Two London twits, one Giantess and one Mum, run a domestic agency, performing unlovable chores for unlovable wives with money. The two twits rehash I Love Lucy daffiness during the subprime era of extravagance. Another dose of the English language fading into bad American dialogue and imitation Hollywood idiocy.
I am reading three books, disrespectfully, carelessly, unthinkingly.
After finishing The Girl Who Kicked A Hornet’s Nest I decided that there was nothing more to read. Nothing else to read. Nothing to satisfy the specific hunger for more Girl. Nothing to rejoin the amorous journalist and the girl. What a pity. Out of all those beautiful, lithe, mythically wise women the journalist ends up with a weight lifter. Disappointing. Like all men, really.
Maybe it wasn’t really Larsson who wrote the whole thing. Maybe it was his girlfriend. Which would explain why the rest of the world is reading “Men Who Hate Women” and Americans, fat, hypocritical and prudish are reading about hornet’s nests. But now we have run out of hornets nests. What remains?
Something named “The Assassins of Athens” which rhymes, ridiculously. We stopped after three rich schoolboys bragged to a homicide inspector about the routine they routinely used to pick upgirls at bars which they were not old enough to drink in…..
The second begins with a Jewish wedding and progresses intellectually to a classic old fashioned domination of a good Jewish girl from Scarsdale by a cold English cad. She loves it. Then the plot turns limp and the Englishmen confesses his impotence, and the book dooms itself to the whining chic lit bin.
How fun to be a stubborn, sensible English widow who takes up decorating or hotelkeeping or moves to Brighton. The kind of fun that takes time: not like those television garden shows that demonstrate
“how to transform an entire garden in a matter of five hours while the lady of the house [goes to] visit her mother in the next town. …A team would move in. They would spend an inordinate amount of money on mature plants, containers, garden furniture, trellising and ceramic slabs… Towards the end there would be moments of panic because the wife was due to walk in the door in precisely seven minutes time…”
No, Caroline has fun slowly. She sells her old house at Bath slowly, she moves to Brighton slowly, she fixes her old house slowly, and then converts a new house into flats, slowly. Meanwhile she discovers that she’s “…got a wonderful eye for fabrics, window treatments, lighting, decorating, color schemes and so on … even furniture.” Then, very slowly, she turns her builder into her friend and her friend into her partner, slowly, sensibly, with a happy division of labour:
I’m asking you to design while I carry out the practical part.
There are very few perfect beginnings to a story. Beginnings which move through images at the same rate as they move through text, rolling into a plot detectibly, sensibly, unhurriedly. A boy, for example, making the rounds on his bicycle, delivering the daily papers:
…At Colonel and Mrs Easterbrook’s, he delivered The Times and the Daily Graphic. At Mrs Sweatenham’s he left The Times and The Daily Worker. At Miss Hingecliff’s and Miss Murgatroyd’s he left The Daily Telegraph and The News Chronicle. At Miss Blacklocke’s, he left The Telegraph, The Times and The Daily Mail. At all these houses, and indeed in practically every house in Chipping Cleghorn, he delivered every Friday, a copy of the North Benom News and The Chipping Cleghorn Gazette, known simply as The Gazette. Thus on Friday mornings, after a hurried glance at the headlines in the daily paper…. most of the inhabitants of Chipping Cleghorn eagerly opened the Gazette and plunged into the local news. After a cursory glance at correspondence, in which the passionate hates and feuds of rural life found full play, most of the subscribers then turned to the local column.
We can easily sketch in our mind a series of houses, in front of which stand assorted sizes of mailbox, and in which kitchens sit the inhabitants of this happy English village, eating their singular English breakfasts, reading the headlines, the correspondence, the local news, and then, more likely than not, the Classifieds, in which are published up to the minute or almost up to the minute ads, as relevant and localizable as Tweets.
After the funeral, there is the family and the village. There is a batty aunt, a hysterical and heirless English lord, his ancient butler, and a smattering of inadequate and weak-willed in-laws, waiting for their share. These are the leftovers of the comfortable class, who married badly and relied on unreliable servants. Unlike Miss Gilchrist, who knew how to cook, and ran a pretty little teashop before the war.
An intimate look at the arrangements, organization and order of small town French village life, through the eyes of the jovial, wise and well fed chief of police, for “…not a single pig made it to market without some part of it being offered as part tribute part toll to Bruno…”.
He put the grill close to the coals, arranged the steaks, and then under his breath sang the Marsellaise, which he knew from long practice took him exactly 45 seconds. He turned the steaks, dribbled some of the marinade on top of the charred side, and sang it again. Then he turned the steaks for 10 seconds, pouring on more of the marinade, and then another ten seconds. Now he took them off the coals and put them on the plates he’d left to warm on the bricks he’d left to warm on the side of the grill.
The strolling investigator offers up an amiable mix of local types, of those who “evidently conformed to the English stereotype of bizarre affection for animals dressed in gleaming black boots, cream jodhpurs,” of the prissy European officers of hygiene who threatened the taste of the local cheese, of old men who had not spoken to each other since the war.
The reader sometimes sounds as if he’s sucking on bubbles, a kind of terrible English mumbling.
The relentless decomposition of the Oznard family has left Andrew in the position of so many young Englishmen, who had, for the first time in centuries, to feed themselves.
Young Andrew had thus determined from an early age that he was for England and more specifically, that England was for him… What he needed was a decaying English institution that would restore to him what other decaying institutions had taken away….
And what he chose was the Secret Service.
An exact and well cut commentary on the tradition of tailoring and its neo-colonial clientele.
Even little old Canadian villages have murders, and artists. Jane Neal lived and painted in a big house and kept both her canvases and her home private. Except for the kitchen. To it she invited her circle of friends and fellow-artists, poor and English speaking. They and their language migrate to Three Pines to continue the war between French and English sensibilities.
The death of Jane Neal re-invokes these French and English factions, in a series of tense encounters between Police Inspector Gamache and the local folks: the usual suspects.
The plot is crisp and economical, but the descriptions are sweet, pastoral, even poignant. We want to know who murdered Jane because we like her more and more as we reconnoitre her life.
Every day for Lucy’s entire dog life Jane had sliced a banana for breakfast and had miraculously dropped one of the perfect disks to the floor where it sat for an instant before being gobbled up….Every morning Lucy’s prayers were answered, confirming her belief that God was old and clumsy and smelled like roses… and lived in the kitchen.
It is so civilized to recognize that one is old, so English. Mary Sharp is a spritely, frank, practical English lady, retired, and almost 60. She has lively, vivid opinions and wobbly upper arms and lives in a not very nice part of West London with a sweet young lodger. Five of her friends have died this year. The rest are about to die, one way or another. But dying is not the point: being old is the point. As she announces at a ghastly dinner part after asking the hostess to move the penis shaped flowers (“But I can’t see you, darling!”):
If you’re sixty, you’re sixty. Sixty is old. I’m just longing to be old and I don’t want to be told I’m young when I’m not. I’m fed up with being young. Boring. I was young in the sixties. … When I was 20, 60 was old. When I was 30, 40 and 50, 60 was still old and I’m not going to change the goalposts now….
And when her hostess says: “But I don’t feel a day over 30,” Mary responds:
But Marian, don’t you realize that that’s tragic? To continue feeling 30 for the whole of your life? So boring! A nightmare! I’m longing to feel sixty! What’s wrong with that?
And so Mary is happy to turn 60, to join the 7 million grannies in England involved in child care, to master the technology necessary to babysit an infant:
I tried everything…. I picked him up and sang to him… I offered him more milk… The only way I could calm him down was to walk him round the flat talking nonstop and pointing things out to him… Let’s look at these nice bannisters…. OOh! Here’s a mirror . I an see Gene in there, and granny’s looking a bit distraught and knackered, isn’t she? And now …. We looked out the window and watched all the cars…. occasionally people would pass by. Look, Gene, I would say in my gentle voice: there’s a man in a hood. He’s probably a mugger. He’s a naughty man, isn’t he? And look! There’s a nice drug dealer the other side of the road. He’s making lots and lots of money selling people heroin…..”
Therefore, go forth, companion: when you find
No highway more, no track, all being blind
The way to go shall glimmer in the mind.
Though you have conquered Earth and charted Sea
And planned the courses of all Stars that be, Adventure on,
more wonders are in Thee.
Adventure on, for from the littlest clue
Has come whatever worth man ever knew;
The next to lighten all men may be you….
— John Masefield
Shute must be removed from the dusty category of oddish optimistic English writers and reclassified among the chroniclers of all things mechanical, experimental, technical and the men who invent them, perfect them, and test them. Again and again Nevil Shute describes ugly, unpopular, classless, technical men who nonetheless make wonderful things that work. In a word: engineers. Developers. Hackers. Nerds. Shutists, all. A century of nerds, bricoleurs and tinkerers and hobbyists invented buggy applications, tracked each other’s patents, and played with each other’s toys, long before we came along.
Honey is exemplary. A scientist who devises noisy contraptions tearing themselves to bits in order to study stress. A theorist who hasn’t heard of hot water boilers or mops.
Such an insignificant little man is Honey that it is almost inconceivable that he should be right about big important matters – like when planes are likely to crash. It is likewise inconceivable that such a seriously ugly man in a bad suit can make himself loved by a beautiful actress and a beautiful stewardess in the same book. But he does.