H.E.Bates – The Triple Echo


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Impressed by what isn’t spelt out, and a subject matter quite shocking for its time

Triple EchoI couldn’t resist hunting down a second hand copy of this, after my recent read of Bates’ Love for Lydia, and an absolute surrender to it. Love for Lydia was the first Bates I have ever read, but researching him for my review made me realise he had been the author of The Triple Echo. Now I never read this, but I still remember it as quite a startling film by Michael Apted, and was keen to read the original source (and then try and hunt down the film )

The Triple Echo is a short novella, and its economy is a real strength.

Originally published in 1970, towards the end of Bates’ life, the Penguin version I sourced is 90 pages long, and has some rather nice line drawings by Ron Clarke – presumably because otherwise the page tally would be even shorter!

The book is set in 1942 or 1943. Alice Charlesworth is a farmer’s wife, living in an isolated small-holding. The location is un-named, but possibly Northamptonshire. Alice’s husband has been missing, a Japanese P.O.W, and she is living in the isolated farm, trying to eke out a living from selling her hens’ eggs

The farm was one of those small half-lost farms that are cut off from main roads in summer by dense barriers of beech and chestnut and repeatedly in winter by mud and fog and snow. The red-brick two-storied house and its one barn had once been thatched. Now both had a roof of corrugated iron that shone harsh grey in the summer sun and lay on them in winter like a rusting, crumbling crown

I’m discovering this is a real hallmark of Bates’ writing – he makes the reality of setting absolutely real – and so he does for his characters, who however much they might fall into recognisable types, are also fully fleshed and individual.

Alice’s present life is grim and unremitting. She is struggling single-handed to keep things going, and is fiercely protective of her land

Jackson, Deacon

Glenda Jackson, Brian Deacon

Into her solitary existence comes a young squaddie from a nearby Army training camp. Barton, like Alice is lonely and isolated. He is not a natural for the army. He is also a farmer’s son, and intensely missing his own Oxfordshire home. He walks the countryside in his time off. Alice has become harsh, suspicious and fierce. Barton is younger, with an innocence and sensitivity about him The two discover an attraction. Alice softens and re-engages with her femininity, whilst Barton takes on tasks which her missing husband would have done, like mending tractors. Barton decides to go AWOL from his hated squadron, and the two are driven into a complex subterfuge to hide him from capture. What started out of passion and mutual need however, quickly becomes a trap for both, since the two are now complicit in Barton’s desertion from the army.

Triple Echo Jackson, Reed

Glenda Jackson, Oliver Reed, still

Bates explores the unravelling of an illicit, co-dependent relationship, and the ambivalent power balance between the two central characters. But the most interesting dynamics are around a shifting sense of gender identity. Now this is something very much in current awareness, but at the time of this book’s writing, I think Bates was exploring something quite shocking.

Into the uneasy, troubled, trapped relationship between Alice and Barton comes, like some kind of provocation of mythic destruction from a Greek tragedy, a blustering, crude bully of a sergeant, stumbling across the homestead purely as a result of a map-reading error

What I found particularly interesting in this short, extremely powerful novella – was how much Bates makes the reader’s imagination work. The major cataclysmic event is never described. The reader knows where things are heading, and so does Alice, though nothing is ever spelt out.

Bates had apparently spent more than 25 years writing this. The idea occurred to him in 1943, but did not come quite right; this was one which sunk into some kind of hibernation, before he discovered what he needed to do in order to make this the wonderfully taut, intense reading experience it is.

light immediately flooded in on a canvas that had been so long irremediably dark, and in a mere three weeks the story was extracted from the womb it had apparently been so reluctant to leave

That marvellous quote, from Vol 3 of Bates autobiography, The World In Ripeness, not to mention the history of the writing of the novella, came from a fascinating website I discovered, The H.E. Bates Companion.

I have noted, again, in my reading of this, as in my reading of Love for Lydia, I have felt the need to make reference to Greek Tragedy. Somehow, in both books is the sense of something enormous, archytypal unfolding, but Bates’ writing, which is very disciplined, lets the story be huge, and dramatic, but it is told with restraint, which works brilliantly

H.E.Bates by Howard Coster 1956

H.E.Bates by Howard Coster 1956

As for the film, which I found in a fairly dreadful (technically) upload on YouTube, no decent DVD copy  available to buy, it is indeed a powerful piece, but is ‘based on’ the novella, and, as is the way of things, what Bates does not state is shown, and the scene left to the reader’s imagination is played out in some quite brutal detail. Brilliantly, it must be said, due to the strength of performances, but I am pleased I took the decision to read the novella before seeking to watch the film again. Bates has an economy and finesse, and I appreciated that. He turns the searchlight on the three central characters, and extraneous personnel are pretty well absent, so there is nowhere else to hide or distract from the strange shocking, inevitable and brilliant ending.

The Triple Echo Amazon UK
The Triple Echo Amazon USA

Rather sadly, despite the reissuing of some of Bates’ titles, this one seems firmly at the whim of market-place sellers or a lucky turn-up in a second hand bookshop. It’s a pity.

Christopher Isherwood – Mr Norris Changes Trains


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Sex and Spying In The Weimar Republic

Mr NorrisChristopher Isherwood, inextricably associated with W.H.Auden and Stephen Spender, represents a kind of educated, literary, urbane Englishness, but with interests outside provincial England. Left wing, fairly openly homosexual (when it was illegal) intellectual, finely crafted poets, playwrights and or novelists. And sometimes moving between more than one genre, and even collaborating as writers.

Cambridge educated – though he never finished his degree, Isherwood was drawn to the decadent, artistically modern, politically volatile city of Berlin at the tail end of the twenties and early thirties.

In this book, – and in his more well-known one, Goodbye to Berlin – mainly because it was later turned into the movie, Cabaret – he recounts his experiences in that city, as political instability intensified, and lines of allegiance became sharply drawn, and the Nazi party, initially regarded as a kind of loony fringe, not to be taken seriously, began its terrifying rise.

Isherwood casts himself as William Bradshaw, a young man, eager for the experience of living in another country, earning his living by teaching English to private students. Bradshaw meets the eponymous Mr Norris, striking up a conversation with him as a way to pass time on a long train journey.

As he spoke he touched his left temple delicately with his finger-tips, coughed, and suddenly smiled. His smile had great charm. It disclosed the ugliest teeth I had ever seen. They were like broken rocks

Norris is another Englishman, middle-aged, dissolute, clearly a not-to-be trusted wheeler-dealer of some kind, but his distinctly eccentric physical persona, and a strangely appealing charm, despite the obvious dishonesty, amuse Bradshaw, and the two form an unlikely friendship. Norris’s fastidious oddness – the wearing of bizarre wigs and an obsessive attention to prinkings and powderings not usually found at that time openly engaged in by English men, certainly not in England, is typical of the Berlin experience – decadent, sophisticated and utterly unprovincial, which proved alluring about to those seeking a more colourful, even dangerous, European experience. Norris, it later transpires, has predilections for a kind of wholesome sexual deviancy – he is open about his relations with a dominatrix and her ‘minder’ a young man who is a member of the Communist Party. It fact Anni, the whore, AND her minder Otto, are regarded as friends by Norris.

Political affiliations are centre stage everywhere. Isherwood, and Norris choose the Left, even though Norris is not necessarily, ever, quite what he seems, and may have fingers in many pies, as he also has some friends whose political allegiance seem to belong more naturally to the right.

What is marvellous about Isherwood’s writing, a kind of story telling journalism, an exploration of what it was like to be in Berlin, is that although he is undoubtedly writing about a period which became very dark and very dreadful, the second of his Berlin books, particularly, this is the undercurrent, flowing underneath a brilliant, light-touch observation. A sense of frenetic life, liveliness, wit and urbanity drive the book along, there is certainly more than a touch of fiddling whilst Rome burns about the Weimar republic.

Gay Club, Berlin, 1930s

Gay Club, Berlin, 1930s

Norris himself is a quite extraordinary creation, and, just as Bradshaw is Isherwood’s novelising himself, Norris has a real origin – a friend of Isherwood’s, Gerald Hamilton, also a writer, and once known as ‘the wickedest man in Europe’. Hamilton was served time in prison for bankruptcy, theft, being a threat to national security, and, interestingly, numbered amongst his friends not only Isherwood himself, but the unlikely combination of Winston Churchill and Aleister Crowley!

The reader quite falls, as Bradshaw does, under his dubious charm, and it is a strange experience to find oneself appreciating the strange moral ambiguity of someone who would undoubtedly sell his own Grannie to the highest bidder, yet, somehow, even whilst Grannie might even know that herself, he comes across as naughty, rather than vicious. Or, as Isherwood/Bradshaw puts it, so much more elegantly at the start of the novel:

My first impression was that the stranger’s eyes were of an unusually light blue. They met mine for several blank seconds, vacant, unmistakably scared. Startled and innocently naughty, they half reminded me of an incident I couldn’t quite place; something which had happened a long time ago, to do with the upper fourth classroom. They were the eyes of a schoolboy surprised in the act of breaking one of the rules. Not that I had caught him, apparently, at anything except his own thoughts; perhaps he imagined I could read them

Once again I have been enchantingly led into a re-read by another blogger, in this Christopher Isherwoodcase JacquiWine, whose recent review of Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical experiences in Berlin between the wars can be found here

Mr Norris Changes trains Amazon UK
Mr Norris Changes trains Amazon USA

Cecilia Ekbäck – In the Month of the Midnight Sun


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“We are as braided into this mountain as it is braided into us”

In the Month of the Midnight SunI had been very impressed, albeit with some reservations, by Cecilia Ekbäck’s first novel, Wolf Winter, set in 1717 in what was Swedish Lapland. The author created a mysterious, darkly menacing, isolated settlement in Blackäsen Mountain. Wolf Winter was for the most part, literary and historical fiction, but with crime at its heart. Ekbäck seemed both more interested, and more successful, in exploring interesting themes – specifically the tension between two very different kinds of community Swedish, Christian, ‘modern’ European and the Lapps, whose traditions were different, shamanic, more united as ‘outsiders.’ She also had a major focus on the disparities of power between men and women, and how women of independent outlook might survive in earlier times where opportunities were very restricted. One of her many strengths was a connection to place itself, landscape as a central driver of plot and a central relationship for character.

So I was particularly pleased to see that with her second novel she returned to the powerful, brooding Blackäsan mountain, and even more delighted to see that this was not going to be any kind of sequel – place remains the constant, but almost 150 years have passed. We are recognisably in a more modern, industrial era, but though there have been political changes, the potential conflicts between the Swedish settlers and the now Christianised, still nomadic Lapps, and their not completely eradicated, older, shamanic traditions, still exist. And the role of women has become even more complex. The Author’s note at the back of the book sets the historical background – from the middle of the 1850s there was a growing women’s movement, making demands for economic justice and the right to vote (which didn’t happen till 1921). There is also a very negative view of the Sami people (the Lapps), by the Swedish population

As in Wolf Winter, Ekback’s strengths are much in evidence – setting, complex and believeable individual psychology and group psychology, and events taking place in the lives of individuals in a wider context. Strong characterisation, and a generally hypnotic, absorbing narrative. Character development, unpredictability, and a powerful sense of ancient, inexplicable forces. The sense of time and place are strong.

Sun at Midnight Lapland

Unfortunately, as with Wolf Winter, what was heading for sure five star all through fell off target for me in roughly the last 40 pages. At the heart of the story is savage crime, and, set within an isolated, very cut off community, everyone is suspect. Though there is no detective, central characters, 2 outsiders are drawn into trying to solve a continuing, dark, violent crime. And in the closing stages of the novel solving the crime, understanding its gestation and chilling history, as the spotlight turns on person after person and the body count rises, proved far less interesting than the absorption of all that had gone before.

Ekbäck is far more interesting and accomplished a writer of literary fiction, than she is a crime writer, but the selling/marketing of the book is ‘Nordic Noir’. The ratchet up of violence and the solving of the mystery, for this reader, would have benefitted from greater simplicity, rather than complexity.

Nordic Sami People, Lavvu, circa 1900, Wiki Commons

Nordic Sami People, Lavvu, circa 1900, Wiki Commons

The story is told first person in 4 voices. Magnus Stille, an upright, scientifically minded man, working for the Swedish Board of Mines is on an assignment to investigate Blackäsen for the possibility of mining for iron ore. Foisted onto him at the eleventh hour by his father-in-law, is his disgraced, rebellious, psychologically damaged young sister-in-law, Lovisa. The third voice, third central character is ‘Ester’, whose original, Sami name before being Christianised is Biija. She is an elderly woman, recently widowed. Her tribe have gone to their summer pastures, she remains, mourning. And there is a fourth voice, whose identity reveals itself more slowly.

I don’t believe anything is ‘meant to be’. I don’t believe in destiny in that way.

But should you act or speak, there will be a response. You neglect something and that has consequences too. The universe responds.

And so, wherever we find ourselves – whether we like it or not, whether we join or not; we are a part of the unfolding of events.

I have a couple of ‘not quite convinced’ feelings about the narrative voices. Although absolutely each character is beautifully delineated and clear I was not always hearing 3 distinct voices in the ‘I’ of each narrator, the voice in the head. And (though I came to understand the rationale for this rather more by the end of the book) I was not quite convinced of the propriety of Karl Rosenblad, the State Minister of Justice, and Magnus Stille’s father-in-law, sending his disgraced, and in his eyes, morally depraved daughter Lovisa, away to journey with her brother-in-law. It was certainly something which all those they encountered in Blackäsen, and on the journey there, found extremely odd and ‘not quite right’ Lovisa is a most interesting character, it was just that I found myself musing about received proprieties.

Ekbäck’s first novel was set in winter on Blackäsen mountain, where the darkness was menacing and harsh. Here, it is the light – the eeriness of June, and perpetual daylight

Another night and I can’t sleep. How can anyone, in this perpetual sunshine? Without blinds, the light floods the room, makes my soul itch, and my legs ache. It can’t continue like this. I haven’t slept since I set out on my journey

I do recommend this, and will certainly be very keen to read Ekbäck’s next novel, but hope that she is not marketed, and indeed, that she does not think of herself as a Nordic Noir writer. The genre aspect I think is more of a bind on her writingCecilia Ekback

I received this as a review copy from Amazon Vine UK. It will be published, UK and Stateside on June 16th

In the Month of the Midnight Sun Amazon UK
In the Month of the Midnight Sun Amazon USA

H.E.Bates – Love for Lydia


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The always vanishing world, remembered

Love for LydiaCuriously, I have never read any H.E.Bates, though somehow I believed I had – a misremembered conflation with another author going by initials – L.P. Hartley, he of The Go-Between. So when NetGalley offered me Love For Lydia, I took it, and was swept away and absorbed from the off. I shall certainly be pursuing an acquaintance with more of Bates, based on this between the wars set novel, beautifully exploring a Northamptonshire set rural/small town world, the fictional Evensford,  as the giddy twenties turns towards the great recession, Hunger Marches, and, later, war. Demarcations of class are beginning to break-down, though these are certainly still firmly in place at the start of the novel.

When Bretherton woke, beer-flushed, with belches of discomfort, at the sound of the caddy spoon on the side of the teapot, he looked like one of those porkers, fat and pinkish, squatting on its hind legs with an advertisement for sausages in its lap, that you see in butchers’ windows. The sausages were his fingers. They glistened, a pink-grey colour, as they grasped tremulously at each other and then at his tobacco-yellow moustache. They were tipped with black moons of dirt that presently scraped at the forefront of his thinning scalp while in the first startling unpleasantness of waking he banged his squat scrubby elbows on the desk, his thick white fingers flapping.

The central character and narrator, Richardson – his first name is never revealed,  is looking back on his earlier youth. He was a young, callow, bookish man, both aspirational and dreamy, in his very late teens/verge of his twenties. He had a couple of firm friendships from his school-days. Tom Holland, a young farmer, symbolising a thoroughly decent, uncomplicated kind of Anglo-Saxon English yeoman, whose warm, large family have had their roots in the countryside, with a keen sense of home, for generations. His other friend, Alex Sanderson, no less innocent, is more highly strung. It is less clear, with both Richardson himself, and Alex, what their eventual place in the world will be. At the start of the novel, Richardson is working, not very successfully, not very willingly, as a reporter on the local paper, a job he throws up for a less demanding, more casual place as a clerk in one of the local leather and shoe manufacturing industries. There is a hint that more ‘bookish’ concerns will draw him – and his work background has similarities to Bates’ own. Alex is from a financially comfortable background, his father a businessman. The three friends are comfortable middle class, and certainly there is no real hint of poverty, struggle or want here. Peculiarly, the idea of less security is suggested by both the class above and below. Blackie Johnson is the son of one of the local garage car (or as it was, now changing rapidly) coach repairers and ‘cabs’ Blackie’s father is still respectful and subservient to those of higher status; Blackie himself holds no truck with forelock tugging.

Rushden Hall, Rushden, Northants, which Bates, as a young reporter, visited, like his narrator, Richardson - Rushden Hall was the model for the novel's Aspen Hall

Rushden Hall, Rushden, Northants, which Bates, as a young reporter, visited, like his narrator, Richardson – Rushden Hall was the model for the novel’s Aspen Hall

Shaking up this more-or-less settled state of affairs comes Lydia Aspen. She is the niece (and eventual heir) of one of the district’s ‘aristocratic’ families – at least in status, though not in title, the Aspens. A distinct sense of having come down financially in the world adheres to the family, and Lydia’s origins are a little vague, some hintings that her father may have made a ‘marriage beneath’. Lydia is out of class for everyone, but, because class itself is changing, and there are few young people of her own class, geographically close, Richardson, and later his friends, will be the ones to show Lydia Evensford society. Lydia is magnetic, warm, voluptuous, fickle and in love with both her own strong, excited desire to embrace ‘life’ and in the love and devotion she lures out of all who come under her spell. She will wreak havoc with, change, and both destroy the stability of all of the young men, whilst also providing an awakening into the glories of first love and the pain of first loss.

Whenever I went through the gates and along the avenue there was a wonderful belling chorus of thrushes that expanded under a closing framework of branches, madly and most wonderfully in the long pale twilight when the air was green with young leaves and the acid of new grass after sunset and spring rain. Nearer the house there were random drifts of pale blue anemone, bright as clippings of sky among black clusters of butchers broom, and then, leading up to the house, daffodils in thousands, in crowds of shaking yellow flame

There is a wonderful story here. It has a kind of mythic, operatic Greek tragedy to it, but bound to an English restraint, a sense of things not spelt out, but inherent. Bates’ prose, particularly in description of the natural world, the land, the changing seasons is lyrical and strong – I was reminded of Laurie Lee, that same sense of writing about landscape from someone who had learned a relationship with it primarily through living with it and working it, not from reading about it. Bates is as observant and surprising in all his descriptions though, whether these are of hedgerows, landscapes through seasons, or the physical quirks and particularities of character. That sense of an English mythic, the relationship with land beginning to change, through the incursion of ‘modern’, and through ancient and formalised structures (like class) shifting, sometimes quite painfully, also reminded me of a writer a couple of generations earlier – Hardy, though Bates is, I think, more accessible, punchier, of course ‘modern’.

He began to get some idea of the monstrous iron that bound the McKechnie household. No cooking on Sundays, no music, no jokes, not even much talking, no papers, no reading except of sectarian things. A prayer-meeting once a week and often, especially in winter, twice or three times; a long dry scouring word of the Lord before breakfast every day. A hardness, an enamel of twice-fired prejudice and precept, held the family, the eldest son, a man of forty, in a kind of isolated and awful fealty

Bates’ writing has a very satisfying tension between feverish page-turning, a desire to know ‘what happens next’ and an equally strong ‘whoa, slow down, savour each moment’ quality, because he is so very adept at describing the texture of being in each moment : his writing is kinesthetic. And that tension mirrors beautifully what the narrator experiences – the desire to hold on to moments, whilst the sense of life inexorably driving onwards is happening – not to mention the fact that we (and he) know that past has gone, even though it might seem tantalisingly close, because Richardson is recounting all this, looking back from the knowledge of everything that has happened. He is writing from memory, and memory shapes the events of the past into patterns; patterns not seen whilst living within them

Nicola Benedetti with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton, playing Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, which has nothing to do with Bates’ book, except for a powerful connection to an idea of ‘English Music’ – writing fed by a sense of the land seems to me such a part of another way of hearing ‘English music’

Bates’ strong story lines, wonderful dramatic characterisation and ability to give such a very present sense of time, space and realism of course made his writing a natural for TV drama – Love for Lydia became a 6 part drama series for Thames in the 70s. The Darling Buds of May and Fair Stood The Wind for France also were televised. I have never seen any of these – possibly wrongly, probably snootily sniffily, I have a tendency to avoid TV dramatisations (and often, films) of books I know have some kind of lit-ficciness about them, as I always want to read the book FIRST, in order to have a direct relationship with the writing, and the formation of my own sense of look, feel, texture.

However, since doing my normal blog review research into background, I discovered that a film I dearly loved – Michael Apted’s The Triple Echo was a dramatisation of a Bates novella. My memory of the film is shrouded in the mists of time, though I do remember a very beautiful young Brian Deacon. The film also starred Glenda Jackson and a magnificently over-powering Oliver Reed, long before Reed became a byword for a certain kind of self-destruction. I have discovered it is out there on YouTube, and I will no doubt be availing myself of that opportunity – but, first, of course, the novella must be sourced and devoured.

Bates (1905-1974) is someone who will definitely be appearing again on this blog! Love for Lydia was first published in 1952.

Thank you to Bloomsbury, who are re-publishing much of Bates, and to NetGalley. Strangely, these republishings are not showing this side of the pond, and only older versions, or eReads, seem available. Lucky Statesiders!

Love for Lydia Amazon UK
Love for Lydia Amazon USA

Dan Vyleta – Smoke


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Reservations about beginning section and how it careers towards ‘action wrap’ : the ‘filling’ in the sandwich hooked me completely

SmokeReading Dan Vyleta’s Smoke has been a sometimes absorbing, sometimes slightly frustrating experience

The dust-jacket blurb, which I feel is somewhat misleading, would have made me pass on by – it suggests this is a YA book, it suggests there will be magic. There is a kind of truth to the former. Though the central characters in the book are certainly mid-teens, privileged, and attending schools where the offspring of the privileged and wealthy are sent, this is no school for fledgling magicians (the ’if you liked’ Rowling hook) . I can see certain similarities – the literary, gothic imagination – with Pullman, though other than the original concept – the presence of sin and more sinisterly – sinful thoughts – made visible, almost everything else comes from science and politics, albeit in an altered world.

The hook of the book for me was Vyleta as author. I admired The Quiet Twin, his dark, rather Kafkaesque, look at life in a Viennese tenement square of apartments, circa 1939. It was mordant, real, and grotesque.

To some extent Smoke, set in a kind of alternative, steam-punkish late nineteenth century Victorian universe, has many of the wonderful, eccentric, imaginative strengths of his earlier writing. Vyleta’s dark, rich imagination, and the adventure, problem solving, ‘detection’ narrative drive of the book, to uncover a mystery about how this society is organised, serves as a terrific vehicle to examine aspects of our own, as well as an earlier society’s politics of privilege structure, and heading-towards-dystopia-and-control science

In Vyleta’s book, the central characters engaged in the quest are two friends, both at a privileged school in Oxford. Charlie is a genuinely ‘good’ boy, kindly, loyal, intelligent, compassionate. He comes from one of the very privileged and wealthy families in this world who make up (some things never change!) the ruling class. Most of the politicians and movers and shakers have come from this privileged educational background. Educated at the best private schools they will go on to the best Universities. Privilege and wealth will also give them access to all sorts of darker advantages. Thomas is his friend, a damaged boy, also privileged, but the whiff of dangerous subversion hangs around him. I was reminded of Lindsay Anderson’s ‘If ‘ on one level. Set against Thomas is the gooder-than-gold Head Boy. Unlike the truly laudable Charlie, Julius is absolutely not as he seems.

In very Victorian fashion, the underclass are despised and feared (has this quite passed, in our current society?)

The conceit that structures the book links sinfulness (which becomes visible as the thoughts of sin are revealed by the sinner emitting smoke) as very much something which that underclass inhabit – their sins and degradations are highly visible. The whole purpose of the elite’s schooling is to force sublimation of sin and sinful thinking. The aristocracy hardly emit smoke, so the lower classes are presented with daily reminders of their own inferiority.

child coal miners

However, as in ‘If’ resistance and revolution, and its possibilities can arise from everywhere. There are some mysteries to be uncovered, as Thomas too is not quite as he seems. Two friends, an enemy – and a girl. Livia is the daughter of an extremely privileged woman, Lady Naylor, who is also a radical, highly intelligent, highly influential, and a scientist. Livia has an utter compulsion to ‘goodness’ and is quite priggish. In a neat twist the mother is more ambivalent, and wishes her daughter were less rigidly sublimating and repressing – certain parallels to eating disorders suggest themselves.

Crystal Palace

                                     Crystal Palace

I was fascinated by the way Vyleta weaves politics, class, religion, social control, rebellion, science together, and his skilful using both of what is real, and of what might arise from reality with a slightly altered science behind it.

What did not work for me as an adult reader were the more luridly dramatic inevitable battles between good and evil, which became a little cartoonish for my adult tastes.

The beginning of the book, the setting out of the world is a little slow and ponderous, and might even mean that its perhaps intended audience does not stick with the book, once past the opening, and once I had accepted the premise, I found the central section becoming engaging, but did find myself disengaged (as is usual for me) by the inevitable battles, fights, and all the rest – the kind of event in Hollywood movies where with more than physically possible mortal wounds the heroes, anti-heroes and villains are able to miraculously somehow continue their deadly fisticuffs over and over, streaming blood etc etc.

I guess also the ‘love triangle’ at times felt a little predictable, but Vyleta did have a very interesting take on it.

Does it/ will it fall between the stools of YA and adult audience, or will it also satisfy both? This is what I can’t quite decide. The ‘filling’ as in a sandwich, I found fed me well as a reader, I had reservations about the two quite different kinds of bread, Dan Vyletabeginning and end!

I received this as a review copy from Amazon Vine UK. Curiously, it will be released Kindle only in the UK on 24th May, and not available, wood, till July, whilst that May date sees publication wood book in the States, but no digital release pending.

AND an earlier request for this on NetGalley was also granted later. Thanks NG, thanks Vine!

Smoke Amazon UK
Smoke Amazon USA

Virginia Woolf – The Voyage Out


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Unbound consciousness seeping through

The Voyage OutIt was a sure delight to read Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, published in 1915, when she was 33. She had spent two years, from 1910-1912 writing it, and then heavily revised it. By all accounts, some of the themes which had been more fully explored in the first submitted version, had been scaled back, in order to achieve publications. These themes – homosexuality, women’s suffrage and attitudes to colonialism are still within the book.

The outward narrative drive follows Rachel Vinrace, the 24 year old daughter of a business man and ship owner. Rachel’s mother died when she was young, and she has been brought up by her aunts. Her upbringing has been educationally lacking, in that no-one directed or disciplined her learning. Here is of course a theme that Virginia was passionate about – the education of women. Rachel is intelligent, highly musical, but knows little about life. Although she has had the freedom to develop her intellect, read where her interest listed, the lack of focus and encouragement to persist where she found something difficult, has been a hindrance. She is socially unsophisticated, and particularly ignorant about the relationships between men and women. Crucially, she has not learned how to play the game demanded of women of her class and time, in a man’s world:

those habits of unselfishness and amiability founded upon insincerity which are put at so high a value in mixed households of men and women

Rachel ‘Voyages Out’ on her father’s ship, in the company of older, more worldly people. Helen and Ridley Ambrose, related through marriage to Rachel’s father, are free-thinking artistic people. Richard Dalloway and his wife Clarissa represent the world of social reform and politics. Mrs Dalloway, of course, is further explored in a later novel where she is central. Here, she too provides a focus for Rachel, as she makes a journey discovering who she is, who and what influences and steers her, towards her route from becoming to being. Rachel is of course making this journey quite late; it is a journey which usually starts earlier, in the teens. Rachel, like Virginia herself, has in some ways been retarded in development , and in others has had a kind of unconfinement which allowed growth.

The novel has exotic and powerful settings, firstly the dreamy, limitless horizons of the ocean, coupled with the confinement of being within a ship upon that ocean, and secondly, a South American setting, country unnamed, where Rachel and the Ambroses are holidaying. A nearby hotel will bring a whole pack of people from middle and upper middle class society into Rachel’s life.

Though this novel is certainly more conventional in narrative structure than some of her later books, what I can only think of as a fluidity of consciousness, a kind of watery dissemination and flowingness from one point of view to another, is already evident. In fact, it is not immediately clear, in the on board ship section, whose story we are following Rachel’s, Helen’s or Clarissa’s. In fact, where Woolf is taking us is ‘life itself’. This excerpt from Clarissa Dalloway’s thoughts, illustrates some kind of place where thought and feeling forms blend, in an oceanic way and identities shift and blur.

She then fell into a sleep….visited by fantastic dreams of great Greek letters stalking round the room…she woke up and laughed to herself, remembering where she was and that the Greek letters were real people, lying asleep not many yards away….The dreams were not confined to her indeed, but went from one brain to another. They all dreamt of each other that night, as was natural, considering how thin the partitions were between them, and how strangely they had been lifted off the earth to sit next each other in mid-ocean, and see every detail of each others’ faces, and hear whatever they chanced to say

The South American hotel also brings other characters whose visions and aspirations add further possibilities to female experiences. Susan Warrington is a rather put-upon companion to an elderly aunt. Marriage would be the only escape. Evelyn Murgatroyd is a woman who chafes at the curtailed opportunities offered to her gender and class. She yearns to be an active, revolutionary hero. There are women of an older generation, some in the shadows of their husbands, some freed in widowhood to explore being selfish and unamiable.

The male world features academics and intellectuals quite heavily, which was of course Woolf’s own background.

Two young academic men also have major focus within the novel. John Hirst (reputedly this character is based on Lytton Strachey) is highly intellectual. He forms a strong relationship with Helen (based on Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell). Helen is a ‘safe’ wise, strong, beautiful married woman, and she is the only woman whom Hirst can really relate to, freely talk to. His friend is Terence Hewet, a man altogether more at ease with women. Hewet has never been in love, but he has had physical relationships with women.

Caught in the hot-house of succulence and danger within the exotic South American landscape and under the amused, watchful or jaded eyes of those who are either already married or have moved beyond such considerations, those who are unmarried explore the relationships between men and women and the differences between the sexes. Woolf’s swings between raptures and despairs, the high glories of livingness, the potency of the natural world, and the pain and suffering of life, are also engaged with.

He had never realised before that underneath every action, underneath the life of every day, pain lies, quiescent, but ready to devour; he seemed to be able to see suffering, as if it were a fire, curling up over the edges of all action, eating away the lives of men an women. He thought for the first time with understanding of words which had before seemed to him empty: the struggle of life; the hardness of life

I have carefully avoided spoilers. Which is more than the second hand Penguin Modern Classics version which I picked up did. Reading the blurb on the back gave me all the details of what Rachel’s story would be about.

A major gripe – why do those who write forewords or, even worse, write the jacket information for classics, arrogantly assume everyone has already read something and major plot arcs can be spelt out. Someone is always coming to a book for the first time, and those people should be able to experience a book as the author intended. I couldn’t ‘un-know’ what the blurb writer had spoiled, and this made the book a more difficult read, as events Woolf meant her reader to be shocked by could not have their full effect. I sometimes wonder whether blurb writers hate reading, or hate the books they write the jackets for, when I find that major parts of the reader’s journey have been described with full details. Of course a book is about much more than story, but story, the ‘what happens next’ is a major strandVIRGINIA WOOLF

I do think this is a wonderful first novel, and particularly interesting in the light of my recent re-read of To The Lighthouse, as themes and styles more fully realised in that later novel are developing here.

I’m of course very grateful to HeavenAli, whose Woolfalong Challenge for this year is bringing me to Woolfs new to me and Woolfs to reacquaint myself with, and this voyage out in the good ship Woolf is most satisfying. This should have been read and reviewed for the March/April beginnings and endings strand, but, Hey-Ho, life, not to mention other reads, intervened.

The Voyage Out Amazon UK
The Voyage Out Amazon USA

Elisabeth Sanxay Holding – The Blank Wall


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From conventional wife and mother to a suspect in murder investigations

The Blank Wall PersephoneI came across Elisabeth Sanxay Holding through the site of a blogger who writes about Film Noir, John Grant’s fascinating Noirish and a further site where he was interviewed, (alas I have lost the link) and he mentioned her as a writer of quality noir.

And she is, on this reckoning. An American novelist, born in 1889 married to a Brit, she started out as a writer of romantic novels, moving to the hardboiled detective genre after the 1929 stock market crash, for lucrative reasons – a popular selling genre! Not to mention, a genre she clearly had a talent for. She created a quiet, thoughtful detective in Lieutenant Levy, who features in this novel, though he is far from the central character.

No less a hardboiled detective supremo than Raymond Chandler rated Holding hugely

The Blank Wall, written in 1947, and set during the Second World War, particularly fascinated me because the central character, a middle aged woman, Lucia Holley, is such a very unlikely candidate to become embroiled in not one, but two murder investigations

Lucia’s husband Tom is away in the war. She writes conventional, dull letters to him

Lucia Holley wrote every night to her husband, who was somewhere in the Pacific. They were very dull letters, as she knew; they gave Commander Holley a picture of a life placid and sunny as a little mountain lake.

“Dear Tom,” she wrote. “It is pouring rain tonight”

She crossed it out, and sat for a moment looking at the window where the rain slid down the glass in a silver torrent. There’s no use telling him that, she thought. It might sound rather dreary. “The crocuses are just up” she wrote.

You get the picture, Lucia is conventional; Lucia is rather dull. She is a kind, loyal to her family kind of woman. She is a quite well off woman, normal, comfortable. She would probably be living the American Dream were it not for the war, which sees her raising her two children and taking care of her elderly father, all by herself. She is most definitely not the kind of woman to go breaking the law. Her two children, Bee, and her younger brother David are either slap bang in the middle of rebellious late adolescence or about to enter that state. They both hold their mother in slight or extreme contempt, precisely because she is so very conventional.

An earlier cover

    An earlier cover

Bee has begun some kind of liaison with a most unsuitable older man. He is married, but that is far from the only unsuitable thing about him. Nothing has really happened, but he is not the sort of man Bee should be involved with, and Lucia, conventional though she may be, is prepared to be tigerish in defence of her children. She has had some kind of a warning show down with Ted Darby, the unsuitable man, to try to persuade him against seeing Bee.

Darby has other plans however, and is using Bee for his own ends. And others may be using Darby for their particular reasons.

Through her connection to her children, conventional Lucia finds herself embroiled with the kind of people she would never normally meet – a criminal world.

Holding is really exploring what might make anyone cross over to the other side of the law, and the tension gets turned up and continues to rise precisely because Lucia IS so law abiding and conventional by nature and nurture, so she is constantly shocked by herself, discovering that the person she always thought she was is not the person she really is, when pushed to the limits.

This is the kind of crime writing I enjoy most – the psychology of ordinary people finding themselves in extraordinary situations. Holding is superb on relationship, superb on characterisation; it is these that drive plot. She does not dwell in loving detail on the gruesome grisly blow by blow accounts of violence, the vulnerability of damaged flesh; her interest is in the ensuing vulnerability of psyche.

This book, republished by the excellent Persephone Press, gave rise to not one, but two noir films:

Joan Bennett, James Mason : The Reckless Moment

 Joan Bennett, James Mason : The Reckless Moment

Firstly, 1949’s Max Ophuls’ film, The Reckless Moment starring Joan Bennett as Lucia, and the wonderful James Mason as Martin Donnelly, one of the wider circle associated with Ted Darby, who is central in the story. The film exists in sections on You Tube, here is the first of 6

A very loose adaptation, updated for a more modern audience was released as The Deep End in 2001. Starring Tilda Swinton and directed by David Siegal and Scott McGehie the story now concerns a mother whose teenage son, not daughter, is having a relationship with the unsuitable older man with shady connections

The Deep End Swinton

    Tilda Swinton : The Deep End

I found Holding’s book taut, well written and absorbing. If at times Lucia’s Elisabeth Sanxay Holdingconventional passivity was frustrating, and her sense of herself involved in things a woman like her just doesn’t do, that is purely down to the fact that these times are different from those times, and Lucia’s conventional naiveté would have been normal and expected.

The Blank Wall Amazon UK
The Blank Wall Amazon USA

John Powell – Why We Love Music


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The joy of musical goose-bumps

Why We Love MusicJohn Powell’s ‘Why We Love Music’ is a thoroughly engaging journey through neuroscience, psychology, trivia and thoughtful appreciation into our relationship with the repetitive aural patterns and variations of rhythm, tone, pitch and timbre that we might end up describing as ‘music’

It matters not what kind of music opens you up to delight or makes you back off in whimpering distaste, some kind of ‘music’ is likely to powerfully affect us all, and what pushes your ‘like’ or indeed your ‘dislike’ button is likely to reveal something about your individual psychology as much as it might give clues to your age and from whence you came. The sound of music, like the food in our kitchens can spell home, and take us immediately into our past.

Powell is a most engaging writer, and I’m afraid, shallow as I am, I love it when people give me lots of nuggetty things to think about wrapped up in an attractive coating.

Powell is informative, references meticulously, provides some more challenging appendices for musicians and those with more of a grasp of the technicalities and mechanics than I have, and offers all the resources to help those who want drier and more detailed information, find those sources. If you want to find those resource papers with such thrilling titles as “An experience Sampling Study of Emotional Reactions to Music: Listener, Music and Situation” Powell’s footnotes and chapter headings will surely be invaluable.

The lighter-weights amongst us may well be happy enough to have Powell explain to us that, for example, one might hear the ‘fear’ music when it is played for one of James Bond’s enemies, and not have our ‘fear’ activated, but, when that music arrives for one of Bond’s lady loves, we might indeed become fearful for her. Even more, we might appreciate (I did) Powell’s flip humour reminding us :”This is usually a perfectly justifiable fear, as the average life-expectancy of a James Bond girlfriend is about thirty-five minutes” Powell does not reference that quip, but it did make me laugh.

He took me, in a spirit of adventurous investigation, out of my own musical comfort zone, as he does reference various examples as illustrations of points he is making, so a simultaneous read and navigate to a website to hear a soundtrack was very pleasurable.

Below is my first ever experience of Elbow, courtesy of Powell’s move me out of obvious comfort zone

The Birds – Elbow from Dan on Vimeo.

I particularly enjoyed the chapters examining how speech patterns morph into music/singing, and, indeed just why music gets soft-wired and hard-wired in to Importance for us – for example, the musical quality of what might be called ‘Motherese’ – the singing quality adults employ talking to small babies, the rhythmical patterns of lullabies, repetitions of phrases. Babies then pattern in their babbling back to adults, there is a satisfaction in the familiarity of repeating phrases, a kind of safety in the familiar. Here is a fascinating clip Powell references of a study done on how the musicality in normal speech might become experienced as song

This is a gorgeous, engaging book. Dr John Powell has a PhD in physics, and lectures in physics; he is also a classically trained musician and lectures in musical acoustics. He is also (MOST importantly for this reader) clearly a brilliant communicator, and someone with an infectious joy in his specialist subjects. And writes like a dream.

I have also had great fun in some of the suggested practical exercises, for example ‘re-hearing’ a clock ticking as tick tock tick, rather than tick tock, to demonstrate the mind’s ability to impose subjective patterns and rhythms. Sound stupid? – oh, just read the book, Powell will encourage you into musical games

Along the way he explores experiments in tapping into the healing power of music, particularly linked with neurological conditions – some of this has of course been very well explored. He also explodes a few myths about extreme musical talent, as further experiments and studies in statistics show the extremely musically talented tend to be those who practiced, from the start, far more than the less dedicated amongst us ever did. So…..my new dream on……..I could have been a musical contender, if only I hadn’t been so lazy………….His depressing statistic, for the easily distracted who lack persistence is that it generally takes about ten thousand hours of practice to become a professional musician. I assume he is talking classical here, rather than the three chord bash.

And here is Powell being instructive about rubato (not to mention a bit rude, about that much loved piece Asturias, by Albeniz) I’m even minded now to get the earlier book, How Music Works

Later in the book he begins to deconstruct music, going into more detail on how we hear, what we hear, what is meant by notes, and into various techniques, and their effects within a piece. In fact, there is a definite progression from the very easily graspable, at the start, to ‘stuff’ needing more thinking about. We started with a simple scale, and ended up with Wagnerian symphony! (Just to get back into my comfort zone!)

What an engaging, as well as what an informative, read!

Powell’s book will be published on the 5th of May in hardback and digital. I was lucky enough to get offered it through Amazon Vine UK. For some strange reason it will only be available in the UK on digital or Audible. I would not suggest Audible as there are various diagrams which make sense of the more technical aspects in the latter half of the book. Musicians and physicists may not need the diagrams; the moderately innocent of such matters, like myself, embraced them like a life-raft

There also appears to be some confusion between the publisher and Amazon websites John Powellas to whether this is to be called Why We Love Music or Why You Love Music. I suggest a compromise and that the book is called Why You and We Love Music, to avoid fisticuffs!

Powell is also at pains to point out that he is, sadly, not THAT John Powell – there is a film composer of the same name to whom he pays nice deference. I’m perfectly enchanted with THIS John Powell and hope the other John Powell also pays nice deference to this on

Why We Love Music Amazon UK
Why We Love Music Amazon USA

Svetlana Alexievich – Chernobyl Prayer


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Painful to read; ostrich like to not do so

Chernobyl PrayerThis is far from my usual reading, and recommending it is a kind of excruciating necessity. All I can say is that I wish the book had not had a need to be written

Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer, the account of ordinary Belarusians whose lives and land were horribly affected by the reactor blowing, is a difficult, horrifying and yet unavoidable read. At least, unavoidable if you believe we need to face terrible reality, and acknowledge it, however much not thinking about it seems the best, pain avoiding option

Alexievich lets her contributors tell their stories. This is certainly not a book to read cover to cover; so much horror can’t be borne, and in fact the only response to trying to do that is a kind of numbing and deadening, as the reader tries to protect herself from the awful reality.

This is not an account of politics, cover up, science, official speak. It is ordinary voices, and therefore, full of individual response. Some are even remarkably stoical and even manage to bear up with fortitude in the face of something which seems unbearably grim – the ticking time-bomb caused by impossible exposure to radioactivity following the reactor’s blow-out

There are a few thoughts which struck home. Inevitably, the heroism, even if no one quite understood the terrible danger of the firefighters who went in to contain the damage, and prevent the other reactors from also cracking.

Radiation large

Secondly, many of the people she interviewed had the most astonishing, deep love of place and land. Something perhaps harder for those of us who live less rooted lives, less connected to the time and place of our ancestral past, to understand. These are people, who knowing the danger, chose to secretly, illegally return to their damaged land, because to live apart from in, in cities, was no life. They mourned their land and their connection to it

Time and again people talk about how the animals, birds and insects responded immediately to the disaster, and yet, the people did not know – beekeepers reporting their bees stayed in their hives for days and did not come out. Fisherman, using worms for bait, discovering they couldn’t find any worms, because they had burrowed so deeply into the earth. I found that strange and sobering too, some sense which we have lost

Alexievich, in her own take on this writes this to show :

we now find ourselves on a new page of history. The history of disasters has begun. But people do not want to reflect on that , because they have never thought about it before, preferring to take refuge in the familiar

She opens the book with the sobering, horrifying account of the life and death of one of the fire-fighters, recounted by his widow (herself, horribly affected by contamination) Lyudmila Ignatenko, pregnant, was instructed not to touch or go close to her dying husband Vasily. In full knowledge of the danger to herself and her unborn child, she ignored the advice, and chose to touch, kiss and give human contact . She was told :

You musn’t forget this isn’t your husband, it isn’t the man you love, it’s a highly contaminated radioactive object.

I was humbled by Lyudmila, and by Vasily. And this is just one story of many

Star rating seems impossible. I hate it – I hate that this happened and needs to be recounted, to say ‘I love it’ is monstrous. I will settle for 4 star, But it is to my mind unrateable. Dreadful, important, necessary. I feel the need to read each person’s story, but cannot do this cover to cover, without long gaps, as it seems wrong to shut down feeling, but so much horror can’t be consciously endured for long.

I suppose all the reader can do, does do, on reading a book like this, is to be a kind of witness. A witness to something you don’t want to witness, because to ignore it feels some kind of deep insult

I was offered this by Amazon Vine, and took it, wincingly.

It seems more terrible, and more necessary, both, than I expected. And I’m not even necessarily saying ‘read it’ But not to talk about the book at all is something I can’t do either.

Most chillingly, the subtitle of the book is “A Chronicle of the Future”. It reminds us that the effects of such a radiation leak seeped into the air, the earth, the waters, and last for tens of thousands of years

Fire-fighters like Vasily Ignatenko helped contain and restrain even more cataclysmic potential damage. And i never thought till now of how much I owe him and others like himSvetlana

This is a re-issue and re-translation to mark the thirtieth anniversary.

Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize  “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”.[

Chernobyl Prayer Amazon UK
Chernobyl Prayer Amazon USA

Alan Sillitoe – The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner


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Resistance is not futile

The LonelinessShort stories, as I find myself repeatedly telling myself, are a slightly unsettling read. It’s to do with the variable length of reading time. A short can be just too short, and if you read several by the same writer in fairly quick succession, there can be a sense of ‘here we go again’ as a writer’s pattern repeats.

And so I found here, with Sillitoe. In some ways, to my taste, this collection would have been better served by having fewer of the ‘stories in the middle section’ The first, ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’ is a marvellous novella, rather than short story. It is full of bitter, angry realism, a heady mix of despair, resignation and empowerment. It was of course also made into an iconic film of the 60s, part of the New Wave of Cinema – which included the film of another Sillitoe book, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

Tom Courtenay, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, 1962, director Tony Richardson

Tom Courtenay, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, 1962, director Tony Richardson

The central character of the title story is a troubled, disadvantaged young Nottinghamshire teen, doing time in a Borstal, after he was caught with the proceeds of a robbery – in a scene which mixes dark humour with pathos. The story, told in the first person is imbued with a sharp, intelligent sense of the unfair nature of an unequal society.

Smith did not have the chances, due to poverty and deprivation for any kind of better life (the book was published in 1959) Petty crime offered glamour, excitement – and food on the table.

In his time in the Borstal, the superficially progressive prison governor discovers that Smith has a rare talent for running, and when a cross-country running competition is set up against a prestigious school, the prison governor sees glory for himself and his running of his Borstal, in pitting his prize boy against the elite. For Smith, the buzz, the graft and the drudgery of daily training offer a meaningful solitary time for expansive, curiously transcendental thought, bringing him to a wider consciousness of himself and the system he is caught within

Although the ending of the story is never really going to be in doubt, once the reader sees how Smith’s process of analysis is going, it is gloriously satisfying.

Sillitoe himself came from precisely the same kind of background as the characters in this and the other stories in the collection. What I like is the sense of fire and spirit, the individuality and humanity in his characters, despite the fact that life does what it can to grind this down and away. He neither patronises, pities, indulges or allows his characters to indulge in ‘poor me misery’ in the best of the stories.

Of the shorter stories, I found ‘The Fishing Boat Picture’, the story of a mismatched marriage between a bookish postman who liked a quiet life and the ‘big-boned girl yet with a good figure and a nice enough face’ whom he marries rather in haste, followed by the inevitable joint repentance at leisure, a particularly strong one. The twist in the story is not a twist of event, rather, one of dignity, sensitivity, tenderness and emotional refinement inside what seems like unpromising, wasted lives

I was also moved by the sad pathos of ‘Uncle Ernest’, a lonely man who, through pity, forms a friendship with two manipulative young girls. I think a modern writer would have done something more sensationalist with this, and maybe, in the light of recent events, the idea that there can be innocent friendships is something which gets more cynically viewed.

Some of the later stories (when I had got the measure of the writing), such as ‘On Saturday Afternoon’, where the narrator, a young boy, assists another typical Sillitoe loner in his suicide attempt, just because he (the boy) was feeling ‘black and fed –up because everybody in the family had gone to the pictures’ seemed a little contrived, an attempt, curiously enough to lift with mordant humour, a darkening collection.

However, the very different end story absolutely raised the game again for me. ‘The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller’. This is either a more fully autobiographical story, or a story where the writer wants us to believe in its autobiography, as the narrator in this is a writer called Alan, originally from a background of poverty and deprivation, whose success as a writer has taken him out of class, out of background, and into a much more gracious life, now in Majorca (Mallorca) . Sillitoe did indeed live for several years in France, Spain and specifically in Mallorca

In this endpiece story, quite different in tone to the earlier pieces, the theme is that of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ The writer muses of a life formed through a passion for books, reading and writing. His relationship to them is ambivalent, they are :

Items which have become part of me, foliage that has grown to conceal the bare stem of my real personality, what I was like before I ever saw these books, or any book at all, come to that. Often I would like to rip them away from me one by one, extract their shadows out of my mouth and heart, cut them neatly with a scalpel from my jungle-brain. Impossible. You can’t wind back the clock that sits grinning on the marble shelf. You can’t even smash its face in and forget it

The writer, in his present, is taken back in time from the aural equivalent of Proust’s madeleine – the song of the cuckoo, into a flooded, present remembrance of himself, earlier in life, and tells the important story of Frankie Buller, who he was, who he was for Alan, and the moment when life paths diverge.

We were marching to war, and I was a part of his army, with an elderberry stick at the slope and my pockets heavy with smooth, flat, well-chosen stones that would skim softly and swiftly through the air, and strike the forehead of enemies

The gathering up of Sillitoe’s time and place in this, as stages of his life are weaved into and out of, is wonderful.

I was offered this as a digital copy for review, by Open Road Media, a States basedAlan Sillitoe Wikipic company who bring many ‘gone out of print’ writers from earlier in the twentieth century, back into circulation. They are meticulous (not all digitisers are!) in producing versions which read seamlessly and cleanly on ereaders

This particular version is not the one available in the UK, I have linked to the UK ‘available on Kindle’ which was an earlier publication. The stories are the same, and in the same order, but the UK Kindle and USA Kindle (Open Road) contain different afterwords, by different authors. Open Road’s version has an afterword by Sillitoe’s wife, Ruth Fainlight, a writer herself, and photographs

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner Amazon UK
The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner Amazon USA


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