Tuesday, May 19, 2015

London Rain

Josephine Tey was a writer of unusual detective fiction in the so-called  Golden Age of the genre. Her best-known, and most unusual novel was The Daughter of Time, in which a policeman recovering in hospital tries to rehabilitate the reputation of Richard III, concluding that the princes in the tower were not victims of their uncle. The book probably had some influence in the growth of interest in revisionist histories of the Wars of the Roses which culminated in the agitation from the Richard III Society following the discovery of what were probably his remains in Leicester in 2012 to have him reburied in suitably regal style.

Jospehine Tey was a very private individual by all accounts, and intimate details of her life are hard to come by. She wrote successful plays for the stage and radio, was friendly with such luminaries as the Gielgud brothers and Edith Evans, and moved in bohemian circles. So it's a brilliant idea to use her as the central character in a series of crime novels, in which her back story is fleshed out in fictional detail while she attempts to solve crimes with the help of her Scotland Yard chum Archie Penrose.

Nicola Upson's series now reaches its sixth volume, and this one uses the backdrop of the BBC's coverage of the 1937 coronation of George VI to present a tale of murder, jealousy and deceit at Broadcasting House. The narrative weaves in some real events - the Coronation, obviously, but also the radio adaptation of Tey's play Richard of Bordeaux (moved forward a few years by Upson), the Hitchcock film version of her novel A Shilling for Candles and some newsworthy incidents of the time. Upson is clearly conscientious about her research, and it shows - the evocation at the beginning of the novel of the BBC at its Reithian height is fascinating in its detail. Much of the opening third of the novel is scene setting, but the leisurely pace never drags, because the reader is engaged, particularly with the complex character of Josephine Tey and the tangled web of her relationships. Tey is portrayed as a self-doubting, tentative type, whose emotions are never far from the surface. In this narrative, she not only has to come to a major decision about the person she loves, but also attempt to identify a killer. The tale quickens after the moment of the first murder (about which, unusually for a detective novel, the reader is given full details, including the identity of the murderer) and the dénouement satisfyingly draws together a number of disparate threads, including the repercussions of events that took place years before the central narrative.

Upson's eye for detail produces some very satisfying descriptions of the London scene in 1937. She's particularly good at identifying the key physical element in a scene, whether outside or in, and the reader is drawn completely into the world she evokes. There's also some post-modern play, too, as is inevitable, I suppose, when writing in a genre that's already been parodied to death. Upson doesn't go as far as Gilbert Adair did in his Christie pastiches, but there are some nice touches. For instance, the protagonist is always referred to as "Josephine" or "Miss Tey" despite the fact that this was a pseudonym, so presumably her friends would not have used it. So Upson's fictional character, though a real person, is known by her pen-name in the storyworld of the novel.  There's an intertextual reference to Christie's Miss Marple as well, and Penrose is not unlike Alan Grant, the recurring detective figure of Tey's novels. Val Gielgud's thriller Death at Broadcasting House, is referenced, by a character who is based on him. The novel is divided into sections with titles that allude to other works of the twenties and thirties: Private Lives, Vile Bodies, The Wild Party.

A few quibbles: did police cars have sirens in 1937? My extensive research (OK, I googled it) is inconclusive. I do remember that the opening credits of the fifties TV police series No Hiding Place featured a squad car with a bell, though. When a character is trying to phone another, and eventually goes around to the house, the reason for the lack of response is said to be that the phone's lead had been taken out of its socket. But phones weren't like that then - you'd need a screwdriver to disconnect it. And the person calling would not have heard a ringing tone. At another point, someone says that her calls have not been returned - but in those days, you'd have no idea if someone had called you when you were out. Minor pedantry, to be sure, but in the context of what seems to have been really well-researched period detail, a little irritating. More seriously, a piece of incriminating evidence at a crime scene is never, to my way of thinking, satisfactorily explained.

That aside, I found this a very enjoyable read. It takes some of the familiar elements of Golden Age detection, and adds a psychological depth often lacking in many of the novels of those years. The major characters are three-dimensional, with convincingly realised traits, and life-changing challenges to confront, so the focus is not all on the detection of the killer. Nicola Upson is new to me, and I'm delighted that Josephine Tey features in five other novels. I shall seek them out.
Thanks to the publishers, Faber, for sending me the review copy.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Ezra Pound: The Epic Years

My latest review at the excellent Shiny New Books is now up. Go here for my thoughts on the latest volume of A David Moody's magnum opus on old Stetson.

Saturday, October 18, 2014


It used to be that 'showing respect' was something children were supposed to do to adults, or farm tenants to the inhabitants of the big house. In recent times, it's become a catch-all phrase beloved of gangsters, sportsmen and bullies. Not 'showing respect' can mean anything from looking at someone in a bar in a way someone else finds offensive ("you looking at my bird?") to a football team assuming it can beat some inferior lower-division outfit in the cup. The change in use probably stems from the "Godfather" films, where not showing respect results in sudden death.

So the phrase has really lost any meaning it might once have carried.It's difficult to overcome something like this:

Even so, I think it reaches a new nadir in the usage I observed today on the back of a DHL van:

Leaving aside the redundant inverted commas, how, exactly, is one supposed to drive with respect? Perhaps the courier could doff his DHL cap every time someone overtook. Or seek out funeral processions to drive slowly behind. I don't know - and like all these "how's my driving?"-type notices, it's inconceivable that anyone would ever actually phone the number. Although now, I'm tempted. "Your courier didn't show me no respect. I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse." And hang up... Pity there's only an email address.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Maxine Peake's Hamlet at the Royal Exchange

Man and boy, I've seen a lot of Hamlets, and I've taught the play more times than I can remember. So I know it very well, probably as well as I know any work of art. What to expect then, from Maxine Peake's Hamlet, given at the Royal Exchange this autumn? That la Peake is a consummate actor with range and depth is a given. But could she scale this Everest of a part, especially playing against her gender in an over-three-hour largely uncut version of the text? Of course she could.

This production boldly offers two and a bit hours of intense action before the interval. As we wandered out, a little dazed, for a breather, I was thinking that this was easily the most gripping Hamlet  I had ever seen, and then realised that, actually, this was the most gripping piece of theatre I had ever seen, full stop. Peake is magnificent from her first encounter with the ghost to "the rest is silence." The energy and the intensity never let up for a moment, and, surrounded by a talented cast, Peake made you forget that she was a woman almost from the moment she appeared, in a Mao suit and a white shirt that remained her costume throughout.

The production, as does every play at the Exchange, made the most of that extraordinary theatrical space. The intimacy of the Exchange was very much to the advantage of this version of the play, in which the personal anguish of Hamlet and the other characters touched by the domino effect of Claudius's treachery, was the central, relentless, focus. The Fortinbras political plot was jettisoned, leaving the end of the duel scene as the final moment, and bringing to a close the intense examination of guilt and innocence, action and inaction, morality and corruption.

The production is in modern dress - the watchmen at the beginning are in hi-vis jackets and carry torches. Claudius is in a business suit, and Horatio looks like a philosophy lecturer. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are punks, all ripped tee-shirts, tattoos and piercings. The casting of the central role is not the only gender change: Polonius becomes Polonia, Guildenstern (or is it Rosencrantz?) is a woman and the Player King is played brilliantly by Claire Benedict, who is also Marcella, not Marcello. It's a tribute to the power of the production that none of this detracts from the impact of the play at all. The decision to use most of Shakespeare's text means that Hamlet's growing frustration at his own indecision is fully explored, and this ratchets up the intensity to almost unbearable levels. Peake handles the soliloquies well, without any of the anxiety that such well-known speeches might be expected to engender, breathing new life into "Oh that this too solid flesh would melt" and indeed "To be or not to be."

The supporting cast are almost uniformly excellent. John Shrapnel's Claudius conveys the "smiling, damned villain" perfectly. He is the reasonable, decent, CEO of the state on the surface, smiling on all, and only revealing his vulnerability in the prayer scene. He also plays, in a bold move, the Ghost - well, they are brothers - and distinguishes Hamlet senior from Claudius subtly. Thomas Arnold, who has a look of the young Ken Branagh, played Horatio sensitively, and spoke very clearly, a trait not entirely achieved by Katie West's Ophelia, whose words were sometimes garbled as the madness took hold. But Maxine was the cynosure of all eyes as she dominated the stage in a bravura display of energy and intensity, the like of which I have never seen. Brava!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Ford in Paris

To Paris, for the annual Ford Madox Ford conference. As ever, the Fordies proved to be a congenial and collegial bunch, and the conference was a friendly and relaxed exchange of ideas. Also as ever, some of the really major Fordians were present, including the estimable Max Saunders and Joe Wiesenfarth, both of whom delivered, as might be expected, papers of authority and lucidity. It was also great to meet some younger scholars, exploring Ford's work from often startling perspectives. The French context provided the impulse to look at Ford's relationship with some of the great writers of France - Proust, Anatole France, Maupassant, Larbaud, Rimbaud - as well as his relationship to France itself, and particularly Paris.
A pair of ancient rooms of the Sorbonne on the Left Bank, was where we made our camp. It was génial to be discussing Ford in the very streets where he had been a perhaps unlikely flâneur in the twenties and thirties. Paris was, as always, a joy to be in - the early autumn sun shone, and we had time for walks along the Left Bank, and around the quartier Latin.  I even managed a visit to Shakespeare and Company, but nobly resisted the urge to buy even more books.
A smooth journey home via Eurostar, having made some new contacts, had some stimulating conversations, found out much of interest, and with a big reading list of Ford related topics.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Aye or Naw

My career as a sportsman peaked at age 10, as captain of Alfred Street Primary School first XI (Played 10, Lost 9, Won 1 - take that, Mount Carmel!). If, however, I had continued to develop the silky midfield skills I showed on the muddy playing fields of north Manchester, and in the fullness of time had developed into a professional sportsman, I might have faced a dilemma. My rivals for a place in the England team would have been Trevor Francis, Kevin Keegan, Glen Hoddle and Bryan Robson. I think I can confidently state that I would never have been in their league.  There would have been an alternative route to international stardom, however - I could have played for Scotland. To qualify, I would need some Scottish grandparents, and, as it happens, mine were. The Scots generally weren't as creative with the qualifying rules as the Irish, for whom anyone who'd ever had a Guinness qualified - and indeed, Tony Cascarino played 88 times for Ireland without an Irish connection. But I could have been a Scottish contender.

Of course, I never did play much competitive football beyond primary school, so you are probably wondering why I am burbling on about it. Well, here's the thing: on Facebook recently, I joined in a thread started by an avid "yes" supporter which featured an old story about Alistair Darling's expenses. I pointed out that, reprehensible as Darling's behaviour was - and I condemn it utterly - this was what our politicians do, and Alex Salmond was scarcely an innocent in this regard. I posted some links detailing Salmond's liberal use of the public purse for foreign junkets. This was roundly ridiculed, along the lines of "is that the best you can come up with?" - I thought this was a bit rich, as Salmond's transgressions were arguably more heinous than Darling's, but it was the refusal to engage in argument that surprised me. The position of my Facebook friend seemed to be that it was appalling for Darling to bend the rules, but absolutely fine for Eck to do something similar. So I posted another link to another story of dubious Salmond financial shenanigans, and was met with a very, to me, curious argument: people who don't live in Scotland can have an opinion about Scotland but unless they have lived or worked there in the past, it is a worthless opinion. Or, essentially: shut the fuck up. 

I'd already, I suspect, annoyed this person by replying to a post featuring a rallying call from Sean Connery - I merely pointed out that he'd avoided living in Scotland for half a century, so was perhaps not best placed to be the poster boy for the Yes camp. And, of course, I do have an opinion about the referendum. I sympathise with the desire for independence, but feel that, on balance, Scotland would be better off remaining in the UK. Obviously, I don't have a vote, which at least puts me on a par with Sean Connery, but thousands of English, Irish, French, Polish, Dutch - all EU nationals resident in Scotland, in fact - do have a vote. Which is odd, I think. As someone who has frequently visited Scotland, and who has Scottish ancestry, I have attended closely to the arguments. I suspect I know more about it than quite a few people who will be voting, and I'm mildly surprised that the prospect of Scottish secession has not provoked more debate south of the border. One might argue that a proposition that affects the whole of the UK should be voted on by all the UK, but no-one seems to want to make that argument.

The arguments made by Salmond are based on some very optimistic views of the economy of Scotland. It's  déjà vu really: in his first incarnation as SNP leader, he suggested that the Celtic Tiger economy of Ireland was the template an independent Scotland would follow. He doesn't seem to put that forward much now. Indeed, his office attempted to erase a speech where he made this suggestion from the official record. His recent arguments seem flimsy - here, a prominent academic demolishes one frequently repeated claim. There's lots of other material available that addresses the issues, and points out the flaws in the Yes campaign's rhetoric. Unfortunately, I, despite being qualified to represent Scotland, am not allowed to have an opinion.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress

To Utrecht, for the bi-annual International James Joyce symposium, timed, naturally, to coincide with Bloomsday. I went as part of a panel of Burgessians, and we explored the links between our man's work and their man.
The venue, at the ancient university, was perfect, and the conference was enormously stimulating. I had a pleasant encounter with my first year university tutor, who kindly affected to remember me after 41 years, and with whom I spent a delightful break reminiscing about Leeds in the seventies.
The conference report is on the IABF blog. The picture shows the Burgess panel waiting outside the headmaster's study. Or something like that.

The Unexpected Professor

No, not me - that really would be unexpected. This is John Carey, author of The Intellectuals and the Masses, which I wrote about here. His latest book, an autobiography, is fascinating. I was asked to review it for the new, and indeed shiny book site Shiny New Books. My review is here but I would urge everyone to have a good root around - it's a great alternative to the ever-decreasing broadsheet book pages, and has the authority of my friend and former colleague Prof Harriet Devine as one of its leading lights.