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Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Review - Two Early Campus Novels

Kingsley Amis: Lucky Jim Malcolm Bradbury: Eating People Is Wrong

Kingsley Amis: Lucky Jim (1954) (4*)
Malcolm Bradbury: Eating People is Wrong (1959) (2*)

I used to enjoy campus novels – stories about university life – immensely.

As a mature student, I soaked up the BBC’s 1981 adaptation of Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man with Anthony Sher as Howard Kirk, gripped by the unconstrained, free-thinking lifestyle it portrays, and wanted it for myself. Not until I read the actual novel many years later did I realise what an objectionably selfish snake the anti-hero is.

Later, having somehow pulled-off the unlikely trick of getting a job in a university, I was greatly entertained by David Lodge’s campus trilogy, Changing Places, Small World and Nice Work, written in the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties. There was a lot in the wranglings between staff, pointless activities and scrabbling for advancement that rang true, as did the chaos lower down the academic hierarchy depicted in Tom Sharpe’s Wilt which I experienced first-hand on moving to a Polytechnic.

In recent weeks I have been catching up on two early campus novels from the nineteen-fifties: Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and Malcolm Bradbury’s Eating People is Wrong. Both books are very much of the nineteen-fifties in the social attitudes they portray. I guess they helped frame the way we thought of provincial universities during the nineteen-sixties when I was at school, unsuccessfully applying through UCCA.

Lucky Jim (1954) was for me the most enjoyable of the two. It ages well and is often hilarious. As David Lodge points out in the introduction, the humour comes not only from Amis’s wonderful comic timing in the handling of situations, but also from his original, educated but classless writing style, which often makes use of original twists to everyday turns of phrase:
To look at, but not only to look at, they resembled some kind of variety act…
He’d found his professor standing, surprisingly enough, in front of the Recent Additions shelf in the College Library…
Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way.
I found myself sympathising with the predicament of misfit young lecturer Jim Dixon, and felt very satisfied at the end when he walks off with the girl and everything else. However, many of the comic situations, for example when Dixon accidentally burns holes in his Head of Department’s bedsheets whilst staying at his house, and his subsequent attempts to conceal the damage, could be in any comic novel rather than one specifically set in a university. It could be from a Brian Rix Whitehall farce. I might well look out for more by Kingsley Amis.

Eating People is Wrong (1959) I found less than satisfactory. It concerns the prematurely old-fashioned Professor Treece and his difficulties in making sense of the changing post-war world of the nineteen-fifties. There are too many characters, none very likeable, most under-developed, too many switches of viewpoint from the thoughts, opinions and dilemmas of one to those of another and then to those of the author, and a tendency to tell rather than show – all the things that writing experts say you should avoid, but who are they to find fault with the acclaimed founder of the famous MA in Creative Writing course at the University of East Anglia? It is no real defence that these things appear to be conscious and deliberate.

I suppose the novel resembles university life where people fall into and out of each others’ lives without reaching any kind of resolution, to an incessant background buzz of brilliant yet pointless wordplay. Much of the dialogue would not be out of place in an Alan Ayckbourne play. Perhaps it tries too ostentatiously to be clever by trying to generate too many epigrammatic quotations, and twists and turns to accepted clichés:
With sociology one can do anything and call it work.
... it had always seemed to Louis that a fundamental desire to take postal courses was being sublimated by other people into sexual activity;
… if you are interested in [old] houses, you know what the world is like and it is not like you.
… soon it won’t be necessary to go to America. It will all be here.
After nearly two hundred pages of nothing much happening, a subversive writer called Carey Willoughby arrives to give a talk and declares: “With my sort of book theres no resolution, because theres no solution. The problems aren’t answered in the end because there is no answer. They’re problems that are handed on to the reader …

Was Bradbury referring to himself?

Having grasped all of this, scoring it two stars is mean. I’m sure I would get more out of it on slow second reading, but life’s too short.


Key to star ratings: 5* would read over and over again, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up. 

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Articled Clerk

Chartered Accountant's articled clerk recruitment ads

“You’ll make a lot of money as a Chartered Accountant” was the only thing of substance the headmaster said at the end of grammar school. I could guess what he was really thinking. “Not university calibre.” “Not even college.” Stuck-up southern git!    

It was strange that someone so southern had chosen to become a headmaster in such a working-class northern town. He spoke with such judgemental self-assurance you were convinced his pronunciation must be correct and yours miserably deficient: “raarzbriz” instead of “rasp-berries”, “swimming baarthes” rather than “swimmin’ baths”, “campany derrectorre” not “kumpany dye-recter”. It was not universally welcomed.

“You’ve written here that your faarther is a campany derrectorre. What sort of campany derrectorre?”

“He’s got a shop – Millwoods”

“Really? I thought Millwoods was owned by Susan Mellordew’s faarther.”

He appeared not to believe me. Oh to have that conversation again knowing what I know now. 

“Perhaps the Mellordews would like others to think that,” I should have said.

Grammar schools were set up to get people into university, or at least teacher training college. Everyone else was a failure to be eased into the grubby world of banking, accountancy or other forms of servility, unless you were a girl, in which case they didn’t really care either way because you would be married with kids in a few years’ time. I didn’t care either. I was quite taken by the idea of making a lot of money, especially as all six of my university choices had given me straight rejections. 

At least the local accountants wanted me. They phoned my dad to change my mind about going off to a job in Leeds. “He’ll get just as good experience here,” they told him, but he decided not to pass the message on, as if they wanted me but he didn’t.

I had tried York first. The area training coordinator at The Red House sent me round to Peat, Marwick and Mitchell, one of the biggest and most powerful firms in the country (as KPMG they still are), to be interviewed by another stuck-up posh git whose laconic disinterest oozed the impression that he had indeed made a great deal of money. He would have got on just fine with my headmaster. Not for the last time did I feel I might have done better had I been to Bootham’s or Queen Ethelburga’s.* Real chip-on-the-shoulder stuff!

The Leeds firm were more down to earth. Their offices were in what had once been a cloth warehouse with large airy windows; less depressing than the pokey accommodation of the other firms. A simple half-hour chat with one of the partners, during which I managed to avoid showing too much stupidity, and the job was mine: five years as an articled clerk. I started on the 9th September, 1968; exactly fifty years ago today. 

The thing is though, in those days, firms of accountants were desperate for articled clerks. At face value it was attractive: a form of indentured apprenticeship under which a qualified accountant undertakes to inculcate an articled clerk into the principles and practices of the profession. In reality it was cheap labour. They sold it to school leavers through discreet ads in the situations vacant columns, next to those for hair restorers and varicose veins. “Leaving school? Why not become a Chartered Accountant?” It would not have looked out of place if they had added: “No one need know; confidentiality guaranteed.”

Ads were discreet because accountants were not allowed to tout for business, although as things began to change, the bigger firms pushed the boundaries with larger, more flamboyant offerings designed by expensive agencies. One of the most memorable went: “Some think Wart Prouserhice is just as good as Horst Whiterpart, but we know it’s best at Price Waterhouse.”

Today, accountancy training places are so sought after they won’t even look at you unless you have at least a 2:1 and an impressive portfolio of extra-curricular leadership activities – an internship in the House of Commons; volunteering with Ebola victims in Africa; representing Great Britain in the Winter Olympics; that kind of thing. You might then get invited to a day of written tests and observed activities, and if successful to a nerve-racking interview panel. Those who went to Bootham’s or Queen Ethelburga’s might then be offered a place. Back in the nineteen-sixties, five ‘O’ levels and you were in.

Not so many years beforehand, articled clerks had been expected to pay a premium for the privilege of the job. At least by 1968 you got a salary, if that’s what you could call it. Mine was £360 per annum.

1968 payslips

Really? Well yes. Here are my first two pay slips. The first covers from the 9th to the 30th September, 1968, i.e. twenty-two thirtieths of a month. So 22/30 x 360/12 equals a straight £22, with a deduction of £3 6s 8d for National Insurance, leaving £18 13s 4d for my first three weeks’ pay. My first full month’s take-home pay was £26 13s 4d. I didn’t have to pay tax because I only started work in September, but I did after April when I got a £2 per month rise. It doesn’t look any better even when adjusted for inflation – £26 13s 4d in 1968 is the equivalent of around £400 today, less than half the minimum wage for an eighteen year-old.

I never did become a Chartered Accountant. I stuck it for a few years, failed a few exams, and then escaped to university. Would I have fared better in my parochial home town of canners, carriers, barbers, farmers, shippers and shopkeepers? I might have fitted in – like a pile of coke outside the gas works – but maybe not. Thirty years later, the lad who took the local job in my place ended up as one of the senior partners in charge of the whole outfit. He did make a lot of money.

* Fee paying boarding schools near York.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Old and New Cars

`Compare the Honda Civic SR to a Lightning F-35

Wondering whether to change my ten year old Golf Estate, I went for a test drive in a fairly new Honda Civic Tourer - the SR version. What a sensation! I could have been in the cockpit of an R.A.F. stealth fighter.

If you have recently driven a new car then you might not be overawed, but I haven’t and I was. There were coloured lights all over the dashboard and more switches than I could imagine what they were for. The digital speedometer rolled up and down, a glowing blue bar grew and shrank with the engine speed and a bright satnav map pinpointed the current location. A camera recognised speed limit signs and displayed a corresponding symbol, and another camera showed what was behind when the car was in reverse. Illuminated gauges indicated fuel and temperature levels and lights flashed in the exterior mirrors to warn of vehicles in the blind spots. The engine cut out to save fuel in stationary traffic and started again as soon as you pressed the clutch. I didn’t get round to asking about the cruise control, heated seats and entertainment system, and that’s not even the half of it. The technology was incredible. I don’t know if you could talk to the car, or whether it answered back, but it would not have surprised me if you could and it did.

1960s Mini dashboard and instrument cluster
1960s Mini dashboard and instrument cluster

What a difference from the first three cars I had, all Minis – a car and two vans. They had a speedometer, a fuel gauge and a few warning lights, and that was it – oh yes, and an ashtray. The steering wheel would not have looked out of place on a tractor and the gear lever stuck out of the floor like something in a signal box. They had sliding windows fastened by a thief-friendly catch, and the doors opened by means of a dangly pull-cord. In the vans the battery was under the driver’s seat and you fired up the engine by pulling out the choke and pressing a huge button on the floor. Primitive but functional.

The first, a ten-year old dark blue Austin Mini Van with a white roof, cost me £50 in 1971. I bought it from a lad called John Leason who lived off Holderness Road in Hull. I saw his ad in the Hull Daily Mail, a friend took me to look, I paid by cheque and drove it home – no doubt untaxed and uninsured.

John Leason must have been punching his fist in the air like he’d won the football pools. As I braked at the end of the street, the driver’s door burst open and I had to be quick to reach out and catch it. I had to hold it all the way home. It was by no means the only thing wrong. It rattled like a rusty moped, smoked like a dirty dredger and smelt like a Swinefleet dung heap. A local mechanic took it off my hands a few weeks later, rebuilt the engine and used it as a run-around for the next two years.

1966 Morris Mini-Minor
My 1966 Morris Mini-Minor (also see blog banner)

Then I had a six-year old Morris Mini-Minor, a blue one, funded by concerned parents. It would have been fine except for the hydrolastic suspension – a system in which the front and back wheels are connected by pressurised pipes. They must have leaked because they needed to be re-pressurised every nine months or so to stop the tyres scraping against the wheel arches. I stuck it out for a couple of years until I could afford to swap it for a three-year old Mini Van.

1972 Mini Van in BMC Flame Red
My 1972 Mini Van

It was the love of my life. BMC flame red. I blazed up and down the M62 and flashed around Leeds burning up other drivers and flickering round buses stranded in the snow. It was an eight-seater – one passenger in the front and three along each side in the back (no seat belt requirements in those days). I put down a carpet and lined the roof and sides with matt black hardboard. It took me walking in the Peak and Lake Districts, the Pennines and North York Moors, and up to Scotland with a tent and walking boots no end of times. I drove it to university interviews on my way to becoming a mature student and it saw me through three years in Hull.

Camping Glen Brittle Isle of Skye Easter 1976
Camping at Glen Brittle, Isle of Skye, Easter 1976.
The meagre Mini dashboard is visible beyond all the clutter.

Would I want one now? You bet! You can get beautifully reconditioned nineteen-seventies Mini Vans for seven or eight thousand pounds (and renovation projects for a fraction of that). But it would need to be garaged out of the weather and I would want to pay someone to maintain it and keep the rust in check. It would be just an expensive toy: costly and non-functional. A lot of fun though.

The Honda Civic seems a nice idea too but one wonders whether all the technology is just something waiting to go wrong. It’s fine in a newish car but you know what software is like – would it still work after ten years? One hears of issues such as losing all the radio settings when put into reverse, which can be expensive to diagnose and fix. And if the car tells you the speed limit all the time, then would you stop bothering to look for the road signs, like losing all sense of geography and direction when you blindly follow the satnav. Most new cars now have electronic handbrakes and hill-hold assistance. Does that mean you forget how to do hill starts? I like to do these things for myself. The Honda felt a bit detached from the world, like managing ice cream in a darkened cinema, glancing occasionally at the screen.

So I’ll probably keep the Golf Estate for a while. Its M.O.T. test is due but I’m confident it will pass. There is a lot of life left in a low-mileage ten year old car these days – certainly not the case in the nineteen-seventies, and perhaps not in the twenty-twenties.