Friday, October 26, 2012

The English Way

For the next month, we present excerpts from a soon to be published e-book, Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the 80s, an interview anthology by Kevin Courrier about the 1980s from artists who lived and worked in that decade.

Talking Out of Turn #3: Margaret Drabble (1987)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large. (See some of the others here and here.)

author Margaret Drabble
During the eighties, England was going through the trauma of no longer being able to maintain the power and the glory it once possessed when it was an Empire. So (just as in the United States) England also elected a leader, Margaret Thatcher, who (like Ronald Reagan in the U.S.) promised to restore those "glory days" at any cost. Of course, Reagan and Thatcher, both larger than life figures, never came close to restoring anything glorious. But they did both change the political landscape dramatically. In their midst. many spoke out against their policies - including author Margaret Drabble (The Radiant Way). 

In one section of Talking Out of Turn, I looked at England during that decade. And I wanted to include individuals who both predated Margaret Thatcher and were also contemporaries of her. At CJRT-FM, I was lucky enough to have spoken to author Alan Sillitoe (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner), film directors Lindsay Anderson (If...) and Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette) and they helped flesh out the past and the present. But Margaret Drabble was a writer who crossed over from both the Seventies to the Eighties. She not only became an outspoken critic of the Thatcher government, she also understood the price her policies would exact in the future. In this 1987 interview, Drabble delved into the effect of Thatcherism on human values. The Radiant Way, her study of three friends begins right on the eve of the Thatcher era. It was her first work of fiction in seven years.

kc: Your novel The Radiant Way, spanning the years 1980 through 1985, covers the Thatcher years in England. But more than just covering that era in terms of time, you seem to get inside more of the moral and economic issues that clarify Margaret Thatcher's impact on England.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
md: I think there's a very close connection between the way you live and the economic framework of the government you're living under. You don't always perceive it, however, because the shift is very gradual. What Margaret Thatcher has been trying to do is to shift us into an anti-welfare, anti-public spending economy. She wants a share-owning economy. But what has happened is that we now have to think very deeply about our position on welfare, the size of the cake, how do you cut it up and who gets what bits of it.Today we have a high unemployment rate in England and this has been used as an instrument in policy by the Thatcher government to keep wage claims down and keep inflation down. I think that is immoral.

kc: But what do you think has contributed to this type of policy in England?

md: I think it was the sense that money was running out and there was a decline of the manufacturing industries. The car industry is now in decline and the steel industry is also receding. It is as if the market was glutted and there was no more need for any more big steel plants. Three-quarters of the steel industry was put out of work over the last five years. That's a lot of people out of work and I feel that they're permanently gone. This is because nothing's being done to rescue them. So there have been very big changes in the way that Britain earns its money and therefore spends its income. Those of us on the left who feel that you could go on spending public money, while believing that you generate public money by spending it, have had to re-think this policy very hard. We've been told that money isn't there and it can't be spent on roads, hospitals or education.

kc: Was writing The Radiant Way an attempt to portray the human price paid by these policies on a generation that has probably had its hopes dashed?

1984-85 British Miners Strike
md: For me, it was very much a question of that. I began writing this book in the winter of 1984 and '85 as the miners strike came to an end - which, as you probably know, was one of the bitterest, prolonged strikes of recent history and based on class war. I was very consciously trying to sort out what I felt about that. I hadn't written a novel for five, or six years...I just couldn't write fiction. Oddly enough, I met over the last year or so several writers in Britain who've said that they found that they couldn't write at all for two or three years after Mrs. Thatcher came to power. You see, everything was different. It was as though a gear had changed, or perspective had gone wrong. They couldn't see and they couldn't write. Gradually though, people began re-assembling their forces. So this was my attempt to work out what was happening to the world that I lived in, to my characters, to their attitudes towards British society and the class system. I wanted to work out what it is that's gone wrong and why it is that Britain looks so shabby and dissatisfied.

kc: You have one character in the novel, Liz, who is a psychiatrist and she is like one of those people who, in times of great turmoil, feel that their job is all that they can hang on to because it defines them.

md: It's the work ethic, eh? But she is the one least dependent on the National Health Service. She has a job with considerable private practice and therefore she is free to go on operating. Several of the other characters in the book -- as in the rest of Britain -- became dependent on public spending. They're dependent on educational budgets and on health care. And they now find that their jobs are all disappearing.

kc: Another character, Otto, at one point in the book says, "Class dominates people's thinking. This is the most class-divided society in Europe. It's a question of going on because if we don't, we're done for." Do you feel that way yourself?

md: I sometimes do. I think we are very class-ridden. I think that class divisions begin in early infancy. You're taught that certain kinds of behaviour are acceptable and some aren't. Children must go to such and such a nursery school, then they must go to a private fee paying school or they might learn the wrong kind of accent. Then they'll never get into university and never get a job. This goes right through the whole of society. I don't know if this will ever change until - now I'm going to say something very unpopular - we get rid of the monarchy.

kc: How does the monarchy become a roadblock to change?

md: This image of the Royal Family sometimes seems to me to be very out of date. You open the cheap press and there are always two stories running. One is the Royal Family and one is the pop stars. And they're both treated with the same scurrilous contempt by the press. It's a kind of adulation that is almost prurient. I feel that is very bad for a society. We have these very false role models: pop stars and the Royals. Neither need have any talent at all.

kc: Do you think that they become figureheads because Britain was once an Empire and people need some larger symbol to hang onto?

md: (sighs) I suppose so. I mean...I have nothing against the Queen. She is a hard-working woman who works hard for her money. Underneath that, though, there is a whole layer of little Royals and lesser Royals; Eaton and Cambridge and Oxford, and that last image of an elite. This has nothing to do with performance, or achievement, or even excellence. It's a dead weight that we cling to. Perhaps you're right, we cling on to it because we have nothing else to hang on to. We're not world leaders as we were so we cling to these things for their symbolic value.

kc: You also have a serial killer at work in your book who decapitates women -- in fact, severed heads turn up a great deal in The Radiant Way. I wonder if you included this character because you're saying that in a culture experiencing moral decay, any kind of behaviour, especially psychopathic behaviour, can become permissable?

md: I think it's very interesting the amount of urban violence in the West. In Canada, you haven't quite caught up to the United States...

kc: (laughs) We're working on it.

md: Well, in Britain we're trying, too. We haven't got there yet, but I find it both worrying and fascinating. Maybe these crimes are an expression of the psyche of all of us living in an unnatural and overheated way.

kc: Well, when I think of the term "losing your head," it's like a metaphor...there's no control left.

md: The chicken with its head cut off?

kc: Something like that. Yeah.

md: To be honest, I don't know why I embarked on that bit of the plot. It seemed to come out of some dark reach of myself that I feel in touch with when I'm walking in some parts of London. The area of London where the murders take place is an area that I've come to know well over the last five years and it really is quite a spectacular mixture of dereliction with a certain kind of street wit. There's some very amusing graffiti and very elaborate jokes with things hanging from lamp posts. I wanted to use that feeling of mingled fear and a kind of admiration for somebody who's fighting back somewhere against the environment.

kc: Do you think this kind of political and social polarization that you explore in your novels has anything to do with the proliferation of the tasteful and decorative British films about England's past and the fading of the Empire...

md: ...Oh, God!

kc: ...on the one hand and these other British films where characters flagellate themselves because of their "loathsome" values?

Upstairs, Downstairs
md: These nostalgic portraits of British India, the Raj, when England was great...and Upstairs, Downstairs, and all of that...I can't understand how people always read themselves into the upper row. I know where I would have been. I would have been a servant. I would be dead by now. That's my class background. So I find that to have a very selective view of the past is absolutely infuriating. And it's definitely linked up with the Royal Family. The self-castigating element in British society, I find more healthy in a way. I mean, we ought to castigate ourselves in order to move on instead of endlessly looking back. It's been traumatic for Britain trying to adjust to the size of the country in the globe. When you used to look at the old maps, the whole of the world was pink. It was the Empire where the sun never set. Now we're a little country. We're an off-shore island. To me, that's a very pleasant place to be. We could have that if we weren't so worried about other kinds of politics - if we weren't spending a fortune on the Falklands war. We could have a perfectly successful and happy economy of decent people, decent hospitals, good roads, good schools, and all the rest of it. Unfortunately, it's not even our aim anymore. 

- originally published on November 15, 2010 in Critics at Large.

 -- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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