(To kick off: everybody in the UK, and around the world, is thinking about Brexit at the moment. I don’t think I have the heart to talk about it myself here, because it has broken my heart a little and – combined with our last general election – I no longer feel like I recognise or understand my own country. Victoria has written about it all brilliantly. And now I’m going to seek solace in books.)
One of the books I read while I was in Edinburgh was by the appropriately-Scottish Compton Mackenzie. Like most people, I think all I knew about him was that he’d written Whisky Galore (which I haven’t read, though I’ve seen a bit of the film) and that his first name wasn’t Crompton (he often comes up when I’m looking for Richmal Crompton books by people who’ve made that error). It actually wasn’t Compton either, it was Edward, but let’s move on.
Well, according to the good people of Hutchinson’s “Pocket” Library – perhaps they put that in inverted commas because nobody has pockets big enough to fit this paperback – Poor Relations is a ‘famous novel’, and according to the Evening Standard, quoted on the cover, it is “Very witty and very amusing”. BOTH those things AT ONCE, people. (They aren’t wrong.)
The novel was Mackenzie’s seventh, published in 1919, and he went on to publish dozens of other novels before his death in 1972, including (I discover, on reading his Wikipedia article) one which is a sequel to Poor Relations. I also learn from Wikipedia that he went to Magdalen College, Oxford, as I did (floreat Magdalena!), and co-founded the SNP, as I did not.
I shall certainly look out for more by Mackenzie, as I loved Poor Relations. I don’t really know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t something as funny as this – his turn of phrase reminded me a lot of Saki’s The Unbearable Bassington, and the whole novel has the sort of levity that characterises the best of early-20th-century insouciant fiction.
John did possess another cap, one that just before he left England he had bought about dusk in the Burlington Arcade, one that in the velvety bloom of a July evening had seemed worthy of summer skies and seas, but that in the glare of the following day had seemed more like the shreds of barbaric attire that are brought back by travellers from exotic lands to be taken out of a glass case and shown to visitors when the conversation is flagging on Sunday afternoons in the home counties.
The main character is a John Touchwood. He is – as the narrative often reminds us – a ‘successful romantic playwright and unsuccessful realistic novelist’, and has made something of a fortune at plays which the public love and the intelligentsia rather despise. That intelligentsia include his brother and his brother-in-law, one of whom is a critic who makes no bones about his own infinite literary superiority, the other of whom was recently a vicar but has decided to leave that life in order to become, himself, a playwright. Both are insufferably pompous and rude to longsuffering John, and both are hilarious to read about.
In every direction, Touchwood is besieged by ‘poor relations’ – and they are more than willing to impose. Whether it is that ex-vicar moving into his country house and (without permission) erecting a garden room in which to write, or his other in-laws ditching their children with him a refusing to panic when they are lost in a zoo, John’s patience is repeatedly tried.
The novel is quite episodic. There is something of a romance storyline thrown in, with an admirably unflappable woman whom he hires as his secretary and who insists on behaving professionally until… well, you can probably imagine that there is a happy conclusion. Before that, we move from relative to relative, often returning to the same ones again, but without much evolution in the way they treat John. Which makes sense – how many of us have sharply changing relationships with our nearest and dearest?
John himself is very likeable. He is put-upon but not weak, and he gives as could as he gets in determined ripostes and eloquent rebuttals – while still putting his hand in his pocket most of the time, despite the lack of gratitude he gets from all sides. He reminds me of characters that A.A. Milne might have created in his Punch stories, albeit perhaps slightly steelier when needed.
After reading Poor Relations, I kept coming across Mackenzie novels in secondhand bookshops – but I didn’t really know where to start, especially since he wrote so many. They were all chunky hardbacks, so I left them there rather than weigh down my luggage – but if anybody has any suggestions for others they’ve enjoyed, that would be very welcome. And I heartily recommend tracking down a copy of Poor Relations!