Interview with David Lodge

As he turns 80, the writer discusses the ‘golden age’ of universities and the (imagined) sexual indiscretions of academics

January 29, 2015

Source: Andrew Fox

I’d had the golden years of British higher education from the 1960s to 1987 - I have the impression British universities have not been as much fun since then

The year 1935 was Quite a Good Time to Be Born, according to the title of David Lodge’s new memoir of his first four decades. He feels similarly “lucky to have been an academic in what I regard as the golden age for people like me, from lower-middle-class backgrounds”.

For years, and even while producing his first seven novels, he was a committed teacher and researcher. (On one occasion, his memoir reports, he noticed more entries under his name in the University of Birmingham’s annual research report “than those mustered by the entire French department”.) Yet by the mid-1980s, he was working part-time and found that he was “enjoying the term off much more than the term on”, so in 1987 he took early retirement and struck out on his own as a full-time writer. By this time, he had already published the first two volumes of his celebrated Campus Trilogy, Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses (1975) and Small World: An Academic Romance (1984).

“I’m essentially a rather cautious person,” he says of the decision. “I didn’t do it impulsively, but as soon as I had I knew I’d made the right decision, and it happened to coincide with an increasing management culture in universities, which a lot of people my age have found rather imprisoning and depressing… I felt I’d had the golden years of British higher education from the 1960s to 1987 – I have the impression that life in British universities has not been as much fun since then.”

Although 80 this week and “not sure if I have another novel in me”, Lodge continues to produce criticism that aims to be both rigorous and readable (the paperback edition of his Lives in Writing is published alongside Quite a Good Time to Be Born). He has little time for the more impenetrable forms of academic criticism or the culture generated by research assessment exercises: “In the humanities, it may be that a few books matured over a long period will be better than a lot of things turned out quickly in order to keep to a target. Much academic publication is done merely to maintain the author’s position in the profession, and not out of a desire to communicate something, so it’s rather a joyless exercise.”

Lodge was born into a lower-middle-class family, the only child of a jazz musician and a mother who took him away to Cornwall to escape the Blitz, but he grew up largely in Brockley, South London. His 1935 date of birth, he notes in Quite a Good Time to Be Born, meant that he was part of the first generation in Britain “to benefit from the 1944 Education Act, which established free secondary education for all, and free tuition with means-tested maintenance grants for those who competed successfully for admission to a university” – a trajectory that promoted him into “the professional middle class”.

The book goes on to offer a sharp and poignant account of the background that Lodge has explored, often with greater comic exuberance, in his novels: early cinema-going; military service; first trips abroad; British Council work explaining to new arrivals to England “how to light a coin-operated gas fire, how to eat a kipper, and how to use a toilet with a flushing mechanism and a seat”; the transformative impact of visiting the US; campus radicalism at the University of California, Berkeley; the first stirrings of women’s liberation. It also gives a vivid picture of a lost world of British universities, shabby, chaotic but decent, where most academics had only first degrees and most students were “the first members of their families to go to university, like the majority of us teachers”.

Lodge had a Catholic mother and education. His memoir describes but never really explains why he “became more rather than less committed to the Catholic faith at a time of life [sixth form and then university] when many people begin to doubt the truth of the religion in which they have been brought up and throw off its constraints on their behaviour”. But this meant that he and his wife, Mary, whom he met as a fellow “fresher” at University College London in 1952, had a chaste courtship and refused to use artificial contraception because “it seemed obvious that you couldn’t ignore the rules which you found inconvenient”, particularly since contraception was “one of the most deliberate and habitual [of mortal sins] by its very nature, and incompatible with ‘a firm purpose of amendment’ ”. They relied instead on the so-called rhythm method (or “Vatican roulette”), permissible only because it was unreliable, until the birth of their third child in 1966, who had Down’s syndrome – at which point “Mary decided to go on the pill, without any prompting from me but with my unhesitating agreement”.

Young couples kissing (black and white)

Catholic hang-ups about sex and the couple’s experiences of the rhythm method are mined for their comedy in Lodge’s 1980 novel, How Far Can You Go? (When the book was reviewed on the radio, he was startled to hear one critic pronounce that “Lodge himself is presumably the guilt-ridden masturbator, Michael.”) Readers may be left puzzled about why the couple held out against contraception for so long – and in retrospect he rather agrees, referring to “a good deal of tension and stress which could have been avoided”. In the event, Mary’s decision to go on the pill helped to liberate Lodge from “a more superstitious, fearful obedience to the church” and eventually led to his defection from the faith, not least because he had “just become bored with the act of worship”.

Although Lodge’s private life is obviously his own business, it is curious to read about it alongside his campus novels, which are in many ways raunchy sex comedies. Changing Places is set in a time when the University of Rummidge (Birmingham in all but name) “had lately suffered the mortifying fate of most English universities of its type (civic redbrick): having competed strenuously for fifty years with two universities chiefly valued for being old, it was, at the moment of drawing level, rudely overtaken in popularity and prestige by a batch of universities chiefly valued for being new”. Left “disgruntled and discouraged”, academics grab the chance to spend time in the US and, as one American character complains, treat the university system there as “a huge, rather amusing racket from which they were personally determined to take the biggest possible cut in the shortest possible time” even while still regarding American scholars with “sneering condescension”. Opportunities for sexual adventures are among the main perks.

The fiesta is even more exuberant in Small World, which sees the international conference circuit as a modern equivalent of the medieval pilgrimage, allowing “the participants to indulge themselves in all the pleasures and diversions of travel while appearing to be austerely bent on self-improvement” – and, after all the hedonism, you “return home with an enhanced reputation for seriousness of mind”. It is here that academics “recover the youth they thought they had sacrificed to learning, they are proving to themselves they are not dryasdust swots after all, but living, breathing, palpitating human beings, with warm flesh and blood, that stirs and secretes and throbs at a lover’s touch”.

Small World offers a highly amusing picture of academic careerism and jockeying for position. “Academic groupies” flattering potential patrons. Flashy, mystifying and mind-numbingly boring conference papers. A viciously obscure debate on “the function of criticism”. Flirtations, bed-hopping and a wide spectrum of other sexual indiscretions.

These books and their more sombre sequel, Nice Work (1988), seem largely complicit with their lecherous male heroes, with female characters typically introduced as “a teenage girl of sluttish but not unsexy appearance” or “a pleasant, if reserved lady, with shapely buttocks and beautiful blonde hair”. And they are full of descriptions of sagging flesh, fading libidos and the enlivening effect of straying beyond the marital bedroom.

Didn’t a man so completely committed to marital fidelity see himself as an unlikely – and perhaps unqualified – person to explore the carnival of the sexual revolution in his fiction?

“I knew the sexual revolution was something I couldn’t participate in,” Lodge replies, “though I was fascinated by it. I was inhibited from taking part in the partying side of the scene because I’m a naturally monogamous man and was still then a practising Catholic and very happily married. I couldn’t possibly have written those novels if I’d been involved in the kind of life I describe. The fact that I wasn’t participating but observing left me free imaginatively to depict what I saw.”

This seems a rather curious argument. Many of the other writers who celebrated or satirised the sexual revolution clearly did so not as fascinated outsiders but as participant observers.

Young David Lodge

All through my fiction there is an interest in sexual experiment…My own life has been rather innocent in that respect. I have to use my imagination

“All through my fiction,” Lodge continues, “there is an interest in sexual experiment…My own life has been rather innocent in that respect. I have to use my imagination, but it’s fairly easy to use your imagination on that subject.”

So, to take one example, when feminist academic Robyn Penrose and factory boss Vic Wilcox go to bed together in Nice Work, she gives him a lecture on “the discourse of romantic love [that] pretends that your finger and my clitoris are extensions of two unique individual selves who need each other and only each other and cannot be happy without each other for ever and ever”. Readers will have to judge for themselves how plausible this is as pillow talk.

The Campus Trilogy was published between 1975 and 1988, years that saw a tremendous assault on higher education under Margaret Thatcher. Wasn’t Lodge worried that his books gave ammunition to those keen to discredit universities as a hedonistic and self-indulgent racket?

Nice Work, Lodge admits, was “seen as a rather inopportune book by a lot of the academics in England”. Even more painful was the fate of his friend Malcolm Bradbury’s novel The History Man, which was “published in 1975, at the height of the student revolutionary period, as a conservative reaction to that, satirising radical, right-on university teachers, their amorous escapades with students and so on. When it was shown as a TV serial in 1981, by which time Mrs Thatcher was in control, it was seized on as a kind of justification for her policies of cutting back, saying sociology isn’t a proper subject, starving the universities of funds for purely scholarly studies and so on. People said: if this is what our universities are like, why should we pay our taxes supporting people in jeans and cheesecloth shirts living it up at our expense? That was really a distortion and misapplication of the novel and caused Malcolm some embarrassment.”

For his own part, however, Lodge remains unrepentant. “Once you start worrying about what use will be made of your work,” he claims, “you’ve had it as a novelist. That would inhibit you from writing anything…Obviously a novel is a slightly exaggerated and heightened version of a reality, but if you think the basic relation of fiction to reality is fair, then you have to go with it.”

It is for similar reasons that Lodge avoids looking at the academic criticism that has now grown up around his own fiction: “I don’t find it comfortable to read. Although I wrote academic criticism myself and taught other people how to write it, it’s always trying to exert and exhibit a kind of professional mastery over the subject, whether it’s critical or laudatory.

“If I disagree with it, even if it’s complimentary, it irritates or distracts me or affects what I am trying to write now. If I read it, I’ve got to give an opinion about it, but I don’t want to do that. Giving a view on whether it’s right or not about my work is fatal.”

So how does Lodge now look back on the academic world he chronicled so vividly and the way it was replaced with something very different?

“I think the 1970s were in some ways a rather decadent era,” he reflects, “the wastefulness, the sense of entitlement by universities that they could expect the country to go on paying while they did what they wanted. They weren’t very efficient at running their own ship, so there was some need for reform by that stage, but the direction it took was disastrous, because, instead of fighting back, the universities capitulated to the cuts and the managerial ethos.

“Instead of uniting, university departments just tried to avoid having cuts themselves and passed them on to other, weaker departments, when really it was solidarity that was needed.”

Although now very much out of the fray, Lodge is clearly unimpressed by what is happening in our universities today. His new memoir, like his fiction, offers some intriguing glimpses of other times, what deserved to be jettisoned and what was worth preserving.

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