At the Chime of a City Clock

Pastiche does not usually demand sleuthing or guesswork on the part of the reader. We tend to be confident, from the first place name or simile or chapter title, which writer or genre is being ribbed, and in what spirit. But D J Taylor's likeable new novel leaves the reader uncertain, at least on the first count.

At the Chime of a City Clock is set in 1931, the year in which Taylor's favourite writer, Anthony Powell, published his first novel, but it pays more explicit homage to a younger and less celebrated writer - Julian Maclaren-Ross, portrayed as X Trapnel in Powell's novel-sequence A Dance to the Music of Time. Trapnel, like his model, is an impov­erished and hard-working London freelance, a familiar figure to whom Taylor has always had a romantic attachment, though he prefers, sensibly enough, to live in Norwich.

Taylor's penniless freelance hero is called James Ross - Maclaren-Ross's real name - and he appears to be living out the scenario of Maclaren-Ross's novel Of Love and Hunger (1947). Ross lives in a boarding-house run by a Mrs Fanshawe (the surname of Maclaren-Ross's hero), sells Abraxas carpet cleaner door to door (Fanshawe sells vacuum cleaners), has dealings with his Uncle George and a man called Roper (as does Fanshawe), and becomes involved with a girl called Sukie (rather than Suzie). Fanshawe, in 1939, receives two pounds a week ("less insurance"), where Ross is on “25 bob a week basic", but with a better chance of earning commissions - as long as he strays from his Kensal Green beat.

The novel is set at the beginning rather than the end of the 1930s, to bring out parallels between Ramsay MacDonald's slump and Gordon Brown's crunch, and to bring in another of Taylor's penniless freelance heroes, George Orwell, who was down and out in London at around this time. Taylor's book, like Orwell's, ranges around London rather than favouring a single territory. Ross appears to share the war record of another salesman, George Bowling, from Orwell's novel Coming Up for Air (1939), while the sum of £10, at one point pledged to Ross, recalls another novel about a penurious London writer, Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). Thickening the brew, Ross is obsessed with an old girlfriend called Netta - a name borrowed, along with Eddie Carstairs, from Patrick Hamilton's novel Hangover Square (1941).

But despite this play with the comedy of defeat and destitution, the novel is described as "A Thriller". The chapter "Night and the City" is named after Gerald Kersh's noir-ish novel, and mention of Lobby Ludd calls to mind Kolly Kibber, from Graham Greene's Brighton Rock. Ross's first-person narration, which proses on, in his phrase, about his money worries, occasionally gives way to rather less satisfactory third-person scenes involving the misdeeds of Sukie's boss, Rasmussen. In a neat reversal, the barely existent thriller plot functions as colour, while the flow of period detail and ephemeral incident powers the novel forward.

As if to obfuscate things further, Taylor throws in a few details from later periods. The novel's title is taken from Nick Drake's beautiful song, and one of the chapter titles, "Friends and Relations", is an allusion to a series of albums by the 1970s band Hawkwind. These are intentional anachronisms - which may or may not be the case with references to the Racing Post (founded in 1986) and a house called Mallory Towers (Enid Blyton's series about the school Malory Towers started in 1946).

Thankfully, one's enjoyment of the novel does not depend on unpicking its complicated ancestry. Taylor provides a fragrant imagining of 1930s poverty, a tale of diminishing cigarette supplies and non-paying periodicals, narrated in the idiom of the time. Ross is on his uppers; one of his colleagues is "a long, lugubrious article"; one of his various predicaments is "a bit of a facer". We read about things seeming queer, and people talking through their hats or being "not quite". Chapters are preceded by excerpts from the Abraxas Salesman's Handbook, which provide a sort of running commentary on the action. On three occasions, Ross notices a poster about Skegness being so bracing; his London future is so grim that Skegness and, at one point, Bognor Regis are perceived as exotic locations, out of reach to a protagonist reduced to pawning clothes and books.
The obvious danger is that the novel, so slight and readable, its characters and language and scenarios by their nature second-hand, will seem nothing more than a game or jest.

A handful of name-checks increases this impression. The social historian David Kynaston, acknowledged by Taylor, makes an appearance, in a semi-anagram, as Hermione Kyslant. Rasmussen has a pair of crooked associates called Davenport and Hines, after the historian Richard Davenport-Hines, who unfairly described Taylor's book Bright Young People as "a chippy social history written with the mindset of a killjoy jobsworth from the Health and Safety Executive". Taylor might have resisted such impulses. Otherwise, the book provides a fine exhibition of this writer's unusual speciality - parochialism with panache.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Hold on tight!