Monday, January 27, 2014

2,229: Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock

If you read any of my series of posts on my favourite childhood books, you will appreciate how important Roald Dahl’s stories were to me as a child.  I’m also delighted that mini-Falaise appears to be equally as taken with books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach and Fantastic Mr Fox.  Her absolute favourite, though, is Matilda.  Book, film and musical versions have all been a massive hit with her, although I was surprised that I had never come across it as a boy.

There is actually an easy and obvious answer to this, of course.  It was first published in 1988, when I was at university and it would probably have been a little odd had I been rushing to Blackwells to pick up a copy (and given the minor disagreement I was having with them at the time over the size of my unpaid account, they probably wouldn’t have sold me a copy anyway!).  In my own childishly self-centred way, I had always seen Dahl as being a figure of my own youth, a writer who must, surely, have stopped writing at about the time I stopped reading him!

So, when I came across Donald Sturrock’s biography of Dahl, Storyteller, I was curious to learn more about the author who has given two generations of my family so much pleasure.
It’s a bit of a cliché (or truism?) to note that those whose lives make the best biographies tend to be the more complex characters and that the most complex characters aren’t always the most likeable and so it proved with Dahl.

Sturrock was a friend of Dahl (and, given the difference in ages between the two, a bit of an acolyte as well) and was appointed to write this biography by Ophelia, one of Dahl’s daughters.  Consequently, with this being as near to an authorised biography as one can get of a dead man, one has to suspect that Sturrock is likely to be sympathetic to his subject.  If so, Dahl really must have been a prize shit at times.

Even without his mass of conflicting virtues and vices, Dahl’s life would have been fascinating.  A Norwegian immigrant, his father died when Dahl was just seven.  After an unhappy schooling at Repton and a short spell working for Shell in Africa, he became an RAF pilot in World War II.  Having crashed on his first operational flight and having suffered a serious back injury, he was posted to Washington as a member of a British intelligence unit.  There he began his writing career and also enjoyed the US capital’s social scene.

One of the revelations of Storyteller was how, after initial success, Dahl tried and failed to become an adult novelist, ending up writing dark (and sometimes distasteful) short stories for American magazines.  Indeed, it wasn’t until the end of the ‘50s that he turned his hand properly to children’s fiction (and even then supplemented it with partially successful script-writing for Hollywood).
One of the key motifs of Dahl’s life was his habit of falling out with people, especially agents, editors and publishers.  He seems to have been hideously egocentric and ungrateful to people such as Sheila St Laurence, his American agent and the person who persuaded him to try children’s fiction.  Sturrock reports how, when he ended his relationship with Random House, staff in their New York office stood on their desks cheering with relief.  When added to the fact that many of the key literary figures in his life contributed much, much more to the detail of his books than he ever gave them credit for, it adds up to a not-very-pretty picture.

He actively portrayed himself as a secluded writing genius, sitting in the shed at the end of his garden in Buckinghamshire to produce his books, something that was far from the truth.  This self-mythologising was also evident in his “creative” retelling of his childhood and RAF experiences in Boy and Going Solo.  In particular, Sturrock doesn’t shy away from examining Dahl’s near-fictionalisation of his wartime plane crash (although does theorise on the medical consequences in a way that probably gives Dahl more credit that he was due).

As well as a rich and turbulent professional life, Dahl’s personal life was also packed with incident and tragedy.  His son, Theo, was left brain damaged after a road accident in New York at the age of four.  Worse still, his eldest daughter, Olivia, died of encephalitis when she was just seven and his first wife, the actress Patricia Neal suffered a major stroke at the age of 39 that had doctors writing her off as a vegetable.

And this is where the more heroic side of Dahl comes in.  Frustrated by the inadequacy of the shunt that was needed to drain fluid from Theo’s brain, Dahl drove the development of a more efficient device that is said to have saved the lives of several thousand children (including the child of one of his editors).  After Neal’s stroke, Dahl pushed her to an almost miraculous recovery, following which she was able to resume her career (and outlive him by 13 years).

But, just when one begins to admire him again, Sturrock suggests that Dahl was actually quite relishing the sense of no longer being in his Hollywood star wife’s shadow and the sense of control he had over her.  And, in the end, while she was still in a vulnerable state, he was to leave her for his second wife, Felicity Crosland, with whom he had been having a decade-long affair.  Here Sturrock, in my view, tends to gloss over the devastation that the affair must have caused Neal and Dahl’s children, with most of whom he had a difficult relationship.  In fact, Tessa ended up burning her school down to get his attention.

On the whole, Sturrock does a good job of treading a line between offending the Dahl family that had given him the mandate to write Storyteller and whitewashing the dark and unpleasant side of Dahl’s character.  Even more impressively, he manages to fit in some decent analysis of Dahl’s writing and its influences in between telling the story of Dahl’s life.

Something I hadn’t realised at all was the level of hostile criticism that was directed at Dahl’s children’s fiction.  In truth, he was transformative in giving a voice to the dark and wild impulses that lie within children and of writing stories that would appeal to them rather than stories written from an adult’s perspective extolling appropriate behaviours and morals.  All sorts of critics and organisations (including the American Library Association) lined up to criticise this approach which, despite Dahl’s irascibility and argumentative nature often being his own worst enemy, seem ludicrous today.  Sturrock faithfully chronicles this fascinating argument, including a particularly poisonous comment from Ursula LeGuin.

Generous, loving (at least to Felicity), argumentative, possibly anti-Semitic, womanising and thoroughly difficult, I found it hard to warm to Dahl the man but remain in love with his books and unable to deny the profound changes he wrought in children’s literature which have transformed the genre for the better.

Sturrock ends this excellent biography by noting how strange it is that Dahl only won one major award for children’s literature in his lifetime and by quoting a comment that Dahl made shortly before his death:

“Sometimes it gives me a funny feeling that my writing arm is about six thousand miles long and that the hand that holds the pencil is reaching all the way across the world to faraway houses and classrooms where children live and go to school.  That’s a thrill all right.”

Quite so.

Friday, January 24, 2014

2,330: The Classics Club - The Thirty Nine Steps by John Buchan

I can remember the first time I read The Thirty Nine Steps.  I was thirteen and was immediately hooked.  Over the course of a single weekend, I devoured all five of the novels that featured Richard Hannay.  As part of my Classics Club list, I’ve recently re-read it to see if my views have changed.

Written in 1915 and set on the eve of the First World War, The Thirty Nine Steps was the first of John Buchan’s novels to feature Hannay, a Rhodesian mining engineer who has returned to the old country having made some money.  Having become somewhat bored with the London scene, Hannay gets involved with a peculiar, self-professed spy, Scudder, who claims to have secret information about a nefarious plot to assassinate a Greek politician, Karolides, in London and cast Europe into war.  Hannay gives Scudder shelter in his flat, only to find him murdered there some days later.  Driven both to avoid being arrested for Scudder’s murder and to stymie the plot, Hannay escapes to the Highlands, pursued by police and plotters. 

There ensues a hectically paced series of chases, captures and escapes, featuring stereotyped Scottish labourers, politicians and one of the genre’s classic gang of villains, the Black Stone, and its leader:

“As he spoke his eyelids seemed to tremble and to fall a little over his keen grey eyes. In a flash the phrase of Scudder's came back to me, when he had described the man he most dreaded in the world. He had said that he 'could hood his eyes like a hawk'.”

Of course, after a string of exciting escapades, Hannay solves the mystery, thwarts the plot and saves the day, enabling Great Britain to enter the First World War still in possession of its military secrets.

On a re-reading, I could immediately see why I loved it so much as a child.  It’s incredibly fast-paced with plenty of action and a series of mini-cliff-hangers.  Hannay is drawn as an uncomplicated and old-fashioned sort of hero, thoroughly decent, dashing and brave, with a stiff upper lip and a willingness to “play the game”.  By contrast, the Black Stone are evil and deceitful, the worst kind of baddies.

On top of all that, Buchan adds a liberal dose of conspiracy theory and international intrigue.  Scudder describes his discovery of the plot in suitably melodramatic terms:

“I got the first hint in an inn on the Achensee in Tyrol. That set me inquiring, and I collected my other clues in a fur-shop in the Galician quarter of Buda, in a Strangers' Club in Vienna, and in a little bookshop off the Racknitzstrasse in Leipsic. I completed my evidence ten days ago in Paris. I can't tell you the details now, for it's something of a history. When I was quite sure in my own mind I judged it my business to disappear, and I reached this city by a mighty queer circuit.

I left Paris a dandified young French-American, and I sailed from Hamburg a Jew diamond merchant. In Norway I was an English student of Ibsen collecting materials for lectures, but when I left Bergen I was a cinema-man with special ski films. And I came here from Leith with a lot of pulp-wood propositions in my pocket to put before the London newspapers. Till yesterday I thought I had muddied my trail some, and was feeling pretty happy. Then—“

Now it may be thirty years since I first read it, but I haven’t really changed all that much.  I still like a good adventure story, still love the idea of the amateur spy lurking in dark and exotic corners of the world and remain partial to the atmosphere and style of pre-WW1 Europe.  So I should still have enjoyed The Thirty Nine Steps.

And I sort of did.  But not totally.  In fact, I felt quite uncomfortable at times.  Buchan was a product of the Victorian age, an Establishment figure, having served as an MP in Great Britain and, later, as Governor General of Canada.  He therefore was imbued with the attitudes and beliefs of Empire, including views on racial issues that are, fortunately, totally unacceptable and reprehensible today.  By way of example, Scudder describes the forces behind the political unrest in Europe thus:

“The capitalists would rake in the shekels, and make fortunes by buying up wreckage. Capital, he said, had no conscience and no fatherland. Besides, the Jew was behind it, and the Jew hated Russia worse than hell.

'Do you wonder?' he cried. 'For three hundred years they have been persecuted, and this is the return match for the pogroms. The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the backstairs to find him. Take any big Teutonic business concern. If you have dealings with it the first man you meet is Prince von und zu Something, an elegant young man who talks Eton-and-Harrow English. But he cuts no ice. If your business is big, you get behind him and find a prognathous Westphalian with a retreating brow and the manners of a hog. He is the German business man that gives your English papers the shakes. But if you're on the biggest kind of job and are bound to get to the real boss, ten to one you are brought up against a little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake. Yes, Sir, he is the man who is ruling the world just now, and he has his knife in the Empire of the Tzar, because his aunt was outraged and his father flogged in some one-horse location on the Volga.’”

Now there are some commentators who claim that Buchan is just reflecting the views of Scudder, who is pretty disreputable and discredited figure.  But the general tone of contempt for other races and nationalities is continued elsewhere in the book.  Hannay comments upon the planned assassination of the Greek Prime Minister:

“The fifteenth day of June was going to be a day of destiny, a bigger destiny than the killing of a Dago.”

And so on and so on.

I’ve commented in the past about seeing distasteful and outdated views in literature in the context of the time the relevant book was written but, for some reason, the appearance of overt and casual racism in The Thirty Nine Steps gave me a far stronger emotional reaction than equally abhorrent views in books that I liked less.  Maybe it is that juxtaposition of an old favourite novel with views with which I disagree so strongly.

In any event, The Thirty Nine Steps remains a classic adventure story that I found still enjoyable but far less so than it was thirty years ago.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

2,331: Whatever happened to Billy Parks? by Gareth Roberts

Billy Parks, the titular hero of Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? is a washed-up ex-footballer from the ‘70s who threw his talent and career away into a sea of booze.  Now, he’s a broken alcoholic, divorced and estranged from his daughter and grand-son and reduced to telling old stories for drinks in pubs.

But, what if it could be different?  What if there was one thing that, if it could be changed, would make everything OK again?  What if there could be redemption for Billy Parks?  And, in Whatever Happened to Billy Parks?, there might just be something.

So, let me take you back to 17 October 1973.  To Wembley Stadium.  To England’s final qualifying match for the 1974 World Cup.  To a match that has haunted England fans for 40 years.

England needed to beat Poland to qualify, whilst a win or a draw would work for Poland.  In a now infamous quote, Brian Clough had described the Polish goalkeeper, Jan Tomaszewski, as a “clown”, a comment that would come back and bite England.  As the match progressed, England were dominating possession but couldn’t score, being repeatedly denied by an inspired Tomaszewski.  Against the run of play, the Poles then took the lead on a counter-attack, leaving England two goals to the bad.  A dubious Alan Clarke penalty saw England pull level with 30 minutes left on the clock but Sir Alf Ramsay, in what would turn out to be his last game in charge, dithered over a substitution, leaving it to the 88th minute before bringing on Derby County’s Kevin Hector.  With only seconds to go, Hector had a certain goal cleared off the line and England were out of the World Cup, sending the nation into trauma.

But, what if?  What if, instead of Hector, Sir Alf had brought on a different striker?  In fact, what might have happened if his finger had pointed at Billy instead?  How would life have been different?

On that awful, awful night for English football, the unpredictable genius of Billy Parks was left on the bench but now the Council of Football Immortals is offering Billy the opportunity to go back in time, take Kevin Hector’s place and score the goal that would make everything right.  The catch?  Well, the Council has to choose between Billy and Kevin Keegan and to be chosen, Billy will have to justify his life to the Council.

Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? is one of those rare beasts, a truly good novel about sport.  It manages this by being, first and foremost, a fine story about how people cope with fame and success, the nature of genius, alcoholism and, ultimately, the power of not only redemption but also the mere hope of redemption.

On top of this, Gareth Roberts layers an almost historical story of football in the ‘70s with a cast of the greats and not-so-greats of English football of the time.  Bobby Moore, George Best, Sir matt Busby and Brian Clough all pass through the pages of the book as Mr Roberts paints a picture of the era.

There are relatively few really top notch sports novels that spring to mind:  This Sporting Life, The Damned United, Chess (if you allow chess as a sport), The Master of Go (which really stretches the definition of sport) and that’s about all that come to mind, so it’s a real pleasure to come across another one.  The concept is highly original and, with the caveat that the supernatural or fantastical elements to it may make it difficult for potential readers or booksellers to categorise, it will, hopefully, do very well.

Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? is nostalgic, melancholy, full of footballing atmosphere and, if you want to know whether Billy finds redemption, I recommend you buy a copy now.

I'd like to thank the publisher, The Friday Project, for allowing me to read Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? via Netgalley.

Monday, January 6, 2014

2,332: Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly

Eh bien, mes amis, could this really be a new Agatha Christie?  Could this really be a lost Hercule Poirot story, published for the first time by Witness Impulse, HarperCollins’ digital mystery imprint?

Well, yes and no.  For, in truth, the story goes something like this.  Back in 1954, Ms Christie agreed to write a story, the proceeds of which would be donated towards the purchase of new stained glass windows for her local church. Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly, a novella featuring the great Belgian himself was the result.  So, why is it only now being published, I hear you cry.  Well, dearly beloved, this may come as a shock but, what with it being that awkward beast, a novella, neither short story fish nor novel fowl, not even Agatha herself could get anyone to publish it.

She liked the story though and turned it into a full-length novel, Dead Man’s Folly, with the church receiving the proceeds of Greenshaw’s Folly, a Miss Marple story in its place.  And that’s the rub for, although technically a new story, Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly will be immediately recognisable to anyone who has read (or seen) Dead Man’s Folly.

For those who haven’t, the story opens with M. Poirot receiving an urgent cry for help from his friend, the mystery writer Ariadne Oliver.  Rushing down to the titular Greenshore House, he finds that Mrs Oliver is engaged in devising a murder mystery for the village fete and that the most serious thing that has actually happened is that she has had a premonition.  Of course, the premonition is borne out when the lady of the house goes missing and the fake corpse in the murder mystery turns out to be very dead indeed.  Cue Poirot and cue a classic Christie mystery.

Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly has all the ingredients of a Christie mystery: an English country house, lots of red herrings, some nicely antiquated snobbery, caricature suspects and, of course, Poirot himself.  There is also some amusement to be had from Ariadne Oliver, a thinly-disguised parody of Christie herself, and her musings on the detective story process.  Christie uses Oliver and her fictional detective, the Finn Sven Hjerson (a clear allusion to Poirot) to poke fun at herself and to vent her frustrations at Poirot whom she had grown to dislike - she once described him as a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep.”

Although it’s only half-true to describe it as a lost work, Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly is a thoroughly enjoyable short read that will appeal to lovers of Golden Age detective novels as well as to Christie fans.  Just make sure you haven’t read or watched Dead Man’s Folly recently.

I’d like to thank Witness Impulse for allowing me to read this via Edelweiss.

Friday, January 3, 2014

2,333: The Rules of Acting by Michael Simkins

Michael Simkins is one of those actors whose face you’d recognise but whose name may well elude you.  Since leaving RADA in the late 1970s (he was a contemporary of the wonderful Timothy Spall), he has had a varied theatre, film and TV career, appearing in the likes of Mamma Mia!, Chicago, Richard III, Yes Prime Minister, Foyle’s War, East Enders, A Touch of Cloth, V for Vendetta and The Iron Lady.  In addition, he writes regularly for a number of newspapers and has carved out a little niche in gently humorous, often self-deprecating, books.

The latest of these, The Rules of Acting, is ostensibly a guide to aspiring actors, designed to help them through the various stages of a jobbing actor’s life, from drama school onwards.  Drawing on his own experiences, he dispenses advice on all aspects of the thespian life, such as learning lines, firing an agent, attending the Oscars and, most importantly, why failing to read a script to the end can result in horrendous consequences, like having to simulate sex with a pig.

In reality, it is much more of a ramble through his own career and much the better for it.  Although dispensing some sound advice, it is all tempered with a wealth of anecdotes, some of which are wry and others belly-laugh-inducing.  As an actor who has worked with almost everyone who is anyone in showbusiness (from Meryl Streep to Kelly Osbourne!), there are plenty of tales to tell.

Of course, Simkins is an outlier in the theatrical profession in having built a successful and prolific career.  As he points out, acting is a profession with an unemployment rate at any given time of some 92%.  Indeed, Simkins himself has had to supplement his acting work with presenting safety training workshops for sewage workers and working as a crate smasher in a car factory.  His first piece of advice for aspiring actors is actually to find another career and towards the end of the book, there is a salutary account of Simkins’ search for the members of his class at RADA.  Other than the aforementioned Spall and Sinkins himself, virtually none of his other contemporaries had managed an acting career of any note and most were out of the industry altogether.

Reading The Rules of Acting feels like spending an evening in the pub with SImkins whilst he regales one with theatrical tales.  It’s great fun as well as being understatedly instructive for aspiring actors and I’d heartily recommend it to anyone with an interest in showbusiness.  If your interests tend more towards sport, Simkins’ account of his obsession with cricket, Fatty Batter, is also simply wonderful and I would recommend this too.

I’d like to thank Random House’s Ebury Publishing for allowing me to read The Rules of Acting via Netgalley.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

2,334: Poirot and Me by David Suchet

This may sound rather silly but I’ve still not been able to watch it.  It sat on my Sky+ box for weeks before being replaced by a DVD version just before Christmas and now rests on the DVD shelves awaiting the call but, for some reason, I’m just not ready for it.

I’m talking about Curtain, of course, the last ever episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, with David Suchet as everyone’s favourite Belgian.  It started nearly 25 years ago in January 1989 with The Adventure of the Clapham Cook and ran for 70 episodes, covering every Poirot novel and virtually all of the short stories.  It’s a great achievement as the main characters remained constant throughout the whole run and Suchet’s Poirot is, surely, now the definitive Poirot, standing head and shoulders above other cinematic Poirots, including those of Peter Ustinov and Albert Finney.

As well as this, it has been one of my personal favourite series, having started whilst I was at university and having been an on-and-off companion throughout my adulthood.  There is something peculiarly comforting about Suchet’s humane and affectionate portrait of Poirot and, even now, if I’ve had a tiresome day, I will slip an episode into the DVD player after Mrs F has fallen asleep and allow it to soothe me like a nice mug of hot chocolate.

Oddly enough, though, I had completely missed just how loved the series was by the general public and had, for some strange reason, thought it was just another TV detective show that I happened to have developed a peculiar fondness for.  Not so.  Not by a country mile as, come last November, in the run-up to the final episode, there was a blizzard of media coverage of the event, David Suchet became a staple of the interviewer’s sofa and the man himself published Poirot and Me, a memoir of his time as the great detective.

It’s a very engaging read and Suchet comes across as a serious character actor who ended up identifying with Poirot maybe a little too much and becoming driven to complete the cycle and to portray the character in the way he felt would realise Christie’s vision of Poirot.    Incidentally, he also appears to be a genuinely nice man, with the merest touch of thespian vanity.

The book opens with Suchet’s account of how he came to get the role, including a meeting with Christie’s daughter the (now late) Rosalind Hicks in which she admonished him not to mess it up and the advice he received from his brother, the ITV newsreader John Suchet – don’t touch it with a bargepole!

Fortunately, David ignored this well-intentioned fraternal advice and prepared for the role by listing 93 character traits of Poirot that he needed to reflect, which is actually reproduced as an illustration in the book.

As well as containing reflections from Suchet on pretty much every episode he appeared in, Poirot and Me is stuffed with fascinating anecdotes, on and off the set.  We hear about disagreements between star and directors, changes in production team, his fellow actors and actresses and the struggles in achieving the full cycle.

Although obviously focussing on Poirot, the book is also an interesting account of the life of a character actor and it is immensely to Suchet’s credit that, despite becoming so closely identified with Poirot, he managed to maintain a flourishing career away from the series and has become one of Britain’s best character actors.

All in all, if you loved the series or have an interest in TV or the stage, I am sure you will enjoy Poirot and Me.  And frankly, it’s worth the purchase price just for the story of Suchet, the mango and the Royal……….