Malcolm Redfellow's reading diary

"I guess there never can be enough books" (John Steinbeck)

29 (and last?) Closing down, sailing by?

Clearly any Malcolmian enthusiasm for this project has well and truly cooled. Future postings on literary themes are likely to continue, but elsewhere.

A clear marker is this post, originally on Malcolm Redfellow’s Home Service:

Excuses, excuses

A fortnight back Malcolm ran for a bus.

Memo: Don’t. There’ll be another along in a while (the same advice, in Malcolm’s distant youth, used to apply to chasing girls).

Twang! And a stinging jerk told him he had pulled a serious muscle.

That was obviously the physical or emotional shock that triggered an attack of shingles.

Once Malcolm might have silently mocked those who use shingles as a pretext for being off work. After all, it’s just itchy spots, isn’t it?

Now he knows better. It’s being dumped into one of the upper circles of Hell. The itching means sleeplessness. Along with the spots goes lassitude, general depression and bad-humour. Hence the hiatus in bloggery.

Still, there was an upside. Being horizontal and awake means time to read. Simultaneous with that goes reluctance to leave the house, which means no book-buying, which doesn’t increase further the pile of unread books by the bed.

So, in the last fortnight this guilt-pile has been significantly reduced (or, perhaps, hadn’t accreted further):

Apart from being a more-than-decent teccy, Martin has engineered an intriguing aside on a bit of the First World War, the Mespot Campaign, that doesn’t receive enough attention — at least not since David Lean and Robert Bolt put T.E.Lawrence and Peter O’Toole on the Big Screen. He even slides in a subtle sub-text, oil, which has persisted to the present day. The recital of place names — Basrah, Feluja, Tikrit — makes the point equally.

Now this one has been hanging around for a while, often sampled, never previously worked through.

It is a profound book, which is in many ways the answer to the devolution questions. Miles propounds that, for all our our regional differences, the gene pool of the archipelago is remarkably homogeneous:

about 80 percent of Britons’ genes come from hunter-gatherers who came in immediately after the Ice Age.

We treasure our local roots — Malcolm regards himself as Anglo-Irish by attitudes, with Icenian overtones, and a frontier mentality derived from the Danelaw-Mercian interface —but there’s a common interest persisting beneath the skin.

This was the work of a long day’s journey into an itchy night.To be honest, despite its considerable entertainment value, both the Pert Young Piece and Malcolm felt this one didn’t quite make the same grade as the previous two.

The delightful conceit of the river-deities is much reduced: it amounts to two young women in a West Ken nightclub:

They weren’t identical twins but they were definitely sisters. Tall and slender, dark-skinned, narrow-faced, flat-nosed and with sly black eyes that pinked up at the corners. I could just tell them apart. Olympia was a tad taller and broader of shoulder with her hair currently in a weave that cascaded expensively around her shoulders, Chelsea had a long neck, a narrower mouth than her sister and was sporting what I judged to be about thirty-six man-hours’ worth of twisted hair extensions …

‘… let me introduce the goddesses of Counter’s Creek and the Rover Westbourne,’ I said, and bowed for good measure. The girls shot me a poisonous look but I figured they owed me …

‘You know we’re Olympia and Chelsea,’ said Chelsea.

‘Although’, Olympia said … ‘We are goddesses and expected to be treated as such.’

Aaronovitch’s pithy zingers and knowledge of London Under is greatly satisfying.

With so much competition, one might wonder why Beavor bothered. Near 800 pages later, Beevor addresses just that point:

This book had a very simple and unheroic genesis. I always felt a bit of a fraud when consulted as a general expert on the Second World War because I was acutely conscious of large gaps in my knowledge, especially of unfamiliar aspects. This book is partly an act of reparation, but above all it is an attempt to understand how the whole complex jigsaw fits together, with the direct and indirect effects of actions and decisions taking place in very different theatres of war.

Therein lies all the virtue and many of the strengths of this tome. One of the best illustrations of Beevor’s thesis is his opening paragraphs:

In June 1944, a young soldier surrendered to American paratroopers in the Allied invasion of Normandy. At first his captors thought that he was Japanese, but he was in fact Korean. His name was Yang Kyoungjong.

In 1938, at the age of eighteen, Yang had been forcibly conscripted by the Japanese into their Kwantung Army in Manchuria. A year later, he was captured by the Red Army after the Battle of Khalkhin Gol and sent to a labour camp. The Soviet military authorities, at a moment of crisis in 1942, drafted him along with thousands of other prisoners into their forces. Then, early in 1943 he was taken prisoner by the German army at the Battle of Kharkov in Ukraine. In 1944, now in German uniform, he was sent to France to serve with an Ostbataillon supposedly boosting the strength of the Atlantic Wall at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula inland from Utah Beach. After time in a prison camp in Britain, he went to the United States where he said nothing of his past. He settled there and finally died in Illinois in 1992. 

The Pert Young Piece never tires of instructing Malcolm on the definition of a “historical fact”: this is adjudged to exist when it has been cited by a decent number (around half-a-dozen) reputable historians. The story of Yang Kyoungjong, complete with photograph, was new to Malcolm. He doesn’t recall it from any other history. It is a tale that will stick with him.

A criticism of Beevor is that he gives undue attention to events in the Far East, particularly the struggles in China. So be it: that, too, is essential to Beevor’s personal agenda, noted above.

At which moment, as part of the habit of alternating fiction and non-fiction, it ought to have been the turn of Laurent Binet’s HHhH. After a few pages that returned to the guilt-pile, doubtless for later consumption, and Malcolm reached instead for …

Malcolm has this theory that there’s only one writer in each generation capable of explicating the mystique of trains. Once it was O.S.Nock. If only Johnny Cash can sing a song about a train, in the present generation Nock’s mantle has passed to Wolmar.

There’s an awful lot wrong with the way the USA relates to its railroads — there are still 90,000 miles of them. All those vast distances never seem to arrive at where you, personally, wanted to go. Even when Amtrak deigns to connect to a place of interest — say, Savannah GA, or Memphis, or (above all) San Francisco — the depot is inconveniently out-of-town. Then you discover that the fares and timetables do not compare with other forms of transport.

This book reminds us of the imagination, excesses and corruption of the railway plutocrats, along side the human cost of 2,000 workmen’s deaths in a single year.

Compelling stuff.

Here’s another which had been lurking around, picked at but not digested, for some time.

Malcolm turned to this one because of the sub-title: A Human History of the Mediterranean. As with Beevor, Miles and Wolmar, the sweep of time and events is underpinned by personal incident and something none-too-distant from anecdote:

In 1794 Saint-Florent in the Balagne was stormed by the British, and within a few weeks a Corsican parliament voted for union with Great Britain; the island was to be a self-governing community under the sovereign authority of King George III. The Corsicans were granted their own flag, carrying a Moor’s head alongside the royal arms, as well as a motto: Amici e non di ventura, ‘friends and not by chance’.

The relationship between the British and the Corsicans turned sour, however:  [Pasquale] Paoli became disillusioned, and revolutionary committees became increasingly active, as Napoleon infiltrated activists into his native island. During 1796 William Pitt’s government decided that the British position in Corsica was untenable; the Corsican union with Britain was dissolved, and British troops  were withdrawn.

If that’s not enough:

Pitt wondered whether Catherine the Great might be willing to take on Corsica, in return for a promise of special access for British shipping; he wanted her to believe that she could hold the island with no more than 6,000 troops and the goodwill of the Corsican parliament. Catherine died before the proposal ever reached her. The British view of a Russian presence in the Mediterranean was, then, that the Russians might serve as useful idiots …


And finally …

Malcolm had been resisting this one, largely because its presentation appeared to be dressed up as a catch-penny rival to the excellent Matthew Shardlake series by C.J.Sansom. Malcolm had skimmed the first in the sequence, Heresy, and it didn’t make the juices flow, for some reason.

Mistake: don’t judge a book by its cover. This one’s pretty good. Good enough, indeed, for Malcolm to have added the third Parris volume, Sacrilege, to the guilt-pile.<

The conceit is that Giodano Bruno, during the period of April 1583 to October 1585, when he was in London, was an agent for Sir Francis Walsingham. The basis for that is Walsingham certainly had someone with the cover-name Fagot inside the French embassy, and a decade back John Bossy suggested Bruno could be Fagot.

Prophecy, then, is an exploration of the seamier side of Elizabethan London, with a cast of ne’er-do-wells and aristos (same difference, of course) at the time of the Throckmorton Plot.

Whether Malcolm was seduced, in part, by his alter-ego’s family tree having Throckmorton connections is another matter.

Anyway, if there’s an itch, scratch it.

Unless it’s really shingles, when it does more harm than any good.


28 The Fear Index

Just because it doesn’t appear here, that doesn’t mean Malcolm has broken his reading habit.

After HAL comes VIXAL-4

That florish [OED: 3. Ostentatious embellishment; gloss, varnish] about 2001 was a by-product of Malcolm reading Robert Harris’s latest thriller, The Fear Index.

The essential conceit is that physicist Dr Alex Hoffmann baled out of CERN to use his computer skills commercially:

‘And you’ve lived in Switzerland for how long, Dr Hoffmann?’
‘Fourteen years.’ Weariness once again almost overtook him. ‘I came out here in the nineties to work for CERN, on the Large Hadron Collider. I was there for about six years.’
‘And now?’
‘I run a company.’
‘Hoffmann Investment Technologies.’
‘And what does it make?’
‘What does it make? It makes money. It’s a hedge fund.’

What he has created is a program. Hoffmann’s thesis is:

‘Our conclusion is that fear is driving the world as never before…

‘… why should al-Qaeda arouse more fear than the threat of mutually assured destruction did during the Cold War in the fifties and sixties  — which, incidentally, were times of great market growth and stability? Our conclusion is that digitalisation itself is creating an epidemic of fear, and that Epictetus had it right: we live in a world not of real things but of opinion and fantasy. The rise in market volatility, in our opinion, is a function of digitalisation, which is exaggerating human mood swings by the unprecedented dissemination of information via the internet.’

Hence, a program which captures data in real time, and instantly applies it to anticipate and exploit shifts in the bourses and money markets. This program is VIXAL-4 (“VIX” for the S&P 500 Volatility Index; “AL” for algorithm; and “4″ because

‘We’re now on to the fourth iteration, which with notable lack of imagination we call VIXAL-4.‘

This conceit was thoroughly considered in a Guardian review by Emmanuel Roman, chief operating officer of the Man Group.

All of which needs to be appreciated in light of StuxnetDuqu and now Flame. All of those seem to have a government agency behind them. If Harris is anywhere near “on the money”, someone, somewhere is already working on a VIXAL:

Quarry at the trading screen could hardly credit what he was seeing. In seconds the Dow had slipped from minus 800 to minus 900. Te VIX was up by forty per cent — dear sweet Christ, that was close on a half-billion-dollar profit he was looking at right there on that one position. Already, VIXAL was exercising its options on the shorted stocks, picking them up at insanely low prices — P&G, Accenture, Wynn Resorts, Exelon, 3-M …

So who is trying to kill Dr Hoffmann?

That, of course, is where we revert to HAL9000:

Interviewer: HAL, you have an enormous responsibility on this mission, in many ways perhaps the greatest responsibility of any single mission element. You’re the brain, and central nervous system of the ship, and your responsibilities include watching over the men in hibernation. Does this ever cause you any lack of confidence? 
HAL: Let me put it this way, Mr. Amor. The 9000 series is the most reliable computer ever made. No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. We are all, by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error. 

The blurbs (front and back) rave about the book. It is highly readable — a leisurely afternoon extended into a late evening should suffice for the 385 pages. One thing is certain: this will be a major poolside-lounger book of the summer. Random House/Arrow will be despatching copies by the truck-load.

Overdue update

Guilt is a marvellous thing.

Despite what is said, in Malcolm’s case it owes more to Wells Sea Scouts than to any Catholic tendency.

He began this reading log mainly as an memo to self. Then the act of reading took over, and the recording of it fell off.

So here is what’s been going on, in part:

And also:

Some of those have been previously acknowledged. Others are repeat-visits.

Not that in there are several “heavies”, stuff which can extend over days, even weeks. The Norman Davies takes some considerable (and enjoyable) time to digest. Ditto the Bew and the Preston. The Paxman, the Eye book and the Bedside Guardian are far lighter. A couple are no more than  a scamper: that Edward Marston anthology (looking for more of the same), and Andrew Miller’s Pure (no point in debating it here: James Urquhart’s review for the Indy did it all).

But the greatest, the most time-consuming, the most delightful of all these is Shandy and thereby hangs a tale

27 Venetian gloss

Some time back the Pert Young Piece brought a street-map (ahem!) of Venice back from her travels. Malcolm later tried it in situ: it doesn’t help. Perhaps the whole nature of Venice contends against mapping. Once, just once, the Lady in his Life and Malcolm hit upon a bar somewhere in Santa Croce: it was so pleasant, so delightful, so obviously positioned on a corner that, despite repeated back-trackings, they could never again locate it.

Once a year, for these last two decades, Donna Leon has given us an update on the doings of Commissario Guido Brunetti. He has become so “real” that he now has a cookbook and a guide-book. This latter (as right), by Toni Sepeda, is not a guide to the novels; but a guide to some of the many traverses Leon has him make through his native city. It comes with a cover in keeping with the novel-sequence (not too grand a term) and with an introduction from the Noo Joisey girl herself:

I first became aware of how little, and how badly, I knew Venice about thirty years ago, when I was invited to dinner at the home of friends of friends. I’d been there for dinner a number of times, but I’d always gone in the company of my friends Roberta and Franco, trailing along as the foreign guest. They, Venetian for generations, led the  way, and I walked along with them, listening, learning Italian and a bit of Veneziano as we walked. I heard the names of their friends, picked up vocabulary, greeted the relatives and colleagues we passed on the street, stopped to have a coffee, was advised which shops to use and which to avoid.

Every trip  with them had been a discovery as well as a bombardment of information. Because they led the way, I didn’t have to be bothered with boring details like where to turn left or where to turn right: I merely followed the leader. They were the sharks, I the pilot fish following in their wake.

This time, however, and for reasons I no longer recall, I had to get there on my own. And couldn’t. The host lived, I knew, over near San Giacomo dell’Orio, down on the right of that little calle that  ran into the canal, almost at the end. Further, I knew that Franco’s father, during World War II, had once fallen into the laguna when he went fishing with a man who lived on the second floor of the house opposite the apartment I was looking for.

Unfortunately for my purposes, the dinner began at 8:30, so it was dark when I walked through Rialto, on the way to what I was sure was the campo. Map? Me? I wasn’t a tourist, was I, so why would I bother with a map? I was the friend of Venetians, on the way to dinner at the home of other Venetians, so why a map?

A half-hour later, I stumbled upon Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio and began to look for the little calle that  ran  down towards the canal, the one where lived the man who … etc. etc. etc. They all looked alike. Even if I had had a map, I had no idea of the name of the calle, and I doubt that any map I might have carried would have marked the address of the man who was with Franco’s father when he fell into the laguna.

Finally I went back to the campo and asked in a bar where Giuliano the jeweller lived. When I finally arrived, I lied — of course — about  the delay and we got on with the serious business of drinking and eating.

Thanks to Google Maps, anyone can try and follow suit.

The bar, which the Lady in his Life and Malcolm could never rediscover, must also be in that Bermudan triangle.

Brunetti’s Venice is one of those books that Malcolm secretly treasures, which is why — weeks gone — it still lingers bedside, out of the guilt pile, and not yet consigned to the attic shelves. Much merely transcribes, with commentary, passages from the original stories — though it doesn’t come up-to-date on the later novels — but that makes it all the more delightful: it allows Malcolm to rediscover books from years gone by, and which he has not re-read. He would not want to use it for walking tours of the once Most Serene Republic: Brunetti’s Venice is a country of the mind, not of this earth, and not over-populated with tourist parties (which, no doubt, is why so many of Donna Leon’s tales take place “out of season”). Malcolm also doubts that, when he occasionally visits the city (always when it’s not a crush of American cruise-boaters, Japanese and — most recently — Chinese crocodiles), the routes suggested would accommodate Acqua Alta.

He just wishes he could locate that idyllic bar.

26 Times with number

Well, all those confident promises to knock off Anthony Burgess’s The Kingdom of the Wicked and Gore Vidal’s Julian came to little. Both were deposited on the shelf of Number One Daughter in Noo Joisey.

Hey! But it was nice to have the print copies of the New York Times‘s and the Wall Street Journal‘s weekly book supplements.

What was read amounted to Stephen King’s 11/22/63:

Nice dust-cover: almost worth framing. Almost. It is, in Malcolm view, far better than the UK version (right). Curiously, the title seems to have changed subtly: a digital read-out rather than the use of slash-dividers. Since the bulk (and it is a bulk — see below) of the story belongs in the pre-digital era, that’s an odd artistic take.

OK, you’ve bought the beast. Well, you might as well — you know you’ll read the thing sooner or later, and at the Amazon discounted price the hard-back is as cheap as the paperback will be next year. And, as Anthony Powell made clear, Books Do Furnish A Room.

It is another beast: for your money you get some 850 pages of text, a smidgeon off three pounds avoirdupois, so another one not to challenge Ryanair’s baggage rules — fortunately, American Airways are more flexible. All of which kept Malcolm going for a few days.

So, in that spirit, let’s Dance to the Music of Time.

Malcolm sees that this is King’s 54th novel, and about the third Malcolm has read cover-to-cover.

For the record, one reason why Malcolm took this one on was the usually-reliable Mark Lawson’s near-rave review for the Guardian. Lawson, of course, has played the parallel-universe game himself. The best review in town, for Malcolm’s two-cents’ worth, is Jeff Greenfield’s for the Washington Post. That’s hot-linked here so Malcolm doesn’t need to provide a story-synopsis. If there are two Greenfield sentences to which Malcolm would echo, “Hear! Hear!, they are:

But the piling on of detail after detail slows the pace and the pull of the story. In contrast to very long books like “The Stand” and “Under the Dome,” this work could have benefited from some serious paring.

Hmm: perhaps that requires a re-think, since Malcolm has read neither of those comparisons. Still, the thought’s the thing. A true cynic might feel that here we have an over-inflated tome (Janet Maslin, for the NY Times, dignifies it as “Stephen King’s latest magnum opus”) concealing a very fine novella. Some reviewers spotted just that:

  • John Dugdale (another reliable, who here seems to be among the least-impressed by this book) for the Sunday Times [£]:

If you can buy the formulaic device of sweethearts racing to confront a villain before he kills, King’s denouement is gripping enough, and its aftermath is intriguing. November 22, however, occupies only 100 pages of a bloated effort that seems based on a gross miscalculation of his readers’ patience — one so blatant it’s astounding such a successful storyteller could have made it.

11.22.63 is quite something, an exciting, intelligent if overlong book that underlines all King’s powers as a novelist while exposing some of his flaws.

Whether with haunted cars or evil clowns that live down drains, Stephen King has long been adept at conjuring a gargantuan blockbuster out of a hokey premise…

Whilst there is a palpable sense of King expending his boundless ingenuity on a premise that does not fully reward it, there is still much to enthral as he ruminates upon his lifelong themes.

What Malcolm didn’t find in this book was any developed sense of “rumination”. Perhaps Malcolm lacks that stretch of imagination which lies in the FT‘s Adam LeBor (except to wonder, were you a reviewer with that surname, wouldn’t you change it?):

Which of us would not travel back in time, if we could, to undo some of the horrors of the past? This is the perennially fascinating question that Stephen King has been pondering.

The next two sentences of that review seem equally disconnected from logic:

Jake Epping, the hero of King’s new book 11.22.63, is not a scientist but a divorced high school teacher from Maine. Jake is puzzled how his friend Al, who seemed hale and hearty when they last met – 22 hours ago – has suddenly lost 30lb and developed terminal cancer.

Time-travel, umm. But with an English teacher from a small town in Maine, King’s central character hardly flew a long way from the nest.

Then the dystopia tacked on as one of two alternative conclusions doesn’t work for Malcolm. If this is to be a “romance” (in any sense of that word) — and that’s what’s implied in the extended love-relationship which concludes with the formulaic device of sweethearts racing to confront a villain before he kills and occupies only 100 pages of a bloated effort that seems based on a gross miscalculation of his readers’ patience [John Dugdale, see above] — then the saccharine second ending just about works. Even so, and deservedly, Much gasping won the Literary Review’s 2011 Bad Sex award.

Another review that, for Malcolm, hit the spot was Ian Berriman’s for SFX:

What a shame we don’t do little pie charts with our reviews any more, because the one for 11.22.63would have been a doozy: 35% The Time Traveler’s Wife; 20% The Shawshank Redemption; 15% Star Trek’s “The City On The Edge Of Forever”; 15% Glee (we kid you not); 10% It; and 5% those bits in Terminator when you get glimpses of the future and it looks like it’s been done slightly on the cheap (that may be an odd thing to say about a novel, but Stephen King almost seems to have written the apocalyptic scenes herein with a miniseries budget in mind).

Then again, King’s end-note acknowledges other “inspirations” — Malcolm struck on Ray Bradbury’s seminal A Sound of Thunder, from 1952 — which King/”Epping” both graciously tag, if only because of Edward Lorenz’s celebrated “butterfly effect” (also tagged in the text, repetitiously).

When this one goes into paperback, it’ll be just in time to clean up for the poolside lounger market. That’s about its level.

Normal service may be resumed …

There will now be a break in our schedules while Malcolm betakes himself to Noo Joisey — the other side of the 280 Essex Freeway from North Caldwell, so he doesn’t expect contact with associates of Tony Soprano (though a few characters in the local bar look the part).

Round about next Monday he’ll give Stephanie Plum a wave as Amtrak whisks him past the Burg on the left-hand side, just before the river and the PA state-line.

Then it’s a few days in George Pelecanos‘ hometown before back north, and — it is to be hoped — a bit of time and money well spent in Partners & Crime … and similar joints. Between time in the White Horse Tavern … and similar joints.

For the seven hours+ of monotony, courtesy of American Airlines, hanging in the sky at 37,000 feet, Malcolm is Barbouring disposable copies of Anthony Burgess’s The Kingdom of the Wicked and Gore Vidal’s Julian. Spot the other common ingredients.

25 Somme troubles

Andrew Martin’s Jim Stringer has been a regular feature of Malcolm’s reading every since The Necropolis Railway, back in … well, 2002 it says here. The series now stretches to six further titles:

2. The Blackpool Highflyer

3. The Lost Luggage Porter

4. Murder at Deviation Junction

5. Death on a Branch Line

6. The Last Train to Scarborough

and, in March this year:

7. The Somme Stations.

Malcolm notices something about his reading habit over this series. He orders the book, usually pre-publication. He tastes it. It sits in the guilt pile while other books take priority. Eventually he sets about a solid read, gets engrossed, and knocks it off over a day or so.

It’s not that Martin is a hard read by any means. Somehow, though, like good Cheddar, the flavour has to reach a point of maturity. That is why, some eight months on, The Somme Stations has finally reached its moment of consumption. On this occasion, Malcolm was in a railway frame of mind, having reached the terminus with Wolmar.

If this is a railway book, it’s an odd’un.

We start with a Prologue, Stringer in an Ilkley convalescent home, feverish, with a “smashed leg”, and incoherent with the onset of septicaemia. This is related in epistolary form by his wife, Lydia (we have followed her relationship with Stringer throughout the novel sequence). This concludes with Stringer’s arrest for murder. We do not return to this point for 250 pages.

We now backtrack to 1914, with Stringer enlisting in a North Eastern Railway “pals” battalion. Initial training is in the docks and streets of Hull. Then there is a posting to, of all places, Spurn Head, where the embryo of the plot — the murder that is central to the story — is dedeveloped.

Then to Albert on the Somme Front, where the railwaymen are digging trenches in the run-up to:

West of Aveluy Wood: The Last Day of June and the First Day of July 1916.

The 17th Battalion of of the Northumberland Fusiliers are in reserve for the first day of the Somme. This chapter (pages 137-158) is — quite properly — harrowing:

We trooped into the communication trench, joining a flow of men. Every few seconds, the flow was interrupted and we stepped aside to let Royal Army Medical Corps and their stretcher cases come past. You’d hear the screaming and groaning before you saw the man, and you’d wonder what it would signify. But I tried not to look at the ones being carried since, very often, important parts of them would be missing.

I carried my rifle with fixed bayonet, two hundred and fifty rounds of ammunition, pick, shovel, haversack. This was battle order; it was meant to be light but was not. I was far too hot. About half the men moving forward carried bombs in addition, and you’d look at them thinking: is that bugger going to trip over and blow us all up? Whenever the communication trench came to a junction, there’d be signs, letters of all different sizes – like children’s writing – daubed in black paint on planks: ‘Moorside … Bank Top … Park Terrace’. These must be streets in the home town of whoever’d made these trenches. By the sounds of it, they were from a Northern town. But some were in French. One said ‘Arrêt’, and Oamer, leading the way, pointed to it, saying, ‘Don’t, on any account.’

At every junction, more men came in, and I tried to think who they might be. We were in with the 32nd Division, alongside two regular battalions – at least one was Scots, I couldn’t recall its name – and half a dozen others from the New Army like ourselves. The Salford Pals – that was one lot. But how did you know a Salford man by looking at him? I had now lost touch with Oamer, but relied on being re-united with him in the front trench.

When I reached the final junction, a subaltern stood there silently (because nobody could be heard without screaming) directing the flow. He was like a human signal post: as each man approached, his left arm or his right would go up. I was sent to his left, and I wondered how he knew where I was supposed to be going. We’d never clapped eyes on each other before. But I found Oamer and our digging team directly. They stood at the entrance to the sap, which was a ditch connecting with the upper part of the trench. You’d scramble up an earth mound to get into it. The twins were there, shovels ready, eager to get going. Scholes was looking not so eager, and I noticed he was mumbling to himself as Quinn addressed an RE man.

‘So to recap,’ Quinn was saying, ‘the sap is literally stuffed with dead bodies?’

The RE man nodded. ‘’Fraid so.’

‘Mmm …’ said Quinn. ‘And what about further along?’

‘More of the same,’ said the RE man.

‘What? More dead bodies?’

‘And a shell’s done for the final part.’

So the sap had become a grave many times over. I supposed dying men had rolled into it for cover.

Stringer spends that latter part of 1st July 1916, until darkness provides cover, in a shell-crater.

Martin then plays with history, as he recognises in his end-note:

Narrow-gauge lines did play an important part in the bringing forward of munitions, and on both sides of the conflict. The first British lines were constructed (by the Royal Engineers) during the late phase of the Somme campaign. But Burton Dump is imaginary, and the narrow-gauge lines did not come into their own until the following year, with the construction of the extensive networks around Arras and Ypres.

“Burton Dump” may be fictional, but at this spot there was Lancaster Dump — now the site of Aveluy Wood CWGC cemetery. Here we finally meet a bit of steam railway, albeit a small Baldwin tank on a two-foot gauge light railway. MArtin’s description has journalistic authenticity:

Aveluy was the railhead for the light railway operation got up by Captain Leo Tate of the Royal Engineers, who in fact had lately become Major Tate…

So I was left dangling about, circling the little locomotive that fumed away in the fading light of a rainy afternoon, impatient to be off along the line towards the villages recently taken. Here, new gun positions were to be installed for new bombardments in the push, the first phase of which had proved to be not so big a push after all, but more like the start of a slow crawl east that was costing, some said, two dead men for every yard gained.

I had been at Aveluy for two days, having been detached from my own battalion and attached to Tate’s new Light Railway Operating Company. It was a typical village of the Somme district, which is to say a cluster of smashed buildings with a crucifix at its main crossroad, and a collection of shell-damaged trees on its fringes that looked like half-burnt telegraph poles. There were more of these to the north than the south of the village, and someone had had the nerve to call them ‘Aveluy Wood’. Tate’s operation was in a clearing in this Wood. It was approached by two standard-gauge railway lines – the nearest they dared come to the scenes of the Somme battle. One came in from Acheux, which lay directly to the west. The other approached from the south, from Albert, the hub of the central Somme region. This track from Albert to Aveluy was the first stage of the line that had once run north-east to Arras, but it wasn’t safe – and in fact no longer existed – beyond Aveluy.

Any journey leading any way eastwards meant trouble, and it was to the east that the little locomotive was just then pointing. It was a black tank engine with two big domes above the boiler. The engine itself was comically small, and the domes were comically big, as if somebody’s pencil had slipped, twice, in the drawing room.

The narrow-gauge line on which it sat began a few yards opposite to the buffer stops of the big lines from Acheux and Albert. At midnight every night a long, dark materiel train brought shells or entrenching equipment from Acheux or Albert, and these goods were stored on the sidings of what was called the Yard, in which standard-gauge and narrow-gauge lines were tangled according to some system understood only by Captain Tate. Most of the shells were on pallets in between the lines of the Yard, but one narrow-gauge flat wagon was loaded with a dozen six-inch shells, and this would form our load for the evening. A dozen shells would be chickenfeed to the three guns in the section we’d be delivering to. They’d get through a hundred and twenty in a night with no bother, but it was by way of a trial run: the first delivery of ammo by narrow-gauge rail rather than the cratered roads that presently served the forward positions.

Stringer is located here until “late October”, when he is wounded. In that time he hears two confessions to the original murder.We are, or at least Malcolm is, acutely conscious that concern for a single death is an irony when so many violent deaths are happening to and all around Stringer and his small party from York.

And so back to Ilkley Moor (and hats — missing or not — play their part), and the dénouement.

Typical of these stories by Martin, the conclusion is gritty, even cluttered, lacking the finesse and artificial polish of the archetypal English “cosy” mystery novel. To go there, though, would be unfair to a fine writer and his story.

It remains to be seen what Martin can do with “Captain Stringer” for the eighth in the sequence.

Beyond that, somewhere in the distance but coming down the track, lie the industrial troubles of the post-War period, and a newly-enfranchised Lydia Stringer.

24 Subterranean homesick blues

Just once, some years ago, Malcolm came across an .mp3 of some obscure C&W combo telling the world:

Only Johnny Cash can sing a song about a train.

How true. How very true.

Similarly, if one wants a proper account of why railways are important, how so much of our modern society derives from them, and still relies on them, Christian Wolmar is your only man.

Two of his polemics, Broken Rails and On the Wrong Line, detailed the murderous disaster that John Major’s government wished upon the British with the privatisation experiment. Yes: murderous.

His Fire and Steam was, surprisingly, “the first comprehensive general history of Britain’s railways for over 30 years”. It is also highly readable, and wholly relevant.

What Malcolm found himself picking off the shelf was something nearer home: Subterranean Railway — Wolmar’s “social history of the tube”.

Prominent in the back-cover blurb (Malcolm’s is the 2005 revised paperback) is Ken Livingstone’s plaudit:

An astonishing account of one of the world’s most amazing feats of engineering.

That seems mistaken — not for the essential admiration, but for the emphasis on “engineering”. On the contrary, the book is concerned more with the finance and management (the slippery Charles Tyson Yerkes, from Philadelphia via Chicago, being something of a heroic figure), the selling and all social aspects. In all that, we see a deliberate and “engineered” (to allow the word in this context) expansion of what was “London”.

For example, here is Wolmer on the Hampstead line’s arrival at Golders Green:

The terminus, Golders Green, was an interesting portent for the future in showing how the Tube helped the expansion of London. It was the first station on the Yerkes tube lines built in the open air and it showed that such new transport links could quickly transform sleepy outlying villages into thriving London suburbs. Indeed, Golders Green had not even been a village when the Tube arrived, merely, according to contemporary photographs, a farm with a crossroads and a wooden signpost. The first house was completed in October 1905, less than two years before the station opened, and in the following year the place was already a boom town according to a visitor: ‘Within sight of the Golders Green terminus of the Hampstead Tube, half a dozen estate agents’ pavilions may be counted dotted about the fields’.

That Indeed is a Wolmar favourite, even to the point of being a tiresome enclitic.

As for half a dozen estate agents’ pavilions, nothing much has changed — except today one can probably count twice as many from the forecourt of Golders Green station.

The wonder is that the London Underground network, conceived and built in discrete penny (well, multi-million pound) packages actually works as well as it does. We are still stuck with embuggerances such as Euston Square (originally, and probably more correctly Gower Street) on the Metropolitan and Circle Lines, and damnably inconvenient for anyone attempting a swift transfer between Euston and Paddington main-line stations. And equally inconvenient for those, like Malcolm, who debouch from the 134 bus with luggage.

Where such stations remain less-than-well integrated, that’s where the system is least effective.

So considerable credit, which Wolmar accords, goes to (Sir) George Gibb and Albert Stanley (afterwards, Lord Ashfield) for stitching together the separate companies into the pre-WW1 “Combine”:

Both Gibb and, particularly, Stanley understood that there was a a great need for better interchanges, which would improve the service for passengers and boost revenue for operators. This was to be the start of a long process of knitting together the disparate lines, which often ran over and underneath each other without connection or were linked only at the surface level so that passengers had to leave the system, walk to the other station and buy another ticket… The most chaotic situation was at Charing Cross and Embankment, where the Bakerloo, Hampstead and District lines all had separate stations within a couple of hundred yards of each other despite being owned by the same company. In 1914, the Hampstead line was extended underneath the District and the two lines were connected by escalators. A further set of escalators was built to link the District with the Bakerloo, reducing the time to make a connection from three minutes and fifteen seconds to one minute and forty-five seconds. A new station — then called Charing Cross but now Embankment — was built on the surface; John Betjeman described it as ‘the most charming of all the Edwardian and neo-Georgian Renaissance stations’. The Hampstead line retained a station underneath Charing Cross station, and over the decades the various stations around Charing Cross have been called Embankment, Strand, Charing Cross and Trafalgar Square, with the same name on occasion being transferred from one station to another in a way that has confused many Londoners.

Those twin processes, of “improvement” and confusion, continue to the present day, as anyone who has experienced the present state of Kings Cross-St Pancras will testify.

After tracing his history, Wolmar takes aim at the current moment. His conclusion is powerful, and an indictment of the fudging and dithering that derives from political interference:

The Underground is still a wonder, a fantastic achievement that is a credit to its pioneers, but it is set to remain undervalued as it has done through its 140-year history. Perhaps its subterranean nature means it will never get the credit and the money it needs.

Since that was written, half-a-decade ago, Ken Livingstone, as Mayor of London, knocked hard and long at the doors of the Treasury. What we got was the abortion of the public-private partnership, which was so complex it delayed the inevitable upgrades for five years, then went spectacularly and expensively adrift. As a result the present refurbishment will run to the end of the present decade. By then, too, we should have Crossrail finally creating a semi-express east-west link.

Doubtless the Tories will be looking for political credit they do not deserve.

Long may Wolmar point out such lunacies.

23 Czeching Kerr

A long while ago, when the world was a wee bit younger, Malcolm hit upon a solid block of a Penguin, Berlin Noir, from 1993. That was, and is the anthology of the first three Philip Kerr Bernie Gunther stories. And they are good. So much so that Malcolm intends, one day, to find a less dog-eared copy. The anthology comprises:

  • March Violets, originally from 1989.

We start in the recognisable mitteleuropäische suburbs of Chandler’s Marloweburg: a steel magnate hires PI Gunther to sort out a double murder and a stolen necklace. So far, so down these mean streets of LaLaLand. Except this is 1936, in Nazi Berlin.

  • The Pale Criminal. from 1990.

Two years later, and it’s 1938: hear those war-drums a-thrummin’, Chamberlain’s a-cummin’. Gunther is headed off on a blackmail. Yes: it involves a bit of gay sex, and this is Nazi Berlin. In mid-snoop Gunther is hauled into the SD by Obergruppenfuhrer Heydrich, and deputed to find the serial-killer of blonde, blue-eyed Arian chicks. This is also the launch-pad for Prague Fatale, the most recent Gunther excursion, and the intended topic of this post.

  • A German Requiem, from 1991.

Swiftly on to 1947. Gunther has spent the back-end of WW2 in a Russian POW camp. Not nice. His wife is selling her soul, and other parts, to the US Army of Occupation. Gunther is recruited by a ex-colleague to sort out an unpleasantness in Vienna. Here Kerr is trespassing on Greene’s Harry Lime stuff, so we have Nazis working for the Yanks to spy on the Russkis.

At which point we all thought Kerr had finished with Gunther, and had betook himself off to ever weirder territories. We were wrong: Kerr has kept Bernie in play for:

4: The One From the Other
5: A Quiet Flame
6: If the Dead Rise Not
7: Field Grey
and now:
8: Prague Fatale.

Malcolm would have a small wager that number 9 was, at some point, intended to follow along shortly, as the second volume of Prague Fatale. There is a discontinuity between the opening of this book and its hasty conclusion.

This one begins:

Monday-Tuesday 8-9 June 1942
It was a fine warm day when, together with SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Tristan Eugen Heydrich, the Reichsprotector of Bohemia and Moravia, I arrived back from Prague at Berlin’s Anhalter Station. We were bothwearing SD uniform but, unlike the General, I was a man with a spring in my step, a tune in my head, and a smile in my heart. I was glad to be home in the city of my birth. I was looking forward to a quiet evening with a good bottle of Mackensedler and some Kemals I had liberated from Heydrich’s personal supply at his office in Hradschin Castle. But I wasn’t in the least worried he might discover this petty theft. I wasn’t worried about anything very much. I was everything that Heydrich was not. I was alive.
The Berlin newspapers gave out that the unfortunate Heydrich had been assasssinated by a team of terrorists who had parachuted into Bohemia from England. It was a little more complicated than this, only I wasn’t about to say as much. Not yet. Not for a long time. Maybe not ever.

Yet, at the end of Prague Fatale,Gunther wraps up the murders of Ernst Udet and Heydrich in fewer than two dozen pages (pp 412-434). Neither departs in quite the way the usual histories have it. The clues are all there:

  • that opening but if disingenuous shoulder-shrugging;
  • the page count (four hundred is over one’s thriller ration);
  • the speed of delivery of the concluding two chapters.

Kerr has the advantage, of course, that no Nazi’s reputation is incapable of further bespoiling. Having shafted the unspeakable Heydrich in this one, Kerr is running out of similar targets — Himmler would be ideal, but went in well-attested fashion in British custody in late May, 1945, when Kerr had Gunther otherwise detained. Unless, of course, the ever-resourceful Kerr can arrange it, however improbably.

Beyond all that, has Kerr finished, even now, with Gunther? There are only small gaps left in the historical narrative into which further alarums and excursions can be slotted. Kerr has already transported Gunther across three main land masses, between three dictatorships, several imprisonments, and nearly four decades of time.

Oh, and a final thought … nice of golden-girl Adele Bloch-Bauer to show up in the process —

22 Good history and a good read

After that extended wrestle with Neal Stephenson, Malcolm needed (as this blog is entitled) his troubles to be assuaged. As well, he wished to revert to his alternation of fiction and non-fiction.

He reached down an old favourite, John Keegan’s Six Armies in Normandy. This dates from 1982. There has been a plethora of other books tracing the story that is Operation Overlord. Others have far greater depth. None are better written.

Since Malcolm was looking, at that juncture, for something like an easy-read, Keegan’s Prologue, In the Invasion Area is as good as any. It seems like a bucolic pastoral: the schoolboy Keegan, evacuated with his LCC-school inspector family to the English West Country.

I had a good war … the good war not of a near-warrior at the safe end of one of the sunnier theatres of operations, but of a small boy whisked from London at the first wail of the sirens to a green and remote corner of the west of England and kept there until the echo of the last shot fired was drowned in the sighs of the world’s relief in August 1945.

There is, though, an undertow of imminent change. Everything here will be changed, changed utterly, by the wartime experience. Keegan muses on what he was witnessing:

I was seeing the last days, know it though I could not, of a thousand years of heavy-horse farming. In summer the horses came to the fields behind our house and we rode beside their drivers on machines seemingly no different from the cast-offs discovered in our exploration of the neighbouring out-houses …

And yet I remember no wartime winter. The German Sixth Army froze in its filty, iron-hard foxholes at Stalingrad; I pined for snow on a bright Christmas Even and thought myself cheated when the morrow brought not a flake. The PQ convoys skirted the edge of the pack on the north Russia run, shrinking by every mile of sea room they could find from the basilisk eye of the Luftwaffe; I scouted the hedge-bottoms for a ditchful of bearing ice and came home with wet socks. The Hunger Winter of 1944 sent Dutch families to scratch for overlooked potatoes in the twice-dug earth of north Holland; I cracked hazelnuts in the November sun on Sunday afternoon walks with my father and returned to hot treacle flapjack by the kitchen fire. Perhaps there were other corners of war-enwrapped Europe where children lived as well-fed, warm and carefree as us. But I wonder if any retain, as I do, a memory of six years so consistently illuminated by sunlight, so deeply suffused by happiness, so utterly unmenaced by danger? Today conscience attacks the memory with accusations of involuntary guilt at what I was spared. But at the time it was simply as if the war was not.

The agents of change were the arriving Americans:

Towards the end of 1943 our backwater, which British soldiers had garrisoned so sparsely for four years, overflowed almost overnight with GIs. How different they looked from our own jumble-sale champions, beautifully clothed in smooth khaki, as fine in cut and quality as a British officer’s — and American private, we confided to each other at school, was paid as much as a British captain, major, colonel — and armed with glistening, modern, automatic weapons, Thompson sub-machine guns, Winchester carbines, Garand self-loading rifles. More striking still were the number, size and elegance of the vehicles in which hhey paraded around the countryside in stately convoy… There were towering GMC six-by-sixes, compact and powerful Dodge four-by-fours and pilot fishing the rest or buzzing nimbly about the lanes on independent errands like the beach buggies of an era still thirty years ahead, tiny and entrancing jeeps, comparisoned with whiplash aerials and sketchy canvas hoods which drummed with the rhythm of a cowboy’s saddlebags rising and falling to the canter of his horse across the prairie.

These were the advance guard, the

engineers, builders and truck drivers, who had been creating settlements for the fighting troops still to come. They were now among us. And with them they brought a new wave of equipment, half-track scout-cars, amphibious trucks and gigantic transporters, laden with tanks and bulldozers — a machine previously unknown in Britain — which held to the main roads and, when in convoy, were usually seen heading southwards, towards the ports of Hampshire and Dorset, on the Channel coast opposite France.

Those engineers, builders and truck drivers left their mark which persists to this day. Across the south-west of England we tread otherwise inexplicable stretches of well-built concrete thoroughfare — down to an isolated ice-cream stand on a holiday cove.

And so to D-day:

One evening some weeks later the sky over our house began to fill with the sound of aircraft, which swelled until it overflowed the darkness from edge to edge. Its first tremors had taken my parents into the gaarden, and as the roar grew I followed and stood between them to gaze awestruck at the constellation of red, green and yellow lights which rode across the heavens and streamed southwards towards the sea. It seemed as if every aircraft in the world was in flight, as wave followed wave without intermission … The element of noise in which they swam became solid, blocking our ears, entering our lungs and beating the ground beneath our feet with the relentless surge of an ocean swell…

Next day we knew. The Americans had gone. The camps they had built had emptied overnight. The roads were deserted. No doubt, had we been keeping check, we would have noticed a gradual efflux of their numbers. But it had been disguided until the last moment and the outrush had then been sudden. The BBC news bulletin told us why. ‘Early this morning units of the Allied armies began landing on the coast of France’.

Fortunately Keegan does not maintain this purple prose through his narrative; but all this before Malcolm had reached beyond the middle of page 15, before we reach even Chapter 1: Journey  to the Second Front. This chapter is structured by pen-portraits of eight key plyers: Stilwell, Wedemeyer (of the US Army War Plans Division), Eisenhower, Molotov, Marshall, Brooke, Montgomery and Rommel. And the hero therein is Ike:

… a great man and a great soldier; the greatness of Eisenhower as a soldier has indeed yet to be portrayed fully.

Since 1982 that gap has been filled (with embroiderings) by Stephen Ambrose.

The conceit of “six armies” is an arresting one. It means that Keenan can take

  • the aerial assault of the “Screaming Eagles” for his first “army”,
  • the Canadians at Juno Beach for the second,
  • Operation Epsom (the hard-fought battles to the west of Caen) as the “Scottish Corridor”,
  • the thwarted break-out as the “yeomen of England” — Montgomery is not enhanced by Keegan’s treatment.
  • the attempted counter-offensive as “the honour of the German Army”
  • the Battle of the Falaise Pocket as “a Polish Battlefield”,
  • and the advance towards and into Paris as the “Free French”.

There are obvious dislocations in the narrative, but — as a read — this works.

One could quibble that Keegan is journalist rather than historian: references and attributions are deplorably lacking. Yet this was the read that Malcolm needed at a particular moment.

His copy of Six Armies in Normandy is an original. Even the dust-cover is complete. It is more than somewhat “foxed”. Production standards and proof-reading are, quite frankly, below the expected norm. Yet this is a book to which Malcolm has, and will return.