Age of Innocence

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A while ago I attended a talk by a writer who had grown up in East Germany. What was it like, his audience wanted to know, living in a police state? ‘The truth is’, he replied, ‘that when you’re a teenager, politics are much less important than girls and football.’

I thought of this when I rediscovered Godfrey Smith’s novel The Business of Loving (1961) among my father’s old books. Although the core of the story is set during the Second World War, the conflict barely registers beside what is, to the young hero, his raison d’être: the pursuit of an idealized lover. I must have been 16 when I first read it, and nothing I had come across described more perfectly my own state of mind. It clutched at my heart; returning to it in middle age, I found certain phrases and sentences echoing across the years with haunting vividness, like a bell tolling from a submerged city.

The book opens in 1960 with a chance meeting between two childhood friends. Now in their mid-thirties, they haven’t seen each other for thirteen years. Felix Weston is a failed writer, while Peregrine ‘Benny’ Benedict has built up a hugely profitable record company. But Benny’s success masks an emotional void. When Benny asks after Laura, a figure from their youth, it becomes clear that the two men represent opposite ends of the romantic spectrum. ‘I sometimes wish I could believe in love as he does,’ Felix muses to himself; ‘because what else is there? Yet what has it brought him but pain and emptiness? And what has not believing in it brought me?’

The story then moves back to the summer of 1939. Benny and Felix are about to leave Valhalla, their Hampshire prep school, and to the dreamy, academically promising Benny life has never been sweeter: he is brimming with a new-found passion for jazz, and thrills his kindly father – a widowed rep for the Margrave Brewery – by scoring fifty in his final cricket match. Above all, he is in thrall to the i

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About the contributor

As a teenager, Anthony Gardner papered his room with covers from the Sunday Times Magazine, which Godfrey Smith edited. His second novel is Fox – a satire on the surveillance society featuring Chinese spies and urban foxes.

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