Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Death on The Cherwell - Mavis Doriel Hay

I was tempted to title this review The Four Marys Find a Body. Our young sleuths - girls in their first year at Persephone College, Oxford - are very much of that mould. Cheery young chapesses who find the body of their dead bursar floating down the river in a canoe and field it into shore and try to revive her. 

Sadly, and despite all having their girl guide badges for reviving dead bursars, they fail, so they decide to form a league to find out who killed her instead. 

I'm being mean. I actually enjoyed this book, and in some ways it's refreshing to see this age group portrayed as naïve – because in real life many teenagers still are, and it’s a thing that you rarely see in books (often even quite young teens are portrayed as all too knowing, if not actively corrupted).

But I don't think they were ever as naïve as all this, were they? Not to the point that they only remember about fingerprints after they've removed and manhandled a possible piece of evidence, and decide to hide in the grounds and spy through the window of the man they consider the main suspect by standing on a stack of flowerpots (I mean really, flowerpots? What could possibly go wrong there?).

Also it never seems to cross the girls’ minds that possibly the male student friend of their fellow scholar could have been in their grounds late at night for *coughs discreetly* reasons that are if not innocent then at least not criminal. Perhaps I grew up in a more wicked age but my mind immediately went to the gutter, and I bet it’s where the Dean’s mind would have gone too. 

The book is one of the reprints under the British Library Crime Classics label and much as I enjoyed it I still think it deserved rediscovery more for historical interest than as a murder mystery. The investigations are fairly absurd on the amateur side and not very interesting on the police side, but the point and place in time is key: the 30s in Oxford, where the women’s colleges are clearly there to stay and the younger generation (of both sexes) take the ‘new’ status quo very much for granted; but also where one character can still say of Cambridge 'why would you want to go somewhere that won’t give you a degree.’

Inevitably, given where and when it is set comparisons are bound to be made with Sayer’s Gaudy Night (which came out in the same year), but in fact there are very few points in common. Both Sayers and Hay pick up (and are understandably irritated by) the way the newspapers describe what they call ‘graduettes’, but Sayers is firmly not from the POV of the students, far more occupied with gender and learning, and much darker. 

This is more of a girl’s own adventure tale, less accomplished and lighter in tone. The setup actually quite original, the characters consistent, and nothing jarringly wrong in the writing. But very, very light, and you can see why the one is still in print more than 80 years later and this (until now) hasn’t been. If it were contemporary it might sell very nicely, make a film (in fact it would make quite a good film with editing) and then be forgotten in a few years, which is presumably exactly what happened in 1931.

Photo taken by the Cherwell, facing Christ Church, Oxford

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Tooting Market

At the weekend I went, amongst other places, to Tooting Market, which is currently under threat – possibly – by HS2.

I know Tooting Market of old, but it’s at a transition point at the moment. There are the old veg and fruit and fabric stalls and the egg and chip places, and there are the organic beers and sit down restaurant and micro distillery for gin (Graveney Gin).

The gin was what we were there for, because I had been talking about it over a year and hadn’t tried it, and my brother decided a year was long enough.

Very nice it is too. Lovely and refreshing, with pink grapefruit and the unobtrusive sweetness of a Mediterranean tonic. A completely new drink to me. Normally I drink gin which is bitter, and slimline tonic, which is also bitter, because I like bitter things. So it’s very much not gin as I drink it.

I would like a little bottle to experiment with though, and will try to get one. Micro distillery means micro amounts, of course, so they were out of everything but the gift packs. I may have to pre-order online.

Still it’s a civilised spot, and I’ve a vague natal interest in the area. I tend to think of and describe myself as being from Tooting because although I was in fact born in Balham, and although we moved right out when I was 3, we started drifting back in over half my life ago. My Dad is still just down the road and, only slightly across the boundary of the Wandle river, so am I.

The river Graveney, after which the gin may or may not be named (There is also a Tooting Graveney on completely the other side of Tooting from the river, and both are likely named for the Gravenel family who held the land in the 12th and 13th centuries) is the most circumspect of London rivers until it floods – hidden and channelled but rising and falling by metres in heavy rainfall and fenced off for safety’s sake where it does come up for air. In fact it’s only a tiny stretch that qualifies as the Graveney at all. Before that point it’s the Norbury Brook and almost immediately after Tooting it flows into the Wandle and joins the meander through Wandsworth to the Thames. Should it ever become a character in the Rivers of London canon it will be the smaller, shyer twin, co-dependent, suffering a severe identity crisis, and occasionally bursting out in furious temper when pushed too far.

Back in the real world the market, as I say, seems to be at a transition point. If they don’t knock it down I suspect the rents will go up and in ten years it will be where Merton Abbey Mills and Borough market went, almost all artisan, and shortly after that the kitsch shops and chains will move in, the oddities will be priced out, and that will be the end. 

I don’t know if that’s a complaint on my part or not. I don’t particularly avoid chains, especially those that are good at what they do and provide me with free wifi, and I do feel that there is an organic quality to what happens to property of this kind in London. An ebb and a flow. And while there’s also the occasional destructive flood which leaves nothing of interest behind, something new and interesting always pops up somewhere else, like flotsam, and.. and I’m not going to hammer that metaphor any harder home. 

What I mean is these transition points, where you have something interesting and mixed and fleeting, can’t last. It’s not in their nature. All you can do it make the most of it while it is there.

Which means cocktails, next time, or possibly organic cider. 

Tooting in the '80s, 
before the traffic island was moved. 

Saturday, 12 November 2016

OU – first impressions.

I've now done a substantial part of the reading for the first bit of this course, so it seems a good time to put some impressions down.

Firstly the set texts for the module, the first of which is the latest Cambridge University Press translation of Sophocles' Antigone, about which I can’t improve on my comment elsewhere, so apologies for the cut and paste:

‘I'm sure it's highly accurate and great for study, but for general reading - reading for pleasure - I would advise anyone to avoid. You'd barely know it was meant to be poetry and little emotion is coming through.’

I’m sure I read a Penguin translation before which was much more lively, but perhaps I shouldn't confuse things by reading it again; although there’s a fascinating line of study there I’m sure – different translations for different purposes and the tension between accuracy of meaning and accuracy of (for want of a better word) rhythm and effect.

The second text for the course is also Antigone, this time by Jean Anouilh, which has some substantial differences from Sophocles' version. The same things happen but the intentions and motivations are different. It’s also much more readable, the speech unstilted and the characters rounded.

From what I can glean from my secondary reading the idea of studying both versions is to explore something called intertextuality, which as a concept used to be called influence but isn’t anymore because that implies intention on the part of the first author, who wouldn’t actually have known about the later works and couldn’t have been trying to influence them.

Incidentally it has just taken me about a sentence to explain what it takes three pages for my textbook to tell me. I can't work out if it's showing off or just natural long-windedness, but sometimes the language makes me feel like I've accidentally wandered into a campus novel. Something from David Lodge’s early oeuvre, before he hit the 80s and started sending people into steelworks.  

Anouilh was good though (by which I mean I enjoyed reading it) and interesting in the historical context. I read it as a defence of pragmatism at first, but I’ve since learnt it was first performed in 1944 when France was occupied and now I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s more about however pragmatic you are the sky still falls, and you’ve lost all respect as well.

It also struck me that unless the Sophocles I read fell (or is destined to fall) through a wormhole back to 1943 there is no way it can be the version Jean Anouilh actually read before writing his own play. Even leaving aside the fact he would be far more likely to have read it in French or Greek.

Perhaps these are all the things I’m meant to be thinking about, but it still tickles me that I’m starting an English lit qualification with two books in translation.  

I also missed the first group tutorial (it’s fine, they’re not compulsory) because the email regarding it said Franklin-Wilkes building, Kings College, and it turned out to be at the LSE. Still there’s a good chip shop at Waterloo and I spent the intervening hour after work in Kensington library reading Post War World, so it wasn’t wasted (what do people who don’t read do with these inadvertent gaps and delays? Shop? Fret? Go for a coffee and rinse the wifi?).

I will go to at least one lecture or tutorial though. I want a nosy at the LSE if nothing else. I also have good reason for joining the British Library now, which is very tempting, although I think Kensington Reference will be my go to place for actual study. There’s something about the atmosphere of a proper library that slows the pulse and seeps into the pores and lends me focus. Also their desks are bigger than mine.

And now for some completely unrelated pictures from my trip to Greece.



Sunday, 16 October 2016

The Intelligent Man's Guide to the Post War World - G D H Cole

When I first decided to read this - on the same basis as the Henry Wade book, because G D H Cole was a founder member of the Detection Club, in which I've recently become interested - I have to admit I didn't realize it was 1092 pages long.

I'm still glad I did. Those 1092 pages take in a sweeping but detailed view of the situation in Europe, the distrust between the Soviet Union and the US, economics, health, the plans for schools in the UK and the raising of the age at which children could leave, population growth, why the US believed capitalism was not only right but in the long run a fairer system, Palestine, the colonies and their right to independence, the atom bomb, how the UNO and IMF came into being and the motivations behind them and infinitely much more.

Whatever you think of Cole's politics (which I actually broadly agree with, except I think he's a tad harsh on the US, who he seems to view as having reneged on some sort of promise to provide infinite amounts of cash without charging a cent of interest) or what he thought should happen next, it’s an incredibly solid piece of work. Cole acknowledges the help of his secretary, his son, and his wife Margaret (who also co-wrote murder mysteries with him as well as other political books and pamphlets) – but presumably the bulk of the writing and research was his own, revised as the situation changed, and it's an extraordinary achievement in what must have been quite a short space of time.

Just as astonishing is that although it would be probably be a better book to keep and dip into for reference (and I will be keeping it for that) it is actually still possible to read the thing through from cover to cover, as I did, and not be utterly overwhelmed and bored.

Part of this is due to Cole's flashes of humour, not always flattering to the nations he's talking about, part is the fact that I don't think I'd really understood how different many things were in 1947 quite apart from the needs of war, or that many of my own 'liberal' ideas were so specific to a Western European way of thinking, but most of all because it's interesting to see what has become worse and what has been improved in the last 70 years.

Despite the naysayers (of which I'm one because things could always be better) it's still incredible to read about where Germany or Poland or Japan or India (or Britain) was 70 years ago, and to compare then to now. It really brings home what can actually be achieved in times of peace if we try.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

New Graves at Great Norne - Henry Wade

According to my copy of The Golden Age of Murder Henry Wade was one of the founder members of the Detection Club which in 1930 also included Chesterton, Sayers, Christie, A A Milne, and  24 other writers now less well known (I think Milne wrote exactly one crime novel, but he was a member all the same. Conan Doyle was invited to be president but he was already unwell). The 1947 club has been the perfect excuse for me to track down books by some of those other writers.

According to the e-book I purchased – New Graves at Great Norne doesn’t seem to have had many reprints and the cheapest one on ebay is £13 plus £20 postage from the US - Wade was actually the pseudonym of baronet Sir Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher, High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire. 

This has no relevance to New Graves though. The story is set somewhat prosaically in a not particularly picturesque and sometimes foggy harbour town, big enough to have a church and railway and farmers market, and to sustain at least three pubs, a high street and a man with a barrow who acts as a kind of unofficial porter to the populace, but also small enough to have a limited cast of characters.  

 A reference to the Munich ‘settlement’ places the story firmly before the war, and there may be an element of nostalgia in the four or five paragraphs where the town is described and the scene set. It's very much of the ‘tell’ and not ‘show’ style of writing; which is odd, because Wade is clearly able to build a word portrait much more subtly, and the place has a much clearer and more interesting character by the end of the book than provided by this odd AA guide style description at the beginning.

So we have our setting and our cast - a fluttery spinster, a vicar, the churchwarden (the uptight, upright and austere Colonel Cherrington) a young blade living off his wife’s father, the doctor and his wife, and a ghoulish and cryptic sexton. There are others – in fact there are too many and I lost track of some of the patrons of the public houses who didn’t seem to be there except to egg each other on to gossip – but those are the ones that stood out.

Then the murders start and the yard is called in and the book becomes something in the nature of a police procedural, with no real detective in the sense I expected. Detective Inspector Joss is a local lad perhaps destined for higher things, but he’s no maverick genius. Myrtle of the yard turns up to help and is met at the station, causing yet more gossip in the pubs. 

In fact there are six or seven police officers all told (again too many, I lost track of the less important ones) and they all go about stolidly collecting information, drinking cups of tea and eating their dinners. We meet none of their wives, but we do find out that they are good cooks.  

Myrtle eats his way through the dinners as well, pops back to London occasionally and tries not be too critical of the locals while having absolutely no flash of brilliance himself. Instead he investigates slowly and methodically, talking to person after person until he finally manages to stumble across someone who actually knows something.

It could all be very dull, and undoubtedly would be if it weren't for the absurdly high body count. Unfortunately that only makes the police look more plodding. Myrtle is clearly pretty unimpressed with himself at the end of the book and frankly so am I. 

Also rather irritating is a whole subplot about a rocky marriage which is just left hanging. He may be going mad and she may be going to leave him and we just never find out. It's bizarre.  

So all in all I found New Graves at Great Norne quite entertaining, but ultimately forgettable.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

The Attenbury Emeralds - Jill Paton Walsh

Over the weekend I read The Attenbury Emeralds, Jill Paton-Walsh’s continuation of Sayers' detective fiction. The story itself is implausible but none the worse for that, I’d rather have a good yarn than something sensible. There are shades of The Moonstone, but more a modern riff and riposte to it, all well constructed, and I whizzed through quite happy.

Whizzed through partly, to be honest, because there wasn’t much meat in it to slow me down. The characters lack complexity, compared to their treatment under Sayers’ hand, and sadly there’s also less humour and what I can only describe as less energy. Maybe it’s the rationing (the book is set in the 50s). Everyone is subdued and just a shade too sensible, especially the new boys. I badly missed St John – killed in action in the war, sadly.

Speaking of the war we also get a namecheck on the Café de Paris (note to authors: many, many places across the country were bombed out during the war, why does everyone fixate on the Café de Paris?) where the particular emerald we’re interested in was worn on the fateful night.

Anyway the pace picks up, Wimsey is hot on the trail, the characterisation of the people he interviews along the way is actually very good, you really start to get hooked and then..

And then suddenly the ancestral home burns down and brother Denver keels over, so Wimsey is the new duke and has to rush off to help, abandoning his investigation. Long faces all round, grump grump grump, goodness aren’t the death duties high.. oh well, I suppose his majesty didn’t expect to have to be king and he managed.

Frankly you would think a dukedom were a glass of not-so-sparkling cyanide from the way he and Harriet react.

So that oddly unnecessary and pace-killing interlude over and we’re back in London to continue the main story. Emeralds retrieved, murderer caught, don’t really believe the motive but never mind, it’s that sort of story.

All nicely wrapped up with a letter from the Duchess of Denver at the end which is worth the entry price alone. And yet.. and yet I know I'll never reread it.