Tag Archives: comic fiction

Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe

It’s just that you must understand–this knees-up in Brussels, well, it’s a wonderful idea in principle of course, but there are dangers involved.”

Early on in Jonathan Coe’s novel Expo 58, we are told that our main character, married bureaucrat Thomas Foley bears a striking resemblance to both Gary Cooper and Dirk Bogarde. This isn’t the only time in the novel that the resemblances are mentioned, and it’s fairly easy to imagine that Thomas is a romantic hero here, but in reality Thomas isn’t a hero at all; he’s a civil servant swept up into Coe’s comic spy caper, and while Thomas goes off the rails for a period, he’s largely oblivious to the significance of the events taking place right under his nose.

expo 58Thirty-two year-old Thomas Foley has worked, since 1944, in the Ministry of Information, now called the COI. He’s a junior copywriter and a great deal of his job is spent “drafting pamphlets on public health and safety, advising pedestrians of the best way to cross the road and cold-sufferers of the best way to avoid spreading germs in public places.” Depending on his mood, some days he thinks he’s done well in life but “other days he found his work tedious and contemptible.”

Little does Thomas suspect that life is all about to change, and not necessarily for the better. Expo 58 is scheduled to be held in Belgium and the COI has “overall responsibility for the content of the British pavilion at Expo 58 and this had immediately led to a frenzy of headscratching and soul-searching around that maddening, elusive topic of ‘Britishness’. What did it mean to be British in 1958? Nobody seemed to know. Britain was steeped in tradition, everybody agreed on that: its traditions, its pageantry, its ceremony were admired and envied all over the world. At the same time, it was mired in the past, scared of innovation, riddled with archaic class distinctions, in thrall to a secretive and untouchable Establishment. Which way were you supposed to look when defining Britishness? Forwards or backwards.”

The COI is faced with a “conundrum” when it comes to organizing the content of the British pavilion. Everyone knows that both the Americans and Soviets “were bound to produce national displays on a massive scale,” so the dilemma centres on the image Britain wants to project.  Amongst a lot of muttering about the “bloody Belgians,” one firm idea emerges: there must be an authentic pub, and so it’s agreed to build a British pub next to the British pavilion. This is where Thomas comes into the picture. Thomas’s father ran a pub, and was married to a Belgian woman. Thomas’s  boss decides that Thomas, with all that ‘experience,’ is the perfect man for the job and that he should oversee the running of the pub at Expo 5–an establishment that will be called the Britannia and which will offer traditional British fare:

as British as bowler hats and fish and chips, representing the finest hospitality our nation can offer.” Mr Ellis shuddered. “Those poor Belgians. That’s what we’re giving them, is it? Bangers and mash and last week’s pork pie, all washed down with a pint of lukewarm bitter. It’s enough to make you want to emigrate.”

If that sort of ribbing about British traditions appeals to you, then there’s a good chance that you will enjoy this mostly good-humoured book which is laced with just a twinge of bittersweet regret. The book captures beautifully the nuances and attitudes of the time. The 60s have yet to arrive and Britain has emerged from WWII, the emphasis remains on tradition–not change, and meanwhile the menace of rock & roll and the cold war colours all official attitudes.

So Thomas is put in charge of the pub at Expo 58, and his new position means that he will have to stay there for approximately 6 months. Since he has a wife and a young baby, he’s given the option of taking them along, but Thomas decides to leave them at home, and it’s a decision that illustrates Thomas’s desire for freedom and change. Thomas’s personal life becomes mixed up with skullduggery and some rather exotic characters at Expo 58, including  the fascinatingly assertive American actress, Emily, Belgian hostess Annecke, and a member of the Soviet delegation, Mr Chersky–a man who develops a passion for British crisps. Meanwhile, Thomas’s wife Sylvia, resentful that she’s been left alone while her husband is off partying in Belgium, encourages a relationship with a neighbor who’s only too happy to step into Thomas’s place.

The novel’s emphasis, especially initially, is on humour. There’s one scene, back in London, still at the planning stages of Expo 58 when the discussion of a display which covers “A history of the British water closet,” is shot down by COI officials. An argument then rages concerning the fact that  “Britain’s contribution to the disposal of human waste has never been recognized,” and that we all do “number twos,” even the queen. Definite Carry On material here, but most of the humour directed at fussy establishment tastes and what it ‘means’ to be British is much subtler. Then there’s two spy chappies from MI6, Radford & Wayne, who reminded me of Tin Tin’s Thompson & Thompson,  sniffing around Thomas trying to vet whether or not he’s a commie:

“Ah yes. The classics. Nothing like a bit of classical music, is there? I expect you like Tchaikovsky?”

“Of course. Who doesn’t?”

“What about the more modern bods? Stravinsky, say?”

“Oh yes. First rate.”

“Shostakovich?”

“Haven’t heard much.”

“Prokofiev?”

Thomas nodded, without really knowing why. He couldn’t see where any of this was heading. The waitress brought their coffees and they all stirred in their sugar and took their first sips.

“Of course,” said Mr Radford, “a lot of chaps would rather read than listen to music.”

“Curl up with a good book,” agreed Mr Wayne.

“Do much reading?”

“A bit yes. Not as much as I should probably.”

“Read any Dostoevsky? Some people swear by him.”

“What about Tolstoy?”

“I’m rather parochial in my tastes. I like Dickens. I read Wodehouse, for a bit of light relief. Do you mind telling me what this is all about? You seem to be asking me an awful lot of questions about Russian writers and composers.”

But the British aren’t the only ones whose zest for their own culture reveals fusty archaic attitudes and prejudices; the Belgians have the bad taste to build a fake Belgian Congo exhibit for Expo 58 which involves the creation of an entire village and even importing Congo natives to man and ‘authenticate’ the display.  No bets accepted about how this ends up. Since Expo 58 is part spy novel spoof, a sly reference to that ultra smooth spy 007 creeps into a discussion between Thomas, Mr Wayne and Mr Radford.

“Well, Foley, it’s very good of you to come all the way out here to join us,” said Mr Wayne at last.

“I wasn’t aware,” said Thomas, “that I had any choice in the matter.”

“My dear fellow,” said Mr Radford, “whatever can you mean?”

“We thought Wilkins was bringing you out here.”

“He bundled me into a car and pointed a gun at me, yes.”

“A gun?”

At this, they both started to chortle.

“A gun! Dear me!”

“Poor old Wilkins!”

“Really, he is the end.”

“He’s the absolute limit.”

“Lives in a fantasy world, poor fellow.”

“Reads far too many of those books. You know the ones I mean.”

“I know the ones. What’s the author’s name?”

“Fleming.  Have you read them, Foley?”

“No, I can’t say that I have.”

“Having a terrible influence, you know … on the chaps who work in our department.”

“Pure fiction, of course. Gadding around the world …”

“Bumping people off without so much as a by your leave …”

“Sleeping with a different woman every night …”

This detail, it seemed, struck both of them as especially implausible.

“I mean, dash it all, Radford, when was the last time you did that?”

“Bump someone off, you mean?”

“No–sleep with a different woman.”

Expo 58 is a light, gently comic read–the story of an Everyman who steps out of his comfort zone into a dangerous world of spies, assassins and perhaps even a femme fatale. Coe’s novel The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is a humorous novel which explores the issue of relationships in the age of the socialverse, and Expo 58, with a similar style of humour successfully spoofs British attitudes , ethnocentrism, & the Establishment in the cold war 50s. The quotes give a good sense of the novel’s tone, so if you find yourself smiling at the quotes, you’ll probably enjoy the novel.

Review copy.

31 Comments

Filed under Coe Jonathan, Fiction

Writing is Easy by Gert Loveday

“He would get her to write the kind of novels women loved, about families and children and losing weight and finding themselves. Joanna Trollope for the younger woman.”

One of the strangest questions I remember from my days of ‘higher education’ came from a very confused man who asked: “where do poets go to live?” How does one answer such a question? Should the reply have been the knee-jerk response? : If you have to ask you’ll never be a poet, moron. Or is the true question to be found in why he thought poets had to go anywhere? After all, it’s not as though poetry  (and talent) rubs off through proximity or collective subconscious. But hold that thought…. What about writing workshops?

writing is easyGert Loveday’s hilarious novel, Writing is Easy, is set at a writer’s workshop–a workshop conducted by two published authors who occupy opposite ends of the publishing spectrum. On one end, there’s sturdy, bossy Lilian Bracegirdle, a showy, pretentious performance poet with a “couple of impenetrable experimental novels” to her credit, and on the other end is Marcus Goddard, a man who broke into the literary scene with a brilliant first book, and ever since then he’s churned out a series of salacious “unspeakable potboilers.” According to one hostile critic, Marcus’  latest novel Never Turn Backreads like a hack version of Tess of the D’Urbervilles with a spot of Lawrentian stallion-business thrown in.” Both Lilian and Marcus are haunted by their fabricated pasts. Lilian, whose real name in Lois Hoggett, would really like to be some sort of ethereal creature, but in reality, she’s from “a sturdy farming family in New Zealand,”and she can’t ever seem to shake off the influence of T.S. Eliot. Lilian’s hidden past, however, seems only trivial next to Marcus’ secrets.

Arch-enemies Lilian and Marcus, both frauds in their own way approach the workshop with a separate agenda. Marcus has some nasty secrets from Lilian’s past he intends to amuse himself with, but mostly he just wants to lounge around and booze for 8 days and leave the work to Lilian. So with Lilian and Marcus setting the pace for the 8-day writer’s workshop, a handful of would-be writers pay the big bucks hoping to get advice, have their mostly horrible work critiqued, and with any luck at all, land a hook-up in the publishing world. Lilian and Marcus are both accompanied by their assistants: the long-suffering, stalwart Marjorie (with her “fetching little moustache,“), general dogsbody and companion for Lilian, and the sly, opportunistic Lester who works for Marcus.

But what of the hopeful, would-be writers, those poor sods who scraped up the money for an eight day workshop thinking that they might actually learn something useful? There’s Desma Brooks, a perennial attendee who’s trying to write a family history and  “hadn’t worked out by now that no one would ever, no one could ever, want to read her family saga based in meticulous research into every last packet of biscuits of the shelves of her great grandfather’s grocery store.” Then there’s Rex Random, an accountant who compensates for his hum-drum life by writing a cheesy crime novel, Broads and Booze, and imagining that he’s the next Raymond Chandler.  Also attending is housewife Marilyn Boots, writer of sentimental crap, who has managed to escape her abusive husband for 8 days. Attractive Helen West, protégée of mousy Trader Cheeseman (author of Sicko Psycho and Hangmeat) is also attending the workshop thanks to the grant she’s received, and the final attendee is John Brow, a fitness fanatic who only eats raw vegetables, who’s given himself a week to write his book, and who refuses to sit down as he believes that this is against primal man’s natural state and “blocks the intestines.”

The workshop is held at Gagebrook, an exclusive Australian country resort run by husband and wife team, Andrew and Mandy. Andrew rules the kitchen dreaming up gourmet meals for guests who don’t appreciate his talents, and while Andrew throws a few fits about his kitchen and his cooking, Mandy, Andrew, and worker Janie are the ‘normal’ people who are appalled by the behaviour of the writers and the workshop attendees.

One of the first things Lilian does after gathering the workshop attendees is to establish the hierarchy through her authority and reputation as a published author. Here’s Lilian Bracegirdle giving one of her performances about the “pathos of beginnings” and “the confusion of identities” which seems to be more a precursor to a séance:

The students shifted in their seats and exchanged glances as Lilian, her back to the audience began to make peculiar huffing and hissing noises. Janie stood near the door so she could hear Mandy if she called her. Lilian hurled her body down on the floor. Lying on her back, she closed her eyes and raised her arms at right angles above her head. She let out a long howl, “Aaaaaaahhhhh, oooooohhhhh, aaaaahhhh.” Her voice rose and fell, deafeningly loud, then  a tiny whisper. She kicked her legs. Janie thought she might be pretending to be a baby, but her voice was more like a siren. She went on and on. Janie’s ears were ringing. Lilian’s dress was riding up over her knees showing long pink knickers over the top of her tights. Just when Janie thought she couldn’t bear it any longer Lilian turned over onto her hands and knees, crawled to an armchair and dragged herself to her feet. She stood swaying, her arms held out in front of her like a sleepwalker. What did it mean? It was like a kind of charade. Lilian began to speak very quickly.

“Are you there, are you there, are you there, number please who are you number please are you there no don’t know don’t no don’t.”

She was really getting going now. It was like a steam engine getting started then going faster and faster and all the time Lilian was babbling.

“No oh no are you there no number please who whom who.”

Some words were very loud, Now she was marching up and down. Janie worried she would knock over a table. Helen and Rex had their hands over their mouths. John was looking at his watch, Marilyn had her mouth open in amazement, and Desma was nodding. Janie couldn’t take her eyes off Lilian. She kept on chattering more and more rapidly until it all sounded like one word, “Areyounumberwhononowho?” and her voice sank to a whisper. Then she opened her eyes put her arms by her side and let out an earsplitting shriek.

Apart from a short section post-workshop which follows the lives of the characters, most of the book covers the chaos which ensues at the workshop with Lilian trying to get Marcus to work, Marcus trying to avoid work, John Brow deciding that fat, out-of-shape authors make great guinea pigs for his fitness regime, and the workshop attendees who try their best to actually get their work critiqued. Throw into this mix blackmail, rivalry, really bad writing, and a few attempts at murder, and the result is a hilariously funny book.

As the days continue, tension mounts, behaviour disintegrates, and every evening the group gets together over dinner, there seems to be some sort of rampage; the fondue for example, brings out the very worst in everyone. While the book is consistently very funny (and it’s no easy feat to maintain humour over the course of a book), there are two specific elements to the book that go beyond humour and are psychologically intriguing: Marcus and Lilian are held in a position of respect by the workshop attendees and by their hosts at Gagebrooke. This currency goes a long way, and Lilian and Marcus’ impressive history of publication offer them a layer of protection. So the set-up alone, without a word written, is a segue into the expectations we place on writers, who just because they write well don’t necessarily behave well.  As one of the attendees says: “I know writers like to think of themselves as bohemians,…, but that doesn’t mean they can’t behave decently.” Author vanity, a main target of the book’s humour, is just one of many poor character traits our published authors possess:

Several people opened notebooks and took out pens. Marcus began.

“Lilian tells me you have asked for a session on register today. This is an excellent starting-point. You may well have asked yourself, reading a novel, perhaps, indeed, even one of my own, what it is that gives this work such an authentic voice, such a sense that truth itself is speaking? One becomes oblivious to the fact that there is a writer’s mind behind it. Have you had that experience?”

“Oh yes,” said Desma. “That one of yours, you know the one about the crippled girl who falls in love with the neurosurgeon even though he’s responsible for her being crippled, honestly. I lived every second of that book.” She looked around at the others.

“I love that one, too,” said Marilyn, “and that book by Clough Gryffyd about the nun in Saudi Arabia.”

“I don’t believe I’ve read that,” said Marcus.

Author Gert Loveday isn’t afraid of playing with these characters, and there’s a no-holds-barred approach which approaches farce but yet manages to avoid it as the action at the workshop spirals out of control. Soon there’s “the prospect of an insurrection,” as the characters behave badly with marvelously funny results, but the genius here is while there are some very cruel truths revealed about workshops and their attendees, the author still manages to show generosity to her characters. We don’t completely dislike selfish Lilian or vain, pompous cheating Marcus even though they’re happy to take the money for the workshop while they secretly poke fun at the writing of the attendees. The reason we don’t dislike these two characters is that the author exacts revenge on them both through her plot. These two suffer, and we have a good laugh and a very satisfying read at their expense. I laughed out loud many many times, and while the fondue scene is a serious contender for the funniest part, Lilian reading as ‘inspiration’ I Drag My Way, the true story of how a woman dragged a sled with provisions across the desert for an insane explorer takes a close second place.

But underlying all the fun is the question whether or not writing can be taught, and certainly by the end of the novel all of the characters have come to various conclusions regarding whether or not the workshop was a waste of money.

The way I see it is, you can either write or you can’t.

Author Gert Loveday, in reality is writing team, Australian poet Joan Kerr and her sister, Gabrielle Daly, and Writing is Easy is the first novel they’ve published. Please let there be more….

 

25 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Loveday Gert

Everything and More by Geoff Nicholson

Another entry in my Year of Geoff Nicholson project, and this time it’s Everything and More–a Nicholson novel I loved for its originality and sheer compressed scope–you’ll see what I mean later. The novel, with a few minor exceptions, is set inside Haden Brothers, a vast, seemingly endless London department store (“including 12 different eateries,“) designed as a replica of Brueghel’s Tower of Babel & built in the 1930s by “maverick visionary” Edward Zander, the architect who mysteriously disappeared once the project was completed.

However, Zander’s building has few of the rhythms, repetitions or classical form of its supposed model. Rather it suggests a series of multiple codings, elements of Russian Constructivism, Italian Renaissance and stuccoed Baroque. It is decked, as though at random, with crenellated parapets, pantile roofs, ogee arches, steel balconies, oriel windows and flying buttresses. Carved into the fabric of the building are angels, putti and mythological beasts. There are gargoyles, caryatids, mosaics, expanses of Moorish tiling and some magnificent stained glass. Zander had envisioned a menagerie on the ninth floor and wanted the whole building to be painted blood red, but he was talked out of these schemes.

 This story is the perfect vehicle for Nicholson’s frequent themes of collection and obsession, for after all, doesn’t shopping encompass both of these neurotic pastimes? And what better place for the compulsive shopper to hang out than Haden Brothers–the 400 department emporium that boasts that it sells “everything and more,” where shopping is an experience rather than a mundane activity.

everything and moreEnter two eager job seekers: Vita Carlisle and would-be artist Charlie Mayhew. Charlie applies for a job because he’s an unwelcome guest sleeping on the sofa of the only friend who’s still talking to him. Vita has a boarding school & university background along with an impressive resume, and while her determination to work at Haden Brothers seems a little odd, her professionalism and apparent fanaticism about the workings of the sprawling shopping metropolis really can’t be faulted or penetrated. Vita could obviously do a lot better than Haden Brothers, but she insists that she’s in love with the place and working there is her dream. Both Charlie and Vita are employed on the spot by Derek Snell, who’s officially head of personnel and unofficially, the pimp for the reclusive owner of Haden Brothers, Arnold, the last of the line. Arnold lives in the penthouse suite, accessible by a private lift, on the very top of the Haden Brothers building, and he hasn’t stepped into the outside world for years. Derek Snell, a rather sleazy character, has an eye for the sort of women his boss prefers, and since he is, in essence, the pimp for the king of Haden Brothers, he has a position of some power:

Derek Snell was no fashion victim, or at least he had been victimized in about 1975 and had never entirely recovered. He wore a brown Viyella suit with wide lapels and deep turn-ups, a chunky knitted wool tie, a shirt with a flapping collar and a pattern of tiny veteran car motifs. He was a toothy, slim-chinned man, about forty-five with a lot of gingery hair that curled round his head like a tarnished halo.

Vita becomes part of the so-called Flying Squad–a sort of troubleshooter, and here she is in the toy department with “raw, lean, adrenalin-driven, toy buyer,” Carl:

On Vita’s first day in the department he took her aside and told her, ‘We sell a lot of merchandise here on the basis that we’re educating the little fucks, stimulating their imaginations, fostering hand-eye coordination, that kind of crap. The truth is, what we’re struggling to do here is sedate and socialize a generation of would-be Adolf Hitlers.’

Vita looked at him uncertainly but still managed a smile.

‘The thing to remember is this,’ Laughton continued, ‘all children are thugs, fascists and megalomaniacs. There was a time when they wanted scaled-down versions of the real world; toy animals, toy soldiers, dolls, building blocks to make miniature cities. Then they pulled the eyes out of the animals, tore the dolls limb from limb, massacred the soldiers, razed the cities.

‘These days, they play with computer games, and they can play at destroying whole life forms, whole planets and galaxies. They take to it like ducks to water. It all comes perfectly naturally to them. And they genuinely believe that when they grow up they’ll be able to do all this stuff for real. But when they do grow up they discover, with one or two important exceptions, that they don’t get to blow things up at all, and that really hurts them. It’s a discovery nobody ever quite recovers from. I know I haven’t.

‘That’s why toys are so attractive to adults, why they carry so much nostalgia with them, because they remind us of a time when we were power-mad, conscienceless dictators.’

While Vita moves from department to department as part of the elite Flying Squad, poor Charlie becomes a furniture porter. The subliminal messages piped out over the sound system geared to make shoppers and employees alike behave don’t seem to work on the porters who take the example of their subversive leader, Anton, and spend most of their time devising elaborate ways of not working. This means hiding when there’s work to be done, spending hours quibbling over payroll deductions in the accounting office and engaging in “extravagant pilfering.” What’s so interesting is that Vita is involved in the day-to-day activities of ensuring that Haden Brothers runs smoothly, while Charlie becomes snared in the subversive shadow life of Haden Brothers, the bomb threats, the mysterious graffiti that appears periodically on the shop’s windows, the hidden, fully operating miniature railway, and the secret passages down deep in the basement. Only the Head of Security, Ray Chalmers seems to recognize that there are elements undermining the efficient day-to-day operations of the huge department store, and since everyone connected with Haden Brothers seems to lose all sense of proportion, Chalmers declares war on the subversives:

I’m not trying to say that it’s like Vietnam out there, but in a sense it is. It’s a jungle. The enemy’s hard to spot. The terrain is difficult and we don’t always get the backing we need. There are goons. There are traitors and double agents. There are men from our side who’ve abandoned discipline and gone native. At least in Nam they were allowed to use defoliant, napalm, cluster bombing. I wish we could do that at Haden  Brothers. That would shake the buggers up, flush them out so they could be punished with loads of prejudice.

The newest furniture porter seems like a suspicious character to Chalmers. After all, what’s his first name?

Initially Charlie isn’t thrilled with his job, but over time he becomes entranced with the fabulous exotic extravagance of the building as he begins to note “strange faces and African masks carved into the woodwork, wrought iron archways with swastikas and pentagrams, staircase finials that looked like simple spheres but turned out to be intricately carved globes of the world.”

While on the surface, Haden Brothers is a monument to shopping and materialism, there’s a lot of peculiar goings on, and Charlie begins to be aware of just what some of those peculiarities are even as the unfathomable Vita becomes increasingly involved in the surface management.  One of my favourite scenes takes place when a customer lodges a complaint and is summarily whisked off to a seductive paradise hidden away in the secret corners of Haden Brothers. And here, in exotic hypnotic luxury, the half-dazed customer, is grilled:

He wanted to be cooperative  but he was too entranced by the room in which he now found himself. The carp pool was undoubtedly the most imposing and unexpected feature, but then he had not been expecting the Persian tapestries either, not the ornamental fountain, not the parakeets on their perches, not the bejeweled mirrors and tables and fireplace, not the ornately carved golden couches on to one of which he was now being guided. It was impossible to sit on these with any degree of formality and he found himself lying back, reclining like some Roman hero.

5 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Nicholson, Geoff

Still Life with Volkswagens by Geoff Nicholson

“You don’t think there’s something eye-catching about jack-boots, Nazi uniforms, death’s head insignia?’

Another entry in my Year of Geoff Nicholson, and this time it’s the second volume of the author’s Volkswagen trilogy: Still Life with Volkswagens. This follows Street Sleeper, and there are so many repeat characters with continued history that readers should begin with the first book and then read on. In Street Sleeper, Barry Osgathorpe aka Ishmael, the Zen Road Warrior, bought a battered old VW Beetle, dumped his long-suffering girlfriend, Debby, and took to the road to ‘find himself.’ Along the way he met Fat Les, a VW mechanic, who converted Barry’s junker into Enlightenment, a loaded Beetle that is the envy of those who see this gleaming machine, and together with Enlightenment, Ishmael had many adventures and met the woman of his dreams–even if the feeling wasn’t mutual.

still life with VolkswagensBack to Still Life with Volkswagens which finds Barry (yes, back to plain old Barry) dossing in a caravan in Yorkshire. His short-lived days of adventures are over, and Enlightenment is permanently parked and covered due mainly to Barry’s current obsession about the planet, greenhouse gases and global warming. He’s considering forming a club called the Green Beetles for those committed to never driving their cars:

They may clean and polish them once in a while, even sit in them from time to time with their friends and families. The important thing is; they will never drive them. They will leave their cars parked next to their house or caravan, never start the engines, never pollute mother earth with their deadly fumes.

Debby is still in Barry’s life, and she’d still like to travel a bit but Barry defensively argues that he “never want[s] to go anywhere or do anything.” Problems begin for Barry when Volkswagens mysteriously begin exploding all over England, and banking scion Carlton Bax, the world’s “foremost Volkswagen collector[s]” goes missing. Involved whether he likes it or not, Barry is forced to abandon his inertia. Not only is Barry a prime suspect for both crimes, but the love of his life, Marilyn, now a weather-presenter on television, reappears in Barry’s life and begs for his help. Marilyn suspects that her father, Charles Lederer, recently released from a mental asylum may be responsible  for the war against Volkswagens and the disappearance of her lover, Carlton Bax. (If you’ve read Street Sleeper, you’ll remember both Marilyn and Charles Lederer, and it’ll also make sense to you why Lederer hates Volkswagens).

Since author Geoff Nicholson developed some many great characters in Street Sleeper, it’s wonderful to see them back for the second part of this trilogy. After all, why waste characters by only using them once? So Fat Les reappears–now the proud owner of a “clean and flawless Volkswagen emporium” near Southend. It’s in this building, an “exhilarating piece of Odeon-style seaside deco” called  ‘Fat Volkz Inc,’ that Fat Les runs his very lucrative VW business.  According to humorless Detective Inspector Cheryl Bronte, Fat Les is yet another suspect in the disappearance of Carlton Bax. Also making a re-appearance is Marilyn’s nymphomaniac mum, Mrs. Lederer who gets her “revenge”  on her neglectful husband by offering her body to cab drivers which is a bit difficult when a man she mistakes for a cab driver is driving a custom Beetle.

Add to this crazy list, Phelan, a sicko, cunning neo-Nazi who likes to be whipped (amongst other things) by leather-clad dominatrix Renata Caswell (who also appeared in Street Sleeper). Phelan’s master plan is to organize a gang of yobos or as he describes them: “A band of supermen, roaming this great country of ours in chariots of fire, by which I mean Volkswagen Beetles.”

Naturally Still Life with Volkswagens is full of Nicholson’s brand of dark humour. Here’s Barry having a conversation of sorts with Phelan:

“You’re like me Barry. You look at all these people and what do you see? Do you see your equals? Do you see creatures made in god’s image? I don’t think so Barry. I think you see a lot of useless clutter. Don’t you think a lot of that clutter could be tidied away?”

“I’ve never thought about it,” Barry says.

“Oh, I think you have,” Phelan says insinuatingly. “Haven’t you ever thought to yourself that the world would be a much better place if only there were more people like you in it?”

“I suppose so.”

“I’m here to tell you Barry that there are more people like you in the world than you might think.

Take a drive around the M25 Barry. What traits are displayed by your fellow man? Aggression, selfishness, bad temper, competitiveness, madness brought on by stress. that’s not what the world ought be like, is it?”

“No,” Barry admits.

“When Adolf Hitler conceived of the idea of the autobahn that’s not what he had in mind at all. He saw long straight fast motorways uncluttered by riff raff and deviants.”

“What?” says Barry.

“You’re a good citizen, aren’t you Barry? You’re law-abiding, moral, politically middle of the road, not sexually or socially deviant. You’re male and you’re white.”

“Well, to an extent,” Barry stutters.

“Why deny it Barry? Why be ashamed? You don’t want the world left in the hands of extremists and perverts, do you? Of course you don’t. In your heart of heart you’re just like me, just like us. You know Hitler was right.”

“About motorways?”

In this tale of the battle of ‘good’ vs. the forces of evil, Geoff Nicholson’s humour knows no taboos, so he’s just as ready to poke fun at neo-nazis as he is at any type of extremism–be it perversion, obsession and collectors (all favourite themes for this author), so it should come as no great surprise that while the book includes a fair amount of trivia about Volkswagens, somehow or another, various Volkswagen drivers and collectors are mentioned: Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, Hitler and even the Fabulous Elvis also find their way into these pages. And for anyone who plans to scream in outrage at the very idea, let me say that Nicholson’s black humour diminishes Manson and Hitler into the pathetic, sick human beings they were, empowered by people misguided enough to sign on for their madness (and no I’m not comparing Manson to Hitler. They just both happen to appear in the book). Who knew so many weirdos were attracted to Volkswagens, and what does that say about me? Oh never mind.

Not only does the author show some of the weirder aspects of the Volkswagen enthusiasts, but by interjecting fact into his fiction (there’s even a bit of the author’s own life in these pages), somehow the craziness blends, and neo-Nazis of the Apocalypse and Volkswagens exploding nationwide just don’t seem that far-fetched:

Manson starts to live out more of his fantasies. He sets up a production line behind the Spahn Ranch, which he calls the Devil’s Dune Buggy Shop. Volkswagens are stolen from town, taken to the ranch, stripped down, converted into vehicles of the Apocalypse. Some of them can be bartered for drugs and weapons, and he hopes they’ll be useful in some of his other fantasies, like kidnapping busloads of schoolgirls, raiding a military arsenal, murdering a few rich pigs.

Pride of the fleet is Manson’s own command vehicle. It is one Hell of a dune buggy. It looks both futuristic and ancient. There is a ‘magic sword’ sheathed in the steering column. locks of human hair tied around the roll bar, a sleeping platform, armour plate, a machine gun mounting, a fur canopy. It has been recently resprayed, then desert sand thrown onto the paint while still wet, to form a kind of camouflage.

When the whole shooting match is over, this Command Vehicle will be displayed at a car show in Pomona, California, and get a lot of admiring attention from the custom Volkswagen fraternity.

Charles Manson Family Dune buggy graveyard Spahn Ranch Dec. 27, 2011 Santa Susana Pass Road

10 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Nicholson, Geoff

The Errol Flynn Novel by Geoff Nicholson

We both deserved more, something more difficult, more special. How much do you know about sadomasochism?”

Another entry in my Year of Geoff Nicholson, and if you didn’t know already, it’s Geoff’s 60th birthday next month. This read-a-thon is a way for me to say ‘thanks’ to one of my favourite authors who’s given me a lot of laughs over the last few years. Always grateful to authors who make me laugh and if they throw a little obsession and perversion into the mix, well so much the better, right?

the errol flynn novelThis time, I’m writing about The Errol Flynn Novel, a book I first read a few years ago and a book that was rather difficult to track down at the time. I loved it and immediately recommended it to several people who didn’t like it at all. So take that as a warning for what it’s worth. One of the complaints I read about the book is that it isn’t really about Errol Flynn. Actually, while that isn’t strictly true, I can see why this book, in common with other Nicholson novels didn’t get the right audience. Other readers appear to be offended by what is written about Errol Flynn. Well you can’t please all the people, etc., so suffice to know that I thoroughly enjoyed this strange tale.

So what’s it about?

The story concerns a failed actor named Jake who’s all but given up the idea of ever making the big time. This explains why he’s working in a photocopying shop when the story opens. Jake admits that he “wanted excitement, drama, money, love” so this is one of those ‘be-careful-what-you-wish-for’ scenarios. By the novel’s conclusion, Jake has far more excitement than he wants, lots of drama and some strange sexual encounters. Shortly after the novel begins, Sacha, an attractive girl from Jake’s drama school days walks into the shop. She’s making a career out of edgy art films, and Jake is initially not thrilled to see her as his loser life is in stark contrast to her acting career which seems to be a series of good moves. Jake is then rather surprised by Sacha’s offer to introduce Jake to Dan Ryan, an American who’s making a film about the life of Errol Flynn. If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is, and if Jake weren’t so desperate to have that elusive acting career, he’d probably have smelled a rat at this very first meeting:

“Look,” Ryan continued, “this is not going to be an expensive movie. we’re only talking about a few million dollars or so. Okay, that means we won’t be hiring Robert Redford, but it also means we can be free in a way Hollywood never dreamed of. We can be outrageous. We have the freedom to be weird. It’s important that you know what kind of director I am, Jake. I’m not a David Lean. I’m sure as hell no Dickie Attenborough. I’m more Andy Warhol meets David Lynch meets Peter Greenaway. Is that okay by you?”

“That’s fine by me,” I said.

” And look, in the end it may not be a movie about Errol Flynn at all, not the Errol Flynn who actually lived. It may be about ontology and iconography, and sensuality, and fame, and myth, and, of course, death. And you know what it’s going to be called? The Errol Flynn Movie.”

I don’t know about you, but I’d be a bit nervous about that speech–a speech which rather uncannily is a mirror image of the novel itself. Jake certainly is a little uncomfortable with Ryan, but he’s also never been in a film before. Perhaps all directors are nuts. While his concerns are mostly silenced by a large cheque, Jake does have the wit, however, to ask to see the script. There isn’t one. Well, at least not yet, but Ryan’s harried, slightly neurotic wife, Tina is desperately trying to produce one. To Jake’s astonishment, he lands the leading role, and armed with Errol Flynn’s biography, film stills, videos, recording and a gossip mag, he begins to ‘discover’ the man he’s supposed to portray in the film.

Naturally since this is a Geoff Nicholson novel, things go downhill from here. Ryan not only wants to make a film about Errol Flynn’s life, but he seems determined to live parts of it. As the film is made, things spiral increasingly out of control until… well … until they devolve completely.

One of the frequent themes in Nicholson’s novel is obsession, so in The Errol Flynn Novel, we see a multi-layered obsession with Errol Flynn. Director Dan Ryan is so obsessed with the exploits of this iconic star  whose life is wrapped in myth, scandal and rumour, and Ryan wants to make the ultimate film, an ‘interpretation ‘of Flynn’s life, yet where does fact and fiction end? And where are the demarcations of reality and fiction in Ryan’s head? Can Ryan be so gregarious, such a larger than life personality that his actions mask  … insanity?

Throughout the making of the film, Jake of course must act and dress like Errol Flynn, so this involves no small number of costumes and feats of daring (which are very funny if you’re not Jake). Jake has researched his subject, and so the novel is full of Errol Flynn trivia as well as Jake’s inevitable comparisons with his own pathetic life.

No don’t get me wrong. I’m not some sort of sexual inadequate. I have had my fair share of sexual partners, although you could debate whether or not it was a fair share. I am not one of those men who feels he has to make a lot of conquests, and I certainly don’t see why you would want to have sex with someone who didn’t want to have sex with you, and I’m definitely liberal enough to believe that women are entitled to say no and be believed. On the other hand I do wish that rather fewer women had felt free to say no to me over the years than actually have.

Nicholson excels in creating these peculiar situations that spin out-of-control and morph into total whackiness, and in this humorous novel, a film that’s supposed to be a bio-pic of Errol Flynn becomes a formless homage of the very worst aspects of Flynn’s life and a vehicle for Ryan’s obsession. Insane scene after insane scene is shot by a devoted cast while Tina, Ryan’s harried wife attempts to churn out a script. Eventually Jake sniffs that there’s something fishy afoot, but he has no idea just what he’s got himself into….

9 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Nicholson, Geoff

Miss Peabody’s Inheritance by Elizabeth Jolley

Last year when I posted a list of The Best of 2011, Gummie from Whispering Gums mentioned that she hoped I’d have an Australian category included in the Best of 2012. This seemed a good idea, so I’ve made a point to read a few Aussie books this year. While Tirra Lirra by the River is still the best Australian novel I’ve read this year, a serious challenge to that title appeared as I read and laughed at Elizabeth Jolley’s novel, Miss Peabody’s Inheritance. I’ve read a couple of Jolley’s novels, and I considered them ok–nothing more, nothing less. Before Miss Peabody’s Inheritance, I certainly wouldn’t have considered myself a fan, but that all changed with this extremely funny, subversive novel that’s really a novel within a novel for Miss Peabody’s Inheritance is a marvellous example of metafiction.

So here’s the premise:

Miss Dorothy Peabody is a lonely middle-aged spinster who works an office job in London and scurries home every night to take care of her demanding, bedridden mother who has the uncanny ability to know whether or not the downstairs furniture has been dusted. Nothing much ever happens in Miss Peabody’s dreary life, and a daring act for Miss Peabody is to get into the lift and squeeze between the males with “Je Reviens of Worth Paris dabbed on her wrists and behind her ears.” Miss Peabody has a secret yen for romance, and as a people watcher she notes the lurid office affair between the married Mr Bains and Miss Truscott, embellishing the affair with her imagination. There’s only one bright element to Miss Peabody’s life, and that is her amazing correspondence with the Australian  novelist, Diana Hopewell.

After reading Diana’s novel, Angels on Horseback, Miss Peabody writes a fan letter, and to her astonishment, Diana replies. Soon a lively correspondence begins between the two women. Miss Peabody sends details of her life, work and her dreams, and Diana writes about her horses and her beautiful ranch in Australia. Diana is also writing a new novel, and she includes the latest installments for Miss Peabody, and through the correspondence, Miss Peabody is drawn into Diana’s story of Pine Heights, an exclusive boarding school for girls….

In Diana’s installments, she introduces the world Pine Heights–a boarding school which is managed on a tight budget by the idiosyncratic headmistress, stout, middle-aged Miss Thorne (picture an Aussie Miss Fritton from St Trinian’s). Miss Thorne, also known as Prickles, is a strange blend of conformity and radicalism. A proponent of an annual school bra-burning ceremony, she has little time for men and every year she enjoys an annual holiday in Europe with her current companion, the nervous, clingy Miss Edgely, and Miss Thorne’s long-term friend Miss Snowdon, a matron of Queen’s Hospital.

Both Miss Snowdon and Miss Thorne have the same kind of figure; a portliness brought on by years of responsibility, plenty of money, comfortable accommodation and good meals. Both women have the education, the background and the capabilities required for their positions. neither of them care too deeply for other human beings and they are not dangerously touched or moved by the human predicament.

Miss Edgely shares some of the qualities but, by contrast, is small. She has no taste and far less money.

Miss Peabody receives, via her correspondence with Diana, installments of the novel, so the delightfully funny Miss Peabody’s Inheritance goes back and forth between Miss Peabody’s personal life (which grows increasingly out of control) and Miss Thorne’s fictional trip to Europe.  In these installments, Miss Thorne, Miss Snowdon and Miss Edgeley make their annual Mecca to “the wine houses at Grinzing,” but this time, Miss Thorne elects to take schoolgirl Gwendaline (Gwenda) Manners along. Gwenda’s widower father recently re-married a young Brazilian woman, and after bouncing a cheque for Gwenda’s tuition and board, he more or less disappeared. Miss Thorne argues that a trip to Europe is just what Gwenda needs and that it will give her “a little finishing,” but is Miss Thorne really motivated by altruism or lust? Miss Edgely “all but smashed the place up” in a jealous rage at Gwenda’s inclusion in their annual holiday, and as the trip continues via installments to Miss Peabody, a disaster unfolds with unexpected consequences.

Over the course of the holiday, we see how the formidable Miss Thorne organises her relationships so that she’s always in charge, always has the upper hand and always gets what she wants. Poor boring Miss Edgely:

Somewhere between Vienna and Paris Miss Edgely gets left behind in a station lavatory, the novelist’s letter starts straight in without any enquiries or remarks of a personal nature.

“D’you think I’ve got time?” Miss Edgely asks.

“Oh, rather! Edge of course you have, but don’t be all day.” Miss Thorne notices that the guards are slamming the doors of the Express. All around them are the noises of departure. She knows Miss Edgeley has not really time. Whistles blow and flags wave.

As Miss Peabody continues to receive letters from Diana which include fragments of the adventures of Miss Thorne, she begins to live for the arrival of the next letter, and as she burrows deep in the lives of Diana’s fictional characters, Miss Peabody begins to lose her grip on reality.

Miss Peabody’s evenings had become another world. A world of magic and enchantment. She lived for the evenings and for the time spent with the novelist’s letters and the composing of her own replies.

All the different things her mother asked for hardly mattered. The petulant voice calling down the narrow stairs could not remove the anticipation of her happiness.

Miss Peabody’s correspondence with Diana serves to broaden her horizons and it also brings several titillating issues to the fore. For example, partly inspired by Miss Snowdon’s paper, The Forgotten Placenta, Miss Thorne hopes to organise a lecture at the school for the edification of the “gels” as she calls them: Chasing the Orgasm: How When and Where. This makes rather shocking reading for the very sheltered Miss Peabody, and the correspondence between Diana and Miss Peabody ultimately has startling results.

Often with novels that have a clear division (in this case the division is between the life of Miss Peabody and the letters from Diana), there is a range of quality, and one strain becomes stronger than another. Not so with Miss Peabody’s Inheritance. In fact the two strands come together and mesh extraordinarily well. Miss Peabody’s Inheritance, is of course about loneliness, but it’s also about how little we human beings need to jettison our imaginations beyond our lowly, and often restrictive conditions.

Review copy

8 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Jolley Elizabeth

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

“Haven’t you noticed how we all specialize in what we hate most?”

Thanks to the reissue of Lucky Jim by New York Review books, I decided on a reread–something I do occasionally with books that I’ve especially liked. The lure of this re-read can be explained by my inordinate passion for the Campus novel, my admiration for Kingsley Amis, and my fondness for NYRB in general. It’s been years since I first came across Lucky Jim, and I remember that I found it to be one of the funniest novels I’d ever read.

The intro written by Keith Gessen made the purchase worthwhile (plus my old copy has gone astray). Gessen writes with a light comic touch combined with an understanding of Amis’s early struggles and a good grasp of the humiliations suffered by anyone trying to get their foot in the door of academia. Gessen begins with a description of Amis and Philip Larkin:

Lucky Jim is a young man’s book, in fact the book of two young men. They weren’t exactly angry young men, but they were extremely irritable. College friends with similar backgrounds, they had graduated from both Oxford and the Second World War to find themselves in an England that was in terminal decline. It was bankrupt. It was losing the overseas possessions that had once been its pride, and the people in charge were snobs and incompetents. Worst of all, no one seemed to appreciate the young men’s genius: neither the women they met nor the publishers to whom they sent their work.

That’s the first wonderful paragraph that both sets the tone for the novel and makes the point that the relationship between Amis and Larkin became the genesis for Lucky Jim–a comic novel in which the protagonist is a “hybrid” of the two men. Included are a few hilarious extracts from letters Amis wrote to Larkin with their included digs at academia, and here we see the frustration felt by the fictional Jim Dixon. Amis and Larkin obviously chafed at the constraints imposed by academic life, and the invention of the game, ” ‘horsepissing,’  in which they’d replace words from classic texts with obscenities” is evidence of their rebellion within the ranks. And it’s this sort of rebellion that explains the duality of the behaviour of the novel’s protagonist, Jim Dixon, for while he bows and scrapes to ensure his continued employment at the university, he also actively sabotages his efforts.

The novel begins with Jim Dixon trying–somewhat unsuccessfully–to pin Professor Welch to an offer of tea at his home. It’s not that Dixon really wants to go for tea since this means having to endure Welch’s mind-numbingly boring company, but it’s a politically wise engagement for a young man who wishes to impress his boss and hopes to stay teaching medieval history at the university at which he’s tentatively employed for two years. Welch, a university fossil, is a powerful individual whose nod of approval will go a long way. This is a frightening prospect as Welch prefers to waffle on about his recorder playing or madrigal singing rather than discuss Dixon’s future at the university. Dixon finds it impossible to steer Welch onto the desired subject–let alone extract two coherent sentences from the man. Although, of course, Welch isn’t quite as deranged as he pretends to be. The waffling, the indecision, the rambling, barely coherent sentences are a modus operandi frequently employed by those fossilized professors who are firmly entrenched in the halls of academia. Here’s a wonderful example of Jim trying to have a conversation with Welch on that ever-important topic of publication:

‘Yes, that Caton chap who advertised in the T.L.S. a couple of months ago. Starting up a new historical review with an international bias, or something. I thought I’d get in straight away. After all, a new journal can’t very well be bunged up as far ahead as all the ones I’ve…’

‘Ah yes, a new journal might be worth trying. There was one advertised in the Times Literary Supplement a little while ago. Paton or some such name the editor fellow was called. you might have a go at him, now that it doesn’t seem as if any of the more established reviews have got room for your … effort. let’s see now; what’s the exact title you’ve given it?’

Dixon looked out of the window at the fields wheeling past, bright green after a wet April. it wasn’t the double-exposure effect of the last minute’s talk that had dumbfounded him, for such incidents formed the staple material of Welch colloquies; it was the prospect of reciting the title of the article he’d written. It was a perfect title, in that it crystallized the article’s niggling mindlessness, its funeral parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw on non-problems. Dixon had read, or begun to read, dozens like it, but his own seemed worse than most in its air of being convinced of its own usefulness and significance. ‘In considering this strangely neglected topic,’ it began. This what neglected topic? this strangely what topic? His thinking all this without having defiled and set fire to the typescript only made him appear to himself as more of a hypocrite and fool. ‘Let’s see,’ he echoed Welch in a pretended effort of memory: ‘oh yes; The Economic Influence of Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450-1485.’

That quote is one of my favourites from the book as it captures Jim’s frustration (which he can do little about) and the niggling feeling that he’s a fraud since he cannot, in all honesty, believe that his chosen topic is anything less than catatonically boring and hardly relevant to the world outside of the university walls. But that’s the brilliant thing about academia: find some obscure topic which is obscure for a reason, and then write about it convincingly as though you’ve uncovered something that will rock the world to its foundations.

The novel is concerned with Dixon’s antics as he tries to ensure his future teaching History, but there’s a subconscious element to Dixon which, paradoxically, actively works against him, and it’s through this strain that the novel’s humour emerges as we see Dixon actively sabotage his own bowing and scraping efforts to please Welch. Dixon manages to get himself invited to the Welch home for the weekend, but since he knows he won’t be able to stand (read ‘behave‘) the company for the entire time, he arranges for a roommate to call with an ‘emergency’ that requires his presence back home. The weekend at Professor Welch’s home repeatedly illustrates Dixon’s inability to fit in. He gets drunk and trashes his room, and in order to cover up the damage he enlists the help of Christine, the girlfriend of his sworn enemy, pretentious, insufferable artist Bertrand Welch, who just happens to be the son of the man who can make or break Jim Dixon’s career.

For most of the story, Jim seems to be trapped in his own life. He’s frantic to impress Welch, a man he cannot admire; he’s not in the least attracted to neurotic fellow academic Margaret but still dallies with her as she seems within his league. He also tries to evade the earnest questions of serious student, Michie, who has the audacity of having an extremely attractive girlfriend and the annoying habit of trying to pin Jim down to concrete study descriptions. Does it escape Jim’s attention that he’s as wily and slippery with Mitchie as Welch is, in his turn, with Dixon?

Lucky Jim, published in 1954, was Kingsley Amis’s first book, and what a brilliant start to a glorious career. Apart from all the humour, it’s a significant book. Here’s Kingsley Amis, from a humble background, a scholarship boy, who made good and dragged himself up by his bootstraps into the hallowed halls of St John’s College, Oxford. Was he grateful to find the door open? Was he flattered to be invited inside that ivory tower to join the echelons of England’s Elite, or did he discover that no matter what, he was always going to be the awkward guest at the table?

Lucky Jim is a story of conformity, a story about how one man tries to fit in the confines of a career culture that part of him has no desire to belong to. We realise this, of course, before Jim does, and that’s what makes his half-hearted efforts and his self-sabotage so funny.  If he wants to impress Welch, he should learn to play the recorder and demand more madrigal singing. He should settle down and calmly and methodically court Margaret. He should flatter Bertrand and stop poaching Christine. But, of course, Jim can do none of these things, and this is where the novel’s wonderful humour can be found. Jim knows what he should do, but there’s part of him that rebels against conformity and longs to break free of the constraints imposed by an academic life. I, for one, identified with Jim, and so cheered him on through all of his delightful scrapes, hilariously bad behaviour, and unfulfilled revenge fantasies.

19 Comments

Filed under Amis, Kingsley, Fiction

What We Did On Our Holidays by Geoff Nicholson

Moving along with the third novel in my Year of Geoff Nicholson brings me to What We Did On Our Holidays, a dark, wickedly funny, and nastily subversive novel which follows the trials and tribulations of one man who drags his family off on a tent holiday. What We Did On Our Holidays was actually the first Nicholson novel I ever read, and while I recognised that I’d found a seriously different author, the book also made me a devoted fan.

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a weakness for books which depict people on their holidays. There are several reasons for this: Holidays are high stake events, but expectations don’t mesh with reality. Plus close confinement serves to highlight family fractures that perhaps have been deftly avoided or even unnoticed. You could definitely say that middle-aged Eric, our narrator, and the man who plans and organises the family hol, has no idea what he’s in for.

Eric’s 45th birthday is approaching. Wanting to “get off this rat race” for a while, and suffering from “an intense bout of middle-aged angst,” Eric overrules his family’s objections, and books two weeks in a caravan in the Skegness Tralee Carapark and Holiday Centre. Already by page 2, we know that there’s something wrong with Eric. His narrative presentations are somehow off. Here he sounds as though he swallowed the Holiday Centre advertising brochure:

It is a well-designed, attractively appointed, carefully screened, compact site, on level ground, with trees and bushes, sloping gently towards the sea on one side, with small but sylvan hills to the rear. It has outstanding panoramic views and is genuinely picturesque. There are extensive showering and toilet facilities, a site shop, a launderette, a children’s playground, and calor gas supply.

Perhaps Eric is just one of those boring, dull people who never show a spark of life or original thought. He suffers humiliating encounter after humiliating encounter with various characters in and around the holiday camp. Someone let the loonies out, and they’re all there to victimize poor Eric–there’s the psychotic policeman Hollerenshaw who’d like to fit Eric up for every crime that’s occurred in the area, a crooked car-dealer named Honest Iago, a gang of violent bikers, a disaffected shop clerk who’s ready to get violent for better pay, a stuttering bingo caller, and some sexually rapacious acrobatic dwarves. And what is going on with the Garcias in the caravan next door?

Eric may seem to be the meek recipient of constant abuse, but there’s a lot more to Eric than meets the eye. After all, any man whose Joan Crawford obsession is strong enough that he needs to take a coffee table book of his idol on holiday can’t be all bad, right? Perhaps still waters run deep.

I find it fairly hard to say just what Joan had that really hits the spot for me. Of course she was sexy and statuesque, but who wasn’t in those days? of course she had flashing eyes, a finely chiselled nose with flaring nostrils, and a warm, melting mouth. She was distinguished, determined, passionate, perhaps a little haughty. But she had something more than all of these. She had class. She was also something of an icon.

In later years it was revealed that Joan had appeared in blue movies before she got her big break. That didn’t exactly gild the lily but I never held it against her. It only made me feel a deep compassion for her; and it proved,. as if proof were necessary, that above all else Joan was a survivor.

But Eric is not just under assault from the strangers who cross his path–his family is also revolting (deliberate pun). His daughter Sally has turned into a religious maniac, and son Max decides that Skegness is a great place to go primitive. As for Eric’s wife, Kathleen, who packs up 4 suitcases of dirty laundry to take on holiday, she’s the originator of such vomit-worthy dishes as turnip and corned beef flambé, and she’s also a raving nymphomaniac who’s reading a book called Canine Orgasm. Eric calls it pornography, but Kathleen defends the book as erotica. Not that this insatiable woman needs any more ideas on the subject, mind you.

All of Eric’s sorry misadventures are recorded in diary entries. These entries amount to one humiliating encounter after another, but there are also a few lists such as Eric’s “pet hates” and his “political statement.” It’s through these very private lists and diatribes that we see that underneath Eric’s moronic exterior lurks some strange and equally moronic thinking:

Unions are a very good thing if they protect workers’ rights, but a bad thing if they become all militant and subversive.

I think people should be free to walk the streets without being molested by the police, and they should certainly be allowed to sleep in their own caravans, unless of course they’re criminals, in which case the police should go in fast and hard. It doesn’t pay to have a soft police-force. I think most police are doing a good job but there’s always one bad apple and unfortunately I seem to have met him. I’m no fan of capital punishment but how else can you make people see sense?

I think education’s to blame. Everybody’s entitled to an education, but sometimes it seems to me that all we’re doing is educating people to be unhappy with what they’ve got. They all think they’re so bloody clever. And if the State can’t provide a good education then it’s only fair to be able to send your kids to school so long as they don’t turn out a bunch of toffee-nosed snobs and poofs.

While the holiday was designed to bring Eric and his family closer, confinement in the tatty, smelly caravan has the opposite effect. Sally, Max and Kathleen all behave badly and go wild in their own ways. Here’s Eric remonstrating with Max about his behaviour:

“Don’t you see Dad, this is all a sham.”

He gesticulated wildly at me, at Kathleen and Sally, at the caravan, at the world beyond. He picked up his plate, scooped the food in his mouth, licked the plate clean and threw it over his shoulder.

“If rejecting civilisation means an end to good table manners, then it seems a sorry show to me,” I said.

Max roared again. He knocked over the table, snatched up a chair and smashed it against the caravan wall. He started to leave.

“Just where do you think you’re going, young man?”

After some more animal noises he said very distinctly, “I’m going native.”

“In Lincolnshire?” I demanded, incredulous, but it was too late to argue with him. He was already out of the door and disappearing on all fours.

I suppose this wasn’t exactly the effect I’d hoped my little chat would have, and if I had my time again I’d probably be more gentle with him, though frankly I’m still not sure exactly what I did wrong. Kathleen began talking to me again and accused me of being a bully and a home-wrecker, which I hotly denied. Nobody bullies Max these days. Basically I’m sure it will do Max the world of good to get away from the nest for a while, and, if nothing else, at least our little exchange has cleared the air.

These humiliating encounters which always have bad results for Eric typically end with this sort of peculiar non-response, so the last passage will give you a sense of the novel’s tone. This repetition is the novel’s weakness as a normal character wouldn’t take this, and after each anti-climatic encounter, I started to wonder if Eric was heavily medicated, but then again, we are seeing all this through Eric’s eyes, and just how reliable a narrator is he? Author Geoff Nicholson ties all the madness together in a very satisfying and transgressive manner, and by the novel’s conclusion as events spiral out of control, it’s clear that while Eric’s world is a strange, inhospitable place, perhaps Eric’s head is even a worse place to be. I could waffle on about how What We Did On Our Holidays is a subversive exploration of the moral bankruptcy of modern family life, and while that’s true, the book is also a good laugh for anyone who’s been stuck with their family for two miserable holiday-from-hell weeks.

5 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Nicholson, Geoff

Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis

I’m not interested in giving specifics, but British author Martin Amis seems to have a sour relationship with the press, and while I have no idea (and couldn’t care less) how this started, if there’s a horn-effect (the opposite of a halo effect), I’ve seen it in the many articles written about, or featuring Martin Amis–he can’t even go to the dentist without being criticised. Frankly, I don’t care how much he spends on his teeth; I just want to read his books. I’m glad to see that Amis is unapologetic in interviews–giving back as good as he gets.

I loved several titles by Martin Amis–Money is one of my all-time favourite books (any writer who makes me laugh deserves special note), but I disliked Yellow Dog, and this is a way of explaining that I am not a rabid fan of anything Amis writes. His memoir Experience included a section about the murder of his cousin Lucy Partington by serial killer Fred West which somehow drew criticism, but I found it to be one of the most moving pieces I’ve ever read. 

All this preamble to say that anything Amis writes will stir controversy, and this brings me to the author’s latest book, Lionel Asbo: State of England, a comic novel which targets celebrity culture and a book that has received its share of nasty reviews. We’ve all seen the sort of thing Amis is writing about, and reality TV plays no small role in the current obsession with the bad behaviour of a few people who are jettisoned to instant stardom for no other reason than they make startling and frequent headlines with their out-of-control behaviour.

Young Desmond Pepperdine, 15 when the novel begins in 2006, lives with his wily, uncouth uncle Lionel, a career criminal in Diston Town.  Des questions why his uncle changed his last name to ASBO (Anti-Social Behaviour Order) as it’s certainly a red flag to any judge or police officers, and he wonders if his uncle is stupid.  As we see as the novel plays out, Lionel, who is cunning and crafty, simply doesn’t care what people think of him, and his new surname is not only a signifier of defiance, but a full-on declaration of war.

While the novel explores the sometimes difficult relationship between Des and his delinquent uncle, this raucous tale (and I laughed out loud many times)  also examines Lionel’s relationship with society–a relationship which threatens to undergo significant change as the novel develops, but more of that later.

The novel opens with Desmond’s confession that he’s having an affair with his grandmother, the libidinous Grace, a lively 39-year-old, mother of 7 by age 19, and still a goer who’s so obsessed with the Beatles that she named 5 children after them (including the “forgotten Beatle“). Lionel, who seems to have a problem with women’s sexuality in general (he nurses a strange and unhealthy passion for the “promiscuous beauty” Gina Drago), can’t stand the idea of his mother having a sex life, and he’s long since declared she’s “past it.” With a dearth of males bold enough to visit Grace and test the wrath of Lionel, perhaps it was only a matter of time before  Grace, sporting a babydoll nightie, seduced Des–one of the few males Lionel allows to visit his mum. Whether or not Lionel is going to discover the short-lived affair between Grace and Des is one of the main story lines–or at least it’s a major pre-occupation for Des.

The other main thread concerns Lionel’s lifestyle changes when he wins the lotto and is dubbed the “lotto lout” by the papers, but when the novel opens Des and his uncle share a humble flat which is the centre of Lionel’s petty criminal operations and is guarded by two gigantic pitbulls, Jeff and Joe–kept vicious and temperamental through a diet laced with Tabasco sauce. The flat is badly furnished but includes a wall-sized TV which dominates the kitchen–not that there’s much else going in this room as pasty Lionel and Des don’t exactly believe in good nutrition, and daily breakfast consists of Lionel’s nod to fruit: the poptart.   

The two main characters, Des and Lionel, are an interesting study in contrasts. Orphaned Des, who attends Squeers Free School wants to get ahead in life–the non criminal way, and yet he’s under the thumb of his thuggish Uncle Lionel–a man who despises education, flaunts every societal code of politeness, and boomerangs back to prison every few years. Lionel, who’s an expert on the subject on crime and incarceration is “almost up to PhD level on questions of criminal law.” Des could be pressured into becoming a Lionel-clone, but instead while he obeys his uncle, he doesn’t agree with how he behaves:

Lionel’s trade was still something of a mystery to Des. He knew that part of it had to do with the hairiest end of debt collection; and he knew that part of it involved ‘selling on’ (Lionel’s word for selling on was reset). Des knew this by simple logic, because Extortion with Menaces and Receiving Stolen Property were what Lionel most often went to prison for … He stood there, Lionel, doing something he was very good at: disseminating tension. Des loved him deeply and more or less unquestioningly ( I wouldn’t be here today without Uncle Li, he often said to himself). But he always felt slightly ill in his presence. Not ill at ease. Ill.

Throughout this extremely funny novel, Lionel, as his nephew’s theoretical role model, provides Des with ‘fatherly’ advice, and coming from Lionel, the results are extremely funny and potentially corrupting:

Porn. You see, Des, this is it. You don’t actually need girls. Girls? They more trouble than they worth if you ask me. With the Mac, you can have three new bunk-ups every day–just by using your imagination! And it doesn’t cost you fuck all. Okay. Lecture over. So endeth the first lesson. Just promise you’ll ponder me words. And here’s an extra fiver for yuh. 

The novel’s comic aspects really takes off when Lionel wins the lotto–just imagine a thug “who work[s] at being stupid” winning millions. Guaranteed to always make a spectacle of himself  in public, he’s the darling of the paparazzi. Just what Lionel does with his money is hilarious, and of course the biggest question is: will Lionel end his criminal ways now he is filthy rich? 

Some of the criticism I’ve read about the novel is that there is an uncomfortable innate snobbery at the heart of this depiction of lowlife Lionel. After finishing the book, I’d argue against that. Yes there are times when Lionel’s dreadful family life is over-the-top–exaggerated for comic effect, but are we now so PC that we can’t enjoy a good laugh?  And some of the novel isn’t exaggerated at all–perhaps it all depends on how we live and who we mingle with.

Chewing over the criticisms I read about Lionel Asbo, I thought about Till Death Do Us Part–an extremely popular British television programme which ran for many years. The series featured Alf Garnett as a middle-aged East End working-class man, a racist, a sexist, an admirer of Enoch Powell and Mary Whitehouse, and an inveterate lover of the Royals. A great deal of the programme’s humour came from Alf Garnett’s ridiculous fascistic attitudes which he frothed about and spouted at every opportunity even as he choked on inchoate rage. While the programme had its share of controversy, the fact that it lampooned the ignorant attitudes of an East-Ender was not labelled ‘snobbery,’ and instead the criticism centered on swearing, so-called offensive language and “moral laxity.” One ground-breaking episode sent Alf Garnett dreaming that he was at Buckingham Palace talking and grovelling to the Queen, and there were headlines about the episode’s appropriateness. Attitudes change, and these days, Till Death Do Us Part would not make it to a pilot episode without considerable editing.

Martin Amis seems to have a great deal of fun with the character of Lionel, and the result is a refreshingly honest read–no touchie-feelie crap, no holier-than-thou resolution, no miracle of self-revelation, and no redemption. Lionel is exactly who he is–unapologetic, unrepentant, disinhibited, comfortable in his own skin, and giving the world the finger. I grew rather fond of Lionel–he’s easy to underestimate, and I suspect that Amis enjoyed creating this larger-than-life character. Is Amis making a larger social statement about England? Who knows. I don’t think Britain has the corner on the market when it comes to the Lionel Asbos of this world. Lionel reminds me of an American man I met who demonstrated how his pitbull, on command, could knock down his missus, and hold her by the throat while she lay frozen. He sniggered and said “just in case she gets ideas.” The happy couple both seemed rather proud of their dog’s ability to pin a human being at the drop of a word.

Special thanks to Kevin who read, reviewed and enjoyed the novel too.

16 Comments

Filed under Amis, Martin, Fiction

Ride a Cockhorse by Raymond Kennedy

I bought Ride a Cockhorse by Raymond Kennedy on the strength of my faith in the consistent quality of the books published by New York Review Book Classics. Its description promised a great deal, and for its delightfully unique story and the fact it made me laugh out loud, repeatedly, it’s going to make my best of 2012 list.

The book’s setting is a small, quiet New England town, and most of the action centres on the Parish bank. Frances Fitzgibbons, a 45-year-old widow, has been employed at the bank for some years as a home loan officer,” and she’s both well-respected and well-liked. She’s also a fairly anonymous person, until one day, the inner totalitarian breaks through, and Frankie’s life begins to change drastically.

She was ordinarily very reasonable and sweet-tempered, the soul of polite discretion. Almost overnight, she had become more strident, even to the point of badgering customers on the telephone and lifting her voice to a level that was considered inconsistent with the usual soft-spoken manner of a courteous banker. She could also be quite tart and provocative with those working around her, as on the afternoon when she lectured Connie McElligot, the woman at the front desk, for fifteen minutes on the subject of how the escalating interest rates of the 1980s portended an economic crisis of global proportions.

Just as Frankie’s behaviour at the bank shifts into aggressive overdrive, her appetite for sex changes too, and a lustful interest in the high school drum major (she has “an impulse to run into the street and wrestle him to the pavement,“) develops into a nightly prowl for her virginal victim. Think Blanche Dubois meets Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, and you just about have the right image of how Frankie seduces the drum major–an awkward teen, whose girlfriend, Frankie insists, wants to “breed up.”

At work, Frankie appears to reach some sort of catharsis when she verbally attacks a customer who’s fallen behind on her mortgage payments and whines about her circumstances.

“If you’re looking for a sympathetic ear,” Mrs. Fitzgibbons had disabused the woman at once, “you’re barking up the wrong tree.”

Remarkable as it might seem, with that one line, Mrs. Fitzgibbons put behind her years of futile soft-soaping diplomacy. She was sitting at her desk in the home loan department, with Connie McElligot bent over the desk in front of her, and Felix Hohenberger at the desk behind. As Mrs. Fitzgibbons gave the woman a piece of her mind, she swiveled sidelong in her chair and looked up importantly at the pale, splintered sunlight trembling in the pretty windows of the ceiling dome  thirty-five feet above herself. She was frowning with her lips set in an unhappy expression as the woman on the line sought to explain in detail the reasons underlying her tardiness of payment.

Mrs. Fitzgibbons explodes and everyone in the bank stops in their tracks. This incident marks a new bizarre trend of behaviour in the formerly pleasant woman. With her new aggressive outlook, not only does Frankie get herself promoted but she begins an intense self-advertising campaign which includes news releases, interviews and a daily glamorous make-over by Bruce, an adoring gay hair-dresser who’s completely in her thrall. Frankie’s new-found confidence and authoritarian approach to banking and employee management increases consumer confidence, and in the shockwave of Frankie’s new Cult of Personality, the bank begins to thrive against its competitors. Frankie’s power grows. Soon any bank employee who crosses Frankie is shown the door with dramatic ceremony, and she surrounds herself with a gang of sycophants and outcasts who are willing to do whatever she demands.

As the newly promoted CEO, full of meaningless bank speak, Frankie keeps everyone in the bank on their toes by sporadic dismissals which are organized by whimsy and the spin of an index wheel. Since the dismissals are without cause and are rooted in pure impulse, these actions result in the bank employees living in imminent terror of dismissal. Here’s Frankie ranting to Jack, a bank employee when she senses that she has enemies in the ranks. She wants information about employees she just fired:

“I want to know who they lunched with while they were here, who their closest friends were, their neighbours, their doctors, their children, their wives’ maiden names, their parents, everything in the book.”

“But we don’t have information like that,” he countered helplessly.

“Because if you don’t do that for me,” she went on, “you’ll be a stock clerk at K mart. You’ll be working for the sanitation department. You’ll be peddling your body down at Race and Main to little Puerto Rican men with mustaches. I’ll fire you, Jack.” Mrs. Fitzgibbons looked genuinely scary, very even-eyed and soft-voiced, as she enunciated her threat. “You were their superior. Your neck is on the line.”

Frankie’s behaviour becomes more outrageous (and it’s a brilliant move by the author to set these scenes of excess against the backdrop of a normally staid and bloodless institution), and I found myself cheering her naughtiness on. Was I no better than one of her toadies who would love to be just like Frankie if they had the nerve? I wasn’t bowing and scraping, but this character was giving me a wonderful time. For just over 300 pages, I too lived vicariously through Frankie as she told people how pathetic they were right before telling them to take a hike. Here she is confronting her boss, Mr Louis Zabac about the many employee firings:

“You have a tender heart, Louis. I can tolerate that. You don’t want to hurt anyone. You prefer looking the other way. Et cetera, et cetera,” she said, with a dismissing wave. “I was happy to do it. I threw them out. It was a tonic. Everyone feels better. The air is cleared. The deadbeats are gone. People who couldn’t even tie their own shoelaces”–Mr. Zabac winced painfully at Mrs. Fitzgibbons’s reference to the one-armed Mr. Kane–”are scarcely qualified to cut the mustard in this new order.”

“Mrs. Fitzgibbons,” the chairman pleaded to be heard, “why are you so irritable today?”

“You don’t run mongrels in a dog race,” she added. “You use greyhounds.”

“Discrimination is illegal.”

“Please! Louis! We’re both grown-ups. I fired a bunch of mutts.” She laughed out loud as she recalled the air of innocence of Marshall Moriarty when she axed him. “I did it cleanly. The people I disposed of were either simpleminded, aging, or so inconsequential that if they dropped dead at the supper table their own families wouldn’t notice.”

As the novel continues, and Mrs. Fitzgibbon’s outrageously bad behaviour is unchecked, the novel becomes a satire on totalitarianism. If you’ve ever wondered how someone like Stalin, for example, carried on for years, then just read the book. Frankie divides people with fear and her unpredictable behaviour. Some bank employees are “cronies” who adore her (especially the mousey, the losers or the outcasts) and live vicariously through her unleashed, frequently sexually directed comments and aggressive behaviour, and are thrilled by their new-found ability to take action in Frankie’s name, while some deluded, unfortunate souls imagine that they can take her on and battle her bullying ways. Even Frankie’s son-in-law, Eddie, to his wife’s horror, defects to Frankie’s camp and becomes one of her most ardent, and enamoured fans. It’s no coincidence that Frankie’s clothing becomes more militaristic or that she has her own mini hit squad of wanna-be brown shirts. Author Raymond Kennedy shows that bad behaviour which knows no limits can carry a bully a long way, and that’s just what happens with Frankie.

Trevor at Mookse and Gripes also reviewed the novel and pointed out that it can be repetitive at times. Can’t argue with that but I can forgive this for the hours of enjoyment gained. It’s the perfect companion to another New York Review Classics book Stephen Benatar’s Wish Her Safe at Home.  Both Rachel, from Wish Her Safe at Home and Frankie are a similar age, they both reconstruct their worlds, and they both think that men are after their bods, and in all fairness to Frankie, it’s often true.

16 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Kennedy Raymond