Invisible Ink: No 213 - Norman Collins


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The Independent Culture

Authors can be successful in their own right without impinging on the consciousness of an attention-deficient public, whose recall-rate of virals featuring inadequate Russian driving skills is above works by novelists who bring a lifetime of experience to their craft. Equally, critics will ignore writers who they consider solid and old-fashioned in favour of current literary darlings.

Writing is a wonderful outlet for personal passions. In 1929, when he was just 21 and writing for the News Chronicle, Norman Collins wrote a lovely piece called “London from a Bus Stop”, in which he watched the city from the top of a double-decker and noted how its residents behaved. The piece was simple but affecting, because Collins was naturally interested in others.

He was a populist, a bit of an ethnographer and therefore well suited to writing, but these days we remember him more for his other career, first running BBC radio’s Light Programme (which had grown out of popular entertainment for the forces), launching iconic shows such as Housewives’ Choice, Woman’s Hour and Dick Barton – Special Agent. Collins saw nothing wrong in appealing to the widest audience, and once castigated T S Eliot for complaining about the growth of television. He was also the literary editor of the Daily News, which Dickens had edited.

Collins later became one of the major figures behind the establishment of the independent television network in the UK, which was the first organisation to break the BBC’s broadcasting monopoly when it began transmitting in 1955. Collins co-founded ATV and continued in the medium, always noting the number of TV aerials he saw above houses. However, parallel to his main career, Collins wrote 16 books, of which one became a big success.

Born in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, in 1907, Collins had started out as an editorial assistant at the Oxford University Press, publishing his first book, The Facts of Fiction, at 25. Unusually, he wrote his most successful novel in the middle of his career. London Belongs To Me (1945) is a sprawling 700-plus page story in the style of Dickens, and one of the great city novels, now available as a Penguin Modern Classic. It follows the fortunes of the down-at-heel tenants of No 10 Dulcimer Street, Kennington, a lodging-house sub-divided into flats; there’s the lonely landlady, the ageing Soho hostess, the world-weary Mr Josser, who manages to symbolically smash his cheap retirement clock, the doomed, adenoidal Mr Puddy, and others scraping by in 1939 London. But the narrative is also joyful, and packed with gruesome period detail, and was made into a decent film starring Richard Attenborough. A few of Collins’s other novels are available as e-editions, including the poisonous Waugh-like colonial satire The Governor’s Lady, and The Bat That Flits, in which a research assistant in bacteriological warfare uncovers a sinister plot.