Our Forgotten Friends In The North

Reading & Writing

A mate of mine regularly bombards me with examples of bleak local humour, from the Manchester Evening News headline ‘Man’s legs stolen – wedding dream shattered’ to the York Evening Press competition to ‘Win a trip out with the city’s road gritting team!’ Northern journalists soon started writing novels with such a dark sense of humour that they got banned from libraries.

Years ago I fell in love with the more peculiar-minded Northern authors, especially Beryl Bainbridge. Her novel ‘Young Adolf’, based on the myth that Hitler once worked at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool, brought hilarity to death and darkness. In ‘Every Man For Himself’ she looks at the end of Edwardian society, seen through the last four days on board the Titanic. Her books rarely end well. They’re hard to find too, but I couldn’t put her in ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’ because she wasn’t exactly forgotten. Yet it’s amazing how few of my friends have read her.

Many people helped to fill in the blanks about authors I was looking for. The widow of the author Kyril Bonfiglioli confirmed some of the more eccentric rumours I’d heard about him, including his ability to remove someone’s shirt buttons with the flick of a rapier when he was drunk. Tanya Rose wrote to explain how the writing of ‘It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ destroyed her marriage when her husband took the sole credit for it, and one author, Graham Joyce, came to a very raucous dinner, but died (far too young) before the book’s publication, which was heartbreaking.

I was anxious to include cartoonist Bill Tidy but I was concerned about putting him in because he was still working. I wanted to remind readers of his best works. All of Bill Tidy’s fourteen ‘Fosdyke Saga’ books are out of print, and some are changing hands for a fortune. I left him out because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

David Nobbs (see columns passim) was born in London but worked for the Sheffield Star, becoming in his words ‘the world’s worst reporter’. He wrote the delightful Reginald Perrin books, plus four thinly veiled comic biographies starting with ‘Second To Last In The Sack Race’. Already his books are disappearing.

His best friend was Peter Tinniswood, who wrote the hit novel ‘A Touch of Daniel’ that begins like this; ‘When Auntie Edna fell off the bus, she landed on her pate and remained unconscious for sixty three days. At the end of this period she died, and they had a funeral.’ Uncle Mort admires his wife’s funeral plot because he knows the soil will be perfect for growing championship onions. The book are comic masterpieces, but they’re now hard to find.

Nobbs and Tinniswood’s honesty about love, illness and death reflected British life without the varnish. The attitudes expressed in such books mirrored my father’s thought processes. To annoy his mother-in-law he would wait until she had covered the parrot’s cage, and would then blow the smoke from a cheap cigar beneath the cloth until the parrot got dizzy and fell off its perch.

The comedy writers Galton & Simpson once told me, ‘happiness is boring. It’s tragedy that’s funny.’ Forget about the Brontës; I 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.’

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. 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 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.

8 comments on “Our Forgotten Friends In The North”

  1. Rachel Green says:

    I remember owning the stirk of stirk but lost is sometime in the eighties. I can’t find it now.

  2. Wayne Mook says:

    Depending on what he put in his pipe he could of died from a coarse shag, or even a half shag pulling the last rattling breath from his care worn chest.

    Being a Northerner who actually doses say thing like, ‘Put little light on, but light is too big.’ I do enjoy a number of the writers mentioned. It is about time someone put Bill Tidy’s work out again.

    Alois, Adolf’s half-brother, lived in Liverpool. His sister-in-law claimed he stayed in Liverpool for 5 months with them. So there some substance to the tale.


  3. Wayne Mook says:

    But should read big.

    Curse auto correct.


  4. Ian Luck says:

    My late father and I loved the BBC TV show written by Peter Tinniswood, based on his ‘Uncle Mort’ books, ‘I Didn’t Know You Cared’. My father was amused by uncle (“I ‘eard that. Pardon?) Stavely, who always carried a box around his neck. This box carried the ashes of his ‘Oppo’ who had served with him in the first world war. It was beautifully written, and it resonated with me, at least, because whenever my older relatives talked, it was always about somebody they knew, who had just died, and it puzzled me why it made them happy. Because they hadn’t died yet, is the answer. Looking forward to the end can bring up an amusing, if cryptic, turn of phrase; in ‘Sir Henry At Rawlinson End’, written by Vivian Stanshall, a man who very possibly devoured the English Language, has Sir Henry’s housekeeper, the mouse like Mrs. E, say: “I got this terrible pain all down me side. I just laid back in bed: I could smell the Lillies.” Her conversation consists of tales of head injuries caused by an attempt to lure a tapeworm out of her husband, catching a disease off a badger hair shaving brush, and best of all: “She said it was a boil, but I knew – it was Derbyshire neck, wobbling about like a bag of giblets”. The best thing I ever heard a Northern person say, (and it amused me so much, I scribbled it on a bit of paper) when I lived in Yorkshire, in 1987, was by two old ladies sitting directly in front of me on the bus to Harrogate, one day.They ran through the usual list of coughs, colds, bunions, ingrowing toenails, and that Jean from two doors down has now got some kittens and a prolapse, that sort of thing, and one said: “Next week, we’re having our windows taken out and replaced with double glazing.” Her friend then said: “Oh, right. I suppose the old windows got thin with all those people looking through them…” And you’re more than welcome to use that, if you want, Chris.

  5. Peter Dixon says:

    Overheard in a west Yorkshire club; “What was the comedian like last night?”
    Reply; “He were all right – if yer like laughing.”

    Tinniswoods ‘Uncle Mort’s North Country ‘ and ‘Uncle Mort’s South Country’ are beyond hilarious.
    I believe Peter Skellern was in the TV series sometime during the 70s/80s

  6. Lynchie says:

    The Bill Tidy Titanic/Polar Bear cartoon is one of my all time favourites. Makes me smile every time I see it. I bought all the Reggie Perrin books, parts of which made me me laugh out loud – a false claim made on the covers of many allegedly humorous books. I love all of the Peter Tinniswood Brandon Family books and “Except You’re A Bird” is both funny and heartbreaking. Thank you for reminding me of the good times I had reading these stories.

  7. Wayne Mook says:

    One of my lecturer’s from down South always loved the phrase, ‘Well, I’ll go to the top of our stairs.’

    I was working on a bus (I used to work for the Greater Manchester PTA.) going from Wigan to Leigh, there were 2 young lasses of a larger size. One said, ‘I don’t like bacon.’ ‘Me neither, it’s the taste..’ ‘No, I don’t mean that. It’s too thin, I don’t see the point.’


  8. Ian Luck says:

    Wayne – I like the tactful way that you described those two lasses. The absolute best description of a + size person comes from Alexander McCall Smith’s ‘No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ series, which my late mother loved, and I found absolutely charming, and a great comfort to read after she died. The main character, Mma Ramotswe (who is an unashamedly large lady) refers to herself as ‘Traditionally built’, which I think is simply wonderful.

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