About Me

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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

Sunday, 29 November 2020

"The Nine Tailors" by Dorothy L Sayers

Widely regarded as the best of the Lord Peter Wimsey books. On New Year's Eve, Lord Peter and his man, Bunter, are stranded in the middle of the fens when their car goes off the road; they find shelter in the vicarage. We discover that one of Lord Peter's many talents is that he is a bell ringer and can stand in at the last moment for a ringer down with influenza on the night when a nine hour peal is to be rung. Sometime later a body is discovered (in someone else's grave) but for most of this book murder takes a back seat to the campanology (the art of bell-ringing) which informs almost every aspect of this book (including a fiendishly difficult cipher):
  • The art of change ringing is peculiar to the English, and, like most English peculiarities, unintelligible to the rest of the world.” (1.1)
  • By the English campanologist, the playing of tunes is considered to be a childish game, only fit for foreigners; the proper use of bells is to work out mathematical permutations and combinations.” (1.1)
Towards the end, even the bells take second place as the fens are flooded (again with minute detail about sluice gates and cuts. Nevertheless, Lord Peter satisfactorily solves not only the crime to hand but also one committed many years ago.

The Nine Tailors refers to the nine strokes of the bell that tolls (or tells ie counts, hence tailor) for the passing of a man (six for a woman, traditionally) to be followed by one toll for every year of his life.

I enjoyed it especially because one of my friends at university was Mike Wilderspin, descended from an early motor mechanic who was celebrated by DLS as Ezra Wilderspin, "the blacksmith – an excellent fellow.” (1.1) Mike was an excellent fellow too.

Some great moments:
  • The narrow, hump-backed bridge, blind as an eye-less beggar, spanned the dark drain at right-angles, dropping plumb down upon the narrow road that crested the dyke.” (1.1)
  • He spat upon his hands, grasped the sallie of Tailor Paul, and gently swung the great bell over the balance. Toll-toll-toll; and a pause; toll-toll-toll; and a pause; toll-toll-toll; the nine tailors, or teller-strokes, that mark the passing of a man. The year is dead; toll him out with twelve strokes more, one for every passing month.” (1.2)
  • When I was a lad, there wasn’t none of this myster’ousness about. Everything was straightforward an’ proper. But ever since eddication come in, it’s been nothing but puzzlement, and fillin’ up forms and ’ospital papers and sustificates and such, before you can get even as much as your Lord George pension.” (2.2)
  • Five minutes’ practice before the glass every day, and you will soon acquire that vacant look so desirable for all rogues, detectives and Government officials.” (2.3)
  • Bells are like cats and mirrors – they’re always queer, and it doesn’t do to think too much about them.” (3.2)

A detective story that becomes just a little bit more ... although most of the references to bells might as well have been written in Sanskrit.

November 2020

This review was written
by the author of Motherdarling

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

Friday, 27 November 2020

"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje

This is a strangely constructed book. The first half is a more or less chronologically straightforward account of the experiences of a fourteen year-old boy, left with his sister in the care of the lodger while his mother and father are supposedly in Singapore. The lodger has some strange acquaintances and young Nathaniel frequently skips school, has a number of part-time jobs, has sex in a series of empty houses with his first girlfriend, and gets involved in the fringes of criminality with The Darter. The second half jumps back and forwards in time as Nathaniel, now in his late twenties, tries to reconstruct his mother's wartime and post-wartime experiences in an attempt to understand why she abandoned her children.

I found the first half much more satisfying than the second. The second half seemed fragmentary. The character on Marsh Felon, while flagged up in the first half, seemed improbable but more to the point poorly integrated within the narrative. There were a number of mysteries that were never satisfactorily resolved, such as why Nathaniel made such an effort to track down the past of his mother but no effort to find out anything about his almost equally elusive father. And why were the children of what seemed to be such an eminent businessman so neglected and allowed to roam free? The first half really didn't reconcile with the second half.

But full marks for verisimilitude; it read just like a memoir. The author was two at the time the narrative starts.

And there is a wonderful, hooking first line: "In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals."

There were some other memorable moments:
  • "Ours was a family with a habit for nicknames, which meant it was also a family of disguises." (1, A Table Full of Strangers)
  • "Rachel and I crouched on the carpet working on a jigsaw puzzle, piecing together sections of a blue sky." This is a nice metaphor. (1, A Table Full of Strangers)
  • "Mahler put the word schwer beside certain passages in his musical scores. Meaning “difficult”. “Heavy”. We were told this at some point by The Moth, as if it was a warning. He said we needed to prepare for such moments in order to deal with them efficiently, in case we suddenly had to take control of our wits. Those times exist for all of us, he kept saying. Just as no score relies on only one pitch or level of effort from musicians in the orchestra. Sometimes it relies on silence." (1, Hell-Fire)
  • "Picasso as a youth, I’m told, painted only in candlelight, to admit the altering movement of shadows." (1, Hell-Fire)
  • "I rustle awake a lover from my teenage years." (1, Hell-Fire)
  • "with time the Fleet ended its life as a path for sewage. And when even those underground sewers dried up, their grand Wren-like vaulted ceilings and arcades became illegal meeting places beneath the city where people would gather during the night, in the no-longer-damp path of its stream." (1, Hell-Fire)
  • "a queue of dust-covered saints, some with arrows in their armpits, courteously lined up, as if waiting to register." (1, The Sinister Benevolence of the Lift Boy)
  • "one of those half-hour comedies where the humour depended almost totally on the repetition of stock phrases." (1, The Sinister Benevolence of the Lift Boy)
  • "Everything the ex-boxer did was at a precarious tilt, about to come loose." (1, The Sinister Benevolence of the Lift Boy)
  • “'Half the life of cities occurs at night,' Olive Lawrence warned us. 'There’s a more uncertain morality then'." (1, The Sinister Benevolence of the Lift Boy)
  • "Your own story is just one, and perhaps not the important one. The self is not the principal thing.” (1, The Sinister Benevolence of the Lift Boy)
  • "In youth we are not so much embarrassed by the reality of our situation as fearful others might discover and judge it." (1, Agnes Street)
  • "These were parts of the city that since the war were only partially lived in. We passed streets of rubble, now and then a bonfire." (1, The Mussel Boat)
  • "When I woke, a dog’s thin sleeping face was beside me, breathing calmly into mine, busy with its dreams. It heard the change in my waking breath and opened its eyes. Then shifted position and placed its paw on my forehead gently, either as a gesture of careful compassion or superiority." (1, The Mussel Boat)
  • "how do we survive that forty miles of bad terrain during adolescence that we crossed without any truthful awareness of ourselves?" (1, The Mussel Boat)
  • "You return to that earlier time armed with the present, and no matter how dark that world was, you do not leave it unlit. You take your adult self with you. It is not to be a reliving, but a rewitnessing." (1, The Mussel Boat)
  • "she had cleared her schedule to come and watch me dance, chaotic and Dionysian, at a Bromley jazz club with a girl she did not know, who leapt into and out of my arms." (2, Inheritance)
  • "When you attempt a memoir, I am told, you need to be in an orphan state. So what is missing in you, and the things you have grown cautious and hesitant about, will come almost casually towards you." (2, The Saints)
  • "She was organised, ardently neat, whereas he was the rabbit’s wild brother, leaving what looked like the path of an undressing hurricane wherever he went."  (2, The Saints)
  • "He always knew the layered grief of the world as well as its pleasures."  (2, The Saints)
  • You need to know not just how to enter a battle zone but how to get out of it. Wars don’t end. They never remain in the past." (2, Wildfowling)
  • Historical studies inevitably omit the place of the accidental in life,” (2, The Astral Plough)
  • "Felon stands beside a gathering of marble scholars and philosophers, turning quickly as if he might catch a look or a thought in them. He loves the permanent judgement on the faces of statues, their clear weakness or deviousness." (2, The Street of Small Daggers)
  • "We are foolish as teenagers. We say wrong things, do not know how to be modest, or less shy. We judge easily. But the only hope given us, although only in retrospect, is that we change. We learn, we evolve. What I am now was formed by whatever happened to me then, not by what I have achieved, but by how I got here." (2, A Walled Garden)
  • "I know how to fill in a story from a grain of sand or a fragment of discovered truth."  (2, A Walled Garden)
  • "They were in a busy life, where each farthing mattered, where every tube of toothpaste was bought at a specific price."  (2, A Walled Garden)
  • "We order our lives with barely held stories."  (2, A Walled Garden)

Two points of personal interest. First, part of the mother's wartime experience is in Chicksands Priory in Bedfordshire which was a radio listening post in WWII. Years later, when it was a USAF Air Base, I spent a night ghost hunting in the Priory. As I drove up there was a thunder storm, as if the heavens were greeting me in classic B -movie style. When the storm abated a fireman from the air base came to check that the fire alarm systems in the old Priory (a listed building) were in order. No one had told him about the ghost watchers and when I opened the door to greet him he had the scare of his life. I have never seen a big burly American fireman so frightened. We spent the whole night watching although the ghost was supposed to roam the building between midnight and two AM. At almost exactly one AM the dog whop was with us howled horribly. Apart from that, nothing.

The second is that a place in Naples called Posillipo (meaning 'break from sorrow') is mentioned; this is the name of a restaurant in Canterbury where I now live.

An uneven narrative but there are some moments of beauty. November 2020; 

This review was written
by the author of Motherdarling

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

"Ninety Degrees North" by Fergus Fleming

This is a sort of sequel to Barrow's Boys, a book about the search for the North West Passage, interspersed with various explorations in Africa.

Fergus Fleming brilliantly describes the expeditions that attempted to reach the North Pole starting with Kane and ending with Amundsen's airship expedition. He chronicles the hardships and the hardships and the hardships willingly faced by what seems to have been a group of lunatics. It’s not just the cold:
  • When a group of men were walking together their breath enveloped them in a cloud of fine ice needles which rendered them almost invisible. Their progress was accompanied by a curious tinkling noise ... caused by their frozen exhalations falling to the ground.” (C 8)
  • Payer ... also noted the clinical effects of intense cold on the human body: he stopped sweating; his nose and eyes ran; he felt an increased to urinate and when he did so the urine was bright red; he suffered initially from constipation and then, after a few days, from diarrhoea; his beard became bleached.” (C 8)
  • The boxing matches had to be cancelled because the combatants were unable to see each other through their breath.” (C 10)
  • It was so cold that snow fell within Sverdrup’s sealed tent.” (C 17)
  • Boiling soup solidified before the bowl could be emptied.” (C 18)

Other hazards include::
  • literally deadly boredom: “Dr Henrik Blessing experimented with morphine and gradually became an addict.” (C 13)
  • frostbite,
  • drowning,
  • starvation: “If Dore had wanted a model to stand for Famine, he might have drawn Meyer at that moment and made a success” (C 9),
  • Lots and lots of scurvy: “As previous expeditions had found that ordinary lime juice froze in its bottles and burst them, the Navy had supplied Nares with a concentrated version. The concentrating process involved boiling the juice in a copper kettle. Copper leaches Vitamin C and heat destroys it.” (C 10)
  • self-poisoning: “The liver of a polar bear is the only known toxic source of vitamin A” (C 2),
  • poisoning by person or persons unknown:“The symptoms of arsenic poisoning are very like those of a stroke - weakness,, vomiting and sometimes mania. Arsenic tastes sweet and causes a burning sensation in the stomach. The victim has an erratic pulse, vomits and becomes dehydrated - leading to intense thirst. Hall had exhibited every one of those symptoms.” (C 9) leading to a murder mystery whodunnit within the main narrative,
  • attacks by bears,
  • and a murder by shooting.
And still they returned.

It starts by telling us about John Symmes who never went to the Pole but lectured that it hosted a hole leading to seven concentric rings at the centre of the earth; 25 US senators backed an expedition to discover this: “It was common knowledge that the polar regions were cold and icy places. Where Symmes’s globe departed from the norm, however, was in its countersunk holes which represented the Poles themselves. These, according to Symmes, were gateways to a series of seven worlds that nestled within each other like the layers in a Chinese sphere. Sufficient sunlight poured through the holes to sustain a pallid form of life.” (C 1) “In 1885, the Revd William F. Warren published a work called ‘Paradise Found, in whose 500 pages he stated that the hole at the Pole led to the Garden of Eden. ... William F Warren was President of Boston University.” (C 13)

Then followed a number of attempts to force a way through the pack ice around Greenland or, alternatively, above Spitzbergen. Nansen in the Fram attempted to let the pack ice drift him to the Pole. Finally two rival explorers tried a quick dash using sledges. Cook and Peary both claimed to have reached the Pole. Cook’s claim swiftly fell apart under scrutiny (he was discovered to have lied about conquering Mount McKinley); Peary’s was accepted although he too had a history of making geographical claims that were later shown to be false; it seems likely both were lying.
Robert Edwin Peary was undoubtedly the most driven, possibly the most successful, and probably the most unpleasant man in the annals of polar exploration.” (C 16)Discovering a tribe of Eskimoes whose source of iron was three meteorites they regarded as holy, he stole them.
Did Peary lie? It seems probable that he did:
  • He had promised to take Bartlett with him to the Pole but on the last stage sent him back; this meant he was the only person able to take navigational measurements to ascertain when the Pole was reached. (C 20)
  • The speeds he claimed for the last stage of the journey (50 miles per day) were faster than anyone else had ever achieved. “If one accepts that there was no southward drift during those four days ... if one accepts that there was no longitudinal drift either ... if one accepts that he encountered no pressure ridges on his bee-line zip to the Pole, and if one accepts his latitude readings (written in an authentically shaky hand), then, and only then, could Peary have done what he did.” (C 20)
  • He came back even faster ... if he got to where he claimed he had done. “The distances of almost sixty miles per day which he claimed for the southern journey are fantastical. Unless Peary was a superman - and Henson, Egingwah, Ootah, OOqueah and Seeglo were supermen too - he could not, by his own evidence, have done it.” (C 20)
There are sledgers, sailors, skiers and balloonists. Each method has horrors: “When Andree climbed aloft to defecate, Fraenkel and Strindberg watched the altimeter only partly in jest - they themselves had taken to spitting out of the door to lighten the load.” (C 15)

Other wonderful moments:
  • He was going to die anyway, he decided, so why waste time being ill at home. (In fact, he was just as ill abroad, catching every regional illness available, and in Mexico was speared in the abdomen.)” (C 1)
  • Kane’s narrative contained images so sharp that they all but bit his readers’ fingernails for them.” (C 1)
  • Kane ... acquired a trophy lover - an odd one. Margaret Fox was a spiritualist, an archetype of the breed, whose double-jointed toes rapped out in darkened rooms messages from beyond the veil. Kane also began to harbour delusions of grandeur. ‘You are not worthy of a permanent regard from me’, he told Margaret, in an unorthodox display of affection.” (C 1)
  • He was told to watch the aurora borealis, to make pendulum experiments to determine the force of gravity in different latitudes, and to record the variation and dip of needles. He was to measure the tides, currents, soundings, bottom-dredging and density of seawater. He was to register temperature, air pressure, humidity, wind velocity, rainfall, the form and weight of hailstones, the character of snow, the speed of glaciers, the frequency of meteors, the presence of ozone, and ‘electricity in all its multiform developments.” (C 9)
  • He doubled over and began to make involuntary hacking noises which at first puzzled him. On recognizing the dormant reflex he hacked all the harder ... as for the first time in six months he heard the sound of his own laughter.” (C 9)
  • “James Gordon Bennett ... was one of the richest men alive. On a personal level, he was slightly revolting.” (C 11)
  • The Primus stove ...turned paraffin into gas, thereby utilizing the smallest amount of fuel to produce the greatest heat. It required pumping and gave off a disturbing roar, but was so safe that Scandinavian market women kept one under their skirts to keep off the chill.” (C 13)
  • Why was I given a Titan’s longings and then formed like an ordinary worker ant?” (C 13)
  • With the exception that Johanssen changed his underwear for the first time in four months, their existence was much the same as before.” (C 13)
  • He ... addressed the problem of how many hard-boiled eggs a man could eat at a sitting. Booking a table at a restaurant, he went in and ordered forty of them, with bread and butter and milk. The waitress asked with a straight face whether he wanted anything else.” (C 14)
  • That, however, was one of the less pleasant characteristics of the age of heroes: who was never room for more than one.” (C 14)
  • A number of supply depots had been arranged to assist a possible retreat ... Jackson had left among other things, eight gallons of Dewar's Scotch whisky.” (C 15)
  • When he shouted ... drops of sweat evaporated visibly on his neck.” (C19)
  • Preparing for such an enterprise was something for which Amundsen was ill-suited, involving as it did a knowledge of machinery and a sound grasp of business, two qualities which he lacked outstandingly or which, as he preferred to put it, he had not had time to acquire.” (C 22)
Beautifully written. If you ever feel the wanderlust read this book. Then go on a package to Tenerife instead. 

Other books to put you off exploring:

  • The Lost City of Z by David Grann about exploring the Amazon rain forest with all its insects and parasites
  • Stanley: The Making of an African Explorer by Frank McLynn: Stanley was perhaps even more unpleasant than Peary and lied far more. He was also involved with James Gordon Bennett, unpleasant newspaper proprietor
  • The Golden Isthmus by David Howarth: could the Panamanian rain forest actually be deadlier than the Amazon?

November 2020; 425 pages

This review was written by
the author of Motherdarling

Friday, 20 November 2020

"Carry Me Down" by M J Hyland

 Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2006,together with The Secret River by Kate Grenville, In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar, Mother's Milk by Edward St Aubyn, and The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, the year that Kiran Desai won with The Inheritance of Loss.

John lives with his mother and father, an ex-electrician who is studying towards the Trinity College exam, and his grandmother who  reluctantly supports them from her inheritance from her late husband in the Irish countryside. John, aged twelve, has recently put on a growth spurt and now towers above his contemporaries. Puberty has also led to mood swings and strange behaviours: he steals, he repeatedly scratches his head, he has strange feelings towards his best friend Brendan, and he is convinced that he is a human lie detector.  He never quite understands what is happening with the rocky marriage of his parents, or the relationship between his grandmother and her son. 

There are some shocking moments, such as when he and his father kill the cat's new-born kittens, and when a teacher humiliates a child in John's class. It is carefully structured, as described in the next paragraph. The build up to the shocking climax in the middle of the last quarter has every brick carefully laid in place: I knew what was going to happen (although I didn't get it exactly right) so it had all the hallmarks of an Aristotelian climactic reversal and recognition: that you should be astonished by the twist but that you should realise afterwards that what happened was inevitable. I felt a little let down by the ending.

Spoiler alert in this paragraph: The book is in a classic four part structure with key incidents happening at the 25% mark (John wets himself in school), the 50% mark (the family are slung out by the grandmother and have to move to Dublin), and the 75% mark (John realises that his father has been having an affair).

It feels incredibly realistic. The conversations ramble, the plot rambles, and the characters oscillate between loving one another and hating one another, just like in a real family. The psycho-mechanics of puberty are faithfully described. Its verisimilitude is perfect.

Some marvellous moments:

  • "When it comes to thinking, life is like a giant amusement park. When you walk in the park, you should want to go on all the rides." (C 3)
  • "A bad temper makes me short of breath." (C 4)
  • "'People say things they don't mean when they argue.' 'No,' I say, 'They say more of what they mean'." (C 6)
  • "I hadn't planned these words and I wonder if it's a lie to say something if the words come out before the thought." (C 6)
  • "You're growing up ... people don't baby you any more. They don't mollycoddle you. Be flattered by that. When people see you can stand on your own two feet, then they'll not let you lean on them." (C 15)
  • "They say they have come to wish us bon voyage, but it is plain that they have come to see what a ruined family looks like." (C 24)
  • "I hate the way people can eat no matter what has happened." (C 27)
  • "I used to be beautiful. But I've had my last beautiful day. I didn't even known when it was." (C 33)
  • "There will be no understanding of what I have done. I will be given no forgiveness; there will only be forgetting." (C 35)

A remarkable novel. November 2020; 325 pages

M J Hyland's debut novel was How the Light Gets In about an Australian teenager living in the US.

This review was written
by the author of Motherdarling

Thursday, 19 November 2020

"Poor" by Caleb Femi

 I heard the author of this book interviewed on Start the Week on BBC Radio 4 on Monday 16th November 2020

Regular readers of this blog will know I don't read much poetry. I don't really understand modern poetry. But this book is an exception. 

Written by a black man from London it is full of the anger and the hurt of an underclass who have suffered at the hands of the police ("the boydem"), suffered at the hands of architects of concrete jungles, and suffered in the fire at the Gresham Tower Block. These are the voices of the boys in gangs who are shot and stabbed by other boys in gangs:
  • Boys who look to polar bears for lessons on how to grow white fur on black skin.” (Put Them in the Room of Spirit & Slow Time)
  • Boys whose names sound like the rip of duct tape” (Put Them in the Room of Spirit & Slow Time)
  • Boys who sleep in cupboards” (Put Them in the Room of Spirit & Slow Time)
  • Boys who can’t explain why they flinch at the knock of a door.” (Put Them in the Room of Spirit & Slow Time)
There are moments of anger and pain:
  • trees live as long as boys do here that’s why we have concrete” (A Designer Talks of a Home / A Resident Talks of Home (I))
  • on the 19th floor you can see everything but the future” (A Designer Talks of a Home / A Resident Talks of Home (I))
  • the East wing stairs were where Damilola was found: blue dawn, blue body, blue lights, blue tapes.” (Because Of The Times)
  • Isn’t this how you would call out to your friends if you too were in a dark place, standing on a ledge?” (Coping)
  • Shoutout to us boys who play out here. God knows how we do it. Maybe God doesn’t know” (Coping)
  • “Preach of heaven, Pastor; we know enough of hell.” (While the Pastor Preached about Hell, His Son Was Texting Girls)
  • Just ask the mother who worked until her hands curled like boiled crabs to have a son on safer shores; fed him; bought him toothpaste for two decades, almost. Who would get a call that said she had birthed her son into a casket after all.” (Trauma Is a Warm Bath)
  • one in every clutch of us must take a bullet or a blade.” (The Six)_
  • We’ve tasted the sting of tasers.” ([redacted]phobia)
  • [In the future, every time I write grief on my phone its autocorrect asks if I mean Grenfell” (Excerpts from Journal Entries, 2017)
  • If those in the higher seats of the high places don’t note Grenfell as a mass murder, as gross incompetence, as a final warning, as a regression of Humanity then they should at the very least take note (since they all watched it from their windows) of the nature of a spreading fire: if the bottom burns then surely with time the top will, too. Surely it will succumb to the flames.” (Excerpts from Journal Entries, 2017)
But it isn't just anger and pain. There are moments of wisdom:
  • horny likkle bwoi playing horny likkle games, baking in laughter like he be the first to be horny in history, forgetting how he came to be born” (Honeytrap & Likkle Bwoi)
  • You don’t have to run faster than the police – you just have to run faster than the slowest person.” (Concrete (I)
  • the devil found good ground to plough his seeds.” (Because Of The Times)
  • Better to have and not need, I thought, than need and not have.” (Things I Have Stolen)
  • If retribution was what the youts wanted not one brick would remain on the city’s skyline. We are over such theatrics – for now. We browse through the catalogue of anarchy,” (Gentle Youth)
  • I crossed over & now the hood won’t take me back. I stink of uptown, high ceilings, grand windows – they know that I room in the belly of the bourgeois.” (On the Other Side of the Street)
  • it is strange to order your own death like takeaway.” (We Will Not All Fight like Dogs at Our Death)
There are moments of humour:
  • I am a superhero with the power of invisibility problem is I haven’t quite got the handle of it yet” (Barter)
  • We laughed to see Satan get swindled like a rich mark in a brothel because anyone who knew Mike & what he could do when the night air has too much iron in it, knew that that wretched boy didn’t have a soul to be marketing out in the first place.” (The Painting On The Concrete Wall)
  • You can’t say CRACK here you’ll fuck the house prices what you say is craqu√®” (Old New)
There are wonderful descriptions: 
  • a few youngers sprawled like a deck of trick cards on the back stairs” (Here Too Spring Comes to Us with Open Arms) 
  • two men bouncing along the pavement through another eye they look like young dolphins slicing coastal waves” (Here Too Spring Comes to Us with Open Arms)
  • a boy smiles at the mirror welcoming a new strip of muscle breaking through the sheen of boyishness” (Here Too Spring Comes to Us with Open Arms)
  • On the left wing of the church, you sit in rows with the other boys dressed tidy like a supermarket shelf of tuna” (While the Pastor Preached about Hell, His Son Was Texting Girls)
  • death drifted through the ward like a gardener checking on the ripeness of his plants inspecting each body attached to vines” (Repress)
And there are moments which are just poetry:
  • your life, your tinkering, your blooming, making-do.” (Because Of The Times)
  • maybe an estate, tall as it is, is the half-buried femur of a dead god, and the blue light of dawn – his son in mourning – looks on the things we do when there is one less boy among us.” (Coping)
  • What we really do is [make music, tweet, gram.] unwrinkle nightlight from skin.” (Gentle Youth)
  • A light crawls through the window and folds in on itself to kneel beside a boy at prayer in a South London police cell.” (Two Bodies Caught in One Cell)
OK. I shouldn't need to learn this lesson: these people are the same as me, they have the same souls, they too suffer, they too love, they too get excited by beauty, they too are tender, they too are kind, they too quest after the meaning of the universe. That is the lesson of this book. It isn't new. George Orwell, in The Road to Wigan Pier, written about the white underclass in the 1930s, has a moment when the author glimpses a slum girl from a train. Her face wears "the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever seen ... she knew well enough what was happening to her." He uses this image to refute the concept that the lower orders are dumb brutes and don't mind poverty and squalor. If we, the privileged, cannot even feel the righteous pain of the dispossessed, then we do not deserve the great good fortune that we have.

This is a wonderful book. November 2020; 

This review was written
by the author of Motherdarling

"Canterbury Before the Normans" by David Buckingham

 This history of Canterbury, Kent, covers a period ignored by many other histories. It makes clear how Canterbury rapidly gained importance as a crossroads town for the Romans (by 300 CE its population might have been as many as 9,000 compared to 20,000 today), only to be almost completely deserted by the Saxons until it regained its importance as a religious centre with the coming of St Augustine. 

It is well written for the general reader. The ideas are well explained; I really understood why Canterbury was important for the Normans and why the Jutish invaders, being simple farming folk, abandoned it. The influence of geography on human settlement was clear (as was the influence of chemistry on manufacture, for example when he was discussing the Iron Age). 

I was a little surprised that it mentions the theory that the Bayeux Tapestry was created in Canterbury as fact (“The finest example of Anglo-Saxon graphic art was the world's most complete and complex ‘tapestry’ made by calligraphers and needlewomen in Canterbury.”): David Buckingham is a professional historian and I would have thought he would have been slightly more circumspect; many modern scholars agree with the PoV but not all as David Reekie makes clear in Saint, Bishop and Concubine.

There are lots of lovely photographs, many in colour and a couple of useful maps.

Some of my favourite bits:

  • During the last centuries of the Iron Age the future citizens of Canterbury found that the later Castle Street quarter of the city was an attractive location. It lay on higher ground above the marshy banks of the Stour river. The early choice of this site was possibly dictated by the availability of a river ford which led down Water Lane and across the marshes and Islands which later became the medieval home to the Franciscan Greyfriars. This ancient Crossing led to the prehistoric track way up to the North Downs. It was in this quarter, which later became the heart of the Iron Age ‘city’, that the Romans later found ground firm enough to build their great multi-storied theatre of baked clay bricks.” (p 24)
  • Jutish ancestors were “Hengist, the stallion, and Horsa, his equine mare.” (p 67)
  • Mouth of Faversham creek “faced the Isle of Harty which, legend has it, featured in the classic adventures of Beowulf.” (p 68)
  • The second of the great archbishops of Canterbury was Dunstan. He had been the Saxon abbot of the extremely wealthy abbey of Glastonbury in Wessex. ... Dunstan was the patron saint of goldsmiths. ... He retired as Archbishop in AD 978 but remained in Canterbury as a teacher until his death ten years later.” (p 80)
  • In late Saxon age “streets such as a new High Street from the St George's Gate to the old West Gate were established. Inside the flint walls land which had once been farmland now acquired a grid of Saxon lanes fronted by workshops and boutiques.” (p 85) This really explains the modern layout of the northern part of the city.
  • The church had rapidly bounced back to life after the dark hiccup of Alphege's death and Christ Church became a particularly successful centre of devotion and learning, even eclipsing St Augustine's. The city rose like a phoenix and new churches were built at St Mildred’s, St Dunstan's and St Paul's.” (p 92) 

Informative and entertaining. November 2020; 94 pages

Tuesday, 17 November 2020

"The Early Church" by Henry Chadwick

 A classic authoritative account of the history of the Christian church from c 35 CE (immediately after the crucifixion of Jesus) up to the late 500s CE. 

I was seeking some information on the doctrinal disputes of the early church: I wanted to understand the theological bases for heresies and orthodoxies; this wish was not well satisfied. Although Chadwick does spend some time explicating the theologies, he is much more interested in the power struggles. These could get tedious.

The final chapter summarises the overall historical trends and, for my money, could well have come first to structure the narrative. Chadwick suggests that the priorities for the first century was to move away from the apostolic tradition, with its availability of actual witnesses, towards a written tradition: this was a period in which the development of some sort of authorised canon was important. Simultaneously, the church was endeavouring to develop its organisation from a few local cells, each of a few believers, to an empire-wide religion; the speed with which Christianity spread surprised even the faithful. Once Christianity became a state sponsored religion, there were tussles for power and influence between the head honchos of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch and other places; these were at about the same time as the Roman Empire was splitting into two, or three, or four, and warring claimants were trying to unify the empire (under themselves). 

A thorough account of a turbulent time, but I have found it difficult to develop a clear overview.

Some interesting moments:

  • Paul perceived that the doctrine of the imminent end of the world was a liability rather than an asset in evangelizing the Greek world where the dominant speculative interest was in the beginning of things." (C 1)
  • "The Ophites (i.e. serpent worshippers) argued that since through the serpent Adam and Eve had come to have knowledge of good and evil, he was a good power, the Leviathan encircling the cosmos with his tail in his mouth to symbolise eternity, who had out-maneuvered the inferior creator and his son Jesus.” (C 2)
  • "The existence of four versions of the gospel was a troublesome puzzle in itself. Marcion ... accepted only one.” (C 2)
  • Christianity did not give political emancipation to either women or slaves, but it did much to elevate their domestic status by its doctrine that all are created in God’s image and all alike redeemed in Christ; and they must therefore be treated with sovereign respect." (C 3)
  • In Christian eyes the intense particularity of Judaism was incompatible with its own monotheistic principles: was not their God the God of the Gentiles also? (cf. Rom. iii, 29–30).” (C 3)
  • Tertullian’s conception of the Christian life is first and foremost as a battle with the devil. This led him to ... conceive of the intellectual task of the Christian thinker as a conflict with diabolical forces. ... If he could outmanoeuvre the devil by dialectical subtlety, so much the better.” (C 5)
  • Throughout the fifth century poetry and secular historical writing tended to remain in pagan hands.” (C 11)
  • Detachment from vanity fair was easier to those who expected the end of the world in the imminent future than to those who expected the historical process to roll on and who possessed some modest property to pass on to their children.” (C 12)
  • A force of peasant monks was an ideal instrument for destroying pagan temples and for conflicts with heresy.” (C 12)
  • Evagrius loved sharp, pregnant, obscure maxims.” (C 12)
  • since nature also is the good gift of the Creator. Nothing ‘natural’ can be evil. The sex instinct is only wrong when used in a way outside the limits laid down by God,” (C 15)
  • dancing did not succeed in becoming a natural and approved vehicle of religious expression, except in Ethiopia.” (C 18)
  • The representation of Christ as the Almighty Lord on his judgement throne owed something to pictures of Zeus.” (C 18)

November 2020

Sunday, 15 November 2020

"Friction" by Sandra Brown

 A thriller. The hero is a square-jawed hunk who happens to be a Texas Ranger who saves the life of a judge during a courtroom shooting; this couple subsequently have a lot of squelchy sex, lovingly described. The whodunnit element is elementary with the few twists clearly signalled. Low-lifes are cowardly, criminal masterminds psychopathic, good guys are great and bad guys are nasty. 

Favourite moments:

  • A wonderfully minimalist description of sex (an austere contrast to later no-holds-barred-all-holds-carefully-detailed descriptions): "Him. Her. Ignition. Blast-off." (C 6)
  • "Rednecks with more cousins than teeth." (C 32)

November 2020; 410 pages.

Another New York Times Bestseller Lists book reviewed in this blog is The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova.

Saturday, 7 November 2020

"Boating for Beginners" by Jeanette Winterson

 This is a retelling of the story of Noah in the same way that the Life of Brian is a retelling of the story of Jesus. It has the narrative structure of a story but beyond that it is post-modern surrealism. It is, I suppose, a comic novel (and regular readers of this blog will know that I struggle with finding these funny): it pokes fun in all directions. It obviously abandons any attempt at verisimilitude and the characters are little more than caricatures. It is enormously inventive but I found it rather wearisome, even though it is only a short book. It is fundamentally Pythonesque, and I never really understood Monty Pyhton humour, so I suppose I was never going to appreciate this book. I didn't really understand its purpose. Was it just an extended piece of fun? Or was there something I was missing?

Perhaps the clue lies in what Winterson's romantic novelist character says about her own work: "She liked to think that her prose had many levels. Of course she told a story, what novel does not? (Except for those very dreary experimental things that were only fit for wrapping up vegetables.) Yes, she told a story, but her prose, like lasagne, was layered. There were strange undercurrents and frivolous cheesy bits and serious meaty bits and a spicy sauce, and of course there was pasta, the body of the book, but who would be content with just pasta?" (p 132)

Having said that, there were some brilliant bits:

  • "It was the first time that Gloria had been shocked out of her autonomous inner life. She lived at the bottom of a deep pool where her mother and the rest of the world were only seen as vague shadows on the surface. Now she was being forced into a graceless breaststroke to find out what everyone else wss talking about." (p 18)
  • "'The Meaning of Life', began Doris slowly, 'is death.  ... All your clothes are rotting, all your food is putrefying, you're covered in dead skin and your bowels are full of muck.'" (p 24)
  • "'I only started this morning and I'm waiting for someone to tell me what to do next'. Gloria wasn't aware of it, but she had just summed up her whole life in one sentence." (p 27)
  • "There does seem to be a relationship between wealth and the inner life. If you aren't rich you don't tend to want a shrink." (p 32)
  • "If you've dropped a stitch somewhere in the jumper of life, you have to pick it up again or your pattern will come out lopsided." (p 65)
  • "Noah was right wing, suspicious of women and totally committed to money as a medium for communication. Yet when he spoke he charmed. He could transform his audiences' dull grey lives for an hour or two. ... He became a focus for pain and disappointment, urged his audience to lay their burden down and rest in him, told them they'd see their country become great again, painted a bright future for their children. ... The sinister side lay in their attitude those those who didn't believe. If you refused the message you were an outcast." (pp 69 - 70)
  • "Why should a God of love disown a large part of his beloved?" (p 70)
  • "Have you ever known someone to have the power and not use it?" (p 72)
  • "Too many of us lead a size ten fantasy life with a thirty-inch waistline." (p 120)

I think I may have missed the joke but it was an interesting reading experience. November 2020; 160 pages

This review was written
by the author of Motherdarling

Thursday, 5 November 2020

"Saint, Bishop and Concubine" by David Reekie

This book endeavours to show that the Bayeux Tapestry, which records the defeat of King Harold II of England at the hands of the Norman Invader William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066,  was made in Canterbury, Kent. 

The evidence seems strong. As well as depicting the events on pictorial form, like a rather long strip cartoon, the Tapestry includes text which is written in Latin. However, the author points out that 

  • Some of the names are in a clearly English form ... For instance, the final letter of Harold’s brother Gyrth is the English letter 'thorne' a barred 'D' derived from the runic alphabet, instead of the latin 'D'.
  • "William is usually spelt as 'Willelm' in the English manner, rather than with the French 'G' of 'Wilgelm'.
  • There is also the use of the English symbol for 'and' which is a reversed 'L', in place of the Latin ampersand & ('Et')
  • The use of the English 'AT' rather than the Latin 'AD'
  • The use of the English 'Caestra' rather than Latin 'Castra'. ('At Hastingae Caestrum')
  • The opponents of Harold are in several places called not 'Normani' but 'Franci'. This follows English usage where Normans are often not distinguished from the French generally.”
  • Although the Normans repeatedly described Harold as an Earl (because they wanted to suggest that his Kingship was illegal), the Tapestry describes him as 'Rex', Latin for King.
The text therefore suggests an English author. However, this doesn't locate the creation in Canterbury specifically. To do this, the author relies on more evidence from the Tapestry:
  • It mentions two Normans called Vital and Wadard. It seems strange that two somewhat minor players should be honoured with names. Both Vital and Wadard were later involved with St Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury, the place where the authro suggests the Tapestry was embroidered.
  • A prominent part in the Tapestry is played by Odo, half-brother to William and Bishop of Bayeux ... who was also Earl of Kent after the Conquest.
  • One scene in the tapestry shows Odo at the centre of a feast at a curved table ... an image which seems remarkably similar to a Last Supper around a curved table in an illustrated manuscript in the possession of St Augustine's Abbey in the late 11th century.
  • The Tapestry shows detailed knowledge of the area around Mont St Michel in Brittany; the treasurer of the Abbey of Mont St Michel at the time later become the Abbot of At Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury.

As well as this story of the tapestry, the author embroiders the background of many of the characters. As is often with books such as this, the extraneous details are often the most fascinating. For example:
  • "The names Hengist and Horsa mean 'stallion' and 'mare'.
  • Ethelbert was the first English monarch to reintroduce the use of coinage. This would have greatly stimulated trade and facilitated the exchange of goods. To start with only gold coins called 'tremises', or shillings, were used but later a smaller denomination called pennies, or 'sceattas', were introduced.
  • Other peculiarities of Kent include the retention of an ancient system of inheritance called 'Gavelkind' which seems to have been unique to Kent. Under Gavelkind, unlike elsewhere in England which adopted primogeniture where the eldest son inherited land, the land was divided equally amongst the surviving sons. ... Gavelkind by contrast allowed land to be freely bought sold and exchanged so that larger landholdings could be built up by more successful farmers. ... Gavelkind survived in Kent until the 1920s.
  • The names 'Baxter' and “'Brewster' are female forms of 'baker' and 'brewer'. 'Lady' comes from Old English 'Hlafdige' meaning 'Loaf kneader'.... The word 'wife' comes from 'weaver' and of course 'spinster' was an almost universal occupation for females whether married or not.
  • There are only 3 women depicted in the main panels, and 370 men.
  • Someone once counted a total of 93 penises shown in the Tapestry, most of which belonged to horses but some to men.

A most unusual feature of this history book is that the author has provided monologues from some of the characters involved in the story. These are clearly reconstructed and fictional, but turn this book into a sort of hybrid between history and historical novel, a sort of literary version of a drama documentary.

Well written and informative. November 2020

Tuesday, 3 November 2020

"Bad Blood" by Lorna Sage

You might think that a memoir of a childhood in a rural village on the border of Wales would be very like Cider With Rosie and there are similarities in the picture of rural deprivation, although the period of this book is twenty years after Rosie. But the real difference is that this is no rural idyll. It starts by describing her grandfather, the Vicar, and her grandmother, his wife, who hated him, who lived apart from him (in the vicarage) who never went to church and who blackmailed him over his affairs. The tempestuous relationships and the Vicar's philandering cast a long shadow over Lorna's growing up.

It is beautifully written.

She writes beautifully:

  • "She was buried in the same grave as him. Rotting together for eternity, one flesh at the last after a lifetime's mutual loathing." (C 1)
  • "I thought that that was what a vicar was, simply: someone bony and eloquent and smelly (tobacco, candle grease, sour claret), who talked into space." (C 1)
  • "They didn't just 'know their place'. it was as though the place occupied them, so that they all knew what they were going to be from the beginning." (C 1)
  • "They were like children, if you consider that one of the things about being a child is that you are a parasite of sorts and have to brazen it out self-righteously." (C 1)
  • "My overcoat was at first too big (I would grow into it), then all at once too small, without ever for a moment being the right size." (C 1)
  • "Mr Palmer seemed omniscient. He rules over a little world where conformity, bafflement, fear and furtive defiance were the orders of the day." (C 2)
  • "All housework is futile in the sense that it always has to be done again." (C 3)
  • "When they're not breaking the commandments, anti-heroes are mending their tobacco pipes and listening to the wireless." (C 4)
  • "Jolly miserable: that middle-class oxymoron." (C 4)
  • "I was still only an apprentice misfit and self-conscious in the part." (C 7)
  • "In the land of the 1950s you were meant to be socially mobile, but personally conformist; self-made, but in one of the moulds made ready. You mustn't miss the boat, but you mustn't rock it either." (C 9)
  • "Being an air hostess hadn't yet been revealed as waitressing-in-the-sky." (C 10)
  • "The particular awfulness of amateur acting is that you can always see through the disghuise to the person underneath." (C 12)
  • "'Poetry for the Young' ... was absolutely silent on animal appetites and contrived to confuse love with waving goodbye to one's native land. Its real subject was death: death in infancy, death in the far corners of the empire, death at sea on the way there - and just plain old death." (C 12)
  • "More than one of those tweedy spinsters had had an affair with Grandpa." (C 12)
  • "He kept a pair of bicycle clips in his pocket in case someone might want to lend him a bike." (C 12)
  • "Only when you look  ore closely can you see that this housewife is pathologically scared of food, hates home, is really a child dreaming of pretty things and treats." (C 12)
  • "A few intellectual tearaways at the boys' grammar school talked about jazz and existentialism, but they were practising for university." (C 13)

A great read: idyll with attitude. November 2020; 281 pages

Bad Blood won the 2000 Whitbread (now the Costa) Prize for Biography, the same year in which English Passengers by Matthew Kneale won the novel prize and White Teeth by Zadie Smith won the prize for first novel. Other winners reviewed on this blog include: