From the archive: John Braine's portrait of a provincial intellectual

In their home-town, no one ever talked about anything except wool.

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First published in the New Statesman on 5 October 1957.

The Ercol suite had arrived the day before, and as he admired it in the pale sparkle – Martell and soda – of morning sunlight, he forgot the dream which had sent him downstairs an hour before his usual time. There was nothing for him to do that day; when his wife had gone to the conference, he’d taken two days off. He’d encouraged her to go away, in fact; it wasn’t that he wouldn’t miss her, but he felt the need for solitude, to catch up with his reading, to play the same record over a dozen times if he wished, and perhaps to do what he’d been wanting to do for years: to write a poem. He opened the glass door between what the estate agent had once called the lounge and the dining-room and went into what he and his wife called Space Three (kitchen was pretentious and kitchenette etymologically squalid). He ground the coffee-beans in the mill they’d brought back from France, sniffing the result with pleasure.

The Daily Telegraph flopped through the letter-box; he read it as he ate his breakfast – an orange, four slices of bread and honey, a William pear. As he ate he reflected that three years ago it would have been bacon and eggs, tea, and the Manchester Guardian. But he’d been put off the Guardian when it had bewailed the fate of those Irish horses so loudly and so long – that kind of campaign was best lift to the “Pic” and the People. Besides, let’s face it, he thought, the Telegraph has gradually acquired cachet; people suspect you of taking the Guardian or The Times for effect, but they know that you take the Telegraph because you like it, and if you like it you’re obviously a superior person.

He took his coffee to an armchair by the fire and lit a Gauloise – souvenir, like his espadrilles, of his holiday in France. He thought of the house as it had been when he first saw it, crammed with furniture, china figurines, wall-plaques of wild geese and retrievers, some rather timid watercolours, framed photographs and, of course, there had been in the Lounge (now Space One) that motto beginning “I pass this way but once . . .” That hadn’t mattered so much; what had really depressed them had been the decoration – the pink of cheap sweets fighting with an arc-lamp blue and a red the shade of newly-dried blood, and the chocolate-
brown paintwork and dead-white plaster. But the price had been right, and the situation, high above the valley with a view of the moors, just what they’d wanted.

And now, bit by bit with every promotion, they’d built up a civilised home. He settled himself more comfortably in his chair, lovingly stroking the pale, baby-smooth wood. The bright yellow and red covers were exactly right against the dark grey fitted carpet and light grey walls, and the red curtains picked up the red in the pattern. He’d been firm with his wife about having no pictures; the rooms were too small. But they’d made an exception for the big bull-fight poster over the fireplace – very handy for sorting out one’s guests. If they were distressed by it, you knew immediately that you’d have nothing in common: he’d never met an intellectual who disapproved of bull-fighting.

This house had been the main reason for refusing the job in the London office. They’d been tempted, thinking of the theatres, the concert halls, the exhibitions, the meetings at which things really happened – above all, they were drawn by the old lure of the capital, the place where, if only you know the password, you can satisfy any wish in the world. Before they were married they’d planned to live in London, they’d scorned their home-town where no one ever talked about anything except wool or cricket or babies, where they pretended to be fond of music but never progressed beyond the Messiah – as if Handel had written nothing else, or as if there were no other composers!

With their marriage had come the trips to London (on expense-account, of course, so he could often afford to take his wife too). They had a lot of friends there – in fact, nearly all their friends seemed to have moved south. Knowing people in London made all the difference; you were immediately on the inside, no longer the gaping provincial, and you felt like a raider from the hills, returning home with a fine haul of scandal, all the news that Confidential daren’t print.

So they had stayed because of the house, which they were just beginning to lick into shape; and at that time too they were heavily and happily committed to the Little Theatre and the Arts Group. But now, he reminded himself, that reason for staying no longer existed. There was no Arts Group now. It had split up into a Writers’ Circle, a Gramophone Society, and a Painters’ Group; their total membership was only half that of the old Arts Group, and in none of them was there the same spirit. The Writers’ Circle discussed markets and rates of payment, the Gramophone Society was stuck in the groove of the old reliables – Mozart, Beethoven, Sibelius, Stravinsky. There was, of course, a Jazz Club in the city; but he was too old now to sit in smoky cellars amongst a crowd of adolescent girls trying to look like Jayne Mansfield or Audrey Hepburn, and youths in crew-neck sweaters all no doubt trying to look like someone else but only succeeding in looking like Tommy Steele in different sizes. But at the gramophone recitals twelve years ago, it was nothing extraordinary to follow Palestrina with the Wolverine Blues and why not? And the Painters’ Group talked about techniques and materials, thought they were daring if they had a few Gauguin prints about the house – he’d swear that half the members considered Annigoni great, and only knew that Graham Sutherland existed because he’d done a portrait of Churchill. They’d never experience what he’d experienced on seeing those illustrations to Quarles which Sutherland had done for Poetry London – even in reproduction one could see that here was someone who handled colour and mass as if he really loved them, who didn’t need to paint portraits because all his pictures were self-portraits. They used to discuss things like that in the old Arts Group, and they built up a first-rate library, too. He bought a lot of art books then; his wife used to say he’d married her just to make up the gaps in his set of Penguin Modern Painters.

And for her Autumn Journal and Calami­terror – how long was it now since he’d read any poetry, much less written any? But in those days they’d packed the Little Theatre for poetry recitals, they’d argued passionately about Spender and Auden and Yeats and Thomas and Nicholas Moore and the New Apocalypse and the rest of them – where had all that interest evaporated to? It was just the same with novels; he seldom read fiction these days. What had he read lately? Boswell in Search of a Wife, This Hallowed Ground, The Turn of the Tide, Left-Over Life to Kill, The Uses of Literacy – and that was a puzzling thing. He’d had to buy The Uses of Literacy because there were thirty reservations on it at the library; who were they? He’d like to know them, they’d be his kind of people, but he’d never meet them, any more than he’d meet the people who bought every copy of the Penguin Cat on a Hot Tin Roof the first day the bookshops stocked it.

Even ten years ago he’d have found them at the Little Theatre. The Little Theatre had discovered Tennessee Williams and Christopher Fry and Anouilh and Sartre. And Cocteau and René Clair and Jean Renoir, come to that. Factually, that wasn’t true, but emotionally it was. For when the Little Theatre was founded, they’d asked themselves, before choosing a play or film: is it new, is it exciting, will it at the very least shock people? They hadn’t asked themselves whether it would make a profit; possibly because they hadn’t, the full house was a commonplace. Now, almost without his noticing it, the programmes had become virtually indistinguishable from any ordinary amateur dramatic society’s – Van Druten, Dodie Smith, the Christies all three, R C Sherriff, Noël Coward, Terence Rattigan . . . When they wanted to be really daring, they put on a West End flop. It was safe to say they’d never produce Beckett or Genet. He’d seen the writing on the wall at that committee meeting when that prim little businessman had given what was virtually an extempore sermon on the evils of decadent French plays, and the others, instead of laughing him down, had listened with every sign of approval. It was then that he’d started to feel lonely. Not old, not out-dated, but isolated, a minority of one. From then on he’d see the decadent French plays and the crude American plays and the angry English plays in London and Paris and Edinburgh; the theatre would become the holiday chateau-bottled, not the everyday vin ordinaire.

For years, too, he’d ceased to take any real interest in architecture; it was, like the theatre, a holiday activity, its symbol the collection of views of Bath or Venice or Rome. Once his own city had had real character, when the trams swayed along the cobbled streets and all the buildings had been of local stone. Now every day there was another stretch of tarmac, another block of offices, always in hideously neuter, raw-coloured concrete, and he couldn’t bear to look at it any longer. As far as he was concerned, the city only existed as a straight line between office and home.

He remembered talking once with a lib­rarian who’d estimated from an exam­ination of the day’s issues that at least 10 per cent of the city’s population were intellectuals, the people who, like him, read the Telegraph or the Guardian, the Observer or the Sunday Times, the New Statesman or the Spectator, the people who’d discovered Paddy Chayevsky, the people who spoke the same language as Amis or Osborne. That was the point – not whether you approved or disapproved of Jimmy Porter or Jim Dixon, but whether you understood their creators’ language. If there were nothing printed but books in Sanskrit and James Hadley Chase, you’d have to read Chase . . .

The sun was shining brilliantly now, focusing the gilt of Aruzza’s jacket on the poster; he went upstairs for his sweater and shoes. Looking at himself in the mirror he said aloud: “Our uniform,” and saluted his reflection – bright red Jaeger crew-neck sweater, brown check Viyella shirt, dark grey Terylene slacks, plain-fronted brown suede shoes. Yes, I’m in uniform all right, but where’s the rest of the regiment? Ten per cent of a population of 200,000 is 20,000; where are the other 19,999, the friends with whom I should be arguing to some purpose, even, if that’s not too naive, the comrades who should be helping me to rebuild this city? Then, as he went downstairs, the dream heaved itself into the front of his mind again.

He had been lost in a strange city on a winter’s night. It was no later than nine o’clock but the city was deserted. The lights were off, there was no one about, and there were no buses, trains, or taxis. It had definitely been the city centre where he found himself; he remembered the department stores, the cafés, the black scowling bulk of the Town Hall and the soiled white concrete of a big cinema. He’d been frightened because he was so utterly alone; he’d broken into a run, and street after street had unreeled before him, the tarmac black and glistening. There had been no light from the swan’s-neck lamp-standards; it came, faint and phosphorescent, from the road, as if it were turning bad like fish. Finally he’d stopped, exhausted; he was lost and would never find his way home again, and there was nothing anywhere but stone and concrete and steel and hoardings advertising things he didn’t want to buy.

Then the tiger had leapt at him from the soapflake hoarding and he’d run away again, screaming in terror. But that was irrelevant; what was important was that the dead city was his own; he looked down into the valley and recognised the roads along which he’d run. But did he care any more? Would he be there tonight at nine o’clock? He knew that he wouldn’t; and he also knew, walking away from the city to the moors, that the next time the London job was offered, he wouldn’t say No.

This article appears in the 09 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue 2015