John le Carré Bucket List 2: A Murder of Quality

Yesterday evening I was in Dublin airport, on the way back from a business trip. I had a few books to read (including Naomi Foyle‘s new novel) but I felt jittery and a little burned-out. I needed something light, so instead I settled down to read John le Carré’s second novel, A Murder of Quality.

Similar to the previous book, A Call for the Dead, this is a mystery – although this one has no connection to espionage. A woman in fear of her life contacts a newspaper. The editor calls in George Smiley, a colleague from the war who has now retired. Smiley learns that the woman has since been murdered and sets off to Carne school where he is drawn into the investigation. This recruitment of a retired spy reminded me a little of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

The mystery itself isn’t particularly exciting; there’s the obvious suspect, the red herring and the culprit. On the way we get some satirical social comment. The school’s masters are grotesque snobs, unprepared for the changes coming in post-war Britain.

The rigorous social codes and how characters are classified as being the ‘right sort’ or not are terrifying. Arch comments are made about Smiley’s lack of a dinner jacket when invited to supper. One character is admired because “she did such clever things with the same dress”. Smiley doesn’t like this world, but is at home in it.

The most fascinating thing in the book are the descriptions of George Smiley; physically uncharismatic, he induces great love and faith in the people who know him. He is described by one character as “the most forgettable man she had ever met” with clothes “which were costly and unsuitable, for he was clay in the hands of his tailor, who robbed him”. Another character describes him as “Looks like a frog, dresses like a bookie, and has a brain I’d give my eyes for. Had a very nasty war. Very nasty indeed.”

We see how traumatised Smiley is by his experiences: “so many men learnt strength during the war, learnt terrible things, and put aside their knowledge with a shudder when it ended.” Despite being very good at his job, Smiley is repelled by this, having “the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin”. He takes little pride in solving the mystery.

I wouldn’t have read this book were I not reading the complete Le Carré. Like 1971’s the Naive and Sentimental Lover, if suffers in comparison to the spy novels – although the tone and ambience are interesting in places. Next up, however, is the Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

John le Carré Bucket List Part 1: Call for the Dead

I’m not very good at bucket lists. I imagine other people’s ones are stuffed full of parachutes, tightropes and racetracks. Mine has several mundane things among the ambitious goals. These include reading all the novels of Iain M Banks and John LeCarré. As Douglas Coupland once wrote, “There’s a lot to be said for having a small manageable dream.

Having a simple goal on my bucket list means I can easily work towards completing it, and this week I started on Le Carré’s complete works. I first got into his books while I was a teenager, mainly through the famous novels – the Spy Who Came in from the Cold and the Karla trilogy. I loved the weary cynicism of the books, and how they felt like they were plotted backwards; they started with a climactic event, then followed the after-effects.

After the cold war, people speculated that Le Carré’s work would suffer. Instead his books have focused on often-forgotten, ongoing aspects of espionage. For example, Our Kind of Traitor examined accusations that financial institutions laundered illegal money during the financial crisis when little money was available to loan. I’ve missed several of the later books, so reading the full set is a chance to fill in the gaps. It’s also an opportunity to approach some books I’ve loved as a different person.

Le Carré’s first book is set in a very different world. Call for the Dead, was published in 1961, just 16 years after World War 2 and the Holocaust. It’s set in a very different Britain. London is still a working city rather than the shiny thing it has become; the Beatles are in Hamburg, yet to sign to Decca, the Swinging Sixties some time off. It’s not a state of the nation book, but the country it describes does feel very different.

The book opens with a description of George Smiley: “When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary.” Smiley has an uncharismatic appearance, and is often compared to animals, “His appearance seemed to reflect this discomfort in a kind of physical recession which made him more hunched and frog-like than ever. He blinked more, and acquired the nickname of ‘Mole’.” He’s a friendly, competent and loyal chap, but strangers often dislike him, “a little fat man, rather gloomy” as one sees him.

Smiley was an academic, and approaches his intelligence work in that style. He was recruited from Oxford, and knew by sight half of his interview panel for the ‘Overseas Committee for Academic research’. He had a distinguished wartime career, running agents in Nazi Germany, although the book’s brief description on this time focuses on fear and not bravery: “He had never guessed it was possible to be frightened for so long“. The new threat of Russia has left him on the shelf, and the collegiate, academic version of his days in the service is gone: “the inspired amateurism of a handful of highly qualified, under-paid men had given way to the efficiency, bureaucracy and intrigue of a large Government department.

Call for the Dead is a murder mystery. Smiley undertakes the routine interrogation of Samuel Fennan, a Foreign Office worker. The interview is friendly and positive, but the next day Fennan kills himself, saying his career is ruined. Smiley is sent to speak to the widow Elsa, to see if he can work out what happened. While at the house the phone rings; thinking the call is for him, he takes it – a reminder from the local exchange, which had been placed by Fennan before he took his life. This leads Smiley to question the death, slowly unravelling something more complicated than a suicide.

The book describes the contradictions of Smiley’s role in a bureaucracy, “the unreality of containing a human tragedy in a three-page report“. At one point Elsa attacks him for the way the establishment drops bombs but “don’t come down here and look at the blood, or hear the scream“. She is unaware of the pitiful fear in which Smiley spent the war, and he won’t tell her any different. He struggles to maintain a core of humanity while, as Elsa puts it, “the files grow heads and arms and legs, and that’s a terrible moment“.

The book is interesting but didn’t quite feel like a Le Carré book. While Smiley spends a lot of time away from the action in a hospital bed, he does encounter a mysterious assailant. Despite some beautiful passages, the writing is clumsy in places – Smiley sinks into unconsciousness to end scenes, and the plot is dumped on the reader in an explanation near the end. But Call for the Dead did include one of my favourite tropes of spy novels – the interview with Fennan was conducted in a park while feeding the ducks.I had a sense of deja-vu as I read, the bleak London seeming familiar. It turns out that I read it back in 2011. I’m not sure it justifies reading twice and I might not have finished it, were it not the first book in the series.

Next up: A Murder of Quality, which I’m fairly sure I’ve not read before. It sounds like another mystery, but let’s see how it goes. I know there are some great books to come, so I can be patient.

My Favourite Books of 2016 – and the best so far this year

This post is incredibly late. I found it lying lost in my drafts folder, and it seems a shame not to post it. So: last year I read 82 books, and mostly managed to avoid bad ones. Picking out a arbitrary best eight:

  1. Command and Control / Eric Schlosser
  2. Dietland / Sarai Walker
  3. Do it for your Mum / Roy Wilkinson
  4. Electric dreams / Tom Lean
  5. The Last Days Of Jack Sparks / Jason Arnopp
  6. Seveneves / Neal Stephenson
  7. A Trojan Feast / Joshua Cutchin
  8. The Way we die now / Seamus O’Mahony

As far as I remember, Seveneves gave me worse nightmares than any book I’ve read in life. Not bad for a book that’s horror rather than sci-fi. I read a lot of apocalyptic fiction, but the image of the moon exploding and destroying the earth with debris was incredibly potent.

When I first started blogging, about 15 years ago, I decided that I shouldn’t write negative things. This is a good rule and one I’ve rarely broken. But… I read two truly terrible books by once-great authors: Clive Barker’s Scarlet Gospels and Make Something Up by Chuck Palahniuk. It wasn’t that these were bad books – I’d have just ignored them otherwise. I was shocked by mediocre work from such great talents.

So far in 2017 I’ve read 45 books, although I expect to catch up on 2016 after my Autumn holiday (I have a load of Le Carre books waiting on my Kindle). Likely best-of-the-years include Chalk by Paul Cornell, John Higgs’s stunning Watling Street (a review is currently in my drafts folder), and I hate the internet. But I’m desperate for a few more mindblowing ones. Recommendations welcome!

Horror and Harlow

I spent several years living in Harlow. It’s a place I loathe. I would gladly see it evacuated and used for military target practise. Or just left empty to collapse as a warning to future generations.

I can only think of two good things about Harlow. One was the Parndon Woods, which were large enough to that I could pretend that the town was far away. The other was the library. As a teenager, with little money and lots of curiosity, the library was vital to me. Nowadays, the Internet would do the same job and do it better but, back then, the library was the only access I had to interesting culture.

I could borrow tapes and listen to indie bands I’d read about but nobody at school was listening to. I borrowed the first Manics album and Dinosaur Jr’s Where You Been from there. I had to order Naked Lunch in from another library. I’m not sure I understood it then (I’m not sure I get it now) but I had a chance to grapple with it. But my favourite thing was the shelf of horror fiction. A run of anthologies, such as the Splatterpunks collection, and various Best New Horror anthologies.

When I was a child, I thought that the reason horror films were 18-rated was that they would send a young mind mad. This was an easy impression to get from the video nasty panic that ran throughout my childhood. Horror seemed dangerous and forbidden. I read the back-cover blurb of books in WHSmith with dread.

The first horror story I read was Ray Bradbury’s The Small Assassin at 11 or 12. I found it incredibly disturbing but, at the same time, I was amazed by the profound effect it had. All the best horror stories have that physical thrill of sensation. Clive Barker’s In the Hills, In the Cities is one of the great short stories, and gains power from the grim imagery.

The Best New Horror series introduced me to some great writing. In writing horror, many of the authors pushed the boundaries of language and imagery.  Secretly, of all my literary ambitions, the strongest is to become a horror writer. I loved those stories, some of them so very well crafted.

I’ve no love for Harlow. If someone told me they were going to use it for nuclear testing, I’d celebrate that. I can afford to buy my own paperbacks now – I just don’t have as much time to read. Those few shelves in the library weren’t part of the new town plan, but they are the only bit I thought worthwhile.

I Hate the Internet

I first heard about Jarett Kobeks’ novel “I hate the Internet” from John Higgs, who  told me about the book’s comparison between corporations making money from user-generated content and the publishers that stole from Jack Kirby. As the book puts it, “The business practices of the American comic-book industry have colonized Twenty-First Century life“. Kobek goes on to say that “The only difference being that Marvel, like, you know, actually paid Jack Kirby before he was screwed. Twitter didn’t pay its creators.” John described the book as being more of an argument than a novel, but it appealed to me. It’s also apparently the first self-funded book to be reviewed in the New York times.

The book explicitly claims that it is a bad book: “The writer of this novel gave up trying to write good novels when he realized that the good novel, as an idea, was created by the Central Intelligence Agency. This is not a joke. This is true.” As Kobel explains, “the CIA funded both The Paris Review and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the latter the prototype of a swarm of creative writing courses” Vice recently published an article, How the CIA infiltrated the world’s literature,  which gives some background on this.

I read the book in one go. It’s the sort of novel I love, falling into the category described by David Shield’s Reality Hunger, blurring non-fiction with fiction. It’s also very much a meta-fiction: one chapter is abandoned in favour of a summary of the arguments it was meant to make. It’s written in a similar mode to Kurt Vonnegut, albeit more cynical (there is even a science fiction writer among the characters, with the plots of his books described).

The novel is mostly a collection of rants about the modern world. It contains some vicious critiques of social media, all despairing: “How do you reason with people who make arguments about human dignity on machines built by slaves in China? How do you reason with people whose primary expression comes pre-branded by Twitter?

One of my favourite aspects of the book was its references to comic books. At one point, the Internet is described as “a wonderful resource for artist engagement, expanding a fan base, and reading about the feud between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison“. The last of these is a subject that has fascinated me – I was one of the supporters of the Last War in Albion Kickstarter, which produced the first volume of an epic history of this feud. The book’s description of Grant Morrison is harsh but amusing:

“Other than the oodles of quality which seeped from his work, Morrison’s principle distinguishing feature was that he had the bad luck of being a comic-book writer at the same time as Alan Moore. To paraphrase the preeminent comics critic Andrew Hickey… if Alan Moore had not existed, Grant Morrison would have been considered the single greatest writer in the history of the medium”

There is a definite danger in how social media overwhelms our communications and culture. In 2017, having a blog feels anachronistic. As Facebook, twitter and Medium expand, content gets boosted according to how well they achieve these company’s aims. A good example of this is the article The Three Reasons Youtubers Keep Imploding. I’m not sure what the answer is, although the Indie Web offers a glimmer of hope.

The Guardian interviewed Kobek in December. It was a fairly depressing read. Kobek said:

Interviewer: Reading your book made me think that we simply haven’t even had the language to criticise the internet until now. That there’s been no outside to the internet. No place to oppose it from…

Kobek: I think the outside is publishing, actually. I mean publishing in the most Platonic sense of the word, rather than the squalid industry that we have. I think that books actually can be anything. Publishing’s response to the internet has been completely pathetic, but God, if there’s going to be an opposition, a response, it’s not going to come in the form of tweets

Maybe the future is zines, maybe it’s something else. By the end of the book I felt quite despairing, and emailed John Higgs to tell him so. And, he reminded me there are good things about the Internet, and Kobel’s critique is not the only way of looking at things. “Pessimism is easier, of course, but pessimism is for lightweights”.

But Kobek is right, there is a problem to be faced here. As he said in his Guardian interview:

we live in a very dark moment where if you want to be part of any extended conversation beyond a handful of people, you do have to sign on to some things that, ultimately, are very unpalatable. Every era has its unanswerable questions, so maybe the thing to do, which is what I did in the book, is to just acknowledge the inherent hypocrisy of all of it. Though maybe that’s an easy dodge.

A book about Chalk

Paul Cornell’s recent novel Chalk is about abuse and folklore and the magic of pop-music. It’s the sort of book that burrows deep into my obsessions (one of its reference points is the Long Man of Wilmington). There’s a lot I can say about this book, and the conversations I’d have in person are very different to what I’d write in a blog post. It’s a book of complicated thoughts and feels.

I heard of the book through an interview with John Scalzi. It proved as shocking as Cornell warned – the incident at the start of the book, which triggers what follows, is very hard to read.

The book contains powerful chains of symbols – chalk outlines, downlands, pre-Roman Britain. There are the tarot suits scattered throughout the story – are the snooker cues wands, the knife a sword? Chalk turns up in different forms, not least on the snooker clues.

Cornell described the book as being about narrative, and the character of Angie has her own form of magic, very different to the narrator’s. The idea of pop music as magic seem familiar from Kieron Gillen’s Phonogram universe, but Cornell’s take on the idea is fresh. It’s a magic of lyrics, where the record at number one tells you what is coming in the future. Bananarama becomes a sort of triple goddess of young one, serious one and leader, but “They’re missing someone. There should really be a secret fourth member, or one we only hear about later”. Reference books listing British pop charts provide birth charts.

One thing I particularly liked was the headmaster’s announcement “[School] is a microcosm of the world. We prepare you for your place in it. History has set out a path for you. We lead you along it” – the school here is a world where the narratives compete. The distortions to this world are grounded while having the scale of cosmic horror, again reminiscent of Pratchett – there is a danger of something breaking through.

I’ve spoken mostly about the mythic aspects of the book. There’s also some very good, very raw writing about the effects of bullying and abuse, about the way in which these things persist in the world. The ending is the right one, true to the book, but it’s far from the one I wanted. But that’s the sort of discussion that works better in person than in books.

Louise said there was chalk in every room now.

A new Brighton bookshop

Last week, I wrote about the sad demise of the PS Brighton bookshop. There was also some good Brighton bookshop news recently, with a new place opening in the open market, run by John Shire.

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John has been running The Smallest Bookshop in Brighton for some time, with tiny batches of books available at different locations around the town. The new venue doesn’t really qualify as small, as there are lots of books available. Some really good ones too – the shop sells a number of books that I love. On my first quick visit I replaced a book I previously owned that had been surrendered before my last house move.

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(I think that is why Brighton has so many good second hand books available – most people don’t have room to keep many, and have to discard books they would otherwise keep)

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John is also owner of Invocations Press, which has published a number of excellent books. Among them is Bookends, John’s “Partial History of the Brighton Book Trade”. It records many much-loved and much-missed shops, and includes a bibliopolyography listing all known Brighton bookshops. It is also a very amusing book, with some brilliant asides – my favourite being the claim that “all books about Brighton are legally obliged to mention [Aleister] Crowley

4/3/17 – Over on Facebook, John wrote: “Worth mentioning too that it would have been impossible without the help of Mark at Ububooks in the Open Market who shares the majority of the Unit as well. So, a greater range of books than you could shake a stick at. Which you are welcome to do. As long as it’s not muddy and bits don’t fall off it. And you buy something after you’ve had your unusual fun.

The Odditorium Book

On October 6th, the Odditorium book will be released, and includes sections written by Dr Bramwell, Jo Keeling, John Higgs, Sarah Angliss and others.

The book’s full title is The Odditorium: The tricksters, eccentrics, deviants and inventors whose obsessions changed the world. It contains various biographies of lesser-known people who changed the world in some way, large or small:

Learn about Reginald Bray (1879-1939), a Victorian accountant who sent over 30,000 singular objects through the mail, including himself; Cyril Hoskin (1910-1981), a Cornish plumber who reinvented himself as a Tibetan lama and went on to sell over a million books; and Elaine Morgan (1920-2013), a journalist who battled a tirade of prejudice to pursue an aquatic-based theory of human evolution, which is today being championed by David Attenborough.

I’ve written two pieces for the book. The first is on Apsley Cherry-Garrard, an Antarctic explorer who wrote The Worst Journey in the World; and Harry Bensley, an adventurer who claimed to have walked around the world disguised by a knight’s helmet.

It’s so exciting to see the book finally coming to print, having been involved since the early pitching sessions, sending in lists of people I thought should be included (I was sad Nek Chand didn’t make it). There are some fascinating figures – I’m most excited about reading John Higgs writing about Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, and I think there’s also a chapter on Bob Flanagan.

The book is available for pre-order from Amazon; and if you’re in Brighton there is a launch event on October 14th.

Stranger than we can Imagine

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This weekend saw the launch of John Higgs’ new book Stranger than we can Imagine. It was also the first chance I’d had to read the copy I bought a few weeks ago at the Wilderness Festival, where I spoke just after John. His book on the KLF is one of my favourite books, so I’d been looking forward to this for some time. It’s a pretty bold undertaking, being a history of the twentieth century and takes its title from a quote by the physicist Sir Arthur Eddington.

Apparently a review in a history journal said that, rather than being the Great Man theory of history, this is the strange person history. The figures Higgs picks are marginal: Jack Parsons, Aleister Crowley, Emperor Norton, Mark Everett. There is a fantastic portray of Von Neumann as a supervillain, which vividly illustrates the madness of cold war strategy. The book’s theme is the shifting frames of reference at the start of the century in areas such as psychology, politics, science and literature. My favourite quote is the cautious claim that “If you were feeling  brave you could argue that Einstein was a modernist scientist, although to do so would annoy a lot of physicists”

I tend to be a little nervous about popular accounts of physics. Over the years I’ve read too many accounts of quantum entanglement that veered off into telepathy. The handling of science here is careful and thoughtful without being dry, particularly the discussions of special relativity.

(The time traveller and poet Rosy Carrick recently teased me for the class of degree I earned and, yes, I was much less successful than she was as an undergraduate. However, I feel that I achieved the aims JA Smith set out in his teaching: “Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life – save only this – if you work hard and diligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.”)

Another interesting discussion is about the alleged riots at the opening night of Stavinsky’s rite of Spring. Like the riots that were said to have happened in response to Tzara’s random poetry, there is little evidence that this happened. Higgs dismantles the myth, then turns to a surprising conclusion: “An actual riot only tells us about the impact of the performance on one particular day. A mythic riot, on the other hand, shows us that the impact of the music transcends that point in time. Myths don’t just crop up anywhere.”

The narrative of the book emerges quite late, and for a while I wasn’t sure if there was a story to be told, but the conclusion is fascinating. Something happened in the 20th century and this book provides an interesting explanation of what this was.

PS – Higgs raises an interesting question about UFOs through his outline of a discussion by Jung. UFOs, according to Jung, are a modern manifestation of things seen through the ages, such as fairies and angels. Since the cameraphone became ubiquitous, UFO sightings have dropped off – what is going to replace them?

 

Big Game Hunting in the Second Hand Bookshop

(This is a post from the literaturenetwork back in July 2009. The piece questions some of the things we have lost in the Internet age, a question that drives my PhD research. If I was to write this article today it would be aggressively political. Second hand bookshops are being driven out of business through the combined assault of Amazon and high-street charity shops. While this can easily be ascribed to the march of 'technological progress', the endangered status of the second hand bookshop touches on some very important political issues – for example, fair taxation, local shopping and the importance and financing of art. I've not written that article and probably won't so here's the original…)

The Internet is wonderful thing. So wonderful that it’s easy to forget how much fun buying books in the real world can be.

I love buying things on-line. No matter how strange or obscure the item I want, there always seems to be someone selling it. The most interesting thing I’ve bought recently is a mid-nineties guide to British second hand book shops. This book, by the mysterious Driffield, is long out of date: most of the shops listed that I remember from 15 years back are no more. The guide would likely be little use in navigating present-day second hand bookshops (although I sometimes day-dream about trying).

Instead it reads like a strange volume of speculative fiction, perhaps something Jeff Vandermeer might have devised – maybe drif’s guides are the first examples of paperpunk. Driffield himself has also appeared as a literary character, notably appearing and disappearing in Iain Sinclair’s books (for example, ‘White Chapell, Scarlet Tracings’ and City of Disappearances respectively). He was described by Iain Sinclair as “the punning diarist to a dying book trade”.

Driffield’s guides are full of acronyms (FARTS – Follows you around recommending the stock; GOB – Grand old bore ; KEENON – Keen on stocking if they could get it) and strange obsessions – the link between vegetarian restaurants and book shops, tales of skulduggery and multi-page rants about ‘British Fail’. One edition even claimed Guilford did not exist. Driffield’s frustrations are written up as epic adventure, with wonderful sketches of shops, such as the one where he “discovered how to cure thrush with carrots.”

Reading Drif’s guides and remembering long-lost bookshops brought back the fun I had trawling bookshops as a teenager. I’d sneak away from school and search through basements and shops for treasures, maybe a Michael Moorcock book I’d not seen before or recent hardbacks I couldn’t afford to buy new. I kept a list of the books I wanted to find and was always thrilled when I could cross one off. Looking for books was almost as much fun as reading them – more so when the book failed to meet my expectations.

Buying books in the 21st century is different. Amazon astutely saw that books could be bought without the buyer handling the product and their empire has grown, sweeping away physical bookshops. Over the years Amazon has added more features, one of the most interesting being Amazon Marketplace, which offers new and second hand books from sellers worldwide. Readers can search hundreds, maybe thousands of bookshops with a single web request and cheap copies of out of print books can arrive within days. This, and similar services, have made buying second hand books incredibly easy.

But something has been lost. When ordering books from Amazon, my only communication with the seller is to leave a comment on the feedback page. In real-world bookshops I came to know some of the sellers, and could spend ages chatting while deciding which paperbacks to buy and which I’d risk leaving for next time. And, of course, in real bookshops I’d occasionally find books I’d never expected, the sort of random associations and serendipity you can’t build into recommendation engines.

I’ve not been out trawling second hand bookshops for a long time now. For a start I have less free time: it’s easy to skip school but harder to play truant from a job. The sheer efficiency of Amazon marketplaces has seduced me from the secondhand bookshop. Sometimes I wish I had less money and more time, because then I’d be trawling second-hand bookshops again.

According to Driffield “Book dealing is a form of big-game hunting.” There is more to books than words and I miss questing for books. Borges said that heaven would be a library. I disagree. For me heaven would be an endless, dusty, second hand book-shop.