Good Taste: The Final Taboo

Reading & Writing, The Arts

We live in a terribly tasteful world. In the middle of the World Cup fuss, David Beckham ventures out in mismatched clothes and is analysed by fashion critics who explain that ‘double denim tones are difficult to pull off, and only for the brave’. Tyler Brulee peers out of Sunday periodicals cataloguing minor taste transgressions while swanking about his glamorous lifestyle. My local pub sells leek and filo pastry tartlets. Lady Gaga is held up as the doyenne of surrealist fashion, and although Dali-style is ‘in’, Dali the artist is still ‘out’. Salad cream is fashionable again.

I shouldn’t complain. I mean, I’m a tasteful kinda guy. My iPod has obscure track lists to die for, with plenty of rare beats and hot downloads I’ll never get around to playing. I go to writers’ lunches and they look at me as if I’ve landed from outer space. A lot of writers tend to wear cardigans – I wear Marc Jacobs. I can sometimes be seen in cool clubs.

But there’s an area of taste I’m almost ashamed to cover here. It’s a real shocker. I like deeply unfashionable things. I don’t mean regular bad unfashionable stuff like Simon Cowell or anything on commercial TV. I mean stuff that even your mum no longer likes. My obsession with Norman Wisdom has long been noted, but this extreme taste for the unfashionable extends to British Light Music, a peculiar category of melodies which are hardwired into the DNA of any English person over forty. I like Eric Coates and Malcolm Arnold, and will happily play their work beside Royksopp or the Noisettes.

Old Carry On films continued the Light Music tradition and some were scored by Bruce Montgomery. But Bruce Montgomery also had a secret – he was also Edmund Crispin, the ‘Golden Age’ mystery writer.

If you love an author, it’s always a shame when you know you can pull their entire output from your bookcase with one hand. But to Robert Bruce Montgomery, born 1921, quality took precedence over quantity. Montgomery was the organist and choirmaster of St John’s College, Oxford. This spirited, funny man turned to composing movie music and wrote six scores for the ‘Carry On’ films. If you listen carefully to them, you’ll spot musical jokes which are more amusing than anything in the scripts. He also wrote the Gervase Fen books, eleven dazzling, joyous volumes, all but one of which were produced between 1945 and 1951.

The first set the tone for what was to follow. Fen is Professor of English Language and Literature, and assumes that the reader can keep up with him as he spouts literary allusions while cracking crimes. The books are fast and fun, their hero charming, frivolous, brilliant and badly behaved. When investigating, Fen tends to dive into pubs, play word games or start singing badly, anything rather than stick to the job at hand. Sometimes he even breaks the fourth wall and makes jokes about his publisher.

In the first Fen story I read, the lanky don hijacks a philosophy lecture by noisily cracking walnuts and then loudly telling his own tale, which is far more interesting. In ‘The Moving Toyshop’ Fen imagines titles for Crispin’s novel while tied up in a cupboard. ”Fen steps in’, said Fen. ‘The Return of Fen. A Don Dares Death (A Gervase Fen Story). Murder Stalks The University. The Blood On The Mortarboard. Fen Strikes Back.’ Then, to pass the time, he lists unreadable books, including ‘Tristram Shandy’ and ‘The Golden Bowl’. The character becomes such a joy to be with that you usually don’t care much about the crime, but the solutions are outrageously ingenious and highly implausible.

The last book is weakest, written as Montgomery finally succumbed to drink; he was clearly having too much fun, but thankfully he put a lot of it on paper too. The problem now lies in tracking down all eleven volumes. Most are out of print, but some are available secondhand from the US. Be warned; the covers are atrocious and bear no resemblance to the content.

Once again I seem to have strayed off-topic. Where was I? Ah yes. Ghastly good taste. I was going to add that we should make Tyler Brulee and Tom Ford wear tracksuits down to Morrisons and force them to shop for reduced-price ready meals. So just to round off, here’s a British Light Music track that, if it means anything to you at all, will have you thinking of a very specific title. BTW, the photo above shows – but you tell me.
01 By the Sleepy Lagoon

9 comments on “Good Taste: The Final Taboo”

  1. MusicBringer says:

    That’s Shirley Abicair, my Infant School sweetheart.

  2. Alas, you’ll have to find a rarer crime series, since all the Gervase Fen mysteries are readily available from Vintage, under rather pleasant covers. I bought the first three volumes from Amazon, and read the first, which is indeed fun (I’m not totally convinced a retransmission of the Meistersinger overture by radio in the forties could be loud enough to cover the bang of a pistol, but we’ll pretend it can).

  3. admin says:

    Nobody likes a smartarse, Patrick! Okay, how about Margery Allingham? I’m delivering the annual Margery Allingham lecture (who knew?) in May and have just reread her – I think I read too quickly and dismissed her the first time around – second time is a bit of an amazing window into the past.

  4. Anne Hill Fernie says:

    For years my guilty pleasure has been reading dusty old thrillers from 1905-40s and I used to be roundly mocked for it. I’m thinking Hornung (‘Raffles’), Sydney Horler; Buchan, Wallace and (slightly more credible) Maugham’s ‘Ashenden’ stories. Foreigners were always dodgy; women either had ‘allure’ or were ‘good chaps’ who were told to ‘brace up old girl’ in a crisis. So it is with a sense of vague astonishment that I notice many of these stories being reissued – obviously I am/was not alone or is it just the fairy dust of time that turns kitsch and trash into diamonds – who knows?

  5. I.A.M. says:

    Ms Fernie: for an extra twenty-five points, plus the chance to win the brand-new gas cooker, identify the “Raffles” reference in Admin’s book Ten-Second Staircase!

    …no help from the audience, now!

  6. You would have got on with my A-level history teacher – she was in her thirties and always bringing up this sort of thing when we were meant to be studying the General Strike!

  7. Margery Alligham? A friend of mine is a great fan and is indignant that she’s not been translated into French while Gladys Mitchell has been, in abundance. I haven’t read Allingham myself, but quite a few recent editions of the Campion mysteries seem available from Amazon. And I’ve fond memories of the TV series of a few decades past, with charming Peter Davison as Campion…

    Smartarse? Me? Oh.

  8. RobertR says:

    As ever with you I’ve learnt something – the link between Gervase Fen (I’ve those very green Penguin editions from the early 80’s) and ‘Carry On’ movies – just throw in a buttered crumpet & a Yorkshire Pudding and we’ve England culture covered!

  9. Just wanted to comment and say that I really like your blog layout and the way you write too. It’s very refreshing to see a blogger like you.. keep it up

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