David Lodge's memoir is a sometimes-misleading story of social mobility in postwar Britain, says David Kynastonby David Kynaston / January 22, 2015 / Leave a comment
A writer’s autobiography always has car-crash potential. Anthony Trollope’s, which revealed unashamedly his tradesman’s approach to his work, seriously impaired his standing for many years; John Osborne’s, in which he monstered his mother, made it hard to return to the plays; and in David Lodge’s doggedly detailed chronological account of the first half of his life, there are some almost risibly Pooteresque moments. In 1955 his first-class degree in English is one of only six awarded by the University of London; in 1957 he and other young folk have a “very agreeable” holiday in pre-clubbing Ibiza; in 1963 he buys second-hand a suspiciously cheap Ford Popular that almost immediately needs its engine replaced—we are largely spared his book sales figures, but at times the costiveness of the day-to-day narrative feels like the recollections of a Victorian average adjuster born prematurely middle aged.
Yet happily for Lodge’s many admirers—including myself, above all of his 1995 novel Therapy—Quite a Good Time to Be Born turns out in the round to be a reputation-enhancing exercise that is a fitting celebration of his 80th birthday on 28th January. Successful autobiographies demand more than accuracy and judgement, but without them they are sunk. I spotted only one factual error (the wrong month for the 1950 general election); while as for judgement, Lodge is balanced, scrupulous and unsentimental throughout, not least about the strengths and weaknesses of his own novels. Some autobiographers one trusts, others one doesn’t, and in the pantheon of objective truth-tellers, perhaps best exemplified by Leonard Woolf, he now has an honourable place.
As ever, the early years give the key to the character: a lower middle-class childhood in Brockley, a profoundly unfashionable suburb in southeast London; the emotional temperature almost invariably low; and Lodge himself a watchful, self-aware only child, a state confirmed by his mother’s miscarriage around the time the 1939 war began. “Perhaps,” he speculates about the effect if he’d had a sister, “I would have been less introspective and self-centred.” The war itself led to several protracted stays out of London, including as a five year old being put by his mother as a boarder into a convent school near Lingfield in Surrey. In the event that only lasted a week or two, but Lodge wonders whether subsequent adult anxieties had their ultimate root in that “abrupt, unforeseen, indefinite withdrawal of everything which had made my infant life comfortable and secure.”
Part of that security, as childhood turned into adolescence and beyond, was what Lodge convincingly recalls as the unquestioned social consensus—certainly in places such as Brockley—that heavily stigmatised, among other things, premarital sex. Going to University College London in 1952, he met his future wife Mary in the first week; a courtship of almost biblical length followed; as marriage eventually approached, “at the end of the working day I would often pop round in the Vespa for cocoa and a cuddle and to talk about future plans”; and at last in May 1959 they married, going to Dublin for a week’s honeymoon. “We had got the hang of the basic act in the missionary position by the time we returned home and began to get mutual pleasure from it, albeit in a somewhat furtive fashion (in the dark, under the bedclothes, impeded by nightwear).”
Young husband and young wife were both Roman Catholic, and over the next six or seven years they uncomplainingly adhered as best they could to the officially sanctioned method of birth control: no artificial contraceptives, but instead identifying the “safe” period of a woman’s monthly cycle—or what disenchanted American Catholics nicknamed “Vatican roulette.” In the case of the Lodges, the result was three unplanned pregnancies. In October 1966, just days before the Aberfan disaster and an outpouring of national grief, the third led to the birth of a Down’s baby (Down’s syndrome children were then unfeelingly known as “mongols”). These are intensely personal pages, written with what one might call heartfelt restraint. Lodge also pays tribute to the child psychologist Rex Brinkworth, a pioneer in improving the responsiveness and learning abilities of Down’s babies.
Religion itself inevitably runs through the autobiography like the stripe through Signal toothpaste. The Catholicism came not from his father (a jobbing dance musician) but his mother, and perhaps the most striking passage here is about how Lodge did not follow the usual adolescent path of scepticism about religious faith. Quite the reverse. “As a member of the Catholic minority in a nominally Christian but in fact largely secular England, it was a positive act of self-definition to remain a practising Catholic, and a source of ideas, symbols and moral dilemmas which writing, especially prose fiction, could draw on.” The teenage Lodge, in short, knew where he was going, and Catholicism would indeed provide a rich vein for his novels for many years. So too would academia. “In those days,” he reflects in the context of getting a job in 1960 at the University of Birmingham, “there was no instruction of new recruits to the academic profession on how to lecture or teach smaller groups.” He is also critical about other aspects of what, in the 1960s, was a rapidly expanding—and in many ways blithely confident—higher education sector. In terms of awarding different classes of degree, he notes “the unexamined consensus” about what qualities, or lack of them, made the difference; while as for the appointments process, “the fact is that the ‘normal procedures’ of that time were defective,” comprising a haphazard mixture of references (“often unreliable and sometimes deceitful”) and interviews (“too brief to really test the candidates”), predictably leading to “some unfortunate appointments over the years.” Someone, someday will write a capacious collective biography of the real-life “history men,” not all of them sociologists like Malcolm Bradbury’s character Howard Kirk, and Lodge’s informed, realistic perspective will make a good starting point.
His own literary criticism, firmly grasping the modernist and then postmodernist nettle, is part of that larger story. The crucial experience came in his last year at UCL, having got hold of the green-jacketed Bodley Head edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses from—at a time before the Lady Chatterley trial changed everything—“one of the slightly louche bookshops in Charing Cross Road that had in their windows illustrated books on the Nude.” Whereupon, “immediately I was hooked,” by prose that, “combining humour, religious allusion, archaisms, colloquialisms, scientific terminology and mimetic syntax, endowed the familiar with the shock of the new.” It was all a long way from FR Leavis’s The Great Tradition, and Lodge’s first critical book, Language of Fiction (1966), was in effect an attack on what he saw as the Sage of Downing’s privileging of ethical over aesthetic criteria. Of course, that larger debate rumbles on; but for myself, if it has to be a choice, I am on Leavis’s side, fortified by the conviction that the great novel of the 20th century is not Ulysses but Vasily Grossman’s almost wholly non-modernist Life and Fate.
Interestingly, and perhaps revealingly, Lodge’s own five novels written in his twenties and thirties—The Picturegoers, Ginger, You’re Barmy, The British Museum is Falling Down, Out of the Shelter, Changing Places (his breakthrough)—each has a strong autobiographical element and stylistically are at most only semi-modernist. “Basically realistic but with elements of metafiction” is how he puts it. Here, he generously acknowledges the helpful influence of his sometime colleague and longtime friend Malcolm Bradbury (“his encouragement of the comic strain that was present but subdued in my first two novels is my greatest debt to him”) and leaves little doubt about how seriously he took his creative writing (as it was not then called). In 1967 he was more or less offered a Cambridge lectureship, but Lodge declined, principally because of an instinctive—and surely justified—belief that he would develop more fully as a novelist in unlovely but vital Brum than in the “very competitive, critical, self-obsessed community” that was the world of Cambridge English.
Even so, though he does not quite say so, there must have been a lingering regret, given that a move to Cambridge would have fitted so well into a personal story of upward social mobility. It is a story of whose emblematic nature Lodge is well aware. “My generation,” he writes in his foreword, “was the first in Britain to benefit from the 1944 Education Act which established free secondary education for all, and free tuition with means-tested maintenance grants for those who competed successfully for admission to a university.” He goes on: “Like many others I was promoted by education into the professional middle class, and lived through an extremely interesting period in English social history, when the stratified classes of pre-war Britain gradually melded to create a more open and fluid society.”
In Lodge’s case—as with Melvyn Bragg, as with Margaret Forster, as with Dennis Potter, all children of 1944—the grammar school made all the difference. St Joseph’s Academy in Blackheath, where Lodge went, was not a particularly good grammar, but it did have the obligatory inspiring English teacher and did, almost equally obligatory, provide that crucial biographical moment when the headmaster convinced an “uncertain” mum that young David “had the potential to go to university and should be encouraged to do so.” Also part of a familiar narrative is what happened subsequently to St Joseph’s. In the 1970s it became a comprehensive, its intake changed, its academic-cum-behaviour standards deteriorated, middle-class parents did a runner, and, despite “special measures,” it was eventually closed and demolished in the early 2000s. The implication from Lodge’s understandably regretful summary of these events is clear: an invaluable ladder of opportunity had been wilfully thrown away.
The larger historical truth, though, is more complicated—certainly more complicated than is likely to be admitted by those (like Nigel Farage or a growing cluster of Tory MPs) who now see the spread of grammar schools as the silver bullet to increase social mobility. In fact, at their postwar height of the late 1950s and early 1960s, a time when Britain was still predominantly a working-class society, the intake at most grammars was heavily biased towards the existing middle class; the early leaving problem overwhelmingly affected working-class children (usually because of a mixture of peer and parental pressure); and in terms of who climbed the ladder, a middle-class child who had been to a grammar was about five times as likely to go on to a university as a child from an unskilled working-class background who had also been to a grammar. There were other negatives too. The 11-plus system of selection was horribly blunt, inefficient and cruel; the secondary moderns almost invariably sounded the death-knell to a child’s life chances; and the Oxford social mobility study of 1972, written up by the sociologist John Goldthorpe in 1980, found that, following a quarter of a century of the heyday of the grammar, there had been virtually no advance since the war in the crucial yardstick of “relative” social mobility—that is, the relative life chances of working-class children compared with other children.
Despite all this, I have some sympathy with the defenders of the grammars. They did in their prime transform many individual working-class lives; those that still exist continue to offer a good education, albeit still mainly to middle-class children; and at one point, it did seem that a grammar-educated elite was poised to challenge and even supplant the privately educated elite.
What about that latter elite? Apart from one passage, meshing his indignation about the rigid, non-meritocratic hierarchy of his National Service experience in the mid-1950s with going to see Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court and relishing Jimmy Porter’s denunciation of his chinless ex-officer brother-in-law Nigel (who had obviously been to a public school), Lodge has little to say. The same, sadly, applies to most of the others (Alan Bennett the shining exception) of the class of 1944, at least those with a public voice. They still like to think of themselves as in some sense standing outside what is still quaintly known as the Establishment. But to continue to remain silent about the grotesque and damaging unfairness of private education is, au fond, a betrayal of their otherwise illustrious meritocratic heritage.