Monday 22 November 2010

The Porkchoppers by Ross Thomas (Hamish Hamilton First Edition), Bernard Higton, the First Things First Manifesto, an Unlikely Lewes Connection, and a Review

For this second post in Ross Thomas Week – which is, you'll be amazed to hear, a week of posts about the American crime/espionage/you-name-it-he-wrote-it author Ross Thomas – we have the UK hardback first edition of his 1972 novel, The Porkchoppers:

The Porkchoppers wasn't published until 1974 in the UK, by Hamish Hamilton, who took over the UK rights from Hodder & Stoughton following 1971's The Backup Men. So in the UK, for whatever reason – possibly contractual negotiations – there was an unintentional three year gap between Ross Thomas books. Unlike Hodder, whose dustjacket designs for Thomas' books were all over the place, Hamilton brought more of a standardized look to the author's jackets, opting for photographic covers with an unfussy font treatment. Most of the Thomas novels Hamilton published in the '70s had jackets by Beverley le Barrow, who I'll be returning to in the next couple of posts, but The Porkchoppers jacket was designed by one Bernard Higton... and it turns out there's an unexpected connection between he and me.

Y'see, during the course of my exhaustive research for this post (ahem) I discovered that there's a firm called Bernard Higton Design based here in Lewes, the East Sussex town in which I live and work. Of course, that didn't mean it was the same Bernard Higton... but I figured, how many designers called Bernard Higton could there be? So I did some more digging, and found that Higton was part of a loose collective of designers in Britain in the 1960s who came up with a manifesto for what they thought design should be doing. The document they drew up was called First Things First 1964, and it caused quite a stir. It was a reaction against consumerism and what the group believed was an overwhelming onslaught of advertising; they advocated instead that design should be used for less avaricious ends, such as signs, books, periodicals and education. In 1999 a new group of designers took up the cause and published an updated First Things First 2000 manifesto in anti-commercial magazine AdBusters.

All of which was quite interesting, but didn't answer my question about whether the Bernard Higton in Lewes was the same one who designed the Porkchoppers jacket. So I carried on digging, and started turning up books that Higton had designed and indeed edited – some fine '60s and '70s dustjackets for Hamilton and Pelican and Joseph; some children's books; and some illustrated books too. And then I discovered a listing for a book designed by Higton and published by The Ivy Press... which is one of the imprints of the Lewes-based publisher I work for (the bit I work for is called The Ilex Press). That seemed to confirm it. I had a look on the shelves for the book in question, and then I thought, maybe it'll be quicker if I ask an Ivy colleague about Higton, see if they can recall the book in question.

So I did. And it turns out Bernard worked on loads of Ivy books. In fact, he's an old friend of the creative director of the Ivy Group... and he used to have his studio in the very building I now work in.

So there you have it: my very own Ross Thomas Six Degrees of Separation story. Publishing can be a small world sometimes...

Anyway, I do like that Hamilton Porkchoppers jacket, and it's an apt cover for the book. My learned friend Olman Feelyus has a review of the novel here; prior to my reading The Porkchoppers Olman and I had been having a little back-and-forth in the comments on each of our blogs over the similarity or otherwise of Ross Thomas to Raymond Chandler. At that point, the only Thomas book I'd read was his debut, The Cold War Swap, which is a world-weary first-person espionage tale which owes a definite debt to Chandler; meanwhile the only Thomas book Olman had read was The Porkchoppers, which is a lively third-person examination of a labour union election and which, er, doesn't. The two novels couldn't be more different. Consequently, while the Chandler comparison made sense to me, to Olman it just seemed utterly wrongheaded.

And having now read The Porkchoppers, I can see where he was coming from. In The Cold War Swap, Thomas inhabits the cynical persona of saloon owner Mac McCorkle so completely that it came as quite a surprise to read the breezy third-person prose of The Porkchoppers. There's something breathless and pacey about The Porkchoppers, with a succession of outlandish characters – union boss and frustrated actor Donald Cubbin; pretender to the throne and epic crybaby Sammy Hanks; supermarket shelf-stacker and part-time assassin Truman Goff – wheeled out and paraded around like they're carnival freaks. But each of them is so well drawn that you end up rooting for them all, despite their foibles and failings and the horrible things they do to each other.

Thomas clearly took a dim view of politics and unionism, and in lesser hands this tale of an attempt to steal an election might have come off as unbearably misanthropic. But the characters and their interactions save it from itself, injecting humour and warmth into the proceedings. For although the devious machinations of the players and the denouement are as pessimistic as you'd expect, it's all leavened by the evident joy Thomas took in crafting bizarre yet believable people and turning them loose on each other. They may be mostly out to do each other in, but they're never less than brilliant company, and in the end you genuinely feel for them as they each meet their fate.

The Porkchoppers really is a terrific novel. But the next book I'll be reviewing in Ross Thomas Week is even better...


  1. I started to write a comment yesterday on how great it is that you pay attention to the design and designers of dust jackets and how amazing it is that you are able to dig up what you do - but blogger ate my comment. After today's post on Bernard Higton, yesterday's (lost) praise is hereby doubled. Tripled, maybe.

    I, too, take great joy in finding connections - though this time, your connection to BH is quite spectacular. Most of my Ross Thomas connections are geographical - I live right in the middle of much of the Washington, DC that he writes about. For instance, in an hour I'm going over to the Hay Adams hotel, one of the hotels RT regularly uses in books. (No one at the Hay Adams seems to be aware of the Ross Thomas connection or remember anything about him.) I've been saving The Porkchoppers for a rainy day (that and Voodoo Ltd. are the only two I haven't read) but I think I'm going to have to read it next.

    So - are you going to raid the archives at Ilex and curate a look at the work of Bernard Higton or maybe an extended showing of illustrations linked to First Things First?

  2. Great post, as usual. It must have been quite neat to slowly dig up your six degree connection. Nice review of the book as well. It really is skilled the way he makes you feel a sort of affection for practically every character, no matter how pathetic or corrupt they are.

    I'm struck by the excessive reliance of "Chandler" in the blurbs on the back cover. Was he the gold standard of American crime fiction in Britain at the time, or had they just only read his first-person books?

  3. Aw, shucks, you guys. BG, your Ross Thomas connections are a bit better than mine; mine's only to the designer of one of his UK book covers! Still it was kind of a cool discovery. I'll have to have a rummage and see which Ivy books he designed.

    Olman, I suspect you may have hit the nail on the head there: the blurbs on the back are all for If You Can't Be Good, which is written in the first-person, so as with The Cold War Swap, I imagine it's fairly Chandleresque.