Wednesday, 29 February 2012

The Fate of Mary Rose

Title: The Fate of Mary Rose

Author: Caroline Blackwood

Year of publication: 1981, Penguin edition 1988

Back cover blurb: Raped and horribly murdered, the body of ten-year-old Maureen Sutton is eventually discovered in woods near a sleepy commuter village in Kent.
   With nerve, inspiration and deadpan brilliance Caroline Blackwood draws us into the village to witness the macabre and devastating effects of this story on a local family: the historian Rowan Anderson, his wife Cressida and their sickly daughter, Mary Rose.

Reading reveals: Much of this book by hard-drinking journalist and Lucian Freud wife/muse Blackwood (she is the girl with enormous eyes who stares out from much of his early work) is remarkable.  The protagonist's misanthropy is unflinchingly presented to the reader, while his wife is a quietly terrifying model of obsessive selfishness.  The hysteria that grips the village is also unnerving, with previously sane characters whipped up into a frenzy of bloodlust.
   Unfortunately, Blackwood ballses it all up spectacularly at the conclusion, with plot threads she'd taken pains to establish just chapters before completely ignored, and events rushing to an unsatisfyingly limp finish.  Deadlines, eh?

Random paragraphs: 'I took her to a Greek restaurant in Soho.  She wouldn't drink anything except water.  She chose to eat only the cheapest things she saw on the menu.  "Why don't you have something more exciting?" I asked her.
   "I don't need excitement," she said.'


Sunday, 26 February 2012

Term of Trial

Title: Term of Trial

Author: James Barlow

Year of publication: 1961, Penguin edition 1973

Back cover blurb: Graham Wier, a timid, middle-aged teacher, drinks to ignore the jibes of his discontented wife and to forget the taunts of his rough pupils at the Railway Street Secondary School.
   Filled with self-disgust, he is ready to respond with affection and professional interest when fifteen-year old Shirley Taylor falls in love with him.
   Only to find himself facing trial on a charge of indecent assault.
   In the dock, deserted by his friends and despised by his wife, Graham Weir suddenly recovers the courage of his ideals to fight the small-minded prejudice that surrounds him.

Quick flick reveals: This book is just like that Police song, 'Walking on the Moon'.  From just a brief look it seems to be a superior exploration of a well-trodden theme.  You can almost feel the pre-swinging sixties grimness wafting off the page like coal dust.  One definitely for the 'to read' pile.  (There's a film version from 1962 starring Laurence Olivier.  Also stars Thora Hird, and therefore surely a must-see.)

Random paragraph: 'Then he heard the well-remembered, shrieky, detestable voice of Riley.  And what Riley was shouting was "Hit her in the tits!  Hit her in the tits!"  They like, Sylvan-Jones had said, to boast of their affairs, and this was Riley encouraging someone else's amours, no doubt.'


Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Barometer Man

Title: Barometer Man

Author: John Vaizey

Year of publication: 1966, Panther edition 1971

   When the Wardenship of an illustrious Cambridge college falls vacant, the jostling for power begins.  But the background to the struggle is a good deal less than sedate.  Donnish cocktail gatherings turn into small-scale riots... a lesbian hotel manageress is accidentally raped by a visiting group of African dignitaries... sexual romps take place between the lady governess of a men's prison and a timid young scientist... a clergyman goes slightly off his rocker wooing another man's wife... a sophisticated London dinner party is busted by the Vice Squad - this is a glimpse behind the sober facade of university life like nothing you'll ever find in C.P. Snow!

Quick flick reveals: John Vaizey was a distinguished economist and academic, with appointments at both Oxford and Cambridge and was ultimately made a baron in recognition of his services.  Who better then, to write a saucy swinging sixties-sex romp set in the world of university politics?  The inclusion of a 'funny rape' dates it badly and means that there's little chance of the work ever finding a significant audience again.  There's also a lingering sense that the cover rather sexes up the staid-looking contents, something that Panther Books got down to a fine art in the early seventies.

Random paragraph: 'Then mouthing, 'lavatory', I left the room.  I could hear my sister-in-law just coming in the front door with our screaming children.  I went into the downstairs lavatory, used it and decided to leave.  I opened the door and peeped out.  Iris's sister seemed to have got the pram wedged in the door.  It sounded as thought the children were being beaten.  There was so much noise that the people in the study came out to look.  Then the hall stand fell down with all the coats and hats on it.  Evidently it fell on a child, for after a muffled pause there was renewed screaming.'


Sunday, 19 February 2012


Title: Eclipse

Author: Margaret Tabor

Year of publication: 1980, Hamlyn edition 1982

Back cover blurb: 'I am Unity, held back in exile - haunted by my own life on the other side of an invisible screen'
   Unity Penfold returns home one afternoon... and finds it isn't there.
   - Her house has vanished.
   - No one has heard of her husband.
   - At the local school they know nothing of her children.
   - Unity's whole existence seems to have been wiped out.
  Then a clash with hooligans puts her in hospital with severe concussion.  She wakes to a world of nightmare and uncertainty - and a lonely, desperate fight to cling on to her identity.
   As the weeks pass, her struggle toughens and changes Unity so much that she becomes a new person.  Or does she?

Quick flick reveals: First-person narrative from the perspective of a fantastically boring-sounding woman in an extraordinary situation, which she narrates in the style of someone giving a Powerpoint presentation to Head Office.  Good to see that old chestnut of a plot development 'beaten up by hooligans' employed here.  I hadn't seen it for a while and was beginning to miss it.  If I had a time machine, I'd go back to 1980, get a film version of this book made on a low budget in Australia featuring David Hemmings, then in his drinking years (probably playing a doctor of some type),  and then travel forward to the present day, just so I could watch it at 12.50 a.m. on BBC2 at the weekend. (Obviously, this wouldn't be my first choice of destination, just something I'd get around to if I had an infinite number of goes...)

Random paragraph: 'We were also involved in rounding up rival gangs of children aged about 8, black and white respectively, for an American film being shot in the Cotswolds, and this was proving difficult, costly and a logistical nightmare.  And, in our spare moments, we were casting but not servicing a series of educational films to be shown in the States only.'


Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The Harry Secombe Diet Book

Title: The Harry Secombe Diet Book

Author: Harry Secombe

Year of publication: 1983

Back cover blurb: After warnings from a doctor, and with his wife Myra's encouragement, Sir Harry Secombe has lost almost four stone in six months.  Here - in what is more than just a diet book - he shares the secrets of his success, giving all the information you need to lose weight and improve your health.
   As well as presenting a meal-by-meal 16-week medically-approved diet which will help you shed those superfluous pounds, he recounts how he has transformed his eating habits by learning to 'think healthy'.  There are food and health facts, and advice on exercise; hints on coping away from home, whether flying abroad or travelling up the motorway...
   And Sir Harry hasn't lost his sense of humour - this is probably the first seriously diet book that makes you laugh as well!

Quick flick reveals: These days celebrity diet and exercise plans are the domain of glamourous soap stars who temporarily let themselves go a bit as a career move.  In the 80s, however, there was more than enough room in that arena for Sir Harry Secombe.
   This book made me think.  Specifically, it made me think, 'yes, Harry Secombe was a lot fatter in the 70s than the 80s, I have never noticed that before'.  Here he explains exactly how he did it, in a friendly, approachable way filled with facts useful for anybody who wants to make that leap from 'morbidly obese' to merely 'clinically overweight'.  Actually looks a lot more sensible (and realistic) than a lot of the faddy nonsense that circulates today, blinding people with dubious science.

Random paragraph: 'When I hit it big in my career at last, I also hit it big on my belly.  There was a whole new world out there - and it all had food in it.  If I was working abroad, I had to fly and that meant whiling away the airborne hours with all the drinks and juices and snacks and meals they cared to wheel in my direction.  I had to have a special extension put on my seatbelt, though there was little risk of my being hurled out of my seat in a touch of turbulence.  On the contrary, when we landed, I  had to wait till the other passengers had got off before someone had time to come and lever me out.


Friday, 10 February 2012

Hunting Tigers Under Glass

Title: Hunting Tigers Under Glass

Author: Mordecai Richler

Year of publication: 1969, Panther edition 1971

Back cover blurb: Mordecai Richler's deflations of human absurdities and pretensions in Hunting Tigers Under Glass are as merciless and hilarious as one would expect from the bestselling author of that scandalously funny novel Cocksure.  Above all, though, it is his unique ability to entertain that makes this book pure joy to read.

Quick flick reveals: Hunting Tigers Under Glass is the first collection of essays by celebrated Canadian author Richler, the contents of which originally appeared in such publications as The New York Review of Books and The New Statesman.  Subjects include Norman Mailer, super-heroes and 'jews in sport'.  Gives the impression of being somewhere in-between Tom Wolfe and Roland Barthes.  Looks very interesting indeed and the fact that it has been out-of-print for 41 years seems puzzling.

Random paragraph: 'Item: When Whiteman, one of the many Superman derivatives, this one published by the American Nazi Party, is asked whatever became one of the original Superman, her replied: "Old Supey succumbed to the influence of Jew pornography. . . . It seems Superman was putting his X-ray vision to immoral use and was picked up by the vice squad as a Peeping Tom."'


Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The Upstart

Title: The Upstart

Author: Piers Paul Read

Year of publication: 1973, Pan edition 1979

Back cover blurb: The son of a poor Yorkshire parson, Hilary Fletcher grows to mahood with a deep loathing of the smug and privileged upper classes, a loathing burned into him by his humiliation at the hands of the wealthy Metherall family.
   His lust for revenge makes him break legs and ruin marriages, seduce the fifteen-year-old sister of his childhood friend and drive him into bankruptcy.
   Hilary becomes a burglar, a pimp and a murderer, steeped in evil and debauchery, a self-made monster embarking upon his horrific programme of systematic vengeance...

Quick flick reveals: Interestingly, Piers Paul Read is the son of legendary art critic Herbert Read.  Read Jr. also wrote Alive, the book that was made into a film about the plane that crashed in the Andes with the rugby team aboard who ended up eating each other.  Neither art criticism nor cannibalism seem to feature in The Upstart, however.  Rather, it appears to be a slice of class-fixated sexy seventies decadence, with a bit of Catholicism thrown in near the end.  Looks like it could have been a vehicle for Robin Askwith in his first serious role, had it been made into a film.

Random paragraph: 'It was no surprise to my me that the pretensions of middle-class parents blinded them to the extent that they would admit someone so evidently unwholesome as Caspar to their homes, and it was just punishment for the parents, if not for the child, that the tutor would leave their boy a little cleverer and totally corrupt.'


Monday, 6 February 2012


Title: Cuckoo

Author: Wendy Perriam

Year of publication: 1981, Futura edition 1982

Back cover blurb: Frances is on a fertility drug and sizing up the milkman.  Charles is struggling between shocked disapproval and guilty desire for his own illegitimate daughter - a fifteen year old secret who arrives and takes over the nest.  Their sterile and rule-ridden marriage (where even sex requires timetable and rule-book) begins to fall apart.  In desperation, Frances flees to her feckless lover, Ned, and in trying to use him as a stud, finds she is used and abused herself.  By then, the cuckoos - and the cuckolds - are really coming home to roost!

Quick flick reveals: This second novel by oft-published author looks exactly like the sort of sexually exuberant British comic novel I like (and write, on occasion).  After all, how can you resist a story that begins: 'Typical of Charles to decant his sperm sample into a Fortnum and Mason's jar.  Empty of course, but it had contained gentleman's relish...'  It all seems enjoyably twisted, and I'm definitely going to give it a read. 

Random paragraph: 'A couple strolled by, the young bearded father pushing a pram.  Charles would never be a pram-pusher, but at least he could try to be a father.  He'd done it once, for God's sake.  But that was more than fifteen years ago, and with a Hungarian Earth Mother.  Perhaps his sperm was tired now, worn out after years of jet-lag and tax conundrums.  Or maybe she herself was too small, too cold, too old, and sperm only stirred themselves for hot Hungarian wombs.'

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Thumb Tripping

Title: Thumb Tripping

Author: Don Mitchell

Year of publication: 1970, Bantam edition 1971

Back cover blurb: The song of the open road - blue, bitter, and mostly a bummer..
   Gary and Chay met on an acid trip - her last, his first.  They decided to spend the summer on the road - no hurry, no special destination.  The trip was in the people they made it with...

Quick flick reveals: A hippy road trip story reminiscent of films like Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop etc.  Only it's not a film, it's a book. (Although it was made into a film.  Hasn't been on telly recently.) Probably aimed more at the tourists who went to gawp at Haight-Ashbury on sight-seeing tours than the actual residents.  Which is fine by me.

Random paragraph: 'Gary had to freak again now, behind that word, "Bloodcunt".  Diesel shouldn't have said that, it brought everything back: "Heavy, heavy."  "Get lost, man."  He freaked behind the whole night, this whole freaking night.  "Jesus.  Look.  I know this for a fact."  Injun, piss, po - defend the lie, cover that lie!  "I don't care what her eyes are doing, I know this!"  Poor, piss.'