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ENGLAND’S FINEST . . . Between the covers

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For newcomers to the sublime world of Arthur Bryant and John May, the new collection of short stories written by their biographer, Christopher Fowler, contains a handy pull-out-and-keep guide to the personnel doings of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit. OK, I lie – don’t try and pull it out because it will wreck a beautiful book, but the other bits are true.

Bryant & May are both impossibly old, and so this gives Fowler the licence to set their investigations anywhere between the Blitz and Brexit. These stories gleefully span the years, and established B&M hands are rewarded with the usual mix of arcane cultural references, one-liner gags, London psychogeography and stunning investigative insights from Arthur. Cosy entertainment? Not a bit of it. Fowler leavens the fun with a sense of melancholy which provides a haunting echo to the laughter.

9780857525697.jpg-nggid047297-ngg0dyn-292x0-00f0w010c010r110f110r010t010Leaving aside the pen pictures, introductions and postscripts, there are twelve stories. They are, for the most part, enjoyably formulaic in a Sherlockian way in that something inexplicable happens, May furrows his brow and Arthur comes up with a dazzling solution. Think of a dozen elegant variations of The Red Headed League, but with one or two being much darker in tone. Bryant & May and the Antichrist, for example, is a sombre tale of an elderly woman driven to suicide by the greed of a religious charlatan, while Bryant & May and the Invisible Woman reflects on the devastating effects of clinical depression. The stories are, of course set in London, apart from the delightfully improbable one where Arthur and John solve a murder within the blood-soaked walls of Bran Castle, once the des-res of Vlad Dracul III. Bryant & May and the Consul’s Son revisits Fowler’s fascination with the lost rivers of London, while Janice Longbright and the Best of Friends lets the redoubtable Ms L take centre stage.

The gags are as good as ever. While investigating a crime in a tattoo parlour, Arthur is mistaken for a customer and asked if he has a design in mind:

“I once considered having something on my right bicep but I couldn’t make up my mind between Sir Robert Peel and Dianor Dors.”

When PCU boss Raymond Land is faced with a difficult choice:

“There crept upon his face the anxiety of an Englishman stricken with indecision. It was a look you could see every day in Pret A Manger when middle managers struggled to choose sandwich fillings.”

Idon’t know Christopher Fowler personally, but I infer from his social media presence that he is a thoroughly modern and cosmopolitan chap and, with his spending his time between homes in Barcelona and King’s Cross, he could never be described as a Little Englander. How wonderful, then, that he is the most quintessentially English writer of our time. His Bryant & May stories draw in magical threads from English culture. There is the humour, which recalls George and Weedon Grossmith, WS Gilbert, and the various ‘Beachcombers’ down the years, particularly DB Wyndham Lewis and JB Morton. Fowler’s eagle eye for the evocative power of mundane domestic ephemera mirrors that of John Betjeman, while his fascination with the magnetic pull of the layers of history beneath London’s streets channels Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair.

This collection of short stories is a bar counter full of delicious Tapas rather than the sumptuous four course meal of a full novel, but the appetisers do what they are meant to do – stimulate the palate and make us hungry for more. England’s Finest is published by Doubleday and is out on 31st October.

For more reflections on Bryant & May – and the genius of their creator – click the image below.

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BACK TO THE FEN … Alex Mitchell

BTF4

Andy and I were up at the bar as usual, while Helen and Susan were in the dance hall itself. The worst thing about these dances was that, sooner or later, the lads from March would pick a fight with the lads from Guyhirn or wherever, usually on the pretext that somebody had tried it on with their girlfriend or sister or whatever. Lads were always trying to get off with Helen, and would then fall out on Andy or me in a fit of jealous resentment. I noticed two or three groups from previous encounters. The atmosphere was tense, threatening. It was time to exit the premises.

Andy has had a fair bit to drink, but he knows the road across the fen and home to Christchurch like the back of his hand, could do it blindfold. We’re cruising along, no problems, when a white Ford Escort pulls alongside and a lager can smashes against Andy’s side window. The Escort is crammed full of goons from the dance-hall, shouting and screaming foul abuse, mainly directed at Helen. They want us to chase them, want a race. Sober Andy wouldn’t have risen to the challenge, but drunk Andy does.

The back roads across the Fens are dead-straight, but narrow and undulating, being laid down right on top of the river-banks, where the alluvial silt provides a firmer base than would the peat-soil of the adjacent fields, most of which have shrunk and subsided down to a level well below that of the roadway, or even of the rivers themselves. It is easy to go off the road and plunge down into the river on the one side, or into the deep, steep-sided ditches draining the adjacent fields on the other side. Sections of the tarmac have subsided, or are crumbling at the edges, through lack of maintenance. I never understood why they wasted so much time at school warning us about unsafe sex and drugs when far and away the commonest cause of early death amongst our schoolmates was through motor accidents, cars going off the road and ending upside-down in a freezing-cold river or ditch.

BTF5

It takes me a while to come to, something warm trickling down my face. My right leg is at an unlikely angle and there are white shards of bone sticking out through my trouser-leg, below the knee, although I can’t feel anything yet. Andy is up against the steering-wheel, blood coming out of his mouth. Helen is between us, her head under the dashboard, not moving. Susan is lying on her front out on the bonnet; she must have gone straight through the windscreen, which is completely shattered. I can’t see her face, which is probably just as well.

A police car arrives, followed by an ambulance. I can only hear their voices, can’t see anything now.“Smells like a brewery in here – suppose they’re all pissed as usual. Cover that one’s face, for God’s sake, I can’t look at her like that. It’s worse when it’s a girl.”

BTF6Andy was killed in a motor accident shortly after his 23rd birthday, when his car went off the Ramsey Forty-Foot road in the middle of the afternoon; no other vehicle was involved, but none of us was greatly surprised.

The Friday night dances were a cruel lesson in the realities of life and about where you stood in the pecking-order. Lads fought and competed over the lovely Helen Atkins, who wanted no-one but Andy, who in turn was inseparable from his drinking-mates down at the Seven Stars. Nice, plain-faced girls went home alone while the local lads drank themselves into a coma or got into fights with lads from neighbouring villages and towns. Nobody got what they wanted. As youngsters, we aimed high, stars in our eyes. Most of us learned to lower our sights and settled for the kind of life that was available to the likes of us, something on our level, somebody of our own class. We spent our salad days chasing rainbows, in pursuit of the lovely Helen, or others like her; but we mostly ended up marrying and settling down with one of those plump, plain-faced local girls, for better or worse. Some of us went away for a time, but we all came back sooner or later, because here is where we belong.

The back road between the Old and New Bedford rivers, my road home, is on a slightly lower level than the surrounding fields and water-meadows. Floodwater begins to spill off the fields and starts to trickle over the lowest section of the road ahead. Time to be getting back. This is what it will feel like when the world ends. This is what it will feel like for the last man left alive, as tidal waves cascade over the last remaining hillock of dry land.

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But the worst is behind me now. The road rises steeply to the bridge across the Old River and the lights of the Lamb & Flag. So good to see the road surface again, and to feel dry land under my boots. Safe on the bridge, I look back at the opaque watery blackness and shiver.

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I escaped, this time. But I know I will go back to the fen, and will keep going back, until such time as I escape no longer.

CLICK THE IMAGE BELOW TO READ PART ONE OF BACK TO THE FEN

 

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BACK TO THE FEN … Alex Mitchell

BTF 1 replacement

There didn’t seem to be a great deal to look forward to; no proper jobs, not for we lads, anyway; no real prospect of getting a place of your own unless you settled for being trailer-trash, stuck in a freezing cold caravan in some farmer’s cow field. The Fen villages were just fading away. The smaller ones always had a kind of half-hearted or make-do appearance, like temporary staging posts in some dead-loss location in the Wild West of America. But now you could draw up a check-list and watch one thing disappear after another; High St. shops, family businesses from way back, the train service into town, the railway station itself, the late bus, then all the buses, the secondary school, the primary school, the cottage hospital, the doctor’s surgery, the public library, the banks, the police station, the vicar, then the church itself, the Post Office and then, the last thing of all to go, the pubs.

We all knew of local lads, older brothers, whatever, who had moved to the city, Peterborough or further away, to find a job and a place of their own. They had a hard time finding work as a country boy with no local contacts, nobody to pull strings or put in a word for them. You had to live in a bedsit or whatever for years before they’d even put you on the waiting list for a council place, and even then, the best you could hope for was a flat on the worst crime & drugs-infested high-density estate on the outer edge of the city. So there we all were, stuck, with no way out, or round, or through. Whether you moved or stayed, there wasn’t much to get enthusiastic about.

BTF2

What is it that draws us back to the water, again and again? Why do we feel such a sense of peace and tranquility here, and nowhere else but here? Is this where the ancestral fish-thing in each of us feels most at home? Or are there still fishy things deep in there now, calling us home?

The Fen villages stand on what used to be islands of higher ground, surrounded until quite recently by marsh and fen. They were isolated communities, cut off from the outside world by the surrounding marshland and water. In the past, the Fens were a place of refuge for fugitives, outlaws and persecuted religious groups. The Fen people were nicknamed “yellow-bellies” on the basis of their aquatic way of life and because their ancestors were supposed to have interbred with the water-dwelling local wildlife of frogs, newts and toads. More to the point, the isolated character of the Fen villages, and the difficulty of travelling from one village to another, meant that the Fen communities were prone to in-breeding. This problem was eventually diminished by the draining of the Fens for purposes of agriculture and, as in other rural areas, by the advent of the bicycle, which allowed eager young lads access to girls in more distant communities and to distribute their genetic inheritance more widely in the process; but people still say that babies in the remoter villages are born with webbed feet.

BTF3

TO BE CONCLUDED

 

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