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 clichéd 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 Herwick 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.


June 23, 2016

THE FLIGHT TO MECHA

Milleniad Book #1
by Rod Kierkagaard, Jr. and Kris Carey
340 pages, Curiosity Quills Press, ARC

Review by J. S. Colley

As with previous Kierkegaard novels I’ve read, this book is replete with interesting characters, out-of-this-world imagination and subtle humor. Set in the far distant future, The Flight to Mecha begins on the planet Eden, where Adam Wetherall has taken his captives, Eve and Gracious. But Eden isn’t a paradise; it’s a mold-infested Yurth-like rock plagued by constant solar storms and radiation, where Adam fights imaginary demons and the very real Nephilim. After Adam’s death, Eden is left to his wives and children: Eve, Lilith, Cain, Abel, and their children. Soon, the Family escapes the fungus-infected planet and the sponge-like Nephilim. Cain laments, “Everything on this planet tries to kill you. […] You just have to stay a step ahead...”

The Family commandeers the deceased Adam’s starship, the SV Golddigger, and ventures into the Beyond, but soon discover they are radioactive and are “toxic to others and only safe around each other. […] Maybe they’d escaped Eden, but they could never escape each other.” (Rather like all families, don’t you think?) On their journey, the Family meets Yumans and Xterrans, and all manner of life. Everyone wears smartsuits that are capable of communicating with the wearer as well as other “comms.” The Family’s suits do double-duty and block their Eden-inflicted radiation (the stain of their “original sin”?) so they can safely interact with others. All smartsuits and machinery are named when they are “born,” mostly “chosen from random comms chatter” — which leads to some interesting nomenclature.

The Family eventually lands on Spartak. As the rest of the Family settles into their new home, Lilith and Cain become elite Starwolf agents. Meanwhile, Awan, Cain’s fragile sister-wife, survives by hooking herself into their starship and it becomes the SV Awan Golddigger. His now sister-wife-ship helps Cain on his missions. His newest assignment is to find a smalltime Xterran gangster and possible plague-carrier, while Lilith sets out on her own tasks.

Cain’s mission leads him and SV Awan Golddigger on a wild adventure to several exotic planets and into unimaginable dangers. After apprehending their target, the motley group that has accrued end up on Mecha, a dry, dusty planet used by gamers as a virtual reality playground. There they battle against the gamers in real-time, with the help of Mechs and human mercenaries. There are spectacular action-packed scenes that will appeal to sci-fi adventure enthusiasts.

While Cain is fighting for his and Awan’s survival on Mecha, Lilith confronts the Eden Plague — the embodiment of the vengeful Adam as a radioactive spore contagion, which threatens to take over the entire galaxy.

Kierkegaard is a seer — a prodigious evocator of future technology and social norms and mores. The reader can imagine the places, technologies, and complex societies he creates on the page are real, or will be one day. Many of the futuristic elements and social norms in his earlier novel, Obama Jones and the Logic Bomb, have already come true. The humor is smart and subtle. As with his other novels, I’m sure I missed many of the inferences, but the ones I did catch made me chuckle.

Beyond the more obvious, broader metaphors about religion, myths, and society in general, I sensed Kierkegaard might have been reflecting on his own life — his own mortality. How death slowly invades us like a tenacious fungus, with no chance of escape. Of course, this was co-written with Carey, with whom I have no previous experience as a reader, but Kierkegaard’s style shines through.

This is an exciting first book in the Milleniad series.

June 8, 2016

AUTHOR INTERVIEW

HarperCollins author, friend of Booksquawk and all-round top person Liz Tipping’s new novel, Don’t You Forget About Me, is a must-read for fans of John Hughes movies, the Brat Pack and eighties retro culture.

Here, she talks to Pat Black about her new novel and the strange artistic avenues coveting Molly Ringwald’s cardigan can lead you into…

Booksquawk: Tell us a bit about yourself and the books you write.

Liz Tipping: I live in Birmingham with my husband and our adopted beagle, Mary. I write romantic comedies. The books I write are influenced by where I live and working class culture so they’re more Gavin and Stacey/The Royle Family type scenarios than a Richard Curtis Notting Hill-style rom com.
 
B: What’s Don’t You Forget About Me about?

L: Don’t You Forget About Me is a movie themed romantic comedy which pays homage to all those great John Hughes 80s teen movies like The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink. Cara works in a video store and is invited to a school reunion. Remembering the terrible school discos she attended back in the day, she still yearns for her high school prom moment like the ones in the movies. She sees this as her chance to grab her magical movie moment.
  
B: It references an eighties song – if you were to pick five songs which define the book from that decade, what would they be, and why?

L: The Lotus Eaters - The First Picture of You
This song just screams 80s and fits nicely with how one character feels about another character but can’t quite express it. It’s also a great summer tune with only a slight hint of 80s misery.

Deacon Blue – Real Gone Kid
Cara in the book is desperately trying to be cool. There’s a scene where Cara’s friend, Stubbs “plays her old 45s” and it reminded me of this song. I think Deacon Blue as a band correlate nicely with the book too. Great music, great band but probably not “edgy” enough for the cool kids, which is kind of what the book is about- not being cool.

Taylor Dayne - Tell It To My Heart
This has 80s school disco written all over it. In the book Cara is haunted by an embarrassing incident at a school disco but actually the lyrics in the song fit the book pretty well. We’ve got these characters with stuff bubbling under the surface and what they need to do is let it all out, and scream it from the rooftops in a gigantic-haired Taylor Dayne kind of way.

Roam by the B52s is one of my favourite songs.  It’s a cracking pop song and it represents how Cara feels about stuck in her hometown.

Safety Dance - Men Without Hats– this is the silliest song and an eighties classic! And there’s a fella in the book who has a daft haircut a bit like the lad in the Safety Dance video. I’ll have this one for the end credits, I think.

B: Video shops are relics of the past. What video did you hire Too Many Times To Be Healthy from your video shop as a kid?

L: We do still have a couple in Birmingham but I’ve not used one in years! The Lost Boys – watched it over and over again. I reckon I still know all the words off by heart. I think I watched it daily. And I had the soundtrack too of course and know all the lyrics to all of that too.

B: The boxes on videos were scary, I found. Did you ever think that, or is it just me? Do you remember any in particular?

L: Like, the pictures on the boxes? Or the actual boxes? Because , yes, the actual boxes were pretty scary. You’d certainly know about it when you trapped your fingers in the case when closing it. Not sure about the pictures on the boxes. I used to hire the Nightmare on Elm St films a lot. They were scary. I even made a paper mache house like the one in Nightmare on Elm St 3. What a little weirdo I must have been!

B: A two-part question on the Brat Pack. Which Brat Pack member did you fancy the most, and which one did you most want to be? Choose any movie/star from the era, doesn’t have to be John Hughes.

L: I would probably say I fancied Rob Lowe the most, but his hair was really stupid then. He’s much better looking now and his hair is alright now. And the movie star I most wanted to be was Elisabeth Shue. Adventures in Babysitting was another much rented video as was Cocktail starring her and Tom Cruise. and I still fancy Tom Cruise as well, which I have decided it completely fine, thank you very much, before anyone starts!

B: Do you find it strange that radio stations are still playing so much eighties music? I don’t remember 1950s music being played quite so much back in the 1980s. Is it possible the eighties were underappreciated in terms of music, fashion, art and culture? (may be too big a question I guess).

L: I don’t know, maybe we just have more radio stations now and people have more choices? I do remember fifties music being played a lot in my house and that music was slightly before my parents era. It’s interesting how many younger people are into eighties culture. When Don’t You Forget About Me started life on wattpad, it had tons of teen readers and they all told me how much they loved John Hughes films and Molly Ringwald. It’ll be something to do with economics and post- modernism probably.

B: Do you know anyone who might be able to sing the chorus to St Elmo’s Fire, pitch-perfect?

L: Yeah, I reckon John Parr is your man. I just went and had a look at the video to see how I fared and I wasn’t great at it but it did make me think about how St. Elmo’s fire didn’t really click with me.  I reckon if it was released in 1985, then by the time it came onto video or on the telly, I would have been around thirteen maybe, but I never really liked it that much at the time. I think it’s because in the other eighties films, like The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Adventures in Babysitting, the characters are at school,  any of us could relate to them because we’ve all been to school. With St Elmo’s fire, I could never really fathom out what was going on.

B: What’s your eighties style dream/disaster? So many girls had the Fergie Bow, but nobody talks about it… It’s like Phil Collins records and watching House Party!

L: I had a lemon Fergie bow on a clip which was pinned to the bottom of a French plait. I wore it with a lemon and white t-shirt and a white skirt. That was probably one of the better outfits to be honest! Also had some pink ski pants with black elastic stirrups on them with a white shirt and a pink paint splatter pattern on them. Matchy matchy!

B: Tell us a bit about your next project.

L: I’ve had so many ideas floating around for years, but nothing so far that’s grabbed me as much  as Don’t You Forget About Me did. But then, on Saturday I suddenly had a new idea and I sent it to my agent and she said it “sounds amazing” so I’m going to get cracking on that ASAP. 

May 29, 2016

BONDSQUAWK:

Moonraker
by Ian Fleming
190 pages, Coronet Books

Review by Pat Black

Moonraker is the loopiest Bond movie adaptation by a hundred thousand light years - but I’ll watch it before Skyfall or Spectre any day of the week.

The film is ridiculous, with a third act which is basically a sci-fi land-grab, released a few months before The Empire Strikes Back. It features a space battle with ray guns.

It also features Roger Moore’s stunt double skydiving in flared slacks. This movie perhaps predates Fonzie “jumping the shark”, by “Moonraking the Moore”. But I still think it’s great. If I discover it’s being screened on ITV4 on an idle Friday night, I’ll be watching.

I’ve read a fair bit of sneering about that movie, but it made a lot of money in its day, and Sir Roger Moore was, as ever, a complete charmer as 007. It’s the centrepiece of Moore’s Holy Trinity, flanked by The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only.

Those films were fun. The past few Bonds have not been fun.

Ian Fleming’s original cold war novel, written in 1955 (“Hello, McFly!”), has little in common with the movie adaptation. For one thing, Bond doesn’t leave the UK, with the main action taking place on the south-east coast of England. Domestic matters are not the remit of MI6, as the author acknowledges in the story, and Bond has to get a special dispensation from the Prime Minister in order to check things out. Get you, Mr Big Deal!

As in the movie, our villain is Hugo Drax. Supposedly the son of a Liverpool docker, Drax was badly injured in the war, but overcame his injuries and went into business. The tycoon made a fortune out of various commodities, including a rare metal with a very high melting point - an essential component for rockets.

A billionaire with a high public profile, Drax comes across as a prototypical Sir Richard Branson, but with a military edge. The great benefactor even provides, privately, a state-of-the-art nuclear defence system for Britain, with a greater range than any other warhead on the planet: the Moonraker.

This rocket grants Britain far greater clout in world affairs than it had in reality at that time, or at any point since. The Suez Crisis came only a year after the publication of Moonraker, after which no-one would view the United Kingdom as a key player in world affairs again.

The public loves Drax, enjoying his ostentatious wealth and outrageous publicity stunts at a time when the country had only just stopped being rationed. Bond freely admits to admiring the man.

But there’s a problem: Drax is a card cheat.

Bond accompanies his boss, M, to Blades, London’s most exclusive gambling house, to find out if there is any truth to the suspicion.

It’s so bloody British. Drax has Armageddon at his fingertips, on a private base staffed with his own private militia - but what makes people suspicious about his character and motive is that he rips off a few dissolute aristocrats and old military duffers at cards.

“Not cricket, old boy. Imagine the scandal if it got out!”

In the first half of Moonraker, there is not one single fight, car chase, shoot-out or bed-hop, but it’s a great piece of writing in so many ways. I’ve always said that Ian Fleming might have made one of the great travel or food critics. Arguably, his talent for crisp descriptive prose was wasted on espionage comedies.

We start off with a bored Bond, back at his desk and sporting a few new scars following his escapades in Live And Let Die. Here’s where we might glimpse the working day of the real Ian Fleming before Bond came into his life: stuck at a newsdesk, head angled towards the window, bored out of his skull.

In the long stretches between assignments Bond does courses and reads “top secret” reports which have little bearing on his operations. This classic sexpanther’s head drifts out the window as he attempts to live the life of an umbrella-carrying British civil servant. Ten am starts, lunch at the canteen, idle lust tipping into overt flirtation with secretaries, a spot of banter with colleagues, and the odd roll about on the carpet with married women during downtime.

M snaps Bond out of his clerical fugue to check out Drax at Blades. We follow 007 as he dresses, drinks, orders a belt of Benzedrine from his private secretary (no questions asked, either!), then downs two bottles of very fine champagne as he figures out how Drax does the dirty – before snaring him with a con of his own.

The stakes are high - £15,000, equivalent to just under £400,000 in today’s sterling – and the gambling scenes are on a par with those in Casino Royale.

Bond loves it. It plugs 007 in at source, as you suspect it did with Ian Fleming. The cigarette smoke, the green baize, the sweat, the booze, the tension, and the unique charge that only gambling can give you; this is part of the very bedrock of Bond.

After Bond triumphs, Drax signs off with a sinister line: “Spend it quickly, Mr Bond.”

Amazingly, Bond does – he puts himself down for a brand new Bentley, a new set of golf clubs and some redecoration of his Mayfair flat (how much would that property be worth today compared to 1955, one wonders? Not easily calculable).

I thought, “Christ, 007, put it away in the bank! Get it invested in bricks and mortar… you could retire on that! Your fancy car will depreciate rapidly, you know, and think of the maintenance costs...”

Hard on the heels of this mental reflux, the bitter realisation: I’ve lost something. I’m not the same man who first read this book, when I was 24.

Bond is a guy in his mid-thirties who enjoys living life on the edge, and doesn’t expect to reach mandatory retirement age from front line duties (45), never mind pension age. It’s worth noting that Fleming, whose tastes in wild women, high living and general excess matched that of his literary creation, clocked out aged only 56, just as the Bond phenomenon was about to detonate worldwide with Goldfinger.

We are drawn into Drax’s world. Again, breaking with tradition, Bond is semi-out the closet as a security operative rather than strictly undercover with Universal Exports, looking into a strange murder-suicide which took place near Drax’s base a matter of days before the test-firing of the Moonraker. One of the base’s exclusively German operatives has shot a love rival in a pub, before turning the gun on himself.

Among the many things which don’t add up: the German chap seemed to say “Heil Hitler” before pulling the trigger. How curious, thinks Bond…

The girl involved in the supposed love triangle is an undercover Special Branch operative, an English girl named Gala Brand. How interesting, thinks Bond…

Before The Spy Who Loved Me came along, Moonraker was the odd man out in the series, and I didn’t enjoy it the first time I read it, 15 years ago. I much preferred it this time around – taking time to sip at Fleming’s pitch-perfect prose, and gazing around the post-war settings with a sense of appreciation and wonderment, rather than astonishment and sometimes outright hilarity.

Bond trope: A villain with some kind of deformity. Half Drax’s face has been burned off and re-grafted; it seems he is just as ugly on the inside. The Bond series is not particularly progressive in its view of disability and disfigurement.

Things that annoy me about Bond: When Bond is being briefed by M, Bond seems to know just as much about the topic as his boss, if not more. How is this possible? The guy can’t go from being bored with top-secret reports on Japanese poisons one minute to knowing everything under the sun the next!

Perhaps Bond has genius-level recall; perhaps this basic retention of facts and details is what sets him apart in the world of espionage. I can’t remember what I had for dinner two nights ago, and I might break into a sweat if you asked me to compute basic fractions. Maybe my irritation at Bond’s vast knowledge base says more about me than it does about Fleming’s storytelling.

Also: henchmen and soldiers in ridiculous attire. Drax’s all-German militia (there’s a wee clue for you) dress in the same zippy-up one-piece jumpsuits, and are all shaven-headed, with the added flourish of silly moustaches. Drax explains why this dodgy biker gang style is necessary near the end, but that doesn’t lessen its comedic effect to modern eyes. When these chaps were first described, I was thinking of the baddie in the video for the Communards’ Don’t Leave Me This Way.

Fleming wrote in a hardback style, and his prose was strictly business class, but his stories, scenarios, plots and characters were quite often the stuff of comic books getting soggy outside a bus station. In many ways, he was a lucky writer.

Also, as you might anticipate for a Bond novel written in the 1950s, the portrayal of women is outdated, at best. Bond’s appraisal of secretary Loelia Ponsonby as a woman married to the job, tottering into frigid, virginal middle age, was utterly brutal. That said, Fleming does go beyond Bond’s one-track assessment and reveals Ponsonby as an excellent operator, who worries herself to death about the men she helps send out on assignments. We’d call her a workaholic, these days. Fleming is saying a lot about women who embarked on careers back in the 1950s, not much of it flattering, but at least he appreciates them, however condescendingly.

There’s also that wince-inducing scenario which we see throughout the Bond milieu. Bond is clearly up to no good, in the eyes of the villain, from the moment he appears. He tries to ingratiate himself, despite humiliating his quarry in some way (usually through gambling). Instead of putting out a contract on him, the villain seems to decide, “You’re alright, Bond,” even as he wipes the spit off his face.

The villain doesn’t trust him, but still invites Bond into his inner circle. Then (as in this novel), there is an attempt made on Bond’s life, which he survives. Bond knows that they know that he knows that they know he’s up to no good, but the charade continues.

This has always irritated the life out of me in Bond movies. “Why not just shoot him?” You shouldn’t ask yourself this question. Surely it would be better to show Bond as having gained the villain’s trust, instead of everyone pretending they don’t know the truth? Licence To Kill, one of the most under-rated Bond films, is one of the few to get the idea of Bond as an undercover saboteur exactly right.

Bond trope breaker: Gala Brand – the Bond girl Bond couldn’t have.

Vesper Lynd and Solitaire were two very different characters to this professional, imperturbable girl – one a femme fatale, the other a beautiful ingénue. Brand is something else entirely. She’s the girl at the centre of the suspicious love triangle. It doesn’t take long for Bond to show an interest beyond the job at hand.

(“Distinguishing features: a mole on the upper curvature of the right breast. ‘Hmm!’ said Bond.”)

Brand still needs rescuing, of course, but she is more recognisably modern than her two predecessors, and certainly an absolute professional.

Also, Brand is unique in that she doesn’t go to bed with Bond, despite some heavy flirting on the beach and a couple of kisses. She even delivers something of a slap in the face, by only revealing at the end that she is engaged to someone else, dashing Bond’s plans for spending a month’s leave with her.

Well, thanks very much, Moley McMoletits, thinks Double-0-Blueballs. It just shows you, ladies – even James Bond appreciates an EBR (Early Boyfriend Reference). Probably wouldn’t put him off, mind, but it’s nice if everyone’s on the same page.

Bad Bond: When Bond first meets Brand over dinner at Drax’s house, he is annoyed that she doesn’t pay him much attention. In order to get it, he actually considers kicking her shins.

How many of you out there will recognise that scenario? How many times did it happen in pubs and clubs last night, alone? The crude inquiry, the sullen disappointment, and maybe the outright Cro-Magnon rage. “Alright darlin’, how you doing tonight? Hey… I’m talking to you. Look at me when I’m talking to you!”

For such a slow-burning start, Moonraker has plenty of peril in its second half, including a fine car chase and a thrilling race-against-time conclusion. Bond is made to suffer, as usual; my very buttocks cringe in recalling one scene where the baddies try to smoke Bond and Brand out of the ventilation system with a steam hose. Less baroque but no less painful is the absolute battering 007 takes near the end while he is tied to a chair.

It all leads to a satisfying climax when Bond and Brand save the day – if we’re sort-of ignoring, as Fleming does, the effects of nuclear fission. 

It’s hard to know what Fleming would have said in the 1950s had you told him that the movie version of Moonraker would finish on a space station with astronauts on jet packs lasering each other. He might well have approved – he was fond of ludicrous action and outlandish settings, contrary to what you may have heard about the supposedly “gritty” Bond novels. They weren’t all low-down and dirty, and certainly none of them were remotely realistic.

That’s one of the aspects of the series I hope to explore in more detail later on. The books are a real mixed bag, and the more outlandish aspects of the Roger Moore years fit some literary entries in the Bond canon quite well.

The great irony is that Moonraker, despite its notoriety as one of the most far-fetched Bond movies, actually qualifies for “gritty Bond” status on the page.

Bondsquawk will return, in… Diamonds Are Forever