Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Magnus Merriman - Eric Linklater

Magnus Merriman (1934) is Linklater's comic take on early literary fame and Scottish politics.  Linklater was familiar with both: his third novel Juan in America, also reviewed on this blog, had been a considerable success and on the back of it (with a nudge from his friend Compton Mackenzie) Linklater stood as the very first Scottish Nationalist candidate in the East Fife parliamentary by-election of 1933 - with a similar catastrophic result to that suffered by his hero here.  Linklater lost his deposit with only 3.6% of the vote.  Even the candidate for the Agricultural Party got five times more than him.

For me, as a political activist, the first third of the book, with its raucous scenes of Edinburgh nightlife and the local literati, is the most entertaining.  The rabid poet Skene is easy to identify in reality but I would love to know who some of the others are, especially Meiklejohn, the journalist who lends his dress trousers.

Merriman's sex life is quite breathtaking for the period and one wonders how much of that is based on the author's experience.  It is noteworthy that he married in 1933 and Merriman is probably the first book written after his marriage.  His wife Marjorie, to whom the novel is dedicated, is clearly not the model for Rose, the farmer's daughter Magnus marries in Orkney.  The Orkney episodes make up and second and much of the third 'acts' of the book.  The tone changes, awkwardly but not unpleasantly, as Magnus rediscovers the beauty of his homeland, its simple rustic pleasures and, ultimately, Rose.  In between is a brief return to London where Magnus writes journalism for a newpaper owned by Lady Mercy Cotton.  Lady Mercy and girl-reporter Nelly Bly both apparently figure in Linklater's earlier novel Poet's Pub, which I haven't yet read.  Again I cannot guess who her real-life parallel was.

I continue to enjoy Linklater.  His politics are not mine but there is material here which, 80 years on, is just as accurate in its condemnation and outright abuse of the political classes.  Linklater is a conservative but his not the Thatcherite free-market, greed-is-good, greed-is-great brand.  No, Linklater is an old-school conservative of freedom, honesty and fair play.  He is a good sort and good company.


Tuesday, 17 November 2015

King of the Badgers - Philip Hensher

Hensher's defining strength is for building narratives of community, Northern working class in The Northern Clemency and West Country genteel here in King of the Badgers.  Clemency also had the advantage of being set against a background of the Thatcher reign of terror, all of which, naturally, could be viewed from hindsight; Badger on the other hand is set and written at the beginning of the Age of Austerity where the outcome can only be guessed at.  Thus Clemency is driven by what we know is waiting for our characters, Badger has to have a genre device, a missing child, to propel its narrative.

The setting is the picturesque estuary town of Hanmouth in Devon.  In Hanmouth proper the houses are worth £1m apiece, the shops are all craft and there are CCTV cameras everywhere, thanks to Mr Calvin and his influential Neighbourhood Watch.  People here who work for a living do so elsewhere - in London or at Barnstaple's third-rate university.  The daytime, weekday residents are mostly retired. None of them were born in the houses they now live in.

Out beyond the big roundabout there is another, less fragrant Hanmouth, a massive estate of social housing, which is where single 'mom' Heidi O'Connor lives with her brood.  Her second daughter, China, is the one who goes missing.  Because Heidi is telegenic, the national Press Pack descends and goes into overdrive.  Because the Ruskin estate is anything but telegenic, it is old Hanmouth that is overwhelmed.  When direct news dries up the coverage turns speculative.  What if Heidi set up the so-called abduction and her skanky ex, Marcus, is hiding China while Heidi cashes in?  Before we know it, that is the approved version of events and Heidi is remanded, awaiting trial.  Then Marcus is found murdered.  And still there is no sign of China.

The thriller narrative effectively ends there, at the end of Act One, though it is resolved three hundred pages or so later.  Hensher's second theme is the gay community in Hanmouth, which centres on Sam, the artisan cheesemonger, and his husband Harry, aka Lord What-a-Waste.  They belong to a group of bears who meet regularly for food and orgies.  We then move to David in St Albans, who writes purposefully unreadable copy for Chine fashionistas who want to be seen with English novels.  His parents have moved to a flat in Hanmouth, leaving shy, fat, gay David alone.  Then, miraculously, he manages to attract the attention of Mauro, a Soho waiter.  David lends Mauro money.  Mauro agrees to pose as David's boyfriend during a weekend with his parents in Devon.  This happens to be the weekend that Sam and Harry are hosting the bears.  Anarchy, sex and profound unhappiness ensue.

The narrative is complex but expertly interwoven.  The style is traditional English comic, wherein Hensher excels because he has the rare ability to mock himself without overindulgence.  His cast of characters is well-rounded and he holds our attention by gradually peeling off the onion-skin layers of gentle deceit and polite hypocrisy at what always seems like the perfect moment.

Hensher is building a major body of work in which King of the Badgers is a significant milestone.

Monday, 9 November 2015

The Best Short Stories - Rudyard Kipling

Kipling is such a difficult writer to pin down.  He won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but wrote only one novel; he celebrated British Imperialism but was in no sense blind to the squalor in which so many of its citizens lived; he often seems misogynistic yet in so many of his stories he celebrates strong, capable women; he is at home in a very personal brand of mysticism yet is utterly fascinated by the latest technology of his day; he is best known for his anthropomorphic tales (Jungle Book etc,) but can also produce a piece as startlingly and subtly original as any post-modernist.

Now, I hated two of the anthropomorphic tales here - "The Ship that Found Herself" and (ugh!) "Below the Mill Dam", which was so cloyingly twee, I couldn't force myself to the end. "The Maltese Cat", on the other hand, I found tolerable in that at least it was about an animal, which we can all accept has a certain level of thought process and, furthermore, it was set in India, which Kipling knew so well.  There are naturally several Indian tales here.  For me the best was "At the End of the Passage", which is about the downside of working in colonial service.

There are tales of the macabre, notably "Wireless", which exemplifies Kipling's blend of mysticism and modernity, with the titular wireless somehow channeling the spirit of the poet Keats (who was a qualified apothecary) into the soul of an Edwardian pharmacist and fellow consumptive.  'They' was profoundly affecting - a ghost story in which the presence of dead children is a cause for celebration.  Again, it is the narrator's up-to-the-minute motor car which attracts the inquisitive spirits.  'They' really is a beautiful piece of work.

The two best stories, though, are "The Finest Story in the World" and "Mrs Bathurst".  I think most Kipling readers would agree on the merits of the latter.  The former is still very clever and layered - a wannabe writer tells a more experienced hand about his idea for a story.  The narrator, recognising the potential of the idea, buys the rights for a pittance.  But the youth falls in love with a shop girl and cannot remember how the story ends.  The misogyny and the snobbery implicit in the device is, I accept, a major flaw.  It's ironic, given that the next story in this collection, "The Record of Badalia Herodsfoot" is a slice of life at its rawest, set in the London slums, in which Badalia is strong, honest and honourable, despite her circumstances.

As for "Mrs Bathurst" - what a marvel it is.  Mrs B is a widow based in New Zealand whose fame has spread through the Empire.  She is indirectly recalled by an ill-assorted group of men who happen to come together in South Africa.  She herself only appears in an early cinema film of people getting off a train in London - a moment of sheer genius on Kipling's part, again showing his fondness for the latest gadgetry. The end is both startling - two unidentifiable human figures reduced to charcoal by lightning - and inconclusive.  There is nothing to say if either victim is the lady in question or her apparently final lover.  The story's power lies in its elusiveness.  And its power is extraordinary.  I cannot stop thinking about it, three days after reading it.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am not a fan of introductions to books.  I make an exception for that of Cedric Watts in this instance.  He is especially useful on "Mrs Bathurst".  I read his comments both before and after reading the story itself.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Jeremy Hutchinson's Case Histories - Thomas Grant

Jeremy Hutchinson is 100 years old.  He has been a barrister since 1945, a Queen's Counsel since the early sixties and a life peer since 1978.  He is a scion of the Bloomsbury set and a lifelong patron (and defender) of the arts.  He stood as the Labour candidate for the hopeless Westminster Abbey seat in the 1945 General Election.

Thomas Grant is also a QC and what they have come up with in this book is a social history of postwar Britain seen through the lens of celebrated court cases in which Hutchinson led the defence.  These include the spy trials of George Blake and John Vassall, the Profumo Affair in which he represented Christine Keeler, various obscenity cases including Lady Chatterley's Lover and The Romans in Britain, the art fraudster Tom Keating and the drugs smuggler Howard Marks.  Grant has cleverly grouped these by subject because his aim is not a comprehensive or chronological life of his subject.  That said, he does begin with an excellent short biography, which I thought was nigh on perfect.

The highlight, though, is the postscript by the great man himself, whom great age has in no sense withered.  Indeed, he seems to have written it in his centenary month (March 2015).  Here he takes a swipe at the consequences of Legal Aid cuts and the attempts of the then Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling, to undermine the fundamentals of British justice.  Hutchinson, the great libertarian, takes the 'savings' apart with consummate, even deadly, skill.  He ends with the obvious and proper solution to ballooning budgets at the Ministry of Justice:
[The MoJ] has only to attend to another area of its responsibility: the crisis in our intolerably overcrowded prisons. The prison population has now grown to over 85,000 (it was 46,000 when I retired). Each of these prisoners costs the taxpayer around £40,000 a year to keep. The 'warehousing' and humiliation of offenders in grossly full and inhuman conditions make meaningful education, constructive work, rehabilitation and self-respect impossible.  It produces inevitable recidivism and lowers the morale of the overworked and dedicated staff. Governors repeatedly point out that they have to cope with thousands of inmates who should not be there at all: the mentally ill, the drug takers, those serving indeterminate sentences under a law now long repealed, unconvicted defendants in custody awaiting trial for minor offences for which they clearly will not receive a custodial sentence. ,,, Real prison reform calls for imagination, courage and determination; the dismantling of legal aid a mere stroke of the pen.
In case you think this is Hutchinson's Labour bias (or mine, for that matter), let me also quote his onslaught on New Labour's so-called 'reforms':
In 2003 Tony Blair, supporting his autocratic and oppressive Home Secretary David Blunkett, without consultation or advice, sacked his protesting Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, and abolished the office itself. Thus, on the whim of an arrogant and power-hungry politician the second greatest office of state was destroyed, after 800 years.
This is how great lives should be lived and recorded.  My book of the year thus far. Essential reading.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The Missing and the Dead - Stuart MacBride

Yes, it's a long overdue return to Tartan Noir with the ninth in the Logan McRae novel.

Wisely choosing to vary his established formula, MacBride has given Logan a career-development 'promotion' to the backwoods of Banff, where he is the uniform sergeant in charge of a shift of 'bunnets'.  Logan is trying to make a clean start but events, inevitably, conspire against him.  The discovery of a murdered child brings the MIT to Banff - under DCI Roberta Steel, it goes without saying.  Meanwhile the rubber heelers are after our hero following the collapse of a major attempted murder trial, and a bunch of the local paedos have gone missing.

MacBride's great strengths are plotting, character and prose style - just about the Holy Trinity for any successful crime writer.  He can put some horrendous comments into the mouths of his characters without ever losing humanity or compassion.  To me, he is the leader of the pack in Tartan Noir.  Number Nine is the series is every bit as good as any other, and always recommended.