Conor Cruise O’Brien (1917-2008): a body of work back in print, to make us think again…

'The Cruiser'

‘The Cruiser’

A dream long cherished and now realised for us here at Finds Towers: through the first half of 2015 we will reissue a dozen titles by Conor Cruise O’Brien (1917-2008), a mighty figure in politics and letters in his native Ireland and many other corners of the globe besides. In their 2008 obituary the Telegraph called O’Brien ‘the leading Irish intellectual of his generation, though he assumed so many guises – diplomatist, historian, literary critic, proconsul, professor, playwright, government minister, columnist and editor – that he defies further categorisation.’

Times columnist and leader writer Oliver Kamm has blessed our reissues with a new appreciation of O’Brien’s thought that serves as a general preface to each tome. In his piece he writes:

‘[O’Brien] was a public intellectual in the best sense of the term. He applied his knowledge and critical intelligence to matters of great public interest, and he expressed his thinking in elegant, spare prose that argued a case with remorseless logic. He was a great man and a great Irishman, and Faber are to be congratulated in reissuing his work.

We begin our reissue program this month with three titles:

Maria Cross: Imaginative Patterns in a Group of Catholic Writers (1952), O’Brien’s debut, a collection born of his work as critic for Dublin literary magazine The Bell, in which he studies a number of great literary minds ‘permeated by Catholicism’ – from Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh to Francois Mauriac and Paul Claudel – and analyses what they might share.

Parnell and his Party 1880-1890, O’Brien’s second book, published in 1957, which grew out of his doctoral thesis at Dublin’s Trinity College, and which Roy Foster called ‘an indispensable classic half a century after its first publication’ and Thomas Flanagan ‘one of the essential books of modern Irish history.’

To Katanga and Back: A UN Case History (1962), in which O’Brien reconstructs the complex events of a real-life drama in which he found himself controversially at centre-stage, having been sent to the newly independent Congo as Special Representative of UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, his task to arrest and repatriate the mercenaries, backed by foreign interests, who had enabled the secession of the Congo’s mineral-rich Katanga province.

Further reading? Whether you know O’Brien’s work perfectly well or you’ve yet to have the pleasure and the challenge, you need to do yourself a favour and look at these:

Roy Foster’s appreciation in Standpoint from February 2009.

– Frank Callanan’s podcast lecture ‘Remembering Conor Cruise O Brien’ given in Dublin on January 22 2014.

– Christopher Hitchens’ reading of O’Brien that was first published in Grand Street and collected (as ‘Creon’s Think-Tank’) in his Prepared for the Worst: Selected Essays and Minority Reports 1988

The inspirational affect of O’Brien upon Hitchens is made abundantly clear in this clip (and be assured, Writers and Politics, the tome the Hitch so admired, is of course one of the jewels in our Finds retrospective, coming next month:

And this is a good half-hour of O’Brien in interview, at the time of his biography of Edmund Burke (coming from Finds), wherein he reflects upon his body of work, though he has a fairly chatty interlocutor:

At any rate, this is all just for starters. We will be saying much more of the great man this season, and the season to come, but we do urge you to sample these rare and splendid early works of his.

Posted in Appreciations, Biography, Miscellaneous, Reissues | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Anarchy in the UK, the legends of the 1970s, and C.J. Driver’s ‘A Messiah of the Last Days’

Time Out's cover after the verdicts in the 5-month 1972 'Angry Brigade' trial

Time Out’s cover after the verdicts in the 5-month 1972 ‘Angry Brigade’ trial

‘Viewed from a distance, Britain in the 1970s looks ghastly—angry, decaying, on the skids. But that is not the whole story.’ The Economist‘s 2010 review of State of Emergency: The Way We Were. Britain, 1970–1974 by Dominic Sandbrook.

‘In England it’s a dirge – the days are all grey over there. It’s a bit worrying…’ David Bowie, speaking to the NME (by phone from Los Angeles) in 1975

‘These young claimed to be political but regarded political organization as a waste of time… They claimed God was dead but spoke the language of religious mania. They claimed to speak for the workers but despised the workers for their concern with money… they claimed to be open to all but regarded people over thirty almost subhuman in their progress to death.’ From A Messiah of the Last Days by C.J. Driver, first published in 1974.

Probably a fair few of us still look back at the 1970s with a slight shudder, recalling its image-repertoire in rather stark black and white, or else the muddy colours of badly-lit 16mm. The shudder comes from that sense-memory of periodic crisis and of longer-term decline, whether or not the statistics bear out the latter. (There have been some noteworthy revisionist efforts – take Andy Beckett’s When the Lights Went Out – to argue that in the 1970s Britain was fairly well off, was feeling certain social benefits trickling down from the 1960s, and wasn’t especially in need of the ‘reforming’ Conservative government the electorate returned in 1979.)

Still: the 1970s were (and will likely remain) the decade of the fall of Bretton Woods, of the Opec oil embargo on US and Western European governments, of fully five states of emergency declared by Edward Heath’s Conservative government in response to striking dockers, electricians and coalminers (the last of these begetting the three-day week and four months of cold and dark…) Then you have bloody war in Northern Ireland, exported to the mainland, leading inter alia to black ops against the Wilson Labour government, meantime the curious manoeuvres of one or two army top brass making noises about the need for a coup a la Pinochet to see off the spectre of union-driven communism…

Culturally we can now see the 1970s without fuss as a boom time for both apocalyptic and utopian visions. There were those who argued for military dictatorship and/or enhanced survivalist skills with which to meet a nuclear winter, and those who thought anarcho-syndicalism would read the funeral rites over capitalism and that self-sufficiency was a progressive good in itself. BBC viewers were routinely treated to creative versions of one or other outcome – Survivors or The Good Life.

But the 1970s in Britain were certainly a notable ‘moment’ for radical politics of the ecological and sexual and anarchic variety. Astute writers were drawn to that tumult, and were interested, too, in how the Establishment viewed it (with fear or longing?) Howard Brenton’s 1973 play Magnificence, likely influenced by the activities of the Angry Brigade, is one document of the times. (James Graham, the playwright who gave us This House has now written a new play about The Angry Brigade…)

Another fine and unsettling timepiece, available in Finds, is C.J. Driver’s novel A Messiah of the Last Days (1974). Its narrator is Tom Grace, a pragmatic, efficient London barrister with a comfortable life. But his ordered world is unsettled by his involvement with a young man he defends in court – John Buckleson, the charismatic leader of an anarchic movement calling themselves The Free People. Though deeply divided in many ways, the two men are drawn to each other by a common dream of creating a new social and moral order. Buckleson, though, is a figure of interest to more people than those who subscribe to his vision.

The late and great Nadine Gordimer, countrywoman to C.J. Driver, was a profound admirer of his work and we include her tribute to him and to Messiah of the Last Days as a preface to the Finds edition. Gordimer – like Driver, like his creation Buckleson, like every clued-up reader who comes to this novel – felt a fascinating tension ‘between the injustice of inequality in a country which is supposed to be that of a united people, and the contradictions within the extremist radicals themselves in action against the injustice.’ That tension is endlessly modern, and we can see it today, when some maybe wonder whether we are living through what Trotsky called ‘a revolutionary situation’ – whether, in Guevara’s terminology, it is time for the apple to be shaken from the tree; while others, perhaps favouring Burke’s idea of ‘preserving the method of nature in the conduct of the state’ (by which ‘in what we improve we are never wholly new; in what we retain we are never wholly obsolete’) make their stand on behalf of The System. Each to their own.

Meanwhile, if you would like the chance to win a copy of the really superb and thought-provoking A Messiah of the Last Days, you have only to do two things.

1. Answer this question correctly: How many general elections were held in the UK in the calendar year of 1974?

2. Put your answer in an email to, with DRIVER as your subject line.

The competition will close at 5pm next Monday December 1 2014 whereupon a winner will be picked out of the office’s neglected black balaclava.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Patricia Hollis’s ‘Jennie Lee’, the mantle of Nye, and how (or how not) to be a Junior Minister

Jennie Lee addressing busmen in Trafalgar Square, 1937

Jennie Lee addressing busmen in Trafalgar Square, 1937

by Patricia Hollis
Faber Finds paperback & ebook

Enoch Powell took the view that all political careers end in failure (‘because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.’) One could argue, and on the same grounds, that most political careers never get very far past failure in their beginnings or middles either. Certainly, few politicians who rose no higher in front-line politics than the rank of junior minister are much remembered for the marks they left behind.

Surely the grand dame exception here, though, is Jennie Lee (1904-1988), rightly hailed by her biographer Patricia Hollis as ‘the first and defining Minister for the Arts and founder of the Open University.’ (Let’s remember, too, that Harold Wilson considered the accessibility and quality of the Open University to be the greatest achievement of his government.)

Hollis’s book Jennie Lee – A Life (1997) won both the Orwell Prize for best political biography and the Wolfson History Prize for best book of its year. Gerald Kaufman, MP and author of the durable How to be a Minister, hailed it in the Telegraph as ‘superbly researched, engrossingly written, scrupulously honest.’ We are proud to reissue it now in a Finds edition newly updated by Baroness Hollis, in paperback and ebook formats.

On point of legacy one might wish to remember Jennie Lee above all for the crowning political success into which her distinctive talents were deeply invested. But, as history would have it, it simply cannot be overlooked that she was, from 1934 to 1960, married to Aneurin Bevan, whose post-1945 presiding over the birth of a comprehensive universal national health service is felt by a fair few people to be the greatest thing Labour has ever done or will ever do. Though she was surely no shrinking violet, Lee certainly did decide to subsume her own ambitions into what she saw as the higher calling of supporting Bevan. ‘He was doing what I wanted done,’ she once said, ‘infinitely better than I could have done it.’

Though it may be a bit of a crude prolepsis to speak of Bevan and Lee as a Labour ‘power couple’, still, insofar as the term has been applied more recently to Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper (even to Jack Dromey and Harriet Harman), it could be argued that the man from Trenegar and the woman from Fife wore it with rather more of a flourish. And after Bevan’s death Jennie became the first Bevanite, overseeing the bearing of the flame by helping Michael Foot with his two-volume biography of her late husband (both volumes are, of course, Finds) and so helping to ensure that the challenge, opportunity and burden of leading Labour’s left wing would always be seen among cognoscenti as ‘the mantle of Nye.’

Patricia Hollis maps Lee’s life broadly into three stages: the first fiery phase in which her unyielding principles, exercised via the puritan Independent Labour Party (ILP), duly led her into self-imposed political exile; the second passage in which she and Nye made their formidable union (she routinely perceived, especially in struggles with Atlee and Gaitskell, as Nye’s ‘dark angel’, forever dragging him away from the rocks of political compromise toward pure shores); and then the third act of Jennie’s late-flowering ministerial career.

She was 60 – Nye had been gone four years – when Wilson brought her into the fold as Arts Minister, an appointment commentators inevitably characterised as ‘a wreath for Nye.’ (She had earlier, wisely, refused a post at Health, sniffing a Wilsonian ruse to buy a piece of Nye’s reputation at a discount.) Her six years in the post saw government funding for the arts nearly trebled. We got, at last, the National Theatre, and then the English National Opera. The film industry was strengthened, the National Film School opened, arts in education flourished more generally, and then of course came the University of the Air.

As I say, Patricia Hollis has now revisited her work from 1997, in a new preface for the Finds edition wherein she addresses, inter alia, elements of Lee’s private life – ‘personal material, that I chose not to use believing it would be hurtful’ – which can now be discussed more openly thanks to the passage of time.

Another significant turn of events in the interim since first publication is that after New Labour’s landslide election victory in May 1997 Tony Blair made Hollis Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions, a post she held until the reshuffle of 2005. And so experience of government and how the machine works has also given Hollis a fresh vantage on her original material, such that in the new preface she takes the opportunity ‘to reflect further on some of the conclusions offered back in 1997, not so much on Jennie’s achievements in the Arts and with the Open University, of which I am an unstinting admirer, but of her Ministerial style, where I am not.’ Hollis’s itemisation of the personality traits freely exuded by Lee in the exercise of her portfolio makes for rather flabbergasting reading today, and yet, as the author equally freely admits, it was the only way Jennie Lee knew to get things done. And done they certainly were:

‘(W)hat today would derail a Minister – bloody-mindedness to colleagues, indifference to her Secretary of State, visible contempt for the department in which she was located – was instead Jennie’s strength… She simply did not care whether she offended proprieties or bypassed hierarchies. She wasn’t interested in working with colleagues to develop shared policy. She wasn’t willing to negotiate. She wasn’t building a career. She didn’t need the approbation of her Secretary of State. She wasn’t interested in working the civil service machine. She didn’t want to know how it ran. She didn’t want their advice. She didn’t trust them at all…’

You won’t find any of that in Kaufman’s How to Be a Minister or in any work before or since that presumes to advise on how the levers of government ought to be pulled. All the more reason, then, to look anew at the story of Jennie Lee, told so superbly by a woman who followed in Lee’s footsteps and into another Labour government thirty years on.

Posted in Appreciations, Biography, Reissues | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Karl Miller, 1931-2014: editor, writer, lion of literary Caledonia & Londinium

Karl Miller literary criticGoodnight and good luck to Karl Miller, who passed away last week. The calling of literature, the love of writing and ideas, the encouragement and improvement of writers – none of these could have wished for a better friend than Miller.

In an obituary for the Guardian John Sutherland – who succeeded Miller as Northcliffe Professor of English Literature at University College London – hailed him as ‘the greatest literary editor of his time, and one of the greatest ever.’ Leo Robson in the New Statesman paid tribute to ‘the most influential British literary editor since the Second World War.’ For the Herald Alan Taylor made special and close reference to Scotland’s hold on Miller’s imagination and affection. Miller’s great friend Andrew O’Hagan told the Guardian’s Alison Flood that he was ‘perhaps the last of the great Bloomsbury men … Of course, there are brilliant writers and editors now, but they live in a world where the squeeze on literary values and on books programmes, on high culture and carefulness, is fearsome and degrading. Karl Miller worked in spite of the market, and he enriched the intellectual life of the country in a thousand ways.’

All of the obits trace Miller’s journey from Ayrshire to Downing College, Cambridge, where he was taught by Leavis, and proceeded to a luminous succession of literary editorships: the Spectator, the New Statesman, the Listener, then – concurrent with his time at UCL – the co-founding of the London Review of Books. The high esteem and affection given to Miller by so many who were taught by him or edited by him is an irreducible mark of a life well spent.

For your correspondent, meanwhile, to have known Miller on the page was quite sufficient to venerate him. Though his published works come second in remembrances of him, I must say that my own case of Miller fandom derives from having discovered his Doubles: Studies in Literary History in paperback during the 1980s and fallen upon it with the particular swoon of one who feels that a book has been written for him and him alone.

Doubles is now offered, we are proud to say, as a Faber Find. Likewise Cockburn’s Millennium (1975), Miller’s great study of the Scottish judge, orator, historian and Whig, winner of the James Tait Black memorial prize. We also offer Miller’s two volumes of memoir, Rebecca’s Vest and Dark Horses; and the essay collection he edited entitled Memoirs of a Modern Scotland, with contributors including Tom Nairn, Hugh MacDiarmid, Muriel Spark, William McIlvanney and Stuart Hood.

You can see Karl Miller’s influence in the Finds list without having to look too far. As Leo Robson notes, two of his favoured contributors at the New Statesman were Brigid Brophy, a dozen of whose titles we now offer, and the jazz critic ‘Francis Newton’ (Eric Hobsbawm), whose collected works are forthcoming. Emma Tennant’s Two Women of London: The Strange Case of Ms Jekyll and Mrs Hyde is also a Find, and is dedicated to Miller. The last time I was in Miller’s company was when he kindly attended a little reissue drinks that we threw for Emma in Notting Hill. Emma, though born in London, was the eldest daughter of the second Baron Glenconner and spent much of her childhood at the family seat of Glen House, a neo-Gothic baronial castle in Peeblesshire. When I asked Emma why she dedicated her novel to Karl she told me this:

Karl very kindly gave me huge encouragement from the beginning and had a tremendous input into everything I did, particularly to do with Scotland and ‘Caledonian antisyzygy’, which is the Scottish thing to be suffering from. I think Karl’s work and his obsession with the double completely set me off – because it was so much what you wanted to read about, and you felt that no-one had quite talked about before. The theme felt very Scottish, and Karl kept on saying to me that that was what I must remember I was…

Ah, that ‘Caledonian antisyzygy’ – what G. Gregory Smith, in his Scottish Literature: Character and Influence (1919), calls ‘a reflection of the contrasts which the Scot shows at every turn, in his political and ecclesiastical history, in his polemical restlessness, in his adaptability.’ Shall we remember Miller, then, as a great Scot as well as a grand panjandrum of literary London? Seems fair enough, as he could be both things simultaneously. One of the nicest moments in Leo Robson’s obituary is when Mark Lawson recalls his experience as a UCL undergraduate of attending Miller’s lectures and routinely hearing ‘what we assumed was a running gag that all writers were really Scots. After hearing him lecture on the influence of Burns on Robert Lowell, we got him the next week on Chekhov and he began: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, it may not surprise you that my theme today is Chekhov as a fundamentally’ (long pause) ‘Caledonian writer…’’

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

David Stacton’s ‘Tom Fool’: the political novel, the American landscape, & the pursuit of lost causes

by David Stacton
Paperback / ebook

tomfoolOur current moment is not, by anyone’s estimation, a great time for politics and politicians. Even if polling suggests that most British people find their local MP to be, at worst, just about OK, the general level of public regard for our elected representatives seems to be fixed lower than a snake’s belly. At Finds Towers we still consider the political life to be a noble calling in any democracy; also that most elected politicians do their best in testing circumstances, just like the rest of us… Moreover we think of politics and its dramas and dilemmas as the grist of great imaginative works, and not just of the order of Antigone or Coriolanus: the novel, too, has often ventured into the sphere of politics and those who practise it, with penetrative and rewarding results.

A year ago or so, your correspondent tried out a ‘Top Ten of Politicians in Literature’ for the Nudge website, including the creations of authors ranging from Trollope and Henry Adams to Yukio Mishima and Gore Vidal. Back then, though. I hadn’t read David Stacton’s Tom Fool, now available in Finds as paperback and ebook. Had I done so then Tom would assuredly have made the list, for Stacton’s book, originally published in 1962, is a terrific accomplishment, the final panel in a triptych of novels for which Stacton drew from the history of America, following A Signal Victory and The Judges of the Secret Court. That said, the book nearly didn’t see the light at all, as a consequence of Stacton having drawn inspiration from relatively recent real events and living persons. (A similar appropriation of l’actualité for fictive purposes put Yukio Mishima out of pocket for his contemporaneous novel of Japanese politics, After the Banquet.)

Tom Fool presents a problem’, wrote Faber’s great acquiring editor Charles Monteith to the (later infamous) libel lawyer Peter Carter-Ruck in February 1961. ‘Though it is a novel and presented as such, it is in fact an impressionistic presentation of Wendell Wilkie, the defeated Republican presidential candidate in 1940.’ Monteith was concerned that Stacton, in creating ‘synthetic figures’ to stand in for Wilkie (‘Tom Fool’) and other key campaign personnel (such as Wilkie’s top aide Russell Davenport, who might be discerned in the book through the character of ‘Sideboard’) might have run the risk of perpetrating libel against the living (if not Wilkie himself, who died of a coronary thrombosis in 1944, aged 52.)

Monteith’s concerns proved unnecessary, but were notable in the sense that Stacton, having tended to travel several centuries back in time for his other historical novels – such as Remember Me – was here treating real events and individuals located well within the memory of readers. As typical with Stacton, though, his version of the ‘political novel’ was not a tale of scandal, corruption and chicanery (as are most mainstream fictional attempts to dramatise that world and its denizens.) Stacton told Monteith that he considered Tom Fool ‘the saddest book I wrote yet’; and it is certainly a kind of elegy for his country and the conduct of its democracy on the national stage.

Wilkie certainly makes an interesting model for a protagonist: an ill-fated figure, a liberal conservative (formerly, indeed, a Democrat) who emerged through the middle of a four-way scrap for the Republican nomination, and stood against Franklin D. Roosevelt while sharing his readiness to enter the war against Hitler, though wishing to annul the President’s populist New Deal on grounds of inefficiency. These unpropitious circumstances did not put Wilkie in a good position to campaign as a ‘change candidate’ with a united party at his back; and Stacton’s Tom Fool is seen accordingly as a man engaged in a Sisyphean endeavour.

David Stacton

David Stacton

The greater part of the novel finds Tom Fool on an epic campaign stump across America by rail, covering thirty-one states in fifty days. But his encounters with the electorate are generally dispiriting – he meets banality and indifference at best, hostility and brickbats at worst – and he is hardly more heartened by the team he has at his back, especially the husband-and-wife PR duo known as ‘the Pattersons’, who give the impression of having their eyes fixed ahead on future campaigns with better-fancied candidates. The second half of the novel sees the defeated Fool accept an appointment from President Roosevelt as a sort of global ambassador-at-large, visiting the world’s new powers in a converted US Army bomber (travels which, in life, formed the substance of Wilkie’s own 1943 book One World.) Stacton’s protagonist, though, finds nothing too endearing in Russia or China, leaving him to ponder instead ‘who would get the world’ if not America.

The melancholy of Tom Fool arises from its titular protagonist’s unrequited love of country and sense of its spiritual fall. ‘The land is enormous, noble, settled, compact and proud’, he reflects. ‘Would that the people who live it on were.’ He finds his tour of thirty-one states ‘heartbreaking’ in that regard – there is no communion with the electorate, only his advanced suspicion of being one among a smaller number, ‘those who have been made foreigners in their own country, the people who remember the way it used to be.’ Tom Fool’s conservative romance of the American landscape would seem to call for fellow Americans who feel the same near-spiritual connection to it. David Stacton once professed to an interviewer that he had rather heartsore memories of growing up in a ‘sensuous and then unspoilt’ American landscape, ‘whose loss has made my generation and sort of westerner a race of restless wanderers.’ From that you may gauge the degree to which Stacton and his imagined Tom Fool were comrades in exile.

Posted in Appreciations, Miscellaneous, Reissues | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

The Great Faber Finds Summer Reads Giveaway

summer-readingUpdate 25.07.2014: The following competition is now closed.

We are about to shut up Finds Towers for the summer, pack a bag full of odd-sized vintage paperbacks and catch a plane to somewhere sunlit and contemplative. In case you haven’t got your own bag packed yet we can, perhaps, make it all a bit easier for you. We are giving away a copy of each of the following thirty (that’s 30) superior Faber Finds titles.


chandThe Bell-Boy by James Hamilton Paterson
‘Few books since E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India (whose formal perfection this novel shares) have conveyed more intensely the allure (and the revulsion) the East holds for Westerners.’ New York Times

Dancing with Mermaids by Miles Gibson
‘An imaginative tour de force and a considerable stylistic achievement … Gibson has few equals among his contemporaries.’ Time Out

A Far Horizon by Meira Chand
‘Chand tells the story in a direct and compelling manner. The prose sweeps forward, and she evokes the period beautifully [and] effortlessly.’ Telegraph

I Hear Voices by Paul Ableman
‘The book, not excluding Lolita, which gave me the greatest pride and pleasure to publish.’ Maurice Girodias, Olympia Press

The Missionary’s Wife by Tim Jeal
‘A powerful love story fleshed out with vivid historical detail, narrative tension and subtle post-colonial awareness … remarkably engaging and skilfully told.’ Guardian

jealThe Model by Robert Aickman
‘A must for Aickman fans … A model of eloquent elegant enchantment.’ Robert Bloch, author of Psycho

The Pearlkillers by Rachel Ingalls
‘Like Poe, Rachel Ingalls is more than a master storyteller: She is also a superb artist.’ Los Angeles Times

The Snowball by Brigid Brophy
‘Written with considerable expertise … An air of indulgent, extravagant corruption and decay glitters over the novel.’ Kirkus Reviews

The Sophomore by Barry Spacks
‘A clever, sophisticated novel that is very, very funny. It’s like an American Lucky Jim – at once hilarious, shrewd and very true. A complete delight.’ William Boyd

The White Father by Julian Mitchell
Winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the Somerset Maugham Award. ‘An impressively accurate account of British society in the sixties.’ Montreal Gazette


hareAn Artist and a Magician by Hugh Fleetwood
‘It is Hugh Fleetwood’s great ability as a novelist to analyse the world of the rich, to test it with violence and to subtly probe its corruption.’ Peter Ackroyd, Spectator

An English Murder by Cyril Hare
‘Of Cyril Hare’s detective stories my only complaint is, that they are too infrequent.’ Tatler

Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman
‘A superb thriller, but also a disturbing study in human nature.’ Simon Heffer

The Paris Trap by Joseph Hone
‘A fine example of a vastly popular genre – the thinking man’s thriller.’ Irish Times

The Rose of Tibet by Lionel Davidson
‘I hadn’t realised how much I had missed the genuine adventure story until I read The Rose of Tibet.’ Graham Greene


jenkinsBattling for News by Anne Sebba
‘This superb 1994 history of women reporters… with Sebba’s new preface, highlighting particularly the appalling case of Lara Logan… tracing the careers of journalistic stars including Martha Gellhorn and Rebecca West.’ Independent on Sunday

Capri: Island of Pleasure by James Money
‘I can recommend Capri – Island of Pleasure by James Money, which tells of all the celebrities that have lived on the island over the years.’ TripAdvisor

Landlords to London: The Story of a Capital and its Growth by Simon Jenkins
‘Extremely informative and witty.’ Roy Porter, London: A Social History

Red Hill: A Mining Community by Tony Parker
‘The reader is allowed to enter a secret, remote world which is at times heroic, but more often poignant and lonely.’ Listener

Shops and Shopping 1880-1914: Where and in What Matter the Well-Dressed Englishwoman Bought Her Clothes by Alison Adburgham
A groundbreaking contribution to the social history of retail selling, from its Victorian origins through the subsequent ascent of the ‘department store’


sebLaura Ashley: A Life by Design by Anne Sebba
‘A moving book. Anne Sebba has written a vivid, true story. She writes with frankness and without frills.’ Sunday Telegraph

Jane Austen by David Nokes
‘[This book] cries out to be read, not alone by fans of Jane Austen but by anyone who enjoys a great, witty, gossipy read.’ Irish Times

Tony Blair: Prime Minister by John Rentoul
‘An extraordinary achievement, flashing with a peculiarly devastating form of sympathy.’ Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday

Disraeli by Robert Blake
‘A huge, scholarly and remarkably readable work which makes us revise vast tracts of our assumptions about nineteenth-century politics.’ Sir Michael Howard, Sunday Times

Vaughan Williams by Simon Heffer
‘A vivid and appealing picture of an irresistibly likeable figure… I enjoyed this little book enormously.’ Spectator


punter-127x200Gazza Agonistes by Ian Hamilton
‘By the final whistle Hamilton has [in Paul Gascoigne] sketched a compelling figure: reckless, cocky, twitchy, hyperactive and half bonkers … but with flashes of implausible grace that connect with the dreams of his audience.’ Independent

John Barry: A Sixties Theme – From James Bond to Midnight Cowboy by Eddi Fiegel
The definitive and authorised biography of arguably the most important popular British composer of the 20th century, John Barry (1933-2011)

Like Punk Never Happened by Dave Rimmer
‘Rimmer is among the most entertaining writers ever to pen a rock book.’ Dave Marsh, Rock and Roll Confidential

Starlust: The Secret Fantasies of Fans by Fred Vermorel
‘This book, at first glance full of the fantasies of maniacs, is really full of the wonderful dreams of people just like you and me.’ Pete Townshend

Stick It Up Your Punter! The Uncut Story of the Sun Newspaper by Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie
‘The funniest book of the year, perhaps of the decade.’ Times

Posted in Biography, Miscellaneous, Reissues | Tagged , ,

War, the spirit of Christmas, and Henry Williamson’s ‘A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight’

A studio portrait of Henry Williamson taken in January 1915 while he was on invalid leave from the Western Front.

A studio portrait of Henry Williamson taken in January 1915 while he was on invalid leave from the Western Front.

The Dark Lantern (pbk ebook)
Donkey Boy (pbk ebook)
Young Phillip Maddison (pbk ebook)
How Dear is Life (pbk ebook)
by Henry Williamson

When we remember The Great War, as this year’s centenary gives us such powerful cause to, there are few stories that seem to capture the popular imagination more than that of the ‘Christmas Truce’ on the Western Front in December 1914, when British and German soldiers temporarily ceased hostilities for a day or so and fraternised in No Man’s Land. Contemporary eyewitness is a precious tool for historians, and one man who was there and bore what he saw forever in mind was Henry Williamson – later the celebrated author of Tarka the Otter and many other notable if now neglected works.

Williamson was then a 19-year-old private in the London Rifle Brigade, based at Ploegsteert Wood near Ypres. He wrote to his mother on Boxing Day of 1914, and his letter is available for perusal on the excellent website of the Henry Williamson Society. In it Williamson describes how the sounds of carol singing on Christmas Eve, carrying across No Man’s Land, turned gradually into German voices calling for face-to-face meetings – calls that were heeded, warily at first, by the ‘Tommies’ but which led to extraordinary encounters, as Williamson described to his mother in respect of those enemy combatants he met:

They are landsturmers or landwehr, I think, & Saxons & Bavarians (no Prussians). Many are gentle looking men in goatee beards & spectacles, and some are very big and arrogant looking. I have some cigarettes which I shall keep, & a cigar I have smoked. We had a burial service in the afternoon, over the dead Germans who perished in the ‘last attack that was repulsed’ against us. The Germans put ‘For Fatherland & Freedom’ on the cross. They obviously think their cause is a just one…

The BBC has made available footage of an interview Williamson gave them in 1963 on the subject of his wartime experiences, an extract of which was used in the major series The Great War. The Telegraph has also posted a detailed commentary on the force of his recollections.

Interest in Henry Williamson’s writing is ever-present on the strength of Tarka the Otter, the work that Ted Hughes hailed for giving ‘shape and words to my world, as no book has ever done since.’ And it was in this capacity as the great writer of nature that Williamson was sought out by the BBC at his North Devon eyrie in 1965 for this interview.

However Willliamson’s body of work is far larger and yet more substantive and noteworthy than Tarka alone, and it has suffered from neglect for a fairly unique combination of reasons. To speak only of his writing on war, any interested reader is advised to look at The Wet Flanders Plain, inspired by return visits he made to Flanders in the decade after Armistice; and The Patriot’s Progress, a work that expresses as plangently as any the terrible chasm that war opened up between those who experienced the hell of the Front and those back on ‘civvy street’ who were spared. For Williamson what he went through embedded in him a notion of the essential brotherhood of European fighting men and a burning conviction that might be encapsulated by the slogan ‘Never Again!’

By standard reckoning the work that ought to have secured Williamson’s reputation as a novelist is the 15-volume roman-fleuve he composed between 1951 and 1969, collectively known as A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight. It begins in Camberwell in 1893 and concludes on Exmoor just after the Second World War. Its principal figures are, first, Richard Maddison, a countryman who comes to London for work and marries a merchant’s daughter; and then, increasingly central, Richard’s son Phillip, a more sensitive soul than his father who first follows him into the insurance business but will find his character forged, perforce, in war. Chronicle has all of Williamson’s strengths, to say the least – the resonant use of his own life as the raw material of fiction, the power to make his memory speak at a high level of descriptive brilliance and lyrical sentence-making. Anthony Burgess, for one, selected the entire sequence for his Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English since 1939.

Burgess believed the ‘earlier books’ – The Dark Lantern, Donkey Boy, Young Phillip Maddison, How Dear is Life – were ‘the best’ by dint of their account of ‘Maddison growing up in the near-rural outskirts of London, the England of the period before the First World War most accurately and fragrantly caught.’ But Burgess was also unstinting in his praise of the subsequent four volumes which offer, he believed, ‘one of the most encyclopaedic fictional accounts we have of what the war was like.’ Burgess’s quarrel – and that of critics of the time and of this day – was with the later books and what he and they saw as rebarbative forms of political belief in Williamson that showed themselves in the work to its detriment. We shall look at this argument anew in another post.

For the moment we recommend the newly packaged paperbacks and ebooks of Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight – and also this fine Pinterest page which captures a great deal of the feel of the Williamson oeuvre.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

The delights of Robert Aickman’s rarest fictions: ‘The Late Breakfasters’ and ‘The Model’

NPG x125036; Robert Fordyce Aickman by Ida KarThe Late Breakfasters (1964) by Robert Aickman
Paperback and ebook
The Model (1987) by Robert Aickman
Paperback and ebook

‘All I know comes from books. It’s a wonder I keep my end up as well as I do.’
‘Books are better, I think, most of the time,’ replied Louise. ‘The more you know of life outside them, the less it’s like them. But there’s one problem that you have to solve if you’re to go on profiting from books, and books won’t help you much to solve it.’
‘And that is?’
‘The problem of finding someone, even one single person, you can endure life with. To me it’s acute.’
(From ‘The Late Breakfasters’)

Robert Aickman has been a quintessential Faber Finds author ever since the launch of this list in 2008. This year sees the centenary of his birth, and we have moved our Aickman offerings to Faber’s main list with glorious new cover art and prefaces, along with the additional treat, new to Faber, of his debut collection of strange stories, Dark Entries. But Aickman has not been lost to Faber Finds – oh no – for our own centenary tribute is to proudly add to Finds the two longer works that Aickman completed in his lifetime, The Late Breakfasters and The Model.

Late Breakfasters old cover‘Those, if any, who wish to know more about me’ – Aickman wrote in 1965 – ‘should plunge beneath the frivolous surface of ‘The Late Breakfasters’.’ This claim becomes yet more intriguing when you consider that the novel is a tale of thwarted love: though it opens rather like a country house comedy of manners, its playful seriousness slowly fades into an elegiac variation on the great Greek myth of Hero and Leander – to speak of just one of the allusions that glimmer on its pages.

Its heroine, one Griselda de Reptonville, is invited to a great stately residence called The Beams, where other guests include a bumbling Prime Minister in the process of forming a coalition government. To this end the Beams is to host an All Party Dance, at which Griselda, very much a reluctant dancer, is expected to come out of her shell and take to the floor. (It should be said that throughout the novel dance is a kind of metaphor, as expressed in the popular phrase ‘vertical lovemaking.’) Though she expects little of this weekend, Griselda to her great surprise meets the love of her life. Alas, this is to be just the start of a terrific complication in her life, and a source of more melancholy than joy.

Fans of Aickman’s ‘strange stories’ will be delighted, too, by The Late Breakfasters. It partakes of the humour that is deployed more rarely in the stories, and there are notable flashes of erotic gaiety. (An ageing bookseller tells Griselda, ‘My eros veers almost entirely towards Adonis’; an ageing Duke declares of his lady wife over tea, ‘For some time now it is during the afternoon that I make Odile mine… We both of us find it best at nights to sleep.’) But there are also – wouldn’t you know it? – moments of sepulchral strangeness. The Beams is thought to be haunted, by the ghost of a beautiful Belgian actress named Stephanie des Bourges. The novel’s principal love scene involves a bewitching moonlit walk across a wet lawn to a Temple of Venus on an island amid a lake, with her heroine Griselda clad in black cloak and domino. And the second half of the novel contains a digression of a chapter which I would characterise as a ‘strange story’ in miniature.

Model coverThough Aickman wrote so little in the way of long-form prose he was clearly proud of what he did accomplish in this regard. He told a friend that he considered his novella The Model to be ‘one of the best things I have ever written, if not the very best.’ After his death in 1981 this manuscript, a wintry rococo fable set in Czarist Russia, was located among his papers and duly published for the first time in 1987. It tells of Elena, a grave girl inclined to losing herself in dreams of becoming a student ballerina or coryphée. Her dolour darkens further when she learns she is to be sold into marital slavery by her father so as to settle the family’s debts. Refusing an unendurable future she sets out to the city of Smorevsk to pursue her dream. First, however, she must traverse a landscape crowded by highly curious characters and creatures.

To suggest that The Model is like the marriage of Alice in Wonderland and The Nutcracker would be the sort of publishing vulgarity for which Mr Aickman would have had no time. But you will know what I mean, and I think if you are tempted then you will find The Model to be highly delighting. It is a fable about making the fateful choice to be a creative personage, come what may and whatever the cost. Aickman – who was himself far too much of an artist to ever write the kind of sensational sadistic horror novel that successive agents were sure he had in him – can be glimpsed, I think, in the shade of the purposeful Elena.

Posted in Appreciations, Miscellaneous, Reissues | Tagged , , ,

The art of coming to a bad end: Paul Strathern’s fictional imagining of Arthur Rimbaud in Africa

Rimbaud as depicted by Henri Fantin-Latour in his 'The Corner of the Table' (1872)

Rimbaud as depicted by Henri Fantin-Latour in his ‘The Corner of the Table’ (1872)

A Season in Abyssinia: An impersonation of Arthur Rimbaud
By Paul Strathern
Now in Finds paperback and ebook

It’s the only true story I know of in which adolescent bookishness attains the apogee of cool. The date is November 15 1869, and the pupils of the Collège de Charleville are arraigned in sulky lines as they undertake their regional concours académiques. The examination began at six in the morning, now it is nine – and yet one candidate has had his head on his desk, soundly asleep, for all that time. When at last he stirs, it’s to demand some bread and butter. Once that is scoffed, the boy wipes his mouth on his sleeve, takes up his pen, and reels out eighty lines of immaculate Latin verse on the theme of the Numidian king Jugurtha. It’s the prizewinning effort of the day: the school’s honour is saved. But Monsieur Perette, the third-year master, looks sourly upon the boy and his precocity: ‘As intelligent as you like, but he will end badly…’

Does literary history have a finer legend to offer than that of Arthur Rimbaud? I doubt it. When you compound all the elements it really makes for the rarest gold. For a writer to have been a true enfant terrible, hallowed by the surly glamour of rebellion, is a powerful thing in itself – but to have also been a true literary innovator, a founding figure in modern European poetry, is to transcend mere image and attain greatness. But now, think on this: Rimbaud composed all of his major poems between 1870 (when he was 15-16) and 1874 (when he turned 20.) And that’s still not the kicker. Because, remember – having done that work, having earned that place in the pantheon, Rimbaud then turned his face away from it, and never once looked back.

Thus did the editors of his Pléiade edition write of ‘the slim and flashing work which, at the end of the nineteenth century, Arthur Rimbaud left to us with a kind of disdain, and without having taken the trouble to publish almost any of it.’ Enid Starkie, his first biographer in English, wrote that by the time he was 33 – living in Harar, Abyssinia, and scraping a living as a commercial trader – Rimbaud ‘had no curiosity about the fate and the success of his writings, which were appearing in Paris as the work of ‘the late Arthur Rimbaud’…’

Rimbaud had voyaged to Harar as the representative of an Aden-based coffee trader named Alfred Bardey, and was among the very first Europeans to show his face there. He immersed himself in the crude commerce of the town, utterly effacing his creative persona. All the while, back in Paris, his reputation grew, through his appearance in Poètes maudits (1884) and the publication of his Les Illuminations two years later. In Abyssinia, though, Rimbaud recoiled from any identification as a literary man. His employer Bardey was genuinely curious to find out exactly whom he had hired, but Rimbaud just didn’t want to go there. He would admit to Bardey that he had known ‘writers, artists and so on in the Latin Quarter’ but had very quickly come to feel that he had ‘seen enough of those birds.’

This is the Rimbaud we find conjured into life by Paul Strathern’s A Season in Abyssinia: An Impersonation of Arthur Rimbaud. It was Strathern’s second novel, first published in 1972, and it won the Somerset Maugham Award for its year. Faber Finds is very proud to be reissuing it in paperback and ebook: it is a brilliant work, richly evocative of the colour, squalor and hurlyburly of Harar and inspired in its rendering of Rimbaud of a restless, ragged self-overcomer, would-be explorer-imperialist, and genius poet repulsed by his past literary life.

The novel begins in Marseilles in 1891: Rimbaud lies dying in hospital, his mind wandering fitfully – taking him back to Commune-era Paris, to the scandalous life he led with Verlaine, to the difficult relationship he had with his straitlaced mother Vitalie. But, above all, he is transported in his memory to Harar, where he had ventured in 1880 to seek his fortune, having chucking in the disreputable game of writing poetry. Strathern’s Rimbaud, we soon see, is a man desperate to prove his worth in Africa, fearful of failure, driving himself onward against adversity. (He struggles, simultaneously, with desire for native girls and rather guilty feelings about attractions to men.)

Throughout the novel Strathern alternates between the first and third person modes of narration, a gesture to the famous ‘Je est un autre’ (‘I is someone else’) from Rimbaud’s letter to Paul Demeny of May 15 1871. (Rimbaud’s perception of the poetic ‘I’ as a fictional construct, his sense of detachment from his own consciousness (‘I am present at the hatching of my thought’/’J’assiste à l’éclosion de ma pensée’) is perhaps above all else what makes him eternally modern.) I’m pleased to say that Paul Strathern discussed this creative choice and others with me for a new Q&A preface to our Finds edition.

Paul is now best known for such major non-fiction works as The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance (2003), Napoleon in Egypt (2007), Death in Florence: The Medici, Savonarola and the Battle for the Soul of the Renaissance City (2011), and The Spirit of Venice: From Marco Polo to Casanova (2012). But back in the 1960s, as a recent graduate in philosophy from Trinity College, Dublin, he joined the Merchant Navy and travelled widely, and it was this experience that gave him the seed of the idea to imagine Rimbaud’s life as fiction. As he told me:

Rimbaud's house in Harar from 1888, photo by Ottorino Rosa

Rimbaud’s house in Harar from 1888, photo by Ottorino Rosa

During the time I spent in the Merchant Navy, the old tramp steamer I was on sailed the Red Sea, called in at Aden and travelled along the Ethiopian coast – all very much the ground Rimbaud covered when he gave up poetry and left France to become a trader. I was there in the early 1960s when Aden was a tacky duty-free port, a flea-bitten outpost of the Empire. But then just over half a century earlier Rimbaud had considered it much the same. Later, I travelled to Ethiopia with my daughter, and we visited Harar… The old city remained virtually unchanged from how it had been in Rimbaud’s time, and even from the time of Sir Richard Burton, who was the first European non-Muslim to stay there in the 1850s… we were shown where Rimbaud had actually lived – a nondescript place with a large dusty courtyard in front of it. A photo of this house, dating from 1888 and featuring a large ostrich, has since been discovered. Peter Porter wrote a poem about the photo, ‘Rimbaud’s Ostrich’, which can be found on the internet.

Paul also travelled down to Djibouti, where there was a Rimbaud Museum of sorts, ‘albeit permanently closed and empty.’ He and his daughter shared a small plane with a dozen or so sacks of qat, the local drug of choice, and on their arrival in Djibouti he got to observe the ritual dissemination of the plane’s bounty around the entire town:

By the time the qat was fully distributed, around noon, everyone was chewing away at their sprig of leaves, and within the hour the entire male population – and some females, so we were told disapprovingly – lay stretched out on beds, or on steps or in doorways, in a pleasant daze. All trade, all activity of any sort, ground to a halt. Rimbaud himself almost certainly partook of this ritual when he was on the coast, and probably when he was in the interior too. He may have given up poetry, but he never gave up drugs.

It’s consoling, perhaps, to think of some part of Rimbaud that remained forever young, though his disapproving schoolmasters may have felt his demise was all of a piece with that adolescent surliness. But by the time of his season in Abyssinia Rimbaud was assuredly all grown up; it might just be that in that arid and hostile bolthole, having evaded a literary world he thought moribund, he nonetheless had nowhere else to go.

Posted in Appreciations, Miscellaneous, Reissues | Tagged , , , , , , ,

Sir Wilson Harris: a lifetime’s achievement honoured by the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards

A portrait of Sir Wilson Harris by Guido Villa

A portrait of Sir Wilson Harris by Guido Villa

Sir Wilson Harris, whose oeuvre we now offer entirely within Faber Finds, has been awarded a new distinction: the lifetime achievement prize of the Cleveland Foundation’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards in the US, which recognises literature that confronts racism and examines diversity. This year’s jury was headed by Henry Louis Gates, and the Foundation’s press release is here. Wilson gave an interview online about the award here.

Unable to travel to the States for the gala ceremony in September, Wilson taped an acceptance speech to camera at his home in Chelmsford on Monday. He read from The Angel at the Gate, then spoke about some of the highlights of his career, remembering the special excitement he felt in 1960 when Charles Monteith accepted his first novel Palace of the Peacock for publication on the recommendation of T.S. Eliot. Wilson also wore the medal of his knighthood throughout the taping and said he’d enjoyed meeting the Queen that day, being especially glad that they hadn’t offered him the standard OBE or MBE but had ‘gone straight to the top’ with the K…

In terms of a recent appreciation of Harris’s work and its significance and his place in twentieth century literature, one couldn’t wish for more than this from the Independent‘s Boyd Tonkin in 2010: ‘In Harris’s work, Amerindian mythology joins existentialism, ecology, epic narration that draws on Homer and Dante, and a visionary understanding of landscape and history. He takes fiction down hidden tributaries quite as lush and remote as any of the jungle backwaters that he evokes…’

Posted in Uncategorized |