

Of course there were further sleepless nights, further tears and accusations in the lead-up to the trip, but I had no time for a nervous breakdown. Also, Albie was completing his ‘studies’ in art and photography, returning exhausted from screen-painting or glazing a jug, and so we were discreet, walking our dog, an ageing, flatulent Labrador called Mr Jones, some distance away from the house and hissing over his head in fields.

Common sense should tell these people to cancel the trip, but as you probably guessed, the Holiday from Hell begins…

The story goes back and forth in time with scenes of this miserable holiday contrasted with the history of Connie and Douglas’s life together. We see how Douglas, a shy man, almost 30 and a responsible scientist with no social life met Connie through Douglas’s wild and uninhibited sister, Karen. The fact that Karen (“Love was Karen’s alibi for all kinds of aggravating behaviour,“) can’t cook doesn’t stop her from throwing parties which include vile tuna casseroles, and it’s at one of these parties that Douglas meets Connie. We could say that Connie, who’s had a series of unreliable boyfriends in her checkered, exotic past, is out of Douglas’s league. She’s outgoing, drinks like a fish, and is ready to sample all the drugs passed her way–unlike Douglas who has no interest in drugs whatsoever. Douglas is a dud at parties and Karen says that “he had skipped youth and leapt straight into middle age.” The scenes at the party, when somehow Douglas finds himself competing for Connie against an aggressive hairy, circus performer are hilarious.

Jake, the trapeze artist was a man who stared death in the face, while most nights I stared television in the face. And this wasn’t just any circus, it was punk circus, part of the new wave of circus, where chainsaws were juggled and oil drums were set on fire then beaten incessantly. Circus was now sexy; dancing elephants had been replaced by nude contortionists, ultra violence and explained Jake, ‘a kind of anarchic, post-apocalyptic Mad Max aesthetic.’

As the story continues and Douglas relates the history of his marriage and the crises he and Connie faced, we also see how Douglas tries to keep up the pretense of a happy holiday amidst his laminated itineraries and Connie setting the rules about intimacy.

I loved this novel. Nicholls captured the dynamics of a dying marriage–a marriage which met the needs of one spouse while another felt stymied and bored. Nicholls also nails the subtle idea that one person in a family can so often be the low man on the totem pole, and, of course in this case, it’s Douglas. Many scenes underscore the intimacy between Connie and Albie which leave Douglas as an outsider (“Connie took to twisting her finger in the hair at the nape of his neck. They do this, Connie and Albie, grooming each other like primates“), and while Douglas is a conservative individual who lacks an ounce of spontaneity, this is how he was brought up. There’s another scene at a restaurant in which Albie and Connie shut Douglas out entirely and he becomes the butt of some rather malicious humour.

Due to its well-drawn characters who exist on opposite planes of values, Us may be the sort of novel to polarize readers. I had no sympathy for Connie and thought her a remarkably selfish human being who makes the dramatic announcement that the marriage is over and then expects Douglas to play Happy Families for four weeks for the course of an expensive holiday. Readers may also have a range of reactions to Albie’s behaviour. Douglas has moments of authoritarian fantasies, but there’s never any doubt that Connie is the one firmly in charge of the marriage, and one parent can afford to be lax as long as there’s someone else on the scene who tries to enforce some sort of reasonable behaviour. Nicholls also shows how we marry people knowing what they are, with no illusions, and then we rail at those very characteristics –at one point we learn, for example, that Connie makes snarky comments about Douglas reading nonfiction–“fascism-on-the-march” books as she calls them and not fiction which is her choice. The very characteristics that drew Connie to Douglas–stability, reliability, and security, are elements that Connie then rails against in her 50s.

My sympathy was with Douglas all the way, and for me both Connie and Albie behave atrociously  (Albie insists on taking his guitar on holiday and guess who gets to carry it around). The disastrous Holiday from Hell does have its good points as it becomes the impetus for self-realization for Douglas. Us is a brilliantly clever, witty, insightful examination of power dynamics in a marriage and in a family, but even beyond that Nicholls questions the attributes valued by our society–a society in which experience and risk-taking are valued over restraint. At one point, I was very concerned that Nicholls was leading me down the PC path to cliché, but I was spared… . Us, incidentally, made the longlist for the 2014 Booker prize, and this goes to prove once again, how I prefer the Booker Losers.

Incidentally, I’ve read a few articles recently that delved into the issue of post-50 divorces. One article stated that since the 90s, the divorce rate for people over 50 and older has doubled. I initially thought, to be honest, that that was a little weird. After all, haven’t people worked out their differences by then? I asked a divorce lawyer I know if she was seeing more post-50 divorces and she replied, ‘yes, absolutely.’ I asked why this is on the rise and she said that, in her experience, she’s seeing people who don’t want to live in retirement with the current spouse. She said she has female clients who come home and see the husband sitting on the couch watching TV and they say “I can’t take 20 years more of this.”

Review copy

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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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