Monday, 29 June 2020

A dream-like love story

The House of Sleep The blurb for Jonathan Coe's The House of Sleep didn't really sell the book. It was instead a positive discussion on a podcast that brought it to my attention.

Much of the action takes place in the student accommodation where Sarah, Robert, Terry and Gregory meet. They lose contact after graduation, but a decade later a number of coincidences cause their paths to cross again. At its heart it is a love story.

Sleep, dreams and reality run through the narrative, in fact the book is divided into six sections that follow the sleep cycle. Odd numbered chapters deal with incidents in the 80s, even numbered ones the 90s. This constant shift in time from one chapter to the next initially gives the narrative a dream-like character, which is extended through ending each section with an unfinished sentence and beginning the following section in mid-sentence. It's not as confusing as it sounds.

Coe's work is often described as humorous. This example of his writing provokes most often a wry smile or chuckle, although I did laugh out loud on reading the incident of the fictional film-maker's after-dinner speech and its footnotes. There's another episode that appears to presage horror, also sad moments. Indeed one of the three appendices brought a tear to my eye.

Above all, Coe's skill is to be able to take a reader back in time. It's difficult to pinpoint how he captures the zeitgeist of the Thatcher years in The House of Sleep. Of course, he mentions the occasional cultural reference such as Dallas and Knots Landing, but it's more than this. There's a sort of alchemy to it which he refined for the 70s setting in his 2001 book, The Rotters' Club.

Sunday, 21 June 2020

The decline of Bolton

The Town That Vanished Ian Robinson's The Town that Vanished uses the Mass Observation Worktown investigation of the late 1930s "as a frame of reference for exploring why industrial towns like Bolton disappeared." It is a descriptive study rather than an academic attempt to answer a research question. The author's intention is also to "introduce the Worktown project to people who have little or no knowledge of it", primarily Boltonions.

Each chapter covers a different aspect of working class life, with the most enjoyable and informative being The Bolton Odeon, Burnden Park, and King Cotton.

Robinson's narrative is to some extent driven by personal background and family lore, rather than objectivity, which is not a criticism, especially as the original Worktown investigation was also biased. The Oxbridge, public school educated Tom Harrison and his Observers had little if any knowledge of the northern industrial working class. In the chapter about Blackpool we learn that one researcher turned up "to peer at the working class in his Bentley motor car", others "were often appalled by what they saw as the grotesque, tacky commercialism", and Harrisson himself "expected to see copulation everywhere [but only found] petting and feeling".

One glaring omission is a chapter on religion, which is surprising since the book was inspired by the life of his mother, who "as a child ... was a Rose Queen". Perhaps Robinson had intended to cover the subject, as some of the chapters mention the importance of churches in their first paragraphs. The subject is as important to explain the female working class experience as the pub and the football are for that of the male.

In spite of this, it's an enjoyable trip down memory lane for those whose parents were born in Bolton around the time the Mass Observation took place.

Sunday, 14 June 2020

The obsession of a spy

The Long Room Francesca Kay's The Long Room is story about the loneliness and obsessions of a spy, the sort of spy whose life is dull, drab and tedious, not at all exciting.

It's primarily told from the point of view of Stephen, a man in his late 20s, recruited to the secret service at university. He works at the Institute with a team of friendly colleagues, but he doesn't like to socialise with them. During the week he lives in London where "it is a long time since he remembered to wash the sheets." At the weekends he retreats to his elderly mother in Didcot. It's a lonely life.

Stephen's job involves listening to tapes of telephone and house bugs and transcribing them to help identify security threats. This is 1981 Britain, when the IRA are planting bombs and members of CND are considered to be communists. In the course of his work, Stephen has become obsessed with Helen, the wife of a target, PHOENIX. He has only ever heard her beautiful voice, which "speaks poems to him, and her piano playing, and the sweetness of her nature." His thoughts veer towards worship, believing girls like Helen are "pure and vestal, the innocent and the good". His is a devotional, romantic idea of love.

Ultimately The Long Room is a character-driven story with a well-drawn protagonist, however it comes across as a bit too clever. If your literature studies ended at age 16 you might not pick up on some references. A google search after finishing revealed allusions aplenty to Byron and romantic love, Shelley and the quest for perfect union, Goethe and introversion, all of which are themes of the book. In spite of the fine characterisation and descriptions, Stephen's ultimate actions weren't credible, and if you're the sort of reader who needs a fast moving plot, you may find yourself putting it to one side without finishing.