Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Horror

During a recent visit to a charity shop, I discovered this paperback memoir, published in 2004:

The sensationalist title and Mail on Sunday recommendation were almost enough to put me off, but the blurb on the back was fascinating:

'When Helga Schneider was four, her mother Trudi abandoned her to pursue her career. In 1998, Helga received a letter asking her to visit Trudi, then 90 years old, before she died. Mother and daughter had only met once before, on a disastrous visit where Helga first learnt the terrible secret of her mother's past.

Trudi was an extermination guard in Auschwitz and Ravensbruck and was involved in Nazi 'medical' experiments on prisoners. She had never expressed any remorse for her actions, yet Helga still hoped that at this final meeting she would find some way to forgive her mother.'

I have read a number of books about the Holocaust, beginning with Primo Levi's If This is a Man and thought that I had become pretty unshockable. However, in this short memoir, there is more horror than some of the most harrowing concentration camp memoirs. It is not just Trudi Schneider's lack of remorse that shocks the reader, but also her undiminished hostility towards the Jews:

'Those Jewish whores had to understand where they were and why...they were always tired and difficult, and at night they whined for the children they had lost along the way...'

Today, we are familiar with the horrific photos of mass graves and emaciated prisoners standing behind barbed wire fences, but few compare to this image in its ability to convey vast, industrial scale of the camps:

Astoundingly, in the midst of this genocide, Trudi and her colleagues were having the time of their lives:

Trudi's proud recollections of her work in the camps make this a harrowing enough read, but there is one element of horror that makes this book particularly shocking, in a way that no Holocaust memoir can match:

'How long did it take for the victims of the gas chambers...' I can't go on.

'The gas took between three and fifteen minutes to have its effect,' she replies in a detached and technical tone.

'And is it true that after a certain point the exposure time was shortened?'

'Well, they had to get through 12,000 Stück a day; they'd raised the quota.'

'So it was possible that when you opened the doors of the gas chambers, there might have been some people who weren't quite dead?'

'Of course! It often happened with the children. Sometimes those little bastards were more resistant to the rat poison than the adults were,' she adds with a sarcastic chuckle.

Earlier, Trudi is asked if she ever felt sorry for the children:

'And why should I have? A Jewish child would have become a Jewish adult, and Germany had to free itself of that loathsome race. How many times do I have to repeat that?'

Holocaust memoirs take the reader to the edge of death, but they are written by survivors. Let Me Go is a harrowing but vital account of what happened to those who didn't live to tell the tell.

The charitable view of Helga Schneider's mother is that in order to maintain her sanity, she could allow no room for doubt and compassion. Before going to the camps she underwent a 'dehumanisation' process and it could be argued that Trudi was brainwashed into participating in these atrocities. However, the fact remains that Trudi Schneider was a volunteer, abandoning her young children for the greater glory of the Third Reich.

For Trudi Schneider there is no redemption and as their meeting draws to an end, Helga knows that she will never return.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The thin line between genius and madness...

Thanks to Thomas Bunstead for drawing my attention to one of the most bizarre and joyfully absurd musical ensembles of our time: the C64 Orchestra.

In short, the C64 Orchestra is a group of classically-trained musicians who perform the soundtracks from Commodore 64 computer games of the 1980s. Some of them sound quiet good when they're orchestrated and this clip sounds a little like John Adams.

The screen in the background is slightly obscured by a bald Dutchman, but you get the general idea:

Whatever next? The Nokia Ringtone Orchestra?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Age before beauty

This is the enduring image I have of Richard Yates whenever I read his novels. Most publicity shots feature Yates in his sixties, looking like a hairier, unhappier incarnation of Gore Vidal.

Thank you to the Guardian for publishing, last weekend, this photo of the young Richard Yates, when he still had something to smile about:

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Undiscovered Country

Jim Crace precedes his 1999 novel, Being Dead, with the quote from a poem by Sherwin Stephens:

Don't count on Heaven, or on Hell. You're dead. That's it. Adieu. Farewell. Eternity awaits? Oh, sure! It's Putrefaction and Manure And unrelenting Rot, Rot, Rot, As you regress, from Zoo. to Bot. I'll Grieve, of course, Departing wife, Though Grieving's never Lengthened Life Or coaxed a single extra Breath Out of a Body touched by Death.

I bought a copy of Crace's novel a couple of weeks ago and loved it. If you haven't read the book, it can be summed-up fairly succinctly: a couple in their fifties are murdered on a beach and what follows is a post-mortem of their lives and the physical processes that occur between the moment of death and the discovery of the bodies.

In the hands of a lesser writer, a description of the putrefication of the victims' bodies would be repugnant, but Crace's breathtakingly good prose finds a poignant beauty in the natural processes that occur. This is the atheist vision of death: meaningless, loveless and hopeless, but also without evil. For Crace, death is not the undiscovered country, but a process that can be chronicled with scientific precision. Crace's undiscovered country is life and memory.

However, there was one thing I found difficult about Being Dead and although I've searched extensively on Google, I haven't found a satisfactory answer. Where is the novel set? A sense of place is vital in a novel and even if the setting is a fictitious one, it is usually dovetailed into an instantly reconisable landscape. We know that Trollope's Barchester Chronicles are set in a southern English cathedral city, whilst David Lodge's University of Rummidge is clearly a thinly-disguised Birmingham. But where is Being Dead?

At first I assumed that Crace had set his novel in Britain, but I soon became aware of incongruities that was increasingly distracting as the narrative progressed. A mention of the 'local manac beans (and) green milk' was rather confusing, as were the references to drinking gleewater and Boulevard liquer. I went through a list of possible suspects: the West Indies, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and even Spain, but nothing fitted.

There was no gleewater or Boulevard liquer anywhere. Neither was there a poet called Sherwin Stephens. For some reason, Crace had decided to set this novel in a fictitious, unnamed country that contained elements of recognisable landscapes, but juxtaposed in a way that was unlike anywhere on earth. For me, that was the greatest mystery of Being Dead.

Hence the title of this posting: The Undiscovered Country. I apologise in advance to anyone who was hoping for a critique on Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

One careful owner...

Last year Chas Newkey-Burden wrote an amusing article in the Guardian called 'Why I hate second-hand books':

For me, as a literary experience, they are akin to sloppy seconds, a salad bar in a staff canteen at the end of a hot weekday, or a recently-vacated cubicle in a public toilet. Let's be clear: I don't merely have a mild preference for buying brand-new. No, I'm digestively squeamish about used books. It's all those stains, thumbprints and creases that get me so queasy. I'm far from a gentle reader and by the time I've taken in the first few chapters of any brand-new tome, it will often be creased and coffee-stained beyond recognition. But they will be my creases and my stains, and that's what matters.

I've lost count of the amount of times that I've been confronted by the dried-up bogey of the previous owner, smeared across one of the pages. Nice. Most of these mucus moments occurred while I was reading books I'd borrowed from the library.

I completely agree about the library books. I also used to wonder why so many books contained dried snot, but I was surprised that Chas Newkey-Burden didn't mention the other curse of library books: pubic hairs. I never cease to be amazed at the ability of pubic hairs to appear in the most improbable places and in the case of library books, I wonder if there are lots of naked readers.

I suppose they could be the beard hairs of sage bibliophiles, but I know a pube when I see one.

However, I think there is a big difference between library books and second-hand ones. Library books have been pawed by a variety of people. Second-hand books have usually had one careful owner. I have never discovered any unsavoury bodily products in a second-hand book, but I have been pleasantly surprised in other ways.

Yesterday I went to Tunbridge Wells and discovered the wonderful Hall's Second-hand Bookshop where I bought this book:

Later, flicking through the pages, I discovered an unusual bookmark: a 1940s London Underground ticket:

I immediately felt connected to the original reader, for whom this was contemporary fiction. The ticket was an added bonus, as was this bookmark, which I posted in the summer:

A Google search on Gay Foam yields very different results these days.

But it's not just unexpected bookmarks that make second-hand books such a joy. During the last month I have bought several books that turned out to be signed copies, including this paperback:

When I paid two quid for this at a charity shop, I had no idea that I was getting a signed copy. Thank you, Cancer Research.

Yesterday's trip to Tunbridge Wells also yielded the following results:

Ever heard of this author? I hadn't, but when I read a recommendation that compared this trilogy to Patricia Highsmith, I had to buy it.

I hadn't heard of this novel either:

I'd heard of the poem Babi Yar by Yevgeni Yevtushenko, because it was the inspiration for Shostakovich's 13th Symphony, but this was new to me. Apparently it was smuggled out of the Soviet Union.

I can understand Chas Newkey-Burden's objections to the used book. I used to be the Howard Hughes of books and would often reject brand new books if they weren't absolutely perfect. But the message is more important than the medium. I stopped being precious about my books when I had children and life became too chaotic to be anal about the condition of my possessions.

These days I'm not that bothered if a book looks as if it's been around the block a few times. What matters is the text (although I still draw the line at public hair and snot).

Ms Baroque has quite rightly taken me to task on the issue of royalties and that is something that needs to be addressed, but after enduring two years of Waterstone's bland 3 for 2 promotions, the random selection offered by second-hand and charity shops is a liberation.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The World in Winter

At last, a proper winter. Admittedly, the first photo looks more like a nuclear winter, but that's only because sub-zero temperatures are a novelty these days. I took these pictures at lunchtime today:

If I could control the weather, I would have a short, extremely cold winter, beginning in mid-December and ending in late January. The rest of the year would be warm. I want heatwaves and frost fairs. What I can't stand is the dull, grey, mild weather that seems to have replaced the seasons for much of the year.

The graveyard belongs to St Michael and All Angels' Church, Berwick. On the outside it is a pleasant, 12th century church. However, the interior is quite unlike anything else in Britain:

Before the Reformation most church walls were covered in murals and during the 1940s, Bishop Bell of Chichester sought to revive this tradition, commissioning works of art from contemporary artists like Chagall and Piper. The result was a triumph, in which masterpieces of modern art sat alongside their medieval counterparts.

Bishop Bell also commissioned members of the Bloomsbury Group to decorate the church in Berwick. During the next few years, Virginia Woolf's sister Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Quentin Bell and Angelica Bell embarked on a series of murals, paintings and decorations:

There paintings aren't great works of art, but the sum is greater than its parts and it's interesting to see a contemporary interpretation of the medieval church. If you're in the area it's well worth a visit and Charleston, the home of the Bloomsbury group, is only few miles down the road.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Unlikely Fact of the Day (No.1 in an occasional series)

In a 'Which Dad's Army character are you?' contest, I am always picked as Sergeant Wilson. That suits me fine. When I was a child I used to love Clive Dunn's infantile antics, but with maturity I came to appreciate John Le Mesurier's dry wit and resigned ennui.

I was reading about Le Mesurier earlier today and in addition to the usual anecdotes about his marriage to Hattie Jacques and his drinking sessions in the demi monde of 1960s Soho, I was also surprised to discover that he was a huge fan of Earth, Wind and Fire.

Le Mesurier's third wife, pictured above, recalls that 'he was very fond of the band and had most of their records'.

The image of an English gentleman, born in 1912, popping out to buy the latest Earth, Wind and Fire album is an endearing, if somewhat surreal one.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Children of the Stones

Whenever I find myself becoming overly sentimental about 70s children's television, I watch an episode of The Tomorrow People to remind me how bad a lot of it was. However, there were a few series that were more innovative and powerful than anything that has been made since and perhaps the best of all was Children of the Stones.

I watched all seven episodes of this short series yesterday and found it as compelling ever. The writers made few concessions to their target audience and I imagine that they were responsible for a few juvenile neuroses.

The intro sequence sums up the series. The close-up shots of the stone circle at Avebury and Sidney Sager's terrifying choral music set the scene perfectly:

And this was shown at teatime!

Monday, January 05, 2009

Ms Baroque drops by...

As a former bookseller I’ve seen far too many self-published collections of appalling poetry in cheaply-bound paper, so it was a great pleasure to read a new book by a real poet – Me and the Dead by Katy Evans-Bush, an author you may already know through her excellent blog Ms Baroque.

I’m completely out of my depth talking about poetry, but the words that instantly spring to mind when thinking about Me and the Dead are: evocative, profound, sensual, elegiac, witty and compassionate. I shall be savouring this beautifully produced Salt Publishing book for a long time to come. Here's a taster:

To My Next Lover

All weekend I kept thinking about you :

as I cleaned the kitchen, changed my bed,

lay in the bath with a book, eyed up a waiter,

tried new perfume on, I thought about you —

bought new underwear — yes, especially then,

about you, looking into the mirror

in the changing room and again at home,

running my hands over lace, undoing clasps

(but only to put on the old ones and wash the windows).

I thought about your eyes across a crowd,

hooking into mine, unclasping mine,

as you come closer, breathing my perfume ;

I thought about you while kneeling on the carpet

to reach a fork that was lying under the table ;

I thought about you when Sharon on Eastenders

got into it with her adopted brother —

smashing all the vases where they fell —

I thought aboutcha then, lover, an’ all.

Too long I’ve had no lover — just the last,

and that’s no lover to speak of. I’ve been loveless,

clasped and virtuous, dreamless, skinless, tongueless :

but now I have you, Next, a leap to the future

tense : I’m thinking about your hips, your weight,

your possibilities, your previous lovers ;

and even if it never happens, the kissing

of places beneath new lace, you’ll still have been

my next lover, now. Thanks for the weekend.

Katy Evans-Bush is currently in the middle of a virtual author tour and has kindly agreed to stop here to answer a few questions.

First of all, thanks for visiting. This is the first author event I’ve had that hasn’t involved ordering several dozen wine glasses from Oddbins, so I shall have to improvise. I’ll start with a virtual cheesy nibble...

Q – I’d like to know how you ended up moving to London...

I heard they had loads of wine at their author events! No, really. I came over for something to do, really. Imagine it: an aunt in Finsbury Park, and Kings Road there for the taking only a few years too late… I studied English Lit for a year, hooked up with a boy, and stayed.

Q – And how has this shaped your identity as a writer?

For many years it confused the hell out of me. I wasn’t in America and I wasn’t yet properly in England. Even though both countries ostensibly speak the same language, it was like being transplanted into a foreign one – but I didn’t even have my original language to myself, everything was mixed up and muddied. Slang, accents, figures of speech, frames of reference. It took me about nine years – and two babies – to sort all that out, and even then when I first began writing again it was “in American.” It was another five years before I really owned my geographical space, as it were. Now I just feel like a Londoner, but as so many people have pointed out about the book, I really do have a foot on each side of the Atlantic, and people often tell me how very New York I am... I grew up reading American poetry, of course. As well as Pound and Eliot. Oh, wait...

Q – I’ve always liked RS Thomas, but it was only when he did a reading at my university that I felt that I truly understood his writing. Do you think poems are best read aloud?


I know that goes against the orthodoxy. Well, I think some poems might be best read aloud! Maybe “James James Morrison Morrison” – the favourite poem I share with Jonny B – or even something like “Kubla Khan” – but not The Waste Land, and not Frost at Midnight. I think poems work best if read alertly to oneself in that private inner voice we all have that isn’t as crude as a real voice. A real voice locks the poem down so much; and so many poems are aso complicated, you need to be able to see them and think about them and read them slowly.

Having said that, Radio 3 recently played Anton Lesser’s reading of the entirety of Paradise Lost, an hour a day, and it was wonderful. Even though I don’t like his reading. I thought Tom Baker would have been better. And it would have been better if I’d had the book to hand.

The poet George Szirtes talks about the “intimacy” of reading aloud, the history of reading things aloud to small audiences, and the very best poetry readings can be like this. Though that is very rare. You want to feel like someone is really telling you something – like the Ancient Mariner, that they’re almost buttonholing you with it.

Q – As a bookseller I found poetry impossible to sell. Are you frustrated by the degree to which poetry is marginalised in contemporary society, or do you feel that the internet offers some hope for writers to find readers?

Well, hope is a thing with feathers. Here I am on the internet!

But yes: tremendously frustrated. I always have been, ever since I found out – though I had a sheltered childhood, and never knew till I became a bookseller myself, at the Penguin Bookshop in Covent Garden. (Ah, those heady days! Peter Mayer was head of Penguin then, touting his pile ‘em high & sell ‘em like carrots philosophy everywhere; shortly after that computerised stocktaking came in, Books Etc. ate London and the rest is history.)

Seriously, I think people are deprived of words, which is like saying they’re deprived of meaning. Many people say they like poetry, or would like it, or used to like it. But the way things are set up nowadays you practically aren’t allowed to like it. Thank God I grew up in a house full of books, in a family of people who loved words. And I have such exciting, deep, intense ideas for things I want to do, I plan to make some really beautiful poems this year, and it’s terrible to think hardly anyone will want them…

Q – This may be an impossible question, but how long would a poem like ‘To My Next Lover’ take to write?

That one took half an hour. I swear to God. I sent it to a magazine editor, Michael Mackmin at the Rialto, throwing it in as a makeweight among a load of poems I thought were really good. He took that one. And none of the others! It’s so often the case… So it wasn’t till it was published and everyone was telling me they loved it, how funny, how bittersweet, how fucking tragic to admit to watching EastEnders, that I looked at it and saw that it was okay. And it really was the best storyline they ever had! Nothing can beat the beauty of that, except maybe the time Phil framed Den Watts for murder, throwing that gun down on him through the skylight…

Sometimes writing is really fun. It feels like telling yourself jokes. That was one of the times.

Q – On your website you mention that you’re working on a novel. Can you tell me anything about it?

No. I’d have to shoot you. I said that in a moment of insanity. I said it to make myself do it.

Q – Finally, I notice that growing up in the USA you must have watched The Osmonds. Are you a little bit country or a little bit rock n’roll?

Sweetie, I’m a little bit country AND a little bit rock n- roll. And I also used to watch the Jackson Five cartoon.

Me and the Dead is published by the wonderful Salt Publishing.

I've booked this year's holiday...

I won't bring too many books.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

A Ghostly Apparition

Today I had an hour to kill before picking my wife and son up from the cinema (I couldn't face seeing Madagascar 2), so I went to St Andrew's church in Bishopstone - a tiny hamlet hidden away behind the dreary seaside town of Seaford.

At first appearance, St Andrew's is a typical Sussex church:

But a closer look reveals an ecclectic mixture of styles and materials and although the original church was founded around 1,200 years ago, the building we see today is largely Norman.

However if you look carefully you can still find parts of the original Saxon church, like this sundial, which is at least a thousand years old:

Rather than bore the arse of you with any amateur ecclesiastical history (gleaned, naturally, from my Ladybird book 'What to Look For Inside a Church'), here are some photos:

Historic buildings are usually expensive to visit and it can be hard to savour the atmosphere when you're jostling with hordes of tourists. However not only is St Andrew's free, but you can enjoy having a thousand-year-old building all to yourself.

I like to listen to the silence and imagine the generations of people who've used the church in the past, but I suppose if the mood took me I could also perform a routine from Flashdance (What a Feelin'). In fact I think that's what I'll do next time.

After a few minutes ruminating about whether a better father would have gone to see Madagascar 2, I decided to explore the graveyard:

I must remember to invest in a weather-proof gravestone.

As much as I love churches, I'm afraid that I don't believe in the supernatural. However, as I turned a corner in the graveyard, I witnessed a strange apparition emanating from a sarcophagus:

It reminded me of those strange photos of 'ectoplasm' that were supposedly caught on camera by ghost-hunters? Was I witnessing a supernatural event?

The white mist came towards me and swirled around my feet, like a Hammer Horror fog. I wasn't alarmed, but experienced that slightly unsettled feeling you have when you know that there must be a simple explanation, but can't think of one.

Then I found my answer: the outflow vent of a condenser boiler, fixed at the bottom of a wall next to the sarcophagus. Someone must have been doing some washing-up.