The decline of British power and influence in the international sphere following World War II was paralleled by substantial changes in life in Britain. The cherished, if idealistic, version of England as a “green and pleasant land” was subject to the strains of postwar urban development, and the concept of a common culture that comforted even those who were essentially excluded from most of its benefits began to dissolve in the face of radical changes accelerated by the rise of a surly, disaffected generation seething with contempt for the traditional symbols of English life.
Beryl Bainbridge’s “Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie” focuses on a working-class family riven by a generational divide that is intensified by their precarious economic status and compounded by a clash in cultural values. Charlie Henderson, the middle-aged “head” of the household, lives in a state of permanent vexation at his inability to provide either a sufficient income or any sense of direction for his family. His son Alec, still living at home and educated beyond his employment prospects, maintains a mordantly ironic perspective toward everything. Mrs. Henderson, a cleaning woman, tries to encourage a relatively civil level of discourse in their high-rise apartment but is nonplussed by Alec’s apparent total disrespect for his father. For Charlie, the real problem is that they no longer live “in a proper house”; he regrets the absence of a garden plot, an accessible street, even windows that can be opened—small but significant symbols of the old ways. The benefits of efficient plumbing no longer seem sufficient compensation for living “as though inside the cabin of an aeroplane.”
As the story opens, Mrs. Henderson has been given tickets to a performance of Peter Pan by an employer who feels that offering money as a Christmas bonus “is so degrading,” although Mrs. Henderson, aware of the necessity for adequate compensation for labor, “had never, when accepting money, felt degraded.” On the night of the performance, the Hendersons are joined by their daughter Moira and her uncontrollable son Wayne; this begins a continuing series of small crises involving Alec’s wild driving and Charlie’s futile attempts to gain some degree of control over Alec’s antics. During the trip, Charlie begins to muse about how much the area has changed, recalling with nostalgic fondness “men playing football in the street” of a living village, to which Alec rejoins that the “whole area had never been anything but a slum,” dismissing Charlie’s recollections as “Never-never land.”
The reference to J. M. Barrie’s well-known play Peter Pan leads toward the second part of the story. Here, the narrative moves from an omniscient perspective to a detailed record of Charlie’s responses as the play commences. Charlie finds the first act “old fashioned and cosy,” and then dozes through the second and third acts, dreaming of fishing in an old canal where “a damn big crocodile crawled up the bank with a clock ticking inside it.” During the intermission, Alec interprets the action as “obvious. Mr. Darling longs to murder his offspring,” declaring, “Like fathers in real life. They’re always out to destroy their children,” to which Charlie hisses “He talks a load of codswallop. I’d like to throttle him.”
As the play approaches its famous conclusion, Charlie suffers a heart attack, receding into unconsciousness as the audience is exhorted to “clap for Tinkerbell.” While the entire audience is totally captivated by the imaginative power of the dramatic presentation, Charlie’s gasps for help are dismissed as a distraction. “Shut up, Charlie,” Mrs. Henderson cries, in thrall to the entreaties of Peter Pan to revive Tinkerbell while Charlie, a veritable “lost boy,” slides away from a world in which he no longer has a place.
Bainbridge, Beryl. Collected Stories. London: Penguin, 1994.