Friday, 30 July 2021

The Man Who Was Saturday - Patrick Bishop


The problem for a biographer of the politician Airey Neave is that it was interesting at the beginning and at the end with nothing of interest inbetween.  As a young man in World War II he escaped from Colditz and was the first British escapee to make it all the way home.  He went on to work with resisters in occupied Europe but, worthwhile and commendable as this was, he did most of it from a desk in Whitehall.  After the war he became a Tory MP, spending 30 years as an unexceptional backbencher.  In 1975 he organised Margaret Thatcher's successful bid for the Tory leadership.  She naturally offered him any job he wanted in the Shadow Cabinet and he chose, as his first and only front bench job, Shadow Irish Secretary.  This of course was towards the beginning of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.  Bombs on the mainland were starting and the IRA was splintering into ultra-violent factions.  One of these was the Irish National Liberation Army, which on March 30 1979 blew up Neave and his car as he was leaving the underground car park of the House of Commons.

In his lifetime Neave was known for the Colditz escape.  Now he is remembered, if at all, for his horrible death.  Those are the two events that interest Bishop in this book.  He provides good context for each and there was much that was new to me in relation to the Irish situation in the Seventies.  My main interest in seeking out the book, however, was another military disaster which Neave was witness to, and which he went on to write about - the siege of  Calais in which hundreds of allied troops were abandoned to fight to the death and so occupy the German army whilst the rest of the failed British Expeditionary Force was evacuated from Dunkirk.  Neave was there with a non-combatant searchlight squad (something I had not heard of).  He was wounded early on, quite seriously, and was ultimately taken prisoner.  There was enough here to satisfy me that I really need to get Neave's own book on the episode.

The problem, as I say, is the yawning 30-year gap in the middle.  Neave was happily married and kept busy with constituency work, work for an engineering company that employed him, and with a reasonably successful writing career.  But it's not enough to fire up any biographer.  When Neave accidentally finds himself wheeling and dealing over Mrs Thatcher's future, this reader can't help wishing he had failed.  I lived through Thatcher's reign of terror and I roundly hated her.  Neave, of course, didn't live to see what he had inflicted on his beloved country.  Bishop tries to mollify my kind of reader with regular disclaimers of the 'he probably wouldn't have agreed with her more controversial policies' variety.  Oh yes he would.  He put up with the senile Churchill, the useless Eden and the appalling Heath (who he actually hated).  Monetarism, deindustrialisation and mass unemployment were hardly going to worry him.

Wednesday, 28 July 2021

The Winter of Our Discontent - John Steinbeck


Not everything by Steinbeck is as famous as The Grapes of Wrath or Cannery Row.  But I enjoyed In Dubious Battle a couple of years ago and now I find The Winter of Our Discontent strangely moving.  It was Steinbeck's final novel, published in 1961, and got a poor reception in its day.  That is probably because it is about its day, set in the lead-up to the election that would ultimately return JFK, and also, I suspect, because it is very much an internal novel, as opposed to the wide open spaces and universality of Wrath or East of Eden.  Even a smallscale work like Of Mice and Men somehow seemed larger than this.

Ethan Allen Hawley is the scion of a historic Long Island family.  The Hawleys made whaling money but Ethan's father lost most of it before the war and Ethan himself lost the rest after returning from service.  He is now the clerk in Murullo's grocery store.  Otherwise he is happy, married to Mary with a son and a daughter and cosily housed in the Hawley family mansion.  He likes to goof about and make jokes, and, the novel being set mainly in his head, we get more than our share of his horseplay.

Then glamorous widow Margie Young-Hunt, an amateur psychic, predicts a change of fortune.  Ethan plays along and gradually sees the signs of change in real life - but only if he betrays his friends and joins the general corruption of the civic leaders.

The way Ethan's dilemma plays out took me completely by surprise.  I share many of the reservations of Steinbeck's first readers but have the ending is going to stay with me for a good long time.

Wednesday, 21 July 2021

The Long-Legged Fly - James Sallis


The Long-Legged Fly (1992) is New Orleans noir in which PI Lew Griffin searches for lost women over four decades.  Only he doesn't find them all and in the end he turns to writing New Orleans noir crime fiction featuring a shambolic PI called Lew Griffin.  Like, I mean, wow.  Post-modern or what?

The trick is, though, Lew Griffin, despite his drink problem and penchant for life's losers, is and remains a compelling character.  You can't help but side with him.  He has a bad news background but has improved his mind over the years and believably winds up with a lecturing gig on the back of his success as a writer.  The son of his first marriage is also a writer-academic.  He disappears in the last section.  The love of Lew's life, who lives in Paris, joins in to help Lew investigate.  The trail runs cold back in New York and Lew doesn't find his son, at least not in this novel.  So it's one last failed investigation.

I was startled by this book - startled mainly that I hadn't come across Sallis before.  He is extremely good and deserves to be as big as, for example, James Lee Burke.  Highly recommended.

Monday, 19 July 2021

The Dead - Howard Linskey


There's a hell of a lot of story here in much fewer pages than most contemporary crime novels.  I find that extremely impressive.  Either Linskey writes like a dream or he is careful to revise as he goes.  I don't see that you can produce this standard with the get-a-first-draft-done-and-fic-it-later method.

There is also an apparent mountain of pre-story, carried forward from the previous two books which I haven't read.  No problem, Linskey gives you the exposition you need when you really need it; in the meantime, he cleverly lets you draw your own conclusions.

David Blake, at forty, has risen to the top of the crime tree in his native Newcastle.  He is married with a baby daughter.  Like any good modern entrepreneur he is already planning his exit.  But first he has unfinished business, like who killed his father, why and (unusually) when.  Then there is a Russian ex-pat zillionaire who wants to use his drug lines to smuggle men and arms into Russia.  But, most pressingly, the daughter of Blake's bete noir in the police force has just been brutally murdered and Blake's name is very much in the frame.

As I say, I was extremely impressed with this book.  I know Newcastle pretty well and nothing here jarred with me.  The story moved along at a bracing pace yet there were terrific character studies here too.  I shall be reading more Linskey.

Tuesday, 13 July 2021

Memoirs of a British Agent - Robert Bruce Lockhart


The title night suggest a secret agent, but that would have been impossible in 1933 when Lockhart published.  The title is strictly accurate.  Lockhart was the agent of the British government to Moscow in 1917 and 1918 when the British did not recognise the revolutionary regime but desperately needed them not to side with Germany in what turned out to be the second half of World War I.  Lockhart was at the time just thirty years old.  He had been with the British Consulate in Moscow before the war (the capital was St Petersburg, hence that is where the Embassy was) but had suffered a nervous breakdown early in the war and had returned to Britain.  He, however, had the social skills, the contacts and the gift for languages needed as the only British representative in critical times.  More importantly, he had a genuine love of Russia and the Russian people.  He was friends with Kerensky and arranged his escape when the Bolsheviks took over.  He then met with Trotsky on a daily basis and was greatly impressed with Lenin.  It was Lenin, on his sickbed as he recovered from the assassination attempt by Dora Kaplan, who freed Lockhart from the Kremlin where he was held prisoner during the Terror.  Whilst in prison Lockhart encountered the mysterious head of the Cheka Jacob Peters, who may have been Peter the Painter, leader of the anarchists in Sidney Street, London, during the infamous siege.  Peters gave Lockhart a present on his (Peter's) birthday in 1918 - his (Lockhart's) mistress, Moura, who herself became an infamous femme fatale.  Also of dubious allegiance was Sydney Reilly, supposedly an Englishman but actually came from Odessa.  Lockhart tells us everything he knew about Reilly - the 'Ace of Spies' - but that is almost nothing.  Nobody knew everything about Reilly.  Lockhart concludes that Reilly almost certainly set him up by concocting and releasing to the Russian Press the so-called 'Lockhart plot'.  Why Reilly might have done so remains a mystery.

There is no other English witness to these events which shaped the world we still live in.  This should be a set book for advanced level history.  Lockhart is scrupulously honest.  He was a married man when he consorted with Moura but he tells us about it nonetheless.  I have never read elsewhere about the assassination of German officials in Russia who were trying to win over the Russians to their cause.  I would have liked to learn more about the British military 'mission' sent to Archangel, but Lockhart was half a continent away in Moscow and only knew anything at second hand.

Sunday, 11 July 2021

The Monk - Matthew Lewis


The Monk is the transitional novel between the High Gothic of Walpole and Beckford and the Romantic Gothic of Polidori and Mary Shelley.  The fanciful foreign setting is retained - in this case Madrid - but here it is particularly apposite.  The man turned monster is Ambrosio, the prodigy recently appointed as head of his order and the sensationalist preacher at the cathedral.  His end is partly at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition.

The Monk is a multiple narrative, two intertwined stories told in several voices.  This works surprisingly well and was no doubt an influence on Stoker when he produced Dracula almost a century later.  Essentially, Don Lorenzo and Don Raymond are two young men about town, heirs to great fortunes and noble titles.  Raymond has already fallen for Lorenzo's sister Agnes and Lorenzo meets young beauty Antonia at one of Ambrosio's packed sermons.  Both are good, religious girls.  Agnes, indeed, is on the verge of becoming a nun.  Raymond, nevertheless, gets her pregnant.  Ambrosio, meanwhile, has been seduced by one of his novices, a woman disguised as a monk.  She is a very naughty woman and uses demonology to enable Ambrosio to murder Antonio's mother, drug, kidnap and ultimately rape Antonia.  Meanwhile Agnes's pregnancy has been discovered and the domina of the Order of St Claire has her immured in a secret sepulchre.

Yes, it's that level of Gothic.

Everything about The Monk was sensational when it was published in 1796, not least that it's first-time author was only twenty and already a Member of Parliament.  Lewis later had some success on the stage but was forever 'Monk' Lewis.  Despite bans and edits and withdrawals from circulation The Monk was a runaway success and has continued for more than 200 years as an underground classic.  Most people have heard about it (let us not forget that Lewis visited Byron and Shelley and their establishment at the Villa Diodati immediately before the creation of The Vampyre and Frankenstein) but not everybody has read it.  They really should.  It is better than it has any right to be.

Sunday, 4 July 2021

The Debacle - Emile Zola

The Debacle is intended to be part of the Rougon-Macquart cycle, but it is really a historical novel - recent history which Zola himself witnessed and reported as a journalist.  That is both the problem and the book's appeal.

Jean Macquart is a peasant who has joined the army to better himself.  This plunges him, in 1870, into the disastrous Franco-Prussian war, which was short and brutal, which set the scene for the horrors of World War I, and which haunted French sensibilities for almost a century.  The French were beset with hopeless leaders, political and military.  Napoleon III was dying and wasn't even emperor in his own household.  Macmahon, marshal of France, suffered the indignity of being shot in the backside very early in the climactic battle of Sedan and was hors de combat for the rest of the day.  The Prussians had Bismarck and needed no more.  The army in the field surrendered, Napoleon abdicated, but Paris refused to give in.  The Prussians therefore laid siege over the winter.  Early in 1871 the Government of National Defence under Adolphe Thiers made peace and the Prussians withdrew.  Again Paris struck out on its own, forming the Commune, the first socialist, feminist, revolutionary autonomy.  Thiers, now President of the Second Republic, moved to Versailles and set about conquering his own capital.  The Commune only lasted from the middle of March to the end of May before going out - literally - in a blaze of glory.  They burned down official buildings, monuments and the imperial palace.  One of the city arsenals blew up.

It's an incredibly complex story which Zola divides into three: the build-up to battle, the battle, and the siege and commune.  He sets his tangled personal stories against this background but, being real events which the majority of his first readers (in 1892) had experienced, historical fact always has to dominate fictional fancy.  The result is inevitable - fiction loses every time.  Jean is wounded in the battle - he has to spend an unconscionable time recovering (and is then hospitalised for fever in Brussels) but is suddenly fit enough to enlist in time for the Versailles army to invade Paris because Zola needs to bring him face to face with his counterpart Maurice Levasseur, who has taken up the cause of the Commune.

Frankly, the characterisation is so sketchy that I didn't know the surnames were Macquart and Levasseur until I looked them up just now.  Jean is simple and honest, Maurice is educated and unpredictable, his sister is an angel, their uncle a goblin.  And yet, as always with Zola, there are fictional moments of astonishing power: for example, what the saboteurs hiding in the woods do to the spy 'Goliath', and particularly the unspoken interaction between Goliath and the girl he fathered a child with.

I can't pretend I loved The Debacle - Zola is not a lovable writer.  But I was impressed, startled and always intrigued.  I bought the ebook because I was researching the Paris Commune for one of my own projects and was frustrated by the lack of impartial witnesses.  Zola certainly filled that hole and I can confirm that nothing here is contradicted by historical scholars.  On the contrary, there is something the scholars can never tell us - what it was like to be there.