Never had it so good: British novelists in the 1980s

13 January 2018

9:00 AM

13 January 2018

9:00 AM

In 1990, the BBC’s adaptation of David Lodge’s culture-clash novel Nice Work won an award at a glitzy soirée in London. At the same time, his debut stage play The Writing Game opened at the Birmingham Rep. Malcolm Bradbury, his old friend and partner on the twin tracks of literary academia and serio-comic fiction, had come to Birmingham to stay and see the show. After a starry night in the West End, and ‘a brief whirl around the dance floor’, Lodge sped back home. He arrived at 3.30 a.m., but found that his wife Mary ‘had accidentally locked me out, and I had to throw gravel up at our bedroom window from the back garden to wake her without disturbing the Bradburys’. Mr Pooter may have joined the A-list, but mishaps and pratfalls still dog his every step.

Lodge’s 15 novels reveal a sly and droll ventriloquist who knows exactly how to fix a mood or modify a key through the timbre of a storyteller’s voice. In this second volume of memoirs, the contrast between his mid-career procession of triumphs, adventures and accolades and the deadpan, humdrum delivery is wholly conscious and controlled. Who knew, for instance, that this proud adoptive Brummie had a long-standing link with Hawaii — the location of his Paradise News — after his Auntie Eileen settled there? Although research for that novel involved a dash from the museum in Waikiki straight to a bar ‘with topless go-go girls on a catwalk’, Lodge tends to make his Pacific excursions to care for Eileen sound like trips to Sutton Coldfield. Even a tour of Pearl Harbor turns out to be merely ‘extremely interesting, though not very relevant to my novel’.

Self-effacing, borderline pedestrian, this Diary of a Somebody tone does a double job. First, it takes the edge of envy off a chronicle of middle-aged success that saw Lucky David slip with frictionless aplomb away from his cosy berth at the University of Birmingham into a freelance career. During this vanished era, both cash and kudos might await an ideas-rich satirist and social comedian of Lodge’s calibre: ‘I happened to hit my stride as a novelist when the going was good for literary fiction.’ Here, the earnest, upwardly mobile South London Catholic we met in the first volume, Quite a Good Time to be Born, segues from learned studies of modernism and structuralism to the Booker shortlist (twice), healthy advances, round-the-world tours and big-budget TV serials. We glimpse him, en route by helicopter to Monte Carlo, ‘skimming the waves in a rather thrilling way’. That final phrase stamps the narrator of Writer’s Luck as a deftly crafted character to match any in Changing Places or Small World. So does his response to footage of his appearance, clad in ‘a fawn corduroy suit from Austin Reed, and a Beatles hairstyle’, on a book-chat programme hosted by Robert Robinson. In the discussion, ‘I spoke rather well, I think’.

False modesty or not, Lodge’s low-key narration has another role. It shifts the focus from his serene-sounding progress through a gilded age of conference globe-trotting and literary hype onto the conditions that underlay these ‘buoyant times’. Without ever dropping his academic hat, he swapped gown for town during a brief window of rich opportunity. Changes in education, publishing and bookselling nurtured a hunger for the intelligent entertainment that his novels so smartly met. His own journey spotlights the social history of his generation, whether in the incremental loss of faith that estranged him from the church (‘I was not innately spiritual’) or his hawk-eyed scrutiny of the sexual revolution — always, he assures us, as ‘a war correspondent, not a participant’. He does admit to a taste for naked mixed saunas and nude swimming with ‘the water coursing unimpeded round your loins’. Typically, though, he acquired his saucy sauna habit at the Center Parcs camps where the search for ‘safe, friendly and predictable’ holidays with his Down’s Syndrome son Chris led him.

The quest to make Chris happy and secure casts the odd shadow over these sunlit uplands. His mother’s illness and death engender passing gloom, although when he kisses Mum’s forehead, ‘cold and unyielding as marble’, we learn that ‘I did not weep. I never do’. Lodge glances at his own episodes of stress-related ‘anxiety and depression’, briskly quelled by yoga and counselling. His closest brush with despair or revelation arises from a rash surfeit of long-haul flights that culminates in an ‘epiphany’ on the tarmac of a Canadian airport. Artfully, enjoyably, he sidelines the inner life in favour of a shrewd and drily comic testimony from a lost epoch of plenty. Younger writers in these less blessed times may pore over it with the stupefied wonder of Dark Age peasants uncovering a floor mosaic of feasts and revels amid the ruins of a Roman villa.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments