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.    

Saturday, 10 September 2016

The Last Days of Summer

Officially Autumn begins on the 22nd September but to me, and I suspect to others, the summer is over when the schools go back. 

In many ways I love Autumn. Things look like they're over, but that's just sleight of hand. Nothing is really dying. In fact it's a time of great fertility - every dropping acorn a potential oak - and glut: apples, tomatoes, blackberries.

It's been a good summer, and a busy one. In addition to my trip to Oxford I've been to 3 proms, 2 Royal Academy exhibitions, 2 V&A late nights, The Shakespeare Metamorphosis at Senate House, HMS Belfast,  and the Fire Garden pictured above.

(In case anyone is wondering, yes I have a full time job, but I only work the actual hours I'm contracted for.)

The Fire Garden was amazing; metal forms shaped into primitive machines, and flames so much more beautiful and elemental than any power we might use now, to drive them. Chimneys that gorged and spat sparks into the air, orb-shaped furnaces that hung at head height, twisted forms with bunsen blue flames that boiled water into steam.

And so back to study. This October I'm beginning an MA in English Literature with the Open University. The giant cardboard box they sent me went untouched for a week, but I cracked it open this evening. Onwards we go...

Sassoon's Obelisk, Enfield

Wednesday, 7 September 2016


More blue skies - this time over the Bodleian Library early last week. Oxford is, as expected, much lovelier in the Summer than it appeared last Autumn on a briefer visit. The stone of the colleges is beautiful and warm, and there are books everywhere, as if the city were one giant library that hasn't quite been fully catalogued yet. 

I did some of the tourist things - a drink at the Eagle and Child, a brief tour of the Bodleian, a laughable attempt to draw the Divinity School. A museum, two other exhibitions. The botanical gardens, the market, a walk by the river and a lazy hour sitting watching people in punts and trying to sketch trees.    

I also bought six books:

Patrick Hutber - The Decline and Fall of the Middle Class (written in the 70s) 
Nicolas Bentley - How Can You Bear to be Human? 
Coope - The Quiet Art
Anthony Storr - The Integrity of the Personality
Graham Swift - Last Orders
The Golden Age of Murder - Martin Edwards

I have dipped into the Bentley and The Quiet Art - the latter is very dippable because it's all shortish pieces, an anthology of  (to quote Baron Brain) 'the rich and varied flora of medical thought'. 
On the other hand Nicolas Bentley seems to have been old-fashioned even when How Can You Bear was published (1957), and one essay on what jobs women should and should not do absolutely staggered me in it's certainty that he, a cartoonist and occasional author, felt he was in a position to tell anyone else what they should do with their lives.  

The Golden Age of Murder is about the Detection Club, and excellent, but I badly want to finish it before reviewing. 

Monday, 8 August 2016

Blue skies...

The Thames at Crossness yesterday - I walked up from Woolwich to within sight of the QEII bridge - and in fact to within 2 miles of the end of the Thames Path, but I'd been out in the sun for three hours, which was enough. There's little shade on the river.

The arch on the right in this picture is the Barking Creek Flood Barrier. The cross bar drops down and blocks the mouth of the creek at high tides. There's seaweed on this stretch of the Thames, although (as you can see) it's not really that wide yet.

I'll be returning to Erith for the last bit of the Thames Path and then winding down the rivers Darent and Cray as part of the London Loop, which my aunt and I picked up again starting today.

No good pictures though - some nice horses and lakes, and the sort of cornfields that make you feel like you're in a Cadbury's flake advert - but also lots of brambles and golf courses, and a cancelled train coming home.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Kew - again.

This evening I went to Kew Gardens after work (they open late on Fridays in the Summer) to see the Hive; a new installation that feels like a cross between 'proper' art and a conceptual Chelsea Flower Show garden.

Essentially it's a giant climbing frame in a flower meadow, wrapping you around in lights and speakers. Pretty, with the buzzings and the lights changing colour, but much too serene and open and empty to be reminiscent of a real hive.

But perhaps that was because it was evening, and the bees were winding down for the night.

Of course one advantage of the evening is that it is that little bit quieter and you can stop anywhere - even bang in the middle of the palm house walkways - and take pictures without inconveniencing anyone.