Monday, 16 March 2020

Books read Q4 2019

The Golden Age Of Murder
Martin Edwards
This is an absolute delight. Edwards is not always the most reliable judge of quality in Golden Age fiction – or perhaps it would be better to say that our tastes don’t coincide, or even that he goes out of his way to be charitable in his assessments – but his knowledge of the genre and its practitioners is outstanding. This book is loosely based around a chronological account of the heyday of the Detection Club, from its genesis in the late twenties through to the post-war decades, and biographical information about many of the key members – not just the well-known names like Christie and GKC but the Coles, Anthony Berkeley, ER Punshon and so on. As with his previous book, The Story Of Classic Crime In 100 Books, he takes the reader on a tour of the genre, its nooks and crannies, its fashions and trends, its development and decline. Some of the biographical speculation is a little fanciful, especially when it comes to his theories about how authors’ personal lives affected their storytelling (he is very keen on the notion that the difficult or unusual love lives of people like the Coles, Sayers and Anthony Berkeley were clearly reflected in their books).   

Thursday, 5 March 2020


Before this altar thought and word and deed
caught up and offered back whence first they came.
Suddenly a truth beyond mere knowing
is present in the incense and the flame
of candle-light. The ancient well-worn prayers
are echoes from another, hidden place,
a world which bursts upon us now and then
in sacraments, in glimpses of His grace.
Essential intimations of the real;
enchantment as a shield, and as a sword,
reminders of our far-off final home
a twitch on thread that cannot be ignored.
Or rather can, but only by a numbing
of ourselves, a turn away from living
as we might. What starts in flight from judgment
finds its end in terror of forgiving.

Thursday, 21 November 2019

In praise of the bourgeois virtues

Let me tell you a story you've heard before - at the cinema, or on TV, or in pop music. A young, clever person chafes at the tedium, stasis and bigotry of their community and family, whose representatives exhibit a combination of unpleasantness, ignorance and dullness. Some of these representatives are well-meaning, but all are a barrier to achievement, colour, adventure, real life. Through a combination of circumstances, and a meeting with a roguish but good-natured and attractive representative of the wider world, the person strikes out into that world and becomes happy and fulfilled, away from the stultifying expectations of their traditional milieu. This happiness is explicitly achieved through repudiation of, and hostility to, that traditional milieu.

I am not describing a particular film or TV series or song. But in a sense, I am. With various tweaks as required, this is the general framework of many of the stories our culture tells, especially those aimed at children and young people. If it is not the main story, it is a sub-plot or a background assumption. To find happiness and contentment, you must break away from the world into which you were born, and from the people who formed you, and seek your "real self", which is to say the pattern of living that delivers the experiences and sensations which give you pleasure. Rules and ways of life which you did not or would not choose for yourself have no validity or authority; you must decide your own path, in accordance with your own feelings.

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Why has Remembrance become weird?

Remembrancetide has become a bit weird. I don’t think there is any getting away from it. I previously outlined some examples in this blogpost. This year we have had a restored Dakota dropping hundreds of thousands of poppies over the White Cliffs of Dover. We’ve had a sporting mascot dressed as a giant poppy. We’ve had the usual unedifying squabbles about who did what incorrectly at the Cenotaph. Poppy branding is everywhere.

It’s hard to put your finger on the best way to describe the weirdness. It’s not quite sentimentality, though sentimentality is part of it. Nor is it hyper-patriotism or militarism. I’d maybe describe it as a kind of desperate reverence; an artificial and overwrought deference to any ritual, person or item linked to Remembrance. It seems to be more and more common, for example, to describe all military personnel as “heroes”, wherever they served, for how long and in what capacity. That seems to me to devalue the very concept of heroism. Now, don’t get me wrong: to have worn the Queen’s (or King’s) uniform in any capacity is enormously admirable, and as someone who has never done so I would not like to cast doubt on the martial virtues of those who have. By comparison with my cushy and cosy existence, line infantrymen are extremely heroic. But equally “hero” means, or should mean, something quite exceptional, above and beyond the normal fortitude expected of those who see active service.

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Books read Q3 2019

Vets Might Fly
James Herriot
There is a particularly wonderful Granville Bennett story in this one, where they fail to go out for an Indian meal and Jim ends up getting absolutely steaming in Bennett’s home pub.

The Lord God Made Them All
James Herriot
This is the seventh in the series and perhaps a little of the sparkle of the earlier books has gone – there is only minimal Tristan here, and no Granville Bennett, and even Siegfried is mostly out of sight –  but it's still very entertaining. The long sea voyage to Klaipeda in Lithuania (East Prussian Memel as was), escorting a cargo of Romney Marsh sheep, and the more risky flight to Istanbul with a planeload of cattle, add an international flavour. One wonders if those parts are based on real events. As with many of Herriot’s tales, one has a sense of an incident that is grounded in reality and in his experience with real people, but which has been embellished and embroidered.

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

The open society and its frenemies

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “the open society”?

Quite likely you think of Pride parades, or the relaxed immigration laws that have made London a microcosm of the world rather than a national capital. Maybe it calls to mind the bustling, seething streets of the City and Canary Wharf, where brilliant people from all over the globe come to be part of the beating heart of international capitalism. Or perhaps you think fondly of a – real or imagined – deregulated economy, open to competition and innovation and creative destruction. 
Here are some things you probably didn’t think of: religious believers being allowed to withdraw their children from sex education classes that they believe to be counter to the teachings of their faith. A men-only private member’s club. Restrictions on the portrayal of sex and violence in media, and on what can be shown in advertisements. Political and fiscal policies that support the maintenance of stable two-parent married families.

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Panning for gold in the past: Downton Abbey and the uses of nostalgia


Have you ever actually seen an old maid hiking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning? I have. If you grow up in semi-rural Kent, and your father is a parson, you do occasionally see such things, not least if – like me – you rather enjoyed hiking to Holy Communion through the early morning mist yourself. 

It was Orwell who invoked that image as an icon of the eternal England. Nowadays it is usually mentioned jokingly or derisively; when John Major cited it in the 1990s he was roundly mocked. As is well known, Good Things in Britain began in 1948 with the foundation of the NHS, before which all was darkness and misery, so to mention Orwell’s vision In The Current Year without a eyeroll and a knowing wink is to invite the charge of “harking back to a non-existent golden age". 

Friday, 9 August 2019

Books read Q2 2019

Smallbone Deceased
Michael Gilbert
Gilbert, who also wrote Death In Captivity, is a good find. This is yet another hit for the BLCC stable. I rather fancy the editors might be getting more discerning. A classic Golden Age closed circle set-up, with a murder in a firm of solicitors, which gives it a faint resemblance to Murder Must Advertise. The firm, and its varied inmates, are amusingly and convincingly portrayed, and the story itself is well-constructed, drily funny, and smartly clued. Our point-of-view character, Henry Bohun, is as a very attractive amateur sleuth, and one might wish he had featured in further novels. A slight weakness, perhaps, in the murderer's motive. But in real life people do apparently kill for very odd reasons.

The Loss of The Jane Vosper
Freeman Wills Crofts
Crofts was not, in my view, one of the greats. He could be a ponderous storyteller, and he often ends his stories with a leaden and moralistic tying up of loose ends, presenting a solution with a dutiful but rather dull third-person account of who did what and when and why. His books are also not really fair-play mysteries in any sense. Nevertheless, they generally remain worth reading. They are well-constructed and engrossing, and his focus on the realistic mechanics of detection makes for a good read. This is a pretty solid Crofts. Through patient and dogged police work, Chief Inspector French runs to earth a nasty gang of thieves and murderers, who have conceived a daring but ruthless scheme. The opening chapter, set on board the eponymous Jane Vosper, is genuinely tense, and the climax is pretty exciting too.  

Thursday, 13 June 2019


Out from London again
leaving the long grey miles
on iron threads, weaving
through the pressing city.
And my spirit lifting,
lightening, as the green
begins to overwhelm
encroaching concrete.

These widened skies have seen,
forgiven, loved and known
much. A hidden kingdom –
our long drama, written
in stone and earth and act
by long-buried scribes, who
are themselves now England.

Beyond the racing train –
the sleek emissary
from the world of minutes
rushing heedless, time-bound –
an unforgetting realm
where the incantations
of new gods fade to nought.

Not stasis: energy
but energy contained,
made holy and subdued
to the eternal task
of passing on. And here
patience has been valid
The farmer’s endurance,
the planter’s faith, remain.

Thursday, 23 May 2019


Up at the Palace they’re hard at work
unearthing aged stakes, so I mourn.
They are not the same thing, you know,
the low wood fence and the high metal
The unyielding spike, ungentled
by the years, an alien still.
One of a hard garrison
imposed on the old green world.
A declaration in steel
of expected infractions,
prophecy of careless contempt.

Here no child will climb or lean, or know
the grace of a lichened decay
or first reach with shaking hand
to a half-known half-knowing creature.
At this monument to vanished trust
no lessons can be learned of lightness
and harmony; of humility
before the reclaiming years.