Tuesday, June 18, 2024

the last book I read

Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks.

So there's this woman, erm ... *checks notes* ... Charlotte Gray. Daughter of a First World War veteran, with whom she has a slightly prickly relationship, keen to help out with the Allied war effort now that it's 1942 and the Second World War is in full swing but a bit removed from the action in her native Scotland. 

So she relocates to London, that being the centre of the war effort, and takes a job at a doctor's surgery. It's not long before opportunities of various kinds come her way, though, largely through the time-honoured route of meeting people at parties: firstly a man called Cannerley who has some connections with the shady G Section who seem to organise clandestine activities in France, and secondly Peter Gregory, an RAF pilot, haunted by the loss of most of his friends over the past few years but still seemingly keen to conduct a daring sortie, all guns blazing, into Charlotte's knickers. 

Charlotte happens to be fluent in French after spending a lot of time there during her childhood, a thing that for obvious reasons is of intense interest to Cannerley and his organisation. After a few discreet meetings Charlotte is inducted into the organisation and given an initial mission: parachute into the occupied part of France, make contact with some local representatives of the Resistance and distribute some vital radio components. At the same time Peter Gregory is being given some orders of his own for an airborne mission into France.

Peter's mission starts first and Charlotte soon gets some bad news: he's gone missing. She decides that the best thing to do is get on with her own mission and see if she can locate him while she's over there. So after some rudimentary spy training (basically: don't do this) and some equally rudimentary parachute training (open door, jump out, try not to die) Charlotte finds herself jumping out of a plane and making contact with some people in the village of Lavaurette, including Julien Levade (codename Octave) who leads the Resistance operation. His father, a semi-retired painter, provides some cover for Charlotte (now going by the name Dominique) by employing her as a housekeeper in his rambling old mansion on the outskirts of the village.

Charlotte conducts various side quests while she's staying in Lavaurette, including travelling as far as Limoges to deliver some vital radio parts, all the while keeping an ear out for news of the fate of Peter Gregory. Charlotte's calmness and efficiency gain the respect of her Resistance colleagues and her superiors in London, but then Shit Gets Real as the flimsy pretence of the independence of the Vichy regime is crushed and the Nazis roll into town, bringing with them a ramping up of the existing regime of rounding up Jews and deporting them. This includes the parents of local boys André and Jacob, the boys subsequently being hidden by the Resistance in various locations around the village, but also old man Levade, betrayed by some weaselly local collaborators. After an I ASK ZE KVESTIONS show-trial at the Levade house the old man is carted off and loaded onto a train, while the local police are charged with guarding Julien and Charlotte. Julien facilitates Charlotte's escape, kills the collaborator and then flees into hiding. Charlotte, meanwhile, heads for Paris, partly with the intention of making contact with someone who can facilitate her return to England, but also partly to attempt to intercept André and Jacob, who were inevitably discovered by the Gestapo and taken away.

Peter Gregory, meanwhile, is alive and mostly well, though limping a bit after breaking his leg parachuting into a tree. By extraordinary good luck he was rescued by some people sympathetic to the Allied cause, and by further extraordinary good luck (his French being rudimentary at best) they manage to arrange his transit to Marseille where he meets up with some English-speaking contacts and is spirited back to England by a circuitous route traversing North Africa.

Charlotte makes contact with her man in Paris and arranges her transport back to England; she also visits the internment camp at Drancy where most of the deportees from the village are held, but the massive industrial scale of the operation prevents her from seeing any of the individuals she's looking out for, still less effecting some sort of daring rescue. With ruthless inevitability the process grinds on to its conclusion, with the internees either dying en route to the death camps (as old man Levade does) or surviving the trip only to then be exterminated in the gas chambers (as André and Jacob are).

Charlotte returns to London to be debriefed by G Section and mildly scolded for exceeding the terms of her original mission, and to be tearfully reunited with (and subsequently de-briefed by, oy oy) Peter Gregory. 

This is the third novel in Sebastian Faulks' loose trilogy of books about France - the other two are The Girl At The Lion d'Or, which I haven't read (although I was present at a book-signing for it with Faulks himself about 35 years ago), and Birdsong, which featured here in February 2015. All three feature the First World War as a major theme - Birdsong is mostly set during it and includes many scenes set in the trenches, and while Charlotte Gray is set during the Second World War it carries heavy echoes of the earlier conflict. Both the older Levade and Charlotte's own father are haunted by their memories of what took place, and Lavaurette is oddly demographically skewed by having a large proportion of a whole generation of men wiped out. 

I think on the whole Birdsong is a better book, as enjoyable as Charlotte Gray is - I think most of this is related to pacing; the Nazis only turn up and things Kick Off in a big way fully two-thirds of the way through the book. Before that we get a fair bit of scene-setting in England, including a brief sex scene which won Faulks the Bad Sex Award in 1998 (which he slightly humourlessly did not turn up to collect), and quite a lot of Charlotte hanging out with Julien and his father and blissfully bicycling from village to village in the sunshine delivering radio crystals and the like, which is lovely but oddly peril-free. The flipside of this is that when Charlotte encounters the full industrial efficiency of the Nazi killing machine she is, as resourceful as she is, utterly powerless to do anything about it, and André and Jacob's harrowing journey to their inevitable end is genuinely quite difficult to read.

Narratively that's obviously the right thing to do, a daring James Bond-style rescue mission being completely implausible, but it's a bit of a downer, and it makes the subsequent tearful reunions in England a bit hollow. This is no doubt intentional - my only quibble would be that the neatness of Charlotte's resolution of her mysterious childhood trauma involving her father is a bit nice and convenient, and the implication that, hey, the boys' deaths in the gas chamber weren't completely in vain because it in some way enabled Charlotte to get over being a bit upset about some childhood shit from twenty years earlier is a bit hard to swallow. Indeed you might reasonably ask: what was the sum total of Charlotte's achievements in France? Some minor courier work and encouragement to the Resistance, sure, but aside from making some cursory enquiries with his contacts she discovered next to nothing about Gregory's whereabouts while she was there and contributed precisely nothing to his safe return home, and, as mentioned previously, didn't manage to save any of the Lavaurette villagers from the gas chambers.

The World War II theme puts Charlotte Gray in the company of quite a long list of earlier books featured here - the review of The Reader has a list. Its having a person's full name as a title puts it on a slightly shorter list which also includes Laura Blundy, Riddley Walker and Fanny Hill. It was also filmed (starring Cate Blanchett as Charlotte) in 2001.

Monday, June 17, 2024

snorklebrity lookeyspikey of the day

Today's pairing features my son Huw, in the pool at our holiday house in Brittany a couple of weeks ago and borrowing some of his big sister's swimming accessories, in particular her face-mounted snorkel, and also the strange underwater artificial dinosaur hybrid submarine that I drew for my school yearbook at Bandung International School in Java in about 1979 (when I would have been about nine). Obviously the shape and positioning of the snorkel is the thing that brought the two together in my mind.

The drawing was accompanied by the following explanatory (well, sort of) text:

It's interesting to unpick all the things that (consciously or unconsciously) influenced both the drawing and the text in my nine-year-old mind:
  • The BBRFC on the creature's sleeve, and indeed the rest of the design of the T-shirt the creature is wearing, is a reference to Bandung Barbarians Rugby Football Club, a loosely-organised group of expatriates from various countries (mainly the UK, Australia and New Zealand) for which my father used to turn out. My recollection of the various rugby days out we went to during our time in Java was that they were mainly a pretext for epic beer consumption, probably mainly the product of the Anker brewery with whom the club seemed to have cooked up some sort of endorsement/sponsorship deal, judging by the club T-shirt I am wearing in the images below (probably taken at Pangandaran). The beardy guy piloting the craft is also probably modelled on my Dad, though I should point out he has never smoked a pipe as far as I know.

  • The general concept for the creature is clearly adapted/stolen from the Tintin book Red Rackham's Treasure which I read approximately a gazillion times. The smaller shark-based craft there was the brainchild of eccentric genius Professor Calculus. That's his English name, anyway, he was called Tournesol in the original French books. Translations into other languages are available, including, rather marvellously, Welsh; who knows what his name is there. 
  • Obviously kids love dinosaurs, and you can see bits from at least three separate dinosaurs in the design of the creature: the head with its distinctive crest is clearly a parasaurolophus, the big fin thing on its back looks as if it's from a dimetrodon, and the spiked tail is a bit like that of a stegosaurus, informally known in slightly tedious paleontological nerd humour circles as a thagomizer. The fins at the rear are presumably a hangover from the fish design I stole the idea from, and I have no idea why the front limbs seem to have their elbows on backwards.

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

our father who art in heaven, I lost my mess in pew eleven

One other thing, also tangentially book-related: we went to a family gathering last week and it was held in the Community Centre in the village of Acton Trussell, which we've been to before as it's conveniently located near to several of Hazel's extended family. I see that I mentioned it briefly once before, as the book I was reviewing (William Maxwell's They Came Like Swallows) was one that I'd acquired from their quite extensive shelves on a previous visit. I see that at the time there was an honesty box in place; this seems to have gone now, probably as a result of no-one carrying small-denomination coins around any more post-COVID. Instead there seems to be some sort of loose book-swap scheme in place where you're encouraged to swap in a book when you take one out. Sadly I didn't come armed with any spare books, so I am now in credit to the tune of a couple of slim paperbacks and need to redress the balance on my next visit. 

I was also musing over the name of the village in my head on the drive up as it seemed faintly reminiscent of something I remembered from somewhere else, and it finally came to me in the latter stages of the journey (somewhere on the M6 I'd guess) - the name of the fictitious village of Stackton Tressell inhabited by cross-dressing comedy duo Hinge & Bracket in their various radio and TV programmes (and the occasional sherry advert) in the 1970s and 1980s was (a bit of Googling revealed) based on the real-life village of Acton Trussell, which just happens to have been where Patrick Fyffe, who played Dame Hilda Bracket, was born. George Logan, who played Dr. Evadne Hinge, was born near Glasgow, since you ask. Dear Ladies, which ran on BBC2 from 1983 to 1985, is the particular Hinge & Bracket vehicle that I remember - I would describe it as gentle comedy evoking the occasional wry chuckle rather than any pant-wetting hilarity.

Also spotted on one of the notice boards in the main hall while I was there was this frankly mind-boggling bit of groovy-vicar desperate grasping at young-person relevance and engagement. I mean I genuinely think that if Jesus were with us today - and, in a very real sense, he is, of course - he'd be rolling about in a paddling pool full of custard, or whatever it is that Messy Church implies.

I mean, even if you can get past the Charlotte Church jokes, there's still a faintly sniggery element here, and it would be highly advisable for their promotional video segments to be a bit more careful about phrasing than they seem to have been about ten seconds in here; the phrase "people just coming in all their mess" would probably have best been avoided.

infiltrate my maoist falange

Just to illustrate the point about Shibumi, as fascinating and intermittently thrilling as it is, not being meant to be taken entirely seriously, here's a footnote which appears at the bottom of page 179 of my Headline paperback edition:

A couple of things to unpick here: firstly the reference to "Naked/Kill" is to a sort of unarmed combat technique, possibly of Hel's own devising (I can't remember), which allows you to kill people by sticking a styrofoam coffee cup up their nose, and the like. The later reference to "certain advanced sexual techniques" reflects some of the (fairly coy) descriptions of what Hel and Hana get up to in the evenings and inevitably prompts thoughts of Sting's infamous claims of seven-hour tantric sex sessions with the missus, poor woman. As this Guardian article says, that claim mainly derives from a drunken interview Sting and Bob Geldof did for Q magazine back in the 1990s.

As for the other claims, the first relates to the filming of The Eiger Sanction and describes a real-life incident, the death of British climber David Knowles during filming in 1974. The claim about the Milan art theft relates to The Loo Sanction, which is a loose sequel to The Eiger Sanction and features the same protagonist, Jonathan Hemlock. I have no idea whether the claim has any basis in truth, and I certainly can't find any citation apart from articles specifically relating to this footnote. 

And the choice of name for one of the fictitious terrorist organisations in Shibumi invites two responses: firstly the bit of rudimentary childish image-editing below to clip out a couple of letters, and secondly: Asian Dawn?

Wednesday, June 05, 2024

the last book I read

Shibumi by Trevanian.

Dangerous places, airports. Not only have you got to grapple with the unpalatable prospect of being strapped into a claustrophobic metal tube with 200+ sweaty malodorous strangers for many hours, with the low but nonetheless very real possibility of it all ending in screaming fiery death, but it's possible that you may stray into a check-in queue next to someone who someone else wants to make sure never gets on the plane in the first place, and get rubbed out in a hail of bullets instead.

When this happens at the airport in Rome to a group of passengers about to board a flight to Tel Aviv, it sets a whole series of balls rolling. Firstly, the CIA, who organised the whole thing as an operation designed to take out some Israelis who were on their way to do a bit of the old murdering of their own, of some Palestinians involved in the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, conduct a lengthy investigation. The reasons why the CIA would want to intervene in such an activity are obscure and tortuous but basically involve oil and America's access to it; the reasons they do the in-depth post mortem is that there was a bit more of the old mortem than they'd envisaged, several random civilians regrettably having been ventilated as well. The other problem is that despite all the hot lead flying around the assassins only managed to take out two of the three suspects; the third, Hannah Stern, managed to escape.

Hannah is strictly an amateur at this sort of thing but has the address of a man who is very much a professional: Nicholai Hel, the world's greatest and deadliest assassin, a man who can kill you in a dozen different ways with a dozen different seemingly innocuous household items - a playing card, a paper clip, a fried egg, you name it. He is, if you will, a Hel of a guy. Hel also just happens to have been a friend of Hannah's uncle, Asa Stern, and she hopes that she can use this as leverage to persuade him to intervene to help her. The trouble is, Hel is basically retired these days, having made enough money killing the president of Paraguay with a fork to be able to afford a few nice houses, including the mansion in the French Basque country where he passes most of his time with his exotic Oriental girlfriend, Hana, occupying himself tending his garden, perfecting his go technique, exploring the extensive local cave systems and having eye-wateringly athletic tantric sex. 

But how, you may or may not be asking at this point, did Nicholai Hel become the man he is today? Anyone not asking that question, and perhaps just wanting the plot to crack on in an orthodox thriller-y fashion, is going to be a bit frustrated for the next couple of hundred pages, as we now get an in-depth back-story describing Hel's early years. And they are interesting and unusual: offspring of a Russian mother and Prussian father, both vaguely aristocratic, early years spent in Shanghai, fluent in Chinese, English, Russian, French, taken into the care of a Japanese general after the fall of Shangai and raised for the next few years in Japan (thereby adding Japanese to the language list), where he learned the rudiments of go and eventually became a master player.

After the Second World War Hel makes his killing debut in slightly odd circumstances: learning of his old mentor General Kishikawa's imprisonment he visits him and agrees to preserve the old man's honour and fulfil his debt to him by giving him the old judo chop instant death treatment under the noses of his captors. During his subsequent imprisonment he hones his physical fitness and unarmed combat skills and keeps his language skills sharp by talking to himself in multiple languages and learning Basque from some books that happen to be lying around. Eventually the CIA take an interest in Hel's unique abilities, suggest a deal whereby he does a bit of killing for them in exchange for his freedom, and his career is off and running.

Back to the present day, then, and once Hel has emerged from the complex bit of cave exploration he and his caving companion, bluff beardy Basque poet Le Cagot, have been busy with he hears what Hannah has come to say, and soon realises that there is really no decision to make, as the trail that Hannah will have left will be enough for the CIA, or rather the mysterious organisation called the Mother Company that oversees their activities, to pinpoint her destination and identify him.

Sure enough Hel's local Basque informer network soon lights up with news of strangers in the village. Rather than get into a lengthy game of cat-and-mouse, Hel siezes the initiative by inviting them to dinner and seeing what they want, which basically boils down to: leave the Palestinians alone to do their thing, whatever it is, and your various retirement assets will be left alone, bar a small token punishment for inconveniencing the Mother Company. Also, nice house and girlfriend you have here, shame if they were to, you know, CATCH FIRE or something. 

Dinner is over, the goons leave, and Hel is considering accepting these terms, but then the Americans, in a bid to exert further persuasion, clumsily murder Hannah Stern, and Hel decides that the only way to proceed with honour is to get freakin' MEDIAEVAL ON THEIR ASS. So with the help of his old friend The Gnome, acquirer of spicy blackmail material and other negotiable items, Hel heads for London, cooks up an arrangement with the British Secret Service, and finishes the job that Hannah wanted him to do by rubbing out the Palestinians. 

But the Americans are bound to find out, and Hannah's death suggests that there's a rat in Hel's local informer network. And sure enough while Hel and Le Cagot are up in the mountains exploring a new cave, they return, cut Le Cagot's rope so he falls to his death, and roll some big rocks over the entrance to entomb Hel for ever.

Fortunately, during their previous explorations of the cave Hel and Le Cagot found what appeared to be a possible exit, via a sump occupied by a fast-flowing river. It's unclear whether a human could survive going through it without getting drowned and/or bashed to bits, but hey, whaddaya gonna do? It turns out that, as long as you're fairly slim and bendy, you can get through while only getting mostly drowned and bashed to bits, and Hel escapes, only to find that the Americans have also bombed his home, badly injured Hana, and, most unforgivably of all, mussed up the carefully-combed gravel in his Oriental garden.

So now comes the time for the this-time-it's-personal acts of revenge. Armed with The Gnome's choicest morsels (some papers relating to the Kennedy assassination) Hel confronts the Mother Company and persuades them to hand over the individuals responsible so that he can deal with them personally. This done, he retreats to the still-standing bits of his Basque mansion with Hana to consider his future. The leverage he currently has won't hold forever, and eventually they will come for him again, with more mess and danger and killing and the like. If the overall game cannot be won, how should one exit from the endgame with honour and dignity, at a time and in a manner of your choosing?

Trevanian (spoiler alert: not his real name) is best known for his 1972 debut novel The Eiger Sanction, made into a fairly so-so Clint Eastwood film in 1975. Interestingly it too revolves around a professional assassin persuaded reluctantly out of retirement for One Last Job - the other crucial thing about the book (bulldozed somewhat for the film version) is that it was meant as a spoof of the James Bond-style action hero thriller genre. The best way to look at Shibumi is as a similar sort of thing, maybe not a spoof exactly, but an exercise in knowingly testing what the boundaries of the genre will stand. Well, that's all very cute, you might say, but it's really a way of having your cake and eating it, isn't it - writing what basically amounts to a thriller, albeit an unusual one, and then loftily proclaiming your disdain for the whole genre while watching the dollars roll in from the paperback sales. 

Perhaps it's best just to enjoy the book on what appear to be its own terms, an exciting, highly idiosyncratic adventure story with an intriguing protagonist whose back-story is given an unusual amount of attention and depth. Some of this is just an excuse for Trevanian to indulge in writing at some length about subjects that clearly interest him: go and Japanese culture, the Basque region and its people and language, caving and rock-climbing.

The parts of the novel concerned with the fall of Shanghai and the subsequent Japanese occupation are highly reminiscent of Empire Of The Sun, while the two lengthy episodes inside the cave system are reminiscent of the thrilling escape sequence in Alan Garner's The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, though shorn of all the supernatural elements, and also Richard Church's classic children's book The Cave, which I see I mentioned here

Anyway, if you like a thrilling adventure story, but are a bit jaded with the standard stuff, and want something a bit more quirky and aware of its own inherent absurdity, then this will probably do you quite nicely. 

Monday, June 03, 2024

the second-last book I read

Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd.

Nicholas Dyer is an architect, currently engaged in the building of several churches in central London. He is highly regarded, including by Sir Christoper Wren to whom he started his career as a sort of apprentice before getting commissions for work in his own right, and who still acts as a sort of mentor to him.

Dyer and Wren have a relationship clearly built on mutual affection and professional respect, but one with some friction caused by their different characters and worldviews - Wren is the arch-rationalist, as interested in the internal workings of the human body as he is in the physical laws that prevent church towers from falling down. Dyer, on the other hand, appears to be an adherent of some odd esoteric occult philosophy that he was initiated into by his childhood mentor, Mirabilis.

No harm in a bit of the old occult mumbo-jumbo, though, right? Or at least no more harm than in the standard default Christian mumbo-jumbo, anyway. Weeeeell, there is this thing that Dyer seems to require as part of the foundation-laying ceremony of each of his buildings - not throwing in the usual stuff like a few coins, but the freshly-murdered corpse of a human being - murders carried out, moreover, by Dyer's own hand. 

Now we do a wibbly-wobbly dissolve to the present day and Nicholas Hawksmoor, a maverick London cop, who doesn't play by the book, but, dammit, he gets results. Well, actually results have been in short supply of late, particularly in the current case which involves a series of murders whose victims keep turning up, mysteriously strangled, in the vicinity of a series of early-eighteenth-century churches. But why? And how?

You're not an idiot, so you don't need me to spell out that there are Rum Goings-On afoot here with the past echoing in the present, and indeed the present apparently echoing in the past as well. It's probably impossible to get a clear feel for what's going on without knowing at least some of the historical background that underlies the story being told here: Nicholas Hawksmoor was indeed an architect and acolyte of Sir Christopher Wren, and did indeed design and oversee the building of several churches in central London, most of which are mentioned here, although the church of Little St. Hugh where the past and present stories come together and time apparently collapses in on itself at the end of the book in some mysterious way is fictional.

So there are obviously quite a few questions to be asked here: what is the nature of the linkage between Dyer's murders and the present-day ones? What's going on with the half-formed and half-expressed idea that the churches form some sort of pentagram or other occult figure when drawn on a map? What is the significance of the authorial decision to have the modern-day detective carry the actual name of the historical figure, rather than the character who resembles him in just about every other way? And what of the shadowy figure also called Hawksmoor who haunts the periphery of the eighteenth-century part of the story and seems to harbour some ill-will towards Dyer?

I mean, I have some thoughts, but I should make it clear at this point that I have definitive answers to none of these questions; whether you enjoy the book or not probably depends on whether that matters to you more than just luxuriating in the chewiness of the prose. The eighteenth-century stuff with its Capitalisation of Nouns is a particular delight.

The general themes of history repeating itself and the past and present influencing each other in mysterious and slightly spooky ways is also a theme in Chatterton, the only other Ackroyd I've read. Hawksmoor is probably slightly denser and gnarlier, and Chatterton is probably a more purely enjoyable read, but both are excellent and twisty and thought-provoking.

Hawksmoor, Ackroyd's third novel (Chatterton was his fourth), won two of the major British fiction prizes on its publication in 1985 - the Guardian Fiction Prize (other featurees here are 1972, 1984 and 1987) and the Whitbread Novel Award (a recent-ish list is here).