Spike, the central character of A Small Revolution in Germany, acknowledges early in the novel that “I would be a different person if I had not gone to a school where the front consisted of a massive Corinthian portico with two pillars too many.” Spike is at school in Middlesbrough in 1982, when Prince William is a baby, “that generation was one that was (now astonishingly) committed to smoking” when he is admitted to a group of fellow teenage “classical Marxists” with “the egotism, the solipsism of sixteen.” Those friends will come to define the rest of his life. Hensher goes back to the Thatcherite era of his The Northern Clemency, again evoking the time with the ease of a literary Peter Kay.
Decades later, under Brexit as “our home tried to extricate itself from the continent,” Spike sees a photo in ‘The Observer’ of that group of friends where he is labelled as “unknown” but the others are more easily identified: the Home Secretary, a QC and one is “an author and journalist.” In the spirit of a movie like Peter’s Friends this novel looks at the importance of friendship, how we are defined for life by who we were as teenagers (and perhaps troubled by how we change from being that teenager). Spike spends the novel remembering those teen years, and how his friends change over the years (most significantly during a brief visit to East Germany and an encounter with the Stasi).
A Small Revolution in Germany is another of Philip Hensher’s intelligently dignified, emotionally honest accounts of life in contemporary Britain. At one point Spike says that “I would not sum up my existence in the priggish sentence at the end of Middlemarch.” It says something for Hensher’s faith in the ability of English teachers across the country, and (perhaps) equal faith in his readers, that he does not feel the need to quote that sentence, which reads in part: “that things are not so ill for you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life.” As Spike points out, “all acts are historic, in the sense of belonging to history, contributing to history.” He contributes to history by refusing to change, by keeping those teenage political beliefs and his faith in revolution alive, “we keep up hope.” It does not matter if the world changes around him, if the Berlin Wall falls and the Socialist state of East Germany is exposed as a failure Spike can see the continuity in the teenage students he teaches: “the wall they write on is Twitter, but they want to change things, as we did.”
At times I wondered if Hensher was commenting on the peculiarly unchanging political beliefs of Jeremy Corbyn, “what use is thinking the same that we thought in the 1980s?” But no, that is not his intention. It is that the vividness of Hensher’s portrayal of a teenage idealist who retains those values, while constantly examining them and considering their worth in changing times, is so topical and necessary that it could be read as such a commentary.
This is a Victorian novel for a social media age, a portrait of someone happy to be subsumed by forces greater than him at a time when culture only values those who shout loudest. It is heroic to find a novel where contentment and acceptance, the most rarely expressed emotions in fiction, are central. Spike discovers something to believe in as a teenager and it sustains him for the rest of his life, even if the rest of the world believes “how awful it would be to go on thinking the same things that you did when you were fifteen.” Spike understands the ambiguity and the achievement of his commitment to idealism, “as a result, we have lived lives of quiet significance; lives of the utmost insignificance.”
Any Cop?: A thoughtful, questioning novel that is a joy to read; a gripping read that asks questions that could be debated for weeks. A Small Revolution in Germany says more about the enduring optimism, humanity and generosity of the British character than might be expected from the state of Britain in 2020.