Wednesday, 29 January 2020

It was grim oop North

Union Street If you want a cosy story that takes you out of your day-to-day existence, Pat Barker's Union Street is definitely not for you. It contains seven chapters, each tracing the story of a woman who lives on the eponymous street. Other reviewers have described the book as dark, but it's more accurate to label it as authentic, or truthful.

It's set in the early 1970s in north east England, when industry was in decline and traditional working class communities and values were beginning to fracture. Older people were terrified of ending up in a care home converted from "the Workhouse", family reputations were ruined if unmarried girls got pregnant, so they were banished. An embarrassing father might "hawk phlegm up whenever his son was in the room, or lift one buttock from the chair to fart". The housewives hurried "home from the shops to get the tea ready before the men came home". If the men had lost their jobs, the women worked all day and then "were anxious to get home, to cook the dinner, to make a start on the housework".

This is not a rose-coloured, romantic view of the world, although there are occasional bursts of humour, such as the mother who always turned to housework when she was especially distressed: "It was a tribute to her stoicism that so little got done". Pat Barker writes using the language of the communities that she's describing. It's stark and reflects the reality of life as survival. However, no matter what hardships and experiences the women endure, there is at the end of each chapter the glimpse of a possibility that things might get better.

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells

The Thirty-Nine Steps The thing about Richard Hannay, protagonist of The Thirty-Nine Steps, is that he's bored. "I was tired of seeing sights, and in less than a month I had had enough of restaurants and theatres and race-meetings" he tells us. In other words, he wants an adventure. If John Buchan hadn't made this so obvious in the first paragraphs of his book, it would be impossible to suspend belief and follow the frankly ludicrous story.

Hannay lets a stranger into his flat named Scudder, who spins him a tale of intrigue. Scudder is subsequently murdered and Hannay must go on the run. He's in danger of being the next victim of the murderers, has lied about Scudder to his man Paddock, might be accused of the murder by the police, and can't alert the authorities because that would play into the murderers' hands. So, he flees to Scotland.

The remainder of the story follows Hannay across the hills and glens, regularly trusting total strangers to offer him free bed and board. After all, he says, "A man of my sort, who has travelled about the world in rough places, gets on perfectly well with two classes, what you may call the upper and the lower."

Published in 1915, the book is of its time and a century on is unintentionally funny. According to its wikipedia page it was very popular with soldiers in the First World War. It's a thrilling read and in spite of, or more likely because of its fantastical story, it was "greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing."

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Consequences of the little misplacement of a silver thimble

The Abbess of Crewe The Abbess of Crewe is about the political manoeuvering of Alexandra, who has recently been elected as the head of the Abbey of Crewe. In the first few pages we learn that her ancestry is impeccable, "fourteen generations of pale and ruling ancestors of England, and ten before them of France", she has electronically bugged the Abbey to listen to the nuns's conversations, and she has a secret, "most profitable pact" with the Jesuits. She also has a plan to discredit Felicity, the only other contender for the position of Abbess, which unexpectedly results in an "international newspaper scandal." The remainder of the book explains what happened, how it started "merely from the little misplacement, or at most the theft, of Sister Felicity's silver thimble".

Muriel Spark's book is short, humorous and littered with extracts of poetry. It's not laugh-out-loud funny, but rather farcical in its treatment of the political shenanigans of the players. The titular Abbess embodies the privilege of the elite. They believe the "rules" don't apply to themselves and are ruthless in the pursuit of their ambitions. Alexandra will stop at nothing to get what she wants, has no pity for those who stand in her way, such as Felicity, and is willing to make scapegoats of her supporters, such as Winifrede. It's considered to be an allegory of the Watergate scandal of the 70s but it also brings to mind the political antics of some leaders today.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Rather a sad tale

The Vet's Daughter The Vet's Daughter is a curious, gothic, magical tale. It follows the adolescent Alice Rowlands, as her mother becomes ill, dies and is replaced with Rosa the "strumpet" by her cruel father. Life is neither easy nor happy for Alice.

Barbara Comyns tells her story in a simple and straightforward style, rather like a fairy tale. The characters are mostly grotesque and mostly concerned only with their own lives. It's rather a sad tale.