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This week’s book haul

First, of course, is Ali Smith’s ‘Winter’, a sort-of sequel to ‘Autumn’ which has been nominated for just about every book prize this year, but won none. I’m about a third of the way through it already and it doesn’t disappoint: like ‘Autumn’ it is concerned with the world in the now and doesn’t pull any punches. But, like ‘Autumn’ it reflects these concerns through a human lense: particularly intriguing is how Smith peeps into the mind of someone with dementia, presenting us with a unique vision of how such a person’s mind might be working. Playful and angry.

Next up is ‘The White Book’ by Han Kang. I LOVED ‘The Vegetarian’, the first of her novels to be translated into English and this week was lucky enough to attend a signing session. It was a strange and wonderful evening, Han Kang reading from her work in Korean and then her translator reading it in English, the author talking about how to classify this new work – poem? novella? – and explaining how it came to be. It seems odd that I am now looking forward for ‘Winter’ to be over so I can get into what promises to be ‘a book about mourning, rebirth and the tenacity of the human spirit. It is a stunning investigation of the fragility, beauty and strangeness of life.’.  P.S. At the signing we also discovered that Han Kang has written many novels in Korea and the three currently translated (including ‘Human Acts’) are the tip of the iceberg. Hurrah!

Ah, Armistead Maupin. A memoir (‘Logical Family’) from the man who brought us the truly wonderful ‘Tales of the City’ sequence of books. Every home should have a copy of these big, beautiful, funny and sad novels, all adding up to create a grand – and often surreal – panorama of gay life in the US, from the 1970s onwards. These are characters which live on with you, so much so that – confession alert! – I still haven’t read the final volume as I can’t bring myself to say goodbye.

Finally, a lovely charity shop find: ‘Vera’ by Elizabeth Von Arnim. I’ve never read anything by this writer, but the fact that she was a cousin and friend of Katherine Mansfield (who I love) intrigues me:

‘Lucy Entwhistle’s beloved father had just died; she is twenty-two and alone in the world. Leaning against her garden gate, dazed and unhappy, she is disturbed by the slightly sweaty presence of Mr. Wemyss, also in mourning – for his wife Vera, who hasL died in mysterious circumstances. Before Lucy can collect herself the middle-aged Mr. Wemyss has taken charge: of the funeral arrangements, of her kind aunt Dot, but most of all of Lucy herself – body and soul.’

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Outskirts – John Grindrod


John Grindrod’s last book, ‘Concretopia’, was a terrific gazetteer of modern post-war British architecture, those remnants of a time when buildings (and society) faced the future with optimism and hope. ‘Outskirts’ continues this theme, looking at those curious hinterlands intended to bring a balance between town and country: providing space and air for our towns and cities while ensuring the countryside wasn’t swallowed up in blind expansion. As with other progressive initiatives – architecture, health, education – the future of the greenbelt is uncertain and this uncertainty fuels (alongside destructive snobbery about housing estates), a seething anger in what otherwise is a book steeped in melancholy.

I have written previously about how lucky I feel having been brought up in a new town in the north east of England and how the concrete vistas and ginnels were fuel for young imaginations rather than the deadening dullness of popular perception. From both towns I grew up in it was so easy to reach what we perceived of as the country: My Nana and Granda had a caravan in ‘Happy Valley’ to which they went at weekends as a respite from a hard week’s work. As a child it seemed a glorious place, way out in the wilds of the country. Mere streets from my home in our concrete new town were farmers fields in which we would run and make camps and have terrific adventures as the Famous Five, Fantastic Four, or even better than them all, Doctor Who. In ‘Outskirts’ John’s brother Paul shares this perception:

‘Though Addington was a dump, still is, I don’t think I could have had  more fun growing up.’ It was a reminder that for many people from the estate, the surrounding country wasn’t a dumping ground, it was a constant mystery and inspiration. ‘I never would have done half the things I did, Whether it’s made me a better person, who knows? Who cares, really? I had fun as a kid, and that was that. It’s what growing up’s all about, having fun and learning’

Of course the memory cheats: in reality ‘Happy Valley’ was about half a mile outside of Hartlepool, a large farmers field leading down to the trickle of a sour smelling beck, and our intergalactic adventures were as likely to have us stumble across lurid (and at the time quite frightening) pornography. But this sometimes bitter reality shouldn’t be allowed to taint the importance of those spaces: those sheaves of splayed genitals are now buried under a whole new estate of houses, leaving generations of kids with little or no space to expand their imaginations and learn about life – in all its vulgar and questionable glory. But without quality, affordable homes on such land, are we denying future generations that glorious concrete, those ginnels and greens which we took for granted and, more importantly somewhere they can simply call home? This is the conundrum at the heart of present day arguments around the green belt.

The other great spectre overlooking the green belt and these proletarian building sites is, of course, snobbery.  From the early twentieth century onwards, there has always been a backlash against ‘the masses’ and the need to house them (I’m looking at you, H.G. Wells, and you E. Nesbit) with the intelligentsia yawning on and on about the loss of land, the ‘national character’ and some opaque and mythical ‘olde England’, when what really appalled them was the sprawling kerfuffle of the working class. (see John Carey’s excellent ‘The Intelligentsia and the Masses’ for an eye-opening account). Grindrod mentions R. C. Sherriff’s 1936 novel ‘Greengates’ as a surprising antidote to this, depicting an elderly couple moving from London to a modern estate with charm and a feeling for the excitement which such people must have felt (In 1977 I certainly did!) but, as Grindrod points out, this was a lone voice. Perhaps more indicative is Josephine Tey’s 1948 novel, ‘The Franchise Affair’

A strange little book, ‘The Franchise Affair’ concerns the case of a young girl, Betty Kane,  who accuses a mother and daughter of having imprisoned and beaten her in their country house, ‘The Franchise’. Rather than a who-dun-it, Tey’s book is more of a why-dun-it, with a quite poisonous attitude towards the modern masses and the places in which they reside:

‘It was farming country: a land of endless hedged fields and few houses; a rich country but lonely – one could travel mile after mile without meeting another human being. Quiet and confident and unchanged since the Wars of the Roses, hedged field succeeded hedged field and skyline faded into skyline without any break in pattern. Only the telegraph posts betrayed the century

‘Away beyond the horizon was Larborough. Larborough was bicycles, small arms, tin-tacks. Cowan’s Cranberry Sauce, and a million human souls living cheek by jowl in dirty red brick; and periodically it broke bounds in an atavistic longing for grass and earth. But there was nothing in the Milford country to attract a race who demanded with their grass and earth both views and tea-houses; when Larborough went on holiday it went as one man west to the hills and the sea, and the great stretch of country north and east of it stayed lonely and quiet and unlettered, as it had been in the days of the Sun in Splendour. It was ‘dull’ and by that damnation was saved.

Tey cannot bring her characters to understand anything of those who live in these places. The attraction of a ‘dreary, rather grimy street – one of a warren of streets very like itself ‘ to Betty Kane is so beyond the realms of their taste that there can only be one explanation, one which at the time of writing would damn her as the true villain of the piece: ”I can tell you one thing about her. She is over-sexed.’ Many years later Sarah Waters’ ‘The Little Stranger’ would serve up a bloody repost to Tey’s bile and while the tone of ‘Outskirts’ – one of quite, considered calm – differs significantly to Waters’, an underlying current of anger is always present and occasionally scratches the surface:

‘The high downlands of Addington has been buried under boring modern housing’. complained the Shell Guide to Surrey. But as the beneficiary of this ‘boring modern housing’ I have to offer a heartfelt ‘fuck off’ to such snobbery’

‘Outskirts’ expertly guides us through the history, politics and debates of the Green Belt and then cleverly refracts this through the lense of his family history to show just how important, vital these modest houses and open spaces can be: his parents, Marj and John, finding a new life away from tenements and flats in central London; for Marj in particular, pootling around the surrounding land energises her intelligence when disability might  have crushed it. Our author, the quiet lonely child, is able to feel at home in the fields and forests wherein his imagination soars and he discovers a maternal bond through a mutual love of flora and fauna.

This could have been sickly and sentimental, the tale of a displaced family, ill parents and a lonely gay child being rich pickings for TV movie of the week, but in Grindrod’s hands these stories are moving but not mawkish: take his ‘coming out’ scene, which is pure Alan Bennett :

‘I decided to do it during an advert break in Taggart, because I knew that afforded me a short window as everyone would want to be concentrating on the TV again rather than wanting to go into more detail. Marj didn’t bat an eyelid, and said, Oh, is that all while smiling supportively. John started to mumble something about phases before Marj told him to shut up. And that was that. It was barely ever mentioned again, partly because a distinct lack of boyfriends for the following two decades made it a rather barren topic.

Anger and melancholy permeate these pages: melancholy at what has been lost, anger at what the future might hold. They should be strange bedfellows, but Grindrod balances the two perfectly. Actually that’s not quite true – I could easily have read more about the delightful Grindrods and their quietly eccentric lives.

Alongside Lynsey Hanley’s ‘Respectable: The Experience of Class’, ‘Outskirts’ is evidence of  a generation of people with a working class background fighting to reclaim  their past from the insidious lies of  ‘poverty’ shaming. It is everything good history should be: erudite, passionate, personal… and, on top of all this, is proud to acknowledge the importance of Delia Smith:

‘…Ebeneezer Howard’s book Garden Cities of To-Morrow. First published in 1898, this was the extraordinary work that created the idea of networks of verdant new towns. It’s a quick read too. At 128 pages this world-changing book is a fifth of the length of that other building block of civilization, Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course’




‘Middlewich: A postwar council estate in time’

For another poignant snapshot of life growing up on a housing estate in the 1970s and 1980s, you could do worse than Ian Waite’s touching and beautifulmiddlefield ‘Middlewich: A postwar council estate in time’, which can be purchased from



Here are some extracts…iwspreadfive




Posted in Ian Waites, John Grindrod, Josephine Tey, Lynsey Hanley, Sarah Waters | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

No beauty: Alan Hollinghurst’s covers.

Although never one of my favourite authors (too ponderous, too mannered – I didn’t even finish his last, ‘The Stranger’s Child’) I’m currently reading Alan Hollinghurst’s ‘The Sparshalt Affair’ and, in a cosy Sunday afternoon manner, I’m quite enjoying it.

However, one thing I have noticed is just how badly Hollinghurst is served by the covers of his books. Things started badly with the sub-Gay Men’s Press style of ‘The Swimming-Pool Library’ (yes, I understand it might have been ‘ironic’ dressing ‘literature’ up in what had long been considered – if a little unfairly – glorified pulp-porn) and despite slight improvements with ‘The Folding Star’ and ‘The Spell’ (My favourite and most loathed Hollingshursts respectively) we come to the utter tedium of his latest, which consists simply of over-layed picture frames. Yes, the novel is set in the art world, but pur-lease do none of his publishers give a damn about Hollinghurst selling? Or do they think his name is enough to sell? Either way, lazy, lazy, lazy!

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Posted in David Cain: November | Leave a comment

Ghost Stories for Hallowe’en

Firstly, to get us in the mood for supernatural shocks, here are the opening title with Marc Wilkinson’s wonderful theme to one of the greatest British horror films of all time: ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’

A darker book haul…

Next up are a couple of non-fiction titles which I recently bought: ‘The Ghost: a cultural history’ which has just been published and does what it says on the tin – with glorious, glossy illustrations. ‘The Ghost’s Who’s Who’ is a second-hand in which Jack Hallam  provides a  round up of ghosts from across the country.

Here is one of my favourites entries…

Babes of Bamber: near Shoreham, Sussex: The children of William de Broase, friend of the Conqueror and Norman Lord of Bamber Castle, are the pathetic ghosts of this Sussex downland village.  A thin, ragged boy and girl are still to be seen fleetingly gazing towards the castle ruins, or begging for food. They were innocent victims of the ruthlessness of King John who, suspecting de Broase of plotting, demanded the children’s custody as proof of his loyalty. Though the family fled to Ireland, the children were arrested and brought back to Windsor, where they were starved to death in the castle dungeons.


What makes a great ghost story?

Possibly the best place to start is with MR James. James published his stories between 1904 and 1925, quickly becoming classics of the genre, a reputation which was enhanced further in the 1970s when the BBC dramatized a number of his tales, broadcasting each of them on Christmas Eve as ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’. Like the stories, these short films became classics of their kind, alongside the Jonathan Miller directed ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ which is often listed as one of the most frightening pieces of British television.
So, what can we learn from James?

1/ Brevity makes the heart beat faster.
It is notable that James only produced short stories. Tension can be built up and sustained across a few pages – any longer and, in order to maintain both plot and suspense, a rollercoaster has to be created, building tension and then releasing it, building and releasing. In itself this is no bad thing and sustains most thriller and horror stories. A ghost story of any length has to keep to this formula – see ‘The Shining’ by Stephen King or ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson as classic examples of the longer ghost story. Remember though – these are rare examples of the successful long ghost story. Emphasising the brevity angle is the fact that for a ghost story to be effective you should also…

2/ Keep the plot to a minimum.
The whole point of the ghost story is atmosphere and fright, so don’t dilute this with a convoluted plot. Of course, you can get around this with an interesting sub-text: a perfect example of this is Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’, which has a great lesbian subtext.

3/ Don’t give the ghost a backstory or reason for being.
Again, this dilutes the supernatural element: A ghost should simply be a ghost, the spirit who has come back to frighten. If you give the ghost too much of a backstory you effectively make it human and therefore remove its sting. A truly frightening ghost is one which is inexplicable. If you must give the ghost a backstory don’t make it a sob story. There is nothing worse that getting to the end of a tale and finding what we thought was a malevolent spirit intent on destruction is actually a misunderstood mind who simply wants to right a wrong. and again, if you must give a back story, make it horrible. The BBC’s terrifying TV mockumentary ‘Ghostwatch’ did this excellently by making the ghost ‘Pipes’ a  child molester.

4/ Give just enough information to keep the reader informed.
Avoid ‘info dumps’ of narrative or plot. If the reader needs to learn something then drip tiny nuggets of information which also helps with the ratcheting up of tension.

5/ Suggest, don’t confirm
Are ghosts real? That is the question which should be in the minds of the characters and readers alike. So until your climax (when you can confirm the existence if it is pertinent to the narrative), keep everyone guessing, because you need to ensure that you…
6/ Leave enough space for the readers to frighten themselves
Whatever is written on the page will always be topped by what the reader can imagine for themselves, so take advantage.

7/ Set the story in whatever period you like.
Many writers seem to think that you have to set a ghost story in the past. While this might make things a little easier in that you don’t have to work around mobile phones (which must surely be the worst invention ever for thriller writers?) this isn’t necessary. Contemporary settings can be equally as unsettling.

8/ Is a resolution really necessary?
No, but the best stories end with the ghost getting the upper hand.
To sum up these points, here is a micro-story taken from James’ ‘A School Story’. In essence it is a perfect ghost story, despite being slightly less then two lines long:
‘…there was the lady who, on locking her bedroom door in a strange house, heard a thin voice among the bed-curtains say, ‘Now we’re shut in for the night.’
It is brief, suggestive, doesn’t give much away, leaves enough for the reader to fill in their own gaps –  Is the house strange as in ‘unknown’ to the woman, and if so why is she staying there? Or, is the house ‘strange’ as in odd, and if so in what way? And if so, why is she staying there? Why does she feel the need to lock her door?  Is the voice malevolent or benevolent? How does she react? Is she scared? Can she open the door? Is she trapped? Is it a ghost…or a psycho-killer? – and, in the end, the ghost has the upper hand. Perfect.

Now, before I finish, one final rule:
9/ Study the rules and then do your own thing.
While these rules are, in general, adhered to in most of the great ghost stories some are bent – sometimes more than slightly – to meet the author’s needs. In particular I’m talking about the ghost story as a novel – if all writers had stuck to the rule about brevity, then we’d certainly wouldn’t have ‘The Shining’ or Michelle Paver’s great ‘Dark Matter’.

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Some of my favourite ghost stories

‘Lost Hearts’ – MR James
A young boy is adopted by his elderly cousin. What are his cousin’s motives, and who are the shadowy figures who loiter with seemingly sinister intent? Adapted into one of the best of the BBC’s ‘Ghost Story For Christmas’ strand by Lawrence Gordon Clark:  watch this and wonder: who knew a hurdy-gurdy could be quite so terrifying?
‘The wind had fallen, and there was a still night and a full moon. At about 10 o’clock Stephen was standing at the open window of his bedroom, looking out over the country. Still as the night was, the mysterious populations of the distant moonlit woods was not yet lulled to rest. From time to time strange cries as of lost and despairing wanderers sounded from across the mere. They might be the notes of owls or water-birds, yet they did not quite resemble either sound. Were not they coming nearer?’

‘The Woman in Black’ – Susan Hill
Young Lawyer Arthur Kipps is asked to visit the remote house of a recently deceased client to put their affairs in order. At the funeral, Kipps glimpses a mysterious woman, dressed in black. Fearful locals shun his attempts to uncover her identity, a search which can only lead to terror…
‘What I heard next chilled and horrified me. The noise of the pony trap grew fainter and then stopped abruptly and away on the marsh was a curious draining, sucking, churning sound, which went on, together with the shrill neighing and whinnying of a horse in panic, and then I heard another cry, a shout, a terrified sobbing…’

‘Dolly’ – Susan Hill
Edward Cayley is sent to spend the summer with his Aunt Kestrel and spoilt cousin, Leonora. Denied a much wanted doll for her birthday, Leonora’s rage knows no bounds… and years to come the repercussions will come back to haunt both cousins…
‘I was about to pick up my book and read a few more pages to lull myself off again, when my ears picked up a slight and distant sound. I knew what it was at once, and it acted like a pick stabbing through the ice of memory. It was the sound of crying.’

‘The Haunting of Hill House’ – Shirley Jackson
The ultimate haunted house story. Four strangers are recruited to spend one summer in a house with a particularly unsavoury reputation. Each of the four has their own reason: for Eleanor it is a means of escaping her unhappy, lonely existence…
‘The house has caught her with an atavistic turn in the pit of her stomach, and she looked along the lines of its roofs, fruitlessly endeavouring to locate the badness, whatever dwelt there; her hands turned nervously cold so that she fumbled, trying to take out a cigarette, and beyond everything else she was afraid, listening to the sick voice inside her which whispered, Get away from here, get away.’
Also has a fantastic film adaptation ‘The Haunting’ (Dir: Robert Wise. 1963)

‘Dark Matter’ – Michelle Paver
At last! A story by a contemporary writer which easily matches the mastery of MR James: Jack Miller is rescued from poverty by the chance to take part in an Arctic expedition. As the Artic winter sets in, his companions leave one by one and yet, despite his increasing isolation, Jack can’t escape the creeping feeling that out there, in the darkness someone, or something is waiting…
‘Out of nowhere, for no reason I was afraid. My skin prickled. My heart thudded in my throat. My body knew before I did that I was not alone.
Thirty yards away on the rocks, something moved.’

‘The Ghosts’ (aka ‘The Amazing Mr. Blunden’) – Antonia Barber
A story which breaks nearly all my rules. Written for children, ‘The Ghosts’ tells the story of  how Lucy and James travel back in time to avert the tragedy which cut short the lives of the two ghostly children, Sara and George. Ghosts, time travel, a wicked uncle and a cruel housekeeper. A perfect children’s book and a wonderful film, directed by Lionel Jeffries with the same love and skill with which he made the ‘The Railway Children’
‘As they stood motionless side by side, they became aware of two figures which they sensed rather than saw, passing across the lawn just beyond the line of their vision. Lucy was afraid and clutched at her brother’s hand. But Jamie, whose only fear was that she might break the spell, clasped her hand tighter to give her courage, Then they stood without moving until the figures passed into focus: a tall girl in an old-fashioned dress and a little boy, who came walking quite naturally along the path towards them..’

‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to you, My Lad’ – MR James
An academic lets his curiosity and arrogance get the better of him when, on holiday, he finds a whistle carved with a curious invitation…
‘…there began to be seen, far up the shore, a little flicker of something light-coloured moving to and fro with great swiftness and irregularity. Rapidly growing larger, it, too, declared itself a figure in pale, fluttering draperies, ill-defined. There was something about it’s motion which made Parkins very unwilling to see it at close quarters.’
Adapted by  Jonathan Miller for the BBC in 1967.  Eschewing ‘special’ effects, the primitive imagery provides primal jolts which may confuse or even amuse the cynical or those overdosed on CGI. But go with the film’s basic logic (the characters even talk in a gibbering approximation of English) and you’ll understand why many claim this to be the scariest TV ever made.

‘The Shining’ – Stephen King (and definitely not the Stanley Kubrick film)
A child with a special power. A father with hidden demons. A mother trying to keep her family together. A family looking for escape…in an isolated hotel with a terrible, notorious past.
Second only to ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ in the haunted house stakes, King’s book is a glorious, chilling rollercoaster. If all you know of this story is Stanley Kubrick’s film, then forget what you have seen and prepare to be scared and touched by this story of a family torn apart at the seams.

‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ – Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Wonderfully creepy, if not your typical ghost story. This brief tale tells of a woman incarcerated in the attic nursery, a room decorated with sickly yellow wallpaper, its pattern exerting a sinister enchantment. Slowly, the woman’s sanity begins to falter…
‘It is the strangest yellow, that wall-paper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw – not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old, foul, bad yellow things…it creeps all over the house.’

Posted in Antonia Barber, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, M R James, Michelle Paver, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, Susan Hill, Susan Owens | Leave a comment

Cry, Mother Spain – Lydie Salvayre


‘Until now, I had never felt the urge to roll doglike (but in a literary sense) in my mother’s memories of the Spanish Civil War nor even to read any books on the subject. Yet now I feel the time has come to drag these events out of the shadows, since I had confined them to a hidden corner of the my mind, probably the better to dodge any questions they might raise’

Montse is a young girl in a small village in Spain, her life laid out before her: as a maid for the local dignitaries, the Burgos family, for whom she only needs to be ‘sweet and thick, and obedient with it.’ But this is no life for a young girl whose brother, Jose, has just returned from the annual almond and hazelnut harvests, here he ‘discovered word  so ew and so bold that his young soul became enraptured by them. These were immense words, grandiose, etched in fire, sublime, words for a new era: Revolucion! Comunidad! Libertad! When shouted with the stress at the end they were like a punch to the face.’

It is 1936 and Spain is on the verge of a terrible civil war which divides the soul of the nation and carries all with it.

Now an old woman, Montse’s daughter takes her back to those days of euphoria and terror, of hope and fear and, in tandem, learns about the horror of those days from George Bernanos’ ‘Les Grands Ciminetieres sous la lune’, a book published in France in 1938, and greeted with uproar as it recorded the atrocities carried out by  both left and right, with a particular attention paid to those carried out on the Mallorcan people in the name of Franco and with church complicity.

‘Cry, Mother Spain’ is a profound novel, beautifully structured and written so that all the necessary elements: the historical context; character, incident, drama, humour, passion  and reflection come together in a readable and surprisingly short novel. ‘Surprisingly’ because this novel, while tracking the lives of Montse and Jose, does so without losing the overall arc of the war itself: from the initial euphoria filled with great hopes and belief in a war for just causes:

‘How can I tell you what it was like? …It was a total aturdimiento, a bewilderment, a revelacion for us to discover the city that month of August 1936. There were brass bands blasting out military music, hose-drawn carriages, flags hanging out of windows…Buses painted with black and red initials, and trucks filled with young people waving guns charged along, and the crowds cheered them, crowds buoyed by a collective feeling of sympathy, friend ship and goodness. No one in the world today can imagine such a thing, no-ne and orators bubbling with ideas, perched on wobbly chairs: Miralos camarada! Van a la lucha, tremolando sobre sus cabezas el rojo pabelion! Look at them comrades! They head off to fight, their red hats bobbing in their heads.’

In doing this so beautifully Salvayre highlights the blind euphoric rush towards the perception of victory which precedes many of the world’s great conflicts. Conflicts which, inevitably lead to sorrow, disillusionment and, for many, the dawning realisation that, for the ordinary man and woman, there can be no victory:

‘It was etched on her face, carved into her flesh, the passed-down residue of constant submission, demeaning surrender, stifled revolt, a form conviction that men and women like her counted for nothing on this earth.’

For Montse, this euphoria liberates the vitality of her sexuality but, as with the political revolution, this freedom is dashed, and optimism crushed when she finds the   revolution is unable, or unwilling to change all the old ways: single and pregnant she must return home in shame.

This is not a ‘difficult’ novel: the flow of history and the various strands are perfectly orchestrated through to its inevitably tragic conclusion, while the joyful, passionate character of the aging Montse carefully counteracts what might otherwise have been a dry experience, Salvayre capturing perfectly that way in which the elderly can so casually drift in and out of their reminiscences, wallowing with delight in the freedoms which come with age:

‘People spoke loudly – for some reason, who knows why, the Spanish always think everyone around them is deaf…In that jaleo, that din, in that brouhaha of voices – don’t you love that word, ma Cherie? Brouhaha: what a fantastic word for din, for babbling – anyway, in all that laughter, with the chinking of glasses, and swearing hurled across the room, there was suddenly this deep and vibrating voice…Actually Lidia, ma Cherie, before we carry on, could you our me a glass of anisette?’

And it is through our narrator’s learning that we come to understand the lessons of the past and how much of what was spoken about the Spanish Civil War, seems so, so pertinent for modern Europe and our turbulent political scene:

‘(Bernanos) wrote a sentence which could have been written this very morning, so relevant it seems to our present-day world: “I believe my greatest service to honest men it to warn them against the imbeciles and bastards who cynically exploit their deepest fears.’

‘…commerce and industry, the exchange of letters and books, the interdependence of high culture, the growing ability to move from one place or country to another, were all leading to a weakening of nationhood in Europe, with the result that a mixed European race might one day be born. The few nationalists to survive…would be fanatics who would have to stir up hatred and resentment to exist.’

Ultimately though, this is a story about people caught up in the rush of history. It is a story of idealism found and lost, of a changing world order, a lost way of life and innocence destroyed. It is the story of a country whose soul has torn itself apart. It is the story of one young girl whose life would never be the same again. And, like many great works of art, it inspires and provides the reader with links to further investigation, notably George Bernanos’ ‘Les Grands Ciminetieres sous la lune’. Tragically, it appears that there are no English translations of this to be had.

‘Only the summer of 1936 survives, a summer when life and love swept Montse away, a summer when she felt she was properly living for the first time, in harmony with the world, a summer of ‘total youth’…’ 

‘Cry, Mother Spain!’ is a passionate telling of the story of the Spanish Civil War though the eyes of those who may have lived it. There may be many, many historical works which tell the same story, but few with such a beguiling passion for the people who are carried along – sometimes willing, sometimes not – on the tides of conflict and change.



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