Saturday, October 06, 2018

the last book I read

The Ministry Of Fear by Graham Greene.

Arthur Rowe has got a lot on. Despite being a man of seemingly modest but comfortable means (sustained by an annual income from a mysterious source not involving having anything as vulgar or onerous as an actual job) he is troubled. By some really obvious things, like being a London resident during the height of the Blitz and therefore existing in a strange netherworld where you never know if you're going to wake up in the morning in your own bed or in an impenetrable pile of rubble with your entrails festooned across what remains of the street. Also by some non-obvious things, though, like having fairly recently been released from a psychiatric hospital after murdering his wife; it's not what it sounds like, though, as she was terminally ill and he eased her over the line to spare her further suffering (and ended up with a correspondingly light sentence).

Arthur is keeping himself to himself in a one-bedroom furnished flat when he happens to pop into a church fête and have a go at guessing the weight of a juicy and inviting-looking fruit cake (things that are in short supply, what with eggs being rationed and all). While he's waiting for the result he drops into the fortune-teller's stall and has a bewildering exchange with the woman running it wherein he is instructed to make an additional guess at a different weight for the cake. And sure enough that second guess turns out to be correct and Arthur wins the cake, though there is an odd stand-off as he tries to make off with his winnings, almost as if someone else was expected to win it.

It soon becomes clear that Arthur has stumbled across some weird shit and is now a person of interest to some shady types; sure enough one comes to visit him, wangles a piece of cake and some tea and attempts to poison Arthur, who only detects the poison because it happens to be the one he used to see off his wife. An awkward confrontation is avoided, however, when a bomb lands on the building and everyone ends up under a pile of bricks, though, miraculously, alive.

Arthur decides to take the initiative and visits a detective agency and also the charity that organised the fête, where he meets siblings Anna and Willi Hilfe, refugees from Austria. Willi in particular seems keen to help and takes him to see Mrs. Bellairs, the fortune teller, who happens to be holding a seance, which Willi and Arthur take part in. In classic murder mystery fashion the lights dim, everyone joins hands, there's a scream, and when the lights come up someone is dead with a knife in their back. Awkwardly for Arthur, it's the man next to him, and it's Arthur's knife.

Willi helps Arthur escape, but now he's on the run from the police. After rashly agreeing to deliver a suitcase for a man he meets in a park, he bizarrely ends up in a room with Anna Hilfe, at which point there's another brick-shattering explosion.

This time, Arthur wakes up in a nursing home, to be told that he's lost his memory and his name is Richard Digby. He is well cared for by the eccentric Dr. Forester, but it soon becomes clear that strange things are afoot. Eventually, as his memory starts to return, including remembering his true identity, Arthur decides that his life is in danger and escapes back to London, where he throws himself on the mercy of the police.

It turns out that the police aren't actually after him for murder after all, though, since no-one's actually been murdered. The police are very interested in the cake, though, since it apparently contained some top-secret microfilms which the government want back before they can leave the country and jeopardise the war effort. The policeman investigating the case, Prentice, takes Arthur along on a series of attempts to round up the spy ring responsible, most of which end with the deaths of the suspects, before Arthur himself joins some of the dots and realises that Willi Hilfe is the mastermind, and probably still has the microfilm in his possession. This is slightly awkward, because Arthur has struck up a fledgling relationship with Anna, but Queen and country must be protected, so Arthur confronts Willi as he's about to flee London on a train. Rather than allow himself to be captured, Willi shoots himself, leaving Arthur free to return to Anna and see if they can salvage their relationship from this momentary awkward patch.

I've mentioned in a couple of places Graham Greene's habit of classifying his books as Novels and Entertainments. This one is subtitled "An Entertainment", which isn't meant to convey some hilarious knicker-dropping farce, but rather something a bit thriller-y and plot-driven in contrast to the usual drink-sodden tortured Catholicism of the "serious" stuff. It is suggested that since this book's immediate predecessor (and one of Greene's best and most celebrated books) The Power And The Glory didn't make much money Greene felt obliged to write something a bit more in tune with the public appetites of the time. The distinction between the two halves of his output was something Greene abandoned in his later career - this compilation suggests there were only ever six novels published as "Entertainments", The Ministry Of Fear being the only one I own or have ever read.

It's still not exactly Jack Reacher, though, and most of the major protagonists are resolutely un-heroic and troubled by various moral dilemmas, and the ending is nicely ambiguous in terms of how much wholly necessary lying to each other Arthur and Anna's future relationship can stand. Greene's familiarity with the workings of wartime espionage was drawn from his real-life work for MI6; the late-career novel The Human Factor is probably the nearest thing to a le Carré-style espionage thriller that he ever wrote.

It's very entertaining (as befits its subtitle), Arthur Rowe is a sympathetic protagonist and (like all Greene novels) it doesn't outstay its welcome at between 200 and 250 pages of pocket-sized Penguin paperback. If you really only want the essential novels then (of the ones I've read) The Power And The Glory and The Heart Of The Matter are probably the ones you want. The Ministry Of Fear was filmed as Ministry Of Fear in 1944, a year after the book's publication, the film - as films do - seemingly flattening a lot of the book's subtleties in the pursuit of its Nazi spy plot.

Monday, October 01, 2018

win on a ryder

First thing to say after the Ryder Cup is that I'm delighted that my gloomy (and, to be fair, slightly tongue-in-cheek) prediction after the last one turned out to be wrong:
One major reason for pessimism: the Americans are finally taking the Ryder Cup seriously and we'll never win one again. Oh well, we've had a good innings.
Indeed I was so wrong that in the end Europe's victory (appropriately delivered, in the end, by their star player Francesco Molinari) was by an even more thumping margin than the USA's 2016 victory at Hazeltine.

Year Foursomes Fourballs Doubles Singles Overall
Eur USA Eur USA Eur USA Eur USA Eur USA
1979 3 5 11 17
1981 2 6 10½ 4 8 18½
1983 4 4 4 4 8 8 13½ 14½
1985 4 4 5 3 9 7 16½ 11½
1987 6 2 10½ 15 13
1989 3 5 6 2 9 7 5 7 14 14
1991 2 6 6 2 8 8 13½ 14½
1993 5 3 13 15
1995 5 3 2 6 7 9 14½ 13½
1997 5 3 10½ 4 8 14½ 13½
1999 10 6 13½ 14½
2002 8 8 15½ 12½
2004 6 2 5 3 11 5 18½
2006 5 3 5 3 10 6 18½
2008 7 9 11½ 16½
2010 5 3 5 7 14½ 13½
2012 3 5 3 5 6 10 14½ 13½
2014 7 1 3 5 10 6 16½ 11½
2016 4 4 11 17
2018 6 2 4 4 10 6 17½ 10½
Totals 84½ 75½ 87 73 171½ 148½ 115 125 286½ 273½

No time for a lengthy wallow in the stats, but to pick up on a couple of vital points from last time: Europe won all three days, just as they did in 2004, 2006 and 2014. All the Europeans contributed points, while three Americans contributed zero: DeChambeau, Mickelson and Woods. There was much pre-contest hoopla about how Woods' miraculous rejuvenation (culminating in his remarkable win at the Tour Championship last week) would extend to him being a new man as a player in the Ryder Cup (having been one of Davis Love III's non-playing lieutenants in 2016), but he failed to win a point and lost a singles match for the first time since 1997. Maybe he was just knackered.

I was in charge of entertaining three kids for most of the weekend so my viewing opportunuties were slightly limited, but I did take advantage of NowTV's offer of a month's Sky Sports coverage for the knockdown price of £12.99, which enabled me to keep up with the live coverage on my laptop. This compares extremely favourably with the cost of having a full Sky Sports package on the TV, something we've recently ditched as it's just cripplingly expensive. I daresay there are fiendish and probably borderline illegal ways of viewing this stuff for free, but this seems to work pretty well.

I suppose what the result shows more than anything is how much home advantage counts for: only six of the twenty modern Ryder Cups have resulted in away wins (four for Europe, two for the USA) and only two of the last ten (both Europe, in 2004 and 2012). By the time of the next European Ryder Cup in 2022 it'll be 29 years since the last American win on European soil and I would guess most of the US team wouldn't even have been born for the last one in 1993.