When Simeon Simcox, a socialist clergyman, leaves his entire fortune not to his family but to the ruthless, social-climbing Tory MP Leslie Titmuss, the Rector's two sons react in very different ways. Henry, novelist and former 'angry young man' turned grumpy old reactionary, decides to fight the will and prove their father was insane. Younger brother Fred, a mild-mannered country doctor, takes a different approach, quietly digging in Simeon's past, only to uncover an entirely unexpected explanation for the legacy.
An exquisitely drawn saga of ancient rivalries and class struggles, featuring a glorious cast of characters, Paradise Postponed is a delicious portrait of English country life by a master satirist.
Introduction by Jeremy Paxman
You are about to take a warm bath. The bath itself is an odd shade of green – they call it ‘avocado’ in the DIY showrooms which are part of the transformation of high streets across the land. Later, you may, perhaps, have dinner. It will probably start with a wine glass filled with ‘prawn cocktail’; this contains a few small crustaceans, a great deal of shredded lettuce and is swimming in a pink sauce. The main course is likely to be steak, and it will certainly be overcooked. You may choose a bottle of Chianti to drink; it comes in a straw cradle. After that, a chocolate pudding – Black Forest gateau, perhaps. The meal ends with bad, bitter coffee, which has been stewing on a side table for a couple of hours. But the bath is the thing. To read Paradise Postponed again is to luxuriate in a world which is simultaneously familiar, yet curiously different, like a tune you know even though it’s played slightly off-key.
John Mortimer wrote this book in the house on the top of the Chilterns in which he had been born, and in which, in early 2009, he died. The beech trees, flinty fields and local market-town of the novel are all immediately recognizable, as indeed is the local poacher, Tom Nowt (the grandson of the model for this character still makes famed squirrel and pheasant sausages). But he is an exception. The Chiltern hills lie only forty miles or so north-west of London, and remained the last unsuburbanized part of the immediate Home Counties until after the Second World War. By then, members of the middle classes with portable professions – Mortimer’s own father among them – had discovered their beauty and begun the migration which transformed the area. Once upon a time the vast beech woods had nourished the furniture industry in nearby High Wycombe and were alive with bodgers who lived among the trees making chair legs and stretchers. Now the bodgers’ bothies are alive with the hum of word processors from would-be Booker Prize nominees. The most recent influx has been a small wave of furniture warehouse magnates anxious to pass themselves off as country squires. The piles they have built themselves resemble nothing so much as Asda out-of-town shopping centres. Changes to the countryside itself, though, have been minimal: no one is more committed to keeping a place as it is than those who have recently discovered it. What interested John Mortimer were the huge changes in behaviour which overtook Britain between about 1960 and 1985 – the year of publication of Paradise Postponed. There have, of course, been other periods in British history in which there have been bigger social upheavals. But there can have been few – or none – when attitudes shifted as far and as fast. Before it began, people talked of an ‘Establishment’ which ran the country – a loose association of people (almost all of them men, of course) who might be found everywhere from the Houses of Parliament to corporate boardrooms and bishops’ palaces. There was a high proportion of Etonians among them, and the ballast of the Conservative back benches in the Commons comprised chaps ‘on their way from the Brigade of Guards to the House of Lords’.
The 1980s swept all that away. After the election following the publication of Paradise Postponed there were only eleven Conservative MPs left who had served in the Guards. As the Labour politician Denis Healey acidly put it, the party passed ‘from the estate owners to the estate agents’. England’s libel laws prevent too explicit a statement of who, precisely, was the model for Leslie Titmuss, the odious Conservative cabinet minister who stands for the new generation of Tories. Sufficient to say that he was a prominent figure in the ‘Thatcher revolution’, which saw such swathes of Britain utterly changed, with uneconomic businesses shut down and the inhabitants of great tracts of the industrial heartlands left to a life of benefits and videos. The Blair government which finally ended the Conservative years eased their pain by legalizing all-day boozing, loosening the gambling laws and making it easier to open strip clubs.
The clever thing about Titmuss as a character is that he isn’t purely repellent: he’s just a man who sees the way that Britain has changed, and realizes that, with a little drive, the world – or this particular corner of it, at least – is his oyster. He belongs to a generation created by the 1944 Education Act, the great reform of state schooling brought about by the Conservative politician R. A. Butler (‘Rab’). For the first time, children from poor families could now get free secondary schooling and emerge more than able to challenge the products of Eton and her sisters. The reform transformed British intellectual life, and enabled humbly born characters such as Titmuss to believe there was nothing they could not to.
Titmuss’s path to wealth as a property developer is typical of the age, too. The civic vandalism of the sixties laid the foundations of many a country estate and peerage. ( John Mortimer’s prophecy of the fate which would befall the local brewery did not occur until long after the novel was completed. It was turned into an expensive hotel, and the boring business of making a ‘local’ beer contracted out to a factory miles away.)
The mystery at the heart of the novel – why the local vicar and scion of the brewing dynasty should have left most of his worldly goods to this meritocrat on the make – affords more than enough space for asides about the other ways in which Britain’s victory in the Second World War so terribly damaged the country. In Simeon Simcox’s valour for the oppressed, just as in Leslie Titmuss’s determination to beggar his neighbour, we see how the templates on which British society had previously been built proved inadequate to the task.
But I begin to make Paradise Postponed sound like tract. It is not, any more than it is a roman-à-clef. If I had to use one expression to describe the tone of the book, I would choose ‘good-natured’. John Mortimer professed to loathe the Thatcher government (as he was later to express disdain for her great admirer, Tony Blair), but there is no fury in Paradise Postponed. The author’s affection for England constantly undermines his anger at the fatuous ambitions of her rulers. The developers and their money-men eat away at the fabric of the country he loves, but they cannot quite wreck it and he cannot quite get angry enough with them to let it drive out his amusement.