Thursday, November 26, 2015

Free Agent

Spy novels have a long pedigree in English. Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent (1907) can probably be counted the first in the genre. Erskine Childers's The Riddle of the Sands, published four years earlier, is really a thriller, establishing the John Buchan style: plucky Brit gentleman adventurer foils dastardly plot by fiendish foreigners, a template taken up enthusiastically by everyone from Agatha Christie in her first Tommy and Tuppence adventure The Secret Adversary (1922) to the Bulldog Drummond series by Sapper (1920-1937). The spy novel proper comes of age with Eric Ambler's atmospheric The Mask of Dimitrios (1939), made into a memorable film in 1944. In this novel and others, such as Journey into Fear (1940)  and The Light of Day (1962), Ambler perfected a grittily realistic style, in which the hero is often amateurishly  inadequate, but manages to achieve some sort of victory at the end. The moral universe of these novels is far removed from the complacent certainties of Buchan and Christie: here, the characters' motivations are ambivalent, and their loyalties never certain. Peter Lewis, Ambler's biographer, wrote that "Ambler raised the thriller from the subliterary depths, showing that the genre and good prose were not incompatible, and redeeming its conventions for more serious purposes than the display of macho derring-do. Virtually single-handedly, he redefined the thriller so as to make possible the achievement of such postwar realists as John le Carré and Len Deighton." That comparison is significant, showing how Ambler paved the way for the establishment of the classic cold-war spy fiction of the sixties and seventies. Ambler was admired by Graham Greene, who said he was ''the greatest living writer of the novel of suspense'' - not a bad item for the CV.

Jeremy Duns, I know, is a great fan of Ambler, and has clearly read his Le Carré and Deighton too. His series of novels featuring the spy Paul Dark is set in the late sixties, when the Cold War was at its height, and the British secret service was still recovering from the antics of Kim Philby and his colleagues. So Free Agent is clearly indebted in some ways to its sixties predecessors, but in my view Duns has hit upon an original and winning formula. Dark's surname is a clue to his hidden depths, and he can certainly surprise the reader. The novel is written, unusually for this genre, in the first person, so we experience everything through his eyes. After an intriguing opening chapter which might at first appear to be quite derivative - rogue spy is summoned to see the chief - we are hit by an enormous shock which propels the narrative forward, and the novel gathers pace from there, involving a series of twists which all ultimately derive from the young Dark's adventures in the chaotic aftermath of World War II, aspects of which we see in flashback. The tension is maintained throughout, as we accompany Dark on an improbable, but just-about-possible adventure involving devious and grubby diplomacy in Nigeria, during its civil war. Duns is very adept at using historical detail, so we encounter some real-life figures as well as his creations. I was interested to see several pages of notes at the end of the book, detailing the sources used by the author, and explaining some of his decisions. That insistence on locating the narrative in a well-documented historical context lends credibility to a story that might otherwise be fanciful. It never strays into James Bond territory, but there are a few passages which might raise an eyebrow. It's the attention to detail that keeps it grounded - for instance, Duns notes that Lagos is normally one hour ahead of London, but he has it at the same time, because Britain experimented with British Standard Time (GMT +1) during the relevant period. Would any reader have noticed this? I doubt it, but it shows how keen Duns is to get his period detail correct.

It's difficult to say more about the plot without revealing too much, so you will just have to take my word that this is a terrific, action-packed read, that manages also to present agonising moral dilemmas alongside the mayhem. Dark is a damaged figure, like the protagonists of Ambler and le Carré, and this is crucial in lifting the novel out of the "rattling good yarn" category into something more thought-provoking and complex. He is an intriguing and fully-realised character.  I am looking forward to reading the next two books in the series, which are set in the months after the conclusion of this one, and then will be on the lookout for the fourth book, set some years later, due out in the new year. Highly recommended, even if you are not a fan of spy fiction. This is intelligent, literate story-telling, featuring a truly gripping narrative that never fails to surprise.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

A Word Hoard

I am very grateful to my friend and former colleague Kym for the gift of this brilliant book. Robert Macfarlane is one of those sickeningly talented renaissance men, who can, in his case, maintain a high-profile academic career at Cambridge, and produce a series of startlingly original books, while filling in his spare time with such activities as writing opera librettos, making TV documentaries and chairing the Booker Prize committee. Not that I'm envious, you understand.

Landmarks  is an unusual book, in that its avowed subject is the examination of the language we use to describe landscape, but it is about as far from a dry academic tome as you are likely to get. Macfarlane combines his interest in the countryside, and the way in which writers have represented it, with a fascinating exploration of the evocative language, often dialect, used to describe particular conditions. He adopts an innovative format to present his ideas: the book is divided into chapters which focus on some of his favourite nature writers, and examine both their work and the landscapes in which they are situated; then, after each chapter, is a glossary themed around a particular aspect of nature - Flatlands, Uplands, Waterlands and so on. The glossaries are eclectic, with items drawn not just from the writers he considers, but from the folk tradition and from literature.

The great landscape writers under consideration here are not the obvious ones, or at least, not to me. Indeed, some of them were completely new names as far as I was concerned. One such is Nan Shepherd, whose book about her life in the Cairngorms. The Living Mountain, was written in the forties, but not published until 1977, a few years before her death. Shepherd seems to be one of those fiercely independent women of the late Victorian era - she was born in 1893 - who forged their own life, irrespective of society's expectations. She was, I learn, a writer of modernist fiction - but not one who figures in any of the standard accounts with which I'm familiar - whose novels are clearly autobiographical and might, on first glance, bear some comparison with Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage sequence.

(Image: By Graham Lewis (The Cairngorms) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

But it is her nature writing that attracts Macfarlane's attention here. In this early chapter, he establishes a principle which holds both for the writers he discusses, and his own work: the importance of precision. In their different ways, all of the writers Macfarlane presents exemplify that principle in their work - they observe the world around them in minute detail, and are sensitive to tiny changes in its fabric. It's all about attention - Macfarlane and the others attend to the landscapes they encounter, and reflect on significances that would escape the casual observer. I was reminded more than once when reading this book of Sherlock Holmes's terse comment: "You see, Watson, but you do not observe." Macfarlane and his heroes are the Holmeses of nature writing, and we are the Watsons. Macfarlane recounts a moment on a climb in the mountains where he is reminded of a passage in Shepherd's book where she describes the sound of moving water:

One hears it without listening as one breathes without thinking. But to a listening ear the sound disintegrates into many different notes - the slow slap of a loch, the high clear trill of a rivulet, the roar of spate. On one short stretch of burn one may distinguish a dozen different notes at once.

Macfarlane goes on to show the same kind of attention to detail he sees in Shepherd, and weaves a personal story of his own encounters with the Cairngorms around an astute and sympathetic account of Shepherd's writing. 

Other writers on show here include the curious figure of J.A. Baker, whose book The Peregrine I read, I now realise, just after it was published in 1967.  Baker, an amateur, and disabled, pursued the peregrines he saw hovering over the Essex marshes with a determination bordering on the obsessive. His book, which distilled a decade's worth of observations into a year in the life of the bird, is almost his only monument. Macfarlane writes about the newly opened archive of Baker material at Essex university, and speculates on the nature of the man revealed in the journals kept there. 

Other writers considered by Macfarlane include the unexpected (Jacquetta Hawkes) and the obscure (Richard Skelton) but each more than justifies their place as their contribution to the rich language of landscape is explored. I was intrigued to be introduced to these writers, and delighted that Macfarlane has also added a bibliography of relevant works to follow up on. The TBR pile grows again...

The glossaries are a separate joy in this book. It's good to be reminded of the inventiveness of Hopkins (endragoned - a raging sea) , but even better to discover some of the evocative words for landscape collected by Macfarlane from a variety of sources. He tends to favour some geographical areas over others - lots from Shetland, none from Orkney, lots of Celtic - Cornish, Breton, Welsh, Gaelic - but not much from the eastern side of England, though there are a few glorious words from the north-east miners' Pitmatical slang dialect (canch: the stone above or below the seam that has to be removed to get at the coal) and from more exotic sources, such as the Anglo-Romani word for Yarmouth, matchkani gav, literally "fish-village."

At the end of the book, Macfarlane reveals that he has been contacted by a scholar who had been working for fifteen years on a global glossary of landscape words. The scope of this enterprise can be imagined when one considers that “B” section alone, beginning with ba the Akkadian for water, of the Topoglossary comes to 343 pages. So - lots more to be done, and read and recorded. This jewel of a book is one I'll return to, I'm sure, and it's opened up a treasure trove of further reading, which will take some time to compass.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Ezra Pound: the final volume

My review of A.David Moody's final volume in his massive Ezra Pound biography is now up at Shiny New Books.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Hubba Hubba!

For reasons over which we will draw a discreet veil, our soundtrack on a recent long drive was a CD of early Perry Como songs. The opening track, called 'Dig You Later' was a topical song of 1945, in which Perry and a vocal group, The Satisfiers, sing a lyric which tries to shoehorn as much 'hip' slang as possible into three minutes. What is also does, and this made me almost swerve into oncoming traffic, is celebrate the recent end of the war with some hilarious lines about the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan. It's mighty smoky over Tokyo, indeed. Have a listen.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

London Rain

My review of this book appeared here recently. I've now amended it slightly for publication on Shiny New Books. You will find it here.

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.