Christina Koning

Novelist and short story writer.

‘Down the hatch’ – a brief history of the cocktail

It’s summer, it’s hot, and I’m up to my eyes in researching the next book… Happily, it doesn’t always have to be the heavy stuff. Today I’m looking into cocktails – specifically, those popular between the ‘Jazz Age’ of 1925 or thereabouts, and the early 1930s. In this endeavour, I’ve been assisted by a book, which, although published in 1949, still has about it the raffish feel of that earlier time. It’s my father’s well-used copy of the Esquire Handbook for Hosts, and it contains everything one could possibly want to know about… well, being a host. To this end, it offers chapters on cooking – provocatively titled ‘the world’s best chefs wear pants’ – on keeping one’s guests amused during the hours between cocktails and dinner (card games of all sorts, from Gin Rummy to Poker, feature here) and on ‘what the well-dressed host will wear’ (‘your double chested dinner jacket of the same midnight blue as the dress trousers is always in good taste’). But the main point of the book is – not to put too fine a point on it – the drink.

Here are chapters on knowing your wines, on mixing a punch ‘to bowl you over’, on fixing a ‘highball’, and on making the perfect mint julep. There is even a section for teetotallers, as well as one for the inevitable morning-after hangover cure. But the sections which interested me are the ones that deal with the cocktail, in all its variety. So here’s the Manhattan – this particular version an eye-watering concoction of ‘4 parts Rye or Bourbon to 1 part Italian Vermouth’, stirred, not shaken and poured into a glass with a cherry or ‘preferably, a twist of lemon peel’. Here’s the Old Fashioned, which seems to consist mainly of Angostura Bitters, sugar, and orange zest; the Daiquiri (fresh lime juice, Bacardi rum, ice and sugar); the Gimlet (3 parts dry gin to 1 part Rose’s lime juice) and of course the Martini. This classic drink, as most aficionados will know, has many variations, but the classic, as given in the Handbook, is 1 part French Vermouth to 2 parts gin, served in a cocktail glass with a green olive or a twist of lemon. The Gibson, otherwise called a ‘Very Dry Martini’, is a lethal sounding combination of 1 part Vermouth to 5 parts gin, served with a cocktail onion…

The list of evocative sounding names goes on: the Pink Lady (gin, egg white, lime juice and grenadine), the Whisky Sour (lemon juice, sugar and bourbon), the Manhattan (orange bitters, vermouth and rye or bourbon), and something called ‘Death in the Afternoon’ – a mixture of champagne and absinthe – which was apparently a favourite of Ernest Hemingway’s… Needless to say, I haven’t tried all these drinks – or at least, not all at once – but reading my father’s cherished ‘how to’ book on being a good host had given me an insight into a long-lost world. It was a world of elegance, and sophistication – of Jay Gatsby’s ‘blue gardens’ with their ‘whisperings and… champagne’ and ‘yellow cocktail music’ – but it was also a world of excess, and desperate gaiety, and borderline alcoholism. One only had to think of Lady Brett, in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, with her cropped hair and her sporty clothes, and her fondness for getting ‘tight’. Or Fitzgerald’s Pat Hobby. Or Waugh’s brittle and affected Bright Young Things in Vile Bodies… Alcohol and literature have always had a close association, and never more so than in the hey-day of the cocktail – which, roughly speaking, lasted from 1920 to the early 1960s.

The earliest use of the term ‘cocktail’ dates from much earlier – the beginning of the nineteenth century – and drinks such as the Sazarac, a mixture of brandy, bitters and absinthe, were popular from the 1850s onwards. But it wasn’t until much later – after the First World War, in fact – that the idea of mixing one’s drink of choice with sweet or ‘dry’ mixers, really took off. The first cocktail party was apparently held in St Louis, in May 1917 – perhaps as a ‘send-off’ to some of those brave ‘Doughboys’ going of to fight in France – but the full impact of what newspapers of the time came to describe as the ‘cocktail habit’ wasn’t felt until after the war, and the imposition of Prohibition in 1920, across the United States. During this period, which lasted until 1933, drinkers had to take their pleasures illicitly, in the notorious ‘speakeasies’, where illegally produced ‘bathtub gin’ and other horrors, would be mixed with sweet-tasting liqueurs, and chilled with lots of ice, to mask the taste. In Europe, where no such restrictions existed, the craze nonetheless caught on, and soon the ‘cocktail hour’ became an established fixture of any smart social circle, celebrated by writers of the period from P.G. Wodehouse to T.S. Eliot. In Carry on Jeeves, we first meet Bertie Wooster when he is recovering from a night of excess drinking concoctions of the sort enthusiastically described in another Wodehouse novel, Uncle Fred in Springtime: ‘champagne… liqueur brandy, armagnac, pummel, yellow liqueur, and old stout, to taste…’

 

Then he seemed to flicker, and wasn’t there any longer, I heard him moving about in the kitchen, and presently he comeback with a glass on a tray.

‘If you would drink this, sir,’ he said, with a kind of bedside manner, rathe like a royal doctor shooting the bracer into the sick prince. ‘It is a little preparation of my own invention. it is the Worcester Sauce that gives it its colour. The raw egg makes it nutritious. The red pepper gives it its bite. Gentlemen have told me they have found it extremely invigorating after a late evening.’

I would have clutched at anything that looked like a lifeline that morning. I swallowed the stuff. For a moment I felt as if someone had touched off a bomb inside the old bean and was strolling down my throat with a lighted torch, and then everything seems suddenly to get all right. The sun shone in through the window; bird twittered in the tree-tops; and generally speaking, hope dawned once more.

‘You’re engaged!’ I said, as soon as I could say anything.

 

Chin-chin!

 

 

How I learned to love the Bloomsbury Group

I must confess that I started watching ‘Life in Squares’, the new three-part drama about the Bloomsbury Group, which was recently shown on BBC2, with considerable reservations. What on earth was there left to say about these – to be frank – rather self-indulgent and privileged people, that hadn’t already been said in a host of books by and about them, and latterly, in films and television programmes in which the whole gang – the Woolfs, the Bells, Duncan Grant, Keynes, Strachey, Roger Fry – were made much of? Wasn’t it time to call for a moratorium on the Bloomsburies and all their acolytes, past and present? From which it may be obvious that, with certain honourable exceptions (yes, I mean you, E.M. Forster), I’m not a fan of this particular ‘set’, whose achievements, though undeniably impressive, seem to me to have been over-valued, to the detriment of other, no less impressive, talents in twentieth century Art and Literature.

 

‘Life in Squares’, I thought, would be just another breathless hagiography, celebrating the already over-celebrated lives of the Blessed Virginia and her crowd. I promised myself I’d give it ten minutes, and then switch over to something more enjoyable. An hour later, I was still watching – and unashamedly riveted by – the successive dramas unfolding in Amanda Coe’s treatment of the lives of what was then a disparate group of Cambridge friends (and their sisters), meeting for tea and chat about art and books, in the Gordon Square house belonging to the orphaned Stephen siblings. With so many characters to incorporate – the list above is only partial, leaving out quite a few of the era’s major figures (no mention of D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, or Wyndham Lewis) – Coe wisely chose to focus on the central relationship, between Virginia Stephen (later Woolf), and her sister Vanessa. Interestingly enough, and despite Virginia Woolf’s far greater posthumous fame, it is Vanessa who emerges as the more dominant character. From her impetuous – and soon to be regretted – marriage to the philandering Clive Bell, to her no less extravagant love for the painter Duncan Grant, she comes across as passionate, headstrong and likeable.

 

Part of this is due, no doubt, to Phoebe Fox’s sympathetic portrayal – helped by her strong physical likeness to the beautiful Vanessa. Nor is she the only piece of great casting in this superior mini-drama: James Norton gave a wonderfully dissolute performance as Duncan Grant, convincing this viewer, at least, to reconsider him, not only as an artist, but as a key figure in what was to become a kind of blueprint for the Bohemian lifestyle, as the Bloomsburies metamorphosed into the ‘Charleston set’. Having visited Charleston – home to the Bells and Duncan Grant – and Monk’s House, at Rodmell, where the Woolfs established themselves during the same period, I was delighted to see both places featuring strongly in this television drama. That gave me another reason for continuing to watch, as well as the fact that I was now hooked on the tangled love affairs and intermittent crises which were unfolding. The period covered – from the 1900s to the 1940s – is one in which I have been interested for a long time. I was glad to see it reconstructed so accurately and (dare one say it?) aesthetically. From the Art Nouveau silks and velvets sported by Vanessa as a young woman, to the more austere wartime garb worn by her older self (of which more later), this was a feast of period detail: beautifully lit and shot.

 

Of course, there were a few things I’d like to have seen done differently. The decision to cast a second group of older actors – with the wonderful Eve Best playing Vanessa – in order to convey the passage of time, was not wholly successful, and might have caused confusion to anyone not familiar with the story. The need to compress the events of forty years into three hours led, inevitably, to certain things been glossed over – or left out altogether. The 1920s and 1930s – arguably the most important period, as regards the literary and artistic output of the group – was shown only in passing. Individual episodes – such as Duncan Grant’s decision to become a Conscientious Objector, at the outbreak of the First World War – were barely touched on. The decision to focus on the Grant/Bell menage meant that even Virginia Woolf’s suicide got short shrift. But overall, this was a well-written and engaging dramatisation of a fascinating period. It certainly converted this Bloomsbury sceptic to a more appreciative frame of mind. Now – where’s my copy of To the Lighthouse?

 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0649cyj

 

Christina Koning talks about writing historical fiction

Christina Koning talks about her novel Line Of Sight

Christina Koning talks about her novel Fabulous Time

Christina Koning talks about her novel The Dark Tower

Christina Koning talks about her novel Undiscovered Country

Christina Koning talks about her novel A Mild Suicide (1992)

Christina Koning taking about her novel A Mild Suicide

‘Sitting on a sofa, playing games of chance…’

My latest novel, Game of Chance – the second in a series of detective stories set in the late 1920s – centres, as the title suggests, around a game of cards, specifically, Solo Whist. I chose this particular game, rather than Bridge (which was actually more popular in the period I’ve been writing about) for two reasons. One was the relative simplicity of the game, which lent itself to the plot structure I had in mind; the other was the peculiar resonance of the terminology. For a story featuring both an amateur detective and a policeman, the fact that one of the ‘calls’ in the game is ‘Prop & Cop’ was irresistible; so, too, were the no less resonant calls ‘Misere’, ‘Misere Ouverte’ and ‘Abundance’. Other details – the fact that the ‘play’ goes clockwise, and that the individual players are identified by the points of the compass – provided further indications of how the novel should unfold.

Nor was it a wholly arbitrary decision to make card-playing a dominant motif in the second of my stories about the ‘Blind Detective’. My protagonist, Frederick Rowlands, whom we meet a decade after he lost his sight at the Third Battle of Ypres, is a keen card player – as was my grandfather, Charles Thompson, on whom the character is loosely based. I still have two packs of Charles’s braille cards, marked in the upper left-hand and lower right-hand corners with the raised dots that denote their suit and value. With these, my grandfather was able to play to competition standard – against sighted, as well as blind, opponents. And so it made absolute sense to have him matched, in my fictional version, against a murderer, both playing for higher stakes than the shilling or two which might have changed hands in the drawing room.

In researching the book, I started to think about the literary predecessors of my particular ‘game of chance’. Because of course card games – like chess, or billiards, or even croquet – are often to be found in novels, and films. They lend themselves so well to the dynamics of relationships. Card games are mock battles, in which much is at stake – not least the winner’s pride. Over the centuries, the language of card playing has become essential to the way we describe our experience. We talk about ‘keeping your cards close to your chest’, ‘putting your cards on the table’ and ‘playing your trump card’; about having been ‘dealt a bad hand’, having ‘a card up your sleeve’, being ‘unlucky at cards, lucky in love’, and so on. A number of these card playing analogies found their way into Game of Chance. In thinking about the novel, I also rather liked the idea that ‘Chance’, that mythical figure on whose favour all such games depend, is usually regarded as blind.

And so to the literary antecedents – of which of course there are many. Card games are thought to have originated in China during the T’ang Dynasty, and the first reference to card games dates from the 9th century. The game – perhaps closer to what we now know as dominoes, since it was played with tiles rather than paper cards – was exported to Persia, from where the idea of dividing the cards into suits seems to have come. Further modifications of the design were to occur before the emergence, in Europe at least, of the familiar ‘deck’ of cards, with its four suits: Hearts, Spades, Diamonds and Clubs, with their numbered sequences and ‘court’ cards. This standardisation is by no means universal, by the way: some countries (Spain, for instance) still use the older suits of Coins, Swords, Cups and Clubs. (I have in front of me a pack I bought some years ago in Venezuela, which looks like this.) Swiss German packs use Roses, Bells, Acorns and Shields instead of the more traditional images.

But for Alexander Pope, writing in 1717, the pack looked like this:

 

Behold, four Kings in Majesty rever’d,

With hoary Whiskers and a forky Beard;

And four fair Queens whose hands sustain a Flow’r,

Th’expressive Emblem of their softer Pow’r;

Four Knaves in Garbs succinct, a trusty Band,

Caps on their heads, and Halberds in their hand;

And Particolour’d Troops, a shining Train,

Draw forth to Combat on the Velvet Plain.

The skilful Nymph reviews her Force with Care;

Let Spades be Trumps! she said, and Trumps they were.’

 

Card games were enormously popular during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, as any reader of the novels of Jane Austen will attest. References to card playing are to be found in most of her novels – one thinks of Lydia Bennet’s fondness for ‘making bets’ in the game of whist being played while Lizzie and Mr Wickham are having their heart-to-heart in Pride and Prejudice. Here, as elsewhere, the game offers an analogue of the shifts and ambiguities inherent in the characters’ relationships. This is perhaps most clearly seen in the famous card playing scene in Mansfield Park, when Mary Crawford, conscious that she is in danger of losing the affection of Edmund Bertram, the man she hopes to marry, makes a last ‘bid’ for his attention:

 

Miss Crawford, a little suspicious and resentful of a certain tone of voice and a certain half-look attending the last expression of his hope, made a hasty finish of her dealing with William Price, and securing his knave at an exorbitant rate, exclaimed, “There, I will stake my last like a woman of spirit. No cold prudence for me. I am not born to sit still and do nothing. If I lose the game, it shall not be from not striving for it”…’

 

As always in Austen, it is the psychological aspect of the ‘game’ the characters are playing which most interests her.

This is no less the case in another famous literary card game – the one played by Pip and Estella in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, in which the themes of betrayal and sexual cruelty are explicitly set out:

 

“What do you play, boy?” asked Estella of myself, with the greatest disdain.

“Nothing but beggar my neighbour, miss.”

“Beggar him,” said Miss Havisham to Estella. So we sat down to cards…’

 

This, incidentally, is the game in which the youthful femme fatale shows her ‘disdain’ for her unfortunate playmate in a single telling phrase: ‘“He calls the knaves, Jacks, this boy!” said Estella…’ Enough to send a shiver up one’s spine.

In Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, and its wonderful film version, directed by Terence Davies, card playing has moved from being simply a metaphor for the human interactions to being an integral element of the plot. Here, the impoverished Lily Bart, who has hitherto refused to become embroiled in the ruinously expensive games of bridge which are a feature of the country house weekends to which she is invited, is forced to conform – or else risk being ostracised from the ‘best’ social circles:

 

For in the last year she had found that her hostesses expected her to take a place at the card-table. It was one of the taxes she had to pay for their prolonged hospitality, and for the dresses and trinkets which occasionally replenished her insufficient wardrobe. And since she had played regularly, the passion had grown on her…’

 

Aficionados of E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia stories (and I am one) will be familiar with the ‘passion’ that bridge inspires in its devotees – none more addicted to this particular game of chance that the two principals, Elizabeth Mapp and Emmeline ‘Lucia’ Lucas. Bridge is a thread which runs throughout this deliciously funny series of novels – the first of which was published in 1931 – and gives rise to some of the most hilarious scenes. Here, Miss Mapp is indulging in a little bit of gamesmanship – to the annoyance of her fellow players:

 

Upstairs the geniality of the tea-table had crumbled over cards. Elizabeth had been losing and she was feeling hot. She said to Diva “This little room – so cosy – is quite stifling, dear. May we have the window open?” Diva opened it as a deal was in progress, and the cards blew about the table: Elizabeth’s remnants consisted of Kings and aces, but a fresh deal was necessary. Diva dropped a card on the floor and put her foot on it so nimbly that nobody could see what it was… Elizabeth demanded another fresh deal. That was conceded, but it left a friction.’

 

Sometimes the ‘friction’ engendered by games of chance – especially, it would seem, by bridge – can end in murder. Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, a story I found extremely helpful when plotting my own murder mystery, concerns such a game. Set up by the sinister Mr Shaitana, it centres around a dinner party, to which four detectives – one of them our old friend Hercule Poirot – and four suspected murderers have been invited. When dinner is over, the guests sit down to cards.

 

“Thank goodness there’s to be bridge,” said Mrs Lorrimer in an aside to Poirot. “I’m one of the worst bridge fiends that ever lived. It’s growing on me. I simply will not go out to dinner now if there’s no bridge afterwards…”’

 

Of course it all goes horribly wrong. But at least Mrs Lorrimer gets her game of cards.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dial ‘M’ for Murder – the telephone in twentieth century fiction

Having just published a novel – Line of Sight (Arbuthnot Books, 2014) – in which the telephone plays a key role, I’ve been thinking about the significance of this particular piece of technology, invented (or at least patented) in 1876, by Alexander Graham Bell, but only in common domestic use for around a hundred years. It wasn’t until after the First World War, that the telephone became ubiquitous in middle-class households; right up until the late 1960s in Britain, there were still those who, for reasons of economy, were obliged to make their calls from public telephone boxes. I can still recall when these were activated by the magical pressing of ‘Button A’, followed by the insertion of the necessary coins, to connect the call. ‘Button B’ could be pressed to return the coins, if it wasn’t possible to connect the call (i.e. if no one answered).

 

As late as the early 1970s, it was not uncommon for people to share a ‘party line’ with another subscriber, affording regular opportunities of ‘listening-in’ to others’ conversations – a privilege of which the switchboard operator could always avail herself (and they were nearly always female), if she felt so inclined. Calls could be – and frequently were – ‘cut off’ at a crucial moment. Love affairs could be thrown into crisis, financial ruin precipitated, and even murder committed, by means of this most seductive, but also potentially treacherous, instrument.

 

All this offered rich potential for novelists and film-makers – in fact, it’s hard to imagine how the literature and cinema of the mid-to-late twentieth century could have managed without the telephone – the deus ex machina whose ringing could herald delight – but more often, meant disaster. Think of any Humphrey Bogart film – The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye – and you think of Bogart as private detective Philip Marlowe, sitting in his office, with his feet on the desk and a fifth of whisky in the side-drawer, talking on the phone to whichever dimwitted police sergeant or duplicitous dame he’s currently trying to outsmart.

 

Think of Grace Kelly, in Hitchcock’s Dial ‘M’ for Murder, hearing the phone ring in the study, and going to answer it – unaware that she is about to confront her would-be murderer. Or, skipping forward a couple of decades, but staying with the film-noir mood, think of Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes, in Chinatown, with sticking-plaster on his nose and a telephone receiver clamped to his ear, trying to make sense of the lies and half-truths he’s been fed about the Mulwray case. Yes, the telephone and the murder mystery were made for each other.

 

There are a number of reasons for this. One (to stay with cinema a moment) is that the telephone and the cinema are roughly contemporaneous. Both represent the ‘modern’ world of change, speed, transience. A letter takes time to write – and read. A phone call can be made in a few minutes. Similarly, the narrative pace of a novel can seem slow, by contrast with the quick-fire cutting between scenes to be found in cinematic story-telling. And one other obvious reason why phone calls are so important a part of most screenplays is that they offer a very condensed way of imparting information. When the plot is a thriller, this is all the more essential. Keeping the suspense going means not slowing down your story with unnecessary explanations. Dialogue – in films and novels of the 1930s and after – is markedly crisper, snappier, and more concise than that to be found in, say, your average nineteenth century novel.

 

Which brings me to my ‘top ten’ of fictional telephone conversations. It’s no accident that they all belong to the same period: from a few years after the First World War to a decade or so after the Second World War (roughly, 1925 – 1965) – a Golden Age, when the telephone was essential to communication. And what telephones they were! None of your flimsy little hand-held devices, but large, sculptural Bakelite objects – usually black – the sound of whose ringing was full of foreboding and whose receivers felt heavy as lead in the hand. These (and the ‘Candlestick’ instruments which preceded them, one of which features on the cover of Line of Sight) had a dramatic presence in their own right. No wonder they so often appeared as harbingers of doom in the darker films of the inter- and post-war periods.

 

So here’s Chandler, in The Long Goodbye (1953):

 

I was about ready to hit the hay when Detective-Sergeant Green of homicide called me up.

‘Thought you might like to know that they buried your friend Lennox a couple of days ago right in that Mexican town where he died. A lawyer representing the family went down there and attended to it. You were pretty lucky this time, Marlowe. Next time you think of helping a pal skip the country, don’t.’

‘How many bullet holes did he have in him?’

‘What’s that?’ he barked. Then he was silent for a space. Then he said rather too carefully: ‘One, I should say. It’s usually enough when it blows a guy’s head off…’

 

This hard-bitten, laconic mood is even more pronounced in Simenon’s 1931 story, The Bar on the Seine. Here, as in other police procedurals of the era, conversations – whether carried out on the telephone or otherwise – have a staccato, minimalist quality. These are not people who waste words, or indulge in fancy phrase-making. For them, the telephone is the perfect medium to convey the bleak truths they need to convey. In this story, Maigret finds himself defending a man condemned to the guillotine:

 

Maigret was talking to the examining magistrate on the phone.

‘Hello! Yes! Just give me another ten minutes… His name? I don’t know yet… Yes, of course I’m serious. Do I ever joke about these things?’

He put down the receiver and started walking up and down his office.

 

That’s as emotional as Maigret ever gets. And – just to round off this trio of thrillers, before moving on to other kinds of telephone calls in fiction, here’s Le Carre’s 1964 novel, Call for the Dead, in which George Smiley makes his first appearance, investigating the mysterious death of a former agent:

 

The telephone was ringing upstairs. Smiley got up.

‘Excuse me – that will be my office. Do you mind?’

Smiley walked slowly upstairs in a state of complete bewilderment. What on earth should he say to Marston now?

He lifted the receiver, glancing mechanically at the number on the apparatus.

‘Walliston 2944.’

‘Exchange here. Good morning. Your eight-thirty call.’

‘Oh – Oh yes, thank you very much.’

He rang off, grateful for the temporary respite.

 

This call – like many to be found in detective fiction – turns out to have a bearing on the plot, which isn’t always the case in every novel. Some telephone conversations seem to have no apparent point at all, other than to tell you what kind of characters you’re dealing with – and that they do very well. Take this passage from Vile Bodies, Waugh’s 1930 satire on the ‘Bright Young Things’ of Jazz Age London. We really learn all we need to know about Adam and his inamorata, Nina, from this bright, seemingly vacuous, conversation:

 

Presently the telephone by Adam’s bed began ringing.

‘Hullo, yes.’

‘Lady to speak to you… Hullo, is that you, Adam?’

‘Is that Nina?’

‘How are you my darling?’

Oh, Nina…’

‘My poor sweet, I feel like that, too. Listen, angel. You haven’t forgotten that you’re going to see my papa to-day, have you… or have you? I’ve just sent him a wire to say you’re going to lunch with him. D’you know where he lives?’

‘But you’re coming too?’

‘Well, no, I don’t think I will if you don’t mind… I’ve got rather a pain.’

 

Or consider this very different, but no less eloquent, piece of character description – from Elizabeth Bowen’s 1948 novel, The Heat of the Day, in which the loving, if slightly exasperated, relationship between a mother and her grown-up son, on leave from the war, is conveyed entirely through one side of a telephone conversation:

 

‘Hullo?’ she said – to be checked; whoever it was had failed to press Button A. Then – ‘Oh – you – oh, darling!… You are, are you? For how long?… However, that’s better than nothing. But why didn’t you tell me? Have you had any dinner?… Yes, I’m afraid that might be best: I don’t think I’ve got anything in the flat. How I wish you’d told me… And directly after that you’ll come straight here?… Of course; naturally; don’t be so idiotic… Yes, there is just at the moment, but there soon won’t be… No, no one you know… Soon, then – as soon as ever you can!’

She hung up, but remained to black-out her bedroom…’

 

Of course this passage tells us a great deal more than the fact that Stella loves her son. Because the conversation is being overheard by a man she has every reason to fear – the government agent, Harrison, in charge of delving into the past of Stella’s lover, Robert. Harrison, it transpires, is in love with Stella. All, or at least some, of this is conveyed in that superbly understated ‘No, no one you know’, in answer to her son’s (implied) question as to whether anyone is there with her at that moment.

 

It’s nuances such as these which make telephone conversations in books and films (and plays) so compelling. There are so many layers of meaning, and shades of intonation – all put across to the listener, and of course the reader, in the fewest possible words. Still sticking with the mood of wartime paranoia, consider this telephone conversation from Greene’s The Ministry of Fear (1943), in which a man driven half mad by guilt after the death of his wife, reaches out to another lost soul:

 

‘I want to speak to Miss Hilfe.’

‘Who is that?’

‘A friend of hers.’ A disapproving grunt twanged the wires. He said sharply,’Put me through please,’ and almost at once he heard the voice which if he had shut his eyes and eliminated the telephone-box and ruined Holborn he could have believed was his wife’s. There was really no resemblance, but it was so long since he had spoken to a woman, except his landlady or a girl behind a counter, that any feminine voice took him back… ‘Please. Who is that?’

‘Is that Miss Hilfe?’

‘Yes. Who are you?’

He said his name as if it were a household word. ‘I’m Rowe.’

There was such a long pause that he thought she had put the receiver back; he said, ‘Hullo. Are you still there?’

‘Yes.’

‘I wanted to talk to you.’

‘You shouldn’t ring me.’

‘I’ve nobody else to ring…’

 

The bleakness of the last line is characteristic of Greene’s style, of course, but it is also typical of many such moments of communication – or non-communication – in works of fiction of the period. Wartime London (note the glancing reference to ‘ruined Holborn’ in the above) was a place of darkness and shadows; of transients, ‘passing in the night’, on their way to unknown destinations. Here, from Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square, published in 1941 and subtitled, with grim humour, ‘A story of darkest Earl’s Court’ – is the following exchange between the hapless and hopeless George Harvey Bone (one of those characters who is always referred to by his full, and rather awkward, name), and Netta, the mercenary minx with whom he is desperately in love:

 

He pressed button A and heard his pennies fall. He said ‘Hullo.’

‘Hullo,’ she said. ‘Yes!’

She was in a temper all right. He could tell because there was an exclamation mark, instead of a note of interrogation, after her ‘Yes’. Funny how she got into these tempers – after being so peaceful and saying ‘Perhaps it’s because he’s so big that he’s so silly’ the night before – but oh, how characteristic! He knew his Netta all right by now.

‘Oh, hullo, Netta,’ he said in studiedly polite and and gentle tones, though of course this would only add to her fury. ‘This is me.’

‘What? Who is it?…’

‘This is me. George.’

‘Oh.’

‘Have I interrupted you in your bath or something?’

‘No, I was asleep. What do you want?’

‘Oh, I’m awfully sorry. I was ringing up about today – that’s all.’

‘What do you mean – “today”?’

‘I mean this evening.’

‘What do you mean – “this evening”? What about this evening?’

 

And so the ghastly conversation drags on, with poor George getting himself increasingly tied in knots, and the poisonous Netta pretending not to understand what he is trying to say, but understanding it all too well. As often as not, telephone conversations in films and books can show us relationships that are not working, as well as those that are. In this passage, from Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby (1925), the ringing of an – unanswered – telephone says all there is to say about a marriage that has gone sour:

 

The telephone rang inside, startlingly, and as Daisy shook her head decisively at Tom the subject of the stables, in fact all subjects, vanished into air. Among the broken fragments of the last five minutes at table I remember the candles being lit again, pointlessly, and I was conscious of wanting to look squarely at every one, and yet to avoid all eyes. I couldn’t guess what Daisy and Tom were thinking, but I doubt if even Miss Baker, who seemed to have mastered a certain hardy scepticism, was able utterly to put this fifth guest’s shrill metallic urgency out of mind…’

 

The unanswered call is of course from Tom’s mistress, about whom the ‘sceptical’ Jordan Baker has just been telling Nick, the narrator. Sometimes, a telephone only has to ring to bring about a change of mood – sharply conveyed, in this instance, by Nick’s irrational desire to look his fellow guests in the face, ‘and yet avoid all eyes’.

 

Even though the ‘shrill metallic’ sound of the telephone seems made for such moments in fiction, bringing with it unwelcome news, as often as not, it would be a pity to end this little survey of best telephonic exchanges in novels without a couple which aren’t to do with murder or mayhem. So here is a typically winsome exchange, from E.F. Benson’s Lucia’s Progress (1935), in which the eponymous Mayoress of Tilling and all-round social butterfly, Emmeline Lucas, talks to her darling friend and confirmed bachelor, Georgie Pillson, (who is feeling rather out-of-sorts):

 

‘I’m beginning to see my way,’ she thought, and the way was so absorbing that she had not heard the telephone bell ring, and now Grosvenor came in to say that Georgie wanted to speak to her. Lucia wondered whether Foljambe had seen her peeping in at his window this afternoon and had reported this intrusion, and was prepared, if this was the case and Georgie resented it, not exactly to lie about it, but to fail to understand what he was talking about until he got tired of explaining. She adopted that intimate dialect of baby-language with a peppering of Italian words in which they often spoke together.

‘Is zat ‘oo, Georgino mio?’ she asked.

‘Yes,’ said Georgie in plain English.

‘Lubly to hear your voice again. Come sta? Better I hope.’

‘Yes, going on all right, but very slow. All too tarsome. And I’m getting dreadfully depressed seeing nobody and hearing nothing.’

Lucia dropped dialect.

‘But, my dear, why didn’t you let me come and see you? You’ve always refused.’

‘I know.’

There was a long pause. Lucia with her psychic faculties alert after so much Bridge felt sure he had something more to say, and like a wise woman she refrained from pressing him. Clearly he had rung her up to tell her something…’

 

And here, from a novel whose actual publication date of 1960 doesn’t prevent its belonging unquestionably to the 1920s – P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves in the Offing – is the way that telephones ought always to be answered:

 

I was about to reach for the marmalade, when I heard the telephone tootling out in the hall and rose to attend to it.

‘Bertram Wooster’s residence,’ I said, having connected with the instrument. ‘Wooster in person at this end. Oh hullo,’ I added, for the voice that boomed over the wire was that of Mrs Thomas Portarlington Travers of Brinkley Court, Market Snodsbury, near Droitwich – or, putting it another way, my good and deserving Aunt Dahlia. ‘A very hearty pip-pip to you, old ancestor,’ I said, well pleased, for she is a woman with whom it is always a privilege to chew the fat.

‘And a rousing toodle-oo to you, you young blot on the landscape,’ she replied cordially. ‘I’m surprised to find you up as early as this. Or have you just got in from a night on the tiles?’

I hastened to rebut this slur…’

 

It’s passages like these, with all their economy and wit, which make one regret the passing of the Golden Age of Telephones. A rousing toodle-oo to you, too.