May 22, 2017

AUTHOR INTERVIEW


Booksquawk interviews Evangeline Jennings, author of the roaring compendium of revenge, Riding In Cars With Girls. We chat about feminism, Doctor Who, Ellen Page in Doctor Who, X-Ray Spex and taking Donald Trump for a ride.

Interview by Pat Black

Pat Black: Riding In Cars With Girls references a Drew Barrymore movie, but its tone couldn’t be more different. Which of the current crop of young actresses would be your ideal FemNoir leading lady?

Evangeline Jennings: I know she's flavour of the month, but it's hard to look past Millie Bobby Brown, Eleven in Stranger Things. I don’t know if you saw her in a show called Intruders but she was absolutely fantastic as Madison, a child possessed by an immortal serial killer. In four or five years, she'd be perfect.

I also think Elle Fanning has something special. I could see her doing great things as a lost and vulnerable woman with a gun and a knife.

I don't know if they're "young" anymore, but I would like to see Bonnie Wright and Evanna Lynch play something really dark together. I'd be delighted to write that for them. And Kristen Stewart was born to play a relentless revenge demon.

PB: Reading this book brought it home to me how attitudes have changed towards LGBT people, even in the past 20 years. This is especially true in British entertainment. In Doctor Who at the moment, the Doctor’s current companion is gay, but it’s NBD; a simple, even minor component of her character. This would have been unthinkable in the same show in its initial run. In Emmerdale or Brookside a couple of decades ago, and particularly in EastEnders in the late 1980s, the tabloid press had that winning blend of salivating/becoming enraged at the idea of gay men and lesbians in popular entertainment. Do you think this progress is a boon to the stories we see in Riding In Cars With Girls, or a hindrance?

EJ: Maybe the true measure of progress is I feel free to say I'm thoroughly unimpressed by Bill in Doctor Who, and mildly cynical about the showrunners' motivation in creating the role. If they want to impress me, they need to cast Ellen Page as the next Doctor. Unless they can swing a return for Matt Smith, because I'm Eleventh Doctor for life.

To return to your question, I find it hard to think of it in either way - a boon or a hindrance. If I'm anything, artistically, I'm one very small teeny-tiny part of the same progression in society. When I was young and first discovering who I might be, I found some strength and inspiration in books by authors such as Val McDermid, Mary Wings, and Barbara Wilson. It's marvellous that today's me can get the same and more simply by turning on a show like Supergirl, or pretty much any of Shonda Rhimes' mega shows.

Of course, as you imply in your next question, we all have to resist the current pushback by the tiny-minded tyrants of the world, be they in a mega-church, the White House, or next door.

PB: The book’s retinue of destructive, abusive and ultimately useless males seems prescient in terms of today’s geopolitical climate. If I’m being kind I’ll exclude Theresa May from that. Do you see any redemption for men in your fiction?

EJ: No. All men are contemptible bastards.

More seriously, the political climate in Texas has been years ahead of what's happening now on a national and global scale. Yay Texas. And yes, it has definitely inspired much of my writing. But I do write sympathetic male characters from time to time. For example, I've written a YA fantasy – unpublished, Percy Jackson meets Lord of the Rings - which has a teenage boy as its hero. And there are many decent men in my Trumpocalypse saga, Burning Down The House. But when you're writing about the more extreme problems faced by girls and women - abuse, trafficking, domestic violence - it’s often hard to find a positive role for a man. And when you have hate-filled fascist theocrats and their enablers abusing us on a global political scale, it’s often hard to want to.

One thing I will never do is write a Taken - great though it was, not to mention successful - where a big strong man comes along to rescue the poor ickle girl. That's not in my blood.

PB: Perhaps this is a two-part question. If you took a road trip with Donald Trump, what car would you drive, where would you go, what is the top song on your playlist, and what would you do when you get there?

EJ: Since the so-called president is such a fan of white supremacists, I'd like to introduce him to the grand old Texas tradition of chaining a man and dragging him for miles behind your truck. If that’ not technically a roadtrip, then my car would need restraints and a very effective gag. We'd drive to the Grand Canyon, and full-on Thelma-and-Louise it into eternity. With Pence, McConnell, and Rupert Murdoch in the trunk. Or maybe I could use the bus from Speed? Think of the fun we could have filling all those seats.

I honestly can’t imagine Trump or any of those people ever enjoying music - although on second thoughts, I could maybe see Trump as a Jagger wannabe - so I’d handcraft a mix to show them what they've been missing, and we'd go over the edge to “Oh Bondage Up Yours”.

Incidentally, if the FBI is watching, at this point I'd like to make it clear that I'm exercising my first amendment right to indulge in poetic self-expression, and not actually threatening your leaker-in-chief. Or anyone else for that matter. Unlike so many of the evil orangutan's rabid fans, I don't even have a gun and if I did, I'd be more of a danger to myself than to the most corrupt, dangerous, and yet ridiculous man in the world. But, you know, her emails.

PB: Tell us about what’s current for you, and what’s next.

EJ: Jail time probably. Failing that, I'm writing fantasies. I've finished a Gamesy-Thronesy novel which is probably the darkest thing I've ever written, and I'm starting out on something which might turn out to be a New Adult Urban Fantasy, whatever that means. Crime. Magic. The Bible. Modern London. The End of the World. Let’s say it’s Modesty Blaise’s daughter meets Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon and kicks the shit out of him.

Read the review of Riding in Cars with Girls here.

RIDING IN CARS WITH GIRLS

by Evangeline Jennings
360 pages, Starshy

Review by Pat Black

I’m picturing a garish front cover to a dimestore paperback, perhaps from the early 1960s. It features a beautiful, voluptuous woman. She has her back to us, but with a half-turn at the hip and shoulder, the better to give her figure some depth. You know this pose.

She has long, glossy black hair, with a bluish Superman sheen. Her eyeshadow might be a little on the thick side, but it complements her green eyes - gypsy eyes - and she may have held the record for the world’s pointiest bra before Madonna bust it on her Blonde Ambition tour. Her long legs are braced, and her posture is defensive, like she might reverse-kick you in the throat if you get too close, if your eye is a little too glad. And it is; and she would.

In the foreground, of course, there’s a private eye, with a brow, a jawbone and a stare, eyebrows like old razor wounds, all simple, hard angles like a baby’s building blocks. He’s wearing a hat and a grub-yellow mac, and he might be smoking a cigarette. But the perspective isn’t what it seems. He’s not hiding in the shadows, watching her. Those proportions are correct (M. Hooper, Amity Island, 1975). He’s not checking the woman out from the shadows. She towers overhead, spotlit, a good head above Centrepoint, and she is preparing to step on him, with clear-eyed contempt.

There’s a car on this cover, of course. Something sleek; something sharp like a stiletto; something lethal.

Riding In Cars With Girls is a collection of short stories and novellas from Evangeline Jennings, whose work formed a quadrant of the Cars And Girls anthology. The stories share a similar flavour to that collection – noir as they come, violent, often startlingly erotic, but with a feminist slant that takes them out of the shucks-guffaw irony that occasionally blights crime stories - something we have Quentin Tarantino to thank or blame for.

The stories are all named after classic or well-known cars, often with a bit of muscle to them and plenty of wild horses under the bonnet.

We start with “Firebird”, as in Firebird Trans Am. It sees a glamorous woman driving the titular vehicle into a dusty dead-end town, a place dried to tinder and surrounded by a rapidly encroaching forest fire. Dorothy drinks, while our writer-narrator-barwoman pores. Dorothy fascinates the woman behind the bar, and there’s a suggestion that this fascination could turn into something more combustible, so much so that they both lament the fact that they’re straight.

Dorothy is too hot to handle for some of the swamp-dwelling locals, and a tragedy is set in motion which ends in fire, counterbalanced by cold, hard revenge.

“Escort” is a two-hander, swapping between tough cop Bex and Ruthie, a sex worker on the run who has shagged a Mafia don to death. This one runs through a blizzard of bullets as the two women’s paths cross, and double-cross. At first it’s a cat and mouse story, compelling in its way. You think you’ve seen this movie before – until it turns into something else. It becomes a love story that evoked Elmore Leonard’s Out Of Sight, as well as Sarah Waters’ work. Credit, also, for a brave, brutal finale.

“911” sees Nikki and Alex taking on another controlling male, with one as an avenging angel for the other. After taking revenge on Goran, a drug-dealing, nightclub-dwelling sleazebag, the pair drive in their Porsche through Scandinavia and then further south into Germany, always faster than their pursuers. Alex is a man trapped in a woman’s body, one of a number of nods towards protagonists who don’t usually top the bill in classic noir thrillers, and indeed usually only appear in them if there’s a contrived freak aspect – disabled people, gay people, trans people.

Wendy, one of the main characters in “Audi”, is deaf and suffering from fibromyalgia and anxiety – but if you’re thinking that equals vulnerability, forget it. She shoots an office worker taking a cigarette break outside his office, putting “a hole where his heart would be if he was a human being”, before blowing “a plume of smoke away with her fingertips”. 

Wendy and the narrator of “Audi” are competing in an illegal road race, the Scumball Rally, a global re-imagining of the Cannonball Run. As well as winning the race, the girls are looking to settle a few scores along the way. Cars are stolen; bad guys get zapped. Bullets and dames; cars and criminals. Noir but not.

The thing that stuck out for me was how these two girls have the males in the story wrapped around their fingers – fingers which Wendy uses to cheerfully insult them before, during and after their expiration. The two lovers have a substantial online following eating out of their hands; the act of removing their tops on a webcam is tantamount to landing a million fishes, gasping and thrashing their last on deck. The fact that the girls are barely out of school is another weapon to be turned against sleazebags who think they’re predators, until they’re prey. Sex is how men are manipulated, controlled, duped and defeated. Every single time, they stumble into the trap. They don’t have a prayer.

I have interacted with Evangeline Jennings, but I don’t know her. Occasionally I’ve wondered if she was one person, or several. Once or twice I’ve become convinced she’s a man masquerading as a woman. (A word of warning to any online flirts out there: you just never know who’s on the other end of the wiring, until you know. I’ve seen a few star-struck readers go weak at the knees over someone of the same sex without realising it, with tragicomic - but mainly comic - consequences.) This story convinced me that she was a woman, for sure, gleefully sending up genre and gender conventions, happy to take seldom-driven routes. But I’m prepared to be proved wrong on this. Even if I met someone called Evangeline Jennings in person, I wouldn’t be totally sure that I was meeting the author. This is good.

“Transam”, the shortest piece in the book, sees a woman chasing her husband’s killer. The killer, Katie, has stolen the husband’s car, which is fitted with a tracking device. Our narrator is on a collision course with Katie, but identities and loyalties are blurred by the end.

Another component of many of these stories: families can f*ck you up.

We close with “Crown Victoria”, which featured in Cars And Girls. It is the book’s most transgressive story. Again, ostensibly it’s a revenge tale targeting rapists and abusers, but for large parts it’s an exploration of a BDSM relationship between two extremely damaged people. The blood and bullets in this story seems almost incidental.

Riding In Cars With Girls delivers on every promise the pulp fiction genre can make, but does so in a sly, subversive way. Sometimes you think you’re reading a story about gangsters and contract killers, only to discover it’s actually a tender love story. The movie Bound might be the closest equivalent I can think of.

Jennings clearly relishes crime writing, but she’s attuned to weirder frequencies, obscure wavelengths. This is a trip well worth taking. As for where it’ll stop – who knows?

Read the author interview here.

May 14, 2017

FIELD NOTES:

Country Matters on Booksquawk

by John Lewis-Stempel
304 pages, Black Swan

*Review of the audio version, read by David Thorpe*

Review by Pat Black

It’s a hard life being a farmer, but you would never know it from reading Meadowland. John Lewis-Stempel’s year-in-the-life of his own field makes it sound like a dream, a fantasy of a life lived close to the land.

Following a full calendar year from January-December, the author follows in the footsteps of thousands of years’ worth of farmer-poets, and quotes liberally from many of them as he examines English national history through the prism of one square field.
The book is subtitled The Private Life of an English Field - but it’s almost a Welsh field, a mile or so away from the border in Herefordshire, in lee of the Black Hills. Isn’t there something about that name? The Black Hills.

Lewis-Stempel examines every creature that passes through his domain, whether furred, feathered, scaled or wriggling. He also looks at the land itself, the people who work on it, and – crucially – write about it. I loved one statistic about the staggering number of earthworms there are beneath us, and how they help sustain even the biggest predators in Britain, such as the fox and badger.

The practise of Wassailing was new to me, but it sounded like my kind of party – hallooing, gathering round a big fire, and getting plenty of cider down you. I think we used to have something similar back on my home estate, a thousand years ago, though presumably with more drugs and violence.

Lewis-Stempel is open about shooting for the pot, and is keenly aware of the tension between someone who loves and observes the land and its creatures, and our powerful need to consume them. He has clear demarcations between what he can and can’t shoot. He says he may be the only person in the world to have taken part in a hunt on horseback, and also been a hunt saboteur. His quotes from Blake on the price that may ultimately be paid for taking the life of any creature are a chilling counterpoint to his bluff, benevolent prose.

The book is not without incident and farce. One chilling moment strikes when Lewis-Stempel fears that his little daughter has been eaten by pigs, but is instead cuddled in with them under the sun. There’s an even stranger part during Midsummer Night, when some of the animals in his barn are taken by some unknowable impulse to stage their own ritual dance.

Lewis-Stempel rarely passes up a chance to anthropomorphise the creatures of his field, but he also mounts a robust defence of this practise. Are we not all beasts? He asks. And are animals incapable of feeling anything beyond brute sensation? There’s lots of evidence to show that they are. If we exclude the idea that animals cannot have any sensations or experiences, which is plainly false, then surely these sensations have an equivalent in our cognition, if not an exact replica?

There’s plenty of compassion for the critters under his control – the death of a prize cow comes across as particularly sad, near the end, though it did kind of remind me of that scene in Me, Myself And Irene where Jim Carrey’s character tries to put a similar beast out of its misery. I was moved by the moments when he uncovers tiny baby voles, and makes an attempt to cover them – or comes across the gory handiwork of the beautiful raptors he’s been admiring moments beforehand as they swoop overhead.

My favourite part, though, was where Lewis-Stempel’s tractor suffers a broken blade. Seeing an opportunity, he sharpens an ancient scythe, and mows his meadow old-style. He didn’t have to explain the kind of hell this would wreak on one’s back, but it’s a game effort by the man. He rails against incursions by modern technology, and hits out at some tractor cabs having computers and heaters inside, helping to place the man at one more remove from his ancient duties on the land.

Ach, I dunno about that. It sounds the business to me – feet up, rolling up and down the field, listening to the dawn chorus, watching the sky swallow the stars.

Meadowland is a delight, and I can’t tell you how much it cheered me up on the commute to and from work, hemmed in by concrete, chrome and arseholes, as my car continues to fart toxins into the air twice a day and hasten our collective demise. Meadowland is an idyll, but it’s nice to think about a better, more wholesome life, even if it’s no more than a fantasy existing in my own head. This book won loads of awards, and I can see why. As part of the modern canon of British nature writing, there are few books to match it. 

April 16, 2017

FIELD NOTES:

Country Matters on Booksquawk

by Roger Deakin
416 pages, Penguin

Review by Pat Black

The blossom’s out, the sap is high, and so am I. It’s time to don the tweed, slip on the thigh-high wellingtons, keep the Savlon handy and tiptoe through the cider bottles with some great British nature writing.

A couple of years ago, I fell helplessly in love with Roger Deakin. His wild swimming masterpiece, Waterlog, was a charming, engaging book - an exercise in fraternity, nature, literature and English dottiness. I was held fast in its current. It was my favourite read of 2015, and if the Folio Society was to bring out a ruinously expensive illustrated hardback edition and slipcase, I’d dive right in.

Adding to the charm is the man himself – an affable dreamer, seemingly unconcerned by the world of commerce and brute competition, a lover of newts – so cruelly stolen from us by cancer only a few years after making a splash in the literary world. Like watching Bowie videos on YouTube, he is as close as we get to a real ghost – thrillingly present in his art, chillingly absent in reality.

Even Walnut Tree Farm, the arboreal idyll in which he so happily shared bed and board with mother nature, is gone now – sold up, redeveloped, and possibly unrecognisable (understandably so – sorry mate, but f*** having a flock of birds in yer loft).

As well as being a compelling writer, Waterlog’s author had a compelling existence. He lived a wizardly life, swimming in his own moat every morning, then poring over ancient maps and scrolls for remote ponds to dunk in. He might have been the first human to ever swim in some of those plashy glades. You expect him to sit down to tea on giant toadstools; you imagine trees sprouting from the floor in his front room, talking rooks cawing at him from the branches. You expect him to write on parchment with a quill. You picture him high-fiving squirrels and supping pints alongside centaurs down the local pub - surely called The Green Dragon, and run by an ogre and his wife. He might ride a gryphon there and back. Well, I imagine all this, anyway.  

Seldom if ever have I wanted to go back to the start of a book and start reading again after the final page was turned, as I did with Waterlog.

The same was true of Wildwood – but for different reasons.  

This is a difficult thing to write. Wildwood bored me. Some of it was like watching trees grow.

This wasn’t the case right away. I had a wee holiday last year in the middle of a forest. Wildwood had joined my to-be-read pile the Christmas before; the circumstances were irresistible. I got through the first 90 or so pages on one blessed morning in the rarity of absolute solitude, sat outside the cabin in the early May sunshine. Pheasants padded through the trees, safe for the moment from being blasted to oblivion by shotgun or car grille.

I took my time, savouring the book, and I needed to do so. It was quite heavy going, but not unpleasant – a challenge, not a slog, like approaching the summit of a mountain. It was scholarly rather than brisk. But I was in the right setting, and the right frame of mind.

I came back from holiday. I set it on the bedside table, the bookmark lodged at page 90.

Wildwood book barely moved from its berth for nearly a year. When I shifted it for a house move, I made a clean spot. Once we’d moved, I put it back in the same place. I forced myself to get back into it in March of this year. One full ring grew inside the trees before the last page was turned.

I felt a sense of grief when I towelled myself off after Waterlog; but I felt only exhaustion at the end of Wildwood. I rarely get a chance to sit down with a book these days, and others nudged ahead of it, brash, insistent pupils sucking up the teacher’s attention. I literally dusted off the book more than once. I could barely get through a chapter before turning the light off. Something had gone wrong.

It’s billed as a journey through trees, and I suppose it is. But it’s unstructured, and it focuses too much on using wood to build, or create art from. Some of it is like reading a real-time description of a guy building a table and chairs. I’d liken it to a garden allowed to grow wild, but that at least can be interesting. Untidy things usually arrest the attention. Wildwood frequently doesn’t. I found large parts of it a painful struggle, like cramming for a long-dreaded exam.

Much of this book is dull. Like the sound my head might make upon contact with a two-by-four of solid oak.

This is my failing, as a reader, as a person, and maybe, as a man. Writing too dense in detail can turn me off. But I’m also a hugely impractical guy. You get a certain type of person whose soul stirs when they contemplate building sheds, redecorating rooms, stripping down engines, and watching James May build Airfix Spitfires. The sort of person who might take time to stop and appreciate a bridge, and know who built it, or how many rivets were used in its construction. The kind of person who, in hearing the car roar when they floor the pedal, doesn’t focus so much on the rapidly unfurling road and the wind shrieking in chorus with the music, but what’s going on inside the engine, the churning axle, the pressing plates and spinning cogs, all laid out before them in explosive 3D, their own internal Haynes Manual.

I am not one of those sorts of people. They might absolutely love Wildwood.

Practical matters annoy me. In this, I’m a familial aberration. My dad and my two brothers worked on the tools – oily hands, calluses you could take a blowtorch to, able to tell the calibre of fittings down to the millimetre by sight, possessed of the ability to have copper wiring twined, latticed and hung as if by telekinesis, and dexterity with screwdrivers and spanners to rival that freak at school who could finish a Rubik’s cube in 10 seconds. It isn’t me. To this day, screws slither out from between my sausage fingers and laugh as they roll under the furniture. In my frustration at an angle not sitting right, or a nail splitting the edge of the wood, I go beyond simple swearing and start to speak in tongues. Neighbours knock the door and ask if everything’s okay.

Something went wrong. It is a failing. If the apocalypse comes I’ll need to develop other skills in double-time or we’ll all die. I wish I was a bit more practical, but I’ve probably lived more than half my life now and I must admit I’m not, and maybe never will be. It’s a source of disappointment.

A bit like calculus, it isn’t that I don’t grasp it, or can’t do it - it’s just that I’d rather not. Ask me to put up a fence, and I can (and in fact I have). I’d just rather be doing other stuff. In considering building flat-pack furniture, I do it, but only after a lot of sighing. Anything more complex than fitting slot A into B is more often done badly than not.

If I ever want to make my missus laugh, I tell her the truth of the matter: I’m not a builder, baby. I’m not a farmer either.

I’m a killer.

Show me a castle and I imagine a siege, boiling oil, clashing swords, and perhaps dragons. Show Roger Deakin a castle, and I suspect he’d wonder how he could construct battlements and a drawbridge along the edge of his moat; or if he could perhaps steal some of the loose stonework and use it to build a sauna with an ergonomically pristine wood-fired boiler requiring no gas or electricity.

Roger does actually consider making this contraption in the course of Wildwood.

Perhaps fuelled by my desire to propel the book to its conclusion, like shoving a length of timber into a sawblade, I picked up the pace near the end. I was rewarded; Wildwood takes off, right after Roger does, away from England’s sleepy hollows in search of the motherlode of apple trees in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and one or two other places in need of an emergency aid drop of vowels. This provided the kind of action and adventure which drenched Waterlog, and whose absence leaves us pawing along the desert in Wildwood.

Here was my dearest Roger again – off-road, meeting people living simple rustic lives, marvelling at the simplicity of their lives, lived in harmony with nature instead of destroying it. Roger is very much at home in this peaceable, Zen state. He speaks of a moment of communion with a beekeeper out in the middle of nowhere, a guy who speaks not a word of English, and yet Roger knows he has met something of a soul-mate, someone he could form a lifelong friendship with. He is left with a deep sadness when he says goodbye, knowing their paths will never cross again.

I was reminded of a similar meeting during a trip to Peru years ago, an author and local character I had an uproariously boozy afternoon with during a guided tour. “I shall not forget you, my friend!” he told me. The feeling was mutual.

But this section is all too brief. Back on Ent Time with Treebeard, there’s lots of splicing, coppicing and grafting, and appreciations of humanity’s interaction with wood – how it became a vital part of building civilisation, and how it remains a labour of love to this day, a compact between structure, Euclidian geometry and wild nature.

Roger turns things out in his workshop and even considers the sawdust as he blows it away. I sorta get that. I’ve always been fascinated by timber warehouses; something to do with the epic space, the smell of the wood. He wonders about the trees and bushes encircling his property, at some length (in both senses). And he speaks to artists who work with wood, from the UK to Australia and back. They turn living trees into monuments, they collect and reshape driftwood from the beach, they get busy with planes and chisels and hammers and whatnot, and there we go, another day done, lights out, zzz.

More than once I confronted an ugly truth: these are people with lots and lots of money, and lots and lots of spare time. There’s a big chink in the armour of the English eccentric and the sweet art they make, a petty point, but one worth making: it takes serious money to be a gentleman itinerant. Like it or not, you have to buy yourself out of the rat race.

As well as outlining my lack of practical skills, Wildwood also exposes a gap in my education. I love nature, I love looking at it, I love being in it, I love interacting with it, I love writing about it, and I love reading about it. But if you sent me a link to one of those clickbait quizzes identifying trees and their leaves, I’d score about 21/100 (matching my Higher Maths prelim percentage, December 1992). Botanical ignorance is a grave disadvantage when you read this book. Roger blithely witters on about walnut this, oak that, and for pages at a time he might as well have been talking about cycads, krynoids, the Thing From Another World, Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors, whatever.

What this book repeatedly nailed down – angrily, burying the metal into the trembling pine, and at a f****** angle – was that I am ignorant, and I need to educate myself, about trees for a start. One is waving at me out the window as I type, and I couldn’t tell you anything about it except that it’s green. Pine… willow… sycamore… birch… yeah, I could spot those. After that, I’m chapping. You better knock, on wood. I hear John Cleese saying, “The larch,” and see a slide flipping over, but I do not laugh. It’s a terrible irony that I love British nature writing yet know so little about it, like Jesus earning a living as a carpenter before being nailed to some shoddy woodwork. My next book on this subject will be the Collins Guide To British Trees. I’m going to sit down with it, I’m going to study it, and damn it, I’m going to learn it.

I’ll go back to Wildwood. I’ve failed, not Roger. I want to say sorry to him. It’s a beautifully-written book by a lovely bloke, who was cleverer than I will ever be. I feel a bit like I’ve been invited to tea by that nice quiet boy in class, and he’s showed me his collection of acorns, and I’ve sniggered. Maybe I’ve even given him heat for it, back in class, among the wolves.

One day I hope to be sat before a log fire, cracking open my ancient copy of Wildwood, and starting again at the proper pace in the proper setting, in the old age Roger was so unfairly denied.

For now, I’ll struggle on, at many things. We can’t all be craftsmen, more’s the pity. 

March 27, 2017

LATE TO THE PARTY:

Wherein we examine books everyone else checked out ages ago

by Hilary Mantel
674 pages, Fourth Estate

*This review is of the audio version, narrated by Simon Slater*

Review by Pat Black

I was a little intimidated by Wolf Hall. Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning slab seemed to be everywhere, all at once, for most of this decade. A TV adaptation starring Baftabator actors hoovered up awards and applause while the book was falling off three-for-two tables in clumps. I wanted to see what the fuss was about, but opted for the audio version rather than the book. At my current pace, I suspect I would have been reading the paper version until the grave.

Even with someone reading it aloud to me, I feared I’d get swallowed up by the details. Historical novels have to be well-researched, and you’re required to show your working. So I expected a descriptive avalanche of castles, disease, drapes and hideous food, which is probably not the best thing to take my mind off the drive to work.

I needn’t have worried. Wolf Hall is rich, but it’s a smooth meal. In an insane alternative universe where I’m teaching a writing class instead of ball-aching about books here, I’d use Wolf Hall as the perfect example of how to put in “just enough” detail to keep folk interested – a flare of jewellery, a swish of silk, a clank of armour – but not much more. It’s chiefly about dialogue, events, people, and gossip – good storytelling, in other words. Elmore Leonard would have approved.

If you’re the type of person who winces when English kings and queens come up on quiz shows, then the book is an education, though never a chore.

This is Thomas Cromwell’s story. Viewed as a sinister figure in English history until a recent reappraisal – this book is part of that – Cromwell came from nothing to become a lawyer, then a member of parliament, then King Henry VIII’s senior counsel and Chancellor of the Exchequer. He had no name, title or property, and when we first meet him he has literally crawled from the mud at Putney.

Although he is scoffed at by the noblemen he orbits, Cromwell is clever, pragmatic, educated, perfectly mannered and, best of all, discreet. He makes himself indispensable to Cardinal Wolsey – at one point, England’s most powerful statesman – then to the king himself, all without making much of a noise or a fuss.

He’s a guy who always knows a guy who knows a guy. He’s also tellingly skilled with a blade. He can hint lightly or heavily, as he pleases, but he’s not averse to cracking a skull or kicking a door in. Cromwell’s natural habitat is the shadows.

“You… you person, you,” one duke sneers at him.

Cromwell’s king, and the time of his reign, came to define a country. Against the background of the Protestant reformation, Henry split the Church of England, and English sovereignty, from the Catholic Church in Rome. It’s hard to escape the notion that this was all because he fancied Anne Boleyn and wanted to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, whose principal fault as a wife was failing to provide a son.

Henry is consistently fascinating in the same way as a child running around a garden party with a chainsaw. Wielding terrifying authority, and yet an almost complete arsehole, the monarch requires a steady hand at the tiller. Cromwell is the man for the job. Henry is bright enough to recognise that, noting Cromwell’s competence and unswerving support of his first master, Cardinal Wolsey, even after the cleric falls out of favour.

Cromwell speaks to all the major players of his time as he becomes a person of rank and influence in his own right. Inevitably, he makes a full cast of enemies as a result, including Sir Thomas More.

Cromwell is always referred to as “he”, never addressed by name unless it comes from the mouth of another character. It suits his shadowy persona very well. But Cromwell sometimes takes on the guise of a hero in this tale – interceding and attempting to save the lives of plotters, calumniators and heretics who seek to impede Henry’s progress to supreme authority at the head of his own church in his own land. This includes deadly enemies – and so Cromwell employs the morality of a comic book superhero in a tale of real people in real times. It was a little too cute, but it does put us on Cromwell’s side.

What are we to make of the book politically? Our sympathies naturally lie with Cromwell. It’s great to see him pulling the strings like some Reformation era Michael Corleone, taking the blows and slights until he brings events under his control. Not a few of his enemies have their necks split before the end.

But he is also driven by a sense of devotion and duty, the kind of service that the privileged expect from underlings, whether talented or not. In terms of intellect and guile, Cromwell is the master of just about everyone he meets. But he can only go so far in life, owing to the system he operates in. A question you must ask yourself is: how is it fair that a man like Cromwell, so clearly suited to power and authority, is obliged to bend his knees to a hereditary crown?

There is a heavy anticlerical bent to Cromwell’s thoughts and feelings. He’s not much of a man for churches, and certainly not a great fan of public burnings carried out in god’s name. Another memorable “just enough information” part comes when Cromwell recalls the first time he saw a heretic barbecued, and the woman’s relatives tidying up afterwards with brush and shovel.

Mantel is from a Catholic background and she has said negative things about that, so it’s easy to read anti-Catholic sentiment in her novel about a country kicking out the influence of the papacy.

That’s the easy interpretation. What fascinates me more is what I see as a latent anti-monarchical attitude.

It is a curious disease of the English in particular that some will spit blood like Bruce the Shark at the very idea of the Roman Catholic church, and yet in the same breath they will toast the health of a family who wields supreme power in the state and unimaginable riches through land ownership simply as a result of their birth and breeding. This paradox is evident in Mantel’s Cromwell, who couldn’t contrast any more sharply with clodding oafs like the Duke of Norfolk. Then there’s the king himself, happier pissing around with his horses in the woods than attending to his solemn duty, with Cromwell scurrying around afterwards, metaphorically wiping his arse for him.

Mantel does explore these questions, but in a very careful way. She was more forthright in recently published comments expressing sympathy for the Duchess of Cambridge – living her entire life in the public eye as a hobby horse for the British public, enduring constant scrutiny at best, and potential threats to her life at worst.

This seemed like honest sympathy to me, but it raised eyebrows in the press. Mantel must have anticipated that reaction, and it made me think that there’s more going on in her grand history play than blind devotion to royalty.

Whatever the case may be, it is worth noting that Hilary Mantel was made a Dame. Maybe any attention is good attention when it comes to promoting the British Monarchy as a global brand.

Like much else he encounters, Cromwell’s attitude towards the church and its potentates is one of simple utility: How can it help him – and his master – succeed? The same applies to armies, and large-scale usury. In one memorable passage, Cromwell muses on how the click of an abacus is more important than the rattle of a thousand sabres; how the greatest power of all lies not in arms, but in the pen which scratches the signature on a bill.  

“I heard you were a ruffian,” one chopping block-bound enemy notes to Cromwell, near the end. He does not disagree.

Cromwell’s journey is all the more exciting because in those days, when you had power and influence, you were playing for the highest stakes of all. Never mind some brief humiliation on Twitter and a P45 - upset the wrong guy in public life back then, and you could end up with your head decorating his front gates.

Wolf Hall made me think that we’re closer to people who lived in those times than we realise. In terms of matters of the heart, pettiness and ambition tending to bloodthirstiness, the difference is nil. Perhaps what truly separates us from our ancestors striking flint in caves is not just access to food and tools, but the written word – and its most powerful application, enforceable laws. Mantel acknowledges this in her examination of how early printing and dissemination of literature was viewed with suspicion and fear in Henry’s reign. I wonder where our current relationship with the written word and its ready availability through electronic devices will lead us? I assume it’ll be bad by default… but maybe not. Perhaps instead of fake news and poison-fanged comment sections, there’s a more utopian future for the written word in the digital age, something just beyond the horizon we can’t see yet.

That’s not to say Wolf Hall is heavy going. Happily, the story unfolds like a soap opera (in this regard, it reminded me of War And Peace). There are a few clandestine meetings, plenty of overheard gossip, and even one corny moment involving a knife in the dark that felt like an escapee from melodrama.

This got me thinking about the liberties that are taken of necessity in stories about real people who lived real lives. Mantel took five years to research this book – five years, man – cross-checking who spoke to whom on what day and matching dates with official records. But the dialogue is still basically made up. The dots connect beautifully but it’s still all… well, fiction.

There’s about 24 hours of listening in this book, all provided by the splendid Simon Slater. My attention rarely wavered in all that time. Wonder if any voice actors have ever tried to record big novels all in one go, as a bet?

Whether read on the page or performed aloud, Wolf Hall is an impressive, even mighty piece of work. I may need a wee break before tackling its sequel, though – about five years, say.

There’s one big problem with historical fiction - unless you’ve taken a dressage side-step involving zombies, vampires or Mel Brooks, there’s no avoiding those spoilers.

February 19, 2017

MR. ALFRED, MA

A Glasgow Trilogy
by George Friel
590 pages, Canongate

Review by Pat Black

George Friel was known as a bitter chronicler of post-war Glasgow. This puzzled me at first. Although he salted his prose with sudden, shocking moments of violence, I couldn’t see any bitterness – until I read the final part of A Glasgow Trilogy.

Mr Alfred, MA looks at a late-fifty-something teacher reaching the end of the line. It was published in 1972, three years before Friel died and, probably, written not long after he retired from his day job as a teacher. The author rages against the dying of the light, but his is a cold fire. He sees Glasgow as irredeemable, a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah where nothing good happens to anyone decent. In the time he was writing, it may well have seemed that way.

Mr Alfred’s troubles begin with one of his pupils, Gerald Provan, a sly, cowardly bully who organises fights after school. Mr Alfred, who has already lost his temper with the boy in class (this was an era when teachers disciplined children with leather belts), singles the lad out after breaking up a brawl in a lane near the school. This draws the attention of Provan’s conniving mother. She reckons - with justification - that Mr Alfred has “taken a spite” against her son. Together, they conspire against him.

Mr Alfred has few family members to call on and no friends. He uses digs in the city simply as a place to crash, and spends his spare time and all of his salary touring the city’s pubs after work. He idly lusts after barmaids, listens in on conversations without participating, and after last orders he wanders through Blythswood Square, protesting a little too much when the working girls offer him some business. He is a man on thin ice.

Mr Alfred wants the things he cannot have – a wife; a family; a loving home – but he doesn’t realise it. Mr Alfred’s only relative is Granny Lyons, an aunt who draws some bad cards with the housing department when she is placed in a bottom flat near the alley where teenagers congregate to fight. The pair cower in her kitchen while bricks are lobbed through the window and threats are hissed through the letterbox.

Gerald Provan is a villain, but all too believable. An impish Iago, he instigates nastiness, pressing knives and other weapons onto the combatants he has matched up in the school lane - but he never participates in the aggro himself. He has an excuse for everything, and takes responsibility for nothing. Friel notes Provan’s feral cunning, but he has not a single strand of decency.

The boy’s spoiled but depressing home life is carefully crafted. There’s no father on the scene, and the mother slaves after her son, a petulant king in his castle. Provan’s younger sister, Senga, who is brighter than her mother and brother combined, is put to work in service for his lordship, cooking for him when he comes home from school. She burns with resentment over this, but has to get on with it, or face violent consequences. She is secondary, at best. Her path in life is laid out for her.

Friel sketches Mr Alfred’s work in school, his drunken peripatetic lifestyle after the bell rings, and his time with Granny Lyons. Then there’s Gerald Provan’s thug life, his home comforts, his little sister’s friendship with another girl, and that girl’s older sister and her posh boyfriend. And, always in the background, frequently in the foreground: the city.

Mr Alfred teaches in a thinly-disguised rough scheme in the north of Glasgow, and the school seems to be going to hell. Appropriately for a teacher, Friel is somewhat didactic in how he shows us the disintegration of decency and common regard. Homes don’t have fathers; teachers don’t have respect; the rights of children are seen as superior to those of adults, and so they get away with murder (sometimes literally). Discipline cannot be enforced. Vandalism becomes the norm. Smashed windows and graffiti are commonplace. And violence is ever-present, immanent, and endemic – you get tough, or you get eaten.

Vandalism is a distinct force, a direct enemy, in this book. It reaches everywhere; it breaks into the very classrooms, and it burns the place down. Mr Alfred’s customary day-to-day problem is entropy, but this is something more direct, more malevolent – it’s pure chaos.

Mr Alfred’s sentiments almost certainly echo Friel’s feelings as his teaching career wound down. What’s the point of educating the little bastards? Mr Alfred wonders. It’s difficult to fashion an argument against such all-pervading cynicism. This is a very sour house, built on more optimistic foundations degraded by time and experience. One of Mr Alfred’s many tragedies is that he actually wants to teach, but no-one wishes to learn.

His primary tragedy is falling in love with a pupil. The object of his affection is a very young girl, Rose Weipers. I don’t think anyone would dare to write about such a thing today, Friel included, even in a supposedly literary novel. Maybe no-one should, after Nabokov.

The book doesn’t seek to excuse Mr Alfred in any way; nor does it flinch in its depiction of his feelings. It happens in miserable, predictable stages. Mr Alfred entices the girl to spend time with him at lunch in his class, alone, after asking her to buy him rolls and a paper and then entreating her to keep the change. He moves on to cuddling her while she sits on his knee, then kissing her head – nothing more. He gives her more money, though he does not demand that she stay quiet. He does not touch her sexually, but he really wants to. There can be no doubt that his feelings are adult, and carnal. If they weren’t stopped in time, they would have progressed to more intimate acts. Mr Alfred, MA, is a pervert.

Nowadays of course, as soon as anyone got wind of what Mr Alfred and Rose were doing in the classroom, he’d be subject to instant suspension, a police investigation and prosecution. But there’s a queasy sign of the times in this book when we listen in on the staffroom gossip of the other teachers. They all know about what’s happening, but no-one wants to stop it. Some decry Mr Alfred for being a creep, others seek to understand him, and a few think it’s funny. “Imagine old Alfy losing his mind over a wee lassie!”

There are consequences for Mr Alfred after Gerald Provan’s mother hears of what has taken place through her daughter and writes a letter to the school, but even these are superficial in relation to what we identify today as a serious crime. He is transferred to another school; and then, after a humiliating moment when he loses control of a class of badly behaved boys, he is bumped down again, into a primary school.

Mr Alfred’s disintegration continues apace, finishing with a beating (of course; everyone gets a beating in Friel’s world) and then an odd encounter with a demoniacal teenager in a derelict house, who may well be Satan. From there, after one more drunken mistake which has consequences which far outweigh their effect, Mr Alfred ends up in a mental hospital.

Unfairness is as common as concrete in Friel’s Glasgow. Nothing nice happens to anyone good. Death and violence preys upon the innocent. The culprits simply point and laugh. Even those who show promise – Martha Weipers and her boyfriend, for example – will be smitten by the mighty smiter (and that couple’s fate is particularly appalling – surely a joke taken too far). Worse still, if you’re expecting the guilty to be dealt a bad hand in this book, for justice to be blind - forget it. There is no hope. There is no spark for change. There is no point.

I hesitate to say the book is unduly harsh on Glasgow. That’s easy to say for an ex-pat who has stairs in his house and relatively non-psychotic neighbours. But I come from the schemes and the schools Friel describes, and my childhood is only a decade’s remove from the time depicted in Mr Alfred, MA. The corrosive effect of violence, of lawless youth, and all-pervading vandalism, cannot be overstated. The horror of not feeling safe behind your own front door, or walking down your own street; the anxiety involved in simply turning a corner, or wandering into a place you don’t know too well. “Who d’ye know, mate?” I wonder how many lives were lost for having given the wrong answer – or no answer – to that challenge?

The futility of kindness and decency is never more horribly outlined than in the Italian cafĂ© owner whose business is turned into a latrine by teenage gangs – and also an arena for turf warfare. His crucial mistake was catering for them, by installing a jukebox.

Friel was shrewd in showing the influx of immigrants into the city, working hard, trying to integrate - and being treated with open hostility by the indigenous population. One black bus conductor is left astonished during one scene – not just by the racial abuse he suffers, but by the fact that people simply refuse to pay their fare; to participate in the society he has travelled to be part of. None of today’s anti-immigration bile in the popular press and social media would have surprised Friel.

The author’s previous good humour and compassion is in short supply in this final novel. It leaves a bitter aftertaste, which is a shame. He deserved better. There is one sparkling comic renaissance, where Friel analyses the phrase “ya bass”, which you can see appended to graffiti throughout the city to this day. But these linguistic gymnastics can give way to outright smart-arsedness, often involving very big, very obscure words. You get the impression Friel is sneering at us. I don’t mind a bit of playfulness with unusual words, siding with Will Self on the issue – but if you have to dive for the dictionary every few pages, I think either the writer has failed, or he’s at it.

I can picture my stern English teacher swiping his red pen across some sections, then scoring in the margin: “GLIB. FLIPPANT. CUT.”

Times and cities change. The Glasgow of Friel’s day wasn’t the Glasgow of his parents’ day; similarly, the Glasgow of today will be totally different to the 1980s, when I was a child. It’s a great place to study and work.

What a terrible pity George Friel didn’t see that bad situations can change; that talent can blossom; that even the meanest city can flourish. Decay may be a natural part of existence, but so is renewal.