Christopher Hawtree

the pillowbook of Christopher Hawtree, writer and Green Party councillor for Central Hove

The Railway Line

Posted on | September 18, 2014 | No Comments

As a part of the Coalition’s Localism Act, there came into being the chance for residents to form Neighbourhood Forums around Planning strategies. This might all sound to the good – even if it contends simultaneously with the National Planning Policy Framework’s presumption in favour of a developers’ charter to get it up quick.

In Hove this has proved particularly interesting. An area for great potential is that around the Station. Fifty years ago, terraced housing was demolished as “slums”. With work upon these, they would now have become more “desirable” than the replacement towers.

At any rate, around these, on both sides of the railway line, there are sections that could yield tremendous potential for employment, housing and retail use – as well as schools and recreation.

Unfortunately, a developer with a claim upon several key sites within the area made an utterly bosh shot by way of an Application two years ago.

However, this did bring into being a residents’ Forum whose proposal had at its helm an architectural Professor (this sort of thing is par for Hove serendipity).

To cut to the chase, this group’s imagination ran counter to those slightly to the north who shuddered at any well-judged changed to an area which they overlook – a situation exploited by two Tory councillors who lack an eye for the constituency as a whole.

Some while ago, I went along to a meeting – which I learnt today was intended as a conciliation one between the two groups. What I took away from that meeting was the bizarre assertion by the Park group that “we are suburbanites and they are ‘urban sophisticates’”.

As I said at that meeting, this strikes me as Mapp and Lucia – Tilling – writ large.

And so it has dragged on – at considerable cost in Council officers’ time.

Today’s meeting – amidst clouds of verbiage – showed that the whole subject turns around a relatively modest amount of land which, if included in the Station area, could make so many possibilities viable.

The Chair, my great colleague Geoffrey Bowden, had said, “Chris, don’t refer to Mapp and Lucia”, and so I didn’t: I took a wider tack than E. F. Benson could have envisaged.

I never write speeches in advance. I work from some headings made on the spot.

Here is something of what I said this afternoon, reconstructed from those notes:

“Thank you, Chair, I was in at the beginning of this, which feels several lifetimes ago – and at great cost in officers’ time.

It feels pertinent that this has come to the Committee when – north of the Border – the Scots are this very day engaged in such debate – and, what’s more, it is indeed a 100 years after 1914, when, as we know, vexation over borders had a cataclysmic consequence, whose ramifications endure to this day – and beyond. The psychology of human groups and a sense of place, this amounts to a working definition of the course of history.

And, as I’ve suggested, this can turn hairy. Without any levity, I can say that this is what has happened today.

Local Council wards are an artificial construct – most people are unaware of these, and they are necessarily determined by the need to have an equal number of residents – their borders change.

While walking around Hove and Portslade, I have become aware that people do have an eye upon the greater good, they are sensible to the Station area’s potential, they are not locked down into their own backyard – and all this bootless dispute about which we have heard so much.

While talking on a doorstep, I sensed that a resident has an eye on more than this, and I cited a recent remark by Bob Dylan in an interview: ‘any day above the ground is a good day’.

That struck a chord: the resident said: ‘he’s absolutely right.’

And so, I said at today’s meeting that the proposed recommendation – a good compromise – will make real use of linked, under-used areas north and south of a railway line, which is not the Tories’ ‘natural border’, but one which can work to the benefit of all in an urban area whose demands are manifold.

With any luck, this will work out – and endure beyond the burial of all of us here today. We need to look at buildings and think of those who did not live to see their construction – just as there are those we ourselves shall not see.

We are here for such a short time, it behoves us to take a longer view for the sake of those sprung from our loins.”

It was interesting to find that Labour came round to this point of view – and the Tories crumbled. (I suspect that most of their members grasped this, but they were under orders to vote otherwise.)

All of which confirms my sense on the doorsteps that Hove and Portslade could prove to be a national marker in 2015. It is a place up for cogent debate.

Church Road, Hove

Posted on | September 17, 2014 | No Comments

Here is a note which I have sent to the Hove Civic Society in support of its proposal for something which is more of a boulevard. After all, stroll is the essence of Hove.

“i continue to be delighted by the energy and knowledge – and imagination – which the Hove Civic Society now brings to our urban area.

Hove is a succession of thoroughfares as different from one another as George Street, Richardson Road, Victoria Terrace and those nooks around Hove Station.

Paradoxically enough, the most overlooked road has been the biggest one: Church Road.

Unlike other roads, this is not one that encourages people to linger; it has a hurried atmosphere to it, far less congenial that the others’. As the Hove Civic Society points out, a central cause of this is the narrow pavements along so much of it, and the chances which have been missed to make more of the junctions so that it could have more of a boulevard to it.

I welcome the proposals which the Society is bringing forward – and, in fact, have myself already set in motion (as it were) improvements to the junction with Sackville Road and Hove Street. At present this feels such a risk to pedestrians. My proposal, made at the Transport Committee last year, has been incorporated in the next phase. I look forward to elaboration of this within the Society’s proposals.”

2

Posted on | September 15, 2014 | No Comments

Frank Gehry
Soon grew weary
When he strove
To make a go of it in Hove

From The Bran-Tub: Twenty-Six – Betty Comden

Posted on | September 14, 2014 | No Comments

‘ahelluva town!’ The phrase from the song New York, New York in the musical On the Town (1944) is synonymous with Betty Comden, who has died aged 91. She and Adolph Green (obituary, October 26 2002) supplied lyrics and librettos for some of Broadway’s most enduring musicals, and the story and screenplay for films such as Singin’ in the Rain (1952). She and Green, whose writing partnership lasted more than 50 years, won Tony Awards with three of their shows, Wonderful Town, Hallelujah, Baby! and Applause.
Verbal adaptability was in Comden’s blood. Born in Russia, she emigrated to Brooklyn, New York, as a child, and grew up in an extended family, which included an unabashed flapper and a cinema proprietor. She revelled in Chaplin and Keaton. An uncle saw star potential if only “I would grow up good-looking”. Troubled by her nose, she took the then unusual step of plastic surgery.

When she was still a student at New York University, she appeared in a revue in Max Gordon’s jazz club, the Village Vanguard, in Greenwich Village. There she met Adolph Green, a young performer called Judy Holliday and composer Leonard Bernstein, and realised that lyrics could be her forte.

It was in 1938, at the Village Vanguard, that Comden, Green, Bernstein and Holliday formed the Revuers, which became a successful show – and the first example of a Comden-Green partnership. A transfer uptown, however, flopped. Then, she and Green got lucky. Bernstein wanted to develop his 1937 ballet Fancy Free into a musical, a new prospect for them all. The result was On the Town (1944), the story of three sailors on leave in wartime New York. The pair’s lyrics echo every sound of a city in which love can be found within the 24 hours that the sailors have on leave. The musical, in which Comden and Green also performed, ran for over a year, and was duly filmed, starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly. Success continued swiftly with Billion Dollar Baby (1945), with music by Morton Gould, although Bonanza Bound (1947) flopped. Their second, and again, successful collaboration with Bernstein was Wonderful Town (1953).

Film work began to go hand in hand with their success on Broadway. Notably, there was the pair’s script for the exhilarating Singin’ in the Rain, starring Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds; Band Wagon (1953), and the story for It’s Always Fair Weather (1953), with music by André Previn, which popularised the phrase “thanks a lot, but no thanks”.

Always adept at creating something of its era without being a period piece, Comden and Green were alert to contemporary developments. In the 1950s, the emergence of telephone answering services inspired a leading role for the former switchboard operator Judy Holliday. She sang Comden and Green’s opening number, Perfect Relationship in Jule Styne’s musical, Bells Are Ringing (1956), and with Just In Time and the heartbreaking resignation of The Party’s Over, it was clear that the American musical was in perfect hands. Say Darling (1958), also with Styne, was based on Richard Bissell’s novel about the making of The Pajama Game from his own earlier novel. Racketeers resurfaced in another Styne work, Do Re Mi (1960) in which a scheming husband and wife – Phil Silvers, Nancy Walker – visit Casablanca and fall foul of the mob, an unlikely setting for the tender number Make Someone Happy. In 1961 further work with Styne, although possibly not their best, resulted in Subways are For Sleeping.

They returned to the 1930s for Styne’s Fade Out – Fade In (1964) starring Carol Burnett, in which a chorus girl is accidentally plucked from the Hollywood chorus for a starring role. Underrated at the time, Styne’s next, Hallelujah, Baby! (1967) was written with an enthusiastic Lena Horne in mind and chronicled 60 years of race relations in America. In the event, Horne turned it down and the unknown Leslie Uggams was plucked from obscurity to give a tremendous performance. Faced by controversy on all sides, it ran for nine months. A musical version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1974), with Styne, was less successful.

A Cy Coleman revue led to their collaborating on his musical On The Twentieth Century (1976). A sort of operetta, its witty lyrics depend upon the staging although Our Private World took on a life of its own; Comden wrote the song in the shadow of her son’s death.

Redoubtable, and always elegant, she continued to work and cheerfully chronicled bodily failings (both she and Green found their eyesight fading). The musical version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House renamed A Doll’s Life (1982) yielded their fine Learn to be Lonely, and it was in great style that they reunited with Coleman in 1992 for the huge success of The Will Rogers Follies.

As Comden once said of her partnership with Green: “It’s a kind of radar. We don’t divide the work up, taking different scenes. I used to write things down in shorthand. I now sit at the typewriter. Adolph paces more.” Their writing partnership made for something so strong that it was flexible enough to adapt to the needs of the most diverse composers; indeed, it was a helluva pen. Tributes to the duo culminated in a two-night Carnegie Hall concert in 1999, and their work continued to be revived on Broadway.

Many thought the two were married; in fact, Comden was married to Siegfried Schutzmann, whom she had met on a tennis court in 1942. He died in 1979. She is survived by their daughter, Susanna.

· Betty Comden, lyricist, born May 3 1915; died November 23 2006

On Being Asked To Take Up Residence in Downing Street

Posted on | September 10, 2014 | No Comments

A site affiliated with the Brighton Digital Festival sent me three questions. These set me thinking, and I have answered them in general and specific terms.

IF YOU WERE ELECTED AS PRIME MINISTER IN MAY 2015, WHAT WOULD BE THE FIRST THING YOU WOULD SAY TO THE NATION?

“I am speaking to you from Ten Downing Street, and I shall start by refusing to pardon my predecessor. That might sound unusual, but, in effect, for several decades, each new incumbent here in Ten Downing Street has tacitly pardoned the previous one by continuing with much the same policies. These have led to a country in which the social divide is daily growing, larger than it has been in close on a century.

“Central to all this is successive Governments’ refusal to come to terms with the crucial issue of our times.

“This is climate change.

“By refusing to do so, they have created a situation in which it becomes all the harder to address social issues, all of which amount to the fair use of finite resources.

“The very readable Australian scientist Tim Flannery put it succinctly, as long ago as 2004: ‘the best evidence indicates that we need to reduce our CO2 emissions by 70 per cent by 2050. If you own a four-wheel-drive and replace it with a hybrid fuel car, you can achieve a cut of that magnitude in a day rather than half a century. If your electricity provider offers a green option, for the cost of a daily cup of coffee you will be able to make equally major cuts in your household emissions. And if you vote for a politician who has a deep commitment to reducing CO2 emissions, you might change the world.’

“Now that, thank you very much, you have voted for such a politician, we have that task before us. I was always shocked in Hove and Brighton that the Labour Party derided climate change as a Green ‘pet project’. It is not that, it is crucial, and we should not regard it as daunting; it can yet be done, even though time has grown far shorter. It is not only something in which everybody must play a part but this can provide a renewed and sustainable economy – across the spectrum, from designers to fitters – which will enable our society to function in a mutual fashion.

‘We cannot risk the Earth becoming a bare cupboard. We have been burgled, and we have to replenish it now.”

DOES DEMOCRACY MATTER?
Yes. E M Forster gave it two cheers, “one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism”. He highlighted a belief in Parliament which is “often sneered at because it is a Talking Shop. I believe in it because it is a talking shop. I believe in the Private Member who makes a nuisance of himself. He gets snubbed and is told that he is cranky or ill-informed, but he does expose abuses which would otherwise never have been mentioned, and very often an abuse gets put right just by being mentioned. Occasionally, too, a well-meaning public official starts losing his head in the cause of efficiency, and thinks himself God Almighty. Such officials are particularly frequent in the Home Office.”

The situation has changed even more for the worse since Forster wrote that. Not only have officials – in the form of “Advisers” – infiltrated Government premises but international corporations, who have no interest in climate change, have done likewise. The result of this is that the main parties’ Private Member is no longer told that he is cranky or ill-informed – he is simply ignored.

We need more Members of Parliament who are prepared to speak out rather than be paid off by appointment to some trumpery post or other. A few Green MPs can, in this way, be far more visible, far more effective than the general run of Backbench stodge.

And, of course, democracy is not simply a matter of there being effective MPs. It is a matter of residents, at the hour of their death, being able to look back not with regret (“I wish I had…”) but at a fulfilled life which had made the best use of precious time and brought the best use of diverse, different talents rather than being forced into falsehood of targets and grades. Residents should not have to contend with lives of quiet desperation but achieve quiet satisfaction.

WE NEED A REVOLUTION BECAUSE… (finish this sentence)

the need and the spirit are there to prevent the devastation of the Earth: the most effective revolution is a new cast of mind.

Turn, Turn, Turn

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 the extent to which it augments the reader’s own senses.

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 250 pages. Formed of twenty-one chapters, these 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 unpromising circumstances: brought up distractedly, in a tower block, 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 – switching point of view from one short section to the next withinin each chapter – it is neatly paced in such a way that it becomes 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 novels. 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 with whom Melissa Harrison can bear equal comparison. 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. Open Clay at random and one finds such observation as “a leaf-green caterpillar dangled on an invisible thread, its gently twisting body lit by the sundazzle filtering through the tessellating leaves above.” That tessellating is characteristic of a relish for the right word; elsewhere, one finds that “in pots and front gardens the last surviving pelargoniums now drooped bletted and blackening…” Read on a few sentences and there is “the birds became bold; hundreds were lost to the ammil every night, and hunger drove them to new braveries with each unrelenting day. They froze where they slept in the hedges and trees, their bodies falling secretly to the ground like leaves”. It is a tough world elegantly depicted, and not shirking the violence so near the surface of human experience.

You can sometimes make bold to judge a novel by its cover. In the case of Clay is a wonderful snowy urban landscape – dog following owner, the merest hint of colour amidst the black and white – taken by the author, who also has a website – http://www.talesofthecity.co.uk/ – which augments the novel, a thrill even for those readers who might deem such techiedom irrelevant.

Clay might not be perfect, which means that it has all the greater claim to be something close to a masterpiece – and deserves to have been printed on better paper.

Baa Forked Animals

Posted on | August 17, 2014 | No Comments

“SleepesSheept 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).

Of Quiche and Men

Posted on | August 16, 2014 | No Comments

QuicheA good deed never goes rewarded. So, in more cynical moments, life can appear even to those of us who look for the best across the board in the extraordinarily brief span that is human life.

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.

On Kyril Bonfiglioli

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.

In the Tradition of Murder

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.

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    Christopher Hawtree is the Green Party Councillor for Central Hove but items are posted here in a personal capacity as an individual.

    Christopher Hawtree
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