Past Pleasures

The fag end of winter seems to go on forever, so I’ve been consoling myself by making plans for the summer holidays. My older son says that he wants to go to America, but I’m not a fan of long-haul flights these days, so I will try to entice him with something closer to home.

I hear that Pontins is still going:

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This is an aerial view of Pontins in Southport. It looks as if there should be a sign at the entrance saying Arbeit Macht Frei and I’m not encouraged by a report in the Liverpool Echo about a “mass brawl” and allegations of “drug use, health and safety concerns and death tragedy”.

I can imagine that a weekend there would be entertaining, but not in a good way.

My ideal holiday would require a time machine, as I would love to travel around Britain and Europe in the days when motor cars were a luxury and retail chains were something that hung in doorways during the summer months, to keep the flies out.

I’ve been partly inspired by a batch of photos that I found recently – all taken during the 1920s and 30s. Here are some of my favourites:

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These people wouldn’t have a punch-up in Pontins. They are enjoying their bucolic idyll without compromising any sartorial standards and for them, tattoos were things that one visited.

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Of course, there are occasions when one should hang up one’s jacket and prepare to pull up one’s sleeves, very slightly.

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I particularly like this photo, taken at a child’s level, which gives us a tantalising glimpse of the shop window, with what looks like cakes or pies.

Also, notice that the dogs aren’t trying to eat her, as this is the pre-Rotweiler era.

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I remember my parents letting me take a float like this out to sea when I was 10. I couldn’t swim, but that didn’t seem to bother them. My father would often complain about ‘health and safety nonsense’ which was ironic, as he worked for the Health and Safety Executive.

A friend saw this photo and said that the woman is a ‘Double Barker’. I am waiting for an explanation.

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This would almost be a good photo, if someone hadn’t committed the common error of chopping off the subject’s feet and placing them dead centre. However, it’s still worth posting for the pleasure of seeing someone enjoying the outdoors in an immaculate, three-piece suit.

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This photo is of a great grandmother and is dated 1924. She looks like a ghost from the Victorian age, rather than someone who has spent 24 years in the new century.

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There’s no name or date on the back of this photo, but with her tie and utilitarian hairstyle, she may have taken her holidays at Radclyffe Hall. She looks like someone who would be a fun travelling companion, although I might have to hide the whisky bottle.

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Another appealing facet of this era is the preference for high-waisted trousers, which enabled gentlemen to churn butter without exposing anything unsightly as they bent down to turn the handle.

I will rejoice when these trousers reappear in the shops.

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This formidable-looking group of women remind me of my great-aunts, who were born in the 1890s and refused to make any concessions to postwar fashions. Some of them even eschewed the 1920s, preferring the long skirts and brooches of their youth.

This photo is typical of the time, where the holiday was often an occasion to dress up rather than down.

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It’s rare to find an old photo where the subjects aren’t standing still. This appears to be an impromptu shot and the gentlemens’ faces betray their slight discomfort.

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Finally, if you’re not happy with the 1920s or 30s, this portal will take you to a different time zone. This man’s about to travel to the year 2016, where people will probably live on the moon and war will be a thing of the past.

Sadly, I have no time portal, so I will have to make do with the present. Perhaps, now that my wife and I have discovered some mysterious Irish ancestry in our DNA profiles, it’s time for a trip to the Emerald Isle.

R.I.P Jane Eccles

I’ve never liked February, but this one was worst than most and it was hard to ignore the creeping feeling of despair that grew as the days passed. Then, just as I thought the worst was over, I learned that my friend Jane had died.

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It wasn’t a complete shock. She had been suffering from secondary cancer for many years, but had survived against the odds for so long, a small part of me began to believe that she was indestructible. If only.

I first met her at Waterstone’s in Richmond when I became a bookseller, 28 years ago. She was a freelance illustrator who worked part-time and for the next five years, we must have spent thousands of hours in each other’s company, sharing jokes, baring our souls and bickering like an old couple.

Work relationships are strange things. They can seem like a very close friendships (or a deep animosity), but once people leave their shared environment, the intense feelings often seem to vanish into thin air, leaving a polite awkwardness.

That never happened with Jane and although we only met a few times in recent years, the rapport was unaltered.

At one point, we even shared the same therapist. I was feeling rather glum after a close relative was killed in a car crash and Jane said that I should see a woman in Kew called Isabel, who had studied with Freud’s daughter. The idea of being only two steps away from the great man himself appealed, so I decided to give it ago.

Isabel was a lovely woman, but had never quite grasped the concept of professional detachment and once invited the two of us round for tea and cakes, which was both nice and strange at the same time. Neither of us were quite sure how effective the theraputic aspect was, but the experience was not to be missed.

In addition to sharing therapists (just writing that makes me shudder with embarrassment), Jane was also my wife’s landlady for a while, so the three of us developed a bond that remained strong.

As a friend observed, Jane was a quiet person but had a remarkably strong personality. She had very particular likes and dislikes, with a large vocabulary of nicknames for things. A snack was always a ‘snackerel’ and if anyone dared to use the word ‘portion’ in her presence, she would hiss like a cat.

She had a rather eccentric approach to running her cookery section in Waterstone’s. I remember that she always ordered three copies of The Cranks Recipe Book. It used to arrive, go on the shelf and sell out within 24 hours. We would then have to wait a week or two for the next delivery of three copies. When I dared to suggest that it might be an idea to order 15 or more,  I received a hissing cat noise in response.

But while Jane may not have qualified for the Bookseller of the Year award, she was an excellent illustrator whose work was in great demand. She studied at the Chelsea School of Art in the late 1970s and developed a commercial style that echoed Quentin Blake, but was instantly recognisable as Jane Eccles to anyone that knew her work.

Here are some examples of her art:

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Jane could have probably enjoyed greater recognition, but she was never pushy and couldn’t take the corporate world seriously. Like the best people, she cared about the things that really mattered and thought that the world of corporate strategies and brand values was all rather silly.

When Jane discovered that she had cancer, her only child had recently started at secondary school. Jane was determined to see him grow up and did everything that her doctors advised, enduring a gruelling regime of treatment without any self-pity or protest.

She appeared to beat the cancer, but sadly it returned and Jane was told that her condition was terminal. At that point, we all thought that she would never get to see her son go to university, but Jane suprised us all and lived for several years longer than expected. More importantly, she enjoyed a suprisingly active and healthy life for much of that time and was able to be there for her son when he started out as an undergraduate.

I had very little idea of what secondary breast cancer was and what made it different from normal breast cancer, but this short film of Jane’s explains it perfectly.

I feel terribly sorry for Jane’s son and husband. I also feel very sorry for her father, who has now outlived two of his three children. I tried to think of something positive or comforting to say on their cards, but was lost for words.

Jane was one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met: kind, gentle and generous, with a loveable eccentricity and a wicked sense of humour. She loved her family, friends and pets and that love was easily reciprocated.

The world will be a poorer place without her.

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The Best of the Worst

It’s easy to view the period from the 1950s to the mid 1970s as a golden age of book illustration and graphic design. Think of all those wonderful Penguin covers, or children’s classics like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Tiger Who Came To Tea. It’s an embarrassment of riches.

But it was also an age that saw some truly awful examples of cover art – far worse than anything today.

Here are a few of the shockers I found last week:

01This is a relatively minor offender. Some people might even like it as an example of early 1960s design, but I’m not a fan. First, I think it’s a mistake to have three different typefaces. Second, I don’t understand why the tree is far more abstract than the rest of the picture. Third, the boy looks as if he’s suffering from a rather debilitating case of jaundice.

Here’s another gem from the ‘Early Bird’ series:

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This looks as if it’s been produced in a particularly backward Warsaw Pact country during the 1950s. Perhaps it was. I can only imagine how disappointing it must have been as a present.

Peter and the Picture Thief might be a cracking story, but the cover is as exciting as a school trip to a brass rubbing centre.

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This follows a similar, penny-piching approach by only employing three colours. As an illustration, it’s more accomplished, but the once again, the overall effect of the cover has that grim, Eastern Bloc feel about it, as if colour was somehow too decadent and bourgeois.

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This cover has the virtue of being in full colour, but features three children vomitting and writhing in agony while a giant rabbit looks on, passively. As a child, I would have preferred this cover to the other three, although I wasn’t keen on animal stories.

Moving on to books for adults:

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I suppose it’s unreasonable to expect too much from a publisher called Budget Books, but this is a particularly cheap and nasty cover. Even the title length appears to have been subject to budgetry constraints. And what sort of a name is Rice Cordell?

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This is the tenth novel in Vardis Fisher’s ‘Testament of Man’ series and the cover features a man in a loincloth running away from a brazen hussy. At least, that’s what it looks like. It’s better than many covers of the time, but the illustration is a bit slapdash.

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This almost works, but the addition of a giant woman’s head looks rather odd. I can see that the artist is trying to convey David’s struggle to come to terms with his sexuality, but a more subtle illustration and a decent blurb on the back would have sufficed.

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This cover features a strange blend of colour and monochrome people, for no discernible reason. At first, I thought the woman was standing in front of a screen showing a black and white film, but no, they’re all in the same room. It’s very odd.

Hank Janson is also a strange case. A celebrated author of American pulp fiction, he was actually a work of fiction himself, created by an unassuming Englishman called Stephen Daniel Frances.

Several people wrote as Hank Janson and the titles include the following gems:

  • Baby, Don’t Squeal
  • A Nympho Named Silvia
  • Skirts Bring Me Sorrow
  • Jazz Jungle
  • Hotsy, You’ll Be Chilled
  • Wild Girl
  • Vagabond Vamp
  • Beauty and the Beat
  • Visit From a Broad
  • This Dame Dies Soon

Finally, my favourite:

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I have no idea what the groom is keeping in his pyjama pocket, but he has the countenance of a man walking to the scaffold. Perhaps he’s learned that the bride’s breasts are the product of gender reassignment surgery and that she used to be called Kenneth. She certainly has a knowing expression.

That concludes this selection. I’m sure there will be more to come.

A Question of Identity

A few weeks before my mother died, she asked me if I could find out whether her oldest sister had been conceived out of wedlock. If the sister was illegitimate, it would explain why her parents had been unnaturally reticent about their past. It might also account for their rather Calvinist sense of morality, atoning for past sins.

My mother must have known about it for years, but suddenly had a greater sense of urgency, as if she realised that her time was drawing to an end. Later that day, I went online and discovered how easy it was to track people down, even when their surname was Smith.

Within less than an hour, I was able to confirm that my maternal grandparents had indeed given in to the heat of the moment (actually, it must have been quite a long moment, as those whalebone corsets are a devil to get off). They tried to cover their tracks with a snap wedding, but my great-aunt ruined it all by arriving a month early. It caused a scandal within the family.

I rang my mother and told her that it was all true. I think she was secretly delighted that her family life echoed the plot of one of her beloved romance novels.

After looking up various birth, death and marriage certificates on a family history website, I started being bombarded with adverts for ancestry DNA tests. At first I ignored them, as it seemed a rather frivolous way of spending £100. Then a special offer arrived and like my grandparents, I succumbed to temptation.

I’d always been a little sceptical about the value of ancestry DNA tests, but the technology has improved and I thought it would be fun to see if the results bore any relation to the person I believed I was.

All I knew about my family was that we were all English on both sides, right down to the last third cousin, twice removed. But the phrase ‘pure English’ is, of course, an oxymoron. The latest research suggests that it means very different things, depending on what part of the country you’re in.

The traditional narratives may have claimed that the English were Germanic invaders, who had pushed the native Britons to the western fringes of Britain. However, recent findings point to a more complex picture of continuity and assimilation. The Anglo-Saxons, it seems, added to the gene pool, but hadn’t radically changed it.

I expected to be largely descended from the forgotten prehistoric peoples who came here after the ice age, with some Anglo-Saxon and a little Viking. I secretly hoped for something a little more exotic – perhaps even some Neanderthal – but was resigned to being Mr Average.

The results came as something of a surprise:

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It was a shock to discover that I was only 21% British (and where did the 11% Irish come from?). However, the biggest bombshell was learning that I was two-thirds continental European. In addition, I was also more Western European than the average Western European. How did that happen?

I dug deeper and learned that my European ancestors were largely from Holland and northern Germany, with a soupçon of Scandinavian and Mediterranean. It would seem that the English were the 5th century’s equivalent of EU migrants.

Further back, I am also descended from a 5,000 years old gentleman in Stuttgart, whose bones were found in a cave. I went through Stuttgart once on a sleeper train, but didn’t have any strange dreams about killing wolves.

As for the smigdeon of Irish, apparenly it could be Scottish, but I think I’ll be like those blonde-haired, blue-eyed people who identify as Native American and invent a new Hibernian identity for myself. Come St Patrick’s Day, I’ll be cracking open the Guinness and singing Danny Boy with the rest of them.

Ancestry DNA tests are just a bit of fun, but there is a serious aspect to it too. I can imagine how the Nazis would have eagerly embraced this technology as a tool to measure racial purity, only to discover, to their horror, that we are all descended from immigrants.

We are ‘the other’. Mr Trump take note.

In the meantime, I shall be deporting myself back to Europe as soon as a vacancy arises for a hunter-gatherer. If you’re aware of any caves going free in the Stuttgart area, please let me know.

A Short Story

The following post was originally published in my old blog, just over nine years ago. As very few people read the blog in those days, I thought I’d give it a second outing.

It was written a couple of weeks before I walked out of my job as a Waterstone’s manager. I was very unhappy and in a mood of desperation, applied for a training course that later turned out to be a complete waste of time and money. Thankfully, I realised that something was wrong before I handed over any cash.

But I digress. I’m reposting this not because of any literary merit, but because it almost feels like a short story, although every word is true:
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Last week I went to take part in an aptitude test session at Tolworth Tower – a grim, 1960s office block on the fringes of Greater London, next to the busy A3 road. When I booked the tests, I was asked if I knew where the tower was. I said that I had been there before, but didn’t mention that it was when I was on my first date.

I was a very young 17 and had wanted to ask a girl I knew out, but didn’t know how to go about it. Then, for some reason, I hit on the idea of suggesting tenpin bowling. I’ve no idea why.

I found her number in the phone book and dialled it. To my delight, she said yes and three days later, we met at the bus stop and caught a 281 to Tolworth Tower’s bowling alley.

I thought the day had gone well. After a game of bowling, we took the bus back to Teddington and had what felt like a romantic walk in Bushy Park. It was a beautiful spring day. Sadly, she didn’t share my view and I never saw her again. I quite upset and resolved to abandon tenpin bowling as part of my wooing technique.

After the aptitude test I decided to catch the train to Twickenham and revisit the places I had known since childhood. There were quite a few changes. Every other building now seemed to be a restaurant and what had once been a solidly white, slightly down at heel area, had been augmented by more exotic faces and languages.

I walked down to the River Thames – a part of Twickenham that hasn’t changed much in 250 years – and visited the church where my parents married and I was Christened. It was empty and after lighting a candle for my father, I studied a noticeboard to see if I recognised any of the photos of the members of the parish council. They were all strangers.

How can you grow up somewhere, attend school with over a thousand other local children and, within a fairly short space of time, feel like an outsider? Where had everyone gone? I began to feel slightly depressed.

Suddenly the church door swung open and a woman asked me if would be much longer. I explained that I was about to leave. ‘Okay that’s fine.’ she replied ‘When you go can you make sure that you shut the door very firmly – you really have to slam it.’

I nodded and just as she was leaving I realised who she was. I wanted to rush after her and say how strange it was that after visiting Tolworth Tower for the first time since our one and only date, I should bump into her like this. But by the time I had obediently slammed the church door shut, she was gone.

Camera Obscura

Yesterday, I cleared away our Christmas decorations and found a card from a relative that simply read “The postmistress has started putting sausages through my letterbox. I’m a worried man!”

It reminded me of the scraps of paper I use to find in books, ranging from enigmatic messages that sounded like Cold War code:

To ones like this rather strange find:

These remnants of lost lives are tantalising, particularly the photograph albums that have no names, dates or locations in them, showing us so much and telling us so little.

My latest find is an album of tiny, negative-sized prints that look as if they were taken in the 1910s and 1920s:

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We begin with what looks like a lower middle class family, a century ago. The man may be smiling under his moustache, but it’s hard to tell. The clothing is respectable, but the two children in the front have bare feet!

Perhaps it’s a holiday snap.

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My lamentable ignorance about military uniforms and cap badges always lets me down. I assumed that this was taken during the First World War, although their relaxed, informal pose suggests a slightly later time.

The person in the background looks a little like Robbie Williams.

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I’ve found hundreds of old photos over the last five years, but never one of a sleeping child before. It’s a very touching image, although the wallpaper reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s last words.

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Another photo of somebody asleep and I’m aware that my reaction to it is very different. With the boy, I see sleep as a healthy, nurturing part of growth.  When I look at this photo, I’m reminded that in Greek mythology, sleep and death were twin brothers.

Sorry if that sounds rather morbid. I think all these celebrity deaths are getting to me.

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Perhaps the cause of the gentleman’s siesta was some over-zealous sandcastle building. I know how easy it is to get carried away, particularly when the tide’s coming in.

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I love this photograph, with its meeting of two very different eras. The woman was probably born in the 1840s or 50s, around the same time that Dickens and Thackeray were at the height of their careers. Unlike the generations of women below hers, who adapted to the more utilitarian fashions of World War One, she remains resolutely Victorian.

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In contrast, this woman is thoroughly modern. The photo is on the same page as the Victorian matriarch, so I assume that they were vaguely contemporaneous.

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Is this the same woman, but taken before the war? It’s very difficult to tell.

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Cat photos are also fairly rare among the albums I’ve found. There are plenty of dogs pictures; probably because they’re more biddable and remain still while the shutter is open. Dogs also let you put sunglasses and hats on them.

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This is another unusual picture of a Victorian journeyman – a man who has found himself living in a very different, mechanised world. I don’t know what he’s holding in his right hand; it almost looks as if he’s popped out for a carton of milk.

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The album ends with a touch of 20s glamour. I think this is the woman we saw three photographs earlier, in the beautiful dress.

I’m always interested in albums from this period because of the huge rupture that took place in people’s fashions and social mores after the upheaval of war. It feels as if we’re on the verge of another upheaval – hopefully minus a war – and who knows, in ten years’ time, we may all be wearing sparkly catsuits and tricorn hats.

One can only hope.

A Cautionary Tale*

I’ve just returned from a couple of days with my mother-in-law, Jill. The first day was fine, as my wife’s alcoholic aunt was coming for lunch and we decided to hide the booze until after she’d gone. This had the added bonus of ensuring that Jill remained sober until the evening.

On the second day I had to pick Jill up from lunch at her cousin’s home – an absurdly large Tudor house with a quarter-mile-long drive – and she was a little the worse for wear: “Hugh bought the most glorious champagne and then we moved on to a very unusual Aliot Chene Bleu…”

I was then given a detailed account of the grape involved, what region of France it came from and why the 2010 was a good year. I knew that the rest of the day was going to be a challenge, but also felt glad that Jill was more like her old self again.

Until recently, Jill went everywhere with her partner Robert – the man she left my wife’s father for. Sadly, Robert died last year after a short illness and although she has made the best of things, I knew that it must be hard for Jill. Robert was an extraordinary man.

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Jill and Robert were something of a golden couple within London’s theatreland. Jill was a former opera singer who’d found a new career in a design business, while Robert was a director at one of the leading entertainment companies in Britain. Both possessed a charm that gained them a wide circle of friends.

Everybody knew Jill and Robert. If there was a premiere or launch party, their names were usually on the guest list and when The Phantom of the Opera had a year-long waiting list for tickets, Jill was always able to secure a booking for the next day with a single call.

Many years ago, shortly after we first met, my wife invited me to meet her family, who lived in rural Essex: “We just have to go into London, then we can get a lift. Mum and Robert live in town during the week, but drive up to her cottage on Fridays.”

A few days later, we made our way to Islington, where Robert was waiting for us in a gleaming Jaguar. “Is this another new car?” my wife asked. Robert grinned, “Well, the old one needed washing.” We climbed in and were hit by the pungent smell of new leather.

Jill was full of plans for weekend, most of which seemed to involve “drinks with Mummy and Daddy”, while Robert effortlessly dodged through the London traffic. I felt as if I had fallen into a strange but rather exciting alternate reality, compared to my family in Teddington.

Before long, we had left London behind and the Jaguar rushed past farms and villages, barely visible in the dark of the countryside. After an hour, the car slowed to a halt and my wife announced that we’d arrived.

We all got out except for Robert, who wound the window down and said something to Jill. Then he drove off, leaving the three of us standing in the dark at the beginning of a long, gravel pathway.

I asked Jill where Robert had gone. “Oh, he spends the weekends with his wife. It’s all rather complicated.”

It was many years before I heard the full story about Robert. The short version is that as a young man, Robert rashly got engaged to a local girl, the daughter of his parents’ friends. Both families had actively encouraged the union and Robert didn’t feel that he could let them down. They married and had several children, but any mutual attraction there was quickly waned.

In the meantime, Robert’s career went from strength to strength, taking him all over the world. He took on a flat in London and began to live a completely separate life, returning home at weekends to play the dutiful son and family man.

After a string of affairs, Robert met Jill and they decided to move in together. Robert told Jill that his marriage had died many years earlier, but he and his wife maintained the façade of a happy couple for the sake of their family, particularly his mother. “It would kill her if we got divorced.”

Robert promised Jill that as soon as his mother died, he would marry her. As the mother was in her early 80s, Jill felt that she wouldn’t have long to wait.

Occasionally, it all became too much for Jill and she announced that she was going to issue an ultimatum to Robert: either get a divorce or it’s over. Then we would hear that Robert had taken her to The Ivy or bought a very expensive necklace and suddenly, everything was fine again; for a while.

In the end, Robert and Jill lived as man and wife for 40 years without ever getting married. Robert’s mother celebrated her 100th birthday, while Jill quietly despaired. When the mother finally died, at 102, Robert quickly found another reason to procrastinate and continued to maintain his absurd double life.

During the last years of his life, we learned that Robert’s real name was Michael, but he was known to his family as Bill. It was hard to know what was true and what wasn’t. At one point I even wondered if there was a third woman.

When I got to know him better, I would occasionally press Robert about what his wife thought he did during the week. “Doesn’t she ever wonder who the woman that answers your phone is?” Robert shrugged his shoulders and quickly changed the subject.

A few months before he died, at the age of 85, Robert turned to me and said “I’ve really fucked things up, haven’t I. I tried to keep everyone happy, but I should have realised that you can’t do that.” What could I say? I just nodded in agreement.

When Robert died, Jill learned that she had not been left any money and wouldn’t be welcome at the funeral.

In hindsight, I can see that while Robert was the guilty party, Jill was partly compliant. Although she protested, there was also something exciting about their illicit relationship and she enjoyed having the weekends to herself. Both of them lived in the moment, avoiding making any uncomfortable decisions that might threaten their standard of living.

When Robert consulted a solicitor about the financial implications of a divorce, Jill was horrified to learn that they would have to cut back on their treats. Faced with the prospect of fewer holidays in the Caribbean, Jill’s enthusiasm for marrying Robert suddenly waned.

If this is a cautionary tale, I’m not sure what the moral is (apart from the obvious one). They made bad choices and put their own needs above those of others, but they also enjoyed life to the full and would probably do it all over again if they could.

Frankly, it’s as much as I can do to manage one household, let alone two. I still marvel at the way Robert, aged 85, continued doing his absurd three-hour drive, occasionally stopping off for a whisky en route.

Perhaps that’s what kept him going.

*Names have been changed

A Year in Books

At the end of last year, my wife and I swapped roles. It was an easy decision, as I was the only one of us able to drive our sons to their new schools. My wife joined a publishing company and thrived, while I joined the world of stay-at-home fathers, and withered.

However, although this has been a challenging year, I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to read more books than ever.

I began the year by resolving to abandon my Kindle and enjoyed some serendipitous discoveries in charity shops. However, almost a year on, my teetering piles of books have reminded me why I bought a Kindle in the first place.

Here are a few of the titles that made a particular impression on me:

1. SURPRISINGLY TOPICAL READ OF THE YEAR

Philip Roth’s novel ‘The Plot Against America’, published 12 years ago, takes place in an alternate timeline in which Roosevelt lost the 1940 Presidential election to Charles Lindbergh. At the time, a story about an experienced politician losing to a celebrity with fascist sympathies and no experience of government seemed rather far fetched.

Of course, Hillary Clinton is no Roosevelt and Donald Trump is no Lindbergh, but the essential message of this book is worth heeding: democracy can become quickly debased if we allow it.

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2. BETTER THAN EXPECTED READ OF THE YEAR

I’d always assumed that Norman Collins’ novel ‘London Belongs to Me’ was a dreadful old potboiler, so it was a pleasant surprise to find that for all its faults, it was a compelling and vivid evocation of London on the eve of the Second World War. Set in a boarding house that has seen better days, the novel eavesdrops on the lives of its occupants with insight and humour.

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The perfect comfort read, ‘London Belongs To Me’ has been reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic, with a glowing recommendation on the cover from Sarah Walters.

3. RANDOM CHARITY SHOP DISCOVERY OF THE YEAR

The name VS Prichett meant little to me apart from his occasional appearance in short story collections, so I was intrigued to find a novel by him in the Lewes branch of Oxfam. Largely set in the Amazon jungle, ‘Dead Man Leading’ reads like a Conradian tale as written by Evelyn Waugh, with a finely-tuned sense of the absurd. But although it is faintly reminiscent of the last part of Waugh’s own ‘A Handful of Dust’, Pritchett has a clear, confident voice and the result is a book that is odd and unsettling, but strangely compelling.

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4. DYSTOPIAN NOVEL OF THE YEAR

‘The Life & Times of Michael K’ by JM Coetzee was published in 1983, winning the author his first Booker Prize. There is an awful lot of dystopian and post-apocalyptic genre fiction being published at the moment and some of it is very enjoyable, but Coetzee’s brilliantly stark vision has yet to be matched.

5. BEST NEW THRILLER

I enjoy a good thriller and with a Kindle I can read any old trash without anyone knowing, but I’ve no patience with books that suffer from lumpen prose, implausible characters and cliche-ridden dialogue, no matter how good the plot is.

Fortunately, Sabine Durrant’s ‘Lie With Me’ is a cut above the average thriller and a worthy successor to Patricia Highsmith, intelligently written and well plotted. I thought it was much better than the overrated ‘The Girl on the Train’.

Durrant does a very convincing job of narrating the story from the perspective of a man in his early 40s and her depiction of an affluent South London family rings horribly true. I also enjoyed her evocative descriptions of a Greek island, written in a clear prose style that avoids the overwritten cliches of many genre novels.

6. NON FICTION BOOK OF THE YEAR

The subject of John Preston’s ‘A Very English Scandal’ will mean little to anyone under the age of 45 and absolutely nothing to anyone outside the UK, but it is a story that will appeal to many. Jeremy Thorpe was the charismatic leader of Britain’s Liberal Party, with a lust for power that was only exceeded by his penchant for young men. When the latter threatened the former, in the guise of a troubled individual called Norman Scott, Thorpe asked a friend to have him killed.

Beyond some smutty 1970s playground jokes (“What do Jeremy Thorpe and Captain Kirk have in common? They both ask Scotty for more thrust towards Uranus”), my only memory of Thorpe was a sympathetic one – a good man defeated by the bigotry of a different age.

How wrong I was. The Thorpe that emerges in these pages is a charming psychopath, callously exploiting the extraordinary loyalty of his friends and family to further his political career.

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‘A Very English Scandal’ reads like a thriller and is utterly gripping from start to finish.

7. OBSCURE CLASSIC OF THE YEAR

‘The Serious Game’ is an extraordinary 1912 novel by Hjalmar Söderberg, who in his native Sweden is regarded as the equal of Strindberg. On the face of it it’s a simple enough tale of a young couple who fall in love, but end up being unhappily married to other people. What’s remarkable about the book is its modernity and insight, containing a candour that no English novelist would have dared to attempt in Edwardian Britain.

8. FORGOTTEN MASTERPIECE OF THE YEAR

‘The Deadly Percheron’ by John Franklin Bardin is one of those rare novels that transcends its genre. What begins as a rather eccentric mystery novel set in New York quickly changes gear, taking the reader on a strange journey into the darker recesses of the human pyche, where nothing is what it seems. Written in 1946, this novel has been largely forgotten since it was republished by Penguin during the 1960s, but has enjoyed a cult following.

9. MOST HARROWING READ OF THE YEAR

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‘Chernobyl Prayer’ by Svetlana Alexievich is a brilliant piece of reportage, collecting eye-witness accounts of people affected by the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

One of the most shocking stories relates how some robotic devices – sent in to move irradiated graphite rods – kept breaking down after a bried period of exposure to radiation. In the end, men were dispatctched to pick the rods up by hand, wearing only the flimsiest of protective suits. Told that they couldn’t have more than 40 seconds’ exposure to the graphite, the men soon discovered that it was impossible to do anything in under two minutes and went ahead regardless.

For me, the most harrowing part of the book was reading a wife’s account of how she nursed her husband during a long, debilitating and painful illness, following his exposure to a massive dose of radiation. When he finally died, his body treated as radioactive waste, buried in a lead-lined coffin.

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But if this all sounds too upsetting, I should also add that ‘Chernobyl Prayer’ also contains some remarkable stories of heroism, compassion and survival. It is a gripping read that reveals the best and worst of humanity.

10. SILLIEST BOOK OF THE YEAR

I really enjoyed Dorothy Hughes’s 1940s noir thriller ‘In a Lonely Place’ and was keen to explore her backlist. Sadly, ‘The So Blue Marble’ is one of the most ridiculous books I’ve ever read, with an implausible plot and a selection of unbelievable characters.

Thinking that Hughes must have had an off day, I tried another novel by her and was equally nonplussed.

11. LIGHTEST HEAVY BOOK OF THE YEAR

Adam Roberts’ ‘The Thing Itself’ is a high concept novel that bandies ideas about Kantian philosophy, quantum physics and artificial intelliegence around with the ease of someone talking about the weather. A description of the plot would be no help at all. All I can say is that it’s a playful, witty, knockabout tale that wears its cleverness lightly and is consistently funny.

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12. BEST NOVEL BY A BALD, SOUTH AFRICAN EMIGRE

I’m a big fan of Justin Cartwright and really enjoyed reading his 2002 novel ‘White Lightning’. With a narrative that alternates between South Africa and England, this is a poignant tale of grief and loneliness that is redeemed by the author’s wit and humanity. I was particularly amused by Cartwright’s description of a ‘saucy film’ shoot, only to later discover that in the 1970s, he wrote the screenplay for ‘Rosie Dixon – Night Nurse’.

These were the books that made a big impression on me, but I should mention that I also really enjoyed Kate Summerscale’s ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’, Trollope’s ‘Doctor Throne’, Jonathan Franzen’s new novel ‘Purity’, Andrew Hurley’s superb ‘The Loney’, Lionel Shriver’s latest book ‘The Mandibles’ and Derek Raymond’s grim but brilliant ‘Factory’ novels.

I also read three books by Dutch people.

Next year I intend to not read any DH Lawrence or Commonwealth novels with lengthy descriptions of marketplaces, fruit and wise old men, but other than that, I am open to almost anything.

Am-dram

I recently found a batch of photographs from the 1950s, all of which feature theatrical performances. There’s very little information on the backs, but I’m almost certain that they show the work of an amateur dramatics group rather than a professional one.

The clues are as follows:

  • The photos were processed in the dreary London suburbs of Cheam and New Malden
  • There’s quite a lot of over overacting
  • The pictures look like the work of an enthusiastic amateur; many were very blurry

But I may be wrong. You decide:

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This photo was printed by Cole Studios (which is still going) in New Malden – a rather drab place between Kingston-upon-Thames and Raynes Park. It now has a large Korean community, for no discernible reason (unless it reminds them of North Korea).

The set looks quite spartan, but that isn’t the case in the next picture:

img_0008This is clearly a very emotional point in the play and everyone seems to be weeping. Perhaps this is in response to an earlier scene, in which things get rather heated:

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This is a little bit racy for 1950s am-dram. I don’t know what play it is, but it clearly isn’t ‘Charlie’s Aunt’. I think it was very brave of Miss Perkins in Accounts to agree to strip down to her underwear, but perhaps it was even more courageous of Brenda to wear those awful pyjamas.

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In the end, everything is resolved amicably. It turns out that Miss Perkins was simply modelling for an artist and the murder weapon was a telephone directory for New Malden and Cheam. Brenda is the murdereress and she switched to the terrible pyjamas because her dress had blood on it.

It is commendable that this company were prepared to tackle gritty dramas rather than just stick to the old favourites:

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Here we see a ‘kitchen sink’ drama, as evidenced by a kitchen sink and a packet of Fairy Snow. I presume that this is a challenging drama about race, as one of the cast appears to have ‘blacked-up’. I also see that the woman is wearing hair rollers to indicate that she is working class.

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This is from ‘Twelfth Night’. Today we would probably say that this was part of an ‘outreach programme’ that sought to ‘create links with the local community’ or even ‘communities’. In the 1950s, they just did an open air performance and hoped that it didn’t rain.

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This is from a production of ‘Call Me Madam’. I find the rictus grin of the man in the middle slightly offputting.

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I have no idea what this play is, but I don’t think it’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’.

However, this is:

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In this production, the weeping middle-aged man at the piano has been transformed into a sprightly young buck. I wonder if a stripey blazer would do the same for me?

I’m struck by how much hard work must have gone into the stage set and the costumes. I never used to notice these things until I met my wife’s family, who worked in the theatrical world. Her father was the lighting designer for the London Coliseum, but although he was highly regarded by his peers, his work was rarely mentioned in reviews.

Since then, I’ve always taken more interest in the details.

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Once again, I have no idea what this is. I can only tell you that it isn’t ‘Look Back in Anger’.

And now, the show is over and it’s time to take a curtain call:

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Guns and Roses

During the last year or so, I’ve noticed a growing trend for thrillers on Amazon to have absurd bylines that read something along the lines of: “A gripping psychological thriller that will keep you guessing until the final, utterly shocking twist”.

Why are they doing this? Surely a picture of a remote cottage and a title like ‘Nowhere to Hide’ are enough of a clue. Indeed, whatever happened to the cliche about a picture painting a thousand words?

I suppose the answer is that the impact of book jackets has been significantly dimished by the advent of online sellers and ebooks. I’d be interested to know what the average budget for a book jacket today is compared to, say, 20 years ago, when the average cover for a thriller novel was usually understated and very effective.

However go back another 20 or 30 years and once again, subtlety has gone out of the window. Sorting through my decaying inventory last week, I noticed how the covers of older thrillers were all largely variations on the same theme: a man holding a gun, with an often scantily-clad woman next to him.

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According to Wikipedia, Grant Holmes is a baseball player born in 1996. Further research has been unfruitful. As you can see, like the modern jackets, we have a helpful byline to tell us that this is a ‘hard-driving thriller’, in case the dead body and gun weren’t enough of a clue.

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In this cover, we get two guns for the price of one. As for Mike Brewer, a brief internet search has revealed that he owns a car dealership in Sheffield and is also a professor of economics at the Institute for Fiscal Research. There is no mention of any thrillers.

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We’re now in the 1960s and the raincoats have gone out of fashion.

Perhaps I’m being unfair, but I always used to think that if a book jacket only had quotes from a provincial newspaper, this was generally a bad sign.The exceptions to this rule were The London Evening Standard, The Scotsman and, perhaps, The Yorkshire Post. I can’t remember why I thought this.

Desmond Skirrow was a local man, who lived in in Brighton and died in his early 50s. According to a Wikipedia article, Skirrow was “Tall, big, bearded and seemingly incapable of being serious for more than a few minutes at a time.” He worked at an advertising agency with the motor racing commentator Murray Walker, who later claimed that they disliked each other intensely.

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If I was writing a thriller, I probably wouldn’t call my hero Ira Hand. But as names go, it’s not as bad as the one William Shatner chose for the hero of his Tekwar series: Jake Cardigan.

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We’re now well into the 1970s and this chap isn’t even wearing a tie! But otherwise, the casual sexism and hint of danger remain the same.

Brett Halliday was the pen name of Davis Dresser, which also sounds like a pen name (albeit a rather bad one). As a boy, Dresser lost an eye in an unfortunate encounter with some barbed wire, but that didn’t prevent him from becoming a remarkably prolific writer of thrillers, under a variety of pseudonyms.

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We have now reached the age of what my father used to refer to as “those flippin’ women’s libbers”. The image of a woman holding a gun would have been more of a blow for feminism if she’d been wearing some clothes. As it is, this cover is as dated and sexist as all the others.

These covers are mildly amusing, but they are nothing compared to some of the horrors that I will reveal at a later date.