It must surely be the biggest, oldest, most universal genre in literature. A genre spanning a long timescale and many tastes, from the work of Jane Austen through such luminaries as Margaret Mitchell, Laura Kinsale and many others up to the present. As romantic writing has evolved through the centuries it has reflected the social mores of the time. Obviously: why would it not? But it has never lost its appeal.
Nowadays there’s no sharp distinction between the genteelly saccharine-sweet and innocent and the unashamedly steamy; it’s a continuum. At the opposite end of the spectrum from Austen and the Bronte’s, eroticism rules okay. It’s a case of whatever presses your particular buttons. But the common denominator, almost invariably, is that the protagonists will be Beautiful People.
They will be young – or at least youngish; say forty tops. He will invariably be of above average height, dark of hair, smouldering of eyes (and they may also be ‘troubled’); firm of manly jaw. He will also, essentially, be extremely well muscled about the torso. You know this because he’s often depicted on the cover naked to the waist, or sometimes with shirt violently disarranged by passion.
She will oft be black-haired too, or – equally acceptably – blonde or a fiery redhead. Seldom will she be mousey. She will have perfect features and a perfect figure; neither too underdeveloped in the bosom department nor too blatantly voluptuous. She will be portrayed, like as not, wearing a daring off-the-shoulder number and locked angled backwards in the arms of her beau.
Idealised fictions of course, and that’s okay.
But how often do you find romantic fiction where the protagonists are not conventionally beautiful? Like most normal people, in other words?
Or, for that matter, not young either? How many romantic stories do you read where the hero and heroine are middle aged? Or even, dare one suggest, elderly? A few perhaps, but not many.
Here are a couple of my favourite oldie romances.
In The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, our recently-retired hero Harold receives a letter from Queenie, whom he once worked with. She’s terminally ill and near her end. He pens a letter in reply and then goes out to the post box to send it on its way. But something makes him pocket the letter instead and carry on walking, all the way from his Devon home to find Queenie in Berwick-on-Tweed on the England/Scotland border, hoping he’ll reach her before it’s too late. Alright; in a sense this isn’t a ‘romance’ as such, and certainly not one of the adulterous variety. Harold doesn’t as it were leave his obsessively house-proud wife Maureen, who has never understood him, in favour of Queenie, because he knows she’s dying. But this is a tender poignant little tale of love rediscovered and reconciliation made in later life.
More elderly still are the protagonists in Nancy Rossman’s biographical First Love, Last Waltz, a sweet telling of her mother Elise, who fell in love for the first time at 19 with Peter and became engaged to him two years later. The marriage is thwarted though by Elise’s mother, who disapproves of Peter. They both go on to marry others, although Peter never entirely leaves Elise’s life. He phones her every year on her birthday, albeit with the knowledge and approval of her husband.
In time the husband dies, she remarries and hubby number two dies also. Peter’s wife also dies. But he’s still a presence in Elise’s life and they reunite, and when she’s 75 they finally marry, fifty years after their doomed engagement. This is definitely an ‘ah!’ book and unapologetically sentimental (to use an imprecise term), and that’s just fine. All the same, it’s a very affecting story of come-very-lately lovers. As author Nancy says, it’s never too late to get a second chance.
Yes; I’ll echo that.
My novel Convergence pursues the theme of elderly love too, of finally finding it completely out of the blue, and adds a further dimension of unusualness in that the protagonists are from different races – she black, he white.
Having said the forgoing, none of it has anything at all to do with part five of Wishing for the Better. Here it is. I hope you enjoy.
Wishing for the better/5
I’m standing in a fairly affluent side street off Welford Road, Leicester, looking at the front door of a comfortable red brick Edwardian villa. This is to be my home-from-home. I’ve been sent here by the accommodation office at the College of Art, after a preliminary, excited visit to enrol for the first year. The college has a list of reliable landladies who offer board and lodging to students. I’ve been allocated this one and have come to meet my new adoptive part time ‘mum’.
I knock the door, wait. It’s opened by a short, kind-faced lady in her fifties.
‘Hello. Are you Mrs Mullen?’
‘Hello; I’ve been sent by the college.
‘Oh yes. You’re John Needham?’ I nod. ‘Come in, please’.
She lets me into a tiled hallway and leads the way to a sitting room of slightly faded elegance filled with good old furniture. She sits me down and politely fishes for information. Then she goes away to make tea. As we drink she tells me about herself. She’s a widow, of a doctor (hence the gentility) and has two children, Stephen, a teenage boy of twelve and a girl, Alison, who’s fifteen. She tells me ground rules, about meal times (dinner is saved on evening-session days). It’s fine for me to share the sitting room with the family. She gives me a key. Then she shows me my bedroom. It’s in an attic at the top of the house: basic, but clean and comfortable. Funnily enough, it’s a bit like my bedroom now, also an attic, all these years later. It all looks very satisfactory; it’ll be good living here during the week, I’m sure.
After more chat I take my leave and walk back to the main road to catch a cream City of Leicester double-decker bus to the railway station, for a reflective journey home. I consider my life so far. This is a world away from Empingham with its slow dullness and limited horizons. This will be a vibrant and exciting life, with who-knows-what waiting in the future. I can’t wait.
Autumn term began a few days later. I said goodbye to a tearful Laura on Sunday evening, promising to write (this was decades before mobile phones) and caught the train to Leicester and my new part-time home. It was train travel because the Austin had been disposed of, not that I could have afforded to run a car anyway. On the Monday there was drawing equipment to be bought at the college shop, information about timetables to be studied and fellow students to get to know. It was a strange feeling, to think that I’d voluntarily given up paid work – something that five years earlier I couldn’t wait to start – for the relative poverty of a student grant. It was a whole new status, and one that I embraced enthusiastically.
It had been a fairly small intake of students that year; there were just eleven of us, from various backgrounds. Some were sixteen-year-olds straight from school (and three of them would fall by the wayside after the first term). Others were older, having stayed on longer at school. A few had already done a one-year foundation course and had opted to do typo design. One lad, Ted, had a similar background to me: he had been an apprentice compositor too and also came from Lincolnshire. There was just one girl.
Before I talk about the course I’m afraid I’ll have to digress into a lecture again, about computers. Nowadays, of course, the ubiquitous computer pervades every aspect of our personal and working lives, but forty-seven years ago it was entirely different. The basic job of a typo (or graphic, if you like) designer was to design and control the production of printed matter, much as an architect does in building. Like an architect presenting drawings, the first stage of the design process was to create a mock-up, called a ‘rough’. That’s what it was: a fairly good representation of what the suggested item would look like when printed. Today this is done by computer and the ‘rough’ is an exact representation of the final result, but back then it all had to be done by hand, using a paintbrush. Other than areas of text, which were represented by ruled lines, lettering was meticulously painted by hand. If you wanted to simulate a particular typestyle – say Times New Roman, for example – accurately, so that it was recognisably Times, this was quite a skill. (Some time later ‘instant lettering’ like Letraset came in, which made things much easier, and much quicker. Throughout my career I hardly ever ‘cheated’ like this and used Letraset though, as a matter of pride).
Illustrations would be indicated in a rough form, like an artist’s initial sketch. Photographs might be rendered in the same way, or simply be printed photographs of an appropriate subject cut out and pasted in, for quickness. By the way, computer terms like ‘cut’ and ‘paste’ have their origins in art studio terminology; they weren’t invented in Silicon Valley.
So our design course, preceding as it did the computer age by some years, was tailored to hand-produced presentation. The main element was design itself: learning the basics like composition, balance or colour that apply to all art, and adding other considerations like suitability of particular typefaces or arrangement of information (which is what printing’s all about) in a clear and readable manner. In general, the idea was produce work both aesthetically pleasing and ergonomic, or consumer-friendly. Nowadays, of course, computers have ‘democratised’ graphics and printing. With the advent of personal computers, everyone can have a go at it, without having the grounding in experience, knowledge or skill. Professionals apart, it has become a field from which skilled experts have been removed. Working with computers now, purely for recreation in retirement, I’m glad I found this skill; knowing that I operate Microsoft Word with an extra level of competence is very satisfying.
Complementing this, we learned the exacting business of ‘finished lettering’, the actual study and meticulous painting of typefaces. I’d been doing this to some extent on the day-release course, but not to this depth. I found this more intimate contact with the subtlety, beauty and craft of type really fulfilling. We also did calligraphy. This was getting a bit further away from typography, because calligraphy – handwriting – is always (by definition) handwritten, or perhaps hand carved; but it increased our appreciation of and sensitivity to lettering in all its forms. Back on the design front we also did a session on graphics, where the emphasis was shifted to things more illustrative. In parallel with this, there was some purely fine art, mainly drawing. These two disciplines were a rather rude awakening for me. I’d always complacently thought, and been encouraged to think, that I was quite gifted artistically. But I now found, for the first time, that I was up against people, particularly those who had done the foundation course, who had real talent. It was a bit deflating when the tutor described us less talented ones as ‘mere babes’.
Then there was photography, pre-digital of course, which was fun because it involved developing and printing our films ourselves. Finally, there was practical printing technology: typesetting, which I’d been doing for the last three years on day-release and five years at work, of course (so it was a breeze) and now a new thing to me: lithography. This was the technology that was replacing traditional letterpress with old-fashioned raised type. Litho is different in that it uses perfectly flat printing plates and works on the principle that water and grease repel each other. Type, pictures, everything, are created on an aluminium plate as a greasy image. This is then wetted, and the water stays only on the background, not the image. Then it’s rolled with ink, which sticks only to the image. Finally paper is applied and, voile, you have a printed copy. On machines this all happens at great speed, but we were taught the older hand-lithography (which used to use smooth stone for plates, hence the name) where images are applied by hand. But it was just the same principle.
So, unlike the graphics students, we had a very practically-based course. We could design something, set it up in type and then print it by letterpress. If our design included a drawn image, we would do the image first by litho, then overprint the litho-printed paper sheet in letterpress to add the lettering. By today’s computer standards it was incredibly slow and long winded, but it taught us the basics of the technology of the time. I found it fascinating, being able to meld the creative with the practical; being able to do a complete job and see an end result.
On the social level, I settled in well with the Mullens. They were a nice family. Life quickly developed a pattern. I would travel to Leicester on the evening train, getting to the lodgings around 9pm. Then I would write to Laura (having left her only two hours previously) and post the letter the following morning, to reach her for Tuesday. On Monday night (I expect Mrs Mullen thought I was studying in my garret) I’d write for Wednesday receipt, and on Tuesday for Thursday. There was no point in writing on Wednesday, as I’d see her again on Friday. She would write on the same schedule. I don’t know what I found to write about (particularly on Sunday) but I enjoyed doing it. It was the start of a pleasure that’s stuck: I still write letters to friends at Christmas.
I didn’t spend a great deal of time with the Mullens, apart from watching a grainy black and white Top of the Pops with Stephen and Alison on Thursday evenings. I didn’t go out drinking either. It didn’t really appeal, and I didn’t have much money to spare anyway. Besides which, there were classes two evenings a week, not to mention the letter writing. Then on Friday evening it was back to Stamford with that student’s traditional offering to his mum: dirty washing, and a weekend of the usual promenading.
For the first few months of 1963 this seemed a reasonable routine, although I think Laura was finding it wearing. She didn’t have the weekdays filled with interest that I had. All she had was my absence during the week. But times were a’changing, as Bob Dylan was singing at the time. This was hardly university, only a red-brick college of art, but for me the atmosphere was highly stimulating. Looked at from below, from my lowly background, it all seemed so much more intellectual.
And students were ceasing to be clones of their parents and their parents’ views and attitudes. They were rebelling. There was a buzz of idealism, of challenge in the air. We were going to change the world. It was certainly a world away from Stamford, conformism and, it had to be admitted, Laura. Gradually, each weekend became more and more strained. We were not natural soul mates, just two naïve kids clinging to our first relationship. Eventually (and uncharacteristically: I always hated it if I found myself being the rejecter) I finished things. There were a few tears, but we both really knew it was for the best. Poor Laura. Years later I learned that she’d married. I hope it proved a good one.
With no particular reason to spend weekends at home now, apart from free laundry and Sunday lunch, I began to hanker for the lifestyle that some of the others had. Coming from homes far away, some of them had flats rather than lodgings, with all the advantages that implied. Like much greater freedom. Because of our similar backgrounds I suppose, Ted and I had become friends. He was in lodgings that first year too, and feeling a little restricted, and we decided to find a flat together for the second year. But first there was the summer holiday to think about.
It would have to be spent doing a vacation job of course, ideally one that involved some fun. I was, after all, a student. I forget how I found out about it, but I learned that Butlin’s Holiday Camp was quite a good bet, being by the sea and all that. So I enrolled for the season at their camp in Minehead, Somerset. This sounded a good way to earn some money and have some adventure; spread the metaphorical wings a bit more.
So I duly arrived at the holiday camp, full of expectation. The job on offer was nothing much: just washing up, industrial-scale. And the pay was abysmal, but presumably that was how Billy Butlin made his millions: cheap holidays on a massive scale at rock-bottom cost, paying the staff peanuts. The washing up was pretty bad – imagine a typical family’s dirty dinner plates multiplied a thousand-fold – but there was an even worse job. That was manning the reception booths where the dirty plates were taken by the harassed table staff. They would throw the piles of crockery through the hatch of the booth to be caught by the hapless attendant, left-over food spattering everywhere, up the walls and all over the student who slipped and slid around in a slimy mess covering the floor. Fortunately I was never called upon for that particular task. The washing up was mechanised, using huge machines and most of the handwork went into cutlery washing. I use the term lightly. It meant dipping a rack full of filthy cutlery quickly into a vat of boiling water and giving it a quick shake. The cutlery came out hardly less dirty than when it went in, and was returned to the dining room often bearing congealed egg and other horrors, which if noticed were removed with judicious use of spit and thumb nail. Often, in the rush to serve the army of happy campers, food was dropped on the floor en-route from the kitchens, to be picked up and returned to the plate. If the blissfully ignorant punters knew the half of what conditions were like behind the scenes, they would never have returned a second year.
Although the pay wasn’t much, board and lodging were free and in the first few weeks I began to put a reasonable amount of cash together. Little of it was squandered, apart from one debauched evening when a crowd of us hit the local pub to sample the local ‘scrumpy’, the vernacular for cider. None of us realised how strong it was. Not much of a drinker myself at the best of times, two or three pints of beer and I was anybody’s. But the cider was something else. I didn’t make it to two pints before rushing outside to throw up, and we were all just as badly afflicted. The old locals just sat and smoked and watched us, and sighed . . .
After a dreadful hangover the following morning I vowed Never Again (as you do) and recreation after that was more wholesome: usually spent wandering around Minehead with the twin-lens reflex camera I’d bought for college work, photographing the magnificent scenery and pretty cottages. That first visit to a really beautiful part of Britain was an eye-opener. It germinated a love of landscape and of old buildings that would shape the rest of my life.
I’d gone to Minehead not just to earn money but also with adventure in mind, and that included adventure of the testosterone-based variety too. I’d been girlfriend-less since finishing with Laura, and that side of life was a bit barren. There were many girl students there (mostly doing dentistry it seemed) but although I’d now got one medium-term relationship under my belt, I was still insecure and shy. Approaching girls, making the first move, was still agony. One evening, news went around that there was going to be an all-night ‘party’ on the beach. With all that that might imply. Fantasising, I tried to psyche myself up to ask a girl from a chalet across the way from mine to go with me. She agreed after I finally blurted out the invitation, and we went along. There was quite a large group of revellers. Someone had brought a radio so there was loud music, much of it Beatles, drink and probably (although I was so innocent I wouldn’t have recognised it if I’d seen it) drugs. We circulated among the happy noisy throng and I gingerly put an arm around her shoulder. After a while, and perhaps only by co-incidence, we turned towards each other and our lips met in a very awkward kiss. She seemed quite unimpressed. After an hour or so she said she wanted to go back to her chalet. I went too. She sat on her bed, I took another one opposite and we faced each other. At least, I looked at her; she took great interest in her feet. I had no idea whether she was expecting me to go any further. I just couldn’t read the signs, if there were any. After half an hour of painfully strained conversation, blushingly, I left.
In the first part of the vacation there was one day off per week. But as the working conditions were so bad, students began to break their contracts, pay the early termination penalty (which was quite high, presumably to guard against this) and leave for greener pastures. So that left an ever-diminishing number who had to do more and more work. First, shifts were increased from two to three per day; then days off were reduced. Finally they were stopped completely and we were working virtually all the time. At least I was earning more money though. But then, two weeks before the end of my stay, I checked my secret cache of money in my chalet one evening and it had gone. Theft from the not-very-secure chalets was common, apparently. With little time left it was impossible to make the money back again, and I left Butlins with just £20 to show for all that miserable work. Money went much further in those days, but even so, it wasn’t a lot.
Back in Leicester for the new academic year, Ted and I found ourselves a flat. No, that’s too grand a term. It was a bed-sit, so basic that it consisted simply of a single first floor room. No wash-basin in the corner. No gas ring. Just two single beds, two wardrobes and a table with two dining chairs by the window. It was some way down market from Mrs Mullen’s: an anonymous terraced house in one of Leicester’s many anonymous red brick streets, it was owned by a Polish family and therefore had a tinge of exoticism, which appealed to us. As far as facilities went, we shared the family’s bathroom and downstairs toilet. We also had use of their kitchen, on a priority basis. This meant we had to ask if the lady of the house was about to use it. If she was, we had to wait (which was fair enough of course) until she called up the stairs to say it was free.
So it wasn’t really very different from lodgings, in terms of space anyway, except that we didn’t get meals cooked for us. We had to fend for ourselves, which was a novel experience as we were useless boys as opposed to capable girls. Still, it was a learning curve, as we cooked our food, carried it up to our room on the tenant’s plates allocated and then conscientiously returned to wash up afterwards. Having to integrate like that, we couldn’t get too much into squalid student habits. And in terms of freedom it was a slight improvement on the lodging; it made us feel more autonomous, more grown up.
Living with a like-minded companion like Ted was good. We had a lot of laughs and many youthfully earnest late-night debates, the pearls of wisdom winging between our beds through the dark. Ted had a huge sense of humour; he would find my occasional mild witticisms uproariously funny. Once, on the top deck of a corporation bus, the conductor was doing what some did then: calling out the names of the streets along the route, as if the passengers might not know them, like some old-time seafarer sighting land. I said something like ‘Magellan down there’s on form tonight’. Ted exploded in a paroxysm of mirth. His face reddened and took on an agonised expression as he emitted a loud, strangulated, continuous cackle that went on and on. The conductor must have thought something was wrong, because he came running up the stairs and took an anxious look at the doubled-over Ted, before gathering himself, rolling his eyes and returning with dignified step to his station. In the crow’s nest. Ted’s agony lasted the entire journey.
You know the expression ‘Rolling in the isles?’ Another time, we were in the typo design room larking about a bit before the session started and I said something funny (I can’t remember what it was). Whatever it was it started Ted off again, totally uncontrolled, and he really did collapse to the floor, red faced, eyes closed and face set in a rictus grin, cackling, where he rolled around clutching his sides. Of course the sight of him set us all off, and the room was in uproar as Tom Wesley, the senior lecturer, walked in. A rather pompous red-faced man, not unlike Captain Mainwaring, who didn’t suffer fools, he was not amused, and we had to try and compose ourselves. That was a difficult session, punctuated with suppressed sniggers as first someone then someone else remembered Ted’s discomfiture. Fortunately, Ted himself managed to maintain control.
Sometimes mirth can so take you that it does indeed hurt. And it can be just as awful if you have to suppress it. Another time, Ted, another student, Ivan (his surname was Atanasof, but he was Austrian, not Russian) and I went to a lunchtime concert at Leicester Museum and Art Gallery. Someone was going to perform on a ‘water harmonica’. We were intrigued. So we turned up, in our duffle coats and college scarves, incongruous in a room full of genteel middle class ladies; rashly choosing seats in the front row. Then the musician appeared, to polite applause. Just the sight of him was enough to set to set our lips twitching. He was from somewhere in eastern Europe, and looked it. Like someone from a black-and-white film of the thirties about a bespectacled, wild-haired eccentric musician. I found myself thinking of Groucho Marks. He completed the image by wearing, at midday, full evening dress. And then he began to play. Knitting his bushy black eyebrows together in a Bohemian frown, he caressed the surface of the water-filled instrument, a bit like a long glass cone with tanks of water instead of notes. It was the same principle as running a finger round the rim of a wineglass to produce a noise.
It was an undeniably beautiful sound: incredibly pure and sweet in a liquid sort of way, but because it took so long to produce each note it was difficult to discern a coherent melody. His appearance and his rather bizarre performance were irresistibly funny. Writing this I’ve just reminded myself of the classic Monty Python fish slapping sketch (the one where Cleese and Palin slap each other in the face with fishes whilst doing a silly, rather camp dance to music on a canal towpath. Eventually Cleese produces a monster fish and smacks Palin in the side of the head, pitching him into the water). Well it was a bit like that. I stole a sideways glance at Ted. His face was reddening and his jaw was clamped ferociously shut.
‘No, Ted, please’, I thought, ‘don’t!’ He was managing to control himself, but now the damage was done. I felt a massive surge of mirth welling up. On my other side, Ivan was obviously in trouble too. It was awful, like tying to hold back an orgasm that’s teetering at the point of no return. With a tremendous effort I clenched my teeth, closed my eyes and tried to think of something else. After a while the feeling subsided a bit, but it was always there, like a lurking sneeze refusing to go away. But if a faint strangulated titter came from either side of me, the awful insistent need to explode with laughter was straight back. We had to sit there, each of us desperately clinging to self-control, for the entire performance. We didn’t dare look at each other again. The good ladies behind us must have known from our occasionally shaking shoulders that we weren’t taking the performance seriously, judging by the clucks of disapproval. Eventually the agony came to an end; the performance finished. As if desperate to throw up, we bolted for the door, to fall about outside howling in blessed relief. There were some very stony looks from the leaving ladies as Ted writhed about clutching his sides on the ground.
The stay with the Polish family lasted just the first term. I don’t remember why we moved, but we went to live in the house of an eccentric spinster lady rejoicing in the name of Miss De La Questa. I may have the spelling or the capitalisation wrong there: if so, sorry. Again, it was just a bed-sit, but better because this time it was a ground floor room, so easier for having guests in, about which Miss DLQ was quite relaxed. The Victorian house was grander, more like the Mullen’s, and stuffed with old furniture, books and assorted bric-a-brac. A retired physiotherapist, Miss DLQ was asthmatic, so I could empathise, and was often to be found abed in her quarters, which we could enter freely.
She seemed to occupy just a bed-sit too in the rambling cluttered house, as if relegated there by her considerable goods and chattels. She was a bit of a do-it-yourselfer. One day she proudly showed me an example of her work. She’d repaired the corner of a huge mahogany sideboard, not by tidily inserting a new piece of timber but, bless her, by crudely applying a considerable amount of plastic wood filler. She showed me her recent retirement present. It was an electric drill. It was the best present she’d ever had, she said. I loved her for it. Eccentrics are so much more interesting than dull conventional people.
College work continued at a steady pace. I wouldn’t say I was a brilliant student. I could have worked harder, although it wasn’t the sort of study where you had to do a lot of reading, which could be done at all hours of the day and night if you were enthusiastic enough. Most of the work was practical, done under supervision. On the other hand, I wasn’t an indolent, hedonistic student either; I didn’t smoke and didn’t spend all my time and money in the pub or the Students Union, not that there was a great deal of money to throw around. For year two the Education Authority had decreed that my parents were well enough off to pay a small contribution to my costs and the grant was reduced accordingly. But after my dad’s opposition to the whole idea, I could hardly turn round now and hold out my hand. And I wouldn’t have thought it right to do so anyway, so I made do with the reduced income. It was good training in life though; a learning process in self-reliance and living sustainably, without debt.
So I was a pretty average student: good in some ways because of my practical background but less good in others because my artistic ability was less than I’d fondly imagined it to be. I was still changing – or developing – character-wise too. The religiosity was fading in inverse proportion to growing, if modest, intellectualism, and rebelliousness. I was no less ‘moral’ – perhaps even more so, in a fierce, increasingly idealistic way; I just found myself questioning more and more the existence of a conventional deity, without at all rejecting ‘goodness’. I was moving towards humanism. Also, I have to admit that without the mores of conventional religion, it was easier to reconcile the increasing wish to lose my innocence. I was desperate for a proper girlfriend.