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Split Scene

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Pan, London, 1966
price: 6/- (30p); 192 pages
(first published by Arthur Baker Ltd, 1963)

dedication: For Yvonne, with deep affection

The blurb on the back:

John Norman, successful British political journalist, deplored American women. He felt they had ‘swopped the mysteries and allure of true femininity for an equal stake in a man’s world.’
But he was to meet one he found quite irresistible…
Ruth Brent, the ‘all-American’ girl from the Bronx, who had worked her way through college after having been a grown man’s mistress at fifteen, yet who was still searching for fulfilment…
Handled with the mastery we have come to expect from Frederic Mullally, this searing, no-holds-barred story contrasts brilliantly the manners, thinking, and sexual mores of the New World and the Old.
’Very adult, frank… This is an author who does not miss a trick. His sophistication hits you between the eyes.’ -
Books and Bookmen
’Highly readable’ -

opening lines:
'It is not possible for the public to be unmoved by the news that a detachment of American U2's is to be based in Britain. A plane of this type, intercepted on a reconnaissance flight over Russia, was the occasion of the collapse of the Paris Summit in 1960. It is said…’

Simply magnificent. If you want a snapshot of Britain in the pre-Beatles ‘60s, then this one is essential reading. As the sleeve-notes indicate, this is essentially a study of the conflict between British and American social attitudes, albeit weighted somewhat by our British hero being very wealthy and our American heroine being a self-made woman: this is not the meritocratic Swinging London that you’d find just a couple of years later.

So you get English characters simply horrified by simple Americanisms:

'I've just read a review in Time magazine of a book described as a "novelization" of some film story. If I'd read on, they'd probably have told me how the heroine of the story was hospitalized, leaving the personnel of her family-unit de-motherized and under-vitamined, food-intake-wise. How the devil can we ever come to terms with that kind of gibberish?' (p.165)

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. I mean, the word ‘novelization’ is – in my estimation – simply a very useful coinage to describe a new phenomenon in literature. There was no existing term, because there was no such object in existence until the arrival of cinema. And it is an American invention, so frankly they can call it whatever they want.

But then there’s nothing to say that I’m supposed to agree with the attitudes expressed here. And boy, there are some attitudes. The fact that these are political and economic journalists means that there’s something of an edge to the chit-chat. Here’s our hero on what we now call the EU:

The political union, the European Parliament that's going to evolve out of this Common Market could be a big jump towards a United Nations of the world, which is about the only hope this lunatic planet has of survival - as a place for children to grow up in I mean. But what the devil is it going to be a union of? What is it going to be a union for? What's its morality, its faith, its dialectic? Look whom we're asked to merge our sovereignty with! Germany. The most dangerous conglomeration of unrepentant megalomaniacs history has ever known. Make no mistake about that lot! They have no doubts about who's going to finish up running the European Club. And who's going to counter-balance them? France? (p.92)

Needless to say, he’s not too keen on the French either. But apart from the distrust of Europeans, what intrigues me here is that even as far back as 1962 the terminology is of giving up sovereignty. As I write this, more than 40 years on, we’re heading towards a referendum on a new European Constitution, and still there are politicians who refuse to admit that the EU project demands a yielding of sovereignty. And, on the other side, there are plenty of politicians who wouldn’t dare admit in public that their hesitancy over Europe is based on a suspicion of the national characteristics of our partners. In fact it’s only the likes of Robert Kilroy-Silk, Norman Tebbit and the late Nicholas Ridley who would espouse such a view.

But I wouldn’t want to give you the impression that this is all serious political discussion. In fact the overall tone is one of very deft satire. I love, for example, a gritty novelist who, when asked if he’s working on a new book, snaps back: ‘I don’t never work on a book! It works on me!’ (p.256) And, although I know I’m quoting at length, I want to share this brilliant parody of upper-class artistic slumming:

Penny persuaded her parents to set her up in a flat in Chelsea, sharing with two former school friends, and be-came a beatnik. She was never really quite sure what it meant, being a beatnik, and it called for severe self-discipline at first to leave her hair permanently matted and unwashed, to powder the healthy Hampshire bloom out of her cheeks and never to remove her sagging black sweater and bottle green tights when she fell into bed each morning. But it was splendid - well, quite absorbing, anyway - to sit on the bare floorboards of a Fulham Road pad listening to angry young men mouthing gibberish-poems through unkempt saliva-glistening beards, or even just to huddle together, enclosed with her hairy friends in a protective miasma of stale sweat and dental decay, brooding mutely on the ineffable tedium of being trapped in a square world. (p.104)

There’s masses of this stuff, absolutely brilliantly written. And occasionally it’s very edgy indeed, as it faces uncomfortable truths with an unflinching gaze and a remorseless logic. The anti-Semitism of the British ruling class, in particular, is taken head on, and then developed into unexpected areas, in particular into the nature of race-play in S&M. Now there’s something you didn’t expect to find.

And finally, I feel I should note that underlying the entire narrative is a sense of optimism, a real hope that in Kennedy and Khrushchev we might just have the leaders that will build a better world. Of course, by the time the book was published, Kennedy was running out of time, and things were destined to get much worse.


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Dee Wells, Jane