Apparently a critic once said that Peter Cheyney’s books made Mickey Spillane seem like Proust. I doubt if it was meant as a compliment, but if we’re talking about cutting to the essence of Pulp fiction then maybe there is no greater one. For if Proust might use many thousands of words to beautifully say not really very much at all then Cheyney takes hardly any words and says a heap of things that might well cause offence, and hilariously, grubbily so. You can’t get more Pulp than that, after all. And whilst public opinion is surely no signifier of lasting cultural value, certainly Cheyney’s sales figures (1.5 million books sold in 1946 alone, for example) would suggest that his books at the very least tapped into contemporary fascinations with extraordinary success. The French certainly seemed to dig his books, particularly those featuring the harder than hard-boiled American agent and detective Lemmy Caution, with many film adaptations released through the 1950s and ’60s. Ironically, the most famous of these, Godard’s ‘Alphaville’ may have Caution as a character (played as always superbly by Eddie Constantine) but in a story not actually penned by Cheyney.
Out of print and out of fashion for some time, the Lemmy Caution series is now being republished by the redoubtable Dean Street Press alongside Cheyney’s novels featuring British detective character Slim Callaghan and the ‘Dark’ series of espionage thriller books. I’ve just polished off the first in each of these series and I’m pleased to report that the 1936 debut of Lemmy Caution in ‘This Man Is Dangerous’ is as wildly entertaining and hilariously offensive to 2022 sensitivities as the Spillane reference might suggest. It’s certainly about as far from delicately composed prose as it is possible to get; a world where every woman is a “dame” and caricatured mobsters inhabit England’s green and pleasant lands with schemes for kidnap, blackmail and cold blooded murder. It’s all Edward G Robinson, Dick Powell and Veronica Lake larking gleefully about, stuffing Hammett and Chandler into a blender and flavouring the results with gut-rot moonshine. So when Caution points out that “she’s a nice kid, but she likes to pretend she ain’t. She’s one of them girls who’s had too much money an’ too much of her own way” then it is easy to picture Bogart in ‘The Big Sleep’, lurking in the shadow of his Buick, face spotlit by the moon or headlights and smoke curling out of his lips. Sure, it may feel stilted and incongruous to have these staples of the Hollywood fiction factory toting their automatics around the English landscape, but as a blast of escapist comic-book Noir ‘This Man Is Dangerous’ is hugely enjoyable.
Whilst the wholesale importation of Pulp Americana in the form of Lenny Caution might have met the needs of a thrill-seeking British public, it seems there was nevertheless a significant call for anglicising the genre. Enter, therefore, London private detective Slim Callaghan in 1938’s ‘The Urgent Hangman’. Yet whilst the characters and locations might be English, the flavour is still decidedly Trans-Atlantic and Pulpy. So when Callaghan suggests that a woman “knew quite a lot about life and practically everything that there was to know about men” then it is still easy to picture Sam Spade leaning back in an office chair, face cut across by the light cast through blinds and smoke curling out of his lips. The only difference might be Spade played by Bogarde rather than Bogart, the cigarettes Players rather than Lucky Strikes.
Certainly Callaghan, whilst sporting a deeply buried (and rather vaguely sketched) righteous moral code is hardly the kind of character who would make you stop and think that maybe Cheyney was some kind of left-leaning Hammett type. On the contrary, it would be easy to laugh at these books and portray the tropes that Cheyney rolls out as the wet-dreams of Brexiteers; a mediated nostalgia for an outrageously exaggerated and comic fiction recast as historical accuracy that might go down well with the rabid euro-sceptical ultra-right wing loons apparently in charge of British government policy in 2022. To such people the comic-book Continental character who spouts such lines as “‘I spoke to ’eem. ’E said I mus’ tell the trut’, that I mus’ not get into some troubles wiz ze police.’” might be read as less ”Allo ‘Allo’ slapstick and more ‘Foreigners as de-humanised entities’. Quite how Cheyney meant it is, at best, rather clouded by the fogs of history. One might want to give him the benefit of the doubt. But then again…
If I had stumbled on these Caution and Callaghan books when I was digging those Hard Case Crime reissues nearly two decades ago (was it really 2004 when I came across Max Phillips’ ‘Fade To Blonde’?!) I would surely have devoured them all in an instant. Sure, if you want something more resonantly London-centric then you should go for the likes of James Curtis’ tremendous 1936 title ‘The Gilt Kid’ or ‘There Ain’t No Justice’ from the following year. Curtis’ books might also be ‘better’ than Cheyney’s, but there is certainly enough in ‘The Urgent Hangman’ and ‘This Man Is Dangerous’ to make me think of picking up further instalments when I’m in need of decompressing my brain.
The ‘Dark’ series of espionage thrillers, meanwhile, perhaps translate better to 2022, although again you’d want to take that translation with a hefty does of salt, particularly if you are not white and male. Especially male. Because if Cheyney’s Pulp fiction makes Spillane read like Proust, then ‘Dark Duet’ makes Ian Fleming read like Joyce.
With it’s three (four at a push) inter-connected stories, ‘Dark Duet’ spans wartime London, Lisbon and (briefly, tangentially) Eire, it stars the characters of Michael Kane (an English spy who does not play cricket) and Belgian Ernie Guelvada, both of whom lay waste to the plans of Nazi counter-intelligence networks. First published in 1942, ‘Dark Duet’ is understandably a slice of enormously patriotic propaganda and is none the worse for that. That the bad guys will get their comeuppance is never really in doubt, nor is the assurance that the good guys will get the girls. As many of them as they might want, in the case of Guelvada, who has all the ‘best’ lines:
“A woman was like a harp. You could play tunes upon her if you knew how to do it. Because most women never ceased to think in terms of love; they laid themselves open to the operations and schemes of all sorts and conditions of men.”
“For a woman—especially when she loves deeply—is unable to think logically—whatever feminists may say.”
“how annoying it would be if a woman deeply in love were able to think logically. What bad times many men would have.”
Now maybe you can’t get past those kinds of lines, and that would be fine. They are not attractive, after all, and whilst one could be generous and suggest that it’s far from clear if Cheyney means us to take them as evidence of Guelvada’s unsavoury morals (one can just hear those aforementioned eurosceptic right-wing loons baying “he is Belgian, after all,”) one does rather feel that it’s perhaps more indicative of Cheyney’s own leanings, or at least of pedalling to the atmosphere of the times.
It would appear, from a cursory glance, that Kane and Guelvada do not recur in the ‘Dark’ series, although given that we are dealing with caricatures rather than developing characters that’s hardly a problem. Personally I’d rather go with the likes of Cheyney contemporaries Geoffrey Household and Eric Ambler or the later Le Carre and Deighton for my spy thriller kicks, but there is certainly something of the swashbuckling John Buchan in ‘Dark Duet’ that is marvellously entertaining. Cheyney may play to the cheap seats, but there is nothing much wrong with that after all.
It is inevitable that some will point out that Cheyney’s books are sexist, misogynist pieces of trash that should have remained buried in the wastelands of cancelled culture, and I would not argue significantly against this, other than to mildly suggest that fiction is not fact and that the fantasies we might consume do not define our personal morals or ethics. And as that little Belgian assassin Guelvada says in ‘Dark Duet’: “Do not believe that life is ever really serious. Sometimes it is a little dramatic. Sometimes merely boring. But seldom serious.””
The ‘Lemmy Caution’, ‘Slim Callaghan’ and ‘Dark’ series of books by Peter Cheyney are published by Dean Street Press on 7th February with new retro-themed cover art. They are available to pre-order now.
Back in May I wrote about The Attendant’s ‘Audit’ for IT and Unpopular. Here’s what I said back then:
Perhaps the ongoing onslaught of interminable winter has coloured my thoughts, but there is something marvellously apposite in experiencing the steely grey aesthetic of The Attendant’s ‘Audit’ collection in the midst of a bleak and chilly May. From the industrial glass grey of the 10″ vinyl, through the utilitarian plastic liner (neatly, subtly embossed with the Faux-Lux label logo in one corner) to the slim A5 booklet of poetry and photographs, the whole package is a magnificent Modernist/Brutalist homage to the (sub)urban experience. Originally released on a series of lathe cut singles, the sounds assembled here are the work of Pete Astor and Ian Button, two quietly iconic monuments in the landscape whose varied works with the likes of The Loft, Weather Prophets, Thrashing Doves, Death In Vegas and Papernut Cambridge have surely populated any number of Unpopular record collections in the past three or four decades.
There is something marvellously post-industrial about the act of making and distributing essentially hand-crafted artefacts that simultaneously embrace and reject the Pop prerogative. In this respect the recent resurgent fashion for lathe cut singles is to be applauded. For me they seem to exist in the exquisite void created by digital musical distribution and consumption, a void that Pop rightly insists be filled with Product. You don’t actually PLAY lathe cut singles after all, do you? And even if you do, they pay you back with a louche grin and disintegrate before your very ears like Dorian Gray rapidly decomposing the instant his painting is unveiled. There is also something rather appealing about artists making lathe cut releases in an era when The Vinyl has returned to a position of exalted worship. So, when Major Labels muscle in on the remaining pressing plants with their absurd Anniversary Reissue demands, bullying the tiny independents into the gutter in the process, perhaps the lathe-cut is simply an act borne of necessity. Either way, they are cult collectibles, anti-Pop Pop Art sculptures and political conversation pieces in one delicious package.
‘Audit’ of course is not a lathe-cut artefact but an industrially pressed 10″ vinyl treat for those of us who were too slow and/or insufficiently hip to scoop up the ‘originals’. Those originals were born to an extent in the early semi-apocalyptic haze of the 2020 COVID lockdown, The Attendant appearing disembodied and blinking into the light of eerily emptied city streets, an excuse and a reason to assemble some of Astor’s poetry into a form perhaps more easily consumed in the realms of mediated culture we like to inhabit. Responding instinctively to the (post) Punk edict of do-it-fast and do-it-now (also, do it clean), Astor and Button reacted to their environments and impulses, crafting Astor’s words into concrete form. The end result is not unlike listening to Lou Reed with a soft English accent recounting gently surreal tales of marginal members of extended families (‘Magnificent Aunt Mary’), the hidden complexities of people we think we might know (‘Music On’) and, my own personal favourite, “The hyper-intense banality of those years when everything is achingly, mind-blowingly significant.” (‘Teenage).
‘Audit’ reminds me too of the great suburban surrealism of Animals That Swim; of Robin Hitchcock’s psychedelic urbanity with the humour dialled back to a shade above zero; of Gravenhurst daydreams rotating under a disco ball at midnight; of The Kinks slow dancing with Saint Etienne illuminated in the flickering glow of an 8mm film projector showing a James Fox screen test; of Blue Aeroplanes in sleep mode given a blood transfusion of funk and electronica; of Stephen Duffy living on a hill with Wire as house guests, taking the world apart and reassembling it beatifically off-kilter, just so. A barrage of imagery. A slow burn of reference and illusion. The sound of “Film stock oxidising below” as Astor himself might say.
There is also something neatly cyclical in the idea of ‘Audit’ collecting together collectibles into a slightly more accessible form, in that there is a mirror held up to those inexpensive early Creation compilations where we were encouraged not to scrabble around collector’s zips for 7″s and where perhaps we first heard The Loft and The Weather Prophets. It was always good advice, and I’d certainly suggest snapping up a copy of ‘Audit’ before it too attains the patina of desirable rarity.
Way back in the murky mists of time I recall the post bringing a cassette tape in a white 7″ cardboard sleeve with the word ‘Plankton’ inked from a rubber stamp on one side and a photo roughly snipped from a magazine glued to the other. ‘Comet Gain’ was written in blue and red biro beneath. The sleeve may still be in a 7″ flightcase somewhere in the attic, next to those bubble-wrapped Batman comics and record player, but the beloved tape itself is long-gone, worn out, lost down the back of a sofa one drunken night when wallowing in angry self-pity no doubt.
Nearly thirty years later and there may not be a new Comet Gain record to get lost in, but there is a solo album from David Christian and the Pinecone Orchestra and when I close my eyes it’s like nothing and everything has changed. This is kind of the point of the record though, for it finds Christian in his wooded post-Brexit retreat on the southern French coast, coming to terms with some of the ugly disappointments of modern life. Naturally it is the artists’ way of coping with such things. A daydream to believe in; an inward eye on the world around us; a stream of consciousness retreat to the wilderness of broken memories and the warmth of undying love. It is an acknowledgement and a refusal; a tender kiss and a punch to the gut. There is still a degree of fraught, idealistic righteousness, but the vivid anger and revolutionary spirit of ‘Fireraisers Forever’ is tempered with an autumnal pragmatism that is often filled with heartache and breathtaking in its deeply personal yet universal observation.
The press release for the album reminds me of the letters that Richey Edwards used to write. The kind of letters that Kevin said had to be carried close to the heart and that were better than any of the records the Manics might have been making at that time. Well, ‘For Those We Met On The Way’ is every bit as good as its press release and together they form a whirlpool vision of passionate devotion. Of the Pinecone Orchestra, Christian says that “James Horsey and Alasdair MacLean (The Clientele), Ben Phillipson (18th Day Of May/Trimdon Grange Explosion/Comet Gain), Gerard Love (Teenage Fanclub/Lightships), Anne-Lauren Guillain (Comet Gain/Cinema Red And Blue) and Joe-Harvey Whyte (Hanging Stars) coloured everything in with guitars, vocals, bass, pedal steel etc.” and you get the nod to those Felt records where Lawrence’s songs were coloured in by the band, and hey, there’s Christian’s own ‘Ballad…’, this one ‘For The Button Downs’. And it might be a call to arms of a kind, but it’s one that accepts (and perversely celebrates, because what else is there to do?) the limitations of its own Unpopularity. We are the heathens, indeed.
Christian has pointed out that the songs on the record are certainly a means of softly resuscitating memories, of sweetly laying them to rest and of moving upwards and onwards. You can’t keep climbing if you insist on weighing yourself down, after all. Nowhere is this more aptly captured than on the fabulous ‘Goodbye Teenage Blue’. A song that fearlessly confronts the inherently self-destructive nature of Pop/Rock’s roots in the essence of teenage kicks, it both celebrates the necessary obsessional nature of the form whilst acknowledging that it needs to be left behind, banished to fading hallucinations. “You’ve got to break the taboo before it breaks you…” indeed.
It feels fitting therefore that ‘Goodbye Teenage Blue’ is essentially a list song, reference and reverence being so essential to the spirit of Pop after all. So we have “37 Mary Chain boots”, “6 copies of ‘Crocodiles’ and 10 ‘Kilimajaro’s” as well as “a million beers in only ten years” (remember that point about losing the Comet Gain tape down the back of the sofa?). Then there’s the line that goes “I’ve got 12 Kerouacs, but I’ve only read 6. I guess after 4 you get the gist”, and if there a finer way for capturing that feeling of looking at one’s younger self and recognising the intense need to project and belong in spite and because of everything, then frankly I’ve not heard it.
A long time ago I wrote a line myself about how trying to lose some memories is like trying to hack off your own limbs, and I like to think Christian echoes that sentiment in this song as he concludes by encouraging us/himself to “exorcise those gold dust days, amputate your flashback ways”. The pleasure is in the pain.
As that aforementioned press release says “When a record has just YOUR name on it you try to make it good. No shadows to hide in, even your mum might hear it. Solo records are (technically) written by songwriters, so might as well try and write some songs. So that’s what David tried and he thinks he did ok. “
I think it’s safe to say that he did more than okay.
As the nights grow longer and the air slightly chilled, it is natural that we cast our eye across our shoulder and glance back at the year receding rapidly behind us. Shortly it will be time for me to review my listening patterns, but let’s take a moment first to think about books. Now if there were to be some kind of dominant thread in my reading for 2021 it would likely be one of rather more lighthearted crime and detective fiction than in previous years. As I recall it all started in April when someone asked me if was reading Richard Osman’s ‘Thursday Murder Club’ book. I admit I got rather sniffy about this, before plunging into a thoroughly enjoyable pile of other writers whose books might be described as comedic. I wrote about that here.
There have been numerous thoroughly entertaining little twists on this thread throughout the year, and if on occasion the thread led into a dead end, then that is to be expected. Sadly it has mostly been contemporary books that have left me frustrated, as too often they come across as attempts to mine the mythical ‘cosy’ tropes of ‘Golden Age’ detective fiction that never really existed in such a form originally (I suspect Mr Osman’s book strays into this territory, and whilst I may be doing him/it a great disservice then let us remember again that time is short and the shelves of ‘to-be-read’ extensive). Of course I have said this before, but of contemporary writers dealing with the comedic light-of-touch approach, only Ian Sansom and L.C. Tyler have reliably delivered for me (Stuart David too, but he seems to me to operate in a different sphere which feels quite unique). Others start well but stumble rather too quickly, or read like quick-fire TV show cash-in scripts where characters soil themselves with 21st Century Urban colloquialisms whilst supposedly living in a 1930s Chocolate Box village. I shan’t name names because I’m sure others would find them charmingly diverting, but really. I mean, really.
The absolute highlight of my comedic crime spree, as noted at some length here, were the series of novels that Sarah Caudwell wrote between 1981 and 2000. This surprised me enormously, partly because many of the characters and settings of the books were exactly those I spent my own 1980s and ’90s abhorring, and partly because, well, I had rather fallen into a habit of considering anything written after 1970 as being Not Really My Thing. Anne Morice has helped prove this wrong too of course, and yes, yes, Colin Dexter’s Morse novels are marvellous and oh, there was all that American Neo-Noir I rather enjoyed back at the start of this Century, but that’s by the by. Reality always has a frightfully irritating habit of getting in the way of how we want to view the world, doesn’t it?
In recent months then it has been the novels of Colin Watson that have most enjoyably impinged on this flimsy theory of 1970 as hinge point of interest, as his series of twelve novels that make up ‘The Flaxborough Chronicles’ have provided an almost continuous stream of delight. With the first of the series (‘Coffin, Scarcely Used’) being published in 1958 and the last (‘Whatever’s Been Going on at Mumblesby?’) in 1982, The Flaxborough Chronicles neatly bestride my notional punctuation point in time and poke fun at both its arbitrary position and, more pertinently, at the fashions and tropes of English society during the intervening quarter century.
Set in a fictional County town somewhere north of London, Flaxborough and its surrounding villages exist in something of a generic physical landscape. Having worked as a journalist in Lincolnshire, it is thought that Watson modelled the town on Boston, though he really does little to paint it in any detail and the sense of place is certainly not as richly observed as, say, Lorac’s Lunesdale or Bellairs’ beloved Isle of Man. Instead, what Watson does sketch out very adroitly are the characters and extraordinary ‘everyday’ narratives that exist in such places, allegedly drawn very closely from those encountered in his experiences as a local journalist. From dynamited statues of local dignitaries through the seedy night-time shenanigans of the nouveau-riche to the gin-soaked antique trading of the County set and their forthright farming neighbours, The Flaxborough Chronicles rampage deliciously through two and a half decades of Very English Concerns. Leap ahead a few decades more and one would easily recognise similar themes and characters in ‘Hot Fuzz’, to the extent that it would be no surprise if Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg were to admit to being Flaxborough fans.
It is of course common practice amongst novelists to build series around detectives, be they amateur or professional, and Watson conforms to this expectation to an extent with his Inspector Purbright being a central figure throughout. Purbright is not a character who shows a particular degree of development in the twelve books, however, and what little we learn about him we do so more through the reactions of others, notably his Chief Constable (Chubb, a terrific character who breeds Yorkshire Terriers and who is frequently distressed by Purbright’s apparent refusal to actively engage with the Upper Echelons Of Society other than to investigate them). Purbright’s colleague, the ever-youthful looking Sergeant Sid Love is a little more clearly drawn, but even he exists as barely more than a few lines. Indeed, I rather wonder if the regular reminders of his eternally cherubic appearance are not an amusing remark on the nature of fictional detectives appearing never to age across decades of endeavours. Indeed there are some knowing asides dotted in the books that break the fourth wall, as it were, but Watson is never as gleefully ironic as, say, Edmund Crispin, and on the whole he strikes a fine balance between the traditional fair play mystery, the comedic novel (‘Private Eye’ once described his books as “very Wodehouse but without the jokes” which is exceedingly harsh, Watson indeed successfully suing for libel) and the post-modern.
Another character who is an almost regular inhabitant of the series (first introduced in book 4, ‘Lonelyheart 4122’) is Miss Lucy Teatime (or Lucille Edith Cavell Teatime to give her full fictional name). Now I must admit that Miss Teatime was initially a disappointment to me, as over the next few books she takes rather too central a position that feels too fussily dominant. I do wonder if Watson sensed this too, since after these few performances in Centre Stage, Miss Teatime thereafter resumes a more peripheral role where she is, frankly, much more effective. The, ah, ‘professional’ relationship between Purbright and Miss Teatime develops pleasurably throughout the remainder of the series, and there is clearly a point being made here about Purbright’s (and Watson’s?) perspective on the differences between the ‘real’ criminality (lawfully speaking) of the grifter and that of the businessman that society condones and indeed encourages and eagerly rewards. One suspects that Purbright (and Watson) would find the sleazy shenanigans of 2021 politicians both utterly reprehensible and enormously rich pickings for characters and plots. One can equally easily imagine Sarah Caudwell’s band of lawyers immersed in this slime, picking the bones clean and giving Hilary Tamar ample opportunity for unravelling webs of deceit. Plus ça change.
As previously mentioned, as well as being thoroughly entertaining mystery novels, Watson uses the Flaxborough Chronicles as a vehicle for critiquing some of the fashions and tropes of English society over the quarter century of the series’ existence. Thus he takes pot shots at the likes of the Intelligence Service and the Spy Thriller genre (1962’s ‘Hopjoy Was Here’), lonely hearts’ columns and ‘introduction services’ (‘Lonely Hearts 4122’ from 1967) and Big Pharma, herbalists and the timeless pursuit of remedies for the, ah, poorly afflicted male of a certain age… (1969’s ‘The Flaxborough Crab’). It’s in 1972’s ‘Broomsticks Over Flaxborough’ though that Watson really hits his stride with a delicious absurdist broadside aimed at the lingering appeal of rural folklore being co-opted by bored leisure classes seeking illicit thrills. One can just picture the Dennis Wheatley novels on the bedside cabinets. It may be a little obvious to set this flirting with the occult alongside an advertising campaign for detergent that washes whiter than white, but it’s a delicious opportunity to poke fun at the marketing and advertising industry. More specifically, it is the absurdist ‘specialist’ language of such industries that Watson seems to find most infuriating and it is evident that he must have derived a great deal of enjoyment inventing his own just-about plausible phrases for each. To the best of my knowledge Watson had no hand in Chrissie Mayer’s founding of the Plain English Campaign in 1979, but it would not be the most startlingly unlikely piece of news to learn that he had. In 1979 however Watson had other priorities, notably turning his attention (as it were) to pornographic films and, more pertinently, the hypocrisy of sensationalist tabloid journalists and their publishers in the terrific ‘Blue Murder’. References to Rupert Murdoch and his publishing group are thinly cloaked, to say the least; the resonance some thirty years on, distinctly depressing.
The final two instalments of the Chronicles (1980’s ‘Plaster Saints’ and ’82’s ‘Whatever’s Been Going On At Mumblesby?’) see Watson turn his attention to the antiques trade, the declinations and dubious pasts of The Gentry and the often uncomfortable tension between established traditional tillers of the land (or ‘farmers’, as Chrissie Mayer would rather us call them) and the incursions into those landscapes of New Wealth. It may be pushing things to suggest that in his final two novels Watson anticipates the relentless march of tasteless consumerism that embodied Thatcher’s England, but not much.
The television series made by the BBC in 1977 is certainly blind to what lies around the corner, portraying as it does an England that is uniformly brown. Gone are the psychedelic paisley patterns and Pop Art brilliance of the 60s, whilst the garish day-glo superficiality of the ’80s is as unimaginable as it is inevitable. Despite (or perhaps because) of this, it’s an entertaining watch in 2021 and the host of familiar names in the cast suggest that Watson’s novels were successful in their day before rather falling between the cracks in the latter part of the 20th and the first decade or so of the 21st Centuries.
In the four filmed novels (‘Hopjoy Was Here’, ‘Lonelyheart 4122’, ‘The Flaxborough Crab’ and ‘Coffin Scarcely Used’) Anton Rodgers plays Purbright with something of the Maigret in overcoat and pipe, whilst Christopher Timothy (a year away from his first appearance as James Herriot in ‘All Creatures Great and Small’) is splendidly cast as the cherubic Sergeant Love. In my head I had always seen Miss Teatime looking somewhat like Geraldine McEwan, but Brenda Bruce is a tremendous alternative. Moray Watson turns in an excellent Chubb, just the right side of overbearingly pompous. Having said that, if someone were to make a new version of the Chronicles, Anton Lesser would be a shoo-in for Chubb, reprising his remarkably sensitive portrayal of Reginald Bright in ‘Endeavour’, and it was Lesser/Bright that I visualised when reading the books. Throw in the likes of John Comer, James Grout, Peter Sallis, Michael Robbins and Gary Watson in supporting roles and you have a remarkably accomplished cast. Everyone plays it with just the right balance between melodramatic farce and straight-faced seriousness (Rodger’s fractionally raised eyebrows and pointed pipe stems are suitably subdued points of expression from Inspector Purbright) and if you can track down the double disc DVD set then it’s highly recommended viewing.
The books, thankfully, are now much easier to come by since Farrago republished the entire twelve book series in 2018 in both paperback and ebook formats. It’s a delight to have them back in circulation.
Rob Pursey and David Herd discuss the process of songwriting and poetry
As a long-time fan of the work of Rob Pursey and Amelia Fletcher in bands like Heavenly and Marine Research, I was delighted to hear that their most recent project Catenary Wires had a new album out. Birling Gap has quickly become one of my favourite records of 2021, with its 21st Century Folk-Pop songs’ broadly connected theme of England in a post-BREXIT landscape resonating strongly as voices from the edge. Of landscape, of life and of perception, perhaps.
Every song on the record is a tremendous treat, but the first song that connected most strongly with me, and that was subsequently dropped onto the Unpopular mix for May, was the mesmerising ‘Cinematic’. Musically reminiscent of Moose circa their criminally undervalued 1993 album Honeybee, the song shimmers like a sea mirage, sonically and lyrically nuanced; mysterious and suggestive rather than explicit.
On closer inspection it turns out that lyrically ‘Cinematic’ is in fact an adaptation of a poem called ‘As A Last Resort’ by David Herd (from his chapbook Songs from the Language of a Declaration), so rather than write a straightforward review of the record, I thought it would be interesting to explore something of the various processes involved and where the realms of poetry and song composition might connect and/or diverge.
AF: What do you see as being the key, essential differences between poetry and lyrics? Do those differences change when thinking about poetry that is written to be read and poetry that is written to be performed?
Rob Pursey: For me, poetry comes with its own music. The rhythms are there, already embedded in the structure of the poem. Poetry is more complete. Lyrics, on the other hand, have to accept the rhythm that the music proposes. They can play against that rhythm, and they can disruptive when you want them to be, but for the most part they have to comply. Maybe the difference is a bit like that between a painting and a book illustration. The former stands alone and contains its own reference points. An illustration in a book complements and illuminates a piece of writing but doesn’t really have an independent life.
The physical sound of a lyric becomes very important when you’re singing it. If you want a line to end with a long note – one that might have a harmony on top – you need the last syllable to contain a nice long vowel so that there’s no problem stretching it out. The words you choose are very much influenced by this: they may be lucid and accurate and moving, but if you can’t sing them easily they aren’t going to be much good. A lot of songs get by without worrying too much about the sense at all. As pieces of writing they are poor, but as long as they sound OK, it doesn’t really matter!
I think the ambivalent status of lyrics is why a lot of bands aren’t keen on printing them alongside their recordings. These words weren’t designed to be read on their own, and sometimes they do look a bit naked when they can be scrutinised as pure ‘writing’. Having said that, people do like to sing along with records, and having a lyric sheet does make that a lot easier!
David Herd: Good question! So, the key difference between poetry and lyrics would seem to be that whereas poetry is stand-alone, lyrics are written in relation to music. That seems clear enough. The next question, I guess, is what difference does this difference make? In the case of the poem – at least from the point of view of the poem! – the words have to carry all the interest. If the lyric can lean on the music that is going on around it, the poem has to make all the music by itself. At the same time, if the lyric can lean on the music that is taking shape around it, it must also play its part in carrying the tune. One way or another, in other words, the lyric is a more collaborative mode.
But then the minute I write this, I know there is more to say. Any poem, for instance, is a collaboration in some way, perhaps with other poems or with other voices, or with the situation it wants to articulate. It’s not the same, for sure, as having a walking bass to answer to, but it does mean that the poem is, at some level, a collaborative act. So maybe the real difference is in the kind of listening that is involved. When you read a poem as opposed to when you hear a lyric, I think what you are listening with is the inner ear. It’s on that invisible element of the ear that the poem forms, where its play of sound and meaning emerge and take shape.
As for whether these differences change when the poem is written to be performed rather than read, the answer is: yes! Many poems, (though definitely not all) are written with both the act of reading and the act of performing in mind. But performing brings out a very different quality in the poem’s sense of voice. For example, one contemporary poet I love is Peter Gizzi, not least for the way his writing is at the intersection between poetry and lyric – he was deeply influenced by the New York punk scene of the late 70s and early 80s. When you hear Gizzi read you are hearing a poem in which the voicing is really important, where the poem itself is written in part to be said or spoken. But when you read the poem on the page you are constantly aware of the way the poem is making its voice out of its different elements, that voice itself is a constant performance. I guess the difference here might be the difference between hearing the poem in the time of performance and reading the poem in the space of the page.
AF: What poets and lyricists do you get most pleasure from reading/listening to? Do you recognise common threads between them? Stylistically as well as thematic, perhaps?
RP: Mark E Smith has been my favourite lyricist for years. When The Fall first started, he’d already written prototype lyrics in the form of poems. I don’t know whether he saw them as poems or as lyrics waiting for a song to turn up in those early days. But either way, the words had a primacy from the very beginnings of The Fall, and that was something the band never lost. And yet – the band, in its various incarnations, never lost its energy or its sense of spontaneity. There are various cliched tales of Mark E Smith disciplining the band, preventing them from improvising, and his on-stage antics, messing about with their amplifier settings, made for good theatre. But when you listen to the recordings you can hear Smith bending his words to celebrate the rhythm of the music. He wasn’t just ‘reading the words out’. He was performing them. He was too smart to try to neuter the band completely.
In terms of poetry, I like Milton (marrying epic, political tales to a very disciplined structure) and I like Geoffrey Hill. Hill I like in the same way that I like The Fall. There are shards of language that are clearer and sharper than anything you’ve heard. And then there is the density and complexity, which means there is always more decoding to be done. There is always something new to be got out of a re-reading (or in The Fall’s case a re-listen).
In terms of pop music, I think the Kinks are the band whose lyrics I love the most. The melodies are beautiful, and the words are perfectly chosen to convey those tunes. But at the same time, perfect and very precise vignettes of real life are conveyed. The Kinks knew how the music could make those portraits even more amusing, or moving or angry. I say ‘they’ because it feels like the whole band were tuned into this enterprise, even though Ray Davies is the songwriter.
I guess one thing these all have in common is that they were writing about the country we live in. They are capable of being emotive but are never sentimental. They all keep their brains in gear, all the time.
DH: Well, there are poets and lyricists I keep coming back to – obsessively re-reading and listening to again – and I am also always discovering new writers I love. So, for example, a book I encountered recently but one I know I will be coming back to for a long time is Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalia Diaz. Diaz is a native American poet who writes brilliantly from the politics of her position and for whom the poem is a constant negotiation between the intimacies of the body and violence of state-imposed architectures of space. As for lyricists, one example would be Portishead, who as far as I understand it write as a collective and who are never so far down the playlist when the night gets late. And are there common threads? Well, there are many uncommon threads, but I know that that something I almost always want in a poem and a lyric – and basically in all cultural forms – is a play of voices. I like work that samples, collages, opens itself to interruption. I was lucky enough to be in conversation with Diaz recently and she spoke with great power about the play of languages in her writing – Mojave, Spanish and English – how they challenge, unsettle, dislocate and locate one another.
AF: I’ve spent the best part of 30 years as an educator in a High School setting. In that time I’ve been interested in exploring and reflecting on the meta-cognitive processes involved in learning, particularly in the realm of visual arts. So, I wonder, is there an underlying structure to your working practice that you recognise as a/the/your creative process? Is this even something that you give thought to?
RP: I’m not able to read music, so I’ve always done things by ear. I think a lot of people write pop songs like this. I do sometimes wonder if a bit of learning would help me, but then worry that the magic of stumbling across combinations of chords and melody would be lost. Anyway, it’s too late now!
I always come up with the tune first. Partly because I find that a lot easier – it feels like there’s no work involved in coming up with a melody. Lyrics, though, I definitely have to work at. Because we are writing pop music (of a kind) there would be no point having a song with fantastic lyrics and an indifferent tune. I wouldn’t want to hear that, and I wouldn’t want anyone else to have to endure it. The honest truth is that there are loads of songs that I love, sometimes songs I’ve known for years and will sing along to, where I still can’t make the lyrics out. It hasn’t spoiled my enjoyment (and maybe has even enhanced it!)
DH: This is hard, and I guess the answer is yes and no. I mean, I have ways of working for sure, yes, but whether I want to write them down is another matter. For the most part, I guess, I’d rather catch myself in the act, where the act is the desire to open spaces of possibility. I like poetic sequences because of the relationalities they open up. The poem Rob and Amelia worked with to make ‘Cinematic’ came from a sequence called ‘Songs from the Language of a Declaration’. I l love the fact that the words of the poem now stand in the space of their song.
AF: David, that’s interesting what you say about poetic sequences and the relationalities they open up. I’m reminded of William Eggleston talking about his photographs. He said that he likes to think of his works flowing like music. He says it is one of the reasons he works in large groups rather than one picture of one thing. “It’s the flow of the whole series that counts.” Also, Martin Parr who says he “never thinks of photographs as being individual. Always as a group.” Rob, is that perhaps similar to the way an album takes form as opposed to individual songs? Not that I mean to get into the realm of ‘Concept Albums’, but…
Also, David, I’m interested in how you see Rob’s adaptation of your words to fit the structure of song, how some lines become repeated or moved around (I’m thinking that line ‘Lilac / Held in hand’) and a chorus (‘automatic, cinematic’) inserted. (Not sure if you’ve seen Rob’s photo of his editing process!) I’m assuming you are okay with all of that, but at what point do you think you would say ‘hold up there, that’s going a bit far…’. I’m guessing you are fairly relaxed about it, given your comments about liking work that “samples, collages, opens itself to interruption”.
RP: Once songs start to look like candidates for inclusion on an album, they do change. You start to notice the themes they have in common, and those elements tend to come to the fore – it’s like they’ve been remixed, as if a ’thematic similarity’ control on the mixing desk has been pushed up. The songs retain their individuality, and sonically they haven’t changed at all. But as their kinship becomes apparent you start to hear them differently. At this point you have a decision to make – whether to emphasise those thematic similarities, or whether to ignore them. With Birling Gap, we chose the former. We were very conscious of the risks associated with the ‘concept album’: to us it feels like a pompous idea, where the songwriting is subjugated to a message, or to a narrative that binds everything up too neatly. Luckily, we didn’t make the decision until most of the songs had been written, so they were ‘innocent’ of contrivance. But by now it was clear what linked them. While we were writing them, we, like most people, had talked a lot about England in the period dominated by Brexit, and we had allowed the songs to become platforms for little dramas set in this turbulent, anxious, argumentative country. Because most of our songs are duets, they do lend themselves to drama – the voices don’t always sing directly to each other, but with two characters ‘on the stage’ there is inevitably a dramatic relationship between them. A couple of the songs are very directly about the crisis in English identity: Three Wheeled Car is about a nationalistic couple heading to the seaside to celebrate the splendid isolation of living on a sealed-off island; Alpine is about a middle-class Remainer couple whose political imagination (and relationship) hasn’t moved on from a skiing holiday when they first fell in love, and when travel to Europe was a badge of their wealth, success and apparent sophistication. In other songs the theme was less discernible: Liminal, for example, is about looking after someone who is very close to death: but the characters in that song inhabit the same time and space as all the others. Anyway, we decided to cast a net over the whole thing by calling the album Birling Gap. The real location, on the Sussex coast, combines a lot of elements that the album touches on: there are the fabled white cliffs beloved of patriots, the sheer drops into the sea that mean the spectre of self-destruction is never far away – and there’s that constant nagging anxiety that derives from a landscape where climate change is making a very obvious impact.
‘Cinematic’ was the last song to go onto the album, and, by the time we got round to recording it, we had decided what the album was about. So there was a risk that this song would become self-conscious – trying too hard to fit in. I think this is one of the reasons I reached for David’s poem! I knew the song wanted to be about the disengagement and callousness people adopt as a response to the sight of migrants attempting to reach the South Coast of this country, across the English Channel. That yielded the chorus – cinematic / automatic / it’s what we do – I was imagining people impassively watching news images of migrants in little boats from the safety of their living rooms, but that’s as far as I got!
DH: So I guess I think there is a big difference – a world of difference in way – between a concept album and a poetic sequence or series. Rob’s description of a concept album seems completely right to me: that everything is wrapped up all too neatly by the central idea or narrative. A sequence, or series – I’m going to go with series now, though there are subtle differences to be sure – is pretty much the opposite. A really good series of poems, say by Wallace Stevens or Lorine Niedecker, knows that it is unfinished and that its not being finished is completely the point. So what I like in a series of poems is the play of similarity and difference, the ongoing variation across a thematic and all the openness to change that implies. James Schuyler was great at that, in a work like ‘The Morning of the Poem’ for instance, as is Susan Howe. Having a poem reframed and resituated the way Rob and Amelia do with ‘As a Last Resort’ seems to me to be continuous with this play of change across a series and I think, as you say Alistair, that it’s all closely connected with collaging and sampling. All the poets I like most start from the basis that the words they are using come from somewhere else, whether from another poem, or from conversation, or from some other kind of text or document. Making is re-making where the point is not to allude or reference, but just to acknowledge that the language is a material that other people are always using and have used. But I’m really interested to know how this relates to what Rob calls the ‘thematic similarity’ control that underscores the writing of an album. I really like the fact, by the way, that Rob connects Milton and Mark E. Smith. I love Milton too (for all the reasons you say, Rob, and more) but sometimes I’m not sure if he was more concept artist than maker of poetic series. The way you talk about MES, on the other hand, reminds me of John Cooper Clarke, but I’m not sure who came first. And as I write I guess the question that is occurring to me is how the idea of the ‘song’ relates to this question of lyric and poem? Birling Gap is a collection of wonderful songs. Is there some guiding sense, underpinning of that, of what makes a song?
RP: I can maybe answer that best in relation to a specific song. As it’s the subject of our discussions, I’ll use ‘Cinematic’ as my example. It’s not a process I’ve ever thought about properly before, so apologies if this is long-winded or incoherent.
First of all, there’s a set of chords that come to me when messing about with the guitar. It’s definitely not a song yet – just an unnamed but pleasing set of chords. Playing it over and over to myself it seems to conjure something – it seems to have potential. Then I think of the vocal melody. Now there are two musical elements – the melody and the guitar line – and it’s starting to take on a life of its own. It’s not a song yet, though. Then, a new vocal tune suggests itself and leaps ahead of the verse chords: a chorus is starting to form. I have to work quite quickly at this point because if I don’t figure out the accompanying chords, that tune will be forgotten! I establish what the chords are – A, F, G, A, F, C, G – and the melody has been nailed down. That’s quite a relief. It’s captured now and can’t escape.
I like it, this almost-song, the way the verse and chorus play against each other, and there’s already an implication of relentlessness, and even cruelty, when the chorus gives way and the verse resumes. I can’t describe why it feels like that – I wonder if I am hearing echoes of other songs? If so, I can’t identify them. Anyway, that hard-to-define ‘feeling’ will determine what the song will become ‘about’. But now, there is an important test. This song, if it is indeed to become a song, has to be played by the group, and they have to be enthusiastic about it. I play it to Amelia, improvising nonsense lyrics just so I can convey the melody to her. She likes it well enough, so I feel confident enough to pursue it. It’s still not a song yet, though.
Now I record the bass and guitar as a rough demo. The lyrics for the chorus start to crystallise from those ‘nonsense words’ I sang to Amelia (I sang them without thinking about them, and that’s probably why they sound right). Now I start wondering what they mean! ‘Cinematic, automatic…’ The themes of callousness, emotional distance and inhumanity are all still there, and are getting louder. Now, I have to work on the words for the verse, but my ‘nonsense lyrics’ really are just that: nonsense. They bear no relation to the theme of the song. I need to write them from scratch. But at this point I remember David’s poem ‘As A Last Resort’. I’d first read it a couple of weeks before, and it’s stayed with me. I’m also thinking about David work with Refugee Tales – an organisation that campaigns for the rights of asylum seekers, and asserts the humanity of the people caught up in the UK’s immigration system. That’s what this song wants to be about. So, rather than try to write new words I have a go at singing the words of the poem. Fortunately they fit the melody with remarkably little manipulation. I can’t imagine writing better words than these. ‘Cinematic’ is complete – it’s definitely a song now. But with ‘Cinematic’, there is one more thing I have to do. I need to make sure David is happy for me to take advantage of his poem in this way. I am very relieved when he says ‘yes’.
AF: Yes indeed. And there is something in the way in which the initially unseen ‘collaboration’ taking place in the making of the song is, in itself, a reflection on the many positive interactions between refugees/migrants and the so-called ‘indigenous’ British public. Such interactions may be unseen and certainly un-reported, but nevertheless create bonds forged from shared experiences, thoughts, feelings, ideals or whatever. The energy of connectivity is perhaps more subtle yet more profound than that of division and fear. I certainly hear that sublime positive energy in ‘Cinematic’ and in the entirety of Birling Gap. And now that I’ve been introduced to David’s work I am looking forward to reading more of it in his words.
I have said several times that L C Tyler has written some of my very favourite contemporary comedic crime stories, so when he suggested I might enjoy the novels of Sarah Caudwell, I admit I took the plunge immediately. Rather embarrassingly then as I began my purchase of a Kindle version of ‘Thus Was Adonis Murdered’ (I know, I know, but our house is simply overflowing with books and records and there is only so much space and only so much that one can part with for the charity shops and anyway I am going to admit that I rather like the fact that I can go away on a holiday and not take an additional suitcase filled with paper) I was helpfully informed that I had already bought this item on 25th August 2019. Even more embarrassing was the fact that when I loaded the book it opened at page two or three, highly suggestive of the fact that perhaps I had failed to be immediately captivated and had given it up in pursuit of something shinier and newer. Or, as would have been more likely, older.
Now there is of course something of a tradition of legally trained professionals writing crime and detective fiction. In the UK there have been the likes of Cyril Hare, Michael Gilbert, John Mortimer, Alexander McCall Smith and the inestimable Martin Edwards, whilst in the USA there has been a veritable plethora of lawyers as crime writers, including Erle Stanley Gardner, Scott Turrow and of course John Grisham. Marcel Berlins, incidentally, wrote a fine, short piece about the practice for the Guardian back in 2004. No surprise then that Caudwell’s own standing (as Sarah Cockburn) in the profession means that all four of her books appear to be so convincingly rooted in the legal world, and that her own speciality of tax law is a recurring theme throughout. If that sounds potentially stuffy and hopelessly dull then be assured that Caudwell treats it all with a splendid blend of assured intellectual precision and self-deprecatory wit.
Whilst legal language and terminology abounds, throughout the four novels there are also numerous Classical and literary references, almost all of which are lost on an uneducated oik such as myself. Yet such is the lightness with which these references are touched that it matters not a jot. Or at least, not so much of a jot. Indeed, there is a delicious line in ‘Thus Was Adonis Murdered’ that feels marvellously and personally apt: “[He] takes things so seriously. He’s a Scotsman, you know, from Ayrshire or somewhere like that. I think his father was a miner. There are certain hardships to which such a background does not, I suspect, inure one.” Well, quite.
Written and published variously between 1981 and 2000 (the last published posthumously), curiously the suite of recurring characters appear to remain very much of the same age and personality throughout, even as technologies and the world advances around them. Indeed, it is largely these references to technologies that mark the passage of time, since much of the narrative structure in the books is in the epistolary style and as such the format of these move from the traditional letter through the quaint ‘telex’ and back, curiously enough, to letters in the final novel when one might have expected the development to include email. That it doesn’t embrace email perhaps says as much about Caudwell’s awareness of the nature in which she utilises the form as it does about a mistrust of technology. There is certainly a sense, particularly with the implausibly lengthy ‘telexes’ in ‘The Sirens Sang of Murder’, that Caudwell is (perhaps not so) subtly drawing attention to the fact that this is literary device. All is unreal.
Lisa Hopkins has written at length and with insight about the epistolary style and other connections between Caudwell and Jane Austen and her piece reminds me that whilst I certainly enjoy Austen in film, in print there has always been something of a barrier. This suggests that it is hardly the themes of Austen’s work that I have struggled with, but rather the somewhat florid late 18th/early 19th Century language. Why use ten words to make a point when twenty, punctuated by commas and additional asides that, admittedly, might sparkle with wit and wisdom, will suffice just as well? In truth Caudwell does embrace this style unapologetically, which may explain my original (virtual) shelving of ‘Adonis’ at first attempt. Perhaps this means too that I am finally prepared to enjoy an Austen. Perhaps not.
Certainly there are innumerable lines from Caudwell’s books that I can imagine an Austen character in a BBC adaptation delivering, dripping in entitlement and period costume. She is eminently quotable. A favourite, from ‘The Shortest Way To Hades’ is this: “A particular tone is used by young men apparently ingenuous to make observations apparently innocent in a manner apparently respectful with the intention of being extremely impertinent: one can hardly hope, in academic life, to be unfamiliar with it.” In the subsequent ‘The Sirens Sang of Murder’, Caudwell’s key narrating character Hilary Tamar returns to the subject of Youth with another charmingly biting barb: “One becomes accustomed in academic life to the unreasonableness of the young. They desire not merely to be understood, but to be understood by telepathy; not merely to be permitted to tell their troubles, but to be prevailed on to do so.”
Much is made by some of the fact that Caudwell never resorts to the baseness of a gender reveal for Hilary, but I admit that from the off I simply made an assumption that Tamar is a woman. Perhaps this is an example of conflating/mistaking the author as narrative voice, or perhaps there is just something in how the character reveals themselves (or more accurately fails to reveal themselves) that feels vaguely feminine. Or at least, appears not particularly masculine. Perhaps too this reluctance to assign gender to Tamar is a means of underpinning the necessarily detached observational logic of the academic/historian/detective. Gender, Caudwell seems to suggest, is really rather an irrelevance in such a context. One wonders what they would make of the 21st Century’s obsession with ever-increasingly macro/micro definitions of identity based on individual sexual preferences. I for one would rather have liked to read those thoughts.
If Austen used her novels to critique the gentry and the rigid social structures of 18th Century England then there is certainly something similar happening throughout Caudwell’s. Populated almost entirely by characters from what one might judiciously call The City and it’s environs, the first three novels in particular are ones that I would very likely have balked at had I come across them when first published in the 1980s (there was an eleven year gap between ‘The Sirens…’ in 1989 and the final novel ‘The Sibyl in Her Grave). Filled with entitled, financially wealthy and self-obsessed individuals, they are situations and characters I would have studiously avoided in fiction as in real life. Some forty years on I am finally at least willing to allow them entry into my choice of fiction.
Flitting between Venice, Corfu and The Channel Islands in the first three novels, much of the narrative, plot and motive for crime centres on inheritance, tax avoidance and, inevitably, the greed that such topics engender and/or encourage in humans. If it is a not altogether positive outlook on life then that is surely a large part of the point Caudwell is making. There is certainly something of an admission of implicit collusion between lawyers and those who, shall we say, may be less scrupulous in their attitudes to the world than we would like to think admirable. Early in the first novel for example comes the observation that “The funeral rites of the rich are a signal for vultures to gather: among whom one may class, with all respect, antique dealers and the Chancery Bar.”
Yet whilst Caudwell admits to the slippery, necessarily confused relationship between lawyers and moral certitude she nevertheless allows herself the pleasure of having her characters pronounce variously barbed opinions. On bankers for example: “He is, after all, a banker – that is to say, he spends his life persuading people to pay for the privilege of lending him money and again for the privilege of borrowing some of it back.” On the Gentry: “he’s as nutty as a fruitcake and ought to be put away somewhere he can’t do any harm – House of Lords or somewhere.” And on men, generally: “My Aunt Regina, so far as I can discover, doesn’t believe that men progress much morally or intellectually after the age of six, and she treats them accordingly.” Ouch.
Additionally, there is a lovely light meta-fictional atmosphere that occasionally wafts across the pages. In particular, at the start of ‘The Sirens Sang of Murder’ a couple of her recurrent characters are themselves involved in an attempt to pen a novel in the Romantic Crime genre, set within the realm of the legal profession. Julia admits that they are keen “to appeal to as wide a public as possible” adding that it seems clear that “readers who want fiction to be like life are considerably outnumbered by those who would like life to be like fiction.” Elsewhere Caudwell has Hilary pondering: “would that I could indeed bring to my task the skills not merely of the Scholar but of the novelist. Would that the historian might be permitted to have regard to Art rather than Truth, and so enliven the narrative with descriptions of scenes known only by hearsay or speculation.” And my favourite, which feels particularly observant and poignant: “People do what books have taught them to do and feel what books have taught them to feel – it is curiously difficult to do otherwise.’”
By the time of ‘The Sibyl in Her Grave’, however, there is a definite sense of a certain darkness falling, and I rather like the fact that this gloom encroaches on a setting which is the (stereo)typical English Village because in doing so Caudwell both self-consciously mocks the gentility of the stereotype and exposes the faint undercurrents of darkness that exists in, say, Christie’s Miss Marple stories. There is too perhaps an inescapable sense of awareness of death and finality hanging over the book, given that Caudwell died of cancer in January of 2000 and so never quite lived to see it published. So whilst it most certainly continues in the marvellously entertaining and engaging manner of the preceding three books, it also certainly is a book that allows in a degree of bleakness and, dare I say it, existential weariness. There is, in its conclusion (and without giving away too much in the form of spoilers) an acceptance of the hand of chance, of logic not always being able to explain occurrences, and of the peculiarly unjust hand of Fate.
There is too a tremendous passage where Hilary Tamar reflects on truth and reality: “…when someone’s entire life is based on pretence, they will seldom if ever return to reality. That is the secret of successful politicians, evangelists and confidence tricksters – they believe they are telling the truth, even when they know that they have faked the evidence.” Tamar concludes by suggesting to her friend and colleague Julia that “Sincerity… is a quality not to be trusted.” Ah, the studied, deeply ingrained cynicism of the academic, the lawyer or, indeed, the novelist. As insightful and prescient in 2021 as it was in 2000 and will no doubt be in 2042. Where would we be without it?
Finally, almost as a concluding aside, interestingly it appears that Caudwell’s books were at the time (and perhaps still) more popular in the USA than the UK, and certainly the American paperback editions have marvellous Edward Gorey illustrations. There is therefore a great temptation to pick these up from the second hand sellers and be damned with the ever-receding amount of available shelf space. Life is too short and all that.
The air is still filled with chill, but the sun is tricking some into believing that warmer days are coming. In the Lower Comberoy copse I spy the first blanket of Bluebells, whilst over the Killerton Clump floats the first hot air balloon flight of the season. It advertises Bath Gin, another hopeful cipher for a brighter future.
A quick search in my reading list archive tells me that I have read forty two George Bellairs novels in the past three years, and whilst most of them have been at the very least highly enjoyable, the latest on that list (‘Murder Adrift’ and ‘Devious Murder’, originally published in 1972 and 1973 respectively) have sadly been amongst the weakest. Written towards the end of a highly productive career, neither of these titles seem to go much of anywhere other than to idle around somewhat sedate plot lines. It’s a great shame, because when Bellairs is at his best he is a tremendously engaging writer. For what it’s worth, my favourites amongst those forty plus books featuring series detective Inspector Littlejohn are without doubt those set on the Isle of Man. Bellairs settled there after life as a bank manager, and his island novels really are thinly disguised love letters to the landscape. The crimes and the detection are almost secondary to the sense of place and local character, his fondness for the island and the people coming through with warmth and astutely observed detail. By the time of these 1970s novels, though, the places the tales are set in seem nondescript and the characters bland. If we were being kind perhaps we could say that’s just a reflection of the times, but they are certainly not books that I would recommend as starting points for exploring Bellairs’ work.
Also from the 1970s come a series of books by Anne Morice, newly republished by those fine folks at Dean Street Press, featuring serial character of jobbing actor Tessa Crichton and with cover imagery seemingly beamed direct from ‘sophisticated’ TV dramas of the period. Now our previous visit to the reissue action of the DSP had us enjoying four detective stories by Cecil Waye and rather wishing that the most interesting character (the terrific Vivienne) had not been married off and written out after the first. I’m delighted to say that Morice trips on only one of these hazards, and it’s hardly a spoiler to say that the charming young man that Crichton spots in the pub early in ‘Death In The Grand Manor’ has by the time of the next novel become her husband. Indeed, the title of that second instalment in the series, ‘Murder In Married Life’ rather gives the game away. As a Scotland Yard Inspector (I have not read further in the series, but I imagine that he Rises Through The Ranks and becomes at least a Chief Inspector) he is perfectly positioned to supply Tessa with juicy problems to which she may lend her charms.
Now let me say straight away that I am not a fan of the fashion for describing certain detective novels from any age as ‘cosy’. I understand the marketing strategies behind such a move, but it feels lazy, and reflects a thoroughly inaccurate reading (or wilful reframing) of older texts. With this in mind then, let me stress that Anne Morice’s novels are not ‘cosy’, but they are certainly hugely entertaining and witty. A contemporary review by Edmund Crispin describes the first Tessa Crichton book ‘Death In The Grand Manor’ as a “charming whodunit….full of unforced buoyancy”, going on to suggest it as a “remedy for existentialist gloom.” Let us not forget that Crispin himself was certainly prone to bouts of existential gloom, but that he also penned some marvellously entertaining detective stories featuring the tremendous character of Gervaise Fen. One wonders too if his frankly bonkers (in a good way) swansong ‘Glimpses of the Moon’ (published in 1977) was not at least in part inspired by the kinds of words Morice was penning for Tessa Crichton. Frances Iles is typically more restrained, suggesting that ‘Death…’ is “a most attractive lightweight”. If that feels somewhat close to being damned by faint praise, then it likely says more about Iles than it does about Morice.
Of course one is unlikely to be reading detective fiction from the 1970s for much more than entertainment value, and that is fine. Indeed it is one of its primary attractions. But Morice has a charming manner of cloaking quite barbed quips in comfortable attire. On marriage she has Tessa note that “One of the few snags I had encountered in married life was the obligation to account to one other person for one’s behaviour; and this was never more acute than in cases where the behaviour was unlikely to obtain the other person’s blessing and approval”, whilst at another point Crichton refers to a piece of sci-fi theatre with a description that feels uncomfortably prescient: “It was set in the year two thousand and something and the author’s comforting idea was that by then the computers would have taken charge of just about everything, from foreign policy down to bingo, with the result that Man had lost the power of self expression and was reduced to conversing in grunts and loosely connected monosyllables.” A more accurate description of Social Media interactions I have yet to read.
Then there is this uncomfortably amusing blast that reminds us how the BREXIT spirit of the 21st Century England ‘Daily Mail’ reader is nothing new: “there was nothing of the Dresden china about this particular little old lady. She was more of a retired Boadicea waging an implacable armchair-war against, predictably enough, immigrants, civil servants, motorists, pedestrians, abstract art, pop music and central heating.” Perhaps Morice had just seen Thatcher on the television.
Elsewhere she drops some delicious little meta droplets of knowing reference, with one character telling Tessa “for God’s sake don’t get the idea that you’re Miss Marple, and start asking all and sundry what they were doing between four and six o’clock, on Saturday, 3rd August.” before dropping the marvellous “‘I’ve lost the thread again,’ Toby said, appealing to Robin. ‘Have you any idea what this is all about?’ ‘Not a glimmer.’”
Losing the thread or not (and sometimes that is part of the pleasure), I admit that I have enjoyed these first two Anne Morice novels more than enough to explore further. And with eight more titles available in this current reissue flourish and a further ten due in July, there is certainly plenty in which to indulge.