Ginger, You’re Barmy by David Lodge (1962)

It was as if the authorities had determined to seed out from the intakes of new recruits anyone with a spark of intelligence or individuality, together with the odd moron or psychopath, and to subject us all to the most farcical and futile form of training they could devise, just to teach us our place. (p.136)

Closely echoing Lodge’s own experience, the novel is the first-person narrative of a clever only child of older parents, Jonathan Browne. Like David, Jon made it to grammar school and then on to university to study English and take a First class degree, before being compelled to report for his National Service in darkest Yorkshire.

Here he encounters the brutality and vulgarity of the working class (‘the vast, uncouth British proletariat’ p.26), in the company of fellow ex-student Mike Brady, who is a deliberate contrast and foil to the restrained narrator – a clever man, big, solid and ginger-haired, who dossed away his time at uni and has a troubled relationship with his sweetly feminine girlfriend, Pauline.

Lodge was 25 or so when he was writing this, his second novel. The tone of voice is calm and reasonable, the style clear and devoid of tricks and flashinesses – the same style which makes his books of literary criticism so reasonable and his newspaper articles about literary technique so sensible and accessible. Only sometimes is the narrator a bit too pleased with his First, a bit too keen to namedrop Two Gentlemen of Verona or Lord Rochester, and occasionally drops into an ornate prissiness of phrasing which bespeaks the author’s reverence for the periphrastic periods of Henry James.

National Service

From 1 January 1949, healthy males 17 to 21 years old were expected to serve in the Armed Forces for 18 months, and remain on the reserve list for four years. In October 1950, in response to the British involvement in the Korean War, the service period was extended to two years. National Service ended gradually from 1957. In November 1960 the last men entered service, as call-ups formally ended on 31 December 1960, and the last National Servicemen left the Armed Forces in May 1963. (Source: Wikipedia)

As his afterword states, Lodge served from August 1955 to August 1957. The novel was published five years later, just as National Service ceased to exist, and the whole era he describes was shortly to be swept away by the revolutionary changes of the 1960s. Even a decade later it must have seemed a period piece and now it seems like ancient history.

Atmosphere

Although the narrator looks back on the entire period as a pointless waste of time, characterised by grimly early starts, late nights polishing boots and buttons, disgusting food, freezing barracks, scratchy uniforms and sadistic sergeants, nonetheless Lodge’s characteristic warmth and humanity shine through. Even the sensitive narrator’s rude exposure to the violent and coarse working class with their shallow pleasures and brutal humour convey fondness. The barrack room lout, Norman, who bullies the weakest recruits, forcing them to the floor and ‘riding’ them like horses, is met much later in the novel, having discovered a remarkable aptitude for looking after the garrison pigs 🙂

We went over to the cookhouse for tea, and discovered that the meal was Shepherd’s Pie. We had rashly eaten this before. Mike swore it was made from real shepherds. (p.145)

The bedrock, the majority, of the text is an amusing and humane memoir of National Service in the mid-50s.

Sex

The 1950s were the era of sexual frustration, when a generation which had been through the crisis of world war two and was subject to floods of racy American movies and fiction, still found it difficult to take their clothes off without turning out the light.

The narrator’s sexual frustration is a prominent theme in the novel and the tone is set by a scene in the first few pages where Jonathan is talking to his lady love, sits on the sofa with her, they start kissing and – this time, hooray! – he gets as far as slipping his hand inside her pyjamas and stroking up her side just far enough to touch her naked breast – at which point she says, ‘Better not’, and he reluctantly agrees, withdraws his hand and spends the rest of the scene quietly burning with frustration.

This time I seemed to be climbing higher up her rib-cage than usual, until my fingers met the soft protuberance of her breast. I held my breath like a thief who has trodden on a creaking floor-board, and then my hand closed over her breast… Pauline moaned faintly, ‘Better not, darling,’ and I withdrew my hand. (p.15)

People spent their entire lives like that. What must they have thought of the Swinging London depicted by people like Adam Diment, which was to erupt just 3 or 4 short years later – short skirts, the Pill, women falling into your lap like cherry blossom.

A major strand of the plot is that Jonathan slowly falls in love with (becomes infatuated with/realises he stands a chance of getting off with) his friend Mike’s girlfriend, Pauline. Plenty of cold nights in the barracks are made a little less dreary by his heated fantasies about Pauline. Swiftly followed, of course, by pangs of guilt.

Catholicism

Speaking of guilt, Lodge is a Roman Catholic. In the novel’s afterword he records his debt to Graham Greene who, as the most famous Catholic novelist in English, was a huge influence on the young writer. Pity. Graham Greene’s characteristic subjects are adultery, guilt and despair tending to suicide, the permanent impossibility of happiness. Greene’s influence was to make people think that feeling desperately unhappy, behaving badly and then luxuriating in a pornographic sense of your own sinfulness and damnation, somehow made you a superior person, proved your refined morality, cursed oh cursed with these damn finer feelings and a suffering spirituality which set you apart from the common herd.

All very appealing to the anxious and immature, of all ages.

The voodoo of Greeneish Catholicism (‘oh Hell! oh Damnation!’) leaves a scar across the text in the suicide of Percy Higgins, a clumsy, sensitive posh boy hopelessly out of place in the Army, a weakling driven to suicide by their crude, cruel NCO.

Or was he? To extract maximum thrills, Percy is made a Catholic and so is Jon’s friend, Mike who, when they hear Percy’s gun go off, is first to Percy’s side where he kneels and desperately gives him the Last Rites (without which an all-loving God apparently sends you to Hell). The authorities then have to decide whether Percy deliberately shot himself or was just so damn clumsy he discharged his weapon by accident, a debate lent spurious depth by the application of Catholic melodrama.

This is the most violent and striking event in the novel (the soldiers never go abroad to fight in Korea or Kenya or Malaysia, as other National Service soldiers did; they never get further than Darlington) and turns out to be the central plot strand. It causes Mike and Jon to be held back from leave and compelled to give evidence at the resulting coroner’s hearing, and prompts Mike, one quiet night, to take his revenge on the NCO who bullied Percy to his death, by beating him unconscious. A disastrous movie which leads Mike to be arrested, and enables Jon to move in on his girlfriend, the softly feminine Pauline.

Two timeframes

Lodge takes his basic memoir of National Service and subjects it to some interesting technical modulations, mainly around the time scheme. It opens with a description of Jonathan’s nerves about his call-up, his preparations and journey by train north to Catterick, his first impressions and experiences. Chapter two, however, leaps 2 years down the line, to his last few weeks as a soldier: he is now an old hand, has made it to Corporal, knows how to rig the system, and has acquired a girlfriend, Pauline, with whom he’s planning to celebrate his freedom with a trip to Majorca and (maybe, just maybe) actual sex!!!

Thereafter the two timeframes alternate, one chapter moving us forward through the intense first weeks of Jonathan’s basic training, introducing us to key characters in his cohort of recruits, NCOs and officers –  the next leaping to his last few days, as he effectively says goodbye to a world he’s become so familiar with.

(In the afterword, Lodge freely admits this is another borrowing from Graham Greene, whose mature novels, from The End of The Affair to The Honorary Consul, are often a complex mosaic of memories, diaries, dreams and flashbacks.)

It works. It creates narrative tension because, whereas in the ‘first days’ sections he only slowly gets to meet Pauline in her role as his best friend’s girlfriend, let alone talk to her, in the ‘last days’ sections we see Jonathan as her well-established boyfriend, sitting on the sofa and managing – just now and then – to touch her bare breast! Clearly, in the middle of the two sections, something interesting happens – but what?

Meanwhile, the final section of the novel moves it onto a new plane of melodrama.

Mike is sentenced to two years in military prison for assaulting the NCO. He asks Jonathan to smuggle out and post a letter. Some time later Mike benefits from an audacious jailbreak and is spirited away. Time passes in the usual boring squad-bashing way, until the very last day of Jonathan’s service when, by an enormous coincidence, he is able to foil an armed attack on the lax barracks by masked members of the IRA (!). And who was among these desperadoes? Mike! Turns out Mike is of Irish extraction – Jonathan had met some of his Irish friends on leave in London – they were the only people he could turn to after his arrest, and after they sprang him from prison it was at the price of forcing him to give them the inside information which would allow them to make an embarrassing raid on a British Army barracks. And Jon happened to be on guard that night!

As a direct result of the information Jon provides the authorities, Mike is captured and sentenced to three years in gaol and Jonathan is racked with a Catholic’s best friend, gnawing guilt. The whys and wherefores of how Jonathan took over Pauline from Mike are understandably overshadowed by this dramatic turns of events.

Third timeframe

And in rather the same way, the basic structure of alternating timeframes is itself transcended by another framing device: for the novel opens with a three-page prologue in the narrator’s voice, teasingly mentioning that the entire narrative has been written at some kind of decisive moment, for some kind of important reason — without revealing anything more… oooh what is it?

And the final few pages of the book consist of an epilogue which swiftly places all the preceding events in historical perspective. Jonathan quickly explains that: immediately after foiling the IRA raid he left the Army and went on his long-awaited holiday with Pauline. As might be predicted for a such a long-expected sexual jamboree, the holiday is a disaster as Pauline promptly comes down with food poisoning and the runs and is bed-ridden. Bored, Jonathan finds himself buying a notebook and starting to jot down memories of his National Service, until it turns into a compulsion and, even when Pauline is much better, up and ready to enjoy herself, old boring-face can hardly be torn away from pen and paper.

Eventually, she manages to get him tipsy at a dance and, in a horribly sex-hating, typically English scene reeking of embarrassment and shame about sex, they make love.

Pauline, demoralised and disarmed by my erratic behaviour, responded with starved eagerness, and I ended the night in her bed. There, after much effort, I succeeded in rupturing her hymen, and planted in her the sperm which became the small boy now emitting such an offensive odour at my feet. (p.209)

Yuk. As a result of this one joyless union, Pauline, inevitably, becomes pregnant and Jonathan finds himself forced to abandon his ambitions to become an academic, obligated to marry Pauline – who he is not now sure that he particularly likes and – in the final twist of the novel, decides to move down to Devon to be near the prison (presumably Dartmoor) where Mike is sent. In fact he decides to do something selfless and moral with his life, and sets up adult education classes in the prison and visits Mike every week without fail for three long years.

On the last page we find out what the prologue had been hinting at when it said, 200 pages earlier, that the narrator was jotting down these notes on this momentous morning… For it is the morning when Jonathan is going to meet Mike upon his release from prison, to offer him the shelter of his house, to rehabilitate him, to reintroduce him to the girlfriend who has since become his wife and borne him two children. What will happen? What will Mike be like and say? What do their futures hold in store?

Conclusion

  • I liked the basic material of the memoir of National Service very much, it is honest and interesting.
  • I liked the bullying of the barrack room weakling a lot less, as this is a standard-issue cliché of new recruit novels and movies.
  • The positioning of the girl as the love interest between two boys felt like a contrived plot device.
  • I thought the increasing focus on Mike, his imprisonment, his escape, and then the last-day raid by the IRA, disappeared over the edge into silliness.
  • Thus, I had zoned out by the time I came to read the epilogue with its very compressed résumé of Jonathan’s life, the unplanned pregnancy, the hurried wedding, the loveless marriage, the abandoned career and the decision to devote his time to selflessly visiting and supporting Mike.

It is the tragedy of the novel as an art form that so many of its practitioners feel obliged to tell a story, no matter how contrived and clichéd, instead of somehow being able to rest content with the descriptions, moods, incidents and anecdotes, which so many of them are so much better at, and so much more at home with.


Ginger, you’re barmy

It’s a music hall song. Lodge gives a version of the lyrics which rhyme barmy with Army, and which I can’t find in any of the versions on YouTube, which only features the version below, where the hero is ‘barmy’ because it is 1910 and he refuses to wear a hat.

Related links

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down
1970 – Out of the Shelter
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses
1980 – How Far Can You Go?
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance
1988 – Nice Work
1991 – Paradise News
1995 – Therapy
2001 – Thinks …
2004 – Author, Author
2008 – Deaf Sentence
2011 – A Man of Parts

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: