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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

"The Breaking of Bumbo" by Andrew Sinclair

This is Sinclair's first novel, published in 1959. It was based on his experiences doing National Service. It was an instant success, making him famous. He wrote the screenplay and directed the film of the novel in 1970. He is most famous for writing the screenplay and directing Under Milk Wood, a film produced in 1972, based on the Dylan Thomas poem, in which Richard Burton reprised his role of narrator from the 1954 BBC Radio drama. Sinclair was a prolific writer of fiction and history.

The Breaking of Bumbo is a strange book. The first section describes how Bumbo, straight out of Eton, as a very raw (and virginal) eighteen year old, is trained as a National Serviceman and somehow, despite a chaotic night exercise, and an even more chaotic attempt to seduce a Debutante, becomes an officer in the Guards. This section was quite difficult to read: there were in-comments about his Etonian schooldays (which, as an ex-alumni, I understood but I doubt that others would) and extraordinarily callow conversations with a friend. Looking back having finished the book I appreciate how this showed how immature Bumbo was.

The second section describes his life as a junior officer in the Guards. Bumbo has always been a bit of an outsider: having grown up a son of perfectly respectable suburban parents he goes to Eton as a scholar and manages to get accepted by the (mostly much richer) boys because as well as being clever he is also good at sports. But he is fundamentally an Outsider (in the Colin Wilson sense) and this becomes more obvious in the Brigade. He enjoys the ceremonial duties and he likes getting drunk in the Officers' Mess but he feels detached from 'Them'. His social life revolves around an active sex life with a model called Susie and louche parties with speed-talking Jock ("So Jock's spiel babbled on to Babylon"; C 7) whose milieu seems to hint at homosexuality (which would have been illegal in 1959): "we like sex, slumming, and cool jazz too. As Humph said at the Chelsea Palace, a cat can look at a Queen. But don't you worry, Bumboboy, I know a fellow soul when I see one. No codpiece, honest. You just try it out for size chez moi, and if you like it, the door is always wide-open." (C 7)

Then he makes a stand for what he considers to be the 'right' thing to do and 'Their' forces combine to crush him.

There are some brilliant descriptions:

  • "Black tongues of fog licked under the spikes of the Traitor's Gate, and the ravens croaked like damned souls." (C 4)
  • "The lamp-lights throw wavy-yellow commas in reflection on the water." (C 13)
  • "Every blade of hair mowed into place." (C 7)
  • "Two birds sat on his eyelids, pecking through to the retina." (C 16) He has a hangover

He is also great at encapsulating ideas pithily:

  • "There was something, perhaps, to be learned even among the stupid." (C 1)
  • "If equipment did not fit a man, it was the man who was warped." (C 6)
  • "Hell, what was memory to a man anyway, except to make him believe his make-believe." (C 8)
  • "Nobody in their senses wants the crooked made straight. It's the corkscrew that opens the bottle, ain't it?" (C 9)
  • "The moment a man says, I'm one of a crowd, he might as well be dead." (C 12)
  • "Everyone's as nice as they can afford to be; it's just the rich who can afford rather more." (C 12)

Other great moments:

  • "Each Young Officer was given a private servant, to dress him in the armour of his divinity ... to bend his officer's cap with a wet towel, to brush his bowler, to spit on the pointed toes of his George boots, to polish his engraved sword, to wash his white gloves, and ... to brush the hair of his master's bearskin over his eyes, like a trainer pulling the fringe of the embroidered mat over the arse of a circus elephant." (C 4)
  • "He joined the rat-race of the Seasonal men, and strolled among the ragbags of puppy-fat and easy meat, that answered to the names of debutantes." (C 5)
  • "The whole racket was a badly-organized, commercial marriage mart, screened by a venial veneer of ex-aristos." (C 5)
  • "Bumbo ... could not see any pair of buttocks that seemed to be enjoying themselves." (C 5)
  • "Men who loved laughter for the good feeling it gave, like brown ale, in their stomachs." (C 6)
  • "They would wash down the mixture with the brown syrup they called tea, that lined their bowels as comfortingly as lime lines a kettle." (C 6)
  • "Do you always keep a down-turned horseshoe in your mouth?" (C 7)

A fascinating book which deserves to be better known. I must seek out further books by Sinclair.

March 2020; 200 pages

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