Travelling with Tinniswood: Call it a Canary

‘Dear Carter,
‘I cannot stand no more.
‘I have left you for good and all with your son, Nigel. I intend to live with my gentleman friend. He works in the gas showrooms and has excellent prospects.
I can no longer live with you and your selfishness and your drinking in pubs and your sleeping with your mouth open and showing no consideration for myself and Nigel.
‘You never make an effort.
‘I never want to see you again for the rest of my life.
Your dinner is in the oven between two enamel plates on regulo two and there is a junket in the fridge or you can have a slice of Battenburg if you prefer, but don’t cut it too thick as it has to last.
‘I remain,
‘Yours faithfully,
‘Your wife (Pat).’
So. We’re back in the North, with the Brandon family. With Carter Brandon. Time’s passed. Not just the eleven years since Except You’re A Bird but for the family. Five years or so have gone by. It’s still the Sixties, but they’re limping towards the end. They’ve started Swinging, but that’s for down South. The North doesn’t Swing. It never has. It’s not made for Swinging is the North. It doesn’t like enjoyment, or happiness, or fun. That’s not what it’s about.The country’s got no use for the North, it doesn’t want it. Bits of it are dying, shutting off, closing down.
Carter Brandon’s marriage is over, Pat’s walked out on him and taken their son, Nigel (no points for guessing who was going to name him). Carter’s not much mithered about Pat upping and offing, in fact he can’t even remember to tell his Dad and Uncle Mort until several pints have passed at the Whippet.
Carter can’t really be mithered at all. Even if it’s obvious from the second note that there is no gentleman friend and Pat’s simply trying to get his attention, all it means to Carter is that he can carry on boozing and birding, wear industrial boots to work and not turn into a young executive without being nagged.
And the birds are all the more interested in him now Pat’s out of the picture. Not Linda Preston, though. For once she’s not offering it, because she’s going to get married again, this time to Count Jugular, the all-in wrestler and proud homebody. Linda’s going to turn herself into a good, loyal, prissy-arsed wife, like Pat.
And Louis St John’s changed too. After taking home Thelma Thurlow when Carter got too drunk at the Reception, Louis’s gone all strait-laced and disapproving, intent on marriage, disgusted at Carter’s morals, language and boozing.
But first Count Jugular, then Louis St. John and Thelma Thurlow are killed, in car crashes at that notorious accident black spot, Wilson’s Bar.
They were happy, see.
Linda Preston survives, though, determined to be the wife she intended to be. Not that Carter’s going short. There’s plenty of women from Wagstaffe and Broome’s that are up for a night with him, though it’s never anything special for them. And for a time, he’s taken over by skinny, needle-titted, beaky-nosed Dorothy Fearnley from (aptly) Complaints, until he scares himself off.
But the North is dying. People are dying, industries are closing, popular mine host and ex-Green Howard, Bert Coleridge, is moving South. Even Wagstaffe and Broome’s closes down, putting everyone on the dole. Mr Brandon’s on the dole alongside Carter, the snuff warehouse having shut. The men stand together in proud solidarity, craftsmen deprived of their craft. Eventually, they give in and find other jobs.
It could all be put back right for Carter, if he wants to take advantage. Pat still loves him, even after she does get a gentleman friend, none other than Mr Macclesfield, for whom she worked in I Didn’t Know You Cared. She moves in with him and his avacado bathroom suite, though there’s nothing like that going on.
But it’s not going to happen. Carter’s more interested in Pat’s best mate and former colleague at Maison Enid’s, Hazel Huskisson, she of the blonde hair, mini-skirts, long lissome legs and mobile caravanette. Hazel’s keeping an eye on Carter for Pat, reporting back what he does. On the other hand, her husband Ken’s spending every weekend house-hunting in London. Carter’s obsessed just as he was with Alison Shirtcliffe, and it’s all there for him. If he makes a move.
But he doesn’t.
Carter’s got a big problem. Well, two, actually. Or three, really. One is the one he’s always had, indecision. Not a Hamlet-like indecision, but instead an urgent desire not to take decisions, not to bring about change.
The next one is Sid Jones. Sid used to be Carter Brandon’s oppo in their National Service days in Germany. Two young men with time on their hands, exploring the mysteries of a strange country that was endlessly romantic in comparison with the emptiness and deprivation of the North.
Sid’s back now, and staying with Carter. But he’s not the booze-guzzling, bird-pulling Sid of yore. For one thing, he’s in gentleman’s fittings and he’s as bald as a coot. He’s clean, neat, a fastidious housekeeper, disapproving of strong drink and strong language, and unable to talk to women. Everyone says he’s a homo, even Daniel: only Carter insists he’s not.
But Carter’s biggest problem is that he’s become a drunk. A mean, swilling soak who’s unable to sleep for body-wracking hangovers. Hairs of the dog that get earlier and stronger every day. The classic alcoholic in classic denial about it.
There are still moments of sanity. Sid Jones persuades him to come away on a holiday in Scarborough: seaside, fresh air, no drinking. Even though Uncle Mort invites himself along, it’s working. Carter even bumps into Pat, staying here with a jealous Mr Macclesfield. They enjoy a gentle, happy day together and Carter presses for another. Then stands her up and goes home.
And then it happens. Carter has one final chance of Hazel, and he decides to take it, turn it into a future he’s badly in need of. He drives over in his blood-red Mini Cooper S. But a dog off its leash runs into the road, he swerves, and crashes. At Wilson’s Bar.
Is this novel solely about Carter Brandon? Is there no parallel story of comparable importance? Well, no, not really. There is a secondary thread, running alongside Carter’s story and forming an undercurrent, but it’s hardly on the same level of intensity and focus.
It’s about Uncle Mort, and his overgrown allotment once more. Uncle Mort has got a canary nesting in one of his bushes, a pair, with eggs. Only they’re not canaries, they’re warblers. To be precise, Mourning Warblers, except that, according to the bird books, they don’t nest in Britain, they only nest in America. Which makes them rare birds, poor sods.
Once the word gets out, the nest becomes a magnet for egg-collectors. The former Wagstaffe and Broome’s men set up a night watch, but they make a piss-poor fist of it. Between boozy sleeps, treachery and Mrs Brandon’s womanly disgust at grown men playing about like kids instead of getting jobs, only one egg survives to hatch into a strange looking chick, nesting in Uncle Mort’s hair, under his cap.
And everyone continues to call it a canary, over Carter’s constant corrections.
Ah yes, Carter. Aye. Well. Mm. Carter’s alive, and his blood-red Mini Cooper S isn’t even a write-off, but Hazel Huskisson is. Ken’s been manking around in London and she needs to take him in hand, so that’s that.
Everyone’s coming to see him in hospital: his mother and father, separately, Uncle Mort with the surviving eggs which Carter has to incubate, Sid Jones, half his harem. And Pat. Who still loves him and wants him back, despite his total indifference to her. She loves him. And so does Sid Jones.
And something unusual happens. Firstly, Mr Brandon declares, openly and for the first time in his life, that he loves Mrs Brandon, and then Carter not only decides that he wants Pat back, and that he’ll do all the things she wants of him, but when he discovers that she’s not going to come back, says – actually shouts – that he loves her. But it’s all too late.
But not necessarily for Carter. His self-destruction seems unstoppable. His selfishness has driven a wedge between himself and his parents. His best friend wants to make a home both for and with him. But there is Linda Preston.
Good old good-time Linda Preston, always available, always willing. She’s the one who didn’t come to the hospital, not to visit, that is. She stood outside every day, paralysed by memories of her own time there, but she was there for him.
And she’s there for him now. Not for sex, but to take him in hand, straighten him out, begin to calm and cure him. It’s an old-fashioned courtship, slow and gentle. Easy-paced and, above all, dry. No sex before a honeymoon night, if Carter wants to marry her.
It would work. Two unassuming, unambitious people, content to let the day come, comfortable in each other. Linda also resolves the Sid Jones problem, setting himself up with awkward, unprepossessing, curler-haired Connie Watkinson, to whom he proposes. After all, she’ll let him take nude photos of her, provided she can keep her clothes on.
Carter even decides to instruct Solicitors.
And a Policeman knocks on the door with news. There’s been another crash at that well-known accident black spot, Wilson’s Bar. Mr Macclesfield is dead. So too is his passenger, Nigel, Carter and Pat’s son.
Nothing is to be what it was going to be. A night of sex, in lieu of that forever postponed honeymoon, and then Carter and Pat are back together. Till death them do part.
There is, of course, a happy ending, happy in the terms that the Brandons world sets for itself. After Bert Coleridge went south, the new Landlord of the Whippet started making changes, altering the pub to attract a new, young with-it, Swinging clientele. Uncle Mort got banned for refusing to take his cap off.
But Sid Jones and Connie Watkinson’s reception is at the Whippet, and everyone’s crowded in. Only, when Uncle Mort takes his cap off, his canary flies straight into the heart of the disco equipment, and when they tried to extract it, a fire started, and the pub burned down to the ground.
Unfortunately, the poor canary succumbed to the smoke.
Canary? “Warbler,” roared Carter Brandon, “Call it a Warbler.”
It had been more than a decade since the last Brandon family book, a decade in which Peter Tinniswood had been refining his writing towards shorter and shorter works. There had been nothing to equal the density, intensity and especially the delightfully morbid style of his earliest novels. Call it a Canary stood in danger of being that most risky of endeavours, the self-pastiche.
Indeed, many of my friends and fellow Tinniswood fans at that time thought he’d succumbed. I, being less analytical than I am now, was simply glad to be amongst old pals, and rated the book accordingly. Now, I’m less sure.
Even at the time, I could see that Call it a Canary was a much darker book, darker for its blackness being on the surface. In the Eighties, I saw the overt decay – the deaths, the closures, the demolitions – as a comic element, but now I see something more. At the heart of this book is the disintegration of its central character, Carter Brandon. Not an undercurrent, half-hidden by a superficial, almost pantomime morbidity, it is the entirety of the story.
Carter and Pat’s separation is the symbol of the divide that widens in this book, the gulf between men and women, their differing, and wholly incompatible thoughts, feelings, desires and priorities. It’s noticeable that Mrs Brandon is alone in he generation of women to stand up for their viewpoint:  except for a cameo from Mrs Partington at the hospital, all the other women are much younger, and are sexual, bringing them momentarily closer to the men’s world.
Nor are there the jokes, not in the same profusion, not in the way that has characterised Tinniswood even through the Brigadier books. Even Daniel, present in Carter’s head from an incredibly early stage, isn’t what he once was. His voice is antipathetic to Carter almost from the off, carping and criticising and offering little or no encouragement to Carter.
This more than anything sets Call it a Canary apart from its predecessors. Even if you take Daniel only to be a kind of superego, Carter cloaking his impulses towards relief in a highly visible and totally irresponsible form, the fact that even his other self is tearing him down constantly deepens the gloom of this book past the point where the laughter has sufficient air with which to breathe.
I used to love Douglas Adams’ Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, but it’s a plain fact that, after the original two radio series, the books got progressively, exponentially worse. The last of them, Mostly Harmless, cannot disguise from the least critical eye that it is the work of a writer who has grown to hate his characters, who felt trapped by them, and who was determined to ensure that he could never ever be forced to write about them again.
Though it is nowhere so extreme, Call it a Canary is in the same mould, even if only subconsciously. Tinniswood is burning boats here, breaking down the world he had constructed in a way that could not be put back together again. Towards the end of his life, there were apparently announcements that he was writing another Brandon family novel. I am glad it never materialised.
Some of the Brandons, most notably Uncle Mort and Carter, would reappear, on television, radio and in print. But there would never be a real book again, not with any grounding, any weight.
A number of Tinniswood’s obituaries spoke of his bitterness in later life that he had spread himself too thin, accepted too many commissions too eagerly, had failed to give himself the time to produce his best work. Despite its good aspects, Call it a Canary stands testament that he was not merely being self-deprecating.

Travelling with Tinniswood: Except You’re a Bird

Mrs Brandon closed her eyes. The shadows from the fire flickered on her cheeks.She sighed.
“I feel exactly now as what I felt before we got married all them years ago,” she said.
“Christ, you’re not getting another attack of lumbago, are you?”
“I’m not talking about bodily functions. I’m talking about emotional functions. I’m talking about emotions,” said Mrs Brandon. “I’m talking about being starry-eyed and all of a flutter. I’m talking about how it was twenty-five years ago with me rushing round making all the arrangements and you sitting on your BTM doing nowt.”
“Me? Doing nowt?” said Mr Brandon.”Who was it mended your Dad’s chain-guard? Who was it tarpaulined his bloody rabbit hutch for him?”
Mrs Brandon’s eyes sparkled. Her skin glowed in the gentle firelight.The creases in her neck were smoothed away in the mellow orange glow.”
“Les?” she said quietly.
“Did you ever get second thoughts about getting married? I mean, did you ever get cold feet or owt like that?”
“No,” said Mr Brandon after a moment’s thought. “Once we’d bought the stair carpet there was no going back, was there?”
Though it had been implicit in earlier books, it’s in Except You’re a Bird – the third Brandon family novel – that Peter Tinniswood explicitly developed a vision of men and women as creatures alien to each other, with completely different concerns, feelings and wishes. It’s also where the accusations of a misogynist element to his work take serious hold.
The novel begins with thoughts of love and romance from Mrs Brandon. It’s six months until the Brandon’s twenty-fifth Wedding Anniversary, their Silver Anniversary, and Mrs Brandon has her heart set upon a grand celebration of love, which is going to feature a service of re-dedication, and a Second Honeymoon.
Mr Brandon, in contrast, would rather ignore the whole thing. He wasn’t impressed with the first honeymoon (The breakfasts was rubbish), the Re-dedication ceremony is bound to involve him dressing up (Women are buggers for spats), and the thought of resuming sex is an anathema to him (I’d rather bath an Airedale any day).
It’s not that Mr Brandon isn’t romantic in himself, it’s just that his romance is directed towards his job on the bowls greens at the Park (to which he was taken whole-heartedly) and his ever-giddier ideas about transforming a very functional Municipal Park into a riot of colour and scent.
So from the offset, Mr and Mrs Brandon are on two widely separated courses about their impending Anniversary, with one inevitable outcome: Mrs Brandon will get her way andMr Bramdon will put up with it.
Mr Brandon would prefer to concentrate on his remote chance of promotion to head gardener. The current incumbent, George Furnival, is shortly to retire, and he’s a man who knows bugger all about flowers and everything about forms and chitties. Plus he hates Mr Brandon, so the dream is not on.
Which is where Uncle Mort steps in. George Furnival is married to Olive, who is notably ugly, although the apple of George’s eye. Uncle Mort plans to romance Olive, to the point where George will catch the pair in a compromising position. George Furnival will then have to recommend Mr Brandon for his job, if he doesn’t want the news of his humiliation to get out.
It’s not Mr Brandon’s idea of a plan, but it works perfectly, except in two respects. Firstly, it appears that George Furnival is happy to be released from the suffocating prison of Olive Furnivals love, expressed primarily through the dinner table, and secondly Olive Furnival transfers her affections to Uncle Mort and, fattening him up with top notch grub, takes him away on a tour of her relatives.
Still, Mr Brandon gets the head gardener’s job and starts planning, whilst Uncle Mort’s opinions are pithily expressed in the postcard he sands home: “Barrow-in-Furness is worse than Hartlepools. Hartlepools was worse than Mexbourough. Mexborough was worse than Droylsden. There wasn’t much to choose between Droylsden and Birkenhead.”
(In all my years of reading, this is one of only two references I have come across in literature to Droylsden, of whom I was, when Except You’re a Bird came out, an avid fan. The other? A passing reference in I Didn’t Know You Cared. Incidentally, a later postcard from Uncle Mort concluded: “Birkenhead is worse than Droylsden. Infinitely.” I love Peter Tinniswood’s books!)
Now all of this is primarily comic, though that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a quite serious and dark underpinning to it. It’s one thing to laugh at the wildly contrasting emotions of the Brandons, but that doesn’t mean that Mr Brandon’s obstinate refusal to show interest isn’t deeply cruel and hurtful. Tinniswood seems to side with his downtrodden, beaten men, who only want a life of drudgery and dullness, preferring to avoid change, but his portrayal of that state, even of the men’s own innate belief in a certain nobility in their assuming it, is in itself subtley comic and exaggerated.
But this, as in I Didn’t Know You Cared, is only half the story. There is a second, deeper, and very much darker strand to this novel, and it involves Carter Brandon and Pat.
At first, it looks like it’s going to be similarly playful. A few heavy-handed hints are dropped by Pat, about not doing certain things “on account of (her) condition”, making it no surprise to anyone, except Carter, when she announces that she is pregnant.
Everyone’s impressed. Mrs Brandon tries to work out when it must have been conceived, and drives Mr Brandon mad by calling him Bompa, which is apparently her family’s traditional name for Grandads. Mrs Partington is scandalised at Pat wanting to emphasise to the world that she’s pregnant, even before she’s got the slightest bump (the bit about Carter and Pat sharing a bath together is priceless!).
But there’s a fly in Pat’s ointment and that’s her mother’s sudden announcement that she is going to re-marry. Her intended is Mr Shirtcliffe, who works at the snuff warehouse. Mr Shirtcliffe has two children of his own, Artie and Alison.
Pat puts her foot down and refuses her consent to her mother marrying Mr Shirtcliffe before even meeting him. It’s supposed to be all about her and baby, and she is full of fantasies about Baby’s future successful life, living each increasingly ambitious projection as if it were real and already happening. She’s already forbidden the sleep-deprived Carter from playing for the Works Football team, on account on his failure to get a cut looked at developing into gangrene and having his leg amputated, leaving her with no-one to dance with when Baby is Professor of Diffiicult Sums at Sheffield University.
But there’s the Shirtcliffes themselves. Mr Shirtcliffe is a near-midget whose primary concerns are housekeeping: he doesn’t want to marry Mrs Partington at all. Artie is the star forward for the local Rugby League team, praised by all except Mr Brandon, who thinks he’s rubbish. He’s is a fast-talking, high-living young man freeloading through life on the back of the ‘punters’ who hero-worship him and give him things for nothing, and who he openly despises whilst taking advantage. Alison is a mainly silent, anti-social young woman who dresses in mens shirts and pullovers and jeans. She has an offstage baby that she neglects, leaving it to scream endlessly.
She also has pale green eyes with flecks of tawny and long blonde hair, and absolutely fascinates Carter Brandon, who thinks she is the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen.
Again, so far, so comic. Autumn is turning into winter. A cold snap hasseized the city and is slowly getting stronger. Things are freezing, roads are icing. Cars slip and slither. Carter hates driving, hates his car but can’t get rid of it.
Until Pat has a crash, and is rushed into hospital, in a coma, with suspected brain damage. Her baby is well, but Pat is not expected to live.
Everybody reacts. Mrs Brandon is utterly practical, accepting that her daughter-in-law is going to die, and pretty soon at that, and making plans for Carter’s future therafter in ways that echo Pat’s own plans for Baby. Mr Brandon suggests that the Anniversary be cancelled, as a mark of respect. Mrs Partington accepts it as a judgement upon her for defying Pat’s wishes about Mr Shirtcliffe. Artie adopts Carter, giving him lifts to the hospital every night and waiting for him. On a couple of occasions, Alison is with him, but she doesn’t respond to any of Carter’s stilted attempts to start a conversation.
And Carter? Carter who gives the impression that he spends most of his life putting up with Pat? If we doubted him, we cannot any longer. He is desperate with fear, pleading with Pat’s unconscious body to hang on, to stay. Hell, we’ve even heard him tell her that he loves her, though not until she was fast asleep and couldn’t hear it.
Life at home, alone, is unbearable and Carter asks to go live with his parents again. It’s a godsend for his mother, who immediately starts treating him as if he was seven years old again. Mrs Brandon is showering on her son the love she wants to shower on Mr Brandon,and Carter is in no condition to resist.
He’s also experiencing visions. Of pale green eyes with tawny flecks, of flashes of blonde hair. And this despite Artie’s warnings not to start sniffing, not to get interested.
One night, he can’t sleep, gets up and goes down to the parlour. Before long, his Dad, equally wakeful, joins him. Then Uncle Mort, complaining that insomnia’s catching. In the early hours, with the fire lit, Uncle Mort tries to cheer him up, reminiscing about bereavements, including that of Thingie, or as Mr Brandon hurriedly reminds him, his son, Daniel.
Immediately, Carter returns to bed, sleeps and dreams, and hears Daniel in his head, comfortable and chatty. Daniel’s heard about Pat, and unlike everyone at the hospital, he is confident: nothing’s going to happen to her, he’ll see to that.
The next day, which Carter takes off work, he’s urgently summoned to the hospital. The journey has him sick with fear at every second, but the Registrar greets him with words of a miracle. Pat is awake again, and though she’ll have to stay in the hospital until Baby is born, all will be well. She’s had a dream, a party in her womb, with Baby and with Daniel. Daniel who, at the end, gave her a small wrapped-up present: her life.
So all is going to be well again,once time takes its course. Except it isn’t, is it?
It starts with Alison. Carter bumps into her at the bus stop after football training, gets her to go for a drink with him. She’s willing to see him, from time to time, though it’s always instead of Visiting Time with Pat. Carter fobs his absences off as overtime, which Pat happily builds into Baby’s fantasy future. And Daniel’s egging him on with visions of a future of travel, an escape from mundanity, even as Carter clings on to dreariness and drudgery.
Artie doesn’t approve. Linda Preston knows something about Artie that Carter doesn’t, and about his bird that he’s ashamed of, but she’s not telling.
Then Pat drops a bombshell (apart from the one about Alison turning up at one of these increasingly regular parties in her womb): Mrs Partington is to be allowed to marry Mr Shirtcliffe after all, because Baby needs two grandfathers for Who’s Who when he’s a High Court Judge with a kindly twinkle.
(Actually, as Daniel explains later, it’s a demarcation issue, the Amalgamated Society of Unborn Babies and Allied Trades having passed a motion threatening to withdraw Pat’s labour if their member was to be born with less than the nationally agreed number of grandfathers.)
Mr Shirtcliffe doesn’t take to the idea and threatens to expose Carter’s relationship with his daughter – which, as yet, hasn’t even got as far as a kiss – unless Carter does something (an unnatural state that he abhors). Of course, Alison has the answer: her father ‘disappears’ to live with Carter back at his home.
And the icy grip of winter continues, holding the city in its fist (the book is undated beyond ‘the Sixties’, but this is clearly the long winter of 1962-3). Mr Brandon and Carterboth feel increasingly trapped, and both dream of escape asthe pressure mounts and the days of the Silver Wedding and the birth get ever closer.
And then the great chance arises, legitimately. Carter is invited to join a specialist team doing maintenance work internationally (though Pat disapproves). He wavers, plans to decline it, but finds that his intended message has been completely misinterpreted and been put through as acceptance. He wants to tell Artie of his fortune. Instead, he finds out about Artie and his bird… and the whole thing explodes under his feet.
The tragedy that ensues arrives on the eve of a fast spring, a sudden melt. Mr Brandon runs out on his Silver Wedding, leaving Uncle Mort to take his place on both ceremony and honeymoon! Carter confesses his plans to run away after the Works Cup semi-final, only for it to be ended by someone who knows him better than he knows himself. And they’re trapped again.
This time Mr Brandon’s off the bowling greens, replacing Mr Shirtcliffe at the snuff warehouse (aaaaa-chooo!) and Carter’s both a husband and father, though his feelings of guilt begin to alleviate. Order is returned, the world is as it was for both men and women.
Except You’re a Bird (whose title comes from a speech by the Eighteen Century Irish politician, Boyle Roche, mis-identified in the book as Boyd Roche, who may have been a model for Mrs Malaprop) was to be the last Brandon family book for over a decade, although Tinniswood continued writing the Brandon’s for TV until 1979. It displays all the characteristics that, in a short space of time, had made him such a highly-valued comic novellist, and it remains gloriously funny now, forty years later.
But, as we’ll begin to see, it and I Didn’t Know You Cared represent something of a peak for Tinniswood’s work. It’s continually funny, hitting little peaks of laughter over and again, and its anchored in a concrete reality based on Tinniswood’s own experience of northern life, and how people talked and thought.
For his next novel, Tinniswood would break away from that setting, seeking to broaden his horizons. It worked well, given that he maintained that down to earth tone, and there were still great things to come. But the early part of his career was to end here, and there is much debate to be had about where his talent would now lead him.

Travelling with Tinniswood: I Didn’t Know You Cared

“What have you got then, if it isn’t a personal question?” said Mr Brandon from behind his evening paper.
“A wasting disease,” said Uncle Mort.
“I’m not surprised neither, considering all the time you’ve wasted in pubs and betting shops,” said Mrs Brandon.
“Steady on, Annie. Steady on, lass,” said Mr Brandon, rustling his paper.
“Well, it makes me livid,” said Mrs Brandon. “There’s our Mort spent all his life supping and smoking, and there’s me Uncle Gladwyn never touched a cigarette nor a drop of hard liquor in his life and dead at the age of fifty-one.”
“I know, but he fell down a bloody lift shaft,” said Uncle Mort.
For his third novel, Peter Tinniswood went back to the Brandon family. I Didn’t Know You Cared appeared in 1973, and would provide the title to the BBC sitcom loosely adapted from some aspects of the novels, beginning in 1975. It was my introduction to Tinniswood, another of those discoveries (like Donald Westlake) that came from scouring the extensive shelves of Didsbury Library.
I don’t know what it was that caught my eye and lead to my borrowing the book, but I loved it, and it’s still my favourite of all of Tinniswood’s books, for its gusto, its beautifully sustained balance between Tinniswood’s short, declarative sentences, its romantic innocence and its wonderfully inventive morbidity.
The book is driven by two stories, nominally independent but linked in the Brandon family. On the one side, Uncle Mort has just been told that he’s suffering from a fatal disease (cancer, in fact,the very thing that had taken my father three years earlier) and is determined to go about his last six months his way. On the other, Carter Brandon has been out of work for two months and is being a very efficient househusband whilst Pat is the family breadwinner who has just earned a promotion to personal secretary to that rising young executive, Mr Macclesfield.
It’s two years since the end of A Touch of Daniel, when Carter defied the strike and lost his Union card, and it’s 1961. He and Pat live on their newly-built estate, in a house so badly made that everything is damp, swollen and doesn’t fit. Pat’s in her empty-headed element, worshiping the ground Mr Macclesfield walks (presumably) upon and repeating his every word of advice to Carter in the hope that she can transform him into a young executive as well.
The only drawback for her is that Carter hasn’t had a hard-on for six weeks.
Meanwhile, Mrs Brandon has taken her brother’s impending death as a personal affront, refusing to believe he’s got it right at first, fulminating that after paying National Health Stamps for so long, they can just turn round and tell you you’re incurable without so much as a kiss-my-bottom, concerned at what the neighbours will think of her for letting him get terminally ill, and then settling down to make sure the whole thing is handled properly.
Such as a funeral party for the family before Uncle Mort snuffs it – it’s only decent of him – and helping him pick out his gravestone, not to mention pay for it out of his pension: well, he’ll appreciate it all the more, won’t he?
Uncle Mort doesn’t want any of this fuss. He’s got his own plans, plans that involve cashing in his National Savings Certificates to buy two more allotment plots, to add to the one that’s already an unkempt, untended wilderness. This puts Mr Brandon in a panic about how three wild allotments could unleash a plant chaos on the whole country and put paid to his shallots.
But Uncle Mort’s purpose is the pride of ownership: a weak, dribbling spring of trickling, funny-looking water rises on his allotment and these two other allotments comprise its course to the Barclay Brook, and thence the river, the sea, the ocean: Uncle Mort now owns the full riparian rights of the full course of the River Mort.
Pat’s fawning attitude to Mr Macclesfield gets so far on Carter’s wick that, with the gleeful support of Louis St John, the West Indian fitter (with a mum what’s born in Antigua and a Dad what’s born in Barnsley and a trick of switching from self-satirising coon-talk to broad South Yorkshire), he applies for and gets back his union cards.
Yet he doesn’t take up the fitter’s job at Wagstaffe & Broome’s that’s clearly waiting for him.
All this is taking place against a background of change and destruction that’s a silent echo of Uncle Mort’s condition. The city is being torn down, brick by brick, old and familiar buildings turned into rubble. Dead birds and animals are continually being discovered in and about the river, covered in sores. Even woodlands are being torn down so that new estates for young executives can be built. Carter doesn’t approve: There’s baby rabbits and redstarts in that copse, he tells one bulldozer driver, whose cynical response is that there’s about twenty tons of used french letters too.
It’s this continuing pulse that drives I Didn’t Know You Cared, the continual running of what are, beneath it all, serious subjects into lines like that, an inexhaustible supply of them as Tinniswood constantly booby-traps his listeners into giggles about the most uncomic of things.
There’s Vernon Collinson, Uncle Mort’s oppo at the clinic, a younger man under the same sentence, a constant reminiscer about, believe it or believe it not, completely mundane things. There’s cousin Celia, bereft of that Mr Coppersedge from Derby, invited into the bosom of the family by Mrs Brandon and arriving with boundless relish for the most unimpressive things of life.
Cousin Celia fills the gap left by Uncle Staveley and Corporal Parkinson, neither of whom are around for this book, with no explanation. She’s larger-than-life, a virgin at the age of fifty-five, extremely bountiful, and supposedly a witch who intends to cure Uncle Mort, whether he wants it or not, but who runs off with Vernon Collinson instead.
Carter has other problems of his own after new neighbours move in next door, Gerry and Ursula Phelan, both of whom work on the local newspaper. Gerry, an older, balding man who works nights, is a sexually boastful pig, who Carter can’t stand, whilst Ursula, his younger wife, is German. She’s very fit, in both senses of the word, though the fact she’s German less than twenty years after the war arouses prejudices amongst the older members of the family.
Ursula is trouble, everyone can see that except Pat, whose faith in Carter is as strong as her love for him. And considering his erections have suddenly come back, Pat’s eager in getting her end away quite often.
But, like not actually bringing Mog onto the stage until a long way into his novel, there’s one last substantial character to introduce, who turns up on page 48 and proceeds to turn the book upside down in a similar way to how he did with the first Brandon novel.
For Carter dreams, and in his dreams he enters the cemetery, to meet a baby sat up in a pram. The baby is smoking a Woodbine (a very popular, ubiquitous working-class cigarette). It’s Daniel, here to look after his Dad and help Carter sort out his problems. From hereafter, everything Carter does is accompanied by a running conversation with Daniel, constantly interrupting with his opinions.
You think Daniel’s just a voice in Carter’s head, a Freudian inner consciousness? Don’t be so sure.
The summer goes on. Pat’s away on business trips with Mr Macclesfield (and there’s none of that going on because Pat isn’t that kind of woman and she loves Carter too much: and in this book, Carter actually tells Pat that he loves her too).
But temptation is on Carter’s doorstep, not necessarily in the form of Ursula but rather her younger sister Erika, on an extended holiday. Erika has been scarred for life after a car crash, a jagged scar down one side of her face and neck that she keeps concealed by her hair-style, awkward though it is. The accident has changed her, turned her inwards, a process not helped by Gerry Phelan’s constant cartoonish sexual buffoonery.
Carter, encouraged by Ursula to treat her normally, like an attractive woman, takes an interest in her for herself, patiently, quietly, towards the point when, with Pat in Amsterdam for a week, everything is heading neatly towards consummation. Which is when it all goes wrong.
Things have already gone wrong in the other half of the story. Mr Brandon’s lost his job through redundancy and the dignity of his trade prevents him from accepting any old employment. So Mrs Brandon goes out to work at the Dinky Bakery, a job that Mr Brandon feels is below her, and he emulates Carter in becoming a housewife, and a bloody sight more enthusiastic and efficient housewife than any of them.
Nevertheless, money is getting short when the letter arrives from a property company wanting to buy the allotments to build on. With £750, the Brandons can build up a small enterprise in the country, and change their lives utterly. With £2,250 for his three plots, Uncle Mort will be truly rich.
Only he won’t sell the River Mort, and the offer won’t stay open until he dies, and the deal is all the plots or nothing, a fact succinctly explained by Chairman Sir Peter Wakefield (!) at the meeting at the Scout hut. His refusal to sell and allow the Brandons to improve their lot results in Mrs Brandon throwing him out: Uncle Mort goes to live in the adapted railway carriage on his allotment, and gets adopted as a project by the Peewits Patrol, whose least adroit member, Timothy Goodge, is a constant and improbable source of all manner of alcohol, swiped from his Dad.
Uncle Mort isn’t alone that long. First he’s joined by Vernon Collinson, run away from cousin Celia, who has made his life truly miserable by curing him. Then, when Mr Brandon gets too sentimental about his shallots, he leaves home to live with Uncle Mort (though the need for money forces him to take that job that’s going on the bowling greens in the Park).
Uncle Mort is getting weaker and weaker. Carter’s in dead shtuck: his seduction of Erika took a wrong turn when she briefly popped into the Phelan house to fetch something, and the figure at his back door a couple of minutes later was Ursula, who practically drags him into bed and fucks his arse off.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, in roars the boorish Gerry, bringing drinks to celebrate Carter having got his end away with his sister-in-law. His response to seeing his wife instead in bed with Carter? “Not again? Bloody hell. Not again?”
Suddenly, Carter’s bit of fun on the side has gone horribly sour. He wants nothing more than to keep it quiet, forget about it all, make sure Pat never finds anything out about this. Gerry’s surprisingly fine, this isn’t the first time, he knows the drill, he won’t spill anything. But Ursula makes it plain that this isn’t going to be a one-off. When she raises her hand, Carter will come to her. And he’ll finish what he started with Erika. Coming up with a story for Pat is his business,though.
And cousin Celia’s back at the Brandon household, supporting Mrs Brandon, an unstoppable force roaring with delight at every little ragged weed on Uncle Mort’s allotments. She’s negotiating a compromise which basically consists of the men agreeing they were wholly wrong, apologising and promising not to do it again. Oh, and Mr Brandon taking his wife out for dinner at the Trocadero grill the next night.
Which is where the arrangement falters as all the male Brandon’s are going to see the running of the Last Tram.
Which is where everything suddenly races forward. Unable to bear the thought of something about to go desperately wrong, Vernon Collinson throws himself under the Tram’s wheels. His inquest reveals that he was far from being cured: cousin Celia had conned him. Mr Brandon comes home, followed shortly by Uncle Mort, who collapses at the funeral. He’s in his last days, slipping in and out of consciousness to the tremendous frustration of Mrs Brandon, who’s desperate to get him to sign the sale documents on the allotments.
And Ursula wants Carter on Monday night, or she will tell Pat.
Cousin Celia, who is constantly proclaiming her witchly status, tells him not to worry. She knows mystically of his problems and will protect him. It’s all the usual moonshine and rot – but that night, Ursula and Erika’s father dies abruptly, and the pair have to return to Germany immediately. On the Monday. You should hear what Daniel has to say about it.
Uncle Mort’s going downhill steadily, and Carter’s problems aren’t quite over. A chance overhearing in a pub of Mr Macclesfield talking to a couple of his clients about Pat sees him straight down the hill to sign on at Wagstaffe & Broomes. The decision outrages Pat, as does Carter’s orders for her to give up her job (naturally Carter does not explain what he’s heard). So Pat walks out, though she’s soon back, extremely abashed, as soon as she finds out for herself.
Suddenly, there’s an epidemic. Cousin Celia’s having convulsions and the Peewits have all been rushed to hospital. Nothing can be done for cousin Celia who, in keeping with Brandon family tradition, dies, but it is Timothy Goodge who cracks the book open by putting together all the clues Tinniswood has left scattered throughout the story: they’re poisoned. The Peewits and cousin Celia have been drinking from the River Mort: they’ve been poisoned.
And it all unravels. The River Mort is polluted, with material escaping from the plastics factory owner by one Geoffrey Macclesfield. It’s been responsible for poisoning the Peewits and cousin Celia, not to mention the Barclay Brook and the river and the death of all those animals, dying with sores all over them. The offer for the allotments is quickly withdrawn.
It’s also poisoned Uncle Mort too. It wasn’t cancer at all. He’s not going to die, in fact he’s going to be cured. The last word, of course, has to go to the woman in the middle of all this: “Talk about perverse,” said Mrs Brandon. “You just can’t trust nature to work its natural courses these days, can you?”
But that’s not quite the last word. The scene shifts to Autumn, the season where all things begin dying, a fact commented on by Carter Brandon and Daniel as they head towards the allotments, where Uncle Mort is once again restored to full health. Out of a flash of sunshine, a lightning bolt strikes the railway carriage, turning it into a ball of flame. Despite the fact Uncle Mort must be dead, Carter plunges in and drags his Uncle out. He’d just been throwing out the last of cousin Celia’s bloody herbs.
“What an escape. Do you know, lad, I reckon if I put my mind to it, I could be bloody immortal.”
Again, there’s so much more going on in this book that even such a detailed account as this could possibly describe. The energy that drives it along, that keeps the flow in a constant bubble of humour, dry, dispassionate, northern, is only a part of all this.
Once again, Tinniswood paints a word picture of a time and a place now long gone. The book spends so much time in actual destruction of the pillars of this lost, working class Northern world, yet it’s also evident that the new, modern world coming to replace it is temporary in a way that past had never been, and would never last.
Again, despite my fervent belief that Tinniswood was writing about a fictional Manchester, I can’t stop myself recognising Sheffield as the true template, though I’d argue that the humour is Lancastrian rather than Yorkist, in its inflexions and rhythms, an effect achieved by Tinniswood eschewing dialect and instead concentrating on patterns of speech: I was six in 1961 and these books draw me back into that era of my life, and I was a Manchester back-street kid.
I Didn’t Know You Cared gave its name to the sitcom version of the Brandons, which ran four series between 1975 and 1979. It was beautifully cast, with the great John Comer as Mrs Brandon, Liz Smith as Mrs Brandon and Robin Bailey, a theatre actor of great experience previously known for a handful of dramatic roles on TV, as Uncle Mort. Stephen Rea and Anita Carey played Carter Brandon and Pat in the first two series but were replaced by Keith Drinkel and Liz Goulding – Tinniswood’s wife – for the last two. Though the first pair were the better actors, I always felt that Drinkel better fitted the part as I imagined it from the books.
Though the story of this novel, or at any rate Uncle Mort’s part in it, underpinned series two, the sitcom was a very different kettle of fish. I’ll review it in due course, but needless to say, Daniel and the greater part of the black humour were expunged, and the series rested on the lugubrious dialect and relish in misery inherent in the characters. Not to mention a couple of catch-phrases.
One last point. Tinniswood fully introduces Lous St John, the West Indian fitter, in this book. Louis’s the only black character in the story and, this being 1961, there’s some racist talk about him. Indeed, Louis’s own manner is a mixture of cod-African ‘lawsy, massa’ talk, spun out into great skeins of fantasy, and his own Barnsley accent, with its sweet, gentle, ‘nah, flower’.
It could be seen as a racist portrayal. Indeed, many people will not see it any other way. Yet let’s not forget the sequence where, after Louis has turned up at Carter’s house and had a playful mock fight with him, Pat comes home in outrage at Carter wrestling a nigger in the street.
There’s more of that in Pat’s entirely racist ranting about their position in the neighbourhood and the unwanted presence of niggers, all met by Carter’s oft spoken concentration on the practicalities of getting her dinner on the table. He’s waiting for her to wind down, but Pat doesn’t. At which point he turns on her, warning her that if she ever calls Louis a nigger again, he’ll put her over his knee, pull her knickers down and give her the biggest bloody hiding she’s had in her life.
It’s never as simple as you might think.