Friday, May 11, 2012

Learning a thing or two from a snob

I'm reading an interesting book right now, Past Imperfect, by Julian Fellowes, the "fellow" who wrote the screenplays for that Masterpiece Classic series everybody loves, Downton Abbey. Initially I didn't think the book was going to be so interesting, mainly because the tone of the narrator was almost insufferably stuffy. It's about a group of upper-class young people in the London Season of 1968, who were participating in a tradition that was beginning to be touched by the radical changes of the late 60s/early 70s, even as it clung to the "old ways," and certainly the old attitudes, that went back generations. The story deals with particular events during that season, in flashbacks from the present, when the narrator is a reasonably successful writer with an unsatisfying personal life, who is called upon by one of the young men he knew back then -- now filthy rich, and dying -- to try to find out which of several possible women was the mother of the child that this no-longer-young man believes he has out there somewhere.

As I said, initially i was put off by the snobbishness that seemed to ooze from the author as much as the narrator, as well as by the almost-constant habit of the author (narrator) of adding little philosophical asides to every bit of action, practically every bit of dialog.

But gradually I began to be won over by the insightfulness of many of the narrator's observations. For example, at one point, when the narrator is telling his elderly father about this task he has taken on, and how distressing he has found the lives of some of the women he has been visiting, the father is disapproving, for an intesting reason. "You've been made to go back into your own past, and compare it with your present. You've been forced to remember what you wanted from life at nineteen, forty years ago, before you knew what life was....Eventually, in old age, almost everyone with any brains must come to terms with the disappoint-ment of life, but this is very early for you to make that discovery."

And of course this is true, as I and so many of my peers have been discovering over the past few years, as we've realized our youthful dreams are never going to come true, as we have grappled with accepting that we simply have not been able to make our lives turn out the way we wanted them, that we are not now in the place we thought we would be at this time of our lives (retired for example! How many of us can retire?!)

Another example, on the subject of social survival-of-the fittest: "It is a fact that in the brutal periods of history, what changes is not the cutting edge of every new market, or the ambition that drives a new factory owner or new hostess, or a new conquest from the performing stage... All that is constant. It is the level of coasting that goes on behind the bright and harsh facade that is different. In a gentle era -- and my youth was passed in a fairly gentle era -- people could drift every level of society. Jobs were found for them. Homes were arranged. Someone's uncle sorted it out. Someone's mother put in a word. But when things get tough, when, as now, the prizes are bigger but the going is rougher, the weaklings are elbowed aside until they fall back and slip over the cliff. Unskilled workers or stupid landowners alike, they are crushed by a system they cannot master..."

Certainly that is what is happening today, with so many people out of work, lacking the skills and education the jobs that are out there are demanding, in stark contrast to 1965, when an 18-year-old girl with absolutely no experience and only a high school diploma could apply for what she thought was a clerk-typist position, and find herself hired as a trainee assistant buyer at a major department store. But now...40 years on, desperate as that same girl is, has been for much of the past six years, for a different, a more satisfying, and better paying job, she has lacked, in particular, the computer experience and savvy that all libraries are demanding these days, and which all the young whipper-snappers fresh out of library school have in plenty.

To a certain extent Past Imperfect is at its best when comparing that past, "gentler" period with today. For example, on the public drunkenness that is so common in Britain today: "It's not often that I walk at night, though more from laziness than fear, but when I do I am amazed at the changes that have come about in London during my adult lifetime, the main one being...not the muggings and the general crime, not even the dirt and uncollected rubbish...It is the drunkenness that has transformed the streets, not just of London but of almost every town, into a lesser hell for lawful citizens. The kind of drunken-ness that in years gone by used to be talked of in Siberia at the height of Stalin's iron rule as a reflection of the misery of the oppressed... Why did it happen here? I used to think it was a class thing, but it isn't..."

And at another point, as he talks about the thrill he and his friends experienced when they realized that the Spencer Davis Group -- most famous because of its lead singer, Stevie Wynwood -- were actually playing live at this particular dance: "We are a jaded people, these days. We see film stars and singers and every other permutation of fame wherever we go; indeed sometimes, judging by the magazines, it seems that more people are famous than not. But this wasn't true in 1968, and to be in the same room as a real-live band playing and singing its own hit number...was to be inside a fantasy. Even Lucy was silenced, if not for long. 'Can you believe it?' she said. I couldn't. We were sweet, really."

And yes, really, they, and we, were.

*All quotes from Fellowes, Julian. Past Imperfect. New York, St. Martin's Press, c2008.