Bonus post this week: An interesting sequence from Dave Kinsbury.
My copy of, The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories, claims that Agatha Christie is ‘The Queen of Mystery’, and I’m inclined to believe that might be a fair assessment. How many other writers have won the esteem of such a vast raft of readers over so many decades? I can think of only a handful.
Most authors who have had time in the limelight eventually drift out of fashion, even in the second-hand market. Some will be picked up again by publishers who specialise in reminding us of neglected, but worthwhile reads, many more will fade. That’s fine, it has to be, or where is the room for new writers?
Agatha Christie, though, seems to have a special place in this system. I’m not going to claim she’s universally loved or admired. I’ve met plenty of people, including readers of mystery, who don’t rate her for various reasons. Still, her books continue to be published, and bought. Last time I saw my friend Ruth, the bookseller, she told me Christie was one of her most asked for authors.
So, what’s the trick? I think Christie is like a good quality bar of chocolate: comforting. In her novels we’re in fairly safe hands. The murdered are usually people we either don’t know, or aren’t sure we like, and the solution is generally tricky to predict. We might be able to identify romances in the making, but you’ve got to be a careful reader to assemble the crime-clues correctly.
Romance might be the key. Characters, generally with forgivable flaws, are gradually revealed to be secretly falling for someone who seems to be unsuitable. Often they mistakenly suspect the object of their attention is the guilty party, and are conflicted about providing vital evidence. In the process of discovering this, they learn something about themselves.
Oh dear, how cynical I sound. But, break any story down, and doesn’t it become flat? In a Christie novel main characters, even the caricatures, are not flat. They have quirky dialogue, or entertaining mannerisms. They’re active and interesting, digging up red-herrings to keep me guessing.
In the past, I’ve read a lot of Christie’s short and long fiction. As I contemplated the Harper/Collins paperback I thought about why I’ve preferred her novels. Had I given the short-stories a fair read? I flicked a couple of pages over. Nothing else had caught my eye, and this paperback was less than a pound. Reader, I bought it.
I’d like to be able to say I had a revelation, but I don’t want to mislead you. The stories are nicely written. Setting and situation are delivered economically. There’s snappy dialogue, tight plotting with twists that I mostly didn’t foresee, and neat solutions. So, I’ve been asking myself, ‘why don’t I like them?’
In general, these felt dated, and irrelevant in a way that her novels don’t. The novels draw me in gently, settle me into situations far outside of my experience, whether that means a smart ‘otel on a private island, an archaeological dig in a desert, or dinner at a crumbling stately home. There are introductions, a chance to find my feet.
The short stories dropped me into an upper-middle-class 1930s world, often with characters I’d never met before. Four of the stories featured Poirot. ‘Phew,’ I thought, ‘throw me a life-buoy, Hastings, old chap, will you? Please?’ He tried. Miss Marple tried too. I couldn’t adjust. I tried to think myself into the period. These, after all, were not written with an eye to the future. It felt like hard-work.
Sometimes a lot of characters tried to hold my attention, in others several significant doors were opened or shut in the same paragraph. The focus was on the puzzle, and some puzzles seemed big for the space they occupied.
Was there one story I liked? I’m afraid not: there were fragments.
‘Problem at Pollena Bay’ came closest. The premise was so simple I actually worked out the solution, but the characterisation was strong.
Am I sorry I read them? No, I learnt a lot by working out what I didn’t like. I’m not sure I need to re-read them, though I’ve not given up on Christie’s short stories. Apparently she wrote over 100. I’ve a long way to go.
‘I do have opinions,’ said the man in the blue suit, ‘but I try to keep them to myself. It’s so easy to upset a client.’ He sipped at his coffee and eyed the plate of chocolate biscuits on the table.
‘Do have another one,’ said the client. She nudged the plate towards the man in the blue suit, who had begun to tidy the heap of papers nearest to him. ‘It’s the same with writing stories,’ she said. ‘That’s what Hemingway believed.’
The man in the blue suit, with a crisp white shirt, concentrated on the biscuits. ‘Hemingway?’
The client nodded. ‘Yes. He said it’s not our job to judge, just to understand.’
‘And do you? Understand, I mean?’ said the man in the blue suit, snapping a biscuit up in two bites before bumping his sheaf of papers and sliding them into a glossy folder.
The client smiled. ‘Not even close, I’m afraid. The poor man would be turning in his tomb, if that actually happened.’
The man in the blue suit passed the folder across the table. ‘You need to keep that,’ he said. He took another biscuit. ‘Are you saying you don’t really need to understand?’ He began to straighten his own papers into a neat stack.
‘You say that as if it’s something black and white – as if there’s only one answer to any situation.’
‘Well of course, I didn’t mean it that way.’ The man in the blue suit opened his briefcase and slotted the papers into a pocket. He paused and looked at the client. ‘Ah, I see. If you don’t provide answers…’
‘…the reader can. Exactly. The stories I like best are subtle, the bones of the story are fleshed out with metaphors, symbolism, allusion and ambiguity so that I can go back and read them over and over again. That’s how I want to write.’
The man in the blue suit leant forward and considered the last biscuit. ‘Sounds tricky.’
The client eyed the shower of crumbs cascading down the blue suit and the dazzling white shirt front. ‘It’s a bit like laying clues,’ she said. ‘They don’t always work. Sometimes they’re too obvious, sometimes too subtle. That’s where remembering Hemingway comes in – or Chekov, Mansfield, Pritchett, Taylor, Marquez… pretty much all the writers, past and present, I’ve read and admired have said much the same thing.’
The man in the blue suit flicked his lapels clean. ‘I see, same way songs work.’ He closed his brief-case and stood up, dusting the last traces of food from his shirt and legs. ‘Well, I think that’s all I can do today. I’ll work the figures, and get back to you with some ideas on Monday.’
‘Thanks for calling in,’ said the client, shaking his hand. ‘I should have looked into this years ago, but you know how it is, there’s always something else to do.’
The man in the blue suit nodded, lead the way to the door, then turned back to the client. ‘I’ve got a few thoughts already, but I want to crunch the numbers, so I can give you a full picture,’ he said.
The client shook his hand, and waited until he was through the gate. It was only as she started to shut the door that she glanced down and saw the slightly tattered bluey-black feather on her doorstep.
*Photos from Sue Vincent’s Thursday writing prompt challenge:#writephoto.
I dropped by Sue Vincent’s blog on Thursday and she’d just posted a photo as a writing prompt challenge. Hmm, I thought, why not?
Below is my take, with the picture. Click on the link above to see what the other participants did – you’ll find poetry and prose – or to check out the rules and join in. It’s a weekly event.
The third album Jan pulled out was called, The Night We Will Never Forget. ‘What’s this, Aunty?’ she said, placing the heavy book in the old woman’s lap.
Mindy’s gnarled fingers stroked the varnished surface. ‘Lovely,’ she said. ‘You don’t get sunsets like that any more.’ She smiled, tracing the glowing clouds that hovered on a dark horizon, and drifted back into silence.
Jan said, ‘Is it somewhere special?’ She raised her voice, ‘Where is this?’
‘What’s that, dear?’
‘Do you remember where you took this?’
Jan lifted the album closer to the old woman’s eyes. ‘The photo.’
Mindy shook her head. ‘Haven’t a clue, dear. Looks like a lovely book. What’s it about?’
Victor Sawden Pritchett (or VSP, as he preferred to be known) was a prolific British writer,born in 1900, he died in 1997. For fifty years of the twentieth century he produced stories, and he was popular.
Yes but, you might say, he’s writing about life an awfully long while ago. Why bother? There are lots of modern stories to choose from.
Well, it’s useful to see how things have changed, or not changed, in lived lives, and the way words are used. VSP once said:
“I should like to think that a writer just celebrates being alive. I shall be sorry to die, but the notion of seeing life celebrated from day to day is so wonderful that I can’t see the point of believing anything else.”
Of all the advice given out by writers, one of the few things they agree on is that writers should read. Many list VSP amongst their favourite authors. To find out why, you could look at critical discussions explaining what he did, and even how, but before you do that, track down one of his stories and see if the magic touches you.
You might start with, ‘The Voice’. It’s set during the London blitz, and begins:
A message came from the rescue party, who straightened up and leant on their spades in the rubble. The policeman said to the crowd: ‘Everyone keep quiet for five minutes. No talking, please. They’re trying to hear where he is.’
The silent crowd raised their faces and looked across the ropes to the church which, now it was destroyed, broke the line of the street like a decayed tooth.
Soon singing is heard, from below the rubble.
‘That’s Mr Morgan all right,’ the warden said. ‘He could sing. He got silver medals for it.’
The Reverend Frank Lewis frowned.
‘Gold, I shouldn’t wonder,’ said Mr Lewis dryly. Now he knew Morgan was alive, he said: ‘What the devil’s he doing in there? How did he get in? I locked up at eight o’clock last night myself.’
Lewis was a wiry, middle-aged man, but the white dust on his hair and his eyelashes, and the way he kept licking the dust off his dry lips, moving his jaws all the time, gave him the monkeyish, testy and suspicious air of an old man. He had been up all night on rescue work in the raid and he was tired out. The last straw was to find the church had gone and that Morgan, the so-called Reverend Morgan, was buried under it.
It’s not the last straw though, this is only the beginning. Eudora Welty said:
‘Any Pritchett story is all of it alight and busy at once, like a well-going fire. Wasteless and at the same time well-fed, it shoots up in flame from its own spark like a poem or a magic trick, self-consuming, with nothing left over. He is one of the great pleasure-givers in our language’
It’s as good a definition as any I’ve seen.
The scandal of it, Lewis was thinking. Must he sing so loud, must he advertise himself? I locked up myself last night. How the devil did he get in? And he really meant: How did the devil get in?
More to the point, will he get out, and what will happen along the way?
I found two Elizabeth Bowen novels in the bargain box at the Oxfam shop this week. Both from the 1950s. If her short stories were to go by, I was in for a treat.
I opened A World of Love as soon as I got home. It begins: ‘The sun rose on a landscape still pale with the heat of the day before.’ Hmm, I thought, does that make sense? It’s a poetic way to describe a heat-wave.
I read on. ‘There was no haze, but a sort of coppery burnish out of the air lit on flowing fields, rocks, the face of the one house and the cliff of limestone overhanging the river.’ I read slowly, not sure if I liked this, still niggling at that first sentence.
There were three long paragraphs of description, and it was in the same mannered style. Wallow with me, Bowen seemed to demand. Love the idea of this place as I do.
‘This light at this hour, so unfamiliar, brought into being a new world – painted, expectant, empty, intense. The month was June, of a summer almost unknown; for this was a country accustomed to late awakenings, to daybreaks humid and overcast.’
A flirtation with the mystical was all very well, but where were the characters? Neither the writing nor the story had hooked me yet and I was on page two.
In her short stories, Bowen’s style was clear and concise. I hunted down The House in Paris, a novel she published more than twenty years before this one, and found the same clear prose. A World of Love, then, was the work of a mature writer, someone with a literary reputation, who knew what she was doing.
I decided to persevere. The main setting, Montefort, was a crumbling manor-house on the edge of a cliff, that may or may not be metaphorical, and was so central to events that it might have been intended as the real focus of the story.
The three principle characters, Jane, the beautiful young daughter of the house, Lilia, her mother, and Antonia, Jane’s aunt, seem to carry equal weight. The power structure that has existed for all of Jane’s life is about to be challenged, by Jane’s discovery of some letters, written before she was born.
Nothing is explained, but gradually, things are said. As one character interacted with another, usually acrimoniously, I became aware of hidden depths. The writing that I found so obstructive forced me to read slowly, and therefore to think, to revise my initial judgements. Could that convoluted syntax be a deliberate ploy? Maybe she intended a resistant reader.
There were lively moments in the dialogue:
Once more Lilia was rallied by that thought. ‘Well, I don’t mind – but that there’s no place I care to have ices in. Also, spoiling our dinners.’
‘Mother, one can’t spoil rhubarb.’
But I continued to get annoyed with the deliberate oddities. Why, ‘Pyramidal the flowers were upon the piano…’? At one point, Peregrine ‘…vacillated over the rugs and parquet till he stood behind her..‘ I think I understand what she’s trying to convey about his manner of walking, but I would rather she hadn’t.
The rediscovered letters were cleverly played. As character after character takes control of them, each reveals a fragment of their history and content, and taking temporary ownership brings unlooked for consequences, too.
As usual, I didn’t take proper note of the epigraph before I began reading. Part of the line Bowen quotes is, ‘There is in us a world of Love to somewhat, though we know not what in the world that should be…’ Wikipedia says that the author, fifteenth century poet-clergyman, Thomas Traherne, meditated on, ‘philosophy, happiness, desire and childhood’. Yes, I see now that what she created was something fleeting and clever. It was a story of quiet actions, but deep resonances.
Bowen writes of one character, getting off a passenger plane:
His glance ran over the thin crowd, as he slowed down past it, not so much expectantly as with a readiness to be expected, an eagerness to smile could he find the cause.
I think that embodies my experience of this novel.
*Photograph from Bill Hammond, ‘Remembering Elizabeth Bowen at Farahy’
This week I finished reading I Claudius, by Robert Graves. I’ve been chipping away at the pages for more than seven days, content to take it slowly. This is a hefty read. I’m not talking about page numbers here. I mean it has a big cast, and covers a lot of history. I’ve had to concentrate, or become lost in the labyrinth of names and connections, even after I discovered the handy family tree at the back.
No wonder the book has been waiting on my shelf for more years than I care to number. It might have stayed there longer if Jean Lee hadn’t nudged me, when discussing my Elizabeth & Mary post. On her recommendation I dusted off Graves and stepped in.
It’s AD 41, and Claudius is writing ‘this strange history of my life’. To explain himself, though, he must also explain his parents, and grandparents, who have all been prominent Romans.
Claudius skips back and forth through time, referring to various key events in the decline of the Republic and the establishment of his Grand-uncle, Augustus, as Emperor. Characters, Graves demonstrates, are formed by their pasts.
In this story that premise is somewhat simplified. It’s focus is the Claudian family.
…one of the most ancient of Rome…There is a popular ballad…of which the refrain is that the Claudian tree bears two sorts of fruit, the sweet apple and the crab, but that the crabs out-number the apples.
I don’t think I’m giving much away if I say that ‘good’ Claudians are largely defined by their desire to re-establish the Republic, and work for the greater good. ‘Bad’ Claudians long for power, and believe me, when they are bad, they are very, very bad.
I liked the reticence of Claudius. Dark deeds are explained, but not in graphic detail, and the darkest ones of all are hinted at. Graves doesn’t hang about. He creates a scene with a few telling details, then moves on. Even the fight scenes, which he seemed to enjoy, were not dwelled upon.
So thanks Jean. You were quite right, I did find it a rewarding read. I didn’t expect to, I’m not sure I wanted to, but I became involved. Look at this opening sentence:
I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as ‘Claudius the Idiot’, or ‘That Claudius’, or ‘Claudius the Stammerer’, or Clau-Clau-Claudius’ or at best as ‘Poor Uncle Claudius’, am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the ‘golden predicament’ from which I have never since become disentangled.
You have to applaud, don’t you? Clause follows clause yet doesn’t lose me along the way. It establishes a character I am inclined to empathise with. Here’s a modest chap, it says, despite my great name: and what about these other names I endured for forty-three years?
Claudius has been a treat to look forward to. I’ve needed only a chapter, maybe two, each day, until I got to the last fifty pages or so. Then I had to sit down and race to the end.
This book is an epic, and should satisfy readers on that level. What raises it above many others in the epic-style, for me, were the moments when I emerged from the text with a shiver of recognition. It was published, in 1934, and was read then, by many, as an allegory for the situation in Europe. I suppose, by their natures, good allegories can continue to seem relevant.
Harriet phoned. ‘I’m afraid we’re losing one of the group. She said she’d read three of the stories, and they were just too depressing. Are there any cheery ones in the anthology?’
‘Well,’ said Vickie. ‘It depends what you mean by cheery. There are several comedies.’
‘She says she doesn’t like P.G.Woodhouse.’
‘Okay,’ said Vickie. ‘Has she tried…hmm, what sort of thing do you think she’s looking for?’
‘I don’t really… something up-beat, I suppose. I had a quick look through myself, but, well, I see what she means, in a way. They’re not what I expected. Are there any happy endings?’
‘Ah, I see what you mean now. One or two, certainly. Maybe more, depending on your point-of-view. They’re not exactly about the endings, though… Hello, Harriet? Are you there?’
‘Yes, yes, still here. Surely the ending’s important?’
‘Oh yes. It’s important, very important. But so is the beginning, and the middle… and mostly, the bit that comes after you’ve read it and thought about it for a while. That might be the most important part of all.’
‘Definitely. After that happens you might decide to go back and read it again.’
‘I hope so.’
‘But will I like it?’
*Top photograph: K. by Lajos Csáki
Last week I picked up a piece of old clay-pipe in a field gateway. I thought it would make the subject of my next blog-post, so I placed it on the side of the laptop and began to type. If you’ve read my previous entry, you’ll know that the pipe never featured.
If you know your bird-lore you may now be ‘picking up’ on why I wrote about magpies instead, and what that implies about the state of my coat pockets. What might not be so clear is what the clay-pipe looked like, or what I mean by ‘old’.
Since I’ve shifted back to magpies, perhaps that won’t matter. The purpose of this piece could be to tell you about how, or why, I pick up broken things that other people have thrown away. Although put like that, it does sound as if I’m just a collector of rubbish.
Let’s try for a positive spin. ‘Collector of rubbish’ suggests a strong civic conscience. Perhaps I like to tidy up litter. If that’s so, why pick up a piece of clay pipe, and how come I put it on my laptop instead of the bin? This spinning is harder than I expected, and we’re back to the composition of that pipe again.
Let me call it a shard, then. You’re taking a kinder view of my habit, aren’t you? It is, after all, a word with gravitas. You’re likely to connect it to museums and galleries, places of serious study. Perhaps I’m an amateur archaeologist, following an ambition to build up a cabinet of curiosities. *
I do like drawers and boxes. I’m not so good with labels though, still working on the one for that pipe fragment. Once we start to think about pipes, even clay ones, there are so many possibilities. I didn’t want to set out with a huge descriptive passage, but now I realise I should have done. You’ve probably already pictured it, so whatever I say will cause a fracture in the imaginative bond we’ve formed, and I can’t help feeling that the pipe is, after all, important.
What if you think it was a piece of drainage pipe? My stopping to pick up something like that would certainly affect the way you view me. It affects the way I view me, anyway.
Let’s be clear about this, the writer provides the only clues a reader has to go on, and I found my piece of pipe at the edge of a field: it’s reasonable then to assume an agricultural connection. In this area, old land-drains can be made from red or yellow clay, and you’ve yet to be told that my piece was creamy-white, or that it was small.
This is starting to feel like a series of cryptic clues. If only I’d said from the outset that I picked up a segment of old clay tobacco pipe. I could have been more precise, and told you it was the junction where the bowl meets the stem. Then, instead of meandering along this maze of suppositions, we would have reached somewhere very different by now.
* Painting: Cabinet of Curiosities by Domenico Remps (1620–1699)
Photos: Left, my pipe fragment; right, Clay pipes at Bedford Museum, photographed by Simon Speed.
There’s no denying that a magpie is a handsome bird. The trick to keeping that white shirt so pristine is a mystery that would be worth millions, if it could be translated to our laundry industry. Imagine the sales pitch, ‘Chemical-free cleaning for a happy environment.’ How welcome would that be to soap manufacturers, I wonder?
As for that petrol-like gleam of blue on those black wings, hood and tail, it out-sheens any silk I’ve seen. Up close, the birds have glamour. Usually, around here, they’re seen from a distance, as a flash of monochrome, flitting out of the way of cars. They are, after all, fine refuse collectors, and despite their handsome dinner-jackets, they relish road-kill.
This spring a pair of magpies have moved into a tree across the road. They’ve constructed their twiggy des-res at the apex of the thin branches at the crown, it looks precarious, I get vertigo just thinking about sitting up there by the hour, but the design is clearly first rate. Despite strong gusting winds during the last month, the nest remains firmly lodged, and Mrs Magpie seems to be brooding her eggs.
Mr Magpie flits back and forth, bringing home the groceries. It’s a lot of work, searching out food for a growing family, which our Magpie couple must have factored in when they decided on this spot. It is, after all, a prime location with several handy garden food stores. He’s taken control of my bird-feeders, especially the inverted terracotta fat-feeder designed to favour acrobatic blue-tits.
Lacking the agility for swinging upside-down to feed, Mr Magpie paces along branches, assessing the problem from all right-way-up angles. That’s when I have a chance to observe without being observed, to admire his elegance. Any other time he keeps one eye always on the house, ready to depart at the twitch of a shadow, but this prize keeps his focus. He can reach the edge of the pot from a parallel branch, if only his beak would bend.
He’s not dainty, or delicate. He drops onto the grass to eye the mush of fat and seed from below. How solid he looks, as if he’s a regular at the gym. There’s no denying his qualities as a pin-up, but does that image tell the whole story? I can feel the twitch of a smile, watching him pace, peering first this way, then that. When he dives up, beak reaching, stabbing into the pot, gulping down fragments of plunder, I’m tempted to laugh and cheer. He tries so hard to hover there, the effort is at odds with his usual economy of movement.
This fellow’s not sunny, or funny though. See how the other birds hurry out of his way? They’re far from charmed by the sophisticated demeanour. They know that Mr & Mrs Magpie are not ideal neighbours, that with their presence the garden has transformed from a gentle landscape of domestic intrigues into one laced with menace.