Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Clean Young Englishman, by John Gale

Given the number of books I handle every day, it's remarkable how few make any impression on me. But today I found this memoir, which grabbed me from the first page:

"One night this year, on the walk home from the Underground in the falling snow, I had to lean against the wall of the crematorium where my father went up in smoke. I had had a few drinks. The wind pierced the short, old-fashioned black coat that had belonged to my grandfather. When I walked on a little unsteadily in the dark on the creaking snow, a girl passed on the other side of the road, her high black boots gleaming faintly. She looked across at me, and then went on in the bitter cold.

Our three children had measles; Jill was tired. The wind moaned beneath the doors ; we were keeping fires going day and night, and the insects cried in the blazing logs. Our house is small, virtually a cottage, among terraced houses built, originally, for artisans; the road is the appendix of the suburb, with wealthier houses not far off. I like our house: scarcely a piece of furniture, not a picture, carpet or curtain did we choose ourselves; all was given or passed on by relatives; all, or almost all, is incongruous, tasteless, but well used.

At times I feel the small house is the centre of the world. It seems a turning-point for aircraft coming in to land at London Airport. Their engines change pitch as they come in from east and west, booming and whining through the dusk, their navigation lights winking hope. When I lie in bed I distrust all aircraft: where are they going? People should stay at home. I prefer the sound of trains far off at night, the clink of a shunting in a cold siding."

The dustjacket blurb tells us little about John Gale, other than that this is the memoir of an Englishman who was born into a privileged background and enjoyed a rich and fascinating life until the day he went mad. Then everything changed.

Gale's autobiography was first published in 1965 and it must have been critically acclaimed, as the Hogarth Press thought it was worth reprinting in 1988, but there is a frustrating lack of information about John Gale on the internet.

I shall just have to read the book.


katyboo1 said...

What glorious writing. I hope it lives up to its promise.

Philip H. said...

John Gale wrote for The Observer in the 50s and 60s. I can remember reading features and interviews by him. They were excellent, and I can remember this book coming out and being well-reviewed. About time I read it!

Steerforth said...

Thank you Philip H.

Gale was clearly a very gifted writer and it's depressing to see how little information there is about him on the internet. The fact that you clearly remember him over 40 years on speaks volumes.

I've just found an Amazon review which indicates that Gale died at the age of 48/9 - around a decade after he published his memoir. I would like to know more about Gale's last decade.

Roger said...

I read somewhere- possibly in a reprint of Clean Young Englishman or a review of it- that Gale killed himself.

Anonymous said...

John Gale was the brother of a friend of my parents. He suffered from manic depression triggered by his experiences as a journalist in Algiers and killed himself in his favourite part of Richmond Park in 1974 with pills and booze when it became clear to him that his years-long depression would never lift and that mania was no kind of remission, just the flip side of the depression.

Will Sykes said...

Jonny Gale was pupil of my father's at Abinger Hill school near Dorking before WW2, where Jim Harrison was headmaster. He writes about this in the book as well as his hilarious (and drunken encounter with the then Princess Elizabeth whilst an officer cadet at Mons Barracks). His brother Peter (also a pupil) was killed in the war.
Post war the school was re-founded as Ashfold in Sussex. Jonny's son James became a pupil at the school. I remember him visiting his son, a lovely chap, nowadays we would call him 'cool'. His death was a bitter blow to all who knew him, however briefly.
More people should read this book.

Anonymous said...

I was taken to meet John Gale in the mid-70s by Boris Kidel, who had been a fellow journalist in Algiers and later for the Observer.
Boris was by then a writier living on the Greek island of Paros. Gales's erratic mental state was clear. After his death, both his wife and daughter sought solace with Mimis, a wealthy Greek pig farmer who had a house next to Boris. He was married to a Greek architect, who had built Boris' then remote house on the condition that she could have some land to built her own house. Gale's wife and daughter came to stay with Boris, and things went on from there . . .
I have no idea what happened next. Paros is now an over-developed tourist destination and the free and easy life of the 1970s gone for ever.

Anonymous said...

Michael Frayn has just mentioned John Gale in an Observer interview today. He says he idolised him as a student, knew him at the Observer, and has based a character in his latest novel "Skios" on him.

Steerforth said...

Thanks for mentioning the Observer article (and also thank you to the other comments about Gale). I handle hundreds of out of print books every week and most of them wash over me, but John Gale's writing was imposible to ignore. I hope that Frayn's novel might prompt a renewed curiosity in this extraordinary writer.

Anonymous said...

Gale's Family Man is also a masterpiece. Reading Gale is sometimes to be reminded of Georg B├╝chner's classic enactment of mania in his short story 'Lenz'. John Gale's prose

sometimes resembles the vivid concentration and colour of German Expressionism. He describes – reproduces - the epiphany of mania like few other male writers. NJ

Bruce Palling said...

There are several mentions of John Gale in the recently published biography of David Astor, the editor of The Observer. Astor paid for his treatment but it didn't manage to make his life bearable on a long germ basis, hence his suicide. Agree that it is a puzzle why there is not more online information about him.

Anonymous said...

I had the privilege of speaking to John Gale on four occasions, though only by telephone. I hoped to interview him for a small magazine that I edited; this would be in 1973 or 1974. My intention was to go to London to meet him, but his sudden death made that impossible.
In these rather extended conversations John was truthful, kind, laugh-aloud witty, but never the professional raconteur, never the man who wants to do all the talking. He was, after all, one of the great interviewers, a true original. He was what I call a deep listener.
I told him my father would laugh as he read aloud from a Gale interview in The Observer, almost a ritual in our home on Sunday morning. John Gale might be interviewing Groucho Marx, Billie Whitelaw, or a tramp who had walked hundreds of miles in his wanderings around England.
There was often some mysterious quality about the writing, evident in his first novel, The Family Man, his travel book about Africa, Travels With My Son, and of course his masterpiece, Clean Young Englishman, which John Wain called the autobiography of a generation. The latter was serialized in The Observer, and I can still hear my late father's voice reading aloud from the book's striking opening section, which described John's family life in Hampstead Garden Suburb. The writing is clean, spare, candid. And always that sense of mystery.
He spoke briefly about his coverage of Algeria, and the atrocities he had witnessed. On the second last time we spoke, shortly before he left for a holiday in France with his family, he said that he did not believe in God, and yet be believed 'sometimes'. That 'sometimes' seemed to hang in the air.
His tragic death so affected me that I rang his publishers, Hodder, and someone put me in touch with his editor, a kindly man who gave me both his time and understanding. We spoke for some twenty minutes, as I remember. 'I'm not surprised John made such an impression on you, even over the telephone,' his editor said. 'John made that impression on everyone he ever met.'

I have his three books in hardback, as well as his posthumous novel, The Camera Man. I also have two paperback copies of Clean Young Englishman, published respectively by Penguin and Oxford. Others I have given away to serious young readers, because he is that good.
Lindsay Anderson mentions John Gale in his diaries and one senses the respect in which he was held by so many gifted people. I am so glad your blog has honoured John Gale.
He told me he had never seen anyone on the London Tube with one of his books. But while travelling in a remote Scottish island with a TV crew he had spotted a man with a copy of Clean Young Englishman. He and the crew ran after the man, who took sudden flight. They finally caught up with him. 'He told me he had taken the book out of his local library and didn't know why he had done so; he said he couldn't understand what the book was all about.' John was laughing as he described the man's puzzlement.
Jack Haggerty, Glasgow.

worldbeater said...

I met John Gale in 1959 at a press party given by Mike Todd in Cannes for his film 'Around the World in 89 Days.' On the charter flight coming home, John was my seat partner. He hadn’t enjoyed the boondoggle much; he was in no mood for trivia. He was still under the spell of the Suez crisis of the year before. He had actually been in Port Said during the bombing, which had put a permanent mark on him. He grabbed the hand that was just dabbing some of Todd’s bounty behind my ears and, gripping it hard, poured out his tale of horror – an air attack on a civilian city, unprovoked and unforewarned, buildings pulverised, fires everywhere, our planes - “Our planes! British planes!” – dropping their loads and sending women and children fleeing and screaming. “I saw it. I covered it. I couldn’t believe my eyes! I thought Eden must have lost his mind! I was so ashamed!” Later, John wrote his autobiography, Clean Young Englishman, and later still ended his own life in a fit of manic depression. I remember how distressed I was by this – though I didn’t see much of him after Cannes, he had made a deep impression on me. He completely lacked the detachment which, like a suit of armour, every other reporter I ever met had, He opened himself completely to feeling, and life was just too much for him to bear in the end.

Unknown said...

John Gale was an elegant writer but his description of the Suez debacle owes much to fiction.

Throughout the Suez crisis, John Gale was in Cairo, incarcerated with other journalists, including David Holden of the Tines and Alan McGregor of the BBC, in the Semiramis Hotel.

His British fellow journalists were not pleased that, instead of accompanying them on a government sponsored tour of a bombed radio station at Abu Zabal, a few miles North of Cairo, he chose to remain in the hotel and send his copy from the bar.

Several other friends of mine, who were in Port Said throughout the crisis, confirm that the city was never bombed although it was briefly shelled during the invasion, which took place while Gale was safely ensconced some 120 miles away in the Semiramis.