They didn’t talk, they didn’t laugh, they didn’t seem to enjoy their food, they didn’t seem to go out, they didn’t seem to have any interests, they didn’t seem to like each other much, they didn’t even seem to hate each other much, they didn’t seem to do anything. All they seemed to do was to crawl in one by one, murmur a little to the waitress, mutter little requests to pass the salt, shift in their chairs, occasionally modestly cough or blow their noses, sit, eat, wait, eat, and at last crawl out again, one by one, without a word, to heaven knew where to do heaven knew what…
Most of them, he thought, were pretty ordinary boarding-house specimens… The two younger women also, he supposed, were of a type.
He studied these two – one of whom, he observed, was a foreigner. Plain women, both of them, though the darker one had a “nice” face. Not likely to marry, either of them – the spinster type – not likely to marry unless a bit of luck came their way – which might not be impossible with all these Americans about. What puzzled him was the way the awful atmosphere of the place seemed to have got these two women down as well. They were comparatively young – young enough to talk and laugh, to exhibit some sign of vivacity, of response to life. But no – instead of this they seemed to be, in some way, duller, dumber, more deadly quiet and lifeless than all the others.
Imagine this. Then imagine you live alone, with plenty of habits, which you have come to rely on, including the fifteen-minute chat with your neighbours at the end of each work busy day. Think about this. Now imagine the community in which you live. It is a tightly squeezed small-minded place that has the power to ostracise you for once and forever if it thinks you aloof or strange. One fundamental disagreement and poof! gone is your daily fix. And although these conversations will be banal and repetitive, mostly about the weather and “those beastly Germans”, and the “greasy spivs” who are making a fortune “while our lads are losing their legs and limbs”, they are as necessary for you as a hit is for a heroin addict. Heroin! “A vile practice the social scum do in back alleys…”
Think about this; and then imagine that your experience of the uncommon rarely extends beyond the crude simplicities of the cheapest press, whose metaphors have to be obvious and transparently readable. Too complicated and they’ll be dismissed as “fancy stuff” the "stupid highbrows" have “dreamt up”; their heads too high in the air to see the ground at their feet. “No common sense with that lot”, is the regular refrain. To the unsophisticated mind an unusual metaphor, especially one that is opaque at first sight, is as suspicious as a foreign national in time of war. “Well, if they can’t speak our language there must be something dodgy about them, mustn’t there?” And of course you will agree. You couldn’t risk being called “a pointy-headed inter-lect-choo-al”, for you’d be treated as some sort of spy, which in a way you are. Prejudices not necessarily false; just too narrow and one-sided.
Crammed tight with conventional opinions imagine you have little talent, plain features, and a retiring personality made stultifying by the local environment. You are insignificant, you know. A nobody! The dowdy dress the family beauty never wears, and leaves forgotten at the bottom of the wardrobe... You lack the toughness and sparkle to rise above the barren social landscape of this boarding house in time of war. Full of others’ dull stupidities, that nevertheless reflect you own quite different ones, you feel their weight only because they are foreign to you. Too weak to resist other people’s clichés they drag you down until you cannot see beyond them; helpless in the face of inanity you become “deadly quiet and lifeless”; a sort of zombie. Imagine! Trapped amongst a crowd of inarticulate adolescents too dense to walk through; such are the phrases you use.
Of course you think this doesn’t apply to you. This is just a game. A little fantasy. You have more life than this. Of course you do. Of course you wouldn’t let such a desolate countryside suffocate your joie de vivre. You’d laugh and joke and run around, do cartwheels and the splits. Out comes the wine and you’d tell a funny story against yourself about that time you were half-way down the drainpipe when Matron popped her head out of the third floor window, and said “you’ve forgotten your Matthew Arnold, dear.” How you’d enjoy yourself! Pretending to queen it over these marshes that lie on the grey margins of England; unconcerned when you slip into a boggy pond. The pink shoes ruined, and the yellow tights sodden, and the dandelion dress covered in mud… What should you do? The answer is surely simple. Who cares what this place thinks? It exists only for you to rule; you know, because you have said so, and yet… Would you take the dress off and walk back to the car just in your underwear? It would be the easiest, the most comfortable, the most sensible thing to do, but then… what if someone were to see you? You imagine an old couple in tweeds and small rucksacks; she with a ferociously disapproving grin. Already you feel the force of this place, even though there are only two of you in it. The squelchy shoes, the mud all over your fingers after you tried to wipe it away… It is not so easy to do the simplest of things; you are a child no more. You’ve also been silly. Self-conscious about the knickers whose design is a life size print of your “bum” and “cunt” (your expressions); they seemed such a laugh when Avril first mentioned them; and today you so wanted to trick Andrew. But of course he guessed the truth at once: “But darling you never put your bra on first.” She sees an old couple walking towards them. “I was right!” No longer the Lady of the Marsh you give your story a contemporary setting, as you joke about the abstract quality of the muddy patterns, while pretending the shoes don’t matter at all; even though your recall the woman who sold them; a bobbed redhead in Selfridges, who wore a short velvet dress; black with a rounded neckline… “Hallo.” “How are you?” The old couple pass, and you feel sad, and somehow let down; the once bright white sky now smudged with grey, as you think about her turquoise shoes.
The moral is simple. Even if you do have plenty of vital life the environment will defeat you. Stupid people make you stupid; it is the situation Albert Brent describes, even though he doesn’t know any of these characters. And so you suffer the monotony of this place you do not have the energy to leave; condemned to accept the inane routines, and oppressed by the petty slights, that occupational hazard of a boarding house; where the person with the thickest skin wins. Boredom is king in the Rosamund Tea Rooms. And Irritation is his second-in-command. How this places ages you: each month you acquire an additional year, or at least that is how it mostly feels. The longer you stay the worse it gets. All you liveliness squeezed away until you are nothing more than an “ordinary boarding-house specimen.” A museum piece to be labelled, pinned, and left to gather dust in some forgotten annex.
Can Miss Roach really endure for the rest of the war in this place? We fear she will have no choice. She lacks the strength to overcome the inertia.
You’ve imagined such a world. Now go further. Imagine a place where all your neighbours live in the same house, and share the dining room for breakfast and dinner; later collecting in the lounge to drift through a few semi-conscious hours of rest before going to bed. You have very little in common. There are no shared obsessions to get excited about. While the dullard who dominates this house makes sure that nobody is more interesting than he. To survive in this place you have to be boring, and you become even more so over time; you cannot help it. There is nothing to talk about, and so you struggle to fill the oppressive silences with the few clichés everyone can accept; controversy too dangerous for those who are almost strangers - better a dull atmosphere than a hostile and aggressive one. This is a boring life, and the people are bored by it; even though there’s a war going on in the skies above them.
You have imagined all of this. Do you feel just a little cramped and uncomfortable? Would you have the energy to transform this place or even the will to leave it? Only, I assure you, if you stayed here for a few days. Easier to simply ignore it; an option that gets more attractive over time; otherwise you must every day fight to change it, a thankless and tiresome task. Even then its atmosphere will seep into you, those flickers of vital interest snuffed out and strangled by the routine chat about the weather, “our boys”, and the latest murder in the Sunday papers, which elicits the inevitable: “there are some cruel people about, aren’t there?”
Miss Roach is a Londoner bombed out in the Blitz. One would expect her to have at least a smidgen of sophistication. Indeed, she works for a publisher, and is refined in a modest way, with a tiny bit of culture; the dandruff blowing off her employer’s shoulders. She is quiet, polite, and well-dressed; just a little too reserved, a little too refined, in that strange way of servants and personal assistants; too buttoned up to let herself go, to have lots of boyfriends, and to be conspicuously loud in nights out with the girls. Squashed tight inside the prejudices of her own social class she defends herself against the vulgar pleasures of life. Unfortunately the Rosamund Team Rooms squashes her even tighter as she protects herself against the cheap bullying of a man she cannot abide. Her isolation overwhelms her, and she is closed up inside herself. She’d be all right if she had her own flat. Protected from the force of communal banality and the coarseness of Mr Thwaites Enid could relax, and act without self-consciousness, and so be a tiny bit more expansive and alive. But the German bombs have destroyed that; and she is forced to live with a group of strangers; all respectable and nondescript except for one who is a fool and a bully, and who bosses the guests about with his stupid witticisms, his sarcasm, and his ceaseless inanities. She’d be all right if she didn’t have to listen to all of that all of the time. Unfortunately Miss Roach is not strong enough to maintain her independence; unable to subdue Mr Thwaites she lets him provoke her, and thinks too much about his bombast which if she were more vital she could ignore with disdain. If only she had vivacity and charm she could treat him with indifference, or seduce him with her femininity; she could show him up as the fool that he really is. These options are not open to Miss Roach. Too reserved and small-minded she is not that much different from him; two fish caught in the same net... It is the reason why she turns a silly fool into a tyrant, and allows him to rule the table that they share. You are too weak Enid Roach! As she herself recognises, when she recalls her awful schooldays and realises that they have returned. Oh Enid! If only you were just a little more interesting. She is not, and the atmosphere of the Rosamund Tea Rooms overwhelms her.
Albert Brent is right, although he gets the facts wrong; being an outsider who only stays for a short time he doesn’t know all the social intricacies even if he does recognise the essential qualities of what he sees – a pervasive dullness that is drowning the occupants of this dining room.
Living permanently inside a group you have to adapt to it, unless, that is, you are strong enough to be its ruler. Few can be completely indifferent to their surroundings, and we should suspect those that are – they will suffer from some pathology. We are social creatures, and we find it difficult to be indifferent to people we know intimately; something in our senses responds automatically to the presence of family and friends, and those of our immediate circle. In some situations - work is one, Mrs Payne’s boarding house is another - we are forced to respond to people for whom we have little or no feeling, and so are confronted with an atmosphere of indifference, a kind of anti-matter that annihilates our energy. We lack the will to be expansive, and though polite we are also reserved, and a little uncomfortable, especially when the room contains people we do not like. We feel constrained and inhibited, all too aware that this environment has taken on its own life, forcing us to submit to its rituals and banalities. Like the inhabitants of this dining room we become aware that we are not free. Even a loose collection of boarders can form a group with its own compulsive social pressure; it is what Albert Brent describes here. Although such groups are brittle ones, and are easily destabilised by those who rebel against them. There is not enough shared feeling to bind these people together in times of crisis; the social bond is one of ritual and atmosphere; powerful but limited forces that imposes a code of emotional restraint on its members who use it to protect their own weaknesses, which are mostly fears of failure and embarrassment; how you appear more important than what you are when you live closely with strangers. Miss Roach has become part of such a community through force of circumstance, and normally she would be polite and self-effacing, sharing with the others the minimum amount of conduct necessary to keep the atmosphere stable and secure. Her bad luck is to share a house with Mr Thwaites, who uses her presence to increase his own power. Because he is so different, of a lower more vulgar social class, and because she still has some spark, after all she is not yet forty, she disagrees with him from time to time. However, she lacks the strength of personality to overcome his petty boorishness and so change the climate of the dining room, which has become a place of ritual torture for her. Mr Thwaites dominates, even though he is also a non-entity; his poor verbalisms (at times he talks in mock Elizabethan) left unchallenged by the lethargy of the others.
So much energy wasted! All that pointless effort to maintain their self-control as they use their willpower to curb their natural desires to freely gesture and talk. For we are like animals, our instinct to respond naturally to all incoming stimuli; and there is nothing more stimulating than people. But the company has to be congenial. Otherwise we are forced to resist these impulses to communicate. So tiring! It wears us out, while the group grows strong on the energy that should be used for our own self-expression. Once the identity of the group has been formed, in this place it will be based on the lowest common denominators, the members will have to adapt to it, suppressing those aspects of their being that could undermine its (fragile) cohesion. Usually there is a leader, the person who most powerfully expresses its banalities.
Mr Thwaites is the boss of this boarding house. Everyone accepts his role, and listens to his silly jokes and diatribes. Even Enid. Being socially a little distant from the other guests – she works in London everyday -, while also somewhat reserved and timid, she has become the focus of Mr Thwaites’ attention, who picks out the small points that highlight her differences - her liberal paper, her German friend, her supposed sympathies for the Soviet Union – to provoke and bully her. These differences are “eccentricities” that have to be rubbed away so that Miss Roach can be fitted comfortably inside Mr Thwaites’ prejudices, which shape the views of this dining room. And of course they also irritate him, for like all opinionated people he is an authoritarian at heart. He also finds them useful. By concentrating on her “quirks” he can exercise his power; Mr Thwaites needing a victim who he can crush but not annihilate. Enid Roach is his foil.
One evening the atmosphere changes, and Mr Thwaites is vanquished. It is the day Vicki Kugelmann arrives. She is Enid’s German friend who immediately wins everyone’s favour. The dining room is suddenly alive! She is so friendly, and so active, and so flirtatious with Mr Thwaites; who is smitten. She fits in perfectly! And so over time the familiar ambience returns, although there are subtle changes, which Miss Steel notices: if anything Vicki has made the environment somewhat duller, and certainly more ugly, encouraging Mr Thwaites to add a sexual element to his sarcasm. It is duller because now Enid has to suffer the weight of two people’s dislike - she has fallen out with Vicki -, and so lacks the strength to lighten up the room even in the small ways of before. Miss Steele can feel something is wrong, but she is unsure what is happening; another problem of this boarding house – everyone lives inside themselves. They are not an intimate group, who can confide in each other; the reason for the oppressive atmosphere. They cannot speak out, because conscious of their weakness, which only encourages their isolation. These are lonely people whose company makes them even lonelier.
Mr Thwaites continues to dominate the dining room, but the nature of his domination has changed; Vicki subtly influencing him as he absorbs her opinions about Miss Roach. These changes are well described by the author; who shows how a strong personality like Vicki’s can both transform a place – that first night, the behaviour of Mr Thwaites, the Christmas revelry -, and succumb to its atmosphere, which will subdue and defeat her too. Her vivaciousness is not enough to overcome the stifling climate that has already been engendered. It has a dullness that requires too much energy to transform; such a transformation needing qualities that are far greater than those she possesses. In the Rosamund Tea Rooms second-rate lives are defeated by the second rate. Larkin knew these places well.
‘This was Mr Bleaney’s room. He stayed
The whole time he was at the Bodies, till
They moved him.’ Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,
Fall to within five inches of the sill,
Whose window shows a strip of building land,
Tussocky, littered. ‘Mr Bleaney took
My bit of garden properly in hand.’
Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook
Behind the door, no room for books or bags –
‘I’ll take it.’ so it happens that I lie
Where Mr Bleaney lay, and stub my fags
On the same saucer-souvenir, and try
Stuffing my ears with cotton-wool, to drown
The jabbering set he egged her on to buy.
I know his habits – what time he came down,
His preference for sauce to gravy, why
He kept on plugging at the four aways –
Likewise their yearly frame: Frinton folk
Who put him up for summer holidays,
And Christmas at his sister’s house in Stoke.
But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread
That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don’t know.
Miss Roach is going out with an American lieutenant; a womanizer who has barged his way past her reticence and reserve, although she senses his real character, which she euphemistically calls his “inconsequence”. He is new territory for her, and she likes it: walking arm in arm, sitting next to him, “her American”, in the cinema, kissing in the park by the river; it excites and stimulates her; and seems to offer the possibility of a married future; even though she knows this is a vain hope.
The relationship ends suddenly when he responds to the advances of Vicki, who highly sexed quickly seduces him. The friendship between the two women is broken; Vicki incandescent with rage because Enid won’t stay out to share the fun. It is an interesting scene, for it captures the stolid, conventional and civilised nature of Miss Roach, for whom sex is a private and mysterious activity, and the shamelessness of Vicki, who cannot bear to be confronted with her own vulgarity. She has no sensitivity, believing it is all right to kiss and grope a friend’s lover in public, and then to act as if nothing is wrong. “Fair Shares For Everyone!” Vicki is all animal passion that expends itself in the moment; although we suspect there are deeper motives to her behaviour. She is jealous of woman who has no sexual charisma.
Are they also fighting because they are German and English? Is it is a cultural clash, the more communal Vicki Kugelmann against the reserved individuality of Enid Roach? There are suggestions of this, but they are not explored, in large part because we see very little of the world from Vicki’s perspective. She is seen from the outside; mostly from a vantage point just above Enid’s shoulders.i
There are only a few passages where we are given some distance, and thus some objectivity. Albert Brent’s quoted above, and a short passage from another minor character who has much more insight.
Mr. Prest, alone in his corner, sent to Coventry, and apparently mentally deaf to all that took place in the boarding-house, in fact observed and understood more than any other spectator.
Mr. Prest thought that the old man was a noisy, nattering, messy piece of work who ought to be in a mental home. He liked and pitied Miss Roach. He thought that the German woman was about as frightful a bitch as you were likely to find anywhere, and that something pretty nasty was going on, at that table, and between those three, one way and another.
When a group takes on its own identity it subtly changes the behaviour of its members, who assume part of its personality, at least in public. Mr Prest, genuinely estranged from the others, is able to stand completely outside such a community and so maintain his freedom. Self-contained he does not engage with any of the residents who, tellingly, assume he is a non-entity like themselves. He is an intruder into this world. An old entertainer. He thus belongs to a separate species that lives within the interstices of the social classes; acquiring an aloofness and detachment that is closest to that of the aristocracy. He is an exile. An alien. A foreigner, even though he is as British as the rest of them; Vicki Kugelmann, albeit a German, is more native than he.
Vicki Kugelmann’s behaviour to Miss Roach becomes increasingly ugly and petty. She calls her rude names, such as “Miss Prim” or “The English Miss”, which imply her frigidity; while she also encourages Mr Thwaites to continue his campaign, adding her own lascivious asides. It is Vicki’s suggestion of sexual impropriety between Enid and a nephew that is the climax of the book – she confides in Mr Thwaites who then makes an innuendo about a possible liaison between her and the boy. It has the force of an electric shock! Transgressing the bounds of Miss Roach’s sensibility, who for a brief few moments loses all control. It is a revolution! And a significant shift in the composition of the Rosamund Tea Rooms takes place.
It is very well done, the action arising naturally from out of the texture of the book, which captures the claustrophobic atmosphere of the war years; where an individual’s privacy was compromised, as we have seen. It was a time when there was a change in the nature of personal space. A shift away from a private to a public world that had suddenly become crammed with people – the pubs and cinemas in this book are full to overflowing. So many men and women, and who mostly strangers to each other are from all the social classes. It was a socially promiscuous period. This can create a sense of claustrophobia, of which the dining room is both a fact and a symbol. It is an atmosphere that will oppress some but enliven others. Vicki grows wild in such an environment, thriving on this looser, more intense, “hotter” kind of society; where the barriers that protect people have become weaker and more transparent. How much easier to break them down! Because the convivial instincts of collective life pushes against them so powerfully… We hear them splinter and crack, and see them collapse onto the ground as the crowd rushes past... It was a time when it was not so easy to be on your own, to maintain the usual decencies, and keep up the individual freedoms. The pubs are always full, and even the women are drinking. Life has become richer, more exciting, and the old risks no longer seem risks at all; while those Americans are very attractive and so direct; believing that lips exist to be kissed and thighs squeezed and stroked….
Miss Roach prefers a cooler climate. However, she is not strong enough to resist the pressure of her surroundings; the reason why she goes out with an American soldier. She has to adapt, and then she finds she likes it, although of course she has misgivings – thus her boyfriend’s “inconsequence”. Enid can only go so far. She is not a Vicki Kugelmann who can surrender herself entirely to this wartime world. She lacks her shameless promiscuity; Vicki’s desire for them to share the American lieutenant a curious metaphor for this communal life. Enid retains her own pre-war code of honour, which although arising in her weakness also protects it. Miss Roach is too weak to rule the Rosamund Tea Rooms but her morality is strong enough to sustain her peace time persona; thus her resistance to Mr Thwaites. The old Enid will not be destroyed! And so she aggressively confronts Vicki Kugelmann when she believes she has gone too far. The references to Nazi Germany in the following passage feels like a defence against a sort of linguistic invasion, and which stands in for the eroticism that Vicki is forcing into Edith’s consciousness.
“Yes,” said Mr. Thwaites, summing up. “A complicated world we live in, my masters.”
Whenever Mr. Thwaites alluded thus to the world in general terms, calling it “funny” or “strange” or “wicked”, he always said “My masters” afterwards.
“Yes,” said Vicki, and that curious tone was in her voice again. “A very complicated world… A very complicated situation altogether.”
Miss Roach knew exactly what she was getting at. This “Yes, Peace – and understanding” all over again. Her suggestion behind the stress she laid upon the complication of the situation was as clear as day. She meant that the world was in a state of complication owing to misunderstanding generally, and of Nazi Germany in particular.
Now Miss Roach was not going to stand for this…
This style is characteristic of the author: the thought, then the repetition of the thought in slightly different language (Ella does a lot of this in The Plains of Cement). The effect is curious. For when the thought is repeated it seems to simplify it, making it somehow more mechanical. It signals, of course, an obsession, with that repeated stress on a received idea. But the impression we receive is slightly different: we are left with a sense of the littleness of the person who thinks such thoughts; the initial idea repeated not to be developed and expanded but to be closed down, where it is made small and hard; and turned into a kind of bullet. Indeed, what follows is not a discussion where different ideas are explored but a shooting range where opinions are fired across it. Someone could get killed.
We begin to wonder about Enid Roach. Isn’t she exaggerating things just a tad? An expressionist drama created out of material ripe for an Ealing Comedy… Vicki may have “snatched” (the horror Hamilton is able to invoke in Miss Roach when Vicki uses this world is very very good) Joe, and she may use old phrases from the 1920s, and she may be a little too free with the men and the drink, and she may be small-minded and petty, but these are minor traits that a more robust person would ignore as beneath them. Why worry about them so much? Why get so worked up about these silly banalities, which only a trivially obsessive mind could take seriously; twisting them around to discover hidden meanings that may be irrelevantly true. Then notice how quickly Enid turns current affairs into personal affronts. She has no culture. She lives inside cramped quarters, her ego a tiny first floor flat.
One begins to wonder. Perhaps it is really Miss Roach that is the problem. It is she who is the morally ugly one; although this is disguised in typical English style. Such “refined” reserve can hide vast acres of small-mindedness… When Mr Thwaites uses the same words as Vicki to describe her Enid has a shock of revelation: they are talking about me! A normal enough reaction, no doubt, as suddenly we see ourselves from a disorientating perspective, which to us can look like caricature. What follows, though, is surely extreme.
…but to learn that two people of this sort had been talking about her, and in this way – she believed it was more than she could stand…
Really, she had thought she had gained experience of the lowest depths of this woman: she had thought she knew where she was and could just stand it. But now these depths had collapsed, opening up shifting, endless depths. She would have to get out of this place: she would have to leave, go somewhere.
Enid is closed up tight, her personality a well-guarded fortress whose gates only she can open. People may look at the castle walls, but no one, no one, must go inside; and to talk about it is strictly verboten. Hamilton has captured something particularly English here – the opaque nature of their national character. No one must know what exists inside their being, neither their emotions nor their thoughts, unless it is they who reveal them through carefully calibrated disclosures.ii We can look through the peephole only after they have removed the cover.
Vicki’s cruel title, Miss Prim, is accurate; although typically unfair; too simple to capture the complexities of a human being; especially of one who has relaxed under wartime conditions, although at the same time resisting what excites her; thus Enid’s ambivalent feelings about Joe. Indeed, the initial attraction of Vicki may have been the slightly transgressive quality of the friendship, even if the main impetus was a sense of liberal superiority; that high-minded tolerance we associate with the upper classes who employ her. She would like to remain aloof but the Blitz won’t allow it. Pushed into a social promiscuity to which she is not used Enid loses her way, and overreacts when jealousy and her own tender sensibilities are hurt and mocked.
We now realise what an odd book this is: the most convivial character in it is a German slut. The strength of the novel lies in its ability to make this seem real and plausible, while the vitality of Vicki Kugelmann suggests she is a symbol that represents the breakdown of class boundaries that occurred during the war. A time when middle classes were invaded from all sides. Of course social divisions didn’t disappear, that is a wartime myth, but the walls that demarcated them became more porous and fragile; and were at times dangerously exposed... Like the private parks of London when the iron railings were removed anyone could enter them. Even a German!
(Review of The Slaves of Solitude)