Kate Harrison is a writer and compulsive blog-reader. She also has a blog, Wordgirl's Work in Progress. After attending around a dozen schools during a peripatetic childhood, Kate trained as a newspaper reporter. She went on to work for the BBC as a producer, director and education correspondent (all those schools proved good research). She wrote her first four novels - Old School Ties, The Starter Marriage, Brown Owl's Guide to Life and The Self-Preservation Society - while working full-time, and finally ditched the day job last year to become a 'proper' novelist. Here Kate discusses Stan Barstow's A Kind of Loving trilogy.
Kate Harrison on A Kind of Loving, The Watchers on the Shore and The Right True End by Stan Barstow
My first exposure to Stan Barstow's writing was when my entire class read his novella, Joby, at secondary school. I'd like to pretend I had total recall of the plot and style, but instead my main memory of the book was the collective hysteria that greeted my English teacher reading out the word 'tits'.
In retrospect, the 80s were surprisingly innocent days...
Around the same time, the TV adaptation of Barstow's A Kind of Loving hit the screens, featuring the gloriously craggy Clive Wood and Joanne Whalley. I think it was Wood's jaw which inspired me to get hold of a copy of the book from Macclesfield Library. But it was Barstow's writing which made the trilogy - and its flawed yet utterly human hero Vic Brown - one of my favourites.
Barstow is categorized as one of the Angry Young Men of the 60s, whereas I was a quiet young girl in the 80s. But still the book spoke to me. In 1982 I was living in a former mill town in Cheshire (Vic refers contemptuously to his brother's job as a GP, treating 'riding-blisters on the arses of the daughters of Cheshire businessmen' - ouch), but Barstow's Yorkshire setting felt to me like an amalgam of northern places I knew, particularly my grandparents' home in Lancashire. We moved house numerous times when I was a child and as Margaret Thatcher's policies began to bite, I saw the resulting contrast between the affluent south of England, and the economically gloomier north, where even places on YTS schemes were crazily competitive.
I worked my way through the trilogy - A Kind of Loving, The Watchers on the Shore and The Right True End, published over 16 years - and what I remember most clearly from that first reading is Vic's raw, often unpalatable, honesty. He lusts after typist Ingrid - a 'marvellous bint' - and when she finally responds in the desired manner, he tries to pluck up the courage to buy condoms in a chemist. He ends up buying a bottle of pop... a tiny failure that will lead to unwanted pregnancy, a shotgun wedding and impossible choices in a society where divorce is still shameful.
A Kind of Loving is about convention and taboo (As Vic puts it: 'There'll be some people, I suppose, who are tough enough and clear-sighted enough to stick out against the pressures: Circumstances, Society, the Family, the Way they've been brought up'). The censor was reportedly unhappy with the condom scene in John Schlesinger's 1962 film version of the book: 'You could be opening the floodgates. Soon everybody will be doing it.' Even when I read the novel 20 years later – shortly before the appearance of the portentous AIDS icebergs – 'rubber johnnies' were a source of embarrassed giggles in our sex education classes.
Yet unwanted pregnancy was beginning to lose its stigma, so why did Vic's situation resonate when my main worries in 1982 were Russian invasion or nuclear Armageddon and killer diseases (much more of a threat than teen pregnancy, given that I'd never even snogged a boy)?
What I shared with Vic was the desire to escape.
Even in my haziest recollections, Vic is no hero. He's overwhelmed by lust for Ingrid, but doesn't like her much: he blames her for trapping him and he feels intellectually superior. He recalls her asking him whether he thought she was common for letting him touch her:
No, love, not in that way. Just common in her mind, in the way she never searches for anything herself but just sits back and lets it all wash over her... the latest pop hit, the latest television catch-phrase, the latest blockbuster film... I think 'ancient' is her favourite knocking word, and anything that wasn't new yesterday comes under the heading. Okay, okay: as long as it doesn't stunt my growth.For all his classical music collection and his intelligence, Vic is hardly a paragon. Most readers will remember the scene where miserable, drunken Vic is confronted by his mother-in-law in the living room of the house he's been forced to share with her and his wife Ingrid... and he vomits down the back of her settee. Generally, women get a rough ride in Vic's world: avaricious, calculating, daft.
But he is recognizably, irresistibly human. He becomes trapped and isolated and responds by striking out, as when Ingrid becomes pregnant and he offers to marry her.
- You've no need to if you don't want to. I shan't force you.And for all his talk of sex - at times, Vic can barely pass a woman on the street without speculating on her performance in bed - he's a softie at heart:
- You know damn well you won't turn me down, though.
I want to say that I get lonely. That I've always, in a way, been looking for the other half of myself.So Vic's a romantic, and as hard on himself as he is on others, a redeeming quality. His basic quest is universal, mirroring the reader's (even if that reader is an adolescent girl). After his friend dies suddenly, he says:
What, to be self-centred, did it mean for me? J had died happy and I was alive and miserable. I'm not going to pretend anything as nauseatingly sentimental and phoney as deciding I owed it to him to make something of myself: but what it did mean, it seemed to me, was that if this life was all any of us had got, and that it time and again appeared senseless to the point of lunacy, then the only choice was to get out or take it by the short hairs and make it sing something at least resembling our tune.Returning to a book you loved 25 years on can be a mixed experience. Re-reading The Right True End, I found new moments to savour, along with a real sense of the novel as a historical evocation of a time I am - just - too young to remember, but not too young to understand. Researching Barstow for this piece, I found this excellent review of his memoir, In My Own Good Time, where Barstow describes his own milieu as the 'lace curtain' working class families, the grammar school generation of kids who might become teachers or doctors (as Vic's sister and brother do). Perhaps the contrast between Vic's desires and those of the people left behind in the fictional 'Cressley' can occasionally be heavy-handed, but Barstow's contemporary details, from the constant smoking, to the course Vic takes at 'a London polytechnic' really do unlock a time in transition.
There's a moment when Vic, separated from Ingrid, is deciding which of the items bought for the marital home he wants to take. He spots a carpet, the peacock blue Wilton with a little yellow fleck, which had in the past given him 'the collywobbles, knowing we were flat stony-broke till next pay day'.
I recognize that carpet - as will anyone who remembers the 70s - but more than that I recognize the powerful draw of a character who is striving, not for consumer items, but for meaning and, ultimately, for love. I found myself in slightly embarrassed tears all over again when Vic gets his Right True End. A book that makes me cry and makes me think is definitely worth re-reading.