One small achievement crossed off Hazel's list of things to do in London: we finally got her to Highgate Cemetery (the west side, where admission is restricted) at the right time for a tour. Fine gloomy fun: vaults! catacombs! pyramids! Victorian excess and Lovecraftian decay! Not many literary moments (Mrs Henry Wood of East Lynne fame did not quite excite us, and the promising Charles Kingsley tomb proved to belong to a mere relative of the Water Babies man), but in the weird Egyptian catacomb circle we suddenly noticed a plaque by one of the iron vault doors: 'RADCLYFFE HALL 1943'. The tour guide had passed on. Was the author of The Well of Loneliness still in disgrace? No: just then our guide backtracked and duly said a bit about Hall and the banning of her book. Sir Rowland Hill's introduction of the penny post is blazoned on his monument; Faraday's grave is lost in one of the jungle areas. The whole dilapidated necropolis, it seems, is slipping very slowly down the hill towards Hampstead. If you walk in that direction across the Heath, you pass Robert Powell's posh house at the Highgate edge (Hazel swoons) and then George Orwell's lodgings at 77 Parliament Hill in Hampstead (we both salute). A little further brings you to the discovery that admission to John Keats's still-preserved house is free; after which, if you time it right, you can stroll on to Jo Fletcher's 40th birthday spree at the Flask pub. Next day we stayed home and made quince jam.
Read in Reading
N.F.Simpson, Harry Bleachbaker (1976) ... I'm always a sucker for offbeat material, and this is the first (only?) novel by surreal playwright Simpson (A Resounding Tinkle, One Way Pendulum). The author-written blurb assures us at great and repetitious length that it's a very, very boring book, and that 'Even the title is misleading'. Well, yes: Bleachbaker appears fleetingly, but the central character is called Albert Whitbrace. A vaguely Pythonesque opening establishes that Whitbrace, who for the last three weeks has been drowning in the Mediterranean, has long had a bad habit of falling into the water ... making the rescue authorities reluctant to act. Inappropriate relief operations rumble into action, such as the outfit planning to take Whitbrace's mind off his difficulties by providing him with a piano. So long as it's used in a seemly manner: 'What kind of music? One doesn't want to find in an unguarded moment that one has played a leading part in turning the Mediterranean into a hotbed of boogie-woogie or some such.' 'Classical music. Semi-classical, anyhow. That would have to be made abundantly clear.' The Archbishop of Canterbury conveys the deep concern of the Church by having himself pushed overboard from a small dinghy into the Serpentine. Soon the thriving Whitbrace sympathy industry is jolted by a 'complete bolt from the blue' – the shocking news that the man is after all to be rescued. His wife pledges to fight this terrible thing: 'And if they do succeed in getting him out of the water, he's going back in again!' Much jolly satirical potential here, but unfortunately the book really is rather boring despite some good dialogue and a length of just 111 pages (inc. notes and appendices). Any summary is apt to be more interesting than the actual wodges of lardy prose. There is probably a dark significance in the fact that Harry Bleachbaker was expanded from a playscript.
Julian May, Perseus Spur. Opens a new space-opera sequence rather more light-hearted than the vast Galactic Pliocene Milieu Exile sprawl. Galaxy carved up by corporate capitalism. Former whistle-blower hero now discredited, depressed; but attempts on his life spur him to get out there and smash the evil conspiracy to sell human technology to the nasty aliens. A special puke for the Star Trek science: them danged aliens are stealing our superior genes to build into their DNA by way of self-improvement! Count the James Bond movie tropes: (1) colourful even if irrelevant underwater scenes; (2) repeated encounters with the same sneering bad guy, after each of which our man is not killed but left to die in an ingeniously horrid way which allows time for rescue or escape; (3) set-piece assault on fortress crammed with hostiles; (4) desperate rush to escape through cave system before everything is blown apart by the equivalent of a time bomb; (5) final shoot-out with that recurring bad guy, who at last comes to a spectacularly gory end.... Um. On the whole James Bond is more fun.
Guy Gavriel Kay, Sailing to Sarantium ... yes, Sarantium is meant to sound like Byzantium, which here gets the magical alternate-history treatment which Kay dished out to medieval Spain in The Lions of Al-Rassan. Naturally the homage to Yeats is intended and acknowledged, with echoes of the poems here and there in the text (to distracting effect in my case – I was sidetracked into trying to remember how 'Byzantium' goes, and kept mislaying an entire verse). The fantasy twist on those famous artificial singing birds is creepy and effective. Large-scale action includes a dynastic upheaval, a rebellion whose quashing leaves 31,000 dead in Sarantium city, and a spiffy chariot race ... but it's actually more exciting when the hero, an incautiously outspoken mosaic artist, has to talk his way through an 'informal' chat session at the Imperial court, where knives are secretly out. I was reminded of Gene Wolfe's fondness for little deductive treats and explanations of how things function, especially as our hero tackles the top charioteer's court challenge (to explain how he pulled off a magic-seeming coup in that day's race) using a neat analogy from mosaic work. Intelligent and colourful stuff. Hope Kay maintains this level of quality in further books of what – in unsubtle echo of 'The Fionavar Tapestry' – he's calling 'The Sarantine Mosaic'.
Ray Bradbury, Driving Blind ... 21 stories packaged as fantasy although, typically for his later collections, only three fit the description. Much patent Bradbury nostalgia for small-town America between the wars, with paradisal soda fountains, card-sharps on the trains, women adjusting stocking seams, and the gimcrack glories of travelling circuses. Plenty of charm; not so much actual substance.
Harry Turtledove, The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump ... set in that now-familiar alternate world of domestic and industrial magic, as established in Heinlein's Magic, Inc, Anderson's Operation Chaos, Anthony's On a Pale Horse, etc. Turtledove goes further by eliminating science altogether, leading to many ingenuities (the US space program is busily souping up the Garuda Bird for exoatmospheric flight) but also a certain amount of early dead weight as we're relentlessly briefed on the magical equivalents of alarm clocks, phones, TV, security passes, audio bugs, the lot. The background melting-pot of multiple gods and magic systems is a nice change from default Christianity. Likewise, the hero is Jewish: an official of the Environmental Perfection Agency who, when investigating such matters as noted in the title, totes a literal spellchecker. Which led me to wonder whether Piers Anthony has made puns compulsory in this subgenre. Turtledove inserts some neat ones (in this alternate world, a Hamlet quotation is ascribed to Bacon's Prosciutto), routine but at least funny ones (Middle European sorcerers employ Romanian giants to handle processes they wouldn't touch with a ten-foot Pole) and intermittent sub-Anthony ghastliness: when urns have featured in the action, a casual use of the word 'earned' is hilariously spelt 'urned', and that's it, that's the punchline, all the joke there is. At one stage, as a personage called Erasmus is speaking, Turtledove spends a whole paragraph painfully wrenching the context to insert the words 'in praise of folly', which lie there looking unhappy.... And yet I rather liked the book.
Hilary Mantel, Fludd ... highly enjoyable, not too closely describable: it's partly a comedy about the eccentric and no doubt apocryphal fringes of rural Catholicism circa 1956 (at various times I thought of David Lodge, Muriel Spark and, in particular, Father Ted), but there's alchemy, subtle miracles, the Devil and perhaps even an angel in there too.
Robert Goddard, In Pale Battalions ... Goddard's earlier novels have long been recommended by Chris Priest; this is his second. It has a touch of the Barbara Vines, with mysteries and shocks emerging from an inadequately buried past (here mostly WWI), but is stronger on intricacy, reversals and tricky surprise while being weaker in menace and suspense. From long experience of rotting my mind with detective fiction I saw one of the narrative bombshells coming, and guessed the surprise answer to the whodunnit subplot, but was still taken unawares by an almost Priestian inversion of roles. Must try more of these.
Also Read. Quentin Bell, Bloomsbury, alleged inside story of group by tight-lipped insider evidently concerned to keep the lid on (you wouldn't guess from this book that Virginia Woolf had died at all, let alone how); nice photos, though ... Lindsey Davies, The Silver Pigs (which causes Shadows in Bronze to make rather more sense) and Three Hands in the Fountain ... Anthony Flew, Thinking About Thinking, philosopher considers fallacies of debate and thought at not really enough length ... John & Mary Gribbin, Richard Feynman: A Life in Science, steering a useful middle course between the Jolly Amusing Fellow and Sodding Difficult Physics angles on the great man's life. Reread. Kingsley Amis, Take a Girl Like You ... John Dickson Carr, The Hollow Man ... S.J.Perelman, Bite on the Bullet, comic pieces including his 'Cloudland Revisited' series that boggles anew at movies seen in childhood ... 'Sapper', The Dinner Club, melodramatic shorts in the 'club story' tradition ... J.R.R.Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings – it seemed about time, yet again ... Auberon Waugh, Another Voice ... Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest. God knows why.
Chris A ... I remember debating that point about big insects being somehow less alarming than small ones, at a Milford long ago: the large and nasty 'thryme' in Chris Priest's story 'The Cremation' seemed physically unmenacing. Chris naturally disagreed, instancing his own vivid memories of huge Australian huntsman spiders which actually attack on sight (a friend used a literal ten-foot pole to prod the things, giving just time to rush to the door and fling the pole into the garden before the beastie finished running up it to Get You). Maybe there's a double threshold: ordinary woodlice don't bother me, and that lobster-sized TV whopper sounds fascinating – but in between there are 'sea woodlice' found in rock pools, perhaps twice as big as the domestic variety, that strike me as worryingly toxic-looking. Paul H ... Hazel and I once had to visit a lady called Hoon (the name is unforgettable, being both a Jack Vance monster and part of the surreal recurring geography in Frank Key's stories) who was an extremist Doggie Person. You could tell this from the way she delivered a lengthy and animated monologue to the dog in her lap for over half an hour, while we sat there wondering if we'd strayed into a Python sketch. Michael ... winces of sympathetic horror at the yobbish bullying and theft. I had to stop reading and walk around a bit to calm down. KVB ... I grovel, I cringe, I withdraw any foolish claim to have antedated your own Aged P. identification! Please don't use irony on me.... This sort of out-of-phase APA dialogue is reminiscent of Usenet, where someone who missed a particular message will often chime in weeks later and rewind a concluded debate or answered query to the original starting-point. Meanwhile, it's nice to find someone else who still cherishes Maurice Baring's Diminutive Dramas. My copy is bound with Dead Letters (including Goneril to Regan on how very tiresome Papa is being these days) and Lost Diaries, as an omnibus titled Unreliable History. Cherith ... the traditional Acne mini-synchronicity had me finding your mention of Take a Girl Like You within hours of re-reading it. I remember Leroy Kettle's 1970s fanzine mentioning the character Space Barr and suggesting that a good book title for him would be Adventures on Other Platens. Lizbeth ... there remains at least one lost soul wailing in outer darkness and racked with guilt at not having read The Calcutta Chromosome. Yes, me. Tanya ... I have high hopes for Amazon.co.uk (especially since they are splendidly commissioning reviews from people like me and Paul K). Orders from the US Amazon.com operation usually arrive much faster than from a UK bookshop or the rather dismal Internet Bookshop at www.bookshop.co.uk – which on one memorable occasion took six months and four queries to release the information that the ordered title was out of print, while continuing to list it as available at 48 hours' notice.... I bought the shredder in a sale at the local Staples office megastore.... In Inversions, I assumed the Doctor's deus ex machina (the thingy on the dagger handle) was a tiny drone, but Banks said in an interview that it's a knife missile. Besides giveaways in the 'fables' told during the story, one notes the verbal association of the Doctor with 'Culture' in the foreword and 'special circumstances' near the end. God knows what newcomers to Banksie's books make of all this. Steve ... Profiles in String is the novel by X.Trapnel in Anthony Powell's Books Do Furnish a Room. Paul K ... I've used the Psion 5 to read an electronic Pratchett draft while away from home, but can't imagine preferring this to a real book. Have just realized, though, that with 16Mb of memory in there I could carry either the SF or the Fantasy Encyclopedia with me at all times. H'mm! Mark ... My old home town of Newport (Gwent) had NPT postcodes until someone realized that this was an Impermissible Format. So now the entire town centre is, er, NP9, giving the impression that central Newport is located some way outside Newport.... There have been warnings on the net against ordering out-of-print stuff from Amazon, since they simply buy in a second-hand copy and double the price. Better to go straight to the used book search page at www.bookfinder.com.