Malcolm Redfellow's reading diary

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

Month: September, 2011

Moving swiftly on …


Malcolm is still of this life.

He has spent a while:

  • getting through Matthew Plampin (of which more later, no doubt)


  • a brief encounter with  Caxton on Ireland (of which a small tsunami, no doubt).

Meanwhile, the new Neal Stephenson has arrived. All else is put aside.

Wait .. and watch.


17 The view from the Border

Malcolm went back to his shelves and realised what was missing from Pérez-Reverte’s The Painter of Battles.

In a word —


An interesting word.

According to Gordon Sharman Haight’s editing of her letters, George Eliot used the word the once:

‘Die Angst’ she says often brings on a pain at her heart.

That’s from 1854. That, hardly coincidentally, was also the year that she completed her translation of Feuerbach and she and George Lewes cemented their relationship with a trip to Weimar and Berlin.

Then we have to wait for translations into English of Freud. Even then we have to sit around for the War years for it to infiltrate the intelligentsia. Aldous Huxley chucks it into Themes and Variations, Fortunately , “two cultures” C.P.Snow is sufficiently au fait with the term for Homecomings in 1956, and without any italicising:

 Discussing other people whose lives were riven by angst—it domesticated her wretchedness a little to have that label to pin on.

That’s got it about right. Pérez-Reverte misses out — perhaps because his translators can’t do it — on Forster’s Only Connect. So, to “connect”? How?

OK: here’s Malcolm’s suggestion. Try Colm Toibín’s Bad Blood, A Walk Along The Irish Border. The original publication was a long way past: back in 1987, and Toibín’s walk had taken place in 1986, following the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 15 November 1985.

Perhaps Malcolm should  preface this by noting that Toibín’s grand-father and great-uncle were active IRA-men in the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence: one, Uncle Michael, was interned at Frongoch.

Now try this:

‘I saw you before; I said to the priest. 

‘When was that?’ 

‘I was at the funeral; I said. He nodded. I didn’t have to explain what funeral, even though it had taken place over a year ago. 

‘I heard what you said in your sermon; I said. ‘You said it 

was execution.’ 

‘Yes, that’s right.’ 

I was in Strabane. It was the following afternoon. I had called at the priest’s house. When he came into the small waiting room, it was like suddenly seeing some familiar face in a new context. It took me a while to remember the context. I realized that over a year ago on a grey day I had watched his face as he stood outside the Catholic church waiting for the third coffin to get through the police blockade. 

Three local youths, Michael and David Devine and Charles Breslin, had been shot by the SAS in the early morning as they crossed a field. They were armed, and it was dear that they were either moving armaments or coming from an ambush which had failed. They were shot without warning from high ground. Local people said that they heard them calling out for help, that the SAS had trapped them, trained machine guns on them and opened fire. One hundred and seventy bullets were fired; half of the total hit their targets. No fire was returned. The local priests issued a statement saying that they believed that the youths could have been intercepted and arrested, saying that they considered the killings to be murder. 

The parents of the Devine brothers did not want a military-style IRA funeral for their sons, so there was no difficulty in bringing the two coffins to the church. Charles Breslin, however, was to be given a paramilitary funeral; his coffin was to be draped in the tricolour, his cap and gloves on top, and carried through the streets. The RUC, the police in Northern Ireland, refused to allow this: there was an impasse. The people in the church waited for the third coffin to come. 

I remember the greyness of Strabane that day, the low clouds, the light drizzle. I remember that the church bell rang at intervals. I remember the crowd in the housing estate standing around the coffin. I remember the tension, the feeling that the crowd might surge forward against the police. 

There were well-known faces among the crowd: Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Fein; Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, from Derry; Danny Morrison, Head of Publicity for Sinn Fein. An RUC officer stood apart from the crowd, his face implacable and decisive. His baton was almost three feet long, and made of some thick dark wood. He looked as though he was ready to wait for a long time. 

Those who gathered on the street seemed like a group of the dispossessed, their faces were pinched, forlorn, weary. There was a sense of crushing hopelessness about the scene. 

After a long time they reached a compromise: the flag could be used but not the cap and gloves. The crowd moved slowly towards the church with the single bell tolling again and again. All along the way they said the Rosary. 

The Devine brothers’ funeral took place in private in the graveyard on a hill above the town. When it was over army snipers wearing camouflage moved into position in the fIelds around the graveyard. The paramilitary funeral would have an oration by Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Fein. There was a clear view of the town below, the curling river and the land beyond. The RUC were already waiting for Charles Breslin’s funeral to start. They had placed themselves close to the walls that· surrounded the cemetery. As soon as the coffin came inside the gates the bearers stopped and the paramilitary cap and gloves were once again put on the coffin. 

The coffin was followed by a small pipe band which played Republican tunes. The ceremony was brief as the coffin was lowered, interrupted only by the efforts of the RUC to stop some local youths from sitting on the wall. 

The clergy made a hasty exit as Gerry Adams started to speak. He began clearly and factually as. though he were reading a news report. ‘Last Saturday morning three IRA volunteers were carrying Armalites, bombs and ammunition to a depot when a number of strangers, people who are not from here, do not belong here and have no rights here, murdered them in cold blood, giving them no chance to surrender.’ 


‘They’re called the Martyrs now,’ I said to the priest more than a year later.

‘I know; he said. 

I had done a tour of the pubs of Strabane that morning. I had talked to people. Did I know what happened on Saturday? they asked. Did I not know? The Martyrs’ Memorial Band tried to go from Strabane to Lifford for a festival and they were stopped by the RUC because they were carrying a tricolour, the Irish flag. The RUC came in with fifty jeeps to stop them. 

The band had been set up to commemorate the two Devines and Breslin. They had been trying to go to the same festival as the band I met in St Johnston. Most of them were in their early teens, I was told. 

The setting up of a band wasn’t the only result of the shooting of the three. Someone had informed, the IRA believed, some-one had given information to the security forces, and so they shot a boy called Damien McCrory in Strabane, blaming him for informing. 

All the pubs were Catholic pubs; most of the people were Catholic in Strabane. There had been one Protestant pub, which served the security forces, but that had been bombed. The town also had the highest unemployment rate in Western Europe: over fifty per cent of the male adults were officially unemployed. In the 1970s the IRA had blown the town to bits; most shops had suffered. I sat in one pub where there were old photographs on the wall of what Strabane looked like before the IRA campaign: sedate, almost pretty, Victorian. 

Some of the gaps had been filled in, but there was nothing Victorian about the place now. There was an overwhelming sense of despair. In the months after the shooting of the Devines and Charles Breslin, the priest assured me, there had been an enormous upsurge in young people joining the IRA. I would have thought that the shooting might have discouraged them, but he said it was the opposite — the anger at what happened drove them in. 

Everybody talked about what the RUC and the army were. doing. At the end of the summer the Catholic Bishop of Derry would issue a detailed statement about what was going on in Strabane. He would detail accounts of local youths being ordered by the security forces to take their shoes and socks off in the street day after day for no apparent reason. He would detail accounts of petty harassment. Everywhere I went people talked about it. 

I was sent to see James Bradley, the former Town Clerk·of Strabane, who knew the history of the place, and I found him in a big bright bungalow across the bridge in Strabane. He arranged for me to stay with a family in a nearby estate in a smaller bungalow. I went back to Bradley’s several times for tea, to get away from the blight of the town, to try and find out what was going on in Strabane. 

On one occasion when I visited him his wife started talking about a relation of hers, the writer and political activist, Peadar O’Donnell and the themes he had dealt with, such as poverty and emigration. Just in passing, she mentioned that her own father had been hired at the Hiring Fair in Strabane. They started to talk about the Hiring Fair, the two of them, as we sat in the kitchen of their house. Her father, Mrs Bradley said, had left home at midnight when he was in his early teens and walked until the morning when he had caught a train to Strabane where he was hired by a Protestant farmer. He had to wait in the town that day until the farmer had conducted his business and then walk behind the farmer’s horse as far as Castlederg. He worked there for six months and then he got his wages and was hired again by another farmer. 

How quickly we had moved in one generation, from poverty and quasi-feudalism, to this kitchen, the dining area on a different level from the cooking area, a dishwasher, electric washing machine, electric cooker, fridge. But I was still unsure about the Hiring Fair. Inthe South of Ireland, I had never heard anyone talk of a Hiring Fair, where labourers were hired for six months. I asked them about it again. 

James Bradley said he remembered the Hiring Fair in Strabane. I looked at his face, I thought he might be sixty, maybe sixty-five, but no more. How could he remember the Hiring Fair? He insisted. He said that he used to watch them on his way to school, the big farmers, the Protestant farmers from the Lagan valley, the farms on both sides of the Foyle River, where I had walked, and the farmers from around Strabane. He used to watch them feel the boys for muscles, feel their arms to see if they were strong enough. He said they used to think it was funny on their way to school. 

They used to gather at the Town Hall, which is now blown up. When did it stop, then, the Hiring Fair? He thought for a while and asked his wife and they puzzled over it. 1938, he said, 1938. It ended just before the war, the war changed everything, there was more work and more money. I told him I had never heard about it before. Everyone in Strabane would remember it, he said, everyone over a certain age. 

I went back to my lodging house with something new in my head, beyond the misery of Strabane and the legacy of the Devine brothers and Breslin, beyond the unemployment figures and the complaints about the police, beyond the fact that the IRA had threatened to kill anyone -including council workers -who removed the rubbish from the RUC barracks. Here, down the road here, twice a year, children as young as twelve had come in from the countryside and were rented for six months by people they didn’t know, brought to a place they didn’t know, and made to work. Those hired were Catholics, and those who hired them were, for the most part, Protestants.

That’s the start of Toibín’s Chapter 2: The Hiring Fair. Know that, and you have the beginnings of a grasp on the mess that is Northern Ireland. Dismiss that, and you vote DUP.

16 Yet more Pérez-Reverte

And now to The Painter of Battles.

This one needed a bit of effort and will-power. It is more cerebral, more introverted, more psychological than the two previous Pérez-Reverte titles. Depending on one’s take, it is either:

The reader feels remarkably distant from these horrors, perhaps because the perpetrators have such drawn-out pseudo-intellectual discussions about who feels the least, who committed the worst wrongs. And perhaps it’s because these discussions are interspersed with cumbersome descriptions of the mural the photographer is painting and how it relates to other works of Western battlefield art…

a game of mental chess, an excursion into art, history and imagination, and both men’s lives as Faulques realises that only the continuation of their discourse, and his painting, is keeping him alive.

It is a dance to the death. For all of us. Pérez-Reverte is an accomplished writer. This is his best book yet, and the best thing I have read all year.

The Painter of Battles is a strange book, much of its material shoehorned cornily into its flashbacks, its central dialogue straining under the moral weight placed upon it; it’s a messy clash between showing and telling. And yet in a way it also becomes the mural of which it tells, drawing a perfectly obsessive, claustrophobic panorama. Few novels display such intensely marshalled powers of extended visual evocation. “Faulques never used pure black,” the prose explains laconically at one point. “That colour created holes, like a bullet or burst of shrapnel on the wall.” Finally, perhaps redemptively, Pérez-Reverte pulls off an ending of such calm tact and art that the reader is left in contemplative silence, circling the images left in his head.

Faulques used to be a prize-winning war photographer (Pérez-Reverte was a war-reporter). Faulques has now retired to a tower on the headland. He hears a woman guide’s voice from the tourist boat that passes each noon:

This place is known as Cala del Arráez. It was once the refuge of Berber pirates. Up there on the top of the cliff you can see an old watchtower that was constructed at the beginning of the eighteenth century as a part of the coastal defense, with the specific purpose of warning nearby villages of Saracen incursions … 

A well-known painter lives in that tower, which stood abandoned for a long time, and he is embellishing the entire interior wall with a large mural. 

Unfortunately, it is private property and no visitors are allowed …

A visitor comes calling from Faulques’s past — the subject of one of his photographs from Vukovar:

“That important prize you won,” said the stranger. “They awarded you the International Press prize for taking my photograph … Have you forgotten that, too?” 

Faulques looked at him with misgivings. He remembered that photograph very well, as well as everyone who appeared in it. He remembered them all, one by one: the three Druse militiamen, all on their feet, eyes blindfolded—two about to drop, one proud and erect—and the six Maronite Kataeb who were executing them at nearly point-blank range. 

Victims and executioners, mountains of the Chouf. Cover of a dozen magazines. His consecration as war photographer five years after having taken up the profession. 

“You couldn’t have been there. The militiamen died, and the ones who shot them were Lebanese Phalangists.” 

The stranger wavered, disconcerted, never taking his eyes off Faulques. He stood absolutely still a few seconds, then shook his head. 

“I’m talking about a different photograph. The one at Vukovar, in Croatia. I always thought they gave you the prize for that one.” 

“No.” Now Faulques studied him with renewed interest. “The Vukovar photo was a different one.” 

“Was it important, too?” 

“More or less.” 

“Well, I’m the soldier in that one.”

The photograph helped to change Faulques’s life, not — as we see here for any prize won, but (as we discover later) for a moment of great loss. It also changed the soldier’s: it identified him hiding with his wife and child in a Serbian village. He saw the wife raped and tortured, and then brutally murdered along with their young child.

That same soldier had seen Faulques photographing a dead woman:

“You weren’t aware that I was there, but I was on the Borovo Naselje road that afternoon. When I heard the explosion I thought it was one of ours. … As I went by I saw you kneeling in the ditch, beside the … body.” 

He had hesitated an instant before that last word, as if pondering whether to choose “corpse” or “body” … and had chosen the latter. 

Now he has come for revenge on Faulques:

“My name? Ivo Markovic.” 

“Why have you come looking for me?” 

The visitor had put the glass down and was wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. 

“Because I’m going to kill you.” 

The only other ingredients of the plot are:

  • Markovic intends to talk through the context of his firm intention with Faulques;
  • Faulques is suffering a terminal ailment:

The pain — a sharp stab in his side over his right hip — arrived every eight or ten hours with reliable punctuality, faithful to their tryst, though this time it came with no warning. Faulques held his breath and didn’t move, to allow time for the first whiplash of pain to end; then he picked up a jar from the table and swallowed two tablets with a sip of water. In recent weeks he’d had to double the dose.

  • We have to wait until the end of the story for the full account of the death of Olvido Ferrara, Faulques’s’ lover. And Faulques’s complicity in it.

The book concludes, predictably, with Faulques’s end — which isn’t so predictable, perhaps. Unless oner has read closely into the clues from the opening pages.

All this is spaced out with deep philosophisings about the nature of war and its treatment in fine art. These may alternatively be, according to taste, drawn-out pseudo-intellectual discussions and cumbersome descriptions of the mural the photographer is painting and how it relates to other works of Western battlefield art.

To be frank, for much of the reading Malcolm tended to the latter interpretation. Consequently he was somewhat struggling with the book for several days. Only when he settled to the last hundred pages, almost as a chore, did the reading come to life.

All in all, then, almost a Marmite experience.

15 More Pérez-Reverte

Apart from the guide-book and the OS maps, Malcolm stuffed two of Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s novels in his bag: The Flanders Panel and The Painter of Battles.

The Flanders Panel

Take a real, but obscure Flemish painter — Pieter Huys. Invent for him an atypical indoor scene:

The Game of Chess, oil on wood, painted in 1471 by Pieter Van Huys… It was a domestic interior painted in minute fifteenth-century detail, the sort of scene with which the great Flemish masters, using oil for the first time, had laid the foundations of modern painting. The main subjects were two gentlemen of noble appearance, in their middle years, sitting on either side of a chessboard on which a game was in progress.

In the background to the right, next to a lancet window framing a landscape, a lady, dressed in black, was reading the book that lay in her lap. Completing the scene were the painstaking details typical of the Flemish school, recorded with a perfection that bordered on the obsessive: the furniture and decorations, the black-and-white tiled floor, the design on the carpet, a tiny crack in the wall, the shadow cast by a minuscule nail in one of the ceiling beams. The painting of the chessboard and chess pieces was executed with the same precision as the faces, hands and clothes of the people depicted, with a realism that contributed to the painting’s extraordinarily fine finish, its colours still brilliant despite the inevitable darkening caused by the gradual oxidation of the original varnish.

This is being studied by Julia, a restorer preparing the panel for auction. X-rays have revealed:

At the bottom of the painting, brought to light after five centuries, thanks to radiography, was the hidden phrase, its Gothic characters standing out in sharp contrast against the black and white of the plate.


Julia knew enough Latin to be able to translate it without a dictionary: Quis, interrogative pronoun meaning “who”, necavit, from neco, “to kill”, and equitem, the accusative singular of eques, “knight”. Who killed the knight? Adding a question mark, which, in Latin, the use of quis rendered redundant, lent the phrase an air of mystery.

No messing about: just four hundred words into the fiction, and already we have the central character and the MacGuffin: Who killed the knight? The clue is already there in that description of the painting.

Julia’s ex-lover is used to move the story along:

“Here you are,” he said, and Julia clung to the sound of his voice like a drowning woman to a piece of wood, knowing, with relief, that she couldn’t do two things at once: remember him as he was then and listen to him now. With no regret, her feelings of nostalgia were immediately left behind, and the relief on her face must have been so patent that he looked at her, surprised, before turning his attention back to the page of the book.

Julia glanced at the title: Switzerland, Burgundy and the Low Countries in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries.

“Look.” Alvaro was pointing at a name in the text. Then he transferred his finger to the photograph of the painting she had placed on the table.

“FERDINANDUS OST. D. is the identifying inscription of the chess player on the left, the man dressed in red. Van Huys painted The Game of Chess in 1471, so there’s no doubt about it. It’s Ferdinand Altenhoffen, the Duke of Ostenburg, Ostenburguensis Dux, born in 1435, died in… yes, that’s right, in 1474. He was about thirty-five when he sat for the painter.”

Julia had picked up a card from the table and was pointing at what was written there.

“Where was Ostenburg?… In Germany?”

Alvaro shook his head and opened a historical atlas.

“Ostenburg was a duchy that corresponded, more or less, to Charlemagne’s Rodovingia… It was here, inside the Franco-German borders, between Luxembourg and Flanders. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Ostenburg dukes tried to remain independent, but ended up being absorbed, first by Burgundy and then by Maximilian of Austria. In fact, the Altenhoffen dynasty died out with this particular Ferdinand. If you like, I can make you some photocopies.”

“I’d be very grateful.”

“It’s no trouble.” Alvaro sat back in his chair, took a tin of tobacco from a drawer in the desk and started filling his pipe. “Logically, the lady by the window, with the inscription BEATRIX BURG. OST. D. can only be Beatrice of Burgundy, the Duke’s consort. See? Beatrice married Ferdinand Altenhoffen in 1464, when she was twenty-three.”

“For love?” asked Julia with an enigmatic smile, looking at the photograph. Alvaro responded with a brief, rather forced smile of his own.

“As you know, very few marriages of this kind were love matches… The wedding was an attempt by Beatrice’s uncle, Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, to create closer ties with Ostenburg in an alliance against France, which was trying to annex both duchies.”

The knight is similarly fingered:

“Look at this. Roger de Arras, born in 1431, the same year in which the English burned Joan of Arc at the stake in Rouen. His family were related to the Valois, the reigning dynasty in France at the time, and he was born in the castle of Bellesang, very near the duchy of Ostenburg.”

“Could he be the second chess player?”

“Possibly. AR would be exactly right for the abbreviation of Arras. And Roger de Arras appears in all the chronicles of the time. He fought in the Hundred Years’ War alongside the King of France, Charles VII. See? He took part in the conquest of Normandy and Guyenne to win them back from the English. In 1450 he fought in the battle of Formigny and three years later at the battle of Castillon. Look at this engraving. He might well be one of those men; perhaps he’s the knight with his visor down, offering his horse in the midst of the fray to the King of France, whose own horse has been killed, but who continues to fight on foot…”

“You amaze me, Professor,” Julia said, looking at him with open astonishment. “I mean that picturesque image of the warrior in the battle. You were the one who always said that imagination is the cancer of historical rigour.”

Alvaro is promptly offed:

found in his bathtub with a broken neck, presumably from slipping while taking a shower.

All whodunnits are mind-games. This novel uses the device of unravelling the painting’s unfinished chess-game as the stages towards revealing the mystery. While mysterious messages turn up, developing the chess-game, Julia is taken by her friend and mentor, Cesar, to meet a supreme chess-player, Munoz, to decode the game in the painting. The fifteenth and the twentieth centuries parallel each other with the disappearance of the painting and the murder of Menchu Roch, the gallery-owner who is negotiating the sale of the painting.

The clues are there:

Julia sighed gently.

“If someone had told me that one day I’d be tracking a possible murderer with the help of a chessboard, I’d have said he was stark, staring mad.”

“I told you before that there are many links between chess and police work.” Munoz’s hand moved chess pieces in the void. “Even before Conan Doyle, there was Poe’s Dupin method.”

“Edgar Allan Poe? Don’t tell me he played chess too.”

“Oh, yes, he was a very keen player. There was an automaton known as Maelzel’s Player which almost never lost a game. Poe wrote an essay about it around 1830. To get to the bottom of the mystery he developed sixteen analytical approaches and concluded that there must be a man hidden inside the automaton.”

The mysterious messages, of course, emanate from the murderer, who is one of the tight circle we have already met. In this case, there is a computer programme behind the killer’s skilled chess-play :

“His name is Alfa PC-1212. He’s a personal computer with a complex chess programme with twenty levels of play. I bought it the day after killing Alvaro…

All this time you’ve been playing against a simple computer, a machine with no emotions or feelings. I’m sure you’ll agree with me that it’s a delicious paradox, a perfect symbol of the times we live in. Maelzel’s prodigious player had a man hidden inside, according to Poe. Do you remember? But times change, my friend. Now it’s the automaton that hides inside the man.””

It is often the case that the MacGuffin gets lost in the complications of the plot. That is so here. As with most murders, there is a sordid motive, with a silver lining. Much is left unresolved by the conclusion of the novel — and then there is a quite remarkable animadversion back to that painting:

The sound of her footsteps echoes in the empty cloister, beneath the vaulted roof already plunged in shadow. The final rays of the setting sun fall almost horizontally, filtered through the stone shutters, staining red the convent walls, the empty niches, the ivy leaves turned yellow by the autumn curling about the capitals of the columns, the monsters, warriors, saints, mythological beasts that support the grave, Gothic arches surrounding the garden invaded by weeds. The wind howls outside, warning of the cold northern weather that always precedes winter, whirling up the side of the hill, where it shakes the branches of the trees and draws from the gargoyles and the eaves of the roof the boom of centuries-old stone; it sets the bronze bells in the tower swaying and, above them, a creaking, rusty weathervane points obstinately south, a south that is perhaps luminous, distant and inaccessible.

The woman dressed in mourning stops by a mural eaten away by time and damp. Only a few fragments of the original colours remain: the blue of a tunic, the ochre outline of a figure; a hand cut off at the wrist, one index finger pointing up at a nonexistent sky, a Christ whose features meld into the crumbling plaster of the wall; a ray of sun or of divine light, with no origin or destination, suspended between heaven and earth, a segment of yellow light absurdly frozen in time and space, which the years and the weather have gradually worn away, until one day it will be extinguished or erased, as if it had never even been there. And an angel with no mouth and a frown like that of a judge or an executioner, of whom one can only make out, amongst what remains of the paint, a pair of wings stained with lime, a fragment of tunic and the vague shape of a sword.

The woman dressed in mourning lifts the black veils that cover her face and looks for a long time into the eyes of the angel. For eighteen years she has stopped here every day at the same hour and she sees the ravages of time gnawing away at what remains of that painting. She has watched it disappear little by little, as if afflicted by a leprosy that tears off lumps of flesh, that blurs the figure of the angel, so that it blends with the dirty plaster of the wall, with the damp that causes the colours to blister, that cracks and fragments the images. Where she lives there are no mirrors. They are forbidden by the order she entered, or that perhaps she was obliged to enter. Like the painting on the wall, her memory contains more and more blanks. She has not seen her own face for eighteen years, and for her that angel, who doubtless once possessed a beautiful face, is the only external reference to the effect of passing time on her own features: peeling paint instead of wrinkles, blurred outlines instead of ageing skin. In the occasional moments of lucidity that arrive like waves licking the sands of a beach, moments to which she clings, desperately trying to fix them in her confused, ghost-ridden memory, she seems to recall that she is fifty-four years old.

From the chapel comes a chorus of voices, the sound muffled by the thickness of the walls, voices singing the praises of God before going to the refectory. The woman dressed in mourning has permission not to attend certain services and at that hour they allow her to walk alone, like a dark, silent shadow, in the deserted cloister. A long rosary of dark wooden beads hangs from her belt, a rosary she has not touched for some time. The distant religious singing becomes confused with the whistling of the wind.

When she starts walking again and reaches the window, the dying sun is just a bright smudge of red in the distance, beneath leaden clouds coming from the north. At the foot of the hill there is a broad grey lake that glitters like steel. The woman rests her thin, bony hands on the ledge of a lancet window – again, as on every evening, her memories pitilessly return – and she feels how the cold from the stone rises up her arms and approaches, slowly, dangerously, her worn-out heart. She is seized by a terrible fit of coughing that shakes her fragile body undermined by the damp of so many winters, tortured by seclusion, solitude and intermittent memories. She no longer hears the songs from the chapel or the sound of the wind. Now it is the sad, monotonous music of a mandolin that emerges from the mists of time, and the harsh autumnal horizon vanishes before her eyes to form, as if in a painting, another landscape: a gentle undulating plain and in the distance, silhouetted against the blue sky as if painted by a fine brush, the slender outline of a belfry. And suddenly she seems to hear the voices of two men sitting at a table, the echo of laughter. And she thinks that if she turns round, she will see herself sitting on a stool with a book in her lap, and that when she looks up, she will see the gleam of a steel gorget and an insigne representing the Golden Fleece. And an old man with a grey beard will smile at her while, brush in hand, he paints on an oak panel, with the quiet skill of his profession, the eternal image of that scene.

For an instant, the wind rips asunder the covering of clouds, and a final gleam of light, reverberating across the waters of the lake, illuminates the woman’s ageing face, dazzles her eyes, which are clear and cold and almost lifeless. Then, as the light dies, the wind seems to howl louder still, stirring the black veils that flap about her like the wings of a crow. She feels again that sharp pain gnawing at her, inside, near her heart, a pain that paralyses half her body and that nothing can alleviate. It freezes her limbs, her breath.

The lake is nothing but a dull smudge in the shadows. And the woman dressed in mourning, whom the world knew as Beatrice of Burgundy, knows that the winter advancing from the north will be her last. And she wonders if, in the dark place to which she is heading, there will be enough mercy to erase from her mind the final shreds of memory.

As this little tour may suggest, The Flanders Panel “got” to Malcolm. He cannot pretend to comprehend the movements of the chess-pieces. Fortunately that is not essential to comprehending the plot. Typical for Pérez-Reverte, there is only the one strong central character, with a lot of supporting roles.

Not brilliant, just good. And one heck of an easier read than what comes next.

The seven ages of English spy fiction

Back at the ranch, Malcolm was considering the reviews of the forthcoming Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy re-make. Which would make it a film of the TV series of the book — almost a dynastic progression, or at least a genre development suggested by the original dustcover.

“Two countries divided by a common language”

What those reviews of Tomas Alfredson’s film demonstrate is a clear distinction of British and the US concepts of this sub-genre. A perceptive and extended piece on Playlist, albeit arguing from a filmic perspective, addresses just this:

The spy genre, is generally speaking, a euphemism for ‘action movie’—look at the explosions, fistfights and car chases of the Bond films, of the Mission: Impossible series, of the Bourne franchise, none of which have much in the way of actual tradecraft. The business of being a spy is hard, boring work, made up of listening and talking and without a lot of glamor. One of the men who best understands this is novelist John Le Carré, himself a former spy, who for close to half a century has been behind some of the most acclaimed literary examples of the genre. But aside from the much-loved The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, and the more recent The Constant Gardener (the latter not strictly speaking an espionage picture), his works haven’t had a huge amount of success on the big screen, lacking the speedboats and fireballs of Ian Fleming or Robert Ludlum

Well, that’s what the cinema audiences, at least those not at art-houses, seem to want. So it’s demand, and supply. Moreover, even as far back as Douglas Fairbanks (père and fils), swinging from a gothic chandelier was more sensational on the silver screen than on the printed page.

Way back, when this blogging thing first got to him, Malcolm attempted an overview of the British spy novel, here reprised.

That was following a re-reading of  Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands, a book still often cited as the prototype for a now-overcrowded genre, which also needs to be placed in context.

So, here’s Malcolm’s possible structure for a historical perspective of the genre:

  • before Childers, what?
  • Childers, in 1903;
  • Richard Hannay;
  • Bulldog Drummond, and the inter-War years;
  • James Bond and the brutalities of the Cold War world;
  • John Le Carré and a new ambivalent intellectualism;
  • Len Deighton, and the post-Le Carré scene.

That assumes the crash, bang wallop of much US “spy fiction” (see the Playlist piece above) hasn’t spawned an explicitly cis-Atlantic variant — or, if it has, that Malcolm remains in blissful ignorance.

We may return this way in a future post.

Three literary, social and historical “forces”  are at work here. Where these three forces overlap in a Venn-diagram is the present moment of popular taste. Perhaps that should be “popular paranoia”.

1. Who is the national enemy?

Over time this changes from

  • nebulous anarchist forces, usually associated with east European nasties, though the Yellow Peril has its fifteen minutes,
  • who segue into the horrible Hun, and
  • by the 1950s again mutates into the Red Menace and the Enemy Within,
  • and finally back to nebulous nihilist forces, but now usually associated with Islamicist Asian nasties.

2. What is the literary climate?

This, too, changes.

  • The spy novel emerges from the miasma of the penny dreadful and Daily Mail sensationalist page-fillers.
  • The Riddle of the Sands is, self-consciously, more demanding. Indeed, at its original publication, the Times Literary Supplement suggested that “the whole story can scarcely be understood by any but practical navigators”. Malcolm notes, in that context, that his hard-back copy dates from 1955, when it was published by Rupert Hart-Davis, as number 29 in the “Mariners Library”.
  • Then it is back to the popular yellow-back shocker, sold through the railway bookstall, recognising the growth of a mass-market for such publications.
  • Publishing standards, and intellectual acceptance improve as, successively, Alan Lane’s Penguins, then the universal wartime economy editions give way to the post-war library hardbacks who are recycled into well-designed paperback editions. The current vogue for “trade paperbacks” raises the quality standard even further. Malcolm’s aside here is that the dust-covers Richard Copping did for Jonathan Cape’s first editions of Ian Fleming are the genre’s gold standard of presentation.
  • Content as well as medium has higher standards. Eric Ambler and Graham Greene bridge the chasm between popular and intellectual readership. Characterisation is vastly improved. By the time Le Carré is hitting his stride, the “spy novel” is indistinguishable from the “psychological novel”.

3. The advance of technology

Over the last century, we have gone from the Martini rifle, the anarchist’s bomb and the good ship Dulcibella, through poison gas, aircraft, atom bombs, death rays, the space age and missile technology, and into the cyberage. The MacGuffin changes accordingly; but the essential plot of the best spy stories still reduces to the protagonist hunting, encountering, escaping and, in the end-game, neutralising an antagonist, on a credible human level.

George Smiley

Here we have one of the greatest, and most sophisticated characterisations of English fiction. Smiley is developed so subtly, so gently. Fortunately, we have a full background history, by as the opening chapter of Call for the Dead, Smiley’s first outing:

They had brought him in during the war, the professional civil servant from an orthodox department, a man to handle paper and integrate the brilliance of his staff with the cumbersome machine of bureaucracy. It comforted the Great to deal with a man they knew, a man who could reduce any colour to grey, who knew his masters and could walk among them. And he did it so well. They liked his diffidence when he apologized for the company he kept, his insincerity when he defended the vagaries of his subordinates, his flexibility when formulating new commitments. Nor did he let go the advantages of a cloak and dagger man malgré lui, wearing the cloak for his masters and preserving the dagger for his servants. Ostensibly, his position was an odd one. He was not the nominal Head of Service, but the Ministers’ Adviser on Intelligence, and Steed-Asprey had described him for all time as the Head Eunuch.

Which is why Malcolm will be off to see how well Gary Oldman carries it off in Alfredson’s treatment.

14 Surveying

Reading — which is what this blog is supposedly all about — comes in different forms, formats and even media.

This last week Malcolm should have been focused on more of the same from Arturo Perez-Reverte. Instead the main idea was The Rough Guide to Devon & Cornwall.

Anyone who has been anywhere knows what the Rough Guides are like: they guide, and they’re by no means rough. In this case, like Billie Holiday and others, they Cover the Waterfront very adequately, thank you.

OK: no opportunity should be wasted —

Good as the Rough Guide is, it doesn’t get you easily from place to place, except by skeletal maps of main roads. Ah! but Malcolm had the solution!

A quick search located his Ordnance Survey map, sheet 204, Truro and Falmouth. That has been on the shelf, and rarely used, since it quite successfully guided the then-diminished (in size, and child-population) Clan Redfellow around the area in the 1970s. For example, Malcolm can see from the pencil comment that he had lunch at the Shipwright Arms, Helford, on 9th August 1979. By the look of the reviews, giving it a miss this time may not have been misguided.

Instead, last week, the Lady in his Life and he completed the matched pair by having an equally pleasant meal and couple of pints the other side of the Helford River, at the Ferryboat Inn at Helford Passage. Late summer wasps made eating inside more desirable. Conclusion: this, foodwise and drinkwise, is a seriously useful pub.

However, that map is dated:

Compiled from photographically enlarged one inch to one mile seventh series map material

(a) Revised 1970 except for low water mark

plotted from air photographs dated 1969

Revised for major roads and other significant changes 1972

The result of four decades of subsequent changes became glaringly obvious from two events:

  • debouching from the A390 St Austell to Truro road, onto the A3078 St Mawes road, near Probus, showed that there was now a completely different set-up;


  • an embarrassing experience ignoring the Unsuitable for motor vehicles warning, and trying to follow an unmaintained minor lane, clearly marked on this old map.

Time for an upgrade.

Let’s check the small print:

Edition — B2

Revised 2003

Revised for selective change 2005, 2009

and a copyright date of 2010.

Sure enough, it looks good, and at twice the scale — 1:25,000 rather than the old 1:50,000 — by Jove, it does you good.

Here, then is a straight comparison of the area around St Just in Roseland.

First the old First Series, sheet 204

And now, the current  OS Explorer series, sheet 105:

The improvement in information is quite remarkable. Suddenly the degree of detail makes walking a pleasure, not just guesswork. The difference in direction can be seen in the way  paths are marked:

On the old 1:50,000 you can just about see – – – – – – –

On the new 1:25,000 it’s a far more obvious  heavy green – – – – – – – –

Malcolm grew up with OS maps. He still finds them a delight of logic and code. Somehow, like weather, like beer, like food, like architecture, like everything else that comprises “nationality”, these things become ingrained. By corollary, they define the “alien”.