Saturday, July 05, 2014

Futility: A Novel by William Gerhardie (Melville House 1922)

When the train arrived at Omsk, the new regime of Kolchak had been established. The Admiral was distinctly pleased with the change; for he no longer believed in granting the Russian people a Constituent Assembly because he had grounds for thinking that the Russian people, if given this opportunity, would take advantage of it and elect a government other than that of Kolchak. And the Admiral was rather fond of little Kolchak, whose interpretation of democracy was that of denying the people the choice of government until such time as by some vague, mysterious, but anyhow protracted system of education he hoped their choice would fall upon his own administration. We lived in our train, a verst or thereabouts from the station — a thoroughly unwholesome place; and the Admiral diverted most of his time by throwing empty tobacco tins at the pigs that dwelt in the ditches around the train. ‘You have no conception what a pig a pig really is,’ he said, ‘till you see an Omsk pig.’

‘Splendid!’ said Sir Hugo. ‘Splendid!’

‘There she goes again!’ yelled the Admiral, and hit an old big sow with a Navy Cut tobacco tin.

‘Splendid effort!’ said Sir Hugo. ‘Splendid effort!’

‘I give dem h-h-hell!’ roared General Bologoevski. ‘Dam-rotten pigs!’ But, as usual, his threat remained an empty one.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Harpole and Foxberrow, General Publishers by J. L. Carr (The Quince Tree Press 1992)


My first job was teaching games and Eng. lit in a Hampshire school. The class knew by heart 'The Lady of Shalott' and could explain [to my satisfaction] what Robert Browning had in mind when he wrote 'Karshich, the picker-up of Lemming's crumbs onEpistle.' I awaited a first inspection of my labours with a quiet confidence.

The Headmaster picked up the book. 'Ah! he said, 'A book! Turn to page (i).' They turned to Page One.

'Ah, no' he said patiently, 'Not Page One. Page (i) And tell me who are Faber & Faber. Is he, they, one man or two men or perhaps Mrs & Mr Faber? Is he or they this book's author? And is a person who makes a book a bookmaker? What does I S B N mean and how should I say it? Is © a friend of the author? Is the book dedicated to him? Who are Butler & Tanner of Frome? What is a preface, an epigraph? This Foreword . . . need I read it? Can only William Shakespeare own a folio. Does a quire have a conductor? Can one catch a colophon by too heavy reading late at night? And spell it.'

He went on and on: my class's ignorance was utter. Finally, he pronounced sentence. 'You don't seem to know much about this book. And I haven't got as far as Page One . . .' My pupils looked reproachfully at me. Until that unnerving day I had supposed a book was a cosy arrangement between writer and reader.

And, of course, the brute was infuriatingly right. Books concerns printers, publishers, sales reps, booksellers, proof-readers, professors, illustraters, indexers, critics, text editors, literary editors, librarians, book-reviewers and bookbinders and book-keepers, translators, typographers, Oxfam fundraisers, whole university departments of soothsayers, manufacturers of thread and glue, auctioneers lumberjacks, starving mice, wolves howling at the doors of authors of first-novels, the Post Offices book-bashing machine minder, religious bonfire fuel suppliers and libel-lawyers.

And that this army is camped upon billeted upon one man or one woman gnawing a pen is neither here nor there.

So, by and large, this is what this book is about. It tries to answer Mrs Widmerpool's sister's alarming enquiry at George Harpole's trial, 'What are books? Where do they come from?'

Her 'where do they go to?' is unnanswerable . . . except, quite often - to the head.
James Carr.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Going to Sea in a Sieve by Danny Baker (Phoenix 2012)

Good though I was with our Olympian clientele, I confess the first time Marc Bolan came in I thought I was going to go off like a rocket and sit sizzling in the rafters. As already described, the shop was a small space and people just bounced straight in off the street to be presented in front of you like the next hopeful to be auditioned on our well-lit stage. When that someone is Marc Bolan and it’s 1973, you have only a few seconds to think, ‘Okay, okay. Got it. That’s Marc Bolan. And this is me. He is looking right at me and in precisely two more footsteps’ time he is going to talk to me. I, me, will be engaging with Marc Bolan. Don’t be loopy. Don’t do what you did with Michael Caine and shout, “Whoa, Michael Caine – top customer ahoy!” ’

I didn’t. I said, ‘Ha! Marc Bolan! There’s something!’ I may have even loudly warned him to have a care as we employed several store detectives – always a favoured joke of mine to shout in a shop barely the size of most people’s front rooms.

‘Hi, darling, is John about?’ he said in a bouncy Bolan-esque style, not unlike Marc Bolan.

John appeared immediately with a playfully caustic, ‘Well. Hello, stranger. Where the fuck have you been? This is Danny. He’s in love with you, so careful he doesn’t leap on you or something.’

There was some truth in this. When first taken on and informed, ‘They all come in here, so get over it,’ I had asked, possibly breathlessly, whether Marc Bolan or David Bowie could be included in that number. Ian had answered, ‘Bowie might do – did a bit before he tarted himself up – but Marc’s in and out all the time. Call him Mary: he loves it.’

I was not going to call him Mary. As far as I know, nobody ever called Marc Bolan Mary, but I did come to know many of Elton’s crowd by their feminine handles.

Marc and John disappeared into the small back area and gossiped over tea. I had to stay out and man the counter. I didn’t mind that – in showbiz, pretending to be professional and cool is one of the most cool and professional bluffs you can master. However, by now, I was brooding over something.

How did John know everyone? Pushing the philosophy further, I wondered how, in fact, everyone seemed to know everyone. I had often watched This Is Your Life and asked myself the same question. In theatrical circles, everyone seemed to have known everyone else for ever. They were all mates. How did that happen? I can understand that you might cross paths with a couple of subsequent celebrities on the struggle upwards, but how was it possible that entire legions of the famous charged into the spotlight en masse and linking arms?

I didn’t know anyone. Nobody in my family or army of friends knew anyone either. You’d have thought that we’d know at least someone, but no. I had never once been round a mate’s house and when the phone rang somebody answered it and said, ‘Joyce! Harry Secombe on the phone for ya.’ It just didn’t happen. And that’s Harry Secombe! You can imagine the remoteness of a John Lennon or even Kiki Dee. Yes, I had pretended to be David Essex’s brother, but it was precisely because nobody had a clue how an anomaly like that could exist and behave that I got away with such flapdoodle. And remember: not David Essex. His brother.

Now here I was. I knew Elton John. I’d made Long John Baldry a cup of tea. Run after Rod Stewart when he’d left his Access card in the machine (calling him a dozy git into the bargain), and now Marc Bolan – who Bernard Sibley and I had once imagined kidnapping and making him tell us all about the real meaning of Tyrannosaurus Rex lyrics – had just called me darling. He was sitting three feet behind me – behind me. When I’d paid to see him at the Lyceum Theatre I had battled and sweated for every inch that I could get closer to him onstage. Now he was less than a guitar case away and here I was, turning my back and doing a terrific impression of a man reading the NME. What on earth was going on?

After a short while Marc emerged past me again – I confess I took a whiff of what he smelled like as he inched by (Sweet Musk) – and began sorting out a few albums from the racks that he wanted to take with him. His browsing style indicated that in terms of having a finger on the pulse, he was no Elton John; he would hold up LP sleeves and shout, ‘John – what’s this? Any good?’ To which John would reply either, ‘Yeah, you’ll like that,’ or ‘Oh, please! Fucking dreadful.’ I was on the verge of also giving my opinion to Marc, but was sadly too busy not reading the paper.

Sneaking direct looks at him, I now noticed he was wearing The Greatest Shirt Ever Made. Between the open buttons of his full-length bottle-green coat, I could see it was of the palest peach silk and had Warhol-like prints in various bold colours of Chuck Berry doing the duck walk. This was a shirt that, if taken at the flood, might lead to greatness. As he came to the counter with an armload of covers I let him know. ‘Mary,’ I said (though instead of Mary I said ‘Mr Bolan’), ‘that is the greatest shirt I have ever seen on a person. Where’s it from?’

‘Oh, this? Um . . . I got it in New York. Funky, innit? You can’t get it though, this is the only one.’

I gave a regretful response while inwardly quite giddy with the notion that Marc Bolan actually thought, had the piece not been unique, I might shoot over to the States and buy a couple. I began sorting out his purchases and bagging them up. Marc went off to talk with John.

When he returned, he had done the single most magnificent and starry thing I have ever known. He had taken the shirt off and was now handing it to me.

‘There you go, babes. I don’t wear things more than once, so knock yourself out . . . Listen, John, I’ll call you, okay. Give Ian and Jake my love, talk soon.’

And with that he tripped out of the shop on his built-up Annello & Davide heels, his green coat now worn over a bare chest. I don’t think I even said thank you. As far as I recall, I was too busy standing there open-mouthed and thunderstruck. John looked at me and laughed. ‘She is something isn’t she? That is a STAR. It’s a great shirt, by the way.’

I just stood there, holding this saintly relic still warm from the Bolan body. I tried to respond to John but could only manage a noise like the death throes of a seagull.

It’s fair to say that, whereas Marc professed to wear a thing only once, I could make no such claim. I didn’t leave the shirt off for a fortnight. Everyone in the pubs of Bermondsey asked where did I get that shirt, and I would say, ‘This shirt? Marc fucking Bolan gave it to me.’ In return, I would ask where they got their shirt, and they would say a shop like Take 6 or Lord John, and then I would ask them to ask me once more where I got my shirt and when they did I would say, ‘Marc fucking Bolan gave it to me’ again.

So where is that shirt now? Why isn’t it in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame or currently on eBay for ONE MILLION pounds?

Because my mother washed it. In our banging, boiling Bendix washing machine. Probably along with some of my brother’s rotten pants and last week’s football socks. In short, she had taken a recklessly cavalier approach to the ‘DRY-CLEAN ONLY’ warning on the shirt label. I can hear her defence even now:

‘Well, how was I to know? A shirt! Who the pissing hell dry-cleans a shirt? If it can’t take a wash, what’s the point in having it? Blimey, we’d go skint overnight if we had to dry-clean all the shirts in this house! Now buck your ideas up, because I’m busy.’

I was crushed, sickened by this act of wanton philistinism. But, as she further pointed out, ‘If it was so bleedin’ precious, what was it doing laying all over y’bedroom floor?’ She rather had me there.

For the record, when I found it, it was in our airing cupboard, sans any silken lustre, with the remnants of Chuck’s duck walk now barely discernible and suddenly of a size that might just about fit a ventriloquist’s doll.

Whenever Marc came into the shop after this he would always say, ‘How’s the shirt, D? Still loving it?’ And I would say, ‘Had it on last night!’ I lived in mortal fear he would one day ask for it back.

But, of course, real stars don’t do that.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Grange Hill Rules O.K? by Robert Leeson (Fontana Lions 1980)

Michael Doyle was at ease with the world, modestly proud of the success of his plans A, B and C. If only he could tell his dad. The old man would be proud of him. He sat in the dining-hall lingering over his rice pudding. His sidekicks had left already. He stayed on to think about his next move. Just how to close the trap he had placed around Jenkins. The thought gave him great pleasure.

Suddenly he realized he was not alone. Seated in a row across the table were the strangest assortment of people - Penny Lewis, Trisha Yates, Cathy Hargreaves - what next? - Tucker Jenkins, Benny Green, Alan Humphries. They watched him carefully as he raised his spoon.

'Enjoying your pudding, Michael?' asked Trisha.

He stared at her.

'Is it sweet enough?'

'Yes, thank you.'

'Are you sure?' She reached over to the table behind her and suddenly put a big bowl in front of him. Taking a spoon she quickly spread two big spoonfuls of brown crystals over his pudding.

'Hey, get off!' said Doyle.

'Eat it up, Michael. It's only brown sugar. I thought you had a sweet tooth.'

'How do I know it's brown sugar?'

'What else could it be?' asked Penny. 'Laxative powder mixed with brown sugar, perhaps?'

'No,' said Tucker. Couldn't be. I mean, who'd play a rotten trick like that?'

'That's right, Michael, dear,' said Trisha. 'Eat up your pud like a good little boy.'

'Tell you what,' said Cathy. 'Let's fetch Matron. She may be worried. This sudden loss of appetite.'

Doyle stood up, but Tucker leaned over and pushed him down.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Big Man by William McIlvanney (Canongate Books 1985)

Dan felt a liberating affection for his father. Poor, old, hard, honest bastard. Having lashed himself to his principles to survive, he couldn’t be blamed for not being able to move, though the times did. Dan’s love of his mother, never compromised, came back to him. He wished he could speak to them now to reassure them that he wasn’t lost entirely to the past they had believed in, that he hadn’t quite forsaken what they stood for, that he, too, had his pride. It wouldn’t have been an elaborate speech – they never were in his parents’ house. It would have been something gruffly cryptic, in a code they would have understood, something like: ‘Don’t panic, Feyther. Mither, Ah’m still me.’

But he had to admit to himself that his pride, if it was still there, was in a funny place. His parents’ pride had been like a medal they could wear, one they had earned. His own was something he felt was still with him but he couldn’t have pointed to it. The explicitness of their experience had bestowed on them a kind of brute heroism. His experience had been different, still was. If their lives had been as clear-cut as trench-warfare, his was as confusing as espionage, a labyrinth of double-agents.

What did you trust these days? You couldn’t vaguely trust the historical future in which his parents had believed. Part of it was already here and it was unrecognisable as what had been foretold. Better material conditions hadn’t created solidarity but fragmentation. Working-class parvenus were at least as selfish as any other kind. You couldn’t simply vote Labour and trust that Socialism would triumph. The innocence of his parents’ early belief in the purity of Socialism couldn’t be transplanted to the time that followed Socialism’s exercising of power, however spasmodic. In power, Socialism had found it hard to recognise itself, had become neurotic with expediency, had forgotten that it had never merely been a policy but a policy growing from a faith founded in experience. Lose the faith that had been justly earned from the lives of generations of people and Socialism was merely words and words were infinitely flexible. You couldn’t trust the modern generation of those who had formerly been the source at which Socialism had reaffirmed its faith. All around they were reaching private settlements with their society’s materialism in terms that contained no clauses to safeguard others of their own who might be less fortunate.

If you were honest, you couldn’t even trust yourself. He had often enough expressed his contempt for people he had known who, coming from his own background, had succeeded academically or in business and had turned their backs on where they came from. He had heard them at parties and in pubs preaching the worthlessness of their own heritage and he had despised them. But he also knew that you couldn’t trust yourself not to be like them until you had been to a place where the temptations were real, where you too had the opportunity to make a purely private enterprise of your life and the rewards were sufficient to put such principles as you had to the test. He had never been to such a place.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Maigret on the Riviera by Georges Simenon (Harcourt Brace 1932)

This was unexpected. She seized the bottle and threw it on the floor, where it smashed into pieces.

“And me thinking…”

The light in the alley outside was faint through the two doors. The barman opposite could be heard putting up his shutters. It must have been very late. The streetcars had stopped ages ago.

“I can’t bear the thought of it,” she shrieked. “I can’t… I won’t… Anything but that… It’s not true… It’s…”


But the sound of her name did not calm her. She had worked herself into a frenzy. With the same impetuosity with which she had seized the bottle, she stooped and picked up something from the floor.

“Not Haguenau!… It’s not true. Sylvie didn’t…”

In all his years of service, Maigret had seen nothing like this. She had picked up a small piece of glass and, talking all the time, had cut into her wrist, right down to the artery.

Her eyes almost popped out of her head. She looked raving mad.

“Haguenau… I… It wasn’t Sylvie!”

A gush of blood spurted out as Maigret reached her. His right hand was covered with it, and it even splashed on his tie. He seized her by both arms.

For a few seconds Jaja, bewildered, helpless, looked at the blood—her own blood—as it ran down. She fainted. Maigret let her sink to the floor.

His fingers felt for the artery and pressed it. But that was no good—he must find something to tie it with. He looked around the room. Spotting an electric cord, he wrenched it free of the iron it belonged to.

As Jaja lay motionless on the floor, he wound the cord around her wrist, and tightened it. 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

True Confessions . . . by Sue Townsend (Penguin Books 1989)

We retreated back to Moscow. We arrived at 6.30 in the morning. Even at this early hour Russia was on the move; the station was jam-packed full. We passed through a massive waiting room where every plastic chair was occupied, yet nobody spoke. Christopher Hope was much affected by this. It was in complete contrast to the milling, shouting crowds outside with their ungainly luggage and wool-wrapped children in tow. There was one policeman at the door – could he alone have cowed hundreds of people into complete silence?

We went to the Bolshoi and saw the most exquisite dying swan, performed by Ms Larissa, the toast of Moscow, who was reputed to be rushing towards sixty years of age. Her arms vibrated like piano wires, they shimmered, then as the violins soared and swooned she sank to the floor in the final gesture – it was perfect and lovely and I shall always remember it.

I arranged to meet my translator, but he mixed up Tuesday with Thursday so it was not possible. He is translating a diary. As Mr Bennett said, ‘Friday: Got up, went to Sunday school.’

We were invited to Kim Philby’s funeral and said we’d go, but the day was changed and we’d flown to Lvov in the Ukraine. We met more writers and admired the beautiful town and visited the cathedral which was crowded with old women, many on their knees. The sadness was tangible. It was Ascension Day and a kindly old woman began to explain the story of the Ascension to Alan Bennett.

Alan listened as though the story were completely new to him. Then an unkind old woman intervened and ordered him to uncross his legs. She then turned on the kind old woman and berated her for talking to us. Later, strolling round the town, we saw the unkind woman praying at the locked gates of a church. She looked very unhappy. We met the mayor of Lvov, a big, handsome man, very conscious of his duty to preserve and renovate the many lovely buildings with which the town is blessed. Alan Bennett is thinking of retiring to Lvov. We met a dirty, ragged man who told us about the concentration camp which used to be situated to the west of the town. Hundreds of thousands of people died there. I asked our official guide about the old man. ‘He is a fanatic,’ she said. ‘He has spent his life since the war studying the fate of the Jews. He is a Jew himself,’ she added, ‘a professor of history.’ She disapproved of the ragged old man.

The writers of Lvov were particularly kind and hospitable, and we lunched in some style to the sounds of a string quartet – all girls who blushed when we applauded. The conversation at Messrs Raine, Bennett and Bailey’s end of the table had turned to sex. Their laughter attracted the attention of the wife of the chairman of the Lvov Writers’ Union. I said, ‘They are talking about sex.’

‘Oh,’ she said. ‘All say’s, little do’s.’

Quite a devastating remark from such a mild-looking woman.

Friday, May 02, 2014

The Cotton-Pickers by B. Traven (Allison & Busby 1926)

The thought that from now on I would be working with a murderer day and night, eating from the same pot, perhaps sleeping in the same room, this thought didn’t occur to me at once. Either I’d sunk so low morally that I’d lost all feeling for such niceties of civilization, or I’d moved so far ahead of my time and so far above the moral standards of the day that I understood every human action, and neither took upon myself the right to condemn nor indulged in the cheap sentimentality of pity. For pity is also a condemnation, even if not so recognized, even if it is unconscious. Should I have felt a horror of Antonio, a revulsion against shaking his hand? There are so many thieves and murderers on the loose with diamonds on their fingers and big pearls in their neckties or gold stars on their epaulettes, and decent people think nothing of shaking hands with them, but even regard it an honor to do so. Every class has its thieves and murderers. Those of my class are hanged; others are invited to the president’s ball and complain about the crimes and immorality of workmen like me.

When you have to struggle hard to get a crust of bread, you find yourself down in the mire, floundering among the scum of humanity.