Friday, June 25, 2010

The British Museum is Falling Down – David Lodge

This was my first David Lodge, and it’s a book I picked up as my third three for two in Waterstones (yes indeed, that’s how enthusiastic I was to get my hands on it). The thing with me and Lodge is that for years I’ve picked up his books and then put them right back down again. This despite the glowing recommendations from friends (including the blonde) whose opinion I respect, I always think I should like them but when it comes to the crunch neither the covers or the blurbs are enough and something else comes home with me instead. (That I picked up ‘The British Museum is Falling Down’ this time is a testament to the power of the 3 for 2 offer – I only actually wanted one of the books I came home with.)

Still the book was on the shelf, and as Lodge wrote the foreword for ‘The Knot of Vipers’ it seemed like the logical choice for my next read. I got through the book in a day, enjoyed it enormously, got plenty to think about and chew over from it, but think that’s me with Lodge for a while. It’s definitely not him but me. I mean I found this book funny, perceptive, and clever – I managed to pick up on some of the (I now find out ten) parodies worked into the text (turns out it might be worth reading forewords before rather than after reading a book). I even tried to make the Scottish one read it (a plan foiled by my taking the book back home with me when he was half way through it). Well reading that back I’m beginning to think I might try another sometime...

The thing that really interested me in ‘The British Museum is Falling Down’ was the debate about contraception from a Catholic point of view, more specifically for a young married couple already saddled with three children and worried that a fourth might be on the way. It’s the fiftieth anniversary of the advent of the pill this year; there’s been a fair amount of discussion about how it changed women’s lives, generally for the better and that seems to be the end of the conversation. What Lodge does here, and I’ve yet to read another writer do the same, is really look at contraception from both a male and female point of view and I find it fascinating. When Adam’s offered illicit strings free sex he turns it down through fear of pregnancy. Both Adam and Barbara find following the safe period (complete with charts and thermometers) a nerve wracking and frustrating exercise, but even if religion allowed the use of other methods neither find them attractive. A meeting with other young Catholics highlights some of the doubts surrounding the pill and the scare stories attached to it – this written at a time when London was meant to be swinging (and embracing the opportunities the pill offered).

One thing that really stands out is Adam’s sense of responsibility regarding fatherhood. It’s not something he feels he can walk away from but forty five years later that stands out, it seems we now take for granted that contraception is a woman’s responsibility, and almost hers alone. Another is how seriously Adam and Barbara take the ruling of their church and how big an impact it has on their married life – are they right to do this? Hard to say because whilst practically it feels like another child would be a disaster, not just choosing to follow the convenient rules feels important. Lodge also suggests (repeatedly) that contraception is a fairly unattractive option to both partners – I want to get indignant about that, but there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that he’s right.

It’s hard for me to entirely imagine a world without the pill; it’s something I’ve come to take for granted as a good thing, just as I take its easy stigma free availability for granted. Its use and misuse is so common a soap plotline I take that for granted too, so reading from a somewhat different perspective has been quite an eye opener.


  1. Glad you finally cracked David Lodge -- I read a lot of his books some years ago and really enjoyed them. Nice Work is great, and so is Changing Places. Very funny, clever and thought-provoking writer.

  2. I found this the most dated of all of his work and also very different from his campus novels which I do recommend that you read if you ever decide to have a go with him again as he really is one of the best commentators on provincial universities.

  3. I'm going to look out for a likely contender in charity shops Verity, I agree it does feel dated, not least because the british library has moved. I'm assuming that part of the reason penguin chose it for the decades series is because of the contraception debate. 45 years isn't so long ago but attitudes have changed so much - this book really did make the past feel like a foreign country (possibly Ireland or Italy)

    Harriet - I'm not sure I've cracked him yet - but I'm going to give it another go.

  4. I'm just going to echo Harriet and Verity and say that Changing Places and Nice Work are great, as is Therapy. I've never read this one before so i might see if my library has it.

  5. I have been reading quite a lot about the pill recently (in a social history way!) and would be interested to have a look at this if only to help me get a grip of how people regarded contraception at the time of its introduction and immediately before etc. Thanks for recommending and I like the title as well!

    Bon weekend

  6. Hannah, I think it might be just the ticket for you. It made me question some attitudes I really take for granted.