Thursday, 30 June 2016

The Books I Read In June

'Rumpole of the Bailey' by John Mortimer
This is a collection of short stories, though there are linking threads and ongoing characters connecting them.  They are adapted from the television series broadcast in 1978. They are presented as a memoir of Horace Rumpole, a fictional defence barrister, working on cases mainly in the late 1970s, though with regular references to ones in the 1960s and even before that.  Rumpole is a quirky character who is more at home mixing with his criminal defendants than with the pompous lawyers and judges he works with.  He has very fixed habits including working on crosswords, quoting poetry and drinking claret in Fleet Street.  Mortimer has succeeded in drawing up a very rich character who is avuncular and likable even when cranky and does not always win.  Through the eyes of Rumpole he is very adept at drawing sketches of all of those he encounters, based on views of the time, but with the Rumpole feel for humanity mixed in.

You might think it is a challenge to write funny stories about criminal court cases (there is also a divorce case), but Mortimer has succeeded and I found myself laughing out loud at a book for the first time in ages.  At the same time, you learn a great deal about the British legal system, at least how it function in the mid to late 20th century.  There have been many changes, but I am sure modern lawyers would still recognise a lot of what Mortimer writes about.  That may not be the case in the future.  I particularly noted the reference to Legal Aid, which is now largely dead.  It shows how difficult the defence barrister's role is, especially when faced with fixed attitudes from the police and judiciary; often the jury as well.  It shows how hard it can be working with a defendant who has an agendum which is different for simply being found not guilty.  I came away from the book pleased that Britain has a jury system.  I know the German legal system better as a consequence of my crime novels and the use of just a judge even if there are two assessors assisting, seems to fix in stone establishment attitudes.  Yes, juries can be bigoted, but there are times when they see beyond the mechanical assumptions of the legal machine.  Though dated, this was a surprisingly enjoyable book.  I have three other books from Mortimer to read and am now looking forward to them.

'The Trials of Rumpole' by John Mortimer
This book follows on directly from 'Rumpole of the Bailey' and was published a year later and are set in the late 1970s. As others have noted, while the characters in Rumpole's chambers and indeed in the courts, seem to progress and we see one couple go from courting to marriage and having their first child, Horace Rumpole seems never to alter being around 70 forever more.  This book has another sequence of cases, which are engaging but lack the laugh out loud humour of the first book.  At times the plots against Rumpole, to get him to retire and to emigrate to the USA to live with his son and insufferable daughter-in-law are irritating.  The book travels along reasonably pleasantly, but these cases are often more serious, two involving sexual aspects that you cannot treat with a light tone.  Revenge also appears as common motive in these stories.  Thus, the stories are of interest and indeed of entertainment, but overall have a different, darker tone to those of the preceding book.  I have 'The Return of Rumpole' to follow and am not put off reading it.

'Death to the Landlords!' by Ellis Peters
I had not realised how many novels featuring the Felse family Peters wrote.  The were 13 published 1951-78 and featured George Felse and other members of his family, including his son Dominic Felse who appears in this novel.  This one was published in 1972 and sees Dominic return to India that he first visited in 'Mourning Raga' (1969) which I read last month.  However, it turns out there is 'The Knocker on Death's Door' (1970) between the two books, which I do not have a copy of.  I was suspicious that I had missed out part of the ongoing story because Theodosia Barber, Dominic Felse's girlfriend, a leading instigator of action in the two Felse books I had read so far, does not appear in this novel.  She only gets a couple of mentions towards the end.  There are three novels between the first of this series I read, 'The Piper on the Mountain' (1966) and 'Mourning Raga' but I do not know which characters they featured, as the jump between those two books was far less apparent.

Anyway, it is clear in 'Death to the Landlords!' that though Peters had been publishing under various names since 1937, by the early 1970s, she had polished her skills in writing the Felse stories.  There is still the challenge of her switching point of view through a number of characters, but this happens less frequently and less abruptly than in the previous two Felse books I had read.  This makes the book progress more smoothly.  Peters certainly has a skill in these stories in involving amateurs in crime situations and making it feasible for them to be there and drawn in.  She is excellent in providing a rich context with very well observed details on the locations where the action takes.  This story moves Felse from Delhi down to Kerala and Tamil Nadu in southern India but she describes each place so well, you can really envisage it.  This goes for the people too.

For a western writer, at times Peters rather overdoes the 'dignified local', in this book even more than in 'Mourning Raga', but she does create a cast of credible Indian characters that appear to avoid stereotype.  Peters also seems alert to the social, sectarian, ethnic and regional divisions of India at the time.  This novel features Naxalite terrorists who remain active in India to the present day.  Conversely she seems to have no time for westerners bumming around India seeking themselves.  Even her 'hero' Dominic Felse who has returned to India after graduating from University of Oxford (Theodosia in the year below him is still there), to work in agricultural development, is shown as a little careless and directionless in his engagement with India.

I found the novel surprisingly engaging when I expected to find it dated and adopting a Eurocentric perspective.  The thing is that, with the wonderful portrayals of Indian locations, some of which, yes, are from a tourist perspective, though not all, and with the cast of interesting Indian characters, Dominic Felse almost disappears.  If she had written the book in the 1990s, perhaps she would not have felt the need for a Western protagonist or maybe even then she was alert to possible accusations of cultural appropriation.  It seems apparent Peters had Indian friends.  Felse is not at all necessary to the plot, not really even as a binding thread between the action in different locations and you wonder why he is needed. He is almost a spectral figure in the plot, overshadowed by everyone else whether Indian or European.  He even misses out on the climax of the story which has a satisfyingly messy battle, that adds to the realism of the book.

Despite this unusual approach, while I have enjoyed the Cadfael books, these have revealed a different side to Peters.  Though there are flaws in these books, notably the shift in point of view, but there is a surprising realism about them.  I could easily see the stories being brought up to date for television in the style of the BBC dramatisation of 'The Night Manager' (2016) with no need to alter the stories much and certainly no fear that the portrayal of Indians (and indeed Slovaks) appeared inappropriate for the 21st century.

On the surface this book may seem a 'comfortable' murder mystery of the classic Agatha Christie style, but in fact engages much more with the grittiness of murder, especially using bombs, and provides credible characters that drive the book as much as the plot itself.  Certainly if I stumble across another Felse book, especially from the latter period, I would take it up and I have not been able to say that about many series.

'City of Gold and Shadows' by Ellis Peters
Well, clearly I was overly optimistic.  This is the 12th book in the Felse family series.  It features Dominic Felse's father, Detective Chief Inspector George Felse.  Dominic and Theodosia Barber are mentioned in passing.  This book was published in 1973 and so their story has advanced.  Theodosia has graduated, trained as a nurse (not a graduate profession at the time) and gone to work with her fiancĂ© Dominic aiding the Swami's agricultural programme in India.  This book lack all of the engaging elements of 'Death to the Landlords!' and is much more a 'cosy' murder mystery story set in rural England; in the fictitious county of Midshire.  It is interesting that in her books set in Czechoslovakia and India she makes great use of real places.  In this novel she conjures up an essence of an English county on the border with Wales and refers to a fictitious Roman settlement; to me it sounded very much like what I had seen at St. Albans, though it is supposed to be on a large scale, a 'pleasure city' on the Roman frontier.  I am not sure such things existed; I never saw 'Time Team' dig up one.  The story involves rather disconnectedly the disappearance of Charlotte Rossignol's great uncle and strange happenings around the Roman ruins.  A school boy is killed.  Overall the story is very much like an episode of 'Midsomer Murders' (18 series broadcast so far since 1997) with a restricted number of suspects, people involved with the site and police officers.

To me the book marked rather a step backwards for Peters, but maybe she found that these more 'Miss Marple' type stories sold better than ones about people gallivanting around Indian locations that most British readers were unfamiliar with.  There is rather a confused situation with the sexual politics of the time (early 1970s).  As I noted before the engaged couple have a chaste relationship, though in this book, there is a young woman married to an older man in a sexless relationship and attempts at seduction by her and a young man, Augustus, are rather awkward as if Peters felt they needed to be included but not how to handle them.  Another problem I have noted before is that Peters creates ensembles of people well, but then we are not clear who the lead character is supposed to be.  It starts of seeming to be Charlotte and at times it is Augustus or George.  She does less of the jumping in terms of point of view, but we do seem to flit from one character to another in a rather erratic manner which rather takes the drive out of the novel.  She is good at jeopardy, dealing with people fighting for their lives, as in previous books, but because we are uncertain who we are rooting for, there is far less engagement than there should have been.  Overall a pretty mediocre book which is a let down after the last one of Peters's that I read.

'Chocky' by John Wyndham
As I noted when reviewing Wyndham's 'The Seeds of Time' last month, one challenge of reading some old science fiction, this book dates from 1968, from a 1963 short story, some of the edge is taken off the story.  This is because what might have been puzzling or startling back then, by now has entered the mainstream consciousness that immediately when you begin the story you have a clear idea of what is going on.  That is the case with 'Chocky' told through the eyes of David Gore, father of Matthew who has an alien intelligence benignly sharing his mind.  Unlike people of the past we do not ponder what is happening, the clues are very clear to us.  However, despite the lack of a mystery about what is going on this still stands up as a robust story and I am not surprised it has been repeatedly dramatised - on radio in 1968, 1975 and 1998, as a television series in 1984 and with speculation on a possible movie in 2008.  The strength of the book is really in the interaction between Matthew, aged 12, his father and his mother Mary.  It comes over as convincing and echoes stories about families coping with a child's terminal illness or kidnapping and indeed more mundane discussions about the future path for any child and the phases they go through on the way.

In this book Wyndham avoids being twee or indeed even sentimental about childhood.  The dialogue is convincing and the shifting perceptions of the two parents and the boy himself are credible.  Though there are some references that place this in a particular time - prices in shillings, people smoking indoors and comparatively ordinary men dining in clubs, this is less fixed to a time than the short stories I read last month.  It much better demonstrates Wyndham's skills as a writer and reminds us why his stories do remain chilling even when read beyond the time they were written.  Whilst he is a science fiction writer, his strength lies in his ability to acutely portray ordinary humans dealing with the extraordinary situations that they are presented with.

'What Difference Did the War Make?' ed. by Brian Brivati and Harriet Jones
As I have mentioned before a number of books I have on my 'to read' shelf for this year are by people I have met.  In this case I met both the authors.  I encountered Harriet Jones at an underground station in 1999, she was taking her son to see 'My Favourite Martian' (1999).  Though an American she has written extensively on British history.  She was effectively trapped in the UK because the British father of her son would not let her take him from the country.  I imagined he passed 18 sometime in the 2000s so I doubt this is still the case.  Like me, Jones lived in East London, but unlike me in one of those Georgian squares where the houses look like No. 10 Downing Street.  Brian Brivati I met a year or so later in Kingston.  We got to discussing holidays.  While I was always seeking somewhere different to go, he said that he and his family always went back to the same resort each year, I believe in Italy; he asked why, if you enjoy somewhere, would you want to turn your back on it?  He also gave me some useful advice on CV writing which was still important in those days, but it came too late and it meant that I certainly (rather than possibly) missed out on a job that would have changed my life.

The book is a collection of ten academic papers which came out of a conference in 1991 by the Institute of Contemporary British History Summer School, basically answering the question in the title, with each historian (ironically not including Brivati and Jones themselves) taking a different facet of political, economic or social history, bracketed by 1929-59, though some see longer term trends.  Especially in earlier chapters there is a clear sense that they have come from oral presentations, the opening chapter by Peter Hennessy in particular has a colloquial tone.  As the book progresses it settles down into them being more like standard academic articles.  Hennessy, Eric Hobsbawm (who I met on two occasions but lacked anything to say) and Geoffrey Warner cover pretty standard views of the post-war era, showing the constraints and false assumptions the British government operated under.  Warner is good, however, in tracking the progress of Ernest Bevin's views on foreign policy. Malcolm Smith of changing post-war public views of what the British state involved is reasonable.  The one by David Morgan and Mary Evans fails convincingly to make the link between the writing and George Orwell and post-war 'citizenship' but it is good in reminding us not to simply accept standard portrayals of the inter-war period.

Nicholas Owen gives a very comprehensive outline of the challenges that face Britain in handling India in particular, unlike so much writing, through teasing out the rifts among different Indian political groups and divisions within them.  Mark Cornwall looking at Britain's relationship with Czechoslovakia is probably most revelatory on the 1930-38 period rather than post-war, clearly showing the derogatory attitude to Czechoslovakia and its people that gained strength rapidly in British government in those years, adding a very important context to British involvement in the Munich Agreement.  E.G.H. Pedaliu in looking at relations with Italy brings the book full circle to showing how restricted Britain's options were by the expense of the war.

For me the best two papers are by Penny Summerfield on the impact on women and Bill Osbergy on  perceptions of youth.  Summerfield makes use of extensive data to show that there was a change for women as a result of the war but it is different to that commonly accepted.  Instead of a vast change in the employment of women (it rose by only 20% above the pre-war level) it was in the nature of the industries they worked in and increasingly the nature of women with a great rise in older, married women in the workplace and women marrying younger and often leaving the workforce (even if temporarily) as a result.  Osbergy shows how while we may best know the 1950s concerns about delinquent juveniles, this simply repeated trends going back at least to the 1880s.  He shows regular peaks of prosperity of young people as a result of shifts in the economy, then matched by an outcry about their dress, culture and behaviour.  He also usefully highlights how the teenager was effectively a working class phenomenon until the late 1950s - mid-1960s when the expansion of further and higher education led middle class young people into seeking a culture distinct from their parents.

Overall a wide mixture of approaches, but ones which in large part seek to shake up views of the post-war era in Britain and the wider world and remind us of many aspects which have been smoothed over in the simplification of the story of the times.

'The Welfare State in Britain since 1945' by Rodney Lowe
Rather than been a historical approach Lowe works more on a social science basis.  It is a very workerlike book in that largely unemotionally he first takes the theories that have been applied to welfare provision and then looks at all the different facets, e.g. education, housing, health, personal social services, etc. in turn.  Eschewing strict chronology he is able to draw appropriate examples from throughout their periods he focuses upon.  He also makes suitable comparisons with the USA, France and West Germany.  Furthermore, Lowe is adept at highlighting the political pressures that ministers and indeed opposition parties faced that show that welfare policy is not, as often seems to be how it is portrayed, developed in its own world, but in reference to other political trends.  Similarly he charts the adoption and then failure of Keynesianism followed by the rise of monetarism and its dire consequences.

The book (I was reading the 1999 edition) is best on what Lowe calls the 'classic' welfare state, from 1945-75, though referencing examples from outside that period when it is beneficial.  The aspect on 1976-97 is far weaker and is very rushed.  He does summarise what the Thatcherites did and why and also, as he does throughout the book, explodes common myths about the period.  However, the book is imbalanced with this section about a seventh of the overall rather than approaching even pro-rata equivalence to the first half.  Lowe is excellent in writing plainly (though he overuses brackets to a huge extent) and making telling points.  This is a very good book if you wish to know about the first thirty years of welfare in Britain.  It highlights things that though considered earlier would only later be adopted, such as working and family tax credits and suggestions for a minimum wage and even a guaranteed income as is being tried in some continental locations now.  Living in the 21st century, however, the book would be improved by an update given all that the Thatcherites and the Blairites wrought on the welfare systems.

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