There are two new gumshoes on the block. It would be a crime not to investigate them.
A good detective always looks for connections. Both these books are the first in a new crime series highlighting cities and the parts of cities you may not otherwise visit (especially now). Both are launching during this pandemic. Both authors have journalism backgrounds. The first reported from Sarajevo and the camera in his story is positioned much as a sniper would be. The second author once reported for Scotland Yard and there is a certain world weary delivery to his narration: I wasn’t feeling half as cool as I was making out, but I knew enough to keep a clear head and leave the worrying to later. Both new investigators are operating on foreign soil: Juan Camarón, who was brought up in Spain by a Cuban father, finds himself in Glasgow and Daniel Leicester is an Englishman in Bologna. Both authors make good use of the possibilities this sets up for misreading a situation but also understanding it more objectively, for mistrust and also misplaced confidence, and for light relief too. One of the murder victims Camarón investigates is called William McGonagall, but he doesn’t recognise the name. (Dismemberment, albeit fictional, seems an unduly harsh punishment for terrible poetry.) And Leicester, as he helps some tourists with a menu,reflects: There are few things more suspicious to an Englishman abroad than another Englishman abroad.
Let’s cut to the chase.
Kevin Sullivan’s The Figure in the Photograph has a fast moving, victim strewn mystery which Camarón, who narrates, is attempting to solve by making a photographic record of activity in the local area at regular intervals. It’s 1898, he’s excited by this new method and speculates that one day there may be moving pictures taken by cameras on the street. He’s aided and hindered by the local police, a professor of pathology, the neighbourhood chemist, a mortician and various strongly drawn sisters, wives, daughters and maids. He’s also deeply traumatised, having recently witnessed the murder of his own father. He tries to repress his grief in keeping with male expectations of the period, and this along with his foreign usage of English result in a terse, deadpan style of speech and a narration that stresses facts over emotions – making it all the more powerful when love and redemption do begin to seem a possibility. Camarón’s walks through Glasgow streets with their contrasts of road and river, poverty and wealth, proud Victorian buildings and tenement slums made me want to visit. My grandfather trained as a chemist in Glasgow only a few years later, and the dispensaries he worked in must have resembled the one in the book. So I have a personal interest, but this story and setting should fascinate anyone (the first few chapters take place in Cuba, which provides another contrast).
Buildings feature heavily in both books – the old cathedral of Santiago, the Glasgow shipyards, in Bologna decaying palazzi and practical (rain shelter) porticos. Outside the Bologna walls 1970s housing projects are the modern European equivalent of slum tenements. Both books feature a death in the streets attributable to poor health and safety – in one a man is run over on train tracks that cross the road, in the other a cyclist is knocked off her bike while not wearing a helmet. Both gumshoes have been recently bereaved.
A gumshoe should be vulnerable, a bit cynical, have a quirky view of the world, an interest in human nature, and hold strong principles that almost in spite of himself wish to see justice done, however flawed the human beings it concerns. In the present day Bologna of A Quiet Death In Italy, Tom Benjamin’s hero Daniel Leicester speaks fluent Italian but can still be tripped up by dialect or colloquialisms. He works for his father-in-law Giovanni “il Comandante”, an ex police chief running a private detective agency, and the case he’s on brings him into conflict with three powerful p’s – politicians, property and police. Mix in a dose of accidental anarchist death, as per the famous play by Dario Fo, and you have a mystery more tangled than a bowl of spaghetti bolognese (that’s tagliatelle al ragu to the locals. Like Montalbano in Sicily, Daniel Leicester and associates always have time for lunch).
So – two good reads, two promising new detectives, two sequels to look forward to.
I was going to say I don’t normally read much crime other than grandes dames such as Highsmith and Paretsky but I realise since I began blogging I’ve discussed all the books below and in the early days I spoofed a two part Agatha Christie tribute after visiting her house in Devon.
Two mysteries remain, the first a red herring. What was my motive for writing this post? If you answer correctly I’ll congratulate you privately but edit out any spoilers (two rules of crime writing – keep ’em guessing and give your reader resolution. The second is why I don’t write crime.) The other thing that’s fishy is why The Magic Carpet hasn’t soared to an Amazon number 1 while on promotion the way The Infinity Pooldid. Reader, you, your family, friends, colleagues and any random strangers you encounter hold the key to solving that one and you have eight days left before the price goes up again.
When a plot includes a pregnancy going to term or religious festivals that move around the lunar calendar it’s important to be precise with the timescale. I fine tuned my first two novels as I went along. Novel 3, currently under submission, is a response to a specific event, and ends at a point when the issues first raised begin to be resolved. All three books are “contemporary”, taking place not long before the projected year of publication.
Now, writing in New Normal times, the dates of the story are even more crucial. If the events I’m beginning to explore for Novel 4 take place before December 2019 the pandemic needn’t figure. Any story set later than that must now include the effects of Covid-19 on timing and location, wherever they belong on a scale from wispy background rumours to overwhelming. Otherwise it would be like setting a book in 1916 and not mentioning World War 1. So many political, physical and local variables govern the viral load infecting my story that I must factor them in from the start, or my timeline may be wrong, my characters unlikely and my events impossible for their setting and situations. I’ll sound as confused as our Prime Minister.
Although my chosen theme could work either side of the pandemic, so many of the story props around it will change that I can’t put off the decision. And, unlike for a book set during the Spanish flu epidemic, or during the worst of HIV infection, the number of victims is still unknown and the consequences and effects of lockdown haven’t been objectively measured. If I start my contemporary novel NOW, by the time it’s published my assumptions for how it progresses and ends could seem ridiculous.
Where have all the
Perhaps they’re on Zoom…
In my case I’ll probably cop out and either not write at all or set the story well before bells ring in the new year 2020. (The many writers of Brexit novels couldn’t see they had the same problem, although the agents and publishers who rejected them did. Nor did they realise readers might be bored or repulsed by the subject matter, or, if interested, would by the time of publication know more about it than the author.)
Are writers in other genres any better off?
There are some great possibilities for crime writers. Smuggling and doctored vaccines come to mind, although it would be hard to better The Third Man. But plots can’t include: empty domestic property (though lots of empty workplaces); meetings, rallies, parties, institutional education, entertainment, non domestic accommodation, public events or sports venues. There’ll be no unobtrusive shadowing people through crowded streets or detectives interviewing ancient relations in care homes. Characters can’t travel far from home, let alone internationally, or use public transport without sticking out like a sore thumb; and they’re unlikely to go to hospital unless they have Covid-19. The public, bored at their windows, will denounce anything out of the ordinary for the sheer fun of it before the plot can develop; hunches will be hard to follow up and helpful contacts go awol; the criminal fraternity will be preoccupied looking after number one.
Romance is online only. Strangers can’t find love in bars, theatres, parks or at dinner parties. Physical contact is ill-advised even if they do meet. Attractiveness, let alone kissing, is just not the same with everyone in face masks. The media and a vigilante public hamper running secret affairs. Office romances don’t work from home and young nurses are too haggard and stressed to catch the eye of hardworking doctors. Lady Chatterley is indoors social isolating with her vulnerable husband and even Mrs Bennett reluctantly recognises now is not the time for matchmaking. Blood vows and pacts, balls, weddings, or christenings? Certainly not! Whether cops or lovers, characters will have little change in routine or conversation to propel the narrative forward. No chance meetings, few coincidences, most of their time spent staring at screens. Today’s idea of a giddy whirl is solving a Sudoku while the lockdown beer loaf bakes, and optimism means hoping the Patience will work out.
It’s easier for some authors. In the Fantasy genre anything can happen. (That’s why I tend not to read fantasy; I prefer the tension of limited possibilities – though not as limited as currently.) History is already over, so barring differences of interpretation and fact selection, fictionalising events involves the same storytelling skills it always did. As for Horror, Science Fiction and Dystopia – well. That’s what we’re in now, isn’t it? I predict most 2020 novels will fall into these categories.
A week is a long time in pandemics so having had the idea for this post, I’m not waiting till my usual Friday to publish. It might be out of date by then. I also wanted to remind you that The Magic Carpet is on promotion at only 99p until the end of May, if you’d like to visit an unfashionable London suburb between early September – 14th October 2016. Bizarrely, it’s currently selling better in Germany than the UK, but those pre-virus, post Brexit referendum days, just after Eid 2016 and still pre-Trump, may now hold a strange kind of charm and they’re still just about contemporary.
Stay well everyone, and alert, although that’s not the word I’d have chosen.
Today is one of the saddest days of my life. That is not “remoaning”, but mourning. If the Brexiteers can have a party in Parliament Square (though it doesn’t sound much fun, with soft drinks only and Ann Widdecombe for guest speaker), I can have a wake. Parties are for happy things – weddings, birthdays, to celebrate a new job or launch a book, start retirement or shout about a jubilee. A wake is to say goodbye to something or someone – millions of people – you are forced to part from by circumstances beyond your control. Usually that means death, but in this case it’s a vile mixture of xenophobia, narrow mindedness, triumphalism, misguided nostalgia, imperialism without an empire, and manipulation. Also gullibility, which is easier to empathise with – we’ve all been fooled over something in our lives.
So today’s post, because it falls on the day the United Kingdom (I wonder, united for how long?) leaves the EU, isn’t about books or writing and I won’t share it in my more usual book circles. Instead it’s a personal expression of despair, a chance to mark this day that I couldn’t ignore while I have this tiny platform from which to communicate my views. However, I have written about European books in Reading for Remainers and More Reading for Remainers. Perhaps if I’d called them Reading for Leavers, some would have been swayed. I dislike the name calling and abuse that Brexiteers and Remainers throw at each other as much as I dislike the insults leavers throw at Europe. Not having access to a good education does not make you stupid, and some who have had the best education money can buy persist in making stupid decisions (I’m looking at you, David Cameron). But it’s on record that the higher their education level the less likely a voter was to opt for Brexit. Maybe the authors I was talking about, with their range of thought, their ability to empathise with varying characters and to make stories out of moral dilemmas and historical lessons, would have been a bit much for the Brexit leaders, who in turn manipulated the confusion of so many others.
I’m not necessarily any brighter than they are, but I had the advantage of being taught French by my mother, who had stayed on a war-ruined French farm as a paying guest in the 1940s. I studied French, lived in Paris and Dijon, made French friends I still see forty years later. I added Spanish. My daughter studied Spanish, Italian and German. I visited her in Zaragoza and Palermo. I went to Poland for work and received the warmest of welcomes, as warm as the ones I received in Greece even at the time they were being squeezed so pitilessly by the EU (which is by no means perfect, but you improve institutions from within, not by throwing a hissy fit and stomping off). My first novel has appeared in German and what a pleasure it was to work with the translator. Europe isn’t just for holidays but I’ve had some fantastic trips since starting this blog and invite you along with me to revisit Barcelona,Lisbon (twice), Vienna (twice), Milan and Paris – not sure why I didn’t write blog posts about those two.
My European friends in London are rightly saddened, angered, bewildered. Why should an award winning chef who’s paid taxes and employed staff for 23 years be refused settled status? Why should my French friend’s mother, living here since the 1930s, have to jump through the bureaucratic hoops of applying for settled status in her 93rd year? Why should child refugees now be kept from their parents, a casualty of changing laws that this untrustworthy government says will be “sorted out later”? Why, when there is more to unite than divide us, should ties be broken, trade deals stopped, links wrecked, friendship and help refused, cultures sneered at? Why would any sane nation reject easy trade conditions with its nearest geographical neighbours, and complicate collaboration on responding to health, science, environmental challenges which recognise no borders? Why would any sensible individual want to reinstate roaming charges, reject grants for anti-poverty projects and regeneration, create obstacles to staffing our farms, hospitals, restaurants and so much else? None of this is in my name.
How ironic that this week also saw Holocaust Memorial Day. I went to a wonderful concert at King’s Place, with Raphael Wallfisch the cellist. His mother, interviewed here, survived Belsen because she played cello for the Nazis. Where I grew up in Finchley, North London, my primary school class was around 50% Jewish. None of my school friends had grandparents. They had all died in the camps, after sending my friends’ parents over on the Kindertransport. Would the British shelter those children now? My own parents both had their education truncated by the war but were lucky enough to be just too young for call up; my father-in-law was a POW; my friend’s father traumatized at 23 after driving the ammunition truck behind one that was blown up during the D-day landings. Hitler had to be stopped; whether war was the only means to stop him it’s now too late to say. But the EU was founded to prevent another war in Europe, and has been successful. Thank you to Guy Verhofstadt MEP who has done his best to keep us together as citizens , thank you to Jolyon Maugham and others campaigning for associate EU citizenship; thank you to Terry Reintke MEP who has set up the UK Friendship Group in the EU Parliament. Thank you to many, many others. Please wait for us, we do care about you, and we look forward to a day when we can move freely around Europe again with another freedom – the ability we’ll have won back, through dignified, well informed, unaggressive campaigning, to enjoy being both British and European again. There is one such campaign here: please consider joining.
Despite not being all that bloggered about posting at the moment, I couldn’t miss the chance for the puns Hay Festival makes possible. Friends nearby had often said: Hay, why don’t you come along? I only went for Tuesday, not the full ten days, and my introduction is more pictures than words, but I hope you catch my Hay fever. This year I was checking out how it all worked, and could only get tickets for one of the three writers I’d have liked to see. Rose Tremain obliged, but Philip Pullman and Margaret Atwood were sold out long before I got my act together. So we only went to one formal activity, but there was much else to entertain us.
The programme for tomorrow
Hay map shop
Hay-on-Wye itself, permanent population only 1500, has over two dozen bookshops, down from its Hayday but still impressive. Some are now antique shops, and I also diverted into several stylish new and secondhand clothes shops, a café for Hereford apple cake and an outdoor food market for falafel salad washed down by (strong!) local cider. All accompanied by the classiest of classical guitar buskers…
Sustainable cutlery at the food stalls
I want that coat!
A town with a bookshop for every 62.5 people is my kind of town. We especially enjoyed Rose’s Books, where we pounced with delight on affectionately remembered – and long forgotten – gems from our childhoods and giggled over what our grandparents used to read. Remember the Chalet School Girls? Rose has them, along with every Ladybird book you could think of, Rupert and Tin-Tin, William and Jennings, Victorian morality tales, sixties psychedelic picture books and Puffins flying everywhere. Murder and Mayhem, a branch of Addyman‘s, offers a sleuth’s day out, and Richard Booth‘s famous shop includes a cinema.
After browsing, tasting and trying we walked the half mile to the Festival site. There’s a shuttle bus, but then you’d miss the haphazard, inventive enterprise of people who live along the route. Almost every front garden had been turned into a miniature car boot sale, a home-made food stall, a face painter, portrait artist, vintage clothing pop up rail or a purveyor of free range eggs complete with clucking hens to prove the provenance. It was (or seemed) anarchic and I can’t imagine the authorities allowing it in London, but good for these citizens. I hope they made Hay.
The festival site, guarded by two jovial armed police (in honour of Chelsea Clinton perhaps? Surely not still for Salman Rushdie?) was crowded with all ages but fewer races than I’d have liked to see. First things first: the portaloos, with real wooden doors, were the best I’ve seen at an outdoor festival. The bookshop and signing centre, in a vast tent, was humid and uncomfortable with criss-crossing queues, so I left and found more clothes shops selling natural fabrics and one-off designs. There’s also jewellery, cider, wine, cheese…it’s fair to say this is not exclusively a book festival. The best tent was a gallery of book illustrators’ prints, with Jackie Morris painting away to demonstrate her technique while discussing her work, including her collaboration with Robert Macfarlane on The Lost Words. I didn’t explore the scribblers’ tent, the Oxfam tent or the many activities for children – I’m sure I missed a lot.
But one can only digest so much and we had come for Rose Tremain. She was talking in the vast, impersonal Tata area about her memoir of damaged childhood, Scenes from a Vanished Life. Goodness, this was brave. Obviously, she’s a professional, clearly she knew what she’d written and the questions she would be asked. Nonetheless, this must have been like having therapy in front of thousands of people. She was clear, succinct, careful to say exactly what she meant, and the cold calmness of her delivery made the content all the more moving. As she said, her book started as a personal memoir for family and friends only. But when she perceived how emotionally they reacted, she realised she’d stepped into a novelist’s dream. “It’s every writer’s ambition to move people, and I’d moved them so much I had to widen the book out.” I’d been regretting not also booking to see Maggie O’Farrell earlier that day, talking about the seventeen ways she’s escaped death, but I’m not sure I could have coped with the intensity of both. A little goes a long Hay…
Anyway, here are the holiday snaps. I suspect Hay is a very personal experience which affects everyone a different way. I’ll certainly go back for more next year – and perhaps also when the festival is not on, just to enjoy the town and and the beautiful country around it. Because even the car park was scenic and I could harvest the most multicoloured silk scarf in the world, from the shop opposite the alleyway from the castle…
Some weeks the writing ideas zoom in like fat bees in lavender. Other times someone must have sprayed pesticides. There’s no hope for the novel, short shrift for short stories, and even the blog gets bogged down. That’s serious, because the blog’s raison d’être is to unblock the serious writer in me (though all too often it replaces her entirely).
When I taught French to adults, I would excuse uncompleted homework if they could provide a correctly formulated excuse, eg: “Le chien a mangé mes devoirs.”
How do you rate my excuses?
Last week’s post was too good! Yes, that’s right, I was very pleased with my blog post last week. I admired both my own writing style, and my choice of content. My chest puffed out; I smiled graciously; I stood behind an imaginary lectern spouting wisdom to an enthralled audience. I’ve made myself a hard act to follow.
The weather. Seriously. My study is the coldest room in the house. The UK climate was playing cruel homage to Antonia White’s wonderful Frost in May. No bees buzzed.I cowered beneath blankets gazing mournfully out at my dying cherry tree. When it’s cold in winter I can write. When it’s cold in spring my pen shrivels (Can pens shrivel? – Ed.)
I have a busy month coming up. Trips planned, student reunions, family things, cultural highlights. I take packing for these very seriously, and had to put aside a lot of time for inventing obstacles to worry about.
My reading has stalled, so I can’t give a review for this week’s post. I’m currently in the middle of two books: Leonardo and the Last Supper by Ross King in preparation for a trip to Milan, and The Book of Night Women by Marlon James, which my son gave me for my birthday. They’re both very good, but as a Goodreads review says, “whenever i read books written in dialect it always takes me at least 40 pages to start to get the hang of it”. As a (highly appropriate and skilfully used) vehicle for intensity, cruelty, and injustice the voice isn’t always easy to process. And why are both printed in such an exhaustingly tiny font? When my reading staggers my writing stumbles too.
I did my tax return. This is grounds for congratulation – I’ve never completed it so promptly before. It didn’t take long, because to be frank the piles of receipts and associated expenditure on my authorial life are not that high. (The million pound advance for The Magic Carpet must be lost in the post.) So given the level of turnover, can I really describe myself to the Inland Revenue as a writer? On the other hand, bearing in mind recent estimates of average author income, do my low earnings provide the proof?
Amazon returned the interior proofs for the German translation of The Infinity Pool. I can be of absolutely no help checking these, but there was a lot of associated emailing with my long suffering, hard working, optimistic German translator Michaela and I do so hope for her sake even more than mine that her hard work finds some appreciative readers and reviewers.
My writing ideas are unrepeatable. A couple of plot ideas did surface recently as a result of memories friends recounted to me, in that innocent way they have over a glass of wine after a concert, unaware their writer friend is salting it all away for use in chapter six. But in the cold light of day I’ve realised what a betrayal it would be to use them.
I had to cultivate my garden, not in the Voltairean sense but literally. I’d bought some plants before the most recent mini ice age intervened and urgent life saving was needed.
There are cracks in the living room plaster that could mean anything and have to be watched.
Le chien a mangé mes devoirs. Je n’ai pas de chien.
The idea I do have is reserved for Smorgasbord in a couple of weeks.
Just realised I wrote this post or one very like it shortly after starting blogging, and also the following New Year. More proof I’m a professional writer – glossy magazines have been recycling the same articles for decades.
If you’re still with me through all these excuses, take my advice: you must – like me – have better things to do. Like I said, last week’s post was good. Why not revisit that?
People have told stories since once upon a time. We know that from prehistoric cave paintings and sculpture. There may have been stories before there were words – through body language, perhaps. We know all societies create some form of music and that stories were told through music before they were written down. Homer’s epics (if Homer existed) were told to a musical accompaniment, for instance.
We tell stories to tiny children to comfort, entertain, process and explain (those who don’t, should). As adults, we call news scoops “big stories” and those who can afford it tell therapists our stories, retelling and reframing until with help from the therapist we arrive at the kernel within. More universally and informally, women recount what matters to them to their friends, and in healthy societies men do too. Was there ever anything less healthy than the requirement for British men to keep a stiff upper lip?
In the days when there was more to training teachers than phonics and test scores, I was in an audience of education professionals addressed by Dr Richard Stone, a member of the MacPherson Inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. His anger simmered, as he recounted policing failures after this innocent young black man’s life ended so violently at a London bus stop. But his delivery was controlled, starting something like this: Let me tell you a story. Humans need stories. By sharing what happened in story form, we can make sense and learn from it. At times during his two hour talk, he stopped, silenced by the horror of what he had to say, and then with a deep breath, would repeat like a mantra: back to the story; humans need stories. He was a good public speaker so the repetition reassured us, and every now and then he threw in a witticism, to relax us with a relieved burst of laughter. That fortified us for the next onslaught. Because he told us the facts in story form, they’re still in my memory after eighteen years.
Youth murders in London have increased since then. Few get Stephen Lawrence’s column inches and anniversary documentaries. Little Damilola Taylor, 10 years old, was one who did, and Stephen Kelman based his funny, tragic book Pigeon English around a similar story. Other difficult situations lead us to storytelling too: Mary Smith cared for her father with dementia and fashions elegant, moving, funny anecdotes from what must have been painful experiences on her blog, My Dad is a Goldfish. It’s not uncommon for people suffering from mental ill health or illnesses such as anorexia, alcoholism or cancer to turn to blogging their experiences, and almost always they manage to turn them into self contained episodes – I am continually amazed by the skill of human beings to craft misfortune into stories we can all learn from and in a peculiar (cathartic?) way, enjoy. Memoir writing courses are increasingly popular: in today’s weeping world, do we need stories even more?
Scheherazade told stories to save her life, but it doesn’t happen only in fiction. This 1941 article, still astonishing now, tells of theatre, cabarets and even comedy performed by Jewish inmates of Dachau and Buchenwald.
The extremely daring Compère…introduced the show as follows:
“My friends, you are lucky to be here this afternoon. Here, in Buchenwald, we have the best art and the best artists in the whole of Germany. Here you can actually laugh out loud at our jokes. Here is the freest theatre in the Reich. In the theatres outside, the actors and the audience are frightened because they fear that they may end up in a concentration camp. That’s something we don’t have to worry about.”
Professionals and amateurs often use the episodic story form to make sense of tragedy: an example in mainstream media was Rebecca Armstrong‘s four year series about life after her husband’s serious car accident. Comedians can wring laughs and, crucially, empathy, from the darkest situations: Lou Conran made a stand up show from her experience of giving birth to a stillborn baby. “The upsetting bits are cushioned” she says, by the comedy. Conran “got hundreds of messages from people thanking me, sharing their stories. One lady in her 60s had told her adult children [about her own similar experience] and grieved for the first time.”The Daily Annagram is a lacerating, hilarious, VERY sweary blog by a stand up comedian and writer called Anna. It’s mostly about the mess she and others have made of her life, and the way she pummels each fresh punchball of pain into anecdote is a master class in storytelling as survival skill. You cannot but wish her well.
Last week I was lucky enough to see comedian Mark Thomas with Palestinian colleagues in Showtime from the Frontline at Stratford Theatre Royal, London. Thomas and his colleague Sam Beale who teaches comedy impro ran a comedy workshop in the refugee city of Jenin, Palestine. Participants ranged from complete beginners to professional actors (“My dad insisted: Son, I want you to be a lawyer, an engineer, a doctor or a scientist!” “Dad,” I answered, “If I become an actor I can be all of those!” HIGNFY and Mock the Week please note: the class managed a better gender balance than you do, yes, in Palestine.) The compère at the graduation show was “the most depressed man in Palestine”; the Palestinian-Israeli founder of the theatre hosting the workshop had been murdered; most course participants had no chance of touring the UK with Thomas and their classmates. The audience fell spontaneously silent for a young man seen on video talking about how he’d like to play Romeo – but he was fatally shot before he could do so. You’d not think it promising ground for laughs…
…so of course the humour contained bleak moments. But comedy conventions like three elements (first element sets up a situation; second element reinforces/develops it; third element subverts it), clownish expressions and timing that held the audience in a trance made it first side splitting, then shocking, moving, funny again. An irony: it was similar to so much Jewish humour I have heard all my life, and indeed to humour from all over the world. At the post show discussion Faisal Abu Alhayjaa said : “You know, you Brits, you laugh at the same things we do, just in a quieter way.” Comedy is universal, even if we all have individual preferences. Asked about comedy in Palestine, Faisal said, “You know, we do not so much have a comedy tradition. But we have a very strong storytelling tradition, stronger than yours. And many of those stories have many funny bits inside.”
The run is now finished…
…what story will Thomas tell next?
So let’s keep telling those stories. Some of us are bestselling professionals (a story I tell myself); some of us are just starting out, and some of us are still listening on our mother’s knees (I hope). But we are a storytelling species and if we can keep the storytelling going we may have a happy ending.
If Bah Humbug was a person they’d look like me, and yet even I was attracted by the signs of Christmas in this bookshop. I do like to highlight good independent bookshops, dead and alive. How can a small town like Great Malvern (population under 35,000) support a decent independent bookshop, in these days of discounts and globalization? This town has found one way to do it.
Their bookshop is a cooperative, owned and run by its shareholders. The website tells me shares cost £50 each, and you can buy one, or two. It also tells me they pay their staff a living wage, whereas I’d been under the impression it was staffed on a voluntary basis by the shareholders. But so much the better (and more reliable probably) if it’s providing employment.
Notices on the board
There are two rooms, one with a mezzanine, on this extremely steep hill – if after fortifying yourself in the bookshop cafe, you continue straight on and can walk perpendicularly up “Happy Valley” (I always wanted the chance to write that) you will find yourself on top of the Malvern Hills. But it may be wise to stop and peruse the books, guides, maps and local author in the room on the right first. You may find a (slightly) less steep route.
The room on the left is the main bookshop area, with a good shelved and tabletop collection of contemporary fiction and non fiction, a colourful childrens’ section, the counter where the helpful assistant lets you browse in peace but is on hand if needed, and a jolly looking café with a good selection of high quality cards in support of various charities. Somebody’s had fun dressing the window for Christmas and there was about to be a talk by journalist Matthew Engel when I was there. Another successful talk the previous night had depleted the stock – which is exactly what we want to hear happens when an independent bookshop puts on an event.
(Presumably they know they have a doppelganger in Texas? I found it when looking for their Twitter handle.)
Malvern is one of my favourite places. It’s a spa town half way up the extraordinary Malvern Hills, home of Elgar, with a theatre, an Abbey, a lovely park with a bandstand, excellent music events, and other places to buy books too – the Amnesty International bookshop, and the St Richard’s Hospice bookshop in Malvern Link which was the cleanest, best organised and most professionally run charity bookshop I have ever visited.
I was gladdened by the Malvern Book Cooperative because in the same week I was saddened by what’s happening to another community run project, one in which I do hold £100 of shares. My grandparents both lived in Hastings when I was little, and I have happy memories of visits to the pier. So I was grieved when the already unsafe structure burnt down in 2010 and only too pleased when local people got together to rebuild and run it again. They made such a success of it – a new, solid, fireproof, elegant pier, with catering and entertainments, helping to regenerate the town, and sharing all it learned with other local projects such as Bottle Alley and St Leonards sea front. Alas, their application for a grant of £800,000 to cover becoming independent over the next three years has been refused, and the pier taken into receivership. The letter to shareholders was upbeat – jobs will be protected, the receivers are specialists in administering heritage projects and there are interested parties already. All is by no means lost. But it seems so sad, for the notional value of a three bed semi in London, that so much goodwill, good design, and regeneration could be again at risk. I’m using these photos from the Pier site, which are not my copyright, and hope they will not mind as it’s part of my response to the request to continue to support and promote the pier.
As the website says: “The pier will remain open to the public whilst the administration takes place, and the pier will be fully operational and staffed for 2018….Hastings Pier Charity encourages you to keep visiting and supporting the pier, and look forward to the next stage of the development of Hastings Pier.”
Please visit and use it!
There was more cheerful news from the Herne Bay pier when we visited last month: the local knitting coop had decorated the railings with these eccentric crafts for Halloween and Armistice Day while the beautiful bronze statue of Amy Johnson looked out over the sea nearby. Local people and businesses raised the funds for and commissioned this statue, installed in 2016, which is also significant for being “one of only about 17% of statues listed in the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association (PMSA) of a woman as a lone standing statue”.
Here’s a last minute addition to this post: the wonderful Dalston Eastern Curve Garden where we sang carols last night, drank mulled wine and enjoyed the light show. Thank you to the Boilerhouse Singers for keeping us warm with some lovely music.
If you have a brilliant local community project, bookshop, building or activity, do support it. These are the things that give our towns character, conscience and individuality. I’d be fascinated to hear about any that you’re involved in – and who knows, maybe it would spur me to plan a trip and support it.
Back to Lisbon this week, to continue wandering round the city’s literature. The interruption for illness (including hallucinatory dreams) was apposite, as the books I’ve read meander around in time, in location, in the heads of their authors and their characters. In homage, this post may take detours too.
The entrance and ground floor of the Saramago Foundation, confusingly, did not feature Jose Saramago, Portuguese winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, despite the name and Saramago characters silhouetted in the windows. Instead the enthusiastic young attendant talked about the surface of the building and the archaeology beneath it. Only when we went back out did we realise this surface was not flat, hence its name: “Casa dos Bicos”. In the strong sunlight, we’d assumed the shapes on the walls were shadows or flat tiles. But it was another example of how, in Lisbon, things are not what they seem. As the wonky Google translation of the Saramago Foundation page puts it: Where some would want to see diamonds, (people) saw no more than stone beaks, and, as the use makes law, of so much calling it House of the Beaks, of the Beaks stayed and with that name entered History.
The archaeology fan referred me to his colleague when I asked where to start with Saramago. He gave us a quizzical look and recommended Small Memories. The archaeologist, who probably thought us really thick, nodded. “Yes, that’s the easiest.” (It was less patronising than it sounds.)
Anyway, Small Memories was straightforward: a memoir comparing his childhood and adolescence in the countryside and within Lisbon. He’s difficult to quote because his sentences are so long, and he enjoys playing with the reader and pokes sardonic fun at his own work: “Sometimes I wonder if certain memories are really mine or if they’re just someone else’s memories of episodes in which I was merely an unwitting actor and which I found out about later when they were told to me by others who had been there, unless, of course, they, too, had only heard the story from someone else.” It’s an affectionate, comical memoir: “photos of the family were gathered together on the table like a galaxy of faces…placed there like saints on an altar, like the disparate parts of a collective reliquary, fixed and immutable.” (To see a macabre local inspiration for this metaphor, visit the Sao Roque collection of relics.)
Reading about Saramago’s childhood in lyrical, nostalgic but unsentimental prose was reminiscent of earlier memoirs of country childhoods: Laurie Lee, of Flora Thompson or Pagnol. In the city they were still poor but differently, and closer to the time of Alan Johnson in London. Like them, learning to read transformed his life: “Being able to identify a word I knew was like finding a signpost on the road telling me I was on the right path, heading in the right direction.” Like them, he describes the relish of special food or simple treats and details wildlife with perception I hope children are not losing now they spend so much time in virtual reality. The boy Saramago fought real street battles. “As shields we had saucepan lids that we found among the rubbish.” The man searches the city records for the true date of his infant brother’s death, and finds the child was almost airbrushed from history by bureaucratic mistakes; in contrast, his grandfather looms solid in his memory: “His small, sharp eyes shine sometimes as if something he had long been pondering had finally been understood. He is a man like many others on this earth, perhaps an Einstein crushed beneath a mountain of impossibilities,a philosopher, a great illiterate writer.”
It was good to read this book on a visit to Lisbon. It brought the streets alive.
Then I had a go at another Lisbon writer, who to my shame I’d never heard of before. He too has a museum in his name, the Casa Fernando Pessoa, which my photographs don’t show because we didn’t visit it. They show some other building that pays him homage, along with many statues, tile murals, and posters. Pessoa wrote in the voice of numerous heteronyms, narrators he used to express his thoughts at a distance from himself, “characters” as the introduction to my edition says, “Pessoa invented to spare himself the trouble of living real life.” The Book of Disquiet (Livro do Desassossego, 1930s) is a collection of thoughts, ideas, recollections, epigrams, memories and opinions voiced by the characters he invented. Editors and later translators put it into order for publication but nobody knows if that order is correct. The sections are not long, and you can dip in and out as you like. Said Pessoa himself: “It’s all fragments, fragments, fragments!” Pessoa worked on it all his life, getting further from finishing it with every page he wrote. At the beginning (if it is the beginning) it’s firmly located in the Rua dos Douradores, where we queued unsuccessfully at an over popular restaurant. Soares the heteronym works in an office there; he breaks for lunch, he walks home; he looks out of the window… So far so concrete, and much of the streetscape hasn’t changed since the 1930s when Pessoa described it. The beginning in particular (if it is the beginning) is full of lovely descriptions of Lisbon’s everyday life and scenery.
You get a flavour of the rest of the book from Text 12: “In these random impressions, and with no desire to be other than random, I indifferently narrate my factless autobiography, my lifeless history. these are my Confessions, and if in them I say nothing, it’s because I have nothing to say.”
That doesn’t sound promising, and yet Pessoa struck some chords for me. He can certainly express the futility and depression of being alive in a world without God or clear meaning, with a self protecting layer of sardonic humour: “And when I leaned out of my high window looking at the street I couldn’t see, I felt like one of those damp rags used for housecleaning that are taken to the window to dry but are forgotten, balled up, on the sill where they slowly leave a stain.”
Like Night Train to Lisbonwhich I wrote about before, this is book about identity – does the author/heteronym have one? If so, what does it mean and what happens when, inevitably, it changes in one of many potential ways?
“At the heart of my thought I wasn’t I. I’m dazed by a sarcastic terror of life…” “By thinking so much, I became echo and abyss, by delving within, I made myself into many.”
Pessoa (or his heteronym/s/narrator/s) was a modernist who made me think of Joyce and Proust. He tried in vain – and often consciously without too much effort – to make sense by writing of his dreams and fears and small joys, clung to his familiar apartment and mundane work, didn’t dare explore the rest of the world and yet felt trapped and often said he longed for death, seeing people as “like eels in a wooden tub, they slither under and over each other, without ever leaving the tub.”
“I’m the ruins of buildings that were never more than ruins, whose builder, halfway through, got tired of thinking about what he was building.” It’s not all miserable. He claims an absence of feelings: “What mysteries have taken place? None. There’s just the sound of the first tram, like a match to light up the soul’s darkness, and the loud steps of my first pedestrian.” That “my first pedestrian” shows Pessoa playing with Lisbon like a child with a train set, moving figures about, getting bored and abandoning it for dreams and cloudy ennui.
Pessoa asks: What is a human being – or more exactly, who is a human being? What s/he thinks themselves, or what others think of them? And what of change, in different lights, at different times, from one age to another, in different dates of health and solitary or befriended?
I got about halfway through. I may go back to it sometime. If I don’t, at least I know the author wouldn’t care, or says he wouldn’t care, one way or another. Maybe I’ve already read the end – who knows? But if you want a route map, you almost certainly CAN go on a Pessoa walk run by the Pessoa museum, and online there are umpteen collections of epigrammatic quotes from Pessoa. (What would this rambling, connected, discursive, bewildered man have made of the internet?) Also, the superb Night Train to Lisbon refers to The Book of Disquiet in many circular ways, and had I read them in reverse order I would have gleaned even more resonances from this book.
It was though, a relief to get back to Saramago.
The second Saramago book I read was The History of the Siege of Lisbon (1989). Saramago is a conscious wordsmith and his hero here is a proofreader, called Raimundo (ah! Mundus in Night Train to Lisbon is also a meticulous reader). A conscientious man, he has only ever made one mistake when correcting proofs, and it’s deliberate but, being in a history book, it changes the whole course of reported history. Saramago, like Pessoa, is fascinated by accounts of history, by how different they would be if they’d been made by another person, in a different year, a different place or a different mood, with more or less, true or false information and propaganda. As he says: “Words cannot be transported lightly here and there, back and forth, so watch out, otherwise someone will come along and say: I don’t understand.”
The Siege of Lisbon soon segues into stories in layers that interact – the proofreader learning to write his own prose rather than correct that of others, the proofreader falling in love, the history of the siege itself and a parallel love affair between a soldier and a concubine; the history of warfare (getting very technical at times), the views of royalty, politicians, Muslim and Christian clerics, peasants and soldiers. It’s about words, writing (referencing Pessoa) and publishing, love, and mistakes, and loneliness and forgiveness and the development of humanity. It’s much more positive than Pessoa, partly because “Raimundo Silva has mastered the art of floating vague ideas, like clouds that stay apart, and he even knows how to blow away any idea that gets too close”.
And, of course, it’s about Lisbon, street by street, steps by stairs, castle by harbour. I wish I had read it in hard copy rather than Kindle as I needed to keep turning back in time – as does Saramago, as does the proofreader – and checking my facts and my impressions. Again, there are echoes of this book in Night Train to Lisbon; again, I’d read them in the wrong order. Friends just returned from Lisbon expressed surprise at how lost we’d got: my approach must have been wrong in so many ways and yet I’m pleased, because I inadvertently mirrored the style of several great writers and some intriguing, sympathetic, lonely literary characters.
Some long books, and a city with a long and convoluted history have lead to a long and winding post. Thank you for staying with me.
I wasn’t well last week, so this post replaces the advertised programme. I said I’d continue blogging about Lisbon writers. But Fernando Pessoa and Joe Saramago demand full attention. When your head and eyes ache, you burn with temperature, and you’re not feeling fit for human consumption, their wonderful words do little more than swim around like the ubiquitous Lisbon sardine.
By Saturday I could venture out, and a local shopping street again gave me a lesson in fundamentals. Once the lesson was about multicultural London; last time it was about birth. This lesson, as if to remind me there’s always someone iller than oneself (my cold had reached the self pitying stage), there was a beautiful pair of black horses, kept still by two top hatted gentlemen in morning coats with an elegant engraved glass carriage behind. All you need for a traditional East End funeral.
I prepared to walk past in a discreet and respectful way while getting a good look at the horses. But – where was the coffin? There was only a cheerful lady dressed in black, standing in the doorway of the funeral directors, saying “Would you like a goody bag?”
My instinct, frankly, was to say no. It’s very kind of you but I’ve already felt like death warmed up this week and I am not in the mood for conversation with any representatives of the Grim Reaper, thank you all the same. (Although I did read a lovely blog post this week about the memoirs of an eco-mortician.)
But then all the way round Sainsbury’s I wondered, why would a funeral director be giving out goody bags? And what on earth would be in them? I renewed my supplies of tissues, honey and paracetamol with unseemly haste. What if the lady was no longer feeling so generous when I walked back past?
I’ve only been into a funeral director’s twice (it wasn’t this one). I accompanied my father after my mother died, and a few years later I went back with my sister to arrange his funeral. I remember the employees as respectful, pleasant, rather inefficient on that second occasion (Me: You have been looking after my mother’s ashes so that they could be scattered with my father’s when the time came. Employee: Have we? Are you sure you don’t have them at home? But they did, as I knew, having been there when the arrangement was made, and they were tracked down in a warehouse – the actual scattering is another story.)
But why would you go into a funeral directors if you didn’t have a funeral to arrange or a body to view? Or possibly a crime to investigate or a novel to research?
If intrigued by a goody bag, you might.
The low sun shone on the still quiet horses. It was hard to get a good photo, and felt intrusive, even though there was no funeral, no coffin, no body. The goody bags were stacked by the open door of the shop (would you call it a shop?) but nobody was there now. How sad. Presents had been offered, but people were walking past. I peeped in, and picked up a bag: “May I take one of these?” I called, but softly, in case they were dealing with a proper customer.
Out came the lady in black, and another top hatted gentleman. “Please do. It’s our 200th anniversary. Please, help yourself.” In such uncharted conversational territory, my small talk dried up, I smiled, and left.
Tomorrow I shall go back, and if they’re not busy (but how would I know – outside is well screened and you have to press a doorbell) I shall call in again. When my father’s shop notched up any kind of anniversary, they had big boozy parties, celebratory offers and competitions. But a funeral directors can’t really be seen doing that, and yet, it’s quite a thing to celebrate. 200 years of funeral care! The social history they must have at their fingertips! It would be fascinating to hear more.
Also, it’s the best goody bag I’ve ever had. I benefitted from their need to keep things tasteful. Of course there was a balloon – there has to be a balloon in a goody bag – but it’s as understated as a balloon possibly could be. Some people with a baby are coming to view my house tomorrow, perhaps the baby would like the balloon, or would it send them the wrong message? Hmmm… There were two useful little tins of mints, and two packets of seeds which in a lovely coincidence were forget-me-nots (my mother’s favourite flower) and sunflowers (my father’s). There was a pen, and best of all – they must know I’m a writer – a very good quality notebook with lines ruled, a ribbon bookmark, elastic closure and a matching pen with holder!
Of course, funeralcare is a business like any other and if they don’t make a profit they won’t survive. They do have a captive market, and it was a celebration, but this was nonetheless effective advertising if passers by weren’t too inhibited to engage with it. So I said to B., “If I’m still living round here when the time comes, this firm, W. English & Sons, is the firm I’d like to use.”
“The problem is, you won’t still be living,” he said.