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.