Pewter Rose Press

A Penny Spitfire

Brindley Hallam Dennis

October 1947, in an industrial town, people grapple with the changes that war and history have forced upon them. Fatherless children and childless men face desire, aspiration, shame and disappointment as their war-shattered world rises from the rubble of its bombsites.

Derek Fitton is a mechanic, but people do not fit together as easily as engines, and Charles Bury, younger son of a local business man, dreams of a new, fairer, socialist world. Clive Dandridge, one step ahead of the law, entangles a troop of misfit children, including the introspective Paul and the runaway Jack, in his perverted schemes, from a hidden den deep within the rubble of the bombsite where Henry Street used to stand. On Edward Street, Tom and Violet Ferryman run The Odd Dog pub, where Burma Sammy drinks away his demob money, across the road from Fitton’s garage and the level crossing where Maria clacks in her high heels.

Read an extract here.

What people think of A Penny Spitfire

"As the Peace settles like dust on a town fractured by war, Dennis explores lives dislocated from their pasts. In prose both powerful and delicate he has created vivid characters for whom the reader feels compassion. In its evocation of those immediate post-war days this novel is a rare glimpse into a time often forgotten in our accounts of victory."

Janni Howker

"This is a very original novel, in subject matter and form. It is set in a small industrial town (which remains unnamed, though it may be Burton-on-Trent) immediately after the 2nd World War. Rather than dwelling on heroic exploits and victories achieved, as so many novels do, it describes the spoiled and broken lives of those who came back. It recounts their efforts to come to terms with the overwhelming experiences they have had, while adjusting to a world in which the structures they knew before they went to war have been swept away.

The various characters, across the social classes, find their previous lives and relationships irrelevant or impossible, or turn to drink to forget the terrors they witnessed. There are still guns to be had, and criminal characters and feral children gather on bomb-sites. Even in peace-time, violence and cruelty have not disappeared.

Rejecting straightforward narrative, the author tells his story in a sequence of scenes, as in a play, or more exactly, a black-and-white film, the setting for each scene often beautifully described: mostly dark, nocturnal, always poetic. He also employs a novel way of mingling speech and thought, the difference between them blurred, almost as if the characters are buried in their own memories and experiences, inarticulate, communicating incompletely with each other, before relapsing into recollection and introspection.

While much of what happens is difficult and gritty, and there is a violent denouement, the characters are richly-drawn and sympathetic, and the descriptions throughout are unusual, atmospheric and haunting. And towards the end of the novel the author gives us a glimpse, at least, of hope for the future:

And all around, the fields stood silvered in the moonlight... and the train, gathering speed as it moved away, drawn by the black lines of its track, carried, beneath its ermine cloak of steam, a single point of fierce orange light, lustrous as a new-made penny."

Frances Thimann

"In his latest novel. Brindley Hallam Dennis - real name Mike Smith, a resident of Curthwaite and teacher in Carlisle - has immersed us in the world of post-war Britain in a very precise, emotive way. We sense the very weight and texture of the lives of his characters. Paul, the adolescent boy, unsettled by the disturbed Dandridge; Burma Sammy shouting and screaming, still fighting the war; Derek's old kit bag in the attic with the nylons bought for the nurse he would never see again; the memories of India, Burma and Germany that are like a dense fog in the years after it is all over.
A Penny Spitfire is a carefully evolved story, building up character and detail from the inside, so that we sense the events through the minds of the characters.
The closely-crafted prose, as neatly turned as the brass spitfire badges made by Derek Fitton, evokes time and place with precision.
The Policeman insisted the revolver was a pipe. People refused to face the horror they had experienced. Life had to be Worked through.
A Penny Spitfire is a fine novel. Its portrait of life in the Forties is as sharp as Picture Post, but there is no hint of nostalgia, only an honest understanding of the difficult lives that people have to face."

Cumberland News

"Let me repeat how much I have enjoyed reading and re-reading your book. It is for me a faultless performance. The enormous amount of physical detail of  things from which one deduces the characters, the times and circumstances, depends on most lively and skilful language. The story is gripping and the drama all the more surprising amid the boring squalor of the post-war landscape. 
The class conflicts about to be tackled head on, total the disruptions caused by the war, which has shaken out the glue of the last of Edwardian England, all this in what you call a "novella". Derek Fitton has more than a touch of Everyman and THE PIT (Der Kessel) where the new war to bring in a new world is fought out, is a suitably terrifying darkness from which to bring the new light.
This a beautifully written modern allegory. All our grandchildren will get a copy!"

Margaret Whyte

"Penny Spitfire is a poignant and prescient study of the impact of World War II on a small midlands town. We see the world largely through Derek Fitton’s eyes. A car mechanic foresighted enough to open a garage before the war began, he has returned from India to find that he can no longer connect to his own town, community, even his marriage. Dennis’s prose pulses with sensory detail. It seems coated in axle grease, powdered with dust. Read it and you smell metal and oil, turpentine and cigarette smoke; you can hear the clank of trains shunting into the nearby station, the revving of automobiles unused since 1939. It tastes of blood.

In this town the war is almost a character in its own right. It is the glue that holds together a group of dispossessed men and women – and the wedge that has been driven between them. The novel exists in a silent, held breath, a time between two worlds. The war is over; the process of change – social, ideological and technological – is already in motion. But for all the distant clanking, the dust has yet to clear.

This is a technically adept work. Dennis’s omniscient narration is no Dickensian voice, haranguing and moralising. More it is the voice of a presenter or an MC; a slow strip-tease revealing a society in flux. His characters – the dreamy socialist, Charles Bury, the traumatised Burma Sammy, the lying ne’er-do-well, Clive Dandridge, and Fitton himself - have been curtailed, interrupted. Their relationships are still dominated by the war; just as the town is still dominated by a huge bomb crater. It seems that death is all they have to look forward to.

Only the ever buxom and garrulous landlady of the Odd Dog demonstrates any joi de vivre. But even this seems forced. The past is not ‘another country’ in this novel. It is more vivid than the present into which it bleeds. It infects the town with a hazy nostalgia, filtering everything through its sticky nicotine-stained lens.

Penny Spitfire’s poetry clings to you long after you have read the final chapter. There is a strong metaphorical element here, exploited to great effect by Dennis. The railway carrying trains that are either going away or being shunted into sidings, the penny that pops up under many disguises: as payment for thoughts, for the spitfire, a lapel-pin fashioned from left-over metal, or to close the eyes of the dead. And there is something inevitably Denis Potterish in the sexual repression that seeps into all the characters’ actions.

The ending comes as a cruel irony. In what is considered by the characters to be a symbol of hope, we are offered a glimpse of our own twenty-first century crisis.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Dennis finds the seeds of our destruction in his story of post war Britain. Writing of this quality is as hard to find as a penny spitfire on a bombsite."

Nicky Harlow