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AUTHOR PROFILE – Kirk Alex

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HHH024The Tucumcari Press is based in Tucson, Arizona, and they have kindly sent me a couple of books by  Kirk Alex. So who is he? He can tell us:

“I was born in Sarajevo in 1951. My family moved to Brussels when he was eight. I loved Brussels and wanted to stay on. Had the French language down in no time and wished to remain in Europe, at the least. But no, my parents felt like moving again, and there we were, two years later, U.S.-bound. Chicago, to be exact.

After finishing out my two-year military bit returned to Chicago in pretty sorry shape, dealing with bad dreams and a general state of numbness; I was dead inside. Got myself a slave-wage job not far from the Loop, picked up a typewriter for thirty bucks (on layaway; they had layaway back then) and started writing short stories. Got nowhere. After six months of that, tossed what few possessions I had (some paperbacks and clothes) into the used convertible I owned at the time, and headed west. Thought that’s what I had to do, go along with the Pull of the Mythical West, to pursue a dream or two.

I was young and naive, didn’t realize I could just as easily have remained in the Windy City like the great Nelson Algren and written my ass off right there. Live and learn. Instead, ended up in a vicious pit called L.A. for too many years to count.

HNH025In L.A., unless you have the flashy car, luxury apartment, good paying job, you can forget about having a woman in your life to be with, any of that; so yeah, we hung in there alone. What doesn’t break you makes you stronger, so they say.

Was a furniture mover, delivered phone books door-to-door, drove a taxi, was a movie extra, did factory work, painted apartments, did TV repos even, sold rebuilt mattresses to Sunset Strip prostitutes and out-of-work Hollywood actor types. Kept writing and reading. Amassed my share of rejection slips.

Bottom line: My olivetti/LETTERA provided the only light at the end of the tunnel. Granted it may have been a weak light, still, it was the only lifeline available. Without books/writing, I might easily have ended up in a straightjacket in a rubber room somewhere, or dead.

Found myself in the jungles of ‘Nam at nineteen, ducking sniper fire and mortar shrapnel, when I wasn’t busy burning leeches off my testicles and side-stepping snakes and boobytraps.”

Kirk Alex’s novel Lustmord: Anatomy of a Serial Butcher was a finalist in the Kindle Book Review’s Best Book Awards of 2014. He is also the author of Zook, Fifty Shades of Tinsel, the story collection: Ziggy Popper at Large, and the Love, Lust & Murder series:

So what about the Edgar ‘Doc’ Holiday books? You might meed to be a fan of Westerns to get the nickname. The LA private eye’s near namesake (there’s an extra ‘L’) wasn’t a doctor at all, but an infamous gambler and gunfighter, who happened to be a dentist. He was a chum of Wyatt Earp, and took part in the legendary shoot-out at the OK Corral in Tombstone. One thing is for sure, the Edgar ‘Doc’ Holiday books are long – the two I have run to 573 and 631 pages respectively. Alex is also an admirer (as am I) of one of the all-time geniuses of crime fiction, and he includes a couple of quotes from the great man in the frontispiece to the books.

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To give you an idea of Alex’s prose style, there’s a vivid scene (probably not for pet lovers) in Hard Noir Holiday where the detective ends up at an Arizona dogfight as part of his investigation.

“The MC waved his arms and the killers were released. NightDemon’s lunge was so fierce and carried so much force that the black pit bull not only knocked the other down, but was already plowing his jaw back into the other’s snout. He was tearing away at the left side of Max Pain’s mouth. The tan pit bull attempted to pull away and only managed to lose a chunk of his snout in the process.”

With characters called Biffle, McCrud, Jack Spot and Ilsa Goth, there is no mistaking that we are deep in Noir territory, and this novel is clearly not for the faint of heart, or those who like their fictional crime committed in sleepy English villages. I intend to make a start on these books as soon as I can fit them in around blog tour commitments, but for now, they are available on Amazon.

FOUR ENGLISH POETS . . . A personal choice (4)

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If Betjeman was the poet of joyful nostalgia, Philip Larkin inhabited a much darker universe. He was born in Coventry in 1922, and after attending King Henry VIII school went on to Oxford to read English. There, he began to write poetry and became friends with KIngsley Amis who shared Larkin’s love of jazz, which he was to write about as jazz critic for The Daily Telegraph. He was an ardent traditionalist and loved Bessie Smith, Bix Beiderbeck and Louis Armstrong, but had little time for what he saw as the the more self-obsessed music of modern players like John Coltrane.

After graduating, Larkin became a librarian, first in Shropshire, then Leicester, Belfast and, finally at the University of Hull in 1955. He was to remain there for the rest of his life, and he took the job extremely seriously and was responsible for overseeing and encouraging the growth of the collection and buildings, and was regarded as an excellent administrator.

His first collection of poems was published in 1945 under the title The North Ship. The poem of the title is very different in tone and structure from more familiar works of later years.

TheNorthShip

Larkin takes the traditional Christmas carol and adds a more sombre note with the enigmatic fate of the third ship, “rigged for a long journey”. It was ten years before his second collection of poems, The Less Deceived was published. The twenty nine poems included Church Going, where he rubbed shoulders with John Betjeman, but in a darker and – perhaps – more disturbing – way.

Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thus shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long.
Hatless, I take off My cycle clips in awkward reverence.

He wonders if the nondescript church is worth stopping for, but then reflects on what the building has meant to generations of people, and he wonders how long the place will remain central to the lives of people nearby, or if it has already outlived any use it may have had:

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches will fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Here, he presages a sentiment expressed in one of his more celebrated later poems, Going, Going (1972)

For the first time I feel somehow
That it isn’t going to last,

That before I snuff it, the whole
Boiling will be bricked in
Except for the tourist parts –
First slum of Europe: a role
It won’t be hard to win,
With a cast of crooks and tarts.

And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
There’ll be books; it will linger on
In galleries; but all that remains
For us will be concrete and tyres.

By this time Larkin had completely found his voice, and while his early work showed something of the lyrical intensity of Yeats, the gentle pessimism and sense of regret found in Thomas Hardy was embedded in everything he wrote. There are differences. Hardy’s novels look back to the rural communities he knew – or was told about –  in the 1850s, while his poems often reflect on his troubled relationship with his first wife, Emma Gifford. So what does Larkin regret? In what is one of his most celebrated poems, This Be The Verse, he seems to blame his parents, despite his early years being notable for the absence of obvious neglect or cruelty. The crucial four words are “they may not mean to”:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

Larkin’s poems, although often misanthropic, are not without humour. In Annus Mirabilis he pokes sly fun at the sexual revolution. He also echoes Betjeman’s love of what we might call product placement – the use of brand names to evoke a period atmosphere that would ring the bells of readers of a certain age:

Sexual intercourse Began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me)
Between the end of the “Chatterly” ban
And the Beatles’ first LP

Larkin’s genius and his sheer Englishness is nowhere better expressed than in MCMXIV which was published as part of his 1964 collection The Whitsun Weddings. Larkin grew up at a time when there were still tens of thousands of survivors from The Great War across the country and even by the 1960s they still marched on Armistice Sunday. He contrasts the bustling masculinity of sporting venues with the timeless nature of the ancient rural landscape, and makes the telling observation that the men in the “long uneven lines” staring out from old photographs were more than just from a bygone age – the “moustached archaic faces” might have been from another universe. His comment on the  bitter and catastrophic effects of the coming slaughter on families couldn’t be more eloquent – “The thousands of marriages Lasting a little while longer.” The shattering of the established social order and the death of the Edwardian dream remain a constant theme in Great War literature, but the last four words of this poem encapsulate it with such a depth of sadness.

MCMXIV

It has been asserted, in recent times, that Larkin was not the kindest of people, had a misogynistic streak in him, and was not destined to fit the stringent requirements imposed on us all by modern sensibilites about race and gender. It is not my place to apologise to people he may have treated badly, but I can only say that when creative people mine down into the complex geology of humanity, they rarely emerge with clean hands. For me, at any rate, his consummate poetry and what it tells us about the human condition completely diminishes any failings he may have had as a person.

FOUR ENGLISH POETS . . . A personal choice (3)

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SBBI have spent longer on the biographical details of John Betjeman because, in what was his longest and most profound poem, Summoned By Bells (1960), he writes his autobiography in blank verse. 

He was born in London in 1906, the only child of a prosperous middle class family. The family firm made what we might call ‘Knick-knacks’ from silver and fine woods, destined to grace houses that boasted parlour maids, cooks and nannies. The family were originally Dutch, but at prep school during The Great War John was bullied because the name had a Germanic ring to it. “Betjeman’s a German spy – shoot him down and let him die!” was the cruel chant.

His senior schooling was at Marlborough. He hated games and was too bookish for his more muscular Christian school chums, but managed to survive by being clever. He began to write poetry, obsessively, and it was here that he developed a lifelong passion for an England dotted with rarely-visited churches, cross-crossed with sleepy country railway lines, with dusty trunk roads punctuated by mock Tudor pubs serving the Bona Fide traveller.

By the time he went up to Oxford, tensions were already well developed at home. His father had begun to suspect that his son had no intention of succeeding him as head of the business, and he saw this as a betrayal not only of himself, but the dozens of craftsmen who relied on the firm for their livelihood. This bitter division was to haunt Betjeman in later life, but was inevitable. Throughout this his mother – a rather fragile hypochondriac – tried to act as conciliator, with little success.

Oxford

Oxford was a time of church-crawling, endless sherry lunches with fellow disciples of Maurice Bowra, but little academic success. After being sent down he briefly followed the time-honoured route of failed undergraduates and became a teacher at a prep school – in his case an obscure establishment called Heddon Court in East Barnet where, bizarrely, he was in charge of cricket. This was in 1929, but by 1933 the school folded and has long since been demolished. Gradually, he made his way in the literary world, while being paid as the assistant editor of The Architectural Review. His later career, when his poetry flourished, is well documented elsewhere. He was a natural for television and broadcasting, and became something of a national treasure. He died in Cornwall, at the age of 77, in May 1984.

John-Betjeman-225x300So what are we to make of Betjeman’s poetry today, the age of cancel culture, triggered university graduates, and the most virulent class war that I can remember in my seventy-odd years of being sentient? He has been described – by lesser writers –  as mediocre. His  prevailing themes included  the foibles and rituals of the English middle class, churches, railways, Victorian buildings and London. Hardly the stuff to bring him to the cutting edge of the literary razor in 2022, admittedly. But his detractors – or those who see him as an anachronistic bumbler, mugging it up for TV cameras and radio microphones – miss the point, big time. Time and space forced me to ignore the sheer joy found in his description of railway stations, gymkhanas, Edwardian suburbs and churches  and look at his compassion. In Sun and Fun, he begins by gently mocking the ‘morning after’ scene in a tawdry London nightclub where, in a corner, is an elderly socialite, lamenting the passing of youth and recalling her heady days as a debutante. But the mockery turns on its head in the last verse:

There was sun enough for lazing upon beaches,
There was fun enough for far into the night.
But I’m dying now and done for,
What on earth was all the fun for?
For I’m old and ill and terrified and tight.

That scared old woman confronting her mortality tugs at my heart every time I read those words. Another elderly lady, probably long widowed, perhaps sent to a nursing home by her family, features in Death In Leamington Spa. Verse one speaks for itself:

She died in the upstairs bedroom
By the light of the ev’ning star
That shone through the plate glass window
From over Leamington Spa

But then the nurse, oblivious, comes into the room:

And Nurse came in with the tea-things
Breast high ‘mid the stands and chairs-
But Nurse was alone with her own little soul,
And the things were alone with theirs.

Again, the final two verses need no commentary from me:

Nurse looked at the silent bedstead,
At the gray, decaying face,
As the calm of a Leamington ev’ning
Drifted into the place.

She moved the table of bottles
Away from the bed to the wall;
And tiptoeing gently over the stairs
Turned down the gas in the hall.

Betjeman was Poet Laureate from 1972 until his death, but this beautiful elegy on a national event was written long before those years. What never fails to amaze me is the sheer craftsmanship of the poem. He wrote his poems to be spoken out loud, and worked them over and over, and said them to himself endlessly until he was satisfied. King George V died at Sandringham on 20 January 1936. The ‘young man’ in the final line is, of course, the future Edward VIII.

Spirits of well-shot woodcock, partridge, snipe
Flutter and bear him up the Norfolk sky:
In that red house in a red mahogany book-case
The stamp collection waits with mounts long dry.

The big blue eyes are shut which saw wrong clothing
And favourite fields and coverts from a horse;
Old men in country houses hear clocks ticking
Over thick carpets with a deadened force;

Old men who never doubted, never cheated,
Communicated monthly, sit and stare
At the new suburb stretched beyond the run-way
Where a young man lands hatless from the air

Ladies and gentleman, I rest my case.

IN PART FOUR
THE UNIVERSITY LIBRARIAN WHO
CAPTURED HIS ENGLAND IN VERSE

FOUR ENGLISH POETS . . . A personal choice (2)

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Screen Shot 2022-02-11 at 19.18.31Was there ever such a yawning gulf between a man and his words as with AE Housman? By all accounts he was prissy, pedantic and and vindictive towards Cambridge undergraduate pupils who failed to meet his expectations in their studies of the classics. He was memorably described as “descended for a long line of maiden aunts”. He never knew reciprocated love. His homosexual yearning for one or two men of his acquaintance was never returned, given the grim frown society bestowed on such things at the time. And yet he wrote some of the most passionate, evocative and memorable poems in the English language, poems which spoke of love, death and grief – all set against a haunted – and haunting – English landscape.

I speak, of course, about A Shropshire Lad, a collection of sixty three poems published, initially at his own expense, in 1896. If we are looking for irony and contradictions here, perhaps the most startling is that the poems were written in his house in Highgate, London – some 150 miles from the hills and valleys where the poems were set. There is little evidence that Housman even knew – first hand – Shropshire well at all. He was born in a village near Bromsgrove, and although Worcestershire shares a border with Shropshire, there is no line of sight between the two locations. Bredon Hill, however – which he immortalised in one of his most celebrated poems – is in Worcestershire, and is perhaps one of his “blue remembered hills.”

Housman was a classical scholar, and his day job was that of a university lecturer, first in London and then in Cambridge. Although his ashes (he died in 1936) are buried in Ludlow churchyard, there is little to connect – physically – Housman with Shropshire. So what prompted him to immortalise such places as Bredon, Clun, Ludlow and Wenlock Edge? Better scholars than I have discussed this without providing a definitive answer, but for what it’s worth, I think the answer may be that the poems are an extended metaphor involving Housman’s homosexuality.

MJJIt is a matter of record that the love of Housman’s life was a fellow Oxford student, Moses John Jackson (right). The passion was in one direction only, and Jackson later placed some geographical distance between himself and Housman. So what has this to do with the poetry? The pervading theme in A Shropshire Lad is a longing, a yearning for something that can never come again, places and people irretrievably lost, a memory of earlier years. Housman never courted a lass In Summertime On Bredon, and although Jackson died at a respectable old age, just months before Housman, there is a palpable sense of longing in the words “by brooks too broad for leaping, the light-foot lads are laid”. It is hard to ignore that the central characters in many of the poems are young men who died early. Take the two young men who speak in “Is My Team Ploughing?” One is dead and buried, but longs for information about his old life. The other speaks to him kindly, but is sleeping with the dead man’s former girlfriend.

“Is my friend hearty,
Now I am thin and pine?
And has he found to sleep in
A better bed than mine?”

“Yes lad I lie easy,
I lie as lads would choose.
I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart,
Never ask me whose.”

Moses John Jackson didn’t die early, but he may as well have done in terms of his relationship with Housman. The love that Housman felt was inexpressible in those days, at least in public. Instead, he constructed a beautiful metaphor (best summed up in his words below) which has entranced readers – while they may not fully comprehend it – ever since.

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

One of the most striking things about the poems in A Shropshire Lad is how natural they are as musical lyrics. Rather in the same way the words of Goethe and Schiller captivated Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann, Housman’s poems proved irresistible to a generation of English composers. in the early twentieth century. Most of these were hardly names to rival the great Germans, but one was a giant. Perhaps the most English of composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams, set six of the poems in a song cycle called On Wenlock Edge. I will put a case for onother composer, George Butterworth. Had he survived The Great War, he would now stand alongside Purcell, Elgar and RVW as giants of English music. His setting of Is My Team Ploughing? is as poignant and heartbreaking as anything penned by Schubert. You can listen to the song by clicking the video below.

IN PART THREE
A MEDIOCRE POET WITH A GIFT FOR TV,
OR SOMEONE MORE PROFOUND?

FOUR ENGLISH POETS . . . A personal choice (1)

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For no other reason than that I am old but still with an enduring passion for the written word, I set myself the task of writing about four poets who, for me, define England. There are omissions, inevitably, and the one I wrestled longest with and perhaps the most glaring is Thomas Hardy. In my defence, I suggest that while his novels brilliantly portray the England he knew, in his poems he chose to focus more on the universal absurdities and tragic ironies that occur in human nature. They could have happened in Dorset, but also in Lancashire, London or even Paris or Rome. People may also ask, “why no John Clare, or Wordsworth?” Clare’s nature poetry has probably never been bettered, but it is intensely detailed, looking at the world a few feet in front of him as opposed to the wider view around him, while Wordsworth, although he is forever associated with the Lake District had, one might say, bigger fish to fry, with his espousal of Romanticism and revolutionary politics. I have chosen four poets who, for me, encapsulate that elusive quality of Englishness which, sadly, some modern commentators find offensive.

St Margarets

Alfred_Tennyson.-5990723c03f40200118aedffI’ll start with Tennyson, but offer a word of caution. Look hard at his poetry and you may not see obvious indicators of his Lincolnshire roots. But let me turn it on its head. Visit the village of Somersby, an isolated and lonely hamlet deep in the Wolds of Lincolnshire, the place where he spent his boyhood. His father was rector of the church (above), and he would have wandered the isolated lanes thereabouts as a boy. The streams, the rustic bridges, the grand old houses still exist, and are little different from when he knew them. The walled garden in Maud could be that of Somersby Rectory. His most famous poems – especially those he wrote as Poet Laureate –  seem to be set far away from his Lincolnshire home, but the first five lines of The Lady of Shallot puts Camelot firmly in a Lincolnshire context with his use of the word ‘wold’.

“On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And thro’ the field the road runs by
To many-tower’d Camelot;”

Somersby Brook and Bridge 1910 1 Large

In his intensely moving poem The May Queen he gives voice to a consumptive young woman in the months leading to her death. She sees a summer, and a winter, but it is the spring that finally takes her. She says:

“All in the wild March-morning I heard the angels call;
It was when the moon was setting, and the dark was over all;”

I have stood in Somersby churchyard and heard these words in my head:

“Upon the chancel-casement, and upon that grave of mine,
In the early early morning the summer sun ’ill shine,
Before the red cock crows from the farm upon the hill,
When you are warm-asleep, mother, and all the world is still.

When the flowers come again, mother, beneath the waning light
You’ll never see me more in the long gray fields at night;
When from the dry dark wold the summer airs blow cool
On the oat-grass and the sword-grass, and the bulrush in the pool.”

We are only four lines into his poem In Memoriam A.H.H. ( Arthur Henry Hallam, a university friend who died tragically young) and we have his beloved wold again:

Calm and deep peace on this high wold,
And on these dews that drench the furze.
And all the silvery gossamers
That twinkle into green and gold:”

Somersby is many miles from the Hampshire coast he imagined in Crossing The Bar, and as for what is, for me, his masterpiece Ulysses, the Lincolnshire Wolds are a long way from the Aegean coast. But at the back of every word he wrote is that silent and isolated Lincolnshire countryside. where he grew up. I’ll end with the words of Tennyson which immortalise the man and his vision, and which will find resonance among all those of us who are approaching life’s end.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

IN PART TWO
The poet who immortalised an English county but rarely visited it.

LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN . . . An appreciation of Arthur Bryant & John May

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The origin of those six words is a biblical text, chapter 44 of Ecclesiasticus, a book of the bible which, for Protestants, was shunted off the mainline into the sidings of The Apocrypha. The first ten lines of the chapter are:

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Aficionados of Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May series, which ended on the final page of London Bridge is Falling Down will know that some of the lines written by the  biblical scholar  – a chap called Sira, apparently – are more applicable to Arthur and John than others. “Leaders of the people by their counsels..”? The pair, especially in the autumn of their careers certainly led the Peculiar Crimes Unit “by their counsels” in spite of the efforts of the nominal boss, the hapless Raymond Land and the myriad civil servants who sought to sink the unit and all who sailed in her.

I think we move on fairly quickly from “Such as found out musical tunes and recited verses in writing..” as neither was particularly musical, but Arthur did occasionally recite verses, usually in the form of riddles that baffled everyone else. “Rich men furnished with ability …“? John could always afford a decent suit, but what Arthur did with his salary is anyone’s guess. His disregard for sartorial elegance and the modest accommodation provided by his long-suffering Antiguan landlady, Alma Sorrowbridge suggested that he spent little on worldly concerns. As for “living peaceably“, John was always something of a conciliator, but Arthur had a savage tongue, particularly when faced with jobsworths or obstructive administrators. It has to be said, though, that his barbs were usually so shrouded in classical allusion that the victims were seldom bright enough to know they were being insulted.

Sadly, except by Janice, Colin, Meera and the rest of the PCU, Arthur and John were far from “honoured in their generations..” let alone becoming “the glory of their times.” In terms of the miserable bureaucrats who hated the very thought of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, then Arthur and John are almost certainly “perished as though they had never been..“, but for the of thousands of grateful readers, people who loved the sounds and smells of hidden London, appreciated the jokes, saw the torch of such great writers as the Grossmiths, Betjeman and PM Hubbard being carried brightly forward, chuckled quietly at the nostalgic product placing contained in the depths of Arthur’s coat pockets, and shared the poignancy of those moments when the two old gentlemen gazed down at the river from their special place, Waterloo Bridge – the final eleven words of the biblical quote will resonate as long as there are books to be read, jokes to be shared and dreams to be dreamed.

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MY TEN BEST BOOKS, 2021

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1FINAL

TO READ A SPECIAL APPRECIATION
OF THE BRYANT & MAY NOVELS. CLICK THIS LINK

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3FINAL

4FINAL5 FINAL

6 FINAL

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8 FINAL NEW

9 FINAL

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CRIME ACROSS ENGLAND . . . 8 : Brighton and London

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It has been, as the song goes, a long and winding road. Nearly 1000 miles, or thereabouts of rolling English highway and  we are nearing the end. Just two more stops, and we will be back where we started, In London. Yes, there are places and authors we might have visited; Trevor Wood’s Newcastle, John Harvey’s Nottingham and Phil Rickman’s Hereford, to name just three. But both writer and reader can suffer fatigue, so this journey is what it is. Our penultimate stop-over is Brighton, seemingly a place of bizarre contrasts. There is the elegant watering place beloved of the Prince Regent, and the cheeky seaside town beloved of London day trippers, but with a scary undercurrent immortalised by Graham Greene. There is the contemporary Brighton, a place where outlandish political and social fads make its counterparts in California look reactionary. But our Brighton is a much sunnier place. We are in the 1960s, sex had just about been invented, mobile ‘phones were undreamt of in anyone’s philosophy, and a young man called Colin Crampton is the ace crime reporter for the Evening Chronicle.

Brighton

Colin Crampton is the inspired creation of former journalist Peter Bartram, and I do wonder if Colin is, perhaps, a younger version of Peter, and I would like to think so. Peter, from, my online dealings with him, is a genial and astute fellow with a broad sense of humour, and someone with a fund of nostalgic cultural references from days gone by.  In brief, Colin is as sharp as a tack, has a gorgeous Australian girlfriend called Shirley, vrooms around Brighton in his sports car, and his boss, deputy editor Frank Figgis, is permanently wreathed in a cloud of Woodbines smoke. The books are simply delightful. Escapist, maybe, comfort reading, probably, but superbly crafted and endlessly entertaining – yes, yes, yes. If you click the graphic below, a link will open where you can read reviews of the Crampton of The Chronicle series, and also features by Peter on the background to some of his stories.The author’s photograph contains a link to his own website.

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LONDON CALLING! And the voices are none other than those of Arthur Bryant and John May – and their creator, Christopher Fowler. Bryant & May are, of course, an in-joke from the very start. More elderly readers will remember the iconic brand of matches so familiar to those of us who grew up the middle and later years of the 20th century.

Fowler devised a brilliant concept. We have two coppers who began their investigative careers during Hitler’s war. One, Arthur Bryant, is an intellectual iconoclast, a fount of obscure knowledge, be it of Tibet, Inner Mongolia, Patagonia or the inner regions of the Hindu Kush. His expertise, however, is London. There is not a hidden river, an execution site, an ancient drovers’ trackway or site of an old graveyard that Arthur doesn’t have logged somewhere in his noggin. His colleague, John May, is slightly younger, but has adapted to the passing years. He wears decent suits, chooses conciliation rather than confrontation, and retains the razor sharp mind of his younger years. He is resolutely and remorselessly devoted to Arthur Bryant, and such is Fowler’s mastery of human chemistry that we know  one could never exist without the other.

Screen Shot 2021-11-21 at 18.34.16There were nineteen B & M novels, beginning with Full Dark House in 2003, plus a quartet of graphic novels and short story collections. I say ‘were’, because although Christopher Fowler (left) is still with us, those who have read London Bridge Is Falling Down (2021) will know – and I am sorry if this is a spoiler – that old age and infirmity finally catches up with the venerable pair of detectives. Where to start to talk about this series? The author himself is, as far as I can judge, a modern and cosmopolitan fellow, but his love – and knowledge – of London is all embracing. Christopher Fowler is a one-off in contemporary writing, and completely individual, but speaking as an elderly chap with many years of reading behind me, I can best put him in context with great English writers of the last 150 years or so by looking at various aspects of the novels.

There is humour in the books, plenty of it and – as you might guess – it’s very English. Imagine a chain of writers which goes back to Victorian times, starting perhaps with Israel Zangwill and the Grossmith brothers. The torch is carried onwards by Wodehouse, JV Morton and – with a more abrasive edge – by Waugh. Tom Sharpe is largely forgotten now, but his anarchic view of English customs and behaviour fits in well.

Now the city of London itself. Imagine a writer with the nostalgic fondness of Betjeman, blended with the darker imagination of writers like Ackroyd and Sinclair, and you will find that Christopher Fowler fits the bill perfectly. He makes us aware that the streets of his home town are like a stage, with troupes of actors down the ages acting out their dramas, each set of footsteps eventually fading to give way to the next, but each leaving something indelible behind, eternally available for those with ears to listen

Let’s not forget, though, that this is crime fiction, and the B&M stories have a strong vein of the Golden Age running through them, particularly with the ‘impossible’ crimes. Not content with mere locked rooms, Fowler takes us into a world where pubs vanish of the face off the earth and an 18th century highwayman commits murder in an art gallery. We started our journey in Derek Raymond’s London, with its drab streets, mean hearts, cruelty and violence. The streets walked by Bryant and May certainly have their dark corners, but Christopher Fowler fills them with joyful quirks of history, ghosts (mainly benevolent) and a sense of gleeful iconoclasm.

For reviews and features about the Bryant and May novels,
click the  image below.

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CRIME ACROSS ENGLAND . . . 7: Exmouth and Isle of Wight

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There is a synopsis of teach of the four Jimmy Suttle novels below.
Click the cover to go to a full review of the book

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Opinions are like, well, I’m sure you know the old and rather vulgar adage about everyone having one, but in my view, if you know of any contemporary writer who wrote four better books, each hypnotically linked together over four years then, to quote one of my favourite poets, You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din” Other genders are available on written application.

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Along the coast we go now, but not far from Jimmy Suttle’s former stamping ground. We are headed for the Isle of Wight, and a visit to an author who is one of the cleverest fellows on the literary scene. Meiron (MJ) Trow and I share one or two chapters should anyone write our biographies. We both attended Warwick School – he a couple of years down from me, and I don’t think we were ever aware of each other. Secondly, we both went on to become teachers – he of history, and  I of Music. One of the lovely ironies here is that his wonderful autobiographical character Peter ‘Mad Max’ Maxwell, a much loved but rather anarchic history teacher at an Isle of Wight secondary school, is always at odds with the idiocy and politically correct incompetence of his senior management team. Me, I actually became part of senior management towards the end of my career but, unlike the muppets in Meiron’s school, I hope I retained my sense of the absurd.

Screen Shot 2021-11-17 at 19.36.38MJ is alive and well, and still writing, and Peter Maxwell appeared as recently as 2020 with Maxwell’s Summer. The series started in 1994 with Maxwell’s House, a title which (if you were around in the 1960s) will give you some idea of MJ’s wonderful sense of English domestic history – and his inability to resist a pun. The books are highly enjoyable, but never cosy. There is a streak of melancholy never far from the surface, and we are reminded that Maxwell’s first wife died when the car they were in was involved in a fatal collision. Max has never driven since, and his trusty bicycle is a regular prop in the stories. Max eventually marries his policewoman girlfriend Jackie Carpenter, which is only right and fair, since she is the plot device that has given him a very convenient ‘in’ with local murder investigations. MJ Trow has several other CriFi series to his name, and I list them below.

Screen Shot 2021-11-17 at 19.38.50Screen Shot 2021-11-17 at 19.38.17Inspector Lestrade – in which Trow ‘rehabilitates’ the much maligned copper in the Sherlock Holmes stories. 17 novels, beginning in 1985.
Kit Marlowe – in which Trow has the poet and playwright turning detective. 10 novels, beginning in 2011.
Grand & Bachelor – a former American Civil War soldier and an English journalist start a detective agency in Victorian London. 7 novels starting in 2015.
Margaret Murray – is an archaeologist turned amateur detective. Set in late Victorian London, the first book, Four Thousand Days, has just been published.

Trow has also written many non fiction books, featuring true crimes such as Jack the Ripper, and the Craig and Bentley case, To read more on Fully Booked, click the author’s image below.

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