books monthly april 2017

This month Jerry Dowlen looks at R F Delderfield...

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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 libraries.


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 over-challenging yarn.


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little ponderous and whose settings are indisputably dated: Hillman and Wolseley cars; eleven pounds and ten shillings withdrawn from the Midland Bank?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 with danger.


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.


Jerry Dowlen

March 2017


Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:


How The Wild West Was Written

Emmeline Pankhurst and Florence Foster Jenkins

John Updike

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

Michael Holroyd

Erle Stanley Gardner

John Masefield


Antony Sher: The History Man

Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author

Computer Chess: The Imitation Game

P G Wodehouse

John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green

Daniel Abse

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

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...


The small print: Books Monthly, now well into its sixteenth year on the web, is published on or slightly before the first day of each month by Paul Norman. You can contact me here. If you wish to submit something for publication in the magazine, let me remind you there is no payment as I don't make any money from this publication. If you want to send me something to review, contact me via email and I'll let you know where to send it.