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.

Transvestism and the occult in 1930s Sussex. Or, the crime novels of Moray Dalton.

Last time out I was writing about the British Library Crime Classics reissue series and about the South Downs of Sussex. Well, to continue the connections, these past few weeks I have been reading more 1930s crime novels set mostly in the same parts of the English landscape in the shape of a run of Dean Street Press reissues of Moray Dalton’s tremendously entertaining books featuring Inspector Hugh Collier of Scotland Yard. Dalton (a pseudonym of Katherine Mary Deville Dalton Renoir) wrote fifteen books featuring inspector Collier between 1929 and 1951 plus a host of others, and certainly in the six I have devoured in the past couple of weeks there is a distinct sense of these books being very much in the vein of those by E.C.R. Lorac. Indeed, there are neat connections between Dalton and Lorac (aka Edith Caroline Rivett) in that both shared the same publisher for a time in the 1930s, and that both their detectives are of Scottish origin. It seems that Dalton’s Inspector Collier precedes Lorac’s Macdonald by at least a year, but one rather likes to imagine conversations between the two at some point, wherein the pros and cons of different regional character traits for the Ideal Police Inspector would be discussed in detail over high tea or a glass of sherry. Or perhaps they both just had a thing for Scotsmen (or Scotchmen as they might well have called us in those times). Not that any particular Scots traits of Inspector Collier ever really show themselves within the books, and indeed there is a curious lack of development of the character at all. He seems like something of a wraith in many of the stories, barely there at times and completely invisible at others. Indeed, in ‘The Night Of Fear’ Collier takes a back seat for much of the book, the slack of his investigative role taken up by private investigator called Glide. Glide crops up in some later Dalton books and in ‘Night Of Fear’ it does feel as though Dalton is still working out which of her characters she likes the look of best. This isn’t a criticism, incidentally, for there is always more than enough going on in the books such that the flesh and bones of Collier almost becomes an irrelevance.

The Glide character is there again in ‘Death In The Cup’, as Dalton plays with poisoning and the peculiarly oppressive strictures of familial obedience and inheritance, much of which feels inevitably Old Fashioned whilst being simultaneously timelessly relevant. It is inevitable too that for 21st Century readers there may be a degree of shock at some of the language used and some of the social and moral mores on display, but frankly I have always seen these aspects as useful historical reference points rather than reasons to damn the books to funeral pyres of unwelcome impropriety. Dalton is as good (or as bad, depending on your perspective) at this as any, and ‘Death In The Cup’ is particularly striking in its use of the word ‘loonies’ to describe those with mental health issues. “I never had cared about living with a pair of loonies about, but they’d both seemed harmless enough” says one of the servant characters before adding the observation that one particular individual “spends his time cutting pictures out of papers and pasting them in albums when he isn’t digging in his bit of garden. Just a softy I always thought. Timid and shy.” Naturally I read this and laugh at how well it describes my younger self. Or indeed my present, older self. Minus the digging in the garden, obviously. Actually what feels most interesting in all this is just how relatively recently such phrasing has fallen out of popular usage. It was certainly still amongst the favoured terms in my own 1970s and 80s youth, although then again, we are now as far from those eras as I would then have been from Dalton’s…

Elsewhere, in ‘The Belfry Murder’, there are also the inevitable references to Jews, though in Dalton’s defence it has to be said that these are rather less nastily thrown and somewhat more balanced than in most other contemporaneous cases. Early in the book an elderly immigrant to England suggests that “The Jews are a wonderful people… They have their faults, but think of the way they’ve been treated” whilst later one of the Jewish characters (named, extraordinarily enough, Kafka) himself suggests that “There are Jews—and Jews—just as there are gentlemen and cads in every race.” In the context of mainstream popular English literature in 1933 I suspect such a stance may be quite remarkable, but I am no academic and I am sure others can either rebuke me for such an ill-informed comment or suggest that this is indeed the case.

If Dalton’s attitude towards Jews may be oddly out of kilter with with the established and unsavoury mainstream vilification to be found elsewhere at the time, then her attitude towards transvestism, as found in the extraordinary ‘The Strange Case of Harriet Hall’ book of 1936 is positively enlightened. It is no great spoiler to give the game away on the cross-dressing front, but it is certainly to Dalton’s credit that whilst it is clearly A Shocking Development to all involved, it is never portrayed as something to create great unease. The transvestism may be an important plot device, but there is never a suggestion that the personal sexual preferences of a character are central to any criminal activities. One could argue that this detachment of a sexual psychology from a criminal one is naive (it’s highly unlikely that any modern criminal investigator would fail to at least explore a possible connection) but then this naïveté is perhaps one of the very reasons some of us much prefer these Golden Age stories to more modern ones, where great pleasure seems to be taken in exploring supposedly ‘dark’ corners of life in excruciating detail. Dalton instead seems to say “this is no big deal”. It’s a personal choice. Nothing to do with us. I for one applaud such a position.

In ‘Harriet Hall’ and ‘The Belfry Murder’ there is a definite sense of Dalton moving her books more assuredly into the realms of the entertainment thriller than the detection puzzle genre, and its a move that, as previously mentioned, I personally appreciate. It all ratchets up to the next level in the marvellous ‘The Belgrave Manor Crime’ of 1935, in which child abduction, sexual depravity, hallucinogenic drug use, spiritualism and devil worship are thrown together in a splendid romp through the Sussex landscape. It recalls something of Miles Burton’s ‘The Secret of High Eldersham’ of five years previous, which has a similarly high-octane denouement involving a rush to save Innocents from the depraved clutches of occultists. In the spirit of populist entertainments, the majority of Dalton’s characters here are comic book caricatures of Bright Young Crowley-devotee Things, but that is certainly part of the appeal.

To get back into geographical peculiarities though, it is noticeable that whilst almost all of the Sussex place names are real (we visit Lewes, Arundel, Shoreham, and Littlehampton amongst others) the reference to South Devon, where a body is discovered early in the book is peculiarly named as Barme Head. Of course no such place exists, but some detective work based on a few other comments in the book suggest it could be based on the the area around Coleton, where the National Trust holds the marvellous Arts and Crafts / Art Deco decorated Coleton Fishacre property. This in itself is but a stone’s throw from Agatha Christie’s celebrated home at Greenway, and I wonder if the choice of a fictional South Devon location is as some kind of tangential reference to Christie? In ‘The Belfry Murder’ there is little doubt that the observation by Inspector Collier that “Quite recently a considerable amount of public money had been wasted and a number of officers had been employed for days in searching for a woman whose disappearance had proved to be voluntary and in the nature of a practical joke” is a less than veiled reference to Christie’s infamous 1926 disappearance.

With three more of the Dean Street Press’ run of Dalton’s books still to be read, I admit I am looking forward to being entertained until at least the start of the notional half term break (it feels strange that such long-established punctuation points in the year are currently essentially meaningless), at which point I will no doubt turn my attention elsewhere in the extensive Dean Street Press catalogue (Elizabeth Gill, Ianthe Jerrold, Joan Cowdroy, E & M.A. Radford and Basil Thomson having already been fully read and very much enjoyed in the past few years). So many treasures to yet unearth.

Detecting Landscapes

Like many, I have been eagerly devouring each release in the British Library Crime Classics series ever since ‘The Mystery In White’ kicked things off some five and a half years ago. Amongst the first batch of releases were a couple of John Budes’ terrific ‘place’ series novels, ‘The Cornish Coast Murder’ and ‘The Sussex Downs Murder’. Both of these are wonderful reads and I very much recommend them. As with his ‘Lake District Murder’ they are novels that intentionally root themselves in place and in these times of limited travel I am very tempted to re-read them in order to travel back to these landscapes, at least in my mind. The recently reissued ‘two for the price of one’ paperback of Budes’ ‘Death In White Pyjamas’ and ‘Death Knows No Calendar’ may not follow the earlier formula of being tourist promotional materials for English Counties, but are nonetheless welcome additions to the British Library series. As Martin Edwards’ typically well informed introduction tells us, both these novels are almost impossible to find in their original versions, largely because they were published during WW2 and therefore in limited numbers. As Edwards also notes, the war permeates both books in the sense that both are decidedly up-beat and shot through with lightweight humour in attempts to raise spirits and create entertaining diversions. In this they are both assuredly successful, and if this means that they function slightly less well as detective conundrums then that is all to the good. In our similarly (but very differently) trying times such lighthearted entertainments are a singular balm.

In both novels it seems to me that Bude has summoned the spirit of Wodehouse into his prose, and this is to be applauded of course. Something in the dialogue has the wit and whimsy of Bertie Wooster and his pals and I admit that at times I could not help but hear Hugh Laurie’s voice ringing in my head. Indeed in ‘Death Knows No Calendar’ we encounter a character called Honoria whose dialogue comes complete with exaggerated lisp, and whilst of course in Wodehouse land the lisping lady would be little Madeline, all the names and traits mingle in my mind into one delicious jambalaya of amused reference and gentle ribbing. In both novels Bude pushes the narrative along at a smart pace whilst always being careful not to exhaust us. His characters are almost comic and certainly chipped from the rock of caricature, but in the context of the detective entertainment this is not only to be expected but to be encouraged. And if the denouement in each novel rather trips over itself in a desperate attempt to deliver justice and wrap up loose ends in a bluster of ‘and that was that’ then again, this is all fine, and I for one would rather that than endless lingerings and ‘another thing’s. Highly recommended.

Ditto the reissued ‘Crossed Skis’ by Carol Carnac which I devoured in a couple of sittings. This is a post-WW2 title that very nicely captures something of an England and Europe attempting to recover some sense of normality at the start of the 1950s. The novel neatly navigates between a dingy rationing-ravaged London in January and the snowy landscapes of the Austrian Alps where a party of Young Things have gathered to dance, dine and (of course) ski, all the while with an unknown interloper in their midst. If it all feels rather impossible to the modern eye, this is surely part of its charm, as Carnac (a thinly disguised E.C.R. Lorac – herself a pseudonym of Edith Caroline Rivett) paints a convincing portrait of the contemporary society in a moment of flux, where class distinctions begin to erode and connections between individuals become by necessity random and accidental. As a whodunnit detection challenge it barely registers on the difficulty spectrum, but this is hardly the point as Carnac takes great pleasure in describing charming Alpine landscapes and the thrill of skiing to an audience desperate for an escape (literal and metaphorical) from the post-war austerity. As with Bude’s two novels, this sense of escapist entertainment is palpable, and the publication of these paperbacks in the current situation seems strangely apposite.

There are another five Lorac novels already published by the British Library and each of these are as good as, or even better, than ‘Crossed Skis’. Two of these five are set in London, whilst another two find themselves based in Devon (the fifth takes in the fell lands of the southern Lake District). All are tremendous, but it is in the more rural based novels where Lorac shares, through her recurring character of Inspector MacDonald, an obvious love for landscape and nature. Of course it is the Devon novels that I personally find most engaging and I admit that I have spent many hours tracing the fictionalised references to place. Dulverton and Exeter certainly crop up in ‘Fire In the Thatch’, whilst the family name of the characters at the centre of the novel is ‘St Cyres’ (a reference, I like to think, to the village of Newton St Cyres, home to the legendary Beer Engine public house and brewery). The fictitious Milham on the Moor in ‘Murder In The Mill-Race’ meanwhile is described as being on the route from Taunton to Barnsford (though quite why Taunton should be named whilst Barnstaple has to be barely disguised is beyond me) which would place it around South or North Molton, or perhaps East and West Anstey.

From these geographical games it is quite clear that Lorac enjoys having fun, creating fantastic collages where fragments of the real combine to make illusory conceits of immeasurable pleasure. It’s never more mad and delicious than in her 1943 novel ‘Death Came Softly’ in which place names are entirely imaginary whilst still retaining some nods to reality (I like to think this is some kind of nod to the wartime obfuscation of place names and road signs). Exeter, for example, becomes Enster, whilst it strikes me that Valehead House may be a reference to Mamhead House, although geographically it would be in entirely the wrong part of Devon (Lorac tells us the house is “hidden in one of the wooded north Devon valleys”). Architecturally, a close fit would be the Italianate Buckland House (yours to rent for the weekend at the bargain price of between £3000 and £5700), but whilst this is indeed towards the northern part of the county, everything else in the novel points to the south. A character gets lost in the mist on the moor and shelters at one of the tors, which suggests Dartmoor rather than Exmoor, whilst Inspector MacDonald catches a train from Towmouth (Teignmouth?) through Starford (Starcross?) to connect with the London train from Enster (London is always just London (or Town) in every English detective novel ever written). Another strong clue to Valehead being modelled on Mamhead is in Lorac’s opening paragraphs of the book, in which she describes the early summer blooming of the gardens. The description is a triumph and with its mention of vast magnolias and rhododendrons would appear to be quite an accurate take on the extensive gardens around Mamhead (which, incidentally, is currently on the market should you have something in the region of £10 million kicking around down the back of the sofa). Needless to say ‘Death Comes Softly’ is, as well as a geographical detective pleasure, a fine whodunnit with an ingenious mode of murder and some marvellous period characters sketched in finest caricature. Currently only available on Kindle (unless you want to shell out £600 for a signed hardback first edition) it is, like all of Lorac’s work, tremendously entertaining.

Now mention was made earlier of how John Bude’s ‘Sussex Downs Murder’ makes me want to visit this landscape, and this has been very much the case too when reading Justin Hopper’s ‘The Old Weird Albion’. I had enjoyed the ‘Chanctonbury Rings’ record that Hopper made a few years ago for Ghost Box with Sharon Kraus and Belbury Poly but will admit that, fine and enjoyable as the record is, there is something just not quite right about hearing Hopper’s American accent narrating words about a place suffused with such ancient Albion magic. His book traces some of the same passages as the record, but extends the narrative into something that blends personal historical exploration with something that touches on the deeper pre-history within the landscape of the South Downs.

At the start of the book Hopper tells us how he grew up atheist but came to reject his parents’ lack of faith, eventually looking outside of organised religion to find that spiritual succour in landscape. It seems to me that however much we may grow to embrace or reject our parents’ beliefs at various stages of our lives, there exists in most of us always a tension between skepticism and a desire to discover some sense of faith. Certainly Hopper’s interest in exploring the histories stored by landscape underpinned by the notions of ancient natural magic is something that resonates strongly with me at this point in my life. Yet it is that underlying, perhaps even barely perceptible tension between faith and doubt that prevents ‘The Old Weird Albion’ from falling into the trap of becoming too heavily enveloped by the reek of new-age mysticism and crystal cradling hippiedom. Instead I feel that Hopper treads the line of intrigue where the threads of ancient mysteries weave into contemporary 21st Century questions of reality, myth, purpose and belonging. When new modes of normal are defined in the coming months and years, I will certainly feel the pull of the landscapes that Hopper writes about and look forward to opportunities to follow some of his pathways. I feel sure I will revisit ’The Old Weird Albion’ as I do so.

Nothing is real. Demand the impossible.

Last time out I was in midst of reading Phil Rickman’s ‘The Bones of Avalon’, the first of his two novels featuring a fictionalised Dr John Dee in the 16th Century. Whilst ultimately enjoyable, my reservations about the ultimate success of the project remain: Too much tension between historical accuracy and driving narrative (to Rickman’s credit, his skill with narrative wins out); too much tension between 16th Century and contemporary dialogue (contemporary wins, but I’m not sure there really needs to be a conflict – unless that in itself is a metaphor); not enough tension between the battling religious doctrines. I mean, sure, there is a fair bit of religious conflict (it’s fundamental to the whole premise of the book, after all), but compared to some of Rickman’s Merrily Watkins’ books this battle between ancient, pagan magic and ‘modern’ organised religion feels strangely muted and oddly underplayed. Perhaps Rickman recognised this himself and this is why he did not continue beyond two books in the Dr Dee series. Certainly I cannot yet quite muster the interest to continue onto his ‘The Heresy of Dr Dee’, but surely there is time, even within the confines of this current lockdown.

‘The Bones of Avalon’ did, on the other hand, make me track down and read Andy Roberts’ ‘Albion Dreaming’. Sub-titled ‘A popular history of LSD in Britain’, Roberts’ book pretty much lives up to that promise. Inevitably there is much crossover with the likes of Mick Farren’s ‘Give The Anarchist A Cigarette’, Joe Boyd’s ‘White Bicycles’, Jonathan Green’s ‘Days In The Life’ or, heck, just about any book you care to mention that you’ve ever read which deals with UK popular culture in the 1960s into the early 70s. It’s all interesting of course, but there are only so many times one can read about the 14 Hour Technicolour Dream and The Pink Floyd without starting to skim and skip to the end. Plussing as which, if I read one more time about how Lennon’s ‘semolina pilchard’ line in ‘I Am The Walrus’ is a reference to a certain Drugs Squad policeman I swear down I’m going to do something I regret. More interesting perhaps is the way in which it is always this particular Beatles’ reference that is dropped and seldom, if ever, the assertion that Monty Python’s reference to ‘Spiny Norman’ in one of their early Flying Circus sketches is also to Mr Pilcher. In truth the Python’s reference (an imaginary hedgehog that varies in size depending on the character Dinsdale Piranha’s mood) is even more surreal and psychedelic than Lennon’s mediocre lyric and every bit as soaked in LSD culture, even if only by association. Indeed, it’s interesting how Roberts fails to explore (or barely mention) the way in which psychedelic visions so swiftly suffused much of what came to be mainstream TV entertainment in the 1970s, from Python to The Goodies and into children’s TV series like The Owl Service, Children Of The Stones, The Changes and, ahem, The Magic Roundabout etc. This isn’t a criticism of ‘Albion Dreaming’ as such, for there is only a limited amount of space and scope in a book and goodness knows there has been enough written in recent times about that whole realm of ‘70s children’s TV. It’s the same story when Roberts’ tackles the decline of LSD ubiquity into the 1980s. A quick recount of Julian Cope tripping on Top of The Pops (this is thankfully brief – I remember being thoroughly disappointed by how the second half of Cope’s ‘Head On’ autobiography felt like a descent into endlessly dull descriptions of drug adventures) and a short treatise on the way in which Thatcher’s Neo-liberal Conservatism established a legislated destruction of the counter-culture through the targeting of the traveller lifestyle, culminating of course in the ‘Battle of the Beanfield’. Again, Roberts is understandably cursory in covering this because it does start to stray outside of his book’s remit, but certainly I found Richard King’s coverage of this in ‘Lark Ascending’ to be much more deeply engaging, whilst I remember Ian Sansom’s fictionalised version in ‘The Book Stops Here’ as being simultaneously hilarious and deeply troubling.

Where ‘Albion Dreaming’ is best, certainly for me, is in the early chapters where Roberts explores the foundations of LSD within the use of hallucinatory drugs in other cultures and in pre-industrial contexts. These foundations feed into the ways in which LSD was used in 1950s psychiatric treatment and Roberts’ unfurling of these times says as much about societal attitudes towards medical and scientific practice as it does about the drug itself. It does rather make one wonder if the significantly increased levels of checks, balances and safeguarding paranoia of recent decades have rather stifled creative innovation and thought, but one is equally aware that it wouldn’t do to say so.

What comes through very clearly in ‘Albion Dreaming’ is the way in which encounters with LSD significantly informed the way the 1960s and 1970s unfolded, and the way in which several threads of currently fashionable thinking (the whole sustainable living movement) can be traced to transcendental revelations gained through LSD trips. As mentioned previously, ‘Albion Dreaming’ is a book full of characters and tales you’ll likely have come across before, but as well I am sure you will also come away with some new fragments of interest. Best for me was the revelation that between March and October 1971Michael Hollingshead and a band of merry pranksters established the Pure Land Ashram on, of all places, the island of Great Cumbrae in the Firth of Clyde. In his recently published biography of Hollingshead, Roberts notes that “It has been alleged that full moon LSD ceremonies were held there on a monthly basis.” I wonder if devotees arrived on The Waverley?

Getting back to Dr Dee, and you are likely aware that Derek Jarman was also drawn to Dee, the character of whom wanders the crumbling landscape of ‘Punk’ London in his ‘Jubilee’ film. It is many years since I last saw the film and I admit I am drawn to doing so again having recently read and very much enjoyed the ‘Defying Gravity’ memoir by Jordan in collaboration with Cathi Unsworth. Together they approach the structure of the memoir by weaving first person narrative and other individual’s voices almost as ‘conversation’, and if this initially feels clunky and inadvisable it actually very quickly becomes well structured and adroitly carried off. In addition there are well positioned tangential asides where particular characters or events are given brief stand-alone explanation and contextualisation, almost like quick links out to Wiki pages. It works well, and although implemented more obviously than the interwoven asides in Pete Paphides’ ‘Broken Greek’, helps break up the narrative and develops the conversational aspect of the book.

As with ‘Albion Dreaming’, I could not help but skim a little of ‘Defying Gravity’ simply because the underlying story of ‘Punk’, The Sex Pistols and the SEX/Seditionaries/Worlds’ End shop is one I’ve come across numerous times down the years. Not that this takes anything away from ‘Defying Gravity’, but there is very much a sense of retreading some of the ground covered so eloquently by Jon Savage in the peerless ‘England’s Dreaming’, and this is fine (Savage himself provides an introduction to the book and Unsworth and Jordan acknowledge the importance of Savage’s research in populating some of the ‘conversation’ quotes used in their book). What Jordan does do somewhat differently in her book however is very much pull at the threads of fashion as a driving factor in the development of Punk in the UK. I have seldom seen a book ‘about’ the 1970s Punk explosion that so refreshingly distances much of the music in favour of clothes, make-up, personality and persona. It is these aspects that largely drive Jordan’s personal history and that ultimately make ‘Defying Gravity’ so compellingly entertaining. Rarely has the complex (and often contradictory) notion of kinship between those who have been considered ‘outside of society’ been so deftly drawn, and what surprises most in the book is the depth of warmth and humanity that lingers in spite of (or perhaps because of) the conflicts and divisions of the times. It’s ultimately disappointing therefore that one of the final observations in the book (made by Bertie Marshall, but positioned so it feels very much like the author’s – Jordan’s and/or Unsworths? – shared opinion) that “The whole [Punk] ideology or aesthetic has really swamped the world. It has been a total cultural change. I can’t think of another. The hippies didn’t really do it in those terms.” It’s a statement that feels at odds with most of what I took from the rest of the book, which is that Punk really wasn’t a Year Zero but was an interconnected episode on the continuum, impossible to conceive of without foundations laid by the LSD laced 60s and early 70s, even if just as something to knock down and re-purpose. Indeed, it’s this sense of the necessarily selfish and individualist artistic obsession being held in tension against the innate human desire to build communities that, more than anything, inexorably binds the adventures of LSD tripping Hippies and amphetamine fuelled Punks into the same arc/Ark.

Nothing is real. Demand the impossible.

Moods For Moderns

It is perhaps a little known (or cared for) fact that in the furthest mists of Unpopular time I studied two years on an architecture course before eventually switching to complete an Interior Design degree. Naturally this qualified me to do nothing except become a teacher. Or perhaps that was just the result of a complete inability to engage with the real world of commerce. Whatever. I mention this not to suggest that, you know, I coulda been a contender or somethin’, but rather to explain why my favourite periodical of recent years has been The Modernist. It was a picture of Johnny Marr posing with the magazine (he’s a patron) that hipped me to it, and that is just fine. Marr was always my favourite in These Myths and whilst I have tried very hard to enjoy his solo records they have always left me cold despite me willing myself to say ‘wow, this is the business’ or some such. Sorry Mr Marr, they just don’t spark the thrill. But The Modernist? Now you’re talking. A bit like Caught By The River for architecture and design lovers, The Modernist ploughs a very specific furrow and is assuredly beloved by anyone who cares for a spare aesthetic of concrete brutalism/minimalism and the ghosts of 1970s urban planning. I particularly like the tall thin format of recent issues with it’s numerous fold-out pages lending the magazine an appropriate three dimensional quality, and issue 34 (‘juxtaposition’) is certainly a treat to keep me entertained in the lockdown.

Ashiya Eastwood has a terrific spread about the legendary Sound Mirrors Of Denge (new band name. I call it) with some deliciously warm photographs. Katrina Navickas has an informative piece about litter bin design in public spaces (of course!) and Craig Austin writes about the 1970s campaign to position Cwmbran as “the town where the future is happening now” and in doing so expands to contemplate personal history and other elements of British utopian planners dreams gone wrong (but that look brilliant). Best of all though is the terrifically titled ‘Anti Bucolic’ piece which collects some black and white photographs by Jethro Marshall. A segment of curving concrete harbour wall. Concrete steps cast between craggy rocks. A concrete cliff face embedded into the chalk face like industrial dentistry. Magic. Like looking at the kinds of photographs I would make myself, and blow me if that piece of industrial dentistry isn’t at Beer, the home of the famous caves and setting for much of Ian Sansom’s ‘Death In Devon’. In other words, right on my doorstep.

Marshall, it turns out, runs a small press called West Country Modern that has published a small but perfectly formed sequence of slim books that explore aspects of the South West landscape. ‘Coastal Brutalism’ explores exactly what it suggests, and is where you will find those shots of concrete sea walls and steps, alongside anti-tank cubes and pillboxes (and incidentally, mention of pillboxes on the South West coast cannot help but remind one of Alexander Stuart’s ‘The War Zone’) whilst the cheekily titled ‘Farm Follows Function’ presents photographs of industrial farm buildings. Unpopulated by humans or livestock, these photographs present the purity of form of these often ad-hoc collections of buildings as compositions of simple forms, line and texture. They are exactly the kinds of scenes I find most appealing when riding my bicycle along the farm tracks of Devon during my daily exercise excursions.

Marshall’s ‘Nightlife’ on the other hand is a meander away from the constructed landscape into the natural treasures of dusk and the cloak of night. Shots of grasses softly swaying in the wind and macro captures of flower heads frozen in light against rich darkness, they recall for me some of the terrific shots in the ‘Kentucky Renaissance’ collection of Lexington Camera Club photography: Meatyard’s ‘Zen twigs’, or Charles Traub’s ‘Fall’ perhaps. At times too these images remind me of Sarah Jones’ exquisite shots of rose bushes and there is nothing wrong with that. Tania Kovat’s accompanying text is just as marvellous, taking in as it does the sounds and scents of flora and fauna amplified through darkness, the scientific magik of Vantablack and the elliptical wonder of Talk Talk’s ‘Spirit Of Eden’. It all fits.

In our isolation bunkers

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

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

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

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

Weightless

Have you been following Ian Sansom’s ‘County Guides’ series of novels? If so you will have no doubt recently picked up the latest instalment ‘The Sussex Murder’. I admit it very nearly passed me by, for I do not get much opportunity these days to visit physical book shops and it is so easy to forget to remember to look for new instalments of things in the online world. I’m sure there are technologies that can help with this but frankly I am attempting to remove elements of technology from my daily existence. And no, the irony of writing and publishing this statement on a platform that relies on exactly those kinds of technologies is not lost on me, but as we have said many times in the past, in our lives we must embrace contradictions and cognitive dissonances or risk descent further into madness.

‘The Sussex Murder’ continues the adventures/travails of Swanton Morley (‘The People’s Professor’), his daughter Miriam and their assistant Stephen Sefton around the UK and further cements the notion of these novels as odd confections that blend humour, mystery and historical trivia with contemporary social and political commentary and critique. Should such a notion leave you a little cold, then it must be said that in Sansom’s hands the blending is done with remarkable deftness and lightness of touch. Sansom’s post-modern blurring of narrative boundaries is neither over-powering nor entirely invisible and for this he should be applauded. There are clearly clever on-going structural conceits taking place in these books (we slip between narrator Sefton’s ’then’ – in the case of ‘The Sussex Murder’ it is 1939 – and ‘now’, yet are never entirely certain when the ‘now’ is, except for that fact that our inner arithmetic suggests that ‘now’ must already be a ‘past’) yet it never even remotely feels like we are reading a stylistic exercise. The precision of language is admirable. Nothing feels superfluous. We move from here to there and everything we meet on the way feels valuable. This is a rare skill.

One of the historical criticisms of detective and/or mystery novels is often around a perceived lack of characterisation. This is never a line of criticism that I have held much sympathy with, for it’s often not true (Sayers’ development of Wimsey and Vane as characters is, I think terrific, and Christie’s key protagonists Poirot and Marple are marvellously convincing and intriguing) and anyway rather misses a point that characterisation is not what these books are really about. It’s like criticising Jane Austen for not leaving us enough clues to solve the puzzle. What puzzle? Well, exactly.

Nevertheless there is a sense that Sansom knowingly plays up to this kind of critique in the County Guides, for his characters do indeed feel largely like caricatures. Yet alongside this we sense them also tentatively developing through the series: With each new instalment we discover something new that both strengthens the cartoon yet also softens it. Small nuances are added. Doubts. Suggestions. Not least in the relationship between Miriam and Sefton where we wonder: Will they? Won’t they? Did they? Didn’t they? Backwards and forwards with nods to that suggested future-past. It’s hardly a strong Romantic Narrative Arc but I think it is all the better for that. Instead it is a ghost of a narrative, a dissipated vapour trail that might actually just be clouds.

In a short Q/A piece at the end of his recent novel ‘The Old Religion’ Martyn Waites suggests that “Brexit is the worst thing to happen to this country in my lifetime. And crime fiction should absolutely be discussing it.” One suspects this is something that Ian Sansom would agree with, for certainly ‘The Sussex Murder’ pulls on these points within the context of historical 1930s threads. To be fair, anything that casts a net back to the 1930s as a means of mirroring contemporary developments with regards rise of right wing extremism almost writes itself, which is itself quite terrifying, and one rather suspects that Sansom had this in mind when starting the series. Which either makes him remarkably prescient or a gifted historian, although perhaps there is an argument that says this amounts to the same thing.

On the subject of history, it is as vehicles for localised historical trivia that The County Guides novels really do excel. There is certainly a sense as the series unfolds that what Sansom is actually doing is writing these fictional guides into reality. Or writing realities into fiction, whichever makes most sense. Sansom has always been very strong at conjuring a sense of place, making one believe that his writing is rooted in the geography and detail of wherever his stories happen to be set. In ‘The Sussex Murder’ however he begins to unpick this imagined reality and reveals something of a process driven illusion behind it. It’s like Springsteen at the start of his Broadway shows. “I made it all up!”

It is not uncommon for me to read acknowledgements pages in books, and those in Sansom’s books are always a treat. They remind me very much of the rear cover of a fanzine I wrote back in the murky mists of time in which I refused to list ‘contents’ and instead listed ‘references’. It was all rather perversely or stupidly obdurate of me, but what else should a young fanzine writer be after all? Not that it made much difference in terms of limiting the audience, for it was at a time when all I could afford to do was photocopy ten copies for friends, all of whom were a relatively captive audience. Still, I believe there is something intrinsically thrilling about reading lists of reference points, not least because they are potential sources of connectivity pulse beats. Fragmentary (and ultimately illusory) connectivity, yes of course, but such is the nature of our cultural lives, and surely this is something to celebrate not denigrate.

Ian Sansom’s list of acknowledgements is certainly a source of such connectivity. It is a list of names and references where one finds oneself shouting ‘yes!’ Just like that Larkin line about Bechet:
“On me your voice falls as they say love should,
Like an enormous yes.”

So there is, to take at random: Wes Anderson. Yes! Beth Chatto. Yes! Chas Hodges. Yes! Sean Hughes. Yes! Mark Pawson. Hell yes! Dominic Sandbrook… oh wait, hang on, I’ll substitute Andy Beckett there if I may.

And then there is ‘Swagger’. In a moment of personal interpretation I suggest to Sansom in an email that this may perhaps be a reference to the Blue Aeroplanes album, to which he responds that it isn’t but goes on to thank me for reminding him of the record. Yet if it had been it would not be entirely out of place, for it is a record that is, like Sansom’s ‘County Guides’ series, simultaneously of its time, out of time and timeless.

‘Swagger’ is of its time because if I am picking at threads of frustration it still sounds Very 1990, in other words a fraction too dense and a touch too heavy to my ears. Less so with each passing year, perhaps, and with each additional listening, certainly, yet I struggle still with personal demons and haunted memories (less so with each passing year, perhaps, and with each additional listening, certainly) that (dis)colour my feelings for certain songs and touches.

Blue Aeroplanes touted many of the tunes for ‘Swagger’ with R.E.M. on the ‘Green’ tour in 1989, and the two groups and records are almost inextricably connected in my conscious. In other words both ‘Green’ and ‘Swagger’ sound (degrees of) terrific in isolation yet suffer on subsequent revisiting of earlier works. This is in part down to personal context and taste of course, but I believe both groups earlier/earliest records are more beguiling, mysterious, spacious and brittle.

Yet ‘Swagger’ feels out of time because, disconnected from its original context it now feels oddly more savage than I ever remember. The mud has dried and fallen away revealing a ravaged body that is animated in a dance of wild abandon. Which, with respect to Wojtek Dmochowski, is perhaps not an altogether inappropriate metaphor.

The take on Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Applicant’ is a case in point. Where once I believed the song stripped power from Plath’s poetry I now do a double take and wonder what on earth I was thinking. It seems now that the song forces me to hear meaning afresh. It startles in a way I had not previously considered, with words and phrases gouging and scything with brutal precision. Langely’s delivery is singing-not-singing, poetry-not-poetry, walking the tightrope betwixt and between.

Singles ‘and Stones’ and ‘Jacket Hangs’ are tremendous Pop mementoes that, increasingly shorn of that personal antipathy reveal themselves as much more valiantly awkward and perversely assured than I ever remember. Blue Aeroplanes at their best always came complete with awkward pauses (and indeed awkward poses) and these songs now make me consider them as something like a Big Flame with their razor blades blunted just so (this isn’t a pejorative statement, though you may read it as such) and… Television hesitating. And who needs Television when you had The Subway Sect? Well perhaps there is something of Godard’s English language school of thought here too. The poetry of the everyday given an eloquent reading.

Today though it is ‘Weightless’ that gnaws most on my mind. Five minutes of ebb and flow, of building and decaying. Earlier we mentioned a sense of spaciousness missing in some of the production of ‘Swagger’ and perhaps it is no surprise that ‘Weightless’ feels like the moment where that emptiness most suggestively creeps back in. Even in the moments of meshing guitars and noise there is a sense of void into which Langley hurls his words. There is something compelling too in the way that noise falls from our ears to be replaced by a tinitus echo and Langley murmuring about how he “liked being weightless best”. Today too it recalls the epic unfurling of Felt’s swan song ‘New Day Dawning’ and there is nothing wrong with that at all.

So my ‘Swagger’ is not Sansom’s ‘Swagger’ and on reflection why would it be? Indeed on reflection even it if had been it would not and that is as it ought, for those notions of connectivity, powerful, invaluable and life-affirming as they are, in our worlds of books and records they are still and always transient pulses. Profoundly important, yes, yet essentially illusory. Weightless, indeed.