Travelling with Tinniswood: Dolly’s War


Peter Tinniswood’s last novel was published in 1997, and after that he wrote only for Radio 4. He was already suffering from the throat cancer that would see his voice box removed, and which would lead to his death in 2002. All these things, and even more so the early work he achieved, make it painful for me to say that his final book, a novel, was completely unworthy of him, his life and his talent. Dolly’s War is a disaster, car crash literature, a book in which the shadow of Tinniswood’s talent is pale and wan and mocking.
The Dolly of the title is Dolly Bradman, headmistress of a private school in Surrey, and the War of the title is the Second World War, in its earlyish stages in the autumn of 1941 when a lone German bomber drops its bombs on the school. As a consequence, Dolly gathers together her staff and proposes to evacuate the school from England to the West Indies. That, such as it is, is the story.
It is broken into three parts: the Ocean journey, in convoy, to St David’s, the school’s residence on St David’s and the planned flight back to England which crashes, leaving the school in danger on an unnamed island in the throes of a war that has nothing to do with the Second World War.
The whole thing is a series of disjointed careers as the school lurches from place to place and disaster to disaster, losing staff and children at various points, but never discovering a sense of purpose or any kind of shape.
It’s a very strange school anyway: it has a mixed intake of genders and ages that appears to be two-thirds female, and a staff of unlikely teachers that seems to be overloaded to the extent that there is something like one teacher for every two children – or ‘shits’ which is the term Dolly uses incessantly to refer to the pupils in her charge.
Dolly doesn’t teach. She has no interest in teaching. She falls in and out of love but never stops drinking excessively. She is a tall, buxom woman in her late forties, with a generous head of black ringlets, a fine figure of a woman. Neither she, nor anyone else in the book, behaves in any manner consistent with this being 1941, because, of course, the whole book is unreal and unbelievable and aimless. It is just a succession of things until it ends, not with a point or a purpose but because the requisite number of pages – too many of them, to be honest – have been filled.
Now you and I know that this does not automatically make a bad book. If the characters are interesting and entertain, and the situations they get into are absorbing, a journey of sorts, a glorified peg, is all you need to tell a tale. But that peg needs a point, needs something to signal an end, a satisfying moment that demonstrates that the story is over, and Dolly’s War fails completely to provide this.
Tinniswood fills his novel with characters who strike exactly one note each. As well as Dolly, there’s her shy, retiring, maiden yet hopeful cousin Celia, the somnolent Mrs Otto, cradling a casket of rotting, scavenged food, Mamselle, French teacher with a cyncial Lancashire background, Major Pickavance, a shortarse in search of a wealthy widow, Mr Dugdale, slowly succumbing to what appears to be Alzheimers, besotted by Natasha, besotted of Delphine, aging.
The boys consist of head boy, the languid, self-entitled, homosexual Lance Egerton, whose throat is slit by a Goanese steward on the voyage to the West Indies, Burnaby the masturbator, who later falls in love with the exotic Samira, and who hangs himself alongside her on her wedding day to an enormous, rich and blubbery Sultan, and the Doucemain twins, who die defiantly when their treehouse is burned down.
As for the more numerous girls, these include the dumpy Delphine with her unrequited love of Mr Dugdale, head girl the beautiful, blonde Natasha, who loves Lance Egerton but gives herself passionately and, initially, lovelessly to the stowaway, Roger Carey, the aforementioned Samira, a quartet of little girls, the innocent but sexy Margot, who dies of fever: no, I can’t go on with this. These aren’t people, these are barely credible as one-note cyphers, and the deaths which occur thorughout the book are meaningless to both the characters and the story. The dead just get to check out early, that’s all.
The only major character from outside the school is Roger Carey. Carey’s on the run from something he’s keeping from everyone. At one point, he claims to have murdered someone, at another to have embezzled millions, but instead he is a moral coward who has run away from the prospect of seeing the woman he loved die of cancer.
He’s also the character who keeps going on, at certain moments, about where he’s seen these things before?
That’s part of the dustjacket blurb, that Tinniswood’s story contains echoes of famous moments in other stories, and Carey is the one who draws our specific attention to what I take to be specific moments. In the final part of the book, there are explicit allusions to Swallows and Amazons, or rather to Missee Lee, and you could certainly argue a case that Dolly and Celia are patterned on a grown up Nancy and Peggy: Tinniswood has form for references to the grown-up Peggy on occasions.
But as an Arthur Ransome fan myself, I cannot recognise anything more that the most fantastically tangential connections between the events of this story and the children’s adventure holidays of Ransome’s classics.
And there’s not a laugh to be had. It’s not like the Winston books, or the later Uncle Mort and Brigadier collections, which are meant to be funny and where what are meant to be jokes are recognisable from where they lie on the page. Dolly’s War harks back, in a sense, to The Stirk of Stirk in being an ostensibly serious story subject to exaggeration in a comic/satirical manner, except that this time the exaggeration has gone beyond anything that is tied to reality.
Books like this can succeed, but to do so they need to create their own, internally consistent world, governed by a logic that underpins the departure from our recognisable world. Tinniswood fails dismally to even approach this state and the outcome is a final book that should have been forgotten completely, committed to the wastebin instead of the publishers’ hands.
Don’t read this. You can find the hardback cheap on Amazon, but even the single penny you’ll be asked to pay is not worth it. If you enjoy his work, if you love his sense of humour, if you are thrilled or in any way excited by his writing, spare yourself. Buy another copy of I didn’t know you cared instead. Petition whoever owns the rights to The Home Front  to release it on DVD (I’ll sign). Download Tinniswood’s 90 minutes Radio 4 play, Stoker Leishman’s Diary and wonder why he didn’t adapt that as a book, because it would have been very good.
Just don’t bother with this book.

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