“…all the recognized haunts of intelligence had let them down.”
What message did Margery Sharp convey by titling her second book Fanfare for Tin Trumpets? In medieval times, this expression referred to long, slender horns trumpeting out an impressive flourish of notes to herald the entrance of royalty, or an important event.
In Sharp’s days of youth, this idea had been given modernity by a composer/conductor named Eugene Goossens, who hoped to stir up the fires of patriotism in England during WWI. To this end, he commissioned some British composers of note during these war years to compose short fanfares that would be played as introductions to his concerts. It is very likely that Margery Sharp had heard several versions of fanfares, and had felt the thrill of anticipation that these short, melodious blasts can arouse.
This idea was repeated for WWII, as Goossens commissioned American composers to do the same as he had the British composers do during WWI. The most famous piece that emerged, and that is still played, is Aaron Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’, a title that might well have served for this second novel of Margery Sharp’s.
So what is the heralded event? What does this Fanfare announce?
Young Alistair French is about to begin living his life.
He is twenty-one, a teacher of modest habits, and his lifestyle thoroughly a product of middle-class suburban respectability. His dreams, however, are of great things. His father has just died—inconveniently—as Alistair is left with so few memories of him; but conveniently, on the other hand, as Alistair has been left with 100 pounds of inheritance money.
Now, at last, he can fully realize the bohemian life in London, become an acclaimed writer, and make his mark on the world.
‘ “London,” said Alistair… ‘The biggest city in the world, the city to loot. Work so incessant that dawn put out the candle and the black coffee grew cold at one’s elbow. And then Fame with her trumpet seeking out the humble lodging, and on her heels reporters from every paper in Fleet Street…’
He carefully figures, in terms of budget and projected word count of a thousand words a day, that it will take him a year to work through his funds and produce two full-length novels and forty short stories; more than enough to become famous and self-supporting by that time with his art.
But first, he and his amiable friend Henry (‘a youth of considerable sober talent’) need to find just the right apartment in London…with just the right bohemian ambiance….in just the right neighborhood….or at the very least something they can afford…and hopefully not too squalid…finally…
‘…they came to rest at the end of a hot and hopeless day….They had been inspecting unfurnished apartments since early morning, and with a complete lack of success. Hampstead, Bloomsbury, Chelsea–all the recognized haunts of intelligence–had let them down; and it was the merest accident that they should have been returning from Bayswater by way of Kimberly Street…’
It is on Kimberly Street,—‘its slightly disheveled shops supplying every human need, generally at very low cost’–where their new life begins. This is also where Ma Parker and Winnie Parker are introduced, two pungent and colorful Cockney characters that will be remembered long after the book is read.
Surely Margery Sharp, with her keen interest in theater, must have enjoyed a performance of Shaw’s Pygmalion, for one gets the sense that Winnie Parker was inspired by Eliza Doolittle (that “rapscallionly flower girl” as Shaw termed it)—she is spunky, brash, warm-hearted, sells (artificial) flowers, and wins the reader’s heart immediately.
The reviewer for the New York Times wrote:
‘One is inclined to believe that Winnie, the cockney gamin of the rooming-house, ran away with the author’s affections, for she is the most completely realized of the characters, and with her eighteen beaux, her weird costumes, salty speech and essential good-heartedness, she shares full honors with Alistair.’
Winnie’s rough charm and the urchin prettiness that is sometimes glimpsed beneath her enthusiastic over-application of cosmetics is so irresistible that for a time Alistair even entertains the notion he might be able to marry her and transform her into the proper consort for his literary life.
‘The line from [her] ear to chin was exceptionally pure, the temples and cheek-bones modeled with such delicacy that Alistair was reminded of the faces in the Primavera. For the first time emotion touched him….He saw himself at once correcting Winnie’s pronunciation and encouraging her to read Lytton Strachey….’
Once again, echoes of Pygmalion, but something else, as well.
Alistair’s fancy that Winnie resembles a face from the Primavera by Botticelli strikes a chord of memory. Ah, yes–it was a paper print of the Primavera that was hung in a place of pride over the mantel when Alistair and Henry first moved into their apartment. (Alistair hung it crookedly, which Henry felt obliged to point out).
Thus Sharp has provided us with a rich symbolism as a point of reference for the entire story–the spring of youth and fruitfulness, the beautiful goddess of love, Venus in a starring role ( in this case name changed to Cressida) the three Graces (also with intriguing name changes) and of course the transformed flower girl, Winnie.
The boarding house on Kimberley Street, where Alistair and Henry take up lodgings, is one of Margery Sharp’s finest pieces of framework. An entire three floors of the Sharp pantheon of comic and vivid characters are presented here, and they are not to be missed. [Please would someone reprint this book so it can be enjoyed by many more! And make it into a film!! This is a rich treasure trove of opportunity for any aspiring screen writer!]
The open, dingy landings, where everyone gathers at various times of the day to have a ‘wash up’, share tea, gossip, shout down each other, or discuss the latest wild event–such as who was knocked down by a taxi–is great fun for the reader.
Alistair’s internal monologue is, at times, hilarious; yet there is a Walter Mitty-like pathos to it that makes us feel for him keenly, because we know that disappointment looms;
‘he paused a moment to visualize himself, an international figure, refusing stupendous sums to go to Hollywood…’
Nothing turns out as Alistair envisioned it. At times it all came close—thrillingly close—to being realized. His few brief and hopeful excursions into the circle of literati are, as one reviewer stated it, ‘wickedly descriptive’.
Falling prey to the charms of an ambitious actress not only complicates his life and shrinks his bank book, it also makes him resolved to write plays instead of novels.
‘Plays,’ as he now pointed out to his friend, ‘admitted of a more direct attack on the emotions, satisfied eye and ear as well as intellect, and were altogether far more suitable vehicles for his art.’
Henry, always practical, adds that they’re also ‘much shorter to write’.
To be sure, the only constant in Alistair’s startlingly new and colorful life is the blank piece of writing paper that eludes his genius.
Sharp could only have written so well and so cleverly of this world by having known aspects of it and lived it herself. This is confirmed by the opening words of chapter six:
‘There were in London at this time countless trios of young women living together in top-floor flats and addressing one another as Pooh, Eeyore, and Christopher Robin. Many of them earned their own living, others painted book-ends, or attended courses at the University; but the ones Henry knew were all going to teach.’
Sharp herself describes this stage of her life, attending the university, working as a typist, while sharing a flat with two other young women, as ‘a most agreeable time’.
Early in the story, Henry invites Alistair to go with him to a party in one of these many flats inhabited by a trio of young women. Alistair is doubtful.
“What exactly happens?”
“They read plays–awfully advanced stuff, I believe. Tomorrow it’s the Country Wife.”
This sounds impressive enough to Alistair, so he goes. No one, of course, has actually read the play, so no one knows what they’re in for as they each take a part. The resulting embarrassment that ensues, in which everyone plows through the racy scenes as stoically as possible is one of the funniest episodes in the book.
Since we have surmised that much of the narrative is minted from Sharp’s own freshly lived past, it gives a poignant quality to the flutter of new experience she writes of—the fervent dreams, the sting of disillusionment, and in the end, defiant resignation.
Once again, ‘They’ are invoked (see Rhododendron Pie 2 review) —only this time it is ‘They’ of the unimaginative spirit, stodgy clerkdom, and middle class complacency; ‘They’ who had thought Alistair foolish for even trying to find his way in the world of art and ideas.
Foolish for wasting a year of his life, for wasting a hundred pounds of inheritance money.
‘They were all wrong,’ Alistair thinks, ‘They were so wrong that they would never even begin to understand what he, Alistair, knew by instinct….that creation is the only important thing on earth….[I’m] just not clever enough to create myself.’
Alistair ends by knowing.
It was his not knowing, through the course of the novel, that made us fear for where his lofty balloon was taking him. But now he is safe, he is wiser, and he knows where he should be.
Alistair French can now begin to live his life.
The New York Times reviewer wrote: ‘Light novels dealing with the enthusiasms and disillusionments of youth are so frequently sentimentalized or incredibly burlesqued that it is a pleasure to find so neat a balance of sympathy and humor as characterizes this airy story.’
The Spectator, September 3, 1932: ‘Miss Sharp is a real find, and I enjoyed every word of her pleasant, unpretentious and amusing story.’
The good news is, this ‘airy story’ is not as scarce as Rhododendron Pie. It sold well in its time, had positive critical reviews, and, to all intents and purposes, was the launch of Sharp’s novel writing career.
As Sharp put it, in her 1964 interview with Roy Newquist, ‘The first book which met with any success at all was the second, Fanfare for Tin Trumpets…[it] did me a lot of good, and I simply went on from there.’
I love this book.
Let me just repeat, would someone please do a reprint? And then make it into a film?