Monday, October 10, 2005

panic in london... and a Victorian mystery

Arriving in London from Yorkshire is always a shock, but this weekend it seemed different. Leaving the tranquillity of the village on a quiet afternoon, two and a half hours later I was pitched into Friday rush-hour at Kings Cross. I felt like a wide-eyed yokel. So...many...people! After seeing the same twenty or thirty faces every day, and being recognised by them, I really wasn't prepared for the welter of humanity on offer. Struggling through the crowds (another novelty - in Howden, three is a crowd, but four is a mob and five a mass rally) it was all so loud, so bright, so fast. Even the shops were different... in Howden, the people in the post office queue exchange gossip animatedly. In WH Smith's in Kings Cross, the queuers shuffled along like mindless drones, with the tannoy barking out "Position 1!... Position 3!.. Position 5!" like some demonically demanding lover.

But readjustment is also quick, and I realise more than ever how much I love London. All human life is here, and there's a tangible difference between sitting on your sofa watching TV because you are bored of all 7 pubs within striking distance, and sitting on your sofa despite the many blandishments on offer in the outside world.

But London doesn't love me back. The Northern Line, I'm sure, has a personal grudge against me, or is some kind of satanic torment designed to test my faith (in what, I don't know) and this week reacted to my return with a petulant spasm of signal failures.

At least the train gave me a chance to do some reading - Julian Barnes'' Booker-nominated novel Arthur and George. The eponymous Arthur is Conan Doyle, haunted by the success of his creation Sherlock Holmes, trapped in a sexless marriage to a consumptive, in love with a younger woman, and desperate to see his beloved spiritism accepted by science. George is a Midlands solicitor, whose family tormented by hate mail, accused of the 'Great Wyrley Outrages', in which horses were mutilated at night.

Ah, I thought. Can this match up to the seminal work in the genre of mutilated-horse detective mysteries - namely, Dick Francis's excellent Come To Grief? Well, it can try...

The book is told in alternating segments, mainly "Arthur" and "George", but occasionally one of the other characters. These interweave the protagonist's very different life stories from childhood to death. Skilful as the technique is, it can't help drawing attention to the fact that the overlap between the two lives is fairly slight, perhaps too slight to qualify as the focus of the novel. The characters don't even meet until Arthur is in his forties - well after page 200 - and, probably due to Barnes having less biographical material to work with, George is nowhere near as well-fleshed out a character as Arthur. The reader assumes he didn't mutilate the horses, but the reader can never be as convinced of his innocence as Conan Doyle is, given the scanty evidence of his life on offer. You are left with the feeling he is enigmatic from necessity, rather than authorial choice.

The conclusion also left me wanting more. Throughout the book, Conan Doyle complains of the extent to which Sherlock Holmes has overshadowed his life - and yet you can't help wishing the fictional detective would turn up to help in the Wyrley investigation and draw some more solid conclusions than his creator can manage. As a comment on the interplay between art and life, it works, but it seems to jar with Conan Doyle's irritation at those who lecture him that 'real life' investigations are more complicated than those in his books.

For a book built on such a wilfully slight plot, these objections might indicate I didn't enjoy it. I did - it's so painstakingly researched it appears effortless, the prose style is beautiful and the pace pretty snappy. I just wish Arthur & George had rather more to do with each other than the title would suggest.

Oh dear. I've just read the Guardian's digested read and realised it said all the above, only quicker. Never mind.

Writing the the above entry has reminded me of the inestimable contribution to fiction made one of the great writers of the last century: Dick Francis.

As a disgustingly precocious child whose dad who travelled a lot on business, I read so many crappy airport paperbacks I've lost count. My childhood concept of literature was shaped by Jeffrey Archer's Kane and Abel (weighty), the collected excretions of John Grisham and the occasional raunch-fest that was a Len Deighton thriller.

Not stiff competition, I know, but against this backdrop Dick Francis shone like a beacon of narrative restraint and verbal brilliance. Yes, all his books have one plot and yes, it's perfectly possible, 100 pages in, to realise you've already read the book in your hand; yes, he is obsessed with being whipped and generally tortured; and yes, horses aren't really that interesting... but still.

There are some great lead characters (though, strangely, they are always young to middle-aged white men, involved in racing.. Dick didn't believe in this whole 'using your imagination' business). For example, there's Sid Halley, the former top jockey who lost a hand in an accident, terrified of losing the other one. There are sadomasochistic femme fatales, aristocratic beauties who love a bit of rough, and an alarming number of criminals who are hopelessly incompetent at actually killing their enemies.

And there are some great situations: in one book, the protagonist is locked in a tiny stall with a racehorse they've pumped full of drugs so it will kick him to death; someone else is killed by having his head wrapped in plaster of Paris, suffocating him; and in The Edge, one minor character sexually assaults and eviscerates cats.

Whilst I am far from a general champion for the thriller genre (unlike my hero Clarkson, who claims to only read books which have a plane or submarine on the cover) you've got to love Dick Francis.

Sadly, he is now dead, and I reckon I've read all but three of his (30-something) books. That actually terrifies me - surely I have a much mroe comprehensive overview of his oeuvre than that of most of the authors I wrote on in Finals?



tuesday update: now, you might remember how much I love Jon Stewart, so you might think I was glued to the debut of the Daily Show on new channel More4. Well... I would have been, but the arseface digibox signal is interrupted now not only by the mopeds outside, but the washing machine. For fuck's sake. Anyway, he's been up to his old tricks of pissing off the mainstream American media. Give that man a medal.


Anonymous Laura said...

No book can beat the joy of Richard Hammon presenting Top of the Pops. Especially the part when he said the words Mariah Carey in the same voice that Jeremy Clarkson reserves solely for: "Vauxhall"

10/10/2005 4:29 pm  
Blogger galatea said...

sadly, i missed that - and indeed, the hallowed Clarkson performing the same task.

I wish that Hammond had stood next to Mariah.. I reckon each of her breasts are the same size as his head.

Did you know that, much to my disgust, my Yorkshire flatmate rearranged our impromptu 'cool wall' while I was away? I returned on Sunday to find the Bentley Continental GT and the Bugatti Veyron were suddenly cool, along with (can you believe this) the new-style Beetle.

Oh no no.

10/11/2005 9:35 am  

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