Monday, 15 October 2018

Poirot Project: The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (review)

This post is part of my 2016 2016-17 2016-18(?) Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘One, Two, Buckle My Shoe’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

And so, after a short run of adaptations of Christie’s novels, we return to the short stories for the final series of hour-long episodes. The first episode of the fifth series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot – ‘The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb’ – was first broadcast on 17th January 1993, and it was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in The Sketch in September 1923. Having wandered ahead to 1940 with One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, it’s nice to come back to that first run of Poirot Sketch stories again.

And it’s familiar territory here – Hastings is our narrator, and he’s in full-on Watson mode:
‘I have always considered that one of the most thrilling and dramatic of the many adventures I have shared with Poirot was that of our investigation into the strange series of deaths which followed upon the discovery and opening of the Tomb of King Men-her-Ra.’
After narrating this investigation to us, Hastings ends his story with another Watson-like pronouncement:
‘The case was hushed up as far as possible, and, to this day, people talk of the remarkable series of deaths in connection with the Tomb of Men-her-Ra as a triumphal proof of the vengeance of a bygone king upon the desecrators of his tomb – a belief which, as Poirot pointed out to me, is contrary to all Egyptian belief and thought.’
The story is situated as one of Hastings’s chronicles of Poirot’s past cases. There’s a bit of a suggestion that, much like ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’, this is a story that Hastings has held back until the time is right for its narration.

But this tone doesn’t seem quite right here. While the investigation may well have been ‘one of the most thrilling and dramatic’ undertaken by the dynamic duo, it’s surely also one of the most recent.

Hastings draws explicit attention to the real-life inspiration for the story in the opening paragraphs:
‘Hard upon the discovery of the Tomb of Tutankh-Amen by Lord Carnarvon, Sir John Willard and Mr Bleibner of New York, pursuing their excavations not far from Cairo, in the vicinity of the Pyramids of Gizeh, came unexpectedly on a series of funeral chambers.’
Now, the tomb of Tutankh-Amen (to use Christie’s spelling) was only discovered by Howard Carter in November 1922, less than a year before Christie’s story was published. The high-profile death of Lord Carnarvon, which cemented the myth of Tutankh-Amen’s curse (clearly the inspiration here), didn’t occur until April 1923. So, despite the Hastings-as-chronicler introduction, ‘The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb’ is a story inspired by a ‘hot’ news story – Hastings’s ‘to this day’ claims feel a bit like an affectation here, to be honest.

Still, let’s have a look at the story itself. Poirot is called upon by Lady Willard, the widow of Sir John Willard, who died (à la Lord Carnarvon) shortly after the tomb of Men-her-Ra was opened. Lady Willard is scared that the pharaoh’s curse might still have victims to claim. Poirot states that he believes superstition to be one of the world’s most powerful forces and agrees to look into the case. Hastings is surprised, but (naturally) goes along with things.

Lady Willard is particularly fearful for her son, who has gone out to Egypt to continue his late father’s work. He is part of a party that includes Mr Bleibner, an American archaeologist, Dr Tosswill of the British Museum, Mr Schneider of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Dr Ames, the expedition’s physician, and Hassan, a ‘native servant’ (ignore him – when has someone called ‘Hassan’ ever been the murderer in an Agatha Christie?). Previously, the party had also included Rupert Bleibner, nephew to the archaeologist, but this young man has recently taken his own life. Was young Mr Bleibner a victim of the pharaoh’s curse? Can there possibly be any connection between his death and that of Sir John Willard?

Only one man can work that out… but he’ll need to go to Egypt to investigate.

‘The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb’ isn’t one of my favourites, to be honest. It’s not a great mystery – though it has a lovely sleight-of-hand in Rupert’s suicide note, which I’ll come back to when I talk about the adaptation – and some of the motive is held back way longer than I expect from Christie. I’m not sure a reader could really work this one out, and that’s a bit naughty.

However, it’s fun to see an early example of Christie’s love of archaeology. And it’s always great to have Poirot and Hastings on the road. There’s a little reminder of how much Hercule hates ‘the sea! The hateful sea!’, and a description of him waging ‘an unceasing war on the dust’. Sadly, though, our narrator holds back on what could have been quite the memorable scene:
‘I pass over the spectacle of Poirot on a camel.’
(Though he does give us a flavour of his friend’s wild discomfort, before noting that he ended the journey on a little donkey.)

Overall, this isn’t the best of the Sketch stories, but it’s another nice little slice of Poirot ’n Hastings, and the start of the archaeological thread that will run through many more of Christie’s stories.

And so to the adaptation…

The episode was written by Clive Exton and directed by Peter Barber Fleming. It’s a fairly faithful adaptation of the short story, though Miss Lemon has been added to the mix (no Japp this time – either in the short story or the episode).

This might seem a bit weird, given that I’ve just said I’m not especially enamoured of the short story, but I remember really liking this episode when it first aired. And I can remember exactly what it was that I loved about it: it was that trick with the suicide note. I thought it was brilliant.

The trick is quite simple (the best ones always are). Rupert Bleibner leaves a note saying that he’s a ‘leper and an outcast’. Eventually, it dawns on Poirot that perhaps that first bit should have been taken literally. He didn’t kill himself because he’d been cast out by his friends; he killed himself because he thought he’d contracted leprosy. It’s one of those neat little details that appear in the best detective fiction – you’re given explicit information in the full knowledge that you’ll make the wrong interpretation.

Thinking about it, I’m not sure it’s so weird that I enjoyed the episode as a teenager, while being disappointed by the story as an adult. I think this is one of the episodes (there aren’t many, and they’re mostly written by Exton) that is actually better than its source material. It’s not that the plot or characterization is dramatically altered, but rather that there’s some subtle restructuring and reframing that makes for a more satisfying mystery.

The first alteration comes with the way Poirot finds out about Rupert Bleibner’s death. In Christie’s story, the detective sends a cable to New York for details. In the TV version, he has a more immediate source – as Miss Lemon points out, Hastings is currently in the States and so could do some on the spot investigation. This is probably why the ‘leper’ trick works better in the episode than in the story. Hastings actually gets to meet Rupert Bleibner (played by Paul Birchard), and so we get some additional visual clues (even if we don’t necessarily process what we’re seeing) to the young man’s plight. (And, here, it’s Hastings that discovers Rupert Bleibner’s body when he goes to talk to him about the death of his uncle.)

Of course, it’s never actually explained why Hastings is in America. Miss Lemon says he’s been doing some business in California. What business?? As I keep coming back to, Hastings is clearly a bit of a hapless, family-less posh lad. There’s a mention of him working for Lloyd’s at one point, but otherwise we see no evidence of him being involved in ‘business’. He hasn’t even got his own flat (most of the time). He certainly doesn’t make a habit of popping over to California, so his trip here seems a bit odd. In fact, Exton’s script makes it seem odder, as Hastings is a complete fish-out-of-water in the US of A. He doesn’t seem like a seasoned transatlantic traveller – he doesn’t even know what ‘over easy’ means.

That aside, the story does work better when the clues are presented more directly. There’s still the problem of Rupert Bleibner’s will, though, which is my biggest beef with both the episode and the story. In Christie’s story, the fact that Rupert made a will in favour of Dr Ames is just dropped in as near-speculation in the fourth-to-last paragraph, with the detective simply waving his lack of evidence away as ‘doubtless’. In the adaptation, we get a little bit more of a hint (there’s some reference to Ames’s previous acquaintance with young Bleibner), but Poirot still gets the detail from a Miss-Lemon-ex-machina phone call that the viewer can’t hear.

I guess, though, if you’ve worked out the ‘leper’ clue, then there’s only one possible suspect, and so the will isn’t that important. I guess.

The other alterations to the episode are minor, and mostly work to involve Miss Lemon (kind of) in the plot.

Exton retains Poirot’s comments on superstition being a powerful force and Hastings’s disbelief in his friend’s apparent gullibility. This is now paralleled by Miss Lemon’s rather earnest belief in the power of the supernatural, which is something we’ve seen before (and will see again).

Other changes are a bit more pragmatic. One that makes me giggle is the change in name for the British Library representative (played by Jon Strickland). I love the fact that someone thought ‘Dr Tosswill’ sounded a bit too snicker-inducing and so changed it to ‘Dr Fosswell’.

The timescale of the episode is also a little tighter – Poirot’s investigations in the series tend to be spread over days and weeks, rather than the months of some of the short stories – and so, with the delay caused by waiting for Hastings to return from America, our dynamic duo simply don’t have time to get the boat to Egypt. Instead, they fly, and so we miss out on Poirot’s sea-sickness. (In case you’re curious, regular flights from the UK to Cairo began in 1927, so it’s not an anachronism to have the TV characters taking this flight. It wasn’t an option for their literary counterparts.)

Sadly, the scriptwriters also chose to ‘pass over the spectacle of Poirot on a camel’ and replace the journey to the expedition with a wild car ride, gleefully piloted by Hastings. I think they still capture Poirot’s dramatic discomfort though.

But, although the method of travel is different, Poirot’s dislike of dust is retained (as well we might expect, given the characterization in the series). Poirot’s recourse to his clothes brush is still present – as is one of Hastings’s cheekiest lines from Christie’s story: ‘Come, now, there’s a lot of sand in Belgium.’ Not in Brussels, Hastings. Not in Brussels.

Throughout the episode – as with all his scripts – Exton’s knowledge of and affection for Christie’s text is apparent. He even has his Poirot reading the same book Christie’s character consults: The Magic of the Egyptians and Chaldeans. This is a really nice touch, as you could easily miss the title of Poirot’s volume, so it’s almost like an (admittedly niche) Easter Egg for Christie fans.

But I’m going to end this review with something else that’s been added in for the episode. It’s certainly not something we’d find anywhere in Christie’s Poirot stories, but it’s a lovely little addition for the TV series.

In case we hadn’t guessed, this episode tells us that Miss Lemon likes cats. But, sadly, her beloved pet Catherine the Great (or Catherine the Grate, given that she was named for her love of sleeping by the fire) has died. As Hastings points out to Poirot, much of Miss Lemon’s spiritual dabblings (tarot, automatic writing) are attempts to try and communicate with her departed feline companion.

At first, this seems like one of those times when Hastings and Miss Lemon’s friendship is developed, with Poirot unable to fully understand the vagaries of their ‘normal’ emotions. Certainly, he seems a little dismissive of Miss Lemon’s grief, as though he can’t quite understand what his secretary is going through.

We shouldn’t have doubted him though. At the end of the episode, when Poirot and Hastings return to London, our little Belgian detective comes good. He has understood Miss Lemon’s pain, and he’s had an idea how to comfort her. In the final scene, he presents Miss Lemon with a small statue of King Men-her-Ra’s favourite cat, a feline protector that, Poirot insists, will ensure that Miss Lemon is visited by Catherine in her sleep. It’s a really sweet moment, and the episode ends with a reminder of the warmth these characters feel towards each other (something that’s a big part of the TV series).

Does Miss Lemon believe that Poirot thinks her dead cat will come to her in a dream? Or does she know he’s just humouring her? I think she knows, deep down, but she also knows that he’s doing what he can to make her feel better. She seems so genuinely touched by his gesture – it’s such a lovely ending to the episode.

And so, time to move on to the next episode… ‘The Underdog’

Sunday, 14 October 2018

My Year in Books 2018: September

Here's the latest update from my New Year's Resolution to read more for pleasure. This is definitely the longest I've ever stuck to a resolution, and I'm pretty sure I'm going to keep this up for the rest of the year. I read five novels in September (though I did go a bit faddy again this month). So here are my reviews...

(You can read the reviews from the rest of the year here: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August)

Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott (2017)

So, I picked this book up on a trip to Blackpool in August with the residents of the care home my mum and brother manage. The residents I was with were all buying books, and so I couldn’t not get one as well. I will admit, I judged this book by its cover – I was very intrigued by the design here. The blurb also looked like something I’d enjoy: a group of children are exiled by Elizabeth I to a place called Rotherweird; years later, the town has developed into a secretive and arcane place, excelling in science and technology, but restrictive of any knowledge of its past. The book begins with two strangers arriving in Rotherweird – a new history teacher, Jonah Oblong, and a mysterious millionaire, Sir Veronal Slickstone, who has bought the old manor house. Rotherweird’s inhabitants are an odd bunch, laden with quirks and old-time affectations, and its history is shrouded in obscurity. Except… it isn’t really. The ‘mystery’ of Rotherweird isn’t particularly hidden from the reader, and this makes much of the story somewhat ponderous. I found myself impatient for the characters to catch up and do something – perhaps it would’ve been better not to have so much insistence that there was a puzzle to be solved. The book is clearly indebted to the Gormenghast trilogy, but it lacks the absorbing intricacy of Peake’s work, and it feels more frivolous and – in places – silly. It’s Gormenghast-lite, and, sadly, I was a bit disappointed in the end.

The Private Patient by P.D. James (2008)

Another book I picked up in August – this time it’s one I bought from a jumble sale at a local fun day. I have to admit I haven’t read a lot of P.D. James (and until this month hadn’t read any of the Adam Dalgliesh books). I love the Queens of Crime (Christie, Sayers, Allingham and Marsh), and I’m a big fan of the other Baroness of Crime (Rendell), so I thought it was about time I made a start on the Adam Dalgliesh novels. But, weirdly, this involved reading the last of the series first. The Private Patient is set (funnily enough) in a private clinic specialising in plastic surgery. Journalist Rhoda Gradwyn checks in before an operation – but someone ensures she’ll never check out. Dalgliesh and his team investigate. This is a classic country house mystery, though the country house has now been transformed into a clinic (there are shades of Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side in the description of the forced sale of the hall – though James’s book was published 46 years later than Christie’s). Now, I’ll say up front that the denouement is a bit of a let-down, but I was completely engrossed in the story. It was a real page-turner, and I really enjoyed the way the plot unfolded. I was quite struck by the attention given to the victim before the murder, making her much more of a character than you normally find in detective fiction. I really enjoyed this one.

Cover Her Face by P.D. James (1962)

In for a penny, in for a pound… I thought I’d make a start on the rest of the Adam Dalgliesh novels. And this time, I started in the right place. Cover Her Face is James’s debut novel, which introduces her series detective (and isn’t it weird that James’s first and Christie’s last published novels use the same quote from The Duchess of Malfi?). We’re back in the world of the country house murder – this time, it’s the home of the Maxie family, who are just realising their way of life is on its way out and that their country house won’t be in the family forever. They take on a new maid (Sally Jupp) from the local home for unmarried mothers, but it isn’t long before Sally is found murdered. Adam Dalgliesh is called in to investigate, uncovering various secrets as he goes. It’s a very enjoyable murder mystery, though James isn’t quite as slick with her clues as Christie. And I’m fascinated by the parallels between this novel and Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, which was published the same year. The Maxies of the former are in a similar boat to the Bantrys of the latter, though they haven’t yet been forced to sell their ancestral home – there’s even a set-piece garden fête in each novel. In many ways, though Christie’s novel is more accepting of the march of progress – James’s book has a much harder heart. I enjoyed it, but I wasn’t blown away.

A Mind to Murder by P.D. James (1963)

Maybe – just maybe – I read too much P.D. James in one go. I went straight from Cover Her Face to the second Adam Dalgliesh novel, but I found this one really grated on me. A Mind to Murder is set in – surprise, surprise – a former posh house (townhouse this time) that’s been converted to another use. Here, the house is now a psychiatric clinic, and the administration manager is the unfortunate victim. There were some things I really liked about this one. Descriptions of the house, the city and the season (autumn) were vivid and compelling, and it was interesting reading a depiction of a psychiatric clinic in the early days of NHS mental health treatment. However, I find that I’m starting to dislike Adam Dalgliesh – he’s like an emo Lord Peter Wimsey – and while he has plenty of personality quirks, he doesn’t seem to have any particularly acute powers of detection. I’m pretty sure any other policeman could have solved this one, and I like my detectives a little more indispensable. After reading three Adam Dalgliesh novels, I also feel like it’s really obvious which benches this Baroness of Crime sat on in the House of Lords – and I can’t help comparing them to Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford novels. There are points in A Mind to Murder that make Miss Marple look like Jeremy Corbyn. Personally, I also struggled with some of the descriptions of ECT and LSD treatment in the clinic, but that was the 60s for you.

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling (2012)

Here’s another one I bought at the fun day in August. Now, this might sound shocking, but I’d never read anything by J.K. Rowling before. I love Robert Galbraith, though, so I had a sneaking suspicion I’d probably like Rowling too. Hmm… The Casual Vacancy was Rowling’s first ‘adult’ novel after the final Harry Potter book. It’s set in the West Country village of Pagford, and tells the story of the confusion, conflict and machinations set in motion by the death of Parish Councillor Barry Fairbrother. It’s an overtly political book (even making direct reference to certain political parties), and its sprawling cast are drawn into debates on social housing, addiction and education in the run-up to the election. And… I really didn’t like it. Clearly trying to shake off the Hogwarts dust, Rowling has created a nasty, cynical little tale, where casual sexual assault, physical abuse and crime mount towards a painful climax (and an election that, by that point, really doesn’t matter). As the novel progresses, it’s clear that this is intended to be a ‘social issues’ novel, in the vein of Dickens or Eliot (it was dubbed Mugglemarch by some). Krystal Weedon becomes our council estate Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and we watch, pity and analyse (but don’t identify with) the horrors of Krystal’s life. To ensure no identification accidentally occurs, Krystal’s speech is written entirely phonetically, and this really really annoyed me. Turns out, I don’t like J.K. Rowling books. But I still love Robert Galbraith.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

My Year in Books 2018: August

This post is a little delayed, but I've finally had chance to catch up with my New Year's Resolution (which I'm still sticking to). Only four books this time, but that's not too bad. So here's the list of books I read for pleasure in August...

(Here are my lists for the rest of the year: January, February, March, April, May, June, July)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (2013)

I discovered Fowler’s novel while looking for books with unreliable narrators and genuine twists. I really wasn’t sure what to expect from it, except that there was a secret that would be revealed on around page 77. The book’s narrator is Rosemary, a young woman studying at university who is rather reticent about her family. We know from the beginning that Rosemary has (had?) two siblings, Fern and Lowell, who are no longer part of her life. Fern, particularly, is something of a mystery as all we know is that she ‘went away’ one day without warning. Although I did guess in advance what the secret about Fern was, this didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book. It’s an unusual story that’s both very funny and utterly heart-breaking. The style reminded me at times of Kate Atkinson and Marina Lewycka (two writers that I really like), particularly in its non-linear structure (the story loops back a couple of time, revealing things that may not have been clear the first time round) and in the often painful juxtaposition of comedy and the brutality of life. This is a book about empathy and kindness – a sort of coming-of-age story – but one that doesn’t shy away from presenting cruelty and unfairness. I can’t say too much more without giving major spoilers, but this was a genuinely unexpected story with a central character I was really invested in and ending that stayed with me long after I’d finished reading. I highly recommend this one.

Before I Let You In by Jenny Blackhurst (2016)

Somehow, I got sucked back into domestic noir after swearing blind that this genre is not for me. I don’t know how I keep falling for the promise of mind-blowing twists and endings I won’t see coming. Sadly, I’m just setting myself up for disappointment. Blackhurst’s book is very much of a type. It has a very intriguing blurb, but it just doesn’t deliver. Karen is a psychiatrist (apparently, though she actually spends most of her time giving psychotherapy sessions), who gets a new patient called Jessica. Jessica seems to know things about Karen’s personal life, and their sessions start to unsettle Karen. The book is told in genre-typical fragmented style, including the near-ubiquitous ‘unnamed narrator’ sections designed to add sinister intrigue to the proceedings. The book’s hook is the relationship between Karen and her mysterious patient, but most of the story focuses on Karen’s relationships with her two best friends, Bea and Eleanor, and her affair with a married man named Michael. The plot is, unfortunately, ploddingly predictable, and the characters are drawn with very broad strokes. As with other books in this genre I’ve read recently, you can see the oversold ending coming a mile away. I know this genre is really popular, and books like this are very readable (I got through this one in just two sittings), but I don’t think it’s for me. Admittedly, I’ve said this before, and yet here I am reviewing another one. But I’m definitely out now: I’m going cold turkey.

Discovering Scarfolk by Richard Littler (2014)

So after finally quitting domestic noir (and I’m serious, I’ve really quit this time), I decided to turn to something I know I like: folk horror. I’d been familiar with Scarfolk via Twitter for a while, but hadn’t read Littler’s book. Scarfolk is a fictional north-west town that is permanently stuck in the 1970s. It first appeared on a blog creater by Littler, which purported to publish ‘artefacts’ of the town. The ‘artefacts’ on the website are public safety posters, leaflets and book covers, all based on British public safety information from the 70s, but with a disturbing, often horrific, twist. I’ve always enjoyed the way the posters and leaflets were stand-alone artefact, but that they gradually built up to create a sense of a place (and even a narrative) without spelling things out. I was curious to know how this would work in book form, where there is more text used to string things together. Undoubtedly, the star of the book is the material replicated from the website. However, there’s also a narrative (of sorts) that explains and contextualizes the artefacts. There’s a frame story about how the ‘artefacts’ came into the hands of the compiler, and the book is presented as an academic outline of the experiences of Daniel Bush, a man who accidentally ends up trapped in Scarfolk. The humour is satirical, though occasionally puerile, but I particularly loved the footnotes scattered through the story of Daniel’s descent into the madness of Scarfolk. Definitely enjoyed this one.

Outskirts: Living Life on the Edge of the Green Belt by John Grindrod (2017)

The next book I read definitely isn’t folk horror, but it is about some of the quirks of urban, suburban and rural Britain that might inspire folk horror. Grindrod’s book is part memoir, part exploration of the history of the green belt. We’re introduced to New Addington, the council estate where Grindrod grew up, which was constructed right on the edge of London’s green belt. Taking his experiences of his childhood home as a starting point, Grindrod unpeels the layers of history to this peculiar (and often misunderstood) aspect of town planning. I found the history here fascinating – Grindrod jumps back and forth across the centuries, introducing the many writers, planners and politicians who have played a role in shaping our modern concept of the green belt. If it’s sometimes confusing, that’s because the green belt itself is a contradictory and complex mass of (often competing) ideological and pragmatic concerns, and its very existence is often misunderstood or misquoted by both its defenders and detractors. Alongside this history, Grindrod offers a more personal narrative of family life. The memoir element of the book is utterly compelling and very moving in places, but the real charm lies in the way this is woven into the story of the green belt itself. With carefully researched history and a good dose of personal reflection, the book offers an endearing snapshot of family life, personal identity and planning strategy, revealing the ways in which these connect to one another. I really recommend this one.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Manchester Charity Buzz

I've set myself (and my Charlestown ward colleagues) a little bee-related challenge for later this month...

Bit of background here: Bee in the City is a public art event in Manchester, that's on until 23rd September. All across the city, there are fabulous sculptures of bees (the one in the picture above is 'Polly-do-you-remember' at Clayton Hall, for instance). The 101 'big' bees have each been designed by different artist, and their designs incorporate all sorts of aspects of Manchester's character, celebrities and history. There are also colonies of 'little' bees in various locations around the city, each designed by schools, community groups and youth organizations. Like most people in Manchester seem to, I love the bees.

Never one to do things by halves, I've decided that I want to see all 101 big bees. And I want to do it in a single day. Without using a car. And my Charlestown colleagues Basil and Veronica have agreed to do the challenge with me!

Stretching from Heaton Park to Manchester Airport, the Bee in the City trail takes in so much of Manchester (and loads of iconic locations). I reckon I know our city pretty well, so I think I can handle the challenge! I guess there's only one way to find out...

So, on Saturday 22nd September, from 8am-8pm, Team Charlestown will be racing round the city to spot all 101 bees! And we're going to be raising money for the Lord Mayor's Charity while we're at it. The Lord Mayor's Charity (also known as the We Love Manchester Charity) supports community groups and young people across the city, using the money it raises to support communities and breakdown barriers in the city.

Team Charlestown would love your support! You can sponsor us via our JustGiving page, and follow along with our Bee Marathon on Twitter on the #MancCharityBuzz hashtag. I'll be posting pictures of our journey through the city all day on the 22nd.

JustGiving - Sponsor me now!

Hopefully, I'll be able to persuade some other councillors and council officers to take up the challenge, so I'll update this post when I know a bit more. (And if it does turn into a race, I'm totally confident Team Charlestown can win!)

And if you're interested in doing a sponsored bee-related activity yourself, there's information about fundraising and ideas for activities here.

Friday, 7 September 2018

Clayton Hall’s New Writer-in-Residence

Historic Clayton Hall in Manchester is welcoming its first writer-in-residence! North Manchester writer and poet Hannah Kate joins the team at Clayton Hall Living History Museum from September 2018 as writer-in-residence.

Hannah is the author of numerous short stories and poems, many of which are inspired by her love of Manchester’s history. Often dark and strange, her fiction includes ‘Nimby’ and ‘Knotweed’ (both set in North Manchester parks) and ‘Lever’s Row’ (a sort of love song to Piccadilly Gardens). Her most recent published work is ‘Dust to Dust’, a horror story inspired by Hollinwood’s Hannah Beswick, also known as the Manchester Mummy. Hannah is also the host of long-running radio shows ‘Hannah’s Bookshelf’ and ‘A Helping of History’ on North Manchester FM.

During her residency at the hall, Hannah will be running events and activities for both beginner and more experienced creative writers. She’ll also be writing and performing some original pieces inspired by Clayton Hall and its long and unique history. Watch this space for details of upcoming activities and opportunities to get involved!

Clayton Hall is a Grade II*-listed building and a rare example of a moated, medieval site. Standing on a scheduled ancient monument it is situated in Clayton Park, Manchester. The original hall was built for the Clayton family in the twelfth century. It later passed into the hands of the Byron family, of which the poet Lord Byron was a member. The Byrons lived at the hall until they sold it to two London merchants, George and Humphrey Chetham. Humphrey is famous for founding Chethams School and Library in the centre of Manchester.

Patchwork Poem

Help create a Patchwork Poem at Clayton Hall this Saturday! Meet the hall’s new writer-in-residence Hannah Kate at the Heritage Open Day on Saturday 8th September, 11-4pm. Hannah will be collecting words, phrases and lines of poetry from visitors to the hall – any little scraps and patches people share during their visit. Hannah will be taking these pieces and stitching them together to create a Clayton Hall ‘Patchwork Poem’. If you’re visiting the hall on Saturday, please do say hello to Hannah and leave us a few of your words!

3 Minute Scares is back for its third terrifying year!

North Manchester FM presenter Hannah Kate wants scary stories for Halloween! She’s asking people throughout Greater Manchester to submit their scariest 3-minute stories for her annual creative writing competition. Writers keen to be crowned Greater Manchester’s Spookiest Wordsmith can submit a recording of their mini-tale via Hannah’s website, with the best entries being played on air on the Halloween edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf on Saturday 27th October.

The Halloween flash fiction competition will be judged by Dr Sorcha Ní Fhlaínn and Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes of MMU’s Centre for Gothic Studies, with the writer of the best entry receiving a prize from Breakout Manchester, the real-life escape room game. Entries need to be 3 minutes long, meaning a word count of 350-400 words. The judges will be looking for style and originality, as well as how scary the story is. The deadline for entries is Monday 15th October, at midnight.

Last year’s competition was won by Fiona Cullen, with a rather squeamish little tale about a college biology lesson. North Manchester FM presenter Hannah Kate says: ‘I loved Fiona’s story – it was so dark! Over the past couple of years, I’ve been really impressed with the way people can tell so much in just three minutes. There’s a lot of talent out there, and I’m looking forward to seeing what people across our region submit for this year’s competition.’

All writers need to enter the competition is a computer with a microphone… and a good story. Entries can be recorded via Hannah’s website. More information and rules of the competition can also be found on the website.

Hannah’s Bookshelf is North Manchester FM’s weekly literature show, and it goes out live every Saturday 2-4pm. The show has been running since January 2015 and has featured guests including Rosie Garland, Ramsey Campbell, Tony Walsh and Gwyneth Jones. The show broadcasts on 106.6FM for North Manchester residents and through the ‘listen online’ feature for the rest of the world.

OUT NOW: The Spooky Isles Book of Horror, edited by Andrew Garvey and David Saunderson (Dark Sheep Books, 2018)

A new collection of stories and articles about the UK and Ireland's horror and folklore, including a short story and essay about Hannah Beswick, the Manchester Mummy, by yours truly...

From The Spooky Isles, the UK and Ireland's favourite horror and paranormal website, this first volume of the Spooky Isles Book of Horror features 20 stories and essays from 18 different authors. Well-established dark literary voices and new writers explore the UK and Ireland's darkest horror and folklore, from long-dead serial killers to malignant fairies, evil cults, spontaneous human combustion, vengeful ghosts and black dogs...

... welcome to the Spooky Isles!


Sparks by Michael Connon
The Black Dog by Tracy Fahey
Letters from a Toxic Heart by Ed Burkley
Lambs to the Slaughter by Chris Rush Havergill's Fetch by Catherine Shingler
Hunger by Ann O'Regan
Jackfest by Phil Davies
Dust to Dust by Hannah Kate
Am Fear Liath, the Grey Man of Ben Macdui by Kevin Williams
The Handfast Wife by Áine King
Ring Around the Rosie by Barry McCann
Churchgoing by Kevin Patrick McCann
The Ear by Jaki McCarrick
Creatures of Rath and Bone by Rachel Steiner
The Final Answer by Will Graham
Camp 46 by Petula Mitchell
Stranger than Before by Barry McCann
The Pied Piper of Essex by Ra Goli
Spoor by DC Merryweather
Come Away by Tracy Fahey

For more information, or to buy a copy of the book, please visit the Spooky Isles website.

Saturday, 25 August 2018

Poirot Project: One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (review)

Bet you thought I’d forgotten Hercule, didn’t you? Nah – I’ve just been busy again, but I could never forget Hercule. Slow as my progress is, I’m still working my way through the episodes. I’ll finally get to Curtain one day!

This post is part of my 2016 2016-17 2016-18 who am I kidding? Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘Death in the Clouds’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The third episode of the fourth ‘series’ of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 19th January 1992 (have a look at this post to see why I’ve put scare quotes round ‘series’). It was based on the novel of the same name (aka Overdose of Death and The Patriotic Murders), which was first published in 1940. As always, my academic side wants to note the edition I’m using for this post:

Lol! Just kidding!

It’s the HarperCollins paperback edition published in 2016. Just as with The ABC Murders, when I came to do this post, I strangely discovered that I didn’t own a copy of One, Two, Buckle My Shoe. Not sure how that has happened, as I’m pretty sure I used to own a copy. Anyway, I’ve rectified that now.

There are a few particular episodes of Poirot that stand out for me as ones that I loved when they were first broadcast. Admittedly, there are some episodes that I don’t really remember the first time round (I was only ten when the series started, after all!), but 'One, Two, Buckle My Shoe' isn’t one of them. I can clearly remember watching it and loving every minute of it – it’s one of the episodes that cemented my love of the show.

The novel I came to later – probably during my Agatha Christie binge when I was working at an Oxfam shop after I finished my A-Levels. I mentioned this briefly in an earlier post, but I spent a year working at an Oxfam shop in the day and at Wilkinson's in the evening (some people go overseas to find themselves during their gap year… I found myself in Middleton). Most days, I had an hour and a half between jobs, and I filled it with reading Golden Age detective fiction (a lot of Christie and Sayers), bought for 29p-39p at Oxfam. Although I can remember reading a few novels before this point, I think this was the year when I really became a Golden Age fan.

Anyway, One, Two, Buckle My Shoe

The book was published in 1940, so it sits in the second half of the Poirot collection. It was written after the best-known short stories – and after the ‘big’ books (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express, etc.) – but before Christie wrote Curtain (so before she was thinking about the ‘end’). The book is in third person, and Hastings is absent. There’s no mention of Miss Lemon, despite her making her first appearance five years earlier. However, the novel does feature Japp (and George), so Poirot isn’t entirely flying solo.

The book begins, though, by introducing a different character: Mr Morley, a diminutive grumpy dentist who is critical of both the government and his secretary (who has been called away to a family emergency). A short section later, and we’re being introduced to a powerful man named Alistair Blunt, who has an appointment to see his dentist. Before I get on to the novel itself, just a brief eyebrow raise at this name… In Death in the Clouds, there’s a mention of another dental patient named Blunt – this time Colonel Blunt. Although the books were written five years apart, the adaptations were aired just a week apart. Reading the books in the order of the adaptations really does draw attention to this repeated name. In the Everyman’s Guide to the Mysteries of Agatha Christie, Bruce Pendergast highlights this curious coincidence of names, making the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that ‘the Blunt clan had a faulty tooth gene’ (and noting seven other individuals with the surname in Christie’s work – as Poirot says in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, ‘The name, after all, is not an uncommon one.’).

After we find out Blunt is going to see Mr Morley, we also find out a certain Belgian detective has a dentist’s appointment. When he later leaves Morley’s surgery, Poirot has a brief encounter with a woman in patent leather shoes, who manages to wrench one of her buckles off as she gets out of a taxi. Given the title of the novel, it’s pretty obvious that this fleeting moment is going to be significant later.

And sure enough, it’s only a couple of pages later that Japp comes round to break some news to Poirot – Mr Morley has (probably) shot himself. Why would the dentist have killed himself? Was the illustrious Mr Blunt the true target?

As the novel rolls on, the bodies start to pile up. A Mr Amberiotis – a new patient of Morley’s – is found dead at his hotel, and his death is ascribed to an overdose of adrenaline and novocaine given by the dentist. And then another patient, Miss Sainsbury Seale, disappears from her hotel. A body shows up in the flat of a Mrs Chapman, which is assumed to be that of Miss Sainsbury Seale, only for it to be revealed through dental identification as that of Mrs Chapman herself (she was another of Morley’s patients). Of Miss Sainsbury Seale (now the prime suspect in Mrs Chapman’s murder), there is no trace. What could it all mean? And why is Poirot so fixated on Miss Sainbury Seale’s (or is it Mrs Chapman’s) buckled shoes?

Lurking behind these dental shenanigans are repeated references to national and international politics. Even on the first page, we get a sense of political unease, as Morley peruses the morning news (someone’s got to do it in Hastings’s absence):
‘He glanced at the paper and remarked that the Government seemed to be passing from a state of incompetence to one of positive imbecility!’
This backdrop – which includes a character who’s signed up to the Imperial Shirts (a fictional fascist organization, presumably based on Oswald Mosley’s Black Shirts) and repeated criticism/fear of ill-defined ‘Reds’ – leads to a glorification of centre-ground Toryism that is way more overt than in other Christie novels. Both small-c and big-c conservatism are lauded throughout the book and presented as the only way in which the ship of Britain can steer its way through such dangerous waters. We get impassioned outbursts such as:
‘You bet there are [people in Britain who would like to kill Blunt]. The Reds, to begin with – and our Blackshirted friends, too. It’s Blunt and his group who are standing solid behind the present Government. Good sound Conservative finance.’
Standing solid! Strong and stable!

‘We’re very tiresome people in this country. We’re conservative, you know, conservative to the backbone. We grumble a lot, but we don’t really want to smash our democratic government and try new-fangled experiments. That’s what’s so heart-breaking to the wretched foreign agitator who’s working full time and over! The whole trouble is – from their point of view – that we really are, as a country, comparatively solvent. Hardly any other country in Europe is at the moment! To upset England – really upset it – you’ve got to play hell with its finance – that’s what it comes to! And you can’t play hell with its finance when you’ve got men like Alistair Blunt at the helm.’
Long live England! Conservative to the backbone! The bankers will save us! We can trust the bankers!

Now, Agatha Christie’s personal politics are contentious, and different critics offer different interpretations. Comments in her autobiography often seem at odds with subtext in her fiction, but the latter itself is not always consistent (e.g. Poirot is generally anti-death penalty, whereas Miss Marple seems to mostly approve and actively mourns its abolition at one point). But whatever her personal beliefs, Christie was a mystery writer, and her books are all about playing tricks on the reader. Often, a character will seem to be the (left- or right-leaning) ‘voice of reason’ (like the ethically-minded NHS doctor Quimper in 4.50 From Paddington or the stolidly English racist Norman Gale in Death in the Clouds), only to be revealed as a callous and self-serving murderer in the end. Far from being a mouthpiece for Christie’s own beliefs, the ‘reasonable’ façade is a sleight-of-hand to make us think they couldn’t possibly be the murderer.

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe turns this up to 11. The political message seems so much clearer, more explicitly conservative, based against a backdrop of a Europe gone mad. Of course everyone is terrified of Reds and Blacks – these are major forces duking it out on the European stage, and their figureheads (Stalin and Hitler) are monstrous dictators. Of course Britain wants to preserve democracy, stability and moderation in the face of such horrifying alternatives. Conservative capitalism, as the book repeatedly tells us (way more directly than in most of Christie’s other novels), is the only reasonable path for the nation. And its figurehead, Alistair Blunt, is a screamingly rational alternative to the looming figures of Stalin, Hitler and a government veering from ‘a state of incompetence to one of positive imbecility’.

Obviously… obviously… Alistair Blunt is the murderer. And, appropriately, this is also turned up to 11. Blunt is a bigamist, who married his second wife for money and power; he shoots his dentist simply to allow himself the opportunity to kill Amberiotis (who was threatening to blackmail him); and he is involved with one of Christie’s more brutal murders, the death and mutilation of Mabelle Sainsbury Seale. (Although only the crooked leg and foot of the body of murdered Miss Sainsbury Seale is shown on screen in the adaptation, the idea of someone having their face so badly smashed in they can only be identified through dental records haunted my thirteen-year-old imagination.) He is also more than happy to see Frank Carter – ‘a wastrel’ – hang for his crimes.

Turns out, conservative capitalist bankers can be arseholes.

Before I move on to the adaptation, there are few minor character details that are worth noting in Christie’s novel.

Firstly, Poirot’s fear of the dentist is underlined early on:
‘He was a man who was accustomed to have a good opinion of himself. He was Hercule Poirot, superior in most ways to other men. But in this moment he was unable to feel superior in any way whatever. His morale was down to zero. He was just that ordinary, craven figure, a man afraid of the dentist’s chair.’

This is a facet of Poirot’s character that appears in both Christie’s stories and in the ITV adaptation. Mind you, given the last story we saw on screen was Death in the Clouds, I think there’s every reason to fear dentists. Elsewhere, though, we see a characteristic of Poirot’s that was resolutely not included in the TV show – he travels around London by Tube (the equivalent journey in the adaptation is taken by taxi, as Suchet’s Poirot is never shown travelling on the underground). Interestingly, in the TV version of ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds’, these two characteristics also come up: Poirot’s Tube journey in the source text is removed, but his fear of the dentist is added in an alteration to Christie’s novel.

We also learn a couple of other things about our detective as well. He sometimes goes back to Belgium for short visits (first we’ve heard of it!), and he still hangs around with Joseph Aarons (at least, I assume that’s the ‘theatrical agent of his acquaintance’ he goes to see). Aarons, who I talked about briefly in the post on ‘Double Sin’ appears periodically in the Poirot stories – though often ‘off-screen’. Here, while we don’t see him (and he isn’t named), he provides Poirot with some important background information on the case.

Another blast from past here appears to be Countess Rossakoff, who I talked about in the post on ‘The Double Clue’. She’s not identified by name either, but I think it’s clear who this quote refers to:
‘He, Hercule Poirot, remembered women… One woman, in particular – what a sumptuous creature – Bird of Paradise – a Venus…’
Four little bonus points:

1. Japp wears a bowler hat! (Bit hard to imagine Philip Jackson’s Japp rocking a bowler!)

2. Japp also uses some nice slang in this one. We get ‘all my eye and Betty Martin’ – a phrase with unclear origins – but also ‘Na Poo, my lad. Na Poo!’ This latter is a bit of a throwback: it appears to have originated amongst British soldiers in WWI France or Belgium as a corruption of il n’y a plus, and means ‘it’s finished’ or ‘there’s no more’.

3. There’s a curious reference to a film in the book… As the detectives look for the illusive Mrs Chapman, one of her neighbours states that she hasn’t seen Mrs Chapman ‘since we had spoken about going to see the new Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire the following week’. This clearly lets us know that the book isn’t set in 1940: 1939’s The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle was Astaire and Rogers last film together until 1949. Mind you, the fact that there’s no mention of the war in an overtly political story – never mind that the British Union of Fascists hasn’t been disbanded – are probably the more obvious clues that the book is set in the late 30s.

4. One of my relatives is mentioned in the novel! (Don’t know why I put an exclamation mark – it’s a bit grim, to be honest.) While they’re hunting for the lost Miss Sainsbury Seale, Japp wonders if they’ll ‘find her in a quarry, cut up in little pieces like Mrs Ruxton’. Isabella Ruxton (née Kerr) was murdered (along with her housemaid Mary Rogerson) by her husband Buck Ruxton in 1935. Both victims were dismembered and mutilated, and Ruxton even removed teeth to prevent identification by dental records. It was a pretty notorious case. Isabella Kerr was a relative of mine on my mum’s side.

On that bleak little detail, let’s move on to the TV version, shall we?

The episode was directed by Ross Devenish and written by Clive Exton. The first thing that strikes you – and this may be one of the reasons the episode stuck in my mind all those years ago – is the horror film-like opening credits sequence, in which slow-mo, distorted images are paired with ghostly children’s voices singing the nursery rhyme that the book is named after.

As we’ve come to expect from Exton’s work, this is a fairly faithful adaptation of Christie’s story. It’s true to the spirit and plot of the novel (Hastings and Miss Lemon are absent, but it remains a Poirot ‘n’ Japp adventure), but there are changes to the way the story unfolds. Specifically, the backstory of Blunt’s marriage to Gerda Grant is played out in front of our eyes, rather than being discovered (quite late) by the detective.

After the creepy-as-hell credits, the episode takes us to India in 1925 and a performance of Much Ado About Nothing. Amongst the cast, we see clearly, are Gerda Grant and Mabelle Sainsbury Seale. After the show, Alistair Blunt (played by Peter Blythe) calls into the dressing room to see the women, and later that evening he proposes to Gerda (Joanna Phillips-Lane). When Mabelle (Carolyn Colquhoun) runs into Blunt twelve years later, she explicitly refers to his wife as Gerda.

However, I don’t think this ruins the story as such. Obviously it doesn’t, or the episode wouldn’t have fascinated me so much when it was first broadcast. Exton’s script does explain some things up front (particularly Blunt’s relationship with Gerda), but it leaves a lot of things mysteriously unexplained (what happened to Gerda? how did Blunt end up married to Rebecca Arnholt? why does he let the detectives think Miss Sainsbury Seale knew Rebecca, when she was actually friends with Gerda?) And, of course, it retains Christie’s emphasis on a fancy buckled shoe to keep us pondering its significance.

Much of the politics is also retained. Many of those strident speeches on strong and stable conservatism are repeated word-for-word in the adaptation, though Blunt is a helluva lot more arrogant than his literary counterpart and makes much more of the fun he and Gerda have been having. In the episode, as in the novel, Poirot is not impressed with the idea that Blunt’s role in keeping the country stable is a get-out-of-jail-free card. Suchet’s Poirot gives a very similar summing-up to that found in the book:
‘I am not concerned with nations, Monsieur. I am concerned with the lives of private individuals who have the right not to have their lives taken from them.’
While Poirot’s opinion of Blunt and his crimes remains the same, there is quite a dramatic change in his view of another character. We need to talk about Frank…

In Christie’s novel, Frank Carter, the Blackshirted boyfriend of Mr Morley’s secretary, is an unpleasant character whose fascist affiliation is presented almost as a symptom of his underlying nastiness. Blunt refers to him as ‘a wastrel’; Morley calls him ‘a wrong ’un’. Even Poirot, who is usually so repelled by even the thought of the noose, considers the possibility of letting Carter take the wrap for the murders:
‘He did not like Frank Carter. He disliked him very much. In his opinion Frank Carter was a bully, a liar, a swindler – altogether the type of young man the world could well do without. He, Hercule Poirot, had only to stand back and let this man persist in his lies and the world would be rid of one of its more unpleasant inhabitants…’
Things play out differently in the TV version. Here, Frank (played by Christopher Eccleston, who interestingly was fresh from playing Derek Bentley in Let Him Have It) is more troubled and misguided than unpleasant.

When we (and Poirot) see Frank waiting to confront Mr Morley in his surgery, he seems anxious. The little Belgian detective’s curiosity is piqued, but there doesn’t seem to be any animosity or repulsion. Morley (Laurence Harrington) has previously stated that Frank is in with ‘that Black Shirt mob’, but other than that we have no suggestion that he is one of the world’s ‘most unpleasant inhabitants’.

The next glimpse into Frank’s story comes from his distraught girlfriend Gladys (Karen Gledhill). She consults with Poirot – more than once – because she is terrified of what will become of her fella. Poirot is touched by her concern and goes to see Frank with her – at a full-blown British Union of Fascists rally (complete with lightning bolt sign and black shirts galore). This version of Poirot seems determined to get Frank to just be honest and reveals a certain sympathy for the young man.

Now, don’t get this wrong, Poirot is certainly not letting fascist sympathies slip out. His conversations with Gladys explain the nuance here. Gladys speaks out against the fascist organization, claiming that it exploits young, working-class men like Frank. The Black Shirts manipulate these lads, convincing them that what they’re doing is patriotic. Poirot agrees, and seems as keen to save Frank from the insidious brainwashing of the extreme right wing as he is from the noose. Towards the end of the episode, Frank is reunited with Gladys, who promises to keep ‘a close eye’ on him, to keep him from being exploited by sinister fascist movements that prey on disillusioned young working-class men.

I don’t know for certain why Exton chose to make this change to the source material in early 1992, or why it was important to underline how exploitative the so-called ‘patriotism’ of right-wing movements can be. But I will say that the episode aired at the time of the creation of Combat 18, and just months after the formation of the Anti-Federalist League, which would become UKIP in 1993. Food for thought, n’est-ce pas?

As always, I’m going to end with a couple of more minor things from the episode…

I love the fact that Poirot pops round to see Japp at home. While Christie gave us Japp in a bowler hat, the TV version gives us Japp in his shirt sleeves cutting his privets.

Poirot’s acceptance of his friend’s hospitality is obviously difficult for him – we’ll see this again when he pops round for tea in ‘Hickory Dickory Dock’ – but Japp chides him for requesting tisane instead of tea: ‘Come off it, Poirot. This is Isleworth, not Juan-les-Pins!’

Still, at least it’s only a cuppa this time, and not faggots and mushy peas.

And finally (or almost finally), there’s a couple of weird little threads that connect the episodes in the fourth ‘series’. I’m particularly curious as to what led to the decision to make ‘Death in the Clouds’ and ‘One, Two, Buckle My Shoe’ back-to-back. Clearly, with so many of the short stories televised already and ‘Peril at End House’ having worked as an adaptation, someone made the decision to do a few adaptations of novels to mix things up. Perhaps the intention at this point was to solely focus on the novels, I don’t know. But with so many to choose from, why do one about the murder of a dentist and one about a murderous dentist at the same time?

I can only assume that someone in the production company was suffering from a pretty bad toothache. Dentistry was certainly playing on their mind when this ‘series’ was planned out.

(And just in case you think I’ve forgotten that ‘The ABC Murders’ was aired a couple of weeks earlier as part of the same group of episodes, there’s a nice connection with this one as well. It’s what I call the ‘hosiery as clue’ or ‘significant stocking moment’.)

And so, time to move on to 1993’s offerings and a return to the short storie… no, wait. I wasn’t going to say anything, but there’s something I want to get off my chest. I know you’ll probably think I’m taking this too seriously, given how fixated I got with a Daily Mirror headline in the last episode, but I’m curious about a phone call Poirot makes to Japp after his visit to see Frank Carter in prison.

With news to tell his friend, Poirot grabs the receiver and dials a number – but it’s clearly seven digits long. And, more confusingly, he appears to get straight through to Japp without speaking to an operator. Is that not a bit anachronistic?

In Christie’s novel, Poirot’s own phone number is given as Whitehall 7272 (though the TV series has Trafalgar 8137, according to his business card in ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’). Any aficionados of ITV’s Poirot or the made-earlier but set-later BBC Miss Marple adaptations will be familiar with the detectives picking up the phone and requesting the operator connect them with the number they require. So what’s the deal with Poirot’s crazy seven-digit dialling?

Well, from 1927 London began to roll out Director automatic telephone exchanges (beginning with Holborn). I’m not an expert in telephony systems, but I think this was when people could automatically be connected with numbers from neighbouring exchanges in a network, without the need to go through an operator to request the connection. A caller had to dial the first three letters of the exchange, followed by the four digits of the number they wished to connect to. So, Poirot’s phone number would be WHI 7272 or TRA 8137. The three letter codes would come to be translated into numbers with the advent of alpha-numeric phone dials (keypads would come much later, kids) – WHI = 944 and TRA = 872 – and then replaced entirely by the numbers with the advent of ‘all-figure dialling’ in 1966.

In 1934, Scotland Yard rolled out a new phone number for the public to use for emergency and non-emergency calls. It was Whitehall 1212 (later 944 1212). In 1937, the 999 emergency number was introduced, and so Whitehall 1212 came to be the number for reaching the information room, rather than reporting a crime in progress. However, Whitehall 1212 would surely have got you through to the switchboard of the Metropolitan Police; you would have had to request a switchboard operator to connect you to the individual person you wanted to talk to.

So, Poirot’s seven-digit dialling is perfectly plausible – it just shows he’s an up-to-date kinda guy, tech-wise (which I guess is plausible, in a way). The anachronism lies in the fact that those seven digits get him straight through to Japp’s phone without having to request a switchboard operator to transfer his call. I’m not happy about this at all.

Am I wrong here? Would a Scotland Yard detective in 1936/37 have had a direct phone number that could be reached automatically from an outside line on another exchange? Or did the programme-makers simply choose not to show the bit where Poirot politely asks to be connected to Japp? Does it matter? Answers in the comments section, please.

I’m sorry this post was so long. And I’m sorry I didn’t say anything about the characters that were missed out of the TV adaptation (I miss Colonel Arrow-Bumby) or Poirot’s own political statement at the novel’s close (a world with freedom and pity, thus avoiding the excesses of both left and right, capitalism and idealism), or the lack of any ‘Mrs Middleton effect’ in the presentation of Helen Montressor/Fake Sainsbury Seale (interestingly also narrowly avoided with Madeleine/Anne Giselle in ‘Death in the Clouds’). I just got so caught up in fascism and phone numbers I ran out of time.

Next up, I’ll be back to the short stories again with ‘The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb’

Monday, 20 August 2018

My Year in Books 2018: July

And so... I've stuck to my New Year's resolution for another month! This is definitely the best I've ever managed! (And I managed to read more than last month too, so I'm doing okay at this.)

So here are the books I read for pleasure in July...

(Here are my lists for the rest of the year: January, February, March, April, May, June)

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010)

This one was a recommendation (of sorts). I have a bit on my radio show (Hannah’s Bookshelf) called Apocalypse Books, where I ask my guests: in the event of the apocalypse, which three books would you save? A Visit from the Goon Squad was one of the books Emma Jane Unsworth saved when she was a guest back in 2016, and I’ve been meaning to read it ever since. Egan’s novel is actually a series of interrelated stories – when I started reading Chapter 2 I thought for a moment it was a short story collection – about a series of people connected to New York record producer Bennie Salazar and his assistant Sasha. The stories move about in time, and the book begins in the middle of Sasha’s story, and the characters move in and out of each other’s lives. It’s an interesting structure, but it’s definitely not a gimmick. The book’s title refers to time – ‘Time’s a goon, right?’ says one character – and the back-and-forth nature adds pathos to time’s cruelty. We often see what characters will become, before moving back to how they once were (and what they dreamed of being one day). Despite the fact (or maybe because of it) that most of the characters are kind of unlikeable, I found it a really compelling read (to be honest, I was really taken with Egan’s writing from the first chapter, so would have been happy if it had turned out to be a short story collection after all!).

The Missing Girl by Jenny Quintana (2017)

So, I managed to get a bit hooked on domestic noir this month. Last month I read a couple of crime/psychological thriller novels, and I think they were my gateway drug. I’m using the term ‘domestic noir’ for this thriller subgenre – though it goes under other names – as I think it best captures what links these books. The best known examples are probably Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, and domestic noirs tend to have troubled female protagonists dealing with some sort of secret (often something from her past) and with people who are not who they pretend to be. They’re also often advertised as having a ‘mind-blowing twist’. Quintana’s novel is about Anna Flores, whose teenage sister disappeared thirty years earlier. Now, Anna’s mother has died, and Anna has to return to the village where she grew up to clear the family home – and to finally face up to what happened to Gabriella. The Missing Girl is certainly well-written and engaging, and I did get quite immersed in Anna’s story. But I’m not sure it’s really a thriller, and it certainly doesn’t have a twist (the truth about Gabriella is pretty obvious about halfway through the book). Overall, it’s a bit too pedestrian for a thriller, and the mystery doesn’t quite work. I did enjoy the character of Anna, though, and the descriptions of family life were well-done. I’m not convinced domestic noir is for me, to be honest, but maybe I just need to keep trying…

Friend Request by Laura Marshall (2017)

And now… more domestic noir… Friend Request is probably a bit more typical of the subgenre than The Missing Girl, and it ticks a lot of the generic/cliché boxes as well. I was promised an ‘addictive psychological thriller’ with a ‘genuinely unexpected’ twist. One day, Louise gets a Facebook friend request from a girl she knew at school, Maria Weston. But Maria Weston died over twenty-five years earlier. (Admittedly, that’s a pretty cool premise, and it certainly had me hooked initially.) Louise’s story switches between the present day – as mysterious Facebook messages unsettle and long-denied secrets threaten to surface – and flashbacks to 1989, as Louise remembers what happened in the final year of school. In true domestic noir style, the main story is told from the protagonist’s POV, but there are mysterious other chapters sprinkled throughout (in third-person, with an unclear subject, and presented in italics). Also in true domestic noir style, the protagonist is troubled and is responsible for quite unpleasant actions in the past that may have affected the present. Like The Missing Girl, Friend Request’s heroine was pretty horrible to a more vulnerable kid when she was younger. But outside of these generic conventions, there really is very little to Friend Request. The Facebook mystery and its resolution is disappointing, and there is absolutely no twist (again, the solution is quite obvious early on). Maybe I’m a bit too fussy about what counts as a twist? But this one fell a bit flat for me, I’m afraid.

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins (2017)

Without sounding like a bandwagon-jumper, I really did like The Girl on the Train. A good indication of how much I enjoyed the book is that I haven’t wanted to see the film version yet. I encouraged my mum to read it after me, and she also loved it (and hasn’t seen the film). It was my mum who got Into the Water and read it first, and then she lent it to me. In typical style, she was a bit cryptic in her comments before I read it: ‘It’s a bit different to The Girl on the Train,’ was all she’d say. And she was right! Into the Water is the story of a woman – well, several women really – who died after plunging into a ‘Drowning Pool’ in a river. While Girl on the Train had multiple narrators, Into the Water turns this up to 11. Hawkins uses these multiple narrators very well. Each one has a distinct voice and story to tell, and these weave together well to create both a mystery (the deep secrets of the Drowning Pool) and a sad tale of sisterly estrangement (Jules – the closest the book has to a protagonist – has returned to her old family home after her sister’s death). The thing is, though, it’s not The Girl on the Train. The narrators are, on the whole, pretty reliable (I’m so bored of reliable narrators), and there really isn’t a proper twist ending here. But it’s a compelling and creepy tale nonetheless.

The Grin of the Dark by Ramsey Campbell (2007)

As I say, I’m not sure domestic noir is really for me. So my next book was a deliberate change of pace. I am a big fan of Ramsey Campbell’s work, but I still have a lot of titles I haven’t read yet. The Grin of the Dark sounded right up my street: Film Studies lecturer Simon Lester is commissioned (in a decidedly suspicious way) to write about forgotten silent comedy star Tubby Thackeray. The problem is, Tubby seems to have been forgotten for a reason, and it proves very difficult to begin tracking down his lost films. Why did Tubby’s career end so abruptly? And why is it being actively forgotten now? In Ancient Images (which I loved), Campbell explores the world of the ‘lost film’ and its potential for horror, but in that book, the object of the search is actually a horror film. Here, it’s comedy all the way – and that makes it even more unsettling. The first description of Tubby on film was gloriously unnerving, despite the feeling of familiarity and similarity to other (‘real’) silent comedies. In many ways, this is a more philosophical (almost academic) book than Ancient Images, as there is a pervasive feeling throughout that there’s something wrong with comedy itself, not simply the creatures that lurk behind it. Added to this, there’s some creepy language games going on that add an uncomfortable absurdist element to the events that unfold. This is a definite recommendation – Tubby Thackeray is a truly disturbing creation!

Monday, 30 July 2018

Review: Hanging (Tangled Theatre, GM Fringe)

Wednesday 25th July 2018
The Whiskey Jar, Manchester

And so, my little wander through this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe programme comes to an end. After musicals, puppetry, physical theatre, farce, poetry and me crying at a surprising number of shows, the final show I saw at this year’s festival was Hanging (as in the mode of execution, not the Mancunian adjective) by Tangled Theatre.

In many ways, this was a very fitting end to the festival for me. Hanging is the very essence of a fringe show. It’s a new play by an emerging playwright, produced by a brand-new company, featuring actors at the beginning of their careers. I went in not really knowing what to expect, and came out still processing what I’d seen. It’s odd, unsettling, experimental – definitely not ‘mainstream’ – and difficult to categorise in terms of genre and style. And it was performed in the basement of a pub. You can’t really get more characteristically ‘fringe’ than that, can you?

Hanging is written and directed by Marco Biasioli. The press release promised an experience ‘suspended between reality and dream’, in which a man awaits execution for an unnamed crime and is taunted by his executioners. I will admit to having had little more background info on this one, as I interviewed produced Elena Spagnuolo and actor Jasmine Oates for my Hannah’s Bookshelf Greater Manchester Fringe Special back in June. Nevertheless, I still didn’t know exactly what to expect from the play, as Spagnuolo and Oates were intriguingly circumspect in our interview!

The play opens on a bare set, the only decoration being a series of nooses strung from the ceiling. A man sits on a chair on one side of the stage, and on the other, two cloaked figures place a second man (this one with a sack over his head) on another chair. The cloaked figures – listed only as 1st Executioner (played by Oates) and 2nd Executioner (played by Lee Martyn) – begin to chatter about the upcoming execution, with 1st Executioner questioning whether 2nd Executioner remembers everything from his training and asking whether he has appropriately drugged the convict. This descends into a more mundane conversation about 7-a-side football, which 1st Executioner plays in her spare time.

This bizarre and rather unsettling opening is interrupted when the man – named simply as Man (and played by Brandon McCaffrey) – seated on the other side of the stage wakes up. Or is he falling asleep? Is any of what we see next really happening? Or is it all a projection or dream inside the Man’s mind?

What follows is a series of increasingly uncomfortable and abrasive interactions between Man and members of his family. Rory Greenwood (who is also the convict hidden under the sack) plays Man’s father, a bullying and overbearing character who tips into violence rather easily. Agnès Houghton-Boyle is Wife (or, rather, Ex-Wife) who appears to berate Man for his failure in their relationship. Martyn doubles up as Grandad, a seemingly benign figure in Man’s life, who may or may not be suffering from dementia.

Man rails, argues, beseeches and cowers from the circling taunts and aggressions of these family members, while focus switches between him and the unnamed convict at the other side of the stage, and the executioners who are, by turns, gleeful and bureaucratic in the face of their task.

Things escalate – or rather oscillate – as Man’s interactions with his family becoming increasingly surreal and hostile, and the sacked convict waking up to pronounce his final words. The play takes on a rather unhinged tone, almost suggesting Man’s descent into madness or the disjointed irrationality of a dream. Everything becomes exaggerated, with constant threats of violence and rape (Wife is attacked by both Man and 2nd Executioner, who believes she is a porn star), and a surreal exchange in which the sack-headed convict and Man tell the story of a mining town lost in its pursuit of gold.

As I have said, this is a new company and a cast of actors at the beginning of their careers. In places, performances are a little laboured and some dialogue is a bit stilted. The play’s style is heightened and surreal, so I wasn’t expecting completely naturalistic dialogue; however, some lines are slightly awkward and unidiomatic (e.g. ‘You’ve got chances’, instead of ‘You’re in with a chance’), which is a little jarring.

These criticisms are really only minor teething problems though. Overall, Hanging was compelling, strange and ambitious (and, as I said, that’s what I like to see at a fringe festival).

Greenwood's performance as Father is great, and he convinces as a man (literally) old enough to be Man’s father – even though there appears to be little age difference between Greenwood and McCaffrey. I was also quite taken by Greenwood’s performance as the unnamed convict – entirely delivered from underneath that sack. Had I not known differently, I would have assumed these parts were played by very different actors (and the incongruous gravitas that Greenwood infuses into a peculiar monologue about carbonara was undoubtedly one of my favourite bits of the play).

Martyn also does an excellent job of doubling up, with his 2nd Executioner and Grandad appearing substantially different, despite only minor costume changes. The latter character is particularly well done, with Martyn’s bent-double old man exuding an interesting mixture of confusion and irritation that is as discomforting as it is sympathetic.

As a final comment, I will say that the choice of venue was superb. I’ve never actually been to The Whiskey Jar before, but their basement performance space was a great choice for this play. While I’m sure the bar upstairs is lovely, the space downstairs has the feel of a horror film set – or at least it does for this production (stringing it with nooses obviously helps) – and this adds a general feeling of bleak dilapidation to the bizarre visions that unfold.

Overall, Hanging is a strong debut from Tangled Theatre. Unsettling – disturbing, in places – thought-provoking and ambiguous, this piece made for a great finale to the Fringe for me. And I look forward to seeing what Tangled Theatre do next.

If you’d like to see my other reviews of productions at this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe, click here to see all my posts.