REVIEW: Mr. Finchley Takes the Road by Victor Canning
Book 3 of the classic trilogy of humorous rural adventures through pre-war England
Mr. Finchley takes a fancy to a horse-drawn caravan that he sees for sale, but his new wife does not relish the prospect of a caravan journey so she goes to visit her brother, while he sets out to explore the countryside and go house-hunting.
While learning to handle the horse and the caravan, he encounters a variety of eccentrics and country characters, and several unsuitable houses. It gradually emerges that the caravan contains a secret, and Mr Finchley finds himself in real trouble – until his wife comes to the rescue.
Now for the third and last installment in the “Mr. Finchley” trilogy. We’ve seen him break free and discover his own country, take a trip to Paris which turns his life upside down and now, Mr. Finchley has decided to retire and go house-hunting. As a descendant of Kentish men – or is it men of Kent? – he and his fairly new wife decide to settle in that county but Mrs. Finchley, having already had experience in the depressing realities of looking for that perfect home and not often finding it, decides to let Mr. Finchley take the lead.
It is on his first day of retirement that Mr. Finchley serendipitously discovers his mode of transport – an old caravan, gaily painted yellow – which had been left with a London pub owner. Willing to let it go for the cost of storage and upkeep, a deal is quickly struck between Mr. Finchley and Mr. Harricot. It’s only after getting home and beginning to plan his journey that Edgar Finchley remembers what he should have thought of earlier. He’ll need a horse. Enter “Albert Churchwarden” a horse of unknown provenance.
After a few lessons in how to harness Churchwarden and drive the caravan, with provisions stored neatly away, Mr. Finchley takes to the road and discovers that driving by himself is a whole different ballgame. Several Londoners are variously amused and annoyed by Churchwarden’s decisions to randomly stop and block traffic but soon, they reach the open road and are journeying through Kent, checking out properties and meeting with all sorts of people. Still … there’s something odd going on and a few of the people he meets aren’t just eccentric – they’re determined to find something.
Once again Victor Canning captures a by-gone and lost era: that of pre-war England. He also nails the feelings of exhilaration mixed with sadness that I’ve seen work colleagues go through as they finally leave a job they’ve toiled at for years. But he’s got something to look forward to with Mrs. Finchley – leaving behind the fuss and noise of London and finding that perfect house to retire to in the country. Mr. Finchley’s also reached “fifty years of life without losing much of his optimism or faith in the ultimate decency of everyday people and things.”
In choosing to travel via horse caravan (something that can be done today in Ireland), he’s also choosing to go the slow route, the one that lets you see the countryside and meet the people rather than rush, rush, rushing along at top speed only eager to reach the end of the trip instead of enjoying the journey. Still, he notices how things are changing even deep in the rural countryside. During one evening sitting in a pub, he listens to a discussion about humans, war and whether or not it’s possible to avoid it. The book is listed as being published in 1940 but I can’t help but wonder how much of it was written during the build-up Britain and Europe were facing prior to WWII.
He meets with and talks to many people along the way including a blacksmith and some farmers who set Mr. Finchley straight about “the good old days” and how they weren’t so good for the working class. A run in with a tinpot tyrant shows Mr. Finchley how those with no social standing can be harassed while a day at a village fete (humorously) proves that those after money for the church spire can be almost as ruthless and determined in extracting shillings and pence as any highwayman.
Though Mr. Finchley has retained his faith in (most of) humanity, his good humor will be tested by a few people along the way. As in the first book, there are some characters who happen to briefly cross paths with him then depart, leaving him and us ignorant of their fates. Some people are hardworking while others appear to be yearning for the dreams in life that they never seized when they had the chance. A few people embody the changing workforce as the new generation tries to better itself while the old stands and shakes its head, wondering what’s wrong with the honest toil that their forefathers knew. One man even seems to presage some of the issues bedeviling us today.
Later in life, Victor Canning wrote action and suspense books with exotic settings and I can’t help but wonder if he was already thinking about and plotting them based on the enthusiasm two of the characters display here for that genre. Most of the story is seen from Mr. Finchley’s POV though there is a hysterical and memorable scene told by Churchwarden – yes, the horse. A few characters from the second book show up towards the end and help solve a mystery and save the day. And in the end, the Finchleys just might have found that perfect house. B