9 May 2018

Tory Heaven or Thunder on the Right by Marghanita Laski

We in Ontario are having a General Election of our own next month.  At the moment, we're wading through a stream of campaign promises, negative ads, and debate.  The 'promises' and statements usually serve to raise my blood pressure because I've heard it all before...elect us and your life will be easier.  One of my first experiences with voting resulted in a feeling of betrayal when auto insurance rates failed to plummet.  I was so naive.  Politically, the cost of auto insurance is the least of our worries these days.  So is this a good time to delve into a book called Tory Heaven?  With Marghanita Laski behind the message, the answer is an emphatic 'YES!'.

It's 1945 and five British citizens have been living meagerly on an island near New Guinea after escaping from Singapore.  Spending several years away from the luxuries of their former lives is a great leveller and everyone gets along.  After hilarious speculation regarding the radio, transmissions become possible and the group hear the news that Britain is now under Conservative rule.

   'Janice said,  "They wouldn't nationalize Claridges, would they?"   No one answered.  Ughtred said, as if to comfort himself, "After all, they may be Socialists, but they're Britishers.  That's what we must cling to - they're Britishers."   "You're pleased, Martin darling, aren't you?"  Penelope asked timidly.   Martin said vehemently, "I'm so delighted I can't begin to express it.  Do any of you realize what this means?  Government of the intellectuals, by the intellectuals, for the intellectuals!  That this should have come in my lifetime!  God, I'd like to be there to see it."'

Finally, salvation arrives when a naval ship rescues the stranded islanders.  Sailing for home, the five friends contemplate life in a Socialist Britain.  Ughtred expresses his revulsion for hand-woven fabrics and communal meals.  But when the ship docks and its passengers are processed, there is confusion when the group is separated and sent to different areas.

   'One of the shore officials came hustling along the third-class deck.  "Any Grade A's here?"  he was shouting.  "Any Grade A's?'   He stopped and looked at James.  "You're a Grade A, aren't you?" he asked briskly.  "Got your disc?"   James said, "I don't understand.  Is this all something new?"   "Ah," said the official.  "Easy to see you've not been home lately.  Never mind  I'll get you fixed up.  Public-school man?"'

And so it begins.  Everyone is graded by family lineage, wealth, education and other factors.  The government even dictates the accepted form of socialization within the grades, as in A restaurants, B pubs, and D housekeepers for A families.  For James, being bestowed with a Grade A status means being presented with a bag of gold coins, access to the best tailors and five-star hotels; there's even a woman in his bed to increase his level of comfort.  Everything is possible and accessible.

Following James as he lives the sort of life he believes he was born for was very entertaining and made me laugh out loud several times.  When asked about his choice of occupation there is no hesitation in James's reply...'Man-About-Town'.  As ridiculously snobby as that sounds, he is the Tory's dream man.  According to the people in charge, achieving the ultimate status of doing as you please is an example for everyone - it sets you apart.  But, in a classic example of 'careful what you wish for' James begins to realize that there is a price to pay for an easy life and when choice is removed,  he is left feeling desperate.  For one female character, her D status has left her desperate from the beginning.

Anyone who reads Tory Heaven will be in awe of the astuteness with which Laski writes of the perils of what is, at its root, a dictatorship.  What makes this story even more astounding is that Laski was of the Jewish faith and would have had knowledge of the atrocities in Germany.  To pen this story shortly after WWII, with a sentiment of charm and humour, while at the same time sending a very forceful message that no one is better than anyone else is to Laski's credit.

Tory Heaven is an excellent read.  Extraordinarily, both sombre and fun, this is a story that will stay with you and provoke no small amount of thought reflection about the many ways people are still being 'graded' today.

Reissued by Persephone Books (2018). 

2 comments:

  1. How funny... we were just talking with some of our exchange students about a eerily simular rating system being considered, or maybe even implemented, in China. The French students were asking about it, and the Chinese student was insisting that it was fake news. It seemed to have more to do with whether you could ride the subway than where you could eat, though. :) Can you imagine?

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  2. Thank you for the review of a book I would not have heard of anywhere else! I will be trying to track this down.

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