When Auntie Edna fell off the bus she handed on her pate and remained unconscious for sixty-three days. At the end of that period she died, and they had a funeral.
At the party Uncle Mort, husband of the deceased said:
“What I can’t fathom out is why conductor didn’t tell her they was only stopped at a zebra crossing.”
“Well, he was one of them Pakistanis, weren’t he?” said cousin George, who had brought his blue hankie.
“Aye, you’re got something there,” said Uncle Mort, and he placed a spoonful of piccalli on his pressed beef sandwich.
I don’t usually remember the opening words of novels, and certainly not to the extent of that, but I can quote the opening paragraphs of Peter Tinniswood’s first novel, A Touch of Daniel from heart (give or take the odd word that I’ve corrected by checking against the book itself).
Go back and read them again. That’s not just an introduction, that’s a world. The first paragraph alone is a world in itself. What’s it about? It’s about a woman suffering a terrible head injury that puts her in a coma for over two months before she dies without regaining consciousness. It’s a tragedy,a death, a deprivation, a family broken. Until that last sub-clause: At the end of that period she died, and they had a funeral.
The dryness, the deadpan nature, the simplicity of that understatedly comic undercutting, sends the book off on a 90 degree turn into a world of its own, a world that, as we see from the exchange between Uncle Mort and cousin George, who had brought his blue hankie, will mire itself in the everyday mundanity of a working class life in an unnamed Northern City at an unspecified time, will have the same concerns as we have, in which people will talk the way we do, but in which something is not entirely the same.
It’s precise, it’s authentic, it’s subtly comic, and in its little details it will spark grins and laughs and moments of recognition in amongst the most surreal of its scenes.
A Touch of Daniel was first published in 1969, but the words I’ve quoted were written in a freezing cold Sheffield bedsit in the piercing winter of 1962/3. They came out of nowhere to Peter Tinniswood – born in Liverpool, raised in Sale, Manchester, then a leader and feature writer on the Sheffield Telegraph – who wrote them down with no idea what they meant or what they led to.
Tinniswood was also writing sketches for That Was The Week That Was, Dick Emery and The Frost Report, as well as a TV series for Lance Percival, with his writing partner David (Reginald Perrin) Nobbs. But what he’d written that winter stayed with him and eventually became a book that was lauded on its appearance, and which launched a career that encompassed twenty books – ten novels and ten books of short, linked, stories.
A Touch of Daniel was the first of four to centre upon the Brandon family.There’s Mr and Mrs Brandon – Les and Annie – and their son Carter Brandon, and Uncle Mort – Annie’s elder brother and widower of the late Auntie Edna, and Pat (nee Partington), who’s successively Carter’s girlfriend, fiancee (twice) and wife all in the course of Daniel.
There’s also Uncle Staveley (Mr Brandon’s elder brother) and Auntie Lil (whose relative she is is never established but she is the widow of Her Bob, who was taken from her in a grand piano accident in Egremont), and also Corporal Parkinson (Uncle Staveley’s oppo). And there’s also Daniel, though it’s fair to say that, despite the somewhat surprising part Daniel plays in this novel, he doesn’t really come into his own until the next book in the series.
Tinniswood takes his own good time in developing what, for a long time, appears to be a story without a story. Carter Brandon is introduced in the next line after the extract I’ve quoted above. He’s about twenty when the book starts, though the slow build-up covers something like eighteen months, and he’s going out with Pat, a hairdresser at Maison Enid’s (was there ever a more quintessentially northern name for a hairdresser’s salon? This novel is not dated but I’d place it as being on the very cusp of the Sixties). They’re at the stage of heavy petting, of Pat telling Carter she loves him, she really does, and Carter going “Aye. Mm.”
The earliest ‘plot’ element is dealt with with characteristic briefness. Mr Brandon, railing against having had a supper of cream crackers, Lancashire cheese and pickled onions every night of his married life, doesn’t come home one night from work. He’s missing for eight weeks, during which one postcard arrives (from Stevenage) and he never explains his absence (though it does lead to one of the few expressions of two-sided affection between the Brandons in all the books).
Instead, there’s a slow accumulation of death and disaster that leads to the Brandon household being filled up. Uncle Mort’s son Cyril is decapitated in a cycling race after a collision with a charabanc, leading to Uncle Mort moving into the box room. Auntie Lil arrives after her Bob’s unfortunate conjunction with a runaway grand piano (Tinniswood’s comic skill knows enough not to elaborate on that single detail) leads to her being taken in and Carter having to sleep on the couch.
Then Uncle Mort and Auntie Lil agree to share a bedroom, in a very prim, nonsexual kind of way (Uncle Mort is, after all, sixty-bloody-six) giving Carter his room back. And what do you know? Auntie Lil becomes pregnant! So a wedding is needed, to which attend the three spinster aunts from Glossop, insistent on wearing their confirmation frocks (we always wear our confirmation frocks to weddings involving members of the family), cousin George, who had brought his blue hankie, and cousin Celia, who had brought That Mr Coppersedge from Derby.
Staveley Brandon is brought over from the nursing home where he resides to act as Uncle Mort’s best man, even though he’s plainly pots for rags (a northern expression suggesting a lack of mental capacity). Staveley, who’s spent most of his life at sea, physically at any road, is forgetful and deaf, and after all is done Mrs Brandon – whose motherly devotion to everyone around her is genuine, if expressed in strange ways – decides that Staveley should be brought into the bosom of the family, rather than be left among strangers.
So Staveley moves into the attic where, some months later, he is joined for company by his oppo, Corporal Parkinson, a wizened, dried-up, legless man who speaks in unintelligible rasps, interpreted in increasingly florid and unbelievable torrents by Uncle Staveley.
So that makes seven people living in the Brandon household, which is nothing but an ordinary terraced house. Sort of crowded, really.
Little of this has to do with Carter’s life. Carter drifts along at the edges. Carter is always going to drift along, keeping out of things, not concerned, not bothered. True, he does propose to Pat, who he does like for all that her mithering drives him up the spout most of the time, but the L word is only in play on her side, and he’s not bothered enough to do anything to move the relationship along.
Though he’s perceptive enough to recognise, when the wedding plans are very much advanced, that if he suggested putting off the wedding a year, Pat would jump at it, for an extra twelve months of organising, planning, shopping.
Carter takes it in his stride. Takes being made redundant, takes getting another job, takes whatever’s going on at home, all in his stride. There’s lunchtime chats at work with Linda Preston during which he tells her trivial things that he never bothers to mention to Pat. There’s the works outing to New Brighton with Linda, a cheerfully drawn slattern with no pretensions, who relieves him of his virginity in a filthy house. There’s his Mam using him as a dogsbody, ferrying people here, there and everywhere. There are occasional foursomes with Derek Warrender (son of Mrs Warrender, the neighbour from number thirty six) and his girlfriend, Jessie Lewis. There’s Mrs Partington and her incessant talking. The only thing that really involves Carter is his pet, an owlet that he calls Bentley.
That, according to David Nobbs, in an introduction to a posthumous edition, is where this down-to-earth, utterly mundane book starts to turn towards the surreal. I’d argue that the surreal is there from the outset, implicit from that first paragraph, but he’s right in marking that as the point at which the surreal first noses itself above ground and the book starts to expand itself towards the unbelievable.
It starts with Auntie Lil. Things are not right with her late pregnancy. Not physically, not necessarily, though Lil refuses to do any of the exercises the doctor prescribes: indeed, she becomes more and more inert, leaving her bed only to go downstairs for shorter and shorter periods. But it’s in her mind that things are starting to spiral.
It’s not just that Auntie Lil constantly refers to her unborn child belonging to her and ‘My Bob’, with Uncle Mort as nothing more than a, well, agency – to which Uncle Mort responds with a passion for cleaning boots, shoes, galoshes, anything that goes on people’s feet – but there’s the evil fluences. These start as soon as Staveley arrives, coming through the ceiling, down the light fitting, straight through the coverlet and into her womb.
It wouldn’t be so bad if Staveley wasn’t complaining of the evil fluences coming from Auntie Lil and her unborn child. Not to mention the owlet.
That’s until Corporal Parkinson is added to the household. Corporal Parkinson’s presence puts an end to the evil fluences, for a time at least, but sparks a jealousy in Uncle Mort about the old, legless soldier’s presence.
To cut to the chase, everything on and around the household is slowly tuned up towards breaking point. The old men in the attic, after much eccentric and noisy behaviour, fall ill (Corporal Parkinson goes into what can only be called hibernation), and their health starts to fade away towards the inevitability of death. Mrs Brandon brings in a nurse to take care of them: it is Jessie Lewis, which creates yet another complication.
And then Auntie Lil gives birth. And dies two days later.
So Uncle Mort, at his age, has a new-born baby to deal with, Thingie as he calls him, unable to remember that Auntie Lil has named her son Daniel. And everyone is astonished at the level of interest Carter takes in the babby, no-one knowing of his promise to his Auntie Lil to take care of Daniel.
Carter takes Daniel to see the dying men. Staveley reacts in terror, shying away from Daniel’s kiss, protesting at similar treatment for Corporal Parkinson. But the visit seems to do the men good. Each visit sees their health improve. Wrinkles disappear, Corporal Parkinson starts growing hair again, his voice becomes audible at last and, most impressive and horrific of all, his legs begin to grow back.
Because somehow Daniel is bringing the old men back to life, is rejuvenating not only them but everyone in, or who visits the house. From the simple mundanity of that opening sentence, of a death treated with comic indifference, to a baby that is giving life to everyone about him.
From there to the end is turmoil. Daniel is denied to the denying men, except when Carter can sneak him through security. Jessie Lewis becomes a monstrous character, playing games in the middle of this chaos. Mr Brandon admits that Mrs Otter (Celia) is a fiction he made up to seek attention. But she and Uncle Mort become engaged to each other. How Tinniswood sorts this out, separates the strands, ends the story, becomes a fascination.
I won’t say how it ends, save that it is abrupt, and certain threads are left to be undone in the reader’s mind. But there are deaths before it is over: Daniel the impossible baby is one, and the spider at the centre off the web another. After all the careful preparations, Carter marries Pat in a registry office, having broken a strike and lost his Union card and all prospects of a job. The final line is a triviality in the midst of a serious situation, but it is characteristic of everything that has gone before.
I’ve written what seems to be a very full synopsis of the story, but in reality it’s a thin gruel that gives only a momentary flavour of the novel, which is dense in conversation and event. More, much more than I reveal takes place in its pages, and what I’ve spoken of is merely an outline. This is a book with a world in it, at one and the same time utterly recognisable, and horrifyingly strange, and it cannot be properly described without using all the words inside it.
I say utterly recognisable, but that may no longer be so. The world Tinniswood is describing no longer exists. It was already being pushed towards the margin of memory when A Touch of Daniel was being published, when I first read it, in 1975 or thereabouts. And it is, always was a very northern world.
A dirty, put upon world of working men and wives, of factories and mills and industries, of caps and the Daily Herald, a world of nothing and making a living out of it. Was the city Liverpool, Manchester or Sheffield? It depended on where you came from: for decades I would have argued ferociously that it was Manchester: there were clues that supported that, and it felt like my home, just as it did to other readers who came from other places. Now, reading it again, I’m not so sure, for there are enough pieces to argue it as being Sheffield. In reality it’s neither, and both.
The dialogue, the rhythms of speech, the preoccupations, the details are absolutely true. Tinniswood’s mother ran a dry-cleaner’s in Sale and the young Tinniswood would sit underneath the counter, listening to the customer’s talk, and bigod did he listen! I grew up in a back-street terrace in East Manchester and reading the Brandon family books is like walking back into my own childhood even as it was disappearing.
So the humour is very northern, as much as the references. That world’s gone, and maybe people will now be unable to see the mundanity that houses and grounds the impossible, and maybe the balance of the book will be upset for them.
I love this book, though it’s not the best of the Brandon stories. As I’ve hinted, there’s more to come from Daniel, dead though he is, and in all of Carter Brandon’s impassiveness, Tinniswood has not yet come to the full phrase that signifies the young man, and which would crease my ex-wife up with laughter every time it appeared: “Aye. Well. Mm.”
Two things have to be dealt with here. Firstly, I’ve been conscious throughout that the extract I used to begin this essay includes what will undoubtedly be seen as a racist statement: “Well, he was one of them Pakistanis, weren’t he?”
It’s misleading in the context in that it’s seen as placing blame on another because of his race. Elsewhere, there are two other references to Pakistanis, simply in relation to their presence, and as for other races, there’s a minor character where Carter works, Louis St. John, the West Indian fitter, who gets a line or two.
But this is a book set in a place and time where non-white characters were unusual. Though Louis St. John will have bigger parts to play in later books, any racism in the books are the attitudes of its characters, and reflect the times not the author.
There’s a much more pertinent argument, and more debatable, to be had over the question of whether Peter Tinniswood, in his Brandon family novels, was a misogynistic writer. There’s a massive difference between men and women in this series, though it’s not overly developed at this point. Everybody is eccentric: even Carter, the most normal character in the whole book, keeps an owlet as a pet and holds imaginary conversations in his head with his baby cousin, even after Daniel’s death.
The signs are there. Male and female perceptions and preoccupations are different. The women have an attitude to life that is simultaneously more romantic and more pragmatic than the men, who tend to avoid having attitudes to life in the first place. Witness Carter’s description of his first meeting with Pat against hers: his is the flatter, more casual, whilst hers is, predictably, romantic as all get out and plainly unreal, especially as it comes after Carter’s version.
The debate’s to be had, but perhaps not here. For all it’s brilliance, A Touch of Daniel was a set-up for the later books, as we shall see.
The novel can currently be found on Amazon for as little as 1p plus postage, whilst there are thirteen copies available on eBay, one of them the First Edition hardcover, which has the advantage of the page titles which, for some unaccountable reason, were omitted from the paperback editions.
Tinniswood would write several books about the Brandons, as well as adapt them to television and radio. His next book was not about the Brandons, but even so, they still found their way in, as we shall see.