‘To be shockingly original with your first novel, you don’t have to discover a new technique: Simply write about people as they are and not as the predominantly liberal and humanist literary establishment believes that they ought to be’ wrote John Braine, in his book about writing a novel. Braine’s Room at the Top (1957) is ostensibly a study of post-war Britain, its class structures, and the challenges faced by a young generation growing up. It’s one of the books that I’ve owned for the longest time without actually reading it: I bought it in 1977, but only read it last year.
I was attracted to the book originally because in my childhood I had been allowed to watch the rather adult-orientated TV series Man at the Top produced by Thames Television in the early 1970s. The sparkling theme tune (they just don’t do TV themes like they used to) and the gritty, Yorkshire-based adult drama hooked me in even though as a child I barely understood what was happening in most of the episodes. But then there was this Penguin edition, featuring Kenneth Haigh on the cover — he’d played the hero of the story, Joe Lampton, in the series — and I thought ‘I have to have that’. Not reading it was partly driven by an anxiety that the book would be different to the series.
It turned out to be markedly different from what I was expecting. In the series, Joe Lampton is grown up and unhappily married to Susan. The series, from memory, is largely about boardroom machinations and business betrayals; the book is very much about a younger Joe finding his feet.
As an employee of the Government with a good figure and worldly charm, Joe is a hit with the ladies but from the very beginning Braine shows him as restless, resentful and scheming. He has a very large ‘chip on his shoulder’, wants a life better than the one he was born into and is prepared to do just about anything to get it. In the novel, he moves to Warley and starts seeing Susan — a naive, young, attractive girl from a wealthy family — but also begins having an affair with Alice, an older, married woman with a slightly dubious reputation.
It’s the focus on this more romantic side of Lampton which I found surprising. Though the book has a reputation as part of the grim, class-driven movement that occurred in novels and theatre after the war, its language is at times colourful, romantic and almost poetic. The grimness is certainly there:
I saw it against the background of Dufton, the back-to-back houses, the outside privies, the smoke which caught the throat and dirtied clean linen in a couple of hours, the sense of being always involved in a charade upon Hard Times.
But so are the more sensitive aspects of life:
I loved it all, right down to the red-brick front of the Christadelphian reading room and the posters outside the Colesium and Royal cinemas, I couldn’t leave it. And if I married Alice I’d be forced to leave it.
Joe’s love for Susan is sex-based and ruthlessly aligned with his social goals. He abandons Alice despite their more nuanced and emotional relationship, mainly because it will get in his way. World War II haunts the book: the luxuries afforded the wealthy were coveted by a working class which felt disaffected, disenfranchised and even betrayed by those who had the money. The so-called Angry Young Men of which Braine was a member and which his character Joe represents fictionally, expressed a festering resentment about the austerity and lack of reward which emerged after the war. Lampton is prepared to shatter his own fragile morality to break into the insular society of the rich. It’s that finer observation of the internal moral debates of Lampton as a character which make this book stand out a little from the crowd, rather than degenerating into a two-dimensional melodrama (as the television series largely was, saved only at times by the acting of Haigh, who suggested a faintly deeper morality in Lampton’s nature).
The title of the book refers not only to Lampton’s rented room at the top of the town of Warley, but also to his drive to move up the social ladder. Lampton plays the game without pity and destroys his own soul doing so, but that foreshadows the whole social movement towards expediency and away from an older perspective based on humanity which was to occur even more evidently over the coming decades.
I should have read it earlier.