Thursday, 19 July 2012

Penguin no. 2267: An Error of Judgement
by Pamela Hansford Johnson

     She said at last, 'It's too cruel, to have been pretty once, and always to have looked young and then to see yourself growing old.'
     'No age for you,' I said heartily, but did not like to touch her.
     'You know it for a long time, of course,' she went on, in a controlled and reasonable tone, 'you see your neck going ropey, but you think, "that's just today, tomorrow it will have tightened up again". And your waist - that will be all right too, it's just that you ought to cut down on the starches a bit. But it isn't all right, because it's nothing to do with starch, it's age. Age. Age.'


I found this novel (with its wonderful Terence Greer cover) in a second hand bookshop in Adelaide, and perhaps it was just as well that I started reading it on the return journey to Perth, a flight which offered no alternative distractions other than the view from the aeroplane window, as there were times I had to fight an inclination to put this book aside. I could recognise its merit - at its centre it considered an interesting question about the appropriate response to evil - but there were elements on the periphery I found very frustrating.

Both options may be unthinkable, but when there is no alternative, which is the better response - to knowingly commit an evil act with the intent of ridding the world of something much worse, or to recognise evil and its potential, and have no answer other than to accept or ignore it, and therefore to choose impotency in the face of it? It is a question about weighting alternatives, and in the process making a decision as to which is the more important - the interests of the individual, or the interests of Society, represented in this case by the interests of one or more unidentifiable future murder victims. But it is also about having sufficient courage to make a choice and to act, and in this story Setter willingly faces that responsibility. The title seems to indicate that Pamela Hansford Johnson doesn't support his choice.

A few months earlier an elderly woman had been murdered in the vicinity of Clapham South tube station. She was harmless, known to be a drunk, and yet she had been bashed to death, with her eyes kicked in. There seemed to be no reason in the attack, for she was virtually penniless, but there was something in the desperation with which she clung to her empty bag that seems to have incited a wanton ferocity in her attackers. Three boys had been seen afterwards, running away.

The local priest suspects that Sammy Underwood was one of those boys. Sammy is only 17, a former choir-boy, and meticulous about his appearance; just now he seems to crave the company of the priest. But can the stories he tells be believed? Those he tells of himself don't appear to correlate very closely with the reports from others. With little sense of what to do about his concerns, the priest introduces Sammy to Setter, a former Harley Street specialist who holds an evening conversation club once a week, inviting along former patients and other individuals he identifies as struggling to cope, and in need of what he can provide. Even though he offers little more than a few drinks and his company, Setter has an unusual effect on such people: he seems to induce in them a kind of dependence; something about knowing him becomes essential to their happiness. But this is a responsibility with which he struggles to cope, and the more it occurs, the more he himself retreats from the world.

Setter becomes obsessed with the idea of doing no harm, however inadvertently. His profession was initially chosen to thwart a weakness he recognised deep within himself: a hatred, and an enjoyment in the inflicting of pain; as a doctor he could fight disease and illness, and in doing so fight one potential agent of pain instead. Gradually he gives up his position, his family, his house, his club, and his contact with people, determined to have no effect on anyone's life. But he maintains his contact with Sammy, for he recognises in Sammy the same inclination he recognised within himself, and this gives him an insight and an understanding which the other characters lack.

The story is told in the context of the 1960s, and the Cold War, and a time when people had to live with the implications of nuclear technology. Continuing existence could seem a fragile prospect, dependent on the thoughts and feelings of a few unknown and distant men. And as Pamela Hansford Johnson reiterates again and again, here was the real evil, and there was no practicable response: just some ineffectual ban-the-bomb marching and an 'unquenchable optimism' that all would be well. And  what does the problem of Sammy and his small number of potential victims matter, when all civilization and humanity could be eliminated in an instant? There is no simple answer .

But Pamela Hansford Johnson has a simple answer for almost everything else, and this was the aspect of the novel which most disturbed me. She explores modern marriage, modern families, religion, and middle-class London life. She tells her story from the viewpoint of a male narrator, a friend of both Setter and the priest Malpass, but I was never convinced. It always felt as though a female perspective was being presented, and every mention of the narrator's wife or former girlfriend was jarring. The author's voice was simply too strong.

It seemed to me that Pamela Hansford Johnson was not so much describing the world around her, as criticising it. She continually finds fault with the lifestyles of her middle-class contemporaries, from their tendency to put too much garlic in their food, to their progressive attitudes, and the way they choose and talk about their holidays. But she is finding fault with things that simply don't matter, and so she (or her narrator) comes across as judgemental and condescending. How is she/he the arbiter of the right way to live?

And she frequently presents psychological  explanations for the behaviour of her characters. Perhaps this is fair enough - they are her characters, and their varied problems can be induced in any way she chooses - but only if she recognises that her explanations are local, rather than global. There seemed to be too much extrapolating from the single fictional case to the world at large, and too many sweeping statements about relationships, and murderers, and novelists. This I found very frustrating, and it interfered with my enjoyment of her book.

Also by Pamela Hansford Johnson:
Penguin no. 921: An Avenue of Stone
Penguin no. 1004: A Summer to Decide
Penguin no. 1529: The Unspeakable Skipton

5 comments:

  1. This books seems familiar to me - I think that it was made by the BBC into a mini series, or at least based on this premise. Too much garlic in their food hey? What a transgression!

    Thanks for the fine review.

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    1. She must mention this problem with the contemporary fashion for garlic at least ten times throughout the story, so it was clearly a transgression as far as she was concerned. I haven't heard of a mini series, but it wouldn't be surprising, as the story has a very complex plot, and she was fairly well known in her day (and married to C.P. Snow who was also well known).

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  2. I found this book rather off-putting, and I didn't enjoy it - partly because of the lurid detail of the attack, and partly because it was (to my mind) quite dull! Then I read The Honours Board, which is miles better - set in a school, and quite compulsive reading. I don't know if it was ever a Penguin, though...

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    1. Thanks for the recommendation, Simon. I couldn't find The Honours Board in my lists, so perhaps it wasn't published by Penguin. I know she can write more interesting novels than this, as The Unspeakable Skipton is certainly good, though perhaps more interesting if you have read The Quest for Corvo first (which you of course should). I have never found her male narrators particularly convincing though.

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  3. The characters of Setter and Underwood may have been inspired by Pamela Hansford Johnson's experience in 1966 when she reported on the trial of the Moors murderers in Chester. It affected her strongly, as she shows in a very strange book called On Iniquity she wrote about the case.

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