Bryant and May forever!

In preparation for my Guardian interview with Christopher Fowler of 10 July regarding the winding-up of his long-running Bryant and May mystery series, I headed back to 2003 for their very first case.

In Full Dark House (the press release was still tucked within its covers), the pair are simultaneously at the beginning and the end of their careers, as the split narrative covers their meeting during the 1940 London Blitz, and the demise of the Peculiar Crimes Unit after a fatal explosion around 60 years later. Doing for the Palace Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue what Phantom did for the Paris Opera, this hugely enjoyable thriller features a murderer who can seemingly disappear through walls, as the terrified cast of a sexed-up Orpheus in the Underworld wonder who is going to be spectacularly dispatched next. A working knowledge of Greek mythology proves useful to unravel the mystery, while Fowler’s own in-depth research into the fabric of the building helps pile on the creepy atmosphere. (The beautiful cover art is by Jake Rickwood.)

It seemed audacious to introduce characters who would spend most of the following books far advanced in age and, in Arthur Bryant’s case, decrepitude. John May is kinder , livelier and more approachable than his cranky colleague, but Arthur does the heavy liftiing when it comes to obscure nuggets of myth, the occult and anthropology, and most of all London lore. They aren’t called the Peculiar Crimes Unit for nothing.

I then moved on to the follow up, The Water Room, which came out just over a year later and was inspired by the underground river flowing beneath Fowler’s former home. This second ingenious thriller begins when a woman drowns in an empty and completely dry room. It’s hard to think of another writer who could meld the plight of the homeless, a (fictional) contemporary of the artist Stanley Spencer, ancient Egyptian cults and officials from Thames Water to quite such brilliant effect.

One extraordinary scene set during a torrential downpour has the occupants of Balaklava Street cowering in their homes in the gathering gloom, horribly isolated despite being just yards from one another, while an unknown killer lurks nearby. The members of the unit are stationed in gardens and moving from door to door, but the atmosphere of peril and loneliness is stark.

One thing that struck me second time around is the powerful sense of melancholy that pervades this novel. The characters are adrift, thwarted; their houses are crumbling, just like their relationships. A resentful developer has lost money on Balaklava Street, as has happened before. It seems to be one of those haunted London locations where the past is doomed to repeat itself. The Unit too is in peril, on the verge of being disbanded, which becomes a regular motif as its unorthodox methods scandalise the higher-ups.

‘Do you remember before you had to be grown up every second of the day, John? How it always felt like morning?’ says a minor character who has taken a shine to May. ‘Now it always feels late in the day. Shadows are gathering, and the best pleasures feel far behind me.’ Perhaps it’s the watery element that gives this particular mystery is mournful feel; I think the series got jollier as it proceeded. But as we prepare to bid farewell to the detecting duo, the sad note feels appropriate; for after all, in their end was their beginning.

‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ by Christopher Fowler is published by Doubleday, £18.99

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorised

Who the heck was Lothar?

Lockdown has impelled me towards books I might not have read under other circumstances. Long books, about complicated topics. Books that require a bit of thought. I had a copy of Simon Winder’s ‘Lotharingia’ (Picador) knocking about, having heard him speak amusingly at an event. The third part in a trilogy (after ‘Germania’ and ‘Danubia’), it tells the story of ‘Europe’s Lost Country’. Lotharingia forms a long strip from the Netherlands to Switzerland, taking in parts of France, Germany and Belgium, together with Luxemburg. Its history is a staggeringly diverse and complex topic to cover in one book, even one of 450+ pages.

Even Winder’s definition of the territory is complicated: ‘the area from where the Rhine leaves Lake Constance, taking in the banks of the Rhine including the northern Swiss Cantons… Lotharingia is formed to the east by the banks of the Rhine, and to the west by the areas of France which were for many centuries part of the Holy Roman Empire… stopping just short of North Holland.’

It is ‘an enormous region… strikingly empty of major capital cities’, states Winder. What it does have is an enormous range of fascinating museums, fortifications and major cathedrals, and Winder is not a man to leave a single one out. If he sees a Gothic silhouette on the horizon, he checks it out, skipping with glee. From his starting point of 843AD, when the territory came into existence, he explains that ‘outsiders have tried and failed to get their hands on the wealthy and sophisticated lands of Lotharingia’. The Lotharingians themselves had an amazing ability to adversely affect the military and political plans of more major European players throughout history, and Winder tells the story with great verve.

I didn’t have to wait long to get hooked. Page 38 to be exact, when Winder describes Wagner’s Rhinemaidens as ‘Europe’s most nubile security squad’. (I didn’t even know there was such a thing as Rhinegold.) He loves a great character, whether male or female, lover, genius or fool, and stuffs his account with enough material to fill a score of thrilling biographies. Along the way there are charming personal interjections. ‘Spiritually I have always been a bit confused. Both my parents were Catholic and I was raised as Catholic. But I was sent away to very Protestant schools. I cannot swear that I noticed the difference for a long time…’ A three-week visit to France aged 14 was hardly calculated to fuel Europhilia; it left him feeling like one of the ‘disregarded small animals in a zoo that huddle in the back of their cage in soiled straw, ears flat to their heads and eyes blank with permanent terror’. How strange this French farming family was to a middle-class child, ‘with guns and dogs and open-face flans, spiral staircases and Monsieur wearing a long cloak’.

Jolly subtitles sprinkle the book: ‘Kilometre pigs’; ‘Boulogne boy makes good’; ‘The call of the oliphant’; ‘Sperm by candlelight’. The enthusiasm rarely falters. A grand house outside Utrecht has ‘a fair claim to be one of the most resonant sites in Europe’. ‘For anyone who gets a funny feeling when they hear the words “epaulette”, “shako” or “regimental silverware”, the Badenese military museum in Rastatt is the equivalent of the Folies Bergere.’ Mixed metaphors merely add to the delight: in the decades before 1914, he claims, ‘Architecture lurched about crazily, devouring then regurgitating a buffet trolley: Byzantime, Aztec, Greek, Javanese, Carolingian – an incontinent thrashing about that caused such indigestion that it forced Modernism to come to the rescue, kicking in the stained-glass and copper-tendril front door and arresting the lot.’

So enthusiastic is he that it comes as a surprise when he plods glumly through ‘One of the most relentlessly uninteresting displays of sculpture in Western Europe’ on the ground floor of the Musee des Beaux Arts in Lille. Even amid such dullness he can observe ‘an odd feature of the era’, the way that ‘allegorical and mythical women seem obliged at moments of crisis to step out of their clothes.’ The glum mood doesn’t last for long, for downstairs in the basement is ‘something magical’: a series of ‘map tables’, tabletop tableaux of fortified towns, intended for military purposes but now ‘among the greatest of all French works of art’.

Throughout, the key word is ‘fun’. Military museums, cathedrals and monstrous monuments are fun. Tramping through obscure Flanders towns way off the tourist trail is fun. Everything is such fun, in fact, it comes as a shock when something’s defined as not fun, such as standing ‘in the same lightly remodelled entrance to the Hotel Dreesen that Hitler and Churchill stood in for their famous picture together’.

If I have a preference, it’s for the first half of the book, when characters have such names as Juana the Mad, Charles the Fat, Philip the Handsome and (best of all) Mary the Rich of Burgundy. (Charles X is Winder’s ‘favourite catastrophic French royal’). But throughout Winder has a way of cutting through large historical events such as the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon with a witty aphorism or brisk piece of exposition. His breakdown of the way the distinctive nature of Lotharingia played out in the First World War, when trenches bisected it, is masterly.

Oh, and Lothar? Lothair II was a descendant of Charlemagne who inherited a stretch of land north of Provence, hence Lotharingia: ‘The lands of Lothar’. Writing about them was a mad endeavour, but lots of fun.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorised

A Letter from Sylvia

Thoughts on reading the Complete Letters of Sylvia Plath

The Plath-Hughes story just keeps on giving. An essay in the Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath bemoans ‘the severe limitations of the published editions’ of the Letters so far (this was 2006), eagerly anticipating the publication of an unexpurgated edition. Which, in 2017 (Volume I) and 2018 (Volume II), we got. Both are hugely valuable, but the latter, which takes the story to the brink of her suicide in 1963, is sensational (Faber, £20 pbk, eds Peter K Steinberg and Karen V Kukil).

Reviewing Vol I, I said that we really didn’t need the vast bulk of letters Plath wrote as a girl from summer camp. They did throw an interesting light on the relatively straightened circumstances of the Plath single-parent family, as she reported gleefully back to her mother about how much nutritous food campers were given. Plath’s lifelong weight issue was trying to keep it on, rather than off.

Volume I ended with the cataclysmic arrival on the scene of Ted Hughes, and Volume II charts the spectacular rise and fall of the marriage. Up to that point you lose count of the number of men Plath has ‘dated’. She drops everybody on Hughes’s arrival – the male students go, obviously, but female friendships too largely fall by the wayside. A chap called J Mallory Wober seems absolutely charming and certainly keen on Plath, but he too vanishes abruptly. Hughes is all-encompassing. Plath’s blindness becomes ours, as hers is the only voice we hear.

The previous substantial collection, Letters Home, published in the mid-70s, proved an essential volume, albeit compromised by their editor and chief recipient being Plath’s mother, who had her own, perfectly understandable, agenda. This is the book that ignited my passion for Plath, along with the poems. The young women we find in these pages is passionate, positive, joyous, open to the world and all its opportunities, and demonstrably coping well, until the very end. The Complete Letters is enriched by the other voices Plath uses to various correspondents, in a tone sometimes very different from the ‘approved version’ she presents to Mom.

The Letters, being concerned with the life rather than the work, are not particularly revealing about the poems. It’s a jolt to realise, via the consistently valuable footnotes, that the work has suddenly gone up a gear, around the time Plath went with Hughes to stay at Yaddo, an artists’ colony. Her letters to publishers are disarmingly matter-of-fact and professional in tone, even when the work she is submitting is howlingly intense. She welcomes feedback, even when negative, and it’s amazing to see how editors of publications such as The New Yorker have what seems now the temerity to suggest changes to lines and titles. All of which Plath takes seriously, and with good humour. Of course, as her friend and fellow poet Ruth Fainlight said to me once with a wry smile, ‘She wasn’t Sylvia Plath then.’

One fascinating 1961 letter sets out to reassure the editor of her highly autobiographical novel The Bell Jar: ‘No, I’ve not forgotten about the libel issue.’ One reference – ‘Irwin is fictictious’ – is a magnificent whopper. Andrew Wilson’s brilliant biography, Mad Girl’s Love Song, fills in the gory (literally) details behind the Irwin incident in The Bell Jar.

Attention to the footnotes gives details of what was being written when, especially towards the end of Vol II, when astonishing work was pouring forth, even as Plath was undertaking the mighty task of renovating a large new home, Court Green in Devon. She was also looking after her infant daughter, about whom she writes with loving attention, amusement and joy. The five hours daily writing spree, starting after breakfast, is humbling to read about.

The details are so intimate we almost feel we’re living on the same plane of existence, joining in with the floor-painting, curtain-making and meal-creating; at one point Plath even orders some sets of bras and matching pants. We know her weight, and her cup-size. We rejoice with her when her Bendix washing machine arrives. Before that she was lugging the washing to a launderette in Exeter!

Then the crash comes and it’s absolutely devastating as Hughes rocks off his pedestal and smashes into a million pieces. He managed to mislay, probably destroy, the journals that must have expressed her keenest bitterness, but the letters were sent out into the world, and they are savage in their condemnation. The Hughes version of the suicide – that Plath, having made a previous attempt on her life at college, was bound to try again and succeed one day – seems refuted here. There are letters that express painful agony, sure, but a really worrying note only sounds in the very last missive, to someone who was too far away to help; Plath was probably already dead when it flipped into the mailbox.

On a couple of occasions it would be interesting to learn what if anything came back. How did the poet W S Merwin respond to her dignified and sad letter acknowledging that former friends he and wife Diana were taking Hughes’ side in the split? Did he bother? Hughes’s own letters of the period shed a callous light: ‘You’re right, she’ll have to grow up – it won’t do her any harm,’ he wrote to his sister Olwyn in late 1962. What an extraordinary way to talk about the woman he had deserted to bring up two children, while he breezed back to a bachelor life. The recipient, incidentally, was so resentful of the marriage that she would formerly address her brother’s wife as ‘Miss Plath’.

It’s heartbreaking to read descriptions of the children, especially baby Nicholas, a tender glimpse of whom appears in one of the very last poems. Certain details come freighted with dread, such as the arrival of the gas cooker at the London flat where she’s attempting to build a new life. It’s such a horrifying story, with an ending that seems both inevitable and yet unbelievable. At least she died knowing the poems were sublime. Ted Hughes did well by them. We can thank him for that.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorised

Mad monk on the loose

Lockdown felt like a good time to take on a big reading challenge, but even so Frances Yates’s ‘Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition’ (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964) was heavy going. It traces the progression of Renaissance thought from a magical to a scientific basis, via the influence of the heretical philosopher whose independence of thought eventually led to him being burnt at the stake in Rome in 1600.

As Yates explains, magically-inclined Renaissance thinkers such as Pico Della Mirandola (about whom Yates could not be more enthusiastic) were convinced that the body of writing ascribed to ‘Hermes Trismegistus’ dated back to the time of Moses, and therefore prefigured important aspects of Christianity. After careful literary analysis correctly dated the texts, the intellectual foundations of this school of thought were critically undermined. But the images, systems and cloudy cogitations of the Hermeticists and Cabbalists remain of interest for art history, and have woven their way into popular culture. Just look at how many times the Renaissance magus John Dee pops up in films, novels and even opera.

After staggering to the end of Yates’s magisterial work (she expects the reader to breeze through copious footnotes in ancient Greek, Latin, German and Italian), I remembered the historical crime novels by S J Parris which feature Bruno as hero. ‘Prophecy’ (HarperCollins, £7.99, 2011) is the second in the series after ‘Heresy’ and on picking it up found the weird talk of ‘decans’, gods, astrological signs and animated statues was immediately familiar.

John Dee and his nefarious assistant Edward Kelley crop up in the first scene, as the pair conduct a magical ceremony before Bruno in Dee’s house in Mortlake, Bruno being a regular visitor to Dee’s vast and valuable library of occult books. Parris (the pseudonym of the writer Stephanie Merritt) has obviously consulted Yates as well as drawing from John Bossy’s groundbreaking and absorbing ‘Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair’ (Yale UP, 1991). Bossy examines Bruno’s stay in London in the 1580s, when he was resident in the house of the French ambassador, Michel de Castelnau, and living under the protection of the French King Henri IV. What was he really up to, asks Bossy, apart from hobnobbing with Sir Philip Sidney and other English intellectuals fascinated by this dangerously subversive Continental thinker.

It’s a terrific milieu in which to set a murder mystery, and Parris certainly doesn’t disappoint with the details as Bruno roams from tavern to Royal palace. Castelnau is promoting the cause of Mary, Queen of Scots and hoping for the restoration of Catholicism in England. Keeping a close eye on events in the French Embassy is spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham (Sidney’s father-in-law), on the lookout for any secret communications with the Catholic queen.

Elizabeth fears assassination plots with good reason, and the murder of a young woman at court, found with an occult symbol carved into her flesh, could be a warning that the Queen is next, or even a ruse to throw suspicion on Mary and her supporters.

It’s deeply worrying for the embassy and the Catholic faction, so brainy Bruno is set to follow the clues and solve the puzzle, while keeping certain secrets of his own. Parris’s pungent, noisy Tudor London, all candlelit interiors, filthy streets and clandestine boat trips, is utterly compelling. Bruno faces peril daily simply for being foreign. French, Spanish, Italian: xenophobes really don’t care which. But since England at the time was the outcast of much of Europe, its monarch an excommunicate and heretic, there were reasons for being inward-looking.

I am generally hopeless at guessing whodunnit but in this case I was on to the baddie by about the halfway mark. Bruno’s narrow escapes from what seems like certain death have a contrived, cinematic quality about them, and how does a mysterious assailant get around seemingly unobserved while carrying a crossbow? It’s not like he can put it in his pocket. Loose threads are presumably taken up in the next book in the sequence, ‘Sacrilege’. Despite a few cavils, this is a cracking read and a worthy escape into a world where the dangers are refreshingly different to those of today.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorised

From the Attic 4: A Pelican in the Wilderness

Isabel Colegate’s ‘Orlando King’ trilogy was republished by Bloomsbury in one volume this summer to enthusiastic reviews. It reminded me to dig out her 2002 work of non-fiction, ‘A Pelican in the Wilderness’ (HarperCollins) subtitled ‘Hermits, Solitaries and Recluses’. It’s a fascinating subject, the huge scope of which Colegate surveys with verve and style.

The title is taken from the writings of the 17th-century mystic Thomas Traherne, and while much of the book deals with Christian themes (the dustjacket features an Edward Lear painting of Mount Athos) it’s by no means limited to religious recluses. Colegate’s study ranges around Chinese poets, Indian sadhus, medieval anchoresses, the ornamental hermits of 18th century estates right up to modern shunners of society, such as J D Salinger. Thoreau with his lonely hut at Walden pond finds a place here, as does Chris McCandless, whose hermitage was the abandoned bus in Alaska where he was found dead, victim of the dangerous quest for ultimate reality.

Colegate doesn’t go in for editorialising or moralising, content to tell these extraordinary stories in condensed form. Her pages are filled with eccentrics. We meet Thomas Bushell, an associate of Francis Bacon who, after Bacon’s death in 1726 went off happily to live in a cave. John Aubrey noted that the queen mother sent an Egyptian mummy to Bushell in a spectacular example of regifting. ‘I beleeve long ere this time the dampnesse of the place has spoyled it with mouldinesse,’ the diarist concluded.

She writes about the Desert Fathers with wonderful detachment, leaving us to see them as divinely inspired or just very difficult and odd, according to taste. St Jerome, subject of so many wonderful Renaissance paintings with his lion and cardina’s hat, ‘seems to have hated women… He also hated various rival scholars, and he certainly detested the Syrian anchorites who were his neighbours in the desert.’ Solitude doesn’t necessarily sweeten the spirit.

Colegate travels to some remote places in pursuit of her subject, including hiring a four-wheel drive in Damascus for a foray into the Syrian desert. (It’s one of the moments that underlines just how much has changed in the 18 years since publication.) The attempt pays off; Father Paolo, a Jesuit, is tracked down in a remote monastery, built in the 6th century. What happened to his plans to form a community of coenobites among the rocks? ‘Part of the fascination of that part of the world has always been its danger, and it is not yet quite clear what will happen now that President Assad, that man of iron, is dead,’ wrote Colegate.

Those delightful fellows, the ornamental hermits, prove much more relaxing company. The long-running professional hermit of Hawkstone in Shropshire having died, it proved hard to find a suitable replacement. An automaton, ‘which apparently both moved and spoke’, was installed, but eventually a ‘stuffed hermit, posed carefully in a dimly-lit window and adorned with a goat’s beard’ proved sufficient to remind visitors of the fleeting nature of human existence.

On the literary side, many poets and writers have taken themselves off, if not to caves and huts, at least to remote nooks in order to work. Coleridge’s pesky person from Porlock is just one example of the artistic danger of even the slenderest link to society. Rilke and the Romantics found solitude congenial, if not essential. Colegate also covers sociophobes, such as Twenties society butterfly Stephen Tennant, lover of Siegfried Sassoon, who shut himself away as his beauty faded. The Victorian Duke of Portland would dismiss his servants if they were caught looking at him, and undertook the building of 15 miles of tunnels on his estate to avoid the public gaze. (The Duke inspired Mick Jackson’s wonderful 1997 novel The Underground Man).

Let’s face it, there wasn’t anything this lot didn’t know about social distancing and lockdown. Colegate also provides an extensive reading list that is very Covid-appropriate.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorised

Rock, Roll ‘n’ Ritual

I was amused to see on a visit to Hastings last year for the literary festival, a sign in a pub named after its most infamous resident, Aleister Crowley, for a karaoke night wittily named (if memory serves) ‘Sing What Thou Wilt’. Apparently the arch-mage in a vindictive moment cursed the residents of this pleasant seaside town. It does have an odd atmosphere, it has to be said.

Gary Lachman bookends his biography of Crowley (‘Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World’, Tarcher/Penguin) with entertaining passages outlining the sometimes surprising links between rock music, popular culture and this very peculiar Englishman. The introduction concerns Lachman’s own time as a rocker in New York in the Seventies when he combined being a practising Thelemite (follower of Crowley) with playing in a band. He was living in a grubby loft in the Bowery with someone casually introduced as ‘Debbie, the singer’ and her boyfriend, ‘Chris, the guitarist’, both of whom had ‘a kitschy interest in the occult’. Yes, the band was Blondie.

Lachman eventually moved on to become a writer and scholar of the occult, and he’s the perfect choice for a biography that aims to cut through the murky myths that continue to swirl around its subject. Crowley frequently cuts a ridiculous figure in this book, but equally he comes across as phenomenally intelligent, unusually gifted and highly original. Inexplicable as it seems now, this rather unappetising fellow exerted a fascination over too many people to have been entirely a charlatan.

It’s a great story, from Crowley’s beginnings as a wealthy young man from a restrictive Christian sect, through successive incarnations as mountaineer, poet, chess master, drug fiend, seducer, chancer and creator of a new religion. There are some revolting moments – I’d like to think his exploits with a cat and a toad were metaphorical rather than actual – but other incidents boggle the mind. In Lachman’s hands, there’s also plenty of humour. Crowley was a practitioner of ‘sex magick’ (what the rest of us might just call having sex), and Lachman covers this aspect in amusingly deadpan fashion. ‘Working with’ Crowley becomes a euphemism, as does ‘opus’ and ‘opera’. A certain operation ‘per vas nefandum’ in which the fellow practitioner can be either male or female, was Crowley’s particular favourite, cropping up regularly in his magickal diary as ‘p.v.n’.

Lachman steers a steady course between debunking and respect, for Crowley’s true value may lie in the way he inspired so many artists, musicians and writers, from the Beatles (he appeared on the cover of ‘Sergeant Pepper’) to Somerset Maugham, Ian Fleming (who supposedly based his Bond villain Le Chiffre on Crowley) and a host of Heavy Metallers. Widen the circle to include Gnosticism and the influence extends to Jay-Z, Lady Gaga and the ‘Matrix’ franchise. And let’s not forget, Crowley created a pretty nice Tarot pack as well. As Lachman makes clear, however, there was a heavy price to be paid for having any but the most fleeting contact with the Great Beast, who left behind him a trail of shattered souls.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorised

Down to the bone

I needed something to read that didn’t feel like work. It wasn’t that I hadn’t enjoyed recent novels; but it had been a little while since I’d felt that irresistible pull of a great story that keeps you up far too late. I had the perfect thing to hand, a novel that came out last year by one of my favourite writers, so it was ridiculous to have left it this long. ‘Oligarchy’ by Scarlett Thomas (Canongate £14.99) did not disappoint.

It’s set in an elite boarding school and the protagonist, Tash, has suddenly gained access to fabulous wealth, having discovered that her father, previously unknown to her, is a Russian billionaire. It seems like a fairytale opening, but the story grows progressively darker. The school is a creaking, slapdash establishment, the teachers are dispirited, and Tash’s classmates fall prey, one after another, to a grim, competitive obsession with their appearance. The mood is less midnight feasts and hockey-sticks than sex, Pinterest and consumerism.

Tash has been supplied with a black credit card and promptly buys a sequinned miniskirt for £990: ‘She didn’t mean to order something so expensive: she didn’t understand the exchange rate.’ Not exactly helping her get her bearings in the world of the super-rich is racy Aunt Sonja, who works in tech and hands out advice like: ‘Don’t eat before lunchtime. Ever. Well, only fruit. Not bananas.’

The school has its own romantic legend, of a lovelorn princess who drowned herself in the lake, taking to its depths a fabled black diamond, the gift of a sultan. Princess Augusta’s fate might account for the air of doom that suffuses the place; or it might be the mostly depressive staff, presided over by Dr Noone, the headmaster, who seems as ineffectual as he is remote.

Tash’s friends are a motley bunch: fiercely committed anorexic Bianca; chic French girl Tiffanie; moustachioed Rachel, ‘huge and doughy’, but not for long; and a girl known always as ‘Becky with the bad hair’. Tash, unused to wealth, is the most level-headed of the lot; she’s our eyes and ears, an Alice in an Instagram Wonderland.

Life is a round of eccentric diets, bizarre lessons, and trips into Stevenage, the local town, for more exotic companionship than the village boys can muster. However, a dramatic development throws an odd light on the way the school is run. Tash and the others must try and solve a mystery, but it’s hard to keep a sharp focus when you’re down to less than 500 calories a day.

The reference to Muriel Spark on the back cover seems spot on; the prose is a kind of black diamond, coldly glittering, and the author has a pitiless eye for human foibles. The adults have mostly Botoxed their moral sense, leaving the girls adrift in a toxic online culture. Clear-eyed Tash, in but not of this world, wanders through relatively unharmed, but even in fairy-tales, survival usually comes at a price.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorised

The Morbid Ingenuities

Sometimes I’m embarrassed how long I leave a book lying around before reading it. A quick look at ‘Inside The Wicker Man’ (Macmillan £14.99) shows it was published in 2000. Edward Woodward was still alive (he provided the foreword), as was Christopher Lee. Still sparring about their respective inputs were director Robin Hardy and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer. Thus an up-to-date analysis of a historical artefact itself becomes a historical artefact. You could argue it’s even more intriguing to read now. The view from 2000 on a film made in 1972 is completely different to how it looks in 2020. Two decades more have confirmed its eerie power.

The author Allan Brown treads a clever line between providing nerdish minutiae for fans, while remaining slightly aloof from cultish fandom himself. Having his John Barleycorn and eating it, so to speak. Maps and detailed lists of locations have their own fascination: learning that Culzean Castle provided the exterior of Lord Summerisle’s castle, and Lochinch Castle its interior, for example, or that Sergeant Howie’s bedroom and that of Willow (played by Britt Ekland) were in two separate places, neither of them upstairs in the Green Man pub. The bar scenes were filmed in the Ellangowan Hotel, Creetown, itself largely unchanged (at least in 2000).

Myths and legends were still swirling around the film, and some of those involved possibly liked pulling the legs of the unwary. Woodward claimed that he recently returned to the area’s locations and found in a cemetery Sergeant Howie’s wooden cross, which had ‘lain there untouched since I had discarded it at the end of the scene twenty-five years before’.

One of the most famous legends of The Wicker Man concerns the long avenue of apple trees in full blossom Howie drives along in a pony and trap, to get to Lord Summerisle’s castle. There weren’t enough trees to dress the entire scene, and Woodward recalls barely being able to keep a straight face as a relays of prop men ‘took the apple blossom trees from where we just passed, ran round behind me and put them in front.’ (Though the film is set in balmy spring, due to financial constraits filming took place in chilly autumn.) Assistant director Jake Wright remembers it differently: ‘Unlikely, because they would have had to run very fast to overtake the carriage… And also those trees took quite a long time to set up. But it’s a good story, Edward.’

Brown himself says: ‘While looking into The Wicker Man, I had become used to the fact that no two stories tallied, no two accounts meshed… those involved remembered what suited them.’ Of the struggles for conceptual pre-eminence between Hardy and Shaffer, it’s the latter who comes across as most believable. His asides are wonderfully acerbic, including this on Britt Ekland: ‘She was ravishing. Not in the flesh, strangely, she looked rather dumpy, but on camera she was fantastic, the camera loved her.’

Brown deals briskly and expertly with the film’s convoluted finances, editing, cutting and release, as well as with the still-vexed question of the missing footage, rumoured to be buried under a motorway. A hugely enjoyable appendix details samples from the US and UK reviews, once the film eventually crept out to no fanfare; it was considered a no-hoper by studio bosses at British Lion. The critic of the Financial Times, writing in November 1973 gave away a massive spoiler in revealing the ending. Though having likened the plot to The Bacchae and placing Woodward in the role of an updated Pentheus, the critic had already tipped off the classically minded.

Dilys Powell in the Sunday Times called elements of the film ‘too horrible for pleasure’ but admired the ‘distinction’ of Hardy’s direction. ‘Try to catch it,’ urged the reviewer of Evening News, while not managing to highlight much more than the ‘primitive sex rituals’, while an article in Studio Vista had the weirdest take, dubbing it ‘A brilliant example of the deceit practised by woman upon the unsuspecting male’. The writer managed not to mention Lord Summerisle or Christopher Lee at all.

Brown’s subtitle, ‘The Morbid Ingenuities’, comes from the academic George Steiner. After interviewing Steiner, Brown was due to report on a conference airing theories about the assassination of JFK. Hearing this, Steiner remarked: ‘These poor fools. It is easy to feel sorry for anyone consumed by such… morbid ingenuities.’ With the rise in conspiracy theories since Brown wrote ‘Inside The Wicker Man’, the comment had more prescience than either of them could have seen.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorised

A Journal of the Plague Year

Suddenly, it seemed urgent to read one particular none-more-black item that had been on my shelf for quite some time. Not only is the subject matter super-relevant, there’s now acres of free time in which to tackle it.

Actually, it’s a quick read, told in crisp, journalistic style. It’s fanatically well-researched, sober and factual, yet despite the title, it’s not a personal record of the plague that swept London then the country in 1665; author Daniel Defoe was only a child at the time. The book lies somewhere between a historical novel and narrative non-fiction. It purports to be written by a man who elects to stay in the capital while the distemper, as he calls it, is at its height, walking the streets, observing and talking to fellow Londoners, while maintaining social distancing – people walk down the middle of the street to avoid each other.

The distemper begins in one house in Covent Garden, before spreading rapidly, area by area, to the eastern part of the city, where our somewhat opaque narrator resides (we learn very little about him personally). He watches it spread like a grim tide, eventually lapping at distant Deptford and Greenwich. Our imaginary Everyman has a keen interest in statistics, particularly the weekly ‘bills’ – announcements of deaths in each parish – and attempts to analyse how many deaths there would have been anyway, and how many are to be attributed to the plague. It’s like watching an early attempt to model an epidemic.

The moments where past and present nudge each other and the Londons of the 17th and the 21st century elide are what make the book especially striking for today’s readers. There is hoarding, and reckless mingling, and the brutal application of self-isolation, or ‘shutting up’. Sick and well family members were forcibly penned in together at home, which led to the deaths of entire households. Social gatherings were banned, the authorities ordering: ‘That all public feasting… and dinners at taverns, ale-houses and other places of common entertainment, be forborne until further order or allowance’.

There’s fake news about cures, and misgivings about touching, shopping and currency: ‘When anyone bought a joint of meat in the market, they would not take it off the butcher’s hand, but took it off the hooks themselves… the butcher would not touch the money, but have it put into a pot full of vinegar, which he kept for that purpose.’

As the infection continues, a hardening of the spirit takes place among the inhabitants. On one of his walks abroad, the narrator hears a woman scream ‘Oh! death, death, death!’ No one responds, and though chilled ‘in my very blood’, he too walks on, ‘for people had no curiosity now in any case, nor could anybody help one another.’ We’re not there yet.

The central section of the book is taken up with the adventures of three men, a joiner, a sail-maker and a baker, on their flight from the city at the height of the plague, and their harsh reception by villagers as they travelled through Essex. It’s practically a novel in miniature. There’s also the comic tale of a drunkard taken up by the dead cart, ready to be tipped in the plague pit. You can almost hear the voices of the people who must have told the adult Defoe their stories; and no doubt an urban myth or two crept in.

The frequent religious musings on the ways of Providence situate the book firmly in its era, with the narrator wondering whether attempts to cure the plague or mitigate its effects amount to subverting God’s will. Though pious, the narrator seems scientific in his approach, scoffing at others’ superstious notions. Discounting the idea of a stroke from God, the narrator understands the principle of infection. This passage in particular strikes a chill: ‘others… talk of infection being carried on by the air only, by carrying with it vast numbers of insects and invisible creatures, who enter in the body with the breath… and there generate or emit most acute poisons, or poisonous ovae or eggs, which mingle themselves with the blood, and so infect the body…’

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorised

Lit on the Rock

‘Is this your first time in Gib?’ locals are wont to ask. Actually, no, it’s the second time I have been involved in the Gibunco Gibraltar Literary Festival, to give it its full title, the last being two years ago. Then I stayed at the Caleta hotel, where I was hugely entertained by the regular incursions of the macaques from the Rock, who nimbly crossed the road and scaled the walls, entering the rooms of anyone unwise enough to leave a window open. One sat on the wall of my terrace, daintily opening and eating, sherbet-dab-like, sugar packets filched from the room above.

This time the festival entourage stayed at the Eliott hotel in the centre of town, right opposite the Garrison Library, one of the festival venues and also the Green room. And this time I understand the huge significance of the name Eliott, having read up on some history. In the Governor’s residence, the Convent, I had idly said of an oil painting of what looked like a sea battle, ‘Is that the battle of Trafalgar?’, only to be sternly told that it depicted the siege of Gibraltar. George Augustus Eliott was the Governor in the late 18th century, who with great resolve held on to the Rock in the face of many months of bombardment and blockade by the Spanish. On reading of his exploits I can now see why there is a huge pillar to his memory in the Alameda Gardens, and why the hotel is so named. He’s as remarkable a character as Nelson, but for some reason much less celebrated today.

But on to the festival. I interviewed musician-composer-lyricist-novelist Alba Arikha at the Convent, where the organisers laid on a baby grand for her to sing the song she wrote about Flora, the heroine of her novel ‘Where to Find Me’. The song was a kind of exorcism, she explained. With her previous novels, characters disappeared as soon as the novel was finished, but Flora stuck around, only taking her leave when the song was written. Alba also talked about her wonderful memoir, ‘Major/Minor’, about her cosmopolitan upbringing in Paris, with her tricky painter father, Avigdor Arika. Her godfather was Samuel Beckett!

Next up was Bart Van Es, who won the 2018 Costa Book of the Year prize for ‘The Cut Out Girl’, which tells the story of the Jewish child his grandparents took in during the war when her parents were seized by the Nazis. He knew a little of the tale, but a strange family reticence hung over it, and it wasn’t until he met Lien, now an elegant octogenarian, that he managed to piece together its full poignancy. As Bart retraces her steps as a juvenile fugitive, the book becomes as much about the Netherlands today as in wartime.

The next morning I headed to the University of Gibraltar on Europa Point, reflecting on the mass evacuation up to the heights during the most furious bombardments of the Great Siege, when most of the town was flattened. As I looked out to sea I imagined the bay filled with menacing Spanish warships in full sail. Europa Point has the continent’s most southerly Trinity lighthouse, and the main University building comprises a breathtaking glass atrium uniting two former military buildings, one Georgian and one Victorian. The latter, where I interviewed Lord Price, was bombproof, always reassuring to know.

Mark Price has written many books, alongside being a life peer and former head of the John Lewis Partnership and Waitrose. We were discussing his ‘Fairness For All’, about the philosophy of John Spedan Lewis, who made all his employees partners in his grocery business. Where most businesses prioritise their shareholders, then customers, and only after that their staff, Mark eloquently put the case for businesses to consider their employees first – because everything else will follow naturally. He is a terrifically engaging speaker, with many lively anecdotes and aphorisms illustrating his views. One lucky audience member even got a bit of free business advice!

Lastly, interviewing Paul Conroy, Marie Colvin’s photojournalist colleague, who was with her when she died in Syria, was not just a privilege but fall-off-the-chair hilarious. Paul has that unstoppable Liverpudlian gift of the gab and must have been a great comrade when things got rough in the field. I began by asking him to sum up Colvin in three words. ‘How many is “pain in the arse”?’ he replied with a grin. Gallows humour aside, he remains steadfast in his disgust at the Assad regime, and determined not to let the world forget the atrocities he and Colvin witnessed. Afterwards I chatted to the Governor and his wife as they waited patiently in a very long queue to get their copy of ‘Under the Wire’ signed.

‘Hospitality is very important to Gibraltarians,’ the festival director told me over coffee, and as ever the festival combines suitably military precision in the organisation and huge generosity towards writers and guests. Long may this brilliant festival continue.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorised