Reminded of Norman Collins (1907-82) by Christopher Fowler in his “Book Of Forgotten Authors”, last year I rediscovered “London Belongs To Me” (1945) which brought great joy during lockdown and ended up at #2 on my Books Of The Year List. That is currently available as a Penguin Modern Classics but is seems like nothing else by this British author is in print.
I found a copy of “Bond Street Story” in our library stack of withdrawn out of prints book (I’d discovered Willard Price again in the same place earlier this year) in the familiar blue of Collins (the publishers) mid 1960’s Autograph Editions which I can remember from the public library shelves of my youth where there was a healthy Collins (the author) stock. The copy I took home with me has its pre self-service date label in front and it looks like it didn’t get borrowed at all between 1978 and 2005 (27 years!). We’ll never know where it was for all this time but thankfully nobody disposed of it as it is clear evidence for me that this is an author who should not have become so forgotten as it has provided another five star read.
“London Belongs To Me” focused on the residents of 10, Dulcimer Street, Kennington in the build up to and the early days of World War II, now we have gone upmarket to Rammells, a family-run Bond Street Department Store, here in a contemporary setting but Collins once again employs his Dickensian talent of carefully creating and exploring a cast of characters and bringing the details of their everyday lives into sharp, convincing detail. This is done with a delicious sense of irony, which is more prevalent in this work where he is dealing with a wider range of class. He can be laugh out loud funny and demonstrates a superb grasp of the descriptive to enhance his narrative.
Plot-wise it is thinner than “London Belongs To Me” and admittedly, does not feel such a significant work. That book is elevated when it takes a darker turn when a crime comes into focus, here the lives feel less complex with its sailing model boats on Highgate Ponds and preparing budgies for competitions which occupy a couple of the main characters. It is the store that fuses these individuals together. Three generations of the Rammell family are involved, Sir Harry, inspirational and forceful but all over the place with his ideas as he ages, representing the store’s past, the hard-working dyspeptic current head and his son Tony, reluctant to get involved with the family business but seen as the face of the future.
The shop itself conveys an authentic feel but probably even at the time of publication would have felt somewhat old-fashioned. Floor walkers navigate customers around the store, exclusive models demonstrate fashion ranges, the fur department has a huge allure and the new-fangled television department give a snapshot of the time. There are, inevitably, a few places where the attitudes of the time jar the modern reader but this does reflect the feel of a smart London street leaving the austerity of the post-war years behind but for which the cultural, social and economic changes of the 1960’s seem fairly unthinkable.
Once again I loved being in the company of these characters and can even forgive this author’s tendency to write the odd characters dialogue in their accent (here it is floorwalker Mr Bloot who is given strangulated vowels of the “Ah’ve ‘ad er naccident” variety) because these people and their lives did draw me in. I’m not sure how representative of the work of Norman Collins these two novels I have read are, Fowler claims his favourite is “The Governor’s Lady” which he describes as “a colonial story of secrets, lies and endless ineptitude among Africans and the English” which seems very different fare from what we have here but unless an enterprising publishing house beings to reprint these works I may never find out.
Norman Collins as a significant figure in the development of media (especially ITV). Given the real visual feel of his work this does not surprise, here there’s a soap operaness which would of course soon become the mainstay of British commercial television. The key to this man’s rediscovery, I feel, is a good TV adaptation, probably of this work with effort spent in recreating the world of Rammells which would undoubtedly create great demand for the original source.
Bond Street Story was first published in 1959. I read the Collins hardback Autograph Edition from 1966.