“I’m only twelve,” said Ralph, “and I’m useless at lying. I’m no good at it.” (p127)
“He’d have stuck with his namesake and Piggy. At least he hoped he would. He wasn’t very brave. But he’d have tried.” (270)
Carlo Gébler’s The Innocent of Falkland Road is a coming of age tale set in London in 1964, covering a year in the life of twelve-year-old Ralph, one of life’s observers, a boy who learns how to say little even as he notices everything, and wonders what so much of what he sees and hears could mean.
The structure of the novel is quite simple. There are twelve chapters, each covering a different month of the year. Some of these chapters are only a few pages.
The novel opens with Ralph’s mother leaving for America, where she has been hired as a landscape designer for a wealthy family in upstate New York. His parents are divorced – his father does not appear in the novel. His mother exists in the rest of the novel only in letters and telegrams and the occasional phone call, and whether Ralph truly misses his mother is hard to say, in part because although Gébler’s novel is filled with warmth and sentiment, it is also about the harsh truths of the adult world (betrayal, adultery) and much of the story focuses on Ralph’s growing understanding that not all grown-ups are like his beloved Steed from The Avengers, and in part because Ralph’s mother leaves him in the care of Doreen, the Irish housekeeper, who is a stand-in mother figure, and who arguably becomes the most important person in Ralph’s life.
Ralph and his family are decidedly middle-class, as is the slightly Bohemian, Leftist Boscombe family which lives down the road. Ralph’s best friend Benedict lives with his mother Ginny, and sometimes his father Clive comes to visit. Unlike Ralph’s parents, who are divorced, Clive and Ginny have an open relationship, which proves a source for both much of the drama and much of the comedy of the novel.
Gebler has written a wonderful, warm reconstruction of the 1960s, one that surely must draw on his own childhood. Penny sweets, tuppences and thruppences, Kia-Orange, Tizer, matinees at the cinema that include cartoons, serials, a feature, and a yo-yo display, women dressed in outlandish headscarves and Moroccan dresses, fights between Mods and Greasers, Vauxhall Victors and Morris cars, Vespa scooters, Mary Quant coats, The Avengers, Thunderbirds (although Gébler has actually made a mistake there – the novel is set from August ’64 to August ’65 but Thunderbirds didn’t first air until Autumn 1965), and the particularities and rituals of childhood, especially that of pre-pubescent boys (Ralph is getting hairs ‘down there’ but he and his friend Benedict still regard ‘kissy-kissy’ stuff as off-putting, or in their words, ‘sordid’ – Sordid is used frequently in the book by both boys to describe anything they dislike).
At school Ralph reads Lord of the Flies, and Gebler returns to the themes of Golding’s work again and again. Ralph identifies with the Ralph of Golding’s novel, imagining himself as the sort of person who would be on the good side, who would stick with Piggy and defend him against the other boys – at least he hopes he would.
Reading that book also allows Ralph to discover the power of good writing, as Ralph compares the deaths in the novel to the deaths in the Hornblower books:
… none of those deaths in those Hornblower books affected him in the way Simon’s death did. Forrester’s dead sailors didn’t seem real. He couldn’t see them. On the other hand, he saw the whole of Simon’s end as clearly with his mind’s eye as he saw anything with his actual eye … Simon’s end didn’t just describe what happened. They were what happened. When the boys were spearing Simon, the sentences were like spears, they were sharp hurting killing things, and at the end, when Simon’s body was carried away to sea, the sentences rolled like the waves that bore him away.
As if to prove the point, Gébler later demonstrates something similar. Ralph is mugged and beaten up badly by ‘two yobbos’:
Turning, he saw a fist. Flying at him. Knuckles catching him., his cheek, the side of his nose, the bone rim under his eye. Thinking of bone on bone. Falling back. Shock, pain, wetness, blurring, instantly. Fist vanishing and then barrelling back. Turning away. Fist hitting his ear. Hot feeling. Roaring in is head. Another jab. Other eye this time. The second youth swiping him with his open hand. Banging his head
A few lines from the novel that illustrate Ralph’s character:
He races ahead reading Lord of the Flies but doesn’t want his classmates knowing he is so eager – ‘he might be a swot but he didn’t want anyone thinking he was one’
On meeting the long-haired, moustached Kit: ‘On the one hand he valued conformity. He liked convention. The out-of-the-ordinary troubled him. On the other hand he could tell this man had something the others hadn’t got. He compelled attention.”
“But from where did it come, the ability to refuse, to say no? Did you just feel it? As often as not he didn’t know what he felt, or it took him ages to work it out, so how would he know whether he agreed or disagreed?”
At home Ralph is cared for by Doreen and her husband Tom, both from Waterford. Tom is a labourer working on the Underground.
Slender wiry Tom, bow-legged and strong. Pointed nose and dark eyes. The skin on his jaw and neck was stretched and polished smooth and looked like cheese rind.
His body is badly burnt from a tank fire during his time in the Irish Army. He cannot give Doreen children, and Ralph overhears his mother and Doreen discussing that: Doreen wants kids but won’t adopt, but is content to get on with life and not hold regrets.
One night early in the novel Doreen and Tom have a poker party for some of their friends, including a man from Monaghan called Kit, who stands out from the others because of his long hair and his cheroot cigars. Ralph serves sandwiches and drinks and then goes to bed, but later wakes and creeps downstairs and catches a glimpse of something he’s not quite sure about – Doreen standing on the table and removing her knickers as a forfeit in whatever game the adults are playing.
His stomach trembled. His thighs felt weak. The middle of his being went on churning and roiling. Beads of wet appeared on his forehead. He was vaguely aware of the facts of life, of men and women alone in bed together. But all his knowledge up to now had been theoretical. Now, for the first time in his twelve years on earth, he had seen grown-ups with his own eyes doing something that he knew was connected with the mysterious business of love.
All of which is to say that The Innocent of Falkland Road is a ‘conventional’ coming-of-age novel, conventionally but beautifully written with much attention to detail.