Category Archives: fiction

One of the better reading weekends of the year

One of the annuals is the arrival of the new Donna Leon. That was last weekend. The next couple of days are going to be the new Philip Kerr.

The fragrant Ms Leon counts twenty-six Guido Brunetti stories. I have a quick check of that corner of the shelves: —

— hmmm … I reckon I’m missing four. Which, by inference, tells me:

  • when I went beyond borrowing from the local library,
  • when I upgraded from there paperback to the hard-back, and
  • (probably the same moment) when I began buying regularly “on line”.

My OCD ought to make me complete the set by acquiring the missing items. I’ve even gone to the extent of listing them:

  • #3: The Anonymous Venetian;
  • #4: A Venetian Reckoning;
  • #10: A Sea of Troubles;
  • #11: Wilful Behaviour.

On further thoughts, I’d reckon the last two there were once also “mine”; but have been borrowed or “fecked” over the years. Anyway: it’s pleasing to notice that I’ve shelved them in series order.

Then I have a further problem. A sense of neatness means for symmetry I need the old, smaller, paperback format (is that A-format?) for the first two, and  hardbacks, with dust-covers, for the latter two.

By the way, books are the only aspect of my life that come so orderly and ordered. But, then, in  my world, books are about the most important consideration.

Earthly Remains

The new Leon, then, follows one of the usual tropes of the detective-fiction canon. Josephine Tey put her “Alan Grant” into a hospital bed to find The Daughter of Time. That set a pattern. Michael Dibden (the only rival that Leon could possibly have for a Venetian hero — but she has gathered far more moss than he)) gave “Aurelio Zen” gut problems to — literally — put him on the beach. Now Donna Leon has “Brunetti” retreat to an island in the Lagoon to escape a minor crisis at the Questura. In each story, the “mystery” comes to the central character, rather than the more usual other way round.

This means that, in Earthly Remains, we have less of home in Calle Tiepolo, of the noble Paola and the two Brunetti children, but rather more of Brunetti’s own family background.

As always, with a Leon story, the back-end of the book acquires excitement — not from the conventional stand-off — so much as the accelerated conclusion.

I sit amazed how she pulls it off each time: the parallel story lines of a police procedural (with the enigmatic Signorina Elettra, always able to spirit a dea ex machine out of her amazing on-line resources) and a social issue. In this case, something of an old vamp on the chemical poisoning of the Venetian Lagoon.

My ritual here is an end-to-end read, often well into the early hours, in a single sitting.

And now to:

Prussian Blue

This follows immediately from the previous “Bernie Gunther” outing: The Other Side of Silence, when Somerset Maugham was a main feature (with the Burgess and Maclean duo just off-stage).

I’m just getting into Bernie’s debunk from the Riviera, and his need to escape from the grasp of his old mates, formerly of the Kripo, now of the Stasi.

I find I have to suspend disbelief about Bernie’s life-history. He was born, as we were told in March Violets, around 1898, in the trenches of the First World War. Here he is, fit and active in 1956. In between he has been house detective in the Adlon Hotel, had a brush with the KL- camps, stood too close to Reinhard Heydrich and most of the Nazi hierarchy, sniffed around the Katyn massacre, been a POW of the Russians, had brushes in post-war Berlin, pushed off to Buenos Aires and Havana. The “back-story” of this latest involves Berchtesgaden, and a body of the infamous terrace.

I remember, commuting across the North London line, opening the paperback compendium of the first three Bernie Gunther stories for the first time. So that would be 1993. Battered and split, but I still have it here. Oh, the joy of finding a new obsession!

A final thought: I see I have Leon and Kerr under separate “Categories” on this WordPress indexing. The latter as “fiction”, and the former as “literature”. I’d recant on that distinction.

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Filed under Donna Leon, fiction, Literature, Philip Kerr, reading

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