No one, certainly not a novelist like Philip Oakes, can resist the temptation to rearrange memories, impose some sort of order or pattern. In the same way that a novelist may write about his own life, disguising it as a tale about imaginary people, autobiography may be a sly form of fiction. And it follows that the success of an autobiography depends on whether or not he makes a good story of it. Philip Oakes has succeeded superbly. His trilogy, From Middle England, Dwellers All in Time and Space and At the Jazz Band Ball, is a very funny, lively and often enthralling record of a childhood, adolescence and young manhood, convincing in its detail, and set down with verve and style.
His family were poor. His father died when he was four years old and his mother, a teacher, developed a tumour on the brain and became increasingly helpless. In 1936, at the tender age of eight, Philip was sent to the Bluecoats school in Wolverhampton, from which he was expelled after innocently confiding in a letter to his mother that he knew ‘all about mastibation’. After this disgrace – deeply shocking to his family, who were stern North Staffordshire Methodists – he was despatched to a Children’s Home on the Lancashire moors, arriving in a blizzard as wild and dramatic as the storm in the opening pages of Oliver Twist. But the Children’s Home, though rigorous and bleak, was a good deal more cheerful than poor Oliver’s workhouse. The tedium of institutional food was made worse by wartime rationing, but the children did not go hungry. Nor uneducated: Philip Oakes was sent, after a period of assessment, to the local grammar school. Authority was arbitrary, but no more so than in most boarding-schools. And there was the opportunity for surreptitious sexual activity: at the end of his time, he impregnated his House Mother, Emma, 15 years older than he was.
At the end of the second volume we left our hero, a prospective father at 17. Undeterred by this responsibility, the opening pages of At the Jazz Band Ball find him making love to his girlfriend, Sadie, another graduate of the Children’s Home, on the doorstep of her digs on Highbury Fields. It is 1944. Philip is living in London, dodging the flying bombs, occasionally visiting Emma (a motherly soul who makes no demands on him), working as an office boy, writing poetry. He finds a better job with Eric Sly, a court reporter who has a dingy office in one of the cells beneath Clerkenwell Magistrates Court. Sly is alarmingly eccentric on the outside, but all benevolence within. A Quaker, non-smoker and teetotaller, he is
unlike any journalist the police at the court had known. He did not swear. He did not tell dirty jokes. He was deeply offended when a detective intimated that it would be worth his while not to report the prosecution of a local shopkeeper for selling stolen goods.
Under the wing of this amiable employer, Philip serves his journalistic apprenticeship, reporting petty crimes, matrimonial cases, squabbles between neighbours, and putting up with teasing innuendos from the policemen in the jailer’s office about his presumed sexual virginity. He was paid a wage of three pounds ten shillings a week, occasionally augmented by selling a quip from the Bench as a ‘filler’ for an evening paper, and managed to save enough to smoke five cigarettes a day and take Sadie out on Saturday night.
By the time Oakes is called up by the Army, Emma’s daughter has been born and his romance with Sadie is coming to an end. Philip accepts his dismissal with some chagrin but rather more relief, since he had never really wanted to marry Sadie. Army life, anyway, offers diversions. There is an affectionate portrait of another fellow conscript, Peter Stanford, who feels as passionately as Philip does about books and music and painting. More particularly, they feel the same way about writing.
Writers were spies and interpreters who could undergo hardship and excess and emerge from the ordeal with something of value. It was a discovery which I wanted to shout aloud and at the same time hug to myself as a source of secret power.
The scenes of Army life, in Cairo where Farouk was ‘packing his bags’, and then in Athens during the civil war, are crisply described and include some good minor characters. Oakes worked on the Army newspaper, the Union Jack, edited by a Major Tarrant who had such a deep reverence for royalty that any king or queen mentioned in its pages had to be given the prefix HM. Defending this typographical clumsiness, Tarrant declared: ‘The world may be going to the bow-wows, but as long as I’m here we shall show respect.’ When Philip suggested writing a series on jazz, Tarrant agreed as long as only white musicians were mentioned: ‘We have to keep our end up ... For me, the black man begins at Dover.’
Oakes’s interest in jazz continued after his demobilisation. Back in London, he was drawn into what seemed an endless riotous party in which other merrymakers were George Melly, Bernard Levin, Harold Pinter, Alan Brien and the joyfully randy Mick Mulligan of the Magnolia Jazz Band. The account of the pranks they get up to is amusing only in patches – other people’s drunken excesses tend to be boring. The whole jamboree is set in a London still ‘shabby and untended’, full of bomb sites, drab shops and houses where windows were still ‘bandaged with strips of brown paper’.
He gets his old job back, working for Eric Sly at a salary increased by two pounds a week, taking notes of ordinary court cases and extraordinary ones, like an assault in which a West Indian landlord has bitten off the ear of one of his tenants. In between, he plays jazz, has a series of enviably successful sexual encounters, sends poems to the small magazines that flourished in the early years after the war – Quarto, Departure, the Window. Then, at a party in Kensington, given by John Lehmann and intimidatingly full of ‘famous faces’, he meets John Wain, who is editing a series of books of new poetry. Oakes’s first book of verse is published under the title, Unlucky Jonah. It is well reviewed. He leaves Eric Sly to work for the magazine Truth.
In spite of its racy good humour, The Jazz Band Ball is slightly less gripping than the first two books of the trilogy. Perhaps childhood is always more interesting; the important events that decide character, destiny, take place before we are twelve. But what sustains this third volume is the continuing saga of Philip’s relationship with his mother. As a child, he was unable to understand why she couldn’t look after him, why he had to be sent to boarding-school, to the orphanage. Even though the adult Philip can comprehend her tragic situation – epileptic, semi-paralysed – the child’s resentment still lingers. He sees her pride and her courage, but her cantankerous jealousy, her tantrums and sulks, her irritating habit of quoting bits of folk wisdom from the Reader’s Digest, make it difficult for him to get on with her.
The confusion and ambiguity of their feelings for each other are honestly recorded, with a touching mixture of humour and regret. Mrs Oakes cannot read his articles in Truth. The print is too small. ‘Not that I’d understand them ... we live in different worlds,’ she says, and her son feels the truth of this, a true pain, as he sits by her bedside in the nursing home, both of them trying not to be sharp with each other, getting on best when they sit in silence, listening to the radio or to the birds singing in the garden outside the window. The death of his mother breaks the last link with his childhood, and ends the trilogy on a gentle, elegiac note. When he is told of her death, he feels ‘only a slight surprise as if the other party in a conversation which had lasted all my life had gone away without my noticing’.