Monday, 20 October 2014

Uncertain times

A terrible misfortune befell our family last week without warning. As it involves other people, the story is not mine to tell, but it has left everything uncertain and I have not been able to plan my life more than an hour ahead for several days past.

I have endured some terrible things in the past week but I have also been the focus of some amazing acts of generosity. My freezer has been filled with food, my lawns mowed, my children cared for. I have literally been able to ask for anything and no one has hesitated for a second; it is only afterwards that I learn that people have walked out of parties or meetings or family gatherings to come and help us. This has made all the difference.

The one thing I cannot do in the midst of this turmoil is read, and so I am going to put this blog aside for a while. I will return to it as soon as I can.


Sunday, 12 October 2014

Penguin no. 1476: Hide My Eyes
by Margery Allingham

     'I never let anything tear the skin. I've never been faintly fond of anything or anybody in my life.' He spoke lightly but with satisfaction. 'I'm deadly serious about this. I spotted the plain mechanical truth of it as a child. You could almost call it the Chad-Horder discovery. Any kind of affection is a solvent. It melts and adulterates the subject and by indulging in it he loses his identity and hence his efficiency. By keeping myself to myself in the face of every conceivable attack I have remained successful, bright, and indestructible. It's a simple recipe for a hundred per cent success. I hand it to you gratis, Richard. Consider it a token of my esteem. Ah, here are the crumpets.'

The title of Hide My Eyes is a reference to one of the themes of this novel, being the idea that evil can be abetted by well-meaning people reluctant to contemplate a possibility which might appal them, or which might imply that their view of the world is naive. Rather than face a truth which seems terrifying, a few of these characters seek their solace in appealing fictions which serve to explain their fears away.

But as the truth with which Polly Tassie will be forced to contend through the course of this story is appalling, it is perhaps no wonder that she shies from it for as long as she can. The reader is aware from the beginning of something Polly cannot know: that this caring elderly woman has been supporting, in her kindly way, the actions of a man so self-concerned and lacking in principle that he will kill without the slightest qualm if it will help him avoid a problem, or if it will result in a financial reward. This is a murderer who has been quietly supporting himself for many years on cash and assets lifted from those he has killed.

The story begins with Gerry Hawker, variously known as Horder and Chas-Horder, driving an old country coach, curtained and dimly-lit, into London's theatre district and then parking it carefully in Goff's Place. Only the two passengers seated at the front are visible from outside and though it is odd that they fail to alight, and that they are never seen to move, they are the kind of elderly folk who excite little interest. And this is all to Hawker's plan; he intends to commit a murder and he has taken some fairly elaborate precautions to  make sure that he blends with his surroundings and so passes unnoticed.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Penguin no. 1068: Essays and Poems
by G.K. Chesterton

But in order that life should be a story or romance to us, it is necessary that a great part of it, at any rate, should be settled for us without our permission. If we wish life to be a system, this may be a nuisance; but if we wish it to be a drama, it is an essential. It may often happen, no doubt, that a drama may be written by somebody else which we very little like. But we should like it still less if the author came before the curtain every hour or so, and forced on us the whole trouble of inventing the next act. A man has control over many things in his life; he has control over enough things to be the hero of a novel. But if he had control over everything, there would be so much hero that there would be no novel. And the reason why the lives of the rich are at bottom so tame and uneventful is simply that they can choose the events. They are dull because they are omnipotent.

I am moving house at present, a daunting prospect which includes clearing some garages and train carriages, along with the house, of years of accumulated possessions. Posting on this blog may therefore be a little less frequent in the coming months—I suspect it is going to be a Penguin a fortnight for a while.

It seems that the newspapers for which G.K. Chesterton wrote permitted their journalists considerable freedom in the choice of subject matter, and that this was a liberty of which Chesterton took full advantage. This collection of 29 essays and 28 poems, selected by William Sheed, covers a wide range of topics including the trivial - such as the correct pronunciation of the word tomato; the literary - considering David Copperfield and the Browning love letters; and the religious, in his discussion of the protestant attitude to Mary.

But such a slim volume can only provide the smallest sample of Chesterton's work, as he was an unusually prolific writer: he wrote hundreds of poems and thousands of essays during his journalism career, in addition to his novels and his plays and the short stories which recount the experiences of the amiable priest-detective Father Brown.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Penguin no. 572: Love and Mr. Lewisham
by H.G. Wells

Lewisham had a strong persuasion, an instinct it may be, that human beings should not be happy while others near them are wretched, and this gay glitter of prosperity had touched him with a sense of crime. He still believed people were responsible for their own lives; in those days he had still to gauge the possibilities of moral stupidity in himself and his fellow-men. He happened upon 'Progress and Poverty' just then, and some casual numbers of the 'Commonweal,' and it was only too easy to accept the theory of cunning plotting capitalists and landowners, and faultless, righteous, martyr workers. He became a Socialist forthwith. The necessity to do something at once to manifest the new faith that was in him was naturally urgent. So he went out and (historical moment) bought that red tie!

It may be that Mr. Lewisham holds fairly romantic notions about the brightness of his future prospects; the narrator certainly thinks he does. He mocks poor young Mr. Lewisham all the way through this story on account of what he judges to be an evident naïveté, but I was never sure that the narrator was really as worldly-wise as he supposed himself to be. It seemed to me a case of the very-green mocking the slightly greener.

Mr. Lewisham is an industrious eighteen year old pupil-teacher employed at Whortley Proprietary School, and his first problem with love comes from his having failed to make any allowance for it in his grand scheme. Mr. Lewisham intends great things, but they are all conditioned on his achieving his B.A. degree—with honours in all subjects—at the London University a few years hence, and to this end he has mapped out a schedule of study which involves almost every waking hour of every day for the next few years. He has pledged himself to rising each morning at 5am in order to study French before breakfast, to reading literature through every meal, and to devoting his afternoons to maths and science before heading out to his 'preparation duty'. As the narrator wryly notes, with so much set to be achieved at such a young age, '[w]here Mr Lewisham will be at thirty stirs the imagination'.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Penguin no. 1398: A Perfect Woman
by L.P. Hartley

Cover illustration by Charles Mozley.
     Love is its own torturer; and, like cruder tortures, it makes its victim want to tell the truth — the truth about itself. It is by nature self-betraying; if nothing else, the eyes give it away. Denying Irma, Harold had denied the thing that meant most to him; now, instead of a sweet thought of her, he had only this monstrous lie, which came between him and his image of her, threatening it with extinction. In a panic, feeling she would be lost to him unless he testified, he said:
     'You were right, Alec. I am ... well, I am interested in Irma.'
     Relief came instantly. So might the victim feel when the thumb-screw is loosened.


Harold and Isabel Eastwood are a conventional middle-class couple living in a coastal town with their two young children. They share a married life which has been largely uneventful until now, and which they accept without too much reflection. But A Perfect Woman tells the story of a crisis in their marriage—or perhaps it could be described as an adventure—which occurs after Harold meets the moderately-successful novelist Alec Goodrich while travelling by train.

Until that day their marriage had served to give their lives structure, and provided a way for them to define themselves within their community. Isabel had devoted herself to being an enlightened mother and housewife, and had never reflected for a moment - or perhaps had carefully refused to reflect for a moment - on whether she was personally fulfilled in these roles. And being a husband and father gave Harold a sense of his own importance, and provided a platform from which he could look down upon all those who had failed to achieve such steps. But this all changes when Harold meets the author on the train; soon after both Harold and Isabel seem prepared to abandon everything which had served to give their lives meaning, without a second thought.

Goodrich is engrossed in a book for much of the journey and so there is little conversation - it turns out to be one of his own, for he is ever-hopeful that a fellow passenger will notice his choice of reading material and be effusive in praise, and so we learn early on that this is a man who is unusually self-concerned and in need of affirmation. But this is one pleasure that Harold cannot offer him, as he is not a reader, and he certainly knows nothing of Goodrich's novels.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Penguin no. 585: Rex v. Anne Bickerton
by Sydney Fowler

Well, he must make the best of the facts as he had to face them. He must decide which of the two women was the murderer before to-morrow was over, and after that there must be no looking back. Guilty or innocent, she had got to hang. But the thought did not perturb him. He had too great a confidence in his own ability.

"If you take at random half a dozen of the most famous murder trials of recent years, and read the evidence carefully, you'll probably find that not more than two were really proved—not to the degree of proof which would satisfy a bank or an insurance company in a business deal."

Sydney Fowler was clearly no supporter of the death penalty for those convicted of committing murder, and it would seem that he had many reservations about the process in use in 1930 to deliver people to that end.

He tells, in Rex v. Anne Bickerton, a story of three ordinary people who inadvertently find themselves involved in an unexpected death which appears to have been brought about by an intentional act: they face together the ordeal of having the case examined by the coroner, and then Anne Bickerton, as noted in the title, faces the subsequent ordeal of a murder trial on her own. He uses their story to canvass the many flaws he identifies in the process, flaws which are often underpinned by an incompatibility between the personal priorities of those who work within the system and its overarching intention.

He also focuses on the imperfectness of a process which makes no allowance for the uncertainty about what is known and what is not: when the facts seem incompatible with any feasible explanation of the crime, it is assumed without question that one of the suspects must be lying or keeping something hidden. But these witnesses are perfectly frank, at least about the things that matter (and where they are not, it is only to protect themselves from the avaricious inclinations of the lawyers); the problem stems from something else, perhaps a lack of imagination, or a conceit about infallibility.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Penguin no. 902: Serenade
by James M. Cain

Under Socialism, it seems that there's only one guy that really knows how it works, and if some other guy thinks he does, it's a counter-revolutionary act, or, in unsocialist lingo, treason. So back in 1927, a guy named Serrano thought he did, and they arrested him and his friends down in Cuernavaca, and started up to Mexico with them in a truck. But then up in Mexico somebody decided it would be a good idea if they never got there at all, and some of the boys started out in a fast car to meet them. They fastened their hands with baling wire, lined them up beside the road, and mowed them down with a machine gun. Then they said the revolution was over, and the American papers handed it to them they had a stable government at last, and that a strong man could turn the trick, just give him the chance. So wooden crosses mark the spot, an inspiring sight to see.

It is the pace of this novel which is beguiling: there is never a moment when you can begin to relax, secure in a conviction that everything is going to turn out fine, and yet it is also never clear exactly what it is that will go wrong. And for this reason I am reluctant to discuss much of Serenade's plot, as I suspect his is yet another novel best experienced without too much forewarning. The only thing I would note is that it may not be a novel for anyone who finds it necessary to approve of an author's beliefs or prejudices. One premise of this novel is that opera has become captured by an effete crowd; another is that homosexual tendencies are emasculating.

Serenade contains several references to the opera Carmen, which Wikipedia describes as 'the story of the downfall of Don José, a naïve soldier who is seduced by the wiles of the fiery Gypsy, Carmen' after which 'José abandons his childhood sweetheart and deserts from his military duties, yet loses Carmen's love to the glamorous toreador Escamillo.' Carmen's plot seems to have a few parallels in Serenade, in that John Henry Sharp uses his own wiles to seduce the Mexican prostitute Juana Montes, having distracted her affections from the well-known bull-fighter Triesca.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Penguin no. 98: The Murders in Praed Street
by John Rhode

Although the unexplained murders which had taken place in Praed Street were soon forgotten by the general public, their shadow hung heavily over the neighbourhood in which they had been committed...The police, under the direction of Inspector Whyland, were engaged in passing a fine-toothed comb through the Paddington district, and the minor offenders disturbed in the process were as concerned as a colony of ants unearthed by a spade. Mr. Ludgrove was visited furtively late at night by anxious people seeking advice how to conceal the evidence of their misdemeanours from the prying eyes of the police.

The murderer seems, at first, to be targeting shopkeepers. James Tovey, a 'Fruit and Vegetable Merchant', is killed on Praed Street as he returns from the only outing which could ever tempt him from his home on a wintry Sunday evening, and so it is immediately evident that this was no random crime, and that the killer has devoted time to the study of his victim. Tovey went out believing that he was needed at 'St. Martha's Hospital' as the only person able to identify the victim of a fatal accident.

And as there was nothing that Tovey enjoyed more on a Sunday evening than reading of the week's murders and accidents in the Sunday papers, the late-night phone call summoning him to the hospital has him fairly thrilled at the prospect of featuring in just such a story himself the following week. And so he does, but not in the way he had imagined.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Penguin no. 1555: The Case of the Four Friends
by J.C. Masterman

'But you know,' he went on unexpectedly, 'what I like most about Victorian novels is that tidying up chapter at the end. It pleases my sense of order that all the eligible bachelors are neatly paired off with the available spinsters, that the villain dies in penury at Boulogne, whilst all virtuous characters flourish like green bay trees. And I especially like the '"flash-on" or whatever it should be called, when the numerous and rosy-cheeked children gather round their honest parents and are told selected passages from the romance of their earlier lives. It's all so comforting. Tell us, Brendel, what happened to the four friends.'

The four 'friends' of the title could not really be considered friends — they would be better described as uneasy co-vacationers, each of whom carries a secret enmity within his heart.

These men are all fairly well up the social scale and sufficiently wealthy that they can spend their New Year break at the Magnifico, putatively the most expensive and luxurious hotel in England. Yet each is guilty of having committed a crime, at least in terms of the laws which applied at the time, although their transgressions remain secret, or known only to a few. This has left two of the men vulnerable, and all of the men dangerous.

But the aspect I found most intriguing was this often-encountered idea, at least in the older Penguins, that the optimal solution to the affair will be the one in which none of the men need suffer the consequences of their irregular actions. It will be considered ideal, should no one end up murdered, if everything can be set to right without the involvement of police or lawyers, and without anyone ever finding out what they have done. Each man's reputation will then be left unsullied, and his family, friends and business associates will be shielded from the shame which pertains to knowing someone who has behaved inappropriately. I always wonder, when I encounter this attitude in an old Penguin, if the misdemeanours and transgressions of the lower classes were viewed in quite the same way.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Penguin no. 79: The Rasp
by Philip MacDonald

     Belford stood where he was left. His lips moved soundlessly. The bank-notes in his hand crackled as the stubby fingers clenched upon them. Presently he raised his head and looked with blurred vision along the path through the trees.
     "Gawd!" he said, the refinement of the servant's hall now completely gone. "Gawd! What a bloke! What a bloody good bloke!"


Like Four Frightened People, this is another old Penguin which features an unfathomably favourable review from the time it was first published. A reviewer for the Glasgow Citizen considered The Rasp to be 'masterly' and 'worthy to stand on the same shelf as Trent's Last Case'. But while I appreciated Trent's Last Case, I didn't enjoy The Rasp at all, and rather than finding it masterly, I found it dull and far-fetched, with an explanation of the crime which seemed interminable and which took me several evenings to get through.

But my real difficulty with the story was in not finding a single character appealing — the female characters are either unfailingly efficient, given to hysteria, or, in the words of the protagonist, Puritan and sexless, while the male characters have been to the War and returned either neurasthenic or unscathed but speaking in the oddest way — a mixture of heartiness and bravado, and with what seems to be a rarely-overcome inclination to mock or patronise those of the lower classes.

It was the protagonist I found hardest to tolerate, although he was clearly conceived as a character intended to inspire admiration. He seemed to be an Ace Rimmer for the 1930s (and you can see this in the paragraph quoted above) — this would be fine in a work designed to amuse, but it is difficult to take when it is intended seriously. Anthony Gethryn seems to have excelled at everything he has ever attempted - sports, politics, painting, writing, and especially in his war service. And of course he is intelligent, charitable, self-deprecating and modest — so modest that he bristles should anyone should think of referring to him as Colonel. Yet somehow that title invariably makes itself known.

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