Giving and receiving books is exposing your heart Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler

If have you read…? is a question that tempts a lie, then I have a book you must read provokes a mix of delight and dread, and here’s my book – awe and terror.

Awe and respect for anyone who has not only completed writing a book, but also, in whatever way, has had that book published.

Terror, in case they expect a response I can’t give. Unfounded terror. There is always something: some new insight, some chiming memory, some clever juxtaposition of events or ideas that casts new light on both, a mot juste applied unexpectedly, an apt use of rhyme or verse form. And I am lucky, my friends write wonderful books.

Then there’s I have a book you must read. Must, not might like to, not will maybe interest you,  but  must. So this book is important to the lender/giver – and they think that whatever important thing it does for them, this book will do for me. It’s like a test, it shouldn’t be a test, but it’s like a test. Am I the person they think I am? Is the donor the person I think I know?

Then I look at the bookshelves in our house, loaded with books I cannot bear to part with, and think how many are there because friends insisted that I should read them. The most recent is Redhead by the Side of the Road byAnne Tyler. The only reason I’ll let it out of the house is because I want to share it with my sister.

Ah, that’s what’s even more worrying than being given a book by some-one who thinks the book is important. My giving away a book I think says something significant. What if I get it wrong? What if they think The Rosie Project is offensive, not funny? What if they dismiss The Wulf Enigma? What if they can’t see beyond Margery Allingham’s upbringing and period to her insight and wit?

Far harder to get over than discovering someone doesn’t like raspberries (how can anyone dislike raspberries?) or even that they prefer cats to dogs.

So why do I/we still share and recommend the books we like and love? Because we readers are generous people and want to share our pleasure. And because we love to talk about books and what they show and tell us. And because that’s one of the ways we make connections with other people – and now I come to think about it, the importance of making and sustaining those connections is what Redhead by the Side of the Road is all about.

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What does Philip Pullman say about writing fiction? Daemon Voices Philip Pullman

This book contains thirty-two pieces by Philip Pullman. Their titles range from The Origin of the Universe to The Cat, the Chisel and the Grave, and their contents cover an even wider range of ideas, observations and opinions – some familiar, many not, all inspected through the author’s often idiosyncratic lens. I was intrigued, sometimes irritated, always interested by all that he has to say, but decided for this piece to sift through the discussions of atheism and education, Dickens, depression and drama, Milton and Modernism and concentrate on Philip Pullman’s thoughts about writing and reading.

The subtitle of this book is ‘Essays on Storytelling,’ and Philip Pullman has things to say both about how to write stories, and about the responsibilities of a writer. How is tantalising, what is his recipe? How does he create fascinating, sympathetic rounded characters, put them into worlds that are both fantastic and believable and engage them in exciting, intriguing experiences?

He tells us to ‘think of interesting events, put them together in the best order to bring out connections and then tell about it as clearly as we can.’ He concedes that the first is hardest, he says there is no predicting when inspiration will come, but it only visits him if he’s at his desk ready for it.

He has more to say about how to write a story: It’s wise to make the first person (or point of view) a reader meets the protagonist of your story because the reader will engage and sympathise with that person. A second person will often make a scene work better – and dialogue is easier to write than narrative. He quotes Chandler’s advice for when a scene gets stuck – have a man with a gun in his hand come through the door.

He uses cinematic ideas to help explain how to set a scene, suggesting that a writer should give visual clues to tell the reader where the scene is, who is there, and where the light comes from. He tells us to put the camera in the best place and don’t move it until you need to. I interpret this as stick with one PoV, until you need to change. Philip Pullman defends telling stories in the voice of an omniscient narrator; who, he points out, should not be confused with the author. He defends the use of words that on analysis may seem anomalous (e.g. ‘nowadays’ during a narrative set in a past time) when the PoV has become deeply engaged with a character, so that the term flows naturally because it is one that character would use.

Philip Pullman uses an idea from Physics, phase space, to stand for not just a story’s world but for all the possible events that surround and could flow from a scene. He maintains that the story should follow a path through these possibilities. He reminds us that another Philip (Larkin) said – that a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end. The business of the story is to follow that path, and a writer should only explore away from the path to illuminate what is happening along it. Pullman also says that to tell a story one should, ‘say what happened then shut up.’ Although he acknowledges what William Blake wrote – that one can never know what is enough until one knows what is more than enough.

He talks about time frames, and the choice of tense and person, story patterns, fundamental particles of story-telling, and image schemas which he uses to diagram relationships between characters. He quotes Auden and Orwell, to say that good prose is like a clear window pane, to be looked through not looked at.

Philip Pullman also talks about the responsibilities of a writer. He insists that a writer has a responsibility to support himself and his family, and should insist on being paid for his work. A writer has a responsibility to language and should know how to use it correctly, even if many readers do not notice, the writer will please those who do care. A writer has a responsibility to each story, to tell it as well as she is able. Philip Pullman states that one should never save a rich image for a different piece of work.

Other responsibilities include not gratuitously including real tragedies to make a story more emotional. Pullman defends a writer’s right to tell stories set anywhere, about anybody, but cautions us to pay attention to what our imagination feels comfortable doing. He quotes from The Tempest: ‘Give delight an hurt not.’

Pullman quotes Walter Savage Landor, warning that writers must not indulge in unfavourable views of mankind. (Landor goes on to say that in so doing we may make bad men believe that they are no worse than others, and .. teach the good that they are good in vain.

Philip Pullman insists that novels and stories do not set out to convince but to beguile. He maintains that the work fiction writers do is infinitely worth doing, among his many quotations from Blake is this one: Eternity is in love with the products of time. Pullman accepts that any work reflects the concerns and beliefs of its era, but holds that unchangeable truths do exist – or at least some truths last long enough to seem unchangeable to us. He says that such truths are best communicated through the ‘gate of delight’ that links the liminal zone, unique to each reader, between the reader and the book, between objective landscape and subjective reaction.

I borrowed this book from the local branch of the County library – how wonderful that they can be open again. I’m so glad that I picked it, but don’t as I did, begin by starting at page one and reading the essays in order. The editor (Simon Mason) has grouped them by topic. Many of the essays contain material for talks that Philip Pullman has given, often many years apart. Contiguous essays sometimes contain the same examples making the pieces seem repetitious and it is difficult to appreciate each essay’s unique gems.

Better to take Pullman’s advice about reading – Read like a butterfly, write like a bee he says of his own reading, and praises a serendipitious approach. Something I found useful for The Man in the Red Coat whose initial reading overlapped with this book’s. Although I disagree when Pullman recommends bibliomancy (future divination by random opening of book and reading text – particularly from bible). Unless the future is simply what I am going to read for the next half hour.

A partially serendipitous approach, choosing an essay from the Contents list, or the Topic Finder where the essays are classified by themes, was a good way for me to engage with these essays – and I eventually read the whole collection. Twice. Unlike The Man in the Red Coat thie book contains both an augmented contents section and an index – there is no compulsion to use a map to find your route, but so good to find one exists when you are struggling to find your way. Thank you to both author and editor.

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Does this book need an index? The Man in the Red Coat Julian Barnes

It is difficult to know where to start a description of this book. Julian Barnes suggests several possible ways he could have started to write it. He chooses to begin with a portrait of Doctor Pozzi, the eponymous Man in the Red Coat – but not always. Pozzi was painted wearing the red coat by John Singer Sargent. That seems a secure basis on which to build a biography , or maybe a diorama of the Belle Epoque?  Whichever this book is going to be, the painting leads naturally to the 1885 visit to London made by Pozzi and two friends, bearing a letter of introduction written by Sargent and addressed to Henry James.

But the description of one of the party, Count Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac, that begins on page nine, morphs into a description of a fictional character based on the Count, in a book (A rebours) written by one of his contemporaries. The actual and fictional characters are compared and contrasted, there’s a digression into opinions about Englishwomen, as voiced by Frenchmen of the time, then just as we it seems we are returning to the actual Count, Julian Barnes points out a link between A rebours and the trial of Oscar Wilde for gross indecency. And that trial is compared with another. Ten pages later we return to Montesquiou and Pozzi.

I started making a list of the writers, artists, academics, politicians and one actress that are name checked in the next pages where Julian Barnes makes links between events, points out coincidences and quotes from the writing of Pozzi’s contemporaries. In a dozen pages I met, fleetingly, more than two dozen historical figures, most of whose names I recognised.

It was like being at a glamorous party, full of celebrities, and not being sure why I was there. A couple would whirl past. Before I’d mouthed wasn’t that …? they’d moved on and wow! there’s Sarah Bernhardt. It wasn’t thirties Hollywood, it was Paris during La Belle Epoque – and Doctor Pozzi, it seems, knew everyone.

Julian Barnes plunges his readers into the period, and we are dragged along like children taken to a funfair – look at this, don’t miss that. It’s exciting and enthralling – and confusing.

I think it was Forster who said Only connect, and Julian Barnes does. Wonderful, sometimes logical, sometimes coincidental links – like the one he makes between a French colonial expedition and de Gaulle and Brexit; or between re-establishment of a sense of honour in Frenchmen after the 1870 Prussian defeat to the persistence of formal duelling, and links between arguments about whether gun control should outweigh the right to bear arms in that time and now.

It is like watching a meteorologist explaining a weather system. The storm on the coast links to low pressure here, and the gulf stream there, and cold air from the Pole came in this way, and pressure built over here – and suddenly she’s talking about a butterfly off the coast of Peru.

The illustrations help – there are full-page colour reproductions of famous paintings of celebrities, monochrome (of course) studio photographs and, most wonderful, portrait cards that were given away with Felix Potin chocolate bars. These, for me, were most evocative of the time. With serious (long exposure) expressions, no background, the faces stare from their time into ours.

Another device that grounds the surging exploration is the tally Julian Barnes keeps of death, or injury, caused by gunshots. I think I counted fourteen episodes, though the bullet count was higher. The incidents are recounted partly to show how violent death (by gunshot or duelling) was as likely in Pozzi’s time in Paris as it had been in Shakespeare’s age in London. They also serve to show how medical techniques were developing, sometimes – but not always – saving a life that seemed condemned. Pozzi’s expertise and innovations were applied beyond his initial field of gynaecology.

Academics and politicians, as well as the chattering classes of Pozzi’s age were concerned with many of the issues that concern our time, for example the debate about Creationism versus Evolution and Geology, and racism, particularly anti-Semitism (the Dreyfus case). Dr Pozzi was an advocate for Listerism, asepsis within the body, and antiseptic outside it. He fought the same battle to enforce handwashing to prevent spread of infection that Semmelweiss lost, that was being refought in UK hospitals to prevent the spread of superbugs in hospitals before Covid and that seems vital to our survival now.

Julian Barnes (like this reader) was delighted to find Doctor Pozzi’s opinions chimed with his own – except, it seems, in the case of marital fidelity and doctor-patient relationships. Although Barnes re-iterates that there is insufficient evidence to substantiate all the affairs that are credited (is that the right word?) to the doctor.

Doctor Samuel Pozzi succeeds in becoming not just a guide, but also a hero of the Belle Epoque. He moves among the privileged, the dilettantes, the self-obsessed, appreciating what he sees and making lasting friendships while working hard in his chosen profession. As a gynaecologist he seeks to reduce both psychological and physical pain and scarring, and searches the world to find improved techniques. He declares that Chauvinism is one of the forms of ignorance. As far as we can tell he seems to live by this belief, and be determined to overcome ignorance wherever possible.

I have read this book twice, I am still confused and dazzled. There are no chapters, no Contents at the front, no Index at the back; no way besides post-its, annotations, notes or googling to check if we’ve met a character before, whether they were pro- or anti-Dreyfus, and what happened when. I had reached the point of wishing the book were different, then I read Philip Pullman’s Introduction to The Anatomy of Melancholy and realised that the diversions, divagations and meanderings could be embraced and enjoyed. The second time I read it I did just that.

One more point – I’ll never again forget the difference between a participle acting as an adverb qualifying an adjective and it acting as a substantive gerund. Thank you, Mr Barnes.

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Is the clockwork octopus the most endearing character in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley?

A confession – I read the third of Natasha Pulley’s clever books set in an alternative Victorian era full of clockwork engines before reading books one and two. And it was fine, it was more than fine, I was blown away by her imagination, by the characters who were multi-layered, and competent, and whose motives were sometimes muddled although more of them meant well than not. I wanted to spend more time with them, I was entangled in their stories and on tenterhooks when confusion led to possible betrayal and disaster.

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow is set in Japan – an exotic unfamiliar country, undergoing familiar nineteenth century British experiences: industrialisation threatening the existing culture, bad weather in the North of the country, and tea breaks. Then there’s clairvoyance, and clairvoyance-jamming (like radio jamming), visible patterns in the ether and incredible clockwork devices.  I raved about how brilliant the book was to family and friends – and my sister bought books one and two.

Book One is The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, and it is a beautiful book. The actual paperback is beautifully constructed with a double layered front cover, cut away to reveal a pocket watch. And its contents? Wonderful! Natasha Pulley’s imagination fizzes with ‘what ifs’ – and the ‘what ifs’ are followed up, not just then this would happen, but then this could, and this is likely too.

In a marvellous feat of giving a slight twist to an explanation, the Michelson-Morley interferometer experiment is not allowed to disprove the existence of a luminiferous ether. And that ether can then explain clairvoyance – just as Victorian spiritualists claimed. The scientist who synthesises this theory is a rebellious woman who studies at Oxford, wears trousers and a false moustache so she can enter the Bodleian, and has no patience with the proto-feminists she meets because they quote their husbands’ views and seem not to think for themselves. Her motto seems to be If the sign says don’t walk on the grass, then hop. Advice I hope to remember.

The Watchmaker describes the tentative friendship between a musician who works as a telegraph operator and the eponymous Japanese watchmaker. Both characters seem attractive, principled, kind and vulnerable. But maybe the watchmaker is actually a bombmaker? Or maybe he isn’t but the telegraph operator’s suspicions will destroy their relationship?  Or the woman scientist will come between them? Anything seems possible, and the resolution of misunderstandings carries the reader along a precipice edge of disaster for some or all of the characters.

And the clockwork octopus? The watchmaker constructs him for company. The octopus steals socks, hides in chests of drawers, suns himself on the doorstep, chases clockwork birds, loves to sit in a tub of water and curls his tentacles affectionately round humans’ arms. Move over Klara and Flush! You have to make room for another.

I’ve read The Watchmaker twice now, and appreciated more of the plot points that are laid down to be explained later, or connect to the other books. But mainly I read the book again so I could spend more time with Thaniel and Keito in Natasha Pulley’s wonderful world.

Now for The Bedlam Stacks.

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A book that is more than the sum of its parts? On the Marsh Simon Barnes

What is this book about? Ostensibly about maintaining a wildlife area, actually about so much more. Reading anything written by Simon Barnes is a delight, (I can even enjoy reading about sport when he’s written the analysis), and this book could have been called A Box of Delights if John Masefield hadn’t got there first. Not that I wholly agree with everything Barnes asserts, but his contentions are expressed so cogently that they resonate in my head, and I find myself re-assembling my own point of view hours later, when I’m walking the dog.

Simon Barnes and his wife own an area of marshland, where they attempt to encourage indigenous wildlife. This does not mean the land can be neglected – priorities must be decided and the land managed, to maintain a desired habitat. Best intentions do not always produce optimum results, Barnes quotes Stephen Dedalus (Ulysses) to describe errors as portals of discovery, and relates his own passages through such breaches in expectation. He accepts that their area of wild marshland is not important – but at the same time asserts it is essential, in the same way, I think, that an individual carelessly disposing of a plastic wrapper (say) is unimportant, but that the survival of the planet depends on most individuals choosing to consider what to do with such waste. Areas such as the Barnes’ marshland provide essential oases for both resident and migratory wildlife, so much of their natural habitat has been destroyed or is threatened.

The book is filled with what might be called ‘nature observations’ – of birdlife (above all of birdlife, Barnes is a passionate birder), of mammals, insects, reptiles, plants; of their inter-relations, of their behaviour, all suffused with Simon Barnes’s appreciation of and wonder at what he sees and hears. An appreciation and wonder which I feel privileged to share. He also speaks of the privilege of trust, when a wild animal’s flight distance is reduced because it no longer finds you so threatening, or a domesticated animal believes it won’t be hurt. Barnes is at pains to insist that the delight given to us by wild creatures is not the reason they should be preserved, he reminds us that all living species survive through an interwoven web of mutual dependence, the loss of any reduces the quality of life for all. But that does not stop us being able to rejoice with him at the sight of a flight of swallows, or the sound of a mistle thrush.

Interwoven with natural history, On the Marsh contains incidents of the Barnes’s family life. Eddie Barnes has Down’s Syndrome, Simon Barnes describes how Eddie learns about and reacts to the creatures that they see, and reflects on how his own perceptions consequentially alter. Eddie’s poems give us the same opportunity. Simon Barnes has the ability to make the reader appreciate the pathos of vulnerability (of an individual, a species, a habitat) without becoming over sentimental, or reducing the vulnerable to being pathetic.

What else is in this book? Quotations and references: quotations from books, poetry, films, musicals; references to paintings, passages of music. Quotations and references that I recognise, that I feel I ought to recognise, that make me want to read a book or watch a film I’ve never heard of, that encourage me to go back to a book I found too difficult – and these references both enrich Simon Barnes’s book, and give me another view of the work he refers to.

I wasn’t sure about the Tweets, when I saw them interspersed throughout the book. But when I read them – apt, witty, clever and amusing – I forgot to find them annoying. I instantly appreciated the illustrations at the start of each chapter: they are by Cindy Lee Wright, who is married to Simon Barnes, and they are wonderful. I’ve read the book twice now, I have a list of telling phrases, comments I agree with, and statements with which I differ. Only once did I think that a phrase was careless: Simon Barnes wrote that Victorians disliked Darwin’s theory of evolution because it stated that species-defining decisions were made by females. All Victorians? Florence Nightingale and George Eliot for example? Can he possibly only mean male Victorians? But that’s a small cavel, one statement in a trove of thought-provoking, sympathy-generating description and observation.

“If you love anything that lives then you will have sadness.” “Travelling fills us with desperate contradictions.” Poetry may be the best words in the best order, but Barnes’s prose produces aphorisms that are so succinct that whether they chime with my own feelings or challenge them, they echo in my mind after the book has been closed and shared.

 Simon Barnes tells us that he resolved to write this book to tell us about, “gorillas, spitting cobras, …  (a list of other creatures) … and bonking beetles.” On the Marsh does that – and a whole lot else besides.

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Why should we buy some books from local bookshops? The Bookshop Penelope Fitzgerald

I planned to write about The Midnight Library by Matthew Haig. But all I want to say will fit in a paragraph. The book is a bestseller – and any book with library in the title is going to catch my eye. But then I found that the library only contained books about the protagonist, an endless series of mirrors displaying different facets of one person. Surely that should only, at the most, be one section of a library? As to the novel’s message, I was reminded of E Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet. At the start of one chapter, the children command the carpet to take them somewhere where they can do good deeds. The carpet wobbles, then the children find themselves still at home. I think I remember that one of them exclaims, “Like the worst kind of Sunday School story.” (Nesbit lets the children refine their wish, and they have another adventure). Matthew Haig’s book does NOT resemble the worst kind of Sunday school story, and I enjoyed reading it, but I’m unlikely to read it again.

I looked for a novel that celebrated the diversity that I’d hope to find in a library, or a bookshop. And I remembered Penelope Fitzgerald. There was a time, in the last two decades of the twentieth century, when I felt that too many of the books I wanted to read were written by Penelopes, and that if I wanted to be read I should have to change my name. Penelope Lively, (Moon Tiger, Family Album – and her books for children), Penelope Mortimer (short stories about families) and Penelope Fitzgerald who wrote The Bookshop.

Penelope Fitzgerald was a Writer. Her book The Little Flower has one of the best openings I have ever read in a novel. Parachutes of dirty laundry are floating down from every window in a large country house, shirts, nightwear, sheets – all float down to the grass to be collected for the annual spring wash.

I’m going to describe the plot of The Bookshop – but it’s not a book you read to find out what happens. You (I probably should say I) read and re-read it for Penelope’s Fitzgerald’s writing – for the pictures she paints of bleak weather, dilapidated buildings; for the characters, described with such acuity; for telling conversations; to laugh at catastrophes and to look at some aspects of life in the grey 1950s, especially (definitely if ‘you’ means ‘me’), to consider whether ordering multiple copies of Lolita would a courageous act or a foolish doomed action in support of a fatally-flawed book.

The Bookshop is a tragedy. From the beginning the reader fears this story cannot end well (but how desperately that reader hopes to be surprised). The cards, not just the cards, but the books she tries to sell, even the bricks her shop is built with, seem stacked against Florence, who decides to open a bookshop in a fictional Norfolk town. Florence starts by affronting the local arbiter of taste, who consequently feels her position threatened.  In subsequent chapters we discover that the premises are unsuitable for a bookshop, the description of damp and mould, its sight and smell, is enriched by Penelope Fitzgerald’s experience of living in a damp houseboat, which eventually sank into the Thames. Florence gives responsibility to a most competent child, but allows her to deal with the public without considering a child’s rigid morality, her inability to recognise political expediency and her determination that no-one may break a rule, (for example jump a queue).  Florence is incompetent when it comes to elementary book keeping, and is evangelistic rather than commercial   when it comes to choices in purchasing and marketing. Florence’s most influential chief supporter cannot be stalwart, he is an ailing recluse

But even so the bookshop might have survived – survived long enough perhaps to swallow all Florence’s income, savings and borrowings – but its end was premature, because of spite and malignity, because of laziness, complacency and a politician’s preference for expedience over principal. Florence leaves the town ashamed, ashamed of a town that thought it didn’t need a bookshop.

If I’m talking about books with messages in this post, then the message I read in The Bookshop is that for a book shop to fail it is only necessary for local readers to do nothing.

And now I’ve written this, I’m going out to buy a book. From Steyning Bookshop where I’m usually tempted to spend more than I planned, but always come out with more than I bargained for.

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A book about a dog? Or something else? Flush Virginia Woolf

Reading Klara and the Sun brought Flush, Virginia Woolf’s biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel to my mind. I had never read the whole book, I’d heard part of it on the radio, and I remembered that I felt the same emotion then as I did when I read Ishiguro’s story. So I spent 77p and downloaded Flush to my Kindle.

What kind of book is it? A book about a dog? Partly. Just as Kazuo Ishiguro’s book is partly a story about an android. An examination of human behaviour, as seen by another species? Again partly. Like Ishiguro’s android Klara, Flush is bred (rather than programmed), then trained to be dependent on, and to yearn for, the approbation of ‘his’ humans; and he is destined to be let down by them. Woolf allows him to describe, never to judge – that is up to the reader. A criticism of social issues? Certainly. Woolf considers issues of both Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s day, and her own.

Flush is engaging, loveable and occasionally pathetic – in that his state induces pathos in the reader. Woolf describes in detail his change in circumstances when Flush is taken from the country to be given to Elizabeth Barrett Browning (EBB) in Wimpole Street. But she makes no reference to the inevitable effects on a young dog’s health, figure and digestion when exercise is reduced to decorous, leashed walks in the park, and diet consists of chops, rice pudding and cream.

It’s a foolish reader who goes to Virginia Woolf for advice on canine exercise and diet. Woolf tells us that Flush becomes more ruminative, and catalogues the dog’s observations of Robert and Elizabeth’s love affair. She makes Flush determined to please EBB, lets him learn from experience. After he has failed to drive Robert Browning away, despite two attempts to bite his leg, Flush repents, regains EBB’s favour and resolves never to bite again.

Flush endures imprisonment in London, then enjoys freedom in Florence and Pisa. He observes desperate London poverty when he is stolen from Wimpole street. (I was shocked when I read Woolf’s note that the real Flush was taken and held for ransom three times. I felt myself turn into Lady Bracknell, and wanted to exclaim that to lose one’s spaniel once was unfortunate but …) We are led to infer that in Italy, where class distinctions are not so rigid (or maybe not observed, in both senses, by English ex-patriots), it is safe for Flush to play in the streets with the dogs he finds there. Flush’s breeding is described in a parody of a Victorian copy of Who’s Who. Flush happily throws away his heritage, precisely specified by the kennel club, and consorts with those whose parentage is unknown. Woolf describes the effect of the consequent attack of fleas on Flush, but doesn’t mention them biting his owner.

 Flush is neglected by EBB when she falls in love with Robert Browning, and again when she is drawn into spiritualism. Flush is not fooled by rocking tables; he mourns his owner’s neglect. Like Ishiguro’s Klara, Flush settles outside (preferring dappled shade to Klara’s necessary Sun) and waits to be wanted. He is given one last spurt of energy, a race back to demand and achieve attention, love and reconciliation with EBB. Flush’s character would have forgiven EBB for her neglect, I don’t think his chronicler did. EBB enjoyed both a room of her own and an independent income, those prerequisites Virginia Woolf insisted were required for a woman to be able to write. Woolf quotes EBB only once, maybe because Flush, being a spaniel, could not appreciate poetry, but possibly that is not the only reason.

Will I read the book again? Yes – to see the world as it appeared through Woolf’s eyes in 1933 and to read her beautifully constructed sentences. It is an easy read – Woolf -lite, you might say – but the wonderful, immersive streams of consciousness are there, leading from one idea, one experience to another – and taking the reader on the same journey.

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Does the onlooker see more of the game? Klara and the Sun Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro is not the first author to use the technique of examining a non-human’s reactions, thoughts and feelings to discover more about human thought and emotion, and perhaps in the end, to come nearer to knowing what is unique about a human being.

Ishiguro has created an android, an Artificial Friend or AF. Klara is sympathetic, engaging and considerate: she has to be – that’s how she’s programmed. Her story has poignancy and pathos – that’s how Ishiguro writes.

In Ishiguro’s near-future world, teenagers study from home, on mobiles, and rarely meet their friends, which partially explains the existence of AFs. Moving through the book a reader realises that this society has differences, even gulfs, between haves and have-nots, between those who have elected to have their children’s intelligence boosted, and those who either lack the means or do not wish to do so, between those who are employed and those who are not – possibly because they have been replaced with robots or other forms of artificial intelligence. Jodie, the daughter of a successful business woman, chooses Klara.

From the first phrase a reader is immersed in Klara’s viewpoint, and experiences the world through the filter of Klara’s interpretation. Klara’s way of recognising what she sees is to divide her view into areas or ‘boxes’, and then subdivide what she sees in each box into recognisable shapes, and then recombine them into an object that she is familiar with, maybe a person she knows. The process is like a drawing tutorial, or of course, computer facial recognition. Klara’s naivete charmed me.  But it was hard to believe a robot (or AF) who had sufficient intelligence and knowledge to help Jodie’s friend, a teenager who designed and made a flock of robotic birds, would not understand the differences in the way an AF depends on sunlight and the way a human does.

The book is written in the first person, so I was interested to see what pronoun other characters used when speaking about Klara. Even the group of teenage boys who objectify her as Josie’s new AF, consistently say she and her. It reminded me of how most people speak of babies and pet animals, whose gender may not be obvious. Usually, a speaker opts for either he or she, or avoids the dilemma by using a phrase like ‘lovely baby’ or ‘your dog’. In my experience most people avoid saying it, except, now I think of it, when talking about pet snakes or stick insects. I now have to go back to I, Robot (Isaac Asimov) and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Philip K Dick) to see what happens there.

Ishiguro suggests that one of the drivers for human actions is people’s fear of loneliness. One of the outcomes of Covid lockdown has been the increased number of pet owners, and questions are being asked about whether there is any danger these animals will be neglected when lockdown conditions cease. By the end of the book Ishiguro is asking what responsibility a human would have towards an AF once the human’s need for the AF has passed. I cannot forget that Anna Sewell asked a similar question (about horses) in Black Beauty. I like to think that another behaviour driver for many people is sympathy, even empathy, for non-humans – and that the appeal of characters like Ginger in Black Beauty, Boxer in Animal Farm, and Flush as described by Virginia Woolf, is justification for that belief. But maybe this is sentimentality, which is often characterised as being mawkish, or self-indulgent? I need to read more!

Will I re-read Klara and the Sun? I already have, and now I’ll certainly lend it to friends with a note inside saying ‘please return’.

Does considering human life through Klara’s viewpoint help me to understand more about human nature? It has helped me be more aware of which aspects in my own I want to nurture and which to try to eradicate.

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Why is so special about Margery Allingham? More work for the Undertaker … and all her other writing

Why do I prefer reading (and re-reading) Margery Allingham’s novels to those of any other crime writer? I should write, ‘to those of any other crime writer I’ve read so far’, I suppose. But I’ve enjoyed reading detective stories for most of my life. Perhaps saying that I enjoy re-reading Margery Allingham’s novels more than any detective stories I’ve read in the last fifty years gives an idea of how highly I rate her books.

How do I explain this preference?

There are her characters. Like most authors Margery Allingham created a cast of supporting players around her detective, and these characters appear in many of her stories. Unlike her contemporary, Rex Stout, or Donna Leon more recently, Allingham’s characters mature and she allows their lives to continue – both during her stories and between them. Mr Campion not only gets older, he develops quirks and imperfections linked to his age (unlike Dorothy Sayers’ Peter Wimsey, who becomes closer and closer to Sayers’ ideal). Margery Allingham interweaves family life with detection, and gives the latter grounding.

Her world has characters who are well-meaning, intelligent and humorous, and who are both fun, and challenging, to spend time with. Who wouldn’t want to be at Minnie and Tonker’s midsummer party, in The Beckoning Lady, to listen to the Swedish nightingale, to laugh, then gasp at the Augusts’ repartee, to catch up with the Fitton family and to enjoy ice-cream brought by London’s most esteemed bookmaker? Not to mention discussing the art displayed in the barn with critics and artists, eating peas that were podded by eminent members of the CID, while drinking champagne, tea and more champagne, in perfect English summer weather.

Or, in Dancers in Mourning, wouldn’t it be fun to join Lugg, Campion’s ex-burglar cockney manservant, as he entertains the forlorn young daughter of the house by teaching her country house maintenance and etiquette, and how to pick locks? Margery Allingham has a flair for describing poignant, ignored youth – in A Fashion in Shrouds Campion and his fiancée console the son of an actress who only occasionally remembers she has a child.  

It is challenging to try to keep up with the allusions dropped into conversation by the Palinodes, in More Work for the Undertaker, but fun to imagine doing so. (Allingham plays the quotation game with more subtlety than Sayers.) I am not sure I’d actually want to spend time with the eponymous undertaker and his son, but I greatly enjoy his devious conversation and machinations, all supplied with a flavouring of deliberate Victorian Gothic.

Margery Allingham was always willing to experiment, she was never satisfied with simply relocating a Surrey houseparty to a cruise ship or a Riviera villa. Her books have varied settings that differ from each other in atmosphere and population as well as geography, and the crimes committed in them depend on their setting and the year the book was written. Except that murder is always dreadful. One early book (Look to the Lady) invokes the supernatural, in war-time stories Campion must defend the nation against enemy plots, and some later tales concern crimes carried out by international corporations.

Many of Margery Allingham’s books are funny. The humour is slipped in, blink and you miss it, (another reason to re-read). One example, one which I have thought of and smiled about even when not reading the book, is in Coroner’s Pidgin. The eccentric (in name, appearance and character) Miss Pork is leading Mr Campion and two police detectives down the stairs into her dark cellar. She warns them that the second step from the bottom is faulty, which means that the descending detectives suddenly concentrate on each footstep, rather than on detection.

Allingham’s descriptions of settings, the homes and the people within them, show her familiarity both with rural, coastal Suffolk and with central London’s squares. She is as confident recording the speech and attitudes of Suffolk countryside dwellers during her era, as she is in describing the mannerisms, foibles and conversation of artists and intellectuals living in London’s Little Venice in Death of a Ghost. Her descriptions of impoverished, smog-filled, battered London in The Tiger in the Smoke, make this reader feel the grime on her skin, and inhale the dank, smoke-flavoured air. (The characters are compelling, too).

Margery Allingham’s characters reflect her experience and the times in which she wrote. She created Amanda Fitton, a woman who becomes a talented aeroplane engineer and also marries and has a family. We first meet Amanda using her mechanical aptitude at home to keep an ancient vehicle running (Sweet Danger) and find her in a later one, (The Beckoning Lady) jury rigging a lighting system. But Amanda is exceptional. Working-class women are often married, and earning a wage for menial jobs, but most of Allinghams’s upper-class women have full time roles as wives and mothers. In The Fashion in Shrouds, two successful career women are shown as feeling they not only need a male companion, but also that, in one case he should be a protector, and in the other, have authority in their relationship. I can accept these characters within the world where they lived, but I find it far harder to accept, in another of her books, that a man who blacked his wife’s eye in an argument, then repents, is so easily forgiven.  

This has turned into a subjective mountain of justification for my personal preference, so, in conclusion:

I reread the Margery Allingham novels because they are novels, rather than mere detective stories. The plots are clever, the detective is engaging and those who commit crimes are punished, but there is far more. There is description of, and comment on, slices of English society over a period of thirty years. There is humour, drama and sometimes pathos. Margery Allingham’s writing is persuasive, vivid and captivating.

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Too eccentric to be believable? Nero Wolfe novels by Rex Stout

Can characters be too eccentric? Nero Wolfe is certainly a most eccentric character.

After writing about the Brunetti novels, I went back to another detective series whose protagonists do not age: Rex Stout’s series that nominally concerns the cases of Nero Wolfe. I say nominally, because the cases are recorded in the first person by Wolfe’s assistant, Archie Goodwin. I read, and re-read the stories in order to spend more time with Archie. Rex Stout gave Archie an eidetic memory and a talent for reportage.

Archie’s voice is witty, his observations astute and his use of language individual, consistently in character, and hilarious. It is a little like reading Wodehouse, but the slang is 1930’s New York gumshoe rather than upper-class London dilettante (it turns out P.G. Wodehouse and Rex Stout were friends). Unlike the Jeeves books the settings reflect the year each book was written, and the liberal political outlook of their author. Like the Brunetti stories, the chief protagonists do not age, although they are affected by outside circumstances and remember their experiences in later novels.

Stout gave Nero Wolfe a huge intellect in an enormous body. Wolfe is a sedentary man mountain, almost as difficult to move to any kind of action as the dark mountains of his birthplace – Montenegro. He has two passions in his life – orchid breeding, and fine food. He spends four hours (ten to twelve and four to six) every day in the top floor of his New York town house, with his orchids and his plantsman, Theodore Horstmann. He takes lunchtime and dinnertime seriously; at these times he enjoys elaborate meals and intellectual conversation. He spends a great deal of time planning menus with his Swiss chef, Fritz Brenner.

Wolfe would prefer, when he is not thinking of orchids or food, to spend his time reading or studying maps. But Stout has given expensive hobbies to his detective, and Archie is there to remind him they need to be able to charge fees if salaries are to be paid, and food and orchids purchased.

The crimes are convoluted puzzles, while the characters involved are rarely complex (although, of course, not always exactly what their first appearance suggests). Beautiful women in their early twenties are usually involved, Archie appreciates and charms most of them. He’s just under six foot, in his early thirties, a well-read, wisecracking, competent, strong man-of-all-trades. He charms me, even though I’ve read his dismissal of ladies too old to be able to keep holding up the parts that he mostly notices. Archie’s admiration is not enough to prevent some of the most attractive women being murdered, whatever crime is initially committed, there is always a murder to solve.

So – can characters be too eccentric? It is true that if eccentric means a long way from the central norm, then Wolfe, not to speak of Fritz and Theodore, are eccentric. But I still go back to the novels more to spend time with Archie Goodwin, Wolfe and the other inhabitants of Wolfe’s brownstone, and to enjoy Archie’s wisecracks, than to pick up clues to the murder that I missed first time through (although that’s fun too). When I’m immersed in Stout’s clever, consistent narrative then disbelief is suspended, and I can enjoy a ride as Archie drives through New York’s streets, where the traffic still moves, or I can sit near the globe in Wolfe’s office, and eavesdrop on the conversation there.

As another (eccentric?) character said – I’ll be back.

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