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.

Monday, 30 December 2019

I loathed Mexico

The Lawless Roads Graham Greene "was commissioned to write a book on the religious situation" in Mexico in 1938, which resulted in The Lawless Roads travel memoir, as well as inspiring his novel The Power and the Glory.

"I loathed Mexico" admits Greene, and after reading of his experiences it's no surprise. He travels by bus, train, boat and plane, but most memorably over the mountains by mule. He stays on the border, visits Mexico City, and promised himself to spend Holy Week "in Catholic Las Casas, to see how it was observed in a city where the churches were open - so I was told - but the priests not allowed inside." His travels are filled with mosquitos, black beetles, discomfort and dysentery, and yet on his return home Greene tried to remember his hatred. Like many travellers he finds "a bad time over is always tinged with regret."

Thursday, 19 December 2019

Why Bournemouth?

The Fog There's no hanging around waiting for things to happen in The Fog. James Herbert has disaster strike at the end of the first chapter and follows up with scenes of violence and madness that tumble one after the other. It's as if he's imagined as many unconnected examples of people and animals behaving in a deranged, uncontrolled way as possible, then makes up the "fog" as a spurious device to link them. About half way through, after the Bournemouth episode, the plot eventually kicks in and the authorities, aided by the hero Holman, must work out how to stop the horror.

The horror is of course the point of the book. Other reviewers have pointed out some of the very graphic scenes, but what Herbert really does well in The Fog is to induce tension through anticipation. The reader imagines what is going to happen: What will that man do with that axe and those nails? What will he do with those gardening shears? You don't need to read on to picture the horror, but to confront your own worst nightmare.

There's an anti-establishment theme running through the book. Some of the people affected by the fog feel they've been treated badly by those in authority; the poacher had "been dragged along by his collar as though he were riff-raff"; the office security man earning a "pittance of a salary and the privilege of having snot-nosed execs bidding him 'Good morning' or 'Good night' when they felt like it." The protagonist Holman carries out undercover investigations for the Department of Environment, but his reports rarely lead to action because "when politics - business or governmental - became involved, he knew the chances of prosecution against the offenders were slim." He wonders cynically "how you qualify to be a "special" person" to gain access to the underground bunkers, and asks if there are other shelters "for the ordinary people."

Unexpectedly there's also a bit of black humour in the horror. I chuckled at the vicar and sniggered at the homing pigeons. Then, remembering a holiday in Bournemouth, I tittered at the seaside resort's tragic fate. Had James Herbert himself spent a week's vacation there?

Saturday, 14 December 2019

Grey Goose vodka, Louboutins, and Miu Miu

Codename Villanelle (Killing Eve, #1) It's difficult to read Luke Jennings's Codename Villanelle without imagining the Killing Eve TV series (see trailer below), but here goes.

The book opens in an Italian lakeside villa where a group of twelve men are meeting to discuss their European business interests, which are being threatened by a Sicilian mafia boss. The men unanimously decide he must be killed. We then meet the assassin Villanelle and her handler Konstantin.

The story follows Villanelle as she carries out assassinations on behalf of the shady group of twelve, taking in Paris, London, Beijing, Russia and elsewhere. Villanelle is a psychopathic killer who enjoys a "Grey Goose vodka Martini," "her feet in her strappy satin Louboutins," and wearing a "Miu-miu sweater". There's a lot of named merchandise in the story. By contrast, Eve the British agent on Villanelle's trail, is a more nuanced character who becomes obsessed with finding the female assassin, to the point of harming her marriage.

It's a fast-paced plot, written primarily in the present tense, which gives the impression that one's reading a screenplay. Some may find that this places them within the action, but it can also promote a sense of detachment, which is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when it's used to reflect Villanelle's thoughts and actions. It also serves to focus Eve's tension in a particularly enjoyable scene where she and her colleague have broken into a house.

There's no resolution at the end of the book. Some may find this a clever way to encourage readers to buy the next instalment. Others such as myself consider it an annoying ploy.

Monday, 9 December 2019

Delighted to be British

Watling Street: Travels Through Britain and Its Ever-Present Past John Higgs calls Britain a "divided island [which] has lost a workable sense of identity". He journeys along Watling Street in an attempt to understand that division and because, "when you lose something, you retrace your steps until you find it again."

In "Watling Street: Travels Through Britain and Its Ever-Present Past" Higgs explores some of the quintessential myths and histories that feed into a sense of British nationality: the White Cliffs, Thomas Becket, Dick Turpin, bawdy humour, the sport of rugby, Merlin, Boudica. By the end of the book, we realise that some ideas of identity are shared by some British citizens, others by others, but not all by everyone, whether they live in the UK or not.

Whichever stories give you a sense of national identity, Higgs warns against the idea of national pride which tends towards nationalism. A sense of national identity, "should not make anyone proud to be British; it should make them delighted to be British."

Friday, 29 November 2019

All the freedom that loneliness brings

Quartet in Autumn (Plume) Quartet in Autumn traces the lives and thoughts of four office workers in London over the course of about a year, as they approach retirement. Written in 1977, Barbara Pym had herself reached the age of her protagonists and she paints a bleak picture of how the over 60s are viewed by those who are younger.

Marcia was "ageing, slightly mad and on the threshold of retirement." Her colleagues "shied away from her or made only the most perfunctory remarks." Janice, her social worker was patronising, and her neighbour Priscilla sanctimoniously believed "the poor souls just long for somebody to talk to."

However, one can't help but feel that Letty, Marcia, Edwin and Norman must take some responsibility for their own loneliness, which seems to be the result of a genteel English middle-class politeness and aversion to prying. There are plenty of opportunities for each of the characters to get to know each other better and yet they choose to remain aloof.

Pym's Excellent Women is funnier, although there are moments of humour, for instance in Letty's interaction with David the country cleric. The Sweet Dove Died is more acerbic in its treatment of an aging woman, but Quartet in Autumn most deftly captures the reality of pensioners' expectations of life in old age, with "all the freedom that loneliness brings," especially for those like Letty, who owned "no photographs, not even of her friend Marjorie or of her old home, her parents, a cat or a dog."

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

They won't be so stupid as to fall for that clown

The Past is Myself & The Road Ahead Omnibus: When I Was a German, 1934-1945
'You may think that Germans are political idiots [-] and you may be right, but of one thing I can assure you, they won't be so stupid as to fall for that clown.'

Such was the opinion of many in Germany in the early 1930s, including Peter Bielenberg, the lawyer husband of Christabel, an English woman who took German citizenship following her marriage. The Past Is My Life is based on diaries she kept while living in Germany during the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, through to the end of WW2.

In January 1933 Hitler was appointed Chancellor, with "only two other National Socialists with him in his Cabinet," there was a belief "that he was well hemmed-in" by the respectable, old-school elite politicians of the Weimar Republic. However, "the whole process of what was called 'co-ordination' was over and done with" within five months. Hitler became Germany's dictator.

How could the political situation change so fast? Bielenberg's memoir is not a historian's analysis, but shows how a shared feeling of being betrayed at the end of WW1 fed into the propaganda that was used to justify military aggression. Her viewpoint is privileged, not that of the working-class, yet it provides plenty of insight into living in the Third Reich as an opponent of the regime. What particularly comes across is how exhausting it was to be constantly on guard against making a thoughtless comment, and the need to be wary of every new acquaintance.

Peter Bielenberg's description of Hitler as a clown should sound a warning bell in 2019. One should be wary of buffoonery and deceit, neither of which are impediments to reaching the highest position of Government.