Nina Bawden: Off the Road
Puffin Books 2000 (1998)
It is the near future — 12th June 2040, to be precise. Britain is divided, east and west: the civilised part, the Urbs, is separated from the barbarians in the west by a wall. Young Tom, an only child, is accompanying his parents and his grandfather north to a Memory Theme Park and they stop their journey to recharge their electric vehicle at a service station just by the Wall. And then 65-year-old James Makepeace Jacobs, like a human White Rabbit, disappears through an exit at the back of the toilets. Tom feels compelled to follow his grandfather, and we’re almost immediately propelled into the action of Nina Bawden’s dystopian children’s novel.
Tom’s world provides an ordered existence, with everything organised and in its place, and that includes humans. There’s a one-child policy strictly in force, so any reference to siblings, aunts or uncles is taboo. Workers cease working at 60 and have five years in retirement — until the call comes for their enrolment in a Nostalgia Block of the nearest Memory Theme Park. Here Oldies spend a couple of days with their family reliving the world their childhood in a kind of virtual reality before they are left to be “gently and permanently cared for”.
The author, clearly, is heavily hinting at a form of state euthanasia, but before young readers can fully assimilate this Tom’s grandfather is on the run with Tom in hot pursuit. With this dark beginning Nina Bawden takes us in unexpected directions, with an apt ending I didn’t see coming.
In her 1994 memoir My Own Time: Almost an Autobiography Bawden wrote of a constant feeling that “darkness and chaos threaten us all, lying in wait at the bottom of the garden, lurking outside the safe, lighted room”. The Guardian obituary tell us that in all her fiction she intended “making use of all my life, all memory, wasting nothing” and that, if read in sequence, all her books were a “coded autobiography”.
So, Off the Road draws from a deep well, from her experiences as a fourteen-year-old evacuee during the Second World War. She and her brother spent term time in Aberdare, in the South Wales valleys — a period captured in Carrie’s War — while school holidays were spent with their mother on a Shropshire farm “where we were unreservedly, almost lyrically happy.” Apparently The White Horse Gang (1978) was set here and later, I surmise, Off the Road, because Bawden specifically references Bishop’s Castle and Montgomery, both in this vicinity, and more particularly Owlbury Hall, in reality an actual farm.
At Owlbury Hall Tom discovers an extended family he never knew he had. From being a soft urbanite used to clean clothes every day and all mod cons he has instead to adapt to country living, as the ‘barbarians’ (as he regards them) go about seasonal tasks and making the most of daylight hours. But all is not as idyllic as Bawden’s wartime Shropshire proved: instead of being the favoured child whose every whim had to be considered by older generations Tom discovers a patriarchal society where children are seen but not heard and women are just about tolerated. Neither regime is perfect, not the Urbs with their rigid conformity nor the Outside with its reactionary beliefs and roving bands of disaffected youths called Dropouts. How to reconcile the best of both systems?
By basing her story on real places the author has created a sense of verisimilitude for her bleak future scenario. The anonymous high place that features later in the narrative must be Corndon Hill, a prominent feature rising over 500 metres.
Owlbury Hall itself dates from the beginning of the 17th century with 18th-century and 19th-century additions. Her detailed descriptions of the farm show a close familiarity with the buildings and its surroundings.
The fact that Owlbury Hall almost straddles the Welsh-English border (Offa’s Dyke is not far distant) is a poignant metaphor of the collision of two forms of existence, the rural and the urban. Tom, as he learns to adjust, starts to see the pros and cons of both ways of life. While there are pluses to living in the country — fresh air, enjoying the fruits of labour and the cooperation that strengthens social cohesion — it can be a precarious and isolated life; and while ‘civilised’ government can ensure certainty and convenience, the unquestioning conformity it demands can lead to mental stultification and intolerance of other states and unorthodox thinking. Other than set texts, for example, books are forbidden.
But Off the Road doesn’t come across as polemical. The story’s the thing, after all, and Tom’s growing maturity, his new relationship with his grandfather and his experience of farm life and of new family members — all distinctive and recognisable characters — are a joy to witness, even as it is fraught with danger. There is a strong sense of authenticity in Bawden’s narrative, rooted as it must be in her own experiences; and yet we must beware of accepting it all at face value. As she freely acknowledged, “All writers are liars. They twist events to suit themselves. They make use of their own tragedies to make a better story.”
But do we agree with her judgement, that because writers twist events to suit themselves they are “terrible people”? I think not, especially if their stories reveal profound truths about the rest of us, and not if the those truths are appropriate to the events of a time she could not foresee. When Tom in bewilderment says, “But the Wall is to keep us all safe inside it. Not to keep us locked out…” he could be talking about our own times and about our own world.
2018 Ultimate Reading Challenge: a book published in the 20th century