Some Books: A P Herbert’s ‘Made for Man’


APH

This irregular series began as a conscious decision to re-read certain books I had enjoyed many years ago when borrowed from Didsbury Library in South Manchester, and to consider how well, or otherwise, they stood up to my recollection of them. Since then, it’s expanded beyond the confines of the Library.
Unlike recent books in this category, Made for Man was indeed something I experienced from Didsbury Library. I borrowed it then, and wanted to re-read it now, because it’s a sequel of sorts to Number Nine, though only in the sense that it features the same characters as the earlier book. Or at least Admiral of the Fleet the Earl of Carraway and Stoke and his shy spinster daughter Lady Primrose.
If anything, the book is more of a sequel to Herbert’s 1934 novel, Holy Deadlock, in that it too is an attack on the ghastly and inhumane Divorce Laws of the Thirties, which remained practically unamended by the late Fifties, and for another decade yet.
The topic is clearly a controversial one, and I don’t think I’m displaying an unjustified prejudice in suggesting that it won’t be too long before the influence of the religious Right on Governments on both sides of the Atlantic, will see a focus on making Divorce much harder to achieve, and no doubt looking to drag it back to next-to-impossible.
APH was a lifelong campaigner for the easing of the Divorce Laws, to make them less cruel and less revolting to human nature. In Holy Deadlock his target was that insidious provision that, since the only ground for Divorce was adultery, there had to be an innocent party: if both spouses had transgressed, instead of this being doubly grounds for ending a marriage bringing no content to either party, it was instead grounds for relieving neither: the marriage must endure.
What’s more, the innocent party who procured their divorce had to remain innocent for six months after after the Decree Nisi (which means ‘unless’) and there was a Government Official, the King’s Proctor, whose sole purpose was to try to find evidence that the Petitioner had succumbed to his or her love for the person they intended to marry the day their Decree was to be made Absolute: if so, then the whole Divorce, no matter how merited, was rescinded. Like I say, inhumane.
Made for Man concerns itself with another cruel provision of the Church of England in relation to marriage. It’s a vastly different book from Number Nine, being wholly serious, lacking entirely of farce, and being as much a polemic as it is a novel, in fact more. Despite that, and despite some sagging in its final fifty pages, it is a much better book than I remember it being, and indeed much better than APH’s first appearance of the Admiral.
The story concerns the Admiral’s family, but as a secondary or shadow setting. Lady Primrose, that shy, malleable, virginal maid of the first book, has fallen in love and wishes to get married. Her intended, Cyril Sale, is a writer of a completely different background to the Anchors, but he loves her just as firmly. Indeed, Lady Primrose is, if anything, the more passionate of the two, unwilling to delay their sexual union any longer than need be.
The problem is that she is a deeply Christian woman, involved in and with her local Church all her life, and only marriage within the Church counts as marriage. Herein the problem that the book was written to illustrate. Cyril was married before. His wife abandoned him, ran off to America with another man. He is undoubtedly the innocent party. But whilst the Laws of the land paint him as innocent and support unequivocally his right to marry again, and whilst Lady Primrose’s Vicar, Mr Richards, is perfectly willing, he is not permitted to do so by the Church of England. Which has set its face against divorce and will refuse to marry any person who has a spouse still living.
This book was written in 1958, and is set in 1960. Incredibly, until 2002, the Church maintained its refusal to marry a divorcee. APH’s book is about challenging that stricture, and about making the point that marriage is made for Man (generically), not Man for marriage, just as in Holy Deadlock. When I first read it, the same heartless rules applied. I am enraged to learn now that it took so long. And to think that when I married in 2000, we chose marriage by Registrar’s Licence, but that if we had wanted to be married in Church, we would have been barred from doing so because my wife was divorced.
That’s a digression: returning to the story, as I’ve said, Lady Primrose and Cecil is a shadow story, whose only serious intrusion upon the book comes when the determined Lady Primrose gives her father an ultimatum, that if she cannot have her Church wedding within seven days, she will go off and live with Cyril. The words ‘in sin’ are not used but they don’t need to be. The depth of her determination though, in her person, in that time, in her family, is extraordinary.
No, there is another story, the same story, a pair of true and innocent lovers who are similarly debarred from marriage, even though she is the Duchess of Clowes and the god-daughter of the Archbishop of Canterbury and he is a popular and talented and blameless Naval Flag Lieutenant (shades of Princess Margaret and Group-Captain Peter Townsend, a real-life version of this tragedy that, if not forbidden, might well have meant a not just happier but far better life for the Queen’s younger sister: look it up).
We see this potentially blighted relationship from a remove, and that remove is Dame Marion Horne, star of light musical comedy, a popular entertainer, and Lieutenant Daniel Drew’s first wife, who was divorced by him after she cheated on him.
Marion’s the impediment. The moment she realises that, she induces the Archbishop to attend on her so that she can make crystal clear that Dan is wholly innocent, but he is implacable. It can’t be done. It mustn’t be done. It won’t be done. The Church operates on God’s Laws and they are ’till death us do part’. Of course, he also throws in the mealy-mouthed bit about the Church can never really know who’s innocent or not, and if that doesn’t set you against the bastards…
We don’t know how old Marion is. Dan’s just under thirty but the impression is that she’s older than him, quite a bit older. She’s got a nasty little persistent cough that might be cancer (but isn’t) and she’s just come off a disastrous First Night in which everything has gone wrong, the critics have been savage and, worst of all, she cannot escape the word from the Gods of ‘You should have played the Mum, ducky’. It’s the death knell to her career as a leading lady. These things are set up there for us to see them, and to attribute to them at least part of the reason for her decision that will form the story of this book. She is the impediment to Dan, who she has wronged. She is keeping him from the love he deserves, and which he should be able to share with his lady. He cannot marry whilst she is still alive. Very well, she will cease to be alive. She will commit suicide.
That impulse is the heart of the novel. Its second string is how to avoid the ‘necessity’ for this to happen to enable two people to be happy together. This is the polemic aspect. To conduct it, APH introduces, well, basically, himself.
Named Sir Ewen Harker for the novel (APH was actually Sir Alan Patrick Herbert), he’s summoned into the story by the Admiral, who needs a co-conspirator for the task of enabling his daughter to marry as she wishes and deserves. Sir Ewen is a writer, a waterman, once an Independent MP, and a highly intelligent man who will espouse causes that expose the illogic of the world, with a particular interest in reforming the divorce laws to make them, and I say it again, more humane. In every aspect of Sir Ewen’s career as explained to us, he is APH, very effectively.
Because it’s Sir Ewen that has to expound to us, at great length, what the law is as it stands in 1960, and how it came to be, from the first institution of Civil Divorce Courts in 1857 to the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1937 – the one sponsored by APH – and how the Church responded to its proposals and, eventually, cheated Parliament, as Sir Ewen puts it.
I doubt this would go down well with any modern reader. It is, of course, greatly outdated, it’s conducted at a length that would try most contemporary readers’ patience and it is dry, as befits the seriousness of the subject. I would normally have expected to get bored with it myself, and indeed, towards the end of the book, when a Bill to reform the Laws is debated from all sides in the House of Lords, it does get tedious, yet APH manages to present this material in a readable manner, without tarting it up with funny distractions. That’s good writing for you.
That is the approach Sir Ewen and the Admiral want to take: a short Bill, introduced by the Admiral into the House of Lords, to clarify the Law as it was not clarified in 1937, and to remove the impediment upon divorcees being barred from remarriage in Church. And, as a back-up, they introduce a second, much shorter Bill, taking the Church’s logic to its natural end, by barring everyone from being able to re-marry under any circumstances. It’s not even that much of a reductio ad absurdism though it’s clearly meant to be.
It is of course the sensible approach. It’s drawbacks however are two: that it may well not work, and that if it does it will take ages. Too long for Lady Primrose and her now burgeoning desire for Cyril. Too long for Dan and Di, the Lieutenant and the Duchess. And thus far too long for Dame Marion Horne.
She’s failed to persuade the Archbishop, who presents the Church’s case in these pages with great energy and conviction, and she fails to convince him of how serious she is about doing away with herself to clear Dan’s path. The pair like each other as people: Dr Brayne almost falls in love with her. They are kind and courteous to one another, which is more that you can say for the Admiral and Sir Ewen’s dealings with him.
This pair are also made privy to Dame Marion’s intentions – the Admiral is an old friend. They persuade her against suicide, and instead concoct a plan where she will merely appear to have committed suicide, by jumping into the Thames off Lambeth Bridge and being picked up by the waiting Sir Ewen. Dame Marion will ‘die’, but in truth she will become her twin sister, who has lived in America for a couple of decades and whose fortuitous death has been announced, by telegram, early in the book.
It’s a complicated con, worked out in precise detail, but at the last the Dame withdraws from it. She’s set herself up as her own sister, Mildred, established the latter as a presence and a personality, but decides she can’t go through with it.
But that’s a lie, and it leads to the book’s best sequence. Sir Ewen is disturbed by Dame Marion’s apparent withdrawal, after he’s seen her determination. Suspecting, he takes his craft to Lambeth Bridge at the appointed time. Because Marion has decided to really go through with it. They have plotted for her the perfect death by suicide, and so she will use that plan to kill herself. For real. The anxious sequence that leads to her being unwillingly saved, by both Sir Alan and his wife, Lady Frances, whose previous objection to the whole thing does not affect her commitment to saving the day, is utterly compelling.
So we enter the endgame. A telegram arrives from America, regretting to inform Cyril of the death of his former wife enables Mr Richards to go ahead with Lady Primrose’s wedding (a telegram from his former wife wishing him every happiness arrives at the reception and is promptly destroyed by the Admiral, oh yes, we were properly suspicious). The Bill passes. The Commander and the Duchess are married in Westminster Abbey, the Archbishop performing the ceremony. Mildred Horne settles into a quiet life. Of course she can’t sing, not like her late sister, but she can play small parts in serious plays, leading to a career as a serious actress.
The one thing she can’t do, now and forever, is be Dame Marion. For the rest of her life she has to be an actress, twenty-four hours a day. No-one, not even her closest friends, recognise her. That’s not quite true. Hugh Creek, her Solicitor and her lover, who cannot be put in a position where he ‘knows’, recognises her. And so does one other person, from her voice when she privately sings a line from one of her recordings, and this is Doctor Brayne.
After he has been, in so many ways, the villain of the book, the evil that thinks it is merely being right, APH is generous with the Archbishop. Dr Brayne’s first thought on his discovery is, “Thank God she’s alive.” Moreover, despite her having perpetuated a wicked deception upon him, causing him much loss of face and personal scorn, he decides to keep her secret. And APH dips into the future, confirming that by his death, ten years hence, he was a pillar of the Church and its great reformation under his leadership, making it a kinder gentler, more humane church, in fact, more Christian.
So, this was Made for Man, the ‘sequel’ to Number Nine. Anthony, Viscount Anchor is present but not the hero in any way. His wife, Peach, plays a larger role: they already have two children. The Admiral’s made the Estate over to them and is determined to hang on for the statutory five years to defeat the Tax collectors’ ability to claw a lot of in back in Death Duties (only five? In my professional career it was seven). Only the Admiral is a real point of continuity, bluff and naval and reactionary as Hell, but you’d still automatically line up behind him, the mad old buffer. You may not agree with where his head is, and the book allows him many lectures to the young Moderns Peach gathers, including Cyril, but his heart is always with people, and that’s where it always should be.
A forgotten book, but still a worthwhile one.

Some Books: Guy Gavriel Kay’s ‘Ysabel’


Ysabel

This irregular series began as a conscious decision to re-read certain books I had enjoyed many years ago when borrowed from Didsbury Library in South Manchester, and to consider how well, or otherwise, they stood up to my recollection of them. Since then, it’s expanded beyond the confines of the Library.
As I’ve already mentioned, with regard to The Fionavar Tapestry, Guy Gavriel Kay went on to enjoy a successful career as a fantasy novelist, but this time by creating a fantasy landscape without connections to our Earth, nor crossovers by humans from it, the fantasy realms being entirely self-contained. Each world was characterised by an atmosphere derived from a specific European country, in turn Italy, France, Spain and, for a two-part series, Rome.
In their turn, I bought, read and enjoyed each book, but somehow foundered on the one set to the atmosphere of Britain in the age of Viking invasion. I just couldn’t get into that one, and the indifference spread backwards and I ended up disposing of all my books, save the original trilogy, as I’ve already recounted. I have read no other of Kay’s books since, except for one.
Ysabel is something different entirely, distinct from all Kay’s other books. For one thing, it is set on Earth, our Earth, in Italy and in contemporary times (the book came out in 2007), with mobile phones, computers and the internet. For another, it’s ‘hero’ is a fifteen year old boy, Ned Marriner (a Canadian. Of course), the son of world famous photographer Edward Marriner, in Provence preparing a book. It’s a fantasy, still, but the fantastic elements come from outside, from the past, intruding into the modern, rationalist world. And the mythological recurrence that powers the story is a variant upon the myth that underpins Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, that describes itself as specific to this place.
And if that wasn’t enough to interest me, Kay brings back his two survivors of The Fionavar Tapestry, Kimberley Ford and Dave Martyiniuk.
Kay modifies his writing style a little, to encompass his use of an adolescent character and the real world, though not enough in the opening chapter, which is full of portents and highly-signified moments when Ned could have walked away and not gotten involved, but after that things settle down considerably.
Ned’s in Provence with his Dad and his team when he should be still in school in Toronto because his mother Meghan is a member of Medecin Sans Frontieres and is on a tour in Darfur, a state about which neither Ned nor Edward is happy, and Ned deeply disturbed. Whilst his Dad is working outside a famous Cathedral, Ned explores inside, wearing his iPod (I will not comment on his choice of music even when it’s supposed to be the equivalent of a 15 year old’s joke). He finds a locked and chained baptistry.
Ned then meets Kate Wenger, an American girl, also aged 15, whose on a French exchange course in Provence. Kate is no beauty, in fact she’s a nerd and a factoholic but she’s not unattractive (we’re told later on that she has dancer’s legs which, when displayed under only a t-shirt, seriously impress Ned) and propinquity rather than anything else sees them start a casual friendship.
But Kate found the baptistry open and unlocked, and when they return there together they find a bald, scarred man of indeterminate age climbing out of a cellar. He tells them to leave, that he is not a good man, and that he has killed children before. This is the intrigue: who is he and what is he there for? And how come Ned suddenly develops the ability to sense things in no rational manner?
For a long book, just over 500 pages, albeit one-and-a-half spaced and in a larger font, the story itself is relatively simple. Kay bulks the book out with questions and speculations, letting solid information out in dribs and drabs, and taking the long way round. That doesn’t mean that the book is padded, though it’s clear that its length could be reduced quite considerably without seriously affecting either story or atmosphere.
I should mention at this stage the rest of the main cast, namely Edward Marriner’s three assistants. These are Steve, Greg and Melanie and without slighting either of the men, Melanie is the most important person. Melanie is aged 25, barely five feet tall, has black hair with a died green streak that Kay seems to think signals punk, and she’s Edward’s PA. She is also the most organised person under the sun, having researched everything down to the smallest detail about the smallest need any of the four men might have. She’s too efficient to be true, and sometimes she annoys the hell out of Ned, but underneath he does seem to like her. One other thing about Melanie is that she does not appear to have any sexual aspect to her.
Even Kate the nerd has some sexual aspect, though as a fifteen-year old girl it’s not coming out just yet. She and Ned are drawn together by their shared experience over the bald man but there’s no making out, just witty dialogue, some of which is a bit too clever for two fifteen year olds, neither of whom seem too eager to start anything.
I’m establishing the situation carefully here, without going into too much detail but before I get on to the actual story, I have one more element to introduce. Out of the blue, Ned gets a hush-hush phonecall from his Aunt, who he has never spoken to before, nor met, nor indeed actually knew she existed. She’s nearby and wants to meet him, secretly.
This is his mother’s older sister, Kim Ford, who had that adventure and returned, unable to accept her old life and future in Canada and who left everything to become a GP in England, hurting and infuriating her far more practical and sceptical younger sister, to the point where there has been no contact ever since. Aunt Kim, who had certain skills that she retains, and can recognise and sense these coming out in her vulnerable young nephew.
She counsels him against going through with his and Kim’s planned trip to Entremont the next evening. The eve of Beltaine, April 30th. Ned takes her seriously but is, well, seduced into it by Kim, who’s suddenly acting more adult and more attracting. This is a mistake, but not her fault.
Because the intruding myth is an old one, 2,600 years old to be exact. There was a woman, a Celtic Chieftain’s daughter, who had a suitor from the tribe who loved her like his life. And a stranger came, leading Greeks looking to trade. And she loved him too, who loves her like his life. Throughout the centuries that followed, like Lleu Llaw Gyffes, Blodeuwedd and Gronw Pebyr, the power they unleashed has to return and be resolved.
The two men return out of history, as they were, as they are, unchanged, nameless until the woman names them for this time. But she is summoned, and possesses a woman each time. Meaning that each time she is different, according to the nature of the woman who becomes her. She receives a name, she names her suitors. She sets them to fight, to the death. Sometimes she chooses one, sometimes the other, sometimes neither. It is a repeating cycle.
Ned and Kate watch the ceremony from concealment: if they are discovered, they will be killed. Ned’s already phoned for the team’s van to arrive and get them out of there. But Kate has been selected, 15 years old or no 15 years old. It’s in her, already, it’s why she ‘s been behaving so provocatively. She’s already standing, intent on moving forward.
But instead Melanie arrives, looking for Ned. And instead she is taken, transforming into the woman, taller, red-haired, astoundingly beautiful. Her name in this rescension is Ysabel: she names her Celtic love Cadell and her Greek, Phelan. They are not to fight. Instead, they are to search, to find her. They have three days.
And so do Ned, and his Dad, Kate, his Aunt, Greg and Steve and the rapidly arriving Meghan, plus Dave Martynuik (who’d been watching Meghan like he always does whenever she’s in a war zone). This raggedy team has three days to try to get Melanie back. Because the moment Cadell or Phelan dies, and the loser is to be sacrificed, they’re gone into history until the next time. And there’ll be no Melanie after that.
This is the subject of part 2. This is no less long in pages but very much simpler. Ysabel has stipulated that she be searched for. This is the influence of Melanie, changing the pattern, but also allowing for the possibility of a loophole. Were it the standard fight, one or other of Cadell and Phelan would emerge the winner. A search allows for someone else to find her first. And finding Ysabel first is the key to recovering Melanie, if that is even possible: both Cadell and Phelan are millennia-convinced that it isn’t.
So the second half of the book is the hunt. It isn’t single-minded. The team, augmented by Aunt Kim and Uncle Dave plus, more importantly, Meghan Marriner, summoned from Darfur, not to mention Kate effectively moving in with them (but not into Ned’s room, though there is a kiss on the lips) is not without its undercurrents. Meghan is at one and the same time the complete sceptic, unconvinced by what’s claimed to have been going on, and determined to bring order and logic to resolving it, and the betrayed younger sister who was abandoned once and still angry about it. Kate’s inner geekiness sets her up to be the computer research expert that would otherwise be Melanie’s role. There’s an extraneous danger from a druid who wants to use this situation to reverse 2,000 years of history but that’s essentially the cue for Dave’s timely entrance. And there are little cryptic hints back to things from The Fionavar Tapestry that even I couldn’t always connect up so what it must be like for someone coming clean to this book, I don’t know. Perhaps Tolkien’s own identification of the hints in The Lord of the Rings, as to matters forming The Silmarrillion, forming a glimpse of things long past.
I’m making the second half sound as if it’s somewhat padded out, and that can be a fair criticism if you aren’t enjoying the ride, which I was.
Anyway, the only advantage Team Marriner has is that they know Melanie where Cadell and Phelan only know Ysabel. And Ned uncomfortably finds himself to be the focus of everyone’s hopes and expectations. Even his parents defer to him, immediately. He has the power, same as Aunt Kim: it’s in the family.
And eventually Ned works it out. Where Ysabel is, where she’s been waiting and just how important it is he gets to her first. But she’s in hiding on a mountain where the echoes of a slaughter two millennia ago make him psychically sick. He has to go: Ned’s a cross-county runner, only he can get there fastest. The problem is, Cadell is watching for him and, despite the subterfuge, picks up the trail and follows. It’s a race against death. Which Ned wins. And in winning, learns why he is a part of this, despite every single thing except his power excluding him.
Because once, one time only, one of Cadell and Phelan left Ysabel pregnant. Ned is the youngest of that line.
I compared this recurring story to that used by Alan Garner in The Owl Service. Kay is well read: I would be surprised if he had not read that book. There’s already evidence in The Fionavar Tapestry that he’d read The Mabinogion. Garner’s triangle is considerably more complex internally that here, where the best comparison is that of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot as depicted by Kay in his trilogy. But Kay makes a point of stating that these three and their intertwined relationships are the party of the story in this place.
And in this place the story can change and, more importantly, it can end. Ned won. He found Ysabel first. He broke the pattern. And so Ysabel can send the two suitors who love her, both of whom she loves, to a final death that ends the cycle forever. And she departs to leave Melanie behind. A Melanie who has somehow grown three to four inches taller and who gives Ned a long kiss. A Melanie who, let’s not forget, is ten years older than Ned, and he still underage. It’s very strongly implied that in two-and-a-half months, on his birthday, he’s going to get a birthday present he’ll never forget.
But what of Kate? Kate has been Ned’s companion in peril, not to mention being of his age. It’s the cliché about the couple thrown together by danger and falling in love. They haven’t done so, they’ve not actually spent all that much time together, certainly not in the second half. And it’s more the narrativium in our heads that tells us they will become a pair, and Ned will get it twice than anything Kay actually said. Though it’s significant that the last scene is of the teenagers together.
Overall, this is a very enjoyable book, mainly because it cuts across the grain of Kay’s usual style. It stays in a real world, with the magical aspect an alien thing that is ultimately dismissed, for all that Kay points out that Ned is permanently changed. It’s simpler and more grounded and very much more enjoyable for that. I didn’t retain the other five books I owned for the reasons I own Ysabel.
Since Ysabel, Kay has written five further books, the most recent only published in May of this year. These are all in his usual style, and the last three share a common setting. If he should write a sequel to this book, I’d go out and buy it, but time is running out (Kay is almost exactly one year older than me) and I don’t get the feeling he feels like experimenting with the formula again. Pity.

Some Books: Kenneth Grahame’s ‘First Whisper of The Wind in the Willows’


Willows

This irregular series began as a conscious decision to re-read certain books I had enjoyed many years ago when borrowed from Didsbury Library in South Manchester, and to consider how well, or otherwise, they stood up to my recollection of them. Since then, it’s expanded beyond the confines of the Library.
Though I’ve clearly read it several times before, it was only on my most recent re-reading of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien that I properly paid attention to a reference, in one short extract, to his wish to obtain a copy of First Whisper of The Wind in the Willows, a book of Kenneth Grahame’s writing published several years posthumously by his widow. Tolkien describes the book as not being notes and drafts but rather new stories featuring the creatures of the Riverbank, taken from letters from the author to his son.
It’s some months since I read that beloved book for the first time in decades, but its effect on me hasn’t dissipated. The Wind in the Willows has had numerous sequels, both authorised and unauthorised, particularly since it finally fell out of copyright. There is the pleasant but lightweight Dixon Scott Fresh Wind… and the heavier but horribly misguided trio by William Horwood starting with The Willows in Winter, which I tried reading from the Library, but threw away in disgust after only one chapter, enough to see by just how far Horwood was off-beam.
But more tales of Toad, and Ratty, and Mole and Badger, from the only mind that could create them in their natural glory? It seemed irresistible and, to my amazement, a book published in 1947, that has vanished into total obscurity and never been republished was not only easily available through eBay, but at less than £5, including postage.
I have it now, and have read it. I won’t say that it is a disappointment, though Professor Tolkien has misled me badly. First Whisper contains nothing really new of the companions of the Riverbank. It is a very slim volume, only 83 pages, of which slightly more than half is taken up by a long preface by Elspeth Grahame, dealing with her husband and his character, his popularity and his talent for prose. It’s hagiography of the highest class, but it’s plain that she misses him very deeply, left as she was on her own, with not only her husband but their only son, for whom his greatest book was first told, in the nursery and by the advertised letters, having predeceased her.
Though it’s of its time in its writing style, more than a bit overwritten, and concealing more of private tragedy than it reveals, it is nevertheless fascinating. The hagiography extends, understandably to the little boy, Alistair, known as ‘Mouse’, born blind in one eye and suffering from poor health throughout his life, for whom bedside stories were concocted, later to be continued by letter when the child was sent on holiday.
Having found out more via Wikipedia, it’s evident these absences were for his health, and whilst there is passing reference to Alistair dying as an undergraduate, there is no mention that this was by suicide, though for his father’s sake officially recorded as Misadventure.
The second section of the book is a short story entitled ‘Bertie’s Escapade’. It’s a pre-Willows anthropomorphic fantasy, spinning out of a real incident in which the Grahames’ domestic pig, Bertie, managed to jump the fence of his pen. It’s very much a bedtime story, short and limited in scope but ideal for the imagination of a little boy.
Only the final section is to do with The Wind in the Willows. Mouse did not want to go on holiday since it meant an interruption to his father’s nightly stories of Toad, whose high-spirits and antics were based on Mouse’s own, so Grahame wrote these as letters, which the nurse returned to Elspeth, knowing she would preserve these where their author wouldn’t.
The story takes up with Toad’s escape from prison and conveys the narrative of his adventures until the end of the book. The familiar story is there in all respects, truncated and brief, without the breadth of expression and event we are familiar with. There is none of the lyrical rhapsody in nature that followed. It’s not unfair to describe it as thin gruel in comparison, but this is the first draft, the First Whisper of that Wind, and to anyone enthralled by that magic it is its own magic.
So no, not the book I thought I was buying, but one worth having anyway, for its insight into the creation of a work of art. A book to retain.

Some Books: R. C. Sherriff’s ‘The Hopkins Manuscript’


Hopkins

This irregular series began as a conscious decision to re-read certain books I had enjoyed many years ago when borrowed from Didsbury Library in South Manchester, and to consider how well, or otherwise, they stood up to my recollection of them. Since then, it’s expanded beyond the confines of the Library.
You quite likely have never heard of this book. If you are at all familiar with the name of R.C. Sheriff it will probably be in connection with his classic play, Journey’s End. It is only by improbability that I know of this book, which was published in 1939. If the novel can be said to belong to a genre then it’s best described as a cross between science fiction, catastrophe and, believe it or not, humour.
Which makes it all the more strange that I should be handed it to read by either my Grandad or my Uncle sometime in the late Sixties or very early Seventies, in a very broken down, battered and repaired hardback edition, as something I might like. Because neither of them, to my knowledge or from a study of the bookcase in my Uncle’s bedroom, were into anything like that at all. My Uncle had dozens of P.G. Wodehouse books, in their original dust jackets, but I didn’t learn to love Wodehouse from him encouraging me to read any of those.
So there’s a mystery behind ‘The Hopkins Manuscript’ to begin with, one without a resolution because those who could unpick it have been gone the best part of forty years. But I read the book, even though I wasn’t usually amenable to other people’s suggestions, and despite its mannered and outdated style, I enjoyed it enough to read it again at least once. What happened to it I don’t remember. Grandad and Uncle Arthur died within a fortnight of each other. We didn’t keep any of the books, though I don’t remember what happened to them – especially the Wodehouses, which I bet were worth something even then – but ‘The Hopkins Manuscript’ was in such poor nick, it wasn’t worth even dumping on some second hand dealer.
Yet, just as some things do, it stuck in my memory, popping up every now and then, until the last time it did, I looked on Amazon, discovered it was available cheaply in the Kindle, and set out to rediscover its merits fifty years on, when my enthusiasm for science fiction has all but waned away.
The book takes the form of a ‘found manuscript’, a true account written in makeshift ink and sealed away in a vacuum flask for a thousand years, discovered and interpreted by Muslim scholars in a world in which the European races, indeed all the white people, were eliminated a millennium ago. It’s prefaced by a foreword, by an eminent scholar, who openly sneers at and disparages Hopkins, his attitudes, assumptions and plainly unwarranted self-importance, to a degree that, even for a reader in 2022, gets up the nose, so imagine its effect on publication in 1939, just before the War started?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t take too much further reading to realise that any resentment is unfounded, and that if anything our future Professor is going easy on the old buffer!
At the start of his Manuscript, Edgar Hopkins is a 47 year old bachelor, a former teacher who has inherited enough money to retire to a well-appointed cottage, with land, located on a hill overlooking the village of Beadle in Hampshire. Self-satisfied, smug and snobbish, Hopkins’ is a self-centred individual whose pride and passion is in breeding poultry, about which he can talk until the… ah, chickens come home, and does so to anyone who can’t run away fast enough. To satisfy his intellectual pretensions, he is a Member of the British Lunar Society, meeting on the second Tuesday of every month, in London. He also believes, unquestionably, in the superiority of the English, and, of course, in the Empire.
So far, and for the entire first Act of the book, which takes about two-thirds of the whole story, Hopkins is this and more, though it’s a measure of Sheriff’s skill that instead of sneering at him in 2022, we see him as not much more than a bore, as opposed to a boor, not that he doesn’t show some tendencies in that direction.
I’ve called this a Science Fiction book but it’s not strictly what we’d usually recognise as such. Rather, it’s a character study in an SF setting, whose closest provenance – if you can have provenance from later books – is the disaster novels of John Wyndham, in the Fifties. The ‘action’ starts when Hopkins is called to an Extraordinary Meeting of The British Lunar Society, to be conducted under conditions of unusual secrecy: no guests, entrance by membership card only, etc.
Hopkins immediately assumes it’s all about him. This is because, when the Membership was split upon building their own Observatory, Hopkins impulsively guaranteed the costs, without limit. Obviously therefore there has been some disaster, his guarantee is to be called upon, his comfort will be wiped out. In fact, it’s nothing of the sort. The Observatory is coming along nicely in fact. Hopkins is so relieved that he completely fails to take in the real purpose of the meeting. Which is that the Moon has somehow been disturbed in its orbit, is now falling nearer to the Earth, at an increasing rate, and will crash into it in approximately six months time. Early next May.
What has caused this forthcoming disaster is never explained, which is why I say this is not really an SF book. What it’s about, in its first and longest Act, is how Hopkins – entrusted with secret knowledge of the forthcoming disaster that floods him with even more self-importance that he can’t demonstrate by letting on to the ordinary and ignorant public – responds to the news and handles it over the forthcoming half year.
Then, once the news becomes public, announced in the New Year when the Moon’s increased size in the night sky can no longer be concealed or joked away, the book turns more to how the general public, and especially those in and around Beadle and its nearest town, Mulcaster, handle the situation.
The Government as portrayed in this book, has reacted with a very high level of intelligence and understanding (I know this was the Thirties but are you really sure this was a British Government?) Preparations, ironically, take the form of well-planned, constructed and stocked dugouts that, only a short time afterwards, would spring into real life as Air Raid Shelters, but as much as anything it is the preparation, involving everyone, and acting against panic, that is the most impressive aspect. Or should the adjective be ‘unrealistic’?
Throughout this, Hopkins is Hopkins. Despite his esoteric knowledge, he’s overshadowed by other local ‘dignitaries’ once the news is announced. In the end he buckles down to be, effectively, a common labourer, congratulating himself on how he’s ignoring social distinctions! It’s not wholly unadmirable.
He’s still the snob he always was, forming an avuncular affection for 20 year old Pat and 17 year old Robin, niece and nephew respectively of the nearest Beadle has to its own aristocracy, Colonel Parker, whose country house faces his across the valley that holds the village. Late on, Hopkins is invited to dine with the Parkers, an old-fashioned occasion that appeals to all his worst instincts, but which he unselfconsciously describes as the last truly happy night of his life, in a manner we cannot begrudge
We who are SF readers dismiss some of the ‘reassuring’ theories that are used to keep the population docile: that the Moon will miss, that it’ll glance off the Earth (some glance). What actually will happen is carefully kept off the prognostications. Hopkins, inspired by the example of the Parkers, decides not to go to the dugout, and experiences the whole, confusing night of it, waking in the morning to a changed world in which, out of all of Beadle, he, Pat and Robin are the only ones left alive.
This is where the book goes into its relatively brief Second Act, first in the confusion of survival, the trio’s banding together into one household, Hopkins’, to establish a way to live in a world that now seems empty, but which, eventually, has actually largely survived. But not unchanged.
Because, we eventually learn, and which is why I repeat that this is not an SF book, the Moon did hit Earth. The calculations were slightly off: instead of hitting Europe, it hit the Atlantic Ocean. Where, being hollow inside, it collapsed like a gigantic pancake, bridging Britain and the east coast of America. Scientific plausibility, less than zero.
What follows is perhaps the book’s best section. The Earth has lived, despite an immeasurable calamity, but it has had all its old certainties destroyed. It needs to rebuild, not just on a physical level. And for several years, the so-called Years of Restoration, this is done, in calm, methodical, collected and above all common manner. A new world is being built, one in which everyone shares, equally. It is a socialist paradise, accepted and welcomed by all, and committed to, in which nothing matters but everybody. And throughout it, Hopkins, and the boy and girl who have adopted him as their Uncle, lives and works hard and has the best days of his life. And is the best he has ever and could ever be.
But it doesn’t last. The death knell is sounded by ‘Major’ Jagger, a scientist who has given himself an unfounded military title, and who is Mulcaster’s MP in the new Parliament. Jagger is a fanatic. What’s worse is, he’s an unreconstructed British nationalist from the old days. Cooperation is weakness. It’s against human nature. Human nature is strife: war, greed, power, superiority over others, which must, must, MUST lie in the hands of the British Empire. No-one else is fitted to rule the world fairly for every other lesser race.
There was a plan, to divide the Moon’s collapsed surface among the relevant nations on either side of the former Atlantic. It was devised by Britain, it was acceptable to the International Council, it was fair. Because the Moon had closed up the Atlantic, it cut off access to well over half the Empire. In return for Britain taking a narrower strip, it is to be granted a Corridor, a ten mile wide strip round that corner of the Moon. True, it cuts off direct access to France and Spain’s strips, but we would guarantee uninterrupted passage.
It might have worked, given the spirit of cooperation of the Years of Reconstruction, but then again it might not have, given humans being human. Jagger certainly pooh-poohs the idea of any workable system that doesn’t consist of the Empire telling everyone else what it can have, and you just know that there will be a Jagger in every country.
And that’s before the Survey report that establishes that the Moon is not mere barren rock, that it is a treasure trove of minerals, oils and metals, including gold, that everyone wants the lion’s share of, and everyone will fight to get. How long until Jagger becomes Prime Minister and accuses his predecessor of cowardice and treason for wanting to be ‘fair’?
The transition is sickening and brutal, and also final. The final Act is brief. It doesn’t need to be anything else. Hopkins still believes in the Empire, of course, and so do Pat and Robin. One will go away to become a nurse, the other a soldier. Hopkins loses his ‘children’, his heart and everything that the second Act had built up so briefly and convincingly as being a life in which he could thrive. He abandons his home, heads for London, moves into the dying city, the old home of his only surviving relatives before the Moon crashed. He spends a year, slowly dying, racing against time to finish his Manuscript, hoping that he will win some kind of fame through it, in that future he will never see. Until the last. In the closing pages he hears of Selim the Magnificent, a latter day Mohammed, leading the faithful to exterminate the colonisers and the exploiters, for once and for all. At last he screws the lid of the vacuum flask shut one last time and conceals it in its brick-lined recess.
There are certainly grounds to accuse that ending of being xenophobic, but I can’t accept that. Sheriff’s description of the Years of Reconstruction is certainly idyllic, but also possible but his description of the destruction is far too recognisable: in its tone and its ignorance, it feels all too much like today. The rise of the Mohammedans is only too logical: logical and inevitable. We are and always have been our own worst enemies.
Anyway, if Sheriff wanted to be xenophobic, he’d have picked the Yellow Peril instead.
So there we have this curious book, that somehow crossed over with my life a very long time ago, and despite being outdated and, in SF terms, completely nonsensical, still has the ability to involve me, yes, and move me, fifty years later. Eighty-plus after being written.
I suspect that not many of you will enjoy this book if you ever decide to sample it, but more than just nostalgia underlines my appreciation of it. It’s time is certainly gone, even though it qualified as a Penguin Modern Classic, and when the likes of me are gone as well, I suspect it will end up as a candidate for the late Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Cemetery of Forgotten Books. But I am pleased to have re-encountered it before the memory crumbles completely.

Some Books: Guy Gavriel Kay’s ‘The Fionavar Tapestry’


This irregular series began as a conscious decision to re-read certain books I had enjoyed many years ago when borrowed from Didsbury Library in South Manchester, and to consider how well, or otherwise, they stood up to my recollection of them. Since then, it’s expanded beyond the confines of the Library.

GGK ST

For the first time in this series, I’m writing about a book, or books, I never borrowed from anywhere, but rather bought – the first on whim – and have owned for well over thirty years. The Fionavar Tapestry is not so much a book in itself but rather a trilogy, like The Lord of the Rings. In contrast to that work, The Fionavar Tapestry has never, to my knowledge, been issued as a single volume, but only as its three component books, ‘The Summer Tree’, ‘The Wandering Fire’ and ‘The Darkest Road’, the first two of which I have signed by the author.
Guy Kay is a Canadian author and a qualified lawyer. I saw ‘The Summer Tree’ on holiday in the Lakes one year in the late Eighties, though not for once, I think, in Cockermouth’s New Bookshop, which I used to think I’d never visit without coming out with three volumes. I was still heavily into Fantasy and SF, that interest generated by The Lord of the Rings a dozen or more years earlier, and the bright and formalised cover of the book caught my eye. I read the back page blurb, scanned enough of the Introduction to confirm that it looked alright, and bought it.
I didn’t connect Kay with a line I’d read in a book I’d owned for a decade by then until the Waterstones author session for the second book, the following year. It’s in, perhaps not surprisingly, The Silmarrillion, at the end of Christopher Tolkien’s introduction, when he thanks Guy Kay for his help in collating the materials in that book. Yes, Kay had been a student at Oxford University, and C.J.R. Tolkien’s chief assistant in drawing together that legendary, unfinished book. Hardly a surprise then that he should go on to become a very successful author of fantasy fiction himself.
The Fionavar Trilogy was Kay’s first publication, and is both typical and untypical of the writing he’s done. The world Kay creates for his epic story is pure fantasy, Tolkienian in manner, with Elves and Dwarves and a Horse riding nation, as well as a High Kingdom and a malevolent God against whom a final battle is to be fought, and it wears no one direct influence on its sleeve other than the late Professor of Philology. His later books are set in Kingdoms that deliberately echo European countries as a direct influence on the narrative – Italy, France, Spain, Rome etc. – but there is no such tinge this time.
And, biggest difference of all, is that this story is set around five human beings, transplanted from Earth into this literally fabulous realm, the first realm. Not just five human beings, three male and two female, but five students from Toronto University: in no particular order Kevin Laine, Jennifer Lowell, Paul Schafer, Kimberley Ford and Dave Martinyiuk. The first four are friends, and the last a loner dragged into things against his will.

GGK WF

In that sense, in addition to trying to echo the works of Tolkien, Kay is also borrowing from his fellow inkling, C.S. Lewis, Narnia, of course. That is, however, the only Lewisian aspect of the story; there are no Christian allegories here.
There is, however, one more mythic element to be woven in, inextricably, and that is Arthur: King Arthur, a Moorcockian Eternal Warrior, Guinevere and Lancelot du Lac: the original triangle.
Having said all that, I don’t intend to go into much more detail about how the trilogy progresses, but rather to consider the story in more general terms. When I discovered ‘The Summer Tree’, I was still very much a reader of fantasy and SF almost exclusively, and I welcomed this discovery as something on a very high level. It was written in a clear, yet elevated mode, and it was a High Fantasy of Tolkienian scope, but at the same time it was refreshingly down to Earth. The five Canadians brought with them all the naturalism of ordinary human beings, and hopes, fears, concerns and desires that had nothing to do with Fantasy.
They also brought sex with them, but then, especially in the form of Prince Diarmud, of the High Kingdom of Aileron, it was already lounging with its feet up.
That is probably the biggest divergence from the Tolkien mode that Kay is seeking to evoke. He filters the story through the quintet’s perceptions which, no matter how well they adapt, are still those of Earth, instinctively reflective of our own: they mediate the fantastic for us, grounding it by reducing the distance between reader and event. But to an even greater extent, Kay’s greater willingness to introduce sex and direct violence, and modern attitudes to the same, is an even greater grounding of events for us.
Sex is non-existent in Tolkien. Eowyn falls in love with Aragorn, but really it’s only an advanced form of hero worship, like a girl obsessed with a boy band singer. Aragorn and Arwen marry, but everything is pure and holy. Sam marries Rosie Cotton, who doesn’t even get mentioned before he leaves Hobbiton. They being hobbits, and closer to the earth and the natural life that Tolkien preferred, have multiple children which means they have been shagging away quite happily over a long period of time and, naturally, no contraception.
But that’s only after the story is over. No sex whilst the action’s on. Not so in ‘The Fionavar Tapestry’, no sir, and for the most part all the sexual activities are woven into the story, changing its course in one way or another, and usually significantly.
Re-reading the series now, having left Fantasy behind for nearly half as long again as it originally obsessed me, I still found the story enjoyable, and intend to keep the books, though this time I found it far easier to see just how much the trilogy conforms to the expected patterns of Fantasy fiction. Kay’s variations don’t draw the story far enough away from what its audience would have expected.
What does still distinguish the trilogy from its contemporaries is how much Kay plays with the emotions during it. If you thought Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider series, which made her the Barbara Cartland of Fantasy, Kay has her beat at every turn, principally because of the intensity and depth of the emotions he plays with. He’s deliberately aiming to reduce you to tears constantly, and he gets very close to doing that several times over.

GGK DR

The concept that sustains the story is that Fionavar is the first of all worlds, from which every other world is but a reflection. Instead of an Eru Iluvatar to sing Arda into existence, the supreme God is The Weaver, who weaves the tapestry that is existence. Into the tapestry came the God from outside, Rakoth Maugram, who seeks to destroy all. Rakoth is both Morgoth and Sauron, having been defeated by an Alliance of all the different peoples a thousand years ago, and imprisoned, bound, beneath a near-planet sized mountain. Now, treachery has freed him and, like Sauron he is returned to strike again with incalculable and unopposable force.
And the adventure is how he is successfully opposed and, eventually, destroyed.
Now, you will have noted some very familiar elements in that brief outline. And there’s a sequence in the first book, transforming one of the five in a manner that has its roots in Norse myth, whilst the Arthurian elements don’t enter the story until the second book, ‘The Wandering Fire’.
Kay chose to end the first book by drawing the quintet abruptly back to Earth, to save all of them but principally to rescue one of the five who had undergone a terrible experience at the, um, hands of the God. This sets things up for the start of the second book, as Arthur has to be summoned from where tradition places him before we can go back to Fionavar, but after that we stay firmly in the first world. I confess that this transition backwards gives the trilogy an overall slightly unbalanced flow, leaving me wondering how deeply Kay had everything planned out in ‘The Summer Tree’, given that the two succeeding books are continuous.
It’s not to spoil the ending to tell you that ultimately, once everything has been worked out, only two of the five return to Canada to pick up the lives they have there, and don’t read too much into it if I tell you that of the others, two cannot return: that doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it does.
Kay has gone on to a long and successful career writing a series of High Fantasies, usually but not always single-volumed. I used to have several of these, and ironically the sequence was broken for me by the one set against a variation of Viking era Britain, which I just could not get into. I have retained one of his novels, the most uncharacteristic one, and I’ll be looking at that in due course.
The fairest way of summarising The Fionavar Tapestry is that it is good, and much better than most of its field, but it hasn’t worn well, and nothing like as well as Tolkien, because, at the end of the day, it is too representative of its genre. It does what it does powerfully, but it only does what you might expect to read if you like that sort of thing. Which I used to immeasurably, but now only read for its nostalgic flavours.

Some Books: Josephine Tey’s ‘The Daughter of Time’


tey

This irregular series began as a conscious decision to re-read certain books I had enjoyed many years ago when borrowed from Didsbury Library in South Manchester, and to consider how well, or otherwise, they stood up to my recollection of them. Since then, it’s expanded beyond the confines of the Library.
I’ve known this book for over fifty years, and owe my discovery of it to my Grammar School. In either the Second or the Third Year, most likely the earlier, we were regularly given books to read in English that were not part of the official curriculum. We would read these and write a short report on them, something intended to develop our analytical skills alongside the breadth of our reading. Of all the books I read I can only remember two, that is if you count remembering that a book was a crime-thriller featuring an underground Gang Leader known as The Funny Toff, of which I have no idea as to the book’s title or its author ‘remembering’. Nor does a Google Search for this vicious criminal turn up anything. If anyone out there can help?
But ‘The Daughter of Time’ was something else, something beyond my experience to that point, and a very highly regarded crime fiction novel, so highly regarded that, in 1990, the British Crime Writers Association voted it the best crime novel of all time. And you’d expect them to know.
Josephine Tey was a pen-name for the very private Scottish writer Elizabeth MacKintosh, who used it for a select run of eight crime novels, six of which featured Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard (though the first of these was originally published as Gordon Daviot, the name she used for all her plays). ‘The Daughter of Time’ was the last novel ‘Tey’ published in her lifetime, though one more novel appeared posthumously, and whilst her earlier ‘The Franchise Affair’ was filmed, this is the most famous book of her career.
The situation is simple. Grant is in hospital, confined to bed, after falling through a trap-door in hot pursuit of a suspect, resulting in a broken leg and a compressed spine. More than confined: he is stuck lying on his back. The ceiling has become intimately familiar. And Grant is bored, as bored as is possible for an intelligent man with an active mind. Friends bring books that mostly bore him. His actress friend Marta Hilyard brings photos, faces for him to study and analyse. Grant prides himself on reading faces, professionally. One painting catches his attention, obviously some kind of Judge, austere, sensitive, intelligent, responsible.
It is Richard III, the murderer of The Princes in the Tower.
That is what the book is about. Grant cannot believe he has been so wrong in his estimation of the face, and begins an investigation of the facts of the case, assisted as Researcher and sounding board by a young American student named Brent Carradine. Step by step they methodically work from the accepted histories to the provable facts of the matter, to try to determine if Richard, Duke of Gloucester really was one of history’s most reviled murderers, or else one of history’s most unjustly maligned innocents.
The book fascinated me on two immediate levels. The first was the ingenuity of setting a fictional detective to examine an historical crime (the BBC would copy the format for a 1972 series in which the Jack the Ripper murders was investigated Barlow and Watt of Z-Cars and Softly Softly whilst Colin Dexter would pilfer the set-up for his eighth Inspector Morse book) and the second was the challenge to the historical ‘fact’ that Richard III was a monster who had his two young nephews murdered.
Not only was this a direct contradiction of something I’d already learned via my original and nascent interest in English History – I cannot remember if we’d reached Richard III in school by that point – but I had seen at least some of the Olivier film of Shakespeare’s play on TV – ‘A horse! A horse! My Kingdom for a horse!’ and this was the first time I became aware that the Official History was not necessarily the gospel truth.
Tey conducts Grant and Carradine’s investigation of the facts calmly, methodically and professionally. Grant starts from wounded vanity and is merely digging deeper, seeking detail that he expects will explain his mistake. The first established authority on the subject is Sir Thomas More’s Life of Richard III, and that’s where Tey springs her first, jarring bombshell.
Because The Sainted More, as the book sardonically terms him, is associated with the reign of Henry VII, who deposed Richard, whose claims to the throne on genealogical terms were massively stronger than Henry’s, and who needed to strengthen his claim that otherwise rested only on conquest. And Grant picks out the salient facts: that when Richard died, More was only 5. That More resided in the household of John Morton, an implacable hater of Richard, whose entire fortune was dependent upon Henry. And that there is no evidence that More actually even wrote the book, only that it’s manuscript was found among his possessions after his death, leaving open the possibility that it could have been written by anyone: his mentor?
I’ll return to that fact shortly. Once More has been discredited in the true Policeman’s manner as offering only hearsay evidence, the compilation of facts starts to grow. Tey alludes to other instances where fantasy has taken the place of fact in History, her key factor being the supposed killing of downtrodden Welsh miners at Tonypandy, that very provably never happened. Tonypandy becomes another watchword, like The Sainted More.
The evidence begins to pile up until the thrust of the book, exonerating Richard, becomes an overwhelming tide, until Tey reveals at the last her crowning point; that all of this has been exposed, at least once a century, since the Seventeenth Century. Yet Richard III’s basic reputation rides roughshod over all refutation. It’s rather like my own favourite piece of historical flim-flammery, the famous words, ‘Not tonight, Josephine!’, reputed to Napoleon Buonaparte on the evening of Waterloo, rejecting the ill-timed sexual advantages of l’Empress Josephine. This never happened, and that’s beyond doubt, because not only did Buonaparte divorce Jospehine in 1810, she had been dead for three years before Waterloo occurred.
Is Tey right? I can only say that the book convinced me then and convinces me now, although I have to allow for the appeal of conspiracy theories in taking that attitude. So far as I can find, no-one has challenged the facts she adduces, and even the necessarily cursory entry in Wikipedia confirms all the points she makes.
But facts are one thing and their interpretation another, and the greater part of The Daughter of Time is based in psychology, and the ordinary human response to circumstances. I’m not going to go into much detail, but to give two examples, there is the complete contrast between Richard’s evident and heartfelt loyalty to his family demonstrated up to mere weeks before his nephew’s intended Coronation, and there is the fact that even after the Princes died, assuming they died in his reign, there were almost a dozen other family members with claims to the throne who survived him, but not for all that long under Henry.
What we have is in fact a Conspiracy Theory, based in the interpretation of the facts and an attempt to determine the most plausible reactions of the central players. I mentioned above Tey’s broad suggestion that Sir Thomas More’s History was actually written by John Morton: there isn’t the least scrap of evidence to support that, but it’s woven into a thread as a possibility whose strength derives from everything that surrounds it.
Still, that is the weakest point Tey brings up and, in the context of the overall story she puts forward, her interpretation is completely consistent.
As with all Conspiracy Theories, I try to keep a concerned neutrality about how far I believe it. The Daughter of Time is cogent and its case is very powerful. On the facts of the case, the idea that Richard did order his nephews to be murdered is weak and implausible, both in terms of the benefits it would bring him being marginal, and the simple fact that, on any intelligent basis, any Fifteenth Century equivalent of Sir Humphrey Appleby would have undoubtedly have told him, ‘If you must do this damn silly thing, don’t do it in this damn silly way.’
Which is my sticking point.

Some Books: A P Herbert’s ‘Number Nine, or, The Mind-Sweepers’


APH

This irregular series began as a conscious decision to re-read certain books I had enjoyed many years ago when borrowed from Didsbury Library in South Manchester, and to consider how well, or otherwise, they stood up to my recollection of them. Since then, it’s expanded beyond the confines of the Library.
My exposure to Number Nine by A.P. Herbert originates in the Library, but this reading was of a copy I have owned for many years but not seen until a recent survey of one of the bottommost storage crates. Though I enjoyed it just as much as all the other times I’ve read the book, I found a lot of its attitudes to be locked into a past that has gone, and for which I have little sympathy.
In fact, it may well be that I very much disagree with practically everything the book sets out to trumpet, even as I found it to be the very skillful, very energetic farce that it was intended to be, and still very funny.
Sir Alan Peter Herbert was one of those figures that we have long since lost the knack of making, principally because APH – as he was known to the readers of Punch to which he was a constant contributor – made himself and since his death in 1971 (on my sixteenth birthday) we have lacked someone with the skill to create another. He was a writer, a humourist, a satirist, an Independent MP, a campaigner, especially on the thorny subject of the Divorce Laws, which he constantly sought to drag from the rigid insistence on chaining together two people who could only obtain release from their mistake by perjury and lawbreaking. He had a keen mind and a fine understanding of legal points which he used to tremendous effect to satirise the Law in a long series of cod-reports gathered under the title ‘Misleading Cases’.
It was in that vein that I first encountered him, in the late Sixties, in the form of a situation comedy based upon these tales, produced by the BBC. The great Alastair Sim played Mr Justice Swallow whose amusement it was weekly to preside over yet another improbable litigation brought by Mr Albert Haddock (Roy Dotrice), inevitably opposed by Thorley Walters as Sir Joshua Hoot, QC, arguing for sensibility and sanity and always losing.
Lord knows what I got out of it or how much I understood, and it certainly didn’t influence me on my choice of a career in the Law, but I watched it avidly and with delight.
I almost certainly didn’t connect Herbert’s name with that long-ended series when I discovered Number Nine on the shelves of the Library. Something caught my eye, possible the garish pink cover and its cartoon figures, I read through a couple of pages, thought I’d try it, and struck lucky.
The book is a satire of the British Civil Service and its qualification boards. It was published in 1951 but set in 1955, by which time, even though only four years have passed, Britain has defeated Russia, abolished Communism, executed Stalin and sent the Party Officials to study Democracy. It’s hard to swallow but, don’t worry, it doesn’t actually have anything to do with the story. It is, however, a pointer to the kind of whole-hearted, robust English individualism that runs, or rather roars through the book, sweeping everything aside.
Two young men meet on a train. One is Naval Lieutenant Anthony, Viscount Anchor, second son and heir to Admiral of the Fleet the Earl of Carraway and Stoke, and the other is Stanley Bass. Both are the Number Nine of the title. They are comrades of past service and companions of a thousand bottles of spiritous substances. Anthony’s ancestral home is Hambone Hall, though the Earl can no longer afford the upkeep and the Hall itself has been commandeered by the Government for Assessment courses for would-be Civil Servants: the Earl lives across the Lake with Anthony’s younger and spinster sister Lady Primrose. Stanley Bass is going on just such a course. Or so he thinks.
Because it transpires that one of the psychologists attached to the course is a Dr Heriot Pole, and Pole is responsible, thanks to a vicious assessment, for derailing the life of Anthony’s elder brother, George, onto the course that led to his death in wartime. Anthony demands revenge, and the turfing out of the Civil Service from his ancestral home. Stanley Bass, whatever his misgivings, is to be his inside man in the Intake, watching, gathering information and providing material for exploitation. Whilst not totally derailing his own career.
That latter he need not worry about, for Anthony promptly crashes the family car in which he’s conveying Stanley Bass, causing the latter a broken knee (actually severely strained ligaments). A substitute Stanley Bass, or Number Nine, is needed. Anthony considers himself smart enough to play the part to the ends of himself and the Admiral, without detriment to poor confined-to-quarters-incommunicado Stanley.
In this, Anthony is not anything like as smart as he thinks himself, though he’s perhaps unlucky in that the Course, and his own section, contains no less than two young ladies with connections to the real Stanley. One is the smouldering, passionate, part-Pole Number Ten, aka Joy Daly, though Anthony nick-names her Jacaranda, based on her exotic and hot house sexual looks. It just so happens that Jacaranda is the twin-sister of Olga, who claims to have not only encountered – closely – Mr Bass during the recent Russian War but to have acquired twins as a result of such encounter.
Jacaranda is out for humiliating revenge on ‘Stanley Bass’, on behalf of a sister who is no longer on the Eastern Front, but who is now living in Wimbledon.
Number Eight, in contrast, is in complete contrast. She is Miss P. Merihew, P standing for Peach, which is what she is. Peach is a charming, cheerful, bubbly little golden-curled woman, as well as being an ex-Wren. She’s also a close friend of Moo, or Meriel, who in turn is an even closer friend of Stanley Bass. Number Eight does not want to become a Civil Servant and is only doing the course, which she will do everything she can to fail, to humour her dear Civil Servant father. Anthony has to take the dear girl under his wing, as a willing and enthusiastic co-conspirator.
So that’s the set up. How this all works out, for work out it does, over a single jam-packed weekend concluding with the Admiral boarding his old home and throwing the Civil Service overboard in the grand Naval and English tradition, despite various fightbacks and setbacks and good old splendid British blackmail, is a matter of detail. Herbert keeps things lively and bright.
The novel’s sub-title is ‘The Mind-Sweepers’, both an obvious pun and a direct call out to his theme, which is a robust contempt for the very notion of poking about in the minds of men and women, whose lives ought to be governed by rather more respectable instincts that this kind of meddling. Herbert sees this as both pouring poison into, and dredging it out of minds that are, on the whole, better left simple and unexamined. He also sees it as unEnglish.
There are other aspects of life that he rejects along the way, such as the increasing regimentation of life that he regards socialism as introducing (the book was composed under the first post-War Labour Government). Herbert is very much for the individual, for all that he’s mostly pretty unsparing on the individuals he introduces into the book, not least the self-righteous, self-satisfied and genuinely nasty Blot, Dr Pole himself.
As a passionate waterman, Herbert is also big on the traditions of the Navy, which he brings to bear on the book, and the subsequent rejection of the world that was coming into being in the Fifties. He’s also surprisingly liberal on the subject of sexual relations: Jacaranda is a walking sex-maniac, constantly bemoaning that cold fish Englishmen reject, sometimes quite violently, the passion in her that comes out in biting – commonly of top lips, like a brand.
Peach is in her own way endearingly sexual. She regards it as fun. It is implied, usually through the delightful phrase, ‘Pleasant things then occurred’ that she’s a happy indulger, notwithstanding her unmarried state, unmarried that is during the book as, despite the snarl-ups it goes through, it is clear almost from their first conversation that she and Anthony are heading for the altar and she insists upon six children, including one set of twins.
Like I said, the overall tone of the book is resolutely against the developing world, bound up in a sense of Englishness, and English exceptionalism that is now wholly anachronistic, and which doesn’t fill me with nostalgic longings. But its energy, its laser-focussed satire and the sheer likeability of many of the characters, especially a pair of pure star-crossed lovers for whom it will never happen, make it still an enjoyable book to read. Like the unreal history of 1955 that Herbert begins with, it is palatable as a parallel world, and at least it is not as grumpy and grumbling as the contemporary and comparable works of J.B. Priestley.
Pleasant things then occurred.

Some Books: Denis Steeper’s ‘The Hands of God Trilogy’


Hands 1

This irregular series began as a conscious decision to re-read certain books I had enjoyed many years ago when borrowed from Didsbury Library in South Manchester, and to consider how well, or otherwise, they stood up to my recollection of them. Since then, it’s expanded beyond the confines of the Library.
Bear with me, this may be a long one.
If you were reading my blog in the earlier days, you should recognise the name of New Zealand Dan Dare fan, Denis Steeper, who put together the best example of fitting all the original Eagle stories into a coherent continuity that I could imagine, and wrote two prose novels, one of them a trilogy, set against that background. I recently discovered he’s written another trilogy under the overall title of The Hands of God, about time travel and alternate worlds. I’ve downloaded all three books to my Kindle, and have now finished reading them. It certainly held my attention though my opinion of it is decidedly mixed, mostly on political grounds.
As something of a history buff in a minor way (it was my most successful subject at Grammar School), not to mention being overwhelmed by the discovery of Earth-2 back in 1966, the idea of alternate histories – or counterfactuals as many term them – is inherently fascinating. Steeper’s trilogy contains multiple such. But let me describe the set-up.
Steeper takes the time-honoured approach of presenting the trilogy – consisting of The Hands of God, On Other Earths and The Obsidian God – as being the supposed memoirs of the central character, one Mace Anderssen of Lincolnshire, born 1897, edited by an unnamed New Zealand resident who was his friend but who has discovered he apparently didn’t know ‘Richard Hillyer’ as well as he thought. You’re supposed to infer that this is Steeper himself, presenting said impossible memoirs as fiction after the disappearance and presumed death of Hillyer, though the ‘editor’ mentions himself as having been a solicitor when Steeper is a retired medical professional.
This introduction is used to set up certain quirks about Hillyer, drop in some names he never explains, and pose a mystery about him for the trilogy to expand upon. It differs from the classic mode in that the editor speaks of the prose of the memoirs being flat and dull, and that he has rewritten it to punch it up, as well as interpolating additional material from Hillyer’s journals, during the course of which the original manuscript expands from one to three volumes.
Now that’s what I call imposing a burden on oneself as a writer: you’re just asking to be shot down with a statement like that.
One final thing before I start calling our memoirist Anderssen: like me, Steeper is not a professional writer benefiting from the work of editors and proof-readers. The trilogy is riddled with errors uncaught. Since I know just how incredibly difficult it is to proofread your own work, I’m not going to carp about that, but there are a number of instances where a word is mis-spelled at almost its every appearance, such as the use of ‘board’ when Steeper means ‘broad’ and, most aggravating, ‘where’ when he wants ‘were’, for reasons that will quickly become obvious.
So: the first chapter of The Hands of God sets things up in excellent manner. Mace Anderssen is a young veteran of the Great War, who has survived intact but who has returned to ‘a land fit for heroes’ only to find himself unemployed, indeed after the adrenaline factor in his service, potentially unemployable in any ordinary career, and is running out of money. Anderssen has, however, responded to an intriguing advert for people interested in adventure, risk and great rewards. Everything seems normal for London in 1916…
And that’s the first and most interesting casually introduced moment. Because the Great War took place between 1914 and 1918, or at least it did in our Where (as the various alternates will be termed in the book, though it would have been better if Steeper had used the capital letter in that context). In Anderssen’s Where, the War ended in 1916. Britain were still on the winning side. It’s just that we won as allies and junior partner to… Imperial Germany.
Oh, but we have fallen through the trapdoor.
Because 49 Grosvenor Square, where Anderssen is to have his interview, exists in a different Where (and when), and he is being interviewed by Sir Jamiss Simmerton, and he is guaranteed to succeed because Simmerton and the other members of a mysterious organisation know of his service record with them. As a Hand of God. Or, to put it less fancifully, a highly-trained, highly-skilled, highly-paid in both money and sex, psychopath and assassin.
Mace and his fellow recruits, Otto Tessmer from Germany and Randy Longstreet from a Confederated States of America, are first employed as Editors. Yes, they will be called upon, continually, to redirect the course of history by killing (i.e., editing out) people who would otherwise led it in an unprofitable direction.

Hands 2

Now, for the first book, this is the action. Mace learns his new trade and is employed in killing people, initially under the supervision of superior Agents – the next two grades being Unattached Agent and Angel – then in tandem with his two colleagues and friends, and finally on his own, under command.
This part of the trilogy is mostly great fun. Steeper keeps things moving fast and has a seemingly inexhaustible fund of ideas for alternate presents and futures, which he continually drops in front of Mace without any details of how this particular variant could have come about. That’s for the reader to think about, or simply to accept as a viable alternative and just be swept along.
To that extent, The Hands of God is good, entertaining action-adventure stuff, but invariably with something of that nature, the author’s own political will and beliefs start to show through, often vividly, especially as the Hands of God are working to a common end for all the Wheres under their purview.
This is where I start to have considerable concerns about the worldview being expressed.
It was clear from the Dan Dare work that Steeper is and was a Conservative and Monarchist and that’s even more on display here. He absolutely loathes Communism, and delights in sending Anderssen out on a personal vendetta to keep killing Lenin before he returns to Russia in 1917. In fact, he invests so much hatred into Lenin that you find yourself wondering what Satan would have to do to earn as much opprobrium.
And it’s not just Bolshevism that’s an anathema, he’s equally averse to anything in the least Socialist. Indeed, whereas anything on the left of the political spectrum might appear to some to be idealistic, Steeper denies it fervently. All Socialism is is envy, envy of the rich for their money and of the Government for its power, and the notion that there are people who want to see a fairer distribution of such things to the masses is dismissed with contempt as the lies of sad and wholly inadequate people who only want it for themselves.
Personally, I find it naïve in the extreme how he tackles Lenin, as if assassinating the man half a dozen times over with increasing relish somehow destroys Communism. At least, in The Report of the Cryptos Commission, he extends that to killing Trotsky as well, whereas here some anonymous figure has already killed him, but what about Stalin? What about all the other figures of the Revolution?
Perspectives on alternate history are inherently fascinating to me even, perhaps especially, when you disagree with them, but I simply cannot believe that you can end Communism by shooting Lenin in the head (or the stomach, or the back or everywhere else).
That hobbyhorse gets ridden more or less into the ground in the first book, though it gets resurrected in retrospect in the – clearly insane – opinions of a new character in On Other Earths, who opposed editing Lenin so that he could have more brutalist architecture to study. I smell a straw man.
On the other hand, several other of Steeper’s preferences get much wider play. He’s very hot on the Confederacy, leaving a North American Union still under British control, portraying any Where with an independent North American government as a disaster. He tags the French into aiding the South to gain independence thus earning deserved British loathing of the country (as opposed to the centuries-long friendly feelings between the two countries that we had in real history?) which inevitably leads to Britain allying with the Kaiser, an alliance that persists throughout every iteration of the Great War because we loathe the hateful, treacherous, slimy frogs. There isn’t a single instance of a Great War with anything like the actual alignment that gets a nod of approval.
And despite a German victory in a shortened War, Adolf Hitler rises to power anyway, with no explanation as to how that might happen in a victorious country, and in far too many Where’s for comfort, Hitler and the Nazis win World War 2 as well, forcing Britain to accept defeat after Dunkirk doesn’t happen and the Battle of Britain doesn’t happen, and the Nazi regime goes on for decades and decades…
It’s not that I find these outcomes offensive, far from it. The whole point of Counterfactuals is to come up with a different history based on changing a certain factor and contemplate what may have happened. On that basis, anything, however ‘distasteful’, is fair game. But when a writer keeps continually coming up with the same outcome, over a variety of possibilities, and posing this as in various respects a favourable outcome, I believe I am entitled to start asking questions about the writer’s own preferences.
As I’ve already said, the trilogy is not hot for Democracy. I’ve already said that Steeper, or Anderssen, really doesn’t have time for it, painting it as inherently flawed because once politicians – all of them – are elected, they abandon any notion of policies and will do anything to get re-elected. As for the poor, the masses etc, whilst presenting faux-sympathy towards them every now and then because they get completely screwed, it doesn’t disguise the contempt he holds them in from being useless, ignorant and completely stupid: their downtroddenness is deserved.
He’s even latched onto ecology in a manner I find obnoxious. Basically, under liberal democracy, every alternate world will both allow and encourage too many people to populate the planet, way beyond its resources, leading to planetary collapse, unless the Hands of God can direct history to where humanity goes interstellar and thus lives. The first chapter of the second book deals with a future at the time such a thing happens, and it’s all private enterprise, massive corporations staking out inhabitable planets, defying governments, making themselves rich – and of course the dregs will get left behind on Earth.

Hands 3

By the time I’d absorbed these approved attitudes, I was thoroughly out of sympathy with the books. This led me to become ever more conscious of the flaws in the writing itself. I’ve already touched upon typing errors and misplaced words but there were other traits, on a technical level, that started to irk me.
For one thing, we’re told it’s ungrammatical to write a sentence without a verb. All writers do it, deliberately, for effect, but it depends on sparing use to be effective in the way you wish it to be. Steeper uses the device continually, several times a page in some places, especially when it would not only be more effective but read much more naturally to replace the full stop with a comma and attach the non-verb sentence to its predecessor as a sub-clause.
And there are other prevalent attitudes throughout the trilogy, aside from the historical aspects, that I found more directly oppressive.
In Anderssen’s home Where, Britain is still both Monarchy and Empire but all it’s Kings are called Oliver, because Cromwell betrayed the Commonwealth and all his personal beliefs to become King, and his son Richard was even stronger, as opposed to resigning as Lord Protector after a year in our recension. So Anderssen is very much a Briton and an Imperialist, with all the racist connotations that go with that (though they fade out imperceptibly).
It’s the same as his Return of the Cryptos Commission, in which Steeper sets up Britain’s late Twentieth Century dominance in Dan Dare’s Universe by virtue of bringing Richard 1 back from the Wars without an arrow in his head, removing John and extending the strong Plantagenet Dynasty for centuries, again despite the historical evidence that Richard was more French than English, regarded Britain as just one of his domains and spent less than 10% of his entire reign even in the country…
In this story, he injects a strong who-needs-democracy leader into Britain’s history at a later date from a different source, but the end is still the same.
And to a large extent the trilogy is offensively sexist. Steeper makes the point that people in the line of work of Anderssen and Co. neither get the opportunity to meet and develop relationships with women leading to a lifetime’s commitment, nor do they have the temperament for such things, given the regularity with which they face death. So as to ensure the Editors don’t get so frustrated that they start shagging women in the histories they alter, and leaving seed behind, their generous salaries are supplemented by an almost infinite number of free chits for free fucks with a variety of high class whores in the high class brothel the Hands of God keeps available.
It has its logical aspect, but all this arrangement does is to promote and perpetuate Anderssen’s attitude that all women are for is to fuck, and the even dodgier attitude that the whores like it that way.
Of course, given his age, era and background, a man like Mace Anderssen is not going to automatically treat a woman as being his equal, any more than he does or will with persons whose skin is not as pale and pure as his, and yes, he forms regular sexual liaisons with two female members of the organisation – they love his big cock, you see – but this chauvinist bullshit annoyed me, and there was never any getting away from it.
All of these factors mounting up contrived to drain my enthusiasm for what I was reading, and the second and third books started increasingly to drag. This wasn’t just down to my objections to the things in which Steeper seemed to be invested, but to other elements of the writing as they pertained to the adventure side of the story.
One aspect was Steeper’s insistence on building each chapter around two stories, taking place at different times and in different contexts, the Time Travel mission as the outer story and the other embedded within it, the focus shifting from one to the other unpredictably, and often without clear demarcation between the two. This made the reading hard going, trying to keep abreast of where you are at any given moment and trying to analyse as you went on what relationship the intertwined stories bore to one another.
This exaggerated the effect on the overall story of each Chapter being separate missions and adventures, giving the second and third books the feeling of ‘more of the same only different’. There is, of course, a continuity thread throughout the story, but very little connective tissue between adventures. There’s very little sense of an overall story being developed towards an ending, as opposed to a stopping point.
This has the effect of making the book’s ending, which plays out over the last three chapters of The Obsidian God, feel precipitate and not really an organic result of earlier chapters. Steeper winds back to Anderssen’s first trip to the brothel, when he’s too impatient to get his… hands on his whore and drags her into the first empty room he can find, instead of the room he’s been officially assigned. Instead, the poor schlub who ended up there gets fatally interrupted mid-stroke and a mysterious hole in the wall appears.
Suddenly out of nowhere, Anderssen decides to time travel back to find out what really happened, fires the shot that creates the hole but gets shot himself. He’s been captured by the Hands of God’s evil opposites, basically a still-extant human-sacrificing Aztec Empire, that’s a brutal dictatorship that’s nevertheless preferable to a democracy because it ain’t ever going to allow over-population.
There’s no escape this time, Mace is going to have his heart cut out, and he does. But he’s then rescued by an Archangel, one of the original Seven Ascended, who transcended physical form eons ago. These are the Alphas, the mysterious beings who set up the Hands of God in the first place, and gave it its fantastic technology. And, guess what, they set up the Aztecs as a counterbalance.
The Hands of God were created to shape worlds in which humanity escaped Earth, preserved existence and eventually evolved to ascend and become equivalents to the Archangels. Who were getting lonely with only seven of them and all being multiple religious figures in opposition to each other. If you think that undercuts the psychological basis of the revelation, wait till you get to why they created the Aztecs. It’s because immortality is boring, and the Hands of God vs the Aztec Empires show is the equivalent of great television to distract their immortal minds. Such Gods.
I am not making this up. No, seriously.
Anyway, we’ve just about run out of book. Anderssen can’t go back. One of the other Archangels has got a serious mad on for him, and Gods don’t forget. So if he is to survive any length of time, Anderssen has to be dumped in a backwater country in a backwater Where that’s so inadequate, the Stuarts were restored, America won independence, Germany lost the Great War and Communism lived. It will all end in tears. Oh, by the way, the Archangel will make Anderssen, or Richard Hillyer, fabulously wealthy beyond even Elon Musk’s dreams. But he will never see any of his old colleagues again, lest he be traced to his last resting place.
And no sooner is Anderssen settled in sunny, placid, relaxed New Zealand than he utters the last line, the trilogy’s pay-off. I’m bored.
Looking back, I never meant to do this big a number on Denis Steeper’s work. Sadly, his Dan Dare stuff is out of print and he has no intention of republishing it, which is a shame because, whilst I do disagree with him on a number of grounds, the trilogy is a fantastic, sweeping, epic story that binds together the mythos in a wholly satisfying manner that I’m sure Frank Hampson would have nodded on approvingly (if he hadn’t been so shafted and mistreated he became bitterly paranoid about anything that smacked of other people making money off Dan Dare instead of him).
The big difference is not that it takes place in Dan Dare’s universe and observes its canons, but rather that it is everything The Hands of God isn’t: a developing story, progressive incidents connected intelligently, written as multiple third person viewpoints instead of one first person, and refreshingly free of axes being ground. The counterfactual historical background Steeper builds for those works is exactly that, background. It is not the substance of the story.
I didn’t expect and certainly didn’t want to be so negative and, whilst it may not look like it, I have pulled punches that, with a fully-professional author, I would have been even more vicious about. But the story has failings that I have gone into above, the worst of which perhaps is that of disappointing me. Before this, I would happily have bought other books written by him. Now, if his urge hasn’t yet been fulfilled, I will be very cautious about new works, and I don’t want to be.

Grandmaster Westlake – A Career in Crime: The Catch-ups 3 – Call Me A Cab


Call Me

Only published in February 2022, a mere 22 years after his death, Donald Westlake’s Call Me A Cab is the fourth and last of his books to appear posthumously, though we can’t discount any future writings appearing out of nowhere. Hopefully.
Editor Charles Aderi’s afterword about the book’s provenance does hint at the novel being a bit of a Frankenstein job: apparently it underwent a couple of re-writes involving substantial changes to the story and it was savagely edited down for its only previous appearance in a magazine, but there’s no reason to think that what we now have is anything other than Westlake’s final thoughts on this subject.
Call Me A Cab was written in 1977 but, apart from a few minor details mostly perceptible to Americans, it didn’t feel in the least bit dated. It’s from the same era as Brother’s Keepers and, like that book, was born of Westlake’s experimental urge, in this case to see if it were possible to write a successful suspense novel without any crime or violence. The short answer is yes: suspense novels are all about resolving a question that reverberates throughout the book, into which you invest your interest.
Being Westlake, the situation is inherently absurd. New York cabbie Tom Fletcher is hired by a passenger, Katharine Scott, to drive her to Los Angeles. That’s the story, in a nutshell, unlikely as it sounds. It’s a journey novel. As we’ve seen with Arthur Ransome’s unfinished ‘Coots in the North’ and Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock’s Escape to Persia, the inherent weakness in this type of novel is finding something for the protagonists to do when they reach their destination.
Westlake covers that beautifully. Katharine Scott has a decision to make. When she is picked up by Tom it’s for a ride to Kennedy Airport to catch a flight to LA to join her boyfriend and lover Barry. Katharine, a successful landscape architect loves Barry, a plastic surgeon specialising in noses. He’s kind, understanding, placid, thoughtful, accommodating and the sex is good: in short, he’s perfect. Only.
Only Katharine has so far stood him up at the altar three times. She loves him, but something is holding her back from committing to the marriage, and she doesn’t know what it is. This time is the last time. If she won’t agree to marry him now, he won’t ask again. She’s promised to meet him in Los Angeles and give him the definitive yes/no answer. She just doesn’t know what it’s going to be yet. Five hours on an LA-bound plane isn’t enough time to make up her mind. On the other hand a taxi-ride across the whole continent should give her all the time she needs…
Thus we have the proposition. It’s absurd, but it’s plausible, especially in a Westlake world where we expect things to be off to a mild but recognisable degree.
The other half of the equation is Tom. Tom is a New York cabbie because his Dad owns a taxi company. It’s a temporary job that he expects to occupy for the rest of his life. Tom graduated college, had a good job and a career, was married. But he hated the job and wasn’t cut out for marriage. Tom’s attitude to decisions is that you should never take them, that you should avoid having to do so. Tom narrates the story, so we see everything through his eyes.
Katharine’s not necessarily driven by her profession but she’s very good at it, and is driven by professionalism and the enjoyment of using her skills. Tom’s a drifter, with neither ambition nor interest in shaping a future. So we have the classic odd couple, put together by fate or chance, confined or maybe condemned to each other’s company for an indefinite period, like Richard Hannay handcuffed to the female lead in the first two The 39 Steps films.
The suspense element is therefore what Katharine will say when she reaches LA. At first, this might seem a flimsy pretext for a story, but Westlake is set upon endearing this odd pair to us throughout the journey.
Again, given the setting and the fact this is a Westlake novel, we expect the pair to grow closer emotionally throughout the book, until by the end they will realise they’re in love and pair off. This, plus the fact that both Tom and Katharine are likeable in their different ways, is what invests us in her ultimate decision.
Meanwhile, Westlake has fun directing his pair across country, with sidesteps and diversions intruding on their path. The rhythm of a standard suspense novel is there, though the en route adventures lack the danger the form usually demands. This is not an exciting novel, but the lack is never felt and there’s plenty of room for things to happen along the way.
Including arguments, clashes, bad temper and long silences. Tom, without using the word, is clearly falling in love with Katharine, the longer he is with her. We don’t get the sense that Katharine is undergoing the same transformation and indeed, why should she? Tom is conscious of the gulf between them and, bearing in mind his track record with marriage, mentally writes off any thought of them getting together. Things like that don’t happen. That doesn’t stop him falling: they never do.
So it’s a complicated situation, leading up to the book’s climax and Katharine’s ultimate decision. She loves Barry, life with him could be perfect. Tom’s conclusion, sharpened by seeing the two of them together (Barry having flown out to join the ride) is that Katharine should marry Barry, but that Barry shouldn’t marry Katharine.
I shalln’t spoil the conclusion by saying what Katharine ultimately decides, nor what factor actually prompts her to her decision, which is a perfect moment. And Westlake avoids the journey pitfall by not having the pair hang around to do anything once they’re in LA except the big decision. All I will say about that is that when Tom sets off to drive back to New York, he has a passenger…
Call It A Cab isn’t a classic and, despite everything I’ve said, you may decide that it’s story is too trivial to be acclaimed, but I ended up sitting up until 2.00am to finish it, and I would definitely put it in the top twenty-five percentile of his books, if not higher. It’s definitely one I will return to regularly.

Some Books: Douglas Wolk’s ‘All of the Marvels’


Marvels

This irregular series began as a conscious decision to re-read certain books I had enjoyed many years ago when borrowed from Didsbury Library in South Manchester, and to consider how well, or otherwise, they stood up to my recollection of them. Since then, it’s expanded beyond the confines of the Library.
Towards the end of last year, there was a lot of fuss going on about Douglas Wolk’s book, All of the Marvels. Wolk is an American author and critic who specialises in music and comics. All of the Marvels is, as it says on the tin, about reading the entire output of Marvel Comics since Fantastic Four 1 in 1962, a matter of 27,000 issues.
My first reaction was, rather you than me. By history and temperament, I align with DC Comics, having never really taken to Stan Lee’s bombastic hucksterism, which, mutated in multiple ways, still forms the basis of the Marvel Universe. Or it did, the last time I paid any attention to it, which was admittedly several decades ago. My modern Marvel Collection consists of only three Graphic Novels, two of them written by Neil Gaiman, the other being Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’s Marvels.
But that doesn’t stop me being curious. The Marvel Universe has existed for sixty years now and is constantly held up as a Marvel in itself, a complex, interweaving affair that’s constantly growing, expanding, discovering more and more intricate connections between each and every one of those 27,000 comics, to create a fictive structure beyond anything else ever done before.
The question of Why? comes to mind but, like Number 6’s question to the General in The Prisoner episode of the same name, that’s the one that totally gums up the works.
Having collected DC Comics, as an adult, for almost fifty years now, I’m relatively familiar with its Universe’s structure and development throughout that period, at least until the advent of the New 52 eleven years ago. I can’t say the same of the Marvel Universe. If Wolk had read every Marvel Comic since 1962 then he was in a position to see the whole picture, to understand the tapestry like few others. What I hoped for from All of the Marvels was some kind of attempt to explain the Universe in a cohesive fashion.
I should have known better. I have quite a retentive memory, though unfortunately it only works organically. I read things, I absorb them, I recall them. Usually unimportant things as opposed to stuff that matters. I remember what I remember of DC’s comics because I read them over that great expanse of time. Had I devoted myself to the project of reading them deliberately, for the purpose of understanding them as a whole, I wouldn’t have been able to remember half of the things I can bring to mind any time I want.
In fact, I would say it would have to be either an exceptional mind, or one trained in the Art of Memory, to read 27,000 comics and mentally sort them into a comprehensive and consistent whole, especially when, ipso facto, they are not and cannot be a cohesive whole, given the hundreds of creators whose conflicting interests have gone into shaping the thing in the first place.
Give Wolk credit, he understands that and doesn’t attempt to write anything of the kind. Instead, he hopscotches around eras and series and characters, tracing lines of development, and not always in a chronological manner. He’s obviously an enthusiast – you have to be – but equally obviously he’s beglamoured of the very idea, and treats it as the best thing since sliced bread.
So what we’re reading is part an admirable attempt to create a skeletal structure upon which his readers can then build a wider knowledge of the Marvel Universe in their own time and fashion, but also part hagiography. By that, I don’t mean that Wolk is uncritical. He’s certainly ready to point out some of the crap that Marvel has spewed out down the years, but it’s no more than a drop in the ocean compared to the praise he’s prepared to hand out, just because the whole thing exists and is not a completely hideous mess.
If I sound cynical, it’s because I am. Part of this is my indifference, indeed apathy, towards Marvel Comics as a whole. I have no interest in poking the bear. It’s just that Marvel Comics have only rarely been made for me, and the vast majority of them leave me cold, or work me up in frustration at the sheer, boneheaded arguing that goes on. Yes, it’s more natural that members of a team, especially the intense kind of people who face such fantastic conditions, shouldn’t always get along like they’d all meet up for dinner every night of the week.
But the problem with Marvel, and everywhere else, having been influenced by their success, is that this then becomes fetishised. A cliché. A boring-after-fifty-years-of-it cliché.
The other part of this is my age. I’m on my way out of comics, growing out of them at long last. Or should I say modern comics: what already exists still entertains and sparks my imagination. But as I write this, there are only two remaining ‘floppies’ I intend to buy and, depending when this post is put up, that may be down to only one.
I can’t help now but ask that fatal question: Why?
A shared Universe, in which things can be related, in which characters operate, in tandem and in conflict, where things cross over normally and organically, is fun and fascinating. But Marvel’s Universe, and DC’s, got too big, too long ago, out of the same fetishising. Everything can connect so everything has to connect. If two people have the same surname, they have to be related, they can’t just possibly have the same surname.
Very rapidly, it gets stupid and, in attempting to portray itself as sharing the form of the real World, it severs itself from the real World by exterminating coincidence, accident and disconnection.
So, ultimately for me, All of the Marvels could only really have been satisfying if it had been nothing like what Douglas Wolk wanted to write. In that respect, this post has been less abut the book than about my ongoing drift from comics in general, though I don’t apologise for that. Everything is or can be a learning curve.
As a parting note, I shall simply mention that this is the first book in this occasional series, indeed of the whole blog, that I have reviewed from a digital copy, downloaded to my Kindle, as opposed to my preferred holding-in-the-hand. I don’t think that had any significant bearing on my opinions though.