A kind of minor Dickensian-rich London: warmth, humour, seediness and pathos 23rd December 1938 – 25th December 1940
The girls had most of them already exchanged Christmas cards, There was no obvious reason why they should have done so. They had spent the whole of the previous twelve months sharing the same office, and drinking tea together at eleven o’clock every morning and 3.30 every afternoon, and giving each other pieces of chocolate and aspirins. But for the past two or three days they had been behaving as though they had been parted for years. They had been distributing views of snow-bound coaches and lighted taverns and children tobogganing, and robins and boys bearing holly and old bellmen crying ‘Oyez’, as though Noel and the 18th century were the same thing, and life depended on celebrating both.
Norman Collins, was a writer, a sometime publisher with Gollancz, creator of the Left Book Club series of books, and was later in charge of BBC Radio’s Light Programme. Later still, he was controller of television, when we only had the BBC. A single television channel. And even later, he helped form the Independent Television Authority.
In other words, this was a rather busy man, who nevertheless wrote 16 novels and 2 plays.
This particular novel, published in 1945, and starting during the phony peace, but with the potential for war as an undercurrent, and ending during the Blitz, is a veritable house brick at well over 700 pages, and in fairly small print too. Though it fairly whirls absorbingly along, with a terrific mix of memorable, believable ‘characters’ – all pretty well ordinary working class Londoners. There is crime, – a central crime, and we know who did it, – there are romances, some of which are doomed to fail, others of which are more hopeful – there is seediness, there is deception, class-consciousness, socialism and fascism on the streets, penury, near-penury, greed, spiritualism, fake and possibly not quite – and oodles of affection for London itself, for ordinary people living ordinary lives, and displaying all the wonderful combination of nobility, generosity and mean-mindedness which we all do, all-mashed up together.
Collins takes a Kennington house, 10 Dulcimer Street, whose widowed owner lets out rooms. Under the one roof are the Jossers – a clerk on the verge of retirement, his wife and Doris, their office worker daughter. There is Connie, an ageing ex-‘actress’ now a cloakroom attendant at a seedy club, there is a devout widow Mrs Boon and her grown-up motor mechanic son, Percy, with impossible aspirational dreams. There is an overweight man, Mr Puddy, moving from unskilled job to unskilled job, with adenoids and an obsession with food. There is the money counting, terrified of poverty landlady, Mrs Vizzard, inhabiting the meanest room in the house so she can let the rest And there is also another room to let, waiting on a new tenant ………….
Out of this motley crew of characters and their own close friends and families, Collins weaves a satisfying, well crafted, most enjoyable tale.
Mrs Josser roused herself. She looked meaningly at Doris
‘It’s time that somebody got some tea’ she said
She didn’t really expect Doris to get tea…..But what she did want was to have her offer
As it turned out, however, it was Cynthia, silly fragile little Cynthia, who volunteered
‘Let me get it’ she said, with a giggle as she got up………….
But Mrs Josser had risen too. She had no intention whatever of allowing an ex-usherette to go chipping bits off her tea service………………..
‘Mind Baby’ she said warningly. ‘She’s going over to my work-box again.’…
Pins were exactly what Baby wanted, She was a substantial and determined sort of child. Taken over all, she had the appearance of a small but thick-set police-woman: if crossed, it seemed that she might start blowing a whistle or applying a half-Nelson. At this moment she was stretching both hands grimly towards the work-box and pushing out her nether lip to indicate her feelings in the matter.
I love the economical way all the undercurrents of family life, not to mention the little subterfuges, deep waters and thunderstorms of normal day to day human relationships are deftly and lightly sketched in by Collins. His humour is in no way…..there’s a joke coming..JOKE IS ON THE WAY, just rapid, incisive images, reflections, which are funny – but often, also full of a kind of pathos
The book was turned into a film directed by Sidney Gilliat, with Richard Attenborough playing Percy Boon, a young man who seems destined for a sticky end, a less knowingly vicious character but in some ways with some similarities to Pinkie in Brighton Rock. From this little snippet, it is clear that the film, called 10 Dulcimer Street, lays on Collins’ deft, subtler humour with a bit of a hefty trowel! Collins did not write the screenplay, and indeed, looking at the cast list on Wiki, there are a whole tranche of characters who do not exist in the book, not to mention characters missing.
This is my version of a cracking good read. Lots of wonderful humour, sharp observation – the reader rather knows from the off that there is a warmth and kindness, a wit and tenderness, – ‘a right rollicking good read’
I’ve come to this reasonably hot on the heels of reading or re-reading Patrick Hamilton, another writer with left sympathies who focuses on the small communities of ordinary London, as war approaches. Both Hamilton and Collins are celebrating the humanity of the small people.
This is another of the titles which Penguin re-released in their ‘Modern Classics’ within the last decade, many of them, like this, wonderfully well written ‘minor classics’ which sounds derogatory, but is kind of accurate. Collins is certainly not an Orwell, not a Graham Greene – but this is also miles away from disposable, forgettable, fiction
It’s interesting, there was certainly no consideration of this as ‘literary fiction’ by all accounts at its publication time, but this is a much more well-crafted page turner of good narrative, evocative of a place and time, than might have been thought of at the time, hence that ‘Modern Classics’ appellation, for its re-publication by Penguin. Sometimes it takes the distance of time, not to mention, the changing of tastes, to re-appreciate something. Sometimes, that ‘simple’ ability to tell a story, to tell it believably – indeed, to tell many stories within the one main narrative thrust – to create unique individuals who are nevertheless ‘ordinary’ enough to also be examples of a type, and to write all this with precision, without employing overworked cliches of style or language, seems incredibly rare!