Posted by: Corri van de Stege | July 30, 2011

The alternative: take your pension and write

I was asked to review a first book by a writer, who as the blurb says, spent his career working in Further Education before he took early retirement and began writing.  I met him once,briefly, at his ‘retirement party’, and his book landed on my desk a couple of
months ago.  So he really followed up on his dream to become a writer, attended creative writing classes and the result is Waterloo Sunset, by Richard Ayres, which was published in early 2009.

Waterloo Sunset narrates the 40-year reunion of five men and one woman in their early sixties, fellow students at Leeds University in the sixties.  Throughout their get to getter, in the form of a pub crawl around London, each has his or her individual flash-backs to what happened to them over the years but in particular to what happened at that very first end of study pub crawl through Leeds.  The first few chapters are ponderous,  with an introduction of all the characters, each given the narrator’s voice in turn, changing a couple of times midway chapters with conversations that are sometimes in a vernacular to indicate the character is a genuine sample from the north of England.  Jim, emerging from a pub toilet says:

Bloody hell, Al, don’t any London pubs allow you to have a piss in comfort?  The bogs here are even more rank than in the
last boozer
.’

Jim, it emerges is in fact gay and still appears to have great difficulty ‘coming out’ to his old friends, who react in their own and
different ways to this news, but clearly consider this of much less importance than Jim himself ascribes to it.  It seems that the sixties, however liberating for some parts of the country, never quite made it as far as Leeds, definitely not as far as the five friends are concerned.

All the time you are aware somehow of the omniscient authorial narrator in the background, keeping an overview of all his characters, knowing what they think and when.    In the first part of the book these characters come across as dull and in fact quite boring.  I guess most people are boring, but one does not want to read about them in detail.  The good bit is that the story keeps moving (either from one character to the other, or from one pub to the other), so that one does not get too bogged down, even if at times I was not sure whether this was perhaps an example of chick lit for blokes or simply a book about grumpy old men and one rather unlikable woman. However, there are some funny turns after the middle part of the book, events being remembered and unveiled, upsetting the already fraught relationship between the five even further.

Nigel is the retired ‘spy’ recruited by MI5; however, this is a book about the relationship between the five and their marriages and
relationships, be they successes or failures, so we never hear much about what that meant or whether he in fact did anything exciting.  The most exciting thing he did in all his life, it seems, was to bed his best friend’s wife, and he now reaps the consequences of that.

Allan was always laid back and still is, so he never tells any of his friends on this pub crawl that he has terminal cancer, because he
does not want to upset this last reunion, rather, he sees it as a final opportunity to bring all friends together and to somehow secure their future as friends.  It does not quite work out that way though.

Eric is now married to Vivienne, the fifth student on that very first pub crawl in Leeds.  Vivienne comes across as the least believable of the characters and is in fact quite unsympathetic, treats Eric badly, and is snottiest to her former fellow students.

The London portrayed in the book is one seen through the myopic lenses of sixty year olds, who are frustrated by all the young and noisy  people in the pubs they go to, who are tired of the incessant traffic and  noise.  One wonders why on earth they  chose London for their get-together, although a rationale is provided in that  Eric and Vivienne had refused to come if the pub crawl was again to be in  Leeds.

The last part of the book, reads as a comedy of errors, a  play that unfolds with all characters having their comeuppance.  It is the most readable part of the book and  provides quite a dramatic and funny ending.

All in all it’s a light-hearted novel, a solid first attempt  in my view, with lots of commentary on the way society has developed, from the  point of view of sixty-year old men.  Nevertheless, I would have liked characters that were more developed,  rather than described.  Sometimes, as for  example in the book I reviewed before, Shakespeare’s ‘Inheritance’, the main  character is really an arse hole, but the writing is such that you are  interested in the philosophical ideas or the reasons why a character has  developed the way she has.  Waterloo Sunset,  however,  seems to draw its plot from the  characters and what happens to them during a pub crawl, without further ‘messages’ or interesting ideas.  You could perhaps  be made to think about memory and what it does to one’s view of the world and  friends.  Memory can be very deceptive  and in this sense, Al’s memory is of a good time at University and of a group  of close friends, whereas others remember this quite differently, in fact admit  that perhaps they never were this close at all, simply thrown together for  three years of undergraduate studies in the confusing sixties.

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Responses

  1. Sounds like a decent enough result for an author’s first try. I think a lot of people have the dream to retire and write a best-selling novel!

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