Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 18

‘Greengates’ by R.F. Sherriff
Published in 1936. Re-issued by Persephone Books. Buy direct here.

One of my very favourite publishers in recent times is the Persephone imprint, formerly based in That London and now with its physical presence in the beautiful streets of Bath. With a focus on “neglected fiction and non-fiction, mostly by women writers and mostly mid-twentieth century”, it is assuredly a classy outfit with a keen eye for design and presentation. Each edition has a uniform grey cover and end-papers decorated in a design broadly contemporaneous with the original publication point in history. Mostly these are lifted from wallpaper and fabric designs and without exception they are terrific snapshots of the decorative tastes of the book’s period. Each year I pick up several of the books and generally save them to read in one burst of luxurious pleasure. In 2022 that meant a mid-October meander through the likes of Winnifred Watson’s ‘Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day’ (and yes, I also enjoyed Frances McDormand in the film version, since you ask), Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s ‘The Blank Wall’, Betty Miller’s ‘Farewell Leicester Square’, John Coates’ ‘Patience’ and D.E. Stevenson’s delicious ‘Miss Buncle’s Book’. Any one of these could have been my choice as favourite, but it is ‘Greengates’ by R.C. Sherriff that ultimately gets the nod.

I had read Sherriff’s ‘The Fortnight In September’ over the space of a few days in, not you may not be surprised to learn, September of 2021 and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is a book where not really very much happens except for the perfectly observed non-events of a lower-middle/upper-working class family holiday in the early 1930s. It is a book of simple pleasure that allows us to revel in the undramatic and the tingle of discovering tiny treasures. His 1936 novel ‘Greengates’ is similarly deceptively simple and perhaps even better.

The narrative revolves around the retirement from The City of a certain Mr Baldwin (he was, it appears, ‘in insurance’), and Sherriff is certainly adept at capturing something of the conflicting feelings of relief and frustration that retirement can bring. More than this though the book is about the modernisation of 1930s England, the encroachment of the Town on the Country through the expansion of road networks and ribbon development. In contemporary times it is very easy to look back at these largely unregulated developments with a castigating eye, bemoaning as we do the destruction of nature to feed the gluttony of commerce. For Sherriff, writing as these developments took place contemporaneously with his writing, it is not quite so simple. So whilst there is initially disappointment and anger when the Baldwin’s, on a walk in the Countryside that they used to take as a younger couple, see their once beloved vista scarred by a housing development, this quite swiftly turns to a more welcoming positivity. Sherriff does a great job of contrasting modernity with the traditional and throughout the book there is a lot of sharply observed description of design styles in architecture, furniture and fashion. As in ‘The Fortnight In September’ it is these neatly sketched out details that really give ‘Greengates’ its appeal and one wonders if this kind of eye for the visual is what made Sherriff so successful as a scriptwriter in Hollywood.

Sherriff is as adept at painting human characters as he is at recording inanimate details, however, and ‘Greengates’ is populated with a pleasing blend of individuals that grows as the book develops. From the insularity of Mr Baldwin’s initial retirement, the cast expands as he and his wife leave their traditional terrace and Move Up In The World to their newly built house. Naturally the metaphorical garden is not all roses and it is amongst the characters in the New Estate that we find at least one thoroughly unpleasant man whose Colonial views, language and behaviour will be repellent to any intelligent reader in the 21st Century. It is to Persephone Books’ great credit however that there is no attempt to edit this out, and indeed there is not even a ‘disclaimer’ of the type that the British Library have taken to printing in the frontispiece to their ‘Crime Classics’ series. It strikes me, as perhaps it does the folks at Persephone, that anyone reading these books is going to be informed enough to understand something of the original context and that if they are not then perhaps they may approach such things as Learning Opportunities. People are not as ignorant as we might wish to imagine them to be. Unless they are, in which case they might crop up as a character in a book.

So whilst it is is undoubtedly true that there are often uncomfortable viewpoints expressed and objectionable language used in some/many interwar novels (the levels of casual antisemitism, racism and sexism can certainly be off-putting at times) it is also, I think, unnecessary to be quite as hand-wringingly apologetic about it as some self-proclaimed Cancel-Cultural Warriors seem to think. Indeed, for me, one of the great pleasures of reading texts from the 1930s and 1940s is discovering just how divorced they actually are from either the levels of whateverisms assumed by the, ahem, ‘Wokerati’, and the mediated misunderstanding perpetrated by some who might peddle The Past as some bizarre mythical Utopian ideal. That odd veneration of hardship as some kind of signifier of value. Certainly reading a text like ‘Greengates’ it is clear that for many/most the opportunity to escape drudgery and hardship was welcomed with open arms, and that many/most would most assuredly agree with our contemporary views on equality and decency. Again, the silent majority are rarely as unpleasant and ill-informed as those on either extreme might like us to believe. Naturally one should not really need to read texts such as ‘Greengates’ or any of the other gems re-issued by Persephone Books to understand this, but I can certainly think of few more enjoyable routes to such enlightenment.

Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 17

‘Crook O’Lune’ by E.C.R. Lorac
Originally published 1953. Reissued 2022 by British Library Crime Classics. Buy direct here.
This review was originally published as part of a longer blog post here.

The 1951 Festival of Britain is rightly referenced by Vron Ware in her book ‘Return Of A Native’ (see day 12 of this advent series) as a key hinge point in the development of post-WW2 rural England, and it crops up too in E.C.R. Lorac’s tremendous ‘Crook O’Lune’. First published in 1953 and now given a new lease of life courtesy of the British Library Crime Classics series, ‘Crook O’Lune’ sees Lorac’s series detective, Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald nearing the end of his career and contemplating retirement to a small dairy farm in Lunesdale. Much like Ware, Lorac seems to take the point made in the Festival about how “in making what they HAVE of the land, the people have become divided… [into] either countrymen or townsmen” as a starting point for her novel. As with Ware’s historical analysis, there is much in this work of fiction that addresses those divisions by ultimately pointing out that they are structural rifts fashioned for greed and gain by the few over the many. Despite this, both Ware and Lorac are largely optimistic about humanity, perhaps in spite of the evidence. Certainly in Lorac’s case there is the over-riding sense of Good triumphing over Bad (the common, though by no means universal, trope of the detective novel), of ‘common’ decency prevailing over petty jealousies, religious pomposity and the insidious creep of personal greed. It’s clearly important that whilst Macdonald might represent a figure of Law and Order, in this particular circumstance he is not OFFICIALLY in such a role, thereby feeding a sense that in these rural environs it is some kind of intrinsic fairness that might eternally prevail. Ultimately too for Lorac there appears to be an acknowledgement that whilst Humans may intervene with Nature to the extent of managing and changing landscapes to their needs, the long-playing game will always ultimately be in Nature’s favour. Human’s might exploit Nature’s resources to the edges of existence, but its patience will not be endless: the bite back will always be deadly and Humans will always, ultimately, lose.

Not that ‘Crook O’Lune’ is a depressing book and more than anything Lorac uses the novel to celebrate the Lunesdale landscape in the borderlands between Lancashire and the South Riding of Yorkshire. Lorac also felt the divine pull of Devon, with as many of her books being set here as in The North, and passion for place is without doubt one of the lasting treasures of the 46 Inspector Macdonald novels that she produced. There would be another eight after ‘Crook O’Lune’ before the Yard man would bow out for good in 1959’s ‘Dishonour Among Thieves’ (aka ‘The Last Escape’), a book set once again in Lunesdale that shares a significant amount of DNA with this earlier effort.

By my reckoning there are 18 of those Macdonald novels that have been uncovered and reissued in recent years, 10 of them in the British Library series and every one of them worthy of attention. It’s my devout wish that the remaining 28 see the light of day again in affordable form before the Earth, or I, run out of steam. Then, at least, we will have something good to read whilst the world burns and/or drowns.

Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 16

Midsummer Murder’ by Clifford Witting
Originally published in 1937. Reissued in 2022 by Galileo books. Buy from Hive in the UK here.
This review was originally published as part of a longer blog post that can be found here.

Christianna Brand, whose ‘Green for Danger’ we looked at in yesterday’s advent entry, often enjoyed dropping humorous meta-fictional self-references in her work, and this kind of thing is there too in Clifford Witting’s ‘Midsummer Murder’. First published in 1937, this is the second book in a series featuring Inspector Charlton. Like Brand’s Cockie, Charlton is a country policeman, keen to solve the cases on his doorstep ahead of any involvement by The Yard, and Goodreads suggests there are sixteen books in the series. I do hope that the Galileo publishing house have plans to reissue more of them for I have thoroughly enjoyed ‘Murder In Blue’, ‘Measure for Murder’, ‘Dead on Time’ and ‘Midsummer Murder’ this year (I’m saving the Christmas setting of ‘Catt Out Of The Bag’ for later in this festive season).

‘Midsummer Murder’ takes place in the fictional market town of Paulsfield (a fictional version of Petersfield in Hampshire) and, as the second instalment of the series, makes several passing references to characters that crop up in ‘Murder In Blue’. In fact, published earlier in the same year, ‘Murder In Blue’ itself plays the meta card by alluding to the events that play out in the town square in this second book, so there is a dizzying amount of self-referential playfulness at work here that feels remarkably (Post) Modern. Like Brand and many other detective fiction writers, Witting is keen to play the game by puncturing the facade of the fourth wall, having his police surgeon character profess, early in the book, that “it is only your fictional medical man who can announce with certainty, after a swift glance at the wound, that the deed was done with a Mannlicher 7.63 mm. or a Webley .455 self-loader”. There are some further pronouncements later in the story about the differences between ‘revolver’, ‘automatic’ and ‘self-loading’ weapons that similarly poke fun at the devilment of detail used and abused by novelists, all of which position Witting quite clearly as a writer both fully conscious of the essential ingredients of the genre he is working within and at the same time keen to, if not exactly subvert those expectations, at least make us aware that he is not taking himself too seriously. And is it a spoiler to point out that the book concludes by admitting that “We know that the Detection Club, under the presidency of Mr. E. C. Bentley, do not like mad murderers, but there it is.”? Perhaps, but perhaps not, because certainly the entire book really does lead us towards that conclusion from the off and, anyway, it is too sweet a piece of light hearted self-awareness to pass up.

Certainly all of the Inspector Charlton series books that I have read have been spirited and light hearted but ‘Midsummer Murder’ perhaps most of all. There is no evidence to suggest that the book is in any way an inspiration for Caroline Graham’s Inspector Barnaby books or the ‘Midsomer Murders’ television series, but it has to be admitted that a more accurate title WOULD be ‘Midsummer Murders’ because the killings do keep coming in the best spirit of such things. It is another sign that here we have a writer both celebrating the genre they are working inside whilst simultaneously acknowledging a punctuation point in the history of its development. One can’t help wonder too if Witting was writing with an eye on contemporaneous political and social changes in England and beyond, for the book both celebrates existing country ways of life whilst anticipating their decline and disappearance. With a few strokes he paints a picture as delightful as Flora Twort’s painting of Petersfield Market Square that adorns the cover of this edition: “Those who live in the never-ceasing bustle of London will hardly credit the hush that falls on a country town between the hours of one and two in the afternoon. The shops close and the whole population sits down to dinner. Some of them call it lunch, some of them even call it luncheon, but as the same butcher serves them all, that is mere pedantry.”

That aforementioned thread of mental health issues and insecurities that permeates the book also suggests a fracturing world; a world where previous certainties are dissolving to be replaced with uncertainty and the threat of death from above. It may be a stretch to suggest that Witting is anticipating bombs falling from Heinkels, but in the light of the Spanish Civil War and Guernica’s bombing early in the same year of his book’s publication, it is perhaps not so fanciful as all that. In the face of the gathering storm (literally, as a thunder storm provides the backdrop for the book’s denouement) however, Witting remains ultimately upbeat and fires his writing with a kind of grim humour that is similar to that of Christianna Brand. It is certainly fitting that both writers should be benefitting from a degree of rediscovery in our own challenging times.

Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 15

‘Green For Danger’ by Christianna Brand
Originally published 1944. Reissued 2022 by British Library Crime Classics. Buy direct here.
This review was originally published as part of a longer blog post that can be found here.

Have I seen Sidney Gilliat’s 1947 film ‘Green For Danger’? Perhaps in the 1980s during my Dole Years, on BBC2 as part of their afternoon schedules, the rarest of times in my younger years when I had access to a television alone. Certainly reading the British Library Classics’ recent reissue of Christianna Brand’s novel makes me think I must have watched it, for there is a vague familiarity about the plot and the characters, even though the film apparently took some liberties. I ought to track down a second hand copy of a DVD and check it out, for I would like to see Alasdair Sim as Inspector Cockrill. Brand’s novel, first published in 1944 and reissued in 2022 as part of the British Library Crime Classics series, is certainly a marvellous period piece in itself and, as Martin Edwards points out in his excellent introduction, is certainly one of the finest detective stories written and set during WW2. One of the things that lends the book success in this respect is Brand’s skill in making extraordinary situations and events feel like the everyday. There are no great emotional outbursts, and no terror shown in the face of falling Nazi bombs. In a short preface to a later edition of the book (included in this reissue) Brand defends herself against criticism that this stoicism might have been nothing short of propaganda by pointing out that much of her war had been spent in a heavily bombed part of London, largely amongst V.A.D.s (members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment) and that she saw “not a shadow of panic or failure or endurance-at-an-end.”

It’s that peculiarly English character trait of emotional detachment/barricading that allows much Golden Age (and beyond) detective fiction to exist, particularly in the realms of the intricately plotted ‘fair play’ whodunnit’s, where murder is seen in many cases as little more than a puzzle to be solved. It takes its roots, perhaps, in Sherlock Holmes’ idiosyncratic pragmatism and scientific processes of deduction, but there is surely an argument that also says Holmes is merely a blueprint drawn from English Character Traits and is therefore as much a cartoon Englishman as he is cartoon detective. That stereotypical absence of emotion filters through ‘Green For Danger’ as the irascible Inspector Cockrill navigates his way through a narrative pathway strewn with red herrings and tricky tortuous hairpin bends. It’s not quite as ridiculously convoluted and frustratingly ‘clever’ as a John Dickson Carr, but it’s hardly plain sailing, with Brand pulling things back from the precipice with a delicious sprinkling of gloomy humour. Setting the book in a hospital certainly helps create this mood of blunted emotions, for there are surely no better places to find efficiency and pragmatic responses in the face of traumatic events, particularly during wartime. The location is artfully drawn in necessarily spare lines. Like a Hockney drawing, Brand confidently lays things down with precision, space suggesting form much more effectively than convoluted explanation. It’s the small corners of exquisitely executed detail that work wonders in giving the whole its life. So many contemporary authors writing ‘period’ pieces seem to miss this. Less is more. More or less.

Not that ‘Green For Danger’ is not crammed with a multitude of elements, for it sometimes feels like a whirlpool of possible murderers fuelled by a disparate array of motives. Ultimately Cockie (as Inspector Cockrill is invariably called) is astute enough to work things out but not enough to prevent the murderer escaping ‘justice’ in the courtroom. This is hardly a spoiler, incidentally, since the opening chapter concludes by telling us that one of the seven characters introduced by means of letters carried by the postman “would die, self-confessed a murderer.” It’s not an entirely unusual detective fiction trope, but is one that demands a great deal of finesse to carry off. Needless to say, Brand does so here with aplomb.

Now where’s that used DVD?

Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 14

‘Daughter of Time’ by Josephine Tey
Originally published in 1951. Buy from Hive in the UK here.
This review was originally published as part of an even longer blog post which can be found here. An examination of Tey’s first three novels can be found here.

One of my many book related pleasures in 2022 has been discovering the brilliance of Josephine Tey’s Inspector Grant series of detective novels. If I have come to her books appallingly late in life, I put down largely to having first stumbled on her a number of years ago via her 1929 novel ‘The Man In The Queue’; a book whose pages so repeatedly refer to a character as “The Dago” that I had to shelve it unfinished. Now I usually have no issue with such things in their original contexts, but in this instance I have to admit I side with my computer’s autocorrect, which is so politically correct it immediately changed it to ‘Sago’ as I typed. Eventually I went back and finished the book this year, but only under suffrage and only to see how on earth Tey managed to rise from such depths to the heady heights of her later work.

In truth it really is a stunning trajectory from ‘The Man In The Queue’ to ‘Daughter of Time’, a novel the British Crime Writers’ Association deemed to be THE greatest crime novel ever written. That particular claim was made in 1990 when the book topped their list list of 100 Best Crime Novels, 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?

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.

Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 13

‘Shalimar’ by Davina Quinlivan
Published in 2022 by Little Toller Books. Buy direct here.
This review was originally published by Caught By The River here.

Tolstoy famously reckoned that “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” whilst just over a century later Douglas Coupland figured that this could all be simplified down to the notion that “All families are psychotic.” Writerly conceits both, of course, but surely underpinned by the truth that any understanding of immediate and extended human family is damnably tricky and endlessly elusive. Yet despite or because of this it seems also to be some kind of ageless imperative: Who am I? How did I get here? Same as it ever was…

Davina Quinlivan undertakes a deeply personal exploration of her own family history in the elegant, eloquent magical realism of ‘Shalimar’, although wisely chooses to do so in part as a means of engaging with themes of migration and sense of place and belonging. Structured in three sections, the book explores distinct places (Burma, Surrey, Devon) and periods of Quinlivan’s personal history. This underlying structure allows the author to tease out specifics (some of the historical contextualising of Burma, for instance, is particularly interesting) whilst also necessarily casting out the tendrils of individual transformation that bridge across all three. Time wrinkles and slips continuations of the past into the present. Ghosts slip through these crinkles and settle gently on our hearts, tempting us back to go forward.

My own interest in family might be described as ambivalent at best, for whilst I admit a degree of interest in the physical geography of my genetic past (hill farms and coal mines, a TB clinic turned into a caravan park), my interest in individual’s lives is almost entirely non-existent. Perhaps it sounds heartless and crass to suggest that the individual is a fleeting irrelevance in the face of more lasting physical presence, but I’ve become comfortable with that. Perhaps too this explains my complete inability to empathise with those (irrespective of gender) who appear to feel a physical need to have children. I have looked inwardly to the place where I imagine others experience this feeling and have seen a gaping chasm of emptiness. Which is needlessly theatrical of course, because the lack of something does not necessarily suggest a void waiting to be filled. So whilst I believe I can understand something of the drive for genetic continuation, this is solely in abstract terms. Emotionally, I feel nothing.

As such, I admit that I find it very difficult to generate much interest in other peoples’ families, Quinlivan’s included. Yet whilst this may be me projecting, I cannot help but sense in ‘Shalimar’ a tacit acknowledgement that if there are few things more boring than reading about other people’s dreams or drug stories, then hearing about their families is a topic following closely behind. It’s those broader themes of the book, therefore, that succeed in drawing me in. The elliptical trails of colour that weave around meditations on loss, place, nature and the very act of movement through landscape are captivating and deliciously drawn. It may be down to Quinlivan’s background in the academic world of film criticism, but regardless, ‘Shalimar’ displays an astute understanding of pace and innate awareness of when a scene might have outstayed its welcome. The ebb and flow between the personal and what we might broadly accept as being the universal is perfectly portrayed, whilst the inevitable references to films and books are dropped at opportune moments and always fit seamlessly with the underlying narrative, often defying gravity in that they simultaneously inform and are themselves informed by the context around them.

It’s the concluding section of the book (titled ‘Devon, Rivers’) that really floors me though. I read it in the haunted Ayrshire landscapes of my own youth; these twenty pages consumed whilst sitting in a hotel room on the hillside where once the ghosts of young men dreamt of distant shores and of life being plain sailing. A quarter of a century has passed since then, and if the place no longer drains my energy in the way I remember (or imagine?) it once doing, the dull aches are nevertheless recognisable. They penetrate my carefully constructed defences, hostile companions to the constant presence of sciatic pain. Some days I wish that my memory could be as numb as the lower right leg that denies the existence of hail battering against it on winter cycle rides. Perhaps perception really is everything and if things cannot be felt then they surely do not exist? Some days I dive into this belief and let its non-existence enfold me.

Quinlivan’s short passages about Devon, then, are like laser guided munitions ripping deliciously through my defences. Riddled with familiar place names, they leave me breathless with an almost physical yearning for the place I have called home for more than half of my life. Thorverton, Brampford Speke, Silverton, the road between Rewe and my own home village of sixteen years: names that necessarily resonate with deeply rooted personal memory, yes, but also with something altogether more intangible and spiritual. A surprisingly powerful surge of emotion rushes through me as I read these pages, like sap rising from the depths. The sun dipping below the horizon beyond Ailsa Craig might be visually beautiful, but it cannot hope to compete with this love for another place.

There is a lovely moment in this section where Quinlivan and her own children point to their home on the aged OS map that hangs in the Killerton estate visitor’s centre. It is a moment of connection to an unknown past within a precious present and an unseen future. One of those wrinkles in time. I have looked at the same map, and whilst our house does not yet feature (our street is still an orchard), I can at least point to Joan Dewdney’s cottage, out of whose thatched roof hordes of sparrows descend daily to nibble the greens in our garden.

I can’t help but wonder if our paths have crossed. Perhaps as I’ve cycled home along Green Lane, returning from rides between the high Devon hedgerows? Perhaps on a walk to the 15th Century church isolated in sheep-filled fields or over the Exe in the Secret Garden on a summer’s afternoon? Not that it matters much of course, for as ‘Shalimar’ itself suggests, the energies from these places that nourish us will continue to exist long after our flesh and blood have evaporated into the void. Our connections, genetic or otherwise, may root in one place and give meaning and context, but only the magic of place will endure, perhaps enriched by the imprint of our impermanence. There is something oddly comforting in that, even for a cold fish like me.

Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 12

‘Return Of A Native’ by Vron Ware
Published 2022 by Repeater Books. Buy direct here.
This review was originally published as part of a longer blog post here.

Hall’s Farm sits on the lower slopes of Higher Metcombe, a stone’s throw from the Western edge of the East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I pass it regularly on my bicycle, in a blur going down and rather more sedately going up. It’s home to The Metcombe Herd, which perhaps sounds like a rural 1960s Peter Frampton tribute band, but is actually a gang of pedigree Holstein Friesian cows. There’s a nice little sign on the end of one of the outbuildings proclaiming this, although lately it’s obscured by a larger one announcing that the farmhouse, its outbuildings and 18 acres are up for sale. I dread to think what will become of the place. Will it continue as a small working farm or will it fall foul of the drive to turn every available piece of rural architecture into second homes and holiday lets? Will the fields be dotted with Yurts and will signs for Glamping replace the one for The Metcombe Herd? Sadly, it feels inevitable. West Hill, with its exclusive gated properties, is a stone’s throw away, after all, and one imagines the inhabitants there would rather have more Chelsea Tractors in the lanes rather than mucky Masseys towing trailers of slurry.

There was a time when I was profoundly mistrustful of the countryside. I remember Lawrence of Felt/Denim/Mozart telling me the same thing. About how he was terrified of rural sounds. Animals, birds, whatever. That and the silence. He said he needed the reassuring constant thrum of the city to feel safe and alive. At the time I was living in the centre of Exeter which was hardly a metropolis (a visiting musician from LA described it at the time as being ‘pastoral’) but I kind of knew what Lawrence meant. During this time I also lumped farmers in with every other type of rural dweller as being ignorant blood-thirsty Tories to be despised and ridiculed, every one a cartoon comic strip villain from Chris T-T’s ‘The Huntsman Comes A Calling’. Foolish and naive, of course, particularly since my own ancestry is firmly rooted in the soil of tenant farmers and Ayrshire fields. My great-great grandfather bred champion chickens, and the High Park farm at which various ancestors worked still sits above Cairn Hill in New Cumnock, a stone’s throw from the council house I was born in and the now empty site of the school I once attended.

It is only in more recent years that my (at best) ambivalence towards the countryside and farmers has shifted. Sixteen years of living in a village in the Exe valley have been the primary driver for this, I’m sure, although there is some symbiosis too with my reading an increasing amount of what I guess folks refer to as ‘nature writing’. Any previous urban arrogance/ignorance about the countryside then has dissipated, more youthful perceptions of the rural/urban divides replaced by developing understanding of the complexities and inter-connectedness of what we see around us. There is certainly something of this in Vron Ware’s excellent ‘Return Of A Native’. I first read some extracts of the book on Caught By The River and was immediately taken by the imagery of the fingerpost sign defaced at a crossroads in the depths of Hampshire. Ware’s writing around this sign and its significance is captivating. She weaves elliptical stories around it, ruminates on meaning and impermanence. This kind of personal rumination is common in so many non-fiction books these days, but as I have mentioned previously, it is a welcome strategy for it allows the reader to understand the inevitable interplay between the global and the personal. Ware does this as well, if not better than most, and the passages about moving to and fro between London and the Hampshire cottage of the/her past to visit her mother are poignant and tender. That space between the rural and the urban is played out in sensitive, understated ways. There is anger and frustration here too, however, aimed mostly at those who have made excessive financial gain out of exploitation of resources/the land/the rural population. There is some excellent historical exploration of the shift from essentially horse-powered ‘human’ scale farming to mechanised agriculture on an industrial scale, particularly around the development of the factory farmed chicken, and throughout the book there are fascinating excavations that explore the relationships between land ‘ownership’, exploitation, slavery, hunting, class, betrayal, rock and pop culture and all points in between. Ware is always engagingly informative about these issues (as one would expect given her decades of writing about racism, gender, history and national identity) but is clearly keen not to fall into the trap of being overly judgemental or to be tempted by the simple stance of ideology. Instead her overviews strike a fine balance between righteous indignation and the pragmatic awareness that Things Are Complicated. Except when they aren’t, of course, which means that any kind of obnoxious apologist attitudes towards racism, sexism and exploitation of the working classes are given short shrift. There is not much love lost either for City Bankers (yes, the rhyming slang is very definitely implicit) who used the Banking crisis of 2008/9 as an opportunity to syphon money into the purchase of cheap agricultural land, thereby protecting their capital and not coincidentally benefiting from tax breaks. Ware additionally shines a light on how these new ‘hobby farmers’ were/are quite happy for these farms to operate at losses, deductible for tax purposes from their obscene City bonuses. All of which doesn’t exactly fill me with hope for the future of Hall’s Farm.

Mature, expansive, yet engagingly personal, ‘Return Of A Native’ then is a compelling outline of the state of England’s rural landscape in the 21st Century and how it got there, for better or for worse.

Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 11

‘South Eastern Survey’ by Richard Wyndham
Originally published in 1940, republished in 2019 as ‘Sussex, Kent and Surrey 1939’ by Batsford. Buy the reissued edition at Hive in the UK.

Originally published as part of Batsford’s ‘The Face Of Britain Series’ in March 1940, Richard Wyndham’s ‘South Eastern Survey’ is dedicated to “THE ARM-CHAIR TRAVELLERS OF THE SECOND GREAT WAR” and, despite it’s functional sounding title, is a beautifully poignant snapshot of three English counties in the immediate prelude to WW2. For its reissue in 2019, the book was retitled ‘Sussex, Kent and Surrey 1939’, a title perhaps slightly more descriptive of the contents, but still pleasingly functional. ‘It does what it says on the cover’ might be its advertising strapline.

It is inevitable, of course, that the spectre of the coming conflict settles its shadows over proceedings, even as the infamously fabulous summer weather of 1939 might have given the illusion of all being well with the world. So there is, not exactly a sense of presentiment about how the landscape, in its widest definition, is about to be altered by coming events, but certainly an awareness that we are at a hinge point in history. It may be that, from 80 years in the future, we cannot help but colour Wyndham’s words with our knowledge of What Came Next, and it is arguably true too that every year, indeed every moment in time might be described as at least a crease in the hinges of history, but nevertheless, there is something about ‘South Eastern Survey’ that is sweetly seductive as a glimpse into the past.

There is, as Peter Ashley points out in his excellent introduction to the 2019 reissue, something of “the painter’s eye” in Wyndham’s photographs and text, “seeing things the casual observer does not.” This reminds me of something I read recently where the role of the music critic might be to “show the listener what they missed.” That may, on one level, seem insulting to “the listener” or “the casual observer” but it needn’t, for it points to the essentially subjective nature of our experiences. Each of us ‘sees’ something the other misses and it is the play between us as all that helps populate the picture. The eternal dialogue of observation allows us to sharpen our focus, even as the image tilts, shifts and turns again on its axis.

‘South Eastern Survey’ then is not the kind of cold and objective overview that its title might suggest. Nor is it the kind of over-familiar and cloyingly personal sort of travel writing we might have been subjected to in more recent years, and thank goodness for that. Rather there is something pleasingly reserved and polite about Wyndham’s informed and intelligent prose, like John Le Mesurier’s Sergeant Wilson reading Betjeman and Pevsner. Simply marvellous.

Amongst a broad collection of delights, Ashley rightly picks up on Wyndham’s description of Fairfield church on the Romney Marsh in Kent as a particular treat. Wyndham describes it as looking “like a toy dropped by a child”. Now as a Scottish boy transplanted to Devon, the South East of England is largely a foreign country to me, but I vividly remember seeing the church from bike rides on the Marshes when I visited some eight years ago, and Wyndham’s description certainly rings true. It is a landscape, and a building, with a strange allure.

Elsewhere in the book Wyndham turns that “painter’s eye” to innumerable other churches, landscapes, houses and high streets. Here is the view from the Devil’s Dyke, looking to Chanctonbury; there the road to Lewes with a white gouge into the chalk downs and a lovely 1930s open topped touring car entering from stage left. Over the page there are toffs at Glyndebourne looking much the same as they might wandering the lawns in 2022, whilst the waterfront at Ramsgate would appear (according to Google Street View at least) also to be largely unchanged. And here’s the thing that oddly enough makes ‘South Eastern Survey’ feel so timeless: Even whilst the world turns and everything changes, there is enough that stays the same to both amplify the awareness of change and to quell its disquietude.

And that’s not some kind of simple nostalgia for something we’ve never actually known. Nor is it the kind of blind/deaf/dumb suggestion that Things In The Past Were ‘Harder’ And Therefore Better that is seemingly weaponised on a daily basis by culture warriors in the media, determined only to hoodwink us into thinking that it’s actually still okay to be racist, sexist, ageist, fascist or whatever. It’s not, and I suspect that Wyndham, who was called up on active service before having a chance to quite finish his journeys in the South East, and who was “killed in 1948 by Israeli gunfire as he was taking a photograph of an Arab advance” whilst covering that particular conflict for ‘The Sunday Times’, would agree.

Instead, as Ashley notes, “what is remarkably still true is Wyndham’s thought that he firmly plants in our minds in the first paragraph of his first chapter: ‘But turn off these concrete highways down a side lane or an old main road now by-passed; as in the vortex of a hurricane, you can find complete calm.” And whilst, sure, there are conversations to be had about the nature of that calm and to whom it is actually available, for me, here, now, as it must have been for Wyndham 80 years ago, it’s enough. It’s more than enough.

NB: Peter Ashley’s introduction is certainly a fine reason for picking up a new copy of ‘Sussex, Kent and Surrey 1939’ but it’s certainly too worth sourcing a used copy of the original 1940 printing. In ‘South Eastern Survey’ you’ll find finer quality photographs printed on glossy pages and maps printed in a gorgeous phthalo green ink inside the front (Sussex and South Surrey) and back (Kent and East Sussex) covers.

Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 10

‘One Language’ by Anastasia Taylor-Lind
Published in 2022 by smith|doorstop. Buy direct from The Poetry Business
Follow Anastasia Taylor-Lind on Instagram

There is a photograph towards the end of Anastasia Taylor-Lind’s ‘One Language’ that shows her, aged not much more than two or three, with her father, their horses Star and Blue, and the wagon that they called home. With its faded colour and spots of damage, this image from 1983 reverberates with much of the same warmth and mystical appeal as Vashti Bunyan’s flight to the Hebrides just over a decade previously. Yet if Bunyan’s ‘Wayward’ rather gently punctures the myth of such an existence, then Taylor-Lind lays into it with a sledgehammer. In her text we are told that “The caravan has no plumbing. One cold night, Dad and Brother piss out the door into a bucket. Me too, one un-pyjamed leg swinging out, cocked over the rim, bracing myself off the aluminium frame, my aim inferior.” She goes on to describe the art of urinating in war zones, noting that “in Libya the threat of unexploded ordinance makes the verge a no-mans land for pissers” whilst “Winter in Ukraine” sees “hay-sweet steam rising between [her] haunches.” Notes too that “In Uganda they say Do you want to stop and check the tyres? Too polite to ask the real question.”

You can probably guess from these quotes that ‘One Language’ is hardly a cheery read, and you’d be right: it isn’t. Intentionally so, one suspects. It is an uncomfortable book, by some distance the most difficult thing I’ve read in 2022. It is a book outside of my comfort zone, the kind of thing I might once have been more drawn to but that these days, like news bulletins on television or in newspapers, I tend to avoid. I know that much of the world and many human beings that inhabit it are shit, I just don’t particularly want to be reminded of that fact on a regular basis.

If anyone is going to do the reminding, however, I’d pick Anastasia Taylor-Lind to do it, for there is at heart a positive spirit and an optimistic resolve to her work that is compelling. Perhaps best known for her work as a photojournalist in Libya and Ukraine (her ‘Maidan: Portraits from The Black Square’ is one of my favourite photobooks of recent times), ‘One Language’ is her first collection of prose and poetry. That her texts are more harrowing than her photographs perhaps says as much about the humanity which Taylor-Lind invests her visual work, or perhaps just highlights how much more easily words can cut through the ‘reality’ of what is seen to the much more troubling things that most of us need only visualise with our minds. In ‘1st Nat Geo Assignment’ then we witness Taylor-Lind “watch two policemen / prod a baby with sticks, / its plump white face bobbing face down” In ‘9.05’ we are in Stepanakert, reporting on the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War where men “look for their missing sons” and where “At the morgue , unrecognisable remains wait on DNA matches”. Anastasia almost blandly notes that is is her “job to photograph this.”

When I was teaching photography to 15 and 16 year olds in Devon I sometimes tried to approach this issue of the role of the (photo)journalist. It was always a difficult lesson and I never mastered its complexities, not least because of the varied needs and contexts of the students. Bottom line though is that almost no-one would ever stand up and say “I could do that. I could make those photographs.” I would wrap the lesson up by saying that it seems to me that the (photo)journalists are there because they care, but that paradoxically they cannot allow themselves to care. Maybe that is too simplistic, but maybe too it starts to at least scratch the surface of the truth.

At its core ‘One Language’ is about Taylor-Lind’s complex relationship with violence, and that previously quoted text about pissing sits within a series of short pieces titled ‘Stories No-One Wants To Hear’. It is a remarkable sequence, filled with candid confessions and grim realities that cuts to the heart of things. She writes: “My dad beat my mum, and me too when I tried to protect her. We all seek to reproduce the familiar conditions of our childhood, even when we are trying to escape them. Violence is familiar to me, it has always been present in my life and my relationship with it shaped my relationship with photography.” It’s all quite matter-of-fact, almost dispassionate. A mechanism to survive, perhaps, or a method of living, whatever. That idea, again, that one might exist within the space where the eternal duel between caring too much and not enough is fought. She goes on to describe how her dad (who had been a teenage boxer in the East End of London) “taught me how to throw a punch, the summer before starting high school” and that “he encouraged me to hit anyone who bullied me. He said Anastasia, some people only understand one language.” I’m sure it hardly comes as a spoiler to learn that her dad was the first person Anastasia punched, “to stop him from hitting [her] mum.”

It’s Taylor-Lind’s descriptions of the second and third people that she punched that really draw me up with a start though. These were fellow students at Tivvy High. Students who, like Anastasia, I taught at various points in their five years at the school. In the first incident Anastasia knocks out another girl’s front tooth in a scrap at lunchtime, all because the girl called Anastasia’s pony ‘ugly’. Twelve year olds, huh? The other is when she gave “one of the toughest bullies” a bloody nose in a maths class being supervised by a supply teacher. In her text Taylor-Lind is typically forthright, unapologetic. Real names are used. Names I’ve not seen in print since I packed away my markbooks many years ago. For some reason (nostalgia, no doubt) I kept the ones from my first few years teaching. They must be in a box in the attic somewhere, gathering dust and slowly decaying. When I read Anastasia’s text now I can just about see those faces as they were three decades ago. I remember that they were not all always bad kids. I remember that everyone is damaged and that everyone has their reasons. Mostly though, I wonder what poor member of the school leadership team had to pick up the pieces. Mostly I think about the fights and conflicts still taking place in those classrooms and corridors. And I wonder too, had I been teaching that lesson about (photo)journalism in 1997 and Anastasia had been in the class, if she would have stood up and said “yes. Yes, I could make those photographs.” I suspect she’d have glowered, silent and sullen in the corner, whilst inwardly thinking that of course she could. What a stupid fucking question. It would certainly explain why Anastasia Taylor-Lind is still out there, picking through the pieces and documenting the trauma and rage and desperation and love that human beings are capable of.

The ‘Stories No-One Wants To Hear’ closes with Taylor-Lind acknowledging that “Pacifism is a privilege of the peaceful and the empowered – inside the home, in our communities and on a global scale. For the most part I own those privileges but when I don’t it’s harder to be a pacifist.” She concludes with: “I’ve tried to tell these stories in professional discussions about violence so many times but no-one wants to hear them.”

Perhaps now, with the publication of ‘One Language’, not quite no-one.

Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 9

‘Wayward’ by Vashti Bunyan
Published in 2022 by White Rabbit Books. Buy direct here.

These days it feels like everyone professes a love for Vashti Bunyan, but it should be remembered that for a long time it looked as though she would become a name lost in the dingy vaults of Pop and Folk music’s catalogue of scarcity, venerated by a few lost souls who would keep the faith in her through an underground network of Chinese whispers. It is entirely possible that I am misremembering this, but it did feel that for while in the late 1980s and early 90s her name was treasured, ironically, as some kind of obscure star of anti-stardom. In todays parlance, perhaps, as an icon of the anti-growth coalition. Yet somehow (inevitably, thanks to the Internet) that underground mythology of Vashti Bunyan took hold and grew to epic proportions. Bunyan was the one who turned her back on it all, who left it all behind, who disappeared ‘off grid’ (as no-one ever referred to it then) and eschewed Modern Life for something simpler. The one who made a quiet masterpiece of a record in ‘Just Another Diamond Day’ and then retreated into further isolation. Or so the myth went.

As time stretched onward then it seemed sometimes as though Vashti Bunyan had become a byword for pastoral whimsy, a lazy reference to throw in whenever someone heard a woman singing gently on top of a minimal backing. Me? Guilty as charged. But then again so what? Those are sonic references and inescapable, perhaps. And being lazy is sometimes undervalued. Of course it all misses Bunyan’s roots in London, the connections to Joe Boyd, Andrew Loog Oldham and the Stones, the influences of the stylish French New Wave. Which is partly why it was so pleasing to hear her in St Etienne’s ‘Finisterre’ film back at the start of the 21st Century. In a lovely extract she talks about her childhood love of farms and the countryside but concludes by admitting that she does love coming back to London. She loves the city. It’s also why her ‘Wayward’ autobiography is so compelling.

To call ‘Wayward’ an autobiography, though, is perhaps misleading because really Bunyan simply focuses on that period in her life for which she is most well known: following the hippy dream of a self-sustained lifestyle and writing and recording that classic album. It is certainly quite delightfully pleasing and illuminating to see the subjects of those songs fleshed out, as it were, and given solid context within the body of ‘Wayward’. The songs and the book work beautifully in harmony, each supporting the other, reflecting colour and detail back and forth like a comforting conversation by the fireside. Paradoxically, the two combine to peel away the layers of mythology whilst simultaneously adding new washes of magic. The fog clears and regroups in an instant. We glimpse the vision and then promptly it dissolves once more into different form.

A slim tome, ‘Wayward’ is a quick and delicious read that, again, paradoxically both amplifies and dilutes the mythology of that flight to the Hebrides by putting the story down in such an elegant matter-of-fact manner. You get the sense that whilst Vashti Bunyan knows this is a strange tale in many respects, it’s also not so strange at all. Perhaps at heart it is the typical story of all artists who necessarily fluctuate between needing to make sense of (their) life through their chosen medium, wanting others to notice that work, yet being also desirous of an existence outside of everything. Throughout the book there is a pull, a tension between opposites. Different ways of living. Alternative definitions of success playing against each other. Conflicts, ambitions, loves, fears, betrayals. Most of all, perhaps, the fear of not adding beauty and magic to the world. A simple fear, in some respects, but very powerful.

There is a heartrending part near the end of the book where Bunyan reflects on reading the only review of ‘Just Another Diamond Day’ she was aware of on its 1971 release. “[It] said it had made the writer feel depressed. I was reading it… and thinking, ‘I’ve just made somebody feel unhappy. I’m not doing that again.’ I remember vividly closing that paper and vowing I would not pick up a guitar again.” That Vashti Bunyan did not quite keep that vow for the rest of her life is to our great benefit, of course, but she held it for long enough for it to matter. That fragility of ego, the brittle heart of our hopeful dreams, is not to be underestimated. How many others have withdrawn after similar bruises and never resurfaced? In a contemporary world where anger and conflict seem to be encouraged as a means to drive monetary profits, perhaps it is worth remembering that kindness is a powerful ally in the face of darkness. Peace, love and understanding. An unattainable hippy dream it may be, but these days I’ll choose that over reality in a heartbeat.