“It was the judge what upset me, though,” said Mog
“Why was that, Mog?” said Megan.
“Because of what he says to me. ‘Maurice Mansell Williams’ he says, ‘I’m sending you down the old swanee for five years on account of your false pretences and on account of you being the biggest fucking rogue unhung in the whole of South Wales. Right? Like?’”
“What language,” said Megan. “He didn’t ought to be a judge using language like that – especially in front of criminals.”
“No, no, fair do’s to him, he didn’t use the exact words identical like.”
Peter Tinniswood’s second novel, Mog, was published in 1970, though I wasn’t able to get hold of a copy myself until it received a first paperback edition in 1985, published as a tie-in to the ITV sitcom adapted by Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais, the only occasion as far as I am aware when Tinniswood’s work has been adapted by other writers. The sitcom, which borrowed only a few elements of the book, was a failure commercially and artistically.
Where A Touch of Daniel sustained itself on slice-of-eccentric-life comedy, incubating not so much a story as a steadily growing surreal situation, Mog enjoys a defined plot, laid out early in its pages, which is multi-layered and dramatic in its structure.
Philip Manners, a very rich and successful businessman, owns a property developing company which is run day-to-day by his elder son, Tom,a stuffed shirt, prig and Tory MP. Philip Manners still signs all the paperwork, because he’s well aware that Tom and his partner Sir Peter Wakefield are out to break the company down and sell it to their cronies.
Philip plans to protect the company, and his family’s fortune, by leaving it all to his younger son, Oliver. There is just one hitch to this plan, and that is that Oliver is certifiably insane.
Oliver has not actually ever been certified, and that is because Philip Manners has built a private asylum at his estate, Mannersville, where Oliver and half a dozen other lunatics are under the care of Mrs Mortensen, a widowed Danish psychiatrist of considerably beauty, who has also had Philip Manners under a strict vegetarian regime for five years whilst insisting on sex with him every night.
The story is, incidentally, set in 1960.
Mrs Mortensen is the kind of psychiatrist who believes that mental problems are entirely due to sexual issues and repression, about which she is happy to talk quite enthusiastically, and you can imagine how that goes down among the elder generation in a staid, pre-Swinging Sixties northern town.
As for Oliver, he neither looks nor sounds mad. The other lunatics around him do: this is not an enlightened book so there will be some reservations about Tinniswood’s portrayal of the lunatics, not least in the use of the blunt word, and the attitudes of most of the outsiders to the mere idea of lunacy, but this is 1960, remember, and it is an authentic portrayal of the average person’s beliefs.
Except for Oliver, the other inmates are almost all people who, in one way or another, are unable to deal with the pressures of the world around them and who have adopted unreal persona: Brother Herbert, Group Captain Greenaway, ‘Baldy’ Hogan.
But Oliver seems to be entirely normal and sane. That certainly is the opinion of Miss Miranda, Mrs Mortensen’s sixteen year old daughter, recently returned from an all-girl’s school, full of randiness and hormones, a raging sex drive directed, along with love, at Oliver, who she wants to marry. Miss Miranda is upfront and forthright and almost completely ignorant in every respect about sex, except for what people like Antoinette Lilley and Oonagh Liddell at school have told her and everybody laughs at them.
You may be noticing that whilst I’m trying to describe a serious and dramatic set-up that it’s already difficult to stop eccentricity and absurdity from creeping into the picture.
Anyway, Philip Manners want Oliver cured, and so does Miss Miranda, whilst Tom Manners and Sir Peter Wakefield want him properly certified and ruled out completely as an obstacle to their nefarious objects. As for Mrs Mortensen, we begin by assuming she wants Oliver to be cured, but as the story develops, that is not necessarily the case.
But the question that intrigues, as it should, is whether or not Oliver is insane? Oliver’s quite happy with the situation, free from responsibility of any kind, a theme that will be openly and cynically expressed in the book by its title character, who you will notice we still haven’t got round to introducing. Oliver acts normally, Oliver talks normally, Oliver isn’t being anyone except Oliver Manners.
But it’s interesting that Philip Manners never has any actual contact with Oliver in Mog. And there are two unexplained incidents that dog Oliver’s past. One was the incident that led to him being court-martialled and drummed out of the army, which seemed to have involved a woman, a boat on a lake and an oar, and the other involving the death of his mother. No-one seems to know what actually happened on these occasions, least of all Oliver, who cannot remember…
When the book starts (finally!), Mrs Mortensen has had the idea of Philip Manners buying an ordinary house in an ordinary street, to set up an unadmitted asylum in the midst of the real, everyday lives her sexually-afflicted patients are trying to escape. Oliver and three other inmates will live there, whilst undergoing treatment at Mannersville, but living in a mundane environment where they are not picked out as lunatics.
The house, we are delighted to see, is a three-storey terrace next door to, of all people, the Brandons (their presence in the book is primarily that of background colour, though Uncle Mort will take part in many a jaundiced conversation). It will be managed by Philip Manners’ patient, steady, phlegmatic chauffeur, Ambrose Tierney, and his beautiful but rather simple wife, Megan, who is from Cardiff.
Shortly before leaving for the house, Ambrose and Megan have a few days in Cardiff, primarily looking for Megan’s brother Mog, a petty criminal who has just got out of jail. Mog is a waster and a wastrel, a pathological liar who boasts about any and everything and for whom ignorance, failure or reversal is always the fault of someone else and he the put-on, repressed, misunderstood genius, a man whose criminal horizons are as small and limited as his perpetual fantasy of himself is broad. He’s a hypochondriac, a manipulator, a coward, as unreliable as it’s possible for anyone to be, and he takes to faking being a lunatic with energy and utter implausibility.
In short, a three-month old baby would look at him and think ‘what is this guy trying to pull?’.
And he’s the hero.
It’s really very simple. Despite his boasting to his impressionable sister and her wholly unimpressionable husband about interests and liquidity, Mog accepts an invitation to stay at Mannersville because he’s no other options. This is before he learns he’s living in a looney bin. Mrs Mortensen, recognising a disturbing influence when she sees one, wants him gone. But the commercial possibilities of the situation light up Mog’s eyes, especially if it comes to curing Oliver.
And Oliver’s promising to pay Mog a substantial sum in return (A fiver, asks Mog, hopefully, demonstrating the narrow limitations to his imagination when it comes down to the real world, when Oliver is talking four figures) prompts our hero to promptly decide to become a looney under the name of F. S. Seymour.
With Oliver’s support, Mog goes with Ambrose and Megan to the new house, where he meets the Brandons, conspires with Miss Miranda and, out of the daily sight of Mrs Mortensen, and in the guise of being a genius at curing looneys, takes over the establishment by enlisting the inmates in money-making piecework, such as stuffing horsehair into greyhound tracks hares until they droop from exhaustion and produce very curious responses to word association tests!
It sounds extremely dubious and in incredibly bad taste in an age that has a rather more sophisticated understanding of mental health problems, but it rides a tide of absurdity based on the bizarre twist of a man openly pretending to be mentally ill whose everyday behaviour and attitudes are so off-key that he is identifiably mentally ill to begin with!
Mog’s antics, his pretensions and defensiveness, are the creative tension at the heart of this novel, but having introduced a plausibly realistic plot, Tinniswood makes sure of keeping the serious element of the framework fully occupied.
Tom Manners really is a shit, and a hollow shit at that. Early on, he proposes marriage to Estelle Nicholson, daughter of the very rich and considerably straightforward and decent Hedley Nicholson, though not in terms of love or even lust (despite Estelle’s efforts to introduce at least that idea) but rather as an openly political gesture: his constituency would be best served by an MP who is married, so it is his duty to provide it with a wife.
Sir Peter Wakefield, in contrast, is a slimy manipulator who openly plots to undermine Philip Manners by making a play to seduce Mrs Mortensen away from him. Everyone – Tom Manners, Hedley Nicholson, Alderman Samson Tufton – reacts in horror at how this will break Philip Manners if he ever finds out, without knowing that Mrs Mortensen is making no secret of Sir Peter’s pursuit and that Philip Manners isn’t bothered: her absence gives him the welcome opportunity to gobble down all sorts of roasts, steak and kidney puddings and the like, behind her back.
The Alderman is a bit of a pompous idiot, continually shocked by Mrs Mortensen’s sexual openness and determined to resist the sexually progressive world she anticipates coming within the next ten years (i.e., the Sixties). He’s more at home at the local county cricket ground, where the fresh, new fast bowler, young Renshawe, is having a great season (“But what if he goes the same way as his brother?” Hedley Nicholson continually wonders).
Then a rapid set of circumstances change the ground rules. Mrs Mortensen openly goes away for the weekend with Sir Peter, to his country cottage. It turns out to be a bit of a tip, and that Alderman Samson Tufton and his wife are, unknown to her, also invited. Worse than that, having raised the Tuftons’ disapproval, Sir Peter does the dirty on her by locking his bedroom against her.
This reversal is made worse by the unexpected arrival of Mog and Miss Miranda, having pursued on Miss Miranda’s scooter (via every second pub between the North and Norfolk) and arrived blind drunk. A very disgruntled Mrs Mortensen arrives back at Mannersville to find Philip Manners pigging out on meat, but instead of wilting under her demands, he reasserts himself at last.
Unfortunately, the next day he’s killed. This occurs at his racing stables and is the indirect result of Miss Miranda’s frustrated urge to find out more about what sex actually entails when nobody will tell her, and what are cobblers anyway? Mog shows her a gelding, who doesn’t have any, but Miss Miranda’s helpless frustration sends the horse into a panicky flight. It leaps a wall and kicks Philip Manners, having a solitary piss on the other side of it, in the head.
So the plot approaches a hinge point. At exactly the right moment, Oliver is starting to remember what happened with Lieutenant Quimby and the oars, not to mention his mother, and he’s starting to lose his sexual inhibitions (and ultimately his virginity) around Miss Miranda. She and Mog, and Oliver, believe he’s cured but that’s down to Mrs Mortensen.
Because Philip Manners has indeed left the business to Oliver, and Tom Manners and Sir Peter want Oliver finally certified as mad. And if Mrs Mortensen wants to get anything out of this, she should co-operate with them. However, Mrs Mortensen is anything but cowed. She is in a position of strength: she has Philip Manners’ notebook which explains the truth about what happened when Mrs Manners died.
Yes, she’s very much in charge, and to prove it, she’s going to marry Tom. Whether he wants it or not.
All the forces of the novel some together in a clash. Oliver refuses to leave the house and return to Mannersville. Megan is at last aroused to action, setting up and manning barricades against Tom and the Police, coming with a warrant. Sensibly, the men (Mog, Ambrose, Uncle Mort, Mr Brandon, Cater Brandon) go off down the pub for a jar or two and a game of dominos whilst the comic scene of defiance is expertly kept off-stage with new arrivals reporting on the hilariously escalating scenes elsewhere.
And it all comes good. The siege ends with Tom Manners climbing a ladder to get in through the first floor window when the Police – alerted by Hedley Nicholson from a tip by Mog – arrive to arrest him. Tom falls off into Ambrose’s fuchsia bush, hitting his head. As a result, he is certified as irrevocably insane. Oliver is certified sane and marries Miss Miranda, Sir Peter is sentenced to three years for embezzlement and Mrs Mortensen to one for conspiracy.
Oliver becomes chairman. He appoints Mog as the managing director, with the rest of the inmates, plus Mog’s exceedingly seedy criminal cohort Fat Bas on the board, except that at their first meeting, Mog’s announcement of a plan to takeover Tommy Ishmael’s cafe in South Wales is interrupted by the Police arriving to arrest him for impersonating a clergyman. Under the name of F. S. Seymour.
He’s shoved into the back of a cop car alongside a tall, well-set up young man. As they are taken into the station, a passerby comments, “I see young Renshawe’s gone the same way as his brother, then.”
The alacrity with which Tinniswood brings the story to a speedy conclusion and a seemingly happy ending, and deals rapidly with the aftermath, is brilliant, and a fitting end to a plot-driven tale in which the plot has been subverted all along by the absurdity of the central characters, whilst providing a backcloth of dark motivations and, shortly before the end, a genuine moment of danger and uncertainty.
In Mog, that outlandish character who animates so much of the story, Tinniswood spread a deep layer of comic improbability that helped to justify an equally implausible, clichéd and problematic approach to the inmates. They’re almost all stereotypes, characters who have assumed other personalities to escape their real lives.
Two are cured by bangs on the head. One leaves, under unexplained circumstances. Another, one who appears to have genuine issues, and genuinely sexual issues at that, is bullied by Mog and the other inmates and dies, inexplicably, in his sleep, though just before the end an explanation is hinted at that opens up a door into the possibility that these ‘looneys’ may be genuinely disturbed, beyond the camouflage of the book, and may be genuinely dangerous.
This is of a piece with Oliver. We are give the bare outlines of the incident with Lieutenant Quimby, and these are horrific, and they seem to haunt Oliver even through his trauma-instigated failure of memory. When his ‘explanation’ comes from his returning memories, the neutral reader, lacking Mog’s and Miss Miranda’s biases, fits the two stories very closely together.
Again, with his mother’s death, the official version and Oliver’s memories are not so very far apart that they could not very easily be the same thing. And though Philip Manners’ notebook contains the ‘truth’, it’s very noticeable that Tinniswood never shares that truth with us.
So, is or was Oliver insane? The true answer, beneath all the slapstick of Mog and Megan and Uncle Mort, is the reader’s decision, but to me Tinniswood does a brilliant job of not quite creating enough doubt. Which means that Miss Miranda’s happy-ever-after ending of marriage, and oodles of sex, and finding out at last what cobblers are, and queening it over such jealous figures of fun as Antoinette Tilley and Oonagh Liddell, comes with a trapdoor into a very black place, and no bolt to hold it up.
Underneath the comedy, there are very deep waters in Peter Tinniswood’s early novels.