Scenes from British Life

Hugh Barnes

  • Stroke Counterstroke by William Camp
    Joseph, 190 pp, £9.95, January 1986, ISBN 0 7181 2669 6
  • Redhill Rococo by Shena Mackay
    Heinemann, 171 pp, £9.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 434 44046 9
  • Striker by Michael Irwin
    Deutsch, 231 pp, £8.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 233 97792 9

The instruments agree that Britain is running down, getting seedy or seedier. The novels under review pay tribute to our decline. They also find evidence of it in unlikely places. The most likely place, of course, is Whitehall and William Camp discovers rot setting in there or already set in: the unions hold the country to ransom, a handful of businessmen make a profit out of hard times, and politicians fall over backwards, sometimes literally, to disgrace themselves. Hooliganism masquerades as authority. Such a discovery, however, doesn’t surprise us any more. It wasn’t even surprising thirty years ago when made by a novelist who had no sense of humour. C.P. Snow’s Corridors of Power is a chore to read now, at least as far as the young are concerned. They don’t care very much that it struck a chord among a mandarin élite which was rapidly becoming disillusioned. Nevertheless, in the course of that novel Snow has Lewis Eliot observe usefully: ‘Countries, when their power is slipping away, are always liable to do idiotic things. So are social classes.’

Redhill Rococo and Striker offer something in the way of light relief. Idiocy has filtered down and its symptoms are diagnosed within all classes, in the country’s life at large. The world inhabited by Shena Mackay’s characters is certainly less rarified than either Camp’s or Snow’s. But it is still recognisably the doldrums. A suburban farce unfolds, full of gloomy jokes about disorder and bending the law – played out against a backdrop of sad newspaper hoardings: ‘Surrey Mirror: CO-OP RAIDED: NOTHING TAKEN.’ Mackay’s study of detritus suggests that, although the present’s bad enough, the future looks infinitely bleak. If the slump in the Home Counties continues, local residents will soon be encouraged to devote more time and seriousness to their leisure. It sounds a bit like conscription, but at least they will be able to enjoy themselves and to follow football. In this light Striker’s revelation of the sickness afflicting soccer seems particularly unfortunate. The sporting life has its own seediness, according to Michael Irwin whose footballer Vince Gilpin is another representative hero. Vince displays a wild temperament at times, and an ambitious nature that can leap over itself, as it does finally in his fall from grace. But his hooliganism, unlike that of William Camp’s Secretary of State, is restricted to the sex-and-violence variety.

The peculiar difficulty in writing a novel about Parliament relates to the characters’ credibility. Trouble begins, as John Lehmann once pointed out, when the author feels obliged to introduce a high-ranking minister. The real-life holders of office are too vividly before our eyes. Camp surmounts this problem by avoiding it. He opts instead for a recent past in industrial relations. Although he ascribes no date to events in the novel, the Preservatives are in opposition. The anonymous government party, albeit in a lapsed state, still proclaims itself the champion of organised labour. BHM, a minor nationalised company, has been faring badly. The workers are threatening to strike. Meanwhile the Prime Minister, a detached but avuncular figure, gets old and ready to retire. Notice of his intentions concentrates the minds of his Cabinet wonderfully. Its members pass up shop-floor unrest in favour of jockeying for succession.

Peccadilloes bulk large in fiction about government. And scandal becomes a standard metaphorical device, a kind of shorthand whereby bankruptcy in public life is spuriously suggested by a hint of grubbiness elsewhere. Perhaps its incidence in party political novels owes something to the example of politicians who have emulated the fiction and turned it into fact. Richard Crossman touched upon the subject once. At the end of his first day as Harold Wilson’s Minister of Housing in 1964, he confided in his diary: ‘I continue to have this curious sense of fiction, the feeling that I am living in a Maurice Edelman novel.’ To be fair, Crossman’s unreality stemmed from the novelty of ministerial responsibility after the long years in opposition. Others must have experienced a similar sensation, for different and sometimes less agreeable reasons. Various indiscretions cast a shadow over events in Stroke Counterstroke which would have been a weightier work without its assorted titillation. It would also have been less fun.

The chairman of BHM, Desmond Goodley, has much to worry about besides Whitehall, whose minions plan to dump him soon. His deputy arranges assignations in the boardroom, which is inconvenient. And his son stands trial on a drugs charge. Having been apprehended outside a notorious house in Mayfair with a despatch-box full of the weed, Stephen gets off with a suspended sentence because the judge also patronises Venus Black’s and remembers him from the Orgy Room. Irwin Gance, another habitué of the Room, is hired by the minister in charge, Robert Loyd, to ‘rationalise’ BHM’s personnel, in return for financial contributions to his leadership bid. Loyd shows signs of being unstoppable. His retainers are particularly fiercesome. Geraldine, who recalls a famous member of Harold Wilson’s entourage, causes tongues to wag, fixing scenes from behind them. Newly-recruited to the team is Bernard Dworfmann, in charge of the press corps at Number 10 until his yearning for a knighthood distracted him. He, too, seems familiar.

Stroke Counterstroke delights in procedure which is abundant whenever civil servants take charge. Camp parodies bureaucracy with obvious affection, in the gentle manner of Yes, Minister. Like Sir Humphrey in the television programme, Simon Goldstone fears action might prove ‘counter-productive’ – an odd word to choose since there isn’t any productivity to be countered. Likewise Camp’s politicians are united by suspicion of altruism or crusades. They also exhibit a paradoxical dislike for politics. And Loyd speaks for a general persuasion: ‘Anyway I do have views. I hate the Preservatives.’ The Preservatives, however, lie low for the duration, emerging untarnished at the end. It would seem reasonable to suggest that their conspicuous absence from Camp’s series of disasters renders the novel sympathetic to a Thatcherite reading, but this is not so. Stroke Counterstroke presents a Whitehall farce characteristic of Labour. It also details farcical neglect. But any poignancy the novel has derives from hindsight and from an implicit reference to what neglect allowed to happen.

Redhill Rococo experiments in a little-known genre: the ‘Condition of Surrey’ novel. The main feature of the style is the barrage of acronyms and initials facing the reader: DHSS, YTS, HMP, C of E, WPC, SDP; even UCCA plays a part and among vegetarians B12 gets an honourable mention. At PTA meetings mothers abbreviate each other blithely, into Mrs H-J or Mrs S; and trendy Christians daub their surroundings – a Ricky Nelson poster comes in for special punishment, a macabre touch – with the graffito ‘GOD RULES OK.’ You get from the novel what you don’t expect: Pearl Slattery (Mrs S) strikes a radical blow against the State. Towards the end she turns up for work at Snashfold’s Sweet Factory to find locked gates and sleeping machinery. It is suggested that the plant has shut down due to the recession: a nail-file in the butterscotch and a plaster in the Jelly Teddies can’t have helped. Anxious about the upkeep of her family, about her son’s unpunctuality on his Youth Training Scheme and about her daughter who has eloped with the Bible-punchers, Pearl opts to go out in a blaze of glory – or rather a shop steward takes that option for her. Her arrest for criminal damage to Snashfold’s property equips her neighbours with an unfamiliar item of conversation – martyrdom to class struggle.

Mackay excels at a comedy of self-abasement, intermittently deprecating and cruel. But unhappily she has a propensity for overkill. Bad jokes sneak in and the insubstantial narrative indicates weakness. Pearl’s lodger attempts to seduce her but in vain, despite a liberal sprinkling of love-potion (purchased from Redhill’s obeah man) in her Horlicks. The Slattery children gesture at rebellion or disappoint, and a climax that involves Pearl escaping in a Range Rover seems relatively pointless. At other times Mackay shows herself to be susceptible to patches of purple prose concerning liberation. In this context such an idea, although she milks it for a laugh or two, appears whimsical and out of place.

The Football League poses the same problem to a novelist as Parliamentary affairs. Who are imaginary soccer stars to play for and against, for instance? Michael Irwin departs from the example of Brian Glanville, whose Goalkeepers are different provides him, in other respects, with a working model. Whereas Ronnie, the hero of the Glanville story, parries shots from the boots of footballing legends, Irwin’s centre-forwards and backs are all inventions. Vince Gilpin’s meteoric rise in Striker brings him a Championship medal and a Cup Final appearance at Wembley. Both seem far removed from the factory in the East End where he started out and from the mundane lives of his peer group. Vince tells a Boy’s Own success story of sorts, or, more accurately, offers an object lesson in how to leave the grind behind. But Irwin’s finest achievement is to question, by means of his graceful description of disgrace, the appropriateness of such a fable in a rundown country. He manages to incorporate into his story both the hardship and the jubilation of Vince’s career: injuries, managers’ patronage, a yellow press and the warm glow of meaningful contact with the ball. Vince describes his talent for the game as if it were unconscious, having to do with instinct.