Archive for the 'writing' Category

Spies and danger

August 28, 2012

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Eric Ambler’s critical reputation seems secure – several of his novels are published as Penguin Modern Classics, and both Graham Greene and John le Carré paid tribute to his influence – but his popular reputation seems to have faded, at least to judge from bookshop shelves. I was reminded of Ambler by an endnote in Andy Croft’s rollicking verse novella 1948, where he acknowledges that he borrowed one of his characters, Tamara Zaleshoff, from the thriller writer, and since then I have read a couple of his pre-war novels, Epitaph for a Spy and Uncommon Danger (US: Background to Danger).

Ambler set out to subvert the thriller genre when he started writing:

I intended to make fun of the old secret service adventure thriller as written by E. Phillips Oppenheim, John Buchan, Dornford Yates and their cruder imitators; and I meant to do it by placing some of their antique fantasies in the context of a contemporary reality.

Indeed, in his introduction to Uncommon Danger, Thomas Jones of the LRB observes of the thuggish Mailler in Uncommon Danger, the nastiest character in the book by a good margin, that “it’s tempting to see him as a satirical portrait of the archetypal hero of the moribund thrillers that Ambler was so determined to supersede, unmasked and revealed for the cryptofascist brute he really is”.

In the place of the firm-jawed heroes of Buchan and Yates, Ambler’s stories instead feature ordinary men (mostly men) who find themselves caught up in events outside of their control which they don’t fully understand. As Tom Watson puts it an engaging blog post,

There is always a moment in the Ambler novels when the dupe – a novelist, a salesman, a teacher and the like – realizes with sinking fear that they’re not in a movie or an Agatha Christie tale; that the danger is real and outlook fairly grim.

In Ambler’s world, both crime and politics (and there is always politics) is a dirty business. And as his central characters try to work out what to do, they are often wrong. As they stumble through, they find themselves used, but try to do the right thing nonetheless.

All of this may make them sound a little earnest, but Ambler’s plotting is precise, if sometimes as complex as Chandler’s, his judgment of pace exact, his cliff-hangers frequent, his writing a pleasure. (Mailler, for example, is introduced as being “at one time the only professional strike-breaker in America with an English public school education”.) Several of his books were made into films, and Ambler worked in Hollywood after the war.

And his surprises are many, for Ambler is usually one step ahead of both his readers and his central characters. In Uncommon Danger Kenton, wanted by the Austrian police, spends much of a coach journey as he runs for the Czech border by turns patronising and being dismissive of the English salesman Hodgkin, who is also on the bus. At the last moment (small spoiler alert) Hodgkin points Kenton at the path for the border, before listing all the mistakes he’s made during the day that could have been his undoing.

Eric Ambler was a leftist, and his pre-war books are overlaid by the rise of fascism across Europe. In his world, unlike Buchan’s, capitalism, or at least capitalists, were likely to be at odds with democracy. As Jennifer Howard writes of his novels in a good introduction in Boston Review,

They can also feel alarmingly contemporary, especially when they tackle the dangers of mucking around in other countries’ political affairs—cautionary tales for their own age that haven’t lost their relevance in ours.

Unlike the black and white world of the earlier secret service thrillers (or of some of the Cold War thriller writers who followed him), Ambler’s novels are permeated by shades of grey tinged with darkness. As Kenton reflects in Uncommon Danger, as he ponders going to the police,

It was all very fine to say that Right triumphed in the end, that Justice sought out the guilty and punished them. In actual practice, Right and Justice were far from infallible. Stupid, honest and blind, they blundered in pursuit of their quarry. The innocent sometime crossed their paths.

Or again:

The Foreign Ministers of the great powers might make the actual declarations of their Governments’ policies; but it was the Big Business men, the bankers and their dependents, the arms manufacturers, the oil companies, the big industrialists, who determined what those policies should be. Big business asked the questions that it wanted to ask when and how it suited it. Big Business also provided the answers.

Thomas Jones writes of Ambler that he “was simply several years ahead of his time”. As we lurch into another era where business interests decide on politics while politicians play populist games, he seems further ahead than ever.

I borrowed the picture from an excellent post on the subject of Ambler’s writing at Tom Watson’s blog, and it is used with thanks.

Unwontedly

January 22, 2012

The news that Matthew Hollis is apparently now favourite for the Costa Book Award for his biography of the poet Edward Thomas is good news for poetry. It sent me back to an article Hollis wrote about the writing of ‘Adlestrop’, which is now one of the best known poems in English.

Most of Thomas’ poems were written in a furious rush in the last few years before he was killed in France in 1917, with the encouragement of the great American poet Robert Frost, who had become a firm friend. And most of them drew on his notebooks, which were full of short vivid sketches of things he’d seen.

‘Adlestrop’ was published a few weeks after his death, but the trip it was based on took place three years earlier, when he went by train with his wife to visit Frost, then staying in England. The notebook, wrote Hollis, contains this passage about the train’s halt at Adlestrop:

Then we stopped at Adlestrop, thro the willows cd be heard a chain of blackbirds songs at 12.45 & one thrush & no man seen, only a hiss of engine letting off steam. Stopping outside Campden by banks of long grass willow herb & meadowsweet, extraordinary silence between the two periods of travel . . . one man clears his throat – and a greater rustic silence. No house in view[.] Stop only for a minute till signal is up.

Most of the poem came quickly to him, but he struggled with the first verse. This is the published version:

Yes, I remember Adlestrop –
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

It took him several drafts to settle on the class of train. It started as an express, then became a steam train, then just a train. By the final version, wrestling with the fact that the train had made its unscheduled stop, he’d gone back to ‘express’. As Hollis explains:

The train had to be “express” and not “steam” if it was to pull up “unexpectedly”, he reasoned; though about this word, too, he had doubts, and tried “Against its custom”, before he hit upon exactly the word he was looking for: “unwontedly”.

Unwontedly. It’s one of those words which even native English speakers have problems with. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it in this way:

“In a strange, unwonted, or unusual manner; unusually; uncommonly”

So the manner of the stopping draws attention to the other uncommonnesses in the poem, such as the absence of people on the station (“No one left and no one came”), which reminds us that Thomas wrote only indirectly about the Great War, but it is often present through absences. “His real subjects”, wrote Robert MacFarlane in a review of Hollis’ book, “were disconnection, discrepancy and unsettledness.”

The station itself was closed in the 1960s, after Beeching’s axe destroyed chunks of the British rail network. But perhaps that doesn’t matter, for as Edward Thomas said later in the poem, he saw ‘only the name’.

The picture of Adlestrop Station at the top of this post was taken in 1961. It is from Wikipedia Commons. The copyright on this image is owned by Ben Brooksbank and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 licence. Richard Burton cn be heard reading the poem on Youtube.

Unbound, rebound

November 20, 2011

I’m fussy about my notebooks. Small enough for a coat pocket, big enough for diagrams as well as notes, plain not lined. I also write in fountain pen quite often, so the paper has to be heavy enough for ink (not true of the ubiquitous moleskine).

So when I found myself short of something to write in while in Brecon recently, I was intrigued to come across a line of notebooks called Rebound Books. I’d not seen them elsewhere. They had covers of actual published books, and some pages from the actual book interleaved with new blank pages, made from surprisingly good quality reclaimed paper.

It turns out that they’re made by the Brecon branch of an international charity, L’Arche, which creates communities for people with learning disabilities, helping them by providing meaningful work. For the charity, the rebound books are a way of re-using books which had no secondhand resale value, and which would otherwise end up in landfill (I drafted this post in a Rebound notebook made from a Romanian language guide to a monastery). The project won first prize earlier this year at the Hay Festival’s Dragons’ Den event.

From a user’s perspective there’s something quite stimulating about turning a page and finding an illustration or a fragment of a story on it. The idea probably doesn’t scale that well, but I’d have thought that the charity will want to spread the idea from Brecon to their other communities. And maybe other social enterprises might want to franchise the idea.

You can have a look online. They also do mail order.

The pictures in this post were taken by Andrew Curry. It is published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.

Measuring porridge

September 25, 2011

I like porridge, especially as the days get colder. But I get put off by the instructions.  Take these, from a packet of Quaker Oats, for example:

Mix 45g of Quaker Oats with 340ml of milk or cold water in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Simmer for 5 minutes.

45g? 340ml? You need to get the scales out, and a measuring jug, unless you happen to have a brain that’s finely tuned to metric measurements. In a rush, on a cold morning, that doesn’t happen. You guess, and you hope.

So you can imagine my pleasure when I bought a bag of Pimhill’s porridge oats, and found these instructions:

For creamy porridge use 1 level cup of Pimhill Porridge Oats and 2 cups pf cold water or milk.

Cups? Cups! Everyone has cups, and they’re usually close at hand in a kitchen. You don’t have to be on Masterchef to realise that you can use small cups or large cups depending on how much porridge you’re planning to make, as long as you use the same cup for both oats and liquid. And it’s so simple that once you’ve read it you’ll remember it – even when faced with instructions that expect people to think like computers. A wonderfully simple piece of user-based information.

The picture at the top of this post was taken by Andrew Curry. It is published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.

Civil rights on the Hill

June 11, 2011

I’ve been re-watching Hill Street Blues, which is running nightly on Channel 4 in the small hours in a version tailored for the hard of hearing, maybe meeting some broadcasting quotas as it goes.

It was , of course, a path-breaking show which reinvented the television police drama in the 1980s, by foregrounding the whole of the police station, not just a couple of individuals, interweaving multiple storylines and using handheld cameras to create a verite feel. Actually, arguably, it reinvented television drama while it was at it. Aesthetically, even 30 years on, the series feels remarkably fresh.

Looking back at the 1980s from the 2010s, it’s also possible to suggest that the series captured the notion that the American inner-city had become a battle-ground – and that it implied (but never spelt out) Gill Scott-Heron’s argument that in the backlash from the victories of the civil rights movement a combination of drugs and politics meant these battlegrounds were managed through policing rather than politics. Some of the sharpest moments in the show were when Chief Daniels clashed with Capt. Furillo over the political consequences of his policing.

And it also caught, brilliantly, in its (probably) Chicago setting the racial politics of post-civil rights America. We caught a re-run of Lucky Ducks the other night, about half way through the series, where Renko is about to marry Daryl-Ann, whose family is clearly from the South. There’s a fabulous piece of writing in the pre-wedding dinner, where Renko’s Hill Street colleagues – including his (black) partner Bobby Hill, his best man – have turned out to meet Darryl-Ann’s mother and father. It’s like the entire civil rights movement being played out over the toasts. After some speeches from Hill Street colleagues, Daryl Ann’s father gets to his feet (starts 40’30 in), and after a few other ill-judged remarks:

FATHER: ‘… I’ve had the chance to get to know Bobby Hill and he seems like a real nice boy. Best wishes to everybody.

BOBBY HILL: Well now, I want to thank Mr Maconachie and say it’s a good thing he likes me since I’m sure that he’s quite familiar with the old tradition that if anything happens to the groom before the wedding then the best man’s supposed to step in.

FATHER: Well, I don’t know what tradition that is, but anybody who runs out on my little girl and I’m perfectly prepared to take care of her, and him, myself.

RENKO: I don’t know what anybody’s talking about, because you couldn’t get me away from this beautiful girl with a tow-truck.

BOBBY HILL: Oh, that’s not what anybody’s talking about, Andy. [PAUSE]

SGT NEIL WASHINGTON: So, uh, you folks have a nice trip up? [PAUSE] Take the inter-state?

Hill’s character is one of the nicest in the show, but the word ‘boy’ – addressed by white person to black – was incendiary even in the 1980s. You have to watch the scene, because the acting and the direction make the whole story (looks could kill), but the way the conflict is so visibly there, without anyone saying as much, or raising their voices, is a fabulous piece of writing.

Marketing or art

January 25, 2011

I like musicals and I like Stephen Sondheim, so wanted to know what he had to say in an 80th birthday interview in The Guardian just before Christmas.

Certainly there are some observations about the craft of the musical – especially lyric-writing – that intrigue. Hammerstein’s “Oh what a beautiful morning”, from Oklahoma, for example:

“Nothing could be more banal,” Sondheim says. “But that song changed the history of musical theatre.” And it did so through simplicity, clarity and repetition.

And reflecting on this seems to have made him regret his own, later, lyric for ‘Maria‘, in West Side Story, with its famous couplet:

“Say it loud and there’s music playing / Say it soft and it’s almost like praying”

Sondheim thinks that this contributed a “wetness” to the words which persisted throughout the show’s romantic numbers. I think I have to disagree: the whole point of the romantic numbers in West Side Story is to create a difference from the directness and toughness of the streets, to build in our minds the idea that Tony and Maria might be able to escape (“there’s a place for us”) from the world of the gangs and the garment district. Sondheim doesn’t have a lot of time for Bernstein, but here Bernstein understood what he was doing.

But the thing that puzzles the most is his comments on Allegro, a failed musical which Rogers and Hammerstein wrote in the middle of a run of huge success. Sondheim thinks he understands what they should have done, and it comes down to this:

“making clear to an audience why you’ve written what you’ve written, and what it’s about. Then if they like it, great. If they don’t like it, fine. But if they don’t like it because they don’t understand it, that’s bad. That is the writer’s fault. If you write it and it’s clear and they don’t like it, that’s not your fault. That’s what art is about.”

But this isn’t about art, it’s about marketing. The history of our art and culture is full of works which audiences didn’t understand, were confused by, and hated, and had to puzzle out over time, from the impressionists to The Rites of Spring to bebop to Peeping Tom. It’s disappointing that someone whose craft is so rich – after 60 years in the theatre – seems to have such a one-dimensional view of art and its audiences.

The image at the top of this post comes from the Academy of Achievement website, and is used with thanks.

Taking the pain away

September 21, 2010

I’ve just read Slaughterhouse 5, Kurt Vonnegut’s book about the firebombing of Dresden, which he experienced as an American prisoner of war held in the city. It’s written elliptically, perhaps by way of answering the question of how to write about one of the great war crimes of the Second World War.

The story is told through the eyes of Billy Pilgrim, a man who sees time differently from the rest of us, seeing history as a series of parallel moments rather than a linear progression. The book leaves open the question of whether this is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. (And in Chapter 1, before we get to Billy’s (deliberately) fragmented narrative, Vonnegut – or at least an authorial voice – says that he has written and thrown away five thousand pages in trying to tell the story. The book was published in 1969: it’s as if he was waiting for sufficient innovation in narrative form to be able to write it. So it goes.)

Anyway, this is a long preamble to a wonderful passage in which Billy, who sees time differently, watches a film of a bombing raid backwards:

“It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this:

“American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewman. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

“The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of their planes. The containers were neatly stored in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewman and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

“When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.”

The picture at the top of this post comes from the blog Through A Vintage Lens, and is used with thanks,

Brecht, Dave, George and the cuts

August 29, 2010

I’ve been in eastern Germany on holiday (“the former DDR”, as the Germans seem always to refer to it) and so my thoughts turned to the bard of East Berlin, Bertolt Brecht. I took with me a second-hand copy of a slim volume of Notes from the Calendar, a collection of stories, poems and anecdotes which Brecht had assembled on his return to Germany in 1947, and which seems now to be out of print. It includes some of his more famous poems (for example, “Questions of a Studious Working Man“) and some which deserve to be better known (“Legend of the Origin of the Book Tao Te Ching on Lao Tzu’s Way into Exile”), as well as “The Augsburg Chalk Circle”, a story which is the forerunner of his play The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

But the reason I bought it was for the “Anecdotes of Mr Keuner”, a set of paradoxical stories which I was first introduced to years ago by the critic and provocateur Albert Hunt. One story in particular, “Form and Substance”, reminded me of the present government’s economic programme, and I hope that Methuen, its pubishers, will forgive me for reprinting this Anecdote here:

Form and Substance

Mr K contemplated a painting in which certain objects were given a very arbitrary form. He said: “With some artists it’s the same as with many philosophers when they look at the world. In striving for form, they lose the substance. I once worked for a gardener. He gave me a pair of shears and told me to clip a laurel bush.

The bush grew in a tub and was hired out for festive occasions. So it had to be in the shape of a ball. I immediately set about cutting off the untidy shoots, but however hard and long I tried to make it ball shaped I did not succeed. First I trimmed too much off one side, then too much off the other. When at last it was a ball, it was a very small one. The gardener was disappointed as said: “Yes, that’s a ball, but where’s the laurel?”

Alone, again

May 13, 2010

Fulham’s close-run defeat against Atletico Madrid in the final of the grandly named ‘Europa Cup’ last night reminded me, as it would, of the late playwright Dennis Potter, who is almost as strongly identified with Hammersmith and Fulham as he is with his native Forest of Dean.

At the end of the original UK television version of Pennies From Heaven, of course, Arthur Parker commits suicide (or not) by throwing himself from Hammersmith Bridge.

In The Singing Detective, the detective (Michael Gambon) observes – and this is from memory at the moment – that people go to football matches ‘to be together’. ‘Except for Fulham’ he adds, of a team which would have been in the second or third tier of the English League at the time. ‘You go to Fulham to be alone’.

Escaping from metaphor

October 5, 2009

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I was leafing through  the Autumn edition of the Poetry Book Society bulletin, admiring the title poem of Don Paterson’s latest collection, Rain (more on this podcast), when I stumbled across a poem by Toeti Heraty, an Indonesian poet, philosopher and campaigner whose work had been – until that moment – completely unknown to me. But then, one of the virtues of magazines is their potential for serendipity.

The poem – in its English translation, courtesy of the Poetry Translation Centre – is about the gap between words and meaning.

Post Scriptum
by Toeti Heraty

I want to write
an erotic poem
in which raw words, unadorned,
become beautiful
where metaphors are unnecessary
and breasts, for instance,
do not become hills
nor a woman’s body a sultry landscape
nor intercourse ‘the most intimate embrace’.

It’s quite clear
this poem is written in the space
between exposure and concealment
between hypocrisy and true feeling.

There are more poems by her at the Poetry Translation Centre. If I find a way to buy the pamphlet this was taken from I’ll add it here.

The picture at the top of the post is Body Landscape No. 2, by Maya Barkai, at the Saatchi Gallery Online.

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