20 APRIL 1991, Page 31

Laying down the White's man's burden

William Green

DECLINE by Tom Stacey

William Heinemann, £13.99, pp.273

onsidering Tom Stacey's impressive reputation, the beginning of his latest novel should be more convincing. His portrayal of life at Eton in these first chapters is as scrupulously researched as everything in the book, but it is absurdly idealised: the novel's hero, Jamie Main- waring, and his best friend, Anthony, pull 'their whiffs up among the rushes' so they can lie in the grass, eating sausages and cherries and drinking light ale. As they debate the existence of God and listen to Brahms, 'the old river' rests 'beyond the willows, scarcely moving.' Anthony, of course, like all public schoolboys, is a repressed homosexual.

The dialogue that follows is equally cliché. Even among the most eloquent and precocious Etonians, Stacey would be hard pressed to find 17-year-olds saying 'Come, come, come, Jame' or 'Oh, heavens, you're so right.' Language like this may have been fashionable in the flamboyantly literate schooldays of Anthony Powell, Cyril Connolly and Harold Acton, but expressions such as 'heavens' have been replaced since then by more earthy ex- clamations. Jamie's naïve and prudish girl- friend, Tibby, is an even less believable anachronism. 'Oh! Oh!' she cries, at the mention of a sagging breast, 'How can you be . . . so BEASTLY.'

After stumbling unpromisingly at the outset, the novel transforms itself into a powerful and compelling account of Jamie's struggle for independence. His future has been mapped out for him by the past. Four generations of his family have been to Eton and have proceeded from there to King's College, Cambridge; his ancestors have lived in the same Cotswolds manor house since the 17th century; and the family business has secured its place alongside the 'immutable' flagships of Brit- ish industry – Cadbury, Guest-Keen, Pilk- ington, and Bowater.

Inevitably, it seems, Jamie will follow his forebears to King's and will rise to the top of the family firm. His father, Sir Jumbo Mainwaring, has embraced every aspect of the tradition that must be preserved: he succeeded Jamie's grandfather as head of the Mainwaring Group, is an Alderman of London, is a member of White's, Boodles and the Synod of the Church of England, and is a respected figure at the Bank of England. Jumbo is the embodiment of continuity, harking back to a lost age of religious certainty and economic prosper- ity, when Britain was Great and the aristocracy ascendant.

His staunch principles and unflappable exterior make Jumbo a stereotype, but he is credible, nonetheless. He is racist, arro- gant, disdainful of 'pansies,' and insists that people adhere to their allotted roles. His wife, for example, must be an escort, a mother and a hostess, as well as running their country house and the flat in Eaton Square. He is the sort of tyrant that George Meredith would have torn to pieces, but the erosion of his outmoded values is a moving spectacle, and his love for Jamie is so skilfully drawn by Stacey himself a father of five - that he emerges as a vulnerable and sympathetic character.

When the Mainwaring Bolt Company goes bankrupt, 125 years after its creation, Jumbo is forced to confront the ignominy of Britain's economic decline. During the war he had won a Burma Star fighting Japan, but now he must go cap in hand to Japanese financiers if the rest of his busi- ness empire is to survive. The sole consola- tion for his own failure, and for the failure of the nation, is his faith in his son's future.

Jamie, however, defies the expectations of his family. His first act of rebellion is to dye his hair blonde, much to the disgust of Jumbo, who imposes the ultimate sanction - refusing to dine with him at White's. The breach widens more drastically when Jamie renounces the Church of England and when he rejects his place at King's. Brimming with noble ideals about saving the unfor- tunate, he heads north and finds work in an employment agency.

Here in the grim reality of post- industrial Bradford (and later on in Wandsworth Prison), Jamie fends for him- self, free at last from the 'antiquity and Englishness and given-ness . . . that caged him.' Instead of disowning him, as ex- pected, Jumbo eventually recognises that Jamie must find his own path in life. He acknowledges, also, that his son's altruism is similar to his own belief that aristocrats must serve the country. The values of the past, Jumbo realises, have not been lost entirely.

Stacey's decision to combine the story of a family with that of a nation is recklessly ambitious, yet somehow he pulls it off. The questions that he raises along the way concern everything from economics to love, from prejudice to patriotism, from duty to fear. It is this range and complexity that makes Decline such an unusual and impressive novel.