Hallo Dad

Christopher Ricks

  • Mr Nicholas Sir Henry and Sons Daymare by Thomas Hinde
    Macmillan, 271 pp, £6.95, August 1980, ISBN 0 333 29539 0

The last word of the reissue of Mr Nicholas, Thomas Hinde’s exquisitely glum and fearingly funny novel of 1952, is probably a misprint. At least, it is minutely different from the last word in the Penguin book in 1962, the issue which brought Hinde’s consummate first novel to an even more widely appreciative public. One tribute to the novel’s exact art is that it matters whether the book ends, as it did then, with the exchange,

‘Hallo Peter.’

‘Hallo Dad.’

or as it does now:

‘Hallo Peter.’

‘Hallo dad.’

For the distinction wouldn’t footle. You would have to interpret ‘Hallo dad’ as a tellingly unique and utterly final act of tacit inner rebellion by this son who seethes with dismay at his cracked, ogreish yet commonplace father who has just survived a suicide attempt. You cannot voice the difference between ‘Dad’ and ‘dad’, but you can think it, and in the recesses of your head you can withhold the customary respect that would upper-case your father. If it matters whether a poem by T.S. Eliot says ‘Jew’ or ‘jew’ although the poem cannot say them differently, it could matter exactly how a son is presented as addressing his father even if, or especially if, the distinction would be smoulderingly meant to elude a father’s ears.

In Mr Nicholas, Hinde’s ears remain unsurpassed, by himself or by his contemporary novelists. He is concerned, in the widest and in the most wincingly genteel sense, with what you can and can’t say. The book’s art is also its arc. For with the closing exchange on the brink of the book, this suburban monster of a father whose imminent death by overdose the son had brought himself not just to accept but to respect – comes back from the brink of death to be his old death-dealing self. Within the delicate predatory network of the book we are to tremble back along the lines to an earlier exchange of curbed hostilities, no less banal and no less desolately oppressive but the other way round, when Peter earlier went upstairs to his father who was now exerting all his formidable will-power on bed-ridding himself:

He was lying on his back looking at the ceiling.

‘Hallo, Dad.’ The word embarrassed him and he tried to avoid it, slurred it, and left off the final consonant.

‘Hallo Peter.’

It is characteristic of Hinde’s sense of his responsibilities, and of his dislike of the easy victories of mimicry, that there is no attempt made to reproduce phonetically what Peter does to the word ‘Dad’ in uttering it, no rendering of it as ‘Da’ or ‘Da ... ’ or whatever. For probably Peter, aquiver, is the only person who could ever even notice what he feels himself bound to do with this dreaded unavoidable unloving word of address.

Such is my confidence in Hinde’s vigilant precision in this book that I’d even want to make something out of – or suggest that he has made something out of the most minute effects of punctuation. There is a difference between the comma of ‘Hallo, Dad’ (a pause, not, as it might have been, of tenderness, but of reluctance and embarrassment) and the undeviating impulse within the reply, ‘Hallo Peter.’ That impulse is at work in the final comma-less flatness of their locked, intimate and cordial dislike:

There was no one in the hall, and he went upstairs. His father’s door was wide open, his bedside lamp alight, and he was sitting up looking at a book.

‘Hallo Peter.’

‘Hallo Dad.’

Hinde is masterly in such affianced details. Take the hatefully normal hostility, an aggression which is marked though masked, with which, at a party, the father questions the mother about the phone-call from a son locked out of their house:

‘What did he want to know?’

‘Where we’d hidden the key.’

‘You didn’t tell him?’

‘Yes.’

‘On the telephone. Mother dear, mother dear.’

‘Oh, was that wrong?’

Peter moved quickly away towards the window curtain.

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