In his 1960 novel A Kind of Loving, Stan Barstow (1928-2011) introduces us to Vic Brown, a young man of 20 from a mining family in the fictional town of Cressley in Yorkshire. He is infatuated with Ingrid, a pretty 18-year-old typist in the engineering works where Vic is a draughtsman.
They do go out together, Ingrid seemingly having had her eye on him for some time, but Vic’s infatuation soon fizzles out and he finds there is nothing left, not even friendship or liking. By then, however, Ingrid is pregnant, and he ‘has to’ marry her, as we used to say. Ingrid has a miscarriage, and the novel ends with Vic coming to terms with his lacklustre marriage, hoping that he and she might find ‘a kind of loving’ to carry them through.
A sense of time and place
The strength of characterisation, the compelling writing and the confident narrative make A Kind Of Loving very much more than a document of social realism, a category into which it is sometimes slotted.
But the social and topographical background is so vividly and effortlessly created that a sense of the time and the place seeps into the reader.
We become immersed in the era of town brass bands, dance halls like the Gala Rooms, the journeys to work on buses, reeking of pipe and cigarette smoke and decorated with posters declaring ‘No Spitting’. Front rooms kept for best, freezing bedrooms, cold feet hitting the lino in the morning. Shops closing for the dinner hour. Half-day closing on Wednesdays. Armstrong Siddeley cars and Morris vans, gramophones and vinyl records, few private telephones, dates arranged and broken through the medium of notes and letters in a style of communication closer to Jane Austen’s time than to the present day.
And of course, the social attitudes of the late 1950s and 1960s inform the trajectory of the story. The so-called ‘sexual revolution’ was a million miles away from many communities. Respectable girls didn’t have sex before marriage, and to become pregnant out of wedlock was shameful. If a boy ‘got a girl into trouble’, he was expected to marry her.
Story of my life
The tone of the narration draws you in straight away. The mixture of the historic present tense and vernacular expressions make the the story leap off the page.
The first few pages of the novel describe Vic’s sister Christine’s wedding, on Boxing Day 1957 (a day memorable also for marking the moment when Vic decides to do something about Ingrid, rather than just ‘gawp at her like a lovesick cow’).
The wedding is a tour de force setpiece. Family politics and relationships are nailed — the house bursting at the seams with relatives who had to be asked to stay, the young twin cousins,’proper horrors’, who have to be bridesmaids or their mother Auntie Agnes would take offence. Auntie Agnes takes the huff in any case and storms off, assuming that the father’s wedding speech about not bearing family grudges applies to her.
The hints about it being time that Vic got married himself, his studious younger brother Jim sliding Philosophy from Plato to the Present Day into his pocket for light relief from the celebration, the ongoing argument between Vic’s parents about his mother’s insistence on having the reception in the ‘best hotel in Cressley’ in spite of them not being posh and his father only being a miner are all enjoyably recognisable in spirit and tone.
Then there’s the extended reception ‘after-party’ back at the house with chairs borrowed from the neighbours, who have to be asked in as well, and finally there’s Uncle George, the irresistible card who will keep any party going (every family has one) playing the piano while Vic’s dad plays his trombone, hits a high note and breaks a light bulb.
The emotional honesty and engaging candour of Vic’s story means that you want to like him, but re-reading the novel after many years, I find him far less appealing than I did as a teenage reader.
It’s hard not to be critical of his attitude to women. He calls them all ‘bints’ or ‘tarts’, terms which may not have been meant in a derogatory way but which cannot be excused as universal usage of the time as I doubt if, for example, David, Vic’s teacher brother-in-law, would use the same expressions.
Vic seems strangely obsessed with cleanliness, referring several times to Ingrid’s fragrant persona. She looks as if she had a bath every morning, he observes, and her clothes are washed and ironed. She’s ‘neat and clean and fresh smelling’. She’s ‘clean as clean’. He likes having ‘the lovely smell of a high-class chemist’s shop all round me’. And just in case we don’t get the point, he hates ‘bints with bitten fingernails and mucky hair who smell like last week’s joint warmed up and gone off again’. That’s telling you, fair damsels of Cressley.
Vic is particularly nasty about Ingrid’s friend Dorothy, who admittedly is an unappealing person who crashes their date and tries to stir up trouble between them. He says she is a ‘plain Jane with a muddy complexion, a big nose and a mouth like a crack in a pie’, the latter observation pleasing him so much that he later repeats it to a mate. Vic tells Dorothy, ‘Any bloke who laid a finger on you ‘ud deserve a medal. He’d have to have a sack over his head…’ Later he wonders if he’s been cruel to the ‘poor ugly bint’. The really interesting thing about Dorothy is why she is Ingrid’s best friend, a choice that reflects badly on Ingrid, a point which doesn’t occur to Vic.
Ingrid indulges in some Dorothy-bashing as well. She says she’s jealous, and no one asks her out because she’s not attractive. ‘She’s not attractive, is she?’ she says to Vic. ‘I mean, let’s be honest, you didn’t find her attractive, did you?’ There are times in the novel when you feel hat Vic and Ingrid deserve their drab, joyless union.
Roll over Beethoven
Vic claims to want a fuller life, a life of the mind, but he doesn’t actually do much to expand his limited horizons, and it’s in this area that Stan Barstow’s usually sure touch strikes an uncertain note. Vic flirts with literature, borrowing a copy of For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway from David, but that’s as far as it goes.
Apart from David, the character with the most obvious claims to intellectual interests is Ken Rawlinson works in the office with Vic and who talks about Zola and Debussy and Beethoven and the symphony concerts he goes to in Leeds Town Hall. He is described as a pseudo-intellectual and an object of mockery by Vic’s other workmate, Albert Conroy, who presents himself as rather loutish, but, we are told, knows a lot about good books and good music. Conroy sneers that Rawly buys the Times and The Guardian and the posh Sunday papers and reads all the critics and thinks that’s it.
Apart from the fact that we don’t actually see evidence of Conroy’s erudition or Rawly’s superficiality, we notice that Vic doesn’t apply any of this to his own habits. No (even secret) reading of a quality newspaper, no evening classes, although he has read all the Raymond Chandler books in the library. Vic is surprised to find, through Conroy’s example, that it’s possible to like beer and dirty stories and still be a ‘highbrow’, but he sticks to the boys’ changing rooms’ sniggering conversations. He hates Ingrid’s vacuousness, her dismissal of books and her love of telly, but he himself is no heavyweight in the culture department.
However,Vic does learn to love music, tutored by Mr Van Huyten, the old family friend who owns the record shop where Vic works on Saturdays. He encourages Vic to explore the ‘thunder and majesty of Beethoven’ and the ‘noble sadness of Elgar’. They go to concerts together in Leeds and Bradford and Vic develops his own taste.
Ingrid mocks Vic’s new interest, as he mocks her liking for the Hit Parade, as we used to call it. Stan Barstow’s favourite Desert Island Disc, when he was on the Radio 4 programme in 1964, was Elgar’s Symphony Number 2 in E Flat, suggesting that this aspect of Vic Brown is one of the novel’s reflections of the author’s own person.
At the same time, Vic’s inconsistencies, weaknesses and contradictions make him human. He’s a young man, and his mistakes are a young man’s mistakes. He can’t find an outlet for his aspirations and he can’t find the soulmate he longs for. There is something noble (and yes, misguided) about his decision to stick with the marriage to Ingrid. He wants to do the right thing, ‘And now I’m going to do my best and see how it works out.’
So you hope that Vic and indeed Ingrid find happiness, together or apart. And you hope that Vic in time sees the error of his ways and stops dismissing ‘popular music’. Never trust someone who disses Elvis, we say.
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