Sisters

John Sutherland

  • Tit for Tat by Verity Bargate
    Cape, 167 pp, £5.95, April 1981, ISBN 0 224 01908 2
  • Watching Me, Watching You by Fay Weldon
    Hodder, 208 pp, £6.95, May 1981, ISBN 0 340 25600 1
  • Maggie Muggins by Keith Waterhouse
    Joseph, 220 pp, £6.95, May 1981, ISBN 0 7181 2014 0
  • Mr Lonely by Eric Morecambe
    Eyre Methuen, 189 pp, £5.95, March 1981, ISBN 0 413 48170 0

Tit for Tat is dispatched from the front line of the war between the sexes. The heroine Sadie (play on ‘sad’ and ‘sadist’) Thompson (play on Maugham’s unregenerate prostitute) is so comprehensively victimised that her only recourse is to victimise herself more shockingly than even her enemies can. And with her self-inflicted wounds she is supposed to win a kind of freedom.

We encounter the heroine at the inaugural moment of her first messy period and awkward bra. As a girl, Sadie is neglected by a moderately amiable mother and abused by a drunken stockbroker stepfather, Jock (Ms Bargate likes a meaningful name). Grown up, she is seduced and bullied into a septic abortion by her timid, clap-ridden fiancé Tim. He changes his mind, but too late: Sadie is sterile. Tim, now a selfish husband, knows this, but lets the ignorant heroine attend the infertility clinic for a year before some friendly lady gynaecologist breaks the male conspiracy of lies. Sadie’s rebellion is to fake cancer and have her left breast removed. The cruel inversion of male-pandering cosmetic surgery properly mortifies Tim, whom Sadie takes – wrongly, as a final irony reveals – to be having an affair with someone fertile. In all this, her only friend is Aunt Chris, a golden-hearted whore who commits suicide rather than submit to a total pelvic clearance.

This is not a subtle novel, either in theme or writing. As the title makes very clear, revenge is its main preoccupation – revenge, moreover, of a peculiarly nose-cutting, face-spiting kind. And it recalls, probably deliberately, other, less enlightened images of heroic feminine masochism such as, topically, the legendary bird in Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, who impales her breast on the thorn tree ‘and dying, rises above her own agony to out-carol the lark’. Sadie is a bird of a different feather; nor is her self-mutilation the mother-pelican’s emblematic tearing of the breast to feed an ungrateful brood. In Tit for Tat it is a bitter gesture whereby, anticipating womanhood’s inevitable horrors and persecutions, these can be mastered. Finally, divorced and breastless Sadie achieves what can be seen as one of the Amazonian ends of militant feminism – utter separation from the male sex and with it ‘a desolate sense of triumph’.

In one sense, like the fiction of Erica Jong, this novel trades on the post-Portnoy freedom to open up life’s dirty little secrets. It compares interestingly in this respect with the pre-Portnoy, and much more reserved, My friend says it’s bulletproof by Penelope Mortimer. But Tit for Tat has none of Roth’s or Jong’s jollity – the secrets are dirtier and much more frightening. Bargate’s narrative tone is traumatised and post-operative. What literary flourishes she offers are flattened by the awful obsession with what can happen to a woman: ‘I went over and put my arms round Chris, not wanting to squeeze her too hard in case cancer was like toothpaste in a sealed tube.’

The imbalance I find in the novel is that most frequently observed by my sex in tendentious feminist writings: are all men that bad? Jock and Tim are worse than even Victorian melodrama could make brutal male relatives. Male surgeons will cut off anything for money – especially if it’s attached to a woman. Male politicians are chauvinist hypocrites who do not even try to understand what a woman goes through. ‘Imagine,’ says Chris, ‘if they had periods. We’d have monthly Hiroshimas. We’d be on World War Six Hundred by now. My god, if men ovulated you could get abortions at the bus stop.’

Elaine Showalter discerns a law of three stages in women’s fiction. First is that in which the woman novelist simply mimics the dominant male practitioner – even to the length of calling herself George. Second is feminist fiction, where the strongest impulse is protest. Third comes ‘female’ writing, in which the main impulse is to investigate the condition of womanhood without any overt point-making. Bargate’s fiction is interestingly poised at the threshold of the last stage.

The title story in Fay Weldon’s collection, Watching Me, Watching You, is about a haunting. A not very potent ghost occupies a 130-year-old house in an area of Bristol recently gentrified. He entered on the shoulders of a luckless Victorian housemaid, who later hanged herself. A sleepy thing, the ghost manifests himself as a faint wall-stain, a draught fluttering the curtain, a twinge of fibrositis or a persistent cough. Without sympathy, or much interest, he observes the occupation of his territory by a writer and his other woman in 1965. The writer’s career is lucrative over the years, but artistically unfulfilling. By 1980, he has left the other woman for another woman. Former wife and recent discard set up a lesbian ménage in the house. The ghost watches and takes no sides.

It’s easy to conceive Weldon watching her world in the same indifferent manner as her ghost. Almost all these stories have victims for whom the professional hearts of Jill Tweedie, Evelyn Home or Marjorie Proops would bleed: battered, deserted, betrayed, childless wives abound. But the narrative records suffering without sympathy and with a possible faint sarcasm – though the aftertaste is hard to identify. In one of the stories, ‘Threnody’, a distraught wife of that unlucky name spills out everything to her inscrutable analyst over four years. During the therapy, she comes to terms with trauma in her past (nasty, incestuous rape), liberates herself sexual-politically, sets up in business, becomes a lesbian, faces bankruptcy, rediscovers heterosexuality in a bourgeois second marriage. The analyst’s final comment, the only interjection Threnody’s tumultuous monologue allows, is merely echoed at us:

So you see, Miss Jacobs, all is well. What did you say? Nothing is ever as good as one hopes or as bad as one fears? What a very sort of intermediate remark.

‘Intermediate’ is a useful term for understanding the impact of Weldon’s stories. Short in length and telegrammatic in presentation (the gaps on the page are often longer than the segments of text), they typically span wide stretches of time in which little achievements like marriage, sexual happiness or career success are scaled into insignificance. Thus in ‘Geoffrey and the Eskimo Child’, originally published in this journal, we trace in 18 pages the 18 years of Geoffrey and Tania’s marriage. In 1962 he gets an LSE first in the then fashionable social sciences. They marry, enter ‘caring’ professions, are trendy while the Sixties swing. They can’t have children. Then they do have children, and with a Vietnamese and an Eskimo adoptee find themselves with more children than they ever wanted. The Seventies are bleak. And in 1980, for no apparent reason, Geoffrey blows his head off, leaving Tania with six kids and the rent to pay. In this terse little story, and others in the volume, all those things on which Victorians liked triumphantly to finish novels – birth, marriage, job reward, domestic bliss – are reduced to conditions of mere intermediacy.

At times, Fay Weldon’s comedy can appear extremely mechanical. ‘Alopecia’ seems to me to invite this criticism. It opens with ‘It’s 1972’ (Weldon is fetishistic about dates) and with one woman claiming to be battered and scalped while an unsympathetic friend insists that it’s all hysteria and alopecia. (‘Fox mange; also baldness’, as the OED unflatteringly defines it.) The story ends with ‘It’s 1975’ and the originally unsympathetic friend now married to the scalper and batterer to receive in her turn the vindictive explanation ‘alopecia’ for her missing tufts. Groping rather desperately for Weldon’s heart, the blurb would have us see this story as a warning fable of what happens when sisterhood fails. It seems to me to be a prime example of Weldon’s impassive and handy-dandy view of human affairs.

For the lead piece in the collection Weldon offers something hitherto unpublished and somewhat untypical of her normal run, in that ‘Christmas Tree’ centres firmly on a man. We follow Brian’s career from the condition of engaged Sixties Northern dramatist to cushy, artistic degeneration in Seventies London. The overlaid image is that of the childhood Christmas tree, whose roots his parents used to keep fresh and alive in soil. In 1980, his creative sap dried up, Brian marries desperately into the Southern working classes. His wife is a vulgar former waitress, who wears a cerise nylon nightie trimmed with fawn nylon lace on their wedding night. The family, Brian discovers, customarily boil the roots of their Christmas tree to stop it growing.

Weldon’s fiction could easily tip into sententiousness, or even more easily into callousness. Her success lies in a consistent and carefully sustained poise. It comes off particularly well in this, her first collection of short stories. One could even go so far as to say that it comes off best in fiction of this length, and that Fay Weldon’s talent, like Ian McEwan’s, has been somewhat frustrated or diverted by there being so few current outlets for the ambitious short-story writer.

Keith Waterhouse’s new novel adds another to his gallery of engaging social inadequates like Jubb and Billy Fisher. It also neatly crosses his favourite Northern Midland hero with the up-to-the-minute London of his recently successful Office Life. Maggie Muggins: Or Spring in Earl’s Court gives us a day in the life of a bedsit-land drifter, on the dangerous edges of alcoholism and prostitution. Young Maggie wakes, hungover and amnesiac, in some man’s room. She spends the rest of the day on her ‘milk round’ – that is to say, collecting mail from the various rooms she’s rented since running away from Doncaster. An inveterate game-player, she gives these dreary habitations larky private names: Chateau Despair, Hotel Rat Trap, White Slave Towers. As it happens, Maggie Muggins is also a private name: Social Security know her as Margaret Moon.

There are two main events to Maggie’s day. She discovers that her queer playmate, Sean, has thrown himself under a train. He is, in the odd terminology of the LT billboard, ‘a body on the line’. And her father comes down from the North to tell her that he is remarrying and disowning her. Maggie’s past is disclosed in mournful flashbacks: it contains a pregnancy, a suicide attempt, a VD scare, an oafish seduction by the president of the ‘fuck of the month club’. Not much fun, as the late Wilfred Pickles would have said.

It has been observed that Waterhouse’s formula in fiction has been to imprison a child’s bright imagination in an adult’s dreary grownupness. As with Jubb, Billy or the younger hero of There is a happy land, Maggie has a rich compensatory private world. Theirs is sexual fantasy, self-aggrandising dreams and mimicry; Maggie’s release from mundane wretchedness is a suppressed volubility. Behind a taciturn exterior Maggie is for ever jabbering. So when her father asks the inevitable question about the baby, there are two levels of response:

  ‘What I can’t understand, Margaret, is why you didn’t come to me.’

  What, liked to have had a bash at a spot of midwifery, would you? Because you’re not a pigging miracle worker, that’s why I didn’t come to you, honey-child. Your intelligence isn’t superior to mine, I don’t go much on your judgment, your insight is non-existent, your powers of observation are somewhere around the level of Alfie’s mum’s, your maturity is suspect, your knowledge of the world is slight, in short you lack the necessary qualifications.

  ‘I don’t see what you could have done,’ said Maggie.

Eight flat spoken words to a lively hundred unspoken is the novel’s standard ratio.

Maggie’s private eloquence is an effective variation on Waterhouse’s routine. But the novel as a whole lacks climax and the heroine, for me, is less interesting than others of her kind whom the novelist has created. Jubb, interred in his vinyl wardrobe, can never return. But Billy Liar is surely due for a third appearance.

The critical anthology, Novelists on the Novel, begins with Tolstoy’s complaint that no one, asked if they could play the violin, would reply: ‘I don’t know, I’ve never tried.’ Yet everyone assumes that they could write a novel if they only had the leisure to do it. Eric Morecambe had the leisure to try his hand during convalescence from his recent heart attack. (He’s now sufficiently recovered to go back to his main line of business.) To judge by Mr Lonely, should he ever pick up a violin he’d be able to play it straight off at least as well as Jack Benny or Ted Ray. All of which is to say that Morecambe is no Tolstoy. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting first novel. The hero, Sid Lewis, is a comic, happily married but unable to resist a bit on the side. With his ‘Mr Lonely’ act he makes it to the top, all the way from the Pier End at Yarmouth to Las Vegas and best-ever 35 million ratings for his BBC Christmas Show (a record in fact held by Morecambe and Wise). Sid dies, at the height of his career, when a taxi bumps into him and drives two of the points of showbiz’s supreme ‘Star’ award through his heart. As Sid’s signature tune puts it: ‘Hey Mr Lone-ly, Why can’t you see, Suc-cess is no guar-an-tee.’

There’s plenty of scope here for Eric’s future psychobiographer. Eric Morecambe is not, like Sid Lewis, a solo, but half of a double act. Yet, as Conrad observes in Heart of Darkness, we die as we dream, alone. The thought may have occurred to the comedian-novelist that at death’s door he wasn’t, for once, dancing off into the blue with his little hairy-legged friend. That there are other provocative links between Eric and Sid is strongly suggested by various tricks in the novel. The author makes a personal, rather John Fowles-like, intervention in Chapter Seven, as the best man at Mr Lonely’s wedding. Reproduced photographs (from Morecambe’s ‘private collection’) show him in the wedding group (‘Eric and me, a lovely couple!’).

For the rest, Mr Lonely has, as one would expect, some good one-liners, some hilarious sex-on-the-side scenes and some corny mother-in-law and agent jokes: ‘My agent’s very unhappy. I’m getting 90 per cent of his salary.’ If Morecambe could get 35 million to read his book, he’d really be in business as a novelist.