Mr Finchley Discovers His England – Victor Canning
I have been musing why the interwar years saw such a prolific outburst of what might be termed escapist literature, particularly detective fiction and comic writing. It may well have been something to do with the absence of alternative popular entertainment, radio was in its infancy and television a distant spot in a cathode ray tube. It might have been a conscious attempt to blot out the horrors of the recent world war, the grim economic realities that were prevailing and the rise of fascism. Who knows? What is for sure is that there is a glut of literature, popular in its time, waiting to be rediscovered.
Victor Canning is best known as a prolific writer of novels and thrillers, he was a wartime friend of Eric Ambler, in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. However, his first book, published in 1934 in the UK and two years later as Mr Finchley’s Holiday, was this rather charming and funny journey of self-discovery. The protagonist, Mr Finchley, in early drafts his name was Mr Pitcheley, is an unmarried, chubby, dyspeptic solicitor’s clerk who had never taken a holiday. The death of his boss and Mr Sprake’s assumption of the reins of power changes all that. Finchley’s dutiful service is rewarded with a three-week holiday.
And where better in the 1930s to spend three weeks than in Margate? Having booked his accommodation at the Kent resort, Mr Finchley sets off for his holiday. But he never gets there. Whiling away some time before catching his train, he is prevailed upon to look after a Bentley. Feeling a little tired, Finchley stretches out in the back of the car and, surprise, surprise, finds that it has been stolen and that he has now been kidnapped by a gang of criminals. And so begins a series of improbable escapades.
To modern eyes there may be too much easy stereotyping, people are labelled lunatics and gypsies, and an underlying moralistic tone in the book, but it is an easy and engaging read. Finchley manages to escape from the clutches of the criminal gang, and realising that his plans to enjoy his holiday in Margate, sets out west, reaching Land’s End before returning home. Along the way, he has adventure after adventure. He encounters many people who in one way or another have fallen on hard times and are living an itinerant lifestyle, including gentlemen of the road aka tramps, artists, travellers and gypsies. To make ends meet he takes a job at a fair and then sells petrol. He takes part in the obligatory game of cricket and towards the end of the book, becomes the innocent party to a smuggling expedition.
What is surprising is the dark undercurrent to life on the road. Finchley is forever being threatened with violence, on occasions threats turn to blows, and is nearly strangled to death. There is a dark side to the bucolic idyll that Canning paints. The humour is gentle and the book, effectively a comedic travelogue, reminded me of Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat but, in truth, it is not as funny.
Journeys which transform people’s lives are a modern-day trope, I usually blanche when I hear someone say they have been on a journey, but this is a fair summary of Finchley’s experiences. As Canning wrote, “he still suffered from indigestion. He was still bald. He still loved his pipe. Yet he was different…” There are two more books in the Mr Finchley series which I will probably read at some point. Farrago Books are to be commended for bringing this thirties’ gem back into print.