Stan Barstow was one of the "kitchen sink" school, a group of young writers who emerged in the late fifties and sixties and whose work was distinguished by a social-realist concentration on working-class life, often with a provincial setting. "Ask Me Tomorrow" was his second novel, published in 1962, two years after his first, "A Kind of Loving". As in "A Kind of Loving" the central character is a young man from a working-class Yorkshire background. Wilf Cotton, the son of a South Yorkshire miner, works as a wages clerk at the pit where his father and elder brother both work underground. At one time Wilf's grammar-school education and white-collar occupation would have given him a certain social status in the village, but during the economic boom of the early sixties miners could earn considerably more than many office workers, and Wilf, who has ambitions to become a writer, feels trapped in the community where he grew up. In order to concentrate on his writing, he moves away from the village to a nearby city. (Not named, but probably based on Bradford).
In the city Wilf makes the acquaintance of Marguerite Fisher, a young woman with a rather tangled life-history, who has digs in the same house. Although Marguerite is also originally from a working-class background she was educated at an exclusive girls' boarding school after being adopted by a wealthy aunt and uncle, but is hiding a tragic secret from her past. I won't set out the plot in any more detail, as it gets quite complicated, but it involves Wilf's progress as a novelist, several romances, an allegation of rape and a murder. Other key figures include Wilf's landlady (and also lover) Poppy Swallow, her ne'er-do-well estranged husband Alf, Marguerite's boyfriend Stephen Hollis (the son of the boss of the firm where she works) and Wilf's brother Harry.
Although the plot is a complex one, this is a relatively short novel, around 250 pages in my edition, and I felt that Barstow was here guilty of a fault which I have detected in some of his other works, most notably "Joby". That book is only a brief novella, but it contains enough thematic material for a full-length novel, which means that some of its themes are treated perfunctorily, being taken up and then dropped without any real resolution.
"Ask Me Tomorrow" similarly is a short novel which might have worked better as a long one. Wilf is the best developed character in the book, probably because Barstow intended him, at least in part, as an autobiographical self-portrait. Yet the theme of a young man from a mining village with ambitions to become an author was not a particularly original one in 1962, and Wilf is not really the most interesting character. I was left wanting to know a lot more about Marguerite's early life, about her relationship with Stephen (which just seems to fizzle out), about the dysfunctional marriage of Poppy and Alf, and about another dysfunctional marriage, that of Harry's friends Ron and June Betley.
There is, however, a lot to admire in this book. As elsewhere in his fiction, Barstow shows a gift for social observation, for writing realistic dialogue (often tinged by regional accents) and for characterisation. If we are left wanting to know more about some of the minor characters, at least the two main ones, Wilf and Marguerite, are well-drawn, rounded and believable figures. From the viewpoint of 2013 the book contains a lot of social history about the early sixties, a period when coal mining was still one of Britain's major industries, when trade union officials like Ron Betley were powerful and respected figures in their communities, when nearly everybody smoked, when the Mini Minor was a state-of-the-art motor car, when Britain still kept the death penalty and when a single half-nude photograph could destroy a woman's reputation.
Barstow seemed to be an artist who preferred to work on a small canvas. (There may be a reference to this in his portrait of Wilf, who left to himself would prefer to concentrate on short stories, but who sets to work on a novel because there's more of a market for longer fiction). He never wrote a really long novel, which I think is a pity. Had all its themes and characters been developed at greater length, this could have been a substantial epic of Yorkshire life, telling the intertwining stories of a group of characters from a wide social spectrum, doing for the sixties what, say, Winifred Holtby had done for the thirties in "South Riding". "Ask Me Tomorrow" is not a bad book; indeed, in some respects it is a good one. I just felt it could have been a better one.