Leaping about the warehouse like a springbok each morning and afternoon, having an eccentric way with a ballad, throwing a fellow worker out of a sixth-floor loading bay – all these do not add up, I know, to an entire portrait of a hero.
They make for a pretty good trailer for a novel though, I would hazard. I only read Peter Prince‘s Waterloo story (Bloomsbury, 1998) because I’d heard it was a candidate for inclusion in the The Kinks in Literature annals here at Lillabullero, but I’m certainly glad I did. It’s Brian that the narrator-with-no-name is describing in that opening quote, and Brian is in charge of the sixth floor warehouse at the failing family firm of Hughes & Hughes, suppliers of ironmongery to the trade, operating from the south side of the Thames. Brian’s acknowledged authority, and his confidence, is challenged by young Kenny with dramatic consequences.
The narrator is a failed suicide, dropped out of university; as a favour he has been handed a non-job at said establishment to help cope with his depression. Spoken of as The Ghost, he lurks and observes. His is one Bartleby-like haunting strand to the tale. The novel starts in the mid- to late ’90s when a chance encounter sets up a long flashback – the heart of the novel – to the days and events at Hughes & Hughes leading to a climactic Christmas period in 1964.
The Yuletide record that year was ‘Blue Christmas’; something of a disappointment this, coming from the King himself and, most fans agreed, not a patch on last year’s hit: ‘All I want for Christmas is a Beatle’ by Dora Bryan. Of course, the Number One disc was by the Beatles: ‘I feel fine’, not a bad addition to the corpus but because I associate it so much with the events I am going to recount, one I have never been able to hear since without experiencing a kind of dread.
Not quite sure about the Dora Bryan comment but the I feel fine citation quickly redeems it; there are a lot of further musical references that set the scene nicely. The narrator gets given a long-playing record by Dave Clark Five for Christmas by his brother; “I can’t imagine why, it was a group I particularly disliked” (yay!). Have I heard anyone talk about bints (aka girls) this millennium or decades before? The life, camaraderie and conflicts of the workplace are richly portrayed in their own right, while on another level the firm can also be seen as a microcosm standing for a traditional and paternalistic England on the brink of momentous change. Such a life seems a world away these days, where work can function at times as care in the community. There is a nostalgia at play here but – like the best of Ray Davies’s songs and Kinks records – it’s double-edged.
And anyway – what the hell. Let what would happen, happen. It was 1964 after all. Almost ’65. The prison was opening up at last. People did what they liked now. With whoever they liked. It was freedom.
The dramatic events of that Christmas herald the return to some sort of normal life for the narrator, whose casting vote – a key moment in his emergence, only revealed much later (should there have been a spoiler alert there?) – is crucial to the ruinous unionization of Hughes & Hughes, not that, quite clearly, it could have survived in the white heat regardless. The narrator’s subsequent life is briefly related and makes a nice bitter-sweet little tale of its own.
If they made a movie of Waterloo story – it’s ripe for it – one of the key moments would come near the end (might even work as the end title credits). Back in the present, the narrator returns out of curiosity to the site of the Hughes & Hughes building, now a housing estate, and on the way back to his second-hand book shop:
I crossed Tower Bridge and took the north bank route home. There were hold-ups near Westminster – placards along the way informed me that the head of a country I’d never heard of was paying a state visit and delays were expected, etc. I dropped a 1960s compilation into the deck and waited it out with Ray and Dave:
“As long as I gaze on
I am in paradise.
Ah, yes, and nothing new under the sun.
Just Ray and Dave, Kinks fans, that he takes for granted. This is a novel that lingers. Where else you gonna find mention of the Helmut Zacharias Orchestra?
‘What the hell was that?’
I hummed a few bars from ‘Tokyo melody’.
‘Oh Christ, that … Elvis!’ he cried out in triumph. “Blue Christmas”!’
We sang the opening verse together. John was smiling, happiest I’d seen him all afternoon.
‘Rotten song really,’ he said when we’d finished. ‘But God, I so often wish I was back up there on the sixth floor, hearing it on the radio … And yet it was such a dump, wasn’t it? Heaven! – Christ, how sad.’