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Room at the TopThose of you who have been enjoying the BBC’s adaptation of John Braine’s 1950s novel Room at the Top, with its updated, added raunchiness, might be interested to know of the Yorkshire-born author’s links with Woking, which were news to me.   A one-line reference to Woking in an enthusiastic review of the first episode in the Observer sent me scurrying to Google. This is what I found out. Braine moved to Woking in 1966, occupied a large, six-bedroom house at The Holt in Pyrford Heath for a number of years with his wife and four children, and commuted to a down-at-heel, first-floor office in the centre of Woking each day to write. Its seediness and shabbiness, including the outside loo,  he admitted in a TV profile, reminded him of his roots in Bradford.  According to a blog posted by a former reporter on the Woking News and Mail, that office was above a pet shop and near the-then Gaumont cinema. Braine concedes in the film that his den, where he feels so at home, is destined for redevelopment.  It may be that losing it hastened his decline as a writer. In the 1950s, when Room at the Top came out, he was described as one of the Angry Young Men. It was a form of journalist shorthand; Braine was never that, although he did become an Angry Middle-Aged Man,  further to the right in the 1970s than the Conservative party of the day, and warning in that same BBC profile of the dangers of a British leftwing revolution, something he clearly believed to be a real threat.  In  a later interview with the Yorkshire Post, his widow speaks of his decline; how they were forced to move to smaller houses in and around Woking, that he hit the bottle, and how they eventually separated and he spent his final years alone and in debt, in a flat in Hampstead.  A fascinating and ultimately sad story,  mirroring in some ways the fate of his hero Joe Lampton, who moves to London but loses touch with his roots in the process. I’m sure there must be much information out there about Braine’s time in Woking; I’d love to hear of it.

7 Comments

  1. I was a library assistant in Woking when John Braine would come into the library. He was bad tempered and always refused to pay his fines. J.Hale

    • How fascinating! Did he get away with not paying his fines, and how did he justify not paying them? Did the library pursue him?

        • Juliet Hale
        • Posted March 28, 2014 at 2:53 pm
        • Permalink

        You could ask Rosemary Christophers. She was the adult services librarian then. Mr. Wells was the head librarian and Miss Brewer was the deputy. I was a cheerful and rather mischievous assistant and they were shocked when I applied for library school and got in!! I then became a children’s librarian, after watching Kathleen Wichelo run Woking children’s department. We used to get all our books from Nancy Leigh bookshop across the road from the old chapel where the library was housed. Mr. Dally was the bookseller.
        Two other funny stories from Woking library: one day I was writing overdue postcards upstairs on the mezzanine level, which was very dark and had a huge chapel roof. Dorothy Hilton, whose brother ran the Music Shop in Goldsworth Rd, was an administrative assistant at the library and she crept up behind me in the dark and suddenly said in a low voice “all on your own, my dear”! I nearly jumped out of my skin.
        The other story is about my friend Lynne Reuss, who married and became Lynne Wellham. She and I were library assistants and after I applied to the Poly she applied to Ealing and went on to work in Feltham. She died a few years ago of cancer after having a couple of great kids and then becoming a classroom assistant at the school near the airport for the children of detainees, who all spoke different languages. The funny story is that one morning in the dead of winter we did what we often did, put several jam doughnuts into the oven to warm up before our coffee break. Unfortunately one got left in there, and when the end of the day came we realised the oven had been left on, and inside it was this black object that looked like a meteorite. I was tempted to keep it as a souvenir, and I bet if I had, it would still look the same. But I don’t need it because I remember the story so well.
        Thanks for encouraging me to share this! Juliet

  2. John Braine’s office in Woking was not shabby or seedy. It was clean, tidy, cosy and like the man himself extremely welcoming and practical. His crowded bookshelves held works by Koestler, Kipling, Greene, Amis, John O’Hara, Colette, Elizabeth Jane Howard, C.S. Lewis and a biography of Sinatra. I know because it was in his modest little Woking office that I interviewed him in one Monday morning in 1978 or ’79. My intention was to publish a profile-interview of John for The New Edinburgh Review, then being edited by James Campbell, an old friend of mine and now an associate editor of The TLS. (James is author of many books including the first biography of James Baldwin.) For various reasons I never completed the profile, though I still have the transcript of the recorded interview. This was not the fault of John Braine. He was a courteous, modest, witty and extremely well informed man. His passion was for literature, the arts and the whole created world. We spoke for five or six hours. Our only tipple was tea. I remember how proud he was of his wife and children, a son and three daughters. He displayed family photographs with all the pride of a young man. Yet he must have been in his fifties. He smoked king-size cigarettes with the pleasure of one who had known hard times. I remember him saying in his wonderful West Riding baritone ‘Time is running out’ but it was said out of gratitude for all the good times that had been alloted to him. He wept when he talked about the suffering of his grandmother and her lost children; and his mother who was knocked down and killed in a road accident in Bradford before her son’s astonishing success. You can read about his extended family in his last novel, ‘These Golden Days’, which has some of the best writing he ever did. John’s Catholicism was important to him. He referred to it two or three times in our conversation, though with that quiet self-effacement Catholics learned to adopt in post-Reformation England. He loathed the changes in his church. The Latin Mass, which Paul Johnson said was one of the glories of Western Civilization, had been abandoned. He missed it desperately. I told him about the Dutch Protestant theologian who had been invited to attend the open sessions of the Second Vatican Council. This man said that it was almost as if the Church had deliberately set out to destroy its own glorious spiritual heritage. John agreed with that comment. His own Catholicism was very close to Hilaire Belloc’s and G.K. Chesterton’s, two of his favourite writers. But it wasn’t the clever people he thought about. It was the poor elderly women in Bradford who knelt quietly in church, praying before the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Our Lady. And he remembered seeing the poor old women of Leningrad who prayed fully prostate in the Orthodox churches. He had been sent to Russia by The Daily Express. He saw with his own eyes that the god of Marxian materialism had failed horribly. Strangely enough I caught a glimpse of John the day before I interviewed him. It was a summer’s Sunday evening in Woking. I was attending Mass myself before going on to spend the night in my small B and B. As I walked up the aisle to receive Communion, I saw John walking up the opposite aisle. His head was bowed like everyone else’s. I never told him that I had seen him at Mass, never told him I was a Catholic. I hope his faith held strong in his last days in London. He loved England and its people. ‘The magic is here and now,’ he used to say. We have his books.

  3. John Braine’s original office in Woking was featured in a BBC TV documentary, ‘The Magic is Here and Now’ (shown as part of the series entitled One Pair of Eyes). I watched this documentary online, though it is not presently available. This office may well have had an outside lavatory but it looked neat and reasonably tidy. In 1979 I interviewed Mr Braine in his later office which was situated above a sewing shop. There was an inside lavatory. The walls of this office were freshly painted in a light colour. His bookshelves were lined with his favourite poets such as Auden and MacNeice and his favourite prose writers such as Colette, J.B. Priestley and John O’Hara. There was even a biography of Sinatra, and I remember seeing a copy of Josephine Tey’s novel, Daughter of Time. John Braine’s heart was always in the West Riding of Yorkshire, particularly Bradford and Bingley. But he loved his adopted Surrey. Woking, which I found a most attractive town, gets a mention in his 1976 novel Waiting For Sheila, a brilliant study of masculinity in crisis. Surrey and its towns also feature in his final novel, These Golden Days. I found John Braine to be a courteous, witty and engaging person. He belonged to a loose group of writers who were anti-Left and anti-Marxist. They met for lunch in a famous Soho restaurant and were dubbed the Fascists Beasts Club. I did not agree with their views but Braine’s first right-wing novel, The Crying Game, catches a certain moment in the Sixties. Many think his best novels were The Vodi and The Jealous God.

    • Many thanks, Jack, for this fascinating insight, and for filling in so many gaps about John Braine in Woking.

    • I worked in Woking Library when John Braine was a library user, and he never wanted to pay any of his fines for overdue books. I was a teenager and found that horrifying! I don’t like paying library fines, either, and I’m a librarian! Juliet Hale


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