A young schoolmaster named Tom Donagh was glancing at the advertisements in an educational weekly when he chanced to read one which interested him very much.
‘I say, Bishop,’ he said to the only other master in the Common Room, ‘what do you make of this?
Holiday Tutor required for one boy, slightly backward, during Mede Cricket Week. Opening batsman and slip fielder preferred. Public school and University essential. Give last season’s batting average, state whether Blue, bring pyjamas and black tie if called for interview. Apply Sir Adrian Caux, Mede, Hants.
‘Questionable way of getting a bit more class into a village team,’ said Bishop.
‘I shall apply, I think.’
‘What on earth for?’
‘I don’t know. I wouldn’t mind being paid for a week’s cricket, and that’s obviously what it comes to.’
[He applies, and is interviewed by Sir Adrian]
‘Well, what do you say to free board and lodging for a week, a tenner, and, if we beat Bruke, another twenty pounds?’
‘Am I up for interview, Sir Adrian, or have I got the job?’
‘Oh, you’ve got it, of course. I thought you understood that.’
‘Then I’ll take the ten pounds for tutoring your grandson, but I don’t care, otherwise, whether we win or lose, provided it’s a fairly decent game.’
‘Done,’ said Sir Adrian immediately. ‘Although the twenty pounds wouldn’t prejudice your amateur status, you know. It would only be an honorarium.’
commentary: Nearly a year ago I did a post on Mitchell’s book The Worsted Viper, and the discussion in the comments took an unexpected turn: two of my blogfriends, Daniel Milford-Cottam and John Norris, debated the merits of this book, The Echoing Strangers. Briefly: Daniel hated it and had a strong moral objection to it. John understood Daniel’s points, but thought it one of her best. I strongly recommend that readers go and look at the back-and-forth at the end of the post. I was very curious, so decided I must read this one, and eventually have. And, rather boringly, I am stuck in the middle: I see the merits of both sides of the argument.
The book is very much ‘of its time’ as I say when I am trying to hint that it may have unacceptable attitudes. The key feature of the plot is a pair of god-like, beautiful twins – one of whom is deaf, and both of whom may be gay. They have been brought up apart from each other, and there are nasty goings-on in both their localities. The action of the book shifts back and forth from Sir Adrian’s country house in Hampshire, and the cottage on the water where the other twin lives in Norfolk (the boys are his grandsons).
The plot is the usual farrago, very complex and quite difficult to follow. The village cricket match is a key moment: Mitchell uses the arrangements of a small-scale local match to a) create a closed circle where very few people could have committed a murder and b) to be very funny about the local rivalries and out and out cheating –Sometimes the umpire has to play, and then
‘any of us as is out puts the long white coat on, and carries on giving no-balls against the visiting side…. The other lot, they bring an umpire of their own. Nobody wouldn’t stand for nothing different.’The match is taken very seriously, to this extent:
‘A bowler’s wicket to-morrow, sir. John is delighted. He has been dancing on the lawn since five o’clock. The sound of the rain woke him and he has been morrising it in the nude as though demented. An enthusiastic lad, sir, for a sticky wicket.’(this description reminded me of the great and mysterious poem by JB Morton (Beachcomber) The Cabman Dances:
‘Let’s hope he catches cold,’ said Tom morosely.
Alone on the lawn
The cabman dances;
In the dew of the dawn
He kicks and prances.
His bowler is set
On his bullet-head.
For his boots are wet
And his aunt is dead.
There on the lawn
As the light advances,
On the tide of the dawn,
The cabman dances.)
This is contrasted with the match against the local mental asylum, where enormous trouble is taken to ensure the patients win.
A character seems to change name during the course of the book – the landlord’s wife begins as Norah and later becomes Liza.
Mrs Bradley wears a hat that I liked the sound of:
a sort of fez made of orange velvet decorated with two bloody-looking cherries which dangled over her right earAnd as ever in her books, characters swimming brought out appreciative descriptions:
‘I used to watch him, yes. He was a lovely swimmer,’ she said, ‘and of course he’d only wear those little bathing trunks. But beyond he had a lovely skin, all creamy-brown and that, and no hairs on his chest, I mean, well, there was really nothing. I think he was keen on his hair, though, more than some boys, and I’m not surprised, being so pretty, all golden and that.’I am finding it hard to make a final judgement on The Echoing Strangers. It is a weird book, there is no doubt about that, and Mitchell plainly has it in for the twins in various ways, but then she is so strange anyway, I’m not sure how much this is meant as policy and how much as her just making her book more bizarre. I don’t know. Her thoughts of deafness, gayness and eugenics are most unattractive, that’s for sure.
More books by Mitchell all over the blog – click on the label below.
Cricket matches are features of great importance in LP Hartley’s wonderful The Go Between, and in Dorothy L Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise – Lord Peter Wimsey, of course, is as good at cricket as he is at everything else. The idea of twins who can’t both be guilty (but which is which?) also pops up in Ngaio Marsh’s Surfeit of Lampreys.
B/W photo of tea at a village cricket match.
Painting of Cricket Match by Alfred Walter Bayes, from the Athenaeum.