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?

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Might and right - Thomas Becket

Geoffrey Chaucer - a kindly face from Canterbury.

A few weeks ago, we went to Canterbury. I always compare other cathedrals to Wells, my 'local', and Wells always wins - it is so very beautiful. But what Canterbury does have is an incredibly powerful story which is soaked into its very stones. It's the story of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 to 1170: specifically, it's the story of his murder. He died because he resisted his King; because he believed that what he thought was right aced his duty to his liege lord. Perhaps there's a message here for the people who surround our present leaders.

Becket came from a moderately well-to-do Norman family. As he was beginning to make his way in the world, his father suffered some kind of financial setback, and Thomas had to take a position as a clerk to pay his way. However, he did well: working to start off with for a relative, but later moving to the household of Theobald of Bec, the Archbishop of Canterbury - then, as now, the archbishopric of Canterbury was the foremost one in the English church. Becket did well, and in 1154 he became Archdeacon of Canterbury, as well as being given various other posts in the church.

In fact, he did so well that Theobald recommended him to the King, Henry 11 for the post of Lord Chancellor - a position of considerable power and renown. Henry was engaged in a struggle with the church, because he felt it had too much power - power which too closely rivalled his own: for instance, a priest could only be tried in a church court, not in a civil court, no matter how heinous his crime. He believed that Becket was on his side - that he was ideally placed, with one foot in the church camp and one in the secular camp, to help him to shift the balance of power in favour of the crown.

At first, all went as planned. Becket helped Henry to extract money both from the church and from secular landowners; the two men got on well, with Henry even sending his son to live in Becket's household.

Then Theobald died, and Henry had a brilliant idea: he would make his friend archbishop, and then power over the church - with all its possessions and immense riches - and state would reside firmly in Henry's hands.

But it didn't work out like that. Thomas took his new position and responsibilities extremely seriously. He saw it as his duty not to do what Henry wanted, but to defend the church - if necessary, to the death. Henry was astonished. How dare this man, whom he had raised up - his friend - defy him? Wounded and furious at this perceived betrayal (is this reminding you of anyone?), he exiled him. The Pope eventually brokered a kind of peace, and Becket returned: but still he defied the King. Eventually, in what might possibly be called a tantrum, Henry turned on his courtiers and demanded to know why none of them would sort Becket out for him. (The exact words are not known, but he is commonly said to have railed at them: 'Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?') And four knights took him at his word.

This is where Thomas was killed. The two swords, and their shadows, represent the four knights who killed him.

They went to Canterbury, and inside the church, in a small space where one staircase led to the crypt, another up to the altar, and a door led to the cloisters, they brutally attacked him. As he died, his blood soaked into the stones.

Did Henry really mean this to happen? Did the knights misunderstand? Afterwards, he came to the cathedral and did humble and apparently sincere penance. But the four knights, though they eventually had to go into exile, were not arrested and their lands were not confiscated.

Very quickly, Becket's tomb inside the cathedral became a place of sanctity and pilgrimage - a place to come and be healed. Becket was soon declared a saint. Fifty years later, his remains were moved upstairs to the new eastern part of the cathedral, beyond the altar, into a tomb richly decorated with gold and jewels. In the sixteenth century, Erasmus, the famous Dutch humanist, priest and theologian, saw the tomb and was astonished by it; he said that the gold was the least of its riches, compared to the wealth of precious stones which had been given by kings and nobles in homage to the martyr.

A few years later, Henry VIII ransacked the tomb and stole the gold and the jewels. It wasn't just about the money: it was about the story as well. Henry, the power-crazed despot, had to do everything he could to obliterate the cult of Thomas Becket; because, even more so than Henry II, he couldn't bear the thought that a commoner should defy the king; that a man's conscience should be more important to him than his allegiance to the crown.

But it didn't work; the story, and the cult, survived. Thomas, and what he stood far - a determination to act according to his conscience - was not forgotten, despite the best efforts first of one king, then of another, far more brutal one.

I'm not a believer, but I think that's quite an encouraging message from the stones of Canterbury Cathedral. Especially at the moment. Those who are close to political leaders, take note: your allegiance to what is right takes precedence over your allegiance to your boss. That's the message that resounds down the centuries from Thomas Becket.

Monday, 27 February 2017

News from the hill

There have been dramatic happenings up on the hill over the last couple of weeks. Yellow plastic signs appeare warning of forestry operations, and these were followed by enormous tractors with shovels and suchlike on the front. Every few years, men and machines come and clear away the brambles and bracken which constantly seek to smother the whole hill - but in thirty years I've never seen them do as thorough a job as they have done this time. They've pretty much rearranged the landscape. In the picture above, the golden-brown areas are where just one small area of scrub has been destroyed.

It was all a bit worrying - where were they going to stop? How much was going to be destroyed? Well, a good deal. But I think it was necessary. They've opened up new clearings and vistas and created shapely little copses. I guess it's like gardening, only on a much bigger scale; you prune a bush, and it feels like a massacre, but then it goes back better and healthier. It's not natural, but then very little of the British landscape is - it's all managed, and has been for thousands for years.

I have just two quibbles. There was a lovely little clearing with limestone outcrops which were perfect to sit on and gaze across the valley towards Nyland and Glastonbury. It's on quite a steep slope, and I think the tractor must have got stuck so that the wheels spun round and gouged out great clods of earth and stone - it's a mess. I don't know what it was doing there; there was nothing that needed clearing and the path was nowhere near wide or level enough for any kind of vehicle. Every time I walk through there up with Ness, I spend a bit of time tidying it up, making it better, clod by clod, stone by stone - I feel like Tom Bombadil, only without the songs.

The other worry is an area on the edge of a copse where there used to be a very large and very old badger sett. That's flattened now. But the other day when I went past, I spotted two holes that I hadn't noticed since the work was done - and so I'm hoping that the badgers survived and are reclaiming their home. We'll see.

This curved remnant of stone is all that's left of the Roundhouse, which is also what local people call the hill, whose official name is, I think, the Perch. An old-timer once told me that in his younger days he used to be a beater for the local hunt, and the Roundhouse was where the hunters used to gather to have their picnic. They chose a good spot - there are marvellous views across the valley from here. Now, it's another good place to sit and contemplate the rather sorry state of the world, or its beauty, depending how you're feeling. Its crannies host lots of small ferns, mosses and other plants. The brambles were creeping closer and closer to the Roundhouse - I'm glad they've been cut back.

The gorse is out and bright at the moment. Another old-timer, long gone now, once told me there was a saying: "When gorse is out of season, kissing's out of fashion."

Once before when they cleared the brambles and bracken, a few months later a gorgeous patch of pale blue harebells appeared. They grow freely on most hills - in the Peak District, in North Wales - but you rarely see them on the Mendips round here: I don't know why. They only appeared the once. So I'm hoping that will be another bonus from the clearance.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Reading the detectives 4: Bruno, Chief of Police, by Martin Walker

I'm astonished to see that it's over two years since I wrote about a detective series. It's not that I haven't read any since then - I have. But it's true that for a while now, I haven't felt like reading about murder and mayhem. Perhaps there's been too much mayhem going on in real life.

But just recently I came across this series, written by Martin Walker and set in the Dordogne. And actually, these books are just the thing for a bit of mid-winter escapism, despite the crime.

The hero - and what a hero he is - is Bruno Courreges. (And I'm sorry that doesn't have the appropriate accents; I don't know how to do them in Blogger, and if anyone does, please tell me!) Bruno is the Chief of Police in a small town in the Perigord (near all those painted caves) called St Denis. He works closely with the Mayor to ensure the well-being of all the town's inhabitants, and he's so devoted to his job and his town that he turns down frequent invitations to be promoted to a job in Paris working for the rather shadowy Brigadier, who works for a mysterious intelligence agency and has links to the highest levels of government. Moving to Paris would also mean that he could be with Isabelle, probably the truest of his several loves, who also works for the Brigadier - but he simply can't tear himself away from St Denis.

The first book in the series.

And who could blame him? It's the most enchanting place, peopled with an array of colourful characters who all adore him - unsurprisingly, as he rescues them from dire fates on a regular basis, teaches their children tennis and rugby, dresses up as Father Christmas, and cooks them delicious feasts. He doesn't earn very much money, but this doesn't bother him: with the help of his friends he has built a charming house; he has an adorable dog with which he goes hunting for game, all of which he eats (this is the Perigord, after all: no country for vegetarians); he grows salad, vegetables and fruit in his garden; and he gets everything else - wine, cheese, cream, croissants - from friends.

He's caring, tender and intelligent, and he has a strong set of values. Unlike many literary detectives, he doesn't become ground down by the evil he encounters, and there is never any danger that he will cross the line; his moral compass is firmly set.

It's escapism, but into a world which apparently does actually exist: the author, Martin Walker, has a house in the Dordogne himself, and many of the characters are inspired by people he knows. And, as with Montalbano and Sicily, or Commissario Brunetti and Venice, or Dr Siri and Laos, you learn a great deal about the country in which the detective operates: how its legal system works, its recent history, the problems it faces. So in the Bruno novels I've read recently, there's been an exploration of the legacy of the French involvement in Vietnam, an overview of the wine trade, a look at the conflict between traditional hunters and their opponents, and an examination as to how the history of resistance and occupation is remembered - or sometimes stifled.

And beside all that, there's the food. Oh, the food...

'Bruno's summer soup was quickly made. He chopped two green peppers, peeled and sliced a cucumber and put them all into the blender with two cloves of garlic, two glasses of wine and half a glass of olive oil. He pored boiling water over four tomatoes to loosen their skins, peeled them and squeezed oyt the pips and added the tomato flesh to the blender...' And he's already got some delicious home-made bread on the go - and this isn't even in his own house!

What a guy. And of course he's also exceedingly good at solving crimes. Usually several at a time.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Exposure: Helen Dunmore

Although I'm a big fan of Helen Dunmore, I almost didn't want to read this after the first few pages, intriguing as it was - because it re-creates so convincingly the world of post-war Britain. This was the world of my childhood. Unlike Lily, the main character in this book, I lived not in London but in the industrial midlands, and not in a private house but a council house - so there are differences. But what is instantly familiar is the sense of only just managing; the sense that, although there's enough to eat and enough money to buy what you need, there's only ever just enough: that there's only a thin curtain between everything being all right and everything being very much not all right. The war was over before I was born, but it still loomed large; there were shortages, and the war was part of everyday conversation among the grown-ups - not in a deep and meaningful way, but just part of everybody's frame of reference.

But the state kept an eye on you - particularly if you were a child. You got orange juice and cod liver oil from the clinic and small bottles of milk - as Dunmore describes - at playtime at school. Clothes were passed on or made by your mum; jumpers were hand-knitted. There was no such thing as jeans.

I'm rambling - but that's because this book takes you with such certainty and accuracy into that world. But it also takes you into another world - one which I only became aware of much later, through films and books and newspaper articles: the world of cold war spies. The two worlds co-existed - not in the Midlands industrial town where I was brought up, but certainly in the suburbs of London. Dunmore's heroine is Lily Callington: Lily who was originally Lili, a German Jew whose mother brought her over to England before the war. Lily speaks perfect English, and has done her best to forget she ever knew German. But she remembers. She remembers the first time she realised that even home wasn't safe; when she got in the lift to go up to their apartment  and a lady called her 'Dirty little Jew'. A 'nice lady in a summer dress with yellow and purple pansies on it'. Evil does not always come in the most obvious of guises.

Whose story is it? Is it Lily's? Or is it her husband, Simon's? Simon works for the civil service. He got the job through an older man, Giles, with whom he had an affair while he was at Cambridge. Giles loved Simon then, and still loves him, but Giles is a spy, and when an accident leaves him vulnerable to discovery, he decides to sacrifice Simon - Simon is a small player; he can take the blame. It's Giles' story too. And then there's Julian: the smooth, ruthless spy master. He's prepared to sacrifice anybody who might endanger him - but he reckons without Lily.

The book really has the feel and atmosphere of the fifties; of sitting in a living room close to the fire because there's no central heating, listening to the wireless - and on a bigger scale, of the political picture: the divided loyalties, suspicions and betrayals of the Cold War. But it's not all gloom and doom. There's love and courage, and ultimately, redemption. And, as ever with Helen Dunmore, beautiful writing.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

That Burning Summer, by Lydia Syson - just published in the US by Sky Pony Press

Set during the Battle of Britain, this book deals not with the undoubted heroism of the Few - the pilots and crew of the RAF - but with those who, for one reason or another, came to to the decision that they could not take an active part in fighting the war.

Sixteen year old Peggy's father, a conscientious objector, is one of these. He has been interned, and Peggy, her younger brother Ernest and her mother have come to live with Aunt Myra in an isolated farmhouse in Romney Marsh.

Ernest, a serious, thoughtful boy, is desperately anxious about what will happen if the Germans invade. Peggy is determinedly keeping her spirits up, in the face of the obvious disapproval of people in the village of her father's principled but unpopular stance, and despite Ernest's constant anxiety and need for reassurance.

Then a plane crashes into the marsh. Its pilot is Henryk, a young Polish airman who has joined the RAF after fleeing Poland after the German invasion in order to continue to fight. (Many Polish aircrew escaped, first to France and then to England. They were noted for their daring and bravery - but at the end of the war, Poland was shamefully betrayed, and the Polish aircrew were not acknowledged in the victory celebrations for fear of antagonising Stalin.) Henryk has been through a harrowing time: traumatised, he decides he can no longer continue to fight, and he goes into hiding. One day he approaches the farm for food - and runs into Peggy. She finds herself helping him, and she becomes more and more drawn to him. But should she be aiding a deserter? And should she be pressuring Ernest to do the same? There are difficult decisions to be made, with no easy answers.

The novel explores unusual territory for a book about the Second World War. Pilots who could no longer cope with what they were required to do could be accused of LMF - lack of moral fibre -and ignominiously treated - or if they deserted, they would be court-martialled. And yet they were under almost unbearable pressure; that summer, they pretty much alone stood between Britain and defeat. (A few years later, my uncle, a boy of 19 and a rear gunner in the RAF, agreed to do a sortie for a friend - he had done his required number of flights and should have been on leave. He confided to my mother the night he left home to go back to base that he was afraid; he didn't want to go, he had a bad feeling about this trip. He went, and was killed - lost over Germany. One, of course, of many.)

And there's Ernest, who is so anxious, so afraid that there might be an invasion. From this end of the war, we know the outcome - we know that Hitler never did invade. It's so easy to forget that at the time, invasion was a real and terrifying threat.

But as well as all this, That Burning Summer is a tender coming of age and love story. It's beautifully written and a sensitive exploration of a relatively unexplored area of the second world war - do read it!