By Rob Spence
If you are, as I am, a child of the fifties, then one of your first televisual memories will be of the ITV series The Adventures of Robin Hood, which ran from 1955 to 1960. Richard Greene as Robin presided over a suspiciously neat and tidy Sherwood Forest, outwitting the evil Sheriff of Nottingham in 25 minutes flat each week. His trusty right hand man, Little John, was played by a big brawny Scot, Archie Duncan, who had previously worked as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards.
In Hugo Charteris’s entertaining novel, first published in 1961, and now reissued by Walmer Books, a tightly-knit community in the Scottish Highlands is disrupted by the arrival of a famous actor, Tulloch Traquhair , who is instantly recognisable to the inhabitants because of his role as Little John in the Robin Hood TV series. The year is 1958, and Traquhair has sensationally abandoned his life as an actor to take over a derelict hotel in the small town of Fluach. What could have driven him thence, accompanied by his rather enigmatic secretary Meldrum, is the topic of much gossip in the opening chapters.
The arrival of the stranger, and the impact of that arrival on a settled society, is of course a standard fictional trope, and in the case of The Lifeline I was more than once reminded of Muriel Spark’s coruscating novel The Ballad of Peckham Rye, published just a few months earlier. Spark’s much shorter tale similarly documents the ever-widening waves of disruption triggered by the introduction of a mysterious and charismatic stranger into a closed community. At other times, the humour and the setting was reminiscent of Compton Mackenzie’s Whisky Galore, but this is not to say Charteris is unoriginal. Rather, he takes some of the clichés of Scottish life as seen in film and fiction, and uses them for his own comic ends. Traquhair is both a stereotype and an original. He is a giant, bearded man, always seen in a kilt or full Highland dress, apt to throw Gaelic tags into conversation, a throwback to the age of Bonnie Prince Charlie. But his character has a good deal more depth and nuance, as the reader discovers as the narrative unfolds, and some light is shed on his past. And it is worth saying that there is much humour here, as Charteris has an eye for the absurd, and is a master of the set-piece scene of comic mayhem: the football club dance and the local Highland games are two examples. In other hands, say those of Evelyn Waugh, this might have become a light-hearted romp, and while there are plenty of comic moments, there is also a sense of a sharply observed dissection of the petty rivalries of small town life in the fifties.
The tale proceeds in picaresque manner, as Traquhair establishes himself in his new environs, acquiring friends and enemies, and becoming the focal point of local life. Questions abound about his motivations and intentions, particularly since the hotel was previously in the ownership of a fraudster, now imprisoned, who seems to have been a friend of the actor.
This is a long novel, and Charteris is not afraid of detailed description, both of landscape and character. The various eccentrics that make up the cast are well-drawn, and given convincing back stories. The portrait of Highland life that emerges is of one struggling to come to terms with the post-war era, trying to hold on to a collective identity, but not succeeding. At times, although the tone tends to the humorous, there is a melancholic note.
Hugo Charteris is not a well-known figure these days, but warrants further investigation. He came from an aristocratic background, was awarded the MC for distinguished war service, and wrote a series of well-received novels while living in the far north of Scotland, before his death at the age of 48 in 1970. He is ripe for rediscovery, and this novel would be a good starting point.
Rob Spence’s home on the net is robspence.org.uk, You can also find him on Twitter @spencro.
Hugo Charteris, The Lifeline (Michael Walmer, 2021). 978-0648920465, 383pp., paperback.
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