Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Reading the 80s - 1980

Well, I’ve read three of the books I listed for 1980 and an additional one – A Few Green Leaves by Barbara Pym.

I’ve never read any Pym before and was surprised at how dated the relationships between men and women seemed. Perhaps it’s because in my head the 80s are ‘now’, which isn’t really the case. Still, the idea of a sister having to come to ‘make a home’ for her vicar brother after his wife died, and his being unable to cook even the most simple meal, was completely alien to me.

Maybe all this was in part to do with it being a village. Pym has her central character Emma speculate:

It was a mistaken and old-fashioned concept, the helplessness of men, the kind that could only flourish in a village years behind the times. Yet she couldn’t help feeling sorry for Tom..

It’s that last line that struck me. She feeds her ex-boyfriend Graham too when he comes to the place, and accepts his criticism of it – as though it’s just in nature for women to provide for men and men to take it for granted.

In fact Emma’s whole relationship with her ex, who takes a cottage to write his book and implies he’s having marital problems but never quite says it, is another example of this strange tolerance of (as opposed to active interest in) the opposite sex. Even when Emma meets the wife (because Graham has sent her to a funeral on his behalf, which Emma again wonders at, but doesn’t draw any conclusions about his selfishness from) and said wife seems quite likable, she still just drifts on and doesn’t wonder about the version of events she’s been given.

It reminded me of Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner – I wanted to shake that central character too. So passive, and the passivity leading her into behaviour a more active person would realise was selfish or morally dubious.

I was also struck, as I was with Hotel du Lac, that it wasn’t the sort of thing I usually read, and so I’m in danger of not doing it justice because of my irritation with the characters. It is a gentle comedy, and Pym writes well about the village itself, even down to the silly little things donated for jumble. I don’t think I’ll be reading more though.

Graham Greene, Ways of Escape.

I only finished this yesterday. I must have originally begun it in the last few years I think, because when I began reading again from the beginning I kept thinking ‘I remember this really well, this was good, why did I abandon it?’

I also realised I had misremembered it as a series of essays, which it’s not exactly – instead it holds together as a kind of autobiography – albeit one with a weave so loose you could put your fingers through the holes.

The theme is of course Ways of Escape – which for Greene means mostly travel and writing, of course. But there’s a great deal more in here than that. There are the people Greene has met and his own slantwise view of the world – possibly more accurate, and possibly less accurate, than other people's. There are his inspirations for his writing and why he writes. There are the brave and stupid and pointless things he did, in the Blitz or Jerusalem or the opium dens of Saigon. There is correspondence with Kim Philby (after his defection) and Evelyn Waugh (on being labelled a ‘Catholic’ writer). There is..

A lot of stuff, actually, for a book of 237 pages. An incredible amount, and written with such a lightness of touch that it doesn’t feel dense.

So why didn’t I finish it the first time then?  

I really can’t remember. It is a book with a lot of stopping places – which is probably why I thought it was written in essay form. At some point I simply didn’t restart, and I’ve no idea why. 

The Venetian Empire - Jan Morris

If Jan Morris has a fault its romanticising Empires. It happens quite a few times in this one, despite her having made it clear that in some of the places conquered the islanders were shockingly badly treated, even betrayed and left to the invading Turks as the Venetians negotiated their own withdrawal. 

And then there are the following sentences about Dubrovnik, which really did stand out:

‘Slave trading was outlawed very early. Torture was forbidden. A civic home for old people was founded in 1347 and there was a high standard of education.’

In 1347! If you could pick a place to live yourself in that era wouldn’t this be the place? And yet Morris goes on a few paragraphs later.. 

one misses the winged lion on the walls of this determined little city, and with it that warmth of the Venetian genius, which with all its faults..’

Sorry no. Just no. It’s bedazzlement that’s speaking, not reality.  Empires may be great if you are at the top of the heap (unless they depose you and dismember you of course) but not if you are anywhere near the bottom. 

Perhaps this is nothing more than the usual tension in history as a subject – is it a narrative to take lessons from, or is it a treasure trove of facts and artefacts where it doesn’t matter if you get all nostalgic about the magnificence and beauty of the fleet and the wonderful things they brought back to glorify their city, and focus a little less on their monstrous politics?

This book is, largely, the second. That’s not to say it’s inaccurate, and I always enjoy reading Morris because of the way she tells history as a wonderful story. People and places come alive, and she teaches the origins of famous statues and monuments without ever becoming dry.

I found out how the Acropolis was semi-destroyed, where the columns in the Piazza San Marco came from, and the whole point of the imperial ambitions of Venice, the usefulness of the empire to them, their identity as a trading nation.

Smaller social groups are also included, and followed through almost to the present day. The tragedy of the fate of the Jewish ghetto in Corfu, and the current status of that first, ideal town above.

And despite what I said about not focussing on the brutality it is still in there. It may not be the point of the book, but it’s not ignored.

So how does it date? I think (and I found this in the Graham Greene above too) that writers are generally far less inclined to make generalisations about casts of mind or temperaments now than they were in 1980. I think there’s more awareness that a term like ‘Latin’ or ‘Oriental’ is not as precise as we probably thought then.

Most noticeably though – and it doesn’t make the book dated but it does date it - was the description of what was then Yugoslavia, which erupted in civil war in the 90s, a subject that couldn’t possibly be avoided if you were writing in passing about the area now.  

Metroland – Julian Barnes

I’ve put this review at the end because it contains spoilers. This was another inconsequential sort of book (see A Few Green Leaves above) and I couldn’t write it without.  

The reader starts with the first person narrator Christopher and his friend at secondary school age, going into shops uptown and irritating the staff for the sake of it, winding up the football team by cheering them on in a way that looks supportive but was clearly not.

At this point I became quite distracted trying to work out social class – although written in 1980 it begins with the schooldays in the 60s and it seemed to me a more natural working class boy would be trespassing on building sites or hanging off the pole on the back of a bus and less obsessed with shop assistants calling him ‘sir’.  Clearly this is a public school boy.

OK, so rebellious public school boy thinks he’s being rebellious by behaving in the entitled fashion of his class.

Still he’s just a kid at this point, so we can let him off. He’ll grow out of it.

And he does. He becomes a student, has an interlude in Paris, and finally gets married and a proper job. Meanwhile his old friend is still kind of the same as he ever was.

Which of them is right? Has Christopher ‘sold out’?

Well maybe, but I came out of the book feeling that his compromises were largely a good thing, possibly because I never felt the character was actually going to do anything monumental anyway – write some fantastic book or produce some groundbreaking body of artwork. So why not just relax into a ‘normal’ life in Metroland?

So, in conclusion, what have I learnt about 1980? Largely, I think, that it’s further away than I feel it is, and attitudes have changed more than I care to remember they have.  In particular I had forgotten how even seemingly unprejudiced people were still more ‘us and them’ – whether the ‘them’ was the opposite sex, or the ancient Turks, or the bourgeoisie – than would be the case now.

Next up is of course 1981, and I will report back on March 15. Again if anyone wants to join in you’d be very welcome to link your review for ’80 or plans for ‘81 in the comments below.

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