Monday, 27 August 2018

The Shape of Sex to Come - Douglas Hill (ed)

What a title, eh? Amazing to think that you probably wouldn't get away with it today but back in the Seventies a title with sex in it would get you a publishing deal by return of post. Not everything is progress just because it happens later. And a couple of the well-known writers, I was pleased to see, foresaw the return of the puritans.

All eight authors here - and anthologist Douglas Hill himself - are or were well-known Science Fiction writers, mostly connected with Michael Moorcock, who rounds off the collection. Hilary Bailey took the connection further than most; she was married to him.

The sex is not especially graphic. This is to be expected, as very few writers in the genre predict a better future. Only John Sladek's 'Machine Screw' was meant to have any pornographic overtones (it originally appeared in one of Paul Raymond's top-shelf magazines). It's about a machine raping sex robot and it is easier to understand once you know that Sladek liked his satire with his surrealism.

Moorcock and Anne McCaffrey serve up slabs of fantasy adventure, which is not top of my list. Of the two I preferred Moorcock's 'Pale Roses' which is longer and therefore richer in its strangeness. It is part of his Dancers at the End of Time subset, which I haven't yet tackled, and which put me off him back in the Seventies. For the time being, anyway, I'm sticking to Moorcock's stand alone work. Mother London is on my waiting-to-be-read table.

Brian Aldiss's entry, 'Three Song for Enigmatic Lovers', is him on top form. I may well read it again because I suspect I missed some of the inferences. A K Jorgensson's 'Coming of Age' is the story I found most disturbing, Thomas M Disch's lousily titled Planet of the Rapes' is a clever reversion of expectations, and Robert Silverberg's 'In the Group' the most relevant to today because it's basically about digital copulation. My favourite, though, is Hilary Bailey's 'Sisters', which is a near-future story about the consequences of female liberation and the loss of the maternal role. In theme it is not dissimilar to the Disch story; in treatment, however, it is a world away for the simple reason that it is by a woman who was very clever and something of a pioneer. I was extremely impressed and definitely want to read more of her work.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

The Traitor - Sydney Horler

Sydney Horler (1888-1954) was a British thriller writer immensely popular in his day. He was serialised in the News of the World and sold more than two million copies of his many books. He was very much of his day - an admirer of officers and gentlemen, a fan of empire, a disdainer of the foreign. His popularity died with him and this 2015 reissue by the British Library, I have to say, does little to warrant rediscovery.

Horler writes in an obvious hurry and like many hurried authors is overly reliant on dialogue to advance his plot. Worse, he has a habit of referring in these tedious passages to 'the speaker', which I will henceforth take to be a sure indicator of rubbish. The plot is labyrinthine. In 1917 Captain Clinton falls for a sexy French-Garman femme fatale and as result 5000 Allied troops die on the Front. For this service he is naturally given command of MI5. Eighteen years later his adopted son Bobby Wingate falls for the same femme and is court-martialled for passing British secrets to damned foreigners.

The thing is - the point of interest, really - that we are talking 1935. War is coming, not with Germany this time but with Ronstadt, which is very like Germany. Indeed, to a large extent, even in the novel, it is Germany, perhaps the bits we don't associate with decadent Weimar. The tyrant of Ronstadt is Kuhnreich, who doesn't have a Charlie Chaplin moustache but is otherwise noticeably Hitlerian. It's an odd choice by Horler and I suspect he was one of the many Brits associated with newspapers who admired Hitler and the revivified Reich. It spoils the book, on balance (actually, it's one of many things which spoil a not-great-to-start-with book) because it is so blatantly Ruritanian.

It's the odd, unintended things which add the occasional pleasure. The burglar who breaks into Bobby's girlfriend's bedroom has a gas gun to put her to sleep. The secret writing is revealed by the very last thing we would imagine. There just aren't enough of them to make reading it worthwhile. Martin Edwards, who also oversees the British Library's classic crime reissues, says in his introduction that Horler relies on a "least likely suspect" for the final twist. All I can say is, I knew who it was and I never usually get these things. On the positive side it was, very much, the final twist.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Thin Ice - Compton Mackenzie

Quite a surprise, this. I hadn't realised Compton Mackenzie (who I came at via his Highland novels and his involvement with Eric Linklater) had ever written a book about homosexuality, let alone one as sensitively handled as this one. I should have known, however, given that I knew that Sinister Street and Carnival (which became the first great literary adaptation by BBC Radio in 1929) were considered quite racy in their day, and I had read somewhere that he wrote a couple of lesbian novels, one of them Extraordinary Women.

Actually, I think I avoided Extraordinary Women for fear it might be comic. Thin Ice (1956) certainly isn't comic. It's a beautifully done faux memoir of a friendship between Henry Fortescue, a politician, and George Gaymer, a gentleman of leisure, between 1896 and 1941. Both, of course, are versions of Mackenzie himself. It was Mackenzie who founded the Eastern Intelligence Service during World War One and who later insisted on supporting the wrong side, in his case the Greek republicans. In the book it is Henry who is recalled from the political wilderness to run an Eastern Intelligence Agency in World War Two and whose lifelong advocacy for the Turks has kept him out of high office.

Most of the time Henry can contain his homosexuality, which was of course a crime in those days. But when he has time on his hands, or is frustrated by politics, he becomes reckless with rent-boys. George helps cover these indiscretions up in a small way - other gay men within the political class take care of most things - until the end, when Henry is inevitably blackmailed and George has to confront the seedy side of his friend's private life.

The memoir style works beautifully. It is not the story of a great man with a guilty secret, or a man who missed his chance at greatness through weakness. It is the story of a much-loved friend with a problem. George does not judge or shy away from Henry's gay friends and lovers - indeed he often comes to like and admire them for their personal qualities. Nevertheless he claims to have written his manuscript immediately after Henry's death in 1941 and kept it under lock and key until 1955, when he judges that society is more prepared to receive it.

In its way, Thin Ice is a miniature masterpiece by one of the great writers of English novels in the 20th Century.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

The Late Mr Shakespeare - Robert Nye

Nye (1939-2016) was one of those poets who, like Ted Hughes and Peter Redgrove, fed their imagination with the deep dark mythos of the British Isles, often as channelled through Robert Graves's concept of the White Goddess.

Like Hughes, Nye was also fascinated with Shakespeare. Hughes crammed all his Shakespearean considerations into the vast and dense Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. Nye found what I suspect was a much more lucrative outlet in rumbustious fiction. His career-changing hit was Falstaff (1976); he also wrote Mrs Shakespeare and, late on in his career this, which we can consider to be his final word on the subject.

The novel purports to be a life of the poet compiled, fifty years after Shakespeare's death, by the octogenarian Pickleherring (real name Robert Reynolds), the bastard son of a bishop and a bawd, discovered as a boy in Oxford by the great man himself and enlisted to play the female roles in his greatest plays.

Some seventy years later, Pickleherring subsists in the attic of Pompey Bum's whorehouse on the South Bank of London, sucking pickled mulberries and spying through his peephole on the girl in the room below. He clings to life purely in order to finish his life of Shakespeare, the researches for which he keeps in a hundred boxes. His life is, as it always has been, inseparably bound up with his subject, so we ricochet around the decades with little seeming order. Pickleherring has lived long enough to know all the barmy theories that have sprung up since Shakespeare's death. He has visited Stratford many times and been on terms, of a sort, with the great man's widow and daughters, though he did rather disgrace himself at the bard's funeral, when he dressed up in Ann Hathaway's clothes and became intolerably aroused.

They are all here, discussed in detail. Mr W H, the rival poet, the various Dark Ladies. Nye flaunts his scholarly researches through Pickleherring's scandalmongering pen. And great fun they are - Lucy Negro, 'Rizley'. The description of Christopher Marlowe and his wretched murder is profoundly moving. John Florio, the source of so many Shakespearean plots, springs from the shadows of centuries and the notion that John Shakespeare was his son's inspiration for Falstaff is resoundingly made. What the fat butcher may or may not have got up to nine months before Will's birth scarcely bears thinking about - nor indeed what Mary Arden might have done to the boy in infancy.

By having in effect two settings - the Elizabethan Golden Age and the early years of the Restoration when the censorious hand of puritanism still weights heavily - allows a play of stark contrasts: licentious pleasure versus bluestocking constraint. Nye makes the absolute most of both. His romps are Rabelaisian, the darkness of the 1660s sometimes very bleak indeed (for example, what are we to make of the actions and fate of Pickleherring's late wife, Jane?).

The Late Mr Shakespeare is a book of enormous richness. I loved it because I am a scholar of such matters. Four degrees in drama - you can't avoid Shakespeare no matter how hard you try. Importantly, though, I loved it because of its style, the characters, the brilliant way he establishes the famous gentleness of Will whilst at the same time revealing nothing of what really goes on in his head, because Nye is clearly of the opinion that genius is unfathomable.

Essential reading and great entertainment. Nye is now very much on my reading list.