17 thoughts on “The Old Boys — William Trevor

  1. THE OLD BOYS

    1

    “From Moreton to Evenlode, to Adlestrop and Daylesford. He and Topham minor stopping off to buy sherbet in Chipping Norton. And showing Topham the Slaughters and the Swells.”

    Mr Turtle is late for the Old Boys meeting in room 305, caught up, as he is, with a charwoman (not chairwoman!) mopping in the basement when he was meant to be on the 5th floor, and he should not have been in such an Adlestrop of Anxiety, I guess. With a change of narrative viewpoint to Mr Jaraby, the whole meeting — other than perhaps Mr Nox (“He caught Mr Nox’s eye and felt a little jump in his stomach.”) — seems ready to nod through Mr Jaraby as the next President. Mr Jaraby later at home is mentally coercive with his poor wife, but, after all, she did call his cat Monmouth a monster and that he should send it to a zoo. And she did not seem grateful for the head-shaped beetroot he brought home, well, I imagined it head-shaped and that she wasn’t grateful. And she imputes death and decay obsessing her husband when he tells her yet once again of his housemaster Dowse’s sad death, and how what a great beater of boys Dowse was. Not a marriage conversation to envy!

    ‘We are seventy-two, you must remember that. Communication is now an effort. It is not the easy thing that younger people know.’

  2. 2

    “The goodness that is in you will be carried to the surface and fanned to a flame, the evil will be faced fairly and squarely: you will recognize it and make your peace with it.”

    Back in 1907 George Nox is a new boy, H.L. Dowse his housemaster, and now ever as plain Nox, Dowse dowsed his night’s evil in the form of warning against the madness engendered by self-abuse, and some said he once castrated another boy to stop him doing it! That last bit I don’t believe, but I do believe the cruelty and fagging in rest of this chapter because it rings true from when I started at senior school in 1959, and I also became a reluctant ‘second row forward’ in rugger, and I hated cricket, too, as well as cross country!
    Jaraby was then a prefect to whom Nox acted as fag, till somehow some throwing of a ‘nib’ sort of started, I guess, a chain of events towards Nox breaking a ‘rib’ — one that eventually punctured his lung!

  3. 3

    “Mr Sole and Mr Cridley lived at the Rimini Hotel in Wimbledon. They had done so ever since Mr Sole’s wife died two and a half years ago. It was a quiet, somewhat cheerless place, with an automatic telephone in the hall and the smell of boiling meat almost everywhere. It catered specifically for the elderly, and in spite of the implications of its title was little more than a boarding house.”

    That seemed at first the most striking literary intrusions in any novel, hilariously quaint as it is, Aickman-like without Aickman bits, two old men like me, listening to a story or a prayer on the boarding-house wireless, with a landlady who has a massive bosom, and they seem caught up with adverts for various devices, as toothpaste for cleaning fag smoke off teeth without any fag! And their talk together is about — and reminiscent itself? — of chain-letters, not chain-smoking, but whose Tontine will it be?
    An intrusion, as I say, until I realise (perhaps I should have already realised) that they are two old boys of the same school as Jaraby, and they now visit him and his wife to be given half raw or overdone (not sure which) rock cakes! And it turns out that they actually once shared a chain-letter with the J’s imaginary son Basil, or is it their real son who is persona non grata to his father, if not adored by his doting mother, so which is the mad one, Mr J or Mrs J?
    Seems Mr J often often keeps company with a young man, a present or recent pupil of the school, who slept or still sleeps in Mr J’s old dormitory bed! But that may not be true either, if such visits by the young man were told to me by whoever is mad, Mr J or Mrs J? Or even both?
    Meanwhile, the two men, with whom we started above, leave to go to Compline … and to continue complaining about the food they get at the Rimini.

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  5. 4

    “He is like an old, old ghost.”

    Turtle, evidently suffering the onset of dementia …meets a younger ‘old boy’ of 40 in the park, otherwise a stranger with whom Turtle has a conversation about birds and cages, and porridge the younger man placed behind the school radiator, and that unreliable weather (like the current heatwave that now affects all the men at the original meeting in 1. when Turtle got lost) is ‘due to bombs’, rather than today’s climate change!!
    But guess who that younger man actually was! A plot spoiler to tell you, I guess. He seems to ask the older man for a small loan…
    Meanwhile the current president Ponders elsewhere in the heatwave tells his wife about the assumed next president…
    ‘Mr Jaraby is still full of beans. But he is the kind of man who suddenly snaps in half, like a brittle twig, and then that is that. My dear, you have aged in a more dignified way. Gradual processes are the happier too.’
    This book and my review of it both tease and worry one. Brittle and gradual alike.

  6. 5

    “The law of averages is only half on our side.”

    An insidious character study of Mr Nox, who has accepted his lonely lot in late life without any memories for memoirs to write, or is it his character itself that is insidious? – when hiring a private detective to follow Mr Jaraby around trying to dredge up something incriminatory about Jaraby, thus to stop him becoming President of the Old Boys committee. No motive within Mr. Nox other than to right a perceived balance of wrongs once done to himself. Or simply by dint of sheer malice for its own sake?

    “He shredded cabbage and timed its cooking.”

  7. 6

    “A prospect is a prospect is a prospect.”

    “Warmth, warmth, and more warmth, eh?”

    We spend a little senile time with various members of the committee… gentle nudges as to what hilarity we should not divulge to others about ourselves?
    *

    ‘Joseph Harp, madam, and here with a purpose. Heat exchange expert and installation engineer.’ — whom the two men bring to Mrs Burdock’s as his prospects of such warmth, much to her ungrinning chagrin:
    ‘It is scarcely a month,’ complained Miss Burdock, ‘since those frightful women came here with corsets. And now a man with central heating.’

    ‘it’s this hot weather that’s affecting Burdock. You understand how disastrous a run of heat can be for the ageing virgin?’
    *

    General Sanctuary who “could quote long passages from all the works of G. A. Henty, and quite often he did.”

    ‘There is only one man I can call upon. You, General Sanctuary.’ — As our Prime Minister once told him, lying through someone else’s teeth? Up ad down the ladders of self-illusion?
    *

    Basil Jaraby (the son) and his budgerigars in the sanctuary of the cages and gadgets he provided them —
    “He taught the cleverest one how to walk up and down a miniature step-ladder, and began his taming of another, offering it his finger as a perch….”
    *

    “Mr Swabey-Boyns was engaged on a large jigsaw of the Houses of Parliament.”
    *

    “Mr Turtle broke his rule and thought about his wife. She had died during the First World War, when he was in France, after they had spent only two days together.”
    Confusin of wartime caused her death? Weeping due to his new confusions today,?
    Trying to avoid a Random Harvest of memories flashing into his mind one by one?
    *

    “The little fat clergyman was always thrashing people when they did or said something wrong in the washroom.”
    Who of these old boys remembered that? I can’t remember.
    (I am the sort of reader for whom this book was designed, I guess.)

  8. 7

    “‘Oh puss, puss,’ cried Mr Jaraby, ‘what disorder is this?’”

    “In anger the claws stabbed at the carpet, and Monmouth, baring a massive jaw, snarled at the tufts of wool.”

    This chapter is extremely sad but also wickedly hilarious as we continue to witness the backbiting of the septuagenarian Jaraby husband and wife, blaming each other for each other’s insanity, and I even got confused myself who actually blamed the pussy cat and who owned it, as if it is owned by one of them, not both! To spite the other one, anyway? I sometimes have similar quandaries in my own life.

    This chapter seems strangely in tune with my reading earlier this morning of a Coverley story HERE, a fact perhaps feeding my own mad illusion that I continue to possess — or to be possessed by — increments of an overseeing wisdom regarding the Jungian literary gestalt and its hierarchy of connections!
    Even to the extent, in this chapter, it is said that “Dowse was the wisest man I ever knew” and “No, my puss, it will not do. We must mend our ways. We must bend to the greater authority.”
    Meanwhile…
    “Split the produce in half that I may see inside. How else to know if an apple or a grapefruit is worth its money?”
    I must remember that when I next buy fruit at a greengrocer!

    “He spoke to himself, although his wife was still in the room.”

    • I must not forget Chapter 7 was mostly about their attitudes to their middle-aged son Basil, even more outlandish than about the cat! How could I have left that out!?
      They even read out his school reports!

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  10. 8

    “His eyes seemed drowsy, reflected twice in the thick lenses of his spectacles.”

    Basil Jaraby visits his parents at last, budgerigar seed on his clothes, and his sad booted self seems to sadly faze his mother as she wonders how her son had been brought to this state and offers him shelter back home with her and his father. He declines as budgerigars and the feral cat would not mix! Yes, an unreadably sad chapter that simply needs reading so as, later, to be able to exorcise it from the reading mind and thus heal old age itself and the legacy of self left to help heal one’s own patchy skills at bringing up children. Or I am only tempted to read this early addled Trevor novel because I am equally addled as its characters! It is an act of SELF-exorcism, if only I shall remember that is why I am reading it. And why I spend most of my days, in recent years, time-effacingly doing these so-called gestalt real-time reviews of fiction make-believe.

    “…feverish – could this be psittacosis?”

  11. 9

    “The mad think the world is mad. You should know that.”

    And inside this no. 9, one realises one knew it already! This book of fiction somehow strives, involuntarily, to transcend all others with its reality of a youngish author’s ready-made, if not premature, senile-dementia! What with 72 year old Jaraby’s idea that he is being stalked in Woolworths by a plump woman who talks to him about being naked. Then Jaraby accosting his and his wife’s shared doctor about her mental health, and talking to him about his son Basil being a near-criminal. Then, through the author’s eyes if not Jaraby’s, we listen to Mrs Jaraby talking about Basil living with them and making things saner and more civilised with his caged birds. Basil had been estranged from his parents for at least 15 years, unless his mother had visited him on the quiet, by the way, Jaraby thinks.

  12. 10

    “I love my old souls. Simple fare and a wireless, nothing more they ask for.”

    I remember the old days when people about my age now would be happy with a low volume wireless as scarred by static in the background and simple food to eat — and nothing much else to do. Now I spend time reading about them, keeping me happy, too. The image of Turtle’s Mrs Strap in particular has stirred my interest levels today…

    “Despite the lipstick that marked her lips far beyond their natural boundaries, her mouth remained pinched and uninviting, metallic almost, as much like the slit of a long-healed wound as H. L. Dowse’s had grown to be.”

    And also we can now make sense of the plump woman’s flirting accosting of Jaraby in the greengrocers, as she is a tool of Nox’s Swingler. And of late life romances at matinee afternoons in the cinema. And of Mr Harp, the central heating man who made the two old men at the Burdock boarding house fall in love with the prospect of ‘prospects’ as a then modern sales trap! And much else in short spaces.

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