Sunday, 12 April 2009

16. Joan Aiken - 'I Am Lonely' (1978)

'Of course, god never sleeps. For if he slept, what would happen to the solar system, and the growing plants, and the trees, and the tides, and the traffic? The whole universe would collapse.'

(Monica Dickens and Rosemary Sutcliff, eds., Is Anyone There? Penguin - 'A Peacock Book', 1978, p.66)

'I Am Lonely' presents an enormous contrast with 'La Plage'. There is one of the most pointed, individual narrative voices I have came across here; used expertly by Aiken to suggest a broader canvass of people with problems whom this voice could apply to.

Aiken captures the disturbing feeling of apartness from others, with the character logically extending this to think of themselves as a god, and that no other people or things have any life when they themselves are not watching over them. It is a bleak tale, which offers no easy ways out - crafted for a social purpose, as its placement within Dickens and Sutcliff's 'collection of stories and articles about someof the difficulties and uncertainties encountered by young people' attests. It is part of a book designed to commemorate 25 years of the Samaritans; founded by Chad Varah, a Lincoln-based Anglican, who represents the finer side of English Christianity, for example, campaigning for sex education and educating people about the dangers of cults such as Scientology. The Samaritans is a noble undertaking, as redolent of the post-WW2 idealism as anything; it is another mark of our times that fewer volunteers are now coming forward, and it has taken the likes of Phil Selway from Radiohead, himself a Samaritan, to promote the idea with younger people. The basic idea is well explained here:

'The Samaritans does not denounce suicide, but rather it provides entirely accepting and non-judging listening to callers. The organisation's vision is for a society where fewer people die by suicide because people are able to share feelings of emotional distress openly without fear of being judged. Samaritans believes that offering people the opportunity to be listened to in confidence, and accepted without prejudice, can alleviate despair and suicidal feelings.'

Dickens (author of the Follyfoot series amongst much else) and Aiken clearly embody this enlightened vision, children's writers of much distinction, who, from the 1960s supplanted the prevailing conservative ethos (whether One Nation Tory or even at times actively far right) in children's literature which had predominated. The book also contains pieces from Roald Dahl, Leon Garfield, Ursula Le Guin, Susan Hill, Jan Mark, Brian Patten, Alan Garner and Robert Westall; a role-call of the cultural point we were at in 1978. Aiken's 'Wolves' sequence of novels clearly must be read, it sounds fascinating with its Dickensian elements and the alt-history of a Britain that was never ruled over by the House of Hanover.

The front cover to the edition of Is Anyone There? from my parents' bookcase is more striking than the one above (found via Google Images); a red telephone box is in the foreground, flanked by houses and two archetypal 1950s/60s tower blocks - all in monochrome. This symbolic use of colour, red representing life and human contact, was of course used by Steven Spielberg in Schindler's List (1993), for Hollywood effect.

Aiken captures how the powerlessness leads inevitably into a misguided sense of powerfulness; an overwhelming burden and responsbility that the unnamed 'I' in the narrative assumes. That the character is unnamed entirely fits the Samaritan ethos, steering readers away from thinking of this as only a story. Of course, that 'only' is a misnomer; Aiken uses her considerable artistry to turn this individual's concerns from being a microcosm to a macrocosmic picture of how many such people think: 'It was a terrifying thought, that, in a way: I was responsible for so much, and there was no one to help me.' (p.64)

This unfortunate person's visions are revealed; quite how he has been dehumanised is plain in the disturbing metaphor of people as 'like heaps of empty clothes', collapsing when he is not presiding over them. (p.64) Also, when assuming the mantle of godhood, it only leads him to petty cruelties, even further alienating himself from others and further harming any residual self-esteem; the episode where he makes the boy carrying the cat trip over has a bleakness and sadness redolent of the older European fairy tales - Andersen and the Grimms, who will of course be covered in this exercise.

One might actually perceive a link with the Ramsey Campbell story I read a few days ago; the 'I' here, has, like Russell, experienced the end of what is implied to be a relationship - this time with a girl called Ailsa, who it transpires has died, being run over a week ago. Both stories show how destructive it can be when one is rejected or bereft; there is a void, nobody to turn to in a society perceived to be uncaring. As with Russell, memories predominate and chide - taking on even greater significance in the retrospective mind's eye; the idyllic picnic that the protagonist shared with Ailsa: 'it was such a beautiful evening and we wanted it not to end.' (p.62)

These doomed reflections on what has gone before are prompted by the second movement of Beethoven's First Symphony coming on the wireless in the hotel lounge where he is seeking refuge from people - manifested by his reading. The reading matter is not explained; in this particular case, it clearly makes no difference, provides no escape route from the demons and shadows. The setting, including the uncanny visitation of Beethoven's fugue, only prompts the narrator into forlorn reflections and then hardened actions.

This story has a terrible beauty about it; we might gain something as a people if it were a set-text in junior and comprehensive schools, and young people were able to talk about it. It allows us an insight into the thinking of somebody in an awful position; like Atticus Finch argued, there is nothing more important than for those in a civlised society than trying to get inside the shoes of those that are different.



  1. At least one unfinished sentence here :).

    By sheer coincidence I've just started Monica Dickens' 'Cry of a Seagull' (1986), the third in the four-part 'Messenger' sequence (I've already read the first two). Of course, my blog-before-last also took its name from one of her books, and the World's End series remains peerless, as accurate a glimpse as we can get into an early 1970s world which seems more backward and insular than ours in some ways yet more open and free in others.

    The cover you uploaded would presumably come from a 1980s reprint - it has a 'Dramarama' look about it. I can just imagine the original cover, which must surely have *that* 1978 look, that "where next" feeling that communicates itself through image alone. Heartbreakingly, I think (based on an article I can remember from the just-pre-strike Times; I haven't checked and I don't want to) it was published around September/October 1978, when we could have gone somewhere else entirely.

  2. Yes, Dickens (Monica) was obviously a great humanitarian. She supported the charities which prevent cruelty to children and animals as well as the Samatrians. I am very sorry that fewer people are coming to it, and the suicide rate is going up (though slightly less than in the early 1990s) again.

    Your last sentence about the civilised society and those who are different: YES! And the way the unnamed character tries to get out of himself by using books and music - these are things we should use when we are 'well', to prevent the crisis that is going to happen.

    'It was a terrifying thought, that, in a way: I was responsible for so much, and there was no one to help me.' There are many ways to taken on that responsibility that is heightened in depression and states like that, but even in ordinary life.

    [Tom's words:] "Also, when assuming the mantle of godhood, it only leads him to petty cruelties, even further alienating himself from others and further harming any residual self-esteem; the episode where he makes the boy carrying the cat trip over has a bleakness."
    Makes me think of what we would do if we were in his position.


    Would love to know in which ways you thought the 1970s were backward in their thinking as compared to ours, and how we (the British) could have gone 'somewhere else entirely' in September-October 1978.

    Now back to the story 'I am Lonely' and some other observations:

    Yes, Aiken's work is definitely under-rated, among young readers and perhaps some of the mainstream critics. I have enjoyed it when I have come across it, mostly in the short story form.

    And - Mon Dieu! - I realise now that The Kingdom under the Sea (a story I read in my literature group at 14-15: [1993]) was written by Aiken, as a short story collection in 1970. And I wrote several reviews of the stories where they asked questions about the characters and settings and morals of the stories. There was Goiko and the Dawn Maiden. Unfortunately I have now lost (or mislaid) my English book for that time, as we had to have two. I did cover it in my memoir (long before the time of blogs). It may yet have made a (reluctant) Slavophile out of me ...

  3. I will try and scan the 1978 cover at some point and put it up here...

    Yes, Robin; it did need a bit more of a proof-read - several corrections and completions made.

    Adelaide; October 1978 was the mooted time of Callaghan's aborted election - which he probably would have won (albeit with a result as close as October '74, with the Liberals vote squeezed by both the Govt. and the Tories). This might have arrested neo-liberalism in Britain; I know Callaghan had signalled some accomodations with the free market, but these had been tactical rather than dogmatic. Thatcherism in its revolutionary form would not have happened in the same way; it is not likely another leader could have been as successful in carrying out the free-market revolution, starting in 1982-3. The Tories would unquestionably be more pro-European without the paradoxical reign of Thatcher, who first signed many integrationary treaties then turned into a born-again Little Englander who would have made Churchill shudder. She of course inspired the likes of Redwood, IDS and Hague in her late crusading zeal (and don't forget Cameron) and they have not recovered to a moderate position on Europe ever since - despite Ken Clarke being welcomed back (more of an economics-based move, of course).

    Of course, overall the historical trends were too strong for there to be *no* marketisation in Britain, but there would clearly have been less, and our culture would be relatively closer to a mainland European one; certainly less ruled by the Murdoch and Daily Mail press agenda.

  4. Re. differences between the 70s and today: I think it is a relevant point to make that whilst in 1978 there was discontent, certainly unease and tension compared to 10-20 years before, we *were* becoming a more equal society - whilst the post-war dream was not being fulfilled 100% life was dramatically better for many than in the 1930s. Health and education, whilst squeezed by the IMF-imposed cuts of 1976, offered greater care and opportunity to the public than they had done forty years ago - right-wingers, and those who moan about post-war housing should watch 'Housing Problems' from the thirties. Our culture was also much healthier than today; not exclusively consumerist and fragmented (I know, this has its positives for some...): the example of British television and musics, I would argue never healthier than from 1962-84. The likes of Heath and Whitelaw had flinched from making any radical changes to the post-war settlement, as they did not want a return to mass unemployment. The first Thatcher govt. rejected the One Nation pragmatism and saw to it that areas of the country would never recover from the legacy of mass unemployment, and that the sort of industrial northern community as depicted in Westall's 'The Making of Me' was obliterated. People who cared about each other and society in the north (or indeed elsewhere) were regarded as an 'enemy within' and were ruthlessly destroyed. Whatever they may have said about extremist union leaders, they truly meant the whole - Thatcher and Scargill

    It is of course a matter for deep regret that there was not more unity on the left; if the likes of Jenkins, Benn, Healey and Scargill (maybe even with Steel and One Nation Tories like Gilmour, Heath, Critchley and Prior?) could have put aside differences to fight neo-liberalism, it could have been stopped. So much bickering, ultimately pointless - a revolution was not going to be allowed to happen, GB75 etc. You should have had a situation in '83 where just one party opposed the Tories in whichever seat they were more likely to win (i.e. no Libs/SDP would stand in Newcastle Central and Labour would stand aside in Eastbourne or Lewes). A Labour party along Robin Cook lines could have easily co-existed and agreed to introduce PR. Can anyone doubt we would have had better government as a result?

  5. Sorry - tailed off again there:

    'Whatever they may have said about extremist union leaders, they truly meant the whole - Thatcher and Scargill were both well aware' of what was at stake. The likes of Kinnock and Owen abandoned whatever principles they may have supposedly gone into politics for. That Labour didn't get fully behind the Miners is at the root of Labour's problems today...

  6. As far as old-school children's literature goes (and the example I'm about to give is the single best example of someone who went from critical darling of the early Blyton-bashers to a fellow demon, completely out of favour by 1978) I'm not sure whether I'd consider Antonia Forest actively far-right, but she is certainly a fascinating example of what could have been termed a self-hating Jew before the neocons had robbed that term of all meaning, rejecting her background and writing about the most Hitler-appeasing class that had existed in 1930s Britain. Unlike Michael "Peter Simple" Wharton, who even changed his surname from Nathan because he was ashamed of being the son of a German-Jewish businessman from Bradford (everything he hated thrown together - and people say my own relationship to the Thames Estuary is fucked up) she however did not go so far as to openly embrace a kind of benign fascism. There are definitely bits of Blyton which appear very strongly to be the work of a supporter of eugenics, though.

    I get the impression that you may be thinking that I am a partial supporter of cultural fragmentation. Well, part of me is, and when I wrote my first post here I was in that mood, leaning in that direction ... I turn around like that. Though what I meant when I spoke of a backwardness and insularity was more the way black or gay people, etc., were treated in some circles during the 1970s, not least (hard though this may be for some to concede) when the mass of the Old Labour heartlands congregated on football terraces. I do however feel that there is a tendency by some neoliberal-leftists to shout "gay marriage! gay marriage!" as if that renders everything else irrelevant.

  7. There is a truth to that, not just at Leeds (with the misogyny of 'Ripper 13 Police 0' chants) but elsewhere. How Clough treated Justin Fashanu at Forest too (and many would, with some justification, describe Clough as an epitome of some of the better northern working class values) - a product of his times and upbringing, yes, but progress has been made here.

  8. Indeed. Clough had many personal virtues but his treatment of Justin Fashanu *hopefully* wouldn't happen today ... we cannot be certain, though, because Clough's problems with Fashanu were not about the colour of his skin but his sexuality, and two decades after Fashanu publicly admitted that he was gay, no other footballer has done the same. I think the new school of managers would be much more understanding, and I don't think the chants directed at a player who came out now would be quite as crude as those you'd have got in the 1970s/80s, but bear in mind that quite a few current English footballers have absorbed a newer, younger type of homophobia from 50 Cent and his ilk.

    The Leeds crowd was definitely one of the crudest in the country in the late '70s as far as chanting went - racist ones, as well (the first generation of black British footballers - the aforementioned Anderson, those at West Brom and their contemporaries, who were the children of those who arrived here during the 14 years of unrestricted Commonwealth immigration from 1948-62, will tell you that Elland Road was one of the most difficult grounds for them to play at back then). Leeds fans did of course develop a sense of paranoia even in their most successful years, when they felt that corrupt refereeing was denying them trophies they should have won (c.f. the 1973 Cup Winners' Cup), and that turned into violence as their status declined, reaching a horrific low when some of their followers caused a mobile fish and chip van to turn over and catch fire at Bradford in 1986, the year after *that* fire.