Friday, 3 August 2012

Penguin no. 2037: The Man Who Won the Pools
by J.I.M. Stewart

     "Does everyone the pools come home on feel like that?"
     "Gracious, no. They buy a villa - semi-detached, so as not to be awkwardly conspicuous. They have a holiday on the Continent - in a coach, so that they're with their own kind. Then a lot go on working. If they're middle-aged, the whole business usually passes off harmlessly enough. The chief sufferers are the children. Whatever their age, the parents assume the absolute advantageousness of buying them the most expensive sort of upper-class education at once. Oddly enough, it can't always just be bought - or not in a hurry. So a great deal of bewilderment and frustration may result."

Phil Tombs' life changes on a Friday afternoon, and the impact is immediate. First a telegram arrives alerting him of his win, and by the evening he has a cheque for 250,000 pounds in his pocket and his name, address, and photograph feature in all the newspapers. The thing he most needs now is space to think through the implications of this dramatic change, and some guidance on what to do next. But these are the very things denied him. By the morning the begging letters are pouring in, and people he has never met are knocking on his door. He escapes his home, and heads off on an adventure.

The letters and visits are from people from varied stations in life: a Duchess with unmarried daughters; members of the clergy; friends he hasn't seen in years; and this diversity mirrors the focus of the story, which is really about the impact of class on British life in the early 1960s. Phil Tombs is working class, and though he lives in Oxford, he seems an outsider in a University town. His home is in a slum in the shadow of one of the colleges, and his world seems limited to his electrical trade and Oxford's industrial landscapes.

Any knowledge that he possesses has been gained almost haphazardly, either through studying for his trade, or from the random collection of books he owns, but even then he knows to keep such things from his friends. And while he is clearly perceptive, he is unpracticed in thinking deeply, tending to react rather than to reflect, with his actions guided by a set of inherent values that he shares with others like himself. But this forced escape from his home is also an escape from the limitations of working class life and thinking. For the first time he is brought into contact with people drawn from a broader spectrum of British life.

The story is told from his perspective, and this seems disconcerting at first, as his attitudes and responses can seem unpredictable. Through his behaviour we see how working class men think (or at least how the author understands them to think), how they treat their women, and what is expected of them, and he comes across as not so much an angry young man, as a very constrained one. But the money changes everything. As he is exposed to people from a range of social classes we see them through his confused eyes, and come to understand their values through the way they behave towards him.

And the suggestion seems to be that those at the extremes have the most to offer: working-class Phil with his straight talking and practical know-how, and the gentry with their rural heritage and ability to think on a grander scale. It is those in the middle that are perhaps dubious. Having more recently clambered up the social scale, they are presented as far more attached to maintaining the hierarchy, and much more concerned with appearance, and status, and the things money can buy. The middle-classes are written off as insular and reactionary.

The concern is that Phil will squander the money, or worse, that he will lose his steady and hard-working inclinations, and become corrupted by this short-term capacity to fulfil any desire. This possibility is used to maintain the tension. Beyond that, the story is a series of episodic adventures, with Phil blundering along, adjusting to the new experiences, and trying to find a direction for his life. There are crooks keen to take advantage of his naïveté, and others who see his money as the solution for their problems. And it is all completely unbelievable, but enjoyable nonetheless, as Phil Tombs, and some of the people he meets, are very appealing characters.

This isn't in the league of The Last Tresilians, which remains my favourite vintage Penguin. But I was reminded of just how much I enjoy the writing of Michael Innes, despite its tendency to vary in quality.

Also by J.I.M. Stewart:
Penguin no. 1960: A Use of Riches
Penguin no. 2533: The Last Tresilians

Also by Michael Innes:
Penguin no. 1299: Stop Press
Penguin no. 1576: Appleby Plays Chicken
Penguin no. 1577: Appleby on Ararat
Penguin no. 1578: The Weight of the Evidence
Penguin no. 1640: Hamlet, Revenge!
Penguin no. 2201: A Hare Sitting Up

The Man Who Won the Pools reviewed elsewhere:
A Bookish Oaf


  1. I am a huge admirer of Michael Innes but have never read anything by J.I.M. Stewart. This does sound interesting, especially as I have just read two novels that deal with the English class system -- The New House, by Lettice Cooper (also as an orange Penguin) and The Village by Marghanita Laski. The Cooper was 1930s and the Laski 1940s, of course, but I'm getting increasingly fascinated by it all -- and of course it ties in with the U/Non-U one you reviewed recently. Perhaps class permeates everything and I'm only just noticing?

    1. I can certainly recommend the novels of JIM Stewart; I only wish that Penguin had published more than 3 of his titles. This was interesting, but The Last Tresilians (which is about art rather than class) is even better. And I think you are right that class was a major issue in the books of the time, and reading the U/non-U book certainly increased my awareness of it, so that now I notice it even more.

  2. I didn't realise Michael Innes was really JIM Stewart, though I'm sure I must have come across this fact before now. The book does sound interesting - how does it compare with HG Wells' Kipps, where working class Arthur Kipps inherits a fortune and is taken up by people of a much higher social class? Different period, I know, but but it sounds as if some of the themes are similar.

    1. Kipps is one of the orange Penguins I have sitting on my shelves unread, and I had no idea what it was about until I read this, as Kipps gets several mentions. I imagine that HG Wells' story may well have been JIM Stewart's inspiration, and I'll have to read it now to see just how much the later story references the earlier one.

  3. This sounds fascinating. I did some reading about the Pools once when working on a project about the Irish Sweepstakes. The biggest Sweepstakes win was won by Londoner Emilio Scala who became very famous for being happy after his big win. Afterwards he was often called upon to give advice to Pools winners. (
    Many big winners were destroyed by their wins.

  4. isn't every English novel about class? (that's my theory anyway - but also I am being flippant).

  5. I really enjoyed his quintet of Oxford novels - A Staircase in Surrey. They're published by Gollancz though. J.I.M Stewart was Scottish so maybe Jeremy (above) meant British rather than English!



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