When you write about a guy’s books for over a decade it’s hard not to repeat yourself, but with Peter Robinson‘s 27th Alan Banks crime novel, Not dark yet (Hodder, 2021), we get to the conclusion of The Zelda Trilogy, the end of a sequence of novels that started with Careless love and continued with Many rivers to cross, both of which had left us with cliffhanger endings as to what was happening with Zelda next. It was like watching a big TV series finale, and just as frustrating. Not dark yet leaves us with a different set of questions.

Okay, briefly: Zelda (not her real name) is a really interesting character, the partner of the father of Banks’s colleague, ex-lover and friend, Annie Cabot, Ray, a successful artist. If it weren’t for the circumstances, Banks would fancy her. She has a hell of a past – sex trafficked from a Moldovan orphanage, where she developed a love of classic English literature, rising to high class Parisian whore with powerful secrets enabling her to escape her vicious pimp (well kill, actually) to England, where she met Ray. Ray, has an interesting past of his own (Cornish hippy artist commune), but we won’t go into that; I’m sorry we won’t be seeing any more of him (sorry, bit of a spoiler, I guess, but I want to express my regret).

Not dark yet starts with Zelda in Moldova:

What the hell was she doing here, running away from the good life she had found, despite all the odds, and from a good man, who was more than she deserved, seeking God only knew what. Revenge? Atonement? Reconciliation? (p5)

As it turns out, all of the above. Back in the Yorkshire Dales DI Annie Cabot and DC Gerry Masterson are beavering away at the visceral Conor Blaydon & factotum murders at one of those rich dodgy developer / criminal contacts / handful of celebs parties. Banks is occupied with the aftermath in London of the antics of Zelda and the Albanian OCG. As per the Robinson modus operandi, it looks like the two investigations could well be linked. But there’s a video of a violent rape at the party that sends Annie and Gerry off on a round Britain trip (well, Durdle Door, York and more) and a plot line revolving around an adoption twenty years ago. In a nice touch, although certain characters are part of both investigations, the Blaydon murder is found to have been personal – almost an old fashioned whodunnit. (For what it’s worth, I am tired of the East European crime gang takeover of a lot of crime fiction).

Meanwhile, Zelda, back up north, is forcefully abducted, and Banks not long after, all leading to a violent and exciting climax of that part of the tale. This is where Peter Robinson excels, in his handling of physical jeopardy. His skillful juggling of plot lines is undiminished, and the investigative dialogue has been sharpened (has he been watching television?). Never far away, either, is the moral concern, the eternal debate between justice and the law’s letter; in the twenty-seventh novel in this fine sequence, Alan Banks’s behaviour has never been more compromised.

Of course, Not dark yet – the title nods to Time out of mind, Dylan’s cheery ‘comeback’ album of 1997 – comes with Robinson’s customary soundtrack, active listening and background both. As usual, all over the place, though with a little less jazz (maybe because he can’t annoy Annie so much, as he spends so little time with her in this one).

Naturally he doesn’t shy away from obscurities, though I have to admit I thought he was making it up – having a laugh – with Jan Dukes de Gray, with their Sorcerers, Mice and rats in the loft and Strange terrain albums.

Seemingly not. According to Wikipedia, a short-lived English psychedelic/progressive folk and progressive rock band that was primarily active in the early 1970s. Despite a relatively meager total output and a lukewarm contemporary reception in terms of sales, the band has attracted a cult following…” (Banks only has the last two, Old hippy Ray Cabot has the lot.) Methinks I’ll not be rushing to check them out.

Whereas the previous two books that make up the Zelda Trilogy left us with, as said before, cliffhangers leaves us with a conundrum. Not really a spoiler, honest, but right at the end, Banks is on leave in Croatia, guided there via Paris by what he’s read in Zelda’s notebook, the notebook that he had taken from a crime scene and withheld from evidence. Zelda has just admitted she killed four people:

‘Are you going to arrest me?’
Banks looked at her for a long time, then shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. I’ve had enough of all that. More than enough.’

What are we to make of that? Where do we go from here?

Peter Robinson is not top of my crime novelist tree, but the systematic treatment I’ve been giving to each novel here on Lillabullero, detailing musical and literary references, alcohol consumed, Banks’s love life etc. is probably the most visited part of the whole website, so I’m committed to him.  Here’s the link:  Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks Mysteries.

The bare necessities

Impossible to say those words these days without that bloody tune bouncing – oh, come on: Jungle Book, the movie – unbidden into one’s head. Personally I have to thank Dodo Bones and Stephen Ferneyhough, for that. Of all the jolly songs you could have picked to play … (how I miss beer-assisted live music). (Apologies for the earworm).

Here’s what Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov’s packs for the journey he takes near the end of Amor TowlesA gentleman in Moscow (2017):

… the Count dug to the bottom of his old trunk in order to retrieve the rucksack that he had used in 1918 on his trek from Paris to Idlehour. As on that journey, this time he would travel only with the bare necessities. That is, three changes of clothing, a toothbrush and toothpaste, Anna Karenina, Mishka’s project, and, finally, the bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape that he intended to drink on the fourteenth of June 1963 – ten years after his old friend’s death.

Helluva rucksack, then, unless he means underwear. And socks. But look, hey, a big book! The man has his priorities. On page 100 of the paperback of A gentleman in Moscow Towles gives us a two-page footnote starting, “Among readers of European fiction, the character names in Russian novels are notorious for their difficulty” and expanding on the difficulties involved before reassuring us we won’t have to bother remembering the name of a character he has just introduced, a musician agreeing a meeting with the Count that doesn’t happen because of his and his tutor’s sorry soviet tale, only to tease in the final sentence of the footnote that perhaps we should. He has fun, does Towles, throughout – all the chapter titles begin either with an indefinite article or words beginning with the letter ‘A’ for starters – even as bad things are happening to good people. But I get ahead of myself.

A gentleman in Moscow became something of a word-of-mouth hit last year. It was urged on me from two different directions, and in a Zoom meet with old school buddies at least half of us half dozen had read (hi, Paul) or were about to read it. It was a surprise, then, to find a publication date as far back as 2017. Something to do with the pandemic and lockdown, then? As a quote from the Count has it on the back cover of the paperback: “By the smallest of one’s actions, one can restore some sense of order to the world”. I’ll not waste adjectives and judgement here, just mostly agree with what it says on that paperback front cover: yes, it sparks joy and display great charm, intelligence and insight; dunno about it being ‘utterly mesmerising’ (it has its languors, can be bit repetitive) but it does have claims to be, as it says on the back ‘a comic masterpiece’ (even though it’s the Daily Express saying it), and it is certainly ‘abundant in humour, history and humanity’ (unlike a lot else in the Sunday Telegraph, but there you go).

On the one hand it’s a fantasia revolving around the importance of little things, on the other it’s reminiscent of Stephen Poliakoff’s television epics – faded grandeur, the maintenance of dignity – with no hectoring but a constant backdop of Soviet Russian extremes reflected in individual characters’ stories; Stalin gets no name-check till very near the end. It can be a bit Disneyfied (as we used to say) – that ‘charm’ the critics quote invokes – but I appreciated its quiet morality – all the more powerful for it – reflecting the invariably inevitable consequences following successful revolutionary movements, and enjoyed it well enough on the whole, especially the building adrenalin rush towards the end … that I just didn’t see coming at all (despite the clues – why was he trapped in the Italians’ wardrobe? – you’ll have to read it)..

Russian gentleman aristocrat Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, born 1890, is officially “a former person”, condemned to house arrest in a small room on the sixth floor of Moscow’s once prestigious Metropol Hotel, where previously he’d had a suite. He takes on the job of head waiter in the restaurant. He has escaped the firing squad because of a long poem – Where is it now? – attributed to him back in 1913, a call to action that still impresses “those within the senior ranks of the Party who count you among the heroes of the pre-revolutionary cause“. After some lines from that poem, A gentleman in Moscow is prefaced with the court transcript, (in Courier font – what fun! – no, really) of his droll 1922 appearance (as “a man so obviously without purpose“, as the prosecutor puts it) in the dock:

How do you spend your time then?
Dining, discussing. Reading, reflecting. The usual rigmarole. […]
And you write poetry?
I have been known to fence with a quill. […]
… this long poem of 1913: Where is it now?
It has been attributed to me. […]
… many considered it a call to action. Would you agree with this assessment?
All poetry is a call to action. […]
Why did you come back? [from Paris]
I missed the climate. […]

How to resist, eh?

He’s there in the Metropol for the next 32 years, until just after the death of Stalin. In that time the hotel briefly functions as something of an administrative centre for the revolutionary government (“tireless typers of directives”), until the Kremlin (the building) has been suitably refurbished for that task, and comes back to something of its old life as the Kremlin (the government) admits its need to take up a more regular place in the wider international diplomatic community – or as Towles puts it early on: “Across the way was a table occupied by two stragglers who picked at their food while they awaited an era of diplomacy.” There is delicious comedy to be had when Osip, a Soviet diplomat, comes to him to be educated in the culture of the West in order to do his job better; they end up watching movies.

In the hotel he is dedicated to keeping up what standards of old is possible in the hotel’s Boyarsky restaurant alongside brothers in arms chef Emile and maître d’ Andrey. Even as a vegetarian I could savour the tastes and fragrances of one year’s description of the preparation of the triumvirate’s conspiratorial annual attempt a bouillabaisse with whatever was available. The Mishka mentioned in my opening quotation, is an unlikely childhood friend, a proletarian poet who gets gulagged over the inclusion of one of Chekhov’s letters in an anthology he is charged with curating.

His existence is enhanced over the years by liaisons with Anna, a “willowy” actress who goes in and out of favour professionally (remember that “willowy” if you read it, to help clear things up at the end). But his life is given purpose and fun by his friendships with two young girls.

He first meets Nina, aged 9, early on, the daughter of the hotel manager. She is keen to learn all there is to know about princesses from the Count. They have fun and games observing proceeding with the aid of her access to her dad’s pass key. Her enthusiasm shifts as a young woman to the collectivization of peasant farms which takes her way out of town: “and then [she] walked across the square in the general direction of historical necessity”. The Count is worried – “It’s just that to hear Nina talk of her upcoming journey, she is so passionate, so self-assured, and perhaps so single-minded, that she seems almost humourless” and It does not end well; she has to leave her young daughter Sofia in the Count’s – at first temporary – care. He becomes her dad, they have fun, and she becomes a concert pianist. And I think that’s as far as I’ll go with the plot. A fine book, and I’ll freely admit I wasn’t expecting the exhilaration (and that twist) at its end.

Meanwhile …

As if Culture Wars were anything new, here’s woke, 1920s Russian style …

A complaint was filed with Teodorov, the Commissar of Food, claiming that the existence of our wine list runs counter to the ideals of the Revolution. That it is a monument to the privilege of the nobility, the effeteness of the intelligentsia, and the predatory pricing of speculators.” (p142pbk) … so all the labels are removed from the contents of the Metropol’s cellar

The Count’s proletarian poet friend, Mishka, is talking to a statue of Gorky in the Square about “… the establishment of Socialist Realism as the sole artistic style of the entire Russian people ..”

‘And what had been the fallout of that?’ Mishka demanded of the statue.
All but ruined. Bulgakov hadn’t written a word in years. Akhamatova had put down her pen. Mandelstam, having already served his sentence, had apparently been arrested again. And Mayakovsky? Oh, Mayakovsky …
Mishka pulled at the hairs of his beard.
Back in ‘22, how boldly he had predicted to Sasha that these four would come together to forge a new poetry for Russia. Improbably, perhaps. But in the end, that is exactly what they had done. They had created the poetry of silence. (p269)

The Count is called upon to educate career diplomat Osip in the ways Western culture, knowing the enemy. Despite Osip concluding that “Hollywood is the single most dangerous force in the history of class struggle”:

When Fyodor Astaire danced with Gingyr Rogers, his fingers would open wide and flutter about his waist while his feet shuffled back and forth on the carpet. And when Bela Lugosi emerged from the shadows, Osip leapt from his seat and nearly fell on the floor. Then, as the credits rolled, he would shake his head with an expression of moral disappointment.
“Shameful,” he would say.

A post with no name

Lockdown, locally wandering

The River Great Ouse in Stony Stratford has flooded twice so far this winter. It’s meant to – managed flood plain and all that – though not as much as it did on Christmas Eve, to the dismay of those poor souls living the North End of the High Street. This was a bit further up river:

The Wolverton Mill Balancing Lakes didn’t rise much, but the mud on the usual route round was perilous underfoot – I went flying, got up muddy and wet. Paradoxically it was easier to walk nearer the water than higher up the bank. Some goosanders graced the lakes with their presence for a few days:

I think this ghost of a heron was in the MK Floodplain Forest. Another day I saw a great white egret, a little egret and two of these magnificent creatures without moving my neck.

Public art installation or forgotten farm furnishings?

Stumbled on a fantastic woodpile but the photos did it no justice, so here’s a nearby wounded tree:

Just up from the public sculpture featured above, the foiling of the Hole in the Wall Gang tells a tale or two, and makes redundant a well-known Leonard Cohen line. Something there is about this composition:

Back with the water and the second flood, taken from on the Iron Trunk aqueduct, where the Grand Union canal crosses the River Great Ouse near Cosgrove:

Why you should trust Alison Graham

… on crime dramas on the telly in the Radio Times. Television being another feature of lockdown, of course. Here she is on the second series of ITV’s Marcella:

Tuesday 26 Jan
You might remember Marcella, she was the cop who had fugue states when she did bad things then couldn’t remember anything … she’s back … Though she’s not called Marcella any more … deep under cover … with a Northern Ireland crime family … Imagine The Sopranos meets Mrs Brown’s Boys. (…)
Anna Friel – variously naked in the bath, in a lacy black bra or a see-through nightie – is the self-hating cop who, as her handler says, “breaks every rule in every book” in this nasty, violent crime drama.  Of course she does.
Tuesday 3 Feb
As this preposterously grim, violent drama trundles on … […] It’s hard to care about any of this, though Keira’s surreptitious chats with her low-talking handler are deliciously clichéd.
Tuesday 2 March
This barmy crime drama ends with a full-on demented double bill as the monstrous Maguires battle each other for supremacy and Keira/Marcella changes her hair colour.

Late Chronicle

The annual StonyWords literary festival was a while ago now (mid-to-late January, to tell the truth) but, you know,, better late than never, and Rob & Liz Gifford deserve praise for keeping the flag flying with a great variety of events rescued on Zoom, where it worked really well. I logged in for four:

  • Isabel Greenberg‘s talk about Glass Town – her quirky multi-layered graphic novel starting from the imaginative world to be found in the early writings of the young Brontë siblings – was so fascinating I subsequently bought it.
  • Emma Smith‘s topic was What made the Elizabethans laugh? ‘Comedies’ then not so much comedies as sit-coms (with a happy ending); laughter not seen as such a rewarding thing in itself then, as opposed to the notion of ‘delight’.
  • David Reynolds‘s Island stories: Britain and its history in the age of Brexit broadened the context to make the situation right now part of an ongoing story; note plural ‘islands’, plural ‘stories’.
  • Paul Lay‘s Providence lost; the rise and fall of Cromwell’s Protectorate opened up lesser known details of a period that my A-level History didn’t cover for all its supposed1603-1660 timeslot; among other things, why and how they blew it.

Traditionally part of StonyWords, there was no Bardic Trial this year to elect a new bard, so tenth Bard Andy Powell gets an unprecedented second term: twice the Bard any of the others could possibly be. Instead The Virtual Bardic Bash zoomed along nicely with only a couple of ex-Bards not contributing to the fun. You can see what all the fuss is about (and find some works inspired by lockdown) here: Bardic Bash – THE BARD OF STONY STRATFORD (weebly.com)

A couple of the regular music and spoken word events in Stony – Scribal gathering and Vaultage – kept the ball rolling online during lockdown, Zooming or YouTubing: take a bow Jonathan & Jill Taylor, take a bow Pat ‘the Hat’ Nicholson. How we all yearn for a live return …

Over and out. Can someone please show me the way to the murmuration?

Everybody behaves badly: the true story behind Hemingway’s masterpiece The sun also rises (US: Mariner Books, 2017) eloquently delivers what its sub-title promises and more. Lesley M.M.Blume takes her title from something the Jake Barnes – the Hemingway alter ego – says in the novel, that Everyone behaves badly – given the chance.” And with a couple of honorary exceptions they really do, not least the man himself. For here we are deep in Lawrencian territory: “Never trust the teller, trust the tale,” as D.H.Lawrence wrote in, as it happens, his Studies in Classic American Literature, published in 1923. And for all the bad behaviour and bad faith exposed, Lesley Blume never suggests that it is anything other than a true classic in the making she’s talking about here. This book about the book is an engrossing tale, tellingly told.

Not that everyone was thrilled by The sun also rises when it came out in 1926, least of all those very thinly disguised in its pages. Maxwell Perkins, an editor at Scribners, had to fight to get the hot new novel he’d acquired past his boss at the conservative publishing firm’s board meeting:

Perkins marched into the meeting, determined to defend his acquisition as important literature, not mere profanity.
“It’s a vulgar book,” Charles Scribner Sr declared. “There are four-letter words in it that I never would permit on the page of any book that enters a gentleman’s home.” (p164)

After what was effectively a case study in early modern publishing marketing hype, which Blume makes interesting in itself, most of the reviews were extremely favourable. There were exceptions, though:

The New Masses ran a review that must have felt like a kick in the crotch to Hemingway. John Dos Passos reduced his friend’s book to “a cock-and-bull story about a whole lot of tourists getting drunk.” […] Dos Passos did concede, however, that the cock-and-bull story was well written. (p201)

Which is, on one level, a fair summary of the action, an account of a road trip – hey, a road novel – that hadn’t lived up to expectations. Not so much the cock-and-bull though, given that some involved thought Hemingway had practically written a non-fiction account – with the names changed – of an actual journey out of boho Paris down to Spain for the start of the bullfighting season. Like Donald Stewart, who …

… wasn’t particularly impressed by the book’s artistic merits. Back in California, he got a copy and found himself uneasily transported back to the Pamplona misadventure.
“It was so absolutely accurate that it seemed little more than a skilfully done travelogue,” he later recalled. “What a reporter, I said to myself.” (p208)

Thing was, Hemingway hadn’t told his friends what was coming, and with the success of the book a couple of the originals for the closely drawn lead characters had cause to date their lives as either pre- or post- the book’s publication.

Ernest Hemingway has been one of my favourite writers since I read A farewell to arms for a course many years ago. Ultimately it was the sadness that got to me then – never mind the rhythm of the pared-down prose – after that perilous journey across the lake. I’ve stuck with him in the face of all the macho celeb bullshit that comes with the image; I’d say it doesn’t pollute the writing as much as some wilfully find – it’s not that simple. True, vegetarian me has shied away from Death in the afternoon, but it’s still in the pile, and I still expect to take something from it. The first time I read The sun also rises it was called Fiesta. More booze, liaisons and bullfighting than sex and drugs and rock and roll but with the immediacy with which it’s written it felt like I was there. For what it’s worth, I also think To have and to hold is underrated as an innovatory literary thriller. These covers take me back (mind, I’m not that old – the older ones were bought second hand):

Hard to think now of Ernest Hemingway as avant-garde, but that he was. When he and his wife Hadley moved to Paris – centre of the creative universe at that point in time – they shared a fully fledged bohemian experience, living cheaply in dodgy accommodation and patronising all the right cafes and bars. Armed with letters of introduction from an established novelist friend, who he later cruelly satirised in a short novel even Hadley thought was “detestable”, Hemingway got to be mentored by Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, the intellectual heavies of the Parisian émigré literary scene. But his eyes were on a bigger prize. Touting In our time, his first mainstream collection of short stories, he predicted (wrongly as it turned out at first) …

It was going to sell well […]. Unlike the work of his other experimental contemporaries, his writing would have wide appeal. “My book will be praised by highbrows and can be read by lowbrows,” he assured [his first US publisher].

There was a growing buzz, though. What was necessary was a big novel. Scott Fitzgerald, a big supporter, was already successful, but it was his subject matter – the post-war Jazz Age – that distinguished Scott from the Henry James legacy, rather than a new way of writing. The sun also rises was that novel:

“People watched Hemingway and watched what Hemingway was doing and cared deeply about it, as I did, and weren’t too much impressed by Scott,” recalled Archibald MacLeish […]. “Scott doesn’t exist when you’re talking at the level of Picasso and Stravinsky.” But Hemingway was about to reach that stratum, and his peers sensed it.

In her introduction to Everybody behaves badly, Lesley Blume makes the suggestion – fodder for a hell of a modern EngLit exam question – that, “Some other novels that have earned voice-of-a-generation status – Jack Kerouac’s On the road, for example – feel dated in comparison.” Discuss! And I’m not going to argue – though I will cringe a bit at the words ‘sexy’ and naughty’ – when she sums its perennial attraction:

The sun also rises still banks on the same dual function that made it a craze the moment it was released: it remains at once a vanguard work of modernist art and also a depiction of a sexy, glamorous world rife with naughty behaviour – and little of the flawed human nature depicted in the book’s pages has changed.

The Lost Generation

The book’s original working title was The lost generation, and Hemingway retained Gertrude Stein’s “You are all a lost generation” quote as an epigram. So he only really had himself to blame when it was welcomed as if its purpose had been to, in Blume’s words, “depict definitively his damaged generation”. Never mind that its eventual title on publication in the US came from the Old Testament, from Ecclesiastes: “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever, the sun also riseth …”. (In the UK Jonathan Cape chickened out and went with Fiesta, losing the resonance). Blume again: “… it fit neatly with Hemingway’s belief that each generation was just as lost as any other:

“Nobody knows about the generation that follows them and certainly has no right to judge,” Hemingway insisted. “I didn’t mean the book to be a hollow or bitter satire but a damn tragedy with the earth abiding for ever as the hero.”

Like Bob Dylan, he was still protesting, spurning his voice-of-a-generation acclamation decades on. Regardless of the disclaimer (how gorgeous is the phrase ‘moving towards capitalised status, by the way?):

… the idea of being part of a “lost generation” took hold hard and fast. The epithet was quickly moving towards capitalized status. In subsequent generations, similar umbrella identities would be ascribed to each era’s under-thirty crowd: the Beat Generation, Generation X, the Millennials, and so on. But the Lost Generation was the forerunner of modern youthful angst banners, and The sun also rises was its bible. That said, no one in that demographic seemed particularly glum about being “lost”. Membership in this new club had an undeniable glamour. (p209)

[Compared with Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age] … Lost Generation decadence had nothing to do with dinner dances and eating clubs. Rather, it was all about purposeful dissipation. With Jake and Brett as their lodestars, self-fashioned Lost Generationers were spiritually obliged to defy convention, embrace hangovers as holy, and indulge in sexual adventures. The more ill-fated the better. (p210)

Hadley Hemingway nee Richardson

There was someone who played a huge part in the launching of Ernest Hemingway on the wider world, but who doesn’t appear in The sun also rises: his wife, Hadley Richardson. That’s her in the middle of the photo on the cover of Everybody behaves badly. It was her modest trust fund that had seen them through the years of striving, and quite simply, Hemingway dumped her when success came – a theme not unusual in music, sport and the arts in general. He expressed regret in his later memoir of the time in Paris, A moveable feast, and it all seems sad, disappointing. Ernest, you rat.

As she observed her circumstances that summer, it must have dawned on Hadley that Hemingway had already made the choice between her and Pauline, and that decision carried a weighty symbolism. There on the Riviera, surrounded by their new friends’ beautiful villas, with her husband’s fashionable mistress perpetually on hand, it must have become painfully clear that Hemingway had moved on. They were already in the physical world of his future – a glaringly bright, illustrious realm far away from the naive, hungry aspirations of their carpenter’s loft in Paris. Hemingway and Hadley were no longer allies defying the idle, ignorant rich while taking refuge in the joys of a warm bed, simple food, and uncomplicated love. (p183)

In the process of trying to find details of a novel I’d read and liked about Hemingway’s wives (all four of ’em) I came across an article that made me see the end of the marriage in a different light. (That novel was by Naomi Wood, and called Mrs Hemingway; I wrote about it here – an impressive piece of work). Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman had always disliked her first name, even more so after she’d been advised to read A moveable feast. We will gloss over some, ahem, controversial opinions aired here; I laughed regardless of the potential insult, because of the way she says it:

This point brings me to another problem I have with my name: I hate Hemingway. His gratingly self-conscious style – all brutalised declarative sentences – has, to my ears, the rhythm of a pub bore sounding off. More repugnant than his style is his mentality. He is the literary version of the worst of Bob Dylan, purveying that tired cliché of a man as solitary figure, necessarily selfish and the sole protagonist of his story, for whom women are either spoilt sluts or sweet saints, there to look pretty, subjugate themselves and then, eventually, be left behind so he can find another girl in another town wearing a lace dress. It’s such a boring, sophomoric view, one almost excusable in a twentysomething man, less so in a fiftysomething, and it explains why, in my experience, so many men love Hemingway (and Dylan, come to that). And why I don’t.

The thing is, she becomes reconciled to her name after reading another novel telling Hadley’s story. That novel is The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, which I shall doubtless be reading soon. I not going to say precisely what changed Ms Freeman’s mind, except to reassure you the ex-Mrs Hemingway had a good life after the events described in Everybody behaves badly. If you’ve read this far you’ll probably fancy reading the article in full: Hadley Freeman: Me and Mrs Hemingway | Books | The Guardian

While we’re here I’m going to leave a link, too, to a fine performance from another favourite, the excellent Mary Chapin Carpenter, of her fine song Mrs Hemingway, about the Paris years. Enjoy (sorry about the ads):
Mary Chapin Carpenter : Mrs Hemingway – YouTube

I’ll leave you with this photo, just for comic effect – the newly married Hemingways, Switzerland 1922:

Hazard management

“Lock Out, Tag Out (LOTO) is a safety procedure used in industry and research settings to ensure that dangerous machines are properly shut off and not able to be started up again prior to the completion of maintenance or repair work.” [Wikipedia]

Somewhat at a loss as to how to approach writing about Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire‘s Left out: the inside story of Labour under Corbyn (Bodley Head, 2020), I checked if there were any other LOTO acronyms around, given there aren’t too many pages in the book that don’t sport that formulation – it stands for the Leader of the Opposition’s Office (not a perfect acronym, I know, but there you go). Despite what the sub-title says, Left out is mainly about how LOTO, embodying ‘the Project’ – to give the party back to its members, and in so doing seek to transform the British Labour Party into an instrument of socialist change – how they managed to go from the surprise high point of the 2017 election (and the consequent hung parliament) to “the most disastrous Labour campaign of any election since 1935“. I leave it to you, dear reader, to further elaborate on the metaphor.

Left out makes painful reading for democratic socialists (guilty, m’lud). They blew it, for the Project, for us all. The 2019 election campaign was a shambles; LOTO, like the country, was riven with personal and policy differences, never mind Brexit, and the great leader simply failed to provide a lead (especially on Brexit). The authors talked to an awful lot of people inside and outside the Project, and despite what some reviewers have implied, they have no axe to grind. What we get is a stylish and engrossing account of the events and personalities involved as things unfolded, delivered with some élan.

They sum up the flaws in LOTO’s approach in the two years between elections thus:

At points in the narrative, Corbyn is a felt absence.
The Project’s weaknesses and its internal divisions … all flowed directly from Corbyn’s own. Power was not something he pursued. At times it felt like he was a man living in anticipation of another lucky accident.

The Shadow Chancellor, without whom the Project would have never existed, was the opposite. For four years he worked himself ragged in the pursuit of power. He set aside his sectarianism and moderated and mellowed, or at least had the good sense to pretend to. (p359)

News to me, was that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell had a big falling out over Corbyn’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge problems in his public stance on the antisemitism controversy and international affairs in the summer of 2018:

‘It was clear they were estranged,’ said one senior LOTO aide … ‘It was absolutely true that they weren’t talking,’ said another LOTO staffer. ‘They were walking past each other in the corridor and blanking each other, it was that level of not talking.’ (p124)

In the wake of all this their wives were “entrusted with making peace between the warring families. They went to the theatre together to clear the air.” Shame that we are not told what they went to see. ” It did not lead to the full reconciliation that some had hoped for. ‘Laura never, ever changed her mind about John after that, never,’ said one senior Corbyn aide.” Laura Alvarez, Corbyn’s Mexican (and third) wife, a regular reader of the partisan Canary website, is seen by many to have been a big influence on her husband, particularly in the 2019 election; “Aides noted with some concern that she regularly read the hyper-partisan Canary website“). I acknowledge there are reasons why I should not take a certain glee from what follows, but nevertheless:

Others feared that Laura Alvarez was encouraging her husband’s worst instincts in order to protect him from the pressures of campaigning. Such was the disintegration of trust within LOTO that aides nicknamed her ‘Yoko’. (p319)

Compare & discuss

A neat little cameo of the times and a Groundhog Day of a dilemma. Not that I’m saying what Boris Johnson did was a good thing, but as the leader of his party he did do something. Andrew Murray was one of JC’s policy advisers:

The day before the vote, Andrew Murray had undergone surgery after a heart attack. He was lying in his hospital bed self-administering morphine when his daughters came bearing news from Westminster. ‘The Tories have taken the whip away from Philip Hammond and Ken Clarke, and from Winston Churchill’s grandson,’ they told him. It was so implausible that Murray believed he was hallucinating. (p234)

Reshuffles of Corbyn’s lacklustre Shadow Cabinet were perennially discussed in LOTO but never carried out, thanks in no small part to his hatred of confrontation inherent in giving shadow ministers the chop. The verdict out of Monday morning’s management team was always the same. ‘Let’s do it next week. Let’s finalise it next week.’ And then, one senior aide says, ‘it would just not happen.’ (p246)


Here’s a selection – a lot of it had to do with Brexit – reflecting the vacuum at the top. Believe me, there are no balancing moments available:

  • … To LOTO it appeared that he had lost sight of his responsibilities as an emotional and existential funk set in. “He couldn’t see that he was the leader of a political party any more … it was just silence, and political mistakes.” (p124)
  • … [he became] either unwilling or, as time went on, psychologically incapable of leading. It would fall to his warring court to articulate exactly what Brexit meant to the Labour Party. (p191)
  • At his best he was Delphic, at his worst he was gnomic. It fell instead to his team to decode and debate what little he did say, in the hope that they might claim victory for their own conflicting agendas. (p198)
  • Radio silence from Corbyn had become an increasingly common feature of life in LOTO. (p256)
  • Yet there had been another characteristic failure of communication on Corbyn’s part. [X and Y] went on their way believing, as so many of those who engaged the leader in conversation did, that he had agreed with them. (p277)
  • The decision that for many of them amounted to a political death sentence was, for Corbyn, a release from the stifling, procedural drudgery his leadership had become. (p294)

Election 2019

A smooth campaign? Not. And you begin to feel sorry for JC. For a start there was another problematic bus:

  • Antagonism set in early and festered until polling day. The day before the campaign got underway, Corbyn had what one aide described as a ‘tantrum’ when he learned that – unlike the bus propelling Jo Swinson and the Liberal Democrats across the country – his campaign wheels were powered not by an electric battery but a diesel engine … (p310) [So he didn’t use it, despite the plans in place]
  • Corbyn’s seemingly trivial objections spoke to deeper dysfunction. His detractors at Westminster often contended he had no idea what he was doing. For once, the jibe was accurate – though not for want of trying on Corbyn’s part. Strategy for the campaign he was supposed to be leading had been largely decided – or, more accurately, disagreed on – in his absence. (p310)
  • Said one aide: ‘Nine-tenths of my bloody day was spent communicating on behalf of people who wouldn’t communicate directly with each other.’ (p312)
  • Andrew Gwynne [Campaign Co-ordinator, no less], whose patience had been nearly entirely eroded by the secrecy and obfuscations of Corbyn’s inner circle, was one of Labour’s many MPs who knew nothing of [a big new policy statement] until he read the Observer early front page that Saturday night. He knew as much about the campaign he was notionally overseeing as the owner of his local newsagent. (p318)

Another man, another planet

And here, for me, we have the problem. Try any combination of right/wrong man in the right/wrong place at the right/wrong time and what you don’t get is three Rs. JC is not so much a politician as a moralist, so not made for what one close aide called “the hamster wheel of leadership”. As the authors put it, “Moral certitude had always been his lodestar. It had … catapulted him to the leadership in 2015” (p356). But now it wasn’t enough. He had his own little political bubble, and he was stuck there :

That he loathed confrontation and disappointing friends is testament to the deep well of kindness that existed within Corbyn. Unable to rewrite the rules of the game as he had promised, he preferred to ignore them. When in doubt, he sought solace from from those he knew would support his judgement no matter what, be they Laura or his friends in Islington. It was understandable and human. But it was not what the Project or the Labour Party wanted or indeed needed from its leader. (p357)

And it’s not like, as you might have gleaned, he had an efficient group behind him. As if to emphasize how the Left, those of The Project, were not the power in their own patch of the land they believed they were, the authors describe in some detail the slow start and first ballot failure of their campaign for the election of a new Party leader. (Good luck Keir, you’ll need it).

A brief word on style

You have to applaud when a major chapter describing an internal dispute that had “toxified life and electrified the ugly factionalism in Corbyn’s office” concerning the controversial figure of close Corbyn ally Karie Murphy – strong character or bully? – is entitled Karie on regardless; those who know it will be singing that Beautiful South refrain in their head right now?

Here’s Seumas Milne: “Given the unease and irritation about the patrician languor with which LOTO’s most senior public schoolboy went about his work … “, while John Mann is “the PLP’s patron saint of indignation”. Don’t know what some of my younger Corbynista friends will make of JC’s “aversion to partying was such that aides feared coming into work hungover.”

A personal observation

Not exactly original, but I want to give a plug here to Bernard Crick, one of my heroes from student days. Pogrund and Maguire don’t go into ancient history and the genesis of Corbyn’s personal politics, which – I’m sorry, but – I would characterise as still showing their roots as early 1970s student politics … even though he couldn’t last two terms at North London Poly. There is a problem with the hard left, and of course the Trots, in understanding the practicalities of democratic socialism and the speed at which change is possible. Politics as the art of the possible.

Bernard Crick, the first biographer of George Orwell, spells this out in his classic In defence of politics. Five editions since 1962, though sadly out of print as I write (it was even published in a series of Forgotten Books in 2012) though there’s only one copy on Abe Books at less than a fiver as I type. Such was the dismay in certain circles that he had to add a don’t-give-up Appendix to the 2nd edition – A footnote to fellow socialists – that is still a crucial text for me that deserves wider circulation again now. Just sayin’.

For what it’s worth, other ways I was thinking of starting this piece were:

  • touching on the immediate ancestry of Corbynism, or the Project, out of Tony Benn’s less than successful Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD); their aim, to give the party back to its members, and in so doing seek to transform the British Labour Party into an instrument of socialist change; see also Thatcher landslide. Some of us had been through this movie before.
  • reflections on how a number of my younger friends were/still are Corbynistas: forgive me for simplifying, but basically because Corbyn was saying hopeful things that they’d never heard from a prominent UK politician before? Untouched by power, he had a certain integrity intact
  • a resumé of my personal history in the Labour Party: ’83 to ’97, Thatcher landslide to Blair landslide; neither a Bennite nor Blairite, I. But Corbynsceptic, for sure.

Ruso in hot water

I suppose I should thank Covid indirectly for my finally getting round to read Ruth Downie‘s Memento mori: a crime novel of the Roman Empire (2018), the 8th in the splendid Gaius Petreius Ruso sequence of novels. Given the context, shame about the title. These ingenious tales of a Roman medicus-cum-reluctant detective and Tilla, his native North British wife, have at their heart one of the great double acts in contemporary crime and any other fiction. I’m a big fan – as you’ll see if you put her into that little search box top right – she’s such an enjoyable, intelligent read. But between library laxity and a publisher’s cock-up I had to purchase Memento mori for myself, to read on the iPad Kindle app, a medium I’m not that keen on. I’d tried a few times and not got very far, what with all the ‘real’ books available to me.

So when I had to take my partner for an evening hospital appointment and because of the Covid restrictions in place had to hang around waiting for her in the half-light of a semi-deserted hospital car park, the Kindle text had its moment to shine. I made enough progress that there was no turning back, even though I’d found myself a bit less entranced than of yore. This could well have been down to the medium; I don’t care what you say, it’s different. But what I will say is – Yes, please do read Ruso and Tilla’s tales, but don’t start with Memento mori (start at the beginning, of course, with Medicus). Though I was, I must say – hurrah! – back in cheerleader mode well before it concluded. Among her many strengths as a writer, Ruth Downie really does do physical jeopardy superbly.

Aquae Sulis – Bath to us – AD 143. Ruso’s best buddy’s wife has been murdered; he, Valens, is the top suspect, and not without good reason as it turns out (no – not necessarily a spoiler). That’s all you need to know plot-wise, really. What is involved here is property development and the tourist industry in the context of the coming together of the two cultures (aka the nuanced Romanisation of Britannia) as Romans seek to expand further their bath-building on the ancient sacred healing spa. Its Celtic deity, one Sulis, is these days known to Romano-Brits as Sulis Minerva.

One of the delights of this series is the culture (and gender) clash, and the increasing accommodation reached between a rational medical man (“Given the gods’ lively reputations for seduction, betrayal, and murder, Ruso had never understood why honouring them involved such a lot of tedious recitation and meandering around“) and Tilla, who “had an unhealthy fascination with anything that combined the religious, the optimistic, and the slightly mad. The last thing he wanted to do was encourage her.” Here she’s paying her respects:

When [her hands] were as clean as she could manage, she raised them to the skies and spoke a soft prayer to Sulis Minerva and to the native goddess of the earth and god of the harvest and then one to Christos as well, because Christos had more cheerful things to say about the next world than any of the other gods seemed to offer.

This lovely gentle sardonic tone is another characteristic of Ruth Downie‘s fluid prose. Here’s the Poirot moment (oh yes, have I said Memento mori is a decent whodunnit into the bargain?):

Glancing sideways, he saw his own wife gazing at him in something alarmingly close to admiration, as if he were about to perform a miracle in front of them and make everything clear at last.
Except he wasn’t.

Here’s the shopping mall: “The soft lamplight that displayed astrologers and scribes and jewellers and a late-opening shoe mender was attracting customers and moths.” Ruth used to live in Wolverton, part of Milton Keynes, so a moment to savour (with a double whammy to conclude):

“This is a very strange town,” she told him. “Neena went shopping and she says there are lots of bars and places to buy souvenirs and jewellery but it is very hard to find anywhere to buy a cabbage.”
Silence. Then, “What did she want a cabbage for?”
So he was listening. “You know what I mean.”

I said at the start of this piece that I had a bit of a unexpected struggle initially with Memento mori. As well as the digital medium I think there might have been a couple of other factors, and I feared series fatigue. First there’s the Midsomer/Marple syndrome at play – if you’re a friend or relative of Ruso you’d better watch your back, because it seems you’re well in line to be a potential victim or suspect. Second, I’ve always liked the way contemporary parallels to the action are sneaked in (like the cabbage episode above), but personally found the property development aspect too obvious – maybe my problem. But then there’s this:

“You may have realised I’m a local man, sir. It’s not a Roman name, Kunaris. I’m a full citizen of Rome and you might think I’m well established in the town, but it’s always a bit … well, perhaps your wife could explain it better than I can.
Ruso did not need his wife to explain it. “You never feel fully accepted by either side,” he said. “You always feel people are expecting you to prove your loyalty.”

Long may Tilla and Ruso’s friends and relatives be troubled by circumstance.

Here’s a link to Ruth’s website: Ruth Downie | Crime Novels of the Roman Empire

Tis that time of the year again, and sixth time around for Mr Stephen Hobbs‘s Top of the Poetry & Spoken Word Pops roundup for Stony Stratford and environs.

Normally the ceremony takes place at the Xmas Scribal Gathering Christmas bash (mince pies provided), but 2020 being 2020, this year it was done online, initially as part of the live event which fell foul to technical gremlins and actually froze at the moment Steve was about to say who No2 was (though we had plenty of clues there) … and leaving us high and dry as to the the reveal of the winner of this year’s giant lollipop; now there was a pregnant pause. Luckily JT decided to re-run the recorded parts of the show – there’s a link at the end of this post – and ‘ere is the text of Monsieur ‘Obbs’s presentation (which fills from 8.37 to 15.03 on the full show)
Over to you, Steve:

Hello Pop Pickers! What a crazy year it’s been. This is my Top of the Poetry & Spoken Word Pops for Covid-2020.

Take it away Phil….

Da da da da dan dan dan [Phil]

[Here it should be explained that traditionally Mr Hobbs is assisted in his presentation by Phil ‘Powerpoint’ Chippendale vocalising the countdown riff (no – not that Countdown) familiar to viewers, nay – pop-pickers – of the original BBC Top of the Pops, itself a bastardisation of Led Zeps’ Whole lotta love riff. Sometimes the audience would join in. For the video Phil was filmed in a number of locations, outdoors and in. (Filmed by Phillip, edited by Jonathan Taylor). Here are some stills; I have not included the shower scene. Consider this a health warning (link at the bottom)]

From 20 down to 11


Zoom Logo

Zoom, Zoom, Zoom, Zoom, Zoom, Zoom, Zoom, Zoom, Zoom, and Zoom.

Da da da da dan dan dan [Phil]

At Number 10!

Three guys who are endlessly creative when it comes to word play. Opinionated, gobby, but always original. It’s the three Pauls: Paul Eccentric, Paul Rainey, and Paul Moss (aka Mossman). [You can find samples of their work – with the Eccentric one as his half of the esteemed Antipoet – in the video of the Scribal Xmas bash, linked to at the end of all this.]

Da da da da dan dan dan [Phil]

At Number 9!

They were about to celebrate their 5th birthday but coronavirus put paid to that. But storytellers need to perform, and through the good services of Mistress Zoom (Terrie Howey) they have maintained their monthly events. It’s Richard York and the Storytelling at the Feast of Fools team in Northampton!

Da da da da dan dan dan [Phil]

At Number 8!

On the 3rd of July this year we lost a fearless musical performer, a keen storyteller, and a wonderful friend. When our world returns we will still expect to hear her say “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done” and do that nervous laugh. It’s Sandy Clarke!

Da da da da dan dan dan [Phil]

At Number 7!

At a time when doing nothing was a very real possibility these people have refused to keep quiet. They’ve added their skill and talents to some crazy ideas. I would like to thank: the Bards of Stony Stratford!

Bardabing Bardaboom! Danni Antagonist, Phil Chippendale, Pat Nicholson, Vanessa Feck Horton, Sam Upton, Mitchell Taylor, and Andy Powell! [You can find more info, and see their Lockdown poems project at THE BARD OF STONY STRATFORD – Home (weebly.com)]

Da da da da dan dan dan [Phil]

At Number 6!

When you’re the new kid on the block in the world of storytelling clubs and you have a good first year, coronavirus restrictions are the last thing you need. And then you lose one of your founding members – Sandy Clarke. Do you accept the inevitable and give up? Do you hell! From Tales Tattled &Told it’s Lynette Hill!

Da da da da dan dan dan [Phil]

At Number 5!

A regular Scribal performer, a talented poet, and the Bardic godfather of Buckingham. It’s the very first Bard of Buckingham Dean Jones!

Da da da da dan dan dan [Phil]

At Number 4!

Pandemic? What pandemic? This open mic lives on in YouTubeLand providing a unique platform for music and the spoken word. It’s The Vaulthead himself, Pat Nicholson!

Da da da da dan dan dan [Phil]

At Number 3!

He’s risen from the dead (again), plucked the stake from his heart and looked about in defiance. Our very own Dracula of the Stony Stratford open mic scene – it’s Jonathan Taylor and the Scribal Gathering elves!

Da da da da dan dan dan [Phil]

At Number 2!

When he came to his reward the wicked coronavirus tore his gig diary to shreds, but he was not downhearted. Through real and virtual gigs he has been a true hero of the Bardic tradition. He has cast aside the devil’s banjo and embraced poetry. He’s even got a poetry book coming out! Who would have thought that – probably not even him! It’s the 10th Bard of Stony Stratford Andy Powell! [Andy also features in the full Scribal Xmas bash video, to which there is a link at the end of this post.]

Da da da da dan dan dan [Phil]

At Number 1

and my Top of the Poetry & Spoken Word Pops for Covid-2020:

Someone who’s consistently facilitated the performances of other people. In this the Year of Covid-19 the storytellers of Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire have been dragged into the brave new world of Zoom. Instead of being furloughed, we’ve all been cajoled into using Zoom to achieve things we would not have thought possible. Youth drama continues, the Panto was written in a day, and signed copies of “Buckinghamshire Folk Tales” are on sale in Odell’s – the perfect Christmas gift! The PhD thesis has been submitted, the Bardic Council is relevant and you will even see poetry on the otherwise empty notice boards of Stony Stratford. And the storytelling – wow! [website: Red Phonenix Storytelling – Home (redphoenixstory.com)]

Stony has a fine tradition of producing community stalwarts – fill in the names. Ladies and Gentlemen here’s another – it’s Terrie Howey! And it gives me great pleasure to present her with this giant lollipop!

[Present lollipop]

Thank you and goodnight. Thanks again Phil – Da da da da dan dan dan

And here’s …

… that link I promised to the vid of the Second Coming of the virtual Scribal Xmas shindig

Steve’s presentation runs from 8.37 to 15.03.

Happy Christmas and a much better New Year for you all from Lillabullero.

Rebus reads Reacher

When challenged by Siobhan Clarke – “Didn’t take you for a Reacher fan” John Rebus comes back with,I sometimes need a break from all the philosophy and ancient languages.” Siobhan, meanwhile, is reading Karin Slaughter. Strikes me that these days Ian Rankin is having a lot of fun with his characters, and without any damage being done to his usual strengths.

A song for the dark times (Orion, 2020) starts with Siobhan helping Rebus, his books and records, move into the ground floor flat of his Edinburgh tenement building when it becomes vacant, his COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) being the reason for this:

He was standing in front of a row of brand-new bookcases, bought at IKEA the previous weekend. That trip – and the clash of wills during the shelves’ assembly – had put more strain on the friendship between Rebus and Clarke than any operation they’d worked on during their joint time in CID.

First thing he does when she’s gone is to check the hifi (vinyl, of course, never abandoned) and ponder the all important first record in his new home:

When he peered at the spines of his LPs, he saw that they weren’t in anything like the order as upstairs. Not that there had been any real sense of cataloguing – it was more that he’d known pretty much where he’d find whatever he wanted to hear. Instead of the Stones, he decided on Van Morrison.
‘Aye, you’ll do,’ he said to himself.

Fair enough. Doesn’t say which album, though with Van a lot of the time it would be hard to tell. A bit later Malcom Fox (for it is he) is rummaging through a box of 45s in the new flat – he’s there with Siobhan, who’s been stuck with looking after Brillo, Rebus’s dog, because Rebus has been called away up north after an urgent call from Samantha, his daughter (his aged Saab just makes it):

‘Archaeology, most of these,’ he said when Clarke found him.
‘John says he wants it put on his gravestone: “He listened to the B-sides.”

Good man. There’s a nice line in banter, particularly between these two, given he got the job at the Police Scotland’s Crime Campus at Gartcosh that they both applied for, but also generally throughout. Here’s Siobhan again:

‘What can I do for you, Christine?’
‘We’ve just had the most colossal break in the case.’
‘Very funny.’
‘Time was you might have fallen for that.’

So what’s occurring in this crime novel? Three things: Rebus goes north because Keith, daughter Samantha’s partner has disappeared (and is later found murdered) and she’s a suspect; in Edinburgh Siobhan (in a relationship with a superior, but not intimidated) is investigating the murder of a rich Arabian student with a James Bond fetish; and Malcolm, there because of potential Saudi involvement, is also dragged into a side issue with a blackmail attempt on the Assistant Chief Constable’s errant husband. As you’d expect, as things develop, one way or another all three cases intersect with either (and/or both) a nightclub owned by ageing Edinburgh gangster Big Ger’ Cafferty’ (“A large part of his income was clean these days and he wanted to keep it that way …”) and the financial interests of a local laird living in Strathy Castle, near the camp – “The building was the full bagpipe-baronial, with turrets and a plethora of crowstep gables” – in league with an ex-politician turned property developer. Familiar territory for Rankin and Rebus then (though this time it’s actually Malcolm who’s treading a thin line with Big Ger’, to Siobhan’s horror) and the handling is as smooth – all the jagged twists and turns – as ever. Prime Rankin, no less, and a joy to read.

Except … Keith’s murder – he has an interest in local history – is a real whodunnit revolving around another mysterious death back in the post-war 1940s, which took place in a wartime internment camp for non-Brit aliens – the fictional Camp 1033. A touch of Agatha Christie in the night here. The photos below feature Cultybraggan, another such camp, that now functions as a tourist attraction, which is what Keith was aiming for, albeit with objections from the local lord and a nearby hippy (or “Jim Jones Brigadoon cult” as Rebus describes it – commune . The background material here is fascinating.

The title?

There was just the one CD in the car – a compilation Siobhan had burned for him. She’s written the words ‘Songs for Dark Times’ on the disc in black felt pen. He’d asked her to explain the title.
‘Some to make you think,’ she’s said, ‘some to calm you down or get you dancing.’
‘Okay, nodding your head then.’

Pretty good, actually: Brian Eno minimalism, Leonard Cohen singing of love and loss (there’s a joke later, when he puts it on in the pub where he’s staying), something that “might be funk beamed down from the 1970s“, Black Sabbath with Changes (“Nice touch, Siobhan …”), The Clash, Jethro Tull … “The perfect time for the CD to decide he merited John Martyn’s I’d rather be the devil” … Average White Band: Pick up the pieces (“He hoped that was what they were doing“) … I could go on.

As I said at the beginning, Ian Rankin is having fun and in top form. And that Siobhan is no slouch. Long may they run. Malcom: “I don’t drink and I don’t smoke – what else am I going to do, to paraphrase Culture Club?”
“Adam and the Ants”,’ she corrected him.

Not that I’d know, I hasten to add

I’d say this is worth 10 minutes of your time. By some mysterious shift in time he’s still in the upstairs flat, but never mind that. Rebus – “Government says I’m high risk” – ponders the progress of the years – “At school you were either Beatles or The Stones. Now you’re allowed to be both. People are allowed to like whatever they like” – and what he’s missing. The actor Brian Cox narrates:

John Rebus: The Lockdown Blues | Scenes For Survival – YouTube

Never mind about that R-number (I mean, I do, a lot, but we have a rhetorical device hard at work here) … the R-number I worry about is my growing ratio of books read to books acquired. You’d think with a pandemic lockdown we might be making some progress with the TBR pile (to-be-read); disappointingly this has not happened:

Sorry about only a few spines, but space and balance are an issue.

In my defence, the Japanese have a word for this, dating back to their late nineteenth-century Meiji era: tsundoku. And this is not a bad thing. No, practising tsundoku is a humility driver, reminding you how much more there is to know. (Take that, tidiness guru Marie Kondo with your, “Ideally, keep less that 30 books”.)

Obviously – spot the John Lydon autobiography, which also gives an indication of how far back we are going? – there will be books here that I have forgotten about completely (or wish I could) and will inevitably be a mystery to me. Anyway, here are two that I have read recently:


This Penguin edition also contains John Sutherland’s illuminating essay, ‘Why does the Count come to England?‘ Short answer: he’s looking for an upgrade and relaunch.

I read Bram Stoker‘s Dracula (1897) as a talking book. Only it was me doing the talking – bedtime reading for a spouse recovering from a cataract operation; neither of us got nightmares (it may have been the way I told it). Two things about the experience that annoyed (and, of course, they are still there, if less so, in conventional reading mode): there are many – pause for breath, clear throat – long, long paragraphs, and Stoker has Van Helsing speaking with an accent, or rather his speech is peppered with stilted generic foreign phrasing (not, from what I can see, an attempt at humour) such as to require a double-take to pick up the meaning. Given the mode of narrative delivery – mostly diary and journal entries, none of them Van Helsing’s own save for one, his speech is delivered as reportage – one wonders why Stoker bothered.

Those provisos aside, so glad to have finally got round to reading it. For those who have not I cannot stress enough: it is nothing like – so much better, deeper, enriching – than those Hammer movies. (I tried watching Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), supposedly closer to the book – it was on the telly – not long after finishing the book, and only lasted 15 minutes: found it impossible to countenance the Count’s stupid period hair, to be honest.) No, the book’s the thing.

Dracula First Edition 1897

There is so much more going on once Jonathan Harker’s business trip to Transylvania, a lot of which is recognisable from the Hammer films, though the three really scary shape-shifting female bats that tempt and plague him were a surprise. Such is the way the tale is told – a slow reveal – that with my cultural baggage in tow it was impossible not to shout, “Come on, Jonathan, he’s a friggin’ vampire”. For all that one has brought ready-made from the films, the unease is still palpable in the text; Dracula dictating three letters to Jonathan to be sent back to England covering his – Dracula’s – back when Jonathan fails to return, is a chiller.

Meanwhile, back in England, we are plunged into the realms of romantic fiction. Lucy Westernra, 19, is corresponding with Mina, Harker’s fiancee, herself increasingly worried about his failure to return, about how she, Lucy, got three separate proposals of marriage in one day. It is these three suitors – Arthur Holmwood (Lord Godalming to be, aka Art), the successful suitor), Dr John Seward (aka Jack, psychiatrist in charge of a lunatic asylum, and Quincey P. Morris, a brave, laconic, rich, American (no, really) – who team up, under the subsequent leadership of the continent-hopping Abraham Van Helsing, Seward’s old mentor, to fight the good fight and save the world.

Save the world, you say? Listen to Van Helsing:

‘… he was in life a most wonderful man. Soldier, statesman and alchemist – which latter was the highest development of the science-knowledge of his time. He had a mighty brain, a learning beyond compare, and a heart that knew no fear and no remorse. […] He is experimenting, and doing it well; and if it had not been that we have crossed his path – he may be yet if we fail – the father or furtherer of a new order of beings, whose road must lead through Death, not Life.’

Not that I’m making any claims on Stoker’s part, but it wouldn’t take much of a cryptic crossword setter to tease a führer out of furtherer. For, as Paul Weller might sing in later circumstances, “This is the modern world”: the action takes place late nineteenth century, train timetables, blood transfusions, shorthand typewriters, and phonographs. The Count wants more than a piece of it for himself and a prospective Undead army. Oh, and the good guys come armed, courtesy of Quincey, with Winchester rifles and a Bowie knife..

Once out of Transylvania the action, relayed in diary and journal entries, letters and newspaper articles, is played out in Whitby, Exeter, London and Essex, on boats on the North Sea, and on trains and coaches in various parts of Europe en route back to Transylvania. The vivid scenes in Whitby – the terrible storm driving Dracula’s ship ashore, the spooky graveyard encounters (yes, I may well have, unbeknowing, sat on one of those benches) – are finely portrayed, thrilling and chilling. Van Helsing makes some state of the art speeches about the boundaries of science and faith (‘Then you want me not to let some previous conviction injure the receptivity of my mind with regard to some strange matter. Do I read your lesson right?”); never mind he’s selling his vampire thesis, in situ it convinces. What happens to R.M.Renfeld, a poor bloke locked up in Seward’s asylum, next door, as it happens to Dracula’s chosen London abode, feeling the presence, is truly shocking. And then there’s poor Lucy. But enough of the narrative detail.

Far more than the other differences from Dracula’s traditional tropes (he can exist in daytime, he’s just weakened, for starters), what really surprised me is the vivid portrayal of the human beings engaged in this crusade, their relationships, emotions, loyalty and bravery. I was not expecting to be moved, but moved I was even by melodrama, at one of the brave band’s request that they read the burial service for them in case the worst happens (no spoilers):

How can I – how can anyone? – tell of that strange scene, its solemnity, its gloom, its sadness, its horror; and, withal, its sweetness. Even a sceptic, who can see nothing but a travesty of bitter truth in anything holy or emotional, would have been melted to the heart had he seen that little group of loving and devoted friends kneeling round that stricken and sorrowing [X]; or heard the tender passion of [Y}, as in tones so broken with emotion that often he had to pause, to read the simple and beautiful service for the Burial of the Dead.

In this modern world one might cavil at Van Helsing & co coming out with, “And now for you, Madam Mina, the night is the end until all be well. […] We are men, and are able to bear; but you must be our star and our hope, and we shall act all the more free that you are not in the danger, such as were.” And Mina, who was acting as secretary to the group, is happy to go along with this: “Oh, it did me good to see the way that these brave men worked. How can women help loving men when they are so earnest, and so true, and so brave!” Nevertheless, great book, not to be lazily stuck in a genre ghetto.

Night Train

And so we board a train into a dystopian future, features of which will include the political collapse of a ruthless Stalinist dictatorship and ecological catastrophe. Reasons I bought David Quantick‘s Night train (Titan Books, 2020) on a whim:

  • it was a cyber suggestion, but with endorsements from the ubiquitous Neil Gaiman (challenging Stephen King for back cover quotes?), Sara Pinborough (who certainly knows how to write a page-turner) and Ben Aaronovitch (he of the superb Rivers of London series of weird thrillers, also published by Titan, who really have quite a list going for them these days)
  • I didn’t know he was now a novelist, but Quantick made me laugh a while back writing about music in the late-lamented Word magazine, and has been a writer on The thick of it and The Day Today (wow!)
  • I have always loved Godfather of Soul James Brown’s imperious Night Train (“Miami, Florida“) – could a onetime music journalist not have chosen the book’s title for any other reason? – and once made a friend a compilation CD of train songs, so was hoping for more (not as many as I’d thought, but one big surprise, revealed in all its glory at the end of this post, though you do have to click on it first)

Also from the back cover endorsements, one David Wong attests he hadn’t planned to read it one go, but ended up doing just that. I didn’t, but I can understand that, and it’s probably to my detriment that I didn’t (I might go back and do it; it’s a quick enough read). Having first got over, it has to be said, the huge hurdle of an opening guaranteed to produce an allergic reaction in me:

Night. Blackness, anyway. Darkness. No light. Nothing. Just night.
Then a thundering crash. A deafening noise, too much to bear. A huge, smashing shock to the ears.

But I had faith and the quick wit, relentless bouts of intermittent jeopardy and terror, good humour, intelligence, fun and slow reveal got to me.

What we have here is Waiting for Godot on a train, Godot on the tracks, if you will, a seemingly eternal ride but with adventures full of their own delights. When Garland, the first member of the team that tries to come to grips with the situation, is introduced she doesn’t even know her own name (luckily she has a name tag). When she meets the second, Banks, he talks about the first time he saw his new face. They sort of bond: “‘OK,’ she said. ‘I have empathy issues, you have humour issues. Looks like we’re a great team.’” Both have a back story, hers we only get right at the end, and it’s huge. Third member of the team is Poppy, a child prodigy champion skier who talks to her Teddy (another big surprise in store there too). “‘You three … You’re quite the superhero team-up,’” says Lincoln, a fourth character who appears very late on, with explanations. They have three different approaches to life on the train, neatly summarised with, “Garland put her jacket on a hook, feeling self-conscious and formal. Banks kept his on, as if in defiance, and Poppy dropped her jacket on the floor, first taking care to remove Teddy.”

But the train, which they explore carriage by carriage. Poppy:

‘We don’t know what’s in here, either,’ she said. ‘I mean, apart from mutant killer animals. And the weird rooms full of blood. And – oh yeah, the carriage full of dead people. Hey, maybe we should stay on the train. It’s great.’

There’s a lot more to come. Sometimes Night train feels like a graphic novel without the pictures, with short passages, some only a sentence long, separated by ***. Meanwhile, the dialogue sparkles (and can’t you just hear her?):

‘This is weird,’ said Garland.
‘Which makes it normal,’ Banks pointed out.
‘Oooh, paradox,’ Garland said.

They make slow progress advancing towards the front of the train. “… the next carriage was ridiculous. It was just a train carriage. In fact it was so much like a train carriage that they felt uneasy.” Banks queries her strategy:

‘I suppose I just assumed the important stuff would be at the front of the train,’ she said. ‘I mean, it normally is.’
Banks looked at her. ‘That’s trainist.’
After a moment, Garland said, ‘That was a joke, right?’
‘You are making a majorly big assumption.’

At a certain stage well into the journey things get very cute. Lincoln again in explanatory mode: “‘You’ve all got this place wrong. It’s not a train. It’s a book. These aren’t carriages – they’re chapters. And if you read a book right, if you look for the clues, you’ll find what you’re looking for.’” Some readers will certainly baulk at this tangent, and decry its out-of-narrative leap. But this where I was completely sold:

‘I said this train was like a book. Different carriages, different chapters,’ he said, getting up. ‘I didn’t say which book, though.’ [..]
‘Come on, we’re nearly there,’ he said, getting up. ‘Hey,’ he added. ‘You ever hear of a man called Shandy?’
The next carriage was black.

Ever heard of a man called Shandy? Nothing more is spelled out, but right here is where I swooned. Where does the name of this blog – Lillabullero – come from? Laurence Sterne’s quirky The life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67). (You can read why here). How does Sterne’s narrative technique handle a certain turn of events?:

And while we’re here, here’s another take from the same book on how narrative works (or at least how his does). Remember, this is late mid-eighteenth century:

Homage, then. And after this delightful bit of (doubtless to many) irrelevance, what unfolds is how the world got to be in the state it’s in, and the role our heroic trio played in it. Trust me, it’s fascinating, a real mindbender. How does it all end? Does the train reach the station (Robert Johnson, tick)? Yours to discover. Enjoy the trip.

Before I go, this musical surprise. I have a 3-CD compilation of Chuck Berry’s work, but I’d never heard this one before. I had to double-check the discography to certify Mr Berry didn’t have a namesake. Tis indeed he:

Downbound Train Chuck Berry with Lyrics – YouTube

Toot, toot!

Random not random 2

Further meanderings from the first Lockdown, this time with camera in hand. New routes, old routes more fully explored and appreciated.

I’d not ventured past the gate into the Old Wolverton Mill Field Balancing Lakes, just kept to the path at the edge before, but I invariably ended up including them in the itinerary for my wanderings eastward from Stony Stratford. There’s a depth to the landscaping, you can imagine being elsewhere:

Milton Keynes‘s balancing lakes are one of the city’s great assets. Engineered in anticipation of the rainwater run-off created by building a new town on previously agricultural land they are landscape gardening on a grand scale.

Here some delights found in the watery vicinities of Willen North Lake (the terrapin!), Caldecotte Lake (the cormorants) and the Flood Plain Forest Nature Reserve). Click on an image to scroll through the photos:

Westwards from Stony, through Calverton and the Wealds:

No theme with this last lot, though there are a couple of churches and I’m offering praise to the sun. Again: Click on an image to scroll through the photos:

Keep meaning to visit St Guthlac’s on the rare days it’s open. Interesting place.

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