A Time with Townsend: John Rowe Townsend’s ‘Hell’s Edge’


Hell’s Edge, John Rowe Townsend’s second novel, published in 1962, is a complete contrast to the later The Intruder. Though it is a realistic novel, set in a small, smoky, West Riding town among working class folk with their feet on the ground, it has the form of the traditional children’s adventure, with a ‘treasure’ to be found. More importantly though, for all the book is set in Those Satanic Mills, there is a sunniness and an optimism all the way through it that makes it joyful reading.
The book’s twin leads are Ril Terry (short for the exotic Amaryllis) and Norman Clough. They are chalk and cheese and meant to be and part of the fun in the book is of their accommodation to each other, fuelled by the flexibility of youth and, in Norman’s case, an increasing interest in his very distant cousin.
Hell’s Edge is the nickname throughout Yorkshire of the town of Hallersage, tucked into and across the mouth of a valley leading up to the moors. It’s an old town, a Yorkshire town with all that implies (especially to prejudiced Lancastrians!), full of dialect speaking Yorkshire folk, speaking their minds and dropping their aitches at every turn.
Norman, the only son of Fred and the voluble Florrie, is nearly sixteen. He’s brighter than he first looks and very much more than he lets himself be. The lad’s both a Yorkshire chauvinist and a reverse-snob, resentful and dismissive on principle of anyone even so slightly out of his class, there being an unbreakable barrier around his working class that no-one can pass in either direction. Enter Ril.
I’ve got to be honest, the Amaryllis bit has not worn at all well. The full name is unrepresentative, a touch of artificiality that’s out of place in the story, and the everyday Ril is an out-of-place name in a world where the most exotic name on offer is Celia.
Ril is, like Norman, fifteen. She comes from down south, from Belhampton, a smallish coastal resort under the shadow of the Downs. Her mother has passed away ten years previously and she’s been brought up by her father Robert, a gentle but relatively ineffectual man. She’s been educated at a Progressive School, namely one without rules where the students only study what interests them in a manner that suits them. Despite all that, Ril is turning out an intelligent girl.
Ril loves her life in Belhampton, her school, her friends, the town, the country around it. But her father, who is a Clough by distant cousinship, has taken a job as a Lecturer in Hallersage and he and Ril are moving there. Florrie is determined to welcome them as family, because family sticks together. Norman is determined not to like Ril in advance, having decided for her what she is and how little she has to do with him.
That’s alright, Ril has decided in advance, though not quite so dogmatically, that she doesn’t like Hallersage and Yorkshiremen.
The first part of the book is Ril and Norman breaking down the barriers between them, though Ril finds it a lot easier to adjust her responses, encouraged by the whole-heartedness with which everyone else welcomes her, and accepts her into Hallersage. It doesn’t hurt that there is a treasure to be found, and that Ril is determined to pursue this and Norman slowly comes round to supporting her whole-heartedly.
The thing about Hell’s Edge is that it’s cramped for space, public space. The Grammar School that both children attend has no playing fields either in its own grounds or within easy reach, requiring a long journey by tram (loved by Ril the romantic, regarded as outmoded by Norman the practical) across town. But there is a remedy, and that is connected to the History that Ril loves and Norman sees as useless. This is the Withens Estate.
The Withens are the local land-owning family, the Lords of the Manor, so to speak, landowners to about half of Hallersage, the half that’s not owned by Alderman Sam Thwaite, a great, bursting, buoyant, massive man who drops his aitches further than anyone else, but who’s the mainspring for anything that happens in the town. Long ago, in the era of Enclosures, the then Withens seized the common land used by the town and incorporated it into the estate. Protests arose, resulting in the Transporting of the ringleaders to Australia. One of these was Caradoc Clough. The Withens Estate is enclosed by a very firm wall.
The Estate chokes Hallersage. And the Withens, whose Latin motto is translated several different ways in the book, all of which come out as ‘This is mine, keep your hands off it’, won’t give anything up, won’t sell anything. But there’s a rumour, an old family story among the Cloughs, that not long before he died, Sir George Withens came to Caradoc Clough, regretful of his action in seizing the town’s land, and intent on doing something, albeit not by his Will, that would have been too simple, to redress the situation. What that is is anybody’s guess. But it’s Ril’s obsession. Old Great-Aunt Martha, granddaughter to Caradoc, a 98 year old living link to him and then, who sees in Ril her young sister returned, gives her the clue – ‘Not behind the Night Thoughts’. Ril is determined to find out the truth.
Seemingly, she has an advantage. The latest Withens, the last Withens, is a Governor of the Grammar School, as is Sam Thwaite. Her name is Celia and she’s a beautiful young blonde, under thirty. She’s also a bored young woman, constantly zipping off to the South of France, dissatisfied with life and, rather more sympathetically, a woman who has learned not to trust friends, because invariably they turn out to be friends because she’s rich, because they want something off her.
Discovering Ril and Norman sneaking into the Estate to swim, Celia’s interested enough to invite them to tea. Norman, the reverse snob, refuses, with typically Yorkshire speak-my-mind bluntness. i.e., he’s bloody rude about it. But his sometime boss, the shyster car dealer and repairer Roy Wentworth worms his way in by giving Ril a lift and being invited to stay for tea.
Ril likes Celia, who is simultaneously sophisticated and awkward, confessing her loneliness and her mistrust of those who seem to be friends. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Ril is after. After getting the clue, which will mean examining the Withens Library, she writes to Celia, asking to visit it and is naive enough not to work out why neither that letter not her two follow-ups get answers. Celia Withens has to spell it out to her.
This is where Norman comes into his own. He’s fully on his cousin’s side by now and he leads her to Withens in dark of night so that the two of them can break into the House and access the Library. In short, our two heroes turn burglar. But it’s all in a good cause.
The burglary is both a success, in that Ril retrieves a hidden envelope expressing Sir George’s wish for the enclosed land to be returned to the Town, and a complete shambles, with the burglars finding themselves being chased from pillar to post by Celia and her escort, the slimy hopeful Roy, and nearly causing massive disaster and death by bringing down the bell from the Bell Tower. Both do get away, but it’s all for nothing: the letter has no legal weight whatsoever.
Yet. Bring it to Sam Thwaite. Celia’s already keeping the exact events of the night and the Bell Tower’s collapse to herself, and the confident Sam’s confident that, with its contents to hand, and with the Estate’s solicitor, Thomas Cassell, understanding the implications, terms can be negotiated for the sale of the land to the Council, for a proper and fair price, no-one robbed on either side. The ending’s going to be happy. Until the exact moment Celia rebels.
Perhaps Roy is to blame, for having simultaneously offered his hand in marriage and, as a second option, inviting Celia to invest in his business. Celia’s had enough. No, she’s not going to give up the land, she’s leaving Hallersage for good, she won’t listen to reason because reason has been swamped by her feelings of betrayal by everyone around her. She drives off westwards in her sports car, heading for Northern Airport (Ringway). Sam’s party follows in his Rolls, and a good job too, because Celia goes off the road: it is Ril who finds her unconscious body on the hillside.
So Celia goes to hospital where wiser counsels prevail upon her. Hallersage will get its land, and will also get an ambitious scheme to bring its Town Centre into the Twentieth Century whilst retaining the best of the old. It’s all been a success.
But at the height of this, the peak of Ril and Norman’s joint success, there comes a worm in the apple. Ril receives an invitation, to stay a week with one of her old friends in Belhampton, to return to the place that she still, inside, thinks is home. Her instant joy, her impolitic celebration of it and Belhampton, is thoughtless to say the least, and disrespectful of everyone, and especially her cousin, who has made a place for her in Hell’s Edge.
The outcome is, of course, predictable. Ril has changed. Her friends have moved on without her. Belhampton isn’t quite what she used to see it as being. The gentle, almost feminine Downs are suddenly lesser in her sight than the Yorkshire Moors. Ril has become a Yorkshirewoman (poor girl) without her knowing. She returns after the weekend.
Norman’s glad to see her. He’s changed too. The boy who couldn’t wait to leave school and get a job as a motor mechanic, doing practical things, is staying on through the Sixth Year, looking to study Engineering. He’d like to start seeing Ril as a girlfriend instead of a cousin, but she’s not ready for that yet. Norman doesn’t quite come over as disappointed as I would have in the same circumstances, but Perhaps I’m expecting the wrong reactions, more of a Malcom Saville instant spark. Anyway, Townsend wrote a sequel two years later, I’m sure we’ll find out more in that.

 

A Time with Townsend: John Rowe Townsend’s ‘The Intruder’


It’s over four years now since I heard mention of, and immediately ordered on Amazon, the 1971 Sunday tea-time serial, The Intruder, based on the John Rowe Townsend novel of the same name. We watched it avidly, week in, week out, my mother, my sister and me. We enjoyed it, or at least I did, as a story, but we watched it because it was filmed in Ravenglass, and Grandad Crookall was born in Ravenglass, and they still recognised our name in the Village in those days.
After watching the series, I found the novel in the Library and borrowed it. At pushing sixteen I was getting a bit old for children’s writers, but under the steely glare of my mother, who wasn’t going to let me grow into a man any time soon, there was no crossing to the adult Fiction side yet. (No, I was sneaking into the Front Room when she was out, and poring over Dad’s books in the low bookcase he’d built all along one wall, and reading some bits of Dennis Wheatley: I’ll write about that one day, maybe).
The book was different from the series, as you might expect, but I enjoyed it. Townsend was a more serious, naturalistic children’s writer, who didn’t deal in thrillers but children in real situations: I wasn’t reading beneath my age as usual. I borrowed other books, as many as the Library could offer. They were a mixed bag, some satisfied me more than others. Besides, by 1972 he’d only written ten books so I couldn’t have read more of them than that, and once I was allowed to cross over – all it took, to my immeasurable surprise, was complaining once that I couldn’t find anything to read and I was casually told to try the other side – I forgot my children’s authors.
Not forever, obviously.
But after four and a half years of waiting for my Amazon order to be fulfilled, I have come to the conclusion that the DVD is never going to be released. The series, though good, never hit the heights of the classic in that slot, The Owl Service, and I suspect that the enthusiasts like me who remember it happily (and who want to gaze again at Ravenglass, fifty years ago) are too low for commercial viability. I’m keeping the order open, just in case.
But if you can’t watch the series again, why not read the book? And whilst I can’t remember the other books I read then, though one random scene remains vividly in my mind, source unknown, there were two linked novels I do recall enjoying, and reading more than once, so a quick trawl of eBay and Amazon got me the three, and an enjoyable little spell of reading, and blogging.
Having written the above, a chance connection brought back to mind a possibility for the book of my vivid memory, which turned out to be accurate so that too in is the bag for this short series.
The Intruder was Townsend’s sixth novel, published in 1969 and, like Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, very quickly picked up by Granada for an eight-part Sunday tea-time serial. It’s set in and around Skirlston, a coastal village on the edge of the Lake District, which has a similar past to Ravenglass. But that’s where the comparison ends.
Townsend sets the tone for the book in a short, opening chapter, a single page, describing Skirlston in grim and overwhelmingly depressing terms that hang over the book like a pall. The effect is intended, and it’s apposite to the story Townsend has to tell, but it certainly doesn’t make the book light reading.
That story centres upon Arnold Haithwaite. Arnold’s aged about sixteen. He lives with his ‘Dad’, Ernest, at Cottontree House, named for the West Indian cotton tree growing up the front of it, which is the village’s small general store, as well as a small-time, unattractive guest house. Arnold fishes on the sands, does odd jobs but is mainly a Sand Pilot.
The Sand Pilot does the job of its equivalent across Morecambe Sands. Arnold guides trippers from Skirlston across the shifting sands, channels and currents of its bay, to the derelict former Church on Church Island (which is only ever a real island in full flood conditions) and back. Arnold’s not the real Sand Pilot: this is the Admiral, Joe Hardwick, who’s getting on in years and stomach. Joe is Admiral of the Sands under the official appointment of the Duchy of Furness (the recently invested Prince of Wales), but in five years time he will officially hand his title down to Arnold, when the latter is 21. It’s all agreed. Arnold may be young, but he’s as much an expert in the sands as the Admiral.
So this is Arnold Haithwaite, whose real beginnings aren’t known. He’s not Ernest’s son: that was Frank, long dead. Ernest knows where Arnold comes from but he won’t tell, not until it’s time, which looks like being never. It’s not a big thing with Arnold, though it does concern him, who he really is. This mystery sets up the story.
Because there’s a man who wants guiding from Church Island to the village, where he’s going to be staying overnight at Cottontree House.
And even before he drops his bombshell, there’s something disturbing about the intruder. He’s a middle-aged man, nothing much to look at, ordinary, except for his glass eye. But there’s an atmosphere around him. The way he bridles at Arnold, attempting to guide him safely, because he doesn’t like people telling him want to do, his talk about being a businessman, not that he looks like it, with access to funds and big plans that Arnold could have a part in. There’s something off about him, something that exists at an angle to ordinary life.
Then, after learning Arnold’s name, after checking papers in his own pocket, the intruder gives his own name. And it’s Arnold Haithwaite.
Fifty years on, it doesn’t seem like much of a revelation. There can be more than one Arnold Haithwaite in the world. Arnold isn’t too bothered about it immediately. When the intruder – who I will now call Sonny, given that the only person in the book who knows him from outside, his supposed girlfriend Miss Binns, says that he usually goes by Sonny Smith – tries to drown Arnold on the crossing, which he denies later, things change.
Because Sonny claims to be Ernest’s nephew, by his later brother Tom. Sonny claims to be family. Sonny wants to look after his aged uncle, to improve Cottontree House. Sonny wants in, and Arnold out. Sonny wants to undermine Arnold at every turn, Sonny is the one who wants to be the only Arnold Haithwaite there is.
And Sonny has big ideas and a dislike of being laughed at or contradicted. Sonny’s going to transform Skirlston, turn it into a luxury resort, with a marina and an underground car park where the Admiral can take tickets, dressed up in a comic uniform. In this he’s fantasising: between the bay and the solid bedrock on which Skirlston exists, his ideas are beyond possible. It would actually be cheaper to try removing the village in its entirety by some kind of cosmic scoop and dropping an entirely different piece of land in its place.
Sonny doesn’t see it like that. Sonny sees people who disagree with him as enemies, obstructers, knockers. The Admiral can’t stop laughing at the very idea, which means he is unable to take Sonny seriously. Ernest falls for being looked after, staying in bed, breakfast brought to him. He’s getting steadily weaker, the longer Sonny feeds him, rallies a bit when Sonny returns to Cobchester for a few days (Cobchester is Manchester) and starts to weaken again the moment he’s back.
Arnold only has two allies, or rather one and a half. These are the Ellisons, Jane and Peter, 15 and 13 respectively. They’re staying at the equivalent of the Manor House whilst their father works as an engineer at the Nuclear Power Plant under construction up the coast. Their mother is a brilliant caricature, captured in a few speeches as the self-imagined epitome of sweet reasonableness and progressive parenting that treats children as adults, but behind it a clear snob and social climber.
The children befriend Arnold, though it’s more Peter than Jane. Peter is very intelligent, very proactive, encouraging and determined to help but he’s 13 with all that implies about his effectiveness. Jane, on the other hand, is a very attractive but distant, self-centred young woman who spends most of her time either being tutored in Latin by Jeremy (Jeremy!) or else going out on long drives with him, with her mother’s blessing (he’s called Jeremy, with all that applies to class distinctions) despite the fact he’s got to be at least eighteen, and is spending so much time alone with a girl under sixteen. Read into that what you will: I have.
Arnold is helpless. Sonny outmatches him on every level, but then Sonny lives in another world, with the advantage of conviction in what he is doing, untroubled by our reality. Peter trails him secretly to Cobchester, discovers Sonny’s ‘residence’ in the derelict Gumble’s Yard (Townsend’s first novel in 1961) but has been known to Sonny all along, and comes very close to being dropped into the canal, and not to swim. Sonny’s world may be Sonny’s alone, but he can impose it on anyone in his immediate vicinity.
Arnold gives up. He’ll leave Skirlston, fins a live-in job at a farm, finds just such a job. And between Peter and Miss Hardy, who owns the Manor House where the Ellisons live, and who is on first name terms with the Duchy Agent, puts Arnold on the trail of the truth, of who he really is.
Arnold is so defeated, he refuses to pick up this trail. Peter has to drag him into it. And in its way it’s a sordid truth. He’s Ernest’s grandson, son of Frank and a flighty hairdresser named Beryl, an illegitimate child, hence the hushing up as it’s not respectable.
But Arnold’s reached a point that he doesn’t care, even before Beryl’s sister points out that it’s just as likely, in fact more likely, that he’s actually the son of the Cardiff seaman she ran off with after abandoning. Arnold has been defeated. He’s given way, going elsewhere, inland.
Peter has one last card to play. The Duchy Agent is visiting Miss Henry. Peter drags Arnold and his story before him. He’s not impressed by heredity, even before Arnold admits his likely alternate parent, but the news that Sonny is renaming Cottontree House as Bay Lodge Private Hotel, and that he intends to cut down the cotton tree rouses the Agent. He storms down to Cotttree House, to see Ernest. Arnold has to let him in at the back. The moment he sees Ernest, he’s off to demand a Doctor. Arnold stays behind. With sonny.
And Sonny is not pleased. Sonny’s world is brushing up against the only authority that can crush it, the Duchy that owns everything and which means to keep Skirlston as it is and always had been. Even so, Sonny won’t recognise obstacles. And Arnold has collaborated. It’s not enough that he go away.
Arnold runs, out into the Bay that he knows, the storm, the rising tide, the flood, pursued by Sonny who means to drown him. But this is Arnold’s world, here is where he is, incontrovertibly, Arnold Haithwaite. Against his conscience as the Sand Pilot, he leads Sonny on, partly trying to escape, partly leading him to his death.
He ends up at Church Island, now an island, cut off from sands and land. Jane is there, self-centred, self-hating Jane, whose recklessness has stranded her here and Jeremy the other end of the Causeway. Jane who will die for her own ignorance if it were not for Arnold and his knowledge, finding a bolt-hole above the floodwater streaming into the Church. Alive and holding each other all night. In the morning, there is Sonny’s body, his official identification by Miss Binns, and another surprise.
Townswend provides two endings for the book. The second one is a single page chapter, an epilogue, three years on. Skirlston is still Skirlston, what it was. It’s further dead and only time remains before it is dead completely. Ernest lived another two years. Arnold is now the only Sand Pilot, officially acknowledged, but he cannot be appointed Admiral until he is 21. Peter and Jane have moved on with their father’s next job. Peter’s intelligence means he is rising. Jane failed Latin. She has not seen Arnold or Jeremy in a long time, but occasionally she thinks of each of them. Arnold is courting Nora Desmond, a girl of his own age, a very minor background character seen twice in the story. The Sand Pilot job will last his life and that’s enough. Skirlston is still what it was. Nothing has changed it nor ever will. We have gone round in not a circle but a diversion that means nothing.
The other ending was the contents of Sonny Smith’s wallet. He was a fake, an obvious fake, always making his claims about being Arnold Haithwaite, being Ernest’s nephew after he’d been given the information to utilise. But his real name is Arnold Haithwaite, and he was Tom’s son. The Intruder was who he pretended to be all along and the copper confirms it and says that he doesn’t know who ‘our’ Arnold is.
From beginning to end without going anywhere that makes a difference. You may ask yourself then what was the point of the story. There I can’t help you. You must read and decide for yourself. The Intruder is a grim and gloomy book, depressing reading throughout. Ravenglass was, physically, the ideal choice for location filming, but Ravenglass, then, now and forever, is not the dead and dying Skirlston in any respect. Just a place, but another world.
I still want to see the TV series. As far as I remember, it followed the book fairly faithfully. Milton Johns played a superb part as Sonny, and I’m sure Jack Woolgar featured as Ernest. I’m pretty confident that the relationship between Arnold and Jane was played up far further romantically than the book ever suggests. I do know that Norma Desmond was plucked out of the background and placed in an active role as almost a fourth wheel to the teenagers, in opposition to Jane as far as Arnold was concerned. Just release the boxset and let me find out properly.
I don’t think I’ll re-read the book much but I will keep it. It deserves its plaudits and the award it won. But I don’t recognise it as the fringe of the Lake District that I know, even as I do recognise it as part of the move in Children’s publishing away from the middle class lives and adventures of the likes of Malcolm Saville. It is exactly of its time, in that part of the Sixties that was not optimistic, bright and forward-looking but representing the kind of lives the Sixties was supposed to rescue us from.

A Kindle Bonanza


I’ve been busy the past couple of weeks but the job is done. I have upoloaded three novels, a more-or-less trilogy, to the Amazon Kindle Store, and these are the links to find them and download them.

Firstly:

Followed by:

And lastly:

Feel free to coment.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Interlibrary Loan


In 2014, Gene Wolfe published his last novel, the underwhelming A Borrowed Man. Shortly thereafter, his bibliography in Wikipedia added Interlibrary Loan, a sequel, with an anticipated release date of 2016. Time passed. The date of 2016 disappeared to be replaced with a question mark. Eventually, the title of the book disappeared itself. From somewhere, I read that Wolfe had completed/was completing the novel but that it would only be for his own satisfaction. And in 2018 he passed away, depriving the world of one of its greatest writers ever.

Now it has been published, after an inexplicable, last-minute month’s delay to the hard copy, and I own the last Gene Wolfe novel there will ever be. This is a sober moment.

The book has already been reviewed, and received well, as a subtle and fitting end to Wolfe’s career. I do not have the same reaction. Like A Borrowed Man, the novel is narrated by Ern A. Smithe (not Ernie as on his previous appearance), the reclone of a former thriller mystery writer of a couple of hundred years earlier, who is not regarded as fully human but as library property, a resource available to be consulted and to be burnt, like any other book, if the interest in him/it drops below a certain level. In A Borrowed Man, Smithe secures his future by blackmailing a murderess into checking him out once a year.

This time, he and two fellow reclones, cookbook writer Millie Baumgartner, round and homely, and romance writer, Rose Romain, stylish and curvy, are sent out on Interlibrary Loan, to the small branch at Polly’s Cove. There’s already an older version of Smithe there, an earlier edition, though Smithe will only meet his other self when the latter is killed/commits suicide.

Smithe’s been requested by Adah Fevre, mother of Chandra, the girl she sends to collect Smithe, and wife/widow to Dr Barry Fevre, who may or may not be dead. As it happens, Millie and Rose have been requested by Barry, Millie to cook and Rose to fuck.

What follows Smithe’s arrival was another of those increasingly prevalent scenes in Wolfe’s later fiction where nothing actually happens but characters discuss circumstances at great length, analysing and guessing at alternatives. Normally, I would run out of interest before the sequence was done but this time I recognised that I could not summon up any enthusiasm to begin with.

The writing was uninvolving, and the scenario, what had happened to Dr Barry and was he alive or dead, held no real interest. Smithe, just as last time, and in several of Wolfe’s later books, is not an inherently interesting writer, a writer of plain language and limited sensibility, prone to treat the account he is writing as an oral tale in a way that worked counter to the development of the story.

And it did develop. It developed in strange and unusual ways. Smithe’s older clone dies in the Library, either by way of suicide or else murder by Dr Barry. Adah Fevre turns out to be a bipolar individual, subject to sweeping mood swings, at one extreme a violent and uncaring person who treats the reclones as property that she is free to damage or destroy at will: she has already multilated the older Smithe.

Smithe prompts the checking out of Audrey Hopkins, a writer of sailing books written from a woman’s perspective, the original of whom drowned when a raft broke up on the high seas. She and Smithe enjoy a sexual relationship but of course she sleeps with Barry Fevre as soon as she gets the chance, impliedly because he is human and Smithe, like her, is not.

Barry Fevre gets a lot of sex in this book. Adah accuses him of being unfaithful to her, and his tenured professorship depends in large part on the dissection of cadavers, an almost infinite supply of which he gets from a remote island in northern waters, who practice burial in an ice cave that preserves bodies completely, and indeed enables certain of these bodies to be returned to life, as in being removed from cryogenic storage. The prime examples of this are two bare-breasted blonde beauties from several centuries before.

If you’re getting the impression that this book is a bit choppy, without a consistent narrative drive, then I would regard that as accurate. A lot of the praise for the later Wolfe is for his skilful and subtle mixing of genres, such as An Evil Guest‘s abrupt transformation from a near-future mystery into a Lovecraftian monster-horror, but I think it’s time for me to say that I am less convinced that this is all under perfect and subtle control, than I am fearful that Wolfe is losing his grip on the integrity of the story.

To complicate matters further, Barry Fevre is murdered. His murderer is an alien from an alternate planet/universe, just as was revealed in A Borrowed Man, and Smithe and a female police officer follow the killer there and kill him, without any suggestion of a motive for the killing of Barry, who does not appear to be dead anyway.

What’s more, when the story is seemingly over, and Smithe is returned to his home library, he is checked out again, for purposes that are never totally made clear, by a new patron, one who has already checked out a writer of Westerns, who looks, acts and sounds like the most stereotypical of Western heroes, for no better reason that I can discern than it allows Wolfe to go off dialect-playing again.

And that comes to an end without any actual development.

What is clear in the book, though I question the extent to which it is of actual value, is Wolfe’s exploration of the actual humanity of reclones, or the extent to which they are now, and should not be treated as property. As in A Borrowed Man, I question the use of the very term: if there is a distinction between a clone and a reclone, Wolfe does not in either book make it.

Then again, the basisc principle behind a clone is that they are, or begin as, a replica of their DNA original. Reclones are specifically not: they are physical replicas but mentally they are restricted to taking in a certain manner, and inhibited from further writing. To what extent are they human? To what extent should they be treated as if they were nothng but books of leather and paper, as opposed to organic flesh?

Wolfe’s sympathies are clearly with the reclones, since we see and hear all of this through Smithe, though the limited natures of the reclones provide a counter-argument against full humanity, leavened with better treatment of them physically. I can’t go further myself in my sympathies because, stripped of true independence, the reclones aren’t ultimately human.

But all this is a first impression, of a book that failed to involve or cohere on first reading. I will read it again, and re-read A Borrowed Man beforehand, with a view to a more coherent response.

But really it doesn’t matter if this book is good, bad or indifferent, or in what proportion it is all of these things. What matters is that it is One More. It is One Last Trip to the Well that we have all of us visited uncounted times in the last fifty years, one final chance to sit at the feet of the master and hear him spin us one more tale that no-one else could have written. And it doesn’t matter if it is less than other things before it, no more than it matters that it is raining in the dark of evening when earlier it was sunlight. We are gathered here again, and after this there is only emptiness.

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


The copy I have owned for near sixty years

It is a very old book, and mine is a very old copy, the oldest book I own that was a gift to me by my parents, a very long time ago. And it is a very long time since I last read it, but I have never allowed it out of my possession, and never will.
I’ve told myself at various times that I would look it out and re-read it and then never done so. A couple of weeks ago, I determinedly went through every bookcase bag and storage crates looking for it, growing increasingly desperate as it refused to appear, knowing I would be heartbroken if, for any reason, I no longer possessed it. The relief when I found it, in the last and most-buried box to be investigated.
The Wind in the Willows is a classic. It’s a children’s book and it has been so for almost 120 years but I bet the number of adults who have read it, with the same degree of pleasure and satisfaction as it’s supposed audience exceeds the children. Nowadays, and for decades, I suspect that the young audience it is meant for know it more from the adaptations and animations and the flammery grown up around it. Not that it matters: even those who have never read the book know its contents, absorbed by osmosis out of Jung’s collective unconsciousness.
But even with this status, there is nothing to compare with reading the book, with sinking in to its lost, Edwardian world. We know everyone without introduction, the fretful, sturdy, lower middle-class Mole, developing his place in a new world he never suspected existed, the bright young thing, the Water Rat, spirit of the Riverbank, messing about in boats, the flower that will never be cut down by a War coming towards the horizon, the eccentric old Colonel and recluse, the Badger, abstaining from Society but ever ready to preserve the stratified world these creatures inhabit.
And the Toad; rich, boastful, irrepressible, irresponsible, foolishness and vanity and self-indulgence rolled up into one nevertheless endearing little bundle. You’d run a mile rather than get involved with a real-life Toad, but in the book the loyalty shown him by his friends, their willingness to go one more time to the well with him, convinces you more than any of Toad’s own actions that he has qualities that make him worth sticking with.
What I most noticed about the book, this long after, is its rich and powerful love for the countryside. Grahame fills long paragraph after long paragraph with detailed descriptions of sights and sounds and scents, picturing these things so intensely that we are drawn into the world he depicts, understanding its meaning to these little animals for whom it is their natural, unconsidered but deeply loved world.
Then, of course, there is ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’. I’ve written before about this part of the book, chapter 7, and a sneaky, underhanded attempt to get young readers to avoid it. This time on, I’d also make the point that when I was a young reader, I read avidly. Every book I read, I wanted to read all of it, absorb it all. I simply could not have left out an entire chapter, I would have been eaten up with curiosity as to what I was missing. I don’t think that makes me unique. That’s another condemnation of that stupid attitude.
I said then, and I have little need to reword it, that:

“I would hope that for most of you who read this there would be no need to explain ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ but for those of you who have never read a book that is now over a century old and may be regarded as too old-fashioned, there may be a need. The chapter does not form part of the main narrative strand concerning Toad, and indeed he doesn’t appear in these pages. Simply told, Otter is concerned about his young pup, Portly, who has gone missing. The Water Rat and the Mole set off in Ratty’s boat to hunt for the missing child: they fall into a mystical experience in which they find Portly safe and secure, sleeping at the feet of the God Pan, whom they regard with awe, love and fear. Lest their minds be troubled afterwards, Pan removes their memories of this encounter.
Everything about this chapter is on a level higher than elsewhere in the book. Though this is Pan’s only incursion into The Wind in the Willows, he was a common figure in other of Grahame’s work, and there is learned discussion as to whether the author worshipped Pan.
If he did not, he was able to understand those who did, and place that worship into the heads and hearts of two small, and in truth vulnerable creatures, and through them communicate that experience to readers, even those under the age of ten. I always found “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” a strange experience, something where the book went into waters deeper than elsewhere, waters where it was impossible to tread for any length of time. The chapter is essential to the book, but in a way that I recognised even at so young an age, it is not of it.”

The arc of the story is the familiar one we have known for so long, the one that even people who have never read the book recognise. The spine of the story is the Toad, and his obsession with the new-fangled motor cars that were only beginning to infiltrate the countryside.From tits first appearance, disturbing the horse and destroying Toad’s once-prized caravan, it dominates his thoughts and actions in a way nothing else does. The smashes! The intervention. The escape. The theft. The trial. The Prison. The great escape. The impersonation of the washerwoman, the encounter with the bargee woman. All follow on one another with both the inevitability of consequence and the indifference of a dream.
Toad’s actions are an affront to the natural order of the countryside and of the Edwardian Society of its era, that last golden era that has never been recovered.
And the episodes Grahame chooses to insert between instalments: Mole’s defiant and fearful trip into the Wild Wood to find the Badger. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. The Water Rat’s dream of the Sea. Each in its place and a place for everything. Of course, the entire book refutes a social conscience but even a social conscience can relax, and draw itself a glass of beer, or a plate of cucumber sandwiches and replay a world like this and in that corner that attaches to Jung’s Collective Unconsciousness, live in this dream for the time it takes to read this book.
Toad’s return signals the endgame. The Weasels, the Stoats and the Ferrets have seized Toad Hall. The proletariat has risen against the established order. Of course, being the proletariat, they cannot stand up in the face of their rightful masters, even when there are only four of them, because this is the true Order. It wasn’t like that in Russia, but when did the English proletariat ever forget the chains in their heads?
But begone with Social Realism! We have all the Realism we want here on the Riverbank, in this dream and fantasy of long ago. We do not have to take it into ourselves because we are only ever visitors to a lost land. Anarchy is overthrown. Toad promises to reform (but he won’t, we all know that).
And in a strangely perfunctory passage, the story ends, the Riverbank frozen in time, preserved in aspic.
This is a beautiful book, and a precious one. For all that Dixon Scott produced a pleasant pastiche, neither he, nor especially William Harwood nor any of those who seek to let themselves in to Kenneth Grahame’s world will ever succeed in doing so, because we cannot be of that time and that understanding. In a way, The Wind in the Willows is no longer a book but a piece of tangible magic, a piece of a star fallen to Earth. Reading it, I am both myself and that little boy of so long ago, receiving a gift from loving Mother and Father and sinking into it the way the best of books absorb you. It is a very small world depicted in here, but it has room for every one of us.

Beyond the Lone Pine: The Jillies 6 – The Ambermere Treasure


All too soon it was over. Malcolm Saville began the Jillies’ series in 1948 and ended it after six books in 1953. It was one of four series about older children, based upon big adventures as opposed to the more minor events of the Nettleford, Susan Bill, Michael and Mary or Brown Family series that focused upon younger children, but unlike the Lone Piners, the Fabulous Buckinghams and the Marston Baines coterie, there was to be no adult resolution, no suggestion of a life in relationships born of the deepening friendships begun in childhood.
The Ambermere Treasure is simply the last of it. Mandy, Prue and Tim, Guy and Mark get together one last time. They conduct a commercial venture successfully but improbably, they find a missing treasure rather more predictably, and when there’s no reason to end the series, they just wink out without a light and go.
I know the word is now an egregious cliché, but there’s no closure.
I’ll come back to that but for now let me explain the set-up. Ambermere, village and manor, is a tiny Surrey village within reach of Guildford. It’s been the ancestral home of the Anstey family for centuries, but the line is failing, the family is penurious and the house and gardens are falling to a very extended rack-and-ruin. The Colonel has died heirless, his only son having been killed during the War, and the last of the family are the two spinster Misses Anstey, Lavinia and Ella, transplanted from genteel retirement in Harrogate.
Into this atmosphere of decay and fade comes Patricia, the eight year old daughter of their niece, who married an unsuitable man (excuse me whilst I sneeze the snobbery out). Pat’s father has been seriously unwell, her mother has gone with him to Switzerland for treatment and poor fearful, upset, selfish and hostile Pat has been sent to the most unsympathetic place and people she could be dumped upon, her well-meaning but utterly out-of-their-depths Great-Aunts. Who decide they have to engage some kind of nanny. It just so happens…
Things are not good for the Jillies. Money is more than unusually tight and J.D. is unwell, run-down and unable to shift a racking cough he’s had since contracting bronchitis in March. Over his objections and refusals to deprive his children of such a thing, Mandy, Prue, Tim and Dr Harvey persuade him into a holiday in Austria, staying with the Schmidts of The Sign of the Alpine Rose, to recover his health, his strength and, cleverest touch, coming from Mandy of course, his creativity.
In his absence, Mandy places an advertisement for a job, near London, preferably working with children. Which is how she comes to be taken on at Ambermere Manor, to look after Pat, with whom she takes a no-nonsense but comradely approach that wins the child over.
The thing about old baronial manors and the like, they usually have a hidden treasure, concealed for centuries, waiting for the first pack of bright twentieth century children to come along and find it. It’s practically a law, or an ancient charter. Besides, it’s in the book’s title, not to mention Saville’s dedication, to all the boys and girls who wanted him to write a story about hidden treasure.
The treasure itself was hidden in Civil War times, by Mistress Deborah, just before she was captured and imprisoned by the Roundheads, who had already killed her husband in battle. Mistress Deborah died in imprisonment, only once seeing again the baby son she sent away with his nurse, leaving only a nursery rhyme jingle to sing to her boy and all succeeding generations of Ansteys.
One for sorrow sits on the wall
When the moon shines bright or not at all
Armed with the knowledge that the Anstey family crest features a magpie, can you work that out before the end of this post?
But whilst the treasure hunt is what the kids are here for, and there’s plenty of fun with the unprepossessing rivals – the Colonel’s former servant, John Bennett and ex-maid Amy Perkins – that’s not the biggest part of the story. From the outset, the Misses Lavinia and Ella not only take to Mandy but also treat her as an adult, and a friend on their own level. And Mandy approaches these strange creatures with not just respect but love, becoming a confidante. And, this being 1953, Mandy suggests the Misses Anstey start to build the finances they need by opening the Manor to tourists.
It’s pushing the envelope of credibility further than it really ought but, with the approval and assistance of Solicitor Mr Brewster, who is as taken with Mandy’s energy, drive and sense as the ladies, the rest of the gang are gathered to the Manor to set-up the opening of the Manor as a business taking tours of tourists! One seventeen year old boy, one sixteen year old girl, two thirteen year olds and kids aged eleven and eight.
It’s fun watching everything build up and recognising that whilst Guy is the more practical and thoughtful, and incredibly experienced in what appeals to tourists visiting stately homes, Mandy is the presiding spirit, her imagination and energy and sheer drive animating the whole crazy venture, which is hardly a holiday for any of them. These two are chalk-and-cheese, and the affection between them is still expressed mainly in banter, but they are a very good team, a lot more understanding of each other’s qualities than they ever let on, and with an unspoken satisfaction on both their parts that they are doing something together.
Saville teases his audience a little bit over Mandy’s efforts at publicity, using her vivacity and hinting that they’re saving up discovery of the Ambermere Treasure for Opening Day. Of course you know they’re going to do just that, though the outcome depends on Tim’s most juvenile idea. Anxious to play ghost with a sheet over his head, he gets Prue to come down to the abandoned, overgrown Chapel in the dark. Saville’s already set up a magpie fresco, freestanding in a window from which the glass has long since disappeared.
In the moonlight, the shadow of the magpie is thrown onto the far wall, onto a loose stone behind which the Treasure – rings and gold – has been hidden these four hundred years. Did you solve it before they did?
It’s almost an embarrassment of riches, the Treasure and a grand Opening Day, fuelled by massive publicity and curiosity about the Treasure discovery, and the Day, run by six children and two old women, aided by one Policeman guarding the loot and one AA scout on traffic duty in the car park is a resounding success.
Best of all are two letters, one for Pat, who has inevitably learned a lesson and is rewarded by her father writing to say how much better he feels, and another for the Jillies from J.D., also recovering rapidly and, including a line that binds together much of what has been so brilliant about Mandy, Prue and Tim in this far too short series of books: “I beg you, my Jillies, to remember that you are guests, and remind you that your letters, to which I look forward every day, give me infinite pleasure.”
It’s what I said in writing about Redshank’s Warning, and without wishing to be disrespectful to Guy and Mark, this series is first and foremost a success because of the Jillies. We like them, we love the life they carry around with them, and one of us at least is considerably impressed with Mandy Jillions, a very advanced character in her independence and eagerness to experience. The Standings, and especially Guy, are the straight men, the counterbalance, and it’s noticeable that the one book of the series in which they don’t appear, the Jillies fail to make much of an impression because they’ve no-one to impress themselves against.
The ending is a little underwhelming because it isn’t a real ending, just a stopping. In the Seventies, knowing he was nearing the end of his career, Malcolm Saville resurrected the Buckinghams to give Juliet Buckingham and Charles Renislau a future together, and I wish he could have stretched himself to a long-overdue seventh Jillies story, with the characters all about, say, two years older: old enough for Guy Standing to have finally had the sense to sneak Mandy Jillions into a corner and give her the biggest kiss of her life (so far), and allow Prue Jillions and Mark Standing enough growth to start turning their shared interest into a genuine affection. Tim? Younger brothers in Malcolm Saville’s books are definitely excluded though Tim, with his experience of and sympathy for his sisters, will have the edge over Simon Buckingham and Richard Morton when that never-time comes.
When I was reading these books as a Sixties kids, I did not look at publication dates so I had no idea that the series all took place before I was born. Indeed, the Jillies was the first series Saville ended, though that’s not a distinction I’d like to have.
There has been one fan-fiction ‘adult’ Lone Pine story, which I have already written about, but if such things were to be repeated, I’d love to see the Jillies meet the Lone Piners. I think that would be serious fun, even if you didn’t set Mandy off against Penny Warrender…

Beyond the Lone Pine: The Jillies 5 – The Luck of Sallowby


For the fifth Jillies book, we’re back. Back in England, back to the Standings and back to a decent plot which Saville wants to use to dramatise the dangers of flooding in the arable land of the Fens as based on the real-life events of 1947, whilst bringing a Jilly enemy back into the middle of a good, strong criminal plot.
We’re three chapters in before the Jillies actually come onstage, heading for a holiday in Ely with their spinster aunt, Bridget Singleton, the sister of their late mother, who has been successfully running a warm and friendly cafe, the Copper Kettle, for six months or so. Aunt Bridget wants to reacquaint herself with her family. Still, in the midst of all this rain, and the flat and superficially undistinguished land of the Fens, Mandy and Prue in particular are wondering what they’re going to do.
By then, the reader has a fair inkling. In a technique he would not introduce into the Lone Pine series for some time, Saville starts with the villains, in this case the small, pointed-nose, circumlocutory of speech Mr Beale – who we know is a villain because he kicks a puppy into the gutter – and the younger, smoother, but still repulsive Mr Chester. Beale is a man down on his luck, under Chester’s thumb due to certain papers the latter holds. And Chester runs a criminal enterprise devoted to identifying and… acquiring… valuable relics to be sold to the American market. Beale, who is something of an expert, is to act as his spotter here in the Fens. And pretty damned quickly.
Chapter 2 reintroduces the Standings, Guy and Mark, at their large and comfortable home in the Midlands, growing frustrated at the waste of half their school holidays, trapped by the rain. They’re kicking against the traces and thinking of a mini-cycle tour when a lengthy letter arrives from Mandy, setting up the visit to Ely and inviting the boys to cycle over (it’s only a hundred miles!) She even suggests Aunt Bridget could put them up.
It’s Mandy to the life and though the stiff-necked and prim Mrs Standing objects, Mr Standing is not only more favourably inclined towards the idea (and Mandy!), he’s on a business trip the next day that will take him to within twenty miles of Ely.
Once the boys are on their own, buffeted by the high winds and able to see for themselves the risk from the river levels and their raised position above the Fens, Saville is able to ease into the wider concerns that will take us into the threatening territory of the book’s second half. Guy and Mark identify a hole in a dyke, give a lift to Water Board Inspector Mr Curtis, whose thirteen year old son Francis is the owner of the kicked puppy and who becomes a contingent member of the gang, like Sandy Barton in Two Fair Plaits, and like any decent Saville children, show an immediate interest in helping out this increasingly desperate situation.
Even so, they still arrive at the Copper Kettle the same day as Mandy, Prue and Tim, and of course Aunt Bridget is every bit as wonderful as you’d expect a Saville adult to be, so they’re accommodated with ease.
Which leads to one of my favourite exchanges in all of Saville’s books. Mandy catches Guy alone, grasps the middle button of his jacket and asks him, seemingly as if the answer matters, if he thought she was being a forward hussy in inviting the Standings to join them. Guy, who is not as far forward in this relationship than Mandy, still knows what to say and, straightfacedly replies that he does. And Mandy leans in until she’s almost in his face (and certainly within kissing distance) before hissing, ‘Silly old stick-in-the-mud!’ and running off.
It’s flirting, Jim, if not quite as we know it. The Neglected Mountain was still to come (it would be the next Lone Pine book), but Mandy Jillions and Guy Standing were a lot closer to marking the long term nature of their friendship than David Morton and Petronella Sterling.
The boys – and this includes Tim and Francis – are eager to experience more of the flood protection methods, although Aunt Bridget has arranged for all of them to take afternoon tea with her friend Colonel Frensham of Sallowby Manor, a widower of limited means but with great local and historical knowledge and a family history extending back to the times, and the band of Hereward the Wake. Prue refuses to go out and cycle but Mandy has no intention of being left out and joins the boys on a long, exhausting day, during which they are several times treated as if they’re underfoot (which they are) and which ends with them discovering a leak and the Standings desperately (and dirtily) plugging it up until Mandy can summon help.
This is where the various strands of the book start to be tied together. AS the two parties converge on Sallowby Manor, the man we know as Beale is just leaving. Prue recognises him but can’t remember from where. Somewhat surprisingly, everyone takes her seriously, as indeed they should. Though Colonel Frensham has certain antiquities on display, he has something priceless concealed in a safe in his study that he permits only Guy and Mandy to see. This is the Luck of Sallowby, a short-handled, immaculately preserved battle-axe from the time of Hereward, handed down through generations, complete with a rhyme, tying possession of the Luck to the fate of Sallowby Manor.
And whilst the children are examining that, Mandy sees a face peering through the window that they all automatically associate with Mr Beale. As indeed they should, as once they return to the cafe, Prue recalls who he really is: Mr Sandrock, the art smuggler of Redshank’s Warning.
The gang warn Aunt Bridget, who doesn’t actually disbelieve but seems overwhelmed, and the next day Mandy and Prue take the bus to Sallowby Manor to warn Colonel Frensham. (They have an additional motive: Aunt Bridget twice called the Colonel ‘Charles’ – she clearly wants to marry him! They could end up related to the Luck of Sallowby).
But the increasing danger from the flooding remains the central focus, with the threat of Chester and Beale taking advantage of the confused situation and everybody’s distraction. At one point, when the banks have leaked and everyone’s milling about, they find Mark on his own and kidnap him to a nearby but very dilapidated pub (another of Saville’s tropes: all pubs run by characters who give shelter to villains are run down and dirty), though he escapes and gets back to Ely. Where he’s greeted by the ever-dramatic Prue with a hug and a sob and a heartfelt cry that they thought he was dead: Mark is to Prue as Guy is to Mandy, but this is the first and only expression of anything more than friendship on either side.
There are some wonderful individual touches in this book, that explode the kind of cliches Saville and other writers so often indulged in. At one point, having been formally and mutually recognised by the gang, and taunted about other names, Beale finds Mandy alone in the cathedral, clutches her arm and threatens her over forgetting any other name but Beale or any other encounter. When he relates this proudly to Chester, the latter bluntly tells him it was the most stupid and dangerous thing he could have done.
And when Mandy and Prue repeat their warnings to the Colonel after Mark’s adventure, and he shows them the Luck’s empty case, Mandy bursts into tears that they have let him down by coming too late, only to be reassured: the day they first warned him, the Colonel took the Luck into Ely and deposited it with his Bank. He took their warning seriously. Why couldn’t more writers do this?
Eventually, the water wins. The culverts burst, the road explodes, the flood starts in. Unfortunately, Mandy is caught by it. She and Prue have, as planned, watched the housekeeper steal the empty case and follow her as she delivers it to Beale and Chester. The headstrong Mandy insists on following the pair to try to get the number of their car for the Police, though she’s supposed to stay within the Manor grounds. When the road goes, she and they are trapped. All three make for an isolated farmhouse, that won’t last forever under the pressure of the rising water.
Everyone panics at her absence, with Prue in tears, but inevitably it’s Guy who sees the light Mandy manages to flash from the farmhouse. He joins the Colonel in the boat that goes out to rescue everyone, the subdued Mandy first, joining Guy in the boat and clearly very but quietly grateful that he is there, in a manner that leaves him without any words to say how important it has been to him that she is safe.
So all’s well that ends well, even if the threatened flood has happened, causing untold and uncounted damage to the Fens, its economy and the food supply to England, which gets forgotten in the dark, as Mandy briefly wakes to see Charles smiling at Bridget, and is sure there’ll be a wedding ere too long. How very Austenian.
After the disaster that was The Sign of the Alpine Rose and the contrivances to construct Strangers at Snowfell, The Luck of Sallowby was a welcome return to form for the Jillies. Such a pity then that Saville would only write them one more adventure.

Beyond the Lone Pine: The Jillies 4 – The Sign of the Alpine Rose


In my younger years, I had five out of the six Jillies books and read them several times over. For some inexplicable reason I never got hold of The Sign of the Alpine Rose, and me such a stickler for complete sets. So the fourth book of the series represents another Saville story that I can only consider as an adult.
The Sign of the Alpine Rose is an anomaly in several ways. For one, it is the only book of the series not to feature Guy and Mark Standing, not even by passing reference. For a second, it takes the Jillies out of England for the only time, to Austria, the first of Saville’s characters to venture abroad. For a third, the book leans heavily on J.D. instead of his children, playing a more substantial and direct part than any of the adults in Saville’s fiction that I have read. And this is because, fourthly, the subject of the book is politics, and the Iron Curtain.
Instead of the Standings, Mandy and her family are going to a picture-book Austria, high in the mountains, to stay with her pen-friend Lisbeth Schmidt and her mother in the Alpine village of Bercht. At the time the book was written, 1950, Austria was still under quadripartite control, divided into four Zones, administered by the Allied Powers, America, Britain, France and Russia, though Saville mysteriously omits the Americans, and indeed writes as if there are effectively only two Austrias: free and Communist-controlled.
He blurs the matter further in his introduction, which for once is not about the characters but about the utterly-foreign country where it takes place, a mystery to all his readers. He then suggests the readers imagine Bercht as being in either the British or French Zone, only for it to be certain, if not telegraphed, in the book that this is the French Zone.
This is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs. I get simplifying the political background for an audience in which only a tiny minority will care, but there’s simplification and confusing obfuscation and Saville errs too much to the latter.
Still, the story. Lisbeth, a rather serious sixteen year old, and her elder, somewhat standoffish brother Franz, live with their mother, who runs a small but homely guest-house for visitors. Her father used to be the village schoolmaster, until he went away to war ten years before: he has long been believed dead. But Herr Schmidt is alive and well, albeit in the Communist Zone (Saville does not use the word Russian, he is being polemic in this story). And with the aid of a local underground, who are operating Scarlet Pimpernel-style to get refugees back from the East, Herr Schmidt is trying to get back to his family.
Enter the Jillies. J.D. has decided they are going on a holiday abroad, Mandy has nominated Austria to meet Lisbeth, it’s going to be so much fun. And at first it is, with beautiful mountain country all around, enough that I wanted to see it for myself. But already there’s trouble brewing of a kind I was actually ashamed to see.
Bercht, it’s valley and it’s higher satellite, Ober-Bercht, reached by a narrow cable car, is dominated by its prominent mountain, Bullshead, so called for its twin peaks, like horns at either end of a flat, snow-capped plateau. Bullshead? Not even a stab at an Austrian name? Bullenkopf? Mandy immediately wants to climb it. She, and J.D., get warned off: it’s a dangerous mountain for one thing, especially for completely inexperienced English schoolgirls, and besides, the border to the Communist Zone runs along its top.
But this is where I found myself feeling that shame. As far as Mandy’s concerned, and later J.D., they are British. They can go where they want, they can do what they want and no-one can touch them because they’re British. The arrogance and the ignorance overwhelms me. It makes the whole family look like egotists, blundering into a delicate situation that they have no understanding of, wilfully going their own way despite the manifold warnings of people who know the situation intimately, and who keep warning that the Jillies’ actions are endangering the organisation, it’s people and, what is worse, the refugees from the harsh Communist regime who are being smuggled back to freedom one by one.
Despite all this, the British know better. It’s one thing to see this in the impetuous and impulsive Mandy, whose heart is always in the right place even when her desire to prove her competence and independence leads her into foolish proclamations. But J.D. is an adult, old enough to have fought in the last war and owing his slight limp to a 1917 wound. That makes him somewhere around his early-to-mid-fifties, for all he plays a good decade younger, and therefore something like 37/38 when Mandy was conceived (I bet Saville didn’t think of that when he was writing this).
The point is that he is old enough to know better. I know he’s an artist, which is a shorthand for unconventional, but in the face of warnings he persists in invading the Communist Zone himself, despite his oblivious lack of knowledge. He even drags the heroic Johann, our Pimpernel-manque, along with him, promising to obey orders and follow his lead, only to ignore sanity and his own commitments at every turn to near disastrous effect.
The book’s supreme irony is that Herr Schmidt does escape and return to the bosom of not only his family but his village, a village that has identified the traitors among it, and run them out of town, but that he does it with no assistance from the Jillies greater than his leaning on Mandy’s shoulder as a stranger.
Of course, you could argue that J.D.’s nonsense played a part in distracting the Communists, but the timescale doesn’t work as Herr Schmidt has gotten across the Bullshead before J.D. goes off on his quixotic mission as the self-appointed British Saviour, superior to Johnny Foreigner.
I’m sorry to be so savage about this book, which did reflect the mood and morale of its time. Britain was five years out from winning the War, though it was still observing food rationing at home, an unmentioned fact though Saville has Tim goggle at the size of breakfasts etc. in the defeated enemy country of Austria. Saville clearly feels strongly about Communism, especially as practiced by the Russians, and especially from his position as a devout Christian, and he’s neither the first nor last author to allow his passions to override his writing skills.
The truth is that his chosen subject is far too weighty for his characters. There’s a limit to what Mandy, Prue and Tim can do. They can wander the mountain trails, they can draw the attention of an unpleasant man to them, they can act as red flags to bulls, but when it comes to helping Herr Schmidt return to his native village, they can’t do a damned thing. And J.D. not only comes close to borking Schmidts’s rescue, but he puts the entire operation at risk, and jeopardises his own freedom through his insistence on doing what he wants to ahead of the advice of experts with extensive local knowledge.
To complete the heaping of coals on Saville’s head, the book misses the Standings. Not just the sparks between Mandy and Guy, a safe figure against whom to kick, but the sense that all the cast are operating on a level together, not dividing between children and adult levels.
Saville would not make that mistake again.
I’ve no idea what I would have made of this book in that pleasant country we call the Sixties, probably far less than I’ve done now. But I think I made an unconsciously sensible idea not to go there then.

Some Books: Ian Fleming’s ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’


This is an occasional series, about books I read many years ago, usually but not always from Didsbury Library, that I seek out to re-experience, to see if the things that appealed still affect me the same way, and to measure the change in myself between then and now.
Back in the days when I had first been allowed to cross into the Adult Library, I read all the James Bond books, give or take the odd short story here or there. I don’t remember much about them now. I presume I enjoyed them, then, but more importantly, I read James Bond because he was one of the keys to adulthood, almost as much as smoking, and probably just as bad for your health.
I never touched the first of these: I had already learned to dislike the atmosphere in a household in which both parents smoked but more importantly a father dying of cancer when I was in my early teens was an impenetrable barrier to starting that.
Down the years, the James Bond book that I remembered most was the odd-one-out, the penultimate novel, the experiment that nobody liked and that Fleming came to hate, demanding it neither be reprinted nor appear in paperback in his lifetime. This was The Spy Who Loved Me. I’ve just re-read it, curious to see what I think of it a lifetime later.
I didn’t remember all that much about it from long ago, but I did remember enjoying the book, and being intrigued by it as an experiment. The Spy Who Loved Me is about, and is ‘written’ by Vivienne Michel, a French-Canadian woman in her mid-twenties, escaping from a couple of failed love affairs in London, to which she was sent to Finishing School. Vivienne winds up looking after the Dreamy Pines Motel in the Adirondacks which is closing down, but it’s a scam in which she is to be killed as cover for an insurance claim, but not before she’s treated sadistically by the two hired thugs.
Fortunately for Vivienne, a stranger stops at the Motel, refusing to accept that it is closed. This is Bond, travelling between missions. He recognises the situation, intervenes to rescue Vivienne and dispose of the thugs, fucks her to a peak of ecstacy and goes on his way, leaving her behind.
That’s the story. It’s not necessarily much of a story, but I enjoyed the unusual angle of it. I thought it daring to write a series book in which the main character is a minor figure, passing through, seen from a purely external viewpoint by an unconnected stranger. Off the top of my head, the only other book I can think of which uses a similar technique is Arthur Ransome’s Winter Holiday, in which the newly-introduced Callums show us the Walkers and the Blacketts from outside, not necessarily to their credit.
Does the book hold up in any way? It is broken into three unequal sections, Me, Them and Him. The first section sets up Vivienne’s situation, left alone at the Motel with a storm raging, before back-tracking over her life’s history in London. This is Fleming writing as Vivienne and it doesn’t quite work.
The autobiography is, in thriller terms, complete filler. It occupies roughly half the book and the amount of action in it is minimal. There’s an opening chapter to set-up the situation and implant the notion that something fishy is going on, followed by chapters of Viv’s life-story, with the emphasis first upon her being out-of-step because she’s French-Canadian at an English Finishing School, and secondly upon her sex-life.
This comes in two phases. The first is Derek, a public school boy in a summer between finishing school and going up to Oxford. He and Viv meet at a party, they wind up snogging (or might it have still been spooning back then?), with Viv allowing him to put his hand on her breast because every time she moves it away, he puts it back, so clearly she’s in the wrong.
This leads to an end of summer cinema visit where he persuades her to let him fuck her in a private cinema box, only for them to be interrupted by the manager with a torch whilst Viv is on her back with his skirt round her waist, showing her pussy (hey, it’s Fleming who’s insisting on these details, not me), and they’re thrown out in no uncertain and public terms, but it’s alright because they nip down to a nearby riverbank where everyone does it, Derek sticks it in, Viv’s no longer a virgin, and he promptly disappears into the sunset, never to be seen again, as if we hadn’t all but Viv seen that coming from Quebec.
Two years later, working a job at which she is very competent and is earning good money, Viv ends up counselling her boss, the German Klaus about his plans for marriage and a happy sexual life, only to wind up his mistress when his fiancee marries someone else. This time it’s good, satisfying sex with Teutonic efficiency, but no love, until Viv makes the mistake of getting pregnant.
For this, she gets two things from Klaus: a Swiss abortion, and a month’s wages in lieu of notice. So Viv buys a scooter, returns to Canada and sets off on a pre-Easy Rider tour, until she winds up at the Dreamy Pines, just as someone’s knocking at the door.
There is a point to setting out these brief details of Viv’s life, and I’ll return to it.
The second phase, just three chapters, is the two new arrivals, Sol ‘Horror’ Horowitz and ‘Sluggsy’ Moran. They’re supposed to be insurance adjustors for the owner, before the Motel closes down tomorrow, except it’s going to close down in a fire caused by the hopeless receptionist. After, that is, she has been thoroughly beaten, and comprehensively raped by Sluggsy.
The beating she gets from Horror: vicious, professional, brutal, expert enough not to leave a mark, especially after Viv has caused problems, first by resisting then trying to escape. She winds up stripped naked in the shower, preserving that essential association between sadism and sex that is the mark of a James Bond novel, but as yet unraped. But not for long.
Ah, I just mentioned James Bond, and this is a James Bond book, is it not? Phase two ends with the front door buzzer going, and guess who it is? Viv signals him to come in, desperate for help and unaware she couldn’t have done better. She alerts him to what’s going on far too easily for complete plausibility, Fleming relying on Horror and Sluggsy’s ultimate confidence that they have guns and know better how to use them.
In turn, Bond briefly explains why he’s here: he’s been out west preventing a Russian defector from being killed but failing to capture SPECTRE’s chief assassin alive for questioning, so he’s taking a few days breather driving east to his debrief. He’s here because his car has blown a tyre.
There’s no reason to be more than perfunctory about the action from here. Fleming spins it out by having Bond make mistake after mistake but in the end the expected occurs. Horror and Sluggsy are shot and killed, Bond fucks Vivianne roughly half the night and is gone in the morning, sending the authorities to clean up, look after Viv and, in the case of Police Captain Stonor, an unofficial piece of very good advice, father-daughter style, not to fall in love with someone like Bond.
Of course that’s wasted breath. Viv already has, even as she knows he doesn’t, won’t and can’t love her back, that she’s already accepted she will never see him again, but she’s going to wilfully reject the idea of someone else telling her to do that, because Bond is so magnetic a man that’s she’s never going to forget, and will always love The Spy Who Loved Her.
As I’ve already said, The Spy Who Loved Me is a very thin book as far as a thriller is concerned, and it’s subject, the saving of one woman’s life is a very low-key matter for Bond. I’ve read it in a 1967 paperback, full of newspaper blurbs that praise the book, and the character of Vivienne, in extravagant terms. Yet Fleming issued instructions to supress the book during his lifetime.
Overall, The Spy Who Loved Me reminds me very much of the late Dennis Wheatley novel, The Strange Story of Linda Lee. That too is a first person novel, purporting to be in the voice of a woman considerably younger than an author who is arrogantly Conservative, writing someone of an age that they were completely out of touch with.
The idea that Fleming can successfully represent the thoughts and opinions of a twenty-five year old woman is implausible, and I put the significance of her being French-Canadian, with no national characteristics of either blood, to be an attempt to account for any incapacity to make her realistic.
The sex side is ludicrous, but not more so than when Viv gets to drop them for James. Of course he gives her her first orgasm – you don’t think a bloody Jerry is going to be allowed to do that? And given that Fleming is evidently hot for sadism, we should try to avoid being shocked when Viv proclaims that “All women love semi-rape” (at least he put the ‘semi’ in there). He takes her brutally, what is it, five hours maximum after she’s been worked over by Horror. That’s bullshit, and should be called out as such.
But the thing about this book, and what’s the real reason Fleming wanted it suppressed, is that it’s too transparent. Fleming isn’t putting on the voice of Vivienne Michel, he is playing at being her because he wants the experience of being fucked by James Bond. That’s who the spy is supposed to love, not some unworthy tart.
Though it’s not part of the brief for this series, I’m in the unique position of having another version of this novel to compare. This is the Jim Lawrence/Yaroslav ‘Larry’ Horak adaptation serialised in the Daily Express between December 1967 and October 1968.
The strip version removes the experimentalism of the novel, making Bond himself the focus of the story throughout. Vivienne’s viewpoint disappears and she doesn’t even enter the story until midway through.
Lawrence constructs a new sequence for the first half of the story. It’s essentially the brief account Bond gives Vivienne in the book to explain, adapted to a story of SPECTRE blackmailing a pilot into giving details of a new radar-invisible jetplane (a ‘stealth-bomber’ two decades early), instead of merely protecting a defector. The action part of this account is followed very faithfully in the new context.
Bond then sets off cross-country in his car and the story switches to Vivienne at the Dreamy Pines motel. From hereon, Lawrence follows the novel very faithfully, whilst eliminating Vivienne’s internal monologue.
Of course there are changes. Horror’s sadistic beating of Vivienne takes place between two strips and when she’s dumped in the shower to be revived, the thugs observe the moralities by leaving her her (completely intact) frilly bra and knickers instead of stripping her naked. After they’re both killed, the sex with Bond is implied rather than depicted (and the words ‘semi-rape’ appear nowhere in the strip).
Lastly, Lawrence cuts the coda commendably short, removing Vivienne’s emotional turmoil and intercutting Bond for one last frame, as the two drive in opposite directions.
It’s a very skilful adaptation, and a much more commercial approach than Fleming himself took. It uses a surprisingly large amount of the book, and by focussing on that, it turns it into a conventional James Bond adventure. I think I prefer that.
Fleming’s idea for The Spy who Loved Me is an interesting experiment, and I’d enjoy seeing other authors tackle it in their series, but ultimately his failings as a writer and a man make it a noble, but a failed experiment. I shalln’t retain his version of the story.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Sorcerer’s House’


A note of apology: this review was written and should have been posted in January 2019 but I completely overlooked it, going straight from An Evil Guest to Home Fires. Thanks to Nigel Price for pointing out this slip.

After An Evil Guest, Gene Wolfe, not for the first time, chose to write a book that is in many ways a complete opposite. Where the one was, in structure and tone, a hard-boiled crime drama shot through with fantastic SF elements, The Sorcerer’s House is an incredulous fantasy gateway story told in that most old-fashioned of forms, the epistolary novel. By which, for those who have never come across the term, I mean a novel written wholly in letters.
Wolfe has, of course, come very close to this form this century, with The Wizard Knight and Pirate Freedom both being told as supposedly a single long letter. But The Sorcerer’s House is a succession of letters, mainly by protagonist Baxter Dunn to his estranged twin brother George, but including letters by Dunn to other parties, and letters received in response to some of his missives.
Baxter, or Bax as he prefers to be called, is a scholar, holding two Ph.Ds and other distinction, but his story begins shortly after his release from prison, after serving a sentence for what we understand as fraud, perpetrated against several parties at or around his last academic institution, many if not all of them friends and associates of his brother George.
Later, we infer, from George’s accusations when he arrives in town, that Baxter has on at least one occasion posed as George. And he admits to having legally cheated George out of a substantial inheritance, left to the Baxter twins for educational purposes: Bax remained in continual education until the entire fund had been drained, paying his fees.
Until he appears, George will have nothing to do with Bax, which hardly seems surprising, but this state of affairs appears to have existed for some time before Bax’s transgressions.
In Bax’s first letter, he is writing from a hostel where he is staying. He has no money or assets, although he is awaiting an allowance cheque which comes at intervals (not until the book’s very end do we learn this to be an allowance made by the Dunns’ adoptive mother). He says he’s not writing to ask for a loan from George, but does frame it as an investment opportunity.
The letters are not dated, so the reader has to infer from internal evidence how long the gap is from one to the next, but by then Bax has moved into the titular house (Wolfe, as ‘compiler’, claims to have presented the letters in a logical order but not necessarily the correct one). It’s old, dilapidated and empty, and whilst the word isn’t used, he’s there as a squatter. He’s left the hostel after its manager tried to forge his allowance cheque, he’s taken the house, without power or water, for a roof over his head, and is planning to offer himself to its owner as a tenant who will carry out repairs and refurbishments (bought with the owner’s money) in return for rent-free occupation.
That’s the last point at which things appear to be normal. The book then starts to develop along parallel strands, the one directly fantastic, the other in the everyday world but with its own improbable mysteries.
Bax’s house, which we come to learn is known as the Black House, both for its forbidding and spooky reputation and because its last owner was a Mr Black, appears to be some form of crossing place between realities. Bax bumps into a strangely dressed teenage boy, who drops an unusual brass device with concentric wheels and a candle that is later described as a longlight and which appears to distribute some sort of magical force called numen.
The triannular is a wishing tool, and when used the longlight needs to be lit and stay lit until the wish, which comes in threes, has been achieved. This Bax learns from the boy, who first beats him, then is beaten by him, though apparently these are different twins: Emlyn, who is the innocent one and the victim, Ieuan, the evil one.
And Bax finds himself being adopted by Winkle, a kind of talking (albeit lisping) fox, who also turns into a small, nicely-curved Japanese girl who invades his bed (rather a mattress) at night and has sex with him.
Oh yes, the mattress is stuffed full of money, and there are mysterious and unrecognisable gold coins in an upstairs drawer.
But this is, as I’ve indicated, but part of the story. Bax finds a local, independent realtor, a Martha Murrey, and from her progresses to another realtor, an attractive widow named Doris Griffin, who has been looking for him. The Black House belongs to him, deeded to him years before, by Mr Black. Baxter has no recollection of ever having met Mr Black.
Doris is very enthusiastic about Baxter. Lots of the women in this book are. Doris presses him to wear the wedding ring formerly belonging to her late husband Ted. She takes him to bed, makes it plain she’d marry him. She even produces for him a piece of valuable riverfront land, the Skotos Strip, three miles of undeveloped land currently worth three million dollars, left to him by one Alexander Skotos, who died three years ago and, yes, Bax doesn’t remember him either.
But Bax and Doris’s romantic progression is interrupted by a series of murders in Medicine Bend, women accosted alone after dark on the street and literally dismembered. The predator(s) is/are a werewolf/werewolves. Bax and Doris are attacked by a pack of them, returning from a dinner date, and Bax kills one with a silver bullet (the man is prepared), although this is excluded from any of his letters, and comes in late on in a letter to him from his interested spectator, Millie, his sister-in-law.
Without going into further detail, this is a tale of strange goings-on, and of the fantastic spilling out into the otherwise mundane. The Black House is a gateway between Medicine Bend and faerie, and Mr Black is a sorceror, and father of twins, only not just of Emlyn and Ieuan. And what other pair of twins are there in this book?
One of this pair is also a sorceror, though he doesn’t know it, and another character in the book, who remains on the sidelines for most of the tale’s duration, is his birth mother.
I’m deliberately not going into detail on so many aspects of this story, because there are so many convolutions, and for reasons I will shortly come to. The ending of the book tries to account for all of these, or as many as we need, but does so at great haste and in little space, leaving the finale rushed and as telegraphed a twist as any in any Wolfe book. There is no need for careful and thoughtful reading and re-reading to determine this one, it shouts into your face with the subtlety of an “As you know…” exposition.
But I must go back and account for George Dunn’s role in this book. After several letters setting out fantastic and implausible events, whilst constantly alluding to how George hates Baxter and derides and condemns him, George turns up in a lawyer’s office, as mad as hell, full of accusations and unprovoked violence that gets him arrested for assaulting first a secretary, then a woman cop. And he’s claiming he’s the real George Dunn at a point where no-one, least of all Bax, is suggesting Bax is anyone other than Bax.
George acts like a madman from the start, a paranoid who may have good past cause for paranoia but who, in a story told by Baxter, has no grounds for his behaviour. Once he gets bailed out of jail, he turns up once more and promptly disappears inside the Black House, having interfered where he has no business to unleash a vampire, never to be seen again.
All that remains of him is a challenge to a duel with duelling pistols, survivor takes all, and a final letter from George to his wife Millie, telling her Bax has disappeared into faerie after reconciling with George, who has turned over a new leaf and will henceforth treat his once unloved and much put-upon wife with tenderness, care, respect and love, not to mention letters that sound like Baxter wrote them. It couldn’t be more blatant under a thirty foot neon sign.
Which is why I find it hard to go any deeper into the details of this story. Because all of this, all these goings on, are things for which we only have one witness, and that is Baxter Dunn. Brother George very clearly doesn’t believe a word of it, castigates him as a liar, and as mad, and certainly if this weren’t a Gene Wolfe novel, we might think exactly the same.
And how much of what Bax writes is actually ‘real’? We have nothing but Bax’s word that any of this has happened, and he’s a self-confessed fraudster. Given that these accounts of impossible goings on, which recall the mixture of mundane and fantastic words that underpinned Castleview, draw an infuriated George to town to ‘protect his interests’ (and indulge his fury at his twin brother), how much of it is a lure to give Bax the chance to trade his life as an ex-con with that of his brother, a long-standing successful businessman?
Indeed, is any of it real at all? I confess that I believe none of it, that it is all made up, and not in the sense that all fiction is ‘made up’. It’s an entertaining and easy enough read, but it lacks my conviction and there is a lot of critical opinion that finds it unsatisfactory as well. I wish it thought better of it.