I was crawling around the floor at Oxfam when I found Philip Oakes’s Exactly What We Want on a VERY low shelf among the vintage Penguins. The pages are tanned, but it cost only £1.50. And this brilliant 1962 novel turned out to be the find of the trip.
It is reminiscent of Kingsley Amis’s satire, Lucky Jim. Both novels center on an anti-hero who hates his profession, though in this case it is journalism, not academia. The protagonist, John Draper, works as a reporter for a kind of lowbrow AP news agency which sells sensational articles to newspapers and tabloids. The reporters cover the police court and write features about singing dogs. (Actually, they get scooped on the singing dog.)
Oakes (1928-2005) knew this kind of journalism. According to his obituary at the Guardian, he worked briefly after the war for a news agency that covered police court news. Eventually he became the film critic at The Telegraph, held various jobs at the Times, and worked in television. He was also a poet and novelist. John Draper, alas, does not move on to better things.
Oakes is very sympathetic to Draper, who is rejected for all other jobs. Draper is so poor he must have his only pair of shoes fixed while he waits, drinks horribly bitter tea in a cheap cafe (he claims a spoon can stand up in it), and can barely afford an unheated room in cheap digs.
Doreen, the secretary, is the bane of his life at work. When she tells him that the boss, Mr. Fenning, says he must hurry to court and make no more mistakes about names and addresses, he tells her, “You know what Mr. Fenning can do.”
But Doreen gets the better of him.
Doreen spat delicately on to a block of mascara and dabbled a small brush in the mud. ‘I know that Mr. Fenning can sack you if he has a mind to,’ she said, starting operations on her right eye.
Draper felt his cheeks redden. Why he let himself get drawn into an argument, he had no idea. There was no point of it. He never won. And often he was forced into shameful retreat. Doreen had a gift for selecting the unanswerable phrase, or rather, the phrase which he lacked the guts to answer in the way it deserved. What he should say now he knew, was ‘Mr. Fenning can stuff his job.’ But he would never say it. Mr. Fenning might hear.
All of Oakes’s characters are well-drawn. Troy, a cynical young reporter, doesn’t worry about money because he lives with his family. He has an older girlfriend, Cynthia, but he goes out with other women on the sly. When he initiates Draper into the world of poetry readings, and Draper falls for Cynthia, Troy graciously hands her over. Cynthia, a sympathetic character who loves art and highbrow plays but enjoys Draper’s company, is separated from her husband, a pompous, superficial TV star who is going into politics. Cynthia understands marketing and manipulation, but she likes Draper, who doesn’t understand any of these things.
This is one of the most enjoyable novels I’ve read this year. Draper is a more innocent, naive character than Amis’s Jim Dixon, and Oakes’s tone is slightly more serious, but both heroes denounce the hypocrisy of their professions. Whether they find something better is another question.
After I read all my London books, I hope to find more by Oakes.