Thursday, 16 April 2009

20. Stan Barstow - 'A Lovely View of the Gasworks' (1961)

'no messing about with building societies. That's a stroke of luck.'

(Stan Barstow, The Desperadoes, Corgi Books, 1974, p.45)

Chosen as being brief, in contrast to the 71 pages or so that the previous two have comprised. Chosen also as Barstow was another author influential to my dad - particularly the novel, A Kind of Loving (1960), filmed with the redoubtable Alan Bates a few years later.

This is set in the same West Riding town as featured in that novel; presumably either Ossett, where Barstow has spent most of his life, or the larger Wakefield, which is nearby. This is consciously written in what is already an established northern stream of literature by 1961; Billy Liar, Braine, Sillitoe, Storey and Delaney, as well as this author's initial works. Barstow captures a world which consumerism doesn't really seem to intrude, although contemporary mores and laws certainly do.

It is fascinating to read of the couple here being offered the chance to buy a house for £600 outright or pay £150 and take on the burden of a £500 mortgage. UK house prices have risen from an average of £11,288 in 1975 to £156,828 at the end of 2008 (which had fallen 14.7% from the near 184k of a year before!). I would be interested to see whether mean household income has risen x 13 times in the last thirty-three years...

The absurdity of our present-day nation's 'dream' is made clear when one looks at the properties advertised in my area (SR2). The north-east is the poorest region in terms of household income (definitely less than £20000 per household) and yet property prices are exhorbitant; how the market works of course. The media onus on ownership has a lot to answer for, but also people for going along with it and growing excessively attached to sometimes exceedingly small spots of land and temporal bricks and mortar. And the least said about Newcastle city-centre 'studio apartments' (one bedroom boxes) advertised for £140,000 (probably being sold for more than double that a year or two ago)... this whole world is as divorced from reality as Noel Edmonds:
Barstow's prose can be judged as successful in capturing 'a recognisable society', as the back cover claims; the expectations of this couple - an older man having an affair with a young woman possibly even still a teenager, it is implited - are grounded in bathos. The man's age only becomes clear when he is described thus: 'this thin balding figure in the ill-fitting sports coat and creased flannel trousers'. (p.43) There are no illusions; the house is 'no palace', simply a functional base for 'living in sin'.

The moral dimension is ambiguous; Barstow is of course careful not to impose any definite judgement on the characters. It is made clear that the woman who they arrange the mortgage with - in effect, a landlady - will find out at some point. Her adherence to the conservative social views still dominant in a Britain still eight years away from the passing of the Divorce Act, is unclear: 'wondering what change there would be in the woman's brisk friendliness were she to tell her that he had left his wife and they wanted somewhere to live in sin.' (p.44)

'A Lovely View of the Gasworks' sets up a rather tortuous situation for its protagonists, with the unnamed man's wife also seen as likely to intrude. They are full of doubt, yet also a desperate form attachment, the girl displaying a possessiveness one could only form at such a formative age. Things are left tantalisingly up in the air at the end: 'Yes, all our troubles'll be over then' deployed and then echoed with notable irony.


No comments:

Post a Comment