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.