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The novelist R.F.
Delderfield and his heroes who roam from home.
There is something rather striking, faintly superior, even,
about an author whose name features his or her initials? I mean: E.M. Forster …
J.K. Rowling … P.L. Travers … H.G. Wells …
Ronald Frederick (R.F.) Delderfield was born in Bermondsey,
south London, in 1912. He died in 1972. His literary reputation rests mainly on
his novels. The author declared them to be “straightforward stories of
undistinguished British people – the only people that I know.” Some of his
novels were written as a series, and some were adapted for television. At the
height of his popularity, his books sold well and were much borrowed from
Mr Sermon: Mad but not bad?
In one of RFD’s most enjoyable novels The Spring Madness of Mr Sermon
(1963) his central character has an adventure that contains light echoes of H.G.
Wells’s story of Mr Polly. Each hero abandons a dull and downtrodden suburban
existence and boldly disappears into the countryside in search of a new life. Damsels,
dangers and dilemmas are encountered.
Here is a question for you: if, like Mr Sermon, you
impulsively pack your knapsack with a few clothes and belongings, intent upon
leaving your house to embark on a take-my-chance wander, what books will go
with you? Mr Sermon’s choice of reading material is two anthologies of verse
(one modern and one classical) and a well-thumbed copy of Baron de Marbot’s
saga of the Napoleonic Wars.
To each his own: I might myself go with Mr Sermon’s first
two choices; but instead for my third, why not one of Mr Delderfield’s novels
if I want something that is a ‘safe pair of hands’: a solid, absorbing but not
I wonder if the bedrock of R.F. Delderfield’s post-war
devoted readership is a slowly dwindling one. Is there a market still for his
stories whose pace might be considered a little ponderous and whose settings
are indisputably dated: Hillman and Wolseley cars; eleven pounds and ten
shillings withdrawn from the Midland Bank? Would we recognise the term
‘flibberty-gibbet’ to describe a headmaster’s daughter who flirts with the middle-aged
Mr Sermon? Would we squirm uncomfortably, today, at some of the behaviour of Mr
Sermon: a schoolteacher who canes his pupils; a husband who spanks his wife
hard on her bottom after they have started a row; a husband who sells the
matrimonial house without first consulting his wife?
“Authors draw inspiration from the scenes of their youth”
It was RFD’s self-declared notion that each of the real-life
places where he lived or worked was an effective ‘farm’ from which he harvested
his plots and his characters.
His first novel All Over the Town (1947) is a clear example.
The book contains the standard disclaimer that the characters are entirely
imaginary, but when we know that the real-life RFD joined the staff of the
Exmouth Chronicle newspaper in Devon, it isn’t hard to guess the origin of his
fictional Nat Hearn who comes back from the war to start in 1945 a job with the
fictional seaside local paper the Sandcombe Clarion!
All the while that his literary career developed and matured
RFD received praise for his finely-observed portrayals of English social history
during the first two-thirds of the twentieth-century.
Several of his novels feature young men newly demobbed from
war and bursting with energy to embrace new opportunity.
His first novel All
Over the Town has at heart the theme of generation gap. Thrust unexpectedly
into the role of editor of the Sandcombe Clarion the young Nat itches to shake
up and modernise the fusty old newspaper. He determines that the Clarion has
stagnated in the grip of the old editor’s patrons and cronies whose wealth and
influence dominates the town. Of course, Nat soon finds that he has stirred up
a hornet’s nest. He encounters strong resistance to his reforming ideas and
actions. Will he withstand the crisis that threatens him with professional and
financial ruin? Will the enigmatic Mollie, one of the Clarion’s staff, stand by
him in his hour of need?
The story includes some detailed description of the interior
workings of a newspaper office. Some of it reads as outdated nowadays because
digital process has long replaced the old printing machinery. But with its
sub-theme of planning permission skulduggery in the housing department of the Sandcombe
District Council, the reader can surely be forgiven for thinking that All Over the Town might be set in 2017
instead of 1947.
Will Charlie Come Home?
In his novel Come Home Charlie and Face Them
(1969) RFD again gives his readers a central character who is restless to roam.
In a small Welsh town of the 1920s, the young Charlie Pritchard hates his
humdrum life as a bank clerk. The reader eventually grasps that the tension in
Charlie’s story will revolve around a moral dilemma. To finance his escape, and
to realise his dream of marrying the delectable Delphine, Charlie will need to
defraud his employers. Has he got the guts to do this? - and will the police
catch up with him if he does? With passages of narrative that are partly in
real time and partly in flashback, this is a rattling good page-turner of a
yarn that keeps the reader guessing till the end.
The year when sexual intercourse began …
According to Philip Larkin, this happened in 1963!? But in
his Mr Sermon novel of that year,
R.F. Delderfield wrote his love scenes with modest restraint. He conjured up
three occasions when Mr Sermon encounters a member of the opposite sex wholly
or partially undressed in a bedroom or a bathroom. Thanks to RFD’s prudent economy of
descriptive words. It is left for the reader to deduce ‘what happened next’!
By 1969 the author was sufficiently emboldened to include in
Come Home Charlie some rather startlingly
coarse (slang) words for parts of the male and female anatomy, but, remembering
that the action was taking place between the wars RFD did at least use the
old-fashioned vernacular ‘slap and tickle’ to describe activity by courting
couples. In a key scene when Delphine deliberately and provocatively flaunts
her body at Charlie, RFD’s writing is pitch-perfect: powerfully sensual; allowing
us to understand exactly why Charlie makes his irretrievable decision to dice
If R.L. Delderfield has faded in your memory, a mention of
some of his other best-known books might help strike a chord: A Horseman Riding By, To Serve Them All My Days, The Dreaming Suburb and The Avenue Goes to War.
Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:
How The Wild West Was Written
Emmeline Pankhurst and Florence Foster Jenkins
Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train
H G Wells
In praise of the British Seaside!Girls Just Wanna Have Fun in 1963: Christine Keeler & Nell Dunn
Politicians, Pop Stars and Preachers - John Mortimer's Characters of 1986
Shakespeare's 400th Centenary
Gregory's Girl: Remembering the Hit Film
The Impact and Legacy of Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
A Tribute to Margaret Forster
Remembering Saeed Jaffrey
Old Wine in New Bottles - "new" books by Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler & Agatha Christie
Remembering Ruth Rendell
Philip Larkin: His Maiden Voyage on The North Ship (1945)
The Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar
Erle Stanley Gardner
Antony Sher: The History Man
Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author
Computer Chess: The Imitation Game
P G Wodehouse
John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green
Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution
Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam
The Story of Edith Nesbit
Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert
Rebels With A Cause
Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective
The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas
The Bergerac Police Adventure Series
It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene
Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers
The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym
D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...
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