Sunday, 19 September 2010

Brian W. Aldiss

Not much more than token amends, this, for my recent neglect of the blog -- too much else going on, but mostly the research I’ve mentioned before into the teaching of English in London in the post-war period 1945-65.

This exercise has been a great excuse to read lots of history, an experience I’m enjoying immensely. The latest was Ross McKibbin’s (1998) Classes and Cultures: England 1918-51.

Dealing with the effects of war service on class relations McKibbin mentions a novel in which a middle-class boy is liberated from his class awkwardness by participating in the sheer coarseness of working-class male habits when he’s posted to India and then into Assam and war with the Japanese. So I got it and what a great Corgi cover (1972).

The name Brian Aldiss was familiar to me as a writer of SF, a prolific one, it turns out. I may have read some of his stories. I also knew the title The Hand-Reared Boy but hadn’t associated it with Aldiss. The sequel is A Soldier Erect in which the boy joins the army. I’ve gone to it without reading Hand-Reared -- but I've sent for that now (10p or something, plus stamps) and hope it arrives in the same Corgi edition.

The theme of hand-rearing and erection is, of course, as prominent as I assume it was in the first novel, and the efforts of Horatio Stubbs to get his end away in the back streets of India are often hilarious. But the last third of the book shifts tone completely and draws, I gather, on Aldiss’s own military experience, and the account of the Assam campaign is in quite another league and both intriguing and moving. (Strangely, though, the actual killing the narrator does is related in a rather impersonal and summary manner.)

I don’t think I've read anything about the 14th Army’s war in Assam and Burma though I'm fascinated by World War II in general. (I’ve religiously watched everything about the Battle of Britain in the last few days -- terrific programmes, loads of new insights and, like Aldiss on Assam, very moving.)

The book, it turns out, connects with our research not just in treating how class relations were changed by the war but because my first immediate boss in a school, Paddy Price, the head of Walworth Lower School, had fought through Burma with -- as he told it -- 500 elephants delivering supplies and fighting all the way -- Mountbatten dropping in from the air one day and, hearing complaints about the cigarette issue, ordering an air drop of top quality Players. For Paddy, too, the war had been preceded by an enjoyable spell in India. (My dad was in India too, and luckily never had to make the move into Burma.)

It’s a constant frustration, the number of people like Paddy, and my dad, now sadly dead, who I never thought to interview or even ask about things when they were alive. But perhaps that’s how it always is with history. Knowledge acquires significance when it’s no longer accessible.

McKibbin is full of useful references. When I was teaching PGCE (teacher training) my students did teaching practice at Raynes Park School (comprehensive), near Wimbledon. Now I find in McKibbin that it was a rather high-status grammar school in the 1930s and that there’s a good memoir that includes a pupil’s experience, by Paul Vaughan. That I've got too -- so cheap from Amazon that it’s hardly worth going to the library any more.

If my resolution holds up to keep the blog going, I'll report in due course.

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