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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.

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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

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.

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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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THE WORLD CUP MYSTERY . . . Between the covers

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WCMWe are in Sicily, and it is the long hot summer of 1966. Brighton crime reporter Colin Crampton has taken his Aussie girlfriend Shirley Goldsmith abroad for a holiday. While the sun beats down, and gentle breezes blow in from the Mediterranean, Colin hopes to choose a romantic location – perhaps the ruin of a Greek temple – where he will go down on one knee and propose marriage to the beautiful Shirl. He has an expensive diamond ring in his pocket to help boost his case, but it is not to be.

They encounter a young Italian woman who is being abused by her Mafioso husband, and she tells them that her father – who owns a greasy spoon café near Colin and Shirl’s home in Brighton – has been murdered, but her husband refuses to allow her to travel to England. Colin, ever the parfit gentil knight, puts his proposal on hold, flogs the ring, and manages to smuggle Rosina out of the country. Back in Blighty, Colin learns from his contacts in the constabulary, that Sergio Parisi was not only murdered but robbed of a precious ticket for the World Cup Final at Wembley on 30th July. Parisi had won the ticket in a raffle at the local football club, where it had been sent, anonymously, and for reasons yet unknown.

It is always a joy to be sent a new Crampton of The Chronicle story. I have been enjoying them since Headline Murder in 2015. People can be dismissive of so-called Cosy Crime, or ‘comfort reading’ but, like many another crime book reviewer, I have to read new stuff all the time, books that one has no idea from the outset whether or not they are going to entertain, thrill, challenge or what demands the plot is going to make on one’s credulity or attention to detail. The Colin Crampton books are reassuringly and delightfully reliable. It is a dead certainty that they will be:

(1) Full of politically incorrect – but never cruel – humour
(2) Tightly plotted and cleverly written – as one would expect from a veteran jounalist
(3) Gloriously nostalgic, and crackling with authentic period detail
(4) Peopled by outrageously over-the-top characters
(5) Built of the bedrock of the sheer decency and warmth of the two main characters – Colin and his Aussie girlfriend Shirl

Back to the specifics. Colin’s investigations uncover the fact that the murder of Signor Parisi is connected to the notorious theft of the Jules Rimet trophy and its celebrated re-discovery by Pickles the border collie. The plot becomes delightfully more absurd as Colin gets arrested for murder and we meet, in no particular order, a football groundsman who is a disciple of Kim Il Sung, the lovely Shirl modelling international football strips on the front page of The Daily Mirror (phwoar!} and Booby Moore. There is an implausible but entertaining finale in the tractor shed under Wembley Stadium just as Geoff Hurst scuppers the dastardly Huns with his extra-time goals, and  Colin and Shirley live to fight (and love) another day.

If settling down to enjoy two hundred or so pages of a book as good as this is a cultural sin, then mea culpa. Forgive me Father. for I have sinned, and I’ll do as many Hail Marys as it takes to return to a state of grace. The World Cup Mystery is published by The Bartram Partnership, and is available now. For more on the series, and features written for Fully Booked by the author, click on his image below.

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AMBRIDGE AT WAR . . . Between the covers

Archers001Followers of these pages will know well that my strapline is Crime For The Cogniscenti and might wonder what I am doing reviewing a book about the Archers. I was intrigued to be offered this, written by Catherine Miller, but was prepared to be underwhelmed. It just shows how wrong one can be, and why it is never a good idea to prejudge things.

There may well be some transatlantic readers of my reviews who have never heard of Ambridge or the Archers, but I won’t waste words on the background other than to say that Ambridge is a fictional village in Worcestershire, and the long-running radio serial – it first broadcast on 1st January 1951 – was described as “an everyday story of country folk.”

I have to say at this point that I parted company with BBC Radio 4 in general, and The Archers in particular some time ago. Both have become far too ‘woke’ and socially aware for this curmudgeonly man in his 70s to be bothered with, but this book reminded me of what I used to enjoy about the programme.

It is January 1940, and rural England is having to come to terms with the expression, “don’t you know there’s a war on?Dan Archer and his wife Doris run Brookfield Farm, and Dan is now the Ambridge representative on the ‘War Ag’ – The War Agricultural Executive Committee, whose main job it is to put every available acre of land under the plough to grow food. And that means everything from grazing land to rose gardens. The first evacuees from London have arrived, and Doris is in charge of checking that the newcomers are being looked after.

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Archers fans can find the family tree elsewhere on the internet, but who else would they recognise? That depends on the longevity of their Archers ‘habit’. Walter Gabriel and his son Nelson put in an appearance, as do various members of the disreputable Horobin family. A central figure in the story is the village Squire, Alec Pargetter, who is having an affair with a comely young widow, but not doing too well at concealing it from the nosy villagers – or his aloof wife Pamela. Their rather strange son, Gerald, will go on to be the father of the nice-but-dim Nigel who was, of course, controversially killed off by the producers when he fell off a roof in 2011.

51KaDaIRGaL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_Someone is leaving handwritten notes around the village hinting at various moral indiscretions taking place. The notes are, naturally, anonymous, but are the slurs true? Unfortunately, the author of the allegations seems to be uncannily wired into the private lives of the people of Ambridge, and has the unfortunate ability to see through closed doors and curtained windows.

Aside from those we might call canonical characters, whose descendants serious Archer buffs will know and love, Catherine Miller has assembled an intriguing cast; there is the bedridden and pampered Blanche Gilpin –  plump and sweet-smelling, like an apple left to rot.” – who is waited on hand and foot by her downtrodden sister Jane; Kitty Dibden-Rawles is a beautiful young Irish woman, widowed and left in debt by a profligate husband; Dr Morgan Seed, keeper of many a village secret, is long a widower, but has he the chance to love again? And Lisa – poor Lisa Forrest – Doris Archer’s mother, in the terrifying grip of what we now call Alzheimers.

It took just nine words – and these were quoted on the first chapter heading –  to alert me to the possibility that this book might be something special.

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Catherine Miller is clearly – like me – a lifelong devotee of Thomas Hardy. Not only does each chapter heading use a line or two from one of his bitter-sweet poems, she shapes plot resolutions as Hardy-esque ironies, of which the great man would have been proud. Another little in-joke is that when Kitty writes love notes to her lover, they are signed “G.Oak.

Make no mistake. This is not a cosy rural idyll – the war claims more casualties than are caused by bombs or bullets and, despite the bedrock decency of Dan and Doris Archer, the cruelties of fate are explored with raw honesty. The book is billed as Volume 1, so enthusiasts – of which I am one –  will have more joys to come. The Archers – Ambridge At War is published by Simon & Schuster and is out now.

SUN AND FUN

JBSir John Betjeman is so unfashionable these days that it is an utter delight to be an admirer. His directness and accessibility have been mocked, but only by those whose lack of talent and perception can only be measured in geological numbers. Here, he pokes his head round a curtain, and sees an ageing debutante, lamenting the passing years and her own decline

SUN AND FUN

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