Thursday, 17 May 2012

Penguin no. 2155: The Birdcage
by John Bowen

'You wouldn't have lost it?' He couldn't have lost it. Not after Aubrey had taken months of trouble to find him. People who wrote plays were a silly and neurotic lot on the whole - the ones without talent being more silly and more neurotic than the ones with it, as Aubrey knew very well. But what they didn't do was lose their plays. Nor were they cagey when you asked to read their plays. Usually it was all you could do to stop them reading the plays themselves, aloud, or at least standing over you, savouring the dialogue over your shoulder.'

The birdcage of the title is ornate, made of polished and lacquered brass, and purchased from Liberty, more for its form than its function. At the beginning of the novel it houses two lovebirds, but it is actually being used here more as a symbol of the relationship between the lovebirds' owners, Peter Ash and Norah Palmer. Unusually for the 1960s, Peter and Norah live together but have never married, rationalising their living arrangements as a convenient and sensible alternative, a way to minimise the taxes they are required to pay. But it is perhaps more an indication of their reluctance to make a commitment, for they are still financially independent of each other, and there are slight resentments over who has paid for what. After 9 years the relationship, or cage, has come to have a different meaning for each of them. To Norah it offers purpose and protection, and the satisfaction of something achieved: a home created, understandings developed. But all Peter can see is the restriction; it is a device depriving him of his freedom.

There is very little that is appealing about Peter and Norah. Even the author seems to be mocking them at first for their pretensions, and for their sense of themselves as different, and superior. This is something they never question, and perhaps an inevitable consequence of conditioning on intelligence; being intelligent themselves, it becomes the one characteristic they value most in others, the marker by which other people are classified as interesting or not, and a test they can never fail. It seems to follow, in their minds at least, that everything they do must be approached rationally and dispassionately; in every decision, in every activity, they must be careful, sensible, and reasonable. They come across as rigid, dull, and smug.

And so it is difficult to care when Peter tells Norah of his decision to end their relationship, an hour after they return from their holiday in Venice. She greets this news as she seems to greet everything - unemotionally, looking at first for some rational explanation, and when she finds none, accepting that he is entitled to his freedom. The story is being told by an omniscient narrator who sits in judgement on his characters, and we come to see that they are not quite the rational, unemotional individuals they believe themselves to be - there is a disparity between their conceptions of themselves and the reality. As with their rationalisations about their relationship, they always seem to be deceiving themselves. Everything seems twisted to conform to a set of self-imposed constraints, with their real intentions or motivations hidden, even from themselves, beneath an acceptable veneer. Over the course of the novel, they are given the opportunity to come to an awareness and an acceptance of who they really are.

Along with the story of Peter and Norah's separate lives, this is a satire about the early years of television. Norah works as a script editor for a commercial television station, one intent on informing the audience through entertainment, something along the lines of Play for Today. They seem particularly enthusiastic about scripts by 'original' authors, writers from the working classes telling it as it is, and perversely those who Norah would inevitably disdain in real life. A 50 year old reference by Bernard Shaw to an author as a 'Polytechnic Ibsen' has them searching for months for a copy of a forgotten play, which was only performed once, and which hasn't been read since. And ironically, when this play is eventually found its content and quality will be irrelevant, for it will be re-written by the director until it conforms with the expectations of the people who stage and watch such plays; very little of the lauded originality is likely to be left.

As the novel progresses the author begins to show some sympathy for his characters, and particularly for Norah; irrespective of how successful she is, the options for an unmarried woman in her mid-30s in the '60s  seem fairly bleak. It is a novel with some delightful minor characters: there is a wonderful caricature of a boorish, self-obsessed young writer from the north, and the forgotten playwright Lavery baffles these middle class types with his honesty and integrity. But there are parts of this novel which are unpleasant to read, and long satirical passages which reflect on a world which no longer exists. And always that difficulty of not really caring about what happens to such unappealing people.

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