Monday, 11 August 2014

The Ice Age

The Ice Age - Margaret Drabble

"there was no rational explanation for the sense of alarm, panic and despondency which seemed to flow loose in the atmosphere of England.`'

It's a while since I read The Ice Age but with one thing and another I haven't been able to get around to writing anything about it. Not that there isn't a lot to say. It is a very interesting novel and I enjoyed it a lot and will be reading more Drabble. I read this partly to take the temperature of the mid-seventies which the book does very well, integrating big social and economic issues with the character's stories.

The book opens with a scene which reminded me strongly of The Sopranos: "On a Wednesday in the second half of November, a pheasant, flying over Anthony Keating's pond, died of a heart attack, as birds sometimes do.."

Anthony has had his own heart attack, something gradually revealed by talk of his cholesterol free breakfast and other details. "He identified with the pheasant, and covered it gently with the dry chalky earth. A cock pheasant. He had been forbidden sex as well as butter, nicotine and alcohol."

Anthony is a property developer and he is living in a big old house in the country ("it had stood for three centuries"). However, he is in financial trouble and it is far from certain that he will be able to keep the house if one final development goes bust. In an echo of more recent times Anthony's development company (he is one of three partners) is in serious trouble as a result of the bursting of a property bubble. "He had bought the house at the top of the market, and suddenly, overnight, the property market collapsed. It was almost as though it had been waiting for him to sign the contract."

Anthony has a friend who has lost a foot and a husband to an IRA bomb. His partner is in Wallachia, a fictional Balkan country behind the Iron Curtain where her daughter is in jail for dangerous driving. Her other daughter has special needs and is in a boarding school, where she is given a daily dose of Oblivine.  Shadows of the Cold War and the Troubles are cast across his life, as they were across the UK a the time. He himself is a representation of a country which seems to be outmoded and facing a time of radical change:  "Anthony Keating, child of the professional middle classes, reared in an anachronism as an anachronism"

After some moderate success as a songwriter Anthony's early career was in the BBC, a compromise between risk taking and conservatism, being a creative role with civil service terms of employment. When interviewing a famous property developer Anthony catches the itch to do something which seems more daringly modern, which involves rebuilding, risk and reward. To do so he has to swim against the current of middle class thought that said that money was somehow tasteless. The fear of being left behind the times seems to have been strong, something that I also came across in my recent read of When the Lights Went Out.

I read The Paris Review interview with Drabble which covers The Ice Age and it was interesting to hear that Drabble was inspired in part by the newspapers of the time: "In fact the whole idea came from reading papers. There was an enormous amount of economic analysis in the papers, but nothing on the subject of declining Britain in fiction at all." The book runs the risk of being overly schematic but has a cast of characters with enough brio and originality to overcome this. Drabble herself identifies the risk of fiction straying too far into either territory: "all you have to do is perceive the theme and you can fit all kinds of people into the pattern. I used to not be able to see so much at once. I think I had a very narrow vision. I had a very narrow life and so I began with character and with one particular situation: like having an illegitimate baby or having to go where your husband's job is. Now that seems to me very restricting. Too particular. On the other hand, if you lose a sense of particularity, then your writing becomes very boring. It's a struggle to keep the balance between the two now."

Here's a brief introduction to some of the characters:
Giles Chalfont: A friend of Anthony's from college, where he bankrolled a musical written by Anthony. When Anthony decides to go into property development they go into partnership together. "The clever set thought Giles was a bit odd but quite sweet: a bit of a bore, but not quite a bore. He had a kind of self-confidence and rudeness that made his social inadequacies appear deliberate and therefore acceptable." "He also had a great deal of money."

Len Wincobank: The developer who Anthony interviewed, and who has been a mentor to him is in jail for fraud. He survives in part by identifying, in his head, sites suitable for development. "All that waste space plashed into his head, like a whole three-dimensional map, ripe with possibility. That was it. If only nobody touched it till he got out. But they wouldn't, they couldn't, not with a recession like this, not with money as tight as this. No, no, nobody but himself would ever have thought of what should be done."

Maureen Kirby: Len's partner in bed and business finds herself unable to wait for his return; speculating, indeed, that the man she loved was not the same man as the one who will emerge from prison. She has developed a habit of bedding bosses and continues this when she gets a job with an architect. She is what might be called a good time girl, something her mother frowns upon: "I'm young yet, who wants to get stuck with a lot of snotty kids, like our Mavis? I want to see a bit of life : I don't want to waste myself like you did, Ma. You girls these days, its self self self, money money money, said Maureen's mum, who had always put herself first and money second, but had unfortunately put family planning rather lower down on her list of priorities."

Mike Morgan: An old friend of Anthony's from college who spurned his talent as a "funny man" in order to be a straight actor, something he didn't have the same talent for. Having disappeared he has now re-emerged from America as a popular, but dark, comedian: "Mike, Anthony guessed, was a sadist: his audience were all masochists. He had found a harmless enough way of exploiting for gain his own psychological bent." ... "Better, to seek to destroy the willing indestructible public than the willing or unwilling private person."

Linton Hancox: A once promising poet now consumed by bitterness and Ancient Greek scholarship. His marriage has become a war of tit for tat infidelities, shared to inflict maximum suffering. Here are some thoughts of his on Mike Morgan's show: "Mike Morgan was right, the people of Britain are selfish, mercenary, greedy, corrupt. It crossed his mind to drive his car hard into a tree. Harriet could have the insurance. The ancients considered suicide a nobel act: or perhaps not noble: sensible rather. One of his undergraduates had killed himself recently. Everybody had remarked piously that it was a tragic waste but Linton did not agree. He thought that the undergraduate, who had been suffering from what the Dons described as 'girl trouble', had taken a wise short cut. Much better to die young than to struggle through the process of ageing and disillusion."

I read The Ice Age as part of my 'study' for a presentation at a Clash symposium in Belfast back in June. I thought the title may have inspired Joe Strummer's lyrics for London Calling and the book (rightly) sounded like it would provide an interesting view of seventies Britain. Greil Marcus, in an essay from Rolling Stone at the time, draws parallels between this book and Johnny Rotten, despite the surface differences: "He's a twenty-one-year-old punk from the lower middle class, formerly employed as a rat exterminator in the London sewers; she's thirty-eight, a celebrated and widely read novelist writing for, and mostly about, educated people in their thirties or older. But both are scared, and both are responding to an overwhelming sense that their culture-political, economic, and aesthetic-has collapsed around them, leaving them stranded in a society that seems not only without prospects but without meaning."

 The essay is reproduced in In the Fascist Bathroom: Punk in Pop Music, 1977-1992 and makes some interesting points. Marcus feels that "The richness of the novel has to do with the way Drabble connects the private lives of her characters to the public miasma they are forced to share with everyone else." This reading emphasises the very modern relevance of The Ice Age. None of the problems have been solved to any satisfactory degree. Going back is not possible either, the problems of the past have been even better understood and elucidated than the problems of the present. Drabble, in the interview in The Paris Review states her own belief that change is slower to come than we think, being as we are, the inheritors of our family and social background: "It also has to do with where you start from. You can't ignore it or cut it out of yourself. I think families change over the generations, but the amount that each person changes is not as great as he thinks it's going to be when he is young."

The seventies seems to have been in some ways a decade defined by "more", a concept that was to become the defining mantra of the coming decades. When will we start to look for enough? "Maureen thought about money, and what Len had wanted all that money for, when people's real needs don't really differ all that much. It wasn't so much what you got for your money that appealed to him (and that appealed, she admitted it, to her), it was the idea of it. Like travelling first class on a boat and hearing the loudspeaker tell second-class passengers to get out of the first-class accommodation. When the difference between the two was hardly worth paying for anyway."

Just thought I'd stick in the anthem of the second-class here...

Drabble's attempt to synthesise so many areas of public life in what is still essentially such a private space leads at times to wobbly and unconvincing passages and plotting. Her first concern wasn't with some kind of apotheosis of the craft of novel writing, however, but with the desire to wrestle with the spirit of the age. Here, again from The Paris Review, is how she came up with her ending: "For quite a long time I thought I would have a reasonably happy or peaceful ending and then it just didn't seem very plausible. The property market had quieted down but trouble had just broken out somewhere else instead. While I was writing it, I had a Lebanese friend staying with me who was a lecturer at the university at Beirut. He left Beirut because of the civil war. I thought his descriptions were very curious. He didn't seem too alarmed by the violence and at the same time seemed so worried about his job and when he'd be able to go back. I see this is perfectly reasonable, but the job seemed such an irrelevant thing compared to the fact that he was lucky to be alive. It was talking to him that made me feel I ought to put England's problems into some larger context."

The passion with which she takes on such a doomed enterprise (the spirit of the age is a pretty slippery opponent) and the rich variety of ideas and incidents meant that I enjoyed this while reading it and when reflecting on it afterwards.  I have a couple of other Drabble's on my shelves and I will be taking one down in the next year or so.


  1. I've yet to read Margaret Drabble, but she's another writer I'd like to try at some point. It sounds as if this book is as relevant today as it was on its release. Great review.

    1. Thanks Jacqui. The parallels with today are striking. The more things change...

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful post which goes beyond the review. I've read a number of her short stories but not a novel. This one tempts me.

    1. It's well worth reading, Guy. I think I'll try one of her early novels next.