Sunday, 30 March 2014

Penguin no. 493: Delay in the Sun
by Anthony Thorne

I for one hate our modern civilisation. I hate the standardisation, the characterlessness of honeycomb buildings and furniture inspired by machinery, practicable but uninviting and unpleasant to the touch. I hate the craze for bare unhygenic rooms in which Donatello's David would seem an incongruous dust trap...I hate the hurry and the bustle - the rush to do things which are not really worth doing if one stops to think about them. I hate the people who know what the public wants and insist on giving it to them. I hate dictators, cocktails, canned music, smash-hit films, literary jargon, world-records, commercial titles, aristocracy for sale, and a thousand other manifestations of the Chromium Age.

I am surprised that no one has ever taken this wonderful story and made it the basis for a film, for as delightful as this was to read, I am sure it would have been even more enjoyable to watch. It has the ideal title for one of those English films about travelling abroad, something like A Room with a View but set in 1930s Spain; it also has an ideal plot and setting .

Delay in the Sun tells the story of a few days in the lives of a set of ill-assorted English tourists who find themselves unexpectedly stranded in a sedate and ramshackle Spanish town by a bus strike. Querinda is isolated by virtue of its poverty, the widespread somnolence and the limited embrace of technology, and so the travellers are effectively imprisoned: irrespective of what any one of them might have been willing to pay to escape in order to continue the journey, there are few cars and no taxis, and so no method of conveyance to the outside world other than the disrupted bus service, or a long and difficult journey by foot.

The stranded tourists at first cope with this setback by asserting their Englishness, and it is all cups of tea and games of bridge and a steadfast refusal to accommodate themselves or their habits to their altered circumstances - or at least that is how their behaviour is interpreted by Julian and John. This latter pair do not consider themselves to be a part of the group, as in their own eyes they are set apart by a sophistication which is the product of a greater familiarity with European culture, and also by the fact that they had already taken the decision to break their journey towards Corunna, and the ferry back to Plymouth, at Querinda. They were rather dismayed to find that they would be joined in this adventure by seven unwelcome others.

The small town had charmed the pair immediately; John had visions of capturing the fountain, the wavering streets and the odd little church on canvas, and Julian enjoyed the idea of indulging John's sudden whim. But on returning to the motor coach to retrieve their luggage, they find it gone, having left in its wake a group of distraught English tourists with no clear idea of what they should do next. The tourists head to the Hotel Gran Oriente; Julian and John assert their separateness by heading to a small tavern in the Puerta del Sol.

The stranded tourists form a disparate group:  a Jewish salesman; a widow travelling alone on the journey of a lifetime; an ageing spinster, on her way home from a visit to her brother, and desperate to return to her employment on schedule; she is soon to awaken to the realisation that she has forsaken the best that life had to offer on her employer's behalf. There is also a mesmerisingly attractive but mediocre actor holidaying with his lover who quietly tortures herself with thoughts which dwell upon her own comparative plainness, and two young girls who are barely out of school, one rather masculine and the other attracting the attention of men wherever she goes.

Despite his haughty attitude, Julian seems far more interested in the tourists than they are in him. He cannot help but observe them and learn their stories, for he has a theory that this unplanned pause in their respective journeys will change their lives forever: he claims that their futures will depend entirely upon these days in Querinda:
"If you interrupt a man in the middle of his life you surprise him, so to speak, in the middle of a sentence. The sentence is incomplete...Put an unexpected semicolon there. The rest of the sentence may be entirely different."
He turns out to be both right and wrong, for he had taken it for granted that he and John would be immune from Querinda's influence.

Delay in the Sun is like a fairy story, for reality is never quite this interesting, and yet the charm of the story is that its improbableness really doesn't matter. I found myself captivated by Anthony Thorne's portrait of this sleepy Spanish town, and perfectly willing to believe, at least for the duration of the book, that such things could really take place.

First published 1935. Published in Penguin Books September 1944. This copy 1945.


I think it is at least eighteen months since I have found something of interest concealed within the pages of one of my Penguins. This one had an old receipt from Austick's Bookshops, which was designed to double as a bookmark, and which recorded that it was purchased secondhand on the 8th March in an unmentioned year for 35 pence. Austick's Bookshops seem to exist no longer - I looked up a couple of the listed addresses on Google Maps, and found that one seems to now be a Blackwell's, and another a Starbucks.


5 comments:

  1. I remember Austick's very well - just opposite University of Leeds. Lovely traditional academic bookshop with huge stock range - the modern day Blackwell's which took over just can't compete. They had a couple of smaller branches in Leeds as well. I think an aged family member is still alive in Burley in Wharfedale. I occasionally come across Austick's receipts from the 70s still functioning as bookmarks.

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  2. I remember buying my copy of J. G. Ballard's _Crash_ from Austick's, Headrow branch, on publication day, 28th June 1973.

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  3. Anyway, who is this writer Anthony Thorne? He sounds interesting, but there is no Wikipedia entry for him, and I don't recall hearing of him before. Google throws up references to a couple of other novels by him -- _So Long at the Fair_ and _The Baby and the Battleship_, the latter of which was made into a minor British comedy film; but I can't readily find any biographical information.

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    1. On the back cover of the Penguin edition it says:

      THE AUTHOR: Born and bred in London, but prefers the country. Graduate of Oxford University (English Literature). Likes to be in a ship, has travelled widely in Europe and across oceans, and is fond of getting lost in outlandish places. Jobs include publishing, advertising, selling limited editions in pre-war Paris, writing for films, scrubbing decks as an Ordinary Seaman, and, above all, writing novels. Hobbies are music, old houses, and the planting of trees.

      Delay in the Sun, as Evening Standard Book of the Month, was also a Book Society Recommendation and First Choice of the Literary Guild in America. It has been translated into several languages. Other books by Anthony Thorne include Cabbage Holiday (1940) and I'm a Stranger Here Myself (1943).

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    2. There is a little more detail on the back of the other of his novels to be published in Penguin (Fruit in Season), where it says he was born in 1904, educated at St Paul's School and at Keble College, and that he served in the Navy during the War.

      (And I am glad you asked this question - having taken down Fruit in Season from the shelves, I am tempted to read it.)

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