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Ghosts, sex and British folk legends – a heady mix!

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The Green Man by Kingsley Amis

I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m never going to be a great reader of ghost stories – mainly because a lot of my reading is done at night, and frankly I get very easily spooked by any kind of supernatural kind of book! 🙂 Approaching another Kingsley Amis book, in the form of “The Green Man”, and reading the first chapter in bed really brought it home to me that I couldn’t handle this type of thing in the dark; so I ended up reading the rest of the book in the full light of day!

green man

As you know, I read my first Amis recently, “The Riverside Villas Murder” and like it very much. So I sent off for “The Green Man” as it did sound intriguing, and it seemed like a good follow-up to “The Cheltenham Square Murder”. The Green Man of the title is a mediaeval coaching inn in the fictional Fareham, Herts, run by landlord Maurice Allington. The concept of a Green Man turns up in British folk legend over the centuries and there are numerous pubs, inns, festivals et all named after it. However, it often refers to a kind of pagan monster made of branches, leaves and the like, and that’s what’s central to the plot here.

Allington has baggage; his first wife had left him and was then killed in a car accident; he runs the inn with his second wife, Joyce, and his teenage daughter Amy is also living with them. Amy is introverted and reclusive, obviously suffering from the loss of her mother. Also present is Maurice’s fragile and ageing father. Maurice is basically an alcoholic serial womanizer, and quite why Joyce puts up with him is anyone’s guess.

However, the inn has issues of its own. It was the previous residence of the notorious Dr. Underhill, a 17th century nasty who practiced black magic and seduced local young girls. Rumour has it he murdered his wife using supernatural forces, and his ghost was said to haunt The Green Man. As the book opens, Maurice is struggling with his health; he’s drinking far too much, has numerous aches and pains, and keeps having blackouts of sorts, losing hours at a time when he can’t recall what he did or said. He’s also been suffering weird hallucinations, so when he sees a mysterious red-haired woman on the stairs who then disappears, is he (or anyone else) going to take it seriously? (This was the point at which I got spooked).

Maurice’s best friend locally is also his doctor, Jack Maybury. Unfortunately, Maurice has a less-than-loyal interest in Jack’s wife, Diana, and whilst struggling to deal with the apparitions and the alcohol, he’s also attempting to seduce his best friend’s spouse! However, a particularly dramatic black-out seems to take place, during which Maurice apparently encounters the ghost of Underhill, and he’s intrigued and irritated enough to do some research. A visit to Cambridge and a calling in of some favours lead him to Underhill’s long-forgotten journal, which gives Maurice plenty to think about. Underhill had apparently created some kind of unearthly creature, and his ghost was seen watching the copse behind the inn from where it came to kill his wife. Maurice is determined to prove he’s not insane or suffering from the DTs, and so begins to dig further (literally, at one point!) to try to find out the truth about Underhill and the ghostly presence.

Alongside this, somewhat bizarrely, he also hatches a plot to try to create a threesome with himself, Joyce and Diana! How he’ll manage this in his frail state of health is anyone’s guess – and he really needs to stop neglecting his daughter so much, too. However, the death of his father in slightly strange circumstances convinces him something has to be done; and an encounter with an unidentified strange young man, who has very strong powers, gives him the strength to go ahead with his plan. But has he bitten off more than he can chew (with both of his plans, that is)?

220px-Kingsley_Amis

I ended up liking “The Green Man” very much indeed, which I wasn’t quite expecting. Amis really was an excellent writer, and he created a brilliantly unreliable narrator in the form of Maurice. He’s flawed, human and not always likeable; nevertheless I couldn’t help hoping he would succeed in his battle against the very nasty past. For Underhill really *is* an evil piece of work: preying on the local young girls and conjuring up a really frightening monster, the fact that he’s trying to cheat death and affect the present day is chilling. He tempts Maurice, tapping into his subconscious and choosing things he think will appeal; however, fortunately for all, Maurice is sharp enough to see through Underhill’s ploy, recognising what he’s actually after.

I’m not going to say any more about the plot, because it’s brilliantly done, full of twists and turns, ancient documents, mysterious sensations in the copse, moonlit adventures, peril – and of course Maurice’s constant obsession with sex! I should really object to his womanizing, but I don’t because I think he’s one of those men who just can’t help having sex on the brain! Also, the book was published in 1969, a time when the liberation of the Swinging Sixties was very much to the fore – a liberation I personally feel offered a lot more to men than it did to women. Plus, he does kind of get his comeuppance at one point – I shall say no more!

However, Amis doesn’t shy away from tackling the larger subjects – life, death, the afterlife, whether there’s any point in religion, why we’re here and so on. Maurice’s encounter with the nameless young man is a serious one, giving plenty of food for thought, and in strong contrast with his funny and somewhat slapstick meetings with the local vicar (a very modern version of the Parish cleric). Light and dark are set against each other in a number of places, and it’s hard not to see some kind of parallel between Underhill and Maurice, with their sexual desires, although Maurice has enough decency and good sense to recognise Underhill for what he is. The book is genuinely creepy, and the menace very credible and frightening. I’m glad I *didn’t* try to read any more at night, because I would most definitely have ended up sleeping with the light on. As it is, I whizzed through the book in daylight, with bated breath, to a really satisfying ending. I’m very impressed with both of the Amis books I’ve read and I think I shall most definitely be exploring more of his work.

The Book-Finding Fairy makes a reappearance…

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I’ve been purposely ignoring the charity shops lately, as it’s not as if the TBR mountain isn’t teetering; plus my reading speed has been surprisingly slow, and I keep getting distracted by cheap crafting supplies (that’s another story…) However, for some reason I felt the call of the Sense charity shop as I passed by it yesterday, and as I hadn’t visited it for a while I decided to drop in – which I was obviously meant to do…

pet dovlatov

The first two finds are particularly exciting as they’re both books that have been on my mental wishlist for a while – so to find them in excellent condition for only £1 each was a treat. They’re really not the usual type of thing that turns up in the Sense shop, so I can’t help thinking they were meant for me…

wandererI took a punt on the Hamsun, as I couldn’t remember if I had this one or not (I have several of his titles) but fortunately I didn’t – so I’m really glad I did pick it up!

The Oxfam hasn’t had quite such brilliant stock recently, and their literature section really isn’t very well curated or organised. Everything is in the wrong category or order (though they haven’t got the howlers Sense has – Anna Karenina shelved by author under K…..) However, this caught my eye:

the russian girl

I’m keen to explore more of Amis senior’s work and so I thought I’d give this a try. I already have a couple of recent postal arrivals by Amis too, it’s just finding the time to read them:

amis x 2

I’ve read good things about both of them, and so I have high hopes!

Finally, I thought I’d share a couple of incoming volumes via my dear friend J. who, noting my interest in Soviet sci-fi, procured them from a book dealer friend of hers.

more soviet sci fi

Since both feature the Strugatsky brothers, I’m rather excited! Now I just need to focus myself on *actually reading*!!!!

Sex and murder in suburbia

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The Riverside Villas Murder by Kingsley Amis

You can’t imagine a book more in contrast to Dostoevsky’s “The Adolescent” than this one; but oddly enough they both feature young men going through traumatic experiences! However, Russia in the 1870s is very, very different from the London suburbs in the 1930s; and the experiences of both young people are radically different!

Oddly, this is the first Amis novel I’ve read; I enjoyed his poetry very much in volume 2 of the Penguin Modern Poets, and I had read about “Riverside” on the excellent Tipping My Fedora blog (which I’d forgotten till I looked the book up after finishing it). The book is a slightly odd one – a mix of coming-of-age story and murder mystery, you find yourself expecting it not to work. However, I found it did and I enjoyed it very much.

riverside villas

The book is set in 1936, and 14 year-old Peter Furneaux is beset by puberty – not easy to deal with in 1930s England. Obsessed by the idea of sex, he spends his time torn between his boyhood pastimes of model planes and reading, and more adult interests such as jazz music on the radio or attempting to have sex with whichever girl he can persuade to consent (in this case, neighbouring Daphne Hodgson). However, the latter interest seems doomed to failure and so Peter and his friends spend a fair amount of time resorting to masturbation.

Being an only child did not mean that you were by yourself too much; on the contrary, you got the whole of your parents reserved for just you instead of divided up into three, say. Peter liked his father, but would have preferred on the whole to have him as an uncle, even one living in the same house.

Peter attends a local dance with his father, hoping to make some headway with Daphne. However, she is anything but interested and in fact Peter seems to get more response from the older (and very attractive) neighbour Mrs. Trevelyan, with whom he shares a close dance. However, the evening does not go well, as a local journalist, Chris Inman, starts making drunken insinuations and accusations. He’s hustled off, but it seems clear to the reader that he won’t be around for long – and indeed it’s no time at all till he staggers into the Furneaux front room with a dramatic head wound and dies in front of Peter.

Enter the local detectives: the most odd and engaging of whom is Colonel Manton, the Acting Chief Constable. Intelligent, obviously bored and not at all your typical plod, he decides to investigate himself. Detective Inspector Cox is sceptical and critical of Manton; however Barrett, Detective Constable in the local CID, has a more flexible turn of mind and is happy to go along with Manton. Watching the latter deal with his subordinates is one of the funniest parts of the book – his sarcasm is wonderful! There are several suspects, as it becomes obvious that Inman knew plenty of local secrets and may well have been a potential blackmailer. Alarmingly enough, suspicion falls on Peter’s father; meanwhile Peter himself is becoming embroiled with Mrs. Trevelyan and also spending time with Manton. The plot thickens and the reader starts to wonder which will come first; Peter’s loss of his virginity or the solution to the mystery. And what does *any* of this have to do with the theft of the local attraction, an ancient skeleton known as Boris Karloff, from the museum??

Kingsley Amis by Godfrey Argent, c. NPG

Kingsley Amis by Godfrey Argent, c. NPG

“Riverside” was actually a really fascinating and enjoyable read; despite the oddities of the subject, it actually pulled together well and I suspect Amis intended several subtexts to the book. The sexual element, although initially unusual, actually is very relevant to the story – and a little hard to discuss without spoilers. Let’s just say that one character is able to understand the mindset and motivation of another, which enables a solution to be reached. The characters are well drawn and the portrait of suburbia and its constraints spot on. In particular, the relationship between Peter and his father is sensitively shown and quite touching in parts. Peter himself is a convincing mixture of teenage bravado and youth, obviously still needing the reassurance of his parents. It’s a credit to the adults around him (and also to Amis’ skill as a writer) that he emerges from the events relatively unscathed and with his reputation intact.

As for his father, in a different book and in different hands (Patrick Hamilton? Julian McLaren-Ross?) Furneaux senior would have been a very different, perhaps darker character. As it is, his situation and his failings are only hinted at in the book; his less-than-glowing war career, his somewhat seedy and low-paying job. Class differences are important in this suburban setting, with the size of a meal served being the defining factor in one’s status in the world!

Then of course there is the sexual element; well it was fascinating too to see the differentiation the boys make: fiddling with your friends for sexual relief is fine, but anything more or involving anyone older is pervy and dodgy. In fact, the undercurrent of homosexuality is prevalent throughout the book, whether it be the hinted-at previous indiscretion of one of the neighbours or the reason that Colonel Manton is still single… Again, Amis handles this element sensitively; there is what we would now call an act of paedophilia involved, and this is used as a plot device and a weapon for good; no one is emotionally damaged and I can’t help feeling that Amis is applying common sense to a situation which has probably arisen many times over the decades.

The mystery itself is interesting though probably not the most complex one I’ve read; in fact, I did guess the solution comfortably before the end. Amis is obviously a fan of Golden Age mystery, as he has the Colonel reading classic stories and lending one to Peter. The names and titles dropped include John Dickson Carr, Anthony Berkeley, Agatha Christie, John Rhode, The Nine Taylors, The House of The Arrow – Amis really knows his classic crime fiction, and some of those authors are ones who’ve slipped out of favour but are coming back into the public eye now. Amis plays fair with the reader, offering three page numbers on which to pay particular attention if you’re trying to outwit the author, and this, with the other references to murder mysteries, adds a sense of fun to the book.

“Riverside” ends in with Peter having come through his rite of passage relatively unscathed and a little more mature. I’m finding that the more I think about this book, the cleverer it seems and the more depth there is to it; for what is ostensibly something Graham Greene would have called and “entertainment”, it certainly raises a lot of issues to mentally chew over. This was my first Amis novel, and I’m sure it’s not going to be the last.

Reading updates – plus a very special arrival!

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You might have noticed the sparsity of reviews on the Ramblings lately, as I am still in the depths of Dostoevsky’s “The Adolescent” although reaching the end – it’s a fascinating and neglected book, and I’m looking forward to covering it for the next “Shiny New Books”.

I took a little detour back into Soviet sci-fi earlier in the week with Kirill Bulychev, and the fascinating introduction by Vladimir Gakov ran through the history of Russian science fiction writing and highlighted a book I’d often thought of reading. “Aelita” is probably best known as a pioneering 1920s Soviet film, featuring striking and beautiful sets and costumes by the Constructivist artist Aleksandra Ekster, but Alexei Tolstoy’s novel came first, in 1923. A quick search online revealed that the book was mainly available in a fairly ugly modern edition – until I popped onto Abe and found mention of a Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow version. I own a few books from this publisher, and the listing mentioned a fairly good dustjacket; the cost was more than I would usually pay, but I took a deep breath and sent for it, and I’m *so* glad I did!

aelita cover

As you can see, the small but remarkably well-preserved hardback has a really beautiful cover and it’s in better condition than I expected. The inside is equally lovely too – here’s the title page:

aelita title page

And here’s the first page of the book:

aelita opening

So I’m happy that this was money well spent, and I’d rather have an old and lovely version of a book than a new but modern and dull one – and hopefully this will get to the top of the reading pile soon!

As for any more new arrivals – only one this week! In the Oxfam I spotted this:

riverside villas

If I remember correctly (and that’s always debatable nowadays!) the only Amis I’ve read so far is his poetry, and I liked the sound of this (and also the chapter I read over lunch in Nero) – so this may be a bit of suitable light relief after being absorbed in Fyodor for so long!

Penguin Modern Poets 2 – Kingsley Amis, Dom Moraes, Peter Porter

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Yes, the poetry reading is speeding up, and I have successfully read through book 2 of the Penguin Modern Poets. This time, yet another three male versifiers – as one commentator pointed out, there aren’t a lot of women poets in the series.

modern poets 1

The second book from Penguin again picked at least two hard-hitters: Kingsley Amis (1922-1995) of course is best known for prose (Lucky Jim was his breakthrough title) but I’m not sure if I even knew he was a poet too; Dom Moraes (1938-2004) was a name new to me completely so this would be a voyage of discovery; and Peter Porter (1929-2010) is a poet I was aware of but I couldn’t have named any of his work.

So the book opens with Amis, and wow! I was actually quite stunned by the opening poem “They Only Travel” – one of the best poems I’ve read in a long time. It’s a striking verse where Amis demands to be taken “where the good times are” and with repeated motifs really lodges in the brain. In fact, I liked all of Amis’s poetry which I really wasn’t expecting; he writers about love, life, books, travel, and all in a direct and yet poetic way. This is pretty much the kind of verse I like and I really took to Amis in a big way – maybe I should read some of his fiction now!

moraes

Dom Moraes was born in India but wrote in English (I guess because of his English education) and had a fascinating life, if you have a look at his Wikipedia entry. His poems covered more exotic locations than Amis, but again dealt with love, relationships and landscape. The language was perhaps less direct and sometimes verging a little more to the longer narrative or ballad form; some poems were very beautiful, “From Tibet” and “The Visitor” springing to mind in particular. I liked Moraes’ poems and I think anything less dense that Durrell is going to be ok!

peter porter

Finally, Peter Porter – of Australian extraction, but based in Britain, he won stacks of awards and is obviously highly regarded. I read through his work enjoying it very much – there’s a sardonic edge to much of his verse which appealed, and he’s happy to critique the everyday and the quotidian – when I got to the poem “Your Attention Please”, which was like being hit on the head, wham! It’s a remarkable piece, written in 1961, about the arms race, and it took me rushing back mentally to the time a couple of decades or so later when it really did seem a possibility that there would be a nuclear war, and we were issue with survival guides that were less than useless (think Frankie Goes to Hollywood and “Two Tribes” for another angle on this). It’s a clever and chilling piece of writing and a reminder of the power a piece of poetry can have.

Another thought occurred to me when I did some research into the three poets here, particularly Porter; the biography of him mentions that his first wife tragically committed suicide in 1974, and he often explored this in his work. The Penguin book was of course published years before this, in 1962, so in many ways these books are giving us a different way to look at these poets and their work; in many cases they’re still at early stages of their careers and it’s fascinating to see what poems were considered representative at that time.

It’s really hard to pick out one poem to share here, because “They Only Travel” and “Your Attention Please” are very much completing for inclusion – but in the end I thought I would choose the Porter, with the recommendation that you also search out Amis because I found his poetry very, very good indeed!

So, with two successful poetry books under my belt, I’m looking forward to volume 3 – George Barker, Martin Bell and Charles Causley!

Your Attention Please by Peter Porter

The Polar DEW has just warned that
A nuclear rocket strike of
At least one thousand megatons
Has been launched by the enemy
Directly at our major cities.
This announcement will take
Two and a quarter minutes to make,
You therefore have a further
Eight and a quarter minutes
To comply with the shelter
Requirements published in the Civil
Defence Code – section Atomic Attack.
A specially shortened Mass
Will be broadcast at the end
Of this announcement
Protestant and Jewish services
Will begin simultaneously –
Select your wavelength immediately
According to instructions
In the Defence Code. Do not
Take well-loved pets (including birds)
Into your shelter – they will consume
Fresh air. Leave the old and bed –
ridden, you can do nothing for them.
Remember to press the sealing
Switch when everyone is in
The shelter. Set the radiation
Aerial, turn on the geiger barometer.
Turn off your television now.
Turn off your radio immediately
The Services end. At the same time
Secure explosion plugs in the ears
Of each member of your family. Take
Down your plasma flasks. Give your children
The pills marked one and two
In the C.D. green container, then put
Them to bed. Do not break
The inside airlock seals until
The radiation All Clear shows
(Watch for the cuckoo in your
perspex panel), or your District
Touring Doctor rings your bell.
If before this, your air becomes
Exhausted or if any of your family
Is critically injured, administer
The capsules marked ‘Valley Forge’
(Red pocket in No. 1 Survival Kit)
For painless death. (Catholics
Will have been instructed by their priests
What to do in this eventuality.)
This announcement is ending. Our President
Has already given orders for
Massive retaliation – it will be
Decisive. Some of us may die.
Remember, statistically
It is not likely to be you.
All flags are flying fully dressed
On Government buildings – the sun is shining.
Death is the least we have to fear.
We are all in the hands of God,
Whatever happens happens by His Will.
Now go quickly to your shelters.

Larkin About – plus the books just keep on coming….

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I have been trying very, *very* hard to restrict the incoming books recently – and I’m still weeding out and donating – but alas there have been new arrivals recently…

The weekend before last I deliberately only went to the Oxfam bookshop, and thought I was going to get away safely until I spotted a collection of Philip Larkin’s prose tucked away on a lower shelf:

larkin 1

Needless to say, it was quite essential that this came home with me and got added to the nice little pile of Larkins you can see behind it. In fact, here is the pile with the new Larkin integrated. Well, let’s face it, you can never have too much Larkin, can you?

larkin 2

The week’s post brought some nice new arrivals, too, mostly in the form of a big parcel from Middle Child containing the following:

middle child

What a sweetie she is! I was particularly pleased with the “Pepita” as it’s not a Virago I have, and the West is an upgrade. The two Raving Beauties poem collections look fascinating and the final book sounds very intriguing. I’ve heard of Nicole Ward Jouve before, I think in connection with a book about Colette, so that bodes well.

The postie also brought these two lovelies via RISI:

jims end

I have a fairly gnarled copy of “Howard’s End” and so was happy to upgrade. As for “Lucky Jim” – well, as there’s such a big Larkin connection I do feel I should read it!

Finally post-wise is this:

mew

I read about Mew recently in a little book called “Bloomsbury and the Poets” (review to follow) and thought she sounded a fascinating author and that her work definitely warranted investigation, so I sent off for a copy. The Virago volume collects together all her poetry and prose and having dipped in I’m looking forward to it.

Finally, to the most recent weekend’s finds. Again, I went to donate at the Samaritans, and I came out with this:

chateau

I’ve read a *lot* about Maxwell but never seen one of his books turn up before, and this one does sound good. And on to the Oxfam, where again I thought I would get out unscathed, until I thought I’d see on the off-chance if there was any Brian Aldiss – which there was….

aldiss interpreter

I very rarely see his books in the charity shops so I snapped up this one, with its wonderfully dated cover!

Needless to say, I’m not reading any of these at the moment. I’ve just finished a re-read of “Dead Souls” (oh my! what an amazing book) and I have a massive book hangover….

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