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I know where I am. I know more than they think. Earlier today someone with an officious voice said, close to my ear, ‘It is touch and go as to whether she will ever regain consciousness.’ Touch and go. Makes it sound like a children’s game.

This morning I had a talk with someone about reviewing. I argued that often I will rave about a book that might have a sloppy structure, or stereotypical characters, but it will get one thing just right and I’ll love it. It is that one connection with me as a reader that matters the most. However, on occasion I find myself reading something that is competent in every respect, but simply put leaves me cold.

A disturbed young woman boards a train to Edinburgh to meet her sisters and then moments later leaves on a return trip to London.  Then Alice Raikes, while standing at a traffic crossing, steps directly into the path of oncoming cars and is seriously injured.

The family gathers at her bedside in hospital, her parents Ben and Ann desperately trying to understand what may have compelled their daughter to try and take her own life. We discover that Alice has lived a turbulent life touched by tragedy. Formerly a free spirit, more vivacious than her bookish siblings and reserved father, she has been left broken by an abruptly ended relationship. Was it this that led to her suicide attempt?

The reader witnesses the thoughts of three generations of the Raikes women. Alice and Ann have more in common than they know, while the deceased Elspeth continues to appear as a ghostly presence throughout the novel. Her function in the plot is to define Ann as a young girl whose life turned in an unexpected direction and before she knew it she was a mother to three young women, recently also a grandmother.

One of the few men to assume the role of narrator briefly is Alice’s lover John. Aside from the gentle natured Ben Raikes, he is one of the few positive male characters featured in the novel. O’Farrell defines the men in Alice’s past, as well as Ann’s, are domineering and grasping. A Jewish Londoner trapped between his love for the wild-natured Scot and his family’s traditions, John is portrayed as an almost entirely selfless character. Everyone else is either living a secret double life, or blind to the problems of others.

This is a book about self-involved people frustrated by the course of their lives. Alice’s suicide attempt appears to be premeditated, with the majority of the novel concerned with unravelling the possible cause. The action skips from the perspectives of the three Raikes women, backwards and forwards through time. In some ways I found this book reminiscent of Everything Is Illuminated, also concerned with secret family histories and tragic eruptions. The post-modern reliance on narrators who lie to the reader as much as themselves is a common device, not to mention the time skipping (although over a shorter period of time in O’Farrell’s novel).

Whereas Safran Foer tackled his mashed-up style with alacrity, however, O’Farrell’s approach is far more leaden. I felt no sympathy to either Alice, or Ann, who both after a time seemed to become interchangeable. Despite one of them being in a coma for the duration of the novel! The inclusion of a sub-plot relating the stresses placed on young love due to different cultural traditions, in this case Judaism, felt tacked on.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, my chief frustration with this book is that overall it is quite well written, but I was simply unable to engage with the proceedings and was left wishing it was several chapters shorter. Ultimately After You’d Gone feels like a digression into the lives of three women twisted by sadness, one that you could afford to miss.

The transportation to Botany Bay has the advantage of the former mode of Transportation to America, in securing the kingdom from the dread of being again infected with these pernicious members of society. From the mortality which has already taken place on the transports, it is supposed not more than 1 in 5 will survive the voyage; and should the remainder live to the expiration of their sentence, they can never pay the (sic) expence of a passage home.

Sailors used to complain that a woman on board a vessel was bad luck. Yet the practice of transporting female convicts, rescued from the stocks by the ‘king’s mercy’, in the 1780s by being sent across the world to Australia was quite common. They were intended for numerous purposes by the Empire, as an impromptu ‘birthing bank’, for the stranded colony, as well as a source of sexual relief for the colonial overseers stationed there.

From the point of view of the seaman on board these vessels therefore, they were very lucky indeed. As these were women of ill-repute, without the protection of either family or class, completely at their mercy. What Siân Rees teases out is a complicated series of relations between the men and women on these ships, that speaks not only to the hypocrisy of the Georgian era, but also to the entrepreneurial origins of the Australian colony itself.

I also should point out this book was lent to me by one of my in-laws.

The London of the 1780s was a grim metropolis of extremes. With the wealth of the British Empire funding extraordinary examples of architecture, palatial homes and spacious town houses marking the presence of the upper classes. Meanwhile ghettos of impoverished labourers and the unemployed ran rampant with disease and starvation. Crime was often seen as a necessary adjunct to survival. For women, prostitution became one of an ever narrowing selection of options. Rees presents a dizzying array of names and examples of ‘fallen’, young women. Some seasoned criminals, others desperate for a crust following the early termination of their employment, still others the innocent victims of a nefarious plot. All of the names given belonged to women who faced death sentences for crimes such as theft, prostitution and muggings ‘on the king’s highway’.

In a perhaps dubious show of mercy, to celebrate the alleviation of George III’s madness the prisons were ordered to discharge their prisoners scheduled for execution for ‘transportation to lands beyond the seas’. The vessels were intended to make the long voyage from London to Cape Hope and then onwards to Sydney cove. There the women brought on board in shackles would in a stunning show of hypocrisy be prostituted to the British officers waiting as ‘wives’. This was an urgent solution intended to both solve the issue of providing breeding stock to the colonists, as well as defeat the temptation of resorting to sodomy.

What Rees reveals, however, is a story that contains a great deal of hope as well as despair. For one there is the tale of John Niccol ship steward and cooper on the good ship Lady Julian. As soon as he laid eyes on the young Sarah Whitelam he fell in love. They would even have a child together, although his duties would take him away from her eventually. Returning to his young bride would become an obsession that would come to define the rest of his life. Also despite the hardships face by the colonists at Sydney Cove and neighbouring islands, some of the women managed to serve their sentences and even return to England as free women.

At times the wide series of ship names and prisoners overwhelms the fascinating narrative. Eventually Rees settles for focusing on the fraught romance between Niccol and Whitelam. She also employs a wry sense of humour to lighten the grim fare of forced exportation to Australia, press gangs and institutionalised rape. Ultimately though the story told is a hopeful one.

I closed the book fascinated to learn more about the era and the history of this nation. So chalk it up to a win.

I had seen men die violently before; indeed I had killed a few myself in the Matabele War; but this cold-blooded indoor business was different.

Buchan’s classic novel has been adapted to film at least three times (with another due in 2011), a television series and even a stage play. Last time I was in London I was strongly tempted to check it out, but I am glad I got a chance to read the novel first, as the Broadway production takes a more comic approach to the material. Alfred Hitchcock’s film in 1935 probably was inspirational for one of his later ‘American films’, North By North West, which has a similar plot of an unremarkable man becoming swept up into an international conspiracy. Furthermore the timing of Hitchcock’s film is relevant, with the original novel also being published for the purposes of propaganda in 1915.

Richard Hannay is our hero, a middle-aged bachelor who was born in Scotland and made his fortune in Rhodesia. Having settled in London he discovers that he has become bored with his life of easy leisure. He longs for a return to the dangers of working in a mine, or the wild beauty of the veldt. His prayers are answered when a strange fellow named Scudder, an American who claims his life is in danger. Hannay patiently lets the man tell his story, a thrilling yarn of international espionage, Zionist plots and an already lit powder-keg set to drive the chancelleries of Europe to war. Despite the extravagant claims of the stranger, Hannay finds himself believing this rum tale and agrees to hide him from his shadowy pursuers.

Scudder proves to be a master of disguise and conspires with his host to hide his identity. Hannay observes him writing copious notes in a little black book, presumably a record of his investigation. Excited at the sudden injection of adventure into his life, the retired Rhodesian mining engineer enjoys aiding his companion in his efforts to prevent Europe falling into war. Then one day he returns to find Scudder dead in his home. Shocked, Hannay has no choice but to flee the scene of the crime. His tale is so outlandish no police man would believe it. He takes Scudder’s black book and takes the first train to Scotland, where he hopes his childhood memories of the landscape will help him evade pursuit. Everywhere he goes he sees strange figures watching him, just as the dead man had described. Finding himself hunted through the moors and mountain ridges of the Scottish highlands, Hannay has to think quick on his feet, disguising his appearance as Scudder had. His only hope is to decipher the cryptic code he finds in the American’s black book that may prove his innocence and identify the threat amassing against England.

Buchan’s redoubtable hero became a recurring character in his fiction, the archetypal ‘stiff-upper lip’ chap with a ready fist and a gentlemanly manner. The novel itself is a product of its time and not just due to the anti-semitic remarks attributed to Scudder (although a character later remarks that this was an ‘odd bias’, of his). Published in 1915 it is similar to the Riddle of the Sands, a jingoistic work released in 1903 that strongly encouraged the idea of an impending European conflict. The difference with The Thirty-Nine Steps is that it came out after hostilities had already commenced, all the better to reinforce the case for war. The men and women Hannay encounters during his hazardous flight across Scotland are mostly good, hearty ordinary folk. He becomes more convinced of the importance of succeeding where Scudder failed, so that the people of Britain should be protected from a disastrous war. Scotland itself is infested with spies from abroad, able to disguise themselves in a blink of an eye. Hannay, and by extension readers of the time, must be vigilant to ensure they do not manage to sabotage the defenses of the country.

Also particular to the setting of the novel is that peculiar condescension towards the Scots. I was reminded of my favourite scene from Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace whenever Buchan essays a Scottish brogue. I find the smug superiority strange, as the author himself was raised in Scotland and the landscape is described beautifully, as only one who lived there could achieve.

Despite some of the dated attitudes present in the book, it remains an entertaining read. A bladdy good yarn!

Now we, having had the advantage of that bird’s-eye view to which allusion was made earlier, know all about this gendarme. We are aware that he was not a remorseless bloodhound on the trail, but merely a likeable young man of the name of Octave who was waiting for pie. We, therefore, are able to behold him calmly. Our eyes, like stars, do not start from their spheres, nor do our knotty and combined locks part and each particular hair stand on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine.

Mr Gedge’s did. He was a mere jelly of palpitating ganglions.

Before reading the biographical note on this book’s dust-jacket, I had no idea Wodehouse spent the majority of his life in the United States. His writing seems so quintessentially English, that the idea of him typing away somewhere in Long Island just seems odd. This book adjusts the balance in my mind, as most of the characters are American, chasing up opportunities for advancement, or even a criminal scheme or two, in Old World Europe.

The book opens with the henpecked Mr Gedge, who lost his riches in the Crash of 1929 and is dependent on his upwardly mobile wife for funds. She intends for him to be made Ambassador to France, a fate he is desperate to avoid. Particularly having to wear a silly hat on ceremonial occasions. He is dreading the hat. His wife has invited a Senator Opal and his daughter to visit them in their leased chateau in Saint Roque, Brittany. She seems very confident that the Senator will agree to sponsor her husband for the role, despite the two men loathing one another. While the Senator and Jane Opal are staying in London en route to France, they encounter Packy Franklyn, a Yaleman and the fortunate beneficiary of a generous inheritance. He has promised his principled fiancé the Lady Beatrice that he will remain in London and avoid all possible shenanigans, capers, fooling around and other activities common to the flibbertigibbet. He of course falls at the first hurdle, deciding to follow the Opals to Saint Roque. Jane intends to marry an intense young novelist named Blair Eggleston, who unfortunately is penniless. To aid the course of true love, Packy sets about trying to help the young couple convince the quick to anger American Senator. His powers of invention soon land everyone staying at the chateau in a confusion of plots, blackmail, theft and confidence tricks that quickly go awry.

This is a delightful book with many surprises. I am trying to be careful to not give too much away, as there are more twists in this Gallic farce than your average There’s a hilarious scene with two characters impersonating French men trying to communicate under the watchful eye of a third party in pidgin French. As with many Wodehouse novels, this is a story about class and class consciousness. Mrs Gedge wants to advance up the rungs of the social ladder. Packy intends to marry a British aristocrat. Jane’s father values nothing more in life than wealth, which is why Blair makes for such an unlikely match. The servants at the chateau are also more than extras in the background, each with their own intrigues and secrets. Packy finds himself musing as to why he is going out of his way to help Blair and Jane. Is it due to the essential nobility that belongs to a gentleman? Or is he simply bored with his life and up for some fun.

Fun is what this book is, a brightly packaged little bundle of joy.

To the left of this blog’s main page, there’s a display of the most commonly used terms in the last thirty two reviews. With every reoccurrence of a search term, the display of that particular word or phrase begins to grow, to indicate how often I have mentioned it. Alan Moore’s name has been growing I noticed, so I thought I should actually write about something he has done.

A Small Killing was welcomed as a departure for the comic writer sometimes referred to as the Northampton Magus. No superheroes, no deconstruction of American comic book tropes, just a simple story about a man who works in advertising looking back on his life. Oh and giant insects.

Timothy Hole has landed the contract of a lifetime, marketing a major cola in Russia. A successful advertising creative based in New York, he decides to go on a holiday to his hometown of Sheffield, so he can recapture his spark and come up with some ideas for the campaign. While he’s managed to achieve a lot in his professional career, his marriage to his college sweetheart failed, due to an affair he had with an artist named Sylvia. Timothy obsesses about whether or not he was at fault, more troubled by his later being dumped by Sylvia than his betrayal of his wife Maggie. Going over and over the events of years ago in his mind, he finds himself unable to focus on his job. Then a mysterious boy appears and Timothy is compelled to follow him. At first he catches glimpses of the figure in the distance, but soon he begins to suspect that the boy is trying to lead him into danger, even kill him. When Timothy flies to London he discovers the boy is somehow already there, a phantom presence taunting him.

Timothy’s troubled thoughts are relayed to us by Moore’s precise prose, while Zarate conjures up nightmarish crowded scenes – a party filled with advertising colleagues, a long queue at customs, a packed plane journey, a London pub exploding into violence – to contrast with the main character’s inability to think about anyone else. The people in his life are excuses for his own failings, somehow always at fault regardless of what he has done. The title refers to the little sins in our past that we cover up, never revealing to anyone no matter how close we are, in the hope that the guilt will somehow disappear.

This being Moore there’s a healthy amount of intertextuality as well. Timothy finds himself relating to Nabokov’s Lolita, although he can’t decide if he’s the predatory Humbert Humbert, or the eponymous innocent girl. Nabokov’s book was written as a twisted love letter of sorts to America, summing up the Russian émigré’s feelings about the country he had come to call home. Timothy, conversely is going to Russia to sell images of capitalist excess to the Russians, marketing Americana to them and disregarding the socialist imagery he was so fond of as an over earnest teenager –

“Blue jeans. That’s it, isn’t it? Blue jeans is it. Whatever the West means to them, that’s what we associate Flite with…They want to be American. It’s obvious. No point second-guessing their needs. We just sell them ours. Our culture. Our appetites, our..”

A Small Killing itself was Moore’s break from the over commercialised American comic’s scene, so choosing an ad-man as his protagonist is certainly interesting in that respect. Babylon by Victor Pelevin is an interesting contrast, being a Russian novel about the divide between advertising and art.

Zarate’s artwork is beautiful, matching the reflective tone of the writing by resembling the drawing of an adult who never stopped using crayons. The imagery is childlike, yet disturbing also. The abovementioned crowd scenes are filled with freakish grotesques and animalistic facial expressions. Timothy himself is a needle-thin adult version of Harry Potter (although this predates Rowling’s books by some time), surrounded by overweight bodies and skinhead boozers. The boy he keeps seeing is depicted with a wicked, mocking smile, that perfectly captures the puckish spirit of the character.

Alan Moore is one of the most important creators of the last thirty years. If you want to avoid the cape and tights brigade in sampling his work, you should check A Small Killing out. A confident, heartfelt reflection on past mistakes and the broken promises we make to ourselves when we are young.

He even devised for himself a pseudonym for his alchemical work – ‘Ieova sanctus unus’, as a near anagram of ‘Isaacus Nevtonus’. The assumption of a name meaning ‘the one holy Jehovah’, may seem somewhat blasphemous, but it is perhaps indicative of the young Newton’s self-belief. Had he not been born, like the Saviour, on Christmas Day?

Peter Ackroyd’s historical fiction and biographies of notable figures are always a pleasure to read. He is incisive, witty and brings a vast array of references to the work at hand. He has published collections of his criticism that I would strongly recommend to fans of Clive James, or Anthony Lane. In the past I have enjoyed his novels such as The Lambs of London, The House of Doctor Dee and Hawksmoor, notable for inspiring Alan Moore’s Jack the Ripper tome From Hell.

In short he writes dense, yet very readable accounts of English history. I was surprised that his book on Newton was a straight biography, part of his Brief Lives series. I was expecting a fictional account, more along the lines of John Banville’s Kepler. It remains an authoritative text, despite its slim size.

Isaac Newton’s birth on Christmas Day was seen as something of a good omen, despite his sickly and weak appearance. His family’s circumstances were quite poor, his father already deceased and in truth he was not expected to live. Out of these troubled beginnings grew up a solitary, distracted young boy, already given to explosions of temper that would later be demonstrated by his inability to take criticism as an adult, as well as his controlling nature. Accounts of his early life often express surprise at his poor academic record in school, yet Ackroyd attributes this to a precocious intellectual fascination with more extra-curricular studies, such as experimenting with kites and self-made devices.

His head master and other notables recognized the adolescent’s more cerebral gifts and convinced his mother to allow him to continue with his studies as opposed to a life on the farm. He eventually achieved a place at Cambridge University, where he would spend most of his life. His early fascination with optics led him to study the philosophy of Rene Descartes, even going so far as to insert a ‘bodkin’, between his own eye in order to prove through experiment his own conclusions. Even at this early stage Newton was a fierce critic of overly hypothetical discourses, arguing that experimentation and logic were the only true arbiters of reason. Such passionate self-belief would lead to confrontations with peers such as Robert Hooke and Irish philosopher Robert Boyle. Newton’s contentions with these luminaries emerge only through private correspondence for the most part, as the student was still a sheltered and private man. He was also given over to controversial religious beliefs, such as a refusal to accept the Holy Trinity, preferring early Christian notion of Jesus being the son of man, not the Son of God. In addition, his fascination with alchemy would remain hidden well after his death, as it was seen to besmirch his later rationalist successes.

However, the support of Edmond Haley and his help in Newton’s eventual publication of The Principia Mathematica, a purely logical account of the forces of nature (written in Latin to warn off too-eager critics) catapulted the author onto the world stage. He would be feted by kings and tsars, contend with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and be cited by Voltaire in jest, earn the acrimony of William Blake and the Romantic poets for, in their eyes, stripping the natural world of its wonder. He was even chosen to be the Member of Parliament for Cambridge, on the side of the Whig party and a staunch defender of Protestanism. His quote regarding ‘standing on the shoulder of giants’, is printed on the British two pound coin, as he rose to the rank of controller of the Mint itself. He was a remarkable man, a polymath and undisputed genius.

Ackroyd shines a light on the superficially conflicting aspects of Newton. He was a rationalist with a mechanistic vision of the world who was nevertheless devoted to study of the Scriptures and the alchemical pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone. A philosopher who has done more to define the nature of science and the necessary objectivity of the scientist. A thinker who was determined to apply himself to the practical considerations of running the Mint.

This is an informed and revealing account of one of the most important minds in scientific history, who did more to define our understanding of the world in his time, than anyone since Aristotle. A brilliant man and a fascinating study.

I had no idea, however, that it was a turning point in my career. You realize these things only later and I am a bit impatient with memoirists who claim to have foreseen their destiny. I have never been able to foresee very far beyond tomorrow. Even when I lay a long plan, it is never in the expectation that I will live to see it fulfilled.

Clive James’ talk shows and documentaries were as important a part of my childhood as TRON and the Queen soundtrack to Flash Gordon. My dad was a big fan and he had the remote. In earlier years, he simply commanded authority over the television channels by virtue of being the man of the house. Technology simplifies things.

North Face of Soho takes off from where James’ previous volume ended, with marriage behind him and the slow progress from Cambridge Footlights to a writing career begun. Wisely the focus of the biography is the early stages of a professional career, with little time for kiss and tell revelations. The confessional tone is left intact though, with indiscretions both alcoholic and narcotic the cause of much of his suffering. James’ rueful style of self-reflection is devoid of false modesty and he makes it clear that any success he’s enjoyed has been due to extraordinary luck in the people he has met on the way up.

There’s also name dropping aplenty, with various journalistic mentors providing opportunities to hobnob with celebrities and stars of the London literary scene. James’ brief tenure with the underground magazine Oz is briefly touched on, which I only just recently heard about for the first time in an essay by Alan Moore featured in Dodgem Logic. There’s his failed attempt at a biography of Louis MacNeice; the conclusion of his acting career and an astonishingly wrong-headed approach to negotiations with Equity; his first forays into criticism, moving from the anonymity of TLS, to radio and finally television, his true home; and lunching with the young literary turks of 1970’s London, Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens.

Peppered throughout are James’ own thoughts on criticism, writing and celebrity. He discusses his media profile as a member of the Australian wave that washed up in London, mentioning Barry Humphries and Germaine Greer. He even makes mention of how as his reputation as a critic grew, his name became shorthand for any particularly apt, or cutting description of a celebrity. In that regard his infamous quip on Arnold Schwarznegger a brown condom filled with walnuts’, manages to conjure up the perfect image, while also managing to be unusually prescient as to the sexual misadventures of the Governator.

I was surprised with how difficult I found reading this book. I’ve read James’ television criticism in the past and found it still very amusing. He had me fascinated to find out who killed JR! Part of the problem for me, one that James’ own mentors describe during his apprenticeship, is that he tries to fit too much into every sentence. It’s especially ironic that he reveres George Orwell so much, as he was a key exponent of the value of short, descriptive sentences. What’s more reading the book does feel like a deluge of cameos and asides on the styles of the time. There are wonderful thumbnail descriptions of Martin Amis, Ian McKellen and The Sex Pistols, but they are lost, adrift in the sea of James’ endless reminiscences. How can someone be so wonderfully knowledgeable and verbose, while at the same time boring? Reading the book felt like being stuck in that lift with Stephen Fry.

However, for me there was one personal high point, when James talks about Tony Wilson, acknowledging his fellow intellectual manqué who chose regional television programming over academic success. This book was published only a year before Wilson himself died and here he is credited with his endless efforts to bring culture to Manchester, singing its praises from the roof-tops.  

Tony Wilson was brilliant. Unfortunately there was no other word for him.

In two pithy phrases Clive James sums up the appeal of Tony Wilson, while also alluding to the root cause of his failure. And that manages to sum up the author himself – brilliant, but in short bursts.

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