Saturday, 19 October 2013

Booker shortlist 1969: last book + round up

From Scenes Like These by Gordon Williams 

published 1968







It was still dark, that Monday in January, when the boy, Dunky Logan, and the man, Blackie McCann, came to feed and water the horses, quarter after seven on a cold Monday morning in January,. Damn near as chill as an Englishman’s heart, said McCann, stamping his hobnail boots on the stable cobbles.

Dunky Logan rested his old bicycle against the stable wall, then hung the gas-mask case, containing his sandwiches and vacuum flask, on a nail. The slack sleeves of his grimy fawn pullover hung down over his hands, stretching inches beyond the elastic cuffs of his green zip-jerkin. Even on a morning like this it would have been unthinkable to wear gloves. Only nancy boys wore gloves. He’d pulled down his pullover sleeves to protect his fingers from the freezing metal of his bicycle handlebars. Even in the stable the air was cold.



observations: I’d never heard of Gordon Williams, and would never have picked up this book if it weren’t for this project of reading the inaugural 1969 Booker Prize shortlist, ready for the week when the 2013 Booker Prize was awarded.

He turns out to be a surprising person:

- he wrote the novel on which Straw Dogs (violent Sam Peckinpah film starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George) was based

- he worked at Chelsea FC

- as a result of that he wrote the Hazell books with footballer Terry Venables - later a TV series

- he turned down the chance to write the film Gregory’s Girl.

What interesting lives writers lead.

I wanted to like this book, but sadly couldn’t get on with it at all. It starts off well, with Dunky saying that he is ‘Like young Jim Hawkins, able to talk to both Long John Silver and Squire Trelawney’, and another Robert Louis Stevenson book, Kidnapped, is referenced soon after. Dunky has ‘daft notions’ about his future, and wants to be one of the men. But the book is unrelentingly miserable – a brutal story of his growing up in rural poverty in Scotland after World War 2, his sad family and friends, the emptiness and violence of his life, with scenes at work on a farm, at a dance, at the football, at a party. There was something of the country dismals satirized by Stella Gibbons  in Cold Comfort Farm.

However, many others who have read it seem to have liked it very much.

The picture is a young farm worker, from Library and Archives Canada. There’s a thread throughout the book, a hope that perhaps emigration to Canada might be a way out of the boys’ miserable lives.


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The six books on the Booker shortlist in 1969 were:

Impossible Object by Nicholas Mosley

The Nice and the Good by Iris Murdoch

The Public Image by Muriel Spark

Figures in a Landscape by Barry England

Something to Answer For by PH Newby

From Scenes Like These by Gordon Williams

-- and that is the order I would put them in, with the Mosley book the clear winner. (All reviewed on the blog in the past 10 days.)

I was impressed by the shortlist: when I embarked on the project I unfairly assumed that the list would be rather conventional and narrow. Although it is very noticeable that there are no non-British writers – which would never happen now – in fact the books are extremely varied. The Mosley is experimental, as is to some extent the Newby, there are two woman writers on the list, the Williams book is written in Scottish dialect and about a very working-class boy, and the Newby book is asking hard questions about British colonial policies. The topics covered include fame, love, violence, escape and identity – most of human life is there….

The judges in 1969 were: W.L. Webb (Chair), Dame Rebecca West, Stephen Spender, Frank Kermode, David Farrer.

4 comments:

  1. Moira - First, let me salute you in you plant to read all of the Booker shot-listed novels for that inaugural year. There've been a few surprising little gems there. I don't blame you though for having trouble getting into such a sad story. Even if you can give it 'realism points,' that doesn't make a book engaging. Still, the story does sound interesting.

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    1. Thanks Margot. I enjoyed the excursion into 1969, good to see what people are reading and thinking about in those days, and as I say above, I was impressed by the wide range... though not, sadly, by this actual book!

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  2. I will pass again. I do have his Straw Dogs/Trenchers Farm book to read as well as the Hazell books with Venables to read. That will do for me!

    Gregory's Girl...great film. I loved John Gordon Sinclair. I believe he's turned his hand to fiction now.

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    1. I thought of you when I saw Hazell - I hadn't thought about the footballing detective for years till I saw mention of him on your site recently. And yes, I am a big fan of Gregory's Girl too.

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