Annabel’s Shelves: B is for …

Ballard, J.G. – The Drowned World

ballard drowned worldHaving just read one book set in a dystopian near-future London, when I finally came to choose my ‘B’ book for my Annabel’s Shelves project, I picked another. There was one author and particular title that just leapt out at me. It had to be Ballard – and it had to be The Drowned World – especially as my edition’s cover shows another view of the London skyline. The Drowned World was Ballard’s second novel, published in 1962 – the same year as Rachel Carson’s ground-breaking book about the effect of pesticides The Silent Spring. Ballard had been training as a doctor, but had given up a career path in medicine to become a writer. He had some success in publishing short stories in the late 1950s, before his first novel which was written while he was editor of a science journal.

Dr Robert Kerans is a biologist, part of a scientific survey team working on exploring the flora and fauna of the last cities of a mostly submerged world. The ice-caps have melted and the temperature is soaring driving those that survive ever-poleward as it keeps increasing.

As the sun rose over the lagoon, driving clouds of steam into the great golden pall, Kerans felt the terrible stench of the water-line, the sweet compacted smells of dead vegetation and rotting animal carcasses. Huge flies spin by, bouncing off the wire cage of the cutter, and giant bats raced across the heating water towards their eyries in the ruined buildings. Beautiful and serene from his balcony a few minutes earlier, Kerans realised that the lagoon was nothing more than a garbage-filled swamp.

Kerans lives alone in the air-conditioned luxury of a penthouse in the Ritz hotel. But Colonel Riggs has come to tell him that they’ll be moving out, heading north, in a few days time. Kerans and his colleague Dr Bodkin, need to pack up – and Riggs needs his help to persuade the reclusive Beatrice to come with them. Beatrice is the other last remaining Londoner in this lagoon.

The foetid jungle keeps encroaching, only the insects and reptiles can survive successfully in this world that is de-evolving back towards the Triassic. The coming of the iguanas to London combined with the super-equatorial climate brings insomnia and strange dreams. Riggs’s deputy Hardman goes mad under the pressure, running off southwards into the swamp on a raft – they search but don’t find him.

The question ‘how do you sleep?’ begins to assume a big significance, but Kerans and Bodkin feel strangely at home with this altered state, although Bodkin becomes rather obsessed by his childhood memories of pre-submerged London.

Apart from a few older men such as Bodkin there was no-one who remembered living in them – and even during Bodkin’s childhood the cities had been beleaguered citadels, hemmed in by enormous dykes and disintegrated by panic and despair, reluctant Venices to their marriage with the sea.

When it comes to it, they opt to remain with Beatrice, engineering to be left behind – but not for long. Soon Riggs and his crew are replaced by the white-suited Strangman – a latter-day pirate in a hydroplane with a bask (I looked it up) of crocodiles snapping at his heels. Strangman’s ship follows his arrival, it’s full of raided antiquities. Like a Bond-villain, he has Machavellian plans, and Kerans and Bodkin will have to work with him to work against him to survive.

The Drowned World is certainly a visionary novel. Stylistically, it is a real hybrid – reading like Graham Greene meets Conrad via Ian Fleming with the philosophical realisation of Richard Matheson’s The Incredible Shrinking Man as Kerans accepts his fate. Kerans is a leading man typical of any Graham Greene novel – clever but burned out at forty, yet fit enough to take action. I’ve not read Heart of Darkness, but it seems to me that Kerans could be Conrad’s Marlow and Strangman a pre-illness Kurtz, together with his henchmen? Never mind all the influences, it is an effective literary eco-thriller that manages to explore the human condition at the same time, and I loved it.

The extras in this edition of the novel include an interview and an article by Ballard about the ‘landscapes of childhood’ in his writing – he remembered crocodiles from Shanghai which also used to flood each spring and co-mingled those memories with his present at the time living in London.  Both features are very well-worth reading and it is interesting in the interview that Ballard describes his work as ‘speculative fantasy’ rather than science fiction.  Although Ballard describes the science behind his version of global warming plausibly, he never attributes it with any man-made origins, this was the early 1960s after all.  Ballard’s next novel, The Burning World, revised as The Drought in 1965, takes an opposite stance with water becoming precious due to industrial pollution.

The Drowned World was certainly my kind of ‘speculative fantasy’- I loved it. (9/10)

I must read more Ballard – I’ve only read a couple, (High Rise and Cocaine Nights) so I have plenty more to go – I know I’ll enjoy them.  I note that a movie of High-Rise is due out this summer starring Tom Hiddleston and Jeremy Irons – that’ll be interesting!

Now to my ‘C’ choice – as before I’ve photographed my shelves so those with eagle eyes can help me pick – or just suggest an author (or title) beginning with ‘C’ for me to explore. Thank you to everyone who has been suggesting so far, please know that even if I pick something else, I have thought about your ideas – I do intend to keep going through the alphabet with my TBR, so maybe next time around!

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From one dystopia to another …

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell

The shipI’m on a watery/eco-thriller/dystopian reading binge at the moment, set off by picking up this novel – I couldn’t resist the colourful cover with its silhouette of a broken London landscape and a nod to the film Titanic.

It’s the near-future; the world as we know it is broken. Five hundred specially selected people escape the hell of the dystopian society left on land to live on ‘The Ship’ and the alternative nightmare of being on an everlasting cruise.

Apart from having poor sea-legs, the idea of living aboard one of those huge cruise-liners fills me with utter dread – yet people already do! However, you can get off for an excursion … this isn’t the case for The Ship‘s 500.

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‘The World’ moored at Fowey, Cornwall, summer 2010. Gorgeous tiny town with a deep-water harbour that can fit this behemoth!

The story is narrated by Lalage ‘Lalla’ Paul*, who is just turning sixteen. She lives in an apartment in London with her mother and father, although he is often not there. They live entirely within the law of the military government, obeying all the rules imposed on them, but they manage to continue to live well by the standards of others. Lalla’s life is sheltered, totally unlike those of the tent-dwellers in Regent’s Park, or the gangs in the underground. Being outside in London is a dangerous place, the nearby British Museum – whose treasures are a shadow of their former glories, is their only cultural retreat. Lalla tells us about the beginning:

I was seven when the collapse hit Britain. Banks crashed, the power failed, flood defences gave way, and my father paced the flat, strangely elated in the face of my mother’s fear. I was right, he said, over and over again. Wasn’t I right? Weren’t we lucky that we owed nothing to anyone? That we relied on no one beyond our little trio? That we had stores, and bottled water? Oh, the government would regret not listening to him now. … and for months we did not leave the flat.

Lalla’s father, Michael, has been planning his big escape ever since. He bought a cruise-ship, he’s been stocking it with everything needed for at least a generation’s life aboard. He’s been recruiting 500 deserving people with essential skills to take with him and they are waiting in the Holding Centre for the word from him that they’re ready to depart. But’s what’s stopping them from going today? It’s Lalla’s mother who is not sure. When Michael comes home for Lalla’s birthday celebration, he and her mother bicker:

‘How much worse do you want things to get?’
‘If you loved me, you’d stop pushing.’
‘If you loved me, we’ve have gone already.’
‘I love you Michael. I just don’t think you’re right.’
I stood in the doorway, forgetting I wasn’t meant to be listening. … ‘I want to go,’ I said. ‘If the ship is real, I want to go on it.’

They bat Lalla back and forth between them in their argument, but the decision is made when, as her mother moves in front of the window, a sniper shoots her. The ship has a doctor and surgery – it’s time to go.

Poor Lalla, her mother will not survive and she begins her life onboard in a state of profound grief, while her father has 500 disciples to lead. Will Lalla be able to overcome her depression at the death of her mother, will she be able to assimilate into life on the ship, make friends, have a useful life, and, dare I say it – help make the next generation?

The Ship is really a two-hander – an on-going battle between Lalla and Michael. All the other characters, even Tom, a young man Lalla is attracted to, are just props and aren’t really developed more than peripherally. Lalla, however, is irritating, selfish and angry, yet loveable, in the way that only teenagers can be and, although Michael is nominally benevolent and peace-loving, we somehow have to suspect his motives. With Lalla as our narrator, we gain no real sense of his long-term plans.

The biblical imagery abounds – apart from the myriad of obvious references to the book of Genesis – you can pick any prophet and see Michael in him. There are are some neat parallels in the military government enacting the Nazareth Act for instance, and could the 500 have been 5000 to feed? I may be a non-believer, but do love a good bible-story, so I enjoyed spotting all these. The questions remain: Is Lalla the new Eve? Will life ever be bearable for her on board this ark?

The Ship was a hugely enjoyable novel, a scarily prescient vision of the kind of future we could have if it all goes wrong. After the riots of a couple of years ago, somehow, I can imagine Oxford Street burning for three weeks as happens here. The combination of coming of age story with a dystopia and this fascinating setting was a winner for me. Highly recommended. (8.5/10)

* I also couldn’t help wondering, especially as I’ve recently read The Bees (review here), if Lalla was named for The Bees author Laline Paull? She does contribute a cover quote…  (P.S. Antonia told me via twitter that ‘Lalla is named for the baby at end of The French Lieutenant’s Woman and St Paul, rescued from the waves’).

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below (affiliate link):
The Shipby Antonia Honeywell, pub W&N, Feb 2015. Hardback, 320 pages.

Annabel’s Shelves: A is for …

Arnott, Jake – The Long Firm

Thank you to everyone who suggested authors beginning with ‘A’ for the first read of my Annabel’s Shelves project. Atwood was a very popular suggestion, and I’m sorry to disappoint you but I have read four of her novels already so didn’t choose her this time. Initially, I want to concentrate on new to me authors so I can more fully explore my bookshelves. The author that leapt out at me was Jake Arnott who has written half a dozen well-thought of novels – all of which I have, so he fully deserved a go!  I’d bought the first two of his books after spotting signed paperbacks in Waterstones – this after seeing the BBC’s 2004 adaptation of The Long Firm which starred Mark Strong. The TV mini-series was jolly good – would the book match it?

arnottThe Long Firm is set in ’60s London, and Soho is moving towards its peak of sleaze being full of seedy clubs, porn shops, prozzies, rent-boys and low-lifes. The infamous Kray twins may rule in the East End, but Harry Starks is one of the kings of the roost in the West End and Harry is dangerous. We know that from the opening lines:

‘You know the song, don’t you? “There’s no business like show business”?’ Harry gets the Ethel Merman intonation just right as he heats up a poker in the gas burner.

Yes, we open with a torture scene! Harry has a predilection for this style of justice – not for nothing is he known as the ‘Torture Gang Boss’. Cross him and you’re likely to get taught a lesson you won’t forget. Terry survives, and we’re taken back to the day he met Harry, the day he was chosen as Harry’s next live-in boyfriend. Harry doesn’t flaunt it, but is openly homosexual (not ‘gay’ he insists). Having taken a shine to Terry and installed him in his flat, he kits him out:

I was spoiled rotten. I got to know about haute couture. And that wardrobe was an essential part of the way that Harry operated. Being so well dressed was the cutting edge of intimidation. A sort of decorative violence in itself.

Harry owns the Stardust Club in Soho. The walls are covered in photos of him with minor celebrities, showbiz pals, boxers – he idolises Judy Garland. He rakes in protection money and is always on the look-out for opportunities to expand, whilst being careful not to annoy the Krays too much!

It is after Terry has the audacity to walk out on Harry after one his moods (Harry is bipolar) that Terry’s fate is sealed. Fooled into thinking that all was straight between them, Terry is employed by Harry as foreman at his electrical goods warehouse – it appears legit, but it’s all a scam, ‘a long firm’. Rather than be a patsy, Terry does a deal on the side, which is why he ends up tied to a chair …

Terry’s story is the first of five that make up the novel. Five people who have been involved with Harry each tell their tale.

The second segment is told by Lord Thursby, a new peer who is unhappily married, a closet homosexual and on his uppers. He is introduced to Harry by Tom Driberg (a former MP who in real life was an acquaintance of the Krays).

‘Harry,’ he said, ‘let me introduce you to Lord Thursby.’

His joined-up eyebrows raised as one. I could see he was impressed. Probably took me for full-blooded aristocracy instead of just a kicked-upstairs life peer. There’s a strange sort of bond between the lower-class tearaway and the upper-class bounder. A shared hatred of the middle classes I suppose. He shoved out his hard, adorned with chunky rings and a big gold wristwatch.

Thursby lets himself get flattered into being a consultant on a scheme to build a new town in Nigeria – and naturally it all goes pear-shaped. Along the way, we learn all about demurrage – the cost associated with storing things, and that there are scammers the whole world over. Thursby’s segment is told as diary entries and is blackly comic in tone.

Jack the Hat, a speed-addicted drug-dealer and Ruby Ryder, tart with a heart and wannabe actress, take on the third and fourth parts of the story by which time the character of the West End is beginning to change with the arrival of LSD and hippies, the old-style gangster is not so fashionable any more. Loyalties change and one other constant of this story – Mooney, the bent vice copper becomes a real problem. When other mobsters have to turn Queens Evidence, Harry is soon implicated and ends up in jail. The last section is told by Lenny – a sociology professor who meets Harry in jail where Harry is getting all the education he can to keep his grey matter functioning at the highest level.

Each of the five tales has its own style and each of the five narrators has a clear voice making their experience of dealing with Harry a distinct and personal story – yet the portrait of him is remarkably consistent throughout. Each will see his different moods – mercurial, philanthropic, violent, loving, romantic, thinking, manic and depressed, and ever the boss to be crossed at your peril. Arnott gets the language of each narrator just right – even down to Jack the Hat always getting his grammar wrong saying ‘should of’ not should have!

It is a very violent world, full of sex, drugs … and Judy Garland, naturally Harry adores her. Real characters from the 1960s flit through the novel, other characters are fictional homages to figures such as Kenneth Williams. Together with all the period references, the 1960s is brought to life with tremendous seedy detail. This novel has it all – and I loved it. I’m glad to have read Arnott – he was the perfect start to my project. (10/10)

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Source: Annabel’s Shelves! To explore further on Amazon UK please click below (affiliate link):
The Long Firm by Jake Arnott. (1999) Sceptre paperback, 352 pages.
The Long Firm [DVD] [2004]

Now help me choose a ‘B’ book…

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I have two and a third shelves of authors beginning with B. Sorry, you probably can’t read them very clearly in the photo, but apart from Pat Barker, Nicola Barker and Christopher Brookmyre of whom I’ve read several, I’ve not read most of the others there. Suggestions welcome!

Consumer culture gone mad in a warped and very funny novel…

Get Me Out of Here by Henry Sutton

Scanning my TBR shelves for something different to read the other week, I alighted on this novel remembering that Kim had loved it! It was time to return to a novel by Henry Sutton. Many moons ago, pre-blog and in the early days of keeping my reading list spreadsheet, I made a note after reading Sutton’s first novel published in 1995 entitled Gorleston:

Gorleston

Having actually lived in Gorleston [-0n-Sea, adjacent to Gt Yarmouth in Norfolk] for a year I can completely understand this novel. It was lonely enough as a Londoner fresh from university in my first real job, but at least I could get away at weekends. For dear old retired Percy in this novel however, who leads a very humdrum existence, the chance to have some fun when he meets Queenie is totally irresistible! He has a whale of time, but Queenie moves on and he’s left alone again to discover some uncomfortable new truths about his dead wife. A touching novel full of wry observations about being old from a young first-time author.

Norfolk wasn’t me, but I really enjoyed Gorleston, so hoped I’d have a treat with his more recent novel Get Me Out of Here too.

Get me out of hereThe book starts in an opticians shop at Canary Wharf, East London’s business district, where Matt Freeman is trying to get a refund on his new pair of designer glasses, which he has deliberately mistreated because he doesn’t like them. He’s angling for a refund so he can go to another optician for a different pair he’s spotted. They call his bluff though, offering to replace the scratched lenses with stronger ones, it’ll take two weeks! Matt Freeman is, as they say, having a very bad day.

Right from the start we know that Freeman is a wannabe, he has some kind of unspecified financial start-up company about which he is very secretive, while accepting ‘investments’ from friends and family. All the time, he is living beyond his means in a flat with a bust boiler that isn’t actually in the most desirable location of the Barbican development in central London. Set in 2008, if you thought this novel was going to be about the credit crunch, you’d be mostly wrong but also a little right – for the only credit that will get crunched in this novel is Matt’s.

I’ve never read about a character so obsessed with brands and shopping! If starts on page one, and doesn’t let up for the whole novel… In fact, on the copyright page at the front, the publishers have inserted a paragraph to dissociate the author and themselves from Matt’s ‘highly subjective views about a variety of well-known brands and shops. These are purely a product of his imagination and state of mind.’

There’s a brilliant scene where he proves that an indestructible suitcase can be the opposite, which commenters over on Kim’s review likened to a John Cleese rant, so I won’t repeat that here. Another telling moment happens in Prada, where he goes to pick up a jacket he bought at half-price in the sale on which he’s had some alterations done. Needless to say it no longer fits and he can’t get his money back so he attacks the sales assistant.

I’d never hit a sales assistant before and I didn’t hit this man very hard. It was more of a slap with the back of my hand, which I sort of disguised as part of my desperate struggle to tear off the ruined piece of clothing as quickly as possible. He was too shocked, I think, to realise quite what had happened. But I couldn’t stand it when places such as Prada proved so unaccommodating. It was particularly shoddy behaviour, from an establishment that tried to project such a refined, stylish image.
‘Keep it,’ I shouted, letting the jacket fall to the floor. ‘But don’t expect to get my custom again.’ I couldn’t afford to waste £480, but I didn’t see why a trickle of Prada customers shouldn’t be made aware of how they treated their non-celebrity clients.

Underneath all the hilarious ranting and raving by Matt, the bad customer, is something all together more macabre as evidenced by that slap, for Matt is not just Mr Angry.

Shortly after the start of the novel we meet Matt’s current girlfriend, Bobbie. She shares a house in South London, and is addicted to reality TV – which is where the title of this novel comes from, as Ant and Dec are currently in the jungle on screen doing ‘I’m a celebrity…‘ in it. Bobbie is the latest in a long string of girlfriends, none of whom seem to last very long. With her TV addiction, she is on the way out.

It’s not clear what actually happens – with our unreliable narrator Matt telling his own story, he never actually admits to anything. We, naturally, fill in the gaps and with all the clues, can only assume the worst.

If I described this novel as a typically British response to Bret Easton Ellis’ infamous 1995 novel American Psycho, I wouldn’t be far off the mark, except that where AP is just nasty, Get Me Out of Here is very funny, a black comedy of the highest order with the pace of a thriller. It’s not often that you encounter a leading character that you love to hate so much but who keeps you riveted to the page – Matt Freeman is one of those. You’ll either love it or hate it – I’m the former.(9.5/10)

Sutton’s new novel My Criminal World features a struggling crime author, whose failing marriage and need for more gore in his writing begin to converge. Sounds irresistible, I’ve ordered a copy.

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Source: Own copies.

To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link – thank you):
All by Henry Sutton:
Gorleston – O/P – S/H copies available.
Get Me Out of Here – Vintage pbk, 2011, 272 pages.
My Criminal World – Vintage pbk, 2014, 288 pages.

Saturday Selection

Another busy week! Thank goodness I have nothing booked in for the next fortnight – even for half term, except for promising my daughter a London trip to Camden market.

amber furyMonday night was my Book Group – this month we read The Amber Fury (aka The Furies) by Natalie Haynes.

I read this book last year and reviewed it here and saw her talk about it at the Oxford Literary Festival – here. Everyone really enjoyed it. We thought the characters were well done, the setting felt real and all the Greek myths therein were used brilliantly.

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Thursday night was down to London, where I met up with Jackie and Kim at Faber’s fiction showcase.

P1020304The star attraction was Kazuo Ishiguro, or Ish as he is known. No sooner had we got installed with drinks than Rachel from Faber brought him over to meet us – lovely man. He was slightly perplexed over blogging and the intercommunication between us all, but we were onto safer ground talking about book groups – he talked about his wife’s one. I will be reviewing The Buried Giant for Shiny New Books in April.

I also chatted with the handsome Welshman Owen Sheers about the Mabinogion retellings from Seren books which he contributed to. He has a new book out in June called I Saw a Man which sounds utterly gripping from the extract he read. He signed a copy of the proof for me – the first to ask – I am privileged. You’ll have to wait several months for my thoughts on the book though.

Also there were Andrew O’Hagan, who read brilliantly from his new novel The Illuminations which is currently R4’s Book at Bedtime, and KateHamer – debut novelist of a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood as a contemporary thriller The Girl in the Red Coat. Sarah Hall would have been there too to read from her new novel The Wolf Border, but couldn’t make it sadly.

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Friday night was Mostly Bookbrains 6.  This year, the Wednesday evening Bookgroup from Mostly Books took over the mantle of compiling the questions, allowing me to be in a team with Simon and all his lovely friends. It was lovely to be on the other side for a change, and, dear reader – We won!!!

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I’d like to finish by highlighting my two reviews in the Non-Fiction section of Shiny New Books’ new issue…

armchair nation
Armchair Nation by Joe Moran

Moran is becoming one of our foremost cultural historians of the twentieth century. His history of the googlebox in Britain goes right from its inception and promotion by Mr Selfridge himself through to The X-Factor via the new upstart ITV and Mary Whitehouse.

Absolutely fascinating, full of impeccable research from TV and news archives, Mass Observation and more.

Read my full review here.

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where-im-reading-from-188x300Where I’m Reading From by Tim Parks

We all love books about books, and Tim Parks collection of essays (originally published in The New Yorker) is essentially one long opinion piece.

Divided into four sections covering the worlds of literature, reading, writing and translation, Parks, an English novelist, translator and university lecturer makes a lively companion.  I didn’t agree with all of his views (cf e-readers!) but found the essays entertaining and thought-provoking. I particularly enjoyed the section devoted to the world of translation, which gave me many new insights.

Read my full review here.

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So that’s my week – how has yours been?

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To explore some of the books mentioned above, click below (affiliate links – thank you):

A Dance to the Music of Time 1: A Question of Upbringing

Dancing Powell

A Question of Upbringing 

Looking out of his window at some workmen around a brazier, Nicholas Jenkins is reminded of the four seasons on Poussin’s celebrated painting (detail above), and the passing of time in his life.

The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving had in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the stesp of the dance. Classical associations made me think, too, or days at school, where so many forces, hiterto unfamiliar, had become in due course uncompromisingly clear.

Powell 1Immediately we are introduced to one of the key characters in the series – Kenneth Widmerpool, going for a run on a foggy winter’s day. Widmerpool is a bit of an enigma, he ‘himself had proved indigestible to the community.’ Outsider he may be, but even later in this first volume, we will come to see his strength of character, and sense that he will endure.

Our narrator Jenkins, now enters the school boarding house and we meet his slightly older roommates – Stringham and Templer. On first glance, Stringham seems a good sort and Templer more mischievous, but after Jenkins’s Uncle Giles comes to visit and nearly gets them expelled by lighting a cigarette, it is Stringham that plays a particularly evil practical joke on housemaster Le Bas after noticing his resemblance to a wanted criminal. Stringham gets away with it too.

It is the boys’ last year at school; Stringham leaves early to stay in Kenya for a while. Jenkins spends some time with Templer’s family in London, falling madly in love with his sister Jean and experiencing the Templer brand of practical joke on a poor chap residing with them called Sunny Farebrother. Then in the summer he goes off to an educational establishment in France where he falls in love with someone else – and encounters Widmerpool again before going up to university where he begins to see how the old boys network really works when he is adopted by one of the professors, (think Slughorn ‘collecting’ Harry Potter for an analogy).

These four sections of school, London, France and university form the four long chapters of the novel – its own seasons if you will.

We find out very little about Jenkins himself – he doesn’t give much away, just observes and absorbs rather than doing much himself. Is he just a hanger on? I guess we’ll see, but he certainly seemed like that in this first volume. In a way he reminded me of Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, another accepted outsider narrator.

Stringham and Templer and their well-heeled families were straight out of the bright young things of the 1920s. Uncle Giles however, who crops up several times, is a sort of failed Army officer who’s slightly on his uppers and needing a new opportunity in life – I hope we’ll hear more of him. The one character I long for more of though is Widmerpool – he is so intriguing, and seems bound to make something of himself despite what others may think.

Powell’s language is rich and dense and took some getting used to. I’m glad he started us off with Jenkins’s schooldays, as the scenario is familiar enough to give one time to get into the habit of reading his typically long sentences, which meant I was able to cope with this 70 word one by page 149!

The curious thing was that, although quite aware that a sentiment of attraction towards Suzette was merely part of an instinct that had occasioned Peter’s ‘unfortunate incident’ – towards which I was conscious of no sense of disapproval – my absorption in the emotional disturbance caused by Jean and Suzette seemed hardly at all connected with the taking of what had been, even in Templer’s case, a fairly violent decision.

So to summarise, volume one is really a scene-setting introduction – enjoyable in its way, but promising many more riches to come. I shall definitely proceed onto number two – A Buyer’s Market. (8/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
A Question Of Upbringing (Dance to the Music of Time 01) by Anthony Powell, Arrow paperback 240 pages. Other editions available.

The blackest of boozy pre-war comedies …

lar-button-finalPatrick Hamilton is one of those authors whom I’ve been meaning to read for years – when one of the blogs I follow (sorry can’t remember which one) reviewed his trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky last autumn and loved it, I was moved to check my shelves and found his 1941 novel Hangover Square on them. That book moved to my bedside pile, and so I’ve been able to combine my TBR reading with Long Awaited Reads Month (hosted by Iris and Ana).

Why, oh why did I wait so long to read this book?  I’ll say it up front – it’s my first 10/10 read for 2014 …

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

Starting in the dying days of 1938, George Harvey Bone, a tall and ungainly young man is spending Christmas with his aunt in Hunstanton hoping she’ll give him some money to keep him and his ‘friends’ going.

hangover squareGeorge is jobless, and lives in a backstreet hotel in Earls Court, an area of West London that was, (may still be) bedsit-land. He spends most of his time either asleep or in one boozer or another with his so-called friends Peter, Mickey and Netta.

It’s thinking of Netta that makes George’s brain go ‘click’ while he’s out walking in the Norfolk air that Christmas. The click puts him into a ‘dead mood’ which puts his body into automatic, and his brain into thinking bad thoughts for George is an undiagnosed schizophrenic …

This Netta business had been going on too long. When was he going to kill her? Soon – this year certainly. At once would be best – as soon as he got back to London – he was going back tomorrow, Boxing Day. But these things had to be planned: he had so many plans: too many. The thing was so incredibly, absurdly easy That was why it was so difficult to choose the right plan. You had only to hit her over the head when she was not looking. You had only to ask her to turn her back to you because you had a surprise for her, and then strike her down. You had only to invite her to a window, to ask her to look down at something, and then throw her out. You had only to put a scarf playfully round her neck, and fondle it admiringly, and then strangle her. You had only to surprise her in her bath, life up her legs and hold her head down. All so easy: all so silent.

He’s on the train home, before the shutter opens in his brain again, and “he wished to God he could remember what he had been doing and what he had been thinking.

What has Netta done to deserve all these bad thoughts?  She is the number one object of his affections but treats him badly, shamelessly milking him for drinks, dinner, subs for her rent, using poor lovelorn George.  The others take advantage too.

He could see through them, and, of course, he hated them. He even hated Netta too – he had known that for a long time. He hated Netta, perhaps, most of all. The fact that he was crazy about her physically, that he worshipped the ground she trod on and the air she breathes, that he could think of nithing else in the world all day long, had nothing to do with the underlying stream of scorn he bore towards her as a character. You might say he wasn’t really ‘in love’ with her: he was ‘in hate’ with her. It was the same thing – just looking at his obsession from the other side. He was netted in hate just as he was netted in love. Netta: Netta: Netta! … God – how he loved her!

He hated himself, too. He didn’t pretend to be any better. He hated himself for the life he led – the life in common with them. Drunken, lazy, impecunious, neurotic, arrogant, pub-crawling cheap lot of swine – that was what they all were. Including him and Netta.

Netta wants to be a film-star, and lets George take her to dinner in a posh London restaurant.  George is overjoyed at getting her to himself for even a short while, but once at the restaurant it is clear she picked it because Eddie Carstairs, a casting agent is often there, and her feminine wiles are all directed at him. Poor George is a meal-ticket again.

George becomes even more useful when he meets an old friend Johnnie from his school days. Johnnie is a true friend, but when Netta finds out he works at Carstairs’ company, George has another use again. When George is invited down to a company do at Brighton, Netta has to get in on the act…

You can sense right from the beginning, when George’s alter-ego has those murderous thoughts, that this novel is unlikely to have a happy ending. George does manage to have a few genuinely good moments, away from Netta, but he’s not strong enough to get up and go.  He does realise this, but with war in the air, and no jobs on the ground, he can’t dig himself out of the pit he’s fallen into. The constant drinking doesn’t help, and his ‘dead moods’ are getting worse.  Poor George.

This novel is subtitled ‘A story of darkest Earls Court’, and it certainly is that. Netta and co have a Hemingwayesque relationship with booze, and are flirting with Fascist attitudes too, but George has problems with Munich – he’s scared at the prospects of war.  It adds an undercurrent throughout the book which adds to the inevitability of what happens.

The 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.

Hamilton’s prose is beautiful, incendiary, moving, clinical, full of ennui – everything it needs to be to tell George’s story. I nearly cried for George, wishing he hadn’t spotted her across a crowded room that day.

I loved this book so much it’s going into my Desert Island Books booktrunk. I reluctantly put it down with fifty pages to go the other night, and waking up at about 3.30am for some reason,  rather than go back to sleep, I finished reading it. It may be sad, but it’s an absolute classic. (10/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Hangover Square: A Story of Darkest Earl’s Court by Patrick Hamilton (1941), foreword by J B Priestley, Penguin Modern Classics, 288 pages.

Nannying in the 1980s

Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life by Nina Stibbe

love nina nina stibbeThis volume of memoirs in the form of letters was the perfect reading for me in the past couple of weeks, when life has been so hectic. I’ve just finished a couple of weeks of full-time cover teaching, and then with all the usual Christmas events from bazaars to carol services to help at, editing the school magazine etc. etc. etc. I’ve fallen asleep within minutes of going to bed – waking in the early hours with the light on – still sitting propped up with my thumb jammed in the book! Not a good posture for dozing, but now term has ended and I can relax. This book of short sections was just the thing to ensure I managed to get some reading done. Let me tell you about it…

In the early 1980s, aged twenty, Nina Stibbe left Leicestershire for London to become a nanny. It still being the days when not everyone had a phone, she wrote home regularly to her sister Victoria telling her all about her successes and non-successes at nannying and the amazing family she worked for. Luckily for us, Vic kept the letters.

Nina worked for Mary-Kay Wilmers, who was then deputy editor of the London Review of Books, and she looked after her two sons, Will and Sam (whose father is Stephen Frears). They lived in North London near Regents Park Zoo; Alan Bennett (AB) was a neighbour – always popping in for tea, and Jonathan Miller lived up the road.

When he (AB) comes over for supper he does this tiny short doorbell ring, hardly a ring at all, he just touches the bell and it makes just the beginning of a ring. That’s him. Minimum fuss.

It seems to have been a very haphazard, but lovely household. Neither MK nor Nina really cooked much but everyone seems to have thrived. MK seems to have been quite liberal, and her sons (aged 9 and 10 at the start) are able to get away with quite adult language and they’re all naturally witty in a dead-pan way.  They are all completely loveable, with Sam and Will forming a comedy double act with their amazing conversations.

S & W had a row yesterday afternoon. To annoy Will, Sam said he might switch to Manchester United. Will called Sam something mysterious in German, which he claimed to be extremely offensive, but turned out to be mother-in-law (according to AB).

At supper:
Will: (to Sam) By the way, it was ‘swiegermutter’.
Sam: What was?
Will: What I called you – it’s German for ‘motherfucker’.
AB: ‘Swiegermutter’? Actually, I think that’s German for ‘mother-in-law’.
Will: Oh. What’s the German for ‘motherfucker’, then?
MK: Probably ‘motherfucker’.
AB: (pondering) It might be ‘mutterficken’? Or perhaps ‘arschficken’, ‘arshlock’? But please can’t we discuss nicer things?

Eventually Nina, egged on by boyfriend Nunney, who is a helper at the Tomalins – another literary family nearby, decides to apply to do an English degree, having enjoyed doing A-level English. She is offered a place at Thames Poly, and at first moves out so a new nanny can move in. However, it’s not long before they have a jiggle round and she moves back in with her adopted family.

It’s really nice to hear about Nina’s discoveries of the literary canon as she progresses in her degree, but her college friends are less interesting than the Wilmers. Given that Nina is a mature student, they seem immature in comparison to her. I was longing for more Sam and Will, and AB during these sections. Bennett constantly surprised me actually – this passage when their washing machine malfunctioned really tickled me…

Once neither of us nudged it and it went for hours and everything came out all matted. AB suggested it was something to do with the water not heating up to the target temperature and therefore not moving n to the next part of the cycle. It’s amazing how much AB knows about appliances (when you consider he’s a writer and pretty much just writes all day.)

Me: You’re good with appliances.
AB: (proud) Well, I don’t know about that.
Me: You sorted out the car, the fridge, the phone, bike tyres and now the washing machine.
AB: I don’t think I’m particularly good.
MK: But it’s nice to know you’ve got something to fall back on.

Anyway, it’s fixed now, a bloke came round and it was what AB said (temperature thing).

Although this book is completely one-sided – Nina seems not to have kept Vic’s replies, she does acknowledge her sister’s life events in her letters. Vic is always sending her recipes to try and cuttings so we get a slight sense of her sister. Nina, like her charges is witty; she’s also opinionated, but self-deprecating too. We’re about the same age, and I can tell you the early 1980s was a great time to be in your twenties in London. The book comes to an end after six years of letters when Nina graduates. The Wilmers were definitely brave to let Nina publish her diaries – but they needn’t have worried, for they are lovely, and so is Nina. (9/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life by Nina Stibbe, pub Viking, Nov 2013, Hardback 336 pages.

Jazz Vampires – another case for Peter Grant

Moon over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch

This is the second novel in Aaronovitch’s ‘Rivers of London‘ series of humorous police procedurals involving magical crimes in contemporary London. If you’ve not read the first volume Rivers of London – head over here to find out about it – for you won’t understand much of what’s going on in the second book otherwise.

moon over soho

Detective Constable Peter Grant is continuing his tutelage as the Metropolitan Police’s only trainee wizard under DCI Nightingale at ‘The Folly’ – the Met’s secret magical crimes unit in Bloomsbury.

He’s called out to look at the body of a saxophonist who dropped dead after a gig in a Soho jazz club – there’s a definite aura of magic, ‘vestigium‘ in the air, typified by riffs from jazz standard Body and soul.  Grant will find that a suspicious number of jazz musicians have died in past years.

Grant recognises the recording of Body and Soul, but can’t place it and heads off to his parents flat.  His father used to be a great trumpet player, but had to stop. No longer able to play his horn, even though he’s retired, Richard ‘Lord’ Grant has turned to keyboards and is contemplating making another comeback.

Then there is a particularly gruesome murder in one of the Soho Clubs, again reeking of magic. They have a suspect but she’s going to be hard to catch. Grant enlists the help of Ash – one of the tributary river-Gods to follow her – but she twigs and Ash nearly ends up like her other victims, but Grant is able to get him back to the river in time by hijacking an ambulance – something that will get him in big trouble.  The murderer gets away though and soon news of another brutal killing comes through …

My Dad says that being a Londoner has nothing to do with where you’re born. He says that there are people who get off a jumbo jet at Heathrow, go through immigration waving any kind of passport, hop on the tube and by the time the train’s pulled into Piccadilly Circus they’ve become a Londoner. He said there were others, some of whom were born within the sound of Bow Bells, who spend their whole life dreaming of an escape. When they do go, they almost always head for Norfolk, where the skies are big, the land is flat and the demographics are full of creamy white goodness. It is, says my dad, the poor man’s alternative to Australia, now that South Africa has gone all multicultural.

Jerry Johnson was one of the latter type of non-Londoner, born in Finchley in 1940 by the grace of God and died in a bungalow on the outskirts of Norwich with his penis bitten off. That last detail explaining why me and the scariest police officer in the Met, her beard and two motorcycle outriders were doing a steady ton plus change up the M11.

Highlight the text above for the full goriness of Johnson’s murder if you dare.

All these elements will tie up in the end, and DCI Nightingale and Grant, aided by pathologist Dr Walid and DC Stephanopoulis will have their work cut out to solve the mystery.  Eventually they get a concrete lead – from a seedy agent cum pimp who is scared of the magic he thinks he saw.

‘At least, I think I saw it,’ said Mith, and he seemed to shrink down into the collar of his shirt. ‘You’re not going to believe me.’
‘I’m not going to believe you,’ said Stephanopoulos. ‘But Constable Grant here is actually paid to believe in this stuff. He also has to believe in faeries and wizards and hobgoblins.’
‘And hobbitses,’ I said.

I love all the throwaway one-liners.

Although lacking the impact of discovering the author’s magical world for the first time, Moon over Soho shows an author who loves London, and is keen to show us how messy life in the great metropolis can be.  The main plot is quite transparent, but we have great fun in getting to the denouement.  The recurring characters are all built upon from volume one, and I’m desperate to see how PC Lesley May does in the third novel, having been relegated to supporting in vol two due to having nearly died in the first.  It was lovely to meet Peter’s father, jazz fan and vinyl afficionado, (l.p.s – doncha miss them?).

Some might quibble about the series-aspects of this novel – it doesn’t stand alone, but not me.  These books would make a wonderful TV series – it would be wonderful to see what the Sherlock team could make of them for instance, (Sherlock is back on New Year’s Day – yay!).

So read the first book first, then if you like it (I hope you do), you’ll enjoy the second too.  I can’t wait to get stuck into the next two now.  (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Moon Over Soho (Rivers of London 2) by Ben Aaronovitch (2011), Gollancz paperback, 375 pages.

Old heads on young shoulders, and yet …

Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes

absolute beginners

Narrated by an eighteen year old photographer, MacInnes’ novel captures the essence of what it was like to be a teenager in London in the late 1950s …

Mr Wiz continued, masticating his salmon sandwich for anyone to see, ‘It’s been a two-way twist, this teenage party. Exploitation of the kiddos by the conscripts, and exploitation of themselves by the crafty little absolute beginners. The net result? “Teenager” ‘s become a dirty word or, at any rate, a square one.’
I smiled at Mr W. ‘Well, take it easy, son,’ I said, ‘because a sixteen year old sperm like you has got a lot of teenage living still to do. As for me, eighteen summers, rising nineteen, I’ll very soon be out there among the oldies.

Ah – the arrogance of youth, to be considered old at twenty!

The novel follows our unnamed narrator through the summer of 1958, and we gradually meet all his friends like Mr Wiz above and neighbours, plus the love of his life Suzette.

Suze is a problem – she says loves him, but she also loves money and the trappings it can buy. She is tempted to marry an older homosexual chap to give him cover and her money. She dangles the narrator on her little finger yet carries on having flings.

The narrator has a small flat in a vibrant and Bohemian area of West London, which he finances through his photographic work – mostly selling pornographic pictures at this time, although he does have artistic ambitions. Downstairs lives Cool, a black man, whose white half-brother has just come to warn him of impending unrest…

‘…he gets round the area and knows the scene, and he says there’s trouble coming for the coloureds.’
I laughed out loud, but a bit nervously. ‘Oh Cool, you know, they’ve been saying that for years, and nothing’s happened. Well, haven’t they? I know in this country we treat the coloureds all like you-know-what, but we English are too lazy, son, to be violent. Anyway, you’re one of us, big boy, I mean home-grown, as much a native London kid as any of the millions, and much more so than hundreds of pure pink numbers from Ireland and abroad who’ve latched on to the Welfare thing, but don’t belong here like you do.’
My speech made no impression on Mr Cool. ‘I’m just telling you what Wilf says,’ he answered. ‘And all I know is, he likes coming here so little it must be something that makes him feel he ought to.’

As the summer heats up, so brews the tension. This is the era of Vespa scooters, Mods and Teds, rock’n’roll, and it will end in the Notting Hill race-riots.

If exploring youth culture and the social make-up of young London is the most serious theme of this novel, the lighter side is seeing what your average London teenager wears, and what they listen to.  The narrator is unusual for one who left school at fifteen in that he’s a reader.  He was lucky to have an inspirational teacher.

… he made me kinky about books: he managed to teach me – to this day, I don’t know how – that books were not just a thing like that – I mean, just books – but somebody else’s mind opened up for me to look into, and he taught me the habit, later on, of actually buying then! Yes – I mean real books, like the serious paperbacks, which must have been unknown among the kids up in the Harrow Road those days, who thought a book’s an SF or a Western, if they thought it’s anything.

Good chap!  But books aren’t his only love. Also very important, more important even, to most teenagers of the time (and now still?) is the music they listened to.  In the late 1950s, it wasn’t so unusual for teens to be into jazz…

…the great thing about the jazz world, and all the kids that enter into it, is that no one, not a soul, cares what your class is or what your race is, or what your income, so if you’re boy, or girl, or bent, or versatile, or what you are – so long as you dig the scene and can behave yourself, and have left all that crap behind you, too, when you come in the jazz club door.

absolute beginners penguin first edition

Contrasting against the non-stop activities of the teenagers is the different kind of relationship he has with his parents. He only really visits them in Pimlico where his mother runs a boarding house for unsavory types to use his old dark-room. There’s no love lost between the narrator and his mother, but he is determined to give his poor hen-pecked and ailing father a bit of fun this summer – they go off for a day cruising up the river.

Then it reaches September and the end of the summer. The tensions which had been simmering now begin to boil over. Our narrator turns nineteen, and it’s as if a switch is flipped in him – he does indeed have an old head on young shoulders.

Published in 1959, MacInnes (whom I discovered is Angela Thirkell’s son), was in his mid forties when he wrote it. His narrator uses a rich and complex vocabulary that seems older than his years – not quite Anthony Burgess’s Nadsat from A Clockwork Orange which would follow in 1962, more like the verbal flourishes that Russell Brand uses.  No-one is known by their real names either, it’s nicknames all the way – just like today’s teens.

What is scary is that in those days, the majority of teenagers were released from the shackles of school out into the big wide world at the age of fifteen.  I was scared stiff to leave school at eighteen twenty years later!  Through MacInnes’s eyes, these teenagers seem so worldly and happy-go-lucky as they dive into London life with real gusto.

absolute beginners film tie-in editionSome of you may recall the 1986 film adaptation starring Patsy Kensit as a rather toned down Suzette and theme tune by David Bowie. Bowie also acted in it, alongside Ray Davies as the father.

Those are the names I remember, but also in the film were James Fox, Mandy Rice-Davies, Steven Berkoff, Lionel Blair, and Edward Tudor-Pole, plus Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman no less!

absolute beginners single david bowie

I remember seeing the film on the big screen and really enjoying it – but it was a big flop for the British film company that financed it. In particular, the critics didn’t like a 1950s film with a 1980s soundtrack – Sade and The Style Council contributed; authenticity was added by veteran jazzman Gil Evans, but that wasn’t enough.  I bought the 12″ single though…

I’m currently very drawn to British books set in this pre-Beatles era.  Absolute Beginners is the middle novel of a trilogy of standalone novels by MacInnes – together known as his London Trilogy.  The others are City of Spades and Mr Love and Justice and I would definitely like to read them. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Absolute Beginners (Allison & Busby Classics), paperback, 350 pages.
City of Spades, Mr Love And Justice