The dreams of an old man.
Northern city rife with frost and haltered horses in station yard. Being poorly. Two weeks in bed. Coal fire flickering the black skirts of night. Saturday roar of distant, clinkered football terraces. Calf’s-foot jelly and junket. Mother’s anxious face. Creak of mangle. Smell of sour, spent ale on father’s breath. Deep nicotine of thumbs.Doctor’s whisper on ice-breathed landing.
The dreams of a young man.
Morecambe Bay. Ponies plodding for prawns. The tumble off the wall.Stone jag on bridge of nose. Swab of steel-rimmed chemist. Grass-tufted shore. Dunlin wheeling. Dizziness. Oozing pus from wound. Darkness of stranger’s bedroom. Mother’s anxious face. Slow car ride home.No jolting. Urgent – no jolting. Jolting verboten. Home. The bedroom with its soothing walls. Tight coil of purring cat. Calf’s-foot jelly and junket. Pepperminted breath of father fighting back the smell of sour, spent ale. Shy, stubby fingers stroking at his brow. I love you, lad. I love you. But don’t tell your mam.
Northern dreams fighting back the South.
They awoke simultaneously.
As you might have guessed from the title, Uncle Mort’s South Country is a sequel. To the earlier North Country book, to the earlier North Country radio series. It’s the same idea: Carter Brandon is given a fortnight off work and decides to go on a touring holiday down South. Pat won’t accompany him, so Uncle Mort does.
It’s the last appearance of the Brandons in print. There is no Mrs Brandon, whose final words lie back in North Country. Mr Brandon has passed on, his original words quoted by Uncle Mort, gone to join the late, great John Comer, who incarnated him so perfectly on television.
There’s still Pat, swooping in in the final chapter to drag Carter and Uncle Mort back north. And then it’s over. They’re all gone (though Tinniswood would write another sequel for Radio 4, Uncle Mort’s Celtic Fringe, which, for reasons unknown was never converted to prose). It’s a simultaneously sad and unhappy ending.
I have very mixed feelings about this book.To be frank, I don’t enjoy it. It’s thin, it’s insubstantial. Tinniswood has ‘refined’ his style to the extent where the most important aspect is the radio-oriented use of language. The situation is perfunctory, there are no events, the wordage is lush but ineffectual. Uncle Mort waxes locquacious in ever-expanding monologues. His TV catch-phrase, ‘I served all through the First World War’ makes a belated appearance, and repeats and repeats. The flow is continually being interrupted by paragraphs of verbless statements, bedizened with adjectives, as the extract quoted above demonstrates. This is not Uncle Mort and Carter Brandon as far as I am concerned. The thread of continuity that ran through A Touch of Daniel, I Didn’t Know You Cared, Except You’re a Bird and even the weaker Call it a Canary is here snapped, as is the connection to reality. Tinniswood has become a parody of a parody and there is nothing but eccentricity and grotesquerie left. The years of the Brigadier have, to me, destroyed his ability to focus upon a humour whose strength lies in its proximity to the mundane and real instead of its ever-widening distance from it.
And yet you look at the quote above. Both tell stories, both tell the same story of illness of a child, fear of parents, the encompassing world that binds and eventually heals the boys. They’re told in compressed language, mundane poetry that removes any inessential word, strips down the experience to a series of snapshots that, in turn, reflect the memories of ailing boys.
It’s extraordinarily deep writing, and you can’t dismiss out of hand a book that contains a passage like this, a writer who can come out with that.
Perhaps if this wasn’t Carter Brandon and Uncle Mort, if it were two other characters without the baggage of those wonderfully funny early books, I might enjoy this book more?
Maybe, and maybe not. Tinniswood paints so many quasi-poetic pictures, employing startling and vivid adjectives, but the effect tires, and the adjectives frequently come across less as startling, head-turning moments that shed new lights than as random, unconnected images pulled out of a dictionary. There are so many, at such regular intervals, that they become much of a muchness, sandbars breaking up the tide, something to be gotten across whilst not really paying attention. Just another landscape.
And in between, the conversations are not really conversations. Carter’s pithyness is little more than an excuse to break up Uncle Mort’s endless rambling into bite-sized pieces. Indeed, his entire presence is primarily to be the mover, the activist, continually moving the pair on from scene to scene, to counteract Uncle Mort’s natural tendency to stop at home and do nothing.
Which is to take Carter himself out of character, a character most firmly established as avoiding change, avoiding decisions, preferring to be left to himself, where he is. In truth, were this taking place in the novels, it would be Pat who wanted to visit the South, climb it socially, bask in its refinement and cleanliness and young-executive friendliness, and Carter who would not want to budge.
And that leads to another question that I cannot avoid asking myself, seeing the Brandons as part of a continuum: the novels were set in the Sixties, but the North and South Country stories are very clearly contemporary. That would make Carter and Pat, who were in their late twenties in Call it a Canary, close to fifty years old: enough time for their basic characters to have crossed over, but given that Uncle Mort was sixty-bloody-six in I Didn’t Know You Cared, he’s now got to be about bloody-ninety.
Reading the final chapter, I can’t help but think that Tinniswood was saying goodbye to his oldest and best characters. Mr Brandon’s gone. Mrs Brandon isn’t there and may very well have followed her husband to his grave. Carter’s lost a lot of his fire: the woman he’s sniffing around is not an Erika, an Alison Shirtliffe, a Hazel Huskisson, not even a Linda Preston, but instead a small girl with rimless spectacles, hair in a pony tail, given to long cotton frocks, with bare, spindly arms, who’s part of a Methodist convention from Selby, Humberside. And Pat’s smart enough to suss him out over the phone and sweep him off before he seduces the flat-chested, freckle-nosed, insignificant thing.
And Uncle Mort? Uncle Mort has lost his cloth cap, blown off his head after fifty-three years. And he’s ill and convinced his time is up, though it turns out only to be mild heat-stroke.
It’s over. It’s all over, and the worst of it is that it’s all for the best. I couldn’t have stood another Brandon story that wasn’t worthy of them. Not long before his death in 2002, Tinniswood was rumoured to be writing another Brandon novel, but nothing ever came of it. I’m sorry to say that I’m probably glad of that.