Carson Was Here
Anthony Carson was not really Anthony Carson but Peter Brooke. In fact, he wasn’t really Peter Brooke either, but von Bohr – Brooke was the name apparently bestowed on him by his prep school headmaster when he was seven, von Bohr being deemed a little unfortunate as the First World War was under way.
We can be reasonably certain that he worked as a courier/guide for a tourist travel company and that he mistakenly thought he drank in Soho, regularly lifting a glass in the Wheatsheaf, which appears in this book as the Load of Hay.
Alas, the Wheatsheaf (I used to drink there myself in the late Eighties and early Nineties, when Soho itself become unbearably touristy) is in Rathbone Place, north of Oxford Street and thus in Fitzrovia. What this says about Carson’s guiding skills, I am not sure.
We know courtesy of Rupert Croft-Cooke that Brooke’s breakthrough as a writer came when he turned himself into Carson and used his courier experiences as the stuff of humour:
The travel agents’ courier had ceased to be upstanding or heroic and became a Mr Pooter, dogged by misadventure, the butt of circumstances, lamentable and absurd. In delightfully casual little sketches, he travels several continents, pitiful, laughable, irresistible.
Carson was Here is a travel book of sorts, but the narrator is a free agent, having left the travel business (other than a brief return to his old line of work in the closing pages) and able to head off to various parts of Europe with a shifting crew of fellow travellers whenever the fancy takes him. What he is using for money is anyone’s guess.
So, Carson was here. And where was here, exactly? In no particular order, a non-exhaustive list would put him in Spain, Italy, Greece and Yugoslavia. His first port of call is Ireland, where he extends the 10am–10pm opening times in Dublin boozers by frequenting out-of-hours establishments known as the Bonafides: ‘The Bonafides are roughly outside the city limit [correct, singular] and are bars into which legal entry may be made by the traveller.’
We had similar arrangements for many years in terms of Sunday drinkers having to declare themselves to be bona fide travellers, just before we rock with laughter at the ways of our Irish friends.
Carson is interesting, if not always accurate, about our near-neighbours:
It should be noted that though the Irish character is full of caution, and safeguards are taken in every possible manner to mask one’s own and even other people’s identities (it is never likely that anyone is ever ‘in’ when you telephone them, unless the person called has suddenly woken up, or shouted down his wife), there is also a great element of bravado, a desire to impress the Englishman with the possession of qualities which are actually quite alien to the native character.
So begins Carson’s excellent European adventure, from city to city and country to country:
Each white, sun-baked town from Marseilles to Athens was a good clear soup, an excellent grilled trout, a fine steak with French potatoes. Heidelberg appeared in the night, a scientific glow that could have been Swindon, an atomic establishment, or an airport.
Don’t you love that off-the-cuff dismissal of mundane modernity? Swindon, an atomic establishment, or an airport.
His companions change, suggesting Carson was Here is a compendium of different journeys. Not that it really makes a great deal of difference, as the veracity of the account is questionable to say the least. As Michael Frayn wrote in The Spectator of his 1960 publication A Rose by Any Other Name:
If you like Anthony Carson’s adventures in whimsy, I don’t suppose you will be deterred by his new book … since it is more or less indistinguishable from the last two. Some people keep Carson by their bedside, but it all seems pretty thin to me. One of the things which irks me is a complete inability to decide whether the stuff is fact or fiction. Not that it matters.
No, it doesn’t. Linking the different episodes in this book are, first, Carson’s identification with the ‘pending men’, those who are ‘waiting for someone to do something about them’ (and sluicing in Fitzrovia in the meantime) and, second, Carson’s use of the truly international language of Europe, ‘Desperanto’, which is ‘composed of motto French, Latin tags and very loudly shouted English’. One is reminded of ‘Ma Crepe Suzette’, the Kenneth Williams chanson composed entirely of expressions such as Par Avion and Repondez S’il Vous Plait.
There is some lovely, if not always disciplined, writing here:
A lorry appeared, a monster, changing gears, one of those perpetual lorries which wound the night of Spain, carrying desperate cargoes of fish and nitrate, rice and engine parts.
Elsewhere in the Spanish sierra:
The country around glowed with silver and green and rose, a light clear and soft, reflected and reflecting. Christ could have been born here; there could have been news from the Sierra; the people were the people of Nazareth briefed in the legend; a king was being born.
In Amsterdam, he is taken to the red-light district:
[We] went down a street with rooms like shops with plate-glass windows. In them sat women, close to the window, legs up, knitting or reading. ‘Business women,’ said Hicks, ‘you never say whores here.’
Carson’s opinions occasionally break cover, even if it is not always easy to understand what they are. Here he is on sexual law reform:
I intensely dislike things like Wolfenden reports, they distort the true incidents of living as much as the scabrous reports in the Sunday papers. Both attempt to convince the timid, frustrated and victimised reader that dangerous living cannot be beautiful, that it is some sort of crime to be socially lost, that it is safer in the vicarious back-garden of life, hounded by poisoned print, perjured priests and pompous politicians.
As one of my early newsroom bosses would say, when slinging over a weighty and very dull official document: ‘Pick the bones out of that, mate.’
Communist Yugoslavia is visited, and the book ends with Carson unwittingly taking part in a fraud against adventurous British tourists who think they have been behind the Iron Curtain but have actually been flown, in a round-about and time-consuming way, only to Wales.
In Spain, a Romany family joins Carson in his railway compartment. He naturally assumes they want to steal his property: ‘[I] was worried about the gipsy family. The compartment was haunted now. It had become a cave. What about our bags, passports, travellers’ cheques?’
On behalf of my mother’s heritage, I probably ought to be enraged by this, but can’t really be bothered. Anyway, as The Times gave him an obituary in 1973, it is probably a little late to have the police monster Carson for ‘hate crime’.
The Guardian and The Spectator reviewed Carson and occasionally wrote about him. The last mention I can dig up was in December 1974 in (perhaps fittingly, given that Carson Was Here and other sources suggest the author could give the bar some hammer) a piece by Richard Boston in the Guardian mourning the fact that ‘the literary pub world of a century ago has gone’.
A great shame Carson is no longer with us. But you do wonder under what name he departed this life; von Bohr, Brooke or Carson.
The Irish, it seems, were not alone in taking trouble ‘to mask one’s own and even other people’s identities’.