24 May 2017

Morgan Sportès: Je t'aime, je te tue (1985)

There's a golden legend of saints, but this is is the (satirical) scarlet legend of killers, as Morgan Sportès begins by saying in this early book (with its deliberately sensationalist cover), which is a kind of amalgam of true stories in fictional form. Excluded here are crimes motivated by greed for money, leaving a wide area open for crimes within the family, especially crimes passionels. (The word 'crime' in French is not synonymous with the English word 'crime', and suggests a serious crime.) 

Sportès's episodic work (consisting of twelve stories, not all of which are actually murders) makes for gruesome reading, as of course it is intended to. Here we have: the body of a peep-show girl trawled out of the canal Saint-Martin; the chopping up of a partner by the lover; the joint murder of the husband of a mismatched couple; a multiple psycho-killer who wears a motorcycle crash helmet; the husband who kills his sexually promiscuous wife, buries her under the peach tree, kills his dog when he goes digging up the earth, and finally, fatefully confesses his actions to his new partner. All human grotesque (but not remorseful) life is here, and Sportès presents it chillingly well. This is far from being a wonderful book, but it's well worth a couple of hours' read.

21 May 2017

Elsa Triolet: Le Cheval blanc (1943)

At five hundred tightly packed pages, Elsa Triolet's Le Cheval blanc (a reference to protagonist Michel Vigaud's recurring vision) is no quick read. It's invigorating, infuriating, bewitching, fascinating, dazzling, and many more strong adjectives, and I suspect that I may at some time in the future re-read it and come to different conclusions, but for the moment this'll have to do.

Lachland Mackinnon, in The Lives of Elsa Triolet (1992), says that Triolet claimed that the novel owes something to André Gide's notion of the acte gratuit by Lafcadio in Les Caves du Vatican (1914), and he adds that he finds it 'Hemingwayesque'. Neither Gide nor Hemingway came to my mind, but Sartre, with whom Triolet doesn't appear to have got on at all, definitely surfaces to my consciousness.

Mackinnon, for what his comments may or may not be worth, states that Triolet considered this her most autobiographical work. Michel, the son of a Russian opium addict, has a restless life in which he becomes a drug smuggler, a kind of tramp, the husband of a rich American whose lifestyle he exploits to the full and owns houses, a plane, etc., and also is a globetrotter, a successful singer, and so on. But his trump card invariably involves walking out when he doesn't like things, or when it gets too hot (or cold).

He dies a heroic death in war, but is he a hero? I'm not too sure, but then I suspect that many readers must have given up on this meandering, almost plotless tale before the end. Probably their mistake, that one, and the more I think of it the more I feel inclined to re-visit this novel.

Louis Guilloux: Angélina (1934)

Working-class Breton writer Louis Guilloux (1899–1980), born in Saint-Brieuc the son of a shoemaker, used his native Brittany as a framework for all his works. Angélina concerns the struggles of a poor artisanal family.

Angélina  is a socialist exposé, but not a rant: it criticises the faults in the political, the economic, the educational and the social system in general, but does it quite subtly. Poverty is the order of the day, the situation into which the working class are born but which is so difficult to escape from. Esprit, who slaves at his spinning wheel, married later in life and for him technological progress is anathema. He lives with his wife Anne-Marie (who brings in a  little 'pin' money' by sewing), and their children.

Henri is the elder brother who is incidentally receiving radical socialist training at work from a much older work comrade, Charles is some years younger, and Angélina is on the way. Life isn't easy.

Working-class tragedy, crime, ill health (mental as well as physical) are pandemic, and Guilloux makes the most of it in expressing his hatred of the situations in which the impotent find themselves. The cycle of absolute or relative impoverishment continues, but where is the way out? Does Guilloux even suggest one, or is everyone trapped in a Zolaesque, naturalistic bind?

18 May 2017

Lachlan Mackinnon: The Lives of Elsa Triolet (1992)

About fifteen years ago Alison Macleod phoned me to talk (with some incredulity) about my interest in Lionel Britton, about which she'd noted in the TLS (Times Literary Supplement), although she failed to understand my concern with a writer of 'pretentious piffle'. (I have to add that the Alison Macleod I'm writing about is the former TV critic of the Daily Worker and the author of The Death of Uncle Joe (1997), not the novelist Alison MacLeod).

The Alison Macleod speaking to me not only considered Britton's writing to be bad, but also called Britton's great friend Herbert Marshall's translation of Mayakovsky's poetry 'cloth-eared'. Which is where Lachlan Mackinnon's The Lives of Elsa Triolet comes in, as Mackinnon mentions Marshall's Mayakovsky (1965) as one of the key five works he consulted in the writing of this book. Mayakovsky was the lover of Elsa Triolet's sister Lili (and perhaps briefly the lover of Elsa herself), but more importantly was responsible for introducing Elsa to her second husband Louis Aragon.

Does Herbert Marshall's translation of Mayakovsky matter here? Probably not at all, although I'd have appreciated the knowledge that Mackinnon was quoting Marshall long before I searched for translation sources at the end of the book. In fact, I'd have appreciated knowing who translated the many quotations from French into English, because I suspect they come from the author himself. In a word, I find it difficult to accept this as a scholarly publication (in spite of the knowledge on the back flap that Mackinnon regularly writes for the Times Literary Supplement), and I can't bring myself to trust it. There is a Bibliography, but no footnotes or endnotes to support quotations used.

As a general introduction to Elsa Triolet's life and work (and indeed to some extent the life of Aragon) I find this perfectly acceptable, although as I'm relatively new to Triolet and Aragon I shall wait to read deeper into the lives of the pair from more scholarly works written in French.

Tracey Thorn: Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to be a Pop Star (2013)

The title of this book says it all, really: a girl grows up in the bland Brookmans Park not too far (but certainly far enough away) from the London music scene, goes to Hull University (which doesn't seem quite so dull as Philip Larkin's) and gains a first in English, and goes on make music but ends up turning down the unthinkable: a tour with U2, which would have brought her unimaginable fame and riches.

Tracey Thorn was in her teens one of the Marine Girls, a post-punk girl outfit active from 1980 to 1983. But although that group broke Thorn's shyness it is of course the (she admits rather gauchely-named duo Everything But The Girl (EBTG) (active 1982–2000)), which she formed after meeting Ben Watt when they both attended the University of Hull, for which she is most remembered. They were the darlings of the indie world, frequently represented (sometimes on the front page) of the NME, the bible of the bedsit king (or queen)dom.

Platonically (of course) Tracey Thorn loved Morrissey, wanted to be him, and he of course is written into EBTG's music for anyone who fancies trainspotting. This book is a kind of history not just of EBTG but a history of the 1980s music scene, and although Thorn comes on as to a certain extent apolitical, left-wing at the time was of course a default from which you really couldn't even attempt to argue your way out of, even if you wanted to.

A refreshing book, and occasionally so honest as to verge on the embarrassing, a joy to read, an incidental hymn to an in so many ways distant era, but glorious. Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt are still very much a couple, although musically they pursue their separate paths.

12 May 2017

J. T. Becher, Lord Byron, and the Workhouse, Southwell, Nottinghamshire

The Reverend John Thomas Becher (1770–1848) lived with his wife Mary at Hill House in Easthorpe, Southwell. He was a friend of Lord Byron's, who wrote this:

'Dear Becher, you tell me to mix with mankind;
I cannot deny such a precept is wise;
But retirement accords with the tone of my mind:
I will not descend to a world I despise.

But Becher! you’re a "reverend pastor",
Now take it in consideration,
Whether for penance I should fast,or
Pray for my "sins" in expiation.

Candour compels me, BECHER! to commend
The verse, which blends the censor with the friend;
Your strong yet just reproof extorts applause
From me, the heedless and imprudent cause;
For this wild error, which pervades my strain,
I sue for pardon,–must I sue in vain?'

Becher had a great interest in poor law and prison reform, and the workhouse at Southwell (now in the possession of the National Trust), was built to his specifications.

Remains of Ian Curtis's Macclesfield, Cheshire

As shown above, the former Labour Exchange in Armitt Street, Macclesfield, has now been converted into flats. Ian Curtis of the band Joy Division worked here as an assistant disablement resettlement officer. It was very close to his home in South Park Road.

Unknown Pleasures (1979) was Joy Division's first studio album, the first released in Curtis's lifetime, and such is the iconic nature of the album sleeve (designed by Peter Saville) that there is no need to mention either band or singer.

The Regency Mill roundabout, site of the Talbot pub where Joy Division used to rehearse and eat on occasions. The leaflet Unknown Pleasures: A Walk around Joy Division's Macclesfield (2010), published by the Silk Heritage Trust, mentions that the eccentric landlord (whose name may have been Tony) owned an ostrich whose eggs he used to serve omelettes in the pub.

(I previously published an external photo of 77 Barton Street and Curtis's memorial in Macclesfield Crematorium elsewhere on this blog.)

Cattle watering place, St Martin, Guernsey


The fontaine has a door which was probably fitted to stop animals drinking from the people's water supply. The abreuveur has two drinking troughs and is fed from the well. The water is constantly running and therefore remains clear. Surplus water flows down to Saint's bay. An abreuveur has existed on this site since before 1800.

This is one of more than 30 abreuveurs within the Parish of St. Martin. They are looked after by volunteers and the Parish douzaine.

Fontaine = Spring/Well. Abreuveur = Cattle watering place.'

And a shot of Saints bay itself.

Victor Hugo in Candie Gardens, St Peter Port, Guernsey

The notice in Candie Gardens, St Peter Port, explaining the history of the statue of Hugo:

'Statue of Victor Hugo Unveiled on 7th July 1914. This statue was produced c.1913 by Jean Boucher for the Société Victor Hugo and was purchased by the French government for 30,000 francs (£1,291). The statue was shipped to Guernsey and was transported from the harbour to Candie Gardens on a trolley pulled by a steamroller. It was mounted on a block of Guernsey granite carved by local stonemasons.'

Around the statue:



LE 7 JUILLET 1914,

A mural on Best Western Moores Central Hotel, Le Pollet, St Peter Port,  shows important figures in the history of Guernsey. Victor Hugo, of course, is one of them:

11 May 2017

Peter Le Lievre, St Peter Port, Guernsey

Le Lievre
1812 – 1878
lived here'

Unmarried Le Lievre lived at 17 Hauteville, St Peter Port, with his two sisters. The plaque is just a few paces from Victor Hugo's Hauteville House.

5 May 2017

Paul Morley: Nothing (2000)

In a way, particularly at the beginning of this book, which is non-fiction, it could be said that much of it deals with the writer and music journalist Paul Morley, his obsessional interest in rock culture. It also deals with his life particularly up to the time he was twenty years of age, or eighteen as he thinks at the time, because the reader is drip-fed the information here as it initially came to his often imperfect knowledge.

But it really hovers around this eighteen or twenty period, bringing in Morley's two sisters (Jayne and Carol) and his mother (Dilys). This was when Morley's father disappeared for good, because he (a sufferer from depression who had previously suffered from the electro-convulsive 'therapy' designed to cure him, but in fact which (as Stanley Middleton once wrote so accurately of one of his fictional characters) 'raddled' his brain). (And I know the exact meaning of this because I (for my sins) once assisted on several occasions in the administration of this barbaric 'treatment' at a psychiatric hospital.)

On the final disappearance of the father, he left the family's Stockport home and headed south in his firm's ford Escort van, fitted a kind of pipe to the exhaust, stuffed the window and inhaled the poisonous carbon monoxide fumes until he was dead: in a rather ghoulish touch, Morley says that he looked in the peak of health with his pink face. Not that Morley ever saw it though, because at the beginning he says that the only dead body he ever saw is that of Ian Curtis, and goes on to say that his father (like Marc Bolan and Elvis Presley) all died in 1977. On the other hand, Morley speculates at the end, maybe he didn't see Curtis's body at all. (Ian Curtis of course died in 1980.)

Psychological truth is relative, fugitive, as speculative as many pages in this book, lost in the turmoil of the mind. And suicide brings turmoil to the family, can lead to endless guilt feelings, endless reasoning, crazy thinking, in a way that, say, death from cancer or some other disease, or death in war, etc, can't equal: that doesn't in any way lessen other deaths, but suicide is different. Different because it can seem arbitrary, preventable, pointless, but perhaps above all a denial of the value, even of the existence, of those left behind.

Only very occasionally, and very briefly, does Paul Morley lapse into overwriting of the kind that, for example, destroyed the appalling first (and surely last?) novel that Morrissey wrote, but then that is to be expected. This is a heartfelt search to find his father, to find out what led him to the supreme act of self-effacement, the outsider southerner who proudly owned his own home 'up north', who dressed differently from the northerners around him, spoke differently from them, and finally drove away from his adopted – but in so many other ways unadopted – north to the south, to the tiny Bull's Cross near Gloucester, to do the undoable. I really enjoyed Nothing.