Saturday, 29 April 2017

Born To Run, by Bruce Springsteen

So, this afternoon I was listening to Bruce Springsteen (Devils And Dust), as I have been doing since round about 1975 - and I remembered that I hadn't written about his autobiography, which I read a few months ago. He's amazing, Bruce. Even when he's singing about sad things, as he often is, he never fails to lift the heart and set the feet tapping.

As I said, it's a while since I read it, so I can't go into a lot of detail. But it's a fascinating book. Bruce - may I call you Bruce? I feel as if I may - Bruce tells it all. Well, obviously not all, but certainly a great deal. He starts by writing about his family and the small town he came from - a setting which is clearly the bedrock for most of his songs. At first, you can imagine that the teenaged Bruce and his pals, determined somehow to get into music, with no money, no knowledge of the industry will surely sink without trace as so many other would-be young musicians do. But of course he doesn't. And though he doesn't brag - far from it - you see why: he is utterly determined, he works incredibly hard, and he is a poet. He's someone who just never stops creating. He describes here how it feels when he and his band finally get a record deal:

We'd climbed to the heavens and spoken to the gods, who told us we were spitting thunder and throwing lightning bolts! It was on. It was all on. After years of waiting, of struggling toward that something I thought might never happen, it had happened.

He tells the story behind each record, explains what he was trying to do, what the concept was. This I found fascinating: I'm not knowledgeable musically, I just like to listen to the songs. But when you see how much thought and energy went into the records, you get a glimpse of why they work so well.

You get the sense of a person who is driven, but who is also kind; who knows that he wants to be the leader of a band, not just another member, yet is not arrogant. He writes about his demons - and with an intense creative drive such as he has, it's not surprising that he has them - with honesty and pain. I think he set out to tell the truth about himself, as much as that's possible, and he makes a really good job of it.

Favourite song? The Queen of the Supermarket, from the album Working On A Dream. It's a beautiful song. A perfect little story of love that will probably never be requited, sad and pure - and it all takes place in the unromantic setting of a supermarket.

And while we're on the subject - why do they never use any of his songs on Strictly Come Dancing? Perhaps he won't let them. I can see it's not very rock'n'roll. But my goodness, with their emotional punch and powerful lyricism, they would inspire some stunning routines.

Monday, 24 April 2017

The Tobacconist, by Robert Seethaler


Robert Seethaler is an Austrian living in Berlin. His previous, very successful book, A Whole Life, is the story of a simple man who lived in the mountains, only leaving them to go to war. You might expect the main part of the book to be about his experience of war, because surely that's the obvious, the most dramatic bit to choose to write about; but no. As the title suggests, it's about the whole of his life - which isn't packed with incident (though there is one tragic occurrence): it's essentially a quiet life.

This strikes a chord with me. I've often been told that my own books are too quiet - and I can see that there's some justice in this. Bernard Cornwell and I have both written books about Alfred the Great and his daughter Aethelflaed. He's written a whole series, which have sold in squillions and been made into a successful TV series. I've written one book, originally intended for teenagers (Warrior King, since you ask) and a short story in an anthology, which didn't sell in squillions. The Last Kingdom, Cornwell's book, has bucketsful of gore, lots of drama, and a gorgeous hero. Mine has some jolly nice people, one cracking villain, a silver-eyed magic lady, a sensitive hero troubled by doubt, and rather less gore. It's pretty easy to draw a lesson from this - yet I'm still drawn to subtle stories about quiet people. I suppose the trick is to write them so well that the drama is just as powerful, despite the lack of Sturm und Drang - sorry, just showing off that I did German at school - it means 'storm and stress'. And it does link back to Seethaler - rather neatly, though I says it as shouldn't - because Seethaler writes compellingly about ordinary people - quiet people - and the moments which affect and change them.

In An Ordinary Life, he writes beautifully about how his protagonist falls in love - but this is only a part of his life, though it is a very significant one. The things that happen in the wider world have an effect on his life, of course - but they are merely a backdrop to it. In The Tobacconist, what is happening in the wider world is much more intense - because the book begins in 1937 and most of the action takes place in Vienna. The hero, 17 year-old Franz, at the beginning is living a comfortable, rather spoilt life in a village by a lake with his mother. But then his mother's 'protector' dies in an accident and money is suddenly short. So Franz is sent off to be an apprentice to an old friend of his mother's, a tobacconist in Vienna. Franz, a simple and open character, copes surprisingly well with life in the city. He enjoys his work, gets on well with his rather crusty employer, makes friends with one of the customers, a certain Professor Freud, and falls in love with an unsuitable girl.

But Jews are welcome customers at the shop, and the Gestapo come calling. When the tobacconist is arrested, Franz feels he must protest.

Like An Ordinary Life, The Tobacconist is a short book. It doesn't have a complicated structure, it doesn't have a huge cast of characters, there is no big secret to be revealed, not much by way of twists or turns, no horrifying accounts of torture or interrogation. Yet it works - the story grips. Ordinary lives have their own drama; we all have a story to tell. Only we aren't all good at telling it. Seethaler is.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Hotel Florida - Truth, Love and Death in the Spanish Civi War: by Amanda Vaill

Probably most of us know something about the Spanish Civil War: that it took place in the 1930s; that it was fought between the Republicans and General Franco's forces, and that Franco won; that lots of idealistic young people from other countries went to Spain to fight for the Republic; perhaps we know also that some of the atrocities that took place remained hidden for decades, and are still now only just coming to light.

But probably even these things we only know in a hazy sort of way. The conflict, after all, was contained in a country which only borders two others, Portugal and France; it's on the edge of Europe, almost surrounded by sea. All hell could be - and was - let loose there, and the rest of Europe could stick its fingers in its ears and turn the other way.

Some countries - Britain and France, for instance - did just that. Others used the conflict as a sort of practice ground for the much greater one to come. So the Germans trialled carpet bombing when they destroyed a small country town called Guernica with the Condor Squadron which they had put at the service of Franco; the Russians supported the Republicans - and spirited the huge Spanish gold reserves out of the country, promising to keep them very, very safe - and ruthlessly suppressed rival left wing factions. The cynicism of Russia and Germany as they pulled the strings of this war, despite all we already know of their actions in the conflagration to follow, are truly shocking.


The history is complicated, ugly and difficult to grasp. This book gives an excellent overview of the conflict by focusing on the lives of three couples - who all at one point meet up at Madrid's Hotel Florida. It's not a novel: the author tells us in her introduction that it's a reconstruction, firmly based on evidence.

Probably the most famous of the six individuals is Ernest Hemingway. I've never managed to get on with Hemingway's writing. I can read a page or two and admire the prose style - but there's something about the personality behind it which has never appealed to me. After reading this book, I can see why. In the mid thirties, he is a very successful writer - a celebrity. He has a wealthy wife, Pauline, and uses her money to enjoy a very privileged lifestyle. He's a hunter, a fan of bull-fighting, a drinker, a man's man. He's macho, arrogant and very ready to use his fists.

But his writing has gone stale, and he sees Spain as a worthy, pure cause. (Despite his lifestyle, he sees himself as a communist.) So he gets himself accredited as a war correspondent and heads for Madrid - with an ambitious, well-connected young journalist called Martha Gellhorn at his side. She has blonde hair and long legs; she's also determined and fearless. Like many others, she hero-worships Hemingway.

The second couple are Arturo Barea, the only Spaniard of the six, and Ilse Kulcsar. As the civil war begins, Arturo, caught between a wife and a mistress (neither of whom he loves) also sees the Republican cause as something pure, something to which he can devote himself, becomes a censor working with the foreign correspondents who have flocked to Madrid, trying to ensure they write a truth which will help the cause. Ilse is Austrian and began her political life as a youthful communist, which has got her into trouble with the government. Together with her husband, she starts a resistance cell which also includes Hugh Gaitskell, later to become a prominent Labour politician in Britain, the poet Stephen Spender - and a certain Kim Philby. She becomes disillusioned with the Party, and with her husband, and like many others, sees the Spanish Republican cause as one worth fighting for. In Madrid, she works alongside Arturo, and they fall in love.



But perhaps the most attractive and likeable couple are Robert Capa and Gerda Taro (above - the picture is from the book). Both names are pseudonyms. She was born Polish, he Hungarian; both are Jewish, both are very young, both are determined to become war photographers and both are wildly, quixotically brave.

Amanda Vaill takes her time, moving between the three couples, letting us get to know them. As we follow their progress, we learn about the progress of the war. We read about the horrors which each side inflicts on the other - and which sometimes, one side inflicts on its own followers. We feel the surge of hope when the International Brigades are formed, and the shock as it becomes clear that the Republican forces - the forces of the elected government - are facing defeat. And finally we are told the fate of the six.

It's a fascinating book: readable, moving, clear and informative. After reading it, I felt I had a much clearer idea of what happened - though I shall need to find a different book to explain to me what led up to it.

PS Yesterday I downloaded a book by Alan Furst, who writes about some of the murkier corners of the Second World War. It's called Midnight In Europe, and it's hero is a Spaniard living in Paris. A few pages in, there is a description of the Hotel Florida, where a character is staying. Don't you just love it when connections like that happen, apparently by accident?

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

More watery places... and birds.

This time, in Brussels and Flanders over the last few days...

This was one massive bird!

Enjoying the sun at Het Vinne, Belgium's largest natural lake.


Black-headed gulls

Extraordinary mandarin duck - such colours! At Rouge Cloitre, in the Foret de Soignes.

A pile of goslings...

...and their mum (or possibly dad: an Egyptian goose

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Bookless in Norfolk 2: the Dr Ruth Galloway mysteries, by Elly Griffiths

At a place called Cley on the coast of Norfolk the Norfolk Wildlife Trust has a visitor centre. I didn't take a picture of it, and I can't find a good one, so you'll have to take my word for it that the centre looks rather like a beached ship, and fits very beautifully into the landscape. The front wall is mostly windows, and it looks out over the marshes, first freshwater and then salt, which lead to the edge of the land and the sea. There's a lot of sky above you, and a lot of space in front of you. Even if you're not an accomplished birdwatcher; you can't miss the birds.


A little white egret
The marshes




Like any visitor centre worth its salt (!), Cley has a shop. I homed in on the books, and found a mystery series set in Norfolk and written by Elly Griffiths. I bought the first one, which is called The Crossing Places, and it turned out to be an absolute treat.

It features a forensic archaeologist (someone who specialises in bones), called Ruth Galloway. Ruth lives on the edge of the marshes in a lonely little cottage, and she loves it. She is called in by the local police - in the form of one Harry Nelson - when they find the bones of a child near the site of a prehistoric wooden henge which Ruth played a part in uncovering some years before. Nelson hopes they are the bones of a child who went missing ten years before - he is desperate to give closure to her parents, and haunted by a series of anonymous letters taunting him about his inability to solve the case. However, the bones turn out to be considerably older than that.

Then another child goes missing. Ruth helps Nelson to investigate the case - and finds that she herself is drawn into danger.

The story is good and it's very well told. But it's the characters that are the real draw. There's Ruth, who is fortyish, overweight, clever, independent and funny. There's Nelson, who is tall, handsome, does a good line in dark scowls, and is fiercely loyal to his team and protective of his family, the beautiful Michelle and their two daughters. There's Cathbad the druid, who really does seem to have semi-magical powers, and has a way of being exactly where and when he is needed. There's Cloughie, the detective sergeant, who eats all the time but never puts on weight, and Judy, also a detective sergeant, who's tough but also good at empathy, and vies with Clough for Nelson's approval. There's beautiful Shona, Ruth's friend, feckless and faithless, and there's loathsome Phil, Ruth's ambitious, attention-seeking boss.



All of these and more reappear in all the books - I think there are nine to date. Their intertwining stories are ongoing, and to appreciate and enjoy them properly it really is best to read the books in order. Each book is set at least partly in a different bit of Norfolk, and the plots don't repeat each other, although some elements do. The characters aren't predictable. Their lives become messy, but just in the way that real lives do. The landscape is described beautifully, and its long history is often integral to the stories.

I've read them all now, except for the last one, which I'm trying to save, like the last bit of chocolate. I meant to stop after a couple and make them last - but it's so fatally easy with a Kindle; your finger hovers over the screen, as you think, 'Well maybe just one more - one more won't really make a difference, will it...? Because I really do need to know whether it's going to work out between X and X, and whether Y is going to happen...'

I really do recommend this series. Elly Griffiths is a seriously good writer, albeit one with a great sense of humour and the ability to observe human nature with forensic accuracy, but also with kindness and understanding.



Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Bookless in Norfolk - well, almost. City of Shadows, by Michael Russell


I’m on holiday at the moment, in North Norfolk. I’ve never been here before; it’s a green, rolling landscape, with unspoilt villages whose houses are faced with flint pebbles or made of russet brick; clear streams, daffodils and hellebores, ponderous pheasants, swooping owls at dusk  – and a clean, breezy coastline edged with marshes teeming with lapwings, terns and little white egrets.

A watery bit of Norfolk.

What it doesn’t have – well, our particular little bit of it anyway – is internet or phone service. This is because, a few days ago, a farmer drove his tractor into a telegraph pole and took out all the cables – and this apparently will take at least a week to fix.  It’s quite interesting really; it’s as if we’ve gone back in time, or as if we're cut off from the outside world. The village shop can’t take cards or ring in orders. A van driver wanders in looking bemused; his sat nav has suddenly stopped working, and he can’t find the house he’s looking for.

And I’ve run out of reading matter. I hunt through the books in the cottage we’re staying in, certain I’ll find something there. I try three. The first is painfully badly written. The second – I can’t even remember the second. The third is a Ruth Rendell, and I have high hopes, but in this particular novel, she seems to be grappling very uneasily with notions of political correctness and with characters with whose background and way of life she is palpably ill at ease. The result is uncomfortable and rather dull.

So I hunt through my Kindle. I can’t download anything new, because there is no wifi. I go back, in search of something I haven’t yet read. And I find this: The City of Shadows, by Michael Russell. I don't remember it. I probably downloaded it before I was going away somewhere, in a sudden panic that I might run out of things to read – an Amazon recommendation, perhaps. It’s a detective story, and it’s set partly in Ireland and partly in Poland. Three reasons for me to be interested, so I start to read.

Set in the early 1930s, it begins with an evocative description of night-time Dublin, with the moon shining on the River Liffey. ‘Yet sometimes, when the moon was low and heavy over the city, the Liffey seemed to remember the light of the moon and the stars in the mountains, and the nights when its cascading streams were the only sound.’ Peaceful yet brooding, this sentence alone is enough reason to read on. But the peace doesn’t last; a few pages in, a young gay man is brutally murdered. It’s clear that the Church, and a high-ranking priest, are involved.



Cut to two years later, and Detective Sergeant Stefan Gillespie is trying to catch an illegal abortionist. A young woman goes into his house, and Stefan – who is himself half German - and his constable, Dessie, assume that she is seeking an abortion at the hands of the German doctor. But things are not as they seem. The woman, Hannah Rosen, who is Jewish, is not there on her own account: she’s searching for a missing friend. And Dr Keller turns out to have powerful protectors who warn Stefan off.

Stefan, a widower with a young son who lives with Stefan’s parents on a farm outside the city, agrees to help Hannah. But things become increasingly murky; and Stefan has his own problems with a fanatical priest who wants to take his son away from him, because he believes Stefan is not giving him a properly Catholic upbringing.

Stefan’s desire to help Hannah, and to uncover the truth behind Keller’s involvement and subsequent smoothly effected escape, takes him to Gdansk. The plot deepens in complexity, and Russell helped me to understand a great deal more than I did before about both the position of the Church in Ireland, and about the history of Gdansk – which was a few years later, of course, the place where Hitler’s troops invaded, lighting the touch paper for war.

But it’s also beautifully written, and the characters are subtle, complex and very believable. (I hate to think there could really be fanatics such as the village priest, but I fear the evidence is all too strong that there were - and are - people who are so blinded by a perverted vision of faith that they are capable of appalling cruelty.) It’s a very good book.

Next time – another fruit of being bookless in Norfolk!


Saturday, 4 March 2017

The Gustav Sonata, by Rose Tremain

I'm a big fan of Rose Tremain. I don't often re-read books, but I've read the The Way Home, about an economic migrant to Britain from Eastern Europe, several times: it's touching and funny and sad and warm, with complex, richly realised characters. Music and Silence - which I've also re-read and, thinking about it, may read again is set in the 17th century Danish court - very different, and quite mesmerising.

The Gustav Sonata is quite a short novel. It's divided into three parts, and after finishing it occurred to me - musical ignoramus that I am - that this might mimic the structure of a sonata, and sure enough, it does:

Sonata: a type of composition in three sections (exposition, development, and recapitulation) in which two themes or subjects are explored according to set key relationships. It forms the basis for much classical music, including the sonata, symphony, and concerto. (Google)

The two subjects are two boys, Anton and Gustav, with Gustav being the point-of-view character. They live in a Swiss town where nothing much happens. Gustav's circumstances are materially and also emotionally poor; his mother seems bitter and cold, and unable to really love him. His life is enriched when he makes friends with a new boy, a musical prodigy, whose parents are loving and warm and take Gustav into their hearts.

The second section goes back in time to explore the story of Gustav's parents (his father died during the war - in which, of course, Switzerland did not take part - when he was very small). Then the third section moves forward in time, to explain what becomes of Anton and Gustav in middle age.

As in all Rose Tremain's books, no matter how diverse their settings, the characters in all their complexity are the focus. And not just the main ones: Lotte, beautiful in her youth, still hungry for life, passion and fashion in her old age, is a wonderful creation. Even bit-part players, like Lunardi the chef, is completely three-dimensional; though he says little, he's very real. She explores and highlights relationships: weakness, selfishness, the accommodations that people make, the deceptions they learn to live with - but also the strength of love, the kindness and generosity to be found in unexpected places.

I knew nothing about life in Switzerland during the war, and it was interesting to discover how, despite being neutral, it was still affected. But really, what grips is the story of these two lives, and how they touch and are touched by those of others. It's a satisfying, thought-provoking and moving novel, and you really couldn't ask for much more, could you?