Major Benjy by Guy Fraser-Sampson
In the first of my blog entries here on the Picnic authors’ site I really should start with a huge apology, since by some unaccountable oversight I am not actually a Picnic author at all, at least not yet. My new “Mapp and Lucia” book, Major Benjy, is in fact published by Troubador in Leicester (already out in the US, out in the UK on 1 September). However, the good Major has sent Picnic a very sweet letter acknowledging that this was not the conduct to be expected of an officer and a gentleman and that he will try to do better in future.
I have a theory that all good writers (and I know that Picnic only take on good writers!) start off as good readers. After all, what greater motivation can there be for wanting to write a book than an existing love of the things, usually coupled with cardboard boxes scattered around various locations full of old friends from which we really cannot bear to be parted, because to take a few to the charity shop, as our partners frequently urge us to do, would feel uncomfortably like boiling a beloved golden retriever down for glue.
This was certainly true in my case. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a house without TV and therefore would begin reading a book when I woke up in the morning, and would continue until it was time to go to bed. Even there, the story did not end, because I used to take a transistor radio to bed with me, hide under the bedclothes with it turned down as low as possible, and listen to “A Book at Bedtime” on Radio 4. It was in exactly this way that, at the age of ten, I first made the acquaintance of the redoubtable Mrs Philip Lucas (as she then was) when I experienced Queen Lucia. Even though I now think (as probably most Benson fans do) that this is probably the weakest of the “Mapp and Lucia” books, I was captivated and resolved to get them out of the library one by one.
There was a slight problem here in that they were in the senior library whereas I only had a ticket for the junior library next door, but my mother rose to the challenge and insisted that I should be issued with a full ticket six years early with the simple but effective argument that I had in any event already read everything in the children’s library at least once.
The books have been firm favourites since then (there are also two sequels by Tom Holt which are now sadly out of print, as seems to have become a badge of honour for good writers), and they are looking at me now as I write this from the couple of shelves I keep for books which I re-read over and over again (The Alexandria Quartet is also there, but I will leave you guessing about the others – a man must have some secrets).
For those poor few unfortunates who have not previously encountered the “Mapp and Lucia” stories, take heart! You still have the pleasure of reading them for the first time (there are six by Benson, the first couple of which you could safely ignore and come back to later, plus two by Tom Holt and now Major Benjy by yours truly)! Briefly, they tell the tale of two absolutely frightful ladies who end up inhabiting the same genteel seaside town, which Benson calls Tilling, but is actually Rye where he lived in Lamb House, as he has both Mapp and Lucia do in turn (though in the books it is called Mallards), and where he was twice Mayor, as he has Lucia be.
Neither can bear to be anything other than the acknowledged number one in any matter affecting Tilling, but of course there can be only one absolute ruler, and so the books may be compared to two prima donnas in constant search of the same role. The stratagems, untruths, and downright deception that attend these efforts have ensured that the books have endured as acknowledged comic masterpieces in a way which is rivalled only by Jeeves and Wooster.
Later in the week, I am planning to tell you more about Benson the writer, and attempt to place him in context. Then I will write specifically about Major Benjy and what I was trying to achieve when I wrote it. Finally, I will tell you about my next project, a narrative history of the Plantagenets which, a little to my shame, is where Picnic enter. But now, dear ones, I shall collapse positively drained by the effort of it all, and retire with a nice cup of Earl Grey.