The Stockholm Octavo – Review

The book begins in Stockholm in the year 1791 and the octavo of the title is a form of divination by playing card through which a possible future is mapped out for a given individual by the selection of eight cards. The cards are not from a normal pack, each being a picture which will require interpretation. In this case, an octavo is provided for a civil servant, Emil Larsson, by one Mrs Sparrow, who is not Swedish but French. The author has provided illustrations of the relevant cards so that we may see them for ourselves.

Mrs Sparrow is not only French but an ardent monarchist determined that no harm shall befall Louis 16th or, for that matter, King Gustav III of Sweden. However, Gustav is intent on democratising Sweden to such an extent that a number of aristocrats feel imperilled and have begun to plot against him. There are several conspirators, but the one we meet in this book is Kristina Elizabet Louisa Uzanne, herself an aristocrat and referred to by all as The Uzanne. This lady has recently lost her husband but has now turned to power play in a big way.

The author has paid great attention to detail and not only with respect to playing cards. Fans feature in this book and, as a major part of the plot, they are also described in great detail. Likewise, what people are wearing and the surroundings they inhabit are fully realised.

None of these things, by themselves, would make this a good book if it were not for the characters, several of whom are memorable. The Uzanne will stop at nothing and sacrifice anyone to achieve her objectives, Mrs Sparrow is taken up with the theory and practice of the octavo and also with running a gambling house, and there are two other women of note, both of them young. One is Anna Maria Plomgren, whom you would not want to meet on a dark night – though the author, through her back story, gives some explanation for her cut-throat character. Then there is Johanna Bloom, who knows a thing or two about the apothecary’s art. Both of these young women are drawn into The Uzanne’s plans to their own great danger. As for the men we have Emil himself, Master Frederik Lind, and the master fan-maker Christian Nordén, who also has knowledge of octavos.

The narrative alternates between first and third person, the first person chapters being told by Emil Larsson. The book is carefully structured and many of the scenes have great dramatic impact.

The only reservation I have about this excellent novel is the machinery, of which there is a great deal: cards and what they look like, examples of octavos, descriptions of fans and their use. And each chapter is headed by a list of sources. Now it is true that when writing in the first person an author should be able to answer the question ‘how does my narrator know this?’ But when writing in the third the author knows everything and does not need to account for her knowledge to anyone.

Though it did not require so much heavy lifting as it has been given, this is a fine book by a talented writer.

 

 

 

 

The Power of Negative Thinking

It is always assumed that negative thoughts are bad for mental health and there are clearly times when they are. For example, being unable to rid the mind of a specific negative thought for days, hours or weeks is likely to be harmful. The longer it takes up residence the harder it may be, like an unwanted lodger, to show it the door. Or it might, as it were, create a well-trodden path which it refuses to abandon. A phrase like neural pathway comes to mind, though how medically accurate this is I don’t know.

As a consequence of this, there are many authors out there (life coaches, persons of faith, shrinks, gurus, swamis and the like) who advocate positive thinking and extol methods by which this may be encouraged. I note that these books are often categorized as to whether they are aimed at men or women and suspect (I’m too indolent to count) that more are aimed at women than men. Why might that be? As a rule, women give more thought to such things, and those of them who live with men will sometimes have a stronger incentive.

Meanwhile, here are a couple of positive thoughts to help us through this vale of tears. Firstly, Abraham Lincoln:

“Whatever you are, be a good one.”  

Nice one, Abraham. So how would a rapist, swindler or a Vladimir Putin live up to that? It doesn’t bear thinking about. Moving quickly on to Tupac:

“Reality is wrong, dreams are for real.”

If reality is wrong and dreams are real, then dreams are wrong, right Tupac?

It would not only be possible but easy to expose many such statements of the positive to a negative critique, but we would not want to remove their crutches from people who really need them to get along. What would be the point?

But it seems that ridding the brain of negative thoughts is to be encouraged. Take Eliminate Negative Thinking by Derek Howell, for example, a book which specifically targets negative thoughts. An obvious question arises. How effective are such books for those who read them? I don’t believe that social scientists have applied themselves to answering this question, and it would a very difficult task to attempt, but a certain person I know well has an impressive library of self-help books yet has confined himself/herself to the bedroom for the last several years. I already hear the reply, Ah, yes, but I’d even worse off without them. And there is no way to test this, so life goes on.

Yet we should at least ask whether all negative thoughts are bad. Veronika sits in the graveyard thinking I am totally worthless because her friends have dropped her from seventeen social media platforms. It is theoretically possible that she is totally worthless but highly unlikely. Snap out of it, Veronica! Meanwhile her sister, Verity, interrogating her newsfeed on the subject of Ukraine, comes to the view that there is no level of base behaviour to which some will not sink. Since there is ample evidence of this over thousands of years, Verity is entitled to subscribe to this negative view on the grounds that negative though it may be it is also realistic.

A phrase that struck me many moons ago was penned by Thucydides – Human nature being what it is. Say no more, mate, we get the message.

Though given to negative thoughts, I tend to keep them to myself. However realistic they may be, they don’t go down well. And that’s OK, I can live with that. The fact that I can also die with that is neither here nor there.

She’s Standing Outside

Kate is a TV reporter who confirms that she is standing outside Windsor Castle. And it’s true. Yes, we can see that, but what we can’t see is why she’s doing it. Is the castle about to make a Major Statement? Unlikely. Will a member of the royal family pop out to offer privileged insights into the current state of play regarding Harry and Meghan, Queen Camilla, or that revered scion of the royal establishment, Andrew Albert Christian Edward? Just as unlikely.

We frequently find reporters outside buildings including, Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing Street, New Scotland Yard, the Ministry of Defence and Stormont Castle, where the Legislative Assembly is seldom to be found in session these days. What lies behind this behaviour?

Well, it wouldn’t happen in radio, but I assume this habit is to show television viewers that the reporters of Sky, the BBC and so on, are always on the spot – the spot being where the action is or, more frequently, where it is not. So forget about the wasted time and effort and admire the visual credentials of the broadcast media.

However, as misreported by those same media, Downing Street, unlike Windsor Castle, actually does make statements. This is a way of avoiding the attribution of the statements in question to actual people and saving them having to defend them. It’s gone on for so many years now that most of us take it for granted, According to Downing Street . . . But it’s an evasion. I have examined several pictures of 10 Downing Street and there is no sign of a mouth on any of them.

There is one major exception where standing outside makes sense. Reporters often gather outside courts of law where a judgement is expected. This is especially true in contentious cases where litigants and lawyers will spill outside onto the pavement after the conclusion of a trial to read  prepared statements and sometimes answer questions. Despite the verdict of the court, Captain Sparrow stoutly asseverates his innocence of the charges and intends to lodge an appeal at the earliest opportunity. We’ve never Heard the like.

The saying a picture is worth a thousand words is as popular as it is untrue. Leaving aside the fact that that it has never been easier to doctor visual images than it is now, engaging in a discussion involving concepts can be accomplished elegantly with words – not so easily with oil on canvas. Take death. An artist or photographer can show us one or more dead bodies, the result of death. But what of death itself, death as a concept? To take but one example, how do we define death when it comes to deciding when to switch off the ventilator? To deal with such questions only words will do.

I could easily have sprinkled throughout this post images of Windsor Castle, 10 Down Street and New Scotland Yard, not to mention mugshots of Prince Edward (is that really his hand?) and Johnny Depp. but since they would have added nothing at all to the meaning, chose not to do so.

Despite the fact that they are often subverted by politicians and cheating partners, words remain the best medium of communication we have. But I would say that, wouldn’t I.

mybook.to/InterleavedLives

 

Setting the Scene in Fiction

Is it important to be accurate when setting a scene? Opinions will vary. Writers of fantasy, sci-fi and the like cannot be expected to be accurate, though they should be consistent. If the planet Zog has five moons in chapter one, it should still have five in chapter 9 – unless, of course, four have been vapourised by the evil Kung Fu Manchu – last seen signing off at the end of the eighth reel with the dread words I shall return.

But if you’re writing in a more realistic genre, then a different approach would be more appropriate. A crime novel set in Seattle should accurately reflect that city, likewise a literary novel involving Vienna (and I am not referring here to Rigsby’s cat) should portray that city with an accuracy which reflects the time in which the events are set. The Vienna of Mozart was very different from that of Robert Musil.

I can’t deny being a bit inflexible when it comes to this aspect of the writer’s craft. I have published four novels. Three of them are set in my town of Edinburgh. But the third, The Ears of a Cat, is set in various places including Berlin, Los Angeles and Charmouth, a town in Dorset in the south of England. And while I’ve been to Charmouth, a favoured location for fossil hunters (and I myself am now more of a fossil than a hunter}, I have never set foot in Berlin or Los Angeles.

In the past, I might have gone to the library and taken copious notes from travel guides. But now, thanks to the web, I can visit these places with such immediacy that I can travel down streets, check out the buildings, and supplement what I see on Google Maps by referring to photographs taken at the various locations by helpful travellers who have actually been there.

But for my most recent paperback, Interleaved Lives, I have reverted to my usual practice of visiting locations and documenting them with photographs – for reference only and not for inclusion in the book. And I have done this even though I know most of them well.

This is the house where our hero, Douglas Hunter occupies the upper floor.

And here is the back garden of his house, where a workman investigating a blocked drain makes a troublesome discovery.

Next to Hunter’s house is the disused church where significant action takes place.

And here is a grille which gets an honourable mention.

While casing the joint, Hunter notices new pipework strangely at odds with the rest of the building, with its noticeable outbreaks of moss.

And here is the side door through which Hunter and co enter the church.

Some might say What does it matter: if the story is fiction why not the settings too? I’m not sure why, but to me a degree of accuracy matters.Which is why the pictures shown here are only a selection from a much larger group.

mybook.to/InterleavedLives

Decisions, decisions – First or Third

Authors are often advised to plan novels in a sequence, and if they manage that the books are then sub-titled after the main character, often a police officer: Inspector Bates #1, Inspector Bates #2, and so on. And this is good advice if you can take it.

My forthcoming paperback, Interleaved Lives, features Douglas Hunter, once a police officer, now a private detective.  The book is a first-person narrative, Douglas Hunter narrating. But when I began a sequel I found this a problem. If a character is telling the story one question always needs a clear answer – when describing events where he or she was not present, how does the narrator know what happened? The answer does not always need to be spelled out, as long as the author knows what it is and the reader can figure it out if he/she is so inclined.

Finding there were too many occasions when I couldn’t answer this question satisfactorily, I rewrote Interleaved Lives in the third person and began the sequel a second time. But I didn’t care for the result, abandoned the draft and reverted to the first-person version of the original. One reason for this was that I find writing in the first person more relaxing. Speaking rather than writing.

So rewriting the book in the third person was a waste of time and effort, but I consoled myself with the thought that Count Tolstoy began a novel on Peter 1 thirty-three times before giving up on the idea. (I am indebted to Elizabeth for this information, gleaned from her excellent blog https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/).

More recently, Patricia Cornwell has written some books in her Kay Scarpetta series in the first person and others in the third. But she is licensed to fly a helicopter and is high profile enough to get away with it. And there is also the case of John Irving who, on the advice of his wife, translated his novel Until I find You, from the first to the third. Given the great length of this book, a mammoth task.

However, as far as continuity goes, I can claim to have a fall-back position. A main character in Interleaved Lives, DS Maureen MacNeil, appears in a previous book, Time to Talk, as does Douglas Hunter, though in a more minor role. So perhaps I can claim that the present title is itself a sequel. Sneaky, right?

Published by Eventispress, this title is now live:

mybook.to/InterleavedLives

Coincidence in Fiction

At the moment I’m reading The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne; I’m just over halfway through it. Early on I was struck by a coincidence. The narrator, Cyril Avery, ends up sharing a room at a boarding school with Julian, a boy whom he had last seen when he was seven years of age seven years before. How likely is that?

I read on and encountered another coincidence more striking than the first. Having relocated as an adult to Amsterdam, Cyril has taken to visiting a pub run by a certain Jack Smoot. Jack’s life had been saved by Cyril’s biological mother when he and his lover, Sean, were attacked in Dublin by Sean’s father in a drunken, homophobic rage. Despite being heavily pregnant with Cyril at the time, his mother had tried valiantly to save them. Sean died of his injuries but Smoot, though badly injured, survived.

As coincidences go, this one is major. It also incorporates dramatic irony, since the reader is aware of how major this coincidence is, but Cyril is not. Cyril has yet to meet his mother and has no idea who she is.

I am uneasy about this, but the author could always reply, Coincidences occur in life, as they do, or Look here, Rod, it may be highly unlikely but it’s possible. Which, of course, it is. Does it work? I feel manipulated by it, but others may not. To misquote Wallace Stevens, I am of two minds, like a tree in which there are two blackbirds.

Does anyone out there have a view on this?

Fear of Failure

The word ‘mind-games’ is often taken to mean attempts by one person to influence another. It is well known in sporting circles where Coach A will falsely claim that his opponents in the forthcoming match are the favourites when everyone knows fine well that they are not. By this transparent stratagem, he aims to pile the pressure of expectation on Coach B and his team. But the games am I stealing up on here are those played by the mind against itself. I will start with a small, insignificant example and end with devastation.

My wife and I are partial to coffee and keep the necessary ingredients in a cupboard which contains the usual coffee, percolators and mugs. But notice also the clock on the wall.

So, to access these essentials of our addiction, I open the cupboard door.

No surprise there. But guess what? When I open this door, I obscure the clock on the wall.

At which point, having just obscured it, I am overcome with a desire to look at it and find out what the time is – and this from a man who never wears a watch. Which strikes me as strange. As an example of the mind at work against itself it is clearly a small one. After all, it’s easily solved. All I need to do is move the clock or train myself to check it before opening the cupboard door.

But I have seen the mind in conflict with itself at a much more serious level. The person in question has crippled herself for decades and, unfortunately, over a period of years, a crippling of the mind has led to a crippling of the body. Although there was nothing wrong with her legs to begin with, now she can no longer walk, partly because of muscle wastage but mainly because her knees are locked. And she has done this to herself.

I am not a shrink, but as far as I can tell the underlying process goes as follows.

  • I do not want to fail.
  • If I never attempt anything then I will never fail.

And this is obviously true. You could say she has failed at nothing because she has taken the precaution of attempting nothing. Unfortunately, the corollary of this principle is also true – if we never attempt anything then we never succeed either.

So where has this led? Since she never leaves her bedroom, let alone her house, she has succeeded in making herself entirely dependent on others. And this despite an impressive array of self-help books. What will her future hold? I have no idea, but know that I won’t be here to see it.

I could document this sad state of affairs with photographs but for obvious reasons have chosen not to do so.

The Thursday Murder Club

This is the title of a book by Richard Osman. For those of you who might not know, Osman is a TV Personality, appearing in UK game shows such as Pointless.

Here is the publisher’s description of the book.

In a peaceful retirement village, four unlikely friends meet weekly in the Jigsaw Room to discuss unsolved crimes; together they call themselves the Thursday Murder Club.

When a local developer is found dead with a mysterious photograph left next to the body, the Thursday Murder Club suddenly find themselves in the middle of their first live case.

As the bodies begin to pile up, can our unorthodox but brilliant gang catch the killer, before it’s too late?

This post is a review, but only up to a point since I have another angle here. The book has already sold in large numbers, so my comments will not affect its success in any way. Be that as it may, having read about a third of it I put it aside for several weeks. I found the crime elements over-complicated and uninvolving – I didn’t really care who had murdered whom or whether our four golden oldies would figure it out in the end. But where it scored was in its portrayal of the retired individuals who were trying to make sense of it all. We are given them in the third person, save only for Joyce, a retired nurse who keeps a diary from the pages of which she addresses us directly as if engaging us in conversation. For me, the real centre of interest lies in the characters rather than the plot, which is surely preferably to an ingenious plot carried forward by cardboard characters.

Osman is to be congratulated on noticing, before reaching an age where he can experience it for himself, that older people still have emotions. Some authors have achieved this in the past, Ring Lardner for example. Remember him, I hope so? But Osman does it very well. Another area where he excels is reading the signs of the times. Not all old people could afford to live in Coopers Chase, a retirement complex specifically intended for the relatively well-to-do. But in conveying the details of this complex and its residents, the narrative can become a bit too whimsical for my taste, though an excellent source for social scientists.

The development is situated in the grounds of an old convent, which leads to one of the murders.

The old convent dominates Coopers Chase, with three modern residential developments spiralling out from this central point. For over a hundred years the convent was a hushed building, filled with the dry bustle of habits and the quiet certainty of prayers offered and answered. Tapping along its dark corridors you would have found some women comfortable in their serenity, some women frightened of a speeding world, some women hiding, some women proving a vague, long-forgotten point and some women taking joy in serving a higher purpose.

And because of this, the ground contains a graveyard where departed sisters have been laid to rest.

And then one day you would take the short trip up the hill, through the tunnel of trees, to the Garden of Eternal Rest – the iron gates and low stone walls of the Garden looking over the convent and the endless beauty of the Kentish High Weald beyond, your body in another single bed, under a simple stone, alongside the Sister Margarets and Sister Marys of the generations before you. If you had once had dreams they could now play over the green hills, and if you had secrets then they were kept safe inside.

As might be expected, the developer wants to ‘develop’ the entire site, graveyard included. This raises certain questions, from the simple – do we really want to dig up dead nuns for housing? – to heavy theological questions relating to the resurrection of the flesh which, not wishing to fry what’s left of my brain, I will neatly side-step. But be it noted, the developer who intends this desecration is duly bumped off before he can bring it about.

The reason I find this storyline so interesting is that my wife and I, in real life, live in the grounds of an old convent. The order in question has gone under various related names but I will refer to them as the Poor Clares. I still remember the days when they sold eggs at the convent gate.

Since the sisters who lived here suffered the same fate as those in the book, our site also contains a graveyard.

But as in the book, the developer wanted to build on this ground too, and was supported by the arch-diocese, which proposed to go along with this plan, presumably to further swell their coffers. This caused outrage at the time. Fortunately, the City Council took legal action to protect the departed sisters both from the developer and their dubious co-religionists.

Little note. In reading up about the Poor Clares I constanly found their places of residence referred to as monasteries, which I had thought were inhabited by monks rather than nuns. But since everyone round here has used the word ‘convent’ for decades I am sticking with what I am accustomed to. And, as Mrs Slocombe used to say, I am unanimous in that.

Everyone Loves a Bear

There will be exceptions, no doubt, but ever since Theodore Roosevelt lent his name to the Teddy Bear they have been popular. Disney helped too, many decades ago, with footage of bear cubs falling out of trees for the amusement of the cinema-going public.

The bear below was owned by a notable soldier, Kermit, son of Theodore, and now lives on a restricted diet at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. He looks a bit morose to me, as Kermit himself sometimes did. (He committed suicide in Alaska.)

And bears have been popular ever since, most notably with excellent peedie folk like this.

However, the bear I have in mind here, the real subject, was Wojtek, who led a remarkable life. During World War II, he accompanied Polish soldiers to several theatres of war and ferried munitions during the Battle of Monte Casino without, we are told, ever dropping any.

When the Polish soldiers who had adopted him sailed from Egypt to fight with the British 8th Army in the Italian campaign they had to cut through the inevitable red tape to get him aboard a transport ship. To solve this problem he was officially drafted into the Polish Army as a private and was listed among the soldiers of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps. He was later promoted to corporal.

When the war ended, Wojtek the bear was stationed with his unit in the village of Hutton, near Duns, As you would expect, he was very popular, and in November 1947 he was entrusted to Edinburgh Zoo, where he spent the rest of his days and was often visited by former Polish soldiers. As a serving soldier he had ‘enjoyed’ the occasional cigarette. But now they had to be thrown to him over the fence. It seems they were still gratefully received, but because there was no one in his enclosure to light them for him he ate them instead. Wojtek died in December 1963, at the age of 22.

On September 16, 2013 the City of Edinburgh Council approved a bronze statue of Wojtek to stand in Princes Street Gardens. The statue represents Wojtek and a Polish Army Soldier walking in peace and unity.

A four metre long relief represents his journey from Egypt to Scotland with the Polish Army.

And here he is with one of his army friends.

So thanks to Wojtek the Bear we now have an image of a Polish soldier in the centre of the City of Edinburgh. This is just as well because, sad to say, when a victory parade took place in London after the war Polish forces were shamefully excluded following pressure from these nice people in the Soviet Union.