Oh, Foolish Mother

Posted by on September 5th, 2010 at 3:48 PM

A scene from a worldly wise novel that came out in Britain 57 years ago. A visitor admires the various artistic accomplishments of a progressive mom’s three daughters:

There was a clatter of feet and in came the other two girls, Lucy, aged ten, and Nancy, aged eight. Lucy was black like Flora. She said to Arthur:

“Come and look at my latest horses!”

She nodded her head in a nervous, excitable fashion, and led Arthur across to a patch of wall which Flora marked out for the children to draw on. Arthur admired Lucy’s drawings of horses.

“And now Nancy,” Flora said in a fluting tone.

Arthur took his cue — on no account was he to give less attention to the middle child than to the other two; the fact that Nancy was easily the prettiest of the three and would probably be pursued by excessive attention for the whole of her life made not a scrap of difference.

Well, sure, because getting by on your looks is what life is all about. And Nancy will be a looker right to the day she dies. And having your mother display love and concern for you and asking a stranger to show you respect is really just the same as being equipped to get mack action at parties.

That last one really gets me. The narrator measures attention up as bulk, when everybody knows that attention differs by kind. This fact is plain to anybody who knows more than one person.

The narrator’s remark is a flourish, not a thought. He acts as if he had just debunked progressive wisdom by matching it against humble known verities. But his humble known verities are shams.

Title of book. Vanity is nothing on which to build your life — there’s a verity. I bet it’s in the Bible or Shakespeare. The narrator ignores it so he can go for his effect, that of the common-sensical voice.

The book is The Ever-Interesting Topic by William Cooper, whose real name was H. S. Hoff. He was born a few years before the First World War, worked in the civil service, then became a consultant to the Atomic Energy Authority. He started turning out novels at age 40, when he was still with the civil service. A quarter of a century later, he had written upwards of 20, with some nonfiction titles thrown in. The books were popular among a certain audience, a very comfortable one. John Betjeman, later the poet laureate, has a blurb on the back of my Penguin copy of Topic: “I can think of few worldly pleasures greater than a long train journey and the prospect of reading a new novel by William Cooper.”

What about Doris Lessing? Hoff signed up with the Atomic Energy Authority in 1958, the same year that proto-’60s Britain held the first march to Aldermaston. The demo was a sandal-wearing, folk-guitar affair that took as its premise that any tolerance for nuclear weapons represented a fundamentally wrong, stunted attitude toward life.

Doris Lessing went on the march. She’s a passionate pilgrim and I bet she could have done a job on Hoff, the way she did on the American doctor in The Golden Notebook. She would have seen him as an animated mannequin, a fancily equipped wind-up doll wagging his empty head and fingering his pipe while his tiny gears did their work. Whereas Hoff would have dismissed her as typical and cracked, equipped with great raw talent but a mentality the same as that of any overintent wearer of heavy necklaces and peasant dresses.

To take each at his/her own valuation: the worldly wise Establishment man, the passionate left-winger. He absorbs and transmits urbane wisdom; she chases the horizon.

Nothing for Cooper, but here’s Lessing as she was around the time of Aldermaston. Note what she’s got on.


Glibly awful. Line I made up for a 1950s-style liberal TV play. The hero: “You say I talk about mankind like it was an angel ascending. No, we’re a drunk trying to get to his feet. But that’s better than lying there.

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One Response to “Oh, Foolish Mother”

  1. WLLilly says:

    …Lessing moved ideologically to some sort of ” mystical Islam ” , did she not ? Not precisely ” opiate of the masses ” beliefs by then , then , I would guess…