Moving, Hilarious…And Forgotten
Norman Collins had the prime requirement for a writer; he was naturally interested in the daily lives of others. He was a populist and a bit of an ethnographer, but these days we remember him better for his other career, first running radio’s Light Programme (which had grown out of popular entertainment for the forces), launching iconic shows like ‘Housewives’ Choice’, ‘Woman’s Hour’ and ‘Dick Barton – Special Agent’.
Collins saw nothing wrong in appealing to the widest audience, and once castigated TS Elliot for complaining about the growth of television. A story could please people and make the same legitimate point as a piece appealing to the intelligentsia, he argued. He was also the literary editor of the Daily News, which Dickens had edited.
Unusually, Collins wrote his most successful novel in the middle of his career. ‘London Belongs To Me’ is a sprawling 700+ page story in the style of Dickens, and is one of the great city novels, now considered a modern classic. It follows the fortunes of the down-at-heel tenants of No.10 Dulcimer Street, Kennington, South London, a lodging-house sub-divided into flats; there’s the lonely landlady looking for love and meeting instead a charlatan ‘Professor of Spiritualism’, Connie the ageing seen-it-all Soho hostess who comes homes each night on the 4am tram, the world-weary Mr Josser who manages to symbolically smash his cheap retirement clock, the doomed, adenoidal Mr Puddy who lives on tinned food, and young mechanic Percy who gets involved in stolen cars and deepening trouble. They’re barely scraping by in 1939 London, but the narrative is also joyful and packed with gruesome period detail. It was made into a decent film starring Richard Attenborough.
My favourite Collins novel is a colonial story of secrets, lies and endless ineptitude among Africans and the English. ‘The Governor’s Lady’ has an appropriate opening image of a slow-turning ceiling fan that is losing its bearings so that it will probably come down, killing people and smashing everything. As the lovesick pen-pusher Harold falls for the older and racier governor’s wife, he allows a situation to develop that will destroy his world. Yet the cleansing conclusion of a scandal revealed is denied to the reader; like everything else in this tainted, artificial life it is kept under wraps by those with vested interests.
This and another novel, ‘Flames Coming Out Of The Top’, reveal a fascination with life in the tropics as experienced by weak-chinned Englishmen who are not sent out as heroes but as observers. He delineates the English attitude to foreigners thus;
‘He grouped together all those nationalities with whom he had been brought closely into contact under one comprehensive and unflattering heading of unreliability.’ Or as one character explains, it’s their country and you mustn’t let them remember it.
These books place him alongside Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh and William Boyd, while his London novels give him the air of a less cynical Patrick Hamilton. Yet Collins remains by far the least respected of any of these writers, probably because he was more vocal than any of the others about his populist beliefs.
His books are now hard to find. For more about him, watch out for the paperback version of ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’, now with an extra section, on October 4th.