Thursday, 23 September 2010

Be it ever so dreary: Windows on the Moon by Alan Brownjohn

During the rationing and austerity of the immediate post-war years, Perce Hollard is preoccupied with the petty office politics at the export company in Victoria to which he travels by bus each day. As senor clerk he should be next in line when the head of department finally announces his retirment but a less experienced but pushier rival seems likelier to succeed.

Meantime his wife Maureen is conducting a desultory affair with her boss in the upstairs room of the Rio Cafe where she works as a waitress. When she falls pregnant she hurriedly resumes a sexual relationship with her husband. Her motivations for the affair are unclear, although she attends three operas in succeeding weeks at the local Empire: La Boheme, Carmen and La Traviata.

Their son Jack, a bright scholarship boy at the local grammar school, thinks of aiming for a university place and harbours a yen for motherless schoolgirl Sylvia Freeman, quickly smothered when she makes it plain she's not interested.

The author recreates the dreary atmosphere of bleak postwar years, as seen from a lower middle class viewpoint. The country is just beginning to recover from war damage,signalled by the government-funded refurbishment and expansion of Perce's company.

A more colourful touch is provided by a Frenchman who rents an upper room from a 'respectable' landlady. He supports a low-key lifestyle by working as an examiner for London University and giving private tutorials to pupils from aspiring local families. Mysterious empty envelopes bearing foreign stamps add a hint of mystery.

You'd expect a book set in a nondescript South East London suburb in 1947 to be a bit lacklustre. And it was. A first chapter titillates when the cast attends the local Empire music hall which features an act called 'Nudes of the World', a series of thinly-draped tableaux. But the chapter, like the show, is a tease. It's all downhill after that

I imagine the book was chosen for the Manor House Libary reading group because it had a local context. The determindly lower-middle class mores of the characters scotch any hopes for noble aims or romantic notions, not that I'm a great fan of either, done to excess. Even the youthful Jack Hollard seems short of backbone or even personality.

To be fair, two members of the reading group liked it for its 'detailed recreation of the period' but I they weren't English and too young to have much evidence to draw on in the way of relatives who may have been around at the time.The other member besides myself confessed to having read only half the book and the librarian/leader hadn't read it either.

To my surprise, the author is a poet. However, he wrote a life of Philip Larkin and that seems to have set the dead hand on this novel. The final set piece is a school cricket match, (Jack imagines that hitting a six must be like 'getting into a girl'). The match is intercut with the low-key chase and capture of the Frenchman, but Brownjohn is no Graham Greene or John Le Carre. He hasn't laid the groundwork sufficiently for us to care, despite a flashback chapter to foreign parts.

In many ways the Frenchman's story, and the part where Jack visits Soho (nothing significant happens) could have redeemed the dullness. If only the rest hadn't taken up so many pages!

The book has been praised for its painstaking research. But nobody goes to the cinema and nobody goes to the pub. In 1947? As a local might have put it, 'Pull the other one!'

Serious omissions, and my mind it all added up to a very plodding read.

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