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Written with the Eng Lit Teacher in Mind
on 23 August 2013
Stan Barstow, along with John Braine and Alan Sillitoe, was one of the leading figures in the provincial social-realist movement of the fifties and sixties, and was for a time regarded as a major literary figure. Today, however, he seems less fashionable, probably because the British literary establishment over the last couple of decades has become more metropolitan, more self-consciously intellectual, more concerned with Big Questions than with the everyday lives of Yorkshire draughtsmen or Midlands factory workers. Social realism and provincialism are often seen as old-fashioned.
Despite transient literary fashions, however, Barstow still retains his admirers, of whom I have been one ever since reading "A Kind of Loving" as a teenager. (During my youth in the seventies, this was one of the two books every teenager seemed to have read, the other being Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye"). The social realist movement, in its heyday, brought a much-needed change to the English literary scene, giving a voice to the working class. The virtues that made Barstow fashionable then- his skill as a storyteller, the strong sense of place in his works, the ability to create well-defined characters- are as relevant today as they were then.
I have to admit, however, that "Joby" is not my favourite among his works. It is set in the summer of 1939, the last weeks of peace before the outbreak of the Second World War. The title character is an eleven-year-old boy from a working-class family in an industrial town in Yorkshire. (There may be an element of autobiography here; Barstow himself would have been eleven years old in 1939). The book is a short one of only about 130 pages, a novella rather than a novel, but the plot is surprisingly complex. Indeed, my main complaint is that there are perhaps too many themes for a book of this length.
Barstow's works are widely studied in schools (perhaps modern teenagers are as well-up on "A Kind of Loving" as my generation were), and "Joby" seems to have been written partly with the Eng. Lit. teacher, wondering what he can give his class to read this term, in mind. Barstow introduces a number of themes common in literature for older children and teenagers- illness in the family (as the book opens Joby's mother is going into hospital for an operation), bereavement (Joby's friend's uncle commits suicide, apparently in despair over the rise of Nazism and the imminent prospect of war), juvenile delinquency (Joby gets into bad company and he and another boy go shoplifting) and infidelity and family breakdown (while Joby's mother is in hospital, his father is carrying on an affair with his wife's niece).
The problem is that there is insufficient space to develop all of these themes, or even any of them, in depth. Each seems to be raised in turn and then dropped as a new idea is raised in its place. Joby's mother makes a full recovery from her operation and returns home; his shoplifting spree earns him a stern rebuke from a shopkeeper but does not land him in serious trouble; the friend whose uncle commits suicide seems to fade out of the story thereafter. The book ends with the issues between Joby's parents unresolved; we do not know if his father's affair will mean the end of their marriage.
Nevertheless, the book does have some good qualities. Joby himself is a well-realised character- a likeable lad, part victim of circumstances, part mischievous Just William- and the historical detail is good, conjuring up a strong sense of the past as well as sense of place- an age when children were free to wander more or less at will, so long as they were home by tea-time, when you could get into the Saturday morning cinema for tuppence (less than a penny in decimal currency), when fish and chips, not chicken tikka, was the English staple diet. As a novella, the story seems less than convincing, but I felt that it could have served as the basis of a very good novel of childhood.