The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, by Jerome K. Jerome

The predecessor to the author’s Three Men in a Boat, this is a collection of Jerome’s humorous journalism from the years immediately before that book. These pieces are not laugh-out-loud funny; and indeed, such have our lives and reading tastes changed, some will find them long-winded, circumlocutory and possibly even tedious. And the world they describe, the world that Jerome moved in, is now gone. But if you are in any way appreciative of nineteenth-century London, or want to get a good idea of what occupied the middle classes in those times, this book is perfect.

Interestingly, the author’s voice in these essays was echoed in later years by P.G. Wodehouse; some of the idle musings he puts into the mouth of Bertie Wooster are straight out of the same mould as cast these gems of Jerome’s. And just when you think that there’s nothing at all substantial about any of this, you suddenly get hit between the eyes by the bitter reality of On being Hard Up, or realise that so often – mainly in On Memory, but also at intervals throughout the book, Jerome talks of people who have passed away and we realise that the rate of mortality, especially amongst children, was appallingly high compared to our own time.

But just to show that all is not doom and gloom, Montmorency the dog gets namechecked. And there is much to please throughout the volume.

My copy was the UK Snowbooks 2004 edition, a charming little volume in square hardback format with a “contemporary afterword” by a modern London dandy and flaneur.

The Blunders of our Governments, by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe

This book is a study of blunders made by UK governments in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The authors take a very specific view of what constitutes a “blunder”, so certain issues such as the banning of trade unions at GCHQ are not covered, even when such an action has been identified by many commentators, international courts and successive governments as illegal.

Instead, “blunders” are identified as bad decisions, made for the wrong reasons, that ended up costing the taxpayer serious money. In this, the authors claim not to take a partisan view. Indeed, they take an entire chapter early on to talk about the successes of various governments over the same period. Their view of what constitutes a “success”, of course, may in itself seem quite partisan. Later in the book, they talk about various causes of blundering, and identify “group-think” as one such factor. Yet they themselves fall into the same trap, especially when writing about the British political Left and some of its more extreme manifestations, their very language betrays their underlying viewpoint and their acceptance of the consensus “group think”.

They speak of the “cultural disconnect”, a more fundamental form of “group-think”, where a group of people from similar backgrounds all share the same world-view and cannot conceive that other people in quite different situations would not have the same world-view. Yet they display precisely that same behaviour. They are academics specialising in modern history and politics, working in the early years of the 21st Century. They assume, for instance, that the trade unions of the 1970s and 1980s were over-powerful and over-bearing. Yet to the members of those unions, they were merely working to advance the cause of those members over – or at least alongside – the cause of the employer. Even today, I heard a Minister on the news complaining that striking rail workers had a duty to “think of the passengers”. Their cultural disconnect prevented them from thinking as a rank-and-file trade union member who pays their subscriptions and expect the union to support their grievances. To them, the duty of the union is to think of its members, not everyone else.

Be that as it may; after the introductory chapters, the authors then describe a number of political decisions and events that turned out badly. They do not apportion blame in those chapters, but then carry on, in the third section of the book, to look at a number of causes for blunders and apply them to the examples they quoted. This structure does force me to my major stylistic criticism of the book. By looking at specific causal factors, they build into their narrative a fair amount of duplication, especially as the range of blunders they are examining is distinctly limited. To be told for the fourth or fifth time “The failure of the poll tax can be put down to…” does get a little repetitive.

Although the authors are experts in their field, there are instances where I have been able to identify areas where they were not in full possession of the facts, and indeed the odd place where I thought “Ah, if they’d seen what I saw, they’d think slightly differently”. But these were not frequent objections. After all, I was only ever peripherally involved in some of these issues, or heard about them at third hand, admittedly from someone who really was there, not just hearing it at second hand themselves. And the overall impact of these changes wouldn’t have changed the main thrust of the book, though the one instance I can think of does work a little against them. In the section where they speak of the cultural disconnect between the political class – MPs, Lords and senior civil servants – they generalise that these people are now all cut from the same cloth. Certainly, the number of MPs who now can boast serious life experience in commerce or public-facing front-line services is massively decreased from what it once was. But one of the few officials they name, Sir Terry Heiser, Permanent Secretary at the Department of the Environment at the time of the Poll Tax, is an exception to the rule; he was the last Permanent Secretary to have started his Civil Service career in the lowly role of Messenger. And they also miss the fact that some of the Ministerial portfolios people have been responsible for have meant that often, Ministers have to keep a lot of plates spinning at once. Again, looking at the DoE in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a whole tranche of issues occupying the minds of the department that would have diverted attention away from the Poll Tax. For example, from where I was sat, in the water regulator’s office Ofwat, we were mainly concerned with the industry taking a more outward-looking view towards customer service and customer expectations, whilst at the same time engaging in a massive capital investment programme and looking at the impact of EU legislation in both urban waste water, drinking water standards, and wider environmental impact legislation.

Originally, the book was published in 2013 and ended its narrative in 2010 with the replacement of Gordon Brown’s Labour administration with the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition led by David Cameron. The edition of the book that I was reading was issued a year after its original publication, and included an Epilogue covering the Coalition Government’s record up to July 2014. It is no less appalling than the story up to 2010. University tuition fees, Universal Credit, the performance of the private sector in fulfilling outsourced public sector contracts – especially the performance of G4S over providing security for the 2012 Olympics – are just a few of the blunders that the authors identify, and they finished by listing seven issues or policies that had the potential, in their eyes, to turn into future blunders. Again, they differentiate between a blunder and merely bad decisions, and give credit where it is due, for the overall success of the London Olympics and the introduction of same-sex marriages. The Epilogue was too late for the EU membership referendum of 2016, which I suspect will be put down as a major blunder in future years., irrespective of which side of that particular argument you were on. But it is way too early to reach any firm assessment as to the overall effect of ‘Brexit’. After all, Mao Zedong, leader of Communist China, was once asked what he thought the effects were of the French Revolution; and after some deliberation, he opined that it was “too soon to tell”.

At the end of the day – and the book – though, the conclusions are telling. They identify a whole slew of issues endemic in the British political system. They also graze the surface of one – the politicisation of the Civil Service under Margaret Thatcher. Although they allude to this, they do not examine it in depth. This is a fairly hefty omission. They mainly reserve most of their criticism for the political landscape of the UK, in particular the “winner takes all” view of our entire system, a system that seems intended to cause divisions and conflict. We only have to look at the EU Referendum result. Of the roughly 33 million votes cast, 17 million voted out and 16 million voted in. Yet the attitude of most of the ‘Brexiteers’ is “Ha, ha, we won, so suck it up, Remainder losers!” Our normal political processes are similar: a Government can come to power with a majority of the seats in the House of Commons but, due to their geographical and demographic make-up, that Government may not enjoy the support of the majority of voters in the country based on pure head count.

These recipes for conflict and division drive the attitude of Governments towards decisions, best summed up in the Yes Minister joke: “We must do something. This is something. Therefore we must do it.”. And perhaps this is the one big place where the authors pull their punches. It is difficult to avoid the impression that it is our entire British political system that will result in successive Governments making blunders; and that effective, efficient Government would really demand that our entire political system should be torn up and replaced with something better. The authors give us a number of portraits of instances where other countries’ legislatures and executives would have done differently. But as Churchill is reputed to have said, “Democracy is perhaps the worst possible form of Government – except for all the others.” If that be so, then possibly the sort of blunders Governments make are the price we have to pay for living where we do, with the political settlement we have. How we could ever force any change or improvement, what we would want such a Government to look like and behave, and (perhaps the one thing any radical or revolutionary never thinks about), how we get There from Here, is a whole set of other questions whose answers we might not like.

Tirol; Bahnen und Landschaften [Tyrol; railways and landscapes] by Klaus Eckert

A full-colour, large-format album of photographs, mainly of trains, in the landscape of the Austrian and Italian Tyrol. Photographs are all new to this album and are of high quality. They cover the entire period from the 1980s to the date of publication. Closed railways are not covered; neither are the Stubaitalbahn and the Mittelgebirgbahn, which although they are now integrated into Innsbruck’s tramway network, are strictly speaking narrow-gauge lines in their own right.

The text is fairly lightweight and doesn’t go into detail about the railways, their history or the history of the region; the post-WWI division of the Tyrol with the south being ceded to Italy is touched on obliquely. Photo captions veer between the highly detailed (though often not giving details that many readers would want) and the superficial. The typeface (Mixage Book Gotthard) has some odd kerning effects, especially following lower-case ‘f’s. The publisher’s logo on the front cover (top right) always makes me think it’s a self-adhesive price label.

Nonetheless, it’s an attractive book which lovers of the railways of the region will appreciate. It’s also interesting to note that the publisher is based in Bozen (Bolzano) in the Südtirol itself.

We go to the gallery, by Miriam Elia

Many readers will have come across the recent ‘Ladybird Books for Adults’, which gently lampoon the style of the original Ladybird books for children. These have titles like The Husband, The Wife, The Shed and The Hipster; they take illustrations from the original Ladybird books and marry them to ironic and slightly surreal texts aimed at amusing adult readers who remember the originals. What a jolly wheeze, many people thought, and you can find these in many of the places where baby boomers congregate, especially in the gift shops of National Trust properties, where they provide evidence that the Trust can actually do post-modernism and irony.

But many may have missed the fact that Penguin, who now own the Ladybird imprint, ‘lifted’ the concept from somewhere else. In 2015, an artist called Miriam Elia produced a spoof Ladybird book entitled We go to the gallery, created in the style of the Ladybird books, and poking fun at the often po-faced London contemporary art scene. In this book, two children are taken by their Mummy to an art gallery. “Is the art pretty?” asks one of the children, as the illustration shows them entering the exhibition space under a large, angry caption declaring the exhibition to be entitled “The Death of Meaning”. Things go downhill from there.

Penguin Books were not amused. Elia had been way too accurate with her imitation, down to publishers’ logos and the names of the child characters from the originals. Solicitors’ letters soon started flying about, and the original print run was withdrawn and pulped.

Then three things happened. Firstly, the law on copyright changed to make parodies far more legally acceptable. And the story of We go to the gallery went viral. And Penguin decided to get in on the act by releasing their own parodies of the properties they now controlled.

(See http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/22/the-flyaway-success-of-the-ladybird-art-prank)

Which has meant that We go to the gallery can now be published again, with sufficient changes to satisfy Penguin. In fact, these changes – changing the names of the children, and creating a bogus imprint for the book, ‘Dung Beetle’, complete with its own history (their 1938 guide to fascism for under-5s, Why we burn books, is widely sought after) – add to the depth of the original product.

For anyone who has a healthy disregard for contemporary art, this book is required reading, though do be aware that it is certainly not suitable for children. It is also unlikely that National Trust gift shops will be stocking it any time soon.

The Year of the Ladybird by Graham Joyce

(Note to US readers: this book was entitled The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit in America.)

Another slice of Midlands life from Graham Joyce, this book draws heavily on Graham’s own experience working as a holiday camp Redcoat in the year in question, 1976. For those unfamiliar with, or too young to remember, Britain in those days, 1976 was the year of the hottest summer in living memory, drought, a major infestation of ladybirds (ladybugs to US readers), the rise of far-right politics and the early stirrings of punk rock. All these things – well, perhaps not so much the music, but certainly some of dissatisfaction with the music scene that helped bring punk about – are thrown into the mix in this novel. The setting is a Skegness holiday camp; in the middle 1970s, the holiday camps, which were once major elements in the UK travel industry, were beginning their slow decline as mass overseas tourism began to take hold of the imagination. The market leader in this business was an entrepreneur called Billy Butlin; he is namechecked in the book, and the camp where Graham Joyce worked was one of Butlin’s, with their infamous ‘Redcoats’ (many major British entertainers started their careers as Redcoats) , although the camp in the novel is a bit more downmarket than Butlin’s. Skegness was (and still is) the preferred destination for a lot of holidaymakers from the East Midlands and south Yorkshire, and this is reflected in the voices of many of the minor characters in the novel. And being Graham Joyce, there is an element of the fantastic, in the form of a very personal ghost for the protagonist who keeps intruding on the real world.

We are pitched into the story very quickly, almost unduly quickly, without so much scene-setting as perhaps you’d find in some other of Graham’s novels; but once the protagonist, David Barwise, arrives at the camp, we are soon introduced to the other characters and the setting. Many British readers will be there already, in any case, as this is familiar territory for a lot of readers; but you don’t need to know Skegness to quickly pick up on the sense of place and the surroundings.

The plot proceeds apace, and David is quickly pitched into relationships with colleagues, a rapid finding of a facility for dealing with guests, especially children, and the continual interruption of the ghost from the past. David’s accidental involvement with far-right politics puts him in a degree of peril, which combine with the confusion of his relationships and the personal ghost to bring him to a crisis, which is precipitated by a supernatural intervention from an unlikely source.

Two things stood out for me in this book: the authentic voice of the ordinary English Midlanders and, oddly enough, the factional nature of extremist politics in the UK. (My personal experience is of extreme parties of the left rather than the right, but all political parties share the curse of factionalism, and extremist parties of all colours experience this more.) As with so many of Graham’s later novels, the sense of place is also very strong, not only with Skegness and its surroundings but also its geographical hinterland; it is not described in any detail, but there are sufficient clues given to allow any reader who knows the area, as I do, to vividly imagine the settings mentioned in the book.

There is a personal revelation which explains the ghost; it relates to a family secret. Having myself experienced a family secret and its eventual revelation, I understood that aspect of the plot and the characters’ motivations.

There are a few failures of sub-editing (one character’s car changes model in the course of a journey), and even the UK edition has a number of American usages that were not removed for the UK text when ‘ladybirds’ was retained instead of ‘ladybugs’ – “sticks of rock candy”, for example, whereas the correct colloquial English use would just be “sticks of rock”. But this is not too significant or intrusive.

I doubt that this will displace any of Graham Joyce’s other novels in my personal list of favourites, but this book has much to recommend it as a picture of a particular place and time, and an individual’s personal journey of discovery.

Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future by Frank Hampson

Eagle was launched in 1950 as a wholesome, uplifting comic for British boys, as a counter to the American comics, especially “horror comics”, then being imported. The headline strip was Dan Dare, a clean-cut British hero straight out of the popular imagination of what a World War 2 RAF flying officer would look, sound and behave like. This is a facsimile reprint of the first Dan Dare adventure, Voyage to Venus, all about the collapse of food supply on Earth and an expedition to Venus to ascertain if conditions there were suitable to allow food for Earth to be grown there. This ran for 77 weeks over the first eighteen months of the comic’s life.

Of course, we knew nothing of the true nature of Venus then, so this was an opportunity for the artist, Frank Hampson, to allow his imagination to run riot. And run riot it did, populating the planet with not only diverse and strange (but not too strange) flora and fauna, but also with three intelligent races; the Treen, the Therons and the Atlantines. Human pluck and ingenuity wins the day over the ultra-rational Treen, and the human example inspires the downtrodden Atlantines (descended from human stock taken from Earth in prehistory) and the ever-so-slightly decadent Therons to aspire to greatness.

Hampson’s style quickly evolved; early strips were fairly conventional, though the very first one shows the launch of a space rocket from the perspective of looking down back to the launch pad, an image that became much more familiar from the impressive film taken from the top of the Apollo launch towers nearly twenty years later. He soon began to find ways of breaking out of the restrictions of frame and page layout. Hampson was also quick to begin engaging in world-building; interludes from the world (usually England) of the strip were inserted and some side stories involving other characters in the strip were pointed at.

This first adventure was also written by Hampson. Whilst the art soon began to show signs of innovation, the same cannot be said of the writing. Dialogue in this first adventure is firmly located in the 1940s/50s; some of it will be almost incomprehensible to more modern readers. And the attitudes on display, whilst fairly enlightened for 1950, are certainly not in accord with modern sensibilities. yes, there is a female lead character, Professor Peabody; she only dissolves into tears once, and under circumstances where a modern male might experience the odd emotional outburst, but in 1950, men weren’t supposed to do such things. She is, however, the only woman in the Spacefleet scenes, and is usually the equal of the men (whether some of them like it or not).. Later, Digby’s aunt plays an important role in unmasking the Treen plot to invade the Earth by her correct interpretation of hidden messages in Digby’s forced propaganda message from Venus; whilst the formidable elderly aunt is something of a stock character in middle-class British fiction, the presence of a second female character with an important plot role is noteworthy. (It’s also illuminating that the false message concerns a holiday trip where the young Digby is falsely arrested as a suspect to murder through mistaken identity; again, not quite the blanket acceptance of authority figures always being in the right that might have been expected.)

Matters of race also crop up – as long as the people with different skins are green or blue. There are no Earth minorities in Spacefleet. But at least Dan’s attitude to the races of Venus is accepting, if a bit condescending in our view. Other non-British characters tend to be slightly comic stereotypes.

The one area where our modern viewpoint is definitely challenged is that of class. The Spacefleet characters are all from the RAF officer class. Dan’s batman, Digby, is the only character from the “other ranks”, and he is referred to as such. He is depicted as thoroughly working class, Northern and whilst displaying adequate quantities of British spirit, is not depicted in the mould of the public school sporting ethos of the other characters. This is perhaps the most glaring example of the change in our sensibilities.

As a character, Dan Dare has survived, in one form or another and in different publications and incarnations up to the present day. Any such character will go through evolution and development in a 65-year history. For all the quirks and pitfalls of such a character’s first appearance, in a different milieu to our own, examination of the roots of such a character is always worthwhile, if only for what it tells us about ourselves as well as about the back story of the character.

The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce

I came to this book not long after reading the same author’s The Facts of Life, and at first I thought that there might be some connection between the two stories. In The Facts of Life, one of the protagonists, fey Cassie Vine, gave away an unwanted illegitimate girl child in that book’s back story, in Coventry in about 1939-40; in this book, the protagonist is Fern Cullen, who is in her twenties in 1966 but who was adopted by Mammy Cullen, is being brought up in the ways of wise women, has no formal record of her birth (and so might be the odd year or so older than we are led to believe), and, perhaps most importantly for this hypothesis, lives in rural Leicestershire, not a million miles from Coventry.

Ultimately, we find that this hypothesis has nothing to support it, even though the evidence in the book of Fern’s origin is purely circumstantial; but the exploration of that possibility made for an interesting narrative hook.

The novel is about Fern, her relationship with her adoptive mother, Mammy Cullen, and her induction into the ways of folk medicine and its particular application to birth and conception, and sometimes the prevention of those things. But it is 1966, times are changing, and the old ways are under threat from both the march of modernisation on the one hand – the NHS, now nearly 20 years old and establishing itself as the sole arbiter of what is acceptable medicine and what is not, and with radical new technologies (ultrasound scans) on the horizon that will make the old ways seem arbitrary and old-fashioned – and the rearguard actions of the Establishment on the other in trying to perpetuate traditional feudal relationships in the face of alternative lifestyles new and old.

The setting for the book, rural eastern Leicestershire, is well depicted. It is still today a rather hilly and isolated area, and it is easy to imagine old traditions surviving in such an area. Graham Joyce looked deeply into the old ways and reflected many of them in this book. The climax of the book is a traditional football match between the villages of Hallaton and Medbourne (both of which exist); this is not football as most people will know it, but rather a more traditional form of institutionalised warfare between two village teams, fought out over a large tract of land, with little in the way of rules and with an annual toll of injuries. Similar football matches can be found on Shrove Tuesday at places such as Ashbourne in Derbyshire and Atherstone in Warwickshire. In the novel, the villagers use the football match as a pretext for taking their revenge on certain people who had been conspiring against Fern; and for me, this was where the novel, which up to that point had been a fairly static if well-drawn picture of Fern, the characters she meets and the folk rituals she carries out, came to life.

Although the time of the novel is 1966, I know from my own experience that the “Swinging Sixties” took quite some time to penetrate some of the more rural corners of England; and some of the characters and situations seem a little more reminiscent of D.H.Lawrence and the inter-war years than the late 20th century. But that is how it was. And the arrival of a hippy commune in the village does little to change that view, even as the very presence of the commune offers another challenge to to Establishment.

Ultimately, this book didn’t engage me as viscerally as The Facts of Life, but nonetheless it is a good picture of a particular time and place.

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