Wednesday, 21 March 2012

LAURIE GRAHAM The Ten O'Clock Horses (1996)

Black Swan Books, 1996

Ronnie, something hungry and vile worming inside him, swelling till it fills his whole chest, pedalling faster, away from the silence of wet empty streets and the terror of something that is gaining on him fast.

You run straight home else the Ten O'Clock Horses'll get you.  Listen.  Can you hear them?  I can.  They're on the way, so straight home and don't look behind you.  I've told you what happens if you look behind.  'Ah, come on, Glover.  It's only twenty to nine.'

The Novel:  England. 1962.  Ronnie Glover, painter and decorator, lives in the East Midlands town of Leicester with his loyal but dowdy wife Eileen and their daughters Gillian and Susan.  He does his job, dutifully brings home his pay packet each week and looks forward to Friday nights –– the one night in seven when Eileen allows him to ‘get his end away’ even though she insists on them doing it on a towel so it won’t mess up her sheets.

But Ronnie’s familiar working-class world is changing.  The war he helped the Allies win is long over and working-class people everywhere are beginning to expect more from their lives than what they were previously taught to believe was their rightful due.  They’re buying their own cars, getting the telephone connected in their houses, hosting anniversary dinners in the ballrooms of fancy hotels, playing cricket like the toffs and even doing 'peculiar' things like painting pictures and learning conversational Italian in their spare time.  Ronnie's own comfortable if unexciting life –– going to work, visiting the pub and the local chippy (or ‘fish and chip shop’ as we call it in Australia), walking his dog Gums late at night, refereeing his parents’ increasingly bitter arguments, taking his annual seaside holiday –– suddenly feels empty and unsatisfying.  There has to be more to living, he thinks, than eating the same predictable meals night after night, watching Z Cars and The Dick Van Dyke Show on television and yarning away to Eileen about those funny new fruits called 'avocados' that their greengrocer's been after him to try.  

But what is it?  And how does an ordinary bloke like him go about finding it if it's out there?

These questions appear to be answered when he meets Jack –– Jacqueline Granger, his daughter Susan’s glamorous new dancing teacher.  Jack is married, speaks in a posh accent and lives in a large fancy house that backs on to the local golf course.  She’s clever and charming and has long legs and a bum every bit as nice as that of his television dreamgirl Mary Tyler Moore.  When she asks him if he’d be interested in re-papering her kitchen he can’t believe his luck.  He fancies her something fierce but has convinced himself, during the bike ride home, that a woman as sophisticated as the lovely Mrs Granger could never in his wildest dreams be attracted to a useless git like him. 

On his second visit to her house to start the job, however, Jack treats him to a free dancing lesson in her front room –– a lesson that quickly leads to him getting everything he’s ever dreamed of getting from a woman and more.  But there's a catch.  He feels guilty about it.  He starts lying to Eileen and to his mates Vic and Pearce about why he’s spending so much time on that new job he's doing up on Gartree Road.  And there's also the question of how old the daringly sexy Jack is.  Is she forty, like he assumes she is and so desperately wants her to be?  Or is she closer to sixty, like Vic keeps hinting she is every time her name crops up?  Can Ronnie hold on to her and the exciting new life she seems to promise him or will The Ten O’Clock Horses –– the nightmare nags that haunted his childhood thanks to the cranky neglectful mother who never really wanted him –– gallop in from nowhere and steal everything, his family included, away from him forever?

Quercus Books, 2010
What makes The Ten O’Clock Horses such an outstandingly perceptive novel is the way that Graham’s unique dialogue-based style manages to capture all the humour, frustration and banality of Ronnie's world and contrast it so poignantly with his growing sense of guilt and inner turmoil.  Her characters think, talk and behave like people you know and have probably known all your life –– that scruffy uncle who should wash a bit more often than he does, that aunt who wears too much make-up and has a silly hair-do, your downtrodden grandpa who’s quietly enjoying his bit on the side now that grandma's too old and sick to be bothered keeping tabs on him.

While many critics have praised Graham's uncanny ear for dialogue –– she has a remarkable talent for capturing the natural rhythms of speech that any writer, past or present, would surely envy –– it’s her ability to reveal and explore the emotional lives of her characters, and to describe the rapidly changing society of the early 1960s, that makes The Ten O’Clock Horses the equal, in my opinion, of earlier classics of post-war British social-realist fiction such as Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) and Stan Barstow’s A Kind of Loving (1960).  Ronnie Glover is every smart, sensitive but basically lost and desperate man who yearns for more than what he has but doesn’t necessarily want to hurt or alienate those he loves in order to get his hands on it.  He’s decent but he’s also human and prone to temptation and therein lies his tragedy.  The ‘horses’ of the title serve as potent symbols not only of his unhappy childhood but also of what his future might become if he refuses to stop deluding himself and face up to reality.  His is, ultimately, a very moving story that raises issues we're all forced to confront as we age and our regrets begin to outnumber our dreams and the opportunities we're granted to realize them.

The Ten O'Clock Horses is sad, whimsical, angry, funny (it's very funny in places, so don't be put off by my description of it) and, above all, highly entertaining.  It's also an underrated classic of late twentieth century British fiction that deserves to be judged on its merits and not solely by its cover(s).

Black Swan Books, 1998
The Writer:  Everything you could ever want to know about the life and career of Laurie Graham is available on her website.  You’ll also find photographs of her, links to her blog and further information about many of her other funny, compassionate and brilliantly insightful novels there.  The Dress Circle is another one that's well worth seeking out, if only because it might permanently alter the way you think about transvestitism. 

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