Wednesday, 7 January 2015

A Historical Who-Dunnit!

Way back in the summer when I was staying in Plymouth to kitten sit for my Elder Daughter I was intrigued by the sight of piles of books stacked on a table in Waterstones, surrounded by a little crowd of people, so I pushed my through to discover what was so interesting (OK, I know it’s bad manners, but when you’re five-foot-nothing you have to push your way through so you can see things). Anyway, it turned out to be a display of Treachery, by SJ Parris, a historical who-dunnit set in Plymouth (hence the display I suppose), so I was kind of hooked. Plus the central character is Giordano Bruno, a real life 16th Century one-time monk, philosopher, scientist, astronomer, mathematician, poet and (possibly) spy, who was eventually burned at the stake for heresy.
It seemed an irresistible combination, and the elderly lady standing next to me took time out from urging her friend to buy a copy to tell me how much she’d enjoyed it, and how I could still see some of the places mentioned in the story, even though the city has changed beyond all recognition since she was a girl. She was so enthusiastic and friendly it seemed churlish not to take her advice… so I got the book!
This engraving of Giordano Bruno was published in 1713 and is
thought to be based on an older painting.
It is 1583 and Bruno is in Plymouth with his friend Sir Philip Sidney, who is Master of the Queen’s Ordinance They have business with Sir Francis Drake, who is planning a raid against the Spanish (just to put you in the picture, this is after his round-the-world trip but before the Armada).
Then Robert Dunne, a member of the crew is found hanged in his cabin. It looks like suicide, but he was acting strangely before his death, and the body shows no signs of strangulation. The superstitious sailors are unsettled, viewing the incident as a bad omen, and Drake is worried. An inquest must be held and he fears a murder ruling could destroy the expedition: his ship will be delayed in port while official investigations are carried out, and his backer will withdraw funding. On the other hand, if the inquest returns a verdict of suicide, Dunne’s widow will lose her inheritance – and Drake may still have a killer on board. So Bruno who, I gather, has done this kind of thing before (it may be my first meeting with him, but this is the fourth book in the series), is persuaded to investigate – and he has just three days to do it (sounds like Time Team doesn’t it!). In his hunt for the truth Bruno is drawn into a murky world of intrigue and deceit as he embarks on a race against time, aided and abetted by the hare-brained Sir Philip. 
The ship where Dunne's body is found must have been similar to the Golden
Hind, in which Drake sailed round the world. By 1583, the year the novel is set,
the Golden Hind was displayed at Deptford. I saw this replica at Brixham
Is Dunne’s death linked to earlier events on Drake’s round-the-world trip? Is there a connection with the discovery of a mysterious, dangerous book which could threaten the entire Christian church? And where does the House of Vesta, a high-class brothel, fit into all this? Bruno can trust no-one: the grieving widow comes under scrutiny, and he even questions the behaviour of Drake’s brother. And, to make matters worse, Bruno himself is being trailed by an old adversary who may be involved in the case, or maybe seeking revenge…
There are more murders and he finds cover-ups at the highest level as he exposes prostitution, child abuse, spying and blackmail, picking his way through the tangled web of jealousies and loyalties presented by the crew, the gentry, and local residents. The action romps along at the most tremendous pace – I did begin to wonder how Bruno packs so much action into such a short time! He even manages to squeeze in a brief dalliance with a beautiful, feisty, witty society lady. His efforts to rescue her from the villains end with them both being tied up in a tunnel beneath an old chapel, on an island, with gunpowder and a lighted fuse nearby. But, needless to say, they escape, just as I knew they would – after all, as I kept telling myself, he can’t be killed in a variation of the Gunpowder Plot in 1583, because the real Bruno was burned as a heretic 17 years later.
Sir Francis Drake, in Buckland Abbey, by
Marcus Gheeraerts.
As a rule I don't read many crime novels, but this is historical, so I really enjoyed it, and I liked the fact that it's set in an area I know (even if I don't know it well). Actually, you'd be hard put to find much left from the 16th century in Plymouth - most of the central area was badly bombed during WW2 and afterwards almost everything, including many of the surrounding houses, was flattened to make way for a massive rebuilding programme. But the harbour and the boats are still there, and in the Barbican area you'll find narrow alleyways and cobbled streets, as well as the fabulous Elizabethan House, where you can wander round for next to nothing and get some sense of the way people would have lived at the time this novel is set, or walk in the Elizabethan Garden, just as Bruno might have done. And a few streets away you can find The Merchant's House, which dates from a similar period, and is equally fascinating, although it’s been turned into a museum, with each room representing a different era, so the sense of history is not quite the same.
Talking of history, using real people in a novel can be tricky, but the real Bruno is rather shadowy so it is difficult to take issue with Parris’ portrait of him. And she’s created a wonderfully charismatic character: he’s sensitive and intelligent, as well as being an all-action hero.
Overall I have to say it was difficult to keep up with at times, and I felt the plot wasn’t always credible, but the book was great fun and there is, of course, a twist at the end, which I didn’t see coming, although clues are laid very early on, which is always good – I do hate it when an author suddenly reveals the killer using information which has never been brought to light before, like a conjuror pulling a rabbit from a hat.
This is the Merchant's House in Plymouth, first mentioned
in records in 1601, less than 20 years after the year Treachery
was  set in . In 1583 the city's wealthy merchants and sea
captains would have lived in homes very like this.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Short Story Sunday - on Monday!

‘There’s a man,’ Alice said. ‘She’s with a man.’ She scrubbed the bus window with a bunched-up brown glove. May sat down heavily beside her, still probing a blasted peppermint. She leaned forward, her menthol breath ruining all Alice’s work on the window.
The duo are outraged because this is a tour for Retired Ladies, and not only is Mrs Nash not actually retired (although she is of an age for it), but she has brought her son with her. As you can imagine, he is an object of great curiosity to the ladies – but he turns out to be very odd indeed.

Clare Boylan’s Some Retired Ladies on a Tour follows the disparate group as they make their way to various shabby, run-down, seaside hotels and boarding houses. At one place they are served up cold prunes and custard. And when the same unappetising mess appears as pudding a couple of days later at another location, the ladies joke that it’s been sent on.
From the outset nothing is quite as it should be.

The drive was a disappointment. They had expected the driver to be a comedian who would take them all on, call them darling, sing over the microphone so they could join in and jolly up the shy ones. Instead there was a snivelling young pup who got his thrills speeding around corners and wouldn’t stop to let them go to the toilet. By the time they got to the first resort the outgoing ones were bored and bad tempered. The oldest ladies were purple and rigid with misery.
And when they arrive at their first hotel things aren’t much better, because the driver disappears into a pub, leaving them ‘teetering’ and shivering on the edge of a cliff to make their own way to the hotel. However, at reception they are cheered by a ‘bit of commotion’ that makes them forget the dismal journey, for Mrs Nash, as the receptionist tells the manager, wants to sleep with her son…

Joe is a handsome man, aged about 45, with light curly hair, and a boyish diffident smile. But there is something about him that is not quite right. He is almost like a child, and seems ‘a transparent creature, a daddy-long-legs’. He rarely speaks, but does sing at their evening concerts (these Retired Ladies are nothing if not resourceful – they carry their own luggage, as well as providing their own entertainment).
Mrs Nash, with her shrivelled face and her green Crimplene turban, tells Alice that on his way to work one day Joe fell down with a clot and was brought home in a bread van.

…Joe was the only thing that had ever actually belonged to her. She wasn’t about to let him go to a clot. The clot wouldn’t dare strike while she was around.
Mrs Nash doesn’t have many friends, on account of Joe, which is understandable I think. She keeps tight hold of her him, watching his every move, supervising everything he does. They share a room, and even go to the toilet hand in hand for, she says, Joe is ill, and must be cared for. I won’t tell you what happens, but Joe really is ill, but not in the way she says, and he really does need proper care. For Joe has a Past, and his past is not pleasant, and poor Mrs Nash hides his terrible secret and protects him from the world (and the world from him). However, he appears harmless enough, and Retired Lady Doris Moore becomes more than a little obsessed by him. Force to give up work through ill health, she was once manageress at Imperial Meats.

By the time she was thirty, Doris realised she hadn’t bothered to look for a man. She had been too busy looking for jumpers. Her big achievement was learning to knit. She came to look on the cold as a constant; warmth and sunshine were interruptions.
She’s a large lady, who favours brightly coloured knitted garments, likes a drink and a laugh, and loves to be centre of attraction. At the end of the holiday, convinced that Joe admires her, she takes matters into her own hands and, to her horror, discovers Joe’s guilty secret. Things could get very nasty indeed, but there’s a farcical element to the whole incident, and all ends well.
I imagine Doris looking a little like this woman in Beryl Cook's Bryant Park. Her skirt is
a little too short, but she certainly looks as if she likes to be centre stage, while at the same
time not being tremendously happy with her life.

Mrs Nash and her son depart in a taxi for Birkenhead (where she keeps a market stall) and Doris, whose behaviour is the talk of the tour, brazens it out, joining the other Retired Ladies for the journey home. In fact the last night proves to be the high spot of the holiday, bringing a touch of spice into the Retired Ladies’ dull lives.
For the Ladies (who seem to belong to some kind of club) are all lonely, all on their own, except Mrs Nash, of course – and she must be as lonesome as the others, for her need to keep a constant watch on her son prevents any other social interaction. And the others seem to be as friendless as she. The group reminded me a bit of Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont where the elderly men and women who have come down in the world are reduced to living in a hotel (which has also come down in the world). Despite the humour of Boylan’s tale, there’s the same sense of sadness and loneliness, displacement and isolation. Their holiday gives them a few days of companionship, in a different environment.

I’ve never read any Clare Boylan before, but I enjoyed this tale (another in The Penguin Book of Modern Women’s Short Stories). She set the scene well, and I could picture the out of season seaside resorts, as unloved and lonely as the Retired Ladies.


Thursday, 1 January 2015

New Year, Resolutions and an Arthurian Sword

It's New Year's Day... And here is the Wart, on New Year's Day, pulling the
Sword from the Stone in the Disney cartoon of the same name. The film
 was based on TH White's The Once and Future King,
Happy New Year Everyone! Since people seem to be making resolutions and planning for 2015 I feel as if I should too, even though I know from past experience that I rarely stick to the lists I draw up. I’m toying with the idea of joining a couple of blogs. I like the idea of finding a bookish connection for every one of the traditional English counties, so Reading England 2015 sounds fun, but I don’t want to be tied down to too many books, so maybe I’ll aim for a lower level and just read half a dozen books for this one. And the What’s in a Name Challenge sounds fun - I could do this one easily using books from the TBR pile, and there aren’t that many books, so I’d still have plenty of time to read anything else that takes my fancy.

In addition, since most of my reading seems to be limited to British authors, and I am woefully ignorant about writers from other countries and cultures, I would like to try and read more foreign authors. I’ve got some Australian books on a shelf, and Zola and Balzac on the Kindle, so that would be a start!
Meanwhile, I seem to have gathered a pile of books by my armchair while ‘catching up’ on Radio 4 over the Christmas period– I love BBC Radio’s readings and dramatisations, and there have been some real goodies over the last couple of weeks. I’ve enjoyed TH White’s The Once and Future King, Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring and The Diary of a Provincial Lady, by EM Delafield, which are all old favourites so, of course, so I had to hunt out the books for some re-reading. And I’ve also ended up with a stash of other Arthurian books, and a copy of Christina Hardyment’s biography of Malory, which someone gave my mother, and she gave me!

A Walter Crane illustration of Arthur pulling the
sword from the stone.
Then there was Susanna Hislop’s Stories in the Stars: An Atlas of Constellations, a fascinating mix of myths and science, which had me standing out in the garden gazing at the stars and contemplating the universe. This book has been added to my Wish List, and I’m considering taking a trip out one night somewhere with a better view of the night sky – there are too many roofs and lights where we are, which is a shame, because there have been some lovely clear night skies while the weather has been so cold and frosty.
I’m looking forward to listening to Fay Weldon’s The Girls of Slender Means, which is the current Book at Bedtime (I like listening to serials in one fell swoop – I get frustrated with them because I want to know what happens, even when I’ve read the book!). And I’ll be glued to the radio for much of today for a marathon session of Tolstoy’s War and Peace – though I’m not sure I’ll remain uninterrupted until the end!

Anyway, from this surfeit of riches TH White’s The Once and Future King seems the most suitable inspiration for New Year, because it is New Year Year’s Day when Arthur pulls the sword from the stone. If you remember, the newly-knighted Kay is to fight in a great festive tournament, but he’s left his sword at the inn, so he sends Arthur back for it. However, the inn is locked, and Arthur, determined to find a weapon for his foster brother, takes one from an anvil set in a stone in a graveyard.
Arthur, or Wart, if we’re following White (because, as he says, it more or less rhymes with Art, which is short for Arthur) must be the only person in the kingdom who knows nothing about this sword in the stone, which miraculously appeared on Christmas Day. According to White, the sword is ‘stuck through an anvil which stands on a stone. It goes right through the anvil and into the stone. The anvil is stuck to the stone. The stone stands outside a church’.

He pretty much follows Malory, who tells us in Le Morte d’Arthur of a ‘great stone four square, like unto a marble stone; and in midst thereof was like an anvil of steel a foot on high, and therein stuck a fair sword naked by the point, and letters there were written in gold about the sword that said thus:—Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England’.

Arthur, knowing nothing of all this, hands the sword to Kay, who initially lays claim to it, before admitting it is Arthur’s achievement But the noble lords of the realm are not happy and refuse to believe this seemingly base-born lad, a foundling, of unknown parentage, is really the son of dead King Uther. There are contests on Twelfth Day, Candlemas and at Easter when the knights gather to pit their strength against Arthur – but on each occasion he is the only one who can draw forth the sword, so he is finally crowned at Pentecost.
This is from an early 14th century manuscript, produced more than 150 years before
Malory wrote Le Morte d'Arthur. It shows the sword pushed  sideways into the stone.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Mushrooms Take Two...

OK people, today there are two posts –you’ve got a poem and a review! But they are linked, honestly. For some reason I woke up thinking of today’s short story, Slaves to the Mushroom, (see previous post) and the final sentence which kept niggling away in my brain, even though I didn’t like the story. The last words are: “Behind them in the sheds, thousands of tiny white nodules no bigger than a pin’s head starring the black compost were beginning to swell.”  And I suddenly realised what it was that this reminded me of – Sylvia Plath’s Mushrooms, which a friend recommended I should read, just a few weeks ago.

Sylvia Plath.
I love the way Plath writes about mushrooms pushing their way through the soil, but the poem is s kind of metaphor, about oppressed people rising up, in a quiet way, not through revolution or war, but simply because they are there, surviving and multiplying.
I’m not sure the poem really does help me appreciate MacKay’s tale, but it did make me look at it in a slightly different light. Anyway, here is the poem, and you can listen to Harriet Walters reading it if you follow this link to the British Library site

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot's in the door.

Short Story Sunday: Slaves to the Mushroom

It’s Sunday again (it seems to come around very quickly!), so it’s time for a Short Story, and I’ve reached Tale Number Two in The Penguin Book of Modern Women’s Short Stories - Slaves to the Mushroom, by Shena MacKay. I didn’t really like this one, largely, I think, because I couldn’t warm to the central character. Sylvia works in a mushroom picking and packing factory, and we are introduced to her in the works canteen, as she tells a black man with an artificial hand how a hound bit her nipple off when she was a girl, out hunting.  Hmmm, I thought, what kind of woman says something like that to someone she doesn’t know… Frankly, I feel that as a conversation opener it leaves a lot to be desired.
And, lest you should deduce from this incident that the story, or the character (or both), are quirky, let me make it quite clear that quirky is not a word I would use in connection with this particular piece of writing. It is, I think, a rather bleak little tale set, as I’ve already said, in a mushroom factory. Green Star Mushrooms Limited, to be precise, part of a bigger company which supplies chains of pizza restaurants, supermarkets, and small stores.
Now I like mushrooms, but I admit I have no idea how they are grown commercially, so I don’t know whether MacKay’s description is at all representative of the industry. I do hope it’s not, and I can quite see why Sylvia no longer eats mushrooms.

To be honest, I should feel sympathy for her for working in such a horrible place. It’s a mind-numbingly boring job, in a cold, wet, smelly shed, and it’s physically demanding - there’s lots of climbing, lifting and carrying.
‘After her first day, her arms had been so stiff that she could hardly move them, her back felt as if it was broken and her legs felt as heavy as trees.’
The mushrooms are grown in tiered beds. Sylvia and her fellow workers crouch on the cold, wet floor to pick the lowest layer of mushrooms, using sharp knives to cut off the stalks. They perch on stepladders to harvest the second and third rows, while the walkway on the top level is reached by steps which are blocked to stop people coming down before the end of a shift. Knives, ladders, boots and so on are dipped into disinfectant each time anyone moves to a new section or leaves the shed.
Sylvia likens the vast, windowless mushroom sheds to ‘battery houses where chickens were kept in cruel and grotesque captivity’. And as they wait to dunk their ladders in the disinfectant she tells the uncomprehending women:  “At least we’ve got room to turn around and flap our wings.” She obviously hates the job, and she’s not very good at it, but we learn that she works because Jack can’t, and she has to keep them both.
A bit of a dreamer, when supervisor Shirley says she must ‘get her act together’, she comes up with this extraordinary image:
‘Sylvia saw all the mushroom pickers in a Busby Berkeley-style sequence, turning their buckets upside down and beating them like drums, swarming up the aluminium supports like sailors in the rigging, kicking out their arms and legs star-wise, their green and white gingham overalls twirling as they tap-danced in their wellies, juggling mushrooms and flashing knives, spreading out the pink palms of their rubber gloves as they fell on one knee behind Shirley, the star in her white wellies.”
It ought to be hard to dislike someone who can create such a wonderfully bizarre picture, but there was something about Sylvia that I just didn’t take to. There’s that odd story for a start, only it turns out to be a lie, which is even odder – why make up a story like that? Is Sylvia seeking attention, or trying to gain sympathy? Then there’s her attitude towards the Asian women, who she claims are picking the best mushrooms. And she takes another woman’s pickings and passes them off as her own.
There’s a twist at the end when she returns home at the end of the day to tell Jack about her day, because Jack turns out to be not a husband or brother – but a pet bird. (Sorry, I must try not to include spoilers). And at that point I realised how lonely, and how much of an outsider Sylvia actually is. But I still didn’t like her.