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Review of Brando's Bride, by Sarah Broughton, pub. Parthian 2019



“Who is Brando’s bride?” – headline in the Tucson Daily Citizen, 1957

Identity: a construct comprising what you were, what you are and sometimes what you want to be. How you see yourself, and how others see you. Your ancestry is part of it but so is where you grew up - sometimes one, sometimes the other, has the edge.

I’ve long been interested in identity, and in people who change, fictionalise or otherwise monkey around with their identity, so this was a must-read for me. But this is not a simple case of making up a new identity or changing one for another. Rather, it is about highlighting one part and rejecting or minimising another.

Anna Kashfi became famous in 1957 when she had the bad judgement to marry Marlon Brando and the worse luck to attract the notice of the British tabloid press, as reptilian in the 50s as they are today. She was presenting as Anglo-Indian, with the accent firmly on the latter; she wore saris, which as she later admitted, Anglo-Indian women generally didn’t; they favoured English dress, and indeed the Anglo-Indian community in general played up their English side because it got them privileges in India, like jobs on the railway.

This all changed after independence, and many Anglo-Indian families took ship for what, despite never having seen the place, they still called “home”. The Ranchi, in 1948, brought among many others the Webb family, complete with 12-year-old Harry, who would later be renamed Cliff Richard, and another railway family, the O’Callaghans, with their 15-year-old daughter Joan or Johanna.

This family went to live in South Wales. When their daughter, now a Hollywood starlet who had taken (or been given by the studio) the name Anna Kashfi for a film in which she played an Indian woman, married Brando, the British press somehow got on to the fact that she had briefly worked in a Cardiff butcher’s shop. Her parents then declared loudly that though she had indeed been born in India (Darjeeling, according to her father, though in fact it was Calcutta), they themselves had been born in London (also untrue; both were India-born) and that, according to her mother, there was “no Indian blood either in my family or my husband’s family” – the biggest lie of all, for as Broughton's research demonstrates, there was plenty in both.

The O’Callaghans, in fact, were being even less accurate about their origins than their daughter was. She was embroidering her past and exaggerating the “Indian” side of her ancestry, but they were entirely denying the Indian side of theirs. At the time their story was accepted completely and Anna seen as a fantasist, which she naturally saw as betrayal on their part. They in turn felt betrayed by her implicit rejection of them; she asserted for a while that her father was in fact a stepfather and seems at one stage to have invented two new parents for herself. One of the saddest things in the book is the account of the author’s meeting with her in the final years of her life; when although she was no longer referring to these fictitious parents, she did not call her real parents by that name either, referring to them always as “the O’Callaghans”.

Broughton’s book is well researched and organised and she goes beyond the Kashfi story to discuss the question of identity in three other young female stars of the time, Pier Angeli, Belinda Lee and Gia Scala, all of whom were to some degree reconstructed and destroyed by the film industry. They were in a trade where their job was assuming different identities, but when their real lives began to diverge in any way from the identity the studios had constructed for them, they were ruthlessly dropped.

It would have been fascinating to have seen the author’s unpublished interview with Kashfi as an appendix, and I’d also have liked an index along with the notes, photos and bibliography. But it’s an engaging and thought-provoking study of one of my favourite topics. I do wonder if the interview touched on Kashfi’s childhood in India and her feelings about leaving the place where she had grown up. The history of the British in India is littered with primary source accounts from children who bitterly resented being exiled from the warmth, colour and lushness of India to a grey unfriendly island with vile food, where it always seemed to be freezing cold. Kashfi’s embracing of her Indian side, so unlike her parents’ rejection, may have been partly for professional reasons, but is it possible that her parents’ first “betrayal”, in her eyes, was taking her aboard the Ranchi?
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Review of The Stonemason by Andrew Ziminski, pub. John Murray 2020



"The most important tool of all – the eye, which once sharpened never blunts."

Andrew Ziminski discovered while still at school that he was fascinated by "the material aspects of the past, the tangible remnants".  He became a stonemason, specifically a fixer mason, who mends and conserves existing works, and he has for the past thirty years worked on buildings and monuments from the Neolithic to the Industrial Revolution and all points in between. In this book, subtitled "A History of Building Britain", he describes working on sarsen stones at Avebury, buildings in Bath, both in Roman and Georgian times, various cathedrals and small churches, bridges and canals.

He is fascinating on the technicalities of his craft (and the book has a glossary of the technical terms, which will come in useful when you find you've forgotten what a volute is; it's a scroll at the top of a column) but he is continually seeing beyond the how to the why: not just how the building was constructed but to what end, how did it fit into its landscape and time.  One of his minor eccentricities is to travel to jobs by canoe when he can, because it enables him to see how the original stone was transported, and he also often beds down in a sleeping bag at the workplace, a practice that brings him into contact with some interesting strata of society and at one point provides a poignant historical parallel. Working on a Devizes church, he worries about the effect the local down-and-outs have on the monuments in the churchyard:

"With their giros cashed they would get their act together and have a grand cook-up.  […] My admiration of their resilience and ingenuity turned to unease when I noticed the searing heat of their tin tray barbecues focused on the ledger slab of a Georgian box tomb. […] In St Mary's graveyard on the other side of town, a stone table easily mistaken for a box tomb leans at an alarming angle. It is in fact a mediaeval alms table for the distribution of dole – bread and ale to the needy. One of the side panels had fallen and contained a reminder that these people were perhaps the authentic residents of the place. The space inside had been used as a bin and stuffed with dozens of plastic cider bottles. […] I reflected that these unfortunates had the same tales to tell, ruined by circumstance and by austerity".

It is characteristic that he does not get indignant about this (mis)use of what he spends his life conserving, as he does about a ham-fisted piece of restoration in the Royal Crescent, Bath.

"Some time after we had repaired the volutes, a youth was let loose with a bucket of wet mortar. Go and see this work that was signed off by some administrator – it will have its photo taken by every one of the millions of visitors who come here every year. I wonder how many will puzzle over why the finely cut joints, so thin that a cigarette paper would not fit between them, had been smeared to a width of three inches over the interface between every stone. It is as though a chimpanzee had been let loose on Audrey Hepburn's face with a lipstick, in the dark."

Ziminski is that eternally absorbing creature, a man who knows a particular craft inside out and can communicate his enthusiasm for it. It helps that he is also a lively and engaging writer. He is, by the by, the son of one of those Polish gentlemen who came over to fight World War 2 and then stayed to work. He is also steeped in the history of these islands, which he does so much to conserve, and about which he is infinitely more knowledgeable than any racist ignoramus. I found his book both entertaining and informing, aided by helpful maps and rather beautiful line-drawing illustrations.
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Review of The Scramble for Europe by Stephen Smith, pub. Polity Press 2019

This is a slightly odd book; I think because of the author's background. He has academic qualifications and is indeed currently a professor of African studies, but he seems to have spent most of his working life as a journalist and it shows. The book concerns contemporary migration from Africa to Europe. He is good on statistics: I am glad I read it if only to discover what I didn't know, namely how slanted Africa's current population is toward youth, in contrast to the ageing population in most European countries. Given that African politics are in most places even more gerontocratic than ours, this makes for a large population of young people with poor employment prospects and little say in their own future – in some countries, where 60% of the population is under 18, it is literally impossible for a government to represent a majority of the people. And where you have a large population of disaffected youth, especially young men, you will have trouble.

The statistical analyses are informative (indeed sometimes a bit daunting to read) and he is good at identifying problems and causes, eg when he points out that it is seldom the poorest who emigrate, they having enough to do to survive, but rather those a few rungs up the ladder, and therefore increased prosperity in a country will not at first decrease emigration, as might be thought, but actually encourage it. But he seems to me to be way too keen, for an academic, on seeking parallels and examples from the world of fiction – folk tales, novels etc. I'm not saying these have no place at all in a factual book but I think he relies on them more than he ought in a book of essentially political analysis – the thing about fiction, after all, is that it didn't actually happen.

I'm also mildly baffled by a couple of assertions that, unless I'm missing something, just look wrong to me. One is his assertion that "immigration to the US from Africa became statistically significant only towards the end of the twentieth century" – pardon? How about the enforced immigration of all those kidnapped, uncounted slaves? Then there is the point when he talks of immigrant diasporas "Why should Malian immigrants in France, even those who have become naturalized French citizens, always remain part of a diaspora – be it Malian, African or simply "black" – when, say, Italian or Portuguese immigrants do not? Only African migrants are locked up in their past". In the first place, I doubt Italians and Portuguese are quite as free of their heritage as he thinks; secondly I would have thought Asian migrants were equally inclined to cling to their diaspora, for exactly the same reason as the Africans: both are an easily identifiable minority and often treated as such by people in their host country outside the diaspora.

Another occasion when he seems to me to ignore a fairly obvious answer is when, discussing the problem of ageing European societies, he asks "How then does one justify the a priori assumption that it would be better to integrate more immigrants into European societies than to offer Europeans incentives to have more children?" He does not try to answer this question; he presumably means it rhetorically, but it surely isn't. In the first place, in an overcrowded world it does make more sense to redistribute people than to create more of them. In the second, the assumption of most governments, often backed up by failed attempts, is not so much that it would be "better", rather that the alternative would be impossible. For most educated, liberated European women there is no financial incentive that would persuade them to have litters of half a dozen rather than stopping at two and spending the time saved on fulfilling their intellectual potential and generally having fun. it isn't primarily a matter of money but of doing something more exciting and satisfying than changing an endless series of nappies. And this is true the world over - the more educated women are, the fewer children they will have.

I don't think, in his final chapter "By Way of Conclusion" – the tentative title is accurate; he is way better at diagnosis than prescription  – he does anywhere mention supporting women's education in Africa as part of a solution. But I can't be sure he mentions it nowhere, for the same reason I found it very hard to review the book – it has no index! Notes, yes, bibliography, yes, but if you want to remind yourself what he said about the janjawid, or Rwanda, you are out of luck. This is a huge omission in a factual book and makes it far less useful than it might be.
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Review of Cuckoo by Nichola Deane, pub. V Press 2019



First collections often contain a lot of personal family history, which is natural enough. One's own background is often the first place new writers go to find material. How well this works depends to some extent on how far the writer manages to lift this material beyond the personal and anecdotal and give it a more universal relevance.

Rather cannily, I think, Deane has scattered the "family" poems through the book instead of collecting them in one section, where they might have presented us with a forbidding phalanx of other people's relatives. We meet grandparents, mothers and sundry kinfolk alongside Akhmatova, Auden and drunken football fans on a train. It was in fact some of these more outward-looking poems that first impressed me, notably "A Sofa under House Arrest" in which the spectacle of Thatcher and Pinochet taking tea – gruesome enough in its own right – becomes all the more sinister by means of some subtle use of language. Thatcher

   lifts her little finger
   away from the Minton cup in a toy
   goose-step salute
   and so does he.

The closing image, biscuit crumbs falling on plate or floor

   invisible
   as the dander, the human matter, snowing
   this minute
   around the General
   and his guest also, across the grain
   of light.

is beautiful and deadly.

It was some while before any of the "family history" poems impressed me as much. This may be in part a personal reaction, since the early ones were much concerned with pregnancy and birth (been there, done that, glad to forget it). But I'm also not sure they quite got beyond personal circumstances to the universal. "My Father at Eighty-Six among the Clover of Happy Valley" on the other hand does just that. The anxious watching, the consciousness of vulnerability and mortality in an ageing parent are instantly recognisable and I regard it as something of a tribute to say that it is mostly pointless to quote from it because its effect is cumulative. But the universality of the "quarks and photons" with which it ends is earned.

I'm not altogether sure about some of the very short poems; nothing is harder to write than a really short poem, which can't afford to waste a word. "Cherry Tree Petals" feels more like notes from a workshop (and Housman's already done the bridal-and-death white as well as anyone needed to). I didn't get what "Bee Griefs" was aiming at, either. The title poem, though again I wasn't sure I completely got where it was heading, is interesting in its use of echoing sound patterns and internal rhymes, a device she uses quite a lot. They occur also in "The Ballad of Tom Dean", indeed giving it its rhythm and musicality. This is another "family" poem that crosses over into the universal: Tom, scourge of local bullies, becomes an iconic, almost a mythical, figure, the kind indeed of whom ballads are made. In this poem, as in the Thatcher/Pinochet one, style works together with theme. The sharp imagery of the battered wife, "a choker of finger-bruises/round her neck" meshes with the internal rhymes, the swing of the short, mostly two-stress lines (and how telling is the variant in the last line, where the extra stress is provided by the repeated word "laugh") to produce a sense of everything coming together as it should.
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Review of The Aesthetics of Breath by Charles Lauder, pub. V Press 2019


Charles G Lauder Jr, as one might guess from his name, is one of those deracinated poets, an American now living in Britain. I know several poets in this position – Tamar Yoseloff, Barbara Marsh, Katy Giebenhain, among others – and I always find them fascinating because of their permanent in-between-ness. They see the place where they now live with an outsider's eye, which tends to be sharper, less inclined to see what it expects or is inured to. If they go back home, or write about where "home" was, they see with the selective and poignant eye of memory. It all makes things more interesting.

The first poem, "Sir Walter Raleigh of Bexar County, Texas", zooms right in on displacement: the speaker taking his half-English children to visit their American grandparents. He sees his children through his parents' eyes, their "chalky faces wild as dandelion and nettle", and America through those of his children, stumped by huge portions of unfamiliar food, delighted by the extravagance of Christmas lights, puzzled by the notion of going to church. He himself, now neither entirely one thing nor the other, may well feel "I’ve lost my bearings".

Not all the poems by any means are rooted in personal displacement, but even when they are not, they often play with different viewpoints – Einstein and his wife in separate rooms, never really together because most of his mind is always elsewhere; the disconnect, in " Family Legend Has It", between how a man recalls his childhood and how his family recall it. There is an uncertainty, an ambiguity, about how things really are, as opposed to how they seem to the individual.

What were boulders in the path, hyenas
hiding in the bush with raised claws,
turn out to be trainers, yesterday’s pants,
the cat’s tail.

("In Our House")

This ambiguity is perhaps mirrored in his freedom with lineation; not everything has to be left-hand justified and extra spaces sometimes serve for punctuation.

His use of language, though, inclines rather to exactness: the "corpulent flesh" of peaches, the impending birth of a first child:

like prying a crowbar between the iron doors
of our shut-tight lives and tossing in
a grenade.

("Inhale").

It isn't always as sharp as this; the "crow-stitched night" in "Thieves" is a bit too Dylanesque and the image doesn't really work for me either; it's briefly amusing to think of the birds picking over the compost heap as detectives, but in what sense are people composting their own rubbish "thieves"?

This, however, is an uncustomary lapse. In the fascinating long poem "Incarnations", imagery and language are pitch-perfect, chronicling the story of a couple. The separate strands of their lives weave together, forming something new, but there is divergence as well as rapprochement, a sense that individuals never wholly become part of each other, but strive toward "different peaks with different views". Its ending, hinting that if this couple's ashes are to be scattered where they were happiest, as the custom is, they will again be separated, sounds as if it ought to be sad but isn't, because the poem's cosmic beginnings made it clear that everything is in flux and will re-form yet again. "Incarnations" strikes me as a terrific poem, turning personal experience into something universal in the way that poems should do, but so often don't.
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Review of The Black Place by Tamar Yoseloff, pub. Seren 2019




                      I dream
of grey, of urban sprawl, in all
its stupendous misery.
("Emoji")

Tamar Yoseloff has long been known as a poet who conjures poetry out of urban landscapes, often in a state of decay. So this quote, at first sight, is no surprise, but appearances partly deceive: although the actual landscape of London does figure largely in this collection, so does the landscape of the human body, which, with its inevitable malfunctions, is observed in much the same forensic detail as some rusting vehicle or abandoned building.

A diagnosis of cancer, in the opening poem, leads to thoughts on mortality and memories of the dead, particularly a mother. The Grenfell Tower disaster, happening while the narrator undergoes treatment, entangles the public with the personal in "Cuts", with its brilliantly punning title:

    On the street the air is strange;
    my secret's blown. Fag ends stub
    the pavement, the Standard blasts
    Inferno – a tower fixed in flames.

    There has to be someone to blame.

Here, as in the previous quotes, there is a great deal of soundplay. The alliteration, the half-internalised, sometimes semi-accented rhymes in "Emoji" (sprawl/all, grey/misery) recur in other poems, notably "Disappointment" and "Holiday Cottage", and in the latter they are getting quite close to cynghanedd:

    Rain saddens brick, a sodden blackbird
    huddles under shrubs. We hunker down
    in the stygian kitchen, where even
    the knives don't shine.

I don't recall quite so much of this in her former collections, and if I were feeling fanciful, I would speculate that an increased interest in rhyme and form can sometimes mirror a desire to make sense of something, to bring a baffling universe into some kind of order.  Whatever the cause, the sound-patterning layers and deepens the poems.

The subject matter, the vision, of these poems may sound dark, and so in some ways they are, but the grimness is offset by the poet's characteristic wry humour. Whether observing the social media reaction to Grenfell ("we've become experts on cladding"), nailing the irony of an ancient jade coffin as "the emperor's new suit", or resolutely maintaining a sense of proportion about personal matters ("Everyone dies – get over yourself"), the voice is consistently unsentimental, laconic, serious without being solemn.  It is also a voice of great clarity and accuracy in its choice of words. That "stupendous" misery; the agonisingly perfect verb in "Fire laddered the walls". Perhaps this shows most clearly in the endings. I seem to see far too many poems in which the endings look strained-after, trying to make an impact but not really justified or emerging naturally from the poem. Here they are part of the voice, the natural and often powerful climax of an organic process. This is the end of "In Clover", about a protagonist who collects four-leaved clovers:

    She started when she was seven. An auspicious number.
    The casual hunt grew to obsession as she got older.
    And now she can't face the world before her, only

    the ground we will all go to.
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Review of The Velvet Fox by Catherine Fisher, Firefly Press 2019



This is the sequel to the justly praised The Clockwork Crow, reviewed here.  If you recall, this was set in the late 19th century when the orphaned Seren had come to live with her godparents in their remote Welsh mansion. The house was sad because their son Tomos had been stolen by the Tylwyth Teg (Fair Folk, who are fair only in the sense of good-looking) and Seren, with the aid of a cantankerous dabbler in magic who has been enchanted into the form of a clockwork crow, frees him on Christmas Eve.

The Clockwork Crow was wintry, all silver and snow; indeed the key to its mystery was a snow globe. This sequel is autumnal, and the artefact through which the Folk exercise their malignant power is a toy carousel.  They feel they have a claim to the house, and return to recommence tormenting its occupants when Tomos unwisely boasts of his escape:


Tomos tossed armfuls into the air. "I'm safe! They will never get me now! Never!"

As soon as he yelled the words a gust of cold wind came out of nowhere. It whipped the leaves, scattering them like red rags over the grass, flinging them angrily aside.

Seren shivered. It was a strange, icy wind. It smelled of danger.

"Tomos, I don't think you should…"

"We beat the Fair Family, Seren!"  He laughed as the leaves fell on his upturned face. "You and me and the Crow! We're safe from Them now!  Safe. Forever!"

The wind lifted the leaves. They swirled in strange patterns, high into the air. A vast arc of them gusted down the driveway, past the gate.

And Seren blinked. For the red and copper and golden leaves shimmered and transformed, condensed and clotted into a strange glittering mass; it became a red carriage with four wheels and two bright-chestnut horses, galloping towards her out of the swirl.



As we may guess, this vehicle is carrying the latest manifestation of the otherworldly beings who caused all the trouble last time, and this parallel world is created with all Fisher's usual infectious imagination and ingenuity. But alongside the otherworld, events in the real world are fascinating too. The previous book looked to have ended with Seren having found a home; here it looks less secure and we are made painfully aware of her precarious position as a not-quite-member of the family. The Fair Folk's machinations may be to blame, but her adoptive family are too quick to mistrust someone to whom they owe so much. Though by the end all seems well, we sense that the otherworlders have not finished with the house and that Seren may again need the Crow's help.

The Crow of course is as bad-tempered and as little inclined to suffer fools gladly as ever. Fisher avers that it is his character that made this book a "blast" to write. One can believe it, because the momentum throughout is terrific. Just like last time, this was unputdownable. With the first book, this was mainly down to the writing style and the sense of danger in the otherworld. This time, there is an added ingredient: the developing real-world situation of Seren. I honestly didn't think anything could top The Clockwork Crow in its field, but I think this is one of those times when a sequel may actually have outdone the original. I would guess there is going to be a third, and I really hope so.
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Review of Crewe Train by Rose Macaulay, pub. Virago Modern Classics



"A what?" Denham was apprehensive.
"A reading circle. You all study some book together and meet and talk about it."
"What for?"

Crewe Train was first published in 1926, but with Macaulay coming out of copyright lately, some new editions are emerging of novels that used to be hard to come by. I got into her work via The Towers of Trebizond, a staggeringly powerful, memorable book, but I don't think she could write an uninteresting one and this is well worth a go too. Denham (she was named after her mother's favourite village) is an orphaned young woman with a habit of asking awkward questions like the above, principally about social niceties the rest of us take, sometimes unwillingly, for granted. Denham, brought up by an unsocial widowed father who had left the ministry because he couldn't stand having to pretend interest in the lives of his parishioners, and settled in Andorra because it was hard for visitors to get to, finds herself in London, surrounded by people and baffled not only by how to relate to them but why it should be necessary to try. As her harassed aunt observes, "She can't understand why she must live in a way she doesn't much care for. More, she can't understand how people who care for each other are bound up together and must each give up something."

Denham is semi-feral, like a child before it is corralled into conventional adult speech and behaviour. Her frankly expressed views on the prospect of having children herself caused the book to be attacked when it was first published, but even now, women who think as she does might well be nervous of saying so:

"Well, I don't care about them much myself. They're no use when they're quite young, and they're awfully in the way. You can't take them with you on days out and they're always wanting something or other done for them."

It would be all too easy, these days, to medicalise her behaviour and decide that she was autistic – a reviewer of the time called her "a mental case". I don't think she is either, in fact; she is simply, partly due to her upbringing and partly to heredity, very self-sufficient and genuinely prefers her own company to that of any other. In some ways she might have an easier time today, when marriage is not quite so slanted toward the husband's convenience and a woman, indeed, can have a sex life without it. And her preference for climbing cliffs and exploring secret caves rather than attending London literary dinner parties would perhaps elicit more sympathy from a contemporary audience.

Yet even today, there is an awful lot of emphasis on touchy-feely togetherness and a corresponding distrust, even disapproval, of lone wolves, also perhaps, an envy of them, among some who have already got resigned to a domesticated life. I began by thinking the last sentence of the book was as sad an ending as I had ever seen in a novel. I now think it is ambiguous, because we have no way of knowing for sure what will happen next. Either way, it is, like everything else of Macaulay's that I have read, hugely original, unusual and daring. Denham's constant questions – why should people want to read reviews, rather than trust their own judgement; why should loving someone mean having to do things you don't like – are the kind of questions that children ask and embarrassed adults ought to.
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Review of Handel in London, by Jane Glover, pub. Picador 2018




Imagine, if you will, a biography of Shakespeare written by someone who, though perfectly competent to write historical biography, is by profession a theatre director. You'd get the normal biographical details, but also a fascinating slant provided by this area of expertise – in this time period we see comedies with two heroines, one tall, one short, so he's clearly got two boy actors of that description; from these lines we see that pocket-watches are coming into fashion: even the Globe is named for the new interest in world travel.

This is what happens when a conductor writes a biography of Handel. It focuses very much on his music, but not in the way a musicologist might; she is far more interested in how it gets staged, sung and received by the public. The extent to which Handel's writing, especially in his operas, was shaped by the availability of particular singers and what they could and could not do comes across very clearly; he seems to have been brilliant at showcasing the strengths of a singer or concealing their failings, as occasion demanded. Indeed he was basically a pretty good boss, who nurtured and believed in the talents of his staff: true, he was capable of dragging an un-co-operative soprano over to a first-floor window and threatening to throw her out, but when she squandered her vast earnings he was equally capable of helping her with a benefit concert. Handel did not like to waste money (he lived simply and got out of the South Sea Bubble well before the crash) but he was unfailingly generous to those in need and did a great deal of free work for the Foundling Hospital.

The London of Handel's era must have been a fascinating place; obviously in this book the facets of it that are thrown into focus are those that impinged most on Handel's career. This means the goings-on in the Hanoverian royal family, whose commissions for coronation odes, wedding marches and other celebratory music, not to mention a regular pension, provided much of his bread and butter, and the progress of the English musical world in his time. The resentment against the fact that opera was sung in Italian was clearly remarkably bitter, given that the practice then was, at what must have been considerable expense, to provide libretti in both English and Italian for the audience so that they could follow the plot. In fact, they probably understood more than I ever did in my opera-going days, for I could seldom make out what the Operatic Voice was saying even when it did speak English.

Though Handel's character in itself may not be the main focus, it comes across as well via his working life as by any other means: gruff, plain-spoken, kind, but above all absolutely driven when it came to his music. The man's work rate and output were phenomenal; his singers and musicians must have been exhausted by the end of each season but he seems to have been able to keep up this rate with no loss of quality.

This biography may not be so rich in anecdote as some of Handel that I have read, but two which, because of their musical connections, do make it in are unforgettable. One concerns the triumphant first performance of Messiah in Dublin, which was nearly hindered when the Dean of St Patrick's, whose singers were to take part, suddenly objected. This Dean was none other than Jonathan Swift, already showing signs of the dementia that would soon kill him. Luckily the Chapter had noticed the signs too, and quietly shelved his orders.

The second is the work Handel was engaged on when his sight finally failed: Jephtha, with its airs "Welcome as the cheerful light", "Therefore, tomorrow's dawn" and the one during which he laid down his pen, with a note that he was unable to go on due to his weakening eyes; "How dark, O Lord, are thy decrees, all hid from mortal sight".
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Review of Psycho Samaritan by Leon A C Qualls pub. Mercurial Press (Kindle)



"This is not the time for self-delusion" says our protagonist, about 267 pages too late for his own good. This is a first novel with a very ambitious unreliable narrator. There are clues scattered from early on to suggest that Lucas, who lives alone and spends an unhealthy amount of time online, may not be seeing things exactly as they are. But not until halfway through the novel did we get a really big reveal, which genuinely took me by surprise and was, I think, very subtly managed. It isn't easy, when writing in first person, to convey that the eyes through which we are seeing are themselves deluded; it has to be done, as it is here, by recording the reactions of others who do see clearly, but though the reader must get the point, the protagonist-narrator must not, and this failure must be credible.

I must choose quotes carefully, because even after we realise that events inside Lucas's head do not tally with those in the real world, we only gradually become aware of just how far they diverge, and I don't want to give away too much. Lucas is Glaswegian and appropriately gallus; his dry, deadpan voice often engaging:

"I consider myself a patron of the arts. One time I visited the Art Galleries—as normal people call it, it’s officially called Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum—with my cousin, and they had a box asking for donations, a recommended £3. I was more than happy with my visit having seen a stuffed elephant, and was about to oblige the coffers when my cousin said, You know that’s the price of a pint around here? Bloody West End. A whole pint. I put the money back in my pocket. Saving the art world could wait."

Also, like most delusional people, Lucas is not delusional all the time – in fact much of the book's interest derives from our uncertainty as to when he is and is not seeing clearly. When he observes "Graeme’s probably dead because Kenny can’t forgive him for spitting all over his face while chatting on a night out drinking. Men have died for less", it maybe takes the reader a few seconds to realise that this last sentence is all too true: the outside world may be less delusional than Lucas but it isn't all that sane, either.

I won't lie: quite apart from violence there are an awful lot of bodily fluids in this book, one way and another, and if you need your protagonists to be slim, handsome and hygienic, this isn't the novel for you. But Lucas, loser though he may be, is not impossible to feel for, and I found the gradual unfolding of the disconnect between reality and his vision of it consistently intriguing. To tackle (and so adeptly) such an advanced narrative technique in a first novel shows a commendable ambition. Right now, although there might possibly be a print edition later (in which case some typos could usefully be removed), this is only available in Kindle – here's a link. Give it a go.