Ten Minute Alibi – Anthony Armstrong and Herbert Shaw

First published as a novel in 1934 ‘Ten Minute Alibi’ is based on the play of the same name by Anthony Armstrong and has presumably been adapted as a novel some time during its run in London by Herbert Shaw. I have to say presumably because there is nothing in the book to say what role Herbert Shaw had in writing it, or indeed any biographical details for him. The play was very successful playing across America and on Broadway it had 89 performances (from 17th October 1933 to January 1934) whilst in London’s West End, it had 857 performances (from 2nd January 1933 to 23rd February 1935) but having read it I can definitely say that the novel is less than riveting so not a good transformation by Shaw, I think I would have preferred to read the original play.

The plot however is interesting, Philip Sevilla appears to be a well to do club owner in London but he has a much more lucrative sideline in people trafficking, specifically innocent English women with few remaining family members whom he seduces before packing them off to South America to be forced to work as prostitutes. The way his operation works is spelled out with an example at the start of the book where we witness the downfall of Muriel Cartney. Having established that she has only a small number of people that would be particularly concerned if she disappeared Sevilla works his charms on her telling her that he is married but that his wife is in an insane asylum so he is desperately lonely and would marry her if he could get a divorce but that is unlikely due to his wife’s medical condition. Finally he persuades her to give up her job and rented apartment to join him in Paris where they can live, apparently as man and wife, without any of their London acquaintances being around to spot the lie and ruin her reputation.

Once in Paris he then appears to ‘accidentally’ run into his ‘friend’, in reality his business partner in the trafficking operation Jose Garcia, and starts to arrange the handover of Muriel. At first all is well and they stay in a lovely hotel in Paris apparently whilst he looks for something more permanent, this he would normally do for two to four weeks enjoying the nights with his victim before claiming that pressing business issues with the club means that he has to return to London to sort these out, Assuring Muriel that he would be back in a few days and that Garcia would look after her whilst he was away he would leave and never return just sending increasing worrying, and false, messages that the people he had put in charge of the club had ruined him and she was on her own but he had no money left to support her. Unwilling to return to England as a woman who had been living in sin Garcia then suggests that he has contacts in Buenos Aires where Muriel could get a new career on the stage and effectively start again and he would willingly accompany her there to see her settled in. Once in Argentina she would be handed over to the gangsters and pimps that would then keep her prisoner and force her into sex work. Sevilla meanwhile would pocket at least a thousand pounds for delivery of another victim.

This sounds all too modern, although nowadays it is women from poorer nations falsely promised legitimate work in the West only to arrive and be told that they need to pay back the enormously inflated cost of transporting them by working in the sex industry. I was surprised to see roughly the same process in a book written in the 1930’s, I’ve never seen it as a plot line in any other contemporary work and I can see why the shocking nature of the story would have generated publicity for the original play. Having spent the first twenty or so pages detailing the story of Muriel and through that Sevilla’s real means of earning big money we then move on to his planned next victim, Betty Findon and this is where the book really starts as Betty has a man who secretly loves her, trainee barrister Colin Derwent, and he will do anything to thwart Sevilla’s plans.

However this is also where the book started to lose my interest, the ongoing scenes between Betty and Sevilla, Sevilla and Colin, Sevilla and his manservant and other two handers would clearly work well on a stage but it’s all too bitty for a book. The dream sequence after Sevilla drugs Colin to prevent him seeing Betty to try to warn her again feels odd, and the means of how to kill Sevilla and still have an alibi by altering clocks so that he could be seen to be elsewhere at the same time revealed to Colin in his dream is all too complicated to work as it needs split second timing involving people who don’t know it involves split second timing. The plan involves Colin catching Sevilla at home and alone before taking Betty to Paris to replicate his previous modus operandi. However when Sevilla needs to be home for the first part of Colin’s alibi to work he’s out and when he does return it’s with Betty and the manservant is also there, both of which are not visible when Colin finally arrives to carry out his plan which involves claiming to have £1,500 to pay off Sevilla but in reality shooting him and staging it as a suicide.

I’m not going to go further into what happens in this review in case anyone fancies braving the rather clunky text for what is actually quite an unusual plotted story especially for the period. Maybe however see if you can find the play script rather than the novel. My copy is the 1938 Penguin first edition and whilst there may have been a reprint in the 1940’s this appears to be the last time the novel was published in English, which I think speaks volumes for its popularity. The play is actually easier, and cheaper, to find in various 1930’s anthologies.


Summer in Algiers – Albert Camus

This collection of three of Albert Camus’ essays was published by Penguin Books as part of their seventieth anniversary in 2005 and is a fascinating description of two cities and a town in Algeria, the country which was the birthplace of Camus. It is always interesting to read a locals perspective on places that you really want to visit especially if it is by a writer of the quality of Camus, and Algeria is the only country on the north African coast that I haven’t yet been to and this book moved it higher up the list of places to visit. This is the second book I have reviewed that is set in Algeria though, after Tartarin of Tarascon by Alphonse Daudet so clearly I need to go there sooner rather than later. As mentioned this has descriptions of a couple of cities, Algiers and Oran along with the archaeologically important town of Tipasa with its wonderful Roman ruins, the first essay concerns Algiers.

Summer in Algiers

Unlike the other two essays in this book, this is not a description of the place but the people of Algiers and especially the youth. He explains that here people start work and marry young and raise their children so that by their thirties men have largely done all that they have to do and it is a steady decline of their vigour that is all they have to look forward to. Summer in Algiers is a time of unrelenting heat so only the poor are left there, the rich decamp to more salubrious climes until the September rains bring relief. The young poor however gather on the beaches, for it is the culture of the body that reigns supreme and as Camus explains “Here intelligence has no place as in Italy” instead the men display their muscles and the girls their shapely legs in one fast summer before work, drudgery and motherhood claim them all far too early. It’s not a happy essay.

The Minotaur, or a stop in Oran

The longest, at 31 pages, of the three essays is possibly the most interesting, partly as I’d never heard of Oran despite it being the second largest city in Algeria, but mainly for the wonderful description of not just the town but also the people and what they do for work and fun, Camus worked here as a teacher for a while before ill health (tuberculosis) forced him to leave. The title’s reference to the Minotaur is an allusion to the labyrinthine network of streets in the city where it is easy to get lost and the walls of the old city which cut the centre off from both the desert behind but also the sea to the front. But everywhere there is the dust which seems to be the defining element for Camus whenever he thinks of Oran along with the odd collections of merchandise in the shops.

Here, presented in a casket of dust, is the contents of a shop window: frightful plaster models of deformed feet: a group of Rembrandt drawings ‘sacrificed at 150 francs each’, practical jokes, tricoloured wallets, an eighteenth century pastel, a mechanical donkey made of plush, bottles of Provence water for preserving green olives, and a wretched wooden virgin with an indecent smile. (So that no one can go away ignorant the ‘management’ has propped at its base a card saying ‘wooden virgin’).

There is also a detailed description of a boxing tournament, not just of the boxers but the crowd and building as well and a section on the construction of the new harbour walls which will eventually pull the city to face the sea, if not embrace it. It’s s great piece of closely observed travel writing although unlike the next essay it doesn’t make me want to go there.

Return to Tipasa

Tipasa is about seventy km from Algiers and had clearly been a regular destination when Camus was a child. He doesn’t care much for the modern town, it is the ancient Roman ruins that call to him and having looked up the town online I can see why, just follow the link here to Atlas Obscura. To his dismay on returning to the ruins as an adult decades later he finds them surrounded by barbed wire with a small number of designated entry points rather than the open site he remembered as a youth but once inside the magic returned and he revels in walking through the ‘bread-coloured stones’ feeling peace again and escape from the modern world as he does so.

I’d always been a bit wary of Camus, mainly because of his reputation as an existentialist writer, and having studied the works of his friend Jean Paul Satre at school that put me off that particular group of authors, but this short collection has made me want to read more Camus. He has a real gift for a phrase and an ability to take the reader to where he is writing about. I’ve explored several of the ruined Roman cities along the north African coast in both Tunisia and Libya and Return to Tipasa took me right back to those magical trips. There is a monument to Camus in amongst the ruins of ancient Tipasa which includes a quote from another of his essays set there ‘Wedding in Tipasa’

Je comprends ici ce qu’on appelle gloire : le droit d’aimer sans mesure.

I understand here what is called glory: the right to love without measure.

Albert Camus memorial in Tipasa

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – James Joyce

A long time ago I read Ulysses by James Joyce and for decades considered that was enough Joyce to last a lifetime; but I also had this book, and at 199 pages it was a lot shorter, maybe it was time for another go? Well I finished it this morning and if anything it was the tougher read of the two books. A series of disjointed episodes with several characters appearing seemingly at random but treated as though they had been there all the time however lacking context to place them within the tale, such as it is. It was also, to my considerable surprise, a book about Stephen Dedalus, the main character for the first third of Ulysses and here more clearly as a fictional representative of James Joyce himself. The book starts with the earliest memories of Stephen as a very small child and finishes with him deciding to leave Ireland just as Joyce did, and on the way Stephen attends the same schools and university as the author and his family has the money problems not helped by his father’s alcoholism. So is it a work of fiction or is it a disguised autobiography? It’s a bit of both, a fictionalised autobiography and with no way to separate the two parts, it also has several issues which made it a more difficult read even than the famously difficult Ulysses; the biggest of which is the twenty odd pages in the middle of the book that is basically a religious screed on life, death, heaven and hell which in places reads like a sermon from the more hellfire branch of the Catholic church and in others like an interminable list of confusing arguments, see below for a random sample of this section.

What you eventually get from this huge section is Stephen Dedalus’s slow retreat from the Catholic doctrine that he has been immersed in from childhood, first at home and then at the Jesuit boarding school of Clongowes Wood College and after a year there, when his father ran out of money to pay the fees for that place, on to the Christian Brothers O’Connell School in Dublin. This was exactly as Joyce himself did. By the end of the book as he is graduating from university Dedalus admits to his friend that he doesn’t want to take holy communion as his mother wishes because he has largely lost his faith “I will not serve that which I no longer believe”. Joyce himself had a somewhat more complicated relationship with Catholicism, certainly by the time he left Ireland he was not a practising Catholic but he attended church services during his self imposed exile on the continent, largely in Paris and Trieste, which lasted from 1904 until his death in 1941.

My other problem with the book is the regular use of Latin in the text, which I have never studied, and in this version of the book is not translated in footnotes which I suspect more modern editions do. My copy is from May 1948 during the crossover from Penguin Books in America to them going independent as Signet which explains the somewhat confusing references to Penguin, Signet and even New American Library (NAL) on the front cover. There is also Irish slang and several words that I didn’t recognise so that much like the Dean in the passage below I found myself putting the book down to look up a word.

A tundish by the way is nowadays a plumbing term for a device placed close to the pressure release valve that allows people to see if water has escaped the system due to excessive water pressure rather than a means of getting liquid into something but a century ago when ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ was written it was more usually a funnel used in the brewing industry.

All in all you are left with the impression that Joyce was more concerned with showing off his own perceived brilliance than telling a coherent story and at times I was tempted to give up but by then I was half way through so kept on going. Fortunately the final chapter, of the five, did read more like the book I was expecting so it was worth ploughing on. Will I read more Joyce? Probably not; but then again I said that after finishing Ulysses. I don’t have any more of his works on the shelves though so it would have to be a new purchase.

A Vision of Britain – HRH The Prince of Wales

No prizes for guessing what put Prince Charles on my mind this week of his coronation as King Charles III and I knew I had a copy of this book on the shelves where it has been since I bought it new in 1989. The original version of this was a television programme broadcast by the BBC on the 28th October 1988 as part of the a documentary series called Omnibus, the script for this was then expanded and somewhat re-arranged to make the book. The main theme of the book is what Prince Charles sees as the destruction of the built landscape with modernist construction replacing beautiful old buildings especially in London although he does occasionally step outside the capital memorably describing the brutalist central library in Birmingham as

It looks to me like a place books are incinerated, not kept!

Page 32

I must admit that I tend to agree with Charles on that one and it wasn’t much loved by most people in the city which meant that although it was only built in 1973 it has since been demolished, although quite what Prince Charles thinks of the replacement I have no idea. It’s definitely an improvement and I really like the inside which is light and airy rather than the gloomy previous building.

Charles is often regarded as having a rather twee view of architecture, a classic example of which is Poundbury which as it says on the town website.

Poundbury is an urban extension to the Dorset county town of Dorchester, designed in accordance with the principles of architecture and urban planning as advocated by His Majesty, King Charles III, in his book ‘A Vision of Britain’.

Not many books can claim to have been the basis for an entire town of 4,600 people, planned to rise to 6,000 when development is completed in a couple of years. And whilst it is rather fake looking in places it is a viable community with businesses, schools and other civic amenities created within it rather than thought about afterwards which seems to be the current process for new built large developments. Charles is still involved in the overall design plan for Poundbury and whilst I don’t think I would want to live there I can see what he tried to do.

The book is particularly scathing about architectural developments in the UK since WWII and whilst he does find much to praise this is invariably where the architect has looked backwards in history for inspiration. The book is heavily illustrated both of buildings he likes and those derided and you quickly get the feeling for his ten principals for good buildings and design. In summary these are:

  • The Place – respect for the existing landscape
  • Hierarchy – the importance of a building should be obvious
  • Scale – size of buildings in relation to the buildings surrounding them
  • Harmony – buildings should not be jarringly different from their neighbours
  • Enclosure – public squares and enclosed spaces rather than row upon row of similar houses
  • Materials – use local materials where possible, the beauty of our ancient towns and cities constructed of local stone and brick
  • Decoration – there should be some, not the all too common featureless brick walls
  • Art – again have some
  • Signs and Lights – these are necessary but need not be overwhelming and should be well designed
  • Community – building a community with spaces for people to gather is essential

All in all the book definitely expresses a vision for the future even if a lot of it is deeply rooted in the past. Thirty five years after he made the documentary Charles still very much believes in what he said then. There are buildings he hates in the book which I quite like and as I said I wouldn’t want to live in Poundbury but there is a lot to agree with him. There have been some truly awful buildings created and a lot of really lovely ones lost in the last eighty years.

The Wind From the Sun – Arthur C. Clarke

This book contains all eighteen short stories Arthur C. Clarke wrote in the 1960’s, including one set in his beloved Sri Lanka where he had moved to from England in 1956 and resided there until his death at the grand old age of ninety in 2008. Although all the stories were written in the 1960’s the last two didn’t actually get published until the early 1970’s including probably the strongest of the works in the book ‘A Meeting With Medusa’. The title story ‘The Wind From the Sun’ is also one of my favourites from this, the sixth collection of short stories by Clarke, it’s original title was ‘Sunjammer’ and it is still occasionally published under that name but Clarke explains in the preface that he changed its title as fellow SciFi author Poul Anderson used the same title, and indeed the same concept of sailing the solar wind, almost simultaneously in early 1963. To add to the confusion, and this time not mentioned by Clarke, another SciFi writer, Jack Vance, also had the same idea and published a similar story ‘Gateway to Strangeness’ also known as ‘Sail 25’ although that came out in late 1962. All three men had come up with the same idea independently and had no idea of each others work and the time taken to get things into print more than allows for the disparate publishing dates.

Perhaps inspired by the co-incidences around ‘Sunjammer’ there is another short essay included in this book entitled ‘Herbert George Morley Roberts Wells Esq.’ which describes Clarke’s absolute conviction that a story called ‘The Anticipator’ was written by H.G. Wells and he had written as such in his single page short story ‘The Longest Science-Fiction Story Ever Told’ which precedes the Roberts/Wells essay in the collection. In fact ‘The Anticipator’ was written by Well’s contemporary Morley Roberts and in the essay he explains that the story is about a high quality writer who keeps having the plots of his stories hijacked by a hack writer and published just before his version comes out so that the general public assume that he is constantly plagiarising the less good author so it is somewhat appropriate that Clarke didn’t get the true authors name right. It happened again to Clarke in 1979 when his book ‘The Fountains of Paradise’ was published at the same time as Charles Sheffield’s ‘The Web Between The Worlds’ both of which are about the construction of a giant tower all the way up to geostationary orbit which would operate as a space elevator therefore removing the need for rockets to reach space. Both novels have a similar construction method using a robot called Spider, both towers are built by a engineer who had previously constructed the longest bridge in the world and there are several other identical, or near identical features including the engineers name beginning with M. Again neither author knew about the others work it was simply an idea whose time had come.

All but two of the stories in this collection take place within the Solar System, the exceptions being ‘Crusade’ and ‘Neutron Tide’ and most occur on the Earth or Moon. This is another feature of Clarke’s science fiction writing, not for him universe wide adventures or galaxies at war which a lot of his contemporaries wrote about. Clarke, for the most part, is a more grounded writer. That doesn’t mean they are less fantastical just less space opera and more extensions of the readers understanding. ‘Maelstrom II’ for example has a man on his way home from the Moon when the, normally freight carrying, railgun that he is using as a cheaper way to get back malfunctions so he doesn’t have enough speed to achieve escape velocity. Yes it’s science fiction but everything in the story is valid science.

Arthur C. Clarke had a first class degree in mathematics and physics from King’s College London and used his scientific training in his writing, always making sure, as much as possible, that any concepts he came up with had a valid scientific basis. This makes him one of the strongest writers of science fiction as opposed to fantasy, when Clarke describes the fall into the atmosphere of Jupiter in ‘A Meeting With Medusa’ or the astronomical observations in ‘Transit of Earth’, which has an astronaut on Mars watching Earth cross The Sun you can be sure that the figures used are as accurate as 1960’s science allowed. Clarke didn’t come up with the idea of geostationary orbit but he did write the first scientific paper describing how satellites placed there would be perfect for telecommunications.

It’s a fun set of short stories and I was surprised how well I remembered several of them from when I first read the book in the mid to late 1970’s.