Attercliffe

Nicholas Spice

  • Present Times by David Storey
    Cape, 270 pp, £8.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 224 02188 5
  • The Uses of Fiction: Essays on the Modern Novel in Honour of Arnold Kettle edited by Douglas Jefferson and Graham Martin
    Open University, 296 pp, £15.00, December 1982, ISBN 0 335 10181 X
  • The Hawthorn Goddess by Glyn Hughes
    Chatto, 232 pp, £8.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 7011 2818 6

In the press box of the Morristown football ground ‘the stockily-built, the tousled-haired, the pugnaciously-featured Attercliffe’ – 47 years old, father of five, separated from his wife – takes notes on the Saturday afternoon match. One eye on the game below, he chats to his fellow journalists: ‘the pug-nosed, the pug-eared Morgan’, Davidson-Smith (‘overcoated’, ‘deerstalker-hatted’) and Freddie Fredericks, Frank Attercliffe’s aging and alcoholic mentor, and co-author with him of Pindar’s Weekend Round-up, a sports column on the Northern Post. After the match, in the Buckingham Bar, Fredericks introduces Frank to Phyllis Gardner – eyes ‘long-lashed’, teeth ‘pearl-buttoned’ between ‘brightly-fashioned lips’. Phyllis is an actress, and Fredericks’s idea is that Attercliffe should interview her for the Northern Post. Maybe it’ll help him get interested in writing plays again. Maybe it’ll be the start of a new romance.

Dusk falls. Attercliffe goes home to his ‘four-bedroomed, one bathroomed, one living-roomed (dining-annexed), one-kitchened “executive” dwelling’ at 24 Walton Lane on the outskirts of Morristown. Through the window he sees Elise his eldest daughter washing her hair in the kitchen sink. He opens the front door. A figure darts out: ‘black-skinned, woolly-hatted, zip-jacketed, jeaned, it ran past him to the road.’ This is Benjie, delinquent boyfriend of Catherine, Frank’s second eldest daughter. Catherine is ‘pale-cheeked, slim-necked, broad-browed, sharp-nosed’ – ‘pugnaciously-featured’, in fact, like Attercliffe himself. Attercliffe and Catherine have an argument about Benjie. It is the first of several similar arguments. Next, Sheila, Attercliffe’s wife, arrives. For the past two and a half years she has been living with Maurice, ‘a thin-haired, harsh-featured’ car dealer and local tycoon. Recently, however, she has taken up with Gavin (‘slenderly-featured’ with ‘brown, black-lashed eyes’). She tells Attercliffe she is giving up Gavin and leaving Maurice. She is coming back to Walton Lane to live with her children and without Attercliffe. Attercliffe disagrees. They have an argument. It is the first of several similar arguments.

This, more or less, is how Present Times begins, and one thing very quickly becomes clear: David Storey likes compound adjectives. ‘Black-plasticated’, ‘red-track-suited’, ‘astrakhan-hatted’, ‘bushy-bearded’, ‘pugilistically-featured’, ‘dark-eyed’, ‘dark-glassed’, ‘denim-jacketed’, ‘twill-trousered’, ‘corduroy-skirted’, ‘acne-cheeked’, ‘spirallingly-convoluted’ – in the first eight pages of Present Times there are thirty of these hybrids, in the whole book, at a rough count, three hundred and thirty. Their presence in an otherwise sober and ascetic prose is dominating: for Storey’s medium is pen and ink, and this is chromatic vocabulary.

A structuralist might say that David Storey likes composite adjectives because his book is about a couple, and about their inability, despite poor odds, not to stick together. Here, repeatedly, at the level of the individual morpheme, the author’s subject is symbolically proclaimed. But the fact that they are compound is only an incidental feature of these words and the least interesting thing about them. The larger grammatical family to which they belong is typically represented by words which are not compound at all, like ‘jerseyed’, ‘jeaned’, ‘trousered’, ‘jumpered’ and ‘plimsolled’. In Present Times most of these past participle adjectives are used to describe people. Certain definite effects result from this. Sometimes, for example, they sound a mythic, primitive note, bringing to the kitchen sink a touch of the old heroic. This is clearest where they are combined with the definite article, recalling Homeric or Anglo-Saxon formulae: ‘the pug-nosed, the pug-eared Morgan’, ‘the bushy-bearded Walters’ and so on. More fundamentally, however, they reflect an essentialist, non-analytic view of the world. If we describe a man as astrakhan-hatted rather than as wearing an astrakhan hat, we are introducing an inescapable necessity into the bond between man and hat. Similarly, in the phrase ‘Morgan looked up, dark-glassed’ Morgan has been fixed in a finite and unalterable state of being, whereas ‘Morgan, who was wearing dark glasses, looked up’ leaves Morgan the option, among other things, of not having to wear dark glasses. Both the astrakhan-hatted man and Morgan the dark-glassed have lost part of their integrity to an extraneous attribute. They are no longer free to be just themselves.

Not being free to be just themselves is what the women in Attercliffe’s life chiefly complain about. Sometimes it is men in general that they blame: ‘Women are encouraged to strike out for themselves, and all they strike out for is something that men have prescribed for them already,’ reflects Sheila. Sometimes it is Attercliffe in particular: ‘You can’t see her as a person,’ complains Elise of her father’s attitude towards his wife. Attercliffe meanwhile is fair to everyone: ‘I’m not asking you to have anything less than what I’m hoping to have myself,’ ‘All I want is the best for all of us,’ ‘I’m trying to keep an open mind’ – are typical of his relentlessly fair-minded refrain. It is a measure of the subtlety with which Storey conducts the narrative of Present Times that we come in the course of the book fundamentally to question the value of Attercliffe’s justness, and to understand it in part as the strategy of domination the women feel it to be. Within this inconspicuous and unsign-posted process, those numerous participle adjectives acquire an important structural function. The narrative perspective of the book is so aligned that we soon attribute this singular descriptive habit and the point of view it expresses – essentialist and prejudicial – not to David Storey, but to Frank Attercliffe, his chief character.

The representational mode of Present Times lies somewhere between first and third-person narrative, allowing Storey all the flexibility he needs to pursue his wonted and familiar objective: the revelation of character, not so much through action and introspection as through dialogue and dialectic. Certain things, of course, do happen in the book, and others don’t: Attercliffe writes a successful play, but doesn’t take up with Phyllis, Fredericks dies of cancer, Cathy leaves home to live in a squat, and Sheila manages through spirited perseverance to get her foot back in the door of Walton Lane. But the action of Present Times seems to be there less for itself than for the opportunity it provides for dialogue, and the book does not develop organically but through a string of set-piece arguments, mutual animadversions on a range of contemporary themes: Attercliffe and Catherine on colour and society, Attercliffe and Elise on love and human egotism, Attercliffe and Sheila on women’s rights, Attercliffe and Catherine on Sheila’s rights, Attercliffe and his son’s headmaster on the proper aims of education, and so on. These are linked and articulated by short descriptive bridge passages, the whole procedure having obvious affinities with film and television.

As universal cameraman (deus cum machina), Storey affects a documentary detachment from the encounters he records, leaving the interpretation of long stretches of dialogue to the reader. This is clever, because it draws the reader into the polemic fray. You cannot read Storey’s dialogue without making inadvertent choices about emphasis and intonation, without in fact betraying your own prejudices and imposing your own projections. Depending on whether you are a man or a woman, you will hear these dialogues differently. Nevertheless, the balance of narrative power in Present Times is by no means evenly distributed. Attercliffe is the only character present in every scene of the book and the only character privileged to observe and reflect upon his surroundings. Apparently, this gives him a major advantage in the contest for the reader’s sympathies, to which must be added the considerable charm Storey grants to his personality: strong, silent, laconic, deadpan. Compared with others in the book, Attercliffe says little and does less. Most of the good lines and all the style go to him. But if, superficially, it seems that Attercliffe is the suffering male, patiently putting up with the barrage of feminist claptrap and sixth-form sociology his wife and daughters assault him with, the final impression is altogether more ambiguous. For it is precisely because Present Times is Attercliffe-centred that we come to understand the point the women are trying to make: the world revolves around men, and women are flung to the periphery. Simply by being men, men dominate. As the novel progresses, our criticism shifts to Attercliffe. We grow impatient with his right-mindedness, weary of his even temper, frustrated at the way he returns every confrontation and conflict back to zero. ‘All I’ve done is to accommodate the wishes of everyone around me,’ he says towards the end of the book. And, in so saying, says it all.

Frank Attercliffe’s play is called Players, and is set in a changing-room, and has a cast of 22. ‘What I like about the part,’ says Felix, one of the actors, ‘is the way it shows up the man for what he is.’ If these are overt signals for us to consider Attercliffe’s relation to his creator, then nothing in the rest of the book contradicts the relevance of making such a link. Indeed, anyone interested in the way artists turn themselves inside out in their works, fashioning palpable worlds out of the stuff of their lives and psyches, will find Present Times an intriguing book. It is this aspect of Storey’s work that chiefly fascinates David Craig in an illuminating essay called ‘David Storey’s Vision of the Working Class’, which appears in The Uses of Fiction, a festschrift in honour of Arnold Kettle, who retired from the Chair of Literature in the Open University in 1981. The essays divide up roughly into three groups: discussions on the theory of representation, essays on the African and Commonwealth novel, and studies of individual 20th century novelists. Of the latter, I particularly liked the essay by Alistair Stead on the art of naming in the fiction of Henry Green.

Glyn Hughes’s creative personality contrasts sharply with David Storey’s. Where Storey draws his imaginative sustenance from what’s under his nose, and achieves his subtlest effects through a notation of the banal which salvages our most routine acts from oblivion, Hughes feeds off visions of the distant past, and attempts to give substance in flesh and blood to what he takes to be the fundamental principles of our being. Like his first novel, Where I used to play on the green,[*] The Hawthorn Goddess is set in the 18th century, this time in a village called Lady Well, a small community of weavers tucked away on the Yorkshire moors.

‘ “Go fuck your sheep!” the virgin yelled and set off running again.’ Thus Anne Wylde, ‘the ’Awthorn Maiden’, in spirited defiance of Amos Culpin, Jabez Stott, Joshua Binns and divers others of the Lady Well rabble, as they chase her through the early pages of this curious historical fantasy, hurling stones at her and abusing her for drying up their cows, striking their dogs blind and generally polluting their puritanical souls. Anne takes refuge in the village schoolroom, where the Rev. Doubtfire, village parson and necrophile virtuoso, persuades her to flagellate him with the school birch. After this, she returns home to her father, a stonemason and freethinker, given overmuch to reading Deists and French philosophers, and responsible for educating Anne beyond a point many think good for her. In an effort to lift Anne out of her invidious situation as village witch, John Wylde fixes her up with a job at Making Hall, the home of Benjamin Greave, leading cloth merchant in the Lady Well district. At Making Hall Anne meets Oliver, the boss’s son, and they fall in love. The rest of the book is devoted to the story of their ill-starred affair as it develops and declines against a background of deepening crisis in the fortunes of the community.

The Hawthorn Goddess is a book of powerful imagination and weak intellect. Individual scenes bring a strange and distant world directly before the eye. A prodigal sensitivity transfixes nature on page after page. But the grand polemic design to which these incidental beauties are subordinated is flabbily conceived and incoherently worked out. Hughes’s historical imagination is most keenly aroused in the treatment of the bizarre and the grotesque. The saturnalian debauch in which Anne Wylde is burnt in effigy and then raped by a band of mummers is realised with a satiric savagery reminiscent of Bosch or Bruegel. This is indeed a hideous world – of vomiting peasants and eggs that rush about on legs, of the invisible worm that flies in the night and piglets suckled at the breasts of women. In the last pages of the book Hughes’s eschatological hyperbole achieves its climactic expression. Doubtfire, crazed and alcoholic, has abandoned his religious duties to perform autopsies on the Lady Well dead. In disgust at the inveterate paganism of his congregation he first closes his church, then smashes it up, and finally burns it down: ‘Soon people were running back and forth, outlined against the Fire like wiry black flies squirming in Pain. Miserable, ignorant Creatures! It was as if the Lord held them with Tweezers and was dipping them in the flames of Hell.’ Against the lurid glow cast upon the evening sky by this millennial blaze the novel comes to its haunted and nightmarish close.

At the other end of Glyn Hughes’s poetic palette lie his descriptions of the natural environment: ‘the true thaw came, but did not change the silence, for it arrived as a moist warm fog, like piles of wool before it is spun,’ ‘A flock of larks twisted and skimmed over the slopes, their backs gleaming like fragments of glass, as if some brightness up there had been shattered and pieces of mirror were cascading, enjoying their descendings.’ Part of the quality of this kind of writing is an impassioned naivety and an absence of irony. The line it treads between innocence and mawkishness, freshness and sentimentality, can be a fine one. Hughes crosses it embarrassingly when he extends his metaphoric innocences to the description of sex: ‘ “Oh ... oh ... ” she murmured; ... Whilst Oliver entered through that bushy door into that familiar room paved with gold and precious stones, fountains playing, that was like a vision by a saint or a martyr.’ This alerts us to the pulpy side of Glyn Hughes’s sensibility.

‘Women have no life except as a function of male fantasy,’ says Elise Attercliffe to her father. Anne Wylde would sympathise. ‘Why cannot I be just a woman?’ she wails, but her cry is drowned out by the chorus of voices declaring she can be anything but just that. Chief among the fantasists is the author himself, who, when he is not using Oliver Greave as his mouthpiece, is baroque in his elaboration of Anne Wylde’s symbolic significance. For Hughes (who seems to have studied his Robert Graves particularly thoroughly) Anne is nothing less than Nature, the feminine principle made flesh, and he enlists her in this role to lead a sustained attack on what he takes to be the male principle made flesh, or science, technology, trade, the Protestant religion (patriarchal, anti-Marian), and the ethic of progress. The result is not a debate but a manifesto, an imaginative rewriting of history to legitimate the aspirations of late 20th-century Greenism.

In pursuit of this tired and unrevealing theme Hughes loses his two main characters, Anne and Oliver. Their functions in the book’s plan are too precious to the author for him to allow them to have independent life as individuals, although he does his best to will that life upon them. It is typical of Hughes’s manner of imposing significance upon these two characters that he should cause Oliver to experience Anne as a Jungian Anima. And while he hopefully calls Oliver ‘this man of complicated thoughts’, the reader encounters him as a stereotype of the Romantic aesthete, fully equipped with the regulation gear of the pale youth palely loitering: memories of a trip to Greece, a smattering of Young’s Night Thoughts, a foetal poetic genius, a violin, a weak physique and a boorish businessman for a father. Anne, on the other hand, has an impossible versatility demanded of her. Fertility goddess and gangly peasant girl, model housekeeper and languishing country lady, business woman and intellectual, there’s nothing she doesn’t at one point or another in this novel have to be. ‘This apparently bold, but in truth deeply shy creature’ has at one moment to patronise the poor like any good Sloane Ranger (‘I think that what you weavers make is the most beautiful art and shouldn’t be rewarded with poverty’), and at the next to give vent to an eldritch outburst straight off the sound-track of a Hammer Horror movie. Not surprisingly, she suffers an identity crisis, though even this seems handed out to her by her creator: ‘I do not think I am of this world ... I am from somewhere else, I do not know why I am here, and I do not like it.’ Nor, at that point, do we.

[*] A paperback edition was published on 26 April by Penguin (192 pp., £2.50, 0 14 00 6844 9).