Book Review: FALLING INTO GLORY, by Robert Westall

Posted: June 19, 2015 in Chat
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FALLING INTO GLORY, by Robert Westall. Methuen Books, 1993

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS

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This is a young adult book, written later in Robert Westall’s writing career.
My son had been suggesting I read it for ages, and so I eventually got around to it.

It is basically the story of a love affair between a seventeen-year old student and a teacher. It is a full, passionate and consummated affair. What makes the story remarkable is the life the author brings to it, and the levels he navigates here.
– Take the setting: it is Tyneside, north-east England; it also takes in Hadrian’s Wall, but is mainly set within thirty miles of Tyneside.
– Take the period: it begins in the last year of the Second World War and the years immediately following. It covers a seven year period, but mostly concentrates on the last two years, which would place between 1944 and 1950 to 51. This is very important.

The story opens with ten year old Robbie glimpsing Miss Harris in his junior school playground; she looked young, full of life and promise, full of the future and possibilities.
He joined the local grammar school, an unprepossessing boy; he was overweight and ungainly. As he grew this changed with puberty: he became big built but muscular, tall. From unprepossessing he transformed into burly, but also intelligent, and quick witted.
Then Miss Harris joined the school. In the intervening five years she seemed to have lost everything. What happened to her?
We must remember the period, it is all important.
We learn she lost her fiancee in the last year of the War; they had everything before them. He lost his life; she lost him, and with him all chance of a future: few young men returned whole from that war. From any war.
In post-War gloom, rationing, a broken economy, a country barely managing to keep on, any kind of future for the survivors was going to be a long, hard fight. People had to be tough, a little ruthless, to get on. They were fighting over a limited amount of openings, and that was not going to get better for some time to come.

This helps explain Robbie’s character more. At first I found him loutish, rough, crude. Wouldn’t the better term be gauche, perhaps? This also points up the skill of Robert Westall’s writing: he pulled few punches with Robbie’s character; he made him a very plausible period study.
Emma Harris was losing her future, she was ageing in a thankless profession; and a new generation was emerging, pushing for a new future, with all the hopes and energy she once had. Her options were severely limited, as a woman, unmarried, after the War, in an impoverished area.

And here is another great thing about this book: how the author depicts the English and their class system. Robert Westall shows us the fine gradings and levels of class. Robbie attends a grammar school, but the intake is mostly from the local lower class. Robbie is a rugby player, because he has the muscle, the power, but also the energy for the rough and tumble. It was considered a ‘posh-boys’ game, rugby, compared with football. He became in his last year unspoken captain of the school team, and led them into victory for the first time in school history.
It is not all ‘school story heroism’, because he managed all this by craft and deviousness. As I said above, these were the skills needed to survive and thrive in that post-War world. This is exemplified to a great extent by the games master’s constant refrain to play for the pleasure of the game, not for the winning. Old attitudes and the sense of fair-play had gone, the younger generation aimed to fight tough for what they could get.
Having said that, one of Robbie’s developments is seen in his relationship with William Watson. He was poor, and greatly bullied by Robbie’s group. Robbie was part of the ‘game’ to begin with, but he grew increasingly concerned over the persistence of the bullying. The story ends with Robbie and William finding an ease of relations, after their initial disdain and distance.
The writer distinguishes between the poor of the lower class. Take Wilf, head boy. His was a very poor background. Others like him were avoided, ostracised almost, because they were poor.
All were poor, but true poverty was feared as the worst level a person could attain. The truly poor in those days had no chance whatsoever. We find this in Benny Jobling, a father at seventeen, working in the shipyard for the rest of his life. He was misery incarnate.
This perhaps helps explain why many lower class people supported Conservative ideals: the Conservatives gave the impression of the possibility for advancement through hard work and merit.
And so we find Robbie’s family connected with the upcoming Socialist town mayor. They were fighting for, if a better life was not possible, then a fairer life. Politics fights viciously way in the background of the book, but the fall-out happened everywhere.

What we witness with Robbie’s learning experience, his use of Joyce Adamson, his manipulation of Emma, his little lies, maneuvering of skilled players on the rugby team, is a growth into self awareness. Without that, none of his abilities would have come to anything, he would have remained a small-town tough.
Robbie’s character finds analogues, as the current trendy term is, with such as Arthur Seaton anti-hero of Alan Silitoe’s ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), perhaps more closely with Joe Lampton of ’Room at the Top’, by John Braine (1957).

The book takes us on a rollercoaster ride of emotion. It is very much Robbie’s story, but his discovery of Emma, in every sense, is a discovery of life; she embodies that for him. She was ‘a drink of dark wine’ with all the madness, risk and addictiveness the image carries.
Emma Harris had her reputation, which was her only true valuable in that world, to protect at all costs. She also lived with her widowed mother, who had a weak heart. They were part of a connected community: Robbie’s grandmother knew Emma’s mother, they meet and talk occasionally. Emma had everything to lose by the relationship with a pupil; indeed, this is painfully spelled out in one part of the book.
What had she to win? Everything she had lost: passion, hope, most of all, love.
She invited him to stay the night, her mother was away. How the author shows Robbie’s dread of consummation is finely done. That was the last barrier, the last reserve. Robbie still had the body-image of himself as a hulking brute, ugly, huge, clumsy. She helped him discover himself in her eyes.
In her eyes also he vacillates between that of school boy , his hair to be tousled, and that of a young man full of danger and huge energy: ‘you must understand how other people find you, your parents. They are scared of what you are becoming. Growing away from them, having your own ideas, your own life’, she more or less says to him at one point.
What else does she help him discover? His dreams. She finds him moved by a particular piece of music, a hymn from a piece by Elgar. What was it made him cry? Instantly the barriers were up. But he was learning trust, the unique loyal trust of two people who bonded. It was his yearning for a better world, a better life, than the hard rough and tumble they had to endure day in day out.

The growth into outwardness is finely handled. We also see this in his relationship with Joyce Adamson, a girl his age. Emma encourages him to continue in a relationship with her, it would give them cover, but also take off some of the tension. The relationship changes from crude fumblings, awkward kisses, to tenderness, genuine affection. She in turn changes from monosyllabic class-mate to loyal and loved, a glass of cool refreshing water, next to Emma’s ‘dark wine’. Both essential; but, maybe the suggestion is, one is more sustaining than the other.
This sense of manipulation of others to cover themselves occurs again in the novel. The author shows us the levels to this: this is where words in themselves are inadequate. On one very feeble level they manipulated others, but only for a fleeting moment, before realisation set in, conscience connected, communication and interaction changed the relationships completely.

And so, what happens?
Robbie got into university, one of the new generation the first of their families to attain this. Emma applied for head of department at a school far away. Her mother moved with her. Eventually she became Head of school. How? Because of all she had learned of young people through Robbie. She remained single, alone. All her energy went into fighting for position.
The author knew all about this: head of the Art Department, then Careers Master. He didn’t go for Headship, though; he retired to write full time.

This is not a book about a sordid teacher-pupil relationship.
He gives us plausible personalities, with depth and rawness to them. And so we must question this ‘sordid teacher-pupil relationship’ phrase. The focus of the book is on the energy of life seeking fulfillment and expression in truth and honesty. All relationships are similarly of plausible personalities.

This is what good, worthwhile books do: make us question the tabloid clichés, the easy-fit descriptions, the lazy and mindless blaming of people.
This is a good, worthwhile book.

Robert Westall, 1929 to 1993

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Comments
  1. archecotech says:

    Interesting way in tackling tough subject material. Perked my interest enough to possibly read it. Thanks.

  2. davidjsutton says:

    I well remember, in my harder up days, ‘borrowing’ my children’s library tickets to get my hands on the Westall books. I suppose you can see why the publisher felt obliged to pitch them at the juvenile market, but really, like a lot of children’s literature, they are just very good books that defy age categorisation in the same way as, say, ‘The Jungle Book’, or ‘The Hobbit’, or early Garner, or the first three books of ‘Earthsea’, or T.H.White’s ‘The Sword In The Stone’. I feel Westall’s early work is his strongest: ‘The Machine Gunners’, ‘The Watch House’, ‘Fathom Five’, ‘Devil on the Road’, ‘The Wind Eye’. Later, I feel, he turned too much to the writing of ghost stories, readable enough, just not so grounded and textured as the early work.

    • Great, thanks, David. Although you have caught me out a little: I am not as read-up on his early work. And for some unknown reason I cannot get through The Machine Gunners. The Wind Eye is complex and peculiar, I admit. I do know what you mean: too many cats as well in the later work for my liking.
      Then I read one called A Place for Me. It’s not a particularly good book, but his descriptions of Pennine villages woke up a deep pang in me that is still there. For that I tried to honour him with the blog post.

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