Archive for the ‘1960s’ Category

season-of-the-briar-h-f-brinsmead-1965-001Season of the Briar by H.F. Brinsmead ~ 1965. This edition: Oxford University Press, 1965. Illustrated by William Papas. Hardcover. 202 pages.

My rating: 3.5/10

Brutal rating, isn’t it?

I put it this low because I truly believe that even with full allowances given for Season of the Briar being aimed at a teenage audience, this highly capable author could do exponentially better. (Anyone else know and admire Pastures of the Blue Crane, written a mere year before this one?)

I had such high hopes for this novel, and there are bits and pieces which are wonderful, but the plot imploded early on and what might have been a fantastic “finding oneself” story got all improbable boy’s-own-adventure, with a highly manufactured dramatic fantasia about a young hiker lost in the Tasmanian wilderness, and her supernaturally tinged rescue.

Quickie overview:

Four young men find summer work on an Australian weed-spraying crew which is sent to Tasmania. They encounter and re-encounter a group of hikers heading for the alpine area surrounding as-yet-undammed Lake Pedder, and, when one of the hikers gets lost during a sudden change in the mountain weather, several of the weed sprayers decide to assist in her rescue, with mixed results.

Before the hiker goes astray, the spray crew has reached a hidden valley peopled by eccentric Euro-Tasmanian old-timers who are so desperately caricatured as to irretrievably shake this particular reader’s faith in the probability of the tale, even before the rescue mission episode. Even the beautifully written descriptions of the glories of the Tasmanian wilderness (Stunning Lake Pedder! An endless pink granite sand beach! ) weren’t enough to woo me back.

Laboriously comical pen and ink illustrations by William Papas detract rather than add to the overall effect.

To be fair, there are a number of good things going on with this book. Such as a certain amount of bildungsroman-style character development, and a believable depiction of the evolution of the relationship of a group of people thrust into close companionship 24/7 and subjected to some truly challenging work and living conditions. One of Brinsmead’s sons worked on a similar spray crew, and the versimilitude of this aspect of the tale has obviously come from some personal familiarity with the enterprise.

Brinsmead was an articulate and passionate naturalist and conservationist, and this comes through loud and clear in her written appreciation of the southern hemisphere wild country as depicted here. At first I found her approving view of the liberal application of herbicides to portions of this wilderness quite troubling, but it soon clicked that she was all about getting rid of exotic flora in order to preserve the native stuff, and, along with that, to improve the state of agriculture in the region.

It’s a very 1960s’ sort of teen/young adult-market story, and I should probably modify that rating to reflect its period, but, as I have said already, Season of the Briar disappointed me in how it so closely missed being something more than what it turned out to be.

P.S. – I still think highly of Hesba Fay Brinsmead! A fascinating, deeply earnest personality as well as a more than decent writer. I have a growing collection of her novels and memoirs; Season of the Briar is something of an anomaly compared to the others I’ve read.

 

 

 

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Well, this is a shock. Just got the word that Leonard Cohen has checked out and moved on. Thought this week was rotten already; it just got exponentially worse.

Rest in peace, our man of poetry and song.

sleeping

Two Went to Sleep

 

Two went to sleep

almost every night

one dreamed of mud

one dreamed of Asia

visiting a zeppelin

visiting Nijinsky

Two went to sleep

one dreamed of ribs

one dreamed of senators

Two went to sleep

two travellers

The long marriage

in the dark

The sleep was old

the travellers were old

one dreamed of oranges

one dreamed of Carthage

Two friends asleep

years locked in travel

Good night my darling

as the dreams waved goodbye

one travelled lightly

one walked through water

visiting a chess game

visiting a booth

always returning

to wait out the day

One carried matches

one climbed a beehive

one sold an earphone

one shot a German

Two went to sleep

every sleep went together

wandering away

from an operating table

one dreamed of grass

one dreamed of spokes

one bargained nicely

one was a snowman

one counted medicine

one tasted pencils

one was a child

one was a traitor

visiting heavy industry

visiting the family

Two went to sleep

none could foretell

one went with baskets

one took a ledger

one night happy

one night in terror

Love could not bind them

Fear could not either

they went unconnected

they never knew where

always returning

to wait out the day

parting with kissing

parting with yawns

visiting Death till

they wore out their welcome

visiting Death till

the right disguise worked

 

Leonard Cohen ~ 1964

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2-an-aspidistra-in-babylon-h-e-bates-1960An Aspidistra in Babylon by H.E. Bates ~ 1960. This edition: Penguin, 1964. Paperback. 191 pages.

My rating: 9/10.

This man could write. His stories read absolutely effortlessly.

So, what have we here, behind that curious title?

Four brief novellas, all about – universal theme! – the human desire to be loved. And, very much to the point in these four tales, the human tendency to allow that desire to cloud one’s better judgement.

The cover drawing by Robin Jacques rewards closer examination; the background detail utterly accurate of its time and place, an English seaside garrison/resort of the 1920s. Note the white chalk cliffs, upper right. It both intrigues and misleads with its depiction of the singing woman, blowsily out on the town.  She’s actually a side character of the title novella, a casually promiscuous hotel chambermaid who serves to rescue the “real” heroine from her youthful folly.

Occasionally this collection is touted as “comic” by booksellers who haven’t actually read the works within, for though not without a delicate balance of ironic humour, these are not funny stories in the accepted sense.

Prosaically tragic might be a better description, as long as it doesn’t put you off reading them. (Well, they’re not all tragic; some do come out on the optimistic side.)

Paradoxically, I myself find Bates’ sometimes-dark scenarios rather comforting, pointing out as they do that all of us are emotionally fallible in certain circumstances, and that most of us survive our lapses, coming out the other side older in spirit but wiser in mind, to alter an appropriate cliché.

The first two novellas are the best, in my opinion, but all four are worth reading for the sheer pleasure of how H.E. Bates puts together his words. He is very strong on description, something which I thoroughly enjoy, but which may be a bit of a deterrent to those of you with no patience for detailed scene setting. Give these a go anyway, I say.

An Aspidistra in Babylon

An eighteen-year-old girl lives with her widowed mother in the boarding house they keep in a small coastal city. The nearby cliffs house a large army garrison; the constant ebb and flow and of soldiers, sailors on shore leave, and their hangers-on and followers leads Christine’s mother to shudderingly label the place as “Babylon”, and she warns her as-yet naïve daughter against it.

Christine herself finds the warning unnecessary, for she hasn’t yet had any meaningful encounters with the roistering Babylonians.

As to the men, the soldiers and all the rest, I simply didn’t exist for them. This is not entirely surprising, however, since I was clearly infinitely and terribly dull myself. The best description of myself that I can think of is to say that I was as dull as one of the many aspidistras that cluttered up the rooms, the hallway and even the dining-tables of our little boarding-house. I was just that – a female aspidistra and nothing more.

A female aspidistra, perhaps, but one with a luscious body under those shapeless frocks and black woolen stockings. A body which catches the eye of the dissolute Captain Blaine, who shows up on the doorstep in quest of a room for his wealthy aunt, and gazes upon Christine’s hidden charms with an experienced and lascivious eye. Not only her virginity but her very moral sense is soon to be in danger of worldly corruption…

A Month by the Lake

Holiday makers staying at an Italian lake resort mingle peacefully, middle-aged but still active and attractive Miss Bentley finding herself mildly drawn to slightly older, determinedly suave, and rather handsome Major Wilshaw.

To Miss Bentley the most remarkable feature about Major Wilshaw were his small flat pink ears. They were not only exceptionally small for a man who was thickish, upright, and rather tall. They were very delicately, very intricately fashioned. Nothing in the entire human body, Miss Bentley would tell herself, had quite the same fascinating quality as ears. All the attraction of mood and response and character and emotion lay, of course, in the mouth and eyes: everybody knew that. But ears were, Miss Bentley thought, far more wonderful. Ears were unchanging and undying. They remained, in some strange way, uncoarsened, undepraved, unwrinkled and unaged by time. In the ears of the aged you could see the flesh of youth; in a sense they were immortal and never grew old.

Major Wilshaw isn’t particularly taken with Miss Bentley in a sexual sort of way. Though he enjoys her company and her tart turn of phrase, he considers her past her prime, decidedly on the shelf, whereas he is still very much in the romantic running.

When a young English governess enters the picture, very cool and collected and confident in her sexual powers, an unexpected and silent rivalry erupts between the two women. Major Wilshaw, suddenly very aware of the very different qualities of each, turns first this way and then that.

Which will prove the strongest draw? Warmly ripe age? Cooly beautiful youth?

And do either of the woman actually want Major Wilshaw, or is he merely symbolic in his maleness of the prize which society insists all women are incomplete without?

A Prospect of Orchards

Many years ago I belonged to a young men’s club where I used to play chess, read magazines and also box quite frequently, though not very seriously, with a man named Arthur Templeton. We must have been, I think, eighteen or nineteen at the time.

Templeton was a shortish leaden-footed man with weak brown eyes whose responses were those of a duck with its legs tied. His jaw was babyish, smooth and hairless, like a pale pink egg. I had taken up boxing because once, at school, in a playful scuffle, a young ox of a farmer’s son had struck me on the chest with a blow of such short-armed ferocity that I was convinced my heart had stopped beating. Soon afterwards I found a friendly ex-policeman who gave me lessons, taught me that the essential art of the game lay in footwork and in a maxim of six short words: hit, stop, jab, and get away. Presently I was practising these principles on Arthur Templeton, to whose pink hairless jaw I sent so many unresisted straight lefts that it became intolerably embarrassing – so embarrassing indeed that I presently became profoundly sorry for him and gave up boxing altogether.

Losing track of Templeton as life goes on, the narrator is surprised to run into him on a train many years later.

Templeton is still of a pale pink unresisting type. He now gentleman-farms in a haphazard sort of way, raising pigs and attempting to create a new kind of pear-like apple, while his bossy wife Valerie is the loud leader of the local arts community, going in for amateur orchestras and the like.

As the narrator observes the Templeton ménage through a number of visits, his sympathy for his long-ago boxing partner grows as he realizes the man’s deep loneliness. He watches as a second woman now enters Arthur Templeton’s life. For a while it looks as though the feeble striver will at last take a step forward in confidence, and, presumably, happiness.

But can anyone ever change how one’s fundamental psychology, and what type of lover one attracts?

The Grapes of Paradise

On leave from his Vancouver banking firm, Harry Rockley travels the South Pacific, fetching up at Tahiti, which immediately repels him with its unexpectedly grim and sordid industrial decay, and its hostile natural features.

(H)e went back to the hotel, stripped off, put on his swimming trunks and went down to the sea. The beach of
black sand, such as there was of it, looked like a foundry yard. The lagoon of black water illuminated by the flares of mysterious midnight fishing-boats had become a stretch of tidal junk-yard, one foot deep, filled with countless black clusters of sea-birds and lengths of what looked like yellow intestine.

At the end of fifty yards of jetty  sprouted a lump of coral rock. On the rock a French girl with a figure as flat as a boy’s and legs like white peeled sticks sat staring down into forty feet of dark blue water from which rose shadowy mountains of rust-brown coral, murderous as steel.

‘I’m glad you came,’ she said. ‘If there’s someone watching, the sharks don’t follow me.’

Harry decides against swimming, and returns to the hotel bar, where he starts drinking, and doesn’t stop for weeks, until on a whim he tags along on a schooner travelling to a nearby island. There he finds something more closely approximating the South Seas paradise of his former expectations, including a single-minded native girl who throws herself at him in wanton desire.

But love isn’t always reciprocated, and shunned would-be lovers may prove dangerous to trifle with, especially when the elemental sea and its creatures become part of the set of Harry’s idyll-turned-nightmare…

*******

Oh, yes. Here's a little bonus for those of you who, like me, were a bit hazy on what the heck an aspidistra actually looks like. I suspect they are still very much around, but I couldn't pull up a mental picture to go with the name. Now I can.

Oh, yes. Here’s a little bonus for those of you who, like me, were a bit hazy on what the heck an aspidistra actually looks like. I suspect they are still very much around, but I couldn’t pull up a mental picture to go with the name. So there we are!

 

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Here’s another excellent travel memoir from Lorna Whishaw, re-posted from October 2012 specially for my long-distance friend Susan. One to search out once you’ve gone with Lorna to Alaska!

Mexico Unknown by Lorna Whishaw ~ 1962. This edition: Hammond and Hammond, 1962. Hardcover. 256 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10 for sheer admiration of the cheek of this mid-20th-century intrepid traveller, plus for the extreme readability of her prose. If even half of this is true – and apparently, it all is, with some allowances for dramatic presentation – Lorna Whishaw gets my nod for the “Forge Ahead Regardless and Don’t Make a Fuss” award. Shaking my head and smiling, thinking of her adventures – in this case not an exaggeration of term. She loses .5 for not telling more. Infuriating book, because it’s such a teaser.

Lorna Whishaw only wrote two books – this one plus the earlier (published in 1958)  As Far as You’ll Take Me . She barely lifted the veil on her fascinating life and many travels. Probably too busy living to sit down and write about most of it!

I did find record of a third piece of Lorna’s writing, her Master’s Thesis for the University of British Columbia Department of Creative Writing, a 1212 page (really? possibly a pagination misprint) work titled Blue Kootenay, published 1985. Most intriguing. I wonder what the possibilities of somehow accessing that one are? I’m thinking fairly slim.

*****

Of my own free will I would not choose to live in Mexico, any more than I would take up residence at the bottom of a tropical sea, because I do not belong there, because I am not wanted there, and because Mexico can get along very well without me. But because through the Will of God I live in Mexico, I shall write of it, of day-by-day living in a land of vast beauty, of violence, and savage extremes, where the struggle of maintaining life is more terrible than death; a land which is trampled by the tourist with sightless eyes.

I have heard Lorna Whishaw’s two memoirs referred to, in her B.C. BookWorld biographical entry*, as creative non-fiction, and I suspect that she distanced herself somewhat from her narratives by tweaking names and certain personal details, and in her portrayal of order of events. There is no question that she was a real person, that she did travel widely and adventureously and that she based her books solidly in fact.

Lorna Whishaw’s perspective is at once soberly analytical and deeply personal. I am finding her writing intelligent and vivid; Mexico Unknown in particular is a unique work which rewards the reader in multiple ways. Sincerely passionate, continually smile-provoking, and unusually thought-provoking. Plus she was just a damned good writer, and not one mite afraid to voice her opinions in print, though it appears she was capable of maintaining a tactful silence when required in her real life.

On October 4, the day of the sputnik, we left the sanitary tranquility of the American way of life, and in total ignorance of things Mexican we plunged into the uneasy atmosphere where anything goes, where yes and no are as high as the sky and as deep as hell, and where nothing you can conceive of is impossible.

The Mexican experience starts with the culture shock of the border towns, and then the physical shock of the amenity-less workers’ community of a struggling Sierra Madre mine. The first half of the book is a dramatic tale of love and death, corruption and betrayal, nobility of character and inner joy found in the most unlikely people.

The portraits of the Mexicans and the American and European mine foremen, technicians and investors are generously but ruthlessly drawn with an artist’s flair for capturing personality and mood in a few well chosen words. The physical descriptions of the land and people are as good as photographs; I find myself perfectly able to picture each face and scene; an unusually difficult authorial feat to pull off as well as Whishaw consistently does.

Disaster strikes La Fortuna Mine, and the scene abruptly changes to Mazatlan, where the suddenly unemployed and quite broke family reassess their situation. The geologist husband goes off with the last of the ready money to attend job interviews, while the wife and daughter camp on the deserted beaches, invisible to the lavish tourist enclaves just down the coast.

A new job is found in a silver mine in Zacatecas in central Mexico,

…a rolling land, arid and beautiful, a vast panorama of golden grass rimmed by oil blue mountains; of joshua trees, lovely in scant clumps, but frightening assembled as they are sometimes to cover the land…as they march to the horizon black with their myriads…

and a life of relative luxury is settled into; school for the daughter, and endless days of lounging by the swimming pool, gossiping with fellow expatriate wives, and riding out in the surrounding countryside.

On to Guadalajara and then Mexico City, where the family experiences the major July 28, 1958 earthquake, then the geologist goes on to Nicaragua, while the other two return briefly to Canada, where a new car, a British-built Ford Zephyr convertible, is purchased and driven from British Columbia through the U.S.A., through Mexico and, over a technically “non-existent” road through the jungle,  into central America. That trip is a saga all of its own, tacked on to this crowded tale as almost an afterthought.

The family is reunited yet again, only to discover that the Nicaragua job is being curtailed, and though by this time Canada is looking wonderfully attractive, Mexico is again the next destination…

And here I should end this story, but something happened on our drive to the mine on that black and silver night, that should be told. On the trail, lying insolent and beautiful under the headlights we saw two jaguars. Tony stopped the truck a few feet from them, and we watched in ecstasy as they rose and moved slowly away into the bush, throwing flaming glares towards us as they went.

‘Fancy’, Mary said. ‘Jaguars in driving distance from Canada.’

The End

*****

Fancy.

Indeed!

Did I saw “highly recommended” yet? I’m sure I did, but I’ll say it again. This is why I love used book stores, and glorious vintage books.

*****

* B.C. BookWorld, 1992:

Born in Riga, Latvia to British parents in the diplomatic corps, Lorna Whishaw grew up in England and came to B.C. in 1947. She has lived in many countries, including South Africa where she worked on behalf of the civil rights movement. She speaks six languages and has published two books of creative non-fiction, As Far as You’ll Take Me (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1958) and Mexico Unknown (London, 1962). With degrees in French, English and Philosophy, she has taught for East Kootenay Community College in Golden and Cranbrook. She lives in Windermere.

Lorna Whishaw died in 1999.

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Here's one from 1961.

The Nylon Pirates by Nicholas Monsarrat ~ 1960. This edition: Cassell, 1960. 2nd edition. Hardcover. 314 pages.

My rating: 4.75/10

Ex-Royal Navy Commander and British diplomat Nicholas Monsarrat wrote some really decent books in his alternate role as a fiction writer – such as the bestselling war novels The Cruel Sea (1951) and The Kapillan of Malta (1973), to name two of the best-regarded – and some relative stinkers. Guess where I’m placing this one?

Yup.

B-List, pretty well all the way, from the awkwardly salacious sex scenes hastily set up and then shied away from by an apparently last-minute-squeamish creator, to the gruesome penultimate scene in which ironic justice is visited upon a key character.

Published in 1960, this is a book your father might have had on his shelf, to match the Jacqueline Susann on the distaff side of the twin-bed room. It’s determinedly smutty, though, as I mentioned earlier, it seems that Nicholas Monsarrat couldn’t quite bring himself to go into the detail hinted at by his doggedly sexy set-ups.

Which was a relief, because it was blush-inducing enough as it was, albeit for the awkwardness of the plot and the single-dimension characters rather than for anything really naughty in the way of sex-prose.

Brutal panning of those last few paragraphs aside, I need to back down and fairly admit that Monsarrat is decidedly readable, even at his worst. The Nylon Pirates did have its moments, and I rather enjoyed the quietly omnipotent sea captain overlooking all of the shenanigans on his ocean liner with patient calm; the dialogue among the sailors was a high point of this minor novel.

I’ll just quickly sketch out the plot. It won’t take long.

A career criminal who has made a profession of preying on society comes up with a scheme to part a group of wealthy cruise ship travellers from some of their abundant cash.

Our anti-hero Carl assembles a small team of like-minded predators to make up a loosely connected “family group” all travelling together.

Masquerading as a benevolent uncle is 50-year-old Carl. His “niece” is Diane, a wanton, exotically-talented brunette seductress detailed to reel in the men, as “nephew” Louis, an Italian-American gigolo-type, targets the yearning-for-love older women. The Professor, an aged confidence man whom Carl has teamed up with in past scams, comes along to scout prospects, handle the proceeds and keep the books. Carl’s just-come-of-age mistress, Kathy, is passed off as his stepdaughter. She’s a cooly beautiful blonde, whom much-older Carl seduced as a 16-year-old virgin some five years earlier. The trip is supposed to be something of a maiden voyage for lovely Kathy to break into the sex-for-money/threats-of-blackmail con-game trade, while Carl uses his superior poker skills to fleece the card-playing millionaires on board.

Complications ensue.

A generous number of editions are out there in used book land, with prices varying from dirt cheap to stupidly expensive. My advice: save your serious cash for something less likely to engender the book-fling urge, which this one did with me a number of times, mostly in the first and last chapters. Once committed to the read, the middle bits were the most amusing. A beach-blanket read, perhaps?

A 1960- first edition cover. Downright restrained, this image, comparatively speaking.

A 1960- first edition cover. Downright restrained, this image, comparatively speaking.

My favourite cover, from 1960.

My favourite cover, also from 1960.

A 1962 Pocket Books edition, working hard to entice the reader.

A 1962 Pocket Books edition, working hard to entice the reader.

The back of the '62 Pocket Book.

The back of the ’62 Pocket Book.

A 1963 Pan paperback edition, cover blurb appealing to the readers' prurient curiousity.

A 1963 Pan paperback edition, cover blurb appealing to the reader’s prurient curiousity.

 

 

 

 

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it's an old country j.b. priestley 001It’s An Old Country by J.B. Priestley ~ 1967. This edition: Heinemann, 1967. Hardcover. 247 pages.

My rating: 2.5/10

I’m a sincere J.B. Priestley fan, so this rating and following review pain me greatly. I’ll try to get it over with quickly, so I can put the book away (far away) and not have to look at it and be reminded of my disappointment.

It’s 1960-something, and 35-year-old economic historian Tom Adamson has just buried his mother in a Sydney, Australia graveyard. Tom is by birth English, having come to Australia as a toddler with his embittered mother and wee sister when his actor-artist father suddenly abandoned his family back in the old country.

Raised to scorn his absent parent, Tom has had a disquieting experience when, in her last days of illness, his mother hints that there was some sort of mystery as to why Dad cut all ties, and a deeper reason behind it all.

So Tom takes leave from his job as a Colonial Economic History professor at the local university, flies to England, and proceeds to seek his father, whom he feels is still alive (he’d know if it weren’t so, our author assures us, Tom being apparently blessed with some sort of superior filial intuition) and perhaps yearning for his long-lost son.

Tom falls in with a ne’er-do-well cousin, who in the intervals of between hitting Tom up for substantial “loans” of cash actually proves fairly useful in providing introductions to people who can give snippets of information regarding Tom’s elusive father. We meet a vast array of potentially intriguing characters – a seedy private enquiry agent, a senile noblewoman, an elegant European jetsetter (with whom Tom has an ultimately unsatisfying sexual escapade), various actors, artists, writers, pub-owners, ex-lovers of the father, ex-employers of the father, fellow workers of the father’s numerous jobs – an immense cast of secondary characters, and each one as sketchily portrayed and forgettable as the last.

I’ll tell you what Tom discovers, to save you from plodding through this thing for yourself. (Consider this your spoiler alert, though that very term implies something suspenseful or exciting, which is far from what occurs in the book.)

Turns out that Dad’s letters home were suppressed by a jealous lover – he’d really meant to return to his wife at some point but said lover maneuvered weak-willed Dad in a different direction. After failing at reaching success as either an actor or a painter, Dad enlisted in the army, fought in the 2nd World War, came out to a dismal civilian life, passed dud cheques, served time in jail, changed his name, and worked at a series of progressively less rewarding jobs until Tom finds him slaving away as an underpaid waiter in a South Devon hotel.

There is an underwhelming reunion, notable for its über-masculine soberness. Tom promises to set Dad up with an annuity and a new life in London, with the intimation that one of Dad’s old girlfriends who still carries a torch for the ineffectual but generally decent old guy will step in to provide female companionship.

Tom himself has found a love interest in a 25-year-old book editress, and the two find they share a sniffy dislike of the way English society is sliding into chaos – beatnicks versus the old guard – and decide that the happiest future shared career will be in working for the U.N. In a more developed part of the world of course: “(D)oes it have to be Ghana or Cambodia or Ecuador?…Couldn’t we make it Austria or Thailand or Mexico, my darling?”

The end.

It’s an Old Country fails to live up to expectation on every front. The plot is boring. The characters are strictly cardboard – even our “hero” Tom fails to come across as multi-dimensional in any way, shape or form. The dialogue is stilted. The style throughout reads like a first draft, a mere roughed-out outline without any living detail.

Even Priestley’s “big idea” – a reliable trope with this author is his inclusion of an intellectual motif to each book – is vague  and understated. In this novel, the gist seems to be that the youth of the day are sloppy and unambitious, a bunch of guitar-playing beatnicks, but perhaps that’s to be expected after the way the elder generation has mucked up the world with its wars and class divisions, and that the old guard is overdue for toppling. The “old country” – England, and also its colonial partner Australia – is fixed in its downward spiral – time for a forward-thinking man (that would be our Tom) to abandon ship. Hurray for tradition, it’s been swell but it’s over, see you later.

There are tiny glimpses here and there of the author’s true potential – micro-episodes and lonely glistening, gliding phrases – but so few and far between that they merely serve to remind the reader of how much better this book should be.

One could charitably excuse the absolute flatness of this dull, dull novel by maintaining that after over forty years of plugging out work after work after work the author was scraping the bottom of the barrel, getting old and tired. How then to explain the excellence of the book before this one, the quite stellar Lost Empires, published in 1965? Two years shouldn’t make that much difference. We know the man still has it in him, so where is it here?

It’s an Old Country is a hack piece, trading on the author’s good name, an underwritten, too sparse yet plodding novel that should never have made it to print.

In my opinion.

Over and out.

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i heard the owl call my name margaret craven 001

I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven ~ 1967. This edition: Clarke, Irwin & Co., 1977. Softcover. ISBN: 0-7720-0617-2. 138 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This is a slight, quiet, non-sentimental though rather romanticized novel about a young, terminally ill Anglican priest and his short residence in the Tsawataineuk (First Nations) village at the head of remote Kingcome inlet, on the southwestern British Columbia coast, opposite the northern tip of Vancouver Island. The time frame is contemporary with its writing, in the mid 1960s.

The doctor said to the Bishop, “So you see, my lord, your young ordinand can live no more than three years and doesn’t know it. Will you tell him, and what will you do with him?”

The Bishop said to the doctor, “Yes, I’ll tell him, but not yet. If I tell him now, he’ll try too hard. How much time has he for an active life?”

“A little less than two years if he’s lucky.”

“So short a time to learn so much? It leaves me no choice. I shall send him to my hardest parish. I shall send him to Kingcome on patrol of the Indian villages.”

“Then I hope you’ll pray for him, my lord.”

But the Bishop only answered gently that it was where he would wish to go if he were young again, and in the ordinand’s place.

So off goes young Mark Brian, the new vicar of Kingcome, under the able supervision of a young native man of similar age, Jim Wallace. Mark and Jim gravely size each other up, setting the tone for the rest of the story. Mark’s only authority is in the religious arena – the villagers respect him as a symbolic leader representing the church – but in every other aspect of his daily life he is as a child compared to the capable and wilderness-savvy people around him.

Mark is in some ways wise beyond his years – perhaps it is because of prospective hand of death stretched over him? – yes, this is slightly cynical but one can’t help but feel that our young protagonist is just  the tiniest bit too good to be entirely true – and he settles down to learn from the people of Kingcome how best to deal with this strange new place he has found himself in.

Various incidents occur, and Mark comes nicely up to scratch in the eyes of the villagers, who by the end of Mike’s worldly tenure (he does indeed perish, though not of his mysterious ailment) have accepted him as one of their own. And Mike himself has apparently succeeded in preparing his soul for the life everlasting which his religion promises, and has done some earthly good in the meantime.

Margaret Craven has created a novel which is deeply appreciative of the region in which the story is set, and calmly descriptive of the very real problems of the Tsawataineuk people as their ancient culture is quickly being changed by the influx of modern ways and the influence of the non-native colonizers and religious missionaries.

Each incident is treated with sober even-handedness, as the author succeeds in seeing each angle to every encounter. The “old native ways” are perhaps seen through slightly rose-tinted spectacles, but by and large this is a very fair depiction of an extended culture clash.

The story is overly simplistic in many ways, of course – the book is, after all, extremely short – and I found it just a little hard to wrap my head around a fatal illness with no obvious signs except for a progressive weakness.

Everyone in Mark’s world appears to know of his fate – his church superiors because of the doctor’s diagnosis, and his twin sister because someone has obviously tipped her off, and the motherly native ladies of the village because of some special intuitiveness – but the man himself is clueless until very close to the end. He appears to be experiencing no pain or obvious symptoms, and there is no mention of any sort of palliative treatment. What the heck is wrong with him?! Inquiring minds (okay, mine) want to know! I can only surmise that it is that special fictional fatal ailment we run across here and there, diagnosed by clever physicians who can accurately predict the likely time frame of their subject’s demise. Would that our real doctors were this wise…

But that is my only real complaint against this likeable story. It hits all of the buttons, and was a commercial success some years after its low-key first publication, when a reissue sent it rocketing up bestseller lists.

Author Margaret Craven was an American journalist, and she travelled in the area of the setting of  I Heard the Owl Call My Name for some months in 1962, which experience inspired the story. The novel was very well received in the Pacific Northwest, and in British Columbia in particular, where it remains a recommended novel in the B.C. high school English curriculum. It was also made into a modestly successful television movie in 1973.

The novel receives a rare favourable mention for a book by a non-native writer on the American Indians in Children’s Literature list – see Debbie Reese’s AICL blog – though it is also sometimes viewed by modern critics as depicting outdated attitudes and ideas.

I Heard the Owl Call My Name is indeed a dated book, published almost 50 years ago as it was, but it retains merit for its articulate and admiring depiction of a people and a place. The gentle fictional melodrama of the doomed priest seems to me slightly secondary to the “capture” of the very real setting.

Here is arecent photo of St. George's Anglican Church in Kingcome Village.

Here is a recent photo of St. George’s Anglican Church in Kingcome Village, consecrated in 1938. The totem pole beside the church which depicts the four First Nations of Kingcome Inlet was dedicated in 1958 as a memorial to King George V.

 

 

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Tthe incomparable atuk mordecai richlerhe Incomparable Atuk by Mordecai Richler ~ 1963. This edition: McClelland and Stewart. Hardcover. 192 pages.

My rating: Unrateable. This is one strange little book. Repellant and mesmerizing in equal quantities.

Despite the post heading above – lifted from some pertinent dialogue in the book – I think I can safely say that this is one of Richler’s relatively more obscure works, though the title is sure to be more immediately recognizable than those of his first three brooding novels, The Acrobats(1954), Son of a Smaller Hero(1955) and A Choice of Enemies(1957).

Richler’s fourth novel, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, was published in 1959, and its resounding success made readers and critics eager for more. What showed up next, after a four year hiatus, was this small but seethingly ultra-satirical novel. Duddy Kravitz, take a hike. Atuk the Eskimo is here.

Yes, I said Eskimo, because back in 1963 that was the term-in-use for people of Atuk’s ethnicity. Better let it roll right over you, because if you’re at all sensitive to what would nowadays be severe political incorrectness, this thing will have you breaking out in hives before you can say…well…never mind. Won’t go there.

Here is the front flyleaf blurb from my tattered ex-library first edition.

THE INCOMPARABLE ATUK

‘Eskimo poetry’ – words calculated to chill the blood of all but the devoutest Canadian egg-head patriot. So when Atuk, the Eskimo poet, first came to Toronto as the ‘discovery’ of a Twentyman Fur Company public relations officer, all he got out of it was a slim volume and a few literary cocktails. Prestigewise, as his new friends would have said, it was not too bad; moneywise it stank.

But Atuk did not focus the gentle savage’s traditionally innocent eye on the Toronto scene – far from it. One gimlet glance at the delights of civilization and he was on the ball. Soon his stocky figure was to be seen stepping out of a black Thunderbird at the doors of TV, movie and press magnates – or rolling on a divan with the country’s darling, Bette Dolan, record-breaking swimmer and the wholesomest girl in the land. Atuk’s downfall only came when …

But no: we cannot do this to you. The beauty of this book lies in its surprises: in its lunatic twists and turns, in the laughs it startles out of you by outrageous shock tactics. Because one of Canada’s most serious young writers has here turned a somersault and has come up with – we are weighing our words – a tour de force of comic invention unrivalled since Juan visited America. It is possible that, as a result, when he next sets foot on his native soil it will bounce him back into the sea – but whether Canada likes it or not, it has now produced a comic writer and satirist of whom any country in the world could be proud.

Atuk, playing the enigmatic Eskimo card for all it’s worth, runs rings around the Toronto intellectuals and artsy types and bleeding heart do-gooders keen to adopt him as this week’s picturesque indigenous person. He bluffs his way into an intimate relationship the ever-helpful and soon to be ex-virginal Bette Dolan, brings his extended family to Toronto to dwell in a basement sweatshop turning out crude specimens of “genuine Eskimo art”, and schmoozes his way into all sorts of circles, from upper-crust to deeply dodgy. But an incident from his past is about to catch up with him…

Mordecai Richler nails everyone in this midnight-black satirical romp, with the notable exception of that most expected Canadian target-of-scorn: Americans. By and large the field is made up of north-of-49thers, of every stripe and hue and political persuasion.

Deeply dated and terrifically politically incorrect by the standards of both then and now – a casual gang rape is played for cheap laughs, and there is an abundance of crude bedroom and bathroom humour – but I must say I laughed outright at several bits, most notably Atuk’s successful attempt at fratricide by traffic light.

Now that I’ve read this dark little period piece, I find myself quite happy to quietly slide it back onto the bookshelf. I don’t know as I’ll ever take it down again, but at least I’ve quelled my curiosity as to its contents.

Recommended? Probably not, unless you’re Canadian and keen on exploring the seedier back alleys of our national literary heritage.

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I received a comment on the blog this morning from the SYLE Press, announcing their eBook release of John Christopher’s obscure novel, 1960’s The White Voyage, latest in their collection of vintage re-releases by this well-regarded-in-his-time sci-fi writer.

Christopher’s publishing era was the 1950s-60s-70s, and his work is absolutely typical of its time, but he displays an interesting line in dystopian conjecture which makes his work worth dipping into, if only to see how well matched our present world is to his imagined future.

Though The White Voyage is not one of John Christopher’s most well-known works – this claim must go to his young adult Tripods sequence, as well as his chilling and violent The Death of Grass – it’s an interesting example of this writer’s line of speculative fiction, and it’s free today and tomorrow on Kindle, for those so equipped.

Here’s the link:
http://johnchristopher.org/the-white-voyage-2/

white voyage john christopher syle press

Some years ago I wrote the following post on another of John Christopher’s adult-oriented novels, 1962’s The Long Winter, and I’m reposting this today for those interested in this somewhat gloomy genre.

*****

the long winter john christopherThe Long Winter by John Christopher (pseudonym of Samuel Youd) ~ 1962. Alternate British Title: The World in Winter. This edition: Simon & Schuster, 1962. Hardcover. First American edition. Library of Congress #: 62-12411. 253 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10. This fifty-year-old post-apocalyptic novel was much more gripping than I had expected; the premise of a new ice age is chillingly depicted (pun intended). I thought this one was right up there with John Wyndham’s similarly themed works. I started it last night as a casual bedtime dip-into-and-check-it-out read, and I was quickly hooked and soldiered on until well after midnight to finish it, to my slightly groggy detriment today.

Good period piece and a fine example of the vintage speculative fiction genre, though with the expected true-to-the era misogynist attitudes and opinions. This would make an excellent film, in the right hands.

*****

Andrew Leedon rubbed his hands against the antique Victorian muff-heater Madeleine had given him. She had found it in an antique shop and presented it to him on his birthday, along with a supply of the small charcoal by which it was fueled. But even charcoal had become impossible to obtain, and its brief usefulness, after so many years, was almost at an end. He blew through the small holes on the side and watched the red glow brighten. A chair scraped and he turned his attention back to his fellow readers. He felt pity for them, but it was mixed with envy. The future was a current which soon, very soon now, must drag them down into the maelstrom; for the moment they bobbed like corks in this eddying backwater, but the deep tug of the undersurge was there and none would escape it. Yet they were indifferent. The red-eyed, gray-haired man across the aisle with his pile of volumes on King Arthur – he had always been there, in the same place, with the same books. When the end came to him, in however strange and incalculable a form, it would be irrelevant, as irrelevant as the pneumonia or heart attack or cancer which would otherwise have rendered his seat vacant. Soon all the seats would be vacant together until, as must happen, marauders broke in to rip up the wood and carry away the books that were left for fuel. Some of the rarest books had already gone, to the libraries in Cairo and Accra, in Lagos and Johannesburg, and more would go in the next few weeks; but there would still be enough to draw the mob. The people reading here were not so foolish as to expect a reprieve – for the library of for themselves. It was that he envied.

The main lights were off, conserving electricity. There were only the small reading lights, and, high up, the grayness that filtered in from outside. He thought of Africa; of sunshine, long beaches by a blue ocean, the green of trees and grass …

In the middle of the 20th Century a worldwide environmental catastrophe is occurring: the sun’s radiation is decreasing, and a new ice age is looming in the temperate zones. British television producer Andrew Leedon, happily married with a lovely wife and two young sons, catches a glimmer of the story as it first starts to break, but he, along with everyone else, pays little attention. Even if the predictions are correct, what would a degree or two difference in temperature really mean? Surely nothing to worry about; winters in England might even be more traditionally enjoyable again; skating on the Thames would make a pleasant Christmas diversion…

As the true impact of the swift and ever more severe solar cooling begins to be felt, Andrew’s marriage echoes the collapse of his planet’s future. His wife confesses that she has been continuously unfaithful since the first days of their marriage and is now leaving him for his good friend David Cartwell; as a consolation prize Andrew is thrown together with David’s discarded wife, the gentle Madeleine.

Those fortunate enough to have been able to plan ahead and liquidate their assets are moving towards the equatorial regions; Andrew’s now-estranged wife and sons leave for Nigeria without his initial knowledge. Stubbornly refusing to flee in his turn, Andrew is finally convinced to leave by Madeleine, and with David’s assistance the two obtain seats on one of the last air flights out of England. David himself remains behind, counting on his high position in the government to enable his escape if and when it becomes necessary. But for now he intends to stay and see England through this crisis to the best of his considerable ability.

In Africa, Andrew and Madeleine find themselves immersed in a society very different from that which they know. White-skinned Europeans and Britons are the new working class; their currency is worthless, their academic and professional qualifications ignored. Serving the ruling class Nigerians in the former British colony, the whites scrub toilets and wait tables and prostitute themselves to pick up enough money to eke out a precarious existence. Andrew and Madeleine settle into one of the worst of the slums, until a chance encounter with an African student whom Andrew had patronizingly but kindly treated to a dinner at his club back in the old days in London elevates him socially and professionally by making him a personal assistant.

This turn-about relationship leads to a morally challenging situation, when Andrew is asked to join a Nigerian military expedition force planned to explore England by Hovercraft, to assess the possibility of re-colonizing that now nearly abandoned territory under an African flag.

The first part of this post-apocalyptic tale is, in my opinion, the best-written, where Andrew struggles with the ethics and morality of his own behaviour in this unprecedented crisis, and keenly observes the reactions of those around him. As the novel progresses, and as the conditions in the frozen lands worsen, to martial law, brutal violence by the few elites with guns against the many without, and survival of the fittest by any means, including cannibalism, the story becomes much more intellectually shallow and far distant from the complex inner musings of the earlier days. To be fair, this might echo the increasing callousness of the strong as they jettison their finer feelings to ensure their own continued survival; ethics are a luxury no one can afford to indulge in any more.

The racial situation of blacks versus whites and their role reversals is cleverly presented; the tone remains “white” racially superior though, as the Africans ultimately are undone by their own “inborn” weaknesses, at least in the eyes of the staunchly patriotic Britons defending their frozen homeland.

This is indeed a very British book; the author assumes a strong familiarity with English landmarks and history, and knowledge of London neighbourhoods and architectural and physical features. The narration itself is very stiff-upper-lip, in the best stereotypical tradition.

I thought that Andrew lost some of his credibility as a character towards the latter part of the book; his continual fixation on his personal life while the world itself is crashing down around him strikes what seems to me an off-key note.

Or does it? How would you react? Would you focus ever more inward, or would you harden your soul to pursue sheer survival over sentiment?

The ending of this epic is left open and vaguely optimistic, but though we may speculate on Andrew’s future, we are not at all assured that he will even survive, let alone thrive, in the changed world he is struggling to adapt to.

*****

John Christopher was the pseudonym of the late (1922-2012) prolific sci fi and speculative fiction writer Samuel Youd. His best-known works are perhaps the teen/young adult “Tripod Trilogy” concerning an alien invasion of Earth: The White Mountains (1967), The City of Gold and Lead (1968), and The Pool of Fire (1968). I read all three of these some years ago, and though I felt that they were often technically over-simplistic, they were emotionally gripping, thought-provoking and generally memorable.

This is an author worth investigating for the frequent excellence of his creative ideas and his sober examination of human emotional motivations, though his writing can be occasionally uneven, varying in quality even within the same book.

If you are a John Wyndham fan, you will find much to enjoy in John Christopher’s stories. In that case, recommended.

A note: The Long Winter was intended as an adult novel, even though this writer also wrote widely for teens.

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the good companions musson j b priestley 001

The Good Companions by J.B. Priestley ~ 1929. This edition: Musson, 1930. Hardcover. 640 pages.

My rating: 10/10

A middle-aged Yorkshire laborer who has just been fired from his carpenter’s job at the local mill, a recent Cambridge graduate-cum-reluctant-schoolmaster with literary ambitions and a talent for creating catchy tunes on the piano, and a sedately dutiful upper-class spinster-daughter in her fourth decade recently freed of familial responsibilities by the death of her elderly father are all thrown together by the whim of fate.

The set-up of the main characters’ backstories takes up a good third or so of this very rambling narrative, and it is not until we are well into the book that their paths convene, as they fall in with another lot of fate-tossed travellers, the stranded members of a theatrical troupe, the ex-Dinky Doos.

The result of this leisurely and detailed approach is a likeable period piece of a book – “a long, comic, picaresque, a fairy-tale sort of novel”, to quote the author’s own words in 1937’s autobiographical Midnight on the Desert – as the newly united characters form a travelling concert party/pierrot troupe, performing in rural towns and small industrial cities throughout the Yorkshires and surrounding districts.

The Good Companions was written between the wars, when Priestley was dealing with some serious personal issues, such as the recent death of his young wife from cancer (leaving behind two baby daughters), and his own chronic physical difficulties resulting from injuries and gassing while serving in the trenches of WW I. His decision to create an ultimately happy novel – the characters, despite their very real troubles, all attain at least a modicum of their personal hearts’ desires – was immensely popular with the public, and the book was an astoundingly successful bestseller. But the highbrow critics sneered, and though Priestley enjoyed the much-needed financial security The Good Companions provided, the dismissive attitudes of his literary peers wounded him deeply.

The book retains its appeal today. The likeable concert party characters are all very human in their thoughts, desires, ambitions and reactions to various setbacks, and though we are aware of the author’s omnipotent hand in strategically arranging the various random incidents which result in the united happy ending, we good naturedly accept the more creative developments and cheer our people on. There is also a certain historical interest in the novel’s detailed portrayal of a now-vanished theatrical sub-culture, which, even as it still flourished, was being inexorably replaced by the “new-technology” moving picture shows, as is shown in one of the final plot twists of the novel.

Highly recommended, for “cultural literacy” reasons as much as for its engaging story.

Budget yourself a goodly chunk of time to read this one. At over 600 small-print pages, it takes a certain amount of optimistic persistence to embark upon, but once entered into will provide a lovely escape from the one’s own ho-hum everyday routine.

lost empires jb priestley 001Lost Empires by J.B. Priestley ~ 1965. Subtitled Being Richard Herncastle’s account of his life on the variety stage from November 1913 to August 1914 together with a Prologue and Epilogue by J.B. Priestley. This edition: The Reprint Society, 1966. Hardcover. 381 pages.

My rating: 9/10

J.B. Priestley revisits the world of the travelling theatrical party which he so famously documented in 1929’s The Good Companions, but this novel, written some three decades later, is a much grittier and less outwardly cheerful thing than its predecessor.

Whereas The Good Companions was written as a contemporary novel reflective of its time (though a highly sentimentalized and “feel-good” version, and that’s not meant to be derogatory, as the author himself states that this was his intention), Lost Empires is frequently melancholy and foreboding, and very much about looking back and describing a certain rigidly defined period of time in relation to what came after.

The casual reader might assume Lost Empires to be lightly disguised autobiography, so intimate are the thoughts and events recorded, but Priestley distances himself from the narrative by presenting himself as the author of both the preface and epilogue to the tale, with the set-up being that an old friend, the Richard (Dick) Herncastle named in the subtitle, has asked Priestley-the-famous-writer to look over the memoir for him. The framing device works very well, and the resulting novel is taut with a certain suspense, as we-the-readers know what young Dick’s future may hold. He’s a physically fit, unencumbered young man in his very early twenties, and the year is 1913. Everything is about to change beyond recognition in his world; we know that as we embark upon the first chapter.

But though war is looming – and a number of the wiser characters in Lost Empires are grimly predicting what later came to pass – the mood in England is one of wanting to be distracted from the political rumblings all around, and the music halls are thriving, into which unlikely milieu our young protagonist is initiated by his black-sheep-of-the-family Uncle Nick.

Dick, newly orphaned by the death of his mother, aspires to be an artist, but has been forced by circumstances to give up his plans of attending art school to instead work as an office clerk. Uncle Nick, attending his sister’s funeral, takes Dick aside and offers him a position as his assistant in his very successful variety show act.

Uncle Nick is an accomplished illusionist of the “vanishing lady” type, and his perfectionism and scornful antipathy to any sort of sentiment make him an awkward sort of employer, family ties or not, but Dick’s dogged determination to continue with his artistic goals despite the logistical difficulties earns his uncle’s respect, and the two settle into a mostly successful working relationship.

Dick has never been in a position to travel or to associate with people from such a broad strata of society as the touring variety show allows, and it rather goes to his head. His good looks and polite middle-class manners make him the focus of unnervingly aggressive attention from some of the women in the other acts (and also from his uncle’s own act’s female member, one of whose unofficial duties is to share the principle’s bed), but the one woman he would like to get on closer terms with is unaccountably cold and snubbing, though she unbends for a brief period, long enough for Dick to fall deeply in love with her, before she again cold-shoulders him.

Emotionally bruised and sexually frustrated, a situation made much worse by the continual presence of nubile young women in revealing costumes, Dick, still a sexual virgin as his variety-stage history opens, is ready to fall, and fall he does. He is seduced by and then obsessively enters into a torrid relationship with one of the older women in a co-starring act, with disastrous consequences when his real love is told of his defection to the well-experienced arms of another.

This book is chock-full of sex, not particularly graphic but described with enough detail to make one very aware of the change in times since The Good Companions first appeared to the time when Lost Empires was written. Though we have no doubts that some of the characters in The Good Companions were also sexually active, and prone to drinking too much on occasion, and sometimes involved in questionable personal pursuits, many of the details aren’t given, and the more risqué bits are generally glossed over, or given the light comedy treatment.

Very much not so in Lost Empires, with the result that it is a much stronger sort of novel in a modern, no-topic-is-forbidden sense, though Priestley provides a soft-focussed epilogue which echoes that of his earlier tale, with our hero finding his personal redemption and with most loose ends neatly tucked away.

And that final soft focus is what docked Lost Empires its point in my personal rating in comparison to The Good Companions‘ solid 10.

The Good Companions satisfied because it did exactly what it said it would on the flyleaf: it amused. The author dances his characters for us, and he blatantly manipulates fate to favour them, and, as it’s all part of the game and known to us going in, we cheerfully play along.

Lost Empires is, for the most part, a rather deeper book, with its vividly imagined and occasionally disturbing coming-of-age tale, and its sober look back at a nation heading unhappily into a devastating war. I felt, however, that J.B. Priestley pulled back just a bit from where he could have gone with it, and though Lost Empires is a very good thing, the eventual resolution of its hero’s problems felt slightly deus ex machina, hand of puppet master evident at the last.

This said, also very highly recommended. A good example of Priestley’s later fiction, and a must-read for anyone interested in exploring this prolific writer’s A-list.

 

 

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