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Victor Canning in Calstock

by John Higgins

VictorCanning (1911-1986), once a famous thriller writer with a reputation matching that of Alistair Mclean or Hammond Innes (and writing much better English than either of them) has now fallen out of print and been largely forgotten. His work varied in quality, but the best of it was magnificent. His masterpiece, The Rainbird Pattern, won the Crime Writers’ Association Silver Dagger and the Edgar award in the USA in 1973, and was filmed by Hitchcock in 1976 under the title Family Plot. Many people will also remember his delightful children’s book, The Runaways, describing the parallel adventures of a cheetah that has escaped from Longleat and gives birth to cubs on Salisbury Plain, and a teenager who has escaped from an approved school and is determined to stay out of police clutches until his father comes back from a sea voyage and can help him clear his name. Others may remember his re-telling of Arthurian legends in the Crimson Chalice trilogy.

Canning was born in Plymouth in 1911 and lived there until about 1925, when the family moved to Oxford. Later he worked in Somerset before becoming a full-time writer in 1934 after the huge success of his firstbook, Mr Finchley discovers his England. After service in North Africa and Italy in the Second World War, he settled in Kent and started writing thrillers at a steady rate. He returned to Devon in 1972 and lived there for several years before finally settling in Gloucestershire. He retained his Devon accent up to his death in 1986, and made frequent allusions to the county in his work.

From 1915 to 1919 his father served as an ambulance driver in Flanders, and Victor with his mother and sisters went to Calstock to live. A younger brother of his mother, Cecil McDonald Gould (or Goold), lived there with his family and later worked there on the railway, becoming station master at Calstock and Gunnislake. Victor often went back to see him after the war, since they were quite close in age. It was then, probably, that he became fascinated by the Calstock Viaduct which more than ten years later he would incorporate into one of the best of his early novels, The Viaduct, published in 1939 by Hodder and Stoughton. He published it under the pen-name Alan Gould, which he was using for his serious novels, reserving his real name Victor Canning for the whimsical comic novels he was also writing.

The Viaduct was set in 1870 in the fictional village of Caradon, obviously based on Calstock. John Seabright is sent to take charge of a construction team building a viaduct to carry the railway line between London and Penzance over the river Tamar. There is tension between the traditionally minded villagers and the rough gang of navvies. Francesca, the daughter of a local aristocrat Lord Maddacleave, has progressive ideas and would like to train for a profession, but is expected by her family to conform to convention. A romance develops between her and Oliver Bearsted, Seabright's deputy,stronger on his side than on hers since she is attracted mainly by the thoughtof getting away from her family.

A local farmer, Ernest Notter, takes his bride to Plymouth for their honeymoon. On the return journey on board a coastal steamer, they meet a drunken group of navvies, one of whom tries to kiss Mrs Notter, is hit over the head by Ernest, falls overboard and drowns. Notter runs away, is caught and is charged with murder. The Cornish jury acquits him, which enrages a friend ofthe dead navvy who first tries to burn down the farmer's house, and then, having been sacked by Seabright, sets about sabotaging the viaduct. An outbreak of typhoid kills ten of the navvies and Seabright's estranged wife. In a melodramatic climax, Bearsted foils an attempt to blow up the viaduct, but falls into the river and dies, along with the son of the local postmistress who has raised the alarm. Seabright and Francesca fall in love.

Since the Calstock viaduct went up after 1900, one may wonder why Canning set his book thirty years earlier. Probably he had been doing his research about the building of the line, and wanted his characters to include people who had known and worked with Brunel. He was obviously fascinated by the attitudes of the traditionalists of the mid-Victorian era and the social upheavals that were imminent. Perhaps, too, he wanted to make surethat nobody in Calstock who might otherwise recognise themselves and take offence could identify directly with the characters in thebook.

The book contains plenty of incident and is grippinglytold with good observation of people and places. For a taste of Canning’s style, here is a short extract from an early chapter, in which the hero John Seabright has an encounter with a local grandee.

As they approached the water Seabright was aware of a small group on the quay edge. There were two lads, one of them the boy, Harry, who had rowed him across the previous day, the other a taller,more slenderly built lad with a head of fine dark hair that swept back from his brow in rich waves. His luxuriant hair and a thin, almost delicate face gave him a girlish look. Both the boys were stripped save for white swimming-drawers, and beside them, one hand holding the reins of a fat chestnut cob, the other holding up a gold hunter, was a middle-aged well dressed man. His curly brimmed bowler hat was pushed back a little to reveal a round, well-fed face, the eyes small and the chin sunk into a plump morass of skin. His coat front was open to show a fine buff coloured waistcoat.

“Now you understand,” he addressed the two boys. “You take different sides, the first one there makes his choice, up to the top, any way you choose,and the. first one back gets this—” His hand released the reins and the bright flicker of a half-guinea soared into the air and fell into the dust of the quay. “There it is—the first back picks it up.”

“Now I wonder what the devil he’s up to?” murmured Minns as they approached the group. “He’s Mr. Cator—some kind of relation of Lord Maddacleave—andthe tall boy is Lord Maddacleave’s son, the Right Honourable Philip Preston. The other is a village lad, but the boy Philip mixe swith them.”

Mr. Cator gave them a glance as they approached, nodded carelessly to Minns and then swung heavily into his saddle. “Are you ready?” he cried, looking at his watch.“One, two, three—off you go!”

Seabright watched curiously. He saw the two young bodies, tensed as Cator spoke, and then, at the go, they were off. They sprinted across the quayside and dived together into the river and were threshing away downstream as fast as they could swim. The water flew into the air from their arms, a bright spray that caught the sunlight.

“Two fine boys,” said Mr. Cator. Not a pin to choose between ’em so far.”

The boys were making for the middle pier of the viaduct.Harry reached it first and grasped the wooden boom that protected thecut-water. He swung himself out of the water and began to climb the scaffold ingto the right of the pier. Philip, a few seconds behind him, took the left-hand side, and as they climbed upwards the group of masons and labourers on the wide platform at the head of the pier stopped work and looked downwards at them. On the climb Philip’s agility made up for Harry’s advantage in the water and they reached the top together. The masons gave them a cheer which went echoing across the water.

“Now home!” panted Philip, grinning at Harry, and without a second’s hesitation he drew back along the platform and then ran forward,diving outwards.

Back on the quay Seabright sawthat movement and for a moment was filled with fear. The young fool, he thoughtangrily. The drop was a good fifty feet and the cut-water boom spread out intothe water below. He saw the flash of bare limbs as Philip shot downwards and then the splash as he struck the water. He held his breath, his mind troubled with a vision of underwater piles. The next moment he breathed freely, the boy appeared and began swimming vigorously back to the quay and before he had gone three strokes there was a splash on the other side of the pier as Harryfollowed his example.

“Did you see that, gentlemen?” Cator’s face was flushed with vicarious excitement. “They’ve got spunk, By Jove, I didn’t think they would do it. Eighty feet if it’s an inch.” He drove his horse to the quayside and halloed them on.

They came, fighting side by side against the stream, and Harry began to draw ahead. He came panting into the quay steps and pulled himself from the water. He reached the half guinea six feet ahead of Philip.

“Magnificent!” bellowed Cator, looking at his watch. “Seven minutes and sixteen seconds. You’ve earned your money, Harry, me boy. Philip, you’re degenerate. You’ve disappointed me!”

Philip grinned. “Harry was always a better swimmer than I,sir.”

Seabright intruded himself.

“Excuse me, sir,” he addressed Cator. “My name is Seabright, John Seabright, and I’m the engineer in charge of the works here—”

“Indeed!” There was a hint of truculence in Cator’s voice as he answered, as though he guessed that there was trouble coming and would make no effort to avoid it.

“I don’t wish to seem a spoilsport, but I feel bound to point out that it was extremely foolhardy to encourage these lads to risk their necks up that scaffolding—”

“Who asked you for your opinion, sir?”

Seabright ignored the deliberate provocation in Cator’s words.

“I am not giving an opinion now, sir. I am giving an order. In future you two boys will keep away from the viaduct scaffolding. Minns—you will see that the men get instructions to let no one there without authority.” He turned to Cator and looked quietly at him. He knew his type well, the jolly, easy-living sort that went about encouraging wagers, happy when they had set men or animals in competition and never careful of any risk unless it was to their own necks. “If you want to help one of these lads to a broken neck, sir, you can so far as I’m concerned, but you won’t do it on our scaffolding. If you’re so keen on swimming and climbing I suggest you do some yourself, it would do no harm to your body!”

“By God, sir!” Cator’s face flushed red, but his anger was lost in a happy burst of laughter from Philip. Cator swung towards him fiercely. “Stop laughing, sir! Is it so funny to see your own flesh and blood insulted?”

Sadly the book itself is not only out of print, it is also almost unobtainable. Very few copies are ever seen on the second hand market. I hope that some enterprising publisher can be found who will republish it, and that people who read this article will encourage them.