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.

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