Saturday, 28 May 2016

BONFIRE NIGHT reappraisal

Originally issued to hostile reviews in 2002, Ostara Publishing's annotated edition of James Mitchell's fifth and final Callan novel sheds moving light on the Geordie writer's last days, explaining why Bonfire Night was so radically different.

Callan and Lonely: their last bow. (Image copyright; ATV)

For followers of the existential Secret Service hitman David Callan, his petty thief confidante Lonely and the shadowy government department known as ‘the Section’, Bonfire Night isn’t an easy book to like. That’s because it’s not an easy book to read. In place of the lean, mean, minimalist prose of James Mitchell’s earlier Callan novels A Magnum for Schneider, Russian Roulette, Death and Bright Water and Smear Job, not to mention the multitude of short stories and ground breaking scripts for the Callan TV series (1967-1972), Bonfire Night reads like a wish-fulfilment fantasy written by a man in a frantic hurry.

Twenty-seven years separate Bonfire Night and Smear Job, which ended with Callan and Lonely setting up a security business together. The Callan film, despite poor distribution, had been a hit with the critics in 1974 and Mitchell was about to begin work on his second seminal TV series, When the Boat Comes In (1976-1981). Starring former Likely Lad James Bolam as working class opportunist Jack Ford, living on Tyneside in the austere 1920s – and Bolam was an absolute revelation in the part – the TV drama and its attendant novels replaced Callan and the Section on Mitchell’s notepads (he never used a typewriter). By 2002, Mitchell was elderly, retired and living near his family back in his native North East.

The beauty of Ostara’s 2016 edition is the frank and moving Introduction by James’ son Peter. The family situation he describes sheds informative light on the bizarre story in the novel, which remodels Lonely as a computer genius and finds ex-Major Callan a millionaire businessman and the head of a surrogate family living on a vast estate in Andalusia in Spain. Every year there’s a ritual bonfire on Callan’s estate, which gives Mitchell’s last book about him its title.

By the early 2000s, Mitchell was not in good health. Peter movingly and honestly writes:

‘Like many of his television and crime writer contemporaries… [he had] alcoholic liver disease. He’d had trembling hands ever since I could remember – especially in the mornings when the porcelain coffee mug would wobble precariously between table top and lips while Dad hid his embarrassment behind the ‘Daily Mail’. Alcoholism is a chronic illness – it’s unusual for it to strike suddenly – so there were a few heavy hints dropped before a command of total cessation was forthcoming from the medical professionals…
‘Years later, after the death of his second wife Delia in 1990, he collapsed in the shower and drifted off into a coma for six weeks. That was down to the booze and he left hospital with dire warnings of serious consequences ringing in his ears. But once he got back on his feet, he reverted to type inside a fortnight. What followed were several bouts of abdominal swelling (ascites) during which he was again admitted into hospital to have litres of fluid drained from his swollen belly.
‘It was after the last of these in 2000 that he was told he had cirrhosis. “Stop drinking altogether, or die.” This plain and simple message was received loud and clear. So he stopped. James Mitchell, raconteur, bon viveur, scribbler and sot – ceased drinking alcohol on that day. There was no re-hab, no therapy, no advice, no support. He simply put the glass down and waited for something to happen. Something did happen. He began to suffer from depression.’
Peter and his father hadn’t always had a good relationship: ‘The miners’ strike in 1984 did for us in a big way. We used to have many a row, and when it came to that strike, he’s very successful, he’s living in Marloes Road in [London] W8 and I’m covering the miner’s strike and seeing a completely different world: when these worlds collided, there were sparks. I’m seeing really starving people in the 1980s, and he’s telling me that their children should be taken away from them at birth because they’re not fit to be parents. I was straight off the picket line and witnessed all these coppers from London, like the [Special Patrol Group] coming up to County Durham, waving their pay slips at the miners. It was really nasty, it was all controlled and it was really political. It was an English Civil War and typically English because it was shrouded. As a result of all that, there were four years where I didn’t speak to my father at all: nothing.’*

By 2002 Mitchell Senior relied heavily on his son and Bonfire Night was part of the healing process between them. Peter suggested to his father that losing himself in writing about some of his best loved characters might help to alleviate his depression. Peter was right: ‘He’d found a purpose in life… he was using his imagination and generally feeling less sorry for himself. Not only that, there was just a hint of the re-emergence of the James that he had been before: the old-fashioned gentleman, the engaging charmer, the incisive wit, the storyteller.’

So in Bonfire Night, the final Callan novel, the chippy, working class loner gives a final, valedictory V-sign to the establishment that exploited him. Significantly, the Section is now so impoverished that it has to plead for the help of its rich ex-assassin. For once, Callan goes back to the Section on his and Lonely’s own terms.

‘Is “Bonfire Night” a good book? As far as my Dad was concerned it was a hugely influential work. Temporarily it restored some pride and self-esteem, gave him a purpose in life and allowed him to bask in his wonderful, loving, glorious past.’
Buy the annotated edition of Bonfire Night for a poignant insight into the final act in the life of one of the UK’s great thriller writers.

* From ‘The Callan File: The Definitive Guide’, to be published later in 2016 by Miwk Publishing

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