Book Review: A Lesson From Mr. Punch by Colin Tucker
I met Colin Tucker in 2017 at orientation for the postgraduate Creative Writing program at Royal Holloway, University of London. Lanky, soft-spoken, and bright-eyed, he exemplified the kind of polite, welcoming Britishness about which I--an American who grew up with King Arthur, A Wind in the Willows, and Monty Python--fantasized.
He was the oldest student in the course, now turning toward prose after having retired from writing for the BBC. If I remember correctly, he also mentioned over dinner at a Thai restaurant one night that he had picked up a master’s degree in architecture as well. Just for fun. To enrich himself.
His Parkinson’s gave a slight tremor to his voice but didn’t seem to impede his functioning much. He kept up just fine with our classmates as we got our before-class meal at a hole-in-the-wall we took to calling “Cafe Crapo” or splitting our after-class bottle of red wine a the pub around the corner.
I don’t want to turn the man into a cartoon caricature, but I don’t know if it’s possible to overstate just how loveable Colin was. And maybe what made him most endearing for me was how personally he seemed to relate to characters. After reading a piece from my novel-in-progress, he said to me after class, “I’m worried about Justin (my protagonist). He does not seem to be eating well.” How sweet is that? And in speaking about one of his own characters, Winnie, Colin said, “I have fallen quite in love with her.”
And it’s no surprise. Reading the workshop submissions that would evolve into A Lesson From Mr. Punch, I fell a little in love with her too. Winnie is a wonderfully strong, spirited woman. She speaks frankly and with charming playfulness. And not only does she know what she wants, she recognizes the ways of the world and aligns herself with them to get it.
This worldliness of hers contrasts starkly with the protagonist of Colin’s novel, Walter, who travels to Dar es Salaam to make his fortune believing whole-heartedly in Kipling and Empire. Ignorant of the abuses of colonialism, he undertakes the role of a customs officer, seemingly the only person around who does not understand the relationship between the British and the people whose land they occupy, whose resources they steal.
He is equally naive when it comes to sex and relationships. Both with Winnie and a local sex worker named Rosa, Colin illustrates parallels between husband/wife and empire/colony. But Walter’s journey will not permit him to retain his illusions as he comes to recognize the reality of how his world works.
These very grown-up ideas were beyond me at the time Colin and I sat in the work shop together. I was too much like Walter, having come to London in a similar spirit of adventure, believing that if you press forward bravely that the world will reward your boldness so that you don’t have to concern yourself with the practicalities. I held similarly romantic ideas when it came to coupling, and it frustrated me immensely to see Walter appear lukewarm in response to Winnie.
Now, however, with the benefit of greater life experience, I can appreciate what Colin was saying, and I found A Lesson from Mr. Punch a very compelling read.
The novel has been published posthumously. Colin passed away. But what he leaves us in this novel is a challenging portrait of another time, when the same passions that we have now saw expression through a set of cultural norms that were very different than our own.