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BRYANT & MAY’S PECULIAR LONDON . . . Between the covers

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Yes, yes, Arthur Bryant died peacefully at the end of London Bridge Is Falling Down, but the old boy isn’t speaking from beyond the grave, or ectoplasmically appearing at his former landlady’s spritualist church. This delightful conceit – and I use the word in its literary sense – is Christopher Fowler (aka @Peculiar on Twitter) imagines a long conversation between Arthur and his long-time colleagues from the Peculiar Crime Unit, to put in print a kind of concordance of the wonderful quirks and hidden histories of London which underpinned the memorable series of novels featuring the two detectives.

This is not a geographical street-by-street tour, but more a recollection of bizarre events and strange legends that darts this way and that, rather like the working of Arthur’s mind. Most of the PCU team have an input with something that has taken their fancy, except (naturally) poor old Raymondo – Raymand Land, the exasperated, ineffectual and much mocked titular head of the PCU. He is given the wrong time for the meeting, and so when he arrives, everything is done and dusted. This little episode is a reminder that (imaginary) cruelty is an essential ingredient of English comedy.

The reader can dip in and out of this book pretty much taking the chapters in any order There is, quite rightly, no sense of one thing leading to another as, perhaps for the first and only time in this series, there is no need for a coherent plot. The events described have already happened – or not, as the case may be. Christopher Fowler, as an expert Londoner, is well aware that fable and legend do not need to cling too closely to probability.

For those wondering where this blissful blend of the arcane, the shocking, the macabre, the comical and the eccentric comes from, the author provides a ‘further reading’ list.

Reading list

It is right and fitting that the closing words in this book should be spoken by Artur Bryant himself:

“London.
According to the playwright Ben Jonson it was the city of bawds and roysters, claret-wine and oysters. To me it is just home, where I am on the inside looking out instead of somewhere outside looking in. It’s my city, not yours. Which is to say that I see it in a certain way that you do not, and vice-versa.
I have no fantasies involving a comatose retirement on the Isle of Wight, like poor old Raymondo. I have no intention of leaving this grubby, exhausting, maddening city.
London is like a greedy old landlady. She didn’t ask me to come, didn’t invite me to stay and won’t miss me when I’ve left.
And that suits me fine.”

Bryant and May’s Peculiar London is published by Doubleday, and is available now.

For more about Christopher Fowler and the Bryant & May novels, click the image below.

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A GEOGRAPHY OF HORROR . . . Between the covers

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Ghost_stories_of_an_antiquaryWho was the most celebrated writer of ghost stories? The genre doesn’t lend itself particularly well to longer book form, and even classics like Henry James’s The Turn of The Screw and Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black are relatively slim volumes. The master of the shorter version and, in my view, a man who unrivalled in the art of chilling the spine, was MR James. Montague Rhodes James was born in Kent in 1862, and in his main professional life he became a renowned scholar, medievalist and academic, serving as Provost of King’s College Cambridge, and Provost of Eton. His first collection of ghost stories, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, was published in 1904 and has, as far as I am aware, never been out of print.

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From the age of three, until he was in his forties, James’s  home was in Suffolk, and several of his most chilling tales were set in the county. Now, Simon Loxley, himself a Suffolk man who is a celebrated expert on typography, has written a book which examines James’s links with the county and the places which he is convinced that James had in his mind as the settings for such stories as Whistle and I’ll Come to You. Older readers of this review may remember a magnificent television adaptation of this story which was first shown in 1968, starring the great MIchael Hordern as the sceptical academic who, after rubbishing the very existence of a supernatural world, has a very nasty encounter with bed-sheets in his hotel room. A DVD is available (at a price), but as with so many other things, it’s on YouTube.

Simon Loxley’s book is, among other things, a superb piece of research. He has walked every inch of his territory, and has read every word that James wrote. He notes the distinctive Englishness of the characters and , in particular, their emotional restraint:

“They are people who would not normally foist their life story upon you at a moment’s notice. They have no-one close to confide in, so they carry the story with them, unspoken until, perhaps underv the encouragement of a social setting, they tell. That fits in with the perceived British national character of the period. The sanity and the solidarity of the characters is emphasised.”

Here, Loxley hits the button which reveals why the  MR James stories are so believable. The people who experience the unpleasant, dusty, scuttling – and long since dead – entities that still terrify us today, are not gullible fools, nor are they emotionally fragile. Instead they are solid, pragmatic ‘tweedy types’ who live their lives based on evidence and things empirical.

The book is lavishly illustrated with maps and photographs, and the author examines James as a man, as a writer, and also looks at his contemporaries, predecessors in the genre, and those he influenced. Loxley is also a perceptive critic and does not shy away from identifying the stories which he believes are weaker than James at his very best. Anyone who lives in Suffolk, or plans a visit. will find  particularly fascinating the  examination of the eight stories that are precisely linked with locations within the county.

Suffolk

The first of these, The Ash Tree, remains embedded in the darkest corner of my imagination, and has been there ever since I first read the story in my teens. I am an incurable arachnaphobe and, despite having lived for several years in Australia, where daily acquaintance with the eight-legged devils was commonplace, the very though of hand-sized versions of the worst thing that God ever created leaping onto your face as you lie asleep still makes me sweat with terror. MR James may not have shared my visceral fear of these creatures. but he certainly knew that his words would strike terror into the minds of people who see spiders as the ultimate evil.

A Geography of Horror is a mini-masterpiece, and an absolute ‘must’ for anyone who has read MR James, and, like the unfortunate Professor Parkins. still worries about the hunched and menacing shape of a dressing-gown carelessly hung on the inside of their bedroom door. To buy a copy, the best thing is to go to Simon Loxley’s website, or contact him on sloxley@btinternet.com.

SNOW AND STEEL . . . Between the covers

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I thought it was high time I included some non-fiction reviews. I am a keen (amateur) military historian, so I am happy to start this little adventure into the unknown by reviewing a superb history, written by Peter Caddick-Adams, of one of the bloodiest battles of WW2. I was going to use the word ‘decisive’, but that would be inappropriate as it suggests that the outcome of the Battle of The Bulge, which began in December 1944. was a pivotal point in the war. It wasn’t. Hitler’s war was already lost, mainly thanks his disastrous attempt to invade Russia.

SAS coverBy the autumn of 1944, German forces had been pushed out of France and were being systematically overwhelmed by the Red Army in the east. The allies had control of the Channel coast, but the Germans had effectively wrecked the French ports. Antwerp, however, had been taken more or less intact, and when the Germans had been removed from their strong-points controlling the estuary of the River Scheldt, the Belgian port became a massive conduit for the arrival of men, machines and supplies for the Allies.

Hitler believed that if he could reach Antwerp and choke the Allies’ massive superiority in materiel, he could somehow wrench victory from the jaws of defeat. Caddick-Adams tells a tale as tense and addictive as any murder mystery. Let’s look at the three main ingredients of such tales:

Motive; in the east, the Russians were just too many, too implacable, and too powerful, so Hitler needed a win – somewhere, anywhere.

Opportunity; the largely American forces in the Ardennes area were a mixture of battle-hardened veterans who has stormed the Normandy beaches on 6th June, and more callow units. Some had been battered and bloodied by the savage fighting in the Hurtgen Forest earlier that year. For a first hand account of that battle seen through the eyes of JD Salinger, click this link. None of these American units were expecting anything other than a steady but remorseless slog eastwards until they crossed the Rhine, until they were able to beard the Fuhrer in his den.

Means? Aye, there’s the rub.  Caddick-Adams explains that the cream of the German army had already been wiped out on the undulating fields of Normandy and bleaker killing grounds of East Prussia. The Werhmacht – comprising its three branches of land, sea and air forces – was on its uppers. To boost the forces attempting to storm their way across Belgium and recapture Antwerp, navy men from the Kriegsmarine and ground-crew from the Luftwaffe were given a helmet and a gun, and pitched against American forces.

Screen Shot 2022-01-01 at 09.41.39It is one of the great paradoxes of WW2 that on the ground, at least, the Germans had the best guns, the best artillery and the best tanks. The problem was that although the formidable Panzers were easily able to overcome the relatively underpowered Sherman tanks used by the allies, the German vehicles were high maintenance and, some would say, over-engineered. The ubiquitous Shermans were rolling off the production lines in their thousands, while the formidable Tigers and Panthers – when they developed a fault – were fiendishly difficult to repair or cannibalise. Caddick-Adams (right) also reminds us how well-fed and supplied the American GIs were compared with their German foes. In one particularly eloquent passage, he tells us of the utter joy felt by a unit of Volksgrenadiers when they seized a supply of American rations. When their own kitchen unit eventually reached their position, the cooks and their containers of watery stew were given very short shrift.

Snow and Steel covers ground familiar to many amateur historians – the Malmedy Massacre, the heroic defence of Bastogne, and Hitler’s manic distrust of his generals, amplified by the Stauffenberg plot. The eventual outcome of this battle is a matter of history so, although his narrative is as good as any found in contemporary thrillers of mysteries, Caddick-Adams knows we expect no surprises. What he gives us, however, is what used to be called (in the age of vinyl) a double A-side. We have a brilliant, methodical and comprehensive account of a battle where we get to see both the strategic and tactical implications of a military campaign. Flip the metaphorical record over, and we have a vivid account of a battle as seen by men who were there, told in their own words, and thus made even more chilling through its immediacy. Snow and Steel is published by Arrow and is available here.

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