Four novels that show how we used to have hope

The four novels are:

  1. Keep The Aspidistra Flying — George Orwell
  2. Lucky Jim — Kingsley Amis
  3. A Temporary Life — David Storey
  4. Money — Martin Amis

The main protagonists of these novels share a lifestyle that would be recognisable to each of the others. Will Self in Money might live his life at a slightly higher pitch — because of his profession — but where he lives, where he drinks, and who he associates with in his ‘normal’ life is on a par with Gordon Comstock, Jim Dixon, and Colin Freestone.

There is a tone of underlying greyness to the descriptions of their lives. A drabness appears to have clung to standard British life from the 1930s of the Orwell book, through the 1950s of Amis senior and the 70s of Storey to the late 1980s of Amis junior. And nothing much had changed in the 1990s, either.

For all Thatcher’s attack dog politics, it was still possible in the 1990s to work at a fairly menial job in London or any other major town and still live a life of some hope for the future.

Only as the full-blown turn to neoliberal economics finally wreaked havoc in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis has this hope been taken away.

But I’m not so interested in the politics here — for a change. It was reading the Storey novel today that triggered these thoughts. Something about Colin Freestone reminded me of Gordon Comstock — and it would be possible to trace some of his manners and mores back to Lawrence, too — and then the fact that Greenstone works at a college reminded me of Jim Dixon. The leap to Will Self may be further but all the men — and men they all are, and all struggling with relationships with women — share a certain browbeaten ambition that flourishes despite the world’s apparent indifference.

This, too, indicates the possibility of hope and the expectation of a future. That hope, that expectation, can no longer be assumed for my children.

I would recommend all four novels. Read them in date order and see how things have changed — or not.