Book Review

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London, Burning by Anthony Quinn

To people of a similar age to me, the name Anthony Quinn will suggest a well-built actor who starred in many acclaimed films [Wiki here], but this is not the same man: unfortunately, the flyleaf of the paperback for which this review is intended had a very unhelpful barcode sticker inconveniently placed over the author’s admittedly minimal biography, but I could ascertain that Quinn was born in Liverpool in 1964, and as well as being an author of seven fiction and one non-fiction books, he has also been a film critic, so quite culturally fluent. This comes across in the story under review, although it doesn’t strive to be highbrow: it reads very easily, and the characters are adequately believable.

The title is a reference to a famous song by The Clash, which suggests the timeframe of the story, which is 1977: the fag end of the Callaghan government which, like several others for various reasons, was a very poor advertisement for democratic socialism, which had been so successfully implemented by Clement Attlee after the ousting of Churchill in the 1945 general election. The trade unions were responding to the government’s austerity policy [sound familiar?] by flexing their considerable muscles; union membership being then much higher than it is today; and bringing the country to its knees, apparently totally oblivious to the hardship that this was causing ordinary people, thereby paving the way for the disastrous régime of Margaret Thatcher, which was then heralded as a return to common sense and that much-vaunted [and misused] concept: freedom.

The IRA was also active on the mainland, and one of this story’s characters, Callum Conlan, is inadvertently caught up in a terrorist incident. During the narrative, he comes into contact with some of the other characters: Freddie Selves, who is a self-absorbed theatre impresario; Vicky Tress, a young policewoman [as they were then called], who is encouraged to move from uniform to CID duties, and is supported by a senior officer, for only partially altruistic reasons; and an ambitious, as well as obviously noticeably intelligent reporter for a left-leaning news magazine, Hannah Strode. In order, Conlan is an academic who moved away from his native Newry to escape “The Troubles”, but unfortunately, they catch up with him in the form of a younger former school acquaintance, whom he meets when he is working on a building site adjoining the place of Selves’s employment, the National Music Hall. Selves is a lothario, and his latest adventure is discovered by Hannah Strode, who sees a scoop in revealing this. Vicky Tress becomes involved in an anti-corruption investigation at work [very common then and, sadly, not entirely eradicated even now], but she suffers a traumatic incident in the line of duty.

Although I enjoyed reading this book, I feel that the narrative slightly fails to deliver the tension promised by its title; having said that, I wouldn’t want that to be a disincentive for potential readers. Also, without wanting to spoil the plot in any way, there do seem to be some loose ends left at the conclusion, so I wonder if a sequel/continuation is on the cards? The acknowledgements at the end don’t support this inference, but it would strike me as odd if characters are introduced to a narrative, but left with unfinished business; or perhaps, this is just my desire for completeness in a narrative: presumably, time will tell. The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021, Little, Brown, London] by Abacus, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, London, ISBN 978-0-349-14428-3.

Book Review

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Jeeves and the Leap of Faith, by Ben Schott

I have to confess, with [I feel quite justified in saying] only a small degree of shame, that I have never in my 67 years [to the best of my knowledge, anyway] previously read a Jeeves & Wooster book by the original, universally revered author, Pelham Grenville [P.G.] Wodehouse, so I’m not able to make a comparison with this “Homage” from author Ben Schott [although I draw a very firm line at “An Homage” for specific grammatical reasons: if it had been described as “An Hommage”, from the original French, I would not have quibbled; whereas the H in the English version, Homage, should be pronounced, requiring A as an indefinite article rather than An; but that’s just my pedantry – don’t get me started on “An historical …”]. Having sounded that note of discord, I do want to praise, in advance of the story itself, albeit somewhat arsa versa [to borrow from the following], the copious chapter notes at the end of the book which, despite being unusual for a fictional narrative, do provide very useful explanatory background, as well as a layer of legitimacy which I can only guess at, given my initial observation.

From the obviously German origin of the name of the author, about whom I know nothing, it is no great surprise to learn that, among his other non-Wodehousian publications is “Schottenfreude — a vital compendium of new German words for the human condition.” Apparently, this is “his second novel, following the triumphantly received publication of Jeeves and the King of Clubs in 2018.” This story is [publishing hyperbole notwithstanding!] the “eagerly anticipated sequel” to the aforementioned, but the two stories are sufficiently independent for me to have enjoyed the latter without recourse to reference to the former. I was already aware, from my research for the biography of Wilfred Risdon, Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, that Wodehouse had lampooned Oswald Mosley in several of his books written between 1938 & 1971, casting him in the character of Sir Roderick Spode, aka Lord Sidcup, self-styled Leader of The Saviours of Britain party, more commonly known as the Black Shorts, from the black “footer bags” the adherents were wont to sport as an essential element of their uniform: this was a masterstroke of deflating ridicule by “Plum” Wodehouse. In the text, reference is made to Sidcup’s forthcoming debate at the Cambridge Union, a direct parallel of Mosley’s 21 February 1933 debate against Clement Attlee, “That this House prefers Fascism to Socialism”: Attlee won the debate by 335 votes to 218.

The story itself is, no doubt [given my ignorance], suitably inconsequential, within the context of rich, over-privileged roués of the 1930s, although Wodehouse’s skill is evident, assuming Schott’s style is authentic, in his gentle contrast of the upper classes, with all their foibles, with Jeeves’s all-encompassing & ever-present mastery of any given situation; although, whether Jeeves could be described as working class is debatable; however, Bertie’s involvement with the British security services and, simultaneously, a very eligible and evidently reciprocally amorously interested young lady who is a member of that organisation, does seem to somewhat run counter to the customary perception [unless I am mistaken] of the character of Bertie Wooster, not least because he seems to avoid responsibility in most forms but, especially, matrimony with almost monotonous regularity: according to the notes, he has had “twenty-two near-Mrs”, which are helpfully catalogued by the author, according to year & publication, although “The precise number of Bertie’s engagements is hotly debated by Wodehouse scholars, and opinions differ.”

I hope readers will accept when I say that I can’t give an opinion on this book as an example of Wodehouse’s oeuvre, but as a story using Wodehouse’s characters & fictitious world, I would recommend it, because I enjoyed reading it, without feeling in any way patronised; I’m no better equipped to tackle The Times crossword, a fictitious example of which is given in the notes [and others are referred to in the narrative], however, than I was previously, despite Jeeves’s masterly explanations of the clues: they always seem so obvious, once explained. This hardback version that I read was published in 2020, by Hutchinson, London, ISBN 978-1-786-33193-9; it is also available in paperback, ISBN 978-1-786-33194-6.