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Desire and Ambition

Today, most of John Braine’s work is out of print and forgotten. But he was an underrated writer, unafraid to confront the complexities of masculine sexuality with terse precision, self-deprecation, and emotional candour.

· 10 min read
A still of John Braine speaking Black and white image, portrait, John in glasses.
An upscaled still of John Braine speaking on the Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr. Episode 206, Recorded on May 9, 1970. Via YouTube.

John Braine was born 102 years ago today, a couple of months before Kingsley Amis (whose 100th birthday was celebrated here). Yet while Amis has remained a part of the British literary consciousness, Braine has fallen into comparative obscurity. Today, he is remembered chiefly—and perhaps only—for his debut novel, Room at the Top.

In the mid-to-late ’50s, Braine and Amis would be lumped together as part of the Angry Young Men movement—a group of (mostly working-class and left-wing) upstarts from the sticks who filled the literary silence left by Oxbridge and Bloomsbury. Although he was both a Londoner and an Oxford graduate, Amis started the decade’s provincial wave with Lucky Jim (1953), which follows the social buccaneering of Jim Dixon, an irreverent assistant professor at a provincial university. Both Amis and Braine would springboard from their debut offerings into a wide readership and coveted literary celebrity. Both men would remain prolific writers of wavering quality, and in their later years, both ended up as right-wing, overweight alcoholics, serial polygamists, rueful divorcees, and faithful attendees of the weekly “Fascist Beast Luncheon Group” at Bertorelli’s in Soho.

His politically incorrect views notwithstanding, Amis managed to spin a successful late literary career that now survives in Penguin Vintage editions, an 11th-hour Booker win, two biographies, published letters, and a place within the canon. Braine’s later work, meanwhile, would suffer from his rigid political commitments and his deficiencies in nomenclature (Amis would grumble that Braine gave his characters ridiculous names like Clive Lendrick, Noll Mainton, or Jack Uplyme). 

Today, most of Braine’s work is out of print, he has never had a biographer, and he failed to find a buyer for his diaries and notes. He ended up poor despite his dream of someday driving “through Bradford in a Rolls Royce with two naked women covered in jewels.” In 1985, he spent his last Christmas eating dinner at a community centre. The following year, at the age of 64, John Braine died from a gastric haemorrhage.

John Gerrard Braine was born in Bradford on April 13, 1922, the son of a corporation sewage-treatment supervisor who had worked in the wool mills as a child. What distinguished John Braine from his working-class surroundings—and from fellow Angries, Stan Barstow and Alan Sillitoe—was that, like Amis, he came from a literate, lower-middle-class household: Braine’s mother, Katherine, was a librarian before her marriage, and his father was a literary autodidact, having won several magazine short-story competitions.

But Braine’s second-act literary success (publishing Room at the Top at 33) was bookended by struggle and disappointment. He took a zigzag approach towards a career, failing to complete his school certificate at 16, and found menial work as an assistant in a bookshop, a furniture shop, and a laboratory, before finally settling at a library. That role was interrupted by the advent of the Second World War, when Braine trained as a navy telegraphist in a “melancholy and hideous collection of huts” in rural Hampshire.

Braine later stated that he hoped the war would provide his life with “purpose,” a “promise of change,” and an opportunity to fill his pockets with money “to take girls out,” but a tubercular patch on his lungs ensured that he never saw conflict. He would spend five months and his 22nd birthday in an isolation hospital in the Yorkshire Dales before returning to the library, completing his school certificate the same year, and then his librarian exam at 27 (after failing four times). All the while, he was gaining the life experiences that would inform his literary career.

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Like Joseph Lampton in Room at the Top, when Braine returned from convalescence, he discovered the hotbed world of local am-drams, where he would meet the girl who became the novel’s Susan Brown character. She was beautiful and—better still—upper-class: a colonel’s daughter. However, unlike Joe Lampton, Braine was not conventionally attractive (he was once described by Amis as “pale, bespectacled, chubby, with a perpetual look of being out of condition”). Braine nevertheless succeeded in taking the girl’s virginity. He planned to marry her but felt class-conscious inadequacy as a mere provincial librarian.

With £150 to his name, Braine made his way to London, where a few articles he’d published in small labour journals had caught the attention of literary agent Paul Scott. While he worked on his first novel, Braine sold the odd article to the New Statesman and occasionally broadcast on the BBC. Freelancer rates, however, barely covered his rent. In an interview with Kenneth Allsop for the latter’s rushed but useful account of the 1950s, The Angry Decade, Braine notes that in the underworld of “the bedsitter” where “men and women wander …  muttering to themselves,” he “learned what it was like to be lonely, to come home to a solitary meal of a boiled egg and a cup of coffee made over a gas ring.”

Things would get worse before they got better. In 1951, his outline of a novel called Joe for King was rejected, his mother was killed when she walked in front of a bus, and he developed acute laryngitis and then a second bout of tuberculosis. He was—as he put it—“shipped back to Bradford on a train” where he spent the next 18 months in the same isolation hospital as before. The colonel’s daughter wrote to tell him she was getting married—to someone in her own social set. 

This would prove to be a formative experience that preoccupied Braine throughout his life and career. By the time he left the sanatorium in 1953, he’d finished the first draft of Room at the Top, in which his fantasy alter-ego was good-looking rather than chubby, and a prisoner of war not a discharged telegraphist. The book would be turned down four times before it was accepted in 1956 and published the following year.

Room at the Top benefited from a generous reception. In the Times Literary Supplement, there had long been talk of the “death of the novel,” and concern was growing about the colourless literary heirs on the post-Auden Group horizon. Allsop writes that Braine’s generation helped to “fill the vacuum where the arts used to be kept in Britain” and the very presence of snarling semi-youthful novelists, “even before the quality” of their offerings had been examined, “seemed a heartening thing.” 

Fortunately, Room at the Top survives a second look the morning after. Yet the contemporary reading of the novel is too sober. Even the cultish following from Old Leftist organs only seem to pay homage to Room at the Top for historical and sociological reasons—a reminder of when the working classes could climb social ladders. Indeed, it’s hard to find an account of the postwar years—of the disillusion with the consensus and the riding of the social mobility wave—without obligatory references to Braine’s Room at the Top, John Osbourne’s Look Back in Anger, or Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. All three works are now thought to be emblematic of the decade’s cultural mood.

In a literary sense, Room at the Top is a landmark work of Northern realism. “Certainly no one until John Braine had described the exact kind of urges operating within the post-war specimen,” wrote Allsop. The “sex amid the slagheaps” subject-matter would inspire the 1960s’ generation of Stan Barstow, Keith Waterhouse, and David Storey. “It is hard now to convey,” Barstow wrote, “the importance of Room at the Top for a generation of writers from the North of England.”

We should not forget Room at the Top’s role in forging the path for the Northern invasion of Bloomsbury and Fleet Street, but focusing on this aspect of the novel alone is rather like looking at slagheaps when you could be having sex. Braine may have set his novel in Yorkshire, but he borrowed his style from America, with his emphasis on the names of products and his rejection of both the ornate sentences of the high-modernists and the political idealism of the 1930s’ poets.

Braine was not only as a pioneer of the mid-century provincial school, he was also a sort of sex-crazed anti-stylist, who stripped down his prose as he stripped down his women. The signature flavour of Room at the Top—both a strength and a weakness—is its laconic sensuality: its understated yet intemperate yearning for—and hyper-sensitivity to—both the female sex and the trappings of class. Or, as one TLS reviewer put it, “Mr Braine’s eye both for the girls and the bathroom could not be more clear.” 

At its best, Braine’s writing portrays the psychology of male sexual desire—that contemporary bête noire—with terse precision, self-deprecation, and emotional candour. “The lovemaking is handled with [a] directness that is totally void of offence and the book crackles with life,” wrote David Holloway for the News Chronicle. At its worst, however, Braine’s writing betrays a journalistic glibness that slips into the vernacular of housekeeping magazines: “The pillow smelled faintly of lavender; it reminded me of something. It was her scent, cool as clean linen, friendly as beer.” 

The Sardonic Inferno
At its best, Amis’s fiction broke open the locked door behind which our culture tries to keep its skeletons hidden.

Reviews of Braine’s work can generally be divided between readings of Braine the Shallow and Braine the Sensitive, although generous critics tried to build bridges between these two straw men. Frank Kermode argued that the novel makes a virtue of “pure selfishness,” while Allsop conceded that “warm impulses flicker like lightning” through Lampton’s “success campaign.” Nevertheless, Allsop essentially reads Room at the Top as a tale of a working-class arriviste who ruthlessly bed-hops his way up the social ladder. Seen in this way, Joseph Lampton is a “Mill-town hustler,” and a “lout and a lecher, a money-grabber ready to knock-up a virgin as a necessary detail of his master-plan.” And there is some truth to this reading.

Lampton’s purpose is brutally simple—he unashamedly wants what we all want: sex and money. Despite neither owning a flash MG nor wearing an “RAF moustache,” it is Lampton’s raison d’être to get on up and get laid in the ascent. Indeed, getting on and getting laid are curiously one-and-the-same in Braine’s work. Room at the Top’s characteristic association of MGs with pretty girls is a preoccupation that Braine either refused or failed to shake off throughout his literary career. In Waiting for Sheila, “the naked romps” are “given an extra frisson by the thick carpeting,” and elsewhere, the “clothes” and “the furniture” and “the inside of the MG” all “swarm together into a lynch mob”: “Christ, I nearly came,” he admits.

Braine repeatedly created hypergamous men who were lucky or hard-headed enough to take the virginity of the colonel’s daughter; characters who became more metropolitan and middle-class as he moved out of Yorkshire and into the stockbroker’s belt in Surrey. Amis would be unappreciative when Braine dedicated one such metropolitan novel to him, and described Braine’s final novel, One and Last Love, as an “assault course of embarrassment on the reader” for all its “pink-shaded lamp” crassness. Martin Amis was even more damning when he declared that John Braine lacked “any feeling for literature” (only “for possessions,” added Kingsley). 

Yet there’s a moral seriousness about Braine’s writing that is often eclipsed by his impish, materialistic, and colloquial energy. Let us not be fooled by his “so to speak” asides, the comparisons of sex to a “good meal,” nor his obsession with MGs. When Lampton chooses the teenage and sexless transaction with Susan over the grown-up and emotional relationship with Alice, it’s chalked up to knowing which side his “bread is buttered on”; after all, Susan’s father is a managing director. But what is at stake in Lampton’s journey from envy to self-interest is his own loss of innocence. Written from the perspective of a Lampton reminiscing ten years in the future, Braine writes:

I wouldn’t, even if I could, change places with [my former self], but he was indisputably a better person than the smooth character I am now, after ten years of getting almost everything that I ever wanted.

In fact, far from being either a promiscuous mould-breaker, or a schoolboy rule-breaker like Amis’s Jim Dixon, Joe Lampton has more than a touch of Braine’s Catholic background about him. When he finds out that Alice was an “artist’s model once,” he suffers a bout of masculine possessiveness for the married woman with whom he is having an affair. “Can’t you see that it’s the idea of other people looking at your nakedness that I hate? It’s not decent, don’t you see?” he says. Like the Bard’s Oberon, whose anger comes from the fact that Titania loves another, Braine explores the darker aspects of human emotions experienced in our intimate relationships.

Consider this from Waiting for Sheila:

When I talk about Sheila I’m talking about love, and love is far from being an entirely happy emotion—or rather state of being—but once you’ve experienced it, nothing less will do.


I have to endure the hurt and the anger because they’re part of a package deal. Happiness was no part of the package deal, though pleasure indisputably was.

Or this from Stay with Me till Morning:

She was angry with Clive for not being the man she was in love with; and he was angry with her because he was for once able to sense this. Neither of them bought their thoughts out into the open; to have done so would have been to put at risk all that they were building together. It was this repression—imposed upon themselves by a mutual agreement—which gave the quarrel its savage intensity.

It is a feature of both Amis and Braine’s writing that they hide their deeper moral, political, and psychological insights behind ostensibly shallow veneers. Whereas Room at the Top has its moral cards concealed by the sleeve of sex and self-interest, Lucky Jim hides its morality behind “horse-pissing”—Amis’s anti-phoney rejection of all things cultural, from T.S. Eliot to Morris dancing.

And yet, Room at the Top is the more penetrating work in its exploration of desire and ambition. While possessions certainly provide more than just colour to Braine’s work, Room at the Top, far from being a Machiavellian portrait of ruthless go-getting, is a deeply Lawrentian novel, chiefly preoccupied with different kinds of sex and frustrations in love. As Allsop writes, “looking back at Jim Dixon,” you realise in this respect, “you know nothing of his inner life.”

Given their close birthdays, their friendship, their shared membership of a literary movement, their similar political trajectories, and their controversial legacies, Braine and Amis serve as useful counterpoises. Nevertheless, I do not mean to measure John Braine against Kingsley Amis, nor to judge him on the latter’s terms. On Braine’s 102nd birthday, I want to celebrate not only his role in shaping Northern social realism but also his enduring significance as a writer unafraid to confront the complexities of human desire—an aspect worthy of special attention when the contemporary study of literature has been recalibrated to demonise masculine sexuality. Braine’s work is ripe for reconsideration—his honesty and nerve is precisely the defibrillator required to resuscitate a dying literary scene.

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