Sunday 12 August 2012

More of those lines: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

I sent 'Major Pettigrew's Last Stand' by Helen Simonson to my sister Claire for her birthday and she lent it back to me to read. 'Charming' seems to have been the most frequently used adjective in the reviews, and it is full of all the quaint assumptions about life that distinguish the home counties middle class view of how life is and should be lived. It is again a very nice novel; the Major started out as a stuffy old codger but he did grow on me by the end.

It is the story of the village, Edgecombe St Mary (which sounds more Devon to me), and, most significantly, it's golf club and the prestige of membership; it becomes somehow symbolic of how the social strata are maintained and the lines between the class divisions are enforced. The Major falls into a friendship with Mrs Ali who runs the local shop, and as it develops they become the object of some gossip and even censure by the locals, and to a certain extent his awful son, Roger. Roger is unpleasant, grasping, acquisitive and self-seeking, and possibly an indictment of his upbringing. Everything he says and does is with an eye on what career or material advantage it might bring him; I have rarely come across a character so devoid of redeeming feature. We have the committee of ladies (member's wives of course) at the golf club who are busy organising the annual shindig and exchanging gossip and scandal. Then we have the local lord, fallen on hard times and thinking about selling his village land for development, and the nasty american developer who is involved in the deal, but who, at the same time, just wants to find a way in to membership of the privileged establishment elite. Finally there is Alice, the Major's neighbour, who is out to defend the village against encroachment by change. Her character irritated me because it was lazy and clichéd, painting her as some kind of weird hippy-type. Here the Major discovers her watching the surveyors in the field:

" 'If we're going to take direct action, it won't do for them to see our faces,' she explained as if to a small child. She was crouched on a folding camp stool in the tiny space between her own compost bin and the hedge that divided her garden from the field. She did not seem bothered by the slight tang of rotting vegetables. Risking a quick glance, the Major saw a tripod and telescope poking into the greenery. He also noticed that Alice's attempts at discretion did not extend to her clothing, which included a magenta sweater and orange pants in some kind of baggy hemp." (p.172)

I liked the story because, like Harold Fry, the Major is an old bloke who's life has been very measured and controlled, who has never even thought about the life experienced by other people, who only has to associate with other middle class people because he lives in this secluded little enclave where the real world hardly dares to tread ... but through the influence of events he comes to see things in a different light. "I suppose I was raised to believe in politeness above all" seems to be his defining characteristic, as he tells Amina when she is rude to the club secretary who objects to her presence in the lobby of the golf club. The incident is most interesting because he sees what has happened and is uncomfortable about it but is so stuck in his rut of conventionality that he is unable to even apologise properly:

" 'Got kicked out,' she said, tossing her heavy, clinking bag in the boot on top of his clubs. 'Some flunky in a bow tie suggested we wait by the servants' entrance.'
'Oh dear, I'm sure he wasn't trying to be offensive,' said the Major, who was sure of no such thing. 'I'm sorry you felt ...' He searched for the right word; 'excluded' and 'unwelcome' were too accurate to provide the comfortable vagueness he sought. '...bad.' " (p.159)

In fact reading this again it is very perceptive. Thinking back to how I reacted to The Help; it is as if when everyone knows where the lines are and sticks to the right side of them then everything is just fine, it's when people start denying the lines that life gets uncomfortable. The white employers in Jackson didn't want to be made uncomfortable, to have to think too hard about the situation they had created. The golf club members didn't like it when confronted by someone who refused to be invisible, a member of the 'working class' who refused to leave quietly by the back door. 'Excluded' is the accurate word, but the Major cannot say it out loud because it would force him to acknowledge what is wrong with the situation. 

Moments in the book irritated me; the author, though British has lived too long in the US, uses the word 'movie' instead of 'film' and the word 'pants' instead of 'trousers' (should have been picked up by the editor in my opinion) but mostly the writing is excellent and makes lovely subtle little expositions of the Major's character. Here he is having written to the planning office:

"The insertion of a crisp folded letter into a fresh envelope always gave him pleasure, and as he looked at the envelope now, he decided his words were adequately composed and the letter suitably concise and grave. He popped the envelope into the box with satisfaction and looked forward to the entire matter being resolved in an amicable manner between reasonable men." (p.176)

and his views on parenting;

"It was only as George sank his face into the icing that the Major remembered how he had never allowed his own son more than a single treat at tea and had sometimes, at suitably random intervals, made him do with no treats at all in order to avoid spoiling him." (p.213)

and when faced with Jasmina dressed for the golf club ball:

"He opened his mouth to say that she looked extremely beautiful and deserved armfuls of roses, but the words were lost in committee somewhere, shuffled aside by the parts of his head that worked full-time on avoiding ridicule." (p. 250-1)

Having said that I find it says so much more about what is wrong with the world. Often it is that books like this try to pretend they are nice little safe stories about village life when really they are about the prejudice and privilege that is entrenched in our class system and what an uphill battle it is even to get people to acknowledge the situation. And while it has this nice safe happy ending it comes about not because the Major confronts his own culture's shortcomings but because he thinks he has the right to confront the shortcomings of someone else's culture and gets to take Jasmina out of what he considers to be a 'suffocating' environment and take her into what he thinks will be a nicer one. The portrayal of the old auntie as some kind of demon morality enforcer was another lazy cliché and Jasmina's grateful acquiescence to her rescue is faintly patronising. It left me almost as uncomfortable as The Help.

One last quote, just because I liked it, and it relates to the postal system:

"He had never imagined so clearly the consequences of mailing a letter - the impossibility of retrieving it from the iron mouth of the box; the inevitability of it's progress through the postal system; the passing from bag to bag and postman to postman until a lone man in a van pulls up to the door and pushes a small pile through the letterbox. It seemed suddenly horrible that one's words could not be taken back, one's thoughts  allowed none of the redemption of speaking face to face. As she dropped the letter into the box, all the sun seemed to drain out of the afternoon." (p.214) 

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