Camden and the North

SIMON MATTHEWS reads David Storey’s second novel, Flight Into Camden.camden2

Second novel syndrome. A bit like second album syndrome for rock bands. Always a problem, and particularly acute if the first (album, or book) is a best-seller. Thus, for John Braine it was Room at the Top, but who now remembers The Vodi? Stan Barstow followed A Kind of Loving to less acclaim with Ask Me Tomorrow, and playwright Shelagh Delaney, despite the recent efforts made at her rehabilitation, remains synonymous with A Taste of Honey.

David Storey didn’t quite go the same way. Flight into Camden appeared in 1960 as his follow up to This Sporting Life, and explored the same emotional and psychological terrain. In Life, rugby league player Frank Machin has an unsatisfactory relationship with his landlady, the widowed Mrs Hammond. It ends and he remains trapped in the north. In Flight into Camden, Margaret, a secretary, has an unsatisfactory relationship with Howarth, a failed painter. It ends, and she can’t escape the north either. ‘The North’ here is not just geographical. It is a set of attitudes and socially, sexually, culturally very conservative.

Storey lived in Camden, so much of it is autobiographical. Originally renting above a shop at the mucky end near Kings Cross, after literary success he upgraded to a town house in Kentish Town where for many years his wife worked in the local CAB. Set in the late 1950s this is a pre-gentrified inner city described thus, by Margaret:

I had a vague impression of streets narrower and buildings dirtier than I had ever expected; of row after row of sordid houses, filthier than anything I had seen at home. The area we went through was one of disintegration and decay…

Quite something for someone arriving from Wakefield.

The book is by no means a difficult or challenging read but one is struck now by how implausible both characters are, compared to how the plot might have developed (and how the reader thinks it will). Storey doesn’t actually do very much with either of them.camden1

Howarth is particularly uninteresting. He is about thirty-five, has shrapnel wounds from war service, and at some point (say 1950) was an emerging artist. In the book he is married, but semi-separated, and working as a teacher in FE, where for some unspecified reason he doesn’t ‘fit in’. He starts a relationship with Margaret (who is about nineteen, and fascinated by him) and they relocate to London. Here he finds employment almost immediately ‘on the ILEA Divisional Staff at a Secondary Modern School’ but, annoyingly, only feels sorry for himself, moaning in a way that wouldn’t be understood today, about his misfortunes in having to do such work. Unsurprisingly – it is clearly telegraphed in advance – he goes back to his wife.

Storey gives him nothing, absolutely nothing, to say about art, nor do we hear about his artistic abilities, preferences and experiences or visit with him any of the niche galleries, cafes and jazz clubs that he and Margaret would surely have sought out. Which is really quite amazing: Storey himself studied at the Slade School of Fine Art 1954-57 where one of his teachers was Lucien Freud. Surely, he could have built Howarth into a more interesting figure?

Margaret seems flawed too. In the book she gets as far as working as a secretary at the BBC World Service. What wonderful employment to have! Why on earth doesn’t she just shrug Howarth off and strike out on her own? Live in bedsit land and be a proto-60s woman? Either Storey didn’t have the imagination to do this or he was so misanthropic (or fatalistic) about the pull of ‘the north’ that he thinks having the main character tamely return home an adequate ending. In Camden in 1960, it seems impossible that he and his wife didn’t know of people like Margaret who just got on in a positive way with making their new life work. camden3

Where the book does work, though, is in having a narrative told from a clear feminine perspective. This is remarkable, particularly in a book written by a man, the more so when one considers that most kitchen sink authors specialised in characters that were unreconstructed blokes: Arthur Seaton, Jimmy Porter, Joe Lampton etc.

The dialogue is terrific too. It still leaps off the page and even now it could easily be adapted as a radio play. These two features clearly outweighed any shortcomings with the plot or main characters, as it won the Somerset Maughan Prize (following Lucky Jim some years earlier and immediately preceding The Spy Who Came in From the Cold).

With Lindsay Anderson’s adaptation of This Sporting Life getting nominated for a clutch of BAFTA’s there was talk of filming Flight into Camden too. But the Hollywood moneymen were having none of it. They scoffed at the idea of having Margaret played by Glenda Jackson, then emerging as a talent at the Royal Shakespeare Company, reasoning (wrongly) that no one would take an actress with a name like that seriously as a film star.

In truth, by the mid-60’s the kitchen sink had given way to A Hard Day’s Night, Alfie and their off-spring. Storey switched increasingly to plays and had terrific successes with Home and In Celebration, though a late novel, Saville, won the Booker Prize in 1976. He wasn’t a one-hit wonder by any means.

Flight into Camden is still worth a spin today and falls into an odd sub-category: social realist novels set in London rather than ‘the north’. File with The Ballad of Peckham Rye (Muriel Spark) and Adrift in Soho (Colin Wilson).


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