Saturday, 21 March 2015

Ticky: fine satirical fantasy

I mentioned a while back (see Westwood) about the Vintage Classics reprints of Stella Gibbons novels, and just very much enjoyed reading the 2011 Vintage edition of her 1943 Ticky, a satirical fantasy about English military institutions.

Ticky is set in the mid-1800s in the Club, a vast twin-towered edifice in Hyde Park, which houses the First Bloods regiment: its eccentric officer class in the South Tower, and an underclass of servants, the 'waiters', in the North Tower. The novel is a wry comedy of the politics and loves of the inhabitants of the Club, which is so large that it needs internal trams, and contains parkland and wooded groves.
The mighty building with its twin glass towers glittered darkly against the heavens, which were still partly obscured by flying clouds. The North Tower, indeed, was temporarily concealed in mists from which its pointed summit emerged, remote and awesome as a mountain peak.
A horse-drawn tram now appeared in the distance, running between two pathways of richest crimson pile carpet and driven by a small, sullen waiter.
- Ticky
The book's structure somewhat confounds expectations. "Ticky" (the nickname of Lieutenant Gerard Toloreaux) is not the lead character, nor is the newly-commissioned Barry Molloy, whose arrival at the beginning of the book introduces us to the Club. In fact there isn't really a central character; the story interweaves many threads. One involves Ticky's romance with Philly Sawyer, a girl of the waiter class. Another is the disruption of the routine of the uptight weapons-obsessed headmaster Dr Pressure, when the worldly Mrs. Lovecome returns to his life (a situation complicated when Molloy himself falls in love with her). Yet another involves Major Pillichodie's constant attempts to ingratiate himself with Queen Victoria by finding banal factoids of household wisdom in his set of "Hindoo carved boxes". These all come together amid the central conflict of the novel, when the presiding Colonel decides to annexe the Pleasure Grounds, a patch of land traditionally held by the waiters. The situation is set to lead to civil war in the Club unless the waiters can find the Charter, a lost document enshrining their rights to the land.

from Thomas Rowlandson's
Sketches of the Lower Orders
The Club and its occupants are marvellously described, from the epic to the folksy. Molloy's arrival leads with a spectacular set-piece of his journey in a thunderstorm to the officer's mess in the glass-walled summit of the South Tower, where he finds the Colonel hypnotized by the discharge of lightning into a pile of cutlery. Elsewhere, in the North Tower, we find the waiters' bunks ranged up the girders of the Tower, rather like those of the underclass inhabitants of the underground city in Salute of the Jugger.

No less strange are the smaller details of the First Bloods' military ritual, such as the "bosun's whistle" (a sartorial conceit on the back of their uniform which must, by tradition, be pipeclayed and polished with the hands behind the back) and the Regimental Coal Scuttle (by tradition kept in such pristine condition that, inconveniently, it can't be used for coal, and nor can a replacement be ordered).

But you have to be cautious; many examples that appear to be Cold Comfort Farm style fictions turn out to be true: one character's stock phrase about getting "the monkey's allowance" (i.e. a poor deal, as of an organ-grinder's monkey) is real historical idiom, as is "snake-tart" (mid-1800s London slang for eel pie); and "saloop" ...
an old-fashioned beverage decocted from the root of the red-handed orchis. It comforted the waiters' stomachs because it was greasy and warm.
... also really existed.

Ticky is as rich in allusion as CCF, and invites immediate comparison with Daisy Ashford (who imagined Crystal Palace as a vast edifice divided into "compartments" inhabited by various aristocrats). The scenario also reminds me a lot of the Gormenghast series, with its city-castle inhabited by eccentric aristocrats served by an underclass. However, Titus Groan came out in 1946, so Ticky got there first. Whether Peake knew of it is a matter of speculation. Gibbons herself identifies some of the influences, both in the credits and the novel text:
' There is, perhaps, no species of society so striking and so captivating to the young man entering on life as that of a military mess' - Ours, Charles Lever

'There aren't better stuff to make soldiers out of nowhere than Englishmen, God bless 'em, but they're badgered, they're horribly badgered' - Under Two Flags, Ouida

"So nice for the poor creatures," observed Mrs. Lovecome ... Quite like one of dear Miss Braddon's stories—although, personally, I prefer Ouida—you really must read Ouida after you are married, Beatrice."
I haven't read much Ouida, but the stylish and uninhibited (even to the edge of amoral) Mrs. Lovecome is very much an Ouida character. Other influences include the historical novelist William Harrison Ainsworth (Major Pillichoddie in Ticky is drawn straight from Ainsworth's Major Pillichody in Old St Paul's) and even Gibbons's own works (Fig Starkadder - "a gloomy man reputed to come from Sussex" - gets a bit part).

As I said, the structure of the novel is a little strange. Gibbons could have made a lot more of Molloy as an outsider viewpoint on the Club, but seems to lose interest in him after using him as an introduction. Nevertheless, this is a fine piece of fantasy writing, and still a relevant comment on military institutions.

There's an extensive article by Reggie Oliver - TICKY: Longmans - at the now-defunct Stella Gibbons official website.  He comments that Ticky was, in its way, highly subversive. I think this is evident both in its portrayal of military life as a body of absurd ritual, its most fervent exponents being troubled individuals, and in its central scenario: only the Colonel wants to seize the waiters' Pleasure Grounds, while his officers and enlisted men are in sympathy with the existing occupiers. As Reggie Oliver writes:
The middle of the Second World War was perhaps the wrong time to satirise, however obliquely, the ridiculous and dangerous rituals that surround the male aggressive instinct.
A couple of contemporary reviews of Ticky are findable, along with some later commentary, via Google Books:
I feel a faint sense of personal relief that I never urged Miss Gibbons to write another Cold Comfort Farm, knowing perfectly well that some miracles cannot be repeated.

If I had urged it, I might feel some compulsion to be pleased by Ticky. The period is Victorian, the scene the quarters of a crack English regiment. The officers, splendid Ouida beauties with. ravishing mustachios, are tended and fed and watered by a gnomic tribe of Waiters, employed as servants in The Club, as the regimental buildings are called. The main issue is the struggle of the Colonel to acquire a rag-tag, marshy piece of greenness known as the Pleasure Grounds, which is being held by the Waiters under a charter.

The period is satirized with that keen delicacy that is Miss Gibbons' own, and even during the most turgid stretches of comedy her pure humour flashes up, unique and irresistible; background is painted rather with the wit of a Tissot than the solemn fidelity of a Frith, a wit that, while it laughs at the bobbles on a cape, the bird of paradise upon a hat. realizes their absurd prettiness. Yet, with the best will in the world, I can’t regard Ticky as a thoroughgoing success.
- John o'London's Weekly, Issues 1197-1209, 1943

Pride of the Regiment
Miss STELLA GIBBONS says of her new book, Ticky (Longmans, 7/6), "I wrote it to please myself and it is meant to be funny." Well, it is funny and it should please everybody: apart from these facts and except for the beautiful little word-landscapes that the author bestows as charmingly and irrelevantly as an old Italian painter, it is as different from Cold Comfort Farm and its successors as anything could be. For here we have all the glitter and “Good-Gadding of a crack Victorian regiment, quartered in a Crystal Palace where horse-drawn trams run between pathways of richest crimson pile carpet”. At one end of the grounds is the "Waiters' Pleasure Gardens," as mad a place as the garden Alice entered. The plot, or part of it, centres round the Colonel's plan to annex this land as a parade-ground; but the book is a frolic, not dependent on plot but on nicely-mad situations, incongruous love-affairs and skits who represent characters. The waiters are almost sub-human and the Colonel is an old-block blend of lion and lamb: his pride is the regiment, yet he greets cats with — "What ails you, puss?" In fact Miss GIBBONS is at her very best, and what could be better than that?
- Punch, Volume 204, 1943

In a magazine article Stella Gibbons confessed that the novel which had given her the most enjoyment was Ticky; nor is this surprising because it is as clever as Cold Comfort Farm but in a different way. It would need a long paragraph even to say what Ticky is about. It is hardly satire, nor pure fantasy, but a remarkable piece of sustained imaginative writing, often amusing and not without a strain of happy sentiment. Ticky and the Collected Poems are worthy companions to Cold Comfort Farm.
- Books, Issues 299-314, 1956
To my surprise and pleasure, however, [I] have just discovered a title written more in the Cold Comfort Farm tradition. It is Ticky, a surreal fantasy about a mythical regiment, the pet hobby of Queen Victoria. The regiment is quartered in a vast building in central London, rather like the Crystal Palace, and the plot turns upon the Colonel's wish to acquire the Pleasure Grounds belonging to the Waiters, who are a band of small, skinny and put-upon men employed as servants in the Club. Some descriptions of the buildings vaguely called to mind those by Daisy Ashford, in The Young Visiters. On glancing through this I was pleased to find that the passages I remembered were in fact a description of the Crystal Palace as imagined by Daisy, with its 'small but handsome compartments', where even those 'not quite the right side of the blanket’, such as Mr Salteena, could stay. Perhaps it was this work which inspired Miss Gibbons?
- Antiquarian Book Monthly Review, Volume 19, Issue 213 - Volume 20, Issue 225, 1992
- Ray

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