Hurry On Down
Let it be remembered at the outset that there are writers like Dryden and Flaubert of whom it can be said that the excitement that generates their work is partly a critical excitement. This is true of John Wain as well. In fact, critical awareness was in his grain, and he was acutely aware of it very early in life. So, Wain's desire to be a 'critical writer' was shadowed when he was twelve or so. It did not emerge till his middle twenties. While at Oxford, Wain had a strong desire to compose poems. All the same he was fully aware of the fact that writing twenty or thirty good poems during his life-time would mean an achievement for him. In fact, John Wain never wanted to be a voracious writer. When, at the age of twenty-six, he brought out his first book MIXED FEELINGS he still had no ambition to become a writer in the "conventional sense"1 having "sincerity and art"2.
John Wain was looking for a change. He wished to employ odds and ends of time in writing a novel. He was more interested in getting his novel printed and earning £100 out of it than in becoming a novelist. To take his own words :
Why a hundred pounds. I don't remember, but I suppose it seemed a good round sum and not too demanding. Naturally, not greatly caring one way or the other, I did no market research, didn't try to make the book acceptable to any particular type of reader, and in general simply went ahead and wrote about what happened to interest me at the moment. 3
As a piece of good luck, John Wain got a "brave"4 publisher Fredrick Warburg who published the book in 1953 with "all its faults on its head."5 Not only this; he also offered Wain a purse of £250 as an advance. Wain claimed it as his double victory: his novel was published and he got two and half times of what he had expected.
It was during such a phase of tentativeness that in the year 1953 HURRY ON DOWN was published. But the genesis of the novel can be traced back to a very early period - when Wain was hardly nine. One afternoon he was walking back to school from his grand-parent's house. It was a cold, leaden afternoon, with snow lying in dirty heaps. Some high school boys, six or eight in number, came in sight and were walking slightly to one side of John Wain. After sometime some elementary school boys appeared. The expected shower of snow-balls and abuses began. John Wain, too, began to scoop up snow as he walked and made some effort to retaliate. Suddenly, he, while getting ready for a snow-ball delivery, was hit hard from behind by a boy bigger than himself. John Wain went down hard on the frosty road with all the weight on his right knee (that knee has given him trouble ever since). He failed to make out as to why he had no power to command the support of the boys of his school if he was hit by those of an elementary school. He had to find a place for him. And herein was born Wain's mood that went into the book HURRY ON DOWN. His own observation is noteworthy :
Nearly twenty years later, I published my first novel. It dealt with a young man unable to find a satisfactory place for himself in the society or his time. All the same its deep motivation is somewhere else. The details of the story are such as would be gathered by a socially conscious person in 1935, as I scrambled to my feet, dazed, nursing my knee, and saw, on the one hand, the glowing faces of the elementary-school boys, and on the other the aloof backs of my school-fellows - and wondered how between the two of them, I was ever going to find a place to live. 6
Small wonder, Wain remembers the period during which the novel HURRY ON DOWN was published as "one of the pivots"7 of his life. The book may be said to be a success from the point of view of sale through Kingsley Amis's LUCKY JIM,8 later on, surpassed it. To quote Colin Wilson :
John Wain's first book HURRY ON DOWN received rave notices and sold extremely well (I'm not sure of the figures - probably between ten and twenty thousand, an excellent sale). 9
A little later he observes :
Amis and Wain came in for a great deal of discussion.....Amis insisted on remaining the slightly aloof 'funny man', puzzled by his own success. Wain was less wise, his published opinions tended to be positive and pugnacious. 10
As for the novel and its aspects, let us first take up its plot. The novel opens with a dialogue between Charles Lumley, the hero, and his landlady. The discourse between the two takes the shape of a verbal quarrel. Lumley wants to abandon the room for good and the lady wants to know the reasons for the same - she suspects that "he has no prospects"11 and is therefore worried about his not being able to pay his rent. But Charles must say something to the landlady to make her quiet and stop from any further inquiry. So he says that he does the work of a private detective. Still he is not successful in convincing the landlady. The next morning Charles leaves his room.
Charles has a flash-back. He looks back to his university days. When he was at the university he had shrugged off the question of any of his well-wishers by merely saying that he was then busy with his examination. He would think of his future with a calm mind. Charles analyses the reasons of his failure in life after having the degree. He finds that he failed because the university had, by its three years random and shapeless cramming, crippled his mind for serious thinking. Secondly, circumstances were also responsible for his failure to some extent, and thirdly his problems not really admit of any solution.
After leaving the house of his landlady, Lumley decides to visit Sheila, his fiancee. When he reaches his house, he finds her away. But Edith Tharkles, his sister, is there, and so is her "stuffy"12 husband, Robert. Both are hostile to him. He insults them - and concludes his visit by showering on them greasy water. He, then goes to a pub and drinks heavily. He is now fully prepared for leading "a completely different way of life"13. Not surprisingly Lumley leaves the university and wanders from one place to another. Like a rolling stone he does not stick to any particular job. His first job is as a window cleaner. During the period he lives with Edwin Froulish, "a self-advertising pseudo modernist writer"14. Betty, a "slatternly" prostitute also lives there who supports Froulish. Lumley becomes the partner of Ern Ollershaw, who is quiet about his past. Meanwhile Lumley, perchance, meets Veronica and incidentally falls in love with her; she is living with her uncle Mr. Roderick at that moment. But Lumley cannot win the hands of Veronica, thanks to the villain of the piece - money. At this juncture Ern Ollershaw is put behind the bars for a part he had played in a car-theft racket. Lumley, too, finds himself in the racket through Ollershaw. The adventure is normally not found in a good novel though in some sub-standard films they may be seen as William Van O'Connor comes to see it :
Adventures of the sort one can see in grade B motives follow - and Lumley lands in the hospital. 15
In the hospital Lumley has a surprising news that Veronica is Roderick's mistress. He then becomes an orderly in the hospital. He meets Rosa, a pleasant but rather simple-minded girl. Their marriage would have materialized, had their interests not fallen apart. Meanwhile, he has met Mr. Braceweight, a millionaire.
Lumley becomes his chauffeur. The new tutor for Mr. Braceweight's son is George Hutchins, a former classmate of Lumley. Lumley fails to stick to this new job. He just cannot "get on well"16 with George Hutchins.. He then becomes a bouncer in "a combination night club and whore house."17 This is followed by a job as a gag writer for a radio show. At this juncture Veronica appears. Though Lumley loves her even now, he "recognizes that she is the form his new captivity will take, his new cage."18
Thus Charles is seen roaming from one job to another. Throughout Lumley holds that his goal is "to escape all identification with class."19 Man may discover himself if the feeling of "class designation"20 does not come in the way. Lumley feels it is foolish to consider him as the representative of the working class when he cleans the windows :
He thought, as he leaned on the parapet of the town's bridge and watched the tiny brown river drifting beneath it, of all the expensive young men of the thirties who had made, or wished to make, or talked of making a gesture somewhat similar to his own, turning their backs on the setting that had pampered them; and how they all had failed from the start because their rejection was moved by the desire to enter, and be at one with, a vaguely conceived people, whose minds and lives they could not even begin to imagine, and who would in any case, had they ever arrived, have made their lives hell. At last Charles thought with a sense of self-congratulation, he had always been right about them, right to dispose them for their idiotic attempt to look through two telescopes at the same time; one fashioned of German psychology and pointed at themselves, the other of Russian economics and directed at the English working class. 21
On Lumley's reaction to class-stratification, Frederick R. Karl remarks :
Reaction to class stratification is clearly key to Lumley as it is to Amis's Jim. Lumley comes from the bourgeoisie and he is imprisoned there by virtue of his education and his speech, he does not share its aspirations. Sufficiently educated to detest his own class, he nevertheless rejects the tastes of the effeminate highbrows and the factitious sophisticates. He must accordingly, make his own world in which class will not be significant. His aim is to be neutral and classless - emotionally, socially, and economically. 22
What is notable is the fact that not one of his jobs is of a high social order. His job at the hospital may be honourable but, then that was by way of an escape. He does not fit into ordinary life, although he admits that he would like to do so. Lumley in his various anti-social acts is not a simple rebel against the commonplace and bourgeoisie, as he says that he never even got into it.It appears that once Lumley found a niche in the society, he would "fit in"23. In other words he acts for survival as Fredrick R.Karl goes on to observe:
His acts consequently,are ones of survival on any terms that life can suggest; he drifts until he finds something acceptable - writing for a popular entertainer - and then wins what he wants,the hitherto unobtainable girl and monetary reward. 24
Thus HURRY ON DOWN seems to have in it what Diana Neill calls "the new trend in fiction to blend rebelaisian humour, working-class life and covert criticism of the established order of things."25 A similar note is struck in the following comment made by Walter Allen :
When HURRY ON DOWN appeared it seemed as though John Wain might be satirist of this period of social change....... 26
And again :
For Wain in HURRY ON DOWN, the picaresque is essentially the satiric; and in this novel Wain, in his grim and gritty and tough-minded way, is very funny indeed, with the true churlish, curmudgeonly denigrating attitude towards men and institutions....... 27
Like Walter Allen, Paul West also finds the novel markedly picaresque :
John Wain's first novel was an exercise in picaresque; his young man bumped through various sectors of the post-war world; the situations were funny, the settings brilliantly vivid, but the characters were little more than faces in a crowd. 28
A similar view is held by John Mander, who remarks while trying to explain the uses of documentary :
The uses of documentary are various and are determined by its inherent structure. Thus, contrary to the common assumption, documentary is an essential 'personal' form. By this method it is possible to document any given place or period by direct description of personalia (e.g. by means of interview, or of dramatized incident in which the narrator himself may be involved - it is clear that the picaresque novels, revived by Mr. Amis and Mr. Wain in the Fifties, is a form well suited to documentary 'reportage'. 29
There is one more critic still who calls the novel a picaresque one - Rayner Heppenstall :
HURRY ON DOWN was picaresque in the sense that its form was episodic. The hero stumbled from one situation into another. Its great novelty, as Angus Wilson perceptively said at the time, lay in the fact that a novelist had at last admitted to his pages the expense-account world which had developed since the war. 30
Obviously, all these remarks boil down to one common point that HURRY ON DOWN is a picaresque novel. Well, on the surface it does have an unmistakable appearance of the picaresque. Lumley has the look of a picaresque figure when we see him by turns window cleaner, lorry driver, dope peddler, private chauffeur and night-club bouncer. He has his "final metamorphosis as the keyman in a syndicate that provides jokes for comedians."31
Incidentally the jobs of Wain did not have much significance and yet surprisingly he was well paid. The riches he acquired enabled him to get even with the middle class, the established order, which he despised for its "meanness, pretentiousness and unreality."32 He made an attempt to be part and parcel of the working class but all his efforts went in vain. Perhaps Wain must be finding in Lumley his own self when he longed to have the blood of a peasant, the working class which was quite distant from him :
It is supposed to be rather a trump-card to have peasant blood in one's veins, so let me play it, with a flourish. Besides, in England it really is something of a rarity. English agriculture has not, since the Middle Ages, been the hands of peasants; the farming has been done by landowners, with a labour force of landless employees. 33
Lumley's education, upbringing and accent are the hurdles in his becoming a Middle class man. Lumley has the aspiration to have both - "to opt out of society and yet to find a niche in it, provided it is one that carries no responsibility of commitment."34 This may well be seen in the novel towards its end :
Neutrality, he found it at last. The running fight between himself and society had ended in a draw. 35
Once again it would not be out of place to recall John Wain's words in his autobiography SPRIGHTLY RUNNING when he tells what he wants Oxford to do for him :
"...and Oxford is so deeply in my bones that I am never happy for long away from it. I have no claims; I don't want Oxford to do anything for me, to find a niche that fits me, to contribute to my support in any way." 36
Picking up the thread, HURRY ON DOWN has in it many incidents which though "lightly sketched and far-fetched"37 are quite packed with humour. Froulish, the neo-Bohemian is a character whose "magnum opus" a novel without any theme or title has "the touch of comic genius".38 A quote from the so-called novel would be very relevant here at it recalls "the frolic humour of Ivor Brown's sally of the thirties, MASTER SANGUINE."39 :
A king ringed with slings, a thing without wings but brings strings and sings. Ho, the slow foe! Show me the crow toe! know, a beech root on the beach, fruit of rich bitch, loot in a ditch, shoot a witch which foot? 40
The words of the novel sound more comic as they are uttered in an intellectual gathering.
No doubt HURRY ON DOWN has in it some seeds of a picaresque as we find the hero stumbling from "one situation into another,"41 Plot-wise, the novel is done round a central character; incidents gets unified solely because they happen to him. This is the mark of the characteristically picaresque kind, and HURRY ON DOWN is unabashedly a case in point.
To quote James Gindin :
(It) is mock picaresque. The hero Charles Lumley, leaves the university and journeys through contemporary Britain, holding successive jobs as window washer, smuggler, hospital orderly, chauffeur and bouncer, in a shoddy night club. 42
The plot relates to the theme and is also closely linked up with the main characters - chiefly, Charles. Charles moves from one job to another to "resist any of the badges of status by which Englishmen recognize one another."43 But then the novel hurls an attack on those who weigh themselves on the balance of class structure or "those who commit themselves to class."44 That is why Wain makes a vitriolic attack on Charles through the mouth of Burge, a young doctor when he surprisingly finds Charles Lumley as a hospital orderly :
That sort of work ought to be done by the people who are born to it. You had some sort of education, some sort of upbringing, though I must say you don't bloody well behave it. You ought to have taken on some decent job, the sort of thing you were brought up and educated to do, and leave this bloody slop-emptying to people who were brought up and educated for slop - emptying.......if you take a job like that, you're just - 'he fumbled among his small stock of metaphors, and brought out the inevitable,' letting the side down. And I don't like people who let the side down.' 45
Now Wain's "exasperated fury"46 at the world may remind one of Smollett. Finding Lumley moving from one job to another rather hurriedly, Kenneth Allsop opines :
.....HURRY ON DOWN certainly set a new cycle in recrudescence, of the intellectual rebel without a cause wandering through the deserts and jungles of the post-war world trying to find somewhere to pitch his tents. 47
To my mind the rambling from one job to another signifies a deep probing into human experience, which may eventually lead to a frank and bold exposure of suppressed motives as well as their effects on behaviour. Thus Wain - like Guy de Maupassant, Emily Zola, Arnold Bennett and John Galsworthy - seeks for the novel a social function what Ibsen and Shaw did for the play. If Galsworhty selected the upper strata, Wain, like Bennett, opts for the middle rung class ladder though sometimes like Gissing's hero he makes Lumley to be in contact with the working class. Lumley makes an attempt to mix up with the working class when he goes to his old school headmaster for getting a job. The headmaster shows his inability to give him any as he thinks Lumley was looking for a teaching job. He is kept surprised when Lumley tells him that he wants to get the job of a window-washer. The headmaster feels that the education has unfitted Lumley for anything worth doing. So he says to Lumley :
I can only conclude, Lumley that you felt some kind of grudge against me that impelled you to come back and waste my time with this foolish joke. Window cleaning ! I suppose the implication is that your education has unfitted you for anything worth doing, and you seek to drive the point home by coming here with this foolish talk about having turned artisan. 48
It is not the headmaster alone who feels the job is unsuitable for Lumley. Others also ridicule it. 'The man with the big face'49 thinks Lumley is only cracking a joke saying he is a window-cleaner. But when Lumley persists, he shouts :
'What's this, a joke about window-cleaner? So that's what you take the little lady (Veronica) away into corner for, is it? You want to tell her stories of that nature' - He laughed delightedly. 50
It is something interesting to find, contrary to other's opinion, that Lumley, by becoming a window cleaner, thinks he has got a new life. His feelings have been summed up in these words :
......He seemed to have been doing it all his life : perhaps, in all but a literal sense, that was true. His life has only really begun a week ago. Until then he had merely been an offshoot, an appendage, a post script, to the lies of several other people. The new life was really his own. 51
It sounds rather ridiculous when we know Lumley calling at Bunder for a job thereby involving himself into a racket. And the money he aspires is simply for getting Veronica. He tells Bunder without beating about the bush :
'Well now listen,' said Charles in the same rapid voice. He had a tremendous sense of the preciousness of time : 'I'll come straight to the point, I can't be bothered just now to wrap anything up.'
Neither can I, old boy' Not my style at all. Cough it up, only don't be all night about it.....
Well, then,' said Charles. 'It seems to be fairly common knowledge that you and your particular pals have got some racket that brings you in pretty big money. No one's said anything, in so many words, and there's no indication that anyone knows a single concrete fact about it, but it is fairly clear that you've found some way of improving on the job from the money point of view, and I am here to ask you whether you can trust me enough to let me in on it.' 52
From the copious examples given in the previous pages two things come up : firstly HURRY ON DOWN is a picaresque and secondly, a big question whether Lumley has in him the traits of an angry young man? When in the middle 1950s, John Wain's fiction first became well known, he was widely regarded as "a humorist and iconoclast"53. HURRY ON DOWN, a mock-picaresque became in many journalistic accounts a symbol for the "irreverent rootlessness of the younger generation, making fun of any established social designation."54 Charles Lumley finds it easier to know "what he is against than to know what he is for."55 In other words he can define his "antipathies"56 more clearly than he can explain his "affirmations".57 But in doing so a new hero emerges who is very similar to Larkin's John Kemp in JILL. John Kemp possesses in him at least one of the elements of the new hero - "inability to adjust himself to a word he was lifted into".58 The society he is brought up in, like his university education, does not help him "for making a satisfactory living".59 Consequently Lumley feels as if he were "a captive of his training"60 resulting in his faith that his training "painstakingly unfitted"61 aim for life. For that matter the novel may be said to be containing social criticism (as one finds in the novels of Bennett, Galsworthy and Wells) also, it is unquestionably concerned with the novelist's struggle for freedom. As Wain himself spells out the theme :
An artist can only have one principle : to treat whatever seems to him to present itself insistently for treatment, in the bits of life lived by him, in the corner of history and geography he inhabits. Thus, when I wrote HURRY ON DOWN, the main problem which had presented itself in my own existence was the young man's problem of how to adapt himself to 'life' in the sense of an order external to himself, already there when he appeared on the scene, and not necessarily disposed to welcome him; the whole being complicated by the fact that in our civilisation there is an unhealed split between the educational system and the assumption that actually underlie daily life. We spend a good deal of money, both publicly and as individuals, on having the young taught to appreciate the masterpieces of literature and art; we maintain professors to lecture to them on philosophy and other high flying subject; and then we turn them out into a world that has no use for these things, a world whose operative maxim is 'Don't respect or consider anything except material powers and possessions.' 62
HURRY ON DOWN seems to illustrate the idea that an English liberal education is a poor preparation for getting on in the world."63 "The absence of the old style bourgeoisie"64 , among whom the hero was supposed to have been brought up also strikes one when one goes through the novel. Thus Lumley feels a "sense of isolation"65 of the artist-intellectual in the contemporary society. This sense of isolation resembles the kind one encounters in (though in an extreme form) Kafka: in the latter, one finds that nightmare has become a reality and the "individual is trapped in a world, not merely hostile to him personally, but apparently."66What is noteworthy is the fact that it is "impervious to human action."67 Wain at least accepts the decadent aspects of the society wherein he finds himself - a gesture which even the giants of the age like Conrad, Lawrence and Joyce rejected. In this connection Arnold Kettle's words are worth quoting :
In even the greatest writers of the age - Conrad, Lawrence, Joyce - the battle of the novelist with his raw material tends to be an unequal one. None of these writers tamely accepts the decadent aspects of the society in which they all find themselves. 68
Wain, through Charles Lumley, is able to achieve a philosophy and hence an artistic vantage-point from which he is able quite satisfactorily to cope with and subjugate the world he tackles. So unlike Conrad, Lawrence and Joyce, he has the confident relaxation of Fielding and Tolstoy. His hero Lumley, like Sartre's heroes reacts negatively to the easy formulations and obstructions he sees around him and thus seems to be an angry young man. For him, as for Sartre and Camus, freedom is, in a way, dreadful and absurd. To quote James Gindin :
The individual has the freedom to act, but he must act in a highly complex and difficult world with little assurance about the value or consequence of his action. That he must act when he knows so little is dreadful. 69
We see the negative reaction of Lumley in the form of his behaviour in pubs. He is worried as to how he will operate in a world in which he exerts a very limited control. Thus HURRY ON DOWN remains a novel of "Conduct and of Class"70 in contemporary urban society.
HURRY ON DOWN, a novel of conduct and class, may be regarded in the English tradition of Richardson and Fielding who deal extensively with "class distinctions and struggles in eighteenth century society."71 In the Victorian age, Dickens, Trollope and Hardy, too, have almost the same theme in which a young man from the lower middle class attempts to enter a more urbane and cosmopolitan society. About the class-line Gindin observes :
Class lines, throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were not prescribed with absolute, immutable rigidity, although the problems and the stresses holding back the young man of energy were invariably greater than the opportunities before him. 72
Since the World War II, especially in the fifties, it looks apparently easier for a man to move from one class to another. Charles Lumley may earn a degree at the university and the marks of accent and appearance are less completely distinctive in contemporary Britain. Here one is reminded of Hardy's Jude, the obscure. He was, irrespective of his ambition, indelibly categorised as a stone-mason with a rustic background. The background of Hardy's Jude from which he showed his willingness to escape was strong and firm. And so was his aspiration. Christminister, though quite hard for Jude to get, was an invariable aspiration. In the Victorian Novel of class, the alternatives were not befitting. It does not mean that the protagonist had an easy time choosing between the alternatives. Easy choice would mean simplification in any age. But so far, both the background and the aspiration were apt to be thought of as more firm and definite entities.
HURRY ON DOWN, however, depicts a society of somewhat "greater mobility in which the hero is apt to be a good deal less sure of from what he is moving."73 About the basic problem of the novel of class and conduct ( HURRY ON DOWN is one such novel ) Gindin has to say :
The basic problem of the novel of class and conduct, the issue of how the hero can come or not come to terms with himself and his flexible world, is the same as it was during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But the terms themselves are vastly different, and, in a society in which change seems to accelerate geometrically, the tone also seems significantly different from that apparent in earlier fiction. 74
Wain, in HURRY ON DOWN, came to the realization that "values and alternatives in society were becoming far less fixed and secure."75 It was probably owing to the fact that the values of conduct and class were rapidly showing signs of a change. The novel, therefore, shows an inclination to centre on personal and metaphysical issues. Wain is very much like Arnold Bennett who was more interested in demonstrating a general theory about time than in dealing with conduct and class. Earlier in the twentieth century when novels did not deal with class, they tended to see class issues from the spectacles of the vanishing intellectual aristocracy. As examples, E.M. Forster's HOWARD'S END or Virginia Woolf's TO THE LIGHTHOUSE may be cited. Wain also in HURRY ON DOWN, seems to attempt to return to a traditional nineteenth century theme :
........the theme of how a man works his way through society, with a characteristic twentieth-century lack of assurance about what the man or the society is really like. 76