Category Archives: Something Old

Reviews of older books.

SOMETHING OLD

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Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (Gollancz, 1954)

What wouldn’t he give for a fierce purging draught of fury or contempt, a really efficient worming from the sense of responsibility.”

Lucky Jim centres around the misanthropic protagonist Jim Dixon, a lecturer in medieval history at an unnamed university in the UK. Trapped by his own apathy and consumed by enraged perceptions of all that surrounds him, Jim consoles himself with the thought that “…the one indispensable answer to an environment bristling with people and things one thought were bad was to go on finding new ways in which one could think they were bad.’”

I appreciate that the next bit of this sentence won’t be news to anyone but, on the off chance you haven’t read it, this book is very, very, very funny. Though Jim is a contemptible character, his elaborate attempts to dig himself out of trouble, to hold on to his cushy academic perch at the university and to win the girl of his fancy are A HOOT.

Even funnier than the comic series of misunderstandings, mismatches and manipulations, or the gallery of cranks, frauds, and neurotics (Jim included) who pepper the story, is Jim’s withering inner monologue (and indeed the external projection of the same merciless mutterings in his mimicry and face pulling antics). It’s a hoot I tell you, a hoot.

SOMETHING OLD

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The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald (first published in Great Britain by Collins, 1988).

I met her in Muir and Merrilees, at the handkerchief counter. Yes, she is in charge of the gentleman’s handkerchiefs. I told you that she could manage a responsible position.”

The Beginning of Spring tells the tale of Frank Reid, an English printer living in Moscow. In March 1913, Frank’s wife Nellie ups and leaves him and their three children for her native England without a word of explanation.

In spite of being set against the fascinating backdrop of politically turbulent, frozen Russia, the private story and the private worlds of Frank and the characters by whom he is surrounded as they adjust to life without Nellie form the real story.

Character, humour and quite an astonishing level of detail are conveyed in such a compact, exact manner, you almost don’t notice they’re there. Until you do, and then you are left somewhat awestruck at how it was done. It’s a bit like going to dinner with a truly gracious and sensitive host, you don’t notice that you are being fussed over, but you never have to look around for the gravy.

This is a gentle, funny, low-key story which made me not only care for  and want to know even more about the characters, but also about the author who managed to create them so beautifully.

SOMETHING OLD

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Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe (First published in Great Britain by W.H. Allen and Co. Ltd, 1958)

“If you went through life refusing all the bait dangled before you, that would be no life at all. No changes would be made and you would have nothing to fight against. Life would be dull as ditch water.”

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning sounds a bit grim if you read the blurb. It’s set in Nottingham in the 1950s and based around the day to day life and capers of young Arthur Seaton, a lanky, cock-sure guy who lives at home and who spends his time working in a bicycle factory in order that he might have enough money to get off his face at weekends. When you couple this with the fact that the dialogue is written in Midlands dialect it doesn’t sound like suitable reading for someone struggling with post-Christmas blues and a chocolate coin addiction, but it was, it was! Amidst the binge drinking, adultery and anti-authoritarian man against the machine muttering (in the book I mean), there is a gentle, often poignant story, which I enjoyed very much indeed.

I imagine it is the sort of book which I’d have resented had I been forced to read it at school and obliged to pick over sociological and historical themes and context in which it was written (the emergence of youth culture following the end of post war austerity, the burgeoning of consumer culture etc. etc. etc.) but, as it happens,  I allowed myself to consume the story at the same pace as I was troughing left over Christmas cake and, in such a self-indulgent mode, felt totally free to ignore all and any such references.

It’s an unexpectedly poetic piece of writing – no mean feat given that all the dialogue is written in a coarse Nottingham accent and it’s set in a bike factory. The only thing that irritated me about my reading experience was when, feeling really smug about discovering such a great book, I told my Dad about it and he pointed out that I hadn’t stumbled across some latent genius – loads of people realised how brilliant Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was, gave it awards and made a film out of it over half a century before I’d even read it.