Top positive review
on 16 November 2015
The life of the author William Newton, the pen-name of Harley Street doctor Kenneth Newton, 1927-2010, would make a fascinating novel in its own right and his obituary is certainly worth reading.
This short whimsical book was written during his retirement and published in 2003. It is the literary equivalent of a naïve painting where the vitality and overall impression in the crafting overcomes limitations of dialogue, description, plot and authenticity. If, however, the reader suspends belief on almost every page then there is a freshness and innocence that is very refreshing.
The book is set in the years leading up to, and during WWII. The narrator, Wilfred Scrutton, and his elder brother, Duncan, live in a big house with their remote parents and the female staff. The boys are left on their own for long periods, collecting butterflies and stealing chickens; Duncan hunts small animals with his catapult and Wilfred cooks them, and so an inseparable closeness develops that survives Duncan’s severe illness and resulting dumbness.
Following their mother’s departure from the home, their relations with their father deteriorate and they decide to leave home taking their limited savings with them, spurred on by an advertisement selling old London trams for just £2. Their journey results in the purchase of a horse-drawn tram and an old horse along with whom comes a friendly mongrel.
The boys renovate the tram and carry passengers to and from Canterbury until they come to the attention of the police but are acquitted when a KC, related to one of their regular passengers, points out that horse-drawn trams do not come under the terms of the charge. They reluctantly move on to Worthing, having picked up a part-Romany girl, Hatty, who joins them in establishing a new route along the sea front. On the way they meet a rich Austrian, Mr Schwayder, straight out of central casting, who happens to be an avid butterfly collector. This mutual interest results in his buying an old electric tram and helping the youngsters to comply with all the necessary legal and council requirements.
The coming of war is graphically described and the three end up working for the navy by moving the tram to the head of the pier and converting it to a signaling station for off-shore boats. They do this so well that their exploits come to the attention of the locals and, when Duncan downs a Stuka with his catapult [it is that kind of book], to that of the national press and the Royal Family.
There are traces of Enid Blyton and Richmal Compton in this story that eventually ends up describing what happened to the characters and especially the narrator. Wilfred ends up as an eminent doctor so one suspects that there are elements of autobiography in the story. Some of the characters are real – Dr Archie McIndoe, the plastic surgeon who recommends Wilfred for medical school, and Mr Parker, owner of a Worthing department store who was later instrumental in developing the Parker- Knoll armchair.
For a reader in his 70s, there were many references that took me back to my childhood days. Newton’s inexperience shows in the two dimensional nature of his characters and the absence of any emotional or psychological underpinning of their adventures. Having introduced Hatty into the story he really has no idea what to do with her until the very end. This was certainly an era of naivety, but even so some exploration of the darker episodes would have offered a contrast to the lighter moments.
However, the normal critical process is suspended in the face of an octogenarian imagining the life of Wilfred who, in turn must imagine the thoughts and life of his non-speaking brother. At the very end the older Wilfred describes two episodes when he returns to the locations described in the boys’ story. The results are not hard to imagine but are rather delicately described.
This book could be read by readers of all ages but the details of trams, preparations for the war and the consequent aerial and sea activities would probably be appreciated best by those who can remember them.