pulpit d j taylor

Passage to Hampstead

Sorting through the books in my study the other night I came across a deeply recherché item: Peter Ackroyd’s Notes for a New Culture, published as long ago as 1976, never reprinted and now omitted from the great man’s bibliographies. The date on the flyleaf reads ‘October 1982’, and instantly the circumstances in which it was obtained came rushing back into my head: the scraped acquaintance; the tentative note; the brown paper parcel left for collection at the offices of The Spectator; and the accompanying letter in which Ackroyd, making adroit use of the double negative, claimed that ‘he wasn’t sure that he didn’t entirely disagree with it all’.

At the time, though hugely admiring of the author, I remember being faintly puzzled by this self-deprecating disavowal of the book’s knotty and determinedly highbrow thesis. How, I wondered, could you renege on a theory about the ‘secret history of modernism’ that had taken two years of a Yale University Mellon Fellowship to formulate? Surely, to narrow the range a little, a great masterpiece was always a great masterpiece? A third of a century later, on the other hand, I can see exactly where Ackroyd was coming from, and never more so than when re-examining some of the books that were being published when we set out on this epistolary exchange.

Naturally, these retrospective judgements have to be seen in the context of the literary climate of the time. Newspaper book reviewing circa 2015 is, with certain prominent exceptions, a matter of endorsement rather than criticism, in which most literary editors fall over themselves in the scramble not to cause offence. A quarter of a century ago, it was a kind of licensed blood sport in which gangs of literary young turks pursued Iris Murdoch from one novel to the next, and it was at all times possible to earn a few pounds by writing a slashing article alleging that Kingsley Amis and Margaret Drabble were traitors to their craft.

Why was it that we hated Sir Kingsley and Dame Margaret so much, and what crime was it that they were supposed to have committed? The answer is that they were guilty – repeatedly and without compunction – of writing what was known in those days as ‘the Hampstead novel’ or, sometimes, ‘the novel of manners’, brisk little studies of middle-class English life, much concerned with social class and, above all, the sheer minutiae of the native domestic interior, books in which, to quote John Updike on Amis’s prose style, ‘it is a rare sentence … that surrenders to the demon of language, that abdicates a seat of fussy social judgment, that is there for its own sake, out of simple awe, gratitude or dismay in the face of creation.’

And if the Hampstead novel – which didn’t have to be set in Hampstead to be stigmatised as such – seemed sepia-tinted in the world of Thatcher’s third term, it was also because of the international competition. For this was the era of the first stirrings of the ‘global novel’, of Granta’s magical realist imports, of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, of the Booker Prize ceremony being enlivened by Maori chants, of Rushdie, Hrabal and Eco, of books whose desirability – and critical success – sometimes seemed to depend entirely on their being established, to borrow the title of a novel by the American writer Mona Simpson, ‘anywhere but here’. I fell for them all, just as I fell for Updike’s bromides about the ‘demon of language’, which, it might be argued – certainly in Updike’s case – means describing something in such a manner as to leave the reader further away from the thing described than nearer to home.

A quarter of a century later the old-style English novel – the novel absorbed by social placement, whose characters creep resolutely over (or sometimes underneath) the barriers that class, status and tradition have jammed in their way, whose existences are coloured (and sometimes drained) by reticence and irony – has been almost entirely swept away on the global tide. For the books in which serious contemporary publishers take an interest, here in the polyglot 21st century, are chronicles of diaspora, journeys from developing world to developed, novels set in airport lounges and provisional environments where most of the characters’ imaginative lives take place on a kind of pontoon bridge connecting the culture that is fading away and the one that is taking its place.

Such books are, necessarily, diametrically opposed to the tradition they supplant. They are not about boundaries, borders, closed communities and belonging, but are concerned with migration, assimilation, cultural ebb and flow. All of these are excellent subjects for fiction, but are liable to leave the specimen British novelist who hasn’t had the good fortune to have recently moved from an Iraqi-Japanese community in the Gulf to a Dutch-Vietnamese settlement in North Dakota to wonder exactly what scope there is for his or her sense of identity and the precise environmental heritage that he or she burns to explore, and whether the parochialism that was always supposed to be the English novel’s abiding flaw isn’t in reality one of its most enduring attractions?

This is not, it should instantly be said, an argument in favour of chauvinism, or the comforts of known milieus – the literary equivalent of Morrissey’s line about music that ‘says nothing to me about my life’. What strikes me now about most of the English novels so routinely disparaged by the smart young men of the late 1980s (of whom I was one) is how odd they are, how tense, how thoroughly dissatisfied with the world beyond the window. Could anything be more nerve-racked than Francis King’s domestic dramas, bleaker than Piers Paul Read’s take on the workings of divine providence in human affairs, or more acute than Margaret Drabble’s portraits of class-bound Sixties women? A reader from Nowhere, Nebraska, who chanced upon a book like King’s The Action (1978), would doubtless file it in the category I reserve for Annie Proulx’s Wyoming tales – anthropological notes from the edge of the world, and wholly exotic. But where are King’s and Read’s and Drabble’s successors, here on a planet where a bus journey from South Kensington to Deptford can be quite as arresting as a flight from Accra to Bangkok? r august 2015 | Literary Review 1