A man of a certain age

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Charlie Savage by Roddy Doyle.
Jonathan Cape 2019

As a man of a certain age myself, the titular character of Roddy Doyle’s Charlie Savage is a kind of blood brother even though we don’t have the obvious things in common — football, the pub, dogs; for in this collection of reminiscences Charlie (via the author) reveals his bewilderment at changes in the world even while he valiantly tries to come to terms with them, a state of affairs those born in the middle of the last century may well recognise.

As a Dubliner himself Doyle is in an excellent position to portray Charlie’s daily habits in Ireland’s capital with a sympathetic eye — it helps that he appears to share a birth year with his eponymous hero — though we mustn’t be misled into thinking this Charlie is coterminous with his author.

The fifty-two vignettes, written as weekly instalments for the Irish Independent, chart Charlie’s stumbles through 2018, two years into a man-baby’s presidency and another two years before a global pandemic. But many of Charlie’s observations continue to have contemporary and, even with their Irish perspective, universal relevance.

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See my shadow

SpecOps-27 postcard of operative Thursday Next (https://www.jasperfforde.com/)

Jasper Fforde: The Eyre Affair
World Book Night UK 2013
Hodder 2013 (2001)

“Shine out fair sun, till I have bought a glass,
That I may see my shadow as I pass.”
— Richard III, Act II Scene 4

Fforde’s first novel, superficially a comic fantasy thriller, is essentially a romp through several literary genres — though at times it’s more like a drive-by shooting than a frolic through the daisies. In fact he’s been described as a postmodernist writer, and postmodernism is an ideal way to regard the few works of his I’ve read.

It’s easy to justify this by considering Fforde’s running joke about Richard III: the monarch is depicted as a slot-machine mannequin dispensing speeches, then there is a pantomime production of Shakespeare’s play in a Swindon theatre; finally, the introductory quote for this review refers to Richard preferring to see the reflection not of his misshapen body but of his sinister shadow.

In fact, all the numerous threads, motifs and plotting — among them a continuing Crimean War, a Welsh Republic, and science fiction trappings like plasma guns, chronological black holes and cloned dodos, plus characters unaware their names are parodies and puns, and unaccountable shifts from first-person to omniscient narrative — are effectively exercises in Ricardian self-reflexivity, ignoring the substance for the shadow; and self-reflexivity is a hallmark of postmodernism.

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Spines tingled, funny bones tickled

Penny dreadful of Spring-heeled Jack

Philip Pullman:
Spring-heeled Jack
Illustrated by David Mostyn
Puffin 2018 (1989)

From 1837 onwards reports began circulating in London of a terrifying devilish figure who terrorised women: sporting horns he breathed fire and leapt superhuman heights and distances. As is the way with urban legends there were several sightings with conflicting descriptions, even sensationalised accounts in penny dreadfuls, but nobody ever convincingly explained the phenomenon.

In due course Philip Pullman took this enigmatic figure and turned Spring-heeled Jack from a legendary molester to a cartoon crimefighter:

In Victorian times, before Superman and Batman had been heard of, there was another hero who used to go around rescuing people and catching criminals.

With the aid of a sidekick, cartoonist extraordinaire David Mostyn, Pullman tells the story of how Jack comes to the aid of a trio of orphans escaping the nefarious attentions of the orphanage superintendent, his assistant, and Mack the Knife and his gang.

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Nostalgia revisited

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Roddy Doyle: Two Pints
Jonathan Cape 2012

It’s 2011, going into 2012, a tumultuous year or so in Europe affecting everyone from the great and the good down to the two old soaks in a Dublin bar. The Eurozone crisis, a succession of deaths in the pop world, visits to Ireland by the Queen and Barack Obama, the London Olympics, other sporting events, tribal loyalties—they’re all up for discussion by these worldly-wise observers meeting up for the odd jar or two.

Nameless, though with individual voices, this middle-aged pair come together to chew the fat on family, fame, news and other miscellanea in short conversational vignettes. In some ways they are a modern equivalent of Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon: the spotlight is totally on them and their inconsequential chat full of what might or might not be of meaningful significance: always humorous, sometimes poignant and for us now, at a few years’ remove, it’s even somewhat nostalgic.

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Shopping malls and snow globes

Late medieval woodcut of Death with scythe and hourglass

Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man
Discworld novel 11
Corgi 1992 (1991)

What happens when Death fails to claim humans who die? What happens to their bodies, their consciousness, their life force? And what are the consequences for a world in which this calamity takes place?

Terry Pratchett’s famous character Death, who only converses in small capitals, has been ‘retired’ by Azrael, “the Great Attractor, the Death of Universes, the beginning and end of time” — or the Angel of Death as our monotheistic religions see him. With his scythe and faithful mount Binky he descends on a Discworld farm; here, as Bill Door, he is taken on as a farmhand by Miss Renata Flitworth. Elsewhere on Discworld, and especially in Ankh-Morpeth, people are ceasing to die: witness Windle Poons, the oldest wizard in the world, who after death turns into a zombie. In trying to find a point to his new afterlife he joins the Fresh Start Club (other members include werewolves, vampires, a banshee and a bogeyman) and starts to note curious events unfolding — things like ovoid snow globes appearing, supermarket trollies multiplying and swear words taking physical form.

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All in the cards

Queen of Hearts card

Anne Spillard The Cartomancer Pan Books 1989 (1987)

It’s odd how, re-reading this twenty-five years later, I find that I recall neither characters nor plot from that first reading other than that the narrator tells people’s fortunes from an ordinary deck of cards. That and the fact that there are a few obscure Arthurian references thrown in. This second rather more careful reading reveals there is a little more subtlety than at first appears from a cursory perusal, making it more satisfactory yet, curiously, curiouser.

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Ego and Id

Mortimer and Arabel by Quentin Blake
Mortimer and Arabel as depicted by Quentin Blake

Joan Aiken Mortimer’s Tie
Illustrated by Quentin Blake
BBC Publications 1976

The fourth of Joan Aiken’s Arabel and Mortimer books, Mortimer’s Tie is also the first I’ve ever read, but not being acquainted with what preceded the events here was, I felt, no barrier to following what was happening. And what a lot happens! You don’t need to know quite how Arabel (who is “still too young for school”) acquires her pet raven Mortimer, you just need to know what results when the corvid is introduced into a human environment. One word: chaos.

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In a distorting mirror

Holbein_Danse_Macabre_41
Holbein Danse Macabre. XLI. The Allegorical Escutcheon of Death (Totentanz. XLI. Das Wappen des Todes) Image: public domain

Terry Pratchett Equal Rites Corgi 1987 (1987)

“This is a story about magic and where it goes and perhaps more importantly where it comes from and why, although it doesn’t pretend to answer all or any of these questions.”

With such a portentous opening sentence, and especially with such a qualifying caveat, it is clear from the start that this a Terry Pratchett novel. The third novel, in fact, in his Discworld series. But, as he goes on to add, it is also a story about sex (something we might have deduced from the punny title) and “primarily” a story about a world (the Discworld, if you hadn’t already guessed). And though this is early on in his series of over forty Discworld novels it’s full of typical Pratchett tics — the humour (both slapstick and sly), the sense of the ridiculous (with occasional sparkles of the sublime), the fast-paced and consummate storytelling (despite the many asides) and the sheer joy of Creation (an irony which would have tickled the professed atheist).

Eskarina Smith is the eighth child of an eighth son, a fact which has marked her out as something special, as special as the seventh son of a seventh son in our world. Except that Esk is a girl. Which means she technically can’t become a wizard because — as any fule kno — wizards are men. Esk’s own granny Esmeralda Weatherwax is a woman and therefore it is only right that she is able to be a witch. But there is a problem: Esk was handed a wizard’s staff at her moment of birth. And that is a very big problem.

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The only certainty

Holbeins Totentanz: der Sterndeuter - Holbein's Dance of Death / Astrologer -
Holbeins Totentanz: der Sterndeuter – Holbein’s Dance of Death: Astrologer

Terry Pratchett Mort Corgi 1988 (1987)

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get round to Terry Pratchett. Maybe it’s because the comic fantasy I’ve sampled up to now has elicited a lukewarm response, humour being such a personal thing. I like word play as much as the next reader, along with left-field concepts, but key literary ingredients such as plotting, a sureness with words and above all characterisation are a must for me; their lack becomes a triumph of superficiality over substance.

Pratchett’s Mort I’ve discovered has both substance and sheen. Fourth in his celebrated Discworld series he skilfully blends whimsy, high fantasy, allusions and, yes, wordplay with a rattling good story, peopled with characters that despite some caricature keep the reader interested right through to the end. Continue reading “The only certainty”

A masquerade in Venice

Alturia, Oliver VII

Antal Szerb Oliver VII Pushkin Press 2013 (1942)

Anybody coming fresh to this novel might assume it was a straightforward comic novel set in some Ruritanian backwater. Many times I found myself thinking that it would make an excellent stage play — its plotting is as complex as a Feydeau farce, and at times it reminded me of Shaw’s Arms and the Man (though the latter is set in Bulgaria rather than an imaginary country). And yet hindsight informs us that this was the Hungarian author’s last work before he was murdered in a Nazi death camp in the closing year of the Second World War. It’s confusing then that there is no hint of the bloody turmoil in the European theatre of war from Szerb’s tale, one centred on a bloodless coup and laced with humorous misunderstandings and engineered coincidences.

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A long hot summer

dad's cup

Maggie O’Farrell
Instructions for a Heatwave
Tinder Press 2013

July 2014. It seemed appropriate to be reading a novel set in 1976 in drought-ridden Britain at roughly the same time of year and in temperatures of around 30 degrees Celsius. Seeing that it took almost four days to relive the four days that an Irish Catholic family finds itself plunged into crisis, and that the reading virtually coincided with a rather more amenable visit by children and grandchildren, it was tempting to compare and contrast the two periods separated by nearly four decades; however, this is a terrific novel to enjoy at any time of year, spread over any length of time and in any circumstances, and I found it easy to resist the temptation.

July 1976. Meet the Riordans: Robert and Gretta, Irish-born, living in Highbury, London; Michael Francis, married to Claire, living in Stoke Newington; Monica, once married to Joe but now to Peter, living in Gloucestershire; and Aoife — pronounced Eefuh — living in New York. While Robert and Gretta are part of the Irish diaspora, they still own a cottage on Omey Island off Connemara, Galway, where family holidays have been taken over the years.

On the morning of Thursday July 15th Robert Riordan disappears, Continue reading “A long hot summer”