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.