Norman Collins, writer, sometime publisher with Gollancz, creator of the Left Book Club series of books and was later in charge of BBC Radio's Light Programme. Later still, he was controller of television, when we only had the BBC. A single television channel. And even later, he helped form the Independent Television Authority.
In other words, this was a rather busy man, who nevertheless wrote 16 novels and 2 plays.
This particular novel, published in 1945, and starting during the phony peace, but with the potential for war as an undercurrent, and ending during the Blitz, is a veritable house brick at well over 700 pages, and in fairly small print too. Though it fairly whirls absorbingly along, with a terrific mix of memorable, believable `characters' - all pretty well ordinary working class Londoners. There is crime, - a central crime, and we know who did it, - there are romances, some of which are doomed to fail, others of which are more hopeful - there is seediness, there is deception, class-consciousness, socialism and fascism on the streets, penury, near-penury, greed - and oodles of affection for London itself, for ordinary people living ordinary lives, and displaying all the wonderful combination of nobility, generosity and mean-mindedness which we all do, all-mashed up together.
Collins takes a Kennington House, 10 Dulcimer Street, whose widowed owner lets out rooms. Under the one roof are the Jossers - an clerk on the verge of retirement, his wife and their office worker daughter. There is an ageing ex-`actress' now a cloakroom attendant at a seedy club, there is a devout widow and her grown-up motor mechanic son, with impossible aspirational dreams. There is an overweight man, moving from unskilled job to unskilled job, with adenoids and an obsession with food. There is the money counting, terrified of poverty landlady, inhabiting the meanest room in the house so she can let the rest And there is also another room to let, waiting on a new tenant .............
Out of this motley crew of characters Collins weaves a satisfying, well crafted, most enjoyable tale.
This is my version of a cracking good read. Lots of wonderful humour, sharp observation - the reader rather knows from the off that there is a warmth and kindness, a wit and tenderness, - `a right rollicking good read'
I've come to this reasonably hot on the heels of reading or re-reading Patrick Hamilton. It is another of the titles which Penguin re-released in their `Modern Classics' within the last decade, many of them, like this, wonderfully well written `minor classics' which sounds derogatory, but is kind of accurate. Collins in certainly not an Orwell, not a Graham Greene - but this is also miles away from disposable, forgettable, fiction