The Crying Game
(Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1968)
We are in London towards the end of the last century. Bright young things work hard and party hard. They swing to the Right politically, and the coolest career choices are advertising, public relations and media. As they climb the ladder of success, they can trade in existing lovers for more socially suitable partners.
Welfare recipients and do-gooders are equally despised, Labour politicians are fair game for muckraking, and even the Conservatives frequently fail to come up to scratch: ‘We have a Tory MP do business with us sometimes. He’s as thorough-going a lefty as anyone in the Labour Party.’
So far, so Eighties. John Braine’s achievement is to have seen it coming a good fifteen years before that decade really hit its stride.
‘The time of this novel is shortly in the future,’ he writes at the start, before introducing the central character Frank Batcombe, a national newspaper journalist in his late twenties. Frank tells us: ‘I was never anything else other than starry-eyed about Fleet Street, it never diminished for me as other streets in London sooner or later seemed to diminish.’
But as his thirtieth birthday draws near, he fears he is too reliable a reporter to be either sacked or promoted. If his career is bogging down, so is his personal life as he shies away from the commitment for which he suspects his girlfriend Theresa, a fellow journalist, is looking. His accommodation, a studio flat in World’s End, is inadequate.
Into this discontent walks his cousin Adam Keelby. Both are products of Catholic Yorkshire, but Adam is considerably more prosperous, cutting a dash as a PR man. He is elegantly dismissive of his line of work: ‘As long as you continue to talk fluently and occasionally funnily and even more occasionally colourfully, and even more occasionally still display enormous integrity, you have it made.’ Later: ‘It’s the easiest way of living without working that was ever invented.’
Frank visits Adam’s impressive home in Hampstead and meets his like-minded house mates and other friends: ‘They had the same political opinions – extreme Right or, to be more accurate, derisively anti-Left.’
Adam lets fly with the Right-wingery at the drop of a hat: ‘I have it all day at work. If it isn’t South Africa it’s Rhodesia , and if it isn’t Rhodesia it’s Vietnam… My politics is me. When they have an election I vote for the chaps who’ll tax me the least.’
Later: ‘To hell with my suffering black brothers… To hell with the homosexuals, to hell with the unmarried mothers, to hell with the homeless…’
He is even suspicious of the higher education establishment that Frank attended: ‘I mean, you went to Charbury University and Charbury is full of foul perverted Communists and, indeed, Progs of every kind. Progressives, I mean.’
The battle cry of Adam’s set is ‘Down with Oxfam!’
What follows is a spoiler, so be alert.
Perhaps predictably, Frank is drawn into Adam’s orbit, is persuaded to take the place of a departing housemate and live at the Hampstead house and, eventually, to contemplate chucking journalism and partnering Adam in a new PR venture. Theresa, perhaps equally predictably, disapproves of Adam.
Frank tries to defend his cousin:
‘Adam’s a good Catholic.’
‘It suits his purpose. It’s just another gimmick.’
‘Not necessarily a commercial gimmick.’
‘Oh no, you simpleton. Not these days. It’s smart to be a Pape now… Just as to be Right-wing is smart. He’s not sincere about it. He’s not sincere about anything.’
Frank falls under the spell of Angela Guilsfield, a painter from Adam’s circle. After a passionate affair, they become engaged, while Theresa takes up with a colleague, a good man but a bit of a clunker.
If the Frank-Angela engagement is perhaps obviously doomed, Frank’s reaction when on a routine job – the ‘death knock’, when reporters are despatched to interview the parents of a deceased child – comes as a surprise. Approaching the humble home of the bereaved parents, whose seven-year-old daughter has been murdered, he recalled that the most frequent term of disapproval in his home was ‘council house’, this being a dwelling whose inhabitants ‘lived off our backs’.
His initial response to the couple is in keeping with this. The house smells and both parents are of slovenly appearance. Frank has £50 of the paper’s money to give them for their story; ‘it wouldn’t last them longer than a few days, since that kind of person is always feckless’.
But then, to the bewilderment of the grieving parents, Frank starts to cry: ‘I wasn’t only crying because of the dead child, I was crying because I had so much and they had so little, because though she was a slattern and he was a layabout, they were kind to their children.’
In the peculiar position of having to comfort the hard man of Fleet Street, they make him a cup of tea.
Is this a Damascene moment, after which he renounces ‘smart’ Right-wing flippancy, joins the Labour Party and starts writing cheques to the Child Poverty Action Group? Not exactly, although it does mark a shift in perspective that helps make his future path clearer once his engagement breaks up over Angela’s infidelity and he reaches for the phone:
‘Theresa… I love you… Will you marry me?’
If there is one theme that runs through this book it is not futurology or even the troubled path of true love, but that of loneliness. Frank is lonely in the opening pages and he returns to the subject during the narrative. At the very end: ‘When she finally hung up, I sat smiling at the telephone for five minutes. I would never be alone again.’
John Braine’s reputation has been on the down-escalator for so long that it is a pleasure to be reminded how good he could be. But today, the title of this book is more likely to prompt mention of the 1992 film of that name – involving an IRA man who jumps into bed with a glamorous woman, only to find out he is a man – than of what is a remarkably prescient and well-written piece of fiction.