Monday, 30 September 2013

Hidden Lives by Douglas Adamson

Reviewer  - Dennis Hamley

Take your minds back to the early work of the late Tom Sharpe: those chaotic, riotous over-the-top comedies which nevertheless contained a fierce criticism of society, its hypocrisies, its excesses, its mendacities, its illusions.  Think of Wilt, The Great Pursuit, Porterhouse Blue.  Did you read them at one satisfied sitting, usually punctuated by rolling round the floor in helpless laughter? You didn't? Well, what's wrong with you then?

But if you did, then you're in luck.  Tom Sharpe is reincarnated in the form of Douglas Adamson and he lives in Nidderdale in the Yorkshire Dales.  And he has invented a Yorkshire town, Windelton, a place of Absurdities, behind which are the ghostly lineaments (if you look carefully, you can just see them) of nice Yorkshire towns like Ilkley or Skipton.  But, unlike them, Windelton is a God-awful place with what seems a particularly dreadful micro-climate and inhabited by comic monsters in human shape, every bit as farcically extreme as Skullion, Zipser and Mrs Biggs, Blott, the long-suffering Wilt, his  wife (brilliantly played in the film, as I remember, by Alison Steadman) and their appalling children.  

Windelton.  If you can imagine an unholy cross between Cranford and Royston Vasey, you won't be far wrong.

Hidden Lives (The Windelton Stories)

The novel is set in the 60's and depicts that decade's clash of values with cosmic explosiveness.  It opens with Harry Webster, the local newspaper editor, furious that the biggest story in Windelton since he can remember has arrived - and he is forbidden to print it.  It ends with Harry Webster dead drunk in a pub after celebrating his Press award for his story The 24 hours that shook Britain. 

The main character, if one can be picked out from this riotous journey from A to Z, is Gerald Astle, the bank manager.  This pillar of the community has a shocking buried life.  He sired an illegitimate son with his former secretary, Valerie Harper (though by the time we meet him such rakish behaviour is rather hard to believe, by us and, more significantly, by him and, especially, Valerie).  He keeps his secret by funding them both from funds misappropriated from the account of the richest client of his bank, Marjorie Nelson, brewery heiress and founder of the Windelton Festival of the Arts, an event round which much of the novel's action coalesces.  

Meanwhile, Sir Toby Inchdale defends ancient privileges fiercely while his son Jasper runs riot through the town, causing chaos with cheerful amorality. A chance - and very embarrassing - meeting between Astle and Sir Toby in a fishing hotel in the well-named Scottish village of Inverhapless has a crucial effect on the plot. Astle's greatest ambition is to get away from his overbearing wife and escape to South America with Valerie and son.  This needs more money than even Marjorie's account can provide.  So the stage is set for robbery, inadvertent death, social earthquake and an onset of even more bizarre characters. Among so many, one I liked in particular was the Reverend Max, surely the maddest vicar in all literature and, if replicated, the gravest threat to organised religion the world has ever seen.

By the end of the novel, when its insistent but surreal logic has been fully worked through, I was left quite breathless - and anxious for more. Douglas Adamson has a real comic talent. Already the next instalment of the absurdities in Windelton is on the way and I'll be downloading it on my Kindle the moment it appears.

Dennis Hamley