Something Might Happen by Julie Myerson (2003)

22nd July 2022

It is my custom, when visiting somewhere that I have not been to before, to find a novel set in that location. So it was that, prior to a recent trip to Southwold on the Suffolk coast, I caught up with Julie Myerson’s Something Might Happen, which was published in 2003.

The story begins with the horrific murder of Lennie Daniels, a thirty-something mother of two, on a dark October evening in the car park near to Southwold pier. However, the novel is neither a whodunnit nor a police procedural. Instead, the focus is on the impact of the murder on Lennie’s family and friends and on the town as a whole.

The central character is Tess – Lennie’s closest friend – whose four children range from the 12-year old Nat to the 5-month old Livvy. The narrative is presented entirely from her perspective. Accordingly, much of the description is of the apparently mundane detail of family life: the untidiness of a child’s bedroom, the breast-feeding demands of the infant, Nat’s sullenness at being given crunchy peanut butter in his teatime sandwich…

Notwithstanding the author’s brisk and efficient style, the regular reader of crime fiction might be tempted to hurry through the minutiae of Tess’s daily life in the hope of making progress on the case itself. In the normal way, we find ourselves making our mental notes of the main suspects: Lennie’s edgy widowed husband, Alex; Tess’s spouse Mick, an unemployed journalist; the teenage ne’er-do-well, Darren… Are any of our suspicions valid? Who’s to say. The lead detective, Mawhinney – we don’t learn his full name – is pedestrian and unproductive and our efforts to assist him lead nowhere.

Mawhinney’s colleague is Ted Lacey, a family liaison officer whose main function is to safeguard the mental wellbeing of Alex and his two young sons. However, it is not long before he turns most of his attention to Tess – at times, I felt he was effectively stalking her. Her response to this is not entirely unsympathetic and, indeed, their developing relationship is at the core of Myerson’s theme of how a traumatic event – in this case Lennie’s murder – can serve as the catalyst to undermine the normal routines of everyday life that had previously appeared secure and stable.

There are two other important “characters” in the novel. One is the town of Southwold itself which, from my experience, is a very pleasant location in which to spend a couple of days. The fact that, in Myerson’s description, “it’s the end of the road, a dead end – creek, sea and river on three sides, the road going up to the A12 on the other” means that it has been spared an outward sprawl. In turn, this has served to emphasise the sense of separateness with which many small towns identify.

Myerson takes the opportunity to highlight the petty jealousies and vindictiveness that can fester in such communities: the dispute at the PTA meeting on which charity to support with the funds raised at the annual Carnival Parade; the annoyance of a local florist at not being requested to supply the flowers for Lennie’s funeral; the finger-pointing by the town gossips at a slow-learning youth as the possible murderer…

As usual, the reader/visitor to the vicinity can identify the local landmarks. The detail of the town will obviously have changed in the 20 years since the book’s publication, but it is still easy to mark the main references on the walk from the boating lake on North Road past the pier and down the promenade in front of the beach huts and the lighthouse as far as Gun Hill. I could also stroll down the High Street or Marlborough Road in the footsteps of Tess (plus buggy) and/or Lacey.

Similarly, we can work out the points of difference. In Myerson’s depiction, the Adnams Brewery and Distillery – Southwold’s largest employer – is renamed the Harriman’s Brewery. Likewise, the magnificent St Edmund’s Church – which dates from the 15th Century – becomes St Margaret’s, the location of Lennie’s funeral and, according to Tess’s recollection of the guidebooks, “the finest medieval seaside church in England”.

The novel takes a disconcerting shift at about the two-thirds mark, when some of the children – notably Rosa, Tess’s bright 8 year-old daughter – report seeing Lennie on several occasions in the town. The narrative then builds to another sudden and traumatic event in which the other significant character – the sea, here grey and threatening in Myerson’s autumnal setting, rather than apparently benign in the warm summer weather that I enjoyed – plays the key role.

It is this final development that reveals that, in effect, the story to that point has only been a rehearsal for what is to come. We are aware that Tess has been attempting to deal with the emotional challenge presented by the grief and shock of losing a close friend. But we also know that a far greater test now awaits her. In that sense, the conclusion of the novel is really only the end of the first Act.

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel (2020)

28th October 2021

The Mirror and the Light is the final part of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on the life of Thomas Cromwell at the court of Henry VIII. It follows Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012), both of which won the Booker Prize for Fiction. The second book ended with the execution of Anne Boleyn in 1536 and its successor tracks the continued rise of Cromwell over the subsequent period until his sudden downfall four years later.

It is difficult to review the book without beginning with a short primer on the historical context. The 1530s constituted a tumultuous period of English history. Although Henry had reigned for over 20 years and – through the birth of Edward to his third wife, Jane Seymour, in 1537 – had secured a male heir, there was a continual sense of England under threat. In historical terms, the Tudors’ hold on the throne had been relatively recently established – when Henry VII defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field in 1485 – and there were many who supported either the Courtney or Pole families as more legitimate claimants, especially the former given its direct line from Edward IV.

This dynastic rivalry was complicated by religious conflict. Henry’s break from Rome to place himself as head of the church in England – which had its origins in his divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon – was one factor in prompting the Pilgrimage of Grace, a major Catholic revolt in the north from 1536. This was ruthlessly repressed a year later, by which time Cromwell – as Henry’s chief adviser – was overseeing the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the appropriation by the Crown of their buildings and estates.

The threat to England – to Henry – was external as well as internal. The great powers in Europe were headed by Emperor Charles V of Spain and King Francis I of France and, in the period following Jane Seymour’s death 12 days after giving birth to Edward, it was the prospect of a friendly alliance between these two – and the strong possibility of an invasion of England either directly or via Ireland or Scotland – that most concerned Cromwell.

The king’s marriage to Anne of Cleves was Cromwell’s solution to this political threat, as it brought with it an informal alliance with Anne’s brother, Duke Wilhelm of Guelders, and the north German states. However, when the underlying tensions between France and Spain were resurrected, it was clear that this solution was no longer required. Moreover, the marriage had already proved to be utterly disastrous on other grounds; there seems to be have been a mutual revulsion at the first meeting of Henry and Anne and the union was not consummated. The seeds of Cromwell’s downfall had been sown.

Mantel’s skill is in taking us through these – and other major – events without the whole exercise appearing to be one long history lesson. This is achieved by placing the narrative entirely through the actions, thoughts and spoken words of Cromwell himself. He is in every scene – and at the heart of every scene. His various dialogues – with inter alia Catherine, various ladies-in-waiting, Eustache Chapuys (Charles’s Ambassador in London), Thomas Cranmer (the Archbishop of Canterbury), Stephen Gardiner (the Bishop of Winchester), the Duke of Norfolk, (the latter two, Cromwell’s ultimate nemeses) and, of course, Henry – are consistently riveting. There is a dramatic – and, for Cromwell, devastating – encounter with Dorothea Clancey, the illegitimate daughter of his late mentor, Cardinal Wolsey.

This approach leads to a particular quirk in Mantel’s presentational style. It means that when the personal pronoun “he” or “him” appears in the text, it invariably refers to Cromwell, even though the passage in which it occurs might also include other characters to which the pronoun could also apply. I found that this took some getting used to at the beginning of Wolf Hall, though I was prepared for it this time round.

One aspect of this period of English history that I find really interesting is how men of relatively low rank could attain positions of power. Cromwell’s brutal father was a blacksmith and publican in Putney; Wolsey was the son of a butcher in Ipswich. This pair became, in turn, the most significant of Henry’s advisers and reaped the appropriate rewards, Cromwell’s acquisition of properties, wealth and titles appearing to have no limit. But his humble origins were not forgotten by those around him – notably Norfolk – who were driven by frustration and jealousy. Even at the height of his power, he is reminded – and he reminds himself – of them: not prayer nor Bible verse, nor scholarship nor wit, nor grant under seal nor statute law can alter the fact of villain blood.

Although it is not essential to have read the first two parts of the trilogy before wading into the third, it probably helps. Much of the earlier action is re-heated, but with additional information thrown in. For example, we learn more of Cromwell’s early life in Putney – and one dramatic encounter, in particular – as well as the significance of subsequent periods of his life in Florence and Antwerp, the latter containing another major (though fictional) surprise.

More generally, Mantel certainly does not spare us the period detail: the foodstuffs on offer at a banquet, the classical scenes woven into a palace’s tapestries, the nature of the light in the corner of a cell in the Tower of London… Some of this is nicely descriptive and decorative, whilst other examples – the separate public burnings of two religious heretics come to mind – bring their own sense of heightened drama. The result is a lengthy read – 850-plus pages to follow the 1,100 pages in the first two volumes combined – which perhaps suggests that some further editing might have been beneficial, though I would not wish to make too much of this.

As I reached the concluding sections of the book, I thought of Frederick Forsyth’s novel The Day of the Jackal (1971) and Fred Zinnemann’s great film of that book (1973), which is about an assassination attempt on President de Gaulle of France. Although the vast majority of the readership and audience would have known in advance that de Gaulle was not assassinated, both works were still commercial and critical successes. Likewise with The Mirror and the Light: whilst most readers would have been aware of Cromwell’s fate, this does not detract from the drama associated with its telling.

At his downfall, the principal charge – amongst several – laid against Cromwell was that of treason. The evidence for this could be threadbare – a misinterpreted comment about the king’s health or expected longevity might suffice, as Cromwell himself had employed against others in the past. Knowing this in advance, the reader can indulge in the detective work of identifying which of his conversations – including those held in private with supposedly close confidants – might be held against him later. I noted one particular example which, at the time, I did think rather indiscrete on his part: sure enough, it is reproduced for him during his interrogation in the Tower.

Part of our engagement with this part of the narrative relates to the behaviours of those around Cromwell. We wish to learn which of those who have benefited from his support and patronage over the years stand by him and, by contrast, which are turned by the promises and/or threats made by Norfolk and Gardiner. The duplicity of one or two can be confidently guessed in advance. For example, Richard Riche – who, as Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations, was responsible for estimating the wealth of the individual religious establishments being turned over to the Crown – had his cards marked in dramatic fashion over 60 years ago by Robert Bolt for denouncing Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons (1960).

I found that one of the most poignant changing of sides was perhaps that of one of the ladies-in-waiting, who had been a regular supplier of information to Cromwell over a long period. After seeing her earnestly conversing with Norfolk, Cromwell tries to speak to her but she swings away from him, haughty… useless. He thinks, I’ve lost her. When did that happen? But the most significant loss of support – and the only one that ultimately mattered, of course – was that of Henry. It was for others to see that this would, one day, be inevitable: “What will you do when one day Henry turns on you?” asked Ambassador Chapuys of Cromwell at the zenith of his powers; he could only reply that he would “arm himself with patience and leave the rest to God”.

We are also concerned about Cromwell’s family and household. We care about what will happen to his son Gregory, his nephew Richard and his long-standing retainer and chief clerk Rafe Sadler. Mantel does not disappoint. In addition to the abbreviated trees of the Tudor, Courtney and Pole families and the extensive listing of the dramatis personae at the beginning of the book, there is an excellent postscript by way of an Author’s Note outlining the fates of the other characters in whom we have invested some considerable time.

Mantel reminds us that history is a dynamic: it occurred before Cromwell’s time in office and it continued afterwards. The Duke of Norfolk provides a touchstone for this. His father is remembered as Flodden Norfolk in recognition of his leadership of the English army that slaughtered the Scots (and their king) in the battle of 1513. And it is another of Norfolk’s nieces (Anne Boleyn having been one) – the teenage and ill-fated Katherine Howard – whom he is moving into position to attract Henry’s attention on the departure of Anne of Cleves. Further in the background – a peripheral character at this stage – is Katherine Parr, the sixth and final wife, who would outlive Henry. (The Author’s Note informs us that Thomas Cromwell’s nephew, Richard, was the great grandfather of Oliver Cromwell, the later Lord Protector).

And, not least, there are Henry’s successors on the throne of England – Edward, Mary and Elizabeth in order of accession, if not of age. (Elizabeth is a ginger-haired 6-year old at the end of the book). The political machinations and bloody religious strife would continue during each of their reigns, of course. In turn, each monarch would require his or her trusted advisers.

Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq (2019)

9th May 2021

There can be little doubt that Michel Houellebecq is one of the most controversial modern novelists. This is partly because of the subjects about which he chooses to write, but also due to the political perspectives that his characters often represent, his occasional descriptions of scenes of disturbing horror and – in particular – his regularly graphic (if not pornographic) presentations of sexual intimacy. I find that his are novels often to be read through gritted teeth.

I graduated to Serotonin – his latest novel, translated by Shaun Whiteside – via three of his earlier works: Atomised (1998), which relates the contrasting stories of two half-brothers; Platform (2001), which is centred around the overseas sex tourism industry; and Submission (2015), in which, in the near future, a Muslim political party defeats the National Front in a French General Election and governs the country according to Islamic law. (Somewhat eerily, the publication of the last of these took place on the same day as the murders at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris).

Not surprisingly, Houellebecq’s novels provoke controversy: Platform led to him being taken to court (and subsequently acquitted) for inciting racial hatred. Likewise, the critics are divided. Whilst The New York Times described Atomised as “a deeply repugnant read”, the same novel won the Prix Novembre. Houellebecq has also won the prestigious Prix Goncourt and, in 2019, was made a Chevalier of the Legion D’Honneur.

It has to be said that Serotonin has a generally downbeat feel. The central character is the 46 year-old Florent-Claude Labrouste who, having reached a career dead-end as a middle-grade civil servant and realised that his time with a Japanese woman twenty years younger has also run its course, basically decides to run down the clock without leaving any traces. He leaves his job, moves out of his Paris apartment and changes his bank accounts, choosing instead to stay in a series of mid-to-low range hotels – which are difficult to find because of his requirement for a room that permits smoking – and vacation homes. “So I was now at the stage where the ageing animal, wounded and aware of being fatally injured, seeks a den in which to end its life”.

For much of the time, Labrouste ruminates on the relationships he has had with various women in his life and, indeed, on a couple of occasions, he succeeds in meeting up again with previous partners, though to his regret both times. All this allows Houellebecq a free rein to re-visit familiar carnal territory. In a separate episode, there is a thoroughly unpleasant scene (not with Labrouste) involving a paedophile. Later, Labrouste speculates about whether to bring about a reconciliation with the veterinary surgeon Camille – the true love of his life – through a particularly shocking act of violence on an innocent third party.

All this is in keeping with earlier works in the Houellebecq oeuvre. He is not an easy read. What is not always clear, however, is whether such scenes are legitimate representations of the thoughts and actions of credible (and disturbed) individuals or simply gratuitous inserts by the author. I certainly thought that one casual – and crude – aside about “the Queen of England” was cheap and distasteful.

On the plus side, an interesting feature of Houellebecq’s novels is that, within the broad themes that he explores – politics, biology, economics, philosophy, religion, et al – it is the detail that drives the story forward. The increased release of serotonin in Labrouste’s body is the brain’s response to his growing dependence on a newly available anti-depressant drug, Captorix; in turn, the consequences of that include impotence and the loss of libido. The inevitable vicious circle is established, though it has to be said that the remedy suggested by one of Labrouste’s doctors does rank on the side of the unusual.

At the core of Serotonin is Labrouste’s visit to an old student friend of his – Aymeric d’Harcourt-Olonde – who is a dairy farmer in Normandy. This permits Houellebecq to explore another key theme in his work: the juxtaposition of the individual’s story – in this case Labrouste’s descent into complete solitude and despair – with the author’s updated reading on the general state of France. Aymeric’s business is in terminal decline – explained by ruthless competition in the global economy and changes in the European Union’s subsidy policies – and the actions that he and his fellow farmers take inevitably lead to a violent confrontation with the armed police.

There are obvious parallels here with the Yellow Vest movement (le mouvement des gilets jaunes) of grassroots political protest in contemporary France and it was in these aspects of the novel that I found I was most interested. In addressing the underlying tensions that are evident in modern French society – prompted by a potent cocktail of economics, religion and technology – Michel Houellebecq clearly touches a raw nerve for both his critics and supporters alike.

London Rules by Mick Herron (2018)

2nd April 2021

London Rules is the fifth in the series of Mick Herron’s modern spy stories based around the occupants of Slough House, a rundown Secret Service office situated near the Barbican in London. (It has been followed by Joe Country and Slough House, the latter published earlier this year).

Slough House is where the Service’s “slow horses” are sent: those who have blotted their career copybooks due to a variety of operational or personal failings and who are (seemingly permanently) punished by being assigned to a series of mind-numbing clerical tasks. In this volume, the small cast list includes a coke-snorter with anger management issues, a probable psychopath, a troubled alcoholic and a narcissistic IT nerd. The head of the team – if this group of misfits could be so described – is the compelling and appalling Jackson Lamb.

Lamb has a (as yet largely untold) backstory of running agents – “joes” – behind the Cold War’s Iron Curtain. He also has a razor-sharp mind which is equally adept at addressing the operational issues at hand and negotiating the appropriate political strategy with which to deal with the Service’s hierarchy – notably the Second Desk, Diana Taverner – at the headquarters in Regent’s Park.

On the other side of the balance sheet, Lamb – another serious drinker and apparently never without a cigarette either in his mouth or tucked behind an ear – might be described as having a Starred First in Political Uncorrectness with a notable specialism in antisocial office and personal habits. He is a modern anti-hero par excellence and I found myself lapping up the one-sided discussions that he has with anyone who strays within his conversational range, whether these be staff, superiors or the “Dogs” from the Service’s internal security department.

Those around him are irresistibly complicit in Lamb’s awfulness. Hence, after Lamb has spoken to his secretary Catherine Standish in distinctly un-PC terms about Devon Welles (who is black and in the room), Welles asks, “Is he like this all the time”. “I expect so”, replies the admirable Catherine, “I don’t work weekends”. We smile at the line and, in doing so, are also complicit.

The central story in London Rules concerns a series of terrorist outrages and the slow horses’ role in not only tracking down the cell responsible but also identifying the origins of the terrorists’ strategy. The action rattles along as, needless to say, Lamb and his colleagues remove themselves from the narrow constraints of their desk jobs to play lead roles (not always intentionally) in the field. (On one occasion, the means by which they escape from Slough House might be expected to lead to disciplinary consequences).

And, in the field, the use of guns has its consequences, of course. Lamb is told how someone had been shot in the head, at point blank range, with a rifle. “Yeah. I saw the photos. They look like Jackson Pollock threw up on a pizza”.

At the same time, London Rules has its quieter moments. Herron is good at setting the scene in the capital’s daily routine. His descriptions of the changing times of the day can be lyrical, almost poetic: “When dusk comes at last, it comes from the corners, where it’s been waiting all day, and seeps through Slough House the way ink seeps through water; first casting tendrils, then becoming smoky black cloud, and at last being everywhere, the way it always wants to be. Its older brother night has broader footfall, louder voice, but dusk is the family sneak, a hoarder of secrets”.

I suspect that Herron enjoys drawing his readers into his players’ characterisations. It is not too difficult to identify on whom the politician Peter Judd, who appears in an early story, might be based. Others are perhaps composites, including London Rules’s populist (and cross-dressing) MP and his right-wing tabloid columnist wife. Elsewhere, Herron is not shy about offering his views on the current state of the world; his contempt for Donald Trump, for example, is clearly evident.

When considered as a whole, Herron’s stories convey a sense of evolution within the group whom Jackson Lamb oversees. The occupants of Slough House change over time: of those who started out in the first book – Slow Horses in 2010 – not all have survived through to the present time and they have been duly replaced by others equally (though differently) troubled.

This feeling of progression is also felt at the end of London Rules. Within the last few pages of the novel, there are tantalising hints of at least four storylines that Herron – and we – are keen to explore in more detail. I look forward to seeing what comes next.

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe (1722)

7th March 2021

It is perhaps not surprising that, in the current prolonged circumstances of dealing with the impact of Covid-19, I have been drawn to the great work by Daniel Defoe.

I prepared for my reading of the novel with a little research into the Great Plague, which is estimated to have killed approximately 100,000 people in London – almost a quarter of the city’s population – in 18 months during 1665 and 1666. A similar number may have died elsewhere in England. It was the last major epidemic of bubonic plague to occur in England. Reports of the plague had been noted in the preceding years, with quarantining regulations being introduced for ships from Amsterdam and Hamburg from November 1663. The regulations were extended to all the regions of the Dutch Republic in May 1664, although they were later removed for Hamburg.

A Journal of the Plague Year was published in 1722: 57 years after the events that it was describing. Academic scholars continue to debate whether the book is a work of fiction or of non-fictional history, though it is generally agreed that its content provides an accurate representation of the London and surrounding districts of 1665. Defoe was only 5 years old at the time of the Great Plague and it is believed that he drew on the journals of his uncle, Henry Foe, who lived in Whitechapel. The narrator of the novel is “HF”.

Defoe did his research. He conducted interviews with survivors and consulted some of the official records. The book contains a number of summary tables of statistics – reporting on the numbers of deaths by parish, for example – which I found added to the clarity and drama of the narrative.

Defoe’s story provides a litany of descriptions which parallel our experiences in 2020 and 2021: the first physical sign of plague on the body (a small black swelling or “bubo” or “token”) [for which read the modern headaches and loss of taste and
smell]; the quarantining of all within a house in which anyone was affected [self-isolation]; the strains imposed by having “no Liberty to stir, neither for Air or Exercise forty Days” [quarantine’s effects on mental well-being]; the deaths of physicians seeking to tend to those who had been afflicted – “they ventured their Lives so far as even to lose them in the Service of Mankind” [the loss of health service and care workers]; the occasional safety of the middle of the great streets, avoiding the entrances to houses from which people might come out [social distancing]; the passing on of the plague by those who apparently showed no symptoms i.e. “by the well… [who] had received the Contagion and had it really upon them… yet did not show the Consequences of it… nay even were not sensible of it themselves, as many were not for several Days” [the need for a robust “track and trace” system]; the scrutiny of the Bills of Mortality (the weekly parish record of deaths) to monitor the geographical spread of the disease and its rising toll [the daily score-keeping on the evening news broadcasts].

The authorities in London did not stand idle. The plague was not uncommon in 17th Century England and the policy response was based on past experience. The set of “Orders Conceived and Published by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London” in 1665 provided a wide sweep of instructions.

These began with the swearing in of Examiners to enquire “what Houses in every Parish be Visited [by the plague, this was a “Visitation”] and of what Persons be sick and of what Diseases” and the appointment of Watchmen to stand guard outside infected houses. The practical requirements included “for the burial of the Dead…that all the Graves should be at least six Foot deep” and “that every House visited be marked with a red Cross of a Foot long in the middle of the Door … and with these usual printed Words, that is to say ‘Lord have Mercy upon us’.

The restrictions on social activity included that “all publick Feasting… and Dinners at Taverns, Ale-houses and other Places of common Entertainment be forbidden until further Order” and “that no Company or Person be suffered to remain or come into any Tavern, Ale-house or Coffe[e]-house to drink after nine of the Clock in the Evening”. As noted, the parallels with more recent experience are noticeable: I particularly liked the instruction “that disorderly Tipling in Taverns, Ale-houses… be severely looked into…”.

Defoe is generally impressed by the handling of the Great Plague by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen in the City of London, not least by the fact that they themselves did not flee into one of the surrounding counties. There was no serious breakdown in social order, partly because the Lord Mayor insisted that the City’s ovens continue to provide an adequate supply of bread to prevent its price from rising precipitously.

Nonetheless, the attempts to avoid being trapped by the regulations were widespread. The Watchmen’s role was to prevent anyone from leaving a house in which there was a plague victim. For many of those thus imprisoned – especially, the apparently healthy – the combination of continued confinement and nearness to the sick and dying was unmanageable and escape became paramount. Defoe has some sympathy to their plight on the road – where they would often not be taken in by anyone else – whilst critical of those who had been infected and were therefore aiding the spread of the disease outside London.

Defoe describes the ends to which the impoverished would go to make ends meet – and again not without some sympathy: the Watchman taking a bribe to turn a blind eye, the Burier purloining a fine linen in which a corpse was about to be consigned to the burial pit… All human life is here, with all its faults.

The first cases of the plague were in Holborn – in the parishes of St Giles in the Fields and St Martins – but it was not long before it swept east and into the City. “The Physicians could [not] stop God’s Judgements or prevent a Distemper eminently armed from Heaven from Executing the Errand it was sent about”. The reference to God is revealing. The narrator’s decision to remain in London, rather than flee to the country in the company of his brother and family, was driven, on the eve of his departure, by a chance reading of Psalm 91, “A thousand shall fall at thy side and ten thousand at thy right hand but it shall not come nigh thee… there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling…

Defoe evocatively describes the devastation to life and society amongst those who did not flee. It is a horror story brought about not only by the proximity to physical decay and death, but the general lack of understanding of cause and treatment. In the London of 1665, there was no peer-reviewed panacea in the form of vaccinations from Pfizer or AstraZeneca, of course, and the narrator is scathing of the opportunist money-making from the remedies provided by “Quacks and Mountebanks, Wizards and Fortune-tellers”.But there was also resilience and determination and, eventually, hope and civic recovery.

Defoe ends his tale on something of a downbeat note – and one that we would do well to consider as we make our way into the landscape of whatever our “new normal” turns out to be. Will our experience of Covid-19 – whether direct or by association or at a distance – lead us to re-evaluate what our priorities should be? His narrator’s summary of the post-plague behaviours is not encouraging, as he refers to “the Unthankfulness and Return of all manner of Wickedness among us”. The God-fearing HF, having noted how many had initially been “giving God Thanks for their Deliverance”, draws from Psalm 106 to describe how subsequently: “… it might too justly be said of them, as was said of the Children of Israel, after their being delivered from the host of Pharaoh, when they passed the Red Sea and look’d back and saw the Egyptians overwhelmed in the Water, viz. That they sang his Praise, but they soon forgot his Works”.

The 2003 Penguin Classics edition of A Journal of the Plague Year was edited with an Introduction and Notes by Cynthia Wall. With only one or two exceptions, she retained Defoe’s original spelling, italicisation and punctuation which, as seen in the quotes given above, included the capitalisation of the first letter of all nouns. I had wondered if the 18th Century presentation would have hindered any understanding of the narrative, but I need not have worried. The story progresses at pace, notwithstanding Defoe’s endearing penchant for diverting its course down regular cul-de-sacs before reverting back to the main flow.

Amongst the book’s “extras” are a chronology of the main events of Defoe’s lifetime (1660-1732), a map of the London locations to which he refers (plus a topographical index) and a useful glossary. In addition, there is a reproduction of Anthony Burgess’s Introduction to the 1966 Penguin English Library edition.

Next year will mark the 300th anniversary of the publication of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. The book certainly stands the test of time – and not only because of its striking resonance to our own strange days.

The Second Novel is Published

6th February 2021

I am delighted to report that a significant milestone has been reached this week with the (electronic) publication of my second novel.

In On the Carousel, we follow a young man’s journey through the 1980s, as he enjoys the benefits of success, but then starts to re-assess his values and priorities. The actions – and reflections – take place not only in London, but also in Yorkshire and Washington and Nepal against the background of Thatcherism and Madonna and Cabbage Patch Dolls

This book represents a change in genre from my first novel – Shouting at the Window – which is a psychological thriller. In that, we take a cross-country train journey with the lead character between two (unnamed) cities. Haynes – we only ever get to know his surname – is on the margins of society: a petty criminal, living from day-to-day, who has had to flee from his usual territory to somewhere more secure. We learn the reasons for his flight and the claustrophobic tensions that are ever-present during his attempted escape from those hunting him.

More details are the two novels are available elsewhere on this https://jralexanderauthor.com website.

I hope they provide interesting and enjoyable reading. Do get in touch with me with your feedback.

A Fictional Dozen

I have set myself the task of listing a dozen pieces of fiction that I really like.

The items given here are not necessarily my favourite pieces of writing, but I have an affection for them for a variety of reasons.

It will be seen that I have (mainly) excluded the great works that are usually labelled as “classics” – from Jane Austen to Charles Dickens to Fidel Dostoyevsky.  I have also restricted myself to prose narratives at the expense of poetry or plays.  My aim has been to focus on the personal: to produce a list the contents of which are generally well-known (in some cases, exceptionally so), but which, as a collective, it is unlikely anyone else would generate in a similar exercise. 

This is a list that will be amended over time.  The current line-up is presented here in the chronological order of publication. 

I hope that the catalogue demonstrates a catholicism of tastes – by date and genre and origin.  It is noticeable that, in several cases, I make reference to the first chapter or the first page or even the first line.  This is no surprise, of course – it is usually the fiction’s immediate impression that decides whether or not we will stay with it.

Do let me know what your own list might be.

  • The Parable of the Good Samaritan.  The Gospel According to St Luke, 10, 30-37.  King James Bible (1611).

This is my favourite short story – just over 200 words describing how Jesus Christ answered the question asked of him by a lawyer: “And who is my neighbour?”  It contains travel, crime, rescue and love as well as exposing the hypocrisy of the Priest and the Levite who “passed by on the other side”.

There was mutual hatred between Jew and Samaritan in the First Century CE.  But the lawyer is able to answer his own question, responding “He who showed mercy on him” when, having heard the parable, he is asked by Christ in turn: “Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbour to him who fell among the robbers?”

“Then Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise’”.  And so ends an unfailingly uplifting Biblical passage.

  • A Scandal in Bohemia, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1892).

This is the first of the Sherlock Holmes short stories and introduces not only Holmes and Watson, but also Irene Adler, who, on this occasion, outwits the great detective and thereby gains his everlasting respect.  The very first line of the story is: “To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman”.

I was awarded a complete set of the 56 short stories as a school prize and it remains a treasured possession; the distinguished BBC TV series (with Peter Cushing as Holmes) was running at the same time.

I was attracted to Holmes at this early age by his use of logic and analysis as well as his aloofness and single-mindedness and he remains one of my favourite fictional characters.  In addition, the stories provide a fascinating portrayal of Victorian society – or, at least, Conan Doyle’s perception of it – with its predictable postal service, detailed train timetables, street urchins and, it appeared, a significant propensity for ambitious characters to make their fortunes in America or the Colonies only to reap their bitter harvest at a later date.

  • Heart of DarknessJoseph Conrad (1902).

The darkness that the seaman Marlow encounters in Africa on his search for the enigmatic Kurtz is dark indeed.  Joseph Conrad’s short novel paints a bleak picture of the effects of turn-of-the-century imperialism and the blackness that can enter man’s souls in this powerful description of the harrowing river journey to the heart of the continent.   It is astonishing that English was Conrad’s third language: he was born in the Ukraine to Polish parents. 

  • Winnie-The-Pooh, AA Milne (1926).

I was given this book when, as a child, I was lying in bed recovering from an illness and generally feeling sorry for myself.  In the opening chapter, I read: “Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, about last Friday…” and I was immediately hooked by what I thought was the funniest line I would ever come across.

The later The House at Pooh Corner contains my favourite sketch: EH Shepard’s rear view of Pooh, Piglet and Christopher Robin playing Pooh Sticks.  How many of us are invariably tempted to play the same game when crossing a bridge on a country walk?

AA Milne’s original manuscripts are in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, near to those of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica.  Quite right too.

  • Alone in Berlin, Hans Fallada (1947).

In the Berlin of the early 1940s, an elderly couple conduct a low-level campaign of resistance to the Nazi regime by discreetly placing a series of critical postcards around the city.  They know that the penalty for being caught would be a charge of treason and certain execution.

Fallada’s narrative, which is based on a true story, takes us into a time and place that is not only fraught with physical danger – from food shortages and Allied bombing – but characterised by the continuous psychological torment of the totalitarian state.  However, amongst the cast list of the vicious and the villainous – the Gestapo, the police, the petty thieves – are the occasional beacons of light and our spirits are lifted, albeit only briefly, by the actions of an elderly judge and a tubercular prison chaplain. 

The novel asks some difficult questions.  What can the individual do when confronted with the oppression of the monolithic mighty?  What would we do under similar circumstances?  The answers are to be found – perhaps – in respect and self-respect and, given the knowledge that nothing lasts forever, sowing the “good” seeds for the generations to follow.

  • Catch 22Joseph Heller (1955).

In the first chapter, the central character Yossarian, lying in a military hospital on the Mediterranean island of Pianosa, is given the task of censoring the letters home written by fellow patients.  He takes to the task with enthusiasm, eventually redacting whole addresses and everything in the letters except the definite and indefinite articles. 

The absurdity of this initial situation sets to the tone for the whole of this brilliant book and its rich cast of characters.  A particular favourite is the entrepreneurial Milo Minderbinder who, at one stage, buys some things for three cents each and sells them for seven cents and makes a profit of “four per cent”.  And who can forget Major Major Major Major?

But this is the Second World War.  The rich seam of black humour is juxtaposed by sudden and horrible death.  On occasion, our apparently cosy read is brought to a crashing halt by the loss of a friend.  As a result, our senses are continually on edge when progressing through this masterpiece of war-based literature.

  • To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (1960).

The lawyer Atticus Finch is one of the heroes of American literature.  Not only, with the odds heavily stacked against him, does he attempt to defend a black man charged with raping a white woman in the Deep South of the 1950s.  In addition, he is the father of the precocious young Scout and it is through his daughter’s eyes that the realism of the violence and intolerance in the small town of Maycomb is fully identified.

The power that the book has in its own right is somehow exacerbated by the subsequent near-total reclusiveness of its author.  The fact that Harper Lee based another of the young characters – Dill – on her childhood friend Truman Capote only adds to the novel’s interest and the scope for conjecture.

  • This Sporting Life, David Storey (1960).

“He presses his fingers round my mouth and his thumbs roll back my lips.  ‘Christ, man’ he says.  ‘You’ve broke your front teeth’”.  Welcome to the world of professional rugby, as (on the first page of the book) Arthur Machin learns from his trainer of the damage that an opponent has inflicted on him with an errant shoulder into the jaw.

Storey had briefly played rugby league himself, so he knew what he was talking about in terms of the no-holds-barred brutality on the pitch and the social milieu – dominant club chairmen, hungry wives, faithful retainers – of the bonded players off it.  Interestingly, relatively little of the action takes place on the field of play: the real drama is in the relationship between Machin and his landlady and lover, Mrs Hammond. 

The setting of the grey, rain-swept north of England was, at this time, increasingly familiar in British literature as the new thrusting wave of novelists – John Braine, Keith Waterhouse, Shelagh Delaney et al – wrote dramatically and effectively about the real worlds in which they lived.

  • One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967).

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice”.  The dramatic spoiler in the novel’s opening line (which turns out not to be a spoiler at all) introduces the story of seven generations of the Buendia family in the small town of Macondo.  Through a rich combination of family dynamics, political reality and magical fantasy, the Nobel laureate provides an exhaustive and devastating portrayal of the history of his native Colombia.

  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, John Le Carre (1974)

Le Carre’s spies ply their trade within the real post-war world of Oxford dons, unfaithful spouses and career-hungry civil servants, as well as “scalp-hunters”, “lamp-lighters” and KGB-trained Soviet cultural attaches.  The story of George Smiley’s hunt for the “mole” at the top of the British Establishment has been impressively adapted in its screen versions on television and film, but it is in the novel form that its dense complexity is best enjoyed.

  • Austerlitz, WG Sebald (2001).

In slight contradiction of the remarks made in my Introduction, I include Sebald’s final work because he is my favourite writer of the late 20th Century. 

In many ways, to include this book simply in a list of fiction does it an injustice because – as with earlier The Rings of Saturn (1995), which is based on a journey on foot through the flat lands of East Anglia – it also draws on his skills in beautifully evocative travel writing and poignantly presented historical analysis.  Sebald was a master at describing a specific (often forgotten) location – say, an abandoned fort or an overgrown graveyard – and identifying its past significance.

The narrator meets Jacques Austerlitz in Belgium in the 1960s and maintains an irregular contact with him for many years.  Gradually, we learn of Austerlitz’s origins and backstory – as Austerlitz himself does – as part of the Kindertransport from Czechoslovakia to England in 1939 and of the likely fate of his parents.  In his distinctive style – the whole novel comprises a couple of enormously long paragraphs interspersed with some haunting photographs – Sebald weaves a rich tapestry of recollection and discovery.

  • Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel (2009).

At the core of this first part of Mantel’s trilogy about the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell is the relationship between the central character and his mentor, Thomas Wolsey.  After Mantel provides a succinct obituary for the Cardinal – “What was England, before Wolsey?  A little offshore island, poor and cold” – Cromwell seeks to ensure that those responsible for Wolsey’s humiliating downfall pay a bitter price. 

Whilst the book conveys the brutality of life in Tudor England in compelling and unsentimental detail, it also reminds us that – in addition to the privileges enjoyed by the royal lines and the noble families – there was also a meritocracy of sorts.  I find it intriguing that Wolsey was the son of a butcher from Ipswich and Cromwell’s father was a blacksmith and publican in Putney.

© JR Alexander 2020