Friday, 29 May 2020

A tale of two Johnsons

A Demon In My View Arthur Johnson has a secret that he keeps in the cellar of 142 Trinity Road, Kenbourne, where Ruth Rendell's A Demon in My View is set.

Arthur is an odd man, old-fashioned and stuffy, but pretty harmless. He does have a strange attitude towards women tho', especially "women who waited in the dark streets, asking for trouble, he cared nothing for them, their pain, their terror." Everything changes for Arthur when a new tenant arrives, a young, lovelorn PhD student by the name of Anthony Johnson.

We know from the beginning of the story what Arthur is capable of and as it unfolds we get to know his character and his past actions. The "other" Johnson, Anthony, unwittingly becomes Arthur's nemesis when an innocent and absent-minded act is seen by the older man as a "deliberate shunning of him".

There are plenty of details that help take the reader back to London in the early 70s, when the local cinema was still in business but under the new name of Taj Mahal and with a program of Indian movies. More specifically the dustmen were on strike. The period is important because some of the plot relies on the fact that people used to communicate with public telephones and written letters through the post.

The book is an easy-read psychological thriller which builds tension not through action, but by slowly revealing Arthur's backstory. Ruth Rendell doesn't try to hide important details, everything is clearly laid out. Nonetheless, there's a surprise at the end which is very satisfying.

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Not a daffodil in sight

Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt I should state up front that this review will be somewhat biased. John Cooper Clarke, aka the Bard of Salford, was born and raised in the industrial northwest of England, like me. He's working class, like me. I saw him perform I Married a Monster from Outer Space in the early 80s, and in the early 90s a friend and I tried to get him to play a gig in London (his mum was his manager). You'd be right to say I'm a big fan of John Cooper Clarke and that I was inclined to like Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt before I read it.

His poems are humorous, visceral, and deal with subjects that reflect the poet's background and experiences in the 1970s. There's not much punctuation in the book, but that reflects how Clarke performs his work. Check him out on YouTube reading Kung Fu International (from this collection) in 1978.

It was a pleasure to read favourites such as Evidently Chicken Town and Love Story in Reverse. There are also some which I'd never come across before. The self-explanatory Readers' Wives made me laugh out loud:

a fablon top scenario of passion
things stick out of holes in leatherette
they seem to be saying in their fashion
i'm freezing charlie have you finished yet


I also smiled at the holiday poem, Majorca:

I got drunk with another fella
who'd just brought up a previous paella
wanted a fight but said they were yella
in majorca


A couple of other poems stand out but won't be to everyone's taste: Gaberdine Angus is about a flasher, and Conditional Discharge is about STDs. But don't let this put you off. The collection is about real life and real experiences. I doubt many youthful working class poets from Salford would be writing about daffodils.

Saturday, 23 May 2020

How were the Nazis possible?

Defying Hitler: A Memoir "What is history, and where does it take place?" Sebastian Haffner's book isn't concerned with the type of history we learn at school. Great leaders take small roles in the narrative because "decisions that influence the course of history arise out of the individual experiences of thousands or millions of individuals." Defying Hitler is the memoir of one such individual and "offers direct answers to two questions [-] 'How were the Nazis possible?’ and ‘Why didn’t you stop them?’"

As a child Haffner was less concerned with the lack of food than with the daily war bulletins. Like many young people he thought little about politics and was nearing the end of his studies when the Nazis seized power. Before the young Haffner had time to think, it was already too late to act. He resorted to small acts of rebellion, such as hiding in doorways when the SA marched past so that he wouldn't have to give the Nazi salute.

There is no single, simple answer to the questions posed, and this memoir sees events from the point of view of a well-educated, middle class male. Who knows what the working class or female position was? Regardless, after reading Defying Hitler one has a better understanding of how individual Germans suddenly found themselves in a situation where their lives were completely controlled by the State. Nonetheless, we've recently seen one democratically elected government attempting to push through legislation without parliamentary oversight, and another democratic parliament granting a Prime Minister the ability to rule by decree. Reading a book won't change the course of history, but it might help us avoid making the same mistakes in the 2020s as the Germans did in the 1920s.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Extremely shoddy editing

Hunters in the Dark Some people like to lie on a beach and do nothing on holiday. Robert, the English protagonist of Lawrence Osborne's Hunters in the Dark prefers to do nothing whilst upright. When we meet the 28-year-old teacher, he's crossing the border from Thailand to Cambodia, where the story is set. He'd just experienced "the happiest month of his life thus far. The happiest and also the vaguest: the two were connected." He has no firm plans for his remaining month other than to roam, and since there "would be little else to do here anyway" he visits a casino, plays roulette and wins some money. His holiday takes a more interesting turn after he meets a louche American called Simon.

Robert is variously described as naive, lonely, mediocre and empty. You could add irresponsible to the list too, as he wonders if there's anything he wants to go back home for. He "only worried about his mother, even though there were other things to worry about, a thousand loose ends left in a chaos of abandoned responsibility." This desire to live elsewhere is perhaps credible, but his actions in the story are less so. Bizarrely Sophal, the doctor's daughter, describes Robert as "a bit Heathcliff," but he's the least Heathcliff person I can think of.

Other characters are more believable, especially Simon's girlfriend Sothea, and policeman Davuth, who has a very interesting background.

Osborne uses Buddhist concepts such as karma, samsara and ghosts to drive the characters, as he does in the more enjoyable The Ballad of a Small Player, and overall it's an enjoyable read and an interesting plot. However, the first few chapters are a bit heavy on the use of frangipani and nagas to describe the surroundings. Much worse is the poor editing throughout the book. I lost count of the number of times I came across a sentence with a missing word. There was also an instance where the character name Sothea had been incorrectly used for Sophal. Worst of all, Simon's last name was inconsistently spelled, sometimes Beaucamp, other times Beauchamp. This is very shoddy.

Monday, 4 May 2020

Who knows what will work?

Adventures in the Screen Trade Before you think of getting into the movie business, do yourself a favour and read William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade. Although it was written in the early 1980s, it rings true about what is generally known about the industry today.

It's split into three parts. The first part describes the industry in terms of its key players and elements. Stars "live in a world in which no one disagrees with them, agents "are not noted for human kindness, but above all, "not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work". Part two explains the process of making a movie using examples from Goldman's own career. Some of his notable films include Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, and A Bridge Too Far. The final, third part takes the reader through the process of creating a screenplay from a short story, and includes five interviews, including with a cinematographer and a composer, who explain how they would help turn it into a finished product.

The writing style is conversational, with lots of Americanisms. Women are few and far between in this exposé; a few stars, the writer wife of one of the journalists involved in All the President's Men, and an editor. By the end of the book you'll understand how the whole Harvey Weinstein scandal could have come about.