Children Of The Archbishop – Norman Collins (1951)

I’m still very much on a mission to get people back reading the novels of British author Norman Collins (1907-82).  It does seem as if there is a growing buzz for “London Belongs To Me” (1945) as I’ve seen a few recommendations for it over the last couple of years and that is the one title that is available as a Penguin Modern Classic but three more titles in for me and I can safely say there’s a lot of wonderful story-telling, writing and characterisation to be rediscovered in his other 15 novels.

I managed to source this out-of-print title from the reserve stacks of Bristol Library – the particular copy I read has been on library duty since 1962.  I’m so glad there are people out there holding onto these books.  Like “London Belongs To Me” and “Bond Street Story” it is located in the capital city and that feels to me as if we are on safer ground with books of this vintage rather than the potential minefield of others of his works set in the former colonies, such as “The Governor’s Lady” (which was still a five star read).  In “London Belongs To Me” we had a lodging house as focus, “Bond Street Story” had a department store and “Children Of The Archbishop” an orphanage.  The Archbishop Bodkin Orphan Hospital is situated in Putney and this novel is concerned with those who help run it, work in and are resident there in the inter-war years (spanning approx 1920-38).

The opening section wonderfully explores the passengers of the No 14 Bus with writing which once again evokes a mid-twentieth century Dickens.  Collins flits from passenger to passenger, driver to conductor until we follow a young woman who gets off the bus and leaves a bundle on the orphanage doorstep.  This bundle “Sweetie” becomes one of the main characters who we follow for pretty much the first two decades of her life.

Orphanages can equal sentimentality and I wondered if Collins was going to go overboard on this but he doesn’t, particularly in the first half of the book where we are more concerned with the running and the Warden’s distinctly unsentimental approach which shows the orphanage as wrapped up in politics, disputes, personal prejudices and cost-cutting as any institution.  The actual “Children of the Archbishop” are pretty much represented by two of the 500 juveniles, Sweetie and Ginger, who are of similar ages and who defy the strict gender segregation to forge a friendship.  Some staff members favour these two in a way which feels slightly disturbing and as they are given greater focus in the second half of the book that sentimentality does creep in.

The whole notion of orphanges run in this manner will seem alien to the modern reader especially when compared to the locations of the other London-set books by Collins I have read which feel more readily accessible.  Collins, at the time, as with “Bond Street Story” which has a more or less contemporary time setting as this novel, was writing of the distant past, a historical novel set a generation before, I don’t know how different an early 1950’s institution such as this would be from his focus here.  For the first time in a Collins novel I sensed that I was reading a book which might not be deemed relevant enough to be in print, but having said that, I really enjoyed it.  There were twists I’m kicking myself for not seeing coming and I think that was because the author had drawn me in so much I was unable to step back and see the mechanics of the bigger picture and that represents great story-telling.

The book, as a whole, just falls short of the very best of the three other Collins novels I’ve read and I think it was because of the hospital/school setting rather than anything else but it is another high quality read.

Children Of The Archbishop was published in 1951 by Collins.

The Governor’s Lady – Norman Collins (1968)

Books by British author Norman Collins (1907-82) are now hard to find, which is a great shame as the two I have read by him, “London Belongs To Me” (1945) and “Bond Street Story” (1958) have both ended up in my end of year Top 10s.  I was delighted to spot a hardback Book Club edition from around the time of publication in a vintage book section of a charity shop.  Doubly delighted because Christopher Fowler in his “Book Of Forgotten Authors” (2017) who reminded me of this author said this was his favourite describing it as “ a colonial story of secrets, lies and endless ineptitude among Africans and the English.”

Although I was thrilled to find this to be honest I wasn’t convinced I was going to like it when I began it.  Largely set in the 1930s in the fictional colonial nation of Amimbo my hackles were very much raised as to how this would read in 2022.  It begins and ends with an epilogue set probably close to the time when it was published but travels back to the early 1930s for the bulk of the narrative.

It is the tale of Harold Stebbs who begins working as part of the Governor Sir Gardnor Hackforth’s team.  The Governor is a man tolerated by the locals but holding out for the Viceroy of India post.  His wife, of the title, is bored, drinks heavily and seeks lovers to pass the time and to get away from her companion Sybil who is unhealthily devoted to her.  The action moves to a safari trip, where Hackforth becomes obsessed with hunting a leopard, in a section which I was also sure I wasn’t going to like but tragedy strikes more than once which takes the book into an unexpected direction.

There was something about reading this matt covered hardback from a Book Club of the late 60’s that I found reassuringly nostalgic and that probably had me more invested than if I had read an e-book edition.  There’s definitely something about Collins’ writing style which I find so appealing.  The richness of detail, as I have mentioned in reviews of his other books, can be almost Dickensian but there’s a delicious irony in the narrative voice which suggests he isn’t always taking things too seriously.  This book which I wasn’t expecting to enjoy that much due to its settings and what I perceived its values would be ended up being thoroughly enjoyable and kept me involved until the end.  Collins was a man very involved with the early days of commercial television and there’s a very visual, observational element to his work which is also quite splendid.  That’s three out of three five star ratings for him and now I am going to have to do some hunting around to source other out of print titles.  (He wrote 16 novels in a long career which spanned from 1932-81).

The Governor’s Lady was first published in 1968 by Collins in the UK.  I read a hardbook Book Club edition.

Top 10 Books Of The Year 2021- Part One (10-6)

So, here we go, time to look back on another strange year to see which books made the greatest impression upon me in 2021.  This Top 10 is not just based upon books published this year. (3 out of the 10 were, which seems to be par for the course as that has been the same proportion for the last couple of years). If I read it during 2021 it is up for inclusion.

This year I read 64 books which is a typical figure but a bit down on my Good Reads goal of 70. Like last year 13 books have made the five star rating level, which means once again that some of my five star reads will not make it onto my Top 10 of the Year. There were 28 four star reads and 23 books I rated three stars. Like last year there was nothing I rated below three stars. I think with all this reviewing experience I’m less likely to choose to read duff books. Gender-wise, my Top 10 has a 50-50 split. It is perhaps a more diverse list than previous years with 40% black authors and 30% identifying as LGBT+ Like last year there are two non-fiction titles and like last year they are broadly speaking, autobiographical. Three of the authors have featured in previous year Top 10’s. There are two debut novels.

Right, here is the first part of the list, numbers 10-6.  If you would like to read the full review (and I hope you do as these are the books I’m really prompting you to find out more about) just click on the title.

10. Bond Street Story – Norman Collins (Collins 1959) (Read and reviewed in July)

Good luck with finding this one as like nearly all of this British author’s (1907-82) work it seems to be out of print. It’s the second year in a row for Collins and even though this is not quite up there with last year’s #2 read “London Belongs To Me” (which is more readily available as a Penguin Modern Classics) this tale of lives in a London Department store, the family who own it, the staff who work there is still a captivating read. I’m going to be on the look-out for more Collins to read next year. Perhaps some enterprising publisher could commemorate the 40th anniversary of his death by re-publishing more of his work.

9. Goodnight Mister Tom – Michelle Magorian (Puffin 1981) (Read and reviewed in May)

I took advantage of this children’s classic’s 40th anniversary reprint to read this for the first time. I know this is a special book for many people, in my day job at the library we often get adults requesting it to read to their children and I think it is now established as an important book in children’s fiction. I said of it; “It was one of those books where my vague ideas about it had cemented into what I believed was fact but I was often wrong.  I knew it was a tearjerker but what I had always thought occurred never actually happens.  The twists and turns of the plot were quite a revelation for me.” If you’ve never read it I urge you to seek it out, if you have read it you will know you probably want to read it again.

8.The Whites – Richard Price (Bloomsbury 2015) (Read and reviewed in February)

I’ve now read two Richard Price books and both have made it on to the Top 10, this is another under-rated author. His 1974 debut “The Wanderers” was my 2014 Book Of The Year and 41 years later he is still churning out gems. The title refers to those who have got away with murder which obsess a group of NYPD members past and present. It’s hard-boiled American crime, which I don’t always go for but characterisation here is so strong. Stephen King summed it up perfectly when he described this book as “grim, gutsy and impossible to put down.”

7. Dreamgirls: My Life As A Supreme – Mary Wilson (Arrow 1987) (Read in January posted in February)

This was a re-read of a book I have read I have read a couple of times before but not for years. I think it is one of the best showbusiness autobiographies, with just the right balance of career and private life and the career is extraordinary. It was written alongside ghost-writers Patricia Romanowski and Ahrgus Juilliard but benefits because Mary was a keen diarist and that ability to access details is evident. Tragically, on the day I set aside to post this review the news was announced that Mary had suddenly died (authors and publishers, don’t let this put you off asking for books to be reviewed, the two events are not related!) I did wonder whether that would result in this book being given a new lease of life but that has not happened.

6. Sing, Unburied, Sing- Jesmyn Ward (Bloomsbury 2017) (Read and reviewed in August)

Critically acclaimed in her homeland. Mississippi resident Jesmyn Ward made history with this book when she became the first Black American writer as well as the first woman to win a second National Book Award for fiction. This is a powerful, haunting read. I described it as “a Southern-set contemporary novel enriched with the rhythms and the sense of folklore, rhythms, spiritual beliefs and history of the community”. The reason why this had such a powerful effect on me as a reader is due to the quality of the writing and story-telling which really drew an initially resistant me in.

Next post: The Top 5

London Belongs To Me- Norman Collins (1945)


This is a book I read as a teenager. I can remember the quite plain but striking blue covers of this British author’s work in the public library of my youth and I either read this just before or after an ITV adaptation from 1977 which featured a very memorable Patricia Hayes and which I loved. There’s also a 1948 film version which stars Alastair Sim and Richard Attenborough which is good but hasn’t lingered as long in my memory as the book and TV series.

These memories were brought to the forefront when I found Norman Collins listed as one of Christopher Fowler’s picks in his “The Book Of Forgotten Authors” (2017). Collins (1907-1982) was a fascinating, very twentieth century character. His writing career saw him working for the Oxford University Press, editor of “The Daily News”, a role which Charles Dickens (quite significantly) had taken before him and deputy chairman of Gollancz publishing firm. Moving to broadcasting in the early 1940s he moved up the ranks in the BBC to being in charge of the Radio Light Programme where he created the immortal “Dick Barton-Special Agent”. Not long after this novel was published he was Controller of the fast-growing world of television and in the early 1950’s helped set up the Independent Television Authority becoming one of the important early figures of ITV. Throughout this time he was publishing with a total of 16 novels and two plays of which the vast majority are now out of print. This book and his London set “Bond Street Story” are the most significant of his works.

Rereading this many years on I think it is excellent. I highlighted the Dickens reference earlier because Collins’ writing style is reminiscent of a mid-twentieth century Dickens, the way he pulls back as narrator, gives us overviews and then focuses back on a set of very memorable characters in this London setting feels appropriately Dickensian. It’s a real warm hug of a book focusing on a group of residents of 10, Dulcimer Street, Kennington over two years from Christmas 1938 to Christmas 1940.

It is a closely observed novel with no real ongoing narrative drive or issues other than the lives of the characters. This gives it a feel of early soap-opera and that again has the feel of Dickens. It doesn’t have the burning social issues of the Victorian novelist but it works beautifully as a commentary on everyday existence. With its focus on ordinary folk at a time of uncertainty making their preparations for war it is first class and its sense of impending doom whilst the everyday continues resonates with our recent events.

And there’s great characters. The kindly, stolid, central Mr Josser, struggling home with a retirement gift clock at the very beginning, the canny canary-loving Miss Coke and the charlatan spiritualist Mr Squales will linger on in the memory. There’s a German spy who pops in for the odd vignette who seems a little out of place and the adenoidal glutton Mr Puddy’s speech patterns might have worked better in its day but he is still a character to be reckoned with. There’s also the unsettled youth Percy Boon whose involvement in a crime is the closest the novel gets to a central thread involving all the characters in some way.

At over 700 pages of quite small print in the Penguin Modern Classics paperback edition this is lengthy but it’s a real treat and I felt quite sad coming to the end. If Norman Collins has other books of this quality in his canon (Christopher Fowler’s favourite is “The Governor’s Lady”) then this is a seriously under-rated author due for a revival with this five star twentieth century classic leading the way.


London Belongs To Me was first published in 1945. I read the Penguin Modern Classics paperback edition.