It’s a shame but I think I’ve reached the end of the line with Jim Stringer, ‘Steam Detective’. As was inevitable with his progress through the twentieth century, in the latest addition to Andrew Martin‘s highly original series, ‘The Somme stations‘ (Faber, 2011), Jim joins up to fight the Boche. Martin is still good as ever on the specifics and atmosphere but this murder plot is way too convoluted for me, and his people are beginning to get on my nerves, not least Jim – a bit of a prig if truth be told – with his insistence on referring to the lovely Lydia, an enterprising and politically progressive (albeit socially aspirational) woman, as “the wife.” Methinks tis rather straining the notion of period detail. As to the convolution, at a certain early stage in the events in France, after the first murder, he – the railway copper – omits to tell the investigator what he’s seen that night and for the life of me I just do not understand why; the canniness is beyond me. And when he says of one of his comrades:
“Scholes had missed his way, ought to have been a musician, and would have been if he’d been born into the right class.”
it is said with regret, without a hint of anger or acknowledgment of the politics involved, even though his wife is active in the Cooperative movement.
Indeed, I’m not sure the first person narrative helps anymore. Whereas with the extraordinary ‘The necropolis railway‘, the book that introduced JS, one shared the revelatory nature of his experience and the dawning of the new century in the metropolis, here it seems stilted. I stumbled almost at the first hurdle. There are wasted words aplenty. ‘The Somme stations‘ opens with a some intriguing letters from Lydia to the friend who is looking after her and Jim’s children, written from Ilkley Moor, where Jim is recovering from injuries sustained in France. The main narrative tells us how he got there. His tale begins:
“In the North Eastern Railway police office, which faced on to platforms four and thirteen at York station … “
Now, am I alone in feeling this sounds strange? A bit like the clocks striking thirteen in ‘Nineteen eighty four’ – though there was a point to that – or is it an early Hogwarts platform? Either tell us how this mathematical anomaly on York station has come about or don’t bother with the detail at all, surely?
What is nicely done is the handling of the First World War, an area it’s so easy to fall into cliche. Martin doesn’t go over the top here. He lets the practical facts of the men’s hardships, the futility and usefulness of their tasks speak for themselves; less is more. The soldiers are mending and digging yer actual trenches and later operating the trains delivering ammunition to and taking back the wounded from the front lines. These are the best parts of the book for me:
‘Brake please,’ I said, and Tinsley turned from the fire and unscrewed the hand brake. Instinctively, I put my hand up to the whistle, and froze in mid-motion, grinning at Tate.
‘It’s no easy matter to drive a steam locomotive discreetly, Stringer,’ he said, ‘but this we must try.
A nice light touch. Shame Tinsley is such an over-keen hero-worshipping teenage pain of a railway freak. Too many demurrals like that this time around for me, I’m afraid.
As it happens, the past couple of months I’ve been listening with increasing appreciation – it’s richer with each listen, becoming almost symphonic in feel – to P J Harvey‘s haunting and emotional meditation on the First World War and Englishness, ‘Let England shake‘. Here are stories, testimonies, individual voices allowed to tell a tale of how it felt. For those who’ve not heard it I hasten to assure there’s excitement in the music too, and a fascinating sometimes spare, sometimes even sumptuous use (more so with each listen, which may be an illusion), of other instruments complementing the basic trio. A real grower. And what a line is, “Oh, death’s anchorage.” Not to mention the nod to Eddie Cochrane.
Lastly, a tremendous night at this month’s Scribal Gathering, with a lot of the local heavyweights in attendance and in top form. Bravura performances from Ian Freemantle, Stony Stratford’s official Bard, and Mark Niel (a splendid rant about people getting his name wrong); the music had its moments too – the Suzettes’ swinging take on European pop was a particular delight. And regular visitors from Camden, The Antipoet, are a phenomenon to behold. An open mic event is always going to be a curate’s egg, of course, but this one upped the stakes considerably. Hardly a surprise then, that there were performers who couldn’t be fitted in and that next month the Gathering moves to a bigger venue. Star of the show, guest performance poet Jack Dean, out of Bath, went down a storm. Here’s his website; the top video there, ‘Allen Ginsberg’, will show you why, though it was even better on Tuesday night. He may be diminutive of frame but such energy and invention, such poetry in galvanic motion.