Molly Thynne

To make mention of Christmas in the last gloomy days of January is surely one of the biggest faux-pas imaginable, so I shall say little about the pile of festive themed detective novels that, like any self-respecting enthusiast of the genre, I had assembled on the shelf in anticipation of the season. Perhaps unsurprisingly Clifford Witting’s ‘Catt Out Of The Bag’ emerged as my favourite, for Witting has emerged as one of the very finest of those detective fiction writers operating in the immediate pre and post WW2 period. Galileo have done a fine job in unearthing his books, with all five of the Inspector Charlton titles that they have reissued in the past couple of years being essential reads. One rather hopes that they will shortly turn their hand to the remaining books in the series. Galileo has similarly done a fine job of reissuing a couple of Joan Cockin’s deliciously comedic crime capers, and 1947’s ‘Dancing With Death’ was another seasonally themed novel that I very much enjoyed with my sherry and chocolates. Ditto Nicholas Blake’s ‘The Case Of The Abominable Snowman’. The book’s alternative title of ‘The Corpse In The Snowman’ might appear to be a howling spoiler, but this aspect of the mystery is so clearly telegraphed early in the narrative that it really isn’t. It’s a workmanlike mystery elegantly penned, as one might rightly expect of a future Poet Laureate, for as I feel certain anyone interested enough to read this far will know, Blake was the pseudonym for Cecil Day Lewis.

Meanwhile, the dubious honour of being bottom of the list of my seasonal reading in 2022 falls to Carter Dickson, whose ‘The White Priory Murders’ is as dreary an example of John Dickson Carr’s ‘celebrated’ Locked Room mystery shtick as one might be unfortunate enough to stumble on. Nothing very much seems to happen in the book except for a steady stream of bozos expostulating about how the crime might have been carried off, whilst the insufferable Sir Henry Merrivale tells them, and us, how this is all very well, but sadly Not What Happened, before eventually unveiling the truth in a denouement that one feels immensely thankful for simply because it means the ordeal is finally over rather than it being a satisfactory conclusion to an entertaining story. I appreciate that many people love this kind of thing, but please remind me of my feelings on this when the mostly wonderful British Library series reissues another so-called classic by this tiresomely smug writer.

Apologies for falling into the trap of negativity there, but this is what John Dickson Carter Dickson Carr does to me. Makes me forget myself and my Best Intentions for Staying Positive In The Face Of It All. The ridiculously chipper novels of Susan Scarlett (aka Noel Streatfeild), whose ‘Clothes-Pegs’ and ‘Babbacombe’s’ I read recently, do help in chasing away the blues, as do the six detective novels of Molly Thynne. Indeed, Thynne’s 1931 novel ‘The Crime At The Noah’s Ark’ was firmly my second favourite seasonal slice of crime fiction, featuring as it does all the best ingredients for a highly entertaining Christmas romp: Ridiculously heavy snowfall? Check. Posh folks stranded together in a single setting (here it’s a village pub rather than a Country House)? Check. Jewellery theft? Check. Murder? Check. People being Not What They Appear To Be? Check. Fictional novelist as narrator? Check. Aging chess master as astute amateur detective? Erm, ‘check’, as it were. ‘The Crime at Noah’s Ark’ does nothing out of the ordinary, but it presses all the right buttons with the perfect amount of pressure to be thoroughly entertaining. It is the fourth of the six detective novels penned by Thynne between 1928 and 1933 and the first of the three which feature ‘series’ detective, the aforementioned chess master Dr Constantine.

The three Dr Constantine novels are arguably the best of Thynne’s small body of work, building as they do on the character of the chess master and his somewhat Holmesian methods of investigative thinking and reasoning. Of the three books that precede the introduction of Dr Constantine, it is is her first, ‘The Draycott Murder Mystery’ that stands out as being the best. It’s alternative title of ‘The Red Dwarf’ might to more modern eyes suggest a connection to hideously unfunny science fiction but is in fact a nice reference to the stylograph pen that was so popular in the early part of the 20th Century and which provides the key clue on which the solution of the crime hinges. Winston Churchill had two of these pens, apparently; one with red ink and the other with blue, with which I imagine he would doodle the Union flag on his notepads. Incidentally, did the ‘Red Dwarf’ television show also take its name from the pen? Was the space ship called ‘Red Dwarf’ and was it called that because it looked like the pen? Inspired perhaps by youthful endeavours playing with office equipment imagined as spacecraft speeding through the universe… I admit I am sufficiently intrigued to pose the question, yet insufficiently interested as to warrant even a cursory look on the Interwebs for the answer. I digress….

Molly Thynne’s The Red Dwarf’ is a neatly constructed murder mystery that trots along at a fair pace without ever losing its breath from the misuse of over-excitable ‘action’ that some of her contemporaries occasionally suffered from. Some marvellously period notions of social propriety and ‘honour’ thread through the narrative, which is perhaps not unexpected when one realises that Thynne herself was born into the aristocracy. Related on her mother’s side to James McNeil Whistler and the English etcher Sir Francis Seymour Haden, it seems that her early years were spent mixing within the circles of the social and artistic elite in the heady environs of leafy Kensington, where no doubt meetings with the likes of Rudyard Kipling and Henry James left a lasting impression. Yet whilst there is certainly an air of the Upper Classes filtering throughout all of Thynne’s detective novels, and of her Writing What She Knows, there is too a welcome sprinkling of self-awareness and good humour. Early in ‘The Red Dwarf’ she puts her tongue in the cheek of her amateur sleuth and points out that “With a smile at his own childishness, he fell back on the time-honoured method of all detectives of fiction and set to work with a pencil and paper to get his thoughts in order.” Elsewhere she makes a curious use of the old Scots word ‘algey’ to describe things going amiss and one cannot help but wonder how she came across the word. Perhaps in some aristo visit to Scottish lairds or to the Duke of York in Balmoral (her second cousin was one of the Duke of York’s bridesmaids). Perhaps not.

It seems to me that Thynne loses her way somewhat with her second detective novel, 1929’s ‘Murder On The Enriqueta’. Expecting an entertaining ‘closed house’ mystery on the open seas, I was disappointed to find that only the opening scenes are set on board, with everything else then taking place within the social whirl of The London and revolving around (yawn) inheritance, social propriety (again) and the time-honoured mistrust of Foreigners. It feels somewhat like a book that is flailing around trying to decide what genre it wants to belong to. Romance, murder-mystery, thriller: it straddles all of these, and if it never quite settles satisfactorily on one, it nevertheless has a rollicking good time trying. ‘The Case of Adam Braid’ from a year later is much more assured and comfortably positioned as a murder-mystery that seems to take some wry self-aware amusement in balancing the entire mystery on the question of whether the butler did, or did not do it. Well, that and trying to prove that the plucky young lady to whom all the evidence rather worryingly points, is innocent.

As already mentioned, the three novels featuring Dr Constantine are perhaps Thynne’s best, with 1932’s ‘Death In The Dentist’s Chair’ and 1933’s ‘He Dies And Makes No Sign’ following ‘The Crime At The Noah’s Ark’ in being neatly penned, nicely entertaining examples of genre writing. Thynne does seem to have had a penchant for introducing characters who Are Not Who They Appear To Be, which perhaps reflects an increasing sense of mistrust being shown for the machinations of ‘her’ social class. Or perhaps it’s just that Very English Thing of taking any opportunity to put on Fancy Dress and pretending to be someone, or something Other.

Regardless, ‘He Dies And Makes No Sign’ was Thynne’s final foray into the world of fiction, detective or otherwise. She appears to have quite happily withdrawn thereafter to a life of quietude on the High Street of Bovey Tracey in Devon, where she died in 1950 at the age of 68. The six detective novels she left us might not be what one would immediately recommend to anyone dipping a toe into the genre for the first time, but they are assuredly ones that deserve attention from anyone with even a modicum of interest in the inter-war period.

Unpop 225

Drowning – The WAEVE (from ‘The WAEVE‘ LP)
Tender Years – Robert Forster (from ‘The Candle and The Flame‘ LP)
I’m Hiding My Nightingale – White Magic (digital EP)
Papparayray – DUFDUF (digital single)
Come Winter – The Pull of Autumn (from ‘Beautiful Broken World‘ LP)
Blinded By The Night – The Martial Arts (from lathe cut EP)
Madman in the Rain – Dot Dash (from ‘Madman In The Rain‘ LP)
Heaven Just Watched – Hollow Hand (from ‘Your Own Adventure‘ LP)
Point That Thing Somewhere Else (The Clean) – The Courtneys (digital single)
I’m In Love With These Times – Bailterspace (from ‘Nelsh’ EP)
Anything Could Happen – The Clean (from ‘Boodle Boodle Boodle‘ EP. R.I.P. Hamish Kilgour)
In the Red – Office Dog (digital single)
God On The Freeway – Farmer Dave & The Wizards Of The West (from ‘Second Summer‘ LP)
Lost and Alone (and Driving) – Stephen Stannard (from ‘High and Dry‘ LP)
The Stars Align – sliver biplanes (from ‘A Moment In The Sun‘ LP)
Open Eyes – Alison Statton & Spike (from ‘Tidal Blues’ LP)
Years Beneath A Yarrow Moon – Andrew Wasylyk (from ‘Hearing The Water Before Seeing The The Falls‘ LP)
Capture the Snowfall Forever – Cate Brooks (from ‘Winterfest‘ EP)
A Worm With A Head – The Trash Can Sinatras (from ‘On a B Road’ LP)
20 Everything Is Going To Be Alright (Pt. 2) – Princess Chelsea (from ‘Everything Is Going To Be Alright‘ LP)

Download ‘Disc 1’

Another Year, Another Day – The Poppy Family (from ‘A Good Thing Lost’ LP)
Colour My World – Petula Clark (from ‘What A Groovy Day: The British Sunshine Pop Sound 1967-1972‘ 3CD)
I’m A Train – Colors of Love (from ‘What A Groovy Day: The British Sunshine Pop Sound 1967-1972‘ 3CD)
Truck Train Tractor – The Pastels (from ‘Truckload of Trouble‘ LP)
Bye Bye Baby – Bay City Rollers (from ‘Once Upon A Star’ LP)
Soft As Your Face – The Soup Dragons (from ‘Raw TV Products – Singles & Rarities 1985-88‘ LP)
Onwards and Upwards – Billy Tibbals (from 7″ single)
Another Place, Another Time – The Miamis (from ‘We Deliver: The Lost Band Of The CBGB Era (1974–1979)’ LP)
I Was A Star – First Class (from ‘The First Class: Beach Baby – The Complete Recordings‘ 3CD Set)
I Wanna Murder You – Go-Kart Mozart (from ‘Pop-Up! Ker-Ching! And The Possibilities of Modern Shopping’ LP)
The Rubettes – The Auteurs (from ‘The Auteurs: People Round Here Don’t Like To Talk About It – The Complete EMI Recordings‘ 6CD Box Set)
Love Inflation – Lieutenant Pigeon (from ‘Lieutenant Pigeon: The Decca Years‘ 2CD)
True Love Travels On a Gravel Road – Elvis Presley (from ‘From Elvis in Memphis’ LP)
2 Cool 2 Be 4-Gotten – Lucinda Williams (from ‘Car Wheels On a Gravel Road’ LP)
Castles In the Air – The Colourfield (from ‘Virgins and Philistines’ LP. R.I.P. Terry Hall)
If I Could – Ben Reed & Miranda Reed (from ‘Loft‘ LP)
Different – Mama Cass Elliot (from ‘Pufnstuf’ LP)
Melody Fair – Bee Gees (from ‘Odessa’ LP)
Cherish – The Association (from ‘Life Moves Pretty Fast: The John Hughes Mixtapes’ boxset)
Moon 3 – Friends Again (from ‘Trapped and Unwrapped‘ reissued LP)
Help – Rozi Plain (from ‘Prize‘ LP)
Life On Earth (with Preservation Hall Jazz Band) – Hurray For The Riff Raff (digital single)
The Darkest Ending – Felt (from ‘The Pictorial Jackson Review’ LP. R.I.P. Martin Duffy)

Download ‘Disc 2’

15 years of Unpopular Songs

From 2008 to 2022 the Unpopular blog has assembled my favourite tracks from the year into an end of year mix. For this playlist I’ve chosen two songs from each year (okay, I cheated – for one or two years I chose just one, and for others three) to create a kind of ‘supermix’ spanning those 15 years. No download for this one, just a streaming option on Mixcloud.

Unpop 223 – Advent Music 2022

There has been no musical advent on the Unpopular blog in 2022, but there has been one of sorts unfolding day by day over on The Twitter. Here, then, is that sequence, with one or two track changes due to my preferred cuts not being available on The YouTube or wherever. Streaming and download, as ever. And as ever, please buy the things you like rather than just streaming them on The Spotify or whatever. Support the artists and labels. I thank you and wish you all a very Happy (and delightfully Unpopular) Christmas.

Dr Pong – Pale Blue Eyes (from ‘Souvenirs‘ LP)
Staring at the Henry Moore – Aldous Harding (from ‘Warm Chris‘ LP)
The Pip – Recitals (from ‘Orbit I‘ LP)
So Many Days – Triptides (from ‘So Many Days‘ LP)
Funerals and Fiftieths – Legends Of Country (from ‘Anything But Country‘ LP)
Hard To Be Happy – Poor Performer (from ‘Like Yer Wounds Too‘ LP)
Wish You Were a Girl – Tchotchke (from ‘Tchotchke‘ LP)
Baker Miller Pink – Sofie Royer (from ‘Harlequin‘ LP)
Obnoxiously Talented – Molly Nilsson (from ‘Extreme‘ LP)
The Lovers – Burd Ellen (from ‘A Tarot of The Green Wood‘ LP)
Violet May – Alison Cotton (from ‘The Portrait You Painted Of Me‘ LP)
The Locked Garden – Sharron Kraus (from ‘K I N‘ LP)
The Garden Of Earthly Delights – Carla dal Forno (from ‘Come Around‘ LP)
Beam/s – The Orielles (from ‘Tableau‘ LP)
Litres Into Metres / Susurrus – HARESS (from ‘Ghosts‘ LP)
N.Y.C.A.W. – Gwenno (from ‘Tresor‘ LP)
UFObird – spacemoth (from ‘No Past No Future‘ LP)
Kneading – Jill Lorean (from ‘This Rock‘ LP)
Rhododendron – Hurray For The Riff Raff (from ‘Life On Earth‘ LP)
South Dunedin – Maxine Funke (from ‘Pieces of Driftwood‘ LP)
Cold + Liquid – Motte (from ‘Cold + Liquid‘ LP)
Get Through This – Emily Fairlight / The Shifting Sands (from ‘Sun Casts a Shadow‘ LP also from Occultation for the UK)
Bear Factory – David Lance Callahan (from ‘English Primitive II‘ LP)
I Never Thought I Was Clever – The Orchids (from ‘Dreaming Kind‘ LP)

Download the whole mix

Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 24

‘Four Winters’ by Jem Southam
Published in 2022 by Stanley | Barker. Buy direct here
This piece was originally published on the International Times website here, and then on and on Caught By The River here.
Follow Jem Southam on Instagram.

“In the middle of a December night a few years ago I was woken by the phone ringing downstairs. Nothing good ever comes of such a call and this time it was news that my younger brother had been admitted to hospital, and the doctor caring for him had rung to say he thought it unlikely he would live through the night. I drove to see him and sat with him through the early hours, in the eerie quiet of the emergency ward, until late in the morning when it appeared he would pull through.

When I got home that afternoon I decided to go for a walk by the river. As the dark of the dusk gradually gathered I sat on a log to sift through the thoughts and emotions of the day. Gradually I became absorbed in what was in front of me; the turbulence of the streams surface as the water raced around the bend, the waving of the reeds and the branches of the overhanging tree, and the pink of the clouds being pushed across the sky by a south-westerly breeze.

When mallard ducks pushed out from the bank to swim across the river in search of a safe haven for the night, I picked up the small digital camera I had just started to use and quickly took a picture.”
Jem Southam

There is something profoundly moving about experiencing art that is rooted in the landscapes one calls home. I felt it earlier this year when I read parts of Davina Quinlivan’s gorgeous ‘Shalimar’ and I feel it again looking at the photographs collected in Jem Southam’s ‘Four Winters’. The photographs move me most, I think, because whilst I have sat on the same log, watched the waving of the same reeds, enjoyed the sight of the same mallard ducks and the same pink kissed clouds, I have never made photographs that begin to approach the brilliance of Southam’s. Lord knows I have tried.

Some thirty years of teaching taught me that the easiest response to much art is “I could have done that”. This is especially true of photographs, and particularly so in an age when everyone thinks themselves a photographer just because they have a phone in their hand. The answer to such an assertion is, of course, “But you didn’t.” These are necessarily simplistic exchanges but they hint at the difficulty of being an artist, which is rooted in the not-so-simple act of the follow through. The challenge of actually Doing The Work. How many times have I thought of an idea and then watched it fizzle away like a damp squib on firework night? Far too many to count. Something always gets in the way. Often those somethings are pedestrian and/or irritating: Going out to work; cleaning the house; going to the store. Often too though those somethings are pleasurable: Going for a bike ride; swimming in the sea; walking on the cliffs; reading just one more book; listening to just one more new record; cuddling the cat; drinking a single malt as the sun goes down. Such things may be immensely life-affirming and enjoyable, yet they are not doing the drawing. They are not making the photograph and they are not rolling the ink and lifting the print. Life is a trade off and this is why I am not an Artist. Or a Cyclist. Or a Swimmer. Not really. Not even remotely. And this is why I could not make the photographs that Jem Southam has made. This is why Jem Southam is an Artist and I am not.

Something else I remember from early in my thirty years of teaching is spending hours watching the same Andy Goldsworthy documentary film over and over again with different classes. I was not, and am not still a huge Goldsworthy fan. His work does not seem to me to be as eloquent or elegant as Richard Long’s, for example, although I do understand why people are drawn to his sculptural interventions in the landscape. One thing I did like from that Goldsworthy film however was hearing him talk about spending time really getting to know a place. It sounds so easy yet is extraordinarily difficult to achieve with any depth of feeling.

Jem Southam clearly knows this place on the river Exe. One of his previous books, ‘The River: Winter’ explored a larger stretch of the Exe, going up as far as the bridge over troubled water at Bickleigh (yes, local legend still has it that Paul Simon was inspired to write the song after playing a show at the Fisherman’s Cot pub in 1965, even though Art Garfunkel punctured this myth back in 2003) whilst in his photographs of ‘The Painter’s Pool’ he immersed himself in Stoke Woods, a hair’s breath from the confluence of the Exe and the Culm. None of these photographs, however, fall into the well-worn trap wherein a single repeated source becomes a vehicle for exploring light, tone and ever-changing mood. They do this too, of course, yet for Southam the very essence of the place seems to be the subject as much as anything else conjured by the processes of photography itself. In these ‘Four Winters’ photographs that place is very specific, with all of the pictures being made at dusk or dawn at just a few points along the river near the village of Brampford Speke. The first winter is photographed at a bend near Burrow Lane, whilst the subsequent three shift downstream to the fields below St Peter’s church before finally focusing on the flooded pond where Southam captures the river in spate reclaiming part of its passage from more than a century past. In the summer months Swallows will nest in the rich red banks and swoop across the river catching flies, but in Southam’s winters these banks are invisible below the waters and the swallows replaced by geese, ducks and swans. The brightness of summer too is replaced by the delicious cloak of winter, and many of the photographs are suffused with the softest light imaginable, like landscape viewed through what author Malcolm Saville would have described as being that gentle rain peculiar and particular to the West Country. They are painterly pictures, glowing with the illusory spectral resonance of Constable sketches. Much remains hidden. Human presence is suggested only by the lights of the cottage near Lake Bridge, glowing like a beacon of warmth in the winter’s morning or evening chill. Mostly though the human hand is shrouded, acknowledged only through contemplation and consideration: Southam’s presence behind the lens, making decisions about what we see and what we do not, feels essentially invisible, whilst the knowledge of the changes in the river’s course come only through immersion in aged maps and the gathering of ultimately useless trivia, like the shoes and plastic toys left discarded in the layers of mud and enmeshed twigs after the floods subside.

These photographs then, capturing as they do the passage of their titular four winters, are rich in meditative reflection and elegantly capture both the impermanence of life and the eternal cycle that nature perpetuates. The recurrence of swans in this place and in these photographs is emblematic of this cultural mythology of death and renewal, as though the migrating geese have brought ancient Scandinavian lore to this corner of a Devon waterway. As Southam himself notes in the short text that accompanies the photographs, according to such mythology, the swans carry “the souls of the dead across into the afterlife” and are “depicted drawing the chariot carrying the sun across the sky, which after sunset descends into the underworld, reappearing in the morning to renew the daily cycle.” In so doing, perhaps, they invest this place with a simultaneously earthly and otherworldly energy that Southam in turn transmutes into visual form. He crafts it from the light and the shadow and allows the actors on the stage to dance their beautiful ballet. Birds fly. The whispers of ghosts settle on bare branches and the touch of what God we harbour inside pours salve on our wounds. Magic in here.

Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 23

‘Kidnap Fury of the Smoking Lovers’ by Peter Benson
Published in 2022 by Seren Books. Buy direct here
Originally published in a slightly different form here
More on Peter Benson and the music of The Waterboys here

There was a time when Peter Benson might have been seen to be, if not on the M4 of literary ascendency, at least on the A303. This would be back when Benson’s debut novel ‘The Levels’ was winning The Guardian fiction prize and when books like ‘Riptide’ sported cover quotes from reviews in the Daily Mail. If it’s something of a shame then to suggest that subsequent books such as ‘Two Cows and ‘a Vanful of Smoke, ‘The Shape of Clouds’, ‘The Other Occupant’, ‘A Lesser Dependency’ and ‘A Private Moon’ might have dropped him off even the A303 into the backwater lanes of the Blackdowns, then perhaps that’s been to the reader’s benefit. It’s certainly true to say that each of these books has been a treasure of intelligent, measured prose untarnished by whatever the literary fashions of the days might have been. Not that such metaphorical travelling around in the backroads, reversing up for tractors and milk tankers, will have helped pay the bills. But perhaps it’s allowed Benson to build a body of work that is impressive in its wealth of intelligent prose. And there is, in all of Benson’s work, an indulgence in the luxury of words that is immensely pleasurable but never cloying and that never outstays its welcome. A certain pragmatism is always ready to curb pretension when it threatens to get above itself. Mind how you go, poet wanker.

If there was a delicate restraint in his previous novel ‘The Stromness Dinner’ then in ‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ Benson really lets it all hang out. There is a spontaneity to the language here that feeds off the narrative and vice versa. At times it feels almost out of control, a wild and wicked stream of consciousness on the road to nowhere, which might be North Wales or might be anywhere else but here today. Running away to get away. Paul Haig doing Sly Stone. Peter Benson doing David Goodis doing William Burroughs snogging Dylan Thomas whilst listening to Paul Haig doing Sly Stone. Albert Ayler wailing in the background. A psychedelic madcap race into oblivion where the pauses for breath allow the recharging of energies under the guise of philosophical reflections. Fidelity. Loneliness. Boredom. Justice. Mediated obsession with everyone else’s business. Actually not giving a fuck about anyone else’s business. Tuning out the hate and diving into love. Deep breath and on we go again. Foot to the floor and take to the backroads where no-one will find us.

Pause. Breathe. Punctuate with an asterisk like a Big Flame change of pace and direction. Just so.

‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ is a comic thriller, a dystopian modern fairy tale searching for enlightenment in the richness of words and the white light of unexpected love. ‘End of the fucking world’ meets ‘Harold and Maude’, perhaps. It also recalls something of the wickedly funny series of novels featuring Peacock Johnson that Stuart David has been writing these past ten years or so: books that simultaneously remind us that striking the right comedic balance in a novel is a tough act to pull off, yet still make it seem so effortless. Bastards.

It’s not entirely smooth running though. There are some stumbles that might be intentional nods to what’s gone before or might be examples of a writer forgetting that past and losing their place. So there’s the same perfume (the one Marie Antoinette wore) that crops up in ‘The Stromness Dinner’, and there’s a familiar anecdote about a bishop and a diplomat from the south seas discussing the inherent impossibilities of religion and belief. Perhaps an editor said “Benson, have you lost your shit here?” and Benson replied “can’t you see the signposts of connective narrative that I’m threading through the cosmos?”. Or perhaps not.

As in his previous books, ‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ showcases Benson’s gift for the gab. His exchanges between characters are eminently believable, quick fire, barely broken up with ‘he said, she said’ markers. It’s easy to get carried along, sometimes forgetting the place. Who’s this? What’s that? Doesn’t matter. Onwards!

I love this about Peter Benson’s books, and about ‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ in particular. They are quick and easy reads, this one more than most. A tabloid headline turned against itself, ‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ is about knowing when to say fuck you and fuck off and when to shut up, shut down and lose yourself in love. It raises you up on its shoulders and carries you away. So quick and easy, but not easy easy. Simple not stupid, stupid. It’s so difficult to do that. Stripping things out to leave just what’s required. ‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ then is the sound of a Modernist doing improv. Blowing wild and searching for peace.

Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 22

‘Jane’s Country Year’ by Malcolm Saville
Originally published in 1946. Reissued in 2021 by Handheld Books. Buy direct here.
This piece was written for the 2022 ‘Shadows and Reflections’ section of Caught By The River.

The ongoing industry of cultural archaeology has this year thrown up many treats of literature, and the majority of what has thrilled me most is rooted in the period of the late 1940s and early 1950s. What strikes me about much of it, across several genres, is the way in which a remarkable maturity seems to settle in the pages. For writers like Margaret Kennedy, or Josephine Tey (both of whom I belatedly discovered this year), the contrast with their pre-WW2 work is startling and wholly welcome. In a contemporary era where reference to The Past seems increasingly weaponised in The Culture Wars, it can be paradoxically easy to underplay the immense shock imparted by WW2. Indeed, I read recently that in records of the UK Parliament debates, ‘blitz’ was referenced almost as many times in the period 2020-21 as in 1940-41, whilst the phrase “blitz spirit”, used just twice between 1945 and 2000 (in 1972 and 1999 respectively) has been summoned six times in the last 22 years. As Dan Hancox points out in his excellent article for the Guardian, it seems that “The further away we get from the Nazi blitzkrieg, the more we are asked to revive the “spirit” of the time.”

There is little of what we have been retrospectively encouraged to think of as “the “spirit” of the time” in any of the books I’ve read this year. Even in Margaret Kennedy’s wonderful ‘Where Stands A Winged Sentry’ wartime memoir there is a marked lack of jingoistic patriotism. There is instead a poignant blend of obstinance and anxiety, as one might more realistically expect. In her magnificent novel ‘The Feast’ (originally published in 1950 and set in 1947), Kennedy weaves some of the memoir themes into her fiction as she sets out a portrait of Britain teetering on the edge between those who might wish to cling to its (in)glorious Old Ways and those who look forward to a more equitable future. Kennedy is quite blatantly partisan about which of these she hopes will prevail and the ending of the book is quite remarkably brutal in many respects. It’s a stunning novel and is perhaps the single most enjoyed piece of fiction that I have read this year.

And then there is Malcolm Saville. Why did no-one ever tell me about Malcolm Saville? As a writer of children’s books, I accept that the context in which his name might have cropped up during my adult life would rarely, if ever, have arisen, yet I remain perplexed as to why it is only in 2022 that I have consciously stumbled on his work. Certainly it is possible that his books may have come into my orbit as a child and that I simply ignored them. I am rather resistant to such a notion, however, partly because it might illuminate how ignorant I was as a child, and partly too because I’m rather more certain it was to do with my growing up in Scotland. In the parlance of the geographical context of my childhood, then, Malcolm Saville is very certainly An English Thing. I strongly suspect that the librarians of my day would have turned their noses up and pointed mine towards Good Scottish Authors like Stevenson and Scott. Those elderly custodians of children’s texts of my youth would surely have glanced at Saville’s books, seen references to Sussex and Shropshire and then, tutting like Miss Jean Brodie, banishing these wicked books with their English references to the murkiest corners of the building. This is wildly unkind of me, of course, but there we are.

It was actually via Margaret Kennedy that I stumbled on Malcolm Saville, and specifically her ‘Where Stands A Winged Sentry’ memoir which was published by Handheld Press in 2021. An exploration of their other titles led me in turn to Inez Holden’s terrific collected ‘Blitz Writing’ and then to Malcolm Saville’s ‘Jane’s Country Year’, delightfully illustrated by Bernard Bowerman. As an introduction to Saville’s work, I am now aware that this is a somewhat unorthodox entry point. Most would likely be more familiar with his extensive Lone Pine Club series, but I am rather pleased that I still have most of those to uncover in my future.

‘Jane’s Country Year’ then is structured, as the title suggests, in twelve chapters. Some Saville devotees have spread their (re)reading of the book across those twelve months and I admit that I am tempted to do the same in 2023. Although it was originally published in 1946, like many of the other immediate postwar pieces of fiction I’ve been reading this year, the war is barely acknowledged yet still casts a shadow over proceedings. So whilst in the book Jane in convalescing, it is difficult not to equate this with evacuation and thence to raise questions about the unapologetically positive light in which this enforced removal to the countryside is shown. We know that whilst for many children the experience of sudden urban to rural displacement was welcome, for many the experience was far from pleasant. Is Saville then guilty of retrospective propaganda? Perhaps. But it is difficult to maintain such thoughts when one is endlessly seduced by Saville’s obvious love of nature, landscape and rural folklore. So in March we learn that the budding leaves of the hawthorn were once called “bread and cheese”, though no-one seems quite sure why, or why bringing hawthorn and blackthorn into the house might be deemed unlucky. In June the scent of meadowsweet pervades the air and we see a kingfisher darting past with a silver fish in its beak, on its way to its nest of fishbones in the riverbank. In July Jane writes one of her letters to her parents and tells them of some plants she has found in the hedgerows: goosegrass and lady’s bedstraw. Perhaps understandably Jane fails to point out to her parents that goosegrass is also commonly known as sticky willy… In September Jane watches the fields being ploughed and Saville cannot resist suggesting that The Old Ways Were Best when he has the farmer remark that his tractor driving farmhand is “a good ploughman” but “not as good as old George with his horses.” Later in the month Jane experiences all the fun of the visiting Fair, whilst spiritual needs are met with the church’s harvest festival. Come November we are alerted to the presence in the hedgerows of the wild clematis known variously as ’traveller’s joy’ and ‘old man’s beard’ whilst Jane spots some redwings feasting on scarlet haws. And so it goes.

Saville’s desire to share this infatuation is admirable and, for the most part, infectious. It doesn’t always succeed though, and the inclusion of the vicar’s son, Richard Herrick, as a means of imparting knowledge to Jane is, one might argue, rather clumsy and crude. He really is rather insufferable, as ‘clever’ boys of early adolescence are apt to be at any point in history, excitedly regurgitating facts and figures memorised from non-fiction tomes, Top Trumps playing cards, television documentaries or The Internet. It is tempting to see this as comedic to a degree, but a feminist reading of the text would no doubt pick up on this insistence on patriarchal power structures and point out that Jane is shown as being passively subservient. This may be so up to a point, yet Jane is also increasingly independent of action and thought as the year progresses, so it is tempting to read this as symbolic of ‘progress’ towards gender equality. As seen by a man, admittedly.

There is something in the book too about children’s displacement from parents, about the essential process of growing up and apart from those we share biological connections to. Jane’s parents and their urbane reactions to the countryside when they (rarely) visit their daughter may be stereotypical (mother is incapable of surrendering her dedication to City fashion and style; father is moderately more willing to enter into the spirit of the thing, which all does rather make one wonder whose side of the family this farming Aunt and Uncle come from) but then it does serve to remind us that ‘Jane’s Country Year’ was written as a children’s book, and children do love a bit of stereotyping don’t they? (My tongue is firmly in my cheek as I write that).

If Margaret Kennedy is partisan in taking the side of modernity and hope for the future in ‘The Feast’ then perhaps ‘Jane’s Country Year’ is something of its counterbalance, with Malcolm Saville keen to make a fictionalised record of rural life and farming as it stared into the face of Progress, perhaps mourning that which he could see already changing irrevocably. Both as a book ‘about’ nature, farming and landscape, and ‘about’ childhood, ‘Jane’s Country Year’ then is simultaneously explicitly and consciously of its time, yet also oddly, awkwardly timeless. I’m delighted to have read it this year and to have had the world of Malcolm Saville opened to me.

Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 21

‘The Feast’ by Margaret Kennedy
Published in 1950. Reissued in 2022 by Faber and Faber. Buy from Hive in the UK.
This review was originally published as part of a longer piece here. More on Margaret Kennedy here.

The most recent reissue of Margaret Kennedy’s magnificent novel from 1950 really is an astonishing treasure. Set in the summer of 1947, ‘The Feast’ is a marvellous evocation of the immediate post-war period in England, filled as it is with tremendous character portraits and spare but perfectly observed period detail. Some of my very favourite reading of recent years has been from this immediate post-WW2 period, notably the crime/detective novels from the likes of E.C.R. Lorac, George Bellairs, Christianna Brand, Francis Vivian and Josephine Tey, and indeed Kennedy plays with some of the tropes of that genre in ‘The Feast’. We immediately discover, for example, that one of the characters we are about to be introduced to dies, as do several others, in a catastrophic cliff collapse that envelops a small Cornish hotel. We are told also, however, that there will be survivors, and so for the remainder of the book we are encouraged to work out who will fall into which category. Kennedy openly plays on the theme of the seven deadly sins in the book, and in many ways it’s not particularly difficult to work out which of her characters are guilty of each, and therefore will end up on the right (or wrong) side of the Act of God that we know is approaching. Despite this, ‘The Feast’ remains a riveting and thoroughly engaging read, cleverly utilising a day by day structure to build towards the denouement that we have known since page one is coming.

The characters are well drawn, with Kennedy being particularly adept at sketching out the two groups of children. These are suggested in necessarily broad and quick strokes: The Cove children feel like street urchins from a Joan Eardley painting whilst the Giffords might be descendants of some of Laura Knight’s girls in sun hats and green parasols enjoying the ‘Wind and Sun’ of the Cornish cliffs some forty years earlier. Indeed, there is a sense that the Gifford children, having been sequestered in the United States for the duration of the war, are to an extent marooned in the 1930s, cut-off from the new realities. Or that at least their mother would wish this to be so. Yet Kennedy is very good at suggesting that whilst children are clearly formed in some part by their parents’ (or indeed foster-parents) actions, they need not necessarily share the same particular character traits and outlook on life. This pulling away from the familial/parental hold is boldly portrayed by Kennedy and oddly feels extraordinarily powerful when read in a 21st Century context where it often feels that children are simultaneously cosseted and objectified to extreme degrees.

No surprise then to learn that it is through Lady Gifford that much of the lamentation about The New Order comes. She pours scorn on the Nationalisation and Welfare State policies of Atlee’s Labour government, even whilst confronted by the obvious needs of those less fortunate. Her continual pestering of her husband to move to Guernsey to avoid paying income tax feel depressingly familiar and if it makes for grim reading, it is balanced by the fact that the husband in question is determined to do no such thing. It’s a reminder that one key idea in the book is that the war has been a massive hinge point in history and that an understanding of the scale of the changes necessarily ushered in hinges too on one’s immediate experience of the hardships. Sometimes this comes uncomfortably close to drawing out the urban versus rural conflict that have been enjoyed in other books I have read this year by Vron Ware and E.C.R. Lorac. The idea sometimes suggested here is that you only really suffered if you were in London, or at the very least in a city. Rural existence must have been a breeze by comparison. Kennedy of course isn’t so dim as to allow this rupture to go un-balanced, but it’s fascinating nevertheless to see it creeping in.

So ‘The Feast’ is in many ways a tremendous spotlight illuminating the social, cultural and political sea changes occurring in post-war England but Kennedy also seems to enjoy making a point about human-kind’s ultimate ignorance in the face of nature and/or God. As the final, much anticipated catastrophe approaches, it is notable that the humans are almost entirely blind to the signs of impending doom. Animals, birds and insects flee but the humans carry on regardless, foolishly confident in their ultimate strength and security. Progress, eh?

Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 20

‘The Death of Mr Lomas’ by Francis Vivian
Originally published in 1941, reissued by Dean Street Press. Buy from them here.

The Dean Streep Press imprint is one of my very favourite publishers, their archaeological digs into the neglected depths of ‘Golden Age’ detective fiction as gratefully welcomed as those of the perhaps more visible ‘British Library Crime Classics’ series. I say ‘perhaps’ because in truth it is a long time since I have been into a physical book shop, yet I do recall that when I did frequent them I would always see some of the BL series laid out on display whilst Dean Street Press would be lucky to have a Brian Flynn title tucked away in a gloomy corner. Of course I’d always leave those Flynn books on the shelf for he is certainly not a favourite of mine, but you could easily say the same about some of the authors given new lease of life by the BL series. I mean, if another Carter Dickson title dares to appear then I’ll be tempted to commit murder myself, the victim most likely being someone wearing a t-shirt saying ‘I’m A Locked Room Mystery’. But hey, let’s not get off on the wrong foot here. Let’s get back to Positivity. It is the season, after all.

So if Dean Street Press might have dug up a few authors who don’t do it for me, then that is to be expected for I suspect that one of the first lessons in publishing is that You Can’t Please Everyone All Of The Time. So for every Brian Flynn there is an Ianthe Jerrold; for every Annie Haynes a Robin Forsyth. And vice versa for other folks, I am sure. Even if they are wrong.

I am sure too that we could agree on Francis Vivian and his Inspector Knollis though, no? Or is he also Not Everyone’s Cup of Tea? Certainly the fact that the books dropped out of sight for such a time between the publication of the last of the series in 1957 and the DSP resuscitation project in 2018 would suggest this to be the case. This fade into invisibility is all the more baffling when one considers that, as Curtis Evans notes in one his typically erudite introductions, “according to booksellers and librarians”, “Francis Vivian was neck and neck with Ngaio Marsh in second place after Agatha Christie.” Still, there is nothing so strange as history and the foibles of the book-buying public. Or, at the very least, fashions as dictated by The Critics.

Yet even with there clearly being a new audience for all of these reissued books the reception to the Francis Vivian books appears to have been strangely muted. Aside from a couple of similarly impressed fans dotted around the globe, these books seem to have slipped out below the radar, which is an, ahem, criminal state of affairs really. Perhaps it does not help that Inspector Knollis is hardly the most dynamic of paper and ink detectives. He’s not some cartoonish toff masquerading as an amateur sleuth and nor is he a sharply dressed Scotland Yard chap bristling with intuition. Rather he is quite plain, and if that is something I personally find refreshingly attractive then perhaps too others find it simply boring. But there is appeal in boredom occasionally and Plain is too often undervalued.

What Knollis values is good honest police work. His is a world built on connection. For every action a reaction, and all that. As he is keen on pointing out, there is no such thing as coincidence. Vivian lays this out from the off in the first Knollis book, 1941’s ‘The Death Of Mr Lomas’ when the Inspector points out that “Coincidence in books is disbelieved mainly because the writer has failed to draw attention to the fact that there is a link somewhere that makes the apparent coincidence a matter of logical inevitability. Two identical happenings in real life are called coincidence for the same reason, because the link is not readily discernible.” I like the fact that in laying out this elemental part of Knollis’ approach to police work Vivian not so much breaks the fourth wall as lightly scrapes at the flaking plaster, and this deftness of touch is repeated time and again across the series.

There is too a certain bleakness in the Knollis books which perhaps holds them back from being breakthrough crossover hits in present times where it often feels like many of those who profess a liking for unearthed ‘Golden Age’ books are interested only in some form of imagined ‘cozy’ whimsy (or, indeed, Wimsy) which never actually existed. Early on Knollis tells us that police officers “only see the worst people, and it isn’t good for one’s soul” and that he “get[s] so darned cold—emotionally, I mean—at this job.” He admits that he is “slowly losing faith in human nature and all the better values in life”, is “too much of a realist” and that he “threw [his] rose-tinted glasses away years ago.” The idea that those particular lines would have been written during the early years of WW2 is poignant, as I rather imagine that feeling of “losing faith in human nature” might have been widely felt across England, in spite of any rah-rah propaganda.

The death of Mr Lomas is in many respects quite a small crime, a grubby crime, one of those minor tragedies that take place below the radar in times of great upheaval. ‘The Death of Mr Lomas’ is itself too in many respects a small book, an existential creak of fiction, a quiet sorrow amongst the nightmare of genocide. It is none the worse for that though, and in many ways it is that smallness that most appeals. It may not, perhaps, be the best of Francis Vivian’s Inspector Knollis novels (if pressed I would likely give that nod to 1950’s ‘The Singing Masons’) but in a series where the quality seldom slips below the very best (1951’s ‘The Elusive Bowman’ might only seem to be a tiny slip in standard because it follows ‘The Singing Masons’) but it is the first of ten perfectly sculpted minor classics of the detective fiction genre that play to strengths of the carefully crafted rather than the ostentatiously clever. As such, I cannot recommend it, and the other books in the series, highly enough.

If, however you try Inspector Knollis and tell me you still prefer Dickson-Carter-Dickson-Carr and yer bluff Sir Henry Merrivale then, well, fair enough. Each to their own. You’d still be wrong though, and I’d still happily shut you up in your locked room and throw away the key.

Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 19

‘Clothes-Pegs’ by Susan Scarlett
Originally published in 1939, reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow. Buy here.

Romance. A certain place and time. So sang Josef K over those guitars that were neither too noisy nor too crude, but instead brittle and beguiling. If ever I was going to go for Romance, then, it was going to be that kind of feeling. Something with an edge of darkness and an awkward desolation. In terms of fiction romance, a little dewy eyed Falling For The Detective is fine, as are star-crossed lovers with a chip on their shoulders. Backs against the wall, you and me against the world, kiddo. But a full blown feel good slushy Romance? Get outta here.

This is one reason I have largely avoided the titles put out by the the Furrowed Middlebrow publishing house in the past. Sure, the thought of feasting on yet more texts from the 1930s, 40s and 50s was appealing, but really they were always more than enough great crime and detective fiction titles streaming from partner imprint Dean Street Press to keep me happy. Perhaps my inclination to finally try something was influenced by my enjoyment of the many great non-detective books unearthed by Persephone books. Certainly the likes of ‘Farewell Leicester Square’ and ‘Patience’ went a great way this year to encourage me to take the plunge with a Furrowed Middlebrow and I have to admit I am ever so glad that they did.

My first foray into their sizeable catalogue was Elizabeth Fair’s ‘Bramton Wick’ and what a pleasure it was. Originally published in 1952, it’s a tremendous book, a glorious little comedy of domestic life in post-war Britain and something to file alongside the likes of those Miss Buncle books by D.E. Stevenson from two decades previously. It’s the Furrowed Brow reissues of Susan Scarlett’s novels from the midst of WW2 that have really hooked me most effectively though, Scarlett being the pseudonym of renowned children’s author and ‘straight’ novelist Noel Streatfeild. It appears that Streatfeild was somewhat sniffy about her Scarlett books, which perhaps says more about the strange contempt for ‘genre’ writing in general held by many ‘serious’ artists and critics at the time. They must certainly have helped pay the bills, however, and Streatfeild would pen a total of twelve books as Susan Scarlett in the space of as many years, and the same number again under her real name.

The first Susan Scarlett novel Clothes-Pegs’ might sit somewhat pensively in the shadow of the coming conflict, but there is just enough hope that War Might Be Avoided to lend it an optimistic tinge. It’s certainly a novel that hovers between past and future in terms of its tropes of class and wealth distinctions. To an extent it is a classic Working Class Girls Makes Good type of fairy story, the kind of ‘Cinderella’ thing that Wodehouse would have Rosie M. Banks pen in ‘Bingo and The Little Woman’, but it’s none the worse for that. Indeed, the story certainly sides with more, ah, Modern attitudes to class rather than the Traditional and makes clear that Honesty and Hard Work are to be valued a great deal more than Deviousness and Money-Grabbing Desperation.

It’s essentially a duel between those two stances that marks out the book’s central fast-paced narrative. In the one corner, Annabel, a conscientious seamstress working in a high-end dressmakers, unexpectedly promoted to the giddy heights of ‘mannequin’ in the shop downstairs. In the other, the despicable Honourable Octavia Glaye, a spoilt socialite who might, a decade or so previously, have run with the Bright Young Things and been photographed by Cecil Beaton, but who is now Living Beyond Her Means and in desperate need of a rich husband to pick up the shopping bills. Caught in the middle, the wealthy Lord David de Bett, over whom Octavia fights like a cat and Annabel shies like a mouse. It’s all comedic, cartoonish and deliciously so, and whilst the outcome may never be in doubt, Scarlett does take us on an immensely pleasurable series of fairground rides to get there.

Romance, then, in a certain time and place, but this time light and bright. A reminder that there is a place for froth and flimsy just as there is for fun’n’frenzy, after all.