Vic Brown, 20, has fantasised for weeks about Ingrid Rothwell, 18, a girl glimpsed only from afar, on the bus or on the walk to work. An unexpected opportunity gives him the chance to speak to her, and it’s not long before his dreams come true and they are cuddling in the back row of the cinema. Well, things progress as they do – or rather did – in the park in the early 1960s.
Now this is a romance that really Vic should have stopped before it really got started for many reasons. 1) It’s soon obvious that he doesn’t like Ingrid very much. Although he’s no intellectual, (that’s his younger brother), he is bothered by her addiction to the new-fangled television. 2) Her vacuous conversation. She bores him. 3) She’s from a family in his words “a notch above us”; tell-tale signals being the modern semi she lives in and the fact she calls her mother “mother, not my mother or me mam”. He really should end things BUT hormones, lust and desire will have their way …
Vic’s problem is that Ingrid, initially the pursued, unexpectedly becomes the one who loves more, and keeps putting herself in his path. He continues to succumb. This is all pre-pill, so they need to control themselves, but all it takes is one mistake …
And that’s when all hell breaks loose. Imagine the discomfort of telling your parents when they don’t even know you’re courting. Imagine meeting the future mother-in-law, who believes you to be beneath her daughter, for the first time when you’ve already got your daughter in trouble. As the story is told by Vic, you can feel all the discomfort, humiliation and shame, particularly as we’re in the straight-talking North. And this is just the start … because what Mrs Rothwell has in store for him post-marriage is utterly appalling.
Yet it is difficult to sympathise entirely with Vic, because he’s callous and deceptive at times. Laddish as all lads at 20 are. After his relatively short first phase of “I could love her in snow or shine”, he leads Ingrid on. In those days this was the road to misery: a resentful husband, an unloved wife, living under sufferance with the mother-in-law. What a trap, and one with limited exit routes for the working class lads (and lasses) in 1960.
While Vic and Ingrid’s story is the focal point of A Kind of Loving, Barstow’s canvas is much broader. Set in a fictional Cressley, Barstow is depicting realistic working-class mindsets, experience and the Northern vernacular of the time. Actually Yorkshire, although I’ll vouch for the dialogue having an authentic Lancastrian ring. Not sure if Vic’s parental home is a two-up, two-down terrace, but it feels like it. His down-to-earth parents: his Old Lady, the matriarch, his pa, a little more sanguine. Their pride in giving their daughter, Christine, the fancy wedding they’d always dreamed of; their disappointment in Vic’s shotgun arrangements. Actually Christine and David’s wedding opens the novel, and their relationship is aspirational for Vic, though ultimately it becomes a spotlight on his failure, the what-could-have-been had youthful folly not got in the way.
I first read A Kind of Loving, a seminal Northern novel, in the late 70’s (when I was Vic’s age) and just had to reread it on the Parthian Books Books rerelease. Many have talked of nostalgia for past times. I’ve no nostalgia for the times or the place, but, having been gone 40+ years, I’m feeling nostalgic for the voices, for the folk.
Barstow’s debut novel remains his best known. It was a surprise to discover it was the first in a trilogy.
Others surprises were serendipitous plot similarities between it and Of Human Bondage: Maugham and Barstow penning not entirely likeable protagonists, unsure of their place in the world, then threatened by unwanted pregnancy. Both protagonists also finding unexpected benefactors. The difference being that Maugham was more inclined to give Philip Carey a happy ending. Though who knows what happens to Vic Brown in parts 2 and 3 of the trilogy. Currently out-of-print, I hope Parthian Books rerelease these too.