Friday, 13 December 2013

"Then We Take Berlin", John Lawton

This seems to have been a year for Berlin. A reacquaintance with the city thanks to the arrival of the last in David Downing's "Station" series has led to a familiarity with it which particularly resonates in John Lawton's "Then We Take Berlin". While it covers ground that will be familiar to readers of "Lehrter Station" and "Masaryk Station", and the topics of survival, occupation, and the black market are common, there is still clear ground between the two authors' work.

Lawton without Troy doesn't always sit especially neatly, 2002's "Sweet Sunday", while a satisfying read in its own right, is oft forgotten when set alongside his series of Troy novels which have evolved from period police procedural to something a lot richer. While "Then We Take Berlin" is clearly located in the Troy universe, including direct crossover with the latter parts of "Black Out" it stands readily on its own feet and a reader could readily come to it with no knowledge of Lawton's previous work; indeed it would be fascinating to see what their intertextuality did to their understanding of the Troy universe and how they went on to approach Lawton's other works.

Holderness as a lead character takes a little getting used to. Thief, spy, and somewhat unsuccessful rogue, he is the sort of character who more often might be found as a more minor, morally ambivalent, player in a Troy novel. Where Lawton succeeds here is in drawing out the interesting threads in this sort of part and using this different perspective to allow him to weave more of the mid 20th century tapestry than is possible within the relatively narrow constraints of a Metropolitan Police officer. 

With chronological coverage running from 1944 London to 1963 Berlin, the contrasts in living conditions and style are picked out, little details bringing a period that is increasingly foreign to most readers to more vivid life. Written with a wry sense of humour, and punctuated with links to other elements of 20th century culture, from the obvious Leonard Cohen reference at the start (with initial elements of the novel taking place, you guessed it, in Manhattan), to a slightly contrived but still effective nod to "The Third Man" in Vienna, this is a book that rewards taking time over it and appreciating the many subtleties that run through the otherwise well paced narrative.

Over time Lawton seems to have taken steps away from the mainstream. "Black Out" could almost be likened to an episode "Foyle's War", while more recent works, most notably "A Lily of the Field" or "Second Violin" are altogether more cerebral and almost abstract. "Then We Take Berlin" probably isn't a reboot of the series that brings it back to a more populist audience, and indeed several other reviewers seem baffled by the ending, but it's probably a step back towards greater accessibility. It probably won't sell like hot cakes, Lawton never really seems to; this is a shame, "Then We Take Berlin" is a very real contender for most satisfying book of 2013.

Don't just take my word for it. Listen to Lawton himself talk about and hint at some of the real richness you'll find in here.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Alexander Fullerton and the Mariner of England

In many ways I'm surprised it's taken me so long to come across Alexander Fullerton. In my teenage years during the 1980s his work was the sort of fodder that I used to devour by the bucketload (Douglas Reeman being a particular favourite). Every once in a while though, it's fun to revisit old stamping grounds, and late last year while nosing through a list of historical naval fiction I came across a reference to his “Patrol to the Golden Horn”, which piqued curiousity. Having sat in the to-be-read pile for longer than it should have, it eventually got picked up and proved a pleasant surprise, as was the discovery that it formed part of a much larger narrative describing the Royal Navy during the two World Wars primarily through the lens of Nick Everard (the 'mariner of England'), with nine novels published between 1976 and 1984.

Rather than attempting to be comprehensive, the series chooses a number of seminal points between 1916 and 1943 to highlight how the conflicts evolved. Bearing this in mind the Mariner of England collection will probably be a little hard to approach unless the reader already has a fairly solid grasp of how the naval elements of both wars played out. Armed with this level of contextual familiarity the reader will however find a wealth of interesting detail embedded into the novels, which while clearly fictional, serve to emphasise some core historical points which have escaped more general histories (for example highlighting the impact of Nagumo's presence south of Java in early 1942 and how this affected the ABDA defence of the Indonesian archipelago).

Fullerton's choice of events flagging up the Royal Navy’s activities in the two World Wars is interesting. Running in order we see Jutland, the raid on Zeebrugge, a fictional submarine attack on the Goeben in 1918, Narvik and the Norwegian campaign in 1940, Crete in 1941, a fusion of the battle of Java Sea and an adapted version of the Operation Pedestal convoy to Malta , the raid on St Nazaire and the submarine war in the Mediterranean, and the Torch landings in North Africa (all during 1942), before concluding with the Arctic convoys and midget submarine attacks on the German surface fleet in 1943. While it's possible to think of some additions which could usefully be made to this list (Taranto? Bismark? Force Z?) all of this serves to effectively tell the back story to some of the most significant events in RN history that go to build the tradition so proudly held by the service.

The nine novels are textually interesting, Fullerton is incredibly strong in writing action sequences, in particular involving submarines, presumably reflecting his own wartime experience. He succeeds in conveying tension and the mixture of terror and calm experienced in combat, but the device of telling the Everard back story, through background mention and reflection, while it does the job, at times can frustrate. Let's focus on the strengths however, the unflinching account of naval warfare, and a stark refusal to sugarcoat the narrative makes for a memorable experience and paints a much richer picture than is sometimes found elsewhere. Be warned, there are not novels that always provide a happy ending.

As with any series of novels written over a prolonged period of time, the changing style of authorship is clear. Initially the novels are written explicitly from the perspective of the protagonists, so if an event takes place beyond their field of view, it is not referred to. This evolves over time, with different narrative styles being used, some of which work better than others, the elements ashore in Constantinople in "Patrol to the Golden Horn" being reminiscent of John Buchan's "Greenmantle" (and suffering by this comparison) perhaps being a low point. By the end there’s an impression that Fullerton may have been a little tired of the Everards, and tries to do something a little more conceptual, which now, thinking about it, is surprisingly effective.

Does it work as fictionalised narrative history? It probably does. For all the bitty recounting of the personal back story, and the leaving of several threads hanging can frustrate the overall effect serves to deliver a memorable story. I suspect had I come across them as a teenager they’d have fallen short in comparison to Reeman in particular, but as a richer long running tapestry there’s real satisfaction to found in reading them. It’s easy to end up caring about the wider Everard family, and in that light the stylistic shift in the concluding volume, “The Gatecrashers”, is both appropriate and welcome. It provides a fitting closure to the Everard story, as the narrator fittingly puts it, "the end became the man".

The Mariner of England Series 

"The Blooding of the Guns", Jutland 1916 
"Sixty Minutes for St George", Zeebrugge 1918 
"Patrol to the Golden Horn", Raid on Goeben in Constantinople, 1918 (fictionalised) 
"Storm Force to Narvik", Narvik 1940 
"Last Lift from Crete", Crete 1941 
"All the Drowning Seas", Java Sea / Operation Pedestal 1942
"A Share of Honour", Mediterranean Submarines / Raid on St Nazaire 1942
"The Torchbearers", Torch 1942
"The Gatecrashers", Arctic Convoys / Tirpitz 1943

Sunday, 10 November 2013

"Saints of the Shadow Bible", Ian Rankin

It's been a rainy weekend, the first proper cold of winter, so the fire's been lit, Jackie Leven's been played, and there's been a new Ian Rankin to read. It's fitting, I've read Rankin in the sun before, but something about a slate grey sky, a chill wind, and the prospect of a warm fug inside that makes his ever noirish Edinburgh inherently more accessible.

"Saints of the Shadow Bible" serves to remind you that crime fiction can be so much more than a police procedural, giving you a sense of place and personality that reminds you why reading is such an immersive pastime. In terms of plot Rankin manages to successfully merge his Rebus/Clarke universes with that of Malcolm Fox, the rapprochement achieved here being considerably more credible than the hostility between the two camps we saw in "Standing in Another Man's Grave". The ageing of John Rebus is handled in an effective way, reflecting both a level of increased  vulnerability, but also some of the power that comes from being a beast from an earlier era, a premise that underpins the entire novel. As Rebus himself says, "I'm from the eighties ... I'm not the newfangled touchy-feely model". It's to the point, and carries more than a hint of "Life on Mars" with it.

Hand on heart is this the best in Ian Rankin's literary cannon? The answer is probably no, not for any precise shortcomings that can be identified, but more a sense that it's not quite as tight an offering as you'll find elsewhere in the Rebus series, and somehow Rory Bell doesn't make quite as solid a villain as Cafferty in all his magisterial darkness. Even taking all this into account it's still a very good book which makes you much more demanding of other crime fiction, and to be honest everything else you'll read this year.

Most encouragingly when I picked up "Saints of the Shadow Bible" in my local bookshop there were a stack of them lined up as customer orders behind the till. Maybe, like Rebus, the hardcopy book and the independent bookshop have a bit of life in them yet.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

"To the Edge of the World: The Story of the Trans-Siberian Railway", Christian Wolmar

In the summer of 2008, travelling from Nizhnyy Novgorod to Kaliningrad my Russian colleague dropped me at Nizhnyy Novgorod airport and sent me on my way, apologising for not knowing the airport all that well, laconically opining, "Russian airliners very unsafe, much better to take the train"...

I survived that bumpy flight, but Christian Wolmar's entertaining and authoritative history of Russian railways, focusing on the long ribbon of track between Moscow and Vladivostock, makes the point that travel in Russia may well be better by train. Weaving a compelling narrative, Wolmar tells the story of the railway's evolution, debunking some myths such as the "Tsar's Finger" along the way, and succeeding in locating the railway in wider Russian social and political history, most pertinently linking its construction with the Russo-Japanese War, the 1905 revolution, and the ultimate fall of the Romanov dynasty. 

"To the Edge of the World" is about a lot more than railways. Most strikingly it highlights how the construction of the Trans-Siberian served to create communities along its line, with a common architecture serving to establish something new in the heart of Siberia with 23 new towns emerging along the line in the first decade after its opening, as well as encouraging the growth of towns like Omsk, Irkutsk, and Chita. Applying this to a contemporary context, it will be interesting to see if a similar pattern of community creation occurs with the opening of the Northern Sea Route across the top of Siberia.

Those in search of detail and anecdote concerning the railway will not be disappointed. Accounts of the early trains and attempts to attract a largely Western clientèle are highly amusing. Despite the trains being described as "ambulant palaces of luxury", we read of pianos being used for storing dirty dishes and indifferent food, although one can't help wondering if Baedecker's advice that travellers should pack a revolver and a portable India-rubber bathtub might be a little excessive.

In merging transportation and social history Wolmar has succeeded in providing an entertaining and thought provoking work which in compact form succeeds in making the reader much more informed about how the railway shaped Russia. Perhaps next time in Russia I'll take the train. 

Disclaimer, a review copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Atlantic Books.

Monday, 14 October 2013

"The City of Strangers", Michael Russell

“The past didn’t only come up at you out of the ground in Ireland; it walked around the streets following you, and if you turned around to complain it spat in your face.”

I’ve been looking forward to “City of Strangers” for quite a while, I was excited when it arrived, and rightly so. It’s really good, and having enjoyed reading it over the weekend I’m very much looking forward to more.

Michael Russell skilfully navigates the challenges of following up a highly satisfying first novel with an accomplished sequel to “City of Shadows”. Splitting the narrative between Dublin and New York, and drawing in elements of modernity such as flying boats he weaves a story wrapping up multiple crimes in a highly enjoyable novel that once again transcends the boundaries of ‘police procedural’ and encourages comparisons with the likes of Alan Furst or John Lawton.

With historical crime fiction achieving a sense of place is critical. Russell is on surest ground in Ireland, where there is a real sense of authenticity, bearing this in mind it’s a mild disappointment that quite so much of the novel takes place in New York. The Irish-American community and the struggles within the United States regarding neutrality and the coming war is effectively portrayed, but somehow feels more of a stage set in the novel than a richly featured location.

What is absolutely achieved is a sense of how history wove around Irish society in the late 1930s. The ghosts of the independence struggle and the bloody civil war affect everyone and shape how society works through the plot. In this light it’s almost a shame that four years separate the events in this work from “The City of Shadows”. It feels as though there should be more to be mined from the rich seams of DeValera’s Ireland in the 1930s, and while I am sure Russell will be able to do so in the back story to subsequent novels, missing out on seeing how Stefan Gillespie handled some of the absurdities of autarky is a source of some regret.

At its heart this is a novel about memory and history and how this binds together people and what it meant to be “Irish” as the fledgling state established what it wanted to be. As one of the characters sagely advises towards the end of the book, when Stefan’s son wrestles with his German background in the light of the outbreak of war:

“Let’s make do with being Irish, Tom. God knows that’s hard enough”.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Did Clausewitz Drink Coffee?

Over the last day or so the otherwise unremarkable arrival of another cake product at Starbucks has blown into a social media storm of moderate scale.

With some splash, Starbuck's proudly announced the "invention" (and that word's important) of the "Duffin", essentially a doughnut, made from more muffin like substance, and shaped like a muffin. Could be okay, like Starbucks' coffee in general, could be awful, a little like their Pumpkin Spiced Latte. Chances are most people would be blissfully unaware of the Duffin, ordering what they always do, and long term survival of the said cake would have been utterly dependent on whether the store staff we interested in pushing it, and whether it managed to get enough traction to sit alongside the usual Blueberry Muffin style things. My gut feel is it would have struggled, and come Easter we'd hear no more of it, but that's not the point.

The point, as has been adroitly raised by Bea Vo, who runs a quartet of nice coffee shops in Central London, is that Starbuck's didn't invent the Duffin. Not even close. Bea's of Bloomsbury have been selling them for over 3 years. It appeared in their cookbook in 2011. Countless food bloggers and reviewers have written about them. I've been to Bea's a number of times, I must confess to not having sampled a duffin, but overall the experience of going is lovely, friendly staff, nice surroundings, and very good coffee.

Bea is highly accomplished in using social media tools to build her business. Her twitter feed has the thick end of 10,500 followers, and the tone taken is consistently conversational and friendly, ranging from passing the time of day to promoting film evenings. It's unsurprising that her response to the duffin incident harnessed this, and what a job she's done. In a series of tweets opinion has rightly been roused against a big corporation appropriating the hard work of a small independent and then compounding matters by trademarking 'Duffin' - which given the amount of prior art out there seemed a particularly pointless act.

There's something interesting about this though. Bea's four shops are dwarfed by Starbucks presence in London, let alone the UK. More than this however, the experience of going to Bea's is entirely different to that of going to Starbucks. Indeed, I'd argue that the two don't compete in any meaningful way, Bea's isn't really taking custom from Starbucks, and I don't see Bea's target customer base being realistically tempted by Starbucks; certainly in Bloomsbury the existence of a Nero just down the road doesn't stop Bea's being pretty full a lot of the time. In the greater scheme of things, right now these two companies don't matter to each other, and I suspect that may well have driven Starbucks and their suppliers thinking when appropriating the Duffin, and making claims such as 'only available at Starbucks'.

But - there are winners and losers when engaging in the battle for hearts and minds, and the results to date, with extensive twitter (#duffingate) and main stream media (Guardian) coverage, are clear. Starbucks once again look like a faceless behemoth, lose the chance to get some positive coverage, and all in all look staid and unresponsive, caught with their hand in the cake tin, and not really having much to say about it; a small independent comes across with integrity intact and showing they've got the courage of their convictions.

It's easy to brush over this, remember, right now I don't think the two parties in this disagreement really compete against each other. But competitors come from somewhere, and all empires end, and when Starbucks falls it might be because someone is fundamentally better at figuring out what the centre of gravity is, seizing the zeitgeist and making their products desirable  Bea Vo's only got four shops at the moment, but what happens when she breaks out of her City/East bastion and opens one in Victoria? Or King's Cross? Or New York? There's a part of me that thinks Bea's have played Starbucks undeniable misstep with considerable aplomb.

Did Clausewitz drink coffee? I don't know, just in the same way I've no idea what colour the boathouse in Hereford might be.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

“A Home on the Rolling Main: A Naval Memoir 1940-1946”, A. G. F. Ditcham

Representing life as a junior officer primarily aboard Royal Navy destroyers during World War Two Ditcham’s autobiography provides a frank, accessible, and unflinching account, highlighting the wry humour and periodic human tragedy that's inherent with any life spent when momentous historic events take place. In this way the matter of fact delivery is reminiscent of Fitzroy Maclean's marvellous "Eastern Approaches".

One of the things I have always found fascinating about accounts of naval life is the less dramatic description of what ordinary life below decks was like, and here Ditcham's account provides a vast amount of valuable local colour, with critical details such as the Gunroom not being slept in by junior officers when at sea aboard HMS Renown, and sailors having to find any available square inch giving a real insight into the realities of being at sea.

The work throughout is punctuated with a rich vein of understated humour, such as his introduction to drinking beer and other such substances, which he clearly took to with some gusto! This is coupled with a welcome level of self-effacement; in the face of Norwegian barbarity, when he recounts how a Norwegian cabin mate ashore "blundered into the cabin, sat down on the edge of his bed, and pee'd on his bedside rug like a horse in a stall". Ditcham took this as an opportunity to request a move in quarters, which in retrospect he sees as the move of a prig.

A keen aircraft spotter it's striking that he managed to see such rarities as a Messerschmitt Jaguar and Dornier Seeadler in the course of his career at sea. Continuing in the vein of the unusual, the work contains accounts of some lesser known aspects of the war, such as Vichy France's bombing of Gibraltar in retaliation for the Allied Operation ‘Menace’ against Dakar in 1940.

It's always hard to avoid being too gushing when you encounter a book as genuinely good as this. Ditcham's autobiography simultaneously adds valuable narrative material to our understanding of the war at sea and the experience of the ordinary people who made up its cast of characters while remaining an enormously entertaining read. The late John Keegan, on the cover endorses "A Home on the Rolling Main" as "one of the most vivid and immediate war memoirs I have ever read", it is very hard to disagree with this. No library on the Second World War at sea should regard itself as being complete without a copy of this on its shelves.

Disclaimer: A copy of this book was provided gratis for review purposes by Pen and Sword Books.

Friday, 27 September 2013

"Floyd on Italy", Keith Floyd

Back in the heady naive and optimistic days of 1995 Floyd on Italy inspired as television. I'd long been fond of him as cook and (dated phrase?) television personality, and "Floyd on Oz" had already done a lot to kick start my enthusiasm for cooking as an undergraduate in the distinctly non-Australian surrounds of Fife.

The combination of the Aston Martin, the Strangler's soundtrack, and Keith Floyd in all his pomp made for compelling viewing, and lusted after the associated book to an almost indecent extent.

Right, that is, until I came across the first "River Cafe Cookbook". Captivated by its polish, displayed so seductively alongside the desirable home furnishing of Habitat's newly opened Dublin store. Prior to leaving for my postgraduate time at Aberystwyth my mother bought me Rose Gray and Ruth Roger's book, commenting sagely when I would gush over Floyd, that I probably had all the Italian cookbook I was likely to need.

Off I went to Aberystwyth, and staples from the River Cafe, such as the classic Penne Cabonara, and what I'm sure they won't thank me for learning became known as 'sausage surprise', became standbys that last to this day. I still loved Floyd, did so for years, and was enormously sad to hear of his passing on that excruciating day for Radio 4, but I figured my mother was right, I didn't need another Italian cookbook.

Skip forward nearly 20 years and in the comfortable surrounds of South London, and seeing Floyd on Italy rerunning on the outer reaches of the Sky package, and suddenly the old urge is back. Floyd has style, he has panache, he has passion; how could he not have a brilliant associated book. Thanks to the miracle of the interweb a copy is duly purchased for a trifling sum, a package appears and...


Floyd on Italy remains brilliant, if now maybe dated, television, but the book does nothing, and I suspect will not become one of those loved cookbooks, food stained and annotated throughout. It will sit dryly on the shelf, occasionally looked at, and before long make its way to the charity shop contribution. Maybe it's time, but I doubt it, because "Floyd on Oz" works, and it's an earlier publication, but for whatever reason the pagination and typography of "Floyd on Italy" doesn't resonate.

In some ways you can never go back, maybe "Floyd on Italy" would have worked for me when I tried to cook to impress in mid Wales in the mid 1990s, but tonight's dinner came from the River Cafe (admittedly Puttanesca from one of the later books). The book will probably go pretty soon, but I'm smiling, because it means that I can still fall back on listening to Waltzinblack and remember Floyd in his television pomp, and what it inspired me to do.

Don't buy this book, track down the series and watch it, and cook great Italian food. It will be worth it.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Paul Sussman

A year or so ago a rather poignant FT review pointed me in the direction of Paul Sussman.

His archaeologically focussed crime novels, set predominantly in the Middle East can to an extent be seen as being a little bit formulaic, but much more importantly they're well written, thinking, and capture attention in a really satisfying way.

I've read his books in order, and tonight, as the rain stung on the windows and I figured lighting the fire was a logical thing to do, I succumbed to the temptation to start into his last work, "The Labyrinth of Osiris".

Paul Sussman passed away much too early. I'd have loved to see how his writing evolved and how he could continue to write novels that appealed to the Indiana Jones school of adventure while dealing with a Middle East that's clearly changing in all sorts of ways. It's such as shame that this has been denied to us, and it's with a few mixed feelings that I'm launching into this last of his books. 

I'm sure I'll enjoy it; I'm sure I'll be sad that there won't be any more.

Friday, 13 September 2013

"Hard Hearted", David Barrie

Back in 2009 I wrote a few lines about David Barrie's debut novel, the rather good "Wasp Waisted". Since then he's gone on to three more works featuring Franck Guerin connected variously with perfume, ballet, and now, with "Hard Hearted", high finance and (perhaps more loosely) 17th century literature.

Like the previous works in the series, "Hard Hearted" succeeds in feeling quintessentially French. This is Gitanes and espresso territory, where the geography of Paris is laid out before you, and everything is done with typical Gallic flair. This is delivered with a sense of wry humour, never more pointedly than when Guerin points out that "Defending French as a language of international communication is a keytone of our nation's foreign policy. Even if I could speak English, I'd have to pretend that I didn't".

The Paris of Barrie's work manages to combine the beauty of the Hotel Menier, by Parc Monceau, the elegant facades of the Sorbonne juxtaposed with the rabbit's warren within, and the more impoverished garrets in which the creatives and workers of Paris still exist cheek by jowl. Cast against this is a highly absorbing crime story mixing the theft of a rare manuscript, the murder of a beautiful woman, and the sort of financial activity that sits somewhere between being very clever and maybe a little bit criminal. Throughout it retains the ability to surprise, and at times shock, which holds attention throughout, and leaves you disappointed when you come to an end.

Barrie's works remain on the margins of crime fiction, strangely neglected by mainstream publishing. "Hard Hearted" languishes at 1,343,726 on the list of Amazon's best sellers. This is a huge shame. These engaging and erudite books deserve a much larger audience, and I can't help feeling that if anyone who enjoys the thinking person's flavour of murder picked one up they'd really enjoy it. 

Go on, try one, if nothing else it should spark an interesting discussion with your friendly local bookseller, and may encourage Barrie to finish the promised fifth volume in the series.

Monday, 8 July 2013

"Midget Submarine Commander", Paul Watkins

In Watkins’ preface to this biography of Godfrey Place it is revealed that it is a book written in surprise that there hadn’t previously been an account of such an accomplished naval officer. When one reads of Place’s enormously successful, varied, and colourful career, this is a surprise, and a pleasure that this wrong has now been righted.

The central thrust of “Midget Submarine Commander” looks at Place’s involvement with Operation ‘Source’, the attack on the German battleship Tirpitz in Alta Fjord. This focus reflects Churchill’s own fixation with Tirpitz, but a lot of what is contained here raises questions about whether this was warranted. Watkins highlights many of the reasons behind Churchill’s fixation with it, and yet also flags up how it was, to a large extent, something of a paper tiger. Churchill felt that the resources tied up by Tirpitz impacted the “entire naval situation throughout the world”, and that if she could be eliminated it would allow a significant rebalancing in the Pacific. That said, the coverage of Tirpitz through Watkins’ narrative illustrates how limited her activity was, with prolonged periods of her undergoing planned maintenance while the astonishingly long preparations for the X craft operations we carried out. Herein a key point is made about the nature of a fleet in being – a significant warship does not need to be particularly active to cast a very long shadow.

Place may have won his Victoria Cross for his operations against the Tirpitz, but in many ways this, and the title of the book, masks the wider achievements of his career. Indeed Place himself downplayed the significance of this episode in his career, seeing it as “a grossly over-publicized attack in a small submarine on the Tirpitz in 1943” (p.116). It is in this wider career that Watkins’ book is at its strongest, producing rich anecdote and delivering valuable context and colour to any serious student of the period.

In the accounts of Place’s service aboard the Polish submarine Sokol in the Mediterranean some genuinely fresh pieces of history emerge, including the ‘official’ declaration of war against Italy by Poland – the humorous delivery of which, described on page 34, and involving some fantastic language and a hand thrown shell – masks the real and potentially oft-missed point of how legal niceties such as this were handled during the Second World War. Place’s own accounts of his time on Sokol reveal the deep sense of humour that ran through his personality. His claim that his “award of the Polish Cross of Valour entitled him to a mistress, two cows and half a hectare of land” (p.56) cannot fail to raise a smile.

Perhaps one of the most striking points about Place’s career is that he was very much not just a submariner. After his release from prisoner of war camp and frustrated attempt to rejoin the submarine service, he transferred to surface ships where he played an active role in attempts to counter the insurgency in Palestine that led to the creation of the state of Israel, and then in another significant career change, in 1951 he joined the Fleet Air Arm and qualified as a carrier aviator. This led to his service aboard HMS Glory in the Far East, carrying out combat missions over Malaysia, and most significantly Korea.

Late in the book a small point jars. Place was promoted to Captain on 31 December 1958, having passed through the Joint Services Staff Course, and in many ways this marked the run towards the end of his career, and certainly the end of Watkins’ work; at this time he was 37. When the reader considers all that had been achieved by then it is reminiscent of Caesar weeping at the sight of a statue of Alexander the Great when thinking that by the age of 30 Alexander had conquered most of the known world. Place is similar to Alexander, achieving a vast amount in critical times for his country.

Disclaimer: a free review copy of this book was provided by Pen and Sword Books.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

"With Haig on the Somme", D. H. Parry

May was a month when things related to the Great War bubbled up.

Across the media we had the mild kerfuffle of sundry cultural commentators protesting the UK government's plans to 'celebrate' the outbreak of war in 1914, and on a personal level, while driving to Spa in Belgium, we listened to Anthony Price's marvellous "Other Paths to Glory", which  probably warrants a piece dedicated to it specifically. Spa of course is where General Ludendorff commanded the German Army from in 1918, overseeing the ebb, flow, and ultimate collapse from the Grand Hotel Brittanique (a strikingly small building, now hosting a rather disappointing bar, pictured below) in that small but charming Belgian town. All of this puts one in mind of the 1914-18 war, and as such Parry's period piece, first published in 1917, and now available free in the public domain, provides an interesting view into how the war was represented at the time.

While the style throughout is more redolent of what Capt W E Johns would adopt with his Biggles series there are some serious points to be found here, most notably the running theme throughout the book of how successive elements of the Somme offensive were betrayed by German espionage and 'Hunnish dirty tricks'; intriguingly presaging the post-1918 German theories of betrayal in refusing to accept more mundane factual explanations of how events turned out.

Hard work too is put into vilifying the German character. Sometimes this reaches absurd degrees, not content with stealing plans for the British offensive from the Dashwood family home, the German spy steals three boxes of his host's cigars. This leads to the rather strongly worded assertion that
A German isn't a human being when you come to look at it - he's just a mean beast, a bully when he's top dog, and a grovelling worm when he's cornered.
which as abuse is perhaps trumped only by the description of a German woman's laughter
The unrestrained laugh of a German woman is the index to the German character. It is one of the most horribly unmusical sounds on earth.
This jingoistic tone of morality and an attempt to cast a clear notion of right and wrong does lead to some elements of strangeness, and a hark back to a more chivalrous age which one suspects was long gone by 1916. When a German prisoner in no-man's land gives his word that if his side does not make a breakthrough he will report to the British trenches it conjures up a vision of World War 1 as a version of the Combat of the Thirty writ large; a nice idea, but one I imagine with no grounding in reality. This continues, with recapitulations of the 'men against fire' theory, that moral fibre could allow infantry to cross killing fields of fire, and that cavalry, given the chance, could carry the day.

Oddly some of the more fantastic elements of Parry's novel are grounded in lesser known parts of the war's history. The highly unlikely seeming element of Dashwood accompanying a French pilot on a raid on a Zeppelin shed in the Black Forest in actuality owes a lot to Noel Pemberton Billing's raid on Friedrichshafen in November 1914 (engagingly told in Ian Gardner's "The Flatpack Bombers"). 

There is also value in extracting some small elements of detail from the text. Price, in "Other Paths to Glory", talks about the chain mail armour worn by tank crews on the Somme, which is a little known piece of colour, borne out by a little digging (see this exhibit from the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, not visited by me since 1978, but I remember it being rather good), and Parry refers to "medieval looking" trench helmets; maybe the Combat of the Thirty was not completely alien to the Somme.

On a lot of levels this is a terrible book, the direct descendent of the worst excesses of pre war invasion scare literature, but in this light it is still of value. Where tracts such as "The Battle of Dorking" brought into vision a Great Britain that had already lost, "With Haig on the Somme" conjures up a Britain that was striving to win. Don't read this as historiography, and if you want a rip roaring tale of World War 1 adventure, read Biggles or John Buchan, but for an insight into how consent for the Great War was manufactured in 1917, read this with your eyes open. 

Statue of General Haig outside his wartime headquarters in Montreuil sur Mer.

Outside Ludendorff's headquarters in Spa.


Friday, 17 May 2013

"Fargo Rock City", Chuck Klosterman

Easily mentioned in the same breath as Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity" or Giles Smith's "Lost in Music", "Fargo Rock City" could tempt the reader in thinking they were set fair for a tongue in cheek rite of passage tale linking North Dakotan life with a slightly troubling obsession with Heavy Metal. 

This would be a mistake.

In the afterword Klosterman confesses he had wanted to name the book "Appetite for Deconstruction", which in many ways would be a closer analogue to what is contained within. While there are undeniably entertaining elements of personal reflection, many of which are connected with the rural location of Klosterman's upbringing, this is a much more thought provoking work which rewards the reader that thinks about the concepts introduced, and locates music in a wider social context.

That said there are points of autobiography which both entertain and challenge. When the work was initially released a lot of attention focused on a frank exposition of Klosterman's relationship with alcohol, which juxtaposes a clear admission that he has a problem with a conclusion that deep down, he doesn't really care. It's a difficult bit to read, and coming late in the book it serves to twist your opinion of the author. More entertaining perhaps is the discussion of what music is a good accompaniment to sex, and what elements of Heavy Metal resonate with this most, which in most rational readers is going to cause a wry smile and a shake of the head; but then thinking about it, my sole contribution to this from my youth was a request from long departed girlfriend that we distinctly not have Tangerine Dream playing when anything like that was likely to happen, so maybe I'm in no position to comment.

It helps if you were born in the 1970s, so you can identify with the social change that swept the ground from underneath Heavy Metal with the rise of the Seattle sound and Grunge in the 1990s. Klosterman neatly paints a picture of hubristic anticipation surrounding the release of Guns 'n' Roses double album "Use Your Illusion" in 1991, and how it masked what, in retrospect, was the much more significant arrival of Nirvana's "Nevermind". To me this resonated a lot, I clearly remember being distinctly perplexed that Nirvana could sell out their December 1991 concert in Edinburgh, thinking that "this was indie music, it doesn't sell anywhere out". Seismic social changes often happen without us noticing.

For all that the language can sometimes jar - to read that Vinnie Vincent's "Invasion" is "like a Tasmanian devil whirling towards vaginas and self destruction" can stop even the most hardened of readers in their tracks - this is nonetheless an engaging read. Approach it without a burden of expectation and you'll leave more informed and, if nothing else equipped with a rich vein of anecdote to punctuate a musically related conversation.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

"The Holy Thief", William Ryan

Historical crime fiction provides us with a useful lens with which to both interpret the past and be entertained with a context that we can readily flesh out more completely by reading around the period in question.

William Ryan's "The Holy Thief", set amidst the increasing paranoia of mid 1930s Stalinist USSR, gives us a simultaneously gruesome and humorous work reminiscent in parts of Cruz Smith's "Gorky Park". Graphic brutality and banal poverty of life is juxtaposed with the pleasing absurdity of Soviet hyper-ambition. Characters who grub around for food and clothing rations can talk of how technological development will lead to not just skyscrapers, but wider roads, because in future buildings will be on movable rails. Herein Ryan's book starts to transcend the police procedural, and becomes valid socio-historical comment. In Soviet Russia anything is possible, which links with some contemporary Western commentary, such as the Webb's work on Soviet Communism or George Bernard Shaw's rapportage.

Amidst this Ryan's core character, ex-soldier, ex-footballer, Christian, and all round good chap Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev unpicks a series of murders connected with an icon smuggling racket. His interaction with the rest of Soviet society and the smothering bureaucracy keep pace in the novel, as we steadily unpick the threads of what is involved, and why the body count around Moscow keeps rising.

Like a lot however, the early game of The Holy Thief is probably better. By the end there's a drift away from a tight narrative focus, and you're left decreasingly engaged with what the actual ins and outs of the crime are. Perhaps however this in itself is a commentary on Stalin's Soviet Union. Much as there's a backdrop of Yagoda's fall and the rise of Yezhov (himself short lived) what is and is not a crime, and who is and is not a criminal becomes a blurry concept. 

As said before, in Soviet Russia anything is possible.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

"The City of Shadows", Michael Russell

"We learn slash and burn is the method to use, set it flame, burn it new", Tolerance, 10,000 Maniacs.
I grew up in Ireland, and still have a real affinity for the country. I learned to read there, and having the opportunity to revisit it through literature is something I genuinely appreciate. The likes of Declan Hughes, Benjamin Black, and now Michael Russell, provide a ready window into the country, and reinforce the point that Ireland is not Britain with some engaging local colour, but in fact is somewhere that despite the similarities that come from so much shared history, there is something very distinctive and different about it.

Michael Russell's début novel is a polished and highly enjoyable crime thriller that captures the profound challenges that faced Irish society as the Free State evolved towards the Republic during the 1930s. We're consistently reminded of distinct direction that Ireland under De Valera tried to take - ploughing a lonely furrow with avowed levels of independence and autarky which had the effect of creating a society that in struggling with the legacy of the Civil War and Church vs State tensions becomes a place when viewed from a contemporary perspective feels unappetising.

The concept of 'otherness' and intolerance is central to the book. It captures the rarities in a Catholic dominated society, not taking the easy route of talking about the remnants of the Anglo-Irish ascendency, but looking at the rarer Jewish, gay, and immigrant communities, and the levels of both tacit and overt intolerance to which they were exposed. This is fitting though, because as is accurately pointed out, "[a]bsence was in Jewish blood the same way it was in the blood of the Irish" (p.114).

Much in a similar vein to Alan Furst and John Lawton "The City of Shadows" captures the small human elements in the emerging tragedy of the mid-20th century, individuals striving to find some light in surroundings that can often feel almost overwhelmingly dark.

As is pointed out in the text, "In Ireland history never quite goes away" (p.211). From this perspective this is a novel that should make anyone with an affinity with Ireland rightly ashamed and angry, but at the same time a sense of pride can be derived from the fact that the nation did not take what could have been an easy path towards a fascist theocracy, but instead emerged to be the vibrant society it is today.

"The City of Shadows" was an almost accidental discovery last week, it deserves to succeed.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Book Launch, "Dead Men Should Know Better", Dominic Canty

My local bookstore, the wonderful Beckenham Bookshop is one of these places that defies the usual pessimism about high street retail through a combination of fantastic service, being really friendly, and having the creativity to get out there and understand that there's a lot more to selling books than simply having them on the shelf and providing a check-out function.

In this light I'm really pleased to see they're holding a book launch evening for a local author next Tuesday. It's the sort of thing that very much should be encouraged - I'm going to try and be there, and if you're in South London, like books, and think an independent approach to business, publishing, and literature in general should be encouraged, you should try to get along too.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

"Uncommon Enemy", Alan Judd

As an author, Alan Judd has sporadically accompanied me through a lot of my adult reading life. As a teenager "The Noonday Devil" served to keep my enthusiasm for a university education high, even if the reality was no more like that described by Judd than using Evelyn Waugh as a guide would have been.

At a similar time I encountered Charles Thoroughgood. His appearance in "A Breed of Heroes" provided a counterpoint to the swashbuckling military figures to be found in the thriller authors that had been my standard reading material to that point. Pronouncedly different, "A Breed of Heroes" was not an especially easy read in such a context, but over 20 years later remains memorable.

The Thoroughgood trilogy, written over such a span of time, encompassing the British Army in Northern Ireland, 1980s Cold War espionage, and now, the murky ambiguities of the war on terror, by nature has to be made up individual works that can stand on their own - reliance on distant memories of previous works is dangerous - the second volume, 2001's "Legacy" is after all 10 years ago, and unlike "A Breed of Heroes", was only read by me once. This does make the introduction to "Uncommon Enemy" a slightly difficult process, as memory scrabbles to see if there are threads to be picked up, and intertextuality challenges too - with linkages in particular to Adam Thorpe's "Flight" being felt.

Perseverance rewards; "Uncommon Enemy" is a rich and rewarding work. Book ending Thoroughgood's professional life, the story draws from his university days, the latter part of his spy's life in the 1990s and early 2000s, with the main narrative set in the contemporary period, where now retired, he is recalled to track down an asset, "Gladiator", with whom he shares an deep and extensive personal history. This tale of relationships subsumes what we initially assume to be the core premise - the attempt to use "Gladiator" to track down an Al Qaeda plot in the UK - remember - this is no traditional linear spy thriller.

Judd is easily locatable in the espionage literature universe alongside Charles Cumming and the obvious John Le Carre. Here he is perhaps most reminiscent of Le Carre's 1995 "Our Game", where a similar feel of tiredness and lost certainties can be found. Here too is an ambiguity in ending; there is closure to "Uncommon Enemy", there's a feeling that something akin to 'the right result' has been found, but there are still questions, still a suspicion that the whole story has not been told, and the book is very much better for it.

My old paperback copy of "Legacy" has now come off the bookshelf to be revisited - perhaps the most real endorsement of how enjoyable "Uncommon Enemy" is.