Thursday, 15 March 2018

Reading the 80s - 1981

Ruth Rendell - Put on by Cunning

The first thing I want to say about this book is that although it was originally published in 1981 the version Kensington Libraries have is a 2010 copy by Arrow books, and up to page 117 (when I stopped counting) there were 11 typing or scanning errors. Some relatively minor (‘I’ for ‘in’ ‘on’ for ‘one’) and some larger ('gugs' for 'rugs'), which pulled me out of the narrative as I stopped to work out what the word was meant to be – and that was a shame because it damaged the readability of what is a very competent story. So avoid this edition it possible. It will drive you mad. 

I don’t think I’ve read any of Rendell's Wexford books before, but although we’re clearly well into the series here and the Chief Inspector has a grown up soap star daughter about to get married and an inspector recently married and so on I never felt lost – the characters are sketched in neatly, Wexford thinks about them just enough to be believable – noticing the slight differences from before (Burden is happier, for example, and slightly smarter as a result) and giving us a little info without it becoming contrived. (I’m thinking of another author I read recently as I write this, where the sister of the main character was thinking extensively and intently about him; his marital prospects, his emotional state, his history, in a way that no-one would really do unless said brother had recently topped himself and you were trying to work out what you’d missed. Clunk went the exposition.)

Anyway Cunning starts with the banns being read in church – 80 something year old flautist (sadly arthritic and no longer able to play) is marrying 20 something year old, for companionship rather than anything else. He also intends to change his will, partly because he is remarrying, but also to disinherit the daughter who he hadn’t seen for about 15 years until she read about the engagement in the paper.

If she is his daughter. What begins as the assumed death by misadventure of the flautist at the edge of an icy pond begins to look increasingly like murder as it seems the daughter might, just might, be an imposter. The rest of the book is Wexford increasingly convinced of this, even though the solicitors are moving in the other direction, equally convinced that she is who she says she is and releasing her father's money to her under the terms of the will he never had a chance to change. 

Finally, still sure he's on to something, Wexford books a holiday in America to find out more about where she was for those 15  years. But he's not going to be in time to prevent another death.. 

Bliss - Peter Carey 

I did briefly mention this on the Guardian TLS when I started it (as always please excuse the cut and paste):

'Cheerily oblivious 'Top Bloke' Harry Joy goes in for surgery convinced he's going to die, and comes out convinced he's in Hell, when all that's really happened is that he's started seeing the world and his family as they really are, not as he thought (or assumed) back when he was being cheery and oblivious.'

At that point I was clear in my own mind that Harry wasn't in Hell. By the end, although there was nothing in the book not within the bounds of possibility, I wasn't so sure.

In fact I felt ambivalent about this book and it's characters on quite a few levels. I wondered, for example, about Harry's relationship with his kids. It felt like he loved them, but didn't feel he had to look out for them or offer guidance or be responsible for them or stay and look after them in their mother's absence.

Instead he tells them stories, and that adds another layer, another pattern, to the book. Because Bliss is not only a narrative and a comedy, but also a book about story-telling itself. About it's power to let the storyteller get away with things and put a good spin on things. Harry is also a seller of advertising, and his sales pitch is another form of fiction. From which we see that Harry is misusing his ability, just as all the stories he tells to his family are really his father's stories, and he's using them wrong because he doesn't understand the meaning of them himself.

And Carey does the same thing - perhaps intentionally. There's some lovely writing, and some deliberately no-punches-pulled writing. It's a fantastically ambitious narrative which dazzles and makes you identify with Harry, who actually is a very self indulgent man, and puts you in the head of some really quite horrible people but gives you their story too, the story of why they're like that, and makes you empathise.

And then when you step back and think a little later, when you've put the book down, and especially when you come to review it, you start to wonder why. Have you just been dazzled by Carey's way with words. Are you imagining it or is Harry really just the same very self indulgent, self delusive (albeit in a different and more useful way) and luckier than he deserves man he was at the start? And is that effect deliberate too?

Working with Structuralism - David Lodge.

I think it's fair to say that the first couple of essays in this book were a bit sticky. There were definitely paragraphs of the sort of stuff that makes the lay person despair of ever understanding what literary critics are going on about.

But Lodge, thankfully, addresses this early on, asking:

'Is it possible, or useful, to bring the whole battery of modern formalism and structuralism to bear upon a single text, and what is gained by so doing? Does it enrich our reading by uncovering depths and nuances of reading we might not otherwise have brought to consciousness, help up to solve problems of interpretation and to correct misreadings? Or does it merely encourage a pointless and self-indulgent academicism, in  which the same information is shuffled from one set of categories to another, from one jargon to another, without any real advance in appreciation or understanding?'

Whether or not you agree with his reasons for believing the first answer to be true, or care for the 'jargon' he uses to explain them, I'm just reassured to see that someone, anyone has asked and answered the question. It's a question I think everyone who has studied English above a certain level must have asked themselves, and it's nice to see it acknowledged in print.

In fact this book isn't all - in fact isn't mostly - literary criticism of that sort. There are reviews, a section on ambiguous endings, a discussion of modernism and postmodernism (the last of which appears to have been a new thing in 81). Lodge has a real skill for not assuming his audience knows things but not making heavy weather of telling you. He writes with humour, although not the slightly slapstick comedy found in his fiction, and he is generally, with the exception of the first two essays, clear as crystal and not sticky at all.

So - what did these books have to teach me about 1981? Actually not a lot. They were datable - the restaurant Wexford goes to is run by a Asian refugee from the Ugandan expulsion, Lodge tells us that postmodernism is new, there is a little paranoia about communists in Bliss, but they are only datable, not dated. There's no particular thread or theme that struck me.

Next stop 1982.  

Saturday, 10 March 2018

On Bookswaps and Letting Go (and somehow, inevitably, libraries and London boroughs again)

Technically I still belong to Bookmooch, and for a while I did a bit of Bookcrossing, but really the most effective way for books to find new readers is a bookswap. A physical shelf or set of shelves where patrons or passers-by can both take and leave books.

The difficulty is deciding what to let go to the swap. However loose my sense of ownership – and it is loose, perhaps because most of my books originally belonged to someone else and will again, or perhaps because I agree with the concept that everything you own is another thing to be cleaned and housed and managed and it’s got to the point where I’m putting over half my plates and cups and cutlery in a separate cupboard just to keep the washing up to manageable levels – culling and making a decision to dispose of books is difficult. Books span that gap between physical object and experience. Unread books are books I might read one day, read books are books I remember enjoying.

But I now have a more painless system for the books I’ve read at least. At the heart of said system is a paper LRB (London Review of Books) carrier bag. When I finish a book I either make a decision to keep it and put it (back) on the shelf, or I put it straight in the bag. Once the bag is full (LRB do a nice sturdy carrier) I take it to the bookswap at Wimbledon station.

It’s a reasonably flexible system, and if I change my mind about one or more of the books while I decant them that’s fine. The idea is simply to break the default of putting books I may never read again back on the shelf when I’ve already got so many not-even-read-once books on there, and access to several very good lending libraries and lots of smaller ones. 

My home borough of Merton for example, which has 7 libraries, is also in a shared-service arrangement with Kingston, Luton, Tower Hamlets, Redbridge, Bexley..  – in fact 17 other boroughs in total. While Kensington (which I belong to because I work in the borough) is cosied up with Hammersmith and Westminster, which sandwich it between them (a map of the London Boroughs shows how exactly like a sandwich it is, all three with small footprints on the river, and then the lengths of them snugly running parallel, like countries which need access to an inland sea, although in fact it’s because the 1963 London Government act merged the smaller boroughs to the north and south of each other. Hence what I just incorrectly called Kensington is actually the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC), and what I just called Hammersmith is the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham (LBHF), but I’m wandering, and you can find it all on Wikipedia).

What has made all this possible of course is electronic systems. The same thing which has allowed the amount of books I can borrow to balloon from 3 or 6 back in the 80s to 15 (RBKC) and 20 (Merton) here in the twenty-teens. 

But I was talking about bookswaps. At the moment my bookswap bag is about half full. So what am a throwing out? Lets see: 

First out of the bag is Antigone in the Diane J Rayor translation from the Cambridge University Press, which was bought in error for my MA when I was actually meant to buy the previous translation. Having read both I have to say I agree with whoever structured my course. The sentences in the latest version seem broken up in a way that strips out emotion instead of strengthening it, which surely misses the point of the play.

Coriolanus, Shakespeare – this is another Cambridge University Press book bought for my MA. It’s actually a very good and useful edition, but I already have a huge volume of Shakespeare plays and sonnets and I’m unlikely to want to read the lengthy introduction or textual analysis again. Out it goes.

Browse, The World in Bookshops, edited by Henry Hitchings. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and imagine any bibliophile would. Each chapter is a different writer telling us about their relationship with a bookshop, or bookshops; Ali Smith about the things found in the books that come into the charity bookshop where she volunteers, Ian Sansom about his time at Foyles, Elif Shafak talks about her childhood and the bookshops of Istanbul, Iain Sinclair about the closure of a shop that was a landmark – as indeed everything I’ve read by Sinclair seems to be about closure and change for the worse. And many other writers besides. I’m glad I found this book, but I couldn't be sure I'd ever read it again when there are so many other books to read, so under the new system it went straight in the bag. Let's see if I still feel the same when I come to empty the bag out.

Music Night at the Apollo – Lilian Pizzichini. I never finished this book. It’s subtitled 'A Memoir of Drifting', and despite the interesting facts about boats and old factories and the sense of trying to find a present through finding a past I felt it drifted away too much, I also felt that even during her time spent with what papers call the underclass Pizzichini always knew she had a way out, which was not the case for the people she was writing about. It made me feel uncomfortable and vicarious reading it.

Joy in the Morning – P G Wodehouse. I’ve got quite a lot of Wodehouse and there’s a lot in the libraries and frankly, this isn’t my favourite and I need shelf space. It’s going.

Don Among the Dead Men. C E Vuillamy. This is a green penguin and less a ‘whodunnit’ than ‘whydunnit’ Doctor Kerris Bowles-Ottery invents a drug that causes euphoria and painless death. Recording his findings as any good scientist would we can see him slowly shift from theorising about the drugs use, to changing his ideas about when it might be used, to using it on people. It’s subtitled ‘a satirical thriller’ and although some of the humour is more wry smile than laugh out loud, it’s quite an amusing book. Something different.

Metroland Julian Barnes. I wrote about this in my 1980 wrap up. 

Misogynies – Joan Smith. Like Browse, although for different reasons, I’m glad I found and read this book. It was a good reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. The chapter about the Yorkshire ripper, the assumptions that were made, and the attitude of the men investigating these crimes and the press towards women in the sex trade will definitely stick with me. (As distinct from the trade itself I mean. It is possible to think prostitution is a horrible business without, as is the case here, actually hating the women involved, just as it’s possible to think bare knuckle boxing should be banned without hating the men involved.)

The other joy of bookswaps is of course not knowing what you might find to take home. Sometimes it can be a bit lacklustre and samey (50 shades anyone?) and usually the Wimbledon station ones go so fast that the direction of books is generally out rather than in, which suits me. But the small bookswap at work has recently yielded Get Carter by Ted Lewis in a very nice paperback, and since that was apparently the start of the ‘noir school of British crime writing’ (which I think of more as ‘gritty’) and it wasn’t a book I’d have thought to look for otherwise, I’m more than pleased.    

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Library Books..

As you can see my reading at present is quite crime heavy. This isn't even all of it, there was the aforementioned Patrick Butler for the Defence by John Dickson Carr, which was a green penguin, The Black Stage by Anthony Gilbert, also a green penguin, and then Grave Mistake, Artists in Crime and Death in a White Tie all on Kindle and by Ngaio Marsh.

Eventually I expect I'll get a kind of literary indigestion and have to ease off the crime for a while, but there is a kind of historical interest in reading mysteries (or any period 'genre') this way. The Black Stage for example is written just after the war, and family members are coming together as a group for the first time since peace was declared, some of them embracing or at least accepting the changes in themselves and society, while others want to turn the clock back because nostalgia is how they’ve got through the last six years, and it's a fantasy they can't let go of.

On the other hand White Tie (which I’ve read before) is set before the war, in the glittering world of high society, debs and chaperones and the London Season. And what it makes explicit, which had never struck me before reading it, was how very young the debs being launched on the marriage market were. 17 or 18 years old, and presumably most of them with no prospect (unlike their male counterparts) of an alternative, such as further study. 

It is also relatively rare in having one of the most likable murder victims I've ever met. Generally in whodunnits, victims either tend to be the kind of people no-one mourns (a fact Christie satirises through her crime writer character Ariadne Oliver in, I think The Pale Horse) or succumb to their fate within the first few pages (in extreme cases, as in Patrick Butler, all they ever do is rock up and die). This enables the reader not to care very much and treat the whole thing as a kind of intellectual puzzle or amusing farce.

But in White Tie we have someone who will be genuinely missed. Someone flawed and privileged, old fashioned and eminently mockable, but generous, human and well meaning as well.  

Returning to the Library pile though, I'm still finding the British Library reprints quite varied. John Bude's Death Makes a Prophet was well written, but again it was more the time and the setting - a kind of well-heeled and respectable cult of a kind I wouldn't have thought existed in the 40s - that was interesting to me.  

Death of Anton by Alan Melville was great fun though. Tigers! Acrobats! Accidents that aren't really accidents! Possibly my second favourite of these reprints after The Poisoned Chocolates Case. 

I did have one tiny quibble though. The investigating officer has a brother who is a Catholic priest, and at one point the murderer confesses to the priest, which creates a quandary, because he can't betray that confidence but can't let an innocent man be arrested either. 

And of course this makes for a strong and interesting literary device, and highlights the respect the brothers have for each other’s respective vocations – but I’m not sure it’s really possible.  After all it is called an act of contrition because you’re meant to renounce your sins and mend your ways. Just conveniently offloading them and then carrying on as before isn't enough, and if a lapsed Catholic like me knows that then any priest worth his salt would surely point it out and refuse absolution as well.  

But this is like quibbling over the fact that Alleyn is investigating his friend’s death in White Tie, which I’m equally sure would never be allowed, even in high society in the 30s.  You do need, with murder mysteries, to suspend your disbelief at least a little if you expect to be entertained.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Book Review - Patrick Butler for the Defence. John Dickson Carr.

This was a very strange book. Surely old fashioned even when it came out in 1956, it's so bad it's almost good. So offensive it's actually impossible for me to take offence.  A terrible, dated, stupid romp which starts with a man in a green fez stabbed, impossibly, in a not-locked-but-empty room in Lincolns Inn and struggling out, of course, a few last enigmatic words to the two junior partners who are the only people on the scene.

So naturally instead of calling the police one of those junior partners decides to put it all before Head Supremo Mr Charisma barrister Patrick Butler, and dashes out, pausing only to draw the attention and suspicions of a passing police officer by bumping into him in the fog and running away.

Hugh (the young man’s name is Hugh) continues to run – into Scotland Yard where Butler happens to be entertaining a young lady he has just slapped on the behind because she’s said something he objects to (this in front of the police, who don’t even say ‘excuse me sir, you can’t do that in here’ when she accuses him and bursts into tears). 

Anyway they escape Scotland Yard and repair, hotfoot, to a glove shop in Seven Dials, where there is a fracas – and on again to a hotel, piling the girls into their laps without so much as a by-your-leave (Hugh’s fiancée having turned up at this point) and making comments that would indeed be offensive if they weren’t so completely impossible to credit.

Brief interlude for everyone to pretend to be married so they can share rooms, and the young woman who is not Hugh’s fiancée to ensure she and Hugh end up sharing (and for him to tick her off for ordering pêche melba and well cooked steak. Real men eat raw meat and stilton cheese, apparently, especially after they’ve just thrown someone through a glove shop window).

Then Butler and Hugh escape from the police a second time by climbing along a ledge and rushing onwards to the theatre to meet the widow of the man with the fez, who in her turn kindly helps Hugh escape from the police a third time despite the fact he may have murdered her husband, and also suggests to Butler that he might want to postpone pinching her bottom (which seems to be his way of saying thank you) to some point in time when they are not actually on the run. 

Incidentally these behaviours appear to be attributed to Butler being part Irish, or at least coincide with him spouting Irishisms and generally giving the impression that any second now he is going to call someone colleen. The widow on the other hand is exotically dressed and says 'dem' a lot. Oh and someone points out kindly that Hugh would probably only get manslaughter for the death of the man in the green fez anyway because the victim was 'excitable' and may well have attacked Hugh first, compelling him to defend himself. 

Because, you know, all foreigners are invariably excitable in this sort of book, practically forcing the phlegmatic Englishman to stab them. (Surely this attitude was terribly dated by 1956? If indeed it was ever more than a literary cliche)

I could go on, but I won't. There are some improbable coincidences, there is a denouement, the dumb blonde isn't as dumb as she seems and Patrick Butler wraps the case up neatly with a bow, hands it over to the police and makes a date with a lady who is not the lady he came in with. 


Saturday, 24 February 2018

Bright and Breezy..

It's got colder again these last few days, with the promise of snow next week, and especially bitter on the Embankment where the wind blows straight across the river and into your face. There is a lot of light though - as you can see in this picture of Cleopatra's Needle. I must have walked past 50 times and I've never seen the carvings stand out so clearly before.

I was actually on my way to Two Temple Place, which is a gorgeous carved jewellery box of a building that only opens when exhibitions are on. At the moment the show is Rhythm and Reaction: The Age of Jazz in Britain, which sounds as if it shouldn't suit the space but works perfectly somehow. If you're in London before 22nd April when it closes I highly recommend it. 

In 1981 news I've read just one book so far, and predictably enough it's a Ruth Rendell, but I am trying to swim slightly out of my comfort zone for this challenge so as well as Bliss by Peter Carey (a serendipitous find in a charity shop) and Working with Structuralism by David Lodge (I've read quite a lot of his fiction, so it'll be interesting to see his litcrit) I also have Chance by Jackie Collins on the way. I haven't read anything by Jackie Collins since my teens (it was The Stud, if memory serves), and to be honest at that age I was just picking out the naughty bits, so it'll be interesting to see what I make of her now. 

Saturday, 17 February 2018

One of my favourite walks.. from Lisson Grove down to Camden via the canal. I used to work up that way and did this walk after work all the time, but it's not an area of London I usually have reason to go to now. 

It's a very diverse area - Marylebone and Baker Street cater for the passing tourist and lunch time grab-a-sandwich worker. Walking up Lisson Grove you find a caff, a pie and mash shop and a chippy. Church St on the left of Lisson Grove has a thriving veg and cheap clothes/make up/jewellery market but also a number of quite posh antique shops, and as you move down the length of it there are fewer and fewer people in western clothes (although the accents tend to be British). 

Higher up the hill is Abbey Rd, where the Beatles recorded, and St John's Wood which is exceptionally posh and exclusive, but if you turn off down to the canal on the right before that (there's quite a slope - it's cut down well below road level here), and walk along, you either pass an estate on one bank, or the moored up narrowboats under the lee of the electric plant on the other. 

They've made a very nice little community there, with chairs and flowers in tubs and mirrors and bits, although sleeping next to that electric plant would give me pause.

You then go under the railway bridge and find on your right some small white city mansions. This is the back view of the buildings. They actually face onto the Regents Park outer circle and must be worth tens of millions for the address alone. 

The canal follows the curve of Regents Park and you walk through the London Zoo grounds, albeit at a lower level and kept out by fences, with a giant aviary on your left and deer and so on on your right on the opposite bank. Graffiti is a recurring feature, increasing in frequency and artistic interest as you get nearer to Camden. 

There is a floating Chinese restaurant which I'm sure lists more than it used to. There is a kids canoe place called something like Pirates' Castle, and back gardens opposite and more and more people about. 

Over to the left, should you want to detour, is Primrose Hill and a fairly famous view. 

And then you're at Camden and the place is rammed because it's Saturday afternoon (not 6pm on a weekday when it was normally quite bearable) and you hop on a bus (the tube being exit only) and go home. 

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Reading the 80s - 1980

Well, I’ve read three of the books I listed for 1980 and an additional one – A Few Green Leaves by Barbara Pym.

I’ve never read any Pym before and was surprised at how dated the relationships between men and women seemed. Perhaps it’s because in my head the 80s are ‘now’, which isn’t really the case. Still, the idea of a sister having to come to ‘make a home’ for her vicar brother after his wife died, and his being unable to cook even the most simple meal, was completely alien to me.

Maybe all this was in part to do with it being a village. Pym has her central character Emma speculate:

It was a mistaken and old-fashioned concept, the helplessness of men, the kind that could only flourish in a village years behind the times. Yet she couldn’t help feeling sorry for Tom..

It’s that last line that struck me. She feeds her ex-boyfriend Graham too when he comes to the place, and accepts his criticism of it – as though it’s just in nature for women to provide for men and men to take it for granted.

In fact Emma’s whole relationship with her ex, who takes a cottage to write his book and implies he’s having marital problems but never quite says it, is another example of this strange tolerance of (as opposed to active interest in) the opposite sex. Even when Emma meets the wife (because Graham has sent her to a funeral on his behalf, which Emma again wonders at, but doesn’t draw any conclusions about his selfishness from) and said wife seems quite likable, she still just drifts on and doesn’t wonder about the version of events she’s been given.

It reminded me of Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner – I wanted to shake that central character too. So passive, and the passivity leading her into behaviour a more active person would realise was selfish or morally dubious.

I was also struck, as I was with Hotel du Lac, that it wasn’t the sort of thing I usually read, and so I’m in danger of not doing it justice because of my irritation with the characters. It is a gentle comedy, and Pym writes well about the village itself, even down to the silly little things donated for jumble. I don’t think I’ll be reading more though.

Graham Greene, Ways of Escape.

I only finished this yesterday. I must have originally begun it in the last few years I think, because when I began reading again from the beginning I kept thinking ‘I remember this really well, this was good, why did I abandon it?’

I also realised I had misremembered it as a series of essays, which it’s not exactly – instead it holds together as a kind of autobiography – albeit one with a weave so loose you could put your fingers through the holes.

The theme is of course Ways of Escape – which for Greene means mostly travel and writing, of course. But there’s a great deal more in here than that. There are the people Greene has met and his own slantwise view of the world – possibly more accurate, and possibly less accurate, than other people's. There are his inspirations for his writing and why he writes. There are the brave and stupid and pointless things he did, in the Blitz or Jerusalem or the opium dens of Saigon. There is correspondence with Kim Philby (after his defection) and Evelyn Waugh (on being labelled a ‘Catholic’ writer). There is..

A lot of stuff, actually, for a book of 237 pages. An incredible amount, and written with such a lightness of touch that it doesn’t feel dense.

So why didn’t I finish it the first time then?  

I really can’t remember. It is a book with a lot of stopping places – which is probably why I thought it was written in essay form. At some point I simply didn’t restart, and I’ve no idea why. 

The Venetian Empire - Jan Morris

If Jan Morris has a fault its romanticising Empires. It happens quite a few times in this one, despite her having made it clear that in some of the places conquered the islanders were shockingly badly treated, even betrayed and left to the invading Turks as the Venetians negotiated their own withdrawal. 

And then there are the following sentences about Dubrovnik, which really did stand out:

‘Slave trading was outlawed very early. Torture was forbidden. A civic home for old people was founded in 1347 and there was a high standard of education.’

In 1347! If you could pick a place to live yourself in that era wouldn’t this be the place? And yet Morris goes on a few paragraphs later.. 

one misses the winged lion on the walls of this determined little city, and with it that warmth of the Venetian genius, which with all its faults..’

Sorry no. Just no. It’s bedazzlement that’s speaking, not reality.  Empires may be great if you are at the top of the heap (unless they depose you and dismember you of course) but not if you are anywhere near the bottom. 

Perhaps this is nothing more than the usual tension in history as a subject – is it a narrative to take lessons from, or is it a treasure trove of facts and artefacts where it doesn’t matter if you get all nostalgic about the magnificence and beauty of the fleet and the wonderful things they brought back to glorify their city, and focus a little less on their monstrous politics?

This book is, largely, the second. That’s not to say it’s inaccurate, and I always enjoy reading Morris because of the way she tells history as a wonderful story. People and places come alive, and she teaches the origins of famous statues and monuments without ever becoming dry.

I found out how the Acropolis was semi-destroyed, where the columns in the Piazza San Marco came from, and the whole point of the imperial ambitions of Venice, the usefulness of the empire to them, their identity as a trading nation.

Smaller social groups are also included, and followed through almost to the present day. The tragedy of the fate of the Jewish ghetto in Corfu, and the current status of that first, ideal town above.

And despite what I said about not focussing on the brutality it is still in there. It may not be the point of the book, but it’s not ignored.

So how does it date? I think (and I found this in the Graham Greene above too) that writers are generally far less inclined to make generalisations about casts of mind or temperaments now than they were in 1980. I think there’s more awareness that a term like ‘Latin’ or ‘Oriental’ is not as precise as we probably thought then.

Most noticeably though – and it doesn’t make the book dated but it does date it - was the description of what was then Yugoslavia, which erupted in civil war in the 90s, a subject that couldn’t possibly be avoided if you were writing in passing about the area now.  

Metroland – Julian Barnes

I’ve put this review at the end because it contains spoilers. This was another inconsequential sort of book (see A Few Green Leaves above) and I couldn’t write it without.  

The reader starts with the first person narrator Christopher and his friend at secondary school age, going into shops uptown and irritating the staff for the sake of it, winding up the football team by cheering them on in a way that looks supportive but was clearly not.

At this point I became quite distracted trying to work out social class – although written in 1980 it begins with the schooldays in the 60s and it seemed to me a more natural working class boy would be trespassing on building sites or hanging off the pole on the back of a bus and less obsessed with shop assistants calling him ‘sir’.  Clearly this is a public school boy.

OK, so rebellious public school boy thinks he’s being rebellious by behaving in the entitled fashion of his class.

Still he’s just a kid at this point, so we can let him off. He’ll grow out of it.

And he does. He becomes a student, has an interlude in Paris, and finally gets married and a proper job. Meanwhile his old friend is still kind of the same as he ever was.

Which of them is right? Has Christopher ‘sold out’?

Well maybe, but I came out of the book feeling that his compromises were largely a good thing, possibly because I never felt the character was actually going to do anything monumental anyway – write some fantastic book or produce some groundbreaking body of artwork. So why not just relax into a ‘normal’ life in Metroland?

So, in conclusion, what have I learnt about 1980? Largely, I think, that it’s further away than I feel it is, and attitudes have changed more than I care to remember they have.  In particular I had forgotten how even seemingly unprejudiced people were still more ‘us and them’ – whether the ‘them’ was the opposite sex, or the ancient Turks, or the bourgeoisie – than would be the case now.

Next up is of course 1981, and I will report back on March 15. Again if anyone wants to join in you’d be very welcome to link your review for ’80 or plans for ‘81 in the comments below.