Xan Brooks takes as his starting point something grotesque and twists it. Four men, ‘the funny men’ with such grotesque physical and mental injuries after the First World War that they have been marked down as dead, a telegram sent to their nearest and dearest to inform them of this—fake news—while they shelter in a cottage in the grounds of the aristocratic Grantwood House. Four children, three girls and a boy taken in a covered lorry to meet them during the summer of 1923, in the nearby woods of North London, Epping Forest. Orpahn Lucy Marsh, aged 14, the pretty one, stands out.
‘Take a random group of boys and girls. Throw them together and a hierarchy is established. Each member unconsciously finds his or her role to inhabit. She has seen it happening on the street and most recently in the bed of the truck where Winifred it queen and she and Edith princesses, which leaves poor thumb-sucking John as their subordinate. And here again, the very same system laid out anew, because why should the funny men be different from everybody else? Within the first movements of her opening visit, she recognised Toto as the group’s colourful, confident leader and now becomes aware of other pieces slotting into place. Winifred is correct: The Tin Man is the dashing gallant, full of rueful good humour, at ease in his skin, and never mind that it’s not his skin, while the Scarecrow takes the rank of cool-headed lieutenant. The Lion, she realises, is the lowest member. He stands off to one side.’
There’s no picnic on Lucy’s second visit. The child helpers are to run away and hide, but not very far. The whole point is they should be caught. After all, Lucy’s grandad has been paid ten bob for her to attend. Winifred calls it the ‘terrible Mensh’, terrible unmentionable.
[Wini]Fred continues, ‘it’s not as if you have to do very much. Just lie down and think of something else for as long as it lasts…’
Lucy hesitates… ‘Is it rape what they do? The very words seem to jam in her throat.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘The Mensch. I mean if they make us do things we don’t like doing. That’s rape, isn’t it?’
But Fred is bewildered, ‘What like, if you scream or fight or run away? That’s not what we do?’
Rupert Fortnum-Hyde calls them ‘The Pleasure Dolls’. Their purpose clear. They only exist for him and rich friends as a use value. He has given them to the gallant soldiers as playthings to do with what they like. Fortnum-Hyde is lordly, because he is a lord, leader of avante-garde opinon and aristocratic followers. He proposes and disposes. Cocaine is his drug of choice, served on silver trays by liveried servants. He likes to be entertained and brings the next new thing to amuse him to Grantwood House.
The Long Boys, a group of black jazz musicians, have been brought from London’s music halls for him and his followers to listen to the latest must have. A subplot involving bogus Spiritualist that criss-crossed the country in the figure of another grotesque—imp—in the figure of Arthur Elms, whose party trick was an ability to generate flames from his fingers and thumbs because of a mass burial that unhinged him, is also a houseguest at the decaying stately home.
The backstory of what happened to the funny men and how they became the funny men is gradually revealed. Bram, the Scarecrow, has a wife and child, he no longer sees, an ex-pilot, shot down, burned out, not expected to survive, but somehow, miraculously, did, is Lucy’s mentor. He keeps her right.
When Lucy says her grandparents are nice. And her grandad means well. He corrects her, ‘Lucy,’ he says. ‘He doesn’t. He’s not.’
Bram repents having sex with Lucy (and the other girls) and apologises. They team up in her coming-of age, and I guess, his too. The parts slide smoothly enough together for the ending to be contrived. But while it’s easy to feel sorrow for burnt out cases left rotten in the care of decadent aristocratic whimsy – it’s less so to feel paedophiles have already paid the price and they deserve a little human treat. Guilty of then and now standards, they did things differently in those days, hokum. Entertaining, worth a look. Read on.