Monday, 22 December 2014

A Short Sprint

What’s the best way to snipe at the middle classes?  You stare at the screen. Pick your nose.  And look at my words blankly. The middle classes? I ask again and you scratch your head, and move to click to another website…

It is to parody them.  Here it is done in a very particular way: the author attacks their principles by satirising the very foundations on which they have built their lives; the hero instead of heading for the top - of the firm, the Oxford college, the civil service, the Anglican Church - races to the bottom of the social ladder. This novel a parodic updating of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, where Christian has been turned into Charles Lumley, a renegade who seeks to escape the banal demands of a society to which he feels indifferent. And he does this not by looking up towards some future heaven but down into the present-day mores of the poor and the alienated. Charles Lumley believes salvation will come from giving up his bourgeois life. He hopes to find a more comfortable home amongst the misfits and the lower classes.  

On his way down Charles meets many interesting types, and gets himself into many scrapes; he is accused of theft; he does a bit of drug-running; and he is witness to a murder he didn’t report to the police. This is not quite what he had in mind.  Better by far, though, than working in Threadneedle Street. 

He works with his hands.  He even goes back to his public school and asks them to hire him as their window cleaner; a moment of social farce ensues as the headmaster fails at first to grasp his meaning.  A former pupil as manual labourer?  Of course it must be some undergraduate joke. It is in a way.  To accept it would be to raise the loudest laugh of all; Charles washing the school's windows more fatal to its reputation than machine guns blasting holes through teachers and old boys.1

Charles Lumley is running away, and a fine old time we are to have with him; a life outside the middle classes a wonderful excuse for a narrative romp – thugs, fights, killings and car chases are rarely seen in the streets of Elizabeth Taylor and Pamela Hansford Johnson. 

Charles is running away from…Well, yes, exactly: from what?  

It was not because he was unsuccessful that they objected to him; lack of success, in their eyes, was not a punishable offence; one simply left such people alone.  What annoyed them was that he did not even seem to be trying.  Though they could not have put it into words, their objection to him was that he did not wear a uniform. If he had worn the uniform of a prosperous middle-class tradesman, like Robert, they would have approved of him.  If, on the other hand, he had seriously adopted the chic disorder of the Chelsea Bohemian, they would at least have understood what he was at.  In their world, it was everyone’s first duty to wear a uniform that announced his status, his calling and his ambitions: from the navvy’s thick boots and shirtsleeves to the professor’s tweeds, the conventions of clothing saw to it that everyone wore his identity card where it could be seen.  But Charles seemed not to realize the sacred duty of dressing the part.  Even as an undergraduate he had not worn corduroys or coloured shirts.  He had not even smoked a pipe.  He had appeared instead in non-committal lounge suits which were still not the lounge suits of a business man, and heavy shoes which were still not the sophisticated heavy shoes of the fashionable outdoor man.

This seems easy enough. Charles wants to be a natural human being.  He doesn’t want to live up to some role or subsume himself in a common identity.  He just wants to be.  And yet… This desire is rather an odd one.  To give myself as an example: when young it never occurred to me that I was going to made into someone else.  I had no thoughts about a manufactured personality. I believed I simply existed. If I were to survive - in school, on the street, in the workplace - I knew that it was of course necessary that I conform to the world’s demands; although I also knew that there would always be times when I could be free - in the evenings, on the weekends, and during the holidays.  School.  Work.  These were alien places which never defined me; at most they dressed me up in their uniforms.  Unpleasant, for sure, to dress in other people’s clothes; but they can be removed quite easily. At 18.42 every Monday to Friday to be exact.  There was never any doubt that there existed a separation between my personality and the institutional culture that surrounded me. I accepted this as normal and assumed that most people felt the same.

For Charles Lumley life isn't so simple.  He expects the world and himself to be a unity.  That is: he assumes his right to be at home in society.  But then one day - his first day at university? - he realised that this can only happen if he accepts a part that has already been invented.  This he cannot do. “I want to be me! I will not perform in somebody else’s play…”  Only someone with the confidence of a good social upbringing (and an excellent education) could believe that this is possible. To ignore one’s society? Only a man rich in social capital could think such a thing.  Though this is not his only peculiarity. Charles has a very clear and self-conscious idea about his personality. He sees himself as a social misfit, and this self-image matters a great deal to him. It is another aspect of his middle class culture; one that is built upon and suffused with simple abstractions.  Although we have to be careful, as our hero reminds us, for the content of these conceptions is changing - ideas of rebellion are replacing those about religious conformity.2

Charles Lumley is a young man running away from the burden - or more accurately: the mental weight - of middle class expectation.  He is also running away from its world of words - this is a culture that is monopolised by language.3 Thus it is no accident that throughout the novel he takes up jobs that require little thought; and considers marrying into a working class family where actions and gestures have replaced verbal repartee.  He is lucky not to end his days as a bouncer, a job where a head can get in the way of business. 

Interlude. 

Charles has plenty of luck.  And so he ends up in bohemian Soho, a place where a character such as he is likely to meet his saviour; as he indeed does.  Luck.  Of course our hero is lucky; he is the wealthy tourist who can always rely on his expensive education and his middle class background to get him out of difficulties. 

Interlude over.

His one aspiration is not to be like his prosperous relatives.  Why is such negation so important for him?  The reference to “not even seem to be trying” is suggestive.  Charles Lumley doesn’t want to do the hard work of maintaining an identity.  The effort to keep up the spirit of the middle classes is beyond him – because he has become lazy, because he has lost faith in it, or because the faith itself is too old and worn out to be repaired are possible explanations for this failure of will.  To wear a uniform is to take up a religion, whether it be that of the  “prosperous tradesman” or of the “Chelsea Bohemian”; both require members to participate in their rituals and believe in their absolute validity.  To belong to such sects, and these sects are the essence of the middle classes, is to live for an idea, however attenuated its actual content.  But Charles Lumley is an agnostic.  This turns him into a  loner; a drifter; a student who studies for no purpose.  The result?  He has no idea of who he should be.  This is the reason he runs away. Or to put it precisely: negation has become his purpose in life.4

To believe in an idea is also to have some fairly clear conception about the future. This can be oppressive, especially if one is brought up in a milieu where one’s maturity has already been decided - by convention more than diktat.  A middle class man like Charles Lumley is not expected to think that career, marriage, and a large house are negotiable.  They are fixed realities like Parliament Square, Ben Nevis and the English Channel.

And yet…a sensibility is emerging that believes these might be fictions.5 

The future. We think of an old man. This man is very strong and he stands by a chair on which an adolescent is sitting.  He places his hands on the shoulders of this boy.  It looks like a friendly gesture. But…each time his nephew tries to get up his uncle squeezes him back onto the seat of the chair.  He strains; he pushes; he wriggles… Always this boy falls back down defeated. Again and again he tries.  Again and again he fails; until worn out and dispirited he accepts his fate, which is to sit on the chair and listen to his uncle speak of the good times that lie ahead.  A moment comes when he will no longer notice the hands resting on his shoulders.  It is then that they will be removed. Now he is ready to take his uncle’s place.

The future.  To think ahead means to judge current actions by their consequences.  Our animal spirits - our ability to respond instinctively to the present moment - is thus tempered if not repressed by ideas about what will happen next.  The mind has gained control of us.  It is a mind with its own very special desires - it wants to make our lives safe and predictable. Tomorrow must be the same as today which is similar to yesterday.  And so our focus shifts.  We restrain ourselves. We worry about our behaviour; afraid that too many drinks this Saturday evening will mean fewer exam marks on Monday morning; the deaconship in the diocese of Derby lost to Henrique Arbuthnot, that dismal teetotaller.  But it won’t, god damn him!  And so we work for an idea that will always keep us working - because the future will always remain just out of reach.

Charles doesn't want to wait.  He wants to be free today, now, this moment. As a bouncer in a Soho bar he achieves his ultimate goal; albeit this is to give his adventures a teleology; and to turn his travels into a real pilgrimage.  At last he has found a job that exists outside of all respectable conventions; something with few long-term prospects and no career plan.  

Crucially: the novel does not end here.

Charles is too conditioned by his upbringing to accept a purely contingent existence.  The bouncer’s life cannot satisfy him for long.  Neither could Rosa, his working class girlfriend.  While a life of crime is too dangerous and offends his moral sensibilities. For a man of his background the working classes have just enough interest to sustain him for a short holiday.  Anything longer and he will find them tedious. Thus although Charles hates his class – the pompous superiority of Tharkles, the fake aestheticism of Froulish, the bovine stupidity of the rugger crowd – he cannot get rid of its influence.  However much he struggles with the ideas of his upbringing, ideas that are undergoing decay and transformation, he cannot escape from its modes of thought and action.  The mores of the bourgeoisie are an integral part of him; it is they that have formed his soul. It is on the level of ideas only where he fights; his own in conflict with his class's. Unable to fit in or to rebel (Charles believes in no ideology) his one option is to run away.6

Charles is lucky.  He will always find a job – as window cleaner, driver, hospital orderly, chauffeur, bouncer and…but we’ll come to that later.  At first each new job interests him.  Sometimes he even believes that he will keep it for life; although we know that this is an illusion – Charles is only travelling through this terrain.  Even when he isn’t chafing at its restrictions (Rosa’s inert family), or uncovering some moral disgrace that forces him to move on (to write his long and pretentious novel, an illiterate’s Ulysses, his landlord Froulish is living off the earnings of his prostitute lover), his work always seems destined to end quickly. It is almost as if…he is on extended leave.  Yes. We feel that this is true. This is a long vacation before he settles down to proper work. And now we notice something that we should have noticed before. This is not a rebellion against the strict morality of the middle classes.  No, not at all. Underneath the seemingly louche behaviour there is a fine grain of respectability, even primness, in Charles’ character. Charles Lumley is no degenerate. Quite the contrary. He is having a lark!  Which in a typical middle class way he takes very seriously indeed.

So what is he running away from?  

From Sheila, for one thing or for mostly - we have a suspicion that despite all the bravado this man is scared of marrying.  His escapades start when he refuses to marry a respectable middle class girl; although he won’t admit it, creating a scene with Robert Tharkles so as to end the engagement.  We are reminded of Joe Lunn (in Scenes from a Provincial Life).  Marriage is a prison sentence for such characters.  And so they run or hide, all the while dreaming of some paradise, such as America or a terrace house in a working class district, where they will be free and safe.  But…they are attracted to women; and want more than a series of one-night stands.  Love with no consequences is their dream. A warm bed and breakfast in the morning will they do them very nicely; but kids are a nuisance and an eight o’clock start at the insurance office is a torment that must be avoided at all costs. They live in dangerous times!  These women can be so tricky.  One mistake and…you’re handcuffed to the altar.  

The same range of feelings is shared by the hero of A Kind of Loving. But Vic Brown isn't so fortunate; unlike his two bourgeois coevals he cannot escape a fate determined by his working class background - circumstances force him to marry a girl against his will.  

Charles is luckier than Joe and Vic. Wain writes better than Cooper; both of whom give their heroes more social assurance (and more social capital) than Barstow’s doomed youth. And what assets these are!  Charles able to let himself go confident that something will always turn up; and if it doesn’t – an office job will always be available back home.  Charles is free in a way Vic Brown can never be.  Joe Lunn, in radical contrast, is an artist - that is: a natural outsider - who will never quite fit in to his society, no matter how much he tries to do so.  These differences are reflected in the three endings.  Vic resigned to his fate. Joe gloating over his escape. Charles uncertain about what he should do, although the pull of Veronica is enormous (and we guess inevitable).

He stood up and walked to the centre of the room.  If an animal who was tame, or born in captivity, went back to what should have been its natural surroundings, it never survived.  If it was a bird, the other birds killed it, but usually it just died.  Here was his cage, a fine new one, air conditioned, clean, commanding a good view, mod. cons., main services.  And she had snapped the lock and was calling him into the waving jungle.  When he got there, he would die. 
That was Con.  What was Pro? 
Pro was that she was beautiful, and he loved her, and to accept her with death and catastrophe in the same packet would be no trouble at all, thank you, anyone would have done the same, don’t mention it.  Pro was that he could not bear it that she should sit casually in the armchair, talking to him across half the width of the room, when he knew every contour of her body under its demure clothing.  Pro was that I a twister love what I abhor. 
It was dusk now.  He crossed the room and turned a switch.  The light sprang suddenly into every corner, dramatising each outline, emphasising the shape of the furniture and the shape of their predicament. 
They looked at each other, baffled and inquiring.

It is a wonderful reversal.  After a few years of free-wheeling living middle class domesticity is seen as a wild place in which the tamed animal will expire.  Although this metaphor is absurd and paradoxical it does state a psychological truth - a certain kind of freedom will die if Charles succumbs to matrimony.

Is this just a tale about a young man fresh from university who cannot adapt himself to the rules of regular work, and so goes on a wild spree until he falls in love?  Yes, it is.  Although the social significance of this tale is enormous. Charles Lumley is a new social type. Young, bourgeois and exclusively male this type has acquired a new sense of freedom which it cannot easily give up. A man’s early twenties an extension of the university life; with its relative lack of pattern, its disorderly hours, and mildly bohemian behaviour.7  Poorly conditioned into the rituals of work these young men will tend to encourage (or in Charles’ case encourage and exaggerate) their outsider nature; although, inevitably, they lack the personality and the talent to continue it beyond a few short years.

Charles Lumley is running away from his future.  He runs so far away that for a moment he appears to have escaped it completely - his few hours as a bouncer.  This is an illusion.  His family and his teachers have taught him too well. Charles will always be a member of his class.  It is the one situation which he cannot run away from.  The best he can do is to find a niche where respectability is allowed to be a little frayed - the entertainment business; where a mild bohemia is becoming accepted as a normal part of middle class life.

The old ways of being a bourgeois he believes are bunk.  Charles knows they will emasculate his freedom.  And yet he can think of no alternative - he is not an artist, thinker or man of action.  His one instinct is to run… With no vision of a new kind of life Charles is a rebel without any ideas at all (except for some very sentimental ones about the working classes, which he finds in decline – the clever chat of Rosa’s brother, Stan, a young man on the make, is replacing the silent dignity of her father).  All Charles can do is run as fast as he can to the bottom of the social scale; living day to day, hoping for the best, and always fearful that the future will catch hold of him. 

His fears are correct.

Charles is running blindly through the jungle. He suddenly stops. He looks around wildly.  “I don’t know where I am…” He is lost. He panics; and runs frantically and mindlessly until he trips and falls…down into a bamboo cage.  In a few hours the natives will arrive; they will bundle him up, and him carry him off to a semi-detached villa in Hampstead. 

His fears turn out to be phantoms.

He lands a well-paid job at an agency writing gags for radio.  Charles Lumley is settling down, although the work, crucially, is only semi-respectable; not quite the family bank manager, but certainly not the impoverished hack scrounging drinks in a Fitzrovia dive.  Living in a sort of limbo-land he is a nowhere man.  Charles calls this “an armed truce” with society.

‘What do you think I want?’… 
‘Neutrality,’ said Mr Blearney calmly and without pausing to take a thought. 
Charles looked at him in silence. 
‘Go on, partner, tell me it isn’t true, if you can,’ said Mr Blearney.  ‘It’s the type who wants neutrality who comes into our racket.  Doesn’t want to takes sides in all the silly pettiness that goes on.  Doesn’t want to spend his time scratching and being scratched.  
Wants to live his own life.’ 
Charles was humbled.  The man understood him perfectly.  His very choice of a word was absolutely right.  So far, he had set himself target after target that had proved out of reach: economically, the quest of self-sufficient poverty; socially, for unmolested obscurity; emotionally, first for a grand passion and then for a limited and defined contentment.  And now he valued his niche simply because it gave him the means, through his new wealth, to put himself beyond the struggle, and the leisure to meditate sufficiently to keep him on his guard against his own folly.

We don’t expect this to last.  First the three-year contract, and now Veronica looks at him so alluringly across the room. It is not going to be so easy to keep his “neutrality”; Charles Lumley too conditioned by his background, and too weak in his own ideas, to resist the lure of a married bed with a beautiful woman lying between its sheets.  And yet…

And yet a new world is emerging.  It already exists in radio and advertising, and will really take-off when television becomes ubiquitous in British households.  The mass media. A place where good middle class girls and boys can safely play at being non-conformists.



(Review: Hurry On Down)


1.  Do you need the reference?

2.  For further comment on the changing nature of the bourgeoisie see my Critic as Clerk.

3.  See the references to Basil Bernstein in Mary Douglas’ Natural Symbols.

4.  Contrast with Arthur Seaton in Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night & Sunday Morning.  He is a rapscallion inside a social world that he accepts absolutely.  He is not rebelling he is just having fun.

5.  By the early 1960s the fashionable wisdom - for example R.D. Laing - was that they were fictions.

6.  A decade later these same middle class kids thought they could overthrow society - a culture that in the 1950s was beginning to weaken began in the 1960s to collapse.

7.  Eric Rohmer’s suzanne’s career captures something of these days; particularly the self-conscious delight in a sort of anaemic immoralism.

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