As I understand:
- Only 35% of American have passports.
- Perhaps as few as 2-3% of Americans venture beyond their national boundaries in a year.
- And, as Doonesbury reminds us (today from 1988):
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.
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:
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.
When we’re down in The Smoke, the Lady in my Life and I perch in “edgy” Crouch End.
“Edgy” in the sense it has evolved a Waitrose supermarket (wow!) and a new Waterstones book-shop. Not to forget The Queens (one of north London’s surviving gin-palaces) and The Maynard (more pub-bistro, but wider choice of beer and better bogs). Add in a whole selection of coffee shop/eateries — personal favourite is Monkeynuts (nearest thing to a good American diner — named, by the way, because it was once a tyre-fitters). Everything any metropolitan yummy mummy with a seven-figure Victorian terrace could desire.
Eat yer heart out, ‘Ampstead.
That established, this post can truly begin.
Along the Caledonian Road (“The Cally”, per-lezze), and two stops past “Her Majesty’s Prison Pentonville” (as the audio in-bus announcement has it) the bus pulls in beside Faith Inc studios, outlet of yet another anonymous North London street artist, “Pegasus”.
“Pegasus” left his mark there on the wall of Faith Inc. It is now, wisely, protected by a thick acetate sheet:
Nip across to Camden, where Hungerford Road and York Way intersect, and there’s another “Pegasus” work:
All around Amy Winehouse’s old stamping ground of Camden, you’ll get graffiti attempts — but Fallen Angel shows how it should be done.
Nearly as good is “Bambi’s” in Bayham Street, Kentish Town:
I have found it hard, without the signature, stylistically to separate “Pegasus” and “Bambi” — though she seems a smidgeon closer to “Banksy” (and borrows shamelessly from Warhol, of course).
Why am I bothering with this?
Because in a way it has a strange importance.
“Tagging” has been a phenomenon and an eye-sore these several decades. As that regency novelist didn’t generalise: it is a truth internationally acknowledged, that a streetwise youth in possession of a spray-can must be in want of a wall.
In recent years the quality of such “vandalism” had improved exponentially. Competition is good.
Back in the street-art stone age, once the tagger had evolved bubble-lettering and a moniker, what mattered was size and location.
Then it became multi-colours.
Then it became more pictorial.
Then it became “art”, and the artist had to have a personal tweak. Around Shoreditch, in particular, a Mexican arrival, Pablo Delgado made his mark with Lilliputian figures at the base of his walls, casting long shadows across the pavement:
Make of that what you will. Around the time of the London Olympics, Delgado was adding street-walkers (“because everyone is selling themselves”):
And the last stage of this progress is the art becomes — not just “saleable” and tee-shirt-able — but exploitable by third parties. In London (perhaps inspired by the Belfast “mural” tours) one can now sign up to guided walks of the best street art in a particular ‘hood.
The once-“edgy” is now mainstream.
Every time I wonder where my own flesh-and-blood were, and are, and how close.
Today #3 daughter, a lawyer, was due to be passing through Victoria, mid-afternoon. Her case, on the South Coast, was cancelled; and she was — in fact— in the Fleet Street office.
Earlier there was #1 daughter, an accountant , supposed to be with her team in the World Trade Center, 11.11.2001. Her eldest, my first grandchild, had serially soiled his nappy; so she missed two trains. When she arrived at the Hoboken ferry, she was told to forget it.
Even earlier there’d been the 2 a.m. ‘phone call from #2 daughter: “We’re in Bangkok. There’s a revolution going on. If we don’t get on this BA flight, we’re here for a couple of weeks. Can you pick us up at Heathrow tomorrow morning?”
No: it goes far, far further back than that.
I am the first-born son of a London midwife and a London copper.
He was policing the streets of Bermondsey, London SE1, as a neophyte, in the late 1930s. That means, during the 1939 IRA bombings, he was sent out, the front-line against terror, equipped with the essentials: a police whistle (which I still have), a truncheon and a rolled waterproof.
Mum, not even “to-be”, was a mid-wife who would be called to walk through the Greenwich foot-tunnel and deliver babies in the slums of the Isle of Dogs. Even during the first London blitz.
It doesn’t end there.
Dad, in his third incarnation (after LMS apprentice, after Met Police), was running an MTB engine-room up the Aegean — and, yes, I have some photos. Mum was back in south London — Penge, or thereabouts.
In later life she told the tale about being invited into the air-raid shelter of her neighbours, “a nice Jewish family, the Solomons”. By her account, she hated shelters; but felt obligated, and accepted.
So, she and her infant brat were taken into the Solomons’ private shelter.
That night a flying bomb took out the street.
Yet, I am here.
Many years later …
When she was peeling potatoes, I felt able to ask: “But how did you cope?”
Her reply: “You just got on with it.”
I’m just returned from a public meeting, held by the Labour MP for York Central.
Rachael Maskell is a decent lass — a physio by trade, a trade union official by experience. She is doing her best.
Because of the upsets in the parliamentary party, she chose to side with the leadership (pro tem.). As a consequence of being one of the “stickies”, she ended up, over-promoted, with barely a twelve-month Commons experience, as the fully-fledged Shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary. Again: she is clearly doing her best.
Both locally, and in the national press, she has let it be known — or any least not denied — she has difficulties with the Three-line Whip on Wednesday’s #Brexit vote. Equally, in her response to this evening’s meeting, she indicated she felt she needed to huddle close to the centre of what goes for “power” in the parliamentary party.
So to the meeting itself.
Rachael began with a (over-)long account of where she felt we were. I have to admit, try as I could, I had heard it all before. It was largely read from a script — which itself raises certain questions.
The followed a long string of speakers from the floor.
What was evident was:
- without exception, the tone went beyond regret and remain, into the pain and the angst of the thinking middle-classes;
- very few “new” points or issues arose;
- nobody was prepared to come out and defend the “leave” option;
- there was considerable distaste that the whole #Brexit charade had over-written, and was continuing to expunge the real problems of British life, welfare and economy.
More to the crunch:
- even the odd speaker who declared “support” for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership did so with regret and reluctance;
- more usually, there was complete scorn for the present leadership: this was met with more enthusiasm than much else on offer.
If Rachael was assuming there were Brownie-points for loyalty to the current leadership, this alone should have disabused her.
At some personal pain, I remained silent: not my usual posture at such gatherings.
Had I been disposed, my extended thoughts would go on these lines (though, for public consumption, a lot more abbreviated):
A Burkean bit
First I bear the tradition of Dublin University’s College Historical Society. When I was elected as Librarian (a pure honorific), I discovered I had responsibility for a series of well-locked glass cabinets. In there were the minutes and records of the “Hist”, back to its foundation. Which was back to “Burke’s Club” of the 1740s. The “Burke” in this context being none other than Edmund.
I find Burke a rank Tory, and eminently readable. At this juncture, nothing of his is as relevant as his Speech to the Electors of Bristol (3rd November 1774). His opponent had just promised to accept mandates from the electors.
... government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination …
… authoritative instructions; mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience, — these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our constitution.
Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole.
In the core of that great speech is the well-known maxim:
Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
Which is why I feel enormous sympathy — even some pity — for each and every MP who now has to choose a way through this mire.
Which leads into a second thought.
A horror from recent history
On the substantive motion of 18th March 2003, the House of Commons gave authority to use all means necessary to ensure the disarmament of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Tony Blair’s government majority there was 263 (412 to 149). 84 Labour MPs voted against, a further 69 abstained.
Had there been a referendum at that moment — and for months after — the British public would have largely backed Blair: YouGov polling, over 21 samplings, suggested 54-38 in favour of war. After all, the Tory media had told them to do so.
Yet we are now asked unquestioningly to “respect” a 51.9/48.1 Brexit split.
- There are arguments against a “Nay” vote on Wednesday’s #Brexit vote; but they more to do with parliamentary procedures than rights-and-wrongs. To vote “Nay” may apparently inhibit such voters from amending the Bill at a later stage. I’ll accept, too, that such a vote can be construed as a two-finger sign to the “Leavers” — and they have yet to learn the full consequences of their expressed wish.
2. However, to vote “Aye” is more perverse. None of us was clear last June what “Leave” might entail — except the dizzy promises of “£350 million a week for the NHS” and “Take back control”. We are still very much in the dark.
However, Theresa May has helped us to recognise what she expects. It amounts to:
- either the 26 members of the European Union bow to her will;
- or she kicks over the table, and walks out;
- and we are left to pay for the tantrum.
Abstain. Find an urgent family crisis in Aberystwyth. Be on a reciprocal to central Africa. Whatever.
But abstain. Even at the price of a Shadow Cabinet seat.
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
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.
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.
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 Are. That’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.