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Mortality and Uncle Mort

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Why does anyone write comic novels? I can understand the desire, even the need to do so, for the world is funny and getting funnier. If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry, or run into McDonalds with a pumpaction shotgun. Comedy keeps many of us sane, and I know that my life, for one, would be infinitely smaller and poorer if it weren’t for the vast quantities of humorous fiction that I have ingested over the past thirty years. Just recently I finished The Adventures of Sally, the only one of P. G. Wodehouse’s eighty-odd adult books I hadn’t previously read. For a moment I felt a terrible sense of loss. Where to go now? Was there any purpose to life at all? Of course there was: it had taken me since 1974 to read all those books, and it will probably take me just as long to read them all over again. Better start soon; it’s a big job.

Wodehouse, though, is special; unique, even. The greatest comic writer of them all has been well served by his publishers, and maniacs like me can replenish our supply whenever much-loved volumes fall to bits on long train journeys. Other comic writers are less fortunate. Rarely taken seriously by the literary mafia – because humour is only ever taken seriously by people with a sense of humour – their works can’t even be said to have fallen out of fashion, never having been in fashion in the first place. Comic novels don’t even sell that well, unless disguised as genre fiction (Terry Pratchett is no fool). A journalist friend of mine, crazed and chain-smoking and more talented than he knows, published a prodigiously funny novel about sports writing a year or two back and watched it do nothing. Publishers have since been queuing up to say ‘No’ to book number two.

These, I imagine (because I don’t know for certain), were the circumstances in which Peter Tinniswood produced four of the funniest novels in the English language, all but one of which are now out of print. Tinniswood, who died aged 66 in 2

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Why does anyone write comic novels? I can understand the desire, even the need to do so, for the world is funny and getting funnier. If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry, or run into McDonalds with a pumpaction shotgun. Comedy keeps many of us sane, and I know that my life, for one, would be infinitely smaller and poorer if it weren’t for the vast quantities of humorous fiction that I have ingested over the past thirty years. Just recently I finished The Adventures of Sally, the only one of P. G. Wodehouse’s eighty-odd adult books I hadn’t previously read. For a moment I felt a terrible sense of loss. Where to go now? Was there any purpose to life at all? Of course there was: it had taken me since 1974 to read all those books, and it will probably take me just as long to read them all over again. Better start soon; it’s a big job.

Wodehouse, though, is special; unique, even. The greatest comic writer of them all has been well served by his publishers, and maniacs like me can replenish our supply whenever much-loved volumes fall to bits on long train journeys. Other comic writers are less fortunate. Rarely taken seriously by the literary mafia – because humour is only ever taken seriously by people with a sense of humour – their works can’t even be said to have fallen out of fashion, never having been in fashion in the first place. Comic novels don’t even sell that well, unless disguised as genre fiction (Terry Pratchett is no fool). A journalist friend of mine, crazed and chain-smoking and more talented than he knows, published a prodigiously funny novel about sports writing a year or two back and watched it do nothing. Publishers have since been queuing up to say ‘No’ to book number two. These, I imagine (because I don’t know for certain), were the circumstances in which Peter Tinniswood produced four of the funniest novels in the English language, all but one of which are now out of print. Tinniswood, who died aged 66 in 2003, had a long and prolific career, starting in local journalism in the late 1950s, breaking into TV comedy with TW3, Not So Much a Programme and The Frost Report, creating the Tales from a Long Room books in the 1980s, and finding late renown with a series of wonderfully funny and distinctive Radio 4 plays in the 1990s. But his greatest and most lasting (if already forgotten) achievement was surely his series of novels about the Brandons, an apparently normal but in truth deeply surreal family living in an unidentified northern city in the early 1960s:
The stricken city with its broken-backed factories, and the bored chirrup of sparrows, lock gates rotten and askew, blind cinema palaces, terraced houses furrowing the hills, sodden launderettes, takeaway shops with flat-faced Chinese, dull eyes, smokers’ coughs, shiftless feet.
Mr Brandon, his son Carter and his wife’s brother Mort wander from pub to pub under these leaden skies, never saying very much, rarely doing anything so daft as expressing their feelings, and then returning home at the end of the evening for a late-night snack of pickled onions, cream crackers and Cheshire cheese. They are fatalists; they accept that life is unspeakable, but they realize that it’s probably better than the alternative. In Tinniswood it’s the women who do the talking. Mrs Brandon is bursting with unfulfilled ambitions for herself, her husband and her son, while serving up enormous meals for them at all hours of the day and night. Most vivid, possibly, is Carter’s fiancée and, later, wife Pat, who has genteel ambitions of her own. She wants a husband with prospects who carries an executive briefcase, and she tells Carter this repeatedly, in long unwieldy sentences, while he looks on, resigned to his fate – as all the men are. ‘Aye. Well. Mm,’ he says whenever he feels particularly strongly about something. Does this sound familiar? If so it’s because the same characters turned up in a TV sitcom Tinniswood himself wrote in 1975. (A vital lesson to anyone who wants to make a living as a writer and thus avoid proper work for the rest of their lives: make the most of every good idea. Squeeze it dry if you can.) He based the TV version on the first two novels (A Touch of Daniel and I Didn’t Know You Cared) and named it after the second. My paperback copies of the two are adorned with photographs from the TV show. These days, as a rampaging snob who fears looking like a chav on public transport, I wouldn’t dream of buying a ‘TV tie-in’ paperback. But as a 14-year-old I knew no such distinctions. Indeed, I probably bought the books because of their cover. And although I read them and loved them and laughed and laughed at them, I didn’t take them hugely seriously, again probably because of the covers. I’m just relieved that I kept them, to reread many times rather more carefully than I reread my Wodehouses, for these books are appreciably harder to replace. A Touch of Daniel (1969) introduces the characters in a surreal flurry of plot. Uncle Mort is marrying again; Carter is courting Pat; and old Auntie Lil comes to live with the Brandons, falls miraculously pregnant, and has a baby called Daniel. Characters die with extraordinary regularity. There’s almost too much going on, but Tinniswood’s wry, deadpan style keeps it all going somehow, and the arrival of Daniel adds a new dimension to the narrative structure. Generally there is no internal monologue. We only ever know how people feel from what they say. The point of view, such as it is, is Carter’s, but as soon as Daniel comes along, what is effectively an internal duologue begins. Carter hears the baby Daniel ‘talk’ to him, and he ‘talks’ back to Daniel, and even though the baby soon dies, the duologues continue. In each book Carter is forced by circumstances to act in some way, despite his superhuman inertia. Each time he has a quandary, he discusses it with his internal Daniel. Had Tinniswood read A Hundred Years of Solitude in the original Spanish as he wrote A Touch of Daniel? (It had only just come out.) If not, it must be a complete coincidence that he was almost simultaneously inventing a dour northern form of magic realism, without of course being given the smallest credit for it. He also has far better jokes than Gabriel García Márquez. Tinniswood then swiftly published a non-Brandon novel, Mog (also recycled into TV scripts years later), but he returned to the family in I Didn’t Know You Cared (1973) and Except You’re a Bird (1974). These, I think, are the best in the series. Although A Touch of Daniel is the only one in print, it’s more tentative, less assured, than the later books. By book two Tinniswood was in complete control of his material. Each book passes through the seasons with the slow certainty of lives in which nothing very much happens – except that the joke is that a vast number of things happen, many of them bizarre. In I Didn’t Know You Cared Uncle Mort is diagnosed with a wasting disease.
‘I’m not surprised neither, considering all the time you’ve wasted in pubs and betting shops,’ said Mrs Brandon. ‘Steady on, Annie. Steady on, lass,’ said Mr Brandon. ‘Well, it makes me livid,’ said Mrs Brandon. ‘There’s our Mort spent all his life supping and smoking, and there’s me Uncle Gladwyn never touched a cigarette nor a drop of hard liquor in his life and dead at the age of fifty-one.’ ‘I know, but he fell down a bloody lift shaft,’ said Uncle Mort.
Mort survives, needless to say. Meanwhile, Carter and Pat move into a brand-new estate for young executives, even though Carter has been temporarily laid off from his factory job at Wagstaffe & Broome (as far as I remember we never do find out what Wagstaffe & Broome actually make). Pat has a new job as Mr Macclesfield’s personal assistant, and Carter becomes a house husband, pushing his wire trolley round the supermarket.
There were sensational reductions in the prices of digestive biscuits and baked beans. Incredible, never-to-be-repeated bargains were to be found among the tinned soups and ladies’ toiletries. Improvidence would have been the middle name of anyone who failed to stock up with the special offer Oxo cubes.
For me Tinniswood is the poet of drabness and boredom, and in these two books his writing reaches a glorious gloomy epiphany. But did anyone notice? My copy of Except You’re a Bird came in possibly the most appalling cover ever inflicted on an innocent paperback, a ghastly seaside postcard cartoon of Uncle Mort in a bubble bath with a young blonde lovely. ‘I firmly believe that Peter Tinniswood is on the threshold of a big success,’ said the Sunday Express, wholly incorrectly. Maybe Tinniswood lost heart; or maybe he just recognized the terrible need to make a living. Whatever the reason, the last novel, Call It a Canary, didn’t appear until 1985. It’s an even bleaker book than the others, as Carter’s marriage collapses and he starts drinking heavily. And yet you find yourself laughing out loud at almost every page. What never falters is Tinniswood’s evident fondness for his characters. On first reading you might conclude that his women are all termagants and the men all downtrodden, but neither is true. His men and women are just completely different: so different, in fact, as to be barely of the same species. And yet they still need each other, pathetically so much of the time. Like Wodehouse, Peter Tinniswood created his own fantastic little world and, to borrow from Evelyn Waugh, ‘will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own’. If the books are available for them to read, that is. They are a lost marvel of comic fiction, and deserve instant and loving rehabilitation. Why does anyone write comic novels? Search me, but imagine how much worse it would be if they didn’t.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 12 © Marcus Berkmann 2006


About the contributor

Marcus Berkmann writes regular columns for the Spectator, the Oldie and Private Eye, and his books include two on cricket (Rain Men and Zimmer Men) and Fatherhood: The Truth. He is not even contemplating writing a comic novel, knowing the terrible consequences that would ensue.

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