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.
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.
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.