Travelling with Tinniswood: Except You’re a Bird


Mrs Brandon closed her eyes. The shadows from the fire flickered on her cheeks.She sighed.
“I feel exactly now as what I felt before we got married all them years ago,” she said.
“Christ, you’re not getting another attack of lumbago, are you?”
“I’m not talking about bodily functions. I’m talking about emotional functions. I’m talking about emotions,” said Mrs Brandon. “I’m talking about being starry-eyed and all of a flutter. I’m talking about how it was twenty-five years ago with me rushing round making all the arrangements and you sitting on your BTM doing nowt.”
“Me? Doing nowt?” said Mr Brandon.”Who was it mended your Dad’s chain-guard? Who was it tarpaulined his bloody rabbit hutch for him?”
Mrs Brandon’s eyes sparkled. Her skin glowed in the gentle firelight.The creases in her neck were smoothed away in the mellow orange glow.”
“Les?” she said quietly.
 What?”
“Did you ever get second thoughts about getting married? I mean, did you ever get cold feet or owt like that?”
“No,” said Mr Brandon after a moment’s thought. “Once we’d bought the stair carpet there was no going back, was there?”
Though it had been implicit in earlier books, it’s in Except You’re a Bird – the third Brandon family novel – that Peter Tinniswood explicitly developed a vision of men and women as creatures alien to each other, with completely different concerns, feelings and wishes. It’s also where the accusations of a misogynist element to his work take serious hold.
The novel begins with thoughts of love and romance from Mrs Brandon. It’s six months until the Brandon’s twenty-fifth Wedding Anniversary, their Silver Anniversary, and Mrs Brandon has her heart set upon a grand celebration of love, which is going to feature a service of re-dedication, and a Second Honeymoon.
Mr Brandon, in contrast, would rather ignore the whole thing. He wasn’t impressed with the first honeymoon (The breakfasts was rubbish), the Re-dedication ceremony is bound to involve him dressing up (Women are buggers for spats), and the thought of resuming sex is an anathema to him (I’d rather bath an Airedale any day).
It’s not that Mr Brandon isn’t romantic in himself, it’s just that his romance is directed towards his job on the bowls greens at the Park (to which he was taken whole-heartedly) and his ever-giddier ideas about transforming a very functional Municipal Park into a riot of colour and scent.
So from the offset, Mr and Mrs Brandon are on two widely separated courses about their impending Anniversary, with one inevitable outcome: Mrs Brandon will get her way andMr Bramdon will put up with it.
Mr Brandon would prefer to concentrate on his remote chance of promotion to head gardener. The current incumbent, George Furnival, is shortly to retire, and he’s a man who knows bugger all about flowers and everything about forms and chitties. Plus he hates Mr Brandon, so the dream is not on.
Which is where Uncle Mort steps in. George Furnival is married to Olive, who is notably ugly, although the apple of George’s eye. Uncle Mort plans to romance Olive, to the point where George will catch the pair in a compromising position. George Furnival will then have to recommend Mr Brandon for his job, if he doesn’t want the news of his humiliation to get out.
It’s not Mr Brandon’s idea of a plan, but it works perfectly, except in two respects. Firstly, it appears that George Furnival is happy to be released from the suffocating prison of Olive Furnivals love, expressed primarily through the dinner table, and secondly Olive Furnival transfers her affections to Uncle Mort and, fattening him up with top notch grub, takes him away on a tour of her relatives.
Still, Mr Brandon gets the head gardener’s job and starts planning, whilst Uncle Mort’s opinions are pithily expressed in the postcard he sands home: “Barrow-in-Furness is worse than Hartlepools. Hartlepools was worse than Mexbourough. Mexborough was worse than Droylsden. There wasn’t much to choose between Droylsden and Birkenhead.”
(In all my years of reading, this is one of only two references I have come across in literature to Droylsden, of whom I was, when Except You’re a Bird came out, an avid fan. The other? A passing reference in I Didn’t Know You Cared. Incidentally, a later postcard from Uncle Mort concluded: “Birkenhead is worse than Droylsden. Infinitely.” I love Peter Tinniswood’s books!)
Now all of this is primarily comic, though that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a quite serious and dark underpinning to it. It’s one thing to laugh at the wildly contrasting emotions of the Brandons, but that doesn’t mean that Mr Brandon’s obstinate refusal to show interest isn’t deeply cruel and hurtful. Tinniswood seems to side with his downtrodden, beaten men, who only want a life of drudgery and dullness, preferring to avoid change, but his portrayal of that state, even of the men’s own innate belief in a certain nobility in their assuming it, is in itself subtley comic and exaggerated.
But this, as in I Didn’t Know You Cared, is only half the story. There is a second, deeper, and very much darker strand to this novel, and it involves Carter Brandon and Pat.
At first, it looks like it’s going to be similarly playful. A few heavy-handed hints are dropped by Pat, about not doing certain things “on account of (her) condition”, making it no surprise to anyone, except Carter, when she announces that she is pregnant.
Everyone’s impressed. Mrs Brandon tries to work out when it must have been conceived, and drives Mr Brandon mad by calling him Bompa, which is apparently her family’s traditional name for Grandads. Mrs Partington is scandalised at Pat wanting to emphasise to the world that she’s pregnant, even before she’s got the slightest bump (the bit about Carter and Pat sharing a bath together is priceless!).
But there’s a fly in Pat’s ointment and that’s her mother’s sudden announcement that she is going to re-marry. Her intended is Mr Shirtcliffe, who works at the snuff warehouse. Mr Shirtcliffe has two children of his own, Artie and Alison.
Pat puts her foot down and refuses her consent to her mother marrying Mr Shirtcliffe before even meeting him. It’s supposed to be all about her and baby, and she is full of fantasies about Baby’s future successful life, living each increasingly ambitious projection as if it were real and already happening. She’s already forbidden the sleep-deprived Carter from playing for the Works Football team, on account on his failure to get a cut looked at developing into gangrene and having his leg amputated, leaving her with no-one to dance with when Baby is Professor of Diffiicult Sums at Sheffield University.
But there’s the Shirtcliffes themselves. Mr Shirtcliffe is a near-midget whose primary concerns are housekeeping: he doesn’t want to marry Mrs Partington at all. Artie is the star forward for the local Rugby League team, praised by all except Mr Brandon, who thinks he’s rubbish. He’s is a fast-talking, high-living young man freeloading through life on the back of the ‘punters’ who hero-worship him and give him things for nothing, and who he openly despises whilst taking advantage. Alison is a mainly silent, anti-social young woman who dresses in mens shirts and pullovers and jeans. She has an offstage baby that she neglects, leaving it to scream endlessly.
She also has pale green eyes with flecks of tawny and long blonde hair, and absolutely fascinates Carter Brandon, who thinks she is the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen.
Again, so far, so comic. Autumn is turning into winter. A cold snap hasseized the city and is slowly getting stronger. Things are freezing, roads are icing. Cars slip and slither. Carter hates driving, hates his car but can’t get rid of it.
Until Pat has a crash, and is rushed into hospital, in a coma, with suspected brain damage. Her baby is well, but Pat is not expected to live.
Everybody reacts. Mrs Brandon is utterly practical, accepting that her daughter-in-law is going to die, and pretty soon at that, and making plans for Carter’s future therafter in ways that echo Pat’s own plans for Baby. Mr Brandon suggests that the Anniversary be cancelled, as a mark of respect. Mrs Partington accepts it as a judgement upon her for defying Pat’s wishes about Mr Shirtcliffe. Artie adopts Carter, giving him lifts to the hospital every night and waiting for him. On a couple of occasions, Alison is with him, but she doesn’t respond to any of Carter’s stilted attempts to start a conversation.
And Carter? Carter who gives the impression that he spends most of his life putting up with Pat? If we doubted him, we cannot any longer. He is desperate with fear, pleading with Pat’s unconscious body to hang on, to stay. Hell, we’ve even heard him tell her that he loves her, though not until she was fast asleep and couldn’t hear it.
Life at home, alone, is unbearable and Carter asks to go live with his parents again. It’s a godsend for his mother, who immediately starts treating him as if he was seven years old again. Mrs Brandon is showering on her son the love she wants to shower on Mr Brandon,and Carter is in no condition to resist.
He’s also experiencing visions. Of pale green eyes with tawny flecks, of flashes of blonde hair. And this despite Artie’s warnings not to start sniffing, not to get interested.
One night, he can’t sleep, gets up and goes down to the parlour. Before long, his Dad, equally wakeful, joins him. Then Uncle Mort, complaining that insomnia’s catching. In the early hours, with the fire lit, Uncle Mort tries to cheer him up, reminiscing about bereavements, including that of Thingie, or as Mr Brandon hurriedly reminds him, his son, Daniel.
Immediately, Carter returns to bed, sleeps and dreams, and hears Daniel in his head, comfortable and chatty. Daniel’s heard about Pat, and unlike everyone at the hospital, he is confident: nothing’s going to happen to her, he’ll see to that.
The next day, which Carter takes off work, he’s urgently summoned to the hospital. The journey has him sick with fear at every second, but the Registrar greets him with words of a miracle. Pat is awake again, and though she’ll have to stay in the hospital until Baby is born, all will be well. She’s had a dream, a party in her womb, with Baby and with Daniel. Daniel who, at the end, gave her a small wrapped-up present: her life.
So all is going to be well again,once time takes its course. Except it isn’t, is it?
It starts with Alison. Carter bumps into her at the bus stop after football training, gets her to go for a drink with him. She’s willing to see him, from time to time, though it’s always instead of Visiting Time with Pat. Carter fobs his absences off as overtime, which Pat happily builds into Baby’s fantasy future. And Daniel’s egging him on with visions of a future of travel, an escape from mundanity, even as Carter clings on to dreariness and drudgery.
Artie doesn’t approve. Linda Preston knows something about Artie that Carter doesn’t, and about his bird that he’s ashamed of, but she’s not telling.
Then Pat drops a bombshell (apart from the one about Alison turning up at one of these increasingly regular parties in her womb): Mrs Partington is to be allowed to marry Mr Shirtcliffe after all, because Baby needs two grandfathers for Who’s Who when he’s a High Court Judge with a kindly twinkle.
(Actually, as Daniel explains later, it’s a demarcation issue, the Amalgamated Society of Unborn Babies and Allied Trades having passed a motion threatening to withdraw Pat’s labour if their member was to be born with less than the nationally agreed number of grandfathers.)
Mr Shirtcliffe doesn’t take to the idea and threatens to expose Carter’s relationship with his daughter – which, as yet, hasn’t even got as far as a kiss – unless Carter does something (an unnatural state that he abhors). Of course, Alison has the answer: her father ‘disappears’ to live with Carter back at his home.
And the icy grip of winter continues, holding the city in its fist (the book is undated beyond ‘the Sixties’, but this is clearly the long winter of 1962-3). Mr Brandon and Carterboth feel increasingly trapped, and both dream of escape asthe pressure mounts and the days of the Silver Wedding and the birth get ever closer.
And then the great chance arises, legitimately. Carter is invited to join a specialist team doing maintenance work internationally (though Pat disapproves). He wavers, plans to decline it, but finds that his intended message has been completely misinterpreted and been put through as acceptance. He wants to tell Artie of his fortune. Instead, he finds out about Artie and his bird… and the whole thing explodes under his feet.
The tragedy that ensues arrives on the eve of a fast spring, a sudden melt. Mr Brandon runs out on his Silver Wedding, leaving Uncle Mort to take his place on both ceremony and honeymoon! Carter confesses his plans to run away after the Works Cup semi-final, only for it to be ended by someone who knows him better than he knows himself. And they’re trapped again.
This time Mr Brandon’s off the bowling greens, replacing Mr Shirtcliffe at the snuff warehouse (aaaaa-chooo!) and Carter’s both a husband and father, though his feelings of guilt begin to alleviate. Order is returned, the world is as it was for both men and women.
Except You’re a Bird (whose title comes from a speech by the Eighteen Century Irish politician, Boyle Roche, mis-identified in the book as Boyd Roche, who may have been a model for Mrs Malaprop) was to be the last Brandon family book for over a decade, although Tinniswood continued writing the Brandon’s for TV until 1979. It displays all the characteristics that, in a short space of time, had made him such a highly-valued comic novellist, and it remains gloriously funny now, forty years later.
But, as we’ll begin to see, it and I Didn’t Know You Cared represent something of a peak for Tinniswood’s work. It’s continually funny, hitting little peaks of laughter over and again, and its anchored in a concrete reality based on Tinniswood’s own experience of northern life, and how people talked and thought.
For his next novel, Tinniswood would break away from that setting, seeking to broaden his horizons. It worked well, given that he maintained that down to earth tone, and there were still great things to come. But the early part of his career was to end here, and there is much debate to be had about where his talent would now lead him.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.