In the third novel in the series that began with The Soldier's Return, we find Joe Richardson on the eve of high school graduation. The series began with the return of Joe's father, Sam Richardson, from four years of fighting in Burma in World War II. Sam, born and bred working class, is torn between his desire to be close to his son and his desire for Joe to do better than he did.
Sam has become the proprietor of the most popular bar in the working-class town of Wigton. Joe works at the bar between studying for his A-Levels, the exams that can determine entrance to college. As the novel opens, Sam is unsure of whether he can pass and is sure he can't win a scholarship. His friends are all working, mostly in the local factories, and earning what this town calls good money.
Joe is in love with Rachel Wardlow, the daughter of a farmer whose jealousy of his daughter forces the couple into secrecy. Yet, they consummate their love, and Joe is sure it will last a lifetime.
To Joe's surprise, he places tops in his class and earns a scholarship to an Oxford college. Before starting at the college he spends a summer working in France, and begins to learn about art. This is just the first of the changes that will gradually move him into a world far removed from the working-class life of Wigton. Joe is also surprised to find that as his tastes in literature become more eclectic, Sam is also becoming well read; his native intelligence blossoms as his son introduces him to the fringes of the world he is entering.
At Oxford, Joe becomes close to his roommate, James, who comes from an upper middle-class family. He begins to change his accent, imitating the upper-class Roderick. Then, at a dance, he meets Harold and Frank, Yorkshiremen who have made it into Oxford. They try to persuade him to keep his working-class accent and not let Oxford change him into something he is not.
Joe's mother, Ellen, is also changing. She has become friendly with the head of the local Labour Party, and has persuaded Sam to let the group meet at the pub. When she gets an opportunity to meet her father's second wife at his grave, William offers to drive her. Sam is jealous, but is able to keep his feelings under control. Ellen's relationship with William never gets beyond friendship, but he influences her to consider running for the local council on the Labour ticket.
The book ends with many unresolved loose ends: Will Joe eventually lose his roots? Will Ellen decide whether to become involved in politics? Can Sam come to terms with his son's growth into a world he can't really understand? Will Melvyn Bragg continue this series that explores the meaning and even adventure in the lives of ordinary people?
This report prepared by David Gordon