Top positive review
eventually contriving to be alone with Susie - although ‘I didn’t enjoy it much
on 21 March 2016
Taylor, DJ. At the Chime of a City Clock
DJ Taylor, renowned as a literary critic and biographer, shows in this novel that he is equally at home in writing historical mystery novels. Set in 1930s London Taylor adopts a mainly first person narrative using down-and-out James Ross as his focus. Ross is a failed writer seeking to remain afloat by selling carpet cleaner on a door-to-door basis. He owes his landlady rent and consoles himself at the Wheatsheaf, reflecting on past loves and the possibility of making out with Susie, who works in the office of Mr Rasmussen, a wanted criminal. Susie is a delightful if unreliable young woman who admires James mainly it seems for being a writer of sorts.
This gritty novel is set in the Depression of the Thirties, long before the welfare state, when a man needed all his wits about him to survive. Most of the chapters are introduced by epigraphs of advice from the Abraxas Salesman’s Handbook, pep talks acting as an ironical contrast to the reality of life on the streets. The reader is taken to dog-racing at White City, witnesses a cat-burgler and his mates at work over a jeweller’s and finally joins Ross at a country house party at Newcome Grange, where Susie and Rasmussen occupy themselves on a higher floor, while Ross hangs about chatting to society ladies, eventually contriving to be alone with Susie - although ‘I didn’t enjoy it much. But then I never do.’
At the Chime of a City Clock is not a success story and neither does it have a happy ending. James returns to his memories, receives a letter from his ex-fiancée, but is unimpressed. He returns to his landlady, has a few poems accepted for The Blue Bugloss, which pays its contributors with Coutts and Co cheques, ‘which impresses the old lady no end.’ We leave James Ross before the final chapter with his poem published in the New English Review, December 1931, concluding with these unsentimental lines:
I was taught to believe in a better age
That had been before and would come again
Settled instead for a living wage
An English sky, and English rain.
Meanwhile Mr Rasmussen stows away with a Miss Chanberlain. Telling her he will now go into politics. ‘There’s no money to be made in business any more.’ He watches her appreciatively as she throws overboard a note from a presumed admirer and ‘A moment or two later they went below.’ Cynical, but true to life as we know it.