Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Craig Thomas, 1942-2011

So, Craig Thomas is no longer with us.

To be fair most of us had resigned ourselves to having read the last of him, the long 12 years of silence at 1999's "Slipping into Shadow" communicated the message that this was all over reasonably clearly, and in our minds I think we all knew that his finest work was behind him even then, but it's still sad to see someone who could genuinely be seen as a master of British cold war fiction leave us, and it's only appropriate to pause and reflect on what his work was all about.

In 1985 I 'discovered' the spy thriller. I was 13 and the pair of Clive Cussler and Craig Thomas served to introduce 'adult' fiction to my shelves with something of a bang. Almost overnight collections of W E Johns and Swallows and Amazons went, making way for anything I could lay my hands on from my small local second hand bookshop in Dalkey. In retrospect it seems almost disrespectful to mention Cussler and Thomas in the same breath. Clive Cussler writes fantastic gung ho rollicking adventures, but in his long running character Kenneth Aubrey Thomas produced a creation to rival Le Carre's Smiley.

Most of the obituaries emerging have latched onto "Firefox" as being his signature novel, and it was this which first drew my attention to Thomas, initially, and perhaps somewhat unusually not through the Clint Eastwood film, but the laser disc arcade game, then as the first of his books to be read by me - closely followed by its sequel, "Firefox Down". It would be a huge shame for this to obscure his triumphant journey through British intelligence as portrayed by the Kenneth Aubrey series (Aubrey has a bit part in "Firefox", grotesquely played by Freddie Jones in the film), the high point almost certainly being "The Bear's Tears", a sinuous tale of betrayal spanning Cold War Europe and Afghanistan topically at the time wrapped up in the suspicions that British intelligence was penetrated at a high level by a Soviet agent. "The Bear's Tears" is enormously readable and while perhaps it suffers from undeniably coming after "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" it deserves a much higher profile than it currently enjoys. I loved reading it during what I distinctly remember was a bleak November in the mid 1980s, and it has borne periodic revisiting.

The universe of Aubrey and his Australian man-of-action Patrick Hyde ran on for five further books and while all were highly polished political thrillers, I don't think the same heights were quite scaled. This was punctuated by a return of Firefox's Mitchell Gant, in a pair of slightly underwhelming books, and what initially promised to be the start of a new series, with 1995's "A Wild Justice" which set a group of dedicated Russian police fighting the smuggling of weapons of mass destruction in the chaos of the collapsed Soviet Union. Most notably this was supported by very high profile marketing in British broadsheet newspapers with mock electrical store adverts plugging "Unbeatable deals of top brand Nuclear Weapons".

Steam undeniably ran out towards the end. The final Gant book, "A Different War" draws almost word for word on "A Hooded Crow" for its denouement, and in "Slipping into Shadow", largely set in Burma's Golden Triangle, there's a perceptible sense of lassitude. It was a disappointment, but probably not a surprise that nothing more was forthcoming from Craig Thomas.

He may have stopped writing a long time ago, but it's still sad to draw a line under this, and confirm that there really is nothing more to come. So, tonight's a time to raise a glass to the memory of Aubrey, Hyde, and their very talented creator, Craig Thomas.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

“The Railways of Beckenham”, Andrew Hajducki

Railways and London are inextricably linked. London Transport’s iconic font and signage, set in Johnston, come as close as anything to being a definitive brand for London, and the default means of navigating around the city for any recent arrival is to fall back on the tube map. This of course is a source of long running mild irritation to those of us living south of the river. To the average tourist London sprawls northwards, and the wilds of Cockfosters or Amersham are somehow more accessible than the South London towns of Surbiton, Sutton, Croydon, or Bromley.

This of course is a misrepresentation. South London had its period of explosive growth in the 19th century, as the Victorian network of overground railways spread through Surrey and Kent, thus when the underground appeared, there was no sense in expensive new tunnelling technology trying to compete with a well-established and functioning network in the south – resulting in the 20th century focus on the north, the creation of ‘Metroland’ in the 1930s, and in 1931 the arrival of Harry Beck’s schematic diagram, which somehow forever shifted the balance of attention tubewards, and condemned South London to relative obscurity.

Jurist Andrew Hajducki contributes to maybe restoring the balance of understanding with his study of the extensive railway network in what was the Borough of Beckenham – making the point that the railway network built in the 19th century transformed sleepy countryside hamlets into prosperous Victorian suburbs and that the railway network used by commuters today is more or less identical to that put in place 150 years ago.

The point that social development and railway technology are linked is never lost through the book, from the quaint absurdity of the Cator family insisting that the original railway charter did not allow for cheap weekend tickets to Beckenham, lest there be an unwelcome influx of ‘excursionists’ who would lower the tone and value of the estate, through to a much more modernist approach when The Times in 1923 comments that “Beckenham is a convenient and pleasant suburb with the advantage of late trains and fast services to the City and West End”. In short, Beckenham was democratised and to a large extent created by the railways.

To most who use railways in London there is of course a level of scepticism about how effective the system really is, with autumn and winter seeming being impossible for trains to cope with, and the reality of overcrowding at peak times meaning the train is often a less than idyllic mode of transport. The point is made that this is nothing particularly new. In 1873 the railway authorities are described as treating passengers “more like cattle than Christians” and in the 1970s a British Rail local manager in the Beckenham area was forced to concede that “actually getting commuters to London is a daily miracle”. Somehow one feels much as the network in the area looks the same, the complaints haven’t moved on a tremendous amount either.

It would be very easy to recoil from a book like this in fear of being tarred by the ‘train spotter’ brush, but in overall presentation (it is lavishly illustrated throughout) and avoiding the trap of being over captivated by detail, instead punctuating the narrative with entertaining vignettes, Hajducki provides an engaging and easy read. Wry observations, such as Beckenham’s first casualty of World War Two being a man who, confused by the blackout at Shortlands station, alighted on the wrong side of the train and plummeted to his death on the road below, transform what could be a dry account of train timetables into something a lot richer.

Commercially one suspects that “The Railways of Beckenham” will never be a great deal more than of niche interest to railway enthusiasts or local historians, but for those constituencies it does a fine job. It’s also encouraging to see the author and his publishers make an attempt to directly engage with the target audience. The book was launched last week at Beckenham library with an illustrated talk by the author, highlighting how the stations in the borough can essentially trace the communities’ evolution, and how they serve to mark the course of history over the last 150 years. It’s worth doing, and something that helps build identity in what could otherwise be faceless suburbia.

Beckenham Library hosts launch of "The Railways of Beckenham",  7 April 2011

Saturday, 2 April 2011

"Kathy Casey's Northwest Table", Kathy Casey

I very much enjoy living in Beckenham, but sometimes it has the potential to annoy. The small local kitchenware shop, the Kitchen Range on the High Street, which I've patronised happily in the past, basically screwed up today, and it frustrated. I posted a rather choleric tweet on the subject while stomping back to the car, and in hindsight maybe there should be a little more balance than that afforded by the 140 characters of a microblogging tweet.

So, some context. Mrs Semi Dweller bought a large purple casserole dish from them on Tuesday, but not wanting to carry it home on foot - it being rather significant in size, arranged for it to be collected on Saturday. The staff at the Kitchen Range were perfectly happy about this - reflecting some of the best things about small local shops - with the affable "no, you won't need to bring the receipt, it's an unusual surname and we'll have it for you" - so far so good.

Sadly however when trying to collect it this afternoon, having battled through usual levels of traffic, the store failed to track down the said casserole. The best explanation they could come up with was that it might, for no clear reason, have been sent to their other store, but they weren't sure. Problems happen - I'm all too aware of this, but the hallmark of a business is how it responds to them, and today, the Kitchen Range struggled a bit - no real willingness to look for the item, no real route to fixing this other than idly jotting down my name on a bit of paper, managing to convey little or no impression that this was going to go anywhere.

I like local businesses, and I try to support them whenever I can, but I can't help thinking that they need to play to their strengths in making that personal connection with customers and being entirely responsive. Think about it - even the most basic ebusiness has some form of rudimentary CRM allowing a consistent connection and channel of communication to customers, a traditional meatspace shop doesn't have that out of the box, so it needs to either build that rapport of knowledge about its customers, or play to its strengths in being able to communicate with them on a broader base.

I'll still go to the Kitchen Range, and I'd be extraordinarily sad to see it go, but it could be better, it should be better, and I suspect that it may need to be better.

More positively on the kitchen front I've a weekend more or less to myself. It's an opportunity to put films on in the background, dig out some lesser used recipes, and create a bit of havoc. Today has involved experimenting with brining, marinading chicken in a broth of paprika, coriander, garlic and salt. I probably should leave it for longer than it's going to get, Kathy Casey talks about doing it overnight, and this time round I think four hours is more likely to be what's involved, but nevertheless the process creates something that smells fantastic and reminds why making anything from first principles rewards.

I'm trying to remember where Kathy Casey's Northwest Table was procured. It was certainly during 2008, and my suspicion is it was a Borders in Seattle that provided the source. It's fitting that there is something inspirational in there, the food in the Pacific Northwest is breathtakingly good and Casey succeeds in getting across the appeal of working with ingredients, and in making you want to explore something new. It's the hallmark of a good cookbook, and it's present here. I should know better, it should come off the shelf more often.

Brining described. Probably should be done on the barbecue, but tonight it's one for the griddle.