Ian McEwan‘s Nutshell (2016) is a modern dress take on Hamlet as a sort of crime novel, with Hamlet – well into his third trimester, or, as he puts it, “a creature of the sea” – narrating from the womb; ‘To be or not to be’ is no speech, rather an existential decision, as he witnesses the planning, execution and aftermath of the murder. It’s an extremely clever twist, but doesn’t he like you to know it. Yes, okay, very well done and brilliantly sustained to the end (particularly at the end), it’s a tour de force.

But on the whole the Book Group wasn’t that keen as far as actually liking Nutshell went. This has to do with a problem many have had with McEwan right from his debut short story collection, First love, last rites (1975) – a certain unsavouriness, the feeling that he’s being creepy for effect. With those with experience of childbirth in the majority in the Book Group, the amount of sex had by Trudy (you know, Gertrude) and Claude (Claudius) was felt to be, well, unlikely. True, there is wit – there is a lot of it generally – to be had in the first instance (“Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose“), but it all gets a bit … grinding and, well, unnecessary. Even then you have to admit, he is a superb phrase-monger: “… a glutinous drowning, like something pedantic crawling through a swamp” is just one part of the description of their last coupling.

Sarcasm ill suits the unborn“, says our narrator, at one stage, sarcastically. He has a fair knowledge of the world he’s about to be born into from hearing the podcasts his prospective mother has been listening to over the course of the pregnancy, a useful device to get McEwan’s take on current dilemmas, debates and controversies aired. In considering his life chances and options, the babe fears being put up for adoption or raised in prison.

There’s fun to be had – or a cheap dig and/or in-joke – from the target father and cuckold being a ‘dreaming sonneteer’, and from Claude’s blandness: “How did she step from John to Claude, from poetry to dribbling cliché?” And McEwan even has his narrator suggest that, “One could make a living devising such excursions“, as the yet unborn swimmer speculates on various outcomes. He also displays some skill as a wine-taster throughout. It’s all very clever and doesn’t he know it; you can’t get away from the notion that our author is, um, a bit of a show off.

If you’re aware of John Crace‘s painfully funny partliamentary sketches in the Guardian, you’ll not be surprised by what he does in Brideshead abbreviated: the digested read of the twentieth century (2010). What started as a Millennium project in the paper became the perfect bedside companion (providing your partner is prepared to tolerate hearty guffaws of laughter coming from your side of the bed). So, 3,4, or 5 per book, one for each year of said century; 1931’s is the first Highway Code, the only non-fiction title included. He’s taking no prisoners.

As it happens, the selection for 1997 is Ian McEwan’s Enduring love, probably the one of his oeuvre I’ve had the most time for (no, I haven’t read Saturday). All the entries start off with lines from the first paragraph of the chosen book, so I’m not sure where the Crace-ster quite takes over:

The beginning is simple to mark. Clarissa, me, a picnic, a shout. What idiocy to be racing into this story. Knowing what I know now it’s hard to evoke the figure of Jed Parry, running, like me, towards the child in the balloon.
I’m holding back, delaying the moment in a virtuoso display of literary knowingness.

The beginning is an artifice, but then it always is. I could have started anywhere else, a leisurely breakfast, perhaps. But how else do you posit extreme moral choices in the most improbable way? I ran down the hill – it was all downhill after that dramatic beginning – and urinated strongly to demonstrate my usual forensic attention to bodily functions.

Crace is deliciously, deliriously merciless. I’ll pluck three more precious take-downs of McEwan before spreading the net wider:

Let’s look at things from Clarissa’ s perspective. Not because it’s enlightening, but because it’s a cute shift. She doesn’t believe him. She uses the historic present. She’s a total bore. Is that enough?

Parry was suffering from de Clerambault’s syndrome, a homo-erotic psychosis that no one but me had ever heard of. He was lost in a solipsism equal to my own. God, I was clever.

I compounded this improbability by arranging to buy a gun from some hippies in Sussex. ‘I’d stick to writing about things you know,’ they shouted as I left.

One of his tricks is to summon up phrases phrases and phenomenon from more contemporary popular song and culture and add them to the mix. You get Holden Caulfield, from J.D.Salinger’s Catcher in the rye (1951) opining, “‘cos everything’s boring, right?” and declaiming “Whatevea”. He says he’s quitting his ‘posh’ school, “… which I guess makes me some kind of trustafarian, but, I, like, like to think of myself as this deep working class hero, rebel without a cause, alienated gangsta. […] … but I wasn’t that bovvered, ‘cos what did I care?” Oh yes. And the conclusion he draws to 1914’s Tarzan of the apes will draw a smile from Kinks fans everywhere:

Tarzan saw Clayton’s happiness and could not bear to reveal his true aristocratic identity. ‘I’m an apeman, I’m an ape man, I’m an apeman, the apeman,’ he sang swinging his way out of the book and into the sequel.

Some of one’s less than favourite books get a righteous kicking from the off, like 1915’s The good soldier, by Ford Madox Ford, which the Book Group pretty much universally loathed, is dispatched with elan, and surely should be enough to warn lucky readers who haven’t put in the time from doing so:

This is the saddest story I ever heard. Yet I do not know how best to set it down, for in the dawn of modernism this is an experimental narrative of recovered memories and broken time-frames that loops and skips, to leave you as confused and frustrated as myself.

Inevitably he does it for books one has loved, and you just have to take it. I’m a big Ernest Hemingway fan and have always tried to boost 1937’s To have and have not along with his more generally recognised great (oh yes!) books. I see it as an innovative, politically committed thriller. Or maybe I shouldn’t, because “‘Some books Have it,’ Marie sobbed, ‘and some books Haven’t'”.

‘I’m shot,’ said Wesley.
‘You aint shot nearly as bad as me,’ said Harry.
‘Why have we slipped into a third person narrative?’
‘Don’t go asking no difficult questions …’

Harry: I don’t want to fool with it, but then what choice have I got? I certainly ain’t got no choice about being in a book with endless pointless voice changes. Just feels like I’m being used, being spat out into three novellas that are passed off as a book. But then a Have Not’s gotta do what a Have Not’s gotta do.

I don’t hold it against him. There are many other gems to be found throughout, but I’ll just leave Brideshead abbreviated with the ending Crace gives to Daphne du Maurier‘s 1938 Rebecca (1938):

‘Oh darling,’ I said. ‘I always knew you were only a pretend wife murderer. And look! Isn’t that Manderley on fire in the distance? Silly old Mrs Danvers. I told her not to read Jane Eyre.

Which leads me handily on …

… as promised, to Charlotte Brontë. Not quite sure how, but an article by Tanya Gold in the Guardian, from way back in 2005, landed on my FB timeline (thanks – FB does have its uses).
Under the headline Reader I shagged him: why Charlotte Bronte was a filthy minx she bemoans the spell of an early biography that has turned even the gift shop at Haworth into a kind of death cult. “Since her death 150 years ago,” the lead-in to the article continues, “Charlotte Brontë has been sanitised as a dull, Gothic drudge. Far from it, says Tanya Gold; the author was a filthy, frustrated, sex-obsessed genius.” You can read it yourself from here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/mar/25/classics.charlottebronte. Even if it’s only half-true I still think it’s a good read, and it did get me to finally read Glass Town all the way through.

I bought Isabel Greenberg’s Glass Town (Cape, 2020) after being in a fascinating Zoom session last year, part of the local litfest. It had lain pretty much dormant in ‘the pile’ since. It’s a work of fiction that draws on the Brontë sisters’ biography, which it weaves with the collective fantasy worlds (Zamorna, Northangerland, Gondal, Glass Town) that they had created in their youth, an extensive juvenalia readily available in an OUP Classics series paperback. Greenberg suggests it’s the inhabitants of this world that urge them on to their later literary endeavours.

It’s all beautifully done, with the particular qualities of the graphic novel used to great effect. The passages featuring the sisters have them displayed in muted colours, while Glass Town contains richer reds, and orange and yellow. You can see below what happens when you turn the page from a sequence of narrative panels and dive straight into a double-page spread. No other medium does this!

Stony Stratford : what goes on

Or at least what I went to. March Song Loft featured Moonrakers, an Oxford-based Celtic folk group, minus their ailing main vocalist, not that you would have known if you hadn’t been told. It was all pleasant enough, but memory fades. Featuring harp, cello, mandola, and guitar, their leader looked like he could have been either a suspect, or the victim, in an episode of Morse. The Celtic harp has such a distinctive sound … and rhythm. The cellist got some very eerie un-cello noises out of her instrument for a ghost story song. (Photos ©Andrew Metcalfe)

April Song Loft (bottom left, photo ©Chrissy Leonhardt) was another matter entirely. Billed as The Idiot and Friend show veteran poet and monologuist Les Barker and folksinger Keith Donnelly, taking it in turns and occasionally together, had us royally entertained. Les was new to me, but obviously not to many in the audience, who gleefully joined in at certain stages. Some phrases just stick in your head – the relaxed, calm, delivery helps here – like the one to be found below (there’s pleny else on Youtube), and the iconic, “Have you got any news of the iceberg?” Keith Donnelly, a wit in his own Geordie right, treated us to a rendition of Martin Carthy’s setting of Scarborough Fair, as learned, he claimed, from a dodgy cassette tape – a real tour de force complete with the squiggles, jumps and speed variations that medium was prone to. Great evening.

And the local library finally re-opened after the hiatus of Covid, and, more a reconfiguration than a refurbishment prolonged by the discovery of a hidden cellar under the floor. All so white and new. A change to the poster saw the New Bard, Michael Gurner, singing the praises of a good book, sharing the performance space with a reduced Much ado about nothing from the Old other Stratford Bard (though obviously, not at the same time). [photo ©Victoria Holton]. More poetry, storytelling and some music filled the afternoon, but what an emotional moment it was when (stand in!) Pat Allati sang an acapella Summertime, followed by, after acclamation, a stunning She moved through the fair. Not my place to tell the tale, but just: Wow!

Scribal carried on the good fight with gusto – was almost like Covid never happened. Huzzah!

But I divagate …

Thanks are due to one of Aldous Huxley‘s characters for divagate, a splendid word, new to me (“to wander or stray from a course or subject” – not an opera scandal). I’m always up for a spot of divagation. I’ll talk about Huxley’s Crome yellow later, but first, this month’s Book Group book.

Sarah Winman‘s Tin Man (Tinder Press, 2017) packs a lot into its 200 pages and goes off in unexpected directions. It’s hard not to be moved. So we start with Ellis’s mum in Oxford in 1950, Ellis in the womb (kitchen sink domestic abuse with a touch of magic realism courtesy of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers) and move quickly into 1996 with Ellis miserable, grieving, struggling to hold it together on the night shift in a car works in Cowley. In his mind’s eye he’s remembering wife Annie (that first meeting and a healing trip to Venice) and his friend (with benefits early on) from boyhood, who both died in a car accident. It’s not a love triangle as such, more nuanced in time than that.

The second half of Tin Man consists of passages from Michael’s notebooks, relating episodes in France (those sunflowers again) and London (in the time of AIDS), and looking back to a holiday spent with Ellis in France, found by Ellis when finally clearing out Michael’s things. He learns a lot about Michael’s ‘missing years’ and, back in 1996, finds himself again and goes off to France on a kind of sentimental journey.

Other interesting characters add to the tapestry of Ellis’s life – a couple of older women (mum, Michael’s aunt), his reformed dad, concerned step-mum, an apprentice at work and, going back, the man he was apprenticed to, and a student next door. There are some nice light moments leavening the grief and regret. Given how crucial Annie is to the pair of them you might have expected to hear from her. And you do wonder why Ellis gave up drawing in his own time (even if his bully dad wouldn’t countenance further education). Sarah Winman eschews speech marks for dialogue, which I think works well. The prose is spare (if not without the odd flourish) and moving, though hardly as ‘unsentimental’ as the claims made for it in the six pages of review quotes that kick off the paperback edition, or its lead back cover puffs.

The title of Tin Man is a direct nod to The Wizard of Oz; Ellis loses his emotional rust. And Winman celebrates yellow in her salute to Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. As it happens I’ve been reprising my vinyl and- Lo! – ’twas the good Captain Beefheart next on the deck. Synchronicity if you wish. You’re welcome:

As I’ve said, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers have an important presence in Tin Man:

Fifteen sunflowers, some in bloom and some turning. Yellow on yellow pigment that darkened to ochre. Yellow earthenware vase decorated by a complementary blue line that cut across its middle.
The original was painted by one of the loneliest men on earth. But painted in a frenzy of optimism and gratitude and hope. A celebration of the transcendent power of the colour yellow.

And you can’t get much yellower than …

Aldous Huxley‘s first novel, Crome Yellow (1921). I’ve found one source suggesting the title is a pun on the colour chrome yellow, which, as it happens, I found out in passing Van Gogh used to some effect, though not necessarily in Sunflowers – the fictional country house the novel is set in is called Crome (because it is, no particular reason). The same source also suggests it’s because the sun is shining over the three summer weeks’ action.

There isn’t much sentiment in Crome Yellow, for all that its thin narrative thread concerns the unrequited love of young Denis, a recently slim-volume-published poet who has been invited for a stay at one of the top hang-outs of England’s post-war literary scene (not unrelated to Bloomsbury). It proves to be an education for him. He’s in crisis by the end, albeit “clad in those flowered silk pyjamas of which he was so justly proud”, struggling because, “In the world of ideas everything was clear; in life all was obscure, embroiled. Was it surprising one was miserable, horribly unhappy.”

The book has been described as Peacockian, after Thomas Love Peacock‘s country house novels of the 1810s and ’20s, where nothing much happens but lots of interesting characters sit around and talk about stuff. Indeed, a Spectator review when it was published called it “a Cubist Peacock”. Alternatively, I’ll submit, an Agatha Christie – one of those country house mysteries – but without the murders.

Like the novel that followed it – Antic Hay, recently written about here at Lillabullero – it contains a cast of arty types and bright young things who serve as a source of amusement and intellectual debate. Among them:

  • Gombauld the painter (who has been through Cubism and come out the other side and is full of it)
  • Mr Scogan, the philosopher, based on Bertrand Russell apparently, of whom more later, who, incidentally, calls it ‘Cubismus’
  • Ivan, an itinerant all-rounder (art, music, poetry) and lover and mystic to boot
  • Mr Bodiham, local preacher, disappointed that the First World War did not prove to be the biblical apocalypse predicted in The Book of Revelations (based on an actual published sermon)
  • Henry Wimbush and his exotic wife Priscilla, the hosts; he’s obsessed with recording the house’s history and gets to recite two absorbing episodes from the book he’s writing
  • Anne and Mary between whom, I have to confess (guilty m’lady), I can’t recall the difference; one of them is worried about being sexually repressed, one of them Denis fails to conquer, one of them Gombauld fails to persuade to sit naked for him

You could justifiably describe Crome Yellow as a collection of set pieces. Denis suffers early (page 13) at the hands of Mr Scogan and is struggling one way or another from then on:

‘You’ve been writing prose?’
Not a novel?’
‘My poor Denis!’ exclaimed Mr Scogan. ‘What about?’
Denis felt rather uncomfortable. ‘Oh, about the usual things, you know.’
‘Of course,’ Mr Scogan groaned. ‘I’ll describe the plot for you. Little Percy, the hero, was never good at games, but he was always clever. He passes through the usual public school and the usual university and he comes to London, where he lives among the artists. He is bowed down with melancholy thought; he carries the whole weight of the universe upon his shoulders. He writes a novel of dazzling brilliance; he dabbles delicately in Amour and disappears, at the end of the book, into the luminous Future.’
Denis blushed scarlet. Mr Scogan had described the plan of his novel with an accuracy that was appalling. He made an effort to laugh. ‘You’re entirely wrong,’ he said. ‘My novel is not in the least like that.’ It was a heroic lie. Luckily, he reflected, only two chapters were written. He would tear them up that very evening when he unpacked.

Mr Scogan, later bemoaning the “dreary tyranny of the realistic novel“, scornfully declaims: “One reads to tickle and amuse one’s mind; one reads, above all, to prevent oneself from thinking”. Of which he does a lot, setting up some wonderful set pieces that allow logic to broach the absurd. Like it being ” … in the very nature of things … holidays can’t help being disappointments“, and offering up somewhat dubious reasons “why I always travel by Tube, never by bus …” But the real tour de force kicks off from his comparison of the injustice of how Erasmus (“a man of reason if ever there was one”) and Martin Luther (“violent, passionate, a madman insanely convinced about matters in which there can be no conviction”) have fared in reputation over time, from which he outlines the great paradoxical dilemma of our or any time:

“If you want to get men to act reasonably, you must set about persuading them in a maniacal manner. The very same precepts of the founders of religions are only made infectious by means of enthusiasms which to a sane man must appear deplorable. It is humiliating to find how impotent unadulterated sanity is. Sanity, for example, informs us that the only way in which we can preserve civilisation is by behaving decently and intelligently. Sanity appeals and argues; our rulers persevere in their customary porkishness, while we acquiesce and obey. The only hope is a maniacal crusade; I am ready when it comes, to beat a tambourine with the loudest, but at the same time I shall feel a little ashamed of myself. [..] What we want, then, is a sane and reasonable exploitation of the forces of insanity.”

Meanwhile, one can never underestimate the power of the fart joke, subtly not quite spelt out:

‘One suffers so much,’ Denis went on, ‘from the fact that beautiful words don’t always mean what they ought to mean. Recently, for example, I had a whole poem ruined just because the word “carminative” didn’t mean what it ought to have meant. Carminative – it’s admirable isn’t it?’

Poor Denis explains how the word came to mean so much to him, childhood memories of the word’s appearance on a bottle of the medicine given to him when he had a cold, describing cinnamon’s contribution to that healing elixir, expanding for two pages about “… that sensation of internal warmth, that glow” that wine and other fine things bring. Just to be sure he looks it up in a German/English dictionary, the only one to hand: windtriebend (my dictionary says ‘capable of inducing the release of gas’).

I’ll leave you with another of those American paperback covers that give some historical context as to how much things have moved on as far as ‘bold explorations into love and sex’ go. And this is still post-war, never mind when it was written. Those daring young men and women … there is talk, but I’m struggling to remember a bare limb.

Born in time

Four months in the late spring and summer of 1966 saw the release of the Beach BoysPet Sounds, Dylan‘s Blonde on blonde, and the BeatlesRevolver (and somewhere in there England won the World Cup and the Kinks released Sunny Afternoon too). What was that Wordsworth quote?

Luke Meddings, the author of What they heard (Weatherglass, 2021) is “still thrilled by the knowledge that I was alive when these records were released. I was less than a year old, but – even if I didn’t encounter the music at home – I must have heard snatches of them from transistor radios and passing cars.” He sees the music of the mid-1960s as: “… some kind of home …
My life, driven like a tuning fork into the September of 1965, has vibrated to that era ever since
.” He is a writer possessed of great charm and a telling phrase.

I went up to university in the autumn of 1966 and there’s a reservation. I had already spent a fair amount of time with Revolver, and, in particular, Blonde on Blonde. I thought I was so cool … until I heard people talking about Bert Jansch (as if I knew anyone called Bert) … but that’s another story. Anyway, music was at the core of a lot of my social life in those years (and books!), and yet, for all that it already had a certain critical niche, I’m not aware I knew anyone who owned a copy of Pet Sounds. What with that naff cover and lyrics dripping with teen insecurities – and an opening track basically saying wouldn’t it be nice if we were married so then we could have intercourse – you’d have to say it seemed it just wasn’t made for those times (you see what I did there?). The singles, yeah – that glorious take on Sloop John B – but as one of the inspirations for Sgt Pepper? It would seems so.

I detour into autobiography because you have to wonder what Luke Meddings was going to get wrong – given the power of sixties mythology – because he wasn’t there. Not a lot, and, all things considered, nothing of great significance (maybe a tad more is due to British r&b?) . If this had to be a cut and paste exercise, it is one that displays a high skill in that art, delivered with great style and warmth. What we get is a well-documented and fully cited rough calendar run-through, complete with basic timeline charts – from 1961 through to 1968 – of the recording schedules and record release dates of, and actual interactions between, the main players featured in the book’s sub-title: How The Beatles, Beach Boys and Bob Dylan listened to each other and changed music forever. With the rider, of course, that what we are looking at here is “an influence of potential rather than example“. (Macca will doubtless take pleasure from how little the Rolling Stones feature).

That Mellings is a musician ups the insight too – though the odd bit of musical notation may throw some, I think you’ll know the bits in the music he’s pin-pointing; it can get a bit more complex than the following, but when he talks about “another example of a minor Beatle chord that isn’t sad” it’s hard not to cheer out loud at his hitting the joy of Beatle music on the head. That crucial test of any book with music as its subject – does it drive you straight back to the music reproduction system of your choice? Indeed …

And let me tell you it was traumatic. First off it was Blonde and blonde on vinyl on as basic a turntable as you can get through an old Bose CD player. And it was great (though Sad-eyed lady went on a bit …). Music that was live and alert, could have been made yesterday. Next, Rubber Soul on CD and it felt like I’d stumbled into a time machine. I’m talking about the sound here, poppy precision, so clean. To be fair, Mellings says it’s all best listened to in mono, and when I retrieved my vinyl Revolver, lent a while ago to a friend, that fared better. And I listened to Pet Sounds twice all the way through (stereo CD) and it was lovely, beautiful, exciting; amazing to think of the craft and invention that went into producing that, Brian Wilson operating without a George Martin. Still annoying lyrics though.

(In a book, this might be a footnote: Ironic that Wilson’s goal in making Pet Sounds – an album complete and of itself as a statement – came from his being blown away after hearing Rubber Soul. Except that the album he was bowled over by was the US edition, with songs omitted, others added to and from the original UK version, as cobbled together by the American record company without Beatles involvement.)

In describing my listening experience here I’m not trying to denigrate the Beatles‘ work in any way. I think the ‘trauma’ was to do with the passage of time. We heard things differently then. Meddings’ opening chapter, The Singularity, alludes to – he doesn’t spell it out – the big bang theory of the universe, this astonishing existence on the planet all at once of the talents of Dylan, Lennon & McCartney, and Brian Wilson, precisely in the years after rock’n’roll “turned to milk“. My friends and I were sure there was gold in those popular music hills – one was talking art, literature – and we heard it all as part of one adventure. As Mellings puts it:

Something marvellous had happened as Dylan and the Beatles and the Beach Boys absorbed and refracted each other’s music, and no one was sure what it was. (p228).

The music produced in these years is so alive partly because it is free of intellectual underpinnings. As modern art, music and writing atrophied into theory, and human figures, recognizable structure and narrative forms including melody faded from view … pop music offered a world full of these things, seen through new eyes. (p230)

Yes, the passage of time. This from an actual footnote – I’m a fan of the footnote, or at least those that add something tangential to the text, and there are a few at work in What they heard – concerning some of the covers the Beatles did at their failed Decca audition:

Even the oldest of these songs [The Sheikh of Araby, 1921] was more recent to the Beatles then than any of their albums to us now; one measure of the cultural shift they helped to shape is that it should feel otherwise.

Sometimes you just want to give an author a great big hug, and this is one of them. Speaking of my absolute favourite Beatles album, Luke (first name terms, now, has to be) writes:

A hard day’s night, [is] the Beatles most tonally and thematically consistent album. The songwriting, performances and production are by turns raucous and restrained, insouciant and sophisticated. The photos on the album cover, like the movie, are in black-and-white, but it all feels like colour: the invention of the music never dips, and listening to the LP is about the happiest thing a human being can do with half an hour. (69)


Meanwhile, locally, live …

But before that, another hug for Mellings and his description of the sometimes abrupt changes Dylan’s output has taken over the years. It’s drawn from literature, probably the book I’ve read more times than any in my life. It has puzzled me this hasn’t been noticed more by others:

And so he escaped not once but serially, lighting out like Huckleberry Finn into whatever territory he could inhabit and be inhabited by until the canary cried again. (p76)

Sold out show at Stony’s York House, a fine way to spend an evening. Interesting and not necessarily obvious songs – thankfully no-one tried the drear of With God on our side – from a wide range of twentieth century Dylan. All good but my favourites came from Sue de Souza, with piano accompaniment, almost turning One of must know (Sooner or later) into a torch song, followed by a lovely Sign on the window. The Kites duo (was that a bazouki?) delved deep into the catalogue and scored with
Things have changed & the obscure (Oh Mercy outtake) Born in time, a great song from which I have blagged the title of this post. Miller & Walker, immaculate as ever on a stage (as opposed to a corner of a pub), didn’t have another Dylan song for an encore, but they did have Joan Baez’s song about her relationship with Dylan, Diamonds and rust. Class!

From left to right: Miller & Walker (photo David Mallins), Kites (photo Chrissy Leonhardt), and publicity pics of rhe Charlie Foskett Folk Trio and the Pitmatics. (Click on one to scroll through larger).

Another big house at York House for Charley Foskett’s Folk Trio, who graced last month’s Song Loft with tuneful tales of growing up in ’50s and early ’60s Newcastle, aided and abetted by special guest Rock Chorus founder Lauren Field on keyboards, and on one epic number, six members of the Wolverton Brass band. What a lovely noise can come out of a fretless acoustic bass guitar.

Great stuff too from Pitmatics, ranging far and wide – taking in industial and the canals – in the folk canon … and as far as Music Hall and Gus Elen’s It’s a great big shame. I’ve always wondered about street balladry’s drift in the Halls.

As a treat, I’ll sign off, for those who were wondering, with the man himself’s Born in time:

When I worked for Camden Libraries in the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s, each library was assigned a single letter – from ‘A’ through to ‘O’ – as shorthand for the purposes of internal admin and catalogue entries. ‘A’ was Swiss Cottage, ‘O’ Regents Park, which was not situated in the Royal Park but in the heart of the nearby council estate. And then there was the mythical Branch X, located in the least accessible area of Hampstead Heath. Branch X was a cynical product of wishful thinking created by a self-appointed group of middle management cognoscenti, where in an ideal world certain other staff members of various grades – the duffers, the creeps, the undead – could be transferred out of harm’s way. Branch X sprang to mind on reading one of Mick Herron‘s Slough House novels …

Dead Lions (2013) is the second of (so far) seven novels featuring the workings of Slough House. Here we find the slow horses (to quote the name of another book in the series), the failed or disgraced field operatives of MI5 it would would be too difficult or embarrassing to get rid of. Or, “We’re basically the Park’s outside lav”, as one of the characters explains. The Park, as it happens, is the Regents Park near the Zoo, where apparently the real spy stuff gets done.

I knew I was in for a treat pretty much from the off, with a delightful bit of Dickensian scene setting, as we follow a Siamese cat’s perilous journey through local London traffic to a back street near the Barbican and Slough House, “a dusty recess between a newsagent’s and a Chinese restaurant”, though “no one enters … by the front door”. Once there the cat goes (at some descriptive length) from room to room as we are introduced to the inhabitants until it reaches the top floor office of head man Jackson Lamb, only to be picked up by the throat and hurtled out the window onto the busy street below. Fear not, dear reader, he’s messing with us: “It’s a lucky escape for our cat, then, that it doesn’t exist, for that would have been a brutal ending” and – to everyone’s puzzlement – Jackson’s not there anyway.

Dead Lions is a more than decent spy thriller, harking back as it does to Moscow Rules and all that. The plot involves the discovery of a group of Russian sleeper agents, leftover from the Cold War, who have been settled in a (not quite convincing, it must be said) Cotswold village, and the suspicion of the prospect of a 9-11 style hit on one of the tall new towers in the City of London, already in the throes of a big anti-capitalist demo/occupation. I’m not going to go into the intricate plot. There is plenty of action, intrigue and an interesting mix of nicely developed characters and – with both wit and slapstick in play – it is very funny. And Herron can write.

I’ve already mentioned Dickens once, but here he comes again. Lamb, the old warhorse put out to pasture who knows where the dead bodies are hidden, needs to get into the archives at Regents Park:

London slept, but fitfully, its every other eye wide open. The ribbon of light atop the Telecom Tower unfurled again and again, traffic lights blinked through unvarying sequence, and electronic posters affixed to bus stops rotated and paused, rotated and paused, drawing an absent public’s attention to unbeatable mortgage deals. There were fewer cars, playing louder music, and the bass pulse that trailed in their wake pounded the road long after they were gone. From the zoo leaked muffled shrieks and strangled growls. And on a pavement obscured by trees, leaning on a railing, a man smoked a cigarette, the light at its tip glowing brighter then dying, brighter then dying, as if it too were part of the city’s heartbeat, performing the same small actions over and over, all through the watches of the night.

It’s not easy: “I do have clearance,” Lamb protests, but is reminded, “Only on the understanding that you never attempt to use it.’ He finally gets to see Molly, the “cherry-red with thick velvet armrests [with] the turning circle of a doughnut” wheel chair bound archivist, who he’s had previous with in the field:

‘Nikolai Katinsky?’
‘Minnow,’ Molly said.
‘Cipher clerk. One of a shoal of the damn things, we couldn’t give them away in the nineties.’
‘He came with a piece of the jigsaw,’ Lamb said. ‘But it didn’t fit anywhere.’
‘Not a side piece. Not a corner. Just a bit of the sky.’

He knows Katinsky, a not especially hidden Russian agent in London:

‘… all these hoops you’ve had us jumping through. That’s not the work of a language school scam artist. Or even a cipher clerk.’
‘Don’t knock cipher clerks,’ Katinsky told him. ‘Like any other branch of the Civil Service, all the work’s done low on the food chain. Everyone else just has meetings.’

I’m looking forward to reading more from the Slough House annals.

Hey, hey …
Stony’s got a
brand new Bard

After a pandemic-driven unprecedented two year stint as Stony Stratford’s Bard Andy Powell passed on the Bardic pencil and cloak at a stripped down ceremony at York House on January 21. Up to now previous incumbents have generally been referred to ex-Bards (though it never leaves you); Andy made a claim for ‘Bard Emeritus’, and after two years, fair enough.

It was an absorbing contest. Four entrants – all worthy in their own way – whittled down over an entertaining evening to one. It was Michael Gurner, “from the Vale of Emerson”, who emerged triumphant, after. After a witty and informative poetic declamation of ‘66 facts about Stony Stratford’, that it would be nice to see developed further (and maybe a Horrible Histories version too?), Michael, who has been known to perform as Tony Stratford in the past, also gave us a jolly song about wishing he could afford to live in Stony; fear not, within a day’s walk is the traditional residential Bardship qualification. He finished off with a quietly moving poem about the shifting relationship with his dad over the years, encapsulated in three exchanges, displaying a rather lovely symmetry. Promises to be a good Bardic year, full of variety. [ps. How about a talking blues as some stage?]

All hail the New Bard! Two members of the Bardic Council, Grey Rod Stephen Hobbs & Terrie Howey and the reading of the Bardic Oath. Photograph © Jonathan JT Taylor

More about the Bard of Stony Stratford: https://bardofstony.weebly.com/about/

Michael’s cultural output has taken many forms. Here’s one of them: https://sixtysecondscribe.com/category/poetry/literary-lockdown/

You don’t know me

Book Group is slowly getting back into gear, albeit still with Zoom. Surprised that most liked Imran Mahmood‘s You don’t know me (Penguin, 2018) better than I did, and there was I finishing it because I thought someone ought to. So I didn’t know them, did I? OK, it’s fiction, poetic license and all that, but I found it hard to transcend the narrative’s basic

So … young man (not an actual gang member, we never get to know his name) up for murder, sacks his QC because he wants to do it his way, which means, it turns out, owning up in passing to all sorts of other stuff. The novel (apart from the prosecution’s short dismissive response) is him telling his story (at times it feels like a shaggy dog story) to the jury. Now I’ve no experience outside of television dramas, and the author may be a criminal barrister, but I’m saying there is no way the judge would let him get away with presenting a completely new chain of events, told over a week, for a closing speech, never mind the language – simple as that.

Having said that, the tale, and its teller, are not without their charms, for all that it’s full of Sarf London street (“fam / innit / waste man / next man / mandems / Believe!”) which grates after a while. His Nigerian mum and sister make for some sweet interludes. And as a vehicle for sociological observations of why kids join gangs it does a pretty good job.

The defendant’s wooing of Kiya, the interesting woman for whom he would do anything for love (until the plot twist, which disappointed all those in the Book Group who got that far) is nicely handled. She’s no pushover – she reads books; indeed, I’ve pinched the title of this post from what he says about her. In hiding, she asks him to retrieve some from her book-filled lodgings; naturally, he gets the wrong ones.

The defendant’s explaining away of the string of coincidences that is the prosecution’s case is neatly done and gives an insight of what it might be like to live on a South London estate (but you do wonder about whether it would have got past the Crown Prosecution Service). As a thriller, to be fair, the narrative drive kicks in a fair bit, though whether the actual plotting – invoking a North/South London gang war to cause a diversion to get some bad men ignore him and his mate’s predicament – whether that is believable is, I guess, beside the point.

Do we get to hear the jury’s verdict? Of course not.

Back again, Stony Stratford’s New Year’s Day car show, like Covid never happened. Plenty of people, not a lot of masks, loads of cars. Another grand effort from the organisers and volunteers. Weather forecast was a nondescript ‘it’ll be okay’. So we got glorious blue skies but … quickly darkening clouds and quite a heavy prolonged shower as the morning wore on. Year by year – I will always go – as a not especially car-person I guess I’ve become a bit jaded, not so bowled over (none of my favourites were there – maybe come Classic Stony in June). It was interesting, though, to see the odd work-in-progress, still with a hint of the shed or barn they were discovered in about them. up against the shiny reclamations. And to point out to the grandson the first car I ever owned, even in the same bland colour – an Imp of the Hillman kind. I remain a sucker for distorted reflections.

Above: blue skies over Market Square, and a real mini-car; is there a collective noun for a bunch of nicely curated classic British sports cars?; an un-refurbished … think it was French, forgot to take a photo that would tell us what.

Below: various bonnet/radiator cap mascots, or, apparently, as the Americans call them, hood ornaments, and a couple of old UK marques. Seems to be an established niche market/ small industry for both old and new examples these days, and I’m not sure which, if any of these, or their facsimiles, are as originally appeared. Click on an image to scroll through annotated bigger pictures.

Here’s one for the cyberpunks, one for the surrealists:

Finally, an exercise in sheer self-indulgence: Self portrait with Buick 8. And here’s the Buick 8:

See those wheels reflected on the side of the Buick? That set me off on one. An earworm dredged up from well over half a century ago (in truth, 1960). You have been warned:


‘Old Bill’

The mascot ‘Old Bill’ was modelled from a cartoon character popular among troops and back in Britain in the First World War. The creation of Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, who served in the 1st Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment with a machine gun unit in France. He was there for the celebrated Christmas Day Truce of 1914. ‘Old Bill’ was the archetypal British soldier, or ‘Tommy’.
Right click on the photo for a readable enlargement.

Old Bill: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Bill_(comics)

Bruce Bairnsfather: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruce_Bairnsfather

Detail (well, the top half) of 1943's Ruby Loftus screwing a breech-ring that MKG are using in their publicity.  Hey - the Uk's own Rosie the riveter!
Detail (well, the top half) of 1943’s Ruby Loftus screwing a breech-ring that MKG are using in their publicity. Hey – the Uk’s own Rosie the riveter!

Was good to see so many people in Milton Keynes Gallery for the Laura Knight: a panoramic view exhibition, and this on a paying day (usually I go on free-for-locals Tuesday). Understandably, given its subject a bit of a mature female demographic in evidence. I can’t help wondering if I would have guessed what was on show was the work of a woman had the pictures been unattributed. I say this because, as it says in the introduction of the splendid accompanying book – Laura Knight: a panoramic view; edited by Fay Blanchard and Anthony Spira (Bloomsbury: PWP/MKG, 2021) – she was a bit of a trailblazer in the British art world: first woman to be given full membership of the Royal Academy in 1936, and first to be given a solo exhibition there in 1965, on the occasion of which she wrote, “Even today, a female artist is considered more or less a freak”. A lot has happened since.

What was striking was the variety of style, purpose, medium and subject matter over the years; it’s not often you see impressionism and socialist realism from the same hand. Spotted a few paperback book covers in there. Have to say I was less impressed with the circus stuff – not sure about the motion – than that featuring backstage at the ballet and theatre, and there were some intriguing portraits and interesting landscapes; you could call the gypsies at Epsom races a social document; and her work as an official war artist, covering the war work at home (as per Ruby above) was sensational. And there was much more to be seen in this fine show.

Clockwise from top left: something still there is about Carnaval (1920), hinting of the burst into action to come; that’s Ethel Bartlett (1926), one half of a classical piano duo; the book cover features The Cornish coast (1917); The Bathing Pool (1912) is an early one from the Cornish years; oh to be able to sketch and catch movement like that (I was entranced, photographed through a glass case); a lampshade decorated for the people they were staying at, Christmas 1919.

Inevitably some works were satisfactory than others. Cannot resist, I am afraid, commenting on this family portrait, Lamona Birch and his daughters. It’s the ‘Come on Laura, how much longer is this going to take’ look on their faces, all their faces, the girl on the tree’s sigh. ‘She’s quite heavy, you know’. ‘I’m hungry’. Nice composition , though.

Maggie O’Farrell: Hamnet

Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet (Tinder Press, 2020) is an impressive and emotionally powerful piece of work, and the present tense narration is an effective vehicle in conveying vividly an idea of what it felt and smelt like to live in Stratford at the end of the sixteenth century. William Shakespeare had a son called Hamnet who died, aged ten, the year before the play Hamlet was written and performed. The novel makes a link between the two events that is not accepted by most scholars (according to Wikipedia). It is the grief of wife and mother Agnes that is the core of Hamnet; the playwright himself is off-stage most of the time, his mind having been, as she says, “caught by that place, like a hooked fish”. That place being London, and the theatre. The back story of their romance runs in fascinating counterpoint to the events surrounding Hamnet’s plague death.

Hard to explain, given my engagement with the Bard of Avon from 6th form onwards – a project around the manufactured ‘controversy’ as to Who wrote Shakespeare? (as Mark Twain titled his entertaining essay), prompted by that English teacher (thank you John Pearce), got me going – but these days when I think of Will Shakespeare my mind hovers irrationally for a while on David Mitchell’s comic performance as the man in the context of the family portrayed in the witty TV sitcom Upstart Crow (BBC, 2016-2020). Agnes Hathaway – as O’Farrell chooses to call the conventionally named Anne Hathaway (Anne/Agnes and Hamlet/Hamnet were interchangeable spelling in contemporary documents) – in Hamnet is no Lisa Tarbuck.

No, Agnes threw me for a while, for here, with this “woman from the forest” with an affinity for hawks, we seem to be in Neil Gaiman territory. Seen as being “of another world” by the good townspeople of Stratford, gifted with an occasional clairvoyant ability, and a talent and reputation as a healer hers is a powerful presence, and she is given the credit for the push that gave Will the opportunity to become, well, Shakespeare. Her grief is a bracing read, and the journey to London to confront his seeming indifference is a thrilling emotional ride.

Melrose Quartet
at York House

How lucky we were in Stony Stratford to catch the Melrose Quartet‘s Christmas show at York House, just before the Omicron Covid variant made its full presence felt and ended the tour prematurely. From Sheffield, a lot of what was heard came from the South Yorkshire pub carolling and wassailing tradition. Great voices and some fine playing from the blokes. Great fun to be had from a variation of the I’m sorry I haven’t a clue musical game – words of one song to the tune of another – featuring Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer. Great evening, a triumph for The Song Loft. [https://melrosequartet.co.uk/]

Finally, finally, my default setting to sing The holly and the ivy is the folkies’ favourite rather than the one we had at school (nothing inherently wrong with that one, but to sing along now …). Thank you Melrose Quartet. (And further cemented in muscle memory by Sweet bells, Kate Rusby’s lovely and lively Christmas album).

Martin Amis:
Inside Story,

a novel

We have been here before … as per instruction: “to be read in fitful bursts, with plenty of skipping and postponing and doubling back – and of course frequent breaks and breathers” is what Martin Amis tells us in his Preludial in Inside story: a novel (Cape, 2020). So here I address Parts III, IV and V, the second half. Previously I’ve said it’s a novel because Martin says it is. It isn’t, that’s him being a clever sod. Now, I approve of Martin Amis, think he’s the best Brit of my generation (while actively disliking a couple of his peers), thought his last novel, The zone of interest (2014), set in Auschwitz, was exceptional. But there were times here I doubted the investment of my time.

In Sally Rooney’s latest (Beautiful world where are you, 2021) she, through one of her characters, moans about other writers she’s met at book festivals etc.: “Why do they pretend to be obsessed with death and grief and fascism …” Given she probably included Martin Amis in their number, I commented on what I thought the unfairness of this: “… not sure [Amis} has been pretending too much over the years.” Let me, then, call Inside story to the witness stand, but Jesus, Martin, give us a friggin’ break. It is relentless. What we get in some detail:

  • the onset of the dementia and the death of Saul Bellow, his hero and substitute father figure
  • the onset and death from cancer of his best buddy Christopher Hitchens (that’s him on the left on the cover)
  • how Philip Larkin was, ahem, fucked up by his parents (This be the verse), and his miserable life and death
  • with a side order of quotes from Wilfred Owen (who some have accused in his weaker verse, of wallowing in it)

I’m baffled too as to the return of a now morbidly obese Phoebe, the amalgam of pre-wed girlfriends who is definitely part of a novel, into the narrative decades on, not a clue what she signifies.

Obviously there is a lot to interest in Inside story – it is Martin Amis after all – and I daresay I may well return to bits of it. The sections where he discusses novel writing – there’s an unofficial sub-title, How to write, that doesn’t appear on the title page – are particularly engaging, the phenomena of ‘the smirk novel’, for instance.

Two valuable pieces, an Afterthought and an Addendum bring up the rear. The former, Masada and the Dead Sea is an insightful lament wrought from two visits he took there, not easy to place on a conventional political spectrum, while the latter is moving testimony to what he owes to Elizabeth Jane Howard, his step-mother, father Kingsley Amis’s second wife.

I should add, I guess, that I shall now be reading Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens’s autobiography, so in that respect … job done.

James McMurtry:
The horses and the hounds

I don’t listen to much new music these days but James McMurtry‘s The horses and the hounds (2021) is the best collection of songs I’ve heard since, oh, maybe his Complicated game (2015. Not so much a singer-songwriting as literature, character based songs that are short stories written in rhyme. Canola Fields sports two of the greatest lines – “Cashing in on a 30 year crush / You can’t be young and do that” – in the tale of a man who’s life is floundering. If it don’t bleed is a cry of stoical liberalism from a man who'”near enough to Jesus as I ever want to get”: “Save your prayers for yourself / I raise my glass to your health / I don’t mind if you don’t look like me / I can share my bread and wine / I come from another time / It don’t matter all that much if it don’t bleed”. I could go on. There are some desperate situations, starkly but beautifully portrayed, spell-binding scene-setting. There are a couple of humourous songs too, about life on the road and the difficulties of maintaining a relationship; punch-line of one, “I keep losing my glasses.”

And the music? Accomplished. There is some tremendous solo stuff on Youtube, but here the rockier end of Americana and Country, a touch of Southern Rock (he’s an Austin Texan). Blackberry Winter sounds like The Band in full keening mode. Reviews have mentioned Tom Petty’s sound, but I wouldn’t know about that. Charlie Sexton, Dylan’s guitarist has a hand here and there. The title track packs one hell of a musical punch. Hear for yourself (play it loud, as they used to say):

Happy New Year to all (only missed my self-imposed title deadline by a day …)

The sub-title of Philippe SandsEast West Street; on the origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016) refers not to a general consideration of civilisation and its discontents but specifically to the debates behind the scenes that led to the charges formally brought against the surviving Nazi leadership at the Nuremberg trials – the International Military Tribunals – of 1945/6. Legal concepts and definitions, then, but the book is so much more than this.

For a quick summary I’ll nick the blurb on the back cover of the 2017 paperback edition, annotated here in square brackets to save time later:

When he receives an invitation to deliver a lecture in the Ukrainian city of Lviv, international lawyer Philippe Sands begins a journey on the trail of his family’s secret history. In doing so, he uncovers an astonishing series of coincidences that lead him halfway across the world, to the origins of international law at the Nuremberg trial. Interweaving the stories of the two [legal theorists advising the] Nuremberg prosecutors, who invented the crimes of genocide [Rafael Lemkin] and crimes against humanity [Hersch Lauterpacht], the Nazi governor responsible for the murder of thousands in and around Lviv [Hans Frank], and incredible acts of wartime bravery, East West Street is an unforgettable blend of memoir and historical detective story, and a powerful meditation on the way memory, crime and guilt leave scars across generations.

The actual East West Street is a street in Zolkiew, a small town district of the province of Lviv, now in Ukraine. The family of Leon Buchholz (b1904), the author’s grandfather, had lived at the west end, Hersch Lauterpacht’s (b1897) at the other. Almost all the members of both Jewish families (and Lemkin’s elsewhere) were killed during the Holocaust. The nearby city of Lviv, and its university, figures in the lives of the book’s four main characters.

Leon escaped the Nazis. Settled after the war in Paris, he and his wife had never talked of their life before; a large part of East West Street is a thrilling and revelatory Who do you think you are? exercise, pieced together from what official records remained, scant clues, and some enigmatic photographs that had been kept – hence the fascinating and surprising chapters of significant bit-players interwoven between the principal biographical sections: Miss Tilney of Norwich; The man in the bow tie; The child who stands alone; The girl who chose not to remember.

The history of the larger region around Lviv and Zolkiew is a salutary reminder of how different life in Central Europe has, and continues to be. In the space of 30 years Lviv (aka Lemberg, Lvov, Lwów) had had three alternative names:

Between September 1914 and July 1944, control of the city changed hands eight times. After a long spell as the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s ‘Kingdom of Galicia … the city passed from the hands of Austria to Russia, then back to Austria, then briefly to the Western Ukraine, then to Poland, then to the Soviet Union, then to Germany, then back to the Soviet Union, and finally to Ukraine. […]
The kingdom of Galicia on whose streets Leon walked as a small boy was one shared by Poles, Ukrainians, Jews and many others, yet by the time Hans Frank entered courtroom 600 on the last day of the Nuremberg trial, which was less than three decades later, the entire Jewish community had been extinguished, and the Poles were being removed.

I’d never realised the word genocide was a mid-twentieth century neologism. It first appeared in print in a book of Lemkin’s published in 1944 considering what should be done with the Nazi leadership after the war. Lauterpacht, now at Cambridge University, reviewed the book and was not impressed. He was “skeptical of the new term and its practical utility”. He “worried that emphasis on genocide would reinforce latent instincts of tribalism, perhaps enhancing the sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’, pitting one group against another”. Philippe Sands, with practical experience himself concerning Chile, the Congo, Yugoslavia and Rwanda, has this to say:

I was instinctively sympathetic to Lauterpacht’s view, which was motivated by a desire to reinforce the protection of each individual, irrespective of which group he or she happened to belong to, to limit the potent force of tribalism, not reinforce it. By focusing on the individual, not the group, Lauterpracht wanted to diminish the force of inter-group conflict. It was a rational, enlightened view, and also an idealistic one.

The counter-argument was put most strongly by Lemkin. Not opposed to individual rights, he nevertheless believed that an excessive focus on individuals was naive, that it ignored the reality of conflict and violence: individuals were targeted because they were members of a particular group, not because of their individual qualities. For Lemkin, the law must reflect true motive and real intent, the forces that explained why certain individuals – from certain targeted groups – were killed. For Lemkin, the focus on groups was the practical approach.

It was Lauterpacht‘s arguments won the day at Nuremberg, and one of the real strengths of East West Street is that – in parallel with that legal debate – the horror of Nazi Germany is related, not so much with statistics (though they are there), as with the sombre accounts of the experiences and fate of grandmothers, grandfathers, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, cousins, uncles, aunts … the family stories.

Laura Knight: Nuremberg (Imperial War Museum)

There is a lengthy treatment of the Tribunal that still manages to grip one’s attention even when you know the broad outcome. Hans Frank, in the dock, another lawyer, once Hitler’s advisor, brutal governor of Galicia, converts to Catholicism in his cell, the only one of the 12 in this tranche of defendants who appears to relent – truth or ploy? How does he fare? Generally:

The judgement came as a relief to Lauterpacht. His arguments on crimes against humanity, endorsed by the tribunal, were now a part of international law. The protection of the individual, and the idea of individual criminal responsibility for the worst crimes, would be a part of the new legal order, The sovereignty of the state would no longer provide absolute refuge for crimes on such a scale, in theory at least.

At times East West Street reads and engages like a novel, a literary thriller, but it is also a by turns a superb mix of intellectual, social, and family history. It is an extraordinary achievement, with riches – the people Sands meets on his travels, descendants of persecutors and victims – and an emotional range I’ve hardly hinted at. There is a poignancy to the surviving photographs and documents that adds further to its power. It is delivered, despite it all, with great candour and charm, and will stay with me a long time, I’m sure.

An afterthought: different times

And what of the men behind these high legal concepts, setting the tone for years to come? A couple of incidents I can’t resist, I’m afraid. In 1928, Hersch Lauterpracht – he of the mantra “the well-being of an individual is the ultimate object of all law” – has his mum to visit:

Her son welcomed her but railed against his mother’s expression of individuality, objecting strongly to her ‘painted nails’, forcing her to remove the nail polish.
He was equally resistant to his mother’s efforts to influence Rachel [his wife], who adopted a fashionable Louise Brooks bob and fringe. ‘Incandescent’ when he saw the new style, Lauterpacht insisted that she return to the bun, prompting a major row between the couple and a threat from Rachel to leave him. […] In the end, however, Rachel conceded: the bun was still in place when I met her, more than fifty years later.
Individual rights for some, but not for the mother or the wife.

Meanwhile Rafael Lemkin, who never married, settled in the US after the war, is interviewed by a journalist about his life in America. He finds all American women attractive because American society is democratised, whereas most European women were ‘shapeless and often ugly’, beauty only to be found in the ‘upper strata’. (I wish I could find the full quote, but alas, it is not indexed).

Mentioned in despatches …

Even if only briefly – and some only tangentially – a few cultural references add something to East West Street: Led Zep’s Stairway to heaven, the Bach’s St Matthew Passion and the inspiration for the fictional Duc de Sauveterre in Nancy Mitford’s Love in a cold climate. Then there’s Jack Kerouac, Charles Atlas, and Leonard Cohen (letting the light in, in Poland). But no mention of Laura Knight, an official UK War Artist, whose socialist realism-styled paintings of the war effort at home retain iconic status. She herself suggested to the War Artist’s Advisory Committee that she travel to Nuremberg to cover the Tribunal. You’ve already seen the result above; it was not particularly well received when first shown, but I reckon it was a bit ahead of its time. I would never have known about it had it not been for the happy coincidence of a splendid exhibition – Laura Knight: a panoramic view – of her work at Milton Keynes Gallery. I may well post more about that later; it desrves it. The Nuremberg painting itself wasn’t included, but I’ll take my leave of you here with what was – some preparatory sketches.

A bit of a catch-up

You know when you finish a book and are left floundering, wondering where can I go after that, what on earth can I possibly read next? You are in awe, just taken over? Say one from Philip Pullman’s Book of dust trilogy, or Hilary Mantel‘s Thomas Cromwell sequence. Sally Rooney‘s Beautiful world, where are you is not one of those, but such is the in-the-moment intensity of the relationships it describes as they build – of feeling, thinking, over-thinking – that it has skewed my reading of the books lined up to come after.

So alas, poor Birdcage Walk (2016), Helen Dunmore‘s final novel. It was the reconstituted Book Group book and I’d given myself two days to read it. But after the full-on Rooney experience, I just couldn’t get beyond the Prelude and its: “If my friends hadn’t decided that I should have a dog I would never have …” and “I was still learning to be a dog owner …” and how Jack the mongrel had changed everything for this man without a name:

Everybody talked to me. It’s a cliché, I know, but it’s not until you’ve been left alone that you realise how very few people want to pass the time of day with a solitary and no doubt rather grim middle aged man. I entered a little world which had obviously always been there, running parallel to the one in which I lived.

Which, you’ll understand, I didn’t fancy spending valuable reading time with.

So come the Book Group everyone else had read it and variously liked or loved it. Having said I couldn’t be arsed (not my exact words) I felt a little foolish, thought it deserved I keep faith, and give it another go. Dog leads him into a rosebay willow herb-swamped cemetery, happens upon a gravestone engraved “To the beloved memory of Julia Elizabeth Fawkes … Her words remain our inheritance“, dated 1793. Would it be churlish of me to doubt the engraving would have survived to be so easily readable? – no matter. This sets up a sequence of events where the dog owner pursues these words – Heritage Week, archives – and finds that all but a fragment are lost. Jack’s owner then disappears from the book, as indeed does Jack.

Straight into 1789 and an unidentified bloke is having a hard time burying a woman’s body deep in a wood after a difficult journey by rowing boat. Now, the identity of this bloke when revealed was a big deal for members of the Book Group, but obviously less so for me after the discussion; I can see how it worked for them though. And so to Bristol, March 1792, a houseful of English radicals coming to grips with events in France – not quite so Vive la Revolution for some; Lizzie Fawkes, daughter of said house, the narrator for most of Birdcage Walk, has married a failing go-getter and control freak, a property developer who is very un-keen. There are some decent characters in all this, and real tension as the narrative builds to a genuinely exciting climax.

Once I got over Lizzie referring to Julia as ‘Mammie’ pretty much all the time, I warmed to her account of events as they unfold. Her step-father, Augustus – a radical embracing both (as happens) absurdity and integrity, comes good in the end, while champagne socialist Caroline Farquhar remains ridiculous. Helen Dunmore says of John Diner Tredevant that he is “one of the most disturbing characters I have ever written” (and she’s written a few). Due to an interest in Wordsworth I know a bit about late Eighteenth century English radicalism, and this strikes me as portraying the scene well enough. Given the right cast Birdcage Walk would make an illuminating and gripping television multi-parter.

Not fair to put them in the same room, really, but where Martin EdwardsThe Crooked Shore (Allison & Busby, 2021) fell foul of my post-Sally Rooney‘s intensity aftermath was in the soap opera aspects (I don’t mean that badly) in the series of novels of which it is the latest. Crucial period in the tentative long term romance of the two main characters and … you could see the uncertainty and anguish at a remove … but I couldn’t feel it much. I was always going to read The Crooked Shore, but couldn’t save it for a rainy day – I had a library copy and there was a waiting list.

Anyway, The Crooked Shore, the 8th in the prolific Martin Edwards‘ accomplished Lake District Mysteries, has been a long time coming. Since 2015’s Dungeon House he’s published an acclaimed defence of Agatha Christie and chums (The Golden Age of Murder) and two well received novels in their spirit, featuring Rachel Savernake. At one stage in The Crooked Shore someone says, “The story must have made headlines. There can’t be many mysterious murders in the Lake District.” This series of cold cases would suggest otherwise. Its originality lies in main man ex-Oxbridge history prof Daniel Kind’s back story, here summarised by main woman, DCI Hannah Scarlet: “this was a man who became a famous face, a household name, before walking out on his career as a TV historian. In the wake of his partner’s suicide, Daniel had battled with grief and an incoherent sense of guilt. That was why he’d fled to the Lake District …” Where his estranged and dead dad, Ben Kind, had been a detective, and Hannah his protege. In this one, Daniel is more off-stage than usual in the solving of the case. The other star of the series is the – realistic more than romantic – Lake District itself.

This cold case is re-opened by the anniversary suicide, 20 years on, of the son of a man found not guilty of a missing body murder, who had also committed suicide; Ben Kind had been the lead detective on that case. The young man’s death is witnessed by one Kingsley, whereon hangs a tale of a con man volunteer entertainer at an old people’s home who is also his rival for the bed of a rich widow, recently arrived back in the Lake District, who rather annoyingly calls everyone ‘sweetheart’ or ‘darling’. As these things do in crime fiction, the two strands come together in a smashing climax with a couple of huge narrative twists that I can only stand back and applaud mightily.

The book that enabled me to come out of the shadow of the Rooney intensity was Anthony Doerr‘s extraordinary All the light we cannot see (Fourth Estate, 2014), the next month’s Book Group book, which so skillfully draws you into a terrible and glorious experience. In other circumstances I would take longer to sing its praises, but there’s a backlog here at Lillabullero, so I’m going to try (edit: and fail) to be brief. Some Book Group members caviled at the level of detailed description, and the bitty way it was structured, but both were fine with me.

Two time lines chopping and changing back and forth until near the end: August 7, 1944, day by day the Americans bomb the walled French city of Saint-Malo, and take it back from the Germans; a slower progression from 1934 to 1944, plotting the arc – to Saint-Malo – of the young lives of Marie-Laure Leblanc, blind from an early age, and Werner Pfennig, an orphan who attends a napola, an elite Nazi school, a self-taught expert in the new-fangled radio technology, who gets to see active service in the war.

After an excruciatingly tense climax, where they get to meet, there are subsequent illuminating and deeply moving catch-ups of what happened to some of the participants in 1945, 1974 and 2014. One other character gets some chapters to himself, an ailing German soldier whose task is to commandeer art treasures, obsessed by an exceptional diamond called the Sea of Flames, secreted by Marie-Laure’s dad from a Paris museum, which, legend has it, has healing powers. Marie-Laure may have custody of the Sea of Flames – a handful of dummies were distributed throughout France when the Nazis came.

Two stations on the electromagnetic spectrum feature – sight, natural light, for a start. The exploration of Marie-Laure’s blindness can result in some lovely poetic flourishes:

To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high above the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away. She hears Americans scurry across farm fields, directing their huge cannons at the smoke of Saint-Malo; she hears families sniffling around hurricane lamps in cellars, crows hopping from pile to pile, flies landing on corpses in ditches; she hears the tamarinds shiver and the jays shriek and the dune grass burn; she feels the great granite fist, sunk deep into the earth’s crust, on which Saint-Malo sits, and the ocean teething at it from all four sides, and the outer islands holding steady against the swirling tides; she hears cows drink from stone troughs and dolphins rise through the green water of the Channel; she hears the bones of dead whales stir five leagues below, their marrow offering a century of food for cities of creatures who live their whole lives and never once see a photon sent from the sun. She hears her snails in the grotto [a project she has set herself] drag their bodies over the rocks. (pbk p390/1)

Then there are radio waves. It’s an early children’s science programme radio (“So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?“) which inspires the young Werner – like Professor Proton for Sheldon and Leonard in The Big Bang Theory – to excel technically, and leads to his specialist role in the war. There’s a wonderful link with the making of this programme via Marie-Laure’s uncle Etienne in Saint-Malo (who has his own back story), and the broadcasting of an old show is crucial in a big narrative moment.

Much later, as a grandmother in Paris, thinking about how there is so much more out there drawing on the electromagnetic spectrum – trivial, sublime, ridiculous – she wonders, again poetically (and rationalist me is happy for her to sing):

And is it so hard to believe that souls might also travel those paths. That her father and Etienne and Madame Manec and the German boy named Werner Pfennig might harry the skies in flocks, like egrets, like terns, like starlings? He great shuttles of souls may fly about, faded but audible if you listen closely enough? They flow above the chimneys, ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt and breastbone and lungs, and pass out through the other side, the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it.

It was a big deal for Werner to get into the napola, but it turns out to be more sinister as an instrument of Nazi indoctrination – Werner’s “ten thousand small betrayals” to keep his head above water – something his younger sister, his conscience, tried to warn him about. Near the end of his deployment he has to own up to himself in a war-torn Vienna:

It strikes Werner just then as wondrously futile to build splendid buildings, to make music, to sing songs, to print huge books full of colourful birds in the face of the seismic, engulfing indifference of the world – what pretensions humans have! Why bother with music when the silence and wind are so much larger? Why light lamps when the darkness will inevitably snuff them?

This is a wonderful book that addresses many things, and not least, notions of redemption. It answers Werner’s despairing questions. Big things, little things. A two volume braille edition of Jules Verne’s Twenty thousand leagues under the sea features over the years; when Marie-Laure, after being couped up in a house for months is taken down to the shore, “The twenty thousand sounds of the ocean engulf her”.


Corny link time:
Werner’s wartime task in Saint-Malo was to root out the resistance groups (Marie-Laure and Etienne are involved) by intercepting their radio communications:

“We believe there is a network of them,” one aide says. “The encoded numbers are followed by announcements, births and baptisms and engagements and deaths.”
“Then there is music, almost always music,” says the second. “What it means we cannot say.”

It means fellowship among many things, and these pandemic days it’s what can get you out of the house and begin to feel normal again. The glee of audience and performers. Lillabullero used to chronicle local events but has got out of the habit. I said this was a catch-up! Here, briefly, a return, with a special nod to the revived Song Loft (https://thesongloft.com/) at Stony Stratford’s York House – nice one, Andrew Metcalfe:

Song Loft: Top right, the most recent visitors, Dave Ellis and Boo Howard. Liked them a lot, easy to see they’ve been playing together for decades. A good mix of songs, all their own material. Some exquisite guitar (tales of a 14 year old’s Bert Jansch obsession), but broader than that. Boo a singer of great charm and strength, lovely to hear an electro-acoustic bass – a depth of colour – and a touch of of Joni at the keyboard. On a couple of faster shuffles, more than a definite whiff of Richard & Mimi Farina – no bad thing. Middle left Ann Duggan and Rob Hines. Very varied material, covers from a variety of American sources, brasher vocals, swinging against a more formal (classical training?) guitar. Bottom left, Craig Joiner, decent guitarist and entertaining songwriter, about whom truth be told I can’t remember much – though I’d see him again – save he encored with a spirited take on John Martyn’s May you never.

A grand evening of Shanties Ashore at York House – four crews: Five Men Not Called Matt, The Brave Marauders, Rolling Home and the impressive Short Drag Roger. Bit of a sore throat the next day, it has to be said.

Scribal continues to fight the good fight (sorry I missed the last one). Loz Anstey was powerful, funny, heavy, emotional, cute, and acute. Here, in Boxes, she refuses to be put into one:


And if Paul McClure‘s Isolation blues #1 (She wishes she’d married a hairdresser) doesn’t make it into any of the pandemic documentaries and dramas that the near future is going to bring, there is yet one more damn thing badly wrong in the world:

Strange bedfellows

Mode of reading

  • I read Beautiful world, where are you (Faber, 2021), Sally Rooney‘s ‘difficult third novel’ at a pace because I wanted to have finished it before seeing the reviews. Not that I read many reviews, but she seemed to be set for a bruising on the old rock music press principle of building them up to haul them down and I wanted to see for myself first. As it happens they ranged from sour grapes (LRB) to a hearty pat on the back (fellow Irish novelist Anne Enright in the Guardian), with a begrudging – “to be fair, it’s not a bad novel” – in Private Eye, with the throwaway exit line, “Still, would it kill her to do one in space, or the eighteenth century, or set in, like Wales?”, which is fun, interesting, and beside the point. Thumbs up from me, but if you haven’t read her before, I wouldn’t start with this one.
  • I’m reading Martin Amis‘s Inside story: a novel (Cape, 2020) in no great hurry, as instructed by the man himself in his – classic Mart – Preludial: “to be read in fitful bursts, with plenty of skipping and postponing and doubling back – and of course frequent breaks and breathers“. I finished the second big section (in praise of his wife, 9-11) a while ago and will pick it up again soon.

Of novels and novelists

  • Inside story is a novel because clever sod Mart says it is. There is a novelist called Martin Amis in it who Martin Amis in pretty much autobiographical mode (the writer who kicks off the novel proper with his friendship with Saul Bellow, say) distinguishes as a character (in the whole Phoebe – who is not a real person – relationship, say). The recto before the title page has what looks like a sub-title (How to Write) and there are various theoretical nay instructional sections throughout; it even has footnotes (that are always worth reading) and a 14 page index (in which Martin Amis does not appear).
  • Beautiful world, where are you also features a successful Irish novelist as a main character, though her name is Alice: “Other than a little criticism and some very long emails, I haven’t written anything now for almost two years,” she tells her friend, Elaine … in one of those long emails. Mmm … Normal people was published in … 2019, but no, what has come with the success may have royally pissed her off (“I had already become the person I had once longed to be, and now energetically despised“), but I don’t think she’s had a nervous breakdown or taken an unsuccessful Tinder dat-ee on a whim for a promotional gig in Rome, and I seem to recall she’s included her husband in the Acknowledgements of each of her other books too.
  • Those emails in Beautiful world total 79 pages, nearly a quarter of the book, and, as well as brief catchings-up (they don’t actually meet up until well into the story), they contain a lot of philosophising – “This I suppose is what the Enlightenment philosophers meant by aesthetic judgement” – and theorising about modern life, living up to one’s ideals (standard Rooney fare), and pondering the use of novels. She (Alice and Sally?) seems to have come to the same conclusion as Mick Jagger in Street fighting man (you remember, Martin Amis was once considered the Mick Jagger of the London literary set): but what can a poor girl do, ‘cept … write novels about friendship and love.
  • Alice to Eileen: “Have I told you I can’t read contemporary fiction any more? I think it’s because I know too many of the people who write them. I see them all the time at festivals, drinking red wine and talking about who’s publishing who in New York. […] These people have been sitting with white linen tablecloths laid out in front of them and complaining about bad reviews since 1983. I just don’t care what they think about ordinary people.” Ouch. She probably includes Martin Amis in this, which I think is probably unfair. “Why do they pretend to be obsessed with death and grief and fascism ...” she moans; not sure Martin has been pretending too much over the years.
  • Alice again: “If novelists wrote honestly about their own lives, no one would read novels – and quite rightly.” So who has been reading Inside story? Rhetorical question, but probably quite a lot, actually.


  • Amis’s list of ‘Things fiction can’t do’: 1. Dreams. 2. Sex 3. Religion
    Post- the raising of the Chatterley ban, he bemoans novelist’s failures to write about sex successfully: “So avoid or minimise any reference to the mechanics of making love – unless it advances our understanding of character or affective situation. All we need to know is how it went and what it meant.”
  • There is a quite a lot of sex in Beautiful world; on the phone, in bed. I’d say she passes the Amis test because of a unusually skillful blend in her prose, delivering objectivity and psychological intensity simultaneously. And the matter of ‘what it meant’ is often unresolved, to be discovered. This active voyaging in the uncharted waters of a growing relationship is what grips the reader, what makes Rooney as a writer.


  • Sally Rooney carries on where she left off in her previous books, by dispensing with speech marks for speech. Hell, she even keeps a dialogue going in the same often quite long paragraphs. I think it works, with less ambiguity even, than in conventional exchanges that dispense with the ‘he saids’, ‘she saids’. And it’s a contributor to maintaining the intensity of what is going on between people.
  • Interestingly enough there is a small innovation in this regard in Inside story. Occasionally a paragraph will end with “she said,” (that’s a hanging comma) and what is said is a new paragraph. Works well, I’d say.

Back covers:


There is an intensity to Sally Rooney‘s portrayal of crucial evolving relationships that became problematic for me … after I’d finished Beautiful world, where are you. The next two books I read – a Book Group title and the latest from an old favourite – I felt a real lack, read them to the end with a sense of duty. Unlucky for them, something of a comedown, for this had been mainlining.

The charge she gives to the shifting patterns and existential moments of Alice and Felix’s, and Eileen and childhood pal Simon’s relationships is something special. How does she do this? As mentioned before, the running together of conversations in long paragraphs is a contributor here, and the he-thinks-she-thinks insecurities, as is the mixing again in one paragraph of, for example, what Felix and Alice are doing separately where they are at the same hour – he at work in a warehouse, she indulging in something vaguely cultural. The prospect of sex, as a part of the conversation, has its own momentum too.

There is a paradox here, where a certain objectivity in the language lays the ground for this reader’s supercharged personal engagement. You are there, in the moment, hovering above. Too easy to just say ‘she opened WhatsApp’. No: “Squinting at the screen of her phone, she tapped the icon of a social media app. The interface opened and displayed a loading symbol.” Tension! Here’s another: “She hit send, and almost instantly an icon showed that Lola had ‘seen’ the message. The animated ellipsis appeared, and within a few seconds a reply arrived.” And somehow what with a lot of writers is just background filler becomes vividly there. here’s Eileen and Simon (interestingly, tangentially, a Catholic who still goes to church, but that is not a problem):

I’m not upset, she answered.
His eyes moved over the street ahead of them. Seconds went by in silence while they walked, cars passing beside them on the road. Finally he said: You know, when I asked you out in February you told me …

And it means she can get away with a passage – a very isolated example, I add – like this:

Reading this message, Eileen took a deep breath in and then allowed her eyes to close. Slowly the breath left her body and re-entered the room, the breath mingling now with the air of the room, moving through the air of the room and dispersing, droplets and microscopic aerosol particles diffusing through the air of the room and dropping slowly, slowly, toward the floor.

And relax. Little quiz to end. Was it Sally Rooney or Martin Amis responsible for the quote that follows. Answers after Sally Rooney’s endpapers. Yes, Sally Rooney has endpapers:

People who intentionally become famous – I mean people who, after a little taste of fame, want more and more of it – are, and I honestly believe this, deeply psychologically ill. The fact that we are exposed to these people everywhere in our culture, as if they are not only normal but attractive and enviable, indicates the extent of our disfiguring social disease.

Twas Sally, that fame quote, though surely could have gone either way. Maybe Martin would have been more colourfully scornful..

Huxley making Hay

There was a passage heard randomly on the radio – I mostly only listen doing the washing up – that made me chortle and linger; it turned out to be a dramatisation of Aldous Huxley‘s novel, Antic Hay (1923). I had no idea he had a sense of humour. Or anything, really, beyond the later stuff: Brave New World, the awful Island, and his famously – The doors of perception – taking LSD (so providing Jim Morrison and pals with a decent band name). Worth pursuing, I reckoned, and was not disappointed.

1st ed, 1923

Antic Hay starts off in classic comic novel mode with main man Theodore Gumbril Junior, B.A. (Oxon) enduring a minor public school assembly, excruciating both mentally and physically on a hard unforgiving seat. He has an idea: inflatable trousers (‘Gumbril’s Patent Small-Clothes’ to be) – their commercial potential enough, he reckons, to warrant giving up teaching and put him on a path to being his own man.

There’s an entertaining visit with Gumbril Senior back in London – an architect with grand ideas and great model making skills (whole cities, even) but a modest practice: “‘And to think,’ he said after a pause, ‘that I’ve been spending these last days designing model cottages for workmen at Bletchley.’” (Yup, sorry Bletchley; even then, well before the coming of Milton Keynes, considered cheap laugh fodder).

More entertainment – but also a broadening into satire, big ideas and social commentary – comes with a session with the Gumbril family’s tailor, Mr Bojanus – who professes, among other things, in his own way, ‘a great admirer of Lenin’ – for the purpose of constructing a prototype of the trouser.

There follows a glorious account of a boozy meal in a restaurant favoured by London’s various bohemian sets later that evening. The gang’s all here, and ‘The art school dance goes on forever’ (to quote from a Pete Brown’s Piblokto album title). It’s not not so much a period piece as one might have feared – fun and jeers, jibes, rivalries, boasts and flannel, including a heated discussion over the use of a single word in an epic poem.

As the group disperses – all male but one, and she’s hardly said, though implied, a dismissive word – enter the stunning Mrs Viveash, aka Myra, who pretty much haunts proceedings – in the flesh, mind, but still – for some of the men from now on. The love of her life was lost in the Great War. The description of the way she speaks is a nice running bitter-sweet joke – variations on “she hallooed faintly but penetratingly, from her inward death bed” and “as if every word was her last” run through the novel. Subsequently married to a rich absentee (“engaged at the moment in hunting elephants, hunting fever and carnivores among the Tikki-tikki pygmies“), she proceeds around town with a string of insignificant beaus to the frustration and sadness of those – Gumbril, the artist Lypiatt, of whom much later, the scientist Shearwater – in love with her: “Why was it people always got involved in one’s life? If only one could manage things on the principle of the railways. Parallel tracks – that was the thing.” Not for nothing is this considered a Lost Generation novel.

Ah,the aforementioned Casimir Lypiatt. It was one of the passages about him that had me laughing when I heard it on the radio. He’s older than the rest:

All these years … Time had worn the hair from his temples; the high steep forehead seemed higher than it really was. He was forty now; the turbulent young Lypiatt who had once declared that no man could do anything worth doing after he was thirty, was forty now.

Such lofty ambition, such grand canvasses and epic poems. It’s Gumbril doing the thinking here:

“Painter, poet, musician,” cried Lypiatt. “I am all three.”
Poor old Lypiatt, he was thinking. Dear old Lypiatt, even, in spite of his fantastic egotism. Such a bad painter, such a bombinating poet, such a loud emotional inproviser on the piano. And going on like this, year after year, pegging away at the same old things – always badly! And always without a penny, always living in the most hideous squalor! Magnificent and pathetic old Lypiatt.

But as things progress – Mrs Viveash’s reaction to his portrait of her (“‘You’ve made me look,’ said Mrs Viveash, ‘as though I were being blown out of shape by the wind.’ […] But Casimir was delighted by her comment. […] ‘The wind, the great wind that’s in me.’“) and his profession of love, never mind his big exhibition’s utter failure – he becomes a tragic figure, and is given a long lonely monologue that is not without its moments and insights.

Some will find Gimbril’s transformation from ‘the Mild and Melancholy Man‘ who can make no headway with women into ‘the Complete Man‘ (or, ‘the complete and Rabelesian man’ as he also puts it) via a false beard a silliness too far, but it made me laugh, and as a plot driver it does its stuff. Unknowingly he manages to seduce Rosie, the scientist Shearwater’s wife, who has her own fantasy running:

The lady and the poet, she was thinking, the grande dame and the brilliant young man of genius. She liked young men with beards, but he was not an artist, in spite of the beard, in spite of the hat. He was a writer of sorts.

That leads to a farcical pursuit of him – somewhat cruelly instigated by Gumbril’s campaign of misinformation – that Rosie makes around London, with her landing at Lypiatt’s and Mr Mercaptan’s door (sorry, literary critic, obsessed by an obscure sex eighteenth century novel that actually exists – I looked it up – by someone called Crebillon, narrated by the sofa on which stuff happens). (Ultimately, for her, it ends well.)

This post is getting out of hand (I have a backlog, for God’s sake). A lot else goes on featuring a couple of other interesting characters I’ve not mentioned so far. There’s the excruciating bit of avant-garde theatre to experience (and some jazz), physiologist Shearwater’s grueling sweat experiment, and a conversation Gimbril cannot escape from with an old buffer on a train. I’ve got to give some space, though, to the magnificent Boldero, Gumbril’s business partner, and his elaborate marketing campaign for the ‘Patent Small-Clothes’. A great comic tour de force, but at the same time … not a lot has changed:

‘Our modern flattery must be manly, straightforward, sincere, the admiration of equal to equal – all the more flattering as we aren’t equals.’ Mr Boldero laid a finger to his nose. ‘They’re dirt and we’re capitalists …’ He laughed.
[…] ‘This sort of medical and philosophical dope,’ Mr Boldero went on, ‘is always very effective, if it’s properly used. The public to whom we are making our appeal is, of course, almost absolutely ignorant of these, or, indeed, on almost all subjects.’ […]
‘Mr Gumbril, there’s nothing like a spiritual message to make things go. Combine spirituality with practicality and you’ve fairly got them. Got them, I may say, on toast.’

Antic Hay ends with Gumbril, disillusioned and disappointed, deciding to leave a tired old England – as indeed did Huxley himself in the very year the novel was published. He tells Mrs Viveash his plan: “I go to Paris first“:

‘I thought of giving myself a farewell banquet,’ Gumbril went on. ‘We’ll go round before dinner, if you’re feeling well enough, that is, and collect a few friends. Then, in a profoundest gloom, we’ll eat and drink. And, in the morning, unshaved, exhausted, and filled with disgust, I shall take the train from Victoria, feeling thankful to get out of England’.

Which sadly ends up something of an anticlimax, with he and Myra Viveash sharing salmon sandwiches and a bottle of wine in the back of a taxi criss-crossing London – via the bright lights of Piccadilly Circus, which she loves and he is tortured by – as one pal after another turns out to be otherwise engaged.

Antic Hay was published the same year as Ernest Hemingway‘s The sun also rises, the great ‘Lost Generation’ novel, much of which is set in Paris, Gimbril’s initial destination, though the former definitely has more jokes. What started out as a comic novel develops through satire into tragi-farce; I ended up caring for some of these people, and enjoyed it. It is also a novel touching on ideas that Huxley was to carry through in his later work, and a tremendous portrait of London in its time.

When the novel first came out people were shocked by its amorality and sexual content, not that the sex is exactly spelt out; seems mere hints were enough back then – in one instance I wasn’t even sure if the deed had been done (it had). Don’t you just love those American pulp covers, though? (Never mind the Romanian. There are going to be a few disappointed readers there).


One last thing. Antic Hay is the source of a couple of lines worthy of P.G.Wodehouse and certain inclusion dictionaries of quotations (though not in the one I’ve got downstairs):

… there was no getting out of that, good she had been. Not nice, not merely molto simpatica – how charmingly and effectively these foreign tags assist one in the great task of calling a spade by some other name! – but good.

Shame then, that there were so many foreign phrases left hanging about throughout. It is, to quote from one of my favourite sitcoms, ‘annoying’.

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