August 26, 2016

WOLFCURSE

by Guy N Smith
176 pages, Black Hill Books

Review by Pat Black

“I’m not reviewing this one. It was too much. People will think I’m some sort of nut.”

But here I am. Maybe my compulsion to review the trash fiction of Guy N Smith is linked to the atavistic impulse to read it in the first place.

In saying I won’t read any more of Smith’s work, I feel like Renton in Trainspotting. That part where he whips off the tourniquet, springs up from the floorboards and declares that he’s done with the gear. And Mother Superior smiles and nods. Sure you are, mate.

Smith has written a few werewolf novels, though not quite as many as he has about giant crustaceans re-organising the food chain. There is something compelling about the ancient folklore involved in lycanthropy. Somewhere out there in the mist and the darkness is a monster which was a person at one point, surrendered to terrible rages and lusts: the beast within. But, semi-detached from killing and blood, these stories often betray a yearning to return to a more feral life lived in the open. For Guy N Smith - a keen outdoorsman and certainly someone who has killed to eat - you suspect this is a theme close to his heart.

I expected Wolfcurse to be something along the same lines as his other wolfy novels, a bit of pulp fun. But it is different to the usual Guy N Smith fare. There is an unconfirmed rumour he wrote this book in response to criticism that he couldn’t be a “serious author” in his chosen genre. Smith sets about proving his doubters wrong, aiming for psychological realism in the tale of a suburban British man’s mental collapse.

Wolfcurse has got nothing to do with ripped Victorian ruff shirts, misty moors or silver bullets. There isn’t even a curse as such. Certainly the snarling wolfman on the front cover with the 1970s lambchops and dicey teeth doesn’t appear in this story.

Here’s the thing which really shook me up, though. For its first third, Wolfcurse is… quite good. It’s both a compelling story and a fascinating human study. In parts, it’s easily the best stuff Smith has ever created.

But then… oh, Guy! Why did you have to go all rapey on us?

The cursed man is Ray Tyler. He’s middle-aged, he works in a bank, his boss is an *rsehole, and his wife is a b*tch. There is a tragedy lurking in the background, the death of a child. This may be a factor in what happens, but maybe not.

For reasons that are never fully explained, Tyler detonates into unstoppable rages, lashing out at everything that’s wrong with his life. He’s less of a werewolf than he is the Incredible Hulk. This is apparent in the opening scene, when he gives three teenage thugs the bleaching of their lives. I feel no shame in saying I loved the parts where violence is dished out to unpleasant people. It slakes our own bloodlust, the thirst for nasty folk to be punished, and severely.

After this, Ray’s anger seeps into his working life. I know the young Guy N Smith was encouraged to follow in his father’s footsteps into a career in banking. I would imagine the lad was bored rigid in a collar and tie. That ennui and frustration surely informs his lead character’s working life in Wolfcurse, particularly his sour assessment of the climbers, bullies and treacherous creeps infesting every office in the world.

A particular target for Tyler’s anger is his short-fused bank manager, who pulls Tyler into his office to monster him for a perceived mistake. Things get physical; Tyler has the immense satisfaction of spreading his boss’s nose across his face. Who, in all honesty, can say they have never wanted to do that at some point in life?

Then his nosey, obnoxious neighbours get involved. Tyler is a self-sufficiency buff with a dream of providing for himself from the land and livestock. This extends to keeping a chicken coop in his garden. Tyler’s neighbour, a smirking wet blanket, doesn’t like that. Cue yet more overwhelming, intoxicating rage after Tyler’s territory is p*ssed upon.

This is when Wolfcurse is at its best. Like Falling Down, it’s not just the story of a personal breakdown, but also an examination of how society sometimes fails us. It indulges our fantasies of what we’d love to say and do to the irritants we all have to put up with for the sake of a quiet life.

Tyler doesn’t really become a werewolf. We can be sure it’s all in his head. The doubt belongs to him alone. At first, he thinks he’s affected by the moon; then he suspects he’s been infected in some way by a second-hand book on folklore, a carrier for the curse.

Slyly, the author undermines these conceits throughout the novel. There might be a scientific explanation for Tyler’s blood-soaked breakdown. Perhaps it’s lycanthropy, an actual mental disease where people believe they are wolves and start biting folk. Tyler recalls loping around on all fours in the moonlight, but we can never be sure if he’s imagined this or not.

Whatever the cause, Tyler begins to black out when he heads outdoors after dark. He wakes up with clotted blood under his fingernails; he fears that the wolf within has completely taken over.

The werewolf myth taps into feral instincts - killing rage; possessing great strength and power; becoming something lethal, something to be feared. It could be a metaphor for suppressed, perhaps transgressive lust. It could also stand for homosexuality, with the transformation reflecting a hidden compulsion which can cause terrible psychological difficulties for conflicted people. There’s also the Jekyll-and-Hyde scenario, whereby a mild-mannered person might be turned into someone awful after taking a drink.

Another angle was brilliantly examined in I Was A Teenage Werewolf: lycanthropy as a metaphor for emerging sexuality in adolescence. Similarly, the two lupine sisters in Ginger Snaps are starting to come to terms with their own nascent sexual power, manifest as wolfishness. That movie surely began life as a joke about “the curse”.

Wolfcurse had some interesting things to say about how we live our lives versus how we’d like to… until Smith examines Tyler’s sexual appetites. This amounts to rape. First, he assaults his unpleasant wife; then, a frisky, free-spirited neighbour. The sex and violence continues to mingle, to ultimately murderous effect.

Tyler is a maniac. The novel becomes plain nasty, and nigh-on unreadable. “Trigger warning” doesn’t quite cover it.

What particularly galls about these parts is that, the next morning, Tyler semi-rationalises what he’s done. Perhaps an unpleasant sign of the times Smith was writing in (Wolfcurse was first published in 1981), Tyler doesn’t process sexual assault as a serious crime. “She doesn’t seem the type to call the police,” he muses, in consideration of one victim, thinking that he might just get away with it. There’s a similar suggestion that the police will turn a blind eye to complaints of domestic abuse – phew, another problem averted! At the expense of virtue-signalling, this is some very problematic material indeed.

You could argue that without a sexual element, Smith’s tale of a man’s total moral disintegration would be incomplete. Perhaps this ultimate act of taking what we wish, when we wish, represents the final dissolution of civility in a person, the utter disregard of another person’s thoughts and feelings. Even worse, we know that this happens to someone, somewhere, in the real world, every day. It’s harder to handle than the more straightforward violent encounters – but why is it that we should we be less shocked by some teenagers being beaten into a pulp than we are about sexual violence?

None of these angles are explored by Smith, as Tyler blunders through increasingly horrifying acts before finally doing a bunk.

A perfect finale would have seen Tyler running loose in the forest, his dreadful shadow side in its element at last. Instead, he ends up at the seaside, hooks up with a sleazy woman, smokes some wacky baccy and carries out more awful crimes before he meets his fate.

It’s never quite clear what Tyler’s problem is. Perhaps he simply lost his mind. In his subtle suggestions that there’s no supernatural element at all, Smith displays more subtlety than I would have credited him with previously. In the case of one girl found slaughtered in a public park which Tyler has taken to prowling after sunset, it seems that the killer used a knife. “That can’t be me!” Tyler shrieks, upon reading the headlines. “I don’t use knives!”

But it was Tyler, Smith gently insists. It was him all along. Maybe he used a knife, too. There’s neither rhyme nor reason to such brutal, sordid madness.

August 19, 2016

THE DROWNED WORLD

by JG Ballard
176 pages, Fourth Estate
Audio version read by Julian Elfer

Review by Pat Black

Sometimes the imaginings of the child give themselves away in the work of the adult novelist. This is particularly true of JG Ballard’s The Drowned World.

It reminded me of Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars, and the main characters’ journey into the cosmos in the unearthed spaceship. The science behind it all is scrupulously detailed, but the story retains the essence of a 12-year-old’s fantasy; a depiction of what weird life might lurk on distant planets, and what adventures you might have there.

The Drowned World must surely have flowed from a childhood fancy of Ballard’s that the streets of Shanghai were completely underwater, with monstrous creatures gliding along the surface among the bobbing humans. The city was flooded while Ballard was a youngster, and it’s easy to imagine the effect this sight would have had on his imagination, with the water levels high enough to lap the windows, or to drown a man. The incongruity and splendour of the Bund’s skyline must have cast strange, grand shapes onto the waters beneath.

I used to have a similar fantasy, imagining my toy spaceship was a submarine and my house was an ocean abyss. Water pressure, and how flimsy machinery might withstand it at such incredible depths, was not my concern back then; nor did I have any plausible explanation of how the rubber dinosaurs which snapped at the sub’s stern might have survived into the modern era. The Drowned World is Ballard’s way of putting such irksome physical forces back into the child’s daydream.

Predicting the future is a mug’s game, even for an SF writer, but Ballard did it a little better than most. The Drowned World comes very close to the ecological catastrophes scientists tell us we’re facing now, although the climate change which bloats the seas to such preposterous levels in the book is not man-made. It’s down to solar flares, raising the temperature to unbearable highs and melting the ice caps. The seas then drink most of the land in one draught, leaving only tropical jungle above steaming swamps and lagoons.

The novel is set in a London sank into a tropical sea, and the characters struggle to remember what the drenched Babylon beneath them was called. While high rises and office blocks still jut out of the water here and there, the surviving land is choked with vegetation and haunted by immense iguanas and man-eating alligators. As the novel opens, there are even reports of a huge swimming reptile with a sail on its back, like an ancient dimetrodon – the dinosaurs returned, in other words.

Our main character is Robert Kerans, a biologist taking part in a survey of the tropical lagoon. Leading this party is Colonel Riggs, a soldier who is also looking for survivors clinging to what’s left of the land. Fellow scientist Dr Alan Bodkin has a curious theory about what might be happening to the human mind as the outer world regresses to a prehistoric state. Kerans and others in the party are plagued by dreams of giant Triassic lizards basking in a fierce sun, while their crested descendants do the same on the shoreline. Bodkin theorises that the mind is drawing in on itself as the land returns to its ancient state, with the limbic system providing a trace memory of what life used to be like millions of years previously; the ultimate atavism.

The only woman in the story, in a delicious coincidence, is called Beatrice Dahl, very close to the name of the actress who played Betty Blue decades later. Dahl is fascinating, a languid bikini-clad lush lolling in the sunshine and taking up residence in mossy penthouse suites. She chooses to remain in the drowned world.

You can take your pick of the watery metaphors employed. Is she a mermaid, or a siren? Maybe there’s a little of the marooned Circe in there, as she clings to ancient ideals of glamour and high living even as thick green vines curl their way into her illusory world of gilt-edged mirrors and crystal decanters, accepting and discarding suitors.

Certainly she is fully aware that her boyfriend Kerans and Riggs are rivals for her favour, and she enjoys playing with that. But in keeping with the regressive tone of the novel, Kerans and Dahl’s relationship devolves into a more cold-blooded state before the end. I imagined that Dahl might end up floating like Ophelia at the end of this book, but her fate is carried on stranger tides.

Unwilling to leave their new Eden, Kerans, Bodkin and Dahl remain behind while the pragmatic Riggs returns his military party to the solid ground and security of Greenland. Soon afterwards, the novel abruptly changes tone when the pirate, Strangman, arrives in the lagoon, unleashing a ferocious tide of giant alligators to act as watchdogs.

Strangman’s aim is not just to scavenge for artefacts and useful machinery among the soggy ruins, but also to reclaim the land by draining it – dovetailing with the aims of what government remains in the world, and thus granting him a certain legal immunity. A strange, sardonic man, Strangman is initially cordial towards his fellow lagoon-dwellers – understandably so in Dahl’s case – but it’s clear that his mostly black crew are not to be trifled with, and that danger follows in their wake. I have to confess to some sympathy for the narrator on the audio version I listened to, forced to appropriate stage West Indian accents for some of the crew, particularly Strangman’s ferocious henchman.

Kerans dons an ancient diving helmet and plunges into the drowned city to help out Strangman, in the oddest part of a delightfully odd novel. He plods into a planetarium, entranced by the ersatz starlight still twinkling underwater. Kerans has a trippy experience before almost coming to grief when his air line gets snagged. He initially suspects Strangman has tried to do away with him, but it seems that Kerans himself might have tried to end it all in the midst of his oxygen-starved rapture, a sort of sublimated auto-erotic asphyxiation. Ballard was a kinky bugger, so you can’t quite rule that out as inspiration.

Strangman’s aim to halt the advance of ancient, seething nature and reclaim the streets from their drenched oblivion horrifies Kerans and Bodkin. When civilisation shows its face, the innocence of the new world is tarnished. As if in response, the minute the buccaneer drains the city, something fundamentally changes in the characters, and an immense paradox comes into play. With London dredged out of the deep, the characters return to a state of savagery, as if the grimy, mud-clotted streets had awoken everyone’s darker natures, rather than the pristine jungle. The book’s debt to Conrad, in Outcast of the Islands as well as Heart of Darkness, is obvious from this point on.

This novel might have been mistakenly bought by people looking for simple pulp thrills, and as such it has an action-adventure section after Bodkin goes mental and tries to blow up the dam. This finally breaks down Strangman’s precarious barriers of civility, and Kerans and Dahl are captured. As they indulge in looting, partying and brute savagery, the pirate crew act out a bizarre ritual which sees Kerans tied up and left for dead.

He escapes, finds his Colt 45, rescues his girl from Strangman, and gets some payback.

Not unlike Lord of the Flies, the escalating violence is halted by a convenient intervention, but Kerans’ mind has gone. Emulating Hardman, a colleague who went bonkers and ran into the jungle early on in the book, Kerans finishes what Bodkin started by reflooding the lagoon. He then gives his mania full rein by disappearing into the jungle.

It’s difficult to know whether there’s something in Bodkin’s theory of psychological regression, or whether Kerans is just drunk on sunshine and blue water.

Ballard’s prose is always a delight, and it’s especially gratifying to hear it spoken aloud by Julian Elfer. The author bathes in that sublime, distinctly non-British vista of tropical blues and greens and the hissing reptilian life which splashes through it. One line in particular about “dragon-haunted emerald depths” sent a shiver up my spine. No wonder people like Martin Amis are in raptures over Ballard to this day.

Ballard examines that familiar feeling triggered in us by the clean blue hues of the tropics. Perhaps there is something in the core of our brain which responds to such scenes, something that we understand even if we’ve never been there, with no memory to draw upon. This is an image Kerans happily stumbles after in the blazing sun even as the swamps seek to gulp him down.

I am in the happy position of having so much more Ballard still to read. High Rise next methinks. 

August 13, 2016

TERROR TALES OF THE OCEAN

edited by Paul Finch
252 pages, Grayfriar Press

Review by Pat Black

The sun hasn’t shown its face so much this summer, but when it does, you can always count on people to head for the seaside. Ice cream cones, sandcastles, maybe even a wee paddle. The ocean has an eternal pull on us all.

And you can always count on people like me to imagine all sorts of nasties swimming around out there.

Terror Tales of the Ocean was an easy purchase for me. It’s part of Paul Finch’s Terror Tales series, an affectionate nod towards the Fontana Tales of Terror books of the 1970s and 80s. The format is similar, short stories interspersed with “factual” pieces detailing various true life salty horrors, such as the Bermuda Triangle, the Indianapolis sinking, and the Flannan Isles lighthouse mystery. On top of that, we bait our hooks for some big ‘uns, such as the megalodon, sea serpents, giant jellyfish and loads of other real, extinct or imaginary underwater nasties.

The stories are the real draw, though, and we kick off with Terry Grimwood’s “Stuka Juice”, an underwater salvage story set near the end of the Second World War which ties in with the Nazis’ occult leanings. Despite the supernatural framing, this had tones of Alistair MacLean; no bad thing.

Next, Stephen Laws’ “The End of the Pier”. This is one of those stories that could easily have gotten by without any Weird intrusion, but it takes a shrieking turn hard to port. A young man seeks to avenge an attack on his girlfriend by the wandering tentacles of an end-of-the-pier comedian at a seaside town. Top revenge tips: don’t get beaten up in the process. So, with his face looking like a Hallowe’en cake, he embarks on revenge plot number two with a big bag of rotten fruit and veg, a special reception for his nemesis’ latest performance.

At this point, the sea monster appears.

“Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed” by Steve Duffy sees some young people take a fishing boat out in the darkness. Something strange shows up on their fish finder… a man, floating out in the water, groggy but alive. Only problem being, he was believed drowned a week ago…

Lynda E Rucker’s “The Seventh Wave” was a piece of psychological horror as a cheating wife flees her vengeful husband with their three children. She washes up at a seaside town; not much fun is to be had.

Horror star Adam Nevill’s “Hippocampus” sees an investigation on board a ghost ship where something has taken place just south of the Extremely F*cked-Up Zone.

“The Offing” by Conrad Williams mingles a family holiday by the seaside as observed by a young girl with creeping ecological terror.

Peter James’ “Sun Over the Yard Arm” was probably the best story in the book, by the best-known author. A retired husband and wife going around the world on their yacht run into a storm slap bang in the middle of the Indian Ocean. In order to fix a problem with their antenna, the husband climbs to the top of the mast, and there, rather inconveniently for all concerned, he dies.  

There’s some grim horror to follow as some sea birds make a meal of the dead man lashed to the mast, while the wife looks on helplessly. On top of that, she has to engage her basic sailing skills in order to make it back to shore. But there’s a great Roald Dahl-style twist to come…

Simon Stranzas’ “First Miranda” sees a cheating husband running afoul of the water spirit sisters of his wife – I bet Christmas is awkward in that house.  

Simon Clark and John B Ford’s “The Derelict of Death” gets weird on us, with an 18th-century crew coming across a strange ship which seems to be covered in some sort of black moss, and has a powerful need to make sailors disappear.

“The Decks Below” by Jan Edwards was part action-adventure, part Cthulhu Mythos story, as a hunter of the Elder Gods’ evil servants comes across lethal mer-people on board a wartime submarine. This felt like it was part of a bigger story, with comic book tones as its heroine puts her Elder God-given super powers to good use.

The editor himself brews up a cracker in “Hell in the Cathedral”, where some luckless holidaymakers are taken to a subterranean sea cave off Sicily. Lunchtime comes around, but not for them – the pleasure seekers are intended by the part-zookeeper, part-worshipper piloting the boat as a meal for the giant octopus who lives there. Lots of munching and crunching and no small amount of suspense in this one – it’s the best “monster” story in the book.

“Hushed Will Be All the Murmurs” by Adam Golaski was wilfully opaque, more of a mood piece than a story, but the imagery was unsettling.  

Robert Shearman is positioned astern for the closer, “And This Is Where We Falter”, a long Gothic-themed story where a vicar reads a tale scratched into the coffin lid of one of his relatives  after it is dislodged during a storm. This unholy message in a bottle details a strange voyage out at sea plagued by a fleet of coffins. Compelled to find out what happens in the rest of the story, the vicar undertakes an odd journey of his own beneath the surface of the church’s cemetery.

Terror Tales of the Ocean is a classy affair with some big names and no filler. If I had one complaint to make, it’s that there are not enough stories about giant sea beasts, such as the one on the extraordinary front cover. Plus - not one shark horror story?  Really? Though admittedly, if I was in charge of this anthology it would probably be called Big F*ck-Off Monsters of the Deep. There’s a bit more variety than ocean nasties chomping on swimmers, and the book deserves great credit for that.  A fun summer anthology; preferably read after you’ve gone swimming.

August 4, 2016

THE HOUSE ON THE BORDERLAND

by William Hope Hodgson
140 pages, Postern Press

Review by Hereward L.M. Proops

I’ve looked at William Hope Hodgson’s work before when I reviewed “The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder”. I had a great time with those stories of the supernatural detective, but didn’t rush out to read any more of William Hope Hodgson’s work. That was over five and a half years ago and I felt it was high time to take a look at his most famous work, “The House on the Borderland”. Spurred on by the wonderful doorway-between-dimensions plotline in Netflix’s “Stranger Things”, I was keen to check out Hodgson’s 1908 tale of cosmic horror.

The novel starts with a pleasant framing device. Two Englishmen go on a fishing trip to rural Ireland and discover a battered old book in the ruins of a house. The book is a journal of an unnamed man who dwelled in the house with his elderly sister at some unspecified time in the recent past. The old man’s journal entries form the main body of the novel and tell of a series of inexplicably strange events at the house. At the close of the novel, we return to the two Englishmen and learn of their reactions to the contents of the journal. As framing devices go, it’s pretty basic, but it fulfils its purpose - to convey a sense of mystery - particularly as the fate of the house is never fully explained.

Indeed, it’s the lack of explanation to the contents of the journal that will infuriate as many readers as it will enthrall. For me, it worked incredibly well and served to create a sense of unease and weirdness. Other reviews I’ve seen bewail the novel’s lack of traditional narrative structure. Again, this seems part of Hodgson’s plan; to make our reading of the old man’s journal feel less like we are following a story and more like taking a glimpse into the unknown. There are times when the old man’s account is direct and to the point, but other times where it reads less like a story and more like a conceptual exercise in mood and imagery.

The contents of the old man’s journal fall into four main sections. The first part tells of his first out-of-body experience, where he travels to another dimension, and where he sees the “Plain of Silence”, a vast, barren wasteland surrounded by enormous mountains. Standing in the mountain ranges are huge representations of various gods and demons. It is unclear whether these representations are statues or some incarnation of the gods themselves. In the centre of the wasteland is a huge version of the house, made from green jade-like material. A giant humanoid with the features of a swine stalks around the house, but before the narrator is able to comprehend what he is seeing (or what we are reading), he is whisked back to his own reality.

The second section of the book is the one that most people remember. A landslide in the pit beside the house uncovers a tunnel from which a number of creatures from another world escape. The “swine-things” lurk around overgrown gardens of the house and attack at night. The old man does his best to fortify the house against their attacks and this section of the book could well have inspired Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” and George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”. I found this section of the book particularly memorable as the narrator’s relationship with his sister is also explored. Whilst he is convinced that he is protecting her from the nightly assaults of the swine-things, one can also read her wordless terror as being directed toward her brother as he experiences some form of psychotic breakdown. Although he manages to kill several of the creatures, he never finds their remains and there is every chance that the beasts are merely the product of his troubled mind.

The third section of the book is where things get really strange. The narrator appears to fall out of time and witnesses the demise of Earth as the sun is extinguished. Although this takes place over millions of years, the narrator experiences this all in a matter of hours, viewing the process in fast-forward. This section of the novel is bursting with such unbridled creativity and powerful imagery, it is easy to see how Hodgson lost track of telling a coherent story. In a way, the story doesn’t matter at this point. What happens during this part of the novel transcends the narrator’s own individual subjective experience. Our solar system comes to an end and the narrator drifts through space towards a giant green sun at the centre of the universe. The narrator is absorbed by this vast celestial body and becomes part of a stranger universe; one of infinite spheres containing multiple heavens and hells, angels and demons. He travels into one of these spheres and finds himself in the “Sea of Sleep”, a pseudo-afterlife where he is able to spend time with his deceased love.

The final part of the novel sees a return to our world. The narrator awakes to find himself back in the house but discovers that the gigantic swine-thing from the Plain of Silence is now lurking outside. The swine-thing infects the narrator and his dog with a strange luminescent infection before making its final attack on the house. We do not learn the meaning behind any of these events, nor are we given any clear idea of the old man’s fate.

The House on the Borderland” is a strange, uncompromising book, but it is unquestionably brilliant. Hodgson confidently steers the reader from moments of hallucinatory horror and dread, to moments of dreamlike awe and wonder. It is both disconcerting and disorienting. It is easy to see how the author’s rejection of a traditional narrative structure is off-putting for many readers. My advice would be to stick with it. Perhaps the best way to approach this book is to think of it as a very strange ride. Strap yourself in, don’t bother trying to figure out the inexplicably weird sequences and accept that they are part of the whole experience. One hundred and eight years after it was first published, “The House on the Borderland” retains its magic and mystery.

Hereward L.M. Proops

July 22, 2016

PRISONOMICS:

Behind Bars In Britain’s Failing Prisons
by Vicky Pryce
315 pages, Biteback

Review by Pat Black

Vicky Pryce is an internationally renowned economist. She worked at the highest levels in the private sector with KPMG before taking a role with the British government, but she found herself in a spot of bother a few years ago and ended up spending some time at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.

Prisonomics is Pryce’s prison diary, fashioned with the tools of her trade.

“Hey, Pat…”

Don’t interrupt, it’s rude.

The book opens with Pryce’s stomach-borgling realisation that she is going to be sent to the big house, and looks at how she prepared herself for a berth at HMP Holloway, one of the UK’s most famous – or notorious – women’s prisons.

She wasn’t in there long before the much more sensible decision was taken to transfer her to East Sutton Park, an open prison set in some lovely grounds with a much more relaxed regime.

“But, Pat…”

In a minute, please. Amma let you speak.

Pryce doesn’t have a bad word to say about her fellow inmates in either institution. Most of them are sympathetic to her plight, and accept that there was little sense in sending Pryce to the clink in the first place. There’s a spot of sisterhood going on there, regardless of social status, which cheered me.

Pryce doesn’t shy away from the fact that some of her fellow inmates have been convicted of major crimes (though lots of them reckon they’ve been set up, or shafted by lawyers, excuses familiar to most of us from Shawshank). But she is emphatic on two points: British prisons waste a lot of money, and in many cases jail time does not work, either as a deterrent or as a corrective measure for society. From an economist’s point of view, this doesn’t make any sense.

This is especially true of women’s prisons, where, Pryce argues, the majority of the inmates shouldn’t be there in the first place, having been exploited by men and punished on their behalf, before being torn to shreds by the justice system.

“Yeah, that’s what I want to ask. How did…”

Yeah, just… two minutes. Okay? Jeez. Tough crowd in here tonight.

Pryce lets us know about the prisoners who are trying hard to reintegrate into society through work programmes, and the various barriers society has set up to stymie former inmates to this end. She also applauds the companies who actively seek to employ former prisoners. There’s a crushing irony in Timpson’s being so good at hiring people who were previously under lock and key, but fair play to them.

Then there’s the added heartbreak of women with children who are sent to jail – the disasters wreaked on homes without income, the childcare issues, the trauma suffered by motherless children.

Balancing this, the camaraderie between the girls is heart-warming, though it will probably disappoint aficionados of women’s prison movies of the 1970s.

The latter section of the book concerns Vicky Pryce’s proposals for how she would change the system, and forms an argument for how prison just doesn’t work except when there is a clear public protection issue. Even the sense of satisfaction the public gets when a criminal is punished is transitory, Pryce argues.

“For god’s sake, just STOP. Don’t make me Google it, Pat. I want you to tell me. What did she get sent to prison for?”

I was coming to that, angry pants.

Vicky Pryce doesn’t say much about this side of it, which is a shame, as it’s one of the most jaw-dropping, Shakespearean downfalls I can remember in British politics since Lord Archer got to find out who was First Among Equals behind bars.

I don’t say this to shame her, though. In many ways, the fact that the author ended up in jail perfectly illustrates the flaws in the system.

In 2003, Vicky Pryce took the economically sound decision to accept some penalty points on her driving licence on behalf of her then-husband, the former Lib Dem MP Chris Huhne, when he was caught by a speed camera. This is something thousands of people have done for their partners, I would bet. In the UK, you can lose your licence if you go over 12 points, and Mr Huhne was very close to the red line. Losing your licence is not an economically attractive prospect if you have to drive a lot for work. Pryce took one for the team.

Fast-forward 10 years. Huhne is now a Cabinet minister, after the Lib Dems landed on their feet in the 2010 elections and formed a coalition with the Conservative party. But, uh-oh – here comes Mr Dick! Huhne had an affair with a political campaigner, who was in a relationship with another woman at the time. Hear that pitty-pat sound? That’s an echo of tabloid editors salivating on their desks once this information got loose.

The father-of-three decided to end his 26-year marriage to Pryce and set up home with his new lover.

Vicky Pryce is from Athens, and it’s tempting to say something culturally clich├ęd about messing Greek women around at your absolute peril – so I will.

This Fury basically set out to get him. She leaked information to a national newspaper about Huhne’s speeding points dishonesty “on behalf of another person”, which is of course against the law.

Unfortunately, accepting the points also constitutes a crime. After a police investigation, they were both charged with perverting the course of justice, convicted, and sent to jail for eight months each. Huhne has the distinction of being the first Cabinet minister in British political history to resign over a criminal investigation. They were forced to appear side-by-side in the dock when they were sent down. The drama was irresistible.

They weren’t the only ones caught in this particularly sticky web. Constance Briscoe, a barrister and recorder (senior judicial officer) who was one of the most prominent black women in the British legal system was exposed as an accomplice in Pryce’s plot. She arguably suffered the worst out of the three, being found guilty of three counts of perverting the course of justice and jailed for 16 months, with a high-flying career utterly destroyed.

At no point in Prisonomics does Vicky Pryce examine her thirst for revenge and where it led her and others. Guilt is not part of her formula. There are a couple of brief statements of fact, and nothing else.

I saw Pryce speak at a literary festival when this book was launched, and when someone from the audience asked if she regretted taking revenge on her ex-husband, she would only say: “I was punished, and I accept that.”

I get that; it’s even admirable, because she could equally have had a whinge about how she shouldn’t have been anywhere near a court, never mind a prison. Not because she’s a big important public figure or anything - I just don’t think three speeding points is worth jailing anyone for. There are better ways the justice system could engage its time and the public’s money, I would have thought.

I also get that perverting the course of justice is a very serious crime, but we’re not talking about disposing of a body or concealing evidence of industrial-scale embezzlement, here.

Pryce’s downfall was utterly incredible, though. And it’s a shame she doesn’t want to talk about it, because this is the meat and bones of her personal story. Despite her amazing career, it’s what she will ultimately be remembered for by the British public. I’ve gone into more detail about that side of it here than she manages in 300 pages.  

There’s also no mention of what her ex-husband, Chris Huhne, might have suffered as he began his sentence in big boy jail. Whenever a politician is sent down, there is usually a clamour among what we might term the competitive element in the prison estate to give him a warm welcome. If Huhne was lucky, this might only have amounted to a punch in the mouth. I would bet his prison diaries contain a lot more terror than Pryce’s concerns about her hoard of custard creams being confiscated.

This is a very worthy book, told with great sympathy and sensitivity by a hard-working, conscientious woman. She has some interesting points to make about the effectiveness of the prison system in this country. Crucially, she is an optimist: she thinks she can make things better, or at least more efficient, and that’s worth your time alone.

Economics are never the whole story, though.  

July 14, 2016

THE SHEPHERD'S LIFE:

A Tale of the Lake District
by James Rebanks
293 pages, Allen Lane

Review by Pat Black

James Rebanks is a shepherd in the Lake District, that place of wild fells and still waters in the north-west of England you’ll know from Beatrix Potter and William Wordsworth - or better yet, Withnail & I.

Our paths must have crossed. I go to the Lakes at least twice a year, clodding around the hillsides in my Frankenstein boots, moaning about my wife’s shortcuts having led us into swamps, perspiring heavily, and dreaming of scotch eggs and foamy ales. On our travels, we see lots of Herdwick sheep - stoic, unimpressed creatures with white faces and bluey-black fleeces - and say hello to the guys and dogs looking after them. We’ve been to so many different parts of the Lakes over the years - many of which are namechecked in this book - that it seems we must have bumped into Rebanks and his flock at some point.

The Shepherd’s Life is a memoir, charting the author’s growth from a punky kid in a tough school to working on the farm alongside his father and grandfather, and finally succeeding them as the head of the ancient family business. Shepherding on the common grazing land of the fells is in Rebanks’ blood.

The book doesn’t flow chronologically, tending to leap around from past to present and back again, but it does follow the basic structure of the seasons – beginning in summer, ending in spring. Rebanks delights in the nitty gritty of looking after his flock. The split hands and dirt, the maggot ointment, being soaked to the skin as a matter of course, digging lambs out of deep snow, the sheer exhaustion. It’s hard work, but it’s all Rebanks ever wanted to do, a way of life that seems as natural as breathing.

The book is a counterpoint to the Lake District literature you know well enough – a place of sublime commune with nature, or poetic whimsy with anthropomorphic animals. Rebanks’ prose is hard-headed and unadorned, and there’s a part of him which seems to resent the romanticism and poetry. He has open contempt for the well-meaning but inexperienced middle class teachers of his youth with their heads full of the Romantic poets, who knew nothing of the real, hard life to be had working on the fells. It comes across as a bit chippy, though.

This got the old spider senses tingling. If you don’t like the poetry and the lyricism of it, then why are you writing a book? I wondered.

It takes a while for Rebanks to reveal that he had something of a sabbatical from his horny-handed toil in his early twenties, well after his formal schooling ended with no qualifications to speak of.  Encouraged by his mother’s love of literature, he read as voraciously as the blowfly larvae bothering his flock’s backsides. We travel from the moment a friend takes him aside after he blows the opposition away at a pub quiz, and asks why Rebanks doesn’t use that brain of his, to starting his first term at Oxford University. It’s a jarring match-cut.

Rebanks feels guilty about having to leave his father and grandfather to get on with the job of looking after the sheep during term-time, but to his credit he feels no sense of division. University and working on the farm are both things which must be done. Rebanks gains his degree and has digs in Oxford, but returns home on any time off at all to see the woman who will become his wife, as well as mucking in at the farm.

Once it’s all over, he’s back home in the family groove. You wonder what the point of it all was.

There’s one part that I found really intriguing, where Rebanks begins work as a sub-editor on a London magazine. He’s a couple of years older than me, but going by the timescales involved he might well have been schlepping around the capital, cutting and rewriting, around about the same time I was, in the late 1990s or early noughties. So much is missing, but I am again inclined to wonder if our paths ever crossed in this anti-rural setting.

It’s incongruous to the rest of the book, and I wonder if this stint marked a period where Rebanks tried to break away from his family destiny, consciously or unconsciously. The author makes much of his sense of duty and tradition, of the pride he takes in following in his forefathers’ footsteps. He even plays up what he refers to himself as a classic drama – his grandfather as a benign patriarch, his father as the man who takes on the mantle, and Rebanks as his eventual usurper. When Rebanks has a son, the cycle begins again – although, perhaps a sign of the changing times, Rebanks’ pride is obvious when his two daughters throw themselves into the work of the farm.

There is great tension on the farm between fathers and sons – isn’t there always? – and Rebanks and his old man have to be stopped from knocking lumps out of each other on more than one occasion. Maybe he sought to escape, to find something different, even just to try it out? Perhaps it was just a passing whim. The crooked paths a young man sometimes follows before he realises his true calling in life.

I don’t really believe that stuff. But the quasi-mystical language is so easy to get into. Just rolls off the keyboard. I wonder what Rebanks will think if his own children should follow the same instinct to fly the nest, a few years from now?

There’s a fair bit of history, and Beatrix Potter, the great Lakeland benefactor, is lavished with praise. There’s also lots of detail about the sheep-farming community, the solidarity and mutual assistance, and even the friendly rivalry when it comes to showing off prize tups and ewes at the local fairs. But most impressive is the clear, precise details of the hard work involved in breeding and looking after a flock, from choosing the right sheepdog to the slime and giblets of lambing in the springtime. You’ve got to reach in, find the knuckles, and heave!

Rebanks might narrow his eyes whenever my head bobs past above a dry stone wall. He accepts that tourism brings a fortune into the Lakes, but it’s also helped to spoil the place a bit. There is a touch of we-don’t-loike-ye-strangers-round-these-‘ere-parts about this stance. Rebanks and his forefathers all wonder: why the hell would anyone want to pay to come here to climb a bloody hill? In time, Rebanks comes to recognise the importance of tourism to the area, and also understands precisely why city-lubbers like me are absolutely desperate to find some peace and open green space on the fells. But I also get the bloody-mindedness, the suspicion of outsiders and the threat some speculators might represent to a bone-deep way of life which people would defend to the death.

I also have sympathy with Rebanks’ annoyance over the houses which stand empty outside peak tourism times. I usually go to the Lakes in late February, and this is something that occasionally creeps me out. If you go to a holiday cottage or a row of terraced houses let out for this purpose out-of-season, sometimes you can be the only person there. That makes any noise outside your house in the pitch dark in the middle of the countryside well worth investigating. God knows how many thrillers/horror stories I’ve concocted in those odd middle-of-the-night moments. But in a country where thousands of people live on the streets, there’s something obscene about luxury houses simply lying empty all over the country’s beauty spots. But that’s for another time, and another place.

Rebanks’ book was a surprise success, and enjoys a prominent place as part of this century’s golden age of nature writing. We return to the question: is this explosion in the popularity of pastoral concerns down to the collapse of the certainties of capitalism, or simple boredom with urban life and its ridiculous pressures and pastimes? A quick look at recent news headlines from the UK alone might help answer this.

To a shepherd, any other way of life must seem like insanity. And no wonder. Even if the City of London should come crashing down, James Rebanks will continue to do what he’s always done, and will probably come out of it just fine.

July 7, 2016

EVERYBODY’S FOOL

by Richard Russo
496 pages, Knopf

Review by Anthony Barker

If you have escaped a meaningless life in a dying town in upstate New York, you might hate Richard Russo's latest novel, “Everybody's Fool”. Still, you'd have to laugh. That's how good a writer Russo is.

In this version of small town America, the characters from Russo's “Nobody's Fool” are ten years older, the men even more feckless, the women still grimly capable, still despairing (some of them in and out of the madhouse at Utica, and no wonder).

Like the Greeks at Ilium everyone is subject to the random torments of the Gods (these days, called 'luck'.) Sully, the unhero of 'Nobody's Fool' (played by Paul Newman in the movie version) has become rich through no virtue of his own, while the venal building contractor, Carl Roebuck (played by Bruce Willis) is now poor.

Otherwise they are the same as they were. Sully still a loiterer in life, hanging around, no use to his family, no longer appealing to his former lover. He's dying, and suffering (fleeting) regrets for the damage he has more-or-less unintentionally done, in his unintentional life.

Roebuck is also unchanged, an incompetent contractor, a chiseler and cheat, but now his ex-wife is gone, after taking all his money. He has remained behind in Bath, a city suffering from an inferiority complex. The mayor, a former academic (by definition, incompetent) has hired him to restore and repurpose an abandoned spa. The building is a relic of a previous era of hubris when Bath, whose springs dried up, tried to copy the success of nearby Schuyler Springs, a sparkling place where tourists 'take the waters', watch harness racing, and do whatever the just must do in heaven.

It is somehow reassuring to find Sully and Roebuck still at it, although, as in real life, the heroes of one story are the subplot of another.

This story belongs to Police Chief Douglas Raymer, a man who ran for office on the humiliating, misprinted slogan, “We're not happy until you're not happy.” He is grieving the death of his wife Becka. In her haste to leave him last year she slipped on a throw rug and tumbled downstairs 'like a slinky'. He found her folded up on the bottom step, neck broken—together with a note urging him to forgive her and to try to 'be happy for us'.

He's possibly the only person in town who doesn't know which 'us' she meant.

He hopes to find out. An electronic garage door opener was found in her car—an opener for somebody else's garage. The problem for adulterers, in Bath as elsewhere, is not so much time and opportunity, as discovery. Small town neighbors are likely to recognize your car, notice that it's parked on the wrong street, and draw the correct conclusion. Solution: borrow your lover's garage door opener and dash inside when nobody's looking. 

But can the Chief of Police go around town trying the opener on everybody's garage? Not very dignified, maybe not even legal. And what good would it do? The right garage might not even be in Bath. The Chief's assistant, a typical Russo female, sensible, intelligent, sympathetic and devious, suggests Schuyler Springs. Alternatively, she says, the same opener might work on a dozen garages. Becka's dead, she says. Let her go. Get rid of the opener.

It's a dilemma, and dilemmas were never Chief Raymer's strong point, even before he was so depressed and confused. Did things get worse when he fainted at the funeral of the local Judge, falling into the grave, losing the opener under the judge's casket? Not really.

Did they get better when he persuaded Sully and Carl to dig up the grave to find it? Of course not, things always go from bad to worse in Bath.

There's lots more. There's an ex-con with impulse control issues, and a hand-printed list of people he needs to pay back—including BITCH (ex-wife), MAMA BITCH (former mother-in-law) N*GGER COP (Officer Jerome Bond, or as he likes to introduce himself, 'Bond... Jerome Bond') SULLY himself, and OLD WOMAN (a former teacher, ten years dead, who haunts the men in the story, by asking them to think).

There's Sully's friend 'Rub' – a man barely includible within the definition of human, yet filled with longing and devotion, and his counterpart, Sully's dog (cruelly, also named 'Rub') who may be the world's most disgusting canine.

There's murder and mayhem.

Any reader who has made the hard slog from Bath to Schuyler Springs might spend most of the book as confused as Chief Raymer. Not because you can't go home again—it's more a question of 'Why would you?'

Except ... it's so funny. 

June 30, 2016

SEVERED:

A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found
by Frances Larson
336 pages, Granta

Review by Pat Black

Severed is a measured, erudite study of the act of cutting off human heads, whether in battle, in art, as a punishment, in the name of science, or just for giggles.

Anthropologist Frances Larson’s prose would be suited to the sort of subject matter which pops up in a charming, if somewhat soporific Sunday night BBC4 documentary. About pottery found in Pompeii, say; or long, commentary-free static shots of Chinese walled gardens; or what Jane Austen wore to the disco. Larson delves into her subject matter with enviable restraint.

Famous historical beheadings curtsey politely before beginning this dance. Scottish schoolchildren know fine well how many strikes it took for the axeman to remove Mary Queen of Scots’ head, for example, but this will be fresh tomatoes for some. We also meet poor knock-kneed Charles I, facing the public for the last time – and indeed the body of the man who signed his death warrant, Oliver Cromwell, which suffered the curious indignity of being decapitated by the state long after he was dead; and of course, the ultimate his n’ hers of decapitation, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

Larson examines the performance aspect of public execution, especially in Revolutionary France, where people even got to rehearse their own famous last words the night before the steel came down.

We also pore over the very British craze for shrunken heads, collected in tropical places where remote tribes soon understood the economics behind supply and demand. Because these noggins were clipped from the necks of “savages”, and not good old Christian white folks, then Victorian society thought this was alright – to begin with.

Then we have heads taken as trophies in battle, particularly in the Pacific theatre during the Second World War. Some soldiers who took a sneaky look at what was cooking in the pot back at their base could sometimes discover that someone was boiling the flesh off some Japanese soldier’s head. It is, after all, the best way to clean a skull.

Larson sees this as an adjunct to the dehumanising effects warfare can have on ordinary, even mild-mannered people; but perhaps it goes a little deeper than that. It’s difficult to misread a sign with a skull stuck at the top of it, after all.

In some places, skulls are still viewed as holy relics, objects of veneration. The supposedly inviolate nature of the severed heads of Christian martyrs is examined. Apparently Saint Denis carried his own head a couple of miles down the road after he was divorced from it, while it continued to preach in the name of Christ. This put me in mind of some holy statues I saw carved into the stonework outside some churches near Paris, whose heads had been cut off in their own right during the Revolution.

The Resurrectionist fervour is dissected, in tandem with the commonplace experience of young medics during anatomy classes with legitimately donated cadavers – encompassing the horror, the fascination, and ultimately the miracle of the human body as an instrument of education. In discussing another curiously Victorian practice – collecting skulls, linked to the discredited science of phrenology – we discover there are a lot of skulls out there, stored in vaults underneath your favourite museums, grinning away in the darkness.

Larson largely leaves Islamic State’s charming videos to one side, only addressing them as an example of decapitation as theatre, similar to public executions in the past, with a similar effect on those watching. Nothing new under the sun, as the saying goes. She also looks at an early Damien Hirst artwork, where the teenage artist poses alongside a freshly severed head in a morgue. Larson includes this photograph in the book, and I guess I asked for that. The pair of them look like someone has just cracked a smashing joke.

The nightmare scenario is forensically examined: if one’s head should be suddenly severed, is death instantaneous? Does the abrupt truncation of the nerves and instant loss of blood pressure have the same effect on the consciousness as flicking a light switch? Or is there a horrible delay, where you’re fully aware of everything for a few seconds, including pain? Anecdotal evidence and less-than-morally-rigid experiments which aimed to solve this riddle are detailed throughout this chapter. The answer, Larson discovers, is frustratingly out of reach: “The precise moment of death is as enigmatic as ever.”

Finally, Larson dusts the frost off the practice of cryogenically freezing severed heads. This is an option for people with deep pockets as well as long necks, in the hope that future technology will be sufficiently advanced to be able to reanimate the brains of the rich and famous who opt for a post-mortem dip in the ice cream and frozen sprouts drawer.

Imagine that. One day our descendants could see Donald Trump’s reanimated head attached to the body of a physically perfect superman. Or a killer robot exoskeleton. With lasers. “YOU’RE FIRED!”

It seems that cryogenic freezing may be a waste of time, as the process has a destructive effect on brain cells. But stranger days are always closer than you think. There was a story just this last week from the US about something which would have resembled material from the realms of sci-fi up until recently.

A young boy had his head “clinically severed” in a car accident, only to have his skull reattached to his spinal column through a miracle of modern medicine. Clearly he was fortunate in terms of a lack of nerve and tissue damage, but the boy is currently walking again. And, get this – he’s three quarters of an inch taller.
                                                                  
Severed is a fascinating book – not to everyone’s tastes, obviously, but a quirky look at the act of one’s head coming away from one’s neck. Disappointingly, there’s not one single reference to Highlander, but don’t let that put you off.

Oh – I meant to say. There’s a parcel at the door for you. The label said “From John Doe”. I’ve left it on the kitchen table.