Month: May 2013

An old love of mine, a case of kiss and tell…

Aphrodite in Aulis, signed first edition

Some months ago I wrote a piece about the books on my bookshelves.  I chose a shelf at random and described how I came by the books on it and whether or not I had read them.  As I said then, for the most part my books have been shelved in a fairly random way.  The exceptions are the two shelves devoted to books about and by George Moore and his contemporaries.

I’m not referring to George Edward Moore, the philosopher, but George Augustus Moore, the writer.  As a postgraduate student, I based my research on the latter Moore and his writing career.  When I was first interested in him, only Esther Waters, his most famous book, was in print. (Later the Anglo-Irish publisher Colin Smythe reprinted three or four more of his novels.)  As a consequence, I spent many happy hours in secondhand bookshops and leafing through antiquarian catalogues in pursuit of his works.

Moore was an extraordinary character.  Born into the largely Protestant Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, he came from a family of Catholics.  (This lends some credence to their claim that they were descended from Sir Thomas More, a tale Moore himself loved to retail, though there is no positive proof that it’s true.)  The Moores were, in fact, members of the more modest, untitled squirearchy.  Setting little store by education and the Arts, they spent their time managing or mismanaging their estates and racing horses.  The only one of Moore’s ancestors who had shown the remotest interest in literature had lived as a recluse in the second half of the eighteenth century, spending his days writing a history book that was never published – not a propitious precedent when Moore himself began to exhibit literary leanings.

His first love was painting, or at least he used that as his pretext for travelling abroad.  Like many Irish artists and writers, he felt stifled by his country.  When he came into his inheritance at the age of twenty-one, he departed pretty swiftly for Paris to enrol himself as a pupil at the Académie Julian.  There he became an early appreciator of the French Impressionists and actually struck up a friendship with Édouard Manet.  Moore was a kind of nineteenth-century gentleman’s equivalent of a groupie: he insinuated himself into the Impressionists’ consciousness by spending many hours at Les Deux Magots, the café that they frequented.  He was later to pursue Zola and other authors of the school of French Naturalism in the same way.

Eventually realising that he hadn’t the talent to become a painter, Moore took up writing as very much a second-best profession.  He wrote several passable, if bleak, novels in naturalistic mode, the best of which is, in my opinion, not Esther Waters, but A Drama in Muslin, a captivating satire on the Dublin marriage market.  In common with other exiled Irishmen, Moore was often at his most eloquent when he wrote about Ireland.  He was also an observant early adopter: Another of his Parisian acquaintances was Édouard du Jardin, who had written a book entitled Les Lauriers Sont Coupés; it embodied a style that has been dubbed ‘the melodic line’ and was actually the forerunner of the stream-of-consciousness technique;  Moore wrote several evocative novels that employed this device, including The Lake, the haunting story of a priest who loses his faith and orchestrates his own disappearance by leaving his clothes on the banks of Lough Carra as if he had drowned, swimming across the lake and escaping to take passage for America (Moore Hall, Moore’s ancestral home, was built on the shores of this lake.).

After many years in exile, Moore was persuaded by W.B. Yeats to return to Ireland to take part in the so-called ‘Gaelic Revival’.  Moore’s own account of this sojourn telescopes the length of time that it took; in fact, he spent most of the first decade of the twentieth century back in Ireland, working with Yeats and other luminaries, including J.M. Synge and the Irish mystic poet AE.  Not that Moore ever really worked very closely with anyone: he was a past master at ‘doing his own thing’.  His true masterpiece dates from this period.  It is a two-part work entitled Ave Atque Vale (later changed to Hail and Farewell; the original title was simultaneously designed to poke fun at Moore’s own lack of Latin and the pretentiousness of his literary colleagues).  It purports to be a factual history of the Gaelic Revival, but is really a highly-polished satire of how it unfolded in spirit.  Once it was published, Ireland became too hot to hold Moore once again.  He retreated to London, where, in his later years, he devoted his energies to writing whimsically discursive stories based on Greek and Roman mythology and Christianity.  These were produced in beautiful limited editions that were sold by subscription. I am the proud possessor of two of them, Aphrodite in Aulis and The Brook Kerith.  It was typical of Moore that the latter, his account of the life of Christ, was based not on the Gospels, but on the writings of the Essene heretics.  To the end, Moore loved to stir up controversy whenever he could.

This was true also of his private life, which was possibly more blameless than he would have had people believe.  He never married, but conducted a number of clandestine affairs with well-born women, the most scandalous of which took place with Maud Alice Burke, an American heiress, prior to her marriage to Bache Cunard, heir to the shipping line.  Later, transformed into the society hostess ‘Emerald’ Cunard, she resumed the affair, until Moore was ousted from her affections by Sir Thomas Beecham.  Moore was widely reputed to be the father of her daughter, Nancy Cunard, herself a writer and friend of Hemingway and Ezra Pound.  He encouraged his friends and acquaintances, including Nancy herself, to believe in the truth of this rumour.  However, the gossip went that his sexual prowess was in some doubt.  When he was still a young man, a contemporary had jibed that ‘some men kiss and never tell; Moore tells but never kisses’.  He never lived this down.

Sadly, Moore Hall was burnt down in 1923 in one of the recurring cycles of the Irish troubles, not because Moore was an absentee landlord, but because his younger brother, Colonel Maurice Moore, served in the British army.  I have visited the ruin twice.  It is one of those unhappily poignant roofless  Irish mansions, its walls still standing foursquare, the windows blank, the floorless interior home only to the spinney of gangling trees that poke above the parapet in their quest for light.

What do my thoughts about George Moore have to do with crime fiction?  He certainly doesn’t write about crime, except obliquely: he is less incisive than Dickens, but as a young man he was concerned with and wrote about the social ills of his day.  His works are perhaps not of the first rank, though Hail and Farewell comes pretty close.  He is not my favourite writer – that is certainly Jane Austen – nor even one whose works I re-read many times.  But I feel that George is part of me; decades ago, he succeeded in getting under my skin.  In some way, therefore, I am certain that he has also inveigled himself into the fabric of my writing.

When right seems wrong…

Oh, yummy!
The farmers I knew in Lincolnshire were mostly millionaires. They lived in huge houses, set proudly in the midst of their many acres, and were rarely seen on tractors; they drove luxury limousines with personalised number-plates; they made their money from growing crops on what is perhaps the richest arable land in the country.

Farming is quite different where I live now, in the foothills of the Pennines. Most of the farmers are tenants, the land they hold carved from estates that were parcelled up generations ago. Today, the farms are small by modern standards; mostly devoted to animal husbandry, they are barely large enough to sustain the families owning them, some of whom have been working them for many years. One farmer told me that his lease entitles the family to hold the land for five generations, of which he represents the fourth. I am impressed by this family’s loyalty both to its landlord and to farming as an occupation, and fearful for its future. What will happen to it when the present incumbent’s son dies?

In reality, the family may have to quit long before then. Modern farming is a scientific business. Farmers are not, in the main, scientists; therefore, as farming methods become more sophisticated, they have to rely on the trained representatives of, say, the feed manufacturing companies to give them advice. A couple of years ago the farmer I have mentioned (who is still in his twenties) was rebuilding his dairy herd after inadvertently buying two tubercular cows from a neighbour and consequently having to slaughter his whole herd (in accordance with DEFRA regulations). Building up a new herd was expensive. He had always farmed in the traditional way, keeping the cows in byres in the winter and allowing them into the fields to graze in the late spring and summer months. The feed manufacturer advised him that this was inefficient, because cows use up energy wandering about and trample much of what they feed on. The modern way is to improve milk yields by keeping them in the byres the year round and feeding them on corn. The company’s representative paid visits to advise him on the quality of the corn he should use and how much to give each cow. The cows were kept in.

Yesterday, I was therefore surprised – but delighted – to see that the whole herd was out in the fields. Anyone who has seen a cow skip and dance when it is first released into a meadow after a long winter can be in no doubt that, although fastening them up in byres may not actually be cruel, they surely value their freedom.

When the farmer is about he usually stops for a chat. He was there yesterday and told me that he’d had to abandon the corn-feeding regime over the summer months because the cost of the corn was bankrupting him. Milk yields had dropped, too. During the winter, his milk cheque had covered barely half the amount he’d had to pay for feed. As he commented in his laconic way, “Something’s not right here.”

If he is right, this sounds to me like a case of legitimised fraud. It reminds me of how communities in Africa have been devastated after being persuaded by large companies to grow cash crops, destroying traditional self-sufficiency and yoking people to an artificial dependency. This Pennine farmer’s case is not as irrevocable, of course: he has still the option of going back to more conventional farming methods, which he’s chosen to do. Nevertheless, he is still repaying the loan to replace his herd, which is not yet back to its former size, and now has to bear the additional millstone of debt for the corn. The investment in the extra feed has been counter-productive; his business has taken a big step backwards. No-one will be brought to account for this, except, perhaps, the farmer himself, if he is unable to pay the debt quickly enough. The feed manufacturer will have all the weight of the law – and of ‘science’ – on its side.

Crime and legality are sometimes difficult to distinguish.

Spring meadow

‘even MPs fail to speak properly’ – Oh, the glorious irony of that word ‘even’!

Even MPs!
I was amused to read in today’s paper that standards of grammar are slipping ‘even‘ among MPs. I’m amazed that the author considers the linguistic prowess of politicians to be the yardstick for the nation’s performance in this respect. For years I have been entertained by the dreadful but often hilarious ways by which MPs mangle the language. Those most self-consciously aware of the way in which they speak are prone to make the worst gaffes. Mrs Thatcher’s Tudoresque announcement “We have become a grandmother” is etched on the national memory. Very recently, Michael Gove, that staunch advocate of traditional grammar school education who now wants to extend the length of school days to workhouse proportions, explained his rationale thus: “If you look at the length of the school day in England, the length of the summer holiday, and we compare it to the extra tuition and support that children are receiving elsewhere, then we are fighting or actually running in this global race in a way that ensures that we start with a significant handicap.” Crystal clear, mellifluous, grammatically rigorous and beautifully structured, isn’t it?

I’m not sure that I agree with the hypothesis that this slip in standards, if indeed it exists universally, is caused by shortcomings in our formal education; there may be a more profound cultural change at work. My grandmother left school at the age of fourteen with no formal qualifications. Although she was deeply interested in learning and continued to read widely throughout her long life, the number of days that she actually spent at school was pitifully small, because she was the eldest of nine children and expected to stay at home, sometimes for months, whenever her mother had another baby or one of her siblings was ill. ‘In service’ for the whole of her working life (which began when she was fourteen and finished when she was seventy-four), she prided herself on speaking ‘properly’. I remember what she said to have been always grammatically correct and exquisitely enunciated, although it was not delivered in what came to be known as ‘Received Pronunciation’, because she always retained the slight burr and elongated vowels of her native county, Kent.

Her speech was picturesque in ways that have almost been lost. I think she must have thought in pictures and she had a fund of sayings for every occasion. Not one to suffer fools gladly, she used these sayings to convey her opinion (relatively) politely, but with disarming directness: “Who’s upset your apple-cart?” she would say, fixing me with a bright eye if I were behaving in a sulky fashion; “No fool like an old fool,” she would trot out summarily if one of her sisters related a mishap that she believed had been the consequence of a stupid decision; “Cleanliness is next to godliness”, she rapped out at her neighbour, an old man to whom she always referred as ‘Hicks’ (she regarded him as not quite her social equal), when he told her that he was unable to perform his usual weekly task of carrying out her dustbin to the street because he had a painful boil on his neck. “Red hat, no drawers,” she proclaimed in a penetrating whisper when a lady sporting this outré headgear passed us in the street.

One of the most fascinating things about language is that it is a living thing. Like all living things, it changes and evolves. We seem to be experiencing a rapid period of change in our use of language at present. I don’t think that this means that it is in terminal decline. What will emerge will be a new set of ‘rules’. (How the rules change over time can be demonstrated by consulting early editions of Fowler’s Modern English Usage.) The reasons for the present shifts in usage seem to me to be complex: Some can indeed be blamed on ‘poor’ education, but, as my grandmother’s example demonstrates, adopting a lifelong reading habit is the most effective way of understanding language and using it well; some owe themselves to a rapid influx of imported words and sayings, predominantly (such is the power of media) from the USA; some happen because the speaker (e.g. Mr Gove), although well-educated, does not take care to present a series of related thoughts in a logical sequence. As any writer knows, when you have something complex to convey, crafting a series of short, simple sentences may be the best approach to take. Of course, we need to pay attention to these things, but above all we need to guard against allowing the lifeblood to be drained from our speech by becoming too ‘PC’. I’m not talking about being rude or slanderous, but, like my grandmother, we must continue to harness the power of the language itself to convey our true opinions, not hide behind some anaemic gobbledygook that has been dreamed up by the thought police, or politicians!

As a totally irrelevant aside, it was my grandmother who first taught me about irony. Visiting my mother one day, she announced that my Great-Uncle Arthur was in hospital with a chest infection and that my Great-Aunt Lily had ‘fallen up the steps’ on her way to see him and cracked three of her ribs. Both she and my mother were then overcome by a burst of spontaneous laughter. I was shocked at the time, but realised later that it was the irony of the situation that amused them, not poor Lily’s misfortune. Jane Austen, not herself the product of a formal education but the mistress of irony, would have smiled.

Mr. Gove, perhaps you may pontificate when you have acquired the verbal skills to do so!

Taraxacum, much maligned…

In my lifetime, dandelions seem to have been always despised. My father, a keen gardener who also kept an allotment, would survey his realm with gimlet eye and hoik out offending juveniles before they could take hold. My husband does the same. Although my friends and I, as children, presented bunches of wildflowers to our mothers, they never included dandelions. Later, my son was similarly selective. Playground wisdom used to say that touching a dandelion in bloom made you wet the bed – though picking them to blow away the ‘clocks’ later in the year was not deemed to have a similar effect. (It occurs to me now that the products of this latter activity must have sprung up afterwards to annoy my father.) We picked the daisies and buttercups that grew in profusion on the banks of the Coronation Channel that skirted Spalding, then an excitingly isolated place to play (mothers in those days worried neither about accidental drowning nor ‘stranger danger’), but not the dandelions. The only time that I took any interest in a dandelion was when someone told me it would make a good meal for my tortoise, but, accustomed as he was to a townie’s diet of chopped tomato and lettuce, he turned up his nose at it. Suspicion confirmed: dandelions were weeds, and useless.

As I said earlier this week, we’ve had a very strange spring. Some plants have flowered late, others early. Some seem to have flourished; others have struggled to survive. Dandelions are hardy plants – they keep on flowering for many months, their succession of new buds clinging close to the soil and evading even the mower’s blades; the tiniest portion of root becoming a new plant within days. A couple of years ago, I even saw one blooming a few days into the new year, its head poking through a dusting of snow. They are stubborn survivors. But this spring they haven’t needed to put up a fight to survive: instead, they have been having a ball! They must have relished all that snow and rain. They are popping up everywhere, their dark leaves glossy and luxuriant, their perfect heads glimmering like star-cut diamonds. I am reminded of the beautiful picture of a dandelion and hare in Kit Williams’ gorgeous puzzle book Masquerade, a botanically accurate depiction so lovingly executed that the artist must have valued the plant. One of the fields that the dog and I walk through daily is luminous gold, the dandelions so profuse that they might have been planted deliberately as a crop. (When he saw the glorious vision, he became puppyish with excitement and whirled round amongst the flowers, coming back to me with legs stained with their colour!) Their beauty is captivating, though I know their days are numbered: the farmer who owns the field will either cut them down with the grass or send in the cows to do the job.

Drinking in their splendour, I wondered how a farmer’s wife of two or three hundred years ago might have reacted to this sight. Dandelions first flower at the time of year that earlier generations dreaded as the notorious ‘hungry gap’, the period when all the fresh produce grown for the winter months was exhausted and the current year’s crop of vegetables had yet to mature. Diets became meagre and unbalanced; sometimes people suffered from hallucinations or showed other signs of malnutrition. I have no proof, but my guess is that such a woman would not have despised this fine display, nor turned her back upon it. I’ve just looked up ‘dandelion’ in my herbal, and discovered that the leaves can be used in salads, or cooked in soups and stews. The heads can be fried, or dried and then crushed as condiments. Dandelion wine has a powerful kick. Dandelion infusion makes a fine herbal tea. Dandelion roots, roasted and ground, can be used as a substitute for coffee, much like chicory roots. Dandelions are also reputed to have medicinal properties and, for generations, were used to cure or alleviate a wide range of ailments. I discover that the dandelion was only downgraded to the status of ‘weed’ at the end of the nineteenth century. Like the tortoise, we have turned into townies. Will the twenty-first century let the tide of fashion turn again and restore the reputation of the dandelion?
In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy the spectacle of their blooming profusion and look for a hare (quite common here) leaping over them.



I confess that I had considerable difficulty in continuing with Capture, by Roger Smith, after I’d read the first forty pages or so.  The quote on the front jacket (from The Times) says: ‘Smith grabs readers and plunges them into his nightmare visions’.  I have probably never seen ten words used with such accuracy to sum up a novel.

Capture is set in South Africa.  All of its characters are indeed plunged into a nightmare of betrayal, violence and murder.  For the reader, the nightmare is exacerbated by the fact that none of these characters seems to possess noble or redeeming qualities.  It is as if society itself has squashed all goodness out of them, so that they are left like zombies, wandering in a broken civilisation, intent upon nothing but their own survival and ruthless about how they achieve it.  As well as practising routine violence, they make their sordid lives bearable by indulging in other vices: drink, drugs, abuse of power. At the beginning of the novel, Nick, who comes closest to being its hero, ignores his four-year-old daughter Sunny’s cries for help as she drowns just yards from where he stands with one of his cronies, smoking a joint.  Before this, he appears to be obsessed with her in a creepily unhealthy way – until it is made apparent that his obsession lies, not with her, but with the imaging paraphernalia on which he has built his career.  Things matter more than people.  His daughter is pressed unwillingly into performing for him daily, as if she were the organ-grinder’s monkey.  Meanwhile Caroline, her mother, who has never recovered from post-natal depression, survives on a cocktail of anti-depressants and hatred.

Into their lives comes Vernon, the most sinister character in the novel, Dawn, the ex-prostitute and recently-sacked stripper whom he is ‘protecting’, and Brittany, her daughter.  Vernon has no sexual relationship with Dawn but he is obsessed with Brittany – we never quite find out why.  The unhappy triangle of Nick, Sunny and Caroline is reflected in a kind of literary distorting mirror by the unholy one of Vernon, Brittany and Dawn.  Yet this comparison is too simplistic: Vernon and Dawn are both badly traumatised characters who can’t break free mentally from the privations they have endured in the past.  United in their wish to protect Brittany from the sort of childhood they each suffered, they almost lose her to the depravity of Dawn’s junkie neighbours.  Nick and Caroline are being damaged in the present, especially by the toxic fall-out from their failing marriage.

At least five murders result from the mess created by Sunny’s death, in which Vernon has been complicit in order to gain power over Nick.  By the end of the novel, all but one of the adult protagonists has committed murder or been accessory to it.  The ending offers catharsis of a kind, but it does not convince that the new life opening up for the survivors will turn out to be anything other than a sick mirage.

Why did I steel myself to finish it?  In the first place, it is beautifully written.  The accounts of the murders are brutal, but, given their context, not gratuitously violent: the violence is in accordance with the rest of Smith’s weird, fractured world.  One also senses that his portrayal of life in urban South Africa is pretty accurate.  Secondly, it raises some very big questions about what it means to be human and the nature of crime and punishment.  At its heart lies a conundrum: can human beings be brutalised into depravity, or is the depravity always there, waiting for a propitious circumstance to show itself?  In other words, is there any true nobility or selflessness to be found at all in the human condition?  Smith addresses these questions through his skilful handling of characterisation and plot.  The answers that he provides are profoundly disturbingCapture does not make good bedtime reading, but it is a very grown-up novel.

One month to publication!


So here I am, one month away from the publication day for Almost Love, which has reached the proof stage.  I have marked the day by putting the ‘milestone’ countdown widget here (as if I needed it!), because that seems a celebratory thing to do, as well as adding the clickable cover picture and link to an interview about Almost Love, both of which are to your right on the sidebar.  It’s enormously exciting, and humbling, for me to be able to visit the Salt Publishing home page and to see my second novel there, whirling on the carousel amongst those other glorious titles, including Alison Moore’s latest (The Pre-War House and Other Stories, launching tonight at Waterstones Nottingham), David Gaffney’s More Sawn-Off Tales and Alice Thompson’s new novel, Burnt Island, not forgetting my fellow crimewriter Matthew Pritchard’s Scarecrow (to be published in the autumn).

So much has happened since November 2012, when In the Family came out to face the world, and I am very grateful indeed to the many readers of that book who took the trouble not only to read it but also to comment so favourably on it.  I have made many online friends since then, via Facebook, Twitter and this blog; they have been stalwart in their support and their sharing and retweeting has sometimes been so vigorous that I have barely been able to keep up with it.  If I missed passing on my thanks to you, please forgive me and accept them from me now.

I’d like to express my appreciation, too, to all those readers who have visited here, pressed the ‘like’ and r.t. buttons, followed and commented.  This opportunity to engage with you and your thoughtful comments has been beyond helpful to me in more ways than I could ever have imagined when I started blogging last October.   It has also been a lot of fun!

I am indebted to Jen and Chris at Salt Publishing for all their support, which is unfailing and ever-present, as I’m sure all their authors will readily confirm.  Their incredible creativity, their capacity for managing the impossible in no time at all and their long-suffering, good-humoured indulgence of human failings are what make them truly top publishers.

May I complete this post by announcing four events connected to the launch of Almost Love

Waterstones Gower Street

Thursday June 20th, 18.30 – 19.30

An evening with Salt crime writers

Christina James, who reads from her new novel, Almost Love

Laura Joyce, who reads from The Museum of Atheism (published November 2012)

Matthew Pritchard, who reads from Scarecrow (to be published September 2013)

Admission by ticket or at the door.  Wine will be served.  Books will be on sale.


Bawtry Community Library 

Thursday June 27th, 18.30 – 19.30

Christina James gives readings and speaks about crime-writing

Tea, coffee, refreshments.  Books will be on sale.

Co-ordinated by Claire Holcroft and George Spencer, Doncaster Library Service


Wakefield City Library, Burton Street, Wakefield

Alison Cassels, Library Officer in Charge of Promoting Reading, writes:

As well as Crime Writing Month, 29th June is National Readers Group day, so we’ll be promoting it to our readers groups too.  What we have planned for the day is our  Readers Group morning, with coffee 11.00-11.30, then discussion groups 11.30-12.00, discussing three books (including In the Family), then 12.00-12.30 a general discussion on crime novels, followed by people recommending books they love until 13.00. After lunch, Christina James will be presenting her second novel, Almost Love, in a public session, from 14.00-15.00. 


Event at Adult Education Centre, North Lincolnshire Libraries

Date and time to be confirmed.

Slaughtered before their time?

Light thickens
As I walked down in the woods today, there were no bears, but dark forces were threatening beauty, as they do every year at this time… but this May is different, for the beauty is still young.

The cold, snowy winter and even snowier March, following a brief spell of mild weather that fooled both the birds and the very early flowers, upset the order of the usual harbingers of spring, as many are late: the daffodils have collided with the tulips; flowering currant and cherry are blooming together. Perhaps ironically, the fruit trees are full of promise; up here in the hills, they often succumb to the devious daggers of frost, but their blossom has arrived so late that it has dodged the devastating chill. I’m anticipating a late summer and early autumn laden with bounty.

Anyway, back to the woods, where normality is not well: the bluebells, one of my favourite wild flowers, have been cautious, dithering in the cold and arriving at least two weeks later than usual. The trees, by contrast, are embracing the spring in a rush. Perhaps nurtured by the continuous snow and rain of the endless winter months, their green leaves are burgeoning unusually thickly and very fast for the time of year. The bluebells, in their huge swathes, have yet to reach perfection, that moment when the understorey is carpeted so richly with their violet-blue that all the trees appear to be floating in an indigo haze. This year, however, they will have to make haste if they are to work their customary mood magic, for the woodland canopy is fast closing over. It seems that they will be slaughtered before their time, starved of light and stifled. In most years, by mid-May, they are bedraggled by a month in flower, their loveliness fulfilled and their seeds set. But not this year.

The phases of woodland plant life are delicately juxtaposed, each species adapted to take advantage of the moment. But now the time is out of joint and there is nothing to be done to set it right.

An ethical question…

From The Sunday Times May 12th 2013

From The Sunday Times May 12th 2013

One of my big treats is to read the book reviews in the Sunday newspapers. I’m always slightly sulky if, as occasionally happens, the review pages have been given over to the programme of a forthcoming literary festival or, worse, column after column of disappointingly brief paragraphs on ‘holiday reading’ or ‘books for Christmas’.

Yesterday’s review pages in The Sunday Times were particularly entertaining. Most of the reviews were interesting and several books were featured that I’ve made a mental note to buy. I’m not sure that this will include the lead title, however: The Anatomy of Violence: the Biological Roots of Crime, by Adrian Raine, reviewed by Jenni Russell. Raine, now a professor at an American university, has spent ten years studying violent criminals and their motivation and concludes that they are shaped by a combination of biological and social factors that are beyond their control. He is particularly keen to emphasise the ungovernableness of the biological factors that are at work, claiming that the brains of psychopaths and sociopaths are actually different from those of ‘normal’ people (though he confounds his argument somewhat by saying that the children of criminals, even if they are adopted, are more likely to commit crimes than other children).

As someone who is also interested in how the criminal mind works, though without the medical background, my instinct is to find this argument repellent. To me, it seems to be too closely related to the specious ‘insanity’ plea to which murderers and rapists often resort in order to obtain a lighter sentence or treatment at a secure hospital instead of jail, and to deserve about as much credence. I think that it is very dangerous indeed to suggest that sane adults are not responsible for their actions. As a girl, I had a close relative who would fly into terrible rages over some trivial mishap, such as when one of his children accidentally dropped a jar of honey on the floor, or the fire went out and he had to relight it. His frequent complaint would be: ‘I was in a good mood until you upset me!’ or: ‘I was perfectly all right until that happened!’ Even as a very young child, I remember the disdain that I felt that a grown man would try to duck responsibility for his vicious temper in this way.

I’m also more than a little disturbed by some of the experiments that Professor Raine describes. The review states (without comment): ‘In an experiment on almost 1,800 three-year-olds in Mauritius, children were measured on their bodies’ ability to anticipate that a particular tone would be followed by an unpleasant sound. It took only three trials for most children to sweat in anticipation of the harsh noise.’ I don’t like the sound of this at all. It raises all sorts of questions about the ethics of carrying out experiments with children, especially experiments that involve pain or fear. I realise that the experimentation described in Raine’s book involved fairly mild discomfort, yet it registers on a spectrum at whose extremity looms the terrible spectre of Mengele. I am reminded also of the ethical questions that arose concerning the Milgram experiment.

Professor Raine is more engaging when he writes about himself. From the review, it is not clear whether he is writing in a spirit of wry self-knowledge or simply being matter-of-fact when he reveals that, when he was seriously injured by an intruder while staying in a hotel room in Turkey, he felt a fierce, instinctive desire for revenge. Jenni Russell tells us: ‘He just wanted to see his assailant punished, and at moments he wanted that punishment to exactly match his own terrifying experience.’

I’d say that this eclipsing of Raine’s humanitarian tendencies by his more universally human ones is completely normal. It also illustrates why we need laws: in a civilised country, a judge and jury will dispassionately apply the law that prescribes fit punishment for the crime. Usually, it won’t be of the ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ variety that injured parties like Raine sometimes passionately, and perfectly understandably, desire. Conversely, although a case may certainly be made for using the results of research into the criminal’s brain – and his or her background – in order to provide therapy, I don’t think that it should count as ‘mitigating evidence’. Anyone can try to justify appalling behaviour – from childish rages to much more serious crimes – by blaming circumstance, biological or otherwise. The fact that most of us don’t is what makes society work.

An admission of guilt…

Loyal retainers
How time changes our attitudes!

My husband’s father had a rather posh employer, a titled aristocrat with a substantial estate in the south of England; his ancestors genuinely did arrive with William the Conqueror – he had (still has) the family tree and the lands (albeit diminished over the centuries) to prove it.

My father-in-law was an absolutely loyal retainer of the old school. Totally committed to the ‘big house’, he would brook no criticism of its inmates. His children were of a different mould. They looked across the class divide that separated the aristocrat’s mansion and the pretty tied cottage where they lived more surely than if there had been a ten-foot fence between them and, as well-educated young people of the sixties, viewed their neighbours with amiable scepticism.

When we were married, perhaps more out of a sense of duty to a loyal servant than a genuine regard for his child, the aristocrat and his wife (also from a titled family) presented us with a set of eighteen tumblers. They were tinted a smoky grey, fashionable for glassware then. My husband, a principled opponent of the landed classes, laughed with some cynicism when he saw them, because they bore a very close resemblance to the glasses that were being given away as part of a well-known petrol promotion of the time, though the glasses did come packaged in a box bearing the logo of a local department store. My own reaction, unused to the aristocracy as I was, was one of astonishment that anyone could think that a couple starting life with only the meagre collection of mismatched cups and plates that they had gathered as students could possibly have need of eighteen of anything!

But of course we did use the tumblers. And continued to use them over the decades. Unloading the dishwasher the other day, I realised that only three of them are now left, scarred and pitted, loyal old servants who have borne witness to many years of family life and always been stalwart in their duty. They have obliged as water glasses at both family suppers and more festive dinners; held my son’s breakfast milk when he outgrew his feeding-cup; done service at children’s parties once plastic beakers were rejected as too babyish; been used to mix Lem-sip, stomach powders and other medicines; hosted the occasional late-night whisky and even been pressed into tasks beyond normal expectations: singly, they have stood in as a makeshift vase for a solitary torn-off rose, a storage receptacle for leftovers, a pot for germinating seeds.

And so it turns out that this once rather naughtily despised present has become more a part of the everyday fabric of our lives than almost anything else that we own and certainly more than any of the other wedding presents that we received. Coming over sentimental, I feel inclined to retire these last three ageing retainers, and let them live out the rest of their lives – which would then, probably, equate to the rest of our lives – in peace. (I can imagine that whoever clears away our possessions when we’ve ‘passed on’ will get rid of these three precipitately.) However, when I remember my father-in-law, who served with pride and continued to serve until his death, aged seventy-five, I think perhaps that, if they could speak, these glasses would tell me that they don’t want to be relegated to the top of the cupboard and left, literally, on the shelf. Like old soldiers, they will want to carry on until, one by one, they disappear.

We are both, my husband and I, very much aware of our early crime of ingratitude and quite probably of injustice to the actual sentiments of the givers, who may never discover just how attached to these incredibly loyal retainers we are, nor (irony of ironies) that their nephew and our son followed the same course at university together, without knowing each other’s origins.

A gripping read with topical interest…

Say You're Sorry
I’ve written about Michael Robotham before. Say You’re Sorry is the third of his books that I’ve read, all supplied by my son. In my opinion, this is the best of the three. By a strange quirk of coincidence, it is about two women who have been held captive for three years; I started reading it last weekend, before the story of the Ohio captives broke. The women in Robotham’s story are not being held ‘in plain sight’, however, but in an isolated building.

The story has two narrators, Joe O’Loughlin, Robotham’s now familiar lugubrious and slightly self-pitying, borderline misfit clinical psychologist hero and Piper Hadley, one of the two teenage victims, who manages to keep a diary throughout her captivity. Piper herself is a bit of a misfit and so lacking in self-confidence that she fails to realise that their captor distinguishes between her and ‘Tash’, the other captive, in ways that become vital to her survival.

This is a much more ambitious novel than the other Robothams I have read; both the plot and the character portrayals are at once more complex and more subtle. Robotham is still working on his trademark theme of the ‘woman at risk’, but these women are more than passive victims. Each has demons of her own that are unrelated to her captivity. There are a few jarring notes. Most conspicuous among these is (in my view) Robotham’s relatively weak power of conveying a sense of place. The book is supposed to be set in and around Oxford, an area with which I am familiar – it even mentions Branca, a restaurant in which I have eaten – but the descriptions do not convince. This is partly because the culture and language of the community from which Piper and Tash come does not seem very English. In both the norms and expressions that the people living there use (and, indeed, in Robotham’s choice of names like ‘Piper’ and ‘Augie’), they seem much more to belong to small-town America.

This is a minor, if recurrent, annoyance, however. I was gripped by this book. I did guess who the perpetrator was before a final twist in the plot revealed it, but only a few pages before he was unmasked. Robotham is particularly skilful at planting red herrings in Say You’re Sorry. The novel’s distinction doesn’t just come from the clever plot and the reader’s on-tenterhooks sympathy for Piper, however. It comes from the author’s success in getting inside the heads of both captives and captor in a totally convincing and believable way. There might have been a time when the plot itself could have been criticised for being far-fetched. Unfortunately, the stories of Elizabeth Fritzl, Natascha Kampusch, Elizabeth Smart (and now of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight in Ohio who have just escaped from ten years or more of alleged imprisonment and rape by Ariel Castro) prove that Robotham’s plot is not only capable of happening in real life, but also relatively restrained. As for what has happened in real life, the truth has turned out far stranger than fiction.

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