What is it about the rare and obscure that inspires such devout allegiance?
One of my favorite crime films is a relatively little known offering from George Harrison’s HandMade Films titled Bellman & True (1987).
The title comes from an old Cumberland song titled “D’ye Ken John Peel,” specifically the lyric:
Yes, I ken John Peel and Ruby too.
Ranter and Ringwood, Bellman and True.
From a find to a check, from a check to a view,
From a view to a death in the morning.
But there’s a pun in the term “bellman:” It also refers to a criminal who specializes in getting past bank alarms.
As good as the movie is—and it’s not just one of my favorite crime films, but one of my favorite films, period—I just spent a lovely sunny Sunday reading the book on which it’s based, by Desmond Lowden. I’ve now ordered everything else I can find that this author’s written—most of which, sadly, is long out of print and can be had for a song.
Don’t confuse obscurity with lack of talent.
This book provided me with one of the most gratifying reading experiences I’ve had lately. As I said, I read it in a day—it’s a mere 183 pages—almost in one sitting. (I’ve only done that with two other books: Double Indemnity and Kim Addonizio’s brilliant poetry collection, Tell Me.)
The book is briskly paced, deftly executed, with brilliant dialog and a well-researched and richly detailed high-tech bank heist at its core. But what makes it truly unforgettable is the writing, which accomplishes its effects not with surface pyrotechnics but “writing from the inside”—i.e., developing its depth and richness and texture from fully imagining the characters, the setting, the situation, the action.
Consider a couple character sketches, which are deceptively simple:
Of the protagonist, Hiller: He was middle-aged, with thinning hair, but there was something of the schoolboy about him. It was the tweed suit, ready-made, from a High Street tailor’s. The sort of suit you bought on leaving school for your first job. The man had kept to the same style ever since, though heavier now in the stomach and seat. And he’d looked after them well, as he walked he kept the suitcases carefully away from his trouser creases.
Of Hiller’s stepson, known only as the boy: He was small, the back of his head was soft and rounded. But his face was pale, sharply pointed with the effort of being eleven years old.
Of Anna, a former high-priced call girl (“on the game, what you’d call the big game, South Africa and the Bahamas”): She had two suitcases, a radio, and a little girl called Mo. The girl sat quietly while her mother took over the spare bedroom next to Hiller’s room. She swept it, scrubbed it, and all the time she kept the radio at her side as though she needed a wall of sound around her. . . She wore no make-up, she was strangely neutral, like a fashion model walking from one job to another, her face and hair in her handbag, and no expression for the journey in between.
Of a minor character, a shop clerk: The man was grey-haired. He had bacon and a suburban train-ride on his breath, and he caught the smell of whiskey on Hiller’s.
Each of these descriptions speaks not just to the physical exterior but the emotional, psychological and sociological interior as well, and they do so with incredible economy, precision and depth.
Lowden’s setting descriptions are equally evocative (this one manages to convey the place, the situation, the character and a sense of menace all in one, while being not in the least bit showy):
The room, when they reached it, was small. There was an old striped carpet, and a basin in the corner held up by its plumbing. Hiller went straight to the window. He stood close to the glass and smelled the sourness of other people’s breath. Across the street he saw the four houses in a row that were empty, their insides gutted and piled at the kerb, their insides dark. And Hiller felt safe. No-one could see he was here.
But the truly great reward of the book is in the interactions between Hiller and the boy, specifically the stories Hiller tells him to keep him entertained. Hiller has a bit of a drinking problem (to put it mildly), and his storytelling conveys not just that, but an imaginative intelligence squandered in drudgery and a misbegotten marriage to the boy’s mother, who has abandoned them both:
‘Tell me a story,’ the boy said.
‘Don’t know any stories.’
The voice was slurred. The boy knew the time was right. ‘Yes, you do,’ he insisted.
‘If you say so.’
‘Cowboy story?’ Hiller tried. ‘The one about Pissoff the Peon? Shot people from behind, mostly in the stomach?’
‘Not that one.’
‘All right. The one about the vicar, who always wore slippers with bunnies on them?’
‘Not that one.’
‘What one then?’
Hiller sat back, his pipe sappy between his wet lips. ‘The Continuing Saga of Sod’s Law,’ he said at last. ‘You Can’t Win.’
‘That’s the one.’
‘Where’d we got to?’
‘This place with the sign outside,’ the boy said. ‘It was called Lulu Land.’
‘Ah, yes, Lulu Land.’ Hiller nodded. ‘Short Life beer, fourpence a pint, all checques accepted. And the juke box played nothing but Wagner, went through Tristan from the overture on.’
The boy didn’t understand. ‘Who was there?’ he asked.
‘The usual people. Sooty Ann Gorge, Mousey Tongue, and Alcide Slow Drag Pavageau.’
‘And the Princess?’
‘Yes.’ Hiller sighed, a short flat sound in the darkness. ‘She was there.’
‘The Princess who smoked French cigarettes? And was only beautiful when she wasn’t looking?’
‘That’s the one.’ Hiller’s hand shook as he picked up the bottle.
The boy was silent. He’d known the Princess too. ‘And was I there?’ he asked finally.
‘Course you were.’ The warmth of the whiskey got into Hiller’s voice. ‘We were all there. We played Skittles and Brittles and One Jump Ginger. And we had a dog that ate nothing but Income Tax Men.’
‘What else did we do?’
‘Sometimes we’d go out in the Hupmobile. We’d have our pints in quart mugs so they didn’t spill while we were driving. And when we got back we’d light the fire with coal-bills. It was good there. We had only one rule. We didn’t let in anyone with a Rover TC.’
‘A Rover what?’
‘TC. A Rover Tinear Cruoris.’
‘I’ll tell you.’ Hiller spoke louder suddenly. ‘People with Rover Tinear Cruoris’ live in four-bedroom fake Georgian houses. They marry St. Bernard dogs called Darling, and they have nasty little kids in green jump-suits who come in through the window on a wire, and say Gosh and all that sort of thing.’ There was real anger in his voice. ‘What’s more, they keep a cross-index file on everyone earning more than five grand in the Southern Counties. And if you mention Stoke Poges, they say you must know Mannering.’
The boy sat forward, not understanding, but drawn to the anger because it was like a child’s. ‘And then?’
‘Well, we made just the one mistake in this place of ours,’ Hiller said. ‘We let this man in, and we didn’t know he had a Rover Tinear Cruoris. He didn’t seem like it at first. The Princess liked him. He had things weighed up, you see. He had a camel hair coat, and he knew the going price of Manganese.’
‘But the Princess wouldn’t have liked any of that.’ The boy was hurt. ‘She wouldn’t have liked him at all.’
‘No, she wouldn’t.’ Hiller’s voice was soft as he lied.
Because he’d been just one of the men the Princess had liked. She’d always surprised him, every time.
‘Let’s kill him off,’ the boy said, ‘with a digger-tractor, sharp, with bits of stones sticking to it.’
‘That’s it,’ Hiller said.
The brilliance of this exchange is the multitude of things it accomplishes: We see Hiller’s struggle with drink and his tender if troubled relationship with the boy; we see the flashes of mawkish anger beneath the wit, especially anger at vapid bourgeois pretension—and resentment of the financial success that has eluded him; we learn of the Princess (“only beautiful when she wasn’t looking”), who is the boy’s mother, and the infatuation they share for her, despite her cruel desertion of them both; and we feel that desertion bitterly, even though (or perhaps because) its extremes are merely hinted at.
We also learn of Hiller’s love of music, not just opera but jazz (Alcide Slow Drag Pavageau was a famous bassist). And we see his wicked sense of humor, especially in his puns: Sooty Anne Gorge (for soutien-gorge, i.e., brassière), Mousey Tongue (Mao Tse Tung), and ‘Tinear Cruoris,’ which refers to tinea cruris, i.e., jock itch. And it presents the theme of Sod’s Law—You Can’t Win—which motivates the action, i.e., Hiller’s hapless, deepening, fateful involvement in a major bank heist.
The passage does all of this through marvelously inventive indirection, while sounding exactly like these two characters talking. The speech tags and stage business surrounding the dialog are spare but richly evocative—nowhere more so than in the seering: Because he’d been just one of the men the Princess had liked. She’d always surprised him, every time. I’ve gone back and reread the section over and over, hoping to learn more intimately the dozens of writing lessons to be had in it.
I also found reading the book in conjunction with watching the film instructive. Adapting books into films is a particular obsession of mine: a great way to study the structure of storytelling, i.e., seeing what’s necessary, what’s not, what can be changed, what can’t, etc.
Here is a trailer of the film.
And you can check out its other bon fides here, at IMDb:
(Note how many of the actors beyond Bernard Hill, the star, have no pictures besides their names. Let me repeat: Don’t confuse obscurity with lack of talent—the cast is superb, if not widely known.)
Now, should you want to watch the film, you may encounter what is commonly referred to as a minor difficulty. It’s not available in the US on DVD, but it appears you can watch it on your computer through Amazon if you’re set up for Logitech viewing. I have a VHS version I nurse tenderly, fearful I may never have it in another format. [ED NOTE: Bellman and True is also available as a download from Amazon.]
Note: Apparently the film was remade for American audiences by the same director (Richard Loncraine) with Harrison Ford in the lead. This version, titled Firewall, includes no mention of Lowden in the credits, however. When I mentioned this to Don Winslow, he conjectured that Lowden got paid and “told to fuck off,” an all-too-frequent arrangement in the film world.
Regardless, however you can find a way to watch the film, do so, and soon. And, yes—somewhere, somehow, find the book, and read it. You’ll not be disappointed. Unless, of course, you drive a Rover TC.