A god in ruinsFor which we must be thankful.  A god in ruins (Transworld, 2015) is not as tricky as Life after life, mind, to which it is a kind of sequel, but it still delivers a powerful tale on its own, complete with the rich collection of nods, winks and swerves that I love about Kate Atkinson‘s writing.  In the Author’s note at the end she says:

I get tired of hearing that a new novel is ‘experimental’ or it ‘reinvents the form’, as if Laurence Sterne or Gertrude Stein or indeed James Joyce never wrote a word. Every time a writer throws themselves at the first line of a novel they are embarking on an experiment. An adventure. I believe in the rich textural (and textual) interplay of plot, character, narrative, theme and image and all the other ingredients that get thrown in the pot, but I don’t believe that necessarily makes me a traditionalist (as if we’re not all in a tradition, the tradition of novel writing).

The thing is, with Kate (if I may be so bold) you get the joys of both: acutely observed storytelling of great emotional power along with some really clever, often unobtrusive, mucking about with the novel form, sparing us any of the po-faced intellectualism one might fear from such theorising.  She has fun either way.  ‘Not‘ – as she says  (in parenthesis) just before the passage above – being ‘as post-modernly self-reverential as it sounds.’

Anyway, whereas Ursula Todd lived a stop/start (or rather start/stop) series of contingent lives in Life after life, here nice guy younger brother Teddy has just the one.  In the Author’s note Atkinson explains that many of the details of his one life in A god in ruins are not consistent with what goes on in Life after life.  She likes to think of it as one of Ursula’s lives, an unwritten one. This sounds like novelist trickery, as indeed it perhaps is, but there is nothing wrong with a bit of trickery.”  I second that emotion; along with the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote that the title is taken from (“A man is a god in ruins“), one of the other quotes that grace the space betwixt title page and opening chapter comes from one of Atkinson’s own characters, the mother of our main man here.

Just as Ursula’s experiences in the London Blitz are the compelling core of Life after life, so Teddy’s wartime exploits flying in Bomber Command – the allies returning the compliment on Germany’s civilian population – are at the non-sequential heart of A god in ruins.  This is heavy stuff, and while Teddy’s and his descendants’ postwar experiences takes up much of the book, even though we know what is going to happen eventually one is riveted, electrified, again and again, by the piecemeal episodic revelation, mission by mission, of what actually went down for him in the war.  I do not evoke a couple of other classics of the Second World War lightly, but Joseph Heller achieved the same sort of effect with Snowdon’s fateful flight in Catch-22, while Atkinson skillfully avoids straying into and rehashing Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five territory by ending Teddy’s war early: “He was glad he had sat out the last eighteen months of the war in a POW camp, hadn’t witnessed Bomber Command trying to remove Germany from the map of Europe.”

As I’ve suggested, A god in ruins jumps about time-wise, giving us, as well as his wartime experiences, glimpses of four generations of the Todd family, both independently and as they directly impact on Teddy’s life.  So we get the background to Teddy’s marriage (girl-next-door Nancy – one of the maths gals at Bletchley Park!), how that played out, his daughter’s trajectory, his grandchildren’s coming of age, and his growing old.  In so many ways a sad, sad tale of a good man living with dignity through times and events he neither chose or deserved.  One pines for him, his noble travails, but there are saving graces.

“Britain’s Greatest Generation”

So here’s Teddy: “Before the war he had fancied himself as something of a poet and had a couple of poems published in obscure literary magazines …” Come the war he finds himself judged a hero, a wing commander in Bomber Command: “a leader of men, the master of his fate, the captain off his soul and of a bloody big four-engined Halifax with an unnerving tendency to swing to the right on take-off and landing.”  (Ah, the delicious flavour of Kate Atkinson’s prose.)  ” ‘You have a pagan soul,’ Nancy had once told him but he didn’t agree.  He had the soul of a country parson who had lost his faith.”  Faith?  On yet another bombing raid: “That was the trouble with faith, Teddy thought, by its very nature it was impossible. He didn’t believe in anything any more. Trees, perhaps. Trees and rocks and water. The rising of the sun and the running of the deer.”  After the war, one of the things he does is contribute a country diary for a newspaper in Yorkshire.

Teddy is one of those men for whom the war proved to be the time in their lives they felt the most alive: the comradeship, coming through danger, a certain freedom.  There’s a wonderful passage when, on leave, he and Ursula go for a walk after a performance of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony in the Albert Hall and it’s climax of The ode to joy.  “Afterwards – because it turned out there was an afterwards for Teddy – he resolved that he would try always to be kind. It was the best he could do. It was all he could do. And it might be love after all.”  And that, though “Part of him never adjusted to having a future,” is what he does.  There’s a lot still to happen before of course, but his longest term future is in an old people’s home:

A woman hirpled along the corridor towards them with the aid of a walking frame. ‘Hello, coming to join us, are you?’ she said cheerfully to Teddy. It was a bit like a cult. Teddy was reminded of that television programme from the Sixties that Viola had liked to watch. The Prisoner. His heart sank. This was to be his prison, wasn’t it?

Hirpled!  When Teddy comes home from the war, wife Nancy feels a lack in him.  “They must have a baby, she thought. They must have a child to heal Teddy, to heal the world.”  That child was Viola, and what a daughter she turned out to be.

My Generation?

Kate Atkinson was born in 1951.  She’s one of my generation.  Teddy and Nancy are our parents’ generation.  Kate is also – good for her – fiercely guarded about her own life.  Frustratingly, nevertheless, you’ll find very little biographical information about her on the web, save that she has been divorced twice and had a child while still at university.  Oh for a ‘straight’ – as if that were possible – memoir, never mind autobiography.  I say this because – disturbingly – Viola, Teddy’s daughter, the main representative of my (and Kate’s) generation in A god in ruins, is a self-centred monster.  (And she subsequently becomes a successful novelist too, but later for that.)  The scorn is palpable, sour, vicious.  The next couple of paragraphs may on the surface appear to be full of clichés, but reading A god in ruins it doesn’t feel like that.  At the very least she has known people like this.

For reasons I’ll not go into here, though it is a compelling sub-strand of A god in ruins, Teddy becomes a single father;  “He loved Viola as only a parent can love a child, but it was hard work.”  Empty nester he was not: “She had spent her sulking teenage years champing on the bit to escape its confines (‘dull’, ‘conventional’, ‘little boxes’ and so on). When she had finally left to go to university it had felt as if a great darkness had left the house.”  At uni she shacks up with Dominic, the estranged druggy scion of a wealthy family, a wannabe artist; when Teddy meets him and asks him what the problem is with his family, the response is (I report with some pain), “ ‘Oh, you know. The usual – drugs, art, politics. They think I’m a waster, I think they’re fascists.’ ” (Though, to be fair, his mother is a vile creature too).

‘We were children of the sixties,’ Viola liked to say in later years, as if that in itself made her interesting.”  Ouch. They have two children: a boy named Sun and a girl named Moon.  Teddy visits them in a squat in London: ” ‘So this is a “squat”, eh?’ he says as they squeezed their way past bicycles, mostly broken, and cardboard boxes in the hallway. (‘Oh I was a radical, an anarchist even,’ Viola declared in later years. ‘Lived in a squat in London – exciting times.’ when in fact she was cold and miserable and lonely a lot of the time, not to mention being paralysed by motherhood.)”  They move to a rural commune that Teddy has to rescue her and the kids from: “ ‘I heard they take drugs and dance naked in the moonlight.’ the farmer said. (True, although it wasn’t as interesting as it sounded.)” (She likes a good set of brackets, does Kate).  (I do too).  Viola has a stint at Greenham Common too. In Viola’s final fling before marrying again (a rich man this time) and quickly divorcing big, by which time the kids are living with Teddy, she’s a member of a “women’s soul drumming group in Leeds, where she studied for a part-time MA in women’s studies on the topic of ‘post counter-culture feminism’. The north in the eighties was a hotbed of revolt.”  Ouch again.

Talking to Bertie, the daughter previously known as Moon, years later, Viola asks, “Was I really such a terrible mother?” only to be met with, “Why the past tense?”  Bertie (from Roberta, her middle name; she soon dropped Moon) is a bright shining star, commenting on her parent in parenthesis:

‘What about me? Am I included in that?’ Viola said in that faux-chirpy way that she had when she was trying to pretend they were all one happy family. (‘The family that put the “fun” in dysfunctional,’ Bertie said).
‘Of course you are,’ Teddy said.

The novelist

So Viola writes a novel:

  • He father seemed so old-fashioned, but he must have been like new once. That was a nice phrase. She tucked that away for later use as well. She was writing a novel. It was about a young girl, brilliant and precocious, and her troubled relationship with her single-parent father. Like all writing, it was a secretive act. An unspeakable practice. Viola sensed there was a better person inside her than the one who wanted to punish the world for its bad behaviour all the time (when her own was so reproachable). Perhaps writing would be a way of letting that person out into the daylight. (p132)
  • Sparrows at Dawn [by Viola Romaine] was a solid, tangible item in the phenomenal world rather than a jumble of ideas in Viola’s head. (What next? Bertie said to Teddy. ‘Badgers for breakfast? Rabbits at Bedtime?’). (p312)
  • Her first novel, Sparrows at Dawn, (what a terrible title), had been about a ‘clever’ (or annoyingly arrogant) young girl being brought up by her father. It was clearly meant to be autobiographical, a message of some sort to him from Viola. The girl was relentlessly badly done by and the father was a doltish martinet.  (p172)

It turns into a steady job, a career even.  “That was where the best of her was to be found, in her books. (Almost as good as Jodi Picoult,’ Mumsnet.)”  Ouch, ouch.  The writing life, then.  “A whole life could be contained in a dinner-service pattern. (A good phrase. She tucked it away.)”  Unlike Kate, as I’ve already quoted, Viola uses edited slices of her old life for PR.  How much of Kate, though, is there in, “Literary festivals, bookshops, interviews, online chats, you were just filling up other people’s empty spaces really.  But they were filling up your empty spaces too.

And in the end …

Don’t worry, I’m giving nothing away.  A god in ruins is a great novel.  I’ve got a bit carried away here wondering just how much of herself the author has put in there, and worrying how much of an allegory of the generations is intended (and how maybe we don’t measure up in a number of ways … but surely our idealism must have counted for something).  There is so much else going on in the book, stuff I’ve not got near mentioning.  Thoughtful, provocative, energetic and enervating, it’s not so much a moral tale as a long conversation about morality, about living a good life as opposed to ‘the good life’.  The old cliché is that things are never black or white, but, ignoring the ‘grey’ word, Kate Atkinson is working with a full paintbox.

Did I say how much I love Kate Atkinson‘s writing?  How about this?

Later, much later, after the war, when all the history books and memoirs and biographies started to come out and people stopped wanting to forget the war and started wanting to remember it again …

Here’s Bertie again.  Wouldn’t it be great if she turned up in the next (oh please let there be another) Jackson Brodie novel?

[Teddy] felt similarly disappointed when Bertie took a job in advertising, which as far as he could tell was just encouraging people to spend money they didn’t have on things they didn’t need. (‘It is,’ Bertie agreed.)

And of course there has to be mention of Emily Dickinson (an Atkinson signature), Teddy to monosyllabic teen proto-goth Sun:

‘ “Untouched by morning and untouched by noon, sleep the meek members of the Resurrection, rafter of satin and roof of stone.” Emily Dickinson. It was your mother, funnily enough, who introduced me to her. She was a poet,’ he added when Sunny looked puzzled, as if he was mentally riffling through a list of Viola’s acquaintances to find an Emily Dickinson. ‘Dead. American,’ Teddy added. ‘Quite morbid, you might like her. “I heard a fly buzz when I died.” ‘ Sunny perked up.

You don’t have to have read Life after life to get an awful lot out of A god in ruins, though they do, as suggested earlier, make a fine pair.  But there’s a wonderful appendix in A god in ruins of an excerpt from one of the series of children’s books that saved Teddy’s Aunt Izzy’s bacon, The adventures of Augustus.   To his great annoyance and embarrassment, Izzy always said it was Teddy’s exploits as a young boy that had been her inspiration.  If you haven’t read Life after life yet , Izzy is worth spending time with, and, especially, Ursula too.

Wells Fargo

Not that far from London, actually.  Nearly three weeks ago now, but Tunbridge Wells deserves a mention.Shard from London Bridge
Getting there, The Shard doesn’t look any more attractive seen up close from the platform on London Bridge Station than it does from afar.  Charmless.  Unlike our destination.

Felt good to be in Tunbridge Wells on a (despite the forecasts) fine summer’s day.  A joyous family occasion – welcome to the wider family, one year old grand nephew Ollie.  Had already been made to feel old on the tube crossing London: in a crowded Northern Line carriage a couple of girls offered up their seats; no, they weren’t English.  Nevertheless – once over one’s chagrin – good to be surprised by London in a good way.

Music Gallery on The PantilesCouldn’t not promenade up and down The Pantiles before leaving.  The attractive Georgian colonnade filled with open air cafés, shops, galleries and restaurants up from the spring that gave the place its fame, name, spa and royal preface was buzzing; felt like being sur le continent.  From what I can see no-one performs from the Musick Gallery any more, which is a shame, and the Chalybeate Spring was shut because of  “poor water flow,”  but well worth the brief wander.  And on the way back to the station, another reminder:
Tunbridge Wells

American rust

American rustThe paperback edition of Phillipp Meyer‘s grim and gripping American rust (2009) comes loaded with a hell of a review quote from the Sunday Telegraph: “In racing terms it’s by Of mice and men, out of Huckleberry Finn, ridden by Cormac McCarthy, and trained by Salinger and Kerouac …”  As it happens, fair enough.  To which I’ll add: with a soundtrack by James McMurtry (more of whom later), Springsteen at his bleakest, and with bracingly maudlin country music filling in the gaps.  The people here in this novel are not having the best of times.

A Pennsylvania steel town after the steelmills shut down, a white American blue-collar meltdown, the slow death of communities and lives rusting away.  It’s a great title for an outstanding novel – a post-Great American Novel if you will.

Two oddly matched young men are trying to make their escape from dead-end family situations, heading out for the West Coast, aiming to do it riding the freight trains.  Even before they reach the railroad they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time and one small thing leads to another and something happens – a drifter dies – that has consequences for the four other characters through whose eyes we also follow the fallout.  Questions of friendship, loyalty and morality frame a series of individual decisions that have to be made; this drives a powerful narrative.  The language is anguished, vivid, gentle, sad, weary, muscular, pedagogical, elegiac and full of wonder by turns; you feel for all these people.

The English family – that’s the surname, not their nationality – comprise half the people we follow, though the presence of dead wife and mother, a suicide by drowning, is still strong.  Father Henry is in a wheelchair, an industrial accident from when the mills were still rolling; bright older daughter Lee escaped to Yale, married into money; brother Isaac equally bright, stays until he just has to leave to save himself, which is where the novel starts.  He’s into cosmology and astronomy in a big way, has an alter ego he call ‘the kid’ (not capitalized, not even inverted commas), which is where most of the sparse humour comes in.

Billy Poe is Isaac’s unlikely friend – a football major who, too, should have gone to college on a football scholarship when he had the chance, but stayed because of Grace, his mother (married to a charismatic here today gone tomorrow bastard who has finally gone, living in a trailer), and his own indecision.  He once saved depressed Isaac’s life and had gone out with his sister.  He has the worst time.  Grace has an on-off thing which might be on big time again with Bud Harris, the sympathetic old school local chief of police, a bit of a natural philosopher, nearing retirement or maybe elevation up the judicial chain; Bud has an alter ego called Even Keel.  Together with the English family they all weave a complex, compelling and potentially tragic web, people unlucky enough to be caught up in situations that are both, in I Ching phraseology, of ‘blame’ and ‘no blame’.

So I guess you’re not expecting this, about “the best job I ever worked”:

It was the Sealtest Dairy making ice cream. Sixty four to sixty seven, before I became a cop. This big building, it could have been a mill or something, only you would punch in and change into fresh clothes, then walk under a blue light before you were allowed to touch anything. You were never allowed to get dirty. Big buckets of pistachios and fresh fruit, peaches, cherries, anything you could imagine, mixing it up in the machines. You’ve probably never seen ice cream before it gets frozen, but I promise you there isn’t anything like it. It really was like heaven, just being in there. You’d finish each batch and then take the barrels into the hardener to stack and sometimes, because of the humidity from the door always opening and closing, it would be snowing in the hardening room, ice cream stacked to the ceiling and it would be snowing down on you in the middle of the summer. You’re making ice cream, it’s snowing on you, and you look outside and it’s ninety degrees and sunny. I’d take that job again right now if they offered it. It really was like heaven.

That’s Bud Harris, the cop.  And here’s Billy Poe:

It was only when he was playing ball, competing against others and living outside himself, something happened then, it was like information coming through a firehose but he took it all in, he would literally float above the others, he knew more about people than they knew about themselves, the exact patch of grass where their foot would land, the holes opening and closing between the bodies, the ball hovering in the air. It was like seeing the future. That was the only way to describe it, a movie where he moved in real time and everyone else moved in slow motion. Those were the times he liked himself best – when he was not really himself. When it was some part of him in control that he didn’t understand, when others couldn’t see him.

Here’s Isaac, walking beside the railroad track:

The trees and bush, the green was pushing out everywhere, it was an uprising, it was above him and around him and over the water … Patch of white in the brush. Styrofoam? Leg bone. Stripped and bleached, stray or suicide train jumper. Phosphorous donor. Old bones make new blooms. Regeneration. The kid has been here before. The kid has ridden Viking prows, hunted polar bear. Attempting to save his comrades, he is among the Fallen at Omaha Beach. Struck down he rises again. Lives with honor – one of the few. The people retreat shamefaced from him and the kid stands alone. Accepts the company of the best and the worst. Accepts the company of himself.

James McMurtry

Complicated gameI mentioned James McMurtry earlier and I’ve been meaning to write about his album, released earlier this year, Complicated game, because I doubt I’ll hear to anything new better for a long while.  I first came across him when I was transcribing a Q&A session that the late Jackie Leven did some years back, and someone asked Jackie what other songwriters he admired.  I’ve been listening to his songs ever since.  He’s a storyteller.  I’d go so far as to say his is as rich and fulfilling a committed body of work over the last quarter century that anyone has given us.  While a fine acoustic solo performer, he’s previously operated at the rockier end of modern Americana.  Here’s a link to a solo acoustic version of his We can’t make it here any more – a vivid portrait of an American waste land, a perfect companion to American rust.

Complicated game has a gentler sound than a lot of his previous work – 8 studio albums’ worth – a lot less electric guitar, and has a more personal focus, but it still kicks like a mule vocally.  He makes no concessions, opening with the lines: “Honey don’t you be yelling at me when I’m cleaning my gun / I’ll wash the blood off the tailgate when deer season’s done.”  But stick with it.  It’s a portrait of a way of life, it’s literature, also celebrating “the occasional spin round the floor / at the Copper Canteen.”  There are music and scenes here to tug at the heart … I was whisked back to The Band’s eponymous second album (the one with the brown cover).  And in the rockiest track, the pulsating How’m I gonna find you now the line, “Now I’m washing down my blood pressure pill with a Red Bull.”  Crap arty cover, mind.

On his 2008 album Just us kids, in the song Hurricane party, a lesson for life, good advice to pass on to the young:
And I don’t want another drink / I only want the last one again / It gave me such a fine glow.”

At one stage the coffee featured in the making of music

At one stage the coffee featured in the making of music

But first, a musical diversion.  Sunday at The Old George Narius brought his Grammy-winning friend Amrit Sond along to join in the fun.  Narius was his usual smooth accomplished self, with songs from the world over – Brazil, France, Spain, the US – and Mark Knopfler.  Amrit was something else, though.  Hard to explain; ‘fingerstyle’ only scratches the surface.  Freestyle fingers, hands, fists … if he were playing tennis at Wimbledon rather than an acoustic guitar he’d probably be cautioned for racket abuse.  (Poetic license: not that he actually throws it down, hits anything with it or breaks it).  With his hands in unorthodox motion, crossing over one another, dramatically strumming (that  upstroke!), the guitar’s body bought into extensive use as a percussion instrument, his drumstick fingers over the frets – he gets some extraordinary sounds out of his instrument: the full spectrum – tuneful, angular, discordant, delivered with aggression and gentility – and back again.  The 30 second clip on his website gives a rich glimpse of the richness of sound and there is more on YouTube, but try here to see what he does with the coffee).

Anne Tyler - A spool of blue threadAnne Tyler says A spool of blue thread (Chatto, 2015) is her last novel, which is fair enough given the 19 that have gone before.  I’ve read a few of those and like her a lot for the attention to telling detail – emotional as much as anything else – and nary a wasted word.  She gives good nuance.  Picking A spool of blue thread up at the library, the librarian, a Tyler fan, said she was disappointed – going out with a whimper, she said – and much as I’d wished it would, it didn’t grab me enough to drop everything to finish it before the library due date.  This being not so much a fear of fines as the moral issue of other people waiting to read it, so I returned it unfinished, and didn’t avail myself of the offer to be put back on the waiting list.  Other fish to fry, other books to read.  A four generation family story, told or gleaned from legend, out of chronological order.  Kicks with a phone call from the wayward son of  ’60s generation parents who are getting too old for the big old house, which is a big deal in the family history, that they still live in.  As far as I’d read, I couldn’t care that much about what happened to them.  Now it’s made the Booker Long List, so what do I know.  Except, a bit like hay fever, I have good and bad years as far as that prize goes.

Amanda craig - Hearts and minds In the matter of not finishing books, I tend to give up early rather than hold out too many hopes, though I try to do my duty by the Reading Group.  If it hadn’t been this month’s Reading Group book, Amanda Craig‘s Hearts and minds (2009) would have been jettisoned early.  As it was, as the narrative momentum built, and in the end I didn’t resent the Book Group imperative to finish it as much as I thought I would.  But it’s basically crime fiction with knobs on.

Because Hearts and minds does not lack ambition.  She’s shooting for a Dickens, and it certainly starts well enough:

At night, even in these dead months of the year, the city is never wholly dark. Its shadows twitch with a harsh orange light that glows and fades, fades and glows, as the pulse of electric power courses through its body like dreams. The sour air, breathed in and out by eight million lungs, stained by exhaust pipes and strained through ventilators, is never clean. The dust of ages swirls and falls, staining walls, darkening glass, coating surfaces, clogging lungs.

But it’s this ambition that lets it down.  The writing never reaches those heights again.  Hard not to detect a tick box element to both the characters and the newspaper horror story issues they have to deal with, and the way their lives are connected is a trifle contrived, to say the least (I know, Dickens too, and at least there is no shocked revelation of a genealogical kind).

So there’s the murderee, Iryna, illegal immigrant, cleaner and nanny to single mother human rights lawyer Poppy (the only English character); there’s sex slave trafficked Ukrainian teenager Anna (and her Russian gangster pimps); there’s globetrotting South African East End sink school teacher Ian; the noble two jobs Zimbabwean political exile Job (we all liked him); Job’s mate and fellow taxi driver Tariq and his sons, one a jihadist; heart-broken Yank Katie, working at The Rambler, a magazine not a million miles from the Spectator, who might just have an eating problem; and a full supporting cast including an exuberant slob of an Australian and the magazine crowd (doubtless a few in-jokes going on there).

So, London as cosmopolis, then; we get it, but there still seems something missing.  There’s a slightly dubious dramatic climax – at The Rambler‘s celebrated annual party extravaganza – and some heartening things happen to most of the people who deserve good things in the end.

The paperback edition carries loads of review quotes praising Hearts and minds to the skies, but none of our Book Group recognised the masterpiece lauded therein.  I’m afraid she’s no Dickens; the prose is often clumsy, the dialogue a bit stilted.  Would an A&E doctor really say, “It is still under four hours, you know – we are within the national guidelines for A&E“?  (Actually, the health professional in the Group said they might, but I’m not convinced.)  And then there’s this, written from the bloke’s perspective:

All the blood in his body has rushed from his head to his groin, and it hurts. He wants her, she doesn’t want him. It’s like being trapped between an immovable object and an irresistible force.

Which the rock, what the – sorry – hard place.?  He does desist, though elsewhere Polly gets to think, “Underneath, all men are like something from an earlier stage of evolution …” about her screenwriter boyfriend networking at the party.  Enough.

Postscript: Vaguely contemporary London novels that hit the Dickens spot?  I can’t get beyond Zadie Smith (both White teeth and NW) and Michael Moorcock (King of the city, and probably Mother London, though I haven’t read the latter).

Cowan - What I knowMike Hannah, married with two children anti-hero and narrator of Andrew Cowan‘s gripping What I know (2005), is at a pretty complex and crippling stage in his evolution.  Married in his early twenties, he’s just hit 40 and chopped down the leylandii trees planted at the bottom of his garden by the previous owners (there’s a whole other story there too), putting his back out in the process.  Now he can see a young female student in a window in the house behind (nothing prurient on view, mind) and it takes him back to when he was a student (on a creative writing degree course – author Cowan is now Director of the Creative Writing programme at the University of East Anglia), reminding him of soul mate with privileges Sarah, who he has not seen since.

So Mike is now in full-blown, albeit tentative, mid-life crisis mode.  He’s not written anything since uni, but there’s William Brown, a novelist neighbour living nearby, who he pretends not to know too much about, though he quite fancies the writer’s wife while suspecting his wife of plotting an affair with the novelist.  The thing is, Mike is now a professional private investigator with a technological bag of tricks and a lot of his work entailing surveillance from doubting spouses, so he starts employing his work procedures on his own private life.  Furthermore, his moderately successful novelist friend Will has hit a writer’s block and asks Mike if he can tag along in the name of research for his next book, so he starts off by tracing what has happened to old girlfriend Sarah as an example.  Needless to say, it does not go well, though if one is talking of bloodletting it is only metaphorical.

Cowan playfully hints at postmodern fictional games without actually committing them.  So:

Will’s books are not very exciting. His narratives verge on the ‘slow’, even the ‘dangerously slow’. His subject matter is ‘downbeat’ and ‘depressing’. And while his ‘accumulation of minute particulars’ does lend authenticity, it can also become ‘so much clutter on the page, impeding the story.’

It was precisely this ‘accumulation of minute particulars‘ that impressed me as being a feature of his writing in his Worthless men, where the bits I’m usually tempted to speed read – lists of things, even – kept me engaged and added to that (very different) novel’s power.  (Here’s my take on it).  And that holds for What I know.   “Will might well have invented me,” Mike says near the end,

a typical male in the fiction of William Brown is a man struggling against his own mediocrity … short on ambition, but also frustrated by his personal failings, his lack of imagination, his indecision.

Our lives around here are not the stuff of novels, or at least not interesting novels …” says Mike, but – oh you big tease, Andrew Cowan – this here What I know is interesting indeed, getting to the core of a thorny male middle class suburban dilemma.  Which is not as tedious or self-centred as that sounds.  It is satirical in its setting but serious on a personal level to those involved.

Welcome to the neighbourhood, which is fast becoming “the exclusive preserve of the middlingly successful“.  “We are good citizens here.  Our streets are tree-lined and our local park is not often vandalised …“.  “You might call us bourgeois-bohemian, which is to say we are neither“, while “Ours are the privileged children of parents who ‘oppose’ privilege, and while some of us claim to feel guilty about this, we will still pay for them…” to do the extra-curricular things these kids do.

Here’s cheery Mike on marriage: “Every marriage is a mystery.  I wouldn’t be the first to think that, nor to suppose that most are stalked with regret, the melancholy thought of what they are not.”  While he’s sure he and his wife, Jan, still love one another, “It has ceased to be a story” to him, “if it ever was.  There’s little sense of a plot being revealed, of surprises in store …”  At home and work he’s always, he says, “been happy enough.”

But at university he had lived in an activist commune, where, “As a household we objected to most things, but especially money, possessions, careers“:

And though I did sometimes look upon all this as play-acting, mere pretending, I never actually said so […] I still turned out for the protests, the pickets. I did what was expected, and you may even have seen me – distributing leaflets in the town centre, hawking newspapers, rattling buckets – and kept well away. I wouldn’t now blame you, and I cringe to remember all of this. I was twenty years old then, and I wouldn’t want to go back there.

Yet he finds he is now “becoming broodingly nostalgic for the intensity of friendships I had known at university, itself a time … when I hadn’t so much made friends as I had been made by them.”  He longs for a hint of “the person I used to be”, and surmises that many of his kind are looking to connect with who they once were, or once hoped they’d become“.

As the action unfolds it all becomes very existential.  “Of course there is love and there’s love” – he does expand on that – but even as he makes his moves, “My true purpose isn’t quite clear to me …”  Earlier he has surmised:

… it’s in the nature of my occupation to look for patterns, connections, stories, clear lines of cause and effect. But in fact I believe that most of life, including my own, is really quite random, somewhat plotless, accidental.

But there is a narrative to What I know and its pull is strong.  Paranoid, claustrophobic, repetitive, bleak, thoughtful, painful, insightful, excruciating and thoroughly entertaining, I liked it a lot.




That’s the Isle of Wight, that is, not some early short-lived fledgling socialist republic.  He made the claim in a letter to his old chum, Friedrich Engels: “One can stroll here for hours enjoying both sea and mountain air at the same time.”  We did a bit of that; cliffs and hills, anyway – there aren’t exactly mountains.  The great man convalesced in Ventnor shortly before he died.  There’s a scruffy blue plaque on the wall of the house in St Boniface Gardens where he stayed attests to the fact; no-one has ever blamed Ventnor for his demise.

Getting there is interesting.  The Southern Railway train from MK crossing London on the old freight lines is still a novelty to me, a journey through the hinterlands of Wembley and Shepherds Bush to the exhibition halls of Olympia, then on to West Brompton and over the river at Imperial Wharf.  I was going to say it was one of those flashes of understanding how the bits of London all fit together, but I’m afraid West Brompton still means nothing to me.  As I say, old freight lines running through an industrial and commercial hinterland: a vast heavy duty scrap yard, mountains of shredded metal, unglamorous back ends of buildings, big new developments (soon a hinterland no more), this time of the year all leavened by a great burgeoning of buddleia bushes in bloom wherever they have the room and inclination to thrive, which is a lot.  Legendary Clapham Junction may be, but it’s still a surprise at just how busy it is.  And so to Portsmouth and the catamaran over the sea to Ryde.

The train from Ryde Harbour to Shanklin is an experience.  A redundant two car ex-London Underground train which was new in the 1930s; needless to say none are left on the mainland outside a museum.  Both coming and going off-peak it was standing room only for parts of the journey.  It is probably the bumpiest, jerkingest passenger train ride in the country.  People do say coming to the Isle of Wight is like losing a decade or two, but this is scandalous, really, because heritage railway it is not meant to be.  Cheery conductors, though.

Welcome to ShanklinA friend picks us up at Shanklin – the old track on to Ventnor is history – and he has set things up nicely for us.  We see TWO unmistakably red squirrels – indeed, we have to slow down to let them cross the road – and a big bird of prey on the way.

FarmerA breezy walk down to the sea front and a hearty vegetarian breakfast at Besty & Spinkys fine esplanade cafe.  In the evening to Dimbola Museum & Galleries,  Dimbola Lodge in Freshwater, home of Victorian photography pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron, for the private view of Steve Blamire and Julian Winslow’s Portrait of an Island exhibition – 20 incredibly inventive photographic portraits of contemporary creatives currently working on the island.  I’ve nicked this rubbish quality low pixels small pic via the PrtScrn button purely to show how their mind works: he’s a farmer, so that’s a warrior Jimi by John Swindells at Dimbola 2necklace made of asparagus.  We knew one of the subjects and – interestingly – she hadn’t seen the finished product until now; she was absolutely delighted.  Tremendous show, well worth the visit.  Also got a look at the Isle of Wight Festivals exhibit, a fascinating collection of posters – oh the memories (not the festivals, just the amazing variety of period Letraset fonts) – alongside photos of the first three historic events what line-ups!) and those that have followed this millennium.  In the grounds, the Jimi Hendrix Garden and a life-size statue by John Swindells of the great man himself, that the locals were not impressed by.  This Daily Telegraph article (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1520329/Life-size-Hendrix-statue-infuriates-islanders.html)about the controversy makes for a wonderful snapshot of Englishness, particularly of the Vectian (Isle of Wightian – from the Roman) variety, and gives a good picture of what has been achieved at Dimbola.

Herbaceous borders MottestoneHad a good time in the extensive Ventnor Botanic Garden, where they enjoy a microclimate an average 5º hotter than mainland UK, so loads of sub-tropical exotic plants and trees in specific – Australian, South African, NZ – contexts.  Now a Community Interest Company, they operate a healthy ‘Keep ON the grass’ ethos.

And the next day more horticultural adventures in the gardens at Mottistone Manor, where we actually got to use our National Trust cards (we really should make more of an effort).  Never before have the words ‘herbaceous borders’ crossed my lips or tripped from my keyboard, but they were spectacular (click on the photo to Shack window furnitureenlarge, and then again).  It’s a ‘dry’ garden; they say they don’t water.  The Shack – one of the 5 things not to miss, the leaflet said – was actually pretty good too: a supercharged 1930s state of the art shed that you could easily live in, the period Penguin books arranged on the shelves by colour.  Here’s a link.  Cannot not mention the charming window shutter handles.

StonesAnd up the hill on Mottistone Down to the neolithic standing stones known as the Long Stone, though I’m not sure it counts anymore as a really ancient monument given they were moved sometime in the first half of the nineteenth century.  Fantastic views over the downs and the sea, though.

Given the nature of both gardens and some of the plants I couldn’t help occasionally thinking we’d slipped into a science fiction landscape.  Those on the left are from the quietly impressive ‘tranquil’ lower garden at Mottistone (which used to be the cow sheds, apparently), that on the right from Ventnor:

SF plant 04 VBG SF plant 01 VBGBedroom 02Finally, before we leave the island, a glimpse into the bedroom we slept in – this might develop into a series – another bedroom of one of our friends’ absent and well-on-the-way-to-fleeing-the-coop children.

Thanks, D & J, and Zappa.  He's a briard.

Thanks, D & J, and Zappa. He’s a briard.

Just a slight return: I came across the story of the missing Karl Marx mosaic while checking for something else.  I didn’t see it for myself, but there is a fine community-made mosaic detailing some of Ventnor’s greatest hits gracing the main car park.  Ventnor mosaicThe picture I’ve used of Karl Marx at the top of this piece was lifted from an article about his mosaic being physically and criminally lifted earlier this year; its whereabouts remain, as of late July 2015, a mystery.  Here are links to a couple of web articles about this act of vandalism, complete with comments, links which I provide because of the classic nature of the – albeit swearless – comments, some of which could have come straight out of that regular Private Eye feature, and some of which reflect citizenship of the highest order:




To The Lakes

HeightsPoop, poop!  The open road.  Or at least, the M6 Toll.  The heart begins to lift at the sign for the Kirkby Lonsdale turn-off, the tension to fall from the shoulders past the exit for Kendal.  Bit of a ritual now.  Check in, unload, cup of tea, then go and see if the stones are still there.

Yup - stil there: Castlerigg Stone Circle

Yup – still there: Castlerigg Stone Circle

The way we go, you don’t see them until you’ve climbed the steps built into the wall, but once in among the stones it makes perfect sense why they’re where they are, seeming to be at the centre of something.  No astro-science, ancient science or pseudo-science necessary to appreciate that.

Trees and shadowsIn The Lakes the sun plays shadow games with the clouds and the land, painting constantly shifting shades of hill and fell.  We’re just looking, not striding up and down them.

Wednesday is the hottest day of the year so far.  We choose to do Walla Crag, which overlooks the north half of Derwent Water and, in the distance, Bassenthwaite (what’s the only Lake in the Lake District?) Lake.  And, of course, a whole lot more of the solid stuff.  Northern or oak eggar mothFortunately the higher we get the stronger the breeze, which is a wind by the time we reach the top and laze for a bit.  Photographs (or at least mine), especially in summer, never get anywhere near the magnificence of the view, so here’s one of a northern (or oak) eggar moth, trying not to get blown away.

Today we make the descent (probably too grand a term, even though the walk leaflet calls it strenuous and steep, and the worst bit involves dropping from a seated position) lakewards down the other side.  To our left Cat Gill, and after the aforementioned worst bit, the gill briefly flattens out so I have the brilliant idea of stepping down and bathing my sweltering salt-strewn face in the cool clear waters.  It is here that I learn the aptness of the ancient wisdom enshrined in the old adage, “Slippery when wet”, even when there are no warning signs.  Twelve days on I still bear the residual signs of what proved to be a truly psychedelic bruise on my thigh; nor can I yet grip a pen as tightly as I am wont to.  No matter.  Onwards to a fine lunch on the veranda of the all-welcoming Mary Mount Hotel, bestrewn as it is with busy bird feeders – chaffinches and great tits so fine and handsome we had to do a double-take.

Musical stonesThursday to town, and my favourite little museum: The Keswick Museum and Art Gallery.  Where I play Louie, Louie and From me to you on the musical stones – 3 sets thereof, stacked like they’re waiting for Keith Emerson to come and climb all over them. It’s a fascinating piece of rock music history.  In the gallery a major exhibition celebrating Alfred Wainwright – Wainwright: a love letter to the Lakeland Fells.  Along with his tweed jackets (pipe sticking out of the pocket of one), his ‘best’ (for council meetings) and his first boots, and all the obvious stuff, we get to see memorabilia from his life as an active Blackburn Rovers supporters: a cartoon of his of fans at the 1922 Boxing Day match with the legend “Tramp, tramp, tramp, the boys are marching”, his ‘motor coach excursion ticket’ to the 1940 (wartime) Cup Final.  At one end of the gallery, a one-piece vinyl floor covering, maybe 15 foot square, printed with an old style OS map of the Lakes; Isobel stood on top of Helvellyn, no probs.  And with one bound …

Dog & GunDog & Gun veggie goulashAnd so to The Dog & Gun, there to partake of their vegetarian goulash, a disappointment last year because we only discovered its very existence after we’d eaten elsewhere.  It was worth the wait.  Pictured is what they call a small portion – it comes with garlic bread too – and I couldn’t have eaten anymore.  I was drinking a pint of Ruskin’s, pretty much the most cultural it got this time around, and – goodness! – taste buds now fully engaged, it had twice the flavour after the meal.  A splendid array of ales, imaginatively and helpfully presented with a colour sample in a jar beside each pump (click on the image for an enlargement, and once more if that’s not good enough to whet your taste buds, beear drinkers) :

Pumps 01Pumps 2Pumps 3

In the afternoon, the gentle railway walk out of Keswick, the river winding, wildly here, wandering there, under the permanent … walk-way.  Such sights, such engineering.  The tallest foxgloves everywhere.  For fans of ironworks, rust and greenery:

Iron & greenBridge

On Friday we sample a live railway.  Eighteen minutes there and eighteen minutes back behind ‘Victor’ on the restored Lakeside & Haverthwaite Railway – the lake being Windermere – and in between a look around the Lakes Aquarium, stocked with a lot more than fishes.  We saw voracious mean-looking ‘baby’ crocodiles included being fed.; lots of potential ouch there.

Train coming

D8000 classIn the locoshed at Haverthwaite I discover I am older than all the engines in the shed – including four steam locomotives of varying size – except for a diesel shunter.  There are a couple of older engines outside, but I wasn’t expecting that: to feel that old, even pursuing memories of a childhood and early-teen pursuit.  As it happens, the photo is one of the class of locos mentioned in a poem of mine some readers might remember having heard Lion & wheel logoperformed, called The lamb’s last gambol: “I sold my stamp collection for a train set / a Hornby freight diesel / Lion and wheel logo / painted grey and green“.  Except this one was missing a lion and wheel logo, though one of the other young locos proudly displayed one (compare and contrast with, say, Virgin, or any of the other railway companies now).

Saturday to the seaside and a bracing sea breeze at Alonby on the Solway Firth, which could be a very forlorn place on the wrong day.  When the interesting clouds lifted we could see the green fields of Dumfries under a blue sky.  Stony beach, true, but with plenty of delightful pebbles to peruse.  Borrowdale’s Great Wood again in the pm, finally making geographical sense to us in the scheme of things fitting together.  And the next day home again, home again, jiggety jog, fortified midway with Waitrose sandwiches at Keele services – the high life! – even if we did have to walk over the Keele services bridge and through Burger King to get them.

RevealSoundtrack of the sojourn in the car proved to be REM’s gorgeous masterpiece Reveal.  Hardly a rock album at all, but there’s certainly a lot of roll, and some floating.  Song soundscapes.  Anticipation, sympathy, self-doubt overcome, with a nod to science while not letting that take away the poetry.  Beguiling, sinuous melodies that don’t hit at first but once they catch you’re waiting for them eagerly the next time.  To sing along to.  A sadness that glows, with a bit of Beach Boys in there too.  Lovely.

Oh, and I forgot to mention in chronicling the Welsh trip how my breakfast Marmite habit had been broken, it being overtaken on the toast by Rose’s pleasurably sweet and sour Lemon & Lime Marmalade, but I’m over that now.

Wild Wales… by George Borrow, was one of those books I bought and kept for a couple of decades and never got round to reading.  It made the charity shop pile the last time we moved.  The book had appealed to the younger romantic in me when we’d visited and holidayed in the Principality regularly – my wife was born 4th generation Cardiff, so we had family there – but over time the active Welsh connection has dwindled, and save for the odd fleeting visit we hadn’t spent any time there for years.  Two weeks ago we returned for a few days, staying with friends and relations in Ceredigion – in Aberystwyth and then down the coast a bit, in New Quay, to be precise.  So, a few impressions of mild Wales (with Aber mostly mended from those storms).

  • the revolution in durable outdoor house paints of many colours has certainly brightened the place up.  That depressingly monotonous (rain-dampened) grey vernacular architecture is mostly, now, on its way out.
  • approaching Aber, flying overhead more red kites than I’d previously seen in a lifetime. A magnificent sight.  Can’t find a collective noun, but there were enough for one.
  • Stuffed toysthis fine collection of stuffed toys the sort of thing that no longer surprises, staying with friends whose grown-up children have fled the coop; not in our house, but not unusual
  • Aberystwyth very much a student town now, but it’s falling down the league tables and the locals are worried, with the newish unpopular Vice-Chancellor getting the blame.  Unprecedented (we were told) ads in windows in town offering cheap accommodation.  Impressive Arts Centre complex half way up the hill out of town.
  • Aber follyin Aber, one of those delightful second-hand bookshops it’s so absorbing to spend time in – two floors, cramped honeycomb of rooms – so full they can’t possibly get more books in, can they?:  Ystwyth Books.  (On Abe he trades as Martin’s Books).  Bought selections of Donne and e e cummings.
  • that was after a civilized picnic – if I could remember the friendly caff we got it from I’d say because it was delicious – in the no-charge castle grounds just off the sea front.  Nearby, in full view, a striking Victorian white elephant of a building that they still haven’t decided what to do with
  • Osprey signageit only rained one morning, stayed damp for the afternoon, which was just right for the walk along the boardwalk on the wetlands of the – again – wonderfully friendly Dyfi Osprey Project.  Timed it just right to see Monty, their returning osprey, fly back to the nest – after his me-time – and his this year’s mate, feeding the nestlings.  My luck to be on one of the telescopes in the beautifully constructed wood observation lodge when that happened.  Some fine specimens around the seed feeders at the project entrance too – bullfinches a particular treat for us.  And again, one wonders about what I have to call the myth of finches and expensive nijer seed – the sunflower feeder was by far the busiest.

And so down the coast a bit for a couple of nights just outside New Quay: guitars, dolphins, feasts, gardens and faeries: Face Sculpture heaven

  • had a lovely afternoon at Sculptureheaven, two and a half acres of themed gardens in a rural setting  with integral gallery, workshop and tea room.  There’s a Gothic Garden (goth sculptures with purple and black plants), a Planetary Herb Garden (I know, I know, but it’s beautifully presented), a zen garden, an Angel House (a bit spooky, actually), a faery dell, a rowan grove with hare sculptures dotted around and a whole lot more.  Friendly and welcoming, it’s Green Man notebookenchanting and peaceful (and collectively not as twee as a cynic like me might think), a hands-on family’s labour of love, created from scratch over a decade, with wit and spirit (they’ll show you the photos from when they acquired the place).  There’s a green earth goddess, like the ones at Heligon, but, they say, she’s high maintenance; a photo brings up the rear of this post.  If you’re thinking of going, make sure of the opening hours and be prepared (absolutely no pressure, of your own volition, but still) to spend some money.  More Green Men are not to be seen in one place outside of the pages of a book.
  • the tea room at Sculptureheaven deserves a bullet point all of its own.  Tea and miniature cakes are to be had for a suggested donation to The Halo Trust (a landmines charity).  All were tasty but the lemon drizzle cupcake was divine (the secret being a touch of lime, said the baker and co-proprietor).
  • Whatever it ismore charity with the evening open gardens at Llanerchaeron gives a completely different feel to a routine NT day house visit.  Shadows have more to play with, it’s cooler.  Folk trio fiddling away on the lawn on the way in to the extensive walled garden and wooded lake.  Really pleased with this photo of whatever it is (to enlarge – like all the other photos – click, then click again on that page).
  • the best trifle tart I’ve ever had at The Hungry Trout – what does that mean in the context of humans stuffing themselves? – in New Quay.
  • New Quay dolphinthat came after we’d had the luck to see the dolphins frolicking at second attempt.  Note to self: get a proper camera. That black dot is one of a family of five …
  • inserted at this juncture to give the pics some room, where we stayed one of our hosts dealt occasionally, as a sideline, in Fender guitars, so, I got to play – never done it before! – 5 Strats (one with an absolute dream of a neck) and a Telecaster through a small Marshall amp.  Phew, rock and roll … Now know I’m a Telecaster man.
  • New Quay 2and down on the quay in New Quay, a bus shelter proudly sporting the town’s youth’s talents or something.  Two of five – the other three are New Quay 1monochrome – are pictured here.  Not quite sure why, really. I’m intrigued as much as anything.
  • as promised:
The earth goddess at Sculptureheaven; she's high-maintenance.

The earth goddess at Sculptureheaven; she’s a high-maintenance gardening project.

Penguin- Chandler The Big SleepI started reading Raymond Chandler in the late green Penguin period of crime fiction publishing at the urging of a poet.  I hadn’t read any crime fiction til then.  No, he said, Chandler is a real writer.  Indeed he was.   As the man himself sang in a magazine article on his oeuvre, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”

Julian Symons - Bloody murderWhen I started working in libraries not long after, I was well aware that crime fiction was the most popular area of the library, so I thought I needed to know more about the genre.  As it happened, Julian Symon‘s acclaimed Bloody murder: from the detective story to the crime novel: a history (1972) had just been published and I learned a lot.  His basic position was that Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were liberators, freeing detective fiction from the cosy respectability the genre had slipped into after the First World War and pointing it in the direction of ‘real’ literature – Snobbery with violence as Colin Watson had characterised the writers of that period in the title of his book about the genre and its audience a year earlier.  I let Symons guide my personal reading, and but for one exploratory expedition (couldn’t remember who’d dunnit the morning after) I left the “Golden Age” to itself.  (Raymond Williams did a fine job, in his The country and the city (1973) of systematically tracing quotes about ‘golden ages’ back to at least the Romans.)  Nevertheless, I hasten to add, it would have been professional suicide to ignore what had gone before; Agatha Christie still ruled the library shelves.

Martin Edwads - Golden ageCrime writer Martin Edwards thinks Symons got it badly wrong, and in The Golden Age of Murder: the mystery of the writers who invented the modern detective story (HarperCollins, 2015) he presents a perceptive,  convincing and entertaining case.  The book is a between-the-wars history of the Detection Club, an elite, invitation-only group of writers, that started as an informal dining club in 1929, and became a formal organisation, with rules and constitution, three years later.  Its object was the promotion of their craft, the provision of mutual support, discussion of concerns and topics of interest, and the maintenance of quality detective fiction’s reputation as opposed to the mass market dross it was often bracketed with.

The guidelines for a writer’s inclusion – they had to have a track record – were quite specific, with:

it being understood that the term ‘detective novel’ does not include adventure stories or “thrillers” or stories in which the detection is not the main interest, and that it is a demerit in a detective novel if the author does not “play fair” with the reader.’

Edwards follows the private lives of his protagonists, and maps how their dilemmas were reflected and referenced in their writing.  As his sub-title suggests, these were not without their own fascinations – remember Agatha Christie’s disappearance – while also telling us much about the society of the day.  The big three were the aforementioned Christie, Dorothy L.Sayers and Anthony Berkeley, and they:

were conservative in outlook, and their success […] caused a peculiar amnesia to afflict critical discussion of the Golden Age. Detective novelists with radical views have become the men – and women – who never were. Even the distinguished historian of the genre Julian Symons, who should have known better, thought it ‘safe to say that almost all the British writers of the Twenties and Thirties […] were unquestionably right-wing.’ In fact, the Liberal Party and centre-left were well represented among Golden Age authors, while others joined the Communist party or flirted with it […] Some mocked Nazis and Fascists in their detective novels long before it was fashionable to do so. Others wrote mysteries which debated the merits of assassinating dictators.

Martin Edwards particularly fights Dorothy L.Sayers’ critical corner:

Sayers saw Gaudy night as the pinnacle of her achievement as a novelist. Yet the conflicts lying at its heart are not those of a conventional whodunnit, but clashes between principles and personal loyalties. […] Gaudy night so powerfully reflects Sayers’ belief in equality between the sexes that the book is often called the first major feminist novel. However, Julian Symons dismissed it as a ‘woman’s novel’, and Sayers is often patronizingly accused of ‘falling in love with her hero.’ The truth is that Sayers’ unrelenting focus on female independence influenced many other women novelists …

And in a paragraph such as the one that follows, the critical social commentary that Symons ignored – even with a toff of a detective in Lord Peter Wimsey – comes as a surprise:

Long before it became fashionable to critique the consumer society, she offers a picture of a world in which people are sold a dream of health and happiness … Sayers writes with a fierce sympathy about ‘those who, aching for a luxury beyond their reach and for a leisure for ever denied them, could be bullied or wheedled into spending their few hardly won shillings on whatever might give them, if only for a moment, a leisured and luxurious illusion.’

More generally the Golden Age victims, or murderees (as Martin Amis calls them), tell their own tale:

That dependable hate figure, the selfish financier, regularly crops up as a victim in Golden Age stories. In many other books, the corpse belongs to a blackmailer who had threatened victims with exposure and disgrace – a powerful motive for murder at a time when most people yearned for respectability. With the economic slump causing much suffering, any unpleasant old miser with a host of impoverished family members was unlikely to survive long in a crime novel, and anyone who called in their solicitor to change their will was signing their own death warrant.

As can be judged from what he says about old misers, this is a far from po-faced exposition of Golden Age fiction, and Martin is well aware of the clichés involved.  As well as changing your will, “The arrival of a mysterious box of chocolates became a recurrent hazard in the lives of Golden Age characters …”

The Golden Age of Murder throws up many interesting tidbits, side issues and diversions along the way.  G.K.Chesterton, creator of the Father Brown mysteries and the Detective Club’s first Honorary President, argued in his essay, A Defence of Detective Stories

that the detective story: ‘is the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life’. That reference to poetry is significant. From Poe onwards, a strikingly high proportion of detective novelists have also been poets. They are drawn to each form by its structural challenges.’

One such, Cecil Day-Lewis, writing as Nicholas Blake, created, in his A question of proof, one Nigel Strangeways, who, after a brief stay in Oxford, in the course of which he had neglected Demosthenes in favour of Freud becomes an amateur private investigator, and, says Edwards, bears a distinct resemblance to [his friend] Auden, with one or two additional quirks such as an excessive fondness for tea drinking.”  Indeed, W.H.Auden was a great fan of Golden Age fiction.  This blog post’s title is taken from his poem Detective Story – the one with the lines about “A home, the centre where the three or four things / that happen to a man do happen“.  Tantalizingly, it was suggested that Auden provide some poems for P.D.James’s poetry writing detective, Adam Dalgleish – Auden and James were both published by Faber – but the plan was scuppered when the poet died.

The Golden Age of Murder is an absorbing read and, as many of the reviews have stated, a real labour of love.  It can only add weight to the revival of its subjects’ novels heralded by The British Library’s publication programme – its (out of copyright) Crime Classics series, that its author has had a hand in.  The writers are in no position, of course, to complain about the paperback jackets, as Agatha Christie once did to publisher Allen Lane his firm’s treatment of one of her novels, “having failed to realise that when a publisher asks an author’s opinion of a jacket, the response required is rapture.”  Mysterious affair at StylesNice one, Martin.

  Depending on who’s publishing in any given year, I suppose I read – give or take a finger or two – a handful of crime novels annually.  Invariably a new Ian Rankin (who I see as some sort of soulmate), Peter Robinson (more out of habit these days, given no small percentage of Lillabullero‘s traffic comes from a semi-tabulated over-view of his Banks novels), John Harvey (the best crime writer, another poet – his Resnick I’ve long rated alongside Rebus), Carl Hiaasen (if I’m lucky) and … I have a lot of affection, as it happens, for Martin EdwardsLake District Mysteries.  Maybe something old, something borrowed too.

So, in the light of The Golden Age of Murder I thought I’d give Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot a spin.  For me, along with Heartbeat, I consider Agatha Christie adaptations the bane of ITV3, which can quite often be a source of half decent crime when there’s nothing else on.  (I prefer Lewis to Morse, by the way).  I wanted to see if my view of the books had been poisoned by the stereotyped period treatments – almost designed to give credence to Julian Symons’ view of the books – given to Miss Marple and Poirot by television companies over the years.  I wanted to look for other possible interpretations.

The mysterious affair at Styles (1920) was the first book to feature Hercule Poirot, and I was pleasantly surprised by the sharpness of some of the descriptive prose.  Hastings, the narrator, is an obvious Doctor Watson figure; he’s a Great war casualty, invalided out of the army.  But no, seems I can’t just blame David Suchet.  Poirot remains, on the page, the same supercilious smarmy little creep that has me leaping for the TV remote whenever there’s a whiff of him on the box.  Sorry, mon ami.  I shall still finish the book, though, despite Hastings saying stuff like:

Dear old Dorcas!  As she stood there with her innocent face upturned to mine, I thought what a fine specimen she was of the old-fashioned servant that is so fast dying out.

It all feels a bit like being in one of those Murder Mystery games that we have fun with on New Year’s Eves (though without the wine).   And I will certainly have a gander at at least a Dorothy L. when one falls into my paws.  But now for something completely different; it’s a crime, Jim, but not as the Golden Age knew it.

Emma Donaghue - RoomRoom

Always a danger sign, that – mention of The lovely bones on a book’s cover.  She was cheating.  The narrator of that book was talking from heaven.  Jack, the narrator of Emma Donoghue‘s Room: a novel (Picador, 2010) is a five-year old boy – just.  “Today I’m five,” is its opening line.  I struggled to get over that and failed.  Sorry, this is not the language of a five-year old.  It got on my nerves, and the occasional interjection of childish words like ‘fasterer’ and ‘forgetted’ and ‘catched’ just made it worse.  OK, he’s lived with Ma, an intelligent teenager when kidnapped and imprisoned as a sex slave a couple of years before Jack was born, by a man we never meet, in the room of the title, all his life.  Just with Ma and a television set with dodgy reception, but I still can’t buy it.  This narrative stratagem does have advantages in the way the story is told – no internal monologue from Ma leaves more to our imagination, no compulsory wallowing in it – but, as I say, I never managed to transcend it.  My loss, some might say.  Quite a lot, actually, given its shortlist showing for a number of prizes and its word-of-mouth success at the time.

It’s not a bad book, obviously.  ‘Disturbing’ was the word on most of the Book Group members’ lips on the first run around the table.  Donaghue got the idea from the notorious Fritzl case in Austria a couple of years previously, and it examines the issues of socialization, survival and recovery with sensitivity, intelligence and some wit.  When they dramatically escape about half way through (oh come on, you can guess that from the chapter titles) we move into – albeit earth-bound – classic science fiction territory of the stranger in a strange land kind, with Jack struggling to understand what is real and what is television.  His mother’s harrowing re-adaptation to the real world is painful to experience, even through Jack’s eyes.  It ends … not without hope.  I’m the only male in the Book Group and I was the least keen there; interestingly, three of the women said they wouldn’t have thought there was any point in recommending it to their husbands, who I know are a lot more than John Grisham readers.  Enough.  I’m glad it’s over.  And so onto something more enjoyable.

Robert Harris - PompeiiPompeii

Given that the reader has a good idea what’s going to happen, Robert Harris does a pretty good job in Pompeii (2003) of keeping us interested in how it specifically comes to pass and how it happens to the people (some real, some not) that he has chosen to tell the story through.  No, more than interesting – rather keeping us hooked and thrilling us both with the action and the morality of those involved.  Each chapter as the big day approaches is given a latin denomination and an excerpt from volcanology textbooks, which both distances the reader and allows the parallels with contemporary politics and social power to emerge for themselves.  He skilfully keeps a lot of balls in the air and even throws in a bit of romantic desire for motivation to drive things along.

One is left in awe at what Roman civilization achieved – the aqueducts still standing, the baths, the water supply systems running for miles – but left in no doubt too about the violence, venality, slavery and corruption that accompanied the technical triumphs.  Checking something in Wikipedia I learnt that Roman Polanski nearly filmed Harris’s book, seeing parallels with Chinatown in it; it hadn’t occurred to me before, but that does make perfect sense.

Harris has fun with what they thought was happening then and what the preserved Pompeii stands for now, with thought patterns and ideas of causation then and now.  Here’s Attilius, the good guy engineer brought in at short notice to sort what they originally thought was just a small problem in the water supply, after the man on the job has disappeared, contemplating the end (of the world as he knew it) and feeling far from fine:

He strained his eyes towards Pompeii. Who was to say that the whole world was not in the process of being destroyed? That the very force that held the universe together – the logos, as the philosophers called it – was not disintegrating? He dropped to his knees and dug his hands into the sand and he knew at that moment, even as the grains squeezed through his fingers, that everything would be annihilated […]: everything would eventually be reduced to a shoal of rock and an endlessly pounding sea. None of them would leave so much as a footprint behind them; they would not even leave a memory.

But my favourite is your actual Pliny the Elder, natural philosopher, man of action, friend of emperors, who, even as naval commander as the volcanic endgame unfolds, is taking notes for another volume of his Naturalis historia:

He placed his fingertips together and frowned. It was a considerable technical challenge to describe a phenomenon for which the language had not yet been invented. After a while, the various metaphors – columns, tree trunks, fountains and the like – seemed to obscure rather than illuminate, failing to capture the sublime power of what he was witnessing. He should have brought a poet with him …

He comes to this cheery conclusion of his studies, waiting for his end on the beach where he has told the others to leave him:

Man mistook measurement for understanding. And they always had to put themselves at the centre of everything. That was their greatest conceit. The earth is becoming warmer – it must be our fault! The mountain is destroying us – we have not propitiated the gods! It rains too much, it rains too little – a comfort to think these things are somehow connected to our behaviour, that if only we lived a little better, a little more frugally, our virtue would be rewarded. But here was Nature, sweeping toward him – unknowable, all-conquering, indifferent – and he saw in Her fires the futility of human pretensions.

And fear not, Robert Harris finishes Pompeii with a forgivably corny piece of storytelling magic.

Stop Press

I finished reading The mysterious affair at Styles earlier today, and I have to say its conclusion – the who, how and why of the murder in the country house – is stupidly complex: one small aspect of the solution, for instance, involves one person signing another’s name in the studied handwriting of a third.  But I still enjoyed it, particularly when Poirot was just reasoning things out, rather than being Poirot with all his quirks.  As a period piece one was expecting this sort of thing:

        ‘It will be the talk of the village!  My mother was only buried on Saturday, and here you are gadding about with the fellow.’
‘Oh,’ she shrugged her shoulders, ‘if it is only village gossip that you mind!’
‘But it isn’t.  I’ve had enough of the fellow hanging about.  He’s a Polish Jew, anyway.’

But not the unexpected response:

        ‘A tinge of Jewish blood is not a bad thing.  It leavens the’ – she looked at him – ‘stolid stupidity of the ordinary Englishman.’

This is the same woman who sends the stolid Hastings, on being told “… I want to be free!” by her, off on one:

And, as she spoke, I had a sudden vision of broad spaces, virgin tracts of forests, untrodden lands – and a realization of what freedom would mean to such a nature as Mary Cavendish.  I seemed to see her for a moment as she was, a proud wild creature, as untamed by civilization as some shy bird of the hills.

Then in court, there’s the defence barrister Sir Ernest Heavyweather.  Seems the 30-year old Agatha Christie had something about her.


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