When the third part of a trilogy falls a little flat …

Something Nasty in the Woodshed by Kyril Bonfiglioli

mortdecai 3You may remember my enthusiasm for the reprints of the first two wickedly funny and totally non-PC Charlie Mortdecai books by Kyril Bonfiglioli last year; if you don’t, see my write-ups:

I loved them both; the second follows on directly from the first. Originally published in the 1970s, they sent everything up in a Raffles meets James Bond with a Jeeves and Wooster setting, through the adventures of aristo-art dealer Charlie Mortdecai, his manservant ‘thug’ Jock and Bond-girl type wife Johanna.

It’s such a shame then when the third volume in the original trilogy falls flat. (Bonfiglioli did leave another volume unfinished, now completed by Craig Brown, plus a novel of Charlie’s son’s adventures). That’s not to say that the third book wasn’t enjoyable – there were plenty of good jokes in it, but the action took two-thirds of the book to really get going – and in a 168 page novel, when it did happen, it was all quite rushed.  I’ll set the scene a little.

Charlie Mortdecai is sojourning on the island of Jersey, out of the way of those authorities on the British mainland that would otherwise be taking an interest in his affairs. He has rented a house and made friends with his two neighbours and their wives:

George’s Wife
is called Sonia, although her women-friends say that the name on her birth-certificate was probably Ruby… She is a slut and a bitch, every woman can tell this at a glance, so can most homosexuals. … Under a shellac-layer of cultivation and coffee-table books her manners and morals are those of a skilled whore who has succeeded in retiring early and now dedicates her craft to personal pleasure alone. She is very good at it indeed. I dare say.

Charlie, who as always narrates, takes the twenty pages of the first chapter to tell us about Jersey, his new friends, their wives, and the quaint system of policing on the island then. It is chapter two before anything happens, and when it does, it is rather nasty. Sonia is raped by a ‘beast’. The morning after, Charlie seems to be the last to know, Johanna tells him:

‘Course you know you won’t catch him, don’t you?’
I gaped.
‘Catch whom?’
‘The bloke who rogered Mrs Breakspear, of course. Silly bugger, he only had to say please, didn’t he?’

Oh dear… Soon Violet, wife of his other neighbour Sam, is similarly raped. Whereas Sonia takes it in her stride, so to speak, Violet is completely traumatised by the experience and is hospitalized. There are intimations of a satanic connection. Fearing that Johanna will be next – although Charlie knows she can look after herself – the three men and Jock set out to investigate and patrol the parish at night. They liaise with the local Centennier (volunteer Parish policeman) to find out about the local sex-maniacs. Charlie is telling Johanna about them:

‘And in St John’s,’ I ended, ‘there’s a well-respected man who does it with calves: what do you say to that?’
She rolled over onto all fours, her delightful bottom coquettishly raised.
‘Mooo?’ she asked hopefully.
‘Oh, very well.’

La Hougue Bie – Ancient passage grave under a mound which has a chapel built on top. As you can see, it was covered in scaffolding when I visited in 2013!

It then all gets very Bergerac meets Dennis Wheatley, and involves breaking into La Hougue Bie (right) and carrying out a Satanic mass in the de-consecrated half of the (still working) chapel on top which doesn’t end well. Afterwards, Charlie mopes around the house:

Nothing else of any note happened that day except the exquisite curry, throughout which I played records of Wagner: he goes beautifully with curry, the only use I’ve ever found for him.

Everything is eventually resolved, but it did leave a slightly nasty taste in the mouth this time. Lacking the cat and mouse antics of Charlie vs Inspector Martland of the first books, and with the violence being directed at seemingly unconnected people, it certainly wasn’t as much fun despite the jokes and that was a shame.

Those amongst you familiar with Stella Gibbons will recognise that the title comes from the pronouncements of the aged Ada Doom in Cold Comfort Farm.  This volume of the Mortdecai books was definitely the nastiest so far, but having all five on the shelves I am hoping that the comedy will pick up again in the fourth.   (7/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Don’t Point That Thing at me: The First Charlie Mortdecai Novel (Mortdecai Trilogy 1)
After you with the pistol: The Second Charlie Mortdecai Novel (Mortdecai Trilogy 2)
Something Nasty in the Woodshed: The Third Charlie Mortdecai Novel (Mortdecai Trilogy 3)
All by Kyril Bonfiglioli, Penguin paperbacks – around 200 pages.

My Books of the Year 2014 – Part Two – The Blog edit

Yesterday I shared my best reads of 2014 as reviewed for Shiny New Books. Today, I turn my attention to titles reviewed here. The links will return you to my full reviews:

Best Retro-Subversive Laugh-Out-Loud Book

scarfolkDiscovering Scarfolk by Richard Littler

So nearly my book of the year, Discovering Scarfolk is just hilarious! Stuck firmly in the 1970s world of public information films and Cold War paranoia, every page of this little book which is designed from front to back yields gems of parody and references in its tale of a missing man who got stuck in the unique town of Scarfolk.

There is also an comic twist to each illustration too, which ironically does make you look again to see if you missed anything…

For more information please reread this poster.

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Best Illustrations

sleeper spindle 1The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell

sleeper spindle 2Gaiman’s reworked fairy tale is fabulous on its own, but with Chris Riddell’s illustrations it reaches a new height.

Inked in black and white with gold highlights, Riddell’s characteristic strong-browed young women, cheerful groteseques and skull-like gargoyles are simply gorgeous.

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Horrorstor_final_300dpiBest Cover Art

Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix

And whilst we’re on the subject of illustration, I must mention the best cover concept of the year – in this horror spoof of the IKEA catalogue.

The graphic design extends to the inside of the novel too with lots of attention to detail, but the story itself, although entertaining, is standard horror fare.

Best in Translation

my brilliant friendMy Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (trans. Ann Goldstein)

Like many this year, I too have caught ‘Ferrante Fever’. The first in a sequence of four novels by the elusive Italian author captures growing up in backstreet Naples in the 1950s perfectly for two young girls. Volumes two and three are now available, with the fourth to come. I’m so looking forward to catching up with Elena and Lila’s lives.

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Best Medical Drama

Dirty WorkDirty Work by Gabriel Weston

The second book by Weston, a surgeon herself,  is a novel that looks at one of the toughest things that obs & gynae surgeons may ever have to do – provide abortions.  It was not an easy book given its subject matter, but it was completely compelling to read and gives a profound insight into this difficult area.

 

Best Sequel

echoThe Echo by James Smythe

My book group will disagree with this choice for they hated the first book (The Explorer) in this planned quartet. However, I loved the utter claustrophobia of outer space in these books, and The Echo takes the central premise of the first book and keeps twisting it further with great effect. Roll on the third volume I say.

 

Best Book-Group Choice?

all-quiet-on-the-western-frontAll Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maris Remarque

Arguably, we read some great books this year including Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, but the added poignancy of reading this novel of WWI during the centenary month of August was very fitting and moving too. Our discussions were wide-ranging and everyone enjoyed the book, proving you don’t always need a voice of dissent to have a good book group meeting.

Best YA Shocker

BunkerThe Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks

I am glad to have read the controversial Carnegie Medal winner to see for myself what it was all about. I can honestly say it is the bleakest novel I have ever read and it is for younger teens and upwards. If it had been written for adults, we wouldn’t find it so shocking at all, but despite its subject, I wouldn’t stop any child from reading it – I would encourage discussion afterwards though!

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… And Finally, My ‘Blog’ Book of the Year

hangover squareHangover Square
by Patrick Hamilton

I read this back in January it is still, frankly, the best book I’ve read all year.

Set in 1938 pre-war Earls Court in London, this is the story of George Harvey Bone and his unrequited love for the teasing Netta. This tragic novel is billed as a black comedy, and I suppose it is in a way. The laughs, however are never at George’s expense. When they come, it is Netta and her friends we laugh at, over their outrageously bad behaviour that makes them targets for our scorn. I nearly cried for George, wishing he hadn’t spotted her across a crowded room that day.

Hamilton’s prose is beautiful, incendiary, moving, clinical, full of ennui – everything it needs to be to tell George’s story. I shall be reading more Hamilton in 2015.

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So that’s it for my Books of the Year.
Have you read any of these from yesterday or today?
Do share yours too.

Charlie Mortdecai, volume two

After You With The Pistol by Kyril Bonfiglioli

mortdecai 2
This is going to be a quick post, as you shouldn’t read the second novel in this delightfully Un-PC comedy crime series until you’ve read the first – they follow directly on from each other, but I’m not giving anything away with this quote from near the beginning…

To this day I still do not know where it was that I awoke nor, indeed, how long I had been separated from my cogitative faculties, bless them. But I think it must have been somewhere awful in the North-West of England, like Preston or Wigan or even Chorley, God forbid. The lapse of time must have been quite three or four weeks: I could tell by my toenails, which no one had thought to cut. They felt horrid. I felt cross.

BonfiglioliCharlie Mortdecai, art dealer and aristo-gentleman bon viveur, all-round reprobate and womaniser, first appeared in Don’t Point That Thing At Me which I reviewed over at Shiny New Books – so head on over there to get a feel for it in detail.

First published in the late 1970s, if you crossed Jeeves and Wooster with James Bond, extra double-entendres and a total disregard for political correctness, you’ll get the idea. If you’re easily offended, these books are probably not for you…

The second novel sees Charlie Mortdecai, art dealer and aristo-reprobate forced to get married, thus getting into even more improbable scrapes, this time involving the a spy school for women and Chinese tongs…

You can also learn a surprising amount from Charlie – the following is actually true – I checked:

‘Please salt the eggs for me,’ I said by way of conceding defeat, ‘I always overdo it and spoil them. And do please remember, the fine, white pepper for eggs, not the coarse-ground stuff from the Rubi.’ (Cipriani of Harry’s Bar in Venice once told me why waiters of the better sort call that huge pepper-grinder a ‘Rubi’: it is in honour of the late, celebrated Brazilian playboy Porfirio Rubirosa. I don’t understand it myself because my mind is pure.)

I chuckled all the way through this book, and shall be reading the rest in the series before the film comes out in the spring.  Yes, if this sounds like your kind of thing, you need to get cracking in case the film is a dud. (9.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Don’t Point That Thing at me: The First Charlie Mortdecai Novel (Mortdecai Trilogy 1)
After you with the pistol: The Second Charlie Mortdecai Novel (Mortdecai Trilogy 2)
Something Nasty in the Woodshed: The Third Charlie Mortdecai Novel (Mortdecai Trilogy 3)
All by Kyril Bonfiglioli, Penguin paperbacks – around 200 pages.

The Prisoner meets 1970s public information films – be very afraid…

Discovering Scarfolk by Richard Littler

scarfolkI love reading creepy novels in autumn, and this year I’ve had the pleasure of not only reading the fabulous Horrorstör (see here), but also the even creepier Discovering Scarfolk by Richard Littler.

Anyone will be able to enjoy this book, but to really get the most out of it, you need to have an appreciation of when it is set  which is firmly in the 1970s – a few years after The Prisoner and at the height of paranoia about the threat of nuclear war.

Between programmes, TV was full of those fatuous public information films and patronising posters were on billboards everywhere.  We watched Dr Who from behind the sofa and cringed at a certain track-suited DJ (whom I had always reviled) on Top of The Pops.

As a child of the 1960s and teenager throughout the 1970s I was there! (Although a bit young for The Prisoner first time around.)  Discovering Scarfolk brought it all back!

A real Hamlyn Guide from the 1970s from my shelves

A real Hamlyn Guide from the 1970s from my shelves

Again, like Horrorstör, this book is impeccably well-designed. The cover is in the style of a book very much in the Hamlyn guide mould with the san serif Helvetica font. When I first saw the book, I had to do a double-take (again) not seeing beyond the cooling towers at first glance – then you see the eye’s pupil and read the sticker flash and it dawns that this will be an hilarious horror spoof.

Let me tell you about the text a little…

The Introduction is by Ben Motte, Editor of the International Journal of Cultural Taxidermy. He tells the reader that it contains:

 a selection of archival materials pertaining to Scarfolk, a town in North West England, which is just west of northern England, though its precise location is unknown.’

Motte had been sent a large parcel of said papers including a worn copy of a 1970s’ tourist guide to said town. The papers are well-thumbed and ‘accompanied by often nonsensical annotaions.’ of which he realised he knew the author – one Daniel Bush (‘a fellow student when we read Telepathic Journalism at St Cheggers Pop Christ College, London, in the late 1960s.’).

Scarfolk poster 1It seems that Daniel was trying to get out of Scarfolk with his two young sons, but they disappeared at a motorway service station. Daniel was overcome and later found himself back in the town with two boys who said they were his sons…

Motte pieces together Daniel’s tale from all the papers, and in doing so gives us a portrait of this unique town.

What raises Discovering Scarfolk above Horrorstör is not only that it’s an even bigger design job – there’s scarcely a page-turn without a familiar yet different graphic that makes you look twice. Each paragraph too yields nuggets of pure 1970s gold that I devoured as I carefully read this book – I didn’t want to miss any, often chuckling out loud.

As you can see from the scary (but not the scariest illustration by far) Scarfolk information poster above, immense attention to detail has been taken to make it appear as if it had come out of a parcel folded up. Book covers have scuffed corners, pages are foxed, typed reports are slightly fuzzy, colours are often faded; all subvert familiar images from the period.

An important note on the bottom of each Council poster etc. says:

For more information please reread this poster.

This one is real!

Compare it with the real thing!

I also loved how Littler, the author and designer, is also the mayor of Scarfolk. He has a truly warped sense of humour and I loved it.

Oh the joy of reading this book!  I don’t want to tell you any more about it, because it will just spoil the fun of discovering all this for yourselves!  You may want to visit the website, but I saved it until after I’d read the book.

I might be buying this for everyone for Christmas I loved it that much (folks, you have been warned!). (10/10).

I shall leave you with one more quotation – from the ‘Things to Do’ page:

Old Market Square
You can now take a tour of Scarfolk’s historical market square from the comfort of your own car. It is, or rather was, located where the Market View multi-storey car park now stands. The Market Square was originally situatioed approximately 22 feet below Level O between exits 0A and 0B and is commemorated with the sticker attached to the fire extinguisher by the disabled parking spaces.

Open 9am to 9pm,
Good parking facilities.

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Source: I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Discovering Scarfolkby Richard Littler. Pub October 2014 by Ebury publishing. Hardback, 192 pages.

For more information please reread this blog post.

My first encounter with Richard Brautigan …

It was last summer when Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings was participating in the Beats of Summer fortnight of reading from the Beat Generation, that I resolved to read a book by Richard Brautigan. As I am not a fan of On the Road or The Naked Lunch (bored by the former, weirded out by the latter), I thought I should branch out and try another Beats author before consigning them all to my bottom shelf. Viv Stanshall Richard_BrautiganOn Karen’s recommendation I chose Richard Brautigan (left), particularly because of his physical resemblance to Viv Stanshall (right). Then which book to read? A little research led me to Sombrero Fallout – (1976), not because it is one of his slightly less well-known books, but because the new Canongate edition has an introduction by Jarvis Cocker, and on the back is a quote from Auberon Waugh ‘Mr Brautigan writes five thousand time better than [Jack] Kerouac ever did‘. Viv, Auberon and Jarvis – good omens don’t you think? So, enough faffing around – to the book…

Sombrero Fallout by Richard Brautigan

sombrero falloutThis is a short novel with dual linked narratives. The first, the title one, concerns a short story that a celebrated author is having problems with.

It concerns a sombrero that falls out of the sky in front of the Mayor of a small town, his brother and an unemployed man – who will be the first to pick said headgear up? However, the author isn’t satisfied with his story so far, so he rips it up and throws it in the bin where it takes on an absurd life of its own.

The second strand concerns the author and his ex-girlfriend. He is mourning the end of his relationship with Yukiko, a beautiful Japanese woman with long dark hair. She had split from him after two years, because she needed more from life than giving of herself to this author. The narrative flits between the author, who is obsessing about everything, but mainly her, and Yukiko who is asleep beside her cat, dreaming.

I mentioned the author obsessing about things. At one point he realises he is hungry, but can’t have a hamburger because he had one the day before – but he really wants a hamburger, unless …

After he had exhausted all thoughts of eating hamburgers, his mind entertained the possibility of a tuna fish sandwich but that was not a good idea. He always tried very hard not to think about tuna fish sandwiches. For the last three years he  had been trying to keep thoughts of tuna fish sandwiches out of his mind. Whenever he thought about tuna fish sandwiches, he felt bad and now here he was thinking about a tuna fish sandwich again after he had tried so hard not to think about them. …
Often he would find himself unconsciously picking up a can of tuna in the supermarket before he realised what he had done. He would suddenly find himself halfway through reading the contents on the can before he knew what he was doing. Then he would look startled as if he had been caught reading a pornographic novel in church and quickly put the can back in the shelf and walk away from it, trying to forget that he had ever touched it. …
The reason for this was a fear of mercury. …
When they discovered a few years ago that there was more mercury in tuna fish than normal, he stopped eating it, because he was afraid that it would accumulate in his brain and affect his thinking which would lead to an effect on his writing.
He thought his writing would get strange and nobody would buy his books because they had been corrupted by mercury and he would go crazy if he ate tuna fish, so he stopped eating it.

The extracts above from a two and a half page chapter entitled ‘TUNA‘ show the typical iterative nature of Brautigan’s narrative in this novel.  Each thought gets repeated, expanded upon, repeated, expanded upon and so on. This reminded me of the idée fixe of the ‘wing-backed chair‘ in Thomas Bernhard’s Woodcutters, which I read last year.

This process happens in the sombrero story too, which becomes a tale of mass hysteria, very much in the vein of James Thurber’s The Day the Dam Broke, (see here) but far weirder and with guns!

The mention of Thurber reminds me that I haven’t told you that the author in this book is a humorist – but one totally without a sense of humour!  He is also attractive to women and good (enough) in bed. One wonders if Brautigan is having a laugh at himself in his portrayal of the author?

The role of providing a strain of sanity between the madness of the sombrero and the self-pitying of the author is Yukiko. She is calm, enigmatic, and strong. I liked her very much.

Boy, I chose an interesting book for my first read of 2014.  I didn’t find it particularly funny; although it has its moments, the whole sombrero strand got too out of hand for me – I far preferred the story of the author and Yukiko.

I certainly see something in Brautigan’s writing though that I like, and I bought two further novels by him on spec from Canongate’s pre-Christmas sale!.   Thank you Karen for encouraging me to read him, (Calvino soon, I promise).   (7.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Sombrero Fallout (Canons) by Richard Brautigan, Canonage 2012 edition, luxury paperback, 224 pages.

The Art of the Comb-over & American Hustle

American Hustle (15)

It is a brave film that spends its opening minutes with its overweight paunchy, balding superstar acting lead perfecting his comb-over.  Christian Bale put on 40 lbs to play Irving Rosenfeld, a small-time Bronx hustler who gets caught by the feds and offered immunity if he helps them in a big scam down in Atlantic City in the late 1970s.

american-hustle-poster-2Bale’s partner in crime is Sydney Prosser played by Amy Adams, who perfects a cut-glass accent as a British aristo with access to a good line of credit to haul in the marks on their get rich quick scheme. Amazingly Sydney falls for Irving – obviously not for his body, but his brain and ability to talk himself out of nearly anything.

The pair get trapped by agent DiMaso – Bradley Cooper in a poodle perm. Together the plan is to take on all the crooked politicians in Atlantic City, led by the likeable Robin-Hood of a Major (Jeremy Renner).

However the scheme gets out of hand when a) the Mafia get involved, and then later when b) Irving’s wife Rosalyn, (Jennifer Lawrence in blonde bombshell mode) can’t keep her mouth shut.

It gets good and twisty, and Irving has to work harder than he has ever done before to tread water and keep the sting alive. There is a magnificent uncredited cameo in the Mafia boss from Miami by … well I’m not going to spill the beans!

Adams and Lawrence are both magnificent – but Lawrence in the smaller part gets the amazing scene in which she is angrily cleaning her house in yellow gloves whilst singing along to Paul McCartney’s Live and Let Die.

If hairdos are the main recurring visual (hair-rollers also feature big-time), the soundtrack is to die for – from Steely Dan’s Dirty Work over the opening credits, to Elton John, ELO, David Bowie, plus Horse with no name, White Rabbit, Delilah and I feel love and plenty of jazz too, I was singing along all the way through (I went to the afternoon showing this afternoon which had about 30 people in the big screen).

At 138 minutes it is a little long, and a little self-reverent,  but I revelled in the sheer late 1970s-ness of it, the level of detail was phenomenal, as was the on-going homage to Marty Scorsese. I never thought I’d want a fat, balding guy with a comb-over to survive what I thought would be the inevitable ending either, but by the end of it I did, Bale made Irving almost loveable.

For fans of the late 1970s and Scorsese, American Hustle was fab, and will doubtless get Oscar nominations for its stars.  I really, really enjoyed it.

A novel of ‘The Troubles’

Harry’s Game by Gerald Seymour

troublesthrillesblogphoto

I was amazed to find that this thriller from 1975 was Gerald Seymour’s début novel. Because of its setting, it is the kind of book that my late mother would never have read, and we read a lot of thrillers betweeen us in our household back then. She was born and bred in Protestant Belfast, and left to work and live in England in the early 1950s before ‘The Troubles’ really flared up. She always distanced herself from it while I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. She was also estranged from her father, we only ever went to visit once when I was little – they argued on the doorstep and that was that.

She would never talk about any of this then, and as a consequence I’ve ended up confused about Belfast and rather ignorant about this whole era of Irish history. Remembering very vaguely the TV serialisation from the 1980s when I picked a copy of this novel up at a book sale, I read it initially as a high-class thriller with two sides – Them and Us.

Harry's Game Derek Thompson

The novel starts with a murder. A British Cabinet Minister, a former Minister for Northern Ireland, is shot in broad daylight outside his home in an affluent part of London, by an IRA killer. (In the TV series, the murderer Billy Downs was played by none other than Casualty stalwart Derek Thompson, right.)

The Prime Minister personally orders the secret services to send in an undercover agent to infiltrate the IRA and take out the Minister’s killer. They choose Captain Harry Brown, a lapsed Catholic from Portadown and family man, but who had acquitted himself well undercover in Aden.  Brown knows what may happen if his cover is blown, but still accepts the job. He’s given three weeks intensive submersion training, a new surname McEvoy, and heads off to Belfast posing as a merchant-seaman returning home. He finds a room in a guest house run by Mrs Duncan…

Mrs Duncan had noticed he’d been away. And a long time at that, she was certain. Something grated on her ear, tuned to three decades of welcoming visitors and apportioning to them their birthplace to within a few miles. She was curious, now, because she couldn’t place what had happened to his accent. Like the sea he talked of, she was aware it came in waves – ebbed in its pitch. Pure Belfast for a few words, or a phrase, then falling off into something that was close to Ulster but softer, without the harshness. It was this that nagged as she dusted round the house and cleaned the downstairs hall, while above her Harry moved about in his own room. She thought about it a lot during the morning, and decided that what she couldn’t quite understand was the way he seemed to change his accent so slightly mid-sentence. If he was away on a boat so long then of course we would have lost the Belfast in his voice – that must have happened. But then in contradiction there were the times when he was pure Belfast. She soundlessly uttered the different words that emphasized her puzzlement to herself, uncomprehending.

Harry’s card is marked in one way or another right from the start. Later as the pressure mounts to find Billy Downs (whose name is unknown to the British), he finally gets a job; there’s also a girl, a dance and a gun. But I won’t spoil what happens.

What Seymour does is bring the Belfast back-streets to life, but more than that he shows the intelligence systems that both sides have for collating information on everyone. No-one enters this area without being noted and their movements logged by IRA spotters, and the Army alike. It all seemed completely real.

Seymour studied Modern History at university, becoming a journalist and then working for ITN where he covered many major politcal and military events, and I must assume, as I’ve been unable to confirm, that his experience reporting on The Troubles formed the basis of his research for this novel.

L_HarrysGame_ep2

The success of this novel though is driven by the characterisation of Harry. Already a hero, he is put into a near impossible situation, and Seymour makes you like him from the start. Added to that, my only clear memory of the TV series was the lovely Ray Lonnen (left) who played Harry, and he was Harry for me too whilst I read the book. Although he seemed perfect casting at the time, I note that Lonnen comes from Eastbourne, and I hope Mrs Duncan didn’t pick that up in his accent!

As Robert Harris acknowledges in his introduction to the latest edition of this novel, “… every so often the genre {thriller} throws up a novel of such remarkable quality, that the cycle is broken. Having finished it you don’t want to throw it out …”  I agree wholeheartedly with him, and the enduring popularity of this book has ensured that it has remained in print ever since.

Given its subject, this wasn’t an easy thriller to read, but it was a really great one. (9/10)

I shall leave you with Clannad singing The Theme from Harry’s Game onTop of the Pops back in the mid 1980s – this was their breakthrough into the international mainstream.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Harry’s Game by Gerald Seymour (1975), Hodder paperback.
Harry’s Game The Complete Series [1983] [DVD]

Britten centenary – my memories of Noyes Fludde …

brittenThis weekend marks the centenary of the birth of composer Benjamin Britten. Radio 3 is celebrating with ‘Britten 100’, a weekend of programmes. I thought I’d celebrate too with some personal memories from my younger years of listening to and performing some of his works…

In 1966, the Canadian conductor Arthur Davison, who had made his home near Croydon, started up a series of children’s concerts at the Fairfield Halls. These popular concerts were full of light classical music, held on Saturday mornings and my brother and I went each season.  I’m sure that Britten’s Young persons guide to the orchestra would have featured.

CCF11232013_00000First performed in 1957, Noyes Fludde by Britten is a setting of the Chester Miracle Play of the story of Noah’s Ark for principal singers, plus a children’s chorus and orchestra, supplemented by recorders, handbells, organ and trumpeters. The part of Noye (Noah) was written for English bass Owen Brannigan, and the Fairfield secured his services to sing Noye in their production in 1968.  The production involved all the local schools in Croydon, and was repeated regularly for many years.

CCF11232013_00002I was in it twice.  The first time in 1971 as part of the children’s chorus of animals and birds that trooped down through the audience, two by two, to take our places in the ark.  Dressed in brown tunics and tights, we all had headdresses made by the local art college. I was a cuckoo!

It must have been one of Brannigan’s last performances. Already in his sixties, he was in a car crash in 1972 and never fully recovered, dying in 1973.  It was great fun, and the hymn Eternal Father which is incorporated into the work has been one of my favourites ever since.

The second time was 1976, and this time I was playing violin in the orchestra which comprised members of Croydon Philharmonic supplemented with members of the Croydon Schools First Orchestra. It was a real community performance – with children and adults performing and playing side by side.  There were handbell ringers and trumpeters in the Royal Box, the massed recorders of Croydon Schools in the choir stalls, and presiding over it all was Arthur Davison.

arthur davison

For a busy conductor, he did a lot for children – conducting the Croydon Youth Philharmonic Orchestra (CYPO) in both its regular rehearsals and school holiday orchestral camp-type sessions. He was a larger than life character, in size and manner, and was a hard taskmaster – but when we played well he was appreciative. I ended up as principal second violin in CYPO, and was consequently always seated directly in front of him.  I can still recall him barking at me at one orchestra school, ‘I can’t see you,’ referring to my overlong and floppy fringe – which I got my mum to trim (that was brave!) back home. The next day, he grinned at me.

Bringing us back to Britten, one of the pieces we played during one season of the orchestral school, was Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes which I love. They were a joy to play, and remain a joy to listen to.  I shall leave you with a Youtube clip played by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi.

Barbara Pym Reading Week

Pym Logo BlueI’ve never read Pym, but was more than happy to join in Barbara Pym Reading Week, hosted by Thomas at My Porch, to help celebrate the centenary of her birth. I consulted my shelves and found four Pyms waiting for me – given that the week was well under-way already, I chose the shortest …

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

BarbaraPym_QuartetInAutumn
This was one of Pym’s last books, published in 1977 a few years before she died; it was nominated for the Booker Prize. She was in her sixties, and the quartet of main characters are also in or nearing that age – I sincerely hope that her own life didn’t mirror those of Letty, Marcia, Edwin and Norman.

The quartet all work together in an office in London, what they actually do is never specified. They all live alone in the London suburbs. Edwin is the only one who ever married, but is now a widower. He and Marcia both have houses; Letty and Norman both rent rooms. They spend more time with each other at work than anyone else, yet it is fair to say that they never really get to know each other. The office day ends and they all go off to their homes.

We never learn much about Norman’s home life, and Edwin is largely content to be a church tourist, but do we gradually get to know Letty and Marcia’s situations.

Letty had had plans to retire to the country to share a cottage with her old friend Marjorie, but that is scuppered when Marjorie falls for her local vicar. To make matters worse, Letty’s landlord sell up to a Nigerian priest, and reluctantly, she feels she has to move as the African priest and his brethren are too loud. Edwin finds her a room through his church, and she moves north of the river to share a house with the aged Mrs Pope.

Marcia goes home to her inherited house with its hoard of milk bottles in the shed and plastic bags neatly folded and sorted in upstairs drawers.  Having had major surgery in the recent past, Janice from the local day centre is trying to keep an eye on her, but Marcia fends off her advances much to Janice’s frustration. The only person Marcia would like to get to know is her surgeon, whom she secretly idolises.

Letty and Marcia’s retirement arrives …

The organization where Letty and Marcia worked regarded it as a duty to provide some kind of a retirement party for them, when the time came for them to give up working. Their status as ageing unskilled women did not entitle them to an evening party, but it was felt that a lunchtime gathering, leading only to more than usual drowsiness in the afternoon, would be entirely appropriate. …

The deputy assistant director stepped into the middle of the room and began to speak.
‘The point about Miss Crowe and Miss Ivory, whom we are met together to honour today, is that nobody knows exactly, or has ever known exactly, what it is that they do,’ he declared boldly. ‘They have been – they are – the kind of people who work quietly and secretly doing good by stealth, as it were. …’

Both women are thus thrust into retirement limbo. One will drag herself up to realise that she still has a life to live, the other will turn inwards and dessicate – you can probably work out which will be which.  It doesn’t stop Norman from saying ‘I wonder what the girls are doing now.’

With this novel, Pym was veering from her lighter fare into what would become Anita Brookner territory in the 1980s. Her vision of ageing spinsters alone in bedsitterland or in hiding from the real world is so sad and horribly real. It is not quite as bleak as Brookner though, for underneath is a little bit of humour à la Muriel Spark, dark and ironic.

What Pym did so wonderfully was to capture the vicissitudes of ordinary life in the 1970s for her women: those days when not everyone had a telephone, surviving on tinned food from the supermarket, and in particular, what to do with oneself when you don’t have a family support network. The men end up taking that supporting role, and they do help to give an overall balance to the novel with Norman’s flip remarks giving light relief, and Edwin’s well-meaning concern bringing us back to ground.

Although this was not comfortable reading, I enjoyed it a lot – probably falling between the works of Brookner and the best of Spark. I have another ten of Pym’s novels to look forward to, and it’ll be interesting to contrast her earlier lighter titles with this grim slice of 70s single life – however remember, it doesn’t end poorly for everyone… (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

The Women of Madison Avenue

Mad Women by Jane Maas

Mad Men still ranks amongst my favourite TV programmes ever. I love everything about it – the clothes, the campaigns, the decor, the lifestyle, the cast, (especially John Slattery as Roger Sterling).

But how true is the series?

I’ve already read one book by a guy who was there – Jerry Della Femina’s memoir (reviewed here), gave one man’s eye view – but his isn’t the only perspective available to help answer that question…

Mad-Women-cover-final

Jane Maas was there and saw it all. She was one of the pioneer ‘Mad Women’ of Madison Avenue. She started as a copywriter in 1964 at Ogilvy and Mather after several years working in TV production on Name That Tune, rising through the ranks to be a creative director and president of another New York agency along the way.

In compiling her memoir, she has spoken to many of her colleagues to build up her picture of working for and with the real Mad Men, giving a fascinating portrait of the advertising industry of the 1960s and beyond, and especially what it was like for women, although she didn’t have to start off as a secretary like Mad Men‘s Peggy Olson.

Jane Maas in her official first day photo at Wells Rich Greene, 1976

Jane Maas in her official first day photo at Wells Rich Greene, 1976

A petite redhead, Jane was married to architect Michael Maas in the late fifties, had kids and lived in central New York rather than towns outside like many of her colleagues.

She was also one of the first working Moms – ranking her ‘job first, husband second, and children third’ realising that her job and husband might go away, but that ‘the children would hang in’.  Jane was very lucky to have the services of her Mon-Fri live-in help Mabel though, but always felt guilty about not giving her children enough attention.

In chapter two, Jane gets straight to the subject of sex – apparently there was a lot of it about, although O&M was one of the more discrete agencies.  At other agencies, including Young and Rubicam, (the model for Mad Men), it was seemingly everywhere between employees outside the office…

The term ‘sexual harassment’ hadn’t been invented yet, or certainly wasn’t in our vocabularies. Most women then working in advertising were either secretaries or copywriters,  and 99 percent of us had male bosses.  The boss was in control of your salary, your raise, your career advancement … your life.  If he wanted to go to bed with you, you had to ask yourself what mattered more: your self-respect or your career.
A number of people confided recently that women were sometimes the ones doing the seducing. The best way to get promoted from secretary to copywriter was for your boss to make it happen. And the fastest way to make that happen was to make it with your boss.

Mad Men's Peggy OlsenUltimately what I am most fascinated by in Mad Men and books like this are the advertising campaigns themselves. For me, many of the best scenes are the ones where the creative folk are at work, and pitching to clients.

Maas tells us about the good and the bad campaigns, and the good and bad clients.  She tells howit was common for rooms full of men to discuss the ins and outs of feminine hygiene products without asking their women staff of their opinions, except as an afterthought.  She recounts how it was usual for women copywriters to be put on accounts for household products, the men kept all the cars, booze, fags, etc for themselves.

i-love-new-yorkMaas was one of the few that did break through the glass ceiling though.  She was not only one of the first women to wear trousers to work, she went on to be the director of the ad campaign that put New York back on the tourist map, I ♥ New York with its iconic logo designed by Milton Glazer in 1977.

She is also quite clear where she thinks Mad Men (and she is a fan) gets it slightly wrong.  In the hippest times of the 1960s, the agencies were colourful places – not the beige, class and chrome we see on TV.  Most of all though, she stresses that they worked hard, they played hard, and most important of all, they had terrific fun doing this job that they loved so much – Don Draper and his colleagues don’t have enough of the latter.

This book was less rambling and much more entertaining than Della Femina’s, and confirmed most of what I’d always suspected happened in a woman’s lot in those glory days on Madison Avenue.  I’ve always been fascinated by the world of advertising, it’s long been one of my fantasy jobs from way before Mad Men, so I liked it a lot.  If you love the series, you’ll probably enjoy this book too. (7.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Mad Women Bantam paperback, 218 pages.
From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor: Front-line Dispatches from the Advertising War by Jerry Della Femina
Mad Men – Complete Season 1 [DVD]