Angus Wilson: Late Call
I’m not sure about this book – it definitely seems a backward move since The Old Men at the Zoo. It is the story of Syvlia Calvert, married to a wastrel and now retiring from a career as a hotel manageress (in part because of the bad behavior of her husband, Arthur). Sylvia is a woman who is unsure of herself, despite the fact that she has had to make her own way through the world with a husband in tow who is still trading on his World War I gassing, who runs up debts and is, generally, a loudmouth bore. Now she has little money but her widowed son has agreed to take her and her husband in. Their son – Harold – clearly still adores his wife (who died of cancer) and is now bringing up their three children – two boys and a girl – by himself. He is the headmaster of a local school and they live in a new town called Carshall.
A quick overview of new towns on England might be in order. The pioneer was Ebenezer Howard who had the idea of creating idyllic garden cities with Welwyn Garden City being his model. However, after World War II, they were built primarily to relieve the population pressure and became ugly concrete jungles of which Milton Keynes might be the best-known example. Wilson is writing about the pre-concrete jungle new town when there was still some idealism.
Harold is very much an advocate of the new town idyll – indeed, too much of an advocate. Pushed by the memory of his late wife, he is fighting hard to have a local meadow preserved from construction. He is also very keen on his idea of a closed-knit community with rules (his type of rules) for all to follow but, as Wilson is keen to point out, people (particularly English people) have a terrible habit of seeing things their way. This comes true with his kids, particularly his son Ray, who go along with some of Harold’s way of doing things (such as his duty roster) but finally revolt, with Ray moving out altogether.
But this book is mainly about Harold’s mother, Sylvia, and how she struggles to cope with the world she now faces – with Harold’s new town vision and the smart people of the new town, with her husband and his bad ways, with her poor health and diminished financial resources and how she finally manages to adapt with the help of the owner of the local meadow and her grandchildren and her ultimate willingness to make the necessary adaptation.
First published 1964 by Secker & Warburg