Someone somewhere will have written a book about occasions on which minor characters have stolen the show in novels. One that springs to mind is Watson Holland, in John Murray’s Jazz etc. The remarkable Watson is very much one of John’s great comic figures.
When we meet Watson for the first time it is as a lodger in Enzo the book’s narrator’s family home in Whitehaven, Cumbria. It is the mid-1960s and Watson is aged 50. He is a cultured pharmacist, and is over-educated and under-stimulated. For amusement he indulges in verbal battles with the young Enzo, which John Murray claims is comparable to the interplay between Jan Hammer and John McLaughlin as part of the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Actually Watson would not have appreciated that description, as he was very much against jazz, but John Murray claims that his tirades were like a jazz soloist’s improvisations, and like that great jazz composer Samuel Beckett in fact. And indeed so is John’s writing, for where he switches from story to story in the course of a book it is like the saxophonist and then the guitarist and then the trumpet player then the vibes player and the guitarist again stepping forward and taking their turn to deliver an improvised solo, while knowing when to step back and keep things ticking over as need be.
Hopefully without giving too much away, Watson Holland undergoes a Damascene conversion in 1991 when he discovers jazz and love, the two naturally being connected. The curmudgeonly intellectual and classical snob Watson Holland is converted to jazz on hearing Keith Jarrett’s Facing You, or more precisely the track ‘My Lady, My Child’. And it gets even better when Watson’s new wife, the retired school teacher Madge Bimson from Nether Wasdale way, discovers free jazz and in her 70s becomes a regular attendee of concerts by the likes of Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Lol Coxhill, and Ray Russell.
Watson’s original incarnation as the argumentative pharmacist with what we used to call highfalutin ideas and a bombastic nature, off-set with a sense of mischief, is responsible for some of the best lines in the book, and this is a typical example: “It’s a sad fact that people scarcely know how to play any more, my boy. Look to Shakespeare, if you want any proper guidance in that respect. He loved to play, he was the biggest player ever. Even his tragic plays he leavens with the idiots, the rude mechanicals and the punning artisans.”
Watson maybe meets his match in Bill Geraghty, father of George the narrator of A Gentleman’s Relish, John Murray’s 2006 novel. At the start of the book, when we are introduced to Bill, he speaks 55 languages and has had as many mistresses. Those numbers rise considerably as the book progresses.
Bill Geraghty is a disappointed man, like Watson, resentful at missing out on great glories. He was blackballed and excluded from academic success at Oxford, and occupied his working life as a proof reader in Abingdon. He was a rapacious autodidact, and as such an earlier example of Enzo in John Murray’s Jazz etc. who was “a slipshod autodidact in an age when there was no point at all in such a decadent occupation.”
He might be loveable as an English eccentric, but Bill Geraghty would have been a nightmare to have as a father. His son George is the book’s narrator, and through his reminiscences we learn of Bill’s escapades, including the incident with his father’s ashes, and how he was devastated by the death of a beloved budgerigar (Mrs White) which is buried with every possible ceremony in a valuable Wedgwood casket.
Bill is described as a “competitive failure” and seeks solace in languages and ladies. He is an inveterate womaniser, and his philandering inevitably gets him into serious trouble. On one occasion an outraged husband turns up at the front door of the family home, complaining about “cast an oafers” turning Abingdon into “Sodem and Gomorrer”, only to be bettered (and battered) by Bill’s long-suffering wife who seeks her own compensatory diversions among the decadent pre-war avant-garde.
Another classic comic interlude comes along when Bill slopes off to spend time alone in a caravan at Penrhyndeudraeth with a shop girl, Mildred, who is half his age and who gets rather wonderful revenge for Bill’s erratic behaviour. Best of all though is the case of Lenny Risley, a barrow boy from Rotherhithe. Bill falls for his barmaid sister Coco’s “fizzical shams” (go on, work it out), and in the course of events gets caught up playing a game of cards with Lenny.
Bill may have been a city intellectual but it turns out he was a wizard at playing cards too, and would probably have had a whale of time playing poker with Bad Bobby Sloane, one of the stars of Jim Dodge’s Stone Junction, the man who teaches the young Daniel Pearse about how to achieve a balance of discipline and impulse. Lenny turns out to be an “East End Don Quixote” who speaks like Margery Allingham’s Mr Lugg and has a similarly uniquely peculiar idea of honour and how to lose. Lenny loses pretty much everything including, to Bill’s horror, the Risley residence: “This arse is your arse now”. It is one of the great comic episodes in fiction.