Back, back in 1959, three things happened to me, all in more or less the same week. I published my first novel (this one); I got married; and I took my first full-time university job, in the extra-mural department of the University of Hull. Well, we all have these difficult weeks from time to time. I had spent the Fifties as an eternal grant-aided graduate student, writing a thesis and a good deal of fiction, and travelling back and forth across the Atlantic. And to tell the truth, I was perfectly content to remain shapeless and undefined. But seriousness called, as it keeps on doing; now I had committed myself at last. Fortunately what I had committed myself to, in addition to matrimony, was the dual role of writer and academic. They have been the two great interests of my life, and I still maintain both of them (matrimony too) to this very day.
Eating People Is Wrong was a novel I had worked on right through the Fifties – indeed from the moment, in 1950, when I went to a redbrick university, a first generation student, and looked in wonderment at what I saw. For I was a Richard Hoggart "scholarship boy," rescued from social oblivion by the Butler Education Act of 1944. That took me on to free grammar school; grammar school took me to university, though not to the Oxbridge of older academic dreams, and older academic novels. I went to the redbrick, verging on whitetile, University College of Leicester, which still awarded External Degrees of the University of London, and taught a course in English that even Oxbridge had discarded. Located across the road from the cemetery, in the old county lunatic asylum, it had just 700 students; it re-appears, not too deeply disguised, in the novel, as it then was, not as it now is. Otherwise the book is definitely not a roman a clef. If the central character, the 40-year old Stuart Treece, is based on anyone, it is simply a projection of my 20-year old self – though the last thing I intended, when I wrote the book, was to become a professor of literature like him, which either says a lot for the power of fantasy, or the ironic workings of fate.
When the book appeared in 1959, it was, I remember, described as a "campus novel," and often compared with Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim. This is not so surprising, but not quite what I intended. I began the book well before Lucky Jim appeared, and then wrote and re-wrote it several times during the decade. As the title perhaps suggests, I meant it as a portrait of the conflicts and contradictions of liberal life, as experienced by a group of intelligent people in the postwar, austere climate of the 1950s, when political ideas had changed and welfare state hopes and anxieties were in the air. For all this, a redbrick university like the one I knew – the only one I knew – seemed the appropriate setting. And so did the world of provincial life, which so preoccupied the times (the 1950s opened with William Cooper's novel Scenes from Provincial Life, which is also set in Leicester, then a very provincial midland city, and had definite influence on my own book). But, though I rather dislike it, perhaps the "campus novel" label fits it quite well after all. For the redbrick universities of the 50s, like the new universities of the 60s, were a metaphor for the social change then taking place, the birthplace for the new meritocratic class. That, perhaps, is why we began to write about them, and take them seriously as a subject for fiction.
I can also see in retrospect that if Eating People Is Wrong was a book about the Fifties, it is also very much a book of the Fifties. By that I mean that it not only shares its preoccupations – with social change, with provincialism, with the moral climate, with liberalism – but its literary styles. This was a time when the Modern movement seemed over, the days of Bloomsbury over and gone, and the way the novel chose to renew itself was by paying a close, realistic attention to ordinary, contemporary English life. Realism came back, and, thanks to the influence of writers like George Orwell, William Cooper and Angus Wilson, a kind of radical common-sense became the prevailing style of the Fifties novel. In fact the period was one of realistic retrenchment, and fascination with the suddenly changed climate of the post-imperial, welfare state postwar world. Despite the fact that the Fifties became known as the Angry Decade, its tone was not particularly political, and more concerned with cultural and moral reassessment. Not just the Modernist experiments but the radical left-wing politics of the pre-war years were over, after Fascism and the spread of Communism in Eastern European totalitarianism was the enemy, and it was an age of liberalism, of individualistic values and personal relations. And all of this, of course, greatly concerns the characters in my novel – who are trying to find lives of decency, honesty and goodwill in an age they cannot quite grasp, an age when, as Treece says, "it was curiously hard to find out what the right things were." But one answer was honesty, moral concern, and literature – and the fate and fortunes of postwar moral liberalism are, I believe, the presiding themes of the book.
In a time of or after postmodernism, these preoccupations may seem somewhat distant, though it would be dismaying to think they really are. My characters share a moral community, a common sense of reality, and an anxiety about decent personal relations which, though comically seen, do seem to me of general importance. They are uneasy and anxious about the reforming future, unsure about their intellectual role, drawn to a considerable extent toward the traditional and regional past. A moral seriousness, largely drawn from literature, affects all of them, and especially Treece and Emma Fielding – whose name has obvious enough literary overtones which suggest where some of the spirit of the novel comes from. Treece, the Thirties romantic now adrift in the Fifties, is unsure what attitudes to adopt, but decency and goodwill are his commanding principles: eating people is definitely wrong, even if his liberal goodwill more often sows confusion than light. His students, whom he thinks should be reforming figures, radical critics of the times, disappoint him by their ordinariness. The one victim he finds and feels he should sympathize with, Louis Bates, is so outrageous as scarcely to be a proper victim at all. The liberalism that makes Treece virtuous also makes him inert, and leaves him with a disappointing, indeed an ironic, world on his hands.
I meant Stuart Treece to represent both the virtues and absurdities of liberalism in a changing age; but the age is still itself liberal enough to let him exist. The university is still an even-handed, fair-minded institution, believing in disinterested learning and critical knowledge, rather than line management and politically correct ideas. The Sixties turmoils of confrontation and commitment have not yet reached it, and certainly not the dulled materialism and anti-intellectualism of the Eighties. Treece doesn't yet know about the global village, or structuralism, or ethnic pluralism of the modern kind, or the postmodern, theme park Euro-world. The book is a sympathetic comedy (a tragi-comedy, perhaps), a liberal comedy allowing everyone their own sort of life and their own sort of fate, a comedy about the gap between realities and ideal expectations, half-heroic deeds and their dull and ordinary consequences. Indeed it is warm comedy, of a kind that in our harder, harsher and less moral world it is ever more difficult to write. The novels I have written since have in various ways follows the changes in a world that, for me as a writer, starts here. The Swinging Sixties, the Sagging Seventies, the Economic Eighties, and the Nervous Nineties have all had their turn. My style has changed, my liberalism altered. But most writers value their first novels, and find them central to what they did since. Yes, even in the streetwise Nineties, eating people is, still, wrong.