Friday, 15 February 2013

The Fowler Family Business by Jonathan Meades

I remember reading a clipped biography of Jonathan Meades written by Clive James a few years back. In it, James, verbose as usual, describes Meades thus: 
Please note: drinking the
run-off from tin mining
may make you infertile.
"Meades is a superb political commentator even on an historical scale. Nobody has written better about the mystical proclivities of the top Nazis, and a TV show of his that connected Himmler’s sinister mystical vision with King Arthur’s Camelot is still in my mind when I wake sweating in the night. To induce such discomfort is part of the Meades mission. Clearly it is a mental area in which he lives every day. The wonder is that it doesn’t scramble the powers of composition behind a prose style so pugnaciously cultivated, so unpredictably informative, and, enviably often, so extremely funny."
Having never read his political commentary, seen his Nazi documentaries or heard him ramble through architecture rambling about architecture, I can proffer no counterpoint view. I did however read quite a few of the food and restaurant reviews he wrote in The Times (back when I thought A. A. Gill hilarious and The Times sports pages the best of the broadsheets' and before you required a subscription to read it all on-line) before he stopped, citing his subsequent insalubrious weight-gain as the main reason, and I can say without fear of contradiction that they were quite outstanding. I give you a recent example of his work:
"The self-regarding, hermetic world of gastronomy has produced few constructions more likely to promote teeth-gnashing, mockery and despairing contempt than “fine dining”, which should be pronounced in a refained accent – think Lynda Snell or Sir Elf Remsey or Morningsaide. It is a branch of restauration characterised by smarmily sycophantic service, grotesquely over-elaborate cooking, fussiness, pretension, absurdly high prices and moron chefs who appear to think they are philosophers: one of the smug oafs who presents MasterChef recently observed that if a contestant was to scale the heights of “fine dining” he had to remove the outer shell of each individual pea."
In essence, here is evidence of all that would define Meades' style as found in The Fowler Family Business - high style, low common denominator. This is just the sort of thing that resonates a deep satisfaction in me, as reader. He lambastes the follies and foibles of fools, engendering sympathy with those of the squeezed middle classes who like me appreciate the trouble to which an author goes to add some challenging vocabulary. In the novel, Henry Fowler, younger nominal of Fowler & Sons undertakers, is a stiff prude whose life undergoes a dramatic and violent change as the result of... well, let's not spoil the plot. Suffice to say, Henry is cuckolded in more ways than one, and his moral compass is set a-swinging as a result. What Meades appears to enjoy is the releasing of the shackles of polite, civilised moral constraint. I could feel the rumbles of anticipatory delight build to crescendo as he describes Henry becoming aroused by the sight of a visually impaired temp bulging from the confines of his dead mother's wedding dress, who in turn provides relief to the engorged Mr Fowler resulting in some unwholesome soiling of satin, chiffon and lace. Lampoon! His engagement with the vernacular, his understanding of literary and cultural convention, and his undisguised joy when delivering quasi-visual debauchery and corruption into the readers' laps all combine to create a very successful, darkly comic, and thoroughly absorbing novel.

A word of caution however. It might be said that the first major event of the novel, broached early and swiftly abandoned to memory, appears to have no significant bearing on the events that follow, other than by providing early filler material, scene-setting info-dump if you will, and a neat introduction to and raison d'être of an integral character of the second half of the book. I'm not sure why this doesn't come up again later (other than in the amyloid-plaque-confused remembrances of Mr Fowler senior), and the book ends without confronting it at all. A single imperfect point of dissatisfaction perhaps amidst an otherwise unblemished success, but one of those that discomforts like a malignant mole. And I think that is a suitably dark note on which to end.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Hereward: The Last Englishman by Peter Rex

Interestingly, Hereward was
played by Alfred Lynch
in a 1965 BBC version of
Charles Kinglsey's novel,
of which not a single
episode of the 16 filmed survived!
By all accounts, Hereward was the guerrilla scourge of the invading Norman armies in eleventh century Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, famous for isolating and dismembering members of the Norman nobility who strayed too far from home, and also for trashing Peterborough and hiding on an island. Called variously (and often erroneously) The Wake, The Exile or The Outlaw, his infamy was such that families in search of noble English lineage have usurped his "heroism" for their own glory even until this very day. Rex delights in highlighting one author's particular folly, entitled Hereward, The Saxon Patriot, in which Lieutenant-General Harward attempts to run his antecedents right back to the loins of the eponymous gentleman-rogue. 

Having only read the introduction to Peter Rex's myth-busting (and often ill-edited) work, I was already struck by an initial thought which ran thus: if as Rex asserts Hereward was the son of Asketil Tokison, a descendant of a wealthy Danish family that included Abbott Brand of Peterborough, then surely he was a chuffing Norseman, and not English at all? As much as I would love to be a Viking* I'm not sure it was greeted with the same enthusiasm throughout history (although the Normans were thus called because of the settlement of the north of what is now France by those from Denmark and Norway). However, apparently this is an ill-informed conclusion and people like Paula Lofting-Wilcox consider him to be as English as scrumpy (a vile concoction that has trace amounts of hydrogen cyanide due to the practise of leaving the pips in the mash - more on that in a later post).

On with the story. In an act of patient forensic detection, Peter Rex takes each source, considers its likely influences and audiences and carefully shits on all of the previous historical conclusions drawn there from which don't support his own. He really goes to town on the myth makers of the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and on the Victorian romanticists who get all sweaty and confused over chronology, topography and progeny. He then posits a very sensible conclusion based on weight of probability**. Unfortunately, the rather inefficient editors at Tempus have rendered what could have been a decent historical detective story into a dull and lifeless repetition of people, places, sources and quotes without parenthesis. Also, references seem to be a bit hit and miss, leading to claims of failure to confront the major sources. That may be incidental but having to hear the relative value of places in a measure I'm not sure I understand repeated ad infinitum was tiresome indeed. Rex has done some good work, but Tempus do appear to have spoiled it for all of us. As a former bookseller with an instinctive distrust of every Tempus sales representative I have ever met I am not surprised, but surely a little time could have been spent tempering Rex's lumpen prose with some careful consideration of style. 

Regardless, as I was rushing to get in some background before reading Paul Kingsnorth's eagerly awaited novel The Wake, courtesy of Unbound, this is background a-plenty. Enough certainly for the nasty perfidious pedant in me to poke holes in what is bound to be a very entertaining and challenging read.

*Of course, anyone wishing to be a Viking could do worse than follow this chap's example - I give you Techno Viking. Wait for it...

**In order to avoid spoiling said conclusion, I've added it here as a footnote, so stop reading if you wish to take a crack at the book.

Still here? Good. Essentially, daddy sends naughty teenage Hereward away for being a dick, and he winds up honing his martial abilities in Belgium of all places, home whence he comes after a bit with a Belgium strumpet in tow (who later probably ends up in a convent rather than get handed around amongst the French barons) having missed all the fun of the Norman conquest only to find his dad's lands have been chopped up and handed round to local Norman barons. So, he runs about the place with a variety of local villains (in the modern "Lahndahn" sense but including Earls and ousted Lords) chopping up Frenchies and raiding the abbey at Peterborough where his uncle was but is no more Abbott. Something here about an unlikely-named Bishop, Nigel. Anyway, retreat to Ely follows, and William The Bastard decides enough is enough and lays siege to the island-as-was whilst Hereward and chums' plans to skip to the continent are foiled by a sea-side blockade. William uses subterfuge to gain relatively unopposed access to the island and chops everyone up, except the peasantry who were just following orders, guv. Hereward escapes, fires the fens behind him and disappears, most likely abroad where he dies in obscurity. William remains King and that, so they say, is that. Many years later some oiks on the isle of Guernsey decide to "finish" the Bayeux Tapestry and sully the entire enterprise with their smug and irreverent take on history, prompting the BBC to run a somewhat incredulous news story slightly bemoaning the ubiquitous  tendency for everyone to imagine they are the bearers of all knowledge and that everyone else besides them is stupid.***

***This happened long after 2005 when the book was published, so don't expect to find anything about this in it.