Cargo of Eagles



I’m doing some fairly intense research reading at the moment, so I’m interspersing it with something a little lighter for relaxation. As part of that, I’ve just settled into another jag of reading Margery Allingham. First up, because I’m reading these books in no particular order, is Cargo of Eagles, which also happens to be her last book. Or rather, it was the novel she left unfinished when she died in 1966; it was finished by her husband, Youngman Carter, and published in 1968. I believe there were a couple of later books entirely written by Carter, though I’m not sure if these were based on incomplete manuscripts or outlines that Allingham had left.

Cargo of EaglesWhen you know that about a book going in, you find yourself inevitably looking for the join, and in this case I couldn’t spot it. Or rather, there are a number of possibilities, but nothing definite. For a start this is, in any case, late Allingham, and she had by this point gone off the boil somewhat. Campion had grown older (she always set her stories in the present, rather than the past, so she couldn’t revisit early episodes in his career), by now he should be well past retirement age. The closest she comes to acknowledging this is that he is absent for a large part of the story, and the focus is on a younger surrogate, Morty Kelsey. By trying to be contemporary, she makes part of the story about Mods and Rockers, though she doesn’t really get what they were about, and anyway, even in 1968 when the book finally appeared, they must have seemed old hat. And the ending feels both clunky and rushed, as though Campion knew the secret all along, in which case there was no need for the whole fol-de-rol of the story; but then, I’ve felt pretty much the same about other lateish works that I’ve read.

But put that aside, this is another of those little pocket universes that she created throughout her career, as in Traitor’s Purse, for instance, or More Work for the Undertaker. In other words it is a little bit of England that seems to be emotionally and culturally cut off from the rest of the country, the rest of the modern world. In this instance it is Saltey, a little bit of coastal marshland in Essex that isn’t on the way to anywhere. It was once the haunt of smugglers, and still carries on the practice; there’s a local myth of a demon that once caused mayhem throughout the village, and everyone is still happy to carry on believing it; and the families recorded in a centuries-old map are still the prominent families of the area, who have intermarried and and maintained their own particular secrets and rivalries down all the years. This is prime Allingham territory, where the particularities of place tend to outweigh the necessities of contemporary realism.

Into this individual setting, Allingham introduces buried treasure, a famous thief who has just got out of prison after 20 years, a mysterious thug who was once the accomplice of the thief and now seems to be back in the area, poison pen letters, a couple of murders, Mods and Rockers creating mayhem, an unlikely bequest, and Albert Campion on a mission for a shadowy secret service outfit. It all ties together, just about, though to say the pudding had been over-egged would be to underplay quite how much she tries to cram into the plot. And Campion is here more shadowy, less distinct a character than he had been in earlier books, as if Allingham has trouble picturing her aging hero in this particular milieu. Though the magnificent Lugg, more ancient even that Campion though you wouldn’t know it, remains as sharp and vivid as ever.

Yet for what I wanted, it was exactly right. A book I finished in a day, which is practically unheard of for me.


Pennies for the Guy



Further to my post a little while back about Pete Atkin and Clive James, I’ve been playing a lot of their stuff on guitar recently. It’s challenging for a rank amateur like me because Atkin uses a lot of obscure chords and jazzy rhythms. Even so, there is something satisfying in, for instance, the transition from Em9 (020002) to A9 (xx2132) in the first line of “A King at Nightfall”.

But the curious thing about playing the same songs over and over again is that at first you lose the sense of the words because all of your concentration is on the chords. Then, suddenly, the words click back into focus and you start to see them in fresh ways.

The thing is, I’ve known and loved the songs of Atkin and James since I first encountered them in the early 70s. So I’ve got used to thinking of the lyrics simply in terms of their cleverness, their complex wordplay, the mass of cultural references that James jams into so many of the songs. But seeing them anew as I relearn the songs in a different way I’ve realized how slangy James’s writing could be (“Tomorrow’s men who trace you from the field will be in it for the bread”), and more significantly how full of contemporary social observation that is simply taken for granted. So much so that I think some songs would probably be almost incomprehensible to a modern audience without a gloss.

Take, for example, the second verse of “Laughing Boy”:

A kid once asked me in late September for a shilling for the guy
And I looked that little operator in her wheeling-dealing eye
And I tossed a bob with deep respect in her old man’s trilby hat
It seems to me that a man like me could die of things like that

It’s a verse that has always delighted me, and for anyone my age, it’s probably perfectly clear. For anyone half my age? I haven’t seen any kid asking for pennies for the guy for years, probably for decades. So the resonances in this verse are going to be missed.

Bonfire Night is on 5th November (or, more commonly, the closest Saturday to that date). This is a pre-Christian festival of light that was adopted to celebrate the arrest of Guy Fawkes and the prevention of the Gunpowder Plot. The practice was to make a guy, a figure made of old clothes stuffed with straw or something else combustible, which would be burned on top of the bonfire. During the week or two before Bonfire Night, children would take their guy around the neighbourhood collecting pennies for the guy; the pennies would then be used to buy fireworks for the event. That the girl in the song is asking for a shilling (12 pennies), twelve times the going rate, is therefore a sign of her entrepreneurship. And that she is asking for money in September places it around a month ahead of the usual time. (That it’s a girl is possibly also significant: collecting money for the guy was more often associated with boys.)

I tossed a bob (a slang term for shilling) in her old man’s (old man could mean husband or father, in this context it is pretty clearly father) trilby hat. In the late-60s/early 70s when this song was written, men didn’t often wear hats, they had fallen out of fashion, so they tended to be rare and expensive. The girl has probably stolen the hat, and may well, at the end, put it on the head of the guy to be burned.

So in a few lines we learn an awful lot about the characters in the song and about their milieu, but all in terms that have lost their meaning, their social context, over the nearly 50 years since it was written. That sort of particular observation is common in Clive James’s lyrics, but I am suddenly wondering how transparent they might be to a modern audience.

Pisseur de copie


What I like about Muriel Spark is the sheer, take-no-prisoners, don’t-give-a-damn waspishness of her writing. At her best you need gloves to protect yourself from the venom that drips off the page. But you often don’t notice the sting because you are laughing, or at least nodding in recognition.

a far cry from kensingtonAnd nowhere is that more true than in A Far Cry from Kensington. It is not the insult, pisseur de copie, that Spark’s substantial alter ego, Mrs Hawkins, discovers, but the relish with which she repeats it, over and over again, sometimes several times a page.

Was there a real pisseur de copie, a real Hector Bartlett, who once aroused Muriel Spark’s ire? I think so. This novel has the air of something long delayed, a sort of literary revenge porn.

For much of the book, A Far Cry from Kensington, doesn’t read like a novel, but more like a disguised memoir. It is the  recitation of a sequence of incidents, sort-of connected but sort-of unconnected, that link the residents of a Kensington rooming house over a period of months in 1954-5. There is no through plot, but a series of anecdotes about the idiosyncratic characters that Mrs Hawkins works with at two different publishing houses and then at a literary magazine, about the girl in the rooming house who becomes pregnant but won’t reveal the father, about the Polish seamstress who becomes unhinged when she becomes the recipient of poison pen letters, about the medical student who will eventually become Mrs Hawkins’s second husband, about the easy-going woman who owns the rooming house, and so on. And yes, I can imagine Spark, when she was a girl of slender means just starting out in the publishing world, living in such a house, getting to know such people.

The only thread that binds all this together is the character of Hector Bartlett, the third-rate hack, the pisser of copy, who sees women only as figures to be manipulated to his own unjustified glorification. He already has his claws into a successful novelist, Emma Loy, but now he wants to manipulate Mrs Hawkins, to exploit her publishing contacts. When she rebuffs him and, in a moment of inspiration, calls him a pisseur de copie, he needs revenge. So we see how, primarily through Emma Loy, he twice gets Mrs Hawkins fired from her publishing jobs. We learn, after the fact, how he got at the Polish seamstress, pushing a crank remedy that sounds to me like a variation on the orgone box, and in the end probably responsible for the woman’s suicide. We suspect he might be the undeclared father of Isabel’s child.

Recalling all of this from the distance of some 30 years, Mrs Hawkins is now happily married to her medical student, and a successful literary figure in her own right. And Bartlett, whom she encounters one last time in that retreat of the British literary set, Tuscany, is still a pisser of copy.

Oh it is a bitter delight of a novel, crisp and stinging and vivid. This is why I keep reading Muriel Spark.

Brian W. Aldiss


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I have just signed and delivered the contract which means I will be writing a book on Brian Aldiss for the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series.

This will be my third volume on a British science fiction writer, following the Modern Masters of Science Fiction volume on Iain Banks, which came out last year, and the volume on Christopher Priest that I am currently researching for Gylphi. It is also, in its way, the most problematic.

The Iain Banks book was scary, because I had never written a single work of that length before (my previous books had been collections of much shorter essays and reviews). But it was not at all scary in the sense that I knew Iain and liked (most of) his work; also, there was a single coherent narrative thread to follow, which simplified the process a great deal.

The Christopher Priest volume is slightly more problematic. I’ve known Chris a long time (he was my best man when I got married) so there is the issue of retaining a certain distance in what I write. And I am not planning to follow the same basic chronological structure that I did for the Banks book, this volume is meant to be more thematic in approach. In other words I am giving myself a little more of a structural challenge in writing the book, and I won’t really know until I am writing it whether I am up to that challenge.

But Aldiss is different. For a start, I am far more ambivalent about his work. Some of his fiction is, I think, wonderful; some of it, I think, is terrible. This is partly because Aldiss was an inveterate experimenter as a writer, and in the nature of things some experiments fail. He was also, at his peak, far more prolific than either Banks or Priest, and the scattergun technique means that a lot of the work did not hit the target. Yet, at his best he was one of the most important writers in the history of British science fiction, and somehow I have to get that dichotomy across, and explain it.

Also, he was a prickly bugger at the best of times. I remember, once, mildly disagreeing with his notion of the cosy catastrophe, and I received a postcard from him which, in effect, said: why do you hate me so? That was far from being the only such postcard I received. This prickliness, I think, comes across in his extreme ambivalence towards science fiction: he would extol it and decry it at one and the same time; he would encourage others and then try and distance himself from the genre; he would celebrate the crudest, pulpiest sf and then insist on being considered by mainstream standards; he wanted to be down in the gutter and up with the literary establishment all at the same time. I don’t think he ever resolved these contradictions, in his work or in his life. Do I have to resolve them? I certainly have to present them and try to explain them.

And structurally I feel the only way to cover the variety and the contradictions of his work is with something that is half way between the chronological approach of the Banks book and the thematic approach of the Priest book. Which means I have given myself another formal challenge just when I am approaching my most difficult subject yet.

Right now, I am pleased to have this challenge, and I am delighted if a little daunted to have the next two years plotted out for me. But my overwhelming reaction is to wonder: what on earth have I got myself into?

Shadowing the Clarke


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This time last year, I was engaged in the struggle to compile my personal shortlist for the first Arthur C. Clarke Award Shadow Jury. It was an interesting and revealing exercise. I was glad to step down from the Shadow Jury this year only because it is a time-consuming process and time is something I don’t have right now. But in every other respect, I was sorry to go and a part of me is itching to put together a personal shortlist again this year.

So why the hell not? Continue reading



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Iain M. BanksHow can sitting in bed drinking champagne be so exhausting? But last night was exhausting.

It started with the announcement of the BSFA Awards. My default response when I know I’ve been shortlisted for an award is to convince myself that I cannot win. But even so there’s a rogue part of the brain that’s going: maybe, just maybe … And then I saw a tweet. I am slow and clumsy on twitter, can never really make it work for me; so it turned out that Maureen had known the result for about a minute already and was just waiting to see how long it would be before I noticed.

The upshot is, I won. Or, to be more precise, my book, Iain M. Banks (Modern Masters of Science Fiction) published by University of Illinois Press, won. It is now, what, 12 hours since I heard the news and I am still flabbergasted, surprised, delighted.

BSFA AwardFor the record, the full list of winners was:

Best Novel: Nina Allan – The Rift (Titan Books) (I am particularly pleased about this, I have been saying how wonderful this book is ever since I read it.)

Best Shorter Fiction: Anne Charnock – The Enclave (NewCon Press)

Best Non-Fiction: Paul Kincaid – Iain M. Banks (University of Illinois Press)

Best Artwork:
Joint winners:
Jim Burns – Cover for The Ion Raider by Ian Whates (NewCon Press)
Victo Ngai – Illustration for ‘Waiting on a Bright Moon’ by JY Yang (

My heartiest congratulations to all.

Then, less than an hour later, came the announcement of the shortlists for the Hugo Awards, and my book was on the list in the Best Related Work category. I’ve known about this for a week or so, but it was a relief that it was now out in the open (I hate keeping secrets). And coming immediately after winning the BSFA Award it was elating in a way that just learning the news in an official email from the award administrators hadn’t been.

hugo awardYou can see the full list of nominees here, but the shortlist for the Best Related Work is:

Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate, by Zoe Quinn (PublicAffairs)

Iain M. Banks (Modern Masters of Science Fiction), by Paul Kincaid (University of Illinois Press)

A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison, by Nat Segaloff (NESFA Press)

Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler, edited by Alexandra Pierce and Mimi Mondal (Twelfth Planet Press)

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, by Ursula K. Le Guin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Sleeping with Monsters: Readings and Reactions in Science Fiction and Fantasy, by Liz Bourke (Aqueduct Press)

That is some serious opposition (and isn’t it nice to see this curiously hodgepodge category given over entirely to serious critical work). I’m proud to be in this company; let’s celebrate them all.



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Many years ago, not long after Maureen and I had got together, we went up to Edinburgh to visit her friend Moira. At one point, Moira got out a bunch of photographs she had taken while on holiday in Greece some ten years before (in other words, let me be clear, some ten years before I even knew Moira existed). In one photograph, taken on the Acropolis, the central figure, perfectly framed and in sharp focus, striding directly towards the camera, was me.

Somehow, that weird coincidence encapsulates Greece for me. It is a locus made up of coincidences and connections, it is where all things come together.


Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1906–1994), Study for a poster. Tempera on cardboard, 1948. Benaki Museum – Ghika Gallery, Athens. © Benaki Museum 2018.

I first encountered Greece (if that is the right way to put it) through Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, which remains one of the funniest books I know, and also one of the loveliest. This led me inevitably to the work of his brother, Larry, particularly those exquisite travel books, Reflections on a Marine Venus and Bitter Lemons. From Lawrence Durrell I moved on to his friend, Henry Miller, and The Colossus of Marousi, the only one of Miller’s books I’ve been able to read with unalloyed pleasure.

That is one set of connections. Another set sprang also from Durrell, in a way. I developed a taste for travel literature, which I kept up for quite a few years until I OD’d on the stuff while reviewing it for places like The Good Book Guide and British Book News. Along the way I happened upon a book called A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor. When, as a result, I grabbed everything I could by Fermor, it was somehow no surprise that this led me back to Greece. (Although it seems only tangential to my literary discovery of Greece, I also devoured anything on TV relating to the country, such as the 1970s series like The Lotus Eaters and Who Pays the Ferryman?, and of course old films such as the Dirk Bogarde wartime adventure, Ill Met By Moonlight which seemed to be on TV endlessly when I was young. And Bogarde, of course, was playing Paddy Leigh Fermor, though it took me a little while to make that connection.)

In truth, the more I read about Leigh Fermor (and I’ve read biographies and letters and the like) the less I think I would have liked him in person. He was an incurable snob who spent much of his life freeloading on the rich and aristocratic types he fawned over. And yet I find him endlessly fascinating: he wrote like a dream, of course, and he had a genuine and admirable gift for friendship. He seemed to know everyone who was anyone in the postwar world of art and letters, and everyone loved Paddy.

ghika craxton fermor

Niko Ghika, John Craxton, Joan Fermor, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Barbara Ghika

Two of his lifelong friendships were with the Greek painter, Niko Ghika, and the English painter, John Craxton. (To give you a glimpse of what a peculiar world this was, Craxton first went to Greece immediately after the Second World War when he was encouraged to do so by the wife of an ambassador, who then gave him a lift in a bomber. “Of course she did,” Maureen commented, when I pointed this story out to her.) Now this triumvirate is the focus of an exhibition at the British Museum. I will probably write about this exhibition at greater length when I’ve had a chance to absorb the substantial catalogue that goes with it. For now, these are a few initial thoughts.

Although Leigh Fermor was clearly the glue binding this group together, he was strangely absent from this exhibition, or at least he was out of the limelight. He was there in photographs, in quotations from some of his books and articles dotted about the place, but the focus, rightly, was on the magnificent paintings by Ghika and particularly Craxton. Though it was amusing to see a handful of Leigh Fermor’s letters on display, all with “IN HASTE” scrawled across the top; that seemed to be the only way he ever wrote anything.

ghikaGhika’s paintings could be, I think, somewhat disturbing. They were crowded with labyrinthine twists and turns in which the more you looked at them the more you seemed to be lost. But they were overgrown with a profusion of plants and leaves and flowers, a riot of colours, as if they were something out of a Jeff VanderMeer novel. And there, among Ghika’s friends, among the regular visitors to his home on Hydra, was George Katsimbalis, who was Henry Miller’s Colossus of Marousi, which brings us back round to tie in another set of connections.

craxtonBut the work we both fell in love with was by John Craxton. Bold lines, often very few colours, and an incredible vigorous sense of life, especially in the numerous paintings of groups of men around cafe tables or performing Greek dances. I’d seen his work before, since he provided the cover illustrations for all of Leigh Fermor’s books from Mani onwards, but I hadn’t realised this until we got to the exhibition. There is something pivotal in his work, we kept catching echoes of Paul Nash in one direction, Picasso in another, and was there something Ruralist or even possibly Preraphaelite in some individual pictures? Certainly I need to see more of his work.


The Big Book of Grant


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I have several shelves full of books devoted to the American Civil War. They are, almost without exception, big books. If they are not multi-volume works (three, four, even eight volumes is not unusual), they are generally an inch or more thick. There is something about the Civil War that encourages detail and prolixity. Perhaps it is because the Civil War is something that engenders obsession: you don’t read casually about the war, or at least not for long; rather the war encourages a love of the minute, the nuanced, the minute-by-minute, item-by-item precision that fills these books. And that counts not just for the histories of the war, but also for the biographies of its prominent participants. There is no such thing as a thin book on Robert E. Lee or Abraham Lincoln, and most particularly not on Ulysses S. Grant.

grantIn which case, the 1,000+ pages of Ron Chernow’s new biography is par for the course. It’s a good book, in the sense that a good biography should help you see the subject more clearly and understand their life or work more thoroughly. In truth I don’t think I learned anything new from the one-third of the book devoted to the four years of the Civil War; but then, I have, over the years, immersed myself in that conflict pretty thoroughly so it would have been a little unexpected if anything in this part of the book surprised me. But I learned a great deal from the one-third of the book devoted to the eight years he spent as President, and particularly the years after the presidency. For instance, I had not appreciated the extent to which he became a politician only after he left the White House. And though I knew he was gullible all his life when it came to business, the extent to which he was bamboozled by those he trusted is still a shock. Nor had any of my previous reading prepared me for the very gruesome details of the cancer that ate away his tongue and throat.

Moreover, like every book I have ever read about America in the 19th century, it is crammed full of those coincidences and connections that makes it seem that this vast country and huge population must actually have been very small and contained. At one point, Grant’s father worked for John Brown’s father, and indeed worked alongside Brown.

Yet at the same time, it is a frustrating book, a book that annoyed me in several ways. One of the most irritating ways is when it comes to chronology. We live our lives in time, there is a sequence to everything, and though that sequence, A then B then C then …, isn’t the be-all and end-all of things it is important to provide a shape. I don’t want to read a biography that mechanically tells me: first he did this, then he did that, then he did something else. That isn’t a helpful way of understanding a life. But at the same time, I don’t want to read a biography where you are constantly having to stop and ask: hang on, did this come before that? Chernow is rather too prone to letting the chronology get hopelessly mixed up.

Sometimes this is trivial. After leaving the White House Grant embarked on what turned into a world tour. Chernow explains, in sometimes exhaustive detail, how Grant and his party arrived in Liverpool, went on to Manchester, then to London, and then Belgium, Germany, Italy. And then, having got Grant to Italy, he suddenly starts talking about a speech Grant gave in Newcastle. When did this happen? Did Grant travel back from Italy to Britain? Or was this before he went to London? There is no clue. But later, when Grant is cruising the Mediterranean, his itinerary takes him to Italy, and Chernow distinctly implies that this was his only visit to the country. So what, we are suddenly wondering, about that visit after Germany. And so it goes on. If we follow Chernow, that tour seems to have been a remarkable zig-zag affair.

Of course, the exact itinerary of his world tour probably doesn’t matter over much in the grand scheme of things. But there is a similar disregard of chronology in several places during the account of the Civil War. Some of these I identified only because I am pretty thoroughly immersed in the details of that war, but all of them tend to confuse the issue of what happened where and when. And then, during the coverage of Grant’s presidency, we are continually being told that in November he did this, but in July he did that, with no idea whether this was the previous July or the following July, whether one action was the cause or the consequence of the other.

The chronological confusions of the book are a structural problem, but there is also a thematic problem that I found frustrating.

Grant was an alcoholic. Drinking was endemic in the peacetime army that he joined as a young man, and during the years before the Civil War when he consistently failed at every business he attempted, he drank even more. It didn’t take much to get him hopelessly drunk. He drank most when he was bored, or when he was away from his wife, Julia, whom he doted on. He was certainly drunk at several points during the Civil War, but never at moments of action. After the war, when he was more consistently in the presence of his family, he started to master his drinking. During his presidency, and again during his world tour when he was regularly hosted at banquets by the rich and powerful, there are consistent stories that he would turn his wine glass upside down and refuse all drink except water. His epic battle against alcoholism was so successful that at the end of his life, when doctors were regularly prescribing whiskey or brandy to alleviate the pain of his cancer, he was unable to drink the stuff.

Of course, his early drinking was the stuff of legend, and throughout his life his enemies (of whom he had many), his rivals (of whom he had even more), and those who were simply jealous or mischievous, would inevitably spread stories about him being drunk and incapable. Most of these stories were malicious, the vast majority were demonstrably untrue (particularly later in his life), and many of the rest were wildly exaggerated. They damaged him, but not really all that much. Lincoln’s response to stories of Grant’s drinking, when he suggested that they should send a case of Grant’s favourite whiskey to every other general in the army in the hope that it would encourage them to fight as well, seems to have been typical of how most people responded. Certainly, stories of his drinking never seemed to have dulled the lustre of his name in the public eye.

Chernow is, understandably, anxious to get at the truth of Grant’s alcoholism and his victory over it. This is commendable. But it leads him to recount, in often excessive detail, every one of the malicious tales of Grant’s drinking. So much so that at times they overwhelm the narrative. The chapters on the Civil War sometimes seem to spend longer recounting Grant’s battles with drink than they do recounting his battles with the Confederates, even though many (or indeed most) of the battles with drink were entirely fictitious. And after the war, when Grant’s drinking had for the most part stopped, Chernow still regularly halts the narrative in order to give yet another false or at least highly unlikely account of Grant being drunk and incapable. The result is that at times the subject of Grant’s drinking seems to overwhelm everything else, and the falsehoods about his drunkenness take up greater space and gain greater weight than the facts of the case.

Don’t get me wrong, this is an excellent book well worth your time and attention. But the way Grant’s alcoholism, and perhaps even more the stories about his drinking, are handled tends to overbalance the book somewhat. And Chernow’s problems with chronology, an issue oddly common in rather too many biographies, is something I find particularly irritating.



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Every year around this time I have a debate with myself about whether I should retire as a juror on the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. I’ve been doing it for ten years now, which is long enough. It’s a time-consuming job (we’ve had over 100 books submitted this year, and there are a few more I’m hoping to see come in, and I am not a very fast reader), and when I’m supposed to be working on something, like the Priest book that I should be researching, it can be very difficult to find that time. It is also a dispiriting job; there are so many bad books out there, there are times ploughing through another pile of submissions when I wonder what is the point of science fiction any more. Yet it can also be exhilarating, when you happen upon a book that really is fresh and intelligent and exciting that you otherwise would probably not have encountered. A couple of years ago, when the prize went to Radiomen by Eleanor Lerman, was like that, and a couple of years before that when we gave the award to Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux. These few gems really are wonderful compensation, and I am grateful to have encountered them, but do they make up for everything else? That is what I find myself trying to decide.

The problem is sorting out the ones that deserve attention from the rest. The first submissions tend to arrive early in January (I’m sure it used to be earlier, but that’s what it has been for the last couple of years at least) and we need to have made our decision by the beginning of May. This means that the judging process is largely squeezed into a three-month period from mid-January to mid-April. Anyone who sees my annual account of the year’s reading that I post around New Year on this blog will know that I struggle to read 60 or 70 books per year, so how do I cope with reading 100 books in a quarter of that time? The answer is: I don’t.

Time for some cold hard facts about the judging process. This is not some romantic enterprise in which we’re all setting out to find good in everything, we’re not giving books the benefit of the doubt until we come across that aside half-way down page 265 that makes the heart sing. If the heart hasn’t been singing long before then, it’s already out of the reckoning. We’re not looking to find the good in the book; we’re expecting the book to tell us how exceptional it is. We know we’ll be lucky if we find two or three books out of the hundred we receive that truly are exceptional, and with each book we’re saying: prove to me that you are worth my time. And if the book can’t prove it, well, sorry, but there’s another book waiting for my attention. If you’ve ever seen M*A*S*H, then you know that scene where new wounded arrive and the surgeons descend on the bodies like carrion crows. In seconds they are making decisions: prep this one for surgery, this one can wait, this one’s too far gone already. That is rather how judging a literary award feels to me from the inside. It’s not exactly life or death decisions that we’re making, but we are using our experience and our judgement to make snap decisions about which books are going to be worth our attention.

How do we make that decision? The first thing to realise is that it is never one thing. For a start there are seven of us on the jury, we all have different approaches to the task, we are all looking for different things, we all have different responses to what does or doesn’t make a book work. The particulars that will inform my decision may well seem irrelevant to the other judges, and vice versa. That’s part of the strength of the system; if a book comes through all of that and still wins the approval of the jury as a whole, it’s going to have something going for it. On the other hand …

Judging is a collegiate business. During the months we are engaged in this process, we are frantically exchanging emails: what do you make of this, has anyone else read that, this is my take on such-and-such. If a couple of my fellow jurors say X is a bad book, then X is going to slip down your reading list because it’s unlikely it will garner the strength of support needed to put it in contention for the prize. Similarly, if a couple of my fellow jurors say Y is surprisingly good, then I’m likely to pay it more careful attention because it could be a contender. That’s what happened with Lerman’s Radiomen, which I initially thought didn’t look too promising until another juror said how good it was and it made me look again.

Sometimes, eliminating books from consideration can be quite easy. The Campbell is an award for Best Novel, so the three collections of short stories that were submitted this year were never seriously in contention.

The Campbell is also an award for science fiction. Now my definition of science fiction tends to be catholic and fluid, but for the sake of the award I tend to work to a narrower definition in line with the views of some of my fellow jurors. Suffice it to say that if we are presented with magic, dragons, and quests among pseudo-medieval kingdoms, the author is going to have to work hard to convince me that it is not fantasy. There were quite a few books this year that really didn’t work that hard.

After that, it becomes more of a judgement call; but that, after all, is what this is all about. I tend to read the first chapter or so, then flick ahead to read a few pages around the middle of the book. What I’m looking for is something that engages my attention, that makes me want to read the whole book. So far this year, and I still have a fair bit of reading ahead of me, I’ve read eight of the submissions through from beginning to end. That is actually a much higher total than usual, because it means that eight books are in contention so far as I am concerned. There are others where I read maybe half way through before deciding it wasn’t working as well as I would like. But the majority of the submissions don’t get that far, inevitably so, because judging is, after all, a process of elimination. (In my more fanciful moments, I think the term is not elimination but sculpting: you are presented with a block of literature, and your job is to chip away until you get at the wonderful figure within the heart of the block.)

What is it that makes me put a book down, that makes me decide I don’t see this as a contender for the award? Put simply: I am reading for pleasure, and therefore I am looking for a book that gives me pleasure; and I am reading science fiction, therefore I am looking for a book that does what I think the best science fiction should do. For the record, I think the best science fiction should make us see the world anew, should challenge our preconceptions, should encourage us to think afresh.

So, if the book I pick up has dull, pedestrian prose, it will not give me pleasure, and so is put aside.

If a book I am reading fails to excite me with a new vision of what science fiction can achieve, I put it aside. This can take many forms. If a book is volume umpteen in a series, the chances are that any novelty would have come in the first volume or two, and by now the best we can expect is that it features a moderately fresh exploration of a basic scenario that is already very familiar. This is part of the nature of series: if fans want to keep reading volume after volume, it is likely because they want to reacquaint themselves with familiar characters and return to a familiar world. It is not impossible for later volumes in a series to catch our eye, Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson, the second volume in his Fractured Europe sequence, and Evening’s Empires by Paul McAuley, the fourth book in his Quiet War sequence, both made our shortlist precisely because we felt they had moved things in a new direction. But this is not common, in general the greatest innovation comes at the start of the sequence.

Then there is a trend that seems to be becoming more common in sf, by which modern writers revisit and try to recreate the worlds of sf from a previous generation. Technically, I find this an interesting exercise, but I am very unlikely to consider such works as contenders for the prize. Their whole raison d’etre is to turn back to an older form of science fiction, so they are, almost by definition, not innovating.

Of course, it’s not necessary to try to relive the Golden Age or write an endless series to avoid innovation. Science fiction is full of cliches, and they crop up with alarming regularity. Frankly, when I’m reading for the Campbell Award, the moment I start thinking I’ve read this before, I close the book, unless the author has somehow already convinced me that they are capable of subverting or reinventing the familiar. Few of them are, because, to be honest, that’s not where the money is. It is easier to pick up sales by promising more of what we know you already like than it is to offer something you’ve never read before. But it is the outliers, the ones who do carve out a new territory, that I am most interested in. Again, it is not impossible to catch my attention with work that occupies familiar territory. This year, for instance, I was engaged enough to read all the way through The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt because I felt he was at least trying to edge away from the cliches of space opera, and while the surface plot of Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas was the sort of extended chase-capture-escape sequence we’ve all seen far too many times before, the complex underlying political character of the world felt distinctive and interesting.

There are, inevitably, prejudices involved here. How could there not be; we all have prejudices, we all have things we like and things we don’t like. For my part, I do not particularly like military sf or steampunk, so those types of book have to work extra hard to hold my attention. As I say, not impossible (Linda Nagata’s The Red, for instance), but vanishingly rare. And I have started to develop an intense dislike of any book in which the heroine is described as “kickass”. What this tends to mean is that the only thing to distinguish the heroine from a brutish, heavy-drinking, hard fighting male is the pronoun used, as if this were some gigantic victory for feminism. Prejudice, I know, though I have yet to read any novel with the word “kickass” emblazoned somewhere on the cover in which I could not substitute the word “he” for “she” throughout and notice no significant difference. But that, of course, is why we have a panel of jurors; they hopefully compensate for my prejudices as I compensate for theirs.

The thing is, we are not reading to hate books. We are genuinely searching for the book that stands out above all others. But that can only be one book out of the hundred or so we receive, so a large part of the task is finding reasons to eliminate books along the way.

The trouble is that with too many of the books, that elimination is too easy. When you spend your days picking up and discarding, picking up and discarding, books that are dull, repetitive, uninventive, the whole exercise becomes dispiriting. Has science fiction really come to this? Alas, for too many people too much of the time, the answer is yes. And so I start to ask myself: do I really want to keep on doing this? Is it time to call it a day?

I must go on. I can’t go on. I go on.



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loose canonLoose Canon by Ian Shircore is essentially a poor man’s version of Revolution in the Head by Ian Macdonald for the songs of Pete Atkin and Clive James. It’s a good book, don’t get me wrong, and I learned a lot from it. It has to be essential reading for any fan of perhaps the finest songwriting team of the late twentieth century, if only because of the dearth of other material. But it is a partial book, it doesn’t even pretend to cover all of their songs, and many of my favourite Atkin/James songs (A King at Nightfall, Driving Through Mythical America, The Prince of Aquitaine) aren’t even mentioned, and while there’s a lot of good stuff in Shircore’s book about the tropes and themes that recur in the songs, some of those themes, such as James’s habit of filtering the world through references to often obscure Hollywood films, do not get the depth of analysis I think they deserve. So here are a few other things about the music of Pete Atkin and Clive James.

driving through mythical americaI don’t remember how I came across them. Their music seems to have been an intimate part of my entire life, and in such circumstances there are no real beginnings. The first album I got was Driving Through Mythical America, which I must have picked up back in 1971 or 72 soon after it came out. I don’t know what the impetus was that made me pick it up, perhaps a song on the radio, but it was surely my happiest musical discovery. I only ever saw them perform live once, in 2005 (so long ago?) in Canterbury, two old men who had recently started performing together again after more than 20 years out of the business. I don’t know what I was expecting, but the reality was better, it was mesmerising. The songs hold up better than anything else from that era. In interviews, Clive James has said he is prouder of his songwriting than his poetry; I understand the feeling, but what makes the songs so good is that they are written with a poetic rather than a lyrical sensibility. Sometimes this shows through, as in Girl On The Train, for instance, in which “mouth” is rhymed with “earth”, a rhyme which works visually on the page but not vocally, but this is a rare exception.

a king at nightfallThe words were always written first, then Pete Atkin would spend days, sometimes weeks or even longer fitting music to them. In part because he sings with such clear diction that every word is always crystal clear, and because the music showcases the lyrics so well, I always used to think of Atkin’s music as fairly simple. It was only when I started trying to play it on guitar that I realised just how richly complex his music is. He uses a lot of complex chords that aren’t common in popular music, a lot of 9th chords, for instance (the shift between Em9 and A9 in A King At Nightfall, or the C9, F9, D9 progression in All The Dead Were Strangers, and Thirty Year Man has a G13b9 chord that I still haven’t worked out); and the rhythms vary constantly, from the jazzy C-Bb-C-Bb opening of Thirty Year Man to the more folky strum of Beware Of The Beautiful Stranger. There’s a fairly straightforward illustration of how adept Atkin was in mastering different musical styles in their 6th (and for a long time their last) album, Live Libel, which contains effortless parodies of about a dozen different forms of popular music, from country to heavy metal. It is not a great album – Atkin and James weren’t popular with the label because they simply weren’t producing the hits that were expected, and this was an openly derisory effort to complete and get out of their contract – but it is instructive in its way, and at times quite funny.

Why they didn’t break through to a mass audience is, of course, one of the great mysteries. They began writing songs as undergraduates at Cambridge, and there is always an edge of undergraduate cleverness about their stuff, but were they too clever? Yet at pretty much the same time Leonard Cohen was being equally clever in his lyrics. Was it the jazz infusion that Atkin brought into so many of the songs? But Joni Mitchell was being jazzy and popular at the same time. They had devoted fans, including people like John Peel, but it never translated into high sales.

My own theory was that the mood of the songs was at odds with what people wanted from popular song. The overwhelming mood evoked by their early albums is pathos: they were songs about failure, death, loss, often comic in effect but pathetic nevertheless. There were, for instance, no straightforward love songs. If there are love songs, it is about unrequited love for another man’s wife:

Another night I bring the flowers and the wine
Has slipped away

There were only three to dine
And two to stay

Or the object of affection doesn’t even notice the hopeless swain:

Apart from the chance of the driver accepting a cheque
For crashing his loco so I could be brave in the wreck
To boldly encounter this creature was not in my power
So my heart mended and broke in the course of an hour.

beware of the beautiful strangerJames’s heroes can can look forward only to an endless stream of broken relationships, as the character granted the chance to see his future mistress in a crystal ball:

“Hello there” she said with her hand to her brow
“I’m the one you’ll meet after the one you know now
There’s no room inside here to show you us all
But behind me the queue stretches right down the hall
For the damned there is always a stranger
There is always a beautiful stranger”

And this wasn’t just a characteristic of James’s writing; one of only two songs that Pete Atkin wrote the lyrics for concludes:

All I ever did while you were here was done for you
Now through my tears I’m asking why
All you ever said was goodbye.

And it is not just love that is imbued with this fatalistic tone. There are any number of songs about death and defeat:

You spun the crown away into a ditch
And saw the water close
The army that you fed now feeds the crows
A king at nightfall

So yesterday they left me on the ice
I could barely lift my head to watch them go
The sky was white, my eyes grew full of snow
And what thing reached me first, bears or the weather,
I just don’t know.

Even a song about the dignity of labour, an expression of the left-wing sensibility that comes out in so many of James’s lyrics, turns into a song about a funeral:

He was generally respected, and the proof
Was a line of hired Humbers tagging quietly behind
A fat Austin Princess with carnations on the roof.

And one of the most syntactically convoluted sentences in popular song also ends in death:

When on the outskirts of the town
Comes bumping cavernously down
Out of the brick gateway
From the faded mansion on the hill
The out-of-date black Cadillac
With the old man crumpled in the back
That time has not yet found the time to kill.

[In a parenthetical aside: you go to the web sites of singers and songwriters and you will find the chords for their songs all very carefully transcribed. It’s a valuable resource for those of us learning guitar. But I wish they were as careful transcribing the lyrics. The transcription of The Faded Mansion On The Hill, for instance, has a line that the web site tells us is “The cemetery of home”, but the sense of the lyrics, common sense and a casual listen to the song will tell us this is really “The cemetery of hope”. There’s something similar on Al Stewart’s site, where the lyrics as given insist that the final verse of Electric Los Angeles Sunset includes the line “Movie queens diffuse into a cinerama haze”, where sense, internal rhymes and a listen will tell us the real line is “Movie queues diffuse into a cinerama haze”. And these people are supposed to be listening carefully to what is going on.]

Back to The Faded Mansion On The Hill, which appeared on the 1971 album Driving Through Mythical America, and I am convinced that the passage I quoted is a direct reference to the Stacy Keach character in Robert Altman’s 1970 film, Brewster McCloud. This, of course, is perfectly in keeping with James’s interest in the cinema, which would pretty soon translate into a film reviewing spot on TV where he would first come to popular attention. Film references constantly crop up in his work, most interestingly, to my ears, in Driving Through Mythical America.

This, again from 1971, is a direct response to the shootings at Kent State University:

Four students never knew that this was it
There isn’t much a target needs to know
Already Babyface had made the hit
And Rosebud was upended in the snow

America is not a real place, but a melange of film references. The real urgent moral and political purpose that got the four students at Kent State killed is overwhelmed by the pretend America that is created by a diet of Hollywood movies.

Movie metaphors recur constantly throughout James’s work:

Through screens of memory you leave me
Smile on the screen behind
And then the screen behind the screen behind the screen
But nothing alters what has been
Nor do my eyes deceive me

Or again:

And I’ve seen the Maltese Falcon falling moulting to the street
He was caught by Queen Christina who was Following the Fleet
And Scarface found the Sleep was even Bigger than the Heat
When he hit the Yellowbrick Road to where the Grapes of Wrath are sweet

The problem with an exercise like this is that there is no limit. Clive James’s lyrics are so meaty you want to keep quoting them, in fact you want to cite the complete lyrics of every song, simply because they are so good, and because there is such intimate connection within the lyrics that the whole is always more than the sum of its parts. Of course there are problems, one of the things that makes the lyrics so alive is that they are of the moment as much as they are timeless. Would a reference to duty-free allowances in The Prince of Aquitaine –

I have brought them all the plunder of the international jets
An envelope of sugar and two hundred cigarettes

– require an explanatory footnote nowadays? Is a line like this, in A King At Nightfall –

Tomorrow’s men who trace you from the field
Will be in it for the bread
There’ll be a price on your anointed head

– sound too slangy to a modern ear?And yet the songs work for me, probably better than any others. They make me laugh, they make me wonder; at times the writing is extraordinarily beautiful, at other times it is delightfully colloquial. I keep playing them over, on my music system, on my guitar, or just in my head. They do what the very best songs are supposed to do.