Scenes from Provincial Life – William Cooper

18 January 2011
Part 1
The novel, which opens early in 1939, was first published in 1950. Nobody reads it now, and all I know about it is that several authors writing afterwards claim it as an influence. Ok.

Our narrator – we’ve recently discovered that his name is Joe – is opinionated, pompous, self-satisfied…. I’m still not sure whether this is how we’re supposed to take him, or if Cooper considers it’s ok to be this way in the middle of the 20th Century. He’s a teacher in a provincial town – he, or Cooper, is keen to let us know just how provincial it is – but he’s also been able to have three novels published. He complacently describes for us the full-on affair he’s having, but he’s also honest enough to let us in on the fact that he realises his treatment of his ‘mistress’ is the behaviour of a cad.

Some of it reminds me, a bit, of Evelyn Waugh. The most overtly comic chapter – most of the comedy in the novel is pretty thin stuff – takes place one morning in the school. It isn’t quite the madhouse Paul Pennyfeather finds himself at in Waugh’s Decline and Fall but our man agrees with one boy’s assessment: it’s Bedlam. Lessons appear to be planned only in order to save the teachers from having to do any work, boys are over-familiar, the headmaster is an amiable fool.

But, as in most novels, the job that pays the bills is a sideshow. The real interest all rests in those times when our man isn’t at work, when he and his big pal Tom can talk the talk as much as they like. The upmarket coffee-shop they favour provides them with a provincial version of café society, where they can take themselves – and one another – very seriously indeed. And, reader, Cooper is daring enough not only to make it clear exactly what our man and his girlfriend get up to on Sunday afternoons in their rented cottage, but to let us know about Tom and – my goodness – his 17-year-old boyfriend.

Aside from these scandalous details the tone is a strange mixture of middle class complacency – and I really don’t know how I’m supposed to be taking this man’s pretentious faux-sophistication – and a quite serious examination of what such young men might be thinking in 1939. By the end of Part 1 they’ve come up with what they consider to be a serious plan: they will go and live in America. It’s vital for Tom – he’s floridly Jewish, as our man delightedly describes for us in the opening chapter – and their Oxford mentor is up for it as well. In Cooper’s presentation of it, the contrast between their comfortable lives and what they fear is about to come is almost exactly like the common portrayal of how a (non-existent) post-Edwardian idyll was shockingly disrupted a generation before. And these provincial intellectuals genuinely fear an invasion.

For a reader who grew up in the cynical later decades of the 20th Century it’s quite hard to gauge the tone. It’s kind of serious, kind of preposterous – like those pompous Indian men in a Salman Rushdie novel who speak a language we recognise but use it in ways we don’t – and they live in a society in which men expect to be taken seriously. They have a lot of growing up to do: theirs isn’t a version of the 1930s in which The Road to Wigan Pier could be written; it’s where the most important questions are about the publication of the next novel, and how to avoid getting married. What is he – gulp – going to do about Myrtle?

22 January
Part 2
Dunno – what he’s going to do about Myrtle, that is. And I gave up caring a long time ago. A lecturer at the university I attended once said – and perhaps they all say it – that undergraduate students lead such self-absorbed emotional lives because they have the time. I keep thinking of that lecturer as I read this novel. Joe and Myrtle aren’t students but, as I was saying before, the jobs that pay the bills are a sideshow, so they have all the time in the world to mess things up for one another. Basically, Joe doesn’t want to get married. Basically, Myrtle does. They make one another unhappy – for five chapters. Even our man, narrating this stuff, remarks on how this story doesn’t have any plot. No.

So why was this novel once regarded as a classic of sorts? Perhaps it’s to do with the narrator’s honesty. Even when he’s behaving badly the narrator is what the counsellors call undefended: he doesn’t hold back, tells us exactly how awful his behaviour is. How many years later did, say, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning come along? Hang on…. Eight, I just checked. The creaky inter-war details of sexually active Oxford graduates and their primus stove in the cottage might have made way for a factory worker’s sexual exploits and a different location for the kitchen sink – but there’s something about the voice that links them. Young men make a stab at telling us how things really look from where they’re standing – and perhaps there could have been no Arthur Seaton without Joe What’s-his-name to clear some of the ground first.

Well, maybe. What happens in Cooper’s novel is that Joe flounders about. He’s bored by teaching, makes an unthinking error of judgment regarding classroom discipline and gets a strongly-worded letter from his headmaster questioning his commitment. Long before this, he’s decided that he really will be going to America – Tom, who feels it to be a matter of real urgency, already has his ticket booked – but he can’t possibly take Myrtle unless they get married. This fills Joe with a kind of schoolboy dread. He’s heard somebody refer to the way every single married man he’s ever met shares that tamed look – the word is italicised in the novel – and it blinds him to the fact that, surely, his own happiness and hers both depend on them staying together.

So the whole of Part 2 is full of the half-truths and evasions of a character who can never say what’s on his mind. Myrtle tries different ways to revive what they used to have: better clothes, going to see other friends, including – gasp – Haxby, a possible rival and generally floundering about as much as Joe himself. And, as at the beginning of May, he’s still heard nothing from the woman author who promised to read the manuscript of his novel at the beginning of Part 1 – and that was February. What’s he going to do? Marry Myrtle and not go to America and settle down. That’s my guess. I don’t know what he’ll do for a job: his feelings about teaching seem to be on a par with Arthur’s about his job in the bicycle factory. And, well, if there isn’t a war on yet, there soon will be.

(Style note: it’s written in the first person, past historic, which lends it a sort of novelistic gravitas. The problem with this is that none of the things that happen deserve it: it’s all about an emotionally underdeveloped, rather arrogant young bloke who doesn’t know anything yet. I’d find it easier to take if it was more of a diary, which you expect to be unwittingly callow. Or if the author made it more transparent somehow that we’re supposed to find this narrator a bit of an idiot. Not Diary of a Nobody exactly but, well, something with a bit of satiric bite.)

24 January
Part 3
There’s more plot now, but that isn’t making it any more enjoyable. Cooper’s aims seem to have become a little clearer, but not much. There’s a scene portraying love’s dying gasps, taking place incongruously in a public bar complete with bare floorboards, that I’m assuming is meant to sound ridiculously overblown. There are other highly-charged scenes – one chapter is even called ‘Two Scenes of Crisis’ – which tend to be set at the pitch of the final minutes of a soap opera. It might help if I cared.

Plot. Or scenes, I suppose, given the novel’s title. ‘False Alarm’, the title of which gives you both the crisis and the outcome. ‘Beside the Swimming Pool’ foregrounds the efforts of Tom’s boyfriend to break into heterosexuality… and Tom’s efforts to – gasp – chat up Myrtle. Steve, the boyfriend, tells Joe that Tom is thinking of marrying her. (Cue EastEnders title music.) And so on, with new narrative threads being opened up often, bizarrely, concerning what the sixth-formers get up to. But the real meat is the continuing story of Joe telling us how unhappy he is making Myrtle until, at last, they finally decide to end their affair. He also continues to say and do stupid things at work that make his life difficult…. By the end of Part 3, there seems no way out of it but that trip to America.

Occasionally I was reminded of Lucky Jim (1954), in which the satire and comedy of embarrassment is handled far more sure-footedly. There’s an admiring quotation by Kingsley Amis on the back cover of my paperback edition of Cooper’s novel, and this makes sense. It’s as though Amis saw the potential of an awkward, blundering hero – but also avoided the inherent difficulties of having him narrate his own story. It isn’t surprising that Lucky Jim survived whilst this one has sunk out of sight.

26 January
Part 4 – to the end
This seems a kind of exaggerated projection of all that’s gone before. School is dispatched in ‘Sports Day’, a variation on a similarly farcical chapter in Waugh’s Decline and Fall 25 years earlier – but less extreme, and less interesting. The affair, which you and I had thought to be over, isn’t. And then it is – isn’t it? – and then it definitely is. Definitely. Tone: melodramatic. Interest level: well, even our narrator spends more paragraphs on a description of where they meet for the last (?) time, the town’s preposterous clock-tower, than on the conversation. (This isn’t true, but it’s all I remember about that particular chapter. I thought I recognised the clock tower as the one in the centre of Leicester – and reader, it turns out I was right. Maybe the setting for Lucky Jim, also a thinly-disguised Leicester, is Kingsley Amis’s tribute to the older author.)

Other threads. Miss XY, as he calls the author who has finally read his manuscript, likes what she’s seen, so that’s all right, How do we take this? In Part 3 – I forgot to mention it, because Cooper forgets to make our man’s disappointment funny, or in any other way memorable – she’s written apologising for having lost the manuscript. So, what to think now she’s read and liked the replacement copy he’s sent? Suddenly, we’re to start taking him seriously? Suddenly it’s a Bildungsroman?

Tom and Steve and Myrtle and Joe. In ‘Scenes of Domesticity’ the main event is Tom’s last-ditch attempt to get Steve to come to Paris with him. Like Myrtle, he buys something that might thaw his lover’s ever colder attitude – but because they’re both boys, it’s not a dog but a car. (Joe’s a boy as well. He implies that if it had been him he would have jumped in the car. How we laughed.) It doesn’t work, but… just like the hetero relationship on show, Tom’s affair with Steve lurches back and forth. Later, it’s back on again – just as Joe’s affair with Myrtle is on again. But both the pursued parties – and I’m wondering how much we are supposed to see Joe in Steve’s yearning to be free – are determined not to commit. By the penultimate chapter – or, failing that, the last chapter of all – they’re both out… and their rejected partners are completely ok with it.

I suppose that’s the implied message of every relationship Cooper describes: for all the heartbreak and melodrama, after some time’s passed nothing amounts to a hill of beans. Maybe that’s the ground-breaking selling-point of this novel: for the male consciousness at the centre of it, described in all its self-centred unattractiveness, there are more important things than relationships. There’s Art.

The problem for me is that this aspect of the novel doesn’t work any more successfully than any of the others. It’s been clear from some time in Part 2 that Joe has no commitment to continuing the affair into – gulp – marriage. My guess that he would end up with Myrtle anyway was wrong – but only because, as Cooper has him make clear in the final chapter, this is just the beginning of a much longer project. The final line of the novel makes it clear: he isn’t foing to tell us what he did after the events we’ve read about, he’s going to write the next one. ‘I pick up my pen.’ Blimey, it really is a Bildungsroman.

Some things never quite work for me. The farcical elements, which need to be better plotted if we’re going to get the comedy of embarrassment that, frankly, Cooper just doesn’t manage to give us. The satire of these characters’ provincialism is just too low-key, and never really moves on from the sad parody of café society in the first chapter. The comedy of the school scenes and the satire of ambition among the minnows of the teaching profession…. I used to be a teacher myself, and having teaching held up as the thing that keeps you occupied until your real life starts just doesn’t cut it with me. (Almost 60 years after Cooper, David Nicholls did the same thing in One Day, which I read earlier this month: Emma, a superb teacher, gets out as fast as she can to become – guess.)

So, what’s all the fuss about? The unattractiveness of male concerns, described honestly? (And it’s just struck that the name of Joe Lunn – we find out his surname early in Part 3 – only needs a tiny tweak to become Joe Lampton in John Braine’s Room at the Top – which sits neatly next to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, written the following year.) It’s a kind of anti-rom-com in which settling down happily ever after is not the desired outcome. We know this because on the first page of the final chapter our man lists all his characters – except himself – each appended with the single word: married. Everybody’s respectably settled, except the Artist.

And suddenly I’m reminded of the poster for the film of Trainspotting. You know it: ‘Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers (etc.)… But why would I want to do a thing like that?’ Why would Joe?

3 Responses to Scenes from Provincial Life – William Cooper

  1. John Whitworth says:

    My dear chap – pompous? Joe? It is you who are pompous. Are you a teacher? Male teachers are often extraordinarily pompous. You seem entirely unable to comprehend what it might be like to live in 1939, so long ago. Dear me! Dear me! Dear me!

    • wecanreadit says:

      From later in the blog: ‘I used to be a teacher myself…’ So you caught me bang to rights, guv. Dear me, I must have been feeling a bit hurt by Cooper’s treatment of teachers. (Were you a teacher, John? Are you still, brave balding boy? Is your comment partly a joke against yourself, like so many of your poems?)

      • John Whitworth says:

        I once met William Cooper when he was very old in a lavatory. I said to him, sincerely, that I loved hs ‘Scenes From Provincial Life’. He was pleased and said so. A small, dapper man. I have read it many times (SFPL), always with pleasure. His picture of the school he was more or less failing to teach at, is a joy. But if you are a teacher yourself you might be genuinely shocked and angry I suppose. I take it the novel is autobiographical. Robert in the novel is C.P. Snow. Cooper’s novels re much better than Snow’s.

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