Ginger, You're Barmy by David Lodge

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Ginger, You're Barmy by David Lodge

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A great evocation of the insanity and boredom of National Service conscription, which still stands as a great read fifty years on.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: April 2011
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099554134

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Jonathan is a few days away from completing his National Service. Within the week he will dash off to Majorca with his girlfriend, and who knows, he might even do more than chastely cup her breast under her clothing. But it's a bittersweet week for Jonathan, as he looks back on the beginnings of his two years spent most reluctantly in the army, and especially the time spent with his best companion, and his girlfriend's ex, Mike.

OK, so this is fifty years old, and set in the 1950s. OK it's so old-time reverential 'weekend' is still spelled with a hyphen in the middle, and the F-word is spelled FUGG. But don't assume this tragicomic, bittersweet, hard-hitting book has aged at all.

I liked this so much - even as an admirer of Lodge's middle period I didn't expect his second book to be so good at this age - I don't want to reduce it to a simple phrase, such as 'it's about how damnably easy it is for someone to be too smart to belong in military service - yet about how gallingly easy the army finds it to always win'. It's a heck of a lot more than a quick British companion to Catch-22, which is similarly brought down to one phrase regardless of its merits.

This boils down to a story of an unusual friendship - and Lodge does himself a disservice in his 1980s afterword by saying both Jon and Mike were spun from himself. They're completely realised, and the triangle of them and Pauline, revealed as it is over several chapters, all set 'now' and 'then', is well worth consuming. There's religion here too to some extent, and a richly precise vocabulary, which both link with the man Lodge studied for his post-grad research, Graham Greene. (Lodge is like it to this day, dismissing a bodged behemoth of a lectern at a lecture I saw him give recently as a 'catafalque').

And like that author, there is an eminent readability, a constant sway from serious to comical, and sterling male characterisation. This left me only even more assured I escaped a nightmare (albeit by a whole generation), but almost completely satisfied to read this description of NS. If I could believe Jon and Mike were doing so much of their service together, and working aside so often, this may have got the full five stars.

I must thank Vintage for my review copy. We also have a review of The Campus Trilogy by David Lodge.

As I write the latest Lodge book is an amalgam of fact and fiction, regarding H G Wells. We enjoyed it, as can be seen here.

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