Undoubtedly the writer John Murray is a gracious, gentle and generous man in real life, but in his books he does disputatiousness particularly well. He is terrific with the withering dismissal, the waspish phrase. Here he is talking about a character in Reiver’s Blues (a far from everyday tale of cooks, thieves, and lovers) whom he nicknames Loon Cheng (but is actually a guy called Henry who works in a bookshop in Langholme in the Debatable Lands), a former shepherd from Essex who suffers from MS and is a really menacing bore:
“All at once I saw Loon Cheng for what he was and would always be, tragedy or not. H.B. Hawkes had faced the extremes of experience, location, occupation, mortality and immortality and had chosen to take the lower path of the truly competent fool. He ousted mystery with Radio 4. He filled pregnant silences with abortions of babble. He was full of anecdote but the tales left no tang. He knew everybody and had been everywhere but knew nobody and need never have left his house. He took stunning photographs but had only looked at them the once.”
In later books John serves up some terrific splenetic rants. Joe Gladstone, the narrator in The Legend of Liz & Joe, is described as being a “monomaniac ranter” given to displays of “ugly choler” when in “unashamed didactic mode”. Joe specialises in opinions. By trade he is an unsuccessful cookery writer, a luxury subsidised for many years by his interior designer wife Liz. Fortuitously Joe inherits a fortune, and is able to run an exclusive gourmet guest house in the Debatable Lands, where visitors are vetted extremely harshly. The price is low but the fabled exclusivity is designed to keep dull people away.
We get to see a rejection letter Joe sends to a particularly persistent applicant who seems at pains to point out how cultured he is. Joe in his written assault asks: “Why do you not go to the public library and search intently along its shelves sampling page by page what might be good and might be bad, using your own brain and your own coordinates to assess and discriminate?” And he rants against the type of person who tries to keep up with what’s on the Booker shortlist or has been well-reviewed in the broadsheets, that type of middle-class cultured conventionality, the type of people who would not on impulse read a book by a foreign author or an old novel. And particular scorn is reserved for those who join book clubs.
Book clubs are just one of numerous bees in the Joe Gladstone bonnet, or as he puts it: “One of the bees in the numerous hives owned by a notional apiarist magnate, all of which corresponds, to sustain the metaphor, to the bonnet of yours truly”. Other subjects Joe gets his teeth into are vegetarian cooking, cheap meat production, and his son’s job as manager of an arts centre, pragmatically putting on tribute acts and clairvoyants to fill the venue on a regular basis. His son had once been a promising young anarchist but, in Joe’s words, “metamorphosised into his present ossification as a Wiltshire market town Civic Centre arts manager”.
The nature of comedy is another subject Joe holds forth on, and it is not hard to imagine he echoes John Murray’s own sentiments when he says: “The truly comic conforms to the dimensions of the soul, meaning it is deep and is always in a reversible equilibrium with the tragic or the sorrowful. I am currently in unashamed didactic mode, so let me tell you that my hero Charles Dickens is one of those rarities, the truly comic, because Charles Dickens among other things plumbs the depths of the grotesque, the cruel, the deformed, the desolate, the desperate and the lunatic, the fearful crenellations of the immeasurable because infinite soul.”
He continues: “Whereas e.g. Messrs. Clive James, Ben Elton not to speak of ten thousand apprentice ‘new’ or ‘alternative’ comedians, no matter how hard they sweat, will never be truly comic, meaning truly funny, because they are far too infatuated with the merely associative one-liner. The one-liner alas will never be anything but an indication of shallow breath and ideation, something that comes and goes like froth on the sea or like a monotonous hiccup. The truly comic is all about deep breath, expansiveness, hugeness, a straining and intimation towards that which is limitless (q.v. Dickens, Rabelais, Flann O’Brien, and unfortunately not many more).”
In the preceding book, A Gentleman’s Relish, there is a lovely passage where John’s narrator George Geraghty listens to a Radio 3 documentary on George Grosz, “one of my crucial influences when I was a precociously successful and gleefully savage young cartoonist”. George also wrote a slim book on Grosz, back in 1949, but he is left out of the radio documentary, and suffers from “the unglamorous and fatuous anguish of being so comprehensively ignored”.
Here he sounds like the poet Francis Campion, in Shena Mackay’s Heligoland, and no doubt their paths crossed in Fitzrovia or at the Nautilus near Norwood. George consoles himself by declaiming: “The wretched producer had gone for a cross between an avant-garde sound collage and too close parody of The Navy Lark and I hoped the bugger would be the first to be sacked in any future exercises in BBC downsizing.”
Meanwhile Murphy’s Favourite Channels contains some splendid John Murray rants about agit-prop theatre and soaps. The narrator Roe has at one time a highbrow wife for whom soaps and old sit coms (like George & Mildred) are homeopathic relief, and Roe’s ranting can come across as “arrogant bloody hectoring” by a snob sneering at what others love. He finds his own salvation in digital TV, and wonders how he survived without it: “In those dim pre-satellite days before The Year of the Total Eclipse, I had no matchless toy that could both divert and educate”.
With his remote control held in his hand he could now battle around the world geographically, politically, comprehensively, which was something of a miracle as: “Somewhere around the end of 1990, it hit me with a terrible jolt that, day by day, month by month, year by year and channel by terrestrial channel, there was nothing worth watching on the bloody television. By that date they were crudely and ruthlessly obliterating the idea of original one-off dramas, even on the august BBC2 and the once courageous Channel 4.”