Archive for the 'books' Category

Bernie Gunther, post-war

17 July 2017

I’ve stayed away from Philip Kerr‘s crime novels. This wasn’t because I doubted the universally positive judgment of readers and reviewers as to the excellence of the writing or the depths of the character, Bernie Gunther, but more because you get too much Nazi history in real life, even in 2017, without having to turn to fiction for it. (And maybe I get weary and wary when people compare other writers to Raymond Chandler.) 

So I was pleased to find in a second hand stack in the corner of a cafe a copy of one of his post-war Gunther novels, The One From The Other, set in the ambiguous demi-monde of reconstruction Germany and Austria, with war criminals trying to escape from justice, identity and personal history written in shades of grey, the “Amis” army of occupation resented, and Gunther played for a fool, and painfully, by people who are almost always one step ahead of him. Beautifully plotted, well written. 

The next one, no spoilers, looks to be set in Argentina.  I’m looking forward to finding it. 

“We did him in up country”

28 March 2016

Since it’s Easter Monday, it seems appropriate to share the lyric of “Search and Destroy“, words by Clive James, music by Pete Atkin, in which the Easter story is reimagined as a laconic report about the end of a successful 20th century counter-terrorist operation.

James, who is an outstanding lyric writer, has written better songs than this, but there’s something to admire about the way the final stanza locates the story conclusively and then punctures it decisively:

The faithful talk some wishful-thinking cock/ About a spook who rolls away the rock/
At which point golden boy walks out alive/ We’re bumping them all off as they arrive.

One can imagine the likes of Brigadier Richard Clutterbuck being delighted about the way things turned out here.

Search and destroy

I'm glad to say we're mopping up up here
I'm sending you today's report in clear
Security's no problem now at all
You just pick up the phone and make a call

     We should have done all this back at the beginning
     And never let the clowns think they were winning

We took a month to crack their second man
But when he talked the strudel hit the fan
He named eleven leaders who we shot
And then the top guy's girl who we've still got
The chick was tough and held out for a week
But spilled a bibful when we made her speak
We picked his mother up and worked on her
He came in on his own and there you were

     We should have nailed the first ones when we found them
     Before all the mystique built up around them

We never gave the local heat a chance
To get him on their own and make him dance
We did him in up-country, bombed the cave
And made the whole damn mountainside his grave
The faithful talk some wishful-thinking cock
About a spook who rolls away the rock
At which point golden boy walks out alive
We're bumping them all off as they arrive

     And that winds up this dreary exhibition
     A total waste of time and ammunition


‘The Cavalry incident’

Of course, Clive James is in good company here. The radical journalist Claud Cockburn recalled in his memoir I Claud rewriting the Easter story in the early 1930s as a parody of The Times’ Berlin reporter Pugge, who tended to see the streetfighting going on in Berlin in somewhat simple terms. This is how Cockburn described it in the book:

It was a level-headed estimate studded with well-tried Times’ phrases. ‘Small disposition here,’ cabled this correspondent, ‘attach undue importance protests raised certain quarters result recent arrest and trial leading revolutionary agitator followed by what is known locally as “the Cavalry incident”.’ The despatch was obviously based on an off-the-record interview with Pontius Pilate. It took the view that, so far from acting harshly, the Government had behaved with what in some quarters was criticized as ‘undue clemency’. It pointed out that firm Government action had definitely eliminated this small band of extremists, whose doctines might otherwise have represented a serious threat for the future.

The youtube clip at the top shows Atkin—who is currently, thankfully, recovering after being hit by a bus in Bristol—performing “Search and Destory” solo in Sheffield.

The recorded version is on the Pete Atkin reord Lakeside Sessions Vol. 2, which is available as a CD online or via iTunes. Or if you want to play it yourself, the chords are here.

The Village Against The World

22 August 2015

Dan Hancox’ The Village Against The World (Verso, 2014) is an account of Marinaleda, the anarcho-syndicalist village (my label) in Andalusia that has remade itself through 40 years of intense political battles with the Andalusian authorities. It turns out to be refleftive rather than uncritical, listening to the less sympathetic witnesses as well as the admirers. 

But there is a lot to admire. Some 20 years of smart and relentless political activism won the village enough land to farm, and, later, investment in processing plants. There is cheap co-operatively owned housing and good social facilities. The unemployment rate is a fraction of the rest of Andalusia. Sancho Gordillo, the mayor for 40 years, is the central figure in this process, is clearly an astute and principled politician, and an interesting theorist, who could have played on a bigger stage, though would likely have achieved less. 

Along the way there is some rich insight into the state of post-Franco Spain.

Will the village and its ideals survive Gordillo, who’s now in his 60s? That’s an open question, with which the book ends. Recommended.

Cartooning at the New Yorker

22 November 2014

Bob Mankoff

Robbie Cottrell’s excellent service The Browser, in which he reads the web and points you to the best bits of writing and journalism, pointed me this week to something I’d never have come across through my usual sources: a short review by Cody Walker of the memoir by the Cartoons Editor of the New Yorker, Bob Mankoff.

Now, I’ve always loved the New Yorker: although there’s too much in there to read every issue, it’s still a treat for a train journey. Some of its writing is still among the finest American reporting, and, of course, it’s famous for its cartoons. Those were what I came across first, since when I was a lot younger I used to read a lot of James Thurber‘s collections of writing and drawings, which sadly seem to have fallen out of fashion now. Through that I found my way to his memoir of the New Yorker‘s infamous founder and longserving editor, Harold Ross, The Years With Ross. Ross’s approach probably wasn’t the only way to run a magazine, but it certainly worked.

But back to Bob Mankoff. Thurber was one of the people who set the tone for the New Yorker cartoon, and there’s a kind of a template for them: whimsical but knowing, wry, complicit with the reader. One thing I learned was that the Cartoons Editor of the New Yorker looks at about 1,000 cartoons a week, and passes on 50 to the Editor, who will use about 17.

And there’s a laugh-out-loud moment as well, for which it helps, I think, to know that Mankoff is Jewish:

Bragging to his friends, the elder Mankoff said: “They laughed when my son said he was going to be a cartoonist, but they’re not laughing now.”

The image at the top of this post is courtesy of the Westport Library, Connecticut, and is used with thanks. A Browser subscription, which gives you access to the archive and unlimited articles, is a modest $20 a year.

The Memorial for the Missing at the Somme

14 January 2014

Source: Wikimedia

Why Gavin Stamp’s book, published on the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, and why now? I’ve owned it for a few years. I think perhaps I was trying to find a way to think about the Great War on its anniversary without going back to the literature or the history, which I think I know quite well; this was a more elliptical approach.

And in truth I knew little of the War Graves Commission, other than that a grief-stricken Rudyard Kipling was its literary adviser; it was a huge and heroic undertaking which I plan to write about a little more.

The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, like the Cenotaph, was built by Sir Edward Lutyens, whom Stamp describes in at least two places as the greatest English architect of any generation, which may come as a disappointment to Wren or Hawksmoor. But he makes his case well, well enough for me to want to visit the Memorial and go and have a better look at the subtleties of the Cenotaph. The Memorial, in particular is built as a series of interlocking arches, the better to make the space for 60,000 names of the British and French missing.

As for the missing, in what was surely the greatest disaster in terms of British military history – so many lives lost for so little gain – Stamp quotes some lines from Sebastian Faulk’s novel Birdsong which are worth repeating here:

“‘These are just the … unfound?” She looked at the vault above her head and then around in panic at the endless writing, as thought the surface of the sky had been papered in footnotes. When she could speak again, she said, “From the whole War?” The man shook his head. “Just these fields.”

Stamp’s account of the battle and its aftermath also makes me want to read Geoff Dyer’s The Missing of the Somme, which, I suspect, will also be an elliptical approach to the dead.

Image: Wikimedia

Domestique: Riding for the team

23 September 2013

The sports story template is Rocky, basically: athlete tastes success, athlete suffers failure, athlete faces down demons to snatch success from the jaws of failure. Indeed, I listened to a presentation recently by the publisher at the justly admired Yellow Jersey Press when he said that when he bought the rights to Bradley Wiggins story after his Tour de France victory, and then published in time for the Christmas market, they basically structured it as “Rocky on wheels”.

Another cycling story, that of the insufficiently recognised Graeme Obree, also fits the template, not least when turned into the film The Flying Scotsman.

So it comes as a shock – and maybe a surprise – to open a sports autobiography in which the protagonist never won anything as a professional – at least not individually – and who admits, quite early on, that the pressure of winning was too much for him.

Charly Wegelius was an expert domestique – and by the end of his career, at least, pretty well paid for it. His book, Domestique, is about the frustrations and pleasures to be had from putting your talents at the disposal of your team.

There’s an illuminating passage about the fragility of the life of the professional cyclist during a chapter on one of his Tours de France, as his bike buckles on a descent and he braces himself for the fall.

“A crash, no matter how seemingly innocuous, can be all it takes to start off a chain of events that can end a career. … There is nothing worse for a manager than having one of their twenty-five riders unable to compete. The pressure is passed on to other riders and the management themselves while they try to fill the gap left by an injured rider. … 

There is simply no room in the twelve or twenty-four months on a rider’s contract for time out for crashes. People often marvel that cyclists continue to race with horrific injuries, and think that cyclists are tough. It’s not that cyclists are particularly robust guys, it’s just that they don’t have a choice. … If a rider can get to the finish then at least he has a chance to race the next day. If he can do that then he won’t abandon his team in the race, he won’t lose race days, and he won’t be seen as a problem to anyone.”

The classic in this genre is Eamonn Dunphy’s Only A Game?, about the life of an end-of-career professional football player in the second tier of the English league. There are some cricket equivalents (Peter Roebuck’s It Never Rains onwards). The only other book I know of that sheds similar light on the life of the cycling domestique is Matt Rendell’s A Significant Other (maybe also Le Metier by Michael Barry.)

But a brief memo to the publisher, Ebury Press: in the fact-checking department, David Millar famously stopped half a metre short of the finish line of the Altagliru in protest, not 150 metres. And Alberto Contador won the Tour de France in 2007 and 2009, but not in 2008. And please, proof it one more time before you publish it in paperback.

Mick Farren and ‘The End’

4 August 2013

I’ve been meaning to write briefly about Mick Farren since I read of his death at the start of the week. Farren was something of a counter-cultural polymath; he was a music journalist, provocateur, novelist, and from time to time a performer as well. (His 60s band, the Deviants, spawned the Pink Fairies, who were as influential as they have been under-regarded). But you can read all of this in Richard Williams’ generous obituary

I wanted to mention something from his first novel, Texts of Festival, which I read some time after it came out in 1973. My copy has long vanished, but it’s set in a post-apocalyptic depopulated world in which infrastructure has been destroyed and energy is scarce. I’d describe it as a “Mad Max” novel except that it predates the movie by six years. 

Anyway, the settlement has a creaking music system held together now by string and sealing wax, and so old and close to breakdown that it can be played only in one circumstance – if they get attacked. In this eventuality they must put on the Doors’ sing “The End” and play it at maximum volume, all the way up to eleven, while hoping the sound system doesn’t collapse under the strain. 

Spoiler alert: and so it comes to pass. 

The image has stuck with me for more than thirty years. And how many novels can you say that of?

There’s also a fine obituary by Ian Fraser at Terracope.

Chasing down Lance Armstrong

28 July 2013

It’s hard to know how to categorise David Walsh’s curiously titled book, Seven Deadly Sins*, about Lance Armstrong’s career as a doper-cyclist. Sports book, obviously: he memorably quotes another writer as describing sportswriters as being like the piano players in a bordello, and Walsh makes his living as Chief Sports Writer on the Sunday Times. Memoir partly, because Walsh was himself at the heart of the pursuit of Armstrong, a co-author of the French language L.A.Confidentiel which put many of the claims about Armstrong into the public domain (to the extent that the libel laws permitted) in 2004, and he was name-checked by Oprah in her interviews with Armstrong in early 2013.

It’s something more as well, something halfway between confessional and ‘I told you so’, because it takes a certain kind of craziness to stay with a story for fourteen years, especially when it’s damaging your reputation – not least because your target is taking frequent potshots at you – and even your closest friends are telling you it’s time to lay off the Lance stuff for a while for your own good.

This is a story about cycling, to be sure, and a well-written one, and every cycling fan should read it to understand how deep in the mire their sport was in the late 1990s and much of the 2000s, and how compliant the governing body, the UCI, was in all of that (of which, more later).

But it’s also a story about power and its discontents, about journalism, and about whistle-blowing – what makes people decide to do the right thing even when it comes with a heavy personal cost. The rest of this long post follows after the fold. Read the rest of this entry »

The Fear Index

6 January 2013


Others have queued up to praise The Fear Index, which has been published about eighteen months now, and I’m not going to dissent from that view here. It weaves an engrossing dark thriller around (slight spoiler alert) a real event in 2010 – the flash crash – which wiped out 9% of the value of the Dow Jones Index in a few minutes, mostly through algorithm-based high frequency trading. (The chart below from Forbes shows the value of the index and the volume of trades during the crash). There is a long official US report, and a less compelling piece of futures work on high-frequency trading by the UK Government’s Foresight department. (The best account I have read is by Donald MacKenzie in the London Review of Books).


Robert Harris started his career as a journalist and a non-fiction author, and these skills don’t desert him. I started mine as a financial journalist, and still follow the area, but didn’t spot a clanging note. I had managed to guess the villain ahead of the reveal (small spoiler alert) but then you need only to read a small part of the singularity literature to realise that advanced machine intelligence aspires to a condition of godliness. All the same, the twist at the end was still a surprise.

If I have a criticism, there were places where it was overwritten, especially in the first half. The entire retelling of the Hardy/Ramanujan taxi story, for example, was ponderous, but perhaps when you have been as successful as Robert Harris editors are less attentive, or perhaps they were publishing at speed because of the topicality of the flash crash. I also was unpersuaded by Hoffman’s decision to plunge alone into the low-rent hotel in pursuit of his tormentor. Shades of Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter’s house: good for driving the story along, less good for its credibility.

On the other hand, there are moments when you hear an author’s voice coming through his characters. I enjoyed the moment particularly when the hedge fund investors, taken for their expensive lunch after the presentation of the new investment fund, are bitching about high marginal tax rates. Hoffman, the other-worldly genius who has written the software, and cares little for money, comments to himself,

“I was remembering now why I didn’t like the rich: their self-pity. Persecution was the common ground of their conversation, like sport or the weather was for anyone else.”

Unbound, rebound

20 November 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.