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Cold Comfort in the Post-War World
on 25 April 2017
Stan Barstow’s Vic Brown trilogy are books I devoured in the early 1970s when I too sought to “get on” from my industrial roots. Time passes and the story now has the mantle of an historical document. The bustling industrial town, large factories and coal mines, are at once familiar - but now long distant. A Kind of Loving sits under a comfort blanket of seemingly permanent rain, fog and smoke – so cloying and repressive to a young man with an eye on a brighter future. The social attitudes - towards class, social mobility, women and morality - and in particular the dire consequences of hanky-panky outside of wedlock - these traditional values and structures are under pressure and are at the heart of Vic’s story.
At first this is just plain charming, a nervous romance building from unconfident exchanges between 20 year old Vic and the younger Ingrid; misunderstandings and missed assignations, and exchanges of letters straight out of Jane Austen, a world away from today’s social networking and smart phones.
Despite Ingrid being a fair approximation to the ideal girl he fantasises about during the first scene at his sister’s wedding, and their mutual enthusiasm for increasingly heavy petting on wet grass in the local park, Vic’s infatuation fades, and the couple grow apart as his horizons expand, helped by Ingrid’s tendency to fall downstairs in high heels which distances her and the temptations of the flesh to the seaside for a period of convalescence. It's when she returns and Vic somewhat churlishly revives their relationship, the emotions cooling whilst the physical benefits intensify, that Vic's selfishness starts to unravel.
Vic and Ingrid share a rather passive outlook on life, very much observers rather than doers – Barstow’s own background forming the base for Vic’s upbringing and experience, if not his character. But whereas Vic’s take on things is a progressively downbeat and self-pitying tirade against his lot in life, Ingrid is content as a gregarious chatterbox, addicted to gossip, trash culture and women’s mags. Vic seems never happier than when laying into Ingrid’s low brow enthusiasms, or turgidly proclaiming his growing love for the popular classics whilst denigrating others' cultural enthusiasms for putting it on. Ingrid may be a bit of an airhead, but very succinctly calls him an “upside-down snob” – reinforcing the feeling that the deflating of the male ego is as much the issue as falling out of love.
Thereafter, the final chapters of the book describe the inevitable pregnancy, Vic’s comeuppance at the hands of Ingrid’s awful mother and some sort of resolution of the societal and family conflicts stirred up by Vic and Ingrid’s relationship. Barstow’s skill is to assemble layers of social comedy and emotion on a very simple tale – and this comes up fresh as paint rereading the book after so many years.
Well, we later find out that a kind of loving isn’t enough for Vic – and in the final part of the trilogy we have a brief glimpse of Ingrid in the 1970’s, remarried with a daughter and happy …. and notably, in contrast to the increasingly alienated Vic, still in regular contact with and affectionately regarded by Vic’s aging parents. I’m hoping that wherever she is in some soot-stained Elysium, Ingrid has found her voice and fulfilment, in the manner of Shirley Valentine and Educating Rita.