Thursday, 28 February 2013

The Books I Read In February

Non-Fiction
‘Hugh Gaitskell’ by Brian Brivati
I read this as a complementary book to ‘Clem Attlee’ by Francis Beckett that I read back in July 2012. Like Beckett, I met Brivati in the mid-1990s at the time when there were lots of historical events around the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Despite recognising the changes to the Labour Party that Tony Blair had brought, when the book was published in 1997, unlike Beckett, Brivati manages to avoid making constant links between the past and current developments. One of the key difficulties, however, is that Gaitskell lacked experience in government. He only delivered one budget and was out of power from 1951 until his death in 1963, aged 56. Thus, in contrast to Beckett’s book, a lot of the details are about small-scale internal Labour Party business, often at a painfully local level.

Brivati tends to avoid wandering off his subject in the way that Beckett did, though Brivati’s weakest sections are when he steps away from the narrative to try to assess Gaitskell’s ideological steps. In general Brivati remains objective and it is difficult to tell if he is a partisan of Gaitskell or not. This is better in a political biography than when the author is clearly writing about one of their heroes. Brivati’s objectivity only slips when he begins to discuss things closer to his own life, for example, the view that CND was funded by the KGB. The key problem with this book, as with many biographies, is how fragmented it is. This is not helped by Brivati breaking it into chapters covering just one or two years. I certainly cannot understand why the book received such acclaim when published and can only think it was because it fitted in with the mood of the times of the late 1990s.

It is clear that many of the reviewers whose comments on the back, have not read the book or if they have, it was unable to shake them from their misguided beliefs about Gaitskell. What Brivati adds to the debate are the oddities, things such as Gaitskell’s love of dancing and jazz; the fact that he may have been bisexual and that he had a long-running affair with the wife of Ian Fleming. These are more like details from a celebrity biography and do not really round out the political picture of Gaitskell.

The one thing that is very apparent from Brivati’s book and strongly opposes the views expressed by some of the quoted reviewers is how destructive Gaitskell was. It is very clear that he was arrogant and self-centred. Despite his protestations of being a Socialist there appears to be little that Brivati details which fit that pattern. Rather, as the publishers note, he was more like an American Democrat. He was often opposed to the bulk of the party he sought to represent and used divisive, conspiratorial methods to get his own way. ‘Own way’ is the key element that comes out. Whilst Gaitskell adhered to and created factions, these were generally simply to serve his own interests and he felt no compunction and betraying his own partisans, notably over the relationship with Europe.
Gaitskell was both out-of-date in his adherence to the Commonwealth and the view of Britain’s role in the world. The fact that this was not greatly apparent was simply because the Conservative Party of the 1950s was a generation even further out-of-date on such issues. Owing to his dated views and his personal obsessions which constantly triggered active divisions in the 1950s and early 1960s, Gaitskell rendered the Labour Party incapable of adopting policies that were distinct from the Conservatives and yet ready for the era. Brivati’s book makes it clear that Gaitskell has a fair part to take of the blame for the ‘thirteen wasted years’ of Conservative governments 1951-64 due to him driving it to cope with one of his obsessions after another rather than evolving to cope with the context it found itself in.

While I would never wish to welcome anyone’s premature death, it is clear that without Gaitskell being removed from the leadership of the Labour Party in 1963 he would have utterly destroyed the party. Some argue that he was a precursor of Tony Blair in his Atlanticist attitude and turning his back on the history of the party. Certainly Gaitskell sought to shape the party into being a Gaitskellite Party rather than the Labour Party but if he had succeeded then there would have even been nothing for Blair to pick up and finish mutating into that British replica of the Democrats. You may wonder how such a vane and damaging man could have risen so high in a party when so opposed to what it stood for. One thing Brivati does show is the success Gaitskell had in the ‘dirty’ tactics that managed to manoeuvre him to this level much to the detriment of Britain but especially of the Labour Party.

Fiction
‘Inspector Ghote Caught in Meshes’ by H.R.F. Keating
This is the third book in the Inspector Ghote series of novels that Keating has been publishing since 1964. The latest of the twenty-five books was published in 2009; Keating died in 2011. The edition I had was an anthology of the first three books, the other two I read last year. I can certainly say that I have no intention in reading any more of them. I often enjoy crime novels set outside the UK and have read a great deal of crime fiction written Georges Simenon, Josef Skvorecky and Leonardo Sciscia. Maybe it is because Keating is not Indian that the tone of the books for me jars badly. I constantly feel that he does not take his detective seriously enough. This may be due to the date of publication of the particular novels I have read, i.e. 1964-7, when British audiences perhaps expected a patronising attitude to Indian characters. However, not having been impressed with these stories I have no desire to risk wasting time on later ones. Of the three books in the series that I have read this one is probably the best.

The story focuses on Ghote investigating the assassination of an American scientist who is an anti-nuclear campaigner. He does this with the aid of the American’s brother, Professor Gregory Strongbow and a member of the local tourist board, Shakuntala Brown. The action takes place in Mumbai and Pune and the surrounding countryside in western India. More than in the previous two novels which focused primarily on Mumbai, Keating does give a good feel for the region in which the action takes place. There are not the unco-operative witnesses that plagued Ghote in the previous two books and come to infuriate the reader. Strongbow is awkward for Ghote to handle but the relationship between them as Ghote seeks to protect the American from being assassinated by the India First terrorist group. Ghote is taken from serving the Mumbai police to working for a shady national body. His key role is to find out what Strongbow learnt from his brother about India’s nuclear weapons programme and who is working for India First.

Much of the book is filled with Ghote battling with incidents of attack on Strongbow. The action is described well but after a while you become tired of Ghote running around after the foolish American. Ghote having to move frantically to aid a Westerner is a recurring theme of the three books and by this stage I had had enough of it. The mix of a light tone which is not humour and police procedure that becomes tiresome is why I will not be reading another Inspector Ghote book. I do like the title, however.

‘Lest Darkness Fall’ by L. Sprague De Camp
Over the years I have been ambivalent to De Camp’s work. I try not to let the author’s political views contaminate my reading of their books, but for some reason have found that harder with De Camp than other US authors of his generation. The first book of De Camp’s I read was probably his best, ‘The Goblin Tower’ (1968). It is a very good traditional fantasy story and probably one of the only books I would consider reading again. ‘Lest Darkness Fall’ (1939) is a very different novel, but of the same high quality. This book was De Camp’s first published one and is very impressive for a debut novel. It features US archaeologist Martin Padway who visiting Rome in 1939, at the time in Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, is struck by lightning and is sent back to Rome in 535. His grasp of Latin and knowledge of the final decline of the Western Roman Empire means he has some advantages. However, like most time travellers he struggles to make a living and not be imprisoned or executed as a sorcerer. He also aims to prevent the destruction of the Western Roman Empire which at the time is being run by the Goths as he sees this as triggering the Dark Ages for the bulk of Europe. Consequently he begins to introduce anachronistic technology including printing, semaphore, various military tactics, the working of copper and then iron and ideas including Arabic numerals and zero, emancipation of slaves, double entry book-keeping, the concept of gravity and solarcentric astronomy in an attempt to keep the Gothic state intact and to advance society. He is steadily drawn into politics and warfare.

The skills De Camp shows in this book is in quickly creating a range of interesting characters. Sometimes these are a little too ‘light’ and the money lender looking to God all the time is almost a caricature. The women that Padway encounters and generally has unsatisfactory relationships with are interesting and well drawn for a book of the time. Having read a lot of 1940s science fiction a few years ago, I am not as surprised as I once would have been about the maturity and modernity of the writing. If you did not know you could possibly think it had been written in 1979 if not 2009. De Camp shows the challenges of trying to change a society in decline and the impact on Padway’s morality as he has to deal with distracted and violent monarchs, generals and nobles. He also shows the challenges of working in a context in which a wide range of Christianities are jostling for supremacy and Pagan views are still very much current as well. It is an enjoyable, engaging story which romps along. It is interesting to see someone intentionally creating an alternate history and the reader is left to speculate how the world will turn out differently to the one we knew. This is one of the best and most enjoyable books I have read in a long time.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Watching ‘Van Der Valk’


It is obvious that in the past twenty years television viewing is fragmented: people do not all sit down to watch a programme at the same time, rather they view it when convenient to them, saved on a Freeview box or watched over the internet. Another source is to wait until the programme comes out on DVD. ‘Box sets’ of entire series are now so prevalent that ‘The Guardian’ newspaper even runs a weekly column ‘You Next Box Set’. The advantage is that you do not have to wait for the following week’s episode. If you choose you can watch and entire series at one sitting. The added advantage is that you can access ‘classic’ series that are unlikely ever to appear on television again.

The range of series put into box sets is quite bewildering. I am often surprised to see poor quality situation comedies from the 1970s and 1980s available and I wonder who would want to view them. However, I guess every programme has some fans and even quite obscure ones would elicit millions of viewers. I imagine the overheads for the producers of the box sets must be pretty low so that if they can sell a few thousand they are making money. Conversely the demand for some series remains incredibly high. The first series (of three) of ‘Between the Lines’ first broadcast in 1992 sells for £44 and even second hand it is difficult to get one for less than £30. The series tailed off in the second and third incarnations but even these do pretty well; I hope the remaining actors are getting some of this money.

There are often odd gaps in what you can buy. ‘A Traveller in Time’ an excellent children’s drama from 1978 is still not available on DVD, though other series from that genre have been for a while. I imagine it has something to do with rights. The same explanation appears to be the case for the movie ‘Fatherland’ (1994) for which the only DVD copy is a recording made from the video release. The box set does allow a great deal of nostalgia and sometimes you can rediscover past delights and sometimes you are disappointed. I bought ‘Catweazle’ (1969; 1971), ‘The Clangers’ (1969-72) and ‘Mr. Benn’ (1971-2) over the past few years and have thoroughly enjoyed them. Surprisingly, for their lack of sophistication to modern audiences I have found children have enjoyed them. A colleague of mine argued that that was because the stories are engaging and well told.

As you can tell from the title of this posting, I have recently worked my way through the five series of ‘Van Der Valk’. This is unique in television history for something that is not a soap opera in that the series spanned twenty years, first being broadcast in 1971 and the final episode being shown in 1991. It came in three batches: 1972-3, 1977-8 and 1990-1 with a total of 32 episodes, those in the 1970s being 1 hour long and those in the 1990s being 2 hours long. The series is based on the successful series of novels by Nicolas Freeling (1927-2003) published primarily 1962-72 with an additional one in 1989. They feature Commissaris [Chief Superintendent] Simon ‘Piet’ Van Der Valk an Amsterdam based detective. Much of the series was shot in the Netherlands, though in the 1970s the interior shots were filmed in the UK and cut together with the location footage. The role of Van Der Valk was played by Barry Foster (1927-2002) throughout though all the regular roles around him were acted by different people in each of the three blocks of episodes. His French wife Arlette (who featured in two novels by Freeling with her investigating) was played by Susan Travers (born 1939) in the early 1970s, then in the late 1970s by Jo(h)anna Dunham (born 1936) who had appeared as a businessman’s wife in the second series, and finally in the 1990s by Meg Davies, whose birth year I cannot fine, but in 1990 in the drama her character is supposed to be 45 which would seem to be about right. Hoofdcomissaris [Chief Commissioner] Samson was played by Martin Wyldeck (1914-88), Nigel Stock (1919-86) and Ronald Hines (born 1929). Brigadier [Inspector] Stribos, played by Dave Carter a uniformed officer appears in a number of episodes. Brigadier Mertens played by Alan Haines (1924-2011) appeared in four episodes.

A large number of leading British television actors of these eras appear, some more than once. Clifford Rose (born 1929) appears as a sculptor in one series and an art dealer in another. Geoffrey Bayldon (born 1924) turns up first as a hotel employee and later a man who runs a religious refuge for the homeless. Christopher Timothy (born 1940) puts in a performance as a hotel receptionist and a few years later as a junior detective. Michael Sheard (1938-2005) also appears in two episodes, though I am not clear what roles he plays and the same goes for Jim Norton (born 1938) who appeared in two episodes as different characters.

Others who appear once include Lalla Ward (born 1951), Paul Eddington (1927-95), Freddie Jones (born 1927), Patrick Troughton (1920-87), Amanda Burton (born 1956), Kenneth Cranham (born 1944), Brian Cox (born 1946), Michael Culver (born 1938), Geoffrey Palmer (born 1927), Don Henderson (1932-97), Anthony Valentine (born 1939), Bob Hoskins (born 1942) and Celia Imrie (born 1952). There is even John Rhys-Davies (born 1944) well known these days for the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies who has a short role as an assassin before dying in a car crash.

There are a number of characteristics which distinguish this series from the tens of other police series of the 1970s. The first is the Van Der Valk character himself. Unlike many police officers and detectives shown in dramas, he has a happy home life. His wife features regularly and his sons appear occasionally and are referred to even more often. In the 1990s, one, Wim played terribly languidly by Richard Huw, appears regularly as an Inspecteur [Chief Inspector] on the Narcotics Division. Between the 1970s and 1990s the Van Der Valks have adopted a daughter too who has made them grandparents when Arlette is 45. The lifestyle of the Van Der Valks is prosperous.

I think one of the things that made the series attractive in the early 1970s was that it showed the Netherlands, a place not that far away from the UK and yet at the time appeared to be in an economic boom. The lifestyle of Van Der Valk would be aspirational for many British viewers with good food, wine, restaurant meals, staying in cottages and listening to classical music. Van Der Valk certainly appeared as different to the detectives based in Britain. However, the series is grittier than many British counterparts. Even watching in the 21st century, the death from drugs overdoses and the impassioned or cold-blooded murders shown on screen have an impact. The adultery, prostitution and sexual promiscuity seem pretty common these days but would have had more frisson at the time.

Van Der Valk’s character develops across the 1970s episodes. At the start he is a jolly character who is shown drinking beer and spirits and smoking cigars at almost every opportunity. The title sequence of the first series feature Van Der Valk and his Inspecteur Johnny Kroon played by Michael Latimer (1941-2011) who went on to be a successful international theatre director, standing at the top of the Westerkerk, the tallest spire in Amsterdam, unwrapping a cigar and simply chucking the wrapping off the tower. By 1978 the closing image of Van Der Valk had had the cigar removed form his mouth. He works largely by intuition aided by his ability to mix with people at all levels of Dutch society from the seedy side of Amsterdam to the wealthy. Steadily, however, the character becomes more cynical and aggressive so that by 1978 he is hitting a teenaged female suspect who has been cocky. In the 1990s, given that he has been at the same rank for twenty years, though his managerial roles are emphasised, he seems very tired.

This means the 1990s episodes lack the spark of the 1970s ones, not aided by some of the actors around Foster. Only Meg Davies really stands out but her Arlette has lost the bulk of the wits, sophistication and above all, playfulness of the previous two incarnations. It was that sparkiness that I think made ‘Van Der Valk’ ultimately successful in the 1970s. In fact watching the first episode of the 1990 series I was worried Foster had become an alcoholic or was seriously ill. There is nothing about these in his biographies and he looks healthier in later episodes. I guess it was just poor direction. The abrupt switch in mood in that episode is unsettling and Amanda Burton’s dialogue sounds like it was recorded in a public toilet. I know that they hoped the series would be a rival for the ‘Inspector Morse’ series (1987-2000) which was why they went to 2 hours. However, the stories and the characterisations were lacking. In addition, in the years since the previous series, the Netherlands had become far better known to the British and the prosperous lifestyle aspects commonplace.

Whilst the actors speak English, everything written is in Dutch. Naturally they could not alter the street furniture, but even letters and messages are shown in Dutch adding to that flavour. Amsterdam is an additional character and often Van Der Valk drives down streets and goes to picturesque houses in the city or outside or to barges to chase down criminals. Trams and bicycles; glass-roofed river boats and lift bridges are often in view. Some complain this leads to us seeing too much ‘fill’ of the character driving. However, it was important to establish this difference to a series set in London, which one episode is. Unfortunately the sun rarely shines in any of the series making Amsterdam and even some of the Dutch countryside appear permanently dull. I realised that at the time the 1990s episodes were being made that I was visiting the Netherlands quite regularly and that the series bar a few episodes tends to make Amsterdam feel much smaller than it is reality. I guess this came from often filming particular locations.

The highlight of the 1990s episodes are the series of Inspecteurs and their teams that Van Der Valk, apparently in a more managerial role, works with. Notable are Kenneth Cranham as Inspecteur Dirk Boutsen and his team including Gary Olsen (1957-2000) as Sergeant Brouwer. Brian Cox as the philandering and bereaved Inspecteur Stefan Szabo was another notable character. Hoofdinspecteur [Superintendant] Toni Vishnu played by Angela Bruce (born 1951) could have developed but was under-directed in her episode so seemed rather to be going through the motions. I recognise that these actors in demand for series and movies might not have wanted to commit to being on the series weekly. However, having a strong actor to bounce off as had worked well with Inspecteur Kroon could have added to the dimensions of the rather anaemic 1990s episodes.

The one thing that many people remember about the series even if they have not seen it is the theme tune. This was composed by the Dutch composer Jan Stoeckart (born 1927) writing under the name Jack Trombey. The tune is called ‘Eye Level’ and was notable as an instrumental tune played by an orchestra which reached No. 1 in the UK charts in 1973. The tune is very orchestral with a really upbeat tempo which seemed to characterise the spirit of the programme. By the second series the programme opened with Van Der Valk driving through Amsterdam seeming to emphasise the vibrancy of the city. It remains a stirring tune.

I certainly recommend watching the 1970s series of ‘Van Der Valk’; you can buy a complete box set with all episodes in or series-by-series. The stories are engaging and feature more than simply murders with blackmailing, drugs dealing, extortion, intimidation, art and currency fraud, youth delinquency and kidnapping are also there. Naturally they will seem dated but in that accurately conjure up a historical period and a certain kind of attitude that has since died. They tell us something about how Britain viewed the Netherlands and what it appeared to represent, something more common in the UK these days. Foster in the 1970s is an interesting performer in the role which develops well over the period 1972-8. Poor direction, some weaker actors and lacklustre stories mean the revival in the 1990s should have been avoided.