Rob Pursey and David Herd discuss the process of songwriting and poetry
As a long-time fan of the work of Rob Pursey and Amelia Fletcher in bands like Heavenly and Marine Research, I was delighted to hear that their most recent project Catenary Wires had a new album out. Birling Gap has quickly become one of my favourite records of 2021, with its 21st Century Folk-Pop songs’ broadly connected theme of England in a post-BREXIT landscape resonating strongly as voices from the edge. Of landscape, of life and of perception, perhaps.
Every song on the record is a tremendous treat, but the first song that connected most strongly with me, and that was subsequently dropped onto the Unpopular mix for May, was the mesmerising ‘Cinematic’. Musically reminiscent of Moose circa their criminally undervalued 1993 album Honeybee, the song shimmers like a sea mirage, sonically and lyrically nuanced; mysterious and suggestive rather than explicit.
On closer inspection it turns out that lyrically ‘Cinematic’ is in fact an adaptation of a poem called ‘As A Last Resort’ by David Herd (from his chapbook Songs from the Language of a Declaration), so rather than write a straightforward review of the record, I thought it would be interesting to explore something of the various processes involved and where the realms of poetry and song composition might connect and/or diverge.
AF: What do you see as being the key, essential differences between poetry and lyrics? Do those differences change when thinking about poetry that is written to be read and poetry that is written to be performed?
Rob Pursey: For me, poetry comes with its own music. The rhythms are there, already embedded in the structure of the poem. Poetry is more complete. Lyrics, on the other hand, have to accept the rhythm that the music proposes. They can play against that rhythm, and they can disruptive when you want them to be, but for the most part they have to comply. Maybe the difference is a bit like that between a painting and a book illustration. The former stands alone and contains its own reference points. An illustration in a book complements and illuminates a piece of writing but doesn’t really have an independent life.
The physical sound of a lyric becomes very important when you’re singing it. If you want a line to end with a long note – one that might have a harmony on top – you need the last syllable to contain a nice long vowel so that there’s no problem stretching it out. The words you choose are very much influenced by this: they may be lucid and accurate and moving, but if you can’t sing them easily they aren’t going to be much good. A lot of songs get by without worrying too much about the sense at all. As pieces of writing they are poor, but as long as they sound OK, it doesn’t really matter!
I think the ambivalent status of lyrics is why a lot of bands aren’t keen on printing them alongside their recordings. These words weren’t designed to be read on their own, and sometimes they do look a bit naked when they can be scrutinised as pure ‘writing’. Having said that, people do like to sing along with records, and having a lyric sheet does make that a lot easier!
David Herd: Good question! So, the key difference between poetry and lyrics would seem to be that whereas poetry is stand-alone, lyrics are written in relation to music. That seems clear enough. The next question, I guess, is what difference does this difference make? In the case of the poem – at least from the point of view of the poem! – the words have to carry all the interest. If the lyric can lean on the music that is going on around it, the poem has to make all the music by itself. At the same time, if the lyric can lean on the music that is taking shape around it, it must also play its part in carrying the tune. One way or another, in other words, the lyric is a more collaborative mode.
But then the minute I write this, I know there is more to say. Any poem, for instance, is a collaboration in some way, perhaps with other poems or with other voices, or with the situation it wants to articulate. It’s not the same, for sure, as having a walking bass to answer to, but it does mean that the poem is, at some level, a collaborative act. So maybe the real difference is in the kind of listening that is involved. When you read a poem as opposed to when you hear a lyric, I think what you are listening with is the inner ear. It’s on that invisible element of the ear that the poem forms, where its play of sound and meaning emerge and take shape.
As for whether these differences change when the poem is written to be performed rather than read, the answer is: yes! Many poems, (though definitely not all) are written with both the act of reading and the act of performing in mind. But performing brings out a very different quality in the poem’s sense of voice. For example, one contemporary poet I love is Peter Gizzi, not least for the way his writing is at the intersection between poetry and lyric – he was deeply influenced by the New York punk scene of the late 70s and early 80s. When you hear Gizzi read you are hearing a poem in which the voicing is really important, where the poem itself is written in part to be said or spoken. But when you read the poem on the page you are constantly aware of the way the poem is making its voice out of its different elements, that voice itself is a constant performance. I guess the difference here might be the difference between hearing the poem in the time of performance and reading the poem in the space of the page.
AF: What poets and lyricists do you get most pleasure from reading/listening to? Do you recognise common threads between them? Stylistically as well as thematic, perhaps?
RP: Mark E Smith has been my favourite lyricist for years. When The Fall first started, he’d already written prototype lyrics in the form of poems. I don’t know whether he saw them as poems or as lyrics waiting for a song to turn up in those early days. But either way, the words had a primacy from the very beginnings of The Fall, and that was something the band never lost. And yet – the band, in its various incarnations, never lost its energy or its sense of spontaneity. There are various cliched tales of Mark E Smith disciplining the band, preventing them from improvising, and his on-stage antics, messing about with their amplifier settings, made for good theatre. But when you listen to the recordings you can hear Smith bending his words to celebrate the rhythm of the music. He wasn’t just ‘reading the words out’. He was performing them. He was too smart to try to neuter the band completely.
In terms of poetry, I like Milton (marrying epic, political tales to a very disciplined structure) and I like Geoffrey Hill. Hill I like in the same way that I like The Fall. There are shards of language that are clearer and sharper than anything you’ve heard. And then there is the density and complexity, which means there is always more decoding to be done. There is always something new to be got out of a re-reading (or in The Fall’s case a re-listen).
In terms of pop music, I think the Kinks are the band whose lyrics I love the most. The melodies are beautiful, and the words are perfectly chosen to convey those tunes. But at the same time, perfect and very precise vignettes of real life are conveyed. The Kinks knew how the music could make those portraits even more amusing, or moving or angry. I say ‘they’ because it feels like the whole band were tuned into this enterprise, even though Ray Davies is the songwriter.
I guess one thing these all have in common is that they were writing about the country we live in. They are capable of being emotive but are never sentimental. They all keep their brains in gear, all the time.
DH: Well, there are poets and lyricists I keep coming back to – obsessively re-reading and listening to again – and I am also always discovering new writers I love. So, for example, a book I encountered recently but one I know I will be coming back to for a long time is Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalia Diaz. Diaz is a native American poet who writes brilliantly from the politics of her position and for whom the poem is a constant negotiation between the intimacies of the body and violence of state-imposed architectures of space. As for lyricists, one example would be Portishead, who as far as I understand it write as a collective and who are never so far down the playlist when the night gets late. And are there common threads? Well, there are many uncommon threads, but I know that that something I almost always want in a poem and a lyric – and basically in all cultural forms – is a play of voices. I like work that samples, collages, opens itself to interruption. I was lucky enough to be in conversation with Diaz recently and she spoke with great power about the play of languages in her writing – Mojave, Spanish and English – how they challenge, unsettle, dislocate and locate one another.
AF: I’ve spent the best part of 30 years as an educator in a High School setting. In that time I’ve been interested in exploring and reflecting on the meta-cognitive processes involved in learning, particularly in the realm of visual arts. So, I wonder, is there an underlying structure to your working practice that you recognise as a/the/your creative process? Is this even something that you give thought to?
RP: I’m not able to read music, so I’ve always done things by ear. I think a lot of people write pop songs like this. I do sometimes wonder if a bit of learning would help me, but then worry that the magic of stumbling across combinations of chords and melody would be lost. Anyway, it’s too late now!
I always come up with the tune first. Partly because I find that a lot easier – it feels like there’s no work involved in coming up with a melody. Lyrics, though, I definitely have to work at. Because we are writing pop music (of a kind) there would be no point having a song with fantastic lyrics and an indifferent tune. I wouldn’t want to hear that, and I wouldn’t want anyone else to have to endure it. The honest truth is that there are loads of songs that I love, sometimes songs I’ve known for years and will sing along to, where I still can’t make the lyrics out. It hasn’t spoiled my enjoyment (and maybe has even enhanced it!)
DH: This is hard, and I guess the answer is yes and no. I mean, I have ways of working for sure, yes, but whether I want to write them down is another matter. For the most part, I guess, I’d rather catch myself in the act, where the act is the desire to open spaces of possibility. I like poetic sequences because of the relationalities they open up. The poem Rob and Amelia worked with to make ‘Cinematic’ came from a sequence called ‘Songs from the Language of a Declaration’. I l love the fact that the words of the poem now stand in the space of their song.
AF: David, that’s interesting what you say about poetic sequences and the relationalities they open up. I’m reminded of William Eggleston talking about his photographs. He said that he likes to think of his works flowing like music. He says it is one of the reasons he works in large groups rather than one picture of one thing. “It’s the flow of the whole series that counts.” Also, Martin Parr who says he “never thinks of photographs as being individual. Always as a group.” Rob, is that perhaps similar to the way an album takes form as opposed to individual songs? Not that I mean to get into the realm of ‘Concept Albums’, but…
Also, David, I’m interested in how you see Rob’s adaptation of your words to fit the structure of song, how some lines become repeated or moved around (I’m thinking that line ‘Lilac / Held in hand’) and a chorus (‘automatic, cinematic’) inserted. (Not sure if you’ve seen Rob’s photo of his editing process!) I’m assuming you are okay with all of that, but at what point do you think you would say ‘hold up there, that’s going a bit far…’. I’m guessing you are fairly relaxed about it, given your comments about liking work that “samples, collages, opens itself to interruption”.
RP: Once songs start to look like candidates for inclusion on an album, they do change. You start to notice the themes they have in common, and those elements tend to come to the fore – it’s like they’ve been remixed, as if a ’thematic similarity’ control on the mixing desk has been pushed up. The songs retain their individuality, and sonically they haven’t changed at all. But as their kinship becomes apparent you start to hear them differently. At this point you have a decision to make – whether to emphasise those thematic similarities, or whether to ignore them. With Birling Gap, we chose the former. We were very conscious of the risks associated with the ‘concept album’: to us it feels like a pompous idea, where the songwriting is subjugated to a message, or to a narrative that binds everything up too neatly. Luckily, we didn’t make the decision until most of the songs had been written, so they were ‘innocent’ of contrivance. But by now it was clear what linked them. While we were writing them, we, like most people, had talked a lot about England in the period dominated by Brexit, and we had allowed the songs to become platforms for little dramas set in this turbulent, anxious, argumentative country. Because most of our songs are duets, they do lend themselves to drama – the voices don’t always sing directly to each other, but with two characters ‘on the stage’ there is inevitably a dramatic relationship between them. A couple of the songs are very directly about the crisis in English identity: Three Wheeled Car is about a nationalistic couple heading to the seaside to celebrate the splendid isolation of living on a sealed-off island; Alpine is about a middle-class Remainer couple whose political imagination (and relationship) hasn’t moved on from a skiing holiday when they first fell in love, and when travel to Europe was a badge of their wealth, success and apparent sophistication. In other songs the theme was less discernible: Liminal, for example, is about looking after someone who is very close to death: but the characters in that song inhabit the same time and space as all the others. Anyway, we decided to cast a net over the whole thing by calling the album Birling Gap. The real location, on the Sussex coast, combines a lot of elements that the album touches on: there are the fabled white cliffs beloved of patriots, the sheer drops into the sea that mean the spectre of self-destruction is never far away – and there’s that constant nagging anxiety that derives from a landscape where climate change is making a very obvious impact.
‘Cinematic’ was the last song to go onto the album, and, by the time we got round to recording it, we had decided what the album was about. So there was a risk that this song would become self-conscious – trying too hard to fit in. I think this is one of the reasons I reached for David’s poem! I knew the song wanted to be about the disengagement and callousness people adopt as a response to the sight of migrants attempting to reach the South Coast of this country, across the English Channel. That yielded the chorus – cinematic / automatic / it’s what we do – I was imagining people impassively watching news images of migrants in little boats from the safety of their living rooms, but that’s as far as I got!
DH: So I guess I think there is a big difference – a world of difference in way – between a concept album and a poetic sequence or series. Rob’s description of a concept album seems completely right to me: that everything is wrapped up all too neatly by the central idea or narrative. A sequence, or series – I’m going to go with series now, though there are subtle differences to be sure – is pretty much the opposite. A really good series of poems, say by Wallace Stevens or Lorine Niedecker, knows that it is unfinished and that its not being finished is completely the point. So what I like in a series of poems is the play of similarity and difference, the ongoing variation across a thematic and all the openness to change that implies. James Schuyler was great at that, in a work like ‘The Morning of the Poem’ for instance, as is Susan Howe. Having a poem reframed and resituated the way Rob and Amelia do with ‘As a Last Resort’ seems to me to be continuous with this play of change across a series and I think, as you say Alistair, that it’s all closely connected with collaging and sampling. All the poets I like most start from the basis that the words they are using come from somewhere else, whether from another poem, or from conversation, or from some other kind of text or document. Making is re-making where the point is not to allude or reference, but just to acknowledge that the language is a material that other people are always using and have used. But I’m really interested to know how this relates to what Rob calls the ‘thematic similarity’ control that underscores the writing of an album. I really like the fact, by the way, that Rob connects Milton and Mark E. Smith. I love Milton too (for all the reasons you say, Rob, and more) but sometimes I’m not sure if he was more concept artist than maker of poetic series. The way you talk about MES, on the other hand, reminds me of John Cooper Clarke, but I’m not sure who came first. And as I write I guess the question that is occurring to me is how the idea of the ‘song’ relates to this question of lyric and poem? Birling Gap is a collection of wonderful songs. Is there some guiding sense, underpinning of that, of what makes a song?
RP: I can maybe answer that best in relation to a specific song. As it’s the subject of our discussions, I’ll use ‘Cinematic’ as my example. It’s not a process I’ve ever thought about properly before, so apologies if this is long-winded or incoherent.
First of all, there’s a set of chords that come to me when messing about with the guitar. It’s definitely not a song yet – just an unnamed but pleasing set of chords. Playing it over and over to myself it seems to conjure something – it seems to have potential. Then I think of the vocal melody. Now there are two musical elements – the melody and the guitar line – and it’s starting to take on a life of its own. It’s not a song yet, though. Then, a new vocal tune suggests itself and leaps ahead of the verse chords: a chorus is starting to form. I have to work quite quickly at this point because if I don’t figure out the accompanying chords, that tune will be forgotten! I establish what the chords are – A, F, G, A, F, C, G – and the melody has been nailed down. That’s quite a relief. It’s captured now and can’t escape.
I like it, this almost-song, the way the verse and chorus play against each other, and there’s already an implication of relentlessness, and even cruelty, when the chorus gives way and the verse resumes. I can’t describe why it feels like that – I wonder if I am hearing echoes of other songs? If so, I can’t identify them. Anyway, that hard-to-define ‘feeling’ will determine what the song will become ‘about’. But now, there is an important test. This song, if it is indeed to become a song, has to be played by the group, and they have to be enthusiastic about it. I play it to Amelia, improvising nonsense lyrics just so I can convey the melody to her. She likes it well enough, so I feel confident enough to pursue it. It’s still not a song yet, though.
Now I record the bass and guitar as a rough demo. The lyrics for the chorus start to crystallise from those ‘nonsense words’ I sang to Amelia (I sang them without thinking about them, and that’s probably why they sound right). Now I start wondering what they mean! ‘Cinematic, automatic…’ The themes of callousness, emotional distance and inhumanity are all still there, and are getting louder. Now, I have to work on the words for the verse, but my ‘nonsense lyrics’ really are just that: nonsense. They bear no relation to the theme of the song. I need to write them from scratch. But at this point I remember David’s poem ‘As A Last Resort’. I’d first read it a couple of weeks before, and it’s stayed with me. I’m also thinking about David work with Refugee Tales – an organisation that campaigns for the rights of asylum seekers, and asserts the humanity of the people caught up in the UK’s immigration system. That’s what this song wants to be about. So, rather than try to write new words I have a go at singing the words of the poem. Fortunately they fit the melody with remarkably little manipulation. I can’t imagine writing better words than these. ‘Cinematic’ is complete – it’s definitely a song now. But with ‘Cinematic’, there is one more thing I have to do. I need to make sure David is happy for me to take advantage of his poem in this way. I am very relieved when he says ‘yes’.
AF: Yes indeed. And there is something in the way in which the initially unseen ‘collaboration’ taking place in the making of the song is, in itself, a reflection on the many positive interactions between refugees/migrants and the so-called ‘indigenous’ British public. Such interactions may be unseen and certainly un-reported, but nevertheless create bonds forged from shared experiences, thoughts, feelings, ideals or whatever. The energy of connectivity is perhaps more subtle yet more profound than that of division and fear. I certainly hear that sublime positive energy in ‘Cinematic’ and in the entirety of Birling Gap. And now that I’ve been introduced to David’s work I am looking forward to reading more of it in his words.
The last time I picked up a book with a wide-ranging coverage of Architectural history was some 38 years ago. The book was Sir Banister Fletcher’s ‘A History of Architecture’ and I was a first year Architecture student, seventeen years old and hilariously out of my depth. References to the Pantheon and to the Basilica de San Vitale in Ravenna can still make me break out in cold sweats. My nervousness then on undertaking Barnabas Calder’s ‘Architecture: From Prehistory to Climate Emergency’ was not insignificant. Thankfully, if Fletcher’s esteemed work seemed dauntingly epic and read as distant and cold, then it turns out that Calder’s is, though equally grand in scope, eminently accessible and immeasurably warmer in tone.
As the subtitle of the book suggests, Calder takes on the unenviable task of charting the development of human civilisation from the time of the Pharaohs to the present day, using not just the context of the built environment as a guide, but the energy expended by those civilisations in manifesting power and presence through building. In some respect this is a dizzyingly vast challenge, and if Calder necessarily uses broad brush strokes to give form to the timeline, then the focus on energy consumption provides a solid surface on which to pick out details. This somewhat specialist (and particularly, one might say fashionably, contemporary) lens may perhaps also help deflect any criticism of a failure to fully explore notions of East vs West (though Calder does include an intriguing comparison between the Roman Empire and the roughly contemporaneous Song Dynasty in China) or Africa (though he does touch on Mansa Musa and his grand palace in Timbuktu). I’m sure someone, somewhere will take exception to something regarding gender that Calder has or has not said, but this is surely only as inevitable as using the phrase Climate Crisis (tm The Manchester Guardian and it’s Woke Metropolitan Elite Readership) in a review of the book.
If my own Grumpy Old (White) Man persona admits a weary wariness regarding the contemporary obsession with/insistence on viewing everything through the lenses of Gender, Race or The Environment then it admits too that if there IS a subject where the thread of environmental concern naturally (ahem) runs then it is surely that of Architecture in its broadest sense. Calder understands this, but also appreciates that simply brow-beating the reader endlessly with data and explanations of How Humans Got It Wrong is Not The Answer. So whilst there certainly are quantifiable examples of energy use/consumption in the book, these are sensibly limited and strategically placed in order to help contextualise the ongoing narrative, which is a marvellously balanced one of artistic achievement versus implicit self-destructive industrial activity.
Calder’s writing is also finely balanced and inhabits the accessible ground between the stark bastions of the academically rigorous and the bleakly garish arcades of soundbite desperation. The outcome is all the better for it. His tremendous ‘Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism’ from 2016 certainly used the now ubiquitous approach of Personal History as a vehicle for exploring, in that particular case, the history of Britain’s Brutalist landscape. It certainly too gave a sense of where Calder’s aesthetic sensibilities lie. The chatty, anecdotal approach may be dialled back in this new book, but it nevertheless shows traces in the foundations as Calder lightly steps from building to building and epoch to epoch. The pace is necessarily brisk for there is much ground to cover and, even though this is not a short book, there is only a limited amount of time/space (or energy!) available, after all.
Throughout the book are suitably sketchy line drawings of various buildings referenced in the text, all drawn to the same scale in order to more easily draw comparisons. The pyramid at Khufu kicks us off in this series of sketches, and it is remarkable just how long it takes humankind to create anything approaching its immensity again. Grand Medieval churches (the French Gothic being my personal favourites) are dwarfed by its mass and only the late 20th Century industrial structures like Drax power station with its massive concrete cooling towers come close. The most telling use of this visual comparison tool, however, comes in the closing pages of the book. A drawing of the immense New Century Global Centre in Chengdu unfolds across several pages and illustrates the mind-boggling magnitude of material (and therefore energy) expended by China in recent decades. In contrast, the drawing of Cork House in London, which Calder uses as an example of energy-efficient (in design and construction) contemporary architecture, is almost microscopically small. Of course this is, in a sense, de-contextualised smoke and mirrors, for the functions of the two buildings are as different as their scales, yet it does rather bring into focus the overwhelming challenge that architecture in its widest definitions faces in this era of Climate Crisis (tm Liberal Thinkers Of A Certain Persuasion).
Calder’s book makes it clear that throughout history a narrative of Growth Is Good (from which it is easy to extrapolate ‘Greed Is Good’) has driven humankind, and this by default has created a distinct set of criteria from which ‘progress’ is defined. It seems equally clear that in order to avoid the catastrophic end game of the Climate Crisis (tm Any Right Minded Soul With A Modicum Of Concern For Equitable Sharing Of Wealth) then this set of criteria must be fundamentally re-evaluated, and that the role of Architecture in its widest sense MUST, by its very nature as a significant contributor to energy-consumption, be a primary driver in that change.
For just as the necessarily small steps taken by the individual in the creation of the Cork House are as insignificant in Real Terms as buying a bamboo toothbrush, steps must be surely taken SOMEwhere if there is to be any positive impact on an increasingly short-term global future. Whether that shift change is down to a minority of individuals recognising an opportunity to leverage technologies and materials that limit environmental impact into power/wealth for their own greed, or is as a consequence of an awareness that individual power should be shared equitably for the good of all, only time will tell. In the meantime, Barnabas Calder has certainly given us a splendid pause for thought.
I have said several times that L C Tyler has written some of my very favourite contemporary comedic crime stories, so when he suggested I might enjoy the novels of Sarah Caudwell, I admit I took the plunge immediately. Rather embarrassingly then as I began my purchase of a Kindle version of ‘Thus Was Adonis Murdered’ (I know, I know, but our house is simply overflowing with books and records and there is only so much space and only so much that one can part with for the charity shops and anyway I am going to admit that I rather like the fact that I can go away on a holiday and not take an additional suitcase filled with paper) I was helpfully informed that I had already bought this item on 25th August 2019. Even more embarrassing was the fact that when I loaded the book it opened at page two or three, highly suggestive of the fact that perhaps I had failed to be immediately captivated and had given it up in pursuit of something shinier and newer. Or, as would have been more likely, older.
Now there is of course something of a tradition of legally trained professionals writing crime and detective fiction. In the UK there have been the likes of Cyril Hare, Michael Gilbert, John Mortimer, Alexander McCall Smith and the inestimable Martin Edwards, whilst in the USA there has been a veritable plethora of lawyers as crime writers, including Erle Stanley Gardner, Scott Turrow and of course John Grisham. Marcel Berlins, incidentally, wrote a fine, short piece about the practice for the Guardian back in 2004. No surprise then that Caudwell’s own standing (as Sarah Cockburn) in the profession means that all four of her books appear to be so convincingly rooted in the legal world, and that her own speciality of tax law is a recurring theme throughout. If that sounds potentially stuffy and hopelessly dull then be assured that Caudwell treats it all with a splendid blend of assured intellectual precision and self-deprecatory wit.
Whilst legal language and terminology abounds, throughout the four novels there are also numerous Classical and literary references, almost all of which are lost on an uneducated oik such as myself. Yet such is the lightness with which these references are touched that it matters not a jot. Or at least, not so much of a jot. Indeed, there is a delicious line in ‘Thus Was Adonis Murdered’ that feels marvellously and personally apt: “[He] takes things so seriously. He’s a Scotsman, you know, from Ayrshire or somewhere like that. I think his father was a miner. There are certain hardships to which such a background does not, I suspect, inure one.” Well, quite.
Written and published variously between 1981 and 2000 (the last published posthumously), curiously the suite of recurring characters appear to remain very much of the same age and personality throughout, even as technologies and the world advances around them. Indeed, it is largely these references to technologies that mark the passage of time, since much of the narrative structure in the books is in the epistolary style and as such the format of these move from the traditional letter through the quaint ‘telex’ and back, curiously enough, to letters in the final novel when one might have expected the development to include email. That it doesn’t embrace email perhaps says as much about Caudwell’s awareness of the nature in which she utilises the form as it does about a mistrust of technology. There is certainly a sense, particularly with the implausibly lengthy ‘telexes’ in ‘The Sirens Sang of Murder’, that Caudwell is (perhaps not so) subtly drawing attention to the fact that this is literary device. All is unreal.
Lisa Hopkins has written at length and with insight about the epistolary style and other connections between Caudwell and Jane Austen and her piece reminds me that whilst I certainly enjoy Austen in film, in print there has always been something of a barrier. This suggests that it is hardly the themes of Austen’s work that I have struggled with, but rather the somewhat florid late 18th/early 19th Century language. Why use ten words to make a point when twenty, punctuated by commas and additional asides that, admittedly, might sparkle with wit and wisdom, will suffice just as well? In truth Caudwell does embrace this style unapologetically, which may explain my original (virtual) shelving of ‘Adonis’ at first attempt. Perhaps this means too that I am finally prepared to enjoy an Austen. Perhaps not.
Certainly there are innumerable lines from Caudwell’s books that I can imagine an Austen character in a BBC adaptation delivering, dripping in entitlement and period costume. She is eminently quotable. A favourite, from ‘The Shortest Way To Hades’ is this: “A particular tone is used by young men apparently ingenuous to make observations apparently innocent in a manner apparently respectful with the intention of being extremely impertinent: one can hardly hope, in academic life, to be unfamiliar with it.” In the subsequent ‘The Sirens Sang of Murder’, Caudwell’s key narrating character Hilary Tamar returns to the subject of Youth with another charmingly biting barb: “One becomes accustomed in academic life to the unreasonableness of the young. They desire not merely to be understood, but to be understood by telepathy; not merely to be permitted to tell their troubles, but to be prevailed on to do so.”
Much is made by some of the fact that Caudwell never resorts to the baseness of a gender reveal for Hilary, but I admit that from the off I simply made an assumption that Tamar is a woman. Perhaps this is an example of conflating/mistaking the author as narrative voice, or perhaps there is just something in how the character reveals themselves (or more accurately fails to reveal themselves) that feels vaguely feminine. Or at least, appears not particularly masculine. Perhaps too this reluctance to assign gender to Tamar is a means of underpinning the necessarily detached observational logic of the academic/historian/detective. Gender, Caudwell seems to suggest, is really rather an irrelevance in such a context. One wonders what they would make of the 21st Century’s obsession with ever-increasingly macro/micro definitions of identity based on individual sexual preferences. I for one would rather have liked to read those thoughts.
If Austen used her novels to critique the gentry and the rigid social structures of 18th Century England then there is certainly something similar happening throughout Caudwell’s. Populated almost entirely by characters from what one might judiciously call The City and it’s environs, the first three novels in particular are ones that I would very likely have balked at had I come across them when first published in the 1980s (there was an eleven year gap between ‘The Sirens…’ in 1989 and the final novel ‘The Sibyl in Her Grave). Filled with entitled, financially wealthy and self-obsessed individuals, they are situations and characters I would have studiously avoided in fiction as in real life. Some forty years on I am finally at least willing to allow them entry into my choice of fiction.
Flitting between Venice, Corfu and The Channel Islands in the first three novels, much of the narrative, plot and motive for crime centres on inheritance, tax avoidance and, inevitably, the greed that such topics engender and/or encourage in humans. If it is a not altogether positive outlook on life then that is surely a large part of the point Caudwell is making. There is certainly something of an admission of implicit collusion between lawyers and those who, shall we say, may be less scrupulous in their attitudes to the world than we would like to think admirable. Early in the first novel for example comes the observation that “The funeral rites of the rich are a signal for vultures to gather: among whom one may class, with all respect, antique dealers and the Chancery Bar.”
Yet whilst Caudwell admits to the slippery, necessarily confused relationship between lawyers and moral certitude she nevertheless allows herself the pleasure of having her characters pronounce variously barbed opinions. On bankers for example: “He is, after all, a banker – that is to say, he spends his life persuading people to pay for the privilege of lending him money and again for the privilege of borrowing some of it back.” On the Gentry: “he’s as nutty as a fruitcake and ought to be put away somewhere he can’t do any harm – House of Lords or somewhere.” And on men, generally: “My Aunt Regina, so far as I can discover, doesn’t believe that men progress much morally or intellectually after the age of six, and she treats them accordingly.” Ouch.
Additionally, there is a lovely light meta-fictional atmosphere that occasionally wafts across the pages. In particular, at the start of ‘The Sirens Sang of Murder’ a couple of her recurrent characters are themselves involved in an attempt to pen a novel in the Romantic Crime genre, set within the realm of the legal profession. Julia admits that they are keen “to appeal to as wide a public as possible” adding that it seems clear that “readers who want fiction to be like life are considerably outnumbered by those who would like life to be like fiction.” Elsewhere Caudwell has Hilary pondering: “would that I could indeed bring to my task the skills not merely of the Scholar but of the novelist. Would that the historian might be permitted to have regard to Art rather than Truth, and so enliven the narrative with descriptions of scenes known only by hearsay or speculation.” And my favourite, which feels particularly observant and poignant: “People do what books have taught them to do and feel what books have taught them to feel – it is curiously difficult to do otherwise.’”
By the time of ‘The Sibyl in Her Grave’, however, there is a definite sense of a certain darkness falling, and I rather like the fact that this gloom encroaches on a setting which is the (stereo)typical English Village because in doing so Caudwell both self-consciously mocks the gentility of the stereotype and exposes the faint undercurrents of darkness that exists in, say, Christie’s Miss Marple stories. There is too perhaps an inescapable sense of awareness of death and finality hanging over the book, given that Caudwell died of cancer in January of 2000 and so never quite lived to see it published. So whilst it most certainly continues in the marvellously entertaining and engaging manner of the preceding three books, it also certainly is a book that allows in a degree of bleakness and, dare I say it, existential weariness. There is, in its conclusion (and without giving away too much in the form of spoilers) an acceptance of the hand of chance, of logic not always being able to explain occurrences, and of the peculiarly unjust hand of Fate.
There is too a tremendous passage where Hilary Tamar reflects on truth and reality: “…when someone’s entire life is based on pretence, they will seldom if ever return to reality. That is the secret of successful politicians, evangelists and confidence tricksters – they believe they are telling the truth, even when they know that they have faked the evidence.” Tamar concludes by suggesting to her friend and colleague Julia that “Sincerity… is a quality not to be trusted.” Ah, the studied, deeply ingrained cynicism of the academic, the lawyer or, indeed, the novelist. As insightful and prescient in 2021 as it was in 2000 and will no doubt be in 2042. Where would we be without it?
Finally, almost as a concluding aside, interestingly it appears that Caudwell’s books were at the time (and perhaps still) more popular in the USA than the UK, and certainly the American paperback editions have marvellous Edward Gorey illustrations. There is therefore a great temptation to pick these up from the second hand sellers and be damned with the ever-receding amount of available shelf space. Life is too short and all that.
Hello And A Half (feat. Butterfly Child) – anrimeal (from ‘Could Divine, Remembered‘ LP) Wicker Man Song (feat. Rose McDowall) – Nature And Organisation (from ‘Snow Leopard Messiah’ LP) Keep Standing Up – I See Islands (from ‘Within A Light Beam‘ LP) Scorched Sea – Dragon Welding (from ‘Lights Behind The Eyes‘ LP) Equalizer (Alan Merrill demo version) – Rossall (from ‘Blackpool Rocks‘ EP) Final Fires – Strand of Oaks (from ‘Eraserland‘ LP) One Crowded Hour – Augie March (from ‘Moo, You Bloody Choir’ LP) Twenty Three – Stephen Duffy from ‘I Love My Friends‘ LP Teenage – The Attendant (from ‘Audit‘ EP) That’s The Way Love Is – Ben Watt (from ‘Storm Shelter‘ EP) Faraway Near – Looper (digital single) Woncha Come On Home – Joan Armatrading (from ‘Show Some Emotion’ LP) Simply Couldn’t Care – Tracey Thorn (from ‘A Distant Shore’ LP) Always On My Mind – The Catenary Wires (from ‘Birling Gap‘ LP) In the Stone – The Goon Sax (from ‘Mirror II‘ LP) Silver Apples Of The Moon – Alex Rex (from ‘Paradise‘ LP) Tae the Poets – Chris Connelly (from ‘The Birthday Poems‘ LP) Tarot Americaine – World / Inferno Friendship Society (from ‘The True Story Of The Bridgewater Astral League’ LP) Let’s Stay Alive – My Favorite (from ‘Love At Absolute Zero’ LP) Endless Arcade – Teenage Fanclub (from ‘Endless Arcade‘ LP) You Can Count on Me – Ralegh Long (digital single)
There may yet be a glimmer of sunlight at the end of the grey tunnel of gloom that has been May 2021, but I would not place much money on it. It would be nice to able to read in the garden beneath warming rays instead of curled up under a blanket on the sofa, after all. Perhaps too the sun might raise levels of enjoyment, for much of my recent reading has been sadly somewhat underwhelming.
After what was a tremendous start with ‘A Load Of Old Bones’, I have to say that I found Suzette A. Hill’s second instalment in the series to be a disappointment. The multiple narrators still work to a degree throughout ‘Bones In The Belfry’, but I admit I found myself tiring of the voices of Bouncer the dog and Maurice the cat, particularly as in this book they rarely move the narrative on and instead are devoted mostly to recapping in a slightly different way on something that we have already been shown through the words of the vicar, Francis Oughterard. It rather reminds me of those dreadful television news bulletins and ‘magazine’ shows where there is a compulsion to say exactly the same thing several times, often in exactly the same words (but occasionally with a fractionally changed inflection), so concerned are the writers that we are too dim to understand. Also there are, perhaps, only so many witty observations to be made about cat and dog behaviour…
There are a few light meta-fictional touches in ‘Bones In The Belfry’ (a character turns up to write a crime novel about the murder that is at the heart of ‘A Load Of Old Bones’) but these feel a little half hearted and do not really develop as one might hope. Sadly, the peculiar tension between morality and self-preservation, between self-sacrifice and individualist self-interest that permeates oddly through ‘A Load Of Old Bones’ is almost entirely missing here. Instead the thing is almost entirely played for laughs, leaning towards comedy rather than the comic. Perhaps subsequent books recapture something of the charm and strangeness of the first, but on the evidence of ‘Bones In The Belfry’ it may be some time before I feel the desire to find out.
Better by a significant distance is Sarah Caudwell’s 1981 novel ‘Thus Was Adonis Murdered’. Now this had languished unread in my Kindle library for several years, to the point at which my initial impulse to buy and subsequent failure to actually start it are lost forever in the murky mire of my memory. Thankfully a nudge from L.C. Tyler had me loading it up, and goodness, what a wonderful read it is. For much of its length the book utilises the model of novel in letters, with additional cogitation by the series’ title character Hilary Tamar. Tamar as a character is quite lightly drawn in the book, with much of the focus being given to her barrister colleagues, yet this lightness of touch allows really quite concrete and appealing characters to emerge. Mostly this is done through the most marvellous exchanges of dialogue which are so thoroughly redolent of Red Brick University educated professionals as to be almost parodic. Caudwell (Sarah Cockburn) delicately treads the line between farce and thriller, weaving a tremendously well constructed plot with threads of bright humour, literary reference and a splendidly evocative sense of place (her depictions of Venice may be less detailed than Donna Leon’s but are every bit as captivating). As a ‘detective’, Tamar is very much in the mould of the detached thinker, making astute observations and lingering somewhat in the background, and I am certainly intrigued to see how the subsequent novels unfold. Certainly too I hope for something more fulfilling than that provided by the Reverend Oughterard.
Now I have noted several times in the past that the British Library Crime Classics series is a reliable source of good quality reissues that give a tremendous return in terms of enjoyment. I’ve noted too that the broad church of detective fiction means that occasionally a particular title or author fails to hit the (personal) mark, and this is certainly the case with Marie Belloc Lowndes’ 1934 ‘The Chianti Flask’. Perhaps best known for her 1913 novel ‘The Lodger’ (and this perhaps known to more people in the form of Hitchcock’s film adaptation), Lowndes writing, even in 1934, feels stylistically rooted in the Edwardian era. Indeed ‘The Chianti Flask’ reads very much as some kind of Romantic Melodrama with barely a nod to the genre of crime or detection. If one were being kind it might be described as an inverted mystery, but really there is little mysterious about the story, whilst the build up to what feels like an obvious and inevitable reveal feels laboured and tedious rather than suspenseful and thrilling. Unless you are committed to collecting the series or enjoy the florid limpidity of constrained romance, I would leave this one on the shelf.
In contrast, some of my own favourite titles in the British Library series have been the resuscitations of Freeman Wills Croft and his Inspector French, although in recent weeks it is a couple of his titles outside that reissue series that have entertained me. The first of these is ‘The Pit Prop Syndicate’ from 1922, in which some of the foundations for his Inspector French character are sketched out in the form of Scotland Yard detective Willis. As with Belloc’s ‘Chianti Flask’ there is still something of the melodramatic to Wills Croft at this point of his development, particularly in the treatment of the ‘love interest’, but on the whole the pace of the thriller carries this one through. Split into two parts, Wills Croft creates an opportunity to lay the groundwork for his later commitment to the police procedural approach. In the first half of the book therefore we follow two amateur detectives attempting to uncover fraudulent activity, and whilst they Do Their Best in a kind of Richard Hannay ‘Boys Own’ manner, it is clear that only professional involvement can crack the case. ‘The Pit Prop Syndicate’ may not be the best example of Wills Croft’s craft, but it is thoroughly entertaining and an interesting reference in terms of his development as a writer.
Writing as much as one new novel each year, by the time of 1939’s ‘A Fatal Venture’ Wills Croft was well into his stride, with Inspector French an established character and his reputation as the expert in unpicking watertight alibis very much in place. Raymond Chandler once said that in terms of plots, Wills Croft was “the soundest builder of them all” and certainly ‘A Fatal Venture’ has a sturdy storyline peppered with interestingly sketched characters. An infatuation with modes of transport (trains and boats in particular) comes over in many of Wills Croft’s books, and if that manifests itself in the rather cool detachment of factual detail rather than effusive passion, then so be it. One very much knows what one is getting with his books, and with that in mind his Inspector French seldom fails to deliver. He certainly does so here, and with an interesting solution to the key alibi being found through the realms of photography, it is also going to interest anyone who ever wielded a camera as much as to those who appreciate the lines of a steamship.
Perhaps the ongoing onslaught of interminable winter has coloured my thoughts, but there is something marvellously apposite in experiencing the steely grey aesthetic of The Attendant’s ‘Audit’ collection in the midst of a bleak and chilly May. From the industrial glass grey of the 10″ vinyl, through the utilitarian plastic liner (neatly, subtly embossed with the Faux-Lux label logo in one corner) to the slim A5 booklet of poetry and photographs, the whole package is a magnificent Modernist/Brutalist homage to the (sub)urban experience. Originally released on a series of lathe cut singles, the sounds assembled here are the work of Pete Astor and Ian Button, two quietly iconic monuments in the landscape whose varied works with the likes of The Loft, Weather Prophets, Thrashing Doves, Death In Vegas and Papernut Cambridge have surely populated any number of Unpopular record collections in the past three or four decades.
There is something marvellously post-industrial about the act of making and distributing essentially hand-crafted artefacts that simultaneously embrace and reject the Pop prerogative. In this respect the recent resurgent fashion for lathe cut singles is to be applauded. For me they seem to exist in the exquisite void created by digital musical distribution and consumption, a void that Pop rightly insists be filled with Product. You don’t actually PLAY lathe cut singles after all, do you? And even if you do, they pay you back with a louche grin and disintegrate before your very ears like Dorian Gray rapidly decomposing the instant his painting is unveiled. There is also something rather appealing about artists making lathe cut releases in an era when The Vinyl has returned to a position of exalted worship. So, when Major Labels muscle in on the remaining pressing plants with their absurd Anniversary Reissue demands, bullying the tiny independents into the gutter in the process, perhaps the lathe-cut is simply an act borne of necessity. Either way, they are cult collectibles, anti-Pop Pop Art sculptures and political conversation pieces in one delicious package.
‘Audit’ of course is not a lathe-cut artefact but an industrially pressed 10″ vinyl treat for those of us who were too slow and/or insufficiently hip to scoop up the ‘originals’. Those originals were born to an extent in the early semi-apocalyptic haze of the 2020 COVID lockdown, The Attendant appearing disembodied and blinking into the light of eerily emptied city streets, an excuse and a reason to assemble some of Astor’s poetry into a form perhaps more easily consumed in the realms of mediated culture we like to inhabit. Responding instinctively to the (post) Punk edict of do-it-fast and do-it-now (also, do it clean), Astor and Button reacted to their environments and impulses, crafting Astor’s words into concrete form. The end result is not unlike listening to Lou Reed with a soft English accent recounting gently surreal tales of marginal members of extended families (‘Magnificent Aunt Mary’), the hidden complexities of people we think we might know (‘Music On’) and, my own personal favourite, “The hyper-intense banality of those years when everything is achingly, mind-blowingly significant.” (‘Teenage).
‘Audit’ reminds me too of the great suburban surrealism of Animals That Swim; of Robin Hitchcock’s psychedelic urbanity with the humour dialled back to a shade above zero; of Gravenhurst daydreams rotating under a disco ball at midnight; of The Kinks slow dancing with Saint Etienne illuminated in the flickering glow of an 8mm film projector showing a James Fox screen test; of Blue Aeroplanes in sleep mode given a blood transfusion of funk and electronica; of Stephen Duffy living on a hill with Wire as house guests, taking the world apart and reassembling it beatifically off-kilter, just so. A barrage of imagery. A slow burn of reference and illusion. The sound of “Film stock oxidising below” as Astor himself might say.
There is also something neatly cyclical in the idea of ‘Audit’ collecting together collectibles into a slightly more accessible form, in that there is a mirror held up to those inexpensive early Creation compilations where we were encouraged not to scrabble around collector’s zips for 7″s and where perhaps we first heard The Loft and The Weather Prophets. It was always good advice, and I’d certainly suggest snapping up a copy of ‘Audit’ before it too attains the patina of desirable rarity.
‘Audit’ by The Attendant is released on the Faux-Lux label on July 2nd 2021 and can be ordered from Bandcamp. There will be a launch show for ‘Audit’ at The Betsey Trotwood, London, on 2nd July with further live performances to follow.
Should you by any chance be a regular reader of my Unpopular witterings then it will surely come as no surprise when I tell you that I am not A Learned Man. I am certainly no academic. When I say, therefore, that there is a long history of multiple narrators in the English novel, stemming from the early development of the novel in letters, this is not backed up by any in-depth knowledge or vast breadth of reading. Rather it comes from observations of reading a bunch of crime and detective novels and identifying some similar threads of structure. Plus five minutes of reading some articles on the Interwebs. The desire to weave these observations with Serious Research in order to produce some kind of extended academic text is, not to put too fine a point on it, weak almost to the point of non-existence. All I really want to do is (“baby be friends with you…”) tell you about some books I have read and (mostly) enjoyed.
As noted previously, L.C. Tyler uses the multiple (in this case dual) narrator structure to great effect in his Elsie and Ethelred (or perhaps it is ‘The Herring Collection’) series of books. All are tremendously entertaining and hugely enjoyable and I encourage you to explore without delay. Another contemporary(ish) author who was on my recently compiled list of comic crime books to sample was Suzette A. Hill, and I have taken the plunge with the first of her Reverend Oughterard series. First published all the way back in 2007 (the time of The Ancients, surely), ‘A Load Of Old Bones’ is a rather peculiar type of crime novel for a variety of reasons, not least the fact that two of the three narrators are animals, and the third a/the murderer (that last point is hardly a spoiler, in case you were wondering). Expectations are further confused in that it also strays from the expected structure of an inverted mystery. By which I mean there is no mystery for anyone to solve or to prove in court. Not really. Instead there is almost an inversion of the inversion, and questions of moral choices are similarly challenged and somewhat turned on their heads. It’s a tremendous comedic read, with the voices of the cat (Maurice) and the dog (Bouncer) being marvellously captured as cartoonish tropes that nevertheless develop subtly as individual characters throughout the book. This gives the book a pleasant sub-theme where Hill develops the idea of mutual need and trust triumphing over received/mediated divisive stereotypes. That Hill does so in a vibrant, marvellously engaging manner is to be applauded. Also to be cheered is the way in which Hill casts such a breezy air over a tale of such dark and despicable fact. This detachment between reality and fantasy seems to simultaneously grow and diminish as the book unfolds and the murderer seeks to cover his tracks and avoid detection. By the novel’s conclusion I admit that I came away feeling that I had read a marvellous piece of entertainment and yet was also left curiously troubled. There are, it seems, a further five novels in this series, all starring Maurice and Bouncer, and all but the latest (2016’s ‘The Primrose Pursuit’) featuring the Reverend Francis Oughterard and I admit I am intrigued to see how Hill addresses and develops the questions raised in this first outing.
Leo Bruce may not have used multiple narrators in his 1936 book ‘The Case For Three Detectives’ but he does rather marvellously weave in three other fictional detectives alongside his own Sergeant Beef (making his novel debut). I’ve previously only been familiar with Beef through short stories, and I very much enjoyed this first extended outing in which, typically, the sergeant is almost invisible for the entire novel. Almost from the off Beef tells us quietly via the narrator that he knows who the murderer is, but before we find out we must follow the tortuous paths taken by the thinly disguised characters of Lord Peter Wimsey (Lord Simon Plimsoll), Hercule Poirot (Monsieur Amer Picon) and Father Brown (Monsignor Smith). I have no idea what Sayers, Christie or Chesterton thought of this curious ‘homage’ but I do rather hope they took it all in the deliciously lighthearted spirit in which the whole book reads. Bruce gleefully and perceptively picks up the crucial character traits of each of the fictional detectives and has a great deal of fun poking gently at their literary idiosyncrasies. Detective novels of the period are peppered with deft asides that self-mockingly dig at the very medium and genre they are written in, but for the most part this is done with sharp one-liners from any members of the police who may or may not be principal characters. In this case however the entire book is effectively given over to being a confection of raised eyebrows and self-knowing smirks. It’s also a neat method of covering multiple suspects, motives and solutions to the locked room puzzle, cutely puncturing the whole air of ‘look at how CLEVER I am as an author for plotting these devilishly confusing crimes’ that can hang like a depressing pall over some of these books. Metafiction in a comic detective novel of 1936. Who’d have thought.
Going back briefly to touch on the idea of multiple narrators now, it’s probably important to acknowledge that Wilkie Collins of course used this approach in ‘The Moonstone’, a novel which is cast as pivotal in the development of the crime/detective genre. Now I have tried several times to get a grip on Collins and with ‘The Moonstone’ in particular, but every attempt has drawn something of a blank. As previously noted I am far from qualified to cast aspersions on the academic claims to its Importance In The Canon, it’s just that I have always found it (and Collins generally) somewhat impenetrable and more than a little dull. Doubtless this says more about me that it does about the book (and doubtless too there are calls of ‘kettle’ and ‘black’ at this point), and perhaps in future years the blindfold will be removed and its genius fully revealed to me but until such times I shall continue to drift along with my stock response of ‘Wilkie Collins… meh…’
I have a similar attitude towards Mary Kelly, whose novels ‘The Christmas Egg’, ‘The Spoilt Kill’ and (most recently) ‘Due To A Death’ have all been reissued in the British Library Classic Crime series. Of the three my favourite is certainly ‘The Christmas Egg’, yet I say that whilst acknowledging also that it is probably the least ‘good’ in terms of literary worth. Here is (often) the rub with crime/detective novels: the apparently ‘best written’ and ‘most literary’ can also be the least engaging and entertaining. Kelly’s ‘Spoilt Kill’ and ‘Due To A Death’ certainly fall into this trap for me, with each being undeniably well crafted and full of a literary grit that is admirable. Both books use the foundation of the crime novel as a basis for exploring Bigger Issues, and unless you are a Right Wing Daily Mail reading Gammon (surely impossible if you are reading Unpopular) it’s hard not to sympathise with those. In the case of ‘The Spoilt Kill’ those issues are around class, industry, commerce, love and money. In ‘Due To Death’ these class/commerce issues are still there, working alongside questions of illegitimacy, unwanted pregnancy and patriarchal attitudes. Yet whilst ‘Spoilt Kill’ still quite obviously uses the crime novel structure on which to hang everything else, this is pushed to, or indeed beyond the limit in ‘Due To A Death’. It could be argued that it’s in the inverted mystery sub-genre, but that would be stretching things because the ‘mystery’ or ‘crime’ is initially so vaguely referenced that one wonders if it’s really a crime at all, and maybe it’s just me, but my mind was certainly wandering as the book went on, to the point of skimming and skipping to see if anything was really going to happen. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that it really doesn’t. Which might be the point, but… There is some exquisite use of language in the book that is very much to Kelly’s credit. I particularly like how she describes “squalls slashing up the estuary, streaming over the windscreen, curdling like smoke on the roads.” There are also some very eloquent and perceptive observations on power and class, such as when her narrator describes the site of a re-purposed Country House: “It was far enough from the river once to have been the home of the rich; but even here they no longer lived. Their large houses had become their utilities: schools, golf clubs, hotels, clinics.” Elsewhere the question of being wealthy enough to be beyond the law resonates particularly strongly in 2021: “They’ll hook you for your paltry two thousand. You must chisel in millions before they’ll let you get by.” Ah, the fluid standards of the hyper-capitalist societies we are forced to inhabit. And yet for me this sharply observed critique of late 1950s and early 1960s UK society is not quite enough, and whilst ‘Due To A Death’ might conceivably land on the pedestal of classic literary novel, it struggles to convince as a crime one.
“‘I used to think that my life was an Agatha Christie novel,’ I said. ‘A little convoluted, but essentially well-ordered and civilised. I’m beginning to think it may be more Raymond Chandler.’”
Last time out I was talking about comic crime/detective stories and made reference to some that I was hoping to catch up on. Top of that list were the two most recent books in the Elsie and Ethelred series by L.C. Tyler, which I am rather ashamed to say almost passed me by. I have said this before and I will say it again, but I do find it difficult to keep track of contemporary releases by artists, be that music or books. Mostly this is, it must to said, My Own Fault, for I have long since struggled to find the time to read journals (physical or virtual) that might alert me to such things. In the virtual world I recall there was a period where it was so easy to set up RSS feeds from blogs I enjoyed, but that all seemed to go the way of the Dodo when Whoever Decides These Things proclaimed that RSS was Old Tech (that was someone at Google no doubt, who canned Google Reader) and that everyone was Doing Social Media instead. There was probably some significant degree of truth in that decision, and Time Waits For No Geek after all, so blah. Or Blah. Or even BLAH.
So it took a reference to the form of the comic novel in a comment by the author Stuart David, a delve into a back issue of CADS, a subsequent spark of ‘oh YES, L.C. Tyler’ and a tangential waddle across to Goodreads to see what I might have missed for me to Get With It. At which point I realised I had missed not only the cosmic coincidence of a just published ‘Farewell My Herring’ being beautifully lined up for me, but also the previous entry in the Elsie and Ethelred series ‘The Maltese Herring’. And yes, since you ask, it is only now that I realise I could just have ‘followed’ Mr Tyler on Goodreads, or indeed on The Social Media to find out what he might have been up to. But really. The Social Media. It’s such a cesspit of gloom and bile (interrupted occasionally by videos of cute animals doing amusing things) generally, isn’t it? The temptation to permanently disengage is so strong these days.
By some strange coincidence that of course is no coincidence at all, there is something of this thread in ‘Farewell My Herring’, as Elsie and Ethelred find themselves snowed in at a Crime Writing Workshop high in the Yorkshire Dales, without phone signal or (gasp) Access To The Internet. Now if you are some (ahem) snowflake Millennial undergoing an endless identity crisis (I jest – some of my best friends are Millennials with identity crises) you will doubtless have to imagine such horror. Those of us who are old and more than grumpy enough will be able to remember such a thing with gooey-eyed fondness and will doubtless nod in appreciation of the observation, expressed by the marvellously prickly and chocolate addicted Elsie that “It’s only the twenty-first century that thinks it has to be online twenty-four seven in order not to miss out.”
So this thread of disconnection from the online world is one that permeates the book, yet it also goes hand in hand with another thread, which is about the propagation of conspiracy theory within ‘pre-Internet’ networks of local gossip and story-telling (the bonkers idea of one character being a CIA agent). Thus Tyler adeptly juggles themes and makes points by writing in character, making observations about The World without sounding insufferably dull and worthy. Inevitably too there is something of the very contemporary notion of Living Through Lockdown in the sense of the characters being locked into the same space and unable to leave without the very real danger of death or serious injury. Of course this might be a case of one of those cosmic coincidences dropping into the thread of the (my) world, and I do wonder if anyone reading the book at some point in the future will make this connection? Perhaps not.
A rather more likely reading of the book from the future, given the setting of a snowed-in Victorian house, is an expectation that this might, at any point, turn into a ‘Christmas Murder Mystery’. Well it hardly needs a spoiler alert to say that the book resolutely refuses to follow that expectation whilst simultaneously teasingly leading us on. As one of the characters points out: “as a crime writer, I am well aware how inadvisable it is to kill somebody when snowed in at a house in the middle of nowhere with no escape route.” and anyone familiar with the genre will immediately start thinking of all those snowed-in murder mysteries (re)published in November/December in recent years with their cover illustrations of Country Houses cloaked in the blue/purple hues of moonlit snowscapes. Step forward the likes of J. Jefferson Farjeon’s ‘Mystery In White’ (okay, this one has an illustration of a train stuck in a snowdrift, but didn’t the runaway success of the 2014 reissue of this 1937 novel kick this all off?), Francis Duncan’s ‘Murder for Christmas’ (1949) and Jill McGowan’s marvellous ‘Murder At The Old Vicarage’ (a relatively unusual late 1980s pleasure for me). Elsie would most certainly approve.
My own favourite amongst this sub-genre of Snowbound Crime/Detective Novels Set In Or Around The Festive Season however would be Lorna Nicholl Morgan’s wonderful ‘Another Little Murder’. Originally published in 1947, this is the book which I most instinctively thought of whilst enjoying ‘Farewell My Herring’, not least because the inclusion of the word ‘Christmas’ in the title of the reissues is at best a shrewd marketing ploy, for the story really has almost nothing to do with the festive season at all. Now although Tyler makes no specific reference to any of these books in his text, there is an offhand reference to Gladys Mitchell, whose ‘Murder In The Snow’ from 1950 would certainly be a delightful addition to any pile of seasonal reads. There are also numerous mentions aside to John Dickson Carr, but since I still find his books to be, on the whole, insufferably smug, I will pass swiftly on.
From the outset of the nine book series Tyler has used the technique of two different narrators, with Elsie and Ethelred each moving the story forwards from their own perspectives. As a technique it works well in allowing each character to develop and to firmly establish their relationships with other characters and inevitably with each other. It means that one of the many pleasures of the books are the exchanges of dialogue between the two. My favourite of these exchanges in ‘Farewell My Herring’ is almost certainly one where Ethelred leads with “He’d have been thrown out of the Crime Writers’ Association, if they ever do throw anyone out. If he’d stayed a comic crime writer he would at least have had some respect.” To which comes Elsie’s swift rejoinder of “Not much”. Ouch. In ‘The Maltese Herring’ meanwhile, there is a marvellous exchange under Ethelred’s narration: “‘How many scheming dames with mouths like a scarlet gash have tried to seduce you for their own crooked purposes?’ ‘Just the one,’ I said. ‘I turned her down.’ ‘How many times have you been beaten up by a corrupt cop in a grimy alleyway?’ ‘Not at all,’ I said. ‘Just scammed by academics.’ ‘Doesn’t sound like Chandler,’ said Elsie. ‘Maybe Edmund Crispin on a quiet day.’”
The Crispin reference, as I have said many times in the past and will repeat ad nauseam in the future, is entirely apt, for it is Crispin’s effortless, featherweight lightness of comic touch that these novels of Tyler’s most resemble to my eyes. The similarities extend too into how both authors explore post-modern notions of metafiction within their stories. Crispin, writing from the 1940s to the 1970s, is deliciously knowing and relatively sparing in breaking the third wall. Tyler, meanwhile, as a 21st Century author is almost gleeful in abusing the form. In many respects I suppose it is meta-meta: Tyler knowingly poking fun at the very knowingness he has his characters display as the books unfold (from their titles inwards and onwards). Indeed, in a supreme moment of inverted self-mockery he has Ethelred proclaim (in ‘Farewell My Herring’) “I hate metafiction”. LOL.
It is inevitably true that most of us likely also hate metafiction when we are excluded (for whatever reason) from the in-jokes. As such it is impossible for me to judge how others might react to the comic knowingness of Tyler’s Elsie and Ethelred books, yet I suspect that there is more than enough to enjoy without any knowledge whatsoever of crime/detective fiction’s rich tapestry. These books are, like the early Flavia De Luce stories by Alan Bradley, deceptively light and breezy reads. Both ‘The Maltese Herring’ and ‘Farewell My Herring’ are, like all the preceding books in the series, hugely enjoyable contemporary comic romps that are shot through with more than enough marvellously rewarding jibes and referential homages for those who want to see them. Now I just need to figure out how best to be kept in the loop for future instalments.