Beached: the east coast after Hurricane Sandy. Photo: Peter Van Agtmael/Magnum
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Older than yesterday: Richard Ford’s Let Me Be Frank With You

This fourth book in the Frank Bascombe series a volume that tempts the word “slight” but may deserve more. Like its narrator, it is easygoing, understated, articulate and occasionally surprising.

Let Me Be Frank With You  
Richard Ford
Bloomsbury, 256pp, £18.99

In Let Me Be Frank With You, Richard Ford’s fourth Frank Bascombe book, the ageing hero of The Sportswriter and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Independence Day informs us that he has reached what he calls the “Default Period of life”. This is defined by Frank’s “Default Self”, the self “I’d like others to understand me to be, and at heart believe I am: a man who doesn’t lie (or rarely), who presumes nothing from the past, who takes the high, optimistic road (when available), who doesn’t envision the future, who streamlines his utterances (no embellishments), and in all instances acts nice”.

We need not have read the first three Bascombe novels to approach this hope with some doubt; familiarity with any modern narrator will do. But by the end one concludes that Frank has reached at least an accommodation with his Default Self; and to a certain extent this collection of stories is, for a writer of Richard Ford’s calibre, something of a Default Book. Let Me Be Frank With You consists of four linked stories told over one dark winter in New Jersey, as Frank surveys the damage wreaked by Hurricane Sandy and the wreckage bequeathed by time.

The latest instalment of Frank’s narrative shows none of the signs of diminishing power that made Philip Roth’s last novels disappointing, nor even the gentle torpor of Updike’s Rabbit at Rest. But Frank is slowing down; the book offers many quiet pleasures and if it shows little of the ambition that distinguished Independence Day, it has more control and discipline than the somewhat problematic third Bascombe book, The Lay of the Land.

Let Me Be Frank With You is a volume that tempts the word “slight” but may deserve more. Like its narrator, it is easygoing, understated, articulate and occasionally surprising. These interconnected stories feel at times like a novel manqué, rather as if, like its hero, the book never quite mustered the energy to achieve its potential. There is no real narrative arc, no escalating sense of urgency. Instead, Frank has four encounters with catastrophe: first, a return to the beach house destroyed by the storm and an unsettling meeting with the ungracefully ageing client to whom Frank sold it; then an African-American woman shows up at his house, bringing memories of violence and the realities of racial unrest in a far from post-racial America with her. In perhaps the finest of the tales, Frank visits his ex-wife, Ann, now suffering from Parkinson’s and living in an expensive care home. And in a carefully judged denouement Frank finds himself reluctantly visiting an old friend dying of pancreatic cancer, who has a discomfiting confession to make.

Frank has mellowed since the last instal­ment and, outwardly at least, has accustomed himself to the intimacy he once rejected (although the wife with whom he has reconciled since The Lay of the Land remains mostly an offstage presence). His recalcitrant thoughts continue to urge him towards resistance, withdrawal and renunciation but his actions betray him, as he finds
himself connecting with others despite his best – or worst – intentions.

Each tale is restrained, judicious and discerning and the book offers a catalogue of wry observations, such as: “Patience, though, is a prelapsarian concept in a post-lapsarian world.” Or: “I don’t look in the mirror any more. It’s cheaper than surgery.” Some remarks move beyond quips and into deeper apprehensions. One exceptionally pithy intimation of learned hopelessness, the spiritual weariness that may come with age, reads: “I try not to hope for too much . . . It puts pressure on the future at my age.” Later Frank admits, “It’s little enough to do for other humans – help them get their narrative straight. It’s what we all long for, unless I’m mistaken.” And finally he has the courage to offer a functional definition of love: “Love isn’t a thing, after all, but an endless series of single acts.”

Ford is known for the cadence and clarity of his prose but, on occasion, his ear seems to fail him here. Take the misjudged title, or Frank’s description of vertigo, which is rather vertiginous lexically: “The world’s azimuth just suddenly goes catty-wampus.” Ann’s obscenely expensive facility has the absurd name “Carnage Hill”. Some might raise an eyebrow at the idea that Frank lives next door in suburban New Jersey to a couple named the D’Urbervilles but there is a beautifully keyed decision, near the book’s end, to have Frank see his mailman, “who happens to be named Scott Fitzgerald” – as presumably some people are.

Bascombe’s anxieties are familiar to anyone who has read the expanding literature of ageing. Baby boomers have defined America’s literary experiences for decades. We had coming-of-age novels, then coming-of-middle-age novels; now we have coming-of-old-age novels. Frank has long insisted on his comfort with the banal, even as life threatens him with texture, depth and menace.

He still quotes Emerson but now it is to describe remoteness: this is what life looks like when the possibilities for romantic individualism have dwindled to nothing. Frank’s remoteness has become dispiriting, no longer compensated for by the richness of the writing or the splendour of the perceptions, except perhaps at a climactic moment, as Frank stands in Ann’s care home apartment. He looks out into a dark December night and imagines “the figure of a Yeti striding through the snowy frame of the picture window, pausing to acknowledge us bestilled within, shaking his woolly head in wonder, then continuing into the forest where he’s happiest”.

Here is the rich darkness being kept at bay, American literature shaking its head at suburbia, diving back into the inky forest that first defined it. 

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the insurgents

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times