Saturday, 9 July 2016


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THE PRIVATE SECTOR [By Joseph Hone]. This is a spy story, just cant remember what possessed me to buy it. It was published in 1971 so it must have been written around the mid/late sixties. There is one five-star review for it on Amazon by someone who obviously really loves it. It is part of a new series from Faber re-publishing what they consider to be overlooked classics; the cover blurb compares it favourably to people like Eric Ambler, Graham Greene and other British, gritty spy story writers [not the dirty old man; LeCarre came later]. Goodreads reviewers aren’t so obliging with several complaining about the amount of unnecessary backstory which results in a loss of pace.

It is clunky in places. His favourite word is like. Everything has to be like something else; maybe that’s how they wrote in the mid-sixties. Perhaps that was what editors and publishers considered ‘good writing’, so you get sentence after sentence like this one:

‘. . . he spaced the words out quietly and very precisely, like a nanny giving a last warning . . .’

And here:

‘. . . but what shall we do - what plans do they have?’ She went on, like a traveller stuck in a midland junction on a winter Sunday morning; upset but still confident’.

Wears thin.

The story is set in Egypt, just before the six-day war and concerns two British spies one of whom is a Russian double-agent; spy number one is sent out to Cairo to find him and eliminate him. They are quite good characters but the great character is the woman, Bridget with whom they are both in love. She is a fantastic creation: so nuanced and real that she just must be based on a real person. Hone himself lived and worked in Egypt around this time so perhaps she is based on someone he knew.

Am I recommending this? Possibly. It is dense and by and large I like dense as long as it is going somewhere and the characters are three-dimensional and the situation believable. There is some terrific writing in there, however. Try this:

And the revolution had come; others had brought it, sought death for it, defined it . . . you were buying stamps in the General Post Office at the time. Never mind. It was just what you always talked about in the village cafĂ©, it had come to pass exactly as you had said . . . it was yours, your number had come up at last. You were out in the streets for the rest of the week, you yelled more than anybody and looted a little. And later you bought a jacket to go with the trousers and had a word in someone’s ear . . .  a friend of your uncles who had actually been seen with a stick in his hand on the first day.

Now the ranks had closed again after the whirlwind, you met the fixers again, the ones you’d rallied against in the village, only they wore suits now . . .

More of that please and you might have written an all-time classic.

THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS [By Michel Faber]. This is a tour de force. Fantastic book. Honestly, a masterpiece. I can’t understand why it didn’t win the Booker that year maybe because he is Dutch by birth. Shoulda bent the rules.

Faber is the guy who wrote Under The Skin which I haven’t read but thought the film was the best thing I had seen in years. This is equally if not more imaginative. It’s an unlikely tale about a Christian priest who is sent from England to a base on a remote planet in another galaxy to provide Christian guidance to the aliens, the Oasins. USIC, a multi-national corporation have a base there the purpose of which is unclear.  

So those are the basic ingredients but also in the mix is his wife, left behind to cope on her own with drastic climate change, civil unrest and dislocation; they have never been separated before and both find the separation unbelievably stressful. Him because he is unable to communicate his daily concerns which seem trivial to her when set against the earthquakes and tsunamis that she is experiencing. Her because she has to cope on her own. As the narrative unfolds, they become increasingly alienated from one another.

It is such a bold concept and in a lesser writers hands might have just been added to the pile of science-fiction novels started but never finished but Faber meticulously adds layers of detail which utterly and completely bring this world and this situation, of separation powerfully and realistically to near-believability.

Jeez I loved this book. But, but there are one and two-star reviews on Amazon. Incredible. I think they wanted a different book, not the one Faber has actually written.

SIGHTLINES [By Kathleen Jamie]. Another masterpiece. That’s two in a row. This is how it’s done, Virginia Baily and Patrick Gale.

Kathleen Jamie is a Scottish poet and this is a collection of short stories about the natural world. Her interests are much the same as mine: geography and the movement of people; wild creatures; archaeology and how the land was formed. She writes well. I am not a great collector of fine description but even I have to acknowledge her skills in bringing a scene to life. It’s a gift. Try this:

They are on Shetland at the top of a 500ft cliff watching Gannets swoop and dive.

. . . and picked up the binoculars again, but this time turned away from the cliff with all its squalor and dramas and looked instead down at the sea below. There were yet more gannets  down there. A club of juveniles occupied a flat terrace of rock at the cliff-foot, twenty or so birds in mottled plumage who had come back from their early wanderings, summoned by that breeding instinct. Out on the water, before the waves broke, were more adults, a raft of them riding up and down on the slight swell. The binoculars framed three or four at a time. Each white breast caught the sunshine and against that white the water appeared an impenetrable dark blue.

There was no particular reason to look there , except that it was restful. The birds maybe found it restful too, compared to the colony. Perhaps they were just stealing a little time before heading back into the fray.

Just then though I began to realise that there was something in my field of vision that hadn’t been there before. It was as though someone had leaned over my shoulder and drawn, among the resting birds, a quick vertical line with a pencil. That’s all. A quick line. I thought it was perhaps a mirage, a trick of the light . . . it was a bit wavery. Or just a creel marker that had lost its flag. But it didn’t bob like a creel marker.

It was probably nothing, so I said nothing but kept looking. That’s what the keen-eyed naturalists  say. Keep looking, even when there’s nothing much to see. That way your eye learns what’s common, so when the uncommon appears, your eye will tell you.  

I was curious now, and concentrating. I could feel the moments unfold. It was surely growing taller, this dark line. Then two of the birds began to flap their wings, ready to take off. They’d been disturbed . Something was happening underneath the water’s surface. The birds lumbered into the air, and at that moment the black line turned into a profile, and I realised what it was.   

Yes it was a killer whale.

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