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David Lodge: confessions of a wrongly modest man

Quite a Good Time to be Born is the memoir of a good man written by a great novelist

24 January 2015

9:00 AM

24 January 2015

9:00 AM

Quite a Good Time to be Born: A Memoir: 1935–1975 David Lodge

Harvill, pp.496, £25

This massive first instalment of a memoir starts in the quite good year the author was born, 1935, and ends with his breakthrough novel, Changing Places, in the rather better year, 1975.

A master-practitioner of narrative, Lodge chooses to write with an artful flatness which recalls Frank Kermode’s similarly self-depreciative memoir, Not Entitled. Lodge’s career was, formatively, in the same provincial, first-generation university orbit. Unlike Kermode (for whom it proved a dubious experience) Lodge never let himself be headhunted into Oxbridge. He turned down the inevitable mid-career offer because, principally, he believed it would be bad for his fiction. And he didn’t think he belonged at high tables.

Lodge first saw the world in working-class East Dulwich. I was born a couple of miles away, in Brixton, a couple of years later. Mine was a not quite so good a year, with the war looming. Both of us were only children of upper working-class parents who wanted more for their offspring. His father was a talented, busking, jobbing musician. My father was a police constable. His mother was a shorthand typist. Mine had been in service, and became a shorthand typist afterwards.

Both Lodge and I were beneficiaries of the 1944 Butler Act which gave clever boys (but only clever boys) what was grandly called a ‘scholarship’. The downside was the kind of deracination Richard Hoggart writes about in The Uses of Literacy. Growing to the light means saying goodbye to your roots. Lodge testifies to the fact that aspiration did not mean surrendering the decencies, strengths and virtues of the class you were born into.

I feel more fellowship with Lodge than some readers of this memoir may. There are, however, major differences. Lodge was a cradle Catholic and is possessed of a major creative talent. The Catholic grammar school young David attended left little impression — other than from its one good, and wholly eccentric, teacher. In all his long experience of religious devotion he experienced no clerical ‘abuse’, other than doctrinal severity. There was one odd experience in a cinema — he was addicted to the flicks as a child — when the proverbially macintoshed man touched his knee. He moved to another seat and went on with the film. He never masturbated. Ever. Even the word was strange to him until adulthood. He does describe some wet dreams and pangs of lust, hardly worth a couple of Hail Marys. No dissipation in his teens. If he was ever drunk he does not record it. ‘I remained,’ he says, somewhat superfluously, ‘extraordinarily innocent by comparison with today’s teenagers.’

His account of his early childhood and adolescence is interesting as an explanatory sidelight to his early Bildungsromans — sub-Joycean young man self-portraits. He scraped goodish A-levels. He entertained no thought of Oxbridge. If there were an A-level in poshness David Lodge would have failed dismally. He was turned down everywhere except the Godless Place in Gower Street — University College London. His hilarious satire of the place, in The British Museum is Falling Down, may have led the department to question the wisdom of having admitted young Master Lodge through its proudly shabby portals.


At the first freshers’ function Lodge’s eye was caught by a pretty blonde. Joy of joy, Mary Jacob was Irish-Catholic. They were, before the first lecture, a couple; chastely so — not even what, at the time, was called heavy petting. Mary Lodge is the memoir’s dedicatee. She would be justified in reading the book as a 500-page love letter.

Lodge wrote his first novel, The Devil, the World, and the Flesh, while still an undergraduate. The publishers he submitted it to commended the writing but pointed to a manifest inexperience as to world and flesh. He got a first, at a time when only five were awarded in the whole of the university in English (now it’s 20 per cent of the graduating class and rising faster than Weimar currency). He went on to do his National Service, declining to let himself be put forward for a commission. He had no desire to join those ‘chinless wonders’ in the officers’ mess. His experience, as Corporal Lodge, would be distilled into Ginger You’re Barmy.

Mary got her 2:1 and did a DipEd. David got to work on a thesis on Catholic fiction. At last they married. There is an extended description of David and Mary’s mutually virginal wedding night. No earth shook but, we understand, they eventually got the hang of it.

He applied for a succession of academic jobs and describes the humiliating failures in detail. He later found out that his head of department was queering his pitch with a treacherous letter of reference. A disastrous dependence on ‘Vatican Roulette’ (Mary is immortalised in The British Museum is Falling Down looking like a porcupine with thermometers sticking out of her to monitor ovulation) resulted in children, whom they loved but could not comfortably afford. The 1960s did not swing for the Lodges. But they got by and there was Vatican II — Humanae Vitae. Its complexities inspire the most thoughtful of Lodge’s theological novels, How Far Can You Go?

His novels eventually found acceptance and polite notices. They managed what was then called the ‘safe library sale’, between one and two thousand, hardback. His first comic novel, The British Museum is Falling Down, could have been his breakthrough were it not sunk by the now usual Lodgeian cock-up: the whole batch of review copies was never delivered, and the novel fell on the reading world stillborn.

Lodge found a more congenial publisher, Secker, under the madcap genius Tom Rosenthal. But the first novel they published under his name, Out of the Shelter, was a pioneer work of computer setting. It arrived looking as if Salvador Dalí had taken up typography. Most of the edition was pulped.

After a series of rejections that would have daunted a lesser man, Lodge finally got a tenured position at Birmingham (‘Rummidge’, as he immortalised it). Richard Hoggart and Malcolm Bradbury were colleagues, friends, and major influences on his thought and fiction. He became an early exponent of ‘theory’ — less flamboyantly, but quite as cleverly, as Kermode, now another close friend. Lodge’s criticism, like his fiction, has always been enriched by his uncannily sensitive ear for literary style. He is, among much else, a gifted parodist.

But as his career was taking off there was a misfortune which exceeded all others. The Lodges’ third child, Christopher, was born with Down’s syndrome. Although David touches only lightly on it, at around this period Lodge seems, if not to have lost his faith, to have had it shaken.

Fellowships and visiting positions in America gave him his Jamesian ‘international theme’ and inspired a string of distinguished campus novels — Changing Places, Small World, Thinks. They contain, beneath their comedy, a profound critique of the wrong turns higher education in our time has taken. Lodge took early retirement from it, although he maintains, one gathers, a fond relationship with his department.

What one takes away from this half-memoir is the self-portrait of an extraordinarily good, wrongly modest man; a distinguished scholar, and one of the finest of current novelists. He has still to receive full recognition of his achievements. Not that he ever expected it.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £20 Tel: 08430 600033


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