We Call Upon The Author To Explain (3)

Well, that was an interesting morning.

I’m pretty impressed with my new publisher. Thanks to the sterling efforts of Troubador’s Marketing Controller, Emily Castledine, she is managing to drum up some media interest for my new book, Fifty Scams and Hoaxes.

Following a Press Release, the Daily Mail and the Big Issue Ireland have asked for review copies. I must remember not to say “Bless you” when I pass one of the Issue sellers in future. But the piece de resistance, to date, was a request from BBC Surrey to attend their studios in Guildford for an interview to be featured on a forthcoming edition of their Breakfast Show.

After a nanosecond’s deliberation I agreed and arrangements were set for me to turn up at in good time this morning for a 10.15 pre-recorded interview. No stretch limo for me – I got there through a combination of the ever-reliable Shanks’s pony and the not so trustworthy South Western Railways.

I was parked in the green room – now, there’s a curious question; why is it so called? Oops, wrong book! – or what passed for it. It was actually a couple of red sofas in the corner of the general office which looked a bit like an aircraft hangar.

I was given a cup of coffee whilst my interviewer, co-host of the Breakfast show, Lesley McCabe, read the ten o’clock news. This gave me time to compose myself and to re-read the helpful interview preparation notes available on Troubador’s website.

It is too easy to over psych yourself up on occasions like these. It was time for a few deep breaths and to remember a piece of sage advice given to me many moons ago by a boss, that I would know far more about my chosen subject than anyone else present so what was there to worry about? And if you don’t know why you wrote the book and what it is about, perhaps you shouldn’t be addressing the great British public.

World and local affairs safely put to bed, Ms McCabe came out, greeted me and ushered me into a room. Her friendly style quickly put me at ease and after a sound level check, the tapes, or whatever their digital equivalents are, started rolling. Surprisingly, I was very comfortable behind the microphone and all my anxieties and fears of the previous twenty-four hours disappeared as I talked about the virtues of my book. It was all wrapped up in one take. The interview file was saved and that was it. Job done!

Of course, the proof of the interview is in the hearing but it didn’t feel like a car crash, Diane Abbott stylee.

I will post details of the interview if/when it sees the light of day. And on the way out I received news that TalkRADIO had booked me for next Tuesday afternoon, live this time.

Who said video killed the radio star?

For more details about Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone, visit https://www.troubador.co.uk/bookshop/business/fifty-scams-and-hoaxes/ or https://wp.me/P2EWYd-37w

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Book Corner – October 2018 (2)

Sister Carrie – Theodore Dreiser

I’m a great fan of these collections of the world’s greatest books that you can find to feed your Kindle for less than a pound. One that took my fancy was the grandiloquently titled One Hundred Eternal Masterpieces of Literature, although you actually need to buy both volumes to get the ton. As well as the usual suspects – I find it comforting to know that if I’m knocked down in the street, at least those who scoop me up will be impressed to see what I’m reading – the contents of your Kindle are the modern day clean pair of underpants, I feel – you can come across something that you might not otherwise have bothered with. Dreiser’s Sister Carrie falls into that category.

Published in 1900 by, according to Dreiser’s biographer, “a publisher who detested both the book and the author”, it met with mixed critical reaction and was condemned for its immorality and philosophy of despair. Others saw it is as the dawning of 20th century American literature, hailed by H L Mencken as capturing “the gross, glittering, excessively dynamic, infinitely grotesque, incredibly stupendous drama of American life.”

I found it a strangely compelling read, even though I found the main characters hard to empathise with and Dreiser’s prose unpolished and clunky, betraying his journalistic past. Perhaps Saul Bellow was right that it should be read at a gallop. But if you stick with it, you get a very powerful, closely observed picture of life in the booming Chicago of the late 1880s and early 1890s. This is not a story set in the refined salons inhabited by the upper classes a la Henry James. This is life in the raw and Dreiser paints a vivid picture of the drudgery, grind, hand to mouth existence that many who were chasing the American Dream had to endure.

Dreiser’s world vision is that essentially life is a Manichean struggle, leaving no room for any shade of grey. That this is the case is made pretty clear on the opening page; “When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse.”

The story tells of the rise of Carrie Meeber, the eighteen year old who leaves home to find her fortune, falls into the clutches of George Hurstwood, escapes and then makes her name as a theatrical star. But for all her riches, she is unfulfilled, her eyes having been opened to greater things by the slightly other worldly Mr Ames who told her that “riches were not everything; that there was great deal more in the world than she knew.

The counterweight to Carrie’s (eventual) rise is George Hurstwood’s decline into abject poverty and despair. I found his story much more compelling than Carrie’s and Deiser’s narrative shows the momentum of decline once poverty has you in its clutches. It was ever thus and will continue to be so. Deiser spares no details as he paints his picture of the desperation to find something to eat and somewhere to lay your head, an even more galling experience for someone who had previously been so proud and relatively well-off as George. His suicide is a merciful release.

Deiser’s rather priggish interjections can be a bit tiresome and his protagonists are not nuanced characters. But their rather black and white characteristics fit in with the tale he wants to tell and Deiser delivered what many consider to be America’s first naturalistic novel.

I’m glad I found it.

Book Corner – October 2018 (1)

Blood on the Tracks – edited by Martin Edwards

They keep on coming, and why not? For the aficionado of crime fiction, especially one with a taste for veering off the beaten track and discovering writers that time has forgotten, these British Library Crime Classics, edited by the excellent Martin Edwards, are too good to miss.

There is something attractive to the crime writer about the railways. Up to and during the so-called Golden Age of crime writing, the railways were the principal form of transportation. You were never sure who you were going to share a compartment with and the layout of the carriages offered the writer unmissable opportunities to construct a closed room style mystery. A comprehensive knowledge of the train timetable allowed a felon the opportunity to lay his victim on the track with the minimum time for them to be discovered before the wheels of the locomotive go over them. All these elements and more are to be found in this anthology

The collection starts off with an Arthur Conan Doyle story, The Man with the Watches. It doesn’t feature Sherlock Holmes – he appears in a Doylian parody, The Adventures of the First Class Carriage by Ronald Knox – but is a thoroughly enjoyable tale to open up with a clever plot and an intriguing solution.

The anthology then builds up a head of steam with the L T Meade and Robert Eustace’s Mystery of Felwyn Tunnel which centres on the mysterious deaths of signalmen on a Welsh line. It is an entertaining read and the solution is ingenious. I particularly enjoyed Matthias McDonnell Bodkin’s How He Cut His Stick which features a female ‘tec, Dora Myrl, who solves the mystery of how a strapping bank clerk was relieved of £5,000 on a moving train. The underground is the scene of a dastardly crime in the next story, The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway by Baroness Orczy, and it is perhaps the pick of the crop.

Honourable mentions should also go to the Victor Whitchurch’s Affair of the Corridor Express in which a schoolboy is kidnapped from under the nose of his schoolteacher chaperone and R Austin Freeman’s The Case of Oscar Brodski – I am warming to him – which is an interesting and early example of an inverted crime story, where we see how the crime was committed (and by whom) in the first part and then see how the investigators, inevitably Dr Thorndyke and his trusty companion, Jervis, uncover the truth of what went on.

It is at this point that our journey through the anthology starts to slow down and almost hit the buffers. There is Ernest Bramah’s The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem in which his blind ‘tec, Max Carrados, solves a case of gross negligence, but many of the later stories have only a passing association with either the railway or crime or both. Roy Vickers’ The Eighth Lamp is more of a tale of the supernatural, the delightful The Man with no Face by Dorothy L Sayers features Lord Peter Wimsey but has very little to do with railways and F Tennyson Jesse’s The Railway Carriage, whilst set in a railway carriage, barely touches the subject of crime. The only relevance of Michael Gilbert’s The Coulman Handicap has to the framing idea of the anthology is that the characters are travelling on an underground train.

That said, there are some gems to be found in the rear carriages of the book, notably Sapper’s Mystery of the Slip-Coach – a broken egg holds the key to the mystery – and Freeman Willis Croft’s clever tale of the perils of changing your plans and losing your nerve, The Level Crossing.

As always, there is something for everyone here and as a collection it is one to savour either on a sun lounger or curled up in front of the fire.

Book Corner – September 2018 (4)

A Room with a View – E.M Forster

Forster’s A Room with a View is a wonderful book and I enjoyed it even more second time round than I did forty years ago. Published in 1908 it was his third novel. Set in Italy and England it can be read as a conventional love story – should Lucy Honeychurch follow her heart, if only she really knew what it was, or hitch herself to a boring, conventional chap? – but it is also a delightfully withering attack on the mores of Edwardian society.

This book can be seen as a coming of age story and one that highlights the transformation of women’s role in society. The forward behaviour of the lower class George Emerson in Florence – good God, the bounder only went to kiss her – throws her into confusion, a direct assault on her rather prudish, Victorian set of values. Almost on the rebound, she attaches herself to the conventional ie boring and controlling Cecil Vyse. As the second part of the book progresses, Lucy’s mind is in turmoil. Has she done the right thing? The efforts of her chaperone, Charlotte Bartlett, and Emerson’s father persuade her otherwise and a disastrous liaison is terminated.

Surely one of the key passages is this from Chapter 16; “This desire to govern a woman – it lies very deep, and men and women must fight it together… But I do love you surely in a better way than he does.” He [George Emerson] thought. “Yes – really in a better way. I want you to have your own thoughts even when I hold you in your arms.” It highlights the change in the way that men, at least some, were beginning to see women and is in stark contrast to the conventional Vysian approach. Reading it today many women may blanche at the rider but at the time it was a real step forward.

Not for nothing is the book called A Room with a View. On arriving in Florence and at the Pension Bertolini run by an eccentric cockney landlady, Lucy and Charlotte bemoan the fact that they have been allocated rooms without the promised view of the River Arno. To stop their “peevish wranglings” Emerson senior offers to swap rooms. This provokes a bout of debate about the propriety of accepting the offer – I would have withdrawn it straightaway – but the two females eventually accept and get their rooms with a view.

Perhaps the only passage where Cecil Vyse shows a scintilla of self-awareness also features a room, albeit a figurative one; “When I think of you it’s always as in a room. How funny!” To her surprise, he seemed annoyed. “A drawing-room, pray? With no view?” “Yes, with no view, I fancy. Why not?”  Just as a room without a view of the Arno was unacceptable to Lucy in Florence, so, we are meant to assume, a chap who is likened to a room without a view is not the right one for her.

The book has some glorious moments of comedy. Forster skewers the social mores of the middle classes and the ignorant British tourist abroad whose aesthetics are dictated by the pages of their Baedeker guides. Lucy buys a postcard of the Birth of Venus but thinks that the naked Venus rather spoils the picture.

And some of the minor characters are wonderful – the ostentatious novelist, Miss Lavish, the jettisoned copy of whose story of her time in Italy opens up a whole can of worms, the chaplain, Mr Eager who is rude to Italians and the Miss Alans, the progenitors of the current crop of grey-haired world travellers.

The dialogue is crisp and sharp, the descriptions are acute and the book progresses at pace. It is no wonder that this book is regarded as one of the finest in English literature.

Book Corner – September 2018 (3)

Lock No 1 – Georges Simenon

It is bewildering to keep up with Simenon. He wrote 76 novels featuring his French sleuth over a period running from 1931 to 1972. This is the eighteenth issued by Penguin as part of their excellent series of new translations, but it was published originally in 1933. At least Penguin have reverted to a title that directly translates the French original – it has appeared in English under other names such as The Lock at Charenton and Maigret Sits it Out.

One of the strange things about the book, which, frankly, is not one of Simenon’s best, is that Maigret is retiring in a few days’ time. This gives the tale what dramatic tension it has, as both Maigret and the malefactor know that the clock is ticking.

The action is set in the south-eastern suburb of Paris, Charenton, where one man is stabbed and left to drown and three others are hung. The key to the gruesome chapter of events and the one fascinating character in the story is Ducrau, the wealthy owner of most of the local industry and transportation. He is an obnoxious character, who goes out of his way to be obnoxious to his employees, his neighbours and his family.

Although it does not take great detective powers to work out that Ducrau is the key to what has gone on, Maigret plays a canny, waiting game, getting close to the man, even receiving a post-retirement offer of employment from him. Maigret, though, is wearing him down until he cracks.

The highlights of the book are Simenon’s evocative and atmospheric descriptions of the waterfront and a fine psychological sketch of a rich man who has it all but is bored. The climax of the book is surprising, although it sort of fits the picture of Ducrau that Simenon was painstakingly building up.

 

Maigret – Georges Simenon

The 19th in the series, published originally in 1934, has also appeared in English under the title, Maigret Returns. It also sees Simenon return to form.

By now Maigret is enjoying retirement in the Loire but he is summoned by his sister-in-law to try to extricate his nephew, Philippe Lauer, from a charge of murdering a night-club owner, Pepito Palestrino. Maigret is on a sticky wicket as he had found his naïve and clod-hopping nephew a job in the police and has no official authority. He also rubs up against the jealousy of his successor, Chief Inspector Amadieu. But Maigret does command some loyalty, not least from his faithful and diligent former assistant, Sergeant Lucas.

With these ingredients, Simenon constructs a rip-roaring story, full of suspense and action. Maigret is portrayed as almost a comic character, unable to dictate events and powerless to follow his intuition directly. Instead, he does what he does best, observe and drawing on his vast database of human characteristics and foibles, is eventually able to get to the bottom of what is a gangland dust-up straight out of central casting and exonerate his nephew. He even gets to earn the grudging respect of Amadieu.

This is definitely a book that Maigret aficionados will enjoy and is also a good entry point, albeit a slightly bizarre one given that the detective’s career is seemingly over, for those keen to find out what the fuss is all about.

Book Corner – September 2018 (2)

Brolliology – Marion Rankine

Perhaps because I attempt to write them myself, I have a penchant for off-beat, wacky works of non-fiction and Marion Rankine’s paean to the culture of the umbrella must be right up there amongst the wackiest.

I have never had much of an attachment to the umbrella or, perhaps, it is the other way round. Our acquaintance, sadly brief, comes to an end when I absent-mindedly leave it on a train or forget to pick it up from the restaurant rack. I am not alone – some 35,000 sit in London Transport’s Lost Property Office at any one time. And one of the eeriest and heart-rending parts of Rankine’s book are the photos of discarded, mangled, and broken umbrellas she found while wandering around the streets of London.

Brolliology gives the factoid-junkie their fix. As you breeze through the book you learn that bits of an umbrella were found in a Chinese tomb dating to 25 BCE and that the kasa-obake, in Japanese folklore, were evil, sentient umbrellas. Robinson Crusoe’s one luxury item on his desert island was an umbrella – it was the first thing he made. And that illustrates the dual purpose of the brolly. Whilst in temperate climes we use it to protect ourselves from the rain, in the tropics it is used as a protection against the rays of the sun. The parasol was a symbol of power and prestige in ancient times and the sense of providing shade is retained in the English term from it. The French, perversely, use a term, parapluie, which fixes its use firmly in the wet, dank climes of western Europe.

There is a transient quality about the brolly. Because so many are identical, they are easily swapped inadvertently or by mistake. It was an umbrella, “appalling…all gone at the seams”, that was taken at the Beethoven concert in E M Forster’s Howard’s End which sends Leonard Bast’s life spiralling into tragedy. And a transformative quality. It can be used as a weapon or a source of support or, if you are Mary Poppins, it can be used to transport you up into the skies. P L Travers’ conceit was rooted in fact – in 1779 Joseph-Michel Montgolfier put a sheep in a basket attached to an umbrella-shaped canopy, pushed it off a tower and saw it glide gracefully to the ground.

One of the earliest records of the use of a brolly as a guard against the British rain is Jonathan Swift’s Description of a City Shower, published in 1710. Early British umbrellas were unsatisfactory, leaky and used almost exclusively by the fairer sex. A celebrated wielder of the brolly was Charles Dickens’ wonderful creation, Mrs Gamp. So associated with the Dickensian character was the brolly that they were known in popular idiom as gamps. It was only when the brollies became cheaper and more effective that they were used by chaps – early adopters had to run the gauntlet of the jeering mobs – but in its furled state it soon became an obligatory accessory, along with the bowler, of the well-dressed city chap.

Rankine draws extensively – too extensively for my taste in what smacks as a form of padding – from literature to illustrate her points and is in danger of straying into Pseuds Corner with some of her observations on the social, psychological and cultural significance of this everyday item.

That said, it is an easy read and can be polished off during an extended break for rain at Lords. There is enough to satisfy even the most exacting of reader and when you have done with it, you can put it on your head as protection against the elements!

Book Corner – September 2018 (1)

East of Eden – John Steinbeck

Published in 1952, this was the book that Steinbeck was building up through his career to write, or so he claimed. He wanted to describe the rich farmland country that is California’s Salinas Valley for his two sons, to whom the book is dedicated, and the most empathetic character, the Irish dreamer and fount of knowledge, Samuel Hamilton, is based on his maternal grandfather. The narrator of the story, as we slowly start to realise as the novel progresses, is the youthful author himself.

It is a sprawling novel, brutally realistic at times but with moments of comedy, illuminated by Steinbeck’s taut writing style. Taking its title from Genesis 4.16 – and Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the Land of Nod, on the east of Eden – on one level it explores how the intertwined destinies of the Trasks and the Hamiltons mirror those of Cain and Abel.

The book is littered with biblical allusions. The names of all the major protagonists begin with either a C or an A – Charles and Adam, Caleb and Aron, Cathy Ames and Abra. Cain was a “worker of the ground” and Charles is a farmer and Caleb makes a small fortune by speculating in bean crops. Abel is a “keeper of sheep” whilst Aron trains to be a shepherd of human flocks by training to be a priest. God rejected Cain’s gift, leading him to kill Abel. Cyrus rejects Charles’ gift, provoking his son to launch a near-murderous attack on his brother Adam, while a generation later Adam rejects Cal’s gift of money as tainted from exploiting people’s needs and urges him to follow Aron’s example. Following his rejection, Caleb reveals to Aron that their mother is a prostitute, a revelation which unhinges Aron who then goes off to fight in the First World War and is killed.

There are many more parallels but it would be wrong to see the book purely as a re-run of the Cain and Abel in an American setting. It is about rejection and whether we can be really certain that someone loves us, even someone we think is close to us. It also explores an idea that has fascinated many a writer from the time of the great Athenian tragedians onwards – whether humans have free will to make their own decisions and take their own course of action.

Perhaps Steinbeck sums the philosophy, or perhaps theosophy, that runs through the book in this paragraph; “I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. .” The key to understanding the book is the Hebrew word, timshel, which means thou mayest. After the murder of Abel, God speculates whether Cain will overcome sin. The word he uses is timshel, mistranslated in the King James version of the Bible and other subsequent editions as thou shall. In Steinbeck’s world, man has the ability to choose a path between good and evil. His ability to overcome evil is not pre-ordained.

Literature is full of femme fatales and Cathy Ames, the mother of Caleb and Aron, is right up there as one of the worst monsters. Indeed, she is described as a monster when Steinbeck introduces her and her malevolent influence shapes the saga. The most fascinating character, I thought, was the Chinese servant, Lee, whose diligent researches unlocked the key to timshel and who, with Samuel Hamilton, knocks some sense into Adam Trask.

Despite its somewhat heavy subject matter, it is a fast and entertaining read. Thought-provoking and entertaining is a powerful combination.