Thursday, 25 December 2014

So, who were we?

Three Seasons is a book of three novellas, unconnected with each other, but all set in the south of England in the 1980s. It is about the Margaret Thatcher era in Britain, but it is not about politics. These three stories are portraits of a country and its people on the verge of change.

The 1980s were divisive in Britain and remain so in retrospect. The culture wars they left simmering below the surface broke out again when Margaret Thatcher died in 2013; debate on her legacy was spiteful on both sides. I gave my own view on this blog at the time (Thatcher: An Unintended Transformation, April 10 2013); I believe that she profoundly failed in what she set out to achieve. But politicians and the things they do are only part of what defines us. They are not even the most interesting part. Who, really, were we in the 1980s?

I went abroad in 1987, but over the next two years I wrote three novellas, each of about 25,000 words, that were vignettes of the country I’d left. Like much of what I wrote in those years, they stayed at the bottom of a suitcase because I had no time to deal with them – until now.

Each of the three novellas looks at different types of people, with distinct roles that changed during that unsettling decade. In Spring, a middle-aged Hull trawler skipper, his great days gone, has one last throw of the dice in a South Coast port. In Summer, an ambitious young man makes his way in the booming Thames Valley property market, unconcerned with the damage he does to others. Finally, in Autumn, the Master of an Oxford college welcomes his two sons home, but they awake difficult memories from half a century before. 

Spring had its roots in the job I had been doing before I left. From 1985 to 1987 I was a reporter and general editorial hand on Fishing News, the weekly magazine for the fishing industry. I mostly edited stories, laid out pages and covered smaller stories on the phone, but now and then drove to ports in southern England to do interviews and take photographs. The work was not well paid, but it was fascinating. The great days of the East Coast deep-water fleet had ended a decade or so earlier, but during my time at the paper a former Hull trawlerman took over as editor, a post he held until only a few years ago. He was good to work for, always encouraging, and ready to share his knowledge. Over beer in the City Pride pub next door to our London office, and on press-day journeys to the Nottingham Evening Post, where we did our final production, he told me a lot about the industry and how it had been to work in it. 

Spring is about a deep-sea skipper struggling to reinvent himself. But while skilled men like the fishermen in Spring struggled, a new class prospered. The Thatcher government’s assault on the old-boy networks in the City meant that working-class, or at least non-posh, Londoners could get on in the world of finance. Members of this new breed were rudely known as barrow-boys. That appellation was sheer class prejudice and was unpleasant. But it was true that there was a certain type of suit-on-the-make that seemed to do well from the 1980s onwards, not just in the City but in management consultancy, banking and, in particular, estate agency (real estate). This was the subject of Summer, and its hero Terry is, in a perverse way, one of my favourite creations.

At the start of Summer, Terry must deal with a knighted publishing grandee. This is the class that interested me in Autumn. Not aristocratic, perhaps; one might be the second son of the third son of a baronet; one’s sons attend a good middle-ranking public (private) school; professions may include stockbroker, diplomat, publisher, columnist, barrister or the Forces. In an earlier generation they might have included the Indian Civil Service. The Master in Autumn is typical of his class. Yet he sees his sons living in what appears to be a different world, and must make sense of them and who they are.

Like all fiction, Three Seasons will be a success only if it involves and moves the reader.  I hope it does. But for me there is a broader theme to these three stories. Three Seasons is about social change – the decline in skilled employment, the rise of the “barrow-boy”, the hollowing-out of institutions and their occupation by newcomers with different aims and different, or no, ideals. Much of this is associated with the 1980s. But people like Terry were not a product of Thatcher’s social engineering. His roots lie in the expansion of higher education some 20 years earlier. The neoliberal revolution of the 1980s did a lot to promote people like Terry. But Thatcher did not create him, or the fishermen, or the Master. They were formed by global change and the slow plate tectonics of the British class system.

Politics doesn’t usually create society. It reflects it. Politicians – even Margaret Thatcher – are a lot less important and interesting than they would have us believe. 

From reader reviews of Three Seasons

“The nuance and body that flavor this work, the depth conveyed in even a few short sentences, could only be written by a man who has lived a multitude of lives.”

“Mr. Robbins is an elegant writer who, should you give him a few quiet hours, will entertain you at an elevated level.

“In each story the author captures the ambience of the 80s brilliantly. The central characters were diverse, an elderly fisherman struggling to make a living around fishing quotas, a Yuppy fully embracing 'Its all about me & loadsamoney' culture and an academic from a privileged background. All expertly drawn and realistically flawed ...The combination of stories that span class distinctions give an excellent snapshot of Britain in the 1980s. The contradictions, unfairness, hypocrisy and sense of monumental change.”

“A great read, very quick but full of substance.”

“...running through the novellas are themes we have largely forgotten twenty-five years later; when speeding was policed by cops in cars rather than by ubiquitous speed cameras, when vinyl records were losing the battle against compact discs, when radiograms were being converted into drinks cabinets, and when people routinely lit up cigarettes in bars, restaurants, and buses.

“These are beautifully told stories with a very strong sense of place- it is easy to get lost in them.”

“I was immediately drawn to the characters: good people, bad people, but all the same people with their good and bad sides like in the real world. Robbin’s writing style is very engaging; his descriptions vivid, and I was able to picture the scenes.”

Three Seasons is available as an e-book or paperback from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iTunes and other online retailers, and can also be ordered from your local bookshop (ISBN 978-0991437450). 

Requests for review copies should be sent to thirdrailbooks (at), or to the author.

Monday, 22 September 2014

People's Climate March, 2014

Sunday, September 21 2014 was an overcast, humid day, but that did not stop an estimated 270,000 mostly very cheerful people from marching (well, ambling) through New York City from 86th Street down to Midtown. There were speeches from the great and the good, of course, but everyone on that march was making a statement worth hearing. Here are a few of them.

 All pics © Mike Robbins 2014

Follow Mike Robbins on Twitter (mikerobbins19), on Facebook or on Goodreads
Mike Robbins's collection of travel writing, The Nine Horizons, was published in 2014 and is available as a paperback, as a Kindle download and in other eBook formats.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Some summer reading

An Amsterdam assassin, a disturbed young Pole, Celts and Vikings, gay angels and vampires, an unhinged backpacker and a moving memoir of 9/11

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I’ve been reviewing quite a few books over the last three months. This has been partly for a review group on the readers’ website, the site that’s essential browsing for any self-respecting book nut. The books I’ve been reading do not, in the main, have well-known publishers behind them; they were published by smaller presses or independently, as many books now are.

It's summer. Read and keep cool (Pic: M.Robbins)
The recent explosion in independent publishing has been further encouraged by the shift to e-books, which are easy to produce. Inevitably, that means there’s now a lot of crap out there. But there are also some very good books indeed. The fact that they have not all found a conventional publisher is meaningless; it may be because they have no obvious genre or market, or because they are short novellas that can’t be sold for much. Moreover, at least two of the books reviewed below would have struggled to find publishers because the subject matter is challenging, or simply because a publisher would be bewildered by them.

Books from independents are also cheap to buy. For one of the books here, Cloud Storage, I got an electronic review copy from the author (US law quite properly requires that reviewers disclose this). For the others, I didn’t bother, as they were very inexpensive or even free.  Cloud Storage itself is currently available for Kindle for $2.99/£1.95 (and is also quite cheap as a paperback; $7.25, and under a fiver in the UK). Meanwhile, mainstream publishers persist in trying to sell e-books at prices comparable to paperbacks.

These books are the pick of those I’ve reviewed. They include a historical romance, a thriller, and speculative, literary and experimental fiction. One of them, Peter Jason Payne’s, has now been republished as part of a collection, Outlier. These are e-books, but several are also available as paperbacks. I've given links to the books' Amazon pages at the bottom of the post.

Reprobate: A Katla Novel (Amsterdam Assassin #1) Martyn V. Halm  A quiet afternoon in Amsterdam. A seedy, greedy dealer in Japanese artefacts opens his door to a young woman who asks to see some antique weapons. But the dealer has crossed the wrong people, and the customer is Katla, a professional killer. A few minutes later he has been neatly killed with one of his own swords. Katla is the reprobate of the title, and Reprobate starts the way it means to go on, with lots of blood.

Reprobate – the first of several Katla novels, the Amsterdam Assassin series – has three main protagonists. One is the Amsterdam office of the US Drug Enforcement Administration, which wants to know who is supplying heroin to American soldiers in Germany. The second protagonist is the Dutch biker gang responsible. The third is Katla. The bikers foil the DEA’s plans to entrap them in a welter of gore, courtesy of Katla. But then they double-cross her. This is a mistake. More gore ensues. The gore never quite gets gross, though. That it doesn’t is a tribute to the skill of Amsterdam-based thriller writer Martyn V. Halm, who does blood with a light touch and some fascinating background detail.

Reprobate is, in fact, an engaging read. This is partly due to Halm’s meticulous research into Katla’s killing techniques – and much else besides, including the locations, and Japanese customs that figure in the plot. But he’s also a fine plotsmith, creating interlocking components that never get out of place so that every unexpected twist in the plot seems, once revealed, to have been perfectly logical. This is a harder trick to pull off then it seems, and is the heart of a good thriller. Last but not least, Halm can create atmosphere. Thus, as the book opens, Katla is calmly planning her first murder of the book amid an utterly normal street scene, replete with locals on bikes, tourists, and the normal trappings of a working day.

If the book has a flaw, it’s Katla herself. She caught my interest, but not my sympathy; and many, though not all, readers need someone to root for in a book, otherwise it may leave them cold. In some ways this matters less with Reprobate, as Katla’s victims richly deserve their fate, and it’s quite fun watching them get skewered. Moreover Halm could (and I suspect would) argue that Katla is a fascinating study in amorality. She does show feeling for a lover in Reprobate, and it may be that her character is developed more in the later books.

No matter. Reprobate is good stuff – an intelligent, well-written thriller, tightly plotted, with well-drawn characters, good detail and the twists and turns that keep you reading.

Tackling The Imago Anyer Feanix  Meet Regina – Gina for short. And get to like her, because if you read Anyer Feanix’s Tackling the Imago, you’re going to get to know her better than you know most human beings. It’ll be hard work; but I found, in the end, that it was worth the effort.

Tackling the Imago is set in a provincial city in Poland in the mid-2000s. The country has just joined the European Union, and living and working abroad is starting to look more practical than it did. Gina has come to the university in the town to take a degree in English. She is highly intelligent, but lacks confidence. She is troubled by her difficult family background, with a father who abandoned her (or so she understands) and a mother who blames all her problems on Gina’s existence. And now Gina is about to become besotted with one of her lecturers, Daniel, a greying-fortyish type whose marital status is uncertain.

The book takes the form of Gina’s diary, which she writes in English. This is both the book’s strength and its weakness. Feanix has got into character in a big way. The writing is that of a young student who has an outstanding technical grasp of English but has not lived among native speakers. Sometimes this comes across through words that are correct but that would not really be used. “Sleepless nights shuffle out into darkness like chess pawns. In the quiescence of the passive city, lone, normally somnambulistic ideas bump into occasional binary systems and the tintinnabulation of their laughs... A susurration of snowflakes pellets my skin, perishing against the dying ember in their wafty ballet suicide.” This is what makes the book hard going sometimes. But it also makes Gina very real.

A pretentious student with a crush on a lecturer. In fact, for much of the first half of the book, I found I was wondering why I was supposed to care. Why did Gina matter? Was she going to create great art? End war and starvation? But as the book goes on, Gina gets a lot more complicated, and interesting. Her father, it turns out, did not abandon her in quite the way she thought, and the truth is disturbing. Moreover her feelings for Daniel torture her, to the extent that she has a good vomit before every lecture with him. It doesn’t help that Daniel seems to teasingly encourage these feelings – or is it her imagination? (For what it’s worth, I thought he was playing games. In fact, I thought he was a complete tosser. But Feanix rightly lets you be the judge of that.) By the time Gina reaches her third year, she is dealing with a toxic cocktail of unfulfilled sexuality and low self-esteem. But by this time, you understand what she’s been up against. Then you do want to know whether she will beat her demons.

Moreover, three things attract about Gina. First, she has a gift for friendship. Second, she is deeply intelligent, and unable to resist self-analysis; she throws up before seeing Daniel, but she knows it’s absurd. And last but not least, there’s no self-pity. She’s too funny for that. (The morning vomit before one of Daniel’s lectures. Crouching over the toilet bowl: “‘I’m a ghost of what I was before...’ I was talking to the latrine. ‘I guess it’s cruel of me to moan to you when you get so much crap in your life.’” )

The reader doesn’t know until very late just how this will end for Gina, and that’s how it should be (and I am not going to give any hints here).

It’s a longish book (probably a bit too long, on balance), and not always an easy read. I felt that it should have been a little shorter, and I also thought the author should have given us more reason more quickly to care about the narrator. In the end, though, I did care. Tackling the Imago is an acute but humane psychological study and it, and Gina, are worth your time.

Gay & Genderqueer Speculative Fiction Peter Jason Payne (now sold as part of a collection, Outlier)  Two young men are in Starbucks one evening. One of them is, he says, an angel. The other challenges him to prove it. “Whoa! What are you doing, bro?” Jack hears the beating of wings as the Starbucks cafe fills with turbulent air. Jack drops his latte, spilling it across the tabletop. “Holy shit!” he says, tumbling from his chair, falling to his knees.

But then they’re kicked out, because Starbucks is closing. The server assumes the two guys are into Dungeons and Dragons role-play and anyway, she’s got a date.

Peter Jason Payne’s Gay & Genderqueer Speculative Fiction is not erotica (anyone who buys it for that will be very disappointed). It is a series of fantastical stories that challenge established attitudes to gender norms, and to those that are in general somehow different from the mainstream.

It’s a most unusual book, and at its best a brilliant one. The quote above comes from the first of these stories, Your Light. It sets a high standard. A high-school kid in suburban Florida discovers that he is an angel. It seems a miracle; when he finds out what being an angel actually means, though, he has second thoughts. In this story, the supernatural or paranormal is set within such mundane surroundings that it has startling credibility.

It’s a theme that continues in the second story, Hemostasis, in which we meet Craig, a vampire living an oddly normal life in Florida and working as a supervisor at a DIY supermarket. Craig hurts no-one, and has weaned himself off blood by using blood products. But vampires are discriminated against, and he cannot get promotion. His life falls apart and then he is kidnapped for medical research. It is a story that will resonate with anyone who is, like me, old enough to remember the early days of AIDS and remembers the treatment meted out not only to those who were HIV-positive, but also to people were gay and were therefore suspected to be. In another story, Payne twists this neatly to show us a world run by zombies in which people are discriminated against because they are living.

Most of these stories involve this blend of the paranormal and the mundane. One or two, however, are not rooted in the familiar world. The last in particular, Mitra, is an allegory set in a city that Payne calls Ur, in which society lives by a militaristic and masculine religion that does imply resemblance to the Mithraic cult of ancient Rome. But the city is convulsed by a confrontation with Hermaphroditus, the androgynous god that also inspired a cult in the ancient world. There are references also to Hindu and Hebraic belief systems, and the Rudra Tandava, the dance of Shiva; this expresses violence, but is here used to destroy those that espouse it. Payne is arguing for a balance between the feminine and the masculine, the austere and the hedonistic.

Mitra is an ambitious story and the ideas behind it are fascinating, but for me it did not quite come off. Neither did another story, Illusions, in which Payne attacks consumerism; in that one, his message was just a little too upfront. Even these two stories, however, have some great moments. (In Illusions, the hero must slay a dragon. “Are you the would-be Dragon Slayer?” “Yes I am. But what is it to you?” “Your arrival has been foretold.” “Bullshit. Adolf phoned you and told you I was coming.” The Queen smiled. “You are not as naïve as you look. You have passed the first test.”)

Not all of these six stories work well; at their best, though, they subtly and skilfully subvert our perceptions. There can’t be many books in which a vampire drives a beat-up ’01 Saturn and sits on phone directories because the seat springs are broken. Payne uses the sheer normality of the abnormal in order to present an argument for tolerance and compassion. This is an original, courageous and deeply subversive book. Anyone who thinks of themselves as a liberal, and takes pride in that fact, should read it and see if they really are.

Manannan Trilogy  Michele McGrath  “He came in a long prowed boat, sea mist trailing after him like a swirling cloak.”

This, the first sentence of Michele McGrath’s Manannan’s Magic, told me that I was going to read something just a cut above the average. The Manannan Trilogy is a series of three historical romances set in the Isle of Man at the time of the Viking settlement and incursions (about the year 900). The first book, Manannan’s Magic, concerns Renny, a Celtic girl of 16 who sees the arrival of a stranger, Manannan McLir (the name has significance in Celtic myth). Her life will be profoundly changed by her contact with this strange and brilliant man, who arrives alone but for a huge dog. Exiled from Ireland by a tragic quarrel, hunted by an enemy, he slips from place to place around the Irish Sea, using the medicinal skills his father had learned in his travels to the Mediterranean, where the medieval Arab civilization is at its height.

Renny has no wish to meet the man she has seen arrive, and her village is suspicious, for the Norsemen are a growing threat and a stranger may be a scout they have sent ahead. She is forced into contact with him when she falls from a cliff in a storm and is rescued by him from the water’s edge. He shelters her in his cave and heals her injuries. He also teaches her his lore. Manannan’s healing is not, in fact, magic but learning. Later he will save villages from a terrible illness by using what we would now understand as antibiotics. But he does have an ability to see into the future, and he foresees trouble. Soon another stranger arrives, and this time he really is a Norse spy. Moreover Manannan’s enemy has learned that he is on the island, and is coming for him.

Manannan’s Magic is a fine achievement. It is a historical romance, but in fact it transcends genre through its well-paced storytelling, and through the well-judged use of historical details. McGrath clearly understands the era she describes, but presents her knowledge only when needed for the story. Best of all, the book is written in the sort of clear, straightforward, attractive English that has become somehow hard to find. McGrath has paid attention to the sort of detail that the reader doesn’t notice unless it’s been neglected – but does then; good sentence structure (short without being abrupt), and a lack of superfluous simile or adverbs. This is an author who has read some extremely good books and the odd bad one, and knows the difference.

The two remaining books in the trilogy (all three can be bought separately) are told from the viewpoint of Manannan’s daughter and grandaughter, Niamh and Emer. Both have inherited the gift of second sight. In the second book, Niamh of the Golden Hair, the heroine, unwanted by her extended family, is sent to marry a local Celtic notable, but never makes it; after some adventures, she is captured by the Viking raiders and is claimed by one of their warriors, Olaf. But he treats her with dignity; she comes to love him, and stands by in his hour of need. In the final volume, Emer’s Quest, the daughter of Niamh and Olaf must pledge herself to the son of a Hebridean Viking chieftain to release her father from captivity in the Faroes.

Neither book quite reaches the standard of Manannan’s Magic. In particular, the plot of Emer’s Quest moves just a bit too fast; there are times when you do want the author to slow down and elaborate – for example, there are a number of sea voyages, between the Isle of Man and the Hebrides and the Faroes; there is also a voyage, which the heroine herself does not make, to Iceland. Here, a bit more historical detail could have been useful, and it would have been good to feel more of what such voyages really were like a thousand years ago. But the two later books are still a good read. Even Emer’s Quest, the weakest of the three, has some arresting moments – including a strange, quite appalling murder, which Emer, with her gift of clairvoyance, sees, and must try to prevent. If these two books don’t quite shine the way Manannan’s Magic does, they’re still enjoyable; and besides, the trilogy is good value for Kindle at $5.99 (£3.72 UK).

But it is Manannan’s Magic that has made me rate this trilogy so high. It is a well-judged, stylish and believable historical fantasy, and best of all, it is written in straightforward and elegant English of a quality that now seems all too rare.

The Blue Suit  Michaela DiBernardo It’s before dawn on what promises to be a fine day, and a young woman from New Jersey has begun her long commute to New York’s financial district, where she works in an office very close to the World Trade Center. She frets about the prized blue silk suit she is wearing; she has had a child since she bought it, and is not sure it still fits the way it should. The fabric feels tight on her and the skirt rides up her legs. It’s her main concern this morning. But because today is September 11, it very soon won’t be. 

Michaela DiBernardo’s 9/11 memoir The Blue Suit is hard to classify. It’s not a book; it’s 10,000 words – a longish short story, or short novella. It is narrated in the third person, but it is actually an account of what happened to DiBernardo herself.  

I live in New York, but didn’t come here until some years after 9/11. Thanks to DiBernardo, I think I do now understand a little better what that day, and those that followed, were like for those who were there. I think I can also understand why someone might wait 13 years before writing about it.  At times this story is extraordinarily vivid. There are many telling details. Firecrews arrive at the scene and get into the gear, quietly, quickly, without drama. Caught in a panicking, stampeding crowd, the author falls over; for a moment she is trampled, but then two strangers, without stopping, haul her to her feet. As the author struggles uptown with a pregnant colleague, a shop-owner wants to charge them for water, but a passer-by will not let him. A stranger lets them use their cellphone. A cab-driver who looks Middle Eastern is threatened.  

The writing varies; it’s not always perfect, but it is usually straightforward and undramatic. This is surely the best way to tell this story. And at its best, DiBernardo’s writing is very good indeed. For example, commuting into the still-smoking city by ferry in the days that followed: “All left the boat in silence, their footfalls loud on the pier... Some days, tools hanging from the belts of the metal workers knocked together and rang softly, like chimes, making the only sound in the dark. They walked to their work, past weeks of uncollected trash and rotting restaurant food being feasted upon by rats too bold to run.” A lot is conveyed here.

 The story ends with the final fate of the blue suit. No need to spoil things by giving it away here – but what happens to the suit pulls the story together well, and gives it a satisfying, and affecting, end.

Cloud Storage Samuel Astbury  This might just be my book of the year. It opens in the northern English city of Manchester. The narrator, a man in his early 20s, wanders the city by night and day. He passes row upon row of familiar chain stores: Costa Coffee, Tesco Metro. There is a stream-of consciousness style. Masses of Chinese students in this dank piss mill town. Gigantic white headphones bobbing up and down. ...Four gastro pubs. Eight gastro pubs. ... A wave from a pink limo stuffed with morbidly obese hen-doers. 

The English riots of August 2011 break out around him. He decides to work as a volunteer for three months in Vietnam. He goes via Hong Kong and then Thailand, where he joins the backpackers on Ko Phi Phi. Now it’s a pill-popping nightmare, a horrific cavalcade of ladyboys and bar-girls and fast food drowning in fat and herds of sunburned sweaty young Westerners dancing mindlessly on the beach, zonked out on Es and Red Bull and booze. 20,000 gurning crab meat clubbers. A calamitous sea of boiled gyrating devils. ...Septic. Flaccid. Peeling. Obese. ...Seated Buddha necklace tracing the orange peel neck of a Brixton Capacity & Scheduling Manager. He craves food, Western food, and goes to an old lady’s fast-food stall for a burger. I stood and watched it fuse with the film of fly carcasses and coagulated fat. I had forgotten my name again. The old lady offers him her granddaughter for the night.

He moves on. Whitney, an American girl he meets in Osaka, says to him: “With the internet, we won‘t have to do any of that stupid shit for much longer. It’s like… We’re slowly getting there, we’re slowly becoming one…glorious whole.” Are we? Is that what Astbury is saying, or questioning, or dreading? No time to ask; after a dystopian look at Japan, with some clubbing thrown in, he’s off again, to Shanghai, with Michi, a strange young Japanese misfit the narrator has met in a hostel. More clubbing and drugs and booze and then they move on to Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, where there is more alcohol and drugs and clubbing and instead of the volunteer programme he’s come to join, he makes money with Michi by taking earnest tourists on tours of the slums.

By this stage I was completely captivated by Astbury’s prose style and by his descriptive ability, which is heroic. Then the story took a strange turn. A series of accidents brings the narrator by riverboat to a weird lost world; a city of glistening ice-white headphones and iPads and Burger Kings full of smart Asian consumers who treat him politely but refuse eye contact and will not engage. He finds he is trapped; he can check out but he can never leave. It is a sort of hole in time, rather like The Village in Patrick McGoohan’s 1960s mystery series, The Prisoner. How this ends is a further surprise. 

What on earth is Astbury up to? He never really tells us. There are what might be clues. Whitney’s statement about us all becoming one; the faux Buddhists on the beach; the sinister homogeneity of Burger Kings and ice-white iThings, climaxing with the consumer city that the narrator can’t leave. The climax (which I won’t reveal) suggests that Astbury does have something he wants to say, about globalisation and an oppressive, homogenous culture, and where it might end. Yet it could also be that Astbury means nothing at all; that he has simply stuck a USB stick in his brain and done an enormous data dump. 

If this bizarre but compelling book meets with the success it deserves, there will one day be discussion pages on which people debate its meaning ad nauseam, just as they do for Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Rings and, indeed, The Prisoner. It doesn’t matter. Good books ask you questions. Books as good as this make you ask your own.

Links to book pages on Amazon 
(These books should also be available on and from other retailers)

Mike Robbins's own novel, The Lost Baggage of Silvia Guzmán (Third Rail), is available as a paperback (ISBN 978-0-9914374-0-5, $16.99 USA, or £10.07 UK) or as an eBook in all formats, including Amazon Kindle (ISBN 978-0-9914374-2-9, $2.99 USA, or £1.85 UK). Requests for review copies should be sent to

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Before Yossarian

It’ll soon be August 2014. You're about to hear a lot about the First World War - a war that still raises some tricky questions for those in power. Two great books from 1916 show us why

I met B. when I was 12. He had retired, but at 70 still did a little tutoring, and came to the school two or three days a week to help the weaker candidates for public-school entry. In the autumn of 1969 he started to teach myself and another boy Latin and French.

British troops at Ancre, October 1916 (Lt. Ernest Brooks/Imperial War Museum)
For several periods a week the two of us left our class to join our tutor, who struggled to interest us in French pronouns. It was a moist, clammy winter. This was during the three years when, as an experiment, the clocks were not put forward. In December, one went to school in near-darkness and watched the dawn through cracks in the dirty-grey clouds. I was a dreadful pupil (I would leave school at 17), but B. lost his temper with me just once and I am grateful for his forbearance. Still, he was a strict man and said little that was not business.  He was short and pugnacious with a round form and a partridge face with a sharp nose and eyes that bored straight into you. He always seemed grave; but looking back across the years I am sure there was a ghost of a smile that never quite went away.

One French lesson towards the end of that winter he was talking, for some reason, of the Seine.  “I travelled all the way up the river by boat once,” he recalled. “When I was 15.” I asked if he had been on holiday, assuming he was with his parents.

“No,” he said. “I was going to the Western Front.”

“Oh, were you in that, sir?” I asked. 

Quite suddenly, his eyes glistened and rivulets of tears appeared on his cheeks.. “Punishment for my sins,” he said. “Punishment for all my sins.”  He repeated this phrase over and over again. We sat, embarrassed, for several minutes. At length he recovered himself and placed his glasses on his nose.

“Irregular pronouns,” he said. He was quite restored, and never mentioned the matter again.

The school was and is well-known, and he taught there for many years, so I hoped I might find some reference to B. on the internet – at least a brief obituary, which would tell me when he died. But I can’t find much. There are just two references that I am almost sure are to him.  One, from before the First World War, is in the journal of a small preparatory school in Pangbourne. It is, as school magazines always have been, mildly bonkers, and full of trivia, news of Old Boys and the visits of the great and the good. The Hon Charles Rothschild visits the school with his father, who turns out to be an enthusiastic butterfly-hunter and captures a Purple Hairstreak on the school grounds. Lord Baden-Powell also visits, and there is a flurry of excitement in the spring: “The Daily Mail Aeroplane occasioned some little excitement on May 17th. It was clearly visible a long way off... and looked, as everybody remarked, like a large dragon-fly.” It is also recorded that Earl Roberts kindly offered to present a copy of his book, Forty-One Years in India, to the boy who had done best all round at the school. Our man was the recipient. If it was him, he was twelve years old; the same age as the century. He would journey up the Seine just three years later, one of many who lied about their age to flock to the colours.  

I can find no further reference, save for an online cricket archive that lists a man of his name and initials as having played for Dorset between 1927 and 1934. There is almost nothing else; he must have died before the internet arrived and does not exist. 

At about the same time I was taught by B., I read a magazine interview with the writer Compton Mackenzie, best-remembered today for his 1947 book Whisky Galore, and for being satirised by D.H. Lawrence in the short story The Man Who Loved Islands. By this time, Mackenzie was in his late 80s and confined to what he called “my last island” – a four-poster in at his home in Edinburgh, where he would die a year or two later. In the interview, he said: “I have sat upon the knee of a veteran of Waterloo.”  I suppose it is just possible that he had. In my own old age people will find it extraordinary that I was taught by a survivor of the Great War. It will be remote, and may not influence our thinking, and our self-image, any more than Wellington’s campaigns do today.

That is a pity, because it should do.  Especially in Britain in this centenary year, as we will be asked to remember it in the way that those in authority over us think we should.  As I write this, I have open a web page from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). The headlines on the DCMS page include: “Prime Minister urges public to plant poppies for First World War commemorations”,  and “Pickles [Eric Pickles, a UK Government minister] backs campaign to restore Victoria Cross hero graves”.  No coincidence perhaps that the DCMS’s policy statement includes the following: “We believe that people can come together in strong, united communities if we encourage and support them to have shared aspirations, values and experiences”. So the war centenary should be jolly useful.

West in 1912 (George Charles Beresford/National Portrait Gallery)
Most British people would want to  commemorate 1914-1918, and I am no exception; in fact it would be disgraceful if we didn't. But I am not sure if politicians are the right people to do it.  What I have been doing, in this anniversary year, is reading about the War. There’s plenty of choice, of course, but I’ve started with two. One is by Rebecca West. Like many people, I knew of West but only through her famous book on Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.  Born in London in 1892, she had little formal education, her family being in genteel poverty. She trained as an actress, but seems to have acted little, becoming a sufragette and then the lover of H.G. Wells. She turned to writing and had a distinguished career in serious journalism. She also wrote a number of novels, but it seems unlikely that most are widely read now. The Return of the Soldier, however, has never quite been forgotten and was filmed, with a stellar cast, in 1982. Her first book, it was published in 1918.

The plot may be summarised as follows. Two women are in a country house just outside London on a bright day in the early spring of 1916. They are well-to-do; Kitty is the attractive wife of Baldry, the master of the house, and Jenny, less pretty, is his cousin.  The latter has started to worry that they have heard nothing of Baldry, a serving soldier, for several weeks. Kitty assures her that the War Office would have informed her if there were anything amiss. They are interrupted by the arrival of Margaret, a dowdy woman of limited means from a bleak suburb nearby. She informs them that Baldry is, in fact, in hospital in Boulogne, that he has lost his memory after an explosion, and that he has regressed some 15 years to the time when, as a young man, he loved her.  That is why the War Office has not been in touch; it is Margaret to whom Baldry has written, and it is her that he wishes to see.

2011 cover design by Gary Redford for Virago
Baldry is brought home, and is indifferent to his wife; a little less so to his cousin, who he does remember, albeit as a young woman – but he spends his time with Margaret, and is unconcerned that she is now a middle-aged, married, suburban dowd. It becomes clear that he still loves her. Kitty, the spurned wife, calls in a series of doctors to try to bring back his memory and restore him to normal. If she succeeds, he will of course return to the front. Cousin Jenny understands this, and feels growing sympathy for Margaret: “While her spell endured, they could not send him back into the hell of war,” she says (she is the book’s narrator). “This wonderful, kind woman held his body as safely as she held his soul.” It slowly becomes clear that, by trying to restore him to “normal” and send him back to war, Kitty is being monstrously selfish. The lover is right; the wife is wrong; restoration to “normal” means death. This was a brave message for 1918.

Not everyone has read the book this way. Some have seen it as a clinical description of combat trauma. Others will see a feminist message here – that the dependence of women on men distorts the behaviour of both, and is even a driver for war. There is plenty of evidence in the book for this interpretation and besides, West was indeed a strong proponent of women’s rights. But perhaps we shouldn’t apply modern labels to people who pre-date them. In any case, the book does not have the feel of one with an agenda; it is driven by its characters, and they are well-drawn.

Moreover there is an understated lyricism in West’s writing that makes the book poignant and vivid. The sequences in which Baldry remembers his early courtship of Margaret 15 years earlier are set on Monkey Island at Bray, in a curve of the Thames, where Margaret’s father is landlord of the Monkey Island Inn. The place was real enough, and still is. Today it is an hotel and conference centre just a mile or so from the M4 motorway that runs from London to Bristol and thence into Wales. West and Wells frequented it immediately before the war, but one suspects it was already rather posher than it is in the book, in which it is a quiet country pub catering to the odd passing boatman. The young Baldry describes how it was reached:

...a private road... followed a line of noble poplars down to the ferry. Between two of them... there stood a white hawthorn. In front were the dark-green, glassy waters of an unvisited backwater, and beyond them a bright lawn set with many walnut-trees and a few great chestnuts, well lighted with their candles... Well, one sounded the bell that hung on a post, and presently Margaret in a white dress would come out of the porch and would walk to the stone steps down to the river. Invariably, as she passed the walnut-tree that overhung the path, she would pick a leaf, crush it, and sniff the sweet scent...

To anyone who knows the countryside in the south of England, this is evocative.  In April, May and June the sky turns a deeper blue and the trees and hedgerows come alive; the white and pink chestnut candles are a delight, as are the white patches of hawthorn.  

There are other key elements in The Return of the Soldier, and they link it to the second of these two books. But first, to that other book.

Frederic Manning is an oddly elusive figure. Born in Australia in 1882, he migrated to England as a teenager. A friend, at various times, of Ezra Pound, Richard Aldington, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats and T. E. Lawrence, he was regarded by many contemporaries as a fine writer; but he was affected throughout his life by the weak chest that eventually killed him. Also, he drank. When he died in 1935 at the age of 52, he was really only known for one book, and little else that he left behind is widely read today.

That one masterwork was published in 1929 under the title The Middle Parts of Fortune; soon afterwards, an expurgated version was brought out as Her Privates We. Today it can be found as either. Both titles are taken from the same dialogue in Hamlet:

Guildenstern: On Fortune’s cap we are not the very button.
Hamlet: Nor the soles of her shoe?
Rosencrantz: Neither, my lord.
Hamlet: Then you live about her waist, or in the middle of her favours?
Guildenstern: Faith, her privates we.
Hamlet: In the secret parts of fortune? O, most true; she is a strumpet.

British troops bathe at Vaux, July 1916 (Lt John Warwick Brooke/Imperial War Museum)
The book concerns Bourne, a private soldier; although not in the first person, it is written from his point of view, and we mostly see no other.  It is set later in 1916, after the Somme offensive. The book opens with Bourne groping his way, dugout by duckboard, away from the trenches as his unit is withdrawn; it finishes with their return. In between, the unit is marched from one place to another behind the lines, supposedly resting. The book is packed with petty incident in the life of a soldier. It is punctuated with darker events: a deserter is returned, perhaps to be shot; a popular officer dies on a work detail; a pointless parade leads to the death of several men when it is shelled. In between the men pick the lice off their bellies, avoid guard duty, and try to have “a bon time” at estaminets where the beer is poor. There is detail here that never made the history books. Planes communicate with troops on the ground using klaxons. Bourne’s boot is split at the heel by a cart he is towing, and he is lucky to be issued with boots that are of a higher grade, being for officers. In the estaminets, the best booze is labelled “For Officers Only”.  When the weather turns cold the men are issues with fleece-lined leather jerkins and, as a result, the lice multiply. As Orwell wrote in Homage to Catalonia:  “In war all soldieries are lousy, at the least when it is warm enough. The men that fought at Verdun, at Waterloo, at Flodden, at Senlac, at Thermopylae - every one of them had lice crawling over his testicles.”

Bourne, the lead character, is a little different from the others; he is better educated, there is a hint that he is not 100% English, and he is under pressure to try for a commission, having turned down one on enlisting. This matches Manning’s own life – up to a point.  Already 32 in 1914 and in poorish health, he made several attempts to enlist before finally being accepted as a footsoldier in the King’s Shropshire Regiment. In Her Privates We, Bourne maintains to a superior that he turned down a commission on enlisting as he felt he did not know enough of men to command them. In real life, Manning, an aesthete, may indeed not have done. However, he did not turn down a commission. John Francis Swain, who included a concise and informative biography of Manning in a 2001 doctoral thesis, reports that he was accepted for officer training but was caught drunk and was returned to his regiment. He joined it on the Somme in August 1916. He had missed the bloody start to the battle but he did fight. At the end of 1916 he was again sent for officer training and this time was commissioned, into the Royal Irish Regiment. However, he did not settle to life as an officer, and took again to drink. Early in 1918, he was allowed to resign his commission on health grounds. Her Privates We is based, then, on just three or four months in France. Moreover some of its early passages are wordy and philosophical. But at its best, it is a vivid portrayal of a soldier’s life.

These are two very different books, and see the war from distinct viewpoints. However, they have important threads in common. First, they say nothing explicit about the war in general; they are about individuals, and we see the war through their eyes, not from on high. Both avoid the puddingstone hell of the didactic novel.

The second thread that binds them together is class. In Her Privates We, the soldiers are reminded constantly that they are inferior. Towards the end of the book, Bourne and his fellows come across a Forces canteen with “hams, cheeses, bottled fruits, olives, sardines, everything to make the place a paradisal vision for hungry men.” Entering, he is refused service by a man who “turned away superciliously, saying that they only served officers.” Another attendant is friendlier and tells him he can get cocoa and biscuits at a shed in the yard. Bourne is incensed, knowing that the goods in the shop have been paid for by public subscription and were intended for them all. 

But the class distinctions have more subtle dangers. Bourne is pressed to apply for a commission, because it is obvious that he is not from the same background as the others.  Reluctantly, he does. Meanwhile, in the trenches, thinking he has seen a sniper, he reports to an officer. The meeting is a tense one, for they are of different rank but the same class, and the officer therefore treats him coldly. Anyone brought up in the multi-layered jungle of the British class system will recognise this. The tension between them ends with Bourne being sent on the patrol that ends the book.

Class is if anything a more explicit theme of The Return of the Soldier. Margaret, the woman to whose affections Baldry has regressed, is a woman of a lower station. Jenny and Kitty meet Margaret for the first time, when she first calls at the Baldry house: She wore a yellowish raincoat and a black hat with plumes. The sticky straw hat had only lately been renovated by something out of a little bottle bought at the chemist’s. ...Kitty shivered, then muttered: “Let’s get this over,” then ran down the stairs.

Margaret starts to explain that Baldry is wounded, in Boulogne, and that it seems they do not know. Her words are not taken at face value: This was such a fraud as one sees recorded in the papers ...“Heartless fraud on soldier’s wife.” Presently she would say that she had gone to some expense to come here with her news and that she was poor, and at the first generous look on our faces there would come some tale of trouble that would disgust the imagination... I cast down my eyes and shivered at the horror.

These class tensions have not been excised from British life. Anyone who thinks they have, should look at the treatment being meted out to benefits claimants over the last few years – especially those claiming sickness benefit. This wretched hatred and suspicion of the poor is as alive as it was in 1916.

There is a third strand that binds these two books. Both make a point that is made much more explicitly, and in my view less well, by a more famous book, Heller’s Catch-22. That is the whole question of the logic of war. Almost nowhere in Her Privates We does anyone express support for the war; they just accept it as a fact. They are angry with a deserter, because he left them to fight without him; his betrayal of the Crown concerns them little. More important are the commonplace stupidities of authority. A major training exercise, planned to perfection, is brought to a halt by the fury of a peasant woman because the troops are trampling her clover, and she will have no feed for the winter.  On another occasion the unit is sent up the line as a work detail, but because someone has recorded their fighting strength as their pay strength, everyone must go, including the cooks, and there is nothing to eat in the morning. War and authority are quite random:

“There’s a man dead outside, sergeant,” he said, dully.
“Are you sure he’s dead?”
“Yes, sergeant; most of the head’s gone.”

But West goes farther than Manning.  An expensive specialist has arrived to “cure” Baldry – that is to say, restore his memory. Margaret, the dowd that he loves, protests to the doctor:

“What’s the use of talking? You can’t cure him,” – she caught her lower lip with her teeth and fought back from the brink of tears, – “make him happy, I mean. All you can do is to make him ordinary.”

“I grant you that’s all I do,” he said. ..”It’s my profession to bring people... to the normal. There seems to be a general feeling it’s the place where they ought to be. Sometimes I don’t see the urgency myself.”

In Catch-22, the American airman, Yossarian, finds that there is a twisted logic: if you request relief from combat duty on the grounds of insanity, you must be wrong, because to do so is sane. West is subtler but the message is the same; by being “cured”, Baldry will be made to go back to the front, which is mad. Being restored to sanity makes Baldry do something insane.

If you have seen an old man’s tears on a winter’s day, then this year’s commemorations do strike a false note. Perhaps that’s no-one’s fault. It does not mean the dead of the First World War should not be remembered. But one does wonder whose business remembrance should be, and whether it should be handed down from above. In any case, both these books should give the politicians pause. In Her Privates We, stupidity and class conflict get Bourne killed. In The Return of the Soldier, conformity to society and authority is inherently insane.  There are two deeply subversive messages here. If I were a British government minister, I’d stay a million miles away from the First World War, lest people start thinking too hard about it and, in so doing, question the very nature and legitimacy of the authority of one human over another. 

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Mike Robbins's novel The Lost Baggage of Silvia Guzmán (Third Rail) is available as a paperback (ISBN 978-0-9914374-0-5, $16.99 USA, or £10.07 UK) or as an eBook in all formats, including Amazon Kindle (ISBN 978-0-9914374-2-9, $2.99 USA, or £1.85 UK). Enquiries (including requests for review copies) should be sent to