Monday, 5 February 2018

Late Call

On the journey back from Wellington I finished reading the battered old Penguin I'd excavated from a notably chaotic bookshop in a suburb of that fine city – Late Call by Angus Wilson (first published in 1964). It's a strange book that took a bit of getting used to, and felt at times like little more than a period piece (which it isn't). Set in one of those 'new towns' that were flourishing in the early Sixties, it seemed for a long while to be a kind of gentle social comedy that wasn't really going anywhere – except all over said new town and its environs, which are described at length (the ambience is strikingly similar to that of Elizabeth Jenkins' Brightness, though Wilson's anti-progressivism is not as fierce as hers). For me this was evocative stuff, as I remember such places at such a time, and I recall the feel of the period, with its often forced community spirit and optimistic looking forward, its ten-pin bowling alleys, 'ton-up boys' and 'expresso bars'. Above all, I recall the excruciating horrors of family and social life at the time, and these Wilson portrays with a pin-sharp eye.
 Late Call begins, though, with a brilliant prelude set in the hot summer of 1911 – a prelude that could easily stand alone as a short story, and for some while appears to have no connection at all with the novel that follows. But there is a connection, as gradually becomes apparent – the connection being Sylvia Calvert, the woman at the centre of the novel, through whose eyes we see almost all the action. When we meet her, she is just retiring from her job as a hotel manageress – a job that has been made no easier by her wastrel husband's long-standing habits of running up debts and molesting women. With health problems and little money, Sylvia is obliged to move in with her son, a fiercely progressive, community-minded headmaster in the aforementioned new town. Recently widowed and father to three teenagers, he is a pompous, verbose prig who feels compelled to share his views on everything, at length, with a grateful world. A master of passive aggression, he has his family tightly organised as an exemplar of familial perfection, but, not surprisingly, there are deep tensions seething just below the surface...
 Sylvia observes all this in anxious bewilderment, and feels entirely out of place in her son's up-to-the-minute modern home, and in the unfamiliar new town in which it is set. The arguments going on around her, and the attitudes being struck, also leave her bewildered and uneasy, and she retreats increasingly into a world of favourite TV programmes and trashy fiction borrowed from the public library. Meanwhile, her husband it out and about, sowing the usual havoc. Sylvia seeks escape by taking ever bolder excursions into the countryside – or rather, trying to find some. Wilson's description of the strange edgelands, dismal public paths, fenced-off land and blank non-countryside around an English town are all too recognisable.
 Sylvia Calvert's inner world seems strange, even alien territory for Wilson: she is fat, not very bright, wholly uncultured and barely lower-middle-class (she was played in the TV version by the redoubtable Dandy Nichols). There is sometimes a condescending – even anthropological – note in Wilson's recounting of the contents of her mind, and of the TV programmes and novels that she reads. Adopting her voice, Wilson irritatingly over-uses the phrase 'and that' (for 'and so on'). What is going on here? I found myself asking as I languished in the apparent stasis of the middle sections of the novel. Is this story going anywhere?
 Well, yes, it is indeed. Having laid his groundwork at perhaps excessive length, Wilson has everything in place to turn the course of events in a series of powerful climactic scenes that finally make sense of the whole thing by shaking up all the apparently settled realities of the life portrayed in the earlier sections of the novel. Late Call reveals itself in the end as a well made, thoroughly satisfying novel with a deeply sympathetic central character – and, for those of us old enough to remember the time in which it is set – a fascinating window on the past.
 Having read this and Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, I remain mystified by the total eclipse of Angus Wilson's once glittering reputation. He was a fine novelist who still deserves to be widely read (and his books are to be found, dirt cheap, in the most unlikely places).

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