Life in the West
(Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1980)
Thomas Squire would be, I think, a harder central character to sell to the reading public today than was the case forty years ago.
As we join the narrative in the spring of 1977, he is best known as a pop-culture pundit, currently filming an international television series to accompany his book Frankenstein Among the Arts. But he is also a director of an insurance company; a landowner who enjoys shooting and has hosted rock concerts on his property (‘We had the Who one year and they were fantastic’); having just missed the war, he joined a British covert operations unit in Yugoslavia and, at the time of the narrative, he remains occasionally helpful to the spooks.
He is patriotic in a cool sort of way, pro-capitalist progress (e.g. nuclear power), and is staunchly anti-Soviet as the ‘second’ Cold War, astutely alluded to by Aldiss, gets under way.
One can just imagine a literary agent or publisher trying to get to grips with this man of many parts and assorted viewpoints: a sort-of Melvyn Bragg meets Sir Max Hastings by way of John le Carre’s cut-throat agent Ricki Tarr.
Almost all the action hops back and forth between the spring and early summer of 1977 and the autumn of 1978. Put simply, he is on a roll during the former period, jetting round the world and occasionally returning to his ancestral home in Norfolk, the Frankenstein project being a career peak as he approaches fifty, but by September 1978 he is at the Mediterranean port of Ermalpa (I think it’s meant to be Palermo, but if so Aldiss’s anagram checker needs a service) as a speaker at a pop-aesthetics event, the splendidly entitled ‘First International Congress of Intergraphic Criticism’.
And the subject matter of the ‘intergraphic’ congress? ‘Pinball machines, movies, prophecy, TV, pop art, rock ’n’ roll, the Top 20, science fiction, design and the rest.’
Frankenstein has proved a big success (other than at home, where the critics carped) but he is estranged from his wife Teresa having been caught playing round with someone involved in the filming the previous year. His sister Deidre suggests Teresa should forgive and forget: ‘[L]ast year and this are in a way his great years. As I see it. They’ve come a bit late, but they’re wonderful for him.’
As the book opens, we are left in no doubt that Squire is a true believer in his subject. The cameras roll as he declares: ‘This is a give-away packet of matches from my hotel in Singapore. The matches are wood, the box plastic. It is a neat and beautiful product, and totally beyond the technology of our fathers. Can we then call it – beautiful? Because it is worthless, is it valueless?’
He is keen also on digital watches (then still a status symbol) and is ahead of his time in singing the praises of Singapore (now a routine activity) and, by extension, the other ‘Asian tigers’:
‘We in the west no longer care so much for work and discipline. That is why places like Singapore represent the coming century.’
Squire cuts an unusual figure for the late 1970s for the simple reason that he is an enthusiast for technological progress in a world still overshadowed by the doubts and insecurity of the Energy Crisis.
Another character criticises television. Squire replies: ‘[T]he wonder is that it is as good as it is. It must be respected. Why not respect it, develop it, now, rather than mourn for it when it is superseded, as no doubt it will be.’
Nuclear power comes up for discussion with a younger man, who is opposed. Squire notes:
‘All the same, you observe that the pendulum has swung dramatically – ten years ago the man in my position would have been conservative and against nuclear plants. The youngsters would have been calling for innovation.’
But Squire and his friends and family are far less sanguine about the state of the world. One chapter takes us a little out of the 1977–78 frame, back to Christmas 1976 at Squire’s family home on the Norfolk coast. Squire is explaining that ‘there is a dedicated band of Soviets and their Warsaw Pact hyenas … within six or seven miles of this comfortable fire’.
The coast is five miles away, he continues, and ‘hugging the two-mile limit, are Soviet spy-vessels, monitoring everything that goes on ashore’. His brother-in-law Marshall says: ‘This is no talk for Christmas Day,’ but then doubles back on himself: ‘Think they care about Christmas, six miles from here? They’re for abolishing it for good and ever.’
Inevitably, for a book set at the time it was written, there are the unselfconscious reminders of the way we were. At the conference: ‘They all seemed to be heavy smokers, lighting up as soon as they slumped into their chairs.’ In his hotel in Italy, Squire ‘put through a call [to the UK]…After an hour’s wait, the number rang.’
He explains to Teresa why her infidelity, which is in revenge at his own, is the more reprehensible: ‘There are historical and biological reasons why men are less likely to be faithful than women, less able to endure monogamy … I’ve done my best in that respect so you can keep quiet and do your best.’
Good luck with that one in 2019, mate.
Running through the novel is Squire’s troubled relationship with Teresa and the question of whether they will be reconciled. Spoiler alert, but, as with a near-contemporary piece of British fiction, John Fowles’s 1977 doorstopper Daniel Martin, the central couple leaves it to pretty much the last minute to decide they are better together.
I bought the paperback on publication and it is now falling apart from over-use. But I can’t claim to be a big Brian Aldiss fan beyond this remarkable book. I don’t read science fiction and was unfashionably unmoved at boarding school by his adolescent sex saga The Hand-Reared Boy. With all due respect to the relevant personnel, the idea of falling for matron did not appeal.
In 1984, Anthony Burgess listed Life in the West as one of the 99 best novels in English since 1939. His verdict cannot be improved on: ‘This is a rich book, not afraid of thought, full of vital dialectic and rounded characters.’