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Sunday, 8 February 2009

A Kind of Loving - The Vic Brown Trilogy

I'm not much given to re-reading - life is truly too short and there are too many books unread - but I recently picked up an ancient Penguin copy of Stan Barstow's 'A Kind of Loving' and glanced through it. Then I started reading it, loftily amused at first by its dated language and attitudes, and tickled by Proustian recollections of first reading it, aged 13 or so, when it seemed to define what adult life was going to be all about. 

So that was two weeks ago, and I've just put down the third in the trilogy, 'The Right True End', with an odd kind of ache - almost as if I've picked up the threads with an old friend after many decades, and now, after a brief re-acquaintance,  won't see that friend again for many years, if ever... 

For anyone who's never come across it, the 'Vic Brown trilogy' describes the travails of a young draughtsman in a Yorkshire town in the early sixties and his search for truth, love and, as with so many novels of the time, escape.  His barely formed plans are quickly torpedoed when lust takes over and he finds himself in an old, old trap, married to Ingrid, for whom he feels little more than residual desire and increasing irritation. 

The first two books in the trilogy describe Vic falling in and out of love, lust and marriage; the third revisits him ten years later, older and, if not wiser, certainly more cynical, more successful, living in London but no more content with his lot. 

Hard to say exactly what's so compelling about these novels, but compelling they are.  It's not that they're so well written - 'A Kind of Loving' is a good and robust 1960s kitchen sink novel which stands up well against, say John Braine, Alan Sillitoe or David Storey, but the quality falls off thereafter - 'The Watchers on the Shore', though good, has nothing like the same narrative drive and the final book is really pretty poor. Perhaps it's the picture they provide of a time which was more simple and innocent, with fewer of today's complexities, shades of grey and complicated moral relativism (though at the  same time crueler and much more judgemental - rules for living were much clearer and much more rigorously enforced and it's to be hoped that todays generations don't live with quite that terror of pregnancy out of wedlock and its inevitable consequences).

More likely though, it's the character of Vic which, for all his faults (and by the final book, when he seems well on the way to becoming one of the pub bores he so derided as a young man, these are many) really rises off the page. His simple yearning for something better which will lift him out of the proscribed lives of his parents and friends, his refusal to accept the ordinary and expected, turns what could have been a provincial small town story into something bigger, more universal and in a small way almost heroic.  

Looks like all three books in the trilogy are out of print, which seems a shame as I've read little that so accurately and resonantly captures a lost time and place. Perhaps some books should have preservation orders attached. 


  1. They certainly should. Incredible that 'A Kind of Loving' is out of print...

  2. fine, kind and compelling review; I must get back to it too. I'm sure you can find him (at least the first book) still via Amazon's secondhand bookstore (you can, I've checked)

  3. Ian, I remember missing that first edition of A Kind Of Loving in your bookshop in Charing Cross Road a few years ago and still kick myself.

  4. After your comment on my blog about the bit I did on A Kind of Loving on Normblog, I've just got round to reading your piece. Spot on. Vic is odious at times and the prose doesn't soar, exactly, but it's still impossible not to empathise with his need to escape.

    Kate x

  5. I love A Kind Of Loving. Did you know that Stan Barstow came from the same small town as David Peace, the author of That Damned United? And me.