Unpop 215 – May 2022

Download disc 1

If After Weeks Of Early Sun – Hannah Peel & Paraorchestra (from ‘The Unfolding‘ LP)
Night Falls Over Parted Air As The Sky Widens – Yves Malone (from ‘Upon Chrome Skies Rides A Pale Horse‘ LP)
Limpet Dance – Luminous Foundation (from ‘Luminous Foundation Presents Haig Fras‘ LP)
Somewhere – Arch Brockie (from ‘Agnes Angus‘ LP)
Moulding Heaven With Earth – Abrasive Trees (from ‘Moulding Heaven With Earth​/​Kali Sends Sunflowers‘)
You Won’t Remember This – Orca, Attack (from Superpolar Taïps #29)
Owlight – Meadowsilver (from ‘Meadowsilver II‘ LP)
A Lyke Wake Dirge – Burd Ellen (digital single)
Pierced Arrows (acoustic) – Hurray For The Riff Raff (digital single)
White, Upon Your Grave – Lightning In A Twilight Hour (from ‘overwintering‘ LP)
bring to me your open wounds – Kathryn Joseph (from ‘for you who are wronged‘ LP)
Staring at the Henry Moore – Aldous Harding (from ‘Warm Chris‘ LP)
Timothy Grub – Vashti Bunyan (from ‘Just Another Diamond Day’ LP)
Violet May – Alison Cotton (from ‘The Portrait You Painted Of Me‘ LP)
Litres Into Metres / Susurrus – Haress (from ‘Ghosts‘ LP)
The Symphonies Of Danny La Rue – Telefís (from ‘a hAon‘ LP)

Download disc 2

Murder By Heartbreak (The Anchoress Remix) – Dot Allison (from ‘The Entangled Remix‘ EP)
Black Dog – Jill Lorean (from ‘This Rock‘ LP)
I’ve Got A New Heartache – Kitty Wells (from ‘The Wonderful World Of Depressing Country Music‘ CD)
Don’t Say No – Ruthann Friedman (from ‘Heroes & Villains – The Sound Of Los Angeles 1965-1968‘ 3CD Box Set)
Little Girl Lost And Found – The Garden Club (YouTube)
Spinning, Spinning, Spinning – The Ballroom (YouTube)
New Hard Times (stereo LP version) – The Stone Poneys (from ‘Heroes & Villains – The Sound Of Los Angeles 1965-1968‘ 3CD Box Set)
You’ve Never had it so Bad – A.J. Holmes (from ‘A Better Standard of Ordinariness‘ LP)
Age Of Finding Stars – David Long and Shane O’Neill (from ‘Age Of Finding Stars‘ LP)
I’m Leaving You Because I Don’t Love You – Jens Lekman
Easy Listeners – Bart Davenport (from ‘Episodes‘ LP)
Getting Nowhere Fast – Girls At Our Best (from ‘Pleasure‘ 3CD reissue)
Don’t Wait For A Sign – jeanines (from ‘Don’t Wait For A Sign‘ LP)
Do Nothing ‘Till You Hear From Me – MICK TROUBLE (from ‘It’s Mick Trouble’s Second LP‘)
Solid Gold (featuring Amelia Fletcher) – Red Sleeping Beauty (digital single)
Instant Gratification – Gemma Rogers (from ‘No Place Like Home‘ LP)
The Comeback Kid – Dolour (digital single)
Sinister Smile – Papercuts (from ‘Past Life Regression‘ LP)
Halcyon Tide – Beneather (from ‘Beneather‘ LP)
Folding – Erasers (from ‘Constant Connection‘ LP)
Down – Swell (from ‘…Well?’ LP. R.I.P. David Freel)
Old Square Hip Cats – The New Existentialists (from ‘The GDH Smoke Machine – Booklovers‘ tape)
Tiny Marks – Gordon McIntyre (from ‘Even With The Support Of Others‘ LP)
Rainbows In Windows – The Hanging Stars (from ‘Hollow Heart’ LP)

History Vs The Future

Last month I wrote about how much I was looking forward to reading the final three novels of Josephine Tey’s Inspector Grant series and to see if I might agree with the view of the British Crime Writers’ Association that ‘The Daughter of Time’ is THE greatest crime novel ever written. That particular claim was made in 1990, and whilst I know there have been many fine crime and detective novels written in the intervening three decades and that it is for future generations to assign Golden, Silver, Bronze, Tin, Plastic or whatever ages to particular genres of culture, I can’t help but doubt there might have been anything to usurp it from that position. After all, if that eminent gaggle of experts deemed Tey’s novel better than a Sayers, a Hammet or a Chandler then What Hope anyone writing after 1990?

Before coming to my own decisions on this, however, I thought I had best do things in the right order, which brings us to ‘To Love And Be Wise’, the fourth of the Inspector Grant series which was published in 1950. Now ‘The Franchise Affair’ from two years previously could reasonably be argued as barely belonging to the Grant Series at all, given that the Inspector appears only fleetingly in a supporting role. In this it feels as though Tey is experimenting with the form of the crime/detective novel whilst still feeling the need to pin it into the series that she started before WW2, however loosely. Arguably Tey’s ultimate experiment in form would come with ‘The Daughter Of Time’ but that was still a year in the future when ‘To Love And Be Wise’ made its appearance and as such it feels like a bridge between these two flares of experimentation, perhaps easily dismissed as something that rather treads water before the next big push forward. That would be a harsh judgement, however, for ‘To Love And Be Wise’ is a terrific and highly entertaining example of fine post-WW2 detective fiction. It is the book where Tey regroups and clarifies her ideas about the Inspector Grant character, fleshing him out from the bare bones established in ‘The Man In The Queue’ and ‘A Shilling For Candles.’

Gone almost entirely are the casual racist and sexist outbursts that uncomfortably pepper those two books, and indeed this is true generally for the detective fiction writers whose work spans the period of WW2. In particular it is agonisingly poignant to note that the causal antisemitism of the 1920s and 1930s is almost entirely erased in their books from the 1940s onwards. In Tey’s case specifically, it is as though ‘The Franchise Affair’ was a necessary trial separation between author and character, each withdrawing to question their position in the relationship before reuniting and Giving It Another Go. ‘To Love And Be Wise’ then is a return to a more recognisable detective fiction form with Inspector Grant investigating the disappearance of a young American photographer from the stereotypically picturesque English village of Salcott St. Mary. It’s classic Golden Age in structure, assemblage of character and location, yet it also feels ineffably Other. A lingering sense of unease hangs over everything, as though in recognition that whilst many might wish to attain/regain a Lost England, this is as elusive and imaginary as it always was. Just as a vision of a Romantic English Rural Idyll was mediated between 1914 and the 30s as a vision of What We Are Fighting (and thereafter Fought) For, so it returns here as an illusory spectre. In Tey’s hands though, this illusion is exactly that, and the novel leads us enthusiastically through a landscape of inevitable change in the face of stubborn nostalgia for a knowingly semi-fictional past. The village is overrun with wealthy Artistic types (“Every third cottage in the place has an alien in it”) and there is a lovely edge of awareness that the Americanisation of England is well and truly underway. So when Miss Fitch notes that “‘any American pays a girl attentions. It is a conditioned reflex. As automatic as breathing.’” it is tinged with both regret and delight.

It could be said too that ‘To Love And Be Wise’ is a prescient study in gender identity and that it continues to develop the theme of women’s position in the post-war society that were broached in ‘The Franchise Affair’. As with ‘The Franchise Affair’ it can be difficult to pin down Tey’s stance on feminism as her characters often suggest either an ambivalence or a coagulation of conflicted opinions. Reflecting on a piece of cross-stitch crafted by one of the characters, Tey has Grant note: “What a lot of leisure women seemed to have had once. Now they had everything in cans and had no leisure at all. But no, it wasn’t that, of course. It was that they didn’t spend their leisure making texts in coloured wools any more. They went to see Danny Minsky and laughed themselves sick for one-and-tuppence, and if you asked him it was a better way of recovering from the day’s work than making meaningless patterns in purple cross-stitch.” Nor can Tey resist a little self-indulgence in metafiction. She may not break the fourth wall as extravagantly as Edmund Crispin, for example, but a closing comment of “‘You mistook your vocation, Grant. You’re a very good detective, but as a writer of detective fiction you’d make a fortune.’” is as delicious as any other author working in the field.

‘To Love And Be Wise’ then may not be regarded as a particularly precious jewel in Tey’s crown, but it’s still undeniably entertaining and is an essential piece of the puzzle that leads to the brilliance of ‘The Daughter Of Time’, the book that topped the aforementioned British Crime Writers’ Association list of 100 Best Crime Novels back in 1990.

As is the nature of such things, the list itself is a contentious one, not least for the inclusion of books that one might argue belong in the Spy Thriller genre rather than Crime. Defining the boundaries of a genre is always a humorous exercise of course. Personally I’d probably let Le Carré sneak into Crime, but only with his early books, whilst drawing the line at Fleming and Buchan. And much as I love Eric Ambler’s books, I still file him distinctly in my Espionage Thriller shelves. As for Alistair MacLean? Terrific populist thriller writer, but ‘Guns Of Navarone’ as a Crime Novel? I’ll take a lot of convincing. Still, looking on the bright side, if including espionage and war thrillers into the list allows Geoffrey Household’s peerless ‘Rogue Male’ to make it into the top 15 then perhaps it is a blurring of boundaries that is worth those arguments; fleetingly enjoyable and ultimately pointless as they might be.

There would inevitably be arguments over those titles ‘legitimately’ in the list too. Me, I’m not much keen on anything written prior to 1914, which means that whilst I appreciate the importance of Wilkie Collins as a foundation layer for the genre, the books themselves leave me colder than a February night lost in a Cornish mizzle. Similarly, the overworked tedium of Erskine Childers’ 1903 effort ‘Riddle Of The Sands’ is lucky to have only just crept into the list at 93, whilst E.C. Bentley’s ‘Trent’s Last Case’ from a decade later features only at 34, appearing to have lost, by 1990, some of the appeal it once held for Crime novelists in the Golden Age when it was very much seen as the defining moment in kicking off the party, as it were. I remember feeling distinctly underwhelmed when I read it myself some years ago, the more so as it came after gleefully devouring Sayers and Allingham. Naturally, as with Collins, I grant ‘Trent’s Last Case’ a degree of appreciation as being Of Historical Significance, but whilst it’s a diverting enough read, there are many, many more books that have brought me more pleasure.

All of which is a prolonged means of arriving back to the top of the list and wondering if ‘The Daughter Of Time’ really does deserve its place ahead of Chandler’s ‘The Big Sleep’. The obvious answer is yes and/or no. This is a cop out of course, predicated largely on the fact that I find it very difficult to compare British and American crime/detective novels. It has always felt to me that they are very different beasts, each fired through with unique flavours (or, indeed, flavors) lent by different ingredients. Similarities exist, of course, but it’s like comparing a cask strength sour mash bourbon with a 41% Speyside dram finished in Pedro Ximenez casks. Or, to extend the analogy, what about throwing in some delicious Calvados, for the lack of any Simenon in the list is surely the biggest travesty of all? I’d have something by Léo Malet in there too, for what it’s worth, and incidentally, it’s a travesty too that his Nestor Burma books have not been reissued in English translations since the early 1990s.

Regardless of arguments about what is and who isn’t featured on that 1990 list, however, it is fair to say that ‘The Daughter Of Time’ should be at, or near the top, for it really is an astonishing novel that effortlessly blends experimentation with entertaining readability. Tey notably saw her detective novels as being less intellectually worthy than her other writing (a dozen one-act plays, another dozen full-length plays and three non-genre novels under the name of Gordon Daviot), famously calling the Grant novels her ‘knitting’. There is certainly a sense that perhaps Tey used her experience as a playwright to structure ‘The Daughter Of Time’ around a static setting, for it is easy to visualise the book as a stage set with Inspector Grant alone in his hospital bed. Occasional visitors drift in and out, but the majority of the ‘action’ is Grant’s interrogation of texts to determine ‘truth’ from ‘fiction’. This interest in mediated information is a common thread to a greater or lesser degree in all of Tey’s novels, but it feels as though it reaches its ultimate and perhaps purest form here, as there is literally no other centre of narrative action other than the hospital room and Grant’s thought processes. This central theme that circles around the deceit of historical accuracy is naturally what gives ‘The Daughter of Time’ its ageless quality. Reading the book in 2022 whilst war rages in Europe is unnerving, although Grant’s observation that “A frisson of horror may go down one’s spine at wholesale destruction but one’s heart stays unmoved. A thousand people drowned in floods in China are news: a solitary child drowned in a pond is tragedy” is perhaps slightly less accurate than in a period of ‘peace’. Whether this says more about human nature or the power of media, however, I’m not sure. Then there is another startlingly modern moment where Inspector Grant notes that “As far as he, Alan Grant, was concerned Thomas More was washed out, cancelled, deleted”. To see such words used specifically in such a context back in 1950 is quite startling. There is Nothing New and all that.

There are solid arguments to be made for ‘The Daughter Of Time’ being the prototype for the Historical Crime Novel and the Cold Case sub-genre, but of course the key pleasure to be derived from the book is that whilst it may anticipate both of these it is deliciously free of any preconceptions of what those kinds of texts should look like. Most critically, whilst Tey elegantly conjures The Past, she does so without any clumsy reliance on Brand Names and tedious description of details that show how carefully she might have Done Her Research. Instead, the conjuring of place and time occurs almost as a series of glancing touches, momentary exposures that reveal the ghosts of impermanence. There is a glorious moment where Grant notes, whilst meditating on the/his past that “He had forgotten the excitement of transfers. That wonderfully satisfying moment when you began the peeling-off and saw that it was coming perfectly. The adult world held few such gratifications.” Quite apart from the shared memory of a childhood delight in the things themselves, it’s the metaphor of the transfer as a process of unveiling The Picture that resonates so strongly. Elements of narrative coalesce into the unveiling of The Moment, whose immediate clarity is so exciting and yet immediately begins to fade just as knowledge and memory erase themselves in our consciousness.

Certainly Inspector Grant gets an enormous amount of enjoyment unearthing the ‘truth’ and ‘fiction’ behind Richard III and the case of the Princes In The Tower and Tey expertly avoids the potential for a somewhat dry expose by introducing a few marvellously sketched supporting characters, all of whom appear to be referred to solely as either surnames or nicknames. These characters allow Tey to playfully engage in a range of observations, not least an extended rant about the Covenanters from Tey’s Scottish past. Unfavourably compared to the I.R.A., they are described as “A small irreconcilable minority, and as bloodthirsty a crowd as ever disgraced a Christian nation.” It’s harsh stuff, but it does neatly puncture any romantic notions of them as oppressed outsiders. Then there is a great take on how “‘Cromwell started that inverted snobbery from which we are all suffering today. “I’m a plain man, I am; no nonsense about me.” And no manners, grace, or generosity, either.’” Classic. Best of all though is the throwaway line where Grant is told he is “about as much use to a girl as a last year’s Vogue.” Ouch.

So yes, ‘The Daughter Of Time’ is a book about challenging preconceptions and accepted truth, but it is far too self-aware to be either preachy or abstruse. It is instead humorous, illuminating, erudite and endlessly entertaining; as marvellously rewarding in 2022 as it must have felt in 1950 or will at any point in the future.

It is of course a tragedy that Josephine Tey should die at the age of 55, leaving ‘The Daughter Of Time’ as a fitting memorial. Yet the posthumously published ‘The Singing Sands’ certainly suggests that her Inspector Grant series could have rewarded us with more magnificent books. ‘The Singing Sands’ turns on another moment of historical investigation, this one rooted in the exploration of legend and reality in ‘The City of The Pillars’, lost in the Rub Al Khali. It may be a neat historical thread that weaves through the book, but in reality the book is another terrific return to more traditional structure, much as ‘To Love And Be Wise’ was after ‘The Franchise Affair’. That structure allows Tey to more physically visit landscapes, and her descriptions of the Scottish highlands and the Western Isles are marvellously evocative. Tey’s Scottish roots are certainly in evidence in ‘The Singing Sands’ but her national pride is tempered by a self-awareness that is admirable as she notes that “The quality of Scottishness was a highly concentrated essence, and should always be diluted. As an ingredient it was admirable; neat, it was as abominable as ammonia.” Quite.

Difficult to read without the penetrating knowledge that Tey must have been writing these words in the final months of terminal liver cancer, the book, whilst hardly wallowing in gloom, nevertheless allows Inspector Grant (and Tey) to explore the dark realm of mental health. Tey sensitively captures the feelings of anxiety experienced by Grant as he struggles to retain some semblance of ‘normal’, whilst simultaneously acknowledging that such notions of ‘normalcy’ are fluid at best. Grant’s immersion in the past, his desire to physically move, to Work Through/Out the issues feel remarkably Modern and another example of Tey’s remarkable ability in her post-WW2 work to be both Of The Time and ageless. She’s terrific at exposing the mythology of City vs Country too, noting that “‘Only people who live in towns are fresh-air fiends. Country people like a nice fug as a change from unlimited out-of-doors.’”, whilst there is a pointed dig at the enthusiasm shown by anthropological explorers ‘discovering’ the culture of the Isles: “Except for the delight of the people themselves in the thing, it was a sufficiently dull affair. The songs were musically negligible; some of them deplorable. If this was the kind of thing that people came to the Hebrides to ‘gather’, then they were hardly worth the gathering.” Quite, again.

And, again, there is a return to Tey’s fascination with media, as Grant notes resignedly in the opening pages that “It was yesterday’s paper, but it might equally be last year’s or next month’s. The headlines would for ever be the ones that he was looking at now: the Cabinet row, the dead body of the blonde in Maida Vale, the Customs prosecution, the hold-up, the arrival of an American actor, the street accident.” Much later he revisits this theme, noting that “Every day I swear that never again will I read a daily paper, and every morning there is the blasted thing lying waiting for me to open it and every morning I open it. It upsets my digestive juices, and hardens my arteries, and my face falls with a thud… but I have to have my daily dose of poison.” Substitute ‘Twitter’ or ‘Facebook’ for ‘daily paper’ and the phrases resonate with alarming accuracy in the present day. It’s as if humanity has learned nothing in the intervening 70 years.

I’m not much of a one for revisiting books on an even irregular basis. There are always new things to unearth, after all, even (especially) if they are old. But with Josephine Tey I suspect that ‘The Franchise Affair’ and ‘The Daughter Of Time’ at the very least will buck that trend in the years to come. I’m almost looking forward to it already.

Unpop 214

Download Disc 1

All Dressed In Rain – Bart Davenport (from ‘Episodes‘ LP)
Dr Pong (Edit) – Pale Blue Eyes (digital single)
Folk Song – Carson McHone (from ‘Still Life‘ LP)
The World is a Closed Door – Adam Geoffrey Cole & Grey Malkin (from lathe cut 7″ / digital single)
On A Mountain – Dan Weltman (from ‘Rivers In My Mind‘ LP)
lion heart – Stanley Brinks & Freschard (from ‘Lion Heart‘ LP YouTube)
Far Rider – Still Corners (digital single)
Start Again – Those Pretty Wrongs (from ‘Those Pretty Wrongs / Zed for Lulu‘ reissue LPs)
The Girl In A Gene Clark Song – Starry Eyed And Laughing (from ‘Bells of Lightning‘ LP)
Resplendent In A Darkness – The Monochrome Set (from ‘Allhallowtide‘ LP)
English Rose – Peter Hall (from ‘I Found That Essence Rare‘ compilation LP)
Away – Darren Hanlon (from ‘Life Tax‘ LP)
Murmuration – Clara Engel (from ‘Their Invisible Hands‘ LP)
Romantic – Lande Hekt (from 7″ single)
April Of My Life – Young Guv (from ‘Guv III‘ LP)
A Breeze – Erasers (from ‘Constant Connection‘ LP)
Aurora – Loop (from ‘Sonancy‘ LP)
Back To The Radio – Porridge Radio (from ‘Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder To The Sky‘ LP)
You’re On Your Own – Simon Love (from ‘Love, Sex and Death etc‘ LP

Download Disc 2

Christ Is a Tomb – David Peel & The Lower East Side (from ‘And The Rest Is History : The Elektra Recordings’)
People Who Died – The Jim Carroll Band (from ‘Catholic Boy’ LP)
Me and the Riddle Tree – Mick Trouble (from ‘It’s Mick Trouble’s Second LP‘)
Drive You Home – Wesley Gonzalez (from ‘Wax Limousine‘ LP)
Angelica – Wet Leg (from ‘Wet Leg’ LP)
Heard About Your Band – Brakes (from ‘(Presenting Brakes !Live!) Rock Is Dodelijk’ LP)
Folly – Sea Power (from ‘Everything Was Forever‘ LP)
Put This Right – Billy Mackenzie (from ‘Satellite Life – Recordings 1994 – 96‘ 3CD set)
Tape Deck – Ellis Island Sound (digital single)
Everything Is Going To Be Alright – Princess Chelsea (digital single)
Inshore Waters – Café Kaput (from ‘Maritime – Themes and Textures‘ LP)
Saw Teeth – Pneumatic Tubes (from ‘A Letter From Treetops‘ LP)
An Stevel Nowydh – Gwenno (from ‘Tresor‘ LP)
Sokolonko – 6th Crowd (digital single)
Don’t (You Mess With Me) [Radio Edit] – xPropaganda (from ‘The Heart Is Strange‘ LP)
Loro Sangue è Sufficiente – Salvatore Mercatante (from ‘Mysteries and Prophecies of the Stega‘ LP)
Looking at Lifeforms – Twilight Sequence (from 7″ single)
Beneath a Hunter’s Moon – Meadowsilver (digital single)
Stars – The Weather Station (from ‘How Is It That I Should Look At The Stars?‘ LP)
Spring Is Here – Bill Evans (from ‘The Legendary Bill Evans‘ 3CD set)
Nightqueen – Hurray For The Riff Raff (from ‘Life On Earth‘ LP)

Tiny Moments 2022 #17

A withering easterly wind hammers into me as I drag my overweight body up towards the airport, a fluorescent orange windsock straining out towards me like a mocking finger pointing out my weakness. Turning towards the terminal building and following the lane to Westcott there is at least a little shelter from the structures erected as part of the airport complex. To the left, an array of fuel containers displays the strangely appealing pattern of razorwire loops on their surface, cast as pin sharp shadows from the still rising sun. To the right an old FlyBe sign proclaims an outbuilding to be ‘The ORB’, and as I cast it an amused glance I am delighted to note that the blue sky above it is appropriately filled with little fluffy clouds scudding swiftly westwards.

Tiny Moments 2022 #16

For the first time in many months I venture to the edges of the Blackdown Hills and torture my legs with the 20% stretches of climb through Knowles Wood. Passing through the village of Blackborough my mind boggles at the wisdom of some newly built extension on a bungalow which inexplicably seems to have installed expansive picture windows, only to block the magnificent views across the valley with an impenetrable hedge. It strikes me as a classic example of the English obsession with privacy driven to an end of self-inflicted harm.

Leaving Blackborough I decide to try the fork marked ‘Ashill’ and almost immediately wish I hadn’t, as the winter’s weather has washed away most of the surface, leaving potholes and gravel strewn everywhere. For much of its length too the lane is simply a stream, as the runoff from the fields finds the line of least resistance down to the valley floor. At least the sun is shining now, and at one point the junction between Winter and Spring is perfectly captured across two sides of the lane. To the east a fallen tree sits forlornly atop a boundary bank, whilst to the west the lane is topped with clusters of daffodils turning their faces to the sun. I pause for photographs, say hello to the sheep in the field beyond, and turn my wheels back into the wind.

Tiny Moments 2022 #15

After the wild winds of the weekend today is calm, sunny and almost warm. For the first time since the bizarre mildness of the first week of January I have shed the woollen gloves and am back to leather track mitts. Turning southwards again I head towards the coast, this time down through the delicious gloom of Dark Lane to the seafront at Budleigh. Standing quietly at the edge of Marine Parade walkway, with one foot clipped into the pedals, I consume a caramel flapjack and gaze out at the flat expanse of water. The Union flag here hangs listless and limp and I hear a few passing locals mutter grumpily about the ‘no cycling’ signs as they pass me by. I smile in the sunbeams and ponder how sorrowful life must be if that is all one can think about in the face of this oncoming Spring.

Tiny Moments 2022 #14

If the Shipping Forecast were to describe the conditions today it would likely be something along the lines of ‘Southerly, strengthening South Easterly. Gales’ I think I’m canny in riding with a side wind most of the way down to Tipton St John and then taking as much shelter from Harpford Woods up the climb to Woods Farm. Conditions on the prom at Sidmouth suggest that it was indeed a good call, as the wind, now coming straight in off the Channel, is in danger of blowing my bicycle over as it rests against the cast iron railing. I hold it in place with one hand and quickly down the double espresso I’ve picked up from the mercifully reopened ‘Summer Cafe’ kiosk. Stupidly, I ask for it ‘to go’, as if there were some secret underground extension to the kiosk stretching beneath the car park. On the corner opposite, a Ukraine flag has replaced the Union Jack outside the Bedford Hotel, its almost rigid appearance promising me a delicious tailwind home.

Old Attitudes and Modern Stories

Last week I finally read ‘The Franchise Affair’ by Josephine Tey. It had been on my To Be Read list for quite a number of years, Tey being one of those authors I was always aware I really ought to be reading but somehow never quite got round to. Of course there is something rather pleasant about keeping what one hopes will turn out to be delicious treats back for a rainy day, and there have been more than enough of those lately.

‘The Franchise Affair’ is certainly a treat, being a book that pulls off that rare feat of feeling both solidly rooted in its particular historical context and utterly contemporary all at once. Its underlying narrative of a teenage girl accusing a middle aged spinster and her mother of kidnap and abuse is hardly cosy, yet if one might be tempted to think of it as being a particularly ‘modern’ theme, it is worth remembering that the tale was itself inspired by an 18th Century case, written up and published as a piece of non-fiction in 1925 by Arthur Machen.

Although routinely listed as the third instalment of Tey’s ‘Inspector Grant’ series, Grant’s presence is barely acknowledged throughout the book which is otherwise narrated by small County Town solicitor Robert Blair. Blair is rather a closeted lifelong bachelor and the whole case is essentially his awakening to the world outside his previously insular existence. That he is so abruptly thrust into the role of amateur detective and Defender Of Honour is surely as calculated a literary conceit as it is almost accidental in its fictional occurrence. This is Fate intervening as Modernity intrudes on rural traditions; the despoiling inevitability of tabloid journalism and populist mob mentality as perfidious as the sprawling strip developments penetrating from Town to Country.

If one were being harsh one might also read ‘The Franchise Affair’ as a piece of anti-feminism that strives to position womens’ desire for sex as something indicative of deceitful tricksters, their interest in pleasure something to be kept in the shadows of shame. Certainly there is little in the depiction of Betty Kane’s activities and character to suggest any degree of sympathy from anyone, and it is hardly a spoiler to note that the book is less about the doubt surrounding Kane’s story than it is about discovering ‘truth’ behind apparently convincing lies.

There is a sense throughout ‘The Franchise Affair’, then, that Tey is exploring a key turning point in social history. Betty Kane in so many ways feels like a proto-teenager. She feels like the kind of so-called Juvenile Delinquent the world would be seeing more of as the 1940s ended and the 1950s progressed: strong, self-possessed working class girls whose sense of identity and self-preservation might have been built on the traumas of War, but who were unapologetic for all that.

Tey might be expressing distaste with such women, but she herself would have experienced something of this in the 1920s of course, as a previous generation of young women refused to give back the freedoms they had fought for through The Great War. This, and the simple fact that the story is based on something that happened a century before, suggest that whilst Tey is shining a light on a coming (near) future, she is also recognising that such a future is but a continuation of a past that falls in on itself, endlessly repeating. It is this tacit acknowledgement, I think, that makes ‘The Franchise Affair’ feel so ageless.

Having so enjoyed ‘The Franchise Affair’ then, I was of course eager to read more of Tey’s ‘Inspector Grant’ series. On starting her 1929 debut ‘The Man In The Queue’, however, I was startled to realise that I had in fact read it before. At first it was just the familiarity of the context of the murder (as the title suggests, it’s a man murdered in a theatre queue, so no spoiler there…) but then there are so many similar killings happening in all the detective stories I’ve read that it was possibly just an echo of something else. A clever and amusing piece of Reference, perhaps. But then of course, if you will excuse the pun, came the killer: Of course! This is the book with “The Dago”.

Of course anyone with even a passing interest in (detective) fiction of the period between the wars will acknowledge that such books will be at least threaded with elements of sexism, racism and antisemitism that feel abhorrent to any vaguely enlightened 21st Century reader. I’ve noticed that more recent entries in the British Library Crime Classics series feel the need to print a warning to this effect in their frontispieces, and whilst I suspect such a thing may send Daily Mail readers into a tailspin of anti-‘woke’ ranting I don’t have much of a problem with it. If it helps younger generations of readers to understand the historical context to the books and to enjoy them for all the pleasures they bring rather than immediately convulsing into knee-jerk calls for ‘cancelling’ then I’m all for it.

Yet whilst I’ve been able to wrinkle my brow wryly at some outré observations in many books and swiftly move on, there is something in Tey’s use of “The Dago” that really drags ‘The Man In The Queue’ down. There is a page early in the book where her Inspector Grant character uses the term with such unrelenting repetition that one suspects Tey must surely be using this as a literary technique to make a point about Grant’s racist character. True, the term may be used less frequently as the book progresses and Grant comes to know the individual in question on a more personal level. There is even the intriguing line in which Grant “consider[s] the man again. ‘Is he a dago?’ ‘No; a Londoner.’” Does that line suggest an inherent understanding of London (if not the UK) as being multi-cultural and post-race, even in 1929? Perhaps, and perhaps not. Is Tey making a point about casual racism, or is the casual racism just so endemic in society that she isn’t even really aware of it even as she writes it? If one were giving the benefit of doubt one might suggest the former, but I’m rather afraid that might just be an act of naive kindness.

What’s not in doubt whilst reading ‘The Man In The Queue’ is Tey’s grasp of pace and place. The book gallops along like an enthusiastic young colt, Inspector Grant endlessly grappling with the tension between instinctive flair and the unbending fact of evidential reality. The story takes him up to Tey’s native Scotland where the landscape of sea lochs and hills crossed by the loneliest and narrowest of roads is painted with a keen eye. It is through this landscape that Grant embarks on a furious Buchanesque chase of an escaped suspect (the aforementioned “Dago”, naturally) and these pages really are as thrillingly written as anything in ‘The 39 Steps’.

Yet underlying all of this cerebral unpicking of truth and the undeniable thrill of the chase there is still this nagging discomfort of “The Dago”. Having almost accidentally read the book for a second time, I’ve come to the conclusion that whilst its strengths on the whole outweigh the unpleasantness, it is extremely unlikely that I will ever read it for a third.

I might say something similar about the second instalment of the Inspector Grant series. Published in 1936, ‘A Shilling For Candles’, replaces the casual racism of “The Dago” with the deeply rooted anti-semitism of the age(s) in the form of an (of course) “Jewish song-writer”. Now in her defence, there is certainly a sense of Tey attempting to make a point about antisemitism by having the character embark on this quite extraordinary outburst:

“‘He didn’t need a reason. I’m a Jew.’ ‘Oh, come, Mr Harmer! Do you ask me to—’ ‘Oh yes, you don’t have to say it all again. I know it by heart. England’s a country of complete tolerance. She makes no difference between races. It doesn’t matter to an Englishman what creed you believe in or what the shade of your skin is.’ He blew his breath expressively through his teeth. ‘Did it ever occur to you, Inspector, that you’re the only people who’ve really kept us out? Kept us in our place. That’s your pet expression, and that describes it. No mixing. No marrying. Infra dig to marry a Jew if he has less than a hundred thousand. And not so hot then. You’re the only country in the world where a Jew is unmistakable. A German Jew looks like a German as often as not, a Russian Jew looks like a Russian. The countries have taken them into themselves. But an English Jew looks like a Jew. And you call it tolerance.’”

In the context of the times, viewed through the lens of history, that feels like quite a speech. Particularly the line about the “German Jew”… And if it seems likely that Tey might have seen the inclusion of such a speech as evidence of her own ‘tolerance’, or as an attempt to grapple with Bigger Global Issues within the context of a detective novel, from this distance it comes off as just a clumsy mis-step. The equivalent of someone today blustering about how some of their best friends are Jews, or gay, or black, or trans, or whatever.

Not that such missteps are any great reason for avoiding reading these Josephine Tey books. They may jar more than in books by some of her contemporaries, but that’s hardly a crime in and of itself. Instead we might look on those mis-steps as uncomfortable faux-pas’ as the writer seeks a means of embedding bigger themes into the body of such a throwaway, supposedly low-brow genre as the detective novel. Certainly the “Jewish Issue” suggested by Harmer’s outburst is at best an isolated, momentary aside in the thrust of ‘A Shilling For Candles’. Instead the book more effectively develops the theme of media’s place in manipulating or guiding an agreed narrative. This theme is touched on in ‘The Man In The Queue’ and of course more elegantly executed in ‘TheFranchise Affair’. The media in question in these books is specifically the tabloid newspaper, although the role of Hollywood and film is drawn into the picture in ‘A Shilling For Candles’. It is fitting then, perhaps, that ‘Shilling’ should have been filmed a year after its publication by Alfred Hitchcock as ‘Young and Innocent’ (released as ‘The Girl Was Young’ in the USA). The film is hardly a faithful adaptation of the novel, but there are some nice touches. The long crane shot that leads towards the denouement in particular is technically elegant, although modern sensibilities might struggle to focus on this over the sight of the black-faced minstrel band. They truly were different times.

Both ‘The Man In The Queue’ and ‘A Shilling For Candles’, then, whilst certainly enjoyable enough in their own right nevertheless feel strained (and not to say stained) and to a greater or lesser degree decidedly uncomfortable. They might lay the foundations for Tey’s character of Inspector Alan Grant but they feel like somewhat tentative and exploratory advances in comparison to ‘The Franchise Affair’. Of the three further Grant novels that Tey completed before her death in 1952, at least one (‘The Daughter of Time’) is regarded as one of the greatest detective novels ever written (indeed, the British Crime Writers’ Association voted it as THE greatest crime novel of all time in 1990). I look forward to discovering to what extent I might agree.