Speaking for England

Patrick Parrinder

  • The Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble
    Weidenfeld, 396 pp, £10.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 297 79095 1
  • Change by Maureen Duffy
    Methuen, 224 pp, £10.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 413 57640 X
  • Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
    Deutsch, 208 pp, £9.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 233 98107 1
  • The Maid of Buttermere by Melvyn Bragg
    Hodder, 415 pp, £10.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 340 40173 7
  • Stray by A.N. Wilson
    Walker, 175 pp, £8.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 7445 0801 0

Here is the note of a quite distinctive sort of English novelist:

Not everybody in Britain on that night in November was alone, incapacitated, or in gaol. Nevertheless, over the country depression lay like fog, which was just about all that was missing to lower spirits even further, and there was even a little of that in East Anglia. All over the nation, families who had listened to the news looked at one another and said, ‘Goodness me,’ or ‘Whatever next,’ or ‘I give up,’ or ‘Well, fuck that,’ before embarking on an evening’s viewing of colour television, or a large hot meal, or a trip to the pub, or a choral society evening. All over the country, people blamed other people for all the things that were going wrong – the trades unions, the present government, the miners, the car workers, the seamen, the Arabs, the Irish, their own husbands, their own wives, their own idle good-for-nothing offspring, comprehensive education. Nobody knew whose fault it really was, but most people managed to complain fairly forcefully about somebody: only a few were stunned into honourable silence.

That was The Ice Age (1977), but there are very similar passages in The Radiant Way. Margaret Drabble’s later novels are settled, capacious, Condition-of-England chronicles, prolonged ruminations on the way we live now. Echoes of the classic novelists are much in evidence. There is an abundance of lists of small facts and of local colour, and yet a slight fuzziness in the colour. We hear of people saying ‘Well, fuck that’ in front of their television sets, but we can’t actually hear those people – hear, that is, which of the three or four possible meanings they are giving to the phrase. And why is the value of ‘honourable silence’ finally offered, in this passage, with such evident approval? If silence is a sign of superiority, how can it be that the subdued mockery and brittle, hectic tone of this narrative are felt to be able to ‘speak for England’ and say it for all of us?

The central characters of The Radiant Way are three women: women who, ‘it will readily and perhaps with some irritation be perceived, were amongst the crème de la crème of their generation’. (We are duly irritated, but of course we read on.) The three women are Cambridge-educated, professionally active, and in their mid-forties. One is single, one is happily married, and one is on the threshold of marital breakdown at the time when the novel opens. It is the evening of 31 December 1979, and we are to be present at a fashionable New Year’s Eve party in Harley Street. Besides the main characters and their partners and close friends, the guest-list includes a number of walk-on players, one or two thinly-disguised historical personages, and the odd hanger-on from an earlier Drabble novel. ‘The house was full of trend-spotters,’ writes the author, attempting to explain what it is these people have in common. Trend-spotting is the occupation of the crème de la crème. Two of our three women, Liz Headleand and Alix Bowen, are superior trend-spotters, being earnestly concerned (like their creator) with making sense of the society in which they live. ‘What was going on, behind those closed curtains? Were people peacefully frying up potatoes, or were they hitting one another on the head with their frying pans?’ Alix asks herself as she drives to work on New Year’s Day.

Both Liz and Alix belong to the caring professions. The one is a psychotherapist, the other a teacher employed part-time at a women’s remand centre. Caring for others, they are inclined to neglect themselves. Esther Breuer, the third of Drabble’s women, is an art historian whose preference for remaining on the sidelines of experience amounts to full-scale emotional withdrawal. Her detachment seems more perilous than her friends’. She has a lover who is a satanist, she shares a house with a young man who will be exposed as a mass murderer, and yet she comes untouched through it all.

The answer to the frying-pan question is that people are hitting one another over the head, or worse, and some who aren’t perhaps ought to be. This is what Drabble calls the ‘spirit of 1980’, a spirit which, however, you don’t need to see behind curtains to be able to discern. In England in 1980 innocence and idealism are things of the past, factories face bankruptcy and closure, and violence and social division are on the increase. British society is seen to have abandoned ‘the radiant way’, a title which sums up the welfare-state optimism of earlier decades. The Radiant Way was the title of a child’s reading primer, and then of a television series portraying the diversity of the British educational system. Now the assumption that individual and social salvation could be pursued in harmony with one another looks distinctly outmoded, a diehard, not an avant-garde attitude.

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