Reading 1959: Starving artists and haunted boarding schools

Mademoiselle B... and The Unspeakable Skipton

In search of obscurities from 1959, I decided to look through book review columns from that year in the newspaper archives.

It was The Times that threw up The Unspeakable Skipton by Pamela Hansford Johnson and Mademoiselle B… by Nancy Pearson.

The former has gone into my top ten discoveries from this year. Pitched as a satire, it’s actually dreadfully sad, telling the story of a lonely, poverty-stricken English writer living in Bruges, pushing away anyone who might care for him.

A pompous, pretentious snob, Daniel Skipton regards himself as a Great Writer, having had limited success with a literary novel a decade or so earlier. He writes around 240 words a day of his new novel, filling the rest of his time with scrounging, petty con artistry and a little pimping.

The atmosphere is close to Highsmith’s Ripley novels or perhaps Simenon – oily canals, brown cafes, drab brothels and decaying aristocratic houses.

Though not a crime novel, it might be considered a story of suspense.

The book covers a few weeks during which a party of English tourists is in town. They’re drawn together because he hopes to exploit them, taking them to live sex shows and restaurants, while they find him amusing. Meanwhile, a wild card is in play – an Italian count who might or might not be what he seems.

I spent the last 50 pages fretting over whether Skipton’s rather pathetic Big Score would come together – as his guts growl and health fails, will he be able to afford to eat, or be sent back to scavenging in bins?

He’s not likeable, that’s the point, except that, as the book wears on, a grudging respect forms: he really is committed to being an artist and his constant hustling is in service of that ideal.

And the stream of spite is preemptive and defensive – he hates himself more than anyone else could possibly hate him.

And it turns out it’s still in print, so not obscure at all – I’m just ignorant.

What does it tell us about 1959? In some ways, it feels as if it could have been written in the 1930s, except that objects, attitudes and acts which might have been kept off stage two decades earlier are proudly out on display.

* * *

Mademoiselle B… is less brilliant but still deserves to be better known. Or at least know at all – Goodreads doesn’t even list it, as far as I can see.

It’s a short book, barely a novel, that seems to have been sold as a titillating tale of forbidden lesbian love.

In fact, it’s a gentle, melancholy story of a schoolgirl’s fascination with a young teacher who is either mad, or haunted, or a little of both.

The setting, a boarding school in France, is depicted in perfect detail, from the rotten stink of the canteen to the sinister presence of ever watchful, elderly surveillants. There is always discordant, hesitant piano music somewhere in the far distance.

Boredom and seclusion breed tension and send everyone slightly insane, turning petty disagreements into soap opera and crushes into great passions. When the narrator leaves the school to convalesce on the coast, and has the company of other young people in less Gothic surroundings, she all but forgets Mademoiselle B.

What I didn’t expect, but enjoyed enormously, was the supernatural element which gave a flavour of the Tanzschule from Argento’s Suspiria or one of those ‘women running away from a mansion at night’ paperbacks.

The girls all believe the school is haunted by its past residents, whose portraits hang on the walls, and Mademoiselle B seems especially sensitive to this idea. She feels their hands holding hers in the dark, they whisper her name, and one particular attentive ghost comes to her room at night.

At the great end-of-term ball with which the book climaxes, it’s strongly hinted that she might be right, as mysterious, uncanny masked figures mingle with pupils in fancy dress

Its relevance to 1959? The faint Hammer Horror vibe, perhaps? It’s certainly an interesting book to read alongside A Separate Peaceanother tale of gay love (no it isn’t, or is it?) in a boarding school environment published in the same year.

Reading 1959: Schooldays, Regency, Cold War

Covers of the three books.

One thing I’m keen to do in exploring novels from 1959 is to read widely – not just the most critically acclaimed books, those reckoned to be in The Canon, but also genre fiction, popular writing and books which have fallen out of fashion. This set, which I read on holiday, contributes to that aim.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles is considered a classic in the US and is, I gather, widely read in schools but I first heard of it in January this year.

It is set in a boys boarding school in New England during World War II and revolves around the intense friendship between the charismatic, athletic Phineas and the academically-minded, sour-witted Gene.

According to some readings, they are in love, though that is never made explicit and was denied by the author. Either way, the closeness of their relationship tips over into hatred for a brief, mad moment and the rest of the book deals with the fallout, against a backdrop of the end of childhood and the threat of conscription.

The landscape, the school, its culture and personalities are beautifully depicted. When Knowles described thawing snow, you feel it; when he writes about the stink of a locker room, your nose curls.

There’s also something startling in the reality of the human relationships the book depicts – of the fine line between affection and animosity, and the constant shifting of allegiance and the balance of power within groups of friends.

On Twitter, I described it as a cross between Brideshead Revisited and Lord of the Flies and, having thought on it for a week, still think that’s about right, flippant as it sounds.

How does it fit into 1959? Well, it’s another example of processing the experience of World War II; and, despite Knowles’s denial of the gay subtext, it also feels like part of an increasing honesty in writing about sex and relationships.

* * *

Georgette Heyer’s The Unknown Ajax is a funny thing – Jane Austen fan fiction, essentially, but more broadly-drawn than the model. If I say that if Hammer Films had fancied branching out into romance, they might have done it justice, does that hint at the tone?

The plot is a good one: the irascible Lord Darracott is reluctantly forced to acknowledge an estranged heir after his son and grandson are killed in a boating accident – Major Hugo Darracott, a giant, uncouth Yorkshireman who has been serving in the Napoleonic wars.

He is not made welcome by the family, especially the independent-minded Anthea, who is expected by her grandfather, his lordship, to marry the Major to keep control of the family fortune in trusted hands.

Hugo, of course, wins them over with his good nature and resourcefulness. After much gothic melodrama around smugglers, ghosts and hidden passageways, there is a twist that most readers will have seen coming from about page ten, but is no less satisfying when it arrives.

At times, it feels like being battered with a dictionary of slang. Having taken the trouble to research the speech and dialect of the Regency, Heyer seems determined to use every nugget, so hardly a line of dialogue is without one or two examples: wet-goose, widgeon, mushroom, once-a-week beaux, and so on. She also likes exclamation marks! In imitation of 18th and early 19th century writers, no doubt, but too much for modern readers!

Heyer is regarded as faintly ridiculous these days, although she remains very much in print, and invented a genre. Unfortunately, I can see why – anyone submitting this manuscript to a publisher in 2019 would be told it was lacking subtlety, riddled with cliches and too derivative. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like The Unknown Ajax, though: it is fun, highly digestible and rich in period detail. And I’ve just bought my Mum a copy.

What marks this out as a product of 1959? The camp quality, perhaps, and the fact that Hugo Darracott is yet another war veteran protagonist, albeit from the wrong war.

* * *

Alistair MacLean is one of those writers whose books I recall being everywhere when I was growing up – a whole shelf at the library, on the revolving racks at the Read-and-Return, cluttering the bargain bins in secondhand bookshops, and then overwhelming charity shops in the 1990s.

His most famous novels, thanks to their film adaptations, are probably Where Eagles Dare, Ice Station Zebra and The Guns of Navarone. His 1959 effort, The Last Frontier, is less well-known, though it too was adapted for the screen, as The Secret Ways starring Richard Widmark, in 1961.

There’s a certain pleasure in reading even bad thrillers. Between coshings, shootings, chases and bouts of torture, there’s rarely time to catch breath and think about the quality of the writing. Unfortunately, this book comes with long stretches of tedious expository dialogue which leave the mind free to reflect on the terrible prose and creaking plot mechanics.

It is set in Hungary in the years immediately following the 1956 uprising and concerns a British agent, Reynolds, who is sent behind the iron curtain to extract a kidnapped scientist with the help of the anti-communist underground.

Reynolds is at first presented as a machine – as a man so perfectly trained that nothing can sway him from his mission, who doesn’t ask questions, who reacts rather than thinks. A whole novel of that would have been interesting to read but, unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for Reynolds to become careless, sentimental, and lovelorn.

At various points, we are expected to believe in disguises so good that they can fool someone who knows both the person being impersonated and the impersonator in extended conversation at close quarters.

We are supposed to accept that the Hungarian secret service, the AVO, is run by a bunch of sinister oddballs who can be fooled by a bit of unsophisticated fibbing.

And chemical torture, it turns out, can be resisted if you try really hard.

All of this would be bearable if the book wasn’t so earnest – if it accepted itself as a bit of fun rather than a serious exposé of the evils of totalitarianism and a treatise on world peace.

Here’s the thing: Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, for all their problems, are ageing well as literature; and if you want dourness without silliness, Le Carre is your man. I just can’t see what MacLean brings to the party. I’d rather read John Gardner.

The 1959 factor? The Cold War in general, and a fear of brainwashing in particular. (I’ve got The Manchurian Candidate, also from 1959, on my to-read pile.)

Reading 1959: Cider With Rosie and unexpected folk horror

The cover of the 1973 edition of Cider With Rosie

The first moment when it occurred to me that I might have the wrong idea about Laurie Lee’s autobiographical novel of life in rural Gloucestershire between the wars was a casual, almost approving mention of incest.

It is thrown into a run-through of various village characters:

John-Jack spent his time by the Bulls Cross signpost staring gloomily into Wales. Silent, savage, with a Russian look, he lived with his sister Nancy, who had borne him over the course of years five children of remarkable beauty.

Before I get to the murder, drowning, haunting, near-death experiences and rape, let me set out what I expected from this book: The Darling Buds of May, I think. Early evening ITV, yellow filters and the gentle romance of rural life.

Every edition I’ve ever encountered, including the hundred or so dusty copies in the store cupboard at my secondary school, has a cover design signalling that kind of lightness. Or, at least at first glance; there is, now I know to look for it, something sinister in Roger Coleman’s illustration for the early 1970s Penguin edition I read – a touch of Don’t Torture a Duckling, the uncanny gaze of a child too knowing.

I didn’t actually think of folk horror until almost half way through the book and a chapter entitled ‘Public Death, Private Murder’. In it, Lee tells the story of a traveller, a local boy made good, who returns to the village for Christmas. Flashing his money, boasting and insulting the locals, he makes himself the target for a gang which beats him, steals his wallet, and leaves him to die in a snowdrift. The horror – the stuff that wicker men are made of – comes in the reaction of the villagers:

[The] young men who gathered in that winter ambush continued to live among us. I saw them often about the village: simple jokers, hard-working, mild – the solid heads of families. They were not treated as outcasts, nor did they appear to live under any special strain. They belonged to the village and the village looked after them.

The very next vignette concerns Miss Flynn, a promiscuous young woman driven half-mad by the torturing presence of the ‘sick spirit’ of her late mother. She is found dead and naked in a pond by the milkman, having apparently drowned herself. Lee’s point is that death is part of village life, but this chapter approaches the mood of Wisconsin Death Trip at points:

The wet winter days seemed at times unending, and quite often they led to self-slaughter. Girls jumped down wells, young men cut their veins, spinsters locked themselves up and starved.

Our narrator himself is intimate with death. He dies as a baby, and comes close again later in life, surviving a harrowing illness that “put a stain of darkness upon my brow and opened a sinister door in my brain, a door through which I am regularly visited by messengers whose words just escape me, by glimpses of worlds I can never quite grasp”.

To balance death, of course, there is sex, but that too has the Summerisle look about it, enough to make Edward Woodward spit:

Our village was no pagan paradise, neither were we conscious of showing tolerance. It was just the way of it. We certainly committed our share of statutory crime. Manslaughter, arson, robbery, rape cropped up regularly… Quiet incest flourished where the roads were bad; some found their comfort in beasts; and there were the usual friendships between men and boys who walked through the fields like lovers…. Sometimes our sinners were given hell, taunted and pilloried, but their crimes were absorbed in the local scene and their punishment confined to the parish.

As it nears it conclusion, with the boy Laurie in the grip of adolescence, thrusting away at the fertile earth, we are given a final, sustained moment of suspenseful horror straight out of The Blood on Satan’s Claw: the plotting and attempted execution of the gang rape of a demonstratively Christian girl. In the exploitation film version of this story, the rape would be depicted in grim detail, but here the girl brushes away her would be assailants who are left feeling embarrassed and ashamed.

Cider with Rosie isn’t folk horror because it isn’t a horror story, but, still, I wonder what Ben Wheatley might do with it all. I’d especially like to see his handling of the two-headed talking sheep that appears during thunderstorms.

Reading 1959: The Listening Walls by Margaret Millar

The Listening Walls.

This novel is a proper bit of pulp: private eyes, seedy hotels, subsumed lust and bloody murder, served up without pause for breath, in violently stripped back prose.

It begins with a pair of friends, both highly-strung in different directions, on holiday in Mexico City. Wilma, self-dramatising and something of an emotional leech, picks away at Amy, who is repressed and nervous, cruelly dropping hints that she is having an affair with Amy’s husband, Rupert. When Wilma goes flying from a hotel balcony in an apparent suicide, Rupert comes to take Amy back to the US. Before her brother, Gill, can see her, however, she has some sort of breakdown and disappears to New York. Believing that Rupert has killed her, Gill hires a private detective, Dodd, whose investigation becomes the story’s main thread thereafter.

The best parts of this book are those dealing with Dodd, and the portrait of the Mexican hotel.

Dodd is first presented as a grasping, vaguely repellent cynic, but becomes more appealing as we spend time with him: he is right to treat Gill with disdain, it turns out, and is gruffly sympathetic towards those who really deserve it, such as Rupert’s lovelorn secretary, Miss Burton, who goes to dance classes purely for the sake of human contact.

My first instinct was that the portrayal of the hotel was, frankly, racist: the staff are dirty, smelly and conniving, and they steal. Staff are urged to tell American visitors the tap water is the cleanest in the city, though the manager himself only drinks bottled water. Consuela, the chambermaid, uses towels to mop her own sweat and then lays them out for guests. Every service and facility is an opportunity overcharge. True to life or not, it’s pretty sour stuff.

But then something interesting happens: for large stretches of the opening section especially, we find ourselves in Consuela’s head, and she becomes a full and fascinating character, more sympathetic than most of the Americans. She both loves and hates her boyfriend, a layabout American conman; she despairs at his gambling, but also believes one day it will make her rich; and her treatment of hotel guests is half pride, half class warfare.

The book’s reputation, insofar as it has one, relies on the twist. I don’t think Millar is a great writer – or, at least, can’t see that she put huge care into this particular book, which feels as if it was written in a week – but I do think she did something clever with the plot, laying a trap for the mystery-literate reader – surely it was Amy who went off the balcony, not Wilma, right? I thought I’d solved the case from page three and so the ending really did surprise me.

What does this book tell us about 1959? That the nerve-jangling sound of jet engines overhead was part of a new cold war reality. That America was just realising it had become an imperial power. And that sex hadn’t quite broken free of its leash.

Reading 1959: Memento Mori

Cover of Memento Mori

Confession: this is the first Muriel Spark I’ve ever read, and I don’t know anything about her except what I gleaned from the brief bio in the back of the book, and a vague sense that she’s Important.

Memento Mori tells the story of an interconnected group of Londoners, most in their seventies and eighties – novelists, poets, theatrical types, academics, and their resentful servants and children.

The twin engines of the plot are, first, a series of anonymous phone calls in which, one after another, the characters are told, “Remember you must die”; and, secondly, a dark tale of wills, infidelity and blackmail.

At times, there are echoes of Agatha Christie, but without the familiar structure, and of Patricia Highsmith and Shirley Jackson, both specialists in drawing suspense from fibs, foibles and fading sanity.

My favourite characters are Godfrey, a selfish octogenarian whose failure in life is masked by upper class entitlement, and Mrs Pettigrew, the sinister 73-year-old housekeeper who exploits him. Within hours of arriving to takeover the running of the home Godfrey shares with his senile wife, Charmian, Mrs Pettigrew is showing her stocking-tops to Godfrey in exchange for pound notes. Soon after, creeping around the house making copies of keys, she has ferreted out his every secret and is pressuring him to change his will in her favour.

As someone who spent 30+ years immersed in crime fiction and thrillers, I’ll admit to feeling a prickle of irritation that the loose-end of the phone calls isn’t wrapped up. But once I’d accepted the most likely answer – the voice on the line, which sounds different to each recipient, might be the Grim Reaper himself – I started to file this alongside Robert Aickman, and felt happier.

Does it say much about 1959? I don’t think so. Class structures aside, the reflections on growing old and the weird mutations of very long relationships, seem utterly timeless.

But, still, it’s a funny, emotionally truthful, acidic little book that I’m delighted to have been pushed towards by this project of mine.

Reading 1959: Absolute Beginners

Absolute Beginners

Colin MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners is an invigorating virtual reality experience – a hot London summer spent swimming in the primordial soup of a teenager’s head.

If No Love for Johnnie was about a generation struggling to break free from Victorian tradition, the misery of slum-life and the trauma war, then Absolute Beginners presents what is left when the cocoon is finally shed.

The nameless 18-year-old protagonist didn’t fight in the war, though he is a ‘Blitz baby’, and doesn’t care for the ‘sad, gloomy and un-contemporary’.

He successfully presents himself as cynical for the first half of the book, professing to care about nothing, not even the ever-present threat of atomic war. He seems to despise his pathetic cuckold of a father, his promiscuous mother, and his hopeless half brother. At one point, just when the reader might be warming to him, he exploits a girl’s heroin problem for his own ends.

But a steady tap, tap, tap of optimism and enthusiasm begins to shine through: he loves his on-off girlfriend, Crepe Suzette, wholeheartedly.

He loves jazz, too. Really loves it, not for show, but in his bones: it ‘sends him’.

He takes pornographic photos to pay the rent but all the time he is slowly turning into a real photographer – into an unashamed artist.

When he is really tested, when he is asked to prove his humanity as race riots turn West London into a warzone, he cannot pretend to be other than an idealist. He sides with the underdogs, against the racists, and risks his neck to do the right thing in a pocket civil war.

Ultimately he can’t even conceal the love he feels for his parents. “Don’t be a c–t,” says his his mother at one point, but we, and he, know what she really means.

Almost everyone in this book behaves surprisingly, from the proto-hippy pimp who turns out to be a bright-eyed fascist, to the retired Admiral who refuses to be homophobic for the TV cameras. These characters are hard to grasp and all the more real for it.

But Absolute Beginners was written in the late 1950s, and so perhaps Crepe Suzette is lacking a dimension or two – a manic pixie dream girl with the sex dial turned up. On the whole, the female characters aren’t as convincing or as interesting as the male characters, even Big Jill the lesbian pimp.

After a stretch where it seems black characters might be treated merely as a background mass, individuals emerge, though still primarily as non-player-characters for the white protagonist to react against or move towards. Some of his best friends are black, and all that.

(But, come on, let’s be fair: compare this with the grimmer, greyer angry young man novels where there are hardly any non-white characters, and in which women are generally either fantasy figures or ambition-crushing marriage traps.)

Quibbles aside, spat out of the far end of Absolute Beginners, my heart was beating fast. I could still see the colours, hear the beat, and the roar of the Vespa. I felt 20 again. I wanted to go out on to the streets and do something to make things better. (And, very badly, to see my Dad for a pint.)

Reading 1959: No Love for Johnnie

No Love for Johnnie.

This felt like a good week to be reading a drama about the underlying loneliness and emotional frailty of a Westminster big shot, written by a serving MP.

No Love for Johnnie is really a 1958 novel but its publication was delayed due the death of the author, Wilfred Fienburgh, in a car crash at Mill Hill in north London in February that year.

Is the depiction of the handsome, sexually inexperienced, unhappy, arrogant, insecure, vain Johnnie Byrne MP actually Fienburgh laying himself bare?

Byrne was brought up in the fictional Yorkshire town of Bradley, Fienburgh in Bradford. Byrne served in World War II, reaching the rank of captain from the ranks, while Fienburgh was demobbed as a major. Byrne became an MP in 1950, Fienburgh in 1951.

Perhaps we can conclude that Fienburgh was getting something off his chest in depicting the collapse of Johnnie Byrne’s left wing idealism, and the mid-life crisis brought on by his passionless marriage. Or maybe he was just wargaming the worst-case scenario — picturing at 37 where he might be in five years time.

As someone who didn’t grow up embroiled in Labour party politics, this was a fascinating crash course for me: the battle between the left and right of the party, the philosophical debates over whether it is acceptable to compromise on left wing values for the sake of gaining and retaining power, and the need to switch between modes in Westminster on Wednesday and the constituency clinic on Friday morning.

One glimpse into the moment when this book was written is that Byrne owes his career in large part to his good looks and a strong performance on television in the run up to the general election. This really was something Labour was focused on at the end of the 1950s, even sending selected MPs on training courses to learn how to work the camera. (I’m delighted to find that the newspapers and books from 1959 I’m reading echo each other so clearly.)

Byrne lives on edge, constantly judging whether to flatten his vowels and speak plainly, or slip into an affected officers’ mess drawl, or use the neutral high register he has cultivated for conspiring with fellow MPs. Ignore the political plot and this is yet another story about a man cast adrift by social mobility, confused about his place in the world, able to fit in anywhere but really belonging nowhere. (See also Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy, 1957.)

Two novels into #Reading1959 certain themes are beginning to emerge. First, everyone is miserable because they can’t have sex until they’re married, so they end up marrying the first person they even slightly fancy, blind to their incompatibilities. In the case of Johnnie Byrne, it’s a Bradley lass, Alice, who is busy with her own political career as a leading light in the Communist Party of Great Britain. Not only is she emotionally cold but, Johnnie later discovers, her politics are the cause of the stalling of his career — the Prime Minister can’t give him a Cabinet role while she is in the picture, with her connections to Moscow.

Secondly, there’s the war, of course. Naive young men forced to grow up observing atrocities, reeducated in the brothels of Belgium, and turned into gentlemen by accident as pips appear on their tunics. For Byrne, the war isn’t about trauma, it’s about guilt. He wasn’t an effective leader of men, he was a coward, and he knows it, even if the world believes otherwise. A flashback to the taking of a French farmhouse sometime after D-Day reads like a Commando comic (“Bren gun…. Pass a Bren.”) until the moment when Byrne’s entire platoon is cut down by machine gun fire while he hides, vomiting, in a hayloft.

There are stretches where this book reads like pure pulp — titillation, cheap drama, obvious words and stock phrases dumped on the page — but where it works is in the honesty with which it depicts the unravelling of the male brain. When Byrne fails to get a Cabinet job, his wife leaves him, and he immediately becomes obsessed with getting a young girlfriend to make up for the lost years. His fling with Pauline, a self-assured 20-year-old he meets at a party, is passionate but brief, and then becomes merely sad: he stalks her to her family’s home in Yorkshire after she tries to get away from him, where he ends up dressed in one of her Dad’s too-small spare suits, while she refuses to play the part in his fantasy he demands.

At the end of the book, he still has nobody to love, and nobody to love him back, but he knows who he is: a grasping, arrogant, ambitious coward who would rather accept the job of Deputy Postmaster General, and the rather remote prospect of a Cabinet job when he’s proved his worth, than change.