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Posts Tagged ‘Ruth Downie’

Vita Brevis

vita-brevisI really enjoy Ruth Downie‘s Roman mysteries.  Right from the dramatis personae that introduce them. Vita brevis (Bloomsbury, 2016), for instance, kicks off by saying it’s a novel “in which our hero Gaius Petreius Ruso will be” variously “Accompanied by … / Commanded by … / Entertained by … / Disapproved of by … ” & so on,  with some characters appearing in more than one category.  At the end Ruth appends, “He will fail to meet the following characters whom his author devised but barely used.”

These books are fun.  Which is not in any way to denigrate the intelligence, wit, historical research, social observation and humanity – never mind the tremendous action, atmosphere and narrative drive – that they contain.  Parallels with contemporary life here and now are never far away.  Bad things happen to good people, and vice versa, set against a morality that can draw on many shades of grey in between.

I’ve said it before, but Ruso and his wife, Tilla, are one of the great double acts of crime or indeed any contemporary fiction.  Ruso is a military medic from Gaul who served with the Roman army in Britannia, where he met ex-slave Tilla, a native Brigantian.  A mixed marriage, then, a fruitful ground for an author to even-handedly play around with.  He the sceptic (“Perhaps he was just naturally miserable. Or perhaps the gods in whom he didn’t quite believe were getting their revenge on him“), she open to anything (“If you believe in ghosts and Christos and the normal gods and all your gods from Britannia” he chides).

In Vita brevis, at the behest of his old boss, the pair are taking their chance in Rome.  It does not go well from the start, the streets are not so much paved with gold as with a dead body in a barrel left outside their new abode, before they’ve even moved in, and subsequent events only make things worse.  They get involved with, among others, a dubious and powerful slum landlord, the local law enforcement, and, for good measure, are caught up in a dangerous romantic sub-plot for good measure.  No surprise, things work out in the end, the bad guys do not prosper … and this reader is delighted to discover they are heading back to Britannia again, hopefully for the next book.

Where I think Ruth Downie is particularly acute (cute even) is in drawing out the universality of social life over the centuries. In Rome Ruso and Tilla are seen as provincials, and Tilla, particularly annoyed at being assumed to be from Germania, struggles with the modernity of city life:

How will we ever be safe in this city? There is nobody in charge.”
There’s a chap called the urban prefect, and there are departments for -”
But it is not how a tribe should be,” she insisted. “I thought before we came … But there is no tribe called the Romans.”
There are several different -”
It is just lots of strangers all living in one place and fighting to get by.”
We’ll get used to it,” he promised, realising this was not the time for a lecture on the benefits of civilisation, literacy and the rule of law.”

The matter of the rise of the rebel Christian religion is neatly handled from many angles:

Tilla closed her eyes and leaned back against the wall. Whatever her husband might think of the followers of Christos, and no matter how much she herself might want to gag Sister Dorcas, the man with the child’s voice had been right about one thing. It was good to have friendly neighbours.

(Already) Sister Dorcas being a joyless dragon, blaming all bad luck on sin.  But with regard to a woman giving up her unwanted baby:

“I just don’t want him to go to no followers of Christos.”
Why is that?”
They meet in secret and kill babies and eat them, Ma says.”
Your ma has been misinformed,” said Tilla, because that sounded better than Your ma is an ignorant gossip.

(Our author also has a neat line in using italics in just such unspoken circumstances.)

Ruth Downie‘s prose is nicely paced, both relaxed and yet involving, and it doesn’t suffer any when it is cranked up for some action.  She handles the motif of Ruso and Tilla’s cultural differences deftly.  Tilla trying to be “a good Roman wife” but giving up, because “It was very confusing having to say one thing and mean another all the time“; as opposed to back in Britannia, where, Ruso says, “women tended to think they could get involved in whatever they liked, and where men saw the look in their eyes and tended to let them.”  But one sympathises with his reaction whenever she launches “ into one of her interminable songs about her ancestors” – a nice running joke.  There is also a lovely bit of framing of the whole narrative, too, involving a young character with no name, both unhappily literally delivering the source of our heroes’ initial problem on their arrival, and, who, having found a job that gives him some satisfaction, is there working on the boat that sets them on their journey away.

I have a suspicion that Ruth is a P.G.Wodehouse fan.  You want more evidence?

Ruso shrugged. “You know how it is.” It was a statement that he had found to be both meaningless and useful.  People rarely admitted that they didn’t know how it was.

And “Jupiter’s bollocks!” seems an entirely reasonable curse to me.

 

 

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Tabula rasaThe further I read in Tabula Rosa: a crime novel of the Roman Empire (Bloomsbury, 2014) the more ‘Forget it Jacobus, it’s Chinatown’ it got.  “I don’t know who to trust,” says Ruso.  He’s on a gruelling, desperate solo mission – the consequences for all will be bad enough if he succeeds, never mind failure.  ““No? The medic grinned. “Welcome to the border, soldier.”

Tabula Rasa is the sixth in Ruth Downie‘s sequence of historical crime novels.  If the swagger and joie de vivre that were such a feature of earlier volumes is less in evidence it’s no wonder.  The dedication spells it out: “To those who wait, not knowing whether news will ever come. With respect.”  Ruso and Tilla – Roman husband, British wife – for me the best crime fiction double act going, don’t spend too much time on the same pages in this one.

So, Hadrian’s Wall in construction.  The Roman military occupation.  If they’ve given up on the tribes to the north and the territory as not being worth the bother, they’re still a threat, and the Brigantians to the south are conflicted among themselves as to the desirability and the ways and means of resistance, fraternization and co-existence.  Into this culture clash throw an abducted child (British) and a missing (with rumours of a body being buried in the wall) young man (Roman).  Both Tilla and Ruso have a personal interest in the disappearances.  It’s an uncomfortable enough time when nothing much is happening, but the ramped-up mutual suspicions, accusations and bitterness threaten danger in every direction.

One of Ruth’s many skills as a writer is an ability to invest her chosen time and territory with our contemporary situation – and vice versa – without it seeming in any way an exercise in box-ticking.  This is what it must have felt like, what it feels like.  So you’ve got the problems of policing minority communities and the ‘war against terror’ at the forefront here, only turned on their head – the triumphant Romans are the immigrants.  And there’s a whiff of Palestine and Guantanamo, and other conflicts closer to home.  The possibility of agents provocateurs being at work, secret service shenanigans, espionage, torture, and the use of informants are all touched on the narrative.  Paranoia strikes deep.  Plus, of course, you’ve got the more mundane (but entertaining, if sometimes perilous) matter of Ruso and Tilla as partners in a mixed marriage, both in the home and out in the wider world.  And just as a nod and wink bonus, Ruso the doctor reflecting current A&E and more general perceived NHS woes.

It’s a tense and exciting novel with many shifts of narrative and focus.  We suffer a bit, physically and with anguish, and the outcome is never certain.  Until it happens, of course.  Add to this the background historical knowledge – both Roman and native – that infuses it all (I’m not going to say ‘on display’ because there’s no showboating) and Tabula Rasa is a great read.  Ruth writes with intelligence, charm, wit and moral seriousness.  And she treats us to an intriguing development near the end.  Was it signaled beforehand?  I didn’t spot it.  No matter, it’s surprisingly satisfying.  No spoilers here, but something hugely significant happens to Tilla as things are resolved.  Well, two things actually.  I’m rather hoping this means the series will continue with the action remaining in Britain for a few books now.  I look forward to them, wherever.

Before moving on, here’s a taste or two that might make you investigate the books further.  First, the lighter (and not so light) side of living under occupation:

We here,” the officer announced in very bad British, “to look for man. Soldier man. Him lost. You tell.”
The family showed not a trace of understanding or amusement. She knew most of them would have understood him if he had spoken in his own tongue, but it was a small form of revenge to make him struggle like that: perhaps the only one they could exact without getting themselves into trouble.
We do not speak Latin in this house. Perhaps they would share the joke later. Him one ugly man. Him think we as stupid as he is.

There are many fine strands to Ruso and Tilla’s relationship.  Their badinage can be delightful and it works subtly, far more effectively than if the redoubtable Tilla had been made into some sort of feminist icon:

I am not the daughter of Lugh anymore,” she whispered into the empty room. “I am Tilla, Roman citizen, wife of Gaius Petreius Ruso, a man from overseas who is very annoying.”

And finally, a bit more culture clash, and amen to that conclusion:

        “Senecio,sir. He’s a farmer. And a poet. My wife knows him. You may have heard about him singing to the trees.”
“Ah. The crazy one.”
“Not crazy, sir.” At least, not before one of his three sons was killed and another stolen. Now, who knew? “He’s just very traditional.”
Ruso was acutely aware of the average officer’s failure to grasp how the locals saw things, which meant they often ended up negotiating with the wrong people. They would not bother with poets. […] “They hold the knowledge of their tribe in their memories,” he explained. “And they put together the latest events in verse. They’re like sort of … announcers and libraries in one. They believe spoken words have great power.”

Peculiar lifeDenis Theriault‘s The peculiar life of a lonely postman (Hesperus Press, 2014) is a slight (108 pages without the paraphernalia at the back) entertainment, the charm and cleverness of which either gets you or not.  It had its moments, I suppose.  There’s a twist at the end (and I don’t mean the ridiculous turn of events that coincidentally averts a suicide) which I’ll not give away, save to say it strikes me more like a nightmare out of Edgar Allan Poe nightmare than the serenity I think you’re meant to take from it.

Bilodo, a lonely postman living his life vicariously by steaming open and reading other people’s letters … Come on: a disciplinary offence!  But then someone in the reading group remembered Willy Nilly the village postie doing it quite openly in Under Milk Wood ... Anyway, he stumbles into a renku project, a correspondence by haiku, between a japanophile here in Quebec and a young woman in Guadeloupe.  This pushes Bilodo (as per billet-doux, as someone else in the reading group spotted: aren’t reading groups grand?) into learning all about haiku and taking his place (after a ‘poetry emergency‘) in the exchange of haiku, which takes a gentle, then steamier, erotic turn (not too corny, actually).  When she says she’s coming to Canada he panics and I’ll say no more.  I learned a bit about haiku.  There’s a sub-plot based around his relationship with his colleague and a waitress for a bit of context, which I thought, if anything, detracted from the whole.

There’s always a problem with books in translation, so I can’t say whether the clumsiness comes from the author or not, though I doubt, for instance, a translator would inject “eyelashes fluttering like the wings of twin butterflies” into the death throes of a road accident victim, and I can’t quite see how Bilodo necessarily “combed the dictionary” when he was looking up a specific word.  Who knows what he was doing when “He jubilated in the washroom” on getting a haiku back, his ruse undetected.

On the whole, a Marmite book, then.  Some of the reading group really liked it, and I have to admit I took to him counting all the steps up he climbed on the stairs in the blocks of flats on his letter round, and touting himself as a gold medal winner should it ever become an Olympic event.  And even I was briefly elated by:

And he, who had never so much as set a toe on a dance floor, dreamt that night that he whirled around merrily with Ségolène in the unlikely, highly diverse setting of a festive town […]. He dreamt that they danced now a frenzied rigadoon on the icy pavement […] now a wild gwoka in the fragrant sultriness …

Behaviour of mothsMuch more to my liking was Poppy Adams‘ disturbing first novel, The behaviour of moths (Virago, 2008), the latest excursion of my usual reading group.  Pretty much from the start it’s obvious we are dealing here with that perturbing creature the unreliable narrator, but quite how deeply unreliable only becomes clear (or clear-ish – ambiguities hauntingly remain) as things develop.

We start with Ginnie (our narrator) eagerly awaiting the impending return of her younger sister, Vivi, to the crumbling family country house pile.  Quite how crumbling is only made explicit later on, with action delivered with wonderful gothic panache.  The two have not met for 47 years.  Ginnie, following in her father’s footsteps, is a world-class lepidopterist, who has never left home, whereas Vivi has obviously had some sort of life in the big wide world.  So it seems we’re set up with the prospect of revelations of glamour, excitement and whatever else from that life – a Kate Atkinson non-Brodie set-up.  Such expectation is quickly dispelled in the first of a number of sudden dramatic though never random shifts of focus.  (For example: “Many years later, when Vivi and I were expelled from Lady Mary’s.”)  We’re never told why Vivi has come home, can never really take for granted her bland attestation that it’s time for them to see out their final years together.  But that quickly becomes neither here nor there.

Had Vivien really come home to torment me, to point out that I had been living in the wrong history, to push me into the correct scene of the correct painting?

Something crucial happens between the two of them in the 1950s, maybe an accident, when they are children, and then later when they are young women (a couple of things actually), that culminate in Vivi breaking off all contact.  This is a dysfunctional family that only gets worse with age and the onset of physical (non-sexual) abuse and alcoholism.  There is something not right with Ginnie – I’m no expert, and it’s not made explicit, but it’s probably too simple to just cite the autism spectrum – but it doesn’t stop her becoming a world expert on moths.

Things get interesting here; we learn a lot about moths and their study; for me this did not get in the way, while others demurred.  Upstairs in the house there is outstanding mounted moth mausoleum; three generations of lepidoptery have seen the shift from eccentric Victorian collector with a net on a sticks, every variation pinned in cabinets, to serious science – spectroscopy, chemical triggers, genetics, the study of evolution.  Clive, their father, hates the public lectures he has to give because he always ends up arguing – a nice comic interlude – with rural vicars about self-consciousness and free will; when it comes to moth behaviour (and indeed, by extension, all behaviour) he’s a reductionist – it’s all down to chemical reactions in the brain.  Maybe so with some of the action in the novel too.  As I say, it’s disturbing.  As Ginnie says, near the end:

I like to think that, for once, I am in control of my actions, but I also like to know that I am not.  […] … I am the puppet of myself.

This is a beautifully constructed novel, full of odd, terrible, and occasionally, tender turns; there is comedy too in the mundane.  Poppy Adams is wonderfully in control of her material.  Her (Ginnie’s) language is fluid and occasionally nicely quirky: “her hair angry”; “I put two of the new pyramid-style teabags into [the] pot”; the capitalisation of “The Hand That Cupped My Bottom”.

I’ve hardly scratched the surface of the plot or detailed much here.  There is a bizarre and moving episode of tragic surrogate motherhood.  Your allegiances move about and there is no clear resolution of what exactly happened in two crucial episodes.  There are murders, one delivered (out of the blue – one of those dramatic shifts) in stretched-out and painful detail.  And there is an eerie peace at the end.  A book that stays with you, visually and viscerally.

I increasingly find, talking with my oldest friends, disparities cropping up in what we recall of our shared past – who went on what trip, who was there when that happened, what bands we saw – so this resonated:

But for every memory we share, there are many more that we can’t bring together, that we can’t seem to evoke in each other, that turn out to be something that only one of us remembers or the other only vaguely recollects or, sometimes, remembers completely differently. [p225]

Hold that thought  and apply it to the extraordinary events of this novel.  And then consider that in many ways we are all unreliable narrators.

And here’s a photo (©Me) just for the sake of it:
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Peter Robinson - Children of the revolutionAt a certain stage in Peter Robinson‘s latest DCI Banks mystery, Children of the revolution (Hodder, 2013), two of the women in his team are driving to interview someone who can help them with their enquiries:

Annie said it was a relief not to have to suffer Banks’s musical tastes for a change. Gerry admitted that she didn’t understand half the pop-culture references he made. Annie said it was an age thing.

And you do begin to wonder about his creator’s ‘demographic’.  Because while I get most of those references – I’ll be honest, it was one of the things that got me into the whole Banks saga – I wonder if he’s not overdoing it these days.  That’s rhetorical, by the way, because I suspect he’s straying too far from one of Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, at least 8 of which he pretty much complies with (and there’s less made of the North Yorkshire landscape here), to whit numero dix: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip“,

He can still drive a narrative masterfully enough – a lot of it’s in the passages of shortish dialogue – but I’ve reached the point where I feel I don’t need to know what posters are on everyone’s wall, or what books, CDs and DVDs are on their shelves, a signifying technique much in evidence of late which I’m guessing a lot of readers are just going to walk on by.  Worst here, actually signifying very little, unless it’s a private joke, is having Lisa, an interesting young woman getting her life back together again after a load of bad stuff, reading a book on this year’s Booker Prize short list which is going to mean very little to most readers of crime fiction, I would wager*.

OK.  Children of the revolution is the 21st Alan Banks mystery and another of those taking their title from a popular song, in this case an opus from Marc Bolan’s T.Rex – not the most profound from its period, it has to be said, and the poppiest of the titles previously used – and less apt than the Karl Marx quote Robinson kicks off with about the past lying “like a nightmare upon the present“.  The case, the probable murder of just one man, involves happenings 40 years ago in the heady days of student revolt – or at least Essex, 1971-3 (the same period Robinson was at Leeds) and the strike that the miners won; there’s another strand centred on staff and students at a local college in the here and now.  We have been this way before, but’s it’s an intriguing plot that becomes more nuanced than his boss’s “Is that what it is, Alan? … That working class chip on your shoulder again?” suggests, as suspicions of the involvement of the rich and famous surface.

I would hazard that, despite the murder, blackmail and date-rape plot-lines, Children of the revolution is lighter in tone than its predecessors – are those jokes looming on the horizon?  As an instance, after a stormy argument between two of the three women who make up Banks’s team, after they have left his cottage, he puts Miles Davis’s Bitches brew on the hi-fi.  That his team consists of three women – Annie Cabot included, but relatively peripherally – is not otherwise commented on one way or another, and Winsome’s character blossoms here.  The compassion, while still very much in evidence – how could it not be? – is gentler, less bracing.

Inevitably the occupational hazard of the long distance crime novelist rears it head, with it being put to Banks that his next step is either promotion (which postpones compulsory retirement) or, indeed, retirement; the odds are on promotion, but please, Mr Robinson, save us from the New Tricks gambit.

I also think that more of Peter Robinson, the successful writer, is creeping into the text; nor is DCI Banks, the television series, being ignored.  One of the major non-regular characters is a successful novelist with all the travail that entails, and when the team visit a location shoot for a tv crime series (plot line: drowned valley dries out), a gofer tells them:

We’ve got the author coming in this afternoon – the author of the books the series is based on – and I have to take care of him. We like to keep the authors happy. That way they don’t complain too much about what we do to their books.

Like the television series, and unlike the earlier books, no time is spent back at the office looking out over the market square.

What else?  Banks is drinking less but his love life might well be picking up at the end, where he’s taking Oriana, a good looking, intelligent and interesting younger woman, first encountered in the investigation, out to a folk club, and the prospects are looking good.  Corny, but I’ll let it go: another weight on one side of the retirement scales, just maybe.?  Musically, we start off with the Grateful Dead and there’s a nice plot-related running line in Van Morrison references, while there’s less classical music and Banks manages to visit Leeds without visiting the HMV store.  (You can find more details of stuff like this, and more observations on Children of the revolution in the context of the Banks series, in the more schematized rendition you can find here (just click on these underlined lines) on one of the most visited webpages here on Lillabullero.

As ever, though I can always find things to cavil at, I await the next installment of Banks’s life with interest.  I’m not sure Annie’s out the frame yet either (there’s a loaded Van Morrison quote floating out there).  But there’s one specific thing I do find very hard to take, and that is the prospect of DCI Alan Banks burdening the world with a downloaded ringtone, with … a “gentle blues riff” on his mobile.

*Ruth Ozeki’s A tale for the time being, so you know; I’ve just looked it up, and hey, maybe one to pursue – I see mention of Eels‘s physicist dad (and there I go) – so it makes sense for Lisa, but nevertheless …

Meanwhile, 1900 years previously, in the city that was to become York …

Semper fidelisAlways a delightful prospect – a new Ruso and Tilla novel from the pen (or word processor) of Ruth Downie – and Semper Fidelis: a novel of the Roman Empire (Bloomsbury, 2013) does not disappoint.  I think I’ve said it before, but Ruso, the Roman medicus and reluctant investigator, and Tilla, his spirited British bride, are one of the great double acts of contemporary literature.  How about:

Ruso had already noted with relief that the young man’s black eye and swollen jaw were too mature to have been administered by his wife.

for starters, or

Women were good at filling embarrassing silences. Except for Tilla, who was good at creating them.

To broaden the focus somewhat, Ruth Downie, I think you can see if you’re not already acquainted, is a splendid prose stylist, a phrase-maker with a gloriously sardonic touch.  In the opening chapter she engages by explaining Ruso’s situation concisely when he sees a woman who was “attractive in a way that would have distracted him on better days.”  I loved this:

Kitchen staff and bathers were thus obliged to traverse long corridors lined with gloomy wards whose shuttered windows would have offered a fine view of native weeds strangling the herbs in the courtyard.

and Semper Fidelis is full of astute observations like

Ruso hurried to catch up with the tribune, who was doing a good job of striding purposefully about and looking as though he knew what to do next.

We are treated here to a view of the Romans as occupying force, not necessarily cilvilisers; colonisers who have a way to go yet convincing all the natives in the matter of what the Romans ever did for you.  These are cultures in transition, ideologies in conflict.  Nowhere is the clash between the two cultures as deliciously portrayed as when Tilla,  no slouch, learning to read latin with the help of a poetry collection, complains:

If one of our poets had spoken this rubbish,” she said, tying it closed, “nobody would pass it on, and it would be forgotten, and good riddance. But this man wrote everything down, and now it floats about like somebody else’s hair in the bath. Who cares if his lady’s pet sparrow is dead?”

Elsewhere, Tilla tells Ruso (“a man whose religion consisted mostly of half-formed and unanswered questions“) that she has “prayed to Christos” for him  (“I wish you wouldn’t keep doing that,” he says) while as back-up she’ll  “… find a place to leave a gift for the goddess, just in case.”  That’s a genuflection to a Christianity which is still a rebel cause and a nod to the old tradition as Plan B.

Oh yeah, and while we’re having all this fun there are dastardly deeds going down, murders to be investigated – this is an historical crime novel after all.  The deaths of British recruits undergoing initial army training (inspired, as Ruth acknowledges on her website, by the events at the Coldcut Barracks in Surrey, 1995-2002) take place against a backdrop of all that fresh-paint-and-polish nonsense when royalty comes a-visiting the provinces, in this case it’s the Emperor Hadrian come to see the progress being made on that Wall;  his wife, Sabina, takes an interesting view – on her reluctant participation in both the grand tour and her marriage – which sits neatly in the larger tale as it unfolds.  All this is effectively driven along with some satisfying plot swerves with shifting allegiances to keep us on our toes, and excitement, tension and derring-do a-plenty thrown in along the way.  It’s a tremendous read.

Semper Fidelis is the fifth of Ruth Downie‘s Ruso and Tilla novels, but the first to boast a unified title with the American editions.  I would say thankfully if it weren’t for the fact that I think they’ve been unified in the wrong direction, but Ruth is appreciated more in the States, so what do I know.  Previous books in the UK, where authorship was credited to R.S.Downie (the old ‘don’t trust them to know she’s a woman’ scam, a là R.K.Rowling, though I think at least Ruth’s S is real), came out as a series with titles starting Ruso and the … .  Obviously these would have to be extended now to Ruso and Till and the … (“I hear one of our officers has married you,” Sabina, the Emperor Hadrian’s wife, says to Tilla, who responds, “I have married him also, mistress“) but this might make it a bit long for the jacket graphics.  Shame to lose the branding, though, especially now that we have to make do with a well-known latin phrase or saying, which might cause problems – finding le mot juste (or ius eloquium if Google translate is to be trusted) as they run out of said phrases – as the series continues.  Whichever, long may it do so.

 

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Two specific problems, to be ingeniously linked here on Lillabullero:

How could you roast an ox over a good fire in the middle of all those buildings? Where could you sit in a circle around the embers with the soft grass beneath you and your backs to the dark and children falling asleep in their mothers’ arms, listening to the stories of your people?

Indeed.  This is true Brit Tilla, bemoaning the pervasive Roman influence on the development of Verulamium aka St Albans – and the modern world in general – in Ruth Downie‘s ‘Ruso and the river of darkness‘ (Penguin 2011), the fourth in her intriguing sequence of crime novels set in Roman Britain at the time of Hadrian (of wall fame).  It’s one of the many neat instances of what makes the books so fascinating, this capturing of a moment of social change with an acute awareness of what happens to a colonized people, the differing responses over time between and within the various native groups.  This is the way things happen, the coming of the urb, the way empire works, with all the resonances to the present day.

The culture clash is reflected in the central characters of the series, one of the great double acts of contemporary literature, no less – Ruso, the sceptical Roman doctor who is doomed to take up the role of the reluctant investigator, and Tilla, the spirited British slave he marries, who is not going to forget where she comes from.  There is a lot more than a simplistic embodiment at play here; this couple lives, loves and compromises.  “I asked you to do something, Tilla, and as usual you did the opposite,” says the man to whose benefit this may well have resulted in.  Indeed, Ruth (for some reason her British publishers insist on hiding her behind sexless initials – R.S. no less) is refreshingly sympathetic to husbands and generally even-handed in her handling of the gender blame games.

The prose, as ever,  sparkles like a well presented decent session bitter: fruit, hops, flavoursome but not too strong, and with – to my drinking palate’s persuasion at least – a hint of ginger.  It slips down easily and makes for the improvement of the day.  As well, though, I feel a new intensity in ‘Ruso and the river of darkness‘.  This is a tale of vicious corruption and community tensions and there are some passages of real dramatic power.  The realisation for Ruso that Verulamium is Chinatown (my reference is to the Jack Nicholson film – thank you, Neil) is stunning and it’s a shame in some ways that the novel couldn’t have ended bleakly and artistically there (“Forget it Ruso, it’s Verulamium” – you must have seen the film) but I guess the genre demands a cleaning-up, and the baddies get their comeuppance on technicalities by the end (shades of Al Capone the tax evader).

I have to mention the wit that’s never far away.  Traditional remedies from both traditions are detailed with a quaint touch, and as a humanist I like the gentle everyday treatment of religious affairs.  Ruso is sceptical Roman, Tilla linked up with an early Christian cell in Gaul in the previous book but hasn’t exactly forgotten the old British gods.  So: Tilla clattered the shutters open and apologized to the household gods for leaving them with the smell that still lingered despite yesterday’s efforts with the scrubbing brush, and then apologized to Christos for paying attention to them,”  while later “Ruso closed his eyes and wished he believed in Tilla’s Christos, the god who answered prayers anywhere and did not demand cash in return.”  How nice, too, the lavish menu drawn from all corners of the Roman Empire, described for patrons in the language of an M&S food ad, while, “The origins of ‘tenderest leaves of winter vegetables’ were not stated. Presumably that was local cabbage.”  A friend doubts the historical accuracy about some of the Brit tribes stuff but I guess it’s a grey area.  It didn’t stop me from being well entertained and I await with relish the next one, though I hope Tilla’s broodiness doesn’t become an major part of her being.

There’s a link (and here’s the first chain in my link) on Ruth’s good looking blog to a telephone interview she did with Ian Williams for the Catskill Review of Books, available as a podcast or download from WJFF Radio (go to March 26, 2011 and click on ‘Play’ or ‘Download’; don’t bother withe The Catskill review link, you get a page of Chinese characters).  In the interview she tells of the original inspiration for the series (a Eureka! moment on Hadrian’s Wall) and the interviewer comments that Milton Keynes, where Ruth was living when she started writing the books, could be described as being ‘Roman’ in idea, in as much as it’s a new town and the Romans, in colonising Britain, were essentially doing so by building a string of new towns.  

I had high hopes of the new exhibition at Milton Keynes Gallery, a building with very straight sides.  Gareth Jones grew up in MK and the Gallery Facebook wall promised the it would be “exploring the social and cultural landscape of Milton Keynes in the 1970s, the interesting visionary pioneer period, as the people moved into the new estates.  Depends what you mean by exploring.  Here’s what the Exhibition Guide says about what’s in the Long Gallery:

Twelve Men, 2011, presents a single-room installation using a series of Gitanes cigarette adverts that featured in Sunday colour supplements in the 1970s, with blue aluminium frames that suggest French cigarette packaging. Jones explores the politics of desire as suave male models pose with this classic brand, exuding the impossible glamour and decadence of the decade. Collected as he was growing up in the newly formed Milton Keynes …

Got that?  It’s a set of pages cut out of the Observer colour magazine by the teenaged Jones and now displayed behind glass in frames the same colour as the cigarette packets.  They are undoubtedly cool looking dudes, young Belmondos all, the whole French schtick.  And yes, as a smoker then, the soft non-flip packs had a certain allure, while the cigarettes themselves were short, crumbling, burned fast and were not particularly satisfying.  And Jones cut these adverts out of those colour supplements when he was a schoolboy in Milton Keynes in the late 1970s.  It makes you think.  And these 12 framed and fading adverts are all displayed on just the one straight wall.

So the problem with the other three straight walls in the Long Gallery – the largest in the building in this highly flexible subsidised exhibition space – is that they are blank.  Nada to see.  You see (to quote from the Guide again):

Jones views the Long Gallery as a kind of modern ballroom, in which the scaled-down display creates a theatrical and powerfully charged atmosphere, inviting the viewer to occupy the space and prescribe meaning to the work.

No it doesn’t.  Well, it may invite it, I suppose.  The other rooms weren’t much fuller or better; the ‘digital artwork’  ie. a slide show projected on a wall of black and white work from official Development Corporation photographers: there’s a pipeline, there’s a stream “dream” theme sequencing – that was the bit I stayed in the room with at least – failed to engage.

I still defend the Gallery‘s continued existence  – it depends on who I’m talking to precisely how – and for sure the Council money they get goes to supporting work with young people in the community, but this show is there for nearly 3 months and it and its like provoke anger as a waste of space and resources.  My wife once turned around and walked out in high dudgeon after 20 seconds – I can’t remember which show that was – and will need a lot of persuading to go back in.

She did love Marcus Coates‘ ‘Morning chorus’ video installation though, so all is not quite lost.

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Nothing to do with cricket but I will mention the set of sporty poems curated by Carol Ann Duffy in Saturday’s Guardian and in particular the splendid Wendy Cope for her presumably autobiographical ‘Sporty people’, ending as it does:

Sporty people can be OK –
Of course they can.
Later on, I met poets
Who played football. It’s still hard
To get my head round that.

No poets in an England shirt in South Africa for sure – obvious it can’t work the other way.  No, what we speak of here is another waste of space, another waste of space no less in the Milton Keynes Gallery.  The great Ian Dury, an erstwhile artist himself, was fond of the phrase, “a load of old bollo“.  and this is what we find in the long gallery – a load of balls – as described in the exhibition brochure:

ANOTHER ANOTHER RING OF BALLS (2010) displays a continuous row of found magazine pages collected over several years that are pasted around the walls of the Long Gallery.  Each page contains an image of a ball, arranged in order of size and carefully positioned so that each ball is aligned, creating an unbroken visual line that circles the space.  Inspired by geometric systems, the artist has established a discreet, simple and self-perpetuating design principle that must be unlocked in order to make sense.

Pardon my French but, like fuck it does.  The idea is so much more interesting than actually taking up the walls of the biggest room in what purports to be an art gallery.  As I have said before in these circumstances, this is not a Daily Mail anti-modern art rant; Tate Modern is one of my favourite places in London.  This show – there until mid-September – is called ‘The the things is (for 3)’, which even the brochure describes as a “stuttering nonsensical title” like that was a good thing.  The exhibition “presents the work of a London-based artist who emerged in the early 1990s”.  Furthermore, “The deliberate absence of the artist’s name […] is intended to engage visitors in a guessing game and to encourage them to put their own stamp on the work”.  This really is the higher art bollocks in its classic modern form.  Rather than a game I see it as more like those coats the police put over arrested men or women’s heads as they are taken into or out of court.  My mate Sal and I have this phrase at work when given pointless forms to fill in – “CBA – Can’t be arsed”.  The Artist With No Name?  What a wag.

As it happens, goats’ bollocks feature as a foodstuff in a scene in R.S.Downie’s ‘Ruso and the root of all evil‘ (Penguin, 2010), which, for reasons best known to the publishing industry, is issued in the US, where they allow her to be called by her actual name – Ruth – as ‘Persons non grata’.  Ruth is a lovely writer with a wonderful lightness of touch that belies the important stuff – imperialism, morality, how we should live – underpinning her tales of classical Roman times.  In Ruso, the reluctant Roman doctor detective, trying to keep an unworldly extended family on the rails, and his British female companion Tilla (‘Darlughdacha, of the Corionotatae of the Brigantes’, as she will not let people forget) she has created as engaging a pair of characters as are to be found anywhere in crime fiction and beyond.

In this third novel in the sequence the action moves to Gaul, where Tilla is appalled at the barbarity of the ‘civilised’ Roman gladiatorial sporting arena and intrigued by the spreading underground worship of ‘Christos’; she plays innocently with the literal meaning of the beliefs and teachings on display there.  As ever Downie employs the twinkling nod and wink to our times – Ruso is on sick leave with a broken metatarsal, for example – but there is real excitement and intrigue to be had here too.  She’s a star.

Finally, that rare creature, a decent music industry novel.  Bill Flanagan sidesteps the usual pitfalls of the rock novel by making his narrator Jack Flynn, the manager who looks after the members of the Ravons, a ’60s English beat group, over the decades of their rise and split and subsequent solo careers while the industry is transformed first by success and then maintained (the CD) and undone by technology (mp3s).  ‘Evening’s empire‘ (Simon & Schuster, 2010) is a big knowing book over 600 pages long written from the inside – Flanagan has been around, cites Elvis Costello, Allen Klein and Allen Toussaint among those who helped him.  Set in a land where truth is usually stranger than fiction, Flanagan’s novel harks back to an age when the novel was seen as telling what’s really going on.  Dickens and Trollope spring to mind (not that I’ve read Trollope).  We get the full absurdities of what happens to the musicians, the price of fame and the inevitabilities of excess, the difficulties of achieving self-knowledge and any sort of critical faculty that maturity – real life – might bring.  You begin to feel sorry for them, trapped by the business and their egos.  He doesn’t shirk the randomness of it all, the importance of self belief, the wanting-it that can herald delusion.

For all the cynicism Flanagan has a nice touch and he’s a deft phrase maker (I like “unearned panic”), mixing the wretchedness and the odd bit of decency that occurs with sharp humour.  It’s a burlesque really.  There’s a strong narrative throughout  – the beginnings of the group and the late ’60s scene in London are well observed – with lots of nice little cameos of the madness along the way.    For example, there’s an extended passage where Emerson, the ‘artist’, the main man, goes on a desperate safari in search of the ‘authentic’ source of the music – Africa – only to find photos of Peter Gabriel, and then Robert Plant pinned up in rural shacks.  Then there’s the full horror revealed when Flynn, a reasonably decent man doing this job working for impossible people, actually goes to a concert as a paying punter. It’s all there:  the saving financial grace of the throwaway song someone picks for TV ad, the hustling to get on big charity gigs, the necessity of the reunion tour … and I haven’t mentioned the, um,  ‘trouble’ that women bring.  It all seems horribly true enough.  Late on in the game (p517):

“I missed the days when promotion consisted of giving a bag of cash to a greasy man in a nylon jacket.  It was faster, it required less energy, and although it is never comfortable to consort with criminals it was somehow less degrading.”

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