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Category Archives: Books

Book Corner – February 2018 (2)

The Darkening Age – Catherine Nixey

History, they say, is written by the victors but there is a growing trend in modern historiography to explore events from the side of the losers or those whose views were never represented – women, the working classes, the poor etc. Nixey’s mission, in this stimulating and controversial book, is to explain just how the Christian religion and culture destroyed and almost obliterated the Greco-Roman culture. As a student of the Classics and an agnostic, intuitively I was on her side.

The book has a modern relevancy as Westerners wring their hands and decry the destruction of ancient sites by fanatical Moslems. But here in England we have had our own round of religious-inspired destruction when Henry VIII’s acolytes took their axes and hammers to the abbeys and monasteries which were the bastions of Roman Catholicism. All this, if Nixey’s account is to be believed, was knocked into a cocked hat by the systematic and mindless iconoclasm of the early Christians who set about crudely to damage and destroy the many statues of and temples built in honour of the old gods.

The Christians were concerned by the ability of the demons of the old gods to pollute them and cause them to deviate from the true path, worshipping their one and only God. Decapitating statues, gouging eyes, knocking off body parts, hacking at stone pediments was, to them, a cathartic process. They were particularly concerned about the demonic qualities of the smoke and stench of sacrifices to taint their souls. Perhaps there is an innate Christian spirit in me which comes to the surface from time to time when someone suggests a barbie.

Roman religion was polytheistic which was quite handy because it allowed the assimilation of new gods and those who had served their purpose to be quietly dropped. Christianity, however, was decidedly monotheistic and had no truck with any namby-pamby ideas of co-existing with or being assimilated into a polytheistic society. Although it is hard to conceive of Roman society as being in any way liberal, perhaps the modern take on this story is that when a determined group of religious fanatics take on a more easy-going society, there is only going to be one winner.

And the Christians were an odd lot, scorned by the Romans for being uncouth, illiterate and unclean. Extreme Christians delighted in the ascetic aspects of their religion, not washing for fear that the sight of their naked flesh would overcome them with lust, wearing uncomfortable clothing – hair shirts were the least of the strange apparel chosen to mortify their sinful flesh – and putting themselves through unimaginable physical trials to demonstrate their holiness.

Christianity, after all, is essentially a masochistic religion and, perhaps, the desire to torment yourself was a perverse reaction to the end of imperial persecution. Nixey, I think, underplays the degree of persecution that the early Christians underwent – there were certainly waves of imperially-sponsored persecutions – and she paints tragi-comedic scenes of Christians queuing up, begging to be martyred, the golden ticket to paradise. Perhaps it is necessary to do this to counter her accounts of the systematic destruction of the old culture and ways. In both aspects I think she is a little fly with the evidence and asserts things which are probably more suppositions than hard facts.

That said, the Christian persecution of the pagans, as they became known, did occur. From 330CE temples were destroyed, Athena’s head was decapitated in the sack of the temple in Palmyra in 385, the magnificent temple of Seraphis was destroyed in 392. The list goes on. And then there was the attacks on the intellectual communities including the murder of the mathematician, Hypatia, in 415 and the closure of Plato’s Academy in 529. Worse still was the destruction, deliberately or through neglect of most of the Classical canon. It is a miracle, and I use the word deliberately, that as much has survived as it has.

Nixey’s book sheds light on a rarely told tale of the consequences of the so-called triumph of Christianity. My only quibble is that her narrative is not as certain as she makes out.

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Book Corner – February 2018 (1)

Capital Crimes – London Mysteries – edited by Martin Edwards

Perhaps Sherlock Holmes was right after all. In The Adventure of the Copper Beeches Conan Doyle’s greatest fictional creation avers that “the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” The reason – “The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard’s blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.” It may be that this is why I found Edwards’ collection of stories from the 1890s to 1940s centred on London less satisfying that its countryside companion.

As someone who commuted regularly on the London underground, John Oxenham’s A Mystery of the Underground struck a contemporary and disturbing chord. It tells of a stalker who terrorises the District line using made up newspaper stories. So disturbing was the story when it was first published that passenger numbers on the line slumped in 1897. The book opens with a Conan Doyle story but one that doesn’t feature the famous resident of 221b Baker Street. The Case of Lady Sannox is a macabre story of revenge in which an arrogant surgeon undertakes one last procedure before a secret assignation with his paramour. The story ends with a horrific twist.

H C Bailey’s The Little House also has a modern twist. The detective, Reggie Fortune, is called upon to investigate what seems to be a simple case of a missing kitten but leads to him unearthing a disturbing case of child cruelty. The Tea Leaf by Robert Eustace and Edgar Jepson is a classic example of a locked room mystery. Two men enter a Turkish bath, argue loudly but only one leaves alive. The case centres on how the murder was committed and the solution is intriguing, if not ingenious.

But for every good story, there is one that defies belief. The Finchley Puzzle by Richard Marsh features an amateur sleuth, Judith Lee, who can lip read. This ability has earned her the enmity of London’s criminal fraternity and they try to do away with her using a box of poisoned chocolates. And poisoned confectionary features in Anthony Berkeley’s The Avenging Chance. R Austin Freeman’s Magic Casket taps into the threat of the yellow peril as Japanese criminals harass an elderly woman while J S Fletcher’s The Magician of Cannon Street is just plain daft.

Still, in a collection of 17 stories which tries to represent fairly the diversity of crime writing using the metropolis as its focal point, there is enough good material to keep the reader pleasantly entertained. I particularly enjoyed Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins upon which Alfred Hitchcock based his film, The Lady Vanishes, and The Hands of Mr Ottermole by Thomas Burke which builds up to a shocking finale.

It is well worth a read but follow Sherlock’s advice – seek out the countryside first.

Book Corner – January 2018 (3)

The Diary of a Provincial Lady – E M Delafield

It is interesting to reflect upon how you got to a particular book. This is not a book I would ordinarily have selected, despite being a fan of humorous writing. I had come across Delafield – her maiden name was de la Pasture and knowing this gives a clue to the gentle, subtle humour that the reader has in store – in a couple of collections of detective fiction. Her short stories were among the better ones in the collections and I was encouraged by the potted bio to seek out her best known work, The Diary of Provincial Lady.  Et voila.

The Penguin Modern Classics edition contains four of the five Provincial books – they are all short, barely over 120 pages each and each can be read over an evening or two – omitting the last one in which the heroine visits Russia. There is a debate, too boring to repeat, as to whether it properly belongs to the series. I will restrict my comments to the first of the series which is the better known one of the five and first appeared in 1930, initially as weekly instalments in the magazine, Time and Tide.

The heroine, the anonymous Provincial Lady (PL), lives in Devon with a taciturn and somewhat chauvinist husband, Robert, two children, Robin and Victoria, a French governess, a cook and a servant. Recruiting and maintaining staff is a theme running through the book. As the title suggests, the book takes the form of a diary in which PL breathlessly and concisely records the minutiae of her day. Life is a trial, forever having to navigate through life’s minor crises whilst at the same time struggling to keep up external appearances with the bank and various tradesmen breathing down her neck. Her great aunt’s diamond ring goes in and out of the pawn shop with depressing regularity. As PL writes, “Feel that life is wholly unendurable, and decide madly to get a new hat.

Delafield’s prose consists of pithy, simple, unpretentious sentences which glide from the page – the occasional asides and rhetorical questions about her life are wonderful. But there is something deeper and more subtle at work. She has a wonderful ear for dialogue and an eye for the rhythms and petty feuds and jealousies of English rural life. It has a very satirical edge to it, not as overblown or camp as E F Benson’s Mapp and Lucia, but very knowing and indicative of a keen observer of life. But whilst the pomposities of village life are being sent up, there is no hint of malice and the reader departs uplifted and at peace with the world.

There are some wonderful characters. Lady Boxe drives around the village in her Bentley and makes PL feel socially inferior. PL’s friend, Rose, offers her a route to escape to London but once there, there a whole new set of social codes and conventions to observe and flout. The children say the most outrageous and inopportune things, often puncturing the impression PL is trying to create. And then there are the bulbs. The book opens, in November 1929, with PL planting bulbs, only to be told by Lady Boxe, who nearly sits on them, that it is too late to plant them. In any case, the insensitive Lady B remarks, Dutch ones are best. PL responds by saying that she supports products from the Empire only for her retort to be ruined by her daughter asking whether they are the ones they got from Woolworth. Bulbs then become a running gag throughout the book.

And then there are some wonderful  aphorisms, one of my favourites being, “Am struck by paradoxical thought that youth is by no means the happiest time of life, but that most of the rest of life is tinged by regret for its passing, and wonder what old age will feel like, in this respect. (Shall no doubt discover very shortly.)”

A wonderful book which deserves to be rediscovered.

Book Corner – January 2018 (2)

The Dawn Watch – Maya Jasanoff

Where to start with Joseph Conrad? He is one of my favourite novelists and I have great admiration for the vigour of his writing style, something even more remarkable when you consider that English was his third language, learned when he was in his twenties. His writing career began when he responded to a competition in Tit-bits magazine.

Born in 1857 Conrad, or to give him his birth name Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, had a hell of a life. His parents and close family were involved in the Polish struggles for independence, his father was under surveillance and in Joseph’s formative years the family were sent east into exile. When he was orphaned as a teenager, he was assisted by his uncle to head west and realise his dream of going to sea. Settling in England – the British merchant navy was pre-eminent at the time – Conrad eventually became a captain but often had to settle for lower positions. His experiences included long passages on clipper ships to Australia, poodling around Singapore and its environs on a tramp steamer and enduring for a time a mind-bogglingly awful trip up the Congo at a time when the Belgians were raping and pillaging the country.

These experiences provided Conrad with enough source material to furnish his literary career. These days Conrad is under a bit of a cloud, thanks in part to a brutal critique of Conrad by Chinua Achebe in 1975 who called him a bloody racist and the Heart of Darkness the most despicable book. For those who seek it out Conrad is also guilty of reflecting the anti-semitic views of the time and with very few exceptions his books are about white males. Does this for the modern reader put him beyond the pale?

Jasanoff, in her magnificent melange of biography, literary criticism, history and travel writing, seeks to re-establish Conrad’s prominence in the literary world, by positioning him as a remarkably prescient author, grappling with the many of the issues that trouble us today – immigration, terrorism, amoral capitalism, imperial decline and rapid and disorientating technological change. Taking four of Conrad’s masterpieces to illustrate her central thesis, she points out how we have Russians interfering in the democratic processes of a state (The Secret Agent),an individual yearning for the gentler days of sail now superseded by steam (Lord Jim), the transience of empire through the realisation that the British Empire is soon to be replaced by American financial might (Nostromo) and that capitalism in its raw state can be more brutal than what it has supposed to have civilised (the Heart of Darkness).

She is surely right in viewing Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as an attack on the hypocrisy of the so-called civilising mission of capitalism, boiling it down to merely taking the earth and its resources “from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves”, a theme picked up in the characterisation of the grasping American capitalist, Mr Holroyd, in Nostromo. To see Conrad’s depiction of the horror of the Congo as purely racist entirely misses the point of where Conrad was coming from. And I have immense sympathy for the reading of The Secret Agent as much about human relationships with Winnie Verloc as the glue that binds the book together as a discussion of terrorism.

There is much to digest in a book which is written in an engaging style.

Let us hope that Jasanoff succeeds in rehabilitating Conrad’s reputation. He was very much admired by contemporary writers and very influential, particularly amongst writers who were experimenting with narrative techniques. His return to public favour is long overdue.

Book Corner – January 2018 (1)

Monty’s Double – Neil Sambrook

I should declare upfront that the author is a friend of mine. The thriller genre is not normally my cup of tea but I was intrigued enough to download a copy – the book is only available in Kindle format – and give it a go. On the whole I enjoyed it.

The protagonist is Montgomery Bossitor, the Monty of the book’s title. In many ways he is a likeable rogue. He was a county cricketer for Surrey in the late 1920s and 30s, played rugby, enjoys a drink or three and moves in exalted circles. He is haunted by the tragic death of his step-brother and his failure to marry Ettie, the sister of his best pal, Hubert Fotheringham. The story is set in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War where Bossitor, working for the Ministry of Supply, is sent to Germany to compile lists of surplus military equipment for eventual disposal.

Our hero is introduced by the slippery Captain Denby to the opportunity to make a few bob by consigning perfectly good equipment as scrap and flogging them off, raising some money for the Ministry but enabling interested parties, mainly South London gangs, to make a small fortune. The scam starts off with radio equipment but when Fotheringham gets involved, moves on to vehicles and moves up a gear in terms of revenue generated. Bossitor becomes a wealthy man but he is a man with a conscience, concerned that he is way out of his league and that sooner or later his collar will be felt.

There are some good set pieces in the book, not least the cricket match played in war-torn Berlin, using equipment that Bossitor has begged and borrowed from the Oval. Bossitor arrives at the crease following a heavy night out but rather like an early incarnation of Ian Botham cloudy vision and a sore head are no inhibitors to sterling feats of derring-do. There is a long section where Monty goes to America ostensibly to see his widowed sister-in-law, Rosie, but for the purposes of the plot sees him involved in a romantic dalliance with a beautiful, married woman, an affair that will have potentially catastrophic consequences for him.

The book does meander and amble along at its own pace but Sambrook does a good job in bringing all the pieces together in an exciting and page-turning climax.  But it does strike me as being overlong – the Amazon description says just over 1200 pages and my wrists wouldn’t have been strong enough to hold a physical copy – and could have benefited from some judicious pruning. There are also too many typos, missing words, grammatical errors and confusions with homophones and if I hadn’t been sufficiently engaged in the story, they may have been enough to dissuade me from moving on.

That said, the book has considerable strengths, not least the almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the era and the locations where the action takes place that Sambrook is able to share with the reader. You sense the gloom, drabness of the surroundings and can trace the movements of the characters in your imagination or, if you are so inclined, on a map. And as you would expect from a writer who cut his teeth as a sports journalist the sports scenes and the knowledge he imbues into them are second to none. There is also something of Anthony Powell in the story as the same characters flit in and out of the narrative but in different roles and guises as the story unfolds.

The denouement leaves enough loose-ends to ensure that Sambrook has enough material to make a riveting sequel, which I’m sure will follow. I just hope it’s not too long.

Book Corner – December 2017 (2)

Murder at the Manor – Martin Edwards

This is another one of those wonderful collections of stories put together by the inestimable Martin Edwards, displaying his encyclopaedic knowledge of crime fiction. A staple of the genre, the country house is the scene of many a murder most foul, not all of them committed by the butler. There is one crime in the collection where it was the butler whatdunit. So dangerous was staying at a residence in the country in the period between the two World Wars, at least in the fevered minds of the crime writer, that it is a wonder anyone took the chance. The game, Cluedo, cashed in on the popularity and prurient interest of murder amongst the gentry.

Of course it is all a bit clichéd now and perhaps was so even in its heyday, if the funniest and most curious story in the collection, E V Knox’s The Murder at the Towers, is anything to go by. It starts off with a wonderful opening line; “Mr. Ponderby-Wilkins was a man so rich, so ugly, so cross, and so old, that even the stupidest reader could not expect him to survive any longer than Chapter 1.” Of course, he doesn’t; he doesn’t even survive the end of the second paragraph. He is found hanging from a tree, suspended by a muffler. The remaining house guests decide to continue “playing tennis as reverently as possible” until the detective, the ludicrously named Bletherby Marge who is said to often be mistaken for a baboon, arrives. It is a marvellous piece of whimsy.

Humour percolates through Anthony Berkeley’s psychological tale, the Mystery of Horne’s Copse, which pivots on an attempt to question the protagonist’s sanity. Sherlock Holmes makes an appearance in the book’s opener, The Copper Beeches, with which many will be familiar with but it is still worthy of a reprise. Only Holmes can work out why a servant girl has been hired to wear a certain blue dress at certain times and have her long tresses shorn off. I had never read anything by Ethel Lina White but her An Unlocked Window sustains and cranks up the suspense and ends with a rather clever twist.

The combination of cricket and a crime is never likely to disappoint me and E V Hornung’s Gentlemen and Players, featuring the gentleman thief, Raffles, hits all the spots for me. The contribution of H C McNeile aka Sapper is an intriguing and somewhat far-fetched and ultimately horrific tale, The Horror at Staveley Grange, in which two apparently healthy men die of heart failure.  The obligatory Chesterton story is not from the Father Brown canon. In The White Pillars Mystery the two trainee detectives are taught the difference between listening and hearing.

In short, there is something for everyone. There are some stories which are not quite as good as the others and you can see why some of the writers languish in obscurity while others are read and enjoyed avidly to this day. But it does you good to extend your reach beyond the safe and tried and tested and the good thing about an anthology like this is even if an author strains your feelings of bonhomie, you can move on to the next one and vow never to let your eye pass over another word they wrote.

Book Corner – December 2017 (1)

A House for Mr Biswas – V S Naipaul

The tragedies of Sophocles explore the conundrum of whether man has free will or whether their destiny is pre-determined by the gods or fate, if you will. Even where characters seemingly make their own choices, exercising free will, their very choices merely serve to bring about the will of the gods. It struck me as I was reading Naipaul’s fourth novel, published in 1961 and set amongst the Indian Hindu community of Trinidad, that there was something Sophoclean about the tragedy of Mohun Biswas.

On that the day he was born, the local Hindu pundit announced that Biswas will be something of a curse to his family and to himself. As we see as the story unfolds, this prophecy comes to pass time after time, sometimes with tragi-comic consequences and sometimes with devastating effects. Whatever Biswas seems to do, whether consciously or subconsciously, leads to the confirmation of the fate that the gods have ordained for him.

Through this tortuous journey through the vicissitudes of fate, what keeps Biswas going is his Thatcherite aspiration to own his own property, to be the king of his own domain. We know at the start of the book that he achieved his aim, albeit his enjoyment is somewhat marred by the large debt hanging around his neck and his untimely death. The book which runs on for nearly 600 pages tells the tale of how Biswas got to the position to realise his ambitions, modest as they may be.

The book is divided into a series of chapters, focusing on the houses in which Biswas lives at various stages of his life. They are all unsatisfactory, overcrowded, ill-maintained, full of bickering relatives and the decision to move to each of one is Biswas’ attempt to solve a problem. Each so-called solution to a problem turns out to be misguided, just compounding the problem. It is only at the end that he summons up the courage, to saddle his immediate family with enormous debt, that he can achieve his ambition, albeit fleetingly. Biswas overlooks the patent deficiencies of his house, happy to call it a home of his own.

Structurally, the book follows Biswas’ life but is episodic. The major set pieces describe a day or so of his life while other passages move the story on by years. Despite the despair and ill luck, the book has moments of high comedy and makes sharp observations on the way of life of Trinidadian Indians who feel they are a cut above the indigenous population. Many of the people who flit in and out of the narrative are roguish, untrustworthy, on the make. Biswas, one of life’s naïve characters, falls for their wiles, driven by his desire to improve his station in life.

It is hard to describe Biswas as a sympathetic character. He is selfish and argumentative and engages in subterfuge. Sometimes he wins, often he comes off second best. His principal antagonists are his mother-in-law, Mrs Tulsi, and her brother-in-law, Seth ,and life in the Tulsi household is a series of shifting, impermanent alliances and feuds. Biswas finds solace in the works of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus – the irony, of course, is that if he had adopted a more stoic frame of mind, then life would have been more bearable.

The other source of comfort is in possessions. Each move is accompanied by a detailed list of possessions Biswas can truly call his own and through the book it grows. Battered and ill-made they may be, but they are his. The book is a journey of someone who, despite all the setbacks, is trying to make his mark on the world. Very funny at times, with beautiful turns of phrase and many thought-provoking asides, tedious at others and a tad overlong, it is a tale worth persevering with.

Book Corner – November 2017 (3)

Miraculous Mysteries – edited by Martin Edwards

You must have read or seen something like this. A crime, invariably a murder most foul, is committed in circumstances which at first blush, and many subsequent ones, seems either impossible to have been committed or for the perpetrator to have got in and/or out. In the world of detective fiction these stories are known as locked-room mysteries – the classic scenario is when the victim is found knifed in the back or shot through the head in a room where all the doors and windows are locked from the inside (natch). The earliest example of the genre was Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

Drawing upon his encyclopaedic knowledge of detective fiction, Martin Edwards has produced an entertaining collection of sixteen stories that push the rather limited limits of the genre to the edge. Unusually in a collection like this, I hadn’t read any of the stories before, an added bonus to be sure. Some of the authors are familiar to the modern reader – there are stories by Conan Doyle and Dorothy L Sayers – but many are by writers I have come across for the first time. Some are superb whilst others, whilst retaining some interest, are more pedestrian, show their age or telegraph the denouement. The pleasure for the reader is doubled because it is not just a question of whodunit but working out how the dastardly deed was committed. I won’t spoil your enjoyment in this review.

To commit a locked-room crime requires ingenuity and resourcefulness on the part of the felon. But as Dr Tancred says in Too Clever By Half by G D H and Margaret Coles, if you do intend to murder, don’t make the mistake of trying to be too clever. There is always something you overlook, some little trace that ultimately gives you away.

The collection opens with a Conan Doyle story, always a smart move I think. The Lost Special isn’t a Sherlock Holmes story and it concerns itself with a train which disappears somewhere between Liverpool and London. The final story, The Villa Marie Celeste by Margery Allingham was published in 1960 and is the most recent story. It concerns the disappearance of a married couple who depart with just a pair of linen sheets. Although it is relatively modern, its central premise is how a win on the football pools can change people’s behaviour.

A personal favourite of mine is Christopher St John Sprigg’s Death at 8:30, a kind of rerun of Edgar Wallace’s Four Just Men. This time it is the Home Secretary who is threatened with death at a very specific time unless a ransom is paid. The unmasking of the felon, X K, involves some rather unsporting behaviour by the old bill which would certainly have involved a full and comprehensive enquiry by the authorities these days.

Harking back to the days when the cat’s whiskers were a novelty, Grenville Roberts’ The Broadcast Murder features a murder which is broadcast live on the radio, to the consternation of the listeners. I suppose it is something that could go wrong with a live broadcast and might pep up our rather lame programming if it made a reappearance every now and again, just to keep us on our toes. There is a Father Brown story, set in America, The Miracle of Moon Crescent, in which the cleric investigates a death seemingly caused by a curse and in Marten Cumberland’s The Diary of Death, Lilian Hope’s diary lists all the victims, people she hated, who are to meet their maker.

If you like detective fiction and want to spend a couple of evenings by the fire, puzzling over how the corpse met its fate, you cannot go wrong here.

Book Corner – November 2017 (2)

Hangover Square – Patrick Hamilton

It seems as though I have been to Hangover Square. Patrick Hamilton’s classic, published in 1941 but set in the summer of 1939 as hostilities are about to break out, is centred on a small part of London, Earls Court. You will search an A to Z – remember them? – in vain to find the square. After all, it is metaphorical, a grim description amongst topers of where they are heading after a day on the electric sauce. A hangover is the natural consequence of having one over the eight. As Hamilton notes how much better would it be if the hangover came before the pleasure of drink and, in a way, it does for the alcoholic as the hair of the dog soon beckons.

Hamilton’s tale is about alcohol and mental illness. The protagonist, George Harvey Bone, a gentle, fundamentally decent, simple soul, has what he calls “dead moods” where he is disengaged from the world around him. It is not clear but it seems that he is schizophrenic and to the modern reader Hamilton’s treatment of Bone’s condition is a little callous, if not hard-hearted. The story records Bone’s personal descent into an abyss of despair. He survives on a small personal income and the occasional win on the football pools – remember them? – that allows him to numb his pain and insecurities with drink.

The problem with an alcoholic who seems to have a ready supply of money and is a bit gullible is that he will soon attract a gang of ne’er-do-wells who will take advantage of his good nature. This is George’s fate and one of the crowd is a would-be actress and femme fatale, Netta Longdon. Bone is fixated with her but their affair is a one way street – Netta tolerates him only when he is useful to her, either as a provider of cash or as someone who can advance her career as an actress. Bone has a literal love-hate relationship with her and the overriding theme of the book is his determination to murder her.

The denouement comes as no surprise but, nonetheless, Hamilton’s genius is the way he keeps the tension and suspense going. His style is easy and descriptive and what we have here is a tale of a deeply unhappy and troubled man who has missed his way in life and become trapped with, seemingly, only one way out. Even when Bone breaks free – he takes an almost childish delight in shooting a 68 on the local golf course – the siren call of Netta lures him back on to the road to destruction.

But although the book is ostensibly about Bone, his nemesis, Netta is portrayed by Hamilton as a modern version of Becky Sharp and is one of the most vibrant, evil women in modern fiction. She knows what she wants and will do anything to get it. But in her own way she is as trapped as Bone. She is an actress of dubious ability with ideas above her station. It is only by becoming a Circe that she can make ends meet (just).

It is to Hamilton’s credit that these two flawed characters can elicit the sympathy of readers and some will argue that Netta’s tragedy is greater than that of George’s. Whatever your view, it is a wonderful tale of pre-war London and of two characters who are inescapably entwined on a course to mutual destruction. It deserves to be more widely read today.

Book Corner – November 2017 (1)

The Shortest History of Germany – James Hawes

When I reflect on my school career, what gave me most pleasure were the intellectual challenging but ultimately pointless exercises of turning English into Latin and Ancient Greek and vice versa and in English Language transforming long-winded, tortuous pieces of text into a concise piece of prose expressing the author’s thoughts and argument. Indeed, the art of precis is a foundation block of this blog – I aim to say what I have to say on a subject in around 500 to 600 words. I wonder if the art of precis is still practised in our schools.

And is precis appropriate for historiography? Hawes, in his brief and engaging canter through the history of what we know as Germany from the year dot to the present, certainly thinks so. I am so used to lengthy tomes carefully sifting through all the evidence, weighing up opposing points of view and speculating on the unknown – the views of women in the main and the lower orders in particular – that his approach is a breath of fresh air. It falls short of the Govian view of history – a timeline of memorable dates and events – but only just.

Hawes’ principal thesis is that Germans west of the Elbe are good and those to the east are bad. The Romans, under Augustus, had the good sense to stop at the Elbe and the Danube in the south. This became the fault-line of German history – the west benefiting from Roman institutions and culture while the east was a land of intolerant, authoritarian barbarians. Hawes points out that the land created by the Franks under Charlemagne and his family and the post-World War 2 West Germany essentially followed the Roman boundaries.

Germany’s troubles, according to Hawes at least, came from the pesky people east of the Elbe. For a millennium what happened in Germany was a continual struggle for power between the industrious, developed west and the aggression of Prussia and its eastern allies. The Russians sheltered Prussia in 1807 and Britain gave it the industrial heartland that was Rhineland in the 1850s and that was enough, together with Bismark’s canny but brutal diplomacy, to set Prussia on the map. The defeat of the French in 1870 “persuaded” the western areas to throw in their lot with the Prussians and the seeds for two destructive World Wars were sown.

And then there is Hitler who at first blush seems to contradict Hawes’ thesis. After all, he was from Austria and from a Catholic heritage, unlike the more Protestant osties – I have always thought the Austrians to be the world’s most consummate salesmen, convincing us that Hitler was German and Mozart Austrian. But, intriguingly, through the judicious use of graphics showing voting patterns, Hawes saves the day by showing that the largest block of votes garnered by Hitler until 1933 came from the predominantly Protestant, eastern parts of Germany. In Bavaria whose centre of Munich and its bierkellers are for ever associated with Nazism, Hitler only got 25% of the vote in 1933. Fascinating stuff and, of course, it is the eastern parts of Germany that are the most fervent supporters of the Hard Right party Alternative fur Deutchsland and of the Hard Left, Die Linke. Should we smell trouble ahead?

A thought-provoking book which, I’m sure, plays hard and fast with conventional historiography and will have many a professor spluttering in their ivory towers, but if you want to understand Germany in an afternoon, you could do worse than starting here.