Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Last Spike

"Rails across Canada: A Pictorial Journey from Coast to Coast", David Cable

Despite sharing a telephone dialing code with its more populous neighbour to the south, one area where Canada can hold its head up with a certain level of distinctive identity is in its transcontinental railroad. Just as impressive an achievement as the American drive from sea to shining sea, the twin railroads of the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific span the continental lands mass covering over 30,000 route miles of track.

Culturally there's something very resonant about Canada's railways - perhaps it's because in the great north there's more isolation and the railroad provides one of the tenuous filaments connecting elements of civilisation in the opens wastes together. From the iconic image of Donald Alexander Smith hammering home 'the last spike' at Craigellachie in 1885, through E J Pratt's epic similarly titled narrative poem, to the Cowboy Junkies and their spectacularly melancholy ninth track from 1992's "Black Eyed Man". 

Those looking for a documentary history of the birth of Canada's railways, or indeed an insight into the nature of today's rail system, will not find this in Cable's "Rails across Canada", for this they would be better to start elsewhere, perhaps with Berton's two volumes on the system's origins ("The National Dream" and "The Last Spike"), but as context there is some real value to be had here. In just over 200 pages of photography taken over the course of several journeys across Canada Cable documents the reality of Canadian railways, showing the scale of engineering, the topography dealt with, and the reality that much as in the United States railways in this part of North America are enjoying a renaissance - just one that is comparatively invisible as it is one executed with passengers.

It's a book of few words, but still one that rewards leafing through, discovering Cable's engagement with Canadian railroads and getting a feel for trains draw such a vast country together. It's enough to inspire you at some stage to devote the time to riding the three day journey across the continent, but equally makes you think about the run of the mill elements that through freight stitch the continent together. Can one still dream of hitching a ride on the longest train you ever saw? 

Disclosure: a review copy of Rails across Canada was provided by Pen and Sword Books.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Strange Things Happen at Sea

"Death of a Supertanker", Anthony Trew

For all the efforts of the UK Hydrographic Office and its international peers, the oceans are still uncharted spaces. The rules of normality become suspended and distorted; what is transgressive ashore becomes accepted when out of sight of land. History is littered with such incidents, running through Tudor Piracy, the Russians firing on the Gamecock Fleet in 1905, and countless Cold War encounters. Much of the traditional narrative on this circulates on the high politics of state, but scratch beneath the surface and there is a strand of stories equally rich and somehow more accessible when you look to merchant shipping. As the likes of Rose George point out, the loss of a commercial airliner will be guaranteed to seize the headlines, the disappearance of a merchant ship, unless it comes to grief in sight of land, will often go unreported and uncommented.

Anthony Trew (1906-1996), novelist and former South African Naval Officer, first came to me in the 1980s with The Antonov Project, a classic Cold War conspiracy pot boiler which sadly has not aged quite as well as might have been hoped. By contrast Death of a Supertanker resonates of a maritime world more recently exposed to us by the aforementioned Rose George and Horatio Clare in Deep Sea and Foreign Going and Down to the Sea in Ships. Death of a Supertanker brings us directly into a world described in Noel Moster's Supership, and exposes the level to which ships cease to become the emotional engagements that they were in the classic era described by Alan Villiers and Adrian Selgimann, and become financial instruments, there to serve base levels of profit and loss, and where consigning a ship to layup is nothing out of the ordinary.  

Very much of its time, with a layer of casual sexism, and a reflection of the geopolitical world of the late 1970s Death of a Supertanker is distinctly a period piece, but usefully represents a period where shipping eras overlapped. Simultaneously this was a period when crews could still repair to a bar before dinner but there was the looming prospect of 36 hours loading in the Gulf before a turnaround and another 6 weeks voyage back to Rotterdam. The halcyon days of the supertankers, perhaps best typified by the French Shell vessels Batillus or Bellamya are evoked here, but so too is the long tanker slump, and the prospect of layup and redundancy, ships riding forlorn in Scottish lochs and Norwegian fjords.

There's a certain poignancy to this too. Many seafarers dream of managing to make the leap back ashore. As Death of a Supertanker closes one of the officer's secures what to him is a plum job - a loading master in Abadan, Iran. With the benefit of hindsight that the passage of time grants us one can't help wondering if that was the smartest move for him...

At its heart Death of a Supertanker is about maritime economics and the shady criminality that can exist at its boundaries. Decisions taken in small anonymous Swiss headquarters impact on the lives of the ordinary sailors aboard the Ocean Mammoth, and while it may frustrate the reader that at this level there are many hanging threads regarding whether or not the fraud leading to the loss of the supertanker pays off or indeed really how it all took place, in many ways this reflects the shadowy nature of the industry, and contributes to a feeling of realism.

Would all this appeal to someone not au fait with how shipping works? The truth is I suspect it might not. Death of a Supertanker is an ambiguous novel and there's a lack of certainty to it throughout, indeed I challenge anyone to be able to say conclusively really what the narrative chain of events described should be. Don't come to it looking for a parcelled up self contained novel - for this maybe Justin Scott's The Shipkiller might be a better bet, but instead use it as an insight into seafaring life in the 1970s, and one which still resonates.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Four Kinds of Fish

"Day of Atonement", Jay Rayner

There are times when you end up with a novel that confounds expectations. Tempted by a free promotion on it for Yom Kippur, Jay Rayner's Day of Atonement has been sitting on my phone for a while, and when, stuck for something to read on the tube, it was opened, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect.

The last cookery novel I can recall reading (and I'm sure there's been something since) was going through Anthony Bourdain's Bone in the Throat and Gone Bamboo, which managed to be simultaneously entertaining and depressingly dark, so in terms of expectation management Rayner's Day of Atonement has a bit of baggage.

Starting with an elderly ex con on the contemporary Kent coast there's an initial feeling that we might be in Bourdain territory, but that's soon stripped away and we've got an engaging wide ranging rites of passage cultural narrative of London Jewish entrepreneurs through the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. There's a rich sense of place and culture with the distinctive argot of London's Jewish community richly captured combining veracity and an ability to make you smile.

Deep down Day of Atonement isn't really a crime novel, but it's not one where the expected deeply bad things happen. Somehow while there are where you suspect it might be about to turn all a little bit Goodfellas it doesn't. People don't end up necessarily in a shallow grave, and a level of cocaine dependency in the 1970s shouldn't really come as a huge surprise to anyone.

So Day of Atonement was free, so I can't even ask a question of whether even as a discount purchase, was it worth it? But there is a more sophisticated question revolving around whether it rewarded my time and here happily things can be a lot more conclusive: of course it was. Mal and Solly become characters whose stories compel as they move from adolescence to old age, and while it is at heart a morality play, there is a sense of predominantly reasonable wholesome fun (even including Judy the Blow Job Queen) that suffuses the novel.

And yes, it does make clear that the epitome of a good and lavish party is making sure that you don't just have three, but four fishes served. This is probably a life lesson for all of us, gentile or otherwise.

Jay Rayner makes it clear that this is a pre 9/11 novel, a product thus of the very short 21st century where there was a window to see the world through something of a different lens, which gives Day of Atonement it's particular flavour. Try it, I think it's one you might relish, a little like chicken soup.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Got wood?

"Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way", Lars Mytting

Autumn took a while to get going this year. Barely a week ago we were talking about how unseasonably mild it was. That said there have been a few times when November dampness creeps into the bones, and there's nothing quite like a wood fire to sort that out.

Of course now we're properly into blustery autumn, and I'm eyeing up my woodpile, wondering how far through the winter it'll get me, and very grateful for the wood stove in the sitting room (a Charnwood C4 for those interested in such details).

Into this environment comes Norwegian Wood. Not a track by the Beatles, nor a Haruki Murakami novel, but instead a beautifully produced tome on, you guessed it, Norwegian wood. As a country Norway does winter rather more profoundly than the UK - that's geography for you I guess - so it's maybe understandable that their approach to chopping and burning wood is a little more thoughtful. Not for them the indifferent net of soggy logs procured from the petrol station - in Scandinavia it's a process that involves taking a long view, something to go with aquavit and lutefisk to help you through the long dark winter.

This is something that suffuses Norwegian Wood. It's not the sort of work that you can read linearly, instead it rewards dipping into, grasping an element of wood lore that you can apply to your own wood piles and fires, and through this gain an insight to the accompanying cultural context.

Looking at this way Norwegian Wood is a genuinely useful book. To take one example, people have long told me that contrary to popular wisdom of starting with paper, layering kindling on top, and then some small logs, really you should set a fire using a top down approach. Nothing about this seemed to make sense - heat rises right? So surely starting from the top is counter intuitive and flying in the face of reason? 

Norwegian Wood in a matter of fact way explains things. Put a bed of logs on the bottom of your stove, then build paper and kindling on top, this will generate enough heat to help the bigger logs to start to smoulder, and their gasses, rising up, will then combust as they meet the flames from the kindling - simples. It means the process of lighting the fire is less a case of earnestly monitoring it, adding carefully selected pieces of wood, and more a matter of lighting it and letting it run. It's a small thing, but makes a difference.

That's Norwegian Wood in a nutshell. It's a combination of small things that can make your experience with a log fire inherently more enjoyable. It's probably not something to have as your train book, nor necessarily one for bedtime, but there's an argument to be made that having it around where you can pick it up as you go about your day will improve your life.

Disclosure: a review copy of this book was supplied by Maclehose Pres.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Larsson exhumed

"The Girl in the Spider's Web", David Lagercrantz

There's a theory out there that says you should never go back, and trying to find something that all evidence suggests is gone is always going to be a fool's errand. Most of the time I apply this sort of thinking to revisiting authors from my formative years, but the same point could be made about publishers going back to deceased authors and having a bash at resurrecting them. I can see why they do it, I can see why people are keen on reading them, and I'm also aware it often ends being a little unsatisfactory. Even when it's a talented author revising a mostly finished manuscript there's something lacking in the resulting book.

So how do I feel about David Lagercrantz picking up Stieg Larsson's mantle? I loved the original trilogy, warts and all, and there was a certain excitement about the arrival of the posthumous fourth. The largely positive reviews in the Guardian and Irish Times helped, and realistically, this was always going to be a book I was going to buy.

And you know what? It seems genuinely pretty good. Lagercrantz captures Larsson's voice effectively, the universe is familiar, and the familiar characters are there, like long lost old friends coming back, welcoming in you in despite all the years that have passed. There are some other promising points, The Girl in the Spider's Web isn't a sprawling vast tome stretching the bounds of what can be printed, instead it's a slimmer more focused volume, which raises the prospect of a tighter narrative.  

So does it really work?

It's been a train and bedtime companion for the last few days, and happy long morning saw it finished today, and while I want to write that I'm a touch ambivalent about the book I'm conscious this is selling it undeservedly short. There's the familiar Larsson sprawling plotline ranging across media, politics, and Swedish society, there are the linkages to the deep Salander family storyline, and a topical information age conspiracy to deal with. All of this feels like familiar Larsson territory, but here's where somehow the conciseness of The Girl in the Spider's Web ends up falling a little short. 

The novel is relatively short, but attempts the sort of wide ranging plot lines we had in the first three books, and ultimately there's not the real estate there to do them justice. I often think big doorstep volumes, much like the latter Larssons threatened to be, would benefit most from a strenuous edit, but intriguingly this too feels like it should be a fundamentally better sorted book. The end feels syncopated, and while most hanging threads are tied off, there's a level to which you feel that had Larsson had his hands on this they would have been dealt with in a touch more detail.

But let's not carp. The Girl in the Spider's Web is still ultimately a well paced engaging thriller that ticks all the boxes when you're looking a Scandinavian crime thriller. We can't bring Stieg Larsson back, but if you, like me, have a hankering to know how the Millennium sage evolves, seeing subsequent volumes like this will give us something honestly fine to think about.

I'm going to paraphrase the Guardian here, but if you didn't like the previous Larsson books this won't change your mind, but if you did you'll probably enjoy this. It's not high literature, and nor is it quite on the level of first encountering The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but it kept me engaged and warranted it's space in my backpack though my daily commute. It's flawed, but I'm pleased it exists, and I'm pretty sure I really want to see the series continue.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Crusaders and Tigersharks

At some point in my impressionable youth I came across Barrett Tillman's On Yankee Station, a simultaneously accessible and authoritative account of US naval aviation during the Vietnam War. Following on from that I read his MiG Master, a study of the Vought F-8 Crusader, an undeservedly forgotten carrier aircraft, and enjoyed it too. I reacquainted myself with both in my 1990s flirtation with academia but otherwise Tillman ended up filed in the recesses of my mind, probably resurfaceable with a bit of context, but otherwise one for the past.

Sparked a little bit by Singer and Cole's Ghost Fleet, I've nosed around such things as Command: Modern air and Naval Operations, musing that perhaps as a non existent summer segues into autumn maybe some time spent in front of a PC recreating sundry old Harpoon like scenarios might be mildly diverting. Connected with that a dig through their archive surfaced a mention of a Barrett Tillman work of fiction, Warriors

Long out of print, Warriors is still relatively easy to track down for not very much, and it's worth a look. Techno thrillers suffered with the end of the Cold War, and the story arc of Warriors was rapidly overtaken in period by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and Desert Storm ushering in the short 21st Century, but the passage of time serves to unearth some of the inherent value to narratives like this. 

Positing a scenario whereby in 1990 Saudi Arabia takes an unorthodox approach creating a parallel air force trained by Western pilots and equipped with the in real life stillborn Northrop F-20 Tigershark and becomes enmeshed in a sprawling recapitulation of the Yom Kippur war Warriors is unusual (very much so for its time) in taking an ambivalent view towards the role of Israel in the Middle East. It's a stance which did not make the novel popular in some quarters at its time of release, but viewed from a perspective 25 years after its publication you can see its point.

Warriors is capable of surprising; where initially it feels like a typical late Cold War military thriller with female characters spatchcocked in as an afterthought, the plot is more well rounded and nuanced than first impression suggest. It's unflinching in its approach to mortality, and much in the vein of Bob Forrest-Webb's Chieftains is not a novel which rewards those who become attached to core figures.

The description of an evolving Middle East and a pan-Arab consensus against Israel rings hollow in an era of Islam's great war of religion and the rise of Islamic State, but the notion of a fragile Saudi monarchy, an interventionist Iran moving beyond the shadow of Khomeini, and a Russia increasingly enmeshed in shaping the region, does indicate that maybe there are aspects we can still learn from, despite the manifest changes the world has seen.

Do we now read 1980s works of this manner in the same way we read pre WW1 war scare fiction? I don't think we do - and if we're being realistic in the same way as the literature of the early 20th century had its ups and downs there's a lot of fairly forgettable material that rode in on the wake of Clancy and his peers. Warriors is not high literature, but when dealing what Tillman knows best it's well written, thought provoking, and keeps you interested throughout.

Worth the investment, and more than that, worth reminding me that Barrett Tillman has written some fine books about aviation.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

The Iconic James Bond

It's a Thursday night, I've come home interested in something burbling in the background, and lo and behold in the outer regions of things satellite there's a Bond film to be found. It's For Your Eyes Only, it took me a while to figure out the name, and I figured that it's not quite a proper Bond film.

James Bond's interesting. I grew up somewhere in the 1970s or 80s (boundaries are vague) and so the Roger Moore era of high kitsch was introduced to me as somehow serious spy fiction. The formative me viewed Moonraker dispassionately, thinking that chemical weapon labs in Venice, transhipment hubs in Rio, and hidden launch platforms in the Amazon were perfectly feasible (and who says they're not?). That small me had no problem when a couple of years later I read the original Fleming and discovered that he didn't have hijacked space shuttles, cable cars, or space marines in the book at all, and really it was much more about the south coast of England and the mundanity of the nascent British space programme

It's a theme the lovely Riddle of the Sands Adventure Club guys explored with Pink Gin and the Man with the Golden Gun a while back, but it's worth disconnecting Fleming's books from the film cannon. The films are escapism, and they reflect the mores of their time; this means they sometimes date a little, showing how society has accepted and sometime celebrated less savoury approaches towards women and displayed unfortunate ethnographic stereotypes. So, when this evening I described "For Your Eyes Only" as somehow not resonating as Bond film what was I thinking?

Vague relative @SeafrontPages suggested it was something to do with the uncertainty of the Thatcher era and a Sheena Easton soundtrack. He's probably got a point.

Colleague @unfortunatalie asked if it was because there wasn't quite enough misogyny in it? She may also have a point.

The truth is probably somewhere else though. 

Bonds should have an iconic location?
FYEO has the whole Greek monastery scene

Bonds should have a massive plot?
No, when they captured the Ambler vibe in Casino Royale (Craig) they worked impeccably

Bonds should be more misogynistic?
Skyfall is maybe the most challenging here in terms of exploitation, FYEO is way more accommodating

So why not remember For Your Eye's Only? Maybe because inherently it's just an okay film. It's not outright bad like the later Dalton or Brosnan works, yet not as good as high points of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, From Russia With Love, or The Spy Who Loved Me, and as such we forget about it. 

Maybe it's time to go back and read some Fleming and see if there's something to be found.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Neuromancer meets Red Storm Rising

In the summer of 1987 my teenage mind was captivated by a weighty tome lent to me by an American friend. The wide-ranging narrative and a whiff of authenticity that somehow overmatched everything else in the techno-thriller cannon. I was ahead of the game, I read Red Storm Rising pleasingly before it got its release in Europe, and when it broke on European shores it became a phenomenon that even my parents managed to pick up, prompting a somewhat curious “are they talking about that book you read on the television now?”.

Red Storm Rising probably wasn’t the first of its type, General Sir John Hackett certainly got there first with his Third World War, but it undeniably spawned a genre. Along with Clancy, the likes of Larry Bond, and Hank Brown mined a rich seam like a gift that kept on giving until the end of the Cold War cut them off at the knees.

The techno-thriller went through a long fallow patch. The 1990s weren’t kind to them and even the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan failed to spark a credible narrative that recaptured the majesty of Clancy in his pomp.

As a reader it was fine, we found other things to read. Charles Cumming captured the Eric Ambler quiet school of espionage fiction, we ploughed back into history with John Biggins, and when feeling virtuous we would read something a little more like (whisper it) respectable literature, with Alan Hollinghurst, John Irving, and a newly grown up William Gibson.

Remember that last name, because the arrival of Singer and Cole's Ghost Fleet has made most people refer back to Clancy and Red Storm Rising, but as I progressed into it I found myself remembering another novel I read in the mid 1980s rather more than I expected to. Ghost Fleet may well be a Red Storm Rising for the 21st Century, but if so it’s every bit as much an homage to Gibson’s Neuromancer too - and in a nice touch it’s this which gets the namecheck from Singer and Cole in the running text a bit more than the Clancy link that most reviewers (and yes, my hand is up here too) initially introduce things with.

Linking with early Gibson introduces what one of the key subthemes of the novel - Dave Eggers caused some controversy in 2014 with The Circle, and while I read and enjoyed it, I could see why it simultaneously annoyed those in the technology community and may have been a little inaccessible to those outside it. Ghost Fleet works very well as a cautionary tale about society's reliance on devices to tell us things. This is powerfully linked as the novel reaches a climax, as a US Navy officer peers at a data screen rather than a horizon and reflects that "[t]he anxiousness he felt at that one missing piece of data flow was a reminder of how quickly people took for granted the sea of information they floated in. He only hoped that being thrown back into the dark would be even more disorienting for the Directorate generals and admirals who had enjoyed a war of such data dominance so far."

Leaving the roots aside, what’s Ghost Fleet like as a read? Gratifyingly it’s good, and part of me wants to say it’s very good. Just like Clancy (and indeed Gibson) it’s absorbingly pacy, with a series of vignettes telling enough of a story and creatively using negative space to create the vision that what you read is part of a far larger and more sprawling narrative which, critically, yields an interest in knowing more about what’s left unsaid.

There's an authenticity to the Singer and Cole's universe. Revolving around a Mahanite geopolitical view references to how we arrive at the setting from a contemporary point of departure all feel perfectly credible, with notions such as the Second Timor War, the Dharan dirty bomb, and the New York Quake all feel real, and like the unsaid elements of the conflict in Ghost Fleet, become part of a broader story that you want to know more about.  

The style of writing can raise a smile, insights into the fate of Richard Branson, the ultimate expression of Tour de France doping, and victory drives involving children surrendering tablets to be harvested for microchips all make Ghost Fleet a pleasant as well as interesting read.

Is it this century's Red Storm Rising? In truth I'm not sure, but then again I'm also the thick end of 30 years older than I was when I read Clancy's book, so maybe it's about perspective. While lapping up Ghost Fleet there was a part of me that whispered it wasn't quite as wide ranging and magisterial as Red Storm Rising, but equally saying so felt like needlessly carping, because remember, I was having fun reading Ghost Fleet. Either way, Ghost Fleet is a rattling good read, and sticking with the 21st century, remember, you still can't get an eBook of Red Storm Rising.

Disclaimers and disclosure are good things to includes in anything published. Here's a personal bit of disclosure: my PhD looked at the USN of the 1970s and 1980s in some detail, and as such the personality of Chief of Naval Operations Elmo Zumwalt featured strongly and positively. In an era when the notion of heroism is brought into question by Donald Trump, I'm delighted that Ghost Fleet salutes a great surface ship sailor in Elmo Zumwalt.

You can get your copy of Ghost Fleet from Canelo here.

Disclosure: an advance copy of Ghost Fleet was provided by Canelo Books.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Tony Southgate in his Own Words

A few years ago I read Tony Southgate's autobiography, which as motor racing books go is right up there with Vic Elford's Reflections and John Horsman's Racing in the Rain. If you've not read it and like the idea of motorsport being a freewheeling innovative place please track down a copy of it - trust me, you'll like it.

It's probably not the sort of book that would reward reading as an ebook. and I'm guessing your local bookshop won't have it in stock, so if you're looking for a bit of instant gratification have a listen to the latest Motor Sport Magazine podcast, where their usual roster of suspects travel to Northampton to sit down with Tony Southgate and produce an hour and a half of utterly absorbing conversation about racing car design touching on the period when Southgate worked and the present day.

As a hallmark of a great podcast it's not just crammed full of brilliant insights (not least Southgate's persistence in not enunciating the 's' in Arrows) but leaves you wanting to hear more - the Osella years, for example, always appealed to me, but aren't covered in the audio. As they say, this could have been an 8 hour production, and there's a lot of me that wishes it had been.

Seriously - go and have a listen, in an era of over sanitised commercial motor racing it's a breath of fresh air. For those of you of a South London persuasion (and my sympathy if you are not) it's also worth having a listen for the references to Lola's origins in Bromley - I've been trying to track down where exactly they were - there's a school of thought holding they were in Ravensbourne Road - but does anyone have anything more precise/accurate than that?

Monday, 6 July 2015

Riddle of the Sands Adventure Club

In one of the Riddle of the Sands Adventure Club podcasts (or was it one of their blog posts) the opinion was offered that Erskine Childers’ “Riddle of the Sands” may not be written in a way that immediately appeals to contemporary (and younger?) readers. I initially bridled a bit at that sentiment, then thought back to my teenage years, when I refused to countenance the notion of reading John Buchan’s “Greenmantle” because it sounded as though it was probably old fashioned, and thus much less appealing than whatever techno-thriller subfodder I was subjecting myself to at the time.

Most of a decade later I corrected this, read “Greenmantle” (along with the rest of Buchan’s wider Hannay universe) and looking back I suspect the 13 year old that spurned Buchan made a grave error - he’d have loved the rich sense of history, the exotic location, and what is fundamentally a genuinely good read. 

“Riddle of the Sands” sits in a similar space. My father, an Anglo-Irish amateur sailor (his sole claim to a straightened upbringing was that he had to buy his own yacht) whose life missed overlapping with Childers by a scant few months, was unsurprisingly a fan of the novel. When the film came out in the late 1970s there was enthusiasm around the Synge household about going to see it, but for reasons lost to my then young mind, it never happened, and while since then I’m sure I’ve seen at least bits of the film, it’s only recently that I’ve consciously watched it (in an almost unwatchable blurry VHS rip format), so it was an appealing prospect when the rather marvellous Riddle of the Sands Adventure Club proposed showing it on a biggish screen in the company of like minded folk.

Rewinding a little, the Riddle of the Sands Adventure Club is a fantastic initiative. It’s a pair of enthusiastic eccentrics who want to retrace the route described in the novel, which is ‘curiously specific about dates and places’, and in doing so explore the social, literary, and historical context of the novel, and how this is reflected in the terrain of today. Their podcasts are tremendously entertaining and I genuinely hope they raise enough cash to set out on their adventure. I’ve put my hand in my pocket, and I’d encourage all of you to do so too. You can do so at Unbound here.

But back to the screening and the chance, 30 or so years after the family failure to see the film? It started with an
The first instruction - rendezvous in a ships' chandler.
instruction to meet at the last ships chandler in London, a lovely small shop on Shaftesbury Avenue full of arcane materials and enticing books about hidden anchorages on the Brittany coast. It proceeds to the parish rooms at St Giles, tucked away behind the church and bedecked with a slightly curious list of parish luminaries on the wall. It has an industrial looking improvised screen, the film’s overture on a loop in the background, and it has Lloyd and Tim (both engaging and fun people) being enthusiastic about what they’re trying to do. And there’s grog.

An intriguingly varied group of people are gathered to watch the film. There’s someone who owns a Rippingille stove, there’s someone who’s painted a seascape of the Dulcibella, there’s me and my wife, who just like this juxtaposition between history, travel, and London.

A quick introduction by Lloyd and Tim, duly Periscoped, a quick word from the composer of the film’s soundtrack, and it’s into the screening. The film’s good, but it’s of its time. It’s easy to forget that the 1970s were quite a long time ago and almost closer to the dawn of cinema than they are to us. There are bits in the film where lingering long shots on eyes owe a lot to Eisenstein and D. W. Griffith, notes that today presumably would be superseded by something CGIed.

It’s a hot evening, one of the hottest London’s had this year, and parish rooms are not known for being airy. My experiences of the Ems estuary and the Waddensee are more wintery, but I’m sure they can be close and airless too. It’s nice to be given the opportunity to focus on a film in the way it was supposed to be seen rather than having it in the background while you dick about on a second screen. As a film it’s lasted better than others from the period, and can appeal to even the non-geekish amongst us. It’s even better watched amongst like minded folk.

The Riddle of the Sands Adventure Club probably doesn’t have a commercial leg to stand on, which is why those of us who support it just because it’s a fabulous idea need to stand up and make sure it keeps going. They stage intriguing events like this, they entertain and engage with us in their podcasts, and their finished product is the sort of metanarrative that should be encouraged. Please, go and find them, explore what they’re doing, and chuck them some cash so they can tell us what the Frisian Islands interpreted through the eyes of Childers are really like. 

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Dalkey Book Festival

It's been a good quarter of a century since I left Dublin in general and Dalkey in particular, and in the main I've not really looked back. For all people gush about it as a city, for me, like most youths, it was mainly just a place to grow up. Sometimes I've thought about going back in retirement, but increasingly that ebbs away as an idea, and I suspect a line will get drawn under that in the none too distant. South London is home now.
All through the period of the Celtic Tiger, when Dublin did its level best to transform itself into London in the 1980s it didn't really appeal, but post crash there seems to be a new pragmatism about the place. Some of the vulgar excess is gone, but they've preserved the will and ability to do extraordinary things.
So, when I read about the Dalkey Literary Festival, in particular things like PJ O'Rourke in St Patrick's, I can't help thinking it appeals. I'm generally doing something else in mid-June, but if I wasn't I might well be tempted to head west for this.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Traversa, a postscript

On the cover of Fran Sandham's "ňáTraversa" there is the somewhat non-commital endorsement from The Guardian reading "I found myself increasingly gripped". Since publishing this and fishing around for what others thought of the book I found the Guardian review it came from - interesting reading, and a pointed comment on how marketing latches onto a snippet and does what it can... I'm currently reading Mazower's book on Salonica, and its cover features a quote from a somewhat non-commital Jan Morris review, I like Jan Morris, I'm enjoying Mazower, I'm sure my purchasing decision was uninfluenced, but nonetheless it's fascinating to see how 'documents' about documents are created.

People always say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover. Should we respin this to say don't judge a review by the pullquote used on a cover? Or is that descending too far into a meta-narrative?

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Across Africa by Foot

"Traversa", Fran Sandham 

Often when I've left a job the parting gifts provided by colleagues serve to indicate that while you may well have spent a long time in proximity with these people, they haven't really worked out who you are. It was thus with some real pleasure, after almost a year in the library of a financial institution I was seen off with a copy of Fran Sandham's "Traversa", the sort of gift that carried with it a sense that real thought had gone into it, and which was very much appreciated.

The central premise of a lone walk from West to East coasts of Africa in the footprints of Stanley and Livingstone carries with it a certain quantity of baggage. One anticipates reading of an earnest, driven and somehow unattainable person undertaking a feat of endurance and adventure that few of us could aspire to. 

There's a time and a place for intimidating tales like that, I've read and loved Paddy Leigh Fermor, Rebecca West, and Adrian Seligman and felt a little bit in awe of what they've achieved. Similarly there's a time and place for "Traversa".

Walking across Africa, as "Traversa" makes clear, is not something to be undertaken lightly, okay it's not the journey into the unknown experienced by Livingstone, but mentions of places such as Katima Mulilo in the Caprivi Strip and a brief mention in the first chapter when Sandham plans his route recall the long conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the late 1990s and early 21st century, sometime referred to as Africa's Great War. Sandham's periodic concerns about landmines remind the reader that not so long ago this undertaking would be undertaken only by lunatics.

"Traversa" is imbued with a rich sense of humour; featuring sclerotic Afrikaners, recalcitrant donkeys, and amorous backpackers "Traversa" reassures the less intrepid that epic adventure is not beyond us. Indeed there is some genuinely useful advice for those of us who are not quite as ruggedly capable as a Ranulph Fiennes, including the priceless gem that when in a treehouse take care to not urinate on the head of a fierce dog. 

Any journey like this will reveal that Africa is not affluent, and that concepts of poverty and hardship that we apply in the developed world have a completely different meaning in Sub-Saharan Africa. Sandham doesn't make this the focus of his work, but makes clear that there is little romance to poverty, and the reality of existence can be nasty, brutish, and short. There is also the challenge that a lot of tourism doesn't necessarily help, and the reality that motivations for some, in particular an older American with "a keen eye for young girls" encountered by Lake Malawi, may not be the most wholesome.

Works like these are inherently autobiographical, as much about the author as the journey; in this light there is often a temptation to see them as voyages of personal discovery, in the process witnessing the author undergoing some form of catharsis of self realisation or mid-life crisis. Sandham, for that all his motivations for his traversa stem from a dissatisfaction with a life defined by commuting from Wimbledon to Waterloo, escapes this. Fleeting moments of wistful introspection - perhaps best encapsulated by an encounter with a beautiful girl in Livingstone which ends with him walking her to a bus stop and knowing he will never see her again - serve to illustrate, but not define the work. Reading "Traversa" is not an insight into a troubled soul, it is much more akin to a genial friend's recollections.

It's not a long book, and like many such works, the real pleasure is in the early game, when there's more discovery to be had, but it's a highly enjoyable read that bears taking some time over. You have fun reading it, and by the end of the process you feel edified. I'm not sure you can really ask for much more from a book?

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

"The Assassin", Clive Cussler and Justin Scott

There's a certain serendipity to this. A couple of weeks ago, sitting at Gatwick waiting to board a flight east to Tbilisi, I was struck by the sort of mild panic that the onset of the Kindle has hugely eased. Fretting that none of the packed books or downloaded JSTOR articles would quite be enough to keep me entertained for the week, a quick ferret yielded a pair of Clive Cussler books, guilty pleasures perhaps, but reassuring knowing that whatever else, I was unlikely to be stuck abroad with nothing entertaining to read.

As luck would have it, both Cusslers went unread on the road, Kate Mosse's "Citadel" providing all the leisure reading needed, and it was only once returned, driven by the exigencies of crowded trains, that attention moved to Cussler and Scott's "The Assassin". As I've blogged before, I've got history with both, the two, amongst others, providing much of the escapism my teenage self sought. I've grown up, and they still know their market. The Isaac Bell series, of which this is the 8th, are straightforwardly written and don't contain too much in the way of surprises. Part of me wants them to be richer and deeper novels, but the realist in me is pleased that this combination of easy access, good storytelling, and engaging surroundings exists, and serves in a small part to locate the early 20th century in the minds of readers and may encourage them to think more widely about the world of this period.

Back to serendipity though. "The Assassin" deals with Standard Oil and the personality of Nelson Rockefeller, and the middle section of the book takes place in the Caucasus, then and now a booming oil rich region. Baku in the throes of the 1905 revolution provides a dramatic backdrop to one of the significant set pieces, and leads Bell, Rockefeller, and sundry other protagonists struggling to escape west. A wry smile was thus evoked when around page 270 they reach Tbilisi. Often the appearance of exotic or obscure parts of the world set in the past offer scope for an author to indulge in creative licence, so there was a huge level of pleasure on my part to be able to recognise the view of old and new Tbilisi from Mtatsminda park and the funicular railway providing a route down to the city.

The view of Tbilisi seen by Bell from Mtatsminda, 110 years on.
I shouldn't have been surprised. One of the hallmarks of Justin Scott's work has always been a keen attention to historical detail, but it's something oft overlooked. It doesn't cost the author much to get it right, and it's so pleasing to see it as well executed as it is here.

An effective sense of place aside, "The Assassin" romps along in an effective way. It's not high literature, and when read carefully there's not much that will really surprise, but most importantly it entertains and mainly edifies. There's a time and a place for the erudite and thought provoking, but so is there time for this. Maybe it didn't need to save my reading life when in parts foreign, but it made the commute through South London a good deal more pleasurable.

As I've said before, more of the same please.

Monday, 6 April 2015

"Citadel", Kate Mosse

Some books require the right time and place to be read. Having wholly enjoyed the first two of Kate Mosse's Cathar trilogy there was a lot of enthusiasm when "Citadel" came out in the run up to Christmas 2012; I honestly believed it would be a book that occupied hours through the Christmas break when respite from the barrage of family that the season invariably involves was needed.

This didn't happen.

Instead "Citadel" has been sitting in a magazine box beside an armchair in the sitting room pretty much since then. A couple of abortive attempts to start it went nowhere, and when heading off on travels eastwards last week, picking up "Citadel" was accompanied by a tacit bargain that if it returned from Georgia unread then it would go to a new home and I'd file a level of wonder at why it had failed to grasp me in the way the previous novels had.

Maybe it's because I've been thinking about the Languedoc recently, idly thinking about Cathar castles (and yes, I know, most of these post-date the Cathar period) and pondering whether an Albigensian crusade of my own was a feasible road trip, but this time "Citadel" gripped. I tried to think at what point I bulldozed my way through whatever the previous sticking point in the novel had been, but to be honest I was considerably past it by the time it became a serious consideration, and by that time I had identified sufficiently with the characters and been engaged by the plot to not really worry about why previously the book hadn't worked.

Taking a similar twin narrative approach to the previous two volumes, the focus of the book is Carcassonne and the Languedoc between 1942 and 1944, covering the period of German occupation and French collaboration and resistance. It's not a particularly pretty piece of history, and Mosse doesn't shy away from making clear the level of atrocity perpetrated and the way in which communities tore themselves apart. While there are still the notes of magic realism that ran through "Labyrinth" and "Seplulchre", this time it feels somehow darker. Here the good guys don't always win, and in sending this message it makes "Citadel" a useful text when thinking about post-1940 France.

It's probably reliant on you being in the right frame of mind, and wanting to put yourself in the Languedoc in a dark time more readily recognisable than that of the early 13th century, but "Citadel" does reward and serves to make you think in a way that marks it out as rewarding literature.

Maybe I will find some time to head to the deep south of France this year.