Back in the summer months, some stray thought brought up memories of a small number of books that I had read more than once, borrowing and re-borrowing them from Didsbury Library, but which I hadn’t read again for at least twenty years. Curious as to whether I might still find them appealing, for more reason than nostalgia for the times in which I enthused over them, I hunted the books down, finding them cheaply available on eBay and Amazon, thinking to blog about the experience.
The second of these books is Gordon Williams’ Walk Don’t Walk. Williams is another once-popular-now-forgotten writer. He wrote thirteen novels between 1965 and 1983, plus a handful of non-fiction titles, primarily concerned with football (Williams was responsible for Bobby Moore’s autobiography) and a further three SF novels, the first of which being a novelisation of an unmade film.
Williams also wrote four books in collaboration with Terry Venables, yes, the former England International footballer and Manager. Their names appeared together only on one book, They Used to play on Grass, a football novel, but together the pair wrote three novels about Hazell, a London private eye, which were published under Williams’ existing pen-name, P. B. Yuill. Hazell was adapted for television by ITV for two popular series in 1978.
What Williams will be most remembered for is his seventh novel (the fifth to be published under his own name), The Siege of Trencher’s Farm, published in 1969. A brutal, violent book, it centred upon an American writer, living in Cornwall, a quiet, reserved, intellectual, whose strangeness of manner sits ill with the insular locals. When he accidentally knocks down a child-killer, and brings him to the Farm for treatment, the house is besieged by the locals who want to lynch the killer. He defends his home, violently, discovering in himself a satisfaction in the brutality that he has to access in order to defend his wife and child.
The book is better known by the title of the even more brutal film adaptation written and directed by Sam Peckinpah: Straw Dogs.
Walk Don’t Walk is a completely different kind of book. It was published in 1973, though the story is set in the Sixties: LBJ is still President, there’s high anti-War feeling, people are talking about the Swinging Sixties, 1967 is my guess though the book doesn’t specify.
Walk Don’t Walk is a comedy. Graham Cameron, a Scottish author, has had a success with (impliedly) his first novel, ‘The New Ladies Man’, which, from what we get to hear of it, seems to be an Alfie-esque Jack-the-Lad-about-town thing. Being about Swinging London, it has aroused interest in America: Cameron jets off to the States with a pound in his pocket for the start of a book tour promoting his novel everywhere he goes.
The thing is that Cameron has several visions of America in his head, most of them placed there by classic American movies. He’s also on the make at a time when Britain was considerably more progressive and socially advanced, footloose in the United States with expectations, hopes and wishes, an alien being in an alien culture which regards him as something of a freak-show, undergoing the hellish demands of a non-stop promotional tour selling himself and his book to people who basically don’t give a shit but are effusively welcoming anyway. And he’s separated by an ocean from his wife Sheina, open to all possibilities, shagging-wise, but tied to his Publisher’s Agent, Sally Weber,who becomes the impossible nut to crack.
Williams obviously writes from experience in this book. It’s dense and allusive, with Cameron’s twisted British sensibilities, his totally (to Americans) inexplicable instinct for puns and self-deprecation switched on all the time as he tackles his experiences with more whisky than you could float a battleship built on the Clyde in.
Williams writes the book from in, around, behind and below Cameron’s head. Cameron is constantly building long, run-on fantasies out of every single situation or person he meets, unrealistic outcomes that lead to either success or sex. Everything is seen from Cameron’s eyes, at such high intensity that, in 2014, I find myself exhausted trying to follow it.
One of the things that I do find intriguing is the constant, fluid shifting of viewpoints, the unstructured and frankly freeform approach Williams adopts to tense and viewpoint. The story continually shifts from present tense to past tense and back again, from third person to first person, mingled with a modified kind of second person impersonal, usually signalled by Cameron’s name being replaced by the capitalised Our Hero.
It’s a mish-mash to which I was completely oblivious back in the Seventies, but which leaps out at me every time we shift gears. It’s like the worst kind of amateur nonsense, of eagerness uncapped by control, the author completely blind to where or what tense/person he is using from moment to moment. But this was Williams’ seventh novel, almost a decade into his career, and he had already demonstrated that he could write professionally, so the effect must be deliberate.
I can only assume that it’s meant to create a kaleidoscopic effect to reflect the kaleidoscopic experience Cameron is having as he is turned round and round and round, the patterns temporarily created around him being completely unstable. My late teen self doubtless responded to the energy of the book, it’s refusal to let a line go by limply. But my later self, with the writing I’ve done this past two decades, is too much aware of the shifts, the technique, to settle to the actual story.
The book tour is a two-person operation, Cameron and Weber. The latter’s the more professional of the two, as she needs to be. It’s the classic combination of the free spirit, Dionysian in its relish of doing as it wishes and the Apollonian urge towards structure, responsibility, necessity. The older I get, the more I find my sympathies turning towards the latter: those who have to deal with a world that includes other people, who have to maintain sanity, that deal with what has to happen rather that what you feel like doing at this moment, despite what you’ve promised to others.
So I’m more on Weber’s side than Cameron’s over this whole book tour, and the fact that when he goes back to London and his family, she’ll be back there working, ready to tour the next author: if she sleeps with Cameron, the next author will assume all the more freely that she’ll sleep with him, and so on.
Actually, though the pair do wind up in bed together, for a couple of minutes, on their first drink-fuelled night, Weber’s determined resistance to Cameron’s charms is thereafter very solid, and it takes surprisingly little time for Our Hero to give up serious thoughts of conquest. However, he still plows on, continuing his campaign for the sake of it.
That this doesn’t become unforgivably cruel (though I doubt we’d have thought of it that way in 1973, and certainly not 1967) is down to the fact that, when more willing ladies come Cameron’s way, Weber heads them off, suggesting a certain amount of jealousy on her part that leaves the door ajar.
The book’s symbolic end is when Cameron meets a woman who might not be great looking but who does want to screw him. Weber almost comes over but Cameron no longer wants her. She splits for New York, he fucks, refuses to cross a picket line and calls everything off to fly home, straight into a domestic disaster. He didn’t become a star, the book sold respectably but didn’t hit the bestsellers list, the dream is over.
As for what happened later, I have great difficulty in seeing Cameron ever writing anything else again.
I did like this book then, certainly better than anything else Williams wrote. It’s energy and density appealed tremendously in a time when I just wanted to soak up everything and learn. I can see why it got me to borrow it at least two more times over, and I did consider buying my own copy at one point.
But this is a distinct that-was-then-this-is-now story. I’ve moved too far away from some of the underlying assumptions to really enjoy it now, and I can’t get on with that constant shifting of viewpoints around Gordon Cameron’s head. His slow disintegration under the pressure and his frustration explains, but doesn’t excuse for me what he frequently does to ruin Weber’s character: getting back at her for not sleeping with him by heavily implying she’s sleeping with him to everyone they meet, whilst thinking he’s being clever and witty. Nah, no thanks.
Another one for the charity shop pile.