Monday, 22 August 2022

On change, war and the passage of time

A change in my life has made me aware of time passing, of one’s former world slipping away, and of loss. A century ago, the First World War did that to millions. Two novels express those feelings with unusual power

At the end of June I took a taxi across New York City to JFK. A good friend accompanied me, knowing that this wasn’t the easiest of journeys; she helped me with my luggage, and with morale. We queued for an hour and a half at baggage drop; the air was hot and humid, the queue restive. I forked out $100 for being overweight (my suitcase, not me; happily they didn’t weigh me). I said goodbye to my friend with regret; I have known her 20 years and I will miss her.

Another friend asked me the departure time. She would, she said, look out of her window on the 29th floor in Long Island City and wave the plane goodbye as it passed overhead. The flight was delayed by an hour and a half but she followed it anyway on the flight tracker. I’ll miss her too. We went straight out over Jamaica Bay and Manhattan, off to our right, disappeared quickly. No more walks in nearby Central Park or congenial lunches in the Irish pubs on Second Avenue; no more cheerful pizza deliveries; no more drinks on the roof of our beautiful brownstone; no more sirens in the night. Fourteen years in New York City, in the same apartment, had come to an end.

*

So I am now in England, and time and change have been much on my mind.

A hitch with the flat I had been hoping to live in has seen me stay with friends and then, for a while, borrow a house from other friends; the latter have a well-stocked bookshelf. I had been meaning to read Virgina Woolf’s To the Lighthouse for 30 years but had wondered if I would find it dense and pretentious. When I moved in I saw they had a copy on their shelf. I had nothing immediate to do that day. There was now no excuse. I took a snap of the book on a table next to a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and posted it on Facebook, captioned: “I may need a glass of wine to get through this one.”

This drew howls of derision. “I had to resort to brandy. Lots of it,” said one friend (an English teacher). Another posted a glass of wine, saying: “I decided to copy you, minus the book.” A friend who writes poetry (good poetry) called it “The most boring book I’ve ever read, next to The Beach and White Teeth.” Another, whose opinion about books I tend to respect, reminded me of his own review: “I have really tried to find a way to give this book two stars,” he wrote, “but when the highlight of a book is an earwig in some milk...”

I beg to differ. This is a maddening book in some ways and no-one is obliged like it, or any book for that matter. But I didn’t need loads of wine to get through it. (I drank it anyway. But I didn’t need it.)

The book falls into two main segments, 10 years apart. The two main segments are before and after the first world war – but we know that only because one character has perished in it; Woolf mentions this only briefly, and says nothing else about the conflict. In the first, main, segment we see the Ramsays, a moderately well-to-do couple who spend their summers on Skye with their eight children and in the company of various house-guests. Ramsay is a philosopher who has, when younger, made a major contribution to metaphysics but whose reputation may be fading. Now in his early 60s, he seems to know this and needs constant reassurance and support from women, including his wife. But there is not one whit of evidence that he gives it to anyone else. And Ramsay is tactless as well as needy; the youngest child is excited that they will be taking a boat-trip to the lighthouse. Ramsay rather crushes him, and his wife, by saying brusquely that the weather will be bad and they shan’t go.

Yet it is not him but Mrs Ramsay who dominates this section, for she is far more interesting than her rather selfish husband. She has been a great beauty in her youth and is still striking, warm, affectionate and charismatic – but with a tendency to direct the lives of others.

This first segment is followed by a shorter, linking section, Time Passes, that expresses the passage of time. In it we learn of deaths and of the house, empty, losing its spirit.

In the second main segment, ten years later, Mrs Ramsay is dead and their eldest son has been killed in the war, while their eldest daughter has died in childbirth. The house has been neglected. But a few years later what is left of the family, and two of their friends, return. This time, Ramsay and the two youngest children do sail to the lighthouse. Before that, in a crucial moment, one of the house-guests withholds her emotional support from him. These two events bring a sort of closure; the children are no longer dominated by their self-centred father, and women no longer give him the reassurance he so needs but has done little to earn.

What Woolf has done is take us through the heads of the Ramsays and their guests so that we can see how the web of relationships around them works. Nowhere is this done better than in a description of a family dinner in the first section, in which the characters of the couple and their guests, their motivations and their feelings are laid bare from within, by revealing their thoughts with the stream-of-consciousness technique for which this book is so known. It all sounds rather cold. It isn’t. The changing light in the dining room as the night draws in; the lighting of the candles during the meal; their soft glow against the darkness outside – it is actually quite lyrical, and remains in one’s mind when one rejoins some of the same people 10 years later and feels their sense of loss – the loss of Mrs Ramsay, loss of their younger selves.

This reflects Woolf’s own life. She had lost her brother, her half-sister and then her father when she was still quite young. Most importantly, she had also lost her mother when she was just 13. Thus Mrs Ramsay was in fact a portrait of Woolf’s own mother, Julia Stephen, who – like Mrs Ramsay – had been a noted beauty; she had posed for the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones and the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, amongst others. It seems she also had a tendency to organise the lives of others and was an avid matchmaker. This is Mrs Ramsay indeed, and the depiction of her is the key to the book, which turns on the effect she has on the people around her, and the way they feel about her after her passing – which Stephen did fairly suddenly, as Mrs Ramsay does in the book. This also brought family summers in Cornwall to an end (though nominally set in Skye, To the Lighthouse recalls those summers in St Ives; the lighthouse was modelled on the nearby Godrevy Lighthouse).

Virginia Woolf, left, and sister Vanessa
in 1894, the year before the death
of their mother, Julia Stephen
(Photographer unknown)
According to Woolf’s sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, the portrait of their mother in To the Lighthouse was a vivid one. In her introduction to the Everyman edition, academic Julia Briggs quotes her as telling Woolf: “It was like meeting her again with oneself grown up and on equal terms…” - to wit, a sort of exorcism. Woolf herself would say later that this had been her purpose, and that her mother ceased to haunt her thoughts in the same way after the book was written. If To the Lighthouse has a special life and depth, this may be why.

While time and loss are the main themes in the book, Woolf may also have wished to suggest that men dominate women and yet actually depend on them, suppressing their aspirations but also sucking them dry emotionally. This is seen not only in the relationship between the Ramsays but also in their guest, the artist Lily Briscoe, who is told by a fellow-guest that women can’t paint or write. Briscoe must struggle with her own lack of confidence but seems to decide in the end that it is her own feelings about her art that matter. 

It may be that Woolf was saying something about herself as a woman writer. One also senses that Lily Briscoe is somewhat dazzled by Mrs Ramsay, and needs to get out from under; did Woolf feel that way about her own mother?

I also saw that Woolf was addressing a broader sense of loss, though it is not explicit; the world, and lives, lost through the First World War. So far as I know, she never said so; she doesn’t mention it as such anywhere in the book. We’re merely told that the eldest son has been killed by a shell fragment and that his death was instant along with that of 20 or 30 others. In that brief sentence Woolf may have subtly told us what To the Lighthouse is also about: not just loss, but the fact that in 1927 millions felt it. To be sure, this book expresses Woolf’s own very personal sense of loss. But the war is there.

*

Why do some people loathe this book?

I think I know. It isn’t pretentious, but it can be dense. That is a function of the way it is written. As a rule, a good writer will show, not tell. What is striking about To the Lighthouse is that Woolf completely breaks that rule, taking us inside the characters and unspooling their inner thoughts. A friend who lectures in the arts at a major US university, and has taught this book and others by Woolf, reminds me that this is common to many writers, especially when telling stories from multiple viewpoints. “Do we accuse Henry James, say, of telling not showing?” she asks me. It is a fair point. But Woolf does take this quite far. It works, the way breaking any rule might work provided you break it hard enough. It also makes this book a little hard, at times, to read. But it is one of the keys to its poignant nature.

Another reason may be the fact that this book was, for Woolf, autobiographical and deeply personal, and is anchored in characters that she herself knew. This may also have irritated some readers, as it can seem self-indulgent; surely a good novel should say something about broader human experience?

But I think it does; as we’ve seen, the First World War is the unspoken backdrop to this book. It isn’t just about Woolf’s own bereavements. That’s not obvious now, but to readers at the time it probably was. It’s true that Woolf does not mention the war explicitly, instead alluding to it only briefly – but that is natural; in 1927, one would not labour a point about an experience that had been common to everybody.

I suppose that if everyone likes a book, no-one really loves it. And when I made that Facebook post there was one dissenting voice, from my lecturer friend. The book was, she said, “exhilarating. And profoundly moving – on time, perception, loss, art. It is a book that never leaves me.” I think I at least partly agree. To the Lighthouse is not, in the end, a sterile or pretentious literary experiment. On the contrary, it is surprising for its gentle depiction of love and regret and its understanding of grief.

I did not need the brandy.

*

So to another book I found in the same shelf: J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country

I had known this book was meant to be rather good and had been planning to read it for years, but would likely have gone on doing so had I not found a copy in my friend’s bookcase. I am glad I did. Carr wasn’t a well-known or fashionable writer; he spent much of his life as a teacher in Kettering and wrote books because he felt like it. They attracted little notice until he was really quite old. But this short book, written in the late 1970s when he was about 66, is a tour de force.

A Month in the Country begins on a wet day in the summer of 1920. A young man arrives in the Yorkshire village of Oxgodby to execute a commission. A wealthy parishioner has left a bequest to the church on the condition that a medieval doom-painting high on the chancel arch, long whitewashed over, is uncovered. The young man, Birkin, is the restorer. Over the summer he will reveal the painting. He will also find a sense of peace in the village, and will start to recover from the damage inflicted on him on the battlefield at Passchendaele. But he will also fall in love, and face a decision. Nearly 60 years later, he recounts that summer in Yorkshire and what it meant to him, and remembers the world of the 1920s, now vanished.

I had expected a dreamy, elegiac book, but it seemed at first that I was going to get something more realistic than that. It opens in the rain as Birkin walks down to Oxgodby soaked to the skin and gets a cool welcome from the vicar, who he knows at once he shan’t like. And yet this book is elegiac, a picture of the countryside 100 years ago and a way of life that has likely largely gone, with horses and carts hauling people to Sunday-school treats and harmoniums in the chapels. This could have been very hackneyed or contrived, or come across as cloying nostalgia. It doesn’t, because Carr’s language is simple and elegant; not one passage is over-written, so that at the end the sense of a lost world, and long-ago love, strikes one suddenly and with some force. It’s something I’ve only seen done this well once before, by J. B. Priestley in his own masterwork, Bright Day.

A Month in the Country
does have a harder edge, should one wish to find it. Medieval doom paintings were intended to warn the congregation of damnation. The righteous are shown lining up to enter Heaven; sinners are seen falling into hellfire, assisted by imps and demons. I wondered if Carr intended to link the depiction of Hell in the painting, and the fact that Birkin, along with millions of other young men, had just been there. Is Carr telling us that Christian notions of Hell are somewhat idle when it’s actually a place that we create ourselves? Carr was eight in 1920, so did not fight in the First World War (though he did serve in the Second). But he would certainly have remembered the shadows the war cast in the 1920s. My father, born in 1920, did. 

Meanwhile there is a hint that whoever painted the original may have died suddenly, before he could finish his work; also that one of the damned souls in his painting is clearly someone real. These two facts may be linked, but Carr leaves this to our imagination. But it doesn’t really matter whether one uncovers these layers or not, because this short, simply written and rather beautiful book has enormous impact. I can’t recommend it too highly. In fact A Month in the Country and To the Lighthouse may both be amongst the four or five best novels I have read.

Sometimes books can be a source of solace at a time of change and worry. These two were.

Mike Robbins’s latest book, On the Rim of the Sea, is now 
available as a paperback or ebook. More details here.



Monday, 16 May 2022

On the Rim of the Sea

 Enjoy the sea view. Don’t fall in

At the end of 2012 I started this blog. I don’t know quite what I planned to do with it at the time. The heading says “Travel, science, books Whatever I feel like, really.” Which is more or less how it’s panned out. It’s been an eclectic mess of pieces covering everything from lentil recipes to politics. (Quite a lot of politics, actually.)

I realized that some of the pieces were beginning to fit a pattern. I would become interested in some topic or event, and gather books about it – then use them to write a piece on that particular subject, examining the different angles and accounts. I don’t think this format was a new idea. Punch did this in its book-review pages when I was growing up and I believe The New Yorker (a magazine I like) has as well. It lets you swoop down upon some incident or time that has piqued your curiosity. 

In my case, they included such varied topics as the philosophy of science, the world’s worst shipwreck (no, not the Titanic), the postwar occupation of Germany, the extraordinary life of Marie Curie’s daughter Ève, the fate of Chinese labourers on the Western Front, the way novelists have seen Fleet Street, a writer’s memoirs of Imperial India, the last great sailing ships, and the Golden Age of crime fiction.

At some point I saw that, strung together in the right order, the pieces would be a review of the 20th century through its memoirs and literature. At that point my new book, On the Rim of the Sea, began to take shape.

The book’s title was inspired by a passage in the splendid Instead of a Letter, by the late Diana Athill. In it she describes how, as a child, she shocked her grandmother by talking of life as being in a bowl, floating on the sea; provided one stayed at the bottom of the bowl, one might be serene – but every now and then the motion of the sea flung one up the side and forced one to a view of “dangerous, cold grey water” that would be unbearable. That, she said, was the origin of madness. Is it? The years covered by the pieces in this book (roughly, 1912 to the present) certainly showed us more of the sea than we should have liked. As I write (May 2022), the cold grey water is back with a vengeance. But it has not always been that way. This book has its darker bits, but there were lighter times.

This book is, in part, a self-indulgence – I acknowledge that freely; it’s the result of years spent reading books on a whim. But there is also a purpose. The books of a time, especially its memoirs and reportage, do hold up a mirror to a period or incident when it has long passed. I’d strongly disagree with the critic Cyril Connolly, who wrote in The Unquiet Grave (1944) that: '"The more books we read, the sooner we perceive that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence." This is, frankly, bullshit. Most writers will not produce a masterpiece – I won’t – and we don’t always aspire to. Rather, we provide a lens through which others can better see the world. This is not always an art; quite often, it is just a craft.

If On the Rim of the Sea shines a light on unfamiliar corners of the past century, I shall be happy. If its readers enjoy it, I shall be very happy indeed.


Where to buy On the Rim of the Sea

The book is available as both an ebook and a paperback. If you’d like to support independent bookshops (as many people do), they can order it; you will need the ISBN number (978-0991437481).

To buy online:

Amazon (or in the UK, here)

Apple Books

Barnes & Noble/Nook

BetterWorldBooks

Booktopia (Australia)

Waterstones

Rakuten Kobo

Scribd

 

Sunday, 13 February 2022

The Red Wall: How Labour lost its safest seats


Britain’s Labour Party lost many of its “safe” seats in 2019. Can it get them back? First it must know why it lost them. Two books explain why, after decades of voting Labour, voters deserted the party

The Red Wall is a group of parliamentary seats in England’s North and Midlands that have traditionally voted Labour; they form a line across the north and Midlands, hence the name. Depending on who you ask, there are about 43 of these seats. In the 2019 General Election, the Tories took 29 of them (and a 30th, Hartlepool, in a by-election some months later). These seats were a large proportion of the 47 that Labour lost to the Tories in 2019, leading to their severe defeat.

Hartlepool: A Labour loss
(Alexander P. Kapp/Wikimedia Commons)

So what happened? How did Labour lose all these seats that had (mostly) been theirs for 80 years? In 2020 two people, researcher Deborah Mattinson and journalist Sebastian Payne, decided, separately, to find out.

Sebastian Payne is Whitehall correspondent of the Financial Times; he also pops up on Sky News and elsewhere quite often as a political commentator. He is only 31, looks younger and seems one of those infuriating young people 
who have risen without trace. But he is very well-connected; some very prominent people talked to him for this book, and they had a lot to say. Deborah Mattinson has long been a Labour advisor and strategist. She worked until May 2021 for Britain Thinks, a market research and strategy, a research agency that she co-founded, and for which she undertook numerous research and public opinion jobs on behalf of Labour. She is now Director of Strategy for Labour leader Keir Starmer.

Their fieldwork took place some time ago (in Deborah Mattinson’s case, in early 2020) and both books were published before the autumn of 2021, when Boris Johnson’s government made a series of missteps that have cost it crucial support. If the polls are to be believed, the Tories wouldn’t hold many of these seats in an election now. But there could be nearly three years to go before the next election, and as Harold Wilson said, a week is a long time in politics. So Labour still needs to know how it lost those seats in 2019. After all, as Mattinson points out, it needs a net gain of 124 seats next time if it wants an absolute majority of just one. So it needs these seats back. Besides, both these writers are politically influential and their opinions on the Red Wall are of more than passing interest, whatever the polls may have done since.

First, Sebastian Payne.

*
In 2020 and 2021 Payne braved the COVID pandemic to visit the so-called Red Wall seats. Broken Heartlands: A Journey Through Labour’s Lost England is the result. On the basis of this book, I’d say that Payne is a Tory – perhaps with political ambitions of his own. But he’s a good journalist; he’s talked to a lot of people from both sides, and the fact that he’s himself from Gateshead will have helped. At the end, you don’t have to accept his conclusions. This is a good enough book to help you reach your own.

Not liked in the North? Corbyn visits a hospital
not long before the 2019 election

 
Payne sees two immediate causes of Labour’s defeat in the Red Wall; party leader Jeremy Corbyn, and Brexit. One of Tony Blair’s senior ministers, Alan Johnson, now retired from front-line politics, tells Payne that Corbyn is at least partly responsible for 2019. “Absolutely no question, they hated Corbyn,” he tells Payne. “They had sussed out his hard-left politics, his lack of patriotism, this view of the working class, a patronising view, that we have no agency whatsoever, we have to be moulded and directed by middle-class people from Islington.”

Payne also cites the party’s refusal to fully get behind Brexit although its northern voters had supported it. On the latter point, he detects real anger across the North. He is clearly at least part-right about Brexit being a driver for the Labour loss in 2019; it’s pointless Remainers trying to deny that. But was this was about Brexit itself or the turmoil it unleashed? It could be argued that voters simply wanted the whole wretched business over and done with. Still, Payne stresses the anger that some voters felt when Labour seemed anxious to frustrate the Brexit vote, and the resentment they felt at being told “you voted wrong”. It’s a point clearly acknowledged by Labour MPs Payne talks to, such as Lisa Nandy, who tells him: “We were told that these people are xenophobic, they were racist. Or we were told that people were just in so much despair about how terrible their communities were that they had nothing to lose. All of which is deeply offensive and completely wrong.” Nandy could have added that the Remain campaign in 2016 was hopelessly complacent, and should take some blame for its own defeat.

Payne is on to something else as well. One of his key observations is that Labour’s traditional support in the north is amongst the industrial working class – and they’ve changed. The landscape he travels through is peopled by families with homes, cars, aspirations; Labour messages about deprivation and misery didn’t strike a chord. In fact the opposite; if you’ve got your life together and are doing OK, you really don’t want to be told that you’re part of suffering humanity. They felt patronised. Labour wasn’t really speaking to those working-class voters whose lives have got better and whose aspirations have changed as a result.

So far, Payne may be on the money. Dislike of Corbyn and annoyance about Brexit drove much of the 2019 defeat. So did the fact that many of the northern working class had moved on, and Labour couldn’t see it. Payne also hears a broader feeling that the political class at Westminster is simply out of touch and has stopped caring about what Northern voters want. It’s a point put to Payne by John Bickley, who very nearly won the Heywood and Middleton seat for the pro-Brexit UK Independence Party in 2014. “I look at the British political class and I’m afraid I have nothing but disdain for them,” Bickley tells Payne. “I think back to the old Labour Party, the front bench did seem to be populated by people who’d done proper jobs, people who had some substance to them, and some intellect. It’s the same for the Tory Party. I look around now and I see career politicians. I don’t see a level of intellect, commitment to principles.” Bickley eventually left UKIP after it swung too far to the right; he seems to be someone who supported it because he wanted an upheaval and renewal, and he thinks its voters did too.

This disillusion is widespread and again, it may be that Brexit had become a vehicle for it, rather than a cause in itself – something Payne does not really unpack. But he does point out that the defeat wasn’t as sudden as it seemed; the Labour vote in some Red Wall seats had been slipping for a while. Northern voters had been losing faith in Labour for a long time, but the party continued to take them for granted – something that comes across also in Mattinson’s book (more of that below).

But there are also forces that Payne notes, but perhaps underestimates – and which may have been key factors behind the Brexit vote and its aftermath, especially in the old industrial areas. One is the whole question of lost identity. Early in the book he meets Dan Jackson, an NHS executive but also a local historian of Northumbria (and author of a book, The Northumbrians). Together they visit a colliery, long closed now but site of a long-ago mining disaster, and tour a rather tired-looking Blyth shopping centre. Mining has gone. So has shipbuilding, an industry in which Tyneside was once preeminent. (As a child I twice crossed the Atlantic in ships built on Tyneside.) New industries and activities have emerged to replace these, and besides, one wouldn’t necessarily want them back; mining was a dangerous, dirty and uncomfortable industry – a point Neil Kinnock makes to Payne when they speak. Fishing was also physically demanding and very hazardous. But they carried with them an identity and a sense of community that (say) a software startup does not have.

Payne certainly does get this, whether he realises its importance or not. He writes that “Maintaining some sense of community spirit part is a crucial part of where English politics heads next. Jackson’s departing remark circled in my mind. ‘The north-east was about big industry, we never did small boutique firms. That’s why the region was hit so hard when the heavy industry began to close.’” He seems to doubt that newer jobs can replace the sense of identity that the big industries gave. Later, in Grimsby, Payne comments on the effect of the collapse of the fishing industry. “Whether it was mining in Northumberland, steel in County Durham or fishing in Lincolnshire, there was a collectivized lifestyle in the red wall that bound people together.” A friend of mine from the north of England tells me that this is true – and thinks this has changed people’s values, making a link with the new aspirational class referred to earlier. “My cousins who work at Nissan feel nothing like the same pride or solidarity of their forbears, “ my friend tells me. “They now focus on owning their own house, the best car and the individual needs of their family.”

The old identity: An anchor chain for the
Mauretania, Tyneside, 1907
(Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums)
I am reminded of the final passages in The Stars Look Down (1935), by A.J. Cronin; a novel of a Northumberland miner, Davey Fenwick,who gets elected to Parliament. Deciding, in the end, that it is useless, he returns to the pit; and at the end, as he walks to the pithead with the others at the start of his shift, he is heard to think that he is a miner, he has always been a miner, that’s who he is. (The book still seems to impress those who read it, and the 1940 film has a 90% score on Rotten Tomatoes.) I’m also reminded of Kahlil Gibran’s words:

Pity the nation that wears a cloth it does not weave,
eats a bread it does not harvest,
and drinks a wine that flows not from its own wine-press.


Is this the driver behind a lot of the discontent that Payne finds in the Red Wall seats? Might it also be the driver behind Brexit – a search for an identity, especially among the English? Is nationalism replacing the old collective identities? Payne never says so; he may suspect it, but I wonder if it’s something he underestimates. 

More of this identity question later, when we look at Mattinson.

*

There was much to like about this book, but I did feel Payne had ignored some elephants in the room. Two of them Mattinson also ignores – again, I’ll come to them later. But with Payne in particular, there was a failure to challenge some dubious statements by his interviewees. Thus he talks to Imran Ahmad Khan, who won Wakefield off Labour's Mary Creagh, and who tells him: “Nothing has lifted greater numbers out of the pernicious state of poverty than free trade, and for free trade we also require free markets.” But Ahmad Khan is a Brexiter who supported removing Britain from the only really large free market there is. Payne does not challenge him on this hypocrisy.

There are other points where Payne’s interviewees says things that he could have at least questioned. During his visit to Grimsby he talks to Lowestoft fish auctioneer June Mummery, part of Fishing for Leave and a former MEP. She tells Payne she is furious about the fishing deal, turning down all interviews at the end of 2020: “I couldn’t speak for three weeks. ...This government just took away our aspirations and opportunities. By handing over our industry straight back to the EU when our prime minister said he would take back full control.” But Boris Johnson never meant to fulfill those promises; he knew full well he couldn’t – he just did not hold enough cards in his negotiations with the EU, and had bigger fish to fry, so to speak. Loads of people could see that at the time, and Mummery damn well should have done too. Payne does ask the new Tory MP for Grimsby, Lia Nici, to comment on the fishing question but her answer seems evasive. Again, he does not really challenge her. Payne could argue that he was there to listen, not to put his own view; but taking that approach means some readers might assume he is endorsing Mummery’s, or Khan’s, views. Is he?

Even so, this is a book with huge strengths. Payne has made a long journey and spoken to a lot of people on both sides – including both party leaders. He also speaks to Tony Blair – who, predictably perhaps, blames the defeat on Labour’s swing to the left under Corbyn. And he has an interesting conversation with Neil Kinnock (now Baron Kinnock). He does not speak to Jeremy Corbyn, which is unfortunate given how much he blames him for Labour’s defeat. However, he doesn’t say why he didn’t; it may be that he was just not granted an interview. He does talk to one or two key Corbyn allies, including John McDonnell.

Payne does seem to be a Tory, but that hasn’t stopped him listening carefully to his Labour interviewees; in fact, on a personal level, he seems to have liked them more. In Hartlepool, Payne has an extended interview with Boris Johnson himself, but one senses he does not really like him that much, though he doesn’t say so. On the same day he meets Angela Rayner and seems to respond to her quite warmly, as he does to Lisa Nandy. You can quarrel with Payne’s analysis (or lack of it, sometimes), and I thought he should have challenged some of what he heard. But he lets his interviewees speak, and their views are frank and interesting. And some of his insights seem very shrewd.

*

So to the second book, Beyond the Red Wall: Why Labour Lost, How the Conservatives Won and What Will Happen Next?, by Deborah Mattinson. She is from the other side of the political spectrum, and since writing the book she has become Director of Strategy to Keir Starmer.

For her book, she talks to an entirely different group of people. Payne drives around much of the Red Wall and speaks to MPs, ex-MPs and prominent locals, but doesn’t do a deep dive with the voters themselves. Mattinson does, organizing focus groups in February-March 2020 in Accrington, Darlington and Stoke. (Stoke had to be virtual as the pandemic kicked in while she pursued the project.) But some of her conclusions are strikingly similar.

For her “deep dive” in Hyndburn (Accrington), Stoke-on-Trent and Darlington, Mattinson specifically recruits people who have historically voted Labour but voted Tory this time. There is an obvious danger here of getting people who felt more strongly than the average. But she did the selection indirectly, using an attitudinal questionnaire to select those who fitted her profile, rather than asking outright for those who had switched parties. She restricts her choice somewhat by looking for people from the C2DE social grades – manual workers, carers, drivers, construction workers and factory workers. But she does go for a representative spread of age and ethnic identity.

The key messages Mattinson gets are not so different from Payne’s. Labour had stopped listening. Early in the book she makes a startling admission: “Other than the occasional by-election, at no point in the decades that I spent advising Labour did we ever consider running focus groups or polling in any of the Red Wall seats. Their reliability was seen as a given.” This is revealing, as is a later passage when she records that she did once do such an exercise in Scotland and found clear disaffection with Labour; she then spent what she says was an uncomfortable afternoon briefing the then Scottish Labour leader, Johann Walton, who she says “pushed back” on all her findings. The party lost most of its Scottish seats to the SNP very soon afterwards. For decades, Labour didn’t listen to its core supporters – and Mattinson knows it.

Again, Corbyn was loathed. Mattinson finds a very strong feeling among her participants that Labour represents London middle-class people and students, not them. This is also reflected in priorities that seem sometimes to obsess Labour activists, but are of no interest to the voters. An example is Trans rights, which were “dominating the leadership contest when I was up in Accrington in March 2020….’How many trans people are there?’ one asked the others in the focus group. ...’There’s thousands of kids here with no work and no hope. Why don’t they think about them instead?’” Mattinson at no point suggests that Trans rights do not matter. But as she says, this looks to many voters like a politically correct, morally superior Labour, fixated on priorities irrelevant to most people, antagonistic to northern voters and tied up with Corbyn, who they deeply dislike.

This cultural divide is also reflected in attitudes to patriotism. Mattinson finds that the latter is very strong amongst Red Wall voters, more so than down south. (She backs this up, quoting a 2018 survey that found folks in the northeast, Yorkshire and the Midlands were more than 10 per cent more likely to be ‘proud to be British’ than people living in London.) A perception amongst Northerners that Corbynites and the like were not patriotic like them clearly hurt Labour. Mattinson is thoughtful about this, connecting it to the participants’ feeling that their towns have declined, leaving them less to identify with. “If they… feel little sense of belonging either to nearby cities or the capital, it is perhaps not surprising that they look to the country as a source of pride,” she writes. She also detects a deep sense that the industrial heritage of which many were proud has disappeared; while there may be new jobs in some places, they can’t replace that. It fits with Payne’s finding that the loss of mining, steel and fishing brought a sense of lost identity.

But while both writers pick up on this, neither seems to see its long-term dangers. People who feel they do not belong will look for something to which they feel they do. The search for identity – for belonging to a group, nation, race, what have you – is a key element in authoritarian politics, a phenomenon described (in rather different ways) in Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer (1951), in Jan-Werner Müller’s more recent What Is Populism? (2016), and in Peter Ftizsche’s intriguing dissection of the rise of Nazism, Germans Into Nazis (1998). There is a potential hellscape here and the Brexit vote may have been an early warning.

Lisa Nandy thinks the approach to Leave voters was
"deeply offensive and completely wrong"

(Kevin Walsh/Wikimedia Commons)
Unlike Payne, Mattinson isn’t uncritical of the attitudes or statements she hears. She makes one comment that I found very striking: While Red Wall voters have some genuine grievances (she doesn’t deny that for a minute), they need to take more responsibility for the decisions that affect their lives, rather than expecting solutions to be delivered to them. If democracy is to work, she says, then voters must not just expect government to deliver solutions and then be “furious” when they fail. I was also struck that her participants seem to have real hatred for the south of England and its people, although some have never really been there. This isn’t reasonable. It’s true the south has had a lot more spent on it. But as a southerner, I wondered how many of her focus-group members had ever struggled to breathe on a Central Line train at rush hour, or despaired at house prices that mean they will never own their own home. (It should be said that none of Payne’s interviewees expressed this hatred for the south, and a northern friend of mine strongly questions that it exists – rather, he says, there is hatred for a distant Westminster etstablishment. He also points out that many Londoners have never been to the north of England and still think everyone there wears clogs.)

Mattinson gives a short list of measures that Labour need to take if they are to recover these seats. Voters, she says, need to know what Starmer believes in. This is surely important. In his own book, Payne says that almost none of his Labour interviewees could tell him what the Labour “big idea” should be. The only exception is Kinnock, who tells Payne that the source of individual liberty is collective provision. If Labour can be the “security party” in terms of personal security, employment, national security and everything else, he says, they can appeal across the divisions in British society. “It was the first convincing thought I’d heard about how Labour can reconnect to its lost voters,” writes Payne. Mattinson offers nothing like this, but clearly sees the need for Starmer to offer a clear statement of belief. It may be that, as the new head of strategy, she has discussed it with Starmer in private. If she hasn’t, she needs to; it is sorely lacking.

Mattinson also thinks Labour needs to convince people that it can be trusted with the economy, and talk to them more about their real concerns, like immigration and crime. She also says Labour must address the north-south divide. Lastly, she says Labour must be positive about Britain. As one person says to her, “I want to see them really stand up for the country. Show they believe our history is great, not evil.” She does not point out an inconvenient fact: that unfortunately, some (not all!) of our history actually is evil. And as I suggested above, a search for identity can lead to some horrible places. Labour may want to be a bit cautious about this one.

*

These are both interesting books, by two people who have gone out, met people, asked the right questions and really listened to the answers. They are also both well written, Payne’s in particular. I came away with a clear, credible explanation as to why Labour lost its “safe” seats in 2019. To be sure, the authors are less clear on what Labour should do about it. But they could argue that that wasn’t their purpose.

However, as I suggested earlier, I felt that both books ignored two huge elephants in the room. They’re as follows.

First, there’s the electoral system. I’ve written about the UK’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) system before (see link) so won’t do so at length here, but it’s worth noting its relevance to Brexit and the Red Wall. Mattinson notes that the EU referendum was the first time these northern voters’ voices had been heard. I am sure this is true, and that it intensified their anger when some politicians seemed to want to overturn the result. However, Mattinson and Payne both ignore the role of FPTP in this; basically, it means parties need not listen to most voters. This is because the system delivers victory on the basis of wafer-thin margins, as there are usually only two serious candidates in each race. The House of Commons Library states that, in 2019, 67 out of 650 seats – more than one in 10 – were won by a margin of 5% or less of votes cast. (In 2017 it was worse, with 97 such seats.) This means that even in the few marginal seats that decide the election, the parties have to appeal only to the very small percentage of voters who might change their minds; under FPTP, they have no need of second preferences. So elections are usually fought on narrow ground, and reflect the concerns only of those voters who might change sides. In short, a party only need listen to a minority of voters, and the rest can sod off.

Not everyday wear: Clog dancers in Skipton, 2014
(Tim Green/Wikimedia Commons)
In their 2017 book Brexit and British Politics, Geoffrey Evans and Anand Menon argue that in recent years all debate has been concentrated in the ideological centre; as Labour chased Basildon Man, a broader polity disappeared. One might call this centrification (my phrase, not theirs). They refer to it as an elite consensus, within which globalization and values on matters such as gay marriage and capital punishment were not open to question. So the Brexit vote actually was the first time people felt they had been asked about anything. They saw a chance to rebel against this elite consensus. Oddly, Evans and Menon, too, ignore the influence of the electoral system in this, but it surely helped drive the phenomenon they describe. Candidates need appeal only to those who may give them their first vote; they have no need of second preferences, so will not bother with anyone else. In a safe seat they need not bother with anyone at all, as the voters have nowhere else to go. This is why Labour had felt able to neglect the Red Wall seats for so long, and why the voters took a rare chance in the referendum to kick them in the teeth. Three years later, their patience with Labour snapped altogether.

The second elephant in the room was political morality. I was frustrated by both authors’ tendency to quote interviewees as saying “Labour ignored its voters over Brexit” and present this as a failing, at least by inference. Are they saying that Labour MPs should have got wholeheartedly behind Brexit? Some did, but others (and some Tory MPs) made a moral decision that a “hard Brexit’” was bad for the country and they could not vote for it. Are Mattinson and Payne saying those MPs should have voted for something they knew was wrong? What are the moral implications of that?

Mary Creagh, the prominent Labour MP who lost Wakefield in 2019, tells Payne: “I can’t bring myself to do something that I know will cause hardship to people who are already struggling. I can’t pretend that something bad is somehow going to be good.” In Grimsby, former MP Melanie Onn also tells Payne of the anguish she felt deciding whether or not to vote for a withdrawal deal that she really did not believe in (she eventually did). This is a tricky moral area for MPs; if your constituents want something bad, should you vote for it anyway? If you push that to its ultimate conclusion, Hitler could have said he was simply following the will of the people. I didn’t feel Payne confonted this question – and Mattinson doesn’t either; given that she’s now Starmer’s Director of Strategy, that worries me.

*

Mattinson’s fieldwork was nearly two years ago, Payne’s 18 months. Mattinson admits that there is never a good time to end a book like this because things can change so quickly – especially now. “In years of monitoring public opinion, I have never known it to be so volatile,” she says. Moreover the autumn of 2021, after both she and Payne had gone to press, saw a series of missteps and outright blunders by the Johnson government, starting with the release of sewage into British waterways and followed by empty shelves and dry petrol stations because of the driver shortage. Then came the botched attempt to shield Owen Paterson, a Tory MP and former minister facing corruption allegations. Finally it transpired that Johnson had permitted wholesale breaches of lockdown in No 10 itself, with multiple parties and gatherings in the garden, the Cabinet Room and even in the PM’s flat. On January 19 2022 a poll by J.L. Partners for Channel 4 News suggested that, if an election were held then, the Tories would lose all but three of their Red Wall seats.

This should not make Labour too optimistic about the next election. It could be nearly another three years before it comes around, and once again, a week is a long time in politics. Moreover, as Mattinson warned, Labour will need a gain of 124 seats to secure a majority of just one. Even if the Tories are wiped out in the Red Wall and its seats there all revert to Labour, it’ll need big wins elsewhere as well; it must remember that as well as a Leaver north of England, there is a Remainer south, where much of its support now lies. It needs to retain it, and so far liberal Remain voters I know are not very impressed with Starmer’s leadership. There is a risk that the party could lose the support it still has without really regaining its traditional voters.

Labour should also remember that it must believe in something if it is to govern, rather than cut its cloth to focus groups. For all their importance, these books are not instruction manuals.


Sebastian Payne, Broken Heartlands: A Journey Through Labour's Lost England (Macmillan, September 2021)
Deborah Mattinson, Beyond the Red Wall: Why Labour Lost, How the Conservatives Won and What Will Happen Next? (Biteback, September 2020)

I would like to thank Kevin Wilson for his very helpful comments on an earlier draft of this piece.


Mike Robbins is the author of a number of fiction and non-fiction books. They can be ordered from bookshops, or Amazon and other online retailers as paperbacks or e-books. Follow Mike on Twitter and Facebook.




Tuesday, 18 January 2022

The butler did it! ...Or did he?

A trip back into the Golden Age of crime

Some months ago, tired and worried after months of lockdown (and in the middle of a health scare of my own), I decided that a detective novel seemed a good way to relax. So I downloaded a collection of early Agatha Christie books. I had read one or two of hers before, of course; most of us have – but I had forgotten just how good they could be. It was the start of a journey into a peculiarly English phenomenon – the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

That golden age is widely accepted as having been between the two world wars. That is not to say that no good crime novels have been written since. That would be absurd, as anyone who has read P.D. James, Ian Rankin, Colin Dexter, Ruth Rendell or a host of others will happily attest. Neither was it solely British; the “hardboiled” style of American crime fiction had its golden age too, led by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler – both still widely read. But there is something essentially English in the world of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham that is of its time and place. It’s a world of bodies in libraries, ingenious poisons and genteel murderers. And of quaint Cotswold villages full of unseemly death. (Or as Colin Watson put it in his book Snobbery With Violence, the world of Mayhem Parva.)

It reflected the English newspaper reader’s preoccupation with a certain type of real-life crime, defined by George Orwell in his 1946 Tribune piece The Decline of the English Murder as committed by: “A little man of the professional class – a dentist or a solicitor, say – living an intensely respectable life somewhere in the suburbs ... He should go astray through cherishing a guilty passion …Having decided on murder, he should plan it all with the utmost cunning, and only slip up over some tiny unforeseeable detail.” In Orwell’s view, interest in real-life crimes of this kind had declined partly because in line with the times, crime had become more violent and nihilistic. He also commented that “the violence of external events has made murder seem unimportant” – which, in 1946, it had. If he was right, then a waning interest in genteel, cerebral crime fiction was also a result.

Much later, P.D. James wrote a piece in The Spectator titled Who Killed the Golden Age of Crime? (December 14 2013). She did not answer her own question directly, but it seems clear that she, too, saw Golden Age stories as the product of a vanished world in which we can no longer believe. “The world these writers portrayed was one which …any sense of the world outside the comfortable confines of conventional English village life was absent,” she writes. “Readers expected the detective to be a gentleman in all senses of the word.” Those detectives were, she points out, often wealthy aristocrats. She quotes an Alan Bennett character’s description of English literature as “snobbery with violence”, which seems to fit the inter-war detective novel. Besides, she says, policing is different now and the copper’s relations with the community rather more complex. “The best of the Golden Age stories have survived and will continue to survive,” she wrote, “but they they are not being written today.”

I am sure that both Orwell and James are right. The TV news and the Internet confront us constantly with sordid realities of life – so they must be reflected in fiction, or we can’t suspend disbelief. We are also less squeamish; I don’t believe 1930s readers would have easily accepted a book like P.D. James’s own Innocent Blood (1980), which features the sexually motivated murder of a child. I wonder, too, if the audience has changed in other ways. Before 1939, fairly ordinary middle-class families would have been able to afford domestic help – so women, in particular, may have had more time to read (a point made by Colin Watson in his book Snobbery With Violence, of which more later). After the war, detective fiction may have had to seek a broader, less genteel class of reader. Suddenly, the Golden Age detectives were dated.

On the other hand the best writing will always be worth reading, or why would we read Shakespeare – or Orwell himself, or Graham Greene? James herself says in the Spectator piece that the best Golden Age detective stories “have survived and will continue to do so”. Besides, the success of the “cosy mystery” in our own time – not just in print, but with TV series like Midsomer Murders and Rosemary and Thyme – suggests that the Golden Age of murder still has a place in our hearts. Why? I decided to take a break from heavier reading and find out for myself. Should one still be reading Golden Age detective fiction today? Or does it belong in the museum?

I started with Agatha Christie. One would, after all.

*

Christie was born in 1890 and brought up in a comfortable home in Torquay. Although she is a quintessentially English figure, her father was American. Born and brought up in New York, he had inherited money from the family business. But her early life was quite troubled; her father died when she was 11, and with no formal skill or career – a well-to-do girl wouldn’t have them, then – she married at 24. In the 1920s, her marriage failing, she famously disappeared for 11 days, turning up in Harrogate, where she had booked into a hotel under the name of her husband’s mistress; she claimed to remember nothing. Her brother Monty, too, would cause her endless worry – a spendthrift who couldn’t cope with life; at about the same time she parked him in a small house on Dartmoor to keep him out of trouble. But in 1929 he decamped with his housekeeper to Marseilles, where he died not long afterwards after suffering a stroke in a bar.


A young Agatha Christie...
But a much happier second marriage followed. Moreover, by the time of the Harrogate incident, Christie was already a successful writer. During the First World War, with her first husband away on active service, she had had time to occupy; liking mystery stories, she decided to write her own. The Mysterious Affair at Styles was written in 1916 and benefited from her wartime work in a dispensary (she would do that  in the second war too, updating her knowledge of poisons). The book was not accepted by a publisher until 1920. But it was then quite a hit. Agatha Christie was on her way.

I decided to begin with The Mysterious Affair at Styles, since she did. A young officer, Hastings, has been wounded on the Western Front and is invited to spend part of his convalescent leave with an old friend at the latter’s country home, Styles. Very soon the mistress of the house dies horribly in the night, as one does. However, Hastings has found that a distinguished Belgian refugee detective of his acquaintance is staying nearby. Hercule Poirot has arrived, and the “little grey cells” are deployed for the first time.

The lady has been poisoned. Forensic science is not where it is now, but no matter – M. Poirot has other tools of deduction, from a random footprint to a fragment of burned paper in the grate. Clues are scattered where the attentive reader will find them and others will not, which is part of the fun with a book like this. The characters come alive. There are complex motives and red herrings aplenty. In fact, The Mysterious Affair at Styles is rather good. I needed no encouragement to read Christie’s second book, The Secret Adversary (1922).

It disappointed me. It is as much an adventure story as a detective novel – but that is fine if one can combine the two; John Buchan could. But M Poirot is, regrettably, absent. Instead we have Tommy and Tuppence. The former is a somewhat stolid middle-class English chap, a little dim but a good egg; Tuppence is the impoverished daughter of a country deacon, but an awfully good sport. They are so relentlessly jolly that I wanted to throttle them both. The narrative concerns a desperate attempt to foil a wicked Bolshevist coup in which, through either wickedness or stupidity, Labour leaders have become complicit. Perhaps, in 1922, this was popular with middle-class readers, but it has not aged well. Moreover one or two plot devices do not really work. For example, much turns on the text of a secret treaty, now abandoned, that must on no account be made public lest it bring down the Empire; Christie never troubles to tell us how it could have done so. The book was quite well received in 1922, and was even made into a silent film in Germany. But it was clearly not Christie’s best.

Still, she only used Tommy and Tuppence in five books; M. Poirot featured in over 30, and Christie’s evergreen heroine Miss Marple, the nice old lady with a mind like a razor, in 12. I decided to go in search of something better. I knew where to look.

In 1928, the year in which her divorce became final, Christie travelled to Iraq – presumably to get away from personal troubles and to catch some sun. When there, she met a young archaeologist, Max Mallowan; they married in 1930. This second marriage was far happier and lasted nearly fifty years, ending only with Christie’s death. Mallowan’s work would take them back to the Middle East more than once. On at least one of these trips, Christie spent an extended stay at the Baron Hotel in Aleppo.

The Baron, like the city, is a storied place, and I often drank in its bar when I lived in Aleppo in the 1990s. Opened in 1911, it soon became the hotel of choice for Europeans passing through the ancient city; they included T.E. Lawrence, who, as a young student, was studying the fortifications of the Crusader castles in the region. After 1919, Syria ceased to be part of the Ottoman empire and was instead occupied by France; as with the British occupation of Palestine, this was either done under a League of Nations mandate or was a colonial land grab, depending on your point of view. In any case, the Baron weathered the changes and continued to welcome the great and the good, who sometimes arrived via the Orient Express from Paris to Istanbul and thence to Aleppo on the Taurus Express. They included Christie and Mallowan. In Murder on the Orient Express, M. Poirot makes this journey in reverse.

Agatha Christie wrote the book at the Baron in 1930 – officially in room 203, which retains the writing-desk on which it is said to have been written. In fact, I believe some of it at least was written on the terrace. I knew it well; in the winter I sat at the cluttered bar, which had changed little since Christie’s day, and imagined Kim Philby drowning his sorrows there in the last months before his defection (which apparently he did). But in summer one could sit outside and hope to catch some cool breeze in the stifling Syrian summer. I suppose Christie did the same.

Murder on the Orient Express opens in Aleppo station on a freezing night; M. Poirot has been in the city to render some unspecified service to the French military and is being wished on his way by a French officer. They do not know each other well, and would clearly happily be rid of each other, but are too polite to make this clear. Eventually the Taurus Express pulls out bound for Konya and Istanbul via the Cilician Gates, the mountain pass that admits it from the Middle East to Anatolia. It is a spectacular journey. It would be made some years later by Richard Dimbleby, who took the same train on a tense journey through Vichy territory and neutral Turkey in 1941, and described it in The Frontiers are Green (1943).

M. Poirot's eye, however, is caught not by the scenery but by an English governess and a straight-backed British officer who have travelled, together and yet apart, from Iraq. Poirot will go on with them on the Orient Express from Istanbul and, in a snowdrift in the Balkans, there will be murder most foul in the sleeping-car.

It is a wonderful setting; a cast of exotic characters who cannot leave the train, and one of them must be the murderer. Is it the Hungarian diplomat, Count Andrenyi? The Russian Princess Dragomiroff? The English governess? I knew the solution; I had seen the film. I was drawn in nonetheless. This is so much better than The Secret Adversary and shows just how Christie has captivated generations, although the world in which her books were set has long gone. Pick the plot apart and one can find the holes; but why would one wish to? It really is such splendid fun. It is not surprising that, at about the same time, Graham Greene used the Orient Express for his own adventure story, Stamboul Train.

So Agatha Christie is still worth reading – if you get the right book. To be sure, her books are dated now; but while The Secret Adversary grates for that reason, in Murder on the Orient Express this glimpse back into a vanished world is part of the appeal. In any case, readers are still in no doubt. In 2019 they bought 20 million copies in the English-speaking world alone – adding to the two billion already sold. We still cannot get enough of either Poirot or Miss Marple. Neither are they just in print; both have made both the big and the small screen. Poirot has been portrayed most notably by David Suchet, but also by Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov, John Malkovich and Kenneth Branagh, amongst others. Marple has been played by Margaret Rutherford, Angela Lansbury, Geraldine McEwan, June Whitfield and, amazingly, Gracie Fields – the latter for American TV.

But what about Christie’s rivals? Do they stand the test of time?

*

After Christie, I suppose one would turn to Dorothy L. Sayers. Just three years younger, she too began to publish in the 1920s. She would never be anything like as prolific, and her detective fiction is sometimes seen as far more cerebral. To some extent, that reflects the women themselves; although clearly extremely intelligent, Christie was not an intellectual. Sayers was; she won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford, and in later life translated Dante’s Divine Comedy and wrote extensively on Christian theology. But she also spent some years as an advertising copywriter, and there is no doubt that her detective fiction was intended to entertain. Much of it features her aristocratic amateur detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, who is introduced in Sayers’s first book, Whose Body?, published in 1923. So once again I decided to start there.

The book starts with a body in Battersea. To be precise, it has appeared in the bath in someone’s flat, in one of the big 1890s mansion-blocks face the south edge of Battersea Park, along Prince of Wales Drive. (One of the blocks was the scene of a notorious real-life murder that remains unsolved – that of Thomas Weldon Atherstone, a music-hall performer, in 1910.) In Whose Body?, the flat’s resident appears to have no connection with the crime, or with the body; and, flustered, he accepts the help of the aristocratic amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey, with whose mother he is distantly acquainted. In the meantime Lord Peter is also trying to solve the disappearance of a well-known London financier, Sir Reuben Levy. The body in the bath is, it appears, not Levy’s; but are the two matters connected?

I confess that the first 50 pages or so of this book did not impress. Lord Peter is too much the lordly fool; his logorrheic banter is so dated that now and then it flummoxed even me (and I am only 30 years younger than the book). To be sure, Sayers wishes us to see the fatuous ass before we glimpse the steel-trap brain beneath, but it seemed to me overdone. In contrast, his loyal valet and confederate, Bunter, has an intellect and skills that would surely have fitted him for a career with more prospects. Meanwhile the doltish detective assigned the case, Sugg, appears a cypher, a straw man from the lower classes set up as a foil for our posh hero.

One is reminded of Raymond Chandler’s skewering of Sayers in a 1944 essay in The Atlantic, titled The Simple Art of Murder. As I noted briefly at the beginning, the American detective story had its own golden age at roughly the same time – the ‘hard-boiled’ style of which Chandler was a prime exponent, along with Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain and others. Chandler wrote that Sayers had “an arid formula which could not even satisfy its own implications. ...if it started out to be about real people..., they must very soon do unreal things in order to form the artificial pattern required by the plot. When they did unreal things... They became puppets.” For Chandler, the hard-boiled American style is clearly more realistic so works better; Sayers is trite.

Is that fair? Reading Whose Body?, I would at first have said yes. It seemed as if it may have pleased readers in the 1920s, but was a dated confection that was best left there. But something made me think I should read on. And I was right. In fact one wonders if Orwell had read this book; he might have been less sure that the English murder was quite so cosy, because – without revealing too much – this book has an undercurrent of Gothic horror that admits one to the darkness at the heart of the human condition. I think Chandler missed something.

Moreover there is a chilling insight into the psychology of crime that tells us how Sayers herself saw the world. Speaking through one of her characters, she tells us that a mechanistic view of the human character – a belief that one’s motivations are purely biophysical – leaves no space for morality, or for a conception of good and evil. It seems to Sayers that we need a dimension we do not understand if we are to refrain from evil. A humanist would not agree with this view, but Sayers was religious and it was probably deeply held.

...A young Dorothy Sayers
A more serious criticism of Sayers than Chandler’s is that Sayers was antisemitic. Whose Body is sometimes cited as the book in which this is most evident. There is a prima facie case there, and there are antisemitic remarks in some of her private letters. However, some writers on her disagree with this; and as a young woman she had a long affair with a Russian-Jewish poet, John Cournos. Sayers’s relationship with antisemitism is actually complicated – and there seems to have been a link with her private life. It’s a topic discussed with sympathy and insight in an essay by American critic Amy E. Schwartz, The Curious Case of Dorothy Sayers & the Jew Who Wasn’t There (2016). (Sayers’s private life was itself complicated; in 1924 she gave birth to an illegitimate child, who was fostered by relatives, but who she adopted some years later without telling him she was his birth mother. He did eventually find out.)

Sayers might not be so easy a read as Agatha Christie, but Whose Body suggested to me that she more interesting. To see if that was true, I decided to read two more books – The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928) and what devotees consider her finest work, The Nine Tailors (1934).

The first of these opens in a London club, one of those old-fashioned institutions where men used to gather to read the papers, have a drink, dine and, if from out of town, stay overnight. A few still exist. One day an elderly member, sitting in his normal place in front of the fire, turns out to have died. No-one is very surprised. Then it turns out that his actual time of death might be of some importance to his legatees. Wimsey is asked to establish it. He finds he has opened a rather nasty can of worms.

Once again, there is more to this story than one might suppose. As in Whose Body?, Wimsey comes across as a fatuous ass, but in that first book Sayers hinted that he might be more complicated than he seemed. In The Unpleasantness this is confirmed. “I find you refreshing, Wimsey,” says an acquaintance. “You’re not in the least witty, but you have a kind of obvious facetiousness which reminds me of the less exacting class of music-hall.” The reader sees that it is a front. Meanwhile the Bellona Club is the haunt of old soldiers and there is a certain tension between the older members, with their Victorian and Edwardian imperial values, and those who have served in the recent war; some of the latter, including Wimsey himself, have been seriously injured and are suffering, sometimes very badly, from what we would now call PTSD. Sayers writes to entertain. But she is not trivial.

The Nine Tailors, meanwhile, is something else again. Wimsey and his man Bunter skid off the road in heavy snow one New Year’s Eve in some Godforsaken part of the Fens. Seeking refuge in the parsonage in a nearby village, they find that their host, the vicar, is an ardent campanologist. The Nine Tailors has nothing to do with tailors. It is (in part) about bells. To the traditional bellringer, ‘Tailor’ is a corruption of ‘Teller”, or toller – the largest, lowest-register bell in a church, which is used to toll the news of a passing; so many for a man or for a woman, then the tally of their years. The plot of The Nine Tailors concerns a long-ago theft and a murder, but is set around the almost uniquely English discipline of change-ringing – the art of making church bells peal in different sequences.

The Nine Tailors is gripping, and infuriating. It is gripping for its claustrophobic tension; almost all the story takes place in the cramped confines of a Fenland village, set on a low rise that is an island in the sinister drained flatlands around it. We thus know that the murderer is near at hand. But this book is also infuriating, as Sayers plays mind-games around the mathematical sequences in which bells are to be rung to produce various traditional peals. And the huge, ancient bells themselves – the medieval Batty Thomas, the 17th-century Tailor Paul – are among the characters. It isn’t hard to see why Sayers fans think this very original book is her crowning achievement.

The Sayers devotee would have you believe that the intellect behind the books is the attraction, but I think it is subtler than that. In the three books by Agatha Christie, I foresaw the culprit in only one; in another, I was taken by surprise, and in the third I already knew but would not otherwise have guessed. Sayers is different. In all three books I did guess at least part of the solution, and at first I was pleased with myself for doing so, then realized that this was exactly what Sayers intended – that the attentive reader would uncover the truth at the same pace as Wimsey himself and would share his thought-processes without being told what they were. It works beautifully, making the reader identify with Wimsey and holding their attention. Forget the mind-games; Sayers’s real strength is to put you in her hero’s head, and keep you there.

I asked whether Agatha Christie’s rivals had also stood the test of time. Sayers has, although she appeals to a narrower readership. What of Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh?

*

Margery Allingham’s parents were both journalists; her father Herbert Allingham was also a prolific writer of pulp fiction. Writing was in her blood and she pursued it from an early age. She was born in 1904 in London, but the family soon moved to Essex, where she would spend most of her life. Its coastline, with its damp foggy estuaries and sinister marshes, would exercise a pull on her imagination that is evident in her books, beginning with her first effort, Blackkerchief Dick (1923), a tale of smugglers set on the county’s Mersea Island, which Allingham knew well in her youth.

Margery Allingham in 1936, by 
photographer Howard
 Coster

(National Portrait Gallery)
That book was not a success, but she broke through with The Crime at Black Dudley (1929). In it, we are introduced to amateur detective Albert Campion, who would feature to a greater or lesser extent in pretty much all her books. Like Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey, he is an aristocrat (of, it is hinted, most noble origins). And, like Wimsey, he is – on the surface – a fatuous ass. He so strongly resembles Wimsey in concept that when Agatha Christie read The Crime at Black Dudley, she wondered if Allingham was Sayers writing under a pseudonym. In fact Campion is thought to have been meant, at first, as a caricature of Wimsey, but he soon acquired a life and character of his own.

Allingham is a much-admired writer, but The Crime at Black Dudley was nothing special. Like so many crime stories of its time, it is set at a country-house weekend. This is a posh function that middle-class readers of the day would probably not have attended themselves, but would have understood. The hero is not Campion but another young man, Abbershaw; Campion, however, rather steals the show as the assembled bright young things find themselves imprisoned in a decaying medieval Suffolk mansion, embroiled against their will in an international criminal conspiracy. There is snobbery and violence aplenty. But the plot is not believable, driven as it is by evil masterminds, creepy mysterious foreigners, hidden doors and secret passages. And the characters are hackneyed stereotypes of their day; frightfully decent overgrown schoolboys partnered by girls who are, of course, complete bricks. This is Enid Blyton for adults and it has not aged well.

You can’t condemn a well-loved writer on the basis of one book. So I went on to her next one, Mystery Mile (1930) – one of eight Albert Campion stories adapted long afterwards for TV (by the BBC in 1990; I never saw them). This is set partly on a remote near-island off the Essex coast, thought to again be Mersea, on which Campion has decided to sequester an American judge that someone is trying to kill. Meanwhile Campion sets about finding who that someone is.

Mystery Mile, too, was a disappointment for me; too many jolly japes, an implausible adventure or two, and characters too much stereotyped according to the conventions of their time. Yet in this book, there were things that did grab me. The setting – the salt flats, the treacherous mud, the sea mists – did have a ring of truth and as we have seen, Allingham loved that landscape for most of her life. Moreover the final scenes in which Campion must confront the villain are very well done, and there is a sub-plot concerning the death of a parson that is neatly tied up at the end. Could I be wrong about Campion – and his creator? After all, she is still widely read, and Agatha Christie herself was generous in her praise of Allingham when the latter passed away.

At this point I came across an article by literary historian Jane Stevenson in The Guardian (Queen of Crime, August 19 2006) that compares her favourably with both Christie and Sayers. “All Allingham novels (except perhaps the first two) will, like those of Dorothy Sayers, stand a good deal of rereading,” she writes. But Sayers, she says, “is made hard to read by her snobbery and racism …and she was profoundly anti-semitic [as we have seen, this is disputed]. This is not a problem with Allingham, who was a person of genuinely wide human sympathy.” A charwoman in one of her books, says Stevenson, is a “precisely observed character with a history and something of an inner life, presented without condescension.” Moreover, as Stevenson says, Allingham’s first two books – the ones I had read – are not her best. Ask Allingham’s fans which one was, and they all seem to have the same answer:The Tiger in the Smoke.

Published much later, in 1952, it is set in the midst of a London November smog, five or six years after the war. A beautiful young war-widow, Meg, is about to remarry. But mysterious messages arrive suggesting that her late husband is far from dead. There are even photographs and newspaper-clippings that purport to show him. Is she being blackmailed? If so, what does the blackmailer want? Is her husband really still alive? As the book opens, she is in a taxi, on her way to Paddington Station to meet a train on which he may, it has been hinted, be travelling. Meanwhile a violent and extremely dangerous convict has escaped and is somewhere nearby, killing people. He, too, is interested in Meg; why, and is she in danger?

The Tiger in the Smoke
has been highly praised, not least by fellow crime writers such as H.R.F. Keating and Susan Hill. In her foreword for the 2015 Vintage edition, Hill comments that “There are not many crime novels more genuinely frightening.” And Hill should know, having written The Woman in Black (1983), the creepy 1989 TV adaptation of which still has the power to shock. Hill also praises the power of Allingham’s villain. “In real life,” she writes, “criminals are rarely very interesting ...but detective fiction usually benefits from having a murderer who exerts a terrible fascination.” The Tiger in the Smoke has the escaped convict, Havoc. “He is her most repellent, dangerous, evil, and unusual killer,” says Hill, “a man with a wounding childhood, and a strange past history, without emotion or empathy or conscience, and yet not entirely without humanity, cold-blooded, shocking, brutal, and yet perhaps, just perhaps, redeemable.”

Moreover, as Jane Stevenson points out, you know early on who the criminal is, and “the interest is transferred to questions of the villain's psychology and how, or if, the detectives catch up with him.” Or as Hill puts it: “This is not a whodunit, it is a why-dunnit, a complex novel of character. It is also, at its core, about the essential Biblical, and specifically, the Miltonian, conflict between good and evil: the devil in the shape of Jack Havoc, and an angel, the saintly Canon Avril.” (The latter is a clergyman who confronts Havoc towards the end of the book.) Hill praises, too, Allingham’s sense of place and the way in which she uses the London smog to create a sinister backdrop that seeps through the narrative. The book is, she says, a masterpiece.

At least some of this is true. The way Allingham co-opts the notorious London smog as a character in her book is indeed masterful, and reminded me of Iris Murdoch’s sinister The Time of the Angels (1966); this too is wreathed in a wintry London fog through which the nature of evil slowly becomes apparent. Hill and Stevenson are also surely right that this book isn’t simply a whodunnit; it is a complex novel of motive and morality, with a big dollop of religion thrown in. I myself felt that the book was not so much Agatha Christie, more Graham Greene – it reminded me a little of Brighton Rock. Yet there is also plenty of complex plotsmithing, with twists and turns of which Dorothy Sayers would have been proud.

Greene himself did not like the book. Travelling in Africa in February 1959, he noted in his diary that friends had “lent me Tiger in the Smoke – a most absurd unreal story by Margery Allingham. It didn’t even pass the time; it was an irritation” (In Search of a Character; Two African Journals, 1961). This is rather ungracious; perhaps Greene felt Allingham was muscling in on his territory. That said, some of the praise for Tiger in the Smoke does seem overdone. Albert Campion and his extended family take up too much bandwidth; in fact Campion himself isn’t even essential for the plot (the 1956 film adaptation omitted him altogether). A group of street musicians plays a large part in the story, but for me they did not come to life. There were two or three other characters who did not seem right. Even so, The Tiger in the Smoke is rather good. It’s not hard to see that for some, it might be Allingham, not Christie or Sayers, who was the true Queen of Crime.

It seems to have done her little good in life. Julia Jones’s 2009 biography (The Adventures of Margery Allingham) records that she worked and worked. This was driven in part by a strong work ethic – she was from a journalistic family that had always lived from one commission to the next. But it also reflected her material support of others, including her husband, who was not faithful and may have had a son with the journalist Nancy Spain. Allingham herself struggled with thyroid and weight problems and eventually died of breast cancer in 1966, aged 62.

*

So to the last of these four, Ngaio Marsh.

Her first novel, A Man Lay Dead, appeared in 1934 but Marsh had written it three years later, while running an interior decoration business in Knightsbridge. As I had started with the first novels by the other three, I started with this one. In some ways it is a disappointment. It is set, like far too many other such books, at a country-house weekend, and (like Christie’s The Secret Adversary) it involves a conspiracy by various sinister Russians. There’s also an aristocratic detective. It all seems rather hackneyed.

But there may be a reason for that. Marsh had just read a detective novel, and as it was a rainy Saturday, she decided to see if she could write one too. It was, it seems, just a jape to pass a wet weekend. Marsh later said that the book that inspired this prank was by either Christie or Sayers, but in fact A Man Lay Dead bears a striking resemblance to Allingham’s first, The Crime at Black Dudley, and perhaps that was the book that Marsh had just read. She may even have set out to write a parody.

Yet the characterization is stronger – Marsh’s detective, Roderick Alleyn, who would continue to feature in her books, comes to life better than Albert Campion. The victim is also believable. He is a man who has long played with fire, and is finally burnt – and at the end we see clearly why. We also see a tendency to kill the victim in ingenious ways. In future Ngaio Marsh books they would be murdered while life modelling or drowned in the mud of hot springs; in one case, the owner of a sheep farm turns up at auction in one of her own bales of wool. (The latter book bore the splendid title Died in the Wool.)

In later years, Marsh herself would dismiss A Man Lay Dead as implausible and the characters shallow. She may even have been surprised it was published. But Ngaio Marsh’s mischievous wet weekend had launched her on a new career.

Marsh had tried writing earlier, but had been dissatisfied with her own efforts. It hadn’t occurred to her before to try crime fiction. In 1934 she was already 39, and her life so far had been as a painter and then in the theatre. Also, unlike the other three, she was not from a privileged background; her father had been a bank clerk. There is another important difference; her books seem as quintessentially English as theirs, but although she spent long periods in England, she was born and eventually died in Christchurch (Ngaio is a Maori word for a type of flowering tree). In fact her relationship to England was ambivalent; she was quite at home there but also felt drawn back to New Zealand, and it was there that she would eventually spend most of her life. Yet, of her 33 books, only four would be set there.

One of these four was the book I read next – Colour Scheme (1943), set at a run-down hot springs on North Island. The resort is owned by a genteel, somewhat incompetent English couple who have spent most of their lives in India. The Englishman is in hock to an unpleasant local businessman who dies a very Marshian death; he is pushed, one night, into a pool of simmering mud – an event that elicits a blood-chilling scream from the victim and a visit, eventually, from Inspector Alleyn. The plot, like the mud, thickens as the motive is uncovered. Was it debt? Or the victim’s habit of thieving sacred Maori artifacts? Or even espionage – has someone been signalling to Japanese submarines in the bay? (This last was not fanciful; two or three Japanese submarines, and one German U-boat, did conduct operations in New Zealand waters.)

Colour Scheme seems different to other Golden Age fiction. It has been said that it shows Marsh as a progressive figure who did not much like the Empire and Commonwealth, and cared more than most New Zealanders of the time about Maori tradition and culture. The latter may be true. I’m not sure about the former. Marsh split her time between New Zealand and the UK and wrote about New Zealand for the Collins series The British Commonwealth in Pictures. As for Colour Scheme, I thought it inventive and well-constructed but a bit sinister, and found it hard to love some of the characters. Still, I wanted to read a third book, as I had for Christie, Allingham and Sayers. And I hit on the right one.

Artists in Crime was published in 1938 and was Marsh’s sixth detective novel (a lot of work in just four years). It opens as Alleyn nears the end of a long leave, which he has used to travel to New Zealand. He is now returning to England via the United States. The liner has called at Fiji. As it leaves Suva astern, Alleyn stumbled across an artist, Agatha Troy, who is painting the docks on an upper deck. Troy will become the love of his life. But she is not especially friendly. Then, back in the Home Counties, Alleyn is summoned to a murder at Troy’s country house, where she gives private courses for moneyed aspiring artists. A beautiful but unlikeable life model has been murdered in a most ingenious fashion (best not to give this away but as we have seen, Marsh often had great fun with this). Any of the artists could have been the murderer; so could Troy herself. What follows is a terrific yarn, with well-drawn characters, red herrings, random clues and finally a grisly, haunting climax in a dark, grimy prewar Brixton.

Ngaio March in Sydney, 1949
Ngaio Marsh would eventually write over 30 detective novels, along with a number of shorter pieces and some non-fiction; late in life she would even write for TV. It’s quite an achievement for a woman whose first field was not fiction, or even writing, at all. She had been an art student when young, but was a competent painter rather than a really good one, and did not pursue it as a career. Her real love was the theatre. Unable to travel during the war years, she spent them in New Zealand and became a noted producer and director, especially of Shakespeare. The theatre plays a key role in several of her novels. She was enormous fun to work with, according to Ray Neumann, who designed the set for one of her productions in Christchurch in 1962, when she was in her late 60s. She also had style. Years later, Neumann would tell journalist Linda Herrick that Marsh “drove a black XK120 Jag with white sheepskin upholstery and she'd bring her lunch each day – chicken sandwiches, a bottle of lager and a cigar” (Linda Herrick, The Mystery of the Crime Writer, New Zealand Herald, August 23 2008).

But she was also very private. She had published an autobiography, Black Beech and Honeydew, in 1966 but it contained few personal revelations, and she destroyed all her papers before she died. One of her biographers, Joanne Drayton (Ngaio Marsh: Her Life in Crime, 2008), told Herrick that Marsh remained an enigma in some ways, and that she may have been hurt by the fact that her own country never quite accepted her the way Britain did. (She was a huge success in the UK, where she remains well-known). She may also have found theatre people more accepting of the fact that she was (probably) a lesbian – something she always denied; for most of her lifetime it was not acceptable, and besides she may understandably have thought it was her own business.

Marsh was also the only one of the four women from an ordinary background. Agatha Christie had been born wealthy, Allingham had connections in journalism and publishing, and Sayers’s father was the chaplain of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford; she herself attended Somerville College. But Marsh was the daughter of a bank clerk from the other side of the world. All of these four women are interesting as individuals, but Marsh perhaps most of all – yet we’ll never know quite who she really was.

*

How did these four women find such a huge audience? They were, of course, good at what they did. But that cannot wholly explain their extraordinary success.

The answer lies in the publishing industry between the wars. It is explained by Colin Watson in his book on the phenomenon, Snobbery With Violence (as stated earlier, the phrase is Alan Bennett’s; it’s from Forty Years On). Watson grew up between the wars, became a journalist in Lincolnshire and published 12 detective novels of his own – with some success; the BBC adapted eight, four for TV and the rest for Radio 4. Snobbery With Violence was published in 1971 and has since been reissued as part of the excellent Faber Finds series.

Watson felt the popular fiction of the day gave an insight into the mentality of the inter-war years, during which he grew up; he was born in 1920. He quotes the 18th-century writer Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (herself a fascinating figure) as follows:

Perhaps you will say I should not take my ideas of the manners of the times from such trifling authors; but it is more truly to be found among them than from any historian; as they write merely to get money, they always fall into the notions that are most acceptable to the present taste.

This is exactly what Watson does in his book; define the interwar years by their reading interests and prejudices. It is most revealing.

Popular fiction was of course not new; neither was adventure or detection – Wilkie Collins set the ball rolling in the mid-19th century with books such as the splendid The Moonstone (1868), which still feels fresh and original today. Conan Doyle, who was still active in the 1920s, had published his first Sherlock Holmes in 1887. But between the wars a number of factors sent the number of books read to stratospheric new heights. Watson argues persuasively that the growth in commuting, by bus and train, gave middle-class men time to fill; in the meantime, middle-class women were at a stage where labour-saving devices were appearing in the home, yet domestic help was still widely available – giving them, too, far more time to read. Books had competition, of course; Watson says little about the alternatives, but there was the cinema and from 1922 BBC radio. But the cinema meant going out. Radios remained expensive (they did not become really cheap until the transistor radio arrived in the 1950s), and there was little choice of stations until after the war. BBC TV started in 1936 but only in London, and again, sets were very costly; by 1939 there were still just 10,000.

So people read. The number of books published a year was 12,500 in the early 1920s (Watson says just a quarter of these were reprints); by 1939 they had reached about 17,000. A reader would therefore have 180-210 new titles to choose from every week. And they were accessible; besides municipal libraries, one could pop into WH Smith or Boots, both of which ran lending libraries from many of their branches, to which one could subscribe for a modest fee. (Boots only closed its last such library in 1966.) And importantly, the vast majority of books were read for entertainment. As Watson puts it, this vast and mainly middle-class interwar audience “read for pleasure rather than for education, and to kill time, not ignorance (with which, in any case, they were not conscious of being burdened).”

Perhaps inevitably, this tsunami of adventure and detection was sometimes of doubtful quality. Watson gives the example of Sydney Horler, whose character Tiger Standish was a vehicle for many of Horler’s own opinions; these included a loathing of foreigners and a big dash of antisemitism. Reviewers such as Dorothy Sayers herself and Compton Mackenzie were unimpressed, but the public lapped it all up and Horler published nearly 160 novels. He did not, in any case, hold other authors in high esteem, saying that too many were being written by “half-witted Oxford undergraduates, man-obsessed old maids, homosexuals with polished periods, and pin-heads of all descriptions.”

Meanwhile rival H.C. McNeile, who wrote under the pseudonym “Sapper”, created his gentleman adventurer Bulldog Drummond, whose xenophobia and antisemitism matched his own. It did not bother his readers; McNeile sold 400,000 books between the wars. Neither were they troubled by the rabid racism in Sax Rohmer’s books, which featured his hero Nayland Smith and his adversary, the Oriental master criminal, Fu-Manchu. Watson quotes one passage: “At last they were truly face to face – the head of the great Yellow movement, and the man who fought on behalf of the entire White race…” It was nonsense but the public lapped it up; Rohmer published 13 Fu-Manchu books. They were also filmed; one – The Brides of Fu-Manchu – was released well into my lifetime and as a child I saw it in the cinema. Even more prolific was Edgar Wallace, author of the Sanders of the River series, which would have appealed to the imperialistic sentiments of the time. Wallace, who had been born in poverty, was at least a nice man; Daphne du Maurier, a family friend, records his kindness in her memoir, Myself When Young (1977). He also wrote the script for King Kong, though he died before it was made. Unlike most of the the others, he is still read to some extent. But his work has not aged well.

There were better writers, of course. Conan Doyle managed some late Sherlock Holmes stories in the 1920s. Many of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories also date from the inter-war period, although some were written before 1914. Chesterton wrote short stories, not novels, but they were substantial enough to be filmed in our own time, and have remained popular on TV. One should also note Scottish writer Elizabeth McKintosh, who published mostly as Josephine Tey, and is very highly regarded by some Golden Age enthusiasts. I have not discussed her here as her output was relatively small; as with Ngaio Marsh, her first love was the theatre, and she wrote at least as many plays; there were only eight detective novels. But their quality was high, and she should not be ignored.

Others included the distinguished left-wing economist G.D.H. Cole, whose chair at Oxford would later be filled by Isaiah Berlin. Cole produced a huge number of non-fiction books, articles and pamphlets with titles such as Guild Socialism – A Plan for Economic Democracy (1921) and Some Essentials of Socialist Propaganda (1932). For light relief, he found time to co-author 29 detective novels with his wife Margaret (in fact, each one had been written by either one or the other). But it is not clear whether anyone still reads them, and they seem mostly to be out of print. Others included “Nicholas Blake”, actually C. Day Lewis.

In the main, though, it’s the Big Four – Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh – whose work has survived, and is still enjoyed today, both in print and on TV. Why?

*

The main reason is that they were good. As we’ve seen, all four of them had the odd misfire, especially with their earliest books. But in general, if you have a dull wet weekend ahead or a long flight, you can just download an Agatha Christie or Nagaio Marsh and you’ll get almost Toyota-like quality control. Moreover, while modern readers would find the bigotry of the Fu-Manchu or Sapper books distasteful, these four are mostly free of it, at least in their books. As we have seen, Dorothy Sayers has been charged with antisemitism, though this has been debated; and there can be a certain whiff of prejudice in the way some characters are depicted in her books and Christie’s. In the main, however, these four do not reflect the racism and jingoism of the time. And although the books are entertainment, the best of them have plenty of character development and are good on motivation. In this respect Marsh’s Colour Scheme and Allingham’s Tiger in the Smoke stood out for me; and as I said earlier, Sayers’s Whose Body? includes glimpses into the human condition that are terrifying.

By 1939 Dorothy Sayers had stopped writing detective fiction altogether (although she lived until 1957). But the others continued for much longer. Margery Allingham wrote until her death in 1966. Agatha Christie also went on nearly to the end and wrote her last book in 1973, when she was 83; but she had gone on too long – Postern of Fate, which featured the wretched Tommy and Tuppence, was apparently not very good and showed signs of cognitive decline. However, it wasn’t the last to be published; several works written much earlier, including the last Poirot, were published after her death in 1976, as was a well-received autobiography. The last detective novel by any of the four was Ngaio Marsh’s Light Thickens; she completed it in 1982 when she was 87, and died later that year. It was published posthumously. With Marsh’s death, the Golden Age of detective fiction was truly over.

But it had really ended in 1939, and certainly by 1945. As Orwell wrote, the horrors of the real world in that year were too much for it. P.D. James was right; although the Big Four’s best work will always be read, it would not be written now. The world (and policing, and forensics) has changed and the best writers reflect it. Neither should we regret that old world’s passing – as Colin Watson showed, vast numbers of books were sold but many were dire, and were steeped in the prejudices of their age. These four writers – and a few others, such as Josephine Tey and G. K. Chesterton – did deserve to survive. But they were outliers.

Who will be today’s?


I would like to thank Neil Monk for his very helpful comments on an earlier draft of this piece.


Mike Robbins is the author of a number of fiction and non-fiction books. They can be ordered from bookshops, or Amazon and other online retailers as paperbacks or e-books. Follow Mike on Twitter and Facebook.