Uncle Mort looked at his empty pint pot and sighed deeply.
“What’s wrong these days in the North is that nothing interesting ever happens,” he said. “In the old days, life was full of interest. There was always something to get your teeth into, something to laugh at – mining disasters, epidemics, mob violence on the streets, mass unemployment, Henry Hall on the wireless. It’s not like that now, Carter. Life’s no interest whatsoever.”
“Mm,” said Carter Brandon.
He finished his pint of beer and looked out of the window. A lick of fire ran along the ridge of the roof of the barn. Smoke tumbled and surged out of the doors and wrapped itself round the breeze.
“That’s not a bad fire there,” said Carter Brandon.
“No,” said Uncle Mort. “It’s not a patch on the fires we had in the old days. I remember the day we had a chimney fire at Number 47. It went up like a tinder box. They all copped it bar the lodger. Mind you, he were a tram conductor, so he knew what to do in an emergency.”
“What was that?” said Carter Brandon.
“Save your own skin and run like buggery,” said Uncle Mort.
There’s a world of difference between reading a writer’s output throughout his career, devouring each new book as it is published, and doing the same in an unbroken stream, one after another, in order to write about them.
In the one case, each book is approached in isolation, a freshness allowed by the intervening year since the writer last committed themselves to print. Each book is an event, a new work, irrespective of whether it forms part of a series or not.
In the other, it is merely the development of a pattern, the extension of threads all too visible from the accumulation of words. Sometimes that only enriches the experience, deepens it in the complex understanding of the writer as his concerns travel from book to book.
The title of this latest book invites us to see it as a new Brandon family book. But it isn’t. There’s no Mr and Mrs Brandon, no Pat. There’s Carter Brandon, but he’s a cypher, a device to keep things from being an unrelieved monologue by Uncle Mort. He’s a prop, basically. Because this isn’t really a book. It’s another prose version of a Radio 4 series of shorts, ten minute reads. No stories, no extended themes.
It’s the Brigadier again, only not with the Brigadier, but with Uncle Mort, without cricket and with the North as its theme. Only, as with the Brigadier, it’s not the real North but rather a fantasy of it, a fantastically-drawn exaggeration of the stereotype of the North of back streets, gloom, bad weather, drabness, cold, misery, deprivation, all of it wallowed it by hard-headed, true born northerners who have a deep, instinctive distrust of enjoyment, entertainment and happiness.
It’s always been an underlying element of Tinniswood’s comedy, something that made it so rich a comedy of recognition for those of us old enough to have known, for ourselves as well as via parents and grandparents, the essential reality beneath the beautifully judged comic gloom.
Looking back to Call it a Canary, where the relish in conditions none of us would ever want to return to began to approach pantomime, it’s easy to see the effect of the Brigadier books: the exaggeration beyond parody, the increasingly florid language, the wallowing in things to create a cumulative effect.
But where the Northern ethos was wobbling in that novel, away from its foundation in firm and real soil, Uncle Mort’s North Country sends it spinning into freefall, leading to a flat, face-down fall.
The concept is that Carter Brandon has a week off work, which he intends to spend on days out, on which his Uncle Mort joins him. Already, the former tightness of the Brandon books is abandoned. Where’s Mr Brandon? Where’s Pat? Where is the family, which has always been a family?
Where is the blood red Mini Cooper S? It’s acknowledged within the stories that these vignettes are taking place in a contemporary future (the final episode is titled 2084, making explicit that this is taking place almost two decades after Call it a Canary, in which case Carter’s in his late forties and Uncle Mort over ninety!). Instead, Carter Brandon drives an old, rusty, tired Ford Zodiac, a nostalgic recollection of the middle Sixties – my uncle owned one between 1964-66 – that is wholly unrealistic.
But we shouldn’t be looking for any form of realism here. These two remaining members of the Brandons have been cut loose from both narrative and reality, even the magic reality established in A Touch of Daniel. There is no real relation between the Uncle Mort and Carter of the novels and this pair here (played on Radio 4 by Stephen Thorne and Peter Skellern respectively).
Unfortunately, I can’t separate myself that way. And it is Uncle Mort’s North Country that is badly diminished by the experience. Ten short exercises in wallowing, at least three of which take place at home, without the excuse of the drive to allow Uncle Mort to glumly excoriate what he sees.
Ironically, it is the first of these three piece, Dog Days, which gave me the most pleasure out of the book. It takes place in the evening, on Uncle Mort’s allotment, over beers and beer-crate seats, and it’s a tribute to the long-lost, entirely fictional dogs of the North, and their characteristics and qualities. It’s the litany of names that draws me in: Lancashire setters and Bolton otterhounds, Cumberland whippets and Congleton pointers, Morecambe Bay shrimphounds and Runcorn retrievers.
Though I’m a cat person by inclination and experience, names such as that open a door into a kingdom of varieties peculiar to my own part of the world and, in a manner rare for this book, conjure up a false past that I find myself unaccountably nostalgic for.
Given that one episode is given over to a particularly mean-minded attack on Arthur Scargill, via the medium of his aesthetic twin brother Dornford, it’s a rare gentle and lovely moment.
Seen in the pattern of the plethora of books Tinniswood had published in the Eighties, Uncle Mort’s North Country – the tenth of eleven published between 1981-87 – now stands out as the moment when Peter Tinniswood’s career as one of the finest comic writers of his era came to an end. So much had been spent on the Brigadier, and the form that suited his dyspeptic and deluded ramblings down to a tea, that Tinniswood’s ability to write more concentrated work had begun to atrophy.
As long as he could confine this to the Brigadier and his increasingly potty world, there was a hope that he could concentrate his mind upon better things in his other work. Instead, the wall broke inwards and not outwards.