The Thuggery Affair (AF 6)

 

My friend Supriya recently visited her family in Bombay, and in a fit of home-sweet-home-ness took this wonderful picture of The Mumbai Mirror.

This was a useful reminder that the next of Antonia Forest’s books contained a) drug-running wildlife b) wordplay (though nothing quite in the league of “bleet(y) hell!”).

If Autumn Term is the Marlow book about genre and Peter’s Room is the one about make-believe, The Thuggery Affair is the one about language. This is to oversimplify, of course, yet language seems to be at the centre of most people’s experience of this book. Forest’s own discussion of the book (again, that useful prologue in the GGB editions) begins with a reference to the self-invented languages of teenagers and a rueful “unfortunately, I think I was the only person who did understand what my characters were saying. But still, try anything once”. Online reviews bear this out by talking constantly about how difficult the language of the “thuggery” is—to the extent that this particular quirk of the book has almost overshadowed the fact that the book is about drug-running pigeons.

A scandaroon, the variety of pigeon used to smuggle drugs. I hope this enhances your understanding of the text.

The plot in brief: Lawrie, Patrick and Peter are home for half-term; Nicola is staying with a friend and Ginty (to Patrick’s disappointment) with her grandmother. A group of young delinquents –you can tell, they wear garish clothes and listen to the Beatles—work nearby, at the home of a woman who breeds pigeons. Two such pigeons are taken down by Patrick’s hawk Regina, and the children discover that one has a capsule filled with white powder attached to its leg. Since all three are rather inept they lose the capsule and decide to split up—Peter will lead the gang (known to the children as “the thuggery”) on a wild goose chase, Patrick will break into the dovecote, and Lawrie, in the absence of the crucial piece of evidence, will take the pigeon’s corpse to the police and explain that it used to have drugs attached. To no one’s surprise, things go horribly wrong.

Further proof that this connection is tenuous, at best. These covers are nothing like one another.

In my head I keep associating The Thuggery Affair with A Clockwork Orange. Burgess’ book was written in 1962, three years before this, and also features teenagers with made-up languages, and, er … the cover of The Thuggery Affair is very orange. This is not a particularly scholarly comparison to make.

But (in part because of the completely spurious connection I’ve made in my head) I can’t help comparing the teenage languages in the two books. And when I do so I find the complaints about the Thuggery being incomprehensible rather strange, because compared to Nadsat this is hardly challenging. I wonder if it has to do with the expectations we bring to a book—perhaps one doesn’t expect a children’s adventure story to require effort. Most of the time the Thuggery’s language is just gloriously stylised:

“Why so much try to decorpse this one flutterlet?” (a character is trying to feed a baby pigeon)

“What met your top, Jukie? It grows a melon.” (Jukie, the leader of the gang, has a bump on his head)

“Belshezzar it” (a message is written on the wall)

For me, the reason this is interesting is that it ties in with a preoccupation with language that runs through the whole book. Forest’s characters don’t just use language, they delight in it. This is clear from the beginning of the book, when we learn how the book gets its name:

That pack of boys the village called them: Patrick, adding one more to the nouns of association listed in The Boke of St. Albans, called them in cheerful exaggeration A Thuggery of Teds.

Shortly after, Patrick gets into an argument with Miss Culver, the breeder of pigeons. Miss Culver is carrying a gun and seems quite threatening, until she realises that Patrick is the son of Anthony Merrick, the local MP.

It would have been one thing apparently, thought Patrick hilariously, for Gunslinger Culver to pepper a peasant, but quite another to murder a Merrick … Good humour and chap-to-chappery were now, apparently, in bloom.

Patrick isn’t the only one of the three main characters who delights in language. Peter later describes someone as “trembling like a naspen”. And then there’s Lawrie.

We already know from the previous books in the series that Lawrie is a good actor, and in The Marlows and the Traitor we see her observing other people’s behaviour carefully for the purpose of future roles (people who she is unlikely ever to act are ignored, obviously). Here, she starts the book by imitating a number of stylistic registers: she speaks “in the manner of any comic admiral of film, radio or television”, in her head she “composed a front page story for the Colebridge and District Mail”. So far this is unsurprising – Peter also likes to imitate a strong accent (seen here, but much more in The Ready-Made Family where it forms a part of the actual plot). What is interesting, though, is Lawrie’s ability to think in a different register as well.

Lawrie’s complete ignorance of everything around her often leads her to be used as the comic relief in these books. Here, she is deputed to smuggle the dead pigeon to the Colebridge police and explain the situation to them; a task which terrifies her. She braces herself by putting on make-up to look like a Bond Girl (Peter is alarmed; she does not look anything like Pussy Galore), but then gets really into the act. To the point that when she meets a member of the gang on the train, instead of trying to avoid him and run to the police station she flirts with him, introduces herself as Sophia, and decides to join him for coffee and a movie. And the reader laughs or rolls her eyes and says Oh Lawrie, because of course Lawrie would be so flaky that she’d forget her mission and go off on a date. It’s only later that we realise that there was a genuine threat to Lawrie—when Jukie casually says of Red Ted “I think mebbe he’ll give the chicklet a real live whirl. If she’s willin’ of course. ‘N then again mebbe even if she’s not”. As in The Marlows and the Traitor, we’ve been reminded that the world isn’t entirely safe even for middle-class English children having Blytonesque adventures. Once again we are pulled, as Peter thinks, into “the midst of an adventure which had turned into something huger and blacker than he had bargained for”.

But back to Lawrie who, being Lawrie, when she inhabits a role really inhabits it. And so Forest shows us an actual shift in her internal monologue. “It was just grotty Sophia had to lug her music-case around with her; and she naturally thought it gear when Red Ted offered to carry it for her.” (Though she retains her love of playing with language, describing “The Beatles merseying from Red Ted’s pocket ‘She loves you—yeh, yeh, yeh’”). It’s only when she panics, comes to her senses and escapes, that the register of her thoughts changes back to the one with which we are familiar.

Which is not to imply that the register with which we are familiar is any sort of default. There’s a moment, quite early on, which is rather telling in this respect. The trio of Patrick, Peter and Lawrie have received a note which the Marlows are unable to decipher, but that Patrick, with his greater knowledge of urban slang, is able to translate:

The carton was empty all right; but on the inside of the flap someone had printed: PLAY IT SEHR CRAFTY NODDY-BOY. IF THIS MOB IS SPRUNG THE CLICK IN THE SMOKE WILL HAND DADDY-O HIS HEARSE TICKET SHARPEST.

Peter read this aloud. Lawrie said, “What’s all that mean?”

In an unnaturally level voice Patrick translated. “Take jolly good care softy. If our lot are caught the part of the gang who operate in London will murder your pa. I wouldn’t know if sharpest means razors or just fast.”

 

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this. For one thing, I’m reading this a good half-century after it was written and that changes a lot of things about context. I invoked Blyton a couple of paragraphs ago; the Famous Five, for example, regularly spend the few days of half-term battling smugglers with no adverse consequences, and saying things like “by jove!” A lot of the language taken for granted by this genre (though can we consider The Thuggery Affair to be in the same genre as Five Get into Trouble?) seems hopelessly archaic to a modern reader. And there are certainly moments in The Thuggery Affair that were probably not meant to be as funny as they are now; at one point Patrick suggests that they might have misheard Jukie’s nickname, and it might be “Junkie”. “Junkie—in their language—means drug addict.” I don’t know how widespread the word was in 1965, and Forest could hardly have predicted that it would become something everyone knew. But I laughed anyway.

But I don’t know if that exchange I quote above can be put down entirely to a disconnect between the world in which it was written and the world in which I am reading it. Because I don’t think Patrick says things like “take jolly good care” on a regular basis. I wonder if the text is laying that extra bit of emphasis on the sort of language that he uses to remind us that that too is not a default but a specific style of speaking associated with specific cultural markers.

Forest often gets dismissed by critics for writing about (since there aren’t enough of those in literature) privileged people having adventures. I do think this is a fair criticism, and I often find myself mocking the supposed poverty of her characters (the poor things cannot afford to buy more horses without selling the family tiara). But in The Thuggery Affair for the first time (and perhaps this has to do with the fact that it was the 60s) she might be doing the same. Twice in the book characters are forced to confront their privilege. First Lawrie, who discovers that the police might seem perfectly friendly and polite to the daughters of naval captains who also own extensive property and yet be hostile and suspicious towards girls in make-up who don’t look like the daughters of naval captains etc. One moment Lawrie is being suspected of being in a rival gang, the next, after a phone call from her mother, she’s being fed cocoa and pork pie.

And then Patrick, who over the course of his and Jukie’s aborted getaway drive learns something of his captor’s history. When Patrick scorns the notion that his father would ask him to commit perjury to salvage his political career, Jukie only replies, “You mean he doesn’t need it. He’s got it all already.” Patrick does say that his father would probably feel the same even if he was running for P.M. (rather telling that this is his definition of having something to lose!), but the reader has been reminded that Patrick’s and Jukie’s circumstances are entirely different. Shortly after, when he tries to express empathy for Jukie because he gets less pocket money than a lot of the boys at his posh school, he is mocked. “Patrick was silent, convinced he really did know how it could be, keeping company with people who had more spending money than you had”, but the reader is not convinced.

Somewhere in The Thuggery Affair‘s engagement with language, then, is there an acknowledgement of some of the series’ own class-related issues, of the constructedness of the norms of the class to which the Marlows, Patrick and most of their genre-contemporaries belong, and of the ways in which language and culture are intertwined? I think there might be, though I’m still not sure how far Forest herself would agree with me. Meanwhile, there are many pigeons.

 

 

*It is quite possible that no Blyton character ever has used that expression, but you know what I mean.

 

6 Responses to “The Thuggery Affair (AF 6)”

  1. Thank you for your fantastic blog and for providing the space to explore Forest’s genius and foibles. That stories written so long ago still resonate today is really rather remarkable. That you are giving them the attention they deserve is great.
    When I first read “The Thuggery Affair”, I was about 12 and I read it when it was first published. Then I thought it one of the most disappointing of Forest’s books and ignored it for about 50 years. However, I recently reread it (and then reread it several more times). I found myself returning to parts of it, off and on, in a way that made me begin to re-evaluate my adolescent opinion.
    Thuggery is certainly the least conventional of her books and quite dissimilar to the rest, despite the cast of most of the usual characters. My early, youthful dissatisfaction came, I know now, from experiencing it as the literary equivalent of a ride in a fairground bumper car..quite jarring. The lingo I found utterly maddening (people didn’t talk like that in Durban!) and it kept getting in the way of the story. And the story’s also non-linear and quite jagged. It also always seemed premised on an absurdity (and still does). All those Scandaroons, all those tiny capsules: so flipping fiddly when you could have probably landed and unloaded kilos of drugs and other booty in thousands of places along Britain’s coastline, especially in those days.
    So, do you think that both Burgess and AF sat at home and invented their languages of dispossessed and angry youth? I like to imagine our Antonia, wearing a Princess Margaret scarf as a disguise, huddled at a little table in the back of a Camden coffee bar, discretely ear-wigging youthful customers and making notes. I hope she did because I really, really want her language to be authentic, the stuff that was spoken on the streets of 60s England. “Top talk-shop zombie” for PM, for example, is wonderful. It both nails the establishment but also uses slang as a cultural weapon.
    Like Patrick uses Rupert to explore notions of treachery in “Peter’s Room” (and that’s one of many discussion I look forward to having with you), I think AF uses the novel to explore and comment obliquely on social issues in 60s Britain and, biased as she is, I think she doesn’t make too a bad job of it, within the confines of her narrow view.
    There are even moments when you feel she has flashes of real sympathy for Jukie. She doesn’t just write him off as a bad ‘un though it’s clear she isn’t going to let him get away with it. She is at pains to clearly point out WHY he ends up the way he does: he’s the orphaned bastard growing up with a violent, abusive grandfather: he’s prickly with rage and resentments. When you look at Jukie, he is actually so very much more the embodiment of Tory Party virtues and values than characters like Peter and Patrick are (or will ever have to be): he’s bright, keenly entrepreneurial, has great managerial skills and is running a successful business. And he doesn’t have too many qualms about being a criminal either! If he hadn’t ended his life wrapped around a tree, he’d probably have made it big in the City.
    The novel was published in 1965. This was one year after the Labour Party ousted the Conservative government. Thus Harold Wilson was the top talk-shop zombie. The tag line in those days was “You’ve never had it so good”. Britain was booming and changing for ever: working-class millionaires were proliferating and breaking down the walls and invading the rarified, class-bound ancient regime. Some of old wealth was going broke too: over-extended landed gentry losing their estates and selling up (or hiring them out for rock festivals). The balance was shifting, the old power was shaking (of course, later the old and new fat cats came to a mutual accommodation). And it’s also the rise of drug culture and youth culture.
    So, is AF a rabid conservative (and I think she was), and is Thuggery her moral fable, her warning, her disgust at watching the old order changing? Is Jukie the Everyman representing all that Forest perceives as going rotten? I dunno, I’d love to ask her!
    Missing from Thuggery are those large, set family conversations at the table (or in the case of “Ready-Made Family”, the bathroom) that she does so superbly in her other Marlow novels. But she more than compensates for this when she is writing Lawrie: from the canoe fantasy to the police station, this is Forest at her fantastic best, don’t you think?
    Lastly: I STILL don’t know how one pronounces “sehr”, a word I have never come across before or after Thuggery…
    Bronwen Kaplan
    24 May 2013

    • I think its inherent absurdity is a big part of the problem– it can be as clever as it likes in terms of narrative structure, character, language, but in my head it will always be “the one with the drug-running pigeons”, which sounds more like a bad episode of Friends than great literature.

      I’m pretty sure that Forest would find my political leanings terribly wrongheaded, and the feeling is mutual, but I also think (possibly I’m biased because I love her work) that she does a very good job of understanding people from very different worlds to her own. So she can write that amazing foxhunting scene in Peter’s Room and still have sympathy for the fox, or write all these comfortable middle-class children and still remind us that they have no business judging Jukie. It’s fascinating- a rabid conservative, as you put it, and her most sympathetic character is the working class boy who takes drugs and steals. I don’t know if that makes her better or worse- if you can understand the people who your ideology affects most, and you can see them as people and you still stick to your ideology, is that worse than the unthinking prejudice that characters like Patrick practice?

      Lastly, I LOVE the image of Forest sitting disguised in coffee bars taking notes on the youth of today! “sehr” seems to mean something like “very” based on Patrick’s ‘translation’, so I’m assuming that the “eh” sound is pronounced like that. But I don’t really know!

      • Surely “Sehr” is just the German for “very”? It’s the sort of scrap of German which would be widely understood because of war films and comics (which were popular at the time, especially with school-boys), even if you had never had a German lesson in your life.

  2. This is my second-least-favorite of the books ( after Run Away Home). I have a very hard time understanding the mentality that says, “I’ve discovered a small-scale drug-running operation; I’m going to bust it at great personal risk.” Why not just give back the capsule and ( as Janice would say) watch the wall? And, of course, if you are determined to narc on your delinquent neighbors, why on earth wouldn’t you just talk to an adult?

    That said, Forest was still at the height of her powers, so even if I think the book itself was a bad idea, there’s a lot of glorious language, especially during Patrick’s ride with Jukie. I think Patrick’s mental refrain of “I met a man this morning, who did not wish to die” works very well.

    • Yeah, I don’t think trying to make sense of this particular book is going to reward anyone. “Lawrie, you can carry this dead bird around,” etc. Still, I suppose if you think of it as a variant on the Plucky Middle-Class Children Foil Gang plot, it’s less startling (and better written).

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