Malcolm Redfellow's reading diary

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

Month: July, 2011

9 Newby in Italy

A couple of days refreshing memories of Eric Newby’s sparse, direct and incisive style.

His Love and War in the Apenines has been around for forty years. That makes Malcolm feel very, very old: he can recall borrowing this one from Romford Public Library in the early ’70s, by which time Newby was Travel Editor of the Observer, and obligatory reading. Thanks to the Times/Waterstone’s 99p specials, it’s been time to revisit.

Love and War in the Apenines starts with a typically-understated account of a Special Boat Squadron raid on an airfield on the Catanian coast:

We all knew we were embarked on the worst possible kind of operation, one that had been hastily conceived by someone a long way from the target, and one which we had not had the opportunity to think out in detail for ourselves.

What goes unsaid there is that Newby subsequently received the Military Cross for this excursion.

Sure enough, it goes awry, and Newby ends up as a prisoner-of-war for the next three years. Most of the text  covers the period between his escape — somewhat hindered by a broken ankle — in the confusion after the Italian surrender and his recapture in the mountains over a year later. In the meantime he has met with his future wife, the formidable Wanda.

For Malcolm, though, the best bit is Newby on social division in the prison camp in the Po Valley, housed in an orphanage or orfanotrofio.

Malcolm makes no apology for the length of this excerpt: it is a model of precise language and observation:

Although they were outnumbered by officers drawn from the middle and lower classes who had had to be commissioned, just as they had been in the First War, because there were not enough members of the upper cl§ass to go round, it was the upper class which set the style in the orfanotrofio, just as they had done in the pre-war world outside; the sons and younger brothers of peers and Highland lairds, young merchant bankers, wine shippers and gentlemen jockeys who had ridden in the National, most of them concentrated in cavalry regiments, rifle regiments, one or two Highland regiments and the Brigade of Guards. These amateur soldiers, for they were mostly amateurs, and any professional soldiers who had the same sort of background (any others were soon made into figures of fun), made up the coteries of O.K. people who exercised power. 

These people were very reluctant to consort with outsiders, but as the orfanotrofio was very overcrowded and it was almost impossible to summon up a coterie large enough to take over one of the bigger rooms which contained anything up to twenty-seven beds. and because these rooms were the most desirable because they were on the side of the building which faced away from the afternoon sun, and because not all coteries found other coteries agreeable to them for innumerable reasons which there is no space to go into here, the members always tried to ensure that the rest of the beds were occupied with what they regarded as more or less acceptable ballast, that is to say, or as they would have said if they had actually said it out loud, marginally O.K. people, the sort of people they were prepared to talk to and drink with while the war was on, and then would never see again. And this included a number of people whom they regarded as being downright common but who had the saving grace of being funny; and they took these comics on to the strength in much the same way as their ancestors had employed jesters and dwarfs, to while away the tedious hours between breakfast, lunch and dinner. Everyone else they ignored completely, unless they owned something worth buying, or had some skill which they could make use of to increase their comfort. It was not that they consigned these unfortunates to outer darkness; they simply never invited them in out of it.

If I had not had marginally O.K. friends who had not abandoned me when we moved to the orfanotrofio from the camp in which we had previously been imprisoned I, too, would have become a dweller in darkness, which I did not want to be. I wanted the opportunity to observe the O.K. people at close quarters and some inner voice told me, quite correctly for once, that this was going to be my last chance ever to do so in the whole of my life.

Before the war I had rarely spoken to O.K. people, let alone known any well enough to talk to. Even at Sandhurst in 1940, where I was a member of the Infantry Wing in the Old Buildings, which were so much more elegant than the New Buildings, O.K. people had been rarities. They were accommodated in the hideous New Buildings, which were not really new at all but were newer than the old ones; or else they were members of something called The Royal Armoured Wing — I now forget where they lived — which had to do with armoured fighting vehicles and therefore with what was still called the Cavalry, which was nothing to do with the Royal Tank Regiment and still isn’t, thirty years later.

When I was very young I sometimes used to see what I immediately recognised as midget versions of O.K. people in Children’s Hairdressing on the first floor at Harrods, to which my mother, who had been a model girl at the store and had a nostalgia for the place, used to take me from Barnes to get my hair cut, where they exercised themselves on the rocking horses while waiting to be given the treatment and never let me have a go. I used to see them, too, wearing hand-made overcoats with velvet collars and long gaiters with hundreds of button down the sides, the sort of outfit which would have caused any un-O.K. child to have a fit of apoplexy in the mild spring weather in which they were dressed like this, being pushed up Sloane Street in huge, glossy machines known as Victoria carriages, which were short-wheelbase prams with curled up fronts, like seashells, in which they travelled sitting more or less upright with their backs to whoever was pushing them and, usually, with a dark blue blanket clipped over the front with their initials, or their parents’ initials, embroidered on them, on their way to the Dell, a charming grassy depression on the far side of Rotten Row, in the Park. They were still being conveyed about in these carriages at an age when I had long forgotten what it was like to be in a push-chair, which was what I had had to make do with after my nanny had been shown the door.

The nurses who had the pushing of these little O.K. boys who sat, as it were, with their backs to the engines, were invariably bad-tempered looking and absolutely hideous. They wore pork-pie hats with badges on them, long, drab overcoats of putty-coloured gabardine or grey flannel, with lisle stockings to match, and clumpy great shoes; not like my very sexy suburban nanny who wore a uniform bought for her by my mother — who had not been a model girl for nothing — a blue denim dress in summertime with stiff white collar and cuffs and black silk stockings and high-heeled shoes, and whose head was swathed in some sort of dark blue veiling when she took me out for an airing, often to have assignations with what looked to me like very old men but were probably quite young ones, in a graveyard, not in fashionable S.W.l but in S.W.13, keeping me quiet while she did whatever she did with them by giving me handfuls of Carrara marble chippings from the tombs to play with. (She was fired when my mother found me still playing with them in the bath.) If this nanny, of whom photographs still exist in an album, which enables me to remember more clearly than I would otherwise have been able to do what she looked like, had taken me to the Dell, the other nannies would have ignored her, not only because she was far too good looking to be a nanny, but because I was not an O.K. child.

Whatever else I may have envied them I certainly did not envy these little O.K. boys their nannies.

‘Why is the sky blue, Nanny?’ I heard one ask in the bell-like upperclass voice which I envied and always wished that I could emulate — mine sounded as if it emanated from my boots. To which he got the reply, ‘Ask no questions and you’ll be told no lies, little Mr Inquisitive.’

And later when we were all a bit older, and I was on my way to or from the dentist, also in S.W.1, with my mother’s ‘Help’, I sometimes used to see a shambling crocodile of them, all wearing the strange-looking, tomato-coloured caps of a smart pre-prep school, which looked like the sort of caps that some Irish peasants still wear, being shepherded along the road by a number of brisk grown-ups, all wearing no-nonsense-from-you expressions. 

‘Well-born they may be, Master Eric:’ the ‘Help’ said stoutly, when they had shuffled past, ‘but most of them look half-barmy to me.’ And when the war came and I was on embarkation leave I saw them again in Harrods, in various splendid uniforms with their mothers and sisters and girl friends who all wore miniature replicas of their regimental badges picked out in diamonds, and again listened with awe to their loud, self-confident voices, usually we were ascending or descending together in one of the lifts, slightly cracked versions of the bell-like tones I had listened to with envy on the way to the Dell sixteen years before. But this was the first opportunity I had had to consort with them and study them at leisure and en masse.

In the camp the members of the coteries moved easily in a mysterious, almost Edwardian world and when they addressed one another they used nicknames, just as the Edwardians had been so fond of doing, which were completely unintelligible to anyone else, and they knew who was who so far down the scale of the aristocracy to a point at which one would have thought that any blue blood corpuscles would have been non-existent. They alone knew that ‘Bolo’ Bastonby was the nephew of the Earl of Crake, that ‘Jamie’ Stuart Ogilvie-Keir-Gordon was the youngest brother of the Master of Dunreeking and that ‘Feathers’ Farthingdale was the third son of the Marquis of Stale by his second wife. No one outside these coteries had even heard of the holders of the titles, let alone ‘Bolo’ Bastonby, ‘Jamie’ Stuart Ogilvie-Keir-Gordon or ‘Feathers’ Farthingdale.

One interesting thing I noticed about them, and this applied to almost all of them, was that they would not tolerate any criticism by outsiders of anyone whom they regarded as being ‘one of us’, even though the person being criticised might be hundreds of miles away.

Down at the marginally O.K. end of the otherwise O.K room which I inhabited, there was an officer in a very grand regiment who was not completely accepted by the coterie because none of them knew anything about his family and because he had been commissioned from the ranks of the same regiment in peacetime, a rare thing and one that implied that he probably possessed gifts which, in such a regiment, might take him to the heights of his profession and one that most marginally O.K. and un-O.K. people in the orfanotrofio who knew about it, regarded as ‘a good thing’ or ‘a good show’. And because he was in such a grand regiment he was allowed more latitude than the average marginally O.K. resident. But one evening he went too far.

‘I think Randolph Churchill’s a shit,’ he said, in the course of a long, rambling, semi-drunken conversation about the past which had temporarily united the two ends of the room. And from the other end of it, like an echo that had somehow gone wrong, came a passionate cri de coeur from someone who — I happened to know, because he had himself told me so on a previous occasion — had never met Randolph Churchill in his life, and everyone else at his end of the room, some of whom did know Randolph Churchill well, knew it too.

‘How dare you say that! Randolph’s a personal friend of mine!’ He spoke in exactly the same voice as one of the little boys in Children’s Hairdressing in Harrods had when I tried to get a ride on the rocking horse which he had been astride ever since I arrived. ‘Go away!’ he said to me. ‘It’s my rocking horse!’

The next morning while we were out in the courtyard being counted by the Italians I asked Alastair why he had sprung to the defence of Randolph Churchill whom he had never met and might, for all he knew, be a shit.

‘I don’t care whether Randolph Churchill’s a shit or the sun shines out of his arse: he said, ‘I just can’t bear little men like that saying that kind of thing. Someone had to teach him a lesson. He had it coming to him.’

The ‘little man’ he was giving the lesson to was well over six feet tall.

By general consensus, Randolph Churchill was, indeed, a shit.


8 Return to Ruritania

After that long slog with Dr Foreman, Malcolm felt a need for instant gratification.

In the days when Malcolm taught and, towards the end of term, suffered the ailment, Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda and its sequel, Rupert of Hentzau, were sure-fire reading-block busters. What prompted this re-read , though,was partly convenience (thinning out a shelf), and partly a small tiff in the Times.

Rolling thunder

The latest Tory “reforms’ for the armed services were accompanied by a typically thunderous Times leader, all bangs and crashes — not many hurt — and thoroughly wetting, had included the paragraph:

The immunity of the top brass to the cuts that have taken place lower down the ranks has reached Ruritanian proportions. We now have more generals than battalions, more air marshals than fighter squadrons and more admirals than ships. A bit of trimming would surely be healthy.

Harrumphings off followed as a matter of course. Ian Olson of Aberdeen had protested:

It is most unfair to describe Britain’s plethora of admirals, air chiefs and generals as “Ruritanian” (leading article, June 28), when that noble country’s king had the service of only a single senior officer, and a mere colonel (the splendid Sapt) at that.

A curious letter, to say the least, which promptly conflated Colonel Sapt with George Bernard Shaw’s Captain Bluntschli, the chocolate-cream soldier.

As can only happen in The Times, that had to be squelched by an ultimate authority:

Sir, The defence of Ruritania (letter, July 5) was not left to Colonel Sapt alone. He was assisted by his nephew Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim, and both were very involved in politics.

Anthony Hope, my grandfather, wrote it thus because he was well versed in military and political affairs. He was knighted for his work writing military tracts to support the allied cause in the First World War.

John Hope-Hawkins 
Grantham, Lincs

Getting personal

Fairly regularly Malcolm passes, and salutes, the blue plaque in Bloomsbury’s Bedford Square (right) to the author and grandfather.

Were that not enough, (Sir) Anthony Hope (Hawkins) has a walk-on part in George Macdonald Fraser’s Royal Flash. Fraser has his magnificent creation, Harry Flashman — the ultimate harrumpher (who will surely appear in this catalogue eventually) — bemoaning how his story was the original for Zenda:

I’ve only once been back to Germany. Indeed, I don’t include it even among the garrulous reminiscences that have made me the curse of half the clubs in London — those that’ll have me. Only once did I tell the tale, and that was privately some years ago, to young Hawkins, the lawyer—I must have been well foxed, or he was damned persuasive—and he has used it for the stuff of one of his romances, which sells very well, I’m told.

He made it into a heroic tale, of course, but whether he believed it or not when I told it, I’ve no idea; probably not. It’s a good deal stranger than fiction, and yet not so strange, because such resemblances as mine and Carl Gustaf’s do happen. Why, I can think of another case, connected with this very story, and I saw it when the Duchess Irma came to London in the old Queen’s diamond year—they were related, as I’ve said. It’s the only time I’ve seen Irma since—I kept well in the background, of course, but I had a good look at her, and even at seventy she was a damned handsome piece, and set me itching back over the years. She was a widow then, Carl Gustaf having died of a chill on the lungs back in the ’60’s, but she had her son with her; he was a chap in his forties, I should say, and the point is that he was the living spit of Rudi von Starnberg—well, that can only have been coincidence, of course. It gave me quite a turn, though, and for a moment I was glancing nervously round for a quick retreat.


Hope-Hawkins, according to his auto-biography, conceived his tale is the young barrister was walking back through London, warm in having won his case at the Westminster Crown Court.

What Malcolm had not realised was that Hope-Hawkins was a cousin of Kenneth Grahame (of The Wind in the Willows). Or that Grahame rose to be Secretary of the Bank of England, and that Wind in the Willows was originally a family story for Grahame’s only son, Alastair. Or that Alastair Grahame was probably mildly autistic and certainly erratic (which may be the basis for the morality of “Toad”). Or that Alastair, then a second year student at Oxford, died on the railway line at Port Meadow, probably as a suicide. Or that was one reason why the Grahame parents then removed to Italy.


The conceit of Ruritania is so powerful that it has remained in the popular consciousness, and common reference, this last century, not least because of the likes of Ronald Colman (1937) and his facsimile, Stewart Granger (1952).

It was resurrected by Nicholas Meyer in 1974 for The Seven-per-cent Solution, his addition to the Sherlock Holmes canon. Holmes and Watson on a train meet Rassendyll, returning from Ruritania:

… a tall, very redheaded Englishman opened the door of our compartment and asked, in a distracted mumble, if he might share it with us as far as Linz. He had got on the train at Salzburg, but it had filled up while he was in the dining car. Holmes urged him to be seated, with a languid wave of his hand, and appeared to show no further interest in the man. I was left to attempt a desultory conversation, which, for his part, the new arrival conducted in vague monosyllables. 

“I’ve been for a ramble in the Tyrol,” he said in answer to a question of mine, and Holmes opened his eyes. 

“In the Tyrol? Surely not,” said he. “Doesn’t the label on your baggage state that you have just returned from Ruritania?” 

The handsome Englishman turned almost as pale as Holmes. He got to his feet, repossessed his bags and, mumbling apologies, said he was going to have a drink.

The BBC drama department revisited Ruritania twice. First was a David Fisher script for The Androids of Taraa 1978 Tom Baker Dr Who. Then came a James Andrew Hall serial adaptation of the original story in 1984.

More recently still, John Spurling gave us After Zenda (1995). This has the previously unknown (and, in Anthony Hope’s account, impossible) great-grandson of Rudolf and Flavia, Karl Marx Rassendyll (it needs some explaining), returning to a post-glastnost Ruritania, fighting with a popular uprising, and being restored as the new monarch. It is all desperately thin, and politically distasteful.

Froth upon froth.

7 To Appomattox and beyond

No: ordinary service had not been suspended. Merely delayed by circumstances.

The circs in question have been Amanda Foreman’s A World on Fire, an Epic History of Two Nations Divided. All 814 pages of it. Plus another 124 pages of notes and references. Plus a comprehensive index.

Hint: get a (second-hand?) hardback: the Penguin paperback is photomicrographically -reduced (or whatever the present technology is) which renders the numerous footnotes a stretch for any normal eyesight.

And the dust-cover is better looking, as well (see below, right).

It is by any standards a massive book, an important one, and (since this is the never-undersold Dr Foreman) a popular one. It is also glacially slow. Is it really necessary to narrate in tedious detail each of the already well-documented major battles? How does that inform us more about Anglo-American frictions? Any reader will need to refer repeatedly to the ten — repeat ten — closely printed pages listing Dramatis Personae (Dr Foreman’s own term) which preface the main text These prove essential, if only to distinguish your Adams from your Adams from your Adams, your Russell from your Russell, and your Maury from your Maury. The term many reviewers reached for was “epic”, but even Homer and Virgil managed with fewer characters.

To be fair, any hiatus, any longueur is explained by the near-immediate failure of the 1858 transatlantic cable, and the delay for a further eight years for it replacement. That is one of the many “might-have-beens” that could have changed the story. It would, no doubt, have reduced the huge contributions of Charles Francis Adams (son and grandson of US Presidents), the US minister in London, and Lord Lyons, the British Minister in Washington — both diffident men who rose to the occasions that confronted them. If there are heroes, other than those of the battlefield, these two are they. Lincoln, by the way, seems a comparatively lessened character in all this story.

As the anonymous reviewer for The Economist had it:

There are walk-on parts for many eminent Victorians, including Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf, and Henry Morton Stanley, the “serial deserter” and Dr Livingstone’s saviour, whose ne’er-do-well son Robert was killed trying to escape from a prisoner-of-war camp. Ms Foreman records some telling vignettes: Henry Adams’s description of John Bright, greatest of Liberal parliamentary orators, shaking an opponent as a mastiff might shake a terrier, and sour Benjamin Moran, of the Union legation in London, exposing the insincerity of the Adams family’s proclaimed indifference to London society. She even tells an off-colour Victorian joke. When the prime minister, Lord Palmerston, at 80, was cited in the divorce of a Mrs O’Kane, the Pall Mall clubmen asked, “She was Kane, but was he Able?”

That “off-colour Victorian joke” is rendered in a footnote only (page 589). Foreman notes in her text that it was “a bizarre divorce case”. It wasn’t, for the case was withdrawn: the O’Kanes had not been properly married in the first place (it was a Catholic marriage, performed in a private house, so contrary to law).

A couple of obvious villains of the piece do emerge: the ever-scheming and self-promoting US Secretary of State, William Henry Seward, and The Times of London. Seward is never averse to fomenting troubles to promote federal expansion — especially into “British North America”. John Thadeus Delane, the Times editor, was — like the whole management of the paper — pro-Confederate. Moreover, Delane allowed himself and the paper’s line to be consistently misled by Francis Lawley’s wildly biased reporting for the Southern side, and by Charles Mackay, the paper’s pro-secessionist New York correspondent. As happens in these processes, the excrement went down the food-chain and Mackay took the blame.

Leslie Stephen’s forensic dissection of how The Times had covered the war — what Dr Foreman calls a devastating critique is available on Scribd; and is well worth the visit.

Foreman, over a couple of pages (779-780), shows how even back in 1865 the British press were well capable of Kelvin MacKenzie’s “reverse ferret”:

The Economist also felt obliged to explain away its previous condemnation of Lincoln, claiming that over the past four years ‘Power and responsibility visibly widened [Lincoln’s] mind and elevated his character’. But it was Punch that performed the greatest volte-face. Three weeks earlier, on 8 April, the magazine had placed Lincoln in a gallery of April Fools that included Napoleon III and the MPs Roebuck, Bright and Disraeli. The combination of embarrassment, shame and shock that Lincoln was killed while watching his play moved Tom Taylor, the magazine’s senior contributor, to browbeat his colleagues into giving him a free hand to compose an abject apology and homage to the late President. The editor, Mark Lemon, supported him, telling the staff, ‘The avowal that we have been a bit mistaken [over Lincoln and the war] is manly and just’. Taylor did not hold back. ‘Between the mourners at his head and feet,/ Say, scurril-jester, is there room for you?’ he asked contritely. Lincoln ‘Had lived to shame me from my sneer,/ To lame my pencil and confute my pen,/ To make me own this kind of prince’s peer,/ This rail-splitter a true-born king of men./ My shallow judgment I had learned to rue.’

So, A World on Fire has been something of an effort. It was worth it.

A passing aside

This was intended to be no more than Malcolm’s record of his own reading. This week he is deep into a heavy history, which remains unfinished and therefore not yet acknowledged here.

Meanwhile, a column from Herald Scotland came Malcolm’s way:

This deserves encouragement.

The project could be as much as a significant list or as little as a column filler. It is defined as:

We want your help to compile the definitive list of the 100 most important Scottish novels of all time: the books you’ve read, those you’ve been meaning to read, the ones you’d recommend to friends and family.

Here are the first 10 choices, endorsed by HeraldScotland Literary Editor Rosemary Goring, but presented in no particular order.

But we also need your participation to come up with the other 90 titles. Please send us your nomination (title, author, year of publication, and a maximum of 50 words explaining your choice) to

Each month, we’ll add five more books to our list and say who made the choice and why.

Ninety books, in five-book tranches, takes us neatly to Christmas 2012, so something to watch and wait for.

The first ten, for the record, are:

  • Lewis Grassic Gibbon: Sunset Song (1932)
  • Muriel Spark: The Pride of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)
  • Irvine Welsh: Trainspotting (1993)
  • R.L.Stevenson: Kidnapped (1886)
  • John Buchan: The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915)
  • Alasdair Gray: Lanark (1981)
  • Ian Rankin: Black and Blue (1997)
  • George Macdonald: The Princess and the Goblin (1872)
  • Janice Galloway: Clara (2002)
  • Tobias Smollett: The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771).

Malcolm’s hit-rate there: seven read for certain, six of them known to be on the shelves.

What’s missing?

Well, for first thoughts and in alphabetical order:

  • No R.M. Ballantyne: surely The Coral Island (1857) must be still in the collective consciousness? If only because it is the germ from which William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) developed.
  • No Iain [M.] Banks, whom Malcolm would include under both identities for The Wasp Factory (1984) and Consider Phlebas (1987)
  • No Christopher Brookmyre: a dozen anti-establishment novels, all tending to the noir end of detective fiction. Malcolm reckons the opening of Quite Ugly One Morning (1996), Inspector McGregor dreaming of retirement on Islay and meeting the squalor of a Leith crime-scene, must be one of the most gut-busting ever.
  • No George Mackay Brown. Take your pick: Greenvoe (1972); Magnus (1973) or — Malcolm’s choice — Vinland (1992). For a taster, the kid-lit short-story collection Pictures in the Cave.
  • No AJ Cronin. The Citadel (1937) was one of the seminal inspirations for the NHS. Some say that book was a significant factor in determining the 1945 Election.
  • No Conan Doyle. Doubtless A Study in Scarlet (1887) will be along for the Herald list shortly — or perhaps The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901) will edge it out. What about the romances?  — The Lost World (1912) seems to have had a remarkable afterlife.
  • No Kenneth Grahame. The Wind in the Willows (1908): say no more.
  • No Neil M. Gunn. Best known for The Silver Darlings (1941); but second only to Gibbon (see above) as the archetypal Scottish novelist of the first half of the Twentieth Century
  • No Alistair Maclean. Over two dozen thrillers in thirty years. Currently out-of-fashion, but deserves a nod: The Guns of Navarone (1957) or Where Eagles Dare (1967) or …
  • No Naomi Mitchison. Another prolific writer out-of-fashion. Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962) as a token?
  • No Neil Munro. Aw, c’mon! Para Handy! Erchie MacPherson!
  • No Walter Scott. Incredible! Needs inclusion for Ivanhoe (1819), Rob Roy (1817) and services to the film and tartan industries.
  • No Iain Crichton Smith. The Bard of Taynuilt’s Consider the Lilies (1968) ought to be on the final list.
That still leaves a few Scots by ancestry or adoption. For obvious examples:
  • Ian Fleming (Bond, James Bond, harks back to his parental origin in Glencoe);
  • Compton Mackenzie (a Geordie by birth);
  • J.K.Rowling (an in-comer);
  • Alexander McCall Smith (born in Bulawayo, but Scottish by any other measure).
[Also cross-posted on Malcolm Redfellow’s Home Service.]

6 A touch of Dutch

This one was long overdue. It had been reduced to the attic shelves, a long-term inmate of the guilt-pile. Only because malcolm was evicting the dross and the trash, to make room for more worthy tenants, did it come to hand.

The back of the title page suggest it might be a second print (the stickered dust-cover announces it as “Winner of the 1998 Booker Prize”), which suggests it has lurked a long while, waiting for Malcolm’s full attention. It’s concise, just 178 pages of quite large type:

Poor old Virgil, back in the first century B.C., despaired that he was a school-book. Many a classics student has despaired over his writings every since. Some, like Malcolm, even have key bits by heart, remembered all the way from the High School, then still dusty in Harcourt Street, and Irish Leaving Certificate:
Conticuere omnes intentique ora tenebant
inde toro pater Aeneas sic orsus ab alto…

The same fate has already befallen this book: it is now set for study and examination. There are, therefore, potted study guides and cribs.

McEwen has only himself to blame. Write a compact little morality, clearly marked as a five act drama, with neatly differentiated “scene” divisions, and the pedagogues have you well and truly to rights.

Malcolm regrets only one thing about this book: that he didn’t get to it a decade or more ago.

5 An embarrassment?

This one was on the light side. Even so, it fitted in an area of history that perpetually fascinates:

It is subtitled British Traitors of the Second World War. The most pertinent introduction might be the summary on the Waterstones site:

This is the story of a collection of misfits and renegades who came from all walks of life and different social backgrounds, but who all had one thing in common — during World War II they chose to reject their country and follow the path of treason through collaboration with the Axis powers. Altogether, about 200 British citizens were under investigation for assisting the Axis powers. Using the case studies of the individuals concerned, this work uncovers the reasons for their treacherous activities, describes how they collaborated with the enemy and, come the end of the war, it explores their respective fates. The stories of some of the more notorious traitors like William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) and P.G. Wodehouse are already well-known — and they are included here, but also included are some of the lesser known but equally treacherous individuals. For example, Duncan Scott-Ford, a Scottish merchant seaman, who sold information to the Germans about convoy movements, and Harold Cole, who infiltrated Allied escape lines in Europe and betrayed between 100 and 150 British and French agents to the Germans.

In other words it is one step up from popular journalism.

It’s when we read, in the index, references to “Sir Ernest Bevin” that we start to wonder about the degree of research, and even more of empathy, involved. Indeed,  the references and notes (all of ten pages to support some 229 of text) tell us this is a pretty thin and superficial effort. Only in the very final paragraph do we find an opinion which might provoke further thought:

… the most interesting conclusion to be drawn from this study is the reaction of the British state to the collaborators. Many of the renegades were simply let of or given light prison sewntences, or obtained early release, on the grounds that they were followers in collaboration rather than leader. Joyce and Amery were made examples of and executed because the state wished to demonstrate the maximum retribution against anyone who challenged it. Future purveyors of treason beware!

That is unanswerable and a truism.

So: why did Malcolm waste good reading time on this?

Probably because he had hopes there might, just might, be an Irish dimension and some small insight into the likes of

  • Charles Bewley, born a British citizen (1888 in Dublin, educated in England, New College Oxford) who served as the Irish Minister Plenipotentiary and Envoy Extraordinary in Berlin from 1933 until Éamon de Valera properly sacked him in 1939, mainly because Bewley was an anti-semitic nut-case beyond belief. Not a mention.

or of:

  • the Australian-born immigrant to Ireland, Francis Stuart, who attached himself to the Maude Gonne coterie, married Iseult Gonne, and then fecked off to Germany for the course of the War. Not a twitch.

Moreover, while Bewley and Stuart remained in Nazi Germany (both, quite happily, until 1945), Dev and his consigliere, Joseph Walshe, would have kept a watchful eye (as far as conditions permitted) on them and theirs. Until his death, was one of the watchers Frank Ryan? No, he’s not there, either.

So: all a bit of a let-down.

4 Failed, so far

Malcolm, in setting out his Rationale, promised to flagellate himself by noting what and where he failed to engage with a book or a writer.

So here’s the first charge-sheet: —

The attic shelves have a foot or more of similar attempts to explain the inexplicable. Malcolm saw this one, second-hand but immaculate and probably unread in any previous incarnation (like most review copies) and snaffled it for £2.99 — list price £27. Its value, Malcolm suspects, is as a first draft — from 1996 — of Gaddis’s later The Cold War (2006), which it now sits beside.

This is a “dense” book, in the best sense of that word, set in a small type-size, with near 300 pages of text, another 85 of notes and references, twenty-five of bibliography (which amounts to Uncle Tom Cobbley ‘n’ all) and — mercifully — a decent index.

The essential index allows Malcolm to be reassured of Britain’s place in the world: just nineteen citings. Of these, ten concern the US relationship and the Suez adventure, tworefer to Britain as a US missile base — though Holy Loch, the US submarine base on the Clyde, which caused considerable grief in leftist circles, is not mentioned at all. Gaddis discounts the whole nuclear stand-off, the real hall-mark of the whole Cold War period, as not more than a remarkably theatrical effect (his emphasis) which:

required statesmen to become actors: success or failure depended, or so it seemed, not on what one was really doing, but on what one appeared to be doing.

That leads into a reference to Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964). It also implies that actors can be mistaken as “statesmen”, which explains why Ronald Reagan is so celebrated by the political Right.

The most significant British figure, numerically (one fewer than Fidel Castro), is  — it should go without saying — Churchill: many of these references are to his Fulton “Iron Curtain” speech. It is a mark of trans Atlantic bias that Churchill, who held no government post between 1945 and 51 and was ga-ga soon after, gets more attention than Ernie Bevan, who was instrumental in keeping the US on-side in Europe and is a major Cold War warrior. Clem Attlee is ignored completely.

By this stage, Malcolm had read the half-dozen pages on the Berlin blockade of 1948 and the few more on the see-saw events of 1958-61, and recognised this was explicitly an American-centric piece, and shelved it accordingly.

An impulse buy to make up the baker’s dozen of Bateman thriller-novels on Malcolm’s fiction shelves: they’ve missed the cull so far, when G fror Grafton and P for Parker went in the first cut. Well, B for Bateman puts them on the top shelf but one, and out of easy reach. Can this act of mercy continue?

This one a development of the central character Bateman established in Murphy’s Law. Malcolm notes that the “sell” changed considerably between first publication and the new, smaller-profile, mass paperback. Compare and contrast as right. That rebranding extends as far as the author becoming merely “Bateman”.

There seems to be more than speculation that Murphy is in up for a further television outing, providing Jimmy Nesbitt with a purpose in life. If that’s the case,  the transhumance from Belfast to London makes more sense. Even so, Malcolm harks back to the joys of Dan Starkey’s Belfast, in the earlier Bateman series: in which regard, there’s another Starkey novel promised for later in the year. Colin Bateman is nothing if not prolific.

Although Revenge glares prominently from the bedside “guilt pile”, it may yet get a reading. In which case, if — like Shakespeare’s Casca —Malcolm be alive and his mind hold and the dinner worth the eating, it will re-appear more positively in this diary.

3 Pinch, punch: first of the month

Into July

This one was published back in  the autumn of 2005, but Malcolm, like Eartha Kitt’s Englishman, takes time.

Malcolmian aside:

A sultry, smoky cabaret song, and understandably so. One with a bit of history: 

Virginia [McKenna]’s mother was a half-French cabaret pianist and songwriter whose composition An Englishman Takes Time was recorded by the late Eartha Kitt. Her father, a sometime auctioneer at Christie’s, was related to the theatrical/literary dynasty that included Fay Compton, Compton Mackenzie and, in our own day, Alan Howard. And through her marriage to Bill Travers, McKenna acquired as one of her nieces, the luminous Penelope Wilton. 

Back at first publication, Berendt’s book didn’t escape unscathed from the reviewers. Let’s start with Jan Morris, for the Guardian:

The City of Falling Angels, is not, to my mind, very likable. It is the record, often presented conversationally in direct reported speech, of a long stay during which Berendt evolved his own specialised responses to Venetian life. He is not much concerned with the architecture or history of the city. He rarely mentions the inside of a church or a street scene, let alone a lagoon sunset. His business is to dig out the dirt – to expose the myriad corruptions, feuds, deceits, ambitions and dynastic resentments which, now as always, fester behind the facades of the Serenissima.

Peter Conrad, for the Observer, gave the book a thorough going-over. Famously James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man evoked the comment: Mr. Joyce would be at his best in a treatise on drains. Conrad goes beyond that:

Berendt, in town to compile an anthology of scandal, skulduggery and malfeasance, pretty soon enlists the odour as a metaphor, like the titular angels that tumble from the roof of a foundering church. His Venice is a place of putrescence. Maggots breed in the glue on the back of surrealist canvases in Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery, and pigeon shit accumulates like a coral reef in sunless alleys. Polychrome churches disappear behind a crust of oily grime, and paintings are stealthily blackened by soot. Scavenging birds brawl in the squares: Berendt watches as a seagull dive-bombs a pigeon and conducts surgery with its beak, extracting the beast’s frightened heart and gulping it down.

Then works himself into a sneer of distaste:

Berendt lacks the art to analyse the deceptive fictionality of the place. With plodding literalism, he even provides a glossary which – for the benefit, I suppose, of befuddled American trippers – defines such knotty Italian terms as ‘buongiorno’, ‘ciao’ and ‘palazzo’. If you can translate those words without Berendt’s help, you needn’t bother with his book.

There are, in fact, just 29 “knotty Italian terms” in an end-note. Malcolm freely admits his Italian didn’t stretch unaided to altana (“an open rooftop deck, usually wooden”), cassazione (“Appeals court”)and a couple of others

Malcolm, who thoroughly took to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, went through this one in a couple of sittings. The characters are essentially binary, without many shades between. The goodies tend to be the workers: the baddies the drones. Princess Michael of Kent doesn’t come out very well: Jane Rylands (daughter-in-law of Dadie) far, far worse.

This is not a “history” of Venice, merely a series of snapshots at a moment in time. The linking theme is the fire that destroyed La Fenice opera house, and the various battles in restoring it. There still remain too many unknowns about what caused the fire: berendt shows how opinions shifted from “accident” to “enemy action” — though whether it was a sub-contractor covering up defaults or the MAfia is undetermined. That all does give us almost a hero: Felice Casson, an unusually courageous and relentless prosecutor:

Casson had established himself as a hard-driving investigating prosecutor early in his career when, in 1982, he reopened an unresolved 1972 bombing case in which three policemen had been murdered near Trieste. The policemen, responding to a telephone tip about a suspicious car, had opened the bonnet of the car and set off a bomb that killed them instantly. The deaths were blamed on the militant Red Brigades, and hundreds of leftists were brought in for questioning, but no one was ever charged. Ten years later, Casson, then a twenty-eight-year-old prosecutor, was given the task of reviewing the case in the expectation that he would tie up a few loose ends and close the file for good.

Instead, despite receiving intentionally misleading information from the police and the secret service, Casson managed to turn the case on its head. He discovered, first of all, that the police had never investigated the incident. When he traced the explosives, he found the trail led to a right-wing group. He quickly arrested the culprit and obtained a confession that included the startling revelation that within three weeks of the bombing, the true story had been known to the police, the Ministry of the Interior, the Customs and Excise Police, and the civilian and military secret services. All these agencies had conspired to cover it up for political reasons. Casson put the guilty party behind bars but did not stop there.

He demanded and was granted permission to search the archives of the Italian secret service. There he found documents revealing the existence of a covert, high-level paramilitary army, code-named Gladio, that had been set up and financed by the American CIA in 1956 …

As a result of Casson’s revelations, information came pouring out about the existence of similar Gladio-type secret armies set up by the CIA in France, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Turkey.

And we should be offended by Berendt’s sordid details and sewage smells? By the way, spot the missing fifteenth nation in that list of western European “democracies”.

Berendt  is a muck-raker; but there is plenty of muck to rake. Muck-raking is not the most elegant and refined of literary activities.

  • Jed Rubenfeld: Death Instinct

Anyone who has ploughed this far might be noticing that Malcolm has a tendency to alternate fiction and non-fiction.

Malcolm had a few false starts before getting into Rubenfeld’s first effort, The Interpretation of Murder, and was prepared for a similar difficulty here. Interpretation was a seller: the million sales is a justified claim, and in the UK alone — but there was considerable discounting in the chain bookstores. Imitation being the insincerest form of publishing flattery, several other publishers have imitated its cover for copy-cat efforts.

The Death Instinct “solves” the atrocious Wall Street bombing of 16th September, 1920 — the most destructive act of terrorism in the United States until the Oklahoma bombing of 1995. Rubenfeld then mixes his fiction with real personages: Sigmund Freud, Senator Albert Bacon Fall, Treasury Secretay William McAdoo, Thomas W. Lamont of the J.P.Morgan band. The very title picks on the Freudian Eros/Thanatos theory.

The admixture of fact and fiction works like this:

Less than an hour later, in a small but comfortably middle-class apartment house on Berggasse – a narrow, cobbled lane gently sloping down to the Danube canal – a maid let Younger and Colette into Sigmund Freud’s empty consultation room. ‘I’m so nervous,’ Colette whispered.

Younger nodded. Well she might be, he thought: Colette would be both worried and excited about the prospect that Dr Freud might actually be able to help her brother; and she would be eager to make a good impression on the world-famous Viennese physician. But she, Younger reflected, was not the one who had disappointed him.

Freud’s consulting room was like a bath into which civilization itself had been poured. Leather-bound volumes lined the walls, and every inch not occupied by books was filled with antiquities and miniature statuary: Greek vases intermixed with Chinese terracottas, Roman intagli with South American figurines and Egyptian bronzes. The room pulsed with a rich fume of cigar and the deep crimson of Oriental carpets, which not only lay thick on the parquet floor, but also draped the end tables and even covered a long couch.

A door opened. A dog, a miniature chow, trotted through it, yapping. The animal was followed by Freud himself, who paused in the doorway ordering the dog away from Younger’s and Colette’s shoes. The chow obeyed.

‘So my boy,’ said Sigmund Freud to Younger without introduction, ‘you are no longer a psychoanalyst?’

Freud wore a suit and necktie and vest. In his left hand, half-raised, was a cigar between two fingers. He had grown older since Younger last saw him. His gray hair had thinned and receded; his short, pointed beard was now starkly white. Nevertheless, for a man of sixty-three, he remained handsome, fit and robust, with eyes exactly as Younger remembered them – both piercing and sympathetic, scowling and amused.

‘Miss Rousseau,’ said Younger, ‘may I present to you Dr Sigmund Freud? 

The devilry is in the detail, and successfully so. Rubenfeld is unforgiving in his colour and detail, but also with his harsh truthful asides. This is Armistice Day, 1918:

By nine that morning, the cease-fire order had been formally transmitted to Allied commanders and communicated to the men in the trenches. Paradoxically, the soldiers with the most to gain from the news were the ones made most anxious by it. Men who had learned to throw themselves month after month headlong into machine-gun fire, numb to personal risk, suddenly feared they might die in the last two hours of the war.

    At 10.30, the regiment with which Younger was serving began ferociously shelling German positions across no-man’s-land. In an officer’s dugout, Younger shouted to a second lieutenant he knew, asking what on earth was happening.

    ‘We’re attacking,’ said the second lieutenant.

    ‘What?’ yelled Younger, refusing to believe he had heard correctly. Then he saw infantrymen filing through the network of intersecting trenches, faces taut, armed and packed for assault. From the direction of the front, he heard commands shouted and machine guns firing – from the German side, meaning that Allied soldiers were already scrambling out over the top.

    ‘This is madness,’ said Younger.

    The lieutenant shrugged: ‘Orders,’ he replied.

    At 10.56, the command went out to halt the Allied attack. It took approximately two minutes for that order to disseminate from field headquarters to radio command posts to captains in the field. At 10.58, the last Allied guns fell silent. At 10.59, the rain of German artillery let up. An ethereal, fragile silence hung in the air.

    Twelve seconds later, Younger heard the whistle of one last incoming shell – by the sound of it, a volley from a long-range 75-millimeter gun. The shot hit close by; the ground shook beneath him, and plugs of dirt fell from the walls. Possibly the shell had found a dugout, perhaps even an inhabited one. All waited with suspended breath. Then they heard the eruption of three Allied howitzers, presumably the German gun that had launched the last shell.

    ‘No,’ whispered Younger.

    Naturally the Germans reciprocated. Soon the air was screaming and shaking again with a full-scale bombardment. The onslaught went on uninhibited for hours. It even featured the explosion of signal flares in the sky, pointless in daytime and harmless in effect. Neither side appeared to have an objective, unless it was to expend every last piece of ammunition in its arsenal.

    Eleven thousand men were killed or wounded on November 11, 1918, in fighting that took place after all their commanding officers knew the war was over.

And that is verifiable.

So, Malcolm’s summary: more than a thriller, fiction with bite. Worthy of a lasting place on the shelves, and a revisit.

2 The state of play

The norm here, once Malcolm gets into his stride, will be a running tally of three categories:

  • The read and shelved;
  • The failed and shelved;
  • The guilt pile (ones which might still go either way).

So, let’s have a first literary reveille, focusing entirely on the first of those categories, and setting a bench-mark from which this personal acount can develop.

The aim is not, on the whole, to “review”. Merely to record, in the hope that the occasional brick-bat and comment might provoke further thought … and further reading.

Read and shelved (late June 2011):

  • Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle in (fairly) rapid succession.

Now, come on, chaps! This is a major achievement, both in the composition, and in the reading. We are talking about over three thousand pages in total, and each tome has enough avoirdupois, even in paperback, to do serious damage to an carelessly-placed toe.

Quite what genre it all is, Malcolm remains as puzzled as most reviewers. The trilogy seems most often to be classified as “science fiction”, which rather misses the point.

Some years back Dr R.B.Myers broke off from his Korean studies to give the world his Reader’s Manifesto. That is sub-titled An attack on the growing pretentiousness in American literary prose. Come, come, dear Doctor: why be so narrowly nationalistic?

Myers has a list of rules for serious writers. Rule II is:

Sprawl. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but contemporary reviewers regard a short book as “a slender achievement.” So when in doubt, leave it in.

Alas! sprawl is not a modern ailment. It permeates through the early novel — when writers were paid by the page — and persists through the great writers of the nineteenth century — when a norm of publication was the fortnightly instalment. Does Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend need to be quite so long? Well, actually, in Malcolm’s view, yes. Since Myers definitely approves of Moby Dick, he seems a trifle ambiguous in his definition of sprawl.

So does Stephenson “sprawl”? Again, a not-guilty verdict should be given. The trilogy is, in fact, no fewer than eight separate “instalments” — some have appeared in their own right.

Confusion thrice confounded: Stephenson starts on Boston Common on October 12th, 1714, at 10:33:5a A.M. as Enoch Root encounters an example of American blunt, blank efficiency that’s admirable and disappointing at the same time — the hanging of a witch. Root, though, is looking for Doctor Waterhouse of The Massachusetts Bay Colony Institute of Technologickal Arts.

And so we are on our way, back to Cromwell’s England of 1655 and retrospectively further still — including the execution of Charles I.

This was a casual find, in the local secondhand bookshop.

The sub-title is Nine Men and the Atomic Bomb: they Leo Szilard; Enrico Fermi; I.I.Rabi; Niels Bohr; Edward Teller; Ernest Lawrence; Arthur Compton; Robert Oppenheimer and Hans Bethe. VanDeMarkt eaches history at Annapolis, and has co-authored with Robert MacNamara and Clark Clifford — so has himself been close to power.

Malcolm has a couple of shelving-feet of books on the background to the development and use of the atomic bomb. This one is a different approach in that it is specifically biographical. Malcolm admits to an interest, bordering on fixation, in the enigma that was “Oppie”. Oppenheimer’s speech, on departing Los Alamos for the last time, is quoted at considerable length. On re-reading, it is apposite in defining why the bomb was first built in the United States, but less illuminating how Oppenheimer, the one-time pacifist, reconciled himself to its first use:

… there was probably no place in the world where the devlopment of atomic weapons would have a better chance of leading to a reasonable solution, and a smaller chance of leading to disaster, than within the United States.

Here Pandora’s box lies empty, except for the cringing figure of “hope”.

VanDeMark finishes with a modern conclusion, reflecting on the strategy of deterrence, which:

… has worked since World War II in the sense that there have been np wars among the major powers. The threat of mutual assured destuction has deterred this catastophic result, and to that extent, the “balance of terror” has turned out to be stable. This record reinforces the assumption that strategic issues and war in the nuclear age lend themselves to careful calculation and control.

Others might count the numerous and expensive “wars by proxy” between all “the major powers”.

It only takes one wing-nut to end that cosy arrangement. If we are to believe Ali Magoudi, who was French president Francois Mitterrand’s psychoanalyst from 1982 to 1993, Margaret Thatcher threatened to go nuclear against Argentina if the French military didn’t reveal the deactivation codes of Exocet missiles. Nukes certainly went to the South Atlantic, and one or more may have gone down with HMS Sheffield.

Well, that was inevitable.

Malcolm paid full shelf-price for this one, rather than wait the mail-order at discount.

In writing order, this precedes the Baroque Cycle. In chronology it belongs as an after-thought. Either way, it’s still a healthy wallop of dead tree.

It involves the parallel stories of two geeks, two generations apart: Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse involved in the breaking of war-time codes, and his grandson Randall “Randy” Lawrence Waterhouse, a coding genius of the 1990s. Yes, there is a further generation link (and other character connections) to the central character of the Baroque Cycle.

Stephenson is again mixing his fiction with factual characters.

Next: onward into July.

1 A rationale

First the web-title:

Most anthologies of quotations will give this:

I’ve never known any trouble that an hour’s reading didn’t assuage.

The haut ton would attribute that to the archetypal observer of the enlightenment, Montesquieu. He was, at full stretch, Baron de Brede et de Montesquieu and his dates are given as 18th January 1689 to 10th February 1755. Mere peasants and egalitarians ascribe the pensée to Charles de Secondat (1689-1755). One and the same. They together wrote Pensées Diverses, from which that is translated.

Or, if you prefer it in the original:

L’étude a été pour moi le souverain remède contre les dégoûts de la vie, n’ayant jamais eu de chagrin qu’une heure de lecture n’ait dissipé.

Next the context:

Malcolm spent many, many years trying to encourage younger secondary-school students to keep a reading diary. This chore, it was vainly thought by those set in authority, would encourage — even guide — reading habits. More sinister — especially at collegiate level — there is often a hidden agenda, as here:

I realised that keeping a reading diary needed to be an enjoyable and rewarding experience, so I indicated that as long as the diaries displayed an intelligent engagement with the work of at least two feminist theorists, students were free to write and present their diaries in whichever way they felt appropriate.

So, having mocked the reading experience of others, it is only faier to allow others to mock Malcolm’s.

The punch-line

Leisure reading, at any level, any stage, should be rewarding and fun. It is the most intensive route to self-development.

Malcolm blogs, as he has repeatedly said, to keep the Alzheimer’s at bay. His reading is a similar prophylaxis..