Peter Prince’s admirable novel, The Good Father, is about a group of professional-class people in the London Borough of Lambeth, trying to see themselves as liberal and left-wing. They were students together in the late 1960s and are struggling to maintain in the 1980s the package of liberal values (or ‘received ideas’) which they shared so confidently in their youth. The trouble with such package deals is that when one item loses its authority the believer may throw out the whole lot, bag and baggage, baby and bathwater: he may rush to the opposite extreme, seeking out illiberal values to embrace with a fervour that embarrasses old conservatives. Bill Hooper, the hero of The Good Father, was once an excessively keen feminist: now, in his thirties, separated from his wife and denied custody of their four-year-old son, he becomes a fighter for men’s rights – and rather a dirty fighter, unchivalrous, ungentlemanly.
Feminism is perhaps the most important item in the group’s package. But other items include an instinctive or automatic hostility towards police and military action. The story begins in 1981, soon after the Brixton riots: at a lunch party in nearby Stockwell, the firmest of the true believers, Jane Powell, is maintaining that a legal amnesty should have been given to all those arrested in the street fighting. Her friends call her Saint Jane: she is a lawyer who works for a law centre, a hard-working Labour councillor, regularly insulted by her Haughey-like Irish comrades. But Saint Jane fails to persuade even her old college Chums that the working-class riot should be tolerated. Hooper is quite surprised to find that the other lunch-party guests take what he calls a more ‘moderate’ attitude when considering the preservation of law and order. Hooper wonders if this ‘moderation’ represents the ‘first frostings of middle age’. Nearly all of them are still in their thirties.
Then there is Sam Stein, another liberal lawyer. He has been trained by his wife into expressing anti-patriotic opinions: he is expected to assume that whenever British troops make an overseas landing they are bound to be in the wrong. But when the conscripts of the Argentine junta invade the Falklands, Sam rejects the package deal. He puts up a wall map of the Atlantic Ocean, sticking coloured pins into it to mark the British advance with his unqualified approval. ‘He’s just regressed,’ Sam’s wife tells Hooper. ‘He’s like when I found him. When he had a horrible plastic bust of Churchill in his room. And a framed letter from Iain Macleod.’ This time, Hooper is not so surprised. He has learned to expect such reversals. ‘He recognised what he was beginning to see as a rule of life – the more fiercely someone expressed an opinion the more likely it was they were trying to drown out the siren songs that beckoned them towards the opposite camp.’ He thought of his friend Tony ‘who had crossed from bombs to the Buddha. He thought of himself who had once argued for feminism – against women.’ Hooper’s opposition to excessive feminism seems to have begun when he went to a demonstration with Jane Powell and quarrelled with her about the silly slogan on her tee-shirt: ‘All Men Are Rapists.’ Then there was the time Jane made him go to a ‘Men’s Group’ meeting. ‘Men’s Groups’ were (and perhaps still are) gatherings of men who support the Women’s Movement. One selfish reason for so doing is very old: ‘I like a filly with spirit’ is the cliché. But to be thrust into a Men’s Group meeting is not so exciting. Hooper found the meeting depressing – especially as he could hear ‘the noisy, bracing uproar of the Women’s Group’ in another part of the house, much more inviting. When Hooper complained to Saint Jane she told him that he was ‘afraid of confronting his own sadness’.
It is not that Hooper is unfriendly to other men. The main story is about his championship of another Stockwell party guest, Roger Miles, whose circumstances are similar to his own – deserted by his wife, denied custody of their child. Fighting for Roger, the ‘good father’ of the title, Hooper can express his practical hostility to his own wife and his theoretical hostility to Saint Jane Powell. (There are so many references to old movies in this novel that we are bound to imagine Jane Powell as a lookalike of the famous film star.) Hooper even manages to defeat Jane the lawyer in the courts – and win for poor Roger the custody of his son.
The Good Father is sad, funny and – for the most part – fair. It takes a long time for Hooper to recognise the nastiness of his motives in championing Roger with such apparent gallantry. While posing as a ‘good father’, deprived of his child by his wife, Hooper has been evading the truth: it was the presence of the child that caused the breakdown of his marriage. Peter Prince works out the story of Hooper’s downfall in a pattern rather like that of Nicholas Salaman in his comparably excellent recent novel, Dangerous Pursuits: both authors introduce a rather congenial hero (with failings the reader may tolerate or secretly share), but when he has behaved sufficiently badly the author sternly punishes him.
A touch of feminism might be expected from Mrs Pooter’s Diary, since it is a skilful (and very funny) reworking of the Grossmith brothers’ Diary of a Nobody, the events seen from dear Carrie’s point of view. However, every truthful diary (even from such sturdy fellows as Edmund Wilson or Sir Peter Hall) shows up the writer in a ludicrous light, all the little manias and depressions exposed. Carrie is as Pooterish as her husband. Much of her time is devoted to plotting against him, devising schemes for moving the family away from boring Holloway to good old Peckham on the south side of the river, nearer the centre of things. John Jensen’s illustrations match Weedon Grossmith’s very neatly. Carrie thought the Pooters’ house rather too near the railway line, and deemed her husband’s jolly friend, Gowing, a touch too bibulous: to express her point of view, Jensen has embellished Weedon Grossmith’s drawings with black railway smoke and a suggestion of alcoholic fumes. He is supporting Waterhouse’s suggestion that sensible Carrie’s diary is ever so slightly mad.
Perhaps all diarists expose a sort of madness in themselves. The diary of raving-mad Daniel Pratt, Dandiprat’s Days, is a source of surprisingly innocent merriment – for Pratt’s sort of madness would seem to be no laughing matter. He is a senior civil servant, a wealthy bachelor of 54 who has never made love to a woman; every now and then he feels mad and seeks asylum, sanctuary, in a hospital he calls ‘the Home from Home’. Dandiprat’s Days is divided into three sections, ‘Descent’, ‘Surface’ and ‘Ascent’ – suggesting a belief in a cyclical theory of manic depression. Sometimes people who lose their senses do follow a sort of convention of derangement: youths in Malta have a traditional way of declaring themselves drunk at festivals; beggars in West African market places go mad in a style which resembles that of Poor Tom in King Lear. It may be that Pratt is acting out the cycle of manic depression because he has heard of it (like a Theory of Humours) and thinks he ought to follow the pattern.
Two of Pratt’s three doctors are nicknamed Dr Phyz and Dr Psyches, the latter being scarcely less ‘physical’ in his approach than the former, for he prefers to treat the patient’s psyche with pills. Perhaps these doctors are doing Pratt good: but he is most enlivened (and so is the reader) by the third doctor, the 82-year-old Dr Psex, who seems to be something of a Jungian. (His name may also remind us of the real-life Dr Szasz, that well-known critic of theories of ‘madness’.) Dr Psex tells Pratt that the electric shock treatment he has suffered is barbaric. He is equally contemptuous of anti-depression pills. ‘They should have allowed you to have your depression,’ he says. ‘You cannot have God without the Devil, as is manifest in the earliest religious conceptions.’
Dr Psex urges Pratt to meditate upon the Virgin Mary and the concept of virginity: he wishes to extend the meaning of the word ‘virgin’ to mean ‘outside the laws of man’, like the virgin forest, so free and prodigal. He draws the Bible-reading Pratt to a consideration of the genealogy of the Virgin Mary. St Matthew, alleges Dr Psex, mentions only four women in this list of fathers and sons – and all four were considered sinful in their time: they are Rahab the harlot, Bathsheba who was tempting to King David, Tamar who coaxed her father-in-law – and even Ruth, who crept under the bedclothes of Boaz, her kinsman. Does not this suggest that Matthew wanted to show that Mary was descended from ‘sinners’?
This is far-fetched. We are not convinced that Matthew meant his readers to think all these women ‘sinful’ in their time. Besides, the genealogy is, in fact, that of Joseph, the husband of Mary. But the shrewd doctor’s poetic stratagem does persuade Pratt to read the stories about the four remarkable mothers, and these readings seem to be good for him – particularly the story of Ruth. The idea of the Virgin as an ‘archetype’, offering freedom from sex laws, is new to Pratt and sets him thinking about Virginia, the barmaid at The Horse and Groom where he has so often been manic or depressive. Before long he has young, polyandrous Virginia in his dead father’s bleak house and she has learned to cite the Book of Ruth, saying: ‘I have washed and anointed myself. Spread your skirt over me.’ All goes merry as a marriage-bell. Never was a tale of depression less depressing.
Another way to offer experience of a derangement of the senses, especially the exultant, ecstatic sort of derangement, is to make use of our shared knowledge of dreams. Telling other people our dreams often bores them. But anyone who has been taken by the writing of Traherne, or Rimbaud, may turn to Neil Jordan’s novel, The Dream of a Beast, without fear of tedium. What happens to the narrator is pleasingly tangible and sensuous, stimulating excitement without fear. The dreamer takes it for granted that the world has changed suddenly – the heat, the pavements cracking, strange plants sprouting thick, oily, unrecognisable leaves over plate-glass windows: he walks to work along the buckled tracks of the railway line, stopping to take advantage of the rare trains but not expecting them. He notices young soldiers getting younger as they prowl efficiently, keeping guard, perhaps obeying some master plan to control the heat.
The narrator is becoming a beast. His skin and his hair are changing. Do the women, the beauties, like this beast? The dreamer seems unable to see himself: he can only guess about his looks, from the women’s advances and revulsions. He covers himself with bandages – not in self-disgust, like Mr Samsa in Kafka’s tale, ashamed that he has become a beetle – but rather as a useful, interesting disguise. He climbs buildings as if he were flying, his bandages unfurl and roll down to earth, caught by an admiring boy who returns them – ‘I brought your things, sir!’ – and fetches green corn-tips for the beast to eat. Sprinklers are hissing over the lawns and a fish is walking by the mareotic lake and a tree has shed its covering of scales. The last thing the dreamer tells us is that he is looking into the globes of a girl’s eyes and seeing in his face reflected there ‘something as human as surprise’. Perhaps he is waking from his dream, for better or worse. To dismiss this well-tuned story as self-indulgent nonsense would be easy – but very unmusical.
A different sort of imagination is required when writing the biography of a real-life bird. There is nothing dreamlike about Squeak. This pigeon, John Bowen explains, is the progeny of a Chinese Owl – ‘a kind of pigeon, bred by the Fancy, close kin to African Owls and English Owls’. He writes with an air of authority (as if pleased to be one of the Fancy himself) and an apparent confidence, probably justified, that his book will last a good few years, like Tarka the Otter. The firm hand of the octogenarian Eric Fraser provides the illustrations, like an accolade for a minor classic. The bird, Squeak, belongs to two people described only as ‘the tenants’. In a loft in Warwickshire they breed pigeons for showing, and they attempt a new colony in a Kensington flat. This is not a success, for wild birds of London, feral pigeons, interfere with the project until nothing is left but little Squeak, apparently orphaned, half Chinese Owl, half Cockney. The tenants have to act as Squeak’s parents: the bird becomes attached to them, ‘imprinted’ on them, making courting signals. Supposing Squeak to be male, they try to find a hen for him, and are surprised when Squeak lays an egg. They are used to pigeons’ indecision about sex and mating. They have an undiscriminating cock named Ginge and a gay couple called Wilf and Wendell (known as Wendy until they found him out).
This may sound too whimsical, but the analogies between bird and human life are generally left for the reader to draw. Bowen is pleasingly matter-of-fact, telling what he knows about this bird’s dangerous life and guessing intelligently, informedly, managing very deftly the switches from the tenants’ consciousness to a plausible bird’s-eye-view. Apparently Squeak is still alive, an obsessive mother, fostering show winners though not herself smart enough to show. This is a naturalistic book, a work of natural philosophy. John Bowen has contrived a story which suits his tendency to be both ‘down-to-earth’ and strangely, almost inhumanly, distanced from his characters.
Since J.M. Coetzee often writes about cruel whites and suffering blacks in South Africa, he doubtless occasions feelings of compassion and political indignation in his admirers. But he does not go out of his way to stimulate such a positive response – not in The Life and Times of Michael K, anyway. Michael K was born with a hare lip, ‘curved like a snail’s foot while the left nostril gaped’, so that his mother ‘shivered to think what had been growing in her all these months’. He is too slow-witted to go to school. Employed as a lavatory attendant, he is cut up by unambitious robbers and left unconscious with broken ribs and a dislocated thumb. All this misery in the first two pages – and there is worse to come. He trudges around the country during a civil war, sometimes producing his mother’s ashes for a child to sniff, sometimes digging up ants’ nests to eat the grubs. Implausibly arrested for terrorism, he is force-fed through a tube up his nostril. The camp pharmacist rants: ‘You are a figure of fun, a clown, a wooden man.’ Michael’s own view is: ‘I am more like an earthworm.’ A woman in a blonde wig sucks his penis, for some reason. Michael says: ‘I was mute and stupid at the beginning. I will be mute and stupid at the end.’ Why is J.M. Coetzee doing this to Michael K? Surely he does not represent the spirit of Africa? I see no point in this prolonged tale of woe.