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.