Kinsfolk

D.A.N. Jones

  • A Sort of Clowning: Life and Times, 1940-59 by Richard Hoggart
    Chatto, 225 pp, £14.95, June 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3607 3
  • Tilting at Don Quixote by Nicholas Wollaston
    Deutsch, 314 pp, £14.95, June 1990, ISBN 0 233 98551 4
  • Finger Lickin’ Good: A Kentucky Childhood by Paul Levy
    Chatto, 202 pp, £13.95, May 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3521 2
  • How Many Miles to Babylon? by Adewale Maja-Pearce
    Heinemann, 154 pp, £13.95, June 1990, ISBN 0 434 44172 4

Men who get their memoirs published are generally confident enough to report, gleefully, their victories over particular opponents, and to try to explain any defeats. There is another sort of memoir in which the author tells how he has failed to fit in, or slot in, or lock in, to something called ‘society’, how he has been made to feel an outsider, a fish out of water, an oddball. All four of these books tend to the latter sort. Adewale Maja-Pearce has strong grounds for taking this line: he is an English-born novelist, the son of a Nigerian father and a Scottish mother. In How many miles to Babylon? he tells us that he came home from his London school complaining that the other children called him a wog: his Scottish grandmother gave him the well-meant, useless advice that he should tell his schoolfellows that the word meant ‘gentleman’. He published another memoir in 1987, In My Father’s Country: as an adult visiting Nigeria, he had been harassed by the African children chanting Oyinbo! – which means, roughly, ‘Paleface!’

Paul Levy’s experience, recorded in Finger Lickin’ Good, is not wholly dissimilar. He is food correspondent for the Observer and has written scholarly books about Bloomsbury people: we might suppose him to be British-born, but he was raised in Kentucky, the child of Russian Jews. There is a photograph of the young Levy with his great-grandfather, a sacred scribe, a beautiful, bearded patriarch, not looking All-American. Kinsfolk might be Kentucky colonels (like finger-lickin’ Colonel Sanders) but society in Lexington, Kentucky did not wholeheartedly accept the Levys. Clubs and restaurants were often ‘restricted’ – which meant that Jews were conscientiously excluded. His book is lightly written, but reveals that he has consulted an analyst, a Dr Kavka.

It might be supposed that Nicholas Wollaston has escaped such conflicts with society. He has written admired novels and travel books since his education at Winchester and King’s College, Cambridge, where his father, a celebrated explorer, was a tutor. In the wartime Navy, his officer-like qualities, his OLQ, were favourably remarked. However, Tilting at Don Quixote is a desperate sort of memoir, sometimes almost distraught. Wollaston has long been haunted by a remark from his Winchester schoolmaster, suggesting that it was impossible for him to be ‘slotted in’, like other Wykehamists. He is still made uneasy by schools and by OLQ. As for Cambridge, that was where his distinguished father ‘made news’, getting murdered by a wild undergraduate. Very bad things have happened to Wollaston and his family. His bold travelling is presented, in Graham Greene’s phrase, as ‘ways of escape’ – escape from society.

Finally (and to be taken foremost) is A Sort of Clowning by Richard Hoggart, perhaps the most usefully class-conscious English writer of our time. He created an accepted general idea of the British ‘working class’ in 1957, with The Uses of Literacy. He developed his concept, most recently, in his memoir, A Local Habitation, recording his life from 1918 to 1940: in this sequel, going from 1940 to 1959, he tells of his war-time military service and his post-war academic life. A characteristic sentence records his feelings as he went home on leave, the first army officer in his extended family: ‘It had been odd to sit on a Leeds tram in a Cockburn High School cap: it was odder to do so in an officer’s outfit ... feeling like a budgie on display after it had successfully mounted the little ladders in its cage.’

His famous book was originally called The Abuses of Literacy. His publishers showed it to a libel lawyer, who advised them that it was extremely dangerous. To avoid the danger, Hoggart changed Abuses to Uses and removed his quotation from ‘the sex-and-violence literature’ of James Hadley Chase and Ian Fleming: he substituted writing of his own, not guying these offensive writers, but carefully imitating them, in pastiches which few recognised to be imitation – since Hoggart’s point was, partly, that such writers have power and skill. Hoggart is an artful writer: explaining why he has not called his books autobiography or memoir, he offers a nice parody of warm-hearted autobiographical writing with no point – ‘my mother turning on the back-kitchen tap to fill the kettle for tea, the tragic plover’s cry of a footballing boy two streets off ... I would then, as like as not, hear my father’s solid chargehand’s tread and decent low voice as he rounded the corner with his workmate, John Armitage ...’ The parody seems to invite a warm-hearted review. What is wrong with it? The serious Hoggart snaps: ‘Epithets are used for their likely effect on the reader, not to catch the nature of what is being described.’ Such books are no use, with stories going nowhere: ‘their only principle of form and order is the simple succession of the years and of the racy events within them.’

This final chapter, explaining what he is trying to do in writing a ‘life and times’ (not memoirs or autobiography) is important for anyone trying to evaluate his book – and the three others under review. There is the problem of writing about one’s own family: most people – not all of them, as he is quick to point out, members of the working class – resent being reduced to types illustrating a general theory or pattern in a kinsman’s book. He is aware of the temptation to be boastful, even when offering apparent self-criticism. When he sits down to tap his memory, a flood of images rolls out: he must select the incidents that are ‘telling’, that fit into the author’s pattern, still being aware that readers may detect a different pattern, quite unintended. There must be a sort of chronological thread to this ‘life and times’ since he wants to present the story as being typical or ‘exemplary’, showing ‘the movement of a certain time in provincial England from a poor working-class home to a classless professionalism, which one has to call in some respects middle-class’. Yet the nature of his task strengthens his sympathy for Eliot’s metaphysical line – ‘If all time is eternally present ...’

The concept of ‘class’ keeps his feet on the ground. His exciting wartime career in a heavy ack-ack unit, in Italy and North Africa, showed him how the Armed Services reinforced the class-determined, three-tiered definition of British life. He seems rather pleased to note how un-smart (in class terms) was his heavy ack-ack unit – and how well they did. Later, teaching adults in a university extramural department, he observes that this work seemed to most professional people ‘a sub-fusc byway, the academic equivalent of heavy ack-ack regiments’. He entered the Hull extramural department in the Forties, remarking now that the enterprise of that time would be ‘hardly thinkable in the late Eighties’, being ‘against everything universities are now supposed to stand for and that government favours’. His bitter experience of government intervention came in the early Eighties with the first Thatcher government. Henceforth, working-class people would be encouraged to ‘stay as sweet as they are – so that they would remain fodder for the usual unholy trio: the popular press, the more populist politicians and the admen’. It is good to be reminded of this indignant style of discourse.

Nicholas Wollaston has arranged his life-story in a more obviously complicated way, as if to half-conceal truths or pretend they are poetic fiction. Apparently, he was born in 1926, his father was murdered in 1930 and his mother died in 1943, when he was 16. He went on a journey through Spain in 1987, following the track of Don Quixote from desolate La Mancha, eager to escape the British General Election and the triumph of Mrs Thatcher, parading to ‘the low point of British cynicism, selfishness, greed’. In Tilting at Don Quixote, the chapters recording his Spanish journey alternate with chapters recording the sad events of his life, from the murder of his father to the attempted suicide of his young wife, who moans that their children say: ‘There’s no future, nothing ahead, it’s all hopeless ... They hate it because we’re unhappy together, they can’t stand it.’ She had deliberately burned herself, very severely, on the big fireplace in their Suffolk farmhouse.

It is not surprising that Wollaston’s account of his professional travels is not very jolly: ‘They discovered a famine in Bihar, a subject for a suitable cry of horror, and sent me there with a photographer famous for pictures of war and butchers’ shops.’ He wanders through Spain, with Cervantes’s book, disliking Barcelona almost as much as Don Quixote did, catching sight of his own reflection in a mirror – looking like a crayon portrait of the Don, ‘a lean, harrowed man, no longer young, not yet decrepit, his eyes a little agonised by some misty private vision, blind to the facts of life around’. He presents himself as a man travelling because he finds himself more acceptable among strangers. The admiring reader, rather embarrassed, may wish he had allowed himself to write of his journeys in a manner more invigorated, less self-disparaging.

Paul Levy’s memoir is written in a high-spirited, light-hearted manner. Like Wollaston and, indeed, Hoggart, he sometimes wonders whether he is writing the truth. ‘This is, of course, a work of fiction,’ he begins. ‘The human memory is a poor thing ... I hope everything that follows is true; I mean it to be.’ He worries a little about what his family will think of Finger Lickin’ Good – but not for long: many of his family anecdotes are shamelessly funny. He was the child of a wealthy ‘leading citizen’ in the classy, horsey town of Lexington and he had four Russian-Jewish grandparents. He does not complain much, but we detect a lightly-written discourse on problems of class and status in Kentucky. England seems to have been one of the sources for local snobbery. His kinsfolk sold English horse-saddles (‘we did not tolerate Western vulgarity in Lexington’). Visiting other kin in the East End of London, they found that ‘even family ties don’t transcend class.’ He met some of ‘the pre-jet-set aristos’ at a curious Southern institution called the Cotillion, promoting organised balls for the children of leading citizens. This was a sort of marriage-mart: ‘Society’s way of defining who was free to marry whom’ – few Jews were present. Class distinctions have now been codified: there is a ‘Blue Book’ published, with the names and addresses of all the people one could want to know, including all the year’s ‘debutantes’. His niece, Jennifer Levy, was a debutante in 1985: ‘the absence of Jewish surnames from a printed list would have been too unsubtle for words.’ On the other hand, wealthy Jews had to drive away from Lexington for a game of golf: they might have set up a Jewish golf-club, like those of Louisville and Cincinnati, says Levy, and then ‘excluded, with relish, their lower-caste co-religionists’.

His good father took him round Harvard, promising to send him there, pointing to a black student in his Ivy League clothes – ‘just as good as the white boys who are studying with him. That’s a lesson you must never forget.’ They drove off, ‘eyes welling with the tears of Southern guilt’, to be turned away from a hotel: the clerk explained that it was ‘restricted’ – not for Jews, not for people called Levy. At school he hoped and feared to be the first Jewish boy admitted to a fraternity. He was ‘left-wing’, supporting in 1954 ‘racial integration’ in the sense of letting black children into white schools. His schoolmaster lent him English ‘left-wing’ books by Orwell and Aldous Huxley, as well as American ‘right-wing’ books by such as Ayn Rand: thus, Levy and his friends became ‘anti-prole’, holding exclusive wild parties for the pleasure of excluding football and basketball teams. His little gang was reprimanded for sneering at the ‘Pep Club’ in the school magazine: the Pep Club consisted, apparently, of girls who were sports fans but too fat, ugly, unpopular and stupid to be cheerleaders. Levy admits that his élitist attitude at that time reminds him uncomfortably of Mrs Thatcher.

My summary may suggest an overly class-conscious, shoulder-chippy book. Not so. Finger Lickin’ Good is a jolly sort of memoir. If Levy was ever seriously discontented, he may have told the analyst, Dr Kavka, but not us readers. It may come as a relief to turn to How many miles to Babylon? so straightforward and un-ironical, so candid and unguarded. Maja-Pearce was born in London, where his Nigerian father was training to become a surgeon, but he spent much of his boyhood in Ikoyi, a rather posh suburb of Lagos. Another part of his childhood was spent in Streatham, South London with his Scottish grandparents. His new book is a memoir about his experience of Britain, shaped into an essay on white-skinned ‘racism’ and a report of a journey to his grandfather’s Scottish village.

He was perhaps unwise to devote so much space to Roger Scruton, the clever editor of the Salisbury Review, and his contributors, John Casey (a fellow of Caius College, Cambridge) and Ray Honeyford (the former Bradford headmaster). It seems equally fruitless to complain of Roy Kerridge, a persuasive journalist whose picturesque remarks about blacks seem always to offend them, and of a journalist called ‘the Angry Voice’ in the Daily Star. Some of these men are quite skilled sophists and coat-trailers: to respond to their provocation and quote their weasel words is only to encourage them. So it seems to me, nowadays, but I might be wrong.

Maja-Pearce is unguarded in the way that he discusses the shortcomings of his Jamaican friends in London, men who don’t ‘lock into society at any point’: he writes, too easily, of ‘the time when Nigerians were beginning to muscle in on the London criminal scene and challenge the Yardies, their West Indian counterparts, for a slice of the drugs trade’. This is counter-productive, giving hostages to his opponents. He does not like feeling himself to be an outsider, ‘fated to live perpetually on the margins of society’, and he thinks it deplorable that the word ‘has been invested with a certain romance’. The eccentric English wife of a London Jamaican makes him remember that ‘you don’t have to be black to be an outsider.’ So does an Australian in Earl’s Court, talking of his air travels – Delhi, Bangkok, Alexandria, Rio. ‘He belonged nowhere; he formed no part of the consciousness of a specific community in a specific place on the earth.’

The observant Maja-Pearce tells neat anecdotes. He sees a Muslim woman in purdah walking with her husband and two daughters in Balsall Heath, the adults offended by prostitutes lifting their skirts, the daughters upset at their parents’ pain. Disliking purdah (and the idea of Islamic schools), Maja-Pearce has a sharp argument with a ‘left-wing’ English girl who thinks she must defend the freedom of Muslims to be restrictive. In Newcastle, he meets a Kenya Asian, an old friend, once a radical but now submitted to an arranged marriage: his second child was born in Toronto for immigration purposes – ‘and I wondered, when he said this, where it would all end. India, Kenya, Britain, Canada ...’ Maja-Pearce was reminded of his grandfather leaving his Scottish village and bequeathing his descendants something of his own restlessness: ‘It was like a virus in the bloodstream.’ As he sits by his grandparents’ tombstone in that Scottish village, he feels that the old couple never understood that ‘all this coming and going is emotionally disastrous. Human beings aren’t designed to cope with such violent change’ – to wake up in hot Lagos, take an eight-hour flight, and go to bed in chilly London. Maja-Pearce seems to me a rather shy and old-fashioned sort of Briton, happy to conform to local customs, an unusually reluctant traveller – but determined to stand by liberal principles against any weasel-worded enemy of immigrants. We may hope that he and his family have settled down comfortably on the English South Coast.