STREAMING WITHOUT CONSCIOUSNESS
As an undergraduate (B.A. Hon. Eng Lang & Lit), I read lots of ‘stream of consciousness’ novels – Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Proust et al. At the time I thought I was pretty swish, but later I came to detest those writers. Who wants to be locked inside somebody else’s muddled mind full time? I have a hard time living with my own endless and inconclusive ‘interior monologues.’
On my way to bed last night, I picked a book blindly from my book shelf – The Football Factory by John King (Jonathon Cape, 1998). I remember buying and reading the trilogy – The Footie Factory, Headhunters and England Away – as they came out in rapid succession in the last decade of the last century. I don’t recall how I hit on them, but I was an instant fan and I recommended them to all my friends.
The funny thing was this...
Last night I realised that The Football Factory is a pure ‘stream of consciousness’ novel. I’d been too busy reading and enjoying King’s novels to realise that here was a (dull and hackneyed) literary device being used to perfection.
We are in the mind of the narrator, and he’s no aesthete like Woolf, Joyce or Proust. Indeed, we are inside the mind of a brand new form of literary human being, the sort that always ‘got stuck in,’ but never pushed his Doc Martens deep into the guts of English Literature. Our hero is a Chelsea fan, a lager lout, a street-fighting man, a racially prejudiced ‘git,’ the sort of person that I, for one, would not like to be, i.e., a soccer hooligan. Also, in my opinion, he supports the wrong team and slags the teams from my home town, Liverpool. Maybe the verbal aggro went to my head? Maybe even now I’m getting too steamed up again?
On reflection, a decade and a half later, I have to say that The Football Factory lives up to the blurb by Irvine Welsh: “The best book I’ve ever read about football and working-class culture in Britain in the nineties. Buy, steal or borrow a copy now.”
The nineties were a time when Great Britain was trying to put an end to football hooliganism after a series of disasters that had rocked public opinion at the end of the eighties: the Bradford stadium fire which killed 56 spectators; the Heysel disaster which led to an international ban on English clubs when another 39 died; the Hillsborough (Sheffield) disaster when 96 people lost their lives.
Tom and his rowdy mates are the (anti-)heroes of The Football Factory, which was a valiant attempt to get inside the (intelligent, but twisted) mind of the dedicated thug. They are boozers, sexists, racists, always looking for a rumble despite the increased number of police on patrol, the video cameras, and the changing mentality that the disasters had provoked. They have just changed their tactics.
And yet, things haven’t changed so much...
I was watching the news on Sky last night, and saw a remarkable video clip: a train pulled into a London underground station, and a young black man stepped aboard. A moment later, he came flying out of the door, followed by kicks and punches. A crowd of thugs wouldn’t let him on the train, didn’t want a black man in their carriage. They were Chelsea fans, the announcer reported. Just like the characters in The Football Factory, which was published twenty years ago.
“You have to fuck them before they fuck you,” wrote John King.
That’s the guiding principle of the novel.
By the way, the Excipit, Derby at Home, is exactly like the Incipit, Coventry at Home: plenty of booze, a mindless act of violence, then “It’s time to be moving, We don’t want to get boxed in by the Old Bill.”
Standalones – novels that don’t form part of a series – have a lot going for them.
Especially for the writer. They provide the opportunity to step into new creative territory and try things that the constraints of a sequence of novels built around a central character (and what often turns out to be a formulaic plot) do not allow.
After publishing four novels set in nineteenth century Prussia featuring our young and often inept magistrate, Hanno Stiffeniis, we decided that it was time to do something ‘completely different’ (to quote those lovely Monty Python chaps). The result was “Cry Wolf,” a standalone Mafia thriller set in Umbria where we have lived for almost thirty years. We were very lucky, I think. In our case, the experiment has paid off. We managed to create a new and intriguing central character and a conflict area which we look forward to exploring in at least another ten novels. Well, two or three at least. As a result, our first ‘standalone’ will soon be standing proudly alongside its fellows...
It doesn’t always work out that way, however.
Some standalones don’t have a natural sequel. They reach a certain point, and there they stop.
One of the novels I mentioned in the last blog turned out to be one of those. And, oddly enough, it is in the excipit (the final chapter) that all the weaknesses come to a head.
I began David Downing’s “The Red Eagles” (Old Street Publishing, 2014) with enthusiasm as the opening chapters ripped along. First we’re in Russia, then in Germany, then we swoosh across the Atlantic Ocean and we’re in the United States as the end of the Second World War approaches. A ripping yarn, right? (I won’t give away the plot, of course).
That’s where a lot of standalones come from. You have a great idea, so you have to go to work on it. This is fine, so long as you remember that it is an experiment – a kind of vacation – and that you don’t get too carried away. A novel and the dedicated reader – me in this case – can only take so much of a good thing. Moby Dick is a fabulous standalone, one of my favourite novels, because it tells you a whopping great tale, and examines every fin and bone of the subject of whales and whaling which lies at the core of the story. Every page adds something which will, sooner or later, explain or enhance the intensity of the final battle between the great white whale and the big black heart of the hunter, Captain Ahab.
“The Red Eagles” didn’t manage it for me, I’m afraid.
In the first place, there were just too many foreign names.
Does that seem odd coming from someone who has written a book set in Italy, in which all the names are foreign? The naming of our Italian characters and the description of their roles was one of the biggest problems in “Cry Wolf.” We wanted readers to know they were in a foreign country, but didn’t want to perplex them with strange sounding names which would send them scurrying to the cast-list again and again. In any case, we provided a list of characters at the start of the book, noting who they are and what they do.
While it’s historically well-researched, “The Red Eagles” calls up too many foreign (and often unpronounceable) Russian and German names, both real and imagined, and there is no cast-list to refer to. The result is some confusion and a loss of focus from which the story suffers.
Secondly, the characters are spies on a mission in which many innocent people die. Spies, by their nature, are rarely sympathetic, and it is difficult to find even one in this novel who wins the heart of the reader. As the novel builds to a breakneck conclusion and the body-count climbs high, David Downing lights on a device which is both improbable and hackneyed. The only survivors are both ‘traitors’ and they have both previously abandoned each other. And in the final line, one of them commits murder yet again. Can such a character be resurrected in a series?
This standalone will be standing alone for a long time, I think...
As for me, the reader, I look forward to a return to Downing’s familiar and sympathetic hero, the journalist, John Russell, and those intriguing spy-filled railways stations in wartime Berlin, which are some of the finest novels in the genre ever to have been published.
There was a perplexing review of a book by Boston university professor, Chris Walsh, in La Lettura last Sunday (Corriere della Sera, 1st February, 2015).
Cowardice is a misused word, according to Chris Walsh. We feel better, stronger, morally superior, when we can call someone else a coward, he says. This is, itself, a form of cowardice – is it not? – though no mention was made of the fact in the newspaper review, which preferred to describe the accusation of cowardice against terrorists as an “infantile form of revenge.”
But then the book reviewer, Antonio Sgobba, went one step further, and asked this question: “Can we say that the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibay (the men who murdered seventeen people, including the staff of Charlie Hebdo, in Paris the other week) lacked courage?
That is, can we rightly call them cowards?
Quite apart from the fact that they launched armed attacks against unarmed people – some of whom shared the same religion, and quite possibly the same ‘revolutionary’ ideals – I believe that it is not only etymologically correct, but it is also just, to call the terrorists cowards.
Sgobba argues that people who go out armed and prepared to die in the name of their beliefs are, in some convoluted way, ‘heroes.’ This, I think, is a superficial misreading of what makes people like the Kouachis and Coulibay tick. Why do they kill innocent people? Why not take on the army? Or organise a revolution? Is it because they are courageous, or is it because their innermost fears lead them to desperate demonstrations of their so-called ‘faith’?
Let’s start with Charlie Hebdo, the magazine which dared to publish cartoon illustrations of a prophet that some hold dear. The desire to eradicate criticism is antithetical in a liberal society. We believe that everyone has the right to say what they think. I won’t quote Voltaire, who has already been over-quoted on the subject. If we don’t like what is being written or said, however, we are free to fight back with the same weapons – pen, ink, the power of the word, the force of the law – we don’t use terror and Kalashnikovs to shut our enemies up.
Shooting and killing people is an act of the most absolute cowardice, betraying just how fragile the religious convictions of people like the Kouachi brothers and Coulibay are. Religion – which is, in itself, a sublimated form of cowardice, based on a belief in an improbable eternal paradise – exalts life, while these people shame and denigrate not only their so-called religion, but also themselves, by killing anyone who does not subscribe to their sectarian beliefs.
So, what do the terrorists really fear?
They fear submission to a liberal ideology in which men and women are equal.
They fear a society in which all men and all women have equal rights of expression.
They fear that their own notion of their place in the world is incorrect, attributing their incapacity to colonialism and racial prejudice, while ignoring myriad examples of people in the same position as themselves who have managed to overcome the iniquities of a competitive social order.
They fear ‘the satirists,’ ‘the French,’ ‘the Catholics,’ ‘the Jews’ and all non-believers, encapsulating a colonialist instinct to dominate and enforce their own beliefs based on self-justifying racial prejudice.
They fear their own ability to make something of what they are, knowing, perhaps, that they are doomed to failure.
They fear their anonymity and lack of status, seeking to ‘make a name for themselves’ among other equally misguided souls by spectacular acts of gratuitous violence.
They fear growing old, accepting the responsibilities that growth creates.
They fear missing out on their share of the virgins at the heavenly feast...
I could go on forever, but I won’t.
Terrorists are, quite simply, the most cowardly of cowards!
On my way to bed the other night, I picked up “Epitaph For A Spy” by Eric Ambler.
Ambler was one of my favourite authors when I was a teenager. Indeed, this 1999 Pan edition was my way of catching up on my (reading as a) youth. I began, as always, by checking out the first few chapters, but I couldn’t remember a thing, so I ended up reading the book again from beginning to end.
So far, so good.
The only problem was that I was also reading “The Red Eagles” by David Downing, which was published in 2014. How things have changed since 1938 when Ambler’s novel was published for the first time!
The books are blurbed thus:
Epitaph for a Spy – It remains a truly modern thriller (this was added in 1999).
The Red Eagles – A fiendishly clever and gripping spy thriller (this appeared in 2014).
Had I read Epitaph without knowing the title, author’s name, date of publication, or genre, I might have been tempted to guess that the story had been written by Agatha Christie: ten guests of various nationalities are staying in a French Mediterranean hotel, one of them is a spy, but which one? Of course, it all comes out in the final chapter, or Excipit...
David Downing’s book, instead, is chock-full of history, beautifully written, engagingly mysterious, full of cliff-hangers and red herrings. A real page-turner. Indeed, The Red Eagles was what I was expecting to find in Eric Ambler, whose Mask of Demetrios also impressed me tremendously as an impressionable teenager. (Hm, now I’m afraid to pick it up again for fear of being disappointed).
So, how does Ambler’s Excipit get on?
Not too well, I’m afraid. A truly modern thriller? Ambler does, of course – like dear aunt Agatha – keep you guessing until the end, but by the time you get to the end, you really don’t care. You are just relieved to have actually got to the end, closed the book and put it back in the bookcase...
Put it back? Aye, there’s the rub. If a book doesn’t live up to expectation, then there is one place that it isn’t going.
I’m so sorry, Eric, this love affair of ours has been going on for fifty years, but now it’s time to end it! After all, oh heck, I admit it, I have fallen in love – it’s been going on for quite some time, we’ve been meeting on a regular basis in assorted Berlin railway stations – with that other chap, David...
CRY WOLF review by Mike Ripley (Getting Away With Murder)
Another treat over the Yuletide period was the new novel, and something of a new departure, by the Anglo-Italian husband-and-wife team who write as Michael Gregorio. After a series of rich historical mysteries set in Napoleonic Europe featuring philosopher detective Hanno Stiffeniis, Michael Jacob and Daniela De Gregorio have come up to date with a vengeance, with a contemporary thriller, Cry Wolf, just published by Severn House.
Set in the beautiful and (until now) Mafia-free region of Umbria where the authors live, Cry Wolf is a hard-boiled thriller written at break-neck pace of political corruption and organised, very violent crime. Umbria’s misfortune was to be hit by earthquakes, but fortunately the European Commission was there to supply millions of Euros to aid reconstruction. Unfortunately, the Mafia thinks it deserves the lion’s share of the aid money and begins to corrupt local political and financial institutions to make sure the Commission funds are syphoned off.
Caught in the middle of this and an ongoing ‘anti-terrorist’ initiative headed by a charismatic commander of the Carabinieri, is young park ranger Sebastiano Cangio, who has already fled his native Calabria after innocently witnessing a Mafia execution. After that experience, it is not surprising that Cangio prefers life in the wild Umbrian hills studying the local population of wolves. But it is not long before gun-carrying wolves walking on two legs move into the territory and prove far more dangerous than the native inhabitants.
Cry Wolf is a fast-moving, tense and exciting slice of contemporary Italian crime fiction and I suspect, and certainly hope, that we will hear more of Sebastiano Cangio – if the wolves, of one sort or another, don’t get him first.