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Getting It Right: Elizabeth Jane Howard

“People usually find what they seek, if they really search for it.”

For some reason, I had the impression that Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novel, Getting It Right, was the story of a young man losing his virginity–the fodder of those teen movies which so many people seem to find hilarious. Anyway, it was that description that put me off of reading this book, and that’s a shame as this is a wonderfully funny tale–different from other novels I’ve read (and enjoyed) from this author to date. In fact, I think this is my favourite Howard novel so far.

getting it right

Gavin Lamb, is a 31-year-old London hairdresser who lives with his mum and dad. Right away we have an impression of Gavin, right? Even his name gives the reader a hint that Gavin is a gentle soul, and then he’s still living at home. What’s going on with that?

Gavin is a good son, a loyal friend, an excellent hairdresser and takes his job very seriously. Beyond work he has an active intellectual life; he’s a classical music aficionado, loves poetry and literature and also attends the opera.

Now let’s list what’s wrong with Gavin’s life:

He has mentally constructed something  he calls the ‘Ladder of Fear,’ and women are right at the top. He’s painfully shy with women, so there’s no girlfriend, but there are fantasies. Not graphic and mostly dreamlike. 

Gavin works for Mr. Achilles, the toupee-wearing, tight-fisted salon owner who sits reading the racing paper all day long and only breaks concentration on his bets to criticize his employees and deliver lectures.

Gavin’s married sister, Marge, is determined that Gavin should marry, and his sister’s “undoubted favourite” was Muriel. a woman that Gavin isn’t attracted to at all. Still that doesn’t put Muriel off and she pursues Gavin, even showing up at the salon, much to Gavin’s embarrassment, to get her hair done. In her mind, she’s already planted her flag and staked a claim.

Plus there’s Gavin’s weird home life. Gavin’s mother is a neurotic woman full of bizarre theories; she sits making outfits for a teddy bear no one wants, and produces meals which are a “recurring hazard.”  Once when Gavin and his resilient father “mildly” say that a curry was too hot, her reaction was extreme:

She “burst into wracking sobs and a tirade that beginning with their ingratitude had extended to the futility of her whole life. It had taken hours to calm her, and even then she had not been really appeased and they had been treated to tinned food served with sardonic sniffs and nasty remarks made to Providence for nearly a week.” 

One particularly revolting meal involves a chicken mole for which Gavin’s mother substitutes “that nasty unsweetened chocolate” with Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut. Gavin and his father work in cahoots to bolster domestic tranquility with appeasement:

She was always one jump ahead, Gavin thought, no sooner had they laid one anxiety to rest than she pounced upon another and they lumbered after her shovelling sand into all the ground she cut beneath their feet: she called it ‘Where would be you be without me?’ and he [dad] called it ‘understanding women’. It gave them both a sense of domestic strategy, Gavin thought. 

So these are the things troubling Gavin when the novel begins. Gavin’s one friend, masseur Harry lives with the volatile, vain, violent Winthrop who smashes china and delivers black eyes from flying ashtrays. Harry, thinks that Gavin may also be gay but that he just hasn’t ‘declared’ himself yet. Harry, deciding to be ‘helpful’ invites Gavin to a party, and while Gavin feels as though he’s “being propelled along what could only turn out to be a sexual cul-de-sac” he attends the party to avoid Muriel. It’s a party that changes Gavin’s life. ..

The characters range from eccentric to downright bonkers. Gavin’s policy of appeasement gets him into deep waters when he meets the anorexic, desperate, needy and totally looney Minerva Munday and her bizarre parents. 

At one point in the novel, a character asks Gavin if he’s noticed that “everyone who gets married” is a bit enclosed. There’s Peter, a hairdresser who works with Gavin, and his wife Hazel. They’ve exploded into a frenzy of DIY home improvement and their dreary one-dimensional lives are driven by Peter’s extreme financial planning for a future that looks stunningly miserable. Then there’s Minerva’s parents who are also totally bonkers. Her mother is an alcoholic and her father is a pompous bore. Their marriage, complete with stately home and a creaky old butler, could very well be a long-running stage play as it seems guaranteed that the same lines are rolled out every night. All the marriages/relationships in the novel are bizarre with each partner acting out the roles and the lines they’ve held for years, both dodging and creating domestic explosions as best they can. 

Finally I have to add that some of the most brilliant parts of this wonderful book are Gavin’s scenes with his clients. Some of the clients are sweet, some are nasty, some are sad and some come in and rant their beliefs at Gavin who puts his mind “in neutral.” There’s too much to add here but one of my favourites is Mrs Wagstaffe and her “irritable dachshund Sherry.” She insists on bringing the dog to the hairdresser and there he sits “poised” in his owner’s lap and fends off Gavin.

“Now then, Sherry, good morning, Mrs Wagstaffe,” he said in that order.

“Isn’t he amazing? He never forgets.”

Since Mrs Wagstaffe came in regularity every three weeks to have her iron-grey bob and fringe trimmed, there seems no earthly reason why Sherry should forget, but as a master of petty grievance he would probably remember if she didn’t come in more than once a year. 

“Let him smell you,” invited Mrs Wagstaffe, but Gavin had been had that way.

I’ve said on this blog numerous times that I prefer nasty characters, but Getting it Right is an exception. Gavin is a nice person: kind, considerate, responsible–a good employee, a good friend, a good son, and while ‘nice’ people can be boring to read about, Gavin proves to be an exception. Gavin is given to deep introspective musing about people and relationships, and he is deeply sensitive (too much so) when it comes to the problems of others. This leads to Gavin believing he’s responsible for situations and people when he isn’t. I enjoyed being in Gavin’s head–although I winced a bit when he started his intellectual education of a workmate.

Highly, highly recommended. 

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On the Holloway Road: Andrew Blackman

“The only thing he believed in was chaos, for in chaos he saw the only small chance he had of feeling alive.”

Jack Maertens, would-be writer, sliding into middle age, lives with his patient, supportive mum in north London. Jack is stuck in a rut “trying and failing to finish a long, learned novel packed tight with the obscure literary allusions and authentic multicultural credentials that the publishers loved in those days.” Jack could have stayed spinning on his hamster wheel going nowhere for years or perhaps he would eventually have given up and crept away to find a job. But these things didn’t happen because Jack meet Neil.

Compared to my own sad, shambling existence in the shadows of lie, his was a kaleidoscope. I peeped from behind my mother’s curtains at the world outside and wrote about people like Neil.

Jack meets larger-than-life Neil in a kebab joint; they talk and spend an evening in a hashish tinged pub crawl, but it’s not a one-off. Neil enters Jack’s life and Jack’s “morose brooding […] suddenly gave way to a riotous drunken haze of colour and noise.” Soon Neil leads Jack on a wild road trip, with the two men, significantly, listening to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road while drinking and erratically driving Jack’s old Figaro up to Scotland. Opposites attract, we know that, but there’s a lot more afoot in this relationship. Jack is definitely attracted to Neil for his joie de vivre. Jack, hasn’t done anything much in the last few years of his life, and now he acknowledges that “Neil was doing enough living for the two of us.” Neil, unemployed, unemployable and a graduate from Feltham Young Offenders Institution takes over Jack’s life. Neil leads and Jack, lost in his failed ambitions, is happy to follow along and sample life Neil-style. Plus perhaps at the bottom of this Jack imagines that he can crawl out of the deep avoidance crevice he lives in, experience life once again, and finish that book.  

But then again, perhaps consorting with Neil is just a sub-category of Writer’s Block.

On the Holloway Road

Part-buddy book, part road trip, part examination of the authenticity of rebellion, the desirability of a world totally void of responsibility, and part an examination of the meaning of life, On The Holloway Road, a fairly short book at around 200 pages, follows the trajectory of Jack’s relationship with Neil as Neil enters Jack’s colourless life, takes over and starts igniting, figuratively that is, fireworks. But the fireworks eventually turn to bombs. 

Neil is chaos in motion; he can’t remain in one place for long; he needs action, activity. He’s manic and probably if I were a mental health professional, I’d conjure up an ICD-10 code. 

Jack’s tolerance for Neil ran farther than mine, but then that’s probably because I knew a ‘Neil.’ That’s not to say that I didn’t love reading about Neil, because I did. These kamikaze people are great fun to read about–but not so much fun when they start buggering up your life.  Jack’s patience runs out with Neil yet he’s still in Neil’s tail wind: first as a participant, then a spectator. 

Neil stood up abruptly and went over to a young suited man who was talking particularly aggressively into his phone about meetings and sales targets. He leaned over his shoulder and mimicking a female voice, said, “Come back to bed, big boy. I want you so bad it hurts.”

The poor man covered his phone too late, grabbed his bag and ran away from Neil pouring pleading explanations into the phone as he went. That kept us entertained for a time, but Neil, I now became aware, was like a child who tires quickly of every diversion. In the drunken, loud mobs of life in the pubs of Holloway Road I had never really noticed it, but sitting there in the sober neon glare of the morning, with my brain tired and sluggish, and nothing but the inside of a service station to look at, I felt Neil to be a vortex voraciously sucking life out of those around him and still constantly needing more. 

I absolutely loved this book; it’s funny yet poignant. The road trip is an adventure, and like all adventures it has its disastrous moments. Neil, much to Jack’s disgust, spews forth cheesy pick up lines that work on very young “giggling girls, barely old enough to be out of school,” intoxicated women, and a desperate lonely, abandoned wife. Jack is attracted to Neil for the way in which Neil appears to be fearless, but actually reckless is more applicable, and recklessness is wearing. There’s one moment when Jack longs for his resilient, non judgmental mother:

I felt an urge to turn around and drive back to London. I could be there by late evening, just in time to get my mother to make me a toasted sandwich before bed.

At first Neil’s behaviour seems refreshing and lots of fun until it continues … relentlessly… to the point of madness. It’s fascinating to see how Jack at first sees Neil as a Liberator (thinking Thomas Berger’s Neighbors) someone who has all the answers, but then how that gradually slips until Neil becomes this continual train wreck. What does it say about modern life when Neil–someone totally out of control–can appear as though he knows how to ‘live?’ I suppose that’s how cults start.

And here’s Emma’s review.

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