Showing posts with label reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label reviews. Show all posts

Sunday, 14 June 2020

The obsession of a spy

The Long Room Francesca Kay's The Long Room is story about the loneliness and obsessions of a spy, the sort of spy whose life is dull, drab and tedious, not at all exciting.

It's primarily told from the point of view of Stephen, a man in his late 20s, recruited to the secret service at university. He works at the Institute with a team of friendly colleagues, but he doesn't like to socialise with them. During the week he lives in London where "it is a long time since he remembered to wash the sheets." At the weekends he retreats to his elderly mother in Didcot. It's a lonely life.

Stephen's job involves listening to tapes of telephone and house bugs and transcribing them to help identify security threats. This is 1981 Britain, when the IRA are planting bombs and members of CND are considered to be communists. In the course of his work, Stephen has become obsessed with Helen, the wife of a target, PHOENIX. He has only ever heard her beautiful voice, which "speaks poems to him, and her piano playing, and the sweetness of her nature." His thoughts veer towards worship, believing girls like Helen are "pure and vestal, the innocent and the good". His is a devotional, romantic idea of love.

Ultimately The Long Room is a character-driven story with a well-drawn protagonist, however it comes across as a bit too clever. If your literature studies ended at age 16 you might not pick up on some references. A google search after finishing revealed allusions aplenty to Byron and romantic love, Shelley and the quest for perfect union, Goethe and introversion, all of which are themes of the book. In spite of the fine characterisation and descriptions, Stephen's ultimate actions weren't credible, and if you're the sort of reader who needs a fast moving plot, you may find yourself putting it to one side without finishing.

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.


Sunday, 26 April 2020

Can she really be so naive?

Good Behaviour Poor Aroon St Charles. In the opening chapter of Molly Keane's Good Behaviour she insists, "I do know how to behave .... All my life so far I have done everything for the best reasons and the most unselfish motives." She reminisces on why so many people she knew have been unhappy, even her bed-ridden Mummie, to whom she's taking a dish of rabbit quenelles for luncheon. What follows is a memoir of Aroon's life at Temple Alice in Ireland, the grand house owned by Mummie when the family had money. She documents relationships between family and friends, as well as those that work for them, shining a light on expectations of behaviour and propriety within the fast collapsing Anglo-Irish society of the early 20th century.

Throughout the book Aroon constantly seeks reassurance and praise. In one bitter-sweet memory of swimming with her brother she says she "stayed up four strokes longer than Hubert and nobody said, 'Nothing to crow about, is there, Aroon? He's three years younger than you, after all.'" We're never told who would have said this, but we can guess. Papa "was the one who patted me and kissed me", whereas Mummie "didn't really like children," but sometimes "would touch Hubert".

Aroon also suffers from insecurity about her looks. Aged 57, she says "how nice that bosoms are all right to have now; in the twenties when I grew up I used to tie them down with a sort of binder. Bosoms didn't do then."

Boys at that time were raised to be boisterous and enjoy the outdoor life. When her brother introduces Aroon to his friend Richard, she relates some of his childhood experiences, which include a flogging by his father. This was not because he told "quite a big fib", which was considered to be natural, but rather for being caught reading a book of verse, since "it's this poetry that bothers me."

Of the other characters, Mrs Brock the governess was the most admirable, the one who seemed to show genuine affection for her charges and "accepted without comment my grotesque, unsentimental fixation on Mummie." Mr Kiely the solicitor was indeed solicitous, but perhaps had a hidden agenda, and one longs to know a bit more about Mister Hamish and Miss Enid, Aroon's cousin with the "hedgehog kiss".

You can't help feeling sorry for Aroon. She seems to be oblivious to the shenanigans that those around her get up to. Can she really be so naive, or is she wilfully ignorant and extending her good behaviour even to her own memories? In her world of emotional repression and Victorian values, "There was to be no sentimentality", even in the depths of despair, "It was the worst kind of bad manners to mourn and grovel in grief."

Friday, 17 April 2020

Deprivation of liberty is punishment all by itself

A Bit of a Stretch: The Diaries of a Prisoner Incompetent, inadequate, spiteful, indifferent - these are just a few of the words that come to mind when considering the management of UK prisons as described in Chris Atkins's journal, A Bit of a Stretch: The Diaries of a Prisoner.

As the title explains, the book is an account of the author's experience in prison after being convicted of tax fraud. It's limited to the first 9 months of his sentence, which he spends in HMP Wandsworth. Urged on by some of his friends, he recorded his experience with the hope that his "unvarnished account will provide a strong argument for urgent prison reform".

The book is full of absurdities and on starting to read you're buoyed by the dark humour that Prisoner A8892DT finds in his ordeal. Who knew, for instance, that "the 75p tuna in brine has long been the basic unit of prison currency"? As time progresses tho' the number of catch-22 situations increases and there's a feeling that Atkins and his fellow prisoners are walking on quicksand and with each step the deeper they sink.

Most shocking is the issue of prisoner mental health, unsurprising since a lack of staff leads to inmates often being locked up in their cells for 23 hours a day. Some prisoners, like Atkins, are trained by the Samaritans to be Listeners, talking down others from self-harm and suicide.

At the end of the book there's more than "enough evidence that Wandsworth, and the prison system as a whole, is failing on an epic scale". Atkins uses his experience to suggest changes need to be made in a number of areas: mental health, officer numbers, offending behaviour courses, employment, education, Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentences, Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system, telephones, bureaucracy, healthcare, and visits. It's such a long list of problems which unnecessarily penalise convicted criminals, when "what's frequently ignored is that deprivation of liberty is a punishment all by itself".

Thursday, 9 April 2020

How should people die?

Have The Men Had Enough? Margaret Forster's Have the Men Had Enough? starts on a Sunday, at a McKay family lunch. Grandma, in the early stages of dementia, is at the table with her son Charlie, his wife Jenny, and their children Hannah and Adrian. Grandma doesn't live with them tho'. She has her own flat, paid for by Charlie, and is looked after by her daughter Bridget and a team of helpers.

The story is narrated by Jenny and Hannah in alternate chapters. They share their thoughts about how their relatives behave, and their frustrations about caring for Grandma, whom they both love. But love is not enough to help them decide what is in Grandma's best interests as her health deteriorates. Is it better for Bridget to give up her job to look after Grandma full time, or to leave her in a mental hospital. As Hannah says, "is it better to be mad or is it better to be sane and cruel?"

The book's subject matter won't appeal to everyone, although whilst it's quite bleak, there are plenty of moments of black humour. Forster's observations are spot on. Anyone who has had experience, no matter how brief, of caring for someone with even very mild dementia will know that laughing about the absurdities is a great release for the stress. But for some readers it will provide a sounding board, just like Hannah, who at 17 years old determines to consider her own death, thinking, "It can't be meant, intended, that people should die like that, can it?"

It's not just about death and how we care for the elderly tho', it's also about family relationships. Grandma "didn't like men, she saw them as enemies, as nuisances, as tyrants. She saw them as spoiling her life. She only liked women". This attitude had a significant influence on the way in which each of her children showed their love for her at the end of her life.

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Everyone can be exploitable in moments of weakness

Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists Going Dark is the result of Julia Ebner's "personal research" into how extremists use social media, online forums, trolling and hacking in order to radicalise individuals.

Six parts deal with different stages in the radicalisation process: recruitment, socialisation, communication, networking, mobilisation, and attack. A final section looks at potential developments over the next five years and then suggests action we might take in 2020.

There's too much of interest in the book to review everything, so here are just a couple of things that stuck in my mind.

First, the danger of engaging with some of the extremists even as a researcher. The author found herself being drawn into the Trad Wives forum "having just come out of a painful break-up". She says that "neither class, gender or race, nor political or religious views, determine if someone will be groomed by extremists. Everyone can be exploitable in moments of weakness, and vulnerability can be a highly temporary concept". Only education, "knowing the steps and signs of radicalisation" saved her.

Second, how the concept of 'free speech' has been hijacked for the purposes of justifying extremist views. Mainstream audiences on popular platforms "are targeted with messages around issues of identity, heritage and free speech". The ideas are taken up in chat groups that claim they are "safe spaces for freedom of speech". In the offline world, we have arrived at a situation where some of the Charlottesville rally participants "try to convince the organisers to reframe the rally around freedom of speech instead of white identity".

There are plenty of other light-bulb moments: how the algorithms of YouTube always draw you to more extremist content, how far-right organizations will dissuade supporters who are obese, disfigured or not trendy enough, and how the Christchurch attack "blurred the lines between trolling and terrorism".

Ebner says her "aim in this book is to make the social dimension of digital extremist movements visible". She achieves this with a well written variety of examples. If your only interaction with online communities is via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or YouTube, by the end of the book, you'll be aware of just what a tiny corner these cover.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Is this the future of child birth?

Dreams Before the Start of Time Anne Charnock's Dreams Before the Start of Time is a story that speculates on the future of child birth. It uses as its basis the current state of research and development in human reproduction, including egg production, impregnation, genetic modification and artificial wombs.

The story begins in 2034 with friends Millie and Toni. Millie wants a baby and chooses donor insemination because it's not the right time for her partner Aiden. Toni becomes pregnant unintentionally and naturally by her partner Atticus. For the next 75 years the book follows the lives of their children, families, and people who are influenced by their choices.

The most memorable episode is when Millie's son Rudy meets his sperm-donating biological father, a smug, arrogant man. It was a tense and explosive situation. There's also one character who is more interesting than the others, Freya Liddicoat. She has a tenuous link to Millie through an orphan boy that Rudy and his wife didn't adopt. Her working class background makes her stand out from the rest of the middle-class characters.

Apart from these two things, a tense episode and a working class character, the book was forgettable. It's not that their lives weren't happy, it's that, like most families, exciting things rarely happen, they just go about their lives doing normal, everyday things. It's not that the characters were unlikeable, it's that they were too normal. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with the book, it's just that the story was not engaging.

Thursday, 19 March 2020

To avenge her father's blood

True Grit Many will know the story of True Grit having seen one of the two screen versions. Charles Portis's book is nonetheless well worth the read, even if you know the ending.

It's narrated by Mattie Ross, a Presbyterian, middle-aged, successful business woman. She tells the story of how, when she was 14, her father was killed by Tom Chaney. Determined to avenge his death she employs a US marshal to track the murderer down. Rooster Cogburn is her choice, the meanest one, "a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don't enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork." They're joined by LaBoeuf, a boastful Texas ranger who's after Chaney for a different crime, and whose "grin and his confident manner cowed everybody", but also made Mattie "worry a little about my straggly hair and red nose."

John Wayne turned Rooster Cogburn into the hero of the story in the 1969 film, but it is the 14-year-old Mattie who has "true grit", and whose character shines through every page. Intellectually she can look after herself, and she refuses to let her youth and gender hold her back. Mattie places a different type of woman into the history and mythology of the American wild west, who is neither a home-maker nor a prostitute.

Finally, there is one important character who we never meet, but who hovers in the background and is used as both a carrot and a stick to help the girl get what she wants. He is lawyer J. Noble Daggett and must be even more formidable than Mattie.

Saturday, 14 March 2020

For fans of John le Carré

The Night Manager At the end of The Night Manager, John le Carré discusses plot and character differences that were used in the 2015 TV adaptation of his book. Let me say, up front, that I preferred the screen version.

The story is set in the early 1990s and opens with the eponymous night manager, Jonathan Pine, waiting for hotel guests to arrive. He's thinking about the death a few years earlier, of Sophie, a woman he slept with and who was killed, probably on the orders of "the worst man in the world", Richard Onslow Roper. Pine blames himself, as well as Roper, for Sophie's death, and it is Roper and his party who are expected at the hotel.

Roper and Pine are perhaps two faces of the same coin. The baddie is a man in whose past "there was neither striving nor disadvantage. Class, privilege .... had been handed to Roper on a salver". In contrast, Pine was orphaned from an early age, and "When God finished putting together Dicky Roper .... He took a deep breath and shuddered a bit, then He ran up our Jonathan to restore the ecological balance". However, I found Pine to be rather wooden and couldn't believe that so many women fell in love with him on sight. Perhaps this is just a feature of the early '90s setting, but none of the female characters exist other than to provide sex, and they are of course long-legged, slim, beautiful and of questionable intelligence. I never really cared about our hero and his mission, and preferred the uneasy, unpredictable company of Roper and his gang.

Another problem was the writing style. There were several instances where, for no reason I could discern, the tense shifted from past to present and back again several times.

The best bits of the book were the manoeuvres of the "espiocrats" in London and America following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Le Carré provides insight into the changes that were taking place within the British intelligence industry, the potential obsolescence of the old style Cold War spy. The story also touches on the hypocrisy of Governments as when Roper talks about cocaine: "Not only does Uncle Sam choose to poison himself with it, but he enriches the oppressed Latinos while he's about it!" And as for the illegal arms trade, the real enemies are the big power governments, "flogging anything to anybody, breaking their own rules". However this is not really a theme of the book.

Aficionados of John Le Carré will probably enjoy The Night Manager much more than I did.

Monday, 24 February 2020

How do you define working class?

Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class by the Working Class "How can you call yourself working class when you live on the French Riviera?" Good question, and one I've been asked several times. Perhaps I'm no longer working class? I thought the Dead Ink publication Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class by the Working Class might provide an answer.

The book is a collection of 23 essays, written "in response to a tweet that, in the aftermath of the EU referendum, requested someone produce a 'State of the Nation' book of working class voices". But how to define the working class? The editor tells us that the authors "self-identify as working class or [as] from a working class background".

As with any collection of essays or short stories, some connect with the reader and others don't. Dominic Grace's experience (The Death of a Pub) was nothing like my teetotal, Methodist upbringing, where the pub was considered to be a wicked place that destroyed lives. However, the two essays about accents (Kate Fox's The Wrong Frequency, and Rym Kechacha's What Colour is a Chameleon) struck a chord with someone who moved away from the North West aged 18, whose accent regularly changes depending on the listener, and whose pronunciation of "bus" and "bath" occasionally prompts tedious banter about it being grim "oop North".

Some essays were entertaining and uplifting, such as that of Wally Jiagoo (Glass Windows and Glass Ceilings) and his struggle to get into media script-writing whilst working at a benefits office. Or Alexandros Plasatis's story of sweet revenge on his dodgy landlord (The Immigrant of Narborough Road).

Others provided an insight into something which had never occurred to me, such as Sian Norris's experiences growing up in a lesbian family in the 90s, dealing with Section 28 (Growing Up Outside of Class).

And then there are those whose beliefs are in line with my own. Cath Bore's experience as and study of cleaners (The Housework Issue (the Other One)) discredits the axiom that if you work hard you'll get on. And Peter Sutton laments the privatisation of education and the desire to reintroduce grammar schools (Education, Education, Education).

In the final essay (You're Not Working Class) the book's editor Nathan Connolly has provided a neat answer for those who accuse me of not being working class because more than half a century after I was born, my life appears to have moved so far from where it began. So I'll leave the last word to him:
"Delegitimising the working class is a step towards removing working class voices. If we want working class writers, actors, politicians, and judges - and if we want those institutions to understand working class life - then we need to expect the working class to be educated and intelligent, perhaps even cultured, perhaps even partial to a high-street coffee chain latte. Otherwise, we're just telling them to know their place".


Thursday, 20 February 2020

Those who leave home, and those who don't

An American Marriage An American Marriage is an odd title for this book by Tayari Jones. True, it's set in America and it follows what happens to a married couple when the husband is wrongly imprisoned. But the story is about much more.

Three characters narrate the tale: Roy, his wife Celestial, and her friend since childhood, Andre, who was also Roy's friend at college. They slowly reveal how Roy and Celestial met, what their parents are like, and how Roy came to be in prison for five years. We also find out how Celestial coped during those five years, and what happened to their relationship when Roy was released.

An American Marriage is a character study of Roy and Celestial, not a fast-paced, exciting plot-driven story. The couple were always ill-matched. When they fell in love Celestial admits that "Roy came into my life at the time when I needed a man like him". Roy's heroics were mostly about his own ego; "I had to keep running as long as she did. How would it look if I hung back?" Once married Roy speaks over his wife, collects other women's phone numbers and doesn't always wear his wedding ring. Describing Celestial's storyboard pictures showing what she wanted out of life, Roy says they included, "a cottage on Amelia Island and an image of the earth as seen from the moon. No wedding dress or engagement ring".

If not about marriage, then what? The story explores how one's upbringing can clash with one's hopes for the future. And if anything, Roy spells out the problem in the first sentence: "There are two kinds of people in the world, those who leave home, and those who don't".

Thursday, 13 February 2020

A mysterious distribution of chapatis

The Siege of Krishnapur I had high expectations for The Siege of Krishnapur, perhaps too high.

JG Farrell's book is a fictionalised account of the 1857 Indian Mutiny and Siege of Lucknow. It's nearly all set in the British residency in Krishnapur, North India, and features a cast of characters of whom the Collector is perhaps the most important. He's obsessed with the 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations that was staged in London. Other memorable characters include Lucy Hughes the "fallen woman", Harry and Fleury who both fall under her spell, and the two doctors, McNab and Dunstaple, who hold opposing views on the causes and treatment of cholera.

But it took an age for me to get into the story. It started well enough, explaining that the "first sign of trouble at Krishnapur came with a mysterious distribution of chapatis", which held a promise of the humour I'd heard is a great feature of the novel. Unfortunately the style of writing didn't appeal to me and I found my mind wandering. I'd read around three-quarters of the book before I really felt engaged.

As for the humour, it's more absurd than funny-ha-ha, although I did actually laugh out loud at two points, both during the siege itself: one relating to the misfiring of a gun, the other to the relative merits of Shakespeare and Keats.

I think it'll improve on a second reading.

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.