Writers Living Cheaply: Pamela Hansford Johnson’s “The Unspeakable Skipton”

I spent the weekend in bed with a bad cold. You know the kind of thing:  there is much coughing and dizziness, you feel you might faint in line at the store,  and the cold/flu/whatever hangs on forever. (After two weeks, go to the doctor.)  It is the kind of cold which, I assure you, will be exacerbated by a cheerless masterpiece by Dostoevsky.  No, you must turn to light reading.

The eclectic English writer Pamela Hansford Johnson did not specialize in light novels, but her Dorothy Merlin trilogy is hilarious.  The first of these satires of the writing life, The Unspeakable Skipton, focuses on a narcissistic novelist/con man; the second, Night and Silence Who Is Here, is an academic satire; and the third and best, Cork Street, Next to the Hatter’s, features Dorothy Merlin, a pretentious poet/playwright, holding court in her husband Cosmo’s bookshop, along with other artistic Londoners.  By the way, these can  be read as stand-alones.

The Unspeakable Skipton is potentially a cult classic–if anyone knew about it. I chortled over this short, witty, very weird novel about the vanity of a novelist/huxter hero, Daniel Skipton, who does nefarious odd jobs to afford a cheap garret in Bruges, “in one of “the last of the patrician houses,” as he says.   He has fallen in love with the beauty of Bruges.

Yes, he thought, this was the place for him and none other: he would die here.  He had come to live in Bruges for cheapness at the end of the 1920s:  had muddled through and out of the war by means of ill-health and broadcasting in Flemish for the BBC, and had come back not for cheapness, since the country was bloated with money and everything was dear, but because he could not bear to live anywhere else.  And, so long as Flabby Anne kept up her payments, he could just about get along.

Skipton believes he is the greatest writer of his time, but his tiny output of 250 words a day, many of them libellous, belies his opinion.  He is a paradoxical mix of personal priggishness and con artist: he wears socks with individually knitted toes because he thinks it’s obscene for toes to touch, but is not at all fastidious about finance.  He  hustles advances from his publisher for imaginary projects and cadges money from a cousin he’s never met, whom he calls Flabby Anne. He also procures fake antiques for a dealer and organizes voyeuristic parties to view obscene skits in mime.

At the center of the book is Skipton’s chance meeting with a group of literary tourists and his attempts to dub them out of money: Dorothy Merlin, a poet/playwright, her husband, Cosmo, a bookseller, Duncan, a photographer, and Matthew, a mysterious aristocrat. He’s equally matched here, however, and underrates his opponents, particularly Dorothy’s husband.

Skipton despises Dorothy, who writes poetry about her fecund womb–she has had seven children–but she cares nothing for his opinion,  and the contretemps between the conceited pair is hilarious.

“I am alien to you,” said Daniel, “utterly so.  I do not sing in chorus.  I do not rattle out, in a half-baked fashion, the Freudian claptrap which has been so successful because any dirty-minded dunce can understand it. Not that I am accusing you, Miss Merlin, of being dirty-minded. Where no mind exists, it is impossible for there to be either dirt or cleanliness.”

She said with dreadful charity, “I don’t think you can be well.  Do let us help you.  I’m not in the least offended with you, I–“

Very, very funny, and I look forward to rereading the other two shortly.  This is very short, only 192 pages.  Just enough of Skipton!  A little of him goes a long way.  I prefer Dorothy:  she’s a snob but not a scam artist!

10 thoughts on “Writers Living Cheaply: Pamela Hansford Johnson’s “The Unspeakable Skipton”

  1. I’ve always wondered whether Skipton was inspired by Frederick Rolfe, the self-styled Baron Corvo. Replace Venice with the equally-watery and time-trapped Bruges…
    If I remember rightly, Skipton is depicted as being – like Rolfe – a genuinely talented writer, even if no-one could possibly be as good as he thinks he is.
    I didn’t know there were more books featuring Dorothy and Cosmo, so I’ll look for them.

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    • Yes, it is! (I don’t know Rolfe’s work, though.) I very much enjoyed the other two: one is an academic satire, in which Dorothy’s friend Matthew gets a fellowship at an American college on the basis of a book about Dorothy he is supposedly writing; and the the third features the whole group, as well as a playwright who is attempting to write a play so obscene no one will produce it. This proves impossible!

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