Sunday, 11 February 2018

"Requiem" - Watching, Reading.

Watching TV, listening to music and, of course, reading. These, I guess, are pursuits everybody engages in. I've left off the radio as I seldom have the time or even chance to listen nowadays. I miss it. The radio is precious especially the BBC I don't physically watch TV either, or at least rarely. I am not one of those who dismisses TV. I enjoy it. What I do see is BBC iPlayer and then on my laptop.

Case in point - "Requiem.'

The way a story ends, especially when it features the supernatural, often spoils the whole point of the telling if handled badly. A sloppy, soppy ending defeats the tension created over many weeks of watching. As good as the tale has been, matched in every way by superb acting and intelligent direction, if the end isn't the equal of the preceding episodes then the whole thing becomes a bitter disappointment.

I've been watching the BBC 1 series,"Requiem," of late and was utterly captivated by the ingenious methods used to portray something so damn impossible yet so totally believable. Selecting one actor, or even two as in this case, for special praise makes me feel a little uneasy. Even so, Lydia Wilson and Joel Fry's performances as Matilda Gray and Hal Fine was so well acted that full praise is justified.

As Matilda Gray, a child of a single mother who suddenly takes her own life in front of her adult daughter, Lydia Wilson shows us a young woman, accomplished at her craft as a cellist but also an individual with courage, determination and, so it seems to me, a voracious sexual appetite. Ms Gray is not someone to let much get in her way when in pursuit of the truth. She is indomitable if a little headstrong. Unafraid and fearless.

From the opening scenes when a man walking, presumably the Lord of the Manor, returns to his home where he hears odd sounds. He calls out a 'Who's there,' to which he gets no answer. A mirror fleetingly shows a thin, fluorescent shape reflected upon its surface. The scene changes abruptly. the man who was seen walking is now attacking every mirror in the house. Smashing them all to fragments. Next, we see that thin shape in the sharp remains of a mirror embedded in its frame. The scene changes again. The man who we have witnessed destroying mirrors is now standing on top of his manor house roof from which he throws himself off. This is the first death.

I shall not say more for fear of spoiling a thoroughly good series but the lack of blood-letting combined with the merest hint of something supernatural gives a solid sense of spookiness. Unlike so many shows of this ilk, the phrase 'edge of your seat' is appropriate. As the BBC series is only on its third episode and I have managed, by virtue of BBC Iplayer, to have watched all six shows, I shall say no more other than to tell all and sundry to make sure they watch it. Not since 'Taboo' have I enjoyed a TV show so much.

Mr Lear - A Life of Art and Nonsense

I purchased this book shortly before last Christmas. What caught my eye was not only the subject matter but also the beautiful binding of this casebound work. When I got home and sought a place on my shelf where the book should go the choice was obvious. I slid 'Mr Lear' in between Soren Kierkegaard's 'Fear and Loathing' and 'The Essential Spike Milligan.' Kierkegaard's books had no real bearing on the choice. It was Spike's book that did it. Not simply because Mister Milligan and Mister Lear shared the love of the absurd but rather the spines of the books that so beautifully complimented each other. On the one hand, you have a spine that is burgundy coloured with gold foil lettering and on the other, Spikes book,  a spine that is a solid black with silver foil lettering. The two books sat next to each other look fantastic.

I was keen to read 'Mr Lear' quickly. I had asked my children to buy me for my Christmas present  four of Fred Vargas' Jean Baptiste Adamsberg novels but also a hardbound copy of Magnus Mills last published novel, 'The Forensic Records Society.' You see, I was pretty desperate to read these five selections as their authors are among my favourites. However, no sooner had I opened the cover, read the inside boards, then I was transfixed with wonder.

Jenny Uglow, the much-respected historian and biographer, invests a good deal of her childhood wonder and love of this quite incredible man into this satisfying biography. She really does manage to recall those moments when she first read his work, little suspecting as I imagine the case to be, that not only did he write most probably the best of all nonsense verse but that he was also a foremost natural history artist but also a remarkable landscape artist too.

Ms Uglow captures all the childish delights the Victorian gentleman displayed along with his captivating travels in and around Europe, notably Greece. Lear's was a life riddled with sadness yet also alive with joy. He loved yet never had the heart, having been so insecure by nature, to have asked the light of his life for her hand in marriage. It also seems he may have been homosexual for her spent much time with other men, one in particular - Frank Lushington, yet he never, as far as one can tell, consummated his desires. It would appear that way back then a man could feel lust, even engage in carnal delights with another man yet still marry and have children - a regular family.

I have to say that I enjoyed his nonsense works the most but all the same, found his artwork pleasurable too. I guess like many I tend to think of Edward Lear as being a one-trick-pony. he was anything but.  He made his living by selling his art. His books of nonsense gave him money but they were more the jam of his talents rather than the bread and butter.

As with any biography, any decent one that is, this shows the subject in various lights. Some good, some bad, some indifferent.  Edward Lear was no saint and yet was very much an equitable fellow.

Jenny Uglow presents the fact with confident brushstrokes that never embellish the subject or the events as they took place but captures with such vivacious assurance a man much loved then by an audience consisting of children as well as adults and continues to do so today.  

An enjoyable read. One I am sure I will return to.

Then there are the Christmas gifts. Presents from my daughters. One Magnus Mills and four Fred Vargas. Enough to give me hours of pleasure enhanced further by the books I borrow from Southend Library. 

Magnus Mills. A bloke and a bus driver. He drives those red buses you see in London. He is,  as previously mentioned, an author. Not just any author though. He is a writer whose work is unlike any other. 

"I swiftly averted my gaze when James rejoined me carrying two full glasses. He placed them between us and sat down; then he slipped the record from its sleeve and put it on the deck. At this point, I sensed that James wished to say something, but being constrained by his own rules he was obliged to remain silent. Instead, we passed a minute or so watching the froth on our beers settle."

Four men who share a common interest meet once a week in the local pub. There, in a back room away from other drinkers, they sit and play 7-inch singles. The rules are simple. Each man takes three singles to play. To ensure fairness each person selects one single at a time which is then played in order of rotation. Once the record has played no one comments on what they have heard. Club rules. That is the club rules as imposed by the individual whose record player is used and who devised the Forensic Record Society in the first place - James.

It's what Mills doesn't say as much as what he does. His silent gaps fill the void with unanswered questions. Those spaces define characters. Due to James' control freakery, other clubs are formed by disenfranchised former members who leave as they cannot stand the authoritarianism of James, the strict codes by which they are forced to comply.

Again, Magnus Mills uses his deadpan abilities to subtle effect. This novel isn't merely about men who meet in a pub to listen to music. It is about how society forms then force a series of rules from the top which rankle those at the bottom. A good example would be how America broke free of the British Empire because American's could no longer tolerate or abide the rules set upon them.

As with all Magnus Mills books, the humour here is as dry as stale bread but the stories are as fresh as a newly baked Baguet. Terrific.

Fred Vargas. Top of the pile as far as I'm concerned. Her Jean Baptiste Adamsberg character, the whole eight books in the series, in fact, are among the best crime fiction thrillers I have read. They are so idiosyncratic, so quirky that they defy adequate description.

Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau is Fred Vargas.This I am sure you know. Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau is a historian and archaeologist. Her pseudonym, Fred Vargas is a best selling author.  Her crime thrillers are a million miles away from the genres formulaic offerings.  They are quite remarkable.

When I got the four Adamsberg books for Christmas it was with a thrill of pleasure. I love both the series and the character. It has often been said of me that I seem a little distant, a bit removed from real life. To some degree this is true. I think much of this is due to my being an only child, a sickly child, one who spent much of his childhood either in a hospital or confined to bed after a bout of sickness. I enjoy my own company but also that of other people. If I am detached, a bit reserved then when compared to Jean Baptiste Admasberg I am the life and soul of society.

The four books I was gifted were "An Uncertain Place," "This Nights Foul Work," "The Ghost Riders of Ordebec," and "A Climate of Fear." Before tucking into them I was determined to re-read the preceding books. "The Chalk Circle Man," "Seeking Whom He May Devour," "Have Mercy On Us All," and, still to read, "Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand."

You can see from the titles alone how strikingly different these books are. Anyway, here I am having read the first three. "The Chalk Circle Man" sets the bar. Very good in itself, very distinctive, very, very different. "Seeking Whom He May Devour" strikes a different chord. Adamsberg doesn't appear until two-thirds of the way through. It is his lover and her companions on their wayward road trip, Camille, that the story centres around. "Have Mercy On Us All" is as dark, at times surreal, as you could wish for. It features a series of murders whose modus-operandi is the Black Death - the Bubonic Plague.

With "Have Mercy On Us All" Vargas steps up a gear. The plot has sufficient twists, ending on a double whammy, to keep the most avid of crime thriller readers on their toes but it is Adamsberg, the otherworldly Commissaire Principal, whose wondrously crafted character with his off-the-wall persona, that captures the imagination. About halfway, maybe a little more, through the book, Camille enters her lovers flat expecting a night of passion with her man. She discovers the detective in bed with another woman to whom he is making love. It is not that fact that is so unsettling, that so gives shape to Adamsberg's nature but his reaction to the other woman's rantings as she cries. 
"Stop it now." He says to his companion.
"It's not my fault," she protests.
"It's my fault," says Adamsberg, "but either stop it or get out." 
"You don't care either way!"
"It makes no difference to me. Nothing makes any difference."
Suddenly we have not just a man who is charmingly eccentric but a man who really does not understand other peoples feelings at all. A brilliant piece of characterisation. Not a policeman who drinks too much on the quiet. Not a cop who has family issues but a man divorced from societal codes of conduct. At least some of them. 

Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

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