Hazel McHaffie

Henry Green

When reading’s a struggle …

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.
So said Somerset Maugham. But this week I’ve certainly identified a few that aren’t on the list!

Now for something completely different … : that was my approach in selecting Caught by Henry Green from my shelves. No opportunity for growth if we stay within our comfort zones, huh?

Published in 1943, this was Green’s fourth of ten novels. Did you know he was a contemporary of George Orwell? Me neither. But we studied him at school, so I have a context. Furthermore Green was born on the same date in October as me, and grew up in the south west like me … OK, I’m starting to get interested …

During World War II he served as a fireman in the Auxiliary Fire Service, and it’s this personal experience that’s echoed in Caught. Should have depth and insight into life during the Blitz, at least. He had very definite opinions of what writing should be: Prose is not to be read aloud but to oneself alone at night, and it is not quick as poetry but rather a gathering web of insinuations … It should slowly appeal to fears unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone. Okkkaaaaay …

What’s more significant, perhaps, is that this author is sufficiently rated to have scholars analysing and teaching his work, so I ought to know something about him. But … oh dear, I laboured with this one – which might say more about me than him, of course. And in his defence, I should say, there were occasional flashes of insight and humour that appealed!

The story’s written in the rather stilted short sentences of a different era, with an omniscient narrator, and sudden switches between people and places without a pause, which for me sit uncomfortably today with so much emphasis on consistent point of view.  As does the relentless strong dialect with little discernible difference between characters – even a Welshman has a cockney accent! The rhyming cockney slang strewn through the text stopped me dead in my tracks to decipher it too, necessitating going back to re-read that section each time.

The setting is largely a London fire station during the war – promising a different angle of fighting fires in the Blitz, I thought, but no, it’s the minutiae of everyday life during months and months of inactivity, and the humdrum lives of ordinary people, rather than the war, that Green aims to capture. As a professor of English at Oxford says in his introduction to the book: if at times the novel reads like Eastenders, that is partly what he was aiming for. You have been warned!

Given the sheer banality, it’s surprisingly hard to summarise the plot, but I’ll give it a whirl. When war breaks out, Richard Roe, a well-to-do widower with a 5 year old son, Christopher, decides the boy should stay with his grandparents, aunts and cousin in the country, but his own duty is to return to London and join the Fire Service as an Auxiliary. Christopher has a nurse, and a nanny, he’s surrounded by the trappings of wealth and privilege, and is being raised a gentleman (like Green himself). Returning to his parents’ house periodically to see his son, Roe is haunted by the memories of his own childhood and more poignantly of his deceased wife. But he and his son become remote, and Roe feels only irritation when he hears the boy has been abducted by a woman in a store. However, an awkwardness arises at work when the woman turns out to be the disturbed sister of the professional fire officer responsible for training Roe, one Pye. She has ‘some kink, or misfortune‘, as Pye puts it, which makes her not quite right in the head.

Pye himself cuts a sorry figure. Internally he has tortured memories of an adolescent inadvertent act of incest against his sister, and is wracked with guilt that Amy is now in an asylum. He rarely visits, and he refuses to pay anything towards her care. In his role in the fire service, Pye is inept as a manager, unpopular with his team, proving himself time and again singularly unfit for his role, suffering humiliation and defeat at the hands of his superiors. His attitude to women is crude, and he’s summarily ditched by the girl, Prudence, with whom he’s having an affair. He remains unmarried and childless, which is partly why his befriending a boy he finds in the street, taking him back to sleep in his room, is fatally misinterpreted, and drives him to suicide.

Though beneath Pye in rank, the widowed and well-heeled Roe is more successful. He manages to sustain a relationship with WAF driver, Hilly, and curries favour with his fellow firemen by spreading gossip, always on the lookout for self advantage – he loved himself so well that he was afraid. By the end of the book, he has been invalided out of the war into the country, suffering from nervous debility, shocked and exhausted by nine continuous weeks of fire fighting when the Blitz finally materialises. Back with his family, he recovers, but remains self obsessed and needy, leaving the care of his rather brutalised son to his long-suffering sister-in-law.

Happily it’s a slim volume! It will not return to my shelves amongst treasured possessions.

 

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