Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 1, 2021

A Close Run Thing, by David Treweek

I’ve been reading some sombre books lately, so I was pleased to turn to this light-hearted romp, authored by one of the librarians at my local library.

Our librarians are friendly but they’re busy people so a chat is usually brief.  But when a librarian has to sit at the entrance on door duty, making sure that we register and sanitise before we enter the library, it’s nice to have a chat, and that’s how I found out that David is a published author.  His book was published in 1999 but I found a copy at eBay.  It was just the thing to offset a run of rather grim reading.

A Close Run Thing is the story of Peter Cavanagh, an antique dealer whose business is in trouble during The Recession We Had to Have.   He’s a small-time ‘man on the make’ not just in business but also with women.  When well-heeled ladies come into his shop to buy something, he isn’t always, a-hem, thinking about the sale.

Alas, the bank is on his back, and sales of luxury items are down as Australia’s economy is adjusted to take account of falling GDP.  And Peter has a run of really bad luck.

There was an avoidance game going on and Peter felt as though he was in the middle: he was avoiding creditors, customers were avoiding the shop, and women were avoiding him,  But the most successful avoider was money.  It was everywhere but nowhere,  Even a sniff, a smidgen of the wretched stuff would help.  (p,158)

With sales few and far between he has two ladies interested in his Georgian table, and the urgency of his money troubles means he has to sell it to the one offering substantially less.  When she brings it back because it’s too much hassle to polish it, he sells it to the other woman, whose husband’s business fails.  She wants to sell it back to him but he hasn’t got any money to buy it with.  And so it goes on.

His biggest disaster happens when a trader who’s bought some items goes into receivership before the cheque clears.  In an hilarious sequence of events he tries to steal his own furniture back, but gets charged with burglary, and things could have gone badly had he not taken the precaution of getting the principal witness too drunk to attend court the next day.

There’s also a droll pursuit of a woman called Anne, who invites him to liven up her attendance at a Catholic retreat in the bush.  She’s a lawyer, doing some work for them which involves staying overnight, and he’s there to do valuations of their furniture for insurance purposes.  But, oh dear, he confuses the directions about which guest cell to visit in the dark of night, and stumbles into a tryst between two of the religious fraternity.

In style, A Close Run Thing reminds me of Morris Lurie’s Hergesheimer, but it’s bawdier.  The setting, OTOH is pure class: it’s Melbourne’s High Street Armadale antique shopping strip, rated highly among Things to Do at Trip Advisor.  When my mother was alive I used to haunt these shops looking for birthday and Christmas presents, so I know them well.  But it’s the characterisation of the customers that’s the highlight of this novel.  Peter humours dear old Mrs Carruthers’ as her trembling cigarette converts into a leaning tower of ash which tumbles onto a Persian rug worth $5,500.  He makes a fuss of her rather than his merchandise so he asks rudimentary questions about her health, her house and Churchill the dog. He can almost predict the script as she skirts around asking the price, and the reader sees his inner thoughts as he engages with the routine disparaging remark meant to bring the price down:

‘It’s just like it.’
‘Just like what Mrs Carruthers?’
‘The table in London.’
‘Oh I see.’
‘It was destroyed in the Blitz.’
‘I’m sorry about that.’
‘It was a wedding present from my husband’s family.’
‘So it had sentimental value.’
‘But it didn’t have a stripe around the edge.’
No trouble.  I’ll just have a stripe-free one sent over. (p.66)

We don’t often come across novels set in retail stores, which is strange because I’m sure they must have lots of interesting stories to tell.

And yet, for all that this is a book written to amuse, it also makes a serious point.  Perhaps Peter’s shop is in trouble because he isn’t sufficiently focussed on it; perhaps he hasn’t built up reserves when times were good.  But now his business is in serious trouble because of of changes in the economy.  Our economy had to be modernised at that time: whether we liked it or not, globalisation was taking hold and in the late 20th century changes were inevitable.  But what A Close Run Thing shows is that there are all kinds of victims when the economy falters, and while unemployment tends to be the focus of measurement and commentary in the media, the heartbreak of a business failing is not to be underestimated.  For sole traders like Peter, the business is not just an income, it also represents years of hard work and a social network too.

In my community, people have been loyal to local traders and they’ve all survived the economic shock so far.  But it’s not like that everywhere, here in Australia or overseas.  It’s going to be a difficult few years ahead…

Author: David Treweek
Title: A Close Run Thing
Cover art and illustration by David Snellgrove
Publisher: Duffy and Snellgrove, 1999
ISBN: 9781875989508, pbk., 292 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased on eBay, $19.99

 


Responses

  1. I have seen this book around the place. Very familiar looking but don’t think I owned it. Sounds like something out the British comedy Are You Being Served? Maybe not quite so silly.

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    • No, it’s not like that, more like a BBC series the name of which escapes me, which was about some chancers who were always in some sort of scrape, not really dishonest in a despicable way, but always open to being able to manipulate a more profitable sale.

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      • Maybe “Only Fools and Horses”?

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        • No *frown*, that’s not it. I’ve looked through Wikipedia, but I can’t recognise it there.
          I think they were car dealers?

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  2. This sound the perfect antidote to some grim reading. It could easily have been rather twee but for the theme around the economic forces of change

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    • I’ve been trying to think of our books set in retail, and the only one I can think of is The Ladies in Black by Madeleine St John. There must be more…

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  3. sometimes a change is good

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  4. Sounds like a good Aussie film to be made here. Shane Jacobsen will just shine.

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    • Yes, only he’d have to get fit, this character goes to the gym and he’s pretty fit. (Which comes in handy for coming in through windows…)

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  5. Sounds lovely Lisa – sometimes we need a lighter read! :D

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  6. Hi Lisa Do you know which library he worked at? I had a brother named David Treweek. It is a very unusual Cornish name. I am a retired librarian in Australia and think he must be a relative. Some of the Treweek family went to NZ. Athanasius Treweek in Wikipedia gives details of my father and his family.

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    • Um… I’m not sure of the privacy protocol here, so I’ll pass on your query to him via email and give him your email address to reply with, if that’s ok with you.

      Like


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