Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Book review: The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By - Georges Simenon


Having decided not to read the blurb on the back it took me a while to get into this story and brush aside my preconceptions. Based on the title I had expected the main character to have seen some hideous crime and either chosen to escape the consequences or perhaps had seen something happen as a commuter train chugged by.

Once I got past that idea and settled into what becomes a story of cat and mouse and a psychological battle for the protagonist Kees Popinga to stay ahead of the law.

There is a sense his luck will eventually run out but because the story is predominately told through his eyes you end up wondering if he can keep going and evade the police.

After all he has suffered a shock to the system that eradicates his comfort zone and removes any chance of continuing with his normal life. The next major events are overshadowed by that mental collapse and the sense that the most normal of men has become anything but.

By the end as he suffers misfortunes that cause him to run out of options you find yourself sympathising with his situation. The final moments also leave you pondering about what is insanity and whether that delivers Popinga an escape from facing the consequences in reality.

That seems to be the main takeaway for me around the idea of a mental collapse and examining what happens when a world is turned upside down and the boundaries of normal life, the nine to five and Sunday diners, are removed.

As usual with Simenon the writing flows easily and the sketches of Parisian cafes and boarding houses are delivered with an acute eye but a deft touch.

This isn't a Maigret story and if anything the Police are described at a distance for the vast majority of the story. But this has all the hallmarks of a study into caracter, the results of extreme pressure and the choices made as that mounts.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Book review: Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

On one level this is a love story but on others it provokes thoughts about the differences between city and country, rich and poor, guest and servant.

When Shimamura travels from Tokyo to the snow country there i a sense he has moved to not just a different part of Japan but a place where he can act differently. His relationship with Komako, is the most obvious manifestation of that change in behaviour, with a secret life being led away from his wife and children. 

But this is a different area geographically, it enjoys deep snows and feels cut off from his other existence. When he leaves after one stay in the hot springs resort he travels back by train and moves from one zone to another via a mountain tunnel. That shift sees the weather change, the landscape shift and his mental position also move.

But the focus of this story is the hot springs resort and the relationship between Shimamura and Komako,. her story unfolds over the course of a couple of trips Shimamura makes to the town. She has become a geisha to pay medical bills for her lover, forced into a life of pleasuring guests and is stuck in a trap. He on the other hand is financially secure, wastes his time on academic exercises that lead nowhere and is removed from the life of hardship those in the hot springs resort live.

The relationship is doomed and as she slides deeper into the geisha trap and isolation he appears to be less able to save her.

If you read to escape then this takes you to a land of deep snow, hot springs and Japanese customs that will take you into a different realm. Despite being a short novel it leaves you with questions around the main characters, the life the inhabitants of snow country lead and the limits of love and desire to deliver change.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Book review: American Affair the Americanisation of Britain by Susan Marling and Gerd Kittel


To find this book involved wading through a fair few listings for romantic or political books that wanted to cover their own types of special relationship. The attraction for me is the rest of the title, The Americanisation of Britain.

Most focus on the special relationship centres on the Second World War and the close ties as allies between the UK and US. That's true but Susan Marling argues that the crucial year when things really changed was 1956. By then Americans were driving round in their flash finned topped cars, chugging on a  Coke from their large refrigerators and enjoying their televisions. Britain, still suffering the effects of post-war austerity could only look on with envy. Add to that the flowing over the Atlantic of rock and roll, Elvis and the stars of the silver screen that flickered in British cinemas and the captivation with all things American was complete.

This books bounces along looking at areas where Americanisation can be easily spotted - movies, cars, fashion, architecture (malls and Milton Keynes) and food.

The tone is inquisitive, asking a truck driver from North London why he enjoys dressing as a cowboy complete with chaps and an imitation revolver, rather than judgemental. However, there is an acknowledgement that Americanisation splits people, with comments about the 51st State being among those arguing for less influence.

Written in the early 1990s, with Thatcher having left office, this is a book that sits at a time when the heightened Americanisation of the Thatcher-Reagan years could still be felt. A dreary Britain that often willingly adopted the neon-lighted delights from the US.

It is a companion piece to a Tv series, American Affair, that I have to admit I haven’t seen. So in some senses the chapters must have followed the progress of those episodes. What lifts the book out as something you might want to read now, without the programme, isn’t just the text but the photographs by Gerd Kittel.

Each chapter follows a pattern where the text goes so far and then the photographs take over and illustrate the points. Given they are thirty years old they now operate on a historical as well as cultural commentary level.

To be honest this is not a book anyone wanting to read more about the special relationship would start with. For me it’s part of my ongoing look into American suburbanisation and its impact on the UK. It scratches that itch but it’s quite a specific one and so I would not expect this to be sought out by too many fellow readers.

But if you want to understand more about the love affair with America and what that like looked in the early 1990s then it’s a great resource and an interesting read.

Monday, February 05, 2024

Book review: How Do you Live? By Genzaburo Yoshino


After enjoying the Boy and the Heron there was an appetite to dive deeper and How Do You Live? was described as the inspiration for the film. It was one of the film's director Hayao Miyazaki's favourite books and was percolating his thoughts as he pulled the story together for the Boy and the Heron.

That word 'inspiration' is an important one because unlike some of the other Studio Ghibli films, Howl's Moving Castle springs to mind, this is not based directly on an existing story. There is no Heron in How Do You Live? and the relationship with the Copper and his uncle is a healthier one than Mahito and his Grand Uncle.

Rather its taking the themes of coming of age, dealing with the loss of a parent and navigating what type of person you want to be in life. Will you be empathetic? show compassion? be arrogant or cowardly? These are all things the main character Copper has to wrestle with.

As he goes through experiences he shares them with his uncle and afterwards the uncle shares his advice in a notebook. It creates for the majority of the book a pattern of Copper's story then directly followed by the Uncle's observations.

Copper is not perfect, makes mistakes and learns from them. But he is likeable and his experiences drive the story. He is coping with the loss of his father and navigating starting senior school, with the threats of bullying and coping with friendships that are evolving with maturity. The reader is encouraged to look at Copper and ask themselves what they would have done and what type of life they want to lead.

This book was written for children but there is more going on here. Understanding the context around the books is important because it was penned at a time when totalitarianism had gripped Japan and to question authority out you in prison and under deep censorship.

Yoshino was imprisoned, fell foul of the thought police but still wanted to counter the aggressive state. That makes this a brave book and a moving one. When Copper's uncle is urging him to think for himself and question authority, he is risking more than just losing the reader's interest.

This is a book that has a power to provoke and move and on that basis alone is worth recommending. But when you add the context and understand the risks that Yoshino and his publisher were running by producing this and it is much more heroic.

Ultimately at a time when populism is on the rise we all need to ask ourselves the question of how we want to live.

Monday, January 29, 2024

Book review: Tokyo Express by Seicho Matsumoto


My eldest son has consumed a large amount of Japanese literature in the last year and recommended I followed his example. After enjoying The Boy and The Heron that led me to How Do You Live? by Genzaburo Yoshino, which was apparently some of the inspiration for the mood of the film.

But things got going with Tokyo Express which caught the eye due to the beautiful cover illustration and the positive blurb. Having enjoyed plenty of detective stories in the past the chance to get to grips with a Japanese story was too much temptation.

If you consider reading detective stories is a chance to escape from your own life, either by being taken into an unknown world of crime or to a distant location, then this manages to do both. Simenon does it brilliantly with Paris and Matsumoto takes you on a trip here to various locations in Japan. One of the first pages there is a map of Japan with a couple of key locations marked and it is that sense of traversing the country that forms a large part of the story.

Trains form a central part of the plot and that adds to the sense of taking the reader on a journey. It's clever, an insight into the character of both the provincial and Tokyo police and operates around a central story that underlines concepts of honour and integrity.

The idea that appearances can be deceptive is not just limited to the victims of the crime but extends across all aspects of the case. Hidden behind established roles – the restaurant waitress, the rich businessman, his ill wife and the government figure – there are other things going on if someone is prepared to look for them.

No spoilers here but I can say the story is clever, the determination of the detectives central to its conclusion and the descriptions of people and place delivered with depth in just a few lines.

Matsumoto takes you over the shoulder of the detectives, sharing the contents of their notebooks and revealing their innermost thoughts. There are moments when letters are used as a device to jump through time and summarise developments but that never disrupts the flow and the book remains gripping until its conclusion.

If you read at the most basic level to escape and travel to other worlds then this book skilfully takes you to a post-war Japan, with stops at a Southern coastal town, one of the Northern islands and Tokyo. This is a time when corruption is circulating the government, technology is changing but it’s still detective hunches that stop a crime from going undiscovered.

There are a couple more books by Matsumoto in English translation and I'm starting Inspector Imanishi Investigates at some point so more of his works will appear on the blog.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Book review: Searching for John Hughes by Jason Diamond



Continuing the theme of the suburbs in many ways the chronicler of teenage life in the Northern area of Chicago was John Hughes. Famous for The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller, Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles, to name just a few. Large parts of his stories were set against the backdrop of a suburban existence. His Shermer High Schools and million pound home-lined streets in Home Alone were real places that meant audiences could easily identify with them.

Among those was Jason Diamond who grew up in Chicago and walked and drove around the streets Hughes filmed and used as backdrops.

Diamond's Search for John Hughes is a personal account of his life and his search for a purpose. Things were going well until his parents divorced and the subsequent troubles that led him to follow an ambition of becoming a writer. His experiences through high school mix the comic at the same time as the tragic and there is no doubt his life was a tough one.

Settling on the idea of writing a John Hughes biography becomes his mission and shapes direction of his life taking him back into Chicago and Hughes's world. In between stints working at coffee shops or on the front desk at a  kindergarten he managed to start telling Hughes’ story. They seem to share so much in common but as he searches the more he realises that apart from Chicago and the suburbs they don't share that much. Hughes becomes more of an enigma the closer he gets to him and there are moments that they appear to share the same air but never collide.

As the Hughes biography runs into problems what does emerge is a tale of survival. Diamond becomes a Hughes character in many ways. In the same way that Annie in Pretty in Pink is inspiring so is Diamond as he emerges through years of difficulty with the writing career he deserved and the happiness he was due.

Given my recent reading this is a welcome chance to read a voice from the suburbs and hear what life was really like behind those front doors and in those high schools across Chicago.

Hughes is a different subject and like many others I enjoy his films and seek to escape into his portrayal of spaces where the losers come through and win. I'd give anything to be able to go and spend some time in the record shop in Pretty in Pink. It would take another post to go into depth on his works. But in the context of this book Diamond is Hughesian. His life story could be a gritty Hughes script, because the loser does come through. It's touch and go most of the time but you root for him throughout. Just like John Bender punching the air to Simple Mind's Don't you Forget about me at the end of Breakfast Club the kid who has gone through hell has managed to come through as one of the victors.

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Book review: The End of the Suburbs by Leigh Gallagher


A great companion read to Meet Me By The Fountain is the End of The Suburbs by Leigh Gallagher. It runs over a similar history talking of the rise and fall of a way of living that dominated the US post war up until relatively recently.

The suburbs have always been waiting to be born, with the grid system so beloved by early settlers just waiting to be mimicked in fields on the fringes of cities. The technology to mass produce houses, Levitt style, and the need for homes spurred growth that seemed like it would never end. The dream of owning a home burned brightly in many Americans minds and as they were prepared to drive further away from the cities to where the prices would eventually come down to a price when they could afford their own home.

Once in the suburbs the dream then changed to moving up the scaler and the McMansions that littered the landscape became the ambition for many.

Thanks to the car people could drive to and from home and work on freeways, take kids to schools and clubs and pop along to the mall to do their shopping.

But a few things changed. Firstly, commuting became a drag. Not only did it take longer because congestion increased, but traditionally low gas prices ebbed away and it became more expensive. Those homes at the edge of the suburbs, the furthest from the city now became unaffordable because there was no saleable market for them and the economics of living there no longer stacked up.

The other major trend that worked against the suburbs was the re-emergence of the cities. The rough slums in some of the areas of New York that had kept people away for so long spruced themselves up and the joys of living within 15 minutes of stories, kindergartens and transport became obvious.

A final theme tha Gallagher exposes is the split within the building community, with many turning against the suburbs to concentrate on developing walkable communities that did not rely on the car.

All of those factors were exacerbated by the 2008 housing crash. In some ways this book uses that event as a platform to discuss the end of the suburbs. That is both its strength and weakness. At the time it seemed as if the collapse in the housing market, record foreclosures and the end of the housing dream would spell the end for the suburbs.

But reading this book just a year after the pandemic, when everyone was forced to stay in their homes and work and live in those same suburbs for their own safety, you have to wonder if a revision is needed. Homes became fundamental during Covid and the isolation and criticisms made in the book of expansive suburbs proved to be a benefit. Many fled their small city apartments to stay in larger family bubbles to escape isolation and loneliness.

As a result this book captures a moment in time that has passed and leaves you with more questions than answers. There is no doubt the suburbs have suffered and there are numerous YouTube channels out there touring the US to show off collapsed and burnt-out neighbourhoods to illustrate that point. Crime rates that once kept people away from cities are now doing the same in the suburbs and there are problems with unemployment, opioid abuse and violence, But many suburbs remain and there are estate agent channels that list the top 10 suburbs for couples, families and for nature lovers etc. It doesn't feel quite as apocalyptic as it did back in the few years that followed the 2008 recession.

There is no doubt the suburbs have changed and will continue to do so and this book marks a moment in that discussion about that future. Gallagher was writing about a period of mass foreclosures sparked by the recession, the first signs that the car was no longer the answer to commuting and the rise of a city alternative.

The story that Gallagher tells is one of ebbing tides of migration, of an exodus from the urban centre to the suburbs to a move by many back in, or closer to, the same cities their parents and grandparents left. The changing role of the car is also pivotal as are the generational changes that result in many younger people rejecting the attractions of the suburbs their parents embraced.

The book ends with a sense that the suburbs will never quite be the same. Her ability to chart the arguments in the planning and building communities is one of the legacies that will live on after this period because it illustrated more than anything that the money was moving from the suburbs back to the cities. The new urbanism movement has provided alternatives, the big developers that built the suburbs have moved into the cities and the love affair with the car is coming under strain. But you also sense that the love affair with the idea of personal space is not quite over and as a result the burbs might change but to a large extent stay the same.

For the history, the sense of differing viewpoints and capturing the essence of the suburbs this book hits the mark. All it needs is a post pandemic sequel to see where things stand now and where Americans now want to live.

Wednesday, January 03, 2024

Book review: Meet me By The Fountain by Alexandra Lange


My interest in American malls is not simply a case of trying to recapture a few hours spent in various locations across the US on holidays in my youth. More profoundly I'm working to this theory that there has been a significant Americanisation of the UK since the 1980s and where they led, we followed. So, if the malls are now falling into abandonment and the suburban world depicted in numerous films is over then that must have an impact on us on this side of the Atlantic. If that way of life is dying, then possibly so could the power of Americanisation on current and future imaginations.

Against that ambition to read more to flesh out my knowledge in this area I picked up Meet Me By the Fountain by Alexandra Lange.

On one level this is a history of the mall development from the Victor Gruen days of the 1950s, through to the various incarnations of T, L and strip malls that were designed by various architects un the 1960s and 70s that were built across the US in the suburbs of numerous cities.

Going through the history reveals the strength of the car and the role of government to support the growth of a world dependent on personal mobility, with Freeway Acts and zoning policies to drive the development of suburbia after the Second World War. Once out in their suburbs people needed places to shop, meet and have fun. The Mall was created to provide a place for retail, rest and entertainment. An air conditioned, weather free world that was safe and secure enticed generations of shoppers.

 Over the years the Mall came under attack architecturally, with it being seen as a low form of building, as well as from social critics who argued it operated as a private space masquerading as a public one. Protests, certain groups of people and increasingly youths were all prevented from enjoying the mall or found their activities heavily controlled by security.

Ultimately the end for many malls came as a result of poor management, the decline of the anchors - with most having relied heavily on the likes of Sears and J C Penny - as well as changes happening in the suburbs that took people increasingly back into the cities and away from the malls. Many point the finger at Amazon and other etailers but in many respects that is overblown with those web-based outlets only controlling a relatively low percentage of sales. Other more structural problems have done the real damage.

The future for many Malls seems to be as mixed housing, retail and public spaces, offering the mall as a community hub. Others continue to survive because of smart management and an ability to keep retailers on site. Local retailers, pop-up stores and boutiques selling handmade goods have proved to be a popular lifeline. Even with internet shopping there should be enough sales for the bricks and mortar operations to still enjoy.

The history ends with a look elsewhere, with malls thriving in places like Brazil and Nigeria, showing that the model can still work.

But this book also operates on a personal level. Lange has her own mall memories that add to the sadness around the fate of some of her childhood haunts. Then there are the movies, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and the TV shows, including Stranger Things, that have depicted the importance of the mall to 1980s youth culture, providing jobs, a place to hang out and fall in love plus for those keen to show a commitment to a 'tribe' as an arena to be seen.

The curiosity about abandoned malls has spawned numerous YouTube channels, with Lange recommending Dan Bell's Abandoned Malls series and Retail Archaeology as two good ones to check out. Plus it has also attracted a number of photographers who chart the decline in eerie images. Then there is the music, mallware and vaporware, that pine for those days you would walk round a busy mall with tinny music playing out of speakers, both inside and outside the stores.

On a personal level the rise and fall of the malls is one that provokes the most emotional response. You remember trips to malls and wonder as you walk around your local examples like BlueWater and see the empty units and talk by the owners of becoming more of a 'lifestyle centre', just what the future holds for those operations in the UK.

This is a serious history and as a result sometimes it can bog you down in detail but overall, it explains why the malls were built, how they tried to adapt and why so many failed. Behind it all there is a sense that the car and the re-emergence of the city are much more powerful factors than Amazon and etailing. People no longer want to drive so far and walking a few blocks in a bustling city is now seen as much more attractive.

Still, if I was given the chance to revisit Sam Goody to flick through the records and hang out by the fountain I'd be there like a shot.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Book review: This is London by Ben Judah

“It’s like this: Russian and Ukrainian people hate Polish and Lithuanian people. Eastern Europe peoples hate Indian people. Everybody hates the black people. Whites hate everyone . . . That’s just the way it is.” 

This book is brave and has a story to tell. In the tradition of those journalists who go out there and live the story Judah has put himself into this story sleeping rough with Romanians, dossing down with Latvian builders and getting to know African immigrants struggling on zero hour contracts.

Throughout the book, which takes the reader on a tour of an unknown London, facts and figures are given to back up a picture of a City that in some areas is now dominated by a group of Londoners that would be barely recognisable to most of those who lived here just a couple of decades ago.

What has changed is that the poor white working class communities have left areas of London to be replaced by a mixture of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Africa and beyond that have made the likes of the tube station at Hyde Park and Barking their own as they cling onto a perilous existence.

The message that came out of the book is that London has changed, perhaps permanently, and is now no longer a place that even those living here can quite understand. I have seen some of the changes in nearby Woolwich, which gets a very brief mention, and have started to feel that the London I started to know when I was a student here has maybe gone.

Because Judah speaks to drug dealers, prostitutes and those on the fringes there is a sense of danger often. A sense that the underworld is just waiting for those sitting in the big houses to slip up and then they will come and take them. Maybe that was my feeling but after a while I did start to wonder what the message was coming from this book.

If it is that London has changed and all sorts of invisible people now live here then that came across fairly quickly. It did not need to be so exhaustive. But if it was to try and convey a sense of London from West to East, North to South, changing with traditional Londoners heading for the hills then it also did that.

Maybe the readings of this book would differ if you lived in or out of the capital but for me there was almost a moment of giving up and wondering if it was worth staying here. If it has got so bad then why not just pack the bags and exit like so many others appear to?

London is changing and this book provides a snapshot of what is going on. But just like some of those other great exposes the world remains fluid and this is already becoming history. It's important to recognise that London is so mixed, not just in races but in terms of opportunities, but some of the characters here will not stay as permanent fixtures.

You already sense that this is a book written pre-Brexit and the sense of tension at the prospect of more Romanians and Eastern Europeans coming into the capital is one that is already changing. The Polish builders who have lived opposite me for 15 years are packing up and leaving and the Romanian family at the end of the street have sold their house and are moving on.

Other groups will come into replace them and it is perhaps as a snapshot of an ever changing City that this book will take its place alongside other records of the past as a guide to what it once looked like.

Judah has guts and can write with pace and in a way that challenges the reader to open their eyes that bit wider to see what is often not seen. If this can make some of the invisible visible then it will have done its job.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Book review: The Fall of the House of FIFA by David Conn

“We who have loved football all our lives do not want to believe that those who run the game, on their manifestos of doing good, are this corrupt and rotten,  and so marinated in greed.”

When a World Cup is awarded to Qatar, a country without any real record of football and a climate that makes playing it in the summer almost impossible, you sense that something in the global game is not right.

This book unpicks the story of the spread of corruption that spread across FIFA over decades and meant that most of the organisation's top representatives were making a side income from back handers and bribes. Against a backdrop of a FBI investigation and revelations that exposed the depth of the corruption this book reveals that the culture of corruption has long been steeped in the organisation.

If you had to point the finger of blame at anyone other than the individuals involved, and some of those like Chuck Blazer and Jack Warner are almost cartoonish in their villainy, then it would have to be television. The arrival of TV rights and the ever increasing sums of money that has gone with it have created the opportunity for corruption.

The mixture of sponsorship and TV rights were sources of income that would be paid to be involved and film World Cups but there was also the opportunity for corruption to come as a result of the structure of FIFA. With individuals holding influence over the votes for World Cup host cities and the President role there were always going to be chances that their decisions at the ballot box could be purchased.

Conn unravels a story that sadly got more depressing the deeper he went into it. The fact that Sepp Blatter appears to be able to shake-off the worst of the corruption allegations makes up very little for the numerous country FIFA bosses who did admit to taking bribes.

The suggestion that a new president at FIFA has introduced a fresh broom and a chance for the organisation to put the past behind it is also pretty well destroyed by Conn revealing the greed over salary that Blatter's successor displayed.

FIFA also appears to have been fairly consistent at neutering any investigations and attempts to clean up the organisation and stem the excesses of the past.

Reading this is not always easy because it clearly quotes a lot of legal documents and in order to make sure it does not fall foul of the lawyers keeps the text and the accusations very clear and dry. But there is enough drama here to make it keep you wanting to read on until the end.

If you love football then this book will depress you. It should because the corruption has been excessive and the way the game has been run has been a disappointment. But if you love football then there is also the ray of hope that even with some of these crooks running the game the sport still manages to move people all over the world.

My love of the game is becoming harder to maintain because of the influence of money and the billions pumped in by TV rights is also something that echoes in the Premier League. It's all a long way from kicking a ball around in the back yard and a few more books like this and maybe I too will become like to grey hairs in the crowd moaning about the good old days when everything seemed more simple. The tragedy is that as the case of FIFA shows you have to go back quite a way to find any good old days.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Book review: Estuary Out from London to the Sea by Rachel Lichtenstein

This book called out to me from the London section shelves at Camden Lock Books and appealed because the Estuary is a part of London I have driven over and seen but not learnt too much about.

Everytime I get to experience the joy of Ikea over at Lakeside I travel back on the M25 and the bridhe over the river with views of commercial ships, It always stirs up thoughts about the river and my lack of experience wandering along its banks further East than Woolwich.

This book starts as a tale of artists enjoying the Thames from different perspectives, with the author joined by film makers, musicians and other artists. Those few days on the Thames sparks Lichtenstein's interest in delving further.

She lives in Leigh-On-Sea so already has a connection with the Thames, which also goes back through her family. That sense of families living and often earning a living from the sea is a constant theme. She meets fishermen, sailors and eccentrics that have been drawn to remote islands and sea forts. Throughout the book there are photographs that help share in the experiences she is describing.

But this is not just an account of various exhibitions along the coast and onto the water. There is a real sense of history flowing here with the past wrecks having a story along with the Second World War sea forts and defences. This is a river that continues to evolve and the controversial London Gateway Port is the latest change and threat to the river. The deep dredging needed to help the massive container ships get to the port has caused ripples to be felt in the ecosystems of the river and those that work with them.

From the comfort of an arm chair you get to meet some of the characters of this estuarial world and when Lichtenstein describes the river there is a real sense of danger. her final expedition includes being stranded on a sand bank and the weather, sense of historical precedent for what could happen and the brilliant descriptions of the sea conditions take this book above a mere travel journal.

To many people the estuary is an alien world. It is at the meeting point of river and sea and it is a middle ground that many overlook as they travel one way or the other. But it is populated by people that have stories to tell and although there is a sense that in many cases their ways of life are becoming restoration projects there is still hope.

The river that has supported London for so long continues to do so and although the future is not clear the book does end with a sense that the estuary will adapt and more chapters in its story are going to come.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Book review: All the Devils Are Here by David Seabrook

Every time I have an appointment at Moorfields for my eyes I like to pop into Camden Lock Books at Old Street tube station if I get the chance. I have to go before the appointment because afterwards, once the drops have been put in, vision is not that clear and it's slightly pointless trying to squint at book spines.

One of the many things that is good about Camden Lock Bookshop is the section of books it has on London. I tend to hover there looking for something that will provide me with more knowledge or stir greater interest in the City I work and live in.

My eyes were drawn to one book on the London shelf,  Estuary: Out from London to the Sea by Rachel Lichtenstein. I headed over to the till to pay and one of the promoted books was All the Devils Are Here by David Seabrook. The cover blurb and thumbs up from Iain Sinclair were enough to make me buy it on impulse.

In many ways there are two stories being told here. The first is the one contained in the book and the other is about the author. Seabrook appears to have died just a few years after publication. Further research indicates it was a heart attack that took him but he is a shadow over the book leaving unanswered questions.

He starts a trip through some of the seaside town of Kent with reference to some of the literary, political and film stars of the past that were associated with the different towns. So you get Dickens on Rochester and Moseley on Broadstairs. You end with Charles Hawtrey the Carry On star in Deal.

But this is not just a normal trip down memory lane. There is a sense that place influenced person and the same factors are still at work today.

As he retraces the 39 Steps and John Buchan the same sense of secrets, dangers and plots oozes through modern day Broadstairs where buildings are off limits and neighbours spy on strangers.

As he goes through Kent there are moments that made me laugh having been to some of these towns and his descriptions of Rochester and Chatham were sharp.

"8 June 1870, the date of Dicken's own death, is where Rochester's history officially ends..."

"Chatham is a long time dead, killed off on 31 March 1984 when the Royal Navy, a presence for more than four hundred years, pulled out of the dockyard."

By the end there is a feeling that Seabrook himself has become immersed in the story. The devils that he has described, from mad painters and fascists, have caught up with him and he is being pursued by them. I felt there was a suggestion by the end he had even become one of them. Would people be talking of him in the future in the way he had described some writers of he past.

Of all the aspects of this book the way he described a lost world around the time of the 1950s was the one I found most interesting. The Empire was dwindling and those that lived literally on the edges of British society were forced to return to a place that they could not really call 'home'.

Glad I did pick this up and it will probably lead me into Seabrook's other book about the 60s murderer in West London, Jack the Stripper. He tees it up towards the end of this book with some overlap that acts as a warm up for that other work.

Now though it's time to turn to Estuary before I get the call to head back to Moorfields and my next check up.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Book review: Psychogeography by Merlin Coverley

"Psychogeography: The study of specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals," definition from the International Situationiste movement.

This is a useful guide to an idea that is a much literary these days as it was originally political.

With roots in the works of Defoe, with his plague year trawl through London, and Blake's thoughts about London and Jerusalem, the idea of charting and reacting to an environment went political with the situationist movement in the 50s and 60s. Figures like Guy Debord set about defining psychogeography and underlining the idea of people using it as a tool to find their own space, to create something new.

But in a modern world which seems to work against the pedestrian it has become less about trying to change the environment than sharing a reaction to it.

That's not to say the current psychogeographers do not bemoan modern planning and Sinclair was particularly vocal about the development of the Olympic Park and there has been plenty of criticism of the way Thatcher changed communities during her time in office.

But as Michel de Certeau noted in the 80s things had started to change and even experiencing the environment was becoming a varied experience.

Voyeurs look down from the sky scrapers and walkers are down below. Psychogeography is about giving the emphasis back to the walkers. The vouyeur loses the individual and sees the city as a homogeneous whole.

"Their story begins on ground level, with footsteps," writes de Certeau.

Technology is working against the walker surveillance and closed areas etc as a result the novelist and poet not the psychogeographer who is able to capture the emotions of a city.

London has again become the centre with JG Ballard, Iain Sinclair and others.

Walking is again being seen as a tool for the writer. If someone wants to immerse themselves in the city then they need to do it on foot.

My only concern, which isn't dealt with in the book, is that not only has modern technology made it harder for the modern psychogeographers physically getting in touch with the ground but also in terms of having an open mind.

One of the themes of the book, whether it be about London, Paris or New York, is that psychogeographers can somehow find secret parts of the city and unlock hidden truths.

In the age of social media I find it hard to believe that rose secrets would remain so for very long or that it would be possible to walk to a destination keeping an open mind to allow the feelings it sparks to be felt genuinely.

In summary this is a very useful guide to the main ideas and people involved with psychogeography. Very interesting for anyone who has read Ballard, Sinclair, ackroyd or has an interest in major cities and a passion for walking in them.