In Praise of Peter Tinniswood

Way back in the mid-1970s there was a British sitcom called I Didn’t Know You Cared, featuring the Brandon family. Back then it seem absolutely hilarious and it introduced me to the writing of Peter Tinniswood, who ended up writing several books about the family. The first was the wildly bizarre A Touch of Daniel and the last Call It a Canary. The spanned the 1960s in a Northern town – probably Lancashire, more’s the pity, but in them he captured the decade, and the North, with hilarious perfection.

The TV show, which came out on DVD a few years ago, hasn’t aged well, but the books remain timeless (allowing for the prejudices of when they were written and the time in which they’re set, always important distinctions); periodically I go through them all and revel in his writing. On nature he could be elegiac, but there’s also poetry of a sort in his deadpan dialogue and descriptions:

“Pat’s just this minute told me she’s expecting. So unless she falls off a trolley bus and has a nasty mishap, you’re going to have a grandchild.”

The restaurant had been opened one thundery afternoon in June. It was called The Scented Lotus Garden.

There were hexagonal lampshades with tassels. The wallpaper had a pattern of peacocks and cormorants. The menu was printed by G. Fearnley & Sons, Pontefract.

Carter Brandon was eating curried King prawns with fried rice and water chestnuts. Pat was eating liver and chips.

“It’s very continental in here, isn’t it?” said Pat.

“Mm,” said Carter Brandon, applying another sprinkling of Yorkshire relish to his shrimp crackers.

They finished their meal with lychees and custard and then they stepped outside into the autumn night.

Stars crackled in the jet-black sky. It was frosty. The frost glistened on the trolley bus wires.

Anyone who grew up in a time when going to a Chinese restaurant was an exotic treat will perfectly understand that description. It captures the time and place – and the menu – perfectly. That’s exactly what it was like. In the North. Maybe to understand it fully you had to grow up there. The humour, under the more obvious guffaws, is very bleak and black, as it should be. Even when the sun shines the next bad weather is on the way and there’s never a truly happy ending. But that’s life, and these things simply aren’t possible. Tinniswood understood that and poked at it.

His real fame came a little later with Tales From a Long Room, with the Brigadier (some of the best and funniest books about cricket), and he was a prolific radio dramatist. Next year, 2013, will be the tenth anniversary of his death. But in the books about the Brandons he created a world – more a cosmology, perhaps – that mythologises the North even more effectively than the early days of Coronation Street.

If you haven’t read him, maybe you should.

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