Tag Archives: 20th century Britain

Death of a Busybody: George Bellairs

“She was a perfect vessel of wrath.”

It’s a wonder that some people make it to old age, and in the case of village busybody, the highly unpleasant Miss Tither, who is 50, it’s a miracle she’s made it this far. When Death of a Busybody by George Bellairs (Harold Blundell 1902-1985) begins, the wonderfully named local vicar Rev. Ethelred Claplady has just woken up and is breathing in the fresh country air. On one side of the house the air is fragrant, but on the other side … there’s the stench of the cesspool being cleaned by the vicar’s handyman. Just then the vicar spies village busybody, Miss Tither haranguing Haxley, the local atheist in a country lane. While she’s the self-appointed moral guardian of the village of Hilary Magna, she’s mainly obsessed with “sexual” sin.

Miss Tither, “rather long in the tooth,” as the Squire described her, was about fifty years of age and had sufficient means to pay for domestic help which released her to poke her nose into the affairs of everyone for miles around. She was scorned and snubbed by most, but carried on her secret investigations and remedial campaigns against sin and vice with abhorrent fortitude. The village quailed in fear of her. Husbands, raising their hands or voices against their wives, paused at the thought of her. Scolding wives pitched their nagging in a lower key, lest Miss Tither should be in the offing. The lecherous, adulterous, drunken and blasphemous elements of the population held her in greater fear than the parson and looked carefully over their shoulders lest she be in their tracks.

Since the title of the book gives away the murder here, author George Bellairs wisely doesn’t waste time with much in the way of preliminaries. Within a few pages, Miss Tither is dead, bludgeoned and stuffed into the cesspool. The vicar sounds the alarm and word spreads through the village.

“Ethel Tither’s bin found strangled in the vicarage.” “Miss Tither’s bin found shot in vicar’s orchard.” “Owld Tither’s bin done-in. They say the vicar’s done it.” 

While Miss Tither had a great number of enemies, her behaviour has been consistent for years. Why is she murdered now? Is her death connected to the arrival of her missionary cousin? What are the latest juicy scandals brewing in the village?

death of a busybody

This is a well-paced tale, a police procedural which is made lively by the colourful personalities of some of the characters. It’s the small touches here, the best and worst of village life, that make this a humorous read, so the murder happens as the police are alerted about a lost Pomeranian. While I didn’t feel as though I got to know the series character, Chief Inspector Littlejohn well, I liked the detail of Littlejohn buying and then sending his wife two pounds of fudge. PC Harriwinckle’s domestic life, which is mainly seen around the table, adds to the tale.  As the investigation continues and dips into various lives, tertiary characters appear as wholly developed. Such is the case of former school teacher Miss Satchell, who now owns and operates a successful tea-room, and Mr Titmuss (who develops an interesting relationship with Sergeant Cromwell).

The book also includes prejudices of the day with the locals seen (and described) as smelly–so much so the coroner has an unpleasant time at the inquest. And there’s a scene of hunting which culminates in the local bobby bludgeoning a rabbit wounded by a huntsman who’s a notorious bad shot.

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Scarweather: Anthony Rolls (1934)

Scarweather is the first of two titles from Welsh author Anthony Rolls (real name C. E Vulliamy 1886-1971) in the British Library Crime Classics series, published in America by Poisoned Pen Press. The story concerns a mysterious disappearance and is unusual for its structure. The introduction from Martin Edwards gives a good overview of the career of Anthony Rolls, a prolific author whose career in crime fiction can be divided into two distinct parts.

Our narrator is a barrister, John Farringdale, and he tells a retrospective tale that began in 1913 and then unfolds over the next 15 years. We know immediately that this is a tale of criminal activity, remarkable for its “singularity of horror and [in] perversity of ingenious  method.” We also know that Farringdale’s great friend, Ellingham, takes the role of amateur sleuth, and it is Ellingham who “unravelled the mystery,” while Farringdale assumed the “traditional and honorable part of a Watson.”

Farringdale tells of his cousin, Eric Tallard Foster, a young man roughly the same age and of similar family circumstances. The difference between the two men can be found in Eric’s romantic nature and his readiness to fall in love. Eric’s hobby is archaeology and it’s through this that he meets Professor Tolgen Reisby, a notable expert in the field. Reisby’s attractive wife is 30 years younger.

scarweather

Foster spends a summer with the Reisbys at Scarweather, their remote coastal home and returns singing the praises of Mrs Reisby. Foster introduces Farringdale and Ellingham to Reisby, and soon all three men travel to Scarweather to enjoy the hospitality of the Reisbys.

Even before Farringdale meets Reisby,  Ellingham seems to have information, or an impression of Reisby. It’s easy to smell a mystery forming.

“And what have you heard?” I asked him.

Ellingham chose to ignore my question. He drew a golden toothpick from a case in his pocket and lightly tapped it along his lower teeth; it was an offensive habit which always annoyed me. though I knew it was the prelude to cogitation.

“I may have met him, or I may have seen him,” he said. “I’m not quite sure.”

Foster admires Professor Reisby, but the reality is far different. He’s a rather unpleasant fellow. Farringdale says Reisby’s face is “like that of a benevolent Jupiter,” and yet he also senses that Reisby is “a man whose retaliation would be cruel and unscrupulous.”

Arriving at Scarweather, Farringdale soon feels “the shadow of a quite intangible menace, the dim foreboding of something not yet recognised on the conscious plane,” but after a fortnight at Scarweather, the holiday ends. Later, in 1914, Foster visits Scarweather again and goes missing while swimming. Ellingham is immediately suspicious, and the discovery of a bizarre letter in Foster’s coat serves to fuel the theory of foul play. The police, however, are satisfied and refuse to conduct “further investigation.”

WWI intervenes. Farringdale and Ellingham survive. Other people around Scarweather disappear….

Scarweather is unusual for its structure, but it is overly long. Ellingham’s manner of holding information close is frustrating and something I find annoying when it comes to crime books. The author’s interest and expertise in archaeology comes into play here, and while it adds authenticity to the book, it also bogs the plot down with detail. I liked the structure of a mystery taking place years earlier. Foster disappears but global events intervene, so we see the lives of Farringdale and Ellingham continue while Foster’s life freezes in time. The friends of Foster never forget him–murder never goes away, and the author shows that well even if the route to that conclusion is overly long.

Kate from Crossexaminingcrime also reviewed the novel. 

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The Sussex Downs Murder: John Bude (1936)

The usual assault by a homicidal maniac.” 

Since I already own a few of the British Library Crime Classics titles, I was delighted to hear that Poisoned Pen Press is publishing this vintage series here in America. Vintage crime titles are great fun–after all there’s very little in the way of forensics, and you can forget high-tech crime lab stuff, and that just leaves us with plot and character.

John Bude, whose real name was Ernest Elmore (1901-1957) belongs to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Inspector Meredith appears in many of his crime novels, and he’s here in The Sussex Downs Murder, from 1936, quite a lurid story for its times–although it’s handled with a de-emphasis on the lurid, and stresses more village life and various local personalities. The murder concerns John Rothers, one of two brothers who jointly own a farmhouse, Chalklands, considerable farm land and also lime-kilns based near the farmhouse. Now if your ears pricked up, as mine did, at the mention of lime, well you’re onto the scent already.

The Sussex Downs MurderThe Rothers were once much more affluent and titled, but they’ve come down in the world, and with the “shrinkage of a considerable family fortune,” a “certain antagonism” existed between the two remaining descendants: John and William Rother. Perhaps it’s because they’re so different, or perhaps it’s because they must share their inheritance. Or perhaps it’s something to do with Janet Waring who married William while it’s rumoured that she preferred John….

So there’s our recipe for murder, and so the story commences.

John drives away from Chalklands for a holiday in Harlech, but his bloodstained car is later found abandoned, and Inspector Meredith is called in to investigate.

Bude sets the scene for this tale of murder against the “little parish of Washington“:

It is a typical village of two streets, two pubs, a couple of chandlers, a forge, an Olde Tea Shoppe, and a bus service. Although the parish is bisected by the main Worthing-Horsham road, it has managed to retain in the face of progress all those local peculiarities which have their roots in the old feudal system of government. There is still a genuine squire at the Manor House to whom the group of idlers outside the “Chancton Arms”, whatever their politics, instinctively touch their hats; whilst the well-being of the church rests in the conservative hands of the Reverend Gorringe, as typical a parson as ever trod the pages of Trollope.

Bude very carefully maintains this image of the tranquility and quirkiness of village life throughout Inspector Meredith’s investigations, so that the gruesome tale of murder is seen as a pathological, atypical incident. One harmless villager chases butterflies and eats at the vegetarian guest-house, The Lilac Rabbit. The constable has to bicycle around with news as very few people have a telephone in their homes, and servants who see everything but say little play a considerable role.

Even though the modern reader will be well aware that crime detection in the 30s was an entirely different matter from today’s CSI, nonetheless it still shocks the sensibilities to read about people casually picking up bones or shoes and there’s never a whisper about preserving the integrity of the crime scene. The crime solution comes down to Inspector Meredith’s wits, and John’s disappearance is initially thought to be, perhaps, a kidnapping, “an unfortunate criminal habit which has been imported” from America. This reflects the attitudes of the times and the fear that the gangster-ridden streets of America might become a fixture in Britain too.

While I guessed the solution very early in the novel, accompanying Meredith through his investigations was great fun. My favourite sections were the scenes between Inspector Meredith and local crime writer, Aldous Barnet, who is also a close friend of William Rother. Barnet makes an enthusiastic audience for Meredith, and there’s plenty of tongue-in-cheek jabs about the profession of writing about crimes with Mr Barnet deciding that he “could work this case up into a novel.” Barnet and Chief Constable Major Forest act as sounding boards for Meredith’s various, sometimes elaborate and lengthy theories about the crime throughout various phases of detection. Meredith is an interesting, albeit low-key character–a family man who hates to miss his high-tea and discusses his cases with his family. While many aspects of the story are quaint (at one point, Meredith ask who cleans Janet’s shoes), and while crime detection is so low-gadget, one wonders how any crimes were solved, it’s clear that human nature remains the same throughout the centuries:

You see, Mr Barnet, crime is bound up with human weakness, human greed, human misery–at every turn in an investigation you come up against the human element.

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Big Girls Don’t Cry by Fay Weldon

“Well, we’re sorry. Every generation must apologise to the future, and the greater the change that was brought about, the profounder the apology needs to be. … Let the feminists apologise for the death of love, lost children, and the diminishing of man. But what was a girl to do? Someone has to reform the world. You can’t see what you see and do nothing.”

The works of British author Fay Weldon concentrate on the lives of women with themes that include: female identity & self-image, revenge, transformation & reinvention, gender inequality, female madness and the vicious relationships between women. While Weldon’s work, full of dark, bitingly wicked humour, obviously fits in any feminist canon, her work can also be considered Transgressive fiction for the way her marvelous characters subvert societal norms. Case in point: Big Girls Don’t Cry–a story of a band of women who form a feminist publishing house. I can’t think of another author who would take this subject to show how the treacherous relationships between women undermine the lives of these characters, and while this is not my favourite Weldon novel, it’s deceptively brilliant, and ultimately an incredible commentary on shifting social times.

The world envied them, derided them, adored, loathed and pitied them by turns–these women who were larger than life. Layla, Stephanie, Alice, Nancy and company–a small, vivid group of wild livers, free-thinkers, lusters after life, sex and experience, who in the last decades of the century turned the world inside out and upside down. Unable to change themselves, they turned their attention to society, and set about changing that, for good or bad.

Weldon tells us that the women were “described” as feminists, “but they were never quite in step; too far in front to notice what the rest were doing.” The novel begins in 1971 and follows our characters for several decades in an ever-changing Britain. It’s London, and there’s change in the air, and here are two young women in their twenties: Stephanie and Layla pasting up posters with a feminist message:

A Woman Needs a Man like a Fish Needs a Bicycle.

Stephanie and Layla (carrying a plank under her arm) are about to move on. Stopping to stare at the poster are Kiwi tourists, Nancy and her fascist controlling fiancé, Brian. Brian is expressing contempt for newspaper headlines while the newspaper vendor, a man with a nose eaten by leprosy, looks on. For a moment, Layla, Stephanie, Nancy and Brian face each other on the pavement:

“Could we pass?” asks Layla, politely since Brian and his unbought newspaper bar their way. The noseless man smiles thinly under hideous nostrils.

“Ladies say please,” says Brian.

At which Layla simply turns and swipes him to one side with the end of the plank, turns back, and she and Stephanie move on. Brian knocked against the wall momentarily, recovers quickly.

“Aggressive bitches,” he says.

“You were in their way, Brian,” remarks Nancy, which makes Brian wonder exactly whose side she’s on.

“They must be feminists,” he observes.

“How can you be sure?” she asks.

“They don’t even walk like proper women,” he says.

And it’s true. All around Brian and Nancy doe-eyed and adoring women drift along in the shadows of men, stumbling on platforms, trit-trotting on stiletto heels. Layla and Stephanie stride; they wear jeans and t-shirts. Their equivalents today would be muscular and well-exercised. Layla and Stephanie, for all their health, strength and energy, are soft-limbed, smooth-shouldered. Men have muscles: women have defencelessness as their weapon. No wonder this world is so erotic, super-charged: composed of polarities as it is. He, she. Hard, soft. Ying, yang.

Nancy ‘gets’ the poster’s message, while Brian is genuinely puzzled by what feminists “want.”

big girls don't cryAfter this scene, which turns out to be most significant, the book moves on to a “consciousness-raising” meeting at Stephanie’s house in Chalcot Crescent. The meeting  of “five furies in the front room” ends with alliances forged, inter-female betrayal, a marital relationship in the toilet, major rivalries between female characters erupting, and the formation of a feminist press: Medusa. The rest of the book follows the lives, loves and careers of its characters: Stephanie (who later abandons Medusa and joins Menstra magazine), Layla who sleeps with ‘the enemy,’  the very domestic Daffy, “High Priestess,” Alice, poor tragic Zoe destroyed by her passivity, and Zoe’s daughter Saffron, as they move through the decades, shifts in the feminist movement, broken relationships, and the onslaught of AIDS. As the decades pass, our radicals of the 70s discover that they’ve become passé, and sadly, but perhaps appropriately, it’s Zoe, the one who pays the greatest price, who makes the biggest impact, and it’s Saffron who delivers delicious revenge.

Fay Weldon doesn’t shy away from interjecting her thoughts in these pages while presenting a unique perspective on the feminist movement. Her characters, although vivid and alive are more types than intimate character studies, but it’s through these women, these characters who fought against tradition, we see a range of results and prices paid: guilt, regret, loneliness and even a lack of appreciation as the feminist movement marches on and leaves most of our characters in the dust. Weldon’s frequent interjections and social commentary may annoy some readers (not me obviously). Weldon’s pithy, lively social commentary would do wonders in any classroom:

Children then were grateful to have been born at all; were on the whole uncritical of their upbringing; parents did the best they could in the light of their own natures, it was commonly assumed

and

That was in the mid-seventies: socialist days. Long ago. The notion of primal ownership has returned with a vengeance: and the profit therein. The rain that falls from heaven belongs not to god but to the Water Board, the forests nature grew are fenced off and belong to the Forestry Commission; your very corpse belongs to the state: its parts up for sale for research purposes. Money has won over human dithering. The natural mother owns the genes of the child she forgot and can claim that child back from the adoptive mother any time: the moral right of the one who toils is swept away in the tide of mine, mine: the country you claim is the one of your ancestors not the one which reared you.

Saffron, the next generation, is the child of the 70s: the product of a woman who wanted to be a feminist and Bullivant, a man terrified that he’d become superfluous in a world in which he couldn’t dominate and bully. Here’s Saffron visiting a bookshop in which she’s served by a woman in combat fatigues:

Saffron leaves her companions and walks briskly down to Compendium Books, the radical bookshop near Camden Town, instead of up the hill and home to her house in the cramped narrow streets behind Belsize Park. She loves looking in the window, to the display therein of global hopes and fears. Books on the Nuclear Threat, CND, Marx, Trotsky, Anarchism, The Buddhist Path to Serenity. There’s a large section labeled Wimmin–the three letters M-A-N in that order seeming to some an insult. Books on the nature of the patriarchy, the particular plight of black women, the male tendency to rape and pillage–though scarcely a one, yet, on incest or child sexual abuse–and a large section given over to Medusa books, which are noticeably glossier and more attractively designed than the rest.

In spite of the book’s light, humorous tone, Weldon asks some serious, difficult questions here while examining the feminist movement in the last few decades of the 20th century.  Through these vibrant characters, the story addresses the price paid by the women who ignored convention and fought for alternative lives, and then lived to see the movement become fragmented and morph into something new and different. In another author’s hands, especially in these PC days, I can’t help but think that this story would be one of stellar sisterhood, one of those nasty uplifting novels. Ultimately Weldon’s message here seems to be that women need to watch each other’s backs and that women, by their physiology alone, will juggle careers, relationships and children and, along the way, make some tough choices that will be layered with guilt and regret.

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Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

“There were doorways between this world and the next.”

In 2012, one of my books-of-the-year was J. Robert Lennon’s remarkable novel,  Familiar–the story of an ordinary woman who finds herself in a parallel universe in which her troubled son didn’t die. Should she be happy about this instant, inexplicable transplant? Well yes, but just because one bad thing didn’t happen doesn’t mean that her ‘new’ life is altogether better….Anyway Familiar is a novel that deserves a lot of readers and a lot more attention than it received. And now on to another novel that also deals with the very difficult idea of alternate lives–an intriguing novel that has received an avalanche of positive criticism: Kate Atkinson’s  rich, imaginative Life After Life.

Life after lifeI’d read a few of Kate Atkinson’s earlier novels, and from the plot description, I was intrigued but also just a little skeptical. This is the story of Ursula Todd who initially is born and dies on a bitterly cold, snow-filled night in the year 1910. Birth and death. It’s a short chapter. But then subsequent chapters offer alternate scenarios with Ursula surviving by some miracle of timing. Given the date of her birth, of course she lives through WWI and WWII–although once again different scenarios in chapters covering specific dated blocks of time follow Ursula’s life as she reaches certain crossroads, makes certain choices, sometimes dying by some fluke accident or swept up as a statistic of history.

Ursula grows up to be a very unusual child and an equally unusual young woman. Ursula is taken to see Dr. Kellet, a psychiatrist at one point after a particular strange incident, and he suggests to Ursula that “perhaps the part of your brain responsible for memory has a little flaw, a neurological problem that leads you to think you are repeating experiences.” Ursula, much later in the novel, in another version of her life tells Dr Kellet that “time isn’t circular… it’s like a palimpsest.”

Life After Life, to be honest, isn’t the easiest book to review. Normally one can tread through a certain amount of plot, but in this case, too much plot detail will reveal too much. There were several occasions, I felt tempted to trace out a timeline of Ursula’s various lives, choices and deaths, but I was wrapped up in the story, I didn’t want to analyze it too much, and there is a sort of magic to this sort of highly imaginative narration. Is this science fiction? Is this a story of parallel universes? Or is this one giant ‘what-if’? Laced with intriguing ideas including déjà-vu, destiny & fate, reincarnation, and Nietzsche’s amor fati, this is a novel that embraces all possibilities. I don’t think there’s any point in trying to nail down exactly what happens with time and fate in the novel. As a reader, you either accept it or not. Sort of reminds me of Terminator– logic doesn’t apply; it’s the story that counts. Author Kate Atkinson grants Ursula just an inkling that she’s somehow ‘different,’ and those parallel lives, created by alternate choices, are sensed, rather than known, as they whisper, close in the shadows “through a glass darkly”:

Everything familiar somehow. “It’s called déjà vu,” Sylvie said. “It’s trick of the mind. The mind is a fathomless mystery.” Ursula was sure that she could recall lying in a baby carriage beneath the tree. “No,” Sylvie said, “no one can remember being so small,” yet Ursula remembered the leaves, like great green hands, waving in the breeze and the silver hare that hung from the carriage hood, tuning and twisting in front of her face. Sylvie sighed. “You do have a very vivid imagination, Ursula.” Ursula didn’t know if this was a compliment or not but it was certainly true that she often felt confused between what was real and what was not. And the terrible fear–fearful terror–that she carried around inside her. The dark landscape within. “Don’t dwell on such things, ” Sylvie said sharply when Ursula tried to explain. “Think sunny thoughts.”

And sometimes, too, she knew what someone was about to say before they said it or what mundane incident was about to occur–if a dish was about to be dropped or an apple thrown through a glasshouse, as if these things had happened many times before. Words and phrases echoed themselves, strangers seemed like old acquaintances.

While this is a very clever novel that presents some intriguing possibilities about alternate lives, for this reader, the novel’s strength is rooted in its incredibly good characterisations. Ursula is the third of five children whose parents are Sylvie and Hugh Todd–a golden family whose permanent, idyllic country home at Fox Corner, replete with relatives, friends, dogs and servants, is the sort of loving, supportive environment that breeds individuality and contentment.  The novel covers over 50 years of history with various scenarios, various choices made played out against the two world wars, and although fate and history may be changed by a moment’s decision, Fox Corner remains a stable presence in the midst of global madness and upheaval. Ursula is, of course, the central character, and the choices she makes–some crucial and some deceptively simple, directly influence her various lives and lovers, but the fates of various characters in the Todd family circle also change with each of Ursula’s lives. The family’s irrepressible black sheep of the family, Isobel, Izzie, “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” is by far my favourite character.

One of the great appeals of this ultimately optimistic novel can be explained in its call to our collective subconscious. For who among us has not, upon occasion experienced a sense of déjà vu–a feeling that we’ve been in a certain place or met a certain person before, and who has not wondered about the paths our lives would have taken if we’d turned a corner just a few seconds later? How often have you thought of an alternate self, a self that might have been if you’d made a different decision?

She had obscure memories of elation, of falling into darkness, but they belonged to that world of shadows and dreams that was ever present and yet almost impossible to pin down.

I’m not the only one who finds Atkinson’s latest phenomenal. Here’s Kevin’s review and also one from a long-time friend.

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Leigh Bowery: The Life and Times of an Icon by Sue Tilley

If Leigh came to your house and saw something he didn’t like he would throw it out the window.”

I stumbled upon some photos of Leigh Bowery by pure accident, and I immediately knew that this Australian avant-garde performance artist/club promoter/costume designer was heavily influenced by Divine and John Waters. I then came across a bio of Bowery written by his long-time friend, Sue Tilley, so I decided to read it and discover whether or not the Divine-Leigh Bowery connection existed. And to break the suspense, yes, Bowery was influenced by Divine and John Waters, so for fans of Trash Cinema, or for those who appreciate Bad Taste, this book is an interesting read which further endorses Waters’ influence outside of Baltimore. Yes people, he’s polluting the whole planet!

But back to Leigh Bowery….

Bowery was diagnosed with HIV in 1988 and died of AIDS in 1994. This disease stripped the world of so many talented people. Freddie Mercury comes to mind, and Leigh Bowery was yet another immensely talented individual who could have accomplished so much more if he’d had the time.

This brutally honest, and sometimes raw, memoir is written by Leigh’s close friend, Sue Tilley. Tilley was on the scene when 19-year-old Leigh, armed with a portable sewing machine, moved from Melbourne, Australia to London in 1980. Leigh was seeking glamour, excitement, and a “career in design”  and he found all these things–although not instantly–in the London club scene by way of  a detour at Burger King. Tilley describes the influences on Leigh’s attitudes, including Divine: “the brilliant drag actor and singer, who was to be a great influence for the rest of his life.”

An exceptional aspect of the memoir is Tilley’s no-holds barred look at  Leigh Bowery. They were best friends, and clearly Sue has a strong attachment to this larger-than-life Australian, but at no point does Tilley sugar-coat her view. We see the positive: his creativity, his humour and his zest for life, and the negative: stealing from Burger King, shoplifting, and the treatment of his ‘slaves’.

Tilley describes the various fashion trends:New Romantics, Hard Times, & Glam as well as numerous notables from the 80s London club scene, including Scarlett Bordello and Steve Strange. The club scene at White Trash, ChaChas, Heaven and Asylum is detailed, and Leigh was such a natural presence at the clubs that he was approached by club entrepreneur Tony Gordon to be “the public face” of a club which opened in 1985. The club was named Taboo “because it epitomized everything Leigh loved.” The club doorman, Mark Vaultier, would hold a mirror in front of the faces of would–be club entrants and ask: “Would you let yourself in?”

To quote an article from Alix Sharkey, Taboo was :

London’s sleaziest, campest and bitchiest club of the moment which is stuffed with designers, stylists, models, students, dregs and the hopefully hip, lurching through the lasers and snarfing up amyl. The coolest geezer in here is wearing Bodymap tights and, yup, platform soles. A sudden rush for the toilets could only mean that a camera crew had arrived and were filming, nothing less would penetrate this narcissistic air of self-absorption.

The book is not strictly chronological, and some of it is organised thematically (Home, Dance, Art, Hospital), and the result is a well-considered blend of the personal and the professional–including Leigh’s cottaging exploits and his favourite public toilets. When it came to sex, he preferred toilets to homes:

Very occasionally Leigh would go back to men’s houses but he never really enjoyed it–it just confirmed the dreariness of most people’s lives and their complete lack of taste in home furnishings.

Leigh comes to life in anecdotes–one example is the way he told such outrageous lies that no one knew whether or not he was telling the truth:

Typically, Leigh would tell the most heinous lies. He once told me that Brad Branson, an American photographer who I knew in passing, had been on holiday in Ibiza, caught a terrible tropical disease and dropped dead. I was very shocked at this because it seemed such a strange thing to happen. A couple of weeks later, I was sitting in my little cashier’s booth at Industria and then suddenly Brad Branson came down the stairs. I nearly jumped out of my skin and screeched ‘I thought you were dead.’ I still don’t know why I believed the story because after ten years I should have realised what a liar Leigh was but I didn’t think that even he could make up stories that bad.

Leigh’s playfulness and transgressive sense of humour seep through the pages, and for this reader at least, reading the book, gave a clear sense of knowing this adventurous character:

When Leigh was asked by somebody on what occasions he lied, he replied, ‘On what occasions do I breathe!’ At least he was honest that once. Because Leigh told such terrible lies, sometimes people didn’t believe the truth. He once told Cerith that Les Child was working in the gay sauna in Covent Garden making sandwiches for the snack bar. Cerith couldn’t believe that as talented a dancer as Les would be doing such a job. So when he bumped into Les several months later and asked him how things were going he was completely gobsmacked when he replied ‘Fine, girl, I’m not making the sandwiches any more.’

So even when Leigh told the truth, the truth had a strangely comic result….Obviously for author Sue Tilley, the creator of this touching, tragic and funny memoir,  it’s impossible to forget Leigh Bowery. He was … simply … one of a kind.

For images of Leigh and his work, here’s a link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hASjFX7CVsQ

Review copy read on my kindle courtesy of Open Road media via Netgalley

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Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross

I arrived at the British novel Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren Ross,  finally, after too many delays. The story is set, for the most part, on the eve of WWII, but by the time the end of the novel rolls around, WWII is in process.

When I first heard about Of Love and Hunger, I knew this was a novel I had to read. I bought a copy and then later found it praised rather highly by Max at Pechorin’s Journal. I was intrigued by the fact it’s about a vacuum cleaner salesman–hardly a popular choice  for a fiction subject. These days door-to-door salesmen are fading from view. It’s probably a sales method that’s no longer effective; it’s only mildly effective in Of Love and Hunger.

The novel’s protagonist is the young, good-looking Richard Fanshawe. Over the course of the novel, fragments of information about Fanshawe’s life reveal that he’s “been out east.” Once a journalist in India, now he’s back in England, and he’s not adjusting well to his diminished circumstances. The plot focuses on just a slice of Fanshawe’s personal and working life, and as it turns out, he’s unsuccessful at both endeavours. When the novel opens, Fanshawe, a resident of a boarding house in a drab seaside town, has been employed as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman for about a month:

It wasn’t much of a job. Two quid a week less insurance, and commission–if you could get it. after the first fortnight I gave up all hope of getting it myself. For one thing it was the wrong time of year: Easter just over and the summer not begun; all the big boarding houses down by the seafront closed until the season started. Then again all this talk of war put prospects off. You’d think women’d jump at he chance of having their carpets cleaned buckshee, but no: even demonstrations were hard to get those days. We’s start out canvassing at nine in the morning and be lucky if we finished teatime with four or five apiece. You were supposed to get fourteen. A hundred calls, fourteen dems, three sales. That’s what they taught you at the school. But you didn’t have to be in the game long before you found out that was all a lot of cock.

Perpetually behind on the rent to his landlady, and  with his tailor ready to take legal action, Fanshawe waits for a letter and a cheque from his Uncle George. Uncle George is the only ‘prospect’ Fanshawe has, and his landlady, Mrs Fellows looks for the long-awaited letter as eagerly as her tenant:

Any luck, Mr Fanshawe? She asked, with one eye on the letters.

None, I’m afraid. Only bills.

Never mind, Mr Fanshawe. Something’ll turn up.

Fanshawe’s job with the vacuum cleaner company is hopeless. He’s doomed to give free demonstrations to bored and sometimes nasty housewives on the off-chance that he may be able to actually sell one. Logistically we know the chances are slim, and the company tries to resuscitate enthusiasm with pep talks, competitions and prizes. When Fanshawe is finally and inevitably given the sack from the first vacuum cleaner company, he moves over to its rival, Sucko. Through this manoeuvre, it’s clear that Fanshawe is running through a well-worn circuit habituated by other under-employed men of his age and station; as he switches jobs, he keeps running into people he knows–including Straker, a planter from India. Here’s Fanshawe at the company meeting in Brighton:

I looked up. ‘By god. Straker!’ It was. Hadn’t see [n] him since we came over on the boat. He was a planter I’d known out there and when we first landed we went about in town together quite a bit. Pubs. Clubs. Seeing the sights. dear old Pic. booze-up every night, hangover every day.

‘What the hell are you doing here? Thought you’d gone back long ago.’

‘Missed the boat, o’boy,’ Straker said. Literally,  I mean. Got tanked-up the night before, had all my money pinched. Dunno how it happened. Place called Alice’s. Had to give them a cheque at the hotel. Boat’d gone when I got down there. Only woke at 4 p.m. They couldn’t wake me. Thought I was dead. Thought so myself when I woke up.’

‘Bad show,’ I said.

‘Damn bad show. So I thought to hell with it. I’ll stay on here. I’d a spot of cash saved, mind you. Thought I’d stay on and see a bit more life. Reckoned I could easy get a job when the time came. Soon found I was wrong though. So I took this.’

‘How are you doing?’

‘Sold three of the bloody things at first. Then a lull. Lull’s been going on ever since.’ He started to eat a cake with pink icing on it. ‘How about you?’

These hard-luck or bad-luck stories seem to be the resume of every salesman, and the exchanges between employees focus on sales or the rumours of sales. This preoccupation with sales occurs against the distant rumbling of war. Fanshawe notes that:

Big blocks of flats along the sea front, smell of rotting seaweed from the beach. Then bridges and boardings chalked with the fascist sign. Seemed to be a lot of fascists about. Once or twice I saw the hammer and sickle chalked up, but not often.

Of Love and Hunger contains more than its share of memorable, lively, well-drawn characters–far too many to mention here, but the novel’s peculiar characters flesh-out Fanshawe’s drab existence and disallow the notion of dreariness and despair. Fanshawe discovers that honesty gets you nowhere in the vacuum biz, and his guide to corruption is the crafty weasely supervisor, Smiler. Under the guidance of Smiler every sale is a con in one form or another, so perhaps it’s no wonder that veteran salesman, Larry Heliotrope, a man who knows Sucko’s methods all too well  should succeed–at least in the short-term.

But what of love? Love appears in the tale as its title promises. Fellow salesman Roper goes to seas leaving his unpredictable wife Sukie in Fanshawe’s care. Bad idea. Sukie is a complex character who awakens Fanshawe’s literary aspirations even as she acts provocatively, teasingly, and sometimes rather cruelly. The first time Fanshawe sees Sukie, he has a fair idea that’s she’s tempestuous and difficult:

I thought again what a dangerous person she’d be in a real temper.

But of course that warning sign doesn’t stop Fanshawe.

If Fanshawe happened to be a character in a Russian novel, Of Love and Hunger would be bleak indeed, but this is a British novel, and so the tale is told with a large dollop of irony, distancing and humour. Fanshawe doesn’t take his situation too seriously; he can always avoid the landlady, borrow a few quid or perhaps even hit the jackpot on the one-armed bandit installed at the boarding house. Like many of the other men in the novel, Fanshawe regards the possibility of WWII as good news. With the shrinking of the British Empire, opportunities are limited, and to men like Fanshawe, WWII is a career move waiting to happen.

My copy is from Penguin Classics and includes an intro by D.J. Taylor. He stresses that the novel is not about “abject poverty” but “the kind of life that was lived sixty years ago in seedy boarding houses by people who never quite possessed the drive or the money necessary to hold down a decent job or a proper relationship.”  Taylor makes connections between Maclaren-Ross, Powell, and Hamilton. I’ve yet to read Powell, but I can definitely see Hamilton’s Gorse fitting comfortably in Maclaren-Ross’s marvellous Of Love and Hunger.

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Orwell: Life and Art by Jeffrey Meyers

Orwell spent five years as a policeman in Burma, and he was responsible for the kicking, flogging, torturing and hanging of men. He saw the dirty work of Empire at close quarters and “the horribly ugly, degrading scenes which offend one’s eyes all the time in the starved countries of the East” where an Indian coolie’s leg is often thinner than an Englishman’s arm.

By the end of the five years, writes Orwell, “I hated the imperialism I was serving with a bitterness which I probably cannot make clear… it is not possible to be part of such a system without recognizing it as an unjustificable tyranny….I was conscious of an immense weight of guilt that I had got to expiate.” (from Orwell: Life and Art by Jeffrey Meyers)

A few years ago I read the marvellous non-fiction book, Finding George Orwell in Burma. The author, Emma Larkin (a pseudonym) travelled to Burma (now Myanmar) to trace Orwell’s life in that British colony. The book became one of the best books I read that year and confirmed my interest in Orwell–a writer I’ve always intended to get back to. This brings me to Orwell: Life and Art by Jeffrey Meyers. The book is a compilation of twenty-one essays on the life and work of Orwell.  Meyers also authored A Reader’s Guide to George Orwell, George Orwell: The Critical Heritage, the heavy-duty title George Orwell: an Annotated Bibliography of Criticism, and Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation, a biography of Orwell written by Meyers as a response to a sense of dissatisfaction with other Orwell bios. I should add that Meyers has written forty-three books to date, but it’s clear that Orwell is one of the greatest interests of his life. The range of this author’s knowledge on the subject of George Orwell makes an irrefutable argument for specialisation.

The essays in Orwell: Life and Art were published, according to the introduction, “over a period of forty years,” and they cover Orwell’s life and work, analyses of his novels, and one essay even compares various Orwell bios. Since the essays were written at separate times for various audiences, some of the information is repeated, but for anyone interested in Orwell, the essays really are marvellous and substantial reading. Moreover, while the essays are by no means light reading matter, neither are they too esoteric. Meyers is extremely familiar with Orwell, his life and his work, and he isn’t afraid to make judgments at key points. Each of the essay is prefaced with some explanation from Meyers.

Orwell is, according to Meyers, a writer whose work “has had–still has–extraordinary political and cultural influence.” Reading the essays gives a strong sense of who Orwell was and the lifelong demons he struggled with. Meyers argues “we need Orwell more than ever,” and I couldn’t agree more. Here’s a quote from Meyers encapsulating Orwell’s work:

Orwell’s books deal with two dominant themes–poverty and politics–or as he put it, “the twin nightmares that beset nearly every modern man, the nightmare of unemployment and the nightmare of State interference.

Meyers admits that he’s “particularly interested in the life in the work, in the relations between biography, politics and literature,” and the essays approach Orwell from that angle. Meyers covers Orwell’s life from his childhood to his death, tracing elements of his life in these essays and always seeking to understand this strangely elusive, troubled author.

While I was familiar with some of the outlines of Orwell’s life, these essays gave a great deal of insight. One essay compares Orwell’s early years to “those of Thackeray, Kipling and Durrell in India, and to Dickens and Joyce in Britain.” Orwell’s father worked in the Indian Opium Department which Meyers describes in the essay’s foreword:

The production, collection and transportation of opium to China was the most vicious and indefensible kind of imperialistic exploitation.

Meyers adds that Orwell’s father’s profession added to Orwell’s innate sense of guilt. Orwell’s school years are outlined, and it’s difficult to narrow down a quote or two from this marvellous book, but here’s one that stuck with me:

Probably the greatest cruelty one can inflict on a child is to send it to a school among children richer that itself. A child conscious of poverty will suffer snobbish agonies such as a grown up person can hardly imagine.

My  favourite essays concerns Orwell  living ‘down and out in Paris and London,’ Orwell’s short-lived career as a BBC propagandist during WWII, and Orwell as a film critic. I was fascinated by Orwell’s poverty-stricken life in Paris, and one section of the essay mentions how Orwell noted the French reaction to the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti, marked by massive street protests while a British bank employee wasn’t particularly concerned with guilt or innocence but thought that all anarchists should be hanged. There are some wonderful slices of Orwell’s life as a lowly employee in a posh hotel where he experienced an entirely different life from the one he’d led in Burma. Here’s another choice quote regarding the sharp divide between classes–those serving and those being served in:

“the luxury and squalor of the grand hotel where the splendid customers sit just a few feet away from the disgusting filth of the kitchen workers. The only connection between these two worlds is the food prepared by one for the other, which often contains the cook’s spit and the waiter’s hair grease.”

Orwell made an odd film critic, and Meyer notes that Orwell “rarely mentions the directors and is not interested in film as a distinct form of art.” Instead he was interested in “the political, social and moral content of film; their propaganda value; the way they reflect the progress of the war; and the difference between English and American cinema.” He loathed “american escapist films” but was fascinated by the reactions of the audience.

On a final note–I particularly liked the anecdote about Henry Miller saying that “it’s a pity” that Orwell didn’t write a “down and out in Shanghai.”

Review copy from the publisher courtesy of netgalley . Read on my kindle.

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The Report by Jessica Francis Kane

“The appropriate authorities will probe, appropriately, the matter to the fullest.”

The Report, written by Jessica Francis Kane, is a novel which attempts to understand the real-life tragedy that took place in 1943 during WWII. While most of us think of air raids wreaking damage on cities and their populations, the novel examines an extremely bizarre, tragic event which left 173 people dead as they sought shelter from an air raid that never happened. This tragedy is known as the Bethnal Green disaster, and here’s a brief outline of events:

During WWII, on the night of March 3, 1943, people crowded into London’s Bethnal Green tube station which served as an air raid shelter. That evening 173 people were killed–not from bombs falling from enemy planes–but from asphyxiation as they tried to enter the underground tube station by its sole entrance–a series of steps divided by a landing. The accident was terrible, but was it preventable? The tube station was supposed to be a refuge and instead it became a death trap. What went wrong?  The events of the next few days compounded the tragedy as the government first claimed that the deaths were caused by enemy bombing, and when that didn’t fly and the people didn’t shut up and go away, then came the “hurried, private” Gowers inquiry which was put together with lightening speed over a three-day period. The grieving families demanded answers, and magistrate Lawrence Dunne was appointed the task of conducting a sealed inquiry into the incident.

The novel goes back and forth in time from that fateful evening to thirty years later when an enthusiastic and ambitious documentary film maker, Paul Barber, seeks out Lawrence Dunne–now ‘Sir’ Lawrence Dunne–a lonely old man who lives alone with his memories and his various awards.  Dunne’s house has the un-used, unwanted feel of a museum that’s never visited. Paul notes:

“The house was grand but overstuffed, decorated not quite as the country retreat he’d expected. Instead it felt like a room holding the furniture and memorabilia of a life lived a long time ago somewhere else.”

The plot alternates between Dunne and Paul’s tentative relationship and the events surrounding the disaster thirty years earlier. The novel clocks the moments leading up to the tragedy, including details which became ominously significant when it came to the report, and the dreadful, bitter aftermath for the survivors:

Some in Bethnal Green were eager for the report, sure it would reveal something to help them make sense of the senseless. Others only felt suspicion. The inquiry, they believed, was merely a distraction, something authorities did in order to avoid accountability. How could someone not present that night tell them what happened?

This type of novel must be especially difficult to write. After all the reader knows the story (and its ending), but here the story isn’t the disaster itself–it’s the layers of details underneath: where was the policeman who was supposed to aid in crowd control? Was there a lightbulb throwing feeble light on the steps that led down to the station? Why were the crowds especially edgy that night? What was the truth of the ominous boom the crowds heard?  And why was the Bethnal Green station the only station that lacked a centre handrail?

Following the tragedy a number of rumours surfaced:

Overnight, some authority had made a decision: the accident would be kept secret. The large number of dead was difficult to hide, however, so after a few hours the authorities announced that the shelter had, in fact, taken a small , direct hit. The population of Bethnal Green, puzzled by the total absence of any bomb damage, remain unconvinced. Then it began to rain, the perfect climate for rumour: it was Fascist incitement, a Jewish panic, an Irishman holding the gate against the crowd. There’d been a land mine, a new German weapon, a gas leak.

And then there’s Paul Barber–a young man who wants to tell the story of the disaster yet another way. He’s particularly interested in the way Dunne chose to write the report. Here’s Paul and Dunne:

“You faced an impossible task–to make sense of a pointless tragedy–and in three weeks you interviewed eighty witnesses and wrote a full report yourself. That would be inconceivable today. Today it would take two weeks merely to decide on the members of the investigating commission.” He stopped, but Dunne’s pleased expression encouraged him. “Then there’s the writing itself. It’s artful and compassionate–the opening, especially, of course.The story I want to tell is how and why you told the story of the tragedy the way you did.”

“Death demands ceremony. An inquiry is just a kind of ceremony.”

Paul shook his head. “The inquiry, yes. Call it ceremony. But not your report. It was something else.”

By the time the novel concludes, most readers will have gathered an opinion about the events of that night. As with any fiction novel based on true events, I found myself wondering just where fact and fiction merged. It’s impossible to read The Report, I think, without having sympathies for all those touched by the event. The plot’s central device (which I can’t mention as it’s a plot giveaway) was slightly forced into the novel’s structure, and it doesn’t mesh overall with the novel’s elegiac sensitivity. So while not an absolutely perfect novel, nonetheless, The Report is exquisitely constructed, and a rather beautiful novel that negotiates the disturbing tragedy with delicate yet compassionate artistry.

Review copy courtesy of Graywolf Press

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Loving Roger by Tim Parks

One of the reasons I began a book blog was to connect with other readers and get some fresh ideas. This recently paid off bigtime.

I was over at A Common Reader and read Tom’s review of a book by Tim Parks. I wasn’t interested in the book being reviewed, but I caught the author’s name, went to his website and liked what I saw. Then Max at Pechorin’s Journal mentioned that he’d read a few Parks novels and recommended a couple of titles. That takes me to Loving Roger, a nasty little novel built around the relationship between a working class girl and her middle-class boyfriend, Roger.

Loving Roger begins with an act of violence, and then the story tracks back over the events that led up to that point. The story is narrated by Anna, a pleasant, affable young woman who works as a typist in a London firm known as PP. The typical “office politics” are afoot: married boss and office Lothario, Mr G  looks on his female employees as part of a potential-mistress pool. He’s always engaged in an affair with one of the female employees much to the despair of Mr Buckley. Buckley worries about such things as professionalism and the vengeance of former typists-cum-personal assistants. The affairs provide the office with a great deal of gossip as they inevitably end badly. Here’s Anna in her matter-of-fact manner discussing Mr G up to his usual ways:

He liked to be generous and would tell Nadia, the girl on reception, to pop across the road for coffee and Danish pastries, so the switchboard would be blocked for five minutes and everybody upstairs would be nodding and winking and saying, oh no, Mr G was entertaining one of the secretaries again, and Mr Buckley would put on his weary professional’s look and grimace over the order-book. But the point was, of course, that Mr G couldn’t have his affairs outside the office because he spent his whole life in the company, and anyway, that was half the excitement of working for him. Everybody seemed to understand that perfectly, excepting Mr Buckley.

Anna is in a boring relationship with a young man who seems to be her parents’ pick of a future son-in-law when the arrival of new employee Roger radically changes Anna’s life. Roger, who’s a strikingly good-looking man, strikes up a relationship with wallflower Anna, and she begins to blossom from his attention. Even though it’s apparent that there’s something wrong with the relationship, Anna falls in love with Roger.

To Anna, a woman without complexities, life is simple, but the narcissistic, self-absorbed Roger, a would-be playwright who’s desperate to escape his middle-class background, constantly analyzes himself. He’s primarily an actor and the author of his own pathetic melodrama. These two characters are complete opposites, and their disastrous relationship is based on wild inequities. The peculiar thing is that Roger fuels these inequities in a sick-Of-Human-Bondage way.

Anna wants very little out of life, but Roger who’s always looking for drama and ‘meaning’ in his upwardly mobile life decides this means she’s stupid. In one great scene, Mr G asks Anna ‘what’s she living for’ and she unequivocably replies:

“But then I don’t see why you should have to know really–what you’re living for, I mean”–

The novel makes it clear that work has a way of fostering relationships that wouldn’t exist otherwise, and the book is at its funniest when depicting these forced relationships between different types and different statuses. It’s unfortunate that Roger suffers from such a superiority complex, and no doubt that’s why he feels, at least on some level, so comfortable with Anna–because after all, he can always find something to look down on. Here’s Roger berating Anna:

“You’re sick you are. You’re sick the way you draw everything into yourself, the way you never never never let be. You’re sick because you can’t adjust your trash literature expectations to the world as it is. To me as I am. And you eat your little heart out with that sickness and suck blood out of everyone else.”

And I said “But I love you, Roger. You know I do. How can you say…”

“You love an idea of me,” he said. “You don’t love me as I really am. You don’t love the me that’s struggling, fighting and adventurous. You don’t love a brave love. You want me as a failure, bled dry and white as a statue, posing traditionally by your side forever.”

“We’re not in a play, Roger,” I said

This is a savage dark tale of a relationship based on how much someone can dole out and how much someone can take. Most women would take a hike after a few minutes in Roger’s company, but Anna doesn’t. Is this a story of so-called unconditional love or is this a case of Anna and Roger having a sick need for each other? Loving Roger examines the various facets of love: romance and the idealization of the love object which in this case morphs into unhealthy obsession & sick emotional dependency. Opposites may attract and in some instances perhaps even create balance in a relationship. In this case, opposites are disastrous.

 Loving Roger is reminiscent of the best of Beryl Bainbridge (RIP Beryl), and that means the story is told with a great deal of sardonic black humour. Anna and Roger’s ‘romance’ plays out against the backdrop of the snippiness of office politics perfectly recreated in this slim novel.

This won’t be my last Tim Parks novel.

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