"We don`t face this war all the time. In fact, most of the time we really dodge the stupendous terrifying reality of it...but now and again, when you`re tired and dispirited, the whole weight of it suddenly comes down on us. Then it`s as if you woke up to find yourself walking at the bottom of the sea. I had one of the worst of those moments on my way to the hotel in Gretley that night. The fact of the war came down on me like a falling tower...It was a vision of Evil triumphant. It was the idea of Hell let loose...All Gretley was on the edge of it...Here, behind the dark curtain of the black-out, was deeper evil within evil. But where ?"
Priestley`s central character and narrator Humphrey Neyland is in the Midlands on a mission, one that is partly personal, partly professional. More by chance than by judgement he has been drawn into the world of counter-espionage when his two closest friends, both German Jews, were murdered by Nazis. By the time he arrives at the small industrial town of Gretley, he is an experienced operative who one suspects has avenged the death of his friends over and over again. Although he claims to derive little satisfactionfrom "creeping about in blacked-out alleywaysbaiting traps", it is clear to everyone but himself the work has become second nature to him. There is more than a hint that he is on a personal quest for redemption after the death of his wife and son in a traffic accident for which he holds himself responsible. This closeness to tragedy, coupled with the nature of his work, has by his own admission soured his disposition , "so anybodywho must have Blue Birds Over the White Cliffs of Dover had better turn elsewhere", but he remains oddly likeable.
He is world-weary, but sharply dispassionate ;
"I`d never seen this man before. He was a tall, straight, clean-shaven man, possibly about fifty, with stiff grey hair, and he was wearing dark clothes. For a moment, while he stood there glaring at me, he was one kind of man, and then as soon as I spoke he turned himself into another kind of man. It was as if one character had been sponged out, to be replaced by this other one, smaller, humbler, far less dangerous. It was superbly done, but just not quick enough."
The way in which Priestley describes this encounter is interesting. He never tells the reader directly that the man is dangerous, but air of menace is underlined more emphatically when the character is describedas adopting a humbler and "far less dangerous" demeanour. The last sentence, of course, tips the reader off that Neyland is confident he is more than a match for the man.
Later that same evening, Neyland listens as a Nazi sympathiser expounds her views. "It was just when she showed you what she was really thinking and feeling that she became theatrical andartificial" he reflects. "They are all alike, these dupes of the Fuhrer, somewhere at the back of their minds there`s always a grand opera going on, with Adolf and themselves in the leadingroles."
You may have noticed that there`s a hint of Chandler creeping in here and there, and it works quitewell simply because Priestley remains himself whilst incorporating elements of a new influence.
A very sombre note is struck when an exhausted Neyland accompanies the Police to inspect a corpse ;
"There were piles of old junk and rubbish about. It seemed just the end of everything down there. We weren`t far from being a lot of old junk and rubbish ourselves. There didn`t seem any particular reason why the black weight of the night shouldn`t press still harder and flatten us all out. "
The corpse is that of a young woman our hero has met repeatedly in the early part of the book. As the scene develops, he becomes convinced they are looking at a murder. Unexpectedly,he gives voice to an outburst that slaps you in the face like a wet mackerel coming after the numbed-with-shock tone of the rest of the scene ;
I looked down at the wretched thing they had fished out of the canal. I remembered the impudentnose, the ripe smiling mouth, the oddly-coloured bright eyes. "And if my guess is right, she`s as much a war casualty as any lad torn apart by machine gun fire. And she`s also just another casualty in another and worse battle, ordinary human nature versus a social system that`s diseased in every part of it..."
"I didn`t know you felt like that" said Dr Bauernstein, softly and wonderingly.
"You don`t know what I feel."
Reading the analogy with a "lad torn apart by machine gun" fire, one is forcibly reminded that Priestley was said to be haunted by his memories of World War One for the rest of his life. Apparently he never claimed the medals he was entitled to, though he made light of the matter whenever the question was raised.
Perhaps because the lean-and-mean Neyland is pretty obviously not the avuncular-but-high-minded Priestley, he gets away with putting some of his own thoughts into the characters mouth without it really sounding too forced or artificial. Thankfully, the book never becomes a fully-fledged propaganda exercise, though certainly it is moralistic.
The plot has it`s dafter aspects, though then again, it`s no worse than, say, The 39 Steps in that respect.
The only other obvious weakness is that some scenes involving Neyland and a couple of the female characters seem stilted and really quite unrealistic, but that doesn`t really detract from the book as a whole.
Not a `typical` Priestley offering ( is there such a thing as a "typical Priestley offering" ?), but well worth reading.
Poet N S Thompson will be among those performing at Beeston International Poetry Festival during October. His appearance will co-incide with the release of his new book, Letter to Auden, which is to be published by Middlesborough-based Smokestack Books.
His new book is said to be, among other things, "a manifesto for metrical craft, epigrammatic wit and dazzling rhymes. It`s a poem, a letter, an anachronism, a parody and a bagatelle...an irreverent and original venture into the world of the Audenesque, and a homage to one of the twentieth-century`s greatest poets."
In the meantime, if you find yourself filled with a longing for literature and/or a passion for poetry, a signed copy of his limited edition `Poems by N S Thompson`, published by the author during a short stay in India during the `70s, can be found at 3358 in our listings.
The Save Newark Hospital Campaign will be the subject of a Westminster Hall debate on 6 July 2010. The meeting will be hosted by Patrick Mercer MP and will be addressed by Health Minister Simon Burns.
The hospital is not under threat of closure, but there are plans to downgrade the A & E Department to Minor Injuries (obliging ambulances to take more serious cases to Mansfield or Lincoln) and close a ward.
The decision to hold a debate contrasts with the approach taken when Mr Burns visited the hospital on 1 July 2010. At that time, he declined to meet representatives of the campaign group and hospital staff were told not to discuss the future of the hospital with him during his visit. The exact purpose of his visit is unclear, given that no-one could actually speak to him about the issues. One wonders what he understands by the word `democracy` if this is an example of his approach.
In the event, Patrick Mercer handed him a letter from the Campaign regretting that they had been "prevented from meeting you" and setting out their grievances. The text of the letter can be found at their web site, but in essence they not only oppose the downgrading of the hospital to a minor injuries unit, but argue that the consultation was flawed. They also claim that some of the arguments offered in support of the proposed changes quote rather selectively from the relevant report.
On 26 June I posted details of National Mesothelioma day and commented on the impact of this asbestos-related disease on the Derbyshire area in particular.
It seems that I`m not the only one to have picked up on this, as an unsigned article headed `More Than One Death a Week in Derbyshire from Exposure to Asbestos Dust` appeared at http://www.thisisderbyshire.co.uk/ on 2 July 2010, and was followed by another, `Campaign`s Aims` the following day.
The articles are well worth a read and give up-to-date information on the objectives of the groups involved. Three local MPs have signed up to the campaign, Heather Wheeler (Conservative), Pauline Latham (Conservative) and Margaret Beckett (Labour). The campaign is also supported by the GMB trade union.
As I`ve mentioned before, my own article `Asbestos Awareness and Advocacy - For Chris` appeared 19 April 2010 on a blog named The Graphophone and is intended for the general reader, but also provides links for anyone affected by Mesothelioma and related illnesses.
This blog was intended as a companion to The Hoonaloon Books Blog, but unlike `Hoonaloon`, which is fairly focussed, this was intended to be a vehicle for book reviews etc.
In practise it`s proved more wide-ranging that that, so while it will certainly have it`s share of book reviews, it will also be a fairly miscellaneous ramble through whatever comes to mind.
The Musings of a Man From the Midlands tag wasn`t initially meant to be particularly significant, it`s just that I`m a simple soul who finds alliteration amusing, but as you`ll see this blog will in fact have its` share of local content.