Travelling with Tinniswood: Call it a Canary


‘Dear Carter,
‘I cannot stand no more.
‘I have left you for good and all with your son, Nigel. I intend to live with my gentleman friend. He works in the gas showrooms and has excellent prospects.
I can no longer live with you and your selfishness and your drinking in pubs and your sleeping with your mouth open and showing no consideration for myself and Nigel.
‘You never make an effort.
‘I never want to see you again for the rest of my life.
Your dinner is in the oven between two enamel plates on regulo two and there is a junket in the fridge or you can have a slice of Battenburg if you prefer, but don’t cut it too thick as it has to last.
‘I remain,
‘Yours faithfully,
‘Your wife (Pat).’
So. We’re back in the North, with the Brandon family. With Carter Brandon. Time’s passed. Not just the eleven years since Except You’re A Bird but for the family. Five years or so have gone by. It’s still the Sixties, but they’re limping towards the end. They’ve started Swinging, but that’s for down South. The North doesn’t Swing. It never has. It’s not made for Swinging is the North. It doesn’t like enjoyment, or happiness, or fun. That’s not what it’s about.The country’s got no use for the North, it doesn’t want it. Bits of it are dying, shutting off, closing down.
Carter Brandon’s marriage is over, Pat’s walked out on him and taken their son, Nigel (no points for guessing who was going to name him). Carter’s not much mithered about Pat upping and offing, in fact he can’t even remember to tell his Dad and Uncle Mort until several pints have passed at the Whippet.
Carter can’t really be mithered at all. Even if it’s obvious from the second note that there is no gentleman friend and Pat’s simply trying to get his attention, all it means to Carter is that he can carry on boozing and birding, wear industrial boots to work and not turn into a young executive without being nagged.
And the birds are all the more interested in him now Pat’s out of the picture. Not Linda Preston, though. For once she’s not offering it, because she’s going to get married again, this time to Count Jugular, the all-in wrestler and proud homebody. Linda’s going to turn herself into a good, loyal, prissy-arsed wife, like Pat.
And Louis St John’s changed too. After taking home Thelma Thurlow when Carter got too drunk at the Reception, Louis’s gone all strait-laced and disapproving, intent on marriage, disgusted at Carter’s morals, language and boozing.
But first Count Jugular, then Louis St. John and Thelma Thurlow are killed, in car crashes at that notorious accident black spot, Wilson’s Bar.
They were happy, see.
Linda Preston survives, though, determined to be the wife she intended to be. Not that Carter’s going short. There’s plenty of women from Wagstaffe and Broome’s that are up for a night with him, though it’s never anything special for them. And for a time, he’s taken over by skinny, needle-titted, beaky-nosed Dorothy Fearnley from (aptly) Complaints, until he scares himself off.
But the North is dying. People are dying, industries are closing, popular mine host and ex-Green Howard, Bert Coleridge, is moving South. Even Wagstaffe and Broome’s closes down, putting everyone on the dole. Mr Brandon’s on the dole alongside Carter, the snuff warehouse having shut. The men stand together in proud solidarity, craftsmen deprived of their craft. Eventually, they give in and find other jobs.
It could all be put back right for Carter, if he wants to take advantage. Pat still loves him, even after she does get a gentleman friend, none other than Mr Macclesfield, for whom she worked in I Didn’t Know You Cared. She moves in with him and his avacado bathroom suite, though there’s nothing like that going on.
But it’s not going to happen. Carter’s more interested in Pat’s best mate and former colleague at Maison Enid’s, Hazel Huskisson, she of the blonde hair, mini-skirts, long lissome legs and mobile caravanette. Hazel’s keeping an eye on Carter for Pat, reporting back what he does. On the other hand, her husband Ken’s spending every weekend house-hunting in London. Carter’s obsessed just as he was with Alison Shirtcliffe, and it’s all there for him. If he makes a move.
But he doesn’t.
Carter’s got a big problem. Well, two, actually. Or three, really. One is the one he’s always had, indecision. Not a Hamlet-like indecision, but instead an urgent desire not to take decisions, not to bring about change.
The next one is Sid Jones. Sid used to be Carter Brandon’s oppo in their National Service days in Germany. Two young men with time on their hands, exploring the mysteries of a strange country that was endlessly romantic in comparison with the emptiness and deprivation of the North.
Sid’s back now, and staying with Carter. But he’s not the booze-guzzling, bird-pulling Sid of yore. For one thing, he’s in gentleman’s fittings and he’s as bald as a coot. He’s clean, neat, a fastidious housekeeper, disapproving of strong drink and strong language, and unable to talk to women. Everyone says he’s a homo, even Daniel: only Carter insists he’s not.
But Carter’s biggest problem is that he’s become a drunk. A mean, swilling soak who’s unable to sleep for body-wracking hangovers. Hairs of the dog that get earlier and stronger every day. The classic alcoholic in classic denial about it.
There are still moments of sanity. Sid Jones persuades him to come away on a holiday in Scarborough: seaside, fresh air, no drinking. Even though Uncle Mort invites himself along, it’s working. Carter even bumps into Pat, staying here with a jealous Mr Macclesfield. They enjoy a gentle, happy day together and Carter presses for another. Then stands her up and goes home.
And then it happens. Carter has one final chance of Hazel, and he decides to take it, turn it into a future he’s badly in need of. He drives over in his blood-red Mini Cooper S. But a dog off its leash runs into the road, he swerves, and crashes. At Wilson’s Bar.
Is this novel solely about Carter Brandon? Is there no parallel story of comparable importance? Well, no, not really. There is a secondary thread, running alongside Carter’s story and forming an undercurrent, but it’s hardly on the same level of intensity and focus.
It’s about Uncle Mort, and his overgrown allotment once more. Uncle Mort has got a canary nesting in one of his bushes, a pair, with eggs. Only they’re not canaries, they’re warblers. To be precise, Mourning Warblers, except that, according to the bird books, they don’t nest in Britain, they only nest in America. Which makes them rare birds, poor sods.
Once the word gets out, the nest becomes a magnet for egg-collectors. The former Wagstaffe and Broome’s men set up a night watch, but they make a piss-poor fist of it. Between boozy sleeps, treachery and Mrs Brandon’s womanly disgust at grown men playing about like kids instead of getting jobs, only one egg survives to hatch into a strange looking chick, nesting in Uncle Mort’s hair, under his cap.
And everyone continues to call it a canary, over Carter’s constant corrections.
Ah yes, Carter. Aye. Well. Mm. Carter’s alive, and his blood-red Mini Cooper S isn’t even a write-off, but Hazel Huskisson is. Ken’s been manking around in London and she needs to take him in hand, so that’s that.
Everyone’s coming to see him in hospital: his mother and father, separately, Uncle Mort with the surviving eggs which Carter has to incubate, Sid Jones, half his harem. And Pat. Who still loves him and wants him back, despite his total indifference to her. She loves him. And so does Sid Jones.
And something unusual happens. Firstly, Mr Brandon declares, openly and for the first time in his life, that he loves Mrs Brandon, and then Carter not only decides that he wants Pat back, and that he’ll do all the things she wants of him, but when he discovers that she’s not going to come back, says – actually shouts – that he loves her. But it’s all too late.
But not necessarily for Carter. His self-destruction seems unstoppable. His selfishness has driven a wedge between himself and his parents. His best friend wants to make a home both for and with him. But there is Linda Preston.
Good old good-time Linda Preston, always available, always willing. She’s the one who didn’t come to the hospital, not to visit, that is. She stood outside every day, paralysed by memories of her own time there, but she was there for him.
And she’s there for him now. Not for sex, but to take him in hand, straighten him out, begin to calm and cure him. It’s an old-fashioned courtship, slow and gentle. Easy-paced and, above all, dry. No sex before a honeymoon night, if Carter wants to marry her.
It would work. Two unassuming, unambitious people, content to let the day come, comfortable in each other. Linda also resolves the Sid Jones problem, setting himself up with awkward, unprepossessing, curler-haired Connie Watkinson, to whom he proposes. After all, she’ll let him take nude photos of her, provided she can keep her clothes on.
Carter even decides to instruct Solicitors.
And a Policeman knocks on the door with news. There’s been another crash at that well-known accident black spot, Wilson’s Bar. Mr Macclesfield is dead. So too is his passenger, Nigel, Carter and Pat’s son.
Nothing is to be what it was going to be. A night of sex, in lieu of that forever postponed honeymoon, and then Carter and Pat are back together. Till death them do part.
There is, of course, a happy ending, happy in the terms that the Brandons world sets for itself. After Bert Coleridge went south, the new Landlord of the Whippet started making changes, altering the pub to attract a new, young with-it, Swinging clientele. Uncle Mort got banned for refusing to take his cap off.
But Sid Jones and Connie Watkinson’s reception is at the Whippet, and everyone’s crowded in. Only, when Uncle Mort takes his cap off, his canary flies straight into the heart of the disco equipment, and when they tried to extract it, a fire started, and the pub burned down to the ground.
Unfortunately, the poor canary succumbed to the smoke.
Canary? “Warbler,” roared Carter Brandon, “Call it a Warbler.”
It had been more than a decade since the last Brandon family book, a decade in which Peter Tinniswood had been refining his writing towards shorter and shorter works. There had been nothing to equal the density, intensity and especially the delightfully morbid style of his earliest novels. Call it a Canary stood in danger of being that most risky of endeavours, the self-pastiche.
Indeed, many of my friends and fellow Tinniswood fans at that time thought he’d succumbed. I, being less analytical than I am now, was simply glad to be amongst old pals, and rated the book accordingly. Now, I’m less sure.
Even at the time, I could see that Call it a Canary was a much darker book, darker for its blackness being on the surface. In the Eighties, I saw the overt decay – the deaths, the closures, the demolitions – as a comic element, but now I see something more. At the heart of this book is the disintegration of its central character, Carter Brandon. Not an undercurrent, half-hidden by a superficial, almost pantomime morbidity, it is the entirety of the story.
Carter and Pat’s separation is the symbol of the divide that widens in this book, the gulf between men and women, their differing, and wholly incompatible thoughts, feelings, desires and priorities. It’s noticeable that Mrs Brandon is alone in he generation of women to stand up for their viewpoint:  except for a cameo from Mrs Partington at the hospital, all the other women are much younger, and are sexual, bringing them momentarily closer to the men’s world.
Nor are there the jokes, not in the same profusion, not in the way that has characterised Tinniswood even through the Brigadier books. Even Daniel, present in Carter’s head from an incredibly early stage, isn’t what he once was. His voice is antipathetic to Carter almost from the off, carping and criticising and offering little or no encouragement to Carter.
This more than anything sets Call it a Canary apart from its predecessors. Even if you take Daniel only to be a kind of superego, Carter cloaking his impulses towards relief in a highly visible and totally irresponsible form, the fact that even his other self is tearing him down constantly deepens the gloom of this book past the point where the laughter has sufficient air with which to breathe.
I used to love Douglas Adams’ Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, but it’s a plain fact that, after the original two radio series, the books got progressively, exponentially worse. The last of them, Mostly Harmless, cannot disguise from the least critical eye that it is the work of a writer who has grown to hate his characters, who felt trapped by them, and who was determined to ensure that he could never ever be forced to write about them again.
Though it is nowhere so extreme, Call it a Canary is in the same mould, even if only subconsciously. Tinniswood is burning boats here, breaking down the world he had constructed in a way that could not be put back together again. Towards the end of his life, there were apparently announcements that he was writing another Brandon family novel. I am glad it never materialised.
Some of the Brandons, most notably Uncle Mort and Carter, would reappear, on television, radio and in print. But there would never be a real book again, not with any grounding, any weight.
A number of Tinniswood’s obituaries spoke of his bitterness in later life that he had spread himself too thin, accepted too many commissions too eagerly, had failed to give himself the time to produce his best work. Despite its good aspects, Call it a Canary stands testament that he was not merely being self-deprecating.

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