John Braine’s novel, Room At The Top, published in 1957, contains many of the elements of a racy blockbuster. The tale of ambition and adultery, fuelled by issues of class, sex and money, follows the fortunes of 20-something Joe Lampton as he climbs his way up the ladder of social and economic success.
But this isn’t a story of glitz and glamour. The novel is set in England just after the the Second World War and Joe’s upward trajectory is not towards the golden pavements of London, or the dreaming spires of Oxford, or the glittering lights of Hollywood or Broadway.
He is ready to sell his soul for a tastefully decorated house and a nice bathroom suite. At the beginning of the book, the very ordinariness of his aspirations highlights the misery of living in physical and intellectual poverty in an ugly town in the North of England.
From Dufton to Warley
Joe’s home town, Dufton, is portrayed with convincing detail. The back-to-back houses are drab and mean and life within their walls is aesthetically displeasing and physically uncomfortable.
The windowsill in Joe’s bathroom has a dingy mess of toothbrushes, used razor blades and three cups with broken handles. Smoke from the mills and the chemical factories covers everything in a layer of dust. Fish die in the polluted river water.
The town is Warley, a well-to-do, perfectly ordinary provincial market town. It is well-kept and prosperous, ‘as clean and nourishing as an egg-nog’. Joe determines to position himself in this world of detached houses and manicured lawns, where business is done at the Conservative Club and being a prominent member of the council confers status.
Following the Dream
The moment at which Joe’s aspirations take shape occurs just after his move, when the sight of a couple in an Aston Martin provide his epiphany. The girl is pretty and expensively dressed, and her boyfriend has a ‘rich man’s face, smooth with assurance and good living’. This is what he wants, the girl, the car, the money, the effortless entitlement.
It’s like Eddie Cochran’s song Something Else, where he hankers after the girl and the car and at the end of the song he’s actually standing at her door with the car outside. When it all comes true man, wow, that’s something else.
Unlike Eddie, Joe can’t get what he wants if he works hard and saves his dough. His only access to this class is through marriage to Susan Brown, daughter of the local factory-owner big-wig.
His affair with the older, unhappily married Alice Aisgill almost scuppers his chances but it’s through the affair that we catch a glimpse of Joe’s real potential and his capacity for deeper experience than that offered by Susan.
Alice is earthy, sexy, experienced, uninhibited. Their relationship is passionate and tender. Susan is vacuous and annoying. She calls him Joekins and Joety and says things like ‘Mummy will be awfully cross.’ But she holds the trump cards and she plays her ace by getting pregnant.
The novel has many incidental pleasures. We get glimpses into the world of amateur dramatics and the workings of local government. References to Wilfred Pickles, a popular radio presenter, and Forces Favourites, a wartime radio request show, sit alongside references to Noel Coward, John Betjeman and Christopher Fry.
Joe, a clever grammar school boy, recognises a saying from Fry that an accountant makes ‘Homer sound like balance sheets and balance sheets like Homer.’ The quoter is an English teacher, but still…
Clothes maketh the man
John Braine is also excellent on the semiotics of clothes. Joe learns that the concept of ‘best’ clothes belongs to the class he wants to leave behind. In Aston Martin land, all your clothes are best. He learns not to buy cheap raincoats and not to wear garments that match too precisely. He learns to fix his tie in a bigger knot. Well, who would have known?
Joe’s back story is movingly presented as we hear about his parents’ death in a bombing raid, an experience which scarred Dufton for ever in his mind. His background is filled in further as we meet his Aunt Emily, who warns him that money marries money and advises him to stick to his own class.
Before his time
Joe was a decade or so too early to experience the social upheaval which began in the late 1950s. He might have found a direction for his restlessness in the ‘angry young men’ group, railing against the establishment and the kind of people who Joe and his mate at home called ‘zombies’.
But Joe thinks the answer is to join the Establishment. He wants to be a part of it and he envies the officer classes. So soon after the war, the distinctions between commissioned and non-commissioned officers and the impact of service records spill over into civilian life. The big RAF moustache, an officer’s adornment, is a symbol of class and confidence that Joe envies.
Joe wasn’t ready for the sexual revolution, either. A natural puritan, he couldn’t stand the fact that Alice posed nude for a painting class, or that she had lovers.
The sequel, Life At The Top, published in 1962, picks up Joe’s story ten years on. He’s got what he wanted. He is married to Susan, they have two children, a comfortable lifestyle, and he earns a packet in his father-in-law’s company. What could possibly go wrong?