End of the Century

John Sutherland

  • Worlds Apart by David Holbrook
    Hale, 205 pp, £10.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 7090 3363 X
  • Story of My Life by Jay McInerney
    Bloomsbury, 188 pp, £11.95, August 1988, ISBN 0 7475 0180 7
  • Forgotten Life by Brian Aldiss
    Gollancz, 284 pp, £11.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 575 04369 5
  • Incline Our hearts by A.N. Wilson
    Hamish Hamilton, 250 pp, £11.95, August 1988, ISBN 0 241 12256 2

It would be interesting to place Jay McInerney and David Holbrook as neighbours at E.M. Forster’s imaginary table. Both novelists are fascinated by decadence – that much they have in common. But their diagnoses and anatomies of the decadent condition are quite different; worlds apart, to use Holbrook’s dominant image. For him, the present rot can be traced directly to the 1960s: specifically to Richard Neville’s Play Power, with its demonic slogan ‘the weapons of revolution are obscenity, blasphemy and drugs.’ Holbrook still sees that era – which began with the 1960 Lady Chatterley acquittal and ended with the Gay News prosecution in 1976 – as England’s dark age. ‘Permissive’ and ‘alternative’ remain the dirtiest words in his lexicon; his black beast is dressed in soiled denim, ornamented with hand-crafted jewellery, has long, unkempt hair, chants ‘we shall overcome,’ or ‘Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?’ and trails a ‘sickly haze of pot smoke’. The fact that hippies are – like the superannuated Neil in The Young Ones – no longer the force they were does not pacify Holbrook. The poison is still coursing deep in England’s veins.

McInerney (who was five years old in 1960) is the leading connoisseur with Bret Easton Ellis (who was not born in 1960) of a Nineties decadent chic. It’s that time of the century again, and McInerney’s style here and in his earlier bestseller Bright Lights, Big City is strikingly similar to 1890s Fin de Siècle, if one replaces absinthe with cocaine, green daffodils and velvet with leather skirts from Fiorucci and Kamali silk tops, Paris with Manhattan or Los Angeles. McInerney’s decadents wear designer clothes. They run up monthly phone bills of 1300 dollars and daily coke bills that are scarcely smaller. They live on trust funds, allowances from their divorced parents and American Express gold cards which are transparent from being pushed through the versatel so often. Holbrook hates his decadence, with all the pinched earnestness of a bred-in-the-bone Leavisite. McInerney has a more complex attitude to his depraved children, admiring their style while lamenting the butterfly shortness of their golden lives.

Holbrook has been saying the same things so long, so often and so loudly that it is easy to forget that he is an accomplished poet and novelist. Not coincidentally, these are the genres which lend themselves least readily to propaganda. Worlds Apart is not, I think, as good as Flesh Wounds, the novel which recalls Holbrook’s experiences as a tank commander in the Normandy Invasion. For one thing, he adopts the Lawrentian device of a palpitatingly sensitive heroine. This has risks for the male writer. ‘Creating’ women is a tricky psychological operation. For another, the matter of Worlds Apart is slight – too slight, probably, for the weight of the cultural message.

Holbrook’s heroine, Anthea Markham, is a ‘born’ schoolteacher, possessed of an intuitive ability to communicate with young children. This gift is the outcome of the ‘richly imaginative experiences’ stored from her own childhood. For Holbrook, health is as much a transmitted thing as disease. The author’s academic hobbyhorses are fairly well reined in, but in analysing the tip-top conditions of Anthea’s imagoes he lets fly with a familiar volley of references to Jung, Winnicott and Melanie Klein, reminding us briefly of what a bore he can be on these subjects, vitally important as they are.

Drawing on her classroom experiences, Anthea writes a treatise, ‘Symbolism and Meaning in Small Children’. It expresses her conviction that children can best be educated by releasing their creativity. All children, not just the swots, should be encouraged to appreciate poetry by writing poetry; to appreciate art by painting. The doctrine is progressive but not ‘anarchic’, not inhumane. It is not, that is, to be confused with the evil progressivism of the Little Red Schoolbook, with its instructions to the child on drug-taking, and the therapeutic use of porn and oral sex.

One has to equate Anthea’s book with Holbrook’s own English for the Rejected (1964), a work which significantly influenced primary-school teaching in this country. Anthea receives an enthusiastic review by ‘Hogwood’ in the New Statesman. (It did occur to me to wonder whether Hoggart had reviewed Holbrook.) On the strength of her new fame, she is invited to lecture to educationists in Australia (as, coincidentally, was Holbrook in 1969). It being the Sixties, the trip involves a long return voyage by ocean steamer, the Oriana. Before leaving, Anthea becomes engaged rather prematurely, as she fears, to a dessicated science teacher, with whom she has ‘tremendous rows about her progressive approaches to teaching’. Peter’s Benthamite training has rendered him ‘traditional ... conformist ... reductionist ... mechanist’ (another lexicon of Holbrookian dirty words). Psychologically Peter has ‘buried the boy within him, very deep’. His imagoes are in bad shape.

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