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April 22, 2014

Making It Up


I got a scholarship to Oxford University to study History. The result of this is that I know enough about the subject to know how little I know. One effect of my self-awareness is that I was always wary of writing anything with an historical background. I was afraid of putting in some unwitting anachronism. I remembered too well the story of the Hollywood screenwriter working on some great mediaeval epic, who needed a rousing exhortation from the King to send his men into battle. He wrote a speech which began, ‘Men of the Middle Ages… tomorrow begins the Hundred Years’ War!’

But then I had the idea for the Blotto & Twinks series of books, about a pair of aristocratic siblings who got involved in adventures during that 1920s and 30s between-the-wars cloud-cuckoo-land beloved of Golden Age mystery writers. The social background I thought I could cope with. After all, the books were meant to be light-hearted spoofs, not works of serious historical accuracy.

But the problem of how the characters spoke was less immediately tractable. I didn’t want to venture into the kind of heavy-handed gadzookery that spoils so many historical novels. I knew, however, that there had to be a lot of slang. Anything you see on television set in the 1920s – particularly if it involves the aristocracy – is full of the stuff. And as a lover of P.G. Wodehouse, I knew how much power his characters’ slang added to the narrative.

I didn’t, however, wanted to get involved in deep research about the actual slang used by real people of the period. This was not just laziness on my part. I wanted my 1920s slang to sound different, I wanted it to be a unique ingredient found nowhere except in the Blotto & Twinks books.

So I decided to make it all up.

And enormous fun I had doing so.

Some of the phrases came easily and felt almost as if I had known them for ever. It seemed entirely natural for Blotto, when impressed, to say, ‘Toad-in-the-hole!’, or for his sister Twinks to describe anything she thought highly of as, ‘Larksissimo!’ A bad situation to find oneself in had to be a ‘gluepot’, and a rogue was inevitably ‘a bad tomato’ or ‘a four-faced filcher’. Someone smelling a rat would ‘get a whiff that the Stilton’s iffy’, something more difficult would be ‘a tougher rusk to chew’, and to someone disgruntled the only question that could be asked was: ‘What’s put lumps in your custard?’

There was no doubt about it – I was having fun. And when I came to write the fourth book in the ongoing saga, Blotto, Twinks and the Bootlegger’s Moll, I had the additional pleasure of putting words in the mouths of Chicago Mafiosi. There is a long history in American mysteries of writing slang for gangsters, but again I had more fun making up my own. So, if a beautiful woman (a ‘breathsapper’ who’s ‘as dim as a one-dime candle’) pokes her nose into the affairs of some ‘scumdouche’, he’s going to be ‘soured up’, reckon she’s been ‘two-handing’ him, and see to it that ‘her chitterlings get griddled.’ Sometimes it is enormous fun being a writer.

Of course, as with all jokes, there are people who just don’t get it. Some, to judge from their comments on Amazon, even go so far as to think that the Blotto & Twinks books are silly. But to someone like me, whose comedy development happened during the Monty Python era, silly is not a pejorative word. In fact it’s a compliment. I have almost indecent pleasure making up the slang for the Blotto and Twinks. And I’m glad to say that a lot of people seem to enjoy reading it too.



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