This year I’m collecting and rewriting my ‘Invisible Ink’ columns into a book about once-popular authors who are now being forgotten (the weekly column continues in the Independent on Sunday). One noticeable group of writers is vanishing more quickly than others; the Northern comic authors.
The Northern comic sensibility is dark and dry. The above 48-sheet posters were put up to advertise the Northern equivalent of Coca-Cola, the peculiar amber-coloured drink Irn-Bru. They reflect that humour rather well.
After the second world war a new generation of writers emerged from the North of England. They brought a new sensibility to film, theatre, television and literature. Shelagh Delaney, John Braine, Alan Sillitoe, David Nobbs and Peter Tinniswood all produced books and theatre work that mirrored life lived in more trying and painful circumstances than in the South. There’s a strong tradition of Northern comic writers who can hold tragedy and comedy in harmonious balance.
Keith Waterhouse wrote one of my favourite novels, ‘Billy Liar’, with its unbearably poignant ending, and introduced Julie Christie to the screen in its film version.
Happily David Nobbs is still writing. He wrote the Reginald Perrin books, while Peter Tinniswood commenced the long-running saga of the Brandon family with A Touch Of Daniel, which was serialised by the BBC. He’s a lovely scene-setter: ‘It was the time of year when bus conductors first appear in linen jackets.’ His deadpan throwaway style translated poorly to television.
He wrote the surreal cricketing series Tales From The Long Room, but was capable of stranger stories. The Stirk of Stirk is a highly peculiar prose poem that drops the reader into Robin Hood’s darkest winter as, with rumbling stomach and perishing soul, the bandit faces his greatest enemy.
Hood knows that creeping age and his inability to live up to his own legend will finish him off, yet simply refuses to die. The book is suffused with Northern chill and melancholy, but even in the blackest moments Tinniswood lights candles of hope. Here a laugh is described as ‘a sound that would curdle the eggs in a goldcrest’s womb’ and ‘saliva makes bitter fountains in the mouth’ as the starving Hood staggers on into history. This kind of heightened stylisation has fallen from popularity. Reading Tinniswood is like skimming any recent book on fast-forward, such is his ability to drag the reader through a colourful story.