Sunday, 9 June 2013

Penguin no. 1788: Just for the Record
by Stanley Price

And that's today's message of hope. Uplift in the mire. For some barmy reason these days everybody seems compelled to prove they're alive, really alive. I've read it in a load of books, and seen it in a heap of plays. It's like the boy who cried 'Wolf'. They go shrieking they're alive till, poor bleeders, they drop down dead. I shall never dig all this 'our life to live, every minute of it' school of art. I suppose it's an O.K. message because that's just what everybody's doing anyway. It suits me fine. If I'd had to write something about Ted Mulvery getting a quick yen for Zen, or a sudden vision of Christ on Charing Cross, I'd have been scuppered, but this LIFE bit is easy. Everyone reads it and nods knowingly because it all sounds so deep and yet so obvious, but really nobody understands what the hell you're on about.

Stanley Price's protagonist explains the increasing popularity of fiction which concentrated on the grittier aspects of working class and provincial lives during the late 1950s via its obverse - that readers not so much embraced the new literature as suddenly ceased to be interested in the alternative of correctly-punctuated classic tales. Just for the Record is a satire on this emerging interest in stories which featured protagonists who were often aggressive, rebellious and self-obsessed working class men aiming for something more. The trend is referred to as the British New Wave, and by taking advantage of the possibilities for exposure offered by the new mediums of television and popular journalism, the novelists involved could become celebrities.

James Breedin is one of these aspiring writer-celebrities, and his plan is to ride the wave as far as can along a path to fame and fortune. He entered into adulthood with little ambition and no thought of being a writer, but he is pragmatic and shrewd and quick to spot an opportunity, and so he is perfectly happy to write what people think they want to read, and to tell them what they think they want to hear, irrespective of whether it provides the reflection of reality his readers assume they are being given. He is not even aiming for authenticity, because he is aware that his audience lacks the knowledge to assess how true to life his stories are, and he suspects that all they are really looking for is some respite from their dull lives. They hope to find it temporarily in the safe exposure to a seedier life which such novels and films purport to provide.

The premise of Just for the Record is that Breedin needs another publicity-inducing gimmick to keep his name in the papers, and so he locks himself away from the public for a few weeks while he grows a beard - 'the new face of James Breedin'. He spends this time alone reflecting on just how he has made it this far, determined to commit such thoughts to paper as an inexpensive form of therapy. And so this survey of his literary career is ruthlessly honest: he makes no claims about being original or insightful, and he acknowledges that he simply takes advantage of what he finds around him. He transcribes dull conversations, overheard on the bus and of no interest to anyone present; he borrows characters from amongst those he has met, people of no interest to others in everyday life. He combines these observed samples of life with a bit of made-up jargon, knowing in advance the critics will hail it as insightful. It is a game, and he has worked out how it can be played very successfully.

So he is a man with no illusions, no special talents, no plans to leave a legacy, and no faith that the fashion for 'language-of-the-streets-and-morals-of-the-gutter' writing will continue to be popular for long: he suspects it to be simply a phase to be taken advantage of while it continues. His passion is money and the things it can provide - decent accommodation, an easy life, and an abundance of willing women. And as he sits in his Chelsea Mews apartment he reflects that his plans are proceeding particularly well: he has recently been awarded 'most promising TV playwright of the year' and his first novel Out of the Hole has already earned a small fortune, and will soon be filmed. Now he has written a musical with the barely-credited help of someone who actually knows something about music, and if it is picked up by an American impresario his future will be assured.

I assume that the point being made is that literary fame was open at that time to anyone with few principles and a little application, and no one sufficiently astute or knowledgeable to detect the fraud cared as long as there was money to be made. In a market which apparently undervalued talent and literary ability while putting a premium on lived experience, despite being incapable incapable of distinguishing the real from the simulated, success depended to some extent on luck, and on being the person the critics chose to endorse. A few years earlier James Breedin had been average George Plumb of Birmingham, a man who looked like the bank-teller he was. His childhood had been conventional and middle class, in that he had bored his parents just as much as they had bored him. He argues, however, that whatever the critics and theorists may believe, such a childhood provided a much better background for success as one of the new breed of novelist than any deprived working class childhood could have done.

I found the writing difficult to bear, but then Price was clearly parodying the style of the moment. The book is short, funny, and fast paced, and Breedin, despite his self-obsession and lack of principles, is an appealing narrator because he is honest and amusing, and because he sees the humour in things he comments upon, and the role of self interest and self absorption in many of the social and cultural trends of the late 1950s. And though he may think of himself as a fake for pretending a working class heritage he lacked, he does embody all the unpleasant traits of the protagonists of the novels being satirised.


  1. A satire on celebrity culture? I'm so there! This novel sounds like a hoot, not to mention, the cover art is hilarious! Great review, as always. :)

    1. Thanks, Jason - so glad to see you back blogging. The cover is by Enzo Apicella. You can see his other vintage Penguin covers at; I find them so appealing that I have read three of the four titles.

  2. Thanks Karyn, it's great to be back! I have so many of your reviews to catch up on...this might take a while :P

    I'll be sure to check out that link. They say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover but most of these penguin editions get me every time! lol

  3. Thanks, Karyn, for another good write-up of a novel which, I suspect, very few of us have read. I never read him, and I'd forgotten all about him, but the name Stanley Price did ring a bell from way-back-when. He doesn't seem to have a Wikipedia entry, but I presume he's this guy -- the second Stanley Price (not the actor who died in 1955) listed in the IMDb:

    "Stanley Price (II)
    "Date of Birth
    "12 August 1931
    "He was born in Dublin, Ireland but moved to London, England at the age of 12 and then to the USA.
    "His quest to discover the origins of his Lithuanian grandfather is described in his book 'Somewhere to Hang My Hat: An Irish-Jewish Story'."

    1. Thanks David,

      The short biography on the inside cover of the Penguin has him born in London in 1931, and heading for America in 1956 (though returning to England four years later), so it is possibly the same man. He seems to have worked first for an advertising agency, then as a reporter, and finally as a full-time writer. I only know of one other title published in Penguin which is #2274 A World of Difference.



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