Title: Three Cheers for the Good Guys
Author: Frank Dickens
Publisher: Endeavour Press (originally published by Macmillan)
Year: 1984 (reissued 2017)
What it is: A cycling novel from the creator of the Great Boffo
Strengths: Dickens is a fascinating character
Dicks is a successful cartoonist, creator of the syndicated strip Linus and a big fan of cycling. The nature of his work being what it is – he can submit his strips from anywhere – Dicks is something of a cycling groupie, travelling Europe watching bike races. When Three Cheers for the Good Guys opens we meet him in Milan where he's attending the six-day race in the Palazzo dello Sport:
It’s the last night of the Milan six-day bike race and we’re ten-handed at a table in the Palazzo dello Sport in the smoke-laden crowded track centre with the drinks coming up fast and furious under the hot lights, the way they always do in the last hour of a madison.
Strictly speaking, we’re in the worst place to see what’s going on. The track centre is where the bar is, a place for having a good time, which we are because we’ve been supping at the same speed as the boys have been lapping and they don’t hang about in the closing stages of a six.
The scene is crashed by a ghost from Dicks's past, who has the potential to upset the cartoonists plans for the months ahead:
I’ve got the next seven months planned out. Tomorrow I fly to Olbia to follow the four-day Tour of Sardinia. From there it’s back to France for Paris–Nice; after that Milan–San Remo and the season proper. And I don’t intend to have my plans messed up by Neil Greenham because that’s the sort of thing he does best. He’s a British investigative journalist for an American newspaper and travels around all over the place, creating havoc and causing all kinds of trouble and I want no part of him. Even though I’m a Swiss resident and would like to know what’s going on back home as much as the next man and Noel probably knows all the answers, I still want no part of him. From October onwards, yes. But now, with the season starting tomorrow, no.
The trouble Greenham causes involves kidnapping, Sardinian separatists, and a cache of vases allegedly decorated by Leonard da Vinci. In a suitably convoluted plot it's never quite clear just what is really going on, with Dicks pulling surprise twists out of the bag right to the very end. The problem is, for too long the plot plays second fiddle to the semi-autobiographical Dicks banging on about about himself with much of the tale repeating elements of Dickens's real life, or elements of Dickens's life that were repeated so often they became real:
I buy a copy of L’Equipe, the sporting paper, and a map of the area. I buy L’Equipe with a great deal of pleasure because this is the paper that started me off on my career. While the girls are talking to the woman who runs the place, I’ll put you in the picture.
After the Olympics I went to live in France with the object of turning pro. It didn’t take long to find out I was out of my depth. The truth hit me one afternoon in the final few kilometres of a road race. I was eyeballs out in a sprint and I looked up to find the rider in front of me with a spanner in his hand adjusting the height of his saddle. Jesus Christ.
Disillusioned and broke, I drew some captionless gags connected with cycling and took them to L’Equipe. Because of my inability to speak French I was passed around till eventually I found someone who spoke English. He liked the drawings, asked for more and I was in business. To prove the French have no sense of humour they published them with the caption ‘Sans Paroles’ (Without Words).
When I realized I could sell my work I began to think of it as a full-time job, returned to England and started on the strip. Funny thing though, it was my not speaking the language that kicked everything off. Three cheers for L’Equipe, I’m thinking as I follow Les Girls outside. Les Girls, get that, I’ll be speaking it like a native before the day is over.
Les Girls is the other problem. Dicks is a randy old goat:
I kiss her for the next few minutes and I’m really working on the kissing, to reassure her things are OK. Then I tell her to move over to the other side because I’m much better when the girl is on my right.
The next quarter of an hour is magic because I’m in familiar territory and I work her up till we’re like a couple of animals.
Suddenly she stops.
‘Aren’t you going to wear anything?’ she whispers.
‘You want me to put my clothes on?’ I whisper back.
‘No,’ she says, touching my dick.
I’m thrown again. She’s like something out of the ark. Even those two girl hitch-hikers that ruined my marriage were on the pill.
Honest to God, I can’t believe it. She’s talking about a contraceptive.
‘Haven’t you got one?’ I ask.
‘No,’ she says. ‘Why should I have one?’
I’m thrown. She’s got me there. She’s not on the game so I suppose there’s no point in her having one with her the way girls I usually associate with do as part of the job.
‘Aren’t you on the pill?’
‘Of course not,’ she says. ‘What reason have I?’
I work on her for a few minutes. I don’t know whether you’ve tumbled but I’m on the selfish side and randy. It’s over a fortnight since I’ve had any sex, don’t forget, and I’m only human.
‘What do you want me to do?’ I ask.
She says something in French.
‘Don’t understand,’ I say.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ she whispers.
I take it as it stands.
Shameful admission. As I go into that dark bit that follows the orgasm I’m thinking I should have telephoned Giovanni again.
Before reviewing The Great Boffo two years ago I was not familiar with Frank Dickens. I must have seen his strip in the Evening Standard at some stage, but the man himself had made no impression on me. Boffo was an opportunity to learn more about someone who was clearly fascinating, someone much loved by those who knew him. But while everyone seemed to describe Dickens as a bon vivant of the highest order it was clear that all was not happiness and light. The good living came at a price. Three Cheers for the Good Guys shows part of that price, the semi-autobiographical hero - in part the man he fears he is, in part the man he wishes he was - clearly aware of his faults but seeing no need to try and rectify them.
Unlike his earlier cycling novel – A Curl Up and Die Day – Dickens here seems to be going through the motions, padding the story out self indulgently. Unlike that earlier cycling novel, nothing in the writing here makes you sit up and take note. Recall this this description of the professional road race in A Curl Up and Die Day, which starts off with a description of the crowd noise and builds:
And if you add to that roar the blare of music from loudspeakers, the crackled announcements, the racket of service vehicles, the splutter of the outriders' motorcycles, the cries of men selling ice cream and hotdogs and rosettes and racing caps, and the thrashing of the TV helicopter hovering overhead, you'll get some idea of the din.
And if you could take that din and mix in the greys, browns and mustards of the crowd and the drab greens of the police and the dark blues of the outriders and the creams of the service vehicles and the brilliant reds, yellows, scarlets, blues and greens of the riders' silk jerseys, with their black shorts and shoes and white ankle socks and their tanned limbs and faces, and throw in the racing bicycles themselves so they glitter in the sunshine like tinsel, you'll get some idea of the spectacle.
And if you could take that din and that spectacle and douse them in the smell of embrocation and oiled machines and the reek of Spain on a hot day and pour the whole mixture over the mud-coloured houses of Oria, so it spills into the side streets as well as the main road, you'd get some idea of the start of the Professional Road event and how it comes across as we push our way towards the roped-off control where mechanics and masseurs and team managers and assorted hangers-on are buzzing around.
Nothing in Three Cheers for the Good Guys even approaches that, with Dickens turning the cycling into leaden race reports:
I point to the TV set above the door. I’m communicating like mad these days, judging by the way he switches it on without further prompting. I get the tail end of the news and after the usual football and tennis stuff we get the result of the prologue. Gerrie Knetemann of Holland wins in 5–53.94 from Belgian Daniel Willems 5–58.5, and Norway’s Knut Knudsen 6-3.90. Fastest Frenchman was Laurent. Hinault clocked 6-22.4. This stage doesn’t mean much. Merely allows someone to start the race in the leader’s jersey.
That doesn't mean that Three Cheers for the Good Guys is a total waste of shelf space – the autobiographical elements of it offer some value to those interested in Dickens as a man – but that on its own, sadly, is not enough to recommend a novel that has aged gracelessly.