Thursday, 25 April 2019

Modern Manners

Planning to make a stock, I ask for chicken carcasses at the butcher’s counter in a Bristol supermarket. “We aren’t allowed to sell bones”, they tell me, “you’ll need a butcher’s shop for that.”

I could ask who made this new mad rule and why it was agreed to, but instead I ask if there is a butcher’s shop nearby. They don’t know, and so I plunge out of the place, so fed up with this new pointless complication that I don’t notice that I’m leaving by a different doorway from the one by which I entered.

I find myself on a street full of marvellous sandstone buildings and wonder, as I always do when I see streets like this in Bristol, (and there are plenty): how to reconcile the loveliness of much of Bristol’s architecture with the fact that much of it was probably paid for out of money made through the ownership of slaves. And from there, as usual, my mind passes to the question of how people could even for a moment think it was okay to “own” other human beings - couldn’t they still have made money by offering people work in another country, paying them reasonably there and not behaving monstrously? Profits still could have been made, surely, but not at the awful expense of others?

Impossible questions - and no sign of a butcher’s shop. So I approach a young woman who is placing a folding chalkboard on the pavement.

“Sorry to bother you” I say, “but could you tell me if there’s a butcher’s shop nearby?”

Her expression changes from wary friendliness to what appears to be a mixture of shock and anger. I am taken aback when she turns and walks off, leaving me alone with her billboard.

Which reads, I now notice, “Vegan food, this way”.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Battered Penguins - Cork on the Water by Macdonald Hastings

Visiting Petworth House last month, I found a box of books for sale for almost nothing. Most of them were worth less than nothing but there were four clad in the old green and white Penguin covers that designated mystery novels once upon a time. They were all by Macdonald Hastings who, according to the back covers of the books, was one of the founders of Country Life magazine and, at the time the books were published, married to Anne Scott-James, who was a familiar voice on radio in my childhood. He also, I later learned, was the father of Max Hastings, journalist, historian and hater of  Boris Johnson

This week I read the first of the four and enjoyed it very much. The Cork of the title is Montague Cork, general manager of the Anchor Accident Insurance Company in the City of London. Clearly, the phenomenon of insurance men investigating incidents that their companies might have to cough up for was well accepted in the early to mid twentieth century, as Ronald Knox also established a series of novels with a main character, Miles Bredon, who works for the Indescribable Insurance company as an investigator targeting fraud.

Unlike Bredon, who is an investigator first and foremost, Mr Cork is new to investigating and is more usually to be found in his office. However, his instinct, something that he believes is "the secret ... of such success that he had had, the success that the company had had", tells him that there is something odd about a particular claim and, as he explains to another character, although the amount involved is a drop in the ocean for his company, for the sake of integrity - "This great City of London you're in now has become what it is for many reasons, but the first of them is honest dealing. That is what we are so anxious to preserve." - he sets out to discover more. This leads to Richard Hannayesque adventures in Scotland and eventual resolution, followed by a treatise on salmon, for good measure.

If you enjoy wonderfully old-fashioned attitudes, good writing - I liked, for example: 1. the way a villain's change of expression is described thus: "the smile slowly smeared over his face again"; 2. the conjuring up of a certain kind of Highland hotel interior decoration, probably now extinct: "He opened the door and looked out into the hall, lined with stags' antlers, coloured fishing prints, and a collection of unspeakable brass pots arranged on carved teak furniture which Mr Mackenzie, or Mr Mackenzie's father, had brought back with him from India years before"; and 3. this description of landscape: "In the grey light of early morning, the flooded burns glittered like burnished copper. The fronds of bracken, lining the banks, were sticky and heavy with rain. The peat hags were swollen like leeches with blood-red water. The storm, drawing all the bright colours out of the hills, had washed the landscape till it was all drab sepias, live greens and the reds of rotting vegetation. The silver birches, fighting for a living among the outcrop rock, bent and creaked in the wind like rows of dead men on a gibbet" - then Cork on the Water may be for you. 

Although essentially a light read, the story does raise questions about vengeance and is also interesting on the effects of war on those who live through it. As Mr Cork points out to Robert, his young associate, the villain of the piece, Gabriel Daggers, has been produced by the experience of war. "Daggers, like you too, Robert, was one of the products of a world war", he tells Robert, adding, "In you, war confirmed your good qualities. In Daggers, it had the opposite effect. He found out that he was more courageous, more ruthless, more cunning in battle than the men around him. He rejoiced in the dangers of war and the lawlessness of it."

The book is also extremely vivid when it comes to accounts of fishing, demonstrating that the sport is not a dull one, even if, to an observer watching fishermen waiting patiently on a river bank, it may appear to be. As Mr Cork observes, "If I didn't get excited, I wouldn't come fishing". Reading Hastings's descriptions of the struggle between man and hooked fish, I couldn't help wondering, as I often have, why it is that so much fuss is made about fox hunting, but the suffering of fish at the hands of sportsmen seems to affect the tender-hearted much less severely. My theory is that it is because fish don't bleed.

Hastings conjures up a number of believable, if slightly caricatured, figures to people his tale. My favourite in many ways is the person with whom the book begins and ends, Lt-Col. Adrian de Crecy Johnson (Rtd). It is he who provides the book's Appendix, which contains a great deal of information about salmon and is delivered with hilarious bombast. "It is characteristic of the cult of the mediocre, which is such a regrettable feature of our times...", he insists, before going into some specifics about the study of fish scales. What I found particularly appealing in this section was the Lt-Col's characterisation of cabillaud, the damp, dull fish that seemed to be ubiquitous on the dinner tables of Belgium when I lived there.  Cabillaud, or cod is, he declares "almost inedible." I wholeheartedly agree.

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

We All Lack All Conviction

Observing the events in the House of Commons over the past week or so, I find it hard to believe that anyone will vote for any party in any British election with anything approaching conviction any more.

While thinking about this, I came across an interesting review of Faber's reissue of The Selected Poetry of Christopher Logue. The piece contained this poem by Logue; it amused me; it also made me wonder whether such a poem could be written now. Nothing is straightforward any more, not politics, especially party politics, not humour - and least of all humour when mixed with politics.

I Shall Vote Labour 
I shall vote Labour because
God votes Labour.
I shall vote Labour to protect
the sacred institution of The Family.
I shall vote Labour because
I am a dog.
I shall vote Labour because
upper-class hoorays annoy me in expensive restaurants.
I shall vote Labour because
I am on a diet.
I shall vote Labour because if I don’t
somebody else will:
I shall vote Labour because if one person does it
everybody will be wanting to do it.
I shall vote Labour because if I do not vote Labour
my balls will drop off.
I shall vote Labour because
there are too few cars on the road.
I shall vote Labour because I am
a hopeless drug addict.
I shall vote Labour because
I failed to be a dollar millionaire aged three.
I shall vote Labour because Labour will build
more maximum security prisons.
I shall vote Labour because I want to shop
in an all-weather precinct stretching from Yeovil to Glasgow.
I shall vote Labour because
the Queen’s stamp collection is the best in the world.
I shall vote Labour because
deep in my heart
I am a Conservative.

If you want to read more about Logue and be quite amused, this article is not a bad place to start. "I'll crush you with my Daimler" indeed.

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Funny Things

Here are a couple of things that have amused me this week.

I don't know whether to believe all the items included in the first, although I want to:

As a long time intermittent listener to BBC Radio 4's The Archers - (each episode occupies just the correct amount of time in which to do the washing up and requires just exactly the amount of attention - practically none - I want to give to it, while also thinking, or half-thinking about other things) - I don't think there has ever been a moment when I wouldn't have found it perfectly acceptable to hear that the entire cast of the show had been hurled down a disused mineshaft, especially if the child character of Henry had been the first one to go:
Which is not to say I dislike the programme. Or rather, I do dislike it, but it is familiar and the strange thing is that the familiar can often be almost as pleasant as something one actively loves, (is that Stockholm syndrome?) Furthermore, a great advantage of The Archers is that, if all else fails and you hit a conversational brick wall, provided the other person you are talking to also listens to the programme, you will always have that to share.

Provided they don't like Henry.

Monday, 1 April 2019

Battered Penguins - The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier

Although I’ve known about Daphne du Maurier all my life, until I found two of her novels in a secondhand bookshop in Hawes, North Yorkshire, a few weeks back I had not read anything by her.

The two novels I found in Hawes were My Cousin Rachel, which was the first one I tried. In it, I admired above all the opening page, plus: 1. du Maurier’s descriptions of Cornish landscape; and 2. the ingenious way in which the first and last lines of the book are absolutely exactly the same - that is one of the cleverest tricks I've ever seen in a novel.

All the same, for my taste the plot was too melodramatic and things became a bit repetitive - did she/didn't she, was she/wasn't she?  Page followed page and this dilemma kept being reiterated. In the end I got fed up. The drive to know what was going to happen won out over my enjoyment of the journey, and I flicked on through the pages to the end of the book and the plot resolution that I found there. I have to admit that I am a very impatient reader and in the end, despite du Maurier's best efforts, I got rather bored. Mea culpa.

The Scapegoat suited me much better. For a start the situation was a much more interesting one - rather than a reworking of the myth of the woman devil/angel, this book concerns the story of two men of identical appearance who meet by chance and swap lives with each other. To make this appear not only believable but entirely feasible is no easy task but du Maurier manages it brilliantly. She also displays much greater inventiveness than she does in My Cousin Rachel, as in The Scapegoat she creates not only a whole array of vivid characters but an entire world, in a setting that was not, as My Cousin Rachel's setting was, intimately familiar to her.  The plot also is a great deal more complex than that of My Cousin Rachel. It contains not just one but a number of different threads that each need resolution. I was gripped by the story for almost all of the novel, and I came away with huge admiration for du Maurier's imaginative powers and storytelling gift - both traits that I think may be underestimated at the moment and possibly a bit out of fashion in the world of literary fiction.

Of course, some might say that du Maurier's work is not literary fiction, but she writes so well, with such a grasp of language and such excellent descriptive ability that I don't think it would be fair to class her with writers of hackneyed potboilers just because she sets out to be entertaining. I think she deserves enormous respect for the rare skill she has for conjuring whole imaginary casts of people and grounding them in believable, vividly portrayed places that she has entirely made up.

When I said that the two lookalikes swap lives with each other, I should have explained that, in fact, one is forced into this by the other, who leaves him no choice. Having got extremely drunk with his French doppelganger, Jean, English John wakes up in the morning to find the Frenchman has scarpered, taking all his belongings. People appear in the hotel room where he has been sleeping and they all expect John to be their Jean. Before he knows it John has been forced into the position of taking over the other man's life.

This other man turns out to be a count, head of what is, at the time John comes into the role,  a dysfunctional family. Over the course of the following days, plodding English John uses his native commonsense and decency to set all to rights and by the end of the novel, thanks to him, everyone in the chateau is on the path to peace and happiness. What happens next I cannot tell without giving the plot away.

I suppose if one wanted to see it, there might be a Brexit parallel to be found in all this, or at least a comforting impression that solid old England, represented by John, could sort out Johnny foreigner’s mess. While the political situation right now appears to be pretty much a mirror image of this situation, England in a shambles and Johnny foreigner triumphant, the salient point (she said desperately) is the mirror element. Mirror images are at the heart of the book and things are not always what they seem on the surface. As the introduction to my edition points out, in her examination of what happens when two beings who are outwardly identical swap places, “what du Maurier does so brilliantly is to shows us that identity (mistaken or not) is largely based on what others want or expect of us, what they project on us”. If only the EU understood that they should have wanted dear old Blighty to run the show, everything would have been all right.

Shut up, Zoe, no one wants to think about Brexit - and, indeed, it was to escape the whole subject that you picked up these novels in the first place.

I should add that, despite my initial assertion that this book is very different from My Cousin Rachel, like that book it is concerned with the possibility of duality in a central character. That is to say, just as the reader is never certain whether Rachel is a much maligned person or unspeakably wicked, so in John and Jean, we can, if we wish see a devil and a saint. However, du Maurier's tale in the end suggests that each individual contains both possibilities and even when someone's motives are devilish - as Jean's may be, in tricking John into taking over his life - the results can be entirely for the good - in this case, the effect is that John learns how to love. When he realises that this has happened, John asks another character,"What do I do with love?" The answer he receives is, for my money, the best line in the book:  "You give it away."

I think it is all too easy to dismiss du Maurier because she produced plot-driven novels and did not give a great deal of attention, so far as I can see, to style (I'm not suggesting her writing is bad, just that, for her, style is not the central thing). On the evidence of these books, it seems to me that she was a born storyteller with a rare gift for creating in the reader’s mind vivid imaginary worlds, crowded with apparently real people. That is a great deal harder than it looks and for du Maurier I have nothing but respect and admiration.