“Would you like a little cheesy-pineapple one?” (Beverly, Abigail’s Party, 1977)

Trigger warning: This post mentions rape

Here’s my contribution to the 1977 Club, hosted by Kaggsy at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. It’s running all week, do join in!

Firstly, Penelope Fitzgerald’s first novel, The Golden Child, which she published aged 60 (it’s never too late, budding writers!) This is a typically slim Fitzgerald novel, just 189 pages, and while I didn’t love it as much as the others by her which I’ve read (The Bookshop; At Freddies) there’s still a lot to enjoy.

The title refers to an exhibit that is on loan to a London museum. It is hugely popular with people queueing for hours on end to see the tiny dead Garamatian king covered in gold, and his ball of gold twine. The story concentrates on behind the scenes: the relationships and internal politics of the museum.

“At the sight of his tiresomely energetic subordinate, Hawthorne-Mannering felt his thin blood rise, like faint green sap, with distaste. He closed his eyes, so as not to see Waring Smith.”

It is from the energetic Waring Smith’s viewpoint that the story unfolds. He realises that certain deals have been done, certain backs have been scratched, in order for the museum to gain the exhibit.

“He had a glimpse for the first time of the murky origins of the great golden attraction: hostilities in the Middle East, North African politics, the ill-coordinated activities of the Hopeforth-Best tobacco company. Perhaps similar forces and similar shoddy undertakings controlled every area of his life. Was it his duty to think about the report more deeply and, in that case, do something about it?”

Things take a sinister turn when someone tries to strangle him with the golden twine, and two of his colleagues end up dead in highly suspicious circumstances. Waring Smith is sent on a farcical trip to the USSR (as it then was) to consult with an expert regarding the exhibit. On his return, he becomes embroiled with Special Branch, and has to decipher a code on a clay tablet which might hold a clue as to what on earth is going on.

“The Museum, slumberous by day, sleepless by night, began to seem to him a place of dread. Apart from the two recent deaths, how many violent ways there were in the myriad of rooms of getting rid of a human being! The dizzy stairs, the plaster-grinders in the cast room, the poisons of conservation, the vast incinerators underground!”

There’s a great deal to enjoy in The Golden Child but it doesn’t quite work as a mystery – some of the solving takes place ‘off-screen’ and Waring Smith is then told about it, so it doesn’t quite match what it sets itself up to be. Its strengths are Fitzgerald’s wit and her satire of politics big (The Cold War) and small (workplace); it’s a quick, fun read.

Image from here

Disclaimer, and a note for those of you who, like me, were born around the time of this Club: I’m aware that part of my enjoyment of this novel came about because of a very specific reason, which may have coloured my view somewhat. As a child one of my favourite TV programmes was The Baker Street Boys, which showed what the Baker Street Irregulars got up to when they weren’t helping out a certain world-famous detective. My favourite episode was The Adventure of the Winged Scarab, involving mystery, museums and mummies. Anyone else who remembers this series fondly can indulge in a nostalgia-fest because I’ve just discovered some kind soul has uploaded the whole lot to YouTube.

Image from here

Secondly, Injury Time by Beryl Bainbridge, which is set over the course of one evening. Edward has agreed that his mistress Binny can give a dinner party and he will invite his colleague Simpson and Simpson’s wife Muriel along.

“He gave her so little, he denied her the simple pleasures a wife took for granted – that business of cooking his meals, remembering his sister’s birthday, putting intricate little bundles of socks into his drawer.”

I loved that line which comes early in the novel and so I settled into what I fully expected to be full of the joys of Bainbridge: acerbic wit, idiosyncratic characters, acute social observation. For much of the novel, this is exactly what Injury Time provided. None of the characters seem to know exactly what they want and the changes taking place in 1970s Britain leave them all slightly baffled.

“It was astonishing how fashionable it was to be unfaithful. He often wondered if it had anything to do with going without a hat. No sooner had the homburgs and the bowlers disappeared from the City than everyone grew their hair longer, and after that nothing was sacred.”

The dinner party never really takes place. Binny is an appalling housekeeper and her home is filthy (Bainbridge based Binny on herself and Edward on a lawyer she had an affair with). Before anyone arrives she’s thrown the hoover into the backyard and stuffed the pudding behind the fridge.

“Though most of her life she had rushed headlong into danger and excitement, she had travelled first-class, so to speak, with a carriage attendant within call. The world was less predictable now…in her day dreams, usually accompanied by a panic-stricken Edward, she was always being blown up in aeroplanes or going down in ships.”

The less predictable world erupts violently into the evening of Binny, Edward, Simpson, Muriel and Binny’s inebriated friend Alma. It’s here that I have a bit of trouble with Injury Time. A character is raped. For me, this jarred uncomfortably in what until that point had been a funny, sharp novel puncturing 1970s social mores and pretensions. The rape itself is dealt with oddly: it’s part of a section that verges on surreal and is filled with non-sequiturs; the character it happens to is weirdly detached, which may be shock but this is never made clear. Looking at reviews online, I was really surprised that so few reviewers even mentioned this event. For many Injury Time remains an unproblematic comic novel. So I wouldn’t want to put anyone off reading it; I adore Bainbridge and still do, but for me how the rape was portrayed and contextualised was a problem.

I don’t want to end on a downer when so much of Injury Time is funny, so I’ll end with this quote which is pure Bainbridge. I wonder how far Binny was based on her and whether she actually did this?

“There had been too that incident when he couldn’t see Binny because he wanted to prune his roses, and she’d threatened to come round in the night and set fire to his garden, Later, a small corner of the lawn had been found mysteriously singed, but nothing had been proved.”

To end, the UK number one from this week in 1977. AHA!

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“Adventure is just bad planning.” (Roald Amundsen, leader of the first expedition to reach the South Pole)

Happy New Year! My 2018 is rubbish so far but I’m hopeful of improvement – I’ve caught the horrible virus everyone is down with at the moment. According to fellow sufferer Rev. Richard Coles on twitter, it’s God’s way of telling you to watch a boxset.  My virus-addled brain can’t focus on the plot of a single episode of something at the moment, never mind a whole boxset (so this post may be even less coherent than usual). I’m fed up and bored and so I thought I’d look at people pushing themselves to physical extremes when I can’t even get off my sofa at the moment without a 5-point plan.  It will also be another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. Off to Antarctica!

Firstly, The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge (1991) which tells the story of Scott’s disastrous attempt to reach the South Pole. Five sections are narrated by different members of the party with Scott in the middle. It’s an effective approach, building a picture of the different personalities involved and the disintegration of their hopes.

Petty Officer Evans begins the tale, full of military loyalty to their leader.

“Being down a crevasse together is no excuse for stepping out of line. All I know is I’d die with the man, and for him, God help me, if the necessity arose.”

However, through Dr Wilson, Bainbridge articulates the changes taking place in society at the time of the expedition, just into the second decade of the twentieth century.

“All the things we were taught to believe in, love of country, of Empire, of devotion to duty, are being held up to ridicule. The validity of the class system, the motives of respectable, educated men are now as much under scrutiny of the magnifying glass as the parasites feeding off the Scottish grouse.”

The men are clinging onto ideas in the face of unstoppable forces, both societally at home, and environmentally in the Antarctic. They are doomed to failure.

Scott takes up the middle portion of the book and Bainbridge brilliantly captures all his contradictions. He is arrogant yet doubtful, single-minded yet insightful.

“justifying my actions would have been simply no good for morale. Like it or not, and God knows, half the time I don’t, someone has to take the decisions – along with the consequences.”

His motivations are mixed. He claims it as a scientific expedition for Empire, yet is furious when he is beaten to the Pole.

“I came to sanity under Bill’s tuition. He wisely said I must continue as if nothing happened, as if Amundsen didn’t exist. It was unthinkable that our scientific projects should be sacrificed in a vulgar scramble to reach the Pole.”

Yet Bainbridge never allows us to despise his hubris. To do so would mean we lose our empathy with the men who he led to their deaths, and the novel would lose its enormous emotional power. As Lieutenant Bowers observes:

“I think I know what ails the Owner. He’s absolutely sound as regards what’s right, but he lacks conviction. He simply isn’t stupid enough to be convinced his is the only way. In the circumstances, it’s a dangerous trait.”

That’s not say that by the time we get to sceptical, reticent Oates, I wasn’t pleased to hear someone expressing their anger and frustration at their leader.

“I’ve never known such a man for making mistakes and shifting the blame onto others.”

However, as the nearness of death, their body parts rotting, the tedium of days desperately clinging to life in an inhospitable landscape starts to send them all insane with desperation, even Oates admits:

“Truth to tell, I think he was the only one among us capable of making any decisions.”

Bainbridge is a wonderful writer and even though we know what happened, she still manages to create tension and drama from the men’s horrific situation. She is also able to capture the landscape as beautifully and evocatively as she does the men’s psychology.

“Those who envisage this place as nothing more than a godforsaken plateau of ice and snow are mistaken. For one there are outcrops of jet-black rock about which the wind blows so fiercely the snow can never settle; and for another, the ice, being subject to reflections of sun and sea, is never purely white but tinged with rose and cobalt-blue and every shade of violet, the whole set against skies, days or night, that run through all the colours of the spectrum.”

The Birthday Boys is a short novel (181 pages) but none the less for it. It is Bainbridge at the height of her powers and as such, it is immense.

Secondly, a quick foray into Antarctica by Claire Keegan (1999) because I’ve got quite carried away with Beryl. This is Keegan’s first collection of short stories and it’s remarkably assured with a strong narrative voice. I actually found the titular story the weakest, but I suspect maybe it’s dated a wee bit. My favourite stories in the collection were those set in rural Ireland. The Ginger Rogers Sermon was devastating. The narrator is a young girl on the cusp of adulthood, living on her parents farm in a place where there’s not much to do.

Don’t ask me why we called him Slapper Jim. My mother stamped his image in my head, and I was at an age when pictures of a man precede the man himself. The posters verify: Thin Lizzie with a V of chest exposed, Pat Spillane’s legs racing across my bedroom wall…I was the girl with the sweet tooth and a taste for men.”

The taste for men is problematic when you have feelings and knowledge, but not a great deal of understanding. Adulthood is approaching rapidly but childhood also lingers:

“Now that I am thirteen I am sectioned off from men. It happens in school too, in gym class. I play basketball and jump over hurdles and come back all red-faced and sweaty and talk non-stop in class. Nobody sits beside me because I smell like an afterbirth. I wear the pads and Lily of the Valley and go dancing down the pub. Slapper Jim is always there with the bantam. I waltz around in the cigarette smoke with old men my father knows.”

This is the tone of The Ginger Rogers Sermon exactly: matter-of-fact, unsentimental, funny and sad. A tragedy occurs, arising from disturbing circumstances, yet the ending contains some hope. As in many of Keegan’s stories, things are unresolved and the story is stronger for it.

Keegan has spent time in the States and some of her stories are set there. The final one, Passport Soup, is one of these, a sad tale of the parents of a missing child. Keegan is brilliant at capturing deep feeling without melodrama, in beautiful but sparse prose:

“Frank Corso has lost his appetite. He pushes his plate aside and gets up and puts the milk carton with his daughter’s photograph back in the refrigerator and goes to bed. The sheets are cold. He hears a wedge of snow fall from the eaves of the roof onto the drift beneath the window. Snow falling, compounding cold. Daylight bleaches the walls before he finally sleeps.”

This is a powerful collection of stories, and if you’re not keen on short stories but want to give them a go, it’s a good place to start. Keegan absolutely understands the form, she doesn’t waste a word. Unfortunately, she seems to publish rarely: her second collection came 8 years later, followed after another 3 years by a stand-alone ‘long short story’. That’s not a criticism though – quality like this is worth waiting for.

To end, a tasteful video for once (clearly I really am ill), narrated by the insurpassable Sir David & full of arresting images (normal cheesy service will resume next week):

“Liverpool has always made me brave, choice-wise. It was never a city that criticised anyone for taking a chance.” (David Morrissey)

This week I’m spending a few days in the beautiful city of Liverpool, a place whose frankly bonkers mix of ridiculously over the top neo-classicist buildings at every turn, alongside strictly utilitarian constructions harking back to their industrial past, fair warms the cockles of my heart. So for this post I thought I’d look at a couple of writers who are proud Scousers.

Liverpool_Pier_Head_from_ALbert_Dock

Firstly, the writer who immediately sprung to mind when I thought of Liverpool, the wonderful Beryl Bainbridge.  The Bottle Factory Outing (1974) is one of the five of Dame Beryl’s novels nominated for the Booker, which she never won because the patriarchy who dominated critics and committees consistently underestimated her writing and subject matter, why is a mystery.

 

Images from here, here, here and here

I love Beryl’s face so much I couldn’t limit myself to one picture 🙂

The titular outing is undertaken by a group of workers from a wine-bottling factory. Freda has organised it because she has designs on the heir to the business, Vittorio. Brenda, her flatmate and frenemy, does not want to go, and never wanted to work there in the first place.

“Patiently Freda explained that it wasn’t a bottle factory, it was a wine factory – that they would be working alongside simple peasants who had culture and tradition behind them. Brenda hinted she didn’t like foreigners – she found them difficult to get on with. Freda said it proved how puny a person she was, in mind and body.

‘You’re bigoted,’ she cried. ‘And you don’t eat enough.’

To which Brenda did not reply.”

Freda and Brenda are very different. Freda is a one-woman hurricane, sweeping aside anything in her path. Brenda is being molested by one of the managers and doesn’t know how to stop it:

“As a child she had been taught it was rude to say no, unless she didn’t mean it. If she was offered another piece of cake and she wanted it she was obliged to refuse out of politeness. And if she didn’t want it, she had to say yes, even if it choked her.”

Needless to say, all of this will come to a head during the day of the works outing…

If you like Beryl Bainbridge, you’ll like this, as in many ways it is typical of her. A short novel, the story told in simple language which belies its deeply disturbing subject matter. And that subject matter is human beings.  Bainbridge turns her unsentimental eye on relationships between people and finds them unpredictable and unsettling. At every turn, horror is narrowly avoided.

“Brenda wanted to say that she looked like a long-distance lorry driver in the sheepskin coat, that she was a big fat cow, that she had wobbled like a jelly on the back of the funeral horse. She wanted to hurt her, watch her smooth round face crumple. But when it came to it, all she could murmur was, ‘Sometimes you’re very difficult to live with.’”

Until it isn’t. When the horror strikes, it feels both inevitable and deeply shocking. Bainbridge is breathtakingly brilliant, I’d forgotten how much so. She sees everything as slightly warped and off-kilter, and for the duration of her short, punchy novels, you are right there with her. She’s never a comfortable read, but she’s always a compelling one.

A little curiosity for you. Before she turned to writing Beryl was an actor.  Here she is in soap opera/national institution Coronation Street:

Secondly, a poet who writes for both kids and adults, and as such his witty verse has followed me throughout my life (including to my Dad’s wedding where I read Vow). Roger McGough, alongside Brian Patten and Adrian Henri, is one of of the Liverpool poets. He also performed as part of Scaffold, with John Gorman and brother-of-Paul, Mike McCartney. Impressive sideburn alert:

I’ve chosen a quick poem, by no means his best, but I saw Mike McCartney read this live once when I was about 12 or so; it was probably the first of McGough’s adult poetry I heard, and its stuck with me ever since.  Also, a play I saw at the Everyman while I was here – a theatre McGough helped make part of the Liverpool scene  – included a song & dance about the death of Maggie Thatcher, so his leftist politics are at the forefront of my mind.

Conservative Government Unemployment Figures by Roger McGough

Conservative Government?

Unemployment?

Figures.

A tweetable poem written years before the advent of twitter. With a UK general election looming, I’ll leave you to decide if it’s still relevant or not…

To end, the man himself, replete with lyrical Scouse accent, reading his poem with the irresistible title of Mafia Cats:

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” (Winston Churchill)

10 November was Remembrance Sunday, and so for this post I thought I would look at two novels dealing with the theme of war.

Firstly, Regeneration by Pat Barker (Penguin, 1991).  This was the first novel Barker wrote in the Regeneration trilogy, the other two being The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road.  I actually think The Ghost Road is the strongest of the three, but Regeneration is still an expertly crafted novel, and although each novel in the trilogy stands alone, I think it’s preferable to start at the beginning.  Regeneration tells the story of Dr WHR Rivers, a psychiatrist at Craiglockhart hospital during the First World War, and his shell-shocked soldier patients, including the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.  Although fiction, the novel is based on true events and Dr Rivers is a real-life character as well as the poets.  Barker said she chose the character of Rivers as, not being a soldier herself, she had to find a voice with some distance from the trenches.  Although this is the case, the way Barker looks at the horrors of war is unflinching.  I’m about to quote something truly atrocious, brace yourselves or scan past it:

“Burns arms were goose-pimpled, though the room was not cold.  The smell of vomit lingered on his breath.  Rivers sat down beside him.  He didn’t know what to say, and thought it better to say nothing.  After a while he felt the bed begin to shake and put his arm round Burns’ shoulders.  “It doesn’t get any better, does it?” […]

Burns. Rivers had become adept at finding bearable aspects to unbearable experiences, but Burns defeated him.  What had happened to him was so vile, so disgusting, that Rivers could find no redeeming feature.  He’d been thrown into the air by the explosion of a shell and had landed, head-first, on a German corpse, whose gas-filled belly and had ruptured on impact.  Before Burns lost consciousness, he’d had time to realise that what filled his nose and mouth was decomposing human flesh.  Now, whenever he tried to eat, that taste and smell recurred.  Nightly he relived the experience, and from every nightmare he awoke vomiting.”

Horrors like this are almost impossible to contemplate, and even more upsetting when you realise things like this actually happened.  Within this context, amongst their traumatised and screaming comrades, Sassoon and Owen try to express their disgust and anger through verse:

““What draft is this?”

“Lost count,” said Owen. “You did tell me to sweat my guts out.”

“Did I really? What an inelegant expression. “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” I see we got to the slaughterhouse in the end.” Sassoon read through the poem. When he’d finished, he didn’t immediately comment.

“It’s better isn’t it?”

“Better.  It’s transformed.” […]  He thought for a moment, crossed one word out, substituted another.  “There you are,” he said, handing the page back, smiling. “Anthem for Doomed Youth.””

Regeneration is not a long novel, 249 pages in my edition, but Barker crams so much in and I’ve barely scratched the surface here.  Alongside the issues of war, she considers themes of madness, what society expects from men, and what it expects from women.  How the state can betray its citizens, and what we can give to each other in times of crisis.

Here is a clip from Gilles MacKinnon’s excellent 1995 adaptation of Regeneration (released as Behind the Lines in some countries), including some lines from one of Wilfred Owen’s greatest poems, Dulce et Decorum Est:

Secondly, further back in time to the Crimean War, Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge (Abacus, 1998).  This was the novel for which Bainbridge was posthumously awarded a Booker Prize in 2011, with a special prize, the Best of Beryl.  I haven’t read all of Bainbridge’s books, so I can’t vouch for whether it’s her best, but it’s certainly highly accomplished.  It tells the story of George Hardy, a surgeon and photographer who, after a family tragedy, decides to leave Liverpool for the Crimea.  His adoptive sister Myrtle and geologist brother-in-law Dr Potter accompany him, alongside fire-eater and sometime lover of George, Pompey Jones.  These three voices narrate the story, and learning about the eponymous character from others is entirely appropriate, as George is an enigmatic and conflicted man, as obscure as one of his blackened and fading photographic images .  As Myrtle observes:

“There’s a sameness about death that makes the emotions stiffen – which is for the best, else one would be uselessly crying all day long.  It’s why Georgie often seems insensitive to other people’s feelings.  Dealing with the dying, one must either blunt the senses or go mad.”

Amongst the filth and squalor of the Crimean battlefields, all see death more often than not.  Bainbridge presents it in a determinedly low-key way; the Charge of Light Brigade happens outside the story, and Dr Potter’s pragmatic response speaks volumes about the dehumanising effects of war:

“I am in two minds as to whether I should bother to pack my tent, it being in a wretched state, perfectly sodden and much holed.  It would be better for my health if I slept in the hospital tent, though that too is in a deplorable condition.  I am at least better off as far as transport is concerned; three days ago over two hundred cavalry horses of the Light Brigade stampeded into camp, their riders having perished in a charge along the north valley.”

It may not be “Half a league, half a league, half a league onward…” but while Bainbridge shuns Tennyson’s pomp, her use of small detail says more than enough about the futility of the combat and the waste of human lives.  Master Georgie is a haunting novel that stayed with me long after I finished it.

Here are the novels with the symbol of Remembrance Sunday, a poppy:

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