Saturday, January 29, 2022

Silverview, by John le Carre

Julian Lawnsdsley has set up a bookshop in a small town, escaping from the evils of the City. One potential customer is a peculiar old man who claims to have been a friend of Julian's father - though Julian's father was meticulous in keeping records and there's no reference to this man. The old man, Edward, has a modest proposal for Julian: to establish in the basement of the shop a club, a society, a Republic of Literature. Oh, and there are maybe some errands that perhaps Julian could help with...

As always, le Carre quickly ensnares us in his world of secrets, conflicted loyalties and keenly observed detail. How deceptively easily he makes it look. There's wry humour and that awful sense of loss - this is all familiar territory, comfortingly unsettling. However, this, le Carre's last novel and published posthumously, is also noticeably slight: 207 pages in relatively large type. Perhaps Julian volunteers a little too easily to help Edward. Perhaps there's something overly convenient, too, in the way he's so quickly taken in by Edward's family - tested by Edward's wife, bedded by Edward's daughter. Perhaps it doesn't add up to a whole huge amount that we've not seen before.

But perhaps none of that really matters one jot. It's good; it's arresting; it's a last taste of this world. Towards the end, when things close in on Edward, it all gets suitably tense. There's the constant sense of horror under the surface. And it's full of haunting moments: an interview with a married couple where they know it's more that just an idle chat; posh dinner with a dying woman; a meeting amid bird life and the ghosts of Cold War at Orford: 

"'We are famous for our bird life here, actually, Julian,' he announced, with proprietorial pride. 'We have lapwing, curlew, bittern, meadow pipit, avocets, not to mention duck,' he declared, like a headwaiter reciting the day's specials. 'Look now, please. You hear that curlew calling to her mate? Follow my arm.'

Julian made a show of doing so, but for some minutes he had been able to follow only the horizon: the remains of our own civilisation after its destruction in some future catastrophe. And there they stood: distant forests of abandoned aerials rising out of the mist, abandoned hangars, barracks, accommodation blocks and control rooms, pagodas on elephantine legs for stress-testing atom bombs, with curved roofs but no walls in case the worst happens. And, at his feet, a warning to him to stick to marked paths or reckon with unexploded ordnance." (p. 159)

In fact, it's all about ghosts: the legacies of old wars, old trauma, old connections and betrayals. There's also the ghost of the author, of course - or authors plural. Le Carre's son Nick Harkaway gave a moving interview last year about completing the book in the absence of his late parents. And there's another ghost for me; this is the first le Carre in a long time that I've bought for myself, not borrowed from my father. The loss is keenly felt, but communing with these spirits one last time I am more than anything grateful.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Few Eggs and No Oranges: The Diaries of Vere Hodgson 1940-45

Wartime Britain, which I read last month, referred to these diaries by Winifred Vere Hodgson (1901-79), who lived at 56 Ladbroke Road when war broke out and then moved to a flat at no. 79. This was a few streets from David Whitaker, the Doctor Who writer and story editor whose life I'm currently researching. In September 1939, 11 year-old David was living with his parents and older brother in the lower part of 9 St Ann’s Villas. I hoped these diaries might give me a better sense of his wartime experience.

They certainly do that. Hodgson wrote her diaries to share with family abroad, letting them know about life in London during the Blitz and the welfare of various relatives there and in Birmingham, too. We get to know these people - and feel the loss of those who die. Hodgson also updates us on various neighbours and friends, and keeps up with the latest news. She's got a keen eye for telling detail - about the war, about London, about extraordinary times.

Two things really help in her perspective. First, there's her job at the Sanctuary at 3 Lansdowne Road, run by the spiritualist Greater World Association Trust and doing a lot of good work during the war sorting out money, food and clothing for anyone in need. That gives Hodgson an insider's view of just how much damage was done by the bombing, the lives lived among burned-out buildings, the character of endurance. She skips days in her diary as she throws herself into the annual fund-raising fair, and despite the privations of war there's a sense of the community coming together and helping out. Every year through the war, there's more damage, more rationing, more difficulty - and yet they raise more money each time.

Secondly, Hodgson previously worked as a teacher in Italy - she once shook hands with Mussolini, she tells us, whose daughter was a pupil. As she follows news of allied troops ascending through Italy, she peppers her diary with first-hand knowledge: the landforms, tunnels, buildings and art being fought over, what it all actually signifies.

For my purposes, there's the sense of the nightly lottery as London is attacked. I spent a lot of time checking her reports of bomb damage against a street map, trying to judge - just as she does in her diary - how bad things really are, how close the bombs are to her home, how much danger she might be in. There's a good sense, too, of the over-fatigue that resulted from night after night of Blitz, as described as well by Judith Kerr in Out of the Hitler Time.

There's lots on what ordinary people did to prepare for the Blitz: on 1 July 1940, Hodgson had respirator drill at Kensington Town Hall; the next day she reported on shelters being built all over Kensington and the new orders that people were to continue in their work until they heard gunfire. On 11 July, she had a practice session in a chamber of tear gas and sat through lectures on gas. Four days later, there was a trip to the Gas Cleansing Station at Earls Court, then on the 18th she took a course on Fire-Fighting at the Convent of the Assumption on Kensington Square, in which she had to climb and drop from a 10-foot wall.

Then there's the things she finds surprising: on 14 August 1940, she was amused to hear people took shelter under dining tables in their homes (something she would herself do later). Or, after a night out to a play in Birmingham on 7 September 1941:

“In London theatre-going at night can be a nightmare in these difficult days." (p. 208)

That was not due to the bombs, but the lack of street lighting and buses to get safety home. A year later, on 13 September 1942, she was struck that,

“Nobody dresses in London these days, even at the smartest places.” (p. 315)

On 7 December 1944, she found it remarkable that,

“A [horse-drawn] Hansom cab is seen periodically doing duty round here. I gaze at it with great satisfaction. I never rode in one. They had just gone out when I had money to do such things. We also have to taxis..." (p. 544)

Yet working animals were a familiar sight to her. On 9 July 1944, she says - to show how life was going on as normal - that,

“Our milkman comes round as usual with his white pony.” (p. 494)

And I'm struck by her reference to Shepherds Bush, a shortish walk from where she lived, as,

 “the next village to Notting Hill” (p. 565).

That sense is there in her local shops, all within walking distance: the Polish greengrocer who lets her have an extra orange, the cobbler, the cat-meat seller, the Mercury cafe where she sometimes has lunch alongside ballerinas from the Rambert school at the adjacent theatre

As with Wartime Britain, several things here chime with the current pandemic. For example, on 5 July 1944, Hodgson is,

“Very sorry for children who have to take exams in Air Raid Shelters, not able to concentrate after a bad night.” (p. 491)

But I was looking specifically for anything that might echo in David Whitaker's later work on Doctor Who. A few things resonate. On 7 August 1940, Hodgson remarked on the great many refugees now in Kensington, because of "everybody leaving Gibraltar and Malta" (p. 28), and there are later references to  refugees - these ones and more - grubbing along and needing support. That put me in mind of the Doctor and Susan as we first meet them, and also the Thals in the first Dalek story. Then, on 18 April 1943 Hodgson reported that the previous evening, 

“Marie and I went to Petrified Forest. Setting in Arizona. All very exciting." (p. 379)

On 20 August 1944, she remarked of the new plague of V1 pilotless planes that,

“These Robots have changed everything. The Germans can, in the future, in complete secrecy underground, prepare in the years to come, more of such things and launch them on an unprepared world. … Men will perish under the machines that he has made.” (p. 517)

But when a few weeks later there was a lull in the bombing, it was more unnerving, as she reported on 3 September:

“Here we are at with the end in sight - and we are intact. The silence at the moment is / uncanny. After listening to sirens on and off all day and all night for ten weeks, it seems strange without them. Have we finished with them?” (pp. 526-527)

London is eerily silent at the beginning of The Dalek Invasion of Earth... Maybe Whitaker (and Terry Nation) didn't draw on this kind of stuff consciously - or at all - but it's made me think about the tone of the first two Dalek stories, and how much they're grounded in something that feels real, at least compared to third story The Chase, which Whitaker wasn't involved in. I need to think a bit more on this but that's where I am at the moment.

Oh, and then there's this from 30 November 1940 where, as Hodgson and her colleagues at the Sanctuary are busy with their charitable work, they compare notes on the previous night's Blitz: 

“From Mrs Whittaker we heard that part of the roof of the Daily Telegraph had gone. Everything was so hot no one could go near.” (p. 100)

That might just be David's mother.

Monday, January 10, 2022

The Autobiography of Mr Spock, edited by Una McCormack

My last night out in London before lockdown in 2020 was to attend a signing for my chum Una's book Picard: The Last Best Hope, which ably bridges the gap in events between the movie Star Trek: Nemesis and the TV series Star Trek: Picard. Last month, back in London for the first time in more than a year, I met up with Una and got her to sign a copy of her latest genius effort.

The Autobiography of Spock is another extraordinary thing, perfectly weaving together the different threads and revelations from a great multiplicity of texts on screen: stuff revealed about Spock's background in the original Star Trek TV series, all the stuff about his dad in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the never-previously mentioned brother in the movie Star Trek V, the never-previously mentioned sister in Star Trek: Discovery, the stuff in the 2009 reboot movie and bits gleaned from Star Trek: Picard. In the acknowledgements, Una mentions a number of Star Trek books and novels she's borrowed from, too, and the essays on Romulans by Michael Chabon and on James T Kirk by Erin Horakova. I'm sure there's more, and part of me would love to see a version of this autobiography with footnotes that cite all the sources.

But that would perhaps break the spell. Given so much material to choose from, some of it contradictory or at least inconsistent, it's remarkable how cohesive this book is. That's partly due to the structure, each chapter focused on someone that Spock loved, enabling Una to focus on particular, telling moments in the long life in which Spock prospered. Given such a famously logical, aloof character, a focus on his love life is initially surprising but it really works, in part because this is love in the broadest sense - the subjects include Spock's parents, his sparring partner Dr McCoy and even the starship Enterprise. But it also works because it's at the heart of what the book is addressing: Spock coming to accept his hybrid nature as half-human, and his emotional side. There's a lot on searching for and accepting the truth - of situations, or events, of ourselves. Spock is honest about failure, about when he's got things wrong. There are passages in this that change my sense of what's happening in the things I've seen on screen.

The point is that it doesn't feel like a jigsaw. There's fun to be had in spotting the sources - when mention is made of the expression on Kirk's face on seeing Spock mind-meld with a whale, I know exactly what that's from and exactly that expression. But this is not simply a list of references to events in episodes and movies. It's a story, Spock's story, full on fresh insight and perspective - and lots of original material. We find out what happened to other characters from these episodes and movies, the aftermath of events seen on screen. I'd love to see more of Saavik and Valeris on screen after what we're told about their later lives here.

Una says in her acknowledgements at the end that, for all the many actors who have portrayed the character,

"There would of course be no Spock without Leonard Nimoy, and I hope his voice sounds true upon these pages."

It really does, and the result is like hearing again from an old friend. In spending time inside the head of this beloved character, I've come to know him better, and to feel his loss all the more.