Radcliffe by David Storey
My late mum and I used to swap bags of books, and she used to leave short pithy comments on post-it notes stuck to them for me once she’d read them. I still find the notes occasionally as I sort out her old books. I came across Radcliffe while sorting out some books to dispose of – it’s an old and beaten up ex-library hardback.
Published in 1963, Radcliffe is the story of Leonard Radcliffe who, as the story begins, is nine years old and starting at school. Leonard is smart but shy and is targeted by bullies, however he is rescued by Vic Tolson. The two boys’ friendship will become the defining one of their lives. When they meet again as adults, their friendship becomes physical, overpowering and fatal for one of them.
Here’s what my mum’s note says:
A weird book. It caused a stir in 1963. The main character is homosexual, it wasn’t legal then. When I first read it, I found it a bit nauseating, especially the “excrement sandwiches” scene. I’ve just read it again with interest – not v. enjoyable but powerful in parts. Very different from This Sporting Life which he wrote and was made into a film.
Excrement sandwiches! Sorry for this, but I had to find this bit in the book. Leonard, Tolson and a gang of men are going to put up a marquee. It’s lunchtime.
Leonard folded the paper back from the sandwiches and picked up the top one. He bit it, and chewed.
Then he spat it out and stood up. He spat again. Rubbing his sleeve across his mouth he spat again. The men burst out laughing, one of them rolling on the lawn. The sandwich had fallen open by his feet. Pressed into the buttered bread were two pieces of excrement, one bitten off at the corner.
Yuck, yuck yuck! Leonard had thought it was a practical joke by one of the men, but several pages later, once they’ve finished the job, Tolson stops him:
‘The sandwiches you thought Shaw had done. I did it. I shoved that crap inside. It was my shit. He continued to watch Leonard with an almost appealing stare, half-enraptured, dazed. ‘It was my shit you ate! Mine!’
Tolson is an evil brute, charismatic, a collector of ‘afflicted people’, he’s the complete opposite of Radcliffe in every way, physically and socially. it’s a mutually destructive relationship. You can tell it’s not going to end well, yet at that point I couldn’t tell which one of the pair would not survive. I was shocked to read elsewhere on the net that Kenneth Halliwell was apparently reading Radcliffe before he murdered Joe Orton.
Like many novels of this period, you’re thrust straight into each chapter, constantly having to catch up with what’s happening as the characters (often new), talk in that slightly clipped style that can also seem overblown at the same time. It made it difficult to engage with, so I ended up only skimming the book, although I did peruse the ending to find out what happened. Storey’s third novel is a dark, period portrait of a controlling relationship that wasn’t one for me. My mum, though, read loads of challenging books like this!
David Storey, Radcliffe (1963) – Out of print – used copies available.