By Beryl Bainbridge
Carroll & Graf. $22. 174 pp.
This curious book is meant to be a companion piece for a BBC documentary, made--as far as I can see from the copyright date--back in 1987. The British documentary was meant to examine the differences between "two nations, between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy," as Disraeli wrote in the last century. The "two nations" here refers to a divided England. This is sometimes taught in American English classes as simply the division between rich and poor, but here Beryl Bainbridge (along with the shadowy television personnel behind her) defines the concept in terms of geography and occupation.
The South of England has traditionally had it comparatively easy: That's where the rich and cultured gentry live; they snip roses and send their boys to boarding school, then on to Oxford or Cambridge. They chill, according to historical stereotype--they don't worry too much; life has dealt them a comparatively easy hand.
It's different in the North, so goes the conventional wisdom. Poverty rules. The North of England has traditionally been the place of the great industrial towns, textile mills, hideous factories, obsolescent coal mines. The need for that grubby, distasteful labor and those products that people don't seem to need as much anymore has moved out of the North (over to places like Haiti and Taiwan and the interior of China, where another whole set of television documentaries wait to be made on inhuman working conditions). The North of England is a ghost, now, of what it was, Bainbridge writes. Unemployment rates are monstrous--people in the working class may live their whole lives without working. But--ironically--due to the overall prosperity and technological advances of the 20th century, it's possible to live on the dole and have enough food, be adequately clothed, and not die young from infectious disease. Still, there is the problem of meaninglessness. How can these people be expected to live meaningful lives?
This is a strange book, a strange project, and perhaps shouldn't have been published in the United States without an introduction, or at least a map. The method within the television series was to conduct interviews with six families, three from the North, three from the South. What Bainbridge has done here is to excerpt transcripts from the interviews into a condensed, disjointed, cryptic narrative where people's quotes appear to come from Bainbridge herself, so that she seems to be endorsing cranky sentiments from some very cranky people. Then, both in the sections on the North and the South, she interjects her own memories of her Liverpool childhood. Again, all this is meant to point up the differences between the grim, industrial, poverty-stricken North and the genial, agricultural, easygoing South.
Bainbridge's soul, brains and temperament seem to be stuck firmly in the North. She's got the memory for grudges, the eye for grotesque detail--her mother never wore clothes inside the house, she tells us, for fear that she might wear them out, just a ratty old slip and a man's old jacket. Bainbridge's father was in business for himself but hated capitalism; he thought of himself as a socialist but scrimped in every possible way to "better" his daughter, who repaid this sacrifice by leaving Liverpool to make something of herself in London, when she was only 16.
She did make something of herself, of course. But if you can take the girl out of Liverpool, can you take Liverpool out of the girl? It seems not. "Hadn't we been plundered by the South, laid waste, bled white? It was not just industrial. They had drained away our talent and our brains; who had ever heard of anyone, once they had got on in the world, from William Gladstone to Thomas Handley, who had been content to stay in the North? We learnt this from our parents." (And, however ironically, Bainbridge records this all again, here.)
The six families profiled here live in Liverpool, Hastings, Barnsley, Bentley, Northumberland and Birmingham. The northern families nourish fungal clumps of unemployed. Industry in England is finished. Fishermen and shepherds still fare comparatively well; the gentry is doing just fine. Bainbridge keeps remembering her own childhood with a fairly wicked lack of love.
But I'm going to suggest something a little unmannerly here. Who cares? It's the question every writer automatically asks when he or she sits down to write. It's certainly a question that should be asked in a publisher's boardroom before they plunk down good money to put any manuscript between hard covers. This may be one of those books that simply don't travel well. Reading the cantankerous musings of some unemployed and unemployable northern English coal miner may give the American student of sociology or economics some kind of clue about where some of our own redneck grudge-holding comes from, but there's something else about this book that may stick in the American craw--the implicit assumption that England is--still is!--the most important country in the world, and that what happens in the villages of Barnsley and Bentley (even though they can't be found in the Rand McNally Atlas) should be edifying to all who read English. It isn't, though. It's boring, provincial, self-referential and self-regarding. You don't have to read this, unless you have a special interest in these economic questions.
Carolyn See, whose reviews appear in Style on Fridays
UPCOMING IN BOOK WORLD
The following books are scheduled to be reviewed next week in Style:
OUTLAW MACHINE: Harley-Davidson and the Search for the American Soul, by Brock Yates. Reviewed by Andy Solomon.
THE LIFE I LEAD, by Keith Banner. In this novel a family man becomes obsessed with a young boy. Reviewed by Roberto Friedman.
THE LAST CIGARETTE, by Jason Waldrop. A first novel set in a soulless future. Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley.
GROOVIN' HIGH: The Life of Dizzy Gillespie, by Alyn Shipton. Reviewed by Robert G. O'Meally.
SYRUP, by Maxx Barry. In this novel a young guy named Scat dreams of making millions with a new soft drink. Reviewed by Carolyn See.