Glass Houses ~ Louise Penny

virgilio-dias-universitc3a1ria-2011-o-s-t-60-x-60There is a higher court than courts of justice and that is the court of conscience.  It supersedes all other courts.

Gandhi’s pronouncement echoes around the Palais de Justice in Old Montreal. It comes as a shock to Judge Maureen Corriveau, presiding over her first major case, because it is quoted by Chief Superintendent Armand Gamache, Head of the Sûreté du Québec and a man who has devoted his life to upholding the law of the land. She would be even more surprised were she to realise that if need be Gamache is prepared to perjure himself and lie in court  despite the fact that as a result the defendant in this murder trial might well go free.

Louise Penny’s latest novel, Glass Houses, spans almost the first year of Gamache’s incumbency as Head of the Sûreté, a year which has seen crime rise dramatically in the province and the police force floundering, apparently helpless to do anything about it. In particular the problem of drug pushing is growing exponentially to the point where it  seems to be impossible to combat the cartels involved. However, the murder, which takes place in the latter part of October as the winter storms are beginning to set in and then comes to trial in the sweltering heat of summer, appears to have nothing to do with drugs although everything to do with questions of conscience. An ominous hooded and cloaked figure takes up a vigil on the village green in Three Pines, a figure that is eventually linked to the old Spanish tradition of the Cobrador and who is intended as a prod to the conscience of someone who has committed a dreadful act. But who is the target?  When a visitor to the village is found dead, shrouded in the Cobrador’s cloak it is assumed that she is the quarry and has been murdered as an act of vengeance despite the fact that there appears to be nothing in her past to warrant such an action.

Months later, in the heat of a Québec summer, a suspect stands accused in the dock. By this time, however, the reputation of the Sûreté and in particular of Gamache is at an all time low. How can anyone have faith that the correct person has been brought to justice when all around them crimes are going unpunished and drug pushers seem to walk the streets unhindered by the police?  Even those who have known the Chief Superintendent the longest (and that includes the faithful reader) are beginning to wonder if this has been one promotion too many and that perhaps he should have continued to enjoy his retirement and left the top job to someone else. We should all know better. For Gamache is being driven by something higher than justice, higher even than conscience, he is being driven by love: love of his wife, his family, his friends, his colleagues and ultimately of the Québécois whom he serves. And, because of that love he is willing to risk everything, even his freedom; to burn his boats as irreversibly as did Cortez, in an attempt to change the course of crime in the province if not forever then at least for the foreseeable future.

If you don’t already know Louise Penny’s world and the characters who people the Sûreté and the village of Three Pines then this is not the place to start, fine novel though it is. The intricacies of the relationships that have grown over many years are too closely interwoven into this story for a first time reader to really understand the faith that is being placed in Gamache. Go back and start at the beginning with Still Life. Enjoy the twelve preceding novels and by the time you come to this you will be in a position to understand why the people who share Gamache’s life, at work and at home, are willing to follow him into a situation as precarious as any he has yet faced.

Advertisements

Kollwitz and Contemporaries

FE722E1E-41DD-475F-87AF-CCAEFA0F18A4To complement Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery exhibition, Portrait of the Artist: Käthe Kollwitz, The Barber Institute has just opened a print bay display celebrating the work of Kollwitz and other German expressionist artists who were her contemporaries.

Kollwitz was born one hundred and fifty years ago in 1867 and trained as both a painter and a sculptor.  However, she is probably best known for her print making, an example of which can be seen in the lithograph above.  Married to a doctor, practising in Berlin, her studios were adjacent to his offices and there she would have found material for the subjects that concerned her most: women affected by war, mother and child relationships, the working classes and the effects that manual labour had on such people.

Although she refused to be labelled politically, living through both World Wars confirmed her as a pacifist and deepened her desire to record and assist those who had suffered.  The lithograph depicted here is from 1921 and is entitled Help Russia. Their country Riven by civil war, many Russians were at the point of starvation and this print was disseminated as a means of raising money to support them.  It was also turned into a poster urging others to find ways of helping.

849B93D3-90E4-4444-B2EA-7A917D99C096Among other artists with prints in the exhibition is Emil Nolde, whose woodcut The Prophet is evidence of his early training as a wood carver.  Like many modernist artists, Nolde was to see his work condemned as degenerate by the Nazis. Indeed, more of his work was removed from exhibitions than that of any other artist.  There are also two contrasting works by Otto Dix, one from the early part of World War One, when he was still of the opinion that violence could be a force for good and war a cleansing process and a second from his 1924 cycle, Der Krieg, offering a nightmarish depiction of the horrors he had witnessed in the trenches.

The exhibition runs until the January 14th and as always if any of you are in the Birmingham area and would like me to show you round then do let me know in the comments and I’ll be happy to arrange something.

 

 

The Dark Circle ~ Linda Grant

Linda Grant’s most recent novel is set primarily in the early 1950s. Twins, Lenny and Miriam Lynskey, are set to conquer the world.  The only cloud on their horizon is Lenny’s impending spell of National Service, but that is a minor problem because Uncle Manny knows someone who can fix it.  What Uncle Manny can’t fix, however, is the result of the chest x-ray that Lenny has as part of his medical.  He has tuberculosis: a disease which hovered over the lives of everyone in that period, regardless of age, class or ethnicity.  Lenny and Miriam, who for all of their eighteen years have shared not only a room but also a bed, are packed off to the Gwendo, a sanatorium deep in what is, to them, an alien environment – the countryside.

The Gwendo started life as a private enterprise, but the introduction of the National Health Service has changed all that, much to the distress of the most of the staff working there, who have never come across anything quite like these East End Jewish teenagers.

Mrs Carver, Matron you must call her, did not have to check her files to know that they were coming under the National Health scheme and wouldn’t pay a penny out of their own pockets, they could hang around as long as they liked and it wouldn’t cost them a farthing. And they would stay, she felt sure of that. They would burrow into the system like parasites and milk it for everything they could get. Clean sheets, wholesome food, all the leisure time in the world. It was a skiver’s paradise, a sanatorium which had been built for a better class of persons, and there was nothing at all that she could do to protect the admirable Lady Anne from the sight of cheap loud vulgar people.

For many of the inmates, however, Lenny and Miriam provide a much need diversion, because the presiding ethos, as laid down by Doctor Limb and the formidable Mrs Carver, dictates that in order to be a patient one has to learn to be patient – a word that isn’t in the twins vocabulary. Whatever Matron may think, they have no intention of staying in the Gwendo a moment longer than they can help and while they are there they are going to make their presence felt.

But if the lives of the long term residents, including a group of service men who have become infected during the war, a set known as the Mothers’ Union and most pitifully the cruelly treated and isolated children, are changed by the Twins’ presence, Lenny and Miriam are transformed too.  Two fellow inmates are primarily responsible for this: first there is Valerie Lewis, a middle class Oxbridge graduate with whom Miriam shares treatment. Forced to spend days and weeks doing nothing but lie in bed on an outside balcony, regardless of weather, the two women forge an unlikely, but ultimately mutually beneficial, friendship.  Miriam teaches Valerie about make-up, while Valerie introduces her and through her, Lenny, to the world of literature.

And then into their lives comes Arthur Persky a name to shatter glass.  Arthur is an American sailor turfed off his ship when he is discovered to be ill and sent to the Gwendo until such time as he is deemed fit enough to return to the States.  He blows through the Sanatorium like a hurricane, bringing with him the latest rock and roll music and an approach to sexual morality which takes the inmates by storm.  Miriam is completely won over and can see only a future spent in Stateside luxury.

But without effective treatment there will be no future for any of them and the much hailed streptomycin is in pitifully short supply.

‘Because we fought a war and we’re broke, that’s why, and now we’re practically bankrupt. We have to buy it from America. We haven’t got the exchange currencies. I’ve heard that penicillin and streptomycin are kept in the military wards under armed guard while the kiddies are dying off like flies of infections.’

Six precious doses are made available and the question of distribution eventually leads to the Gwendo’s downfall.

I first read The Dark Circle when it was short listed for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize earlier this year and enjoyed it so much that I recommended it to one of my book groups.  Apart from anything else we are all of an age to have some memories of this period and a number of us had relatives who had succumbed to TB before antibiotics were available.  In fact reception was mixed.  About half the group had been as impressed as I was, others not so and one member positively disliked it. None, however, had read it in quite the way I had.  I read this novel as very much an allegory reflecting the changes that came about in Britain in the 50s, with the Gwendo as a microcosmic world indicative of the societal shake up that followed the war years and the 1944 Labour Government’s reforms. When Persky blows in halfway through the twins’ treatment for me this is symbolic of the way in which the strength of American influence began to predominate in the middle part of that decade.  This then makes sense of the latter part of the novel which reflects from present day affluence on a time when genuinely we were all in it together only then to add, for a while we were, at any rate. Grant clearly does not feel that we are all in together any longer:

For always in the heat, the shimmer of the sun on the surface of the pool, the cicadas in the trees, the smell of suntan oil, the rustling of the maid in the dimness of the kitchen preparing lunch, as if seen from the corner of the eye, a deserted half-ruined building in Kent, a remnant of an old disease, now undergoing a revival. Stealthy, lying low, waiting for a point of weakness in the human race, then lodging in the lungs of humanity to make its sluggish progress through the body, the magnificent shape of our temporary wholeness, until we die and other species take us on.

To Review or Not To Review

imagesI went to the theatre last weekend, a long planned visit and one that I thought I would be reporting on here as I worked my way through my understanding  of the production and of the leading actors’ interpretation of their roles.  What I hadn’t banked on was being so disappointed in the performance as to have very little that was positive to say about it. I wasn’t convinced by the way in which the director had chosen to set the play.  I was distressed by the way in which he had slashed the text, which by my reckoning had been cut by about a quarter, thus rendering a lot of the arguments, (difficult enough to follow at the best of times) almost incomprehensible. And, worst of all, the leading actor had been totally miscast. He gave a completely inadequate reading of the main protagonist, a problem that was made worse by his inability to understand how to handle the language.  I very nearly wept for him because he was clearly trying extremely hard but it just wasn’t working.   Now, my question is this: as a blogger what do you do in a situation like that?

If I was being paid to prepare a review of the production for a major news outlet then there would be no problem. I would have to say it was dreadful. I hope I would find a kinder way of expressing myself than that, but my job would be to say to the public, who would be expecting some sort of report, that I would think twice before spending my money. (Quite a lot of money in this instance.) However, as a blogger, who can pick and choose what to write about, do I do that or do I just pass over the experience and write about something else entirely?  Is there any need for me to comment in a negative way when a group of hard working, well meaning individuals have put their all into an endeavour and, what is more, probably know themselves that things are not working out as they had hoped?

The same question arises where books are concerned. One of my favourite authors has just disappointed me big time, to the point where I have found myself seriously questioning whether or not I will bother to read their next novel. (September has not been an auspicious month.) I haven’t reviewed it here because I would have very little that was positive to say about it.  But ought I to?  Perhaps I would save someone else wasting time and money on the book?

Of course, there is likely to be something to quarrel with in any artistic enterprise and I have no problem with adding a critical caveat to what is, in substance, a positive discussion of a work, but to be substantially negative?  I don’t like the idea. It is this which makes me wary of accepting books for review. What if I find that what I want to say is that personally I would never have accepted this for publication in the first place? Some poor soul has probably slaved over that for the last two or three years of their lives. It may be dreadful, but should I throw that in their face?

I would be interested to know how others bloggers deal with this issue.  If truth be told it isn’t something that happens often, although I did walk out of a production at the interval earlier this summer because I thought the play itself was an insult to the intelligence of the audience and I wasn’t alone. Maybe I‘ve just had a bad year and it’s starting to rankle.  Should I post a review that is substantially negative or should I choose not to post at all in that situation.  What would you do?

The Word Is Murder ~ Anthony Horowitz

IMG_0245I should say at the outset that I haven’t read much of Anthony Horowitz’s output.  I am not a fan of either James Bond or Sherlock Holmes and so his novels in homage to those authors didn’t appeal to me and, for the same reason, I didn’t tackle the Alex Rider books, which I saw as 007 in miniature.  I had, however, read some of his earlier work for children.  My year six classes loved The Diamond Brother series, which begins with the magnificently titled The Falcon’s Malteser, and I also very much enjoyed The Pentagram Series, which I think was among the first work that Horowitz had published.  But, when Magpie Murders came out I was given a copy and, as it appeared to be a stand alone novel, read it, quite enjoyed it and so decided that perhaps I should give Horowitz another whirl.  I say ‘quite’ enjoyed it because part of me thought that the almost tortured plotting of Magpie Murders was not so much about writing a darned good crime novel as about being clever.  I am always wary of clever.

Well, The Word is Murder is clever too and I approach writing a review of it with the same wary attitude.  The conceit is simple.  Horowitz himself is challenged first by Hawthorne,  an ex-detective with whom he has worked on a television series, and then by a member of the audience at the Hay Festival, to write crime fiction that is real.

There was a woman, sitting in the front row. At first, I’d taken her for a teacher or perhaps a librarian. She was very ordinary-looking, about forty, round-faced with long, fair hair and glasses dangling from a chain around her neck. I’d noticed her because she seemed to be on her own and also because she didn’t seem particularly interested in anything I had to say. She hadn’t laughed at any of my jokes. I was afraid she might be a journalist. Newspapers often send reporters to author talks these days and any joke you make, any unguarded comments, maybe quoted out of context and used against you. So I was on my guard when she put up her hand and one of the attendants handed her the roving mike.

‘I was wondering,’ she said.’Why is it that you always write fantasy? Why don’t you write anything real?’

The woman goes on to suggest that even though Horowitz uses true stories as the basis for much of his work the crimes aren’t real and that as a consequence his books aren’t relevant.  Her comments are the spur he needs to take up Hawthorne’s earlier suggestion that Horowitz shadows him on an investigation he has been asked to take up and write about a real murder, focusing just on the facts of the case as they become apparent, with no diversions into the lives of the investigators concerned and no flights of fancy about the intricacies of police work.

At this point my notes start to say things like Does putting yourself into a story make it real?  and  Is this about the process of writing?  The gap between reality and how you translate that reality into a believable fiction?  I am also thinking ‘clever’ and not in a good way.

Well, the answer to the first of those questions is definitely a resounding No.  Within two or three chapters I had stopped thinking of Horowitz as a real person at all.  I suppose the nearest parallel would be to see him as Watson to Hawthorne’s Holmes, utilising the conceit that he is chronicling the detective’s case, but the idea that this was real crime never once crossed my mind.  It’s a rattling good mystery with the usual bolshie detective and his rather less than quick-witted side-kick.  What’s new?

However, it is a strong enough story to hold a reader’s interest. Diana Cowper goes into an undertaker’s establishment and asks to arrange her own funeral.  It’s not that unusual a request.  Many people like to preplan their own service these days.  What is less than usual is the fact that later that day she is murdered.  Well, no detective worth their salt likes coincidences such as that and so an investigation is launched. For a long time attention is given to an accident that occured almost ten years previously in which Diana, driving without her glasses, killed one eight year old boy and severely injured his twin brother.  However, when on the day of her funeral, her son, Hollywood superstar, Damian, is also murdered, the focus of the investigation is widened out.  Could it be that he was the real target of the murderer’s ire all along?  Well, the truth will soon become apparent because, as in all good crime stories, in the end the bad guy bites the dust.  Would that the same was true in real life.

Along the way a number of identifiable people and actual places are included in the story, but did that make me see it as any more real than any other detective fiction?  Not for a moment.  And, the fact that on the Fantastic Fiction site this is listed as the first in the Detective Daniel Hawthorne series only goes to reinforce that.  We don’t organise our lives to fit a series.  If you enjoy a good crime novel ignore the conceit and just read this as such.  Forget the clever, enjoy the fiction.

National Poetry Day

IMG_0253Today is National Poetry Day in the UK and so I thought I would share with you one of my favourite poems by e e cummings.  I could have chosen any one of a number of his works but there a couple of lines in this which I think are particularly pertinent for the times in which we find ourselves.

 

may my heart always be open to little

birds who are the secrets of living

whatever they sing is better than to know

and if men should not hear them men are old

 

may my mind stroll about hungry

and fearless and thirsty and supple

and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong

for whenever men are right they are not young

 

and may myself do nothing usefully

and love yourself so more than truly

there’s never been quite such a fool who could fail

pulling all the sky over him with one smile

 

e e cummings

 

and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong

for whenever men are right they are not young

 

A great many of us in these troubled times would do well to pay heed to those words.

Happy National Poetry Day.

The Wrath Of Ahasuerus

steen500

As those of you who know me well will testify, I am all about story, whether that be story told in the form of the written word, oral storytelling or the dramatic explosion of story on the stage.  Recently, however, I have been exploring another means of communicating a narrative, storytelling through art.  For the past year I have been working as a volunteer guide at The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, which is sited on the campus of the University of Birmingham.  Compared with the other guides I have very little (for ‘very little’ read ‘none’) knowledge about the world of art and certainly know nothing at all  about painting techniques.  I was thrown out of the Art class at school at the earliest possible moment, to the great relief of all parties concerned.  I am, however, interested in the way works of art reflect the society out of which they arise and I am very interested in how artists use their skills to tell story.  What else would you expect?

The Wrath of Ahasuerus by the Dutch artist, Jan Steen, is one of my favourite works, not only because even I can see that it is a magnificent painting, but because it tells no fewer than three different stories.  Most obviously, it depicts the climax of the biblical story of Esther, who is seated on the right hand side of the table.  I’m not going to go into detail about that here; you can read it in the Old Testament, Book of Esther, or go for the potted version on Wikipedia.  The important thing to know is that unbeknown to her husband, King Ahasuerus, Esther is a Jew and that for nefarious reasons of his own, the Grand Vizier, Haman, cringing on the other side of the table, has persuaded the King to agree to the destruction of all the Jews in Persia.  Having softened her husband up through a couple of well prepared banquets, the painting represents the moment when she calls Haman out and reveals the self-seeking motivation behind his actions.  As you can tell, Ahasuerus is not best pleased.  He’s going to be even more annoyed when he realises his best Ming vase has just gone crashing to the floor! Being forced to cringe will be the least of Haman’s worries.  He will ultimately be hung on the very gallows he had prepared for his victims.

gelder500But, there are two other stories finding their voice through Steen’s work.  The first is apparent in the presence of the two very definitely seventeenth century Dutch soldiers in the right, middle distance.  At the time this work was painted (1671-73) the Dutch were cock-a -hoop about what might be seen as their own escape from servitude under the Spanish and they identified strongly with Esther. As a consequence, works of art depicting elements of the story of her saving of the Jews were reasonably common. There is another painting in the collection, depicting an earlier moment from the narrative, by Steen’s contemporary, Arte de Gelder.  It is one of seventeen on the subject that he painted.  Given that most artists of this period had to supplement their income by taking on jobs outside their studios, it is hardly likely that de Gelder would have return to the story so often if he didn’t know that he had a ready market for the works.  The presence of contemporary soldiers is Steen’s nod to the prevailing mood of the day.

These are the two obvious stories depicted in this work.  However, I think there is a third and it is my favourite.  As I have said, most artists from this period were not able to live on what they earned by painting alone and Steen was no exception.  To supplement his income he also ran a tavern.  Do you not think that when he wanted a model for the enraged king and the up-tipped tableware (not to mention that wonderful peacock pie) all he had to do was sit in a corner and make a few quick sketches before then launching in to break up what were probably nightly tavern brawls?  All right, I suspect he didn’t run to serving his customers peacock, but you get the idea.  There is something in Ahasuerus’s stance that screams drunken bombast to me and it gives me a great deal of pleasure to think that through the power of his art Steen turned the local sot into a mighty king of Persia.

In preparation for Pride and Persecution, an exhibition of Steen’s Old Testament works that will run at the Barber from October 27th to January 21st, this painting has just been cleaned and now looks even better than before.  I stood in front of it the other day and had to stop myself from trying to run my fingers through that carpet covering the table and the tail feathers of the peacock.  They look so real.  The exhibition is open to all and completely free.  If any of you are close enough and would like to come, then do let me know and we can perhaps make arrangements to meet and I will happily take you round both the exhibition and the gallery as a whole, no doubt telling you more stories along the way.

The Crime At Black Dudley ~ Margery Allingham

IMG_0251My first encounter with the crime fiction of what is known as the Golden Age came about through a friend of my parents.  She had a full collection of the works of both Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh which she was willing to lend me at the rate of two a week.  I was as vociferous a reader then as I am now and two a week seemed a bit parsimonious, but nevertheless I was duly grateful and over the space of a couple of years got to know the likes of Poirot, Miss Marple, Timothy and Tuppence and the redoubtable Roderick Alleyn.  However, as much as my benefactor apparently enjoyed the genre it seemed that her reading had never encompassed the works of Margery Allingham and so it wasn’t until a decade later, when I moved house and found myself in the vicinity of a library which had hung onto its collection of 1920s and 30s crime fiction, that I discovered Albert Campion.

The Crime at Black Dudley is the first of Allingham’s novels about this apparent scion of British nobility, if not of royalty itself.  (As far as I am aware we never actually get to know Campion’s precise antecedents.)  It is also a completely new read for me, not being one of the novels that I had borrowed in that earlier exploration of the world of interwar skullduggery.  And, I have to admit, that it surprised me, Campion being neither at the heart of the story, nor being the character that I thought I knew.

This earliest instalment centres round one George Abbershaw, a pathologist who works for Scotland Yard, and who has been invited by his friend, Wyatt Petrie, to be a member of a weekend house party at Petrie’s home, Black Dudley.  Abbershaw is particularly pleased with the invitation because among the party is one Margaret Oliphant, the woman of his dreams.  However, joy turns to horror when, on their first night, Petrie’s uncle by marriage, Colonel Coombe, is murdered and it becomes apparent that the Colonel’s associates, clearly a very bad lot indeed, are intent on covering up the killing to further their own nefarious ends.  Signalling their intent to keep the members of the house party prisoner until such time as a mysterious missing package has been recovered, they show themselves to be villains of the first water, even stooping as low as to isolate and then violently question a woman.

Onto the stage steps Albert Campion, a member of the house party, despite the fact that no one really knows who invited him or what he’s doing there.  As I remember Campion, albeit from around three decades ago, he always covers his serious intent with a certain about of buffoonery and bravado, but I don’t recall him as coming across as quite as fatuous as he does here.  Nevertheless, it is he who saves the day, even if ultimately it is because he recognises the voice of “Old ‘Guffy’ Randell”, and is thus able to call upon the local hunt to come riding to the rescue.  However, it isn’t Campion who tracks down the murderer.  That falls to Abbershaw, from whose point of view the story is told and who is undoubtedly the main protagonist.  Was Campion intended to be the linchpin of a series at this point?  Or did Allingham invent him for this one book and then realise that she had a character with potential on her hands?  I don’t know.  I shall have to make sure I read the novels in chronological order and give close attention to just how he develops.

This isn’t the greatest novel ever, but it is a first class romp with all the tropes that you would expect from crime fiction of the period, including the dagger that is supposed to bleed again when the murderer touches it, the secret passages that lead to unexpected places and a withered old crone, who exemplifies the appalling class consciousness of the age.  There is also, however, a really interesting discussion going on about the way in which identity can be masked, whether that is in the shape of an actual mask used to disguise a person’s real features, the use of an old chassis covering a new Rolls Royce engine or the adoption of the persona of an idiot to conceal an astute brain and, if truth be told, less than scrupulously honest intentions.  I came to the book intending to read my way through the series bit by bit and, of course, I do know that the novels get stronger, but even if that had not been the case, this indication that Allingham is using the genre to explore the psychological world around her would have been sufficient to entice me further into Albert Campion’s domain.

Freshers Week

 

IMG_0253Yesterday saw the arrival of all our Freshers.  It is a very long time since my own days as a Fresher but I still remember that feeling of starting out on something new, something unknown; of being in a position to make myself whoever I wanted to be.  Who needs the Guild bar?  That alone is completely intoxicating.

This afternoon I walked across campus, revelling in the fact that it was alive again after those quiet summer months that seem so alien to what a university ought to be about and listening to the bubble of voices beginning to cement friendships that may last a life time between people who haven’t yet known each other for even twenty-four hours.  I wanted to hug them all and be the hundredth person telling each one that they must cherish and make the most of the three years ahead of them.

I knew there were some lines of, what I thought to be appropriate, poetry nagging at the back of my mind and when I came in I tracked them down.  I’m sure you all know the work anyway, but you can never share too much poetry.  To all those of you whose academic year is also starting this week, my best wishes.  I hope you have a good term and remember to make time for the wine and the music.

To A Poet A Thousand Years Hence

I who am dead a thousand years,

And wrote this sweet archaic song,

Send you my words for messengers

The way I shall not pass along.

I care not if you bridge the seas,

Or ride secure the cruel sky,

Or build consummate palaces

Of metal or of masonry.

But have you wine and music still,

And statues and a bright-eyed love,

And foolish thoughts of good and I’ll,

And prayers to them who sit above?

How shall we conquer? Like a wind

That falls at eve our fancies blow,

And old Maeonides the blind

Said it three thousand  years ago.

Oh friend unseen, unborn, unknown,

Student of our sweet English tongue,

Read out my words at night, alone:

I was a poet, I was young.

Since I can never see your face,

And never shake you by the hand,

I send my soul through time and space

To greet you. You will understand.

James Elroy Flecker (1884 – 1915)

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy ~ John Le Carré

IMG_0251While the rest of the book world is busy reading Le Carré’s latest book, A Legacy of Spies, I’ve found myself returning to an earlier  Smiley novel, Tinker, Talior, Soldier, Spy.  Each September my Wednesday Book Group forsakes its midweek evening meeting for a whole day gathering on a Sunday. Because most of us are involved one way or another in education, we don’t meet in August.  So, in order to give us plenty of time to catch up with all our personal news, we have developed a format whereby we discuss a book in the morning, have a long lunch over which we swap our latest doings, see the film of the book in the afternoon and then discuss the adaptation over tea.  This is the fifteenth year we’ve done this and you won’t be surprised when I say that we rarely find ourselves praising the film over the book, or even being particularly polite about the film version.  Last year it was The Danish Girl, which we all thought was a disaster as a film, although not as much of a disaster as Oscar and Lucinda the end of which reduced some of us to tears of rage.

The choice of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was made this time last year, so the publishing of Le Carré new novel was purely coincidental. Some of us had missed the 2011 film when it came out and others had never read the book. I knew the novel but hadn’t seen the film.  Also it was so long since that previous reading that I was looking forward to going back to the dubious world of British Espionage. When it isn’t glamorised in any way I am fascinated by the secret service and the way such people manage to integrate themselves into society. I know this is going to sound melodramatic but it is true: some years ago, a friend of mine discovered, along with the rest of us, that her uncle was a KGB spy.  As you might imagine, it was a dreadful time for the family, but made so much worse by the fact that they had had no idea whatsoever.  For them it was a very personal act of betrayal.  So while it may seem simplistic to say that what Le Carré’s novel is about is betrayal, it is the fact that it is betrayal on so many different layers which I find fascinating. Smiley is betrayed not just by his fellow me ever of MI6 but also by his wife; the mole betrays not just his country but also his co-workers, his closest friend, and his cousin.  He doesn’t simply use these people for his own ends but is also perfectly prepared, if necessary, to sacrifice their very lives. However, the argument he makes in his defence is an interesting one. He is driven to espionage, he says, because of his country’s betrayal of all that he holds dear. Betrayal is not just something that happens on an individual basis.

We live in an age where only fundamental issues matter . . . ‘The United States is no We live in an age where only fundamental issues matter . . . ‘The United States is no longer capable of undertaking its own revolution . . . ‘The political posture of the United Kingdom is without relevance or moral viability in world affairs . . .’ With much of it, Smiley might in other circumstances have agreed: it was the tone, rather than the music, which alienated him. ‘In capitalist America economic repression of the masses is institutionalised to a point which not even Lenin could have foreseen. ‘The cold war began in 1917 but the bitterest struggles lie ahead of us, as America’s deathbed paranoia drives her to greater excesses abroad . . .’ He spoke not of the decline of the West, but of its death by greed and constipation. He hated America very deeply, he said, and Smiley supposed he did.

Actually, an intense dislike of America is an underlying theme of the book.  I would be interested to know how either the novel or the film is received there.

Well, I have to say that the film wasn’t particularly well received by us. I know that any novel is going to have to be filleted to fit it into a couple of hours screen time but this was ridiculous – so much cutting from one scenario to another with sometimes just one word of dialogue to enlighten thirty seconds of dark, dark visuals.  I did at one point voice the hope that the scriptwriter wasn’t being paid by the word because in the first fifteen minutes or so he would only have earned around twenty pence.  During our morning discussion two or three people had said that they were looking to the film to clarify the relationships between certain characters for them: that they thought having a visual image of each of the main players would make it easier to understand how they fitted into the overall scheme of things. By the end of the afternoon the overall judgement was that it was a good job we had read the book or we wouldn’t have understood the film at all.

So, another September failure I’m afraid.  In fact, in my case to the extent that the first thing I did when I got in was to order a copy of the 1979 BBC mini series, which I remember as being excellent. It came this morning, so that’s the rest of my weekend taken care of. I did have one other thought, which was that it would make a good winter project to read all nine of the Smiley novels. Perhaps not one straight after another – say one a month.  I know it’s only September, but it is so cold here already that I think I might as well start to bed down now.