Pursuing Christopher Priest: The Evidence

Christopher Priest’s latest novel was published just in time for my recent birthday and was gladly received as a personal present. It’s a return to his near-forty-year-old habit of titles featuring the definite article, and a welcome return to the ever-fascinating environment of the Dream Archipelago: unmapped (unmappable), undefined, a protean landscape of near-infinite malleability.
Yet again, Priest has introduced a mysterious phenomenon, the effects of which will influence the life of the narrator, here being Todd Fremde, professional crime-fiction writer. This is a strange effect, prevalent only on some islands in the Archipelago, those sited upon or close to a geological rift, which is called mutability (small ‘m’).
Mutability appears to arise from gravitational anomalies. Things undergo physical changes, such as a mountain changing shape, that are impossible. Afterwards, the change reverts, and ceases to have actually happened, though anyone dying of it remains dead. In places where it is present, crime-detection is hampered because evidence is rendered completely unreliable.
You might think that you can immediately see the possibilities for crime and crime fiction but, in this respect, and in many others throughout what is, appropriately a detective fiction story, the only possibilities you can see are in your own head. This is a strange book, in which Priest holds out a series of possibilities, a string of questions at all stages, that threaten to be of significance, only for their portended significance to either vanish unexplored, or to turn out to be flat and unexciting.
Summarised simply, this is a book in which a crime fiction writer who has no respect for crime fiction finds himself unwillingly investigating a crime whose ramifications turn out to be banal and cliched, giving the impression that Christopher Priest has no respect for crime fiction, has attempted to write a crime fiction story that exposes crime fiction’s lack of validity and has instead made his own book pointless.
Let me demonstrate immediately by taking the unusual step of quoting the sleeve blurb in its entirety. Todd Fremde, an author of police procedurals and criminal thrillers, is invited to talk at a conference on the remote island of Dearth, far across the Dream Archipelago. How can Dearth claim to be completely crime-free, yet still have an armed police force? Why are they so keen for him to appear, but so dismissive when he appears? Is his sense of time confused, or is something confusing happening to happening to time itself? And how does this all connect with a murder committed on his home island, ten years before, and seemingly forgotten? Fremde’s investigation and research will lead him to some dangerous conclusions…
Now it was Samuel Johnson for once, instead of William Shakespeare, who said that ‘in lapidary inscription a man is not on oath’, nor can the same be said for book blurbs, but this is extraordinary stuff in a Christopher Priest novel. It’s so uncharacteristic that I’m tempted to wonder if this was written by Priest himself as an ironic counterpoint to what the book is really about, because there is no part of this blurb that, except in stick-figure manner, has nothing to do with the book.
But then, as Fremde and Priest constantly remind us, crime fiction has nothing remotely to do with real life, real crime, real transgression.
I can give the answers shortly; because Dearth has re-named crime as civil transgression, changing the terminology not the event; that they do has got nothing to do with anything; it’s the mutability, stupid: and because, for no reason other than to fuel the story, a semi-retired Police Commissioner fastens herself to Fremde, gives him a lift and tells him a story of a crime that bears scant relation to what actually happened.
Frejah Harsent attaches herself, seemingly casually to Fremde in the bar, and the next day offers to drive him all the way across Dearth to the airport, saving him two uncomfortable days on the train, not to mention securing him a much-needed refund that almost obliterates the losses he’s made on a mutability slip. On the way, on the apparent need that Police officers have to tell crimewriters about an interesting past case, she relates a story about a murder on another Salay island, in which it was ultimately found that the victim committed suicide by bashing himself on the back of his head with his own baseball bat. She insists on his recording her story and even ensures he gets correct spellings of the unfamiliar names.
The problem is that, when Fremde’s partner, Jo Delson, and his Police researcher, ex-Detective Inspector Spoder, look up details for him, it’s very easy to identify the case but practically every detail Harsent has given is incorrect.

For a moment, the veteran Priest reader pricks up their ears. Surely we are entering the familiar territory on Unreality, of irreconcilable versions of things that happened, equally valid. But for once we’re not. Harsent is lying. Why is she lying? Why does she want to draw this mater to Fremde’s attention only to later complain about him poking his nose in where it doesn’t belong? Valid questions. Priest doesn’t bother to provide answer to those, either.

In fact, at first it’s Spoder who is the enthusiast, opening up the field of the case to include an actual unsolved murder and insisting on Fremde accompanying him to Salay Sekonda to inspect a murder scene left untouched for ten years, even though Fremde desperately wants to get back to his latest novel. By then, Fremde has solved the ruled-suicide death of fifteen years ago that’s baffled the Police of two islands simply by noting that the victim had an identical twin brother (gee, and the Police didn’t think of that), and going off on a discursion about how the identical twin solution is dead in crime fiction as being cheap and unrealistic.

Perhaps the Unreality in this novel is the schizophrenic attitude Todd Fremde and Christopher Priest have towards crime fiction because neither of them seem to like it or think it worthwhile in any way.

Events multiply.

The second most indefensibly mysterious thing about this story at least fits more with the background of the Dream Archipelago, Back on Dearth, the Hotel Plaza gave Fremde a cardkey for his room door, plus a second, almost identical card, not to be used except under strictly advised circumstances. Needless to say, whilst drunk he uses it, leading to the extra charges that nearly wipe him out. And he overlooks handing it in when he leaves.

Back on Salay Raba, which has pretty much overtaken Muriseay as the financial centre of the whole Archipelago. Fremde discovers he still has it. It has embedded computer chips on both sides. It’s a hotel card pass for a building on a radically different island so, as you do with such things, Fremde pops it into his computer and overrides his security to load up a completely unknown programme that takes hours to instal. As you do.

Then, when it wants to identify his social level to key it to him, Fremde decides that the truth would make it too easy to identify him personally and deflects to the Financial Sector. As you do.

I make this point because, from the moment Fremde loads up this programme, the Salay economy becomes fucked up beyond all recognition. Cashpoints stop delivering cash. Banks fail. Thousands lose their savings. Everything goes to custard. Fremde, who has been do quick to seize on the twin as the mystery murderer, does not show the same mental acuity when it comes to his mystery super-dense programme.

As the story progresses, and I refuse to go into any more detail, the shape of the criminal conspiracy (which is also outdated and unrealistic in crime fiction according to Fremde) begins to appear. There were five participants. It started with Dearth Detective Inspector Enver Jexsid, whose wife abandoned him, taking their twin sons Lew and Deever to run off with a rich man. When she died, stepdaddy abandoned the boys, leaving with them a bag containing shitloads of money to be used by them and anyone else involved. Jexsid went to Salay the fifth, taking with him, for support, his Police partner Frejah Harsent and her then-husband Hari Harsent.

A deal was done to create a tontine (tontines are also old-fashioned and unrealistic in crime fiction. Bet you hadn’t guessed that.) In its pure form, a tontine is a substantial sum of money held in trust, usually among a family to be inherited by the last survivor, though here it’s being used to create an income for the five partners.

The whole thing started when the boys got greedy and decided stepdad meant all the money for them alone. Then Lew wanted to take his share out, so Deever smashed his head in and took the money. After five years of his denying it, Hari Harsent killed him. Jexsid killed him because he’d killed both his sons. Now he’s trying to track Fremde down and kill him because somehow – don’t expect an explanation – he’s sussed out that Fremde’s cardkey has crashed the economy, including all his savings and believes he’s hacked the system to do it deliberately.

Before I move on to the ending, the only other aspect of this novel that is orthodoxically Priest is an odd focus on the social structure throughout the Archipelago. Past novels have referred in outline to seigneurial control, but there’s a greater examination of this, namely that most of the Archipelago runs on a modernised Feudal system, with a twelve-level hierarchy, ranging from serf and citizen serf (Fremde and Jo’s status as freelancers) to Seigneurial status. Frejah Harsent is very status conscious and whilst Fremde tries to avoid even thinking about it but isn’t very successful at that.

Even this aspect isn’t very enlightening. We look at the Dream Archipelago as a kind of funhouse mirror, presenting situations that don’t and can’t work in our world and examining their effect, such as the mutability. This is a social system that is a bit more complex than our own historical feudal system, even if it uses several of the same terms, but it doesn’t seem to have any effect on the overall story.

Which is about to come to an end.

Fremde’s already been reminded of his cardkey when an update message asks if he wants it concatenating. He has no idea what that means but it goes by the way when he’s delayed from acting and it automatically does. However, he has corrected the protocols to apply to freelance crimewriters, not the financial industry, and things start reverting to normal, a process accelerated by uninstalling.

However, this is too late to forestall the cliched climactic meeting, the library equivalent out on the patio. There’s Fremde and Spoder, and Jo inside showering after returning from her business trip, not to mention Jexsid and Frejah, both with guns they won’t put down and the inevitable happens: the frustrated and half-mad Jexsid points his gun at Fremde and he is hit in the chest.

It’s an ending he automatically rates as unworthy of and unrealistic in crime fiction, if you can stand hearing that again. But this is where mutability rears its head. Fremde wakes up two days later, in hospital, alive but with a very sore chest. What’s now happened is that Jexsid missed, because Spoder, anticipating his move, swung round and punched Fremde very hard in the chest, knocking him out of the way but causing him to fall over and hit his head.

At least I’m assuming this is the effect of mutability because Fremde doesn’t even think about it and it’s so short a space of time afterwards that under normal mutability conditions, witnesses would not have forgotten the first version, but if it isn’t mutability, what the hell is the point of introducing the concept into the book at all when the only other thing it does in switch Fremde’s hotel lights on and change the gauge of his railway train’s tracks?

No, I cannot say that The Evidence comes anywhere near in quality to any of Christopher Priest’s previous work. It is a crime fiction in a world where special conditions affect crimes and criminalities but which appear to have no effect on this story. It sets up multiple questions, it has melodramatic chapter titles emphasising mysteries about trivialities, it has an author – two, in fact – pouring only slightly alleviated scorn on crime fiction and an almost deliberately banal explanation for a murder mystery investigated with not the least motivation to do so.

In short, it is a pointless book. All I can say is that I hope Christopher Priest writes another good novel. He is a decade or so older than me and I’d hate to have to remember this as his last novel, the way I have to remember The Shepherd’s Crown when it comes to Terry Pratchett.

A Time with Townsend: John Rowe Townsend’s ‘The Summer People’

The Summer People is the fourth and last of this short series revisiting my memories of reading John Rowe Townsend in the early Seventies. It was published in 1972, his ninth novel, making it the latest in his career I’ve re-read, and it is, fittingly, the most mature, complex and atmospheric of this group. Indeed, were it not that the story is almost entirely about teenagers, I’d be rolling up my sleeves and preparing to argue that this is not a children’s book at all.
At first, when I was selecting books to re-experience, I did not think of The Summer People. There were The Intruder and the two Hallersage books only. But there was another book of which I remembered only one moment, and nothing else. Titles in his bibliography meant little or nothing to me. It had to be an early one. I tried to find out about some of his books through Goodreads and the moment I read the least bit about The Summer People, I knew I had solved my memory problem. So here we are.
The book begins with a short letter addressed to Stephen and Carolyn, whoever they may be. It is a covering letter for a mass of paper written by Philip Martin, our narrator for these events. Philip will tell his story of a summer in the first person and the present tense, bringing events of a quarter-century to life in his own eyes and mind by the primitive ritual of re-experiencing them as if they were still happening.
Who Stephen and Carolyn are we won’t learn until the closing page, though Philip drops out of his account a couple of times to address them directly. They are the coincidence that drives Philip to his memories, to explain something that happened, and to resist strenuously glossing over his own less-than-stellar part in what came about.
The Summer People are three families, friends and business partners. Each family owns a beach bungalow at Linley Bottom, an east coast fishing village and miniature resort in Yorkshire. Traditionally, the families – the Martins, the Pillings and the Foxes – holiday together, five adults (Mrs Pilling is a widow) and seven children, all but one of them aged between fifteen and eighteen. This will be the last such holiday: the ‘children’ are growing out of the kind of childish holiday they’ve always enjoyed, Linley Bottom is slowly dying, both economically and physically, as the waves eat away at the land. And there is another reason why this will be the last holiday. This is August 1939.
Philip is aged 16. He is the middle child in the Martin family, the only boy. His sisters Paula and Alissa are 18 and 7 respectively. Sylvia Pilling is his exact contemporary, born the same day. They have been lifelong friends and confidants. All three families regard them as a ‘suitable’ match and are happy to let them go off together all alone all the time. But Philip and Sylvia know each other too well for any romantic or even erotic frisson to exist. Sylvia’s brother, Brian, is 15. As for the Foxes, there is Rodney, aged 18, very intelligent, thoughtful and quiet, his eye attuned to the news headlines, as convinced that War is nigh as his vulgar father is that it will never happen, and the buxom Brenda, aged 15, who’s definitely feeling her budding sexuality.
The threat of War hangs over this latest holiday, which the adults trying to pretend their removal from it. The Martin-Pilling small clothing company is in danger of collapse. Early on, Philip taunts his father and hurts him deeply over how a war would be the business’s saving. It’s adolescent awkwardness, and cruelty, but by the time War comes about, his father admits the firm should have closed a year ago and he had kept it going so long out of desperate hope that this might happen.
But this is not the foundation of the story. That is Sylvia’s wish that she and Philip go off together, away from the family, every day, not out of a yearning for his company, but because she has fallen for Harold Ericcson, a young Scandinavian God of a fisherman. Harold has to be kept a secret: her mother would throw a fit: the difference in social class…
Philip agrees to provide his friend with a cover, but on the first day the arrangement becomes real for him as well. Exploring the cliffs, he decides to try to get into the furthest of a trio of cottages now abandoned to the crumbling cliff-edge. This is where he finds Ann.
Philip draws an immediate contrast between Sylvia, blonde, beautiful and, it is heavily implied, with a seriously hot figure, and Ann, dark-haired, pale, not pretty, flat-chested. Ann, whose surname is Tarrant, lives with her mother, receptionist at the Imperial Hotel. She’s recuperating from time spent in a sanatorium, which automatically leads everyone to think of tuberculosis, deadly and contagious. But Ann is recovering from pleurisy, getting her strength back. Not only is she skinny and under-developed but she is physically weak: she is not allowed to swim, and long walks exhaust her.
Philip isn’t even attracted to her, curious as she looks. The pair are awkward with each other, only able to converse with any natural fluidity when they hide behind nineteenth century formal language, which becomes both a private language as well as a screen for them. There are so many reasons for Philip not to be interested in her, and he is conscious of all of them, not least the fact that the class barrier operates between the two of them.
But Ann draws him, in part against his will. She is dependant upon him and his company, the only one she has. Gradually, the pair settle into a relationship. Ann tells Philip she loves him and in turn he says the same to her. The pair hug frequently. They even kiss, but never more, not that it stops Mrs Tarrant giving him a warning about not getting too excited about Ann that exactly parallels the warning he gets from Mrs Pilling about Sylvia.
There’s a strange intensity to the relationship that, without ever conforming to the usual development of a boy-girl interest in each other, goes far beyond it. But Ann is the more committed of the two, and Philip, aware on a number of levels of the impossibility of things continuing, disturbed in his emotions, acts abominably towards Ann on several occasions, creating a shame he admits outside his narrative, directly to Steven and Carolyn.
Things come to a head as they must. Harold’s enlisted in the Navy and is going off early to see a pal in Newcastle, good pals being more important than girls. This comes on top of Sylvia and Philip’s subterfuge being exposed by Paula Martin, a thoroughgoing dissatisfied, nasty-minded bitch. Everything explodes. The War arrives. The holiday breaks up. And so do Philip and Ann.
Philip has been honest enough throughout this account to expose all his faults and failings with regard to Ann. One is the moment I remembered before I remembered the book: the youngsters go off for a picnic on the sands, like they used to, a last and forlorn gesture to the past they’re all leaving rapidly, on different courses. In the car on the way back, busty Brenda pulls Philip’s face down to hers and they snog. It’s a betrayal, and Philip knows its a betrayal. But still he snogs Brenda. Not because he wants to but because it’s easy to do and not have to think about, unlike Ann.
But things have not yet ended. Philip promises to see Ann on Tuesday, but delays and delays. Even though he’s drunk, he keeps his promise, arriving at the abandoned cottage at 11.30pm. Ann’s there, in bed, planning to sleep overnight. With borrowed and oversized pyjamas, Philip joins her. No, they don’t. But they hold and they talk and they breathe each other’s breath, content and trusting in each other. It’s the zenith, the apotheosis. In the morning, the Martins urgently return to London. Philip and Ann don’t say goodbye, at least they don’t use the word. They never see each other again.
Philip brings his account to an end by summarising what followed, over the years. Everyone in the three families prospered, had great success in life and business. Ann never replied to Philip’s letters, if she ever got them, but by chance he learned she had become a Librarian, emigrated to Australia and married, only to die early, in a road accident. Her daughter is Carolyn. She is at a university in America, and is a couple with Steven. Steven is Philip’s son. His mother is Sylvia. Philip’s story is of a great coincidence that only became a coincidence because of a second, later coincidence.
That ending set the seal on the book for me. It is an excellent story, written carefully and clearly. Townsend creates the atmosphere of the time, of that febrile, never-to-be-completed summer with a concise skill that brings it to life. Linley Bottom, with its ongoing decay, as much physical as it is economic, is both setting and symbol for a tale of disintegration. I reached the end, in the sense of the separation of Philip from Anne, both disliking of his betrayal of what was real between them, and clearly with the capacity to be important beyond measure, and yet sympathetic to his confusion, his ultimately inability to escape the expectations of his family, but most of all his underlying fear of the responsibility being asked of him, for Anne and her feelings and her needs, far greater as far more important than those of the ‘suitable’ Sylvia.
Yet that smug synopsis, that recounting of the fortunes of the three families, their middle-class entitlement, made me hate him and them. Mr Martin openly admits that he’s kept the firm open this long in the desperate hope of a War to save its prospects, and it is the company’s success, in war and after, that is, that is the building block for a host of good lives, successful lives, sweeping all before them lives. Lordships and Headmistressships and War Heroes and Members of Parliament, successes in business, prestigious marriages. Even the most eminently suitable marriage between Philip and Sylvia, in defiance of genuine feelings.
And Anne, the one real individual amongst them, the outsider, left to live a pallid, uneventful, quiet life, to die early from the irony of an accident and no fault of her fragility. But Anne’s fragility was more than in body and the Summer People left her behind.
No, this is a most powerful book, and I am so glad to have rediscovered it, but I cannot say that I have come out of it admiring and respecting its narrator or any of his families.

Except in the way that most children’s authors retain a fandom long after their death, even as their books disappear, John Rowe Townsend is now forgotten. Not for him the aura of a Ransome or a Garner. But I would rate The Summer People as worthy of the same immortality that belongs to Swallows and Amazons or The Owl Service.
I am profoundly grateful that I remembered it in time.

A Time with Townsend: John Rowe Townsend’s ‘The Hallersage Sound’

The Hallersage Sound, published in 1964, was John Rowe Townsend’s fourth novel and, as its title indicates, a sequel to Hell’s Edge and featuring Ril Terry and Norman Clough. Enjoyable as it is, and with a strong focal point, it’s not as good as the first book, for two principal reasons.
One is that Ril doesn’t come out of this book as well as she did the first. The story takes place a year later, although some of the changes that have taken place between are a bit too sweeping to have been accomplished in that time. Her father, Robert, has married her school Headmistress, Jane, and Ril isn’t reacting too well to that. Nor has her friendship with Norman progressed. He’s still the same solid, reliable, serious young man, and she’s turned into a flighty teenager, who sees him as prematurely adult, whereas she wants fun and no commitments.
Though Ril does undergo experiences that temper her attitude, towards both Norman and her stepmother, and she does accept a first kiss from him which seems to satisfy both, she ends the book not much different. Norman has more or less stated that she is the one to whom he is committed for the rest of his life, but she offers nothing in return. She hasn’t decided, she refuses to decide upon her future now, there is University (like him) and jobs: the life of a traditional Clough, geared to marriage, housekeeping and children, is not to be for her, not for a long time yet.
On one level, that’s good, that’s a girl leading character asserting independence and wider possibilities, yet in the context of Norman’s understated commitment, and his unhappiness at her not being able to respond to her in like manner to his own feelings, coupled with the fact that there are aspects to Ril’s behaviour throughout the book that, to me, diminish her as a person, leave me saddened at the failure of the relationship, the hurt it causes.
The book’s other failing is in the peg Townsend uses on which to hang the serious element of his story. The idea’s fine, indeed excellent. At the beginning, Townsend introduces Hallersage’s near neighbour and rival, Holly Bridge, separated from the existing town by the steep-sided ridge of Rigby Top, marked by the Flatstone.
Hallersage and Holly Bridge have long been rivals, but by 1964, Hell’s Edge has long since outstripped its neighbour, whose size and population has shrunk even as Hallersage has expanded. In days long ago, the young men of each town used to express their rivalry via a Halloween clash on Rigby Top, sticks and fists and violence, with the winners invading the other’s town to do as they will, and drink in their pubs for free. That was until 1914. The few men who came back from the War had had their fill of fighting, and of blood, and the custom lapsed.
But the rivalry is still there, and the bored young men of each town, with nothing to do and nowhere to go, can be reminded of the old clashes and, under two intelligent and thoughtful leaders with strong tactical minds, it can be reintroduced.
This is what Ril and Norman will, by the end of the book, find themselves trying to defuse or deflect, though the true peacemaker is a most unlikely and almost fantastic figure.
It’s a very strong theme, but it’s undermined by Townsend’s contemporaneous but ill-chosen cassus belli, a pop group. Called The Tykes.
The Tykes are a pop group, a beat group, which places them alongside The Beatles. They’re currently very popular, regular chart hits near to Number 1. Three of them come from Holly Bridge, which basks in the reflection of their fame, the fourth being an American, Des Desmond, Des on the Drums, son of an American sociology Professor spending a year at Holly Bridge, a friend to Robert Terry. Ril will meet Des, fall for his dimples and go out with him, even though she’s some four years younger at minimum.
But that bit belongs to her part in the story. The larger story has The Tykes playing at a club in Hallersage, owned by Roy Wentworth, the town’s most enthusiastic and less-than-scrupulous businessman. The rehearsals are interrupted by Cliff Longbottom, who wants to sing with them. Not only do they allow this interruption, but they agree Cliff’s got a good voice, which is enough to interest Roy in signing him up, especially after he repeats the interruption during the actual performance that night.
Who is Cliff Longbottom? He’s the slightly ungainly boyfriend of Ril’s best school friend, Hilda Woodward, who I didn’t get round to mentioning in my review of Hell’s Edge. He’s got a good voice alright, he’s a soloist at Chapel, and that’s part of the problem, if Townsend means a voice good enough to solo at Chapel makes someone a potential pop star.
Because Roy starts to market Cliff by suggesting hiring The Tykes as his backing band. It’s not going to happen and that’s acknowledged, but it’s a provocation aimed at stirring up the old Holly Bridge/Hallersage rivalry towards violence that will create publicity, but which will not be as easily contained as Roy thinks it can be.
In itself, the rivalry over a successful pop group who make much of their association with a small and unimportant town like Holly Bridge is a very plausible excuse for the eruption in violence between the two Towns that follows. The fights themselves echo the contemporaneous battles between mods and rockers. They’re a McGuffin.
What spoils this side of the story is Townsend’s lack of knowledge or interest in the pop world he’s depicting. We’re not quite talking the level of contempt that Jon Cleary displayed in Remember Jack Hoxie, but Townsend either doesn’t like pop music (probably) or has to depict it in a false manner to fit his story.
Some of it is the ridiculousness of having The Tykes manage themselves. Or having them travel around in a clearly marked van with no roadies or drivers or bodyguards. Or their allowing Cliff to impose on them and sing just because he wants to: once, in rehearsal, in good humour, yes, but during an actual, professional concert, not going to happen. Townsend’s depiction of the entire pop scene is unrealistic, which is fatal to a naturalistic novel.
And there’s the songs. There’s not the least definable description of the music side of any of either Cliff’s or The Tykes’ songs but we do get frequent bursts of lyrics, invented by Townsend himself and not a single one is plausible. They’re either childish or too down-homey. Either way, there’s nothing that betrays an understanding of what pop was doing, what it was saying and how it was appealing to its audience, without which too much of the book becomes a shell.
Superficially, Townsend plays it straight, unlike Cleary. The young characters disagree. Norman doesn’t think anything of beat music, and his idea of dancing is slow waltzes and foxtrots, reinforcing his presentation as the premature adult, bent on a future set in stone form now. Hilda is of similar mind, but less dogmatic, Ril likes pop and The Tykes, Cliff has this dream of being a star.
But it’s one thing to have characters who like pop but when you’re unable to create pop that justifies their enjoyment, it leaves an artificial taste to things.
I have to be mildly critical of a couple of other elements of the story. In an effort to defuse the rivalry, Sam Thwaite, now Lord Hallersage, collaborates with Celia Withens to set up a concert for both bands on the Withens Estate. It introduces the beautiful Celia to the Honourable Harold Thwaite, Sam’s son, who has his gormless aspect when compared to his Dad but who is certainly bright. He’s also immediately smitten with Celia, and they end up engaged by the end, offscreen and I have to say implausibly.
As for the actual end, this is down to the unlikely Social Historian, Ph.D and ex-miner, Dr Josh Langley, who’s old enough to remember the old Halloween fights, and who lives in a derelict cottage atop of Rigby Top. Dr Langley is something of a hero to both Robert Terry and Harvey Desmond from his work and it is his eruption into the pitched battle that resolves everything, by forcing both sides’ attention upon him and shaming them into diverting their rivalry and its energy into social work, using Great Aunt Martha as an example of the elderly being neglected. Score ten points for imagination but several fewer for likelihood.
To the best of my knowledge, John Rowe Townsend never returned to Hallersage, Ril Terry and Norman Clough, so this was where our acquaintance lapsed. I think we’re meant to infer that the pair would marry and have a life together, but Townsend did a good job of undermining that possibility in lia and at least one adult reader doubts that it ever happened, and feels sorry towards the honest, decent and committed Norman, who shows all the signs of it being Ril or nowt. It’s doubly frustrating in that Cliff, who has been the biggest fool of the bunch and treated Hilda abominably, is taken back by her almost without comment, but with a kiss under a street lamp. They’re going to be alright.
As for the leading two, I’d make up my own ending in which something similar happened, but without changing Ril’s character drastically, I’d never believe in it myself.

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.


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.