The last word of the reissue of Mr Nicholas, Thomas Hinde’s exquisitely glum and fearingly funny novel of 1952, is probably a misprint. At least, it is minutely different from the last word in the Penguin book in 1962, the issue which brought Hinde’s consummate first novel to an even more widely appreciative public. One tribute to the novel’s exact art is that it matters whether the book ends, as it did then, with the exchange,
or as it does now:
For the distinction wouldn’t footle. You would have to interpret ‘Hallo dad’ as a tellingly unique and utterly final act of tacit inner rebellion by this son who seethes with dismay at his cracked, ogreish yet commonplace father who has just survived a suicide attempt. You cannot voice the difference between ‘Dad’ and ‘dad’, but you can think it, and in the recesses of your head you can withhold the customary respect that would upper-case your father. If it matters whether a poem by T.S. Eliot says ‘Jew’ or ‘jew’ although the poem cannot say them differently, it could matter exactly how a son is presented as addressing his father even if, or especially if, the distinction would be smoulderingly meant to elude a father’s ears.
In Mr Nicholas, Hinde’s ears remain unsurpassed, by himself or by his contemporary novelists. He is concerned, in the widest and in the most wincingly genteel sense, with what you can and can’t say. The book’s art is also its arc. For with the closing exchange on the brink of the book, this suburban monster of a father whose imminent death by overdose the son had brought himself not just to accept but to respect – comes back from the brink of death to be his old death-dealing self. Within the delicate predatory network of the book we are to tremble back along the lines to an earlier exchange of curbed hostilities, no less banal and no less desolately oppressive but the other way round, when Peter earlier went upstairs to his father who was now exerting all his formidable will-power on bed-ridding himself:
He was lying on his back looking at the ceiling.
‘Hallo, Dad.’ The word embarrassed him and he tried to avoid it, slurred it, and left off the final consonant.
It is characteristic of Hinde’s sense of his responsibilities, and of his dislike of the easy victories of mimicry, that there is no attempt made to reproduce phonetically what Peter does to the word ‘Dad’ in uttering it, no rendering of it as ‘Da’ or ‘Da ... ’ or whatever. For probably Peter, aquiver, is the only person who could ever even notice what he feels himself bound to do with this dreaded unavoidable unloving word of address.
Such is my confidence in Hinde’s vigilant precision in this book that I’d even want to make something out of – or suggest that he has made something out of the most minute effects of punctuation. There is a difference between the comma of ‘Hallo, Dad’ (a pause, not, as it might have been, of tenderness, but of reluctance and embarrassment) and the undeviating impulse within the reply, ‘Hallo Peter.’ That impulse is at work in the final comma-less flatness of their locked, intimate and cordial dislike:
There was no one in the hall, and he went upstairs. His father’s door was wide open, his bedside lamp alight, and he was sitting up looking at a book.
Hinde is masterly in such affianced details. Take the hatefully normal hostility, an aggression which is marked though masked, with which, at a party, the father questions the mother about the phone-call from a son locked out of their house:
‘What did he want to know?’
‘Where we’d hidden the key.’
‘You didn’t tell him?’
‘On the telephone. Mother dear, mother dear.’
‘Oh, was that wrong?’
Peter moved quickly away towards the window curtain.
It is the very full stop after ‘telephone’ which is so lethal and acute. Not, cunningly not, any of the punctuation marks of impeachable anger, but the impeccable obduracy of the flat decorum. Not the rising aggression of a question-mark, following up his previous questions (‘On the telephone?’); not the uneasy assault of an exclamation-mark, giving vent (‘On the telephone!’); not the brooding sequence of ancient resentment, nodding its head (‘On the telephone ...’): but the bitterly unsurprised conclusiveness of a full stop: ‘On the telephone. Mother dear, mother dear.’ The transition is perfect to Mr Nicholas’s ingeminating groan of marital long-sufferance: ‘Mother dear, mother dear.’ Hinde, who thirty years later is still a writer of distinct goodness, akin to Brian Moore in his lucid patience and justice, has done nothing better.
To bring out three books on the same day, as Robert Lowell knew when he promulgated History, For Lizzie and Harriet and The Dolphin, is to ask for comparisons, indeed to cry out for them when some of the work is old, some new – and the more so when, as in Hinde’s case, each book costs the same to the penny. Any reviewer of Mr Nicholas will concede that there is something of Mr Nicholas in any reviewer: ‘his reading was not restful because they were aware that he was hunting for material to quote or contradict.’ It would be pleasant, as well as more interesting, if one could hail Hinde as having now outdone his initial excellence, but the expected and rueful admission seems to me the truth: that the new volume of memoirs, Sir Henry and Sons (which gives, among much else, the real-life family life which was transmuted into Mr Nicholas), though it is stamped with Hinde’s humour and acumen, and his patent decency and veracity, is nothing like as taut and fraught as was Mr Nicholas; and that Hinde’s 15th novel, Daymare, though it has a sane conscience and a real subject (a village community at a time of national chaos and violence), is often willed and staged, and much less truly dramatic than the humdrum undramatised domestic perturbations of Mr Nicholas. In the world which Hinde best knows and most profitably fears, pinpricks are as penetrating as bayonets. When he writes about bayonets, he is less than needling.
Sir Henry and Sons gives us a son’s eye view of a man who commanded boundless bounding energy and eccentricity: mostly maddening, and sometimes mad. The memoir manifests love at unexpected times and in happy shapes; it also, without any cadging or self-belittling, shows the sweet gullibilities of childhood. Hinde’s father was his headmaster, a compacting which makes for comedy and for nightmare, especially when reporting the Headmaster’s Reports. The book is often felicitously exact and tactful, as when it reaches for a simple internal rhyme to evoke good-naturedly the comedy of Hinde’s mother and of her not really being able to manage any such down-to-earth simplicities: ‘Her long feet seem never quite to land where she planned.’ The judicious sentence can land where it planned. Or there is the reminder of how little it takes to turn a word right round – a lot of money, say: ‘She brought him enough money not only to build Darley Ash but to live there in unemployment for the rest of his life, devoting himself to his private passion: the promotion of low-church Anglican missionary societies.’ ‘Unemployment’ is not the word which most of us would have had the wit to employ, and how dextrously it touches the ‘rest’ of his life.
Then there is the assistant headmaster, admirably strange, and seen with the imperturbable curiosity, the cool flatness, of boyhood:
When he bats in staff matches, stumping woodenly and heavily padded to the wicket, I have the same impression of venerable fragility, so that to bowl at him seems not just an affront to his dignity but a threat to his survival. On one occasion a ball does rise and strike him painfully in the moustache. For several minutes he stands there mumbling and spitting blood, but he won’t retire.
‘Stumping woodenly’ is blithely unconcerned about any interference from the language of cricket, and ‘strike him painfully in the moustache’ has a touching and comic directness of gaze, a sequence at once surprising and just-can a moustache feel pain? Or there is the quiet emblem of the venerable schoolmaster who ‘won’t retire’.
Yet the memoir does not have the preter-natural vigilance of phrasing which animates the early novel that these same personal experiences had animated. The memoir’s relaxed manner permits some slackness, not culpable in itself but constituting an admission that the kind of book we are reading makes lesser demands on us, and on its author. Perhaps it is not the author, but someone else along the way in the production of the book, who doesn’t know how to spell the founder of anthroposophy or the leader of the charge of the Heavy Brigade. But it is the author who has difficulties with narrative retrospect. The convention is that the narrative is to be in the past tense (the book begins, ‘The day before the First World War was declared my father joined the Royal Field Artillery’) except when the memoirist thinks of himself back there, when his being present entails the present tense (‘Much later I find the cutting ...’). Such a convention has its serviceable clarity, but Hinde doesn’t have a sufficient variety of supple play with which to stave off the feeling of affectation which hovers round it. More importantly, the convention is not perfectly controlled:
Two years before this, in 1916, he had married. How serious a mistake he came to realise that this had been can be judged from the fact that I am twenty-three before I discovered that he has ever had a wife apart from my mother, and even then it is an aunt who tells me.
How serious a mistake is it that ‘discovered’ should be ‘discover’? Serious enough, in a writer as deserving of close attention as Hinde at his best.
Hinde’s own attention wavers in Daymare. The second page shows his prose as equable as ever but less alert: ‘The old village stood – still stands – around the Common, a long oval of chalky turf now useful only to Miss Winifred Mannerly’s three white-bearded goats, mown fortnightly ...’ Goat-mowing, a village ritual like swan-upping? ‘With a reckless dash the Reverend Little has come close. Not more than thirty-two, his long hairless fingers are white even in this weather.’ When Tennyson published the lines,
If my lips should dare to kiss
Thy taper fingers three-times-three,
he added an erratum-slip: ‘for three-times-three read amorously,’ since he had not meant to muster a nine-fingered mutant. Can the Reverend Mr Little have had a mere 32 hairless fingers?
The prose of Daymare lacks assurance, leaves a reader unsure just how to take it – and this without any compensating depth of mystery. There is a commune-type threesome. First, Clive. Second, Bruce:
Bruce, short, comfortable, lazy, who owns a spinning-wheel and cultivates a garden, doubtless full of Indian hemp grown from budgie seed. And Drusilla, his fellow cultivator in what they so astutely transformed from student digs, with clear purpose and determination, into a commune which might last for ever. She is already known to sleep with both of them at once since Mrs Pontypridd forced a tea-drinking intimacy on them and spread the news that they have only one bed.
‘If you could call it a bed!’ Mrs Pontypridd says, in a tone of high distress, screwing together her bright red seventy-year-old lips ...
Are we meant to feel an astute transforming of ‘garden’ and ‘cultivator’ into ‘digs’? If not, the prose is not astute; if so, to what end? And are we meant to hear something in ‘screwing together’, given the sequence ‘sleep with both of them’, ‘intimacy’, ‘one bed’, and given that the novel has a character who wears a T-shirt with ‘a carpenter’s screw set wordlessly at the centre of a capital U’? But would the pun be worth the carriage?
The excitements of Hinde’s books are not small but they begin in small turns of phrase, in glinting rather than in lightning. All three of these books speak repeatedly of excitement, but it is Mr Nicholas which most incites excitement. Daymare, which deals in apocalypse now and in England, is perpetually obliged to speak of excitement in a way which puts its own enterprise at risk, as if soliciting admiration for its own excitingness; and it does not have anything other than a simple stimulus/response idea of excitement to work with or from. Increasingly, it falls back upon excitement as something which is felt to be increasing. ‘As the excitement increases he searches among the crowd.’
In theory, the local excitements – a village cut off from the outside world of anarchic emergency, the BBC gone dead, a water shortage, old affections cracking and old enmities surfacing – are all framed within the central character’s genial credulities and liberal self-reproaches. Early in the book, he, a sane headmaster, disparages the media’s excitements as distracting attention from ‘life’s real test: its long-drawn-out unexcitingness’. By the end of the book, guilt has pricked him into an inordinate self-rebuke, as he revolves ‘his true weakness: a preference for comfort to excitement, laughter to anger, ease to pain, maybe ultimately death to life’. But in theory is what this novel is. For the antitheses are too simple, too schematic.
There is not only a subtler but a stronger excitement in the chintzed world of Mr Nicholas. It, too, speaks obsessively of excitement, but with a grasp of the obsession, with an evocation of how odd excitement is, how little it may be related to anything obviously exciting. Conversation with Mr Nicholas was enough to complicate excitement. ‘At the first hint of co-operation with his excitement his father lost interest.’ The excitement is authentic, and so is its draining. ‘He felt the usual depressing excitement.’ Or this: ‘And Peter waited for the familiar, “Come and speak to me, old boy,” and the familiar sinking excitement.’
All good writers have the gift of making familiar things strange, and strange things familiar. Hinde has it in the form of making familiar things exciting, yet not so much in the further form of making exciting things familiar. Take two moments which are dogged by excitement. From Daymare, the dog Potter, while an ugly fight is in progress:
‘Devil take the hindmost, eh?’ Real and clear, the message has reached Nigel Horrocks; possibly the first person it has – but he needs it confirmed. ‘Properly put the cat among the pigeons.’ He is distracted by Potter who has been snuffling in the region of his feet and now, infected by the general excitement, takes his right trouser leg in his teeth and tries to drag it away, as if it is something he would prefer to eat in private.
‘Bad dog, drop ’ems.’
The collocation of the dog with cat among the pigeons is arch, and ‘infected by the general excitement’ has nothing in its neighbourhood which can animate the cliché in ‘infected’. But in Mr Nicholas, there is the dog Sambo:
The dog came behind her wagging its tail, curling its neck and back, its feet pattering with excitement and friendliness on the linoleum. It knew it should not be there but no one had told it to go, and before she could put down the tray it had jumped on to the bed and run up the blankets, its tongue out, trying to lick. Mr Nicholas pushed the sheets at it, climbing back on to the pillow, holding his head away turned sideways against the wall, keeping it off with both hands outstretched.
‘Get him away mother, get him off my sheets, mother.’
He caught his breath rhythmically, almost as if he was laughing, but there was no suggestion of mirth. The dog licked at his hands but presently he caught it by the loose skin at the side of the neck and held it tight so that it stopped licking and yelped. Mrs Nicholas took it on to the landing and shooed it downstairs.
The play of ‘excitement and friendliness’ against ‘on the linoleum’ is perfectly judged (what is more averse to excitement and to friendliness than linoleum?). But it includes tension, danger, and unfriendly excitement. Mr Nicholas, hypochondriacal and paranoid and self-destructive, does not die. The dog it is that dies, put down by Mr Nicholas’s ruthless exasperation and by what is called (in Sir Henry and Sons) ‘my father’s dog-destroying instincts’. It is excitement in the immediate vicinity of dependable cool linoleum, not in apocalyptic urgencies, at which Thomas Hinde is painfully adept.