Among the ‘Catholic novels’ of David Lodge, his first novel The Picturegoers (1960) is the least well-known, partly due to the neglect into which it fell until it was reissued by Penguin in 1993, with an introduction from the author. Lodge himself thought it, like most first novels, ‘a receptacle for whatever thoughts and phrases the author was nurturing at the time of composition, whether or not they are relevant.’ The novel was substantially complete by the summer of 1957, and one of the many such thoughts that are crammed into its pages is the brief passage about Billy Graham’s visit to the Harringay arena in 1954. It appears towards the end of part two.
At the Brickley Palladium, the faded south London picture palace around which the novel revolves, there are two cleaning ladies, Dolly and Gertrude. Doll and Gert are salt-of-the-earth working class Cockneys on whom little weight of the plot rests but who provide some relief as the book progresses. And “our Else”, Gert’s married daughter, having gone to Harringay “for a lark”, has “gone and got religious”. There was the organ, the choirs and masses of flowers, and a call to come forward in the meeting and testify that one had been ‘called’. To Gert and Doll, it all sounded “just like the Salvation Army, only posher.” And not only posher. Had Doll seen pictures of this bloke Billy Graham, Gert asks ? “’Andsome ain’t the word. As soon as I saw ‘is picture I knew what ‘ad ‘saved’ Else.” It was “Salvation Army plus sex, if you ask me.” Lodge neatly anticipated later analyses of Graham’s appeal, a glamorous apparition in austerity London.
Lodge also hints at the disruption within families that a conversion at a Graham meeting could provoke. Gert hadn’t taken well to being called a sinner by her own daughter: “If she was younger, I’d ‘ave smacked ‘er arse.” And Else’s husband Sidney has worse to contend with. After reading Graham’s The Secret of Happiness, his wife has decided that his lack of regular bathing is connected to a lack of purity of heart, and refuses to share a bed with him until he washes. That cleanliness was next to godliness was not a message that washed well in Lodge’s Brickley.