Posted on | August 31, 2014 | No Comments
Naming things. Obvious as it might sound, this is one of a novelist’s tasks. The success of a novel can be judged by its augmenting those senses with which the reader was born.
Within a few pages of Clay, which is Melissa Harrison’s first novel, one has the delight of knowing that here is somebody who will carry aloft the 250 pages formed of twenty-one chapters which chronicle a year in the lives of a dozen characters who, did they but know it, live cheek by jowl in a part of London around – as the Prologue has it – a “little wedge-shaped city park… as beautiful and as unremarkable as a thousand others across the country”.
That said, Clay effortlessly brings on a cast of thousands, for Melissa Harrison has wonderful eyes for all those – subterranean or airborne – who share this space with the strata into which human beings are wont to align themselves.
Where to begin in describing such amplitude? The novel itself opens a year hence – on St Bartholomew’s Day – when a young boy who likes to be known as TC is being interviewed by the Social Services. Clay swiftly cuts back in time to set out the way in which his destiny will be forged by a passion for nature which he has discovered despite the unpromising circumstances of being brought up by a reluctant mother who has ditched a seemingly miscreant husband in favour of a rough lover who does have some concern for the boy. All of which is a contrast with the life – across the invisible tracks – enjoyed by Daisy, whose upwardly-mobile parents have found themselves living not far from her widowed, nature-loving grandmother Sophie. An unexpected link in all this is Jozef, who has lost his Polish farm amidst that country’s upheavals and now helps out in a houses-cleared shop run by a local wide-boy. A dog comes into the narrative at this point.
As the year goes by, the friendships and allegiances discovered by these people and animals transcend the generations – and also those human class- barriers which, in turn, are invisible to the dogs, cats, birds, and more who breathe that very same air.
Buoyed by quiet wit and close observation, Clay’s plot is hardly complex but neatly paced in such a way that it is redolent of very much more than a particular place. It has one pausing time and again to savour a phrase, an insight, observations which appear, Proust-like, to have landed fully fledged upon the page. “The pavement – scarred with tarmac, a patchwork of slabs and wounds and make-dos – was a palimpsest, a downtrodden witness to the hardware feeding the street and all its faults and secret requirements.” That is splendid, but made all the more so by the next sentence: “As she walked Sophie pictured the pipes and wires down there beneath her feet, none the less actual for being invisible, like the locket with its tiny diamond chip she had lost in the park twenty years ago and which must have worked its way down into the soil by now, treasure for some future city dweller to find. Perhaps at death she would know what had become of it; perhaps every mystery, every last thing she had ever wondered about or tried to imagine, would be revealed to her. Perhaps that was what heaven was, or would be for her: a lifetime’s curiosity about the world finally sated.”
There it is: start to quote from Clay and you keep on going. All this, the past in the present, is as redolent of – and as easily read as – Penelope Lively’s novel. What’s more, it has one yelling aloud with delight, which is what Kingsley Amis found himself doing when reading the work of his friend Elizabeth Taylor. To their profound, lightly-borne social observation, Melissa Harrison adds a unique take upon flora and fauna. This is a novel that makes one want to look all the more closely at the world around us, to savour petrichor, which is that wonderful tang provided by greenery at dawn after a night’s rain.
You can judge a novel by its cover, which in the case of Clay is a wonderful snowy urban landscape – dog following owner – taken by the author, who also, in a world beyond Borges, has a website – http://www.talesofthecity.co.uk/ – which augments so much of a novel which must thrill those readers for whom such techiedom would otherwise be irrelevant.
Clay might not be perfect, which means that it has all the greater claim to be something close to a masterpiece.
Posted on | August 17, 2014 | No Comments
“Sleepest or wakest thou, jolly shepherd? / Thy sheep be in the corn;/ And for one blast of thy minikin mouth / Thy sheep shall take no harm.” So says Edgar, on the Heath, with something of the seemingly nonsensical wisdom which has been the Fool’s stock-in-trade: the King’s subjects are slipping from him but could be brought back into order if he were to summon the right command.
This is a play suffused by references to animals, down – or up – to the ant, all at the mercy of the weather which, at perhaps its stormy worst, finds the King, naked, a “bare, forked animal”.
And so it is that many a utensil will outlast that assemblage of flesh and bone, powered by blood, which had daily drawn it to the lips. These forces of nature, and animals in particular, have been on the mind before, and after, a recent production of the play. This brought a new resonance to Edgar’s observation, for it featured, er, sheep.
They filled the stage: a new take on the playwright’s pen, this was a proscenium arch with fence. And a modest costume budget. First produced earlier this summer in Lewisham, DIG Productions’ King Lear With Sheep, by Heather Williams, duly transferred – to the rather more pastoral surroundings that are the Sussex village of Jevington previously best known for the creation of banofi pie at the Hungry Monk restaurant (which has shuffled off that coil and become a pair of cottages).
The Lewisham production had chanced to be seen by a Jevington farmer, Stephen Carr, who was so taken by it that he turned angel and arranged for it to be performed in his barn (and with his sheep). The prospect of this brought publicity which, apparently, included an item on television news across the South but many tickets were sold by dint of ever-trusty leaflets through local doors. The very title – perhaps redolent of that recent spate of novels such as Pride And Prejudice With Seamonsters – meant that many were not quite sure what to expect, apart from a lamb-free barbecue and another part of the barn being turned over to a baa, I mean bar which rivalled the George Tavern where Shakespeare coined many a better pun.
There was a palpable sense of expectation in the air, of fun, conviviality, shared novelty. All of which grew as, in due course, the doors of the main barn were tugged open.
The seating comprised raised tiers of hay bales, and proved to be rather more comfortable than those in many a regular theatre (not to mention those plastic ones in a room above a pub). Doubtless fire regulations will prevent this innovation reaching the Theatre Royal.
Some time went by, with noises off (a “baa” or two) and, such is the way that the mind works there came to mind that hot summer night when I saw a production of The Importance Of Being Earnest with Hinge & Bracket, which might have been all right had they not contrived to take most of the rôles. As it turned out, this was considerably better than that.
A door opened, and a man came in. The director, played by Alasdair Saksena, explained that he was having trouble with the cast after a long tour. Thespians to the core, they had turned more than hissy and were refusing to appear.
Could all this have been a hoax? Would this prove to be a sheep-free barn? Had the wool been pulled over our eyes?
That would have been a coup de theatre too far. No, the door opened again – and on came the sheep, which must make for the most unusual stage direction since “exit, pursued by a bear”. They wore costumes, although, from where I was sitting, I could not link these to any particular role. That task was left to the director who was obliged to explain that the cast were still recalcitrant (and, indeed, to get to know sheep is to realise that each has a different character).
No, these animals would not be bound for the Dover coast, they were sitting it out, or dodging round the stage as, in a series of monologues, Saksena mingled Shakespeare’s own words with his lamentations about a cast which had slipped from his control. Naturally, amidst the audience laughter, this was turning a variant on all that fell from Lear’s grasp, even from his cognizance, his comprehension – and that of the director before us – reduced to that of a puzzled creature. A quizzical rhinoceros, perhaps. King Lear With Sheep is fully in the tradition of the Absurd; and it can be said that King Lear itself, from its very donné to many a subsequent scene, is also that (as is much else in Shakespeare). To watch the sorrowful director finally cradle “Cordelia” was curiously affecting, and to reflect upon these sheep’s other destiny was again to think of nature in the raw, and indeed of a 1908 Spectator piece by Lytton Strachey, who wrote that “King Lear, more than other play ever written, arouses feelings of vastness and universality; it is something more, we feel, than the history of an individual – it is the history of a world, and of a world in which, like our own, the issues are not only vital and tremendous, but multitudinous and perplexed… The earlier Elizabethans show us murder and torture in order to make our flesh creep. Shakespeare shows us such things in all their terror, and then shows us something more terrific still – the inward torments of the mind”.
(That the fatalism of Lear was on my mind perhaps owes something to my walk there from Firston Pond: England’s tragedy is that so many of its country roads are no longer safe for pedestrians. I had to leap upon a bank in the face of an automobile which came along at close on seventy while other vehicles dodged by, and I arrived, it seemed to me, jibberingly.)
One can be sure that Shakepeare’s ever-adventurous spirit would relish King Lear With Sheep more than those midguidedly reverential, over-enunciated productions which were once de rigueur. After all, his work invariably turned variations upon – transformed – things that had gone before. Limitless, I mentioned, are the works that he has inspired. Truncated, Hamlet surfaced in a Shoreham ex-warehouse where scenes, mingled with film, were staged behind a series of one-way mirrors which shielded the actors from the ever-shifting audience; always elegant, George Cukor turned a murderous variant upon a staging of Othello in A Double Life with Ronald Colman; My Own Private Idaho owes much to its voice-over; maddeningly unavailable is something set in Fifties Soho, Joe Macbeth, with Sid James; one might balk at Nahum Tate’s seventeenth-century version which gave King Lear a happy ending but Slings And Arrows should be far better known over here: an entertaining Canadian television production which, in three series, depicts everything suffered by a fraught theatre company as it puts on Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear – and, as I began to write this piece, word came from Derby, where the 1623 Theatre Company, with the city’s Theatre, is workshopping Lear/Cordelia, a sixty-minute adaptation which, set in a care-home, brings Cordelia to the fore, and is followed by a contemporary half-hour work upon dementia.
Few things in life are certain – except that you never know where Shakespeare will take you, even to Lipsbury (if I might be allowed a ridiculously erudite allusion, and to end a piece with parentheses).
Posted on | August 16, 2014 | No Comments
That such a thought might be prompted by quiche is but one of the surprises of current, post-modern political experience.
Quiche? Yes: by way of – as they say in Hollywood – backstory.
A couple of years ago, after the last Planning Committee meeting before Christmas, I thought that it would be nice to augment the customary gesture by which the Chair asks the dozen cross-party members to a gathering. Rather than provide a few nibbles, I made a couple of quiches which, pastry and all, I have evolved from a recipe first found in one of Jane Grigson’s highly readable books.
It was a jolly gathering, or so I thought at the time. Neither of the Labour members felt it necessary to have an Olivia Twist moment before taking a second portion.
Strangely enough, since then, I have found myself subjected to an extraordinary amount of taunts by Labour about quiche, as though it is a mortal sin to make something which, evidently palatable, at modest cost, should be the aim of one and all in these times.
Never be fazed. I often think – at a far higher level than all this – of P.G. Wodehouse’s reaction to Sean O’Casey’s sneering that he is “literature’s performing flea”. Wodehouse duly called one of his own books Performing Flea – a great title, which supplants the jeer.
And so it came to pass that today there was the annual Brunswick Festival, at which the Green Party has a stall.
After a late-night return from mid-Sussex, I was up at dawn in Hove to make… four quiches to take to our stall.
To cook is always therapeutic, the rolling out of hand-made pastry a joy.
Even when I found that the oven would only take three quiches at a time.
With a tang of garlic left on the kitchen air, I duly transported these to Brunswick Square, where I positioned the first dish alongside a sign which said: “Made by the Greens; banned by Labour” (highlighted in the two colours).
I thought this would make for good banter, something different. As it turned out to do, more than I had envisaged. People flocked to the stall. Not only were they they eager to hear more of this strange, tantalising history, but they put it to the test. An empirical public. 50p a slice covered costs, which augmented Party funds. In itself this was an interesting economic model, of which residents were appreciative, but, most pertinently, these people were astonished that Labour should ridicule quiche. There were thumbs aloft, some coming back for more (”I can’t resist it!”); talk; discussion – general recognition that food is a communal good, a kitchen a convivial place. “Quiche for victory!” said somebody. And, indeed, while the Council’s chief executive looked on, I riffed, “it’s going like hot quiche!” (although quiche is at its best when warm).
What’s more, amidst this, as I had the slicer in hand and was talking with somebody about the garlic quota (essentially, always double it), a Labour member, preciously unknown to me, came over from its stall to find out what was going on, this surreal history. To her credit, she recognised a good thing, admired the modest price for a slice – and apologised for Labour’s bizarre slurs
As I once said to cllr Geoffey Bowden, “a quiche is just a quiche – the fundamental things apply: that is, everything under a sun which is melting our planet but all that Labour can do is sneers about quiche. All of which goes to confirm that they are a party without purpose”.
And yet, as I return home, I find that Labour continues with such derision.
But don’t get me wrong. I am cheered by this. It confirms my view that the Hove and Portslade constituency will be a race between the Conservative candidate – Graham Cox – and myself.
At which point, I must get up from this desk tonight. To judge by the tang on the air from the kitchen, the quiche which did not make it into this morning’s oven is ready to see me through another day. Brunswick Square confirmed that people are willing to listen, more doorsteps beckon.
Posted on | August 14, 2014 | No Comments
News that Johnny Depp is to appear in a movie, Mortdecai, reminds me that such an idea had crossed my mind while writing this piece for the Spectator in 1992. As one can see from it, you never know where a leaflet on a mat might lead. Since then, the revival has gathered apace, what with Craig Brown’s completion of a fourth Mortdecai novel and the appearance of Bonfiglioli’s letters and other writing as the – scandalously out of print – The Mortdecai ABC which now commands a high price. Anyway, here is how it looked two decades ago.
THE MORTDECAI TRILOGY by Kyril Bonfiglioli Black Spring Press, £7.99, pp. 527
When first published, a note at the beginning of After You With The Pistol, the middle volume of this exquisitely tasteless and learned trilogy, mentioned its companions, Don’t Point That Thing at Me and Something Nasty in the Woodshed, and brought to the reader’s attention the fact that “either or both of these can be bought from a chap called Mr Penguin Books Limited a pretty improbable name, I agree, but so is Kyril Bonfiglioli, isn’t it?”
Thirteen years have gone by, the publish-ing industry has changed, Kyril Bonfiglioli has died unnoticed by The Times’s obituary columns, and (silently omitting that part of the prefatory note) it has been left to an enterprising firm near Nunhead cemetery to reissue his life’s work. A classicist at home in many languages, obliged to earn his living in that shark-infested world of art-dealing, Bonfiglioli was alert to more ways of the world than most of us would care to experience at close quarters. Here is a succession of events, traversing a globe peopled by those among the high-born and the lower orders who share an eye for the main chance — a state of affairs exemplified by art-dealer Charlie Mortdecai and his manservant Jock (who has an untoward interest in the young Shirley Temple). Their inspiration comes from Wodehouse, the resulting action sharing delight in lan- guage with that other distinguished product of Dulwich College, Raymond Chandler. There are, inter alia, suggestions of Damon Runyon, lavish Biblical allusion at unlikely junctures, and several Victorian poets are worked into the epigraphs (which conceal skilful pastiche).
None of this matters. Bonfiglioli was no purveyor of warmed-over, “post-modern” trumpery. Here is the thing itself, beginning with a request to pinch a Goya for a Texan, which, no sooner done, has him haring about the South, duly flying back across the Atlantic and — literally holing up somewhere in the North, from which fate he manages to escape, only to become embroiled in marriage with a woman for whom voracious is hardly the word, her demands upon his manhood interrupted only by an assassination attempt at which the Jackal would have baulked and by his despatch to perform questionable deals in the Far East; even retreat to Jersey brings with it untoward events subsequent upon the relatively simple task of hunting a rapist at loose on the island. All this, flooded with the finest alcohol, by way of a shoot-out in a bacon factory and recourse to one of those dons in Oxford who has high-grade information about the way in which to proceed with black-magic rituals.
And, all the while, one can be sure that, before long, Jock will be on hand to supply just the right variety of Jackson’s tea to alleviate a hangover, a coshing or the pain attendant upon such hazards as having had a cheese-wire applied to one’s — well, you can guess the rest (the torture also features in Dan Kavanagh’s Duffy) — or one’s ear almost irretrievably nailed to a tree. Unquestionably violent, but not gratuitously so, for all this is carried along with the necessary exactitude to convey action or such learned digressions as I mean, when it comes to privacy, the Bank of Nova Scotia makes those Swiss banks look like back-numbers of Playboy.
Never has there been such a compendium of opinion and assertion for which the term “politically correct” is less applicable. Nobody is spared the acerbic, least of all the trusty Jock (who loses an eye for his pains), and certainly not a “she-don” who “resembled nothing so much as a badly-tied bundle of old bits of string; her smile was the bitter clenched rictus of a woman pretending to enjoy natural childbirth”.
Evidence that Mortdecai could not be inclined any other way comes with All the Tea in China (£4.99), which traces some of his family history. If this lacks the same panache, that does not detract from the solid achievement of the trilogy itself, which has a fair claim to be some of the funniest writing since the war — or even longer. Here is a man who has one laughing aloud at least once a page.
Impossible not to urge him on others. To my certain knowledge, five copies have since been sold, one of them to my old quaffing partner, Dr Francis Wheen, to whom I mentioned this amazing author in the course of our mutual lamenting that Wodehouse’s The Swoop (far better than the school stories) has never been reprinted in this country. Dr Wheen duly read nothing else for a fortnight, and, like others, sorrowed that he is dead. A few days later, he picked up a leaflet from the mat. It was the Green party’s election address, the local agent’s name leaping from the small print: Margaret Bonfiglioli, a pretty improbable name indeed. It was the work of a moment to get out the tele- phone directory, ring up and ask whether, by any chance . . . It was his first wife. Enthusiastic about his memory, she revealed not only is there some — even much — of him in Mortdecai but that he wrote the first few pages and, with some diffidence, asked her whether they were too silly. She said that he must continue: in a note he remarked that her “patience would shame Griselda and [her] loyalty certainly shames me”.
There is indeed much for which to thank her and the publisher who, chancing upon a secondhand copy in a cellar, made urgent shifts to get the series back in print. It comes as no surprise to hear that he was a brilliant letter-writer. Also in a trunkload of papers are some unpublished stories: the Bonfiglioli revival will surely gather apace, for he is by far the best thing to have hap- pened again in years. Also omitted in this edition is a footnote referring to the Penguin edition of a previous volume — “if your bookshop says it’s not in stock, make a scene.” An admirable sentiment, equally applicable to this omnibus. All booksellers worthy of the name will have a pile by the till and urge it upon the discerning, who, mourning that Jackson’s of Piccadilly has gone, can rejoice that in these pages its teas have so splendid and unsavoury a memorial. And if there is sorrow that Bonfiglioli cannot be here to spend the royalties in the best possible way, one can be certain that he is taking full advantage of a Paradise that is surely not so vulgar as to have a cash-bar.
Posted on | August 13, 2014 | No Comments
Pick up many a book and you can be sure that behind it, before the presses had rolled, there were unspoken tales of intrigue, chicanery, backstabbing, long-festered rivalries, murderous thoughts – not to mention double-dealing by the perennial gainsayers in the sales department.
Publishing can so easily make politics appear a Zen Buddhist retreat. One editor’s favoured acquisition is be another’s drain on the backlist income. ‘Twas ever thus, and perhaps it is becoming all the more fervent in an era when a leisurely lunch is rent asunder by a sneaked glance at grim tidings on a cellphone. And so it is that this year, within a few weeks, there have been several thrillers in which the publishing industry turns even bloodier. No sooner had Chris Pavone dovetailed his first novel The Expats into the gung-ho The Accident which makes equally adroit use of modern technology than there appeared in English the 600 pages of Joel Dicker’s pan-Europe success The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. This switches, interestingly but lumberingly, between 2008, ahead of Obama’s victory, and the circumstances in and around the death of fifteen-year-old girl in small-town America in the summer of 1975.
And now, at the modest length enjoyed by thrillers before they swelled into narrative-draining elephantasis, there is Judith Flanders’s Writers’ Block. Anybody familiar with her historical studies – including one about murder in Victorian times – will know that she has an acute eye for the things with which our ancestors surrounded themselves (or had others heft about for them, such as an extraordinary amount of dust-creating coal). What’s more, those who follows her on Twitter – or read such causeries as her TLS letter which lamented the jeunesse dorée using the British Library as somewhere to write screenplays on laptops – will not be surprised that her thriller carries aloft all manner of sharp observations about the contemporary scene.
Middle-aged editor of mid-list titles at Timmins & Ross, Samantha Clair is one of those who know that “we will never be stars, but instead know dull things like how books are put together”. As the novel opens, she is faced by the new, somewhat different turn taken by an Aga-saga author whose offerings are published every other September, “ready for the Christmas market and they paid my salary, many times over”.
That will be one strand in these brisk, readily portable 280 pages which are dominated by events around a vanished manuscript whose author has a line in true-life, high-level crime. Told from Samantha’s point of view throughout, in the first person, Writers’ Block provides an incisive view of modern-day London where both hipsters’ Groucho Club and dodderers’ Travellers’ Club receive short shrift from this doughty narrator who concedes that, for lunch, the Armani shop in Knightsbridge did “surprisingly good pasta: I’d expected rocket salad, hold the dressing, and air kisses”. (There are moments when the author could be Judith Chandlers.) Not eschewing cellphones, Samantha finds herself caught up in, at the mercy of, events that appear to have as much international conspiracy behind them as those that faced Richard Hannay when he set off on that lonesome trail a century ago.
Whether it be her modest flat, its curious neighbours or Eurostar, Judith Flanders touches in acerbic details as she chronicles the way in which the vanished manuscript apparently dealt with the money-laundering machinations of the high-fashion industry. (It is curious that one and all continued to refer to a manuscript when, for a hundred years, typescripts were the norm, and still do so when typescripts have been supplanted by e-mail attachments.) To say any more of the plot, and of Samantha’s working in semi-tandem with the police, would be to miss the point. With this novel, Judith Flanders deals in narrative – one event, often brief, following the next – which, as Graham Greene observed, is the hardest task for a novelist. Many a thriller now, and this is certainly the case with Joel Dickers, attempts to create suspense by yanking scenes together, which is juxtaposition rather than succession.
If there are moments – around the middle – when too much seems to be happening rapidly in Writers’ Block, there are always sure to be such observations as her “contemplating going for a run, which is in theory what I do for exercise. Well, it’s not exactly running. More an exhausted stagger, with periodic downshifts to a shuffle, but I tell myself it’s the effort, not the style, that counts. I do a two-mile circuit, through Primrose Hill, into Regent’s Park, and along the canal. There’s no one around at that time except other runners, all looking irritatingly comfortable, and dog walkers. As I pass the dog walkers, puce with effort, I can see their eyes flicker worriedly, wondering if they can remember what to do for a suspected heart attack. It’s as vivid as if a speech bubble were over their heads”.
Bring in a reclusive architect, a forthright mother, and Writers’ Block makes for excellent entertainment, so much so that one awaits, impatiently, the sequel upon which Judith Flanders is now at work. Meanwhile, this year, of the making of publishing-set thrillers there is no end: now awaiting me is a second one by Robert Galbraith. The Silkworm follows last year’s fashion-world setting of The Cuckoo’s Calling, some of whose scenes were prolonged but kept up a pace which makes one have high hopes of this. It is only fair to let some time go by, one needs to broach something else after three-fold exposure to a business which is not only cut-throat but whose denizens are affronted if the dagger cannot be put on expenses.
Posted on | August 12, 2014 | No Comments
George Frideric Handel
Caused something of a scandal
When declaring, at rehearsal, “Theodora
Sounds a bit of a snorer”.
Posted on | August 7, 2014 | No Comments
The General Election is certainly hotting up. You can tell that is the case when the Chair of the Brighton and Hove Co-Op – a Labour candidate – makes baseless claims about things being strewn upon the ground.
No, this has nothing to do with the Bins dispute, its decade-long backstory and consequences. Instead, picture the scene. Here, at this desk, I was startled to hear from somebody that the aforementioned Chair had tweeted earlier in the evening that I had destroyed her letterbox.
Since then, I have cast my mind back to those premises on a Hove road where, amidst a pleasingly gathering wind, I had spent part of an enjoyable, even talkative evening in delivering copies of the latest edition of the Green Party’s local newspaper.
That is a basement flat where, having ducked a potentially lethal hanging- basket, I found that it did not have a letterbox in the door but merely something made from scant tin almost affixed to the wall. At the best of times, this is slender item, with scant room for anything as substantial as everything within a Green Party newspaper; in the event, the box turned out to be buckled, its lock broken. As I inserted the newspaper, the box’s front flap – and its contents – spilled forwards.
Naturally, honourably, I scooped these up and closed the recalcitrant box as best I could.
I thought no more of this until deliberating upon the bizarre tweet, which now has me wondering why the Chair tried to blame me for its mechanical failings. As I remarked to another resident, “it is always pleasing to be able to cite the concise retort by Simon Gray’s character Butley: ‘the symbolism is deft’.”
That letterbox is but one of thousands with which I appear to have had an intimate relationship the past few years. I am not alone in this. General discussion – often in a recuperative pub – reveals that it is not only myself who has muttered “what idiot put in this letterbox?” at the very moment the proud owner is standing the other side of it.
You would have thought that, in an era when vessels are heading beyond the edges of the Solar System, whence they send images, mankind could invent something through which one might put leaflets without resistance. But, no, this is to reckon without those plastic doors which invariably contain a fur-lined box whose purpose is to direct mail “back to from whence it came” (as the Guys And Dolls lyric has it) – and hopelessly crumpled at that. Strangely, some letterboxes have been sealed so that they do not open, and some blocks of flats have none at all.
Not that modern technology is necessarily the worst culprit. Who could ever have deemed a vertical letterbox a good idea? Try pushing it upwards with one hand while using the other to slot anything through the reluctant opening without shredding some paper – and even more skin. It does not take a MORI survey to establish that residents look less favourably upon blood-drenched leaflets.
Signs beside a letterbox are another subject (some are essay-length) but pertinent to boxes’ physical logistics is one which I recently saw during another Portslade evening. This was a very thin, slightly curved nineteenth-century vertical letterbox alongside which its latest owner had put a twenty-first-century sign: “LoveFilm WILL fit through this”.
If the eyes are a window upon the soul, then letterboxes perform a similar function upon buildings. Can a simple, unobtrusive metal flap, sufficient to prevent draughts, and placed at a sensible height, be beyond architects’ grasp?
With this in mind, one day I chanced to discuss the matter with a professional. That postman, in regulation shorts, averred that, indeed, my general observations are spot-on – and he made the point that in Germany there are regulations about this very subject.
Perhaps I should make this a plank of my election campaign – and thereby win, or lose, the vote of the Chair of the Brighton and Hove Co-Op Party.
Posted on | August 1, 2014 | 1 Comment
A recent visit to Rottingdean prompted me not only to recall the sojourn there by Katherine Mansfield in the summer of 1910 but a trip to it, the previous summer, by her future friend D. H. Lawrence who also lodged on the village’s High Street. This letter by him was one of those to a Liverpool postal clerk, Blanche Jennings, whom he met only once. When he wrote it, in 1909, he was living in Croydon, and working as a schoolteacher – yet to elope, in 1912, with Frieda Weekley. This letter, however, is suffused with the power of love, and its description of clouds’ passionate meeting is an emblem of his lifetime’s fiction. To type out this piece – only published in full, at last, in the Cambridge edition – it to appreciate all the more his close observation of nature, and that imaginative turn upon all that he sees, his almost Hopkinsesque on-rush of adjectives, the masterly grasp of metaphor which turns Brighton into a flower. And this was all for a letter to somebody whom he had met once. Here it is:
“I have come to Rottingdean, to the sea, because the weather was too much for me. I biked this morning down to Brighton – over the Downs, north and south – between the banks thick bossed with primroses, and hazel brake all deep in bluebells and primroses. I have drunk beer in a pub, where they talked in a lovely Sussex that I couldn’t understand. I have lain an hour on the sharp shelving shingle on Brighton beach, and the sun has soaked through my shut eyelids into my eyes, and I’m giddy still with it. Brighton is splendid – big, stately, magnificent, with a sea like pale green jewels – is lapis lazuli green? – all wavering, shimmering, intermingling with purple – lovely – inexpressible. But Brighton is stately and Im not, so I pushed my way through the wind, and here I am at Rottingdean – and thought I was going to be a second Miss Charlesworth, and get blown over the cliff [as apparently happened in Llandudno the previous year]. I have been up on the downs – I have pushed a poor sheep’s head back through the bars of the fold where it had jammed like Mrs Jelliby’s boy [in Bleak House] – if it was her boy – and the sheep bells tinkled abruptly – the sheep and the lambs were folded on the sheltered side of the hill. The downs are all like a cloth when two people are shaking it unevenly – and full of shadows and lights – and on the sunny side there are cowslips out. I have watched the sun swim and go – I was terrified to see the swimming sun sink so quickly and deliberately behind the round hill where the windmill stands up stately but a bit ridiculous. Then Brighton in the red fusing light looked like a wonderful imagined place, and the lights on the sea just played about, and me, I played with them, and the wind ruffled the water back, and right up in the sky were two ruddy clouds flung together, and they were perfect, like two lovers at last met in a kiss, now they have met in the winds, and his head was hid in the tossed glitter and beauty of her hair that the wind shook, and his naked body flung towards hers. It was fine. I imagined it all for myself. A fellow sat with his arms around a girl’s waist on the cliffs – My God, these folks don’t know how to love – that’s why they love so easily. I am superstitious – that is I dwell on things, and read my own promises of life in them, though I never believe or act upon them – and I saw a promise of the Annunciation of Love for me. Nevertheless, though you grin, it was wonderful.
I went down on the wide beach, where nobody was, because the stretches of sand are wet and chalky, and the rocks are rough and pooly – only three shrimpers waded along the wonderful outspreading ruffling water, pushing their great nets before them, stopping, picking out the little objects, and moving on again through the marvellous green light overflushed with ruddy gleams. The sand was wet, and aswim with yellow and red fires – then the lights of Brighton came up like night flowers opening, and I came home to write to you.
I am grown up – I am tremendously grown up – well, I don’t care if you won’t believe it, it’s truth.”
Posted on | July 9, 2014 | No Comments
P.N. Furbank: obituary
The biographer, social historian and teacher P. N. Furbank, who has died at XXX, was best known for a frank and elegant biography of E.M. Forster. It was not simply their friendship which fitted him for the task; Forster realised that Furbank’s knowledge was as wide and cosmopolitan as his own. Furbank’s books did not follow one track but, adept in languages, he also wrote lives of wide-ranging satirist Samuel Butler, Italian novelist Italo Svevo and polymathic Enlightenment man of letters Diderot – as well as a studies in social class, philanthropy and symbolism. Furbank relished work, and in his eighties was editing Defoe, whose huge and disputed output brought textual complexities far from Forster’s compact and settled volumes.
A modest man, not given to self-promotion, Furbank was born in 1920. Son of a bank manager, William, he grew up in Brookham Green, Surrey. From Reigate Grammar School he went to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he studied English, and took a First despite profound upset at the death of his elder brother, an aspiring poet, in a 1941 flying accident. He subsumed grief by joining the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers; as a corporal, he reached Italy in 1945.
Return to an Emmanuel Fellowship, in 1947, brought a short book (1948) based on a prize essay about the idiosyncratic Victorian writer Samuel Butler now best known for The Way of All Flesh rather than such theories as Homer being a woman. Furbank capably defends him against an all-out attack by Malcolm Muggeridge; Furbank neatly highlighted “the awkwardness of its few references to Butler’s talent”.
After six years Furbank left academia. This was partly owing to a stammer worsened by the prospect of lectures and tutorials. In 1953 he became an editor at publishers Macmillan, then a librarian at King’s College London, and a freelance critic noted for diligent work in the Listener. For some while this quiet man lodged in a Regent’s Park Terrace house owned by Perkin Walker, one of whose denizens over the years was Walker’s schoolfriend, the ever-voluble Angus Wilson. Furbank encouraged the Italian poet Camillo Pennati, resident in London twenty years. For some time Furbank had been friendly with E. M. Forster, then resident at King’s College, Cambridge. The novelist, then in his seventies, appreciated Furbank’s organisational and linguistic skills on some foreign holidays. Another sign of these abilities was that after another friend, the mathematician and computing pioneer Alan Turing’s tragic suicide in 1954, Furbank became his literary executor.
Furbank had two years earlier begun a diary. To judge by entries about Forster, it is as keenly observed as his biographies (Forster called salmon “the pork of the deep”). Two decades after Furbank’s first book came the next one. Italo Svevo (1966) showed his ability to depict with graceful economy the pan-European complexities of an Italian businessman who had written variously under that pseudonym but set aside his work until finding gradual success after encouragement from a former pupil, James Joyce. Furbank was helped by material given to him by Svevo’s daughter. His incisive style combines wit and human sympathy, depicting Svevo’s wife, for example, as “mild, loving, literal, religious in a convent-educated way, responsive to Svevo’s feelings and quite impervious to his ideas”.
By then Forster had realised that a biography of himself inevitable (the notes within Wilfred Stone’s 1966 academic study had revealed the existence of the unpublished, 1912 homosexual novel Maurice). Forster had asked novelist William Plomer to write the biography. Plomer – whom Furbank described as “precise and sedate, with a teasing and foxy aplomb” – appeared a good choice but he soon became stuck, with a block against detailing Forster’s sexuality. Forster’s subsequent choice of Furbank was acknowledged by Plomer as inspired, and King’s College made him a Fellow for work on it during Forster’s last two years.
Although Furbank was to describe Forster’s funeral with comic brio, the death in 1970 upset him more than he expected. The biography took another eight years to complete. In the meanwhile, after an Indian visit for research, he turned to a short, wide-ranging study Reflections on the Word “Image” (1970). This traverses literature, art and sociology, Furbank very much a Forsterian humanist who treats each life on its own terms; as such, he has some forthright comments about structuralists and Shakespeare scholar Caroline Spurgeon for taking a different, reductive tack. An astute critic, he noted that The Go-Between “remains only a sketch of the fine novel it might have been” while Iris Murdoch’s often begin promisingly and then “the thing becomes a blather of bloodless essences”.
Surprisingly, he confessed in it that “if I talk to people on the train or in the street, shyness can make me feel like a stranger hurled from a different planet, only barely able, by a huge effort of translation, to make my needs known to them”. In 1972 he circumvented such problems by joining the Open University’s staff. This enabled him to teach at a distance. Although he had various relationships, a lifelong partner was elusive and if sometimes lonely he found that solitude aided his work. Amidst many editing tasks was a series of Hardy’s novels prepared while he continued with Forster’s biography. Publication of this in two volumes (1977-78) brought wide acclaim for somebody – as John Bayley said – “even more successfully and effortlessly en rapport with his subject than Quentin Bell in his biography of Virginia Woolf”. From such matters as Forster’s long ignorance of the mechanics of conception to his finding love on a streetcar in Alexandria, Furbank’s pacey blend of comedy and pathos is worthy of his subject’s six novels. He also edited two volumes of Forster’s letters (1983, 1985) with Mary Lago.
Seven years later came two shorter studies. Designed for Open University students, Pound (1985) is a witty introduction to a complex poet. Furbank even confesses to having long interpreted one brief poem about a fallen fan as signifying the woman’s loss of virginity; he now realised that, far from virginal, she was being cast aside by a lover – but Furbank did “not intend to feel too ashamed of my error”. In Unholy Class (1985), he addressed the shibboleths of social class, a subject in which, for example, the term middle-class is so often reduced to such images as “polished doorknockers, perhaps, or windows with Staffordshire dogs in them and the Guardian on the doorstep”.
In analysing such matters as the term bourgeois’s journey from town dweller (as in bourg) to one disparaged by Marx, Furbank pointed out that, fearful of Parliamentary outcry, the Registrar-General’s Classification of Occupations (1970) omitted the upper classes. Typically droll is that, “for all we know, Iris Murdoch may enjoy the same income as the Lord Mayor of Bristol, but this does not create a bond between them”. Furbank’s study proved as unsettling upstairs as downstairs: to him, the ideal is a free spirit for whom the life of the mind is paramount regardless of income or position.
Astonishingly wide reading informs The Canonisation of Daniel Defoe (1988). Written with W. R. Owens, this described not sainthood but the way in which works were continually being attributed to Defoe which meant that the canon grew, often misleadingly so. Far from dry, the book provides entertaining pen portraits of numerous obsessed scholars. With Owens, Furbank’s own Defoe studies brought a political biography of him while their bibliographies whittled the attributions, and they subsequently oversaw an elegant edition of forty-four volumes, ten of which Furbank himself prepared.
Meanwhile, Furbank had also been occupied with with a large biography (1992) of Denis Diderot. This incorporated something he had previously deemed no part of biography – literary criticism. To his surprise, this won the first Truman Capote prize for literary criticism, and it was fitting that his political study Behalf (1999, published only in America) should dwell on the subject as a philanthropic endeavour rather than continual self-interest.
A deeply reflective man but also a droll dinner guest, Furbank had a restless interest in the world. Alas, he did not write about his fascination with film – something which he most enjoyed when, as in La Dolce Vita, it broached methods that other arts could not emulate. Slower on his feet at the end, he remained intrepid. Never one for taxis, he took the Tube or bus when necessary – but preferred to walk.
P.N. (Nick) Furbank. Born May 23 1920.
Posted on | February 18, 2014 | No Comments
The West Wing. House of Cards. The East Sussex Fire Authority. Borgen. Life itself can sometimes eclipse screenwriters’ view of the world. So it has been in the past few days.
By way of setting the scene. The East Sussex Fire Authority consists of eighteen members. Six of these are drawn from Hove and Brighton; the rest from the County Council. In both cases, the number of councillors from each party is in proportion to its overall showing – and the situation has taken on a new dimension with UKIP’s gaining seats in East Sussex (it has yet to do in Hove and Brighton).
Naturally, this is an Authority with recourse to a team led by the Chief Fire Officer. Many of the public might still picture firefighters as sat in a canteen while awaiting for an alarm to go off, with which they slide down a pole, don boots and take turns in ringing a bell… It is all rather different from that. Fire stations assume various forms. Some are crewed round the clock. Some are day-crewed. Some have “retained” crews (working elsewhere within five minutes’ distance of a station). This system has evolved in parallel with firefighters giving much time to fire-prevention work, including sessions with the vulnerable to alert them to the causes of fire (so many of which are in kitchens). Over the past decade – and this is true of the whole country – there has been a remarkable drop in the number of fires.
Not that there can ever be room for complacency.
Meanwhile, in East Sussex, water has always made the Authority’s financial situation an unusual one. That is to say, not hydrants but the Channel. The Authority’s greatest demand is from the built-up areas along the coast. Elsewhere, in such places as Northamptonshire, fire stations serve areas of a 360-degree radius, but those that do so in East Sussex are inland and have fewer calls.
Recently, savings have been made by purchase of new fire engines which – roughly speaking – combine hoses and ladders (the very sight of which induces vertigo among the rest of us). The technical description is “an impressive bit of kit”.
And now, in recent months, since last May, the Authority has had to contend with the the prospect of the Government’s cutting a swathe of funding – some £7million. This was made clear at the start, and it soon emerged – as officers took soundings – that it would also be the case if there were to be a change of Government in one way or another in 2015.
A strategy had to be devised to see the service through 2020. No easy task. Officers had months of long days to go line by line through budgets by area, crewing system, demand… All of this was done with regular reporting to the Authority.
An impression of local government is that there is something about it of Groundhog Day. Things keep coming round until assuming their final form.
So it was on Valentine’s Day.
Rain falls at 8a.m.
I go to Portslade, with battered umbrella, to join a man in a Zebra outfit who is part of a day given to an infants’ school’s road-safety lessons, with an emphasis upon a one-time lane now plied by trucks from Shoreham Harbour. While there I am greeted with a “hello, Chris” from somebody I took to be a teacher or parent but was in fact, I later learnt, the Labour candidate for Hove and Portslade. I have a good time in teaching infants – and their parents – to bow in front of the Mayor: she bows back each time, and probably curses me for backache.
That was that, and on to Eastbourne for 10.30, just ahead of the floods.
INTERIOR. DAY. OFFICE.
The main item on the Fire Authority agenda was to put out to Public Consultation the proposed means by which it would cope with this cut in funding.
This was after an item which revealed a curious split in the Tories: the East Sussex batch was happy to approve a rise in the Council Tax of just under 2% – some £1.59 a year – but this was opposed by the Hove and Brighton duo, one of whom is the group’s leader on the authority (expect internal dramas/blood-lettings there).
And now, as we began to address the subject of the Consultation, the Chief (as he is known) appeared surprised at my asking what would happen if the Consultation item were not approved. I said that it was a rhetorical question (the unspoken point being that there is no alternative, a miserable but understood situation).
Around this point the air, and the floor, were punctuated by the arrival on high heels of the prospective Labour MP candidate for Hastings, Sarah Owen.
This was the cue for the East Sussex Labour Councillors to launch into tirades (while their Hove and Brighton comrade Bob Carden sat silently).
One would have thought that this document was new to Councillors Scott and Wincott as they spluttered in fury. Had the room been equipped with sprinklers in the ceiling, these would have doused such heat. Councillor Scott said that the Authority should abandon it and – er – meet Brandon Lewis and ask him for more money. Lewis, though, is a man who does not like meeting people, still less giving them money. What’s more, Labour’s Councillor Scott said that he knew the public reaction to the Consultation as “I’m psychic”. I duly asked, if that is the case, could he please tell us what changes we could expect in funding in this projected period if Mr Miliband took the reins in 2015. Answer came there none.
As we know, Labour has made clear that it will continue this assault upon the public sector.
Don’t get me wrong, I do not dislike those Hastings councillors. They have a certain humour, they are a bit of a double-act (and, what’s more, the Authority has another species unknown in Hove and Brighton: LibDems). That said, Labour’s objecting to putting this strategy out to Public Consultation was sheer posturing; they knew that if their plea worked, the Authority would be in a worse place: without a Plan upon which to consult.
As for Groundhog Day, we shall see at June’s meeting what the Consultation has yielded.
This was certainly not – as I said – the happiest of times, and that indeed it was ironical its being held on Valentine’s Day as “there is not much love in the air”. What’s more, I repeated something I had asked at earlier meeting. This strategy will of course be subject to review in practice. If, Heaven forfend, there are calamities here and elsewhere, then the position of Brandon Lewis, and those above him, will be untenable.
Afterwards, Sarah Owen and myself “exchanged words”. (We know each other of old, she often cheering my Public Questions in Hove and Brighton.) Again, she had no more answer to the situation than the vocal Labour councillors from Hastings and the silent one from Hove and Brighton. She thought that senior officers’ pay could be reduced but that had already been done, and is nowhere near £7 million.
What really stuck in the craw was finding that, later in the day, on a sluggish train back to Hove, her press release to so spurious an effect had been co-signed by that Labour candidate for Hove and Portslade who had greeted me matily in the rain.
All of which prompted me to think of another place noted for its rain: Manchester.
Ah-hem: Greater Manchester’s Fire and Rescue Service has announced the loss of 200 firefighters’ jobs amidst cuts of some £23million.
That Service comprises: 1 Independent, 9 Tory and – 20 Labour members. Entry-level infants can infer the maths of who took that decision.
These things are not easy. The Valentine’s circumstances were even more miserable than the weather,. If one’s own tough decision allowed Labour in Sussex a moment’s posturing, so be it. Their obligation to provide real alternatives becomes all the greater.
If Councillor Scott can do so, then I will treat him to a seat at Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati in Bithe Spirit.keep looking »