Review of Please by Christopher Meredith, pub. Seren 2021
“The one about the past being another country. Not that I believe it for a second. It’s not even another tense nowadays.’
Our narrator Vernon Jones, an autodidact who worked as a clerk and is now retired and reflecting on his past, is unusually fascinated by everything about words: their etymology, syntax, punctuation, ambiguities. He is aware that his interest borders on obsession, and he has a dry wit that enlivens his every utterance. I shall probably never again think of a telephone box except by the noun he uses to describe it here:
“She rang me at work. We did not have a telephone at home; almost no one of my acquaintance did at that date. She rang from a quaint gazebo, now almost extinct, called a telephone box.”
I may also try to use fewer ellipses, or, as he calls them, “those wretched trails of sheep droppings”.
Vernon is, as one might expect in such a narrator, also very aware of the narrative techniques he is using, and draws our attention to them in a playful homage to Tristram Shandy. “To return to that gentleman whom we left hesitating some hundreds of words ago” echoes Sterne’s way of returning contritely to characters he has left halfway up a staircase for several chapters, and Vernon also has his habit of warning us not to read inattentively:
“And finally, I drew your attention directly and unambiguously to the potential for evasion and ambiguities in adoption of the present tense even as I so adopted it!”
It will be clear by now both that this is a very funny book (at least, I find it so, for me it is one of those I might hesitate to read on a train for fear of constant audible merriment) and that it has a lot to do with time and with how we interpret and fictionalise reality. Its concerns are at bottom serious and its humour often quite dark: “Little Robin was given my name and was thus saved from a lifetime of being Robin Finch, an unfortunate double birdie that his parents had not spotted” was one place where I laughed out loud, but it describes the name-change of a child whose parents have split up. It should also be clear that the narrative techniques allow of “evasion and ambiguities” which result in reveals, some sudden, some more gradual, which is why I shall say little about plot, except that this feature reminded me of earlier novels of Meredith’s in which character-narrators like Dean of The Book of Idiots and the eponymous Griffri realise toward the end of their narrative that what they thought they knew about their lives was in many ways mistaken. It culminates, as did Griffri, with a powerfully moving and enlightening encounter between two people, and throughout the novel the tone darkens, with Vernon having to apply his observational gifts to more sober themes than etymology:
"I had an agéd colleague once who gave up fishing on retirement, even though he had planned to angle his way through his last years, because he found he could no longer bring himself to kill the silver darlings in his hands. So the old are often more likely to be moved and lachrymose than those of middle years. We who are nearer the end better grasp the nature of suffering and the suffering of nature, and the dreadful fragility of both the somatic and the psychic.”
Even here, though, he enjoys balancing clauses and indulging his love for archaisms and recondite words.
I compiled a page full of quotes while reading through this novel, with a view to using them in a review, and I still have half of them unused. It’s that sort of novel. I can’t resist one more: Vernon at his obsessed, self-aware and solipsistic best. When the author emailed me the text, he introduced his protagonist with “Meet the appalling Vernon”. Well, I did, and found him a delight.
“As my name is Vernon – a fact which I have already artfully fed to you in the speech of my old friend Mick Sayce (see above) – I have from childhood had an interest in the occurrence of this relatively rare letter. It is modest in its specialness, having none of the bravura (ha!) hyper-scarcity of, say, x. Its nearest rival (ha! again) among alleged consonants is, arguably, the letter q, but v has none of q’s sickly dependence upon its almost inseparable partner u. Moreover v has a seductively shifting and mercurial personality. Indeed, in certain circumstances v and u slip identities, as demonstrated in the delightful Germanic tendency to pronounce the word quite as kvite. In modern Welsh the letter v does not exist. (Neither, technically, does the letter j. As a Welshman called Vernon Jones I should feel some anxiety at the way in which my names enact a partial cultural vanishing, but I am too old for that.)”