Saturday, 18 July 2009

43. H.E. Bates - 'A Christmas Song' (1950)

'A little snub worked wonders with these stupid girls, though, really, she had to admit that Joan's devotion was less revolting than the so-called normal attitude that Tim Prosser and the others professed so loudly, a normality that apparently classed human beings with pigs.'

'It was the most wonderful Christmas Eve, just like a fairy story.'
(Angus Wilson, Such Darling Dodos, Penguin, 1960, p.113/118-9)

'Instead there was almost always rain and long columns of working-class mackintoshes floating down a street that was like a dreary black canal. Instead of singing Mozart to the snow she spent long hours selling jazz sheet-music to factory workers and earned her reward, at last, by being bored at the Williamsons' party.'
(H.E. Bates, Love in a Wych Elm and other stories, Capuchin Classics, 2009, p.135)

Well, there will be something of a theme for this new week's short-stories; they will all be from English writers, arranged alphabetically by surname. Fittingly, there is link with the last one I read; the Muriel Spark, because there is a Christmas theme.

H.E. Bates seems to have been off the radar for a long time in blighty; I cannot remember exactly when the successful TV version of The Darling Buds of May was on, and his books are scarcely in print, it seems, and like Angus Wilson's, do not seem to be accorded the merit of new editions by Penguin. There was, I suppose, the mention in Withnail and I (dir. Bruce Robinson, 1987), and a Peter Tinniswood-involving Uncle Silas TV-adaptation but his work seems to have slipped from public memory in the last 15-20 years or so. Many other major English writers born in the 1890-1914 era seem to have slipped from view somewhat: L.P. Hartley and Anthony Powell (barring Simon Barnes's regular allusions in The Times) do not have the profile of Waugh or Wodehouse, say.

But in 2009 we have a Capuchin Classics collection of his short stories, spanning the whole of his career; the back refers to Graham Greene's comparison of Bates with Chekhov, considering him the best short story writer of his generation. It is also perhaps his provincialism - refusal to court acceptance in London, or move there - that counts against him for some. And his being perceived as an avuncular ruralist.

Like Angus Wilson, he stands as a significant post-WW2 writer born before WW1 and who does not fit easily into today's packaging of the past, which prefers to believe that there was nothing before rock 'n' roll and the Angry Young Men. Or, nothing between WW2 and Elvis. You get a sense in this story, as in early Wilson, of the curious place that Britain was, after the war but before Macmillanite consumerism had won the day. They are sensitive writers, dissecting the pulse of a nation that was changing, moving towards socialism but not quite. 'A Christmas Song' may be compared with Wilson's story from the same year: 'Christmas Day in the Workhouse', a wartime tale set in a Bureau. In that, the young, highly proficient and refined Thea repulsed by a perceived new vulgarity, which she sees as manifested in architecture and people, as captured in Wilson's sly prose:

'Despite the freezing wind that blew across the dismal meadows, where each month saw less trees and more concrete buildings, the atmosphere in the canteen with its radiators and fluorescent lighting was stiflinf. The white coats of the waitresses were splashed with scraps of food and gravy stains; around their thickly lipsticked mouths, their cheeks and chins shone greasy and sweaty. The young technician who sat opposite to Thea spat fragments of potato as he talked to his girl friend. She pushed aside her plate and decided to leave before the roof of her mouth was completely caked in suet. What a prelude to a Mozart concert! she thought. Nothing in her education had ever allowed her to bridge the gap between the material and the cultural.' (SDD, pp.113-4)

There is something of the unease Losey and Pinter captured in their 1963 film, The Servant (itself an adaptation of a 1948 novel), with Bates emphasising the dissolution of an out-of-touch upper crust in society - though in the fictional Evensford the rug is yet to be definitively pulled from under their feet.

The quietly anguished Clara - or "Good Old Clara!" as she is to the absurd Freddy Williamson - is the central character, who is delicately sketched in comparison to the broadness of her sister, the more social Essie, and the Williamsons: 'The Williamsons were in leather; they were very successful and had a large early Edwardian house with bay-windows and corner cupolas and bathroom windows of stained glass overlooking the river.' (p.136)

Clara dreams hopelessly of Christmas snow which might transform the drab Evensford into a more romantic, or Alpine, European town; the epigraph to this post indicates how she sees herself as distinct from both the unsophisticated, increasingly prominent working-class and the rich, represented by the ghastly Williamsons. She is a decidedly pre-pop culture sort of heroine, not assertive in accepting or rejecting the overtures of Freddy, but just not responding to them. The contrast is provided by the 'shy ardent' young man who cannot recall any of the song he wants to buy from the shop. She takes to him with all of his sensitivity and embarrassment - he clearly gets the emotion of the song he is seeking, in contrast to how the Williamsons raucously respond to her habitual Christmas Eve performances.

The song turns out to be, as she had suspected, a piece by Schubert - 'Standchen' (1828) in particular - and this impresses her, presumably in contrast to the endless jazz dance band songs she has to help people buy. There is a wistful gentility in the untapped, unspoken romance that cannot but remind one of Brief Encounter (dir. David Lean, 1945), a sort of Englishness that has in many senses been crushed by left, right and most of all, by consumerism.

One should not easily pigeonhole Bates, at least on this evidence, as a purveyor of cosy, middle-class consensus; there is a restlessness about conventional class-based society that you find everywhere from the finest work of Innes and Stanshall ('Postcard', 'Sport (The Odd Boy)', 'My Pink Half of the Drainpipe') to Bennett and Potter. Those who are cultured and sensitive are not necessarily going to fit in anywhere, seems to be the message. The function of the Schubert is almost entirely what the Al Bowlly songs are within Dennis Potter's work - incantations that transport the protagonists beyond the humdrum and everyday, or emphasise the melancholy contrast between the ideal and the reality. Wilson's Christmas story actually includes a part where 'Paper Doll' (used also in The Singing Detective, IIRC) is playing, chides Thea and her dreams of escaping from her isolation: 'I'd rather have a paper doll to call my own' the crooner sang, 'than a fickle-minded real life doll.' (SDD, p.125)

Counterpointing the poignant encounters between Clara and the shy ardent young gent are her forced encounters with Freddy Williamson. She is entrapped by this grotesque's persistent advances, which she can only seem to avert by agreeing to attend the yearly ritual that is the Williamson Christmas family party. Her reveries are bound to be broken by this actively reprehensible chap - often referred to as like a dog. His fatuous demand for kisses and attention - 'Come on, let's have one for Christmas' - cannot ultimately be rejected. (p.140) Freddy is rather like one of Angus Wilson's grotesque types, vividly painted in his malignance: 'He smacked at her lips with his heavy, dog-like mouth, pressing her body backwards.' (p.141) He also uses phrases like 'Whizzo'...

Christmas is bound to be appropriated by the Freddys; her cultivated, European dreams are ever at bay. There are clear analogues in 'A Christmas Day at the Workhorse'; Major Tim Prosser for Freddy, Stephanie for the ardent shy young man in terms of oblique romantic longing: 'A few minutes later Stephanie had slipped away, and Thea stood by a window, gazing out on to the wet shiny asphalt paths as though her dreams were reflected in their mirrored surface.' (SDD, p.122)

Underlining the resolution is a quintessentially English sense of doors being shut, of opportunities sadly slipping away: 'She felt the frost crackling under her feet. She grasped at something that was floating away. Leise flehen meine Lieder - Oh! my loved one - how did it go?' The inability to precisely remember the words mirrors her inability to escape the world of the Williamsons and find romance.


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