Saturday, 2 April 2016

The Reality of Navarone

"War in the Islands", Adrian Seligman

I have many reasons to be grateful to the Society for Nautical Research and their journal, the Mariner's Mirror, but perhaps the single standout point that still makes me smile is an article on accounts of sailors during the last days of sailing merchant ships. I read it stood at the bar in Beer Rebellion in Gipsy Hill during the summer of 2014, and exploring its footnotes and references duly acquired many of the works cited; of these Adrian Seligman's The Slope of the Wind stood out as a charismatic tale rich in anecdote and appeal. Let's face it, anyone who responds to the triple whammy of failing exams, being informed by girlfriend that she's marrying someone else, and being threatened by their bank, by running away to sea has got to be a good egg.

Seligman's a fascinating character, as you find through his work. His No Stars to Guide is perhaps the most memorable - an account of breaking a Soviet icebreaker out from the Dardenelles to the Levant that could quite easily have been an Eric Ambler novel.

No Stars to Guide asked questions. What was the wider war career of people like Adrian Seligman? What did the sailor enthusiasts sucked into war in the Mediterranean do? In War in the Islands Seligman starts to address this question. Taking a series of interviews with those who served with such delightfully named outfits as the Levant Schooner Squadron, the Greek Sacred Company, and Aegean Raiding Forces he applies his own story telling ability to the accounts of plain lives in extraordinary times. 

The Aegean campaign in the Second World War has always felt like a backwater. If you've read or seen The Guns of Navarone (and really, who hasn't?) or encountered Captain Corelli's Mandolin you'll be familiar enough with the theatre, the heroism, and the tragedy of what went on here between 1940 and 1945. Throughout all of this you can't help escaping the feeling that despite the exertions of brave men and women in caiques and schooners what was done here did little to alter the ultimate outcome of the wider war in Europe. What happens here feels different to what we know of Stalingrad or Normandy. 

Strangely the remoteness of the conflict humanises it and makes the individual stories told in War in the Islands more powerful and Seligman's gift lies in capturing the emotion and motivation behind the disparate group of people who share their experiences. In this he captures the laconic and modest voices of Paddy Leigh Fermor and Fitzroy Maclean, and provides an account that should appeal to much more than the relatively narrow audience of maritime and military historians.

As a coda, tracking War in the Islands down was an equally rewarding experience. Navigating the shoals of overpriced second hand volumes eventually a nice looking edition was found at a perfectly reasonable price. Duly purchased and package opened to discover the cheerful dedication from the late Adrian Seligman added an appropriately personal and human note to the work. War in the Islands is a deeply personal work, and in encountering a direct link to history like this makes this a more than usually valued possession.



Wednesday, 23 March 2016

The Spies of Croydon

"Icelight", Aly Monroe

When Melita Norwood of Bexleyheath was exposed as a long time Soviet spy in 1999 there was a sense of mild bemusement that a sleepy piece of London south of the river could be linked to the high politics of the the Cold War. Maybe it shouldn't have come as a surprise, Michael Bettaney lived in Coulsdon, and there's no real reason why spies who have little regard for the niceties of sovereignty should eschew territory the other side of the Thames from Whitehall.

Aly Monroe's Icelight holds no truck with London's north-south divide. Travelling down the route from Victoria neighbourhoods of Croydon, Carshalton, and Sanderstead are given star billing. For those familiar with the terrain there's a ring of authenticity, with pubs like the Greyhound, the Swan and Sugarloaf, and the Red Deer all still being identifiable today. This might raise the question of whether Monroe backfilled present day locations to make it feel real, but even if this is the case, it's perfectly credible that this would have been the landscape of 1947.

Making perhaps a link with Michael Bettaney, described variously in this rather good contemporary BBC News account as a 'solitary bachelor with a tendency to drink', known for 'consorting with homosexuals', and guilty of 'fare dodging', Icelight deals with security service persecution of the gay community and low level organised crime throughout, portraying the period in a suitably bleak light, matching the evocation of a cold winter in the face of continued rationing and economic malaise. Paraphrasing Monroe, this England is a fortress island defended against pleasure rather more effectively than it had been against Hitler's bombs.

Over the last few years I've had a few encounters with Aly Monroe's writing. I was initially a bit ambivalent of her first, The Maze of Cadiz, finding the character of Peter Cotton a little hard to grasp. Over the years though Cotton's become more engaging, just as reading about has been. 2009's Washington Shadow brought a vein of darkness, and with Icelight there's a distinct amount of steel throughout the character and the narrative. It compels not just with the strong sense of place that's evoked, but with an ambiguous plotline hinting at the richness buried beneath the strictures of late 1940s Britain.






Tuesday, 15 March 2016

If I Were a Man I'd have a Gun

"Girl Waits With Gun", Amy Stewart

Sometimes the tagline 'based on a true story' is all it takes to conjure memories of Fargo into existence, sometimes however it provides the root of something rather different, if every bit as enjoyable.

It would be all to easy to describe Amy Stewart's retelling of Constance Kopp's battle with Henry Kauffman as gentle 'cozy crime', an impression perhaps conveyed by The Guardian's endorsement of it as a 'marvellous romp', and on some levels that's exactly what it is. The language encourages you to smile throughout - with characters described as having "all the girlish charm of a boulder" and Constance wistfully describing her aspirations as "All I ever wished for was a good clean job in an office and a salary that would allow me to purchase a cabbage if I wanted one, which I didn't think I would."

However the automobile accident that gives rise to the central path of the novel in fact opens up what is a much richer social commentary on the sexual politics of the early 20th century. Constance's sister Norma opines that self propelled vehicles are a path to lawlessness and social chaos, but in actual fact the cracks in social cohesion are already there in the countryside near New York in 1914, and have been for quite some time.

Stewart's use of language, while consistently entertaining is still capable of evoking the deeper, more challenging level of women's place in the society of the day. While never explicitly describing the horror of Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City Stewart's sparse language concerning the seduction technique of Singer sewing machine salesmen and the hinted dread of when a young girl is caught on her own by the river by two men lingers with you, and as a male reader unsettles, in a way it probably should.

The triumph of Girl Waits With Gun is that it communicates a powerful social message about female emancipation, 'fallen women', and access to justice all wrapped in plot that draws you in and never preaches. I don't think romp is the right word for this at all - it's something a lot richer and something I suspect will remain with you a lot longer than you expect.

I thought for a while about what to title this blog post, considering for a while riffing around the original Swedish for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but ultimately I thought that Constance Kopp, were she in the late 20th century would be a Kristen Hersh or Tanya Donnelly figure, so hat tipping to Throwing Muses and Hook in Her Head from 1991's The Real Ramona, I figure she's transcended needing to be a man to have a gun - and ultimately that's somehow shown to be a good thing.



Disclosure: A review copy of Girl Waits with Gun was provided by Scribe Books.


Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Italy Noir

"The American", Nadia Dalbuono

Italy's an odd place.

It's rightly seen as one of the cradles of civilisation, it was a founding member of the European Union, and it's one of the largest economies in the world. 

Despite all this Italy maintains a feel and reputation of somewhere a lot grittier. Perhaps it's the legacy of the extreme left and right wing politics of the 20th century, what we could see as long shadow of 'the mafia', and the overall ramshackle nature of their companies and politics, but Italy feels profoundly different to much of the rest of established Europe.

I'm minded of talking to an Italian friend after rashly purchasing a used (but still over specified) La Pavoni espresso machine a few years ago; he encouraged me to look after it, because along with the Vespa scooter and the original Fiat 500 it summed up what good Italian engineering was, and properly maintained would persist long after Italy had collapsed under its own contradictions.

It's something you can feel on the ground. Working with the technology companies of Bologna and Modena they will sigh if you say need an NDA signed - that will involve getting 'corporate' involved, and thus nothing will happen. Driving through the dramatic hills on the Umbrian-Tuscan border north of Lake Trasimene you periodically catch glimpses on side roads of exotically garbed women on plastic chairs, familiar perhaps outside Naples or Brindisi, but surprising on the edge of Chiantishire. It should be no surprise that Italy provided a fertile ground for Dibdin, Hewson, and Leon, so in this light is there scope for something new?

Nadia Dalbuono's first Leone Scamarcio novel, 2014's The Few, introduced the suitably complicated Leone Scamarcio and insight into seamy underbelly of Italy. Fusing a sprawling political sex scandal into the rich backdrop of Rome, the Mezzogiorno, and Italy's strange continuing predilection for prison islands it delivered an accomplished police procedural that kept attention throughout.

Scamarcio's return deftly avoids the 'difficult second album' challenge, taking promising raw materials found in The Few and refining it into what is a highly polished political crime thriller. Linking the death of Roberto Calvi, the dark days of Italy in the 1970s and 1980s with the confrontation between the Red Brigades and the Italian far right, The American is reminiscent of Frankenheimer's Year of the Gun. It's full of moral ambiguity, shifting loyalties and definitions of truth, and shadowy arbiters of power, and where at times it teeters on the brink of sounding like "all that conspiracy crap you find on the internet" it remains critically just exactly on the right side of the line.

In exploring the complexities of Cold War Italy, with the Red Brigades, Gladio, and the P2 Masonic Lodge Dalbuono posits how the long tail of the 2008 financial crisis and externally imposed austerity could return Italy to the darkness of 1978 or 1982. This is not however what makes The American a great read. What is most satisfying is how Scamarcio emerges as a compromised, ambiguous, flawed yet charismatic character. The interaction between the cop who wants to be clean, the crumbling edifice of the Italian state, organised crime's long memory, and the stirring influence of international intrigue makes for an absorbing read - and the fact that come the ending perhaps more questions than answers are involved leaves you wanting more - and isn't that always a good thing?

Interest piqued? As part of the blog tour accompanying the launch of The American Scribe Books have made an excerpt available, which you can see here. On that note, do please have look at the next stop on the blog tour for The American, over at Tales from the Reading Room.



Disclosure: review copies of The Few and The American were provided by Scribe Books. The used La Pavoni has been properly maintained and is still making fantastic espresso every morning.





Nadia Dalbuono, an excerpt from "The American"

An excerpt from Nadia Dalbuono's The American.

When Scamarcio left the boss’s office, he found the desk sergeant waiting for him in the entrance to the squad room. ‘You’ve got visitors,’ he said.

He was holding open the swing doors for two tall strangers in dark suits. They both wore silver Aviator sunglasses, and their hair was cropped militarily short. Scamarcio’s instinctive assessment was that they were secret service, and probably the Anglo-Saxon variety — English or American.

He walked over to shake their hands, and motioned them to his desk. There was only one spare chair, so he pulled out another from a neighbouring table. The strangers’ arrival was stirring interest among his colleagues, who also knew a spook when they saw one.

He had expected the two men to remove their sunglasses when they sat down, but for some reason they chose to keep them on.

‘English OK?’ said the one on the left, who had blond hair and deeply pitted skin. The accent was American, but Scamarcio couldn’t pin it to a region.

‘Sure,’ he said, wondering if they already knew that he had spent time in the States.

The one on his right crossed his legs, and Scamarcio spotted a gun strapped to an ankle holster. It looked like a Beretta 92 — maybe their standard issue, if they had one.

‘The body you found under the bridge this morning ...’ continued the man on the left.

‘What about it?’

‘He’s one of ours.’

‘A colleague?’

‘No — a suspect.’

‘You’re fast workers. I only sent the photo to our liaison a few minutes ago.’

The stranger didn’t offer an explanation, so Scamarcio asked, ‘What agency are you from? Do you have cards?’

‘We’re US authorities.’

‘That doesn’t tell me much.’

‘That’s all you need to know.’

That settled it. He would give them the bare minimum, nothing more. They were about to piss all over the place — to mark out their territory, as usual.

Pitted skin continued. ‘The guy you pulled out from under that bridge was a fraudster, responsible for manufacturing millions in counterfeit dollars. It was a major op. We’d been on his tail for some time, but it was only recently that he came to realise it. When he sensed that his time was up, he decided to end his life.’

‘Why come all the way to Rome?’

‘He had family here. We think he wanted to say his goodbyes.’

‘This fraudster have a name?’

‘It’s need-to-know.’

‘I need to know.’

‘We don’t share that assessment.’

Scamarcio took a breath, and bit down on a pencil. He tasted lead in his mouth, and wished he could wash it away, but he didn’t want to get up.

‘Listen, Detective, we’re just trying to do you a favour. We know you flying squad guys have your hands full, so we wanted to spare you the legwork and take this one off your slate. We’ll supply you with all the relevant paperwork so you can dot your I’s, cross your Italian T’s. No point breaking a sweat when someone is happy to clean up for you.’

Scamarcio said nothing for a few moments. ‘You know it’s not that simple. This happened on Italian soil, so I’m obliged to investigate.’

‘You’re not listening, Detective,’ said the guy on the right, whose southern lilt was deep and smooth like a Louisiana whisky. Although his eyes weren’t visible, his terracotta tan and perfect white smile seemed to suggest that he was much better looking than his colleague. ‘All we’re saying is that we can help you sew up your case nice and tight in time for you to head out to the coast for the weekend. You guys still go to the beach in October? — seems warm enough to me.’

Scamarcio said nothing. He wasn’t going to be their foreign stooge they could squeeze any which way they wanted. ‘What paperwork do you have?’ he asked eventually.

‘It will be on your desk by close of play tomorrow, and then you can head down to Amalfi for a nice bit of R and R. That’s what I’d do in your position. Really I would.’

The southerner’s words sounded less like a suggestion and more like a threat this time.



Disclosure: review copies of The Few and The American were provided by Scribe Books. See my thoughts on The American here.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Doing wine the biodynamic way

"Chateau Monty", Monty Waldin

Sometimes a happy accident is just that.

My mother will tell you, and indeed anyone who'll listen, that she struggles with Christmas presents, that she never knows what to get someone, but she does sometimes try, and sometimes she gets it very very right.

I've told my mother about helping a friend with their vine harvest, I've introduced her to more adventurous wine than she's likely to find in M&S, and she's even come to Brockley Market and met the magnificent people at L'Atypique. So she got into her head that wine is something I'm enthusiastic about, and that I'll like the biography of an English bloke trying to make wine in South Western France.

There's no surprise here.

She's Right. I probably will enjoy it.

Initial trepidation that this might be a somewhat sub Year in Provence account of a bumbling rosbif flailing around with the idiosyncrasies of French life are rapidly laid to rest. Chateau Monty is an engaging account of setting up and running a biodynamic vineyard, mixing the homely anecdotes of life in south west France with matter of fact details of what making wine biodynamically involves.

Biodynamics? Well yes, I suppose that does need a bit of explanation. It involves taking principles linking growth with elemental 'forces' connected with the orientation of celestial bodies and energies that can be captured and returned to the soil to help growth. There are times when it comes across as nine parts bollocks. The notion that horn manure is powerful because a cow generates more energy than can be used in its existence, thus it all gets stored in its horn, which can then be transferred to manure stuffed in it and then buried might stretch some people's credibility.


A natural wine, albeit not from Monty Waldin's vineyard.
Leaving aside the skepticism and applying some empirical observation though and there might be something to it. Natural and biodynamic wines can be absolutely fantastic (disclosure, I'm having one now - a marvellous Angevin red from Domaine Mosse) so maybe we should pay attention. There's also something engaging about the way Waldin evangelises about it that makes you want to experiment and see how things might work - after all it doesn't do any harm to plant according to a biodynamic calendar and pay a bit more attention to what sort of chemicals you're sloshing around. If Chateau Monty encourages you to be a bit more creative about what you do with your garden or any piece of land you work, or maybe more realistically drives you to try something slightly more adventurous wine wise than standard supermarket fare then it'll certainly justify the read.

Amusingly I let my vineyard owning friends know that I was reading Chateau Monty. They laughed and said they'd read it too. They'd enjoyed it, found it useful in the context of how they were thinking about wine, and it helped convince them that they could set up a vineyard of their own. They've now got a magnificent vineyard in Kent, and as Woodchurch Wine produce a very good English sparkling wine. For this alone we all should be grateful to Chateau Monty.
Vines inspired by Chateau Monty at Woodchurch Wine.

My response to Chateau Monty hasn't been quite as extreme. I've not decided to jack it all in and start a vineyard, but I have thought about burying a cow horn filled with manure on the allotment and seeing what happens. 

What harm could come from that?

Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Last Spike

"Rails across Canada: A Pictorial Journey from Coast to Coast", David Cable


Despite sharing a telephone dialing code with its more populous neighbour to the south, one area where Canada can hold its head up with a certain level of distinctive identity is in its transcontinental railroad. Just as impressive an achievement as the American drive from sea to shining sea, the twin railroads of the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific span the continental lands mass covering over 30,000 route miles of track.

Culturally there's something very resonant about Canada's railways - perhaps it's because in the great north there's more isolation and the railroad provides one of the tenuous filaments connecting elements of civilisation in the opens wastes together. From the iconic image of Donald Alexander Smith hammering home 'the last spike' at Craigellachie in 1885, through E J Pratt's epic similarly titled narrative poem, to the Cowboy Junkies and their spectacularly melancholy ninth track from 1992's "Black Eyed Man". 

Those looking for a documentary history of the birth of Canada's railways, or indeed an insight into the nature of today's rail system, will not find this in Cable's "Rails across Canada", for this they would be better to start elsewhere, perhaps with Berton's two volumes on the system's origins ("The National Dream" and "The Last Spike"), but as context there is some real value to be had here. In just over 200 pages of photography taken over the course of several journeys across Canada Cable documents the reality of Canadian railways, showing the scale of engineering, the topography dealt with, and the reality that much as in the United States railways in this part of North America are enjoying a renaissance - just one that is comparatively invisible as it is one executed with passengers.

It's a book of few words, but still one that rewards leafing through, discovering Cable's engagement with Canadian railroads and getting a feel for trains draw such a vast country together. It's enough to inspire you at some stage to devote the time to riding the three day journey across the continent, but equally makes you think about the run of the mill elements that through freight stitch the continent together. Can one still dream of hitching a ride on the longest train you ever saw? 



Disclosure: a review copy of Rails across Canada was provided by Pen and Sword Books.