Book review: Quite a Good Time to Be Born: A Memoir: 1935-1975

Quite a Good Time to Be Born: A Memoir: 1935-1975

Book review: Quite a Good Time to Be Born: A Memoir: 1935-1975

DAVID LODGE , one of Britain’s most cherished novelists, turned 80 at the end of January. As he admits in the first volume of his autobiography, Quite a Good Time to Be Born: A Memoir: 1935-1975, he has been fortunate in the time and place he came of age.

He wasn’t, for example, born on continental Europe in an occupied zone, rather a sleepy London suburb, so he got to experience the war — what he describes as “the hinge on which 20th century history turned” — without incurring any of its horrendous consequences, and he got to live through some dramatic social changes in the western world.

He was also one of the early beneficiaries of the 1944 Education Act, which facilitated his entry into university.

“The creation of the Welfare State after World War II relieved a large section of the population of the fear or experience of real poverty, and gave them educational opportunities which allowed much more social mobility than the stratified class system of pre-war Britain,” he says.

“The invention of the birth control pill gave women control of their own fertility, and helped the emergence of an effective feminist movement for the first time since the suffragettes, but it also encouraged the development of the permissive society in sexual behaviour, which had some negative consequences.”

Some of the most interesting passages of Lodge’s memoir deal with his Catholicism and his attitude to sex.

The Christian Brothers at his De La Salle School gave him little guidance, much of their teaching focused on trick questions in the Penny Catechism such as “Who is the head of the Catholic Church?” (Correct answer is not the Pope but “Jesus Christ Our Lord”.)

He endured his first, unwitting sexual encounter at the cinema when a man tried to fondle him during a film. He thought the offender might have been a pickpocket. When he went home his father told him about “perverts” and gave him a short, rudimentary “facts-of-life” talk.

Lodge’s determination to remain celibate until marriage put him in a “double bind”.

He understood the biological drive to have sex but feared succumbing to sexual urges in case it would endanger his mortal soul; at the same time he felt it would be important to experience sex if he was to fulfil his desire to become a worldly novelist, being heavily influenced by celebrated English Catholic writers such as Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh.

He resolved to put sex on the long finger until he was married. He concluded the best tack to take would be to deal with Catholic hang-ups about sex through comedy in his writing.

His father was a pivotal figure. He was a jazz player and managed to get a posting in the Royal Air Force as a musician during the war, which sheltered him from service on the front line.

He had a fear of flying, having played in the marching band at so many funerals of pilots who died flying rickety planes at training camp. Remarkably, for someone who spent five years in the air force, including a stint in India, he died in 1999 having never flown in a plane.

After the war, he hustled for work as the leader of a jazz trio and, intriguingly, worked as an extra on film and TV sets in his 60s. He can, for example, be seen getting out of a lift behind Peter Sellers and Goldie Hawn in There’s a Girl in My Soup. His bohemian outlook resonated with Lodge.

“As regards artistic interests and abilities, my father influenced me more than my mother,” he says. “Though he came from a poor family and left school at 15, he had a natural eloquence and wit developed by reading, and he wrote sketches and short stories, a few of which he published in the Musicians Union newsletter.

“While he was away from home in the RAF during the war, my mother looked after me on her own, and I grew up as a somewhat cosseted only child who took her loving care for granted. It was Dad who engaged my interest in music, painting, comedy, football and other sports.”

Lodge met Mary Jacob, his wife, during their first week at the University College London at a fresher’s initiation in 1952. She was a beauty. “She had flawless features, blonde hair drawn back into a ponytail, and a shapely figure,” he writes.

Their shared Catholicism was an added attraction. They married in 1959. They went to Dublin for their honeymoon, which was something of a Joycean pilgrimage, as they retraced the steps of Joyce’s literary characters, including a lurching tram ride over the hill at Howth (where Molly Bloom said “Yes I will Yes” to Leopold).

Mary’s parents were Irish. Her mother was an O’Reilly from Co Clare, who was given the choice of a dowry or an extended education from her father. She chose the latter and left for England in 1922. Mary’s father was a Jacob, from a less well-to-do branch of the biscuit factory.

In rearing Mary and her six siblings, they were poor financially but aspirational “in a very Irish way” says Lodge. Education was prized.

They strove for respectability. The parents spoke with an Irish accent, but the children were punished if they didn’t adhere to received English pronunciation, and during the war years they were forbidden from using the public air shelters for fear of fraternising with “the low class of people who frequented them”.

Lodge published his first novel, The Picturegoers in 1960, although it wasn’t until the 1970s that his work attracted a large audience with the publication of his campus trilogy.

One of the most vivid passages in his memoirs deals with a teaching sabbatical at Berkeley in 1969, which provided raw material for these books. It was an exhilarating time to be in California.

The Vietnam War — and student opposition to it — was raging. The counterculture was in full swing. Lodge got to drink at “topless and bottomless” bars while outside on the streets a heavy-handed Republican governor, Ronald Reagan, tried to keep order in the state.

By this stage, Lodge’s life had changed irrevocably. Their third child, Christopher, was born in 1966 with Down syndrome.

Lodge had thought of himself as being on an escalator lifting his family to “higher and higher levels of fulfilment, pleasure and happiness”. Suddenly it stopped. The birth altered his Catholic vision. Mary went on the pill.

“We were completely unprepared for this event,” he says, “and were given a very pessimistic prognosis of his future prospects by the people who first advised us. At the time I was doing well in my twin career as novelist and academic and our future looked full of exciting possibilities. The responsibility of looking after a child with a mental handicap, still called in those times ‘mongolism’, seemed to extinguish such hopes.

“Fortunately Chris turned out to be far more able than we had been led to believe, and society began to take a much more positive attitude towards such people. We had been told, quite wrongly, that he would never learn to read or write. His prose in emails lacks elegance and correctness, but it has an expressive eloquence of its own and is always comprehensible.

He also has a sense of humour and is capable of improvising jokes. Lately he has, with the encouragement of a teacher in the community where he lives, developed a remarkable ability in painting, and sells his pictures.

“Chris’s life has not been free of problems and setbacks, but overseeing it has brought us into contact with much more serious types of disability, and in that perspective we have been fortunate to have him as our son.

“The experience has broadened my view of what constitutes success in human life.”

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