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Posts Tagged ‘Martin Edwards’

Or… I probably shouldn’t do this in omnibus mode.  Anyway, this blog post is dedicated to Oliver Cromwell, though probably not entirely as you’d expect (except for Pete N. maybe).  But for now, later for Ollie.

Martin Edwards - Dungeon houseFirst, some crime fiction …

The dungeon house (Allison & Busby, 2015) is the seventh of Martin Edwards‘s never less than interesting Lake District Mysteries.  As well as the action moving west to Ravenglass and the coast, it breaks fresh ground in that retired telly and academic historian Daniel Kind, who kicked off the Mysteries sequence, stays pretty much in the background. His now temporary live-in girlfriend (that happened in the sixth book), maverickish DCI Hannah Scarlett, head of Cumbria’s cold case team, is very much to the fore, investigating the possibility of links between the disappearance – one 3 years ago, the other very recently – of two young women, and what appeared to be an open and shut multiple murder and suicide case twenty years back.  A case, indeed, in which Daniel’s late detective father, Ben Kind – Hannah had been his protegé – had been involved, and had his doubts.  So the soap opera aspects of the Mysteries – one of the real strengths of the series – take on a retrospective tinge too.

The dungeon house is populated with a rich and varied cast of characters, variously damaged by, or related to people involved in, the events of 20 years ago.  Naturally as events unfold there are plenty of twists and one major red herring, all climaxed with an unsettling and nicely executed suspenseful denouement.  Police budget cuts and administration-by-spreadsheet hover in the background – a standard feature of most British crime fiction these days – while Les Bryant, wily old detective brought back into the cold case team as a consultant, plays the part well.  There’s a swipe at the Police Federation, from the long serving local rep: “The stable needs a bloody good cleansing. You could say I’m Fed up.”

Is it just me or is a bit more humour creeping into The Lake district Mysteries?  Not laugh out loud, but with interviews conducted in “yet another Lakeland tearoom”, for instance.  This may have something to do with Hannah being more prominent in the action, more comfortable with her place in things, and re-finding her mojo:

Les Bryant poked his head around her door. ‘Going to this meeting about the new Communications Strategy?’
‘Nobody told me about it.’
He sniggered. ‘Nothing would surprise me in this place.’
‘I’m scheduled for a briefing on the Transparency Agenda, plus catch-ups with Finance and HR either side of lunch. Not to mention ten minutes ruled out for that photo shoot for the new identity cards to get us in and out of the building, and an hour’s online course about …’

So … what to do next?:

Good Hannah was duty bound to attend the various activities scheduled for her, even if the online course was one more wearisome example of ‘sheep-dip training’. Bad Hannah would suffer a severe memory lapse – why not blame deficiencies in the IT system? They were a reliable scapegoat. She could race off to Ravenglass before anyone trapped her in a corner, and started blathering away about key performance indicators.
Good Hannah never stood a chance. Her evil twin opened the door, and chased after Les.

She’s an interesting lass, capable of hyphenating ‘dream-come-true‘, developing nicely:

Hannah found herself itching to give him the benefit of the doubt. She couldn’t help feeling sorry for the man. This was a weakness in a detective, she knew …

I look forward to more opportunities for her to show her strengths and weaknesses, and hope poor old Daniel Kind can stay very much in the picture when Hannah moves into her bachelor pad in Kendal; he’s feeling a bit insecure.

BR StandardNow for Oliver Cromwell …

That’s him on the cover (of a recent charity shop purchase), that’s him in the sunlight, clean.  As a republican I love it that the last express Pacific steam locomotive retained in service by British Railways was Britannia class 70013, Oliver Cromwell.  Shame he ultimately made such a mess of the English Revolution and bequeathed us the problem of Ulster, but hey, even though he eventually neutered them, the Putney Debates of 1647 could be said to be the start of modern democratic politics in action, and for twenty years the English were citizens, not subjects.  I’d like to favour the idea of some kind of conspiracy theory among subversive railway workers that made sure it was Oliver who lasted longest …

The naming of express steam locomotives in the middle of the first half of the twentieth century was a very establishment affair, ideological in its celebration of traditional hierarchies.  Worst offenders were the Great Western (GWR) and the London Midland & Scottish (LMS) Railways.  The GWR’s crack express locomotives, the Kings, celebrated the monarchy, and stuck to its semantic guns by – although steam locos are still often referred to as ‘she’ – ignoring (because unladylike?) any Queens that happened to get in the way.  Working back from George V, the sequence went from the teenage Edward VII to William IV, missing Vicky, and further down the line from Edward VI to James I, missing Liz I.  They even subbed poor old King Stephen (who was as far back as it went), bringing on Edward VIII to keep up with the times, and didn’t reverse it even though he was never crowned.  Other classes on God’s Wonderful Railway celebrated the homes of the aristocracy with the Castle and Hall classes, and lesser country houses down to the Manors.

With the Kings taken, for their express Coronation Class locos the LMS had to resort to Princesses and Duchesses and a couple of Queens (but only the wives of kings), though to be fair the rest of the class was named after cities.  Their Jubilee class saluted among other things, the far-flung reaches of the British Empire (eg Bechuanaland).  Somehow, with the odd exception, Dukes seem to have missed out.  The LMS were also big on the military.  The Southern Railway’s Schools Class was limited to – naturally – what we in the UK euphemistically call Public Schools (ie. fee-paying and private).  Interstingly, the less patrician LNER mainly used birds of a certain stature (like Mallard, the world speed steam loco speed record holder), successful racehorses and football teams.

So it was left to the post-war British Railways Standard Classes, specifically the Britannia express locos, to fly the flag for a wider cultural heritage (writers like Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Chaucer, Dickens & Co) and, as we have seen, ‘God’s Englishman’, Oliver Cromwell.  Was it a coincidence that this principle was established under the same socialist Attlee government that set up the National Health Service?  The Standard Classes, intended by the newly nationalised British Railways to fill the motive power gap left over from the Second World War, were probably a mistake – they should have gone straight for diesel or electrics, like the rest of the developed world – but at least many of the Britannias reflected a pride more fitting to a democratic nation than kowtowing to the aristocracy.  Rant over.

Midford - Derek Cross

With the high-sided tender – Derek Cross at Midford.

BR Standard Steam Locomotives (Ian Allen, 1983), Brian Stephenson‘s anthology selected from the annals of Locomotives Illustrated magazine, is a decent enough collection of photos of all said classes of locomotives in a wide variety of working situations.  Over the years I have come to appreciate this group of locos – that as a trainspotter I always saw as a clumsy appendage to the individualities of the glory days of the old regional companies – as a worthy practical and handsome summation of British locomotive design and manufacture.  The book kept me (to quote myself: “I’ll admit I trainspotted / In the boys time allotted” though I’ve never owned an anorak) interested enough on that level – it never leaves you – and it was thankfully devoid of the more arcane grin or cringe inducing notes that can often accompany the photos in such publications.  Indeed, I am thankful for its demonstrating to me the aesthetic advantages of the larger capacity, higher-sided BR1D tenders, as opposed to the angular cut away BR1As.  You can see the difference in the two photos I have filched (scanned, treated a bit in PSP) and included here.

Nr Penmaemawr - Kenneth Field

Near Penmaenmawr – Kenneth Field

No, my problem with British railway photography in general is that it’s big on railways but not great at Photography with a capital P – the American O.Winston Link (just put him into Google images) is the benchmark here.  Some of this is down to the equipment that was available to enthusiasts in the most atmospheric of railway eras – colour only readily available only right at the end of steam – and some down to vision.  Not fair to bring this up, really, in this instance, because the standard 45° shots of engines – albeit taken from a variety of heights – that constitute the majority of photos here are what this volume is all about.  But the inclusion of Kenneth Field’s lovely composition (only a half plate in the book unfortunately, because its sharpness doesn’t bear enlarging) gives us a bigger picture of the railway in a social as well the conventional landscape, life’s rich tapestry.

John Hegley - Family packJohn Hegley had a platform ticket

Poet and comedian John Hegley was a trainspotter too:

is the happy shunter hunter
any more insane
than the lot who’ve not got jotters
who spot the spotty spotters
with disdain?
we’re looking forward to our crusty rolls
we’ve got platform tickets
and platform souls

Another charity bookshop purchase, His combined volume of early work, The family pack (Methuen, 1996), has been my bath-time reading of late.  [Bath-time reading rules: has to be an old desiccated paperback (new books steam makes the pages swell); never a library book].  Of course I’d been aware of him – tv and radio spots, the odd poem in the press and anthologies – and always thought I’d check him out further one of these days.  And he’s not the only person I’m aware of with a passion for Luton and its football team.  Reading him in bulk, on the page, imagining the distinctive voice, the quality is more variable than I expected, but when he’s good he’s great.  Have to say I liked The brother-in-law and other animals, his first, originally self-published collection of 1986, best – just the titles, never mind the actual poems: His heart’s in the wrong place, it should be in the glove department just defeating ditto in the dustbin; a different kind of muse.  Can I come down now Dad? (1991) wrings humour from an unhappy childhood among many other things, but I was flagging by These were your father’s (1994).  Never mind second album syndrome, the third book includes a plodding and inconsequential 32 page playlet called A tale of two tenting that for me makes Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May (you remember – folk singer Candice-Marie) sound like Shakespeare.  It won’t stop me picking up and opening any of John’s later books if they happen to fall into my path, though.

Has anyone ever encapsulated upward social mobility better in two lines than Hegley in his Luton?:

I remember Luton
as I’m swallowing my crout’n

Of dulcimers, the Italian campaign and other musical adventures

Roddy at the Crown Stony Stratford’s magical musical square mile.

The Roddy Clenaghan Band ended their immaculately chosen and beautifully performed and sung set of songs – from Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle among others – with a driving version of Things have changed, the song Bob Dylan has been opening with at the Albert Hall on the current installment of his never-ending tour.  Andy Knight gave the accordion his grandfather bought in Italy, coming back from the war, an outing on one number, while Andy Fenton’s pedal steel was a delight.

Vaultage late Oct 15

Yes, it’s the wrong poster but Jimtom Say – he in the poster – is who I’m talking about, and Pat posters retrospectively.

Scribal Oct 2015Don’t think anyone had tried the active loop tape technique there before that Jimtom Say put it to good use at mid-month Vaultage.  Guitar still in hand he recited poetry over the resulting backing, while his songs, robustly individual, were equally absorbing.  Something different.  Meanwhile, earlier in the week Scribal Gathering had seen a plethora of poets outnumbering the music either side of the as ever entertaining Rrants takeover.

Beechey Room Sessions 4

Archivist note: unfortunately Paul Bell was unable to attend.

BeecheyRS Pat

Photo (c) Pat Nicholson

End of a busy week and so to the relaxed delights of another fine Beechey Room Session at York House on a Saturday afternoon.  Not that energy was not embraced in the performance.  Paul Martin (that’s him with his mandocello in the photo) also brought along a dulcimer, the first, I suspect that I’ve ever heard in the flesh – a captivating sound, made me think I’ll dig out that Richard & Mimi Farina album again.  Original canal songs from Phil Underwood and I can’t for the life of me remember what Michelle did (but it was all very fine).

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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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Harpole ReportThe Harpole Report

Delighted to find this at the back of a shelf when looking for something else, whatever that was instantly forgotten.  Long ago had convinced myself I’d loaned it out and (understandably) never got it back.  J.L.Carr‘s The Harpole report (1972) is one of those books, one of those timeless you-must-read (especially if you’re a teacher) comic novels of English life that stay laugh-aloud funny no matter how much actual circumstances have changed.  Set in a primary school in a small town, circa 1970, it is presented in the form of a report, from the introduction of which I now quote:

And remember this.  A school is a most complex institution.  Children and teachers, administrators and their minor officials, caretakers, cooks, medical officers, government inspectors, governors.  And parents.  All these grinding away, in and out of mesh.  Is there any wonder then that sometimes – as in the case of Harpole – there is a terrifying jarring of gears, or, worse still, that unforgettable coffin-thump of a big-end gone.

I realise that there is at least one generation of drivers out there for whom that last experience is  something of a mystery, but you still laugh, right?

Harpole takes on a temporary headship and inherits a mixed bag of staff, all with agendas of their own.  What happens to him is recorded in a wonderful chronological collage – delivered with a delightful lightness of touch – of excerpts from the school’s Official Log-book, Harpole’s private journal, a selection of all manner of internal and external communications and memos illuminating his battle with local bureaucrats and politicians alike, supplemented by examples of the children’s work, along with further excerpts from letters from Harpole to his fiancée, and those of Emma Foxberrow – a determined and idealistic progressive young teacher – to her sisterEvents unfold entertainingly.

As a footnote, some nice intertextualities.  The Harpole Report is set in Melchestershire (who did Roy of the Rovers play for?) and the problem kids from the lower-class family are called the Widmerpools (you know, that bastard who climbs the greasy pole in Anthony Powell’s A dance to the music of time).  There are probably more.

Yesterday's papersYesterday’s Papers

No disrespect at all to Martin Edwards, but I can’t help feeling that Mastermind has rather lost its way these days when something like Martin’s Harry Devlin novels are one of the specialist subjects allowed to be offered up by one of the contestants this week.  Especially when the first question has to spend time briefly explaining to viewers who Harry Devlin is.  (“I even forget whodunnit in some of those books!” the man himself said on his FaceBook page.)

Yesterday’s papers (1994) is the fourth in this particular sequence of novels, all sporting titles borrowed from the annals of rock music.  He’s a Liverpool solicitor who gets easily bored with the day job and who is fully equipped with that attractive crime fiction pre-requisite, of resenting “the failure of the world to match his more romantic notions of what was right and what was wrong.”

This time it’s a miscarriage of justice  – the murder of a young girl, daughter of a rising left-wing academic – dating back 30 years to the heady days of the ’60s Liverpool beat group boom and Harold Wilson’s ‘White heat of technology’.   There’s an interesting set of characters dead and alive (some both in the course of the book).  Faded glories, wasted lives, grudges held and secrets maintained, the broad consequences of a crime; with twists and violent turns, the truth finally teased out:

He had so desperately wanted to know who had strangled her, and why, and now that he had his answers, his principal emotion was sadness rather than satisfaction.  With murder, he reminded himself, there were no slick solutions, just the desolate reality of human behaviour as weak as it was wicked.

Nicely put.  There are plenty of neat touches too.  Harry’s receptionist doing her best to keep his eyes on the jobs that bring the money in  (“… she was a mistress of all the receptionist’s black arts and knew instinctively when he was within reach“), a scene at a record fair (“… and two men in their forties were recalling the merits of Northern Soul with the nostalgic exaggeration of old buffers harping on about the Dunkirk Spirit“), nods to the Golden Age of crime writing (“a time of innocence and charm“), on which subject Martin Edwards is an acknowledged expert.  I’ve read and would recommend all his Lake District Mysteries; another Liverpool novel, Waterloo sunset, is featured here at Lillabullero in The Kinks in literature section, and I am inclined now to catch up with the rest of Harry too.

Further musical adventures

VRW25BRS10456101_791331764280933_5682092596533613996_nScribal Mar 15
Plenty going on.  At the Scribal Sunday session there had been a cello and guitar duo singing the blues quite effectively (lovely instrument, the cello) and lo and behold, there was another one at the Vaultage Re-wired the following Thursday.  Or it might have been the same duo (never caught the names) with added blues harp thing around the guitarists’ neck.  Again worked well.  This Vaultage was a belter – great job, Bard Pat and Lois – relaxed and full of good music, the evening finishing magnificently by The Scrumpy Bastards, a highly accomplished fiddle and guitar duo, who had fun, as did we, and were a joy to watch.

We have lift off! LtoR: Neil Mercer, Michele Welborn, Clive Barrett and, blending in with his surroundings, Andy Powell. Phot c/o whoever took it, treated by me in PSP.

The Beechey Room sessions: We have lift off! LtoR: Neil Mercer, Michele Welborn, Clive Barrett and, blending in with his surroundings, Andy Powell. Photo c/o whoever took it, treated by me in PSP.

 Come Saturday afternoon and – hey – forget the goals going in on the Red Button: music is being made in the cosy new Beechey Room in York House.   Solo and ensemble.  Long may they continue in this vein.

Tuesday and the March Scribal Gathering at The Crown, singer-songwriter Rob Bray a last-minute replacement as featured performer.  Sparkling guitar, great wit.  Demystified open tuning: a decent noise possible “If you can open a crisp packet …”  Finished movingly with a serious song.  Stephen Hobbs played a blinder with his account (financial and narrative) of his lousy week: car serviced at great expense, shit gig at The Stables with an audience of 8 (and one of those 8 cried out for ‘More!’), buying Dylan’s Shadows in the night album; cut to the first time he heard Nick Drake and was not impressed and how 20 years later he saw the light; how he expects similar to happen to him with the Dylan 20 years hence, on his hospice deathbed.  Earlier Monty Lynch got an unexpected cheer introducing his song about the gods of the Zambesi River – Zimbabweans in the house!

StonyFolks2: photo (c) Nick Gordon - not just a bluesman with bottleneck and a Robert Johnson t-shirt.

StonyFolks2: photo (c) Nick Gordon – not just a bluesman with a bottleneck and a Robert Johnson t-shirt.

Another Saturday night and back to York House for StonyFolks:2 and another grand evening’s music-making.  I was going to say ‘All the usual suspects’, but thought the better of it (not all of ’em, anyway).  Broadest of definitions of folk (Louis Armstrong: “I aint never heard a horse sing a song.”) and none the worse for that.  Taken aback, on the 50th birthday of its release (give or take a day), by a confident and committed cover of Donovan’s Catch the wind from a young girl whose name I didn’t catch.  Those ’60s obviously just a passing fad, as the old folks used to say.  Think I’ll be OK joining in with Cotton Mill Girls in the future.

And so to the Aortas session in the George on Sunday.  Dan had his new toy, a – if I understand this right – touch screen wireless tablet digital mixer that meant he could play with the sound by touching the pretty graphs, and also do it standing at the back of the room.  It all sounded fine, better than ever.  There was cake (happy birthday Naomi, who ended with a new miserable song) and for the third time of gigging in the space of this single blog, Mark Owen‘s relentless (in the best possible sense of the word) Getting away with something, his toe-tapping take on the phone-tapping scandal.  It can stand it.

And then there was the murmuration …

… just a couple of miles down the road.  How lucky are we?  Not the greatest of photos, I’m afraid, but tis mine own.
Murmuration

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GoldfinchI started Donna Tartt‘s The goldfinch (2013) towards the end of June, on holiday.  There was a hardback there where we were staying and it was urged on me.  I got over half way but it was too big – 784 pages – for the suitcase so I didn’t bring it back with me.  I bought the paperback – now ‘grown’ to 864 pages – but it just lay there on the Welsh dresser gathering dust while I caught up with other stuff (a book from a library waiting list, book group, real life).  But when I picked it up again a couple of weeks ago it was like I’d never been away.  Donna Tartt is one vivid writer.  People, places and emotional spaces.  I sped through.  Fantastic book, glorious ending.  Do not hesitate.

Terrorist bombing in a New York art gallery.  13-year-old Theo Decker’s bohemian single mum is killed, he gets out with a unique painting – the Dutch Master goldfinch of the title.  He spends time with rich school buddy’s folks and meets an antique shop restorer and owner.  I’ve already left one crucial romantic thread out.  Legal stuff because of his age means he ends up with estranged father and moll on the desert fringes of a failed real estate venture on the outskirts of Vegas.  Meets up with Russian kid Boris for a couple of years of slacker delinquency.  Epic solo Greyhound bus ride back to NY with hidden dog.  Makes a go of it with the antique dealer and meets up with the tragic rich kids’ family again.  Dodgy antiques dealings, meets up with Boris again, now an international criminal.  Mechanics of the stolen art market, In Bruges sort of happenings in Amsterdam.  Back to NY eventually, surprise denouement, and aforementioned glorious soaring ending.  By that time I think he’s reached his late 20s.  Phew.  And a whole lot more.

Dickensian for sure, but without the complex sentence structure, and cut with, I think it’s fair to say, a dash of modern world Ripley mode Patricia Highsmith.  Great dialogue and, as I’ve said, incredibly vivid prose.  The description of what happens in the explosion in the art gallery is just stunning.  Here’s how vivid: there’s a passage where Theo tries to end it all (no great spoiler here, given he’s the narrator and there’s a way to go yet) with a combination of booze and drugs; while reading this I dozed off and spilt a cup of coffee in my lap.  OK, I’d woken up way too early that day.  But, trust me: she takes you there.  Dramatic and contemplative, always a page turner, but still concerned with – well, basically – the human condition, the ambiguities of morality.  Discussing events: “I think this goes more to the idea of ‘relentless irony’ than ‘divine providence’.”  Relentless irony!

FreewheelinAs regular readers here at Lillabullero will know, I’m likely to pepper you with quotes, tasters.  I usually take the odd note as I read a book, but I soon realised with one like this life was too short.  But as it happened I’d spent some time with a friend who had a black and white art print of an outtake from the photo sessions for the Freewheelin‘ cover about to go up on his wall and the fine passage that follows was on pretty much the first page I read in The goldfinch when I got back.  Jungians like to call this sort of thing synchronicity though I’ll stick with happy coincidence.  This is how Theo Decker was feeling one day as he walked the narrow streets of Greenwich Village:

… more than perfect [ …] the kind of winter where you want to be walking down a city street with your arm around a girl like on the old record cover – because Pippa was exactly that girl, not the prettiest but the no-makeup and kind of ordinary looking girl he’d chosen to be happy with, and in fact that picture was an ideal of happiness in its way, the hike of his shoulders and the slightly embarrassed quality of her smile, that open-ended look like they might just wander off anywhere they wanted together…

Frozen shroudThe frozen shroud

Closer to home, I’ve been reading another of Martin Edwards‘ always welcome Lake District Mysteries featuring retired tv historian Daniel Kind and DCI Hannah Scarlett, who started her police career with his father as her boss, in charge of the Cold Case Team.  A satisfying mix of the modern cozy and police procedural set in one of my favourite places, The frozen shroud (Allison & Busby, 2013), the 6th in the series, didn’t disappoint.  Two murders in the same place nearly a century apart, then another one and several plot twists, including a diversion I fell for, carry us along nicely, while the soap opera elements that are inevitable in a long running series continue to entertain.  I think Edwards does this better than any of the crime novelists I regularly read, including bigger names, but please Martin – don’t let them get together long-term.  Beware resolving the sexual tension; it has destroyed, for example, obscure tv humourous crime show (Freeview channel 61)  Castle, I’d say.

As usual
, Edwards provides some neat touches, using ex-Lakes dweller Thomas de Quincey’s On murder considered as one of the fine arts as a prop, having Hannah’s mate Terri call her cat Morrissey, Hannah’s boss issuing “a suitably bland, reassuring and mendacious news release” to counter a rumour.  I’ll give a hurrah, too, for Daniel’s visit to Keswick Museum & Art Gallery, too, with its musical stones; I hadn’t realised it had been closed for improvements and am delighted to learn it hasn’t lost its quirky old chamber of curiosities ambience.  I suppose it is inevitable, more’s the pity, that police reorganisation is now pretty much a staple of British crime fiction.  Nevertheless, I look forward to the next one with relish.

The Goldfinch: a slight return

Fabritius - Goldfinch

‘The goldfinch’ by Carel Fabritius.

This is not the first time goldfinches have featured here on Lillabullero.  We’ve had plenty in our garden over the years – a ‘charm’ of goldfinches is the collective noun, and rightly so – and it’s good to know they are on the increase in the UK, one of the great recoveries.  To think they used to be caught and caged.  I was half expecting Donna Tartt to make a reference at some stage to Thomas Hardy‘s poem, A caged goldfinch, given her erudition, but no.  Not that that’s a problem.  Anyway, it’s a poem with an afterlife, a tale with a bite in its tail, that takes me back to a lecture theatre and the eccentric Englit scholar Roma Gill, when I was 18.

It refers back to a scene in one of his most miserable novels. The Mayor of Casterbridge I think.  Here’s the poem as it first when first published.  Just put ‘Hardy goldfinch’ into a search engine and more often than not it only has two verses:

Within a churchyard, on a recent grave, 
I saw a little cage 
That jailed a goldfinch. All was silence, save 
Its hops from stage to stage. 

There was inquiry in its wistful eye. 
And once it tried to sing; 
Of him or her who placed it there, and why. 
No one knew anything. 

True, a woman was found drowned the day ensuing. 
And some at times averred 
The grave to be her false one's, who when wooing 
Gave her the bird.
Later editions of his poetry – issued while he was still alive, by his own hand, after someone had explained negative music hall audience feedback to him – appeared without that final verse.

StablestockStablestock

For the second time this year a gig in the stables yard at The Bull in Stony survived virtually unscathed in the face of the previous day’s doom laden weather forecasts.  I have to admit partaking of 5 of the 6 beers available for the occasion meant I missed the last two bands; no stamina these days.  Particularly liked the 3 Tuns’ 1642 and Liverpool Craft’s American Red, which exploded with flavours; chickened out of Crazy Days.  Music was all good and strong too.  Palmerston‘s original country rock material impressed again,while Glass Tears‘ take on Phil Collins’ In the air tonight (no, really) never ceases to move me, and there was a lot of fun and fine voice to be had from the Vaults mob one way or another, earlier.

Palmerston strung out

Palmerston strung out

The mighty Antipoet strung things together with their usual charm and wit, and peppered the day with a few of their own classic compositions (there’s plenty of examples in YouTube); with them there’s no danger of familiarity staling the palate. (And here’s a local nod to organiser Terri; Oakham’s Scarlet Macaw may have been on tap, but Red Phoenix was on the ball ‘backstage’).

Appropos of nothing

And just for the sake of it, here’s a supermoon pic.  Not great, I know, but I was pleased to catch some of the brown in the clouds:
Supermoon

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Resisting the urge to shout, “Shoulda gone to Specsavers” – always a problem with Shakespeare’s mistaken identity plays – simply had a great time with the Illyria Theatre Company‘s Twelfth Night in Campbell Park last Friday.  A splendid cast of just five kept the ball in the air through – if not a starry one, at least – a dry night, with the moon edging over cloud enough to remind us it was there.  Fun, fun, fun.  I love it: travelling players, theatrical business all over the place – slapstick, a nod and a wink, the full repertoire – the words both a vehicle and, of course, a huge poetic bonus, the audience invited to share the fun.  Out in the open, transported back to the Bard’s day – they must have felt like this, then, too.  I’d forgotten that the oft quoted greatness lines (“Some are born great, some achieve greatness” etc) originated here as a piss-take on Malvolio and his yellow stockings.  Sir Toby played by a woman with comedy moustache a hoot.  The Illyria trick of giving the characters different regional accents worked brilliantly – Malvolio again, obsequious Scottish of course, Feste the Jester, Yorkshire – and the spare music was a joy, comic and affecting in turn – ‘If music be the food of love‘ yer basic Blue Moon chords on guitar.  The way they handled the ending, the forlorn and still single Sir Andrew seated sadly moping, was beautifully done.

A different kind of performance at the August Scribal Gathering, where the curly wired-haired force of nature that is Alex Iamb, gave an energetic, committed and spellbinding performance that will not be easily forgotten.  Made us laugh too.  His long poem using chess as a metaphor for a failed relationship – Fool’s mate – was a master class in pace and timing, the pauses the hitting of the chess clock.  Was a good night overall, with Badger ending proceedings with his best yet, an accomplished Delia’s gone.

Martin Edwards‘ last Lake District Mystery, The Serpent Pool, made me think Thomas de Quincey’s On murder considered as one of the fine arts was worth a read.  I still haven’t managed that and in the latest addition to the series, The Hanging Wood (Allison & Busby, 2011), Daniel Kind, the escaped celebrity tv historian, still hasn’t finished his book about it either.  Readable as ever, the three deaths here are suitably agricultural, not to mention particularly horrific this time  – suffocation in a grain silo, skull bashed in and thrown in a slurry tank, in the teeth of a DIY saw mill.  The workings of the plots past and present are neatly delivered, helped in passing by a sprinkling of cultural clues and/or red herrings – a Millais painting, a character called Aslan – while the Lake District is a splendid backdrop, still understated (he doesn’t gush) are a bit more to the fore than previously (or is it just that we’ve done that walk past Friar’s Crag around Derwent Water?).  The ballad of Daniel and Hannah Scarlett, head of the cold case team in the local constabulary – now, I would say, established as one of the finer double acts in British crime fiction – entices (some lovely nuances of touch) and is left dangling … yet again.  You bastard, Edwards!  How can you finish it with her going of for a drink with him? Write the next one soon, please.

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Quite a week last week.  Monday at the theatre for ‘Bedroom farce‘.  It was OK; if it had been on the telly I probably would have channel hopped.  It may have been a Peter Hall production but it still seemed a bit mannered and dated.  I’ve liked what Alan Ayckbourn I’ve seen over the years but for me this mid-’70s play hasn’t travelled  that well.  The business with the flat pack furniture and Nick with the bad back were timeless enough farce though, made me laugh out loud.

And then I had my last day at work. I’d never really pondered the ambiguities of the words – retire/retired/retirement – never mind the cryptic crossword soundalike clue involving tyres.  A nice send-off I had, and I read from the final paragraphs of writer Christopher Fowler’s autobiographical ‘Paperboy’ where he goes back to the library that first fired his imagination, which is what it had all been about for me – people’s university and all that.  I worry that the public library movement is in trouble with this government.

A generous send-off too, thanks.  I’ve got a ukulele now is the main thing – fun already even with only three chords – and a bicycle helmet to get me out there pedal pushing again.  And some indulgences – Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry as exciting now as ever (if not, somehow, more), a couple of books.  I’ve started the Royal Canadian Air Force exercises again (book purchased early ’70s, in pieces); next, yoga and tai chi – no excuses now.

First book to be read fully in retirement was an excellent one, the fourth of Martin Edwards‘ Lake District sequence of crime novels, ‘The serpent pool‘ (Alison & Busby, 2010), which fell into my hands on the last day at work.  It will be an interesting experience, being a civilian public library user.  Anyway, the tension of the engaging sub-plot of the will-they-won’t-they relationship of ex-TV celeb historian Daniel and DCI Hannah is ratched up further here when her bookseller partner becomes a potential victim in a bizarre sequence of murders referencing nineteenth century Lake District literary celeb Thomas de Quincey’s essay, ‘On murder considered as one of the fine arts’.  The whole thing – convoluted, but what the hell? – builds nicely to an exciting climax (although I have my doubts about a knife involved in the denouement, never mind).   The unsentimental depiction of the Lake District setting is an intrinsic part of this intriguing series, like this “quartet of Herdwick sheep, surveying the activity of the emergency services with bemused fatalism.”  I look forward to another one.

And speaking of sheep, the other day son Peter described Hank Williams as singing “like a sheep”.  I’m not sure there’s any coming back from that for a while for Hank in this house.

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