My husband is an aficionado of Traffic Cops, a television programme that I abhor. It’s an extraordinary thing, but I’ve yet to meet a woman who likes it and, similarly, to meet a man who doesn’t. (No doubt I shall soon be hearing contradictions from both sexes!) For me, it illustrates far more reliably than football the adage that men are from Mars and women are from Venus; ours is a strictly non-football-supporting household, regardless of gender, and I know many others where both husband and wife are football enthusiasts (although not always rooting for the same team!). Yet Traffic Cops seems to appeal exclusively to males – apparently all of them. Why do they like it? When I’ve glanced at it, it has featured two burly no-nonsense coppers of limited vocabulary driving along the motorway until they manage to apprehend some idiot who is doing something particularly stupid while at the controls of a car. After they’ve stopped him (or her, but it is most often a he), they’re filmed saying, with music hall politeness,‘Would you mind sitting in the back of our car for a few minutes, sir?’ One of them then winks at the camera and says to viewers out of the corner of his mouth ‘We’ve got a right one ’ere.’ And so it goes on.
On the few occasions that I’ve been persuaded to watch these snippets, I’ve felt particular disdain when the cops have reached the county boundary without managing to catch their quarry and turned back. This has seemed to me to be nimby officialdom at its worst! My husband, however, assures me that it must be some time since I watched it, as they don’t do this any more – the different police forces now co-operate with each other across county divides and have even celebrated on the programme their newly-established collaboration.
I was reminded of this yesterday when I began reading about nineteenth-century Lincolnshire in preparation for my next novel. It will be set in the twentieth century, but I want to understand what the background and values of some of the older characters would have been; in other words, the kind of place it was when they were growing up. I was fascinated to read that felons who were arrested on the Great North Road (today’s A1) were often acquitted because the exact spot on which they were arrested was in dispute. If it could not be established whether it was in Holland, Kesteven or Lindsey (Lincolnshire’s equivalent to the Yorkshire Ridings), they were released. Police from Holland weren’t supposed to ‘trespass’ in Kesteven in the line of duty; police from Kesteven didn’t venture into Lindsey, etc. – a rule apparently observed by their modern-day counterparts until very recently. In the earlier part of the nineteenth century, when more than a score of offences carried the death penalty, my guess is that this meant that criminals were pretty hot on their Fenland geography.
None of the three districts of the county had adequate prison facilities until Lincoln Gaol was built. Lincoln is situated in Lindsey, the largest and most ancient of these districts (once a kingdom in its own right). It was agreed that all three districts could avail themselves of Lincoln’s new ‘house of correction’: Lindsey would pay half the costs, Kesteven two thirds of the remainder, and Holland the rest. I was amused to read that after some years it was suggested that the salary of the ‘chief gaoler’ (today he would be called the prison governor) should be raised by £16. The councils of Lindsey and Kesteven agreed to pay, but Holland – the region in which I grew up – demurred. It used to be said that the people of Holland were ‘tighter even than Yorkshire folk’ and, on this occasion, they did not disappoint. Their refusal to pay a little more than £3 extra annually to this no doubt very hard-working gentleman was exactly true to form. Reading it gave me not a feeling of pride, but certainly a warm glow of understanding. I can just imagine my great uncles arguing the toss over such an issue and prudently deciding to keep their wallets closed.
I’m glad that police forces are co-operating now and have ceased to observe artificial boundaries. I know that this is a loophole that has been exploited many times in the past, sometimes allowing people to get away with murder – literally.
I first read a book by Mark Billingham when I was given a proof copy of Scaredycat at the London Book Fair and read it on the train on the way home. I thought that it was an impressive novel, though a bit too sensational for my tastes. I’ve read at least one more of his novels since then (In the Dark, which his publisher does not class as crime), but am amazed to discover that he has now completed ten crime novels altogether.
I began Rush of Blood when I was on my own on Wednesday evening and completed it on Thursday (as we might say in Yorkshire: ‘It were that good!’). It is a very fine book indeed. I’d describe it as a psychological thriller rather than a crime novel. (Scaredycat is as well, but, as I’ve said, much more overtly violent.) It tells the story of how three British couples meet at a tawdry, manufactured beach resort in Florida. Although there are tensions between them from the start, they agree to have dinner together on their last evening at the resort. Earlier that day, a thirteen-year-old girl who is intellectually disabled goes missing. Among the many touches of genius in this book is the way by which Billington indicates that she is ‘slow’ and shows others’ reactions to her limited mental capabilities without actually applying any medical or ‘politically-correct’ terms to her condition. Her worn-down but amusing middle-aged single mother is also extremely well-drawn.
The British couples return home, but are somehow drawn to each other, perhaps because they ‘shared’ knowledge of this event. The girl’s body is not discovered until some weeks later, by which time they have set up a schedule of dinner dates at each other’s houses. Although they have given statements to the American police, the discovery of the body prompts further action. A trainee British detective, Jenny Quinlan, liaises with Jeffrey Gardner, the much more experienced black American detective on the case, and volunteers to interview the three couples again. He directs her to ask just some basic questions to fill in the gaps in his original statements, but Jenny is both keen and driven (she is a little bit reminiscent of Clarice Starling) and probes much deeper. In the process, she discovers that each of the three couples lied about their exact whereabouts at the time when the girl disappeared. The omniscient narrator (Billingham handles this technique well) reveals further flaws about each one of them and anomalies in each of their relationships, expanding on their characters just enough to tell the reader that any one of the individuals or couples could have committed the crime – or it could have been someone else altogether: the girl’s mother admitted chatting up a good-looking man several times during the days leading up to her disappearance.
I did guess who did it, but only a few pages before the end. Yet the denouement is not forced in any way: the trail of clues that Billingham lays is entirely logical when reviewed in retrospect.
I have two minor quibbles, both of which concern shortfalls in editing. Almost every time two or more people are gathered to discuss something, Billingham says that they ‘lean in’ to each other; and he uses the adjective ‘stupid’ on just about every page. At first, it is just a kind of catch-phrase of the girl’s mother and perfectly acceptable used like this, as one of her speech mannerisms, but eventually it is extended to the thoughts and actions of more or less everyone in the book. All authors have these blind spots: there is a word or phrase at the back of your mind that keeps on popping up and you have no idea how many times you have used it. A good editor will spot this. For me, these small blemishes caused a minor irritation in what is otherwise a superlative read. I now plan to read some of the crime novels that Billingham wrote after Scaredycat. Whatever impression they make, I am convinced that Rush of Blood will be the novel in which he transcends the crime genre. He will always be a great crime writer, but this novel makes him a great writer full stop, by whatever standards he is judged.
There may have been criminal lapses in some NHS care, but it’s a crime not to praise the NHS for what it does well.
Earlier this week, I was booked into my local NHS hospital as a day-patient in order to undergo a minor medical procedure. I’ve always had excellent service from the NHS and try to take the trouble to say so each time I use it, as it has had, just recently, a lot of bad press. The irreproachable care that it dispenses 95% of the time often fails to get a mention.
Mine was the first generation to benefit from the NHS from birth. Early memories include solemnly hanging on to the handle of the pushchair when my younger brother was being taken to the clinic. (That pushchair was something else: made of a kind of khaki canvas, with solid metal wheels, it folded up crabwise, so that the wheels lay flat under the canvas. It weighed a ton and had been used by several babies in the family. If they’d had pushchairs in the First World War trenches, I’m sure that they would have looked like this. Apologies for the digression!) One of the best things about the clinic was the unusual, NHS-exclusive foods that it dispensed. These included cod liver oil (which wasn’t nearly as bad as people now make out), tiny intensely-flavoured tangerine vitamin pills and, my favourite, an orange concentrate that could be diluted to make a long drink which was called orange juice. It didn’t taste of orange juice, but it was delicious and I’ve never encountered anything that remotely resembled it since. A slightly later memory is of standing in a queue in the freezing cold yard of the doctor’s surgery with all my primary-school classmates, waiting to be inoculated against polio. The injection hurt, but the nurse was at the ready with a twist of paper containing several brightly-coloured boiled sweets for each child.
When I came back from the theatre this week, the comfort of NHS comestibles immediately kicked in again. A severe young nurse, who was rather old-fashioned (plump, with dark curly hair and a fresh face, she would have made an excellent poster girl for a 1950s nurses’ recruitment drive), forbade me to get out of bed until I had consumed tea and toast. She returned immediately with two doorstep slices of white bread slathered with butter, a cup of mahogany-coloured tea like that my grandmother used to make – I think you can achieve the desired effect only with industrial quantities of ‘real’ tea-leaves and plenty of whole milk – and a packet of three chocolate Bourbon biscuits. Immediately, I recalled the last occasion on which I had seen such a packet of biscuits, also at an NHS hospital. It had been more than a quarter of a century ago, towards the end of my final ante-natal class at St. James’s Hospital in Leeds. Having spent upwards of an hour with several other imminent mothers, alternately lying on the floor like so many beached whales to practise breathing exercises and grabbing each other’s ankles to simulate contractions (what a joke this was only became apparent some time later), we were blissfully interrupted by the tea lady, doing her rounds with mahogany tea and packets of Bourbon biscuits. The latter tasted all the better for being forbidden – we’d all just been lectured on eating the right foods for ‘baby’ and the crime of putting on too much weight – when this no-nonsense lady appeared and made it obligatory for us to tuck in.
I suspect that one of the reasons why the nation takes the NHS so much to its heart is that it has always managed to embrace this ambiguity between what is ‘good’ for you and what forbidden fruits it will allow in order to cheer you up. Another is that the treats themselves have not changed over the years. Doorstep toast, mahogany tea, packets of Bourbons biscuits – they all belong to the relative innocence of the 1960s, when it didn’t take too much to please.
Stuffed as I was with toast, I couldn’t manage my Bourbon biscuits as well, but I asked the nurse if I could bring them home with me and I certainly intend to enjoy them. In spite of what appear to be thoroughly unacceptable lapses in Mid Staffordshire from the very high standards I have always found in evidence in my visits to hospitals, I shall continue to praise the NHS and the homespun comforts that it offers. If someone could rustle up a bottle of that concentrated orange juice, I would give it a blog-post all to itself.
Easter is a curious festival. Claimed by both Christians (to celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection) and Jews (to celebrate the Passover), it has its roots in even more ancient pagan rites that grew up to mark the emergence of the spring. This year, as I sit in my office looking out at a row of icicles, each more than two feet long, and the snowy landscape beyond, nature seems to have played a bizarre trick. The Christian ‘moveable feast’ concept would be perfectly logical if the holiday could be chosen after spring had demonstrably arrived, but I suppose that at some point we – or the government – would have to plump for a date and we might still get caught out by freak snowstorms. I doubt if David Cameron would want to be held responsible for a wet, cold Easter on top of everything else.
Easter is associated with the rising of the moon, the heavenly body worshipped by many prehistoric peoples. In Babylon, it was the feast of the Ashtaroth, the moon-goddess who also represented fertility; yet, paradoxically, there is evidence that babies were slaughtered on her altar. In modern times, Easter, like Christmas, has become a kind of black spot for domestic murders. One of the most notorious was the murder of eleven family members by James Ruppert in Ohio in 1975. A slightly-built, quiet-spoken man, he had no history of violence until he chose this day to lash out at the family that he felt had continually marginalised and despised him.
On a lighter note, Norwegians are apparently busy creating a new tradition of using the leisure offered by the Easter break to engage in their own personal crimefests, or several-day concerted sessions of reading crime novels. I suppose they have the reputation of having produced some of the world’s foremost crime-writers to uphold, but sociologists also attribute the trend to the deeper, more primeval association of Easter with death.
So far I’ve dwelt mainly on Easter’s powerful association with death, but, as I’ve suggested, it is a Janus-like event, intended to celebrate life and death together. Eggs, chicks, lambs, bunnies, Easter hares – all are familiar symbols of hope and regeneration. Personally, the thing that I like best about them is that each is available in chocolate. Chocolate was invented more than three thousand years ago by the Aztecs, another race of people with a penchant for human slaughter. It brings substance to the idea of killing for a box of chocolates. If everyone gives generously of chocolate this Easter, it won’t be necessary – we’ll all have plenty! And peace will break out.
At Quadring Eaudyke the drains run, easing the water from the earth. Watergate and Rushy Drove sing their names of fen and farm to the listening land. Lincs Pumps and Pipelines are in business. Now muddy, mid-March Lincolnshire leans to the spring as tractors tread the acres, their mighty ploughs furling multi-shared furrows, bright with gleaming soil and screaming gulls following to feed, heads black with breeding splendour. Close to the dyke, a fancy pheasant fluffs a whirr of wings and ruffles up a creck-creck call to hens, subsides and pecks again.
Everywhere, home-made ‘Mud on road’ signs celebrate the gloriously spreading feast of mire, while ‘Leeks for sale’ promote the remaining winter crop, with a field half-plucked and batteries of trimmed, pale white and green vegetable bounty on boxes on the verge. The cabbages are past their best: sheep graze the leftovers of leaves and stalks or browse the dedicated crops of roots.
And now, against horizons of leaning spires of churches, metal frames of pylons and grey skies that don’t just threaten but pelt with slanting rain or driven snow, so fickle is the season, roll in the rippling tides of plastic sheeting spread on soil and seed to speed new growth.
And further south, where Surfleet Seas End and Moulton Seas End mark where once the real tides washed ashore, down towards Peppermint Junction, vast swathes of Taylors Bulbs are already deep green and undulate in windy waves; glass houses feed the nation’s supermarkets and those abroad with tonnes of early daffs, with millions of blooms to follow from the open fields. It might be Holland, and is named so, the land reclaimed and drained by dykes twenty feet wide and plenty deep. Here the banks of smaller dykes, protected from cold North Sea winds, have daffodils and periwinkles full in flower, with snowdrops hanging on in drifts of white. Above them, weeping willows are bright yellow with swelling buds and pussy willow catkins grey with fur.
It is spring in the Fens, though the harshest of winter weather still beats in from the east, and the casual passing eye might miss the signs that tell people here that the dark season is done.
A book that I dip into occasionally is Murderous Leeds, by John J. Eddleston. Subtitled The executed of the Twentieth Century, it is a volume of short case studies, sourced from newspapers and court reports, of the trials of people convicted of murder in the first half of the twentieth century in Leeds.
Some of the murders were horrifically brutal; some were pathetic. The extreme poverty of most of those convicted was usually one of the most significant factors in their turning to crime. Many of these people – most were men, but some of the stories are about women – were of no fixed abode and drifted from one tawdry lodging-house to another or picked up women – or men – who were prepared to take them home. Some of the women paid for their generosity with their lives. Yet most of the convicted had jobs of some kind. It is hard to believe that, just two generations ago, many working men could not earn enough money to pay for a roof over their heads.
The saddest of all the stories is the first. It tells how, in 1900, a man called Thomas Mellor, aged 29, killed his two small daughters because he no longer had the means to support them. The jury that found him guilty commended him for his kindness in rescuing them from destitution in this way. He still paid for the crime with his life.
Among the most horrific tales is that of William Horsely Wardell, who persuaded a woman called Elizabeth Reaney to give him shelter and then brutally battered her to death. Attracted by the small reward on offer, her neighbours fell over themselves to ‘shop’ him.
Some of the accounts are bizarre, some are almost funny and a few exhibit a certain amount of intelligence on the part of the perpetrator. Most, however, portray a depressing picture of the grubby chaos and casual brutality of everyday urban working-class life. Many of the murders were not planned, but the result of drunken arguments, some of them ‘domestics’. The banality of these stories is one of the two reasons why I only dip into the book; I still have not read it all the way through. The other reason is that the author has decided to rely on verbatim accounts given by witnesses and judges’ summings-up. Whilst this is in many ways commendable – a treasure trove of fact of this kind is invaluable to a crime fiction writer – it has the drawback of resulting in a certain sameness if more than two or three of the stories are read in one go.
I do plan to tackle the book in one sitting at some point, though, because, as it spans the period 1900 – 1961, I know that a careful reading of it will show me how police methods improved during that time. It strikes me that, in 1900, real villains (as opposed to the desperate and probably mentally ill Thomas Mellor) could get away with almost anything; on the other hand, the forensic evidence produced in court in 1961 in order to convict Zsiga Pankotia, a Hungarian, of the murder of prosperous market trader Eli Myers was very sophisticated indeed.
When I’m walking through the streets of Leeds, especially in the market area, it often strikes me that the people I see may be the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of some of the victims whose fates are described in this book. Some may even be the descendants of their murderers. Sixty-seven people were hanged in Armley Gaol in the sixty-one years that the book covers. Apart from the exotically-named Pankotia and one Wilhelm Lubina (executed in 1954), almost all of them had good, sturdy Yorkshire names. I do hope that their descendants enjoy a more privileged existence than they did.
There is a shop in Wakefield that sells party dresses for little girls. The name over the door is ‘Little Princess’ and its stock is overwhelmingly pink. As well as dresses, it sells shoes, capes, handbags, party bags, toys, napery and little crowns – almost all in pink.
To the girls of my generation, frilly party dresses were a cause for rebellion. I and my contemporaries fought hard to be allowed to wear trousers (‘trews’, as they were called by shop assistants, to make them respectable and distinguish them from what boys wore; I remember that my grandmother almost fainted the first time I appeared in a pair of trousers with flies) and later jeans. When we were a little older, we wanted to be different (like everyone else) by dressing entirely in black. We recognised that, although these battles were trivial in themselves, they were necessary to give us identity, to reject the ideas that we existed to be sweetly dressed up and that we were correspondingly feeble-minded, not to be taken seriously. I think that it is a great shame, therefore, that the current generation of little girls has taken what to me seems to be the retrograde step of favouring the types of apparel that my mother’s generation was all too keen on thrusting upon its daughters.
In case you are wondering, this post is not shaping up to be a feminist piece, however. What I should like to focus on is what is apparently a prevalent ambition amongst today’s little girls: to become a princess.
I have no illusions about my ancestors. I am quite certain that every one of them toiled at some menial occupation. Their very names suggest that they were shepherds, hewers of wood and farm labourers. The ones that I know about were domestic servants and small shopkeepers. I know that their womenfolk led drab work-filled lives which were unfairly skewed towards the service of their men: my paternal grandmother had four brothers and each Saturday night was made to polish the shoes and press the suits of them all, so that they would look smart for church on Sunday. Yet at least it is unlikely that any of my female ancestors suffered the worst possible of fates: I’m pretty certain that none of them was a princess.
I’ve been prompted to think about this by reading history books for most of the weekend. Princesses were powerless pawns, to be manipulated by their powerful fathers and brothers. Brought up to believe that the men in their families were infallible and that therefore all the wars that they engaged in were just, they were then obliged to perform complete about-turns as these same men married them off to sworn enemies for dynastic advantage or to fulfil the terms of a treaty. Henry VIII repeatedly betrothed his daughter Mary to various crowned heads of Europe during her childhood, then changed his mind as he fell out with them and finally rendered her prospects hopeless when she was of marriageable age by repudiating her mother and denouncing her as a bastard.
Girls whose betrothals culminated in marriage were sent far away from home. Many never saw their families again. They arrived in a strange, hostile country, often unable to speak the language, usually able to keep their accompanying entourage only for a short time, sometimes to be married to a man three times their age, or, conversely, to a boy ten years their junior. Death in childbirth was common and likelier for a royal wife than for a peasant woman, subject as she was to the barbaric quackeries of doctors of any period before the mid-nineteenth century. It was a very exceptional royal husband who was faithful to his wife. He was likely to regard her as a baby-producing machine and reserve his affections for his mistresses. The wife would suffer even greater ignominy if she failed to produce an heir. If she had no children, or all her children were daughters, it was always her fault. Although her father and her brothers may have taken elaborate steps to hedge about her dowry with conditions, captive as she was in a foreign country, she had no wealth that she could call her own and faced destitution if she displeased her husband or he died (like Henry VIII’s elder brother Arthur) and her father-in-law was dubious about her continued usefulness. Discarded or disgraced princesses could hope, at best, to be exiled to a nunnery; more commonly they were executed or died in mysterious circumstances.
Curiously, although widows were often regarded as a nuisance and marginalised, some royal widows managed to become extremely powerful. Isabella of France, Edward II’s wife, was one of these. She almost certainly engineered her own widowhood by arranging to have her royal husband killed and then ruled in his place during her son’s minority. Posterity has denounced her as a wicked murderess, unmindful of the fact that killing was the business of kings. Her son, Edward III, eventually murdered her lover, but he spared his mother and allowed her to continue maintain the lifestyle of a great lady after he took control of his throne.
But Isabellas were few and far between. Most princesses were faceless, downtrodden and decorative: if not dressed in pink (as far as I know never considered to be a regal colour), their other purpose, besides child-bearing, was to look the part.
And that is why I think it is sad that little girls aspire to this ‘ideal’. They want to look the part. They have yet to understand that this particular look, if they don’t grow out of it, may condemn them to life in a gilded cage. As for many footballers’ wives, their idyll may end in divorce – which is a risky way of gaining independence – or it may eventually goad them into committing a crime that removes their freedom forever. Isabella was a fairytale princess who got away with murder. But she lived in the fourteenth century. It is a harder feat to accomplish today.
At the risk of sounding hackneyed – because it seems to me that the whole country is talking of nothing else – I have decided to devote today’s post to snow. How could I not? I have now been effectively snowed in (it has been just about possible to walk out but not drive) for forty-eight hours, twenty of those without electricity. And towards the end of March, too! I have been living here for almost twenty years and have seen snow like this only once before, on 25th January 1996. I remember the date because it was Burns Night and also the anniversary of the day on which I got engaged. I was driving home from the library supply company in Scotland at which I was working at the time and narrowly missed having to spend the night in my car on the A66 as the snow came thicker and faster. I remember my sense of relief when I finally made it to Scotch Corner, only to find the A1 gridlocked in both directions. It took me more than four hours to crawl into Leeds, where the traffic had virtually ground to a halt. Eventually I arrived at a roundabout with an adjacent hotel and went in to see if I could get a room for the night. A Burns Night dinner had been taking place there and most of the diners were stranded, so there was a shortage of rooms. However, when I told the receptionist I had driven from Scotland, she was so impressed that she gave me the bridal suite for the night, complete with flowers, fruit and mini bottles of champagne! The irony was that my husband and son were also stranded nearby, but we couldn’t contact each other. In those days, cellphones were rarer; my company had just bought one for me, but none of us had personal mobiles. On the next day, when I finally reached home (having passed my husband’s abandoned car, its roof now neatly bisected by a snow-laden branch), the snow was not as deep then as it is now; and it was the fourth week of January, after all, and not the third week of March! I feel not so much a sense of outrage at this current deluge as one of disbelief: seeing lambs in the snow is one thing, but snow on nesting blackbirds quite another!
Yesterday I also discovered how little can be accomplished without electricity. I couldn’t shower, cook, clean, listen to music, put on the washing machine or do the ironing. Instead I wrote yesterday’s blog-post, made some final adjustments to Almost Love, toasted myself in front of the wood-burning stove, acted as referee between the dog and cat as the occasional skirmish broke out for pole position on the hearthrug and read the first two hundred pages of Vanished Kingdoms by Norman Davies, my treat to myself when I visited Leeds on Friday (along with a cappuccino and a slice of Belgian chocolate tart). I also meditated on possible plots for my next novel and read last week’s papers for inspiration. The Joss Stone attempted murder case amazes with its improbability. Few writers would dare to invent anything so bizarre!
Most of this was very enjoyable, though I was beginning to feel twitchy by the time that power was restored in the late afternoon. As soon as the lights came back on, I rushed for the shower in case the power bounty proved to be temporary. My husband was more philosophical. He had decided that the opportunity for Saturday ablutions had been and gone and devoted himself instead to clearing away the debris of a day’s accumulated washing-up. (Next time there is a power-cut I must remember that unwashed husband = clean dishes.)
Today it is bitterly cold, although the sun is shining. The snow is being whipped up by the wind and inflicting sharp stings to the face and any other exposed skin. Drifts on the verges are several feet deep, meaning that it is only possible to walk on the roads, which have now mostly been cleared to a single track. Nevertheless, I was determined to go out this morning. I once had a colleague who was sent to work in Canada in the winter months; he said that, for him, cabin fever set in after two or three weeks of snow. I can cope with barely one day! We accompanied the dog on his normal three-mile walk. It took twice as long as usual, but the woods were spectacularly beautiful.
I am including some pictures of my garden, which I took yesterday. The whole of this blog-post is really an excuse to share them!
As I’ve admitted in a previous post to having pedantic tendencies, I won’t apologise for them again today. In fact, snowed in and beleaguered by a power-cut as I am and having, at the time of writing, no hot water, no central heating and no means of obtaining hot drinks or cooking food (though mercifully I am sitting in front of a warm stove with a goodly supply of logs to burn and books to read), I have decided to treat myself to a bit of a Saturday rant.
Every so often, an expression that I particularly dislike seems to pop up with alarming frequency in the media. The one that I am thinking of at the moment is ‘the likes of’. It has been around for a long time and has always made me shudder. I associate it very much with certain annoying adults of my childhood who both used it and also perpetuated other hateful stereotypical sayings, such as ‘Had you thought of that?’ (thus indicating none too subtly that the speaker regarded himself or herself as of superior sense and intelligence) or, most heinous of all to me, ‘Yes, but…’ to any helpful suggestion that I might have ventured to make.
However, I had believed that use of ‘the likes of’ had been steadily waning in popularity for at least three decades. I had not encountered it much at all for ten years or so, until January this year. Now it seems to have resurfaced with a vengeance, like a virus that has lain dormant and suddenly been exploded back into life by some trick of the climate. The first occasion on which I noticed its resurgence was when Bradley Wiggins made his winning appearance at the BBC Sportspersonality of the Year Awards and said that he had never imagined that he would be standing there on stage with ‘the likes of’ the Duchess of Cambridge and the others with her. Among the rash of new incidences that have cropped up since then, a recent review by a well-known literary columnist referred to ‘the likes of Kafka’ and yesterday a newscaster on Radio 4, announcing bad weather warnings, spoke of ‘the likes of Oxford and Wales’.
Aside from the fact that to me it sounds more than a little derogatory, what exactly is meant to be conveyed by ‘the likes of’? Whom else besides the Duchess herself (pace Hilary Mantel) could possibly be described as ‘the likes of’ the Duchess of Cambridge? Who is the ‘like’ of Kafka, that most uncompromisingly individual of authors? Where are ‘the likes of’ Oxford and Wales, two distinctive geographical places, one a city, the other a country, which are not remotely like each other and neither of which, to my knowledge, resembles anywhere else? Is the expression supposed to liberate some kind of imaginative power in the listener, by inviting him or her to supply his or her own references to fill the implied gap? Thus I might think ‘this is like Kafka and Jeffrey Archer’ or you might think ‘this is like Oxford and Orkney’: all very confusing and not at all helpful.
What I’m attempting, I suppose, is to understand why the phrase exists at all. What does it add to the point that is being communicated? If Bradley Wiggins had said, ‘I never expected to be standing on stage with the Duchess of Cambridge and…’, would anything have been lost by the omission of ‘the likes of’? Would he not actually have come across as more gracious and complimentary? If the newscaster had simply said, ‘There are severe weather warnings for Oxford and Wales’, would our understanding of the message have been impaired by his not having included the rogue phrase?
Sometimes I’m a fan of redundant phrases. They can make what we say more graphic, more picturesque, even more nuanced and sensitive. But ‘the likes of’? Spare me! If the likes of you and me agree to boycott this nasty conjunction of three little words, perhaps we can start a fashion that will spread throughout the English-speaking world until, like smallpox, the expression has been completely eradicated. ‘Yes, but,’ you might say colloquially, ‘one day the likes of Bradley Wiggins is sure to emerge again. Had you thought of that?’
I have been a fan of Donna Leon for a long time. My respect for her redoubles now that I’ve read Beastly Things (which was one of my son’s/daughter-in-law’s Mother’s Day presents to me – no hidden comment intended, I’m sure!). This novel should be thrust in the face of all those smug, sententious critics who think that crime fiction is not ‘serious’. Without giving too much away, it is about the institutionalised abuse of animals and how substandard meat is being dishonestly introduced into the food chain. It was published before the horsemeat controversy was exposed, so it is prescient as well as topical.
Reading Beastly Things can be painful and even, at times, horrific. In addition to animal maltreatment, it explores blackmail and the corrosive effect that lying has on personal relationships. The novel begins with a murder – the result in part of the collision of all these themes – but the death is less central to it than they are (although the victim suffers from Madelung disease, clearly well-researched by the author, which makes him interesting and helps to give credibility to the plot).
Paradoxically, some of the most beautiful and memorable passages describe the carcasses of slaughtered animals. The whole book is a metaphor for the degenerative state of Italian politics. It suggests that these have so tainted public life that people no longer have a moral yardstick by which to govern their private lives. The novel would be extremely depressing were it not for the finely-crafted passages about Commissario Guido Brunetti’s relationship with his wife Paola. These run like a musical refrain through all the Brunetti books. I am not often jealous of other writers, but I really do envy the way in which Leon succeeds in presenting Brunetti’s perfect marriage to the perfect woman – Paola is beautiful, intelligent, rich and a good cook who daily prepares a delicious lunch and dinner for Brunetti and her two (fairly perfect) teenage children, as well as holding down a demanding job as a university lecturer – without being coy or cloying. She achieves this by portraying the marriage against the backdrop of Italy’s continuing ills. The implication is that the Commissario’s personal idyll is daily under threat and could be destroyed at any moment by some unseen force or miasma. And, of course, his professional life is filled with seamy horrors.
There is always a sombre undertone to Leon’s work, but this is one of her darkest novels yet – the more so because it is not in the slightest bit far-fetched. It could easily have been based on fact and, for all I know, it has been. I recommend it wholeheartedly – but if you are planning to read it, you should invest in a bar of chocolate as well, to keep up your serotonin levels!