The long title is not the most unusual thing about this book. The Clocks in this House all tell Different Times indicates that things are awry in 1923 England. The First World War has done untold damage. It has ruined bodies, mental dispositions, families, and the economic and social relationships. This is a world that ignores child prostitution and trafficking, and where the upper classes still hold power. England, in this book, is full of oddities.
The story of The Clocks in this House all tell Different Times
Lucy Marsh is a teenage orphan, living with her grandparents in a declining pub in northeast London. Her grandfather rents her to a client, who takes her every week to meet ‘the funny men’ in Epping Forest. There she finds other children who are also required to be nice to the gentlemen. Winifred becomes Lucy’s unreliable ally until the climax of the story.
We are introduced to a number of other characters: Arthur Ellis, the fat boy who has the ability to produce fire from his fingers, The Long Boys who form a black jazz band, the funny men themselves and the indolent upper class inhabitants and guests at the Big House.
The funny men are named after Dorothy’s companions in The Wizard of Oz and are disfigured and disabled victims of the war, mistakenly recorded as dead but in fact given accommodation by the Earl of Hertford in the grounds of Grantwood House. He is paid for this service. And the men who bring the children to the forest are also paid, and they pay the parents and grandparents of the children.
Many of these characters end up on the Grantwood Estate, where the heir, Rupert Fortnum-Hyde, amuses himself with his pet projects, of which he quickly tires. There is the camel in the garden; some very modern art works including a Pick-Arsehole [say it]; the jazz band, the fat boy and the funny men. Rupert Fortnum-Hyde is a great obnoxious creation. The damage he does, while claiming forward looking ideas is revealed at the novel’s climax.
Winifred and Lucy become demanding and want to cut out the middlemen. They try some enterprise of their own and set up with the funny men. This is not a long-term option for Lucy, although we are led to believe that such activities might be for Fred. Lucy escapes with more maturity than her bland kindness demonstrated in the opening scenes. She helps Scarecrow to escape as well, although both have to learn to look beyond the world of Grantwood House.
Reflections on reading The Clocks in this House all tell Different Times
The story is savage and sordid, strange, fast paced and populated by many oddities. A chaotic time is explored. It reminded me of The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (written in the 1930s). There is less magic than in the Russian novel, but the unexpected and sometimes unexplained often happens.
The trials of war-damaged Arthur Ellis reminded me of Septimus Warren Smith from Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Wolf. Both men are utterly changed and eventually destroyed by their experiences. Ellis has become amoral, thinking only of himself and how to find enough money to survive.
In the house, among the guests and their hosts, there is much talk of the future. And it is true that the war has changed so much. The Earl has had to close one wing of the house, to his chagrin. But the future must grow out of the past and the present, and it is clear that despite the Earl and his son’s reputation for being pink and liberal, they intend that their class will retain power.
‘My feeling is this,’ explains the Earl kindly. ‘Mobility and equality – these are things I will always support. And yet it follows that mobility is most effective and lasting when it is properly regulated. That is why we look to sensible, progressive members of the ruling class. To ensure that there is free movement and proper fairness for all.’ (277)
Despite some high-minded talk, the revolting houseguests are guilty of some sordid and savage behaviour. I found myself shocked by their Monster Hunt. They claimed to be chasing monsters, but the term better describes their casual cruelty and their indifference to the suffering of others.
Eventually the entrepreneurial adolescents, the disabled surviving funny men and the favoured ruling class meet, collide and are ignited. The reader is implicitly invited to consider how the present day compares with this anarchic time.
One of the reasons I chose to read this book was the review by Anne Goodwin on her blog Annecdotal. She notes that it is like nothing she has read before and hopes that prize judges will not ignore it.
The review in the Guardian by M John Harrison in April was also very complementary.
The Clocks in this House all Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks (2017) Salt 388 pp
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