All Saints Church, Leighton Buzzard, is a 3-star church in Simon Jenkins’ England’s thousand best churches; “The buzzard is no bird but a Norman prebendary,” he tells us. Well worth a mosey around, the church’s graffiti is one of its particular attractions. Famously there’s Sim and Nel having a domestic (to bake or to boil the simnel cake?) but as well there is a bird carrying no linguistic resonance with medieval officialdom: the etch of a heron you see above. So when we meandered along the towpath of the Grand Union canal – built, of course, well after the graffiti was carved into the plaster – seeing a heron on the way to the Three Locks made for one of those historical frissons; the centuries melt away.
A few days later, again on the Grand Union, another kind of folk art enlivened a trek southward from Wolverton, near the remains of St Peter’s church. Save a fair few moorhens and their cute chicks not a great deal of bird life to be seen on that trip, but we have seen kingfishers lately on the Great Ouse near Wolverton Mill. And a breeding pair of Egyptian geese watching over seven Egyptian goslings. Been a long time – years – since we last saw a kingfisher; that Gerard Manley Hopkins line, “When kingfishers catch fire” – first encountered but remembered from decades before I actually saw one – ever catching the moment to perfection.
If it hadn’t been that it was this month’s book group selection I probably wouldn’t have carried on with William Boyd‘s Restless (2006), but I did and the more I read the more intriguing it became and in the end I was gripped. At first it was, Oh, here we go again, twin tracked here today (well, 1976) and there yesterday, revelations about what a relative did in the war. Been there before. And for a change, life in Oxford (and academe in Germany) in the ’70s with its post-’60s fallout, was more interesting than mum’s recruitment and spy school relayed in excruciating detail. But Boyd’s skillful narrative pulls some interesting surprises – a compromised British undercover propaganda spy operation in the US pre-Pearl Harbour, the spectre of the Baader-Meinhof Group and the Iranian revolution in Oxford – and things happen (and just as importantly, don’t happen) that take us to a beautifully worked climax at the heart of the British establishment and a (for me at least) surprising and satisfying denouement, making perfect sense. Don’t know how far this novel’s speculation is grounded in the facts, but the sense of the spy’s world and mindset lingers. As they had to be for the novel to work, the two women, resourceful mother Eva/Sal (whatever your name is) and daughter Ruth (efficiently unfocused) are nicely drawn. Good book.
And I’ve been working my way through the 1971 series of Public Eye – it started in 1965 and ran on and off for a decade – and it’s been a refreshing experience. Strikes me that British tv is in a bit of a creative doldrum of late, but this is fascinating. Alfred Burke nicely underplays Frank Marker, a smart but down at heel, taciturn and decent private investigator earning a crust from low-key jobs in the suburbs – fraud, credit checks, divorce, missing persons. Indeed, a lot of the time not a lot happens; no guns, no car chases, hardly anyone gets hurt – it would never get made these days, more’s the pity. There’s a lot of space – Pinteresque is the word that cannot be kept at bay – and it’s allowed to breathe. Traffic noise, no music save the odd bar of a spare jazz theme air (it’s hardly a tune) – as I say, they don’t make ’em like this anymore, but the tales invariably twist like a good Roald Dahl short story (without the nastiness for nastiness’ sake), Marker’s poker faced moral streak somehow finding its satisfying way for that day – the importance of little victories. It does have to be said that there is – Marker and his cop friend apart – a fair amount of dodgy acting on display, especially from the young things, that is symptomatic of that tv era. Heartening to see and hear the Thames logo and musical motif, the 1971 series is doubly interesting because it straddles the change from black and white to colour television, and here it was not, episode by episode, a strict chronological divide either.