Reading 1959: All in a Lifetime by Walter Allen

All in a Lifetime.

This 1959 novel almost seems like a cocktail of the others I’ve read so far.

Like Memento Mori, it is about old age and the legacies of long lives. Like No Love for Johnnie, it is about the Labour Party and the personal price of politics. Like Free Fall, it tells the story of a man’s life, from slum to war to self-knowledge, with time and memory tangled in sometimes bewildering ways.

All in a Lifetime is about Billy Ashted, an artisan silverworker from an unspecified Midlands city (Allen was from Birmingham) who, at the end of his life, decides to write a memoir in the form of a letter to his sister, Lizzie. At first, he seems resistant to the idea, feeling pressured to work on the book by his successful adult children of whom he is simultaneously proud and resentful.

This opening stretch, I have to confess, I found hard going – nuggets of narrative, glimpses of character, constantly broken off or jumbled together, repel the reader rather than drawing them in. Slowly, though, the book begins to flow as Billy gets more absorbed in his task, and longer, more satisfying vignettes emerge.

Billy’s friendship with George, an intellectually curious young man who takes Billy under his wing, from evening class to the zinc-topped tables of the local pie shop to a makeshift laboratory in his parents’ wash-house, is beautifully drawn. “For the first time in my life I had a friend”, he says, recalling the ecstasy this realisation brought. Throughout the book, and throughout the course of Billy’s life, every time it seems as if George might have slipped from Billy’s grasp, lost to national fame and the rituals of Westminster, they are brought back together and discover that nothing has fundamentally changed between them.

When Billy decides, impulsively and against George’s counsel, to go to New York, it comes as a real surprise, and this section is perhaps the best in the book. The atmosphere aboard a Titanic-era liner is evoked skilfully, from the stink of steerage to the below-decks musical melange, to the deliciousness of the oranges in Billy’s small stash of fresh fruit. Billy’s openness and likeability are underlined, without him declaring it, as his fellow passengers adopt him and protect him from his own innocence. On arrival, Billy becomes the original Englishman in New York, scared and excited in equal measure, and surprised to learn that it has no inner-city terraced streets or pie shops.

Another fascinating thread concerns two sons who exist off-stage. There is the wayward youngest son, Tom, whom Billy describes startlingly and bluntly as a psychopath. We learn, eventually, that Tom is a conman, a bogus war hero, habitually in trouble with the law, and prone to financially exploiting his respectable, responsible brothers, Will and Phil. And there is the oldest son, Harry, killed in World War I, summoned back to life from the most hidden part of Billy’s memory for the first time quite late in the book. Both boys haunt Billy in different ways.

The novel’s portrait of British working class political life in the early 20th century will make it a worthwhile discovery for many. From the Labour Party general election victory of 1924, to the failure of the General Strike, to the arrival of Mosley and the BUF, Billy is there, Zelig-like, swept along and unsure of himself.

What makes Billy such an appealing character, in the end, is his capacity for self-interrogation and honesty. Why, he wonders, did George ruin his life and career for the sake of an affair while he, Billy, never felt the urge to be unfaithful? “I have dipped into the works of Professor Freud: I have not been able to recognise myself, my own nature, in his pages,” he says, before acknowledging that perhaps he was broken in some more complex way, with “a natural talent for sublimation”.

When he says, frankly, that he doesn’t particularly care for or about his grandchildren, but cannot help himself loving the undeserving Tom, it rings absolutely true.

By the end of the book, we have a grasp of all the strands of Billy’s life, and understand his exhaustion: the world he grew up in has gone, the three people to whom he was closest (his wife, George, and his rigidly religious brother Horace) are dead, and there is nothing left that anyone can say to him or show him he hasn’t already seen.

The book’s disorderly chronology, we realise, is a product of the disintegration of his mind, and of terminal nostalgia – of a life flashing before the eyes.

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