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Sunday 30 April 2023

BOWDRIE - book review


This collection of eight short western stories by Louis L’Amour was published in 1983. I read his collection Bowdrie’s Law in 2003. The stories here are from his early period, when he was ‘learning the art of storytelling’ and were featured in the Popular Western magazine 1940-1948. As he says in his foreword, those days of many magazines buying and printing short stories are long gone; a great proving ground for beginning writers to hone their trade.

Chick Bowdrie is a Texas Ranger and is as tough as they come. ‘Me, I never learned to live with folks. Most youngsters learn to live with people by playin’ with other youngsters. I never had any of that. I never really belonged anywhere. I was a stranger among the Comanches an’ a stranger among my own people when I got back. I never belonged anywhere. I’m like that no-account horse of mine…’ (p150) In short, he was a drifter – at least until the Texas Rangers took him in and gave him a purpose.

Here you will find L’Amour’s trademark western knowledge of the terrain and the people who populated it. The stories are traditional, but not merely shoot-em-up tales but mysteries and even romances, each one adding to the depth of the continuing character, Bowdrie. Interspersed between each story are historical notes, in effect brief overviews of real-life Texas Rangers, all of which make fascinating reading.

Bowdrie explains about his odd first name: ‘My name was Charles. Most times Chuck is a nickname for Charles, but there was another boy in school who was called Chuck. He was bigger than I was, so they called me Chick. I never minded.’ So the odd name stuck.

Tuesday 18 April 2023

ACT OF OBLIVION - book review


Robert Harris’s 2022 novel Act of Oblivion is yet another bestseller, and justifiably so.

It begins in 1660, after Charles II has been proclaimed king (the Restoration). In the new regime those involved in the trial and execution of Charles I are hunted by the regicide committee of the Privy Council and ‘brought to justice’, charged with regicide. A small number of individuals have fled to the Continent; two, however, have sought sanctuary in the other direction, the American colonies: Colonel Edward (Ned) Whalley and his son-in-law Colonel William Goffe.

Richard Nayler, secretary of the regicide committee has his personal reasons to hound Whalley and Goffe. The majority of individuals in the novel existed; Nayler is an exception, though it’s highly likely somebody like him did exist. ‘… a most useful shadow; a shadow who causes things to happen’ (p41).

The Act of Oblivion of 1660 effectively pardoned everyone who had committed crimes during the English Civil War (1642-1649) with a few heinous exceptions, particularly those individuals named in the actual death of Charles I. The Interregnum was to be legally forgotten. Unfortunately, ‘There is no end to it. Only four men were to die for murdering the King. Then we found records of the trial… and the four became eight, then twelve and now there are dozens of them’ (p44).

The story and much of the hunt takes place in Massachusetts, New Haven, Connecticut, Germany, France, and London. Harris conveys the period with deft visual word-strokes that put the reader in the scene, amidst the squalor of London and the strangely beguiling New World, as well as the sinister dark panelled recesses of powerful men.

‘The destitute of London, mere bundles of rags, crouched in the shadows of the walls. Wounded veterans, missing limbs and hobbling on crutches, swung themselves between the graves. A fearful, horrid place, it seemed to him, more a prison than a hospital. It reminded him of his long period of sickness after Naseby, and the gaol where he was kept after his wife had died’ (p80).

Harris does not flinch from showing the appalling graphic beastliness of the time, notably when Nayler is tasked by the Lord Chancellor Hyde with exhuming the corpse of Cromwell. Nayler is not keen on the ‘foul work’: ‘Since when did that deter you? The idea is certainly not mine, believe me. But Parliament commands it, and really, Mr Nayler, if you cannot find any more living regicides to bring to justice, you might as well at least employ yourself in hanging the dead’ (p121). On 30 January Cromwell’s body and two others were hanged in view of thousands of witnesses and towards the day’s end decapitated, their heads impaled on poles above Westminster Hall, the trunks tipped into a common grave.

There are many instances where Harris’s descriptions put the reader in the scene. ‘No sun tempered the iron frost, just the occasional flurry of snow and a grey sky so heavy it seemed to press all the colour from the buildings. Time itself felt frozen’ (p17). And of course much of their time in hiding would be like that, empty days blending together…

 ‘… stood in the water, inhaling the peace of the wood, the scent of the pine resin, the cooing of the pigeons, the gentle splash of the flow over the stones. Midges swirled above the surface, like dust thrown into a shaft of sunlight; occasionally a fish rose to a mayfly’ (p226). [Though he couldn’t inhale cooing and splashing of water; a semi-colon missing, perhaps].

‘The waves breaking on the shore made a sound no louder than an intake of breath, followed by a long withdrawing sigh’ (p313).

During his investigations in Holland, Nayler encounters ‘the Blackamoor, a ship of the Royal Africa Company, owned by the Duke of York, that lay moored in Rotterdam’ (p273). A topical reminder concerning the slave trade of the period. One regicide, Sir John Lisle, was living under the pseudonym of Mr Field in Switzerland. [Coincidentally, a character in recently reviewed Michael Connelly’s The Black Echo, Billy Meadows, used the pseudonym Fields!] Nayler’s thirst for vengeance acknowledged no obstacles…

This was the time when New Amsterdam was taken from the Dutch and became New York (pp323, 357) which would mean war between the two nations.

During their lengthy periods of hiding the two fugitive regicides dwell on the past, in particular their association with Cromwell: ‘One could never be sure with Oliver. Ambition and godliness, self-interest and the higher cause, the base metal entwined with the gold’ (p342).

Also covered in the story are the terrible Black Death and the Great Fire of London; both well realised.

This is a gripping book about an unrelenting manhunt right up to the last two pages.

Excellent writing and storytelling!

Editorial comment

A minor quibble, which I appreciate as a writer: the book is in four parts – Hunt, 1660; Chase, 1661; Hide, 1662; and Kill, 1674. Yet (inevitably) those dates are exceeded by the storyline; for example on p308 (Hide) it is 1664, and of course the Plague and Fire were in 1666; perhaps inclusive dates would have been more appropriate.

Part vs Book. I’m pleased to see that as the book is broken into parts, the chapter numbering continues. In some books, when instead of Part, the divisions are referred to as Books , in some of these cases the chapter numbering still continues. Logically, in my view, if a book is broken into Parts, the chapter numbering continues; if it is broken into Books, then each Book begins with a chapter one.

History lesson for POTUS Biden:

The two principal New York boroughs were King’s (for King Charles) and Queen’s (for Queen Catherine); while the first is now Brooklyn, the second has retained its English royal name. The Duke of York granted control of the land between the Hudson and Delaware rivers to John, Lord Berkeley and Sir George Carteret. They named the land ‘New Jersey’ after the island of Jersey in the English Channel where Carteret was born. Shortly after the Restoration Charles II granted a wide tract of North America to a group of nobles who founded the colony of Carolina (from the Latin form of their monarch’s name) and its capital was Charlestown.

Wednesday 12 April 2023

THE LOVING SPIRIT - book review


Daphne du Maurier’s debut novel, The Living Spirit, published in 1931, is remarkable, the writing is so assured; whether she is writing about sailing on a storm-tossed sailing vessel or travelling through the beautiful countryside of her beloved Cornwall, you’re there. Within 350 pages she covers four generations of a family’s history: Jennifer Coombe (1830-1863); Joseph Coombe (1863-1900); Christopher Coombe (1888-1912); and Jennifer Coombe (1812-1930).

It begins in 1830, with the marriage of Janet Coombe to her second cousin Thomas. It is a good match, and yet Janet hankered for an adventurous life, away from the small harbour town of Plyn. ‘She loved Thomas dearly, but she knew in her soul there was something waiting for her greater than this love for Thomas. Something strong and primitive, lit with everlasting beauty’ (p18). She wanted to stride across the deck of a sailing boat, but felt chained by her sex and the mores of her time.

‘… the peace of God was unknown to her, and that she came nearer to it amongst the wild things in the woods and fields, or on the rocks by the water’s edge, than she did with her own folk in Plyn. Only glimpses of peace came her way, streaks of clarity in unawakened moments that assured her of its existence and of the certainty that one day she would hold the secret for her own’ (p32).

And: ‘… the rest of her stole from the warm, cheerful room, and the dear kindly faces, and fled away, away she knew not whither, beyond the quiet hills and the happy harbour of Plyn, through the seas and the sky – away to the untrodden air, and the nameless stars’ (p34).

This longing for she knew not what persisted until she absconded from a Christmas attendance at the local church and instead was drawn to the ancient castle ruins overlooking the sea. ‘She leant against the Castle ruins with the sea at her feet, and the light of the moon on her face. Then she closed her eyes, and the jumbled thoughts fled from her mind, her tired body seemed to slip away from her, and she was possessed with the strange power and clarity of the moon itself’ (p37).

It is here, as if experiencing an out-of-body and out-of-time revelation, when she encounters the man from the future, her son. This episode is eerie and moving. And its haunting sequel can be read on p187. Thus, finally, after giving birth to Samuel and Mary, what she had waited for occurred. Her son Joseph was born: ‘And when Janet held her wailing baby to her breast, with his wild dark eyes and his black hair, she knew that nothing in the whole world mattered but this, that he for whom she had been waiting had come at last’ (p51). While she continued to be a loving wife and mother, there was something other binding her to Joseph, ‘a love that held the rare quality of immortality’ (p66).

Janet had three more children, Herbert, Philip and Elizabeth, and of these three Philip proved to be the darkest, most spiteful individual who blighted the lives of others in the family.

Joseph’s wife gave birth to four children: Christopher, Albert, Charles and Katherine. And Christopher fathered three – Harold, Willie and Jennifer.

Both Joseph and Christopher’s lives are seriously damaged by the thoroughly unpleasant Philip’s scheming. The family is displaced to London while Jennifer is a child; these days are well told, displaying the young girl’s burgeoning character and self-reliance. Jennifer seems to have inherited Janet’s restlessness and affinity for the sea. ‘She could not imagine a world without the sea, it was something of her own that belonged to her, that could never be changed, that came into her dreams at nights and disturbed her not, bringing only security and peace’ (p258).

Du Maurier’s descriptions are always so visual, whether about nature or people, such as Jennifer’s grandmother: ‘Slowly she came into the room swaying from side to side, her great breasts heaving beneath her black dress, her white hair piled high on her head like a huge nest. As she moved she grunted to herself, and it took her nearly three minutes before she was seated in her chair, her bad foot on a cushion, and the Bible open before her’ (p264).

Though somewhat grotesque, several scenes involving her grandmother are highly amusing as she frequently misinterprets meanings or miss-hears words – see pp290-291, for example.

The book’s title is taken from one of Emily Bronte’s poems – and is echoed here:

Janet – Joseph – Christopher – Jennifer, all bound together in some strange and thwarted love for one another, handing down this strain of restlessness and suffering, this intolerable longing for beauty and freedom… bound by countless links that none could break, uniting in one another the living presence of a wise and loving spirit’ (p309).

A powerful saga – and an emotional one, too.

Editorial comment

Du Maurier isn’t the only writer who does this: telling you of a dramatic happening and then goes on to detail the actual incident, thereby destroying any surprise, shock or suspense. Sometimes, it may simply be a misplaced afterthought, as this example suggests. On p206: ‘… Christopher made the acquaintance of a young man of his own age, who seemed friendly, and the pair spent their free time together…’ Then on p207: ‘His friend, Harry Frisk, was waiting for him…’ The friend’s name should have been introduced when he was first mentioned, not almost a half-page later. Blame the editor.

Tuesday 11 April 2023

The Art of Robert McGinnis - Overview of book

Over the years, I’ve bought quite a few art books featuring a variety of artists and illustrators. This is a recent acquisition to add to that visual library – published by Titan Books in 2014, text by (appropriately) Art Scott. 

McGinnis has been around a long time, born in 1926, and has produced a remarkably varied body of work, whether featuring femmes fatales, heroic characters from history, stunning scenery, animals and transport, he is a master of all. 

Sumptuous illustrations, the majority in full colour, are featured in a number of sections: Seven decades of McGinnis book covers; the movies (posters etc); magazine illustrations (The Saturday Evening Post, Men’s magazines and National Geographic; McGinnis’s West; Gallery art, mostly nudes; and Landscapes.

There’s a four-page introduction, an interview covering another four pages, then each pictorial section is introduced briefly. 

If you appreciate good art, then this is a book for you.

Saturday 1 April 2023

R.I.P. Neil Robson

Neil Robson 

(4 January 1948-27 February, 2023)

I read the following at the order of service at the cremation on 31 March:

I’ve known Neil since our school-days so he has been a part of my life for near enough sixty-three years. And now he is gone.

He was a man of many parts, a connoisseur of whiskies, knowledgeable in world music (from pop to classical, ethnic to movie), old movies (usually of the British black-and-white variety), trains, local history, radio, photography, video-editing, and computing. While still at school he’d constructed a (doubtless illegal) directional-microphone – but never entered the sleuthing world. He was accomplished in woodwork and even constructed an office or two, and he would happily build a computer for friends and associates. He enjoyed puzzles – notably cryptic crosswords. And he loved gadgets, often being one of the first to own a new one: for example, left-right indicator lights for a bicycle. Surprisingly, he was a late convert to Alexa.

After his death, someone said that ‘wherever he is now, he’ll be at pains to put them right’. Because he was a perfectionist who ‘believed that the only way to do something was the Robson Way.’ He was often right, but conceded there were alternatives; to each his own!

While he will be remembered by many people for many interactions with them, perhaps his greatest gift to those who knew him was that he was most generous with his time, willing to help friends or neighbours with any problem, whether plumbing, electrical, mechanical or relating to computers.

Though not an avid reader, he was interested in words, hence his attachment to crosswords, and took pride in his pronunciation of certain words, not least being honorificabilitudinitatibus, which Shakespeare only used once, in Love’s Labour Lost.

At 27 letters it’s the longest word in the English language which strictly alternates consonants and vowels. It means ‘the state of being able to achieve honours’.

Certainly, Neil achieved honours by his long-lasting friendships, of which there were many from school and his time with the National Coal Board (where he met Margaret and was then subsequently joined with her at the hip).

He was adept at picking up foreign words or phrases, be they Welsh, or bits of German from their visits to Austria and Germany, or snippets of Spanish during their twice-yearly visits to us in Spain over fifteen years.

His humour was invariably dry. When I told him in hospital that his stroke was a shock to us all, he replied, ‘Not as much as it was to me’.

He was wont to deliberately mispronounce certain words so that thereafter the listener would forever be plagued with that version – two examples spring to mind: the local village of Wideopen was pronounced Wideo pen; and Finestrat the Spanish village near Benidorm became finest rat! He also adopted the baton passed on by Terry Wogan, inventing silly names, such as Lidia Bin, Anna Rack, Dai Laffin, Dicky Tikker, Nora Bone, Jim Shoes and Al Fresko…

So, yes, he may be gone, but for many reasons, as well as the aforementioned memories, he’s not forgotten.