Poor Relations by Compton Mackenzie

(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.)

Poor Relations

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!


14 thoughts on “Poor Relations by Compton Mackenzie

  • June 25, 2016 at 9:49 pm

    As a fellow european ( from France ) I feel devastated. To tell you the truth, I was crying in my bed last night. The philistines, the worshippers of the market have won…once more. Thank you for being who you are, Simon. As long as there are decent, intelligent people like you there is still hope. Yes, let’s find solace in books. If only people could stop reading The Sun or the Daily Mirror…

    • June 29, 2016 at 10:59 pm

      Thank you for your lovely comment, Izzy. I also cried when I found out the news – though perhaps partly because I was so tired after staying up to watch the results.

  • June 26, 2016 at 3:05 am

    Aren’t you glad to be a person who can find comfort in books? I feel sad for those who don’t have the escape of literature to turn to during tumultuous times. Poor Relations sounds just like the kind of book that is guaranteed to amuse and transport. I have to say I have heard Compton Mackenzie’s name but knew nothing about him or what he wrote so it will be good to see what other of his books people recommend to you.

    • June 29, 2016 at 11:00 pm

      Yes! What do those people do? I also realised the other day that times of strife often bring great literature – so at least we have that hope.

  • June 26, 2016 at 3:51 am

    On the other side of the world, but feeling your pain. May books provide that replenishment and a sane space for you to decompress

    • June 29, 2016 at 11:01 pm

      Thank you so much Ana :)

  • June 26, 2016 at 5:05 am

    From so very far away I couldn’t understand it either but maybe once the dust settles down and people begin to give their reasons as to why they did what they did, it may become a bit more clearer.

    • June 29, 2016 at 11:02 pm

      Well, I hope so! Only I’m afraid that the reasons will largely be based on things that won’t happen, or just general disaffection.

  • June 26, 2016 at 12:04 pm

    It’s a hideous decision, and I’m like you taking refuge in books. Never read any Compton but I shall definitely look out for his stuff now!

    • June 29, 2016 at 11:02 pm

      Can you believe all the things that are going on? It’s such a bizarre world. Praise be for books.

  • June 26, 2016 at 3:39 pm

    I read Whisky Galore for the first time this year and have been looking forward to reading more of his work since then. Will certainly have to check this one out!

    • June 29, 2016 at 11:03 pm

      I’ll definitely be on the look-out for more – but there are so many of them that I don’t quite know where to start… Hayley tells me he’s quite variable.

  • June 26, 2016 at 6:36 pm

    I’ve only been able to seek solace in Easy Books and don’t have a million of those left so will have to firm up my reading again soon …

    This sounds excellent, though. Wonderful stuff!

    • June 29, 2016 at 11:09 pm

      I may have spoken too soon myself… a bit of reader’s block seems to have spread.

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