About Me

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Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. 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

Saturday, 31 October 2020

"The Bridge of San Luis Rey" by Thornton Wilder

 The fictional stories of the five people who fell to their deaths when a rope bridge in Peru collapsed in 1714. The five people are all connected. Their stories are told in intricate detail with rich descriptions; this is a novella in which the dictum 'show don't tell' is repeatedly flouted and the effect is to create something of beauty. 

There are some remarkable moments:

  • "The whole purpose of literature is the notation of the heart. Style is but the faintly contemptible vehicle in which the bitter liquid is recommended to the world." (The Marquesa de Montemayor; Pepita)
  • "The Abbess was one of those persons who have allowed their lives to be gnawed away because they have fallen in love with an idea several centuries before its appointed appearance in the history of civilization."  (The Marquesa de Montemayor; Pepita)
  • "The women in Peru, even her nuns, went through life with two notions: one, that all the misfortunes that might befall them were due to the fact that they were not sufficiently attractive to bind some man to their maintenance; and, two, that all the misery in the world was worth his caress."  (The Marquesa de Montemayor; Pepita)
  • "He possessed the six attributes of the adventurer - a memory for names and faces, with the aptitude for altering his own; the gift of tongues; inexhaustible invention; secrecy; the talent for falling into conversation with strangers; and that freedom from conscience that springs from a contempt for the dozing rich he preyed upon." (Uncle Pio; Don Jaime)
  • "The highest attribute of a cafe singer will always be her novelty."  (Uncle Pio; Don Jaime)
  • "There was something in Lima that was wrapped up in yards of violet satin from which protruded a great dropsical head and two fat pearly hands; and that was its archbishop."  (Uncle Pio; Don Jaime)
  • "Some days he regarded his bulk ruefully; but the distress of remorse was less poignant than the distress of fasting."  (Uncle Pio; Don Jaime)
  • "He had to repeat over to himself his favourite notions: that the injustice and unhappiness in the world is a constant; that the theory of progress is a delusion; that the poor, never having known happiness, are insensible to misfortune."  (Uncle Pio; Don Jaime)
  • "Like all the rich he could not bring himself to believe that the poor (look at their houses, look at their clothes!) could really suffer."  (Uncle Pio; Don Jaime)
  • "He thought he saw in the same accident the wicked visited by destruction and the good called early to heaven." (Perhaps an Intention)
  • "She talked that night of all those out in the dark ... who had no one to turn to, for whom the world perhaps was more than difficult, without meaning."  (Perhaps an Intention)

A delightful, and short, book. October 2020; 126 pages


Wednesday, 28 October 2020

"Candide" by Voltaire

Is it a (picaresque) novel? Is it a work of philosophy. This best-selling and highly influential work by French savant and philosophe Voltaire set out to ridicule the philosophy of Optimism, formulated by Liebnitz, which suggested that because God is good therefore all is for the best. Voltaire, writing in 1759, four years after the Lisbon earthquake destroyed 85% of Lisbon's buildings and killed about 15% of its inhabitants, many of them in church celebrating All Saints' Day; the earthquake is referenced in the book: “The sea boiled up in the harbour and broke the ships which lay at anchor. Whirlwinds of flame and ashes covered the streets and squares. Houses came crashing down. Roofs toppled onto their foundations, and the foundations crumbled. Thirty thousand men, women and children were crushed to death under the ruins.” (Ch 5). Also referenced under rather greater disguise was the Seven Years War which had started shortyly before the book was published. Voltaire's greatest creation was Dr Pangloss who repeatedly insists that "all is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds" despite being confronted with tragedy and calamity.

But to talk about philosophy makes the book sound difficult and serious. In fact it is short, easy to read and often farcically comic. Characters frequently come to sticky ends, their deaths clear and evidenced, and then reappear later; there is a convoluted and highly improbably narrative which 'explains' how they escaped.

Fundamentally this is a bildungsroman following the adventures of the young Candide who "combined sound judgement with unaffected simplicity.” (Ch 1), cast out of a paradisical garden and forced to wander the world, usually with companions, always seeking to be reunited with the love of his life, Cunegonde. He suffers war, observing the rape and murder of civilians and gets enlisted in both the opposing armies. He is in Lisbon with Pangloss when the earthquake strikes. Pangloss is subsequently executed by the Inquisition; Candide is 'only' flogged. He murders the Grand Inquisitor and then travels across the Atlantic (with Cunegonde with whom he has been reunited despite reports of her death) to put down a Jesuit rebellion in Paraguay. There, the governor is determined to have Cunegonde as a mistress and Candide has to fo a runner with his servant Cacambo. They go the the Jesuits where they discover that the Father-Provincial is Cunegonde's supposedly-dead (of course) brother. He objects that Candide is insufficiently aristocratic to marry his sister, they fight, Candide kills him, and Candide and Cacambo steal some horses and ride off. They are captured by cannibalistic savages who release them on discovering that Candide has killed a Jesuit. They have a difficult journey through the wilderness but arrive in El Dorado. The streets are literally cobbled with nuggets of gold and there are precious stones all over the place. The King gives them untold riches and they travel away from Eldorado. Candide then sends Cacambo back to Buenos Aires to kidnap Cunegonde from the governor while Candide will travel to Venice and wait for them. But Candide is cheated by the captain of the ship who sails off as soon as all the treasure is on board and has to take passage for Bordeaux with a new companion called Martin who is as pessimistic as Pangloss was optimistic. Arriving in France he goes to Paris and then, seeking the elusive Cacambo and Cunegonde, to England (but refuses to set foot in that country) and so to Venice. Everyone there professes to be miserable. They are reunited with Cacambo and travel to Turkey.  En route they discover Pangloss (his execution by the Inquisition was botched) and Cunegonde's brother (the one who became a Jesuit and was killed by Candide but who actually recovered from his wounds) as galley slaves; Candide pays for them to be freed. Finally he discovers Cunegonde but she is now hideously ugly. Nevertheless the newly wealthy Candide proposes to free her (she too is a slave) and marry her but he can't do the latter becayse her brother (also freed by Candide) still objects that Candide is not aristocratic. They end up (most of them) working on a small-holding that Candidfe has bought. Back in the garden. As Candide concludes: “Oui, mais il faut cultiver notre jardin.” (Ch 30, last words)

You couldn't make it up. But Voltaire did.

The plot is farce and Candide's companions are, if anything, even more farcical:
  • Candide's tutor is Dr Pangloss: “He proved incontestably that there is no effect without a cause, and that this is the best of all possible worlds ... our noses were made to carry spectacles, so we have spectacles. ... pigs were made to be eaten ... all is for the best.” (Ch 1) When Pangloss catches syphilis, we are told: “He had had it from an old countess, who had had it from a cavalry officer, who was indebted for it to a marchioness. She took it from her page, and he had received it from a Jesuit, who while still a novice, had had it in direct line from one of the companions of Christopher Columbus.” (Ch 4)
  • The Old Woman is repeatedly raped, except by the eunuch, and enslaved; she even has a buttock removed. She would have killed herself but she was too much in love with life. “Persuade every passenger to tell you his story, and if you even find one who has not cursed his life and told himself that he is the most miserable man alive, you can throw me into the sea head first.” (Ch 12)
  • The Baron (Cunegonde's brother) who became a Jesuit because “You know ...what a good-looking boy I was: well, I grew up more handsome still, and the ... the father superior of the house took a fancy to me.” (Ch 15) and later, in Turkey, was sentenced to the galleys because “I met a handsome young lad who was one of the Sultan’s pages. It was very hot, and the young man wanted to bathe, so I took the opportunity of bathing to. I did not know that it was a capital offence for a Christian to be found naked with a young Mussulman.” (Ch 28)
  • Martin is the epitome of gloom: “When I survey this globe, or rather this globule, I am forced to the conclusion that God has abandoned it to some mischievous power ... I have scarcely seen a town which does not seek the ruin of a neighbouring town, not a family that does not wish to exterminate another family. You will find that the weak always detest the strong and cringe before them, and that the strong treat them like so many sheep to be sold for their meat and wool. A million regimented assassins surge from one end of Europe to the other, earning their living by committing murder and brigandage in strictest discipline, because they have no more honest livelihood; and in those towns which seem to enjoy the blessings of peace and where the arts flourish, men suffer more from envy, cares, and anxiety than a besieged town suffers from the scourges of war ... I am forced to believe man's origin is evil.” (Ch 20)
Other great moments:
  • Those who have never see two well-trained armies drawn up for battle, can have no idea of the beauty and brilliance of the display. Bugles, fifes, oboes, drums, and salvoes of artillery produced such a harmony as Hell itself could not rival.” (Ch 3)
  • He reached a neighbouring village ... It was now no more than a smoking ruin, for the Bulgars had burned it to the ground in accordance with the terms of international law. Old men, crippled with wounds, watched helplessly the death-throes of their butchered women-folk, who still clasped their children to their bloodstained breasts. Girls who had satisfied the appetites of several heroes lay disembowelled in their last agonies.” (Ch 3)
  • "I have had to trample on the crucifix four times in various trips I’ve been to Japan. I’m not the man for your Universal Reason." (Ch 5)
  • I know how the Reverend fathers govern ... There are thirty provinces in their kingdom, and it is more than three hundred leagues across. The Reverend father own the whole lot, and the people own nothing: that's what I call a masterpiece of reason and justice.” (Ch 14)
  • Why should you find it so strange that in some parts of the world monkeys obtain ladies’ favours? They are partly human, just as I am partly Spanish.”  (Ch 16)
  • The laws of nature teach us to kill our fellow creatures, and that is what happens in every corner of the earth.” (Ch 16)
  • Do you mean to say you have no monks teaching and disputing, governing and intriguing, and having people burned if they don't subscribe to their opinions?” (Ch 18)
  • For clothing, we are giving a pair of canvas drawers twice a year. Those of us who work in the factories and happen to catch a finger in the grindstone have a hand chopped off; if we try to escape, they cut off one leg. Both accidents happened to me. That's the price of your eating sugar in Europe. ... Dogs, monkeys, and parrots are much less miserable than we are. The Dutch fetishes, who converted me, tell me every Sunday that we are all children of Adam, black and white alike. I am no genealogist; but if these preachers speak the truth, we must all be cousins. Now, you will surely agree that relations could not be treated more horribly.” (ch 19)
  • When, in a sea battle, the ship of the Dutch pirate who robbed Candide is sunk. Candide observes that “crime is sometimes punished” because the Dutch pirate had drowned. Martin replies “why should the passengers have perished too? God has punished a scoundrel, but the devil has drowned the rest.” (Ch 20)
  • Wherever you go in France, you will find that the three chief occupations are making love, backbiting, and talking nonsense.” (Ch 21)
  • I know Paris ... It's chaos, a mob of people all out for pleasure, and scarcely a soul who finds it. ... I am told that there are some people in that city noted for their good manners; I wish I could think so.”  (Ch 21)
  • ‘But what was this world created for?’ ... ‘ To drive us mad’” (Ch 21)
  • Do you think ... that men have always ... being false, cozening, faithless, ungrateful, thieving, weak, inconstant, mean-spirited, envious, greedy, drunken, miserly, ambitious, bloody, slanderous, debauched, fanatic, hypocritical, and stupid?” (Ch 21)
  • “Imagine every possible contradiction and inconsistency, and you will find them in the government, the law-courts. The churches, and in the whole life of this absurd nation.” (Ch 22)
  • He’s an evil-minded fellow ... who earns his living by damning every play and every book. He hates successful writers, just as eunuchs hate successful lovers. He is one of those snakes of literature who feed on dirt and venom. He’s ... a journalist.” (Ch 22)
  • dans ce pays-ci il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres.” In this country it is good to kill, from time to time, an admiral to encourage the others. (Ch 23)
  • What a genius this Pococurante is! Nothing can please him.” (Ch 25)
  • Work banishes those three great evils, boredom, vice, and poverty.” (Ch 30)

A classic work of philosophy, tremendously influential. It's view of the Problem of Evil (why did God allow people to die in the Lisbon earthquake?) was perhaps when the Enlightenment started along the road towards atheism and is responsible for our modern largely godless society. It's depiction of priests as mercenary and lustful was highly influential in the abolition of religious houses during the French revolution.

But more than that, for those who like their humour on the ridiculous side, it is hilarious.

And it isn't difficult to read! Have a go.

October 2020


"Boneland" by Alan Garner

 This novel purports to be the culmination of the trilogy starting with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath.

There were fifty years between the writing of the first book and that of the last.

Boneland is a very different book. The first two are children's books with magic and witches and dwarfs and elves and wizards and adventure. Boneland intercuts between the story of a scientist having a nervous breakdown and the story of a shaman in another time or possibly another star system who dances to keep the world alive and seeks a pupil so he can past the tradition on.While the first two are beautifully written simple narratives, Boneland is beautifully written in another way, but it is highly elliptical and hard to understand. 

The plot of the non-shaman bit involves Colin, one of the children of the first two books, now a scientist working on a radio telescope and trying, in his madder moments, to communicate with his long lost sister, Susan. If we puzzle through his dialogues with a mysterious psychotherapist we gain clues to what happened to Colin and Susan, but no definitive answers.

In fact, if Boneland is a sequel to anything, it is to Garner's Red Shift. In both there is a fear of blue and silver ("Her earrings. Blue, silver. Blue silvers. Lightnings. - No!" p 23; "Sky gone! Eyes! Old! Old eyes! Strong! Blue light! Silver! No! Gone!"; p 37); in both there is a handaxe; in both the dialogue fractures as the lead character descends into madness; in both there are alternative narratives that intercut and, at some level, connect. There is even a sequence in which Colin explains to Meg that the inanimate pebbles are moving: through continental drift, the rotation of the Earth, the orbiting of the Earth around the Sun, the movement of the solar system ... and so on. This is structurally identical to a scene in Red Shift in which Tom explains the same thing to Jan.

During the book (p 37) Colin references the Aeneid by Vergil book 6 lines 703 - 751 which is where Aeneas is in the underworld and his (dead) dad Anchises reveals that the souls of the dead return to earth three times in a version of transubstantiation, getting three goes to get things right so they can break out of this cycle and ascend to the Elysian Fields. Perhaps Garner is saying that it took him three books for Colin to sort himself out. Perhaps Colin and the shaman are supposed to be twin souls trapped in bodies many millennia apart.

There are other references to hell. In the Weirdstone, one of the more dramatic passages is when the children are fleeing goblins through a series of underground passages. The Shaman sections of the book are often set in cave systems, although the Shaman's whole world could represent a rather frosty hell. On page 55 Colin hears a voice, possibly that of Susan his sister, possibly that of Meg the psychiatrist, that says: "Don't turn around. You know what happens when men look back." (p 55) This probably references Colin as Orpheus who is attempting to discover and bring back from the dead his missing presumed dead sister Susan as Eurydice.

I found it difficult to read, especially the shaman narrative. 

But there were some marvellous moments:

  • "What you've described is well recorded in the literature. It's known as Missing Twin Syndrome. It creates the illusion of another self. It can be pathological, but it often has a physical reality, where one embryo has absorbed the other, or aborted it." (p 64): Colin and Susan were twins, we discover, and now Susan is missing.
  • "You can't beat a log fire ... It warms you three times ... Once fetching, once splitting, once burning." (p 74)
  • "We're savannah apes. That's where our brains are at. Why should they need to be equipped to solve the most difficult problems the cosmos may throw at us? Isn't it likely there are areas as far beyond our comprehension as the theory of relativity is beyond that of an amoeba?" (p 86)

A fascinating addition to Garner's oeuvre. October 2020; 149 pages

Garner is author of a number of novels, mostly aimed at children, in which ancient legends and magical worlds impact upon everyday life:

  • The Weirdstone of Brisingamenits sequel The Moon of Gomrathand the distinctively different concluding part to the 'trilogy', Boneland.
  • Elidor, a Narnia-style children's fantasy
  • The utterly brilliant Owl Service (aimed at young adults)
  • Red Shift, also aimed at young adults and perhaps the darkest of Garner's novels. A line in Elidor - "The legend says that there was once a ploughboy in Elidor: an idiot, given to fits. But in his fit he spoke clearly, and was thought to prophesy." (C 6) - seems to be a link with one of the characters in Red Shift.
  • The definitively adult Thursbitch

Tuesday, 27 October 2020

"The Moon of Gomrath" by Alan Garner

This is the sequel to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, in which Colin and Susan, with the assistance of a couple of dwarfs, helped magician Cadellin find the lost Weirdstone, fighting off the forces of wickedness led by evil witch The Morrigan. 

The Moon of Gomrath finds the two again fighting the Morrigan, this time with the aid of Susan's magical bracelet, another dwarf and a troop of elves. In the course of their adventures they light a fire on the Beacon on the eve of the Moon of Gomrath, "one of the four nights of the year when Time and Forever mingle" (Ch 11). This conjures up The Wild Hunt, with Herne the Hunter at their head, and assorted aspects of Old Magic. 

As always, whenever all seems lost a dwarf or an elf or The Wild Hunt or another piece of magic come to the aid of the children: the book, like its predecessor, solves all problems with such a deus ex machina. It makes a cracking read and the battle near the end is superbly told. But even that, in the context of the plot, is futile and meaningless; one can understand the frustration of the dying elves.

There are times when the author writes prose at least as magical as any of the spells cast:

  • "voices that were like an ache and a desolation of the soul." (Ch 14)
  • "It was a wind that would take hair from a horse, and moor-grass from the ground: it would take heather from the hill, and willow from the root: it would take the limpet from the crag, and the eagle from its young: and it came over the gritstone peaks, howling and raging, in blazing sparks of fire." (Ch 14)

Magical moments:

  • "The world of Magic that lies as near and unknown to us as the back part of a shadow." (Ch 2)
  • "I thought it was time for me to take my legs along with me." (Ch 4)
  • "Who now brings fire to the mound at the Eve of Gomrath?" (Ch 9) This question, awakening the Hunt, at near enough the centre of the story, is a phrase that I can remember from when I first read this book, aged about ten, in the Puffin edition priced 3/6d that I still have.
  • "We shall have to act quickly, or wide numbers will go to sleep with light in their eyes, and only the raven will find profit." (Ch 10)

It may seem strange to modern sensibilities that a book written for children, starring two pre-teens, has so much slaughter in it. The death of a friend is traumatic and much mourned, but the death of scores of goblins and wildcats and others is reckoned as no more than notches on the swords. There is a limit. When Colin suggests the use of guns the response from the efficient killer that is the chief dwarf is: "You may look here, and find us at the slaughter, but we know the cost of each death, since we see the eyes of those we send to darkness, and the blood on our hands, and each killing is the first for us.I tell you, life is true then, and its worth is clear. But to kill at a distance is not to know, and that is man's destruction." (Ch 18) A strange sentiment for the author, an ex-lieutenant in the Royal Artillery, perhaps. But even with this proviso, even with the elf-leader bitterly counting the cost to his folk for saving a single human boy from captivity ("One life to save a man"; Ch 17), much of the book seems to celebrate killing.

Nevertheless, this remains a book from which I can quote when more than fifty years have lapsed. It's hugely strong narrative arc and the brilliance of its descriptions carried me along with the story then, as they do now. And if my adult self finds it poorly plotted it still impresses with the beauty of its prose.

October 2020; 168 pages

Garner is author of a number of novels, mostly aimed at children, in which ancient legends and magical worlds impact upon everyday life:

  • The Weirdstone of Brisingamenits sequel The Moon of Gomrathand the distinctively different concluding part to the 'trilogy', Boneland.
  • Elidor, a Narnia-style children's fantasy
  • The utterly brilliant Owl Service (aimed at young adults)
  • Red Shift, also aimed at young adults and perhaps the darkest of Garner's novels. A line in Elidor - "The legend says that there was once a ploughboy in Elidor: an idiot, given to fits. But in his fit he spoke clearly, and was thought to prophesy." (C 6) - seems to be a link with one of the characters in Red Shift.
  • The definitively adult Thursbitch

Monday, 26 October 2020

"The Weirdstone of Brisingamen" by Alan Garner

Colin and Susan go to stay for six months at a farm on Alderley Edge with a Cheshire farmer called Gowther Mossock and his wife, who used to be the children's nurse. The book was written in the 1960s, so the middle-classness is rather taken for granted. Susan's 'tear stone' turns out to be the Weirdstone of Brisingamen, stolen from a nearby cave where wizard Cadellin keeps watch as one hundred and forty knights lie sleeping, to be awoken "when England shall be in direst peril". Tolkien-esque adventures ensue with friendly but sword-wielding dwarfs, witches and warlocks, elves and troll-spawn, and all the bestiary of fantasy.

Garner borrows heavily from Norse mythology. The place where the arch-fiend dwells is called Ragnarok, the Norse Gotterdammerung; the goblins are called svarts (in this magic white represents good and black bad), the chief witch is the Morrigan, from Irish legend (she casts spells in Latin, like Harry Potter), the baddies control the weather, bringing fimbulwinter, which in Norse myth is the winter that destroys all life on Earth as an immediate precedent to Ragnarok; Managarm is the wolf that chases the moon.

In common with books of that era, it is allowed a slow start. Recognition that Susan's 'tear' is the Weirdstone doesn't happen until the 25% mark; it is almost instantly taken from them. There are no moral ambiguities although the dwarfs are experienced, efficient and ruthless killers who boast to one another about how many they have killed. There is little scope for character development. Perhaps more seriously, there is little opportunity for the heroes to display strengths other than endurance. Whenever the children are faced with a challenge they are aided by yet another magical helper who appears from nowhere, such that the deus ex machina is almost a leitmotif. It is only at the end that triumph and disaster become imposters, and for that the children are bystanders and witnesses. 

What lifts the book beyond the ordinary is the two journeys that the children, with accompanying dwarfs, make: one through mine shafts and tunnels, fleeing from goblins, and one through the surface landscape. In both cases minute attention is paid to descriptive detail. The author must know ar first hand what it is like to wriggle through tunnels little bigger than yourself, sometimes flooded, and to climb down rock faces. He must know every rock of the landscape he describes: "Any movement would have set the leaves dancing at the end of their snake-like branches. It was as though they were dangling in a snarl of burglar alarms." (Ch 16) In this book the hills and forests and rocks and caves are characters more vividly described than the humans.

Some great moments:

  • "Owls ... fly like drunken elves by day." (Ch 7)
  • "Men thought to drain that land and live there, but the spirit of the place entered them, and their house were built drab, and desolate, and without cheer; and all around the bog still sprawls, from out the drear lake come soulless thoughts and drift into the hearts of the people." (Ch 7)
  • "He did not like witch-magic: it relied too much on clumsy nature spirits and the slow brewing of hate. He preferred the lightning stroke of fear and the dark powers of the mind." (Ch 9)
  • "This crude magic had weight. It piled force on force, like a mounting wave, and overwhelmed its prey with the slow violence of an avalanche." (Ch 9)
  • "The yellow walls were streaked with browns, blacks, reds, blues, and greens - veins of mineral that traced the turn of wind and wave upon a shore, twenty million years ago." (Ch 10)
  • "They cried or laughed, each according to his nature, but the sound in all cases was the same." (Ch 14)
  • "It had the tumulus's air of mystery; it was subtly different from the surrounding country; it knew more than the fields in which it had its roots." (Ch 17)

A fairly standard fantasy hero's adventure story, written for children, but lifted into excellence by the quality of the descriptive writing.

October 2020; 236 pages

Garner is author of a number of novels, mostly aimed at children, in which ancient legends and magical worlds impact upon everyday life:

  • The Weirdstone of Brisingamenits sequel The Moon of Gomrathand the distinctively different concluding part to the 'trilogy', Boneland.
  • Elidor, a Narnia-style children's fantasy
  • The utterly brilliant Owl Service (aimed at young adults)
  • Red Shift, also aimed at young adults and perhaps the darkest of Garner's novels. A line in Elidor - "The legend says that there was once a ploughboy in Elidor: an idiot, given to fits. But in his fit he spoke clearly, and was thought to prophesy." (C 6) - seems to be a link with one of the characters in Red Shift.
  • The definitively adult Thursbitch

Sunday, 25 October 2020

"Murder Must Advertise" by Dorothy L Sayers

Lord Peter Wimsey works undercover in an advertising agency to discover if an apparently accidental death was murder and, if it was, whodunnit. Throw in a drug ring (and orgies, even in the 1930s!) and a climactic cricket match and you have all the ingredients of a classic murder mystery. 

Plus, since Sayers herself worked in advertising (she was responsible for the Guinness Toucan), we have some thought-provoking observations on the industry (not the least of which, from hindsight, is the guilt-free encouragement of millions to smoke cigarettes, such as:“We want to get women down to serious smoking. Too many of them play about with it.”; Ch 16):
  • You’ll soon find that the biggest obstacle to good advertising is the client.” (Ch 1)
  • Of course, there is some truth in advertising. There’s yeast in bread, but you can’t make bread with yeast alone. Truth in advertising ... provides a suitable quantity of gas, with which to blow out a mass of crude misrepresentation into a form that the public can swallow.” (Ch 5)
  • Whatever you’re doing, stop it and do something else! Whatever you’re buying, pause and buy something different. Be hectored into health and prosperity! Never let up! Never go to sleep! Never be satisfied. If once you are satisfied, all our wheels will run down.” (Ch 5)
  •  “He had never realised the enormous commercial importance of the comparatively poor. Not on the wealthy, who buy only what they want when they want it, was the vast superstructure of industry founded and built up, but on those who, aching for a luxury beyond their reach and for a leisure for ever denied them, could be bullied or wheedled into spending their few hardly won shillings on whatever might give them, if only for a moment, a leisured and luxurious illusion.” (Ch 11)
Some memorable moments:
  • Why does Ingleby praise him with faint damns?” (Ch 3)
  • You know how silly people are. They like superfluities.” (Ch 4)
  • ‘Your narrative style,’ said Parker, ‘though racy, is a little elliptical. Could you not begin at the beginning and go on until you come to the end, and then, if you are able to, stop?’” (Ch 5)
  • ‘Never mind the generalisations,’ said Parker, ‘they always lead to bad reasoning.’” (Ch 5)
  • It’s all this University education. What does it do? It takes a boy, or a young woman for that matter, and keeps him in leading-strings in the playground when he ought to be ploughing his own furrow in the face of reality.” (Ch 6)
  • ‘The terror induced by forests and darkness,’ said a mocking voice from somewhere over her head, ‘was called by the Ancients, Panic fear, or the fear of the great god Pan. It is interesting to observe that modern progress has not altogether succeeded in banishing it from ill-disciplined minds.’” (Ch 9)
  • If everybody had the same face ... there’d be no pretty women.’” (Ch 10)
  • Mr Tallboy was really aghast. He was stricken with shame, and, like many shame-stricken people, took refuge in an outburst of rage against the nearest person handy.” (Ch 10)
  • He was a large, saturnine man, blank as to morals, but comparatively sober in his habits, as people must be who make money out of other people’s vices.” (Ch 11)
  • “Nerves is nerves, and a thing like a goat might ’appen to anybody” (Ch 12)
  • Everyone suspects an eager desire to curry favour, but rudeness, for some reason, is always accepted as a guarantee of good faith.” (Ch 15)
  • ‘It’s always obvious where money goes to,’ said Miss Meteyard, sardonically. ‘The point is, where does it come from?’” (Ch 17)
  • He was like a favourite book – you liked him so well that you were always yearning to lend him to somebody else.” (Ch 17)
  • No doubt it was because agreement on any point was so rare in a quarrelsome world, that the fantastical announcements of advertisers asserted it so strongly and so absurdly.” (Ch 17)
  • The firm of Brotherhood believed in ideal conditions for their staff. It was their pet form of practical Christianity; in addition to which, it looked very well in their advertising literature and was a formidable weapon against the trade unions. Not, of course, that Brotherhood’s had the slightest objection to trade unions as such. They had merely discovered that comfortable and well-fed people are constitutionally disinclined for united action of any sort – a fact which explains the asinine meekness of the income-tax payer.” (Ch 18)
An enjoyable read, although the unravelling of the mystery seems a little obvious.

I have set myself the task of reading all the Lord Peter Wimsey novels (mostly again) in order. The ones I have read and reviewed in this blog so far include:
  • Whose Body in which my Lord and his manservant, Bunter, are introduced
  • Clouds of Witness in which Lord Peter must sleuth to get his brother Gerald, Duke of Denver, off a murder charge; Bunter assists; policeman Parker falls in love with Peter's sister Mary
  • Unnatural Death which introduces another Wimsey sidekick: Miss Climpson; Bunter is involved
  • The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club; Bunter is involved as is Miss Climpson
  • Strong Poison which introduces Harriet Vane, a detective writer who becomes Lord Peter's love interest; Bunter realises Lord Peter's affection first
  • The Five Red Herrings; Lord Peter in Scotland; Bunter in the background
  • Have His Carcase: Harriet and Peter investigate the death of a gigolo with dreams; Bunter has a small supporting role
  • Murder Must Advertise: Peter goes undercover at an advertising agency; Bunter plays a very small role; policeman Parker has married Mary and they have sons

There are also Wimsey books written since the death of DLS by Jill Paton Walsh. These include:
  • The Attenbury Emeralds in which Lord Peter, in 1951, recalls the circumstances of his first case, the Attenbury Emeralds, which have gone missing again.
  • The Late Scholar: in which Wimsey returns to Oxford

Saturday, 24 October 2020

"Street Kid: A Rent Boy's Tale" by Ned Williams

This is the memoir of a boy who was abused by his father from the age of six, realised he was gay by the time he was twelve, and started working as a rent boy at the age of fourteen, before retiring at nineteen. Set in the early 1960s, when having gay sex was still illegal, let alone being an underage rent boy, 'Steven' ('Carl' on the 'racks') somehow managed to compartmentalise his life so that his emotionally stunted and controlling mother never found out he was gay (despite a hilarious scene when a dozen of his rentboy colleagues invite themselves to his place for coffee), his schoolfriends never knew he was a rentboy (despite the boys in his class queuing up outside a disused station waiting room for him to give them a blowjob, one by one), his (office) work colleagues never knew he was gay let alone working as a prostitute, his rentboy companions never knew of his gay love life, or that he had fathered a child; in short, huge parts of his life were compartmentalised and secret. 

There are some fantastic characters:
  • Andy, the narrator's rent mentor, who is straight with a wife and child but earns money through gay sex
  • Jacko who has "an arse like a reservoir"
  • Paolo, bitter about new rents on the racks
  • Zenda, who read a book once and took his name for it, perhaps the most compassionate of the rents, who becomes impotent, except when he can have sex in a threesome with the narrator
  • Lorna the lesbian prostitute with whom he shares a flat
  • Larry the drag queen
  • Roger who, the narrator discovers after they have shared a bed, likes sweetcorn
  • Deaf Joey
  • Marti and Matthew
  • Mikki
  • Brian his school friend who has a girlfriend who won't do oral so would Steve mind ...
  • Sophie from work, her uncle Winston who invites Steven into his home to discuss classical music, his gay son Leonard who has sex with Steven, Leonard's sister Tamara with whom Steven has an affair ...
  • Alan, the teacher, who organises parties of young men
  • Sheba, also from work, desperate to lose her virginity but all her boyfriends want to wait,

There are mind-curling stories about the tricks he turns: the completely black room behind the coffee bar where clients and rents get naked and have orgies, no one knowing who is doing what to whom; the man who likes to be urinated on in the bath; the country house orgies he attends;  the queue of clients in the toilet waiting to take turns buggering the boy in the stalls; the time when he has sex with a girlfriend who uses contraceptive foam which sets and glues them together by their not-so-private parts. It was shocking and disturbing and hilarious by turns.

But in the end it was mostly about a child being paid to be abused by older men. Again and again and again.

Some of the most memorable moments:
  • From the age of about six (or it could have been even younger) until just before my teenage years, my father used, or rather, abused his privileged position of trust by ‘having a bit of fun’ with me – at least twice a week. This ‘fun’ never extended much beyond masturbation and oral sex but for a little boy who, even if I do say it myself, was rather sensitive – it was bad enough. He always impressed upon me the importance of not telling anyone else, “Especially your mother. She wouldn’t understand”. Like a fool, I obeyed.” (A very normal childhood)
  • Because it was virtually the only show of affection I ever received from him, I felt honoured and hankered after repeat performances.” (A very normal childhood)
  • I wonder what would have been said had she known how often she’d rushed through the front door and dashed up to use the lavatory, not realising that the last thing to be flushed away was my father’s sperm, dutifully coaxed from his straining penis by her puny little brat of a son.” (A very normal childhood)
  • In the daylight they were dark, claustrophobic, narrow and faintly sinister. At night it could easily have been taken for a landscape created by a modern Bosch or one of the regions through which Virgil guided Dante. The poor lighting made it even more grotesque and disturbing. Crumbling public houses struggled to make ends meet from their limited catchment of locals. Shops were converted into dubious coffee bars. Illegal clubs furtively catered for speciality amusements and existed in the back rooms of private houses. Cellar bars with little or no ventilation, peeling walls and tiny, intimate dance floors. There were bombed churches where only weeds, desperate lovers and the occasional stray cat formed the congregation. These, and other places too numerous to mention, were the markets where anything could be bought by the punter who had the craving and the cash – and sold from a supplier who had the time and inclination to close their sordid little transaction.” (You Dirty, Old Town)
  • Everywhere one explored, unexpected niches and dead–end tracks honeycombed this small, desolate, self–contained world. The only people to be found were those misfits in society who felt the desire for adventure, danger and solitude. Many tried to find some meaning and outlet for their doleful lives through the bottom of a meths bottle or squirted from the point of a syringe. To parody the old maps – here be meat racks for every form of pleasure, for whatever fantasy a mind could devise – no matter how debauched. It was a depressing stigma on the surface of the city that frequently and unpredictably exploded into crazed violence. But, lest you think there was some sort of inverted romance about the place, I regret to inform you that, in the main, it was merely an irksome wasteland of abandoned buildings which attracted few sightseers and even less attention from ‘Lily Law’, the police. The many ill tended, unlit public toilets erected as monuments to Victorian aspiration had become, instead, nocturnal orgy rooms.” (You Dirty, Old Town)
  • School teachers became drag queens; men of the cloth became leather submissives; off–duty policemen became happy members of the community which, whilst on duty, they persecuted so vigorously.” (You Dirty, Old Town)
  • It was romantic – but it was the romance of a consenting pair of sado–masochists.” (You Dirty, Old Town)
  • I had something for which older men would pay. It had also given me a delicious feeling of power.” (A First, Tentative Step)
  • I had discovered I had a jewel to sell, but I didn’t know the location of the pawnbroker.” (A Semi Regular)
  • There were some clients who enjoyed having a collection of local kids around for a low–key orgy. At these parties, I always half expected to meet some of my school friends, but I never did. The main supply came from either the local grammar school, or the public school that resided in our borough.” (Rates and Brian)
  • The meagre pocket money I received from my parents was still in the area of single figures from the shilling department. The income from my other life amounted to the grand average of about twenty pounds a week, which was, in the late fifties, the wage of a well–paid grown man. It was a size of income, which could have reasonably housed a family of four in some comfort.” (Rates and Brian)
  • My nerves were shaking my guts about like a pair of Jack Russells fighting over a favourite toy.” (Andy)
  • Colour and patterns of paintings held me spellbound and I adored the challenge of trying to recreate the work of the great masters.” (Crisis Time)
  • It was my Pandora’s Box where Degradation rather than Hope was left behind.” (Crisis Time)
  • There was a lot of competition from other rents. I had no idea there were so many boys and young men who were on the game. Many were students who topped up their meagre grants by selling their bodies. It was easier, quicker and far more lucrative than serving bitter coffees in clapped out cafés.” (Crisis Time)
  • Because it was so dark, it was impossible to know who you were feeling, wanking or fucking. The only brief respite from the gloom occurred when the curtain was lifted and the door opened to allow the access or exit of a client. The room was usually packed with sweating bodies and, on especially busy nights, there was a queue in the café itself, waiting for ‘Calcutta’ to empty a little. I dread to think how many arses my young, eager cock stretched. By moving to another part of the room, it was easy to avoid being screwed, although many people tried, Also, if someone was busy working on me, I could easily remove my weapon from the grip of their hands, lips or bottom and make out I was shooting my load in copious quantities, which, of course, I wasn’t. It was fun and quite exciting having to feel for sex. In the dark, heads, and bodies contorted in all sorts of seemingly impossible positions. Hands groped and enjoined with adjacent mini–scenes. There was one time I remember when I had two open mouths on my cock, one on my balls, a couple more tonguing my arse and more who were licking and feeling my body. I must confess, that time, I did come. Well, who wouldn’t?” (‘Alfio’s’)
  • I had no desire or intention of becoming submissive. Andy was more versatile – he didn’t care. I’ve lost count of the number of times our pick–ups played ‘piggy–in–the–middle’. Me shafting and Andy being shafted.” (Four’s Company)
  • His eyes, mongoose like, were mesmerised by my hidden but bulging trouser cobra.” (Prodigal Sons)
  • On a slack night, the evenings produced about five to ten punters. On a busy one, I could get through as many as twenty or thirty.” (Aftermath)
  • I had to wear a jacket, trousers, shirt and tie. Strangely, on the racks, my popularity grew slightly. Don’t ask me why. I had always believed that the punters hungered for the scruffy look – a nice bit of young, rough trade. It’s true, a lot did – but I found there were many who didn’t. The clean–cut look was as much in demand as the ruffian. A youth who looked much younger than his age but dressed to look older was, to many, highly attractive.” (Freedom)
  • Looking about twenty, he was tall, blond and built like the proverbial brick shit house. His light blue, open necked shirt contrasted with and broadcasted a dark, all over tan which could only be associated with an outdoor existence. His tight, bleached out blue jeans showed off his slim waist and muscular thighs to perfection.” (Farmer Joe)
  • He had about him a pure animal physicality that crept out and stalked any viewer's senses.” (Farmer Joe)
  • “I've often found that the more butch a guy looks the bitcher he wants to be treated.” (Farmer Joe)
  • He was staring, unseeing at a scrawny Buddleia, which was trying to draw nourishment, from a toppled wall.” (Further Adventures)
  • But, I got into this game for the fun – the excitement – not just the cash.” (Pam)
  • Those guys are in there to buy and be bought. I am here to be bought. You have to accept that.” (Sign Language)
  • He brought in from the freezer two trays of ice cubes. “I want you to make use of these.” Puzzled, I said, “Okay.” He knelt on the floor. I thought a little clarification was needed. “Um, Matthew. I hate to sound completely stupid but – what do I do with them?” He bent over and spread his legs. “Shove ’em, one by one, up where the sun don’t shine – right up inside me.” Luckily, he was facing away so he couldn’t see the horrified look of revulsion that I must have worn. ‘Well,’ I thought, ‘this will be a first.’ As he wiggled his posterior in delicious anticipation, he gasped, “I simply adore the coldness. The pressure on my colon slowly being eased as the ice melts is very satisfying. You should try it.” “Thanks, but if it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll give it a miss.” It was strangely phenomenal to observe the cubes being sucked up into his ring. His muscular control to keep the frozen enema inside was admirable. I wondered if Matthew’s little bottom abuse with the ice cold mini–dildo’s was healthy and what internal damage he might be doing to his body in the long term.“ (Marti and Matthew)
  • I was sixteen, a rent boy, unhappy at home and, in many ways, immature.” (Marti Revisited)
  • Even if, as I suspected, my sperm couldn’t be bothered to plunge on and power–swim to Marti’s egg, I was having a lot of fun firing the starting pistol.” (Marti Revisited)
  • Two young lads, who were an affair, broke onto the scene. They were both exhibitionists but they didn’t want anyone else involved in actual physical sex. They offered Tableaux Vivant which entailed them posing, frozen in set pieces of a highly sexual nature so that the clients could get off on the vision the lads created. I suppose you could think of them as performance artists who had become living pornographic photographs. All their ‘pictures’ were highly elaborated and catered to any fantasy their clients desired. Their motto was ‘Look – even closely, but don’t touch.’” (Racking)
  • From that moment on, she grabbed almost every nettle and practically threw herself at anyone and everyone who she believed would score the goal in her hungry net.” (A Pregnant Pause)
  • He leaned forward and whispered something so excitedly and at such a high pitch, it was utterly incoherent except, perhaps, to dolphins, dogs or bats.” (Pop Goes My Weasel)
  • I looked around the room and, apart from my mother, I’d had sex with every single one of them.” (Party Time)
  • The major stumbling block was that we were both a couple of slags and not yet ready for any long term commitment.” (Flat Life)
  • Using all her skills as a woman of the night, she’d done herself up to the nines – actually, it was more to the ninety–nines.” (Shattering My Chains)
  • He was a sweet lad who inhabited the wrong side of dim.” (Three’s Company – or Not)
Is it fact or fiction? It purports to be a memoir and I suspect it is. It has a rambling structure, a sort of picaresque, in which one thing happens after another, to a large cast of characters; most of the stories are unresolved; in short, a typical novel would have been neater and better organised. So I suspect it is true. 

It ought to be dreadful. It is fundamentally about older men abusing a young child. It is about exploitation. The fact that the narrator was lucky and survived the experience, psychologically as well as physically, should not make what happened less dreadful.

But it is well-told. The author is a born raconteur. It is stuffed full of anecdotes and, as listed above, it has a most wonderful cast of characters.

It's a long book but it is worth every moment of the investment. An excellent read. 

Another memoir about a man abused by his father who becomes a child prostitute and rent-boy, who ends up working in a brothel, a rather angrier and bitterer memoir than this, is Making Beds in Brothels by Adam Brock. 

October 2020 

Friday, 23 October 2020

"The Plains of Abraham" by Brian Connell

 The story of the events leading up to Wolfe's attack on Montcalm in Quebec which led to French Canada becoming British ... and eventually to the American War of Independence.

This book is well written and well-illustrated with maps. I was very much in the dark about this period of history: the Seven Year's War, the premiership of Pitt the Elder, and the last years of George II. 

There were some interesting points and, of course, characters of whom I had heard made starring or sometimes walk-on appearances.

  • George Washington learned his soldiering fighting for the British against the French and their Indian allies. 
  • One of Montcalm's more impoortant subordinates was Bougainville, later to become a famous explorer and to have Bougainvillea named after him.
  • On Wolfe's side, with the ships in the Royal Navy force, was a young man called James Cook, later to become an even more important explorer than Bougainville.
  • Both Wolfe and Braddock, a British general killed early in the Seven Year's War, fought at Culloden; one of the French leaders at Quebec also fought there, but for the Highlanders.
  • Midshipman John Robison, in Wolfe's boat as they rowed under cover of darkness to climb the cliffs leading the the battleground, later became a "professor of natural philosophy at the University of Edinburgh" (Ch 10).
  • I hadn't realised how useless the American colonists were at mounting their own defence. Then, as perhaps now, they repeatedly refused to volunteer men or raise taxes to help the British put sufficient armies into the field. "The American campaigns alone had cost £60 million ... The colonies themselves had not provided a tithe of this huge sum, although their population was nearly a quarter of the mother country." (Ch 13)
  • They would have been easily defeated had it not been for the monstrous corruption of French Canada in which a few men cornered the market in everything and made vast profits while the majority of the Canadian farmers, poor peasants, starved. "Every functionary pilfered, plundered and extorted ... The only reproach from seniors to juniors was of stealing too much for their position." (Ch 5) This was the sort of behaviour which led to the French revolution and which we can see today in British politics.
  • Had it not been for the French Canadian collapse, the US would have been restricted to the Eastern seaboard, since the French possessions didn't just flow down the St Laurence and through the Great Lakes but hopped over to what is now Pittsburgh and thence down the Ohio to the Mississippi and down to New Orleans in a great crescent shaped belt which bisected the continent.
  • There was the surrender of Fort William Henry to Montcalm and the subsequent massacre by Montcalm's Indian allies of the surrendering men, women and children as they marched away from the fort; a key even in the fictional Last of the Mohicans by James Fennimore Cooper.

Other great moments:

  • "The English aristocracy had re-established itself after the Roundhead upheaval of the previous century. Its scions ran the country entirely in their own interest." (Ch 7)
  • "There never was a people collected together so unfit for the business they were sent upon - dilatory, ignorant, irresolute ... and very unsoldierlike or unsailorlike." (Ch 7)
  • "We have cheval a la mode, escalope de cheval, filet de cheval, saddle of horse au gratin and horse pate." (Ch 8)
  • "He asked the most extraordinary questions, rather like a blind man who has suddenly been given his sight." (Ch 9)

A very interesting read. October 2020; 243 pages




Friday, 16 October 2020

"Witch child" by Celia Rees

Mary is a witch, or at least the granddaughter of a witch, and, orphaned, more or less, she ships out to the New World with a bunch of Pilgrim Fathers. In a slightly meandering narrative she describes the establishment of a settlement in the forest, encounters with native Americans, and the battle with the stereotypically hypocritical protestant patriarchy. 

It is presented as a journal entries that have been discovered in a quilt, with the punctuation, spelling and paragraphing modernised, but it reads like a modern novel. In particular, the attitudes of the narrator and the sympathetic characters are very late twentieth century. This presentation is not really used: there is no frame narrative or editroial footnotes. It appears to be only an attempt to add verisimilitude.

Well researched (I was impressed with "crying over milk shed" instead of "spilt milk" and I find that version can be dated to 1659) and well written but all the characters are a bit predictable. This is fiction to comfort and reassure.

Some great moments:

  • "Lies are not rooted in the mind in the way truth is." (entry 7)
  • "Too much wind is as bad as too little." (entry 20)
  • "The children of Israel were forty years in the wilderness, which is a long time to be wandering and homeless. God took His time before getting them out." (entry 35)

October 2020; 235 pages



Thursday, 15 October 2020

"Bellman & Black" by Diane Setterfield

 At the age of ten, with his catapult, William Bellman kills a rook. For fun. 

It's the sort of mindless wickedness that young boys get up to.

But it would seem that rooks exact a terrible revenge.

Not on Bellman himself. He grows up to have fun with girls and work in his uncle's mill and rise through the ranks of workers until he is in charge.

The rooks' vengeance is visited upon the innocent. So Bellman, though not really aware of what he is doing, makes a pact with Death.

This is an interesting twist upon the story of Faust, a sort of spooky story lurking beneath the veneer of a fictionalised biography of a Victorian man of business.

It has a nice structure. It is split almost fifty fifty between part one which is set in the idealised village where paradise slowly goes wrong and the second part which is set in the centre of London, after the bargain. The first hint that all might not be well in the village paradise comes almost exactly one-third of the way through the first bit, but then things buck up for a while before going terribly wrong in the last twenty pages.

Great moments:

  • "He is not just black, he is blacker than that. His is a luxurious superabundance of blackness never seen in any other creature. He is the essence of blackness." (Prologue, &)
  • "In the first verse of the hymn, the congregation was tuneless and as disorganised as a herd of sheep on market day." (1.1)
  • "He inhabited his vigorous body with grace and ease." (1.1)
  • "He saw afresh how old his father was. Fragility, folly and authority that clings beyond its time." (1.5)
  • "He mimicked the great rumble of the sea, the fearsome eruption of volcanoes, the creaking of glaciers and the geological groaning as the world split apart in its agony and remade itself." (1.12,&) 
  • "People remembered. They wept and they grieved. In the spaces between, they were glad that the leeks and rhubarb were doing well this year, envied the bonnet of their neighbour's cousin, relished the fragrance of pork roasting in the kitchen on Sunday." (2.1)
  • "You could lose your bearings if you spent excessively long periods engaged on a single project at the expense of rest and friendship and the peaceful contemplation of life's mysteries." (2.17)
  • "Time passes more quickly for the man who lies abed than for the busy man. The more I have to do, the more time I have to do it." (2.21)
  • "She was so close he saw the inner part of her lips as they opened and closed." (2.22)

A well-written and enjoyable read. October 2020; 388 pages

An even better book is Setterfield's Once Upon a River

Thursday, 8 October 2020

"Red Shift" by Alan Garner

Three young men, from three different time periods:

  • Macey, fighting through Cheshire with the Roman Ninth Legion.
  • Thomas, trying to protect his wife from Irish soldiers during the English Civil War/ War of Three Kingdoms in the 1640s.
  • Tom, an intelligent teenager perpetually showing off his knowledge of facts and quotations and making silly puns, living in a caravan near Sandbach with his mum and dad and trying to maintain a long distance relationship with Jan. 

They are connected through the colours blue and silver, a tower on Mow Cop, the stars of Orion and an ancient stone hand-axe.

The stories all involve the relationship between the man and a woman. The women can bear children, they are the nurturers and protectors, although they may be damaged and wounded and hurt and abused. It seems the men are singled out for some special lunacy, being subject to fits of madness of one kind or another. The stories in the past are overtly violent: no one is far from the threat of violent death. Modern Tom's father and grandfather were soldiers (Jan's are health professionals) but there is no war in the modern setting; despite this the Tom and Jan story has incredible poignancy.

It isn't an easy read. Much is carried in short sentence dialogue, often without speaker-tags so the reader sometimes has to reconstruct who is speaking. Spoiler alert: The stories are not well-resolved and each is left a little open as to what exactly happens. It is not made clear whether Jan and Tom eventually have sex; there are gaps in between lines of dialogue by the same person that indicate lacunae but it isn't clear of what length; the characters say things that might be taken as suggesting that they have had sex. But it is all very enigmatic.The ending of the Jan and Tom story carries an implication that they do not meet again (their regular parting words are 'Hello' but on this case it is 'see you' and the final line 'It doesn't matter. Not really now not any more.' sound like a break up. The very last page, after this last line, is a letter written in the 'Lewis Carroll' cipher which Tom and Jan use for their correspondence. No code word is given which makes the cipher hard to break but wikipedia (here) offers a code word and a translation of a letter from Tom to Jan. 

Some great moments:

  • "They returned to the gloom and announcements and people, trains drawing hands apart." (p 60)
  • "Spiders under my skin." (p 62)
  • "Services aren't what they were now that we understand them." (p 66)
  • "not really now not any more." (p 108)

Poignant. Enigmatic. Hard to decipher. 

October 2020; 190 pages

Garner is author of a number of novels, mostly aimed at children, in which ancient legends and magical worlds impact upon everyday life:

  • The Weirdstone of Brisingamenits sequel The Moon of Gomrathand the distinctively different concluding part to the 'trilogy', Boneland.
  • Elidor, a Narnia-style children's fantasy
  • The utterly brilliant Owl Service (aimed at young adults)
  • Red Shift, also aimed at young adults and perhaps the darkest of Garner's novels. A line in Elidor - "The legend says that there was once a ploughboy in Elidor: an idiot, given to fits. But in his fit he spoke clearly, and was thought to prophesy." (C 6) - seems to be a link with one of the characters in Red Shift. There are alos several links between Red Shift and Boneland.
  • The definitively adult Thursbitch

Tuesday, 6 October 2020

"The Day of the Locust" by Nathanael West

 Tod Hackett is a young artist, head full of Goya and Daumier, working on sets in a Hollywood Studio in the 1930s. Behind the scenes, he knows that it is all pretend. The streets are full of wannabe film stars, but he is interested in the others. "Scattered among these masquerades were people of a different type. Their clothing was somber and badly cut, bought from mail-order houses. ... they loitered on the corners or stood with their backs to the shop windows and stared at everyone who passed. When their stare was returned, their eyes filled with hatred. ... they had come to California to die." (C 1)

One of these unfortunates, whom Tod befriends, is a dull, heavily built retired hotel bookkeeper by the name of Homer Simpson! Others include Faye Greener, a wannabe actress, and her vaudeville comic father Harry, an ever-angry betting-mad dwarf called Abe, and two cowboys: Earl and Mexican Miguel. They live on the margins of tinsel-town, but their lives have a sordid reality that the movies can't imitate.

The book includes possibly the most graphic scene of cock-fighting in literature.

A short book with some very short chapters.

A great novel about those who live in the shadows behind the arc lights.

This review is not yet completed and will be added to over the next few days.


Great moments:

  • "He was really a very complicated young man with a whole set of personalities, one inside the other like a nest of Chinese boxes." (C 1)
  • "It was their stare that drove Abe and the others to spin crazily and leap into the air with twisted backs like hooked trout." (C 2)
  • "If you threw yourself on her, it would be like throwing yourself from the parapet of a skyscraper. You would do it with a scream. You couldn't expect to rise again. Your teeth would be driven into your skull like nails into a pine board and your back would be broken. You wouldn't even have time to sweat or close your eyes." (C 3)
  • "Most people, he had discovered, won't go out of their way to punish a clown." (C 6)
  • "He hurriedly labelled his excitement disgust." (C 8)
  • "Homer was too busy with his growing excitement to speak or even think. He closed his eyes to tend it better, nursing carefully what he felt. He had to be careful, for if he went too fast, it might wither and then he would be cold again." (C 8)
  • "His hands kept his thoughts busy. They trembled and jerked, as though troubled by dreams. To hold them still, he clasped them together. Their fingers twined like a tangle of thighs in miniature. He snatched them apart and sat on them." (C 12)
  • "Any dream was better than no dream and beggars couldn't be choosers." (C 13)
  • "Although the events she described were miraculous, her description of them was realistic.  ... She ... seemed to think that fantasy could be made plausible by a humdrum technique." (C 13)
  • "His legs were so straight that his dungarees, bleached very light blue by the sun and much washing, hung down without a wrinkle, as though they were empty." (C 14)
  • "Harry, like many actors, had very little back or top to his head. It was almost all face, like a mask, with deep furrows between the eyes, across the forehead and on either side of the nose and mouth, plowed there by years of broad grinning and heavy frowning. Because of them, he couldn't express anything wither subtly or exactly. They wouldn't permit degrees of feeling, only the furthest degree." (C 15)
  • "He had seen young birches droop like that at midday when they are over-heavy with the sun." (C 17)
  • "Tod suddenly became very conscious of his dull, insensitive feet bound in dead skin and of his hands, sticky and thick." (C 19)
  • "His servility was like that of a cringing, clumsy dog, who is always anticipating a blow, welcoming it even, and in a way that makes overwhelming the desire to strike him." (C 20)
  • "His generosity was still more irritating. It was so helpless and unselfish that it made her feel mean and cruel, no matter how hard she tried to be kind. And it was so bulky that she was unable to ignore it. She had to resent it." (C 20)
  • "It was one of those blue and lavender nights when the luminous colour seems to have been blown over the scene with an air brush. Even the darkest shadows held some purple." (C 21)
  • "She was very much the lady. It was her favorite role and she assumed it whenever she met a new man, especially if he were someone whose affluence were obvious." (C 22)
  • "She repaid him for his compliment by smiling in a peculiar, secret way and running her tongue over her lips. It was one of mer most characteristic gestures and very effective. It seemed to promise all sorts of undefined intimacies, yet it was really as simple and automatic as the word thanks." (C 22)
  • "Without any noticeable transition, possibilities become probabilities and wound up as inevitabilities." (C 22)
  • "None of them really heard her. They were all too busy watching her smile, laugh, shiver, whisper, grow indignant, cross and uncross her legs, stick out her tongue, widen and narrow her eyes, toss her head so that her platinum hair splashed across the red plush of the chair back." (C 22)
  • "His big hands left his lap, where they had been playing 'here's the church and here the steeple', and hid in his armpits. They remained there for a moment, then slid under his thighs. A moment later they were back in his lap. The right hand cracked the joints of the left, one by one, then the left did the same service for the right." (C 22)

October 2020; 163 pages

Sunday, 4 October 2020

"High-Rise" by J G Ballard

 The forty floor apartment block is socially divided into three zones: the lowers on the bottom ten floors, the middles on floors 11 - 34 and the uppers on floors 35 upwards. When the electrical, air-conditioning, water and garbage systems start failing, the residents confronting one another at the tenth floor swimming pool. Soon, barricades appear and there are fights for control of the elevators. As the behaviour of the residents degenerates, there are murders and raiding parties and battles. The block becomes a "nightmare termitary" (Ch 5)

High-Rise is William Golding's Lord of the Flies in which the protagonists are, at least supposedly, adults. It is in exploration of the tribal urges luring behind the veneer of our civilisation.

The story is told from the viewpoints of three (male) residents: one from the lower floors, one from the middle and one, the architect, from the penthouse. :

  • Richard Wilder (us there a clue in the surname?) is the Caliban of the piece, a bull of a man from the lower floors, a representative of the carnal in man's nature. He projects an image of self-confidence, security and good humour but he "needed to be looked after" by his wife. As time passes he becomes more feral, marking his territory with urine, displaying his genitals, and painting his body with blood-coloured lipstick. Part of the plot of the book is the attempt by Wilder to climb to the top floor, an utterly symbolic version of social climbing.
    • "He was continually touching himself, for ever inspecting the hair on his massive calves, smelling the backs of his scarred hands, as if he had just discovered his own body." (Ch 1)
  • Dr Robert Laing lives on the middle floors.
    • "This central two-thirds of the apartment building formed its middle class, made up of self-centred but basically docile members of the professions ... Puritan and self-disciplined, they had all the cohesion of those eager to settle for second-best." (Ch 5)
  • Anthony Royal (again, there is a clue in the name) is the architect (so representing God, whose creation is to go spectacularly wrong?) who lives in the penthouse. He is "a puzzling and aloof figure, an automobile-crash casualty in his wheelchair living on the roof of the high-rise in a casual menage with a rich young wife half his age whom he was happy to see taken out by other men. Despite this symbolic emasculation ..." (Ch 7) It would seem that the impotent Sir Clifford Chatterley has stepped (or rather been wheeled) straight out of the pages of Lady Chatterley's Lover, another book about class conflict in which a 'brutish' working class male is pitted against a failing system built by a now-enfeebled upper class man.

The three, carefully chosen, narrators are part of a fascinating exploration of the class system with its wonderfully concretised lower, middle and upper:

  • "People in high-rises tended not to care about tenants more than two floors below them." (Ch 1) More litotes.
  • "He and his fellow tenants were far more tolerant of any noise or nuisance from the floors above them than they were from the below them." (Ch 1)

The writing:

As with Kafka's novels, it approaches the extraordinary with deadpan prose, writing as if nothing could be more normal than the bizarre events it is describing. This is aided by the use of third person narrators which enables Ballard to maintain a distance from the descriptions, again lending an everyday quality to the surreal. I suppose (but I don't know) that a more emotionally-charged narrative (perhaps adopted in an attempt to enhance the drama) might reduce the verisimilitude. Ballard has endeavoured to adopt the tone of a fly-on-the-wall documentary (perhaps it is no surprise that the 'lower' narrator makes TV documentaries): this is more Lowry than Caravaggio.

The hook: "Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months." (first sentence). This immediately sets the tone: 'unusual events' is classic litotes, an huge euphemistic understatement. The 'later' immediately tells you of the story within a story device. And the next few words are the hook, giving a clue to the 'unusual events' and making one want to know more.

There are some wonderfully original descriptions, metaphors and similes:

  • "A film of white dust covered the furniture in the lounge and bedrooms, as if he had returned to the apartment and its three sleepers after an immense period of time had condensed around them like a stone frost." (Ch 6) I love the idea of dust being condensed time, plus I enjoyed the tribute to the (seven) sleepers of Ephesus.
  • "The expression of outrage on his face made Crosland resemble an announcer tricked for the first time into reading an item of bad news about himself." (Ch 10) The thing about Crosland, a TV news reader, is that despite being the last person from the high-rise to continue to go to work he keeps secret the breakdown of law and order within the high-rise.
  • "The lurid caricatures on the walls glimmered in the torch-light like the priapic figures drawn by the cave-dwellers." (Ch 11) This emphasises that a return to barbarism is symbolised by a male erection; torch-light is a nice touch since a torch can be electric (as in this case) or burning.
  • "Inciting each other like wedding guests making themselves drunk in the knowledge that they too will soon be copulating freely among the sweetmeats." (Ch 13)
  • "She lay there stunned, like a dishevelled duchess, surprised to find herself drunk at a ball." (Ch 17)

Great moments:

  • "He felt for the first time that he was looking down at the sky, rather than up to it." (Ch 1)
  • "He was constantly aware of the immense weight of concrete stacked above him." (Ch 4)
  • "Living in high-rises required a special type of behaviour, one that was acquiescent, restrained, even perhaps slightly mad." (Ch 5)
  • "The carpets in the silent corridors were thick enough to insulate them from hell itself." (Ch 6)
  • "She had deliberately surrounded herself with mirrors, as if this replication of herself gave her some kind of security." (Ch 7)
  • "Hours on the gymnasium exercycles had equipped them for no more than hours on the gymnasium exercycles." (Ch 12)
  • "The insistence on educating their children, the last reflex of any exploited group before it sank into submission." (Ch 12)
  • "For all their descent into barbarism, the residents of the high-rise remained faithful to their origins and continued to generate a vast amount of refuse." (Ch 14)
  • "One rule in life ... If you can smell garlic everything is all right." (Ch 19)

A wonderful social allegory; barbarities expressed deadpan to add verisimiltude. And a cracking read. September 2020; 253 pages

Other books by Ballard reviewed in this blog include:

  • The Unlimited Dream Company In many ways similar to High-Rise, the staid town of Shepperton goes mad and indulges in endless orgies: “My semen splashed the windows of the supermarket, streamed across the sales slogans and price reductions.
  • Millennium People in which the middle-classes revolt: “Being law-abiding has nothing to do with being a good citizen. It means not bothering the police.

Thursday, 1 October 2020

"In the Cafe of Lost Youth" by Patrick Modiano

 Reading this hard on the heels of Modiano's The Black Notebook was a disconcerting experience. Both books revolve around old people remembering when they were young. Both books focus on a young woman who has a number of aliases, about whom there is some mystery. Both books feature a detective, both have an author who narrates some if not all of the book. Both involve an iconic Parisian cafe, and students, and walking the Parisan streets and taking the metro. It is as if Modiano has reworked the material.

Especially since both books include the line: "We live at the mercy of certain silences.

Whilst The Black Notebook was contextualised by revolutionary politics, this is contextualised by an interest in magic and the occult. It seems that Louki's favourite boom is Lost Horizon, which is a potboiler that may or may not reference the earthly paradise known as Shambhal, or to modern ears ShangriLa

Some great moments:

  • "If everything was down in black and white, it meant that it was over, just like tombstones that have names and dates carved on them." (p 73)
  • "Intermediary zones existed in Paris, no-man's-lands where you were on the fringes of everything, in transit, or even suspended. You enjoyed a degree of immunity there." (p 112)

September 2020; 153 pages

Books and plays written by Nobel Laureates that I have reviewed in this blog include: