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Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1965
(price: 4/6; 224 pages)
first published by Faber & Faber 1960

dedication: For Jeremy and Pamela

The blurb on the back:

'John Bowen above all other English novelists sees the interaction of our public and private dilemmas. In Storyboard he has found in an advertising agency the perfect centre from which to illuminate his sad and funny worlds' - Angus Wilson
'It makes an alarmingly funny story, and the kind of reading which gives me a physical sensation of lightness and brightness. I was conscious, for most of the book, of being struck with an expression of delight and pleasure' - Penelope Mortimer in the
Sunday Times
'Brilliantly written, completely convincing and very funny' -
Times Literary Supplement

Cover drawing by Quentin Blake

The year is 1960. The British soap market is entirely controlled by three manufacturers. Well, not entirely ... One small corner remains independent: a cosmetic soap that incorporates a faint dye and can therefore be used as a substitute for foundation. In a rage against this show of defiance, one of the leading companies decides to launch its own rival soap, identical in every respect save for marketing. If a sufficiently vast amount is spent on advertising and on filling the shelves, the new product will kill off the original brand and can then be discontinued ...

Not really a satire as such, then. More a description of how advertising helps a cartel exercise crypto-monopolistic control over the supposedly 'free' market. But there's much more going on here. The struggle for power between factions within the advertising agency, called The Agency, and between the Agency and its client is balanced by an examination of the effect that working in the lies industry has on its employees. I'm also particularly fond of a tiny left-wing magazine, The Radical, which is happy to rail against the evils of advertising but remains a profitable concern because of the revenue it derives from this acceptable face of Mammon. And I love the Assistant Editor of the rag 'who had a high beaked nose and whose skin was pale blue like London milk', and who's addicted to appearing on TV:

'Tonight, What the Papers Say, Press Conference, Panorama, Gallery; that sort of thing. They used to talk about radio dons, but now it's television journalists - our sort of journalists anyway; you couldn't expect the popular ones to be very articulate. Most of it's BBC, but even the commercial companies like being serious for part of the time, provided it's not peak time; they have to, I suppose, if they want to keep their licences. When it all started, one couldn't tell whether they'd go for Culture or Current Events, but after the first six months Current Events won. Quite right too! Who wants to watch the Hallé playing popular classics, when they can have us talking about teenagers, or the H-bomb, or the traffic problem, or the Middle East, or just about anything really, as long as it's controversial?' (pp.86-87)

Top stuff this, from a writer who was highly regarded at the time (see those reviews), but who gave up novels soon after this one in favour of plays for stage and TV. He returned to novel-writing in 1984 after a 20-year break with The McGuffin and The Girls, which we may get round to if we can find a few minutes later on. In the meantime, if you can track this one down, I think you'll like it.


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