Way back in the late-1970s (coincidentally, about the time I was myself starting, hesitantly and awkwardly, to write book reviews) Phil Stephenson-Payne persuaded the BSFA to run his personal review zine as a sort of adjunct to the BSFA’s own critical magazine, Vector. Even though it was published under the auspices of the BSFA, Stephenson-Payne still seemed to regard the tweely-named Paperback Parlour as his own personal fanzine. One copy reached me with a scrawled note asking to exchange it for a copy of my own fanzine at the time.
Around the end of the decade, the BSFA seem to have decided to take the fanzine entirely in-house. Paperback Parlour acquired a new editor, Joseph Nicholas, and a new, more aggressive, title, Paperback Inferno (this was, remember, the heyday of the so-called KTF – Kill The Fuckers – school of fanzine reviewing). In that form, Paperback Inferno, first under Nicholas and later under Andy Sawyer, lasted well into the 1990s before it was reabsorbed into Vector.
The other day, sorting through some old boxes, I came across my stash of old Paperback Infernos. It was a curious and not always comfortable experience to leaf through them. There were a number of my reviews in there, of course, but fewer than I remember. And there are books I reviewed, and even authors, of whom I have no memory whatsoever – Joan Cox? Russell M. Griffin? – and even reviews of books I would have sworn, if asked, that I had never read.
At various times during the sporadic lifetime of this blog I have used it to republish old reviews of mine, specifically those that otherwise had no online existence. So the obvious question to ask myself when I rediscovered these ancient reviews was whether I should republish them here. And in the vast majority of cases the equally obvious answer was: no. Paperback Inferno was never a venue for the long and thoughtful consideration, most of the reviews were around 200-300 words, and to be honest have no lasting interest, even to me. But one or two longer pieces did appear, including the one I’ve republished below.
Please note, I make no great claims for this review as a review. There are places where I winced at how poorly written it is, the prose is often clumsy and the critical analysis I would do very differently were I to approach the same book today. And yet, from a personal historical point of view, it is interesting, to me at least.
It appeared in the August 1983 issue of Paperback Inferno, that is just over five years after my very first review was published in the January 1978 issue of Vector. In those five years, practically everything I wrote was around the 400-500 word mark, often less. But this review is over 1,100 words, twice the length of anything I had written to that point. Was I making a point, proving to myself that I could write at greater length? I don’t know. I have no memory of writing this review, and if asked I would have said it was some years after this that I started writing longer reviews. There are two clues I can draw from this review. The first is that I bought the book in hardback when it first appeared in 1976, and read it straight away. It was the book that introduced me to the work of John Banville, and I have been a devoted fan of his work ever since. I don’t know if there was a (belated) paperback edition in 1983, but the re-read I mention in the first sentence of the review would have been of the hardback. The second clue is that I make a repeated point of saying that the novel is not science fiction (looking back now I recall that at around this time, the late-70s and early-80s, there was a lot of mainstream historical fiction that dealt with scientific subjects, fiction about science if not science fiction, but curiously I make no mention of this in the review). It is, therefore, a very early iteration of my continued interest in the borderlands rather than the heartlands of science fiction. It is strange and oddly satisfying to see this theme, this interest, crop up so early in what I laughingly call my career. But that means it is not a review that is likely to have been commissioned; it is, therefore, something I wrote on spec, out of my enthusiasm for the book. Which may be why I felt called upon, and able, to go on at such length.
The book (have I not mentioned it up to now?) is Kepler by John Banville, one of my favourite novels by one of my favourite novelists. This review does not do it justice, just as it doesn’t really do me justice, but it is interesting to see how early the seeds were planted.
A mischievous thought occurred to me as I was rereading Kepler: is it science fiction? It is, after all, fiction about science. Indeed, so central is the science that without it there would be to fiction. Yet I cannot see SF fans welcoming it to the hallowed ground of the ghetto. However, no one should miss this book simply because it doesn’t fit into some favoured pigeonhole.
Kepler is a book that defies categorisation. It is not, of course, science fiction. In SF, the “science” element provides the setting for the fiction; in Kepler, the science forms part of the plot, and even the characterisation. But nor does it conform to the usual pattern of an historical novel. It is, I suppose, a form of fictionalised biography, but though it gives a remarkably vivid portrait of Kepler, no one should turn to it expecting to find the facts of his life on neat and unambiguous display.
In fact, the overall success of the book is made up of a host of successes in many different areas. To attempt to pigeonhole it in any way would be impossible. One of the reasons I take such delight in it is that it crosses all borders with such insouciant ease and to such devastating effect. Banville, in other words, has written a fine novel about science; an atmospheric novel about a particularly dramatic period in history; a sharply perceptive novel of character – and they are all together in this one book.
At its heart, of course, is Johannes Kepler. It may seem an easy thing to take a real person and put him in a novel, but many good writers have come a cropper doing just that. The known facts about a person’s life and career, the imposed chronology of recorded events, can rob the author of the creative impetus necessary to bring the character to life. It is a measure of Banville’s achievement, therefore, that he has not only managed to breathe life into his Kepler but also made him one of the most vivid characters I have encountered in any novel.
Truth to tell, I don’t think I would have liked to have known Banville’s Kepler: he is sickly, obsessive, self-centred, tactless, weak, obstinate, proud, brilliant; yet he commands our attention and sympathy throughout the book. He feels that anyone who does not support him has betrayed him, yet we are made to feel, too, that he deserved much more support than he got. He has an inflated sense of his own worth, boasting that he will solve the problem of the orbit of Mars in just seven days; yet when, seven years later, he does solve this tricky problem he not only reveals his true genius but also revolutionises our world-view. He is a mass of contradictions, but we are shown how the many facets of his character relate to each other and add up to one all too human man.
Banville has a special ability to create character and is unstinting with it. Many of the secondary characters are nearly as vivid as Kepler himself: Barbara, his wife, who nags him and has no real comprehension of his work; his infuriating mother, who dabbles in witchcraft; and above all the gross, Falstaffian figure of Tycho Brahe. Nevertheless, it is Kepler himself who holds the book together, and it is through him that Banville manages what I consider to be the most remarkable achievement of the book: he makes clear the nature of Kepler’s discoveries and the scale of his achievement, he fits the discoveries into the pattern of contemporary belief, and he conveys the excitement of the discoveries.
Science rarely fares well in the hands of novelists. Theory, and the patient sifting of minutiae that form such an important part of scientific method, do not make for great drama, and on the few occasions when they do appear in fiction they tend to be passed over quickly or else are just plain dull. That is not the case here. My knowledge of and interest in science is virtually non-existent, yet throughout the book I had no difficulty in understanding the development of Kepler’s ideas and found myself as excited as he at each new discovery.
Banville is able to do this because by showing each step in the process in the context of contemporary belief he is able to set up a conflict. Right from the start, we are shown that the impulse driving Kepler to study the stars is a search for order and harmony in a world and a life that are far from orderly and harmonious. In this, Banville recreates with masterly brevity a very convincing picture of daily life in Europe at the time of the Thirty Years War. Kepler’s quest for harmony leads him to posit the idea that the intervals between the planets correspond to the sequence of regular shapes – triangle, square, pentagon, and so on. The neatness and elegance of this theory so entrances Kepler that his later and major discovery that the planets follow elliptical rather than circular paths conflicts dramatically with his earlier and favoured belief.
The whole is presented in a rich and pleasing prose that is absolutely littered with fresh and delightful metaphors. There is a studied disregard for chronology, sending the story off on flashback after flashback, and flashbacks within flashbacks, which enable the sense of the character to be conveyed far better than any mere record of events. There are even audacious little stylistic tricks that work surprisingly well, far better than they have any right to. Around the middle of the novel, Banville suddenly presents us with a series of letters from Kepler to a variety of correspondents covering some seven years. Then he balances this with a second series of letters, in reverse chronological order, from Kepler to those same correspondents. In each case it is obvious that. Kepler has received a letter in the interim, and the pairs of letters neatly present different sides of his character, by turns braggadocio and injured pride, confidence and uncertainty, anger and hurt. It is a remarkably effective device.
One other aspect of this diverse and hugely enjoyable novel should not be overlooked: its humour. There is a constant thread of comedy running through the book, in the situations, the characters, the dialogue, and in the occasional joke that Banville slips in. I particularly enjoyed the way, towards the end, he suddenly and very briefly introduces two Scandinavian relatives of Tycho Brahe, “Holger Rosenkrands the statesman’s son and the Norwegian Axel Gyldenstjern”, who invite Kepler to join them on their mission to England. Perhaps wisely, he declines.
Kepler is a novel that cannot be accurately or conveniently summed up in one slick phrase. But it is a novel that sets out to be many things and succeeds in just about all of them. I hold little hope for anyone who. cannot find something to enjoy in it.
For the few brief, interminable weeks between the last of our A-Level exams and the end of the school year, we were still required to go into school every day. There was nothing for us to do, no lessons, no activities, but we were there. We spent our lunchtimes at the local pub, where the teachers discretely ignored us except to maybe tap a watch when it was time to get back to school. Other than that, I spent most of my time in the school library, reading. That was when I first read The Lord of the Rings. More importantly, because our history teacher had once told us Plato’s allegory of the cave, that was when I decided to read Plato. I read several of the Penguin Classics at that time, starting with the collection of short dialogues gathered as The Last Days of Socrates. It changed my life.
I had already been applying to universities to study history, but when I got to the New University of Ulster I found that I was able to take one or two modules in a different subject. So, with Plato still fresh in my mind, I took Introductory Philosophy. This turned out to be a brisk canter through epistemology from Descartes, via Locke and Russell, to Wittgenstein and analytical philosophy. Even before the end of the module I’d applied to change my major to philosophy. Not possible, I’d already done too much history, but I could do a joint degree in philosophy and history.
This was the early 70s, the emphasis, certainly at NUU and at Warwick where I did a postgrad year, was heavily on Anglo-Saxon philosophy, notably empiricism and particularly linguistic philosophy from the later Wittgenstein. I did some courses on ethics, which I found interesting but oddly unsatisfying, and formal logic which I enjoyed but having never been a mathematician the closer the two disciplines converged the more I was out of my depth. But my real interest, and the dominant line of thought at both universities, was around the old questions: what is real, what is true, how do we know there’s a world out there, what do we mean by …
All of this was enduringly fascinating, and almost entirely anglophone: I read Ayer and Russell and Austen and Peirce and Quine and Kuhn and Popper, with brief asides to Frege and Carnap, but most of all I read Wittgenstein. The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus blew me away, and then I discovered Philosophical Investigations which came to dominate my thinking in ways I never anticipated. What was then rather airily dismissed as “Continental Philosophy” practically never crossed my horizon. Kant’s Prolegomena came into one of my ethics classes, and I did a course on the Critique of Pure Reason (the margins in my copy of the book are filled with tiny pencil scribbles pointing out how wrong Kant was), but other than that, nothing. Once or twice, in the university library or bookstore, I would glance at one or other of the great tomes of continental philosophy, Being and Time or Being and Nothingness, but invariably gave up within a page or two. I did not then, and do not now, have a great deal of patience for metaphysics, and those books struck me as unreadable nonsense.
The one bit of continental philosophy we were aware of was the Vienna Circle, though we knew of them en masse rather than individually. It was years later before I discovered, for example, that Carnap was a member of the Circle, and that Gödel was associated with them. What the Vienna Circle actually thought we encountered almost entirely through A.J. Ayer, not the most reliable of sources. And though they regarded their own work as logical empiricism (which would have made their work a pretty good fit for my own interests), they were termed, largely thanks to Ayer, I suspect, logical positivists. Let’s face it, simple positivism is a fairly easy position to undermine, particularly when you’ve encountered Popper’s falsifiability.
My tutor at Warwick was Susan Haack, even then a very big name in logic, and at one point I produced an essay for her which she regarded as so good she was going to footnote it in her next book. (Did she do so? I’ve no idea, I never saw that book.) Unfortunately the external examiner wasn’t of like mind (for reasons I’ve long suspected might be partly political) so I missed out on the MA by a whisker, and at that point left philosophy behind me. Or I thought I did, at least I stopped keeping up with the subject. But at this time I was already into science fiction, and I wrote what would have been my first piece for a fanzine about Samuel R. Delany’s Triton. It wasn’t used, but in the next issue of the fanzine the editor included a note which rather dismissively said that he’d received a review of Triton which said it was all about philosophy. I don’t think that’s actually what I said, but the piece has long since vanished so I can’t be sure. But the editor’s response made me think, for the first time, that philosophy and reviewing weren’t actually all that far apart. So when I did seriously start writing reviews a year or so later, I found my years of study had a use after all.
If I thought I had left philosophy behind, it would also be true to say that philosophy hadn’t actually left me behind. I kept encountering bits of philosophy all over the place, often in reviews or essays in the TLS or LRB, and I also kept recognising echoes of the philosophy I had learned peeping out of the things I wrote. But I wasn’t actually reading philosophy.
Except that a few years ago I came across a book called The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand. Nowadays, we’d probably call it a group biography, but at the time it was presented as a cultural history; I’m not sure there is any difference between the terms. Menand told the interconnected stories of Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey, in effect, though it is not spelled out as such, telling the story of American pragmatic philosophy. It is a wonderful, fascinating book and to an extent reawakened my interest in pragmatism; though to be honest I’d never been that convinced by the pragmatics, and was more interested in the book as a history of ideas.
Other group biographies began to turn up, usually presenting the history of ideas as the story of the people who were central to the development and propagation of those ideas. The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow about the congeries of scientists and industrialists in the late-18th century Midlands is one of the best of the type; Grand Hotel Abyss by Stuart Jeffries about the Frankfurt School is one of the densest and, in the end I think, least satisfying. It was after reading Grand Hotel Abyss that I said there really ought to be a group biography of the Vienna Circle. No sooner said than done: I spent part of my holiday reading exactly that book, The Murder of Professor Schlick by David Edmonds. And, as is the way of these things, you wait for one book and two come along at the same time, because also on holiday I read Time of the Magicians: The Invention of Modern Thought, 1919-1929 by Wolfram Eilenberger. Time of the Magicians isn’t about the Vienna Circle, though its members do appear, but it tells the story of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, Ernst Cassirer and Walter Benjamin, which means that it overlaps with both The Murder of Professor Schlick and Grand Hotel Abyss.
I want to say here and now, in case it doesn’t become crystal clear later on, that these two books are already set fair to be my top two books of the year.
Let’s get the murder out of the way first. In June 1936, Moritz Schlick, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Vienna, was shot and killed by a deranged former student. The right wing press in Austria defended the student on the grounds that Schlick, though not Jewish himself, had been promulgating Jewish ideas. And when, a couple of years later, Germany annexed Austria, the student walked free. Meanwhile, the other philosophers who had belonged to the Vienna Circle, that Schlick had headed since the end of the First World War, all had to find ways of fleeing the country. They ended up scattered in Britain, across America, and in Australia, so the cohesive unity that had been the Vienna Circle was broken. That is the fervid political atmosphere against which the story of the Vienna Circle is played out.
But the intellectual atmosphere of the time was no less fervid. The Circle had formed in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, largely at the instigation of Otto Neurath, and they met every week for the next decade and a half, to discuss philosophical issues of the day and also to try to ensure that the madness of war that had killed many thousands and torn their country apart would not recur. In philosophical terms, they saw the enemy as metaphysics, and they wanted to advocate a rational, scientific, empirical approach that would institute a rational, scientific, empirical society in which war would be unthinkable. There was, in short, a very political issue underlying their abstract philosophical musings. Particularly as the empiricism they advocated was associated with Jews (Einstein for one), while the dominant philosophical approach in Germany, from Hegel to Husserl to Heidegger, concentrated on phenomenology and metaphysics. I don’t think, until Schlick was murdered, that the Vienna Circle had any appreciation of the political overtones of their thinking (well, Neurath did, but I’m not sure about the others), but they were increasingly at odds with the intellectual climate of their time and place.
Then, in 1922, Wittgenstein published the Tractatus, and set the Vienna Circle ablaze. Here was the book that said everything they believed in. Or at least, so they thought. Nobody at university told me that the Vienna Circle was inspired by Wittgenstein; it would have spoiled the dominant narrative, that they were on the wrong side of philosophical history, and Wittgenstein was the one who done them in. Actually, the interpretation of the Tractatus that I was taught was pretty damn close to the Vienna Circle’s interpretation. Unfortunately, that wasn’t Wittgenstein’s own interpretation. They (and we) saw Wittgenstein as an anti-metaphysician: metaphysics cannot be expressed in the language of logic, so it is not worth saying. But Wittgenstein saw himself as paving the way for metaphysics: it is worth saying precisely because it cannot be expressed in the language of logic. (I derive this interpretation from both The Murder of Professor Schlick and Time of the Magicians, so I assume this is now the standard reading of the Tractatus, but that wasn’t what I was taught, so it came as something of a shock to discover this position being clearly laid out in both these books.)
I wish I had had one or both of these books when I was studying philosophy. It is not just that complex arguments are laid out clearly and effectively (I even feel like I’m starting to grasp something of what Heidegger was on about), it is that the cultural context makes sense of the way a lot of these arguments developed. For example, I realise that much of what I was taught, many of the approaches to problems that I adopted as my own, were lifted straight from the Vienna Circle, including many of the same mistakes needless to say. And yet the overall tone of what I was taught was that the Vienna Circle was wrong. And where we were taught stuff that came straight from the Circle – Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, for instance, which became one of the touchstones I returned to again and again – there was no reference to the fact that this came from the Circle.
At least I knew about the Vienna Circle. Because I did no Continental Philosophy, I knew nothing of the other great development in philosophy that was going on at exactly the same time as the Vienna Circle was meeting. This other strand came to a head at Davos in 1929. Davos was famous for hosting philosophical conferences, before it became famous for hosting economic conferences, and the highlight of the 1929 conference was a debate between Cassirer and Heidegger in which Heidegger, at least by his own reckoning, trounced Cassirer. Now Cassirer is probably not one of the names to conjure with in the history of philosophy, he was rather a bland, middle class suburbanite really. He did some interesting work, particularly in the area of myth, but he was never the sort to set the world on fire. But earlier in 1929 he had made an impassioned speech in defence of democracy. Heidegger, on the other hand, was everything Cassirer was not: a fire raiser, magnetic, idiosyncratic, and decidedly not a democrat. He was also not a particularly nice man, happy to betray his own mentors in order to secure his own advancement, and he joined the Nazi Party not out of necessity to preserve his own position, but out of conviction. This, and the fact that he had been briefly Hannah Arendt’s lover, was all I really knew of Heidegger before I read Time of the Magicians; well, that and the fact that he wrote some of the most turgid and impenetrable prose known to humankind. The debate between Cassirer and Heidegger, therefore, became in retrospect a battle for the soul of German philosophy, one in which the metaphysics of Nazism emerged victorious.
In the decade covered by Eilenberger’s book, both Cassirer and Heidegger were part of the German academic establishment, professors at universities. Neither Wittgenstein nor Benjamin was a full-time academic (not for want of trying on Benjamin’s part). Neither was at Davos, neither took any part in these soul-stirring debates, but both were refining their thinking in ways that would shape the intellectual world that was emerging. Wittgenstein didn’t even have a PhD at this point. He had studied under Bertrand Russell at Cambridge before the First World War (Edmonds implies that ever after Russell had a sort of philosophical inferiority complex because of Wittgenstein, which is believable and not believable at the same time). When the war began, Wittgenstein had returned home to fight in the Austrian army, and began to write the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus while a prisoner of war. Because he believed that the Tractatus was the absolute last word in philosophy (if nothing else, he was an arrogant sod; no wonder when he returned to Cambridge in 1929 that John Maynard Keynes wrote: “Well, God has arrived”) he saw no point in continuing to do philosophy and got a job as a teacher in a small rural school. He wasn’t very good at it, and ended up moving from school to school several times over the next few years. Then he worked briefly as an architect to help design a new house for his sister (he was a multimillionaire who had given away all his money, but the family still tended to look after him). Meanwhile, his book had been published to a weird mixture of acclaim and bemusement. He was persuaded to meet several members of the Vienna Circle and was frustrated by the fact that, by his lights, they were dramatically misinterpreting what he wrote. But this prompted him to start rethinking his ideas (the Blue and Brown Books would start to be written around this time, preparing the way for the Philosophical Investigations that would be published posthumously), and at the end of the decade he allowed himself to be tempted back to Cambridge. Here Russell and his fellows connived to give Wittgenstein a PhD, so he could be awarded a grant and a permanent position; the thesis was the Tractatus, the oral exam was conducted by Russell and G.E. Moore, and it ended with Wittgenstein telling them, “Don’t worry, I know you’ll never understand it.”
Meanwhile, Benjamin was scrabbling a living writing reviews, begging for loans, chasing all sorts of academic positions and then screwing up every opportunity he was given. Though as the decade ended the Frankfurt School was getting started, and Benjamin would at last find a sort of intellectual home if not an actual home. One of the fascinating things about Eilenberger’s book is the structure: he takes us roughly year-by-year through the 1920s, and in each chapter deals in turn with his four principals. But this allows him to do a lot of comparing and contrasting with often surprising results. He traces out a mass of complex interconnections between the ideas of the four philosophers, the similarity in their approach to metaphysics taken by Heidegger and Wittgenstein, the way Benjamin’s thinking intersects with Wittgenstein’s, and so on. For what is essentially a popular book, there is a lot of complex work going on so that ideas keep arising and shifting and showing themselves in unexpected lights. Between the two of them, these books lay out a vivid map of philosophical thought between the two world wars, a time when philosophy was at its most austere and challenging, and yet they keep everything crystal clear. These are two books that will, I suspect, shape my own thinking for some time to come.
And now, surely, it is time for a book about the Cambridge School of Philosophy …
So, what do you expect when you read a non-fiction book? Specifically, since that’s what I’ll be talking about here, a history book?
Maybe different people have different expectations, but for me I’m looking for narrative and information, of course, there’s not much point in reading history if you don’t discover a story you didn’t know before, or at least one whose details you didn’t know. I want to learn, but that also means that I am looking for the author to be, as it were, a teacher. I want to feel they are on top of their subject, that they have formulated a coherent account that makes sense of the information they are conveying.
All of which, alas, is what is singularly missing from MI9 by Helen Fry.
I knew there were going to be problems with the book: I’d read the reviews. But the problem the reviewer, and a host of letter-writers, in the TLS was exercised with is not the problem I have with the book. Let’s deal with that problem first: none of the correspondents in the TLS was happy with the fact that Helen Fry blames Claude Dansey, Deputy Chief of MI6 and as such one of the people with overall control of MI9, for betraying one of the main escape lines in France. Except that you could read practically the whole of the book and wonder what all the fuss was about. Yes, the early parts of the book suggest that Dansey isn’t exactly the hero of this story, but there is nothing to tell us why Fry clearly doesn’t like him. We are told that a man called Harold Cole sold out one of the escape lines for personal gain. But it is not until we are two pages into the Epilogue that we get to this brief passage:
When Langley [one of the heads of MI9] raised concerns over Cole, MI9 arguably could have done more to terminate him. Dansey, however, failed to take action and it has been suggested that he was running Cole as a double agent. 
And that’s it. Several weeks of letters to the TLS all over these two sentences, hedged around with qualifications: “arguably”, “suggested”. Now, this isn’t exactly good history: what more could MI9 have done? What did they actually do? Who suggested that Dansey was involved? Is there anything to support this suggestion? Fry doesn’t say, and doesn’t seem particularly interested in the answers. I know several people were killed as a result of Cole’s betrayal, others were tortured and sent to concentration camps. Even so, this passage is barely an excuse for so many people to get hot under the collar, particularly when there is so much else wrong with the book.
Let’s put it simply: this book is badly constructed, badly written, and at the very least the copy editors at Yale University Press deserve to be taken out and shot. This is shoddy work. I wasn’t expecting great art, but when you are telling a story as complex as the history of the organisation that helped escaped prisoners of war and downed airmen across Europe throughout the Second World War, you expect the whole thing to be at least coherent.
There are other books on the subject, the earliest being Airey Neave’s Saturday at MI9 which came out in 1969. But it has been a while since the most recent of these appeared, and Fry apparently had access to newly released documents, so this should be the go-to book on the topic. Should be. And there is indeed an awful lot of information contained in the book, but it is presented in such a haphazard manner that it would be a nightmare trying to amass it all, and even then doubts would remain about whether you had got it all straight and in the right chronological order.
Let’s take a fairly simple matter. At the beginning of the book there is a rather too brief account of the gadgets that were designed and produced by the boffins at MI9 to aid escapers. These varied from tissue-thin maps hidden in board games to boots for airmen that could be quickly and easily cut down to resemble civilian shoes. There was a lot of ingenuity involved in this which Fry doesn’t give as much attention as I think it deserves (but that is a minor quibble), and these items were smuggled into PoW camps in deliveries from non-existent charities. This, we are led to believe, was all vital stuff for escapers. But much later in the book, when we are inside a Prisoner of War camp (in this instance, Colditz) we learn that the Germans quickly got wind of what was going on and quickly instituted procedures that managed to find most of the gadgets before they reached the prisoners. Later still, she changes the story yet again by insisting once more that most of the gadgets did get through and were instrumental in many escapes. Except that we are given details of very few actual escapes, and those that we are told about (Airey Neave’s escape from Colditz; the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III) seem to have taken place without the use of any MI9 gadgets. By the mid-point of the book, in other words, you are thoroughly confused about this part of the MI9 story, and there is nothing later in the book to clarify things.
And that is a really minor part of the mess that is this book. For instance, she will devote a great deal of attention to one of the escape routes across Belgium and France, the Comet Line, for example, or the Pat Line. Then she will just break off in mid story to tell us about something else that has no direct link to the Comet Line, and probably doesn’t even fit into the same chronology (chronology is so screwed up in this book that I couldn’t say for sure on that point). Then, when she resumes the story of the escape line, her account will just peter out, and it will only be several chapters later that you learn, in passing, that the line was betrayed, or the leader of the route was captured, or something else happened.
Then there is confusion about who Fry is actually writing about. For instance, writing about the Shelburne Line, which evacuated shot down airmen from Brittany to Dartmouth, she tells us: “A leader emerged in the person of a White Russian called Vladimir Bouryschkine” . The next thing we learn, however, is that “Back in England, Langley asked Val Williams if he was prepared to return to France”  to run the escape route. It is only when you check the index that you discover that “Val Williams” was the code name used by Vladimir Bouryschkine.
I could go on, but it is dispiriting to do so. All the way through the book you learn of people being betrayed and arrested before you find out what they actually did. You encounter people being called indiscriminately by their real name or their code name, sometimes without being clear which is which. There is a constant sense of stories only half told: for instance we know of the traitor Harold Cole, but we don’t know exactly what happened, why he did what he did, or what the consequences were.
And there is so much missing. Read accounts of similar wartime endeavours, the code breakers at Bletchley Park, for instance, or the people running the double cross system, and you will be given details of how it was structured and how it did its job day by day. There is none of that here. As I finish the book I feel I know less about how MI9 operated than I did before I started it. And then there is the other great absence: the actual experience of being an escaper. We know that everyone who escaped, or who evaded capture and was helped by MI9, was interrogated once they reached safety. There are detailed reports of the experiences of every one of the several thousand people who were helped to escape by MI9. Fry refers to these reports frequently throughout the book. But she never once tells the story of an escaper. Not just how they got out of the camp, we know all that from countless prisoner of war films, but how they made their way safely across enemy territory. How they made contact with an escape route (a few times in the book we are told that someone learned there were British airmen hiding out in the woods, or some such, but how did they learn and how do they safely go into the woods and make contact?). How do the escaper and the civilian helper, who may not know each other’s language, learn to trust each other when the wrong move means death? What route did they follow across France? What was it like hiding out all that time, being passed from one guide to another, moving secretly from safe house to safe house? How did someone who was exhausted, ill fed, possibly wounded, get across the Pyrenees to Spain or the Alps into Switzerland? All of that is surely the heart of the story of MI9, so why is it absent?
There’s a blurb on the front cover of this book: “A masterful page-turner you won’t be able to put down.” Every word of that is wrong. Which is so sad, because there is a wonderful story to be told about MI9. It’s just that Helen Fry doesn’t tell it.
There was a television drama series, back in the late-1960s, called Take Three Girls. Remember it? No, I don’t, not much (it was apparently the BBC’s first drama series in colour, though I doubt we actually had a colour TV by then, and anyway I suspect that what I do remember I’m getting confused with the slightly later series, Rock Follies, which starred the wonderful Julie Covington who had, incidentally, produced some pretty good covers of early Pete Atkin/Clive James songs, but that’s taking me down a rabbit hole I don’t want to explore right now …)
Where was I? Oh yes, Take Three Girls. There is one thing I remember about the series to this day: the theme music. It mesmerised me. I found out, after a while, that the song was called “Light Flight” –
Let’s get away you say find a better place Miles and miles away from the city’s race
– (quoted from memory probably ten years after I last heard the song) and the song was performed by a group called Pentangle. I went out and bought their most recent album, Basket of Light, which also happened to include “Light Flight”. That album became easily the most played record in my collection for the next 20 years or more.
It would be wrong to say that Pentangle was my introduction to folk rock because a) the term hadn’t been invented yet, and b) Pentangle was really more a sort of folk jazz. The rhythm section, Danny Thompson on double bass and Terry Cox on drums, were both jazz musicians who had played together with the great Alexis Korner. Up front were the guitarists and flat mates, John Renbourn who was into folk played with a baroque style, and Bert Jansch who was, right up to his death in 2011, one of the greatest and most influential of all blues and folk guitarists. To complement Jansch’s rather growly vocals, they brought in Jacqui McShee, who ran her own folk club and who had a hypnotically clear voice but who was so nervous of performing that she had to sit down for all their appearances.
For just five years following their formation in 1967, Pentangle did extraordinary things with traditional songs, adding complex guitar parts up front and varied rhythmic patterns behind. What Danny Thompson does with the double bass on their own composition, “Train Song”, is more like free jazz than anything traditional. And the interplay of Jansch’s and McShee’s voices made every song sound mysterious, sexy and enchanting. Folk music became something entirely other than the finger-in-the-ear, droning voices, and grudgingly-accepted acoustic guitar of most folk music to that point.
In his wonderful memoir, Beeswing, Richard Thompson says he was “fairly unenthused” by Pentangle. But for me they were the gateway drug, the necessary ear training so that I was ready for what came next. And what came next was Fairport Convention.
Oddly, Pentangle and Fairport were in lockstep in those early years. They both formed in 1967, and both released their classic albums, Basket of Light and Liege and Lief in 1969. But in my memory, Pentangle always came first, probably because I knew Pentangle before I heard of Fairport, and knew Basket of Light before I heard of Liege and Lief. In a way, I bought Liege and Lief because of Basket of Light, because Pentangle had shown me how inventive and exciting folk music could be so I was ready to try this other highly praised reinvention of folk.
Liege and Lief was nothing short of a revelation, a pounding, thrilling piece of rock music. A few years later, when I was at university, I got into one of those long, rambling, late night conversations at a party at a house way out in the middle of nowhere outside Portstewart. It started out being about Jacques Brel, whose work I loved when covered by other artists (I’m thinking particularly of Scott Walker) but whose own performances I barely knew. But it meandered on from there as such conversations have a habit of doing, and at some point came around to the inevitable question: “So, what sort of music do you like?” To which I answered that I was mostly into folk. Except I’m not sure that was true. I bought Transatlantic samplers, so I was familiar with the work of people like Mr Fox, and I had a few Steeleye Span albums, though other than Below the Salt I got tired of them very quickly. But I really didn’t have that much in the way of folk music. But I liked the people who had emerged from folk music, the singer-songwriters like Al Stewart, Sandy Denny, and, of course, Joni Mitchell; and I liked the groups who had made something fresh out of folk music, by which I mean (because there weren’t really that many others) Pentangle and Fairport.
Pentangle, of course, only lasted a few years, and I got every album they released though I never saw them live (when they were reincarnated with different personnel some years later I had no interest in them at all). Fairport I followed for a few years. I got the two albums that preceded Liege and Lief, What We Did on Our Holidays which is okay and Unhalfbricking which is excellent, and at one point I even had a copy of their first LP with Judy Dyble on vocals, but she never worked for me as a singer. After Liege and Lief I kept up with them for a while through their innumerable personnel changes. Though I didn’t see them live at this time, it was their live albums that were generally most interesting, including the original vinyl version of Live at the LA Troubadour which includes a version of “Matty Groves”, with Simon Nicol on vocals, in which he changes the line:
Lord Arnold struck the very next blow And Matty struck no more
to the rather more effective:
Lord Arnold struck the very next blow And Matty struck the floor
accompanied, if I remember rightly, by a thump on the drum from Dave Mattocks. Alas, when a retitled version of that album was reissued on CD they switched to another version of “Matty Groves” with the conventional lyrics.
But the departure of Sandy Denny was something that, so far as I was concerned, they never really recovered from, though the departure of Ashley Hutchings at the same time was no great loss because the addition of Dave Pegg on bass more than made up for it. But when Richard Thompson left as well … I think it was “Babbacombe” Lee when I realised I didn’t like the album anywhere near as much as I felt I should. After that, I bought Rising for the Moon because it was Denny’s temporary return, but otherwise I bought no more Fairport.
Years later, through Maureen Speller, I reconnected with Fairport, and we saw a later iteration of the group live a couple of times, and they were every bit as thrilling as you’d hope they would be. And I reacquired on CD several of their albums, but it is still the Denny/Thompson era that works best for me.
Post-Fairport I followed Sandy Denny through Fotheringay and her solo work (The North Star Ravens and the Grassman remains for me an absolute classic, though there are songs on each of her other three albums that I keep returning to). With Richard Thompson, for some reason, it was more hit and miss. I skipped Henry the Human Fly until quite a few years later, but I did get the albums he made with Linda Thompson, of which the first, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, and the last, Shoot Out the Lights, (an interesting circularity of titles there, given the rise and collapse of their relationship) are clearly the best. And I followed him intermittently into his solo work (the early compilation, (guitar, vocal) is essential), but I missed out on more albums than I ever bought. Even so, I continue to rate Thompson as one of the great guitar geniuses of our age, and a songwriter of rare power. (Have I seen him live? That’s the strange thing. I have a feeling I must have done, but I just couldn’t say for certain. I know I have seen his son, Teddy Thompson, in concert, but was he accompanying his father? Must have been, but the picture in my mind is blurred and fuzzy.)
All of which reminiscence is prompted by the fact that I have just read Richard Thompson’s Beeswing, his memoir covering the years from the formation of Fairport Convention to the break-up of his marriage to Linda Thompson. Beeswing, which is as elegantly and engagingly written as one might expect of Thompson, is subtitled “Fairport, Folk Rock and Finding My Voice”, as if the voice (by which he means his guitar playing rather than his singing) was in place by the time he went solo. What follows, a career that has so far lasted another 40-odd years, might generate the usual showbusiness anecdotes, but the story itself was essentially over. And he is right in that: the story lies in how he got going rather than in what he did when he got there.
It is the relatively narrow focus – a period of less than ten years taken from a career of over 50 years, and a life of over 70 years – that makes this book work. It’s like Dylan’s Chronicles in that respect. And those ten years contain all the dynamics, the interplay, the discovery, that we want to read about. Some of the stories are fairly well known, of course: how they were auditioning for a new singer and Sandy Denny ended up auditioning them; how she sang “A Sailor’s Life” in the dressing room before a gig in Southampton and they impulsively decided to include it in the set that night only for it to go down so well, both with the band and the audience, for them to invite Joe Boyd down to hear them play it again the next night, and how he then called on his mate Dave Swarbrick to play on the recording, thus essentially inventing folk rock. There’s a detail I didn’t know: I know that a guitar is tuned in fourths but I hadn’t realised that a violin is tuned in fifths, so it is physically impossible for a guitarist to match many of the chords that a violin plays, and vice versa, so the interplay between Swarb and Thompson on “A Sailor’s Life” and many other tracks involved them both developing new ways of playing their instruments. There are other well-known incidents that acquire a little more detail in the telling here. We learn that he barely knew the groupie Jeannie Franklyn when she attached herself to him, and after a couple of weeks together he seems to have been on the point of splitting with her when she accompanied them to a gig in Birmingham. That’s when the van crashed on the way home afterwards, and Jeannie along with drummer Martin Lamble were killed. The death of Lamble had a far greater effect on Thompson and the rest of the group. And then there’s stuff that is new, at least to me. I now know, for instance, why the magnificent “Sloth” is called that. Thompson and Swarb were making their first attempt to write songs together. They had two pieces of music they were working on, one was fast paced and one was slow paced. For convenience they called the fast tune “Fasth” (it would become “Walk Awhile”), and the slow tune “Slowth”. Only they never got around to deciding on a proper title for the slow tune, and “Slowth” mutated into “Sloth”.
And writing all that makes me want to just go away and listen again to “Sloth”, or “Meet on the Ledge”, or “Calvary Cross”, or any of a dozen other songs that are seared into my memory.
Working my way through Ritchie Robertson’s dense but wonderful account of The Enlightenment and I am struck by two words. The words recur throughout the book (as far as I have got), sounding like a tocsin proclaiming not the achievements of the Enlightenment, but its purpose, its aspirations.
Those two words are “happiness” and “tolerance”. And I realised that they have all but disappeared from public discourse these days.
Happiness crops up in that great Enlightenment document, the US Declaration of Independence, which asserts that the purpose of independence is the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” That line gets quoted a lot, but the emphasis is always on life and liberty, although these have been strangely distorted by politicians of all parties. Happiness, as a national aspiration, is forgotten.
When did you last hear a politician of any stripe talk about happiness? Come to that, when did you last hear anyone talking in public about happiness? When, many decades ago, I studied philosophy, I don’t recall happiness cropping up in any of the contemporary moral or political philosophy I encountered. I don’t know if it is any different now, but I doubt it. We don’t hear church leaders talk about happiness, or educators, university administrators, local councillors.
Now, admittedly, business leaders talk all the time about “keeping the customer happy”, but in this instance happiness is more of a sedative than anything else. As long as “they” are happy with what we give them, then “we” can do what we want, make any profit we desire. This is not an aspiration to spread happiness but to keep the lid on dissent. The word crops up in entertainment, also, but to much the same effect: consumers of entertainment are just one more type of customer to be kept placated.
When did happiness stop being an aspiration beyond the private sphere? It is not as if we have achieved national happiness, which might mean it could safely be forgotten as we move on to other things. Far from it. And besides, happiness en masse is probably unachievable, it must remain an aspiration. But surely it is a worthwhile aspiration, something we should desire for ourselves, our neighbours, our fellow citizens. And as such, surely, it is something that those who set out to be our leaders should hold up as their goal, their shining city on the hill? But they don’t, do they, none of them. Politics, business, religion, none of them any more have any real interest in making life tolerable for the masses, for their constituents, their customers, their followers. That’s not cost effective, is it, it’s not worth the effort. As a polity we have gone beyond the tolerable, the goal now is control, power, the certainty of being returned to lucrative positions time after time.
And the way to secure that certainty, that lucre, is to scrap the tolerable, the tolerant. Doubt, fear, enmity, are the great agents of control. In advertising, we were taught that the two great ways to sell anything are greed and fear. And it works: you make people fearful and they are in your pocket forever.
Which is almost certainly why that other great enlightenment word, tolerance, is no longer heard. Tolerance is wonderful for helping people get along with each other, for spreading communal happiness; it is not so good for securing control. Voltaire said that tolerance was the hallmark of humanity, but humanity doesn’t rank very highly in public discourse any more, does it, because it really isn’t that useful, at least not if you are looking down from a position of authority.
The Enlightenment was not necessarily a good time to live. It was intellectually exciting, but for most people it was poor, miserable, disease-ridden and uncertain. There were wars, there were revolutions, there was persecution. Enlightenment was limited to the way a few people were thinking about their world, though those thinkers did very slowly manage to achieve some advances that bettered the lot of most people. But I can’t help thinking that right now we are in desperate need of a new Enlightenment, where the aspirations for happiness and tolerance become once more a way that people think about the world.
The first of the Book Marketing Council’s “Best Young British Novelists” promotions in 1983 came at an odd time. The British publishing industry was struggling, mostly due to outdated methods, and a quick and dirty fix was needed. Hence the promotion. And it worked. Well, it did for me at least. Christopher Priest was the only one of the featured writers whose work I was already familiar with (by this time I’d read Philip Norman’s book on The Beatles, Shout!, but I’m not sure I associated the Philip Norman featured in the promotion with the author of that book), but I read the associated issue of Granta cover to cover (one of the few times I can say that of the magazine) and discovered a good handful of writers whose work interested me. For a while after that I would religiously buy each new book by Pat Barker, Julian Barnes, William Boyd, Kazuo Ishiguro, Adam Mars-Jones, Ian McEwan, and Graham Swift. I’ve read, with pleasure, the occasional novel by Rose Tremain and Lisa St Aubin de Teran, without consistently following their work, and though I’ve tried the occasional book by Martin Amis I’ve never really got on with his writing. Over the years, I stopped following most of these writers (Ishiguro I dropped quite quickly, then picked up again later and do now follow him). So today only Boyd and Swift are writers whose new work I religiously buy and read.
Which brings me to the latest William Boyd novel, Trio. What I like about Boyd is his storytelling, which is why it is no surprise that along the way he has written a couple of very effective spy stories. He does come up with some quite arresting metaphors and descriptive passages, but in the main his prose can be a little pedestrian. But his control of pace, revelation, drama, is powerful enough to keep you reading even if the writing might limp a little. Even so, I was a little startled by how flat the opening of this novel seemed:
Elfrida Wing stirred, grunted and shifted sleepily in her bed as the summer’s angled morning sun brightened the room, printing a skewed rectangle of lemony-gold light onto the olive-green-flecked wallpaper close by her pillow.
Yeah, that reads like someone trying too hard, like a writing-class exercise in stuffing as many descriptive words as possible into a single sentence. Then you turn the page to the start of chapter two (the chapters are short in this novel, mostly only two or three pages, which is one reason that the lumbering, over-emphatic description feels too much), and you read: “Talbot Kydd woke abruptly from his dream.” Then another couple of pages and another chapter begins: “Anny Viklund woke up and, as she did every morning as consciousness slowly returned, she wondered if this day was going to be the day that she died.”
Three successive chapters beginning in exactly the same way: the full name of the character followed by a description of them waking up. It is laboured, repetitive, and it is hardly the most inspired or inspiring way to introduce the three central characters who make up the Trio of the title. I’ve come to expect fancier footwork than this from Boyd, even at his most pedestrian.
We are well over half way through the novel before it begins to dawn on us what Boyd is doing here. Elfrida is an alcoholic one-time novelist who hasn’t written anything other than fanciful titles for never-to-be-written books in over ten years. At the height of her fame, and to her perennial disgust, she was always called the new Virginia Woolf. It doesn’t help that she can’t stand Woolf’s work, which may be one of the reasons why she stopped writing. But now, between drinks of vodka from the countless old Sarson’s Malt Vinegar bottles she has stashed around the house, she gets an idea for a new novel, one that will lay the old ghost while getting her back into print: She will write a novel about the last day of Virginia Woolf.
Inevitably, she gets no further than the first paragraph, which she rewrites over and over again. A typical example reads:
Virginia Woolf was sleeping. On the wall by her bed a pale parallelogram of lemony early-morning sunlight crept towards her face. When the sunlight hit her eyes, she grunted and turned over, but consciousness had indisputably dawned in her brain and was urging her awake.
The openings of the first three chapters are all variations on the opening of the Virginia Woolf novel. Elfrida herself grunts and shifts with the lemony light. Talbot’s dream figures in several of the putative openings, and his own story that follows will take the form of an awakening to a clearer understanding of what is going on around him (he is a film producer out of step with the modern world of the late-1960s, coming to terms with his own homosexuality, and also coming to recognise that his trusted partner is defrauding him). And Elfrida’s various opening paragraphs always end with Woolf recognising that “this was going to be the last day of her life”, echoing Anny’s own premonition. Anny is a young American film star brought to Britain to add cachet to the film Talbot is currently producing, but she also brings with her a host of troubles, mostly initiated by her former husband who is now a wanted terrorist, and the more she tries to run away from things the fewer places she has to turn, until the story does indeed end in her death.
So we have it: the three interweaving stories that make up this trio are all variations on the last day of Virginia Woolf. Elfrida herself is, of course, the most Woolf-like. At one point, frustrated that no publisher wants the novel she is planning (1968, when most of the novel takes place, was the nadir of interest in the Bloomsbury crowd) and beginning to suffer from DTs, and therefore in a mental state closely resembling that of Virginia Woolf in March 1941,she buys a secondhand fur coat, stuffs stones into the pocket, and plans to march into the Ouse near Woolf’s home at Rodmell. A farcical intervention stops this happening, and she ends up drying out in a religious establishment outside Taunton.
If Elfrida offers the closest parallel to Woolf, Talbot and Anny are the more engaging characters. This is because Elfrida has been defeated, knows it, and is complicit in her own downfall. Talbot and Anny are both bemused by events but are still trying to keep ahead of the game. Talbot succeeds, Anny doesn’t, perhaps ending as Woolf herself did (thought there is an unresolved mystery here), but at least there is more sense of them playing an active part in their own lives.
Thinking of Elfrida, I wonder how Boyd pitched this novel to his publisher. Things have moved on since 1968, the Bloomsberries are fashionable again, so to that extent he had an easier job. But still: “It’s a novel about the last day of Virginia Woolf, only it is set in 1968 and Woolf never appears.” Actually, Leonard Woolf is seen at a distance once, still living at Monk’s House and irrascibly chasing away would-be sightseers. In the end it’s a clever book, but perhaps more clever than good, a satisfying intellectual confection rather than something more engaging.
Sometimes, the most unlikely of sources can make you see something that has been staring you in the face forever and has just passed you by.
I am continuing my intermittent read of The Prose Factory by D.J. Taylor, and his chapter on the 1930s is, predictably, all about left wing literary movements. It is a reasonably fair account, I think, given that I suspect Taylor’s own political inclinations are centre-right and he doesn’t come across as at all sympathetic to Marxist views. But he manages to connect a few things that I hadn’t really connected before.
Let me try and put this into chronological order. In 1929, the Wall Street Crash had sent the Western economies spinning into the Great Depression. In May of that year, the Labour Party under Ramsey MacDonald had come out ahead in one of the tightest of elections and formed a minority government. That is not the most stable situation for dealing with the economic shocks that were to come over the next couple of years. So, in 1931, MacDonald entered into coalition with the Tories as the National Government, which won an overwhelming victory in the 1931 election. The National Government held something over 500 seats in Parliament, the only opposition being provided by a small group of rebel Labour MPs. Despite the National Government being theoretically a coalition, it was overwhelmingly dominated by the Conservative Party, with the Tory leader, Stanley Baldwin, taking over as Prime Minister in 1935.
What this meant (and the connection that Taylor spelled out for me) was that the left had no political voice, just at the start of a decade that was filled with causes for which the left needed to be heard. And so the left started to turn to extra-parliamentary ways of making their views known. Thus you got things like the hunger marches, which had been occurring intermittently since the start of the century, but which now became much larger and more frequent. One march from Scotland brought 100,000 people to Hyde Park in 1932. These marches were often organised by the communist party, and so were just as often brutally put down by the authorities. The communist party was also behind the large numbers of working class young men who travelled to Spain to fight for the Republicans (there were some British volunteers who fought for Franco, but they were neither so numerous or so well organized as those who fought against him).
But this activism also had a more intellectual underpinning, provided by the spread of the Workers’ Educational Association, which had been formed at the beginning of the century but which was at its largest and most successful during the 1930s. And also by the totally unexpected success of Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club, which aimed to break even with 2,500 members but had over 40,000 within the first year. The club would make books more widely available and far cheaper than usual, and published works ranging from George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier to Murray Constantine (Katherine Burdekin)’s Swastika Night; books that brought home again and again the social conditions and political enemies that those on the left were up against. There were Right and Centre Book Clubs, but these had neither the reach nor the effect of the Left Book Club.
With the sense of community and purpose provided by the likes of the hunger marches and the Spanish Civil War, and the spread of ideas promulgated through bodies such as the WEA and the Left Book Club, the left found a powerful and often working class voice throughout the 1930s, just at the time when they had no voice in government.
The National Government shed all pretence and became a straightforward Conservative government under Baldwin, as it remained under his two successors, Neville Chamberlain (from 1937) and Winston Churchill (from 1940). Under Churchill, and with a war to fight, the government again became a coalition National Government, but again it was predominantly Tory. After Baldwin’s election of 1935, there was no general election until 1945, when it was generally assumed that the great wartime leader, Churchill, would sweep back into power. It was a shock, therefore, when Clem Attlee won an overwhelming victory for Labour. But it perhaps shouldn’t have been, because that victory was the fruit of all those years during the 1930s when the left had been deprived of a political voice and so had found new ways to make their voice heard. The Attlee victory, if you like, was a direct consequence of Victor Gollancz creating the Left Book Club, which had, after all, published a book by one C.R. Attlee.
When I read Lost Girls by D.J. Taylor last autumn, I was disappointed. It seemed to me that the book only really came alive when Taylor was discussing the London literary scene during the 1940s, and the four young women who were the titular subject of the book were at best only peripherally involved in that scene. So I decided to try a book that seemed to more directly address his interests. Which is how his 2016 literary history, The Prose Factory, appeared on my Christmas list (very many thanks, Maureen).
At the moment I am only into the second chapter, but already it is obvious that this is a subject he is much more interested in writing about. The book is a literary history of Britain from 1918 until, more or less, the present, and it is as general and has the sort of blinkers as one might expect. A cursory glance, for instance, suggests that H.G. Wells is the only science fiction writer to appear in the index; which is fine with me, I wasn’t really expecting anything else. As a broad account of literary movements it is providing exactly the sort of historical context I was hoping for, and at times it can be quite revealing.
When you look at literary history from a science fiction perspective, for instance, modernism tends to come across as a monolithic force, an instant literary establishment that, as the result of a quarrel between Henry James and H.G. Wells, conspired to exclude Wells and, in his wake, science fiction as a whole, from serious academic consideration. It wasn’t exactly like that. Reading Taylor’s chapter on modernism in the 1920s I wasn’t surprised to find that it was quite a fragmented movement, but I was surprised to learn how tribal it was.
The father of literary modernism, as I suppose we might put it, was Henry James, who is barely mentioned in Taylor’s book primarily because he had died in 1916. He brought a number of his Romney Marsh friends and neighbours, such as Joseph Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford, into the modernist camp on his coat tails, though it has to be said that at the time Conrad and Ford were more readily seen among the Georgians, the conservative, traditionalist literary movement that began with the end of the Edwardian era and fizzled out during the First World War.
It was after the war that modernism really got going, often lauded within the pages of the plethora of small magazines that were published throughout those years. These are magazines with famous names – Criterion, The Athenaeum – but they were still decidedly small. Even the best of them were lucky to have a circulation of 1,000, and those subscribers were fickle, if they grew weary of John Middleton Murry’s jeremiads in The Athenaeum, they would switch to T.S. Eliot’s austere pronouncements in Criterion. And though Taylor doesn’t say so, I get the distinct impression that this readership primarily consisted of academics in Oxford and Cambridge, and would-be writers in London plodding from the offices of one small magazine to the next in the hope of getting published. Despite this, the magazines were influential, at least in terms of how later academics look back on the modernists.
Middleton Murry was the cheerleader for one tribe of modernists, endorsing a number of the newer writers. But he seems to have been at war with everyone, and fairly soon lost his influence. Another tribe centred on the Sitwells, who were early advocates of the work of Eliot. Their circle included the composers William Walton and Constant Lambert, and they brought into their branch of modernism something of the polyrhythms and improvisation of jazz, the other great artistic movement of the decade but one that was not otherwise widely taken up by modernists. But the Sitwells were self-obsessed, idiosyncratic, and argumentative. Edith Sitwell in particular seems to have delighted in her feuds. There is one delightful vignette in Taylor’s book in which someone came upon Edith Sitwell and Virginia Woolf sitting side by side on a settee during one of their periodic truces, and I got a vivid impression of two tight-lipped women each preparing to spit venom at the other. Woolf, and Bloomsbury, introduces another tribe, one that encompassed the artistic as much as the literary, and whose publishing house, the Hogarth Press, brought out books by writers like E.M.Forster, Peter Quennell, and Muriel Jaeger, who weren’t all normally classed as modernists. Though the most notable title from the Hogarth Press was probably the first edition of “The Waste Land”, which brings us inevitably to Eliot himself, buttoned-up and puritanical, whose early poems, and especially “The Waste Land”, made him the torchbearer for post-war modernism. He inspired reverence – Taylor tells of a young Anthony Powell gazing in wonder when he chanced to spy Eliot dining alone at a Charlotte Street restaurant – and there were any number of would be writers trying to copy his work (as successfully as such copyists invariably are); but he also inspire mystification and condemnation, especially from critics like J.C. Squire, the last of the Georgians. Though Eliot himself, politically conservative and religiously inclined, probably had more in common with the Georgians than with the new generation of would-be revolutionaries who followed in his wake.
And this, I suspect, barely does justice to the internecine conflicts that characterised the first decade or so of literary modernism in Britain. I mean, where does one fit James Joyce, championed by Eliot but hardly the clubbable type one might find in Bloomsbury or at a Sitwell country home? So when Sarah Cole, in her truly wonderful book, Inventing Tomorrow: H.G. Wells and the Twentieth Century, argues that Wells was a modernist writer all along, the response has to be: of course, but what brand of modernist?
I have chosen one book from each year, with the added proviso that I have chosen no more than one title per author. That is, I admit, an artificial rule, and it did give me problems on a couple of years, but it avoids the problem that the list would otherwise be dominated by the same two or three names.
Some of these were obvious from the moment I thought of doing this list (the first and last on the list, for instance), others less so, mostly when there were years in which no title really sang out to me. I was sorely tempted to list two books from one year and none from another. But if you set yourself rules, I suppose the least you can do is stick to them. So here are ten books from the last ten years. I’d be very interested tosee what your lists are.
2011 The Islanders – Christopher Priest When I started this exercise, this was the first book I thought of. It is among the two or three very best novels Priest has written. I have read it several times now, and each time it seems fresh, each time the complexity, the daring, the humour all combine to make the book exciting and invigorating. There is always something new to discover within its maze of distortions, uncertainties, twists in time and games with identity. I reviewed the novel for the Los Angeles Review of Books.
2012 Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel I remember the excitement of reading Wolf Hall when it first came out. I know most commentators focussed on the way the novel connected with history, the rehabilitation of Thomas Cromwell (up to that point familiarly presented as one of the villains of the age), the sense of being fully absorbed in the politics of the age. But for me what I found most engaging was the language. I wrote at Big Other about Mantel’s use of the word “he”, and what it signifies about identity and narrative voice. So now, two years later, there comes a sequel, and any fears I might have had are quickly dispelled: the same language, the same inhabitation of the age. The two books together are simply magnificent.
2013 Life After Life – Kate Atkinson I continue to regard this book as one of the finest works of science fiction of the last decade, although, as I said when I wrote about it here, it is a book that demands not to be read as science fiction. It is a variant on an alternate history novel, but here it is a single life, a single consciousness, that is fragmented. Ursula constantly dies and is reborn, barely if at all conscious of her previous existences, but always trying to relive her life in a way that brings her closer to achieving her goal, which is the survival of her brother who, most commonly, is killed in a bomber raid over Germany during World War II. The sequel, A God in Ruins, details the emptiness of the life that is thus saved, making for an extraordinarily powerful dyptych of novels.
2014 The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell Not, perhaps, his finest novel (that, surely, is Cloud Atlas), but still a vivid, beautifully realised, and always compelling novel that manages to turn the half-sensed interlinking background that has underlain all of his previous books into the foreground of the story. And it does so without in any way undermining the faithfulness of Mitchell’s portrayal of ordinary life from the recent past to the near future. As I wrote here, it spells out the patternmaking that is Mitchell’sapproach to writing.
2015 The Thing Itself – Adam Roberts I had a struggle with myself over Roberts’s place on this list: should his place go to The Thing Itself or to The Black Prince? If I were to subvert my own rules I would do both, without hesitation. But in the end I decided to go with The Thing Itself, partly because, while I love the way The Black Prince retells a medieval story in the manner of John Dos Passos, The Thing Itself includes a whole series of chapters recapturing literary styles that vary from 18th century prose to the work of James Joyce. It’s a joy to read, and the way the title offers a mash-up of John W. Campbell and Immanuel Kant demonstrates what a wild intellectual journey this book is.
2016 The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead Over the years, I have been in disagreement with the Arthur C. Clarke Award more often than not. I have found shortlists to be wilful and bizarre on too many occasions, but even then the right book might emerge as the winner, and this is one such. It is powerful, haunting, unforgettable, all of which I tried to compress into this piece about the book when I was on the Shadow Clarke jury.
2017 The Rift – Nina Allan Back at the end of 2017, when I wrote my list of the year’s reading, when it came to this novel I simply put: “My book of the year.” I didn’t elaborate, I didn’t try to justify the choice, somehow it felt like I didn’t need to. This was one of those books that was just so unquestionably right that I didn’t think it needed further discussion. It still feels that way to an extent. Of course, it is a novel that ticks all my boxes, a novel of indecision, of uncertainty, a novel that could go in any direction depending upon how we choose to read it. Isn’t that what a great book is supposed to do? Well, so far as I am concerned it is.
2018 Europe at Dawn – Dave Hutchinson Okay, I’m playing slightly fast and loose with my own rules here, in that I am using the final novel in Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe sequence to stand in for the whole series. Europe in Autumn not winning the Clarke Award was one of the occasions on which I seriously parted company with them. What I wrote about the third book, Europe in Winter, for the Shadow Clarke jury, sums up much of my feeling about the sequence, which I see as one of the most politically relevant works of science fiction we have seen for many years. And the way I see Europe at Dawn as a fine conclusion to the series is spelled out in my review for Locus.
2019 Ivory Apples – Lisa Goldstein I admit, I have doubts about including this novel in the list. I enjoyed it immensely, and as I said in my review for Strange Horizons, I thought it was a major work of contemporary fantasy. Yet it somehow feels, in retrospect, slighter than some of the other titles on this list. But I wonder whether that is primarily an artefact of the way 2019 felt to me, a year in which nothing seemed to blaze particularly brightly. I’ve often found that in a year of good books it is easy to spot the great ones; but in a year of mediocre books, even the good ones seem diminished. That was 2019 for me; this is a good novel, it probably deserves its place, but it wasn’t a particularly good year.
2020 The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again – M. John Harrison Yeah, this is no surprise, is it? Only yesterday I was writing my massive survey of the year’s reading, and I said then that this was without doubt the novel of the year. Well, it is. It is the summation of everything we love about Harrison’s writing: the supple prose, the intense realism, the inescapable sense of the weird beginning to break in around the edges.
End of the year, and as I do every year I am producing a write-up on all the books I’ve read during the year. Except, this wasn’t every year, this was a weird, misshapen beast of a year. Superficially, my life during lockdown wasn’t all that different from my life in any other recent year. But there were differences, things that were missed, things that became out of reach, things that were suddenly more stressful than usual, indeed more stressful than they had any right to be. On top of which we had the inestimable joy of seeing in vivid highlight just how mad and incompetent and uncaring our political masters actually are. It was a year that attacked us, a year we didn’t just have to endure but actually had to fight back against. And out of it all? Well, I spent more of the year feeling worn down, mentally exhausted, than I think I’ve ever known before. Which is not exactly good for getting lots of reading done.
I’ve spent much of the year seeing people talk about how lockdown has allowed them to get more reading than ever done. And it’s like I’m reading something in a foreign language. I simply don’t understand what they are saying. It has been a terrible year for reading. I had no patience for most of the books that came my way; far more books than usual were tossed aside unfinished. And when I did persevere I found it harder than ever to concentrate, so I read less more slowly. What worked for me was not exactly comfort reading, I didn’t turn back to old favourites, in fact I didn’t re-read much of anything during the year. But I did find that crime worked for me better than most other forms of fiction, particularly the Maigret novels by Georges Simenon which I discovered for the first time this year. And I was turning more than ever to non-fiction, perhaps because of the way the best non-fiction engages the intellect.
Anyway, this is the much-reduced list of all the books I finished during the year. As usual, I’ve put the books that I particularly recommend in bold.
1: Aldiss Unbound – Richard Mathews: The first month or so of the year was taken up with last-minute reading for my own book on Aldiss. The first three titles on this list are the three previous books on Aldiss, which seem to be trying to out-do each other in how unquestioningly they adore everything the man ever wrote. I can only hope that my own book has managed to inform the work with a more critical perspective than any of these three managed.
2: Apertures – Brian Griffin & David Wingrove.
3: Brian Aldiss – Michael R. Collings.
4: Enemies of the System – Brian Aldiss: And there were also three books by Aldiss that I had to catch up with at the last minute, two of which, at least, were indicative of just how bad some of his work could be.
5: Memories of the Future – Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky which I’ve already written about here.
6: Brothers of the Head – Brian Aldiss.
7: Super-State – Brian Aldiss.
8: We Danced All Night – Martin Pugh: I am more and more fascinated by British social history, particularly of the twentieth century, and this is one of the best I have encountered. It is an extraordinary account of that twenty-year period between the two world wars, and, unusually for histories of that period, it gives an unusual emphasis to the lives of women in that time.
9: Memories of the Future – Siri Hustvedt which I wrote about here along with the identically titled collection by Krzhizhanovsky.
10: Utopia and the Contemporary British Novel – Caroline Edwards which I reviewed (very favourably) for Science Fiction Studies.
11: Here We Are – Graham Swift which I wrote about here.
12: Tombland – C.J. Sansom: The last, or at least last-to-date, of Sansom’s novels about the Tudor lawyer and investigator, Matthew Shardlake, and following the pattern of the earlier volumes, it is also the longest of the books. By now, Henry VIII is dead and Shardlake is working for the Princess Elizabeth, a perilous occupation given how out-of-favour Elizabeth is at the court. But a bizarre murder involving a distant Boleyn relative sends Shardlake to Norwich just in time to get caught up in Kett’s Rebellion. As always with Sansom the pleasure is in the detailed recreation of historical events, and the atmospheric presentation of the social reality of daily life at that time.
13: Double Cross – Ben MacIntyre: There is something terribly British about the fact that the double cross operation they ran with turned German spies during World War II was under the control of a group called the Twenty Committee (Roman numerals: XX); and there is something terribly German about the fact that, though they must learned the name of that committee, the German spymasters never twigged to what it signified. Though I do find myself wondering whether the Abwehr (mostly staffed by aristocrats who were not exactly pro-Nazi) was knowingly turning a blind eye to what was going on. If there wasn’t some level of complicity, they were woefully incompetent. Every single German spy sent to Britain during the war was captured, and a number were turned; though the double cross network was mostly made up of people who approached the British independently. There are questions about exactly how much influence the double cross spies had on the course of the war, but it is pretty clear that they fed the German High Command with what they wanted to hear, so they were simply confirming expectations when they revealed that there were twice as many troops in Britain as were in truth present, and when they said that the Normandy landings were just a feint before the real invasion at Pas de Calais. Hitler in particular was so convinced of this last that he held troops in place at Calais for almost twenty days after the Allies had come ashore at Normandy.
14: The Light of Day – Eric Ambler: This was the novel that inspired the film Topkapi, though in truth the novel is a richer and more complex work, and the unreliable narrator of the novel is a far funnier and more nuanced character than Peter Ustinov who plays him in the film.
15: The Farthest Shore – Ursula K. Le Guin: I’ve been reading the Earthsea Trilogy aloud to Maureen off and on for the last few years, mostly limited to a chapter or two as entertainment on long car journeys. This is easily my least favourite of the three.
16: The Late Monsieur Gallet – Georges Simenon: Many years ago, I tried reading some of Simenon’s non-Maigret novels and couldn’t get on with them. I think Maureen had a similar experience. But we have both enjoyed radio and television dramatizations of the Maigret stories (I have fond memories of Rupert Davies in the 1960s, and we have both enjoyed the Rowan Atkinson incarnation), and sometime late last year or early this year Maureen decided she would give the Maigret novels a go. She enjoyed them a lot, but she also thought they would work well being read aloud. So, having finished the Le Guin, we picked up this one. It remains, a dozen or so Maigret novels later, my favourite of them, but there isn’t a bad one in the bunch, and they are wonderful to read aloud. I love the fact that they are all very carefully structured, all 145-155 pages long, all consist of 11 chapters, the last of which is always about half the length of any other. And yet, within those constraints, and despite the speed with which they were written (about 10 in 1932 alone), they never feel mechanical. The nature of the crime, Maigret’s relationship to the crime, the circumstances, the setting, the social environment within which it all occurs, always vary from novel to novel.
17: Aiding and Abetting – Muriel Spark: I love Spark’s work, but this is a late and decidedly minor work. It consists of a novella and a novelette (the novella is late, the novelette, I think, quite early). The novella concerns a psychiatrist in Paris, two of whose patients both claim to be Lord Lucan (the minor aristocrat and gambler who murdered his children’s nanny, presumably mistaking her for his wife, then fled the country never to be seen again). Since the psychiatrist is also living under a false name, there is some interesting stuff about identity going on here, but it never quite seems to hit the heights the way you’d expect of Spark.
18: The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien – Georges Simenon.
19: The Carter of La Providence – Georges Simenon.
20: The Pale Criminal – Philip Kerr: The second of the Bernie Gunther Trilogy, this time investigating murders that bring him up against the anti-Jewish policies and beliefs of the Nazi regime.
21: H.G. Wells: A Literary Life – Adam Roberts which I reviewed for Foundation.
22: The Yellow Dog – Georges Simenon.
23: A German Requiem – Philip Kerr: I’m not exactly sure why, but the first three of the novels Kerr wrote about his German detective are known as the Bernie Gunther Trilogy, as is they are somehow separate from all the other Bernie Gunther novels that Kerr has written, despite the fact that the fourth volume, The One from the Other, is a direct sequel to this novel, which is the third part of the trilogy. In fact, there is more connection between A German Requiem and its sequel than there is with the two novels that precede it. In those two Gunther is a Berlin detective in Nazi Germany; in A German Requiem the war is over and Gunther finds himself in Vienna, though the case he is investigating has its inevitable links to the Nazi regime.
24: Inventing Tomorrow: H.G. Wells and the Twentieth Century – Sarah Cole: also reviewed for Foundation. This is one of the best books on Wells I have read for a long time, examining his sometimes fraught relationship with the modernist writers of his time, and suggesting that his work was more modernist, and more worthy of examination than we tend to assume.
25: Utopia Avenue – David Mitchell: As we have come to expect of Mitchell, there are two bits of story going on here. One is the long story that ties this novel to everything else he has written: the two schools of immortality at war in the background. In some of his novels (The Bone Clocks, Slade House) this over-arching fantasy is the main focus of the work, but here I find it far and away the least interesting part of what is going on. The other story is about the rise and fall of a rock group in the late-1960s, and this I found absolutely entrancing. It may be because this is my musical era, many of the performers who have walk-on parts in the novel were among my favourite artists at the time. The novel is littered with quotations from the songs of the period, some overt, many not, and they filled my head with exactly the music of the group Utopia Avenue. I recognized the group even if it never actually existed: bits of early Fairport perhaps and Pentangle, mixed with The Animals, maybe, and a soupcon of The Kinks? Folk and rock just at the time they were learning to live together. To that degree, therefore, I find this an excellent historical novel.
26: Utopia: The History of an Idea – Gregory Claeys: And another, different, utopia. Except that this book is a mess, a confusion of ideas and there are major parts of the book where the only reason I understood what was going on was because I already knew about it before I picked up this book.
27: Night at the Crossroads – Georges Simenon.
28: The Last Astronaut – David Wellington: I read this because it was on the Clarke Award shortlist, and because it is the one book on that list that I hadn’t seen mentioned anywhere else (after I read it I came across Nina Allan’s evisceration of the book, which says much of what I say here). I wondered if this was the book that had slipped through the net, but that deserved better. All I can say is: what the fuck were the Clarke jurors thinking? It’s not a bad book, but it’s a book that positions sf firmly back in the 1960s. To be specific, it is Rendezvous With Rama dressed up for a new audience. For me, the point of science fiction is to confront the new, to make us see something afresh. An award should recognise a work that pushes the envelope, that takes sf in a new direction. That new direction is not backwards. The Last Astronaut is almost shameless in the way it steals from Rendezvous With Rama. An object enters the solar system, and starts to slow down. NASA has been wound down over the decades, so their only option for exploring the alien object is a mothballed spaceship and a disgraced ex-astronaut. When the astronaut and her crew enter the object, you’ve got all the basics of Rama repeated: a frozen landscape that slowly comes to life, objects that are mysterious and unlike anything we know on earth. There aren’t the tripods, but there is the icefield that melts to become the equatorial ocean. Wellington takes the easy option of making all this threatening rather than just mysterious. Characterisation is perfunctory: the central figures are each defined by just one thing, and show no more growth or complexity than that. There are convenient devices available just when they are needed. There’s something mechanical about the whole enterprise (both within the story and in the writing of it). There are many worse books about, true, but if this is the sort of book that should be considered for an sf award, then science fiction has gone into reverse.
29: Pietr the Latvian – Georges Simenon.
30: The Code Book – Simon Singh: My interest in deception and espionage in World War II has inevitably come around to the issue of codes and cyphers and cryptanalysis. The Code Book has been on our shelves for years, so it seemed like a good idea to pick it up. It covers the whole history of codes from Biblical times to Enigma and beyond, so it is not especially deep on any part of that history, but it does seem like a good general introduction to the subject.
31: The Grand Banks Cafe – Georges Simenon.
32: A Crime in Holland – Georges Simenon.
33: The Future of Another Timeline – Annalee Newitz: Well, at least I managed to pursue this to the end, unlike so many of the other highly-praised novels of the year that were discarded almost before I’d begun. I really wanted to like this novel more than I actually did. It started off well, and all the way through there are some things I really liked. But increasingly I found myself struggling to accept what I was being told. I had real difficulty with the gang of teenage serial killers. I just didn’t believe it. There were places where I felt Newitz wasn’t sure in her own mind what she was writing about. We are told repeatedly that the Great Man theory of history doesn’t work: if you kill Hitler, someone else would fill the same niche. Yet everything about Comstock is Great Man theory. And I’m not sure Newitz really noticed how often she was contradicting herself. I loved the time machine, but again I don’t think Newitz had really thought it through. Of course, she gets away with a lot by giving us no details, no explanations, no origin story, but even so I couldn’t make the whole thing hold together in my mind. And then there was the woman from the future. I recall that line, was it from Chandler, that if you are stuck on your plot have someone burst in with a gun. Well Morehshin was that someone with a gun. As far as I can see, her main role, indeed almost her exclusive role, was to let Newitz break all of the rules she had so far established about using the time machine. To my mind this is not playing with the net up. As I say there is a lot about the novel I like. I particularly like Beth and her relationship with her father. And I rather like how Newitz teases us over whether Tess is Beth or Lizzy. But all the way through I couldn’t help feeling that the whole just didn’t hold together.
34: Remains of Elmet – Ted Hughes & Fay Godwin: Another book that has been on our shelves forever and that I never quite got around to reading before. Well, I say reading, but it was Fay Godwin’s startling black and white photographs that caught my attention. Ted Hughes’s poems seemed to me rather flat by comparison, often seeming laboured and repetitious.
35: A Gray Playbook – Alasdair Gray: A beautiful volume, gloriously illustrated by the author. Gray was a moderately successful playwright before he became a novelist, and this gathers together most of his plays ranging from a one-act version of the story of Odysseus and Polyphemus written for and performed by his school classmates when he was about 10, to an incomplete modern adaptation of Goethe’s Faust from 2008. Among the various theatre, radio and television plays between these end points there are the plays that would later be recast as the novels The Fall of Kelvin Walker, Mavis Belfrage, and McGrotty and Ludmilla, along with a host of others I hadn’t encountered in any form before. But for me the two stand-out elements of the book are the script for a putative film version of Poor Things, and an extract from the storyboard for Lanark with which he hoped to persuade someone to make a film of that novel. How much I would give to have seen both those films.
36: The Salzburg Connection – Helen MacInnes: The first of two Helen MacInnes novels I read this year. They are chunky books, well over 300 pages of fairly dense text, and there’s a lot going on in them, yet I get through them at a phenomenal rate. It rarely takes more than a day to read the book from start to finish, I find them so compelling.
37: The One from the Other – Philip Kerr: The first of his Bernie Gunther novels not to be part of the Bernie Gunther Trilogy, even though this follows directly on from the events of A German Requiem, with Gunther getting involved with the ring smuggling Nazis out of Europe to South America.
38: Big Sky – Kate Atkinson: A belated addition to her sequence of Jackson Brodie crime novels. Well, there’s usually a crime, and Brodie sort of investigates though often half-heartedly, and most of the story is told through the eyes of a host of sometimes oddball characters who never know more than a fraction of what is going on. It’s an approach that makes these novels fascinating, though I have to be in the right mood to get the most out of them. I was in the right mood for this.
39: A Kind of Anger – Eric Ambler: It is fascinating to watch Ambler laying down the groundwork that later spy writers would follow. This is a perfect example: a search for someone who doesn’t want to be found, an uneasy alliance between people who aren’t sure they can trust each other, and competing enemy forces that must be outwitted if our central characters are to survive. Great stuff.
40: The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again – M. John Harrison: Okay, I’ve said so for both Strange Horizons and Locus, this is undoubtedly the book of the year. It is simply a distillation of everything that is brilliant about Harrison’s writing, which I’ve written about here (and, tangentially, here).
41: One Two Three Four – Craig Brown: I find it strange that people are still finding different ways to write about the brief decade-long existence of The Beatles, but when the result is as good as this, I can’t complain.
42: The Same River Twice – Ted Mooney which I wrote about here.
43: A Man’s Head – Georges Simenon.
44: Dead Doubles – Trevor Barnes, which I wrote about here.
45: The Lunar Men – Jenny Uglow: And yet again a book that has been sitting neglected on our shelves for too long. This, to me, is both the origin of and the model for the trend for group biographies that we’ve seen since the beginning of this century. It is the story of the group of industrialists and savants from the Midlands that are the very embodiment of the blossoming of scientific knowledge during the latter part of the 18th century. It is a fascinating story and extraordinarily well told.
46: Lost Girls – D.J. Taylor, which I wrote about here.
47: The Evidence – Christopher Priest: To be honest, as I was reading it, this felt like one of his second-rank novels. But I was asked to review it for Foundation, and as I was writing that review I found I was identifying all sorts of connections and resonances that only became clear in retrospect.
48: Bletchley Park and D-Day – David Kenyon: How do you make the story of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park sound uninteresting? By writing it like one of those corporate histories that big companies sometimes insist on putting out. Also, Kenyon seems to have an axe to grind. For him, Enigma has played too big a part in the public perception of Bletchley, so we are constantly being told that they didn’t decipher that much, or the messages they discovered were too late, or they didn’t have that much effect (other things I’ve read suggest this is at best not the whole truth). Meanwhile the other parts of the codebreaking operation are praised unstintingly, as if they are not all part of the same operation. It is, I suspect, significant that Alan Turing hardly appears in the index.
49: The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin – Georges Simenon.
50: The Two-Penny Bar – Georges Simenon.
51: A Diary in the Age of Water – Nina Munteanu: I reviewed this for the BSFA. It seems to me to be a rather clumsily constructed series of mini-lectures about water and the environment presented as being a polemic and the whole thing then disguised as a novel, and every part of that tripartite structure seems to undermine the other two parts.
52: The Shadow Puppet – Georges Simenon.
53: This is How You Lose the Time War – Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone, which I wrote about here.
54: Reading Backwards – John Crowley: John Crowley is damned near as fine an essayist and reviewer as he is a novelist, as this selection of pieces from 2005-2018 amply demonstrates. Though reading through did seem to illustrate something I’ve noticed before in American critical writing: while British critics seem to strive to keep themselves out of their reviews, Americans seem to consider reviewing as a branch of autobiography. Thus, here, we learn an awful lot about Crowley’s upbringing, the places he lived, the family’s catholicism, his interest in theatre design and so on. It’s fascinating stuff that is often very revealing about his fiction, particularly the second volume in the Aegypt sequence, Love And Sleep.
55: The Saint-Fiacre Affair – Georges Simenon: I’ve noticed, even in the handful of Maigret novels I’ve now read, how much Simenon likes to ring the changes. In The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin, for instance, Maigret hardly appears for much of the novel. It is like Simenon is constantly looking to find new ways to tell a crime story, while most crime novelists of the inter-war years (Christie, Sayers) told their stories in much the same way, but changed the surrounding detail. That Simenon was consciously rejecting the style of Christie and her kind is demonstrated by this novel, which climaxes with a parodic version of the invariable denouement scene where Poirot gathers all the suspects together. It is a very deliberate two fingers to the then most common style of crime fiction.
56: The Silence – Don DeLillo: It is interesting how much, and how overtly, DeLillo is turning towards science fiction. His last novel, Zero K, concerned cryogenics, this new novella is a version of a disaster story that is very precisely set in the near-future, on Super Bowl Sunday in 2022. While a couple and their younger friend settle down to watch the game, another couple who are expecting to join them are currently on a flight arriving from Paris. Then all the electrics go out: the television is blank, the cell phones are silent, the airplane controls are disabled. We’ve seen this notion of the modern world going away before, and we’ll see it again, but it seems a scenario ideally suited to DeLillo. This is not a catastrophe of rioting and bloodshed and people reverting to savagery, that’s not how DeLillo characters react to anything; rather this is a catastrophe of isolation and silence. Conversations stop being responses, one person to another, and become overlapping monologues with no interconnection. One character loses touch with reality as he begins to imagine the game he is not seeing on the screen. For DeLillo, when the modern world goes away it takes away our connections to other people.
57: Pray for a Brave Heart – Helen MacInnes: In The Salzburg Connection an American amateur finds himself caught up in a plot involving Nazis and Russians centred on a picturesque Alpine village just outside Salzburg; in Pray for a Brave Heart an American amateur finds himself caught up in a plot involving Nazis and Russians centred on a picturesque Alpine village just outside Bern. They are not the same stories, but there is a Helen MacInnes pattern that is starkly illustrated by reading these two novels in close proximity. Doesn’t stop me enjoying them, though.
58: Snow – John Banville: I don’t understand why this novel has not been published under Banville’s Benjamin Black persona, it is so very clearly a Benjamin Black novel, even to numerous references to Quirke and Hackett from the early Black novels. And the setting is is the same as in the Quirke novels: Ireland in the 1950s, with the focus on the baleful political and social influence of the all-powerful Catholic church. In this instance, as a corner of South East Ireland lies under a thick blanket of snow in the last few days before Christmas, a priest is stabbed to death and then castrated. The policeman sent down from Dublin is a protestant so the way the Catholic hierarchy tries to cover up the details of the case and interfere with the investigation are particularly galling. It is a familiar scenario from Banville/Black, I worked out the who and the why of the murder quite early on, but it is very well done.
59: X Y & Z – Dermot Turing: Turing, the nephew of Alan Turing, set out to write the story of how Enigma was broken, but he quickly became focussed on the story of the Polish codebreakers who first cracked the German codes. The Enigma machine was patented towards the end of the First World War and initially sold as a commercial device, but the German military started to take it up at the end of the 1920s. For Poland, effectively divided between German and Russian rule by the Versailles treaty, this was a problem, and the Polish independent movement started to gather together a crack team of mathematicians and codebreakers in order to get access to German secrets. And they succeeded; Polish codebreakers were regularly reading German Enigma messages at least ten years before Alan Turing started working on the problem. The Poles had even invented a device they called a “Bombe” which helped work out the setting for the three rotors in the Enigma machine. The Polish Bombe was the basis for the machine of the same name that Turing would later develop. Meanwhile, a senior and rather dubious character in French intelligence, Gustave Bertrand, had a German double agent who was regularly selling them top flight information, including codebooks and Enigma settings. But the French had no facilities for codebreaking, so they got together with the Poles to swap information. Meanwhile, still unaware that Enigma had been cracked, the German military started to improve security, adding additional rotors to the machine, and changing settings on a daily basis. This made the Polish Bombe ineffective, so the arrangement with France was expanded to include Britain for extra facilities. This was the X (France), Y (Britain) & Z (Poland) intelligence alliance that was established bare months before Germany invaded Poland. The Polish codebreakers escaped at the last moment, but rather than getting them to Britain where their work would have given the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park an astonishing head start, Bertrand set them up in Vichy France where their facilities were fewer and the risks were greater. They still did some significant work there, until Germany took over Vichy and they had to flee again. Some got away, many didn’t. Those who evaded capture by the Abwehr made it to Britain but their position was now ambiguous and they were set up in a separate establishment away from Bletchley Park. Typically, once the war was over Britain was unwelcoming, and the contribution of the Polish codebreakers to the war effort was almost completely overlooked until recently. This is a fascinating book, and a wonderful corrective to Kenyon’s sour view.
And that’s it, not quite 60 books in one year. Years ago, when I was fresh out of university and first started keeping a note of the books I finished each year, I was averaging well over 100 every year. When I revived the practice a few years ago through this blog, I usually managed to read somewhere around 70 books each year. 59 is the lowest annual total I can ever remember.
Of course there were distractions. For the first half of the year I was writing the book on Aldiss, which was not, I confess, a very easy job. And later in the year there were proof corrections and other bits and pieces to do with The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest, which came out in November (did I mention I have a new book?). For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, I’ve written about it here and here. And of course there were reviews for Foundation and Science Fiction Studies and the BSFA, though nowhere near as many as in some other years. But these writing assignments wouldn’t really have taken any more time away from reading than similar assignments have done in other years. No, it was a year in which events made it hard to give myself over to reading.
Of course the year is ending now, within a few hours as I write this 2020 will be over and done with. There are vaccines for the coronavirus, Trump has been voted out, a Brexit deal has been done at the last minute (a ridiculously bad deal, but better than no deal, I suppose); so 2021 has to be better. Right? Well, I’ll withhold judgement on that. Let’s say I’m not feeling overly optimistic. In Britain the government has shown an unprecedented ability to screw up everything it touches, so let’s just say that I’m not totally convinced that the various stresses and horrors of the pandemic or of Brexit are actually safely behind us. I suppose all we can do is hope and wait and see.