Take It Away Frank! A 1-2-3-4 “Nice And Easy (With Tea) Does It Every Time……….

……….To be honest, this is a bit of a “What An Old Fart I’ve Become!” post!

So if that isn’t your thing, isn’t in your sphere of understanding (i.e. you’re young!) or is a bit too close to your sphere of understanding (i.e. “you are ages with myself” – I love that phrase as it saves me uttering the word “fifty”!), then look away now as they say when they give you that two nano-second pause to get out of the room before they read the football results on BBC News just before Match Of The Day starts (I reckon only Dash from The Incredibles ever watches The News and then Match Of The Day without knowing all the scores!)

When I woke up this morning, on my first walk of the day (in pouring rain again!) with the dog, I flicked through Twitter and read the stuff from other insomniacs I follow and the stuff that was tweeted late last night. It included a series of tweets from Ian Rankin who was finishing his birthday with three whiskies and three great songs to ease him gently into the night.

He chose

1. A Macallan Gran Reserva to accompany The Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s “Faith Healer”. (At this stage therefore I’d say Mr Rankin isn’t going THAT gently into the night!)

2. A Springbank Cask 315 to accompany The Blue Nile’s “Walk Across The Rooftops”. (Now that’s more like it for Mr Rankin’s gentle sway into the night. One of the most beautiful albums ever – and that’s not an opinion – THAT’S A FACT!)


3. A Highland Park Rebus 20 to accompany Hawkwind’s “Silver Machine” ( Oh dear – by this stage it’s clear Mr Rankin is too pissed to go gently anywhere! – if he doesn’t have a hangover this morning from the booze he’ll have one from Hawkwind anyway!)


It got me thinking about my gentle ease into the weekend, which started this morning.

One of the things I’ve got into recently are herbal and fruit teas – yes I know it’s dull and not as rock n’ roll as Mr Rankin and his malt whiskies, but then he’s not facing the arrival later today of three friends of my 9 year-old daughter for a 4-girl sleepover she’s having (God help me!!!! – It may not be whisky to start today but I feel I’m going to need one or seven by the end of it – if I survive till then!)

In addition to tea, I eased myself into today with three lovely beautiful albums and some poetry. So, I chose

1. A cup of Strawberry and Mango to get me started with a bit of colour ( a deep, full, luscious red, like the rims of my eyes!) and this accompanied Hats by The Blue Nile. (THIS is the work of a genius!)

2. A cup of Lemon and Ginger to rouse my senses (and it clears the tubes for an old man like me) and this accompanied Songs From Northern Britain by Teenage Fanclub

3. A cup of Nettle and Peppermint (as haven’t done daily ablutions like brushing teeth yet!) and this accompanied For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver.

Accompanying all of the above was:-

Scanning The Century. The Penguin Book Of The Twentieth Century In Poetry.

There is inevitably so much that’s good in an anthology on this scale, but today I particularly enjoyed Edwin Muir’s “The Horses” (again!) and Douglas Dunn’s “The Clothes Pit” (for the first time)

Lovely! I feel relaxed and at ease and wide awake. Now to venture forth into the abyss known around here as “The Garage” and see if I can find those sleeping bags (……….and maybe a mallet?!!!!!!!!!)

What I Thought Of The Girl I Left Behind Me……..#MurielSparkReadingWeek

………this story is short, simple and yet very clever. I’ll do the same with my review – well I’ll keep it short and simple anyway, and hey,as Meat Loaf once sang, Two Out Three Ain’t Bad!

This is the story of a secretary, whose name we never find out, who is the PA to the wonderfully named Mr Mark Letters. She’s finished for the day and on the way home with two niggling thoughts in her head – first there’s the tune to a sea shanty “The Girl I Left Behind Me” which Mr Letters has been humming all day running around her brain and secondly she has a nagging feeling she’s either left something behind or forgotten something in the office. But try as she might, she can’t recall what it is.

And that’s as much as I can say without giving the plot away. It’s simple but it’s got the most delicious little twist in the tail at the end. Well worth reading to find out! After the last story which left me perplexed, this was a return to form for Muriel Spark which left me smiling a kind of “didn’t see that coming” sort of smile!!

What I Thought Of You Should Have Seen The Mess……#MurielSparkReadingWeek

………. This is a humorous and slightly sad tale ( though only slightly) of Lorna who has grown up in a world of fastidious pride in cleanliness. The parental sense of being ‘house proud!” to the nth degree, is a mantle passed to Lorna from her parents and it’s one she picks up and maintains with relish. We first meet her as a seventeen year-old telling us that she was better off attending the local Secondary Modern than the Grammar school because it was newer and lot less dusty!

If being house proud and obsessive about cleanliness in the home is a talent then Laura’s got in abundance. Even when Lorna’s horizons are extended by being taken under her wing by the doctor and his wife, rather than open her mind, it narrows it further to the point where it looks all too apparent that Lorna is destined to live her life as her mother has before her  The measurement of success and happiness will be through the newness of her furniture, the frequency with which she wallpapers and the victory of gleam over dust forever more!

It’s a wonderful poke at the inverted snobbery that exists in the most unlikely of places. There’s a comical, almost cute innocence in the degree to which Lorna judges everything against the standards of her mothers housework! This inverted snobbery and ignorance is shown when Lorna accompanies the doctor and his wife on a visit to his mother.
When we arrived at Jim’s mother’s place, Jim said ‘Its a fourteenth century cottage Lorna’.  I could well believe it!
It was very cracked and old and made one wonder how Jim could let his mother live in a tumbledown cottage, as he was so good to everyone else. So Mavis knocked at the door And the old lady came. There was not much anyone could do with the inside. Mavis said, ‘Isn’t it charming Lorna?’ If that was a joke, it was going too far. I said to the old Mrs Darby ‘Are you going to be re-housed?’ but she did not understand this and I explained that you have to apply to the Council and keep at them.
The story is full of these witty sharp observations. Muriel Spark has perfectly captured that perverse narrow-mindedness of some whose oneupmanship response to those with more money is a sort of ‘Yes. But our house is much cleaner than yours!’
I found this funny and sad and personally, slightly eerie – Lorna’s housework obsession reminded me of my mother!!!!! But even if your mother is like mine and verging on a formal declaration of the sanctity and superiority of housework, read this anyway – it’ll only take 15 minutes and you’ll love it!

What I Thought Of The Ballad Of Peckham Rye……….#MurielSparkReadingWeek

……….The American science fiction writer Robert Heinlein once said, “To be matter-of-fact about the world is to blunder into fantasy – and dull fantasy at that, as the real world is strange and wonderful”. It sums up perfectly the world that is Muriel Spark’s Peckham Rye for here the real world is strangely wonderful and wonderfully strange – but it’s never anything other than real for all its strangeness!

The Ballad Of Peckham Rye tells the story of how the mundane, humdrum 1950’s suburban life of the inhabitants of Peckham Rye is picked up, turned over, shaken thoroughly and then set back down again, altered forever, by the arrival of Dougal Douglas, a man with a special talent for creating mayhem and havoc in his wake. Before Dougal’s arrival Peckham is an everyday town where the peak of ambition is saving to get married and putting down a deposit on a house and where the biggest concern for it’s inhabitants is keeping their business from their neighbours! After Dougal’s arrival the place is characterised by intrigue, emotional blackmail, emotional breakdown and murder – and that’s to name but a few of the consequences of the havoc that is Dougal!

It’s a book that simply grabs you by the lapels on the first page and lets you know that things won’t ever be the same again.

“His name was Humphrey Place. He was that fellow that walked out on his wedding a few weeks ago. He walked across to the White Horse and drank one bitter. Next he visited the Morning Star and the Heaton Arms. He finished up at the Harbinger. The pub door opened and Trevor Lomas walked in. Trevor was seen to approach Humphrey and hit him on the mouth. The barmaid said ‘Outside, both of you.’ ‘It wouldn’t have happened if Dougal Douglas hadn’t come here,’ a woman remarked.”

You can’t help but wonder what Dougal has done to create this, but as the story quickly unfolds before you, told retrospectively, you realise that this is the tip of a very big iceberg where Dougal is concerned. The characters in the story essentially divide into three groups, those who are mesmerised by Dougal and fall under his spell, though who dislike him from the outset and those who don’t know what to make of him. Those conflicting reactions are all shown in the Crewe family – Humphrey Place shares the same lodgings as Dougal and is immediately impressed by Dougal’s charm and rhetoric, his fiancee Dixie waver’s initially before leaning more towards mistrust of Dougal, her mother Mavis and step-father Arthur are in the “like” camp almost inmmediately whereas their teenage son Leslie doesn’t hide his opinion of Dougal from the outset

“Leslie stopped chewing for an instant and stared back at Dougal in such disgust that he seemed to be looking at Dougal through his nostrils rather than his eyes”

On the surface the story can appear to be strange, but what Muriel Spark does wonderfully is to root that strangeness in everyday life. There’s certainly a suggestion of devilment in even the most literal sense about Dougal throughout the book and I guess it could be seen that the tale is a kind of morality observation about how the introduction of evil turns a community and its inhabitants. But for me I thought this was more part of the humour of Muriel Spark coming through in the story, almost teasing us as we read it. The awful events which happen in the wake of Dougal are actually all too believable. For example, there’s something very odd and unnatural in the relationship between Mr Druce the factory owner and Miss Coverdale, his mistress and head of the company typing pool, before Dougal’s “interventions!”. While there’s a way to go to bridge the gap between the rather creepily dull relations between the two at the start and the eventual denouement, it’s nevertheless believable for me.

I waxed and waned a bit in my feelings about the main character Dougal. Initially I warmed to him (admittedly partly because he’s Scottish and I’m nothing if not parochial!), then I wasn’t sure of him in the middle, but had come back to kind of liking him by the end because rather than seeing him as “the devil” in their midst I actually saw him a bit like the wind blowing the characters in one direction or another, or sometimes being like a mirror – well a slightly biased and distorted mirror perhaps, but still partly reflecting their lives back at them. There’s an old joke (at least I think it’s a joke!) that there are only two types of Scotsmen – the imbalanced one with a “chip on his shoulder” or the balanced one “with a chip on each shoulder!”. Yet Dougal Douglas added a third type – one with three chips for Dougal has a “deformed shoulder” and two lumps on either side of his head where he claims there were previously horns which were surgically removed! But just as Muriel Spark suggests some allegorical role for ‘Dougal the Devil’, she immediately takes it back when Dougal invites Humphrey to feel them and he flatly responds with “A couple of cysts…[he said]…I’ve got one myself at the back of my head. Feel it”

As with some other Muriel Spark I’ve read recently, her mastery of the little detail to turn a phrase or sentence is brilliantly done. She’s never less than mercilessly honest in opening up the everyday hypocriscies and inconsistencies and prejudices which lie in all of us. And of course that sardonic sense of humour is never far away. When Dougal’s immediate boss Mr Weedon confides desperately in Dougal that he might be on the verge of a breakdown, Dougal sympathasies but hilariously cuts him further down at the same time.

“Mr Weedin blew his nose and shouted at Dougal: ‘It isn’t possible to get another good position in another firm at my age……….Sometimes I think I’m going to have a breakdown.’ ‘It would not be severe in your case,’ Dougal said. ‘It is at its worst when a man is a skyscraper. But you’re only a nice wee bungalow”

What a put down! Or, as an example of how not to make someone feel better when they are pouring out their troubles to you, how about this!

“Merle ….sat down on the Rye and began to cry. ‘God!’ she said. ‘Dougal. I’ve had a rotten life’. ‘And it isn’t over yet,’ Dougal said sitting down beside her at a little distance. ‘There might be worse ahead’!!!!!!”

 I really enjoyed reading this. It’s sharp, funny and, as I guess you’d expect, it’s really well written by someone who clearly had the eye of a master and the craft to match.

The Ballad Of Peckham Rye reminds me that sometimes the unusual and the odd in life is actually all around us – as Jim Morrison of The Doors sang –  “People are strange!!!!!”

What I Thought Of……….Pure by Andrew Miller

……….Since I read this book it’s come into my head every day because of a very unusual reminder!

As I drive out of Threshers Bush where I live (and I reiterate that’s a village on the Essex-Herts border, not a Sexually Transmitted Infection!), I turn left towards the M11, no more than quarter of a mile from home, and as I turn there’s a lovely house immediately in front of me at the junction. It’s bordered on the left by a small line of trees. Nothing unusual so far. But as you turn left towards the Common, where tethered ponies graze lazily (and where my daughter frequently enquiries if they are too hot? / too cold? / too wet? etc!) you spy through these conifers that the house has unusual neighbours – for through the trees is a small graveyard with a collection of tombs and headstones. The church (now converted to a house) that would have been connected to this graveyard is about 500 yards away in the opposite direction. And everyday I pass it I think of Jean-Baptiste Barratte and the cemetery of Les Innocents in Paris in 1785.

The story begins with a young engineer, Jean-Baptiste Barratte, being commissioned at Versailles to oversee the purification of the oldest cemetery in Paris, Les Innocents, because the stench of death and decay within the confined space of the quartier of Les Halles have become unbearable – or at least unbearable to the powers that be. Barratte undertakes the mission and soon discovers that the ministerial desire to rid paris of the stain of Les Innocents is not shared by those who live in its immediate neighbourhood. So begins Barratte’s quest to empty the cemetery and shift the bones of its generations of inhabitants elsewhere.

I usually find that historical fiction like this is usually largely based on the historical, factual stuff and the ‘fiction’ comes through in the creation of the thoughts and words of the characters. But Pure is so much more a work of imagination than most historical fiction I’ve read before and it’s a wonderful imagination which comes off the pages of this book at you.

From the very outset of the novel, Barratte is surrounded by characters who are grand, eccentric, puzzling and somehow romantic. I thought this was especially true of both Helene, who through one glance snares Barratte in all the mystery and speculation which surrounds her, and then there is the fabulous creation of the church organist at Les Innocents, Armand. Sometimes a character takes on a personae and image that you can’t shake off – from the very beginning in my mind Armand was a kind of cross between Johnny Depp’s opium-addicted Inspector in the film “From Hell” and Mr Depp’s equally memorable Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates Of The Caribbean ripping yarns! That might sound ridiculous but don’t let it put you off Armand or this novel – he’s a great character and this is a great book!

The book worked for me on a number of different levels. I found myself drawn to Barratte and both empathizing and sympathising with him from the early stages of the book and I never lost that will for things to turn out well for him as the book progressed. The book also had that “on the verge of” something feeling, though on the verge of what varies as the novel develops. There was definitely for me the almost sinister physical shape of the revolution and the terror waiting in the wings for the characters, the cemetery, the mysterious minister and his henchmen, and it gave the book a real unexpected twist as you read it. You’d kind of expect a book focused on digging up and relocating the dead to be overshadowed by the ghosts of the past but in this book the spectre at the feast, so to speak, is the future in the name of the revolution which is just on the horizon, never mentioned directly in the book beyond the graffiti of the enigmatic Beche, but you’re in no doubt it’s there and it’s waiting!

Barratte struggles increasingly with his commission as the work to remove the dead continues apace. You expect the struggle to come from those with most to lose in the removal of the dead but essentially Barratte’s struggle is really with himself, coming to terms with the man he’s becoming, what the horrific job of transferring the dead of Les Innocents is costing him and how neither of those add up to the man he’d envisaged or hoped to become before he starts the work at Les Innocent.

The novel obviously has to some extent a mood of decay and the stench of something rotting, but as you read it, that sense of what’s decaying isn’t the bodies in the tombs and crypts and mass burial pits – what’s rotten isn’t the dead but the living. The decay from Les Innocents is described as affecting even the very taste of food to all those who live in its environs but it felt to me like the bad taste and the bad smell is from those ruling Paris and their total disregard of, or interest in, most of its inhabitants. Of course I might be wrong in this and am only seeing this now looking back (I finished the book about a fortnight ago) and perhaps my thoughts on the book are influenced by watching Smug Dave, Calamity Osborne and the other political charlatans on our TV news screens at the moment panicking at every revelation of the Leveson enquiry – perhaps the removal of the dead from Les Innocents would have been the News International scandal of its day!

But aside from that, this is a wonderful novel. It’s absolutely beautifully written so that you can almost enjoy and savour each sentence in its own right never mind its contribution to the whole.

“At the cemetery, examined by lamplight, Jan Block is obviously worse. There is a sheen on his skin like that on rotten cheese. His breathing is laboured, unprofitable. He may be dying, may conceivably, all too conceivably, be dying of some infection the others could contract, the whole place shut down within the week, the last man living rolling the last man dead into the emptied pit……”

For me that description of “skin like that on rotten cheese” is one of many really special phrases in this book. It’s a book that tells the story of a grand scheme and yet it does it as much through the finer, intimate details like this as it does through the events which unfold at Les Innocents. I attended a Guardian Masterclass about fiction earlier this year and one of the workshops was led by Andrew Miller. He talked about and worked through examples of developing character through a narrative – I thoroughly enjoyed his input and learned such a lot from it. On reading this book, I hoped to see him I guess put into practice what he taught – and he did. He was clearly too modest to use his own work as one of the examples that day but he could have done for this book’s characterisation easily stands comparison not only with the books he did choose, but also with anything else I’ve read.

Once I picked up “Pure” I found it difficult to put down and it was one of those books where I develop a “split personality” approach to the ending – one part of me can’t wait to get there to find out how it concludes and the other part of me doesn’t want it to end! But end it did – wonderfully. “Pure” was a memorable book for me in so many ways – and now I’ve got my added local reminder of Les Innocents every day as I leave home, it’ll no doubt keep it to the fore of my mind for months to come!

Alasdair Gray, Waterloo Road, “Birdie” Bowers and David Bowie’s “Damp Old Dogs” Went To Sea……….

…………”Come Out In The Garden Baby, You’ll Catch Your Death In The Fog, Young Girl They Call Us The Damp Old Dogs!”

The Diamond Dogs

This has become a bit of a theme tune in our house at the moment!

This slightly distorted version of David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs!” accompanies the dog and I on our return from walks at the moment as Essex is in the midst of what must be the wettest drought in history! Earlier this morning I got back from walking the dog on the most miserable and wet day and that song of David Bowie’s had been going through my head, as the water ran down and dripped off my nose! (It’s of course a travesty to twist the lyrics of Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs” to “Damp Old Dogs” – then again as the original lyrics include the lines “The Halloween Jack is a real cool cat and he lives on top of Manhattan Chase, the elevators broke, so he slides down a rope, onto the street below, oh Tarzie go, man, go!” perhaps the change I’ve made won’t detract from the meaning of the lyrics – whatever the hell it was!)

The Damp Old Dogs!

While the dog has an excuse to find this weather a bit of a struggle, I don’t, coming  from a place near Glasgow called Greenock, oft-quoted as the wettest town in the UK! Depending on which set of rainfall stats you read of course this is debatable and leads to arguments between say Greenock and Fort William – “We’re the wettest town in the UK!” say Fort William. “No you’re not! We are the wettest town in the UK!” say Greenock. “No. it’s us” shout the good people of Fort William. etc, etc, etc! But what isn’t disputed is that Greenock is right up there – if it’s not THE wettest it’s usually pretty damn close! But it’s not the most glamorous or interesting claim to fame!

When I thought about it there were a few other claims to fame for Greenock – well perhaps ‘fame’ is overstating it a bit but you get my drift!

Following on the heels of the Scott Of The Antarctic centenary last month, I read one or two things on-line about the ill-fated exhibition and discovered that Henry “Birdie” Bowers, who was one of the men with Captain Scott right to the tragic end had actually been born in Greenock in 1883. Even though he moved with his widowed mother to London at the age of only three he’s nevertheless a Greenockian by birth. The centenary of the Terra Nova expedition certainly brought home not only the tragedy of what befell Scott, Bowers, and the others but also their extraordinary courage and strength of character. In a lot of what I’ve read in the past few weeks you could certainly question their judgement and their wisdom but I don’t think there can be any doubt about their spirit or bravery. One of the most poignant things I read was excerpts from Scott’s last letter to his wife – it was so constrained by I guess what was the convention of the time and had that curious mix of sentiment and “stiff-upper-lip’. There are a lot of books of course about the Scott expedition but I plan to read one due out later this year which is about my fellow Greenockian, “Birdie” Bowers. The book, ‘Birdie Bowers – Captain Scott’s Marvel’ is by Anne Strathie and is due out in August and it’s one I’m already looking forward to reading.

The other literary connection to Greenock is that it was the setting for one of the most challenging books I’ve ever read, Alasdair Gray’s ‘1982 Janine’ which tells the story of one man’s nightmarish reflections and imaginings while spending the night in a Greenock hotel room. The subject matter was pretty difficult to read in places and the almost bizarre way of setting out the words on some of the pages made this a book that I really had to persevere with. There’s something overtly shocking and yet desperately sad in the sadomasochistic thoughts and fantasies of the main character and yet it was the bits which were about his “real” life that were in some ways the most striking. I guess that Greenock isn’t the prettiest place in the world (it’s probably at the other end of the continuum) and in a way setting such a dark and brooding novel being set in Greenock actually fitted the feel of the town in some ways.

However neither of these literary connections to Greenock will be of the slightest interest to my 9-year-old daughter but I have an ace up my sleeve in the shape of high-class BBC drama.!!!

Well actually it’s pretty awful BBC drama if you ask me, but my daughter loves it and it is of course the tale of Waterloo Road, the fictional secondary school, which not only has the highest proportion of students who shave daily of any secondary in the country(!), it also has more disasters befall it in a one hour programme than a Local Authority would see across a hundred of its schools over 10 years! But in an unbelievable coincidence, as part of the BBC policy of shifting programme making around, the production and filming of Waterloo Road has been moved from Rochdale to Greenock, and even more coincidentally, not only has Waterloo Road pitched up in my old town, it’s going to be filmed in my old school, Greenock Academy, which I believe has been lying empty following some school re-organisations in the area. So at last not only a claim to fame for Greenock but also a claim to fame for me – for the corridors and classrooms I inhabited in the 1970’s are now about to be a feature in your sitting rooms every week on the BBC!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I wonder if the boys toilets still smell the same???????????????????????????????!

What I Thought Of The Snobs……….#MurielSparkReadingWeek

……….I read somewhere recently that the intended target of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” had been revealed as the record producer David Geffen and I was thoroughly disappointed by the news! I thought one of the enduring things about the song was the speculation and mystery about who had their hat “strategically dipped below one eye” and who always had “one eye in the mirror as [they]..watched [them self].. go by!” (Personally though I never met Carly Simon – obviously – I kind of harboured a secret ambition that rather than somebody exotic like Mick Jagger or Warren Beatty it might have been…well..em…me! )

Anyway reading Muriel Spark’s story The Snobs kind of reminded me of the song – because I kept speculating on who the snobs in the story might be – and then I realised that the candidates flicking through my mind were all people who I’ve known in my life. And that’s what’s so clever about this very sharp and cleverly observed story. In a handful of pages Muriel Spark captures perfectly, exactly what these people are like and it’s so well done you can’t help but flick through the snob register in your own head to see who best fits the bill! And in a lucid moment (only the one moment and it was a short one!) I realised that I can be a bit of a music snob myself!

The story has a biographical feel as Muriel Spark inserts herself into the story as a main character and from there it revolves around a couple of the worst snobs imaginable, Jake and Marion Ringer-Smith, who, having been found lost in the French village where they are travelling, are kindly invited to tea in the French château by a friend of Spark’s, who’s come into the ownership of the château by virtue of an obscure family inheritance which shifts her from bus drivers wife to lady of the manor.

It’s a pretty merciless caricature of pretentious middle-class English-ness (though I think we have a Scottish equivalent which we call “all fur coat and no knickers!”). She decimates these kind of people but it’s no more than they deserve!

“Marion was very much one of those. If challenged she would have thought nothing of pointing out that, after all, she had paid a plane fare to arrive where she was. I remember Marion’s shapeless cheesecloth dress and her worn sandals and Jake’s baggy, ostentatiously patched trousers, their avidity to get on intimate terms with the lady of the house, to be invited to supper and, no doubt, to be invited to stay the night!

I love that phrase “avidity to get on intimate terms”! It reminds me of a boss I once had whose attempts to get on with the ‘big’ boss were, well, avidity to get on intimate terms! It’s such a good phrase and not only more literate, it’s also more cutting the the basic phrase which went through my head at the time which was “arse-licker!”

Anyway, the story is full of these poetically sharp, almost destructive, phrases which are well worth a read and well worth remembering – that ex-boss of mine wasn’t the only snob I’ve come across so I’m sure these phrases will come in handy in the future!!

What I Thought Of The Go-Away Bird……….#MurielSparkReadingWeek

……….This is a quirky and jaunty story about a nearly-but-not-quite upper class society girl Daphne (with being an orphan chucked in for good measure) in the 1930’s and 1940’s. It flits between her life in Africa and her return to England, where’s she half-used and half-exploited. It read to me like a bit of a “careful what you wish for” tale crossed with one of those Ealing comedy farces!!

The Grey Go-Away Bird, found in South Africa

Despite her relative privilege and wealth, Daphne’s silver-spoon life is populated by a myriad of weird and wonderful characters and peppered throughout with the distinctive call of the “Go-Away” bird (which not surprisingly calls “Go-Away! Go-Away!” and which again not surprisingly seems only to be within the hearing of Daphne and a few other selected characters).

Amidst the colonial trappings and then the privilege of a life on the periphery of society in England, there are many obstacles for Daphne, including advances from elderly gentlemen who should have known better, no advances from younger men who should have but didn’t know better, mad old men hell-bent on family revenge with Daphne as victim in Africa, scheming middle-class English “land-ladies” who seem to pre-empt the shameful greed of Thatcherism back when the “Milk-Snatcher” was unfortunately just a glimmer in a grocer’s eye and lovers who either couldn’t be bothered to love her or got fed up with loving her back!

Daphne floats through this mayhem and seems utterly unaware of what’s going on around her most of the time and you’re left wondering whether that’s due to lack of what we’d today call “being street-wise” and might then have just been “common-sense” or whether it’s because Daphne’s just not very bright!

The Go-Away Bird is a comical, dark tale and it gives a full reign to Muriel Spark’s caustic eye and what seems to me to be her rather sardonic wit! As you read it you keep thinking you ought to feel for poor Daphne but somehow you never quite manage it and my guess would be Muriel Spark never meant us too!

This is the first of the short stories I’ve read – if the others are even half as good as this then I think I’m going to enjoy myself over the next few days!

Lastly, as an aside, the Grey Go-Away Bird reminded me of someone – would you agree there’s more than a passing similarity???!

The Ginger F***-OFF Bird of A South London Squat

What I Thought Of……….Guernica by Dave Boling

……….Guernica had been on my “Waiting In The Wings” shelf for quite a few months before I picked it up and started it last week. Other books came in after it and yet were promoted to my hands before I read it, so it was a bit overlooked I guess. I think I overlooked it because I was worried it would be overly “clever” – and I made that irrational conclusion from doing the following very simple maths equation

Dave Boling is Washington journalist (and so very clever) + Picasso was a bit of a genius (and so very clever) = Guernica (book that might be a bit hard for me!)

I couldn’t have been more wrong and so from now on I’ll restrict my maths equation work to helping my daughter with her Maths homework on a Thursday night (or as it frequently is for us ‘In the car on the way to school on a Friday morning’ Maths homework!).

Guernica is a wonderful book. It’s set around the events leading to, during, and then in the aftermath of, the horrific annihilation of the Basque town of Guernica by the Germans in 1937 on behalf of Franco’s Fascists. The events are of course all too real, for this was essentially almost a practice run for the blitzkrieg that the Nazi’s subsequently unleashed across Europe from 1939. The story includes a number of real life characters like Picasso, Von Richthofen, and Aguirre who was the Basque leader at that time within the narrative, but the politics of the Spanish Civil War and abhorrent ideologies of the Fascists at that time are kept to a minimum and instead what Dave Boling tells is a story of ordinary people, their lives on the lead in to the horror that was to befall them. The story is told in the most beautiful, understated and yet incredibly moving prose.

It follows the lives of two groups of families, the Navarro’s and the Ansotegui’s. In particular the story is woven around Justo Ansotegui, his wife Mariangeles, their daughter Miren and Miguel Navarro, who is destined to become integral to all of their lives. The book patiently and gently builds up a picture of these and the other main characters in the novel so that you’re really drawn into the heart of their lives, their relationships and the place in time that Guernica was in the early to mid-1930’s. The pace of the book at this stage is almost leisurely but it fits so well as you get a sense of the leisurely, subtly paced, if hard lives, of the Anotegui’s and the Navarro’s as they make a living from the land, the sea and their wits.

The characters are brilliantly drawn and I found myself warming to every one of them. You can’t help but smile at Justo’s lurid tall stories and his physical demonstrations of his strength while at the same time knowing that it is a strength which will see him powerless when the horror of the Nazi assault begins. Yet still you want to laugh with him, marvel in his feats of physical prowess and yet put a protective arm around his shoulders, because of course as the reader you are privy to the future and you know that a force beyond anything Justo could possibly imagine is lying in wait for him on the horizon of fate.

Alongside Justo is the determination and solidity of Miguel, a wonderful combination of strength and sensitivity, physical brawn and deft craftsmanship, who put me in mind of the wonderful Gabriel Oak in Far From The Madding Crowd. The masculinity and almost alpha-male machismo of Miguel and Justo is beautifully balanced with the grace, poise and smartness of Mariangeles and Miren. While on the surface within the characters the power sits in the physical strength of Miguel and Justo, there’s no doubt that among them, the real power over their lives is the gentle hands of the women. It’s a book with thast kind of feel where the male characters have the ability to move the mountains but they need the female characters to tell them when to start moving it and where they ought to put it! (Isn’t it ever thus perhaps?!)

But of course, hovering over all of them is the power of the evil about to be unleashed by the Nazi war machine on Guernica. It’s cold and callous face is represented by the functional approach of Von Richthofen. It is this overwhelming mix of evil and immorality which gives the Nazi support for Franco its real menace. I found myself caring so much about these characters I almost wanted to scream a warning through the pages, for you care about them partly because of who they are but you care about them partly because you know and understand the enormity of the devastation about to be unleashed upon them and it’s of course on a scale that they couldn’t ever begin to imagine or comprehend. Guernica is in essence the first time history witnesses that kind of total destruction warfare with which it was too become all too familiar in the rest of the 20th century and which it seems to me we still witness without ever really learning the lessons today.

The description of the destruction of Guernica is horrific and gripping and moving and awful and magnificent all at the same time. I won’t detail here the fate of any of the characters or their futures in the aftermath of Guernica, in case you want to read it for yourself as I would thoroughly recommend you to. But I don’t think I’d give too much away in saying that the story projects some hope in the midst of the carnage and loss and that hope lies in the way ordinary people live and love. And so it should be, for at its heart this is a story about people first and events second and even though those events radically change their lives, it is still the story of everyday people that matters most.

Interspersed all the way through the book are snippets from the life of Picasso, which lead to the background to the commissioning of the mural which was in turn to become his magnificent masterpiece “Guernica” about the fate which befell the Basque town. I loved the descriptions of Picasso at work and at love and life. They are short and simple, giving them the same feel as the everyday descriptions of the lives of the characters in Guernica itself.

When the canvas arrived and stretched onto its frame an odd happenstance surprised Picasso. The expansive studio had no problem accommodating the twenty-five foot breadth of canvas, but at nearly twelve feet high it didn’t fit vertically against a wall. Instead, Picasso had to wedge the frame against the rafters at a slight angle and keep it in position with a series of shims he whittled. He worried: would the angle alter the perspective?…..

….With a thin brush and black ink, Picasso outlined the images on the canvas. He used a ladder or a long stick to hold his brushes for the upper reaches. With the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up to the elbows, cigarette in his left hand, Picasso crouched deeply to work on the lower reaches. His hair, combed low on the right side to cover his balding crown, kept slipping out of place and falling across his forehead.

It is descriptions like this, reflecting the simplest of physical gestures against the backdrop of the painting and all it represented that gave the writing a real depth and warmth for me.

It also leads to one of the best and most memorable endings (or as it’s on the second last page, perhaps it’s the ‘almost-ending’) to a book I’ve ever read. In a Parisian cafe during the Nazi occupation of Paris, Picasso is approached by a German officer.

‘One officer who considered himself culturally advanced approached the artist as he sipped coffee at a table beneath the green pavement awning. The officer held a reproduction of the mural Guernica, barely larger than postcard size.

“Pardon me” he said, holding the card out. “You did this, didn’t you?”

Picasso put his cup delicately onto its saucer, turned to the picture and then to the officer, and responded, “No. You did.”

Guernica is great. It brings to life a dark, tragic, event and takes you back in time not to the event itself, but to the people of Guernica and to their story. And it’s the story that makes it great. It’s funny, moving, quirky in places, quiet and then loud and above all it’s a love story and a bloody good one!

It allows me to revise my maths equation to

Dave Boling is still a Washington journalist (and great writer)+ Picasso was still a bit of a genius (and had great line in Nazi put-downs ) = Guernica (a great book you should definitely read!)

If you’re interested, there’s a good review of Guernica on LindyLouMac’s Book Reviews blog, which includes a link to an interview with Dave Boling.

Or if you like your reviews done visually by bona-fide genius actors, then the wonderful Benedict Cumberbatch (can’t wait for next series of Sherlock!) reviews it below (in the beautiful Mykonos of all places!) – And if I’m honest I’m including this partly to try and entice my partner to read my blog as she thinks Mr Cumberbatch is a bit special!

Muriel Spark Reading Week – here we go, two, three, four!


……….I posted earlier about Muriel Spark reading week, being run through blogs at Stuck In A Book and at Harriet Devine’s Blog.

On Saturday, I picked up my copy of The Ballad of Peckham Rye, which I’ve chosen to read for the week to celebrate Dame Muriel and her work. Alongside it I’m planning on reading some of her short stories on my first journey into the world of e-books!

I’ve already started to read Ballad Of Peckham Rye and I’ve already warmed to the main character of Dougal Douglas – but mainly because he’s a fellow “sweaty-sock!” and we Jocks have got to stick together! At the moment I’ve reached page 43 and so far so good!

On the short story front I’ve decided to do a “quick and dirty” review of each story I read – and I’m planning to do an extra-quick-and-dirty abridged version of those reviews by posting a Twitter review of 140 characters for each – I’ll either curb my natural instinct to ramble on or I’ll simply end the tweet mid-sentence!

More to follow!