Book Review: Only Lovers Left Alive, Dave Wallis (1964)

4/5 (Good)

The scene: Early 60s London. Conjure displays of cool style at local discothèques. Youthful insolence and wit. Frivolous consumerism. Into this swirling myth/reality of the “Swinging” city in the early 60s, Dave Wallis’ Only Lovers Left Alive (1964) weaves its own petulant “image making.” The youth attempt to create a world in the ashes of their forefathers who commit suicide in droves.

Unlike John Christopher’s Pendulum (1968), that drips with sullen rants about England’s “traditions crumbling under the assault of the new Hedonism,” Only Lovers Left Alive (1964) uncovers a beating heart behind the experience-driven youth forced to confront a world without parents and other “squares” (14).

For a fascinating look at the “image making” and material power of Swinging London, even then “part myth and part reality,” check out Simon Rycroft’s Swinging City: A Cultural Geography of London 1950-1974 (2011) (65). Like a piece Richard Hamilton pop art, Dave Wallis’ Only Lovers Left Alive (1964) cuts to the sad heart of things and weaves something new from the collage of the past.

Why All the Squares Looked for a Way Out

A pandemic of emptiness crawls its way into the souls of all adults but the insane. Mr. Oliver, a history teacher, cannot escape the crushing sadness of self-reflection: “what was he doing slaving in this examination factory” (3). He jumps from his classroom window. Later his students in all their “cliques and gangs and groups,” club at the Tropic Night. Around the juke boxes and pool tables, materialism and image–the height of hair, the tightness of jeans–rule youthful perceptions rather than “scholastic ability” (6). Mr. Tellen, a journalist looking for a story and a reason behind Mr. Oliver’s demise, thinks something is afoot as the kids “held an odd loyalty to an institution they loathed and to a dead man they despised” (8). And indeed, an inscrutable malaise afflicting all adults, despite attempts by the World Health Organization and enterprising journalists like Mr. Tellen and Alf Neighbor, cannot be lifted. And like Mr. Oliver in his moment of sad reflection, adults make the ultimate choice.

Ernie, Charlie, and Kathy—the core of the Seely St. Gang—each have their last connections to school, their previous world, their families, severed. They speculate on the reasons for the mass suicide: “I think the squares is just giving up. I mean they never seemed to get any kick out of anything, just beer and poo, and telly” (26). For a while they feel the pull of habit–they drift back to their empty homes at night (34) and they gather for parties in the homes of the dead (31). The warm embrace of the Tropic Night with its throbbing music and teen rituals of status and sex somehow provide balm to the corrosive post-WWII evisceration of purpose.

With the death of institutions and bureaucracy, the National Bingo Governing Council attempts to exert control. The Bingo Halls “became the centres of local economic life and one of the few remaining meeting places for the young and surviving old” (49). But supplies are running low. The teens bemoan the lack of contraceptives, hair products, and petrol. Conflict will lead to spoils. And so they set off.

Medievalism as The Last Gasp Before the Petrol Runs Dry

Before a new world can be wrought previous paths must be reenacted. In a last entropic gasp before the petrol runs dry, the Seely St. Gang feels the inexplicable pull towards the center of historical things–capturing Windsor Castle, the land of The Kings (78). Charlie hooks the lure: “I’ve heard they have a whole lot of stuff down at Windsor Castle […] big guns, lots of ammo, all sorts of stuff and a big store of petrol” (60). Enacting timeless scenes from Alexander with his Companions to Arthur’s Round Table, Ernie, ensconced on his makeshift throne, feels the world in the palm of his hand and a perceptible shift in the air that this revanche “was not playacting” (66).

Gathering their surviving petrol tins, attaching pillions replete with the gang’s girls, with banners of re-conceived medieval symbology flying high, the gang sets out as “ranks of knights, six abreast” with Ernie “looking straight ahead in purposeful fashion with is black jacket collar turned up and the organ tiger’s head” (71). Kathy drives the van with the gang’s supplies (71).

The inevitable conflict is an apocalyptic one. There will be no more fuel. The parades of materialism (the perfectly formed hair, the clothing, the polished motorcycles) will never happen again. A brutal landscape will emerge with Ernie perched, king-like, in Windsor’s ruins, an instrument in the decline. As the gang disperses looking for new leaders and new ways to survive, the core that remains sets off with a “vague feeling that this would be a bigger and longer expedition than the others” (136). On their way into the countryside they see how others have eked out a way to live in the ruins. A more immediate array of pleasures accost them–the smell of “roast mutton and baking flour” (140).

Dave Wallis presents the revanche and its aftermath as a final action of sheering off the institutional shadow of the past. A last historical reenactment of past before something else can be created in the wreckage. Swinging London, despite all its youthful insolence and frivolous consumerism, will birth something new and lasting.

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15 thoughts on “Book Review: Only Lovers Left Alive, Dave Wallis (1964)

  1. Be a pretty short future…where’s the food coming from? who’s going to maintain the power grid? etc etc

    But it’s not meant to be predictive in the official sense, is it. As a thought exercise it’s got potential, and clearly you enjoyed it, so it succeeded.

    • Well they definitely run out of food and power and petrol and everything else. That’s sort of the point. All of that will only last so long. After which a new path will have to be followed.

    • I hinted at this in the beginning of the review — Wallis, as a teacher himself (I think he was a long-term substitute teacher), sees something positive in the youth of the day despite what appear to be frivolous concerns and rituals (and considering when he was writing, an older man–born in 1917–in the middle of the growing scene in London this is a bit of a shock). This isn’t some screed about how the world is going to shit because of the youth who have lost the path of tradition–and if anything is at fault, it’s the actions of the adults that have molded the post-WWII world of nuclear terror and surveillance and lost their own love of life. This suggests that there is promise in the youth. And so it’s a weirdly refreshing book in all its chaos and despair.

  2. Some similarities to Pendulum in the premise it seems. I will have to look for this. There was a period when this type of novel was popular the English really reveled in the thought of the collapse of society it seems, maybe we still do.

    • I’ve only read about Pendulum — from what I know of Christopher and his views in Pendulum (mentioned in the review), this is a bit more about the youth casting off the mistakes of their parents vs. England’s traditions are being destroyed by those youth with no morals.

      If you get around to reading it, let me know what you think! I quite enjoyed it.

      But yes, I’ve stocked up on a bunch of British disaster fictions recently. I have H. R. E Keating’s A Long Walk to Wimbledon, Christopher’s Pendulum, pseudo-non fiction like Brian McConnell’s Britain in the Year 2000, John Bowen’s After the Rain (both his original novel and the play adaptation), among others all waiting in the wings.

  3. Speaking of 1960s London, huh? Something you didn’t mention here is that there was a film adaptation of this novel, starring the Rolling Stones and directed by Nicholas Ray, planned in the mid-1960s, though it didn’t get off the ground.

    The Oxford Reference site has a definition of ‘cosy catastrophe’ as
    ‘a disaster or post-apocalypse story which focuses on a character or characters who take advantage of the situation to pursue self-indulgent …’

    So this one would fit right in there. As we all know and as Neil comments, many novels of this flavor were produced by UK writers of that time. Besides those from the nominal SF writers (including Ballard, who by his own admission never ceased to be an SF writer in his own mind even with later books like SUPER-CANNES), there were notable entries from the likes of Anthony Burgess with A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and THE WANTING SEED (the latter being what UK society might look like two centuries after a cosy catastrophe), and strange quasi-SF works like Kingsley Amis’s THE ANTI-DEATH LEAGUE, in which the threat of nuclear war looms large.

    Not so surprising. The UK was still dealing with its extremely rapid fold-down of and retreat from empire, which was still ongoing in 1963 when, forex, British rule in Kenya ceased. In fact, my father had a job in Jamaica when I was a very young boy and it was still very much the British-dominated Jamaica of DR. NO, the first Bond film.

    Alongside that, there was an extraordinary increase in social fluidity after the previous class-bound British society; the to-and-fro still proceeding from the Attlee government’s introduction of the NHS and the Welfare State in 1945; and also the presence of the new mass medium of television in every home. And along with figuring out what might be done with the new mass media, the British were also experimenting with their own take on the pop culture imported from the US — alongside the American pulp-descended version of SF (as contrasted to the Wellsian tradition of the ‘scientific romance’), African-American music made an enormous impression.

    With the never-absent threat of global nuclear war in the background — the UK and Europe were right in the middle of any potential ICBM exchange between the US and USSR — it was a time of extraordinary social mobility and opening-up in the UK. Much of it closed down with the arrival of Thatcher and the neoliberal turn. As was the intent.

    • Yeah, I could also have mentioned that Jim Jarmusch enjoyed the novel so much that he took the title for his film on an entirely different topic — Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

      I guess it goes to show how much the book has faded from memory if it was such a thing that Ray and the Rolling Stones would be involved.

      Have you read it? Are you tempted to track down a copy?

      I only focused on a few elements of the novel. I could have devoted a chunk of my review to his commentary on British tabloid media at the time (Alf Neighbor is a substantial character in the first half of the story). Other than teen culture, the media landscape is Wallis’ most overt critique of the problems of contemporary Britain.

  4. I haven’t read it. I am — moderately — tempted to. More for historiographical reasons, than my more usual cultural-artistic ones. (Is it actually decently written?)

    I’ve also been experiencing a minor urge to dip into the Dominic Seabrook and David Kynaston books on the period. It was an interesting time and place to experience when young, and it’s interesting in retrospect, too.

    For instance, something that’s hard to appreciate now is how much the experience of WWII and the London Blitz continued to reverberate even after the 1950s austerity-era faded into the past. There were still bombed-out patches of London in the early 1960s and the experience of it had molded the mentalities of every adult who lived through it and who I knew (when I returned to the UK from Jamaica as a young boy).

    In SF, it’s all over things like Nigel Kneale’s immensely influential QUATERMASS scripts for the BBC in the 1950s, especially the third, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, in 1959 —

    — and the rather good Hammer film made from that in 1967 (known in the US as FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH) —

    You might look at Nigel Kneale sometime (and not just his QUATERMASS stuff; there are other interesting scripts like THE STONE TAPE and THE YEAR OF THE SEX OLYMPICS). Two or three of the American director John Carpenter’s films are outright hommages to Kneale, and Carpenter employed him on a script (though I think Kneale refused the credit in disgust at the final product). Now I think about it, too, Carpenter’s THE THING takes a Kneale-esque approach, with the mixture of a distinctly conceptualized, utterly alien being and pure horror. Likewise, the best ideas in Chris Carter’s THE X-FILES in the 1990s were mostly ripped-off from QUATERMASS II and QUATERMASS AND THE PIT back in the 1950s.

    • While I have seen plenty of Carpenter, attempted to watch the various Quartermass films, read reviews of The Year of the Sex Olympics, etc. I have little to no toleration for most SF cinema (other than a few odd films and shows here and there). There’s a reason I focus almost exclusively on texts. To fill the gap, I religiously read the reviews of Janne Wass and his chronological exploration of the genre:

      And — for stuff like The Year of the Sex Olympics — the reviews of Kevin over at The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Film and TV.

      Almost all my attempts to watch relevant TV from the era — Survivors etc. — have ended in failure. It’s not for me. I have nostalgic favorites of course like Star Trek (all of them) etc. I rather read a terrible paperback than suffer through another episode of Blake’s 7. I know, I know, I probably ruffled someone’s feathers (Antyphayes — SORRY!). hah. Ultimately, I rather read reviews/scholarship of SF films than watch them.

    • As for the quality of Only Lovers Left Alive’s prose — solid. Unlike so many novels, I was never offended by it. Relatively evocative in image, especially the final sequences… And, his ability to craft a tabloid headline was hilarious. I should create a list of all the headlines from the book.

  5. JB: ‘I have little to no toleration for most SF cinema (other than a few odd films and shows here and there).’

    Oh, I’m the same — have never even owned a TV set. (Well, almost — someone once left me a portable one I took to a bullshit gig a week or two later and watched while I was playing, then left onstage afterwards; it was an weeknight gig I didn’t like but that the woman kept calling me for, which I admit was kind of churlish behavior on my part.)

    I’d count what I consider the decent SF movies on, maybe, five fingers of one hand. 2001 would be one. Funnily enough, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT might be another, though that’s possibly due to how old I was when I saw it. Kneale had original, deep SFnal ideas, better than guys like Brunner and Aldiss, and you can get some of the effect just by reading the wiki plot synopsis.

    Thanks for the links to the Kevin and Janne sites.

  6. So you don’t like/can’t stand Blake’s 7… Your loss my friend!
    I’ve not read this book, but it’s context reminds me a lot of the Situational International looking to the leather bedecked alienated yoof (“blousons noir”) as a part of the vanguard of the “new proletariat” of the 1960s. An inadequate translation of one of their article’s analyzing the “youth crisis” from 1961 can be found here:
    Interestingly, M John Harrison develops this idea–in part–when he cast “situationalist” (sic.) gangs in his novel The Committed Men.

  7. I know this is off topic, but I can’t being fascinated by the banner artwork. Can you tell me who the artist is or what book or magazine its from or any information at all.
    Thanks, Steve Stoffers

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