Saturday, September 29, 2012

Head Case by Liza Cody (Bantam Books 1985)

"Were you supposed to teach her to paint - as well as the history stuff?"

"That was the general idea." Lynne frowned, remembering. "It was quite ridiculous. The poor girl simply froze the minute I put a pencil in her hand. She didn't do a thing, so finally I showed her slides instead. A waste of time, as in the end we both agreed."

"Why did she freeze?"

"She didn't say. But after watching her a while I thought it was because she didn't know how to get it right."

"But, surely," Anna said curiously, "that's what you were there to show her."

"Ah, well . . . " Lynne smiled. "Perhaps that's where she knows more about it than you or I do. You see, I can show her something: how to look, or how to use a line, or how to catch reflected light, but I can't show her how to get it right. There's no such thing really. You can break every rule in the book and still, if you're lucky, make something beautiful. The only thing you can't do is get it right. Well, you can, but it's such a subjective right that it hardly exists."

"Which might be exciting or scary, depending on your point of view," Anna suggested.

"It's a funny business, this" Lynne said, nodding. "You can get really old people, in their eighties say, who the rest of the world would call great and you can see they're still learning: still trying and failing at things they couldn't master when they were eighteen. You have to be very persistent or very passionate or maybe a bit dim. I don't know."

"Thea isn't dim."

"No." Lynne agreed. "But I thought she was frightened."

"What of?"

"She didn't say. Maybe nothing specific. I was just rather sorry for her."

"That's funny," Anna said thoughtfully. "Everyone else seems to envy her."

Our Man in Havana (1959)

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Stalker by Liza Cody (Bantam Books 1984)

Later, Anna dreamt of a flood. A body floated by, turning lazily, until one arm rose above the surface. The hand had fingers like the antlers of a stag. Olsen said, 'He isn't dead, he's only in love,' and she flew effortlessly up above the water and sailed away over green fields and under warm sunshine all the way to London.

It only became a nightmare when she found she could not land. Selwyn said, 'Stop messing around up there with your head in the clouds. Supper's on the table.' But try as she would, Anna could not get her feet on the ground. Just as she was about to touch earth an upcurrent took her soaring away again. 'Come back,' Selwyn shouted. 'The air's too rich for you.' It grew colder and colder. Anna woke up with all the blankets on the floor. A dog was barking.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Terrorists by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (Harper Perennial 1975)

She looked at him. 'You look absolutely done in. Go to bed.'

Martin Beck really was done in. The day of uninterrupted telephoning and conferring had exhausted him. But for some reason he did not want to go to bed at once. He felt too comfortable in this kitchen, with its plaits of garlic bulbs and bunches of wormwood, thyme and rowanberries. After a while he said, 'Rhea?'


'Do you think it was wrong of me to take on this job?'

She thought for a long time before answering, then said, 'That would require quite an involved analysis. But I more than understand that friend of yours who resigned.'

'He's a nice man. I like his wife, too. And I think he did the right thing. He saw that the police as an organization devoted itself to terrorizing mainly two categories of people, socialists and those who can't make it in our class society. He acted according to his conscience and convictions.'

'I think he was wrong. If all good policemen got out, because they take on other people's guilt, then only the stupid ones, the dregs, would be left. We've talked about this before, anyway.'

‘You and I have talked about practically everything before. Have you ever thought about that? He nodded.

'But you asked a concrete question, and now I'll answer it Yes, darling, I think you were wrong. What would have happened if you'd refused?'

'I'd have been given a direct order.'

'And if you'd refused a direct order?'

Martin Beck shrugged his shoulders. He was very tired, but the conversation interested him. 'I might possibly have been suspended. But to be honest, that's unlikely. Someone else would simply have been given the job.'


'Stig Malm, probably, my so-called chief and immediate superior.'

'And he'd have made a worse job of it than you? Yes, most likely, but I think you should have refused all the same. That's what I feel, I mean. Feelings are difficult to analyse. I suppose what I feel is this: Our government, which maintains it represents the people, invites a notorious reactionary to come on a visit - a man who might even have been President of the United States a few years ago. Had he been, we would probably have had a global war by now. And on top of all that, he is to be received as an honoured guest. Our ministers, with the Prime Minister in the lead, will sit politely chatting with him about the recession and the price of oil and assure him that good old neutral Sweden is still the same bulwark against communism it has always been. He'll be invited to a damned great banquet and be allowed to meet the so-called opposition, which has the same capitalist interests as the government only slightly more honestly expressed. Then he'll have lunch with our half-witted puppet king. And all the time he has to be protected so damn carefully that presumably he won't be allowed to see a single demonstrator or even hear that there is any opposition, if Säpo or the CIA don't tell him. The only thing he'll notice is that the head of the Communist Party isn't at the banquet'

'You're wrong there. All demonstrators are to be allowed within sight'

'If the government doesn't get scared and talk you out of it, yes. What can you do if the Prime Minister suddenly calls you up and says all the demonstrators are to be transported to Råsunda stadium and kept there?'

'Then I'll resign.'

Friday, September 21, 2012

Cop Killer by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (Harper Perennial 1974)

He drank down his vodka in a sort of rage.

'The welfare state,' he said. 'I heard about it all over the world. And then when you see this shit country, you wonder how in hell they've managed to spread all those lies and propaganda.'

He refilled his glass.

Martin Beck didn't know exactly what he ought to do. He wanted Mård reasonably sober, but he also wanted him in a fairly good mood.
Don't drink so damn much,' he said experimentally. ‘What?'

Mård looked perplexed.

‘What the fuck did you say? Here in my own house?'

'I said you shouldn't drink so damn much. It's a hell of a good piece of advice. Besides, I want to talk to you, and I want some sensible answers.'

'Sensible answers? How's a person supposed to be sensible in the midst of all this shit? Anyway, do you think I'm the only one sitting around drinking himself to death in this wonderful welfare state?'

Martin Beck knew only too well that Mård was not alone in his dilemma. For a large part of the population, alcohol and drugs seemed to be the only way out. This applied to the young as well as the old.

'You ought to see the old men at my so-called pub. The hell of it is, not one of them has any fun drinking. No, it's about as much fun as turning on the gas for a while, and then turning it off again when you're groggy enough. And then open it up again when you start to come around.'

Mård stared heavily at his dirty glass. . 'I've had some damn good times drinking. In the old days. That's the difference. That was in the old days. We used to have a hell of a time. But not here. Other places.'

'In Trinidad-Tobago, for example?'

Mård seemed utterly unaffected.

'Well,' he said. 'So you managed to dig that up. Well done. I'll be damned. I didn't think you were up to it'

'Oh, we usually find out a lot of things,' said Martin Beck. 'Most things, as a matter of fact.'

'Well you wouldn't fucking believe it to see the cops around town. I often wonder why you use human beings at all. Over at Tivoli in Copenhagen they've got a mechanical man who pulls a gun and fires when you put in a coin. They ought to be able to fix him up so he'd lift the other arm too and hit you with a truncheon. And they could put in a tape recorder that says, "All right, what's going on here?'"

Martin Beck laughed.

'It's an idea,' he said.

What he was really laughing at was the thought of how the National Commissioner would react to Bertil Mård's proposed reorganization of the force.

But he kept that to himself.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Comrades for the Charter by Geoffrey Trease (Brockhampton Press 1934)

Dark and lonely are the Black Mountains, as befits their sombre name. From afar off, in the pleasant orchard-lands of Herefordshire, or on the wooded hilltops which hem the River Wye, you see this huge mass of earth and rock sprawling under the sky like some stranded sea-monster. On a rainy-day, you can hardly tell which is mountain and which the cloud above.

Dark and sombre, too, was the year 1839. Dark with the misery of the people, starving upon tiny wages to make a few rich men even richer, toiling sixteen hours a day so that those few rich men might sit idle.

Victoria was newly Queen. In London the bands blared, the flags flew, and the gentry trotted their beautiful horses in the park.

In England at large there was no music but the hum of machines, No flags streamed in the breeze - only the long streaks of foul smoke, belched from the factory chimneys. The people owned no palaces with proud turrets mounting to the sky. Their only towers were the same chimney-stacks and the skeleton structures of the pithead, with their great wheels turning to send men into the depths.

Over England and Wales rose the murmur of the people, faint yet forbidding, like the rumble of approaching thunder. But the Queen and the Parliament, deafened by the bands and the choirs and the opera choruses, heard nothing.

Yet the storm was coming . . . 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Charade by John Mortimer (Viking Penguin 1947)

I hadn't been waiting long before there was a screeching of brakes in the road outside, several women ran into doorways or lay down on the pavement, and a van drew up to the curb. A remarkable procession entered. It was headed by a woman, Doris, I had no doubt, of quite embarrassing ugliness. She wore grey flannel trousers and a fur coat; from her lake lips dangled a short cheroot. She was of indeterminable age, though certainly over forty. I say her ugliness was embarrassing because there was a flagrancy about it, like great beauty it was offered provocatively, even underlined by harsh make-up and swept-back hair. She moved very well, regally and barbarically, and the train of young men behind her shuffled and cowered like henchmen. They were unremarkable young men, I counted four or five of them, one had hennaed hair and another was very young. They all seemed to have been to the same tailors, a firm which specialized in making rough jackets from travelling rugs. Behind them walked a plump girl in trousers carrying a thermos flask and a portable typewriter. The rear was brought up by the driver of the van, a creature whose appearance I can only describe as Neanderthal. I still can't believe it is possible for knuckles to hang so near to the ground.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Bad Company by Liza Cody (Charles Scribners Sons 1982)

Mrs Fourie promised and they parted warmly, but Anna did not look back as she drove away. She felt she had been thoroughly unprofessional, but at least she had made some attempt to redeem Claire. Her failure with Verity still hurt; there was nothing to be done about that. But with a much lighter heart she set out to find a chicken tikka and some live music.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Cure for Gravity: A Musical Pilgrimage by Joe Jackson (Public Affairs 1999)

I'm listening to an album called Look Sharp, by a guy called Joe Jackson. Despite the fact that he has the same name as me, and even looks a bit like me, I'm trying to pretend that I've never heard of him, and that I'm hearing this music for the first time.

So how does it strike me?

It positively reeks of the year 1978, although it wasn't released until the beginning of '79. It sounds like it was made in just a few days, and I laugh as I'm reminded that most of the time it's actually in mono.

As for the style of the music: There is no style. The late '70s vintage, and the general rawness of the sound, place it more or less in the New Wave. But a genre-spotter could find bits of jazz, reggae, latin, '60s pop, R&B, punk, funk, and even disco. There are echoes of the Beatles, Steely Dan, and Graham Parker. What I hear, I think, is a guy with eclectic tastes, who, by sticking mostly to just guitar, bass, and drums, and by keeping everything almost obsessively simple, has created the illusion of a style - and a style that would have been very much in sync with its time. He's also created the illusion of being a bratty rocker with a few snappy tunes. In fact, as his choice of chords and his jazzy piano-playing suggest, he's a much more accomplished musician.

I hear a voice that is a bit strained, and has a limited range, but is quite distinctive. I hear some good tunes and some awkward, childish lyrics, although they at least demonstrate, here and there, the saving grace of humor. And I definitely hear the cynical worldview of a man in his early twenties. At twenty-three or twenty-four it seems very clever to say that the world is just a bag of woe. By the time you get to, say, forty, you've seen some woe, and it's not so funny anymore.

Along with the cynicism I hear a lot of irony, which is not the same thing. Irony is a legitimate device, a way of being funny and serious at the same time, a subtle way of making a point. But irony should be handled with care. All too often, it's used as a defense. We use it to hide the fact that we don't have the courage of our convictions, the nerve to say what we really think or how we really feel. If irony hardens into habit, we become stiff, restricted, emotionally constipated. I like to think that hasn't happened.

All in all, I like Look Sharp. It makes me smile more than it makes me cringe. But it surprises me, in retrospect, that more people didn't see through the illusions - illusions that I wasn't going to be able to keep up for more than another album or two. Once the fuss died down, and I was no longer the flavor of the month, I would have two choices, neither of them easy. I would either have to turn Look Sharp into a formula and crank it out indefinitely, becoming a cartoon character in the process; or do some growing up in public.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Put Out More Flags by Evelyn Waugh (Penguin Modern Classics 1942)

They went out, later, when the packing was done, into the blackout to a bar. Other friends came to join them.

"No one seems interested in my scheme to annex Liberia."

"No imagination. They won't take suggestions from outsiders. You know, Sonia, this war is developing into a kind of club enclosure on a race-course. If you aren't wearing the right badge they won't let you in."

"I think that's rather what Alastair felt."

"It's going to be a long war. There's plenty of time. I shall wait until there's something amusing to do."

"I don't believe it's going to be that kind of war."

This is all that anyone talks about, thought Ambrose; jobs and the kind of war it is going to be. War in the air, war of attrition, tank war, war of nerves, war of propaganda, war of defence in depth, war of movement, peoples' war, total war, indivisible war, war infinite, war incomprehensible, war of essence without accidents or attributes, metaphysical war, war in time-space, war eternal...all war is nonsense, thought Ambrose. I don't care about their war. It's got nothing to do with me. But if, thought Ambrose, I were one of these people, if I were not a cosmopolitan, Jewish pansy, if I were not all that the Nazis mean when they talk about "degenerates," if I were not a single, sane individual, if I were part of a herd, one of these people, normal and responsible for the welfare of my herd, Gawd strike me pink, thought Ambrose, I wouldn't sit around discussing what kind of war it was going to be. I'd make it my kind of war. I'd set about killing and stampeding the other herd as fast and as hard as I could. Lord love a duck, thought Ambrose, there wouldn't be any animals nosing about for suitable jobs in my herd.

"Bertie's hoping to help control petrol in the Shetland Isles."

"Algernon's off to Syria on the most secret kind of mission."

"Poor John hasn't got anything yet."

Cor chase my Aunt Fanny round a mulberry bush, thought Ambrose; what a herd.

So the leaves fell and the blackout grew earlier and earlier, and autumn became winter.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Psmith Journalist by P. G. Wodehouse (Penguin 1915)

It was not Psmith's habit, when he felt deeply on any subject, to exhibit his feelings; and this matter of the tenements had hit him harder than any one who did not know him intimately would have imagined. Mike would have understood him, but Billy Windsor was too recent an acquaintance. Psmith was one of those people who are content to accept most of the happenings of life in an airy spirit of tolerance. Life had been more or less of a game with him up till now. In his previous encounters with those with whom fate had brought him in contact there had been little at stake. The prize of victory had been merely a comfortable feeling of having had the best of a battle of wits; the penalty of defeat nothing worse than the discomfort of having failed to score. But this tenement business was different. Here he had touched the realities. There was something worth fighting for. His lot had been cast in pleasant places, and the sight of actual raw misery had come home to him with an added force from that circumstance. He was fully aware of the risks that he must run. The words of the man at the Astor, and still more the episodes of the family friend from Missouri and the taximeter cab, had shown him that this thing was on a different plane from anything that had happened to him before. It was a fight without the gloves, and to a finish at that. But he meant to see it through. Somehow or other those tenement houses had got to be cleaned up. If it meant trouble, as it undoubtedly did, that trouble would have to be faced.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Dupe by Liza Cody (Charles Scribner's Sons 1980)

'I don't know that thieving's ever classy,' Anna said. It was wonderful to be able to talk without feeling her lips puff flatulently in thin air.

'All I'm saying is that London had to be a better place to live in when even the villains had style,' the driver said looking disgustedly at the Knightsbridge clutter. 'Look at it now. I ask you. It's all sand in your shoes and out for the easy bunce. No wonder there's no standards no more.'

'You can't blame foreigners for that.'

'Don't get me wrong,' the driver said, 'I'm not saying they ain't colourful. Me, I wouldn't give a monkey's who came here as long as they went home again after. But they don't, see? Makes you feel a tourist in your own home. Some of 'em spend money like there was no tomorrow and buy up property or what-not. And there's others just live on the state. I mean, what does it look like to a young bloke just married and can't get a council house?'

It sounded like a favourite grudge, a well-rehearsed routine that the driver liked to launch into at the slightest opportunity.

'It's what the young people see as worries me,' he went on. 'Other people getting what should be theirs by rights. And without lifting a finger. That's what gets me. It's a wrong example. Makes 'em think they should have a bit of the cream, too, without having to work for it.

'Makes 'em want to take advantage,' he added elliptically. 'That's why there's so much crime about today.'

Anna didn't want to argue, although most of what he said offended her own creed of self-determination. He was obviously well-practised in his own argument, and besides, taxi-drivers, she thought, were all too dogmatic. It was something about the nature of their jobs that led them to half-cocked theories. They saw too much out of the front window and too little of the people they were talking to behind them.