The Night Watch – Sarah Walters

TNWWe like books that go backwards. It’s like getting to know people in relationships who, over time, gradually reveal more of their pasts.

These people turn out to have surprising connections with each other

Alec and Duncan think that their suicide pact would become a date taught in schools. Duncan’s idealism about working men not wanting war if they were given decent jobs and homes is dampened by Fraser who says that he should try running a factory full of them. When Fraser doesn’t turn up, Duncan makes excuses for him. They met in prison as conscientious objectors. The place had blocked sinks where pots were emptied near where they ate. ‘Prison turns us back into schoolboys’ –masturbation. They get used to prison smells – feet, breath. During precious visit, a prisoner is looking at the clock– wanting the time to go, being used to prison routine and not liking interruption.

There’s a description of gawky teenage boys with Duncan and Fraser watching them.

Vivian is depicted typing a diet/nutrition list before computers were invented – getting the columns straight because there were no photocopiers so people had to use carbon paper.

Kay initially thought Julia was bombed so their eventual reunion is joyful. I imagined, vividly, her rush across blitzed London to her house when she heard that it had been bombed. I felt her anguish as she feared what she might find. In her mid-thirties and wearing trousers she lives in a room with no books, clothes hanging on a wire, darned socks, a cold-water bathroom down the hall and a sour smelling bed. She watches her landlord’s patients arrive and leave at exactly the same hours every day and notices an elderly man and a young man aged about twenty five. When she tells her friend Micky “I’ve got lost in the rubble… couldn’t get over it” is she thinking of the break with her lover Helen? She comparesthe deep peace of the marital bed to “the hurly-burly of the sapphic chaise lounge” and she asks, “Why is it we can never love the people we ought to?”

The atmosphere of wartime Britain is well described, with its Brylcreem and Pears soap, outside lavatories, the rumour that guns in France that can reach England but the Government is trying to hush it up, the British passion for uniforms to be worn by every person doing the most menial of jobs for the war effort, despite their fighting the Germans who were obsessed with uniforms, the fatalist resignation that says that if a bomb with your name on it then there is nothing you can do children sleeping under kitchen table and thinking it normal. A man from Evening Standard predicts colder winters (almost like our global warming) because bombs have knocked earth off balance. Lesbians don’t inherit their partner’s pension, a phone operator listens in to people’s conversations and there is a vivid description of a pigeon with its wings on fire. People thought it to be burning paper at first.

Homosexuals have a hatred of effeminate men – they don’t want to go to bed with girls yet they act like them.

Sexual knowledge is poor – someone thinks that wiping a hand full of semen on the grass will fertilise knicklerless girl who sits on it.  There is an amateur abortion done by a knitting needle by a back street dentist who will only do it if the mother wears a wedding ring.

We are more aware of this these days but self-harm makes one of the women feel more alive.

Christian Science was more popular back then – God is perfect so he made a perfect world so illness doesn’t exist so must be an illusion.

Good quotations:

“She supposed that houses, after all – like the lives that were lived in them – were mostly made of space. It was the spaces, in fact, which counted, rather than the bricks.”

“life is crap but, every day is an experience”

“Helen opened her eyes and gazed into the luminous blue of the sky. Was it crazy, she wondered, to be as grateful as she felt now, for moments like this, in a world that had atomic bombs in it—and concentration camps, and gas chambers? People were still tearing each other into pieces. There was still murder, starvation, unrest, in Poland, Palestine, India—God knew where else. Britain itself was sliding into bankruptcy and decay. Was it a kind of idiocy or selfishness, to want to be able to give yourself over to the trifles: to the parp of the Regent’s Park Band; to the sun on your face, the prickle of grass beneath your heels, the movement of cloudy beer in your veins, the secret closeness of your lover? Or were those trifles all you had? Oughtn’t you, precisely, to preserve them? To make little crystal drops of them, that you could keep, like charms on a bracelet, to tell against danger when next it came?”

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