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!

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Lara, by Anna Pasternak

I must have been about fourteen when I first saw David Lean’s hauntingly beautiful film of Boris Pasternak's Dr Zhivago. Set in and after the time of the Russian Revolution, it starred Omar Sharif as Yuri Zhivago, a young doctor; and Julie Christie as Lara, the woman with whom he falls deeply in love. Geraldine Chaplin was Tonya, his wife – whom he also loves, but in a much quieter way. Rod Steiger was the brutal realist and seducer of the young Lara, and Tom Courtenay was the young revolutionary whom she marries. But the backdrop was a huge part of the magic too: the vast forest and steppes of Russia; slender birches with leaves stirred by a restless wind; the snowy streets of St Petersburg, splashed with the blood of the poor.

Julie Christie and Omar Sharif as Lara and Yuri

The story matched the sweep of the landscape, and Omar Sharif – dark, sensitive, tender – and Julie Christie – passionate, vulnerable, and so beautiful – were the perfect vehicles to drive it. I, along with at least a generation, was bewitched by it – and so when I saw this book, called Lara and with a picture of Julie Christie on the front (though, rather oddly, the picture is not from the film), I immediately reached for it.

But it’s not, of course, the story of Lara – that was Dr Zhivago itself. This is the story of Olga Ivinskaya, the woman who inspired much of the character of Lara. Not all: the inciting incident, Lara’s seduction by Komarovsky, is based on something that happened to Pasternak’s second wife, Zinaida, whom he had wooed away from her first husband (who happened to be one of his best friends). In order to be with her, he left his first wife and child. But they turned out to be very different people; she had little interest in his career as a highly successful poet and was fearful that his determination to speak out freely would cause trouble with the authorities. (She was quite right: it did.) It seems typical of Pasternak's devotion to his art that he would take whatever he needed from the lives of both his wife and his mistress to create his heroine.

Boris met Olga in 1946, when he was 56 and she was 34, twelve years after his marriage to Zinaida. They met in the offices of a literary magazine where she worked. She was blonde and very pretty, and she was a passionate fan. Her romantic life, like his, had been eventful: her first husband killed himself when he discovered that she was having an affair with the man who later became her second husband - who in turn died young, from lung disease.

Boris courted Olga, and they were soon lovers. They had a great deal in common. As Anna Pasternak writes: Both were melodramatic romantics given to extraordinary flights of fantasy. ‘And now there he was at my desk by the window,’ she (Olga) later wrote, ‘the most unstinting man in the world, to whom it had been given to speak in the name of the clouds, the stars and the wind…’ Epic romantics indeed. They were together until Pasternak’s death; their lives were closely intertwined. She supported and encouraged his writing, he relied on her utterly, he had a close relationship with her daughter Irina – but he never left Zinaida for her, even though, had he done so, his name would probably have protected her from a great deal of suffering - including two stints in the Gulag.

Interestingly, Anna Pasternak is Boris’s great-niece, so she has access to sources which would have been less easily available to another author. She tells us that 'both Olga and her daughter, Irina, have received a bad rap from my family. The Pasternaks have always been keen to play down the role of Olga in Boris’s life and literary achievements…for him to have had two wives… and a public mistress was indigestible to their staunch moral code.' Anna clearly sees things differently. She writes towards the end of the book: 'When I began Lara, I was secretly concerned that I would discover that Boris used Olga…' but as she went on, she concluded that this was not the case, and she was surprised to develop a more tolerant affection for Boris.

Olga as a young woman

Olga inspired the character of Lara, but she assisted at the birth of the novel in another way too. When, in 1957, after twenty years in the writing, it was finally ready for publication, the Russian authorities were outraged by its critical portrayal of the Revolution. They refused to allow publication unless Boris would agree to water it down considerably. Unlike Zinaida, Olga supported his refusal to do this, and worked with him and with an Italian publisher to enable it to be published, first in Italy, later all over the world. Pasternak was held in high regard in Russia, and had been for many years – even Stalin had been an admirer. He was shielded from the fallout – but Olga was not. She was sent to Siberia twice because of her association with Boris and the book.

The story of Olga and Boris has almost the romantic, epic sweep as that of Lara and Yuri – and it gives us a sobering glimpse into how life was in an autocratic society which lacked the freedoms which we take for granted. It’s a fascinating read - and it really makes me want to see that film again...

A version of this review appeared early last week on Writers Review.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Happy New Year!

Well, it's over a week late, but HAPPY NEW YEAR to you all!

I have to admit, I'm usually a bit of a Scrooge about Christmas, and am generally delighted when the year turns and I can have a good old clear-out and start looking forward to the spring.

This year, all the family, including three grandsons, were here, and it was marvellous. (And now, it's oh so quiet!) So all the more reason to look for signs of spring.

There are some brave bulbs pushing green shoots up above the ground, and I've even seen snowdrops out in other gardens - but not in ours. But there is this rather splendid clump of hellebores, or Christmas roses, as my mother used to call them. She was a much better gardener than I am. Several times she gave me a clump of Christmas roses - which she loved - but without fail, they disappeared. So I'm very pleased that, for the first time, I have a thriving plant.

So I give you Christmas roses, beautiful and sturdy, as a sign of things to come. I hope.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Happy Christmas!

Hope you all have a lovely, peaceful Christmas - though I know that for so many people this year, Christmas will be far from peaceful. The world seems a grimmer place than it did last year; let's just hope things get better in 2017.

In the meantime, here's a snowy picture of Cheddar. (It's a cheat: no snow yet this year.)

And I'm sorry there haven't been many reviews lately. Someone put me on to Robin Hobb a few weeks ago; she writes long fantasy novels - lots of them, and they're ADDICTIVE. I'm currently on the third trilogy. It doesn't seem a bad idea these days to take refuge in another world...

Normal service will be resumed in the New Year...

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Coleridge's Cottage at Nether Stowey

A couple of weeks ago, while the weather was still sharp and bright and frosty (as opposed to dim and damp and dismal, as it is now), we went down to Nether Stowey, which nestles at the foot of the Quantocks, not far from the coast of West Somerset. It's a beautiful spot. Close by is Alfoxden, the house where William Wordsworth came to stay in 1797. He came there in part to recuperate after a turbulent few years in which he became inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution (and fell in love with a French girl, Annette Vallon, who had his child), only later to be horrified by its excesses.

A particular reason for choosing this area was that his friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was living in a cottage in Nether Stowey with his wife Sara and their baby, Hartley. They were very close at this time, and were collaborating on a book of poems which they were to call Lyrical Ballads - a book which was to create a colossal shift in the language of poetry, and in the kinds of subjects which inspired it. The two poets wanted to move away from the elegant, mannered artificiality of the Georgian Age, in favour of something they saw as much closer to life and to nature and to a deeper reality, something fresh and new and exciting.
Alfoxden is the white house near the centre of the picture.

Alfoxden is a large white house which looks out towards the sea; Wordsworth was able to afford it because he'd recently been left a generous legacy by a friend. Coleridge's cottage, which has just been restored by the National Trust, is small and must have been very cramped for a family. After its recent refurbishment, it looks charming. But when the Coleridges first rented it, the house was suffering from damp and neglect. Samuel and Sara worked hard to make it more habitable; Sara sewed curtains and I expect they white-washed the walls; regular fires dried it out - and friends, particularly Wordsworth, dropped in regularly. The conversation must have effervesced - it was such an exciting time, with new developments in astronomy, ballooning, exploring and science: a time when there wasn't the division between art and science that there is now, a time when anything seemed possible. These men were close to the centre of it all. So was Dorothy, Wordsworth's sister. But Sara? Well, probably not so much. Sara did not,have an easy time of it. There was a story we were told at the cottage: that one morning, Sara was warming milk for the baby on the fire. She accidentally spilled some of it on Samuel's foot, scalding it so that he was unable to go on the walk he was planning with a couple of friends.

He was disappointed, cross with Sara and very sorry for himself, and he limped off outside to sit under a lime tree and gaze out in the direction his friends had gone. And according to the story, this was the starting place for his poem, The Lime-Tree Bower. It's an eloquent, passionate poem, full of awareness of loss, the passing of time and separation from friends.

Well, they are gone, and here must I remain,
This lime-tree bower my prison! I have lost
Beauties and feelings, such as would have been
Most sweet to my remembrance even when age
Had dimm'd mine eyes to blindness! They, meanwhile,
Friends, whom I never more may meet again,
On springy heath, along the hill-top edge,
Wander in gladness, and wind down, perchance,
To that still roaring dell, of which I told...

But I have to say - I feel sorry for Sara. I mean - he missed a walk with his pals - it wasn't the end of the world! She didn't mean to spill the milk. And if he'd been helping her, instead of sitting around planning his day out with his friends, perhaps she wouldn't have been in such a fluster and it would never have happened. But that was the way it was with them. The marriage wasn't to last.

The Trust has done a brilliant job with the cottage. At the moment, it is decorated as it might have been in Georgian times; there is a Christmas tree, but it's hung with dried slices of orange and (perhaps?) little bunches of cinnamon sticks - not with glass baubles and tinsel. (I had always thought Christmas trees were a Victorian invention, but apparently this is not so: Queen Charlotte is thought to have introduced them, in the 1780s.) There's a scent of cloves and other spices, and wood smoke from the fire. The volunteers are dressed in clothes of the time, and they're knowledgeable and very welcoming; you're encouraged to touch things and try clothes on, to sit down at a desk and write a message with a quill pen dipped in ink - not easy! - to read from the extensive collection of books that line the walls of the reading room.

And that morning, someone sat by the fire in the tiny parlour and read some of the poems that were well-known at the time - including The Night Before Christmas, which was popular then in America. But most memorably, he read an excerpt from Coleridge's own Frost at Midnight. At his feet was a wooden cradle, and he rocked it gently with his foot. The firelight flickered on the walls, and when he began - very beautifully - to read, it was as if we were actually there, with Coleridge himself, in the middle of the night, with nothing stirring except a candle flame and the occasional mouse.

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet's cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.

The parlour. It's much smaller than it looks in this picture.

I did English at Durham, and I remember a good many lectures on the Romantic poets and the significance of Lyrical Ballads. But I think I learned more about Coleridge and Wordsworth and what they were trying to do in one hour in Nether Stowey than I did in many hours in lecture rooms and libraries. A sense of place - such a powerful force, and here so skilfully mediated.

Afterwards, we went down to the coast at East Quantoxhead. The rock formations there are quite extraordinary: I wonder what those late 18th century visitors to Coleridge, intensely curious and observant, made of them?

 A version of this post was first published yesterday, on The History Girls.