Thursday, 13 November 2008

Not exactly thrilled

Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood (although when I bought it I thought I was); maybe it was watching the excellent BBC series, The State Within, at the same time as reading; maybe it was coming to the book straight after Agatha Christie’s masterpiece, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – but Frederick Forsyth’s ‘thriller’, The Afghan proved to be more a damp squib than pyrotechnic display.

All the constituent parts were in place – action man hero, terrorist bad guys, secret service intrigue and obligatory cock-up and miss-timings; suitable locations were exploited; enough people, including the obligatory innocent, were killed – but nothing stood out, nothing gripped – it was just like sitting in a cooling bath – warm enough to keep you in, but almost cold enough to force you to move: Inertia is a significant factor in the choices people make.

In previous Forsyth reads I’ve never been so unexcited – or uninterested.

Key to my disappointment is this feeling of detachment – I quite frankly didn’t care about any of the participants. It is in the nature of the genre that character is not greatly developed, but there is a need for a sharpness of outline, some individuation, telling details to hook on to. Mike Martin, the hero, is far too obvious to be real – there is no way I want a Colonel in the SAS to have Lawrence of Arabia as his favourite film – or to think in terms of tatty emotional-knee-jerk poetry: This is dumbing-down in an obvious way. The Afghan himself – prisoner in Guantanamo - despite showing flickers of life, especially in his youth, turns into the ‘justified’ terrorist; Forsyth’s attempts to humanise sounding more like wishy-washy liberal, coffee-table sociology than solid realities.

So too with the locations. In Forsyth’s Icon I could recognise Russia – the Moscow of post Soviet collapse – and that despite knowing factually it was not quite right in several places (I was living in Moscow at the time I read it); what it captured was one of the senses of psychological place that were potentially post Yeltsin Moscva.

Not one location in The Afghan gave me anything other than a feeling of umbrella-stand to hang a piece of plot on. Whether it was the seriously spectacular mountains of Afghanistan, the luscious blues of the Arabian gulf, the dripping mosquito heat of the tropics or the cold chill rounding the southern tip of Africa late in winter – none appeared in my inner mind as I read of events taking place ostensibly in a globalised terrorists-free-to-wander world.

Strangely, at times, I had a suspicion that Forsyth was thinking in terms of film – sketching in plot and focus points which the actual location will screen fill, the sound effects and music-track excite, the quick cutting and camera close-up thrill. There was no stronger incident in the book than the Russian helicopter rising into the air and coming into the attack – it would make a stunning sequence – on the page it was reduced to events.

I will watch the film when it comes out – it should be a good action movie (although the basic terrorist plot did stretch believability I’m afraid). The book, however, is destined for the reject pile.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

The Ultimate Deception

Agatha Christie’s job, as a writer of Detective Novels, was, paradoxically, to hide the criminal – much like a spiv with the card game, Hide the Lady. Even though the punter aims to find the card – and makes wild guesses (based, of course, on superior talents) the side-show spiv will win every time – maybe it’s just a trick, a slight of hand, but we come back again and again in the vain hope of putting one over on the expert.

Not much hope, I’m afraid!

‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’ has to be Ms Christie’s ultimate deception – it certainly had me fooled right ‘til the end. No matter where I looked, the Lady was hidden.

Up pop all the usual suspects – and with a Christie you know if someone is accused, it isn’t them. One by one she knocks out everyone – and I do mean everyone! Surely she hasn’t had a total stranger do the murder?

No, the wrist works it’s magic: Poirot, shows you the superiority of his little grey cells and you loose again.

And I can’t tell you the secret – I won’t spoil the thrill.

What I will say is it is beautifully done.

Agatha Christie manages here to exploit the genre ‘Detective Novel’ in a way which relies on the reader’s knowledge of all the usual tricks, of lulling them into a false sense of security and then flipping them onto their backs. It is a book to be read rather than a story to be told – and despite the amazing craftsmanship of Granada television’s version with David Suchet, it fails precisely because this is not only a story but an exploration of the relationship between reader and writer.

Poirot has gone into retirement – Hastings is away in Argentina, Scotland Yard is not involved. A local rich man is the victim of murder (the only one, incidentally in the story – the TV version needed to double the number, bring Inspector Japp in where he wasn’t wanted and simplify the plot by removing a couple of key characters). There is blackmail and love, lost wedding rings and phone calls in the night.

Poirot, after throwing marrows around, one of which lands in his neighbour’s garden and smashes open at the feet of the doctor, is brought in on the sidelines – he hardly features in fact. There is a chair out of place, a man arrested in Liverpool, and the delicate feelings of the local constabulary all to be taken into consideration.

And a lot of consideration is being done by a local tribe of Miss Marples. Nosey old women pop up in profusion – and references to the greatest detective of all times can’t be avoided: The story is retold by the Doctor whose shoes were splattered – a Watson to Poirot’s Holmes.

As you would expect, it is the twist and turns of the plot that matter rather than deep characterisation, but to suggest the book is shallow as a result would be to deny the profound insight Ms Christie shows into the psychology of her readership.

The term masterpiece has been justifiably applied to the book – and I fully concur.

Just make sure you read the book before you see the film!

Friday, 31 October 2008

A Debt of Gratitude

Even though Graham Greene lived and worked well into the ending of the 20th century, I was a little surprised when I saw the date of publication of ‘The Human Factor’: 1978, the year I graduated from university: For some reason I had associated it with the 1950s and an earlier generation.

As I’ve mentioned before, Greene had had an early influence on me - but reading Greene from this end of my allotted time is a very different experience. The realisation that he is dealing in my lifetime gives a sharpness, if not bitterness, and reflecting on Greene’s observations is a more personal undertaking than initially presumed. Time present is to be found in time past.

This is a spy story – in the way that King Lear is a story about retirement or Waiting for Godot a play about a missed appointment. The title is appropriate – if 007 is all action, and Smiley not really much deeper than your average detective, Castle, the central character here, and Davis, his co-worker in the Security Service are not only fleshed out and rounded physically, but psychologically believable. The guilts and gratitudes, the anxieties and loves Mr Greene weaves into their tale are not mere excuses for action, they are the subject of the story – The Human Factor.

Through a debt of honour Castle feels bound to reveal what amount to trivial secrets to the ideological enemies of his nation – enemies who acted with more humanity and goodwill than supposed allies and friends. No guilt arises from the treachery, if anything it is a re-affirmation of the love he feels for his wife (the root cause of the debt) and a genuine attempt to relieve the suffering of her ‘people’ under the vicious Apartheid system both the British and American governments are working with covertly (and not so covertly) in an attempt to stop the threat of Africa turning ‘red’.

What we get is the clash of an individual with systems – the resulting crushing of the human by the state and its apparatus is quite desolating. The world has turned upside down – the doctor seeks ways to kill, the policeman attempts to justify and excuse crime; the Catholic church is anything but catholic and even the guard dog fawns on strangers.

Accidents happen in this ‘we’re not totalitarian’ state – the wrong man is executed (how else can we prevent bad publicity) – much as in the ‘regrettable’ accident of the killing of the innocent Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes.

Fictional though Mr Greene’s world is, it is a fiction based on a mental reality – that of a security service more frightened of the enemy within than a real threat without: I can only compare it to the human immune system turning against the cells of its own body.

Relevant to all of us in the present climate of ‘wars’ against terror which produce far more shocking tortures and crimes against humanity on behalf of the good guys than the bad guys could dream up (or afford).

Sunday, 24 August 2008

A Nation's Frailty

Fortunately, Alan Bennett has already declined a knighthood - meeting England's sword wielding Queen after publishing The Uncommon Reader might be a little, shall we say, 'ambiquous'.

But then again, Alan Bennett has a charm and humour which might, if the present monarch does actually read, disarm even the most, "We are not amused!"

The story is simple; England's Queen suddenly develops a passion for reading which humanises her. It does not, however, result in any final satisfaction and at the end of the book we are left with a twist that seems to be setting Mrs Windsor off on a whole new adventure.

In such stark outline it is a piece of amusing trivia ... and I've read several reviews which don't seem to have moved beyond this level of comprehension: That is to greatly underestimate both Mr Bennett and his understanding of the character of the British Monarchy. It is also to reduce what is an interesting essay into the relationship between reader and writer to mere amusement.

Bennett is superb with 'odd' characters - his Talking Heads series takes individuals and exposes both the bleakness and the richness of their humanity.

He does a similar job here on 'The Queen'. But to mistake the character for the real thing is to mistake Mr Bennett's purpose ...

The Queen of England (Elizabeth II - she doesn't even have a real family name!) represents in a way which is unique in the modern world, a nation. That nation is not even England ... it is the United Kingdoms of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or UK. The poor woman has even got the extra burden of several other states and nations tucked around her.

As such, any individuality or personality has been subsumed under the mantel of duty ...and that is Mr Bennett's starting point. Through her passion for reading, the character of the Queen undergoes an education which releases her individuality and causes her to reject that lifetime of duty.

This is, of course, a manifesto and a metaphor ... if the Queen is representative of the UK then it is as duty bound as she and there is a need for the liberating effect of reading.

But it goes beyond being a simple cry for more education, it is a call for the appreciation of the creative in us all.

As the Queen, tentatively at first, makes her way through the world of literature she absorbs everything from high to low. It causes her to ask embarrassing questions about Jean Genet of the French President; to force old paperback copies of Hardy's poetry on the Prime Minister; to eventually send her private secretary back home to the bleakness of the southern hemisphere.

The early journey is supported by the dish-washing homosexual 'Norman' - too ugly to make it as page. His promotion upstairs leads to resentment and his eventual removal whilst the Queen is away both fortunate and unfortunate.

Prince Philip trots around like one of 'the dogs' and several un-named grandchildren flit in and out. So too do a remarkable list of authors, all given a little pungent assessment - which is one of the delights of the book.

Politicians are given short shrift ... but not the main character herself. There is an affection in the writing which belies the suggestion that Mr Bennett is taking a swipe at the monarchy. He's too good a writer for that.

Oh, by the way - it is very, very witty!

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Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Damned Silly!

“One is tempted to say,” said the white wine and soda, “it was a positive wolf in the grass slothing lambs wool mittens!”

The tea with milk, no sugar, agreed.

With a clear and unambiguous title, Blandings Castle emblazoned on the dust cover, one is not expecting trips to Hollywood, even with the inestimable Mr. Mulliner and his ubiquitous family.

Sneakily slipped inside is the full title, ‘Blandings Castle and Elsewhere’. Damned cheek I’d call it – especially as I’d settled in to my summer holiday read and, like England, was expecting …

In two clear parts with and entr'acte of mixed pedigree, this collection of short stories takes you through an early phase of Lord Emsworth’s passions (strictly horticultural at first but moving swinewards), deals with the suicidal American publisher and comes to rest in the US of A’s bitter world of celluloid sweat-shop.

Emsworth here seems to be a bit stronger - to be able to offer resistance to that most formidable of avenging hosts, his sister and even takes to refusing his Glaswegian sourpuss Head Gardener – but only with the helping hand of a London waif.

These are tales which wag with all the drunken puppy-dog vigour you would expect from Blandings and don’t disappoint. The young characters are chumps, the older characters either fighting against the encroaching idiocies of youth, or rich enough to indulge them. Sailing through it all is Emsworth, concerned only with the important things of life – watching his marrow grow or fattening his pig to Shropshire Show prize winning proportions. His son is more concerned with selling dog biscuits.

This ends all too quickly – at page 160 of a 300 page book.

Mr Potter, publisher, gets dragged down to a very Blandings-inferior country residence for the between acts entertainment marking a sort of obvious transition – an American in England before we hit the English in America. What he is doing sneaking out of a punt and into the moat I’ll leave it to you to find out – but star (or rather Lady Wickham’s celebrated willpower) crossed love is involved, and furniture piled against the door.

Mr Mulliner then, as is his want, engages in a bit of storytelling in the local pub to assembled drinks. All are of related Mulliners, their blighted loves and interactions in the jungle we know as the film industry.

Mr. Wodehouse seems to have a wormwood like inflection towards the Californian dream factory and one wonders if personal experience hasn’t coloured his attitude.

Monstrous moguls, scheming starlets and writing prisons all feature in this most deceptive of environments – and the bland drift of English youth towards it is reminiscent of Pacific flotsam.

Amusing but cautionary, the moral high ground is scaled, whilst in the cellar the police are locked out of the illicit liquor store.

Good tales – but not what I wanted on the hot summer riverbank as I lazily watch the local hookers attempting to land the indolent carp.

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Thursday, 24 July 2008

Greedy Appetites

Crime Fiction tends to rely on the glutton rather than the epicure – the criminals always seem to want insatiably - wealth, power, wo/men; the detectives want more and more, almost with a ferociousness, the next clue; and the readers stuff themselves to bursting with the newest publication. Tabloid details are piled high on the table and quickly consumed.

Death in the Truffle Wood is, unashamedly, Crime Fiction.

It does, however, nod in the direction of better cooking in that it titillates the appetite – usually with a dark humour. And there are a couple of good descriptions of the sort of food that gives the French the moral high ground over the English when it comes to ‘measuring’ cuisines.

Commissaire Laviolette, is the detective Poirot might have been if Agatha Crusty had been a French intellectual instead of English ‘madam’: He likes good food, he smokes roll-ups with the class only the intelligent seem to manage, he chases women whilst he’s chasing murderers and he is, according to his bosses, none-descript – he’s given the case of the disappearing hippies because no one will notice him.

He, like his author, Pierre Magnan, is Provencal – The Province – the one that gives its inhabitants the necessary passport to condescend to town dwellers everywhere, and puts the urbane in urban.

Laviolette understands the countryside and country people in a way streetwise Phillip Marlowes in their brick and tarmac jungles will never grasp. There is almost an organic telepathy, an osmosis of thought and feeling flowing between the detective and the community. Clues are a concentration of flavours and scents rather than solid facts … animals play a key role in searching out these essentials – just as Roseline, the truffle hunting pig, searches and earns her keep rooting for what is essentially a parasitic fungus sucking away at the roots of healthy oak trees.

Those truffles, however, feature strongly in both the cooking and the plot – and act as a metaphor for the whole genre – what, after all, is it we are searching for but the rotten feeding off the strong? What is the detective in fiction but a glorified truffle pig?

That is the kind of rhetorical question you end up asking as you read – and points to an element in this book which is missing in the average pot-boiler – intellectualism.

Now, I am of Anglo-Saxon stock, and, even though I’ve denied my father and changed … I haven’t gone so far as to feel comfortable with ‘intellectualism’. Intelligence I can cope with – as long as it does the occasional prat-fall and keeps itself suitably coy – but showy intellectualism is a bit ‘continental’.

All I can say is, “Here it works,” – it is an integral part of the book and gives a dimension to the read which is refreshing to the jaded palate. I am not convinced though that the majority of Morse (who is only intelligent, despite his opera playing) and Barnaby (who is decidedly English Bumbling) fans will take much pleasure from the story.

Of the characters that people the pages there is a real French tart – not the English sticky, sweet, ‘Queen of Hearts’, jam type, but a goat cheese, onion and truffle baked Banon original; a small, lost dachshund befriended by the pig; several braces of warring brothers; and a lightening struck old cow who terrifies all around her and gets the toughest of toughs to open doors, politely, for her. There is also mention but, infuriatingly. no development of a partnership between the local baker and the local priest.

I picked up the book as an intentional anti-dote to the heavy English cooking of ‘On Chesil Beach’ – and have to say, instead of a sorbet, I got something a little more substantial – but equally invigorating.

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Sunday, 20 July 2008

A visit to the bookshop

After the emotional thumping of 'On Chesil Beach' I thought I needed something a bit lighter.

I duly wandered into a couple of the local bookshops and did a browse.
I like browsing.
I end up buying a lot online - I live, after all, in a provincial town in an none-English speaking country: The fact that there are several bookshops in the town with a range of books in English is itself something of a miracle.

Don't try ordering though - the Romanian system can't cope with ordering.

Amazon (the UK one) saves my bacon regularly, even though the postage is unreasonable, almost punitive.

I wasn't sure what I wanted - i just knew it was to be lighter - possibly a Crusty (Agatha), possibly sci-fi; maybe something foreign - as long as it wasn't too intense.

There are some good Chinese and Japanese novels - the publisher Vintage seems to be making inroads into lesser explored territories; and sci-fi is over represented - too much in fact to go through, and the girl stocktaking in front of them restricted my enthusiasm somewhat.

Then two clear choices popped up - a classic, 'Memories of My Melancholy Whores', a García Márquez. I thought that was a good choice after all that sexual frustration of the McEwan.

And 'Death in the Truffle Wood' - whose blurb promises not only good crime fiction, but loving descriptions of French food.

After the early 60's English of the last novel, the French won hands down.

So, expect some delicious crime and good pig fodder next up!

Nobel Aspirations!

There was talk, when Ian McEwan’s ‘On Chesil Beach was up for The Booker Prize, of its shortness:  The implication is of a slight story, of a lack of depth – of ‘all very well, but …’.

I take it the people talking in that way either use a pair of scales to determine the quality of literature or have senses so exhausted from reading too many words as to be unable to determine true quality when it bites them.

This is not a book for literary gluttons – it is one for the epicure.

The plot is simple – we go through the agonies of two people on their wedding night: Both are virgins; both are deeply in love; both are nervous.

A simple tale.

But this is the end of the post war generation – the moment when one culture dies and another hope-full springs on the scene.  In his poem, Anus Mirabilis, Philip Larkin made the point:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three

and it is as if On Chesil Beach has taken this as a leitmotiv.  The book is set just before this year of wonders.

Sex, sexual relationships, the physical linking of two people is very much an element in the book – but it is not only the physical, it is a psychological and spiritual, a communal and private expression of the moment of giving up a hard-fought-for independence.

As befits such a topic, several of the descriptions are quite explicit – Ian McEwan has the luxury of writing after the, ‘end of the "Chatterley" ban’ and consequently can talk of what is a forbidden subject to the post war generation (at least in respectable circles).

Music is also a key.

Florence is a young, talented, classical musician with an inability to see anything of interest in the popular music of her day; Edward, whilst being a little more flexible, swings a different direction – he dreams of fathering a daughter who would follow her mother into the world of music, possibly as a violinist (but, you never know, maybe with an electric guitar).

Edward gets into brawls outside pubs – enjoying the violent release of energies wound like a clock spring inside; Florence keeps a tight grip on her tensions using the notes on the printed score for her release and dominating, tyrant like almost, the rehearsals of the string quartet she forms.

Both are intelligent, both have a degree of single-mindedness both have families which encapsulate the standards of their time.

Florence’s family is a mix of business and academia – father earning, mother bohemianish philosopher – she knows the right people.  Edward comes from a different end of the same class – his father is a headmaster of a primary school, his mother, well, his mother ‘looks after’ the house.  Both have sisters, both have good childhoods.

How then do we get to the tragedy on the beach - for this is a tragedy – a real tragedy, of Ancient Greek proportions – how do we get beyond the point of no return?

Part of the answer, I think, lies in the hubris of mankind – we fail to make the right sacrifices letting the gods, ‘kill us for their sport’.  One word can make a difference, and we won’t speak that word through pride, or duty, or fear, or, - for whatever reason.

Another part is the downright stupidity of innocence … if there was ever an argument needed for sex education in schools – this is it!  But that is to reduce what is a sublime story to the ridiculous (although I do think Mr Mc knew his was a tightrope walk between tragedy and comedy).

Sublime too is the writing – there are descriptions here to relish: The cold coagulated early 60’s food; the cheap ‘French’ wine; the material of the dresses; the tackiness of bodily fluids.  Part of the intenseness of the story comes from this exceptionally careful use of appropriate description – you are firmly placed in a material world.

Not that this really happened – IM makes very clear on the last page of the book, “the characters in this novel are inventions.”  The need for this reminder is not just a legalistic, ‘someone might sue’, but a reflection of the success and believability of the story – as I read I thought of my older sisters (of this generation) and their wedding nights. I remembered the meals (and could name the wine).

The frightening verisimilitude gives added power to what I believe is a tale of essential humanity – there, but for …

(I also think this is the book the Nobel Prize committee will turn too one day and say – Universal Literature).

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Friday, 18 July 2008

Demon Fowl

Keep it simple, keep it fast and keep it jokey: Perfect entertainment for the mid-teens (and older).

I’ve enjoyed all the Artimis Fowl novels to date – and this latest, Artimis Fowl and the Lost Colony, is no exception.

For those not in the know, Artemis is a teenage genius with a penchant for crime, and a big – very BIG – minder called Butler. He’s been annoying the hell out of the fairy kingdom for years, although, having saved each other from disaster more than once, they have the sort of a love-hate relationship neither side would admit to: Holly, ex-LEPrecon (the fairy police), is his principle contact and Foley (the centaur) the technical wizardry supplier – oh, and there is a singularly repulsive character called Mulch, the perfect manifestation of all younger teenage toilet humour jokes – what comes out of his backside on a regular basis shall not soil these pages, even though it might fertilize the ground (and pollute the air).

In this episode Artemis starts off demon hunting in Barcelona – and catches more than he bargains for.

For starters there is an initially slightly younger female genius just as arrogant, just as rich and just as infuriating as he is himself: And with the surging of adolescent juices, Artemis is getting a little emotional: Not his sort of thing at all – he even has to ask Butler for advice! She’s too busy working on a paper for her first Nobel prize to take much notice.

Then there are the demons – whose own adolescent juices make the trials of the average human no more taxing than squeezing the odd blackhead. One of the demons seems to have a problem of delayed adolescence – but that turns out to be a good thing for all demon kind, although somewhat embarrassing for the poor individual concerned.

The final element is a suitably manic maniac, Kong – the human equivalent of a Polar bear amongst the seals. He had the misfortunes to have had a creative older brother whose embroidered ‘boggy-man’ stories result in a series of very unfortunate events at the top of a very high skyscraper and an exhibition of very accurately detailed stone carving from the Celtic fringes.

Nothing to worry about though – even though Artemis lets Holly die and fails totally at one point, trapping himself forever on the other side – all ends happy ‘til the next episode, in the end.

Great read (parents - steal it off the kids and sneak it under the bedcovers).

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Classic Flop?

Openly expressing dislike of what has become something of a classic of ‘British humour’ is possibly a dangerous thing – But … it is quite beyond me why the Cambridge ESOL Examinations Board should have set Kingsley Amis’s ‘Lucky Jim’ as a text for their CAE examinations, and equally beyond me why anyone should say it is funny.

I first read the thing back in the summer 1975 (I can be sure of the date because it was part of my University set reading – I was going ‘up’ to Leicester to study for a B.Sc. and some ‘wit’ had included this on the list of ‘books to study before coming’ as it was supposed to have sketches of people still teaching at the university in it – if it did, I never met them).

I didn’t find it very funny then, and I find it even less so now.

It is in the genre of ‘campus novels’ – a particularly tacky genre – and is claimed to have been ‘seminal’ – for which I shall never forgive it.

For those who don’t know, campus novels are about College and University campuses; are written by people whose whole lives have been blighted by the college experience and consequently feel it incumbent upon themselves to inflict a similar blight on the rest of their and future generations; they usually attempt to be ‘hilarious’ – and fail.

Campus Novels are loved by academics (a sort of S & M experience, I would suggest) and book critics (who tend to be failed academics - and consequently promote them as some sort of revenge taking experience). They pop up far too often on suggested reading lists and the like.

‘Lucky Jim’ supposedly changed the whole post-war generation … with little evidence to support this, I am firmly ‘in denial’.

Jim Dixon is the sort of lout who, because he had nothing better to do and is too lazy to do anything anyway, enters the University lecturing profession dishonestly – claiming interest and expertise where he has none. The book follows this thug’s adventures through a ‘red-brick’ university where he causes drunken destruction and chaos wherever he goes. He exhibits the sort of socialist rhetoric you’d expect and lands a job at the end with a millionaire.

What is clear to me (although not so clear to many at the time of publication, or since) is that Mr Amis does not like Jim – he is an ‘oink’ of the wrong class and only becomes respectable at the end as he moves into the pale blue conservative world. His luck is in escaping the not-really-university ‘red-brick’ institution, whose academic standards and personnel are only a joke.

The so called humour is in fact barely disguised contempt for the genuine changes brought on by a World War that shattered the privilege of education and class (although not so effectively). Educating this sort of person is obviously a dumbing-down in the eyes of Mr Amis.

The excellent introduction to the Penguin Edition, by David Lodge, also points out the attack being made on Graham Greene – especially on ‘The Heart of the Matter’.

There are obvious connections and references – from suicide to doing ‘the right thing’.

All I can say is I re-read, ‘The Heart of the Matter’ recently and was impressed: I re-read this slight book and found it severely wanting.

Fortunately Mr Amis went on to write better things – unfortunately, his politics went even further in the wrong direction.

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Saturday, 5 July 2008

Golf's Grip

Or the Oldest Member Clubs

P. G Wodehouse’s ‘The Heart of a Goof’ is superficially about golf – and you might need to check-out a couple of key words and phrases, not least mashie-niblick, in order to savour to the full all the delights contained within: But don’t be fooled – Wodehouse, like ‘the Oldest Member’, uses golf simply as the excuse to draw you into a series of nine gripping tales of deceit, love and warfare. I am tempted to say siren-like. In fact I will say siren like: Wodehouse, and the oldest member, siren-like, trap the unsuspecting passer-by in tales of neatly woven passions and barely suppressed expletives.

As befits the short, nine hole course, each story is unique in its play – but some are more unique than others.

Hole one explains the title – a goof in golf is a special type of player, one that has allowed the noblest of games to get to him and, as a consequence, suffers torments at the poor quality of his or her play (for Wodehouse’s is a strangely egalitarian game with regard to gender). Only love and a slight amount of cheating on behalf of a loved one, can save the nascent romance and push the goof to a proposal.

Holes two and three are a touch exotic in that they are played across the water – and involve the most Wodehousian combination of butler and gambling debts and revolve around suffering a long suffering, but not too present, wife. Money is involved here – as you would expect when touching down on American golfing soil. There is also the entrance of what surely must be the most superior of all Wodehouse’s superior butlers.

Hole four is back on terror firma – the horror being the need to contain oneself whilst out on the course with a ‘lady’, and the dangers of failure to achieve self expression. It’s something of a short hole, but the tension is held ‘til the final putt.

Sartorial elegance, the might plus4 and the arrogance of the newly elevated form the matter of hole five: A severe warning to all who value friendship and take up golf.

Hole six has us with the need for a mummy boy to turn hero (and discard some wet woollen underwear) – whereas the last three holes are ‘linked’ in that the players involved form around a trio of Golfing Male, Golfing Female and (yuk) poet. Don’t be fooled however into thinking they will play in a similar way – there are surprises lurking around the bends, and the final entrance of the Golfing Sister stymies all bets.

Damn fine play I‘d say!

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Sunday, 29 June 2008

Lost the Plot?

There is something ironic in the title of Jasper Fforde’s third Thursday Next novel, ‘The WELL of LOST PLOTS’ that I think might be unintentional.

To loose the plot of something is to go a little crazy to be totally out of touch – I’m not suggesting Mr. Fforde has gone that far, but the plotting of the story does suggest a little desperation and there are a couple of details that add to an inconsistency that is not comfortable for the reader.

Prime is the fact that when characters ‘die’ in this book, they are replaced by a look-alike, act-alike ’generic’ – which makes a complete nonsense out of the first book (The Eyre Affair ) in the series where events revolved about the kidnapping and threat of death to the character Jane Eyre. If Jane could simply have been ‘replaced’ what was all the fuss about?

For anyone reading this who is not familiar with the Ffforde series, Thursday Next is a detective in a parallel world where the Crimean War hadn’t ended, where airships cross the sky and where you can enter books, if you have the know how, and hide from the big bad company trying to control the world whilst you have a baby and try to bring back you husband who has been unexisted from everyone’s memory – except for your own and your nutty granny.

It’s fantasy and funny combined with detective and is full of one liners and gentle literary references.

Which points to another problem I have with the book – once was funny, twice was amusing, thrice is getting obvious – the ‘into a book and reacting with characters’ is no longer smart, just tiresomely familiar - and Mr. Fforde hasn’t done enough to rescue the situation.

There was one point I thought he’d done it – he brought in Nemo, and things started to look up but then wasted the character.

A final moan is there is no development of character – no one really seems to change – even the ‘generic’ turning into a character had an oddness about it which meant they never really changed.

Both of the previous books in the series I devoured, this one took time to read. I felt a ‘so-what’ several times as I did read and had that feeling in my mouth at the end (the one where you try to eat slightly under cooked, unsalted, un-vinegared chips) which made me want to send it back and ask for a fully cooked version.

I shall try the next in the series, but Mr Fforde’s reputation is on the line.

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Friday, 20 June 2008

The Heart of the Matter

I cut my literary teeth on Graham Greene.

Brighton Rock was the first ‘serious’ novel of my own choosing which I connected with – which had complex characters I could both identify with and distance myself from at the same time; which had a plot and themes that have resonated down the years.

I was in the 4th year at school – so would have been around 15 years old.

Over the next 10 years I read with increasing understanding nearly everything Greene had written in novel form – and he formed the basis, along with George Orwell, of my model modern – of the real story teller.

Yes, I also did the classics and the very moderns – dutifully plodded through Elliot and Dickens; tackled the Woolf (she won the first couple of rounds – only after having to teach her did I finally understand how brilliant she was); ignored Golding – he had been a compulsory read at school so was off the ever return to - again, ‘til I had to teach him – and his star rose.

I did the Irish – and went international, with the French – dipped into some drumming Germans and swung back to the origins of the English novel – a Sterne warning to all. Sneered at the North Americans – marvelled at the South Americans – and, like generations past and to come, wondered what all the Quixotic fuss was.

All the time, Greene formed images – the whisky priest, American agent, and English agent; Third Men and the Quiet Men – Vietnam and Central Africa; the Caribbean and London sub-urb.

And then I finished with him – moved on.

About three weeks ago I picked up ‘The Heart of the Matter’ – Greene’s novel of 1948 set in West Africa during the Second World War.

It has everything I remember – but a lot more.

Perhaps because I’ve been working on ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ at the same time – elements of religion, marriage and identity have stood out in focus in a way I don’t remember. The Shrew is a play all about seeking salvation through appropriate partnering – The Heart of the Matter, how salvation is individual and not to be found in others.

This was a pretty dismal, depressing read the first time – it touched on the meaning of existence and right way to live – on lovelessness and the unforgivable: What I hadn’t tasted then was the existential angst, the deepness of the despair and the strength of individual choice.

Major Scobie, our everyman, is a policeman with a wife – respectability personified. He is hated by the ex-pats because he isn’t corrupt – and loved by the Syrian dealer in corruption for the same reason. His lack of corruption perversely makes him untrustworthy to his own kind – and his career suffers as a consequence. The only true friendship comes from the Syrian, Yusef – very not British – and it is a friendship Scobie can never accept.

It is Scobie’s fall from grace we follow – in the true meaning of the words: He is not ruined in any earthly way – but his spiritual existence is, at least in his own mind, spiraling ever further down through the circles of hell.

In one of the more frighteningly understandable images of the book, Scobie sees himself as fisting god – not fighting in the abstract, but physically punching and damaging the flesh: It is an image which horrifies in its very physicality – and in the clarity of self-knowledge Scobie exhibits.

Around this dying light flutter a whole cast of shadow-dwelling characters.

Scobie’s wife is damaged goods – her husband’s incorruptibility has driven her to this god forsaken land so she has plunged into the superficialities of Catholic dogma – the ritual and the literal making her empty life fuller. She reads books and poetry – replacing any real inner life with printed words and borrowed sounds.

She is not a fool – but it is her needs that keep what is left of their marriage alive – most of it died with a young daughter back in England. Her leaving to live in South Africa opens the gap needed for a replacement ‘needer’ – and the final human dilemma that shatters Scobie’s relationship with the divine.

Wilson, spy-on-his-own-kind, and writer of trash poetry; driving Scobie no more than a mosquito could - tolerated as a fact of the environment – in ‘love’ with Scobie’s wife and emptying the word of all depth.

Helen, fallen woman and siren – who is no more than a vessel the fates use to trap Scobie – from her very first appearance as love-less, dried-skin of a girl clutching a stamp-album to near-whore for the ex-pat wild boy.

A priest who knows he serves no one well – least of oll Scobie; a priest who needs to confess as much as to listen to confession – but perhaps the only one who sees the real relationship of Scobie to his god – who appreciates the complexities and ultimate unknowability of any meaning in life.

These moths flicker in and out of the life that is Scobie – contrasting their weaknesses with the immense strength he is using in his ‘psychomachia’ – his soul-struggle.

Scobie is ultimately heroic – in his choice and in facing of the consequences of that choice. He is very much a 20th Century man – having both the consciousness and anxiety William Golding identified as hallmarks in the work of Graham Greene.

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Friday, 23 May 2008

The Mysterious Mr Quin

Strange book this one - not at all what you expect from Ms Christie.

Twelve short stories - all featuring Mr Satterthwaite,; snob, elderly English Gentleman and knower of anyone who is 'Anyone': An observer of people - and friend to Mr Quin. The later character was apparently Ms Christie's favourite and originated in her book of poems, 'The Road of Dreams'.

In the first story, The Coming of Mr Quin, we meet the pair - and they meet for the first time. It is a basic 'crime' with a wrongful suspicion hanging over the head of one of the characters - Slaterthwaite, with the prompting of Quin, resolves the situation through observation the clarity distance in time brings.

And that is basically the model for the rest of the collection.

Sometimes, as in the second story, The Shadow on the Glass, there is a good murder - and twisty end; sometimes there is only an echo of a crime and the story is more about resolution: The Soul of the Croupier, for example.

I read them in short succession and found them to be a little too much - I think dipping in to one of the stories and having a break between might be a much better way of treating the material. Individual I found them to be well written and quite satisfying.

Love features strong. I am tempted to suggest they are in fact love stories dressed up as something else.

There is a mysticism and vaguely religious air to them - Mr Harley Quin, by the final chapter, has become less and less of human and more and more of a wish fulfilment. There is also a sting in the tail.

I enjoyed them - and will return, but one at a time, with a healthy dose of murder and detectives in between each one.

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Thursday, 15 May 2008

The Pelican Brief

I’ve known of the book for some time and even, on one or two occasions picked it up and considered reading it – always to return it to the shelf: For some reason I thought it was a ‘lawyer’ story.

Now, with it firmly on the CAE reading list, as a matter of duty, I’ve read it.

I am tempted to name a new literary genre:

The Time Filler.

A good time filler is strong on plot, adequate with language, sufficient with character and not too far from realism to cause concern. It will roll along never pausing for too long in any one place or with any one person, love affairs are reduced to brief encounters, killings are counted in serial-numbers and enough petrol and aviation fuel is burnt to raise the Earth’s average temperature another degree.

The Pelican Brief is a good time filler.

I took four sessions to finish the 420-odd pages, and didn’t feel pressed for time – it is a rapid read.

The plot is sort of realistic in that you can imagine someone wanting to bump off a couple of American Supreme Court justices to change the ‘political’ make-up of the Supreme court – but the book does stretch credibility a little with the descriptions and personalities of both the victims and their executioner – it seemed as though Gresham had gone through a check list of ‘most likely to make a best seller’ qualities and selected them for inclusion.

The same too with his heroine, Darby Shaw, who is a least female and intelligent – more intelligent than most of the other characters in the book. However, she never really escapes the cliché of female as victim in need of a good man to support her. Why did she have to be a blond bombshell? Why couldn’t she have been short, stumpy even, and ugly? Why does the book have to end in such a ‘happy ever after’ way on a beach?

One answer is the sales figures – and film rights.

All the way through I felt I was getting exactly what I wanted – no surprise other than a needed plot twist, no truly ambiguous character – just good guy and bad guy (and a very obvious – you got it wrong, good guy portrayed as bad).

And some very film-able locations – including Washington, New York and a pre-deluge New Orleans.

It occupied me pleasantly enough, but I ended with a – that’s it? and so what? Turned the light off, and slept well.

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Tuesday, 13 May 2008

P. G. Tips

P. G. Wodehouse

There are certain books and certain authors one is coy about naming in the realms of favourites – Mr Wodehouse is one.

Ever since teenageness I’ve been drawn to the chaos of the phantom upper-class world he scratched out – less enamoured, I have to say, of the American excursions. What attracts is difficult to say – maybe the downright silliness of them.

Wodehouse was a writer of copious amounts – included lyrics for musical comedies (some 30 all told – around 250 songs). And therein lies the first clue to enjoying a Wodehouse – a good one will be like spending a couple of hours in the theatre – a ‘musical comedy’ approach is necessary, a ‘between-the-wars’, musical comedy approach in fact.

Love and ridiculous complications, mad uncles and tart aunts, rich old fogies and poverty stricken young things … warm balmy, never to be repeated summer days, and policemen (who appear solely for the purpose of knocking their helmets off in order to be captured and dragged along to the local magistrate – who will turn out to be the offenders, as-yet-un-met father of newly affianced fiancé).

Uncle Fred in the Springtime has most of these elements or a variation thereof – and the Blanding’s Pig.

The story is not really essential – in this case it revolves around one Uncle, Fred, trying to get another Uncle, the Loony Duke of Dunstable, to behave in a reasonable manner and cough up lots of money to support his poetry writing nephew in the enterprise of an onion soup stall in Picadilly, which will facilitate the said poet’s marriage – to the dance teaching daughter of a private detective. There is also the sub plot of preventing the removal of Lord Emsworth’s pig by the poker wielding Duke, who is convinced Emsworth wishes to enter the pig in the Derby, and the supplying of even more money to Fred’s nephew who is in danger of several broken limbs and a long stay in a hospital bed on account of debts unpaid.

Confused? – you are allowed to be. And yet there is a clarity in the confusion – you never get confused enough to lose track, (either that, or you are laughing too much to care) and something new pops up so quickly you do not notice any confusion in yourself whilst noticing it in the story.

And that’s my next tip – take a chair into the garden, a bowl of strawberries (peppered) and an ice bucket with a bottle of champagne and one flute. Position yourself – and read. Don’t ‘do’ a Wodehouse in too many sessions – it’s a two act-er rather than five. Just let the whole silly story flow over you and worryeth not about following every detail. Being tipsy helps.

Most Wodehouses have a central character around whom things fly (revolve is far too sedate a word). Here it is Uncle Fred – not surprising really, given the title.

He’s a lovely old buffer – Shakespeare quoting, so an instant success with me – although not so with his nephew and niece, nor his fortunately absent wife. He has an aging Puck-like quality of solving problems in a way which causes maximum difficulties for all around, including ‘Uncle Fred’. Rarely does he doubt himself – everything will resolve satisfactorily, by magic it seems.

Fred is very ‘hands-on’ – preferably his nephews or other gullible young tyke, or co-operative young tyke-ess (who knows a good plan when she sees it). Nice young things fall for him instantly – sour prunes not so (one is left with the suspicion his absent wife is more the former than latter – but plays a good part in appearing shrivelled).

Fred’s biggest challenge is his contemporaries – who seem to have grown crabbed with age. Principle is Emsworth’s wife – who is the sort of woman who’d take a hairbrush to the backside of some poor nephew at the drop of a cricket ball (through the greenhouse window). Her biggest weapon is knowledge – of Fred’s wife – and access to a jungle telegraph more effective than e-mail. A minor danger, swiftly dealt with, is his neice – who is apprentice sour prune.

In a similar class to the niece, is the secretary – male. I suspect Wodehouse had problems with one of these early in life and consequently took a hatchet to the species whenever the opportunity arouse. Dishonest, devious, cowardly, ganging up with the united forces of vinegar-women and Loony-Dukedom. Fortunately he gets truly egged.

And there is the passion-for-taking-money-off-other-people-with-a-card-game, Private Detective – who just happens to be the father of a wanna-be poet’s bride.

How could a story fail with such a classic bunch of caricatures? Quite easily – but not on Wodehouse’s typewriter. Lesser writers would find it very difficult to assemble an entertaining castle on such foundations.

Wodehouse’s cement is a wit with language – and spare, effective, cutting dialogue (no doubt sharpened in the fifteen plays he joint wrote). It is not surprising adaptations of his novels and stories make such good television.

Comedy is part of the double faced mask of Drama – the Ancient Greeks gave it equal status.

Somewhere in the Judeo-Christian European Middle Ages it seems to have been demoted to trivia and superfluity: I’m a pagan in this.

Give me a Wodehouse … and I want it now!

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Saturday, 10 May 2008

The Postman Always Rings Twice

Some books are just straight disturbing – this is one of them.

I initially thought it was only a tacky thrill getter – bit of sex, bit of violence and a ‘tough talking dude’ – but once I broke through that (and it did take some breaking through) I realized this is quite a well written book.

It is about violence – it is about alienation – it is about deprivation and emotional screw-up: It is about justice and the perverseness of morality.

That is a pretty strong cocktail, and the language, of necessity, is harsh, unforgiving and downright brutal at points.

So too the plot – with an economy to be admired, there is an attempted murder, a successful murder and an accident resulting in another kind of murder … all in the space of around 120 pages.

Women get slapped around – and like it: Men get beaten-up - and don’t. It is the ‘film-noir’ world beloved of the gangster genre. But this is not a gangster book.

The chief character is a drifter – he bums around America - scratching a living here, stealing there, spending short periods in jail before moving on.

He drifts into a situation where his animal driven lusts and craftiness allow access to what I am tempted to say is a perfect partner for him. There is the problem of her husband – and their attempt to remove him forms the spine of the story.

But, ‘As flies to wanton boys … ‘

The God’s agents are the forces of law and order – who are playing a game with lesser mortals. Any sense of justice or basic human decency is soon swept away once we encounter the petty motives fuelling both defence and prosecution.

I have to admit, I am reminded of Tess, of Lear and Heathcliffe … pretty strong company for a pot-boiler to evoke.

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Friday, 2 May 2008

Shakespeare Experience: Forget Shakespeare!

The second part of my 'review' of Peter Brook on Shakespeare:

Shakespeare Experience: Forget Shakespeare!

I posted it over there as it seems to me to be more to do with Shakespeare and experiencing him in performance than reading him.

I must admit - I tend to read Shakespeare for performance anyway, so a touch of bloody-mindedness in the decision.

It is a book I was reluctant to buy initially as it cost so much for so few pages - Mind changed: It was worth every penny.

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Sunday, 27 April 2008

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Friday, 11 April 2008

Nuclear Shakespeare

Each line in Shakespeare is an atom. The energy that can be released is infinite – if we can split it open.

(pg 25, Evoking Shakespeare: Peter Brook)

This is quite a short work – the transcript of a talk given in Berlin in May, 1996. As such it runs only to 32 pages, including the question and answer session at the end of the talk.

I must admit, when it arrived, I got into a bit of a huff: Six Pounds Sterling (and postage on top of that) for such a short work was a little expensive.

(The publisher has obviously realized this – and added on to the end nine more pages of text from what I assume is either another talk or possibly a magazine article on ‘Forgetting Shakespeare’. I’ll post separately on that as, although there is a Shakespeare connection, I think there is a fundamental difference between the two and both benefit from the separation.)

However, it didn’t take me long to realize, rather than merely spending a pot of tarnishable silver, I had bought pure gold.

In essence, Peter Brook gives a short answer to a deep question –

‘Why isn’t Shakespeare out of date?’

Key to appreciating the richness and longevity of Shakespeare's texts is an understanding of the innate abilities behind their creation. A phenomenal memory can be counted as ‘top of the list’ of these abilities.

It was a memory for language, for nuances, for ‘feeling’.

I am reminded of Mozart on this point – who was able to listen to the setting of the Miserere by Allegri in one sitting and write it out: Whether such an ability is ‘savant’ or trained is irrelevant – it is the possession of such an aptitude that has enabled both of these ‘geniuses’ to go on and use what they remember.

Shakespeare was able to observe, to assimilate and to remember (in what Brook calls the ‘Shakespeare Brain’) the live, thriving, international wonder that was Elizabethan and Jacobean London.

But this, on its own, is not enough – we have to add a second inheritance – the capabilities of a ‘poet’.

Brook describes this as the facility to see connections where we do not normally see them; to choose words which don’t just ‘define’ but which resonate. It is an ability to be human – with a difference.

Imagery is used by a poet in such a way as to go beyond ‘concept’; there is ‘music’ in the arrangement of words – not the crass music of the drama student beating out the ten beats of the pentameter and going no further, but the subtle music of the spheres Shakespeare and his ilk are able to suggest by the apparently simplest arrangement of words.

Brook assumes Shakespeare wrote fast and started with a story. But Shakespeare was not writing journalism, and he was not writing for the print media – he had a stage, a specific space to write for – and to use.

Like the Globe, the Swan, the Rose, there are levels in the texts which originate in the physical arrangement of the acting area. This was a totally new space – nothing had ever existed quite like it before, and Shakespeare and his contemporaries had to invent a new ‘theatrical’ language to exploit the resources. Theatres were places of intensity – places of concentration, places which showed the truth that lay behind the ‘sense’.

Above all other things though, the theatre was based on ‘platform’ – which gave a fluidity and ‘lack of security’ the theatre people had to cope with.

Orson Welles was faced with a similar challenge and reacted with similar excitement and creativity when he made Citizen Kane.

Brook makes the point that both Welles and Shakespeare created a language that was ‘easy to understand’ – you needed no training to follow the works of either story-teller: It came naturally.

Perverse, then, the difficulties thrown up around modern productions of Shakespeare. Now the language, after the academics have had their hands on it, seems artificial and unusual – and this is not a product of the aging of the words, it is deliberate ‘strange-making’ in search of genius – Shakespeare is the unique genius therefore he must do difficult amazing things.

If the works have survived despite this (and not because) they have done so because of they reveal. That revelation comes in performances of the works which communicate with ordinary people. What must a production do in order to communicate, what must the language of Shakespeare appear to the audience?

Brook makes the point very clearly:

Shakespeare must seem natural!

This is a great lecture – there are questions and answers tagged on which explore some of the ideas Brook touched on (I especially like the extension on the nature being nurtured) and some, like the problem of working with Shakespeare in French, not.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

An honest Wit(ness)

Above all other things, Germaine Greer (bbke) is Witty.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a biography before where the knowledgeable smile of the author has been so evident – and, if there is any truth in the idea of all biography being covert auto-biography, forget the Mona Lisa, Anne Hathaway has now had ‘the face job’.

Does anyone else understand the Shakespearean (strictly Elizabethan) idea of worldly illusion – and apply it – as Ms Greer (bbke) does? I think not.

Totus Mundus Agit Histrionem.

Our intrepid author, perversely, writes not of The Author, but of His shackle, ‘her indoors’.

This, in itself, should send a shiver of dread through the bones of the bardolating – what is the woman up to? Everyone knows what a ‘Shrew’ the witch of Stratford was – how she first tricked Him into marrying her, then drove Him from home; how He had to seek comfort in the stews of London and how He got His revenge by drinking Himself to death and leaving her nothing in His will!

Dare this exiled, antipodean troublemaker challenge that?

Well, yes, she dare. And with good reasons – in multitude.

Almost without exception, those biographers of Shakespeare who deal with his wife and family seem to groundlessly condemn her. What evidence there is, is almost unintelligible in modern times and needs filtering through the eyes of the Elizabethan/Jacobean – and more specifically through the eyes of an Elizabethan/Jacobean in Stratford.

This is precisely what Ms Greer(bbke) does – gives the perspective of Stratford and the times. The factual details not only of Shakespeare’s wife and family are given – but also the context of what else is happening in Stratford when they live there.

Three times in Ann Shakespeare (nee Hathaway)’s lifetime significant parts of Stratford burnt down: Mini-fire-of-London events that had dire consequences for the town’s economy and for Shakespeare’s family.

The idyll of a quiet, prosperous, country backwater does not fit the cataclysm of such events (or of the near riots and murders also documented in the book) – events that make the purchase price of buildings like New Place quite reasonable – and well within the reach of a not too prosperous playwright’s wife.

And strong evidence is given of the independent nature of many women in the town – women who leant money out at 10% interest, made a reasonable income by malting and other industries (frequently credited incorrectly to their husbands) – and women who supervised the restoration of houses when their husbands were absent.

Greer (bbke) makes few claims to certainty – indeed, her most certain claim is of the uncertainty of the material (a claim not all biographers of Shakespeare have taken to heart). Frequently you are given more than one possibility as to events – possibly this, possibly that - only to be told, as a parting shot – and possibly neither.

Shakespeare’s death is one such case.

If the William had contracted venereal disease then …. (and it would make sense of the doggerel verse in the church about not moving the bones).

However, he might also have had cancer, in which case ….. (and the known facts fit this too).

But we do not have enough evidence for either to be certain – or for other possible explanations.

This is how the biography is constructed throughout – like Shakespeare, Ms Greer (bbke) gives us more than one possible answer to the questions she raises – and leaves us to make up our minds.

Sometimes she goes as far as to say, ‘If, as I think, Ann …’ But that is it.

What she does give short shrift to (and rightly so) is the idiocy of certain (male) biographers who presume too much on little or no evidence. Shakespeare’s presence at family funerals is one such presumption – based more on wish fulfilment than any evidence.

Another revolutionary challenge to conventional wisdom Ms Greer (bbke) makes (absurd claim she labels it – tongue firmly in cheek) is that the only reason we even have so much Shakespeare text is Ann’s devotion to her husband – it could well have been her doing, The Folio – she might have paid for its printing (or rather underwrote the inevitable loss), just before she died. In theatrical terms this makes her an Angel – and a very different person from the harridan portrayed by the men.

Which brings me nicely back to the link between the biographer and her subject …

If Shakespeare has a modern Angel – it is Ms Greer: Make no mistake, Shakespeare’s wife is the subject of the biography – but de-bagging some of the scholastic absurdities surround Shakespeare is firmly the aim.

It also does a nice job of restoring the unity and balance of marriage, one of Shakespeare’s most enduring themes.