Our Forgotten Friends In The North
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.