“What have you got then, if it isn’t a personal question?” said Mr Brandon from behind his evening paper.
“A wasting disease,” said Uncle Mort.
“I’m not surprised neither, considering all the time you’ve wasted in pubs and betting shops,” said Mrs Brandon.
“Steady on, Annie. Steady on, lass,” said Mr Brandon, rustling his paper.
“Well, it makes me livid,” said Mrs Brandon. “There’s our Mort spent all his life supping and smoking, and there’s me Uncle Gladwyn never touched a cigarette nor a drop of hard liquor in his life and dead at the age of fifty-one.”
“I know, but he fell down a bloody lift shaft,” said Uncle Mort.
For his third novel, Peter Tinniswood went back to the Brandon family. I Didn’t Know You Cared appeared in 1973, and would provide the title to the BBC sitcom loosely adapted from some aspects of the novels, beginning in 1975. It was my introduction to Tinniswood, another of those discoveries (like Donald Westlake) that came from scouring the extensive shelves of Didsbury Library.
I don’t know what it was that caught my eye and lead to my borrowing the book, but I loved it, and it’s still my favourite of all of Tinniswood’s books, for its gusto, its beautifully sustained balance between Tinniswood’s short, declarative sentences, its romantic innocence and its wonderfully inventive morbidity.
The book is driven by two stories, nominally independent but linked in the Brandon family. On the one side, Uncle Mort has just been told that he’s suffering from a fatal disease (cancer, in fact,the very thing that had taken my father three years earlier) and is determined to go about his last six months his way. On the other, Carter Brandon has been out of work for two months and is being a very efficient househusband whilst Pat is the family breadwinner who has just earned a promotion to personal secretary to that rising young executive, Mr Macclesfield.
It’s two years since the end of A Touch of Daniel, when Carter defied the strike and lost his Union card, and it’s 1961. He and Pat live on their newly-built estate, in a house so badly made that everything is damp, swollen and doesn’t fit. Pat’s in her empty-headed element, worshiping the ground Mr Macclesfield walks (presumably) upon and repeating his every word of advice to Carter in the hope that she can transform him into a young executive as well.
The only drawback for her is that Carter hasn’t had a hard-on for six weeks.
Meanwhile, Mrs Brandon has taken her brother’s impending death as a personal affront, refusing to believe he’s got it right at first, fulminating that after paying National Health Stamps for so long, they can just turn round and tell you you’re incurable without so much as a kiss-my-bottom, concerned at what the neighbours will think of her for letting him get terminally ill, and then settling down to make sure the whole thing is handled properly.
Such as a funeral party for the family before Uncle Mort snuffs it – it’s only decent of him – and helping him pick out his gravestone, not to mention pay for it out of his pension: well, he’ll appreciate it all the more, won’t he?
Uncle Mort doesn’t want any of this fuss. He’s got his own plans, plans that involve cashing in his National Savings Certificates to buy two more allotment plots, to add to the one that’s already an unkempt, untended wilderness. This puts Mr Brandon in a panic about how three wild allotments could unleash a plant chaos on the whole country and put paid to his shallots.
But Uncle Mort’s purpose is the pride of ownership: a weak, dribbling spring of trickling, funny-looking water rises on his allotment and these two other allotments comprise its course to the Barclay Brook, and thence the river, the sea, the ocean: Uncle Mort now owns the full riparian rights of the full course of the River Mort.
Pat’s fawning attitude to Mr Macclesfield gets so far on Carter’s wick that, with the gleeful support of Louis St John, the West Indian fitter (with a mum what’s born in Antigua and a Dad what’s born in Barnsley and a trick of switching from self-satirising coon-talk to broad South Yorkshire), he applies for and gets back his union cards.
Yet he doesn’t take up the fitter’s job at Wagstaffe & Broome’s that’s clearly waiting for him.
All this is taking place against a background of change and destruction that’s a silent echo of Uncle Mort’s condition. The city is being torn down, brick by brick, old and familiar buildings turned into rubble. Dead birds and animals are continually being discovered in and about the river, covered in sores. Even woodlands are being torn down so that new estates for young executives can be built. Carter doesn’t approve: There’s baby rabbits and redstarts in that copse, he tells one bulldozer driver, whose cynical response is that there’s about twenty tons of used french letters too.
It’s this continuing pulse that drives I Didn’t Know You Cared, the continual running of what are, beneath it all, serious subjects into lines like that, an inexhaustible supply of them as Tinniswood constantly booby-traps his listeners into giggles about the most uncomic of things.
There’s Vernon Collinson, Uncle Mort’s oppo at the clinic, a younger man under the same sentence, a constant reminiscer about, believe it or believe it not, completely mundane things. There’s cousin Celia, bereft of that Mr Coppersedge from Derby, invited into the bosom of the family by Mrs Brandon and arriving with boundless relish for the most unimpressive things of life.
Cousin Celia fills the gap left by Uncle Staveley and Corporal Parkinson, neither of whom are around for this book, with no explanation. She’s larger-than-life, a virgin at the age of fifty-five, extremely bountiful, and supposedly a witch who intends to cure Uncle Mort, whether he wants it or not, but who runs off with Vernon Collinson instead.
Carter has other problems of his own after new neighbours move in next door, Gerry and Ursula Phelan, both of whom work on the local newspaper. Gerry, an older, balding man who works nights, is a sexually boastful pig, who Carter can’t stand, whilst Ursula, his younger wife, is German. She’s very fit, in both senses of the word, though the fact she’s German less than twenty years after the war arouses prejudices amongst the older members of the family.
Ursula is trouble, everyone can see that except Pat, whose faith in Carter is as strong as her love for him. And considering his erections have suddenly come back, Pat’s eager in getting her end away quite often.
But, like not actually bringing Mog onto the stage until a long way into his novel, there’s one last substantial character to introduce, who turns up on page 48 and proceeds to turn the book upside down in a similar way to how he did with the first Brandon novel.
For Carter dreams, and in his dreams he enters the cemetery, to meet a baby sat up in a pram. The baby is smoking a Woodbine (a very popular, ubiquitous working-class cigarette). It’s Daniel, here to look after his Dad and help Carter sort out his problems. From hereafter, everything Carter does is accompanied by a running conversation with Daniel, constantly interrupting with his opinions.
You think Daniel’s just a voice in Carter’s head, a Freudian inner consciousness? Don’t be so sure.
The summer goes on. Pat’s away on business trips with Mr Macclesfield (and there’s none of that going on because Pat isn’t that kind of woman and she loves Carter too much: and in this book, Carter actually tells Pat that he loves her too).
But temptation is on Carter’s doorstep, not necessarily in the form of Ursula but rather her younger sister Erika, on an extended holiday. Erika has been scarred for life after a car crash, a jagged scar down one side of her face and neck that she keeps concealed by her hair-style, awkward though it is. The accident has changed her, turned her inwards, a process not helped by Gerry Phelan’s constant cartoonish sexual buffoonery.
Carter, encouraged by Ursula to treat her normally, like an attractive woman, takes an interest in her for herself, patiently, quietly, towards the point when, with Pat in Amsterdam for a week, everything is heading neatly towards consummation. Which is when it all goes wrong.
Things have already gone wrong in the other half of the story. Mr Brandon’s lost his job through redundancy and the dignity of his trade prevents him from accepting any old employment. So Mrs Brandon goes out to work at the Dinky Bakery, a job that Mr Brandon feels is below her, and he emulates Carter in becoming a housewife, and a bloody sight more enthusiastic and efficient housewife than any of them.
Nevertheless, money is getting short when the letter arrives from a property company wanting to buy the allotments to build on. With £750, the Brandons can build up a small enterprise in the country, and change their lives utterly. With £2,250 for his three plots, Uncle Mort will be truly rich.
Only he won’t sell the River Mort, and the offer won’t stay open until he dies, and the deal is all the plots or nothing, a fact succinctly explained by Chairman Sir Peter Wakefield (!) at the meeting at the Scout hut. His refusal to sell and allow the Brandons to improve their lot results in Mrs Brandon throwing him out: Uncle Mort goes to live in the adapted railway carriage on his allotment, and gets adopted as a project by the Peewits Patrol, whose least adroit member, Timothy Goodge, is a constant and improbable source of all manner of alcohol, swiped from his Dad.
Uncle Mort isn’t alone that long. First he’s joined by Vernon Collinson, run away from cousin Celia, who has made his life truly miserable by curing him. Then, when Mr Brandon gets too sentimental about his shallots, he leaves home to live with Uncle Mort (though the need for money forces him to take that job that’s going on the bowling greens in the Park).
Uncle Mort is getting weaker and weaker. Carter’s in dead shtuck: his seduction of Erika took a wrong turn when she briefly popped into the Phelan house to fetch something, and the figure at his back door a couple of minutes later was Ursula, who practically drags him into bed and fucks his arse off.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, in roars the boorish Gerry, bringing drinks to celebrate Carter having got his end away with his sister-in-law. His response to seeing his wife instead in bed with Carter? “Not again? Bloody hell. Not again?”
Suddenly, Carter’s bit of fun on the side has gone horribly sour. He wants nothing more than to keep it quiet, forget about it all, make sure Pat never finds anything out about this. Gerry’s surprisingly fine, this isn’t the first time, he knows the drill, he won’t spill anything. But Ursula makes it plain that this isn’t going to be a one-off. When she raises her hand, Carter will come to her. And he’ll finish what he started with Erika. Coming up with a story for Pat is his business,though.
And cousin Celia’s back at the Brandon household, supporting Mrs Brandon, an unstoppable force roaring with delight at every little ragged weed on Uncle Mort’s allotments. She’s negotiating a compromise which basically consists of the men agreeing they were wholly wrong, apologising and promising not to do it again. Oh, and Mr Brandon taking his wife out for dinner at the Trocadero grill the next night.
Which is where the arrangement falters as all the male Brandon’s are going to see the running of the Last Tram.
Which is where everything suddenly races forward. Unable to bear the thought of something about to go desperately wrong, Vernon Collinson throws himself under the Tram’s wheels. His inquest reveals that he was far from being cured: cousin Celia had conned him. Mr Brandon comes home, followed shortly by Uncle Mort, who collapses at the funeral. He’s in his last days, slipping in and out of consciousness to the tremendous frustration of Mrs Brandon, who’s desperate to get him to sign the sale documents on the allotments.
And Ursula wants Carter on Monday night, or she will tell Pat.
Cousin Celia, who is constantly proclaiming her witchly status, tells him not to worry. She knows mystically of his problems and will protect him. It’s all the usual moonshine and rot – but that night, Ursula and Erika’s father dies abruptly, and the pair have to return to Germany immediately. On the Monday. You should hear what Daniel has to say about it.
Uncle Mort’s going downhill steadily, and Carter’s problems aren’t quite over. A chance overhearing in a pub of Mr Macclesfield talking to a couple of his clients about Pat sees him straight down the hill to sign on at Wagstaffe & Broomes. The decision outrages Pat, as does Carter’s orders for her to give up her job (naturally Carter does not explain what he’s heard). So Pat walks out, though she’s soon back, extremely abashed, as soon as she finds out for herself.
Suddenly, there’s an epidemic. Cousin Celia’s having convulsions and the Peewits have all been rushed to hospital. Nothing can be done for cousin Celia who, in keeping with Brandon family tradition, dies, but it is Timothy Goodge who cracks the book open by putting together all the clues Tinniswood has left scattered throughout the story: they’re poisoned. The Peewits and cousin Celia have been drinking from the River Mort: they’ve been poisoned.
And it all unravels. The River Mort is polluted, with material escaping from the plastics factory owner by one Geoffrey Macclesfield. It’s been responsible for poisoning the Peewits and cousin Celia, not to mention the Barclay Brook and the river and the death of all those animals, dying with sores all over them. The offer for the allotments is quickly withdrawn.
It’s also poisoned Uncle Mort too. It wasn’t cancer at all. He’s not going to die, in fact he’s going to be cured. The last word, of course, has to go to the woman in the middle of all this: “Talk about perverse,” said Mrs Brandon. “You just can’t trust nature to work its natural courses these days, can you?”
But that’s not quite the last word. The scene shifts to Autumn, the season where all things begin dying, a fact commented on by Carter Brandon and Daniel as they head towards the allotments, where Uncle Mort is once again restored to full health. Out of a flash of sunshine, a lightning bolt strikes the railway carriage, turning it into a ball of flame. Despite the fact Uncle Mort must be dead, Carter plunges in and drags his Uncle out. He’d just been throwing out the last of cousin Celia’s bloody herbs.
“What an escape. Do you know, lad, I reckon if I put my mind to it, I could be bloody immortal.”
Again, there’s so much more going on in this book that even such a detailed account as this could possibly describe. The energy that drives it along, that keeps the flow in a constant bubble of humour, dry, dispassionate, northern, is only a part of all this.
Once again, Tinniswood paints a word picture of a time and a place now long gone. The book spends so much time in actual destruction of the pillars of this lost, working class Northern world, yet it’s also evident that the new, modern world coming to replace it is temporary in a way that past had never been, and would never last.
Again, despite my fervent belief that Tinniswood was writing about a fictional Manchester, I can’t stop myself recognising Sheffield as the true template, though I’d argue that the humour is Lancastrian rather than Yorkist, in its inflexions and rhythms, an effect achieved by Tinniswood eschewing dialect and instead concentrating on patterns of speech: I was six in 1961 and these books draw me back into that era of my life, and I was a Manchester back-street kid.
I Didn’t Know You Cared gave its name to the sitcom version of the Brandons, which ran four series between 1975 and 1979. It was beautifully cast, with the great John Comer as Mrs Brandon, Liz Smith as Mrs Brandon and Robin Bailey, a theatre actor of great experience previously known for a handful of dramatic roles on TV, as Uncle Mort. Stephen Rea and Anita Carey played Carter Brandon and Pat in the first two series but were replaced by Keith Drinkel and Liz Goulding – Tinniswood’s wife – for the last two. Though the first pair were the better actors, I always felt that Drinkel better fitted the part as I imagined it from the books.
Though the story of this novel, or at any rate Uncle Mort’s part in it, underpinned series two, the sitcom was a very different kettle of fish. I’ll review it in due course, but needless to say, Daniel and the greater part of the black humour were expunged, and the series rested on the lugubrious dialect and relish in misery inherent in the characters. Not to mention a couple of catch-phrases.
One last point. Tinniswood fully introduces Lous St John, the West Indian fitter, in this book. Louis’s the only black character in the story and, this being 1961, there’s some racist talk about him. Indeed, Louis’s own manner is a mixture of cod-African ‘lawsy, massa’ talk, spun out into great skeins of fantasy, and his own Barnsley accent, with its sweet, gentle, ‘nah, flower’.
It could be seen as a racist portrayal. Indeed, many people will not see it any other way. Yet let’s not forget the sequence where, after Louis has turned up at Carter’s house and had a playful mock fight with him, Pat comes home in outrage at Carter wrestling a nigger in the street.
There’s more of that in Pat’s entirely racist ranting about their position in the neighbourhood and the unwanted presence of niggers, all met by Carter’s oft spoken concentration on the practicalities of getting her dinner on the table. He’s waiting for her to wind down, but Pat doesn’t. At which point he turns on her, warning her that if she ever calls Louis a nigger again, he’ll put her over his knee, pull her knickers down and give her the biggest bloody hiding she’s had in her life.
It’s never as simple as you might think.