Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Penguin no. 1670: Eating People is Wrong
by Malcolm Bradbury

Perhaps, he thought generously, it was fame that had made Willoughby like this; and really this was true. You not only had to be someone, these days, but to look as if you were someone; otherwise the gossip columnists were simply not interested. Willoughby was really rather mystified by the whole business of his success; people said he was an angry young man, though he was not conscious of it - he had thought himself a perfectly detached observer of the modern scene. They compared him with people he scarcely knew, like Amis and Wain, and called him a movement. Actually he felt as doubtless Amis felt, and Wain, that he had got on to it all first, and the others were just taking advantage.

Despite the title, despite the humour, and despite the entertaining descriptions of life in the 1950s, it is difficult to feel enthusiasm for a novel in which every character is unappealing. But then this story is not really about the characters, and it is not really about the plot: other than a series of small misadventures, and a considerable amount of angst, nothing much happens during the academic year in which we follow the stories of Stuart Treece, Emma Fielding, and Louis Bates. Instead, the focus is on a philosophy and a moral code, questioning the relevance of liberal humanism in a changing world.

It is the late 1950s and Treece is a middle-aged Professor of English at a provincial university, still living as though he is a student waiting for his adult life to begin. He can barely look after himself, has never learned to cook, and has eschewed all ties, avoiding possessions and relationships, living life as if forever on a journey to somewhere else. He looks back on the 1930s as a golden age, a time of certainty, when he had been sure of what he believed. His philosophy has been one with a focus on people - on treating them decently, on giving them opportunities, but not on changing them - he believes in allowing everyone the freedom to develop and live according to their own set of values.

It is a philosophy which is being tested by the spirit of the times, with the welfare state and the proliferation of the universities bringing Treece into contact with people who think differently, have different expectations of their education, and who seem inclined to consider themselves and their needs as the priority. How then do you decide what it means to treat someone well - whose values do you use? The conflict between these two approaches to life is being examined here at the extreme, with Treece and his similarly-minded student Emma aiming to behave well without exception and in every encounter, and both having to deal with the demands of the absurdly self-centred and self-pitying Bates.

In the end it is a philosophy which becomes a straight-jacket, a paralysing and impractical way to live, partly because it means always putting the needs of others ahead of one's own, and partly because every action has the potential for consequences which may be unforeseeable and uncontrollable. Treece ends up doing nothing; Emma lives with guilt. And the selfish and the badly behaved have no reason to change their behaviour.

The extreme example here is the guest lecturer Carey Willoughby, a caricature of the successful novelist as an angry young man, though with little to be angry about. He could be considered to consume people - or at least to observe them, mock them, and take their stories to write-up in his novels. He sees in his success and fame a license and an encouragement to behave as outrageously as he pleases.

The novel is full of these contemporary references. The Movement and the angry young men are mentioned, and working class novels set in northern towns, Room at the Top, Psycho, immigration, '50s songs, skiffle bands, late night coffee shops, expresso machines, and cappuccinos. The impression is of the writer as a detached observer of his own culture, and perhaps this was the case, for Malcolm Bradbury wrote this novel when he was 26 and in hospital following an operation on his heart. Clearly he found it a demeaning, frustrating, and depressing experience for he has his character Treece end up in a similar ward, a price to be paid for all that poor living, and although it may be set years later and in a different country, the description is reminiscent of Orwell's essay How the Poor Die .

And the title - perhaps it is another of those '50s references (to the lyrics of the song The Reluctant Cannibal), perhaps it was chosen simply to be memorable and amusing, or perhaps it is just one uncontentious idea, one value which can be considered shared irrespective of class or nationality.


  1. Another stimulating post that makes me want to go out right now to our nearest second hand book store.
    Here is Bradbury's unpublished afterword" on the book:

    1. Thanks for the link. I particularly like his comment in which he describes his book as "a comedy about the gap between realities and ideal expectations, half-heroic deeds and their dull and ordinary consequences"; that is exactly how the book seems: Treece and Emma's aims are simultaneously noble and completely impractical.

  2. I've just come across your blog! I love this idea and I've read a few posts and really enjoy your writing, thanks for sharing such a neat idea!

  3. 'Eating People' is of mainly historical interest only. The book may have been questioning 'liberal humanism' but ironically it is this philosophy which has assumed overriding dominance despite the past 60 years of changes in UK higher education. I agree with the blog that none of the characters are likeable (or believable) and it's also far-fetched in that there is little or no structured teaching featured in the book. Was this just a prelude to the 'History Man'? - a much more satisfactory read.



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