I read this years ago. Probably, the beginning of the 1970s. Mrs Bell our next door neighbour was on her throne. She kept a firm grip on her son, Pete(r). TV Times, Reader’s Digest, Sunday Post and borrowed our Sunday Mail. All was right in her world. She admitted she skipped the boring bits in books. Descriptive stuff. A.J.Cronin was one of her favourites. No boring stuff and everything was black and white. There were good guy and bad guys. Just when the bad guys looked like winning—you know what happened next, Mrs Bell lit another cigarette.
Let’s talk about the hero, Dr Manson.
Late one October afternoon in the year 1924, a shabby young man gazed with fixed intensity through the window of a third class compartment in the almost empty train labouring up the Penowell Valley from Swansea. All that day Manson had travelled from the North, changing at Carlisle and Shrewsbury, yet the final stage of his tedious journey to South Wales found him strung to a still greater excitement by the prospect of his post, the first of his medical career, in this strange, disfigured, county.
I was also in a disfigured country and stood in for another of A.J.Cronin’s heroes, Dr Findlay—not of Facebook—but Casebook fame. One of the wardrobe staff, a gay man, was quite taken with me. Unshaven and hungover I was put into a tweed coat and got to play the back of Dr Findlay’s head. I wasn’t that interested in the fame, but £75 for less than two hours work as an extra appealed enormously.
But here we begin with Dr Manson, in his coming-of-age and romantic drama. The reader knows he’s poor, because he’s travelling third class. Perhaps rather than saying he was shabby, Cronin should have described his off-the-peg suit, only people with money could afford bespoke suits. His journey is described as tedious, yet Dr Manson is described as brimming with excitement. Mrs Bell would have approved, description is done by numbers.
Characters have flaws, it’s in their surnames. Mr Boon is obviously a bad guy. Listen to the names. Doctor Thoroughgood, well, we know what to think of him. Nurse Sharp, whom Dr Manson, hires in a later incarnation. You know what she’ll be like and it won’t be pretty.
Mr Stillman, sounds like a good guy, still-man. Hope, with his lab work, is a great friend. What about Robert Abbey? I’ll let you decide, but let’s just say the prestigious doctor has very understanding eyes. At one point the distinguished gentleman flipped back to his own humble background, all the better to understand Dr Manson. Granny, what big eyes you’ve got.
Con? Well, usually, that would be a negative. But he’s Mr Funny man, a dentist who lives in a ramshackle house and fixes cars. Poor, but happy. So joyful his daughter, Mary’s lung disease is just another way of giving Dr Manson a chance at redemption. Mary might be the mother of God, but here there’s a shadow on her lung.
There was a shadow on Mrs Bell’s lungs. All that smoking. Dr Manson also smokes. Everybody did in those days, well apart from Christine. Dr Manson marries her. She’s a school teacher and Manson behaves abominably badly. He admits it, and they laugh and make up.
Later, whisper it, he had an affair. He returned to Christine like a dog with his tale between his legs. Yep. Lots of clichés. No sex. It was left to the reader to work out whether Dr Manson went beyond the kissing stage. I shouldn’t really spoil the story, but Christine should have paid less attention to being poor, but happy, keeping her house sparkling clean—dirt being the enemy of a good, virtuous woman—and more attention to buses.
Dr Manson in Aberlaw, with all the modern facilities, knew how to deal with patients who ‘swung the lead’.
‘Certificate,’ he said, without minding his manners.
‘What for?’ Andrew asked.
The tone alone caused Andrew to look at Chenkins with quick resentment.
Beer on his breath. Piggy eyes. Ben Chenkin Not to be trusted. Not like his alcoholic friend Denny. He’s a surgeon. Down on his luck. Who wouldn’t be after his wife—whom he was madly in love with—left him for another man. Of course Denny drunk. Any man would in those circumstances. Crawling blind underground and breathing in dust that ages a man to provide the fuel that drove the industrial revolution—salt of the earth type need only apply and be prepared to die, shouldn’t swing any lead.
Christine counts the pennies. They’re poor but happy. Then rich and unhappy. Medicine is set up to favour the rich and connected. As it is now, but it is more of a meritocracy. Manson’s constant claim that he’d be reduced to nought and poverty, is matched by, for example, Adam Kay, of This Is Going to Hurt fame. Both claimed there’s no money in it, medicine. They did it for love. Yet the monthly salary of a doctor would be the six monthly salary of a 1920s miner and a yearly salary of the poorest worker.
Miners used penny whistles to shame black legs and Ben Chenkin, when Manson decides to leave Aberlaw for London. Whenever there’s a point of principle in the room, Manson is sure to trip over it. He never just leaves, he always leaves with his head high—over a point of principle.
When, for example, Manson leaves London to set up a mini-NHS based on democratic principles with his good friend and ally Denny, of the non-piggy eyes and his other good friend Hope, well, you know a point of principle is going to turn up.
I do it myself when writing, I always fling the main character (or his wife) under the bus. But there’s a hole in his storyline which makes it unbelievable. Miners might be portrayed as the salt of the earth types (apart from piggy-eyes, signing on while he didn’t work, Ben Chankins) but a rudimentary approach to any kind of history would pinpoint the 1926 General Strike epicentre was in the coal fields. Welsh coal fields. History of any kind seemed to have bypassed Dr Manson, perhaps he was studying too hard, trying to get on. The 1929 Stock Market Crash? The Hungry Thirties? The Great Depression. Mass unemployment. Lockouts at the pits. Nowt taken out. Or put in. A bit like the affair, of the non-affair.
Dr Manson nobly battles against the Citadel of the Medical profession, charlatans, bureaucracy and vested interests. Manson prefigures the need for a National Health Service. Mrs Bell would have approved. Why bother with all the boring details when you can have a good story?