Tag Archives: Ian Fleming

The Summing Up by W. Somerset Maugham

the summing upWe love to read writers when they write about writing. Whether it is George Orwell’s Why I Write, Stephen King On Writing, or Scarlett Thomas’s Monkeys with Typewriters, there is an enduring need to peep behind the curtain. These blends of memoir and ‘how to’ guide fascinate us either because we want to see how our favourite stories were created, or if we are trying to follow their path we are keen to see if the authors have pointed out any shortcuts. Therefore the thoughts of W. Somerset Maugham – prolific novelist, travel writer and playwright – cannot fail to be instructive.

He writes authoritatively about his own work, covering the process, his aims and its reception by readers and critics. He is also knowledgable about the classics as well as contemporaries such as Colette, but is unafraid to turn his wry glance towards those who favour literary pretensions and his own place in the history of literature. As a dramatist he is master of the concise yet withering put-down (a technique he apparently honed against school bullies):

There is no more merit in having read a thousand books than in having ploughed a thousand fields,

before turning his gaze to the wider world of philosophical and religious theory, so that the book moves from memoir and writing guide to consider the eternal topic of how best to live.

For all his apparent candour, Mr Maugham does gloss over one area: that of his own personal life. Although he talks of love and beauty it is in such general terms that the reader may be forgiven for thinking he died (in his 90s) as a confirmed bachelor. He is at times dismissive of love and his behaviour while under its influence. It is only by checking other sources that his firm adherence to his own words becomes clear:

I demanded freedom for myself and I was prepared to give freedom to others.

Yet the nature of this freedom is only briefly alluded to in a passage concerning his travel writing:

I am shy of making acquaintance with strangers, but I was fortunate enough to have on my journeys a companion who had such an inestimable social gift. He had an amiability of disposition that enabled him in a very short time to make friends with people in ships, clubs, bar-rooms, and hotels, so that through him I was able to get into easy contact with an immense number of persons whom otherwise I should have known only from a distance.

This is a very subtle and low-key tribute to the man who shared his life for 30 years – a relationship which survived and outlasted Maugham’s marriage. Yet, given the legal status of such relationships at the time he was writing, it is undoubtably a sensible one.

No doubt this gift for remaining just outside the spotlights also served Maugham well during his brief intelligence career. Operating in Switzerland and Russia, the man who wrote:

Some of us are so made that there is nothing else we can do… we write because we must

couldn’t resist turning his experiences into stories, crafting a series of adventures for a gentlemanly spy by the name of Ashenden. Ian Fleming, a friend and admirer of Maugham’s, seems to have been inspired by these tales. Enough that in Quantum of Solace – which lent its name if not its plot to the second Daniel Craig Bond film – Fleming has his agent share Ashenden’s disillusionment with the supposedly glamorous life of the fictional spy.

If there is a negative point to this book, it is that so many other interesting works are discussed so engagingly that my ‘to read’ list has seen a large number of new additions. Although he would live a good many years after its publication, there is an air of a man settling his accounts and looking back on a career that has given him much pleasure. The book is enjoyable and illuminating, a fitting testament to a wide-ranging man of letters.

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From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming

If you have just joined us, the mortal bath and ten minutes hate are respectively re-reading and discovering Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels in chronological order (sort of).

from russia with love coronet book cover

Famous opening lines of novels often get bandied about in lists, but it wasn’t until I read From Russia With Love for the first time that I saw one that seems to have been overlooked among all the truths being universally acknowledged and weighing up of best and worst of times.

The naked man who lay splayed out on his face beside the swimming pool might have been dead.

Having thus garnered your attention, Ian Fleming doesn’t let it wander too far for the next 200 or so pages.  We soon learn that the body might have been, but sadly isn’t, for this formidable not-dead unclothed man is the distinctly non-Russian-sounding Donovan Grant, Chief Executioner of SMERSH, ‘the Soviet organ of vengeance: of interrogation, torture and death’. A few, more detailed, yet taut chapters and we are apprised of the formidable team which that organisation has set against our man Bond. Chess master Kronsteen, the wolf-like cunning of Rosa Klebb and Grant himself, an animalistic turncoat driven to slaughter by the full moon. Not only to kill him, but to tear down his reputation and that of his Service. The trap will be sprung in Istanbul (Fleming having visited the city in 1955 on assignment for The Sunday Times). Bait is in the form of a defecting spy, the young-Greta Garbo-esque Tatiana Romanova and, almost as an afterthought, a Soviet cryptography machine.

The Bond of this book – who doesn’t even appear until Chapter 11 – is a long way from the lithe instrument of Casino Royale. Admitting that he lacks sharpness after a summer cooped up in London, when back in the saddle he misses signs, disregards warnings, misjudges character and places friends, as well as himself, in harm’s way unnecessarily. The intricacy and eccentricity of SMERSH’s plot has been designed by Kronsteen to catch M’s attention, tempt James into danger and leave his body and reputation destroyed, but there is a sense throughout of Fleming poking fun at his creation. He doesn’t hesitate to use Bond’s own proclivities against him, not just the beautiful girl, but the need to ‘be a sport’, ‘see the game through’ and gamble recklessly. Without the protection of Istanbul’s station head and all-round force of nature, Darko Kerim, one suspects that England’s finest wouldn’t have made it out of the airport alive.

Readers drawn towards the softer side of Bond, especially as displayed in previous jaunt Diamonds Are Forever, may feel warmed by the renowned international playboy beginning this follow-up mooning over ex-paramour Tiffany Case:

He missed her badly and his mind still sheered away from the thought of her.

But our protagonist is still operating in less enlightened times. M’s horror at the silliness of women who fall in love with a man’s picture gives way to chuckles over Bond’s Turkish wingman’s chaining of a naked girl to his kitchen table, before Tatiana demands that James beat her if she gets too fat for lovemaking post-defection. What fans of the film may recall as a titillating brawl between two Gypsy women is here much more brutal, although the participants do manage to rip the other’s clothes off at an early stage of the proceedings.

That said, Mr Bond is not quite the unrepentant caveman. There is a definite prominence accorded to the women that hold the fragile Bond together. From housekeeper May as adept with a boiled egg as she is at seeing off Communist agents, to the eternally chaste yet ‘most darling’ Lil Ponsonby, as well as Tatiana herself, who doesn’t let her all-conquering beauty hold her back from offering a warning about the assumed name of the man Bond takes for a fellow agent. The shame is his for how easily it is dismissed. And for all his air of ‘hey, sometimes these decorative non-men can be quite useful’, Fleming can’t take much joy in the slyness of Rosa Klebb. Scheming her way to Head of the Operations Department of the famed, feared, SMERSH and succeeding – where many men have tried and failed – in landing a poisoned blow on Bond, she lets the side down badly in one crucial area:

…the bulge of uniform that rested on the table-top looked like a badly packed sandbag, and in general her figure, with its big pear-shaped hips, could only be likened to a ‘cello.

Growing weary of his secret agent, Fleming had left the ending ambiguous enough for this to be the final Bond if he chose. Perhaps it would have been too much for him to have his man killed off by a hottie.

Despite the certainty of all involved with Her Majesty’s Secret Service that the operation is a trap, its nature and intended denouement remains obscured. Were it not for the executioner’s need, later to become a Bond film cliché, to spill the entire detail of the plot before making use of a weapon, our hero would have died at Grant’s hand none the wiser.

Old man, the story’s got everything. Orient Express. Beautiful Russian spy murdered in Simplon tunnel. Filthy pictures. Secret cipher machine. Handsome British spy with career ruined murders her and commits suicide… what a poke in the eye for the famous Intelligence Service! Their best man, the famous James Bond. What a shambles… What’s the public going to think? And the Government? And the Americans? Talk about security! No more atom secrets from the Yanks.

In the established narrative of post-War spy fiction, Ian Fleming is the hack, writing pulpy genre fiction that doesn’t stint on the girls, guns and gadgets and which pits our brave goodies against clearly distinguishable baddies. Set against him is the literary gent John le Carré, eschewing the clichés of the genre for subtly drawn commentary via characters that dwell in the grey areas. And while Donovan Grant’s crowing at Bond is what the mortal bath calls ‘typically Flemingian showing-off’, with it the author demonstrates that he knows exactly what Bond is and what he and his organisation’s place will be as the cynicism of the Cold War obliterates the idealism of World War II. From Russia With Love is a tight thriller, with no reduction in pace from earlier books. If you were to read just one Bond, I would advise that this be it. John F. Kennedy would no doubt agree. Not least because, for all the perceived glamour of Bond, there is far more overlap with the grey world of the George Smileys than that established narrative would allow for.

*

For a moment he thought nostalgically and unreasonably of the excitement and turmoil of the hot war, compared with his own underground skirmishings since the war had turned cold.

From Russia With Love (1957)

Connie Sachs:     It was a good time back then.
George Smiley:     It was a war, Connie.
Connie Sachs:    A war we could be proud of.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
(from the screenplay filmed in 2012, based on the 1974 book)

It may seem perverse that, when for so many it was impossible to enjoy much of World War II, for a certain type and class of Englishman or woman those six years could be looked back on as a kind of peak.

verywellalone1

The famous David Low cartoon captioned, ‘Very Well, Alone!’, Churchill photographed wielding a Tommy gun, evenings dancing at The Ritz or Savoy as the bombs fell and sirens wailed. When compared to the Weltschmertz of the Cold War and the lost Empire, for some, the War years were an epoch to be quietly mourned.

churchill-met-tommy-gun

Fleming would later say of his wartime intelligence work that:

I could not have had a more interesting time.

Via Bond, he at least notes the unreasonableness of such nostalgia.

At the heart of From Russia With Love is a sleight-of-hand trick, but not the one perpetrated on Bond by SMERSH in revenge for his antics at Royale. It is the one created by Ian Fleming to show an outgunned and under-resourced Mi6 continuing to punch its weight on the world stage. On the page the chaps of the Service will vanquish the foe, when in reality that organisation was chasing its tail as The Cambridge Five affair unfolded. Typical establishment-pillar types, they had sold out their country and its allies to the Soviets, not for money, but due to unseemly ideological convictions. In contrast to the intellectuals and homosexuals (both equally suspicious characteristics to many English people of the time) of the Cambridge Five’s set, fiction gives us the serially heterosexual man-of-action, Bond, and the regularly cuckolded, anonymous Smiley.

Smiley is often called ‘the anti-Bond’, maybe because the coffee in his world is disgusting and the cigarettes are hand-rolled from a tin. Perhaps because le Carré made oft-quoted comments disparaging 007 as an ‘international gangster’ and ‘neo-fascistic’. While this may have been as a result of goading from Malcolm Muggeridge, on closer reading this opposite stance becomes nothing more than lazy sloganeering from reviewers seeking to manufacture a conflict. Neither Bond nor Smiley would be out-of-place in the other’s world, but it is doubtful that Bond would feel entirely at home in the scholarly Circus corridors, where:

…the inspired amateurism of a handful of highly qualified, under-paid men had given way to the efficiency, bureaucracy and intrigue of a large Government department.

Call for the Dead (1961)

Instead Bond would be a ‘headhunter’ in le Carré’s vernacular, kept far away from M or Control and the real policy decisions. A bagman, tasked with the gritty, unacknowledgeable jobs. Ricki Tarr of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, flirting with danger and trying to get away with the girl, is perhaps closer to Bond than the toad-like George. The hand dealt to Alec Leamas of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold provides a portend of Bond’s reduced future options. By his own admission, Bond is out of step with the ‘retired officers of the Indian Army’ that make up his colleagues, unsuited to the deft parry of the Cold War, lamenting the policy shift from stick to

carrots for all… At home and abroad. We don’t show teeth any more – only gums.

Condemnation from literary taste makers began before Fleming’s death and focussed on a perceived sadism, the enjoyment of violence for its own sake. Yet after a fight at close quarters Bond takes time to lament that there has been

too much blood splashing about

and later muses that he

had never killed in cold blood, and he hadn’t liked watching, and helping, someone else do it.

Blunt instrument he may be, but Bond is not without his own moral compass, however far off true north many of us would consider that it points. And though he is supposed to favour gentler methods, Smiley doesn’t prepare for an operation without thinking that he

had a gun somewhere, and for a moment he thought of looking for it. Then, somehow, it seemed pointless. Besides, he reflected grimly, there’d be the most frightful row if he used it.

(Call for the Dead)

Bereft of signature weaponry, Smiley has to utilise the cold currents of the River Thames to off an enemy, who was once a friend. Where the lines were once clearly marked, now no one can be sure where the loyalties of colleagues – or lovers, or spouses – really lie. Darko tells Bond that there is only one way to tell if Tatiana is being duplicitous but even after sleeping with her James remains unsure. Questioning constantly, yet Bond is happy to hand over his loaded gun to someone who talks the talk of the Service, despite his horror at that fellow’s use of ‘old man’ and Windsor knot. In a world of fictional Grants and real-life Philbys and MacLeans, where blending into the background is the key to survival, Bond is perilously visible. The inch-thick file at SMERSH, complete with photographs, would soon see him – like Smiley – pulled out of the field and desk-bound.

And after so many years, in contemplating this latest mission, even loyal servants are not without the occasional wobble:

…what would that youth think of him, the secret agent, the older James Bond? Would he recognise himself beneath the surface of this man who was tarnished with years of treachery and ruthlessness and fear…? What would he think of the dashing secret agent who was off across the world in a new and most romantic role – to pimp for England?

It’s a far cry from the days of The Great Game, as Smiley would probably agree:

Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves… He saw with painful clarity an ambitious man born to the big canvas, brought up to rule, divide and conquer, whose visions and vanities were all fixed… upon the world’s game; for whom the reality was a poor island with scarcely a voice that would carry across the water.

(Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy)

Perhaps we get the secret agents we deserve. Bond of the books providing a tonic in the post-War bleakness, while by the time of the films London was beginning to swing again, although that was more a case of clever PR than fact of life outside of a select few post codes. It is fun to note that Bond and Smiley are both Chelsea-dwellers, back before SW4 was a fashionable address. Instead it was a sort of proto-Hackney, with reasonable rents and leafy squares amid the half-cleared bomb sites. Home is only somewhere to lay one’s hat, when the pull of foreign shores is a constant itch:

…while he ate, [Bond] gazed down at the cool mirror of the Lake of Geneva. As the pine forests began to climb towards the snow patches between the beautifully scoured teeth of the Alps, he remembered early skiing holidays.

Soon the lights of the French coast came in sight. As he watched, he began to sense vicariously the static life beneath him; the rank smell of Gauloises Bleues, garlic and good food, the raised voices in the bistro.

(Call for the Dead)

For both Fleming and le Carré, life is elsewhere, a decade and change before the Pistols will decry the ‘no future in England’s dreaming’, the narcolepsy is already pulling down the eyelids. The reality of that solo stance against Nazism: only possible due to the financial muscle of the Americans and with total victory unable to hold the Empire together, was a bitter pill forced down by the British Establishment through successive crises of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Facing life as a junior partner of the CIA, in a more subservient position than when they chummily helped him out at Royale, one might surmise that Bond would prefer a quick death at the hands – or foot – of Rosa Klebb while Smiley would choose to end his days in a dusty German library.

Bond’s reading en route to Istanbul is The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler, who himself knew something of the power of the spy novel:

Thrillers are respectable now. Back in the beginning, people weren’t quite that sure about them, but they really say more about the way people think and governments behave than many of the conventional novels. A hundred years from now, if they last, these books may offer some clues to what was going on in our world.

It is interesting to wonder what we would feel about Bond if From Russia With Love had been the last one in the series, as Fleming considered. By the time the Berlin Wall went up Fleming – like M, Control, Smiley and Bond himself – was a relic and from here, Bond’s villains and escapades move further away from the uncomfortable truths of the Cold War. Both writers know that our secret agent fantasies are ludicrous, less casinos and models than drab suburbs and shop girls. So one gives them to us anyway, amplified, while the other downplays them, revealing major themes through everyday banalities. Rather than setting them in opposition, each depiction of the secret warriors should be seen to compliment the other, as essential records of SIS’s journey from Enigma via double agents to NSA intercepts.

James Bond will return… as our review series reaches Dr No… SOON!

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Read, Think, Grow

With tales of a worldwide trek that ended in Liverpool, let John Maguire take you on a shortcut to literary treasure, in the latest of our series on favourite bookstores.

LIVERPOOL PRESENT DAY

Winter sun splashes off the wet cobblestones of the courtyard. There appears to be a brief respite from the almost biblical rains that have attempted to sink the United Kingdom. The rays of light ricochet haphazardly and illuminate the majestic piece of architecture ahead of me: The Bluecoat, a Grade 1 listed building and the oldest in the centre of Liverpool.

bluecoat modern

Originally a school founded by Reverend Robert Styth, Rector of Liverpool, and sea-captain Bryan Blundell in 1777, the building became an Arts School in 1907 and has been recognised as an international creative hub ever since.

bluecoat

Yoko Ono notably appeared in 1967 and other cultural dignitaries have visited, including the late Doris Lessing and Michael Nyman.

yoko

BACK STORY/FLASHBACK TO TWENTY YEARS AGO

It was to The Bluecoat that I used to venture on a Saturday afternoon, to buy books from the little stall that, sadly, is no longer there. The shop was like the Tardis, it seemed to be bigger on the inside. Here I was introduced to Hubert Selby Jr, Ibsen, Margaret Atwood, Burroughs and Bukowski. I also started a collection of Taschen Art books, drowning my eyes in Barbara Hepworth, Basquiat and Geiger, to name but a few.

2008

Alas, after the refurbishment of the Bluecoat in 2008, I felt that the place  lost something of its charm. The interior of the ground floor was now somewhat surgical. The back yard had had a secret garden feel to it, but now looked a little too contrived. I even used to like the vagabonds who harassed you. What’s a city without a few eccentrics?

Yet the restaurant upstairs with its battered leather couches, school tables and chairs hinted at the retro Bluecoat.

CUT TO PRESENT DAY

However on this particular day in February, I was refreshingly taken aback by a new book store that appeared in the courtyard. Tripping up the steps to Kernaghan Books, I was pleasantly surprised when I opened the door. Immediately, it was like being transported to an old Club, like The Athenaeum, or one you would expect to find Phileas Fogg residing in.

kernaghan books

The proprietors – husband and wife team, Bryan and Alwyn Kernaghan – gave a friendly nod, and when prompted by a question they sprang into life. Welcoming like old friends, they answered queries, made recommendations and offered anecdotes. The learned couple serve to help you navigate your way through the sea of literature.

How exactly did this book store find its way to Liverpool?

The bookstore’s actual evolution is an epic tale in its own right, as Bryan Kernaghan told me,

A gap year in the 70s, long before the term was contrived, was never intended to lead to opening a bookstore. The offer to work as an ‘Antiquarian Bibliomite’ (old bookseller’s assistant to you and me) just seemed the most quirky of seven offers to a Belfast school-leaver in what must have been a plentiful jobs market.

Periods of travel and working abroad were further punctuated by spells in amongst many rooms of dusty but fast-moving tomes. Only after a few years’ inimitable work in the Himalayas did we come back to the UK wondering what we might do next. Rather than join at the bottom of a larger London company we were persuaded to launch in at the top of our own start-up old and rare book company.

We were invited to open a gallery/bookshop together with artist Tony Klitz and his wife in Southport. It was seen as an experiment which might last six months, possibly two years. Then (so the thinking went) we’d be off again to exotic parts. That lasted over 27 years before we eventually made it to the city of Liverpool, the business following an earlier move of home. So in short, not so much a decision – more a stumbling into it.

I asked, as I often ask book lovers, if you could go back in time and meet a deceased author, who would it be and why?

Not far back in time. Seamus Heaney died too soon, having tried too hard for others. He spanned my adult life in the island of my birth through times of flux. He was a consistent, perceptive and sensitive observer on a global scale, viewing through the intimate soil of Ireland. His Beowulf is stunning. A day’s walk with him on the north coast of Ireland would be epic.

With the monumental increase in fresh technologies such as Kindle, e-books and the like, I wondered how he could foresee the future of the common bookstore and the book industry?

Pared back hopefully from the massive over-production of the last four decades. e-formats hopefully will cause publishers to focus on the real virtues and values of a printed book, incorporating creative elements which genuinely please the new, emerging tactile market.

To be completely honest, I personally would struggle to hand over some of the literary treats in this bookstore. I wondered if there had been a book that had been difficult to part with.

Joyce; Ulysses – 1st edition, Shakespeare and Co, Paris 1922. We had it briefly as part of a Joyce collection which ended up in the right place just before the Joyce market went stratospheric. Would like to have it in my hand now – an unwieldy flimsy paperback, but sheer genius with a turbulent publication back story.

Another copy of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale 1st edition would be nice to see come in. We bought one from a customer who’d found it for 25 pence. He went for a holiday of a lifetime on the proceeds!

I urge book lovers to discover this rainforest of the written world. An oasis of calm in the cosmopolitan city of Liverpool. And the mantra to chant at this temple of Literature is read.think.grow

What I bought:

13 x leather-bound Charles Dickens’ Collected Works

1 x vintage pulp edition of Mildred Pierce by James M Cain

mildred pierce

1 x vintage edition of Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas.

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The Vatican of Battered Books

Our favourite book stores series reaches ‘the Venice of the North’ as John Maguire finds treasure gleaming under the grey Mancunian skies…

Window designs for high street stores are generally clinically prescribed to the last detail. The retail Stepford mantra being retail is detail, retail is detail.

During my time managing a book store in the smog that is London (a chain that later went bankrupt); I was constantly up against the Universality of Bland.

One example of my battles with the fat men in retail, landed me with a verbal disciplinary for my inventive window homage to The Book of Bunny Suicides: Little Fluffy Rabbits Who Just Don’t Want to Live Any More (2003),  black comedy cartoons drawn by author Andy Riley.

bunny suicidesYet, when the book sold copious amounts, funny nothing else was said. The EXEMPLARY display was used in the end of year annual presentation, as a model of best practice. Irony with a capital I!

Another time, I was forced to get rid of the CLASSICS section to be replaced by BRATZ top trumps. A sorry affair! However, my anarchic streak kicked in; the punters of the store signed a petition that, of course they had decided to set up themselves. I mean, the General Manager would never have the audacity to perform such a ‘thought crime’, to indeed rage against the machine; biting the corporate hand that fed him, now would he? Anyhow, enough back story!

So present day: when I came up to the window of PARAMOUNT BOOKS, on a charcoal grey Saturday morning in Manchester, a smile did instantaneously plaster across my face. It was I believe bordering on Heath Ledger’s Joker. The glass plastered with an Aladdin’s cave of temptations.

Vintage BOXING WEEKLY, a DR WHO surplus of literary memorabilia, European literature, Old JUDY and DANDY comics and an entire BRUCE LEE magazine collection, ‘unread’ and ‘untouched’ since publication in 1977.

paramount books

A frame of originality!  A stark contrast to the generic high street windows, trying to be bang on trend. Stepping inside the store, classical music flooded the space and the question was simple,

Where do I begin?

The other retail mantra, eye line is the buy line is not the motto here, everywhere you look there are distractions: a cellophane-clad copy of Ian Fleming’s, THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, a haphazardly stacked  pile of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, pulp horror and a scattering of books that makes up the poetry section, also to add to the charm there is a basket of fruit comprising bananas and garlic. A spell-binding cave that you could actually lose whole years, not just hours in.

I was delighted to find an autobiography by Dirk Bogarde. My appreciation for this phenomenal actor began when I caught a screening of VICTIM at Fact, Liverpool and was accentuated to another level when I saw the movie, THE NIGHT CALLER. I also didn’t mind the film adaptation of DEATH IN VENICE. I particularly loved this book, as I read it in Venice and for a fleeting moment I was momentarily back there on the Lido di Venezia.

lido

This is what PARAMOUNT BOOKS does to you, it’s like the whole experience starts the monkey mind swinging from tree to tree, re-visiting memories and thinking about the past, the now and a feel of optimism for the future.

This kind of place exudes something that can only be labelled as magic. A good friend of mine tipped me off to it and it is this type of personal recommendation that keeps little hidden treasures like this haven being re-discovered.

For those who have not yet visited, I am envious because I guarantee you will recall your first time. It is I think the Vatican of Cool.

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A year in books – J. C. Greenway

Books have gone into and out of boxes this year, with the weight restrictions of international travel making it easier to borrow and pass on instead of adding to the permanent collection. I have also had to admit that, despite my early protestations to the contrary, the eReader is a very useful machine.  That said, as last year’s list contained six ebooks while this year I downloaded five, perhaps I am not quite ready to give up on print yet.

stack-of-books

After a cracking start to the year, where at times I was whipping through a book a day (oh, the beautiful reading weather that is England in January!), reality intruded and it became almost impossible to get through one a month (ah, motherhood). And yet I seem to have finished the year only one short of last year’s total and that is without counting the almost nightly re-reads of Beatrix Potter, The Hungry Caterpillar and other joyfully rediscovered childhood favourites.

Here then is my list of books read in 2013, in chronological order, with links to reviews I wrote along the way and some further thoughts following:

  1. Good Behaviour, Molly Keane
  2. Finding George Orwell in Burma, Emma Larkin
  3. A Life in Letters: P. G. Wodehouse (ed. Sophie Ratcliffe)
  4. Stuart: A Life Backwards, Alexander Masters
  5. Instead of A Letter, Diana Athill
  6. The White Cities, Joseph Roth
  7. Ellis Island, Kate Kerrigan
  8. The Assault, Harry Mulisch
  9. Bring up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel
  10. Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg
  11. Homage to a Firing Squad, Tariq Goddard
  12. Racing Through the Dark, David Millar
  13. Ratcatcher, Tim Stevens
  14. Maus, Art Spiegelman
  15. The Diamond Smugglers, Ian Fleming
  16. That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick, Ellin Stein
  17. From Russia With Love, Ian Fleming
  18. All At Sea, Memories of Maritime Merseyside, Evelyn Draper and William David Roberts
  19. The Undercover Economist Strikes Back, Tim Harford
  20. Call For the Dead, John le Carré
  21. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, John le Carré
  22. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John le Carré
  23. Churchill’s Wizards: The British Genius for Deception 1914-1945, Nicholas Rankin

Highlights of the year were Finding George Orwell in Burma, The Assault and Homage to a Firing Squad which all told very personal stories in attempting to unravel great conflicts. In spite of all the plaudits, I found Bring up the Bodies a less enjoyable encounter with Mantel’s admittedly outstanding characters.

In non-fiction, P. G. Wodehouse’s letters were a hoot – as if you would expect anything less – and his thoughts on Mr Orwell raised a wry chuckle. David Millar’s ride on the dark side of Le Tour de France’s peloton and (full disclosure, good friend) Ellin Stein’s whip smart tale of the National Lampoon crew making it from Harvard chancers to Hollywood legends, shared a compelling sense of the shadows concealed within hubris and humour, for all their differing subject matter. Stuart: A Life Backwards will stay with me for many years to come and is a must-read, albeit a harrowing one at times.

I finished the year with a run of gripping, classy and classic spy novels, comparing and contrasting the old masters Fleming and le Carré for a soon-to-be-produced (honest!) ten minutes hate review.

Thanks to everyone who has read or offered their comments on the site over the last twelve months and a very merry New Year to you all. May it be full of great books and the long journeys, bad weather days and cosy tea rooms that allow you to fully appreciate them!

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A year in reading

It seems that ‘inspired by’ is the term to use when one is shamelessly borrowing another’s good idea. With that in mind, this post is inspired by/pinched from Sean Lotman’s wonderful post of the same name. You are encouraged to take a look at the original as well as this weak derivative.

An earlier post on ten minutes hate details my early designation as the family bookworm and the part that public libraries have played in creating my reading habits. There are times when a ‘to read’ list is put into use, but more often it is the joy of discovering something unintended that makes a trip to the library worthwhile. So it was around the time that borrowing took over from buying books that, realising that some gems would no doubt be forgotten along the way, I started making a note of titles and authors as I travelled.

Engrossed in a book, Singapore, Christmas 2010

The writer, engrossed in a book, Singapore, Christmas 2010

Looking at my list, the first failure to note is that it doesn’t come close to Mr Lotman’s staggering 42 books. Shamefully, mine is barely half that. It is interesting that in the comments to the original post, the balance between reading and writing is mentioned and it is true that, for the first half of the year at least, writing took up almost every available moment of my free time. Then there was the temptation of reading long-form journalism on my phone instead of carrying physical books on commutes and journeys. Although some of the listed books were read on a Kindle app (being too lazy to buy yet another gadget) the majority of them were paper and ink and, however much technology adds to other areas of my life, I foresee that continuing.

Another notable trend is that, while reading will always be something done primarily for pleasure, there are words here that I took a more professional interest in. Mr Lotman talks about the joy of reading, saying that often, too many readers see it:

as a way to pass the time rather than an action worthwhile for its own sake.

Usually I would be in complete agreement, however other motivations for reading have intruded this year. My list contains a few books that were of interest for research purposes, or read in draft stage and edited, or – in perhaps the biggest leap of personal development – read in order to develop a hopefully interesting and stimulating literature curriculum. Teaching classes based on loved books, having hated everything school forced me to read in English class, was at times tough, although ultimately enjoyable. Still, it is rare for a book that you feel you ought to be reading to become as much of a favourite as one you are free to delight in.

This joy of discovery shows in the publication dates of many of these titles, few are contemporary, perhaps only a couple would have been marked ‘the book of the moment’ or reviewed by a Sunday newspaper. That is due to distance: picking up books via second-hand bookshops and swapping with fellow expats tends to rule out hardbacks and new releases. Many of my list were gifts or recommendations and there is something lovely about hearing ‘I think you will enjoy this book’ from a friend before finding that to be true.

Here then is my list of books read in 2012, in chronological order, with links to reviews I wrote along the way and some further thoughts following:

  1. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  2. Let’s Start Again, ABCTales short story compilation
  3. Hana Walker’s Half-Life 2:46, Our Man in Abiko
  4. Babylon Revisited, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  5. Musings of a Monkey, Steven Baxter
  6. Hunger, Knut Hamsun
  7. The Princess Bride, William Goldman
  8. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  9. Moonraker, Ian Fleming
  10. Manituana, Wu Ming
  11. Never Come Morning, Nelson Algren
  12. In Pursuit of the English, Doris Lessing
  13. Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis
  14. 1Q84, Haruki Murakami
  15. A Severed Head, Iris Murdoch
  16. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
  17. From Russia With Love, Ian Fleming
  18. Dr No, Ian Fleming
  19. Mourning Ruby, Helen Dunmore
  20. The Mammy, Brendan O’Carroll
  21. Bon Voyage, Mr President, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  22. A View from the Chuo Line, Donald Richie
  23. The Maginot Line, Fiction Desk short story compilation
  24. Care of Wooden Floors, Will Wiles

I managed 24 books, two for each month. Four were re-reads, six were ebooks, eight were purchased by me and the rest were passed on by friends.

Impossible to choose one favourite, but the books by Doris Lessing, Wu Ming and Knut Hamsun were particularly enjoyable, for wildly different reasons. With Lessing taking her ‘pursuit’ into a post-War London suburb, the Wu Ming viewing the American Revolution from an unconventional perspective and Hamsun’s anti-hero lurching around late 19th century Kristiania (Oslo), my love of stories set outside my own time is clearly demonstrated. Despite their differing subject matter, all three were lively, gripping tales, fascinating and relevant.

Publishers will tell you that compilations of short stories never sell, however a busy year meant this format was far easier to dip into and out of than a 900-page novel. From the Fiction Desk compilation, The Maginot Line, Benjamin Johncock’s The Rocket Man was a haunting tale of a small girl grappling with an uncertain future, soundtracked by Bowie. My first reading of a Helen Dunmore novel also provoked the first negative review I have ever been bothered to write, while Haruki Murakami demonstrated more flaws than claims to greatness and Will Wiles’ first book sadly did not make me long for another from him.

Finally, it is with a sense of guilt that I note that there are five downloaded but yet to be either started or finished books lurking on my Kindle app. This is something that I hope to address very shortly, as an extended holiday break in England with typically wintry weather offers little incentive to venture outdoors. With a little luck, 2013’s list will offer even more gems than this one.

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Reading list

So you take a look at this:

and then you factor in this:

to which you add the latest issue of Tsuki magazine with its mix of great fiction and other writing from Japan, the essential life guide ‘Feel The Fear And Freelance Anyway’ by Kris Emery and a host of other well-written posts and updates and it all leads to one thought:

Can I have a week off please?

So tell me, what’s on your ‘to read’ list – virtual or otherwise – at the moment?

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Moonraker by Ian Fleming

I am writing about James Bond and I can almost hear your groans from here. What is there that can possibly be left to be written about Britain’s favourite secret agent that hasn’t already been said a million times before, by feminists, by film reviewers, even by distinguished literary gents? I thought it had all been covered so completely that it could be taken as a given until, screening Goldfinger at Christmas with friends, someone confessed to only then understanding what the Austin Powers films were poking (ooh, baby!) fun at.

My suggestion of a Bond film after Christmas dinner was testament to how far I have travelled since my teenage days. Back then, the festive Bond would usually see me with head buried in a book, occasionally glancing up to sneer disdain at another cheesy line from Roger Moore as my family groaned and chuckled around me. I thought Bond was dreadful, so hackneyed in its clichés – the women only sassy up to a point to make the inevitable surrender greater sport for the hero, the gadgets, the comedy characters – that it was better off ignored. I thought I knew it backwards but didn’t enjoy the knowledge.

Until Casino Royale, that is.

The vow to never watch another Bond film was taken after witnessing the Brosnan incarnation waterskiing down the side of a glacier in Die Another Day. Despite the absence of anything with teeth in the scene, that was my ‘jumping the shark‘ moment. After all the incredulity I had thrilled over as a child – the human Jaws biting through a cable car’s wires, death wielded by bowler hat, spiked shoe or gold paint – I could bear no more.

But Casino Royale was intriguing. A good story well told, unlike some of the others, needing no gimmicks to distract attraction from plot holes you could drive an invisible car through. Daniel Craig’s Bond a vulnerable, often wrong, sometimes out-of-control human being rather than a wise-cracking caricature. Talk was of how this was as the author had intended, the producers returning to the source material having receiving a Jason Bourne-inspired scare. Post 9/11, it was felt, we needed more humility from our secret agents and the Broccoli family – always astute readers of an audience’s moods – delivered.

Softened up by that cinematic experience, it was perhaps inevitable that when a copy of the book came into my hands via a secondhand store in Tokyo, I would fall for Bond faster than a mini-skirted SMERSH agent sent to kill him. As ever, the rogue’s charms proved difficult to resist. So when I was offered a windfall in the shape of an almost complete set about to be thrown out, I grabbed at them. With that pleasing old book aroma and cover art calculated to have any teenage boy’s blood racing – girls! guns! rockets! – this was my chance to see if the rest of the series could live up to Casino Royale’s promise of a more appealing, albeit less charming, Bond.


What you know are to become key elements of the films already exist in the book. Bond’s love of gadgetry and the high life are evident, whether that is fine tailoring, his Ronson lighter for use on his own blend of cigarettes, or the little flat off the King’s Road. He drives a Bentley, rather than an Aston Martin, an older, classic model he takes pride in racing against foreign engineering, at least until he totals it.

Yet while aiming for effortlessness in all this acquisition, Bond is only one loss at cards away from ruin. We see him chafing at the daily routine and ploughing half-heartedly through the paperwork just like any other office worker, although in the privileged position afforded to a senior civil servant, he is no idle playboy. When away from London on operations, he has a Leica camera in one pocket and a Beretta in the other but perhaps more telling are the gadgets he lacks: having to drive to the next town to telephone allies in Scotland Yard or waiting for essential information to arrive by telegram.

Also lacking is any contact with anyone he isn’t working with or for. Perhaps this lack of companionship is compensated for by being surrounded by women, of course possessed of a beauty that mere mortals can only dream of. Whether it is the carefully selected waitresses of the gambling club M frequents, the steely Secret Service secretaries, or a ‘severely competent’ police woman, the lucky fellow rarely encounters a plain woman. Yet central female characters Gala Brand and Loelia Posonby – though crazily named – are also blessed with a quiet strength, essential to keeping the battered and broken Bond on his feet throughout the action.

Though Fleming laments that Posonby is approaching an age where:

Unless she married soon, Bond thought for the hundredth time, or had a lover, her cool air of authority might easily become spinsterish and she would join the army of women who had married a career.

Perhaps this is not the terrible fate he makes it out to be, and it is arguable if a quick tumble with 007 would be a better one, especially as he is facing a similar destiny. His own prospects for a long and happy retirement seem slim, after all. Although contemplating certain death with hopelessness after torture and near defeat, he never questions the rights and wrongs of the power the Service wields over his life. He is good at the essentials of his job, his boss is decent, that is enough. Bond is far more of a bastard than you remember, quite a lot rougher around the edges and unafraid to fight dirty if circumstances dictate. Able to pass with the Lord Basildons of this world, but not quite of them:

Bond knew that there was something alien and un-English about himself. He knew that he was a difficult man to cover up. Particularly in England.

Perhaps it is his misfortune that the exotic locations so fundamental to the films are passed over for this tale, which largely happens within sight of the White Cliffs of Dover in the usually sleepy South of England. Moonraker’s plot delivers such atomic age fears as a rogue scientists, cities laid waste by the most powerful rocket ever built and an unsettling yet impolitic mistrust of those who have gone from enemies to allies in the blink of an eye.

It is a cracking read, belting along at a great pace and lending a warmth and a human side to its characters that you would perhaps not believe existed if you had only watched the films. You may think you know all there is to know about James Bond, but you won’t until you experience him on the page.

ten minutes hate and the mortal bath are reviewing all of the James Bond novels, (sort of) in order. Track down the others here:

Casino Royale (tmb)

Live and Let Die (tmb)

Moonraker (tmh)

Diamonds Are Forever (tmb)

From Russia With Love – COMING SOON!

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