Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Thoughts on "Metroland"

I think I've written before about how much I love the Munich Central Library, especially their English Literature section. There's about four or five cases full in the foreign language section, mostly donated by the British Council and the US Consulate in Munich, so you can pick up most Booker Prize and Pulitzer winners. I love wandering round the shelves, considering the possibilities, getting that sinking feeling you often have in bookshops when you consider how little time you have and how much you want to read everything there. Well, that's my experience anyway.

I tend to spend a lot of time around the 'A-C' section, where the Amises, Attwoods, Becketts and Bellows live. Their numbers sometimes grow, sometimes shrink, but every so often I look between at another name, Barnes. The other day I finally got round to reading Metroland his first novel about growing up and accepting reality. It is a similar tale to Martin Amis's The Rachel Papers, about bright-young-things in their late teens who have discovered a library for the first time and delight in knowing a little about a lot. They are undeniably middle class, undeniably university educated and undeniably misguided. The writers both tell their story fully aware that everything they went through was both necessary and futile.

I say this without a hint of irony of course; I'm still waiting for my clever-little-shit stage to end.

What hit me about Metroland was Barnes' depiction of the young man abroad for the first time, in this case Paris in the late 1960s. He delights in the anonymity of his new language, in being aloof from his fellow compatriots and the feeling that he has arrived at adulthood. That strikes a chord.

As aware as I am of my own failings, I do love the feeling of being an Englishman abroad, as if simply by being here I have achieved something. I come from a family that has spent the past century in the same area of Southern Hertfordshire, and here I am in a suburb of Munich. Barnes of course is writing this as a thirty five year old and has seen the other side, so to speak.

It irks me to use this term, but what I am doing here in Germany is actually extremely middle class, or to use a far older term, very bourgeois. One gets the impression that German itself is from a British point of view a very middle class language. The majority of ex-pat Germans living in the UK are educated and live in London suburbs. Indeed, there is no reason for me to speak German in a way; the vast majority of Germans can speak English to a degree of fluency that in German I can only dream of. Whilst with the other main Modern Foreign Languages, Spanish, French, even Italian there are whole continents that use this language still, many of which hold developing nations. German, on the other hand, is touted as the 'business language'. This is actually far from the truth; German is actually a language with a huge reach across Eastern Europe, even as far as parts of the Ukraine. Yet that is the attitude I carry with me as an Briton, and the attitude I get from the people I speak to.


Barnes' central 'self realisation' comes from a chance encounter with Marion, an English student in Paris. She asks him if he thinks of the future. Of course he does, he says. Will you ever be married, have a mortgage, children etc? Well, eventually, he answers. This is something that, like all students in their early twenties, the protagonist dreads thinking about. At this stage, Life is spelled with a capital L. It has not happened yet, or if it has happened it is used to describe disorder and experience, not commuting and taxes. It is the antonym of Boredom, not Death.

Metroland concludes with the central character at thirty years old, married, mortgaged and with child. He is content. It happened, and he is content. As I consider whether or not to stay in Germany, to travel home to some of the worst job prospects since the early 1980s or other options besides that, it's comforting to know that life, or Life, just happens.

Just a thought. It may also help to know that the book I read before that was Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, which doesn't exactly support the case for free will. I'm not someone who adhere's to Rousseau's "We're born into chains" idea, nor the equally philosophical band 'Talk Talk's mantra of "Life's What You Make It", but I think we're all somewhere in the middle, between sending out countless CVs to Y and bumping into someone who happens to know someone who needs a new X. We're being buffeted by the two. Somewhere in that lot, life happens.

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