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One From the Archive: ‘The Road Beneath My Feet’ by Frank Turner ***

First published in March 2015

I’m not going to lie. When the postman delivered a review copy of Frank Turner’s The Road Beneath My Feet to me two weeks before its publication date, I was rather excited (to the point of almost squealing). I have been a fan of Turner’s music for a good few years now, and have seen him live close to a dozen times. I was also at the sellout Wembley gig which he charts as the pinnacle of his career to date. I have always thought that Turner – and Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes fame – would write excellent books. Yes – it is fair to say that my excitement over this book was tangible.

9781472222039The Road Beneath My Feet presents, says its blurb, ‘a searingly honest and brilliantly written account of Frank Turner’s journey from the pub circuit to selling out Wembley Arena’. The premise of the book poses instant appeal for all Turner fans (of which there are many): ‘Told through his tour reminiscences this is the blisteringly honest story of Frank’s career from drug-fuelled house parties and the grimy club scene to filling out arenas, fans roaring every word back at him. But more than that, it is an intimate account of what it’s like to spend your life constantly on the road, sleeping on floors, invariably jet lagged, all for the love of playing live music’.

After Frank Turner’s last gig as frontman with his hardcore band Million Dead in 2005, he returned to his Hampshire hometown, ‘jaded and hungover’, with no plans for the future. All he knew is that he wanted to continue to play music. Rather aptly, the book begins with this juncture in his career: ‘It was the defining experience of my late adolescence, my early twenties – it was my formative musical experience. But we were also just another jobbing underground hardcore band that made some small ripples and fell apart’.

In his Introduction/Disclaimer, Turner muses about his reasoning for publishing his biography, something which he largely attributes to his admiration of Black Flag’s Henry Rollins: ‘You hold in your hands a book, a book that I wrote, all by myself… One reason I was not expecting this book to exist is that I’m not generally much keen on autobiography as a genre. There are, of course, notable exceptions to this – Ben Franklin for example, or Churchill’s – but I feel like you either need to have won a war or be knocking on death’s door to justify the exercise… It was also suggested that the book need not be an autobiography in the strict sense, starting with birth and ending in the nursing home; it could be a specific set of recollections about a certain period of time’. Each of Turner’s recollections is split into a particular numbered show, of which he has kept a record since he started performing. This record has actually been included at the end of the book, which is a lovely touch.

In some ways, Turner comes across as rather a humbled man: ‘I’m aware, painfully so, that I’m incredibly fortunate to do what I do for a living; I’m also not under the impression that it’s death-shakingly significant, in the grand scheme of things. Hopefully I don’t come off as overly self-pitying or self-important’.

As with his lyrics, Turner’s prose writing is intelligent, and one gets the impression that a lot of thought has been put into many of his sentences: ‘Like most youthful, Arcadian ideals, the bald facts of the denouement are mundane rather than monumental’. In places, the book is rather amusing and filled with Turner’s dry humour: ‘There’s a bleak, failed romanticism to the idea Valentine’s Day alone in Ipswich’, for example. He also recounts amusing episodes; in Russia, for instance, after a few too many drinks, the following happens: ‘On hearing that I had been left alone by my compadre, I jumped to my feet, rushed into the club, leaped up on to the bar and shouted “Communist bastards! I’ll fight you all!” while rather pathetically waving a plastic cup’. The characters whom he meets along the way have been vividly evoked; Karlis, for example, ‘a formidable, hulking Latvian’ whose ‘favourite king was Charles I and [who] liked trampolining very much, but, alarmingly, was minded to shoot gypsies with his “double-barrelled shooting gun”.’

In The Road Beneath My Feet, one can see quite clearly how Turner’s style, both musically and as a performer, has evolved over time: ‘I felt like I was pretty much done with (post-) hardcore as a style… After years of self-conscious musical awkwardness and trying to be dark and angular all the time, hearing simple chords and simple words was immensely refreshing and I felt like the music told me deeper truths… I’m always more interested in music when it breaks out of the mould and becomes a dialogue, an interaction, rather than just a lecture from “artist” to “punter”‘. The positives as well as the negatives have been considered throughout, from habitual drug use and sleeping on uncomfortable sofas, to barely scraping together enough money to eat each night. Turner relates his experiences to the songs which they influenced: ‘It’s reasonably fair to say that Sleep is For the Week is, in some senses, an album about doing too much cocaine’.

There is a slightly repetitive air to the whole, but that is to be expected due to the nature of the book. The format which has been used works well, and in consequence, The Road Beneath My Feet is eminently readable. There is a ‘woe-is-me’ air which pervades at times, but again, one can easily believe that this goes with the territory. Sadly, parts of the book do feel like something of a plugging exercise in places, but overall, it is a well written and well-developed account of how to make it the hard way in the music industry, and it is sure to captivate and satisfy his fans.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ by Rumer Godden ****

Rumer Godden’s The Lady and The Unicorn, which was first published in 1937, is the 630th entry upon the Virago Modern Classics list. As with The River and The Villa Fiorita, both republished by Virago at the same time, The Lady and The Unicorn includes a well-crafted and rather fascinating introduction penned by Anita Desai.

9781844088478After setting out the author’s childhood, lived largely in India, Desai goes on to write about the influences which drove Godden to write over sixty acclaimed works of fiction, for both children and adults. Desai states that Godden ‘cannot be said to have been ignorant, or unmindful, of her society and its role in India. In no other book is this made as clear’ as it is in this one, a novel written ‘in the early, unhappy days of her first marriage’. Desai then goes on to write that ‘the contact with her students [at the dance school which Godden opened in Calcutta], their families and her staff taught her a great deal about the unhappy situation of a community looked down upon both by the English and by Indians as “half-castes”‘. The Lady and The Unicorn faced controversy upon its publication, with many English reviewers believing her ‘unfairly critical of English society’, and others viewing ‘her depiction of Eurasians’ as cruel. Her publisher, Peter Davies, however, deemed the novel ‘a little masterpiece’.

The Lemarchant family are Godden’s focus here; ‘neither Indian nor English, they are accepted by no-one’. They live in the small annex of a fading ‘memory-haunted’ mansion in Calcutta. The widowed father of the family is helped only by ‘auntie’ and a servant of sorts named Boy, an arrangement which causes misery for all: ‘There were so many ways that father did not care to earn money that the girls had to be taken at school for charity and the rent was always owing… No matter how badly he [father] behaved they [auntie and Boy] treated him as the honourable head of the house, and auntie complained that the children did not respect him as they ought’. The way in which the family unit is perceived within the community is negative, and often veers upon the harsh: ‘The Lemarchants are not a nice family at all, they cannot even pay their rent’ is the idea which prevails.

The three daughters of the Lemarchant family could not be more different; twins Belle and Rosa are often at odds with one another, and the youngest, Blanche, is treated no better than an outcast. Blanche is described as ‘the family shame, for she was dark. Suddenly, after Belle and Rosa, had come this other baby like a little crow after twin doves. Auntie said she was like their mother, and they hated to think of their mother who was dead and had been dark like Blanche. Belle could not bear her, and even Rosa was ashamed to be her sister’. Of the twins, Godden writes that Rosa, constantly overshadowed by her twin sister, ‘could never be quite truthful, she had always to distort, to embroider, to exaggerate, and if she were frightened, she lied’. The family in its entirety ‘were sure that Belle was not good, and yet at home she gave hardly any trouble; it was just that she was quite implacable, quite determined and almost fearless… Belle did exactly as she chose. When she was crossed she was more than unkind, she was shocking’. The divisions within the family therefore echo those which prevail in society.

The sense of place is deftly built, particularly with regard to the house in which the Lemarchants live: ‘There was not a corner of the house that Blanche did not know and cherish, all of them loved it as if it were their own; that was peculiar to the Lemarchants, for the house did not like its tenants, it seemed to have some strange resentment’. Of their surroundings, of which the girls know no different, Belle sneers the following, exemplifying her discontent: ‘We know a handful of people in Calcutta and most of them are nobodies too. What is Calcutta? It is not the world’. There is not much by way of plot here, really, but the whole has been beautifully written, and the non-newsworthy aspects of the girls’ lives have been set out with such feeling and emotion.

The Lady and The Unicorn is a captivating novel, which captures adolescence, and the many problems which it throws up, beautifully. Part love story and part coming-of-age novel, Godden is shrewd throughout at showing how powerful society can be, and how those within it often rally together to shun those ‘outsiders’ who have made it their home.

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One From the Archive: ‘Frost Hollow Hall’ by Emma Carroll ****

This lovely novel would have completely passed me by had it not been for Fleur Fisher’s marvellous review.  Emma Carroll’s debut, Frost Hollow Hall, begins in the winter of 1881, in a small village named Frostcombe.  The novel was inspired by a ‘winter’s day from Emma’s childhood’, and the vividness of the setting is built up from the very first page.

‘Frost Hollow Hall’ by Emma Carroll

Frost Hollow Hall begins with an article in the Combe Vale Chronicle dating from February 1871.  It describes the way in which Viscount Barrington, the owner of the Frost Hollow Hall estate, loses his only son, Christopher, known throughout as Kit, who ‘died tragically yesterday afternoon whilst skating alone on a frozen lake in the grounds’.

The main thread of the novel begins in the first chapter, when our young narrator, Tilly Higgins, is introduced.  Her voice immediately sets out her character: ‘I was proper fed up with waiting.  I’d been on look-out now for two whole hours and there was still no sign of Pa’.  He is due home from ‘a stint on the railways’, bringing with him much needed money to pay the family’s rent.  Tilly makes it clear that they are poor: ‘We didn’t even own enough chairs for us all to sit down at the same time’, and so when her father fails to turn up, she begins to worry.

That same morning, Tilly is dared to go ice skating on the lake at Frost Hollow Hall, a fair walk from her home, by a boy named Will Potter.  ‘No one went near Frost Hollow Hall’, she tells us, ‘not since that boy died there in the lake’.  Whilst she is on the lake, she heeds no warning from Will to steer clear of the thinner ice, and finds herself underwater: ‘Slowly, gently, the lake closed over my head and all went quiet but for the blood pounding in my ears.  I went down and down into blackness’.  Whilst she is underwater, she sees ‘the most perfect creature…  My very own angel, beautiful and full of light’ moving toward her.  She believes that this vision is responsible for saving her life, and quickly attributes the vision to that of Kit.

At the start of the novel, Tilly works as a ‘pupil-helper’ at her local school, ‘cleaning slates and carrying coal and showing the young ones how to read’.  As soon as she becomes fascinated with Kit and how he came to drown, however, she takes up a place as a housemaid at Frost Hollow Hall so that she is able to find out more about him.  She believes that she can help him, and bravely tries to do so.

Tilly’s narrative voice is childishly amusing at times.  She thinks that Will Potter is ‘an irksome wretch’ and ‘a daft lummox’, and she is always ready to offer opinions on everything which she encounters.  Carroll has written Frost Hollow Hall wonderfully, and her story is very well imagined.  Lots of mysteries are tied in throughout, and there is not a single page which does not vividly capture the imagination.  The novel is intriguing and well paced throughout.  Carroll has captured the voice of her young narrator, and has made it marvellously consistent.  The sense of time and place are well established, as is the Higgins’ family dynamic and the relationships between the characters.

Frost Hollow Hall is really creepy at times, and is sure to chill a child to the bone whilst leaving them longing to know what happens next.  It is a novel which I will highly recommend to all.

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One From the Archive: ‘Nancy and Plum’ by Betty Macdonald ****

Betty MacDonald’s Nancy and Plum has been republished as part of the Vintage Children’s Classics series, which features such titles as Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  The novel includes an afterword by former children’s laureate Jacqueline Wilson, who says that it is her favourite work for younger readers, and charming new illustrations by Catharina Baltas. 9780099583356

Nancy and Plum, which was first published in 1952, begins on Christmas Eve.  MacDonald sets the scene immediately: ‘Big snowflakes fluttered slowly through the air like white feathers and made all of Heavenly Valley smoth and white and quiet and beautiful.  Tall fir trees stood up to their knees in the snow and their outstretched hands were heaped with it.’ The book’s young protagonists are ‘locked up in rotten Mrs Monday’s house, while all the other children have gone home’

Mrs Monday owns the ‘big brick Boarding Home for Children’, in which sisters Nancy and Pamela Remson – the latter who goes by the nickname of Plum – have been placed.  The girls’ parents were killed in a train crash when they were only small, and their guardian, bachelor Uncle John, had no idea what to do with children.  MacDonald exemplifies the differences between the sisters immediately; Nancy is filled with a ‘dreamy gentleness’, and Plum is daring, with a ‘quick humor’.  Her young protagonists have been built so well that they seem to come to life, and one is soon immersed within their tale.  Each child who meets Nancy and Plum is sure to fall in love with them.

The extra material in Vintage’s reprint is thoughtful, and makes a lovely addition to the story.  It includes a biography of American author Betty MacDonald, a quiz, a recipe for Nancy’s dream meal, a glossary of words which may be unfamiliar to younger readers, and a recommended reading list with which to follow the book.  Nancy and Plum is a heartwarming and entertaining novel, which is sure to delight children and parents alike.  It is the perfect choice for a cosy festive read.

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The 1968 Club: ‘The Iron Man’ by Ted Hughes *****

I was hoping to be able to read and review something new for the wonderful 1968 reading club, hosted by Simon and Kaggsy, but my best intentions have been swallowed up in thesis writing.  I therefore thought that rather than miss out on contributing entirely, I would schedule a review for one of my favourite books, Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man, which just so happens to have been published in 1968.

indexThe Iron Man tells the story of a ‘man’ made entirely of metal, thought at first to be an enemy of the people.  He is found by a group of local villagers whilst snacking on their farm equipment, and they decide that the best thing to do in such circumstances is to build an enormous pit and lure the Iron Man inside.  This they do.  What they don’t factor into the equation is that the Iron Man is able to escape.  This he does.  A friendship with a young boy named Hogarth ensues, and to prove his worth to the sceptical adults, the Iron Man is tasked with saving the earth from an evil space creature.

This sounds very sci-fi, I know, and my wariness of choosing this as my first Hughes book to read was based purely upon the fact that I don’t overly enjoy science fiction as a genre.  All of my apprehension about it dissipated on the first page however, and I found The Iron Man to be an incredibly enjoyable little novel.  The story is one of the most inventive which I’ve come across in a long while, and I loved the way in which Hughes crafted his tale.  Despite the other-worldly beings, the writing style and descriptions throughout made it appear almost believable.

As a character, I adored the Iron Man.  He was wonderfully invented, and the passage about how his destroyed body rebuilt itself was so beautiful and startling that I read it numerous times.  Hughes’ imagination is a marvellous one, and Andrew Davidson’s monochrome illustrations which accompany the volume are beautiful.  The prose throughout is enchanting and vivid, and is certainly no less fascinating to read as an adult than I imagine it would have been to read as a child.

As a youngster, in fact, I would have been both terrified and utterly enchanted by the brilliant and memorable story and its characters.  There is nothing at all in the novel which I feel could be improved, and it has become a firm favourite of mine.

I feel that I should end on the wonderfully heartwarming message of the book:

“You are who you choose to be.”

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One From the Archive: ‘The Brothers’ by Asko Sahlberg **** (One From the Archive)

The Brothers is an early Peirene publication, and one I had not been able to find a copy of.  It really took my fancy, particularly since I will happily read anything set within the bounds of Scandinavia.  This particular novella takes the Finland of 1809 as its setting, and has been translated from its original Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah.  The blurb hails it ‘a Shakespearean drama from icy Finland’, and it has been written by an author who is quite the celebrity in his native land. 9780956284068

The brothers of the book’s title are Henrik and Erik, who fought on opposing sides in the war between Sweden and Russia.  To borrow a portion of the blurb, ‘with peace declared, they both return to their snowed-in farm.  But who is the master?  Sexual tensions, old grudges, family secrets: all come to a head in this dark and gripping saga’.  Its attention-grabbing beginning immediately sets the scene, and demonstrates the chasm of difference between our protagonists: ‘I have barely caught the crunch of snow and I know who is coming.  Henrik treads heavily and unhurriedly, as is his wont, grinding his feet into the earth.  The brothers are so different.  Erik walks fast, with light steps; he is always in a hurry, here then gone’.  Later, of Henrik, Erik tells Anna: ‘… he said that we came into this world in the wrong order.  That he’s not comfortable here and doesn’t want to remain here, that he wants to see the world’.

Multiple narrators lead us through the whole.  We are treated to the distinctive voices of the farmhand, Anna, Henrik, Erik, and their mother, the Old Mistress.  This technique makes The Brothers feel like a multi-layered work from the very beginning.  Their voices are distinctive, and the farmhand especially – contrary perhaps to expectations – is sometimes rather profound: ‘A human being never sheds his past.  He drags it around like an old overcoat and you know him by this coat, by the way it looks and smells.  Henrik’s coat is heavy and gloomy, exuding the dark stench of blood’.

As one might expect, the landscape plays a big part in this novella, as does darkness, both literally and metaphorically.  Characters are often compared to things like trees and woodpiles.  Sahlberg captures things magnificently; he is perceptive of the smallest of details.  Of the Old Mistress, he writes: ‘Her eyes change again.  A moment ago, they were shaded.  Now they darken, open out in the middle, become tiny black abysses which suck in the gaze’.  His prose is thoughtful too, and he continually views things through the lens of others, thinking to great effect how a particular scene will make an individual feel.  For instance, the Old Mistress says, ‘But boys are fated to grow into men, and a mother has to follow this tragedy as a silent bystander.  And now it seems they will kill each other, and then this, too, can be added to my neverending list of losses’.  Sahlberg is that rare breed of writer who can get inside his characters’ heads, no matter how disparate they are, and regardless of their gender and age.  Each voice here feels authentic, peppered with concerns and thoughts which are utterly believable, and which are specifically tailored to the individual.

The politics of the period have been woven in to good effect, but Sahlberg makes it obvious that it is the characters which are his focus.  Their backstories are thorough and believable; they are never overdone.  The Brothers is an absorbing novella and, as with all of Peirene’s publications, a great addition and perfect fit to their growing list of important translated novellas.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Crime at Black Dudley’ by Margery Allingham ****

First published in May 2015

Vintage Crime Classics have just republished Margery Allingham’s first Albert Campion mystery, The Crime at Black Dudley.  Published in 1929, the novel has not been printed in an English edition for over thirty years.  Queen of crime Agatha Christie says that Allingham ‘stands out like a shining light’, and one cannot help but feel that her work is certainly due a resurgence.

The premise of The Crime at Black Dudley is sure to appeal to lovers of crime, particularly those with a penchant for the more old-fashioned or ‘cosy’ mysteries.  In the novel, a group of London’s ‘brightest young things’ accept an invitation to the Black Dudley mansion.  ‘Skulduggery is most certainly afoot, and the party-goers soon realise that they’re trapped in the secluded house’.  Albert Campion, one of the trapped, is on hand to assist the others in unravelling ‘the villainous plots behind their incarceration’.

The way in which Allingham describes the house adds a feeling of foreboding almost immediately.  She writes that, ‘Miles of neglected park-land stretched in an unbroken plain to the horizon and the sea beyond…  In the centre of this desolation, standing in a thousand acres of its own land, was the mansion, Black Dudley; a great grey building, bare and ugly as a fortress’.

The novel opens with the character of Dr George Abbershaw, a ‘minor celebrity’, who soon becomes one of the story’s protagonists.  Whilst on holiday at Black Dudley, ‘Much to his own surprise and perplexity, he had fallen in love’ with a young woman named Margaret Oliphant.  The weekend is being hosted by the owner of the house, Colonel Gordon Coombe, ‘an old invalid who liked the society of young people so much that he persuaded his nephew to bring a houseful of young folk down to the gloomy old mansion at least half a dozen times a year’.

Centuries past at Black Dudley, a murder was committed with the house’s revered Dagger, which is still kept in pride of place.  It is this ritual of sorts which is recreated by the characters on the first night.  Of this act, Campion says, ‘”All this running about in the dark with daggers doesn’t seem to me healthy”‘, thus creating fissures within the body of the protagonists.  Further peculiar goings-on such as this soon ensue, and serve to both deepen the mystery and add texture to the plot.

One of the main points comes at the instance in which Colonel Coombe dies after a supposed heart attack.  Questions about the situation being ‘fishy’ are almost immediately raised by many of the guests.  As a doctor, Abbershaw goes to view the body under the guise of signing the cremation certificate.  After doing so, ‘The fussy, pompous personality that he had assumed dropped from him like a cloak, and he became at once alert and purposeful.  There were many things that puzzled him, but of one thing he was perfectly certain.  Colonel Gordon Coombe had not died of heart disease’.  Moreover, Abbershaw becomes ‘convinced that there were more secrets in Black Dudley that night than the old house had ever known.  Secrets that would be dangerous if they were too suddenly brought to light’.

Throughout, Allingham is both witty and amusing, whilst being rather to the point.  Of Abbershaw’s falling in love, for example, she writes the following: ‘He recognised the symptoms at once and made no attempt at self-deception, but with his usual methodical thoroughness set himself to remove the disturbing emotion by one or other of the only two methods known to mankind – disillusionment or marriage’.  The perceptions which Allingham gives of her characters too are very shrewd: ‘The man was an arresting type.  He was white-haired, very small and delicately made…  Under the sleek white hair which waved straight back from a high forehead his face was grey, vivacious, and peculiarly wicked’.  The author is also a master at piecing together places and scenes, and second to none at building moments of tension or shifting experiences in just a single sentence: ‘The house-party which had seemed as large round the dinner-table now looked amazingly small in this cathedral of a room’.

With The Crime at Black Dudley, one has the feeling of being in the company of a very skilled writer.  The plot has been well constructed to the extent that not a dull page exists within the novel, the character development is wonderful, and the dialogue is never staid or predictable.  The only thing which does not quite ring true is the speed at which relationships between characters are declared; thankfully, though, such instances are few and far between.  On reading The Crime at Black Dudley, it is clear to see why Agatha Christie, P.D. James, and other such writers so admire Allingham.

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