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Happy band of brothers

4 October 2003

12:00 AM

4 October 2003

12:00 AM

The Two Pound Tram William Newton

Bloomsbury, pp.192, 12.99

Very occasionally one comes across a book which, in its unexpected delights, inspires one to leap about wild with praise, and rush out to buy copies for friends. This first work by William Newton, retired doctor, will surely have this effect on many readers.

It is, simply, the story of remarkable teenage years in the late 1930s. The facts make fiction look uninventive. They are described in what might be called polished prose — but that implies a lot of buffing and shining. Dr Newton’s art, as a storyteller and a master of description, is to make the reader feel it has all poured out of him just as it appears on the page. There’s no sense of conscious working over of narrative or humour. Dr Newton is a natural writer of a very high order indeed.

The story concerns two brothers, Duncan and Wilfred. (The author, I assumed, was Wilfred.) They had a bizarre and bleak Sussex childhood: a cold and distant father, a flighty mother never once condemned for her waywardness. The boys only met their parents on Wednesdays, for ‘arrangements’. But, devoid of self-pity, they were not without their resources. Duncan, an ace catapultist, killed rabbits which they cooked in their secret place, an old railway carriage, and they had gathered a remarkable collection of butterflies. It was through the pursuit of butterflies they came into contact with an eccentric German millionaire neighbour, whose footmen had powdered wigs and velvet breeches, and who was to be of great help to them once they had decided to leave home.

This they did when their mother left for one of her lovers, and the prospect of their father’s various ladies (two appeared simultaneously at his bedroom window) held little appeal. By now Duncan, who had just survived a terrible illness, was rendered completely dumb. Ever resourceful, they invented their own language and were able to communicate with great speed.

Unhampered by any trace of parental concern, they were free to pursue their unusual ambition, which was to buy a tram. Their capital amounted to a little over £3, but through luck and determination a tram they found, along with a horse to pull it and the horse’s partner, a dog. Their adventures with the tram are both touching and extraordinary, and not without their black moments — the death of the horse is unforgettable. Dr Newton is as good at tragedy as he is at understated comedy. Somehow, however extraordinary, the story remains credible.

Or so I thought, until, half way through the book, I described incidents to some enchanted friends whose reaction, nonetheless, was that possibly I’d mistaken a novel for an autobiography. Later, when I came to the part where the late king and queen visit the tram to confer an MBE on Duncan, I had to concede that they were right.

But it makes no difference to the huge pleasure of this book. Dr Newton is a wonderful find, it’s my book of the year and I shall give it to everyone for Christmas.

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