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Tuesday 26 December 2023

MALTA: BLITZED BUT NOT BEATEN

Philip Vella’s comprehensive account of the Second World War siege of Malta was published in 1985; my copy was the third edition, 1989. In the 1970s a group of Maltese enthusiasts formed The National War Museum Association and over the years they have collected and collated documents, photographs, first-hand reports, interviews and eye-witness testimonies about the Battle for Malta. This large-format book is a result of those endeavours.

Besides relating in detail from the outset of hostilities, it also contains almost a hundred pages of appendices recording convoys, daily rations, buildings destroyed or damaged, honours and awards. There are also dozens of illustrations, maps and black-and-white photographs. It is a treasure-trove for any writer or student of history.

In the summer of 1939, when it seemed that war was imminent, the Admiralty pressed to strengthen the island against air attack by installing 122 heavy AA guns, 60 light AA guns and 24 searchlights. Inertia hampered this process. On June 10, 1940 Mussolini declared war on Britain and France. Malta was in the firing line and by this time the islands only had 34 heavy anti-aircraft guns and 8 Bofors; the number of searchlights was up to strength, however.

‘... Malta’s loss would have denied the Allies of a staging post to the Middle East, jeopardised the fate of the British Army fighting in North Africa, and turned the Mediterranean into an Axis lake’ (p163).

The air-raid sirens sounded to warn of the first raid on June 11, 1940. ‘... ten Savoia Marchetti 79s crossed the 60 mile channel on their way to their target Hal Far airfield’ (p6). Other targets were the dockyard and forts. There were seven bombing sorties that first day, with no planes lost on either side.

That year, Malta suffered 211 air raids. Succeeding years increased in number, 963 and 2,031 for 1941 and 1942 respectively. The devastation was horrendous (as many photographs attest); ‘the Royal Opera House was demolished along with several other buildings in Valletta on April 7, 1942’ (p111); the ruins of the opera house are still there, concrete yet mute testimony to the siege. Two days after that, a bomb penetrated the dome of Mosta Church but instead of exploding merely bounced among the congregation. In the first weeks of 1942 ‘the number of unexploded bombs from heavy daylight raids by German aircraft rose from 6 to 143 per week’ (p128).

Civilians sought refuge in ‘the old railway tunnels in Valletta and Floriana, as well as in the Hypogeum, a prehistoric underground burial place, and also the Catacombs at Rabat’ (p15).

The Royal Malta Artillery recruited ‘a motley crowd of clerks and farmers, shop assistants and masons, intellectuals and illiterates’ (p34). In fact, as early as September 1938, ‘3,000 volunteers enrolled in the Women’s Auxiliary Reserve set up by Lady Bonham-Carter, the wife of the then Governor of Malta’ (p73). The native RMA and the Royal Artillery raised a curtain of flame that was fearful to behold... Captured German pilots admitted that they had been unnerved by it. It probably saved the Island from devastation, saved many a British warship... Remarkable was the stoicism of the civilians’ (p173).

Supplies came by seagoing convoy, the first in September 1940 from Alexandria. Subsequent convoys sailed from Gibraltar as well. Freight was also transported by RN submarines, among them HM Submarines Porpoise, Rorqual, Cachalot, Osiris and Otus [While in SM drafting in the 1970s I sent men to submarines that bore these names, but newer boats of the Porpoise and Oberon class, launched 1958 to the 1960s]. Submarines based in Malta attacked German convoys destined for Rommel’s Afrika Korps, sending to the bottom of the sea some 400,000 tons of supplies. In April 1942 HM Submarine Upholder was lost on her twenty-fifth patrol.

Shortages meant that improvisation was the order of the day; ‘men found fig and vine leaves a substitute, albeit a distasteful one, for tobacco... women made coats from blankets and dresses from curtains’ (p77). By September 1941 the only unrationed items were bread, pasta, cheese, rice and tea. At this stage of the war, the Enigma codes had been cracked and warnings of imminent attacks on convoys could be countered. ‘Cigarette-smokers took a deep breath when, on October 30, 1942, after many months of enforced abstinence, an issue of 30 cigarettes a week was introduced on a ration basis, to be increased to 50 with effect from January 15, 1943’ (p172).

‘Radar... is regarded as one of the main contributors to Malta’s defeat of the enemy. Radio Direction Finding was first brought to Malta in Marsh 1939 when the Air ministry Experimental Station was set up at Dingli Cliffs, one of the highest spots on the Island’ (p83).

Allied aircraft were transported by convoy but many were lost during the air-raids on Ta’ Qali, Hal Far and Luqa airfields. ‘In answer to the 200-240 daily Axis sorties, Malta could seldom muster more than six fighters at one time’ (p101).

In September, 1942, even while conflict still raged, the King presented the George Cross to the Island Fortress and its people, acknowledging the ‘gallant service’ the Maltese people had already rendered in the fight for freedom (p120). On June 20, 1943 the King visited the Island, ‘sailing through a hostile sea, with enemy air bases a mere 60 miles away’ (p184). He was given a rapturous reception by civilians and the armed forces; he toured much of the Island all day, witnessing the destruction and speaking to the Maltese. Prime Minister Churchill visited the Island on November 17 for two days and President Roosevelt arrived on December 8 and presented the people with a citation concerning their ‘valorous service above and beyond the call of duty’ (p197).

With the retreat of the Germans from Italy in 1944, few air-raids occurred and none resulted in any further damage or deaths. The last alert sounded on August 28.

‘... looking back across the years, serving at Malta in spite of the hardships, hunger and the constant presence of danger and death, is curiously one of these parts of one’s life, which if given the chance, one would do all over again’ – Leo Nomis, an American pilot flying from Ta’Qali (p154).

Friday 22 December 2023

RESURRECTION DAY - Book review


Brendan DuBois’s alternate history novel Resurrection Day was published in 1999. The ‘what if?’ scenario is tantalising indeed: What if the Cuban Missile Crisis had become a full-blown war?

It’s 1972, ten years after the nuclear bombs were dropped. Russia was crushed: ‘... no more large cities, no more government. Just tribes of people, trying to survive in muddy villages that could have existed in the Middle Ages, a decade after an entity called SAC had obliterated their nation from the earth’ (p65). California is virtually destroyed, New York has been depopulated, Washington DC lies beneath a giant crater lake. Europe is unscathed – Nato collapsed. Presidential elections are due at the end of the year. What was left of the United States relied on aid from Great Britain; the USA was shamed and ostracised by the international community because it let the nuclear genie out of the bottle.

Carl Landry, ex-US Army, is now a civilian, a journalist on the Boston Globe newspaper. The paper is heavily edited by an army Captain in accordance with the Martial Law Declaration of 1962 and the National Emergency Declaration of 1963. The Land of the Free no longer has free speech. ‘Why torture yourself, remembering  full supermarket shelves, clean clothes, steady power, and a government that didn’t hunt down draft dodgers and didn’t censor the news and didn’t run labour camps for the dissidents, the protesters, the ones that didn’t belong. That time was gone, was never coming back, not ever’ (p99).

Landry is approached by an aging veteran who has some important papers; they arrange to meet next day, but the vet is murdered, his apartment trashed.

Making enquiries, Landry learns of the deaths of the vet’s neighbours and friends. ‘... when the current national death rates and the results of the 1970 census were both kept secret because of national security, well, if life wasn’t cheap, it certainly wasn’t worth much’ (p51).

He begins to dig – and is warned off more than once: ‘Carl knew he had entered the murky land of late-night arrests, ‘disappearances’, and closed-door trials’ (p162). He was also attacked by an orfie gang – comprising feral orphans of the war.

He befriends Sandy Price, a journalist for the Times of London. She’s beautiful and clever. When they are both co-opted on a fact-finding mission to New York for their papers, they jump at the chance. And then things get weird and hairy, not least because there’s a faction that believes President Kennedy didn’t die in Washington, but still lives; his resurrection could screw the forthcoming elections, indeed.

DuBois has managed to create believable and often sympathetic characters, as well as a post-war situation that seems credible. It was an immersive experience. I zipped through the 580 pages in no time.

An impressive addition to the vast library of ‘what if?’ novels.

Editorial comment:

‘Think, he thought. Just take a deep breath and think’ (p471). Probably would have read better like this: Think, dammit. Just take a deep breath and think. No need for ‘he thought’.

Character names: Jim Rowley and Captain Rowland are quite close; never cause confusion but could easily have been more different.

Wednesday 13 December 2023

THE MUMMY - Book review

 


Anne Rice’s 1989 novel The Mummy (or Ramses the Damned) is not a novelisation of the Brendan Fraser film (which came out ten years later!)  Apparently, Rice began this as a film script but she and the studios had conflicting visions about the story so she abandoned the screenplay idea and wrote the book.

It’s a seductive read that begins slowly and then develops with intrigue and murder. It’s 1914, before Carter has found the tomb of Tutankhamen. Archaeologist Lawrence Stratford has uncovered the tomb of Ramses the Great. Puzzlingly, there seems a link to the Egyptian ruler Cleopatra, yet Ramses’ reign was many years before the Queen of the Nile was born... Accompanying Lawrence is his nephew Henry Stratford, a ne’er-do-well. Lawrence’s daughter Julie was in London with her fiancé Alex Savarell, Viscount Summerfield, the son of Elliott, the Earl of Rutherford. The marriage had been arranged when they were children; through this marriage the Rutherford family would gain the Stratford wealth in exchange for the title. However, Julie was a strong-willed independent-minded woman, so the courtship was not going anywhere fast.

It is no spoiler since the blurb announces the fact: Ramses the mummified king awakens and appears before Julie in a dramatic scene. ‘Dear God, she thought, this is not merely a man gifted with beauty; this is the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen’ (p92).

The reason for Ramses not being a dry husk of a mummy is that he was merely dormant, not dead, and was revived by sunlight. He was immortal, three thousand years old, having drunk an elixir centuries ago. He does not need sleep or food, though he is impelled to satisfy appetites that he cannot assuage.

The book is a visual feast: we can envisage the scenes in their entirety. It’s sensuous, particularly as love develops between Julie and Ramses. Conflict is supplied by the unsavoury Henry, who is not averse to killing to get what he wants, and the newly discovered Cleopatra, Ramses’ lost love.

There are many light and amusing touches as Ramses learns about the early twentieth century. He is a fast study, particularly as he does not need sleep. Over the centuries when he roamed the earth he learned a number of languages, too. He adopted the name Reginald Ramsey in order to accompany Julie on their forays through society, all part of his education.

While they are touring Cairo, accompanied by Elliott and Henry, mysterious deaths occur. Mr Ramsey falls under suspicion...

Cleverly plotted, the story reveals the problems of immortality and ever-lasting love.

The book ends with the promise of further adventures of Ramses the Damned; but there was a long wait! There is no great need to take up the sequels, however; the ending of this book was satisfactory enough for me.

The sequels, co-written with her son Christopher are Ramses the Damned: The Passion of Cleopatra (2017) and Ramses the Damned: The Reign of Osiris (2022). Anne Rice dided in 2021, aged 80.

Tuesday 5 December 2023

SOE AGENT - book review

 


The subtitle of the Osprey book SOE Agent is Churchill’s Secret Warriors; text by Terry Crowdy, colour illustrations by Steve Noon. This is number 133 in the Warrior series of Osprey books. There are 62 information-packed pages with many contemporary photographs.

‘Nazi control on the continent was like a virus, intent on infiltrating every level of human existence and perverting it for its own satisfaction’ (p5).  Britain's Minister of Economic Warfare, Hugh Dalton was convinced a new organisation should be created to infiltrate Europe and the ‘new weapons of war would be agitation, strikes, random acts of terror, propaganda and assassination’ – effectively, ‘no holds barred’ (p5).

As early as September 1938 MI6 set up D Section (Sabotage) and the British General Staff formed a research section GS(R) to investigate the possibilities of guerrilla warfare; in May the following year this became Military Intelligence (Research). September 1939 Britain and France declared war on Germany after Hitler invaded Poland.

The book covers the recruitment of SOE agents, their training, and some of their missions, Lysander pickup, coding of messages, and their weapons and types of radio. It is a little treasure-trove for students and writers of that period. Certainly, having recently read Ken Follett’s Jackdaws, I could recognise many salient facts that he used in his narrative.

Related titles in the series are French Resistance Fighter and Resistance Warfare 1940-45; and in the Elite series: Office of Strategic Services (OSS) 1942-45.

Monday 4 December 2023

THE MELTING MAN - book review



In the mid-1960s I read a few books by Victor Canning and thoroughly enjoyed them. For some reason I didn’t read any more (maybe suborned by Helen MacInnes, Len Deighton, Ian Fleming, Gavin Lyall, and Desmond Cory, among others!);  that is, until now, taking up his 1968 thriller The Melting Man, a collector’s item.

This is the fourth (and final) thriller featuring the investigator Rex Carver. Narrated in first-person, it begins with Carver contemplating a holiday, despite the fact that the firm’s bank balance could benefit from an injection of new cash. ‘... eleven months of the year I worked, if it was there to work at, but come September, season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, I took a holiday’ (p9). He told his business partner Hilda Wilkins, ‘I need feeding up.’ She pointedly looked at his lowest waistcoat button and said, ‘That’s not the impression I get’ (p2).

From the outset, the style grabs, with plenty of one-liners, amusing asides, and colourful descriptions. From time to time Carver undergoes a session in the gym run by Miggs, an ex-Commando sergeant who takes one look at Carver and says, ‘My God – a young man in an old man’s body. You’d better let me book you in for a dozen sessions...’ Carver responded: ‘I like to put it on around September. Live off my fat during the winter. Bears do it’ (p6).

His holidaying intentions are waylaid by the arrival in the office of beautiful Julia Yung-Brown. He’d been recommended to her by Miggs: ‘But you don’t quite come up to the description Miggs gave of you. Sort of blurred around the edges somewhere.’ He riposted: ‘Come autumn I begin to disintegrate a little. My best month is May’ (p11).

Despite inferring that Carver was unfit, he manages to hold his own, surviving more than one knock on the head, a near-drowning and a bomb in his car!

Julia and her sister Zelia are the step-daughters of millionaire Cavan O’Dowda, a man with a ruthless reputation. Apparently, Zelia went missing while driving her stepfather’s Mercedes 250 SL in France. Zelia subsequently turned up in Cannes with memory loss and no car. O’Dowda wants Rex to find the car. Simple.

He sets out on the trail of the car – Geneva, Cannes, Turin. And is tracked by his old Interpol pal Aristide Marchissy la Dole as well as the eccentric Alakwe brothers, Jimbo and Najib, together with their sex-mad 6ft 4” lethal assistant Miss Panda Bubakar. It’s obvious that there’s something hidden inside the car that is highly valuable to all the interested actors.

Aristide has appeared in earlier books. He likes his food, particularly if they’re Carver’s croissants ‘which were first made in Budapest in 1686. That is the year the Turks besieged the city. They dug underground passages beneath the city walls at night, but the bakers – naturally working at that hour – heard them, gave the alarm and Johnny Turk was thrown out. In return the bakers were given the privilege of making a special pastry in the form of the crescent moon which still decorates the Ottoman flag’ (p188).

The pace is fast, the characters are larger-than-life, the threats quite real, and the denouement in the millionaire’s mountain chateau is both intense and grim, with a dark and unexpected twist.

Even after fifty-five years, this is a satisfying and entertaining, page-turning thriller.

You can get a used copy for the price of a beer; all four Rex Carver books are available as e-books.

Sunday 3 December 2023

THE TUMBLED HOUSE - book review


 

Winston Graham’s 1959 novel The Tumbled House is a romantic suspense novel long out of print; my copy is the fourth impression dated 1976.

While dropping in on the empty house of her late father-in-law Sir John Marlowe, Joanna commits adultery with an ex-boyfriend Roger Shorn. It is not an affair; perhaps she was lonely since her husband Don, a feted conductor, was away in the States with an orchestra.

Shortly after Don’s return, a couple of anonymous articles are published in a newspaper, The Gazette, denigrating Sir John, claiming the great man plagiarised a book by an old associate (also deceased).

Don is incandescent and determined to discover the writer’s identity and clear his father’s name. He seeks legal advice but that’s not much help as you can’t libel a dead person. ‘What was the purpose of attacking the reputation of a dead man unless there was someone still alive to care?’ (p73). He has the sympathy of Joanna and his sister Bennie but ignores their suggestion that he forget the whole issue.

Unable to forgive and forget, Don finally learns of the writer’s identity and writes insults against the culprit. The added complication is that Bennie is in a relationship with the son of the writer.

This should be a fairly anodyne court case, but the interweaving of the personalities involved and the minor crimes on the periphery that affect Bennie and her beau Michael keep the reader turning the pages.

What lifts the book above the norm is Graham’s acute observation of character and place. The point of view is omniscient. Here are a few examples.

‘The Red Boar Club... Here the temperature was a uniform seventy-eight winter and summer, and tobacco-smoke hung in cirrus clouds about the room. You broke through them going down the steps like a plane coming in to land’ (p38).

In the club Don approaches the editor of the offending Gazette: ‘He had a square rather distinguished face on which the skin hung loosely as if it had a slow puncture. But there was nothing deflated about the way he looked at Don...’ (p39).

‘Sir Percy... was not expensively dressed and his Cockney accent still clung to him like a home-knitted pullover’ (p59).

‘When he opened the door the sunlight crowded in as if it had been queuing there’ (p72).

‘An artist of course was judged by his art, not by his life. It didn’t matter two-pence if Rembrandt was a rogue or Beethoven a bore... (p100) – though in the idiotic modern age of cancel culture that may no longer apply!

Despite the suspense, and Don discovering Joanna’s infidelity, there are smatterings of humour: asked about Don’s interpretation of Swan Lake, he responded, ‘It could well be the most original. Phone Leningrad and tell them to watch Tchaikovsky’s grave. If there’s movement, it’ll mean he’s turning over in it’ (p128).

‘She stared at him with unwinking eyes, a stout old lady with a bulging face like a purse that has never been opened for charity’ (p148).

‘... when they rode together the sun was slanting, and a breeze that came up from the sea had made the young leaves turn and glint like wild silk’ (p174).

‘... his grey, pachydermous face wearing a weary, dusty expression as if too many years of exposing human frailty had left him without illusions and without hope’ (p298).

Bearing in mind the time of writing, there are two uses of the n-word and an allusion to gays before that term was the acceptable description, none of which are malicious.

Graham describes a death without being mawkish: less is more.

The ending is satisfactory.

Saturday 2 December 2023

SHARPE'S COMMAND - Book review


Bernard Cornwell’s latest (2023) Sharpe adventure
Sharpe’s Command places our hero at the battle of the Bridge at Almaraz, 1812 – as usual, based on historical events.

Major Sharpe is leading his Chosen Men, with sergeant Harper and the familiar other characters. They are behind enemy lines, intent on preventing the French from crossing the bridge to reinforce one of their forts which is soon to be under British siege.

Needless to say, he triumphs after a number of setbacks, this time aided by his wife Teresa and her guerrillas. Some of the impediments are due to betrayal by presumed allies, and others by the incompetence of British officers.

If you’ve watched any of the Sharpe TV films then you’ll be familiar with the characters and can even hear their voices as they speak from the page. If you haven’t, you’ll still enjoy an engaging and fascinating adventure sprinkled with knowledge about rifles, muskets and big guns! We meet again major Hogan who this time opines ‘A wise man once said that the best way to win a war is to do it without fighting’ (p210). He was doubtless quoting from Sun Tzu’s Strategy of War: ‘To subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence.’

It would be unfair to go into details (spoilers) about the book. There’s historical fact, humour, bravery, and blood and gore. The usual ingredients for a fast-paced Sharpe read.

***

Like C S Forester with his hero Hornblower, Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels are not written in historical chronological order. Of his twenty-three Sharpe books, this is the fourteenth in chronological order, preceded by Sharpe’s Company and followed by Sharpe’s Sword. It’s not essential to read them in historical order, though it’s recommended as some main characters do die in the series (though it’s a good way to meet again some who later die, if that isn’t too confusing!)

Monday 6 November 2023

JACKDAWS - book review

 


The prolific Ken Follett’s Jackdaws was published in 2001. His output is varied and broad in theme and place and time. Here, he returns to the Second World War and spies – some twenty-three years after his WWII debut novel Eye of the Needle.

The story covers the nine days before D-Day, June 6, 1944. Twenty-eight-year-old Felicity 'Flick' Clairet, an SOE agent is leading a Resistance assault on a French chateau in the village of Sainte-Cecile, the German communications hub for the area. But it goes wrong and she and her French husband barely manage to escape. Some of their team are killed and others are captured.

The German interrogator is Colonel Dieter Franck who, while not enjoying inflicting pain on his victims, is good at it. The Germans are aware that an invasion is about to occur soon and that will entail the rising up of many Resistance cells. He is certain that if he can break the will of his captives, he can learn details about the various groups.

Flick returns to England and is given permission to try again to crack the chateau communications hub. She recruits the Jackdaws, a ‘dirty half-dozen’ – all-female team to infiltrate in place of the regular cleaners. Not all of them will survive...

This is a typical Follett page-turner with characters you soon come to know and care about. Even Franck evokes a measure of sympathy. The interrogators, the invaders, considered the SOE agents as terrorists. Both sides were ruthless. In these sensitive times perhaps some readers will find certain aspects of the violence depicted as distressing; yet this kind of thing – and worse – happened. I’ve read a number of nonfiction and fiction books about the SOE and Follett’s research seems very accurate – and never slows the pace.

If you want an involving fast read, this suspenseful thriller will fit the bill.

Editorial comment:

Blame the editor. On p312 a coded message mentions Friday 1 June. Yet on p315 we’re told that Friday is 2 June. Oops. [Hopefully it has been amended since my 2002 edition].


Sunday 5 November 2023

NOBBUT A LAD - book review

 


Alan Titchmarsh’s memoir Nobbut a Lad – A Yorkshire childhood was published in 2006.

Titchmarsh is familiar to UK television viewers through his gardening and other programmes. He was born in May 1949 – so to me he is a contemporary and many of his reminiscences echo experiences I enjoyed in childhood. His novels show that he can write as well as attend to horticulture, and this endearing and at times touching book is enlivened not only with his good writing style but also with a wry sense of humour. 

So this is his story – ‘Not that it was without incident or occasional tragedy. But that’s growing up. And growing up, even in the best of all possible worlds, is a confusing thing to have to do’ (p9). This definitely is not a 'misery memoir'.

He was brought up proper. ‘At all times men walked on the outside of the pavement, ladies on the inside. I still do, even though it does sometimes cause confusion when after crossing the road, the woman I am walking with discovers that I’m not where I was’ (p15). [I used to do the same. I suspect the courtesy stems from those days when roadways were plagued by puddles and the wheels of passing carriages were liable to splash pedestrians. I don’t do it with my wife Jen; I always walk on her right-hand side, it’s her good ear. So part of the time I’m the gentleman of old, at others, not!]

It was the time of steam trains. On one jaunt to London with his parents he found himself on the famous Mallard. He chatted with the driver and said ‘I want to be an engine driver’ to which the driver replied, ‘Aye, but you’re nobbut a lad.’ Alan said firmly, ‘When I grow up I mean’ (p141). His career path took a different turn, of course, like so many others who wanted to be train drivers or astronauts or even cowboys!

He lovingly describes many amusing anecdotes, sometimes against himself, and is never malicious. At one time the family had an upright piano in the parlour and Alan determined to learn to drive a car with the instrument’s help. He needed a walking stick and a flowerpot. He turned the flowerpot upside down and stuck the stick in the drainage hole in the pot; this served as the gear-lever. Then he’d use the three foot-pedals of the piano as the accelerator, clutch and brake. Until his father had enough of Alan’s revving sounds and suggested ‘Put the car in the garage and go to bed’ (p249).

‘Impressing my parents was more important to me than almost anything else. It seemed a way of repaying their confidence and the energy and effort they’d put into bringing us up during those tough years after the war’ (p325).

‘Since being a lad, I’ve had a love affair with horses – in paint and in the flesh. The works of George Stubbs and Sir Alfred Munnings thrill me like no other. Dogs command affection, cats command attention, but horses command respect’ (p271) [In his 2008 novel Folly he actually has Munnings as a character].

‘Collecting things was something we all felt driven to do; there was some kind of security in ownership of a collection, some kind of status. In leaner weeks we’d search through the dustbins at the back of the bus garage... We’d pull out cigarette packets and tear off the front and back covers so that each became a crude playing card. With these we’d play snap, and feel as rich as a king when we scooped a whole pile of them’ (p292).

‘My pocket money amounted to one shilling. It never changed for years, it seemed. It didn’t buy much, but most of it went in Woolworths on seeds, or construction kits...’ (p295).

‘The fact that I failed my eleven-plus came as no surprise to anybody, least of all me... I can recall that feeling now – the feeling of trying to knit fog. I caught up in the years that followed; but at the age of eleven it is no consolation to know that you are a late developer’ (p300).

‘I should have been better at science, bearing in mind my future, but Miss Sutcliffe – known as “the Improper Fraction” (top-heavy) – was a loud woman who frightened the life out of me. When she bawled at you, “Acids must be respected!” you felt obliged to scatter the vinegar on to your fish and chips with particular care’ (p304).

These snippets don’t do the book justice. Alan Titchmarsh has a sharp eye for detail – also evinced in his novels – and here provides the reader with vivid recall of people and times long gone, but not forgotten. Here he shows us the various local characters and teachers who became powerful influences in his early life.

Also included are photographs of his family, which many of us can relate to in the style and composition. Plus the author has inserted several line drawings to illustrate certain events and things.

Nostalgia may not be what it used to be, but it’s here in this book in spades!

Saturday 28 October 2023

IN SOLITARY - Book review

 


Garry Kilworth’s debut novel In Solitary was published in 1977. Since then he has produced novels in a broad number of genres, among them science fiction, fantasy, and history.

Earth has been under the domination of aliens for centuries. The Soal are uncompromising, their laws stating: ‘No member of the Human Race born a native of the Planet Earth may have contact with any other such native by any medium, natural or otherwise, after the age of 170 months [just over 14 years-of-age] except for the performance of mating. No member of the Human Race under 170 months of age born a native of the Planet Earth may have contact with any male member of the same race. The penalty for disobedience of the Soal Law is death’ (p6). Hence, the males are effectively ‘in solitary’ all their life (save for the rare mating events).

The Soal resemble birds with pointed beak-like faces and a web of elastic skin joining the upper and lower limbs; fine hair-like feathers cover their bodies. They’re about a metre tall – ‘more like flying foxes than birds’ (p8).

The book begins with Tangiia – a native Polynesian – embarking to sea on a mating journey in the Oceania area near Ostraylea. Apparently the earthquake of 2083 Old Time had altered the physical relationship between Brytan and Yurop. Apart from the first chapter, the novel is in the first-person, related by another human, Cave, who is serving the Soal in Brytan – until he is banished to live among the mud people… Here, Cave meets a female, Stella, who is quite formidable. They live in tall towers – mushrooms – and barely subsist. Eventually, these two join forces with others, including Tangiia – all the while evading Soal patrols for, clearly, if they were caught congregating, they would be killed.

Of them all, Tangiia is the romantic: ‘She is what makes it so beautiful. Man was made to have woman by his side, otherwise there are just empty holes in our chests where our hearts should be’ (p70).

Kilworth has created an original scenario and populated it with humans and aliens who exhibit all the usual traits – anger, deceit, violence, hate and love. And close to the end, after a rebellion against the Soal, a twist in the tale is revealed.

At 139 pages, it is a short book, but packed with fascinating descriptions of an unusual environment and traumatic events.

Thursday 26 October 2023

THE INFORMATION OFFICER - Book review

 


This is the third book by Mark Mills – each one different in place and time. The Information Officer was published in 2009. It’s set in Malta in 1942 during the second great siege (the first being against the Turks in 1565). [The book brought back memories of the time my wife Jen and I lived in Rabat in 1974-75].

There are two maps – one of the Maltese islands with significant places shown; and a second of the Grand Harbour – which will prove helpful if you’re unfamiliar with Malta.

It begins (mistakenly in my opinion) in London, May 1951 with a viewpoint by a restaurant’s maître d’ with the hint of a spoiler. The real story begins in Malta, April 1942 when a young woman is murdered.

Major Max Chadwick is the Information Officer in Malta, responsible for reporting to the populace with suitable material to maintain morale. Max has a number of friends, among them Freddie, the medic who works out of Mtarfa hospital [I worked there in the 1970s; it’s now a school and apartments]; Elliott, an American serviceman; and Ralph, a cavalier pilot.

When Max is told that there have been three young women murdered yet the authorities seem to be hushing it up, he decides to do some private investigating himself. Digging around for clues is not easy for an amateur, granted, and it is made more difficult by the wartime conditions, notably the constant air raids.

The submarine base on Manoel Island, the Tenth Submarine Flotilla, was one of several targets for Italian and German bombers; inevitably, the airfields were prime targets too: Ta’ Qali, Hal Far and Luqa; and of course the many quaysides and docks of the Grand Harbour and its inlets. [Jen learned to drive in Malta and took her driving-test on the old airfield at Ta’ Qali].

Mills quickly immerses the reader in the place and period. ‘It was typical of many Maltese homes in that the unassuming façade gave no indication of the treasures that lay behind it’ (p21). [When living there we’d seen many examples of this.] He also has a fine turn of phrase: I liked his ‘bewilderment of bastions’ when describing Valletta.

‘…he accompanied her and her mangy dog to the Blessing of the Animals at the church of Santa Maria Vittoriosa’ (p130). [We’d seen these ceremonies in Malta and Spain].

‘… he’d been forced to crash-land in a field – a near-impossible thing to do on Malta without hitting a stone wall’ (p191). [Not much has changed with this overbuilt island].

‘The Point de Vue Hotel stood on the south side of the Saqqija, the leafy square separating Mdina and Rabat’ (p230). The hotel ‘took a direct hit during an afternoon raid, killing six’ (p230). [We enjoyed a splendid meal here].

He mentions the megalithic temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra (p243) and on the same page on Dingli Cliffs the primary Radio Direction Finding station is found there; [even now, though the spying is somewhat more sophisticated].

He conveys the absolute terror of living through intense bombing day after day. ‘The ground beneath him had bucked like a living thing, and all around him the air had rung to the tune of flying splinters, a lethal symphony of rock and metal overlaid by more obvious notes: the whistle and shriek of falling bombs, the thump and crump of explosions, the staccato bark of the Bofors firing back blind, and the screams of the diving Stukas’ (p43).

Intermittently, we are privy to the male murderer’s thoughts, jotted down in his notebook, though he remains faceless; a man without empathy, a thoroughly unpleasant specimen. The mystery of his identity is maintained almost to the end.

It was obvious that Mills did a lot of research for the story and highlights two of the many books he consulted: Malta Magnificent by Francis Gerard and Fortress Malta by James Holland. ‘Twice the tonnage of bombs dropped on London during the worst twelve months of the Blitz had rained down on their heads in the last two months alone’ (p61).

There are a couple of interesting choices of character names he has used:

Chadwick lakes are formed behind a number of dams constructed by Sir Osbert Chadwick, a British engineer, in the late 19th century.

Mabel Edeline Strickland was the editor of The Times of Malta before and during the war. Mills’s book The Savage Garden has a main character called Adam Strickland…

If you have any interest in wartime skulduggery or Malta, you should find the book a fascinating read.

I’d also recommend Malta: Blitzed but not Beaten by Philip Vella. And of course Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Kappillan of Malta.

Editorial comment.

Two characters go to see a film at the Rabat Plaza (p229). Jen and I often went to the Adelphi cinema in Rabat (sometimes twice a week!); according to the Old Cinemas in Malta Facebook group, Rabat has only ever had two cinemas – the Adelphi and the Astoria.

Saturday 14 October 2023

THE NIGHT OF KADAR - Book review

 


Garry Kilworth’s second novel The Night of Kadar was published in 1978.

It’s a fascinating novel based on the generation starship concept. It begins in the vast spaceship that had been travelling for a thousand years and is finally nearing its inhabitable planetary destination. Embryos are activated in their tanks and grown rapidly, while being educated. Unfortunately, the ship’s designers did not plan for a subtle minute alien incursion that sabotages the intelligence units irreparably; ‘One of their manipulative interests was ecology – a natural area of study for a static race’ (p177).

The ship lands on an island in a sea of quicksand. The enigma of their purpose remains a mystery, doubtless lost in the wiped tapes. ‘We, the ship’s people. Born of a machine; an engine. But what is a planet, the planet Earth, if not an engine, a large beautiful engine that turns in space, and manufactures life?’ (p93).

The main character is Othman, who was born at the age of thirty Earthyears. Others emerge from the ship, including a pre-programmed wife Silandi. It seems that about half of the complement of settlers were born mentally impaired, referred to as morons; this was due to the malfunction in the circuitry. Inevitably, conflict between individuals arises, causing tension and even rebellion…

The ship automatically constructs tools and machines from its own huge carcass.

The senders, the people who launched the ship were of the Islamic faith; however, no Koran is supplied and their knowledge is bereft of any religion. As time goes by, they recall a childhood they never lived but was imprinted: these ‘false memory’ interludes are detailed in Arabic settings, coloured by the author’s time living and working in the Middle East. ‘She knew these questions could only remain questions. Earth could only be the somewhere of her simulated childhood – a place she had never physically touched’ (p86).

Othman becomes their natural leader and is determined to search for their destiny, their reason for being on this planet. To that end, he enforces the construction of a bridge across the expanse of quicksand to the mainland beyond. This is not always a popular decision, as the number of the island’s trees is depleted: ‘Man is an artist at destruction, even though his intentions may seem pure. Ten, a hundred, a thousand years to grow a tree, and ten minutes to bring it to the ground’ (p41).

The book’s title is from the Koran: ‘Better is the Night of Kadar (Glory) than a thousand months…’ ‘On the night of Kadar, the night he died, he would like to go to those stars, perhaps become one of them’ (p159).

Kilworth’s prose is always good and often eloquent: ‘the crisp salt of their bodies mingling as the wetness flows from their skin, the iron in their blood forming tight wires to jerking muscles, the smell of oxygen burning, circuit fusing in their veins as they reach out to touch the innumerable corners of the universe’ (p99).

Some later scenes are quite horrific. For this planet is no Garden of Eden. And yet they are survivors and they grow as the generations move on. Quite an imaginative feat, this book.

Editorial comment:

When writing, Kilworth could not have imagined that mentioning computer tapes (p3) would be obsolete so quickly.

One of my pet annoyances: ‘Othman first thought privately to himself…’ (p124) ‘thought privately to himself’ is obsolete.

Friday 13 October 2023

BATMAN SON OF THE DEMON - Book review


This 78-page graphic novel was published in 1987. Written by Mike W Barr and illustrated by Jerry Bingham.

A terrorist attack on the Gotham chemical plant is underway. Two hostages have been taken. This is a job for Batman. There’s an intense fight, and Batman is wounded. He recovers consciousness in the Bat-cave – with Talia Al Ghul in attendance. A madman called Qayin needs to be stopped – and Talia’s father R’As Al Ghul has personal reasons to get involved.

The Al Ghuls and Batman join forces and all mayhem is let loose. Talia is a previous love interest of Bruce Wayne; she knows his secret. Their relationship becomes strengthened as they begin to track down Qayin and his men.

There are a few amusing if familiar asides, for instance: Bruce insists on donning his costume even though still recovering from a bullet wound. Talia says, ‘You can be most exasperating at times.’ And Alfred simply says, ‘Indeed.’ (p16).

Bingham’s artwork is clean, slick and fast-paced with plenty of action – and explosions! This is good storytelling in pictures.

A fine addition to any Batman fan’s collection. 

Thursday 12 October 2023

LEO THE AFRICAN - Book review


Amin Maalouf’s
Leo the African was published in 1986 and translated into English by Peter Sluglett in 1988. This paperback copy was published in 1994.  The book is based on the true-life story of Hasan al-Wazzan, the sixteenth century traveller and writer who came to be known as Leo Africanus. It is told in the first person, and covers his first forty years.

He begins his narration when he was born – not as absurd as it first appears: we’re privy to second-hand details from his father and mother about their time in Granada in the late fourteen hundreds. His mother Salma befriends a Jewish pedlar-clairvoyant and healer, Gaudy Sarah, and ‘began to read my palm like the crumpled page of an open book’ (p6). Sarah’s prediction – and her elixir of orgeat syrup – result in Salma’s pregnancy (with Hasan).  Sarah also ‘doubled, when necessary, as midwife, masseuse, hairdresser and plucker of unwanted hair’ (p8).

The days of Islamic Andalusia are numbered. ‘And did not Andalusia flourish in the days when the vizier Abd al-Rahman used to say jokingly: “O you who cry ‘Hasten to the prayer!’ You would do better to cry: “Hasten to the bottle!” The Muslims only became weak when silence, fear and conformity darkened their spirits”.’ (p38).

The Arabs were evicted from Spain in 1492, among them the ineffectual ruler Boabdil, who lingered on the last ridge that afforded him a view of Granada – a place the Castilians thereafter called ‘The Moor’s last sigh’. It was said that the fallen sultan had shed tears there, of shame and remorse. ‘You weep like a woman for the kingdom you did not defend like a man’ (p57). At this time of expulsion of his family, Hasan was three years old. After eight centuries, no more would the voice of the muezzin be heard to call the faithful to prayer.

Hasan grew up in Fez, alongside Jews and Christians as well as Muslims. It is during this time that he learned about the philosophy of life and death: ‘… thank God for having made us this gift of death, so that life is to have meaning; of night, that day is to have meaning; silence, that speech is to have meaning; illness, that health is to have meaning; war, that peace is to have meaning…’ (p103)

Hasan’s friend Harun the Ferret got a job as a porter: ‘Three hundred men, simple, poor, almost all of the illiterate, but who had nevertheless managed to become the most respected, most fraternal and best organised of all the guilds of the city’ (p108). This guild takes care of its members; ‘when any of their number dies, they take over the responsibility for his family, help his widow to find a news husband and take care of his children until they are of an age to have a professions. The son of one is the son of all’ (p108).

The families would hang on the walls of their adopted homes the keys of their homes they left behind, hoping one day to return to Granada. Hasan was a quick learner and soon became successful in trading.

One of the most powerful men in Fez was the Zarwali, an ex-bandit and murderer who ‘had built the largest palace in the city, the largest, that is, after that of the ruler, a piece of elementary common sense for anyone who wanted to make sure that his head remained attached to his body’ (p131).

Harun the Ferret had learned about Zarwali’s past and his behaviour. Zarwali was ‘always convinced that his wives are trying to betray him, particularly the youngest and most beautiful ones. A denunciation, a slander, an insinuation on the part of one of her rivals is enough for the poor unfortunate to be strangled. The Zarwali’s eunuchs then make the crime look like an accident, a drowning, a fatal fall, an acute tonsillitis…’ (p137). Hasan and the Zarwali will clash – and there will be dire repercussions…

There are several amusing and even apt sayings scattered about the book, for example: ‘Destiny is more changeable than the skin of a chameleon, as one of the poets of Denia used to say’ (p57); and ‘If anyone tells you that avarice is the daughter of necessity, tell him that he is mistaken. It is taxation which has begotten avarice!’ (p154); and ‘I had become very susceptible to magic and superstitions… This is probably the fate of rich and powerful men: aware that their wealth owes less to their merits than to luck, they begin to court the latter like a mistress and venerate it like an idol’ (p196); and, finally, ‘in the face of adversity, women bend and men break…’ (p250).

Hasan ventures to Egypt and witnesses the Ottoman conquest there; he is abducted and becomes a prisoner in Renaissance Rome under the Medicis, and yet remarkably finds himself being a confidant of the Pope, and converts briefly to Christianity, and ultimately witnesses the horrendous sack of Rome in 1527.

The book possibly suffers from too much barely digestible religion and politics, yet these were the driving forces that impelled Hasan to wander.

The smells, the colours and the feeling for the period are well-conveyed and indeed instructive for anyone interested in these historic times. 

Wednesday 27 September 2023

Chap O'Keefe rides again!

Way back in 2014 I interviewed a stalwart of comic and genre fiction, Keith Chapman. He was an editor and contributor to various fiction publications in London in the 1960s before moving to New Zealand and spending nearly 35 years in newspaper and magazine journalism. He returned to fiction writing in earnest in 1992, using the pen-name Chap O'Keefe, writing westerns, and also edited the Black Horse Extra online magazine. Recently he has concentrated on bringing out his quite considerable back-list in e-book format, rather than producing new fiction.

Chap O'Keefe, his wife, adult children and grandchildren live in Auckland, New Zealand. The family home was high on a North Shore hillside overlooking Hellyer's Creek and the sparkling Waitemata Harbour, but 8 years ago for medical reasons they moved to a small unit in a retirement village.

Black Horse extra online magazine appeared quarterly for six years from March 2006. It promoted the western genre and the work of authors published by the (now defunct) Robert Hale company’s Black Horse Western hardback novels. You can still read each issue of this magazine here

Black Horse Extra (blackhorsewesterns.com)

Keith’s writing history is covered in two lengthy blog items, featuring among other legendary characters for magazines devoted to Sexton Blake, Edgar Wallace, and Leslie Charteris’s The Saint:

WRITEALOT: Blog Guest - Keith Chapman aka Chap O'Keefe (nik-writealot.blogspot.com) -

WRITEALOT: Blog Guest - Keith Chapman - part 2 (nik-writealot.blogspot.com)

Some of Keith’s re-issued westerns as e-books can be found on Amazon and other platforms:

Rebel and the Heiress

Frontier Brides

Blast to Oblivion

A Gunfight Too Many

Gunsmoke Night (his first book written as Chap O’Keefe)

This is my review of Blast to Oblivion

Inspired by Conan Doyle’s The Valley of Fear, this twenty-first Black Horse Western by Chap O’Keefe starts with a bang – a shotgun killing in Denver.

Ex Pinkerton Joshua Dillard was hired by the deceased’s sister, Flora, to investigate the murder. She suspected that her brother’s wife was concealing something – particularly as she had moved away with her male secretary Joseph Darcy to the mining town of Silverville. When Dillard arrives there, he meets up with an unusual character with the monicker of Poverty Joe, who happens to be instrumental in saving Dillard from some desperadoes. Dillard interviewed the ungrieving widow but couldn’t find any evidence to link her with her husband’s death. Besides the unwelcome attentions of the desperadoes led by Cord Skann, Dillard also has to contend with the duplicitous Marshal Broadstreet.

This is an enjoyable yarn and it’s clear that the author has written about Joshua Dillard a number of times (this is his seventh appearance, in fact); the character fits like a well-worn glove. Subtle evidence of research crops up from time to time, too. ‘An English lady traveller in the district had recorded that bad temper and profanity in the presence of women was widespread.’ I could be wrong, but this may be alluding to Fanny Trollope’s classic ‘Domestic Manners of the Americans’.

The action-packed story is laced with humour as well as gunplay. The twist at the end is neat and it’s satisfying for both the reader – and especially for Dillard – that Flora is a woman of her word.

***

‘Told in Pictures’ is an article written by Keith and featured in the prestigious Illustrators Quarterly (2013), lavishly illustrated with covers from Combat Picture Library, Edgar Wallace Mystery Magazine and The Sexton Blake Library, among others.