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Language – a cracked kettle or a versatile, evolving joy?

7 Mar

Wow. That’s such a big question. I was pondering it on the Thameslink train to St. Albans yesterday as I listened to a conversation between two young guys which seemed to be a dialogue of low gutteral exposition and response. If the use of glottal stops at the beginning, middle and ends of words were an art form, these two had mastered it. Extraordinary patois that was identifiably English but only just. Sounds patronising? Apologies. I’m guessing that the interlocutors could up their game when on a job interview. There was something regressive about the exchange though, an evolutionary step back, a reduction in variety and tone. Or is it just me, I asked myself? A case of old fartism.

My mental segway took me to the excruciating BAFTA ceremony t’other day when the stage- frightened Richard E Grant collided with the dreadfully inarticulate Alison Hammond to produce a toe-curling exhibition of how not to present on a pretty big occasion. One longed for either the gravitas, fluency and range of an old fashioned BBC maestro such as Hugh Edwards or Fiona Bruce – ie someone used to speaking before an audience – or the outrageous but brilliant lampooning of a Ricky Gervais who doesn’t care which sacred cow he he milks. Language and its delivery is important for communication, for nuance, for helping us rise above the ordinary. A facility for language elevates us. It can be dangerous , of course, but if our facility for speech and listening is diminished, eroded or shut down as part of a neo-liberal attack on anything which might be associated with some slight cultural or linguistic sensitivity- then I’m against it. I don’t trust the judgements of the current age, largely fuelled by the crassness of social media and tub thumping iconoclasts.

I notice that the mad, bad and sad case of the Yorkshire racism hearing is reaching its conclusion today. Michael Vaughan denies using the words ‘you lot’- a slur which Azeem Rafiq insists he uttered. How powerful those two words have become in the context of English and Yorkshire cricket and the febrile nature of the issue of racism in sport. If either side concedes ground the battle is lost and yet if both sides do so the cultural compromise would be unacceptable to those on the barricades of twitter. Thus most of us retreat, we over-censor, we go quiet in the pub rather than air our views or continue a discussion which is getting tetchy. We reduce our language to the bland; some stop speaking at all; some air views which they know will be acceptable to the group.

When we got in last night after the points failure at Canning Town had turned a 90 minute journey into four hours, we settled to what was left of Monday’s quiz night on BBC (Mastermind, Only Connect and University Challenge). The continuity announcer was an inarticulate imbecile. Work experience – that could be the only excuse. What is the BBC doing? The assumption that its viewers are morons who will love this sort of reverse baseball cap approach to language is patronising at best. And be clear here, I am not talking about accent or dialect. I’m talking about dumbing down, reducing our capacity to speak and hear and understand the world.

It’s sad to see the old curmudgeon Paxman begin to slur and blur as he reads the questions. A man who has made a brilliant life in words, now cruelly diminished by Parkinson’s. We notice, don’t we, when the masters of whatever art begin to drop from the great standards of their prime. More obvious and devastating may be the reduction of sporting heroes but we have YouTube to remind us of the brilliance of a Bradman, Best or Bolt. The next generation seems able to push onwards and upwards but this is far less true of wordsmiths. If language is constrained, constipated by a compliance to a cultural imperative set by people who pour vitriol down the internet or seek to (and succeed) shout louder than the somnolent majority, then we are all diminished.

I do sense a recognition of what is happening all around. And not just about language. I’ll leave the cult of victimhood, mental health and trans rights for another day and finish with Dionne Warkwick, the great American singer who was the subject of a better-than-average bio-documentary this week. Mostly she sang from the great Bacharach and David songbook and she talked of her disdain for the abuse of people and language in the gangsta rap of the 1990s. She called a meeting of the young rappers- amongst them Snoop Dogg. She chided them for their dumbing down of language, the promotion of violence and the labelling of all women as ‘bitches’. She asked them to level up, not round down. Snoop Dogg talked of the profound effect her intervention had on him. Good on her. A great lady and brilliant artist.

OK. I’ll finish the Flaubert quote: Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.
Or, as the Bee Gees might sing: It’s only words and words are all I have to steal your heart away.
Take your pick.

Minority Report

7 Feb

I note that Harry Styles is being pilloried on social media for finishing his gracious Grammy-winning acceptance speech with the rather faux-humble : ‘This doesn’t happen to people like me and it’s so, so nice. Thank you.’ Presumably this was a reference to his humble upbringing before he became a multi-millionaire. Whatever. The anti white privilege police latched on immediately and fed their outrage into cyberspace.

It bothers me less that dickheads put this sort of silly, one-eyed unpleasantness out there, than the major news organs – international press, BBC, Sky etc – give it the oxygen of further publicity beyond that of Twatter. We, in the rightly liberal West, have been been caught by the minority bug. So keen have we been to champion all manner of good causes that we have allowed crankiness and the vehemence of those with a soapbox and a shrill voice to silence the moderate majority.

Chances are that the genuine fight for fairness, justice, equality etc will be derailed by minority sniping and outrage. Academics losing jobs (or being hounded out), the mess that Nicola Sturgeon has created for herself, JK Rowling, Yorkshire Cricket Club, the quotas for this and that, the Welsh not being allowed to sing Delilah… of course I could go on but I don’t want to sound like Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells in a letter to the Telegraph. But you get my drift. We can’t see the wood from the trees. The self serving greed and corruption at the heart of government gives licence to a moral carelessness that pervades society. The majority have hunkered down in a silent bunker. There are big things to sort out in our world but the minority are setting a false agenda.

Books of My Year. 2022.

23 Dec

Here is my list this Christmas. I have discovered new writers and am disappointed at many I didn’t get round to. Nevertheless the world of books is a joy – it stimulates, provokes and transports. I have friends who have lost the power to concentrate on the written word, others whose sight is too poor so that audio is their only option. Thanks goodness for that. Books are brilliant.

  1. Slough House. 2021. Mick Herron. Another brilliant low-life espionage tale with the ’slow horses’ (spooks who have been relegated to mundane surveillance jobs at Slough House) under threat of reprisals from the Russians after a contract killing of one of their operatives. Shades of Salisbury. Herron has built up our strange attachment to the bunch of misfits who have been relegated to the spy-reserves. Led by the deliciously grubby, tramp that is the addictively funny Jackson Lamb, this group of failures are now easily identified and welcomed by regular readers. They have cock ups and demotion in common – that’s why they work in their dingy hole rather than with the premiership stars in Regent’s Park. But they are funny, nihilistic and sharp – and here they need to be as they are each on an assassination hit-list. Herron makes the mundane work of low-level espionage both exciting and pointless! His prose crakles with wit, usually through the mouths of Lamb and his Regent’s Park nemesis/boss Diane Taverner. The sideswipes at our own politicians, Brexit, money-for-favours, Putin, Trump, the media…are all gloriously unsubtle and accurate. Great fun and tingling with danger. 8
  2. Abide With Me. 2006. Elizabeth Strout. ES is always worth reading and this, her second novel, has the small-town small mindedness which characterises plenty American soul searching novels and films. Tyler is the minister of a small New England community. His spoilt wife Lauren, whose parents felt Tyler a poor match, has died and Tyler struggles to keep his family together. His mother looks after toddler Jeannie, while Katherine lives with him. She’s unhappy at school and Tyler pinballs from one testing community to another: school, church, the gossip of the small-minded. And he is dealing with his own grief. Strout elevates the ordinary lives of people and avoids being sniffily judgemental about those whose selfishness creates nasty tensions. Her easy prose style is a winner. 7
  3. Broken Greek. 2020. Pete Paphides. The rock-journalist-DJ has written a captivating memoir of his youth, built around fish and chips, pop music of the 70s and 80s, and the curious life of an anglo-Greek growing up in a Brummie fish and chip shop. It’s fondly and well researched. It’s funny and poignant and it has that Curious Incident authenticity of voice which appeals to the child in all of us. PP’s forensic examination of the formative music of the day – from Cliff Richard to punk – is excellently woven into the story of his adolescent angst and schoolboy friendships. His love of family and discounted vinyl from Woolworth’s are given equal billing. A gem, if just a tad long at 600 pages. 8
  4. The Sentence is Death. 2018. Anthony Horowitz. The second in the series following the exploits of the disgraced detective, now freelance, Hawthorne. AH makes himself a central character, a Watson to Hawthorne’s Holmes. In so doing he casts himself as the dullard, always one step behind slick-thinking and coldly calculating Hawthorne. It’s a classic whodunit. Richard Pryce, a celebrated divorce lawyer is murdered in his London house, then his old university friend Greg commits suicide at Euston the following day. The search for clues takes us back to a caving tragedy some years earlier where a third friend, Charles, lost his life. Meanwhile the intriguing sub plot of Horowitz infiltrating his real life into the fiction rumbles on. Foyle’s War is being filmed, AH’s wife and children make an appearance and facts merge with the fiction in an odd way. The principal characters are rather unlikeable – Hawthorne is a harsh, self-centred homophobe; the police on the case, Cara Grunshaw and sidekick Darren, are dull bullies and the array of suspects either damaged or greedy. Despite this AH’s style – a parody of Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle – is easy to rattle along with. If it had been set in Midsomer I wouldn’t have been surprised. 6
  5. The Autumn of the Ace. 2020. Louis de Bernieres. The final part of the Daniel Pitt Trilogy. I wish that I had read the first two. This is a wonderful old-school romantic story of the WW1 fighter ace Daniel Pitt as he negotiates the second half of the 20th century with the world wars behind him. A tale of the damaged hero, his loves and travels, successes and failures. Like Any Human Heart, the reader is toured through the social and geopolitical history of the century with Pitt’s courage and stiff upper lip dealing variously with the vicissitudes of multiple loves and judgemental children, some of whom don’t know that he is their father. We follow, too, the journeys of Sophie, Christabel, Rosie and Gaskell, four women whose stories add to the sad brilliance of Daniel’s. De Bernieres’ exotic, generational story-telling style of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is matched here. I loved it. 8
  6. The Midnight Library. 2021. Matt Haig. Another charmingly effective fantasy tale in the sliding-doors genre of ‘What if you could lead a different life?’ Nora Seed is a depressed 30 something who has not made anything of her obvious talents. As she contemplates suicide she is transported to toe midnight library where Miss Elm presides as librarian, helping Nora find the book which will lead her back to life. It’s Similar to Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and taps into every reader’s pursuit of a fulfilling life. Charming and clever, but I lost a bit of patience with Nora. 6
  7. Box 88. 2021. Charles Cumming. Another gem of a spy novel from CC. He’s up there with Mick Herron as one of the heirs of the great Le Carre. Here we find Lachlan Kite, recruited as an 18 year old, by the super-secret group called Box 88, to identify and trace the group(s) and individuals involved in the Lockerbie bombing. Box 88 sits outside the CIA and MI6 as a super group of spies freed from governmental oversight. The Lockerbie trail remains live 30 years on and now Kite, mature and married, is kidnapped by Palestinian torturers in London. They want his memory of an Iranian spy who befriended his best friend, Xavier’s father and whom Lachlan (Lockie) met on a post A level holiday, many years earlier, in Provence. Lockie had been identified as good spy potential by Billy Peele, his history teacher and Box 88 operative. Lockie’s life story is revealed under intense terrorist interrogation. Can Box 88 rescue him before more lives are lost? Excellent. 8
  8. The Partner. John Grisham. He tells a cracking tale. Patrick Ranigan has been on the run in Brazil since he faked his own death and took off with $90 million of his law firm’s money. Patrick wanted out of a loveless marriage and fraudster partners. They were going to abandon him and the money was mostly embezzled from the US Government anyway. Ranigan, now Danilo Silva, hatches an extraordinary plan to get himself recaptured and have all charges against him dismissed. His ingenious exit strategy hinges on the brilliance of his lover Eva, who knows where all the money is held and can lead the FBI , the insurance companies and Branigan’s disreputable partners a very merry dance. It’s a racy tale of legal manoeuvering and international thuggery. Compelling enough. 6
  9. In the Days of Rain. 2017. Rebecca Stott. Deservedly was the winner of the Costa Biography award for 2017, this memoir describes the closed upbringing of Stott under the strict rule of the Exclusive Brethren, an extreme and unforgiving Christian religious sect, more extreme than the Plymouth Brethren by far. The early fanaticism of her parents in the 1970s turned to disillusionment as the crackpot American leadership became unhinged. The Stott marriage fell apart and the children, isolated in mainstream education struggled to make sense of the outside world, so very different from their creationist community. Women were not allowed to speak in ’meeting’; the literal word of the bible was law – and bent to a messianic interpretation. As I read of the extraordinary lives of the Stotts, I found frightening comparisons with Putin’s demonic control of his people and the world ’narrative.’ Katherine’s father turned to drink and gambling as he realised that his life had been built on the rule of this fanatical sect. The story is told with great skill and meticulous family research to piece together the truth of what a small child -Katherine – was observing and feeling in her early and teenage years. An enthralling read. 7
  10. Jet Man. 2020. Duncan Campbell. Subtitled ’The making and breaking of Frank Whittle’ this is the thorough and dramatic life of the great inventor of the jet engine. Campbell focusses on the fifteen years or so of Whittle’s struggle (1928-1940s) to get his his revolutionary designs taken seriously at the highest levels. It’s an extraordinary story of a mediocre schoolkid forcing his way into the highest corridors of academic accceptance by talent, unquenchable enthusiam and bloodymindedness. The political machinations and thwartings are described in great detail but the bravery ( a brilliant pilot) and determination of the man shines through. Whittle had to fight academic prejudice, the class snobbishness of Whitehall and constant setbacks but his unerring belief in himself and some significant support from important converts saw him through. His story is an extraordinary one – and might have been dealt with in a hundred fewer pages. 5
  11. The Porpoise. 2019. Mark Haddon. He of the Curious Incident…This is an affecting and rather dark tale of history repeating itself through the centuries. In the present Angelica is regularly raped by her obsessive father Phillipe, whose ‘ownership’ of her originates from his wife’s death in a plane crash. Angelica was ripped from her mother’s dying, pregnant body. Darius a moneyed but hitherto directionless playboy rescues her from Phillipe’s crazed imprisonment – but is doomed to being tracked by Phillipe’s men. And so back in time to ancient Greece and then Rome – and the hero Apollonius (Pericles)whose trials mirror that of Darius. Then we’re in Shakespeare’s London. A giddying narrative. Each story of escape and search and peril is captivating and heroic. It’s a fast moving dream world of a novel where past, present, fantasy and reality coalesce to tackle a captivating story of the human condition. 7
  12. Clock Dance. 2018. Anne Tyler. There is no one better than AT at telling an everyday tale of American (Baltimore) life. Willa and her sister Elaine had a suburban sixties upbringing with their volatile mother and steady, kind father. The tale takes us onwards in the clock dance of Willa’s life – always doing what is expected of her, giving all to husband and children but getting little in return. When she is older and greyer her son’s rejected girlfriend Denise and her daughter Cheryl need help. They live a long flight away. Willa responds to the call despite the complaints of her second husband Peter. For once Willa is making decisions for herself. As always with AT the reader is drawn into the heroic ordinariness of her characters. We are them; they are us. A simple treat. 7
  13. A Spark of Light.2018. Jodi Picoult. I could read Anne Tyler time and again but JP needs to be spaced out. Her MO is to put a moral issue centre stage and work up characters around the morality tale. Here a crazed pro-life gunman terrorises an abortion clinic. Several killed and taken hostage. We follow the killer, George and each hostage in reverse time, along with the police negotiator, Hugh, whose daughter, Wren is one of the prisoners. The novel starts as the terror is about to end and tracks back hour by hour in reverse build up, allowing for the differing tales of why each character is present, with the pro-life protesters and their banners outside the ’center’. Poverty, class, race, parenting, marriage, mental health and, of course, abortion are the banner issues. Well researched as ever but just a bit formulaic. 5
  14. A Conferacy of Dunces. 1980. John Kennedy Toole. Toole committed suicide at 32 in 1969, largely because his genius had been undiscovered. His mother pursued the publication of this extraordinary novel. It’s hero, Ignatius Reilly is a leeching slob, lives off his mother in New Orleans and through the lens of his anarchic idle super intelligence , we observe American society in a singular way. Ignatius hates society and we laugh at his grotesqueness as he wages his own war against the state of the world. He farts, overeats, lies and distorts reality. This is a farce novel as Walker Percy says, of Falstaffian dimensions. A must read, I think, despite the nihilism becoming less funny as the story rumbles on. 1981 Pullitzer Prize for fiction. 8
  15. The Burgess Boys. Elizabeth Strout. Strout, like Anne Tyler, tells stories of American families with such telling insight that the reader makes thought connections, previously unformed, on almost every page. Her handling of emotional nuance is extraordinary. This is a tale of a family whose life path turns on the moment in childhood when one of the twins, Bob, aged 4, pulls up the handbrake letting the car run over and kill his dad. This sets the pattern for the strained relationships with glamorously successful elder brother Jim, and twin Susan. They are all nearing retirement with marital problems having rumbled through their lives. In Shirley Falls Maine, Susan is a divorced wreck trying to support her monosyllabic son who, in some weird protest against the arrival of refugee Somalis, throws a pigs head into a muslim prayer meeting. Enter big shot lawyer Jim and softer, nicer, Bob, riding to the rescue from New York. This early drama forms the backdrop fir the unravelling of the lifelong family saga. They, and their partners are damaged people with much of that damage pent up through a lifetime of seething silence or superficial conversation. It’s not a thriller but I found it a thrilling read. What a writer she is. 9
  16. Transcription. 2018. Kate Atkinson. This is a post war spy novel. Juliet Armstrong is a transcriptionist of spy conversations eavesdropped in a next- door London flat. She rises from this modest beginnings and, despite reinventing herself as a radio producer in post war Britain, her life in espionage ( and counter espionage) remains hovering – there is always unfinished business in this murky world. I am writing this mini review months on from reading the thing. I enjoyed it, I know but not as much as other spy stuff. 6
  17. The Trustee from the Toolroom. 1960. Nevil Shute. NS was the writer who got me into adult reading really. His cast of heroic characters, many damaged war veterans who had commaded ships or wrestled with spitfires, who drank whisky in London clubs and brooded before another challenge sent them on their way. And equally heroic women whose deeds of derring do provided for love interest in exotic climes. There is a strong sense of social justice and morality in all his novels as far as I can recall. In Trustee (his last novel) Keith Stewart, an alter ego of Shute himself, is a poor engineering journalist eking out a humble post war suburban life with wife Katie, when his sister and brother in law drown on a hazardous trip to the south seas. Keith sets out to find their wrecked boat and give them a proper burial on the remote island. He and Katie adopt his sister’s daughter Janice despite having no money to continue her education. But there is a secret treasure on board the wrecked boat. If only Keith can find it…Shute’s intimate knowledge of planes, boats and light and aeronautical engineering is the real star of the story. Told in plain, simple narrative it rattles along, with the stoical, unfussy, unemotional tone of the 1950s. Firm handshakes and stiff upper lip. An old fashioned tale which charmed this ten year old boy and remains a thunderingly good read today! The 10 year old would have given it a 9 (On the Beach, A Town Like Alice or Requiem for a Wren are better) but a more mature reader ( or more sophisticated, I guess) … 6?
  18. Will She Do? 2021 . Eileen Atkins. Autobiography of the fine actress. Very readable, taking us from her modest Tottenham beginnings, being thrust into the clubs and dance halls by her ambitious mum, to mixing with the gilded set of Olivier, Smith, Dench et al. It’s a great story of graft, loves and losses, perseverance and fun. A spiky character dubbed by an early producer as ’unattractive but sexy’. An easy read of a striking woman. 6
  19. The Museum of Broken Promises. 2019. Elizabeth Buchan. A political love story. Laure flees England in the 1980s after a failed love affair and finds herself au pairing in the Prague Spring of Czechoslovakia. Petr, her boss, is an agent of the state; Tomas her new lover is a dissident musician fighting for a more liberal and decent life. The action flits from 1986 to the Paris of today where Laure, bruised and battered from experience has set up the museum of the title. Having escape the clutches of the brutal secret police of Prague she needs to know what has happened to her beloved Tomas. At first I found the narrative rather deliberately stylised but I was drawn in to the compelling tale of the bravery of the few whose sense of justice and mission drives them to face the ultimate dangers of those who protest: beatings, rape, death. It seemed prescient and formidable. 8
  20. If You Tell. 2019. Greg Olsen. I had heard of this chilling true-tale of abuse by Shelley, mother, of her three girls ( and others) Nikki, Sami and Tori. The relentless, awful detail lost some impact because the repetitive and dull narrative blunted things. Men were complicit in the years of abuse and manipulation, people died, unimaginable damage done. But, sad to say, I found it dull and far too long. One can take only so much reality. 3
  21. Poems to Learn by Heart. 2020. Ana Sampson. I picked this up in the library as it had many of the poems which I was exposed or subjected to at school. A quick and nostalgic read. Not worth learning any more poems off by heart as, at my age, the words fly off before they have a chance to stick. 5
  22. Many Rivers to Cross. 2019. Peter Robinson. The recent DCI Banks saga, this time there is a county lines drug war in, of all places, Eastvale. A young Syrian refugee is found murdered. Albanian mafia with sex and drug trafficking has come to Yorkshire. Banks’ nose for alternative explanations serves him well. Meanwhile, his friend Zelda goes searching for revenge on the rapists and predators who sold her into sex slavery. Usual stuff. Readable and forgettable, if a tad disturbing. 6
  23. Elizabeth Finch. 2022. Julian Barnes. His latest. An intriguing read, as ever from JB. Elizabeth Finch is a free thinking lecturer of a culture and civilisation course who beguiles many of her students – Neil in particular. Her inspiration, Neil discovers, comes from the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate, who was both ecumenical and pagan. The novel is in three parts. The first covers Elizabeth’s influence on the group; the second is a tour through Hellenic history with a degree of Dawkins-esque scepticism about the benefits of organised religion; the third is Neil’s continuing posthumous research and pursuit of EF’s story. I raced through the thing ( under 200 pages) but didn’t feel that EF was real, somehow. She is described and behaves so enigmatically that she eludes the reader altogether. Her detachment is such that it is hard to believe that she develops a student following or why Neil is so besotted by her. For all this I found the thing a page turner but I do suspend my critical judgements somewhat when I read Barnes. The Guardian review is both more damning and interesting than the above. 6
  24. The Girl With No Name. 20121. Reine Andrieu. The blurb and the fact that this was in translation from the French drew me to this in the library. It’s a recognisable story of collaboration and resistance in Vichy France during WW2. Gunter is a German officer billeted with Dr Arnaud and Mrs Noemie Renoir and family. Of course he is a sensitive, honourable Nazi and falls for Noemie. A love triangle, a Jewish family hiding in the cellar, caricatured Gestapo and resistance fighters plus a narrative which is a series of diary entries which shoot back and forth in time and are written from several points of view. The central character, Solveig, the Lenoirs’ elder daughter, is the fulcrum of the tale, which begins with her being found, aged 10 in 1946, having suffered the trauma which has led to her total amnesia. The whole tale unfolds thereafter. Well it could have been a good yarn and the translation is humorously naive but the more I read , the more facile and silly the dialogue and coincidental plot became. By the time I had finished it, I had decided that Reine Andrieu must have penned this as a schoolgirl and a relative at Stodder and Houghton had given the novel an unjustified thumbs up. Thumbs down from me. 3
  25. The Living Sea of Waking Dreams. 2021. Richard Flanagan. A big departure from the Booker winner The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Here we have Flanagan in apocalyptic metaphor mode telling the tale of the hospice decline of Francie in a Tasmanian facility while her middle aged children strive to keep her skeletal body alive. Two of them, Terzo and Anna, are highly successful and know what’s best – throw money at the problem. Sustaining a pained shell of a life is better than a calm and dignified death. Stuttering Tommy, the younger brother, is discounted as an embarrassing runt but he has the greater humanity. Fires are raging all over Australia, taking lives and devastating the environment. But the world blunders on. Anna starts to lose body parts, first a finger, then breast and eyes. Then others do the same. It’s a clunky metaphor. She ignores her losses and carries on, as she does when her son steals regularly from her. As they all did when Ronnie (another son) committed suicide after abuse by Father Michael. The plot focuses on the story of Francie’s incarceration and slow slide to death. The death of humanity while we allow it. The tale is sustained by Flanagan’s brilliant prose: smooth, surprising, surreal, magnetic. Ultimately it’s a dour, apocalyptic tale, rescued by brilliant writing and a hopeful ending. 6
  26. Joni Mitchell Ruined My Life. 2022. Chris Grayling. The second part of my mate Chris’s autobiography. The university years and his twenties. It’s novella-length and a quick and engaging read. The narrative has the funny slickness of a good open mike session, while the underlying frailties of a young country lad away from home are poignantly effective. Such an easy read. 6
  27. Cuttings: Prose and Poems. 2022. John Trotman. A pity that I have leant this to a mate so I’m reviewing from memory. My great buddy John Trotman’s second book and I was captivated. You can’t read his pieces in one go. He ranges ( and rages ) over life. We travel between his past and our present including the recent farce of our politics and those across the pond; Ukraine; a fondly remembered friend, Martin Horwood and a host of connections that combine the personal and the prophetic. John is a wordsmith whose prose and poetry have both elegance and a muscularity born of a lifetime of literary experience. There’s fun here and poignancy and wit. I’m biased, I guess but this collection makes great reading. 7
  28. I am Sovereign. 2019. Nicola Barker. Ali Smith called this novel a masterpiece. She would. It is very odd in that Tristram Shandy-cum-Ulysses way which beguiles but frustrates. Charles is a 40 yr old teddy bear maker selling his late mother’s house to a strange Chinese woman called Wang Shu. Avigail (yes A-vi-Gail) is the estate agent friend helping him. The text is in varying fonts, à la text/ email at times, I s’pose, and the 20 minute viewing lasts the whole novel and is concluded with a writerly reflection on writing by the author. There is the strong sense that Barker is writing about the tragedies of inclusion and exclusion, of sovereignty v rejection; the boundaries of truth and fiction. If you want a metatextual analysis, read the pretentious Guardian review. Barker’s book is odd, occasionally funny, strangely readable and commendably short. 6
  29. The Last Thing To Burn. 2020. Will Dean. This is a disturbing tale of sex trafficking and kidnap which was a slog to get through. Than Dao, a Vietnamese illegal immigrant, is imprisoned on a remote farm by a mad, abusive sex beast of a farmer called Lenn. For seven years. He feds her horse tranquillisers to make her dependent and smashes her ankles to prevent escape. She clings to the memory of her sister, Kim Ly and the hope of escape. And she falls pregnant with the beast’s child. The narrative is harrowing and actually numbing and dull. There is little relief – not even at the end. Marian Keyes suggested that ’Misery meets Room’ and thought the book a triumph. I don’t think so. 3
  30. A Partisan’s Daughter. 2008. Louis de Bernieres. I’m a fan of L de B. He tells tales of considerable scope while concentrating on just a few characters who have depth while being unknowable. His grasp of geopolitical history is huge; his story telling, pleasingly old school. Here we have middle aged Chris languishing in a tepid and sexless marriage, attracted to Roza, ex prostitute and illegal immigrant from war torn Yugoslavia (Serbian). The narrative voice switches from Chris to Roza as, mostly, she tells he experiences of Balkan mayhem of the 1970s. Chris, besotted, listens with adoration, hoping for sex and, perhaps, love. He is out of touch with his time and his daughter, who scorns his attempts at trendiness. Roza’s dad, the Tito partisan, allegedly deflowered her – at her request. Her life tales are, actually, compelling, reading like a memoir and tracking her life with some poignancy. A really good, quiet and informative read. 7/8
  31. Amy and Isabelle. 1998. Elizabeth Strout. What a debut this was for the eminent novelist. The small town world of Shirley Falls, a couple of hours from the exotic suburbs of Boston, is brilliantly evoked by a woman whose novels I lap up. Isabelle is the single mother of Amy, an awkward and attractive teenager whose dangerous crush on her Maths teacher will lead to a huge life lesson. Isabelle’s relationship with her daughter, her work colleagues and her past is constipated and unhappy. As the story of mother and daughter unfolds the reader realises that this is a tale of regret and longing for a better life. Characters tumble in and out of the narrative: from work, school, church, the past. Infidelities, long held secrets, triumphs and disasters – the brittleness of life and the possibility that one’s whole life turns on a moment. Sex, death, the desperation for love, the tawdriness of much of it. Almost the heart of the novel is Fat Bev, who tells it how it is; a woman whom Isabelle first took as insubstantial but whose honesty and tenderness shines through. ES may be considered a novelist who writes for women. She writes for us all. A captivating read. 8
  32. The Hand That First Held Mine. 2010. Maggie O’Farrell. The plot has a split timeline. Firstly Lexie Sinclair a feisty Devon girl seeks excitement and love in the post war art world of London’s Soho. She finds both – and falls for the charismatic Innes Kent whose wife has betrayed him during wartime but feels vicious jealousy for his new relationship. She passes on her vitriol to her daughter Margot. Then we flip forward a generation and meet Ted and Elina, who have just had a son – Elina almost dying giving birth. It doesn’t take long to realise the link between the two stories and the flitting between one and t’other enables a neat look into the 1950s and 60s. Motherhood, possession, deceit and the power of love ( and betrayal) are strong themes. The competing stories build a real tension as the separate tales merge. As ever with Maggie O’F, the simple, eloquent prose carries the reader along. 7
  33. Too Many Reasons to Live. 2021. Rob Burrow with Ben Dirs. Poignant, funny, heartwarming. The Leeds Rhinos scrum half tells the story of his life, his love for Lindsey, his wife and children and how he discovered and lived with MND. Although there’s rather too much season by season rugby analysis for the disinterested reader, there is also much that moves – about his growing up gnome-sized and fighting his way to the top; the support of his close family; the banter of the changing room; the players he admires. Woven into the narrative are thoughts and memories of family, friends and rugby legends. Uplifting, not depressing. 6
  34. The Coral Thief. 2009. Rebecca Stott. Following my enjoyment of In the Days of Rain, I picked up this post Napoleonic tale of love and biological research in the Paris of 1815. Daniel Connor is a keen young student of the origins of species. He is keen to study under the guru de Cuvier but his letters of introduction and fossil collection are stolen from him by a mysterious woman on the coach into Paris. There begins a thrilling tale of passion, research, conflicting theories- pre Darwin, Darwinists versus the rest, including creationists. The atmosphere is much like A Tale of Two Cities as the underworld of Paris is excitingly conjured by Stott’s melodramatic narrative. The thief-turned- police chief Jagot needs to find the mysterious woman, Lucienne Bernard, before she escapes to Italy. Daniel seems to be a pawn in both hers and Jagot’s game.Napoleon’s exile in St. Helena is a parallel story. Paris is still searching for an identity, after the loss of the Emperor. Convincing – and brilliantly researched. 7
  35. Remarkable Creatures. 2009. Tracy Chevalier. I am a big fan of TC as I get drawn in to her stylsh narrative and brilliant evocation of period and character. Her she tells the story of Mary Anning, the famous Lyme Regis fossil hunter of the early 19th century. The feral, impoverished Mary is befiended by Elizabeth Philpot an Austenesque young spinster whose brother has inherited the London house and consigned his three sisters to a modest rental existence in Lyme. Elizabeth is entranced by fish fossils but her knowledge and ’nose’ in fossil hunting is bettered by the rough Mary. The drama of their discoveries and striving for recognition is woven into the larger stories of Darwin’s researches for the origins of species, the work of Cuvier in Paris and the tense debates with religious creationists. Oddly Napoleon’s final days on St Helena feature. Love and jealousy add to the beguiling mix. It’s a wonderful piece of ’faction’ and draws the reader in such a similar fashion to Miss Austen. 7
  36. The Man Who Died Twice. 2021. Richard Osman. Having been underwhelmed by the first in the Thursday Murder Club series, I decided to give the follow up a try. It’s a bit better, I suppose. The geriatric foursome are on the trail of £20million worth of diamonds stolen by Elizabeth’s ex husband ( also an MI5 spy). Meanwhile Ibrahim has been mugged by Ryan, a local drug seller and the four seek revenge. Ron and Joyce go along with most of Elizabeth’s stratagems as do the submissive local CID in the shape of Chris and Donna. It’s funny, well plotted and, I admit, I have come to smile at the neat characterisations of the intrepid foursome. Bogdan, their ’enforcer’ is also a great invention. For all this I’m not sure that I’ll read another – and I hope that Richard Osman gives Agatha Christie a mention in his memoirs. 6
  37. The Last Runaway. 2013. Tracy Chevalier. Although I have just read Remarkable Creatures, Belinda found this on the library shelves so it would have been rude not to give it a whirl. Honor Bright, a Quaker girl, jilted and unhappy, emigrates to America with her quilting skills, hope for a better life. Her accompanying sister Grace, heading for marriage in the new world, dies young and Honor is left to make her own life. A woman who seeks high minded causes, she finds herself involved with helping slaves escape their enslavement. I found Honor a rather unsympathetic, constipated character. Are we supposed to admire her? Brilliantly researched, of course…but I found it a tad dull. I had read it before, I realised early on – and I think that I reviewed it better than this. Sad really. 5
  38. Last One at the Party. 2021. Bethany Clift. This dystopian novel was published with a certain amount of fanfare. I have no idea why. Set in a sort-of post killer Covid type virus a woman thinks that she is the only human left alive in the UK. And so we follow her increasingly desperate travels to find food, security, contact, friendship, a meaning to existence. Rotting corpses abound, repetitive stretches of narrative and ridiculous hiccoughs in credible plotting and coincidences, diminish the effect so that I lost all interest in whether she survived or not. I suppose Bethany Clift caught something of the dire state that the world seems to be in but she should return to matters present for future efforts. 2
  39. Judas 62. 2021. Charles Cumming. I had to get hold of the follow up to Box 88, the first of CC’s spy tales about the secret organisation combining off-grid spies from CIA and MI5/6. Lachlan Kite is now at the top of Box 88 and fully embedded in the organisation. The current threat is the Russian’s determination to root out double agents of old and Novichok them or similar. Litvinenko, then Skripal.. now an old spy enjoying a fishing trip in the Adirondacks has been eliminated. Kite knows that Yuri Aranov a Soviet defector from the cold war days, will be a likely target for the ex KGB fixer Gromik. Kite is also on the Putin elimination list and has to find a way to counter the increasing number of bold contract killings perpetrated by the Russians on foreign soil. Kite needs a reconciliation with his wife Isobel and daughter Ingrid, spooked into leaving him in fear for their lives. Part back story, part up to the minute commentary of the present dangers of Putin’s regime, this is a cracker. As with the new wave of spy novels Cumming is developing a great series where we get to know the central characters well. Start with Box 88 and you’ll never look back. 8
  40. Offshore. 1979. Penelope Fitzgerald. I have come a little late to PF but now I have arrived, I shall continue! This is a little gem of a novella. Set in the early 1960s on the Battersea Reaches of the Thames, we are introduced to the group of boats owners and renters who have washed up, offshore to share the experience of living on the water. From six year old Tilda and her restless mother Nenna, to the ageing gay hippy Maurice to ex Naval man Richard (whose wife abhors living on the water) the reader can delight in a tapestry of wonderful observation and individual stories which capture the time, PF’s own experiences of narrowboat living. Humour and pathos abound. Excellent. 8
  41. Case Histories. 2004. Kate Atkinson’s fourth novel and the first in the Jackson Brodie series. This starts grimly with three tragedies: the murder of a girl on her gap year in her father’s solicitor’s office; the disappearance of a small girl many years before; a distraught mother loses her temper and attacks her husband with an axe. Jackson Brodie is a commendably damaged ex army, ex copper, now private investigator whose contempt for his ex wife’s new squeeze is inversely comparable to his love for his young daughter Marlee. Jackson has a strong moral core – it is the heart of the novel – and his pursuit of cold cases is driven as much by his understanding of the need for truth and closure as it is for remuneration and justice. KA has a neat knack of establishing her characters so they are easy to like or dislike as she fills in their back stories. An unusual crime novel. 7
  42. Crow Lake. 2002. Mary Lawson- her first published novel at the age of 56. Set in northern Ontario it is the tale of Kate Morrison, a college lecturer in zoology who lost her parents in a car crash when she was seven. This left teenage brothers Luke and Matt to raise the family, which included baby Elizabeth (Bo) on meagre incomes in remote farming country. The boys shelved plans for university and stayed local. The privations of remote living and the schism arising from those who escape and those who remain drive the novel. Kate is fiercely attached to brother Matt who has given up a glittering academic career but while he comes to terms with this, Kate cannot. Written in the smooth psychological style of an Anne Tyler or Elizabeth Strout – both of whom (along with many others) write so well about the remote communities of North America – this is a gem of a book subtly revealing the influences of upbringing, social standing, wrong turns and how we can never shake off our early lives.I read it in a couple of sittings. 8
  43. Fault Line. Robert Goddard. A West Country clay mining saga – more Jeffery Archer than anything else – which starts with the 1950s suicide of the owner of a small mining company on the eve of a takeover. His son, Oliver, who witnessed the suicide seems similarly to have died a decade later. Jonathan Kellaway, a teenage friend of Oliver, now a long time employee of the giant company, now head- office in Georgia, USA, is sent to investigate the gaps in the various companies’ archives in St Austell. Greed, ambition and murder…with love interest thrown in. Fluent. Poolside reading. 5
  44. Brief Answers to the Big Questions. 2021. Stephen Hawking. Published posthumously this is a stimulating series of essays in which SH ponders some of the giant questions of our time. In simple, direct and relatable language, his explorations are fascinating. Why are we here? God v Science. What’s in a black hole? etc. 7
  45. Macbeth. 2021. Jo Nesbo. I have enjoyed the Harry Hole series but found this experimental novel didn’t work for me. Nesbo takes the Scottish tale of power and disloyalty to a dystopian Fife when Duncan is the Chief Commissioner and Macbeth head of his anti drugs SWAT squad. The tales of ambition, murder and revenge mirror Shakespeare’s but I found that the very predictability which captivates on stage, dulls the edge of this crime novel. Certainly Nesbo provides his usual noir atmosphere but I struggled to engage. 4
  46. 1979. 2021. Val McDermid. First in the Allie Burns (investigative journalist) series – and a feeling that Allie Burns is Val McD in another life. Here the independence momentum is gathering as the winter of discontent gets a grip of Scotland. Allie and her journo mate Danny Sullivan infiltrate a terrorist cell likely to break into violence shortly. As their subterfuge increases in intensity, so do the dangers. A nice departure for Val, showing her increasing flexibility. I wasn’t gripped but I did enjoy the life of cynical hacks and the power games of the newsroom. 6
  47. The Man on Hackpen Hill. 2021. J.S. Monroe. Part psychological drama, part big drug company crime caper. Jim and Bella are two clever but psychologically damaged people who uncover the use of human guinea pigs for testing anti psychotic drugs. A whistle blower seems to be sending messages via complicated crop circle mathematical teasers. Added to which a dead body is found in each of three crop circles. Coppers Silas and Strover struggle to unravel the evidence. Jim and Bella, scientist and journalist, edge towards the truth…but are they really who they say they are? This is a well-researched drama with a high degree of unconvincing conspiracy theory mixed in. However, given what we know of Porton Down, the use of nerve agents and the involvement of dark forces ( eg at Salisbury), it’s not without some credibility. 6
  48. Butterfly Brain. 2009. Barry Cryer. The jokester died earlier this year and I picked up this as a small homage. It’s an anecdotal autobiography of his main working years. Mostly a luvvie tribute to those whom he has come across over his main working years. It’s fun but, I guess his real autobiography might be more revealing. A substantial life making people laugh. 5
  49. Double Agent. 2020. Tom Bradby. The second of the newsreader’s spy capers with an up to date feel. Kate Henderson, a high ranking MI6 operative, already reeling from the defection to the Russians of her husband, now has some evidence that the pm ( too much like Boris to be a complete coincidence) is likely at the heart of a sleazy paedophile scandal. Kate places herself in great danger – in Venice, in Moscow, in London – all the while trying to keep her family together as her past rears up in her present. Pretty compelling actually. 7
  50. Smuggling. 2014. Chris McCooey. Picked up at the library and a really detailed ( I skipped a few pages) history of smuggling, focussing on its heyday in the 18 th century but nodding to the present and ancient past. I was particularly interested in the Hawkhurst Gang and was delighted with the excellent coverage. An excellent read for Kent locals but a much wider reference for general interest. A thesis-turned-book, it suffers only a little from earnestness. 6.
  51. Two Women in Rome. 2021. Elizabeth Buchan. Lottie is a newly married archivist living in Rome. She gets drawn to the life of garden designer Nina who died in 1978 but whose papers she discovered while researching a mediaeval painting. Lottie’s own recent marriage to Tom is a story that runs into her researches of the past- the turmoil of post war Italy. As with another favourite of mine, Tracy Chevalier, the research is excellent and the evocation of time and place so tangible. The story of two women is a treat to read. 7/8
  52. Cast Iron. 2017. Peter May. The sixth in the Enzo Macleod series. Enzo is a forensic psychology professor who moonlights by investigating cold cases. He is a half-Scottish , half-Italian middle aged man with a trail of broken relationships and a variety of children, living in France and currently helping a son in law he doesn’t like or trust, to complete a book on unsolved murders. Improbable you might think…but May’s instinct for research and his knowledge of the country and language gives this crime thriller an edge. Lucie Martin’s murder years before, is the main touchstone for the narrative but the action takes us from Paris to Bordeaux, from tenements to chateaux, from Côte d’Azur to high security prison. It’s a poolside read and probably one for middle aged men…like me. 6
  53. A Lonely Man. 2021. Chris Power. This pick up from the library had me pretty captivated from the off. Robert has writer’s block and can’t complete his commissioned first novel. With Swedish wife Katrijn and young daughters he has removed to Berlin where Katrijn, an upholsterer, seems to be the breadwinner while Robert struggles with pen on paper. Enter Patrick, whom Robert meets by chance at a local bookshop and then rescues from being beaten up, which the drunken Patrick probably deserved. Patrick tells Robert his melodramatic story over dinner. What is true and what is fabrication? He claims to have ghost written the autobiography of an out of favour oligarch, who has apparently committed suicide. Now Patrick is in fear for his life…but he is a storyteller. What is truth and what is fiction? Robert becomes ensnared because he want to write Patrick’s story. Are they being followed? Power’ excellent narrative plays with the reader – smoke and mirrors or reality? And is Robert’s family under threat? Suspenseful and clever stuff. 8
  54. Women of Troy. 2022. Pat Barker. Another reimagining of classic history which PB, along with Hilary Mantel, Maggie O’Farrell and others who have managed it so brilliantly. This may be a less warlike version of Conn Iggulden but gets under the skin of the women who were at the mercy of the men of Ancient Greece. Troy has been breached; their women – Helen included- are chattels, playthings and victims of the testosterone-fuelled victors. And yet they survive to influence, even to power. It’s a tale of sex and survival – and reinvigorates the legends of the ancient world with humanity. 7
  55. Beartown. 2022. Frederik Backman’s latest social morality thriller about a remote, economically bankrupt Nordic town which only has the waning prestige of its ice hockey team to keep morale and conversation up. The juniors, led by Kevin and Benji, have won round after round of the national cup. Could their success turn the fortunes of the town round? Backman throws in the grenade of a high school party rape which sets the rag bag of characters in the town against each other. The place implodes. The obsession with ice hockey and the nuclear importance of the team and the club are set against real life values of truth, honesty and loyalty. The adults come out worse than the kids. In the end, although life changing damage is done, the power of friendship and love just about wins us over. The cloying, dominating importance of the brutal game wears rather thin at times but the moral dilemmas come thick and fast. We are drawn in by the goodies v the baddies. Backman writes a good yarn. 6
  56. Lessons. 2022. Ian McEwan. Another peculiar Bildungsroman from the master of odd. This is a life story of Roland which spans the reign of our departed queen. But Any Human Heart it is not. McEwan’s psychological obsessions prevent him from a linear, thunderingly-good-read type of ride. Roland has a depth and strangeness born of an affair with his music teacher which started when he was eleven. Yes, eleven! By 14 the affair was intensely sexual and by middle age Roland’s life was defined by it. IM loves these quirk-triggers which lay time bombs for protagonists throughout their lives. He is adept, like William Boyd, Sebastian Faulks et al, at weaving the social and political culture of the day into the narrative. Rationing, Suez, Dylan, Thatcher, the fall of the Berlin Wall…all and more make a difference to the psychological dynamic of the ebook. It’s odd, but I couldn’t put it down. 8
  57. The Reign. Life in Elizabeth’s Britain. 2022. Matthew Engel. Presciently timed publication coinciding with her death, this is a historical sweep through the 50s, 60s and 70s. It’s big but so readable. While a joy for a septuagenarian like me, there is an engaging modernity to attract most readers. Both anecdotal and impressively researched – and full of wit- this is a social history to enjoy. 8
  58. The Slowworm’s Song. 2022. Andrew Miller. The story of Stuart Rose. told by a diary letter to his daughter Maggie whose upbringing he missed, as his time serving in the army at the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland had damaged him so badly. And now he is being asked to go back to relive those destructive days with the promise of ‘no blame’ protection – a poisoned chalice? The sustained thoughtful beauty of the prose carries what could have been a wearying monologue to a level of story telling which tugs at the heart. ….is a deeply damaged man trying to find a way back to himself. Can he manage it? Compulsive reading. 8
  59. The Imposter. 2008. Damon Galgut. Shortlisted for the Booker. Adam Napier is a middle aged privately educated South African who has to rely on his successful younger brother Gavin for a roof and income. Post Mandela that country is struggling to make significant progress. One form of corruption has succeeded another. Adam retreats to his brother’s bush house in remote town to write poetry, a futile project. He bumps into Kenneth Canning an old boarding school friend whom he can’t remember but who claims that the bed-wetting Adam had changed his life. Canning is a rich and damaged adult married to the inscrutably sexy, black Baby. He is a grubby version of Gatsby; amoral, vengeful and pathetic. He wants to bulldoze the natural landscape and build a millionaires’ golf complex. It can only be done by criminal means. Pay the right people. Adam’s involvement with Canning compromises him. The claustrophobic tension of the piece exemplified by the two men becoming reliant on spending each weekend with each other. It’s a tense story which operates on various levels: political, moral, criminal, emotional, social. Humans are easily discarded. Political freedom for the underprivileged communities is no freedom at all, it seems. Tense and riveting stuff. A fascinating insight into the evolving state of the rainbow nation.7/8
  60. A Slow Fire Burning. 2021. Paula Hawkins. Another crime/ psycho drama from Paula Hawkins. It has the local intimacy of a Thursday Murder Club plot – set in a canal suburb of London with characters who have links with each other’s pasts. Daniel has been murdered on his narrow boat and Laura is in the frame. She’s a damaged mad girl who spent the night of Daniel’s murder in bed with him. Cue the intro of a sub- Christie cast of suspects. Miriam, the canal busybody who has a serious grudge against Daniel’s relatives; Theo and Carla whose three year old son Ben was tragically killed when being looked after by Daniel’s mother Angela; the possibility of suicide…and so it goes on. The bemused CID dubbed Egg ( bald) and Eyebrow, (fat and ugly) are sure that Laura is to blame. Poolside stuff. 5
  61. Road Ends. Mary Lawson. After Crow Lake, I fancied another ML novel – this one again set in the remote wilds of northern Ontario. Like other novels of its type we follow the trapped and sometimes tragic lives of a small remote communities but make profound links to the human condition. Edward Cartwright is a small town bank manager unable and uninterested in family life despite siring 10 children. Megan, the only girl, gives up on the never ending chores of home ( mother Emily seems only fit for production but child care is beyond her) and heads to England. Family life disintegrates. We follow the various stories, mostly sad, of those making their lives in, harsh snowed-in remote Canada and Megan, a small town girl in London. I found it hard to put down, despite wanting the main characters to get over themselves and the disappointments of their lives. 6
  62. The Romantic. 2022. William Boyd. Another cradle to grave Bildungsroman of a novel from WB. As Any Human Heart spanned the 20 th century life of Logan Mounstuart, so The Romantic is the story of Cashel Grenville Ross of the 19th century. Born a bastard in Ireland, Ross makes and loses fortunes as he travels the world adventurously: a regimental drummer at Waterloo, an officer in the Indian Army, a travel writer in Italy, an explorer in Africa, a brewer in Massachusetts, diplomat in Trieste. And lover and such a romantic at heart. Ross encounters Byron and Shelley and other notables along the way. Fittingly romantics all. A sweep of a novel. Magnificent and moving – such an uplifting read. 9
  63. I Love This Game. 2021. Patrice Evra’s autobiography. As a United fan, I fancied a read of the mad Frenchman’s story – mostly ghosted. It’s an engaging tale of a young, black tearaway from the slums of Paris who rises to football stardom. A fiery and complex character, whose Gallic quirks make this an eye opening read. Literary merit, neglible, entertainment value considerable – if you’re a fan. 5
  64. In a House of Lies. 2018. Ian Rankin. Got 50 pages in and realised that I’d read it. Cold case reopened after the body of a gay private investigator is discovered. Murky noises of police corruption and cover ups back in the day. Evidence withheld or ignored. DI Siobhan Clarke is on the case with her boss Sutherland. Rebus, now retired in some poor odour is keen to help his protege Siobhan. Whether the powers that be want him around is questionable. The skeletons of senior officers seem set to rise up. A good late bottled Rebus. 6
  65. The Reign. 2022. Matthew Engel. Such an excellent and accessible first volume ( from 1952-1979) social history of the last 70 years – the span of the Queen’s reign. For someone of my vintage there is plenty of nostalgia, of course, but Engel’s talent is to combine heavy historical research and accuracy with lively anecdote and a satirist’s wicked wit to deliver a smile for the reader on almost every page. It’s both a light and weighty tome. By my bed for a few weeks, delicious to dip in and return. I was sorry when the journey was over. 8 Just realised that I have already reviewed this – see no 56!
  66. The Promise. 2021. Damon Galgut. Last year’s Booker winner. A transfixing tale of a broken land-owning family in the pre and post Apartheid years. Set in the rural farmland outside Johannesburg, this is the story, principally of the dysfunctional Swart family- sisters Astrid and Amor and brother Anton. All are damaged by upbringing, marriage and religion, never mind the social and political upheavals going on around them. The promise of the title is one made by the siblings’ father Marnie to their dying mother: to give ownership of the servant shack-house to Salome, their long serving black tenant. Amor, the then young pubescent teenage daughter hears the promise and witnesses her father’s denial. This single act changes the course of the Swart family story. It’s a great sweep of a story in the social and cultural sense but also, locally, of family and neighbourhood in fighting, the corruption of religious elders and the frailty of blood ties, despite the power of childhood attachment. Galgut’s prose and range are captivating. When he says nothing, he says a lot. Brilliant. 9
  67. The Trees. 2022. Percival Everett. Booker shortlisted absurdist satire on America and race. We’re in Mississippi and white men in the backwater town Money are being murdered. And their genitals are placed in the hands of a dead black man who may or may not have been the victim of the KKK. Or some other prejudicial slaughtering. Money is white so when three black investigators turn up to help the sheriff with the murder investigation, things get tasty. It’s a startling and chilling and funny novel – Ionesco in prose.8

And that’s it for this year. I have just started Billy Summers, Stephen King’s latest which I gave to my friend Stuart. He read and returned it. I’m enjoying it so far and will pass it on in 2023 to whoever shows interest. Perhaps Lesley at our local library will want it. The library and Lesley are treasures.

Crossing the line: the subjectivity of truth.

2 Dec

Just how sorry are we for the Germans? The truth of the Japanese winner against Spain was a ‘now you see it; no – you don’t! ‘ moment. Over a decade earlier a Lampard goal for England v Germany – a metre over the line – had been ruled out by hapless officials, so not much sympathy in our household. Twitter was alive with Cleese shouting ‘Don’t mention the VAR!’ – all good clean fun. But the controversies of VAR symbolise our very real struggles with truth. Your truth is not my truth. And you can’t argue with my interpretation of my ‘lived’ experience. VAR can cancel what an expert and experienced referee sees and feels.

So far I have enjoyed the World Cup – the footie, not the punditry. Endless vacuous verbal diarrhoea from inarticulate pundits (well not all but most) with the shame of some foreign experts using the English language better than our own. Hey ho. Players fall to the floor, poleaxed, writhing but leap to their feet when a yellow card is confirmed on their assailant. Girls’ blouses. Shouldn’t say that.

Lady Susan Hussey, the abusive octogenarian, has been consigned to the bin of Empire. No doubt she is all 1950s clipped vowels and condescension. Ngozi Fulani of Sistah Space has done for her. Lady Susan was silly, even stupid but she crossed a line that has been drawn in thick red ink. The problem is not the red line, it is that certain red lines are much thicker than others – and are non-negotiable, not even to be discussed, talked through, understood. Perhaps there should be little compassion or excuse for Lady Susan. Perhaps she is a courtly anachronism. But I wonder if she deserved the vilification via twitter and the media. Sistah Space carried the day at the expense of an old lady. The old lady apologised but apologies no longer rate. Outrage wins. My truth beats your excuses.

JK Rowling has felt the cold wind of disapproval. Gender v sex. Two truths are told but only one interpretation is acceptable. If you disagree, cancellation not consideration is the inevitable result. It’s a sad state of affairs because conversation and honest debate is closed down. The excellent first Reith Lecture by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, on Freedom of Speech, was wide-ranging and wholly supportive of the cliched but important notion of the right to express opinions of any sort (not untruths, nor inciting violence) without fear. This is no longer the case.

Of course the ubiquity of social media amplifies and distorts. I notice that friends lower their voices when discussing certain topics in a public space. Fear. Some topics are taboo, no go; who will disagree, who will be outraged? Rail strikes, all strikes for that matter, Trans rights, Just Stop Oil, ‘Invasion’ of migrants. Better keep quiet, stick to the football. That’s a minefield, though. Qatar. Dead labourers, backhanders to get the tournament in the first place, FIFA not allowing rainbow armbands; Gary Neville on Have I Got News For You.

And then there’s Matt Hancock. There was something apocalyptic about that awful programme. It demeans us. There’s a truth about giant mistakes made during the pandemic (and, we should recognise, a few significant achievements) – but when people have died, Mr Hancock should have stayed quietly doing his constituency work.

As the brilliant Christine McVie slipped off her mortal coil, Sir Elton, defying his years, is headlining Glastonbury 2023. Music seems to soothe and save us all. Last night’s tribute to Christine McVie and Fleetwood Mac, elicited the observation that ‘Many of those songs wouldn’t get released today’. Which ones, I wondered? I started listing in my head. It didn’t take me long for the blue pencil to score out much of the canon of the last 70 years.

Music is full of truths wrapped up melodically in a fiction. I learn more, quite often, from reading fiction than being presented with the truth according to others. My 2022 booklist is soon to be published. It’s funny how fiction can morph into fact.

To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus..

21 Oct

Macbeth knew a thing or two about ambition and how precarious the top job can be if you have illegitimately won the prize. The UK was once respected as a global standard for honesty and integrity in politics, secure and trustworthy in trade and economics. We have cascaded down reputation’s snake so far. Laughing stock.

As Liz Truss stepped up to the lectern a demonic smile played on her lips. She seemed to enjoy launching herself at the sword of self destruction. Her endgame had been satisfied by shaking the purple hand of a dying monarch and a nightmare curtsy to the Queen’s bewildered successor. Vaulting ambition was complete when she engineered the sick celebrity of being the shortest-lived PM in our history. With Kwasi she rushed towards a grisly infamy with insane relish.

The Tories have been in thrall of those whose personal ambition and short termism have trumped integrity, service, long term planning and..truth. Parliament, the Party and the People have been secondary to personal conceit and ambition. Of course there are plenty of honourables in Westminster but so many have been blown off conscionable course by the the sound and fury of reprobates. It’s hard to watch Johnson, Rees-Mogg et al without shouting at the TV: You lying, cheating, self-serving, stuck up, shambolic bastards. Liz Truss’s parliamentary pension alone will be at least half her PM salary for the rest of her days – indeed all the disgraceful Tories will be laughing all the way to be bank while our National services crumble and our economy tanks.

Of course it is regrettable that decent MPs get tarred with the same brush as those at the helm. Strange that Jeremy Hunt appears to be the adult in the room as he sipped from the poisoned chalice of Chancellorship. The fast-track leadership election will be a desperate attempt to save a Conservative Party on a ventilator. If Boris Johnson gains any traction they are doomed. As with Macbeth he is ‘…in blood/stepped in so far, that, should I wade no more/ returning wee as tedious as go o’er.’

Ad hominem, ad infinitum

14 Jul

In his death throes, Boris turned yesterday’s PMQs into even more of a pantomime as he unleashed his Inbetweeners-style silly verbals on Keir Starmer. Serious questions were batted away with a brio of non sequitur and ad hominem. Answering questions truthfully and succinctly has become redundant; Punch and Judy is all.

I confess that I giggled like a naughty schoolboy at BoJo’s snide taunt of Starmer. ’Captain Crasherooney Snoozefest,’ he jibed. Pure panto but politics it ain’t. Or is this the level we expect? It’s not wit, it is farce; not incisive, merely evasive.

Social media encourages half-wits to slag off others without engaging in discussion respectfully. Adopt a point of view (perhaps unquestioningly), stick to it – and viciously attack anyone who demurs. The result? The majority retreat to silence and the more extreme minority fill the space. Moderation and compromise become even more abstract nouns. Too often the more genuine concerns of minorities are hijacked by the sound and fury of those with questionable credentials.

As the runners and riders for the great office enter the starting stalls, I note that the so-called culture wars are moving on to the agenda of one or two. How important a wokery debate will be as the principals enter the home straight is anyone’s guess. It could be a clever tactic for an outsider to champion social moderation. Local pub chatter is regularly of the ’FFSake, really?’ variety on all manner of ’vital’ issues from biological men competing in women’s sport to plural pronouns to pulling down statues.

I sit on the sidelines somewhat. One of the quiet majority who don’t know what to say. I don’t like to offend – or be offensive. I fact check as best I can which is sometimes difficult. I am an avid listener to More or Less on radio 4, one of the best fact checking programmes or podcasts around.

Of course, the views of a moderate, white, 70 year old retired teacher are of little interest to most but we do our children a disservice if we don’t encourage them to seek out truth, test their views and attitudes and enter into discussion and debate vigorously and respectfully. That teachers and lecturers have a fear of being ’cancelled’ is a real danger in these febrile times.

Boris Johnson clearly learned early that being a witty clown and treating your opponent as a figure of fun would win him, if not friends, then supporters. Charisma? I don’t think so. Keir Starmer might wish for a greater spark but he doesn’t need to copy much else from the Johnson oeuvre. Let’s hope that the next Prime Minister is genuinely ’Right Honourable’.

Swimming Against the Tide.

27 May

I went swimming today. Well, my version of it. That is a reasonable breast stroke with my arms and a sort of butterfly flipper action with my legs. The full frog’s legs rotating my knees makes patella dislocation a worrying possibility.

My local Fusion Lifestyle sports centre has red polo-shirted employees doing a good job while looking bored. I had to book my 9.15 am lane swim as there appear to be vast numbers of wet bobs desperate to plough the lengths. There are three lanes: slow, medium and fast. Naturally I choose the safety of the middle and find myself sharing the lane with eight others.

Before I break water, I have swiped my membership card at the reception desk and, barefooted ( a requirement) headed for the changing cubicles which, appropriately these days, are mostly singles, with the occasional door signed ’family change’ – an ironic instruction indeed. I wedge my pre millennium sports bag into a locker which no longer takes those old fashioned pound coins but requires swimmers, if they feel that their possessions are precious, to furnish themselves with a padlock. I take my chances that my needle cord jeans and Boots shower gel won’t get local petty thieves excited. I head for the pool.

About twenty assorted souls are waiting for a red polo shirt to appear, which it does on the stroke of 9.15. Goggles on – it’s a myth that a bit of spitttle clears the lenses – and I am locked into a tunnel world of clouded vision and chlorinated echo. The trick in the highly populous middle lane is to gauge the speed of the leader and maintain distance. It is useful that pool etiquette, despite the cultural zeitgeist, is pretty binary. There are women in one piece costumes and men in trunks. There are one or two males in groin-slice Speedos but they just look silly. The rest of us are in standard sexless boxers as befits the general maturity of the group. I’d say the age range this morning was twenty to seventy with the average around forty. This may not be very useful information but it made me stop and ponder awhile.

I am a length counter which is crushingly boring but it stops me thinking, a huge benefit. It helps that I am in a visual fog. A few swimmers vary pace: freestyle then breast stroke then back stroke. This isn’t good for lane management. I’m a steady Eddie and my pace is metronomic. I sense when a breast stroker wants to up the ante with a freestyle burst – it’s usually a man – and I edge towards the lane rope to give leeway, while cursing the selfishness of it all. Today, an elderly gent – well my age – managed to propel himself through the water far more slowly doing freestyle than with breast stroke. Arms and legs were flailing wildly and his bow wave was prodigious, but forward propulsion was negligible.

I occasionally stop for a breather but as my goggles have a disturbing mirror- reflection, my fellow flippers don’t much want to chat. So I get back to the task in hand:60 lengths. Oh God, how long will this take? I take care not to get too close to the backsides of women as I imagine it makes them uncomfortable – but I haven’t asked if this is the case. I suppose close proximity might be equally worrying for a male. Whatever, swimming in lanes is the most sexless activity imaginable. As I contemplate this I touch the foot of one of the speedo-groin brigade and he kicks ahead, rather like a road rager roaring away from traffic lights.

As I reach forty lengths I contemplate calling it a day but then a couple of my lane buddies get out and I have clear water, the traffic eases and my enthusiasm returns. With the excitement, I lose concentration and swallow a couple of mouthfuls of chlorinated H2O. I splutter and cough but have to quieten quickly; I don’t want to disturb the slumber of the red polo shirt. (Unfair – every time I gaze his way, he seems to be staring at the pool).

During a brief respite I check on the progress of the other lanes. For this I lift my goggles, forgetting that my earplugs are attached. The suction-release and the new wave of sound disconcert me briefly but I regather my thoughts and watch the slow lane. Here all is serenity. No one is bothered by pace. Four women are chatting in the shallow while another four slowies are serenely wafting up the pool. I spot a sidestroke which is pleasingly old school. My mother used to be an elegant exponent. An older gent is sculling on his back happily. I look forward to a demotion to the slow horses.

By contrast the fast lane is an erratic and competitive racetrack. One or two are ploughing up and down in a stamina-fest, while others race hard for a couple of lengths, check watches or the big speedo clock on the wall and make mental notes. There are more swimming caps in evidence with this fast track group and most have hydration (water) flasks (bottles) at the shallow end to indicate the seriousness of the training. There’s more tension in this lane because each individual has a more important agenda and the speed means a greater chance of bumping and being put off your stroke. They are all freestylers. Does anyone say crawl these days?

Sixty up. Enough. Goggles off. A feeling of relief and freedom. I wonder what it must be like to be hard of hearing and have limited vision because the clarity I now experience is such a contrast to the fog of the last hour or so. A hot shower – two of six cubicles not operating; Fusion take note. Barefooted I return to the foyer to recover my shoes. I smile at a couple of ladies who have clearly been in the pool with me. No sign of recognition either way. That’s what I like. Anonymity.

There are several analogies that I could make between my simple experience of a well regimented lane swim at the Fusion Lifestyle sports centre and much of the national and international chaos which seems to engulf us at the moment. But after my swim, I’m calmer, so I’ll just put the kettle on.

War, Williamson and Warne.

7 Mar

It is difficult to write anything in these dark times. Today the sun shines and Spring is at hand in rural Kent. The forecast is good for golf tomorrow. A short flight from here Ukraine languishes in a wintry hell. The reports from extraordinary journalists of Ukrainian bravery and Russian aggression have dumbfounded us all. We watch in horror, feeling our own impotence. Sure we can raise money, send parcels, voice support. But only 50 visas so far? For God’s sake Priti, Dominic or whoever is in charge. You demean us all.

Matthew Syed’s excellent piece in yesterday’s Sunday Times The was has woken the West to its own decay, is one of several articles of late pointing out how Putin has watched the decadent West disappear up it own arse. Syed notes that civilisations have a tendency to climb to a high point of success before decadence, greed and corruption swallow up society. A survey in 1950 asked students if they agreed with the statement I am a very important person. 12% said yes. By 1990 this had ‘exploded’ to 80% and is still rising. Syed’s point is that we have become ‘…more vain and self-obsessed, more focussed on rights than responsibilities, more likely to seek fame as an end in itself rather than achieving something worthy of fame. We are also more likely to heatedly disagree on trivial matters such as whether the word curry amounts to cultural appropriation – a classic case of what the British anthropologist Ernest Crawley calls calls “the narcissism of small differences.”‘ We have disappeared up our own orifices and while Xi Jinping and Putin were getting stuck into their global strengthening at the expense of whomsoever appeared to be in their way we were ‘arguing over gender-neutral toilets.’

The sick joke which is the ennoblement of Gavin Williamson can be seen as part of this disgraceful and corrupt descent into government without standards or probity. The man was a fawning failure. He is knighted for keeping his mouth shut. As we chase Russian money round London we have some of it sitting in the House of Lords or paying for the vodka at Downing Street parties. What a state to get into.

And Shane Warne. Great and Genius are bandied words but both apply. While influencers and Tik-Tokkers get millions of followers to fill their unforgiving minutes, hours…days – Shane Warne played cricket with such flair and panache and personality. That ball which bamboozled Gatting. I was honoured to be at Old Trafford when he snaffled his 600th test wicket. A day to make the world of cricket smile and applaud. We now mourn him on the same weekend as such dark forces engulf Ukraine. Perhaps us all.

Cancel culture helps Boris but hinders Keir.

3 Jan

Our universities are in turmoil. At UCL academics seeking promotion are being told to show commitment to limiting the number of ’dead white able-bodied men’. In Oxford a ’woke score’ could be used in the hiring procedure for lecturers. These titbits (apologies) from the Telegraph have been spun accordingly, of course. But…the trend in allowing our public discourse to be hi-jacked by vocal minorities is not a new one. Just think Farage.

J. K. Rowling, damned by her privileged multi-millionaire acting mates; professors at Sussex and Durham, pilloried by a screaming minority of right-onners..the list will go on. As the pyres of moderation and centralism smoulder at the BBC, at our universities or elsewhere, the silence from the majority is deafening. But in our democracy, the majority is not disenfranchised. That is the problem for Sir Keir Starmer.

He is, in every way more truthful and reliable, honest and solid than Boris Johnson. Unlike our PM he has integrity, solidity. He combs his hair. Apart from needing a charisma transplant, he should be our leader. There’s a problem, however.

The media sound and vision is all shouty and polarised. Our big institutions kowtow to this and that. The shouty ones are labelled lefties. From statue-topplers to vegans, extinction rebels to Harry Potter virtue-signallers, Starmer’s fight for purchase on the slippery ascent to the Premiership is thwarted by association. Would it were not so.

The Epstein-Maxwell-sweatless Andy story, along with the ’boost’ stories of vaccination and an unlocked end to England’s year have buoyed Boris’s oh-so leaky ship. BoJo will be hoping for more cancel culture stories to flood the new year market. Allegra Stratton and cheese and wine parties will fade from view. Sir Keir and his party will be stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Step up Starmer. Speak your mind, tell the nation what you believe in and stay close to the centre. At the extremes things tend to fall apart.

Passionate intensity…the age of offence…and no leader in sight.

16 Nov

It has been hard to think of something to say. ‘Events, dear boy, events,’ said Harold Macmillan when asked about the greatest challenges which faced a statesman. Well it’s been a similar story for anyone who wants to write in a measured (perhaps humorous) way about almost anything that has been going on these last five years. Today I have been listening to Azeem Rafiq speaking to the Digital, culture, Media and Sport select committee about racism at Yorkshire C.C.C. and in the wider game. I was expecting to sigh periodically but I was impressed. Impressed too by Roger Hutton, the ex chairman who fell on his sword recently.

It is hard to distinguish one frictional issue from another these days. And to prioritise. I could start a list beginning with climate change -and the intransigence of the really big players – continuing with what the Russians and Belarussians are doing for the migrant crisis and world stability and finishing, much later with Female Genital Mutilation. Following the catastrophe that has been Brexit, we at home (I mean the UK of course) have seen the public discourse become increasingly toxic. Racism and its history, all things to do with sex and gender identity, the febrile rise of social media and the probity of our politicians have, amongst other things, been bloody battlegrounds. Not debating grounds. Battlegrounds.

Cancel culture (CC) is the shutting down of all debate with those whose views are found to be contrary to the groupthink. It’s the heads must roll, my way or the highway treatment of inconvenient opposition. Kathleen Stock, most recently has become the CC’s latest scalp. It appears that minority groups hold greater sway in this new world. That’s not to say that they’re wrong but if discussion and process (and the law) are dismissed, too many stay silent until the ballot boxes become available. As an old git, I do wonder if students at Sussex University (just hypothetically) sit around agreeing that an unthinking text sent a decade ago is more outrageous than Russian troops massing on the borders of the Ukraine.

It’s sad that the air needed for the balloon of debate has been sucked out. What has crept into the flaccid vacuum is corruption, distortion, extremism. In such circumstances totalitarianism and corrupt leadership flourishes. We are so desperate for some moral integrity, a genuine example of inspiring leadership. I care not the political colours my readers but surely can’t we agree that the man who sits at the head of our nation is an embarrassing, amoral shambles? It is at times like these, these last five years, when our nation has needed direction, courage, moral authority, collaboration and compromise, togetherness, understanding, tolerance of all views, open debate and all the rest of it – and what have we had? Almost the opposite of it all. Those who have promoted a better future and a more enlightened discourse have too rarely been politicians. Recent self-interested sleaze stories make me bury my head. I had to turn off Rees-Mogg defending Owen Paterson. I don’t vote Labour but I have time for Starmer. At least he seems honest, if grey. I’d accept grey, I have to say.

I’m reading Sally Rooney’s latest and revisiting W.B. Yeats’s selected poems. One of Rooney’s characters, a thirty year old, in Beautiful World, Where Are You, says ‘…I’m out of step with the cultural discourse…adrift from the world of ideas, alienated, no intellectual home. Maybe it’s about our specific historical moment or maybe it’s just about getting older and disillusioned.’

Yeats, of course, was fired up in The Second Coming. ‘…Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.’

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