John Haffenden

Interview: David Lodge

 

Secker & Warburg has just published Small World (£8.95), the eagerly awaited new novel by David Lodge, prize-winning author of Changing Places and How Far Can You Co? John Haffenden interviewed him in his office at the University of Birmingham where he is Professor of Modern English Literature, and began by inviting him to describe his career and background:

I was born in Dulwich, south London, in 1935, and was brought up in a suburb called Brockley, a somewhat seedy, neglected bit of London. My father was a professional dance musician now semi-retired, an artistically gifted man from a poor background. He is English with a Jewish grandmother. My mother had an Irish father and a Belgian mother: she was a Catholic, and that was why I was brought up as a Catholic. My father is a non-denominational, vague Christian. He went into the Air Force as a musician and was away for most of the war. My mother and I lived in the country, in Cornwall and in Surrey, so I had that experience of being torn away from my home at about the age of four and a half, because of the war, and being separated from my father. It’s the experience I drew on in Out of the Shelter, which is, in some ways, the most autobiographical of my novels. After the war we came back to the same house in London, and I went to a Catholic grammar school in Blackheath.

I was a classic product of the 1944 Education Act, the first generation who got free secondary schooling. A state-aided Catholic grammar school propelled me out of my class into the professional middle classes, and I went to read English at University College, London.

I went up very young – too young, I think – at about the age of seventeen and a half, so I floundered for about a year. I got a First in my degree in 1955, and at the time of taking my Finals I had ambitions to be a writer and wasn’t really considering research. I felt I wanted broader horizons (I didn’t quite know what) and I had to do National Service anyway, but because I got a First Class degree they offered me a State Studentship, which I had not actually applied for; I thought I would accept it and defer it until after I had been in the Army. After about three weeks of Basic Training – as you will know from reading Ginger, You’re Barmy – I was quite sure that I wanted to go back to the academic life.

The plot for Ginger is invented, but the background is a literal transcript of what happened to me in the Army. So in 1957 I went back to UCL to do an MA, which in those days was a two-year research degree. I started writing The Picturegoers while I was in the Army, and finished it shortly afterwards (I had already written one novel during my first long vacation as an undergraduate) , and I sent it to Michael Joseph at the suggestion of my school English teacher, who had been a great influence upon me, but it was turned down. I eventually sent it to MacGibbon & Kee, who took it, and my editor there was a man called Timothy O’Keeffe; they gave me a contract for £75 in three instalments. By that time I had become involved in writing an enormous thesis, which turned out to be about seven hundred pages long, on ‘Catholic Fiction since the Oxford Movement’.

The Picturegoers was published only in 1960, because I had to postpone any revisions of it until after I finished the thesis, although I had started writing the novel in 1956–7. I got married in 1959 and started to apply for university jobs, but without any success at first, so I took a job with the British Council in London, a one-year contract post teaching English to foreign students and giving a weekly lecture to French assistants on literature from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf: it was fun for one year. Then I came to a temporary assistant lectureship at Birmingham in 1960, and they have kept me on.

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