Category Archives: fiction

Stand on Zanzibar

John Brunner’s fine bit of SF dystopia, circa late 1960s. I had it as a paperback, which disintegrated and  was discarded many years since. Brunner took on the American complaint of British SF: ‘Here we are trying to get off the planet. You lot can’t even get off your island’. With this book he cracked the American SF market.

The essential conceit was by 2010 the world’s population would no longer fit onto the Isle of Wight (>150 square miles), with some small social segregation, but would need the space of the island of Zanzibar (around 600 square miles). Brunner projected that by 2010 the world population would be around seven billion — one of several anticipations he nailed, along with the failure of the Soviet Union, the rise of industrialised China,  the prevalence of electronic media, the dominance of the Great Computer … well, OK, we’ve decentralised that one.

The Anglo-Zanzibar War

This was going to be my point-of-departure, until I remembered Brunner. According to wikipedia:

The Anglo-Zanzibar War was a military conflict fought between Great Britain and the Zanzibar Sultanate on 27 August 1896. The conflict lasted between 38 and 45 minutes, marking it as the shortest recorded war in history

Which piece of profound historiography derives from (roll of drums and eye-balls) The Guinness Book of Records.

As far as I can see, the War amounted to two Omani sheikhs, one British-backed, the other German-supported, squabbling over who got the late Sultan’s harem. Any need to sanitise that, dress it up as pro- and anti-slavery factions.

Let’s start with why the British were there in the first place

Follow the bouncing ball:

  • Portugal had been at odds with the British over Mashonaland, Nyasaland and so the Zambezi basin.
  • This would have bridged the Portuguese colonies on the Atlantic and Indian Ocean shores — blocking the British attempt to build a north-south, Cape-to-Cairo corridor.
  • Lord Salisbury was having no such nonsense, dismissed the Portuguese claims as ‘archaeological’, and issued an ultimatum (January 1890).
  • The result was an agreement (August 1890) endorsed by a formal convention (11 June 1891).
  • Mashonaland and Nyasaland went to Britain, and Portugal got the Zambezi basin (i.e. modern Mozambique).
  • For the British the bonus was a ‘protectorate’ of the sultanate of Zanzibar, but more significantly a freer hand in East Africa, checking the growing German interests in Tanyanika (and so towards the Upper Nile).
  • That required a quid-pro-quo to assuage the Germans: the grant to Germany of a strip in West Africa, from Kamerun up towards Lake Chad.
  • Not uncoincidentally, from the British point-of-view, that queered the pitch for French expansion in the same area.

Since it was ‘be nice to the Kaiser’ week, another strip (the ‘Caprivi strip’) came gift-wrapped. This had no particular value, except to expand German South-West Africa (modern Namibia) towards the Victoria Falls. But, again from the British perspective, putting a spoke in any Boer ambitions in that direction.

Clever stuff?

You betcha. But the clincher was a land-swap:

  • Germany had been building the Kiel Canal since 1887.
  • About thirty miles out of the Elbe and Weser estuaries, and the coast of Holstein, stood the rocky and sandy outcrop of Heligoland (total area, about half a square mile).
  • Heligoland had been seized by the Royal Navy in 1807 (think Battle of Copenhagen); and formally annexed by Britain, from Denmark, in the wash-up at the Congress of Vienna.
  • The small population of Heligoland — who would be Frisian rather than German — apparently quite liked being British; but the Royal Navy had not been using the island for any real purpose.
  • So Salisbury traded Heligoland for Zanzibar (apparently to the disgruntlement of Queen Victoria, British public opinion, and the folk of Heligoland). On the whole, one can instantly see the basis for the disgruntlement: a British naval presence, immediately opposite Cuxhaven, and Brunsbüttel (whence Seiner Majestät Flotte could debouch from the Baltic into the North Sea) would have a certain merit.

Any potential snub to the French was bought off by recognition of their influence in Madagascar.

Explosive stuff!

The story of Heligoland almost ends with the biggest non-nuke bang of WW2.

From the back-end of 1944 until 1952, the RAF was using Heligoland as a way of disposing of surplus high explosive. In April 1947, in one go, the Royal Navy detonated 6,700 tons of munitions in Heligoland. Only in 1952 were the uninhabited remains of Heligoland, with large quantities of UXB still lying around, returned to West Germany.

The West Germans issued a stamp.


For a real joke of a war…

… there’s the 1859 Pig War between the US and Britain.

Leave a comment

Filed under fiction, History, Literature

The potency of cheap … reading

Credit where it’s due: it’s Noël Coward’s Private Lives. He gives the line to ‘Amanda’ (Gerty Lawrence in the original production):

The music, which has been playing continually through this
little scene, returns persistently to the refrain. They both look
at one another and laugh.

ELYOT: Nasty insistent little tune.

AMANDA: Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.

Similarly, the extended ‘lock-down’ drives me to drink (whisky-and-water, Aussie red) and past books.

One that came as a happy return was James Michener’s first outing, Tales of the South Pacific. There must be a tattered paperback copy in every second-hand shop internationally.

Michener later developed something of a copyright in family and other epic chronicles. These longer efforts — to me — tend to the formulaic. His prolific output can be written off as easy reading. On the other hand, there is a genuine liberal heart at work, and a writer conscious of structures.

I’m not claiming Tales of the South Pacific as ‘great literature’. It was good enough for a Pulitzer, and was further sophisticated into Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. I don’t demur from ‘sophisticated’: it took some chutzpah and back-bone to be firmly anti-discriminatory and pro-equality in the America theatre of the Senator Joe McCarthy era. That transformation derives from just two of the nineteen episodes and eroded many of the harder edges of Michener’s more of the earth, earthy book.

Michener introduces himself as the frame-story:

I served in the South Pacific during the bitter days of ’51 through ’43. I was only a paper-work sailor …

He was, in reality, a naval historian, and the encountered many of the real-life personalities of the Pacific War:

There was Old Bull Halsey who had the guts to grunt out, when we were taking a pasting, “We’ll be in Tokyo by Christmas!” None of us believed him, but we felt better that we were led by men like him.

I also knew Admiral McCain in a very minor way. He was an ugly old aviator. One day he flew over Santo and pointed down at that island wilderness and said, “That’s where we’ll build our base.” And the base was built there, and millions of dollars were spent there, and every one agrees that Santo was the best base the Navy ever built in the region.

Not a bad contact list. And Santo is Vanatu — where, it is suggested, the Chinese would like to take over.

What many readers of these Tales fail to recognise is Michener is catching the spirit of the mean (and women) at the sharp end. For much of the time they were caught in a cycle of inertia, interrupted only by moments of high drama and death:

I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific. The way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we called islands. Coconut palms nodding gracefully toward the ocean. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description. I wish I could tell you about the sweating jungle, the full moon rising behind the volcanoes, and the waiting. The waiting. The timeless, repetitive waiting.

The musical version conjures something very different to the characters in Michener:

There were the men from the lesser ranks, too. Luther Billis, with doves tattooed on his breasts. And good Dr. Benoway, a worried, friendly man. Tony Fry, of course, was known by everybody in the area after his brush with Admiral Kester. The old man saw Fry’s TBF with twelve beer bottles painted on the side. “What in hell are those beer bottles for, Fry?” the admiral asked. “Well, sir. This is an old job. I use it to ferry beer in,” Tony replied without batting an eyelash. “Been on twelve missions, sir!”

“Take those goddam beer bottles off,” the admiral ordered. Tony kept the old TBF, of course, and continued to haul beer in it. He was a really lovely guy.

They will live a long time, these men of the South Pacific. They had an American quality. They, like their victories, will be remembered as long as our generation lives. After that, like the men of the Confederacy, they will become strangers. Longer and longer shadows will obscure them, until their Guadalcanal sounds distant on the ear like Shiloh and Valley Forge.

Tony Fry, something of an enigma in the book, disappears completely: Ray Walston (in the movie) remains cunning, corrupt, tattooed … and lean. Paul Osborn did the film-script — over two decades, he’d already worked his way from ‘uncredited’ to screen-doctoring Steinbeck’s East of Eden. He knew what worked.

Luther Billis and Tony Fry were a pair! Luther was what we call in the Navy a “big dealer.” Ten minutes after he arrived at a station he knew where to buy illicit beer, how to finagle extra desserts, what would be playing at the movies three weeks hence, and how to avoid night duty.

Luther was one of the best. When his unit was staging in the Hebrides before they built the airstrip at Konora he took one fleeting glance at the officers near by and selected Tony Fry. “That’s my man!” he said. Big dealers knew that the best way for an enlisted man to get ahead was to leech on to an officer. Do things for him. Butter him up. Kid him along. Because then you had a friend at court. Maybe you could even borrow his jeep!

Tony was aware of what was happening. The trick had been pulled on him before. But he liked Billis. The fat SeaBee was energetic and imaginative. He looked like something out of Treasure Island. He had a sagging belly that ran over his belt by three flabby inches. He rarely wore a shirt and was tanned a dark brown. His hair was long, and in his left ear he wore a thin golden ring. The custom was prevalent in the South Pacific and was a throwback to pirate days.

He was liberally tattooed. On each breast was a fine dove, flying toward his heart. His left arm contained a python curled around his muscles and biting savagely at his thumb. His right arm had two designs: Death Rather Than Dishonor and Thinking of Home and Mother. Like the natives, Luther wore a sprig of frangipani in his hair.

After which, it’s down to There is Nothing Like a Dame. The ‘dame’ being Mitzi Gaynor — a.k.a. Nellie:

The next girl was Nellie Forbush. She was a slender, pretty nurse of twenty-two. She came from a small town in Arkansas and loved being in the Navy. […] In Denver she would have lived somewhere in the indiscriminate northern part of the city, by the viaduct. In Albuquerque she would have lived near the Mexican quarter. But on the island of Efate where white women were the exception and pretty white women rarities, Nellie Forbush was a queen. She suffered no social distinctions.

Military custom regarding nurses is most irrational. They are made officers and therefore not permitted to associate with enlisted men. This means that they must find their social life among other officers. But most male officers are married, especially in the medical corps. And most unmarried officers are from social levels into which nurses from small towns do not normally marry. As a result of this involved social system, military nurses frequently have unhappy emotional experiences. Cut off by law from fraternizing with those men who would like to marry them and who would have married them in civilian life, they find their friendships restricted to men who are surprisingly often married or who are social snobs.

Only the most tone-deaf miss the problems Michener worked in there.

Leave a comment

Filed under culture, fiction, films, History, Uncategorized

The lure of a good romantic thriller

As this holiday weekend impended, and the long lock-down dragged on, I felt an imminent reading-block just around the corner.

This has been a chronic condition since way-back. Once it strikes, I end up with unread books, a few chapters in, littered around the house.

I have a sure-fire remedy: go back to old favourites. For many years, the stand-by was Anthony Hope’s Ruritania. How many know the third volume (it appeared between Zenda of 1894 and Hentzau of 1898): The Heart of Princess Osra? Osra is a prequel — or would have been, had that term been invented sixty years earlier.

What many don’t get is that Hope has a nourish shade. His swash-bucklings are accompanied by an ability to add Gothic gloom. Here’s the opener of Osra;

“Stephen! Stephen! Stephen!”

The impatient cry was heard through all the narrow gloomy street, where the old richly-carved house-fronts bowed to meet one another and left for the eye’s comfort only a bare glimpse of blue. It was, men said, the oldest street in Strelsau, even as the sign of the “Silver Ship” was the oldest sign known to exist in the city. For when Aaron Lazarus the Jew came there, seventy years before, he had been the tenth man in unbroken line that took up the business; and now Stephen Nados, his apprentice and successor, was the eleventh. Old Lazarus had made a great business of it, and had spent his savings in buying up the better part of the street; but since Jews then might hold no property in Strelsau, he had taken all the deeds in the name of Stephen Nados; and when he came to die, being unable to carry his houses or his money with him, having no kindred, and caring not a straw for any man or woman alive save Stephen, he bade Stephen let the deeds be, and, with a last curse against the Christians (of whom Stephen was one, and a devout one), he kissed the young man, and turned his face to the wall and died. Therefore Stephen was a rich man, and had no need to carry on the business, though it never entered his mind to do anything else; for half the people who raised their heads at the sound of the cry were Stephen’s tenants, and paid him rent when he asked for it; a thing he did when he chanced to remember, and could tear himself away from chasing a goblet or fashioning a little silver saint; for Stephen loved his craft more than his rents; therefore, again, he was well liked in the quarter.

“Stephen! Stephen!” cried Prince Henry, impatiently hammering on the closed door with his whip. “Plague take the man! Is he dead?”

Late Victorian anti-semitic prejudice? Possibly — except the only other Jew in the story is Solomon, who offers a kind of pawn-broking out-of-town business. It certainly isn’t the bare-faced prejudice one finds in other, contemporary writers (Kipling, Rider Haggard — add your own name). And the notion that Jews then might hold no property was a sad truth for much of Europe, from the century before Zenda, down to much more recently.

Or, another lesser Hope work, Sophy of Kravonia — the orphan girl who rises from needlework to be, briefly, queen of some Balkan statelet.

No, not Great Literature …

… but light. And fun. Which is what reading-block requires.

As it happened, I didn’t resort to Hope (who had been, I discover, H. H. Asquith‘s law pupil). Instead it was Carl Hiaasen’s Basket Case. This is Hiaasen before he went full-on environmentalist, and when he was still in and of the Miami Herald newsroom.

I feel I cannot go far wrong with Hiaasen: a best selling young-adult novelist, but also banned in Texas prisons. We’ve had to hang around for another adult Hiaasen for a while: it’s due in the autumn, and is promised to involve:

some grinding between the First Lady and a lovestruck Secret Service agent 

Since the President is obsessed by rampaging immigrant hordes, and supported by Floridan lady POTUSSIES, we know approximately where we are.

Now, for the third or fourth time, I must try to get through some Elizabethan hooha in the company of Stephanie Merritt (a.k.a. S. J. Parris).



Filed under crime, fiction, Haggard, reading

The Archimedes principle

Compare and contrast:

1. Wart meets Archimedes (The Sword in the Stone):

Merlyn took off his pointed hat when he came into this chamber, because it was too high for the roof, and immediately there was a scamper in one of the dark corners and a flap of soft wings, and a tawny owl sitting on the black skull—cap which protected the top of his head.

‘Oh, what a lovely owl!’ cried the Wart.

But when he went up to it and held out his hand, the owl grew half as tall again, stood up as stiff as a poker, closed its eyes so that there was only the smallest slit to peep through – as you are in the habit of doing when told to shut your eyes at hide—and—seek – and said in a doubtful voice:

‘There is no owl.’

Then it shut its eyes entirely and looked the other way.

‘It is only a boy,’ said Merlyn.

‘There is no boy,’ said the owl hopefully, without turning round.

2. Rafael Behr (a.k.a. “Contributor Namy”) in today’s Guardian:

The heckles in the House of Commons can be as revealing as the speeches. When the prime minister was taking questions about her Brexit plans on Monday, Anna Soubry, Conservative MP for Broxtowe, asked about the no-deal scenario – whether the UK would “jump off the cliff”. At which point a male voice, dripping with derision, chimed in: “There is no cliff!”

Behr’s article is worth the trip, for illuminating us on the desiderata of the Tory head-bangers:

Interrogate the Brexit no-dealers on detail and they concede that their plan hinges on a doctrine of pain for gain. They advocate the abandonment of tariffs, inviting the world’s exporters to flood Britain with their wares. Thus would a beacon of free trade be lit on Albion’s shores, inspiring others to repent of their protectionist tendencies. This might bring cheap produce to supermarket shelves (consumer gain) but sabotage UK farmers, who would be undercut by an influx of American and Antipodean meat (producer pain).

Manufacturers would suffer too, but that is an intended consequence of opening the doors to invigorating winds of competition. The whole point is to sweep away inefficiency and blow down zombie businesses while fanning the flames of innovation. In this model, the UK economy is a vast pre-Thatcher coalfield that refuses to accept its obsolescence and must be made to confront it by force. If the timid will not jump into the future, they must be pushed.

Sadly that would take down the Irish economy with that of the UK. In the small matter of €1.3 billion of Irish exports to the UK each month, a fair chunk is essential chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comment is Free, Conservative Party policy., EU referendum, Europe, fiction, films, Guardian, politics, Tories.

Wednesday, 13th September, 2017

Business of the day:

Getting books back on the shelves. Oddly, they fitted neatly until I tried to sort them a bit more logically. Half of Irish history is yet in a pile on the floor.

An hour spent untangling the spaghetti of a Mac, three hard drives, a CD-ROM, a printer, three assorted iPods, an iPad, a speaker system … eleven power points in use, off two wall sockets. The impossible we do on a regular basis. Miracles (why won’t the Big Bastard iTunes back-up show as connected?) have taken a trifle longer.

Book of the day:

Well into le Carré (page 143 of 264). Must have had a sleepful night.

Gripe of the day:

That same le Carré dust-cover.

It is oh-so-arty matte black. The result is it retains the imprint of every finger that holds it.

Quote of the day:

The day is still young, but I doubt anything is going to top this (Ed Caesar interviewing Gids Osborne for Esquire):

Osborne’s animus against May is complicated in origin — personal, political, ideological, tactical — but purely felt. When I met him at the Standard this past spring, he was polite enough about the prime minister. But according to one staffer at the newspaper, Osborne has told more than one person that he will not rest until she “is chopped up in bags in my freezer”.

Ear-worm of the day:

September in the rain. Problem is the internal sound-track keeps switching from the best (Dinah Washington) to the merely good (Julie London).

Leave a comment

Filed under Apple, Conservative family values, George Osborne, John le Carré

Tuesday, 12th September, 2017

Business of the day:

A bank account entry that is clearly wrong. Lady in my Life sorted it.

Some documents scanned for filing. This new Canon TS5050 certainly does the job (even better now I’ve put it on USB instead of wifi — which raises serious questions about just how many wifi channels — clearly too many — there are using the cable-modem).

Cursing the arrogance of seven Labour MPs who defected on last night’s three-line Whip, thus granting the Tories fourteen votes (+7/—7) on the Second Reading of this nasty Brexit bill. Quite how Dennis Skinner, the infamous Beast of Bolsover, shared a lobby with Tories and DUPpers escapes me. Yeah, yeah: it’s the pure cynicism of the Socialist Campaign Group of lefty Labour MPs (long-time stalwart, J. Corbyn). And yeah, yeah: the EU is a nasty capitalist club.

Yet, today we have UK inflation, measured by the much-manipulated CPI, at 2.9%. In old money, under what was the Retail Prices Index (now, like so much else, lurking under a non-acronym as RPIX) that would be 4.6%. Faisal Islam, of Sky News, accounts that as driven by record 4.6% spike in clothing & footwear. And then appends a chart lifted from the Office for National Statistics:

There’s another upward tweak due any day, with the scheduled gouging by the energy companies. Not forgetting that, by some sympathetic magic, hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico necessitate petrol price-hikes in Britain.

A swift segue to Bloomberg, and we find a headline:

  • Year-on-year CPI figure rises to 2.9%, beating median forecast

Got that? It’s a competition; and your actual British peasant just lost again. After years of wages being capped at sub-inflationary levels, here comes your next “beating” for being so naughty.

But — hey! — it’s all part of the feel-good factors derived from loyalty to one’s anti-capitalist “principles”, as a member of the Socialist Campaign Group, and huddling in the Tory lobby at the midnight hour. Over to you, Dennis.

Then there was a stretch of the morning, waiting for Peter/Pierre to arrive. Who he? All will be revealed under the next header.

Book of the day:

One added. One, and a vital one, inexplicably missing (the hunt begins). The rest in order of publication, from 1961 to the present:

And that, ladeez an’ gennelmen, is why not much will be heard of or from me for the rest of the day. I’ll be with Peter (born Pierre) Guillam.


Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, Dennis Skinner, fiction, John le Carré, Labour Party, Tories.

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.

Leave a comment

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 —


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.


Leave a comment

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:


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?

Leave a comment

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.


Leave a comment

Filed under Evelyn Waugh, fiction, History, Literature