Sunday, May 31, 2009

Heritage Effects?

We went to Greenwich Park yesterday afternoon. I've never seen it so crowded. If it's like this in May, I don't know what will happen in the Summer - standing room only, perhaps.

It's not just locals. either. At the top of the park, near General Wolfe's statue, foreigner visitors, including Japanese and a number from Eastern Europe, going by their accents, were vying for space to photograph one another astride the meridian line.

It must be the weak pound that's drawing them in. Maybe the fact that Greenwich is now a World Heritage Site (like the Taj Mahal) is having an impact. The lower grassy area resembled Blackpool beach, with so many half-clad sunbathers.

I'm grateful to live within walking distance of such an attractive green space - not so big as the one at Richmond , where I also lived nearby for a year, and which had beautiful herds of deer wandering about, but the wonderful buildings at Greenwich more than make up for that. The Greenwich deer are behind a fence at the top of the park.

After The Tower of London and Buckingham Palace Greenwich is the biggest London tourist draw - at least it was in the run up to the Millennium, when I used to give talks to Travel and Tourism students about the Dome and the effect the area. Benefits included new transport connections and the reclaiming of the heavily polluted Greenwich Peninsula. I attended council meetings to follow the progress of the conntroversial project. As a result, I became a enthusiast. for the project. The Dome cost about £8 mill. to build, entirely funded by National Lottery money, ie public donations. At the time Lottery Money wasn't allowed to be used for hospitals, etc, so all the objections weren't really relevant.

I'm glad to see it's fulfilling forecasts made at the time of construction - that it would be a lasting legacy as the world's biggest concert venue.

It's annoying that the public don't get any of the profit, as it was sold off to a commercial company. I hope some of the revenue from what's now the '02 Arena' goes into the common purse.

Still, the park is free for everybody to enjoy - although I think it'll be Autumn before it regains its charm as a quiet green space.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Good Train Guide

'Be sure to catch the bar coach when you go on the railway,' advised the woman who claimed she'd lived 'on the marsh' for twenty years. I guessed many evenings had been spent in the Rose and Crown at Old Romney.

She must have noticed that one of my companions was very fond of his beer. In fact, he'd picked the pub out in his bible, the Good Beer Guide, as a suitable place to wait for the rest of our party to join us on Friday night, the start of the Bank Holiday weekend.

I'd booked the caravan holiday expecting we could take two of the grandchildren, without bothering to check first. They were off visiting relatives in the north. Still, six people are more than enough to fill a caravan.

I'd had my doubts about the Friday meet-up venue, as the Rose and Crown was well off the main road - we'd driven right past in daylight, so not much chance the others would spot it in the dark.

The marsh lady's recommendation about the railway was right, although there was no sign of onboard alchohol at Romney Sands, the caravan site stop. 'The bar coach is at Hythe', said the man who sold us all-day 'rover' tickets.

Maybe it was just as well. We'd have had our work cut out to get off at all the stops between Dymchurch and Dungeness as well as drink on the train. As it was, we didn't see Dymchurch at all, because we set off in the northerly direction.

The scenery was flat, but this must be the best time of year for the flora and fauna. I'd already heard a cuckoo and seen swans on a lake near the caravan. Although the plant life was scrubby there were plenty of purple and blue flowers in the fields. Strange, for an area that's officially desigated as 'arid' and described as the UK's only desert.

Hythe was a lovely town, but as it was Sunday when we went so all the shops were closed. We'll have to go back, but next time we'll stay at the Rose and Crown, where the landlord said he could do double bed and breakfast for £50 a night. We had a fish lunch in one of the High Street pubs and a walk in a park with shady trees by a river. That must be the one that suddenly changed course in medieval times, in a sudden tempest. The consequential silting up caused a couple of the ports to become landlocked.

We didn't get to St Mary's Bay either, but enjoyed the miniature railway exhibition and tea shop at New Romney. Fortunately R and I had trawled the charity shops ( books and DVDs at non-London prices) the day before, but the town has an eleventh century church called St Nicholas's with barnacled gravestones in the churchyard.

The Pilot Inn at Dungeness is a atmospheric, too, set at the end of a long beach perfect for flying kites. It's where filmmaker Derek Jarman built his stone garden. It's a shame it closes at 9pm on Sundays. Fortunately, it was disco night at the The Romney Tavern, the caravan site pub, and we could sit in the relative quiet of the bar while the racket went on in the adjoining room. I'd forgotten how much I enjoy dancing the Hokey Cokey.

Sure enough, the rest of our party had whizzed past the Rose and Crown on Friday evening - which gave the perfect excuse to meet up at the Cinque Port Arms, further along the road. I think the grandchildren would have liked that too.

The Dymchurch Hythe and Romney railway:

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Dangerous Obsession

'The Fate of Franklin no man may know...'

So goes a line in 'Lady Franklin's Lament', a mid-nineteenth century ballad I heard on an audio hand-set at the National Maritime Museum's new exhibition. It's not so dramatic as the one called 'South!' five years ago, about Scott and the Antarctic, but it's a timely exhibition, given current concerns about global warming. And it's free.

Sir John Franklin led three searches to find a potentially lucrative North West Passage across the arctic wastes, the purpose being to speed up access to eastern spice routes and access furs and whale products.

In 1845, despite being equipped with 'the latest techological innovations' (including canned food) the expedition ships and entire crews vanished.

Lady Franklin set about convincing the government to sponsor further expeditions but it wasn't until 1859 that traces were discovered, including parts of a diary. Some of the rumours circulating caused Charles Dickens to refute claims that the crew had turned to cannibalism in an attempt to survive. Another theory said degraded soldering on the cans could have caused lead poisoning.

There are some very good paintings of other explorers, with some guff about how good-looking they were, and interesting artefacts, including letters, maps, drawings and relics, such as the staff that was stuck in the magnetic pole when it was discovered, a pair of snow goggles, an 1829 ship's biscuits and a whale tusk engraved with a hunting scene.

My personal favourites were the models to show the differences between Inuit traditional fur clothing, 'annuraaqs' (from which we get 'anorak') and European arctic dress, which favours layers. There's also a filmed interview with an Inuit conservationist pointing out the consequences of further traffic after 2030, when it's thought the North West Passage will be free of ice.

Bang up to date, there's even a display case devoted to a man who runs expeditions called 'Ice Warrior', for modern 'explorers' who don't mind temperatures of -30 degrees. He's well supported by modern communication methods, such as satnavs, so there'll be no call for ballads about him and his crews, I hope.

Ice Warror:

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Bit of a Let Down

'Well, really, Sheila, What did you expect?'

This from a man who practically skids to a halt at any sign saying '75% Off!' when he's no idea what the goods are.

In 1959 I'd queued overnight outside the then fairly new Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford -On-Avon to get tickets for Coriolanus. It was a school trip and the drama teacher hadn't managed to get enough tickets so we took it in turns to camp outside the theatre overnight to be first in the queue for the day ones. I still remember the warm August night and the excitement.

I hadn't really expected R to agree to overnight camping to get M&S products for one penny - the price they were when the store first started up. Besides, I wasn't sure what the loo arrangements would be. I had expected he'd be there with me at 9am and that the goods would be the usual ones. Maybe not cashmere sweaters, but at least ordinary underwear and handbags. But no - when I joined the queue, R to follow when he'd finished his porridge, I was handed a leaflet with illustrations of about 15 items. They included a tea-towel, a wallet and a mug with a logo. You had to choose five different items - no grabbing five leather passport holders thinking you could give the spares as Christmas presents.

By ten o'clock the doors still hadn't opened and I was so far from the front I was in the delivery area. I lost my place every time we were marshalled aside so a lorry could get in. The reason for the hold-up was Twiggy signing copies of a history of the store, priced at £9.99, news that was relayed by a man in a straw boater who had been 'entertaining' the queue with a length of rope and a metal ring.

I'd had two text messages from R - one to say he'd joined the queue, and another five minutes later to say he'd left. At a quarter past ten, still no movement so I walked as well.

I was feeling quite let down, and even crosser when, clutching my free pennant and badge, I joined R and found out he'd been drinking coffee, given away in Oxford Street to people at the front of the queue.

There's a lesson there somewhere.

Friday, May 22, 2009

In the Right Order

The Garrick Theatre's location does it no favours. It's tucked away between the library and the bank at the bottom of Charing Cross Road. Even a flashy show like Zorro, with the music piped onto the pavement, couldn't compete for attention with the giant hoardings outside the Palace Theatre in Cambridge Circus. They've had some good shows here, though - excellent Zorro , and the best An Inspector Calls I've ever seen.

I was intrigued when I passed earlier in the week. Workmen were arranging what looked like oversized fridge-magnet letters across the pavement, some of them reversed. Only the sign near the door told me it was all in aid of A Little Night Music, transferring from the even more modestly located Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre in Southwark. Looks to have a good cast, so I'll be watching out for preview offers. Hope they get the letters up in the right order.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Plodding on

'Statton's War' starts promisingly enough, when a star of the silent film era is found impaled on railings in 1940. Distracted by the opportunists' crime-bonanza of war-torn London, the police conclude it's a suicide. But thirty-something allotment-holder Inspector Stratton - think Dixon of Dock Green's less charismatic younger brother - is not convinced. For one thing, she wasn't wearing her false teeth. Pausing only to tuck a marrow under his arm, he downs his spade and starts to investigate.

Laura Wilson certainly knows her onions as far as WW2 research is concerned. The atmosphere, as claimed on the blurb, is painstakingly evoked by descriptions of bombing raids, transport disruptions, parents anxious about evacuated children and bombed-out buildings. It's for this reason, I expect, that the book won the 2008 Ellis Peters Award for Best Historical Crime Novel.

With Stratton's children evacuated to Norfolk and long working hours, strains on his marriage are apparent, although soon resolved by his low-key reassurances and cuddles in the Anderson shelter. His wife, like his in-laws, lacks sparkle, but that's unsurprising for a woman with no discernible occupation other than knitting balaclavas and keeping Stratton's dinner warm. He's the sort of man who looks forward to lamb stew on Mondays.

His personality is not the only thing that's missing. Surprisingly, for members of a supposedly working class community, Stratton and his wife never mention their parents.

There's a potentially lively side plot with well-born Diana Calthrop, working for M15 and falling for a reputed irresistible double agent, but her passive response to a near-rape 'seduction' stretches the readers' sympathy, not to mention his name - Claude. The upper-class ladies of the 'Right Club' she's assigned to infiltrate, Nazi sympathisers who meet in posh surroundings, and the dark secrets of her work superiors, are overwhelmed by the pedestrian pace set by the lack-lustre hero. Admittedly, he does swear a lot, but not when there are ladies about. He's so worthy, I was quite shocked when towards the end, he threatens to dig up unsavoury details from a suspect's past unless he comes clean about his involvement in the murder.

For me his most unattractive trait is his acceptance of the cover-ups and privileges of his superiors, protected by the rigid class system and 'emergency' powers granted to them by the war situation. I wasn't expecting the maverick tendencies of 'Dirty Harry', or the character flaws of Rebus, but perhaps a bit more chip on his shoulder would make this a less depressing read.

Laura Wilson, who reviews crime for The Guardian newspaper, described researching national archives but said she was even more fascinated to hear from people willing to share their memories of war-time London. The twenty year period following 1940 was notable for social change it brought about, especially transforming the lives of middle class women. (For working women, such as my mother, the change was less dramatic, unless you count being diverted from producing cotton to producing munitions.)

This book is the first of a series in which Inpector Stratton and other characters appear but I think I've had enough of the weak beer and rationing, not to mention straight-up Stratton, despite the author's claim that his vegetable-growing hobby, in these credit-crunch times, gives him fashionable cachet. Who knows, in the next he might take to cycling from Tottenham to Great Marlbrough Street - in bicycle clips.

Stratton's War :

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Return of Genevieve

'Huh! You tell me where in Camberwell I can get a handyman who will do the job properly!'

I'd asked my 80 year old friend why she didn't get her doorbell fixed. She lives in a second floor flat, so getting her attention when I call round involves using a mobile phone.

In a way I don't blame her. I can understand she doesn't want to pay the usual £50 'call-out' fee, for such a straight forward job. She's a widow, with no children, so nobody to call on. It seems easier, no doubt, just to rely on visitors by appointment.

But I thought of her when I saw this bubble-blowing van near Trafalgar Square. At first I thought the vehicle must be on its way to a veteran car rally. It reminded me of the classic 1950s film Genevieve, about old bangers competing in the London to Brighton race, with marvellous John Gregson, and Kay Kendall playing a trumpet solo.

The suggestion of 'Upstairs, Downstairs' service, performed by a tradesman so cheerful he'd be singing, seemed incongruous, to say the least. Either handymen have fallen on hard times or it's a way in these credit-crunch times to provide a service that doesn't require an expensive specialist. High marks for tapping into nostagia.

I don't know what the bubbles are about, though.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Holding up a Mirror

'He's in Leeds tomorrow. He did Sheffield yesterday', said the guy across the aisle. The London Review of Books Bookshop was packed to the gunnels for the launch of ‘In Falling Snow’, by Caryl Phillips, a writer who describes his life as ‘recklessly peripatetic’.

I’d never been to a book launch at LRBB before, but was drawn to a description on the mailing list of the author and his new work. Introductory remarks by John Cloud, a professor of English from Leeds University, described Phillips, born the West Indies but raised in Yorkshire, as a 'literary craftsman' and his tenth book as 'a cracking good read' about 'the evolving fortunes of England'. This latest work is in line with his others in holding up a mirror to society.

Phillips said he's 50 but he looks younger, a handsome man with a deep reflective voice honed over hundreds of launches.

His tenth book, 'In the Falling Snow', focuses on Keith, a middle-aged black social worker in London, taking stock of his failed marriage and his relationships with a teenage son and elderly father. Phillips explained, he wanted to show a view of England as represented by three generations. It explores the notions of nationality from days of ‘knowing who we were because we were not them' to his own generation, who ' recall Blair Peach and suss-laws' up to the current 'Ashley Cole/Lewis Hamilton generation' with their 'proprietorial glee and confidence'.

England, he said, was the only country he cared about, although he lived in New York for a umber of years. 'Bush was their problem; Mrs Thatcher was my problem'. He’d felt uncomfortable about Britain's involvement in the war against Iraq but his own loss of local knowledge was brought home to him when someone had to explain ‘Oyster Card’ to him.

It was when he mentioned the authors he'd most admired I realised what was meant about ‘holding up a mirror’ and why he was so well placed to do it. He liked, he said , 'all those sixties novels by writers like Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow, David Storey and Ken Loach. Although fifteen years older than Phillips, and having read them more or less at the time they were published, I knew they depicted a section of society that tended not to appear in mainstream fiction.

Writing, he said, as well as reading, developed ‘the transformative act of generosity that is the moral basis of fiction’ – the willingness to enter into the lives of others.

He wasn’t going to get any arguments from an appreciative bookshop audience.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Short on Catharsis.

The Greeks had a way with tragedy, it seems : ghastly events could be related to some grander scheme, designed by the gods. Nobody could cheat fate, and to think they could made them guilty of hubris, a defiant kind of pride that led to a tragic downfall. The audience staggered from the theatre emotionally drained but feeling they had been reminded of eternal truths.

Now that most people no longer believe in gods, tragedy is problematic. Attempts to blame a section of society for the suffering of others are understandably rejected, particularly if they implicate the audience.

In 1969, I saw Life Price, an example of a play so unpopular the tickets were being given away. In part it was because of the depiction of violent acts, which playwrights as highly regarded as Shakespeare get away with, despite the Greeks' insistence that they happen offstage. The main reason for its failure, as I remember, was the suggestion that modern, i.e. 'sixties', society was to blame for alienated youth.

It occurred to me that Monsters might suffer a similar fate. Life Price included the death of a baby at the hands of teenagers. Monsters examines the almost unthinkable killing of two-year-old James Bulger in 1993 by a pair of ten-year-old truants, who found him wandering in a shopping mall. In a series of staged interviews with police officers and boys, sometimes through voice-overs, we find out that the boy was chosen at random, beaten to death and his body left on a railway line.
Swedish playwright Niklas Rådström highlights the fact that 38 people saw the three boys together but didn't intervene, even when the toddler was seen to be upset.

The play is staged in a modern minimalist style, in parts almost documentary, with naturalistic dialogue based on real interview notes. 'I sag school' says Robert, using clearly authentic slang, when asked to name his hobbies. At other times the actors are a chorus, lined up and formally addressing the audience, sometimes accusatory in tone.

The players, two men and two women, in nondescript clothes, stand on the periphery of a lit square, then step forward to take the roles of grieving mother, police investigator, angry father, sullen or defiant boy. The performances are convincing, especially the gaunt-cheeked Lucy Ellinson playing James's mother. Monitors show flickering media images and emit loud screeches and crackles to indicate scene changes. At times they represent futile surveillance cameras, which recorded the abduction; at times an intrusive media feeding the public's morbid curiosity , the play's title an reference to tabloid headlines.

Two of the actors, in 'neutral' mode, recite a list of children who've murdered others since 1748, their voices increasingly overlapping. They are a reminder of T.S. Eliot's 'Murder in the Cathedral', where the audience know what is about to happen, because it has already happened and, as we are reminded,will continue to happen: ''Now... recently... soon'.

This mix of naturalism within a classical framework doesn't really work here, despite the ideal conditions for staging, in the Arcola's accessible space. Successful when the subject is the murder of a medieval archbishop, formality seems intrusive when mixed with modern urban problems and the depiction of boys killing almost casually. We don't really, in the end, know whether the dramatist blames a kind of unchanging human capacity for cruelty or the breakdown of the family for the anguish and horror we are forced to contemplate. Monsters is a better play than Life Price because it takes a particular shocking event and attempts to place it within a wider context instead of pointing to any one cause. Unlike Greek Tragedy, its message is not clearly stated, so there is no catharsis. The audience leave the theatre as baffled as when they went in.

Monsters at The Arcola Theatre:

Monday, May 11, 2009

Chilterns Weekend

Caroline Rance's book launch in Great Missenden was a great excuse to spend a weekend in a part of the country I haven't visited before. I've been to Oxford and the Cotswolds, but not the Chilterns. I booked us into a Travelodge in Bicester.

The sun shone on sloping downs, chestnut trees in bloom and cows grazing in pasture. We followed footpaths through shady bluebell woods and buttercup meadows before lunching at the Roald Dahl Museum Cafe in Great Missenden. It was called 'Twits' and the emphasis was on the twee. I remember once teaching a collection of his disturbing short stories. As someone remarked at the the launch, Caroline must have breathed in some of the literary air, but to my mind it was the murkier elements. Her novel, 'Kill-Grief', high-lights eighteenth century gin-addiction.

The room inside the modern library room was buzzing with affable chat. Caroline's family and well-wishers were out in force, many connected by church membership. ' One never knows how these things will go', said a happy reading development officer, one of five in Buckinghamshire, where reading groups are popular. We'd swapped experiences of library reading groups, myself from a consumer's point of view. Things were going with a swing when we left, me clutching a signed copy and the miniature bottle of gin that came with it.

Afterwards we drove to Oxford, where students in evening dress were queueing outside Magdalen College as if it were a West End night club. We had a meal in a tiny pub and listened to three undergraduates at our elbow. One was describing the ingredients of 'toad in the hole' to his companion, who then related an anecdote about his mother and a girl-friend from South London she'd disapproved of. I nearly told him that Croydon, where the girl came from, wasn't South London but R was frowning at me.

On Sunday R was all for another walk and I'd picked out Hughenden Manor near High Wycombe because there's a manor house in a novel I'm writing. Hughenden has acres of land around it - they usually do - and, as a bonus, a church in the grounds. Benjamin Disraeli used to own the house, which had the best garden I've seen for a while. A Prime Minister and ladies' man who charmed Queen Victoria, he believed that England should be ruled by the great landowners.

About Caroline's book:

Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful

I do like a little bit of of gritty realism with my film fare - hence I enjoyed watching a rheumy-eyed Michael Caine heading a cast of faded stars in a dingy 1950's old-folks home in Is Anybody There?, and I hope to catch the small-budget Shifty before it comes off general release.

On the other hand -think Guillermo del Toro and Pans' Labyrynth rather than Ken Loach and The Wind that Shakes the Barley - I do like a bit of fantasy for a change, not to mention some, dare I say it, beautiful screen images.

So I loved Chen Kaige's The Promise for the reasons that some people will probably hate it. Anyway, here's my review on the Dimsum website:

Monday, May 04, 2009

Forty Years On

In the the mid 1970s an advertising hoarding on Crystal Palace Parade depicted a smiling middle-aged couple in front of a new house in semi-rural surroundings. Underneath, a caption read something like: 'Frank and Mary Johnson send best wishes to their old neighbours in Penge'.

Not very nice to Penge-dwellers, I thought. Our friends J & M, who rented a flat in the crumbling 1930s block overlooking Penge West station where we lived, heeded the Utopian call. In 1977 they moved to a new estate in the Medway towns area.

It was just as well, because J had a lot of interests. He painted seascapes, made figurines, assembled albums of stamps, and, worst of all for a flat-dweller, collected fossils: to be more precise he brought home chunks of rock from which the fossils were to be harvested. His job on the railways allowed him free travel to places like Dover, where rocks could be acquired. I thought M was a saint to put up with debris, although her local secretarial job gave her some respite. J took great care with labelling, framing and display and loved to talk about his passions.

No surpise, then, to find them forty years on with J presiding over what resembled a small private museum down in Rainham. He's really got into his stride since retiring in the early 1990s.

It was a long time since we'd visited, so there was much to report before J hurried off to some committee meeting. He's involved with local groups, gives talks and leads archaelogical 'digs' in Kent and beyond. Their home, once a fairly standard town house surrounded by flat mud and stones, has been extended to form a series of galleries and workshops. It required a guided tour to view the cornucopia of neatly arranged artefacts, grown to include memorabilia of service days, books and maps. I spotted an Open University degree certificate and a London University Diploma in Archaeology completed since J retired, on one of the crowded walls .

The garden, tended by M, followed the same pattern, built on a number of levels, filled with harmonious shrubs and flowers, with an air of knowing their place in the order of things. M looks on, serene as ever, although branching out into art classes in Rochester. J hinted at a future joint project.

I read somewhere that our generation will probably the last to enjoy a long retirement. In future there'll be no time for wage-earners to shake off what Philip Larkin called 'the toad work' and flourish as individuals. It's sad to think of them grinding away into old age in the service of some faceless company, instead of sending metaphorical good wishes to their friends and neighbours in Penge .
Philip Larkin's Toads:

Sunday, May 03, 2009


'Sorry , the members' terrace is closed because they're working on the tower. There's a danger of falling debris'.

Oh no! The best thing about the Tate Modern is the sixth floor terrace opposite St Paul's, where you can sit and write and watch people crossing the Millennium Bridge. The weather was perfect for it.

So that was disappointment number one. Disappointment two was the exhibition we'd come to see: Roni Horn aka Roni Horn.

The drawings, sculptures and photos were intriguing but not engaging; an 'ant farm' consisting of black earth pressed between two plates of glass in a frame; pairs of metal balls placed individually in adjoining rooms, ditto two blunt-ended cones, like giant copper ear-plugs; various resin cubes and shiny-topped grey and black discs ; a room full of almost identical portraits of a girl's water-splashed face; pictures of Iceland with people in hot lakes and a bleak cabin room like the set for a bleak Scandinavian film; 49 photos of the artist's 12 year old niece pulling faces. The miniature booklet given to us at the entrance was unenlightening, rambling in convoluted language about identity and the relationship created by spaces and obsession with pairs.

I didn't dislike all of it. In some large frames a long red strip had been cut up and the curves reassembled in vague shapes , so that to look at them was like guessing at cloud forms or those inkblots used for psychological testing. Two Snowy Owl portraits side by side reminded me of newspaper 'spot-the-difference' puzzles. Monochrome photos of the murky Thames had the novelty of little numbers scattered across the surface, matched to gloomy philosophical and literary footnotes.

The highlight of the exhibition for me, although R said he didn't notice it, was a transparent cube the size of a coffee table that could have been cut from a giant tablet of raspberry jelly. It glowed in the light from the gallery's tall windows overlooking the Thames. The other pleasant aspect was that the rooms were almost deserted because the crowds were milling about in the public areas or in the excellent Rodnikov and Popova exhibition.

I looked and looked at the exhibition postcards but couldn't take to a photo of crumpled gold foil wrapping papers or a miniature medieval map of Iceland. I'd like to go there sometime, though, to take a plunge in those hot lakes. I came away feeling that recent months of gallery-going hadn't really helped me empathise with such introspective artworks. My feet ached and Waterloo Station seemed far away.

But all that was soon forgotten. What a wonderful surprise, to come across this spendid show of Polish wildlife photos, in a perfect setting: under the trees near the National Theatre.

Roni Horn aka Roni Horn:
Southbank events (trawl down for Wild Poland Exhibition) :

Friday, May 01, 2009

Lovable Rogues

I'm glad branched I out from the crime-reading group, although two new groups was not a good idea, given that the current choices are similar. Reading The White Tiger and Q & A still had me wondering if/where the villain would strike next, and how he'd be caught, though, and it gave me a chance to compare two books with 'lovable rogues' as heroes.

Setting's an element important in many detective novels: Edinburgh's back streets trodden by Rebus and Inspector Morse's Oxford pubs and colleges. India, of course, is indispensible to The White Tiger and Q & A, both fuelled by a critique of the continent's corrupt institutions.

The White Tiger is to my mind the better novel , and deserved the Man Booker Prize for 2008 , despite the hype surrounding Slumdog Millionnaire, the film Q & A inspired.

Both books focus on the actions of destitute but perceptive heroes in a corrupt society. Of the two, the narrrator of The White Tiger seems the more authentic voice, although both books are written, inevitably, by authors with no direct experience of the conditions they describe - the horrific orphanage where children are deliberately maimed to turn them into beggars in Q & A, or the cockroach infested sleeping quarters of the driver Balram in The White Tiger ; there's an element of overdramatising in both accounts.

Both coincidentally deliver the same message - that 'luck' doesn't happen, but is 'made', although they arrive at the same conclusion by different methods. Q & A's Ram Mohammad Thomas succeeds in winning the TV Quiz because of the good deeds he has done on his journey ; the killings he commits in the early part of the book are inspired by a wish to protect a woman, and written in a style that absolves him. In The White Tiger the reader is led more insidiously to understand the social pressures that lead to murder; the deed achieves its impact only after we have thoroughly empathised with Balram. Up to this point he's the servant who will get away with what he can but knows his place. He makes his decision fully knowing its implications. He's in the gallery of literature's lovable rogues -lower class heroes which range from Richardson's Tom Jones to TV's Delboy Trotter, but more realistically presented. In fairy tales the poor boy wins the Princess by noble acts, which more or less summarises the plot of Q & A. The White Tiger recognises life's not like that. It makes a more depressing but a more honest read.
The underlying theme of political corruption in a sham democracy are made much more explicit in The White Tiger than in Q & A , of timely relevance. Despite the indescribably squalid conditions, the rigid caste system that underpins it echoes the English class system, with its segregations and barriers.

The White Tiger has its flaws - at times it overdoes the squalor, and the cruelty of the landlord classes , and the narrator's voice seems at times parodic . That said, Balram pleads his cause with with a down-to-earth common-sense that provokes laughter as well as empathy.
One aspect of both books tha disappointed me the focus on the rebel as an individual rather than member of a group, although Gandhi is named reverentially. When Q & A was under discussion someone suggested that perhaps that's the nature of fiction, to foreground the individual, because of the need for a single voice. It's an issue I'll be raising at the next reading group.

Q & A by Vikas Swarup:

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga