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Sunday, February 23, 2014

Summer 2014




Monday, February 17, 2014

Doris Lessing's 'England versus England': A Review


When Doris Lessing died recently, I had to take stock. I had suddenly passed another of the significant milestones in my life. This kind of overtaking becomes ever more common as one ages – so that you look back to a receding procession of roadside memorials that thickens towards the spot where you stand. This is your own particular set of significance dominoes that stand never more than one length apart – and that is ready to zip as a whole when your own tile falls in its place.
At the behest of one of my girlfriends in the 1970s, I read The Golden Notebook – or rather I read bits of it. It seemed to me to be strangely devoid of physical vitality, being composed of a series of literary almost ‘still-life’ impressions. Having said that, it became part of my world view, challenging me with the difficulty that surrounds trying to catch our various and shifting mental lives.
And I now have a clearer picture of Lessing as someone who was struggling with deep-seated emotional problems and someone who, at the same time, was an utterly dedicated writer. For all her professed claims on the rights of promiscuity and sexual hedonism, I have the feeling that she would have made an indifferent lover.  My assessment is that as soon as the sheets had gone quiet, she would have lent against the bed-head, lit a cigarette, and started musing on the next chunk of unwritten text [and whether or not or how her most recent experience could be portrayed].
To me, her writing has something of the character of a pot thrown by a potter or a piece of furniture crafted by a cabinet-maker. Experience for her is a dollop of clay to be moulded or a length of timber to be shaped. She uses what’s at hand and, with superb craftsmanship, fashions something that stands – an object of literary beauty and function. But I still do not feel her passions.
So I wanted to re-read some of her work after she died and I bought her ‘Stories’, with the especial purpose of studying her short story ‘England versus England’ in more detail, as it has a good deal to say about a topic that has some very personal resonances for me.
Her first collection of short stories A Man and Two Women was published in October 1963. It contained ‘England versus England’ where, as a contemporary review comments, a social concern is identified, ’as a boy from the poverty of a mining town pays a high price for upward mobility and his learning at Oxford.’
Lessing states the social problem by quoting from an imaginary document:
‘A Report into the Increased Incidence of Breakdown among Undergraduates:
... Young men from working-class and lower middle-class families on scholarships are particularly vulnerable. For them, the gaining of a degree is obviously crucial. In addition, they are under the continuous strain of adapting themselves to middle-class mores that are foreign to them. They are victims of a clash of standards, a clash of cultures, divided loyalties'.
For 'above everything else, Charlie was made to feel, every time he came home, that these people, his people, were serious; while he and the people with whom he would now spend his life (if he passed the examination) were not serious', though he did not accept that himself.
I first caught the train from Crewe to Bletchley - and onward to Cambridge - in October 1962, after winning an Exhibition Scholarship to St Catherine’s College, leaving behind a struggling lower-middle class farming family who were prone to regard my studies as impractical and airy-fairy but which negated any opportunity for me to enrol locally as a horny-handed son of toil with the prospect of a farm of my own. So it is fascinating to explore the parallels.
The working class Northerners in England versus England are treated very sympathetically by Doris Lessing. Charlie’s father is a working class paragon who has spent his life as a miners’ representative giving free advice about pensions, claims, work rules, allowances, form filling and disputes to his fellow miners and their families.
Charlie’s mother is a selfless servant of the family ‘standing all day in the kitchen, pandering to her charges every whim, when she’s not doing housework or making a hundred trips a day to that bloody coal [hole/store]’.
Charlie’s younger brother Lennie is already financially independent, pulling in £17 per week working in a local foundry, and talking of marrying and raising a family – not like Charlie who is likely, ‘if he passes his examination to be running around licking peoples arses to get a job – Bachelor of Arts, Oxford and a drug on the market’. Even though Charlie’s education is costing the family an extra £200 per year and this is delaying Lennie leaving home, Lennie is not resentful.
And the old couple on the train that Charlie joins from Doncaster to London are warm, chatty and chivvying if somewhat formulaic in their belief that ‘you’ve got to take the rough with the smooth, and there’s no other way of looking at it’.
What strikes me particularly about these people is their passivity and acquiescence. This is not the North of the 1960s that I knew – or indeed the North that the New Wave / Kitchen Sink Drama films of the period recall.
For a start, as Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers makes all too clear, albeit in an earlier era, there was a frequently a good deal of gender conflict, with manual working fathers pitched against wives with genteel notions. And with the men opting for or banished to the pub to socialize with other males, the women ruled the homes and had a disproportionate influence on the rearing of the children
Secondly, the educational wedge that was driving families apart was the 11 Plus Examination that drafted the more academically gifted to grammar schools and the less gifted to secondary modern schools where more practical training was supplied. Charlie’s ‘Scholarship Boy’ problem affected very few families and it was the wider issue of separating out the best and brightest and ‘civilising’ them to Southern/ Received English mores that did the real damage to Northern working class society and solidarity.
And the other thing that it is missing, as a kind of drab back-drop in Lessing’s story, is any reference or sense of the influence of the Second World War.
Although you can search and find no direct references to WW2 in films like Room at the Top (1959), Look Back in Anger (1959), The Entertainer (1960), A Taste of Honey (1961), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), and A Kind of Loving (1962), I would argue that it is implicit in many scenes.
The War had opened up Northern society which had been thrown back into the spotlight as a manufacturing centre for arms, planes, ships and tanks, reactivating the supporting coal, iron and textile [and farming] industries. It had given new roles to women and led in 1945 to a totally new start in government to build a home fit for heroes.
But by the 1960S, British industry was starting to flag dreadfully in the wake of competition from overseas producers with newer plants and more flexible labour forces. And the wave of reconstruction that spawned council house estates and tower blocks, that had at first created excitement and gratitude led on to anomie and dystopia – as did the increased mechanization of mining and manufacturing tasks which broke down workplace camaraderie.
The result was that the better educated young people of the 1960s inherited the expectation of improvement from their parents, overlaid by a strong sense that their society had been short-changed by London.
In my own case, WW2 intruded directly as my father had been killed in the RAF and my mother had, in all probability, become a victim of post-traumatic stress from bereavement and experiencing firsthand the Luftwaffe’s bombing Blitz. My abiding memory though is of her tirades, when she was on her high horse, against the 11 Plus Examination – partly because it drafted capable people away from manual work [which she regarded as inherently virtuous], and partly because it encouraged social mobility by pulling up bright kids from the working class - thus disturbing the social order, which, among other things preserved a distinction between the working class and the lower middle class [basically between those people who should be able to run a car and those who should not].
As you can imagine, these attitudes were hard for me to reconcile with winning entry to Cambridge University – as was my stepfather’s summation that, following my success, my life was now ‘One Long Holiday’.
My own assessment is that, as a jobbing writer in the 1960s who had to make a living, Doris Lessing decided that she had to get in on the act with Northern Kitchen Sink drama by writing England versus England. I imagine her catching the steam train to Doncaster and booking into a pub / hotel near the railway station, with notebook in hand. In the evening, she sits in the bar nursing a Gin and Tonic or a Sherry, taking notes. And after a bus trip from Doncaster to Barnsley the following day, she feels ready to return to Hampstead.

'At the bus stop Charlie turned to look back at the village, now a hollow of black, streaked and spattered with sullen wet lights ... how he hated the village'.
But Lessing was not English, she was not a native – she was an expatriate observer living an arty and cosmopolitan life in London. She didn’t need to go Up North to explore working class mores. There are plenty of council houses and council flats in North London. And I suspect that she just thought she ‘knew’ Oxford from a prior acquaintance with Sebastian Flyte.
But there is another personal parallel I want to raise in my take on England versus England. Both Lessing and I left our birth places to settle overseas as expatriate outsiders. In her case, she left Southern Rhodesia [later Zimbabwe] to live in London – in my case I left the UK to live in New Zealand.
Now both colonial societies coexist with what I term ‘Significant Others’ – that is challenging indigenous groups – a clear but vocal Maori minority in New Zealand and a much more threatening African majority in the former Rhodesia. And it seems to me that the presence of Significant Other cultures in a settler country tends to simplify thought processes about society - such that following the normally hum drum basics of European social interactions can become a sacred norm for the colonists. To do otherwise breaks ranks and opens the whole colonial edifice to inspection.
So I start by observing that Doris Lessing was both uniquely placed for objectivity but poorly equipped in experience to tackle the problems posed by the English Class System.
Seeking to adopt a neutral stance about Charlie’s predicament, she inhabits two personalities. The first is that of a Mike, the Irish barman of the pub close to Doncaster Railway Station where Charlie takes refuge from the rain while he awaits his train south. The second is that of a ‘pretty upper-class’ girl on the train who steps in when he has insulted an old working class couple who are off on a bit of a spree to see their daughter Joyce who lives in Streatham.
Mike is resigned and laconic but hides a deep bitterness towards his adopted country: ‘I’ve lived thirty years in this mucking country, and if you arrogant sods knew what I am thinking half the time ...’
When Mike and Charlie discuss a murder trial that has been reported in the newspaper, Charlie comments about the accused being given leave to appeal:
‘Well, I mean to say, there’s some decency left, then. I mean if the case can be reviewed it shows that they do care about something at least’.
To which Mike replies:
‘I don’t see it your way at all. It’s England versus England, that’s all. Fair play all round, but they’ll hang the poor sod on the day appointed as usual’.
And there is one of the key issues laid bare – the degree to which English people of all classes and regional origins can be expected to share a common code of ‘decency’. Implicitly it seems to me that Lessing is suggesting that decency is the glue that bound English society together at that time in the absence of Significant Others. This is too simple.
I see antagonism between North and South that sometimes transcends decencies. And I remember a sense of anger. 
As for the decency in the North itself, there is of course an important literature on this topic centred on Richard Hoggart's 'The Uses of Literacy ' (1957 ). This implies that Northern Working Class Life was once infused with a strange and uniquely pure spirit of decency. No doubt Lessing was following Hoggart but it is not an argument that holds that much credence with me. I have always been more for the North's radical past and its political orators and agitators. Indeed one of the aspects of Charlie's character that I find hard to accept is his seeming lack of political consciousness or drive for protest and rebellion.
I find Lessing’s treatment of the love affairs in Charlie’s life to be the most unsatisfactory element in the story.
Although he is an impoverished Scholarship Boy who is subsidized to the tune of £200 a year by his struggling parents and younger brother, Charlie does not generally return to his native mining village in the university vacations, rather he flats in London with his friends and girlfriends. I can tell you now that this would not have happened in reality - Charlie would have come home for the vacs and worked in the local shops or as a hospital porter [as I did at one point] to earn some cash
And women cost money, even if they let you share their flat. Not only that, I find it implausible that a ‘tall, over-thin, big-boned’ boy should be such a lady-killer in the South as to be able to run two girlfriends simultaneously, or that he would in fact have pursued one let alone two sexual relationships in the early 1960s – given the residual Puritanism that afflicted many young Northerners and the well-drilled admonitions of their parents about the dangers and disgraces of ‘getting girls into trouble’.
In the early 1960s, society was on the move - but slowly. At Cambridge, if you were caught with a girl in your room at College after 6.00 pm, you ran the real danger of instantly being ‘sent down’
So in layering Charlie’s conflicts with sexual choices between a lower middle class clergyman’s daughter Jenny [‘bookish, a bit of a prig, but a nice girl’] and ‘another girl he disliked’ Sally [a tall crisp middle class girl with whom ‘the act of sex was a slow, cold subjugation of her by him’] seems heavily contrived to me. But with the unsatisfactory relationship with Sally, Lessing drives home the supposed irony of a ‘horny-handed son of toil winning by his unquenched virility the beautiful daughter of the moneyed classes’.
Both girls it seems are chumps – wasting time with a penniless student who has limited job prospects – and both are remarkable promiscuous for the times. Methinks it is Lessing’s London that has come to the fore here supplanting South Yorkshire.
And then there is the nameless third girl on the train [‘pretty and upper class with a cool and self-sufficient little face’] who has the temerity to chide Charlie about his mockery of the old couple who are off to see their daughter in Streatham:
‘Stop it!
‘If you don’t stop I’m going to call the guard and have you put in another compartment.
‘Can’t you see [she says to the old couple] he’s laughing at you? Can’t you see?’
She is the second ‘impartial’ observer introduced by Lessing in addition to Mike the barman. And I have the strong suspicion that she becomes the voice of the author in protecting the status quo and a sense of decency, though Charlie mutters ‘small from his diaphragm’ ... ‘that bloody little bint I’ll kill her’.
Doris Lessing the Communist as an upper class cool and self-sufficient little face – surely you must be joking? Not really. I think that as an expatriate she struggled to see the conflicts in Northern society and that her Hampstead lifestyle was much more in tune with the aristocracy than it was with the Northern off-cuts.
And she couldn’t resist making Charlie into a cad and a misogynist to match her generic concerns about patrimony and the call for a feminist response in 1960s London.
There are a number of themes in England versus England but I have not yet touched on perhaps the most important – Charlie’s descent into Clinical Depression and his presumed subsequent suicide.
Charlie has not so much as a chip on his shoulder as a demon. The demon is his 'enemy' self taking down his self-esteem and his self-confidence, as is illustrated by the following passage.
‘The enemy behind his right shoulder began satirically tolling a bell and intoned:
“Charlie Thornton, in his third year at Oxford, was found dead in a gas-filled bed-sitting-room this morning. He had been overworking. Death from natural causes.”
‘The enemy added a loud rude raspberry and fell silent. But he was waiting: Charlie could feel him there waiting’.
Anyone who has ever suffered CD [and I count myself fortunate in this regard because it ultimately can be a life-enhancing experience] will recognize the ‘enemy’ or Black Dog. Lessing writes so authoritatively here because she writes from experience.

But the prime drivers of Charlie’s depression are given as a fear of failing his exams and an ‘existence that is a perpetual reminder to his family that they are nothing but ignorant non-cultured clods’.
Trying to run two women at the same time on a pittance is not given any shrift - though it would drive me bonkers in no time!
But, drawing on my own experience, I can certainly endorse the fear of failure as a contributor to depression though making my family feel small would not figure in my calculus. Much more likely it seems would be a feeling by Charlie that his origins represented the stable and the decent – a mythical land where hard physical labour was rewarded by an honest day’s pay and a sound night’s sleep - leaving him the Scholarship Boy himself as an idling impostor.
In other words for many of us, it was not so much ‘the continuous strain of adapting to middle-class mores that are foreign’ that drove us to confusion, it was the loss of something very precious – our sense of homeland and belonging. What the Maori of New Zealand term the ‘turangawaewae’ – the ancestral lands and hearths.
So the Scholarship Boys coped with their predicaments in a variety of ways. The most obvious was to adopt middle class mores, speak Standard English and move to the South East – the Fitting In Strategy. The next, which became more plausible after the North had established itself as a good place to come from in the late 1960s was the Professional Northerner Strategy [perfected by presenters like Melvin Bragg, Michael Parkinson and Jeremy Paxman].
And then there were those who simply went back home at fitted into the Local Bourgeoisie as provincial lawyers, lecturers, school teachers, accountants etc. In my case, my stepfather sort of arranged for me to be taken on by a local auctioneering firm where I would in the course of time moved from selling stock to selling property. How I would have fared is an interesting conjecture.
In my case though things were already more complicated. I was a step child who also lived in two physical worlds. At 7.20 am I left the farm on my bike and cycled to the main road where I caught a bus to Chester. I got back at 5.20 pm every night, in the dark during the winter. During the day I was a townie school kid – otherwise I was a sort of Farmer’s Boy.
And farming itself, where I came from, was something of a strange business. In D. H. Lawrence’s novels, there is a good deal of interaction between the children of miners and the children from small farms adjoining the mining villages. Not so in Cheshire where the dairy farms are much larger and more widely spaced, with many being very distant from industrial settlements.
There had always been sons from farms though who couldn’t get on with an overbearing father or who despaired of ever having a farm of their own – and they would find jobs in towns like Crewe or Stoke-on-Trent building locomotives or helping manufacture rubber tyres.
As for the farmers themselves, they occupied a peculiar niche in Class System. If times were good they could breed race horses and hunt with the aristocracy – with some marrying or at least having affairs with Lady Toffs. If times were bad, they hunkered down and supplemented home kills and home cures with rabbits and bought in barrels of herrings.
As my stepfather was the middle son from a farming family who was recruited as a farm manager in 1949, he was again betwixt and between. I have though the most dreadful memories of him being humiliated by the tasks he was assigned by the owner of the farm who was a member of the aristocracy. Finding it difficult to speak Standard English under stress, he would miss his aitches or add them where they were not needed as he stammered, for example,  to explain to Mrs C the difficulties of recording the milk outputs of every cow and heifer by weighing the buckets into which each milking was poured.

Perhaps above all, this drove me to treasure and camouflage the chip on my shoulder and become a Blending Chameleon. And eventually, I came to see the upwardly mobile sons and daughters of the working class as my people, even though my own background was much more regional, rural and traditional.
Like many of my contemporaries from this class at Cambridge, I revelled in the city life of the city itself and the company of girls who worked behind the counter of Boots the Chemist or Heffers Bookshop, supplemented by the more exotic charms of foreign au pairs and language students. The Dorothy Ballroom, the Still and Sugarloaf cellar pub, the Criterion and the Rex Cinema – ah it was very heaven to be young!
Being a Chameleon who was never afraid of hard work and ever full of adventure and chutzpah, I then travelled the world reinventing myself as I went along. Eventually I found myself working at a fairly high level at the Asian Development Bank in Manila, Philippines. And embarked on the promotion of a study of new financial instruments in 1990 that took me to discussions with representatives of the Bank of England and the Bank of International Settlements in Basel, I checked in to a posh hotel in London, in the late autumn of that year, amid a cold and bitter rain.
My mother had died two years before,  ending as I thought our very troubled relationship. I had also just weathered, with my young family, a bloody coup d’etat in Manila in 1989 in which 22 buildings in Makati were occupied by rebels, adjacent to the residential village where we lived. A hundred or so people had been killed and around 600 injured. There is nothing worse than fearing for your children. And as a fellow Irish expatriate exclaimed ‘war had been declared’ in the Middle East in the shape of the First Gulf War, just to add to the sense of chaos.
I decided that I would take some time out to visit the chapel at King’s College, London while I was in England so that I could view the War Memorial there on which my father’s name had been engraved. As I reached the chapel, the choir was singing ‘The Day thou Gavest Lord is Ended’ at Evensong. I didn’t exactly break into tears – tears broke me.
Later back in Manila, after some gruelling bureaucratics, marital unhappinesses and the eruption of Mt Pinatubo [which covered everything, including the pillow on your bed, in fine ash], I finally buckled. Finishing a day’s work, I sat immobilized in the ADB car park. And as the enemy sat behind my shoulder, I looked at myself in the car mirror with tears in my eyes, and back-chatted my tormentor with a dread-filled challenge:
“My Life is Not One Long Holiday”.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Less Robust


It isn’t over until the fat lady roosts

Or the bear wakes

Or the bat salivates or excretes.

Domesticated and smaller-brained

We sing elaborate songs now

That we have learnt from troubadours.

And prone to over-eating

We poison ourselves with sugar

That to the bear would be a little something.

And the bat which became immune

Coping with the stress of flight

Now hosts a crucible of viral spells.

Trills and warbles, bright and varied

The society finches are easy care

 Though less robust than the scaly-breasted.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Keeping Stay-at-home Dads in Condition

It is raining and blowing heaven’s hard and the kids are back at school so I am having a bored housewife day lolling on the couch in my slacks and pumps, leafing through the glossy mags and gossip rags, while watching sitcoms and eating Oreos dipped in cherry brandy [or the non-metaphorical equivalent].

And this reminds me that I have not received a response to the question that I posted on Oprah Winfrey’s ‘Best Ask Val’ online column. The question was:

‘Dear Val

‘Every time I do the family shopping and I get to the hair-care shelves in the supermarket, I get confused. As a late middle-aged male Surrogate Yummy Mummy with fading near-sight and a ‘bang it in the trolley cart and let’s move on’ mentality, I am constantly blind-sided by the fact that paired shampoo and hair conditioner bottles are almost identical and that the lettering that distinguishes them is tiny.

‘This means that I inevitably get home to find that I have bought yet another bottle of conditioner and no shampoo. Is there a world surplus of hair conditioner which explains why the producers use minute labels to confuse male shoppers and thereby move the excess conditioner off the shelves?’

How say you Oprah and Val?

However, I have been doing some research and, for a time, I thought that I had it sussed – the conditioner containers were always upside down – but 'split ends and tangles' I have found pairs where this is reversed.

Ever resourceful though, I have tracked down 21 Ways to Use Excess Conditioner:

1. DIY dry clean your silk clothing.

2. Wash lingerie and other delicates.

3. Protect leather shoes from snow and salt.

4. Remove eye makeup.

5. Soften makeup and paint brushes.

6. Use as cuticle cream.

7. Tame static-y hair.

8. Smooth hair frizzies.

9. Detangle.

10. Freshen fabrics.

11. Soften clothes and other linens.

12. Attempt to rescue a shrunken sweater.

13. Prevent tools from rusting.

14. Unclog drains.

15. Inject moisturizer in your bathwater.

16. Shine stainless steel.

17. Remove stuck rings.

18. Painlessly(ish) remove a bandage.

19. Silence various squeaks.

20. Loosen sticky zippers.

21. Lastly, use as shaving cream.

So Stay-at-Home Dads, stop lolling if you are reading this and get out there and use some of that spare conditioner to rust-proof your tools, shine up some stainless steel, silence some squeaks and unclog the drains.

Getting back to my original question, it seems that there are all kinds of conditioners that differ in composition and functionality. They can be moisturizers, reconstructors, acidifiers, acidity regulators, detanglers, thermal protectors, glossers, oilers, surfactants, lubricants, sequestrants, and antistatic agents.

As I have never ever used them for anything over a fairly long-life, I am totally bewildered at what I am missing.

And, given the variety of uses and origins of conditioners, it seems hard to believe that my theory about the dumping of a particular surplus chemical or chemical waste product has high explanatory power.

The answer I think is the reality that women actually like bending down or reaching up to read the fine print.

That said, my online reading has given me a whole new insight into the shampoo and conditioner business, and the importance of a case appropriate approach:


Styling your hair shouldn't involve sizzling it like a fajita. Nexxus Pro-Mend Heat Protexx Heat Protection Styling Spray insulates hair from temperatures as high as 450 degrees.


Pantene Triple Action Volume Mousse for Fine Hair thickens wimpy strands all over, not just at the roots.


With Living Proof No Frizz Straight Making Styling Cream, you don't need epic biceps to flatten hair—a light non-silicone molecule reduces blow-drying time and repels humidity.


Ultra-moisturizing Bumble and Bumble Curl Conscious Calming Creme creates buoyant curls with no halo of frizz (or crunch).


Fekkai Coiff Contrôle Ironless Straightening Balm abolishes every kink - creates piecey-ness, not sticky spikes.


Klorane Gentle Dry Shampoo With Oat Milk absorbs oil and breathes new life into a day-old blowout. Note to brunettes: It won't turn roots ashy.


L'Oréal Professionnel Texture Expert Infinium 2 Regular Hold Working Spray is budge-proof—until you brush through it. Then it makes itself scarce (meaning no telltale flakes).


For longer-lasting results, John Frieda Frizz-Ease 3-Day Straight Semi-Permanent Styling Spray does precisely what it promises.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

King Kong Crumble


What’s not to like about King Kong if you are a bit of a Buddhist rebel who has a soft spot for Naomi Watts?

So I have always kept an eye out for Kong’s eyrie – the spot where, having slouched out through his favourite cave and its skulls, he slumps down on his cliff-top vantage point to ponder, à la Rodin Le Penseur, deep thoughts on his latest depredations of native villages - as the sun sinks slowly over the lost ocean. This is where his love affair with Naomi is kindled, as she juggles, dances and nestles for him.

I can keep an eye on it because I see it almost every day. Peter Jackson’s crew used the cliff above the disused Maranui Works Depot site, on the west side of Lyall Bay, Wellington as the starting point for recreating the Prime Primate’s premier meditation spot during filming in 2005.

The area below is also the proposed site for Wellington’s $36 million New Zealand Ocean Exploration Centre [see:

Sadly, I have to report that there has been a serious rock fall at the cliff platform that would have even given KK pause for thought, as my central photo illustrates. I’m glad though that Naomi is safe – she already has me eating out of the palm of her hand and if she needs a new companion for a sesshin all she has to do is let me know.