Victor Bridges, Trouble on the Thames

No plotlines have been spoiled in the writing of this review.

I’ve been discovering some of the recently reprinted ‘Golden Age’ detective stories and thrillers. They are celebrated for their ingenious plotlines, but score less highly when it comes to characterisation; modern writers in these genres are much better at avoiding stereotypes.

Trouble on the Thames, set shortly before the Second World War, is no exception in this respect, as the baddies in particular might as well be going around with BADDY written on a placard round their necks. It’s not as if Bridges’ writing is wooden in all respects; he had a deft touch when setting scenes and a knack for social comedy, and it’s a shame he didn’t indulge these skills rather more.

Our hero has been invalided out of the Navy with the sudden onset of colour-blindness during a voyage. Setting aside the medical implausibility, I kept waiting for a plot twist which turned on his failure to distinguish two colours, but it never arrived, though his handicap does generate the final line of dialogue in the book.

Much of my enjoyment came from the period detail (boggling for example that a woman might invite her male companion to choose what she should eat in a restaurant). If you enjoy vintage spy capers, this will pass the time – just don’t expect deep psychological insight.

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B. S. Johnson, Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry

A few years ago new copies of a book called Never Say Boring Again, about a group of accountants, was sometimes to be seen on sale at bookstalls in suspiciously large numbers.  It would undoubtedly seem boring, however, beside this one, in which the main character puts the principles of double entry accounting to uses which are unusual to say the least. It’s set in London in apparently the early Sixties.

So, a very black comedy about accountancy.  Johnson was an experimental writer,  but this work has a straightforward linear narrative.  There is a great deal of complex wordplay – I expect I missed a lot of it but I spotted jokes in passing which relied on a knowledge of Welsh or of ornithology.  

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Judy Bryant, An Adoptee’s Search for Identity

This is a self-published memoir by someone I think I may have met when I was an ‘extra’ on an Open University Chapel Choir tour to Southwell Minster. (I wonder whether she was the person who enjoyed running baths very early in the morning, setting off the noisy plumbing in the place where we were staying?)

She unflinchingly narrates the difficulties she faced as a child, leading to a breakdown in early adulthood. These were: being given up for adoption; the death of her beloved adoptive mother at the age of seven; and a congenital condition which meant her education was disrupted through stays in hospital. One senses that she could have coped with any two of these, but not all three. Happily she took advantage of opportunities later on and enjoyed an interesting career in the legal profession.

She was able to contact members of her birth family (before this was officially permitted) and here the story is tantalisingly incomplete. I would rather have heard more about her meetings with her birth parents than all the details about her various cars and journeys in them! Possibly some details have been blurred; we are told that her half-brother (who died a year after she was reunited with him) was an undergraduate at Oxford when she was in her mid-twenties, but also that he pushed her in her pram, implying that he was older than her.

The memoir might have benefited from an editor, to focus more on the essential story and less on various distractions along the way. But it is not an unrelieved ‘misery memoir’ and the author is able to stand back and do dispassionate self-analysis with a reasonably flowing prose style.

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Hesketh Pearson, The Smith of Smiths
Alan Bell, Sydney Smith: A Biography

The Rev. Sydney Smith would seem a good potential subject for a biography. No need to speculate about his views, as (like the reviewer, but more eloquently) he loved to shoot his mouth off on any subject on which he had an opinion. And he knew a lot of famous and influential people. The drawbacks are that his natural environment was the dining table, so any account of him risks reading like being an onlooker at another’s party, and his life was not in fact very eventful.

Hesketh Pearson (shown thoughtfully smoking a pipe on the back cover) wrote biographies by the yard in the mid-20th century, and the one of Smith is among his earliest. As someone from a clerical family and immersed in the world of letters, he must have found him an appealing subject. Unfortunately he managed something almost impossible – a biography of him that is dull to read. Apart from going and looking up Smith’s will in Somerset House, he appears to have done no original research, just ordered the details of Smith’s life from other sources, interspersed with appropriate quotes from his writings. He contradicts himself on such matters as whether Smith had ambitions to be a bishop and his attitude to music. Perhaps Smith’s views changed, in which case it would have been good to have had some discussion about this.

I hoped Alan Bell’s biography might be a lighter read, but it wasn’t. (It’s briefly dealt with in this obituary). It has a slightly different emphasis and though it draws on letters and documents that Pearson didn’t have (with considerably more research), inevitably there’s a lot of overlap with Hesketh in quotations from Smith’s writings. But I’m afraid I gave up after a couple of chapters. I think Bell, who like Pearson was not a practised biographer when he wrote the work, might have done better to have completed his edition of Smith’s letters (he only published one of a projected four volumes of them) before writing his biography. Perhaps he thought that the biography would whet readers’ appetites for the letters.

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Francis Meynell, By Heart

This is an anthology of poetry intended to be memorised.

It was compiled in 1965 towards the end of Meynell’s life, and this shows in the selection of poets; only a handful were born after 1914, and as far as I can tell Rabindranath Tagore is the only one who is not white. Most poems are in rhymed verse, and there are a quite a few extracts from longer poems.

Meynell’s Catholicism also shows in the prominence of religious content, with a number of poems presenting unusual angles on familiar Bible stories.

The publication history is interesting; it was first published by Meynell’s own Nonesuch press, then under the imprint of Bodley Head Children’s (!) books, despite some distinctly adult themes. Another publisher was the Ezra Pound Institute of Civilization, London which seems mysterious until you learn that Pound was a friend of Meynell’s.

Like the original Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, this book seems to belong to a time about 20 years before its actual publication. As anthologies go it is harmless enough. You would need a good memory to commit some of the longer pieces to it, and the presence of extracts will be irritating to some.

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The Odes of Horace, trans. Edward Marsh

This translation dates from 1941, and I suspect it was made so that the author could prove he could do it. I don’t doubt his understanding of Latin; my problem is the archaic nature of the English. Did Edward Marsh really think this was the way to make Horace available to an English readership, or was the point really to demonstrate his own cleverness?

A sample will suffice (1.34):

    For Jove, whose wont it is to ply
    His zigzag levin mid a clouded sky
    This day through the clear azure drove afar
    His thundering coursers and flame-pinion’d car —

Brought up short by ‘levin’, I looked it up and found that it was a Middle English word for ‘lightning’. At this point I thought I’d be better off just reading the Latin. Horace does not on the whole puzzle his readers with obscure vocabulary.

Some biographical information about Edward Marsh may be found here.

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Simon Winchester, Krakatoa: the Day the World Exploded

I felt rather guilty about enjoying reading this, as it isn’t a disaster movie but a real-life event that killed tens of thousands of people. However, if you want to find out about the cataclysm of 1883, then this is the place to go.

The book takes quite a while to get going and throughout there is a large amount, rather too much, of incidental detail. When I was told at length about the biographies of the discoverers of continental drift, I found my attention began to drift a bit too. And once I’d been made aware that Dutch colonials drank jenever much as their British counterparts did gin & tonic, I didn’t need to have repeated descriptions of them doing it. Once the eruption is imminent the pace quickens.

I don’t know much about the East Indies or about vulcanology and when it comes to fact-checking, I can only really go by measuring the book against what I do know. In this case, I found inaccuracies relating to classical languages. Palaeomagnetism is a word of wholly Greek formation, not a mixture of Greek and Latin, and while the pseudonym ‘Multatuli’ does indeed mean ‘I have endured much’, it does so in Latin, not Javanese.

A particularly interesting section was that on the worldwide observation of the atmospheric effects of the eruption. Descriptions of these were solicited from the public, and this is attributed to a Victorian ‘almost obsessive need for the complete’; I prefer to see it, less perjoratively, as an early instance of crowdsourcing, or ‘citizen science’. Certainly it produced a lot of documentary evidence, including an elegantly worded description from Gerard Manley Hopkins.

The map on p. xv really ought to show the town of Anjer, which features prominently in the text.

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Faber’s The Great Languages: French, Italian, German, Latin

I came across Palmer’s The Greek Language, published in the 1980s, and when offered the chance to acquire some others in the series, seized the opportunity, thinking they would be of a similar vintage. But this series has a very peculiar history. The volumes on French and German were written in the 1930s, and Palmer’s companion volume on Latin dates from the 1950s. His work on Greek replaced an earlier book by BFC Atkinson (an author otherwise known for Christian apologetics), and I think is still in print.

The volume on Italian has a very different history; it is a translation by T. Gwynfor Griffith of Migliori’s Storia della lingua italiana. The work is structured differently from the others, being diachronic and going through the history of Italian by successive historical periods, rather than synchronic and dedicating whole sections to morphology and syntax as do the French and German equivalents. Palmer’s Greek volume takes a synchronic and diachronic approach in its two sections.

Needless to say much in the earlier volumes seems very dated now. There are some extraordinary assertions. The demise of the ‘past definite’ (meaning ‘past historic’) in French is attributed to the fact nowadays that we see the past as a picture rather than as an action (p. 254). Surely the opposite is the case if anything, now that we have (and had in the 1930s) ways of recording moving images? And why should this change, even if it were true, cause the French past historic to fall out of use?

I wonder what the intended readership was for this series. It seems too academic for the general reader, but the specialist in the language concerned would not need a summary volume of this kind. Perhaps it was for university students beginning a course in the languages? And why does the format differ so much between volumes? Was the Italian work co-opted into the series because it was to hand? Why was the volume on Greek updated, but not others?

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Sheila Mann, Hints of a Perfect Splendour

Disclaimer 1: I married into the family of the book’s subject, Aelfrida Tillyard (1883-1959). My parents-in-law get a fleeting mention towards the end. As I have this personal connexion, the following observations will focus on those aspects of Aelfrida’s life which have overlapped with my own.

Disclaimer 2: Long before I met any of her other relatives, I must have rubbed shoulders with Aelfrida’s daughter Alethea, as for a few months we attended the same church (St Andrew’s, Old Headington). However, I don’t remember her. I don’t really remember much about the church in those days except its general appearance inside (its character has now been drastically changed by re-ordering and I suspect Alethea would barely recognise it), the over-powerful organ (once Merton College’s, since replaced) and for being the only church I’ve come across which used the BBC Hymn Book.

This is described as a ‘novel biography’ though it does not stray far beyond demonstrable fact. Aelfrida’s life is amply documented, though sometimes not enough for the author: ‘what would one not give for a diary account of [Aelfrida’s meeting with my future parents-in-law after their marriage]’.

After a fairly conventional Cambridge academic childhood (with faint Bloomsbury connections) such as is described in many memoirs and biographies, Aelfrida embarked on a doomed marriage with a half-Greek diplomat. Throughout her life she had a mystical bent; in her youth this led to an involvement with Aleister Crowley, but after a family tragedy she gravitated into the Church of England.

She had an ascetic trait I recognise as a family characteristic, but which in her case expressed itself through religion. At one point she joined a lay community, a form of spiritual life which has now fallen completely out of fashion. Why should it have done so? Perhaps it is because there is now a much greater range of opportunities for women, but maybe also because the degree of self-sacrifice it requires is too much for people these days. There are of course still experiments in communal living, but now they tend to be ecological rather than religious in inspiration. And while there will always be Christian mystics, it is now possible and indeed quite common to have spirituality without being attached to any particular religious group or sect.

I skipped on to what really interested me, Anglo-Catholicism in mid-20th century Cambridge. How did it differ from when I came into this wing of the church in the same place some decades later?

Aelfrida’s route was different from mine, as she didn’t have much to do with the church I joined, Little St Mary’s, attaching herself to St Botolph’s. I sang at the wedding of a friend there, and sang a service or two there with the Chapel choir of my college, Corpus. The choir had a rather chilly welcome, because at that time it was believed in the congregation that Corpus wanted to have St Botolph’s shut down and made into its library extension, and that the choir was presumably being sent round to case the joint. An attempt to visit with the choir of Little St Mary’s was refused by the then Rector. Maybe they just didn’t like guest choirs at St Botolph’s? It always struck me as middle-of-the-road, 1662-friendly Anglicanism, rather than High Church.

I could have done with a family tree (perhaps somewhere in the 1006 pages I missed one) not least to help distinguish the various women in the family whose names begin and end in A: Aelfrida herself, Agatha, Alicia, Alethea, Anatolia and Agneta (not Angela, whom I see quite regularly).

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Whipplesnaith, The Night Climbers of Cambridge
Barbara Vine, Grasshopper

Don’t try this at home. Or rather, don’t try it in Cambridge. The Night Climbers of Cambridge circulated in samizdat form for a while, and a copy in the University Library could be consulted by special permission, but has now been reprinted. It is a guide to how to ascend various buildings in the city by external routes, based on the exploits of a group of climbers in the 1930s and illustrated with photographs.

Detailed instructions on how to achieve various climbs are interspersed with accounts of cat-and-mouse games with College porters and other anecdotes (the footnote to p. 156 is particularly entertaining, even if one can see the punchline coming way in advance). The style parodies that of guidebooks of the day: ‘We go to Trinity, the aristocrat of the college climbing-grounds’.

The pièce de résistance is of course King’s College Chapel. The caption to a photograph of the ascent of a pinnacle ends: ‘With three simultaneous grips for the rest of the way up the climb is safe’. Here I can only quote from Douglas Adams: ‘This must be some strange use of the word safe I wasn’t previously aware of’.

Many a night-climber’s career started by climbing into College after it was locked for the night, but other aspects of life in those days, such as patrolling policemen, seem almost as outdated. A Night Climbers’ Society, with its own tie, still existed around 1990 (I knew the President slightly) but little actual climbing appeared to go on by then.

Did this happen at Oxford too, or was it one of those things like circus skills which Cambridge in particular goes in for? The Oxford equivalent seemed to be navigating mysterious subterranean waterways, and if the Oxford Today letters page is to be believed, at one time most of the men and quite a lot of the women had a go at it.

The characters in Grasshopper also go in for climbing on roofs, though they normally get there from dormer windows, which I expect their Cambridge equivalents would disdain. If you enjoyed King Solomon’s Carpet, you’ll probably enjoy this novel too, set in Maida Vale.

I repeat: these exploits are not to be emulated by the reader. But I’m now going to look at a lot of old buildings in a rather different way.

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