rock & roll
Quartet, London, 1977
(hardback price: £4.25; 198 pages)
The blurb on the back:
Brian is a poet who has ceased to write poetry and withdrawn into the cultivation of failure and silence. His needs are few; he lives in a small, shabby bedsit. There, when the need overtakes her, Tamsin visits him.
Keith is an extrovert, a wheeler-dealer who has risen to the top of the pop music industry. Trendy, gregarious, he knows everyone, goes everywhere - usually with his wife, Tamsin.
Tamsin loves both of them. All three have been involved since they were students, when they edited the university magazine together. Tamsin has not only loved both, she has been married to both - to Brian, as he tried to establish himself and a life-style in a croft in the Scottish highlands, and to Keith, for whom she is a prop to his self-confidence and a highly competent and presentable aid to his social and professional life.
The love triangle Mervyn Jones describes is an unusual one. With quiet skill and sympathy he describes the progress of their relationship from the callow uncertainties of their adolescence through the dramas of their early adult life to a strange placidity and resignation in the face of a difficult human entanglement. Probably Tamsin should never have married either man but, as Brian reflects, 'Tamsin has no gift for solitude.' Neither does she possess Keith's singleness of mind. Things are as they are, and ultimately everyone accepts this; it is, after all, nobody's fault.
Tamsin came yesterday. I knew she would. She's in a phase of needing to be with me. I don't know why.
This is cheating really. What we have here is a fragile, literary volume ill-suited to the rough-and-tumble of Trash Fiction. But I’ve snuck it onto this site on the flimsy pretext that Keith, one of the three central characters, is a major power-broker in the world of British pop, making his name with a series of magazines, with ‘snappy monosyllabic titles: Group, Disc, Rock, Sound. They were supposed to be in hot competition with one another and each had its loyal supporters.’ (p.23)
This element of the book is not exactly a central strand, but it is quite nicely observed and we do occasionally find ourselves at a rock festival in a stately home or at a vapid celebrity party, where Keith’s wife finds herself cast in the role of social anthropologist:
What struck her about these famous pop stars, as she got to know them, was that they had no private lives. Certainly they had personal lives: they fell in love, quarrelled, lived together and moved out, got married and divorced. But whatever they did might be made public and they were aware of it - aware of it, Tamsin guessed, at the very moment when they passionately kissed or angrily slammed a door. This didn't make them more cautious; on the contrary, she noticed, it tended to make their behaviour more dramatic, as though driven toward the headlines. (pp.94-95)
I like all that. And I like the rest of the novel as well. It’s a beautifully detailed account of three college friends whose lives continue to intertwine in the outside world. Keith gets to be rich and – within the absurd world of pop music – powerful, while Brian fails to become a poet and finds instead ‘the vocation of failure … of stillness, of silence, of endless persistence without triumph and loyalty without reward.’ (p.156) And Tamsin oscillates between them, attracted equally by Keith’s vitality and Brian’s almost spiritual withdrawal.
It’s grand, and much to be recommended, even if I am cheating by including it here.
ARTISTIC MERIT: 4/5
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE: 4/5
HIPNESS QUOTIENT: 2/5
rock & roll