Sunday, 10 January 2010

I'd Like To Stay Here And Be Normal - The Smaller Sky by John Wain

Here's irony for you. In his fine blog Paul Magrs had recommended Susan Hill's 'Howard's End Is On The Landing'. I'll deal with that in another post, but in short tt's a book about Hill's decision to abandon buying new books for a year and explore her own collection instead. A fine idea, and one my tottering to read piles suggest would be a good idea for me too. Instead of heeding Hill's words though, I did my usual and ended up thinking 'that sounds interesting'. Actually, Hill's words must have sunk in to some extent as I managed to restrict myself to ordering just two.

The Smaller Sky was the first (and currently only one) to make it through Britain's current Ice Age. I'd never heard of Wain before, a man who'd been on the fringes of the Inklings, the 'Angry Young Men' of the 50s and 'The Movement', a group including the likes of Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin. But all the details I could find all line indicated he was a peripheral figure to all that, one of those dragged in the wake of others and destined to be half-remembered at best. If his potted autobiography at the front is anything to go by that's a shame, it's witty, considered and indicates a prolific if dilettante mind. My favourite type of writer.

The story's all about Arthur Geary, a middle-aged scientist who's left his job and family to live on Paddington Station, spending his nights in the station hotel. Paddington's fairly cavernous roof is the smaller sky of the title, a haven and retreat for Geary which stops the sound of drums he can hear in his mind. It's a place he can lose himself in the crowds. We never really learn if the drums in Geary's head are driven by events in his past; there are vague hints of work he couldn't talk about under the Official Secrets Act but there's no real indication that Geary's work and domestic pressures are any greater than normal for the time. Essentially, it's dealing with the issue of stress decades before it became a common topic. We're not given any insight into the reasons as to his decision bar the absolute basics needed for the story. It's obviously deliberate, as it keeps the question as to Geary's sanity fairly open - he's clearly not sane by the standards of a society that doesn't understand his actions, but each passage from his viewpoint indicates that he's thinking rationally. You can subscribe to either viewpoint depending on your sympathies for his actions.

Wain's take is definitely a 60s one though, his apparent penchant for social realism leading him to examine how it impacts on his family. It's arguable the whole issue at the centre of the novel is rooted in the Sixties though, although in this case the man 'dropping out' isn't a counter culture steeped hippy but an older man who's almost the most unlikely person to drop out . I wasn't quite sure if Wain was ridiculing the whole notion of 'dropping out,' although that's a valid reading. It seems to me to be more to be an early tackling of the issue of people who find themselves trapped by the straitjacket of everyday life, and lacking a release, rebel against it - Geary fits in a line including the more flamboyant likes of Reggie Perrin or Blur's Tracy Jacks. Wain's oh so Sixties realism marks this out as a different approach to most other takes though. Instead of concentrating on the heroics of Geary's small act of rebellion, he also shows how it might be judged by others; family, friends and even how it might be exploited by the media. And Wain's not afraid of taking that to the logical conclusion, turning the book into a tragedy as his protagonist finds there is no real peace as he's hounded to his death; his desire to go unnoticed sacrificed on the altar of another's need to be noticed.

Wain's writing in itself is lovely, at times acutely and acidly observant, particularly on character. He's particularly good with the young characters, perfectly capturing their yearning for to grow up, but that they lack the tools to properly deal with the adult world.

It has small imperfections - Swarthmore is a little too much of a black-hatted bad guy (although well drawn and motivated) and Elizabeth Geary's connection is perhaps tenuous enough that you can feel narrative gears grinding. They're minor flaws though, Wain's dealing with issues still relevant today and his take on it is still eloquent and cutting.

Oh, and one final point; the image on the cover? Was the artist trying to suggest Tony Benn's sanity as questionable or just that Geary missed out on an easier career as Benn's double?

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