19 January 2010

Politics and fiction

Political fiction is not to my taste, unless, perhaps, it confirms my prejudices. The short story or novel is not at its best when used as a megaphone. Dickens's agitation for reform was always subordinate to his vocation as a storyteller. Even that most political of novels, Orwell's Animal Farm, succeeds primarily as fiction and is happily read by schoolchildren who know nothing of Stalin and the USSR. Whether he intended it or not, Orwell's talent for engaging the reader's humanity trumps the political message, powerful and memorable though that is.

In the hands of lesser writers, the political novel is not only lumpen and dreary but soon dates. Characters whose sole function is to embody some political idea have no life outside themselves. We cannot identify with them. They have no organic interaction with the other characters or the plot. That is because they are a product of the conscious mind: the calculating mind of the author, who is trying to persuade the reader to his point of view.

The best fiction is produced in the subconscious. Employing certain skills that he has acquired (for example, a knowledge of vocabulary and usage), the author uses his taste and sense of rhythm to order words on the page, but the ideas spring from a deeper source. He is often unaware of exactly what he is doing. He supposes that the story has taken on a life of its own, or that this character or that demands more attention than he intended, whereas all that is happening is that he is following the dictates of the mysterious vat where the story has been fermenting - his subconscious.

The act of composition is of two kinds. First, there is the Monday-morning, blank-screen, must-do-500-words-today kind, which is not only unmitigated torment but usually produces little that is not pedestrian. But then there is the other kind. Somehow, the author's brain slips into a different state. He puts self to one side: perhaps, as in meditation, there is some change in electrical activity. At any rate, he finds the words suggesting themselves. He imagines the scene and it is transmuted into prose. The more vividly he imagines it, the more vividly the reader will recreate it.

This second state is fragile and precious. When it is shattered - for example, by some trivial interruption - the author knows at once what he has lost and is angry with the interrupter. His anger may seem exaggerated and irrational, but it could have taken him an hour, a morning, a whole day, or even a week, to reach that magic state.

There is a widespread misconception, then, about the cleverness of authors who seem to have a God-like overview, who are aware of every nuance of symbolism that goes to reinforce the thrust of their work. If credit is due, give it to the subconscious, that receiver of all experiences and impressions, that vessel shaped by upbringing, class and personality. The conscious author is merely its clerk.

That is what makes good literature so engaging. As readers, we connect with it also at a subconscious level. Mind speaks to mind. Our subconscious can quickly spot a fake, which is why overtly political fiction is so dull.

The unwitting content (political and otherwise) of good fiction is fascinating. In telling his tale, the author inadvertently reveals much about himself and his beliefs.

These thoughts were prompted by a re-reading of Billy Liar by the late Keith Waterhouse. It is one of my favourite books, not least because it is, especially in the early chapters, very funny. Billy Fisher is nineteen and living in 1950s Yorkshire. He rails against the small-mindedness of his surroundings: his dead-end job at an undertaker's, his lower-middle-class parents and grandma; and he rails even more against the philistinism that assails him on every side. His solace is fantasy. To relieve his boredom he tells lies, many of them pointless. Of course, these land him in trouble, not least from the two girls to whom he is engaged simultaneously and who share a single ring. And he regularly escapes into his imaginary country of Ambrosia, where he sees himself as progressive leader and hero.

Keith Waterhouse was born in 1929, into a working-class household in Leeds, Yorkshire. His father sold fruit and vegetables from a barrow and his mother was a cleaner; she encouraged young Keith to apply himself to his books in the hope of getting a place at the local grammar school.

Grammar schools then were a stepladder to the professions for children of all backgrounds: the tuition was freely provided by the state. I went to one myself. I had to pass the 11+ (an exam taken at the end of one's time in primary school, ages 5-11), then sit an I.Q. test. Finally I was interviewed.

Once inside the school we were streamed. Half of us were earmarked for an academic education. The curriculum for the others was weighted towards vocational subjects like technical drawing and metalwork. Boys (it was a single-sex school) who failed to pull their weight were chucked out. They landed at the "secondary modern", the school for the also-rans. Here the teaching was as unashamedly vocational as ours was unashamedly elitist: such subjects as plumbing and typing were taught in addition to the core curriculum. Just as underperforming children could be demoted from the grammar schools, so pupils in the secondary moderns could be promoted.

Perhaps the worst defect of this system was its reliance on the 11+, for which some comparatively gifted children were not, at that age, ready, and which (if exacerbated by ambitious parents) put intolerable pressure on the candidates. If you failed, you were perceived to be a failure, doomed to a lifetime of servitude - a palpable untruth, by the way, since many graduates of the secondary modern schools went on to become successful business-people earning far more than their grammar-school peers in the Civil Service, say.

The system's blatant meritocracy also offended on ideological grounds. In 1965, under a newly elected Labour government, its abolition began in earnest. Anthony Crosland, Harold Wilson's Secretary of State for Education and Science, is quoted by his wife as saying: "If it's the last thing I do, I'm going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England. And Wales and Northern Ireland". By 1970 my former school had been turned into a "comprehensive", admitting children of all abilities.

A debate has raged ever since about the destruction of the grammar schools. Some say that the socialists (many of whom themselves attended such schools) spitefully kicked the ladder away; that the abolition was part of a larger, Gramscian, and entirely successful, plan to dumb down the voters and make them more susceptible to propaganda and, by impoverishing their life chances as well, to make them ever more reliant on the state. Others say that the comprehensive system allows all children to flourish, not just the privileged few who happen to be able to pass an exam; that such inequality so early in life can lead only to a perpetuation of the class structure which is such a curse on Britain. The issue, as neatly as any other, divides left from right.

Waterhouse failed his 11+ and the experience scarred him for ever. Thanks to an inspirational teacher at his secondary modern, he did not give up his ambition to write, but the going was very hard, and it was not until the success of Billy Liar, published when he was thirty, that he was freed from poverty.

Yorkshire, the north of England generally, has a tradition of supporting the Labour Party rather than the Conservatives. Coming as he did from a lowly background in the Labour stronghold of Leeds, it is not surprising that Waterhouse espoused left-wing views. These are on display in Billy Liar. Billy is contemptuous of the middle-class pretensions and capitalistic attitudes of Shadrack, his boss at the "funeral furnishers". Because Shadrack, a former car salesman, inherited his share of the firm on the death of his father, his position is seen as undeserved. When Billy's grandmother dies, he recommends that his mother enlist the Co-op (a socialist organization) rather than Shadrack. When Billy fantasizes about standing for Parliament, he unquestioningly casts himself in the role of Labour candidate. During Billy's daydreams about Ambrosia, his arch-enemy is categorized as the "reactionary" Dr Grover; and so on.

Yet, reading more closely, one detects something else at work. On almost every page we see that Billy is an individualist, a lone wolf who refuses to be bound by convention. His burning ambition is to be a scriptwriter: he has already submitted jokes to a famous comic in London, whose vague but encouraging response Billy tries to twist, in his own mind, into an offer of work. Billy and society are at odds. It is very hard to picture him living by the socialist creed.

Besides the two girls to whom he is engaged there is a third, Liz, a free spirit whom Billy genuinely loves. Each of the other two is a parody of the mindless voter for Labour or Conservative, but the enigmatic Liz is different. We do not know her politics, even though, in Ambrosia, she is cast as Billy's Home Secretary. She plays an increasingly important part in the story, becoming pivotal at the climax when Billy must decide between the adventure of London and staying at home in Stradhoughton.

After Billy Liar, Waterhouse actually lived Billy's dream and went on to great success as a journalist and writer for theatre, film and TV. In 1970 he joined the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror as a columnist and remained there until 1986, when that paper was bought by the fraudster and quondam Labour M.P., the late Robert Maxwell. In what might be seen as a surprising move, Waterhouse went to another mass-circulation daily, the rabidly rightist Daily Mail, where he remained for 23 years. To quote from his obituary in the Times:

By that time the tone and content of his columns had moved a long way from those of his early days on the Mirror. The socialist convictions nurtured by his upbringing in the industrial North had been sorely tried by the direction he felt the modern Labour Party was taking, and he came to see its years in Government from the famous electoral victory of 1997 as being rudderless and without conviction.

I used to read his column whenever I got the chance, for his use of language, for his wit and inventiveness, and for his wry point of view. Even before Tony Blair's victory of 1997, I was struck by what seemed a drift to the right. It is likely that Waterhouse and his many friends believed himself a socialist to the end, an adherent of old rather than New Labour, but I am not so sure.

The seeds of my doubt are in Billy Liar. As an employee, a member of the team, one of the collective, Billy is hopeless. He is late for work, idle, and accomplishes the minimum. He steals from the petty cash and, when tasked with sending out promotional calendars, dumps them and trousers the postage money. He has no respect for his family or anyone else except himself and Liz. These are hardly socialist virtues: yet they make a sort of vague prototype, however repressed and transmogrified, of the author himself.

I am not suggesting for a moment that Keith Waterhouse was ever like that in reality. It is the subconscious, contradictory portrait I find interesting: the portrait of someone who would be unlikely ever to vote at all; or, if he could be bothered to vote, it would certainly not be for Labour.

But then ... contradiction within contradiction: let me end with a quotation from the book itself.

The strange, poppy-like flowers seen nowhere else in the world were in full bloom in Ambrosia, or what was left of it. We had won the elections, and I was pressing forward with my visionary plan to build an entire city over the dunes on a gigantic wooden platform. The reactionary Dr Grover had got a commission set up to investigate me, but I knew for a fact that he had been bribed to put forward a rival plan for another city to the west, over the marshes. In the inner layers of No. 1 thinking, Grover got his way and the houses began to sink, seventy-one dead and fourteen unaccounted for. "We will rebuild," I announced in The Ambrosia Poppy. "We will build on the dunes."

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