England’s Troubles

Frank Kermode

  • The Scent of Dried Roses by Tim Lott
    Viking, 275 pp, £16.00, September 1996, ISBN 0 670 86460 9

The author, now about forty, has long since shown how easy he finds it to be a success in the world. As magazine editor, television producer, businessman, he has made money without great effort. He is acquainted with grief in the predictable varieties that hardly anybody escapes, but he has also experienced a serious depression which almost drove him to suicide. Soon after he got over that his mother killed herself. He got over that. Now he is happily married and has written this unusual book.

What makes it unusual is that he has written it not as a simple record of this past but as a troubled quest for a story that might explain his own and his mother’s life. He began it, as he says towards the end, without any clear idea of what he was going to say, and the feeling that he is discovering or constructing meanings, seeking interpretations that will do at any rate for the present moment, is quite strongly conveyed. ‘Depression is a very particular type of illness, in that it seems to hinge on your interpretation of the world, the story you tell yourself.’ He describes depression as ‘the illness of identity’, as if to suffer it is to be unable any longer to tell yourself a satisfactory story about yourself; the versions you have lived by no longer work, and the idea of suicide looms up as a desirable escape from the dismay and misery of nonentity. Lott has little time for psychotherapists, but at least some of them would approve of this cure, providing yourself with a more satisfactory life-story than the one you’re having to work with, provided you have one at all.

Lott’s mother Jean was born in 1931 and Lott himself in 1956. He is convinced that their descent into the meaningless reflects that of England, ‘confused, self-hating England’, where the plague of depression is ‘spreading like a virulent, dimly understood virus’. Consequently, he attends closely to the condition of the country in his mother’s youth and his own. He nominates 1956, the year of his own birth, as the critical moment. Before that there was still a social structure, dull but serviceable, built on an older understanding of class. His parents belonged to ‘the upper, or well-off, working class, something quite discrete’, having its own culture; it still survives though with some changes. Unlike the stratum immediately above them, they had no interest in acquiring the manners of the middle class, and indeed despised that class, especially its lower reaches, where bank tellers and the like ‘aped their betters’. In the days of his parents’ youth, England was ‘collective, communal, extended’, not yet shredded and dispersed by the car. Looking at photographs of his family, he thinks ‘the loss of place, the vacuum that is around us now like murderous, invisible fall-out, is beyond their imagination.’ They were decent, sceptical, conformist people, ‘fond of a lark’, with a set of simple rules of conduct: survival by self-help, neighbourliness, modest expectations. Girls tried to look like Lana Turner or Jane Russell but sought no other future than to become wives and mothers. Men, when the larking times of youth were past, looked after their families.

They might live in a once pleasant suburb like Southall, now so sad and hideous that Jean mentions her hatred for it in her suicide note. Looking at the ‘worn and dispirited houses’, he finds it ‘hard to believe they were built as part of a great common dream of England’ and are now just parts of nowhere. There is a strong Orwellian nostalgia in some of this, but it is part of a narrative inquiry of which the object is to find out why Jean killed herself – whose fault it was, since when things go wrong it must be somebody’s fault. After her death Lott looks around her dining-room ‘at ornaments and furniture, picking over fine details of the act, like a husband betrayed by his wife’.

Much family research was required, for there are aunts and uncles and brothers, some ordinary, some odd. It is carried on by means of meditations on old photographs, a device here somewhat overworked. The clothes, leisure pursuits and talk characteristic of this class in different epochs are well-reported, which makes the occasional blunder more conspicuous: ‘Following the coronation of Edward VIII there was a copy of the souvenir issue of the Daily Herald on the parlour table.’ The Doc Martens and Sta-Prests, the dance-halls and favourite bands (a topic on which Lott is expert) are all carefully recorded. The strange low-spirited optimism of the immediate postwar years, all rubble and rationing, nationalisation and utility furniture, little of which Lott can have experienced himself, is carefully sketched in. There is a vivid set-piece about the destruction of the Crystal Palace and another about a disastrous LSD trip. These took some writing, and Lott can write. There is, inevitably, a significant gap between the storyteller’s prose, flexible, knowing, pitying, sometimes a little affected, and the prose of the subject.

Delusive stories about his life and his mother’s have to be replaced and more plausible narratives substituted. Was the strain of his breakdown responsible for her quietly giving way to despair? Or, as in her own disastrous version, had she failed in her duties as a mother? Lott’s Jean could scarcely be mistaken for anybody else. She is strong though reticent in her affections, avoids trouble yet is always at hand when help is needed, as when she cares for a mad brother and a broken father. She can paint a bit, play tennis a bit, enjoy life a bit. She is attractive enough though bald from incurable alopecia and worried about her wig. She lacks a strong sense of herself or her value, and, quick to take blame, sees her own failure in one son’s divorce and another’s breakdown. But the new story can’t be simply of her taking the blame or his taking the blame; they are both ill, with a disease that can often be cured with drugs, and somehow he must do as she couldn’t, sidestep the old ethic and avoid irrelevant self-reproach. If there has to be blame, why not let England take it, seedy, peeling, bankrupt, ruined England?

It’s a virtue that the book contains a lot of material that can’t easily be fitted into the story the author is looking for. Tim Lott’s father, desolate at his wife’s suicide, becomes something of a womaniser in his sixties – a fairly surprising bit of life that has to stay a little outside the scope of a narrative which is trying to establish patterns of relevance. Lott’s own premarital love affairs, which end badly, also seem to stand to the side of the tale (though the second breaks up when he is breaking up) and so does the enmity that exists between him and an elder brother. Yet all these unclaimed, or anyway unsettled, narrative territories add to the effect, giving the story only a provisional completeness, the best that can be got by taking thought, including the thought that the account offered will probably be true only for the moment. The book ends with a scene of domestic happiness, another story altogether. How it will eventually be reconciled with this one may be a problem calling, in future years, for more research.