Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Old haunts again

Back at the old paperbacks again - my third Michael Innes in three weeks,  a reversion to almost-childhood with one of my favourites, Operation Pax. And before that, although I read a new book in between, I re-read Hare Sitting Up. I could remember very little of the latter; but the former - as its dog-eared appearance testifies - is another matter. Strangely, although I could remember whole chunks of the narrative, the outcome of the plot eluded me once again until I was nearing the end and began to pick up the clues that the incisive Sir John Appleby was noting.

You don't really read these books for the detection. I never did - I loved instead the frequently baroque plots and poised prose - even when I was 18, as I know I acquired this copy when it was newly out. It was the summer holidays before I began university, and I can't help wondering now if the Oxford-based setting of the plot gave me romantic illusions about the next three years.

The story is fantastical, rooted in its time (the early '50s) with ex-forces undergraduates and biological warfare to the fore. Innes recreates the language, the society and the preoccupations of the day in his books - so reading them 60 years after they were written brings a familiar echo to someone my age. (I'd be fascinated to know how a 30-something feels about them - chaps? got a moment?) And he is a master of the telling impression - the figure seen out of the corner of an eye, the sense of danger conjured up by a fleeting footstep, the shadow in the Oxford mists.  He is also the master of the literary nod: in Operation Pax the central character of the first section is Kenneth Graham's Toad if ever anyone was.

I shall doubtless soon return to modern fiction, give up the re-reading for new paths. But I have a journey coming up, the small Penguins beckon, and I feel self-indulgent and idle.

What's new?

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Grey May thoughts

The weather remains thoroughly and dispiritingly wintry - for winter in these maritime parts is just like this: raw winds, smirring rain with the odd downpour, grey skies, temperatures stubbornly below 10ºC (didn't get above 7º yesterday). The good weather came before the trees or the psychology were ready for it, and hasn't returned - so none of the joyous sense of life renewed has come to cheer as yet. And it's past mid-May. I think of all the songs, madrigals, rejoicing in this month - Now is the month of Maying, O lusty May - and have a wry smile.

And today we're celebrating a 60th birthday in what I think of as the younger end of my generation. At least two friends have just passed this landmark, one I look back at from what was supposed to be the sunlit uplands of retirement (never mind). Others are on the point of celebrating the Ruby wedding that we passed two years ago. And some are ill unto death. Life is very short, and I want the sun to shine.

I hope there will be champagne. That's all.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Miners' Gala 1984

Miners' gala
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
I’m riding on a lorry through
the Edinburgh streets. Beside
me is a missile, quite small,
made of cardboard painted
silver. Should be black.
Upturned faces in the sun
stare white; some shout:
Save oor pits, missus
as if this missile
had the power to sweep away
the English government of the day
and blow it back to when
their fathers walked in
heavy boots, pale in the
morning sun and back,
black-faced at dusk
from hellish pits of endless toil
that now would end
and they would miss. And I
and my missile trundle on,
an incidental sideshow
in Thatcher’s Circus 84.

C.M.M 05/12

I don't know why this day all those years ago should suddenly come into my head - I was thinking, perhaps, about the expectation we have of people who put themselves forward in politics and how often that expectation is completely misplaced. In the '80s, my activities were focussed on getting rid of nuclear weapons, which came bound up with the Scottish hostility to the Thatcher government. All this seemed to come together at the annual Miners' Gala in Edinburgh during the now famous miners' strike.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Hugh Lyons, RIP

Hugh on the bonfire
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Hugh Lyons was an adventurer. I was aware of him around Holy Trinity Church for some time before we really spoke with each other - that came about after the Eucharist one morning when he'd reappeared after one of his spells away. He told me that he'd attended the church in Cromwell, New Zealand, that we too had attended when we were staying with our friend Edgar. He'd discovered that we'd been there only a week before him because Edgar had just died and he told someone he'd known him. He'd been touring on his beloved bicycle, and he was full of wonder at the coincidence.

I think it is that sense of wonder that will remain with me now that Hugh is no longer going to reappear in Holy T, browner and leaner than ever, after one of his expeditions. That, and the wonderfully alive man who never seemed to feel the cold or bother about the rain; who wore shorts in the summer and jeans in the winter; who willingly directed traffic in the dark for winter night concerts and vanished into the dark without ever asking for a lift.

For Hugh was one of these people who just do things. Whether it was clearing out gutters, pottering round the bottom of the building pulling weeds from the perimeter, or leaping suicidally onto my bonfire one gardening session because the rhododendron branches weren't catching (see photo), Hugh was there with his own solution to the problem. And his eyes would light up with glee at what he'd achieved.

He died, suddenly and without warning, in Australia. His last conscious act was riding his bicycle. One of the last things he did in the grounds of the church was to cut back the cherry tree that menaced the windows. Some of us thought he'd killed it - but no. This year it's burgeoning again. It's hard to think that Hugh too might not be alive and flourishing on this bright day when his ashes were buried in the churchyard.

Rest in peace, Hugh - and rise in wonder.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Stylish nonsense

There are times when the brain shrinks and all one needs is the soothing assurance of a good friend - like, for instance, when one has a beastly cold and wants only to sit in the sun and read without being disturbed in body or in spirit. That's why I have been back at the shelves in my bedroom bookcase, the one with the neat shelves that will only hold old paperbacks (I've discussed such books before, yes?) The illustration is of my own copy of Michael Innes' The Secret Vanguard - you'll not find that on Amazon, I think, though there is a more modern printing out there - one dating from the late 1960s. The book itself was written in the early 1940s, a slim thriller rather than a detective novel, and a close relation of Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps.

I have been a devotee of the Buchan since before I was ten - I can picture myself reading it in the house we left in my eleventh year - and in the last few years of teaching English I read it aloud to a barely-literate class who sat with the books open in front of them: one of them sighed as we reached the end and told me, in all seriousness, That was the best book I've ever read. The Secret Vanguard is a rather more sophisticated take on the same themes of pursuit, betrayal, patriotism and looming war, and it is the sophistication of the writing that I love. As Sheila Grant, the heroine, is pursued through the Highlands by unknown foes to whom she gives wonderfully insane nicknames, the twists of the plot take place with minimal preparation: a supposed ally is suddenly a foe because he has chosen the wrong photo of himself; a haven becomes a den of villains when she reads its name upside-down on a piece of writing-paper. Innes never beats us about the head with his plot; we are expected to keep our wits about us and our inner eyes open wide to see what he is describing; we hear the tones of his educated protagonists and the mistakes made by those for whom English is a foreign language. And we never, ever, feel that the author will let us down with some clumsy over-explanation.

In many respects this is a silly book - there is no real development of character, no growth, no hidden message to send us off thoughtful. What it does do is provide the delight of impeccable prose, the absurdity of characters planted in unlikely situations, and the threat concealed under the call of a distant bird. If you've never read any Innes, this wouldn't be a bad place to start.

And then there will be so many further delights to look forward to...

*The Wikipedia entry for J.I.M. Stewart (Michael Innes) lists all his books as well as the information that he shared my birthday. I never knew that.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Rite of passage

I became acquainted with the writing of Michael Arditti through the meticulous and often hilarious Easter, and wishlisted his rite-of-passage novel A Sea Change on the strength of that. Perhaps my reading of Jubilate - and the ensuing comment-fest on that post - might have prevented me from continuing optimism, but I'm glad it didn't.

A Sea Change is a fictional story grafted onto history: the story of the SS St Louis, a German liner that left Hamburg in May 1939 carrying 900 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany after years of persecution and the terrors of Kristallnacht. During the voyage, 15 year old Karl grows up, becoming a man despite his earlier defiant refusal to be Bar Mitzvah. His perception of the events leading up to the sea journey is convincingly self-obsessed; we learn his ambivalent attitude to his family and their past even before they all set sail and witness how he manages to reconcile much of the turmoil within himself even as the world around him becomes more threatening.
SS St Louis in Havana

The story is told by Karl himself, recalling the events when he himself is an old man addressing his own grandchildren - so we never worry that he will not survive the voyage or its aftermath. In a way that focusses us on the plight of all the ordinary - and extraordinary - Jewish families on board; we are never reminded that this is fiction but carry instead the burden of the knowledge of the book's truth. I was fascinated by the attitudes of different characters to Jewishness, tradition and each other, and by the feeling of helplessness brought when money and previous status count for less than nothing.

So why do I still feel slightly cheated? Is it the tendency to long-windedness that creeps into the writing? The slightly banal over-description that I feel needs the pen of a good editor? After all, it's not as if the author is replicating the thought-process of a 15 year old: the 70+ year-old Karl is an academic who is, presumably, capable of sophisticated thought and writing even if he is doing it for his grandchildren. Is it the rather careful punctuation of over-long sentences in what should be a more rapidly-moving narrative? (This sounds odd, coming from a pedant like me.) I'm not sure. But this gave me a fascinating glimpse into a corner of the past of which I knew only a little, into the practices of Judaism, into the relationship with ordinary Germans as well as Nazis, and into the dehumanisation of a people which is the necessary precursor to abuse.