‘Quite a good time to be born’ – by David Lodge
As an avid reader of biography and autobiography it is intriguing, I think, to wonder about the criteria of choice at work in the writing of such texts. Put simply, what you put in and what you leave out? What might any of us want to do if we wrote the story of our lives? What would we want to say about ourselves? What might we want to conceal? So the writing of texts goes on in life – some things are talked up, others talked down and the complexity of our inner story remains often untouched and possibly therefore unhealed.
It may be that such introspection is simply not good for us! David Lodge is well known for his novels and a character familiar to me from my time in and around the university area of Birmingham where I was the University Hospital Chaplain. His early novels had a very particular influence on my reading, mostly, as I now remember, to offer much pleasure and amusement. Lodge has an eye for the ridiculous and can certainly tell a tale! David Lodge is now 80 and he offers us the first part of his life which brings us to the age of 40 when he produced his breakthrough campus novel, Changing Places, about an American and an English academic who exchange universities for six months.
He tells his story with care and diligence as it is and without any detectable side of self-justification or excuse. He traces his roots, describes his family in careful detail and offers us an utterly unadventurous and undramatic upbringing which he describes as a “quiet, monochrome existence of unsophisticated and temperamentally cautious” young man. Not surprisingly (perhaps) he’s completely open about sex and there in the pages begins his increasingly strong alienation from Roman Catholicism as he charts his inhibitions and indeed insecurities caused, in part, by faith. There is love after a long and celibate courtship with Mary and then children including the birth of a third child, Christopher, who has Downs Syndrome.
For someone so distinguished and famous, it is refreshing to read how candid he is about how he is perceived by others. He is completely honest about being looked over for jobs and not getting them.
Although Lodge is honest about his lapses of memory, I can’t quite help but admire the detail with which he tells the story. I imagine him drawing on many boxes of family archives and photographs in order to tell the story with care. Social historians will also be grateful to Lodge for his insightful description of the fifties and sixties. Although I myself have lived through some of this time, I was surprised and even shocked at points to note what an extraordinary social revolution we have experienced in these last few decades of the twentieth century.
The reader can certainly see now that much of Lodge’s life is lodged (excuse the pun) in his novels. While I would have wanted to know more about why Lodge wrote the books that he did, there is a clever inter-weaving of the novel and the autobiography in these chapters. One cannot but marvel at a very different picture of university life which offered some space to embark on such an ambitious novel-writing career. One is also reminded of what a significant generation of English scholars the University of Birmingham nourished, including Malcolm Bradbury and Richard Hoggart. Those interested in the universities and university education will learn about how English was taught and indeed how long it took some of the newer redbrick universities to free themselves from Oxbridge models.
I like David Lodge. He isn’t much of a crusader or indeed like many other people who have written their lives, a mythmaker – he is an educationalist through and through. His distinguishing mark is his determination, a patient resolve to deal fairly with the world, to look out for his family and to enjoy what opportunities come his way. Some of the more interesting chapters are his mid sixties American tour offered by the Harknes fellowship. With all this in mind I wait with some eager anticipation the second volume and at this point simply remain grateful for an honest, reflective narrative which shows Lodge as a man full of drive, creativity and integrity.