Sunday, 3 November 2013

Penguin no. 1641: Old Hall, New Hall
by Michael Innes

It all made - Clout reflected - a wonderful field for the artist's brooding eye. He wondered if Redbrick realism was the line of his rival Lumb. What Kafka, of course, would 'do' - Clout remembered to put the magical word between its inverted commas - was the bewilderment: the ambiguities and the false casts and the culs-de-sac. Nobody would be quite sure whether anybody else was a student or a professor; and there would be intermittent doubt about the place being a university at all, and not say, a maternity hospital or the municipal abattoir. And, in particular...

I suspect Michael Innes may have read Lucky Jim, or something of its kindshortly before beginning this. The dates seem to fit - Old Hall, New Hall was published in 1956, two years after Lucky Jim, and both books were initially published by Gollancz. While the two stories have little in common, and while Innes' book is a much gentler satire of academic life, the way the stories are set up just seemed a little too similar. I was reminded of Michael Innes's first novel Death at the President's Lodgings in which he seemed to have taken the premise of J.C. Masterman's An Oxford Tragedy and used it as the starting point of his own more whimsical tale.

But in this case Michael Innes may simply have been tailoring his protagonist to match the fashion of the moment. The introductory paragraphs seem intended to cast Colin Clout as a determined, if not quite angry, young man of the fifties. He possesses all the essential attributes: he is from an unprivileged background, he has worked hard to retain his regional accent, he is competitive and self-concerned, and he aspires to a romance with a woman he has recently met who is striking in appearance but upper-class and out of his league. He is also a low-level academic employed in a provincial university, and therefore beholden to, and frustrated by, dull, unworldly professors who function as gate-keepers to the scholarships, stipends and tutorships he needs to survive financially.

Old Hall is the original home of the Jory family, and New Hall is their home now. The names conceal that the two buildings are of similar age, but Old Hall is the grander building. The Jorys didn't survive long at Old Hall - it was sold when they found they could no longer afford to live there, and it now functions as a provincial university, which means its imposing appearance has been somewhat despoiled by the addition of modern brick buildings which house laboratories and workshops. The refectory is described as 'some sort of hangar that might have been reared to accommodate the last of the dirigibles'. It all seems a bit soulless, with function taking precedence over all competing considerations.

But the 17th Century park in which Old Hall stands may offer the students some compensation for the university's aesthetic shortcomings and lack of any history or tradition: it features a burial mound and a mausoleum, artefacts of a former owner's interest in what is called here 'depredation', an enthusiasm for plundering ancient tombs and transporting their contents back to England. As recipient of the Shufflebotham Award, Colin Clout finds himself required to research the story of the former resident of Old Hall, builder of the mausoleum and putative tomb-robber, Sir Joscelyn Jory.

And if this green Penguin contains any reference to a crime, it can only be one committed during the tenancy of Joscelyn, but as it all happened years ago and as the only record is a family legend passed down through the generations, no one can be certain of exactly what transpired. It is believed that Joscelyn and his younger brother Edward contracted a wager: the winner would be the one who uncovered and retrieved the greater treasure from anywhere in the world. But on their return the brothers found that they could not reach an agreement - each believed his brother to have found the superior prize, and therefore Joscelyn and Edward agreed to swap.

And if the legend is to be believed, Edward thereby became the possessor of a cache of jewels of greater value than Old Hall itself. Edward's great-granddaughter intends to find them and claim them as her rightful property, and as she suspects them to be hidden somewhere on the University grounds she enlists the Shufflebotham Award recipient in her quest; Colin, being a little naive, is blind to her true intent. And so rather than being a crime novel, Old Hall, New Hall is the story of a treasure hunt and the principle mystery is in the object of the search and whether it exists at all (while the minor mystery is how long it will take Colin to realise he is being duped).

I never know quite what to expect with a story by Michael Innes - he is the author both of my favourite Penguin and of one of those I least enjoyed - although I know the tone is likely to be donnish and there will usually be some element of a caper introduced towards the end. These two elements are at their most exaggerated in Old Hall, New Hall, with the first section of the book seeming at times like a collection of quotes and literary references which only loosely form a narrative. Even the name of the protagonist is a reference to a poem, while the captivating but undeserving object of his affections, Edward Jory's avaricious descendent, has clearly been cast in the mould of Zuleika Dobson.

The title hints at the story's duality: while Old Hall and New Hall may have been contemporaries in their construction, the story itself is split between a long-distant past and a 1950's present (but I also wondered at times if it was actually two separate story ideas which had been merged into an adequate but not perfected union). I found Old Hall, New Hall to be uneven: while the story is very amusing in parts, it also seems laboured and contrived in others, and while some sections are engrossing, others continue for far too long.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 1286: Death at the President's Lodgings
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. 2080: Silence Observed
Penguin no. 2201: Hare Sitting Up

And as J.I.M. Stewart:
Penguin no. 1960: A Use of Riches
Penguin no. 2037: The Man Who Won the Pools
Penguin no 2533: The Last Tresilians


  1. I have soft spot for books set in academia, which is ripe for satirising. Nice review!

    1. Let me recommend Michael Innes/J.I.M. Stewart to you then Jeremy - several of his books take a wry look at academia. And he spent some part of his career in Australia, at The University of Adelaide. The problem is that he wrote so many novels that they vary considerably in quality, with a range that is wider than any other (Penguin) author I can think of.

  2. I adore Michael Innnes at his best, and have read many of his novels over the years, though I don't recognise this one, and am not particularly tempted to try it, though I enjoyed your review. I do agree with you about Appleby on Ararat -- not a success.

    1. I agree Harriet - there are books by Michael Innes/J.I.M. Stewart that I love, but many others that I have found disappointing. I suspect that he often focused on quantity over quality, which is a pity. I long to find another as good as The Last Tresilians; I have never forgotten the experience of reading it.



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