Dark Voyage, by Alan Furst

Holiday reading? Yes: I’ve long enjoyed the writing of Alan Furst. He writes exquisite English, with nuanced characters, all having complex, ambiguous motives. He has deep sympathy for the fallen, human condition.

But for all that, Dark Voyage is different. It has the same male protagonist making his way through a world distorted by Nazi Germany, someone who is at root, a modern European in a world dominated by war splitting Europe asunder. It has the same cast of characters – the shadowy, morally bankrupt SIS agents, the Russian emigres, the fixers and shakers in smart suits. The women. He even manages to get in a dinner at Table 14 at Heinigers in Paris, though only in flashback.

Unusually for an Alan Furst hero, the main character speaks English. Also, most of the action takes place at sea, and here is the rub. I was, as a former seafarer myself, drawn to the book on that basis. At the same time – and I’m not entirely sure how the author would take this – Dark Voyage reads like a Douglas Reeman novel. Reeman’s naval stories are – like Furst’s books – quintessentially readable tales about the frailty of the human condition in time of war or impending war. Both writers suffuse their stories with the gentle light of compassion and understanding for their characters. Both -as the jacket of Dark Voyage attests – fundamentally humane writers. Wonderful, relaxing stuff. Reading does not have to be hard work.

Churchill and Orwell, by Thomas Ricks

As ever in my book reviews, the word “readable” comes near the beginning and is intended as a compliment. As Orwell himself wrote, the writer should be doing the hard work, not the reader.

Three writers of the last century, have influenced me greatly. Churchill and Orwell are two of them. The third is Ian Fleming. I knew I had to have a copy of this encouraging and inspiring work, the moment I set eyes on it on the shelf in a bookshop in Sevenoaks. A single book about two of my favourite writers, it did not disappoint. Part commentary, part biography, it revealed things that I did not already know. It made me think about my own position – how was I like Churchill, like Orwell? How was I dealing with the Lord Halifaxes, the Neville Chamberlains, the Franklin Roosevelts, in my own life? Neither man was perfect; both had feet of clay. As much can be learnt from a study of their flaws and failures, as from their successes and their greatness.

Churchill, as well he might, tends to dominate that part of the work dealing with their actual lives – the biographical section. Orwell is predominant in the latter part of the book dealing with their legacy. Orwell, virtually unrecognized in his lifetime, is today considered one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century. Ricks argues that Orwell was and is the more influential author and “thought leader” for today’s world, even if Churchill was the more influential at the time. It was interesting to read of the two characters being unrecognised and “in the wilderness” at different times.

There were a few unsure steps and odd passages, some occasional gushing and some arguably unnecessary detail in places, but in general, this was an excellent and worthwhile read. It is amongst those books which I might call “life-changing”.

All the landscape was the mill

A crowd of ladies from a faraway land, each dressed in brightly coloured fabrics, would come chattering past the house each day. They would sweep along every morning and evening, their conversations bright, adult, and quite incomprehensible in some unknown language. The little boy asks, who are those ladies? His mother tells him that they all work in the mill at the bottom of the street.

The boy learned a lesson young: who you are and what you are can be seen from where you’re going – and when. The direction you’re walking, and the time of day, tells us something about who you are.

At the bottom of the street, a crossroads. Go left into a quiet lane past the allotments to the edge of town. Go right past a bowling green smooth like a billiard table, to a sweet shop. Straight on, to the park, to school, to Cubs. The crossroads of our lives – turn each way for different lives, different paths. People will know where you are going, when you walk through these streets. Here, brick and tarmac, there, woods and quiet shrubs and grasses. Straight on – for play, and for learning.

The sepia stains of history lie on these streets, or at least it seems so, to the boy and to the man he became. Here, a grandfather swam in an outdoor pool. There, a street where an unsmiling lady stood in a crowd of joy and cheers, struggling to see the good in VE Day. Over there, the flats, and the outlines of vanished streets. The streets are gone, but the memories remain, thick like dust, easy to discern if you’re the right sort. Listen carefully, even today, and you can hear the treble drone of bombers, or the wretched tears of poverty, the grinding life of the urban poor.

He came back to those streets in a kind of pilgrimage, thinking somehow to reconnect with the past, with the feeling of those early days. If he could represent his childhood. all the carefree years of boyhood, as an icon, that icon would be a little image of the mill at the bottom of the street. He walked past that mill every day for years uncounted, it seemed to him when he was young. Endless weeks, he went past that mill, morning, afternoon, evening. And he never went inside it, in all his life.

As a young man, he’d sat with this father watching old Laurel and Hardy movies. They were amusing; there were wry smiles. But even as he watched them, he found that they were just not as funny as they had been when he was a small boy. He’d mentioned this to his father, who’d shook his head with the greybeard wisdom of ages. “The boy who rolled around laughing on the floor at these movies, no longer exists”, he said. The boy became the man, the young man became the older man.

Could these streets ignite a kind of holy nostalgia? Could they form a harbour into which a pilgrim might sail, to sojourn briefly in the past – a visit only. Not to remain. The mill was still there; the streets were still there. The crossroads by the bowling green was unchanged. The municipal lines of alternating plane trees and lime trees in the park – still there, save for a few gaps caused by storms of old.

Walking in past the park, he’d noticed that no single youngster was out playing. It was 4.30pm on a spring weekday afternoon. The roundabouts were siezed and rusted, the swings abandoned, it seemed. Where was everybody? Where were they all? He knew, really. No Marie Celeste mystery here. Just the modern world, risk averse, focussed on itself, with smartphones, tablets and unwillingness to be out of doors.

The mill was the fixed point – all the landscape was the mill. But there was no river of bodies pouring down the street to find work there. That river had dried up long ago. Here had been a future for hands of skill. No longer. That much had changed even in his own youth. What remained now, was clearly foreseeable even back then – if you could read the writing on the wall. What had been a mill making clothes, was now a university department. It was a department covering such matters as textiles and art, so there remained a tenuous connection with what had been. On the river of time, you cannot paddle upstream. That river flows only in one direction.

He walked up the street, remembering the red and blue bricks in the pavement. He recalled cycling down the street on a baking hot day, trying to keep in the shade. The baleful sunlight of reality was upon him now, beating mercilessly on his head. No golden light of evening, nor delicate pink at dawn, but scorching tropical sunshine at noon. A sunshine, as Kipling wrote, that sometimes strikes men dead.

Yet, though saddened, he knew things had to change. There is no going back. There’s no returning to those places of golden childhood. Nostalgia is a hip-flask from which we can allow ourselves no more than a discreet sip, every now and then. If we look back, we must look in thankfulness, not in nostalgia.

Treading his way up what he thought was a dried up riverbed, he noticed that there was a new river of bodies making their way to the mill, young people, people learning. people looking to the future. And reassured somewhat, he left that harbour and sailed away back home.

Green Park

Here is a young man sketching the skeletal outlines of winter trees, using a blue pencil. Here is an older man, quietly reading a book. Here is an arrogant ass, sprawled on a park bench, with an expression like a King, as if he somehow owned the whole park. Groups of ladies run up and down. A helicopter buzzes somewhere up above – this is SW1.

A little yellow-breasted bird swoops down and lands two feet away from a Smartie, abandoned on the path. It hops smartly forward, picks it up in its beak, and flies off with it. A lucky find! Two men go past, of Mediterranean or possibly near Eastern origin, sharing the same bicycle.

A blonde lady of unknowable age, but svelte and curved in Lycra, is performing somewhat distracting (to me, anyway) stretching exercises on a nearby fallen tree, pressed in to service as a park bench.

Passing the Grand Sheraton on Picadilly, I spy a single open window amongst dozens, set against the sunlit white Portland Stone.

The Glenavon Hotel, Tomintoul

My third burger in a row is long gone.  This one was average, though the chips were splendid.  I’m halfway down a bottle of “Trade Winds”, that fine ale from Cairngorm Brewery which has brought me such pleasure the last two nights.  I didn’t know they had it – I had a false start of a pint of some form of horse-piss from Tennants, thinking it was all they had.

It is Halloween Rock Night. Eighties rock music at about 7 or 8 out of 10 on the volume scale – Guns n Roses, later Whitesnake, that kind of thing.  Even a little Bon Jovi.  The locals are in Halloween costume.  The bar is brown; all pine woodwork the colour of a sauna.  It may have been cleaned since smoking indoors was banned, but I couldn’t swear to it.

Here is a corner, like someone’s living room, with a flat-screen TV, a fireplace with a lit and nicely crackling fire, and the skull of a deer on the wall. Sofas are drawn up around the fire.  The rest of the bar is a tad linoleum rough – my kind of place – and the music only adds to the atmosphere.

Some ladies dressed as nuns have just walked in.  The eighties MTV rock has been replaced by Queen’s “Fat bottomed girls” at high volume as a band starts to set up.  As Paul Hogan said in the Fosters’ advert, “looks like it’s going to be a good night”.

Later, out into the night air to once again appreciate the holy silence. Nearly full moon and it is very cold tonight at this highest village in Scotland.  Me and Tomintoul go back a long way.  I first came here in 1996, stopping for tea after crossing Lecht for the first time, on the way to visit my sister on the West coast.  Now, as then, I was in Aberdeen at my employer’s expense and took time off for a short break.

I am drawn to Tomintoul, though as a work colleague from Aberdeen notes, somewhat unkindly, “there’s nothing there”.  It does not matter.  This place is woven into the fabric of times of leisure in my life this last twenty years, that have meant much to me.

 

The Sparrow, by Maria Dona Russell

Maria Dona Russell’s “The Sparrow” – a good and readable Sci-fi story. That is praise enough, in the end, in a world where readability and good English seem to matter less and less.

I write that, but I’ve just finished Stephen King’s classic novel “The Stand”. Stephen King is an icon amongst wannabee writers. In all of “The Stand”there are perhaps two or three adverbs. 28 pages into “The Sparrow” and one of the characters is doing something”expressively”. Hmm.

Whilst ostensibly writing sci-fi, she has used sci-fi memes to enable a discussion of such eternal matters as celibacy, pride, marriage, and relationship. Her Jesuits seem believable to me, though her space vehicles and her aliens are perhaps less convincing, and beg more questions than they answer. It’s an interesting point; after all, what is fiction for but to stimulate the discussion of ideas?

Her Puerto Rican priest Fr. Sandoz is the central towering figure; gaunt, hugely capable, prideful, strong. Yet he is utterly destroyed, ruined, by his appalling experiences on the alien world. It was his pride and strength that helped destroy him. He is healed and restored to wholeness in the end, not by the working of grace, nor even by human compassion, but by robust and stern treatment from his superiors at the Society of Jesus. This I find unconvincing – but I believe in grace.

Alpha Centauri is one of the very nearest stars to Earth. That humankind should receive radio signals from intelligent lifeforms from somewhere as relatively close as that, implies that the universe must simply teem with intelligent life around almost every star (in keeping with the ideas of older writers like Poul Anderson or even more modern authors like Stephen Baxter.) But she has not taken this idea forward.

The relativity and ballistics seem fine at first glance. Her space vehicle gets to Alpha Centauri in about 18 years (as seen from Earth) but time dilation makes the journey time about a year as seen from on board. The engines of her space vehicles remain as undescribed as those of Iain M Banks, and are even less convincing thereby. To accelerate at 1G up to light speed, and then decelerate again, as one must to reach Alpha Centauri in less than decades, implies quite remarkable fuel consumption. There are some interesting gaps in her engineering, but in the end her book is not about engines and aliens, but about people and human relationships. An astonishing work and I’m glad I found it.

“The ordinary British sentence – which is a noble thing”

I have encountered a rather strange thing in some work I am reviewing. It is deeply displeasing and demotivating to me to see it. But more of that particular strange thing in a moment.

If one is involved in a car crash, then one’s car will be damaged. It will be taken to the garage, and they will effect repairs. They will send the bill either to you or possibly to the insurance company. But if the car is very badly damaged, then the garage or the insurance company may deem that the cost of repairs actually exceeds the value of the car itself. In such cases it is common to say that the car has been “written off”. We use the term “written off”, therefore, to describe something that is damaged beyond economic repair.

An important part of my job is reviewing and revising the writing of others.  In this task, I may encounter sentences that are damaged, or more likely, badly constructed from the start. I may come across concepts that are difficult to understand, and I sometimes read phrases that are simply incomprehensible. Just as garage mechanics repair cars, I repair sentences. But just occasionally, I come across sentences that are so convoluted, so twisted and arcane, that repair is just not possible. We might fairly say of such sentences that like badly damaged cars, they are “written off”; they are beyond economic repair.

The problem is that in revising such sentences you have to understand completely the mind of the author; you need a thorough comprehension of what he or she was trying to say – so that you can then construct an easy-to-understand and comprehensible sentence for the reader.

That is the heart and soul of my job. It is not easy and it is fair to say that it has brought me to my knees, at least metaphorically, on a number of occasions.

The strange thing that I encountered? It is a number of sentences of Pauline intensity and length. (The Apostle Paul is known amongst students of the Bible for having using long and complicated sentences; it is something the student of St Paul’s letters must ever be on the lookout for.)

As writers, what is the longest sentence that we might deliver? I have looked through this short piece and shortened a number of sentences to less than 30 words. I am not wanting to see sentences of 71 words. I am most dismayed at having to read a sentence of 87 words. That saps my strength – for I believe strongly that it is the writer, and not the reader, who should be doing the hard work.