Sunday, 19 April 2009

The Europeans in Bradford c.1958

Hah! Helvetica again I see, on the right… 1969, a Methuen Modern Play (great series). I'm getting more and more allergic to that typeface. I've just noticed after 40 years (or however many) that it’s what the National Theatre uses and must be part of the reason I feel so little love for that institution. But more of that another time – the National Theatre has nothing to do with my experience of those plays.

I never saw The Fire Raisers but have had the book around since I bought it for, apparently, ‘7s. 6d. (37½ p)’ and have just re-read it in a brief orgy of returns to plays that I saw and read years ago and still have copies of. From Penguin Plays, Three European Plays, 1958 (2/6) I've read Ring Round the Moon by Jean Anouilh and The Queen and the Rebels by Ugo Betti. I skipped Sartre’s In Camera (Huis Clos) because I've kept going back to him in the intervening years. Then onto Max Frisch, The Fire Raisers.

The Anouilh and the Betti I saw (certainly the former) at the Bradford Civic Playhouse when I was still at school; probably the Sartre as well and some Giroudoux. ‘Playhouse’, note, not ‘Theatre’ which I've been calling it in earlier postings: I just thought of looking to see if they have a website. Not only do they and it gives me the right name but it has lists of productions from 1947; only for certain years, though, unfortunately, and not the ones I’d like to look at. (I also gather the theatre has been through vicissitudes over the years, is currently ‘The Priestley’ and is in administration pending relaunch as the Bradford Playhouse. Good luck to them.)

The productions were amateur and I suppose crude but had a powerful effect on me as a teenager who had no other experience of theatre. The way the lighting created dawn through the French windows over some desultory party-goers too exhausted to get themselves to bed or through the bars of a prison cell in some desperate central European police state was magical. And the plays, even when lightweight (Anouilh) were elegant, intelligent and interesting. They made the Continent seem so much more exciting than the tatty and tacky Britain of the 50s – a point confirmed by the stuff I've been reading about that period: Colin MacInnes [check MacInnes label in the right hand margin] and now Kenneth Allsop’s The Angry Decade (free from Amazon, virtually, apart from £3 postage – and thrown out by Leeds University, I note. Right.)

About The Fire Raisers, first produced in Zurich in 1958 and at the Royal Court, London, in 1961:

The fire raisers are a secret group who go around the town starting fires. A couple of them move in on a bourgeois family and made no secret of the fact that that’s what they are but the businessman father (Biedermann) finds it more comfortable to convince himself they’re joking as they fill his loft with drums of petrol and ask him for matches. It’s stylish and funny as well as sinister. I especially like the Greek chorus of firemen:

Ready are we,
Carefully coiled are the hoses,
In accordance with the regulations,
Polished and carefully greased and of brass
Is each windlass.
Everyone knows what his task is.

An ill wind is blowing –

Everyone knows what his task is,
Polished and carefully tested,
To make sure that we have full pressure,
And likewise of brass is our pump.

And the hydrants?

Ready are we….

And here’s a sample couple of pages – wonderful stuff, and quite unlike anything being done in the Britain of the ineffectual Angry Young Men and the prosaic Kitchen Sink (click to enlarge):

Monday, 13 April 2009

The language of the Absolute Beginner

See my recent criticism of the way the teenage narrator talks in Colin MacInnes's Absolute Beginners. I now find MacInnes offered an explanation in his 1961 essay collection, England, Half English. He says that in the novel and his earlier City of Spades he attempted

'poetic evocations of a human situation, with undertones of social criticism of it: wildly romantic in mood, and as rigorously analytical as I can be.... To convey this [what? PM] to the reader I chose a language for "coloured people", or for teenagers, that was almost entirely an invented one... Strict naturalism of language... would, in the case of social exotics such as these, result in a 'period dialect': pedestrian, and fixed for ever in the time-stream.'

So, he claims, Dickens invented a dialect for Sam Weller. Well, good try, but for me it doesn't work.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Onboard irritations

"On behalf of the onboard staff, thank you for travelling on South West Trains."

As if I'm bestowing a favour on them, as if I've thought deeply about all the different train companies that run services from Surbiton to London (there is no other and there’s no direct bus) and on the basis of a dispassionate evaluation, and perhaps some sentimental attachment to a much-loved outfit, I've decided that my necessary commute should once again -- like every single other journey I've ever made between Surbiton and Waterloo -- be by South West Trains.

Notice what’s so clever about this. Their thanking me disrupts my normal sense of the natural order of things, which is that it’s for me to thank them if they do their job well. Which I must admit on the whole they do, apart from whoever thinks up their constant bloody messages and treats the public address system as if at all costs it has to be unremittingly used if it's to justify itself.

So clever or so stupid, since the effect of their thanks is to make me grind my teeth and go to the trouble of naming and shaming them to my millions of blog readers.

And, by the way, as others have said but I agree: I'm not a customer -- I'm a passenger.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Celebrations of London

One thing about MacInnes and his teenage Absolute Beginner, they certainly appreciate their London, both the people and the material city with its light and rivers and geography. On certain days how can you not?

On the South Bank the other day the light brought out the richness of the Portland stone back wall of the Festival Hall:

While along the river it struck me more forcibly than before how terrific all those masts and cables are that form the superstructure of the Hungerford footbridge (with the old steel railway bridge behind it). There were plenty of masts and poles along there in 1951 too, in the Festival of Britain.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Absolute Beginners

I've mentioned that with colleagues I'm researching English teaching in London secondary schools from the end of the war to the mid-1960s. In that connection I've just been re-reading Colin MacInnes's 1959 cult novel Absolute Beginners. (England, Half English, above, is essays, but the cover would have suited the novel too. The picture's by Pat Fogarty.)

I can see why it was a cult novel and it still appeals on the third reading (the first having been, I suppose, soon after it came out). It's about the London scene in 1958 and culminates in the Notting Hill Riots. The narrator is 18 (19 at the end) and, very consciously and assertively, a teenager – a species of which he speaks as its would-be philosopher. The book is sharp on the social types and scenes he moves between, and lyrical on the fabric and feel of the city, its neighbourhoods and populations.

I went back to the book wondering how far the moods and attitudes it depicts would have been those of a proportion of the pupils in 'our' London schools and come up against a problem of plausibility. Not only is this a novel, it's a novel about an 18-year-old young man's expression of his distinctive, consciously adopted teenage identity written by a 45-year-old whose own youth was spent in an Australian public school and then, from age 16, in various employments in Europe.

Of course, in the late '50s MacInnes knew his London youth in so far as a middle-aged man could who hung out with those of them who went to certain coffee places, bars etc, and who had sex with not a few of the boys. (I know this from, amongst other sources, Tony Gould's biography, Inside Outsider.)

But it's clear that no-one who at 18 had been that working class kid with a useless 'elementary school' education (it must have been secondary modern) and coming from the childhood that's depicted could have either arrived at such clear and definite views on such a range of current issues, or articulated his views with such eloquence. The attitudes expressed are blatantly those of a liberal Guardian reader: extremely articulate about politics (despite despising the Parliamentary game), anti-capital punishment, anti-imperialist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic (though less obviously anti-sexist). And above all he's already, at nearly 19, got everything worked out to the point of an announceable 'position'.

MacInnes has in fact written his idea of the ideal Teenage Manifesto as he wishes some teenager had written it but none actually did, and of course his wishes are those of a 45-year-old who had never been that sort of youth. Whether any 1958 teenager really was so insightful and certain is of course a matter for inquiry. The evidence would be diaries, letters or recordings from the time, and if any exist I'd love to know of them.

I looked at Tony Gould again and was surprised that he has nothing to say about the sheer implausibility of this character, nor about his strange style. It's impossible to believe, for instance, that the following was the subcultural style of any actual group of British youth; it's the dialogue from the first couple of pages:

IT WAS with the advent of the Laurie London era that I realized the whole teenage epic was tottering to doom.
'Fourteen years old, that absolute beginner,' I said to the Wizard as we paused casually in the gramophone section to hear Little Laurie in that golden disc performance of his.
'From now on,' said Wizard, 'he's certainly Got The Whole World In His Hands.'
We listened to the wonder boy's nostrils spinning on.

'They buy us younger every year,' I cried. 'Why, Little Mr L.'s voice hasn't even dropped yet, so who will those tax-payers try to kidnap next?
'Sucklings,' said Wizard. ….

The Wiz looked wise, like the middle feller of the three old monkeys.
'It's not the tax-payers,' he said, 'who are responsible. Ifs the kids themselves, for buying the EPs these elderly sordids bribe the teenage nightingales to wax.'
'No doubt,' I said, for I know better than ever to argue with the Wizard, or with anyone else who gets his kicks from an idea.
Mr Wiz continued, masticating his salmon sandwich for anyone to see, 'It's been a two-way twist, this teenage party. Exploitation of the kiddos by the conscripts, and exploitation of themselves by the crafty little absolute beginners. The net result? "Teenager"'s become a dirty word or, at any rate, a square one.'

I smiled at Mr W. 'Well, take it easy, son,' I said, 'because a sixteen year old sperm like you has got a lot of teenage living still to do. As for me, eighteen summers, rising nineteen, I'll very soon be out there among the oldies.'

The Wizard eyed me with his Somerset Maugham appearance.
'Me, boy,' he said, 'I tell you. As things are, I won't regret it when the teenage label's torn off the arse pockets of my drip-dry sky-blue jeans.'

I find it easier to believe in the argot of Alex and his Droogies in A Clockwork Orange.

Gould doesn't cite any serious critical accounts of Absolute Beginners except one, by Richard Wollheim in 1962, that I'm hoping to dig out from the library stack tomorrow. There must be lots of others but I haven't got round to hunting them out. But in any case, my interest at the moment is more sociological than literary: is this novel a fair, if over-articulate, representation of the attitudes of an influential section of London teenagers in 1958-9?