Malcolm Redfellow's reading diary

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

Month: November, 2011

Normal service may be resumed …

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

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

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

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

25 Somme troubles

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

2. The Blackpool Highflyer

3. The Lost Luggage Porter

4. Murder at Deviation Junction

5. Death on a Branch Line

6. The Last Train to Scarborough

and, in March this year:

7. The Somme Stations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The RE man nodded. ‘’Fraid so.’

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

‘More of the same,’ said the RE man.

‘What? More dead bodies?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24 Subterranean homesick blues

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

Only Johnny Cash can sing a song about a train.

How true. How very true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long may Wolmar point out such lunacies.

23 Czeching Kerr

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

  • March Violets, originally from 1989.

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

  • The Pale Criminal. from 1990.

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

  • A German Requiem, from 1991.

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

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

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

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

This one begins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

22 Good history and a good read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The agents of change were the arriving Americans:

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

These were the advance guard, the

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

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

And so to D-day:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 More Stephenson

There ought to be a note here that Malcolm spent a week of his life — a week he will not get back — locked in a battle with Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. And this at the third time of asking (the previous two attempts had to be aborted when something more interesting cropped up).

This is the kind of piece that appeals to a particular nerdulent intelligence — yes, it does require considerable intellect, but Malcolm wonders whether this is an appropriate use for such developed thought processes. It also requires a boredom threshold which stretches Malcolm’s tolerances.

We should be warned by the extended “alternative history” which prefaces this mighty tome. Then we have to overcome an analogue to conventional vocabulary: this seems to get largely lost as the novel develops — either the reader has become attuned to Stephenson’s word-play, or the author himself became bored with the affectation.

There is a promising start. We find ourselves in a recognisable cloistered space (anyone who, like Malcolm, spent a couple of years at St Columba’s College, Rathfarnham, has the feel):

The Cloister was a roofed gallery around the perimeter of a rectangular garden. On the inner side, nothing separated it from the weather except the row of columns that held up its roof. On the outer side it was bounded by a wall, openings in which gave way to buildings such as the Old Library, the Refectory, and various chalk halls.

Every object I passed—the carven bookcase-ends, the stones locked together to make the floor, the frames of the windows, the forged hinges of the doors and the hand-made nails that fastened them to the wood, the capitals of the columns that surrounded the Cloister, the paths and beds of the garden itself—every one had been made in a particular form by a clever person a long time ago. Some of them, such as the doors of the Old Library, had consumed the whole lifetimes of those who had wrought them. Others looked as though they’d been tossed off in an idle afternoon, but with such upsight that they had been cherished for hundreds or thousands of years. Some were founded on pure simple geometry. Others reveled in complication and it was a sort of riddle whether there was any rule governing their forms.

We are waiting for the Mervyn Peake moment ; and sure enough, it isn’t far behind:

Looking up from a standpoint just inside the screen, one saw the vaulted Mynster ceiling almost two hundred feet above, illuminated by light pouring in through stained-glass windows in the clerestory all around. So much light, shining down onto the bright inner surfaces of the eight screens, rendered them all opaque…

The Præsidium was supported by four fluted legs of stone that rammed down through the middle of the chancel and, I imagined, through the underlying vault where the Ita looked after the movements of their bits. Moving inward we passed by one of those pillars. These were not round in cross-section but stretched out diagonally, almost as if they were fins on an old-fashioned rocket-ship, though not nearly as slender as that implies. We thus came into the central well of the Mynster. Looking up from here, we could see twice as far up, all the way to the top of the Præsidium where the starhenge was. We took up our positions, marked by rosin-stained dimples.

Compare and contrast Stephenson’s Mynster, cheek-by-jowl with the town, inhabited by “slines”, with Peake’s ruin:

Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one half way over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed above them. Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.

Truth to be told, more than a quantum of later writers borrowed — many heavily— from Peake.

For Malcolm, it’s all downhill from here.

The essential story is “first contact”: this entrenched monastic society where the “theors” have detached themselves from the practical and creative to find themselves threatened by a mysterious spacecraft in polar orbit. The technology of Arbre (Stephenson’s alternative world) has the technology to read the depiction of Pythagoras on the side of this craft. Oddly, the “proof” of the theorem is that taught in lower-school geometry, not the neater, mathematical proof confided to classes further up the school.

And, inevitably, there has to be the vaguest sketch of a love interest (actually a couple of them). Don’t get excited, though, there’s little saucy about Stephenson.

His extended debates about Platonism are, to say the least, tedious. Yes, there is a pertinent element to debating the nature of narrative, but padding the whole thing out to a thousand pages, complete with some incidental and show-off stuff at the end, taxes the patience of any normal and normative soul.

Conclusion: there was a decent novella (or two, or three) here.

But why climb Everest — except to prove stamina and physical fitness — if better views are to be had from Bredon Hill?