Sunday, 22 April 2018

London Rectangles

The Royal Oak Pub (closed) North Woolwich 

Ceiling, Banqueting House

Windowbox, Kensington

Graffiti, North Woolwich

Graffiti, Islington

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Reading the 80s - 1982

I only managed two books for this challenge this month - but the first wasn't something I'd usually read, so I'm quite pleased about that.

Stephen King - The Dark Tower I (The Gunslinger).

To be honest I was surprised how much I enjoyed this.

It starts, or seems to start, with the good guy chasing the bad guy across the desert. Predictably enough the good guy is the guy with the gun (or rather, two guns) and the bad guy is in black and does evil magics. We also learn that the world has moved on - for which read falling apart - and the gunslinger is on a quest which may have something to do with fixing it, or finding out what's going on.

All of which would normally make me balk a bit - I have a healthy dose of cynicism about quests and heroes that bludgeon their way through the world leaving destruction behind them because their mission and their honour and their pride is the all important thing; and the Gunslinger certainly fits into that mould.

But somehow King gets away with it. I think because he isn't actually romanticising what's happening. We hear about the qualities the Gunslinger lacks as much as those he possesses. The man in black is there to mock him, and from a certain point there is a companion, Jake, to be shocked by him and make him doubt himself.

King does a good job of world building, with the differences from our own world kept subtle at first, and monsters referred to in passing instead of lumbering across the page absurdly. That said readers who really can't bear fantasy worlds will probably struggle.

Did it want to make me read the other 7 books? (I think it's 7) To be honest no, but considering this isn't something I would normally have tried, that's not a reflection on the book itself. 

Life, the Universe and Everything - Douglas Adams

This is the third of the Hitchhikers Guide Trilogy of five and reading it I remembered that it was never really my favourite. I think I felt cheated because Trillian solves a puzzle on the basis that anything else would be a ludicrously improbable coincidence - and yet their whole lives up to this point have been one ludicrous coincidence after another. They own a ship powered by the Infinite Improbability Drive for goodness' sake, the ultimate plot device to explain away improbable coincidences.

Trillian annoys me quite as lot a character actually. At the beginning where she's trying to cheer Zaphod up by going to delightful planets and he's not interested - well why not go herself and leave him to it? Then when we see her next she is being chatted up by a thunder god but she just lets Arthur drag her off again. Then she addresses the elders of Krikkit. She seems to have a stunning lack of agency in her own life but be able to advocate just fine on behalf of the universe.

That almost certainly is something to do with it being written in 1982 - her storyline is after all that she's skipped the planet with Zaphod as a kind of adjunct, then seems to fall into a caretaker role, and although she starts to break out later I never feel she really coheres into one person. In fact in the last book she literally is two people, one of which went with Zaphod and one of which didn't, and both are wistfully wondering about that other person they might have been. Is it just me or is there something a bit Anita Brookner about this?

The next year up is 1983. Hopefully I'll manage a few more this time. I already know I want to read The Woman in Black. 

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Reading the 80s - 1981

Ruth Rendell - Put on by Cunning

The first thing I want to say about this book is that although it was originally published in 1981 the version Kensington Libraries have is a 2010 copy by Arrow books, and up to page 117 (when I stopped counting) there were 11 typing or scanning errors. Some relatively minor (‘I’ for ‘in’ ‘on’ for ‘one’) and some larger ('gugs' for 'rugs'), which pulled me out of the narrative as I stopped to work out what the word was meant to be – and that was a shame because it damaged the readability of what is a very competent story. So avoid this edition if possible. It will drive you mad. 

I don’t think I’ve read any of Rendell's Wexford books before, but although we’re clearly well into the series here and the Chief Inspector has a grown up soap star daughter about to get married and an inspector recently married and so on I never felt lost – the characters are sketched in neatly, Wexford thinks about them just enough to be believable – noticing the slight differences from before (Burden is happier, for example, and slightly smarter as a result) and giving us a little info without it becoming contrived. (I’m thinking of another author I read recently as I write this, where the sister of the main character was thinking extensively and intently about him; his marital prospects, his emotional state, his history, in a way that no-one would really do unless said brother had recently topped himself and you were trying to work out what you’d missed. Clunk went the exposition.)

Anyway Cunning starts with the banns being read in church – 80 something year old flautist (sadly arthritic and no longer able to play) is marrying 20 something year old, for companionship rather than anything else. He also intends to change his will, partly because he is remarrying, but also to disinherit the daughter who he hadn’t seen for about 15 years until she read about the engagement in the paper.

If she is his daughter. What begins as the assumed death by misadventure of the flautist at the edge of an icy pond begins to look increasingly like murder as it seems the daughter might, just might, be an imposter. The rest of the book is Wexford increasingly convinced of this, even though the solicitors are moving in the other direction, equally convinced that she is who she says she is and releasing her father's money to her under the terms of the will he never had a chance to change. 

Finally, still sure he's on to something, Wexford books a holiday in America to find out more about where she was for those 15  years. But he's not going to be in time to prevent another death.. 

Bliss - Peter Carey 

I did briefly mention this on the Guardian TLS when I started it (as always please excuse the cut and paste):

'Cheerily oblivious 'Top Bloke' Harry Joy goes in for surgery convinced he's going to die, and comes out convinced he's in Hell, when all that's really happened is that he's started seeing the world and his family as they really are, not as he thought (or assumed) back when he was being cheery and oblivious.'

At that point I was clear in my own mind that Harry wasn't in Hell. By the end, although there was nothing in the book not within the bounds of possibility, I wasn't so sure.

In fact I felt ambivalent about this book and it's characters on quite a few levels. I wondered, for example, about Harry's relationship with his kids. It felt like he loved them, but didn't feel he had to look out for them or offer guidance or be responsible for them or stay and look after them in their mother's absence.

Instead he tells them stories, and that adds another layer, another pattern, to the book. Because Bliss is not only a narrative and a comedy, but also a book about story-telling itself. About it's power to let the storyteller get away with things and put a good spin on things. Harry is also a seller of advertising, and his sales pitch is another form of fiction. From which we see that Harry is misusing his ability, just as all the stories he tells to his family are really his father's stories, and he's using them wrong because he doesn't understand the meaning of them himself.

And Carey does the same thing - perhaps intentionally. There's some lovely writing, and some deliberately no-punches-pulled writing. It's a fantastically ambitious narrative which dazzles and makes you identify with Harry, who actually is a very self indulgent man, and puts you in the head of some really quite horrible people but gives you their story too, the story of why they're like that, and makes you empathise.

And then when you step back and think a little later, when you've put the book down, and especially when you come to review it, you start to wonder why. Have you just been dazzled by Carey's way with words. Are you imagining it or is Harry really just the same very self indulgent, self delusive (albeit in a different and more useful way) and luckier than he deserves man he was at the start? And is that effect deliberate too?

Working with Structuralism - David Lodge.

I think it's fair to say that the first couple of essays in this book were a bit sticky. There were definitely paragraphs of the sort of stuff that makes the lay person despair of ever understanding what literary critics are going on about.

But Lodge, thankfully, addresses this early on, asking:

'Is it possible, or useful, to bring the whole battery of modern formalism and structuralism to bear upon a single text, and what is gained by so doing? Does it enrich our reading by uncovering depths and nuances of reading we might not otherwise have brought to consciousness, help up to solve problems of interpretation and to correct misreadings? Or does it merely encourage a pointless and self-indulgent academicism, in  which the same information is shuffled from one set of categories to another, from one jargon to another, without any real advance in appreciation or understanding?'

Whether or not you agree with his reasons for believing the first answer to be true, or care for the 'jargon' he uses to explain them, I'm just reassured to see that someone, anyone has asked and answered the question. It's a question I think everyone who has studied English above a certain level must have asked themselves, and it's nice to see it acknowledged in print.

In fact this book isn't all - in fact isn't mostly - literary criticism of that sort. There are reviews, a section on ambiguous endings, a discussion of modernism and postmodernism (the last of which appears to have been a new thing in 81). Lodge has a real skill for not assuming his audience knows things but not making heavy weather of telling you. He writes with humour, although not the slightly slapstick comedy found in his fiction, and he is generally, with the exception of the first two essays, clear as crystal and not sticky at all.

So - what did these books have to teach me about 1981? Actually not a lot. They were datable - the restaurant Wexford goes to is run by a Asian refugee from the Ugandan expulsion, Lodge tells us that postmodernism is new, there is a little paranoia about communists in Bliss, but they are only datable, not dated. There's no particular thread or theme that struck me.

Next stop 1982.  

Saturday, 10 March 2018

On Bookswaps and Letting Go (and somehow, inevitably, libraries and London boroughs again)

Technically I still belong to Bookmooch, and for a while I did a bit of Bookcrossing, but really the most effective way for books to find new readers is a bookswap. A physical shelf or set of shelves where patrons or passers-by can both take and leave books.

The difficulty is deciding what to let go to the swap. However loose my sense of ownership – and it is loose, perhaps because most of my books originally belonged to someone else and will again, or perhaps because I agree with the concept that everything you own is another thing to be cleaned and housed and managed and it’s got to the point where I’m putting over half my plates and cups and cutlery in a separate cupboard just to keep the washing up to manageable levels – culling and making a decision to dispose of books is difficult. Books span that gap between physical object and experience. Unread books are books I might read one day, read books are books I remember enjoying.

But I now have a more painless system for the books I’ve read at least. At the heart of said system is a paper LRB (London Review of Books) carrier bag. When I finish a book I either make a decision to keep it and put it (back) on the shelf, or I put it straight in the bag. Once the bag is full (LRB do a nice sturdy carrier) I take it to the bookswap at Wimbledon station.

It’s a reasonably flexible system, and if I change my mind about one or more of the books while I decant them that’s fine. The idea is simply to break the default of putting books I may never read again back on the shelf when I’ve already got so many not-even-read-once books on there, and access to several very good lending libraries and lots of smaller ones. 

My home borough of Merton for example, which has 7 libraries, is also in a shared-service arrangement with Kingston, Luton, Tower Hamlets, Redbridge, Bexley..  – in fact 17 other boroughs in total. While Kensington (which I belong to because I work in the borough) is cosied up with Hammersmith and Westminster, which sandwich it between them (a map of the London Boroughs shows how exactly like a sandwich it is, all three with small footprints on the river, and then the lengths of them snugly running parallel, like countries which need access to an inland sea, although in fact it’s because the 1963 London Government act merged the smaller boroughs to the north and south of each other. Hence what I just incorrectly called Kensington is actually the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC), and what I just called Hammersmith is the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham (LBHF), but I’m wandering, and you can find it all on Wikipedia).

What has made all this possible of course is electronic systems. The same thing which has allowed the amount of books I can borrow to balloon from 3 or 6 back in the 80s to 15 (RBKC) and 20 (Merton) here in the twenty-teens. 

But I was talking about bookswaps. At the moment my bookswap bag is about half full. So what am a throwing out? Lets see: 

First out of the bag is Antigone in the Diane J Rayor translation from the Cambridge University Press, which was bought in error for my MA when I was actually meant to buy the previous translation. Having read both I have to say I agree with whoever structured my course. The sentences in the latest version seem broken up in a way that strips out emotion instead of strengthening it, which surely misses the point of the play.

Coriolanus, Shakespeare – this is another Cambridge University Press book bought for my MA. It’s actually a very good and useful edition, but I already have a huge volume of Shakespeare plays and sonnets and I’m unlikely to want to read the lengthy introduction or textual analysis again. Out it goes.

Browse, The World in Bookshops, edited by Henry Hitchings. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and imagine any bibliophile would. Each chapter is a different writer telling us about their relationship with a bookshop, or bookshops; Ali Smith about the things found in the books that come into the charity bookshop where she volunteers, Ian Sansom about his time at Foyles, Elif Shafak talks about her childhood and the bookshops of Istanbul, Iain Sinclair about the closure of a shop that was a landmark – as indeed everything I’ve read by Sinclair seems to be about closure and change for the worse. And many other writers besides. I’m glad I found this book, but I couldn't be sure I'd ever read it again when there are so many other books to read, so under the new system it went straight in the bag. Let's see if I still feel the same when I come to empty the bag out.

Music Night at the Apollo – Lilian Pizzichini. I never finished this book. It’s subtitled 'A Memoir of Drifting', and despite the interesting facts about boats and old factories and the sense of trying to find a present through finding a past I felt it drifted away too much, I also felt that even during her time spent with what papers call the underclass Pizzichini always knew she had a way out, which was not the case for the people she was writing about. It made me feel uncomfortable and vicarious reading it.

Joy in the Morning – P G Wodehouse. I’ve got quite a lot of Wodehouse and there’s a lot in the libraries and frankly, this isn’t my favourite and I need shelf space. It’s going.

Don Among the Dead Men. C E Vuillamy. This is a green penguin and less a ‘whodunnit’ than ‘whydunnit’ Doctor Kerris Bowles-Ottery invents a drug that causes euphoria and painless death. Recording his findings as any good scientist would we can see him slowly shift from theorising about the drugs use, to changing his ideas about when it might be used, to using it on people. It’s subtitled ‘a satirical thriller’ and although some of the humour is more wry smile than laugh out loud, it’s quite an amusing book. Something different.

Metroland Julian Barnes. I wrote about this in my 1980 wrap up. 

Misogynies – Joan Smith. Like Browse, although for different reasons, I’m glad I found and read this book. It was a good reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. The chapter about the Yorkshire ripper, the assumptions that were made, and the attitude of the men investigating these crimes and the press towards women in the sex trade will definitely stick with me. (As distinct from the trade itself I mean. It is possible to think prostitution is a horrible business without, as is the case here, actually hating the women involved, just as it’s possible to think bare knuckle boxing should be banned without hating the men involved.)

The other joy of bookswaps is of course not knowing what you might find to take home. Sometimes it can be a bit lacklustre and samey (50 shades anyone?) and usually the Wimbledon station ones go so fast that the direction of books is generally out rather than in, which suits me. But the small bookswap at work has recently yielded Get Carter by Ted Lewis in a very nice paperback, and since that was apparently the start of the ‘noir school of British crime writing’ (which I think of more as ‘gritty’) and it wasn’t a book I’d have thought to look for otherwise, I’m more than pleased.    

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Library Books..

As you can see my reading at present is quite crime heavy. This isn't even all of it, there was the aforementioned Patrick Butler for the Defence by John Dickson Carr, which was a green penguin, The Black Stage by Anthony Gilbert, also a green penguin, and then Grave Mistake, Artists in Crime and Death in a White Tie all on Kindle and by Ngaio Marsh.

Eventually I expect I'll get a kind of literary indigestion and have to ease off the crime for a while, but there is a kind of historical interest in reading mysteries (or any period 'genre') this way. The Black Stage for example is written just after the war, and family members are coming together as a group for the first time since peace was declared, some of them embracing or at least accepting the changes in themselves and society, while others want to turn the clock back because nostalgia is how they’ve got through the last six years, and it's a fantasy they can't let go of.

On the other hand White Tie (which I’ve read before) is set before the war, in the glittering world of high society, debs and chaperones and the London Season. And what it makes explicit, which had never struck me before reading it, was how very young the debs being launched on the marriage market were. 17 or 18 years old, and presumably most of them with no prospect (unlike their male counterparts) of an alternative, such as further study. 

It is also relatively rare in having one of the most likable murder victims I've ever met. Generally in whodunnits, victims either tend to be the kind of people no-one mourns (a fact Christie satirises through her crime writer character Ariadne Oliver in, I think The Pale Horse) or succumb to their fate within the first few pages (in extreme cases, as in Patrick Butler, all they ever do is rock up and die). This enables the reader not to care very much and treat the whole thing as a kind of intellectual puzzle or amusing farce.

But in White Tie we have someone who will be genuinely missed. Someone flawed and privileged, old fashioned and eminently mockable, but generous, human and well meaning as well.  

Returning to the Library pile though, I'm still finding the British Library reprints quite varied. John Bude's Death Makes a Prophet was well written, but again it was more the time and the setting - a kind of well-heeled and respectable cult of a kind I wouldn't have thought existed in the 40s - that was interesting to me.  

Death of Anton by Alan Melville was great fun though. Tigers! Acrobats! Accidents that aren't really accidents! Possibly my second favourite of these reprints after The Poisoned Chocolates Case. 

I did have one tiny quibble though. The investigating officer has a brother who is a Catholic priest, and at one point the murderer confesses to the priest, which creates a quandary, because he can't betray that confidence but can't let an innocent man be arrested either. 

And of course this makes for a strong and interesting literary device, and highlights the respect the brothers have for each other’s respective vocations – but I’m not sure it’s really possible.  After all it is called an act of contrition because you’re meant to renounce your sins and mend your ways. Just conveniently offloading them and then carrying on as before isn't enough, and if a lapsed Catholic like me knows that then any priest worth his salt would surely point it out and refuse absolution as well.  

But this is like quibbling over the fact that Alleyn is investigating his friend’s death in White Tie, which I’m equally sure would never be allowed, even in high society in the 30s.  You do need, with murder mysteries, to suspend your disbelief at least a little if you expect to be entertained.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Book Review - Patrick Butler for the Defence. John Dickson Carr.

This was a very strange book. Surely old fashioned even when it came out in 1956, it's so bad it's almost good. So offensive it's actually impossible for me to take offence.  A terrible, dated, stupid romp which starts with a man in a green fez stabbed, impossibly, in a not-locked-but-empty room in Lincolns Inn and struggling out, of course, a few last enigmatic words to the two junior partners who are the only people on the scene.

So naturally instead of calling the police one of those junior partners decides to put it all before Head Supremo Mr Charisma barrister Patrick Butler, and dashes out, pausing only to draw the attention and suspicions of a passing police officer by bumping into him in the fog and running away.

Hugh (the young man’s name is Hugh) continues to run – into Scotland Yard where Butler happens to be entertaining a young lady he has just slapped on the behind because she’s said something he objects to (this in front of the police, who don’t even say ‘excuse me sir, you can’t do that in here’ when she accuses him and bursts into tears). 

Anyway they escape Scotland Yard and repair, hotfoot, to a glove shop in Seven Dials, where there is a fracas – and on again to a hotel, piling the girls into their laps without so much as a by-your-leave (Hugh’s fiancée having turned up at this point) and making comments that would indeed be offensive if they weren’t so completely impossible to credit.

Brief interlude for everyone to pretend to be married so they can share rooms, and the young woman who is not Hugh’s fiancée to ensure she and Hugh end up sharing (and for him to tick her off for ordering pêche melba and well cooked steak. Real men eat raw meat and stilton cheese, apparently, especially after they’ve just thrown someone through a glove shop window).

Then Butler and Hugh escape from the police a second time by climbing along a ledge and rushing onwards to the theatre to meet the widow of the man with the fez, who in her turn kindly helps Hugh escape from the police a third time despite the fact he may have murdered her husband, and also suggests to Butler that he might want to postpone pinching her bottom (which seems to be his way of saying thank you) to some point in time when they are not actually on the run. 

Incidentally these behaviours appear to be attributed to Butler being part Irish, or at least coincide with him spouting Irishisms and generally giving the impression that any second now he is going to call someone colleen. The widow on the other hand is exotically dressed and says 'dem' a lot. Oh and someone points out kindly that Hugh would probably only get manslaughter for the death of the man in the green fez anyway because the victim was 'excitable' and may well have attacked Hugh first, compelling him to defend himself. 

Because, you know, all foreigners are invariably excitable in this sort of book, practically forcing the phlegmatic Englishman to stab them. (Surely this attitude was terribly dated by 1956? If indeed it was ever more than a literary cliche)

I could go on, but I won't. There are some improbable coincidences, there is a denouement, the dumb blonde isn't as dumb as she seems and Patrick Butler wraps the case up neatly with a bow, hands it over to the police and makes a date with a lady who is not the lady he came in with.