In our isolation bunkers

So what have you been reading as you hunker down in your isolation bunkers waiting for the end of the world? We’ve been guilty of tearing through all the choicest treats in the first few days, by which we pretty much mean we have devoured Pete Paphides’ ‘Broken Greek’ in a couple of sittings. For those of us Of A Certain Age and with a predilection for A Certain Kind Of Music, ‘Broken Greek’ is a delicious treat where Pete comes over as a marvellous kind of Adrian Mole narrator of Bob Stanley’s ‘Yeah, Yeah, Yeah’. Funny in a gentle way. Soft yet strong. The usual lines you know by now. We are of course very much on board with many of Pete’s musical obsessions, and whilst there may be some who grew up in the eighventies for whom every single reference rings true, frankly we rather hope not, for it is as much in our differences that we find true connection and empathy. Thus, whilst we wholeheartedly applaud fascinations with Dexys, Teardrop Explodes and ABBA, we equally shake our heads in befuddlement at the esteem in which Pete seems to hold Queen and, to a lesser extent, Boomtown Rats. The specifics, however, whilst being entirely the point are simultaneously not the point at all because what is more important is the sense of underlying loyalty to the/a cause. Sticking by them through thick and thin. We’ve all had our Boomtown Rats and we’ve all had our Barron Knights, after all. We’ve all even had our Racey, and you’d be either lying or insufficiently invested in music/your chosen area of cultural interest to say otherwise.

It’s all rather the same with families, which is probably why ‘Broken Greek’ works so well as a memoir. Whilst it brims with love and warmth it is never (overtly) sentimental or eye-rollingly sensationalist. And thank goodness for that. More than anything it shows us that whilst there are assuredly beautiful tales to be told in every family it does take the gift of a great writer to make those stories connect. In other words, if we separate the memoir from the music or the music from the memoir, neither would be as splendid as the whole. It is the deceptively simple conceit of using personal history to drive a narrative of musical history (and, crucially, vice-versa) that makes ‘Broken Greek’ work so magnificently. It is an approach that allows the careful positioning of pauses, breaks from the action, tangential manoeuvres or whatever. Even the references to soccer are brief enough to have us giving them the benefit of the doubt. ‘Broken Greek is a marvellously heartening triumph.

Elsewhere we stumbled on Victor Canning’s 1934 classic ‘Mr Finchley Discovers his England’ and have been throughly charmed. A somewhat surreal romp through mostly the South West of England, it may be especially delightful for anyone familiar with places such as the Wellington monument, Dartmoor and St Ives (Somerset, Devon and Cornwall feature strongly) and for those intrigued by the social structures of pre-WW2 England, but it’s charm certainly goes deeper than that. It’s true greatness lies in the way Canning paints his portrait of the titular Mr Finchley as a middle class gentleman struggling to come to terms with a sense of personal freedom and identity within societal structures of class, work and leisure. Canning astutely challenges notions of leisure time, making us aware through Finchley’s actions and thoughts of how those notions are largely mediated and controlled by our cultures and society structures. Through a bizarre set of circumstances Finchley is initially forced (and subsequently chooses) to throw off the shackles of these expectations to become truly ‘free’, yet all the while remaining aware that even this freedom is illusory because of his underpinning job security and wealth. So Finchley is part Reginald Perrin, part George Grossmith’s ’Nobody’, part E.M. Delafield’s glorious ‘Provincial Lady’ and part Every Single Middle Class Professional Who Ever Felt The Ennui Of The Daily Grind. It’s all oddly prescient and slightly depressingly timeless.

If we are looking forward to reading more of Mr Finchley’s adventures then we are equally eager to continue our already well established diet of George Bellairs titles. Like many, our interest in Bellairs was piqued by the British Library Crime Classics reissues and since then we’ve been eagerly devouring the steady stream of Inspector Littlejohn books that are being re-published by the Bellairs estate. We mentioned previously how Bellairs is particularly effective in evoking a sense of place, and having since read a large number of Littlejohn’s investigations (formal and informal) on the Isle Of Man we have to admit that we have spent many hours poring over maps and sneaking into Streetview. When the world resumes some semblance of normality we have vowed to catch a ferry with our bicycles and explore some of the countryside that Bellairs fell in love with and subsequently wrote about with such warmth. Naturally we would be prepared for disappointment in so far as we realise much of the appeal of Bellairs’ books is in historical escapism as much as anything else, but equally we know that solitude and the closeness of landscape can transport us in much the same way that words can. Does Bellairs develop his characters much within a book or even across a sequence? Not particularly, no, but character development is seldom close to the top of the list of success criteria for detective stories. Instead Bellairs focuses his attention on strong narratives that eschew convoluted plots but choose instead to consider human relationships, and by drawing spare but effective pen portraits. If one were looking for a deep well from which to slake one’s thirst for detective stories in the coming months, then Bellairs’ is certainly one worth drinking from.

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