Sunday 7 June 2015

Here be Dragons

Sorry Stella but I don't think this is as good a book as 'Cold Comfort Farm'. It tells the story of Nell and her move with her parents from rural penury to the urban glamour of Hampstead under the patronage of a wealthy aunt. Her father has misplaced his calling to the ministry and is suffering from depression, and while her mother potters around trying to make the best of things Nell starts a tedious job in a stifling office arranged by Aunt Peggy (Lady Fairfax) to support the family. Unlike Flora our Nell is determined to work hard, earn money, be responsible and forge a career for herself. She encounters her wayward cousin John who introduces her to the bohemian coffee bar culture, which seems to consist of a bunch of unwashed artistic writer types who sponge off their girlfriends and consider themselves somehow above paid employment. 

I think neither the title nor the description on the back represented the story very accurately; much as Nell has lived a restricted and controlled childhood, and London is certainly an unexplored territory, she enters it not in the spirit of exploration but more like a dispassionate observer. She has a very strong sense of herself and her values and at no point is she 'led astray' by the example of this gang of dissolute youth, in fact she seems to view them as objects of curiosity and remains resolutely on the outside of the social crowd. She starts playing tennis with Robert but has only friendly feelings towards him as she has developed an unacknowledged crush on the rather obnoxious John. He is so utterly self-obsessed, and nothing could tempt me to like him. He is forever going off to see someone about a job, but never gets one, and seems to assume that Nell will abide by his comings and going and be available to keep him company any time he requires it. He enjoys manipulating people and situations and sees his friends as  just there for his amusement,  delighting in their attention and being told how wonderful he is. In some ways his only saving grace is that he doesn't at least have any illusions about himself:

"'Do you know why I liked Nerina so much?' he said, after a silence in which he put a great deal of sugar into his tea. 'Because she never tried to make me any different or asked me to give her anything. She never made demands on me. I hate being asked for things; time or attention or liking. I just want to be left alone, and to have someone there when I want them.'" (p.339)

So we follow Nell as she moves from the office to a tea shop, challenging by inches the rules that have governed her life up to this point, and the assumptions of her parents about what is appropriate. The story really encapsulates the new found freedoms of the younger generation during the 50s, when money, music and sex were all suddenly much more freely available to them. I loved this description of Hampstead:
"Hampstead showed increasing signs of being given over to Bohemia; the pavements echoed with flapping sandals and the clapping of Continental clogs; there were tights and striped blue-and-white jeans to be seen loitering round the Underground station, and somehow all this seemed to Nell to be linked with the expected arrival of Nerina at The Primula next Monday evening." (p.181-2)

While it was a period of social and cultural change the old attitudes still held a lot of sway, so being a co-respondent in a divorce, or an unmarried pregnancy were still potentially devastating situations. The story was very slow compared to Cold Comfort Farm, and much as I liked Nell I really wished she would let her hair down occasionally, but you could really see her as a woman going places, taking advantage of the economic opportunities and eventually learning her lesson where the feckless John is concerned. 

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