Eyejaybee is back to try for another century in 2020
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I am James, a 56 year old civil servant, and I currently manage the Information Access, Briefing and Parliamentary Branch in UK Export Finance in Whitehall.
It is great to be back for another year's reading challenge, and I am extremely grateful to Hemlokgang for having created this Group. I am also looking forward to seeing how everyone fares, and expecting to pick up loads of book bullets as the year progresses.
Best wishes for a happy, healthy and prosperous 2020, with a feast of great reading.
Here are my counters for the Challenge:
Before I plunge into the challenge for 2020, I thought I would look back over my reading throughout 2019. In the end I managed to read 118 books (falling short of my target by seven) which represented a total of nearly 41,000 (nearly four thousand below what I had forecast at the start of the year).
My highs and lows for 2019 (listed in chronological order of reading for each category, rather than in any measure of preference) were as follows:
New-to-me fiction read during the year:
The Kennedy Moment by Peter Adamson.
The Killing of Butterfly Joe by Rhidian Brook.
Old Baggage by Lissa Evans.
A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne.
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker.
The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman.
Big Sky by Kate Atkinson.
Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid.
Joe Country by Mick Herron.
A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes.
The Patriots by Sana Krasikov.
The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott.
Agent Running in the Field by John le Carré.
If I had to pick one out of those, I think it would probably have to be either A Ladder to the Sky or A Thousand Ships.
My favourite Non-Fiction books of the year were:
Mad As Hell: The Crisis of the 1970s and the Rise of the Populist Right by Dominic Sandbrook.
1956: The World in Revolt by Simon Hall.
A Fabulous Creation by David Hepworth.
The Secret World by Christopher Andrew
Winds of Change by Peter Hennessy.
Handel in London by Jane Glover
My overall favourite among those would be Winds of Change, very narrowly topping Handel in London.
My favourite re-reads of the year:
At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell(Non Fiction).
Left Bank: Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris 1940-50 by Agnes Poirier (Non Fiction)
The Ghost from the Grand Banks by Arthur C. Clarke.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Sicken and So Die by Simon Brett.
And the books I enjoyed least during 2019:
Jeeves and the King of Clubs by Ben Schott.
Turbulence by David Szalay.
Lanny by Max Porter.
Chicago by David Mamet.
Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner.
Nine Lessons by Nicola Upson
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway (Non Fiction)
Westwind by Ian Rankin.
1. Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig.
2. Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith.*
3. The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat.
4. Midnight at Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham.*
5. The Catch by Mick Herron.
6. At Risk by Stella Rimington.
7. The Secret History by Donna Tartt.
8. Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller.
9. Books Do Furnish a Room by Anthony Powell.
10. Black City by Boris Akunin.
11. Who Dares Wins by Dominic Sandbrook.*
12. Doctor Slaughter by Paul Theroux.
13. A Deadly Habit by Simon Brett.
14. Secret Asset by Stella Rimington.
15. Erebus: the Story of a Ship by Michael Palin.*
16. Melmoth by Sarah Perry.
17. The Last Detective by Peter Lovesey.
18. The Anarchy: The East india Company by William Dalrymple.*
19. Why Aren't They Screaming? by Joan Smith.
20. A Spy by Nature by Charles Cumming.
I think I put all of your favorite non-fiction reads from last year on my to-read list. Looking forward to following your reading again!
1. Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig.
Quite simply, this is an extraordinary novel, although sadly I think it is beyond my powers to describe it adequately without making it sound too fanciful. Amanda Craig captures the multi-tiered aspects of London society as it edges toward the almost catastrophic financial downturn that arose from the ‘credit crunch’ of 2008.
The story revolves around five principal characters and the intricate way in which they all gradually become involved with each other. We meet Polly, a divorcee and single mother whose work as a human rights lawyer takes up most of her waking hours, leaving her permanently exhausted and struggling to balance the demands of family life. As the novel opens, her plight becomes even more stressful as Iryna, the Russian au pair who had been so fundamental to the stability of her household, disappears.
Meanwhile Job is an illegal immigrant who fled poverty, oppression and torture in Zimbabwe. Having managed to garner enough money to secure a flight to London, he is now straining to balance two draining jobs, switching between working as a minicab driver and handwashing smart cars at a dubious establishment in the hinterland of King’s Cross. Between these two posts he manages to scrape enough money to pay his rent for a dreadful bedsit, and also to send a small sum each month back home to his wife in Zimbabwe. It is now more than six months since he received any word from his wife, and he is no longer confident that she is even still alive.
Ian Bredin is a South African, working as a teacher at an inner London comprehensive school, still facing another two terms before he can secure his ‘Qualified Teacher’ status. The school is underfunded, and nearly all of the pupils are disaffected: bullying is rife, and religious divides within the diverse, multicultural school population are already becoming prevalent. Despite his best intentions, Ian finds that he spends most of his time merely preventing fights from breaking out in the classroom, and he knows that he never manages actually to teach his pupils anything.
Katie is from New England, and decamps to London following a failed relationship with a man from an immensely wealthy family, but who turned out, despite a charming carapace, to be boorish beyond measure. Now in London, Katie finds herself struggling to survive in what seems a very lonely city. She works as assistant (almost skivvy) to the editor of the twenty-first century iteration of The Rambler, the weekly journal that in former times had been journalistic home to the likes of Dr Johnson, Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins.
Anna is a fifteen year old Lithuanian girl who leaps at the opportunity to escape from what she fears will be a life of utter drudgery. Her hopes of a new life soar when a young woman who had been a couple of years ahead of her at school returns from London, clad in marvellous chic clothes and make up, eager to recruit other girls to come and join her there, working as waitresses or chambermaid. Anna cannot be dissuaded from throwing her lot in, only to find that she has been trafficked, and is pitched into a life of what seems like unremitting Hell.
All five of them will find their stories intersecting in the most shattering way. Exquisitely plotted, the author never once lets the string of coincidences impair the underlying plausibility of the story, and all of the characters are beautifully drawn.
Amanda Craig also manages to deliver blistering attacks on the plights of asylum seekers, and the manner in which the underclass become almost invisible to the bulk of the population though a communal wave of denial, though she achieves this without ever seeming to proselytise. All in all this is an enchanting novel, and a great way to start a new year of reading.
Happy reading in 2020, James. I've added A Fabulous Creation to the wish list because a friend of mine will love it.
Happy belated New Year and I'm looking forward to following your reading again!
2. Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith.*
Not much short of four decades ago, I had the good fortune to meet Patti Smith by chance at CBGBs, the legendary punk rock venue in New York. My then girlfriend (now wife) and I were visiting America for the first time, about to embark on trek out west that would see us driving the whole length of Route 66 before undertaking some postgraduate study in California. We had managed to obtain tickets for a gig (any gig!) at the iconic venue. At this remove of time I can’t even recall who was playing, although I do remember that the concert was pretty ropy. None of that mattered, of course, as we were simply starstruck by the surroundings and enjoying what amounted to a pilgrimage. We ventured to the bar and found ourselves standing next to Patti Smith and, emboldened by the adrenalin surge prompted by the occasion, plucked up the courage to talk to her. We had a pleasant conversation, and she seemed intrigued by the books poking from our respective pockets (Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk in Catherine’s case, and an original French edition of Swann’s Way in mine). So much so, in fact, that she asked us to meet her the following day at one of her favourite cafés. As our time in New York was very short, every moment had been strictly accounted for in advance, but obviously our schedules went straight out of the window and we agreed in a nanosecond.
Cafés, or at least regular doses of strong coffee, clearly play a huge part in Patti Smith’s life, and form the unifying theme of this volume of memoirs, as they did for both M Train and Just Kids. Indeed, T. S. Eliot’s line, ‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons’ might have proved a worthy epigraph. In this volume she describes her travels around America, and principally California, Arizona and Kentucky during 2016. That year was notable for what seemed like a disproportionately high number of celebrity deaths, and Smith muses on this growing roll of bereavement. It proves a particularly difficult year for her as, in addition to a large number of musicians with whom she had some degree of acquaintance, two particularly close friends subside into illness, and then die.
As ever, her prose style is frequently beautiful and moving – somehow completely at odds with the ferocity of her early stage persona. I remember being both exhilarated but also almost frightened while watching her performances from the 1970s, when she would shout and rage at the audience. While the strength of character and self-assurance (I know, I know, a dirty word!) that underpinned those performances clearly remains, age appears to have mellowed her, and there is a contemplative tranquillity about many of these pieces, tinged with sadness though they are.
3. The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat.
I first read this book well over forty years ago, while still at school, at the urging of my parents, both of whom had served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War. I enjoyed it then, but realise now how superficial my appreciation of it had been
The story revolves around the travails of HMS Compass Rose, a newly commissioned corvette which is assigned to convoy escort duty shortly after the start of the war in 1939. Lieutenant Commander George Ericson, an old naval hand, is waiting to take possession of the ship, and keen to return to active service. He is, however, too experienced to allow himself to be beguiled by the glamour of a brand-new ship. He immediately recognises that the Compass Rose has been built in haste, and to a design that allowed for the cutting of many corners. What is most apparent to the trusty old sailor is that the new brand of corvette has been designed without detailed consultation with the men who are likely to have to sail her. Yet Ericson is still excited to be returning to sea in his own boat.
Ericson’s crew also stirs mixed emotions in the Commander. His First Lieutenant is Bennett, an Australian reservist, who is soon revealed as lazy, greedy and an intolerable bully. Ericson is luckier with his two Second Lieutenants, Lockhart and Ferraby. Although both only newly emerged from an all too brief training regime, they are keen to learn, although Ferraby’s lack of confidence leaves him vulnerable to Bennett’s bullying. Lockhart, initially viewed by Ericson with concern as a raucous flaneur, emerges as highly capable and conscientious officer, likely to advance within the service.
Monsarrat draws on his own experience of sailing in Atlantic convoys, and delivers a book that is rich in emotion while never succumbing to mawkish sentiment. He also captures much of the sheer tedium of a sailor’s life, with countless hours of life on board a pitching and rolling boat, forced to remain alert, but with nothing significant to do for most of the time. Of course, that can all change at a moment’s notice, with the convoys that the Compass Rose and its fellow Royal Navy vessels are protecting being constantly under threat of attack from the hordes of German U-boats criss-crossing the ocean. When drama does intervene, it is all-consuming, whether in the form of an attack by a U-Boat or sudden, potentially calamitous mechanical failure.
While there are episodes of high action, the real strength of this book is its depiction of the unremitting strain that war brings, and the diametric contrast between the tedium and routine existence experienced for most of the men’s time at sea, and the sudden transformation to utter horror, brutality and despair when action does finally occur.
4. Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham.*
Much to my father’s chagrin, and despite his and my teachers’ finest efforts, I have no understanding whatsoever of physics, so even the most basic aspects of electricity remain a manifestation of magic to me. Once the words ‘nuclear’ or ‘atomic’ are bandied about, my eyes glaze over, and my attention generally evaporates within seconds. Consequently, on the face of it, a book about a nuclear power station might readily be deemed unlikely to appeal. But this book ran counter to such prophecies, and proved gripping beyond my expectations.
Of course, it is not about just any nuclear power station. The explosion of the fourth reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in April 1986 became one of the defining moments of that decade. Borne by the wind, radiation rapidly spread across much of mainland Europe. The first indications that a major failure had occurred emerged from Scandinavia, where increased radioactivity readings were detected at weather stations and at some Swedish nuclear sites. Indeed, engineers at a couple of Swedish power stations were initially convinced that their own sites might have been responsible for the increased readings. It was only as reports came in from locations across Europe that the source of the contamination was identified. Even so, it took several days before the Soviet Union conceded that an accident had occurred, and even then, adhering to traditions spawned in the Cold War, it strove to conceal the true extent of the disaster.
Some thirty site engineers and fire officers died in the immediate aftermath of the explosion, but the full extent of the impact is difficult to assess. The number of additional cancer patients throughout Kiev could have run into thousands, or even tens of thousands, and the incident is one of only two ever to have been given a rating of seven (the maximum possible) on the International Nuclear Event Scale (the other being the disaster at the Fukushima Power Station in japan in 2011).
Adam Higginbotham’s book gives a detailed account of the events leading up to the disaster and then the steps taken to try to deal with it, interspersed with brief histories of the development of nuclear power, and other previous incidents. Those included the near meltdown of the Three Mile Island site in America in March 1979 (by chilling coincidence, just a month after the release of the film The China Syndrome, about the meltdown of a nuclear power station) and the explosion at Britain’s flagship Windscale Power Station in Cumbria in October 1957 (the full extent of which was not revealed by the British Government until more than thirty years later).
Hubris and folly played a huge part in the lead up to the disaster. Plagued by economic strife, and urgently requiring access to abundant and cheap power to drive its industrial development, the Soviet Union brought nuclear power stations online ahead of its American rivals. It was, however, a victim of its own inflexible administration, and its dependence upon grandiose five-year plans. In a bid to expand the nuclear grid, corners were cut, and avenues of emerging international research ignored. Further difficulties arose from the failure of Soviet technology to advance evenly. While Soviet scientists’ understanding of nuclear science and engineering largely kept pace with tht of their counterparts in the West, they lagged behind when it came to electronics and computing, and the accurate monitoring facilities that they could offer.
But this is also a story of extraordinary heroism from fire fighters. Appliances rushed to Chernobyl from all over Ukraine, initially, and then from the rest of the Soviet Union. They were woefully inadequately equipped to deal with the extremes of heat and fire damage that they encountered, even without the additional danger caused by the effects of radiation. Yet they persisted, for days, trying different approaches to stop the reactor melting down completely, exposing themselves to unknown, perhaps unknowable risks.
Higginbotham keeps the reader’s attention in a vice-like grip. Although he does not shy away from technical descriptions, he has the gift of being able to explain complex principles in an accessible manner, and I found this book utterly fascinating.
5. The Catch by Mick Herron.
Mick Herron’s series of novels revolving around Jackson Lamb and his ‘slow horses’, the team of MI5 officers condemned to see out the rest of their service based in Slough House as punishment for past peccadilloes or momentary lapses of competence, have proved exceptionally successful. He has tapped an extraordinary vein combining humour with tightly-plotted espionage stories, and in Jackson Lamb has created one of the more horrific and grotesque characters of contemporary fiction.
In addition to the six novels in the series, he has also produced three largely overlooked novellas which have provided an intriguing back story that offers significant contextual hinterland to Joe Country, the sixth novel. The Catch is the third of these novellas, and picks up from The Drop, which saw John Bachelor, one of MI5’s weaker brethren, finding refuge in the flat formerly occupied by an old agent whose safety in retirement he had been supervising. Feeling that he had fallen on his feet after a lengthy run of misfortunes, Bachelor is about to have a rude awakening (literally), and find himself plunged back into the focus of the Service’s disfavour. It is difficult to say much more about the story without straying into spoiler territory.
As in the other two novellas, Jackson Lamb does not figure directly, but his shadow, ad that of Slough House, looms large. This book, like the List and The Drop, shows that Herron is adroit with the shorter format, although there is less humour than readers have come to expect from the series. The story is also alarmingly current, with clear references to current news stories.
I've been looking forward to Midnight in Chernobyl, so I'm glad to see your positive review. If you ever feel the need to read one about Fukushima, On the Brink: The Inside Story of Fukushima Daiichi was extremely good.
>16 jfetting: I haven’t seen the television series (yet) but everyone I know who has spoken of it has told me it was marvellous. I shall definitely look out for it.
6. At Risk by Stella Rimington.
This was the first novel by Stella Rimington, retired former Director General of MI5, and introduces Liz Carlyle, the intelligence officer who will go on to be Rimington’s recurring protagonist. In the Author’s note at the end of the book, Rimington acknowledges that some aspects of Carlyle’s character are autobiographical, but urges readers to recognise that the book is fiction, and that there are, of course, limits to what an author, however well informed, can release about procedural issues.
Liz Carlyle is certainly a very empathetic and plausible character. She is also far from prefect, and is as subject to irritability and occasional disdain for colleagues as the rest of us. As the novel opens she is in her early thirties, and working as part of a team monitoring suspected Moslem fundamentalist radicals operating in the United Kingdom. The book was published in 2004, so came in the wake of the 9/11 attack and the subsequent ‘War on Terror’, but preceded the 7/7 attacks in London in 2005.
Rimington develops her plot carefully, following several different characters in turn. Reduced to its barest bones, the story concerns an attempt by a Pakistani man assisted by a disaffected young English woman who converted to Islam a few years earlier and has been thoroughly radicalised, to commit an attack in mainland Britain. The story follows their respective paths to East Anglia, while simultaneously recounting the work of the intelligence services as they pick up hints of a forthcoming attack.
Over the years there have been two separate approaches to the espionage novel. One the one hand, there is the James Bond school of glamour and hi-tech wizardry, although in recent years the more pedestrian approach, founded in shabby reality has predominated. Rimington is sited firmly in the latter school, although she does not plumb the darker recesses of the human psyche to the same extent as, say, John le Carré. She does, however, operate with the same patina of utter credibility. Her plots are, ultimately, rather less exciting than those of Ian Fleming or Desmond Bagley, but are perhaps all the better for that.
This is certainly a strong opening to a new series, and Liz Carlyle emerges as an engaging central character, about whom the reader wants to learn more.
>6 Eyejaybee: - good to read your review Ian. I read this back in 2010 and enjoyed it. While I collected several of the later novels in the series, I haven't quite ever got round to reading them. Stella Rimington visited the department once to give a talk on her career, which was fascinating.
7. The Secret History by Donna Tartt.
Donna Tartt can scarcely be called prolific – 2013 saw the publication of her third novel, The Goldfinch, following a gap of ten years since its predecessor, The Little Friend, and twenty years after The Secret History. She began The Secret History when she was just nineteen, although it wasn’t published for another twelve years. I read it shortly after its publication and thought it was extraordinary. Having just re-read it, I think that to call it ‘extraordinary’ probably falls rather short of the mark! After all, who would have thought that a novel about a group of students studying the Greek and Roman classics could be so gripping?
The story is narrated by Richard Papen, who recounts the events he experienced as a twenty year old student from a modest background in California who had enrolled in Hampden College, an exclusive institution in Vermont (apparently modelled upon Bennington College where Tartt herself studied during the 1980s). After a false start at his first college where he had started to study medicine, he embarks upon a humanities course but transfers to Classics, basically because he has become intrigued (almost to the point of obsession) with a small group of students who stand apart from the rest of the campus. Henry is an extremely erudite, wealthy and rather aloof character who seldom seems aware of his immediate surroundings as he ponders aspects of Greek philosophy. Francis Abernethy comes from a wealthy but dysfunctional family and has become a flamboyant flaneur. Camilla and Charles McCaulay are twins (as the book was published in 1992 there was no particular resonance of that pairing of names!). The group is completed by the intellectually Edmund Corcoran, known as Bunny. Together they study under the unorthodox and inspiring tutor, Julian Morrow, who encourages them to read widely and to immerse themselves in their subject. This encouragement to explore the classical world to the full proves unfortunate as an experiment to recapture the sensations of a Bacchanal go disastrously awry, and tensions within the group reach extreme levels.
Richard Papen is an immensely likeable character, and his financial struggles merely to survive among his generally affluent fellow students are depicted very plausibly. The individual members of the group, and their tutor, are very clearly drawn, and the internal conflicts are all too readily believed.
(Possible spoiler alert - I don't think this really constitutes a spoiler as it covers something that is referred to in the opening sentence of the Prologue of the book, but I thought I had better play safe and mention it.) The novel opens with Richard recalling the discovery of Bunny who ‘had been dead for several weeks’, and it soon becomes clear how he had died, with the bulk of the novel left to cover the reasons why that had to happen. However, although the denouement comes at the start, the tension and excitement of the novel is maintained deftly, and the reader's attention never falters.
Given that Tartt was only nineteen when she started this book, it shows an astonishing blend of classical erudition with a tautly crafted suspense novel with a great deftness of touch. If I were to cavil at all, I might question the means by which Richard manages to access the group. He overhears them discussing the appropriate case to use for a noun, and Richard offers up the locative as a possible solution. I remember encountering the locative case in Latin at school, in what we would now call either Year 10 or Year 11, so it seems a little implausible that a group of supposedly accomplished classical students (and particularly Henry) would be so far adrift. Still, that is a very minor point, and I don’t know how advanced or otherwise the locative might be in ancient Greek. Still, that is scarcely relevant, and didn’t detract from my deep enjoyment at re-reading this marvellous book.
8. Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller.
I don’t know why I didn’t like this book much more than I actually did. It is beautifully written, and tells a cleverly constructed story, but somehow, it never quite came alive for me.
It tells the story of Captain John Lacroix, who returns injured following military service in Spain during the Napoleonic War. He is certainly in a bad way, and takes many days after his ignominious return home (more or less dumped, unconscious, out of a horse-drawn carriage) before he is well enough to walk unaided. He is also reluctant to talk about his experiences, even with a former colleague who calls on him some weeks into his recovery, and brusquely declines to enter into any discussion about when, or even whether, he might return to service. As his strength returns, Lacroix, resolves to visit the Scottish Hebrides, as a form of convalescence and an attempt to restore his equanimity.
Meanwhile, in Spain, a joint Anglo-Spanish commission is reviewing an apparent atrocity in a Spanish village. The men from the village were killed, while the women and girls were captured and raped. One of the witnesses who testifies to the Commission is Corporal Calley, and he is secretly despatched to return to England, accompanied by a Spanish officer, to locate, and then kill, the officer who presided over the outrage, to render punishment while also preventing news of the incident spreading more widely.
Miller has an effective and clear prose style, and has clearly researched the period in great detail, conveying much of the rage, squalor and despair that his characters suffer. His characters are vividly drawn too … and yet, somehow, the book left me cold. Perhaps I am just very difficult to please, or perhaps I was just somehow out of sorts when I read it.
9. Books Do Furnish a Room by Anthony Powell.
This is the tenth volume of Powell's autobiographical epic, A Dance to the Music of Time, and sees his fictional avatar, Nick Jenkins, return once more to civilian life after his service in the Second World War, as chronicled in The Valley of Bones, The Soldier’s Art and The Military Philosophers. However, before resuming his former place in London's literary world, he returns to academia, staying in his old Oxford college while researching the life of Robert Burton, and in particular his classic renaissance volume, The Anatomy of Melancholy. There is a certain poignancy about this choice of subject for Nick Jenkins: while the Dance to the Music of Time sequence has frequently been praised for its humour and piquant observations of life, beneath the jolly carapace the predominant theme is one of cyclical melancholia.
Jenkins’s return to a post-war Oxford offers an opportunity for another encounter with Sillery, one of the principal influences during his time as an undergraduate. Still steeped in his intricate webs of political intrigue and relentless snobbery, underpinned by his particularly delicious form of personal malice, Sillery has been ennobled by the new, post-war Labour administration. Now absolved through age from his academic duties, Sillery remains agog for any snippets of gossip or speculation about life in London, although Jenkins is surprised to learn that his energies are now principally directed to editing his journals for publication.
Jenkins’s spell in Oxford is cut short by news of the sudden death of his brother in law, the socialist peer Lord Warminster (known to friends and family as Erridge). Erridge’s funeral is one of Powell’s set piece masterpieces, with the Tolland family demonstrating all of their own respective foibles while also having to contend with the unexpected appearance of Kenneth Widmerpool (now an ambitious Labour MP), and his wife (femme fatale Pamela, née Flitton), along with J G Quiggin and Gypsy Jones, among others, who had lately been involved with Erridge and, in particular, his plans to fund the launch of a new, left-leaning politico-literary magazine called Fission.
Returned to civilian life and back from his brief hiatus in Oxford, Jenkins now finds himself ‘doing the books’ for Fission, while also struggling to complete his exegesis of Burton, which will eventually be published under the title Borage and Hellebore (named for two herbs identified as prime resources with which to combat melancholia). Working for Fission brings Jenkins back into regular contact with J G Quiggin who has now relinquished his own aspirations as an author and taken instead to publishing. The magazine is edited by Lindsey Bagshaw, known to all his acquaintances as 'Books Do Furnish a Room' Bagshaw, or simply 'Books'. Bagshaw is a veteran journalist and lifelong student of the numerous strains of socialism.
Through Bagshaw, Jenkins also makes the acquaintance X Trapnel, a highly accomplished yet dangerously volatile writer who strides around the icy capital in an old RAF greatcoat while brandishing a swordstick. Trapnel is an aspiring, and talented, writer, but one incapable of engaging constructively with the demands of ordinary life. (It is widely acknowledged that the character of Trapnel was based heavily upon the equally melancholic life of Julian Maclaren-Ross, who promised so much but died regrettably young without ever fulfilling his potential – his tragic combination of literary talent with self-destructive personal habits make him seem like a literary equivalent of George Best, or Alex Higgins)
Jenkins was surprised to find that Kenneth Widmerpool, recently appointed as Parliamentary Private Secretary to a member of the Cabinet, was involved with the magazine both as one of its financial backers and as a regular columnist. In this latter role he churns out wordy pieces espousing the merits of increased cultural and trade links with the Soviet bloc countries. After an inauspicious first encounter with her, Trapnel becomes utterly enchanted by Pamela, Widmerpool's unconventional wife. Pamela has hitherto been a fairly ephemeral character but takes a more prominent role in this volume.
As Jenkins becomes more deeply immersed in Burton's work he sees ever more characteristics of different forms of melancholia among those people with whom he works, and Trapnel in particular. Trapnel does display a certain style, but is ill-equipped for the vicissitudes of post-war London, and the Dickensian winter that shows no sign or thawing. Often very funny this novel is also very closely observed and offers pellucid insight into the difficulties endured by the professional writer.
10. Black City by Boris Akunin.
This was really a rather fatuous book, and I don’t propose to say much about it. In the interests of balance, I should point out that it the latest volume of a long series, and I had not read any of its predecessors, so I acknowledge that I probably lacked a lot of contextual resource. Even given that, however, I still found that it lacked any substance at all. The characters (and Erast Fandorin, the protagonist, in particular) seemed wholly two dimensional, and the plot was contrived beyond any tolerable degree.
11. Who Dares Wins by Dominic Sandbrook*.
Dominic Sandbrook continues his vast history of Great Britain from the 1960s up to the present day. This is the fifth immense volume (weighing in at almost a thousand pages) and extends from Margaret Thatcher’s general election victory in May 1979 until the victorious conclusion of the Falklands War in 1982.
I should say straight away that I am a huge fan of Dominic Sandbrook, and feel that this is his finest book yet, although I recognise that that might simply reflect my greater familiarity with, and recollection of, the events about which he writes. Where he excels is in drawing together, without any semblance of artifice, so many different strands of life. He gives a detailed account of the political issues dominating day to day life, but also sheds light on prevailing trends in entertainment, literature and music, as well as changing aspects to domestic life.
A thousand pages for just three years might seem excessive, but those three years saw almost seismic shifts in British life. Political commentators had expected Prime Minister James Callaghan to call an election during late summer or autumn 1978, but he chose instead to let his tenure run for full term. That proved to be a fatal misjudgement. Not only was he beset by what came to be known as the ‘Winter of Discontent’, with public service unions bringing many elements of daily life to a standstill through concerted industrial action, exacerbated by a particularly harsh winter, but he fell foul of Scottish and Welsh Nationalists.
Callaghan had inherited No. 10 from his predecessor, Harold Wilson, who had stepped down from the premiership in 1976 in response (as we now know, although it was never acknowledged at the time) to signs of the early onset of dementia. Callaghan was a benign and popular figure, and is the only person to have held any four great offices of state (Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary). He is, unfortunately, now generally remembered for having presided over the Winter of Discontent, and for losing the parliamentary confidence vote which led to the May election that brought Mrs Thatcher to power. Wilson has secured a very small majority in the autumn election in 1974, but that had gradually been eroded throughout the course of the parliament, leaving Callaghan dependent upon the support of the small Scottish Nationalist Party and Plaid Cymru cohorts within the House.
It is always tempting (if pointless) to speculate about the ‘What if?’ moments of history. If Callaghan had gone to the country in autumn 1978, as most of the pundits anticipated, would he have won? If so, the whole course of British political history would have been completely different. Mrs Thatcher would almost certainly have been deposed as Conservative leader, perhaps to be replaced by a rival of more moderate views.
It was not just the Winter of Discontent that led to Callaghan’s defeat. On 1 March 1979 voters in both Wales and Scotland voted in respective referenda about the issue of independence. A majority of those voting in Scotland did indeed opt for independence. They did not, however, do so in sufficient numbers to meet the additional criterion insisted upon by Callaghan’s Westminster government, that, as well as a majority of votes actually cast, at least forty per cent of the total electorate in each country had to support independence. On a snowy and painfully cold day, overall turnout in Scotland was too low for the vote to cross that hurdle, and the bid for independence failed. The SNP and Plaid Cymru immediately withdrew their support for Callaghan’s government, rendering it only a matter of time before it succumbed to a vote of confidence. ‘Like turkeys voting for Christmas’, was Callaghan’s verdict, before he bowed to the inevitable and, having lost a crucial confidence vote, fell back upon the whim of the electorate.
Mrs Thatcher is one of the most divisive figures in British political history, but one who is now generally the subject of rampant vituperation. Having just turned sixteen, I was too young to vote in the 1979 election, but contrary to the revisionist view prevalent today, I remember the feeling almost of euphoria when Mrs Thatcher emerged victorious from that election. This was, it is true, more a feeling that change … any change … had to be welcome. Things had been so relentlessly grim over the preceding seven or eight months that any sort of new start was welcome. Of course, no-one would have believed in May 1979 that the Conservatives would remain in power for the next eighteen years, and, as if to prove Santayana’s adage about the cyclical nature of history, there was the same sense of euphoria or relief when Tony Blair’s New Labour finally ousted them.
The Falklands War proved to be the pivotal moment in Margaret Thatcher’s first term as Prime Minister. Indeed, if Argentina had not invaded the Falkland Islands, it is unlikely that she would have secured even a second term, far less a third. The British economy plummeted during her first years as Prime Minister, and unemployment soared, extending beyond three million. Of course, this was particularly ironic given the success of the Conservatives’ election campaign, a key element of which had been billboards showing huge queues outside a Job Centre with the slogan, ‘Labour isn’t working’. Even senior figures within her own party was starting to challenge her approach. During the opening years of her premiership, Britain saw vicious riots spreading throughout the country, in places as far apart as Brixton, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham and Cardiff.
Sandbrook captures all of this and far more, and renders it all very accessibly, and offers some very wry observations along the way.
12. Doctor Slaughter by Paul Theroux.
I don’t propose to spend much time reviewing this utterly lamentable novel as I have already wasted too much valuable time reading it.
I first came across Paul Theroux’s writing when Wilf Massiah, my English teacher at school in what we would now call either Year 8 or Year 9, read us a chapter from his then recently published account of his train journeys traversing both North and South America, The Old Patagonian Express. Theroux has since then carved out his own niche of querulous travelogues, in which he travels throughout an extensive region, often by train, and indulges in a sustained emission of bile. To be fair, I have read and enjoyed several of his accounts of his train odysseys, as much for the unfolding catalogue of his own reading as anything else. The extract from The Old Patagonian Express that my teacher read detailed his frightening experiences attending a football match (indeed, a World Cup qualifying tie) between El Salvador and Nicaragua. The previous such match between the two countries had resulted in them going to war, and Theroux paints the atmosphere in the stadium as similar to one of Dante’s circles of Hell
Theroux has, however, also produced a substantial body of fiction, although it has never proved as popular as his travel writing. It is, however, liberally infected with the same querulousness and general nastiness. In this mercifully short (although still not short enough) book, the principal protagonist is Lauren Slaughter, the doctor of the title, an American academic living in straitened circumstances. She is a particularly unpleasant character, without a single evident redeeming trait, although she is probably the least loathsome figure in the whole book.
At the risk of being castigated for a spoiler (although to my mind Theroux himself spoiled the book by simple dint of writing it), finding herself perpetually hard up and struggling to survive on her pittance of a salary, Doctor Slaughter is persuaded to work as an escort in a Mayfair establishment catering to upper echelons of society (in fact, an Establishment Establishment,) where she becomes embroiled in blackmail-oriented work for an intelligence agency.
All very sleazy, and sadly not redeemed by any linguistic fireworks or deathless prose.
13. A Deadly Habit by Simon Brett.
Simon Brett’s journeyman actor Charles Paris makes a very welcome return. Charles has never ascended to the eights of his profession, and periods of gainful employment have tended to be the exception rather than the rule.
His lack of professional success and achievement has been mirrored in his personal life, and now, nearing sixty (Simon Brett has not followed the approach of writers such as Ian Rankin and Michael Connelly in letting their protagonists age in real time, and Charles has been in his fifties ever since the publication of the earliest novels in the series back in the late 1970s), he is living alone in his bedsit near Paddington, and drinking prodigious amounts of alcohol.
Things may be looking up on one front as Frances, his never-quite-divorced wife seems amenable to a rapprochement as they approach their sixties, but she has insisted that Charles needs to stop drinking. Predictably for anyone familiar with the series, Charles greets this terrifying prospect by getting hideously drunk.
As the novel opens, Charles is in the unusual position of having some lucrative work lined up, and not just any old role. He has been selected for a role in a new play which is set for a three-month run in the West End, and did not even have to audition. The new play stars Julian Glover, an actor of similar age but markedly different career profile to Charles. Indeed, they had worked together more than thirty years ago in a repertory theatre in Dorset, when they had between them played Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (although at this remove neither could remember which was which). Since then, Glover had risen in the profession, starring in several films and securing a leading part in a blockbuster television series in the Game of Thrones genre. For reasons never made clear, Glover had recommended Charles for one of the minor parts in this play.
Rehearsals begin, and the company seems to be coming together fairly well, with no major rifts or friction. As usual, Charles’s first concern is to sort out prospective drinking partners, and despite his hopes of continued rapprochement with Frances, he makes his habitual prospective philanderer’s assessment of the female members of the cast and crew. All is going well until one night towards the end of the rehearsal period, the female lead is found dead at the foot of a staircase, with no indication of whether she had fallen or been pushed. Shortly afterwards, the theatre’s ageing alcoholic doorman is also found dead in a seedy private drinking club. Charles once more finds himself in a theatre company which contains a murderer.
Brett is very accomplished at developing engrossing plots, and adroitly judges the balance between suspense and humour. Charles is as engaging a character as ever, and this book adds another dimension to its predecessors with the reader rooting for Charles to succeed in his struggles over drinking.
All in all, this was very entertaining.
14. Secret Asset by Stella Rimington.
Following the stressful operation detailed in At Risk, MI5 intelligence officer Liz Caryle had been on extended leave. Almost the first message she receives on her return is an urgent communication from one of her agents, who has garnered what seems to be very valuable information about a potential terrorist threat. Meanwhile, she has also been assigned, at the specific request of the Director General, to conduct a covert investigation following evidence suggesting the possibility that a ‘mole’ may have infiltrated the service a few years previously.
Stella Rimington manages the two plot threads very capably, Liz Carlyle is a very plausible character: driven by a fierce integrity, yet sufficiently far from any pinnacle of unassailable rectitude to alienate the readers. Both plotlines are well constructed, and lead to an exciting denouement, but one that never slips beyond reality. Of course, with her own long background in the Intelligence services, no one is better suited to judge how far to push the boundaries of espionage fiction.
This is another sound addition to the spy fiction canon, and establishes Liz Carlyle as one of the leading spyfinders.
15. Erebus: The Story of a Ship by Michael Palin.*
I have to confess to having been completely ignorant of HMS Erebus until reading this book. That is a woeful confession because the ship had two notable, although quite separate, claims to fame.
It, although perhaps by convention I should say ‘she’, was originally commissioned for the Royal Navy following the Napoleonic Wars, with her twin ship HMS Terror. After general service throughout the Mediterranean Sea, Erebus was reconfigured as a research and exploration vessel, with a specific view to sailing through the Antarctic. Her keel and body were strengthened with thick planks of oak, to help it sustain encirclement by pack ice in polar seas.
Their first substantial expedition commenced in 1840 under the captaincy of James Ross, and saw her departing for Tasmania and New Zealand, before venturing deep into the Antarctic Ocean. This was a research expedition, and had a particular emphasis on the establishment of geomagnetic stations at various points around the southern hemisphere. Regulated by the then still fairly new technology of chronometers, these stations would be capable of taking readings simultaneously. There was also, however, a prevailing fascination with the still unexplored Antarctic regions. While probing the pack ice, HMS Erebus sailed further south than any voyage had previously managed.
Following their successful return to Britain, in 1845 Erebus and The Terror were despatched to norther climes, under the command of Sir John Franklin and with crews totalling around 130 men, in an attempt to establish the Northwest Passage. They were now equipped with steam engines (not custom built but, rather, converted from railway locomotives) to complement their full set of sails. This expedition did not mirror the success of the first voyage, and both ships became icebound. They were eventually abandoned by the crew, who tried to make their way south across the ice pack, although none of them survived to make a return to occupied territory. There were encounters with indigenous Inuit hunters, who subsequently claimed that the final remnants of the crew had survived as long as they did by resorting to cannibalism. Forensic examinations of the remains of some members of the expedition that were uncovered during the 1980s appeared to substantiate that claim. They also gave clear evidence that the provisions carried by the two ships were also inadequate, and had in addition been compromised by lead poisoning and botulism. Both ships had been considered to be lost without hope of recovery, until 2014, when a cartographic survey of the Arctic Ocean commissioned by the Canadian government located remains subsequently identified as being from HMS Erebus. Two years later the wreck of HMS Terror was also found.
Michael Palin’s account is very accessible, written with his customary clarity and cheery tone, although he does not allow that to compromise or detract from the integrity of his research. He flags up the delicious irony of one of the senior figures in the expedition, whose role was to record new wildlife, but whose greatest joy seemed to be shooting the various birds that proved foolish enough to fly within musket range. He also peppers the story with references to his own voyages throughout the polar regions.
This is an engaging and informative book, and represents popular history at its best.
16. Melmoth by Sarah Perry.
This has been the most disappointing book I have read so far this year. I hadn’t particularly wanted to read it in the first place having found myself in a minority of one if not liking Ms Perry’s previous novel, The Essex Serpent. (In fact, I couldn’t bring myself to read much more than the opening pages). I had been given a copy of Melmoth, and, with perhaps characteristic ingratitude, had left it to one side.
However, having seen the very effusive reviews of it, I decided to give it a chance, and was very pleasantly surprised by how engrossing the opening sections were. These introduce the principle characters in modern day Prague where Helen Franklin is living in straitened circumstances, earning a meagre living by translating technical documents from German or Czech into English. Despite having lived there for several years, she has made just two friends: Karel, an academic working at the university, and his now-disabled wife Thea.
As the novel opens, Helen encounters Karel in the streets near the university and, obviously disturbed by some upheaval, he passes her a sheaf of documents and asks her to read them, although he warns her that her life will never be the same again.it was at this point that my enchantment withy the story wavered (well, plummeted, really). I found the story within the story to be poorly constructed and simply tedious, and unfortunately it simply served to reconfirm my prejudices from the opening of The Essex Serpent.
17. The Last Detective by Peter Lovesey.
Peter Lovesey has been one of our most prolific writers of high-quality crime fiction. It was as long ago as the 1970s that he embarked upon his series of Victorian mystery novels featuring Sergeant Cribb and his lugubrious sidekick Constable Thackeray. These proved immensely popular and even made their way on to television. Since then he has published a wide selection of books, including a humorous series featuring ‘Bertie’, in which the Prince of Wales solved some mystifying crimes in the later Victorian period, while he went through the lifestyle changes required to leave him fit eventually to succeed to the throne.
The Last Detective, published nearly thirty years ago now, was the first instalment in his longest series, featuring the irascible Superintendent Peter Diamond, formerly of the Met, although by the time we first encounter him he had relocated to Bath. Even back in 1991, before the age of the smartphone and the internet, Peter Diamond seemed to be … indeed, revelled in being … a bit of a dinosaur, preferring tried and tested, old-fashioned approaches to detection, and generally decrying the introduction of, and growing dependency upon, what he feared were merely technology-driven gimmicks. Were Lovesey scores highly is in leaving Diamond open to persuasion on these scores.
The case behind this novel revolves around the discovery, and eventual identification, of the corpse of a beautiful red-haired woman floating in a reservoir on the edge of bath. After various red herrings, the police eventually establish that the body is that of Geraldine Snoo, a television actress who had been best known for portraying a character in a popular soap opera. The dead woman had been married to an academic who had briefly enjoyed a minor burst of local celebrity himself for an act of unpremeditated courage.
Diamond’s patience is tested to the limit, not just by the vagaries of the case, and the oddness of two characters subsequently fingered as potential suspects, but also by his growing dislike, evolving into mistrust, of his senior assistant. Although far from flawless, Diamond manages to evoke great empathy from the reader.
To be honest, on re-reading this novel after so long, I felt that the plot was really rather contrived, but the strength of the characters (and Diamond in particular) rescues the book from failure. This proved to be the first in a lengthy series that is still continuing. Peter Lovesey is now in his eighties, and his most recent novel was published in 2019, featuring Diamond still struggling to curb his fragile temper and marshal his declining patience.
>17 Eyejaybee: - I read this on a trip to Bath a few years ago, and enjoyed it, but I agree the plot was convoluted.
I did finish The Essex Serpent but found it underwhelming (I am one of those sad ones who finish any book they start :( ).
So will give Melmoth a miss, thanks for the tip James and Pam.
18. The Anarchy by William Dalrymple.*
I have recently started a new job as a consequence of which I walk down ‘Clive Steps’ and past the statue of Robert Clive every day. I hadn’t really thought about Clive much. I vaguely remember being taught, rather perfunctorily, about him at school, probably nearly fifty years ago, at a time when today’s sensitivities about imperial aggression and oppression were less prevalent. Then, Clive’s feats in bringing the Indian subcontinent under British rule were seen as heroic, rather than exploitative.
I had certainly never appreciated the extent to which British expansion into India was undertaken by the East India Company. The armies of occupation were primarily despatched and deployed by that commercial leviathan rather than directly by the British state. Of course, some distinctions can be obscured, and British national interests were so closely bound up in those of the East India Company as to become difficult to disaggregate.
Clive’s own experiences are intriguing. Having proved to be a disastrously disruptive element at school, frequently punished for poor performance and dreadful behaviour (including frequent fighting and bullying), he passed into life as a trainee accountant, in which guise he found himself sent east. In the febrile atmosphere of the East India Company’s fractious relationships with local potentates across the subcontinent, Clive came to prominence, emerging as a surprisingly competent military strategist and leader of men.
Corruption and exploitation were endemic, with the East India Company despoiling India on a broad scale as quickly as it could, while prominent figures within the Company siphoned off their own personal fortunes., in fact, Clive did so twice. Having returned from service in India with his first fortune, Clive tried (but failed) to buy his way into politics through the purchase of a rotten borough. He returned to India, and found himself even more successful in his second stint, returning to Britain with a fortune that would now be estimated at several millions. This second foray proved significantly more successful than his first expedition, and Clive was eventually ennobled as the Rt Hon Lord Clive, in which guise he was installed as first British Governor of the Bengal Presidency.
William Dalrymple chronicles Clive’s feats as part of his comprehensive account of the history of the East India Company. This is an impressive, if sobering work, and lays bare the world’s first global corporation. It was formed in 1599 by a group of Elizabethan merchants, eager to establish a means of robust competition with their European counterparts who seemed to have stolen a march on the exploitation of the riches of the East. Within a century, it had established itself as the largest, and most profitable British trading body.
In 2008 the world’s economies were brought to their knees by the near collapse of banks that seemed to have become ‘too big to fail’. The East India Company was an early precursor to that sort of commercial and corporate hubris. Within years of its first trading ventures, its shareholders were so widespread, and so heavily committed, that when the company was threatened with financial disaster, the government had to step in. its reinvestment was soon liberally repaid, but a dangerous precedent had been established, and one that would be repeated on a wider scale nearly three centuries later.
Dalrymple has a pleasing facility for conveying a lot of complex financial material in an open and accessible manner. Although this was not an area of history with which I was at all conversant, Dalrymple’s explanations led me through it painlessly.
19. Why Aren't They Screaming? by Joan Smith.
This book finds Loretta Lawson, lecturer in English Literature at the University of London, ailing from the effects of a sudden attack of glandular fever. Her close friend Bridget Bennett, with whom Loretta solved the mystery recounted in this book’s predecessor, A Masculine Ending, arranges for her to have the use of a cottage owned by Clara Wolstonecroft, another friend, in which to recuperate.
This proposed respite proves to be less than restful. Having travelled to Oxfordshire, Loretta finds that the previous resident of the cottage has stayed on beyond his planned departure date. Loretta spends the night in the landlord’s house, and learns that the property is close to an RAF base which has recently subjected to public protest after planes based there had been involved in an attack on Libya. (The book was written and set in the mid-1980s). Most local residents are opposed to the protest, as the camp plays a major part in the local economy of the area. However, Clara owns much of the land adjacent to the base, and has given the protesters permission to establish their camp there. Emotions in the local area are running high, and Clara’s house is the subject of vandalism on Loretta’s first evening there, and then the protesters’ camp itself is attacked by a group of violent counter-protesters.
Clara confides in Loretta that she believes that she has been subject to excessive observation by the police and intelligence services. Loretta is initially inclined to dismiss this as general paranoia, but stumbles upon her own evidence that Clara might actually be right. Then things escalate to a new level when Clara is found dead, having been shot.
Joan Smith is very adept at building the tension. Loretta Lawson is an eminently reasonable, and completely empathetic, character, and her reactions are readily believable. This novel is now well over thirty years old but has not suffered too drastic an ageing process, although one section, when Loretta is struggling to contact her journalist ex-husband, John Tracey, and leaving messages for him to call her back at various remote places, did make me stop to wonder how we ever managed to get anything done without mobile phones!
>37 pamelad: This was the first book by William Dalrymple that I had read, but I shall definitely now be looking for some of his previous ones.
20. A Spy by Nature by Charles Cumming.
A very entertaining and utterly plausible novel.
The protagonist is Alec Milius, a recent graduate stuck in a job that he despises and suffering from a sense of resentment that the world owes him rather more respect than he has been given so far. Visiting his mother one weekend, he is approached by a man whom he has never met before who claims to have had a vague connection of his late father. It transpires that this man acts as a "spotter" for MI6, looking for potential recruits for the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS).
After attending an initial interview at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Milius is encouraged to apply for a special sitting of the Civil Service Selection Board (the dreaded CSSB - termed "Sisby" throughout the book). This is described in fascinating detail, and seems desperately gruelling, though his experiences there are as nothing to the trials he will subsequently undergo.
Milius is an intriguing character- not particularly likeable, but somehow the reader does end up on his side.
I look forward to reading the other books in the series.
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