Mary Hocking’s 1971 novel of teachers and education officers was very kindly sent to me by a reader of this blog and Mary Hocking super fan. So first of all I must say another big thank you to Tina.
I think it is now probably quite well known among Mary Hocking readers that on 1st January 1972 Auberon Waugh published a scathing review of The Climbing Frame in the Spectator magazine, the article is available online for your delight. However, despite not being a fan of any form of censorship I am not linking to the review here – because I think it is really rather mean. I am not saying that The Climbing Frame is Mary Hocking’s best novel – it’s not – but there is still a lot to admire.
The Climbing Frame shows with searing accuracy how one trivial event can be blown out of all proportion by media intrusion, gossip and petty official posturing.
“And so, on the morning of 9th June, the Eastgate Recorder asked more in sorrow than in anger, ‘Are our County representatives becoming too remote? As a result of the trials and tribulations of a Miss Cathcart, the Recorder was reluctantly driven to the conclusion that they were.”
A single mother complains about the minor accident her difficult son suffers on a school climbing frame. The incident which resulted in little more than a couple of grazes occurred when the class was being supervised by a supply teacher, and the child for a few moments took himself off to play on equipment he was not supposed to be using. The resulting fuss would be utterly ridiculous if it wasn’t all too realistic. Now in 1971 I was three years old (I know big age give away) but I began my primary education in the 1970’s and although I was exempt from education office committee meetings by virtue of my tender years – for me there is still a feeling of absolute authenticity to the interminable discussions and sniping depicted here. Soon the County Education office and County Council Education Committee are involved in a ridiculous wrangle of who did what when, who knew what when, etc. The mother; Miss Cathcart (she insists on Miss!) adds more fuel to the fire, by calling the local press. We glimpse her life only briefly it’s not a particularly happy one, her son is difficult and she finds life a daily challenge filled with drudgery.
“Peter wriggled round on the divan and looked at his mother. She paid no attention to him. He scuffed the linoleum, and when this failed to attract a rebuke, he gave one or two prolonged niffs. But Evelyn Cathcart had gone away; she had gone away more surely and irrevocably than the times when she rushed out of the room, declaring that she was leaving him and would never come back. Then, although he some-times a little frightened if she stayed out for long, he felt that it was a game in which he was included. But this was one of the other times; the times when his mother retreated into a world of her own where he could never find her.”
As so often in her writing, Mary Hocking shows astute understanding of the inner mind, even the doomed romance between two of the characters at the centre of the rumpus has moments of tender sympathy.
The situation surrounding the climbing frame is further complicated by the fact that Mylor Drew (nice 1970’s mini-series name that) the unhappily married headmaster of the school at the centre of the row is having an affair with Maggie Hester an administrative assistant at the education office. As the novel begins their relationship has been of an innocent nature – a few hurried meetings and furtive kisses. Their improbably chaste romance develops as the strains and tensions of Mr Drew’s home life begin to take their toll on his children.
While the romance in the novel may be a little weak – to say nothing of Maggie’s poetry – what Mary Hocking does do brilliantly is to recreate the atmosphere of the education offices, committees and the small self-important officials that could be found there.
“Mr Crocker, fretting over the report on capitation allowances, pushed the attendance book across the table as Wicks entered the room and the same time tried to signal to Malcolm Punter that more chairs would be required. Punter, who considered himself too important to act as porter, contrived not to notice and began to talk to County Councillor Mrs. Pritchard about his twins”
As Miss Cathcart’s fury becomes more aggressively neurotic, ensuring more and more attention is directed toward her and her son, the men and women of the various official bodies involved become more frighteningly ridiculous in their selfish buck-passing. Hocking shines a satirical light on the county council and education offices, making great nonsense of their practices and vanities.
Even with the few weaknesses in this novel I still really enjoyed it – a novel firmly rooted in the municipal offices of English towns, Mary Hocking knew her subject well from the inside, and it shows.