We’ve seen all-too-many twenty-something singleton-around-town
novels in recent years and almost without exception they’ve been
vapid and inane – and certainly not what the average Richmond
Review reader would be seen reading on the Tube of a morning.
So the arrival on the literary scene of Vivien Kelly – twenty-something,
works in advertising, lives in London – might be expected to prompt
a somewhat cynical response in the RR editorial offices. And news that Kelly’s debut work Take One Young Man is the story of a twenty-something
singleton who works in advertising and lives in London hardly
encourages further investigation. Happily, however, Kelly is quite
unlike any other twenty-something novelist currently at work in
the UK – and far from being the usual banal exploration of banal
lives, Take One Young Man is an exceptional first novel which
mixes fluent storytelling, thoughful insight, sensitive observation,
seriousness and humour, all in perfect proportion.
Take One Young Man‘s central character Sam Glass is just 25 but
he’s already in a rut – he spends his days being insulted by bosses
and clients and his nights drinking with best chum Henry, and
he hates it:
Sam couldn’t help feeling, after he had left university, that
his life had somehow stopped. That everything had been put on
hold for a few years. In fact, when he thought about it he wasn’t
even sure that his life had ever begun. School and university
were all preparation, they were all part of the process of getting
ready, of building up knowledge and ways of thinking and skills
that would be used later on. But used later on doing what? Sam
couldn’t help thinking, ‘Is this it?’ Over and over he refused
to believe that it was. But when he asked himself what it
was, he had no answer. And so he felt that he was waiting. Treading
water. Fire-fighting. Taking two steps forward and two back. Twenty-five
and waiting for a different life. Waiting for the real thing.
Waiting to become somebody. When he chewed his fingers that was
what he was thinking. When he stared at the sky those were the
thoughts that went through his mind. And it always started with
the same question: Is this it?
Unlike his peers in London, however, Sam has a romantic faith
in the possibility of redemption from the banality of everyday
He got up and went back into his room, where he shut the window
and gazed for a moment at his maps, remembering the game he had
played when he got in last night and looking at where the pin
had struck home. Climbing into bed he thought that the answer
must lie on one of those maps. There must be some place where
things would make sense, where he would do the right thing, where
he would stare at the sky to admire its beauty and not to look
for an answer.
The chance sighting of an advert for a job in Antarctica provides
Sam with his glimpse of where to find the answer and, together
with Henry, he endures an arduous selection process – and when
the job offer comes through he sets about dismantling his ordered,
career-orientated existence with a quietly savage efficiency.
Sam’s romantic conception of Antarctica comes at least partly
from the fact that his grandfather Leo had an Antarctic adventure
of his own in the early-ish days of British polar exploration.
And Leo is the secret star of this novel – an 86-year-old man
whose vitality and keen intelligence are both the source of Sam’s
dissatisfaction and the means of his redemption. For as well as
granting his grandson the vision to test himself by facing life
in the Antarctic, Leo has groomed Sam’s soul in such a way that
when Sam meets the novel’s love interest Kasia he is able to love
and be loved with the authentic passion that has been missing
from his peers’ desultory one-night-stands and casual flings.
And as Leo is this novel’s secret star, so it’s Leo’s own love
affair with Kasia, sixty-one years his junior, that provides the
novel’s ironic weight:
‘It’s a shame we can’t see the whole sky at once, all flattened
out in one long canvas. Then I could tell you all about the stars
in the Southern Hemisphere too. There are more there, and there
are fewer cities, so the sky is darker, and the stars shine even
brighter.’ Leo cleared his throat and dropped his voice to a whisper.
‘You know the best thing about stars?’ Kasia shook her head. ‘The
best thing about stars is that, being so far away, the way we
see them is not the way they actually are. The sun is so far away
that the way we see it is actually the way it looked eight minutes
ago. The moon is nearer, but still the moon we are looking at
is the moon as it looked over a second ago. Because the light
has to travel so far’. He paused. ‘Sometimes I think it could
be marvellous if the same thing could happen to us. So that, despite
the fact that I’m eighty-six, you would look at me and see me
how I was at twenty-five, so light would take sixty-one years
to pass from me to you. You would see me as I was then, and never
be able to see me as I am now’.
Neither of them said anything. Instead they looked at the airy
darkness above them, still and silent. The question of why Leo
wanted Kasia to see him as he was then and not as he was now did
not cross Kasia’s mind. The answer was obvious. The answer was
just as clear as Leo’s eyes were cloudy, it was as straightforward
as Leo’s fingers were bent. It was sitting in every crease and
fold of Leo’s papery skin.
Richmond Review: Take One Young Man strikes me as being the kind of novel that comes out of a lifelong desire to write
Vivien Kelly: I started off wanting to be ‘a motor-bike
man’, which was closely followed by wanting to be ‘a lady-writer’,
so yes I did start off wanting to write. However, the desire got
lost somewhere along the route to grown-up-dom, and I didn’t really
think about it again. It wasn’t until I’d written quite a lot
of Take One Young Man that I acknowledged that writing was something I really wanted to do.
RR: You have a busy career as an account handler in advertising – how do you fit the writing in?
VK: I tend to do a little often. Nothing crystalises the
mind like spending the day doing stuff you don’t particularly
want to, so I usually arrive home determined to do some writing.
RR: Which must make it difficult to find time for research…
VK: Which is one of the reasons I wrote about advertising
in the first place since that way I wouldn’t have to spend my
life reading Lett’s Guide to Accountancy or grilling homeopaths
RR: But you paint a pretty negative picture of the world
of advertising in the book – so perhaps that is research.
VK: The whole book didn’t take place in front of my eyes,
but there are some scenes which certainly did.
RR: The idea of Antarctica works in the novel as a metaphor
for escape from the everyday banality of work, alcohol, anonymous
sex and so on…
VK: But also of the values that the advertising industry
and society at large holds dear. Advertising deals in the dreams
of individuals – it recognizes that most of us are in some way
discontented – and promises us that the solution to our discontent
lies in a simple but climatic till transaction.
RR: That sense that Sam’s not just rejecting a job or a
particular lot in life, but also the very system his job in advertising
depends on comes across very clearly in the novel without ever
really being made explicit.
VK: Sam’s dream needed to be realisable outside of the
purchasing arena. In the capitalist world Antarctica is almost
meaningless – since the Antarctic Treaty was ratified in 1960
it can’t be owned or bought and has, thankfully, a limited potential
for profit, having been set aside solely and permanently for peaceful
purposes and cooperative scientific research.
RR: Somewhere you’d like to go yourself?
VK: It’s the last great wilderness on earth and I suppose
in that respect it could be seen as our last chance not to fuck
things up environmentally. My visiting the place wouldn’t help.
RR: Sam isn’t at all unusual in that the source of his
dissatisfaction with his life is partly his knowledge that his
grandfather’s generation was in some way "tested" –
either in war or by embarking on expeditions such as Leo’s own.
VK: On the surface there are a number of similarities between the early nineteen-hundreds and the nineteen-nineties: the Labour
landslide; localised wars; a feeling of, if not a powerful Britain,
then at least a fairly strong one. But I don’t really think that
any of these capture what Sam finds so fascinating about the time.
He has, like a lot of people, a romanticised view of early polar
exploration. He sees its major figures as shining examples of
courage, endurance and resolution. It is these qualities which
attract Sam – qualities that seem to have no bearing on, or rather
no use in, the life he currently lives.
RR: And in the year 2000 it could be difficult to find
any place where those qualities would be of much practical use…
VK: These men were the last generation of terrestrial explorers and to a generation motivated by ease and convenience and fully
accustomed to the notion of air travel, terrestrial exploration
is something which seems so utterly daunting it appears almost
impossible. We know that anyone attempting to get to the south
pole today would be only a small part of a huge operation; their
progress would be monitored live on the web, help would be available
at the slightest sign of danger and probably the whole trip would
be sponsored by a multi-national drinks company.
RR: Our generation is obsessed with the soldier-poet-explorers of the Edwardian era in a way that Sam neatly reflects – but many of those people could be accused of gross stupidity just as easily
as they could be acclaimed for their heroism.
VK: A group of young men doing remarkable things seems
to have come to symbolize the whole decade, which is why it appeals
to Sam, given his situation and youth. Shackleton said that the
qualities necessary to the explorer are first, optimism; second,
patience; third, physical endurance; fourth, idealism; fifth and
last, courage. Optimism and hope were key to these explorers –
qualities usually associated, at least until the aftermath of
WW1, with being young. So while it is possible to criticise all
these men, or at least the British parties, for oversights, bad
planning and all-round amateurism, their spirits, at least in
the eyes of Sam, remain unassailable.
RR: You write convincingly – and empathetically – about
an old man’s emotions and personality.
VK: Leo provides a contrast to the busy twenty-something
London life that was to be the focus of the book. It seems to
me that in this country old people are written off way before
their hearts stop beating. Again, this is partly driven by a consumerist
society, where old people are, on the whole, impotent – they have
low spending power, buy in small volumes, and have a limited capacity
RR: Those sound like technical terms…
VK: They’re effectively invisible: they stay in their houses, or they’re put away in homes or sheltered accommodation. Out of
sight and out of mind.
I’d been reading The View in Winter by Ronald Blythe, a collection of interviews with old people conducted in the seventies. I began
to think about the way we approach old people. It seemed to me
that we tend to think of old people as though they have been through
some sort of trauma, which we shouldn’t mention and never ask
them about. I think that when I’m old, I’ll be exactly as I am
now, only older. And that’s how I wanted Leo to be – as close
to how he was as a young man as I could possibly make him. And
because he is entertaining and lively both Sam and Kasia’s visits
aren’t a question of obligation or duty, but of friendship.
RR: And in Kasia’s case perhaps more than just friendship.
VK: The love triangle evolved during the course of writing
the book. Sam and Kasia were always going to fall in love, but
the love between Kasia and Leo, to use that great morning-after
phrase, just happened. Given their characters and their situation
it became clear, as I developed different sections of the book,
that this was what would occur. I had a fixed idea of Leo’s character
from the start and I knew that his role, while being peripheral
from a plot point of view, would be significant within the story.
Placing his ebullience next to Kasia’s vulnerability created a
kind of emotional vacuum – it was inevitable that they would be
sucked into it.
Copyright © 2000 The Richmond Review