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Some memorable lines and oddments from the 58 novels, 100 short stories and seven plays by Victor Canning.

A longer version of this collection is available from as "A Victor Canning Sampler" for £5. Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

Page references are to British first editions.

Language, literature and style

You’ve got to be observant to be an author. You mustn’t miss anything. One might almost describe it as being a detective. A laugh from a man in the street, a car whizzing by in the night … they all suggest ideas to me. I don’t like to boast, of course, that’s foreign to my nature, but I suppose I’m about as observant as anyone.
(Fly away Paul, p. 197. Spoken by the young writer Michael Stormry, who embodies some features of Canning himself.)

Well, I must be moving, I’ve got to correct George’s latest sermon. He always relies on me to see that there are verbs in all his sentences. I found one the other day of a hundred and fifty words—worthy of Carlyle—without a verb.
(Mercy Lane, p. 99)

“My father,” retorted Miles with dignity, “was very fond of poetry and he once gave me a shilling for every ten verses that I learned of the Ancient Mariner. The fifteen shillings were spent long ago, but I still have the verses.”
(Sanctuary from the Dragon, Chapter 7)

He read slowly and with a care that few modern readers have, for all his reading had been concerned with technical books and articles, and he had not the trick of gulping a page without letting the print touch his palate or send nervous soundings of appreciation or disgust to his brain. He rumbled through Vanity Fair like a coach and four along a country road, taking time to observe the scenery, and not growing impatient when the coachman stopped to blow his horses or curse a carter who took more than his right of the way.
(Sanctuary from the Dragon, Chapter 12)

"It wasn't really your fault! A worn-out excuse. I suppose you'll have the teleologoical impudence to ascribe the origin of your plight to Adam and Eve? In my young day, when we started to do a thing we did it, and if we couldn't do it we didn't moan that it was not our fault." As he finished speaking Matthew ... had the impression that perhaps he had used the word teleological, taken from a sententious Times leader that morning, incorrectly.
(Matthew Silverman, p. 19)

It was pleasant to sit in the front of the bus and pick out people from the mass and then to weave stories from the cut of their clothes, the expression on their faces and the way they looked into the shop windows.
(Everyman's England, Ch. 9)

“Man is a Flux. The Body is the Spirit’s Habitation. The Spirit is Man’s link with the Great Mystery.” His voice was the kind which could impart capital letters to words and leave no doubt about it. With him some nouns became personalities of impressive importance.
(Fountain Inn, p. 28)

“What are you looking in the dictionary for?”
“I’m looking for a word—the word ‘moribund’ that Mr. Brown used. It’s a thing I always do. Whenever I hear a new word I always look it up. I call it going on with my education, though I do think there’s quite a lot of words that seem only another way of saying something very simple.”
(Fountain Inn, p. 28)

I went up Shaftesbury Avenue trying to recall how Keats’s line went on from “beaded bubbles winking at the brim …” I didn’t have much success. I’d always been on the mathematical side. An engineer, not a literary man. Long ago, when Tom Ross-Piper and I had been working our way through France to Spain, I remembered we’d had an argument about poetry as we lay in some woods all day, waiting for night and the chance to hop a train. I’d maintained that there was true poetry in mathematics, that figures, not words, could best express man’s dreams. Tom hadn’t agreed and we’d never finished the argument, for he had been shot dead four days later and I had come on alone.
(The Hidden Face, Chapter X)

A book is a bird—just open its wings and you are away, clear of regulations and permits, heading for foreign parts, adventures, thrills and excitement.
(Preface to The Python Project)

Blasphemy and lewdness lie in the intent not in the sound, and a thing so alive and protean as language can absorb and refine over the years a spate of blasphemies and obscenities.
(The Great Affair, p. 15. In spite of this assertion, Canning's work contains hardly any of the 'four-letter words' which are now commonplace in fiction. Bugger and arse occur, and there is this interesting passage from a late novel:
And, more amusing too, she had a way of using the word “bugger” as though it were no swear word at all. He’d got used to it by now, but he knew that it put his father off sometimes. If a rabbit ran across their path she would say, “See that little bugger, Pete. He’d better keep out of my father’s way.”
The Boy on Platform One, p. 107)

"When we first met I didn’t know what a split infinitive was, and, too, I used to say that things wouldn’t notice … Poor Harry. He was very patient and loving, but he was very hard to know—really. … Maybe you’re like that, I think. Patient and loving—when you want—and hard to really know well.”
He said, “You’ve just done it.”
She nodded. “Split an infinitive. I know. But Harry said there wasn’t a damned reason why you shouldn’t if you wanted emphasis.”
(Firecrest, p. 21)

There was, thought Bernard, with the Duke and Felixson an almost childish preoccupation with warfare metaphors. Bombs, guns, ammunition, explosions. Frankly, in as much as he allowed himself any political feelings—and a reason why he disliked this job as much as Warboys—he thought that the last people to be trusted with subversive arms were types like the Duke and Felixson. In their own coverts if a guest handled a gun carelessly he was never invited again. Their skins and the skins of their friends were precious. But in political life they would happily light up their cigars while they sat on powder kegs.
(Mask of Memory, Chapter 5)

Tragedy and comedy sometimes share the same bed. Both are restless sleepers.
(The Doomsday Carrier, p. 198)

Although there are no incontrovertible facts about King Arthur, the renown of his life and deeds in the Dark Ages was lodged for over six hundred years in folk memory. And folks, being what they are, invariably alter and embroider a good story. William of Malmesbury, Geoffrey of Monmouth and then Sir Thomas Malory were landed with the result. Lesser as well as better writers have followed them. Acknowledging that I come in the first of those two categories, I feel no shame in entering the lists poorly armed but securely mounted on a horse I have ridden for years called Imagination.
(Postscript to The Crimson Chalice)

Religion, love and philosophy

He did not understand why men should quarrel about one woman and only want one particular woman to do the housework when there were so many to pick from. Love was, as yet, something he connected with his aunt’s tales of God and the Angels. God was love, he knew that, and wondered how a person like God could manage to be love. It was, to him, like saying that God was cheese or butter.
(Two Men Fought, Chapter 3. The bedtime thoughts of ten-year-old Stephen Cornelly.)

Hilda saw in his reluctance a shyness which she was ever seeking to overcome; that was her tragedy and, as are most tragedies, it was the outcome primarily of ignorance.
(Two Men Fought, Chapter 5)

PROFESSOR: I am no longer curious about sardines. I am no longer curious about women. When a man begins to lose his curiosity about things then it’s time for him to die. So you keep your curiosity and don’t be too anxious to satisfy it. You’ll live long and happily that way.
(Beggar’s Bush, Act I)

LYDIA: … Did you ever have your conscience prick you, Pegleg?
PEGLEG: I ain’t never allowed it to get that familiar with me. You take my advice, Lydia, and don’t start letting your conscience boss you around. It don’t stop at prickin’—before you know it, it’s bloody well jabbin’ you with a knife just because you even think of puttin’ a dud coin in a cigarette machine.
LYDIA: But it’s always right, ain’t it, Pegleg? You see I ain’t never had much to do with religion but I always understood that no matter what you thought your conscience was always right.
PEGLEG: (Scornfully). Gaw blimey O’Reilly! That’s an old-fashioned idea, that is. The thing to remember about your conscience, Lydia, is that no matter what you do it nearly always says “You didn’t oughter have done that, matey”. But it only does that just to make you think a bit harder about it so that you can find some more good reasons what you’d never looked for f’r ’aving done it. That’s how modern consciences work.
(Beggar’s Bush, Act III, Scene 1)

“The trouble with a good lie is that once you’ve planted it, it goes on needing attention.”
(A Forest of Eyes, p. 97)

“[Miggs] was a Catholic ... they’re always the best value when it comes to running down their religion or making jokes about it.”
(The Python Project, p. 45)

“Did I say I was English? My mother was a San Fernando octoroon and my father a Maori from Wellington, New Zealand. But I am white, you say? Meaning I have that blanched veal complexion which all Anglo-Saxons look upon as a special gift from God. God has his gentle jokes, you know. The whites may be all powerful but in the eyes of three-quarters of the world they are really quite unpleasant to look at. He had his joke with me, too, because I am genetically a freak, but I bear Him no grudge.”
(François Xavier Mabluto describes himself in The Great Affair, Page 56)

“Pray? Oh, Nelo, you don’t really believe that?”
“I most certainly do. The only problem at the moment is the form the prayer must take. Prayers should not only be sincere but well-constructed. A whining beggar is not more sincere or successful than a happy one, and if you wish for divine intercession you should pay the Good Lord the compliment of washing your face, putting on your best suit and speaking up without mumbling.”
(The Great Affair, page 147)
The Duchess smiled. “Then you want to open your eyes, Samuel Miles, and see the magic right under everyone’s noses every day of life. You live on a great ball called the earth that spins through space like a top and nobody falls off—that’s magic. The sun rises and sets each day, and the seasons come and go—that’s all magic. The swallows fly to Africa for the Winter and then back here in the Spring—that’s magic. But the greatest magic is life itself. The fact that you and every other living thing is alive is the greatest magic of all. Nobody knows how or when it happened except the Great One. What’s more, if we can remember the past and live the present, what’s so odd about some of us being able to look into the future? It’s just a gift, like other people can make music, write poetry, or invent machines that take others to the moon. Magic, Samuel Miles. Every breath we take is part of magic. And my magic is to be able to see a little farther ahead than most other people ...”
(The Painted Tent, Chapter 1)

And the baronetcy goes to my great-nephew, a decent enough fellow who has the worm of religion in his mind and will probably turn this place over to a bunch of monks, with a handsome endowment, and so make sure that the heavenly gates will swing open for him as he rides up on a cloud top. Not that I’m against religion. Just against most of the people who come poncing and preaching in under its umbrella and to hell with those left out in the rain.
(Vanishing Point, Chapter 3)

She remembered her father saying, “It’s easy for people only in want turning to God. But that’s only putting your snout into the Sunday pig-trough. If only an empty belly or a worried conscience turns you to God then what more can you expect than a dusty answer?”
(Birds of a Feather, p. 20)


Patriotism, the environment, and biological warfare

If patriotism really means a love of one's country, then it is time the Englishman began to take an acute interest in the preservation of the amenities and beauties of England. Until that time flag-waving means little more than a strained arm and the achievement of a draught. When I see less litter about the countryside I shall know that as a race we are becoming truly patriotic.
(Daily Mail article, 29 February 1936)

Trust was the greatest hazard in this business. There were very few men who stuck literally to the letter of their contract. Ritchie knew him, knew he had retired; yet with a little prompting he opened up, basing his action on trust. This was the oldest and the most dangerous problem; one worked with human material, and human beings would insist on being fallible in their judgements. Trust no one, report only to X, a man like Ritchie could understand that. But Ritchie, like everyone else, could not live without trust. That every man had his price was obvious and to a very large extent this could be handled, but every man also had his friends. There was no sure guard against that.
(The Limbo Line, p. 23)

“He didn’t have any use for the Royal Family or the Church. You should have heard him about the Archbishop of Canterbury!”
“What about England? You know, being British and patriotism?”
“You should ask that! He used to go up in the air about the way things were. He used to say patriotism was a disease. That the world should grow up and forget about nationalities.”
(Firecrest, p. 59)

“Death had come to [the tiercel], as it does to so many of his kind, through the slow poisons of man, spread over and leached out of the land, moving along the long chain of change in the bodies of insects, vermin, and birds, finally to reach and destroy the fierce heart and proud strength of the prince of birds.”
(The Painted Tent, Chapter 12.)

But since one swallow does not make a summer, the successful plague-carrying test on Charlie had to be confirmed and reconfirmed to make it safe for men and women to be used as carriers, so another chimpanzee took his place. Everyone was happy, particularly the apes in dark suits who might one day for political or military reasons decide to use the silent weapon of plague to avoid the open and honest brutality of the sword.
(The Doomsday Carrier, p. 212)


“It’s pleasant to have a cheque for eighty pounds in one’s pocket. I wonder what I shall do with it?”
“If you are wise, boy, you’ll put it in the bank and save it for a rainy day.”
“Bank, aunt? But it’s been lying in the bank for donkey’s years. It’s time it saw daylight for awhile. Don’t you know, aunt, that it’s the duty of every citizen to put money into circulation? Creates prosperity for a country that way.”
(Polycarp's Progress, p. 15)

CHARLIE: On four pounds a week, sometimes less, and by a judicious accumulation of debts I kept this place going. I used to thank God for the credit system and shut my eyes to the future. I never realised until then just how many people lived perfectly happily like that.
STEVE: The history books show that every nation in the world lives like that. You lump all your owings into a thing called the National Debt and try not to think about it.
(Beggar’s Bush, Act II, Scene 1)

STEVE: … In this world there are only two important classes; those with money and those without money. They both have power, the power of wealth and the power of want. The people with just a little money never have counted.
(Beggar’s Bush, Act III, Scene 1)

“Money is always something you take even if you don’t need it. Money, as my old man used to say, is like music. No matter where or in what form it comes we should be glad of it.”
(The Melting Man, p. 110)

“Governments are outside morality. What is devaluation but defaulting on your creditors?”
(The Melting Man, p. 203)

“The debate on poverty and charity is endless. Just as the Holy Bible is full of contradictions so are the different goodnesses of man. I preached a sermon on it once and was reported to the Bishop. So far as I remember my main point was that the giving of charity to any able-bodied person in full possession of his or her faculties between the ages of twenty-one and seventy-one was a sin. Looking back on it now I see that I was guilty of some exaggerations.”
(The Great Affair, Pages 66/67)

In this world the last things to sell are status symbols. Sell the television set but not the aerial on the roof. Sell the bed you lie on but not the velvet curtains from the window. Realise on your life policy, cash in on the silver tea service your father gave to your mother but go on travelling first-class and keep the electric mower on the lawn, the garden dwarfs on their pedestals and your shirt cuffs unfrayed.
(The Great Affair, p. 73)


This was the third day of his holidays and he should be lazing in a deckchair on Margate front, with a Guards’ band playing ‘Humperdinck’ agreeably in the distance, and pretty girls in scarlet costumes splashing about in the surf.
(Mr. Finchley Discovers his England, p. 52)

… whistling a shrill tune which he stoutly imagined to be Schubert’s Marche Militaire,
(Polycarp's Progress, p. 20)

Vagabondage is somewhat similar to good music; most people welcome it when they discover it for themselves, but tell them that they must like good music, that it is a woeful betrayal of their cultural pretensions not to like it, and they immediately hate it.
(Polycarp's Progress, p. 176)

I am content to lie on my back watching the clouds, and if organ music can lift the soul to ecstasy then I find music enough in the sounds of the countryside.
(Daily Mail article, 29 February 1936)

... he would sing, and they would join in the chorus of his songs, or sometimes keep him company throughout the song. Michael was a great singer. In Portmenhick it was said that his talent came from his mother who had been Welsh. Michael himself said that it was no more than any man could do if he cared to open his mouth and use his lungs, and he would demonstrate by singing a note and holding it for as long as it took a boy to run up to the coastguard station and back to the quay. Mostly the men sang hymns and their sonorous cadences and low, rolling voices filled the slaty-cliffed cove with re-echoing loveliness as the sound of the “Old Hundredth” went dying out to sea to lose itself among the wailing gulls about the Sarth.
(Two Men Fought, chapter 4)

Margaret Sinclair was a modern young woman … and her love of music was catholic enough to enable her to enjoy both Gershwin and Bach.
(Fly away Paul, p. 52)

When Manston said he must be off to the ballet ... his friend gave him a stricken look and said, ‘Good God, must you ? How awful for you.’
(The Limbo Line, p. 15)

The room was suddenly and gently touched by the sound of music. She lay back and closed her eyes, feeling the slow caress of violins gently wrap itself about her, knowing with a deep gratitude that some kind fate must be working for her that he should bring her to life with one of her favourite Schubert pieces.
(Birdcage, p. 26. Though not stated, I would guess the music in question to be the Unfinished Symphony.)

Now … shall we have some brandy with this coffee and then perhaps — though not too loudly — a little Beethoven?”
(The Boy on Platform One, p. 74. Rundell is entertaining Miss Lloyd to dinner in his flat.)

She said Lady Diana’s got a birthday soon and she wants to buy her a new cassette for her player. She likes old Beethoven stuff and that kind. Do you think we ought to buy her something?
(The Boy on Platform One, p. 143)

Luck, fate and fortune

But luck is a thing it’s never wise to talk about. It’s a shy bird. You can only wait for it. It won’t be enticed.
(Panthers' Moon, p. 121.)

Maybe, she thought, this was what God intended should happen. Well, if he did, then it was up to Him to tell her so because she couldn’t believe that he really approved of places like Fadledean and the way — if all the stories were true, and why would there be smoke without fire? — they used animals and had used or intended to use Charlie. She gave the matter a great deal of thought and had another glass of sherry and another cheroot. Then with her own mind quite firm decided to refer the judgement to a higher authority. From the walnut bureau at the side of the window she fetched a well-thumbed pack of playing cards which she had used many times before for the same purpose. She shuffled the pack well and then began to deal the cards out before her face upwards. If God wanted her to save Charlie from Fadledean all He had to do was to see that a red ace turned up before a black one. And it did. The ace of hearts.
(The Doomsday Carrier, p. 154-155)


The train moved off and she settled down to her paper, shaking the pages out dexterously as she skipped from one feature to another. Around her other papers were shaken and patted and thick bands of tobacco smoke rose above each white folio like the gentle expiration of a sleepy volcano.
(Fountain Inn, p. 11)

He pulled out his cigar case and prepared to smoke. Hard work gave you the privilege of being the only person allowed to smoke in an office of over a hundred and twenty people.
(Fountain Inn, p. 25)

As they sat in the electric train that was taking them to Ealing Broadway he pulled out a pipe and pouch.
“Why, I didn’t know you smoked,” said Grace, who had never seen him with pipe or cigarette before.
“It is a habit in which I take pleasure, but of which I do not altogether approve,” answered George. “I have not so much money that I can afford to burn more than a very little of it. I smoke only on Sundays. Do you mind?”
(Fountain Inn, p. 80)

The May night was darkening, and the cloudless sky was brightly stippled with stars. Suddenly a shooting star blazed briefly across the heaven and with it came poignantly a memory of Sarah. So had a star fallen the night on Hampstead Heath, searing across the London sky, when she had told him she was pregnant and he had said it had to be a happy omen for the coming child. He could hear her voice now … ’Tis no such thing. One of the heavenly harp players up there has just nipped out between numbers, taken a quick draw on his fag and tossed it away as he went back. He could hear her laugh now at his shocked face.
(The Boy on Platform One, p. 114)

As he slid into the driving seat he had a lighted cigarette in his mouth. Adjusting his driving safety belt, he grinned and said, “Let that be a lesson to you in dealing with addicts. There is so often guile behind their courtesy. And don’t think I’m surrendering my cigarette lighter.”
Crane smiled. “For a beginning I think you’ve done pretty good, sir. That’s the first since London. You could perhaps enter it in the game book—one Piccadilly Number One, low flying, snap shot …”
(Birds of a Feather, p. 86)