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. 

January 3, 2017

SQUAWK OF THE YEAR

Wherein we squawk about our favorite books from 2016.

Bill Kirton:

A lot of my 2016 reading was escapist – stories by the best sellers who’ve earned their reputations as reliable providers of thrills, suspense, twists and satisfaction and who don’t need reviews from me to confirm their excellence. On the other hand, there were others who had nothing like the exposure of these big boys and girls and yet who produced highly individual, accomplished novels which deserve a wider readership. Black Sheep Boy is one of them.

I bought it on the recommendation of a friend, otherwise I don’t think it would have registered on my radar. As the title suggests, it’s a series of episodes in a life, but a life far removed from that of a comfortable old guy living in Scotland. The first person narrator is a young boy who lives in the Louisiana bayou and, as well as sharing his personal pains and pleasures with us, he evokes this highly individual context and its customs. Throughout, the fact that he is, as the blurb warns us, ‘small, weak, effeminate’, frequently creates conditions, oppositions and alliances which set him at odds with that same culture with its fixed notions of how men and women should be.

So the exoticism of the content is already fascinating to a reader far removed from its everyday manifestations, but the main power of the book is the voice in which it’s related and the way he shares with us the discoveries his experiences bring to him. The rhythms and music of the prose, the delicacy of the images he conjures up, and the beautiful mix of ‘normal’ English and the gentle patois of the bayou are captivating. Interest never wavers, from the simplest stories he recounts to the questions of identity he asks of others and himself as he grows into and struggles to understand and withstand the dilemmas and threats posed by his sexuality and his gender. Themes of mysticism, justice, impotence and survival weave through it all, taking different guises in the various relationships he forms and experiences he enjoys and/or endures.

And, in the end, so closely do we empathise with his thoughts and feelings that the specificity of his sexual and gender-related issues broadens into reflections on identity and purpose which relate to the whole process of how we become who we are and continue to evolve through more of its iterations. It’s beautiful, thought-provoking, essentially human and an excellent read.

Pat Black:

I thoroughly enjoyed Frances Larson's Severed, a grisly but compelling history of decapitation. I also loved Peter Hill's memoirs of his time working on Scottish lighthouses, Stargazing.

But the blue rosette goes to a book I haven't reviewed - I, Partridge, by Alan Partridge. The audiobook is narrated in-character by Steve Coogan and was probably the funniest book I've ever come across. As if I needed to look any more of a lunatic on the morning commute. Eat my goal! 

Marc Nash:

I had a year of big thick post-modern works and lots of non-English fiction in translation.

Most of the Po-Mo was pretty disappointing with the honourable exception of Sergio de la Pava's "A NakedSingularity", but it was the non-English fiction that blew me away this year. Valeria Luiselli's "The Story Of My Teeth" was good fun, both of Yuri Herrera's 100 page novels were very evocative and lyrical in their brevity. Both of those authors are Mexican. But the winner was Korean author Kan Hang's "The Vegetarian" which despite a completely redundant third section, parts one and two were so stunning and beautiful and haunting that the limp part 3 simply didn't matter. Highly recommended. 

Worst read of the year Gillian Slovo's "Ten Days" purportedly about the London riots of 2011 in which just a single rioter makes an appearance and he's rescuing a child from a burning building. utterly misses the point. 

Melissa Conway:

After a lifetime spent reading whenever a spare moment presents, I’m lately in this weird bubble of book avoidance, with the excuse that I simply can’t spare the time. I didn’t read much in 2016, but even if I had, my year’s best pick would have stood out from the rest. Rebecca Lochlann’s The Sixth Labyrinth is the first book in the second Child of the Erinyes trilogy, a love triangle driven by divine destiny to be reincarnated through the ages. Great writing, highest recommendation.

J.S. Colley:

My have-read list for 2016 is woefully short. I will mention HillbillyElegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance.  The author’s family moved from addiction-ridden Appalachia to Ohio, where he was able to overcome his inherited geography and make it to Yale Law School. Although it didn’t fully live up to my expectations, it came close.

I’m currently reading Nineveh by Henrietta Rose-Innes, published by the newly-formed Aardvark Bureau, about South Africa’s only “ethical pest removal specialist.” So far, I’m enjoying it. Perhaps I’ll write a review when I’m finished.

I wish you all happy reading in the new year!






December 17, 2016

PIETR THE LATVIAN

by Georges Simenon
176 pages, Penguin Classics

Review by Pat Black

Penguin has done alright by Georges Simenon. Perhaps sensing an opportunity alongside a new series of TV adaptations starring Rowan Atkinson, they’re currently reissuing the Maigret stories.

All of them. Seventy-six novels. That’s beaucoup de books. I…

Look, I’m not a racist, but I dunno if I can be bothered with these italics. My “I” key is taking a fearful beating and we’re only two pars in. From now on, I might go easy on the Franglish - and the emphasis. Spare us all some grief.

Penguin has reissued a lot of the author’s other stuff as well, though they surely can’t get around to it all – because Georges Simenon wrote almost 500 novels. The Belgian’s prolific literary output was perhaps only matched by his infamous sexual appetite. Mick Jagger’s pointy-finger dance had absolutely nothing on Simenon’s rigid digits machine-gunning the typewriter. Did he take a shagbreak from all that writing, or a typing break in between all the shagging? Mais be oui’ll never know.

God, I’m so sorry.

Pietr The Latvian is the first Maigret novel, originally published in 1930. The Parisian detective is introduced as a burly fellow in a bowler hat with a pipe clamped between his jaws, as broad as he is long. He’s the type of lump who doesn’t really fight that much, because he doesn’t have to. If you smacked him one, he might frown a bit, and take a few seconds to decide what to do with you.

Maigret works hard, but usually finds a bit of time to warm himself by an open fire that’s kept well stocked in his office. There’s something about that big old fire, which Maigret rubs his hands in front of as he ponders his next move. I fancied I felt warmth seeping into my bones whenever it flickered into life on the page; there’s something very clever going on there.

Pietr the Latvian of the title is a master counterfeiter, who’s been spotted on a train into Paris. On a tip from a primitive form of Interpol, Maigret is on hand to arrest him… so it’s tres embarrassing when he discovers his target has been murdered on the train.

Things get even odder, as the late Pietr the Latvian is clocked by witnesses just a few hours later at a swanky Paris hotel, alive and well and supping alongside an American millionaire.

There is some suspicion that Georges Simenon knew nothing about police procedure – that he made it all up on the hoof. He happens to have a crime, and he happens to have a detective on hand to solve it. That’s all he really needs for his tale to be told. I’ve no way of knowing if that’s true, but things do seem quite haphazard, even for a detective novel which first appeared as a serial in 1930. It’s short and pacy, with time for a couple more murders as Maigret attempts to uncover the mystery of how Pietr the Latvian managed to cheat death, and just what he’s up to in the five-star hotel.

Perhaps Simenon didn’t have time to finesse the detail, as he was too fully immersed in the story… or maybe he was banging. “I think I’ll take a walk down to the police station and ask a gendarme for some tips… Cripes, I’ve ended up banging instead. Zut! I’ve done it again! Au secours ma Boab!”

Breakfast: banging. Lunch: banging. Extended two-hour lunch: extended banging. Dinner: banging. Cheeky petit digestif? Cheese et bisquets before bedtime? Not before some banging. And so forth.

He must have had a few days like that, because it seems that Georges Simenon was a veritable Duracell Bunny when it game to Le Banging. He claimed he had slept with 10,000 women. Even if he’s telling les porcees, and say it’s just half that… blimey… even a tenth of that… folks, admittedly I’m no James Bond, but that still seems like an unfeasibly big final score to me. To even compute it is an act of lunacy. A simple numerical representation seems insufficient. It would send anyone of a mathematical bent, never mind puritanical, into a rubber room.

He claims he began his banging career at the age of 13, but for the sake of clarity let’s condense the stats into a peak period, aged 20-60. That being the case, his scorecard breaks down to more than 240 different women – that’s different women shagged, not the actual amount of shags – every year. That’s 20 a month. That’s five a week. Five different women every week! Even that number assumes a smooth, even distribution in bangs. If he had a super peak period, he could have been banging 2-3 different women every day at the top of the graph.

It seems unfeasible, but in interviews, Simenon’s son has corroborated the long-standing myth of his father’s swordsmanship. It seems the Buoyant Georges would bob off down the brothel on his lunch break every day… so it seems seduction wasn’t the whole story. But even if he was using prostitutes, that still seems rather a lot. You’d think he would get tired; some nights, instead of a bang, he might fancy watching the snooker. Dipping his balons in an ice bucket, perhaps. But non! Nous allons bang on! Je pense, donc je bang!

If you express it in fractions or decimalise it, it gets worse. How many nights did he do half a bang and give up – say, at the end of a big session, and he’d already gotten through 99% of his daily ammunition allocation? How many centilitres per bang, per day? What was the probability of him running into women he forgot he’d banged in the street? What percentage of his mates’ wives and girlfriends did he bang? Did he get bored, seek out a bloke and get banged himself on rare occasions – expressed as binary figure 0, and not 1? Did he ever do four-fifths of a bang and stop suddenly, for a laugh? It’s not like he was worried about where the next one was coming from. Did he overbang it in fact – revving up to 150% and passing out?

If he had a Fitbit, would it calculate he had banged for ten miles per day? What was the probability of him not having a bang one day? Minus or equal to 0.0000005 to the nearest 0.1 percent I reckon. What was the standard bangiation? Could the exact figure be turned upside down, to spell out “boobies” on a calculator? Did he buy his French letters in hundreds, tens or units? Statistically, if one in a hundred johnnies is a potential felt-ripper, how many split parachutes did he get over a lifetime? Can we represent his banging coefficient in any given social situation with the Greek letter Shagma?

…Paris between the wars comes across as a damp, seedy place. Maigret tails Pietr in and out of various bars, watching him drink heavily, gaining a picture of the man and his movements. Most controversially, le Commissaire heads into a Jewish ghetto and the author states some racially unpleasant things. “Different races have a peculiar smell,” Simenon says, before hinting that the Jewish smell isn’t very nice.

Usual flimsy excuses apply – it was the 1930s, and racism was a hot topic for the chattering classes, a bit like fleek eyebrows and really bad beards these days. I think.

Maigret doesn’t give a lot away about himself. A taciturn gargoyle taking a keen note in everything which occurs beneath his high cathedral perch, his method is all in the observation of behaviour. He’s looking for that one little detail which can unlock character, and ultimately crack the case. We know little of the detective’s personal life and only meet his wife at the end. Among the sparse character details, we find out that he likes to refuel during long, sleepless investigations with piles of sandwiches and bottles of beer poured into a glass - best consumed, of course, in front of that roaring fire.

Surprisingly, there’s no bed-hopping, although Maigret is particularly interested in a poor Jewish girl who has some connection to the man in the title. Maigret doesn’t process her in entirely complimentary terms, but there’s an undercurrent of raw attraction there. During a scuffle in one of the climactic scenes, Maigret manages to tear her dress, displaying her “magnificent” bosom. I heard a sleazy saxophone lick when this happened; I wondered if we’d taken a hop across the Channel for a hit of extremely low farce.

It was all too telling. The bloke doth protest too much. Maybe when you’re as oversexed as Georges Simenon, the idea: “Could I have sex with this woman?” has been completely usurped in favour of: “How long do I have to wait before I can get her clothes off?”

Maigret is tough. He gets shot at one point, but has the wound bandaged up and carries on with the job. He’ll worry about changing his dressing and mild inconveniences such as blood loss and infection much later. Again, rather than striking back hard, Maigret is a brooding goat instead of an angry bear, mulling over situations and possibilities as he chews on the end of his pipe.

There are many parts where I said to myself: “That’s so French!” Part of my understanding of what constitutes “French” comes from Allo Allo!, Inspector Clouseau and art house films shown way past my bedtime on Channel 4 in the 1980s, so we should tread warily here. All the same, there are some bungling policemen who allow people to slip away during surveillance for the daffiest reasons. There’s wildcattish hysteria from some unfathomable women. And there are lots of exclamation marks, raising their hands brazenly amid the quiescent sea of text.

The climax to the story was remarkable. Maigret tails his quarry to the seaside, and they have a sloppy, indistinct fight on a sighing shingle beach which takes on the tones of foreplay. It’s a kind of Olly Reed/Alan Bates wrestling match scene (all it needs is a roaring fire, in fact). There’s even a point where the villain has a chance to kick Maigret into the sea, but doesn’t. Out of a sense of resignation? Or fraternite? Who knows? It’s a wee bit like the Musketeers, drawn into friendship after an original arrangement to cross swords.

It gets stranger still, as the two men check into a hotel and get out of those wet things. The man Maigret is chasing reveals all, explaining what he did, how he did it, and why he did it. This might be the most French part of all – love affairs are detailed, follies are regretted, and motive is tenderly exposed. We are treated to the sight of the hulking police inspector and his adversary, fluffy and dry in soft cotton dressing gowns, going over the whole story like a pair of old ladies preparing for a spa day. More than anything else in the book, this total oddity of a scene will bring me back to Maigret. It was quite incredible.

Ah, go on then. Incroyable.

December 8, 2016

STARGAZING

by Peter Hill
336 pages, Canongate

Review by Pat Black

Scotland has a long, treacherous coastline. It looks fantastic on that gumby watercolour your granny might keep above her mantelpiece, but in real life, the lights have to be kept burning. You could make an island with the bones of sailors drowned in those waters.

Being a lighthouse keeper seemed like a romantic job to me as a kid. We think of the sea, of course – calm and gentle as your mother one minute, an unstoppable, raging fury the next. Then there’s the fog, the solitude, old CB radios, and of course, the sweeping light. It helps that Ray Bradbury’s “The Fog Horn” is one of my favourite pieces of writing.

The job has long been outmoded by technology – everything’s automated, and has been for decades. This phenomenon of redundancy is something many of us will have to get used to in the coming years if progress continues at its current pace, unless a nice nuclear war sets the clock back a few millennia. Whatever humanity survives might have to go back to burning beacons to show wooden ships the way to safety. Assuming they’d harbour good intentions towards strange vessels.

Stargazing, Peter Hill’s memoirs of his days spent as a keeper on several lights on Scotland’s west coast, is a step back in time. It looks at 1973, when Hill halted his art school studies in Dundee in order to take a job on the lights. He’s just 19 years old, his head full of Jimi Hendrix, Kerouac, the Watergate hearings and Vietnam. Peter wants to write haikus, paint pictures and write novels in his downtime on the lights, and he does. But he also gets to know the crazy characters he has to share the living quarters with. This is the lifeblood of the book. It’s good to consider a starry night, with the moon drizzling silver over indigo waters; but it’s better to have someone to talk to about it - or Coronation Street, whichever you prefer.

You’d think there’s not much to describe once you get past the rugged coasts, the seas and the lights, but… imagine the stars. Imagine basking sharks the size of lorries knifing their way across the water. Imagine thousands of seabirds nesting overnight on the rock, using the lighthouse as a sort of avian Travelodge to break up their journeys across the continents. Imagine the things people might say to each other in the dead of night, their psyches on the fringes of sleeping and dreaming. It’s magical stuff.

“At least you’ve got your art,” one late-night companion tells Peter. “You’re lucky. It’ll sustain you for life.”

In truth this book only takes up a few months out of Hill’s life – a matter of weeks, really - but you can imagine the impression it made on the young man. I was a postie for one summer when I was a similar age, over a similar period of time, and I was a turn of a card away from doing it full-time. My destiny took a different course, but I think I learned more about life, the universe and everything that summer than I have in nearly two decades since, sat on my arse in offices, getting fat, cynical and bitter.

Hill’s fellow keepers are incandescent characters. We meet Finlay, the highlander and gourmand, who teaches Peter how to cook as well how to look after the light; then there’s the tough guy who used to work on the boats, whose taciturnity becomes comical rather than threatening; the Doctor Who enthusiast, who could answer any question on the show in between blasts of the fog horn; the colonel Blinky type, who used to be a sailor during the war but now does all his fighting with Scrabble; the traumatised wartime secret agent who had Done Stuff; the polymath professor, who you suspect could have done anything but ended up working on the lights; and many more.

It’s not an essential, but having an idea of the locations described helped anchor some scenes in my mind. I know Arran and Ailsa Craig - the latter being familiar to golf fans from any time the Open is held at Troon, as it is during Hill’s time spent on the light; Peter Alliss even gives the keepers a mention live on the telly. Corsewall in the Borders is mentioned in passing; it’s a hotel and restaurant complex now. I’ve stayed there, on one of my best ever birthdays. These are all dramatic, gorgeous settings which Hill sketches beautifully.

As for the lights I don’t know about – what about those titles? Pladda! Muckle Flugga! Everything about these places is a pleasure. Saying their names out loud; looking them up on the maps; and, surely, going there.

There’s even some action and adventure, as a fishing trip to intercept a juicy shoal of herring turns into a potentially fatal incident as Peter and a workmate are almost swamped by a rogue wave.

You might ask: How do lighthouse keepers deal with having no sex for weeks on end? The same way anyone else does, is Hill’s reply. There’s a big, obvious, vertical, shiny bright metaphor we could use here, but Hill ignores it, and so shall I. I’m reminded of an interpretation I once heard of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse from years ago, but I shan’t go into it; I promised myself I’d get through this one without any smutty jokes.

Most of all, this book is a tribute to youth. The hope, the potential, the energy, the ambition, the chutzpah. Some parts transported me back in time to my own younger days – an encyclopaedia full of mistakes, stupidity and fool’s errands, to be sure, but wonderful and unforgettable and romantic in their own way. There’s one part where Hill uses shore leave to go hostelling in Amsterdam with a female friend, who he might be in love with. She knows this, of course, and tells him in that beautifully nonsensical way that she can’t sleep with a friend, as it’d spoil the friendship. Some people must think this tactic amounts to “letting you down gently”. This stirred memories and feelings from my own youth I’d almost forgotten. It was a lightning bolt, a sudden rekindling of how you felt when you were that age, doing the same things.

Stargazing reminded me of the good stuff; the parts a man of 39 thinks he might have left behind with the lad of 19. But I’d recommend this book to anyone, of any age, from any background.

It’s a reminder to keep your light burning; you never know who’ll need it out there in the dark. 

December 1, 2016

CRESCENDO

by G R Jordan
286 pages, Carpetless Publishing

Review by Hereward L.M. Proops

As much as I admire H.P. Lovecraft’s works of cosmic horror, I would never describe myself as a Lovecraft fanboy. In creating the monstrous Cthulhu and his Elder pals, Lovecraft secured his place in the fantasy hall of fame and the huge influence of his works shows no sign of diminishing. However, Lovecraft is a divisive writer. One doesn’t have to dig very deep in his oeuvre to realise that he held some pretty unpleasant views about race and social class. It’s hard to wholeheartedly ‘enjoy’ Lovecraft’s work when these things keep bubbling to the surface. We can try and fool ourselves that he was just a product of his time, but there are plenty of authors from his era whose work isn’t mired in such backward-thinking.

My other criticism of Lovecraft is a purely literary one. Although we can look at his florid prose as being the means by which he crafts the particular atmosphere of dread and terror, many of his stories can be bogged down by his verbosity. This is, of course, just my opinion, and there will be others who maintain that Lovecraft’s prose is perfect. I find issue with the pacing of his stories, even those considered to be his greatest works. There are passages in “At the Mountains of Madness” that lose much of their power through over-long, turgid descriptions. This doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy his stories of the sinister Elder gods; I just don’t believe Lovecraft was the best writer of the pulp-era.

I was only a few pages into Gary Ross-Jordan’s “Crescendo” when I realised it was dipping its toe into Lovecraft’s world(s). This isn’t particularly radical, plenty of authors, artists and game designers have borrowed from and contributed to the Lovecraftian universe. What gets me excited about Ross-Jordan’s approach is that he makes no attempt to mimic Lovecraft’s style, choosing to write a witty, fast-paced, action-adventure romp rather than a brooding tale of horror. I’m fairly sure that the words “witty”, “fast-paced” and “romp” have never before been associated with anything Lovecraftian, and that is precisely why you need to read “Crescendo”.

Moving at an often bewildering pace, “Crescendo” does not mess around with lengthy expositions of a character’s backstory. Ross-Jordan pulls us from one scene to another, scarcely giving us time to catch our breath or make sense of exactly what is going on. Whilst you would think this would serve to alienate readers, it had the opposite effect - I was drawn in from the start and was gripped throughout.

“Crescendo” is the first in a proposed series of books featuring Austerley and Kirkgordon, a dynamic duo who tick many of the boxes of classic ‘buddy cop’ films. Austerley is a fantastically intelligent, socially inept oddball academic with a comprehensive knowledge of arcane and weird lore. His close encounters with things from other worlds have also left him teetering on the brink of insanity and the start of the novel sees his release from Arkham asylum. Kirkgordon is Austerley’s longsuffering companion. A man of action, Kirkgordon spends much of the novel rescuing his friend from a variety of dangerous situations and the rest of the book cursing Austerley for the detrimental effect their friendship has had on virtually every other significant relationship in his life. But the two characters aren’t a simple division of brains and brawn. Austerley’s curiosity about the Elder beings and his insatiable thirst for forbidden knowledge means that he is as much of a hinderance as he is a help. Kirkgordon has a sensitive side that serves to give bit of humanity and stop him being a one-dimensional action hero. He’s still smarting from the breakdown of his marriage and finds himself torn between remaining faithful to his estranged wife and his attraction to the mysterious Callandra. Kirkgordon is also a man of faith and Ross-Jordan handles this part of his character with sensitivity and intelligence. As a double act, Austerley and Kirkgordon work extremely well, Austerley dabbles in the unknown and Kirkgordon kicks ass and gets them out of the ensuing chaos. The dialogue between the two lead characters is suitably snappy and captures the love / hate dynamic that is par-for-the-course in any mismatched partnership.

The McGuffin in the story is a piece of music with mysterious powers and Austerley and Kirkgordon’s pursuit of the manuscript sees them embark on a globe-trotting adventure to rival those of Indiana Jones. From Arkham to Moscow to a fog-shrouded island off the coast of Scotland, the narrative never stays in one place for long enough for it to grow dull. Indeed, the novel’s Hebridean finale is a riff on Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” that brings the book to a very satisfying conclusion. It is at this point that one really appreciates how meticulously Ross-Jordan has structured the novel. I mentioned earlier how the frenetic pace of the story leaves the reader a little bewildered, but this grand finale effectively answers all the questions that are raised and ties up any loose ends. What has hitherto seemed chaotic and unstructured suddenly falls into place in the titular “Crescendo”.

Although it is set in the same universe as Lovecraft’s works, Ross-Jordan’s novel is a radically different beast. Where Lovecraft’s dense descriptions help to conjure a sinister atmosphere and mood, Ross-Jordan focuses instead on action to propel his narrative along at a rollicking pace. Although dabbling in Lovecraftian themes, Ross-Jordan’s work is so radically different that comparisons between the two are redundant.

“Crescendo” is a wonderful, accessible piece of fantasy. I will certainly be checking out the next installment of Austerley and Kirkgordon’s adventures. With the vast scope of Lovecraft’s universe at his disposal, it will be interesting to see where Ross-Jordan takes the due next. There’s bound to be some die-hard fans out there who feel that it isn’t properly Lovecraftian without dense prose and an over-reliance on words such as “cyclopean” or “eldritch”. This is a shame as those people will be denying themselves the opportunity to dive into a refreshingly modern take on Lovecraftian themes.

Read the author interview here.

AUTHOR INTERVIEW

Booksquawk interviews G R Jordan, author of “Crescendo!”

Interview by Hereward L M Proops

Booksquawk: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

G R Jordan: My name is Gary Ross-Jordan, writing under G R Jordan for my fantasy series, and as well as putting pen to paper I’m also a Coastguard, an archer and a Dad of four. This all keeps me extremely busy especially as at my age life has only just begun. I live in the Northwest of Scotland on the Isle of Lewis, keeping chickens amidst the marauding winds.

I’ve always written poetry and told stories from very young but it has been the past few years when I have decided to put things out there for public consumption with a dream that one day my passion can also pay the bills. With that in mind I produced a poetry book, “Four Life Emotions” to get to grips with self-publishing and followed this up with “A Darker Shade of Light” a collection of short Christian allegories in the style of H.P Lovecraft (Not sure anyone has had that sort of mix before!).

Having learnt a great deal from these experiences, I set about putting together a full length novel and was successfully crowdfunded. The fruits of the crowdfunding is “Crescendo!” of which I am extremely proud but I haven’t sat back on my laurels with the second Austerley and Kirkgordon novel “The Darkness at Dillingham” in its final production stages. I also write slightly less weird material and hope to be releasing the tentatively titled “Hook, Line and Sinker”, a tale about mermaids coming to an island community which looks at exploring the variety of views and lifestyles by the peoples’ reactions to these creatures. Of course there’s plenty of action and fun on the way.

Like most of my counterparts, I’m no expert on this writing journey but the experience of composing and then pulling a book together has been fantastic and I am now immersing myself in understanding how to share and promote a book and myself. This writing life isn’t all easy but it is a lot of fun!

Booksquawk: Do you have a particular routine for writing?

G R Jordan: I genuinely don’t which is contrary to most of the advice given on how to write. But there is a good reason for it – life as a husband and Dad of four. My wife has her own business, my kids age from aged ten to 6 months and I am a shift worker, operating on quite diverse and non-routine shifts. So I will grab whatever time I can throughout the day. Be it travelling, late at night, early morning, meal breaks at work or whenever, I have developed the habit of just sitting down and writing. That being said my favourite thing to do is to go to a coffee shop and sit down with my tablet. Noise doesn’t bother me but I do think a good latte is an appropriate partner for writing. I write at approx. 1000 – 1500 words an hour (pretty good but no express train) normally writing novels of approximately 60,000 words. Once the first draft is written I print it off and read it in a hard copy, pencilling any changes. After a second draft I usually let my beta readers see it before giving it a third draft. After that the editor gets involved. The book then gets knocked back and forward and we end up with the final cut ready to be made into a book.

Booksquawk: What are the Austerley and Kirkgordon novels about?

G R Jordan: I like to say the premise that the series is based on is “When you see the Darkness, do you run to it or run from it?” Hence we have Austerley, university professor, shambling oaf and complete genius when it comes to anything occult, weird or otherworldly. Not only is he an expert in these matters but he is constantly sucked into their world often risking others to know more.

Beside him is Kirkgordon, former bodyguard, man with a questioning faith, wary of any danger and who has had his life messed up by accompanying Austerley on an ill-fated trip to explore some of the Darkness (after finishing “Crescendo!”, I wrote their back story in a short story entitled “Footsteps” which is a tribute to Lovecraft’s “The Statement of Randolph Carter” and available online and in the hardback version of “Crescendo!). Because of his faith and belief in a form of decency, Kirkgordon struggles with Austerley’s outlook and actions, whilst also feeling compelled to protect him. This allows me to write some of the most fun dialogue as they nip and pick at each other and also give some outright abuse. The novels have many connections to myths or worlds both created and from our human past and present. In “Crescendo!” Lovecraft’s mythos is used extensively but there is also some Russian mythology. And sometimes I just throw in some of my own, after all I need to let my mind go nuts too sometimes. But the novels are also about action and adventure. I aim to provide an entertaining rollercoaster of Austerley and Kirkgordon being put through the mill with good connections to ideas and fantasies known and unknown.

Booksquawk: Austerley and Kirkgordon are a great double-act. Did you take your inspiration any buddy-cop / unlikely partnership movies?

G R Jordan: I don’t remember ever thinking about a particular partnership but I have watched / read about a lot of partnerships and seeing the dynamics. If you are going to base your books around a duo you need to make sure that there is plenty of internal conflict. With Austerley and Kirkgordon I write mainly from Kirkgordon’s viewpoint because Austerley has to remain a curiosity. Kirkgordon’s family troubles, job dissatisfaction and trouble with strange people I think we can all understand. But Austerley is something else. Discovering and understanding Austerley is a key component to the stories.

Booksquawk: “Crescendo” moves at quite a frenetic pace. Do you have any good tips for authors struggling with pacing in their stories?

G R Jordan: Pacing really depends on what you are trying to do and is greatly affected by how you write. What is it you want to have your reader do? In the A & K world, Kirkgordon is always out of his depth, bemused by all this weirdness. As it’s written from his point of view then my readers need to feel that. And so I gallop along hoping that it will all make sense at some point.

If that’s what you want your readers to feel then write like that. i.e. I actually didn’t have any plot when I started. I knew some Lovecraftian mythology, had the idea we would end up on a Scottish island and had a really good understanding of my two main characters. But until I had gotten to writing chapter two I had no idea we were off to Russia, or where in Russia. Similarly Calandra who appears in Russia suddenly developed into a major character. The fun and games begins when you need to hold the whole novel in your head as you get to end and have to pull everything together.

So to sum up, write to what your characters are doing. Are they panicked and confused, then write and plan that way. Do they indulge slowly and take everything in, then put in the extra description and nuances.

Booksquawk: “Crescendo” exists in the same universe as the stories of H.P. Lovecraft. What are your favourite Lovecraftian works?

G R Jordan: I love the “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” unsurprisingly. The whole decrepit feel is amazing and the sense of horror without ever being gory or sick. For me it’s Lovecraft’s best.

“Pickman’s Model” is another favourite, as it has the best kicker I have ever read at the end. Lovecraft’s genius was the punch to the mind at the end of a story. You sit back for just a second and then the actual horror hits you as you put the pieces together.

I have plenty of other favourites but I think “The Horror at Martin’s Beach” is a prime example of the mindless horror that Lovecraft could write which was I think the most terrifying. People for no good reason grab a rope and try to haul in a “something” in the water but get pulled in, hypnotically hanging on until they are dragged to the depths below. No reason given, no explanation. Sometimes when writing we try to explain everything but Lovecraft teaches us that our own minds can dream up far worse things than are ever put to paper.

Booksquawk: Did you find it a challenge to write in someone else’s fictional world?

G R Jordan: Not really. I’m never bound by that world. You need to step yourself in it but always remember it’s your story. I try to build on what went on before rather than go back into it. As A & K is set some time after Lovecraft’s writings, I get to play about with things a lot easier. And if any mythos is not fully explained you can fill in the gaps!

Booksquawk: Although set in the same world as Lovecraft’s works, “Crescendo” is a different sort of novel. I found it leaned more towards the action-adventure than traditional cosmic horror. Was this intentional?

G R Jordan: Totally. It is more Indiana Jones than Lovecraft and like Indiana Jones delves into mythology. One of the main points about the Indiana Jones films (which are fantastic!) is that while they do bring in archaeology and mythology, it is basically a romp and you hold onto your hat while you do it. That’s the sort of adventure I love but I also love mythology and history. Hence to combine them together feels very natural. I am following the age old advice for a writer – write the book you want to read!

Booksquawk: What next for Austerley and Kirkgordon?

G R Jordan: We’re off to the English seaside to a place called Dillingham. Having globetrotted, I decided to challenge myself to remaining in an obscure place and staying there. But there’s still plenty of trouble and some new characters. This time there’s a witch, some ghostly pirates and conglomerated creatures – but scariest of all, a girl becoming a teenager. Dillingham further develops our characters and starts looking at how “off-piste” they will go, Austerley with the Dark arts and Kirkgordon with women. But there’s plenty of adventure, DIY shopping, someone madder than Austerley and a cauldron pouring out revenge and forgiveness. There’s also a third adventure in the pipeline where our twosome go to another world with the stakes at their highest yet for Kirkgordon. All three books come together as a trilogy and will set the guys up for something totally new thereafter.

Booksquawk: A bit of fun - let’s imagine for a second that the movie rights to “Crescendo” are bought by a high-profile Hollywood studio. Who would be your first choices to play Austerley and Kirkgordon, and who would you want to direct?

G R Jordan: I was actually asked by my artist Jake Clarke to tell him who Kirkgordon looked like and I told him, Mark Strong as he has that brooding presence but can also give the action run around a good go. He also seems to play the vulnerable character well as his run in “A View From A Bridge” recently showed.

Austerley is much harder to cast. John Candy playing it really dark would have been good or maybe Robbie Coltrane. If the booming voice went a bit more evil then Brian Blessed might be an option. But really I think Austerley would be better with an unknown actor.

To direct I would have to go with Spielberg as he is a pure genius. I saw Tintin and was blown away by how he got the film to really be an extension of the comic books. By letting someone produce a film of the book I would get quite nervous (although the money would be good!) as my baby would be being dressed by someone else. But I think Spielberg could do it well and faithfully while making it a great movie.

Read the review of Crescendo! here.