". . . not even Adrian Mole at his most misunderstood suffers such humiliations as Thomas Penman, in Bruce Robinson’s novel.
Thomas’s problems begin at home, among a family so eccentric that they make Nancy Mitford’s Radletts seem like the Waltons. His grandfather, a First World War veteran whose life was saved by maggots, is obsessed with pornography – writing it, collecting it and, in his youth, even posing for it. His father, who permanently sports a surgical collar, is a vile man of violently right-wing tendencies who spends his evenings watching television and massaging the Doberman’s testicles. His mother replaces priceless antiques by charmless reproductions. Only his grandmother and sister, shadowy presences in both house and novel, are relatively normal. Small wonder that, like the young Salvador Dali, Thomas makes his presence felt in the only way he can: by leaving parcels of excrement hidden in the furniture.
Thomas is endlessly inquisitive – the most dangerous characteristic for an adolescent surrounded by repressive adults. He shares this tendency with two friends: the first, Maurice Potts, descends to depths of depravity accessible only to a rebellious vicar’s son (a favourite hobby being to dig up the graves in his father’s cemetery); the second, Gwendolin Hackett, is a gorgeous classmate whom Thomas idolises. Their first date sees him as much at the mercy of his clumsiness as his hormones, but she soon gives him the benefit of her considerably greater experience.
Robinson portrays Thomas’s misadventures in some gloriously comic scenes, such as the mayhem that results from Thomas placing coins on his supposedly dead grandfather’s eyes and from his confusion of enema and anaemia."
—from Michael Arditti, The Independent, May 18, 1998.
The opening paragraphs of Robinson’s The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman:
It was a dislocated unfriendly old house with Victorian additions and plenty of empty rooms. There was a constant smell of meat cooking. On any day you could open the Aga and there was always one in there, meat was continual, and when it wasn’t a joint it might be a tongue or a gut. Plus, there was the enormous ancillary vessel of dog meat, stewing without specification, and cooling through long winter afternoons into ultimate paralysis under two inches of yellow fat.
The history of its meat clung about this house like a climate. Like oil-vapour in a garage. Perhaps the only room immune was an upstairs back bathroom, facing north. Someone once said, ‘Let’s stop this bathroom being green?’ But they ran out of interest, it was green and old yellow. In here were the six toothbrushes of the residents and an egg-coloured carpet with a known verruca. But there was hygiene in here. A smell of cloths provided antidote to the dinners and hours abandoned to them in this apartment of ruined tiles.
It was in this area that his grandfather liked to lurk about, not necessarily in the bathroom, not necessarily excluding it. He rode the toilet like a horse, facing the wall, and crept around in the attic with his penis out. The boy knew this because he was always creeping around too. Sometimes they inadvertently spied on each other. On one occasion he was concealed behind a bedroom door, staring up the hall, and he saw an eye behind the crack in another door, staring back at him. The boy and his grandfather shared more than they might have imagined. Both liked secrets and were interested in the secrets of others. Both thought a lot about nudes.
His grandfather carried pictures of nude women and quite often sent away for brassiere catalogues. Anyone prepared to scale a fifteen-foot wall could lie on the roof and watch him in his ‘office’. Inside were a pair of wooden filing cabinets, a desk with an ancient Olivetti, and two twelve-volt lead-zinc batteries wired into a Morse key. Unfortunately, the only way to observe him in here was by hanging over the gutter and cautiously lowering your head. This meant everything was upside-down, but it was the only way to watch him with his sleeves rolled up and a cigar in his mouth, working on his nudes with a razorblade and pot of gum arabic.
Walter was extremely old and full of cancer, although they hadn’t diagnosed it yet. On the day the first cell divided the boy got his first pubic hair. The hair was unimpressive and the cancer just a few miscreant spores in the old man’s gut. No one knew anything about either. Except Walter had lost weight. He was two holes up on his watch-strap and his coat hung off him like a coat on the back of a chair.
On summer evenings yellow light bored into the cigar smoke and the part of his head that was chromium-plated shone. Sometimes you could see your face in it, like a hubcap.
‘What are you looking at?’
He was careful how he combed his hair, manipulating specially grown long bits over the top and securing them with a wad of grease. This wasn’t always successful. During sultry weather his plate warmed up, melting the Brylcreem, and his dome would emerge like part of a small bollard. I have to tell you when you were looking at this you were looking at something. That’s why he wore a hat.
‘What are you looking at?’
‘You’re a liar.’
He was right. The boy was a liar. They were both expert liars. In 1914 his grandfather had lied to get into the army. He signed up, lying about his age, and they rigged him out in big boots and gave him a ride to France. He was the best Morse-code operator on the line, he could think in fucking Morse. He didn’t know it then, but Morse was the only thing he was ever going to be any good at.
They took them by train to a little town in Belgium a few miles behind the fighting. The Germans had been here for a year or more and junked the place up somewhat. Even the school was full of bullet holes. Did they shoot the children? Who knows, there are no children here to tell. They got billeted in some of the downstairs classrooms and for a month or two this is where the Morse came in. Fifteen words a minute if you were good. Walter could send thirty. He could look across the dead-zone towards the collapsed church where they blew up their own God and hear it in a series of electrical discharges — dit — dit — dah — dah — dit — hits in his head like organised flies. But what about the pretty evenings when the weather was pink? What about the girl he fucked in the meadow? Can Morse ever be beautiful? I can’t think so. Surely this kind of language is only good for ugly things, like horse blood, and maggots in the horse’s head? Kissing tits sounds just about the same as your arse blown off.