Sunday, 17 April 2011

Penguin no. 1442: Hurry on Down
by John Wain

"It was no use, of course. Speech would never work with these people. Indeed, it was inconceivable that anything could be got across to them by means of language, unless one overpowered them and left them gagged and bound in the presence of a gramophone record endlessly repeating a short, concise statement. It would have given him pleasure to begin the composition, there and then, of such a statement; to have outlined in a few simple sentences the nature of the crime against humanity that they and their kind were committing by the mere fact of their existence."

This passage gives an insight into how the protagonist of this story, Charles Lumley, thinks. The ideas he expresses are creative and amusing, but they are also bitter, and perhaps it explains why John Wain is often included as one of the novelists referred to as the Angry Young Men of the post-war period. But whatever bitterness his character feels, it is not projected outwards; he doesn't retaliate against Society. He simply looks out into the world and recognises that he doesn't share the aspirations of the class into which he has been born. He doesn't see a place for someone who thinks the way he does.

In the first chapter we follow his interactions with three representatives of the middle class world: his landlady, a fellow student, and the brother of his fiancé. They are signposts pointing in the direction of the only acceptable path: deference, gratitude, meekness, hard work, wealth and aspiration. He has just come down from University, and he perceives that his education did not prepare him for the world he must enter; it did not encourage free thought and independence, it encouraged conformity.

But here is a world he doesn't want to conform to: he looks at the representatives of his class and feels disdain for their priggishness and small-mindedness, their smug assumptions of their own superiority, and their complacency. In addition he feels contempt for the clean softness of their lives, seeing something noble in hard, practical, manual work, and having admiration those who perform it. But it is a guarded admiration; his place is not with the working class either:

"This establishment, or at any rate this particular room of it, was predominately working class in atmosphere; consequently it was peopled by raw, angular personalities who had been encouraged by life to develop their sharp edges. His sharp edges, on the other hand, had been systematically blunted by his upbringing and education....The hive was full of wasps, all workers and all identical; but he, who differed from the others in nothing else, had been deprived of his sting."

His solution is to seek a way of life that is classless, neutral, detached. He tries manual work: as a window-cleaner, as an export car driver, as a hospital orderly, as a servant, and as a bouncer, always maintaining a distance from his fellow employees and the people he meets. He tries crime and he tries sleeping rough. His problem is that he also desires a particular woman, and her values are middle class. It is a predicament, and one that doesn't readily admit of a solution.

The book reads like the adventures of Charles Lumley, as so much happens to the character. The story is episodic, events are a little far-fetched, and minor characters keep on re-appearing at the most opportune times, to head him in a new direction and start him on another adventure. This means that although the only journey is through time, there is the feel of an on-the-road plot. The focus is so strongly on the main character that he becomes the unifying element of these disparate events.

I loved reading this book. I enjoyed it much more than the other books with which it is compared, Alan Silitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and John Braine's Room at the Top. Charles Lumley is likeable, or perhaps it is the author, as narrator, who comes across as likeable. I didn't have to condone the character's choices to appreciate his evocative descriptions of the way he felt. The only element I disliked was the romance, the obsession he develops for Veronica. The intensity of the passion is described beautifully:

He knew that he would commit any crime, that he would steal, kill, maim, or ruin the lives of people who had never done him him harm, for the sake, not of possessing her, but of giving himself even a remote chance of possessing her. He knew that neither his mind nor his body could recognize anything as evil, nor as good, except in direct relation to that desire. And he was helpless, and aghast."

but it's difficult to understand; the intensity of his feeling is never justified by anything in the story. He describes her only in relation to how she looks and the things she owns; she is a blank canvas onto which he projects his own desires, and yet it is this passion on which the story turns.

It is explained only be a line of poetry referred to over and over again. It comes from The Beautiful Train by William Empson:

And I a twister love what I abhor.

2 comments:

  1. I'm not sure about this one. I've never been attracted by the Angry Young Men. I think I assume I'd just be wanting to tell the protaganists to pull themselves together and make the best of things! The BBC are about to screen a new adaptation of Room at the Top, maybe I'll watch that and reconsider.

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  2. It's a long time since I read Room at the Top; my memory is of a very unpleasant and self-centred protagonist, and so I'm not sure I'd want to read that book again. This one feels different - the main character isn't out to take advantage of anyone else; he just wants to find a different path. And so although he was young and bitter, I really liked him, and enjoyed reading his story, even though it was a little far-fetched.

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