Monday, 29 June 2009

“The Night Climbers”, Ivo Stourton

Ivo Stourton’s debut novel was, for me, a classic library impulse borrowing. Nestling in that awkward genre somewhere between crime and literature, with an appealing cover and an engaging description it fitted easily into my late May borrowing, and then, regrettably sat on the shelf while other books competed with it for my attention – so much so that it very nearly went back unread.

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

“Turbulence”, Giles Foden

Giles Foden's follow up to the fame stemming from “The Last King of Scotland” is an altogether gentler affair, looking at meteorologists earnestly looking for the right moment to schedule the D-Day landings in 1944.

“Turbulence” is a work of fiction, and the introduction of a Saudi funded ice-ship circa 1980 at the start of the novel exposes it as alternative history. This raises the question in the reader's mind as to where the point of departure might be, and Foden keeps this ambiguous to the end.

The pace of the storytelling is leisurely in the extreme. While it's not quite a case of this being a book where nothing much really happens, the solitary lassitude of Henry Meadows' bucolic existence in Western Scotland lulls the reader, and diverts attention from the monumental scale of World War 2. In this scenario, the intrusions of the conflict, with submarines trying to creep into Holy Loch and German reconnaissance flights overhead almost jar, yet serve to build a sense of creeping impending menace fitting for the atmosphere of 1944.

At times there are clear nods towards Thomas Hardy. The most obvious of these comes from the references to Ryman as a 'weather prophet', the direct mirroring of Hardy's phraseology also harkening back to the more 'primitive' existence of the Western Isles where meteorology could really be seen as a black art. More striking however than this passing reference is the profound role of coincidence in the work, and here there are clear echoes of Hardy. Of course, given the subject matter, it might be possible to see the role of what could crudely be seen as 'coincidence as something a bit more sophisticated; after all, this is a book about turbulence as derived from chaos theory – could my reading of the links between events as coincidence be a reflection of my crude thinking in the face of the hard new scientific realities being uncovered by 'boffins' during World War 2?

The role of Pyke throughout is one that I'm still struggling to come to grips with. The Habakkuk type ship on which Meadows writes his recollections of 1944 provide a clear linkage, but again, it's an open question as to what role this plays in the story beyond being an unquestionably lovely image. Nonetheless Pyke provides entertainment, and the little elements of accuracy, such as locating his laboratory underneath Smithfield market, which would have been easy to sacrifice or forget about, through their retention, add an appreciated level of richness to “Turbulence”.

Despite there being a generally high level of detail throughout the book, there are a number of ambiguities in the plot that are left largely hanging by the end of the the conventional text, and the appending of a purported conference paper from the 1980s, casting back retrospectively on weather and D-Day (which in itself introduces a number of anachronisms) to tidy up some of the loose ends feels a little unsatisfactory. While a few of the ends closed raise a smile, one can't help but wonder if they couldn't have been drafted around in the main body of the plot.

Rereading my thoughts on “Turbulence” I can't help thinking I've been needlessly harsh on it. When it arrived it was a book I wanted to read immediately, becoming impatient to read what came before. Perhaps it was this level of anticipation, that could never really be lived up to, that's frustrating me. This shouldn't mask the fact that “Turbulence” is an enjoyable, absorbing, and thought provoking book. I finished it on a rainy night in Rouen almost two weeks ago now, and the fact that it's niggled at the back of my mind while I tried to sort out my thoughts about is perhaps its best endorsement. Not a timeless classic, probably more flawed than it might have been, but a good read, and one that leaves you a better read person than you were before.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

“Hops and Glory: One Man's Search for the Beer the Built the British Empire”, Pete Brown

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.