Thursday, 1 November 2007

Exit Music by Ian Rankin

DI John Rebus is beside the hospital bed of his nemesis, Big Ger Cafferty. The gangster who has dogged Rebus throughout his career is in a coma, but Rebus is not offering sympathy: “Wake up you old bastard…Playtime’s over…No point you hiding there inside that thick skull of yours. I’m waiting for you out here.”

No one else is concerned for the invalid and, Rebus reflects: “Cafferty had no friends. His wife was dead, his son murdered years back. His trusted lieutenant of long standing had ‘disappeared’ after a falling-out.”

But then, what does Rebus have? Divorced, daughter disabled in an attack that was probably an act of revenge against her father, the one promising relationship that threaded through earlier books extinguished by his career. At least he still has his trusted lieutenant, DS Siobhan Clarke.

Exit Music - the eighteenth in Ian Rankin’s wonderful series about the hard-drinking, Seventies-music loving, authority-hating Edinburgh detective - covers the last 10 days before Rebus’s retirement. He wants to tie up loose ends; finally nailing Cafferty being chief among them.

Once again, Rankin threads big themes through the novel: this time weaving the arrival of dubious Russian billionaires in an Edinburgh whose political and business establishment welcomes them, with a crime that appears to echo the murder through radioactive poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko.

Events lead Rebus on a trail in which the overworld and the underworld intertwine. Cafferty seems to have gone legit and is cooking up deals with the visitors, as is Edinburgh’s (fictional) leading bank; an institution with the income of a small country led by men with the morals of the mafia. Rebus reaches the conclusion that “it wasn’t so much the underworld you had to fear as the overworld.”

As ever, it is Rebus who provides the focus for the book. Through his eyes, “banking and brothels, virtue and vitriol”, everything in Edinburgh is connected. Right and wrong, good and evil, are merely two sides to the same coin.

As the days tick by to his retirement he is left facing the void. As he says to a “Bible-thumping” new recruit: “Years back, I tried a few different churches. Didn’t find any answers.”

Yet, he sees himself as a confessor. “This old priest he had known…had said that cops were like the priesthood, the world their confessional.”

And, as he prepares to pass over into the living death of retirement, he tells Siobhan all his sins against the police rule book: “hoping for absolution”.

But, before he goes, can he take Cafferty down? Not “unless God really was up there, handing Rebus his last slim chance…”

At the very end, Rankin allows us to believe that the answer to that question is yes.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

The Rain Before it Falls by Jonathan Coe

Rosamond is dead. Imogen is missing. Those who remain have been entrusted with delivering a message, recorded on four C90 cassette tapes, from the dead woman to the beloved granddaughter of Beatrix, her childhood friend.

When all efforts to find Imogen fail, the family listen to the tapes, and experience what Jonathan Coe describes as: “The gradual unveiling of their family’s occult, unsuspecting history.”

In The Rain Before It falls, Coe has reinvented the weighty three-generation novel for the 21st century by giving his narrator 20 photographs to describe. It’s a simple, effective device; presenting the ups and mainly downs of a family in bite-size chunks. It allows a narrative without longueures, made up solely of vivid vignettes.

The device has an internal logic because Imogen is blind and Rosamond wants to leave her the gift the sighted have, of using photos to evoke a moment in a distant day, or to give form to a grandmother unseen for decades. So she talks, as if direct to camera, rather like one of the posher of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads: more Anna Massey than Thora Hird.

The pictures are triggers from which ripples of memory awaken wider recollections: evoking the small but searing childhood hurts that are never forgotten.

An early picture is of Beatrix by an icy pond with Bonaparte, her mother’s dog. Immediately after the picture was taken, the dog ran away, never to be seen again. For Rosamond, the photo captures Beatrix in “all her despair, all her terrible sense of loss, all her horror at the thought of what awaited her when we returned to the house and told her mother the news.”

As with all the pictures Rosamond describes, it is the gateway to a fundamental truth. Here it is that Beatrix’s mother does not love her.

A later picture reveals that, in turn, Beatrix has no love for her own daughter, Thea. The photo is of Beatrix’s kitchen, a kitchen in which, Rosamond recalls, she never cooked and where the jars marked Flour and Bread are poignant because the labels “are references to what they should have contained, not what was actually in them”: just as this house was not a loving home for the girl born into it.

And Thea, in her turn, has no love for Imogen. Rosamond recalls her, showing devotion to her indifferent husband, “even…when you…were the one lying on your back in your cot and screaming for attention.”

The Rain Before it Falls is very different to the graphic tales of familial abuse that are all the vogue yet, in capturing the everyday pain of the unloved, it is far more powerful, and effective.

Friday, 17 August 2007

Engleby by Sebastian Faulks

Michael Engleby is an unsettling companion. Few would willingly keep his company. Yet here, where he is our narrator, we must.

People are a puzzle for Engleby: fluid beings who change distressingly. Relationships and conversation are largely beyond him. Others, even his mother, are shadows. We can’t be sure whether he is merely socially inept or more deeply disturbed. There are the unexplained blue 10 milligram pills he takes each evening, and the unnatural gaps in his memory; what he calls the “holes in the fabric.”

For much of the novel we can’t know about those holes, because they remain blanks to Engleby, but the fabric is disturbing enough.

He is abused by his father, who dies of cancer when Engleby is 11. He wins a scholarship to a Dotheboys Hall of a school where cruelty and criminality are bred into him. He is systematically bullied, forced to sleep in sodden sheets, and repeatedly held under the water in a freezing bath in situations where most would fear for their lives. But Engleby seems impassive, saying: “In the end that’s how everything that happens to you feels: it feels like nothing at all, really.”

He extracts his revenge on the rugby field: “sometimes there was blood on my laces,” and finally becomes an abuser himself. He establishes a network to distribute the cigarettes and alcohol he expertly shoplifts.

At Cambridge there is a girl - Jennifer - one of three friends who he admires because “these girls are better adapted than we are. They have balance; they have a flair for living.” He convinces himself – against all the evidence - that she is his girlfriend, and steals her diary so he can feel a part of her life.

And then Jennifer disappears. Into a hole in the fabric.

There is a police hunt, a Crimewatch re-enactment, and interrogation for Engleby among others, but the case is unsolved.

Engleby graduates and stumbles into journalism, that perfect refuge for the misfit and the chancer. Journalism suits Engleby because “people are more or less compelled to talk to you. This can be helpful if you don’t have that many close friends.”

[opt cut this par] He interviews Jeffrey Archer and they form some sort of friendship: “Although he appears to be off his trolley, he’s apparently very highly regarded in the Conservative Party. They keep offering him important positions.” (There are constant flashes of such humour though the novel: a counterpoint to the disturbing narrative.) [end opt cut]

But, while the past may be buried, it isn’t dead. The holes in the fabric close up and we are drawn into the disturbing heart of the mystery of Engleby: the mystery, as his mother describes it, of the little boy who “had died, or got lost somewhere on the way.”

Engleby is a leap forward from Human Traces, Faulks’s 2005 account of two pioneers of psychiatry. It is as if the former were research for the latter, where psychiatry informs the narrative but does not dominate it. Where Human Traces can best be described as ambitious, Engleby is accomplished.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

It is 1962 and sex, as Philip Larkin put it, would not be invented for another year. A little late for him, and for Edward and Florence.

It is their wedding night. The ceremony has passed off well and they are now in a hotel on Chesil Beach in Dorset. They are about to step into the adulthood that married life bestows, to launch themselves, “to love and set each other free.”

But. With McEwan there has to be a but, and it’s a big one. They are almost strangers, and they approach the act of love with fear and trepidation. The anticipation is almost unbearable – for them and for us - as, throughout almost all this short novel, they edge painfully, tremulously towards consummation.

As ever, McEwan’s meticulous observation, the care and skill with which he draws his characters, their interaction, their surroundings and the minutiae of events, is mesmerising.

As two youths in dinner jackets serve a lumpen meal in the honeymoon suite, we feel Florence and Edward’s inhibition and embarrassment. When the boys finally leave there is nothing to stop them abandoning the cooling beef and congealing gravy and running off along the beach. But they don’t. They are trapped: bound by convention, tormented by expectation. They cannot leave the meal because it would be childish: “And being childlike was not yet honourable, or in fashion.”

The more McEwan tells us about them, the more conscious we are that things could go horribly wrong on this night.

She in a gifted musician from an Oxford academic family. He is a countryman, a physical being. Sex is what he most wants and she most dreads. But he feels as much terror as she as they at last confront “that awesome experience that seemed as remote from daily life as a vision of religious ecstasy, or even death itself.”

As they approach the final act of love it is as exasperating as watching Tim Henman stumbling through Wimbledon. And, rather as Tim’s supporters anxiously cry “Come on Tim” when things look shaky, you almost feel like murmuring your encouragement to this couple: “Come on Edward. Come on Florence”

It takes them 20 pages from Florence at last feeling the first stirrings of desire to the final set. For much of that time we dare to hope that all will be well. But, in the final moment: disaster. “Ohh….. Edward.”

One of McEwan’s trademarks is the unsaid word that changes lives. And we get that here. This failure has to be more than a hiccup on the road to marriage for there to be a point to the book. Without giving too much away, the repercussions are truly calamitous.

But are they believable? No. Yet, without Florence and Edward’s extraordinary reactions to a not uncommon setback, McEwan’s subject matter would justify a short story, not a short novel

Margrave of the Marshes by John Peel and Sheila Ravenscroft

At John Peel’s death it was clear that we were witnessing the passing of a National Treasure. There were tributes on radio and television, in print and on record.

But why, exactly, did Peel achieve this status when countless other broadcasters, however distinguished, do not?

On paper, his claims to fame; playing records on Radio 1 for 37 years, and hosting a gentle Saturday morning Radio 4 show called Home Truths, are not that formidable.

Which means, of course, that Peel was more than what he did. It was who he was, and what he stood for, that won him a unique place in our affections.

A year on from his death at the age of 65, we have Margrave of the Marshes; which Peel began and his wife, Sheila, completed after his passing. With his four children contributing the foreword, this is very much a family record.

What shines through is that Peel was A Good Man, and a true one. In an age of plastic celebrity he was the genuine article; ever true to himself, his instincts, his passions, and most of all to his audience.

He believed that the bland diet churned out by most of Radio 1 - and all the commercial stations - was stunting the audience. Because their expectations were so diminished, he wrote: “the guys and gals want fish fingers, Tony Blackburn and television serials about, if possible, lavatory assistants whose wives have monstrous breasts.”

Peel laboured mightily to widen horizons; listening to an average of 400 demo tapes a week, so that his day was spent in his music room at his Suffolk home, the door open so he did not feel cut off from the family.

He treated bands who excited him like children; funding them, housing them, nurturing them. He took Hendrix and Bowie under his wing in the Sixties, and many others down the decades. [Some took advantage of his generosity. At one point his agent had to cut off John’s access to his own bank account for fear he would empty it helping needy musicians. ]

Home truths, Sheila tells us, was no less an accurate reflection of John than his Radio 1 shows. It had such a loose brief that it was really an extension of Peel; his interest in people, his compassion, his humanity.

For Peel, home was the sustaining force. He believed a holiday at his house in the countryside would have saved Elvis from himself, and Kurt Cobain from suicide.

Peel’s life was not, however, the breeze that we might assume from his relaxed, avuncular persona. He may have come across as a man supremely at ease with himself, but he was not.

His childhood home was an unhappy one, with parents who argued ferociously over money. Shuffled off to boarding school from an early age, Peel suffered systematic bullying and sexual abuse culminating in homosexual rape. When his parents divorced, it was the family home that he felt most of a wrench at losing. In response to all this Peel decided to become “the boy who never cried” and he didn’t, until he met Sheila in 1968. After which, he tells us, he barely stopped.

Organised religion did nothing for him. He says he never recovered from the disappointment he felt on discovering that the rite of confirmation had not, as he had fervently believed, endow him with the ability to see through girls’ clothing. [God was no more real than Father Christmas, and he could not understand how anyone could believe He was.]

Peel’s moments of epiphany came through music. The first time he heard Elvis on the radio was “the defining moment in my life”. [Driving alone through Texas, with Elmore James’s Stranger Blues on the radio brought “the perfect conjunction of place, mood and music”.] Listening to punk-pioneers the Ramones’ first album in 1977 was “like being struck by a lightening bolt”.

[John was a painfully shy man who did not find true friendship easily - and an innocent. When he said on air just how dreadful he found the latest record of one of those he had nurtured – Marc Bolan – he could not understand why this should end the friendship. For Peel, to say any less would be to betray his audience, and he feels betrayed in turn when Bolan rejects him. ]

He was an obsessive. If he didn’t get to the top of the steps to the BBC car park in 400 paces an accident would befall him on the way home. He kept 30 years of Sheila’s shopping lists in a box.

He never felt secure in his job, partly because the management at Radio 1 often was out to get him; repeatedly chipping away at his airtime and shuffling his show further into the dead hours. But this insecurity fuelled the creative tension that staved off complacency. Few music fans can remain excited by each new trend for over 40 years, but Peel did.

Despite his demons, Peel found profound happiness. Reflecting on his lack of academic or conventional career success he writes: “There is a sort of curious success to be derived from what appears to be failure, that if you end up doing something that brings you great happiness, as I have, you have achieved this as much as the result of your perceived ‘failures’ as of your perceived ‘successes’.”

One measure of that success is how Peel is missed. Sheila writes that, once, their sons could ask John which new bands see. Now they have to look in the listings and find none of the names mean anything to them any more “I wonder,” she writes, “how many other young people feel the same way.”


Yob Nation. The Truth About Britain’s Yob Culture. Francis Gilber

Are you a yob? To help you find out, Francis Gilbert offers a handy checklist in this English Journey-style survey of the way we are, and even puts himself through the test.

Are you a victim of yobbery?
If so, it’s but a short step to practicing yobbery yourself.

Are you a perpetrator of yobbery?
Gilbert admits to occasionally putting his feet up on the opposite seat on trains.

Do you enjoy parading yourself in front of an audience?
Gilbert confesses to enjoying speaking on the radio and writing articles, but lets himself off the hook because “my primary motive was not to instil fear or embarrass other people”.

Do you actively seek out battlefields where you might vent your innate aggression?
Gilbert does not.

Finally, he asks himself whether he covertly glorified the yobbery his book seeks to condemn. “I thought about this. My intention was the very reverse of glorification: it was a desperate attempt to comprehend.”

He concludes “Phew! So I wasn’t a yob.”

The vast majority of his readers will be able to do the same. And that’s the fatal flaw in this book. Seeking to prove that we are a nation of yobs - whatever our class, whether our field is politics, business, the City, entertainment, the professions or the media - Gilbert shows merely that the majority of us have suffered at the hands of a yobbish element.

Few could doubt that yobbishness is on the increase. The strength of Gilbert’s book is his brave and exhaustive trek, on which he tracks down and interviews yobs all over the country.

“Fear of being severely hurt by louts is endemic,” he says. “Most of us are too cowardly to argue. We cowering people know that it would be very unwise to protest if attacked because we might lose our life as well as our wallet and out dignity.”

But Gilbert repeatedly undermines his argument through naivety and overstatement: He says sweepingly: “Many of us feel under siege...bullied at work...emotionally blackmailed by adverts and programmes on television, lied to by our politicians and pushed around by... money men in the City [who] ruthlessly and publicly destroy their enemies.”

The Army has been yobbish “since Henry V’s British army defeated the French at the Battle of Agincourt in the 14th century.”

What Gilbert calls yobbishness, others might call healthy competition, or the desire to win that underlies many noble endeavours.

According to him, the prime minister is a yob. It was an act of yobbishness for Tony Blair to seek to enhance his role at the Queen Mother’s funeral, for example. Others might call that jockeying for position.

Gilbert’s attack on popular culture is also wide of the mark. He singles out Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard and the Mitchell brothers in EastEnders as reflecting “our pointless aggression”. Infact, Pollard is drawn as a weak, deluded figure of fun, and the bullying Mitchells as wracked with guilt at their failings as fathers.

Gilbert is sound – and mainstream - on why Yobbery is rampant. Because of a lack of effective sanctions, he says, yobs have very little fear of being challenged, and no fear of the mild punishment likely to be meted out in the unlikely event of arrest and conviction.

In the rather grandly titled Epilogue and Summation – yes, the book does read rather like Adrian Mole’s Sociology Workbook – Gilbert comes up with a must-do list that would sit easily in any of the newspapers he derides for yobbery:
we need to feel able to challenge yobbish behaviour;
we need to change our attitudes towards drugs – particularly alcohol, which should be taxed punitively;
all pupils should leave school literate, numerate and with “a trade of some sort”; and
the justice system needs to champion the rights of the victim, not the perpetrator.

Indeed, Gilbert might adapt a slogan from the prime minister he so disapproves of: tough on yobs, tough on the causes of yobs.

Room Full of Mirrors, a biography of Jimi Hendrix, by Charles R Cross

When Jimi Hendrix arrived in London in 1966 he carried just his guitar, a change of clothes, his pink plastic hair curlers and a jar of Valderma face cream for his acne.

Materially he travelled light, yet his psychological baggage was weighty.

It included a childhood of extreme poverty; a mother whose death when he was 16 haunted him throughout his life; and an alcoholic, often jobless father who beat him mercilessly.

Yet he also carried a counterweight to all this: a prodigious talent that would amaze all who came into contact with it.

In America he had been an ignored unknown who would be mistaken for a bellhop in smart hotels. In London he was feted by Eric Clapton, The Beatles and the rest of the pop aristocracy. He was embraced as a dazzling, exotic creature who blended perfectly with the Swinging Sixties scene.

Yet, in many ways, Hendrix was a desperate figure: desperate to escape the horrors of his childhood; to come to terms with the loss of his mother; to become rich and famous.
Not least, for a man starved of food, money and love, he wanted to consume. And he did, embarking on an orgy of alcohol, drugs and sex

As Charles R Cross says: “Drugs, religion and women were just a few of the many things Jimi grasped at, searching for a foundation in a life that was ever more out of control.”

Cross explores his drugs and his women in meticulous detail, yet religion is left woefully neglected in what, at 384 pages, is in many ways a thoroughly comprehensive and illuminating account of an enigmatic figure.

It is a lost opportunity.

We get only hints at Hendrix’s spiritual life; lines of enquiry are introduced only to be left tantalisingly unexplored.

On an early draft of the lyrics of Purple Haze, Cross tells us, Hendrix wrote “Jesus Saves” beneath the title. Cross comments that it was “perhaps something he was considering as a chorus”, but investigates no further.

There are other hints at a spiritual drive which is at times overtly Christian.

Hendrix called the sound he created Electric Church Music. By which he seems to have meant that the musicians were a congregation, playing in a spirit of selflessness and love which parallels prayer and comes close to worship. But worship of what god? Cross is silent.

Towards the end of his life Hendrix would often mention Christ at gigs when introducing songs. His interest in the Bible grew. We learn that, in 1969, when he was only months from death, Jimi: “kept [the Bible] open in his house, and he was reading it closely, probably for the first time in his life.” Yet he also read The Book of Urantia, “an alternative bible for UFO believers that mixed tales of Jesus with stories of alien visitations.”

Ironically, perhaps tragically, Hendrix wrote his most overtly Christian lyric on the night he died, during the early hours of September 18 1970. He had taken a probably accidental overdose of sleeping pills, vomited and choked. He was 27.

In The Story of Life he writes of Jesus, the crucifixion, heaven...and flying saucers. “At the moment that we die” one line reads, “all we know is God is by our side.” It was the last song he wrote.

It is clear from Cross’s book that money, fame, drugs and women were not going to bring Jimi Hendrix fulfilment. What is left frustratingly blank is whether Hendrix believed God might fill the void in his life.

Published by Sceptre, £18.99 384pp