Some Books: Henry Cecil’s ‘Independent Witness’

Since 2014, when I went in search of books I had once read and re-read enthusiastically from Didsbury Library, I began an occasional series about re-discovering such books after something like thirty years. I am curious about whether I still find them appealing, and if this is for more than nostalgia for the times they are associated with.
I’m assuming it was after I’d started directing my efforts at a Law Degree and a career in the Law to follow that I started reading Henry Cecil from my local library.
Henry Cecil was the pen-name of Henry Cecil Leon, a County Court judge who, between 1951 and 1977 (posthumously), was a successful novelist, mostly of comic tales with a legal background, for which he drew upon his own experiences. His first big success, Brothers in Law, about his time in training, was converted into a BBC sitcom with Richard Briers in the main role.
Cecil was a prolific writer, well-represented in Didsbury, and I must have read between two-thirds and three-quarters of his output, though the last few books were not up to the general standard of his work. There are probably a dozen or so that I would remember on re-reading but only one that I’ve kept in memory all these years. Recently, I was reminded of it and, finding a paperback copy available cheap on eBay, laid hands on it to read again.
Independent Witness (published in 1963 and first read probably in 1973) had a profound effect upon me at the time of reading it, and taught me lessons that I’ve observed all my life since. Though it contains Cecil’s usual gentle comedy, ultimately the story is serious, one might almost say deadly serious, and it is that seriousness that impressed itself upon me.
The set-up is simple. A car arrives at a road junction and stops at the Halt sign. Seeing no traffic, it starts across the junction. A motor cyclist tears round a blind bend and hits the car. The cyclist is thrown over the car’s roof and suffers serious injuries. The motorist drives off, leaving half a dozen or more independent witnesses behind.
MP Michael Barnes comes forward a couple of days later to admit to the accident, and is charged with dangerous driving. His wife is suffering from an extremely difficult pregnancy, hence his rush to get home to her, she having collapsed. There are some mental issues involved, and she needs to be kept free of agitation.
At first, the case, which is to be heard at the Old Bailey, in front of Mr Justice Grampion, who is notorious for his lacerating comments about drivers and levying maximum sentences. Against Barnes are these eight or nine independent witnesses. They do not know either the accused or the victim, they have no axe to grind, they are presumed to give wholly objective and truthful evidence because they have no stake whatsoever in the verdict. In short, they are Independent.
Anthony Wimbledon, Michael’s Solicitor, engages a QC named Oliphant to conduct the defence. However, Michael’s journalist friend Andrew Mortlake, employs a dirty, underhand, unethical trick (worthy of the legal profession, that man) gets Grampion out of the way by engineering a ‘casual’ bumping into the Judge, during which he and Michael exchange derogatory words about Grampion, unaware (well, Michael is) that it is the very man who’s about to try the MP.
Grampion, who may be down on drivers, is nevertheless scrupulously fair and offers the Defence the chance to request he stand down which, amidst a paean from all sides to the Judge’s ethical standards and ability to exclude personal considerations, Oliphant jumps at.
I was actually quite disappointed at that twist. It wasn’t the underhand nature of the trick, but it came over as a cheat on the reader. Cecil goes to great lengths to set Grampion up as a fearsome threat, a dangerous arbiter, an obstacle to Michael’s hopes of acquittal, and then he’s removed before he can say a judicial word, in far too easy a manner.
All of this is the set-up, the context for the purpose of the book, which is Oliphant’s cross-examination of the witnesses. This is why we’re here, authorially, and this is why I’m here forty-odd years on from first reading the book.
Oliphant can’t attack each or any one of the witnesses. That would invite disaster, both in the hardening of their testimony, and in the eyes of the Judge, who will respond harshly to harsh conduct to the witnesses.
What Cecil draws out though, through the careful, patient, controlled cross-examination by Oliphant, is that though the testimony each witness offers is honest, and given in a sense of public duty, not one of them can be relied upon. And each is undermined, their reliability in the eyes of the Jury gently demolished without their characters being in any way traduced.
Because not every independent witness is truly independent. Some have thoughts and opinions that are brought out by prejudice against the Defendant. Some are too independent, people going about their business, their concerns, who did not see what actually happened but genuinely believe in their testimony, though it’s shaped by talking afterwards with others, and constructing a narrative of what they think must have happened.
Each of the witnesses gives the same story: the car raced across the junction at a mad speed, without stopping for the Halt sign (ancient Road Traffic laws, you stop at a Halt sign, no matter how clear everything may be) and that the cyclist was driving at a moderate speed. We know that isn’t true, having ‘seen’ the accident for ourselves on page 1. But these witnesses are adamant, and honest, in describing it diifferent.
The storyis an object lesson in objectivity, especially for one who was working towards making his career in the law around which this revolved. I was completely absorbed in the forensic nature of the questioning, a technique of constantly returning to the actual scene, to what the witness actually saw, and confronting them with the logical inconsistencies between what they thought and what was actually possible, until the honest admitted their mistake, and those who had invested themselves too deeply in what they believed they’d seen blustered too much in defence of their testimony to remain credible.
But the point I took away was that the witnesses were honest, and said what they believed they had seen. Oliphant’s point, made patiently and gently, aimed at getting the idea into the juror’s heads rather than getting the witness to recant (one does, but in an admirably tough-minded piece of plotting, the Prosecution subjects her recantation to exactly the same doubts Oliphant is raising).The actual point is that none of them had seen the actual incident. Each had been thinking about their various preoccupations, had looked up at the sound of the collision, had talked to one another and had retrospectively constructed a version of what they hadn’t seen to fit their reaction to the injury to the unprotected cyclist and the driver’s rapid departure from the scene.
There’s a substantial twist near the end. The Prosecution rests. All Michael Barnes has to do is to go into the witness box, give straightforward testimony, and his acquittal is assured. But Michael refuses. Oliphant gets round it admirably in his closing speech. The Defendant is not obliged to give evidence, in fact until sixty years previously (then) he wasn’t even allowed to. Michael Barnes is a public figure. He is entitled to a verdict that he can point to and say there was no credible evidence, I did not even need to answer it.
Michael is acquitted, even though his legal advisors more or less assume he’s lied to them throughout and did commit the crime: what else can you think? All Oliphant’s patient work in undermining the witnesses and they were right all along. But here comes the double-twist: Michael was not driving the car. It was Sheila. And he’s taken the rap, risked his whole future, to protect her. He just couldn’t lie on oath and say he was the driver.
Of course, the ultimate irony is that every single witness could have been shot down as unreliable on the most basic of points: they all said the car was driven by a man!
The concept and the story still holds, though I am less enamoured of some of the diversions Cecil includes to pad the book out. One witness is Cecil’s recurring character Colonel Brain, a garrulous, rambling, beer-drinking idiot who I may have found funny once but who now is an intolerable nuisance. Worse however is the eighty year old Mrs Benson, obsessed with getting her licence back so she can drive again and getting muddled up between her testimony and her application to have her licence restored, for pages at length. If your attention doesn’t wander through this bit, you should have yourself checked for rigor mortis.
But to come back to why I remember this book out of all the Henry Cecil’s I enthusiastically read, it is down to that central point. Be observant. Be objective. Be accurate with yourself. Separate what you actually see and hear from what you think might explain it. Be clinical. It is vitally important that you bear true witness to things. That was the lesson I took away, and I adhere to it still, to the best of my ability. Stick to the facts, man. And retain this book.

Some Books: Jon Cleary’s ‘Remember Jack Hoxie’

In 2014, responding to some stray thoughts that 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, I began an occasional series about such books. 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 latest of these books is Jon Cleary’s Remember Jack Hoxie.
This 1969 novel was one of the books that attracted me once I started exploring the extensive shelves of Didsbury Library, and it proved something of a favourite in the Seventies, as I believe that I borrowed and read it at least three times. What’s suddenly caused it to pop back up in my memories, I have absolutely no idea, but it was an easy, and cheap, book to refind (in hardback).
Ostensibly, Remember Jack Hoxie is about the pop business, in 1968, but really it’s not. The game is given away by the dustjacket blurb: “the tension between… people who accept morals and manners as a necessary part of life and people who don’t” tells us very clearly what this book is about.
Cleary was 48/49 himself when he wrote this book: his central character is slightly younger but is still 41, and has no understanding, affinity, enjoyment or respect of and for the music.
What he does have is a son who’s been taken up as a pop singer, on a management contract with an Australian entrepreneur, calling himself Brian Boru O’Brien. Patrick Norval is aged 41, a widower who lost his wife to cancer eight years before, a committed Roman Catholic, an insurance assessor with a very stable (and boring) job with Rock of Ages, and a son called Bob who, after a year singing in a pop group, has been picked out as a solo artist with potential to become a hit star.
Bob Norval. Roll that name around your tongue and try to imagine that as the name of a teenage heartthrob pop star in the late Sixties. Not really, is it? Yet despite having hanged his own name, O’Brian doesn’t even contemplate for a moment giving Bob a stage name.
But this book is not about Bob, but Pat. And the Generation Gap, which was a big thing in the Sixties.
The story starts in Pat’s ultra-normal semi-detached in Bromley where, for some reason, a press conference featuring every possible news organisation you can imagine has been called. Immediately, the question is why? Bob is a brand new name, with no track record. He will be quickly successful: a single that peaks at no 23, followed  by a smash hit, ‘Brighton Rock’, that goes to no 1.
But though the scene lacks in logic, it’s there to serve Pat’s introduction, to demonstrate just how completely he is out of the ‘scene’ (most pop jargon is a good three to four years behind the time the book is set). Pat is the sceptic, who cannot bring himself to think that this is in any way important, or musical. Nor can he ever get behind his own son’s career with any kind of enthusiasm: after all, he cannot even bring himself to believe that Bob has any genuine talent, even for the artificial world he is hoping to succeed in.
However, the point of the book is that Pat will be part of this experience, that he will be part of Bob’s image: the father who understands, who crosses the Generation Gap, who isn’t irretrievably square, even though he is.
And this comes about because of this initial, unfounded press conference. Pat wanders around, obviously lost and bewildered. At an early stage, a BBC cameraman swears at him (with an unrecorded four letter word). In search of sanity, he discovers a pretty blonde American woman, Suzanne, closer to his own age, sitting in his bathroom. She’s the most level-headed person in the place, and she’s O’Brien’s secretary. When they go downstairs, the BBC guy prepares to swear at her whilst demanding she get out of his way, and Pat decks him.
O’Brien seizes upon this as an angle: the Father who understands defending his son when a layabout is about to swear at him. Pat gets added to the team for the publicity value.
And so Pat accompanies, at varying degrees of closeness, his excited son through the process of recording, touring Britain and touring America. He becomes a surrogate father figure to nearly everyone on the tour, in particular to Henry, the only black kid, who is set upon by racists in Boston. He also becomes a father figure to O’Brien, and is treated to many cynical asides that contribute to the artificiality of everything.
The only people to whom Pat doesn’t become a father figure are Cham Hubbell, O’Brien’s arranger and the only real musical figure in the piece, and Suzanne. Suzanne because the two are very quickly sleeping together, and Cham (what on Earth does or could that name be short for?) because he’s the bad guy, an all round, self-centred, poisonous prick.
Bob himself takes most of what follows in his stride. He’s initially thrown by his first hostile audience (in Liverpool) and he struggles under Hubbell’s contempt until he decides that it’s just not worth responding to him. The book does show him gradually growing more mature, and it does suggest, in the faintest possible terms, that Bob might be one of those disposable pop stars who might last.
Actually, what type of music does Bob sing in 1968? The Beatles, the Stones and the Who were still going strong, Engelbert Humperdinck and Tom Jones were still the housewive’s favourites, psychedelia had begun to fade away, hugely orchestrated pop was in, the pretty boys were Peter Frampton, Steve Ellis and Andy Fairweather-Low, but the underground and going heavy was beginning to develop.
Bob Norval, on the other hand, is marketed as a Christian Sensualist, whatever one of those is. He’s not yet 21 (Pat has to sign his contract for him as Bob is still a minor, and the age of majority wasn’t lowered to 18 until 1969), and he’s already being marketed, especially in America, with a view to his appealing to the oldies.
In short, Cleary hasn’t the faintest idea what sort of music Bob is singing or wants to sing, except that Bob struggles with anything more than simple arrangements, which is exactly the kind of thing Hubbell shies away from giving him.
The American leg of the tour is more interesting to read. The tour clashes with the unrest of 1968: indeed, Bob is saved from bad publicity from his only seriously mishandled night of the tour by the only real-life dating incident, the shooting of Senator Robert Kennedy by Sirhan Sirhan.
Pat’s relationship with Suzanne is mirrored by Bob’s relationship with Tina, one of the three backing singers, the inappropriately named Vestal Virgins. He gets to meet Suzanne’s old-fashioned family, with whom he feels at home, but their relationship is rocked by her repeated refusal of his proposal: Suzanne is not prepared to compete with pat’s dead wife, Brenda, with whom he is still in love.
With the tour approaching its end, and the novel with it, Cleary has to introduced two moments of drama. The first is Tina getting pregnant and getting an illegal abortion, a process that nearly kills her. Pat is the hero of this, saving the day, and Tina, and not incidentally, her career by ensuring O’Brien keeps her on salary, despite his automatic impulse to throw her under the bus.
The other is the flight home. Midway, the loathsome Hubbell, drunk, drugged, plainly out of it, reveals that in order to get back at Bob, he has planted two pounds of marijuana in the singer’s luggage. Both at O’Brien’s suggestion, and out of his own decision to save Bob from ruin, Pat – whose luggage is identical to his son’s, thankfully – takes Bob’s cases through customs and is duly arrested.
It ends his usefulness to Bob’s career, and provides the BBC reptile with a chance for a retributive sneer, but it gets him out of his alien situation, and more importantly causes Suzanne to fly back to America to be by his side.
Once Pat’s trial is over (£500 fine and six months suspended after a series of testimonials from all the kids on the tour), he promptly marries Suzanna and, just as promptly, impregnates her: they emigrate to Spain to live in peaceful retirement. Hubbell, who was quitting anyway, gets sacked and can’t score a top 30 hit whilst Bob goes top 3 with a song called “Hubble-Bubble” (thank heaven we can’t hear any of this music).
Why, you may be asking at this point, is the novel called Remember Jack Hoxie when there is nobody in it named Jack Hoxie? Hoxie was a (real-life) silent film star who apparently had a very level-headed and realistic attitude to his talent and his fame. He’s remembered for this by Pat’s next door neighbour, 78 year old former merchant seaman Charlie Coote, and he becomes Pat’s touchstone for keeping his head in the outlandish (for him) situations he finds himself in thereafter.
The book’s inauthenticity didn’t register with me in the Seventies, even though I’d been reading the music press since the summer of 1971 and would have the New Musical Express weekly from Easter 1972 for the next nearly fifteen years. The book is written by someone who, despite his reputation for research, has no sympathy for the music, in fact has little but contempt for it. It’s implausible and primarily negative, especially about the choices being made by the younger generation: Cleary was as much an old-fashioned Catholic as his characters and, despite the fact Pat is sleeping with Suzanne, and has had other sexual relationships since his beloved Brenda died, has problems with promiscuity.
Yet I didn’t read it three times then without enjoying it, and despite everything I’ve said about the book, I enjoyed reading it again. It held me, and not because I was mentally logging its flaws for this essay, but because Cleary was simply a very effective storyteller, and he wrote very good narratives and dialogue.
So, to that extent, the book is a success, and as a period piece it’s worth a read by the curious. But having refreshed my memories of it, I shalln’t retain Remember Jack Hoxie. It’s qualities are purely professional, and where it had the chance to make an impression, it fails because Jon Cleary has no respect for the subject he’s chosen.
At least the failure is not so apparent nor disastrous as the Batman TV show. This can be read without wincing. but it doesn’t pass any other tests.

Some Books: Cameron McCabe’s “The Face on the Cutting-room Floor”

Last year, responding to some stray thoughts that 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, I wrote a short series about three such. 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.
Another of those books stole back into my memory not long ago, a book easily and cheaply available on eBay, so I’m re-heading this series as Some Books, allowing me the flexibility to add to it whenever memory strikes.
The latest of these books is Cameron McCabe’s The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor.
This is a very unusual book, one that was never a commercial success, but one which has retained a reputation that, despite it always being no more than a cult interest, it has been periodically rediscovered by connoisseurs. When I first read it in the Seventies, it was in its first hardback reissue after decades of obscurity, when it was extremely difficult to find.
The novel, which was McCabe’s only book, for reasons which will be entirely understandable once I go on to describe it, was originally published in 1937. When I read it, the whereabouts of the author, or if he was still living, were unknown, and its royalties were placed in a trust fund pending the uncovering of the author who, it eventually appeared was creative polymath and scientist Ernest Borneman, a refugee from Nazi Germany whose first book in English this is.
Which makes the book all the more remarkable.
I was initially attracted to this book by it’s unusual title. I don’t know if the term is still in use today, but when the book was first published, ‘the face on the cutting-room floor’ was a film industry for an actor or actress – usually a minor one – whose entire performance was cut from the finished film.
It comes into use immediately the book starts. It’s a first person narration by McCabe himself, Scottish by birth, Canadian by upbringing, a cutter (i.e., editor) working for a film company with studios near the centre of London. He’s working simultaneously on several films, including an unnamed and complete film starring Maria Ray, Ian Jensen and Estella Lamare. Ray and Jensen are established stars, Lamare a newcomer for whom this will be her breakthrough role. Until studio boss Isador Bloom orders McCabe to cut her out of the picture completely.
This is completely unexpected. The film is about a love triangle, and cutting Estella out will not only mean extensive re-shoots, but will wreck the storyline. McCabe is naturally puzzled and seeks the advice of his fellow cutter, Robertson. But first Robertson’s phone is engaged, then his studios are empty, though his camera is warm from use, and then they’re locked. So McCabe takes his secretary, Dinah, out on the town, until they bump into Robertson and other from the studio. Robertson maintains he was out whilst McCabe was trying to contact him.
Suddenly, McCabe blurts out the title, and leaves Dinah to keep Robertson out until 3.30am whilst he disappears, on business he doesn’t disclose.
The next day, the studio is filled with the news that Estella Lamare has been found dead in Robertson’s cutting rooms.
What follows is a detective story, or is it? There is a suspicious death, which may or may not be murder. There is an Inspector of Police. An amateur who becomes deeply involved in the investigation of the crime. There is another death, a person connected to the first, maybe, victim, and this certainly is a murder.
All the accoutrements are there. It walks like a detective story, it talks like a detective story, but it definitely does not quack like a detective story.
For when the killer is exposed, it is McCabe himself. But, unlike Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, exposure of the murderer is not the point of the story. We are at best only two-thirds of the way through the book.
McCabe is arrested, tried, defends himself, is acquitted by undermining Inspector Smith’s methods. A month later, Smith, disgraced, fired, turns up on McCabe’s doorstep, intent on killing McCabe for having cheated justice. McCabe, having become disillusioned at his ‘victory’, having failed to get what he (improbably) expected, admits to the killing, begs half an hour to finish his account of the affair (i.e., the book thus far), and then allows Smith to shoot him. Smith subsequently hangs for the murder.
But that’s not all. McCabe has finished by sending his manuscript to Müller, a minor character, a journalist, who has it published. Müller then writes a long, erudite, epilogue, explaining the book to us the readers, whilst simultaneously reviewing the combined efforts of the book’s reviewers, complete with extensive quotes (all taken, as correctly sourced, from real reviews, with only McCabe’s name etc. substituted for the original books).
People, what we have here is a deconstructionist book whole decades before deconstructionism was invented. Nor is that all: the ghost of McCabe pops up before the end to argue with Müller over his interpretation of McCabe’s ending.
What is yet more, now that the waters have been thoroughly muddied, Müller proceeds to throw in another bucket of silt in a short coda in which he bumps into Maria Ray, in which she contradicts all the endings so far given, and throws in several more theories (McCabe committed suicide to frame Smith as his murderer (!) is only one of them.)
Out of nowhere, Müller falls in love/lust with Maria, hopes she’ll marry him despite his age, she pulls a gun, he takes it off her and shoots her dead. Cautiously, the reader checks for more pages in which this story may perpetuate itself, but if they’ve got a new enough edition, will find only a long transcript of a 1979 interview with Borneman, about his life and career.
The Face on the Cutting Room Floor‘s fate in both obscurity and celebration may now be understandable. To call it bizarre is, in many ways, to underrate it. That it vanished so thoroughly after its early burst of popularity, based on the comprehensive flouting of every detective story convention ever accepted, is hardly a surprise. That it should be rediscovered and hailed as a classic by such authorities as Julian Symons and Frederic Raphael, is equally as predictable. When it was first re-issued, in the edition I read out of Didsbury Library, the publishers had no idea who Cameron McCabe was, nor if he still lived: royalties were paid into a trust fund.
The book itself is unfathomable. I know that I read it twice, once out of curiosity at the title, and a second time for reasons I can no longer recall but which were probably based to some extent in the sheer difference between this book and anything else I’d discovered in exploring a goodish-sized suburban Library. Whether I actually liked it or not is something lost to time and memory. I certainly don’t in 2015.
And this is in the main a response to tone and voice, much more than to a plot that is deliberately confusing, told by an extremely unreliable narrator. I’ll come back to that shortly, but first let’s admit that Borneman, as Müller, does a very good, very accurate job of anatomising Borneman as McCabe.
The story progresses up to Chapter 19 in a fairly brisk, lineal fashion, though with very significant gaps, which are alluded to in a manner sufficiently casual as to not draw attention to the fact that McCabe is not telling all that is happening. An alert reader would also begin to question in what manner McCabe gains large chunks of knowledge that seem to materialise out of the ether.
But from Chapter 20 onwards, the whole plot is recapitulated in every chapter, over and again, in different words, sometimes with new information revealed, most notably McCabe’s accusation and arrest. At the heart of it is a love story: more than one. Estella was having an affair with Ian Jensen, until he threw her over for Maria Ray, Bloom wanted her cut out because she refused his advances. McCabe was in love with and having an affair with Maria Ray until Jensen came between them.
Estella threatened suicide unless Jensen came back to her. Jensen tried to take the knife off her but her wrist still got cut. McCabe found the film of this, edited it to look like murder and blackmailed Jensen into leaving England. When he returned, McCabe poisoned and shot him. But (and this comes as a total surprise to him after he slanders her as promiscuous in defending himself, Maria won’t come back to him, which is why he’s willing to let Smith off him.
But Cameron McCabe is simply a deeply unpleasant person to be around. He’s the kind of guy who knows himself to be infinitely smarter than everyone else around him. He has an opinion on everyone and everything and all of it is nothing more than an unpleasant stink beneath his nostrils. He’s the kind of guy who will sleep with a woman with whom he’s besotted and despise her for having sex out of marriage.
And he’s so fuckingly, grindingly self-important, with his perpetual dispensing of opinions, his utter conviction that he and only he truly understands, his barely repressed loathing for the rest of humanity. He talks in a semi-American film dialect, a never-ending slang that gets old long before the book does, judging and condemning and generally coming over as a complete pain-in-the-arse. In fact, he reminds me of this guy on one of the fora I use…
As for Herr Müller with the two dots above the u, he is no better in his own way. His Epitaph is yet another demonstration by someone being conspicuously clever, one-upping McCabe by showing off his erudition, with his ‘enhancing’ of McCabe until the latter pops up for one final even-smarter-than-you session.
It made for heavy going reading and an overall impression of the author as smartarse showing off. Though as a German refugee writing in an English he was still in the process of learning, it has to be allowed that Ernest Borneman was indeed very clever, as his subsequent career showed.
Nevertheless, it doesn’t make for a book to be retained for further reading. At least I shalln’t be tempted by faltering memory to give this one a further try-out in 2035, should I live so long.