Usually I like family conferences. I’m very good at them. I let everyone have his or her say and then I have my say and everyone does as they’re told. I do like neatness and tidiness in human affairs, don’t you?
But that night I just couldn’t arouse any interest.
My mind kept wandering to Winston.
What was he doing? Was he using my toenail clippers again to trim his moustache? Was he sticking his gilberts on the corner of the oilcloth on the kitchen table? Was he happy? Was he out with one of his bits of fluff with yellow teeth and big berdongers? Was he trying to make it up with his wife, his missus? Did he want to go back to her? Was he tired of living with us? Did he like being the the same house as me? Did he like smelling my perfume when I’d been to the loo? Was he fed up with my cheery laugh and the butter under my fingernails when I made french toast for Father? Oh Lord, was he happy? Really, really?
He’d done nothing about the house since he moved in. Not once had I seen him paying attention to the stench pipe. Indeed he seemed to go positively out of his way to ignore it. He hadn’t served at table or unblocked the drains. Not once had he rewired the house or put a new roof on the stables. All he’d done was hose down his dog in the bathroom and hang his dirty socks over the bannisters. Oh Lord, was he happy? Really, really?
Winston is the sequel to Hayballs, but only in the sense of featuring substantially the same characters in substantially the same setting. Almost everything of importance about Hayballs, and especially its plot, has been obliterated for the purposes of this book. Gone are The Duke of Wiltshire, the Marquess of Sturmbridge, Grampy Hayballs, and all the inhabitants of Winterleaf Gunner except Winston himself and the occasional, walk-on, non-speaking part.
Even Father’s death is clumsily swept aside as having taken place only in Nancy Empson’s imagination (and that doesn’t accord with Hayballs, as Nancy arrogates to herself the part played by Grampy in the first book).
It’s very odd indeed.
But that’s because Winston is not a sequel. It is a novelisation of the first of what would eventually be six six-part Radio 4 comedy serials written by Tinniswood. The series were five-handers, centring upon Winston’s various entanglements with the life of the Empson family, now restored to four people with younger daughter Rosie – blonde, beautiful, stylish and thoroughly bad-tempered and argumentative – being whisked back from her never-again mentioned relationship in Derby.
The effect is to further neuter Hayballs, in retrospect, by treating it as a mistake, a false start that should never have appeared at all. The only real gesture of recognition Tinniswood pays to his earlier novel – which, as you may recall, was written the same year as the radio series upon which this is based – is to acknowledge that the Empsons have been living in the Dower House for about a year, that it was in a disastrous state when they bought it, that Winston has done it up for them single-handed and on his own look, for next to nothing.
Oh yes, and that last Autumn Festival, he took Nancy Empson out back under this beech tree and had sex with her, despite their social differences. Strictly speaking, Nancy – who was in her late forties then but has now swept backwards into her mid-forties – had her virginity taken, but let’s not dwell on that.
It doesn’t work with me. It feels all wrong to have an entire story, an entire world deleted by a writer, and have him yet pretend that these two books are a continuum.
The other distinction Tinniswood draws is in having Nancy Empson narrate the novel, as she does in the radio serial: that is, for about 80% of the story, during which she is present. When it is necessary that there be a scene where she is excluded, the novel simply dips into the third person for as long as it has to, before racing back for the sanctuary of Nancy’s mind. The bald-faced manner in which this is done smacks of cheap contrivance.
The story can be summed up very easily. Winston turns up at the Dower House, having been thrown out by his extremely ugly missus (his extremely ugly, totally under his thumb, doormat wife, yeah, right) because of his bits of fluff. He’s come to live with the Empsons.
Initially, they’re against the idea (not that they stop him moving in, the Empsons being, individually and collectively, completely ineffectual) because he’s, well, not really their type is he? A working class man amongst so many superior, cultured, refined upper middle class folk. Of course, the moment Winston slicks himself up and becomes a world class chef/butler/manservant/maid and all round treasure, they change their minds.
But Winston has a plan, which he relates to Nancy. He’s going to work on and manipulate the rest of the family until they all up sticks and leave, so that he can stay in bed with Nancy all day.
And she lets him go about his plan, despite her self-martyrdom to her family and keeping it close by and dependent upon good old Nancy, the only sensible one. Even though it’s blatantly obvious that Father is sufficiently doolally and ga-ga as to be a danger to himself anytime he’s not looked after twenty-four seven three six five.
And it’s not as if he’s subtle about it, though the Empsons – even the seemingly intelligent and uneccentric Rosie – are unlikely to spot anything less subtle than a sledgehammer to the back of the neck. And Nancy knows his plans, but she is so far under the magical influence of this greasy-haired, Zapata-moustached, fat-bellied, dirty, wellied classic Male Chauvinist Pig with the tattoos of ‘Mild’ and ‘Bitter’ above each nipple, that she can’t bring herself to stop him.
Winston’s plans are, however, foiled (this is based upon a Radio serial, with the requirement of a status quo to be restored, ready for the next series) by Father falling ill, and William and Rosie deciding that a) they prefer family comforts and b) they are too scared to make it on their own, and thus deciding to stay.
In the case of William, the inveterate railway enthusiast whose hyper-detailed books appear to constitute the family income, that’s obvious to the proverbial three-month-old baby, but in Rosie’s case it’s a bit of a stretch and has to be stapled on for it to stick.
That’s not all though. Winston decides that if the other Empsons are going to stay, he and Nancy will go. He plans for them to elope after the Autumn Festival but, guess what, he reminds himself of why he married his wife and goes back to her. But not before having sex with Nancy under the beech tree again (poor woman: it can’t be much fun having a lover who only gives you an orgasm once a year, though according to legend most marriages don’t even achieve that much).
End of story.
I really don’t like this book at all. It’s recognisably Tinniswodian in that no-one else could have written this, but it’s a far cry from the wonderfully funny, grounded books of his early career. It’s irretrievably affected by the fact that I don’t like Winston one bit. He’s meant to be the romantic hero, using the term romantic in its more archaic sense. He’s the rogue, the charmer, the vagabond, the working-class hero befuddling and confusing the stultified middle class that thinks itself so much more sophisticated but which is wide open to the hero’s schemes. Winston follows that template almost to a ‘T’ – it’s not that far from the milieu of the early Leslie Charteris stories of The Saint – but Tinniswood blows it by exaggeration. Winston is so bleeding obvious, and the Empsons so bleeding oblivious that the humour inherent in seeing the stuffy and stuck-up humiliated by the wily ‘inferior’ goes completely by the board. Especially when the stuffies don’t get any comeuppance whatsoever and wouldn’t notice if they did.
Winston – incarnated superbly on radio by Bill Wallis – went on to star in another five radio serials, interfering with the life of the Empsons. It provided gainful employment for Tinniswood’s wife, Liz Goulding, who had been the second TV Pat Brandon, and who appeared in several of her husband’s radio plays, including the part of Rosie Empson. Winston never appeared in print again.