“Going underground, going underground” (The Jam)

There were a few blissful weeks over the summer when everyone took their kids on holiday and my commute to work was almost bearable, because it was done with approximately two-thirds less people than usual.  Now those halcyon days are well and truly behind us and everyone’s back at work, I thought I’d try reading about public transport to see if it fills me with new-found affection for my early morning travel.  Given that I’m reading during said commute, with my book touching my nose and my head wedged into someone’s armpit, there’s still some way to go, despite the efforts of some wonderful staff.

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Firstly,  Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay. This was the first of Hay’s three crime novels, and is part of the British Library Crime Classics re-issues, which I completely adore. I love these so much I even bought one full-price the other day, rather than waiting for them to turn up in charity bookshops, which is something I never do.  This could be the start of a slippery slope….

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The wonderfully-monikered Miss Euphemia Pongleton is found strangled by her own dog leash on the stairs of Belsize Park station (for those of you who know the Misery Northern line – see, it can get worse – you could be dead).   Suspicion falls on her wastrel nephew Basil Pongleton, whom she was constantly inheriting and disinheriting:

“It’s awfully difficult to explain and I had a ghastly time with the police yesterday. Wonder they didn’t arrest me right away, but they’re keeping an eye on me. I noticed a fishy-looking fellow with police-feet lounging opposite my window in Tavistock Square this morning”

The dialogue is definitely part of the appeal of golden age detective fiction for me, it’s just wonderful. While Basil is dithering around making matters worse, his eminently more sensible cousin Beryl tries to unravel the mystery.  Miss Pongleton lodged at the Frampton Hotel, and each of the eccentric fellow boarders has their part to play.  My favourite was Mrs Daymer:

“a middle-aged lady who liked to accentuate the gaunt strangeness of her appearance by unfashionable clothes. She would explain proudly that they were of hand-woven material…perhaps their intimate connection with the sheep justified their particular unwieldiness”

Mrs Daymer, who gives off a smell of wet sheep in the rain, is unperturbed by the murder as she writes crime fiction and likes to “suck [people] dry” for her novels. Between her and Beryl, they manage to piece together what happened.  This being the golden age, there is a missing will, confusion over some pearls and an obese terrier (ok, so that last one isn’t really a trope but I had to give him a mention). Murder Underground is not the most taxing mystery (I’m useless at guessing who done it, and even I got this one quite early) but it’s a great example of this period in detective fiction, and very readable.

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If only this poster was right… unfortunately I find it the swiftest way to passive-aggressive tutting, both given and received.

Secondly, Metroland by Julian Barnes. I don’t always get on with Julian Barnes.  I can see he’s a highly accomplished writer, but I find him coldly intellectual and distancing.  However, in Metroland I think he does capture something about a certain time in late adolescence and the wish for a brave new world. Christopher and his friend Toni live in the suburbs at the tail end of the Metropolitan line, and wish they didn’t:

“Toni and I prided ourselves on being rootless. We also aspired to future condition of rootlessness, and saw no contradiction in the two states of mind; or in the fact that we each lived with our parents, who were, for that matter, the freeholders of our respective homes.”

Yes, Christopher and Toni are hugely pretentious snobs.  They desperately wish to be French, which leads them into unintentionally hilarious scenarios like trying to be flaneurs along Oxford Street.  They also talk about art with a capital A:

“Art was the most important thing in life, the constant to which one could be unfailingly devoted and which would never cease to reward; more crucially it was the stuff whose effect on those exposed to it was ameliorative.”

Oh dear.  But in case you’re wondering why on earth you would want to spend any time in this idiot’s company,  I do think it’s worth it.  As I said, I find Barnes can be cold, but actually his portrait of Christopher is quite affectionate, and although you laugh at his pretentions, he’s not contemptible, just young and striving for something different to that with which he has grown up.  Christopher gets his wish and moves to France, but of course he doesn’t quite end up living the life he imagined. Metroland is about how its not always a disaster to not achieve your dreams, and how ordinary can also equal happy.

To end, a wonderfully British reaction to an unusual happening on the tube (for those of you not of these isles, rest assured that the response from passengers at the end is actually a huge outpouring of unconditional enthusiasm, I promise you):

“I’m bi-winning.” (Charlie Sheen)

As a companion piece to my post on Booker nominees, I thought I’d celebrate Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North winning the 2014 Man Booker by looking at two previous winners. Hence bi-winning – see, Charlie Sheen makes sense, he just needs the right context….

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Firstly, The Inheritance of Loss – Kiran Desai (Penguin, 2006) which won the 2006 Man Booker Prize. Desai’s prize-winning skill is evident from the first paragraph:

“All day, the colours had been those of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depth. Briefly visible above the vapour, Kanchenjunga was a far peak whittled out of ice, gathering the last of the light, a plume of snow blown high by the storms at its summit.”

Sai has been schooled by nuns , and leaves to live with her grandfather and his cook in a damp, faded mansion at the foot of the Himalayas. All three live elsewhere in their minds.  The sad judge thinks more and more on his past in England, Sai is enamoured of her maths tutor, and the cook is preoccupied with his son Biju who is living the dream in America:

“Biju lay on his mattress and watched the movement of the sun through the grate on the row of buildings opposite. From every angle that you looked at this city without a horizon, you saw more buildings going up like jungle creepers, starved for light, holding perpetual half-darkness congealed at the bottom, the day shafting through the maze, slivering into apartments at precise and fleeting times …”

The reality is that Biju hops from one low-paid job to another, part of the unseen masses that keep the economy rolling, without a green card, without rights.  The rights of people form the background of the story, as the Gorkhaland movement gains momentum:

“The anger had solidified into slogans and guns, and it turned out they, they, Lola and Noni, were the unlucky ones who wouldn’t slip through, who would pay the debt that should be shared with others over many generations”

Lola and Noni are two elderly sisters, dreaming of genteel retirement, yanked into the present day by the forces of the oppressed demanding land rights.  Desai balances the personal and political perfectly, showing the effect on the individual and the nation with equal sensitivity:

“This was how history moved, the slow build, the quick burn, and in an incoherence, the leaping both backward and forward, swallowing the young into old hate. The space between life and death, in the end, too small to measure.”

“There they were, the most commonplace of them, those quite mismatched with the larger-than-life questions, caught up in the mythic battles of past vs. present, justice vs. injustice – the most ordinary swept up in extraordinary hatred, because extraordinary hatred was, after all, a commonplace event.”

As both individuals and nations struggle with notions of identity, intricately bound together yet inherently unstable, Desai demonstrates how the big questions in life exist simultaneously in the everyday and across the sweep of history.

Secondly, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape, 2011), which won the Man Booker in 2011.  This is a very different novel to The Inheritance of Loss, taking a brief (150 pages) look at a deliberately small life, lived quietly.

“And that’s life, isn’t it?  Some achievements and some disappointments.  It’s been interesting to me, though I wouldn’t complain or be amazed if others found it less so […] History isn’t the lies of the victors…It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated”

Memory and its unreliability is a dominant theme in the book – Barnes demonstrates that there is no such thing as a reliable narrator.

“Who was it who said memory is what we thought we’d forgotten?  And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent.  But it’s not convenient – it’s not useful – to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.”

The narrator in this instance is Tony, detailing two episodes in his largely uneventful life: the time around leaving school for university when his friend Adrian killed himself, and the present day where he has retired from work  and a legacy left to him prompts a re-evaluation of the past.  The Sense of an Ending is a melancholy book, as the title implies, but it feels real rather than outright depressing.  Tony is not admirable, but he’s not especially despicable either.  He is aware of his shortcomings and has achieved a resigned acceptance of them.  But this is not to suggest the novel is uneventful  – in a short space Barnes creates a narrative drive that carries you through to a powerful, unsettling ending.

Having been nominated three times previously and failed to grab the prize, I can’t tell you how much I hope this is how Barnes reacted when he finally won:

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