Writers out of favour 1: Joseph Conrad

You can see why he might not be everyone’s cup of cocoa. English was not his first language and it shows in his sometimes convoluted syntax, choice of words and subject matter. His books do not easily translate into the Hollywood blockbusters and have not appealed to the Andrew Davies school of Sunday night television adaptation. Nor is he any longer thought of as natural A level or perish the thought GCSE English set book material.

So he languishes rather, which is a shame.

I first read Nostromo when I was fifteen. I can honestly say it was one of the hardest books I had ever read at that time (Henry James had mercifully escaped my attention) and I can vividly remember being quite annoyed at how the timeline jumped all over the place, almost as if determined to confuse me. I can’t remember getting much help from our otherwise rather good English teacher (he introduced us to Lord of the Rings so perhaps Conrad wasn’t his thing either).

Nostromo is set in an imaginary South American country seething with betrayal and political duplicity and Nostromo the man is a hero it is hard to feel close to. When he is charged with a mission to protect the silver mine that lies at the heart of the story and the intrigue that permeates it we are faced with one of Conrad’s darkest set-ups.

There are in my view better, certainly more likeable books in Conrad’s locker. Lord Jim (which was made into a film with Peter O’Toole but which significantly rewrote and in the process spoilt the story) is a tale of redemption. Jim abandons a sinking ship and leaves its missionary passengers to what he believes is a watery grave. Ironically his and the other officers’ cowardice is exposed when the ship does not sink and the passengers are rescued. Jim cannot go back to sea but must find his redemption somehow ashore. It’s a much more accessible and enjoyable book.

My favourite Conrad s a less well known book called Victory. It’s about a girl rescued by the hero (I am tempted to say main character because Conrad’s protagonists are rarely flawless) from her unpleasant patron and taken to his island. All goes well until the island retreat is visited by those who wish neither main character well. It’s a tragedy but unlike so many so-called tragedies it is genuinely moving.

Conrad, Like Trollope, probably wrote too much. There are works of his that are seldom seen in print (although take a look at the Kindle store if you want to tackle something no one else has heard of at a bargain price) and there are others that barely repay the effort. I am currently reading An Outcast of the Islands, the third in his Lingard series. It’s okay but there are definite signs of purple prose in his descriptions of the love affair between Willems and his native girlfriend and you can sense it’s all going to turn out badly.

I liked Chance, hated Under Western Eyes, loathed The Arrow of Gold and have never managed to start the Secret Agent or the Heart of Darkness.

It’s not easy with Conrad but even his slighter works are somehow more rewarding than you think they will be. Next time you fancy stretching your mind, give him a go.

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The Maldives

There is nothing quite so exciting or daunting as a new venture. It doesn’t matter if it’s a window cleaning business, a new shop, a multi million pound start-up with venture capitalists looking over your shoulder or (as in this case) an internet business, it’s still character building, and the older you get, the more you have accumulated experience getting in the way. After all most serial entrepreneurs will tell you that not all their ventures succeed. Even the mighty Google has a mixed record on this front (Google Buzz or Wave anyone?) although I guess that their $30 billion war chest cushions them from the worst of the worry when something goes wrong.

For the rest of us, it’s not just the set up costs (actually they might be quite modest) or even the time spent with no certainty of a return. It’s more about the emotional expenditure, the hope that it will work, the fear that it won’t, the knowledge that however well it goes there will be a built in delay before you know for sure.

Basically the site does what it says on the tin; if you are looking for a holiday but could do with a bit of pointing in the right direction before you start to investigate the tour operators’ websites then this is a good place to start. For the moment only the beach options are going to be fully populated but we will get the rest up as soon as we can. In the meantime if you have any thoughts on the site we should love to hear from you – post a comment below.

Anyway, Seekaholiday launches in a few days time. By the time you read this you will be able to see it live at seekaholiday.co.uk/beach.html.

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The Devil’s Sandpit

Chapter 1 Kristin

‘The Virgin Islands? Are you crazy? Where the hell are they anyway? And why would I want to go there?’ She glared at him, her deep brown eyes showing her hurt, knowing he hadn’t told her everything. In the background a slightly too loud CD played an unknown band with a lead singer whose screeching voice made her head vibrate with irritation. It was a source of regular disharmony between them; he liked his music to intrude whilst she preferred hers to work delicate magic on her frazzled nerves in the background.
‘There’s something else,’ he said eventually. He fiddled with his wine glass before he spoke again but she knew better than to try to hurry him. He would tell her whatever it was in his own way, in his own time. Unless she murdered him first, of course.
‘This is good,’ he offered. ‘Want some more?’ He held the glass by its stem and inspected its contents against the light from the living room window. From the corner of his eye he caught the expression on her face and grinned like an abashed school kid.
‘Sorry. I didn’t finish what I was saying, did I?’
The angle of her head, tilted in exasperation, told him he ought not to press his luck further. He raised his hands in mock surrender. ‘Sorry. You were asking where the Virgin Islands were. Think North Caribbean, South East of Cuba. Great sailing, former British colony or dependency or something. Very stable. No crime. Virtually. Sure you don’t want some more?’ His hand drifted in the direction of the bottle.
‘What I would like,’ she said slowly, ‘is to know why you want to go there. Also, what is the something else?’
‘Let’s go out and see Mr Bengali. I can tell you properly then. Although I’m just a little worried about you having a knife in your hand.’
‘I just can’t believe it,’ she told him, her eyes luminescent with tears. ‘How could you, when you knew perfectly well that…’
He was on his feet towards her and took the glass from her hand, placing it on the side table. He pulled her towards him and murmured in her ear, ‘You heard?’
He felt her head nod once but her body was stiff, resisting him as she so often did to maintain her independence, and he held her until she softened and melted against him. Then she clung to him as if he were a log on a tidal downriver flood and her salvation depended on him. He spoke gently into her ear but the words were meaningless and did not matter. After a while he pulled back and looked into her smudged eyes.
‘So, we’ve got a problem?’
She nodded. ‘I didn’t think we did. I was so happy. I thought you would be too. Now you want to go to Cuba or somewhere and I don’t even know why.’
‘Food is still a good idea. I’ll book a table whilst you get ready. Okay?’
She nodded wordlessly, offered him a tear streaked smile, and turned before he could see her face. Couldn’t he have let her enjoy her moment, however short lived it turned out to be in reality, without fucking it up?
Obviously not.
She scrubbed her face and reapplied enough makeup to restore normal service around her eyes, brushed her teeth and changed into her favourite blue slacks and a white blouse, all the time telling herself not to be a stupid cow, to listen to what he had to tell her without getting into an emotional drama or for god’s sake – bursting into tears again like a fucking teenager. After all, it wasn’t the first time he had come home with dramatic news – and she doubted it would be the last.
The proprietor of the Bengali Curry House greeted them for the regulars they were and showed them to their favourite table in the far corner. It was still early and the restaurant was almost empty, although a noisy group had followed them in and it would not be long before the jangling background music was swamped by laughter and voices. By silent consent, they did not spoke of the things that had to be spoken of until their drinks arrived, beer for him, red wine for her. Fortunately, it was one of the reasons they came here a lot, the Bengali was within easy walking distance of Alex’s house, which allowed them both to drink more than they would have contemplated if they had been driving, even if they did usually regret it the following morning.
Moira was ready to talk before he was. She carefully placed the wine glass on its mat and focused her gaze on him until he stopped drinking. His attention slid over her shoulder to Mr Bengali who was hovering, waiting to take their order. She suppressed a harrumph of impatience and ordered Jalfrezi chicken with onion bhajee and rice whilst he, as always, couldn’t choose between his favourite tandoori dish and something new and exotic. He plumped for the tandoori eventually, as she had known he would and she took a deep breath as the waiter minced away.
‘Come on, Alex. Put me out of my misery.’ She was angry now, keen to find out the worst.
‘Okay. I warn you though…’
‘I didn’t know you two came in here. How are you both?’ The animated tones belonged to a woman from the large party, which had to Moira’s irritation taken up the long bench seats next to them. ‘Look Davey, it’s Alex and Moira. What a coincidence!’
Statistically, Moira knew that if a room contained a certain number of bodies the chance that you would already know someone in it was significantly higher than people usually guessed. She wondered darkly what the statistical probability was that you might actually like the someone.
‘Hullo, Kristin. Davey. Nice to see you. Big party.’ Moira’s hand flickered towards the long table as if to say “you ought not to neglect your friends”. Her lack of enthusiasm was palpable but Kristin was incapable of noticing snubs of even limited subtlety and she made a face and whispered to Moira:
‘Don’t know what we’re doing here. It’s a goodbye do, I think, but I don’t actually know the girl who’s leaving.’ Her hand wafted towards the other end of the table as indifferently as Moira’s had done but her gaze held Moira in a grip of adamantine. ‘Still, if Alex doesn’t mind too much, I can talk to you instead, can’t I?’
Alex won’t blood mind. It’ll let him off the hook nicely.
Moira glanced at him, expecting to see a nod of agreement. Instead he was speaking. ‘Actually, Kristin, it’s lovely to see you both but this is a bit of a bad moment. Moira and I are just talking about splitting up. Could end up either way at this stage but whichever it is, there’s likely to be a bit of blood on the floor before we’re done. Best to stay clear, probably.’
‘Don’t be such a tease, Alex. You and Moira are like…’
‘Shut up, Kristin,’ Davey told her. ‘Sorry, you two. She hasn’t the sense she was born with. Not that that’s saying much.’
Alex kept a straight face as Kristin turned coldly towards her partner and began to berate him in a low poisonous tone, which reminded Moira of just how little she cared for the woman, although Davey had gone up in her estimation. A little. Still didn’t put him very high up, mind you. She looked at Alex, grimaced and then said quietly:
‘Nice try, masked man, but I fancy walls will have ears. Shall we go somewhere else?’
He shook his head and wrinkled his nose in a familiar gesture that she knew she would miss. It was a thought that had made her sad all evening. He was going away, the reason didn’t much matter, and although he would ask her to go and in some ways she would want to, still she would say no.
‘I’ve packed in the job, Moira. I expect you guessed that. I couldn’t stand it any more. You know how miserable it’s made me for the last god knows how long. I told them this morning and they’ve asked me to think it over, the usual guff, but I’m definitely going.’
‘They might offer you a partnership now, I suppose,’ she replied, as if his decision to go was the most likely catalyst for this. ‘You’d stay then, wouldn’t you?’
‘I might have done once, although I don’t think they will want to keep me that badly. But not now.’
She resolved to make it as hard for him as she knew how. He was holding back something but it was as if he expected her to prise it out of him. Well, she was damned if she was going to play. She said brightly instead:
‘Well, my news is just as good. Donald has confirmed my grade promotion and…wait for it…. I start as department head on 1st May. So perhaps I’ll just keep you in the style to which you have become accustomed whilst you decide what you want to do next.’
‘I know that.’
She didn’t understand the remark. Did he meant that he knew she would keep him until he got a new job or that he already knew what he wanted to do next?
‘Look at those two,’ she whispered. Kristin and Davey had locked gazes and were hissing at each other, not quite beneath their breath but just low enough not to attract attention. Soon their bickering would escalate into either a shouting match or a world class sulk on Kristin’s part. ‘That was your fault,’ Moira accused him.
‘She’s your friend,’ he answered.
‘God, is she? How?’
‘She was with the Foreign office and you met her when you were working in London. Don’t you remember?’
She did not want him to remember the London job and shrugged. ‘Don’t remember.’
He sighed. ‘She invited you to a party and you insisted that I come with you because, you said, you couldn’t bear to go on your own. And much against my better judgement, we went and she and Davey had invited an Afghan warlord, to liven things up according to her. And that was when you…’
‘Okay, okay, I remember.’
‘At least she doesn’t have blood on the carpet to worry about tonight.’
‘There was no blood, Alex! I hit him because he was being very offensive and I was a bit drunk.’
‘Not the other way around? ‘he answered quickly.
‘Possibly,’ she admitted. ‘On which topic, let’s have another drink and you can tell me why it’s not good news for me to have been promoted.’
‘I didn’t say it wasn’t,’ he protested.
‘No? Where’s the champagne? The hugs and kisses, the big smile?’ She smiled sadly at him and felt her heart shrivel a little. ‘You didn’t need to, Alex. But you do need to tell me why.’
‘I was trying to tell you earlier. I’m sorry that it’s all happened at the same time. I’m really pleased that you got the promotion but…’ he paused. ‘It makes it hard to ask you to come with me.’
‘To the Virgin Islands?’
He nodded. ‘The thing is, I handed in my notice because I heard about something today too. Something that I’d been waiting for …all my life really.’
She shook her head in mystification. ‘What?’
‘Let me pitch it properly. Please.’
The arrival of their starters interrupted her shrug of exasperation. Why did she have not the slightest inkling what it was that her partner had been waiting all his life for? Had she been so wrapped up in her own amazing world that they had never managed to talk about the things that were important to him? Or was he such a secretive person that he did not want to share it with her? In which case why did she not even know that much about him? He was talking again and she suddenly realised she had not been listening.
‘…not what I wanted to do. Dull people, dull figures, and stultifyingly dull disagreements. I missed my chance at partnership 2 years ago largely because they could see how bored I was. And all the time I had this picture in my mind of what I really wanted to do.’ He took a mouthful of beer and framed the image in his mind with his hands. ‘A blue sky, fleecy clouds scudding across like frightened sheep in the breeze, white sails and flecks of foam as the hull knifes through the sea. Did I mention it was dark blue in the deep water and turquoise where it shelved? Clear as a virgin’s conscience.’
Moira raised her eyebrows in amusement.
‘Okay, clear as the clearest water you can imagine. Pure and crystalline. In the distance you can see an island covered in vegetation, perhaps a solitary coloured roof or two marking out the houses. Behind you – Tortola Harbour, where the forests of masts define the marinas. Half the visitors to the Islands charter a boat. It’s easy, line of sight stuff mainly, no horrible reefs, good wind, not too stuffy even when it’s hot, because the winds come in from the Atlantic and freshen it up. It’s a place to dream.’
Moira had never seen him speak so lyrically. An invariable cynicism tinged with affection, if she was lucky, was what she expected from him and she was rarely disappointed. An unpredictable depression that sat on his shoulder twice a year, making him silent and withdrawn, was the other persona she knew. This passion came as a surprise even though she had always understood that he loved the sea as much as she did.
‘I first went there before any one had heard of it in the UK. My parents chartered a 35 footer and we flew in via San Juan, changing planes three times, like taking a train to somewhere outlandish in the West Country. The whole thing took over 24 hours. I can still remember the beach at San Juan next to the airport. I wandered up and down it for an hour waiting for the flight, before anyone was up. We took a little plane, powered by a rubber band and flew into Beef Island, then took a taxi down to this awful little marina where we had arranged to pick up a Bénéteau. And off we went. The most magical two weeks of my life.’
‘How old were you?’ she asked.
‘Sixteen. Nearly too old to go on holiday with my folks but they knew it was the last one and they wanted to make it special.’ His eyes grew reflective as if he had also lost his virginity there.
‘Anyway, there’s a place called Soper’s Hole. Sunsail had its base there for years. Then they moved and an outfit called Erin bought it and ran it for a few years.’
‘And now?’
‘A company called Alexander Holdings Inc owns it. As of this morning.’
‘Ah,’ she said, her voice flat with foreknowledge. ‘How does that involve you exactly?’
‘Well –‘
Heads in all parts of the restaurant turned in their direction as the cast iron skillet of red-hot marsala sauce landed on Davey’s lap and he reacted with a single arresting four-letter word of protest. Kristin was on her feet and he stared at her in shock for a moment, forgetting the contents of the skillet as they seeped slowly into his trousers. Then, as she swept out without a word or a backward glance, the heat penetrated to his skin and the faces which had watched with either malicious curiosity or mild interest burst into laughter and applause as he swore again and began a war dance to rid himself of the burning curry in his lap. The skillet fell to the floor with a clatter, spilling its remaining contents onto the carpet. Moira lifted her feet away from the fallout zone in alarm as Mr Bengali’s troops swiftly moved in to clean up the debris with cloths and courteous amusement. Davey hobbled to the men’s room to sponge himself off, shrugging off the offers of help with irritable gestures of dismissal and more bad language.
‘Something he said, do you imagine?’ asked Alex.
Moira hated to see such public displays of disharmony and felt a small sense of responsibility for it. She didn’t like Kristin but could not help wondering what Davey had actually said to her to produce such a reaction. She resisted the urge to snap at Alex in reply and silently finished her prawn butterfly.
‘Funny she didn’t say anything. Just threw it at him,’ Alex added thoughtfully.
‘Women,’ Moira told him. He glanced at her suspiciously. Irony was often lost on him.
‘What about them?’ he demanded.
‘Oh, you know, unpredictable, emotional, wrong time of the month. Never can tell when they’re going to upend their supper all over you.’
‘You’re angry. With me?’
‘Why would I be angry with you?’
He sighed in annoyance. He never knew how to deal with her when she was like this. It was always something he had done, usually unwittingly, although to be fair to her, not this time.
‘Look, I’m sorry. I’ve been offered the chance to run the marina. It’s a good deal with the chance to buy some of the shares in the new company so I’ll have a proper stake. It’s what I want to do. I had hoped I could persuade you to come with me but…’
‘Now you’re not so sure.’
‘It’s not that. You know it isn’t.’ His mouth had adopted a familiar sulky downturn that obscured his dark good looks and turned him into a schoolboy. Now he would not meet her eyes and suddenly, she couldn’t even remember what colour his were. A sort of steely blue, she supposed, transmuting to green in the right light. Green for gentleness and sensitivity, steel for the rest of the time. He reached out a hand in place of the glance that seemed beyond him and she rewarded him with a smile.
‘I know,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry to be so¬—‘
‘Awfully sorry about that,’ Davey said in his too loud voice as he returned to the adjoining table and sat down. ‘Has her ladyship gone?’
Moira could see a dark flush of reddened trouser around his crotch and suppressed a grin. ‘Looks like it. How are you?’ She glanced significantly at him and added hopefully, ‘any permanent damage?’
‘Ruined the trousers. Cow. And she’s gone off with the car.’
‘Whatever did you say to her, Davey?’
‘God knows. Look, I don’t suppose I could join you, could I? I don’t know any of these people.’ He gestured towards the remainder of the party, none of whom seemed to have acknowledged his existence since laughing at his discomfort. ‘They’re all from Kristin’s office. Rum lot.’
Moira glanced at Alex to warn him that she did not want to spend the remainder of the evening with Davey but he was already nodding his agreement and saying, ‘of course.’
Davey had caught her frown. ‘Look, I don’t want to be any trouble.’
‘It’s no trouble,’ Alex assured him. ‘Why don’t you order yourself some more food? I’d go for something less…colourful next time, mind you.’
Now there, thought Moira, is a man who definitely doesn’t want to talk to his partner any more this evening.
She watched as Davey caught Mr Bengali’s attention and ordered a replacement dish, her irritation increasing as his new knife and fork were carefully placed on the vacant edge of their table and Alex shifted his chair slightly to make room. She knew that she must be careful. This was exactly the sort of situation she found hard to handle and she lit a cigarette to give herself something to do with her hands. She caught Alex’s look of disapproval and shrugged minutely.
‘So, Moira, what are you doing with yourself these days?’ enquired Davey breezily. ‘You used to be in the FCO with bloody Kristin, I seem to remember?’
‘I was only a pen pusher for a year or so, in another bit of the building. I’m working for a legal company now. Much more interesting.’ Moira smiled at him. She didn’t mind talking about her job at Claims OnLine.
‘What, a firm of solicitors?’
Moira shook her head. ‘Not exactly. It’s a company that specialises in personal injury claims. Some of the cases go out to a panel solicitor but we do a good deal of it in-house. My nursing experience comes in handy.’
‘I’ll bear you in mind the next time I’m suing someone.’
Patronising little shit, thought Moira.
‘What about you, Alex? The last time I saw you, you were still fiddling the books.’ Davey looked around for a waiter to refill his wine glass. ‘Another drink, you two?’
‘’Thanks,’ Alex acknowledged, finishing his lager. ‘I was just saying to Moira that I was ready for a change, actually.’
‘Oh, yes. Anything in mind?’
‘Perhaps something overseas. I don’t know yet. What about you?’
Davey gave a dry little laugh and an irritating lock of hair flopped into his eye. He flicked it back into place with a gesture that was quite unconscious. ‘Still at the same place, I’m afraid. I don’t think they’d have me anywhere else.’
Moira wondered if Alex knew where the same place actually was. She didn’t. ‘Do you know, Davey, I haven’t the faintest idea what it is you do.’
‘No? My reputation as a man of mystery remains intact then.’
‘Not if you tell us what you do.’
He offered a repeat of his annoying little laugh. ‘Oh you know, import and export. Mainly to the States and the Caribbean. Now my cover’s blown.’
‘What sort of things do you import and export?’ Moira was more interested than she expected to be but Davey’s answer was interrupted by the arrival of Mr Bengali armed with plates, and although she looked at him expectantly once or twice as he fiddled with his side dishes, he said nothing more until somehow the conversation moved on to a discussion of the relative merits of Audi and BMW.
‘Remind me,’ said Alex an hour later as they walked away from the curry house, ‘remind me, oh shit, I’ve forgotten what I had to ask you to remind me. Bugger.’
‘Not to drink so much?’ suggested Moira.
‘’That was it.’
‘Bloody Davey’s fault, anyway.’
‘Oh absolutely, old chap. Guilty all the way. That’s what Kristin, what a cow that woman is, always says.’ Richard was walking slightly ahead of them and lost his balance as he turned around to face Alex. ‘Shit.’
‘I think,’ said Alex firmly, ‘I think we’d have been okay if we hadn’t had that last bottle.’
‘Definitely,’ agreed Davey. ‘Fine until then.’
Moira shook her head. In some ways, the evening had been more entertaining than she had expected it would be. Davey had been coruscatingly witty at the absent Kristin’s expense and Moira had enjoyed his other tall tales, despite their tendency to centre around yacht owning mid western Americans and dusky Caribbean prostitutes. But the last bottle had been a mistake and although she had let the two men drink it more or less without her help she saw that she could no more avoid its consequences than they could. For a start, where was Davey going to spend the night? Alex was bound to suggest he stayed with them and it would take nothing for Davey to agree. She doubted whether the prospect of meeting up with Kristin had much appeal to him. Then there was Alex. He had obviously decided that Davey’s company was likely to be less draining than hers and she could hardly blame him, given her own closely defended secrets. Still, illogically, she was wounded by his duplicity. How long had he been planning to go to the Virgin Islands? He had never once so much as mentioned the place to her before that night. The childhood reminiscence had been heartfelt but that did not necessarily make it genuine.
Not with Alex.
‘Can I call you a taxi, Davey?’ she asked as they turned into the cul de sac. Alex’s house lay at the far end, in darkness, squashed between two similar properties still ablaze with light, despite the hour. Music with a reverberating bass line advertised someone’s insomnia. Perhaps the couple next door were having a party.
‘Call me anything you like, old girl,’ he told her as if the joke had just won an award, ‘as long as it’s—‘
Oh dear, thought Moira. This should be interesting.
Behind Alex’s Jaguar, next to Moira’s old Renault, a silver BMW Z3 with its top down, surprisingly, given the cool evening, lay as if in wait for them. Its owner leant negligently against the bonnet, her hips swaying in unconscious response to the music pounding from the car’s speakers.
Alex quickened his pace. He was old fashioned about disturbing the people he lived close to and despite his drunken state had correctly concluded that the lights were on in the houses next door because his visitor had woken them up. He reached the BMW well before the others, wrenched open the driver’s door and silenced the stereo. There was a squawk of protest from the figure on the bonnet, succeeded by a sulky glare as she saw the look on Alex’s face.
‘Hello, Kristin,’ said Alex. ‘I don’t think you should be driving.’
It was obvious that Kristin was even drunker than Davey and Moira wondered how her former colleague had managed to drive here. She surreptitiously checked for damage to either of their two cars but both appeared unmarked and she followed the other three into the house, trying unsuccessfully to suppress the feeling that she was losing control and wondering how Kristin had known where she and Alex lived.
‘In the kitchen,’ she told them all firmly. The last thing she wanted was Kristin falling all over her living room or worse, throwing up on the carpet. And if she and Davey were going to fight, which seemed likely, the kitchen seemed to her to be a better place to do it in. She busied herself with coffee cups and the filter machine as Alex arranged stools around the breakfast bar and a still sulking Kristin allowed herself to be seated.
‘I was just saying that I would organise Davey a taxi to get home,’ Moira told Kristin as she brought the coffee over. ‘So it’s good you’re here.’
‘Not sure she ought to drive,’ murmured Alex.
‘In that case, the taxi can take you both home. Together.’
‘I’m fine to drive,’ announced Kristin. Alex and Moira glanced at each other and suppressed a smile.
‘Might be best to get the taxi,’ Alex told her, as if imparting a confidence. Davey nodded agreement but his former red wine fuelled exuberance had evaporated and he had nothing to say. They drank their coffee in silence, Moira fighting hard to repress a fit of the giggles. How had these two strange people ended up in her kitchen, drunk as skunks, not speaking to each other and obviously quite indifferent to the disruption they were causing? She sipped her coffee, wished for the thousandth time that it made a hotter brew and looked at Kristin. She saw a pale, oval face, framed by shiny dark brown hair in a cut that she always thought of as late Lois lane, small nose, and down-turned mouth. Foxy. Trim figure, medium height, everything in proportion. Not a great gangly thing like her, she thought ruefully. A sexy little skirt and top completed the overall package which was attractive, in a moody way. Kristin would appeal to a certain type of man and Davey wasn’t it. She wondered what they were doing together. For all she knew it was the same as her and Alex.
She stood up. ‘I’ll go and phone for that taxi.’ She ignored the frown from Alex – surely he didn’t want them both to stay?- and picked up her mobile as she slipped into the living room. The yellow pages directory was in its usual place beneath the phone and she opened it to the Taxis section, glanced at it for a second and then punched in a number from memory. Her call was answered before the second ring. She glanced around to check that no one had followed her.
‘Smith. I need a secure taxi please. I’m at the usual address. Thanks.’
She didn’t much like Kristin but she still needed looking after. She disconnected, deleted the number from the machine’s memory, and then dialled a taxi firm number at random from the directory. She pressed the end call button as soon as she heard a voice. She didn’t plan to give Alex any clues either. Not now she was so close to the end.

Posted in Chapter 1, The Devil's Sandpit | Tagged | 13 Comments

The Great Wilbur Smith

My wife bought home Wilbur Smith’s latest as a present for me yesterday. It’s called Those in Peril and it’s a standalone novel set in the Indian Ocean. At its heart is the kidnap and torture by Somalian pirates of the daughter of the owner of a global oil company. I haven’t got beyond the first few pages so this isn’t a review although the first signs are good. It’s out in hardback, e-book and an audio version.

Those in Peril

I read my first Wilbur Smith an amazing 43 years ago. That the man is still producing world class fiction fills me with awe. It also made me think that the first book he wrote must have been a very precocious effort although I don’t remember it as such. Anyway a quick bit of research tells me that Smith was born in 1933 making him 78. That first book When the Lion Feeds was published in 1964 which means that it must have been written when Wilbur Smith was 31, not such a remarkable achievement in itself because there have been many younger writers, although few with such longevity.

When the Lion Feeds was closely followed by the second in the Courtney series -The Sound of Thunder. Both attracted (if Smith’s website is to be believed and I am sure it is) record advances, print runs and royalties. There are now no less than 13 books in total in this series which for many is their favourite Wilbur Smith hunting ground. They are all set in Africa as is the Ballantyne series with a mere five novels.

I have not read them all but I have the last in the series – the Triumph of the Sun –set in the Sudan at the time of the siege of Khartoum which has both Ballantynes and Courtneys working together to survive.

My least favourite of his books are the Egyptian novels, in fact I seem to recollect not finishing the Seventh Scroll – a rare misfire for this writer whose books are almost without exception hard to put down.

Finally there are a number of standalone novels like the latest and these are my favourite by a country mile. Shout at the Devil and Goldmine may be familiar to you from the slightly tepid Roger Moore films – the books are much better. The Eye of the Tiger, Wild Justice and Hungry as the Sea are just terrific entertainment. All three are set in a marine environment and Wilbur Smith does as much justice to this as he does to the African Bush.

And yet despite the popularity and the success he has never received much in the way of recognition as a writer, as if his accessibility, his exciting stories and their strong narrative drive made it impossible for them to be worthwhile. It’s a sort of snobbery I suppose.

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Books I’ve never finished

A friend of mine always used to say how much he admired me for always finishing a book I had started. I was never quite sure where he had picked this up; I don’t recall claiming such a record although there was a time when I thought it important to make every effort to get to the end, especially if I had spent my hard earned cash and my time on the book.

More recently though I find myself abandoning a book halfway through. This is not a good thing. The failure of which I am most ashamed is Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I was enjoying it, I was half way through, I had no sense of becoming bored but one day I found that it had slipped somehow to the bottom of the pile and I had started something else.

I think that may be the key – something new to read, in this case the excellent .

Sometimes I return to the book that I have failed at. I bet you there are thousands of people like me who have not finished Joyce’s Ulysses but who have tried several times
probably dwarfed only by those defeated by Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. I can at least claim a victory of sorts there because I did struggle to the end even if I didn’t understand it all.

Popular science is fertile ground for failure. I love Richard Dawkins’ books on evolution but I do find they can sag a bit in the middle and the same is true of even the most populist explanations of cosmology.

The other factor is weight. You can’t take a hardback copy of Ulysses or Bleak House into the bath so there is a great temptation to pick up some light paperback reading and that’s a slippery slope.

So how big an effort should we make to finish a book? It’s supposed to be for pleasure so if you’re not enjoying it – dump it. What about the books we have eventually enjoyed through perseverance though? I loved A S Byatt’s Possession but it did for some unknown reason take me three goes to get past the middle section.

Likewise I persevered with Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and Tess of the Durbervilles and count myself better off for having done so. On the other hand I suspect I will never know how The Siege of Krishnapur ends.

I would love to know what books other people have failed at and whether they regret the failure.

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Enter Trampas

Those of you of a certain age may remember an American Western series which found its way onto our screens in the late sixties and early seventies and featured James Drury and Doug McClure. Doug’s character was called Trampas and he obviously made a big impression on my wife because when we acquired our golden retriever puppy some years ago she came up with the name. It turned out to be perfect for him – characteristics include wild behaviour, a stubborn demeanour and a refusal to do what he is told whilst all the while charming the pants off you so that you don’t care about his intransigence.

Trampas the dog rode home in my car from the kennels on my lap being copiously sick apparently secure in the knowledge that I would look after him, a confidence that has never wavered. His stock in trade is to offer up a single brisk woof when he wants something (door opened, food, water, you name it). He is quite plainly of the opinion that I was brought onto to this planet to satisfy his whims.

And you’d better make it snappy buster or you will get a sharp verbal reminder that a golden retriever is WAITING.

Some people who know no better say that golden retrievers are not overly blessed with intelligence. If intelligence is a mark of getting what you want out of the world with the minimum of effort and without making enemies retrievers have it in spades. Mind you, as a general rule, retrievers don’t make enemies; they are rarely aggressive (and if I ever see one that is I look very carefully its owner for signs of neurosis or worse) and would just as soon not fight even when (as happened to Trampas when he was about two) a pit bull terrier has its teeth around their neck. On this occasion Trampas assumed (correctly needless to say) that his all purpose butler, bodyguard and general factotum would deal with the offending item before any harm was done. As it happened it was harder than I would have liked because it was mid summer and I was wearing light running shoes that made no impression on the pit bull. In the end I grabbed the terrier by its collar and threw it as far as I could into a bush. Fortunately it was so surprised that it let go of Trampas’s throat and even more fortunately its owner arrived at this point to take charge. I confess I was a bit short with her, partly because of shock and partly because the damned dog was so strong – and it was it turned out only a puppy. I wouldn’t care to tangle with the grow up version. Its owner came running after me to tell me that her dog had NEVER done anything like like that before. I guess she was afraid I was going to report her but I had no intention of doing so; these things do happen after all.

The following day I was recounting this tale to a friend as we walked round (in my case slightly warily and more on my guard for bundles of hard energy launching themselves at us than I might have been a day or so before) and she told me about her father who had lost three fingers trying the same grab-a-collar stunt. I confess I carried a stick on our walks for a few days after absorbing that little gem.

Trampas of course was quite oblivious to his narrow escape. Well what cowboy wouldn’t be?

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Black Swans

About eighteen months ago I was attacked by two Black Swans within the space of weeks. The second nearly killed me; the first one may do so yet.

Two weeks ago Japan was hit by two Black Swans within a matter of hours. They killed many people and the second (or is it perhaps the third?) may yet kill more.

What are Black Swans? Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of the book “The Black Swan”, uses them as a way of describing the highly improbable and his theme is that society spends its time worrying about the last unpredictable event without thinking what the next one might be.

There is truth in this. Airport security is a classic example. Is the checking of shoes a worthwhile security measure or one rendered pointless because there are more relevant threats to think about?

Taleb’s book is okay by the way but will not suit everyone. The reviews at Amazon are spot on. He is not going to be everyone’s literary cup of tea but his idea has found its way into the mainstream of journalistic reference if not of government thinking.

Black Swans as I intimated above happen to individuals as well as society, perhaps inevitably. The Japanese earthquake has affected everyone in the country not just those who felt its tremor. The impact of the tsunami was specifically devastating to those who lost lives, families and homes. The nuclear meltdown is now showing up on measurements of radioactivity in the UK. It is impossible to be sure that the brave workers battling to contain further damage will not themselves be affected in the short or medium term.

My own personal Black Swan came in the form of cancer diagnosis in September 2009. It was out of the blue and as unlikely as far as I was concerned as seeing an actual black swan but the signs were there when I looked back, just as they were for the financial crisis two years before. No doubt the Japanese are having similar thoughts about their flood defences and their aging reactors.

My second Swan was a blood clot, probably caused by a chemotherapy drug, which impeded blood between my small bowel and my liver. If you had asked me prior to the excruciating pain this caused if I could ever have foreseen such a consequence I would have said no, never, why would I, how could I? I ended up in A&E where they shot me full of morphine, carried out scans and took X-rays and then pronounced me unlikely to live for more than a few more days.

The story of how that turned out to be wrong is one I may write for the benefit of others. It is an enduring mystery to me how much mystique still surrounds cancer. My own (private) doctor is terrific but he is a true exception in an industry that releases information as if it were rationed by government edict.

However there are some interesting non technical books out there, written for the sufferer rather than the medical profession. “How does it feel”
by Ann Watts looks to be of but there is no apparent misery memoir genre for the wide range of cancer sufferer to tap into for guidance.

Perhaps I will write one. Please comment if you know of a book that might help anyone with cancer.

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One man’s top 50 books is another man’s poison

Today’s Daily Telegraph (in a riposte of sorts to Michael Gove’s suggestion that school children should read 50 books a year) is to produce its own list of 50 books for adults to read – complete with not always complimentary comments.

It’s an interesting game. Ulysses heads the list, closely followed by 1984, some Jane Austen, Scott Fitzgerald and War and Peace but it soon degenerates into a less worthy effort with sideswipes at Julian Fellowes, Stephen Hawking and Bill Bryson. About the only book that receives much in the way of approval is the albeit excellent One Day by David Nicholls. Still, a top 50 book you must read? I don’t think so.

Having dissed the Telegraph’s list however I would not find it easy to write one of my own. I know because I tried to do so in another lifetime for the Young Gifted and Talented Schools programme. One problem is that the wonderful book you read when you were 12 does not typically (and rightly) stand the test of time; the same is true of each decade unfortunately; this is why Enid Blyton will never make it on to one of these lists however wonderful you think the Faraway Tree is.

When I was in my teens, I read voraciously mainly from two quite different sources. A bookshop at Lyme Regis (long since closed and now sadly pulled down) was the place I bought my Agatha Christies, an almost complete set of Leslie Charteris’s Saint series (not to mention the less worthy “Toff” and “Baron” books by John Creasy), Bulldog Drummond and the master of the macabre Dennis Wheatley. The latter literally half scared me to death with the “Haunting of Toby Jugg” featuring a huge spider that tap tapped at the hero’s window every evening. Some of his adventure tales must have inspired Alistair Maclean a decade later I think but they were terrific, as were his satanic tales with the Duc de Richelieu.

If you’re 12 that is.

The other place I got my books was Taunton Library. I used to spend hours there looking for the latest P G Wodehouse. Sadly there was never much in the way of Saints, Toffs or Barons but there were some splendid science fiction tales including a book whose title I have long since forgotten about a group of aliens on earth, all with amazing powers. I enjoyed that so much it would have headed up my top 50 easily. Of course I read Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke too. There was also some Orwell, Huxley and J B Priestley, I seem to recall as well as Douglas Bader’s Reach for the Sky.

Most of the books I read have long since been forgotten both by me and the world but I went back week after week to find something new so I have no doubt there were worthy contenders for the top 50.

Now? I find it almost impossible to find a top ten. One of my favourite books is (or was) The Magus by John Fowles. I started to read it again when I was in hospital last year and it did nothing for me. Fowles himself says it is a book favoured by the young and I agree.

It’s very easy to include the great classics but Hardy’s Tess (for example) is very, very slow. Would it be published now? I rather doubt it. I love Trollope but he is almost out of print except when there is a TV show.

What about the magic realists? Gabriel García Márquez is fine but do I really love his books. Likewise Rushdie.

So there you have it. I love books but not enough to include in my top 50. What about you? Any thoughts?

Click here for classics


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Let e-battle commence

Some of the battle lines in what will no doubt be a war between publishers and others are now being drawn up. I have already written about pricing structures especially on-line where it would seem that the digital version of a book has had to match its pricing to the paperback world, although some publishers are holding out for the right to impose their own (usually higher) pricing on e-book outlets such as Amazon.

Now both in America and the UK we are seeing the publishers turn their fire on the libraries. The approach the publishing houses are taking is that although e-books do not deteriorate as physical books do after they have been taken out a given number of times, nevertheless they should be treated as if they do and the library forced to buy a fresh copy.

The starting bid from at least one company is a limit of 12 borrowings. The libraries claim that many books can be taken out up to 100 times before being taken out of service and that a limit of 12 is unrealistic.

The other area of contention is that each copy of an e-book should only be able to be lent to one borrower at a time just like a physical book although no such practical restriction actually applies to the digital version (leaving aside licensing and copyright issues).

You can see both sides of this. Why should the libraries be in a better position at the expense of the publishers? On the other hand it sounds daft to have an indestructible copy of a book that has to be binned after an arbitrary number of uses. if the publishers can’t stay in business there won’t be anyone to supply the libraries with the titles anyway.

Or will there? After all Amazon now allows authors to create downloadable versions of their work and many unpublished writers are taking advantage of this to bypass the publishers (okay, I know the vast majority were not able to get published) and are offering their work at modest prices. Why should the same or a similar model not work with libraries?

One reason is the conservative nature of library users and I suspect library procurement departments. Jacqueline Wilson, Danielle Steel, James Patterson and Agatha Christie all feature regularly in the UK top ten and an unknown first time author is not likely to have the same pulling power with the general public. On the other hand the quality of the books in many public libraries (especially fiction) is pretty poor, at least compared with most high street book shops. You can of course order the latest title (and wait) but if you want a book today you may find your choice less than idea. I am speaking of English libraries here; I understand from my mother-in-law who winters in Naples, Florida that the quality in her public library there is first class. Here of course we are in the middle of expenditure cuts threatening to close some libraries. I should be very interested in anyone who can comment on this blog from the States and tell me how your libraries are funded.

We shall see what happens, no doubt. There does seem to be an opportunity for libraries to improve their stock if they can just get good e-book deals from the publishers. Mind you they will have to think again about requiring their customers to come into the library to collect the e-book; that seems just plain daft especially since there is now a new way of dealing with an e-book that is past its due return date. It simply disappears from your device! No more fines, no more “lost” books.

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River Cottage Every Day – a Seekabook Review

I was interested to see that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s cookery book “River Cottage Every Day” rides high in the Amazon Book Chart; well highish, at any rate, it’s at number 32 which makes it the second best selling cookbook (after Sir Jamie of course) if you don’t count the Dukan Diet Recipe book at 23.

I do rather put diet books whatever the excellence of the recipes in a different category to proper cookery books like Hugh’s. I have been a fan of his since the early River Cottage series and I love his approach to wholesome cooking – without fads and using whenever he can local preferably home grown ingredients. I bought the latest one before Christmas and we have experimented with quite a few of his ideas, although I do rather draw the line at some of his more adventurous cuts of meat.

The book is divided into sections, including breakfast, lunch, fish, meat vegetables and fruit – themes which reappear in his Channel 4 programme currently being repeated on Saturdays nights. There is also a treats section which has had a lot of attention.

Fish especially the sustainable kind is of course a passion of his (beating the Eurocrats as now seems possible on EU Fishery Policy looks like a big win) and he is very good at introducing you to fish you have never tried before. I last eat mackerel when I was a boy fishing with my grandfather in Lyme Bay (when I didn’t much like it) but his enthusiasm took me back to try again with splendid results. Mind you a lot of his recommended species don’t seem to figure much on the local Waitrose fish counter (Pollack anyone?).

Anyway, there are some excellent white fish recipes and ideas for dab, scallops,squid and fish soup. If fish is your thing, keep an eye out for his new fish only book -”The River Cottage Fish Book”.

The meat section reflects Hugh’s belief that animals are so precious no part should be wasted. So, in addition to standard favourites like lamb chops and bacon chops, he challenges with recipes for pig’s liver, devilled lamb’s hearts, venison and pork burgers (first catch your deer), neck of lamb and rabbit stew as well as treats such as spicy spare ribs and chicken and mushroom casserole with cider, both of which I can attest to being delicious and easy to make.

What I like about Hugh’s approach is that he is an unashamed enthusiast for cuts of meat that are cheap and tasty, whilst acknowledging that such a mix may involve a bit more time and effort. Neck of lamb, shin of beef and oxtail soup all get the F-W treatment on this account.

Taste features in his vegetables too. I am not a big fan of these personally but I have to admit that his imaginative solutions pay off. Who would have thought of mixing boiled eggs and asparagus or broad beans on toast? I even found myself warming to his beetroot and cumin soup – having been a lifelong enemy of the purple item.

Like all modern cookbooks this one is full of enticing photos. I personally hate recipes I can’t see. The recipes themselves are clear and well described with the ingredients in a pull out panel to the side so that you can see at a glance what you need and how many it serves.

It’s not a glamorous book like those Nigella writes, nor does it have the faintly trendy flavour of an Oliver oeuvre; it is however passionate and imaginative and fresh and I love it.

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