Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Book Review: The Ice Age

The Ice Age by Margaret Drabble

I read this whilst on holiday the other month and despite it having been written in the (late) 70s a more relevant novel for today I couldn't think of.  

There's a real fin-de-siecle feel to the novel - naturally enough given that is was written in the run-up to the Winter of Discontent and all of the soul-searching over what role Britain should be playing in the world at that time.  I make no apologies for the fact that a lot of this 'review' is simply a quoting from the text - the plot (see below) isn't the real point of the novel - it's much more about the capturing of the essence of the thoughts and feelings of the time that I loved about it.  

The plot, such as it is, centres around Anthony Keating and his personal diaspora: (ex) business partners, ex-wife, mistress, children, lost-acquaintances - I love this kind of common starting point for a story and seeing how it all spins out - my (very embryonic) idea for a novel centres around one person and a sprawling set of linked other characters through the years.  

I like the fact that a lot of the discussion is around property and development - unsurprisingly given how much of my WorkTwo1 is focused on building houses at the moment.  In fact, a lot of the issues and ideas tackled very much remind me of the play 'Benefactors' by Michael Frayn which I have been in a production of with my amateur dramatics group.  It's a seriously good play - I recommend it.  

Ok, on with the passages that I really liked;

"Their supper that night had been tinned soup, hamburger, mash and swede, and rhubarb and custard.  The thin green-pink strands of rhubarb had floated like weed, like scum, acidic, sinister in the watery juice, nudging uneasily, like a jelly fish against a rock, against the great solid dob of custard.  Custard, the poor man's cream".   
I love the over-written style of that, particularly coming as it does after a paragraph describing the best meals that the character has ever eaten - he is now in prison so a big step down in the down, both in culinary and other terms.  
"But there was a page and a half on Britain's economic decline, and the sinking pound, and the dismal state of British industry, and the failure of British firms to deliver goods, ad the folly of trying to support workers' co-operatives with state money, and the inevitability of cut back in public spending, particularly in the Health Service.  Reading, Alison felt the usual surge of British patriotism; things were not as bad as that, surely? [...] She wondered what she thought about the British National Health Service.  Did she think it rotted the spirit of enterprise and self-help, that it demoralised doctors and patients alike? [...] She was no socialist [...] but she felt very strongly indeed about the Health Service [...]"
Feels pretty relevant for today's political discourse... 

Two thoughts - it made me look up the source for the line about the NHS being the closest thing to a national religion in the UK - it's from Nigel Lawson's memoirs and I don't think that the the full quotation is quite as favourable in its intent as its adherents might want it to be: "he National Health Service is the closest thing the English have to a religion, with those who practice in it regarding themselves as a priesthood" (italics mine).  I do however, like the fact that when surveyed about the NHS in abstract people think it's a disaster and needs radical reform but when asked about their own personal experience the feedback is significantly more positive...

(Typing out all of that passage from the novel, I noted how many commas there were - it's a piece of punctuation I over-use, glad I'm not the only one!)

Two more passages with no additional comments;
"Christmas of that year was much the same as usual.  Economically, the country was declared to be in acute decline, and yet, of course, record spending went on, accompanied by record moaning"
"[...] he saw, as he sat there, some apparition, of this great and powerful nation, a country lying there surrounded by the grey seas, the land green and grey, well worn, long inhabited, not in chains, not in thrall, but a land passing through some strange metamorphosis, through the intensive creative lethargy of profound self-contemplation, not idle, not defeated, but waiting still, assembling defences against the noxious oily tides of fatigue and contempt that washed insistently against her shores"
My final section is probably my favourite - I particularly enjoyed the rhythmic cadences of the writing and the poignant end.  
"Others enjoyed the crisis for more indirect reasons.  Odd new groups of the far left hoped that each rise in the bank rate and each strike in a car factory heralded the final collapse of capitalism.  Sociologists expressed approval of the rate of social change, the radicalising influence of increasing confrontations of worker and managements.  Out of this, some sincerely believed, would rise a new order, of selfless, social, greedless beings.  [...] There were also the real poor: the old, the unemployed, the undesirable immigrants.  They were better off than they would have been in the thirties, for Britain is, after all, welfare state, and not many slip through its net.  Let us not think of them.  Their rewards will be in heaven.  [...] Finally, there was a small communion of saints, who truly hoped that from this crisis would come a better sharing among the nations of the earth: who truly in their hearts applauded the rise in price of raw materials from the poorer countries of the earth [...] [A] bishop [...] in fear of his own too great charisma, and who prayed nightly for the country of his birth  [...].  Pity the bishop, on his knees on the cold linoleum.  His love is strained, dilute, insufficient.  Could even God's love suffice this multitude?  It must be said that even the bishop cannot find it in his heart to regret that Britain has struck oil.  This is the state of the nation".  
Seriously - buy it, read it, give it away to someone else, you won't regret it.  

1. See here for an explanation of WorkOne and WorkTwo 

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