Category Archives: fiction

Another op’nin

The 2001 London revival: It was superb. I had already been treated to the production on Broadway. It was already transferring to London, even before 9/11 had devastated New York theatre-attendances. So I paid real money to revisit it at the Victoria Palace

Few musicals beat that opening. But there are only half-a-dozen musicals worthy to start alongside Kiss Me, Kate —and at least one more has Cole Porter’s name over the title.

I can get something of the same thrill opening a new book for the first time.

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend…

… Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read. Thank you, Groucho: don’t call us. We’ll call you.

Buying, on spec, a new book by a  previously-untried, even unknown writer is itself a venture.

I pluck the book from the pile or the shelf — perhaps because the cover or the title means something to me. I flick a few pages. I either return the book whence it came, rejected, or reach for the wallet and the plastic.

I did that last Friday.

iuMy two acquisitions were Ian Sansom’s Westmorland Alone and Tom Blass, The Naked Shore.

There is a tangential connection between those two.

The first in Sansom’s series was The Norfolk Mystery. Obviously a Norfolk-born, Norfolk-bred type would be weak in the head not to snap at that. So I did, and found it wholesome — but not really much more — enough to go for the second in the series, Death in Devon.  Which I found harder going: the arch references to Arthur Mee and all those 1930s “cosy” teccies seemed to be wearing, and wearing a bit thin. Still, I went for this third one; and it went down quite nicely. If nothing else, it overcame the imminent reading-block that was sub-symptom of a winter chill.

So that was a re-visit. The “new” one was —

9781408815496Blass

The connexion with the Tom Blass is also Norfolk (which features very slightly) and East Anglia more generally.

Ir reads very well, rather disconnectedly — but this isn’t a straight narrative. Blass shifts, idiosyncratically, from space to place, topic to topic, encounter to encounter. And then will return whence he came, a hundred pages of more later. The book tends, obviously, to the gossipy. I find little wrong or objectionable about that.

Above all, The Naked Shore is delightfully filled with small and informative detail. Here’s a very early one:

In Whitby once, among the stones of the ‘Dracula’ abbey, I was struck by the starkness of the difference between the accents of a visiting family from Newcastle and those of the natives. Geordie’s origins lies with the Teutonic Angles, hence ‘gan’ — as in ‘gan down toon’, from the German gehen for ‘go’, while their Yorkshire hosts’ linguistic ancestry lay further north (arse, bairn, dollop and flit all have Norse heritage). Some fifteen hundred years after their arrival, fifty miles of English coast still reflect ancient ethnic differences, the origins of which lie on the far side of the North Sea.

Blass returns another half-dozen times to Whitby, at one stage as part of the strange  class-divides between seaside resorts, even (as page 108):

Today the middle classes that seek out the evocative beaches of North Norfolk at Holkham and Blakeney studiously avoid not-dissimilar shorelines close by.

I’ll go with that: Wells is neatly sandwiched between those two “evocative beaches” — indeed, I challenge any in-comer to know where Holkham beach ends and Wells begins. I’d put it around where the old Coastguard look-out was. By the time, heading east, one reaches the beach-huts, one definitively is in Wells. And the reason for the “social” difference (consider, too house prices)? Wells had — before blasted Beaching — a train line. And a bit further back, GER/LNER ‘tripper’ specials all the way from London’s Liverpool Street. That, and the whiff of whelks being loaded into the guard’s van lowered the tone.

Note from the above, that although may dot from topic to topic, the book comes with a useful index for playing dot-to-dot.

A comparator

61ieuy24gfl-_uy250_Yes, we’ve been in these parts quite recently.

Only a couple of years ago, Michael Pye did nicely by, and nicely out of The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us Who We AreThat’s an equally subjective account, but organised on more orthodox — even “historical” lines. It’s a “deeper” book, in many respects a “better” book; but one more concerned with — as the title suggests — the anthropology, even sociology, of the North Sea coasts and peoples. So it is more rooted in what we used to be able to term, without apology or explanation, “the Dark Ages”.

I shall be keeping both on my shelves: not as rivals, but as complements.

 

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Filed under Britain, Detective fiction, East Anglia, fiction, History, Norfolk, reading, Wells-next-the-Sea

Unfinished stories

No: not in this case Vice-Admiral John Poo Beresford. I’m still working up to that one.

This is more personal.

I spent an extended weekend in the cold of Prague. Hadn’t been there since 1994; and — wow! — how things have changed. Mostly for the better. Little changed —praise be! — is one of the most effective, efficient and cost-friendly public transport systems anywhere.

The first “problem” was leaving behind my teccie.

Reading logette:

baroque1

After some weeks and some thousands of pages of Neal Stephenson, I needed light refreshment.

A chance encounter with a first edition (well, “reprinted from the Westminster Gazette“, 1896) of Anthony Hope’s The Dolly Dialogues was just what was needed. Yes: that is Anthony Prisoner of Zenda Hope. And, no: this was not something I had read previously. But above all, light, tight and wickedly amusing.

Then The Hanging Tree, Ben Aaronovitch’s latest in his Rivers of London sequence. Nice one; but I’m out-Granted by Pert Young Piece who has the graphic novel, Body Workand I need to catch up with the significance of a particular car. Still, I have the experts at York’s Travelling Man working on it.

9200000051259436A passing encounter with RLS’s (no relation, different spelling) unfinished St Ives. Another one of which I was only “aware”
Finally, and the “problem”: Lindsey Davis’s The Graveyard of the Hesperides. I used to follow the Falco series assiduously, and then moved on. I haven’t been plugged into this Albia spin-off in the same way, so this is something of a return for me. The problem being this is a mystery novel. And I left it behind on page 367 (of 4o3).

Another unfinished story

This is not fiction; but it is a mystery.

We came out of Prague on the 2130 Easyjet flight into Gatwick.

Yeah. Yeah. EasyJet, punctuality, end of the day.

So the incoming flight didn’t arrive on time. The crew did a heroic turn-around in half-an-hour. There was a delay for some theatrical de-icing. Arrival at Gatwick just before 2300.

Then an unaccountable hold-up at the arrival pad before disembarking. We were held on board for a long 15-20 minutes. At first the captain was announcing that the reception wasn’t ready. The steps arrived at the rear; but the air-bridge at the front seemed to be the hold-up. Eventually a name was called: could Mr X (and the name escapes me) make his way to the front of the cabin and make himself known?

Now: imagine. As if. A full load of walk-on freight. Cabin bags out of overhead lockers. A couple of hundred passengers either out of seats, and getting that way.

This arcane utterance was immediately followed by another: would all male passengers have their passports and identification ready for checking by the police on the airbridge?

And we were then released.

Sure enough: immediately past the cabin door, a posse of police, including the dog handler.

Since I was to the rear of the aircraft, I was one of the last off.

Whoever was the target, he apparently hadn’t emerged. But with one eye-flick the police officer was able to pass me on my way, and addressed me by my first name.

Odd, huh?

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Filed under air travel., Ben Aaronovitch, fiction, leisure travel, Lindsey Davis, policing, reading, Robert Louis Stevenson

Flagging up an answer

Yesterday I was fretting what would be my reading for the Dutch weekend.

As so often the problem solved itself.

Having spent an hour tidying three shelves, to make space for the latest Rankin (as previously related), I had a handful of books that didn’t fit so easily.

One in particular took my attention: Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flagsin a wartime Book Club economy edition. I had several reasons for this choice:

  • considering its age and provenance, it was in remarkably good shape. The red spine is a trifle faded. There’s a bit of foxing on the exposed edges. The paper is cheap and on the rough side; but I’m a sucker for orphaned books.
  • the original previous owner had inscribed what could be a service serial number (heavily scrubbed out) and a date: the month and year of my birth. This book is as old as I am. Obviously, it lacks the pecuniary value of a genuine 1942 first edition (which would be fun); but it acquires from this inscription a certain sentimental one.
  • some one, if not that original owner, has used a “North Central Finance Ltd” IBM-type 80-column punched-card as a book-mark.
  • I cannot recall reading this Waugh since the 1960s.

My lingering memory of Put Out More Flags is it is Waugh reconciling his natural cynicism with the stiff upper-lippiness of “We’re all in this together”. So he rounds up a cast-list from his pre-War fiction , and shows them to be doing their duty and rising to the occasion. Or, in the thin satire of the effete poets, Parsnip and Pimpernel, he is kicking at the likes of Auden, holed up in New York.

On second thoughts, perhaps I’ll download the text to the iPad, and leave the hard copy to rest securely at home.

 

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Filed under Evelyn Waugh, fiction, History, Literature

Stamping one’s place in the world

That previous posting would be incomplete without the coda. It isn’t just in newsprint that we find the curious ephemera of history.

There’s that fly-speck (one of many) on the map that is the Italian enclave of Campione, entirely surrounded by Switzerland and hunched up on the eastern side of Lake Lugano:

campione-d-italia-12

How it got there, and how it remains there is explained succinctly by wikipedia:

When Ticino chose to become part of the Swiss Confederation in 1798, the people of Campione chose to remain part of Lombardy. In 1800, Ticino proposed exchanging Indemini for Campione. In 1814 a referendum was held, but the residents of Campione were against it. In 1848, during the wars of Italian unification, Campione petitioned Switzerland for annexation, but this was rejected due to the Swiss desire to maintain neutrality.

After Italian unification in 1861, all land west of Lake Lugano and half of the lake were given to Switzerland so that Swiss trade and transport would not have to pass through Italy. The d’Italia was added to the name of Campione in the 1930s by Prime Minister Benito Mussolini and an ornamental gate to the city was built, both in an attempt to assert the exclave’s Italian-ness.

It’s that “Italian-ness” that intrigues me:

  • The commune seems to operate happily with two currencies: the Swiss franc and the Euro (and, however one pays, the change comes in whichever is less-flavour-of-the-month — i.e. almost inevitably, in Euros).
  • On the other hand, there is no VAT. But then Campione does very nicely, thank you, from the “sin tax” of its huge casino, well patronised by the Luganesi (where may be found other “attractions” — a decade ago, the “colourful” son of the last King of Italy was arrested, procuring prostitutes for the casino’s patrons).
  • Swiss customs regulations seem to apply.
  • All vehicles seem to be registered in Switzerland, and bear Swiss plates.
  • The police are the Italian Carabinieri, but the emergency services — fire and ambulance — seem to be Swiss.
  • There’s a curiosity in telephone dialling: one has to use the international +41 prefix code for Switzerland, followed by the regional 91 code for Ticino.

But this post was meant to focus on historical ephemera

Which brings me to the curious history of Campione during the Second World War.

It all went pera-shaped when the Mussolini régime collapsed in the late summer of 1943. On 8th September 1943, with the Armistice of Cassibile, the “official” Italian Bagdolio government was now with the Western Allies. The Nazis rushed in with Fall Achse, and in ten days had 0ccupied the whole of northern and central Italy.

Leaving Campione in a bit of bind.

The Nazis were clearly unable to occupy the fly-speck, with no wish to aggravate neutral Switzerland (and the Commune of Ticino) by doing so. Similarly, the Swiss had to balance neutrality with the way the political wind was plainly shifting. So a discreet game of footsie went on: the OSS moved a discreet operation into Campione — I’m assuming as a branch office of Alan Dulles at Herrengasse 23, in Bern. In true Dulles fashion, the OSS kept a low profile in Campione while the Swiss chose not to notice: there’s scope here for the likes of Alan Furst to produce a fiction (and may well already have done so),

By 1944 the Campione post office was running out of stamps. For international mail (and in view of the currently-ambiguous situation of Italy) it was necessary to shufty up the road a bit and post by courtesy of the Swiss PTT. For the local stuff, a bit of national pride was involved: Campione began to issue its own stamps, designated in Swiss francs, valid for mail across Switzerland and Liechtenstein, but not acceptable to the international UPU. Added to which, Campione is quite small; and the Campionesi didn’t have much business with that wider world. So, if you’ve got any of these, they are very collectable:

stamps

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Filed under Europe, Fascists, fiction, History, World War 2

A strong whiff of smoked kipper

In the absence of further flesh-rending among the comrades, and it all being remarkably quiet among the May-bellines, silly-season attention turns to the political equivalent of Johnstone’s Paint Trophy

For UKIP are electing a new Führer

george-cole-minder_3399608k

As might be expected, this is a spat between Arthur Daley wannabes and similar assorted also-rans.

To save the rest of us the bother, Ian Dunt at politics.co.uk gives us a run down of the names in the frame. Stay awake at the back!

He is ambiguous about the One Who Is Blocked: since I’m one serially “blocked” by any Twittering Kipper, I know how it feels.

This is Stephen Woolfe MEP, who — it seems — is to the outgoing Leader as Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz was to his prototype.

Yet Woolfie has credibility issues

For a start he “forgot” his conviction for drunken driving, both when he stood as Police and Crime Commissioner and in his electoral campaign for the European Parliament. In the former of those cases the conviction would be an instant disqualifier — and the application/nomination process is adamant on the issue.

Tim Fenton, of zelo-street (“the Crewe end of the telescope”) is close enough to Woolfie’s stamping ground in Chester to peer under the stones, and argues that the claim to be a barrister is … err … not quite kosher:

… he has given the impression that he is a barrister, when he is not. Nor has he explained how he came to cease being a barrister. Indeed, the Sun’s take on him, claiming “The barrister wants the party to fill the space left by Jeremy Corbyn and his warring factions” is still live.
That story goes on “The 48-year-old barrister is favourite to take over from Nigel Farage in a leadership race which starts in earnest today”. But the Barristers’ Register of the Bar Standards Board cannot locate anyone called Steven Woolfe. The BBC has hinted at his no longer practising, telling “Steven qualified initially as a barrister but moved into financial services and is presently legal adviser to a company whose clients include hedge funds”.
And The Week describes him as “The former barrister hoping to lead Ukip”. Yet Woolfe has not yet moved to explain why this should be. Why did Woolfe cease to be a practising barrister? Did some event occur that caused the BSB to take action? Was it merely a personal choice? And why is he waiting for the questions to be asked before getting the information out there? There’s another one for the party’s vetting procedures.

What a tangled web we weave

There’s a running battle going at wikipedia about Woolfe’s entry: at least a dozen attempts at correction in just the last week, some a couple of dozen more over the last month.

When first we practise to…

Stop it right there, Sir Walter! We are in the presence of lawyers!

I took a look at Mr Woolfe’s Linked-In page, I detected a distinct odour of the Leadsoms. Consider:

  • LL.B., Aberystwyth, 1990.
  • Inns of Court Law School, 1991-2 (this would presumably be the “conversion course”). I might have expected to be told here in which of the Inns was Mr Woolfe “called to the Bar”.
  • “Barrister practising In London Chambers in commercial, criminal and common law”, 1992-6. That’s a pretty loose description. Usually a particular Chambers, especially were it one with prestige, would be named.
  • UBS, Equity Derivatives and Wealth Management Compliance Analyst, 1996-7.
  • Counsel, DLA Piper, 1999-2000.
  • Standard Bank, Deputy Head of Compliance, 2003-4.
    — those three latter posts all being no more than a year each. Why?
  • Aurelius Compliance Consultants, “Senior Compliance Consultant & Partner”, 2000-2007. There a further puzzle here: this firm was dissolved 20th September 2005, as on the same day was Marcus Woolfe Ltd, operating out of Flat 15A, Clapham Manor Street, SW4. A “Company Check” leads us to Mr Steven Marcus Woolfe.
  • Boyer Allan Investment Management LLP, 2006-2012. Should we detect a a further oddity here: according to Mr Woolfe’s claimed employment history, there’s an apparent — and impossible, in the light of the firm being dissolved — at least twelve month overlap between those two posts. Is this another of Mr Woolfe’s lapses of recollection?
  • MercuryJove Advisers (I tried to find it, but —search me!), General Counsel Consultant 2012-2014. Again we have two missing months between these last two appointments — “Gardening leave”?

In the days when I sat on appointment panels, there would have been enough meat on such bare bones to put an applicant though the mincer.

I kicked off with Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, which was sponsored by “a paint to be proud of“. Modern paints go far beyond simple whitewash,  but that seems to be adequate in this case.

 

 

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Filed under blogging, fiction, politics, UKIP, Walter Scott

#Fail. Major #fail

Let’s recognise another hard truth: the once-mighty Daily Telegraph is now no more than a click-bait channel. Here we have 40 things that every man should know by the age of 40. Number 16:

There’s little room for reading fiction 

At some stage in your 30s, the disruptive voice in your head started clanging pans and yelling THEY’RE MAKING IT UP!

Which yell — D’oh! — is surely the whole point of “fiction”.

So here am I, just finished Philip Kerr, and well into Donna Leon. Bubbling on the back hob is Walter Scott (yes: I can double-task. And still drink wine at the same time). Looking forward to Alan Furst next month. And Ben Aaronovitch a month later. Any gaps will be glossed over by visits to Waterstone’s and similar joints. Failing that, there’s a dozen metres or so of shelving here to be revisited. And one day — I promise — I’ll live long enough to get through Moby Dick.

Obviously I never grew up. But that’s another story.

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Filed under Ben Aaronovitch, Daily Telegraph, Donna Leon, fiction, Literature, reading

Scott-free

I made a special trip (all the way round the corner, after a long, liquid lunch at the Eagle and Child) to York’s Waterstones.

I was looking for a copy of Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet, which I first read as a pre-teen in a Dent’s Classics edition. On second thoughts, it could have been a Black’s edition. Or, upon third thoughts, any other publisher pushing stuff out in the same format: hard-back, near pulp paper, colourful wrapper and five or six colour illustrations (just made to be razored out, framed and hung on pub walls): with Woolworths charging at most a whole two bob-a-nob. I’d bet those did more for juvenile literacy (they did for mine) than any government initiative.

Today Amazon will do you a copy, as I now discover, through a Kindle app, and all for free!  Somehow, though, it isn’t as emotionally satisfying as having, seeing and reaching for a hard copy on the shelf.

What Scott did in Redgauntlet was to stretch his usual historical fiction into what we might today call “alternative” or “speculative history”. It hypothesises a third Jacobite Rising in the mid 1760s. As many commentators have pointed out, a central character, Alan Fairford, seems very autobiographical.

My interest in Redgauntlet, apart from its inherent literary merit,  is twofold:

  • this is the anniversary of Culloden, in 1746, which ended any chance of a Jacobite restoration;
  • to evaluate the various stories around what “Charles Stuart did next” (one of which was to be touted for the monarchy of the revolting American colonies).

One particular aspect of the latter depends from William King’s Political and Literary Anecdotes of His Own Times (the .pdf reproduction of that is very corrupt), which was also a Scott source for the Redgaunlet romance. King, in his own way, is as gossipy and delightful as Aubrey or Evelyn, but nowhere as well known. What King relates is that Charles Stuart, in disguise, returned to London in September 1750:

follower_of_allan_ramsay_portrait_of_anne_drelincourt_lady_primrose_ha_d5714565hSeptember 1750, I received a note from my Lady [Anne] Primrose [as right], who desired to see me immediately. As soon as I waited upon her, she led me into her dressing-room and presented me to ______. If I was surprised to find him there, I was still more astonished when he acquainted me with the motives which had induced him to hazard a journey to England at this juncture. The impatience of his friends who were in exile had formed a scheme which was impracticable, but although it had been as feasible as they had represented it to him, yet no preparation had been made, nor was anything ready to carry it into execution. He was soon convinced that he had been deceived, and therefore, after a stay in London of five days only, he returned to the place whence he came.

A page or so later we have a footnote:

He came one evening to my lodgings and drank tea with me: my servant, after he was gone, said to me “that he thought my visitor very like Prince Charles.” “Why,” said I, “have you ever seen Prince Charles?” “No.sir,” replied the fellow, “but this gentleman, whoever he may be, exactly resembles the busts which are sold in Red-lion-street, and are said to be the busts of Prince Charles.” The truth is these busts were more taken in plaster of Paris from his face.

The history behind that becomes clearer from the DNB:

In 1750 Charles got together thousands of weapons at Anvers in preparation for an English rising, and obtained from James a renewal of his regency. Letters with fake dates were sent to Elisabeth Ferrand which, if intercepted, would mislead espionage. On 2 September he left Luneville, proceeding via Antwerp and Ghent to Ostend, whence he sailed in disguise with John Holker on the 13th, landing in Dover and arriving in London three days later. Charles went to Lady Primrose’s house in Essex Street off the Strand, and subsequently held a meeting with fifty leading English Jacobites, including the duke of Beaufort, Lord Westmorland, and William King in a house in Pall Mall. They were discouraging. After touring London with a view to a coup, Charles attempted to promote his flagging cause by being received into the Church of England, probably at a service at which the nonjuring bishop Robert Gordon officiated. After a further meeting with King—at which his ‘servant remarked on the extreme likeness between the visitor and the busts of the “Young Pretender” on sale in Red Lion Street’ (McLynn, Charles Edward Stuart, 399)—Charles left London on 22 September, sailing from Dover the next day.

About the most remarkable thing there — apart from the Hanoverian informers being ignorant of the Pretender’s presence —  is that busts of the Young Pretender were on sale, and  on public display, in London. And in Essex Street we still find this memorial:

45336

Anyone in doubt just how hare-brained the Jacobites were at this stage should refer to the Elibank Plot.

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Filed under fiction, Literature, London, Scotland