Michael Blakemore – Stage Blood

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Idealism, intelligence and inspiration – and much skulduggery : The National Theatre 1971-1976

Actor and theatre director Michael Blakemore is also a wonderful writer on matters theatrical. This is the case whether this be in his one novel, Next Season, published in 1969, or, as here, his factual account of the early beginnings of the National Theatre, published a mere 5 years ago

I came across Next Season in the late 80s, republished by Faber with a very fine introduction by Simon Callow, who recounted it being passed round in plain covers, almost like a banned book, backstage and front of house at the National Theatre, still based at the Old Vic. The reason for its seditious reputation was because it was rumoured that it was a possibly thinly disguised account of some regrettable theatrical tendencies which Blakemore was experiencing and observing at the time of writing.(the book was published in the late 60s), Blakemore, by then a director at the Glasgow Citizens had worked as an actor at the RSC – which is where he initially encountered both Laurence Olivier and Peter Hall, both of whom inevitably figure heavily in Stage Blood. Rumour said that the charismatic, wonderful star actor Ivan Spears was imagined with Olivier in mind, or that at least the imagination, intelligence and power of Spears’ work came from Blakemore’s observation and knowledge of Olivier, whom he clearly much admired. Less welcome would have been the rumour that Tom Chester, the bureaucratic speaking power hungry director, a coming new breed to usurp the actor’s centre stage position, was modelled on Hall, a man of a certain devious reputation for stealing limelight and invention from others

National Theatre South Bank in construction, 1971

In 1971 Blakemore was appointed by Olivier as an Associate Director at the Old Vic based National, then preparing for its new South Bank Home. Although Olivier was at times difficult, devious and autocratic, Blakemore makes clear that his guiding star was the glory of theatre itself, and the building of a company of excellence, a community of artists, and that being part of this was the idea of the arts as a necessary service to society. By 1973 Olivier, in many ways a representation of the ‘Actor Manager’ was replaced as Artistic Director by Peter Hall, a man possibly for far greedier times. Under Hall, the idea of that community of artists began to break down, Hall was interested in star power, and, to be fair, the prospect of far higher remuneration in TV and films was making it harder to keep acting companies together. More equal contracts were being replaced, and the gap between the wages of the leading actors and the spear carriers was dramatically and ostentatiously rising.

Sir Laurence Olivier and Peter Hall

Hall himself of course published his own account of his time at the National, in the Peter Hall Diaries. Blakemore here gives his very different account – he resigned from the National in 1976, – and indeed several other Associates were later – or earlier to strongly criticise Hall.

Of course, theatre lovers and those with some background or history here will be particularly gripped by this wonderfully warm, intelligent account, but it also provides fascinating insights into the kind of high, dramatic boardroom backstabbing events which almost have a Greek Tragedy – and Comedy feel, about them. Perhaps it is the lens of theatre itself which reveals this – so as Blakemore uncovers the workings of the rehearsal room, in his accounts of some of the productions he directed whilst at the National, what might be boring accounts of jockeyings for power and control seem to achieve a more mythic, archetypal painting

I recently re-read Next Season, so I knew that Blakemore would be fascinating in this one – and am now waiting to read Arguments with England, his account of his beginnings in the English theatre. He arrived from his native Australia in 1950, as a student at RADA

I had a clear and very simple view of what I thought theatre was for. It was to bring to the stage productions of such accomplishment and concentrated intent that anyone who saw them would remember them for the rest of their lives. It was their impact rather than the categories to which they happened to belong that mattered.

They could be anything – tragedies or comedies, musicals or one-man shows. Not surprisingly such occasions are a rarity. But they do happen and are perhaps the one good reason why people who should know better persist on in such a clumsy, compromised and often disappointing medium, It’s impossible to legislate for this kind of excellence; all you can do is get the work done as best you can, keep your fingers crossed and trust that once in a while in the life of an institution or an individual, against the odds, it happens. This hardly constitutes a policy and is certainly not a programme, nor is it much use in the daily and arduous demands of running a theatre, but as a thought on hold at the back of one’s mind, a sleeping aspiration, it can warn against wrong turnings and highlight misjudgements

Stage Blood UK
Stage Blood USA

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Yuko Tsushima – Territory of Light

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Delicate, bleak and disturbing

Though it could be said this is a ‘slight’ book, it is not without its own uncomfortable power. I found myself thinking of The Bell Jar, at times, transported to a different culture (Japan) where not so much is stated or shown, and the narrator’s emotional and existential fractures have a kind of varnished, disguised quality to them, even from within her own expression

Set in Tokyo in the 70s the slim book charts a year in the life of a woman who has rented a fourth floor apartment, the ‘territory of light’ in a mainly abandoned commercial property

The unnamed narrator is a young woman with a toddler, separated from her wastrel husband. The only name we have for her is her last name, her married name, coincidentally the same surname as the building’s landlord. It is totally fitting that we do not know her name – she is a demographic – young woman, separated, single mother, struggling to keep finances together, juggling the requirements of work and childcare. She is isolated and the separation from her unsuitable partner (her mother advised against the marriage) is something shameful. She is outside society.

This is a deeply melancholic book, with a strange, dissociative, dream like quality. The rhythms of the writing are somehow both spare, slow and clear. Reading, in my head I could hear the evocative, misty soundscape evoked by the shakuhachi flute, and see in my mind’s eye some typical Japanese calligraphy and artwork featuring a mountain and a crane – a kind of still, sad beauty constructed over sadness.

I wanted to read and surrender to the ‘nothing happens, everything happens’ sensibility of this – little high drama, much recounting of everyday, but in a way which set down roots into depths, shoots into light – but it took me far longer to read than its short length should have taken. And this was because the atmosphere was pervasive, misty, and the spare writing invited the reader to stop, reflect, let the images build

To the west, at the far end of the long, thin apartment, a big window gave onto the main road; here the late sun and the street noise poured in without mercy. Directly below, one could see the black heads of pedestrians who streamed along the pavement towards the station in the morning and back again in the evening. On the footpath opposite, in front of a florist’s, people stood still at a bus stop. Every time a bus or lorry passed by the whole fourth floor shook and the crockery rattles on the shelves. The building where I’d set up house with my daughter was on a three-way intersection – four-way counting the lane to the south. Nevertheless, several times a day, a certain combination of red lights and traffic flow would produce about ten seconds silence. I always noticed it a split second before the signals changed and the waiting cars all revved impatiently at once

Geraldine Harcourt is the translator of this strange, subtly unsettling novella, originally published in a Japanese monthly literary magazine, in the late 70s. I have never read any of Yuko Tsushima’s work before, or, indeed heard of her. Something I intend to rectify – there are a couple of other titles, either pending publication or already published by Penguin Modern Classics. I have fallen under this writer’s spell

I was lucky enough to receive this as an ARC via NetGalley. Amusingly, though the published Kindle seems properly formatted, the ARC had some curious errors – any words containing any of the following letter combinations, had those letters missing, which added to the strange, elusive, not quite graspable spell of the piece – ff, fl, fi – so office floor became o ice oor. At times it was like trying to piece together a fine cracked piece of porcelain!

Territory of Light UK
Territory of Light USA

Dennis Glover – The Last Man In Europe

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As clearly, accessibly and authentically written as the subject himself would have insisted on

The title of Dennis Glover’s faction about George Orwell and his writing, was a possible work-in-progress title for Orwell’s last novel, the extraordinarily reverberating Nineteen Eighty Four

Australian author Glover has very clearly penned an absolute labour of love here, which though drawing strongly from Orwell’s writing and from various biographical and historical writings of his times, is crafted as a novel, and in language which tries for the clarity and immediacy of Orwell’s own writing.

Eric Blair the man was someone of great complexity. I confess he was very much a hero of my youth, and not only the novels, but the much cherished 4 volume Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, published by Penguin still maintain their battered, thumbed presence on my bookshelves

Glover’s book starts really with the writing of Keep The Aspidistra Flying, published in 1936. Central character Gordon Comstock, a shabby, high minded unsuccessful writer, castigates and vilifies the bourgeoisie, and exists on the edges of genteel penury, whilst working in a bookshop and seeking to find a way to bed his girl, Rosemary, when neither of them have the money to find privacy to do so, in a world of sharp eyed landladies living on the premises.

He started walking. Bleakness. Why did he have to be good at bleakness? Obviously, to represent failure, bleakness was inevitable. But how many writers had become successful by depressing everyone? Such writers were usually famous after they were dead….You didn’t buy books in order to feel gloomy, did you? For 10/6 you wanted a little happiness and pleasure…..Bleakness, it occurred to him, meant he would never be able to afford to marry. He picked up a piece of brick and threw it over the embankment at the water, but it landed in the mud

Orwell himself drew heavily on his own experiences with this one, a reflection of the challenges between being a high minded writer and a successful one. Not to say the challenges of getting published in the first place.

Orwell moved with ease – well, the results moved with ease, however hard the writing itself may have been in the crafting – between fiction, whether mined from his own experiences or from the lives of the times, and from his investigations into the reality of what life was like, particularly for those on the margins of society, or at least, deprived from present power which might shape society. His writing on the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, which is also covered here, on the life of the poor, The Road to Wigan pier and Down and Out in Paris and London are also explored.

Glover beautifully delineates Blair the man, Orwell the writer and avoids slipping into hagiography.

I found myself moved and excited by Glover’s fictional imaginings, – how particular ideas, phrases, events might have made their way into his two most bleak and warning fictions – Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four – for example, the horrific rat episode in his last book, juxtaposed with reality on Jura, in a damp, decaying, isolated abandoned farmhouse, where he had retreated to in order to write and edit his last novel. At this time, Orwell was in severely failing health, with tuberculosis. His specialist had forbidden writing, through the exertion any activity was placing on his lungs, and he had also had several excruciating sounding procedures carried out to try and manage the condition, before then being treated with a new medicine, Streptomycin, which was also not without horrific side effects at the dosage required.

He realised with a shudder that the future wasn’t something to look forward to, but something to be frightened of. Yes, it was coming alright

I found this section of Glover’s book almost unbearable and heartbreaking, even though they were leavened by the satisfaction found in the crafting of the writing itself, by the dying man

For the first time, he was no longer certain he would live to see the world rebuilt. And even if it was rebuilt, maybe it would all happen again, people’s memories being so short

I recommend this most warmly to Orwell’s admirer’s – but also, to those for whom the subject himself may not be so well known. It stands on its merits as a very well crafted, thought provoking novel

This was a wonderful choice by my on-line bookclub so well done to the pickers of the titles and to those of us who voted for this one (including me!)

The Last Man In Europe UK
The Last Man In Europe USA

Alma Katsu – The Hunger

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Literary Western-Horror splice

There is historical background to Alma Katsu’s novel, The Hunger, which is based on ‘The Donner Party’ – or, more properly, ‘The Donner-Reed Party’,  a large group of pioneers, led by, at different times George Donner and James F. Reed, who set out, in May 1846, from Springfield Illinois, to travel to California. Initially there were 500 wagons, many families taking several wagons, filled with household possessions as well as supplies and cattle for food,  as they were effectively moving home to a new State. The pioneers were mostly families, but with some single men, and most of the pioneers had a range of reasons for making this challenging journey. Some, inevitably were escaping past mistakes, crimes and misdemeanours, some looking for the prospect of creating a better life for their young families.

The journey was one which had been successfully done before, by others, and initially the Donner Party were doing fine.. A fatal mistake was made, however, to pursue a shortcut, the Hastings Cutoff, from Fort Bridger, Wyoming. Unfortunately Lansford Hastings, the promoter of this supposed short cut, had been – economical – with its suitability.

Great Salt Lake Desert Crossing

The party encountered severe problems with weather and terrain, firstly when the Hastings Cutoff proved not to be a short cut, landing the group in a parching desert crossing of the Great Salt Lake Desert, meaning that they joined the Oregon trail, making a push over the Sierra Nevada mountains, late in the season at the end of October, becoming trapped by heavy snowfall blocking the pass. Stuck  in the high mountains, by the time rescue came less than half of the group of just under 90 who had set out on that final push were still alive. Others had not chosen to follow the route, or had left the wagon train earlier, There were also several rescue attempts which had resulted in some of the rescuers perishing. Food supplies ran out, and the survivors, or some of them, had resorted to cannibalism, eating the bodies of their dead companions

Sierra Nevada Mountains

Katsu, who writes well, really well, has taken the names of the real pioneers, but has created her own story around this, with an imaginative, horror explanation of what happened. Although for me the horror aspects are the least interesting parts of the book, having recently read Algernon Blackwood’s truly chilling short story The Wendigo, based on the beliefs of certain Native American tribes, I was more willing to be rattled by the fears of ‘this is a bad place’ energy being expressed by some in Katsu’s story who are sensitive to the energy of place.

Stumps of trees cut at the Alder Creek site by members of the Donner Party, photograph taken in 1866. The height of the stumps indicates the depth of snow. Wiki Commons

I always have certain problems with inventing stories (particularly bad ones) for real characters who once lived, and must confess to a certain unease here too, particularly when dodgy pasts and shady motivations and characterisations of one kind or another, are assigned to real people, though it certainly seems that some of those who are most harshly dealt with in her book were, indeed, those with stains laid against them by survivors

Reading the long Wiki entry, and a couple of other sources, on what is a gripping tale, with well drawn characters – particularly some of the women, really given flesh, integrity and stories – she has researched well, and the imaginative twist she inserts is one which even could have a scientific basis, given knowledge of Kuru and other transmissible spongiform encephalopathy diseases, associated not just with cannibalism, but where one species eats another which is not its ‘normal’ diet – BSE, Creutzfeld Jacob, etc a better known example of this.

I recommend this strongly. It is a very well told, well paced tale, with strong characterisation, moving and horrific. Just don’t read it (or part of it) late at night or close to meal times.

I received this  as a review copy via  Amazon Vine UK

The Hunger Amazon UK
The Hunger Amazon USA

Irvin D. Yalom – The Gift of Therapy

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Absorbing reflections reaching more widely than merely the ‘new generation of therapists and their patients’

I admire the wisdom and compassion expressed in the writing and the thinking behind the writing of existential humanistic psychotherapist Irvin Yalom

Now in his late 80s, Yalom inspires not just those who practice psychotherapy, counselling, psychoanalysis or psychiatry. He is a philosophical thinker, rather than one who focuses on human ‘lesions’ or pathologies. Or, as he simply, profoundly says :

A diagnosis limits vision; it diminishes ability to relate to the other as a person. Once we make a diagnosis, we tend to selectively inattend to aspects of the patient that do not fit into that particular diagnosis

He has written books which tell the stories (anonymised, given narrative structure, and with permission) or particular encounters with patients over his decades of practice. These do not read like dry, clinical, case histories. Yalom inhabits the understanding that what is happening in the psychotherapeutic encounter is what happens in any human encounter – relationship. The therapist, though they must strive to understand their own subjective agenda within the client/practitioner encounter, can never be a robotic observer, but always brings themselves into the field of encounter with the client, as much as the client brings themselves into that field. And the connection itself will shape outcomes.

Yalom also, as to some extent here, writes books which are perhaps a little less geared towards the lay-person, but which might serve as useful guide or instruction to anyone engaged in holding any kind of therapeutic space, whether one to one, or with groups

He also writes a third kind of book, one where he turns deep thinking about philosophy and the questions which surely we all return to, across our lives, the attempt to understand primal ‘whys’ into the form of dramatic narrative. For Yalom is as much a writer, an imaginative, dramatic, shaping one, as he is someone working within the pursuit of emotional, integral healing and wholeness for individuals seeking this in the psychotherapy field.

Something I absolutely appreciate with Yalom is his acknowledgement and laying bare of his own errors, challenges and difficulties in his work. Perhaps this is one reason is so genuinely admired, so genuinely an inspirer – he shows his failures, reveals how the journey of practice goes wrong.

I like the central idea, expressed in many different ways in his books, of holding fast to the idea of the wholeness within the individual, however broken they might appear :

As a young psychotherapy student the most useful book I read was Karen Horney’s Neurosis and Human Growth. And the single most useful concept in that book was the notion that the human being has an inbuilt propensity towards self-realization. If obstacles are removed, Horney believed, the individual will develop into a mature, fully realized adult, just as an acorn will develop into an oak tree

Yalom is always revealing far more than the ostensible subject matter of his books, and, is always writing about meaning with wider reach

I underlined page after page, as being useful to return to, whether thinking about my own professional requirements, or, those deeper thoughts about the ‘whys’

Here is an example, ostensibly Yalom is cautioning against the fashion for shorter trainings, shorter interventions, and the following of rigid single patterns of thought in psychiatric evaluations and treatments, but more is opened out

In these days of relentless attack on the field of psychotherapy, the analytic institutes may become the last bastion, the repository of collected psychotherapy wisdom, in much the same way the church for centuries was the repository of philosophical wisdom and the only realm where serious existential questions – life purpose, values, ethics, responsibility, freedom, death, community, connectedness – were discussed. There are similarities between psychoanalytic institutes and religious institutions of the past, and it is important that we do not repeat the tendencies of some religious institutions to suppress other forums of thoughtful discourse and to legislate what thinkers are allowed to think

The Gift of Therapy UK
The Gift of Therapy USA

Lucy Mangan – Bookworm : A Memoir of Childhood Reading

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Lucy Mangan leads readers through a long distance reading journey with map, compass and excellent orienteering skills

Oh heavens, I didn’t want to get to Journey’s End, I really didn’t. This is an utterly delicious romp up hill and down dale through a childhood’s (Lucy’s) adventures between the covers of books.

Now Lucy was born in the 70s. She is not of my generation, so some of her childhood reads were certainly books I had never heard of, never mind read, but I just didn’t care, and chomped up, with equal delight, travels through books known and unknown. She also details experiences (as an adult I assume) with the whole history of childhood reading, indeed the production, the when and the why, of books written for children, whether, as in the high Victorian era, to morally educate and save young souls from temptation, or, – revolutionary, to entertain, to open up worlds, to surrender to with blazing delight.

IF you are a lifelong reader, IF you fell upon being read to with feverish delight and anticipation, but BURNED to take control of this for yourself, IF you still half regret the loss of that falling-in-love with reading, a kind of entrance into Paradise, DO NOT WAIT A MOMENT LONGER – you must have this book, you must read it, like you must draw breath.

This is an utterly joyous journey through the literature of childhood, from the earliest days of putting strange shaped squiggles together and suddenly grasping that c a t (for example) meant something – well, I guess that moment is equal to the moment serious greybeards first began to decode hieroglyphs.

Magic, that’s what

But Mangan is not only a wonderful chronicler of literature for children (the academic analysis) she is brilliantly right there within the experience of the exposure at the time of a child’s reading. She writes with as much joy and gusto as she reads

Pointless to describe the waystations on her journey, but this book is as much to be filed in Humour (she is one gloriously witty woman) as it is in Biography or factual tome about the history of children’s literature

Rarely has a book simultaneously made me laugh out loud so much whilst also educating me

Suffice it to say, Mangan had me, firmly following her guided tour, from this, early comment

Was your first crush on Dickon instead of Johnny Depp? Do you still get the urge to tap the back of a wardrobe if you find yourself alone in a strange bedroom

To which I could only shout YES! YES! Even if Johnny Depp was not yet a crushable entity when I first ‘crushed’ Dickon

Photograph by Romain Veillon from his book Ask the Dust

I was delighted to be offered this as a review copy as a digital ARC, and, have discovered to my delight that Mangan has written other books. WHICH I SHALL BE BUYING.

My only cavil (and I don’t know whether this was purely ‘digital ARC challenge’ or not) is that the author’s delightful habit of footnote and footnote within footnote asides does not work well in the digital format. It would work perfectly on a printed page, where the visual signs of long footnotes can happily spill over several pages without reader confusion.

Bookworm UK
Bookworm USA

Robert Dinsdale – The Toymakers

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Sensing the life in everything : Magic for adults which will make, and break, your heart. Repeatedly.

Who did not, as a small child, believe their toys were alive, or, at least, HOPE they came alive when your back was turned…….and so, yes, reading the synopsis of this book, my heart quickened a little in anticipation of recovering that state of ‘magic, real magic IS the world’, that was some of the place of that child, not ‘pretending’ a toy was alive, but, even if only momentarily, believing.

The fact that this book was being compared to The Night Circus (which I adored, and catapulted me back into that place) was also appealing. The fact that it was compared also to The Miniaturist gave me pause (lacked it, in my opinion). I needn’t have worried. The Night Circus pleasurable shivers of delight up the back of the neck started very early with The Toymakers.

Primarily taking place in 1917 and making a journey TO that time and place from some 11 years earlier, the Toymakers is set in what any toyshop should really be – a magical place where the maker-of-those-toys really is a true mage and can make the toys live.

Though the period of the First War will occupy a bulk of the book, it will end in the 1950s.

The most terrible things can happen to a man, but he’ll never lose himself if he remembers he was once a child

And that ‘primarily set in the period of the First War’ gives, I must warn, a lot of heartbreak to readers. A good author will have us invested in many of their characters – and Dinsdale, on this showing, is a very good author indeed.

Mightn’t it be…that until you’ve seen the dark, you don’t really know the light

Do take delight, as much as you can, in the playfulness and yes, that childhood remembered magic in the early part of the book, because payback time of grief will come. Without this reader feeling in any way manipulated, or in any way that the author was mechanically moving any of his sometimes surprising cast of characters around, my heart was being swung between imaginative delight and ‘I can’t take the sorrow of this’ moments.

Readers’ Appropriate Behaviour In A Public Place warning : Do not read in a public place.. If you must, ensure you have a ready supply of tissues.  Involuntary cries of ‘oh no, no, no’ whimpers of grief and the like can alarm innocent bystanders.

Brief synopsis and subject matter, avoiding spoilers :

Cathy, a young girl, pregnant, single, disgraced, runs away from home in Leigh-on-Sea to London, after seeing a curious, alluring advertisement in a local paper

Help Wanted…Are you lost? Are you afraid? Are you a child at Heart? So are we. The Emporium opens with the first frost of winter. Sales and stocktaking, no experience required. Bed and board included. Apply in person….

Cathy becomes winter help in a most extraordinary toy shop, Papa Jack’s Emporium. Papa Jack, originally a man with a different name, and we suspect, a tragic story, set up his extraordinary toyshop, after arriving in this country from Eastern Europe, and Tsarist Russia, the father of two young boys he had not seen for many years.

Papa Jack, originally a carpenter, crafts exquisite toys, out of quality material when he can, but he can also create something extraordinary out of found materials such as pine cones, twigs and grasses. Really extraordinary.

By the time young Cathy reaches the Emporium, it is a famous and established place, financially successful, fabulously strange. Those two young boys, Kaspar and Emil are now also extraordinary toymakers, a little older than Cathy. Fast, loving, supportive brothers; fierce, struggling sibling rivals, both as inheritors of Papa Jack’s love, Papa Jack’s dream for the stability and future of the Emporium, and … well, much more.

A secret has been revealed, and finally I understand the true meaning of toys….When you are young, what you want from toys is to feel grown-up. You play with toys and cast yourself as an adult, and imagine life the way it’s going to be. Yet, when you are grown, that changes: now, what you want out of toys is to feel young again. You want to be back there, in a place that did not harm nor hurt you, in a pocket of time built out of memory and love

There are toys here, of course; there is magic, too. What is this book? It is a story of war, it is a story of the tangled web of relationships – parents and children, brothers and sisters, men and women. Not to mention toys themselves. What relationships might they have? What relationships could they have? Dinsdale makes us think about Creation itself, question who we are. He creates puzzles of time and space for us …..we just need to let our imaginations surrender to what once they were

I can’t praise this highly enough. I’m intrigued to discover Dinsdale has written earlier books, and  I shall nervously explore them…….nervously because this book is so extraordinary that I would be surprised to have missed a writer so fine, for so long

The challenge is the one a reader has with a book which makes its own world so very much realer than the world we know. What on earth can I read next, that will not disappoint and seem pale and insubstantial? Poor author who has to follow Dinsdale. Not fair!

I received this from NetGalley as a (very well done) digital ARC

Lucky, lucky readers about to start their journey with this one

The Toymakers UK
The Toymakers USA

Mick Herron – London Rules

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Official (Mick Herron Avoider of Spoilers) Secrets Act Signed!

Mick Herron’s marvellously funny, horribly plausible, politically too close for comfort, twisty, turny sequence of spooks-on-the-prowl novels continues, all guns effortlessly blazing for another 5 star review with this one.

For those new to Herron’s ‘Slough House, Jackson Lamb’ series, good though Book 5 (this one) is, and despite the fact that yes, each book can be read as a stand-alone, I would strongly, strongly suggest you race away and get the first book in the series, Slow Horses, and then, with increasing immersion and enjoyment, book on book, work your way through Dead Lions, Real Tigers and Spook Street, in order. This one will still be waiting for you, and you will enjoy it even more as you will be meeting old friends and foes, and come to this one with even more pleasure than would have been the case if you began in the middle.

Herron with each book is rather taking on the changing political events that have happened since he wrote the previous book.

His books follow MI5 (his version of it) here cited as ‘Regent’s Park, and the various power struggles that might exist between M15 and the Home Office, not to mention the Prime Minister, and the police, in defence of the Realm.

However – don’t think anything like the glamour world of espionage. Rather, what goes on at the grubby (very grubby) edges. ‘Slough House’ is where those who failed, spectacularly, to make the grade, get shunted, to carry out the tedious work which the glamorous ones will need – the checking of licence plates, the trawl through electoral registers, the watching of hours of video footage. These are the sorry Z listers of MI5. Each of them has a back story, each a present which seems hopeless, each still hopes, somehow, to get back to the cutting edge of spookiness.

The band of marvellous failures are led by a gargantuan figure. Jackson Lamb is Falstaff without the joy, cruel as a shark, savage in his wit, – he comes out of the same reprehensible mould as another much loved monster Gene Hunt from Life of Mars – except, Jackson is far far sharper in devious intelligence.

                       (I couldn’t resist a glance back at the Gene Genie)

In this series Herron has a chilling finger on the button of the dangerous society we are sometimes aware we are living in, whilst managing to crack open the kind of back stabbing, juggles for power and position which we know goes on in large organisations, all wrapped up with cutting edge humour. And a delicious number of twists, turns, feints and dives to have the readers’ jaws dropping over and over. Nothing will be quite what it seems, and Herron will have done something coming out of left field again. And will get this reader, almost every time. Sometimes with an ‘oh no, oh NO’ moment – the life of a spook is a dangerous one, after all – sometimes with a shout of joy at the audaciousness of an event.

For firm fans of the series – the Slow Horse in the spotlight here is geeky Roderick Ho. Against the odds, Ho, imagining himself as the cool, sexy Rodster (this one really does think he is James Bond) has acquired a girl friend. The other horses in the field at the end of book 4, Spook Street, are all in place. And back at ‘Regent Park’ Lady Di, still second desk, is plotting and planning as only she can…….

and with no need to caricature these caricatures, you might just spot not-a-million-miles-away…………………………..

In the world of Westminster and party politics are various figures who might seem more than a little familiar, or conglomerates of such figures. For example, the hail fellow-well met leader of a populist party and a vituperative columnist on a tabloid newspaper who is not at all averse to the spinning of fake news, especially if it will help her man into power. Any resemblance to any real figure is probably quite deliberate………

I received this, very gratefully, as a digital ARC via NetGalley and the publisher, John Murray Books, and sincerely hope Mr Herron is well along with book 6.

London Rules UK
London Rules USA

Mick Herron – The List

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Slough House Appetiser before the banquet…..

Whilst waiting for my next big fix – Volume 5 of Mick Herron’s wonderful Jackson Lamb series, I discovered the existence of this small novella. I think there may be more, similar, presumably little bonnes bouches which Herron crafts on the side for impatient fans of the series

Dieter Hess, an elderly agent, run by someone from Regent’s Park, has died. Ferocious, steely Diana Taverner, Number 2 desk, and a brilliant creation in the series, discovers there is more to this than meets the eye. The agent’s handler, John Bachelor someone on the verge of seedy himself (though urbane, sophisticated and classy compared to Jackson Lamb) is terrified of Tavener (isn’t everyone except Lamb?) ‘Lady Di’ as she is known, without affection, makes it clear to Bachelor that any messes resulting from Hess’s death will not be dealt with by her, and Bachelor will pay all prices – it appears Hess may have been a double agent.

Bachelor must come up with a skin-saving solution, and fast.

It was extraordinary, thought Coe, how much a badly dressed shoeless fat man could look like a crocodile

The denizens of Slough House are not really centre stage in this one, though Jackson Lamb and Catherine Standish do memorably appear in an encounter with a rookie agent who Bachelor fingers for his fall guy, just as Tavener has fingered him. Big sharks eat smaller sharks who feast on smaller sharks still

Catherine turned ..”by the way, what is that round your neck?”

“Somebody’s scarf. Found it in the kitchen” . Lamb scratched the back of his neck. “There’s a draught.”

“Yes, keep it on. Don’t want you catching cold.”

She went back to her own office to ring Coe, thinking: So that’s where the tea towel went.

This takes a pleasurable hour to read, and reminds the reader, if they enjoy the teasing twists in this one, how much more nail-biting, heart-breaking, and audacious those twists are likely to get in the full length, London Rules, available early in February.

Not to mention, funny, amongst the darkness, Lamb is a glorious, obscene presence.

Modestly priced on Kindle, seriously overpriced in wood

The List UK
The List USA

Muriel Spark – Memento Mori

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You answer the phone, an anonymous caller says “Remember You Must Die”….and then hangs up.

Muriel Spark’s third novel, Memento Mori, published in 1959 is a blackly comedic, sometimes savage, sometimes tender journey towards death, following a group of aged upper middle class intellectuals, their servants and companions, towards their final breaths.

To quote a definition of the title (Wiki) :

Memento mori (Latin: “remember that you have to die”) is the medieval Latin Christian theory and practice of reflection on mortality, especially as a means of considering the vanity of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits.

Lisa Brooke died in her seventy-third year after her second stroke. She had taken nine months to die, and in fact it was only a year before her death that, feeling rather ill, she had decided to reform her life, and reminding herself how attractive she was, offered up the new idea, her celibacy to the Lord to whom no gift whatsoever is unacceptable

Spark had converted to Catholicism (from Presbyterianism) some 4 years earlier, and faith was clearly important – if not to say a potential conflict, in her life. Spark’s father was Jewish, her mother Presbyterian, and one of the central relationships in this novel, that of a successful writer, Charmian Colston and her wealthy businessman husband, Godfrey, features several spats around what Catholics do and do not believe. Charmian is a Catholic, and Godfrey seems to simultaneously envy and despise her beliefs.

Someone appears to be terrifying several members of the group of elderly and very elderly people as that someone – or perhaps even a group of someones – is making anonymous phone calls. All the caller says is “Remember you must die” Some of the elderly group bear this with equanimity, taking it as a philosophical statement. Others are outraged, terrified or in denial. Curiously, each person describes the caller’s voice very differently, and their attitude towards the phone call, as well as the description of the anonymous voice, seems to suggest more about the nature of the person receiving the call than anything else.

                Pieter Claesz:  Vanitas, Still Life 1630

A major concern for all the cast of wonderfully delineated characters is health – both their own, and that of their contemporaries. Everyone is watching everyone else, both for their physical decline and frailties, but, more importantly, for evidence of what is happening to compos mentis. And the observation of the others is not always done with kindly intent, but is as much to do with self-preening, schadenfreude or pure greed – what might be in the fading one’s will, and might steps be taken to ensure one’s own benefit?

There were twelve occupants of the Maud Long Medical Ward (aged people, female)…..These twelve old women were known variously as Granny Roberts, Granny Duncan, Granny Taylor, Grannies Barnacle, Trotsky, Green, Valvona, and so on.

Sometimes, on first being received into her bed, the patient would be shocked and feel rather let down by being called Granny….A year ago, when Miss Taylor had been admitted to the ward, she had suffered misery when addressed as Granny Taylor, and she thought she would rather die in a ditch than be kept alive under such conditions, But she was a woman practised in restraint;  she never displayed her resentment

Everyone’s lives have secrets, and the very elderly, by virtue of their longevity probably have more than the young. No matter that some of the most scandalous and shameful secrets are those from long long ago, keeping secrets of affairs, business malpractice and savage rivalries matter as much to the nonagenarians within these pages as they might to someone in the middle of active exposure.

Trying to discover who is responsible for the alarming ‘Memento Mori’ phone calls, a retired detective is engaged..but, in a nice little crime fiction twist, some of the recipients of the calls suspect the detective himself.

It might sound as if this could be a grim or a depressing book, think, rather, a kind of combination of a lids-off, Ortonesque lively exposure of sexual shenanigans – even though these are innocent by modern standards, with Dorothy Parker sharpened pen nib humour which is barbed and deliciously deadly. Spark is writing about serious matters, and the pathos and sadness blows land, in amidst her sparkling, inventive, sometimes savage account of the one-way journey we are all making

On the first occasion it had been necessary for him to indicate his requirements to her. But now she understood…..(he) placed on the low coffee table a pound note….Without shifting her posture she raised the hem of her skirt at one side until the top of her stocking and her suspender were visible. Then she went on knitting and watching the television screen….(he) gazed at the stocking-top and the glittering steel of the suspender-tip for the space of two minutes silence. Then he pulled back his shoulders as if recalling his propriety, and still in silence, walked out

(I have obviously removed character names as it is for the reader to discover identities!)

There are, for sure some horrible individuals within these pages, lying in wait for the vulnerable; there are also the mildly dotty, the seriously vanished who-knows-where, the kind of lifelong committee person who can be such a stalwart – and such a pain – in the doing-of-good

Spark creates brilliantly drawn characters, and the reader needs to pay attention to all of them; their lives are wonderfully entangled, and there are some complicated twists to discover. It is the economy and precision of her writing which makes this such a delight – and, of course, the fact that though this is a comedic book, in many ways, it is darkly serious at heart. A light touch on an inescapable subject

I read this as part of Ali’s through the year journey with Muriel Spark, ReadingMuriel 2018

Memento Mori UK
Memento Mori USA

BTW, UK readers wanting to buy this on Kindle – at the moment (26th Jan) gets you a translation of the book into Italian. Which may not be what you are hoping to buy.

I believe the lovely Virago Modern Classics version which I got on a used, market place seller, is reprinting and will be out in May