Month: February 2013

Here’s one I prepared earlier…


Many published novelists have as many as five or six books which have never made it to the wide open spaces of the reading landscape.  They often refer to them, accompanying their remarks with jokes about where the manuscripts now languish, but, unless as authors they achieve mountain stature, that is all the world will know of them.  Rather than bewail the fact that this one of mine didn’t ‘make it’, I thought that you might like to rummage in my reject pile for fun.   This one, in fact, I never tried to publish; it’s based on the life of my old boss, whom in the novel I call ‘Charlie’, and here are the opening paragraphs:

Uncle Henry viewed Charlie from behind his partner’s desk, his skinny elbows resting on its tooled leather surface, his snow-white cuffs exposing narrow hairy wrists held upright to support the steeple of his wrinkled fingers.  His starched white detachable collar held his grey wattled neck in a cruel grip.  His head was small and bald, and he made it move slowly to the left and right, peering the while through his dull brown eyes, so that he resembled a rather belligerent tortoise.

“Go forth and cast your bread upon the waters, young man,” he said.  “See what you can do.  Book yourself into The Grand: always be ready to cock a snook at the world.  Do not settle for second-best.”

Charlie was growing used to Uncle Henry’s disjointed homilies, with their elliptical meanings.  Working for the old man was actually quite good fun, because he hardly ever did any work himself and left Charlie to get on with the job as best he thought fit.  Not to put too fine a point upon it, despite his respectable exterior, Uncle Henry was often blind drunk.

Uncle Henry was a profoundly depressed man who did not see why his depression should get in the way of making lots of money.  The causes of his depression were irreproachable: his unspeakable experiences during the First World War, which he still refused to discuss with anyone, though he threw out opaque hints occasionally, and the fact that he and Evadne had no children.  Evadne was Charlie’s mother’s eldest sister, and since adulthood had been an invalid in a wheelchair.  Charlie did not know why she was unable to walk, nor if her indisposition was related to her childlessness.  She was a fearsome woman.  She had the heavy Stanningley face and masses of dyed black hair.  Charlie disliked going to see her, though he found her liberally-applied make-up quite fascinating.

Uncle Henry, who had already made two fortunes, one running a private school for boys and the other running an hotel (both had now been sold), thought that times were propitious for making a third.  The war had been over for almost three years.  The wives of the young men who had returned were busy having children and the government was even busier investing in houses, hospitals, clinics, schools and libraries to make the country a better place for these children as they were growing up.  The old man did not necessarily approve of the social egalitarianism towards which all this effort seemed to be tending, but he did like the idea of the investment… particularly in libraries. 

Uncle Henry had begun to take an interest in libraries before the war, when he was still a headmaster.  A councillor friend of his had tipped him the wink, telling him that new reforms would mean that the post of chief librarian in the county would become a proper salaried one, instead of a sinecure with token gratuity attached.  As was customary since the library service had been set up in the early years of the century, this post was currently held by a well-connected local lady who did not need to work.  Of course, this lady would not be suitable to hold the well-paid position that it was about to become and Uncle Henry was invited to apply.

On a beautiful day, an exquisite work…


I apologise to regular readers – and I should like to say here that I am extremely grateful to you for being regular readers – of this blog, for presenting you with a book review two days running.  Perhaps as an antidote to my dose of Sheridan Le Fanu (whose works, whatever their good qualities may be, certainly belong to Henry James’ category of ‘loose baggy monsters’), I began last night to read The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway, and did not put it down until I had finished it.

It is a breathtakingly beautiful novel, although it deals with that ugliest of subjects, civil war.  It is also very grown-up, with profound layers of meaning that are allowed to speak for themselves; the author does not intrude upon the reader by presenting any kind of moralistic commentary.

At the literal level, the story consists of a portrait of the horrors of the siege of Sarajevo as seen through the eyes of three people over the period of a few days.  Fundamentally, the novel is an examination of what it means to be human and what ‘being good’ really consists of.  Principles of right and wrong are explored both through the most extreme situations (for example, Arrow, the female sniper working on behalf of the townspeople, finds it increasingly difficult to justify her acts of killing the ‘men of the hills’, even though they are picking off her fellow citizens daily) and more mundane dilemmas, such as that of Kenan, who, when he risks his life to collect water for his family, resents also having to fill up two heavy and awkward water containers for his elderly neighbour, not because he likes her (he doesn’t) or because she has been kind to him (she hasn’t), but because she holds him to a casual promise of help made in happier times.

The cellist is the common thread that unites these characters, as they listen to him; they do not know each other and do not meet. The reader discovers little about him.  He is a roughly-dressed, unkempt man with no name who has taken a vow to play his cello every day for twenty-two days in a street where twenty-two people died as the result of a mortar attack.  Daily, therefore, he puts himself at risk of murder by one of the snipers in the hills.  He is an enigmatic, Christ-like figure.  Did he lose someone in the mortar attack or is he making a point about preserving art and maintaining civilised activity in a world grown savagely feral and full of fear?  Does he celebrate or mourn humanity?

Almost every sentence that Steven Galloway writes delights with its precision and eloquence.  My guess is that he rewrote some of them many times in order to convey the exact descriptions, meaning, undertones and overtones that he intended.  However, nowhere is the novel ‘overwritten’.

I believe that this is a very important novel indeed; it belongs to the literary tradition of writing about the juxtaposition of warfare and what it means to be human that stretches back through Tolstoy and Shakespeare to the Icelandic sagas, Virgil and Homer.  It is elegiac, timeless and yet very disturbingly modern.

One to hold your interest and, unintentionally, make you smile…

Wylder's Hand

I first heard of Sheridan Le Fanu when I was a postgraduate student.  The supervisor of my thesis, Bill McCormack, had just completed his own thesis on Le Fanu and he gave it to me to read; it was a brilliant exegesis which managed to fuse literary criticism with a succinct account of the historical background of Le Fanu’s work (a much more common approach now than it was then).  I was impressed and a little cowed by Bill’s accomplishment (as he probably intended).

I did not, however, attempt to read any of Le Fanu’s novels, either then or later, until this winter I embarked upon my project of interspersing my reviews of contemporary crime writers with occasional pieces on the work of some of their predecessors.  Wylder’s Hand, which was first published in 1864, is now available from Atlantic Books (Classic Crime series); I discovered it in the bookshop opposite the British Library which I have written about previously.

As a work that sits historically between Jane Austen and the Brontës and George Eliot later in the century, and that was published just after Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859) and a few years before Dickens died, leaving The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) unfinished, it fascinates with the mishmash of old and new fictional devices that Le Fanu manages to embrace.

His heroines, for example. There are two of them: Dorcas Brandon and Rachel Lake.  Dorcas is sultrily and mysteriously beautiful (even though her name belongs to a famous literary shepherdess and is made yet more banal by the use of the diminutive ‘Dorkie’, which to modern ears has unfortunate overtones of ‘oddball’ and ‘odd dog’).  Rachel is intelligent, independent, strong-minded and in the Jane Austen mould of heroine who thinks nothing of tramping several miles to the next village in a long dress, though also prone to fits of the vapours when accosted by some too-rude reality that distresses her.  Then there is Uncle Lorne, who at first convinces as a sinister supernatural wanderer from the Melmoth stable, although he shows up unexpectedly so many times, making dire pronouncements before his keeper leads him away, that he eventually comes to resemble an extra who has wandered in off the set of The Life of Brian.  To extend the anachronism, the elderly crone, Tamar, issues repeated dire warnings akin to those of Grandma in Cold Comfort Farm, though the nasty thing that she sees is wandering about, rather than confined to the woodshed.

If the heroines are alternately presented as ‘modern’ and objects of sentiment, there is no similar confusion over the two children who appear in the book.  Little Margery ‘courtesies’ and says ‘please’ every other word, especially to gentlemen (no incipient emancipation for her), whilst the portrayal of the Vicar’s son surpasses every other instance of Victorian mawkishness that I can think of.  If you find that Tiny Tim turns your stomach and decide to read this book, I recommend that you omit the chapters about ‘Little Fairy’ (his parents’ nickname for him – we never discover his real name) and his cloying relationship with his father (whom he dubs ‘Wapsie’, hilarious to 21st century ears).  His mother is always referred to as ‘good’ Dolly, an epithet that she seems to have earned by being extraordinarily plain and not a little silly; she is a paler reflection of Mrs. Palmer in Sense and Sensibility.  Also slightly sickly is the way in which Dorcas and Rachel pepper their conversations with each other with extravagant endearments – though this doesn’t worry me too much, because I remember that my grandmother and her friends used to address each other in a similar way.  I long ago came to the conclusion that it was born of a kind of guerrilla feminism, a stratagem used by earlier generations of women to shut men out from female confidences as a retort to the way in which they were often excluded from men’s.

Le Fanu’s vocabulary at times shows a certain paucity.  At first, I was impressed when he used the verb ‘glided’ to describe the way in which Stanley Lake, the anti-hero, moves, because I thought that it was a skilful way of conveying his insidious grace.  However, as the story progresses, almost everyone is said to glide, including Rachel, Dorcas, the ghost/lunatic and the old nurse.  I conclude, therefore, that Le Fanu just liked the sound of it!

I’ve been a little harsh in my judgment so far, or at least tongue-in-cheek; yet I finished this long novel and – despite the blemishes that I’ve indicated – was gripped by it to the end.  So what do I think its good qualities are?  What does it have to offer modern writers in search of example?  Well, in the first place, there is Le Fanu’s detailed and convincing depiction of topography and what, for want of a better word, might be called ‘atmosphere’ to convey depth and mood.  Secondly, there is the plot itself.  It is a murder story which the reader thinks that he or she may have solved in the first quarter of the novel; yet Le Fanu succeeds in maintaining the suspense and keeping you guessing until almost the last page.  Then there are the evil characters – basically, all of the men except the silly Vicar and Lord Chelford, who has only a bit-part.  Although not fully-rounded in the manner of, say, Trollope’s tortured protagonists, there is an energy and enigmatic quality to their evil – and each exhibits a different kind of evil – that captivates.  I particularly admire the portrayal of Jos Larkin, one of a long tradition of rapacious and pompous lawyers whose antecedents include Chaucer’s Man of Law and Dickens’s Tulkinghorn.

Anyone who is interested in crime writing and its history and the history of the novel itself is likely to enjoy and profit from reading Wylder’s Hand.  I’m sure that Le Fanu wouldn’t mind our laughing at some of its more obsolete excesses.  Perhaps we should leave a message to posterity that we don’t mind if succeeding generations laugh at ours.  After all, the worst thing that can befall a writer is to be ignored altogether.  I am grateful to Atlantic Books for helping to rescue Le Fanu from this fate.

February Fenland

SedgesFebruary dyke

Somewhere, in the middle distance, there is the sound of sighing, the susurration of dry reedbeds in the breaths of the first, softer, south-westerly winds of the year.  Zephyr-mild and whispering the warmth of a climbing sun, these breezes are the harbingers of a brighter time to come.  The colours of the February Fens are muted yet, with the fawns of stubble acres and last year’s broken sedges; the raw umbers and charcoals of the turned soil; the sky is still ice-blue.

The dykes are snow-melt bright, surface-painted by the leaning lines of power poles that disappear into distance.  Mallard, pochard and teal splash to landings on open water; the geese are already on the move.  South-facing banks and scrubby corners by tumbling corrugated sheds are stirring with life; a dandelion blooms; the cheerful, chirpy two-tone of great tits rings from the elders and the wren whirrs amongst the brambles.  The blackbirds are already building in the holly hedge by the farmyard wall.  Look closely and the sap green spears are thrusting; round village ponds the daffodil buds are clustering.  More cold may come, but, inexorably, the Fens are swelling with warmth and light and water, a hope-filled harmony of growth and life.  The land is rich with promise, with gilded silt.

February swings its way between the seasons, but the farmer eyes the sky and sniffs the air, kicks the drying turf and sees the scales dip into Spring; the Fens will soon open again to the ploughshares and the seed-drills.  Soon… soon…IMG_3590

Wicked Uncle Dick

Sherrard, Pode Hole

Yesterday I mentioned that I have recently bought several books about South Lincolnshire to aid my research.  One of these is Aspects of Spalding Villages, by Michael J. Elsden.  It is a book of photographs with quite an extensive accompanying text drawn from contemporary newspapers and other documents, such as old trade directories.

Among the many fascinating sections is one on Pode Hole, a hamlet between Pinchbeck and Spalding, which became important when a pumping station was set up there in the late eighteenth century to reduce the threat of flooding.  It was a place to which I often headed when out on bike rides.  Its system of sluices represents a complex and quite awe-inspiring feat of engineering.  However, of more interest to me were the rather quaint by-laws relating to the pumping station, which were posted in full on a board in front of the main building.  When I visited Spalding shortly before last Christmas, I was intrigued to see that the by-laws notice is still there. It’s a sturdy production, set in stone like a fenlands version of the Ten Commandments.

The section in Michael Elsden’s book that is headed ‘Trades and Business People in Pode Hole in 1937’ includes the entry ‘Sherrard, Rd. Albert, haulage contractor, Pode Hole’.  It leapt out at me because Richard Sherrard (whose middle name was also his father’s – I had not previously known that he also bore it) was my Great-Uncle Dick.  When I knew him, he led a fairly down-and-out existence.  He scraped a living by farming a small-holding at Spalding Common and lived in one of the short streets of council houses there.  I don’t recollect having had any meaningful conversations with him as a child; the Sherrard men were not particularly interested in girls.  However, my brother, the only boy of our generation, was regaled with all sorts of treats and confidences.  When we were both adults, he told me some of the family history that he had gleaned from Uncle Dick and his two surviving brothers (the eldest brother, John, had been gassed in the Great War and died in the 1920s).  He said that Uncle Dick had told him that he was once the owner of a thriving haulage business, with a fleet of lorries that carried vegetables and livestock across the Fens.  More roguishly, he admitted that he had plied a flourishing black market side-line during the Second World War.

I only half-believed this tale, because the Uncle Dick that I knew was anything but a prosperous businessman.  I therefore rather assumed that it had been invented to satisfy a small child’s curiosity and also to imbue his old uncle with a touch of glamour.  (‘What did you do in the war, Uncle Dick?’  ‘Oh – ha, ha, ha – I was a bit of a scoundrel; I sold stuff on the black market.  It didn’t harm anyone; I just helped people to get the things that they needed.’)  Now, however, I have found proof that at least some of Uncle Dick’s story was true: he was indeed a haulage contractor.  The question is, did he really own a fleet of lorries, or just one antiquated, clapped-out lorry that was pressed into service for the war effort?  And, if the former, what happened to them all?  Might they have been confiscated because his nefarious activities were found out?  Might the haulage business even have gone downhill because he was disgraced, or sent to prison?  I don’t suppose that I shall ever find out and, since my own version of events is probably more colourful than the truth, I’m not sure that I really want to!

Into the Fens again!

Parish Church of St. Mary and St. Nicholas, Spalding

Parish Church of St. Mary and St. Nicholas, Spalding

Yesterday, I made my second East Anglian excursion of the year, this time to Cambridge.  It was a bitterly cold day and, although it was dawn by the time that I reached Peterborough, the light remained subdued by one of those swirling mists that often accompanies sub-zero winter days.  I did not enjoy the cold (it was impossible to get warm, even by wearing a coat on a heated train), but I was delighted by the mist, as it enhanced the jolt of surprise that Ely Cathedral always springs when it sails suddenly into view.  Not for nothing is it called the ‘Ship of the Fens’ and yesterday it truly looked like a huge galleon that had just weighed anchor on a white-capped sea.

Whilst Ely is one of the country’s oldest cathedrals (parts of it date back to the seventh century),  the Fens as a whole are famous for their beautiful churches.  When I was a child, every shopping expedition to Peterborough included a visit to Peterborough Cathedral.  It was here that I first learned of the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots at Fotheringhay.  She was originally buried in Peterborough Cathedral, though later exhumed and reinterred, by order of James I, in Westminster Abbey.

However, some of the finest Fenland churches are not cathedrals, but the more modest – although still magnificent – parish churches.  I was both baptised and married in the Parish Church of St. Mary and St. Nicholas in Spalding;  I was a pupil at Spalding Parish Church Day School, affiliated to this church.

I have recently acquired several books about South Lincolnshire in order to research Almost Love, my next novel.  Among these is Geese, Gowts and Galligaskins, by Judith Withyman, a history of life in a fenland village from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth centuries.  (I shall review it when I’ve finished reading it.)  Most of the papers that she draws on, in this vivid re-creation of how people lived in the Fens three or four hundred years ago, were discovered by her in the 1970s, in a chest kept in St. Mary’s Church at Pinchbeck, a large village that has become almost a ‘suburb’ of Spalding.

Such records are treasures and I wonder how many other Lincolnshire churches contain such secrets that are silently waiting to be yielded up to the interested and observant?

Two retiring types… in one day!

Death Comes To Pemberley

Yesterday, as I read the first instalment of an enchanting new blog by Charlotte Sing (@oncealibrarian), the Pope announced his retirement.  This was a piece of serendipity, as the blog-post was also about retiring and what it means.  It doesn’t perhaps seem strange that a librarian of thirty-six years’ standing should retire, but it does seem – if not odd, then – worthy of comment that a Pope who has reigned for rather less than eight years should decide to retire, even though he is eighty-five years old.  Apparently only four popes (out of a total of 265 since St. Peter became the first) are definitely known to have retired; four others might have done.  The last documented papal retirement happened 598 years ago, in 1415 (interestingly, at a time when the concept of retirement was unknown to the common working man or woman).  They are therefore very rare events indeed, averaging one every five hundred years or so; so Pope Benedict’s was very slightly overdue.

Why does it seem so odd, though?  These days, most people expect to retire at some point.  Typical exceptions are monarchs and monarchs-in-waiting – Prince Charles, aged 64, has yet to get started! – and people engaged in some of the professions.  As well as clergymen of all creeds, lawyers, judges, academics and doctors often work far beyond the accepted retirement age.  And authors, of course.  I am conscious that one of the things that has always attracted me to becoming a writer is the fact that (unless my mental faculties decide to go AWOL) I shall not have to retire.  P.D. James wrote Death comes to Pemberley in 2011, when she was 91; George Bernard Shaw wrote and saw performed Shakes versus Shav in 1949, when he was 93; and, according to the Guinness Book of Records, the oldest author to have a first book published was a British woman, Bertha Wood, who was born on 20th June 1905. Her book, Fresh Air and Fun: The Story of a Blackpool Holiday Camp was published on her 100th birthday, on 20th June 2005.

Personally, I find this a delightful state of affairs.  It means that, although I have spent many years working as a bookseller, academic and researcher, I can, if I play my cards right, expect to spend even more time writing and always have a profession.  I don’t begrudge the Pope his retirement, particularly as it is rumoured that he, a published writer, wants to spend more time writing himself.  I wish him a new lease of life instead.  And the same also to Once a Librarian:  Welcome, Charlotte, to this world of bloggery!  We writers are a hardy breed… and mischievous, to boot.

Bodies in the library… not what you might think!

PLR data

I was a little dismayed when I studied the latest Public Lending Right [PLR] figures over the weekend.  I’m a great supporter of Public Lending Right; I remember when it was first set up thirty years ago.  Originally campaigned for by authors like Brigid Brophy and Antonia Fraser, and more recently Andrew Motion and Monica Ali, its purpose is to make payment (from a fund awarded by the government) to authors whose books are borrowed from public libraries.  The Authors’ Licensing and Copyright Society [ALCS] grew out of the original campaign.  I met John Sumsion, its first director and the genius behind the system that computes how much each author should be paid, several times before his untimely death (he had previously worked in I.T. in the shoe industry) and am proud to be able to count its present director, Dr. Jim Parker, who has now been at the helm for twenty-five years, a good friend.  He has not only worked tirelessly to support PLR in this country, but has also acted as its ambassador in many countries across the world.  He is a published historian who has written brilliantly about the East India Company.

Back to this year’s figures, though.  Unsurprisingly, crime novels feature prominently on the lists of books borrowed in 2011-2012.  So far so good.  I’m by no means a xenophobe when it comes to reading and appreciating the work of other authors, as my blog-posts will testify, yet I do find it a little disheartening to see that, of the twenty crime writers most-borrowed in British public libraries, American authors predominate and that only three British authors – MC Beaton, Agatha Christie and Ian Rankin – have made the top twenty at all.  Yet more astonishing is that Ian Rankin, whose books account for 10% of all the crime novels sold in the UK (according to book-industry-produced statistics), ranks as only the twentieth most borrowed author.

Book trade research suggests that people who borrow books also buy books and therefore that libraries and booksellers are not in competition with each other, but have a symbiotic effect on each other’s activities.  I wonder how the PLR figures fit in with this?  Do people borrow books by authors different from the ones whose works they buy?  Are the shelves of our public libraries more heavily stocked with books by American than by British authors and, if so, why?  Or is it the case that people are so impatient to read the latest Ian Rankin, Stephen Booth or Peter Robinson that they don’t want to wait for it to become available in the library and so go out and buy it or order it online, at the same time taking out a James Patterson to tide them over?   This last is the most optimistic explanation that I can think of, but I should love to undertake some proper research to substantiate my theory!

Donna Leon in sombre mood: Uniform Justice

Uniform Justice

I am a great fan of Donna Leon.  I think that she has brought a sophisticated and civilised approach to crime writing and, in the process, proved that a crime novel doesn’t need to be about the most sensational blood-and-guts murders in order to captivate.  Uniform Justice, which was first published in 2003, does not disappoint; it meets all her usual standards of excellence.  However, it is a very sombre, brooding novel.  It is about life in a military academy – the murder victim is a cadet – and the corrupt and unwholesome practices that go on there.  It also explores the relationships between parents and children and shows how compassion – or the lack of it – and the dynamics between familial generations can make, mar or even terminate lives.  The plot is quite monolithic, with no sub-plot to speak of.  Although the novel is certainly crafted with the depth and subtlety that I always associate with Donna Leon, there is little of the exuberance and tapestry-like richness that she usually builds up.  It is reminiscent of one of Matisse’s earlier paintings, before he discovered colour: created in hues of brown, grey and black.

As a mother, I found it almost painful to read right to the end.  It is a book that I think will stay with me, but I prefer her more baroque works, because in them she succeeds in counterbalancing the squalor and tragedy of death with a brighter vision of human nature in all its many manifestations, from the noble to the sinister, with all the many quirks in between.


The Dolphin, Robin Hood's Bay

My family and I visited Robin Hood’s Bay and Whitby today – both favourite haunts of long standing – to celebrate my son’s birthday.  While we were having lunch in The Dolphin, an ancient fishermen’s pub in Robin Hood’s Bay, the array of real beer bottles decorating the bar triggered reminiscences of staff trips to the East Coast when I first started bookselling.  (There was also an association here with Beryl Bainbridge’s Booker-shortlisted, Guardian Fiction Prize-winning novel, The Bottle Factory Outing.)

I was bemused when I first learnt of the annual ritual of the staff trip.  It seemed to me to belong to the period of charabancs and bathing huts – and to be about as outdated.  Every year, our small library supply company would close for one day in June or early July, and the whole staff, of about thirty-five people, would climb on to a specially-hired coach.

My first staff trip was to Scarborough; later ones focused on walled cities – Chester, Lincoln, York, Durham – and the last of all, some fourteen years after the first, was to the Beamish Museum.  Scarborough was the most popular destination; we went there at least four times.  The company paid for the coach, a stop for coffee en route and a slap-up lunch in a hotel.  Everyone was then free to spend the afternoon as she or he chose before piling back on to the coach in the early evening.  The venues for coffee and lunch were chosen by the boss, a redoubtable connoisseur of hostelries across the country.  He didn’t travel on the coach with the rest of us, but followed close behind in his latest Jaguar (except for the year that he was persuaded to leave the car behind, when somehow we managed to abandon him at a motorway service station; he was not amused!).  Each trip brought its own adventure.  That first far-off time in Scarborough featured the stock clerk, lying prone, very much the worse for wear, on the floor of the lunch hotel, while the boss prodded him with his umbrella and shouted, Captain Mainwaring-style: ‘Get up, you stupid boy!’

To be honest, I thought that these staff trips were paternalistic and more than a little condescending.  When eventually I became managing director, I abolished them and gave everyone an extra day’s holiday instead.  I was surprised and somewhat humbled when the following year I received a small delegation of fellow employees imploring me to reinstate the annual expedition.  I did as they asked, but I didn’t claw back the additional day’s holiday, allowing them to keep it as well.  I shall never know whether the outing satisfied some primeval need for a bonding ritual or whether this outcome was just an instance of canny Yorkshire folk managing to have their cake and eat it.

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