Thursday 8 October 2009

The Semi-Colon, Knives and Collectable Books

Jeremy rang one day to say he was enjoying my short story kNIVES001_thumb3collection Knives* ‘… and I wanted to ask you, Wendy , about a novel by R C Hutchinson that’s mentioned in one of the short stories.’

This short story, Married Life? is a forensic, possibly comic, examination of the long marriage between Imogen and her husband Freddie. Submissive wife Imogen has finally broken out, visited India and made new friends.

…Imogen's new friends considered her very special and treated her tenderly. After six weeks she came back with a notebook full of contact addresses all over the world and some wonderful photographs. Freddie barely glanced at them. He was not interested in these wonders. After all he had not been there. And anyway he’d just acquired a first edition R C Hutchinson in an Edinburgh Oxfam shop. He gloated about it to Imogen. Now that he had every edition of every one of Hutchinson's masterpieces, he could relax…

On the phone Jeremy said he himself had a book by R C Hutchinson and didn’t realise they were collectable.

In fact, many years ago, I actually did know a man who collected RC Hutchinson and had all his first editions. This man even gave me his spares and I now have many – not all – R C Hutchinsons and a few first editions.

Who is this writer? you say. In his time Ray Coryton Hutchinson (1907-1975), was a best selling novelist in the class of post-Edwardian novelists such as H E Bates. He became a fellow of the Royal Society Of Literature, won the WHSmith Literary award in 1966, and was on the Booker shortlist for his posthumously published novel A Child Possessed.

Only connect! Just yesterday I saw that Faber’s inspired new print-on-demand initiative, Faber Finds, is including on their list R C Hutchinson’s Testament, first published in 1939. Set in Russia, the story is structured around the evolving relationship of two very different men - on street corners, on the battlefield, in Russian salons and in prison camps. According to the Faber pitch ‘it is a novel steeped with political ideals, with philosophical truths, and with personal heroism.’ According to me, it’s a well researched, rollicking read with great characters, from a great craftsman. It also looks good in this restrained, handsome edition.

So, in the afternoon I was lurking by my bookshelves and my hand fell on Hutchinson’s novel Elephant and Castle, (A novel set in London; I love London-set novels.) The acknowledgement list alone is a quirky rendering of R C Hutchinson’s London in 1948, the time of writing of this novel.

The opening lines of chapter one of Elephant and Castle - which would never survive the counter-pedantic eagle eye of front line editors in today’s publishing - is a miracle of grammar and syntax which could be an exemplar for any aspiring writer who is confused about semi-colons or punctuation in general. (Many are…)

A beginning writer, journalist, or reviewer could also learn much from the substance of the paragraph.

What do you think?

‘…In the strictest sense, it is impossible to give facts uncoloured by opinion. When a man says ‘We had dirty weather’ you know that he disliked it; another would have said ‘It was fresh and exhilarating, though there was a good deal of rain.’ No one can relate all the circumstances, and those which a man selects, deliberately or not, will owe their inclusion at least a little to his prejudices, as well as his habits in observation and memory. But remember too, that your own prejudices operate all the time. Whatever comes to your mind comes through your own screen of intricate associations: the memory of something said in a schoolmaster’s sarcastic voice; the loneliness of a foreign city; a soldier’s kindness in a railway carriage when the first light was revealing frosted fields; defections and disillusionments. The phrase ‘What I should have done …’ marks, as a rule, a misunderstanding of the nature of things. The largest mistake about truth is to imagine it is simple…’ From The Elephant & Castle by RC Hutchinson


Afternote: Jeremy is not alone. Knives is enjoying positive reactions from all over the place. And my friend Charlie says it’s in big demand in prison.



* My mother Barbara used to say that self praise was no recommendation, but here’s what publisher Peter Mortimer wrote to accompany the review copies of KNIVES:

‘Some of the short stories were published in magazines, newspapers and anthologies; one has, surreally, been transformed into a Manga comic. They are collected in book form for the first time and bring together a dozen tales inspired, as the author herself puts it ‘by the consummate experts on the darker side of experience.’
Novelist Wendy Robertson spent three years working with female prisoners, and though these resulting stories may be dark on one level, on other levels they reflect the author’s take on the recoverability of the human spirit, plus the qualities of stoicism, wit and irony. From plunging cat burglars, hallucinating old
ladies, gender bender confessions, and women seeking fleshpot escapes, these short stories expand Robertson’s already considerable reputation. First book of short stories from one of
the country’s best selling novelists.kNIVES005vERYCLOSE_thumb5

IRON Press
0191 253 1901
5 Marden Terrace
Cullercoats, North Shields
NE30 4PD


  1. I haven't read any Hutchinson. How profound: "The largest mistake about truth is to imagine it is simple…" Love it.
    I love writing like this, yet you are right it would never survive a contemporary editor.

  2. Hey Al

    I often think that some editors underestimate both the literacy and the attention span of the broad range of readers. Sadly many published novels in the mainstream of popular fiction demonstrate this.

    On the other hand we are in modern times so should perhaps write as modern writers and avoid quaint - if technically correct - syntax. It has its opportunities. For example I often now begin a sentence with But, or And, - and find it a great liberation. My teacher would have been very cross...

    Really liked the photos on your last blog post...


  3. A propos, my good friend - novelist and journalist Sharon Griffiths writes to me: ‘I regularly start sentences with And and But. Too regularly, perhaps, I admit. But it inspires a great deal of correspondence from people who were taught that it was incorrect and pounce pedantically on every usage. Bad grammar. Bad style. I should know better, etc etc

    I say nothing, just give them one or two of a thousand or more possible quotations:

    ........And the Lord said unto Noah, Come thou and all thy house into the ark....

    ....And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus...

    ....But behold, the hand of him that betrayeth me is with me on the table.


    ....And did those feet in ancient times.....

    If it’s good enough for them….’


  4. I always sit up and take notice when someone mentions grammar and syntax, although I appreciate that not everyone feels the same way. Back in the 1980s, I joined an international charity as PR director and inherited a team of press officers whose writing skills were abysmal, despite the fact that two of them were English literature graduates. Early on in my tenure, we had a discussion about said writing skills and I dared to mention syntax. 'What's syntax?' asked one of the graduates.

    But there are some who would never let poor writing skills stand in the way of a glittering career in communications; that same press officer went on to hold some very high-powered posts including working for Tony Blair, for a senior Cabinet minister, and for various well-known organisations. (What they lacked in writing skills, they certainly made up for in chutzpah.)

    I have no problem, as you can see, in starting a sentence with a conjunction; context is all. However, I suspect that you do need a half-way decent grasp of the basic rules before you can bend them with confidence. (The Biblical reference will come in very handy the next time someone starts quibbling, so thank you for that.)

    Thank you also for the introduction to R C Hutchinson, about whom I knew nothing - but I do like his style!


    PS Am off to buy a copy of Knives without delay. (I would have written that title in italics but Blogspot won't let me.) OK, I'll stop now.

  5. Dear Boots
    Without being too uppity about it I so agree that you need to know the rules to break them. In any case the inherited structure of our language has a very finctional grace and power all of its own; it is a good tool. But it is evolving, so changes in accepted form do come into their own as literature and society itself changes. We write in the now, not the then.

    My syntax story might interest you. I was about fourteen and had written a story for my English teacher, charging on with my usual passion. He returned it with the comment in the margin, 'Good syntax'. So I had to go and find out what I was good at!
    And that confirmed the innocent notion held from the age of eight that I would be A WRITER.

    I hope you enjoy 'Knives'.


  7. Good God! There are other people who read Hutchinson, too!

  8. Does anyone know anything about R C Hutchinsons first book "Thou Hast a Devil" I have been looking for it for years to no avail.

  9. I have been a fan of RC Hutchinson ever since 1981, thanks to a very strange coincidence. On my seventeenth birthday, March the Ninth, I was browsing in a second hand bookshop in York and saw RCH's novel of that title.I read it in the summer holidays and found it rewarding though a little difficult, a description I would give to most of his novels. I am currently rereading Elephant and Castle and consider it his masterpiece. His humanity,grand scale and insights into the strenght and weakness of humankind make him an unjustly neglecgted author, though trawling round the internet i get a sense he has a small dedicated following. Perhaps he is neglectedbecause his books require a little time and concentration, undervalued commodities today. I am a little surprised that none of his books have been filmed (to my knowledge)). Testament, for example would make a great David Lean type cinema film.I am in the same quandary as the correspondent above; nnever found Thou hast a devil but determined to before I die. Found and read all the others, most of them twice, and will return often. Patrick Martin



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