‘Strange and beautiful’: J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘In A Glass Darkly’, and the BFI Gothic season

gc14_cThe much-ballyhooed monster BFI season in celebration of the Gothic is now underway all around the country and will roll on through the dark and misty autumn now before us. Your correspondent recommends BFI Gothic to you keenly, not least because he has written a chapter for the season’s scholarly and beautifully illustrated tie-in catalogue. But there is another reason… one that has lain within the vaults of Finds for some years now.

Our library here contains many panelled sub-chambers, nooks and corner cabinets. And within one moody recess you will find our offerings in the genre of the supernatural – ‘tales of mystery and imagination’, to borrow a phrase from a master. One title we cherish especially is our edition of J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s story collection In a Glass Darkly (which revives a 1929 printing with illustrations by Edward Ardizzone, one of the best and most distinctive illustrators of the twentieth century.)

LeFanu-Best-Ghost-StoriesIn A Glass Darkly is famous above all for the tale called ‘Carmilla’ (1872) – a delicate, rather touching, sensuous and deeply sinister fairytale about a young girl who makes a lovely but disconcerting female friend of her own age, one who takes to visiting her by night. J. Sheridan Le Fanu was just one leading figure in the distinctive Irish contribution to the Gothic. Another, of course, was Bram Stoker, who unquestionably borrowed a trick or two from ‘Carmilla’ for his later Dracula (1897).

The most adored of ‘Carmilla’’s several movie adaptations is The Vampire Lovers, a 1970 offering from the UK’s mighty Hammer Films, and a deathless testament to the screen presence of its leading lady, the late Ingrid Pitt (1937-2010), whose life story was more extraordinary than any supernatural yarn. (Born Ingoushka Petrov in Warsaw, 1937, she was a childhood survivor of Stutthof concentration camp and an alumnus of the Berliner Ensemble before she and Hammer made their bloodily marvellous marriage of talents.)

Ingrid Pitt (leftI in 'The Vampire Lovers'

Ingrid Pitt (leftI in ‘The Vampire Lovers’

The Vampire Lovers was considered highly racy at the time of its release, and it remains a souvenir of Pitt’s lustrous good looks. It is reasonably faithful to Le Fanu, too, in serving up the story of a beautiful stranger who insinuates herself into a respectable Styrian household so as to prey upon the young mistress. Pitt is a persuasive incarnation of the creature described by Le Fanu’s narrator Laura (‘Her movements were languid — very languid… her eyes large, dark, and lustrous; her hair was quite wonderful, I never saw hair so magnificently thick and long…’)

Relations between the two young females soon turn physical, very darkly so; but if you think Hammer made matters a little over-steamy then consider how unrestrained Le Fanu was for his time in limning the Sapphic tendency. Here is Laura speaking of her

‘strange and beautiful companion… gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardour of a lover… she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, “You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever”…’

Yes, it’s probably that kind of thing that has led my fellow catalogue contributor Charlie Higson to describe the Gothic style as “straight-laced, buttoned-up, boring kitchen-sink Britain letting its hair down.” Except that the London readership enjoyed in his day by the Dubliner Le Fanu reminds us that the Victorians were drunk with passion for all this stuff too…

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Gerald Kersh: champion yarn-spinner, superior word-crafter, and scholar of human follies

kershA fine piece by David Collard in the TLS last month made note of the current revived interest in the writings of the remarkable Gerald Kersh, six of whose titles we now offer in Finds. Forty-five years after he left us Kersh still suffers from little better than the ‘large, vague renown’ Orwell famously ascribed to Thomas Carlyle. But, really, everyone ought to read him – at least one of his works, at least once.

Kersh is remembered chiefly for Night and the City (1938), one of the great novels of London’s Soho, driven by its shabby anti-hero Harry Fabian. Jules Dassin’s 1950 film version starring Richard Widmark has certainly helped that book to endure. But Kersh’s novel lives on by itself because it teems with adroitly observed forms of (low) life, and it still feels like the real thing. Readers who come newly to Kersh usually sense quite soon from his salty, word-rich presence on the page that this was a writer who lived fully, and who never missed a trick. Evidently all he saw was of interest to him, not to say fair game.

smallKersh does have his notable and steadfast champions today: Harlan Ellison has vigorously sought to promote awareness of a man whose talent he considered ‘immense and compelling’; Michael Moorcock is the ‘sometime executor’ of the Kersh estate and has kindly made possible Faber Finds’ reissues; while cinema book specialist Paul Duncan has also been an avid advocate for Kersh, and is understood to have been at work awhile on a biography. What general readers may know of Kersh for the moment is largely down to the information these men have placed in the public domain.

Kersh was born in Teddington on August 26 1911. Writing as a meaningful pastime came quickly to him, such that he soon sniffed a vocation. He quit schooling early, and raced through a succession of jobs as if seeking to go one better on Hemingway’s maxim that a novelist ought to have a friend in every occupation. In 1934 he published a roman a clef, Jews without Jehovah, but it wasn’t on sale for very long, since three uncles and a cousin of Kersh’s made out unflattering renderings of themselves within its pages, and sought legal redress – apparently a lasting source of tension at Kersh family occasions.

nelson guardsFollowing the outbreak of war Kersh joined the Coldstream Guards in 1940 and seems to have been rated a decent soldier. His first stint of leave was during the Luftwaffe’s Blitz, whereupon he narrowly escaped fatal injury but was thereafter reassigned to desk duties. In 1941 he drew on his Guardsman experience to write They Die with their Boots Clean, a classic fictional account of basic training, and he enjoyed a surprise bestseller with a work that is richly illustrative of his gift for refining into print things you can well imagine he actually heard. (Finds offers the book, bound up with its sequel The Nine Lives of Bill Nelson, under the title given this pairing by their US publisher: Sergeant Nelson of the Guards.)

best ofThereafter Kersh would be phenomenally productive: a writer not merely of novels and stories but of journalism, sketches and columns, radio and documentary film scripts. After the war he settled in the US and there made himself a fixture in popular magazines that paid well for stories and brought him to huge readerships: The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, Collier’s, Playboy. Kersh’s stories are the most accessible demonstration of his protean gifts: the strange and fantastical tales are especially cherished, and may be sampled in Finds’ reissues of The Horrible Dummy and Other Stories as well as a broader selection chosen by Simon Raven entitled The Best of Gerald Kersh.)

hunterKersh wrote so much, his printed output was so compendious, that one might suppose he never had time to blot a line. And yet his sentence-making is remarkably strong. He was both a singular talent and a hard grafter: a crafter of sentences, spinner of yarns, scholar of human follies. His living by the pen, however, seems to have been rarely better than precarious, for a variety of reasons: he had money troubles, personal troubles, health troubles, and over time these tended to come at him in battalions. Amid this turmoil he could still produce Fowler’s End (1958), judged by Anthony Burgess as ‘one of the best comic novels of the century.’ Burgess was also a champion of The Implacable Hunter (1961, also my favourite of all Kersh’s works); and The Angel and the Cuckoo (1966) earned Kersh more high praise. But by then he was very nearly through: he died in New York on 5th November 1968, aged 57. He remains one of those writers perpetually in need of revival, admired by near enough all who read him, awaiting still his golden hour of evangelism. The reader, if not already a convert, is warmly invited to start here.

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Among the Italian Partisans: Resistance recalled in Stuart Hood’s ‘Pebbles From My Skull’

Stuart Hood, during his time as head of the BBC’s Italian section, approximately the time when he wrote Pebbles From My Skull.

Stuart Hood, during his time as head of the BBC’s Italian section, approximately the time when he wrote Pebbles From My Skull.

Last month we were honoured to restore to print – and to premiere in e-bookPebbles From My Skull (1963), Stuart Hood’s extraordinary memoir of fighting alongside Italian Partisans. Our edition is blessed by a richly informative new preface by Stuart Hood’s widow, social scientist Svetlana Hood, in which she writes:

‘This reissue coincides with the seventieth anniversary of the Italian Armistice – in short, the surrender of Italy to the Allied Forces on 8 September 1943 and the beginning of the long, uncertain and torturous path towards the total liberation of Italy and Europe from Fascism. It coincides also with Captain Stuart Hood’s escape on 9 September from one of the 72 P.O.W camps in Italy – the P.G.49, based in the village of Fontanellato di Parma. Over four hundred officers, captured in the African desert, left the converted orphanage in Fontanellato – the Italian camp commander, who aided the escape, was sent to a concentration camp in Germany.

The armistice was followed by a mass-escape of prisoners-of-war. Some historians describe it as ‘the greatest mass-escape in history.’ Of a total population of some 80,000 prisoners-of-war in Italian hands, approximately 50,000 had the chance to leave their camps. They came from a variety of nationalities and backgrounds. Only one in four of those who emerged from the camps would escape recapture… To a large extent the peasant population supported and sustained the floating population of escapees and guerrilla fighters. This was a crucial alliance which benefited both parties but which had many risks attached to it. Captain Edward Mumford and Captain Stuart Hood decided to embark together on a long walk that took them over the Emilian Apennines into Tuscany. They always relied on this alliance for their survival. Along the way they encountered partisan and guerrilla fighters. At times they turned into such fighters themselves…

Stuart Hood’s false identity papers issued while he was a guerrilla fighter with the Monte Amiata formation in 1944

Stuart Hood’s false identity papers issued while he was a guerrilla fighter with the Monte Amiata formation in 1944

The story of escape and survival told in PEBBLES FROM MY SKULL is not an anthropological description of peasant life in the strict sense of the term. It is not a chronological account of the adventures of an escapee turned (at times) guerrilla fighter, although it has occasional elements of same. No diaries were kept and therefore the recollections could not be cross-referenced. No interviews were carried out and so the data could not be compared or verified…

Stuart Hood made several attempts to write a book about his time in Italy. All attempts, in his view, failed. Finally, and following a lengthy course of psychoanalysis, the key existential question became apparent: ‘Why did it take me from the 8 September 1943 to 15 August 1944 to cross the line, reassume my identity, step back out of limbo?’ The search for answers allowed him to reassess meaningfully his time as an escapee, to understand better the nature of the experience he went through and the complexities – methodological and philosophical – of writing a piece of autobiographical work. Thus in the words of the Hutchinson editors, ‘His book is no blood-and-thunder record of adventure. It is contemplative reflection.’

Stuart Hood died in January 2011. The media studies academic Brian Winston wrote a fine obituary for him in the Guardian, which in turn spurred this felt tribute from a former colleague, Peter Lewis, who refers to ‘the attractive mystery that was Stuart Hood.’ Any assessment of Hood’s career outline would suggest that he was a man who contained multitudes. Born in Scotland in 1915, he enlisted in the British Army in 1940. After the tumultuous events remembered in Pebbles From My Skull he joined the BBC, becoming head of the World Service and eventually Controller of TV Programmes. He authored novels and books about mass media, and was also a distinguished translator of European literature. This 2002 interview with Hood by Stefan Howald will tell you much about a man of truly plenary consciousness.

The subject of the Italian Resistance, meanwhile, remains alive to historical inquiry, if prone still to controversy inside and out of Italy, since it cannot be surgically detached from an assessment of Mussolini and Italian Fascism, and the elements of the story that testify most clearly to the qualities of the human spirit have also, here and there, been elevated to the status of myth. A tangle of thorns, then, perhaps. But if you come newly to this history, or simply wish for a refresher, an interesting place to start is the recent BBC Radio 4 documentary ‘The Italian Freedom Trail’, presented by Edward Stourton. You can listen on BBC iPlayer here.

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Hugh Fleetwood’s deep, dark literary paintings

hugh2‘It is Hugh Fleetwood’s great ability as a novelist’ – Peter Ackroyd once wrote in the Spectator‘to analyse the world of the rich, to test it with violence and to subtly probe its corruption.’ From this you may surmise that Fleetwood is a writer with a keen eye for the dark stirrings that shift about under gilded surfaces. This was certainly the view of the Scotsman’s George Duthie: ‘Mr Fleetwood can write like a dream… and really get into your head. He reaches down and stirs with venomous delight the nameless, faceless things swimming far below the level of consciousness.’

How nice, one might say, to have that kind of talent! And without doubt the dominant tone of Hugh Fleetwood’s fiction is elegantly unnerving, at times macabre. Moreover, prose is not his only talent: he has been acclaimed both as a novelist and a painter, a writer whose remarkable art has also adorned the covers of his fictions. Finds is proud to be releasing a selection of Hugh’s finest works through the latter half of 2013, albeit in plainer wrappers than embellished the originals.

Out now are the novels The Girl Who Passed for Normal (winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for 1973), The Order of Death (subsequently made into a film starring Harvey Keitel and John Lydon) and An Artist and a Magician (the work that earned Peter Ackroyd’s approval as above.) To follow in November are the story collections The Beast (1979), Fictional Lives (1982) and The Man Who Went Down with his Ship (1984). Each book includes an extensive Q&A between Hugh and your Faber Finds editor about the work and his inspirations.

girlBorn in Sussex in 1944 Hugh left England as a young man, feeling stifled (as so many did in those times) by a class-ridden society that was more or less waiting for the 1960s to shake it from deferential torpor. He went from Paris to Munich to Florence, until in Rome he found the place he had been looking for, and which would imbue his work with a highly distinctive expatriate/Anglo-Italian dimension. He landed there at the tail end of the dolce vita era; coming round the corner were the Red Brigades. Rome was surely the ideal place where Hugh could develop his gift for detecting lethal unease in the lives of the apparently well-tended.

On the literary map Rome is also one of the locations where Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley realizes his own talent – albeit the talent for bumping people off as an accelerated form of social climbing. Highsmith was one of Hugh Fleetwood’s early literary loves (he was in particular a fan of her marvelous The Blunderer) and his work certainly stands comparison with hers. But when I put it to Hugh that I saw in his work some of Highsmith’s famous interest in ‘the effect of guilt’ upon her heroes, he demurred:

“Not ‘guilt’, that’s not something I really recognize. I would say I’m interested in characters coming to terms with things, in themselves and in the world. It’s about their arriving at a knowledge, of murder, of death… And then they use this, and grow out of what they were.”

artistThis certainly applies to the widowed English dancer who acts as paid companion and tutor to the disturbed daughter of a rich American woman in The Girl Who Passed For Normal; also to the corrupt NYPD Narcotics Bureau officer who is goaded out of his secret world by a serial murderer of cops in The Order of Death; and to the social gadfly in An Artist and a Magician who is forced to confront his parasitical relations with the wealthy sponsors who have kept him in the style to which he’s grown too accustomed.

For all that there is a strong strain of the dark stuff in Hugh Fleetwood’s fiction, one would never guess it on the strength of acquaintance with him. So what makes his writing so menacing? Hugh, like most serious writers, has resisted too much self-scrutiny:

“I’ve tried never to analyse where the work comes from, because I’m afraid if I did then it would all disappear. The same with my painting – people ask me what a picture means and I say, ‘I have no idea.’ Someone once suggested to me, when I was being more than usually neurotic, that I should go see an analyst. I said, ‘No, that would destroy any talent that I’ve got…’”

orderIn our Q&A Hugh also offers some memorable stories about the filming of Order of Death, disclosing how the project was helped along by the director of Rambo; how a highly distinguished British actor then fresh out of drama school nearly scooped the role eventually taken by John Lydon; and how Hugh struck up an unlikely but affable friendship with Lydon during the New York shoot of the movie, including a highly enjoyable joint visit to the NY Metropolitan Opera which nonetheless took in some distinctly punk-rock behaviour… Read on and read all about it.

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Out now: the exquisite sentences of ‘Flesh’ and ‘The Finishing Touch’ by Brigid Brophy

brophy_bPrepare to be ravished. The first titles in our retrospective of Brigid Brophy are now on sale: the novels Flesh (1962) and The Finishing Touch (1963). In hindsight Brophy still cuts a singular figure as novelist, critic, feminist, pacifist, campaigner for the rights of authors and of animals and connoisseur of art and opera. These two novels are shining examples of her flair for elegant prose and erotic daring.

Both of the novels contain new prefaces. For the latter we are delighted to say that Sir Peter Stothard has done the honours: among his comments is the following:

finishing

Brigid Brophy, when remembered at all today, is remembered for other works than this, which is her finest. To read THE FINISHING TOUCH today is to enter an almost forgotten sensibility. Every sentence is there to be weighed, stroked and smelled. The mixture of languages, the mocking allusions, the merciless way with snobbism: all produce a sense of extended pause and perilous calm. Instead of hastening from paragraph to paragraph in the modern manner, the reader is drawn back after every few lines to sniff the night airs again…

The preface for Flesh is by yours truly, Finds editor-in-chief, and among other things I say this:

flesh

In sexual fables of instructor and protégée it is, traditionally, a man who takes the lead and a woman who follows, whether or not wholly willing. Thus Pygmalion and Galatea, George Bernard Shaw’s famous variation on same, and so forth. In her third novel FLESH Brigid Brophy turns the tables, without fuss or contrivance, but with great style and acute perception. If women are usually seen, for cosmetic reasons, as the more mutable sex, in FLESH it is a man who is transformed, both in body and mind, under a woman’s skilful hands. The process of change, though, runs on a little further than either party had quite bargained for…

Readers will want to discover the rest of this short and succulent novel for themselves. It’s worth saying, though, in point of the woeful neglect of Brigid Brophy’s work during the latter years of her life and since her death – a neglect now being redressed by a new generation of admirers – that given our endless interest in matters of sex and gender it is a stunning thing that a writer so uncommonly sharp on these subjects as Brophy should ever have slipped out of currency.

Just for instance, had there been a Literary Good Sex Award for grabs in 1962 she would surely have been a nominee, and on account of numerous passages, such as that when she writes of Marcus and Nancy making love on chill mornings partly to keep warm: ‘… instead of pulling up a blanket to cover them they applied to one another. Marcus could plunge himself into Nancy with all the delicious casualness of a man lying on a river bank and lazily inserting his leg in the warm stream, sensitive to, delighted by, the pulsing of the vigorous current against it.’

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Guest post: On Angus Wilson, and the light, humane touch of a serious heavyweight

angus-wilson-1-sizedGreat contentment at Finds Towers this week as the Guardian ran a splendid appreciation of Angus Wilson upon his centenary, by D.J. Taylor. The piece made generous mention of most of the Wilson titles we offer in Finds (e.g. Such Darling Dodos, Hemlock and After, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot, as well as Margaret Drabble’s biography Angus Wilson.)

But it seems that riches abound for us, for we are pleased to offer here another in our occasional series of guest blogs by Finds readers: in this case, a marvellous essay in praise of Wilson by Andrew Cheeseman, a bookseller who also blogs here.

(Remember, we’re always delighted to showcase thoughts on/evaluations of the books we revive by regular readers who like to follow our doings on social media – so if there’s a Finds title you’d be especially eager to write about, by all means drop us a line to finds@faber.co.uk.)

But now, over to Andrew on Wilson:

drabble

Angus Wilson was one of those authors who I had kept hearing about, but never actually found in bookshops. I had been intrigued by Malcolm Bradbury’s enthusiastic coverage of him in THE MODERN BRITISH NOVEL, but didn’t have any success finding his novels until I started trawling charity shops, and their spinners of old Penguin paperbacks. I found HEMLOCK AND AFTER and SUCH DARLING DODOS in a charity shop in Winchester, on holiday. I devoured them both over that holiday. The early stories and novels’ acerbic gallery of chancers, hypocrites, neurotics, and the deluded but well-meaning middle-classes fascinated me.

In fact, as soon as you read Wilson, you start to notice more of these characters in real life, and also feel oddly sympathetic for them. Wilson, cunningly, while making you laugh, has also made you feel a degree of sympathy and understanding for them. You begin to see peculiar pathologies behind others’ behaviour. (Or maybe that’s just me.) Either way, I got a bit hooked, and developed a minor addiction to hunting down Wilson (and other semi-lost authors) in charity shops wherever I went.

hemlock-after-angus-wilsonI love Wilson because he is the only author I know who develops and becomes more sophisticated without losing the qualities he originally had. The early stories’ satirical exposure of pretensions, class distinctions, and tiny acts of cruelty becomes something socially broader, and more nuanced in the Fifties novels. You get decent, but morally compromised figures such as Bernard Sands and Gerald Middleton, and their vexed relationships with families who are often no longer people they like, but still people they love. In fact British society in Wilson’s Fifties novels seems as conflicted as the Sixties is often perceived to be; generational gaps, class and ideological divides take centre stage in them. He is not dissimilar to early Aldous Huxley, in puzzling and prodding pleasurably but sceptically at the ideals and manners of his time. Wilson was also much influenced by Dickens, and his Dickensian grotesques become, somehow, more extreme, but no less plausible. Mrs Curry, the procuress in HEMLOCK AND AFTER, is a deeply sinister woman, who conceals her activities in a veneer of chintzy sentimentality, and almost proto-‘free love’ ideas.

Come the novels of the 1960s you get the impression that Wilson is gradually integrating his love of Modernism with his passion for the big Victorian-style ‘social’ novel. THE OLD MEN AT THE ZOO starts realistically, and morphs rapidly into a faintly grisly dystopian metaphor for the decline of empire. LATE CALL is less bold, but, to my mind, more subtly successful. Sylvia Calvert is probably Wilson’s most sympathetic, and well rounded, character: a woman forced to move herself and her husband in with their rather priggish, recently widowed son in the idealistic New Town of Carshall. Sylvia is cut adrift in an age and a place to which she can’t quite adjust despite her attempts to try. Her husband, another Wilson character whose pride results in lies on a grand scale, creates problems for her too. But while her son’s ideals wither in the face of conflict with his friends, neighbours and his children, Sylvia’s pragmatic decency holds the family together.

laughingNO LAUGHING MATTER, though, remains my favourite of Wilson’s novels. An ambitious fusion of modernist stylistic strategies and neat pastiches of other authors, with the satirical social novel Wilson had perfected earlier, it follows the Matthews family through fifty years of personal and public history, as they go their very different paths, following different ideologies and careers, and watching the world change hugely from the secure pre-war Edwardian era they grew up in. It is difficult to summarise the novel beyond that, because it does so much. Its stylistic shifts alone deserve a book-length study. If you had to summarise it, you could perhaps say it is Virginia Woolf meets Charles Dickens. It certainly manages the social range of the latter, and gets close to the psychological depth of the former.

magicHis next novel, AS IF BY MAGIC, returned to the more explicit comedy of the earlier works. It’s an extremely funny romp that follows a baffled but brilliant scientist and his hippy god-daughter as they globetrot separately, mixing East and West, science and belief, sex and celibacy, high on grotesques and misunderstanding. For some reason, it reminds me a little of Evelyn Waugh’s broader comedies such as BLACK MISCHIEF or SCOOP, though I think it is more nuanced than either of those. Its main protagonist Hamo (the scientist) is a lovely creation: extremely clever in his field, but decidedly unworldly, he strains against his homosexual longings, and becomes increasingly concerned at the political effects of his scientific work. The novel deals with ‘heavy’ issues in a light-handed and sceptical way that never feels facile or shallow. In fact, that might be a good précis of what Wilson does – he writes serious fiction that wears its seriousness lightly. The later novels are bursting with ambition and ideas, and also an enthusiasm for the breadth of what the novel can do. It is only on re-reading that you realise that the multiple plot lines, time and geographical shifts, have been planned and juxtaposed perfectly.

It has always seemed bizarre to me that an author of Wilson’s stature fell out of print at all. I mean, it is lovely to have a ‘secret’ author, one that is shared by a small but passionate following, like some kind of literary Masonic handshake; but, frankly, Angus Wilson deserves better. His books are too varied, too clever, too inventive, too fully engaged with the peculiarities of human lives, and too plain enjoyable, to languish in semi-obscurity (with the odd academic writing a thesis about him every decade). He should be, as he once was, ranked alongside the major authors of the post-war period. I think my favourite quote about Angus Wilson is from Edmund White’s review of AS IF BY MAGIC: ‘If too much humanity bulging out of the frame of a narrative constitutes an artistic problem, then it is an enviable problem indeed.’ An excess of humanity is something you find in all of Wilson’s novels, and it is the best reason I can think of to read him.

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Tony Parker: his ears were ‘a national treasure’

ParkerFinds’ reissuing of the works of the great oral historian Tony Parker is firmly underway. As of July we offered The Courage of His Convictions, The Unknown Citizen and The Plough Boy. August sees the return of A Man of Good Abilities, People of the Streets, and Five Women. Coming next month are The Twisting Lane, The Frying Pan, and In No Man’s Land. We complete our project in October with Soldier, Soldier and Red Hill.

‘Oral history’ is of course the term we give to works made by a writer who conducts extensive in-depth interviews with a subject or subjects; then edits, structures and refines the verbatim transcripts so as to produce a seamless account of the subject(s) in their own words. Oral historians absent themselves from the texts they make, though their personal interests and skills will tend to shine through. At its best, oral history possesses unique qualities of immediacy and narrativity; and there has been no more admired practitioner of the form in English than Tony Parker.

redParker’s reputation is founded upon 18 discrete works of oral history which he published across a professional writing career that began in 1962 and ended with his death in 1996 (though one further work, a study of his great American counterpart Studs Terkel, appeared posthumously.) Obituaries for Parker served a powerful reminder of the high esteem in which he was held by colleagues and contemporaries, both for his qualities as a man and for his incredible dexterity as an interviewer and editor. Colin Ward wrote in the Independent, ‘His triumphs were the result of his gentleness and modesty, which led the most taciturn or suspicious of people to open up with confidences they would not dream of revealing to more self-assertive questioners.’ ‘The power of his silence’, Roger Graef noted in the Guardian, ‘created a vacuum which invited others to fill it.’ More than one elegist cited the famous words of Parker’s close friend the psychologist Anthony Storr: ‘Tony Parker’s ears are a national treasure.’

Parker’s work doesn’t sit in any traditional academic canon of sociology, ethnography or criminology. But for anyone who read Parker’s matchlessly intimate portraits of these marginal figures – from convicted murderers to homeless people and unmarried mothers – the effect was to transform our perceptions of the human society and systems that we share.

Parker was born in Stockport on June 25 1923, the son of a bookseller. His mother died when he was 4. He began to write poems and plays in his late teens. Called up to military service early in the Second World War he declared himself a conscientious objector and, in lieu, was sent to work at a coal-mine in the North East, where he observed conditions and met people who influenced him hugely. After the war he began to work as a publisher’s representative and, voluntarily, as a prison visitor – the latter another important stimulus to his subsequent writings. It is believed that Parker was especially galvanised, too, by the infamous case of Christopher Craig and Derek Bentley, in which 19-year-old Bentley (illiterate, epileptic and judged by his national service examiner to be ‘mentally substandard’) was hanged for the murder of a police officer, though the fatal shot had been fired by 16-year-old Craig.

twistAfter Parker happened to make the acquaintance of BBC radio producer Paul Stephenson, and imparted his growing interest in the lives, opinions and self-perceptions of the prisoners he had met, he was given by Stephenson the opportunity to record an interview with a particular convict for broadcast on the BBC. The text of the interview was printed in the Listener, and spotted by the publishers Hutchinson as promising material for a book. This duly emerged as The Courage of His Convictions (1962), for which Parker and the career criminal ‘Robert Allerton’ (a pseudonym) were jointly credited as authors. In the coherence of the book’s organization; in the candour and insight elicited from the subject; in the very human quality of pawky humour; and in the discernible intent to challenge prejudices and illuminate neglected or hidden aspects of our society – the book exhibits all of the virtues that were to make Tony Parker’s body of work so vital and cherishable.

The bulk of his oeuvre has been out for print for far too long: Finds is proud to revive it now. Parker’s vital invitation to all of us to think, and think again, has been renewed: readers old and new are warmly commended to take up the challenge.

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Leadership Studies: Finds calls in at the Mile End Group, with John Rentoul and ‘Tony Blair’

John Rentoul addresses admirers and critics of New Labour's legacy at MEG/QMU. (Photo by Chris White.)

John Rentoul addresses the rump of New Labour at MEG/QMU. (Photo by Chris White.)

One of our most thoughtful and convivial Finds launch evenings was hosted last Tuesday at Queen Mary University under the aegis of the Mile End Group forum for government and politics. We were there to mark the reissue of John Rentoul’s Tony Blair: Prime Minister, updated for the first time since 2001. John made a witty speech by way of introduction and then, fluently and without a pause, fielded questions from an unusually well-informed assortment of guests. Of the latter, he has (at his Independent blog) posted up ‘the ones I remember and a slightly l’esprit de l’escalier version of my answers’. We reproduce a cross-section here for your edification:

Q. What does it feel like to be a Blair apologist?
JR: I remember it was a shock at first, because I thought that he had been on balance a good prime minister and I continued to feel that in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, which, on balance, I supported. But maintaining the view that he was on balance a Good Thing against the advancing wall of hate pushed me to appear to be, and indeed to become, more partisan than before. At the same time, though, as Blair’s public service reform programme took shape in his second term, I became more enthusiastic about his domestic policies. As a result, I came to admire him more at the end of his time of office than I did when the previous edition of this book was published, at the time of 9/11.

Q. How will the Chilcot report affect Blair’s reputation?
JR: I doubt that it will have any great effect, when it is eventually published, possibly next year. It will not satisfy the haters, a small and noisy minority whose story of “going to war on a lie” has unfortunately infected the wells of popular memory. No one who has given the matter five minutes’ serious thought, let alone five years’ and interviewed all the participants and read all the papers, could imagine that Blair used Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction as a pretext for military action knowing that they might not be found… [T]he Chilcot inquiry has told us nothing that was not already known, and what confidential papers there are as have not yet been published will similarly add little. But contradicting the haters’ story a fifth time, while it may fill out the historical record, is not going to change many people’s minds in the here and now.

John Rentoul signing copies of his magnum opus.

John Rentoul signing copies of his magnum opus.

Q. Why was Blair so slow to grasp the importance of machinery-of-government questions in delivering change?
JR: Because, and it is the quotation on the back cover of the hardback edition of his memoir, A Journey, “On 2 May 1997, I walked into Downing Street as prime minister for the first time. I had never held office, not even as the most junior of junior ministers. It was my first and only job in government.” Yet I argue, in the new Afterword to my book, that Blair was too hard on himself in saying that he did not achieve enough in his first term. The settlement in Northern Ireland on its own was enough to guarantee a meritorious place in the history books. But he achieved much more: devolution, Lords reform, minimum wage, the start of schools improvement, some of which was fraught and in which he was not much interested. And by 2001 he had grasped the machinery-of-government question and brought in the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit, stocktakes and civil service changes that have been followed since, including around the world.

Q. What were his greatest failures?
JR: Welfare reform and, paradoxically, immigration. That is a paradox because immigration is a symptom of economic success and well as the cause of possible social problems. Even if you favour a liberal policy on immigration, which he did by instinct and default, it was a political mistake to have allowed it to run at such a high level, because that, rather than Iraq, is what mass public opinion holds against his record as prime minister.

Q. In what areas have you changed your view of him?
JR: See question 1. And Roman Catholicism. I said in the 2001 edition of the book that I was sceptical about “the assumption, encouraged by wishful-thinking Catholic converts, that Blair is really One of Them.”

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Guest post: On Julian Mitchell’s ‘Imaginary Toys’, a Proustian madeleine from 1950s Oxford…

imaginary toysRather a thrilling turn-up for us at Finds Towers today, as we are pleased to publish our very first guest-blog from a regular bibliophile reader of the site: Carola Huttmann. Carola expressed a keen interest in our programme of reissuing the early 1960s-era novels of the playwright Julian Mitchell, so we sent her a copy of the first title in the sequence, published a fortnight ago, Imaginary Toys. Carola has now kindly offered us the following review: a most discerning consideration of the novel, its author and its times.

It’s worth saying that we’d be delighted to feature a good deal more in the way of thoughts and evaluations of the books we revive, by regular readers who like to follow our doings on social media – so if there’s a Finds title you’d be especially eager to write about, by all means drop us a line to finds@faber.co.uk.

For the moment, though, we turn you over to Carola on Julian Mitchell:

IMAGINARY TOYS by Julian Mitchell

In reissuing Julian Mitchell’s debut novel as a ‘Find’, Faber and Faber have brought something wonderful back to the English literary canon. Written in 1961, when Mitchell was 26, IMAGINARY TOYS has been out of print for far too long. Its partly autobiographical, partly fictional premise is not a plot as such, but more a series of Proustian stream-of-consciousness musings by its four main characters. Their journal-like introspective narratives reflect not only their own personal doubts and insecurities, but also skilfully mirror the greater sentiments and concerns, social and political, of their era.

Their milieu, 1950s Oxford, was one where class still mattered and where coming from a working class background or a wealthy one made all the difference between being a gentleman or an ‘ordinary’ man. The former, by his very status, automatically had a world of opportunities at his feet while the latter, even if he was of similar or higher intelligence, had to battle for every inch of his intellectually equal’s recognition. Even then he still fell short, simply because he did not have the ‘manner’ – that is, the bearing and confidence – of a gentleman.

Jack, a coalminer’s son, is the first in his family to go to university. He is in love with Elaine who struggles with her middle-class background and her Catholicism which forbids them to sleep together. Jack tries hard to understand the outlandish laws of her religion, but jealousy and his own insecurities always get in the way. Eventually, they come to realise that it is Elaine’s faith which has been blighting their happiness. They have been ‘acting’ the people they think they ought to be instead of being themselves.

Charles, the son of a wealthy lawyer, has an expensive sports car and is in love with the beautiful but cold-hearted Margaret. He tries to buy her love by acting as her chauffeur, always at her beck and call when she needs a lift and offering a series of romantic gestures which she crassly rejects. The confidence that comes as a ‘given’ to someone with his background gradually crumbles when, firstly, he fails in love and, later, when he comprehends that through his upper-class background he projects an unconscious arrogance to those less secure in their personal standing than himself.

Nicholas, a fellow student and a socialist, is gay. He writes at length about his various infatuations with other homosexual men. Often reciting whole conversations in an effort to clarify his feelings in his own mind, he ponders the different kinds of love: gay versus straight, platonic feelings towards someone of the same sex, against deep desire for the same. Nicholas symbolises the social conscience of his time. On the one hand he is the hidden ‘curse’ within society; the inadmissible ‘affliction’ which people would prefer did not exist and try to ignore before attempting to eradicate it through punitive laws and policies.

The literary influences of Mitchell’s early career are obvious. Firstly, those of Marcel Proust (1871-1922), in the novel’s long, almost out-of-control paragraphs with barely any punctuation which reveal the characters’ deepest emotions and moments of intense self-doubt. Secondly, Evelyn Waugh’s BRIDESHEAD REVISITED (1945) about class, religion and university life (albeit during the 1920s) seems to ghost the book’s pages. However, the author’s first exploration into prose fiction does not only look back into literary history in search of inspiration; it also acts as a significant stepping-stone towards his later achievements. In IMAGINARY TOYS the reader can clearly detect the creative seeds of what is arguably Mitchell’s best-known work, his play ANOTHER COUNTRY (1981), based loosely on the life story of the Cambridge spy Guy Burgess. (Mitchell also wrote the award-winning screenplay when it was turned into a film three years later.)

The themes which occupy the thoughts, anxieties and complex emotional conundrums of the four main characters – class, social inequality, gay love, socialist politics and the struggle with religious conviction – are typical for the period and setting and mean that IMAGINARY TOYS fills an important place in the post-war English novel. It is a delight to see it in print once more.

On the subject of the seminal ANOTHER COUNTRY, one can’t pass up the chance to offer this marvellous clip, another YouTube jewel, taken from a Newsnight discussion of the play’s West End success in 1982. After a superb extract from the play, featuring, of course, the youthful Rupert Everett and Kenneth Branagh, the young actors are interviewed in the stalls; and then Julian Mitchell offers his own striking thoughts on the inspiration for the piece.

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The return of ‘Cora Ravenwing’: win Gina Wilson’s masterly novel of schoolgirl friendship

The cover art from the 1980 first edition of the novel

The cover art from the 1980 first edition of the novel

Book-blogger Joanne Sheppard was on Twitter this morning (as @RedSkyAtNight) to note our impending reissue of Gina Wilson’s Cora Ravenwing, and she further referred readers to an excellent blog-post of hers from 2011 in which she rightly hailed Cora as ‘a deeply haunting children’s novel that should be lauded as a classic.’ Joanne’s excellent review goes on to discuss the twists and turns of the book’s narrative, so I should probably shout SPOILER ALERT here, but there’s no harm in noting one more of her general observations, namely: ‘More than just a children’s story, ‘Cora Ravenwing’ is a masterful study of prejudice, small-mindedness and the way harmful rumours can spread through a tight-knit community…’

It’s the story of Becky Stokes, who moves with her family from London to a small village called Okefield. The first child of her own age she meets there is the eponymous Cora, hiding amid shrubs and creepers at the foot of Becky’s new garden… The girls get along, though Becky’s mother thinks Cora a ‘funny little scrap.’ This, though, is nearly the politest opinion of Cora Ravenwing available around Okefield. Grown-ups and schoolkids alike specialise in dark mutterings about ‘the Ravenwing girl.’ For sure, she has not a friend in the world – except for Becky. And the challenge for Becky – a rite of passage, no less – is whether or not she will accept this status of being ‘Cora’s friend’ in the teeth of such notably hostile and gossipy peer pressure.

Our Finds edition of Cora benefits by a lovely new preface from Gina Wilson, in which she recalls the feelings and incidents that were the inspiration for this novel about how a young girl begins to learn to follow her own instincts and make her own judgements in life.

If you’d like the chance to win a copy of Cora Ravenwing for yourself – and I recommend it highly – you have to do two things.

1. Answer me this correctly:
Perhaps the most famous shadowy subject of small-town gossip in all literature is Boo Radley in Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. What is the nickname of the girl who narrates the story of Lee’s novel?

2. Put your answer in an email to finds@faber.co.uk, with CORA as your subject line. The competition will close at 5pm next Wednesday June 26, whereupon I will pick a winner from a battered schoolbag.

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