Morley Charles is a liar, not in the “attacks could be launched in as little as 45 minutes” sense – but in a more DC Thompson-esque way, fibbing and pretending to be foreign to battle the insecurities of starting secondary school. Although having the odd drink, and fantasising about seeing the next-door neighbour in the bath isn’t quite Winker Watson material. Careless Talk, his second adventure reads very much as a comic – apart from the undertones of self abuse and the way the insecurities of youth are a lot closer to the surface.
The heroes of The Beano are a way beneath young Morley too, who prefers Huck Finn, even if he does know more about them from his encyclopedia than actually reading Twain. It’s doubtful that he has much knowledge of the Mississippi when even Nechells is a far off place to be thought of with a little wonder.
Although the book is defiantly and actively set in Birmingham, in order to get past the Alton Douglas factor, of photocopies of bus tickets as the past I felt I needed a little outside help. To that end I forced the novel on my Dad, who if a little younger than our protagonist would be the closest I could get in a hurry (and for no pay too). He played his working class credentials first: “a house with a bathroom and an airing cupboard in the 40s – luxury! We still had back-to-backs in real Brum, in Small Heath, Bordesley and Aston with outside toilets into the 60s.”
“It’s set in the back end of Northfield, but it’s not really about Brum, and could have been set anywhere in England. Maybe it’s just name-dropping like the pubs – the Villa Tavern, Beehive, the Old Crown, they are still there so you can relate it back to them.”
This isn’t a bad thing as such, it’s a comic novel, not a local history text – I’m a great promoter of the idea that Birmingham needs its literary heritage bolstered – until they don’t become books “about Brum”, just books, and Birmingham is as mainstream a location for fiction as London or New York.
The book is very funny, and holds the right side of the line between bringing the past alive and simple Heartbeat-style nostalgia. The jacket features a glowing quote from David Nobbs (Tindal St are very good at getting these) and the book is Nobbsian – particularly Second from Last in the Sack Race with its similar themes of a child struggling to make his way in a confusing world, with class and the moral confusion of war hanging overhead. It reaches the heights of some of Nobb’s work too, if not quite the dizzying ones of Reggie Perrin.
Another solid Tindal Street release then, and if nothing groundbreaking, it is proof that “a nice whimsical story, very easy going” (my Dad again) can have high standards as well as the odd refreshingly lowbrow joke – and local to boot. One for your parents’ Christmas present, but read it yourself first without breaking the spine first.