Book review: Firefly by Janette Jenkin

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An old man sits by the pool by the cottage to which he retreats from his grander house in Jamaica. He has heart trouble and no appetite, though he still smokes and drinks brandy (also Coca-Cola and tea).

Firefly

by Janette Jenkins

Chatto & Windus, 212pp, £12.99

He is very tired, and drifts in and out of sleep, replaying old memories, and has to be chivvied into taking the daily walk his doctor has ordered. He is irritable and impatient, and swears a lot. He is served by a charming young Jamaican called Patrice, whose ambition is to go to London and get a job as a waiter at the Ritz. He is sure that a letter of recommendation from the old man will secure him the job. Meanwhile, at every opportunity, when there are guests or the old man’s friends and companions who live in the grander house, he practises silver service. At other times he plays records, dances, and cares tenderly for the old man he calls “boss”, who is often sharp with him.

The old man is Noël Coward, recently (and rather belatedly, not only his opinion) knighted. This is both a strength and a weakness. It supplies Janette Jenkins with lots of material for his reveries, memories of his suburban childhood – of his mother to whom he was devoted and who kept a boarding-house, of his youthful success and early stardom, of his lovers and colleagues, admirers and enemies. She gets a lot right, his taste for Edwardian children’s literature, for example. The evocation of the London of afternoon matinees and dinners at the Ivy, wet pavements and Kent gardens is well done.

Yet it is also a weakness, at least for readers who remember “The Master”, as Coward was called by his friends as well as his fans. They will all have their idea of him, and it may not accord with the version Jenkins offers. Was he really, even in the disturbed evening of his life, as consistently foul-mouthed as she makes him? Coward was gay, but his homosexuality, the practice of which was illegal in Britain for most of his life, was very discreet; he thought it not only dangerous to flaunt it, but also ill-mannered. He was careful to wear a mask. In 1954 when Terence Rattigan asked him to sign a petition protesting against the trial of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and two other men for homosexual offences, Coward refused.

It’s natural that Jenkins should show him dreaming when asleep or half-awake of long-ago sexual encounters, but not all are credible. There is also what purports to be an interview with a young Daily Express reporter to whom Coward makes overt and very crude advances. Perhaps this is offered as something he wishes might have happened, but it is unconvincing. One wonders whether Jenkins might not have written a more satisfying novel based on her idea of Coward if she had given her character another name.

Certainly if you blank out whatever idea of Noël Coward you may have, there is much to enjoy and admire. The depiction of the tribulations of old age and failing health is sympathetic and touching, the wanderings of memory convincing. There are good comic passages – a lunch with an irritating actress whose name the old man can’t recall, for example. The atmosphere of Jamaica, steamy and languid, is well realised. Best of all is the relationship between the old man and the young servant, Patrice. Patrice, with his dreams of a London as the Promised Land, rings absolutely true. His invincible optimism is delightful as is his tolerance of the boss’s spurts of ill-temper.

There is comedy too. He asks the old man if he couldn’t just pretend to believe in God so that he might go to heaven. “Do you think he’s let me in?” Coward asks. Patrice replies that when he gets there he should ask to speak to the Reverend Samson. “Reverend Samson baptised me, and my brothers and sisters. He was your biggest fan, Mr Coward. He especially liked that Mad Dogs song.” So “he might put in a good word. Seeing as he was a man of the cloth when he was living with a stiff white collar and all…” This is very good. Patrice is a real achievement. In bringing him before us, Janette Jenkins shows she has a gift for tender comedy. One hopes that after his crossing on a banana boat and meeting with his cousin in Brixton, he gets that job at the Ritz and is the success he deserves to be.

ALLAN MASSIE