This novel came up frequently in Dominic Sandbrook’s brilliant “State of Emergency”, reviewed last week. He offered it as supporting evidence of how the Seventies knew themselves to be uneasy times – and how, even in the early years of the decade, the seeds of the Eighties were being chucked about. Margaret Drabble is one of those novelists I’ve never found a reason to read – and have had a vague feeling of wanting to avoid. That came from to trying to read “The Radiant Way” when I was 19. It felt…Oh, best be honest. It felt like I was gatecrashing a Feminist Encounter Group. (And not one of the fun ones.) On the whole, this is something I try to avoid doing. It’s a very unfair label – I’ve no idea if Margaret Drabble would see herself in those terms – but the red-pen and underlined three angry times feminism of that novel (as it felt to my younger self) left me a sense of being lectured at and no possibility of tea afterwards. But the Seventies are much in my mind at present and I had so enjoyed the party Sandbrook threw that this seemed like a good opportunity to go on somewhere else afterwards. I’m wondering now if I should have just said thanks, and stopped off for a kebab on the way home.
As the title suggests “The Ice Age” moves at a fairly glacial pace and that seems to be the intention. It has a wintry setting, during the glumly turbulent early Seventies of strikes and terrorism – it was published in 77 but is set around 72/73. The first hundred pages offer character studies of a small set of people associated with each other through various paths – marriages (and adulterous affairs), business, family. In that respect, it feels like the classic state-of-the-nation set up familiar from ‘Middlemarch’ or ‘Sybil’ or ‘Mary Barton’ or any other chunky nineteenth century panorama of Britain getting grimy. There’s no great plot movement here – situations are reported, explained, offered – but nothing much happens. That need not be a problem of course – I hope I’m grown-up enough to be able to want more than just plot. But when it all feels like set up, it’s hard to avoid a feeling that (in a phrase I am glad to credit to The Apprentice’s Nick Brewer) this book is “all gong and no dinner.”
The focus is on Anthony Keating, an interesting character because he’s a prototype yuppy. His Oxbridge/BBC background suggests standard-issue post-war liberalism will sum him up – and it did, until the enjoyable worldly excesses of 60s London led him to question his default left-of-centrism. He chucks up not only his undemanding position as a right-on BBC type, but also his undemanding world views. Instead of scooting away to an ashram to find himself, he is drawn into the world of property speculation and development, and makes a pile through slightly dubious dealings which lead to one of his partners, and another focus-character, Len Wincobank (no, I didn’t buy the name either) ending up in an open prison. We spend a bit of time with convict Len but nothing much comes of it – and I’d rather watch ‘Porridge’…as opposed to wade through it.
Keating has arranged his own version of the 70s escape-from–the-rat-race by retreating to an expensive, isolated house somewhere in darkest Yorkshire, which he shares (or fails to share, for much of this book) with his second wife, Alison, a mildly demented figure whose potential career as an actress ended before it could be tested. You suspect she wouldn’t have been much good. She and Keating are drawn together because they see through the sham of the supposed radical idealism they are surrounded with in the North London demi monde of the Swinging Sixties. In the Seventies, they are survivors and survivalists, trying to exist outside the immediate politics of their time. In this, they are not helped by the (severely underdrawn) character of Alison’s daughter, Jane, who spends the book banged up behind the Iron Curtain in an invented Soviet satellite called Wallachia (which just made me think of Hammer vampire movies, for some reason). Other characters are visited in this opening, their dissatisfied lives described and dissected.
It’s not without interest. Just as in the classic state-of-the-nation novel mentioned before, there’s a strong authorial voice requiring your attention and entirely willing to display its narrative superpowers of flying from one location to another, and in and out of various characters’ thoughts. In some of the most interesting moments, the narrative voice nutshells the times in a weary, defeated manner, railing against a perceived moral apathy gripping Britain – which I guess is where the title comes in:
Not everybody in Britain on that night in November was alone, incapacitated or in jail. Nevertheless, over the country depression lay like fog, which was just about all that was missing to lower spirits even further, and there was even a little of that in East Anglia. All over the nation, families who had listened to the news looked at one another and said “Goodness me” or “Whatever next” or “I give up” or “Well, fuck that”, before embarking on an evening’s viewing of colour television, or a large hot meal, or a trip to the pub, or a choral society evening. All over the country people blamed each other for all the things that were going wrong – the trades unions, the present government, the miners, the car workers, the seamen, the Arabs, the Irish, their own husbands, their own wives, their own idle, good-for-nothing offspring, comprehensive education. Nobody knew whose fault it really was, but most people managed to complain fairly forcefully about somebody: only a few were stunned into honourable silence.
It’s arch (that “embarking”, the disapproval you hear in the specifying of “colour” television) and ironic – but the problem is that it doesn’t go anywhere. Don’t we have journalism for that? Maybe that’s all a state-of-the-nation novel can aspire to be: journalism on steroids. But I still won’t have a word said against “Middlemarch”, which remains what all English literary novels want to be when they grow up.
The second section of the novel adds little to the first in its depiction of people trapped within their frozen lives. Clunky symbolism abounds, falling across the narrative like a whopping great tree across a road after a storm. Which happens in this section, giving you a sense of how sledgehammer it can be at times. The characters make frustrating or frustrated journeys, experiencing all manner of delays because of weather and strikes and bombs. I think we’ve got it. If it’s meant as a slice of life and a state of the nation picture then it fails for me because I don’t care enough about the characters – and neither does the narrator, on the face of it. I’m assuming readers at the time would have read into it a much greater degree of contemporary awareness than I have, as they were being asked to consider life only a few years ago. It’s low on specifics and realism, and any attempt at landing a “This Is How Things Are” punch is further undermined by the extended section towards the end of the book, set in Madeupistan, a composite picture of Soviet era ploddery, deprivation and futility. I think this was meant to be some kind of contrast with the portrait of Britain offered, but there isn’t enough of that portrait to make the comparison viable. In fact, Keating’s journey to Eastern Europe, to see if he can get his step-daughter out of prison before a coup d’etat, has more life to it than anything that’s come before. Bizarrely, the final pages of the novel appear to have had Frederick Forsyth in as some kind of technical support. There’s an armed uprising and a deeply unlikely Casablanca-esque stand-off at the airport where only one of the Brits is going to get on that last plane out.
Whilst I found some of the book interesting – I liked the idea of Keating’s ideological journey but felt that was never allowed to come into focus – it was quite a slog to get through. Inconclusivity was clearly the name of the game (yes, Sir Bruce – I expect you to update the lyrics to The Generation Game theme in the light of this) but the sense of sniffy disapproval the narrative voice has for everyone and everything made me wonder what there was that was thought worth the telling. Maybe I missed something. I kept thinking of the similarly-titled Ang Lee film, “The Ice Storm”, which is also set in the Seventies (though in the US) and also portrays bourgeois ennui – but so much more successfully, without the empty grandstanding of this book. I have to admit, whilst reading I was distracted by the continual drone of Joy Division’s “Ice Age” in my head, every time I picked the book up, and by a bizarre image I still haven’t shaken off…. Middle class characters having their comfortable assumptions bulldozed through contact with large, violent realities they thought they had paid to escape from? Hmm. I keep picturing Ian McEwan going to a football match, and the entire crowd turning on him as one to enquire “Are You Drabble In Disguise?”