Why Authors Are Forgotten: Part 4
The comedy writers Galton & Simpson once told me, ‘happiness is boring. It’s tragedy that’s funny.’ I’ve always admired David Nobbs, John Braine, Winifred Holtby, Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow and Keith Waterhouse, who mixed dark and light together almost without thinking.
Their lessons were well learned and I find myself peppering my Bryant & May novels with their mentality. ‘I’ve been invited to a screening,’ says my elderly detective Arthur Bryant. ‘Oh, the new Alien film?’ asks his partner. ‘No,’ Bryant replies, ‘bowel cancer.’
It seemed to me that many Northern writers got stuck with a lazy tag they didn’t deserve. The words ‘gritty’ and ‘grim’ still pop up all the time. What’s overlooked is a natural sense of amusement at the world’s failings. Tinniswood created a strange, poetic masterpiece called ‘The Stirk of Stirk’, a story about Robin Hood as an old man, and it could only have been written by someone who saw the cruel humour in his situation as, freezing to death, his hero wanders the woods with his dwindling crew, wondering how much longer the old ways will survive. The style is pure poetry. Here he is on the journeys made by house martins;
‘Desert. Ocean. Stab of lighthouse, Swoop of falcon. Lime trap. Storm. Draught. Pellets of shot gun. And here they are. Back home.’
The book is suffused with melancholy chill, 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 – and out of the bestsellers’ list.
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. He reminds you that reading should always be a pleasure, never a chore. ‘A Touch Of Daniel’ was reissued in 2001, two years before he died, killed by his pipe, which is how he would probably have reported his throat cancer.
When I was writing ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’ I set about unearthing as many of these writers as I could find, and was surprised to discover that they had often sold in their millions. Did they retire to the South of France, having made fortunes? Well, a couple did but many underwent stranger fates.
Arthur Upfield inspired a killer to copy his fictional perfect murder. Kathleen Winsor became the subject of a sex scandal. Others like Simon Raven never learned how to deal with sudden success and succumbed to a variety of hideous fates. Some were simply unlucky, some shied from the spotlight and hid themselves behind false identities. Others became unfashionable. One author I looked for was so mortified by poor reviews that she never wrote another word. Alexander Baron was so shy that when he did had a successful book he could barely bring himself to publicise it. Hans Fallada wrote novels subtly criticizing the Nazis while living in Berlin, and the success of one nearly ended his life. It was made into a Hollywood film that came to the attention of Goebbels. Other successful writers lived long and happy lives. One died on an Egyptian cruise, still cheerfully working in her late eighties. ‘Never regret,’ she said. ‘If it’s good, it’s wonderful. If it’s bad, it’s experience.’
Shortly after Keith Waterhouse died virtually every one of his novels, excepting the immortal ‘Billy Liar’, which I’ve always regarded as Britain’s answer to ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, came off the shelves within a year. Perhaps as our lives improved beyond recognition, they took an entire literary school with them. Well, times and tastes change. It doesn’t mean we should forget our heroes.