Nice Work by David Lodge (1988)

‘I feel as if I’m getting dragged into a classic realist text, full of causality and morality. How shall I get out of it?’ (Part 5, chapter 3)

This is the third of the Changing Places trilogy (Changing PlacesSmall WorldNice Work), often to be seen gathered together in a hefty omnibus paperback edition.

It is linked to its predecessors by being set at the (fictional) University of Rummidge (based on Birmingham University where Lodge taught all his life) and by, peripherally, featuring the two protagonists of Changing Places (mundane Brit Philip Swallow, now going slightly deaf, and the turbo-charged American academic, Morris Zapp) who also featured in Small World.

But it isn’t a real sequel and can be read as a stand-alone book in that it doesn’t require any knowledge of the previous novels and the central protagonists are two characters we have not previously encountered:

  • Robyn Penrose is a highly intelligent lecturer in feminist theory at the University, who reluctantly acquiesces in taking part in a scheme to ‘shadow’ a leader of local industry
  • Vic Wilcox is the short, stubby, hard-headed Brummy recently installed as Managing Director at J. Pringle and Sons, a local metal-working factory, who reluctantly agrees to be shadowed by her

After opening expositions which give us Robyn and Vic’s life stories and current situations – firmly establishing that there could barely be two more different people living in the same city – we watch them thrown together in numerous scenes designed to highlight their different ideas and expectations, lives and lifestyles, and watch as they slowly, grudgingly, develop a sort of mutual respect and then – guess what – fall in love.

The oppression of history

One way Nice Work is very of its time is the way its time seems to oppress the story more than the mere fact of being set in 1969 or 1979 oppressed the previous two books. The 1980s – due to Mrs Thatcher’s belligerent style and confrontational policies – seemed a very embattled era, and the forces of youth and the Left were hammered. Previously characters seemed to live their lives with scant regard of politicians. During the 1980s everyone seems oppressively aware of the plight of the economy, the recession impacts everyone, the decimation of entire industries weighs heavily on the national consciousness and on individuals.

True to the spirit of the age, Robyn and Vic don’t show each other new things – they fight about them.

Changing Places is set in 1969, Small World exactly ten years later in 1979. Although they are intended to be comedies, with a strong element of fantasy and exaggeration, they are nonetheless firmly rooted in Lodge’s default ‘social realism’, the accurate depiction of real life as lived by ‘average’ – not privileged, not rich, not particularly special in any way, people – and a going-out-of-his-way to describe the humdrum details of everyday life. Pants and socks and tumble-dryers and glasses falling off and papers getting lost.

But more so than in the previous novels, social history predominates in this one, from the big-picture political situation to ‘softer’, cultural trends. The very first sentence of Nice Work is: ‘Monday, January 13th, 1986’, setting us firmly amid the Tory party’s privatisation of government-owned industries and the savage cutting back of government budgets, including the budget for Higher Education.

Lodge is careful to establish these cuts as the background to Robyn’s situation and the decisions she must make. Her boss, Philip Swallow, is given a mournful speech declaring that his academic life (closely paralleling Lodge’s) has shadowed the life cycle of post-war academia: limited options in the 1950s, explosion of higher education in the 1960s, with a concomitant eruption of new theories and ideas (all those newly-tenured academics had to make their careers writing about something) – the biggest complaint from academics of that era being the noise of endless new buildings being erected on their campuses. And now, in the 1980s, swingeing government cuts, retrenchment and demoralisation.

As Robyn struggles to finish her second academic book, Domestic Angels and Unfortunate Females, and approaches the end of her three-year contract at Rummidge, she, Swallow and the narrator all point out the harsh truth that there are now no new jobs in academia. It is a dead-end career.

‘I have no choice,’ said Robyn. ‘There’s no future for me in this country.’ (Part 6, chapter 2)

But things are no better for Vic Wilcox. The third-person narrator takes us into his thoughts as he drives the flyover across Rummidge to his metal-casting and engineering plant in rundown West Wallsbury, surveying on his way the landscape of empty factories and bricked-up houses. Low grey cloud, rain, grime.

We are allowed into Vic’s thought processes as comprehensively as into Robyn’s and it is a refreshing departure in Lodge’s fiction to encounter such a fully-developed, rounded character who has nothing to do with literature, Roman Catholicism or sex. His thoughts about the economic and industrial malaise of the mid-1980s are interesting in their own right, as well as fleshing out his character – about the need to be competitive, the need to buy British, the impact of ruinously high interest rates, the struggle to keep a manufacturing business going against stiff foreign competition.

And both he and Robyn note the presence of black youths on the streets, unemployed, hanging round at street corners – the first appearance of immigrants in Lodge’s fiction, associated with menace and off-stage rioting, reported on the radio.

In another sign of the times, Robyn, it turns out, has a go-getting brother (Basil) who is a bond trader in the City of London, younger than her but already on three times her salary, driving up for lunch in a high-powered BMW with his currency dealer girlfriend (Debbie, daughter of a Whitechapel bookie), bubbling with praise for Mrs Thatcher’s remodelling of the British economy, away from old manufacturing and towards service industries (like finance), both gleefully looking forward to the ‘Big Bang’ (the deregulation of City institutions, which took place on 27 October 1986).

(It is a clinching sign of defeat, defeat for the cause of the Left and for the study of literature itself, when Robyn’s long-time boyfriend, Charles, writes her a long letter explaining in detail why the 1960s expansion of university education has run out of steam, why the Left is finished as a vanguard force, and why post-structuralist literary studies are absurd – which is why he is packing it all in to become a merchant banker. Robyn flings the letter to the floor and repeats ‘You shit, you utter shit’, but is appalled because so many of his arguments find echoes in her mind. — Towards the end of the book, even Philip Swallow expresses his approval of privatisation; turns out he bought shares in BT which have trebled in value and will now buy many more in the soon-to-be-privatised British Gas. Mrs Thatcher’s strategy of creating a permanent Conservative majority in Britain, a property-owning, share-owning middle class who would never again allow Socialists into government, is shown to be succeeding at the macro and micro level.)

Travel and optimism, stay-at-home pessimism

Changing Places and Small World had a terrific optimism and comic exuberance as their protagonists flew to new countries, new destinations, meeting new people, exploring new ways of life, finding new possibilities.

Nice Work is the opposite. It is notable for the lack of travel. It almost all happens in the grim, post-industrial landscape of Rummidge. Vic Wilcox’s dad is a kind of epitome of anti-travel, refusing to move from his rundown unheated house at the centre of a Victorian terrace, even when a roaring flyover is built just thirty yards from his bedroom window.

The bleak, exhausted heart of England’s industrial rust belt sucks everyone down. Although both its characters have their eyes opened and change (as in the most traditional Victorian novel), it is a much more limited change than the previous novels, where people’s lives were transformed out of all recognition. There is a strong feeling of pessimism, of belatedness, that the Golden Age is over.

Change, it seems, for most of the novel, is only possible if you escape from Rummidge.

  • In part five of the novel, Vic takes Robyn on a 2-day business trip to Frankfurt. He has become besotted with her; she thinks it is fun to flirt. And when they get tipsy at dinner and have a dance at the disco, it is easy for the liberal, open-relationship-believing Robyn to lead Vic to her hotel room and into her bed. The (three) couplings which follow are described with Lodge’s trademark clinical detachment. But abroad – with its sense of physical, emotional and erotic possibilities – is quickly over, as they fly back to Rummidge, and Robyn is appalled to find Vic now hopelessly in love with her, and wanting to divorce his wife, pestering her with phone calls and letters. Before things take a downward turn for both of them.
  • Robyn can only finish the critical book she has been labouring on throughout the novel – Domestic Angels and Unfortunate Females – by fleeing Rummidge (and Vic’s attempts to contact her) for the haven of her parents comfortable house on the South Coast.
  • And when Morris Zapp, the hyper-ambitious American who brought such vim and energy to the earlier novels, makes a cameo appearance at a party of Professor Swallow’s, once again, as in the earlier novels, it is America which seems a land of hope and opportunity. And boundless money.

There was something about Morris Zapp that inspired hope. He had blown into the jaded, demoralised atmosphere of Rummidge University like an invigorating breeze, intimating that there were still places in the world where scholars and critics pursued their professional goals with zestful confidence, where conferences multiplied and grants were to be had to attend them, where conversation at academic parties was more likely to be about the latest controversial book or article than about the latest scaling-down of departmental maintenance grants. (Part six, chapter one)

The possibility of hope

But almost as soon as he’s appeared, Zapp is gone, flying off to yet another conference, leaving Swallow and his wife and Robyn to the bleak realities of higher education under Mrs Thatcher in the abandoned rust belt of a declining power. Soon after which things take a turn for the worse, as Vic is called in by his boss and abruptly dismissed. The rival firm he had been involved in outwitting have made a bid for Pringles which as been accepted and Vic is given a day to clear his desk and leave.

Vic is really the core of the novel, a character so outwith Lodge’s comfort zone of academia, and one of the best scenes is about neither sex nor post-structuralism, but the family meeting he calls when he gets home, with his long-suffering wife and three layabout children and doddery old Dad. And to his surprise they all rally round him. His wife has mistaken his infatuation for Robyn for worry about work and is tearfully relieved that the worst is over and Vic finds he can’t disabuse her, but is touched by the selflessness of her love. And his son turns out to have got a job with a local recording studio and his daughter says she’ll step up her work at the local hair stylist in order to pay her way through uni. It is heart-warming stuff.

While over on Robyn’s side of the plot, she is inundated by rather fairy tale good luck: Morris Zapp phones up, says he loves her book, and offers her a job at Euphoria State; then she finds her Australian uncle has died and left her his entire fortune in his will, all £150,000 of it. Lodge’s soft-hearted humanism shines through these concluding pages; if you’re going to have a corny happy ending, ahh, what the hell, why not go for it?

And so in the final pages Vic turns up back in Robyn’s office, explains he’s been made redundant but feels liberated by it and might have a go at setting up a firm to produce the widget he described to her on their foreign trip. Well, she says, I’ve just come into some money: can I invest in your firm? How much? £100,000. Wow, yes, of course. And they shake hands on it. And Vic blushes as he tells her he has gotten over his crush and has been reconciled with his wife. She congratulates him and writes a dedication in the volume of Tennyson he wants to borrow off her. Keep it, she says.

And on the last page, harassed Head of Department Philip Swallow says, there’s been a slight reprieve in the unemployment situation: the University has been given the freedom to redeploy resources budgeted for one item to another, if necessary. They might be able to pay her salary and extend her contract.

Should she go down to London to accept the marriage proposal from her old boyfriend, Charles, now making a fortune in the City? Should she accept Morris Zapp’s proposal to start a new life in the Californian sun? Or should she stay here, to battle for what she believes in, to try and use her knowledge and natural talent as a teacher to educate, to promote humane values, to try and build a better society?

‘All right,’ she says, turning back to Philip Swallow. ‘I’ll stay on.’

Despite all the anti-human forces to the contrary, Nice Work has a rousing and resoundingly happy ending which brings a tear to the eye.


TV series

The book was made into a four-part BBC television series, broadcast in 1989, starring the wonderfully grumpy Warren Clarke and the appositely aloof Haydn Gwynne, which won the 1989 Royal Television Society award for best drama series. Which makes it all the odder it’s not available on Amazon – though it is on ebay, starting around £20.

Related links

Hardback cover of Nice Work

Hardback cover of Nice Work

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 – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses – It is January 1969 and two English Literature professors are swapping jobs for a term: down-trodden Englishman Philip Swallow is heading for the Californian delights of Euphoria State University, and lit crit superstar Morris Zapp is heading towards rundown rainy Rummidge University. How will they cope with the resulting culture shocks? A hilariously knowing romp, a sophisticated comedy classic.
1980 – How Far Can You Go? – The stories of 10 young Catholics in the 1950s and their adventures as they mature during the 1960s and 70s, larded with lots of commentary about the sweeping changes to Catholic dogma during this period, and lots and lots of clinical descriptions of sex, in a surprisingly flat and unentertaining novel.
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance – a brilliantly conceived comedy of manners satirising the world of modern literary scholarship with its cast of jetsetting, globe-trotting, back-stabbing, vaultingly ambitious and goatishly lecherous academics, led by the protagonists of Changing Places, but with a whole lot more characters added, all travelling, questing and falling in and out of love in the artfully contrived and very funny modern-day equivalent of a medieval romance.
1988 – Nice Work – feminist literary academic Robyn Penrose reluctantly takes part in the university’s scheme to shadow figures from local industry, being assigned to the equally reluctant Vic Wilcox, Managing Director of J. Pringle and Sons, a local metal-working factory. Initially antagonistic, they open each other’s eyes to new worlds, rather inevitably, fall in love, but then go beyond that to reach a more mature and realistic accord.
1991 – Paradise News
1995 – Therapy
2001 – Thinks …
2004 – Author, Author
2008 – Deaf Sentence
2011 – A Man of Parts

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