Monday, 29 June 2009
That didn’t happen – and I am enormously pleased about that. The slim paperback made its way into my briefcase last week for a trip to Ankara, and proved the most pleasant of surprises – an engaging, erudite, and accomplished work that had me rechecking the author’s details, astonished my the maturity of the writing.
Set in a Cambridge that must be the late 1990s (although at times it feels much earlier, bygone era) and a contemporary London (it doesn’t pay to try and over analyse the dates, as I’m pretty sure they don’t quite add up – this however does not matter in the slightest) it follows the development of a young undergraduate, James Walker, as he moves from shy undergraduate, through socialite student, to prosperous lawyer. This transformation, from likeable youth to thoroughly unpleasant 30 something is an absorbing morality tale, accurately portrayed in the first person, as Walker punctuate his narrative with observations such as
How foolish it is to believe that you cannot love someone for their fortune.
This cuts to the heart of the novel. This is a story about the corrupting influence of money and its power to ruin. The undergraduate Walker is not rich, and does not come from vast wealth, his father now living in what is hinted at being somewhat straitened circumstances. To live up to his new found friends, who delight in flouting authority, from pirating essays to the nocturnal scaling of college buildings the title refers to, he spends profligately, if unnecessarily, and when his doomed friend, Francis, is cut off from his wealth, Walker is a ready accomplice in their descent into more extreme forms of crime – even if throughout he remains by no means the most criminal or corrupted of his set.
Make no mistake however, despite Walker not being the worst of people, the London lawyer he becomes is thoroughly unappealing. An arrogant, alcoholic-in-denial (with the damning tell-tale phrase of “I never really got drunk any more” appearing), habitual user of pornography and prostitution fails utterly to stir much sympathy in us, the ‘redeeming’ quality of his acquired wealth doing nothing to make him a better person. The roots of this behaviour are signposted throughout the novel; in particular his admiration for Michael’s sexual prowess is depressing.
He was much further advanced in seduction techniques than the rest of us, who still thought that sex in some way was linked to mutual affection.
Intriguingly Walker initially does not rashly plunge into friendships at Cambridge, following the advice of his father and Evelyn Waugh to choose his friends wisely not quickly. His reaction to Michael’s arrival through his window and ensuing introduction to the rest of the night climbers, which sets him on his path to ruin, show that perhaps he was not so judicious in his choice, and that the comment of the porter, initially chasing the climbers, that much worse could stem from what appears to be just youthful antics, was indeed prescient.
This is not a long book, it was read between arriving at Ankara’s eerie deserted airport to fly home and landing at Heathrow, and ultimately this is a fulfilling book, reminiscent in some ways of Hollinghurst’s “Line of Beauty”. There is a trace of redemption at the end, with some level of closure being found, and a realisation that Walker had been misled by others, as well as misleading himself. None of this excuses much of his behaviour or lifestyle, but by the end one starts to realise that his cold night odyssey with old fellow night climber Jessica, her beauty now faded, is a journey out of his depraved existence, in the same way his night climbing in Cambridge sucked him down. To close the book, and realise that you cared about his fate, is testament to the precocious skill that Stourton has brought to his tale. Following this up will not be easy for him.
Tuesday, 23 June 2009
Wednesday, 3 June 2009
Pete Brown should have crossed my path earlier in life. He went to St Andrews a year or so ahead of me, and clearly enjoying the finer things in life (namely beer), it should be inconceivable that our paths didn't cross in one of north-east Fife's many watering holes. It is however, a matter now of public record that that did not happen, and it was only a chance outing with some of my wife's work friends to the launch of “Three Sheets to the Wind” in Ottakar's Greenwich in 2006 that made me discover him and his work. In the flesh he's entertaining, personable, and anything but a beer bore, and this comes across in both his previous books and in his highly enjoyable blog.
Part social history of the British empire and part travelogue “Hops and Glory” is a lot more serious than his previous two books. He's always been capable of striking a sober note when needed, but there's a dark despairing edge to this one that at times almost perturbs. In the early chapters I suspected that this might be classified as his mid-life crisis book, and by the latter half it almost has more akin to Peter Nichols' “A Voyage for Madmen”.
It is a tribute to Pete Brown the human and the author that the tribulations of recreating a voyage of traditional India Pale Ale from Burton on Trent to Calcutta didn't break him, despite fate's best efforts, and that the end result is quite such a satisfying read. Despite its more serious tone and the more challenging personally honest sections to the narrative it's a tremendously enjoyable read and one that was read far more quickly (and in the face of some stiff competition for reading attention) than either of his previous works. Overcoming all the periodic bleakness is an irrepressible sense of humour, with elements that make you want to stop and read bits out to anyone who'll listen.
Reading “Hops and Glory” undeniably informs as both beer history and travelogue. Like many other relatively casual drinkers of what's referred to British pubs as IPA I'd never really given the roots of it much thought, and blindly taken at surface value the assertions that what's sold as IPA now was true to its origins. Brown comprehensively demolishes this illusion and makes us re-evaluate our thoughts about beer in general and IPA in particular. It's the sort of engaging story told with a passion about the produce that makes you go and seek out the few British examples and perhaps rather more numerous American beers that hold true to the notion of what an IPA historically was. It's also an interesting thought that IPA, as a light beer with most fermentable matter removed and almost pasteurised by its long sea voyage might, in fact, have a touch more in common with the Cobra we drink in Indian restaurants than the thick, yeasty, brown British session bitter
One is also more informed about travel with places throughout described with colour. Canal boating is effectively shown to be hard work on your own – although I suspect getting RSI while steering such a vessel is probably going a bit far, and cruising, despite its reasonably favourable treatment at the hand of the author, does come across as being a little bit ghastly, his account of Bryan Ferry vengefully readying an Exocet to fire at the cringingly appalling cover band aboard cuts to the heart of why I, having encountered similar outfits in the 1990s on a the Le Havre-Rosslare ferry, never want to go on a cruise. More adventurously, a tall ship comes across as a beautiful way of crossing the Atlantic, and a container ship voyage across the Indian Ocean (made seductive by Icebreaker International's “Trein Maersk”) seems dully mechanistic and stripped of all romance.
“Hops and Glory” is a genuinely good book. I'm very sadly going to miss Pete Brown's South London launch of the book in Forest Hill next Thursday (11 June, full details on his blog, linked above) when instead I'll be relaxing (probably with a Maredsous) watching sportscars at Le Mans, but if you're in the area you could do a lot worse than go along, listen to someone with some very good stories to tell, pick up a copy of “Hops and Glory”, and if Pete Brown has had anything to do with picking the venue, drink some really very good beer.