Death Begets Death

For anyone interested in the continuing picture of Unpopular reading, I can tell you that the past couple of weeks has been filled with more Moray Dalton and George Bellairs, much of which has been hugely enjoyable. I wrote at length about Dalton last time out so will not add much more here other than to tell you that ‘The Case of Alan Copeland’, ‘The Art School Murders’ and ‘The Condamine Case’ are each as good as the last and are very much recommended. All three follow the threads laid by ‘Harriet Hall’ and ‘Belgrave Manor’ in being entertainingly ahead of their times, or at least appearing so in comparison to our peculiarly 21st Century ideas of the 1930s and ’40s. ‘Alan Copeland’ for example includes some quite brazen dalliances of the flesh and some rather heightened passions of jealousy and lust, whist ‘The Condamine Case’ explores film-making, local legends and witchcraft in Somerset, including a delightful throwaway reference to the opening titles to Selznick’s classic take on ‘Rebecca’ and what are surely additional nods towards Judith Anderson’s spooky Mrs Danvers. Best of these three is ‘The Art School Murders’. Written and set early in WW2, this makes the most of the opportunities presented by the blackout and has some marvellously sketched characters all attempting to follow some kind of artistic normalcy within the context of global conflict. What feels strange reading it now is just how little reference is made to The War, and this is to its great credit. You just know that anyone writing something like this in 2020 would feel obliged to cram it full of clever (and tiresomely accurate) references to Real Events. I mean, there is a place for historical crime fiction, but it really is better to go back to the source texts, I find. Like all of Daltons’ books there is not so much to appeal to the puzzle-minded reader here (there is one difficult-to-spot ‘clue’ to the killer) but that is fine with me, for Dalton moves the action along nicely whilst adding decent daubs to build just enough character to make things believable. It’s a damnably tricky balance to strike, and Dalton has shown herself to be marvellously adept. I understand that Dean Street Press will reissue a further five of her books this winter, and that is certainly something to look forward to.

Another recent favourite (if we can be permitted to throw the blanket of ‘recent’ over a few years) in the Unpopular library has been George Bellairs, and I have delved back into his extensive catalogue with the 1957 title ‘Death Sends For A Doctor’ and 1964’s ‘Death Of A Shadow’. The first of these sees Littlejohn and his trusty sergeant Cromwell following up anonymous notes and exploring the deeply entrenched class distinctions in post-war England. Curiously, Bellairs shows us that this residual adherence to pre-war class obsessions is shared largely only by those still envisioning themselves as belonging to the ‘upper’ echelons, and Bellairs plays a neat trick with having the environs of the ‘Upper Square’ physically and psychologically detached from the ‘real’ town and its inhabitants. The square, and its inhabitants, appear to live (and to die) in peculiarly self-obsessed isolation, although Bellairs is also astute enough to throw in some heartless sacrifice of ‘the lower classes’ as a reminder that they are to be seen as entirely disposable objects. Intriguingly too, Death Sends For a Doctor neatly pre-shadows something of the attachment issues of Robert Bloch’s ‘Psycho’ (published two years later).

‘Death Of A Shadow’ meanwhile sees us transplanted to the shores of Lake Geneva for a deftly executed tale of deception, decency, and blind love and devotion. It’s almost another one of those ‘Littlejohn is on holiday’ stories that Bellairs enjoyed weaving so much, although here it transitions into an official joint investigation with his Swiss counterparts. Inevitably there are shrewdly quizzical looks made at the opaqueness of Swiss banking practices (Bellairs himself was a former bank manager), but as in ‘Death Sends For A Doctor’, although Bellairs nudges up against ideological/political/class issues he does so with a delicate poise in which he acknowledges individual character within the context of cultural baggage. As such it’s interesting how Bellairs’ murderers so often die by their own hands at the end of his books (it’s so common that this should hardly be seen as a spoiler) – Bellairs perhaps pushing forward this idea of the individual with personal responsibility over the notion of a centralised system of judgement. Perhaps too it is just a fine way to quickly bring these kind of narratives to a brisk and just conclusion. Death begets death. End of story.

‘Death Stops The Frolic’ from 1943 meanwhile features Superintendent Nankivell in place of Littlejohn, and I have to say it’s a puzzling book. It reads very much as a writer fishing around to find a voice or a groove, and I personally found it infuriating. The lurches between tense that Bellairs falls into in this, and in some of his contemporaneous early Littlejohn stories are clumsy and read like a writer unable to decide if they are writing a novel or a play with detailed stage instructions and detailed back-stories for characters that are barely relevant to the narrative. Compared to Dalton’s books of the same period, ‘Frolic’ is very much in the shadow of their brilliance. To be fair, it didn’t take too long for Bellairs to iron out these irregularities in his books, and he certainly does much more with much less in his later novels. As a result I’m afraid I cannot recommend ‘Frolic’ except as a curious aberration or as a vaguely interesting early sketchbook with too few treasures.

Unpop 190

when you look back you find you haven’t travelled far (download disc 1)

The Pool – TRIMDON GRANGE EXPLOSION (from ‘Help The Witch’ LP. Bandcamp)
Belonging/O Nata Lux – Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus (from ‘Songs of Yearning’ LP. Bandcamp)
Sarcelle – Plone (from ‘Puzzlewood’ LP. Bandcamp)
A song in Latin about the importance of comfortable shoes – Short-Haired Domestic (digital single. Bandcamp)
Summer Ghosts – Ben Watt (from ‘Storm Damage‘ LP)
Hey, You, Wait, Stay – Daughters of Albion (from ‘Daughters of Albion’ LP)
In The Sunshine – Jonathan Bree (digital single. Bandcamp)
You And I – Pale Lights (from 7″ single. Bandcamp)
Giovanna Please – Gary Olson (from ‘Gary Olson’ LP. Bandcamp)
For My Memory To Collect – Devon Williams (from ‘A Tear In The Fabric’ LP. Bandcamp)
Trapped in Amber – Jetstream Pony (from ‘Jetstream Pony’ LP. Bandcamp)
Can’t See The Light – The Wolfhounds (from ‘Electric Music’ LP. Bandcamp)
Crocuses – Sea Pinks (digital single. Bandcamp)
TV Blind – Theatre Royal (digital single. Bandcamp)
Little Sharkie And The White Pointer Sisters – RVG (from ‘Feral’ LP. Bandcamp)
Into Darkness – Manuela Iwansson (from ‘Dream Lover’ EP. Bandcamp)
Her Democracy – Crayola Summer (from ‘Announcements’ EP. Bandcamp)
I Got On A Train – The New Fools (from ‘Mershmellow’ LP. Bandcamp)
Standstill (demo) – Kane Strang (digital single. Bandcamp)
Falling Into You – Ralegh Long (digital single. Bandcamp)
Transcendental Decay – epic45 (from ‘We Were Never Here’ LP. Bandcamp)

strut the fuck around like you’ve got nothing to lose (download disc 2)

Beltane Rain – Sproatly Smith (from ‘The River Wye Suite’ LP. Bandcamp)
wrap your hills around our absence – Alula Down (lathe cut 7″. Bandcamp)
The Hill Was Hollow – Alison Cotton (from ‘Zener_08’ tape. Bandcamp)
The Man Who Would Be King – The Eighteenth Day of May (from ‘The Eighteenth Day of May’ LP reissue. Bandcamp)
Let It All In – Arbouretum (from ‘Let It All In’ LP. Bandcamp)
Edge Of A Slow Whirlpool – Aug Stone (from 2018 demos LP. Bandcamp)
I Never Will – Scott Mannion (digital single. Bandcamp)
Curl Up – Darren Hayman (from ‘Home Time’ LP. Bandcamp)
Forgiving – Even As We Speak (from ‘Adelphi’ LP. Bandcamp)
Percolator – The Death Of Pop (from ‘Coats’ LP. Bandcamp)
They Left on a Morning Like This – Belbury Poly (from ‘Intermission‘ compilation LP)
Magical Fingers Of Minerva – J.K. & Company (from ‘Suddenly One Summer’ LP. YouTube)
The Boy in the Corner – The Magnetic Fields (from ‘Quickies‘ LP.)
Stay Away (It’s Like That) – TV Girl (from ‘The Night in Question: French Exit Outtakes’ LP. Bandcamp)
Arncliffe Babylon – Sachet (from ‘Nets’ LP. Bandcamp)
Julianna Calm Down – Dixie Chicks (from ‘Gaslighter’ LP. YouTube)
Shadows & Doubts – Lucinda Williams (from ‘Good Souls Better Angels‘ LP)
Quiet Like The Rain – Reb Fountain (from ‘Reb Fountain’ LP. Bandcamp)
I’m Gonna Leave You – Melanie De Biasio (from ‘No Deal’ LP. Bandcamp)

Partial playlist on The Spotify

Full playlist on The Mixcloud

Tiny Moments #154 (Lockdown edition #25)

The sound behind me is not one heard so often these days, but is nevertheless unmistakeable. I slow my pace, wave them through, and sure enough, there is the bright blue of a Citroen 2CV, roof peeled back like a sardine tin. In the passenger seat a lady in a smart straw hat decorated with a red and white polka-dot band waves a hand in thanks. For the rest of my ride I have Lloyd Cole and The Commotions as my ear worm. I’m not complaining.

Tiny Moments #153 (Lockdown edition #24)

Like riding through treacle, already in the 28 sprocket, heart-rate close to max just trying to regulate temperature. Sweat dribbles onto the lens of my sunglasses, leaving a stripe of obfuscation. And then, the landscape opens up. Cottages slumber in the shaded valley and the village of Bickleigh glitters in the distance. Pleasure after the pain.

Tiny Moments #152 (Lockdown edition #23)

A short ride to test the recovery of my back extends in the afternoon heat to another ride out into the lanes around Feniton and past the peacocks of Buckerell. The occasional holloways are a treat of cool darkness, a delicious punctuation to the airless heat of the farm tracks. I treasure every one like the rare, ancient jewels they are.

Roughskak, tallywhack

“All artforms are in the service of the greatest of all arts: the art of living.”
― Bertolt Brecht

Reading a book like Broken Greek makes you reflect on your own childhood and the records which were landmarks. Inevitably , some of these crossover with his (The Wombles, Abba, The Beat, Madness) and some don’t (Barron Knights) but that is part of the fun of this book. The point is that records meant such a stupid amount to him and to me. I no longer buy or own vinyl but I remember the thrill of going into a record shop knowing you had the money to buy something and chancing on a gem. For some, this never goes away but for me it has. I love music but no longer wish to spend half my life searching around for it. I don’t begrudge those who do – there are worse hobbies – and it is nice to see it described here

Reading a book like Broken Greek makes you recall experiences of school which may not be identical but ring some horrible bells. For instance, what was it about PE teachers in the 70s? So many seemed to be psychotic. I once met someone who was injured in a football match and told by a dismissive teacher to ‘run it off’ only to discover hours later (in hospital) that he had broken his leg. A class at my school was kept out for too long and one boy caught hypothermia. I’m not pretending to be scarred by this or that it is something I dwell on but I cannot imagine similar things happening now.

Reading a book like Broken Greek makes you think about your parents. Mine are very different to his (as least how he describes them) but similarly, they did not seem to bat an eyelid at some of my quirky decisions. I can appreciate that now and see that it a measure of love – raise an eyebrow but just let it all pass, for surely it will. He also gets the relationship about older siblings, about how you share music and yet want to have your ‘own’ bands and how you learn from them.

Reading a book like Broken Greek or Tracey Thorn’s Another Planet makes me wonder about the point in looking back like this. Is it just nostalgia? Looking for answers in someone else’s past? I like to think not. We need to learn from our own history as much as we need to learn from the history of the world. There is no need to dwell, now really is tomorrow but of course it came after yesterday. Carefully handled, as here, it makes for interesting reading.

This is an honest and very readable book. It is affectionate, it has an understated humour and an ease about it which makes you think ‘I could have written something like this’ when of course, you could not.

Christian Jones. May 2020

Tiny Moments #151 (Lockdown edition #22)

It’s been a fine day and although Budleigh beach looks like a Bank Holiday weekend in August rather than a Wednesday in supposed ‘lockdown’, I’m feeling good. At the tricky junction at the bottom of Four Elms Hill I lean forward and twist to my left to check for traffic. It’s clear, but as I press on the pedals and move off I immediately feel that dreaded bite of sharp pain at the base of my spine that tells me the remaining 25km to home will be difficult and that it will be a while before my next ride. Cursing age and the sciatic nerve, I grit my teeth and think of Fiorenzo Magni.