Mr Petre – Hilaire Belloc

I have five or six books by French author, but naturalised Englishman, Hilaire Belloc but apart from his book of humorous poetry ‘Selected Cautionary Verses’ I haven’t read any of them, reading this makes me want to pull the others off the shelves. My copy is the 1947 first Penguin edition, so 75 years old, and I can’t find any currently available editions which is a shame as it is a genuinely great read. Although written in 1925 it is set in the future of April 1953 and the basic conceit of being in the future, at least as far as the author is concerned, is that there was no longer the need for passports for British citizens entering the UK, although how you proved you were British and therefore didn’t need a passport is conveniently glossed over. It is vitally important for the plot however as the character we come to know as Mr John K Petre has no documentation on him with his name having arrived from America and losing his memory almost upon disembarking from the ship. He clutches at a barely remembered name ‘Petre’ as his own as he sinks into a nightmare of scratchily forming memories, but the name alone, whether it is his or not, proves his salvation, for it is a name of an eccentric multi-millionaire who thrives on being incognito.

There then follows a series of chancy investments, mainly by accident, but where the name of Petre works as a guarantee with no real financial backing, the first of which nets almost eighty thousand pounds and the second over a million but without our hero having any real knowledge as to what he is doing. The first is a simple boosting of the stock market which follows the knowledge that the great John K Petre has invested in a moribund stock which massively boosts the value, at least for a few days at which point the agent he had met at a dinner party cashed in for him and simply sent a cheque for his profit to the hotel he was staying in. This has some of the least likely plot lines in the novel and also some of the most dodgy mathematics as try as I can I cannot get a profit as stated in the narrative from the vague hints as to what the story says happened. The depositing of the cheque into a random bank account set up to receive it is also highly unlikely as no evidence is either requested or presented that the cheque has not been stolen or that the depositor is indeed John K Petre. The second transaction is however, oddly, far more believable despite netting over a million pounds when the character had nowhere near the required collateral for the property purchase involved but as he sold it straight away for far more than the agreed purchase price I can see this as quite possible, it is just a matter of timing payments.

I don’t want to give too much away, these two transactions occur in the first half of the book and Mr Petre has far more to go through before the end, but it is a brilliant novel which really draws the reader into the plot line both in feeling for our hero, who clearly has no idea what he is doing and is just led along by advisers, and also joy in the sheer blind luck he has in getting away with random investments much to his own surprise. What really surprises me however is that this 1947 paperback appears to be the last edition available, searching though abebooks and biblio, which represent the vast majority of online second hand book dealers, I cannot find a more recent copy apart from print on demand. I cannot understand why such a superb book has been effectively out of print for seventy five years, please if any publishers are reading this can we have a more recent edition? If anything due to the financial shenanigans so prevalent nowadays the book is more relevant then when it was first published almost a hundred years ago. If you can find a copy I suggest getting and reading it you won’t be disappointed.

The Brontës Went to Woolworth’s – Rachel Ferguson

With a title like that how could I resist? For those of you unfamiliar with the Woolworth’s name it was a high street range of budget stores in various parts of the world starting in America and later arriving in the UK up until 2008 when the UK side of the business went into administration with over eight hundred shops closing just after Christmas that year. They sold everything from records to sweets, children’s clothing to household goods, toys to books, indeed Woolworth’s was the first big customer for the newly launched Penguin Books back in 1935. It is therefore inconceivable that the Brontë’s would have shopped there even if their timelines had crossed, but Charlotte, the last of the Brontë sisters, died fifty four years before American businessman Frank Woolworth opened his first store in the UK. So what is going on with the title?

OK, time for a confession, I wrote that opening paragraph back on the 24th May intending to read this relatively short book quickly, get this blog written and free up time around my birthday when I was going to meet a very good friend for the weekend whom I hadn’t seen for almost three years due to covid restrictions. As I write this paragraph it is the 25th June, my birthday is long gone, I am still only 84 pages into the full 182 and I hate the awful, shallow, self-centred characters that make up most of the story. The widowed Mrs Carne has brought up three daughters two of which are now adult, Deirdre is a journalist, Katrine starting on a career as an actress and Sheil, the youngest is only eleven. All four of them live fantasy lives still referring to talking dolls from the childhood of Deirdre and Katrine, writing letters from the dolls and sending them to themselves and making up stories about, and correspondence from, people they have met or simply read about as though they know them well. At this point in the book Deirdre has managed to insinuate herself into the home of Sir Herbert and Lady Toddington; a couple that all four of the dreadful Carne’s have obsessed about for three years ever since Mrs Carne did a week of jury service and Sir Herbert Toddington was the judge to the point at which Agatha Martin, Sheil’s governess, is convinced that they do actually know them.

Will I get any further into the book? It’s been haunting me for almost a month now since I put it down mid chapter totally frustrated by the characters and haven’t picked it back up apart from this morning to check the names for this entry.

Right it is now the 13th of July and I have finally completed the chapter where I gave up and the book is at last beginning to make a bit more sense, good job as I am now almost two thirds of the way through. The Brontë’s had even been discussed at the end of that chapter, if only rather disparagingly, with a comment by Sir Herbert that Anne Brontë never wrote anything quotable. So a quick reference to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (I have the 4th edition) to check this out only to find that none of the Brontë’s appear in this rather large volume, which as an English writing family probably makes them unique in that nothing any of them wrote is regarded as quotable. This book is a real struggle and if I wasn’t writing this blog then I would probably have given up long ago but it now feels like a challenge. This is also the first of these blogs to have become a sort of diary entry, I wonder when I will actually finish it?

Well I can now answer the question at the end of the last paragraph with the 2nd September finally seeing the conclusion of the book, and I would never have done it if I hadn’t looked up other reviews and found others with the same problem but saying that it got better. And yes it did with the last sixty pages if not flying by at least manageable in one sitting. The governess, Miss Martin, finally had enough of the family and left during this section and I knew exactly how she felt, but not before meeting the ghosts of Charlotte and Emily Bell, as they introduced themselves although they are clearly two of the Brontë sisters, when they came to visit the Carne’s. This is where the book completely pivots so that the reader isn’t sure what has been going on in the previous 150 pages as it is explained that whilst in Yorkshire the Carne’s had been holding seances and had contacted the entire Brontë family before rapidly leaving to come back south and this was them returning the visit. Are the fantasies of the family more than that? I don’t know and frankly don’t care enough to try to work it out especially when the Toddington’s start to completely step into the fantasy lives created for them by the Carne’s and all pretence of reasonableness from them also slips away. When Lady Toddington says, at the end of the Christmas party which is where the book also finishes, that she saw the Brontë’s in Woolworth’s the other day buying notepads I was half relieved that I could finally answer the question posed at the beginning of this review and half just pleased that I was at the end of page 179 of 182 so the end was near.

Rachel Ferguson wrote at least eight other books, according to the back flap of the dust wrapper, but Penguin only ever published this one. As you can probably gather I don’t recommend reading this book and her entire oeuvre is probably worth avoiding.

The Turn of the Screw – Henry James

Probably Henry James’s best known novel, The Turn of the Screw, is a ghost story and although I’m not a particular fan of this genre I have to admit that the suspense builds superbly and that I thoroughly enjoyed this rare wander into the supernatural. Although born in New York in 1843 James moved to Europe in 1869 and finally settled in England in 1876 where he lived until his death in 1915 a year after gaining British citizenship. The book, written in 1898, reflects this and reads much more like a Victorian English novel rather than one from his homeland, indeed if I hadn’t known the author was an American I would never have guessed it from the style. The initial premise that it is a story read out to a group of friends from an old manuscript seems similar to so many British mystery and crime novels from the golden age of the 1920’s and 30’s although predating them by at least twenty years that the structure of the work felt so familiar. A group of friends are gathered at Christmas and are telling tales of supernatural events when Douglas stands up and referring to the previous tale starts to introduce his own story…

“I quite agree – in regard to Griffin’s ghost, or whatever it was – that its appearing first to the little boy, at so tender an age, adds a particular touch. But it’s not the first occurrence of its charming kind that I know to have been concerned with a child. If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children?…”
“We say, of course,” somebody exclaimed, “that two children give two turns! Also that we want to hear about them.”
I can see Douglas there before the fire, to which he had got up to present his back, looking down at this converser with his hands in his pockets. “Nobody but me, till now, has ever heard. It’s quite too horrible.” This was naturally declared by several voices to give the thing the utmost price, and our friend, with quiet art, prepared his triumph by turning his eyes over the rest of us and going on:
“It’s beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it.”
“For sheer terror?” I remember asking.
He seemed to say it wasn’t so simple as that – to be really at a loss how to qualify it. He passed his hand over his eyes, made a little wincing grimace. “For dreadful— dreadfulness!”
“Oh, how delicious!” cried one of the women

As you can see this passage from the preface to the novel introduces the title which is then not referred to. The two children are brother and sister Miles, aged ten, and Flora, aged eight, who start off being simply strange but rapidly become more than a little creepy. The story is told by their governess who was appointed to this position at the beginning of the book and the gradual loss of her composure as she discovers that the country house where she is working is haunted by two ghosts, the masters late valet Peter Quint and the children’s previous governess Miss Jessel. Only other servants live at the country house as the children’s parents are both dead and the house belongs to their uncle who never comes there, but lives in London, and as part of the condition of employing the new governess required her not to communicate with him. Her only support in dealing with the increasingly odd behaviour of the children, as they clearly seem not only to be able to see the ghosts but actively pretend not to and also appear to encourage manifestations is Mrs Grose the housekeeper who slowly reveals the history of the two characters. To add to the mystery Miles attended just one term at school before being expelled with no reason given by the headmaster and refuses to talk about his time there. When he was alive Quint apparently spent far too much time with Miles according to Mrs Grose and had an undue influence over the boy whilst Flora appears to have been rather too close to Miss Jessel.

The story is engrossing and was originally serialised in an American weekly magazine over a period of twelve weeks, so two chapters at a time. This probably explains the regular cliffhanger revelations at the end of the chapters thereby ensuring that the next section would be looked forward to by a presumably growing band of avid readers. I’m certainly glad to have finally got round to reading what Stephen King in his 1983 book Danse Macabre described as one of only two great supernatural works of horror in a century, the other being The Haunting of Hill House and I heartily recommend giving it a go.

This copy is from the Alma Classics Evergreens series which at the time of writing has an excellent deal available of ten books for just £30 with free UK shipping.

Rivers of London – Ben Aaronovitch

Well that was a fun read. First published in 2011 and clearly intended to be contemporary, the book starts out appearing to be a modern police procedural set in the Charing Cross police station of The Metropolitan Police (London’s police force) following the end of the probationary period for two trainee police officers, Peter Grant and Lesley May. Lesley is expected to do well in the police, her career looks bright and interesting in total contrast to that of Peter who appears to be heading for a life of doing the paperwork for the more go getting officers who are doing ‘real policing’ so haven’t got time for the boring bits. All this is about to change however following a particularly grisly murder that night at Covent Garden. When all the experienced officers have done what they can, but it is still too dark to do a proper search of the square the two most junior constables, Peter and Lesley, are called in to ‘protect the crime scene’ basically standing around on a freezing February night making sure nobody crosses the tape marking the edge of the area until dawn when the experienced officers will come back. At 5am Lesley goes off to get them both coffee and whilst he is alone Peter encounters a witness to the murder, the main problem with this witness is that although he did indeed see everything he is in fact dead and is a ghost haunting St. Peter’s church which is on the piazza. I’m really not giving much away here, this is all in the first few pages.

Going back the next night to try to find his ‘witness’ again Peter encounters Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale whom on discovering that Peter is ghost hunting and recognising a basic talent decides to take him on in his section of the Metropolitan Police, the magical part. As well as being a senior police officer Nightingale is the last wizard in Britain and so the whole plot swings away from ‘normal’ policing to encounters with magical beings all of which live unnoticed by the general public within modern London. As well as helping to solve what turns into a series of murders Peter is charged with resolving a dispute between Mother Thames and Father Thames, both river spirits who have taken responsibility for the tidal and freshwater parts of London’s major river respectively but whose territorial limits were being disputed. Nightingale not only takes Peter on as a Constable in his tiny division (which up until then had just consisted of him) but also as an apprentice wizard teaching him basic spells along with Latin as it turns out that all the textbooks are in this ancient language.

The book runs these two story lines in parallel and this I suspect led to one poor review when it first came out that the novel had inconsistent pacing. It is certainly the case that the sections on the murders are faster paced than the more bucolic dealings with Mamma and Father Thames and the positively erotically charged parts with one of Mamma Thames’s daughters Beverley Brook and her dealings with Peter and Lesley. I greatly enjoyed the book and look forward to reading more as there are eight novels so far in the series, with a ninth due out next month along with three novellas. Aaronovitch demonstrates an almost encyclopedic knowledge of London throughout the book so I suspect that an enormous amount of research went into the novel and I loved the use of the names of the various rivers that become tributaries of the Thames for characters, Beverley Brook for instance is a short river, only 14.3km long, in south east London. There is also Tyburn, Fleet, Ash, Lea, Brent and several others all characters in the book and rivers of London. For some odd reason Rivers of London was renamed ‘Midnight Riot’ when it was published in America which somewhat lost this point.

I met Ben Aaronovitch at the 2014 Discworld Convention where I was helping to run an event which was loosely based on the hit BBC TV programme QI which for copyright reasons we had called Strangely Fascinating (I was the scorer). It turned out that Ben was a definite Terry Pratchett fan and thoroughly enjoyed his time at the convention and didn’t mind being roped in as one of the contestants for our quiz. He is in the photo below, on the left, next to Pat Harkin who at the time was still working at Leeds Institute of Medical Education where he had been, amongst various jobs, lecturer in pathology.

Second Foundation – Isaac Asimov

Concluding the Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov, the review of part one can be found here and part two here.

This book is in two sections ‘Search by The Mule’ which is sixty pages long and ‘Search by the Foundation’ which is almost twice the length at 117 pages. After the events in Foundation and Empire both The Mule and The Foundation come to the conclusion that the mysterious Second Foundation hinted at by Hari Seldon three hundred years ago when he created the First Foundation on Terminus is a danger to their continued existence although for very different reasons, but where is it? Seldon had stated that the Second Foundation would be created at the other end of the Galaxy to the First but where exactly was that?

Search by The Mule (Originally published in January 1948 as ‘Now You See It’). This story continues immediately after the ending of the previous book and looks at the five years The Mule spent looking for the Second Foundation using both his mentally controlled subjects and a man who wasn’t under his direct control in case the control itself was what was stopping the leaps of imagination needed to locate it. After five years he gave up determined that the Second Foundation didn’t exist and concentrated on his empire, this story explains why.

Search by The Foundation (Originally published in three parts from November 1949 to January 1950 as ‘Now You Don’t’). Another fifty or so years have passed and during that time the First Foundation has been studying the brain as never before, partly in an attempt to understand the almost mythical Second Foundation especially since The Mule had decided it wasn’t there to be found. But they were convinced that Seldon’s plan had to be true and that the Second Foundation had helped, in secretive ways, to defeat their enemies over the last 3½ centuries. At the start of the novella five men gather at a family home to start an audacious attempt to find the Second Foundation, this story is probably the most fun of all the ones making up the trilogy especially with the final unexpected twist right at the end.

The three covers from this Panther edition make a complete image and it’s a great one from Chris Foss who I’m glad to say is still designing spaceships, including for the film Guardians of the Galaxy.

In the 1980’s Asimov returned to the Foundation series in an effort to integrate them with the other novels he had written, specifically the Robot series. One of the most striking aspects of the Foundation series when considered amongst Asimov’s other works is the lack of robots particularly from an author famous for his ‘three laws of robotics’ and numerous books about man and robots living together. The additional books comprise two prequels ‘Prelude to Foundation’ (1988) and ‘Forward the Foundation’ (1993) along with two sequels ‘Foundation’s Edge’ (1982) and Foundation and Earth (1986). ‘Forward the Foundation’ was published posthumously as Asimov died in April 1992. Of these books I only have a copy of ‘Prelude to Foundation’ but maybe I should get copies of the other three and give them a read, I have after all enjoyed rereading the original trilogy after decades of the books sat on my shelves unopened.

No Bed for Bacon – Caryl Brahms & S J Simon

Doris Abrahams and Simon Jacoblivitch Skidelsky, better known as Caryl Brahms and S J Simon respectively, collaborated on eleven comic novels and crime stories between 1937 and 1948 when S J Simon died suddenly at the age of just 44. No Bed for Bacon was their sixth book, first published in 1941, and is a comic retelling of Elizabethan England featuring William Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, Queen Elizabeth herself and numerous other famous characters from the period. Caryl Brahms was best known as a theatre, especially ballet, critic and S J Simon was a journalist but much more famous in the world of contract bridge where he was European champion and also the author of books on the subject.

Well this was a fun romp round Elizabethan London with lots of running gags including the one that gives the book its title which is Sir Francis Bacon’s desperate attempt to get hold of a bed that Queen Elizabeth had slept in during one of her many progressions around England which was seen as a major status symbol in ones home. In this he is constantly thwarted partly at the hands of the Master of the Revels who controls all such progressions but also bu Elizabeth herself who knowing of his desire for such an item of furniture ensures that it never goes to him. Other running jokes include William Skakespeare constantly trying out spellings for his name, which definitely has a basis in fact because all the known remaining signatures by Shakespeare are spelt differently. Sir Walter Raleigh keeps getting a new and ever more flashy cloak only for it to be ruined within a couple of hours, from the, probably apocryphal, tale of him using his cloak to keep the Queens feet dry when her carriage stopped by a puddle and in contrast Lord Burghley keeps being dressed in more and more shabby attire. Shakespeare also keeps trying to start a new play called Loves Labours Wonne as a companion piece to Loves Labours Lost which famously has not survived to the present day even assuming that he ever finished it in reality and the regular sections in terrible Elizabethan spelling also add to the joy of reading the book.

The opening character remains anonymous through the work yet appears regularly always doing a different job as he makes a rapid rise, and even faster fall through the ranks of the proletariat from horse holder outside a theatre, to watchman, soldier, manservant, prisoner and back to watchman amongst many other jobs too numerous to list. He invariably starts any chapter actually set in London and you get used to seeing what he has managed to become this time. The other main fictional character, most of the people in the book really existed, is the young Lady Viola who disguises herself as a boy in order to join Shakespeare’s company as an actor as females were not allowed on the stage at the time and ultimately falls in love with him. If this sounds familiar than you have probably seen the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love where Gwyneth Paltrow plays Lady Viola who disguises herself as a man in order to join Shakespeare’s company as an actor as females were not allowed on the stage at the time and ultimately falls in love with him. Just a reminder that the book was written in 1941 and Tom Stoppard, who co-wrote the film is known to have had a copy of the book but claims to have not been influenced by it despite even using the same character name and no credits to Brahms or Simon are given in the film.

The book does play fast and loose with historical accuracy (as does the film which nicked the plot) but one of the most poignant sections and indeed the longest chapter of the novel takes place on a boat on the Thames with Queen Elizabeth progressing down the river in the company of her famous military and naval commanders whilst reliving the routing of the Spanish Armada. From what I remember of my Tudor history lessons this does appear to be mainly factually correct although it does contain Sir Francis Drake completing his game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe before heading out to meet the enemy which almost certainly didn’t happen. There are various sidelong comments regarding Drake being lucky with the wind which however was certainly correct.

Forsooth, tis a merrie romp Master Will and I definitely recommend the novel assuming you can lay your hands on a copy as it appears to have been out of print for a couple of decades but there are plenty of copies available on abebooks.

My copy is the first Penguin Books edition published in December 1948 five months after the death of S J Simon, Carly Brahms greatly outlived him and died just 3 days short of her 81st birthday in 1982.

Foundation and Empire – Isaac Asimov

Continuing my reading of the Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov we have reached the second volume, my review of the first book can be found here.

This book consists of a longish short story (just over 50 pages) and a novella (113 pages) and continues the story of the Foundation on Terminus, both were first published in Astounding Science Fiction before being combined in this book in 1952.

The General (originally published in April 1945 as Dead Hand) – Set roughly 40 years after the end of the first book so 205 years after the creation of the Foundation on Terminus this short story reveals that the Galactic Empire is still considerably stronger than the Foundation believes it to be and is even now capable of launching an all out attack. Two men hope to stop them and they are prisoners of the Empire, Lathan Devers, a reckless trader and Ducern Barr, son of Onum Barr who had met Master Trader Hober Mallow on his investigations of the dangers of the Korell republic in the story The Merchant Princes.

The Mule (originally published in two parts November and December 1945) – It is now 300 years since the Foundation on Terminus was established and 80 years after the death of Lathan Devers and the trader planets are more or less independent of The Foundation which has come under a despotic ruling family. The Mule is an unknown, a mutant who has apparently effortlessly built himself a fleet and an empire and now threatens The Foundation. This story highlights why Asimov never became a mystery writer (although he did have a go at the genre), there is supposed to be a major twist at the end but I had guessed it within a couple of pages of the character being introduced right at the beginning of the novella. For all that though it is an entertaining story with a strong female lead character, which was somewhat unusual in 1940’s science fiction.

Coming to the end of the second book in the trilogy I realised something else about Asimov’s science fiction and that is the almost complete lack of aliens in any of his writing. The Foundation trilogy covers the entire galaxy but nowhere is there an alien species; it is covered instead in humanity that has spread out from a semi-mythical home planet millennia ago. I have read dozens of his books and apart from one short story, written for Playboy, and the much later novel The Gods Themselves (written in 1972) I cannot remember there ever being an alien species referenced and this is odd. Asimov was a professor of biochemistry at Boston University so was certainly aware that where life can exist it will, at least on Earth, why did he not then extend this to encompass life on other planets? It is suggested in the Wikipedia article about him that when he was starting out an early story was rejected for having aliens more powerful than humans so he decided to not write about them at all, but I don’t buy that explanation as other authors had powerful aliens so maybe we’ll never know the true reason for his humanocentric universe.

As teased in the first review the covers join together to make a whole image, with the first two books it is less obvious but if you follow the smoke and light trails you can see that we are looking at two thirds of one painting. It must have been tricky to select this as each cover has to work on its own whilst also being part of the whole thing.

The House of the Seven Gables – Nathaniel Hawthorne

It’s thirty five years since I first read this book and it has definitely stayed on the shelf since then. I remember writing to the person who sent it to me and recommended I read it that the most remarkable thing was that it contained it’s own review in the opening line of chapter fifteen.

Several days passed over the Seven Gables, heavily and drearily enough.

Still maybe thirty five years have changed my opinion…

Well I enjoyed the book more than the last time but it is interminably slow, taking at one point nineteen pages to talk about a dead body sitting in the chair where he expired and in the 363 pages that the novel takes very little happens that couldn’t have been told in half that. The novel starts by describing the wrong committed against Mathew Maule by Colonel Pyncheon who under the pretence of calling him out as a wizard, for this was the times of the Salem witch trials, took his house and land to build his own mansion on, the eponymous House of the Seven Gables. Maule curses the Colonel as he is on the gallows that he shall die and very specifically

“God” said the dying man, pointing his finger, with a ghastly look, at the undismayed countenance of his enemy; – “God will give him blood to drink!”

When, on the very first day of the house being completed and open to guests the Colonel is nowhere to be seen and is later discovered sitting at his desk with a great gout of blood on his chest which had gushed from his mouth the curse of Mathew Maule is remembered and the descendants of Pyncheon are reckoned to be likewise cursed. The book then leaps forward to the present day, or at least to the late 1840’s (it was written in 1851) and we are slowly introduced to our small cast of characters. Hepzibah Pyncheon is an old maid and now sole occupier of the house apart from the lodger Holgrave who inhabits one of the gables, cut off from the main property by a bolted door. She is agitated when we first meet her as she is about to do something that if it wasn’t the poverty that she had been reduced to she would never have attempted and that is to open a small shop in part of the house, Hepzibah is not cut out for trade. On the first day she meets her cousin Judge Pyncheon who is most upset with her opening the shop and bringing, as he sees it, disrepute on the family name. There is clearly animosity between Hepzibah and the distinguished judge, but the root of what it is we won’t find out for over three hundred pages.

Fortunately for Hepzibah the next day her cousin Phoebe arrives from the country and proves very good at running the shop and then a little later the household is completed by the arrival of Hepzibah’s brother Clifford who is aged and apparently simple minded, but has also apparently been the cause of scandal and has been away for thirty years. From the hostility Clifford shows to his cousin the judge it is clear that there is bad blood between them. And there the book remains, dealing with minor household triumphs and tragedies for a couple of hundred pages whilst the reader is left wondering when Hawthorne is actually going to get round to doing anything significant with these characters he has assembled. Ironically just after my original quote about dreariness the plot suddenly speeds up as a crisis brings everything to a head but by which time we are well after page 275 and I have to wonder how many readers have given up before then.

Despite Hawthorne’s statements in the preface of the novel that there is no specific locality where the story is set other than a generic ‘New England’ he was actually inspired to write after visiting a 1666 colonial property owned by some relatives of his in Salem, Massachusetts. The house at the time had been remodelled and only had three gables but when it became a museum, in the early part of the 20th century, another four gables were added along with a representation of Hepzibah’s cent shop which had never previously existed. I visited the house in 1986 which was the reason for reading the book in the first place. It has taken 35 years for me to pick it up again and I might have another go in another 35 years but I can’t really see me making the effort somehow even assuming I’m still around to do so.

The copy I have is a very tatty copy of The Pocket Library ninth edition from 1959, originally published by them in 1954 so it must have been popular. The Pocket Library was a very short lived imprint from Pocket Books lasting as it did from 1953 to 1959.

Porterhouse Blue – Tom Sharpe

Porterhouse Blue was Tom Sharpe’s third novel and the first set in England after two mocking the apartheid regime in South Africa where he had lived from 1951 before being deported for sedition in 1961. Before going any further with the review however it is important to take note of the language used in a couple of early chapters and one later one, which can euphemistically be referred to as ‘of its time’ especially of the early 1970’s by a white person who had spent a decade in South Africa. It also probably goes some way to explaining why the book does not appear to have been in print for the best part of two decades in the UK. These three paragraphs aside the book is a fun read, with the conflicts, and other relations, between the characters driving forward the story. The opening paragraph sets the scene as the hidebound, male only, Porterhouse College with it’s tradition of big dinners, sporting prowess and low academic achievement has no idea what is about to hit it with the appointment of a new Master of College.

The new Master, Sir Godber Evans, has plans to shake up the old ways in this bastion of maleness; for a start he wants to be co-educational, start accepting students on the basis of academic qualifications rather than muscle for the rugby team and rowing crews, and horror of horrors turn the dining hall into a self service cafeteria run by outside caterers. More disastrous plans come to light, disastrous at least in the eyes of the senior faculty who quite like the big dinners, fine wines and a laissez-faire attitude to educational success that has characterised Porterhouse College for centuries. He must be stopped but how?

Another bastion of the traditions of the college is Skullion, the Head Porter, a role he has held for 45 years. It’s a job he is ideally suited for calling as it does for a total deference to ‘his betters’, i.e. the faculty, at least to their faces, a mindless application of the college rules especially where students are concerned and limited ambition. All these traits he gained in the lower ranks of the army along with fastidious attention to the shine on his shoes which he polishes daily as part of his fixed routine and which serves as a calming influence whenever he is upset. Being upset is going to be his standard position from the arrival of the new Master onwards and often with good reason. It is Skullion we follow more than any other character as the plot unfurls as he seeks to thwart the new masters plans with the help of former pupils known to himself as Skullions Scholars who he has helped pass their degrees by hiring capable students from other colleges to write essays or at the last resort sit the final exams for them.

There is another plot line, which barely touches on the main plot, and that is of Zipser, Porterhouse’s only research student, and the lustful feelings he has for Mrs Biggs his bedder, or servant who cleans and tidies his rooms in college. Mrs Biggs is a lady of mature years and large figure who not only realises Zipser’s desire but determines to reciprocate, Mr Biggs having passed away many years earlier. Zipser and Mrs Biggs storyline however reaches its climax just over halfway through the novel and only the aftermath is dealt with following that.

It’s worth pointing out the origins of the title. A Blue at Cambridge or Oxford is a person who has represented the university in a sporting event between the two universities and as Porterhouse is depicted as a sporting college then students from there would clearly be represented amongst the Cambridge Blues. But a Porterhouse Blue has another meaning as well and is down to the huge meals consumed there regularly and refers to the likely stroke that people with high blood pressure, cholesterol levels, obesity and probable diabetes brought on by such an unhealthy diet are likely to suffer from.

The book was adapted by Malcolm Bradbury as a four part TV series in 1986 starring David Jason as Skullion and Ian Richardson as Sir Godber Evans and that is how I first came across it. My copy is the 1976 first paperback edition with a cover illustration by Paul Sample which I bought second hand probably soon after the TV series was broadcast. The cover depicts one of the funniest scenes in the book as Skullion attempts to rid the college grounds of over 200 gas filled and highly slippery condoms in the middle of the night in a snowstorm. There is no way I’m explaining how they came to be there or the circumstances of their removal you’ll just have to read the book.

Foundation – Isaac Asimov

With the imminent release on Apple TV of a blockbuster adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy it seemed appropriate to reread these books that I haven’t picked up since I was a teenager and I’m going to do one a month rather than block out the rest of September. Fortunately I still have the copies I bought back in 1979 with their wonderful covers by Chris Foss that drew me to them in the first place. Panther Science Fiction used a lot of Foss’s paintings for their Asimov covers and as you will see as the months go on the covers on this trilogy are a little special.

Foundation was first published in book form in 1951 and tells the story of the collapse of the Galactic Federation or more accurately the plan of one man, Hari Seldon, to reduce the impact of that failure from 30,000 years of anarchy to a mere 1,000 years. He has predicted the collapse using a branch of mathematics invented by Asimov called psycho-history which takes statistical analysis of crowd behaviour to the nth degree and allows predictions to be made on populations with a trackable degree of accuracy. Seldon ostensibly formed his Foundation to write an Encyclopedia Galactica which would be a repository of all knowledge with a plan to have copies supplied to all the inhabited worlds of the galaxy and right at the beginning of the book engineers their exile to a planet on the furthest reaches of empire where the rulers consider them away from disturbing the peace with stories of empire collapse but where Seldon knows they will be left alone to further his master plan. Here on Terminus his researchers would form a nucleus of science in the increasing barbarism of the surrounding planetary systems as their understanding of technology melts away.

Seldon never makes it to Terminus himself, after less than thirty pages into the book he is dead and this is going to be the major challenge of any TV adaptation, the cast is going to need to be constantly changing as the centuries roll past, in Foundation alone 155 years pass from the first page to the last with major characters rising and then disappearing into history. Seldon alone can re-appear, as a hologram, but only to confirm that what becomes known as Seldon Crisis’s have been successfully negotiated and these are timed events and only occur twice in the first book of the trilogy so how will they maintain a following audience if the characters are never the same from one episode to another?

The major figure in Foundation is the mayor of Terminus fifty years after the settlement of the planet, Salvor Hardin, and if I was going to be persnickety about the book then having the two biggest names being so similar (Salvor Hardin and Hari Seldon) is the one lack of imagination shown by Asimov in what is otherwise a excellent exercise in world building with a truly believable back story and development of characters and technologies. It isn’t to the depth of Iain M Banks’ Culture series (1987 to 2012) but he was writing over forty years earlier and for a very different audience, teenagers and early twenties who were avid consumers of the science fiction pulp magazines of the day as 80% of the book had been published in Astounding Science Fiction between 1942 and 1944, Asimov added the introductory section for the 1951 book publication. The great historical leaps between the five sections is largely explained by the fact that it is a collection of short stories which were originally published separately but we go from an isolated exile planet to Terminus controlling the surrounding star systems and slowly spreading its technological know how with at each step a problem from aggressive neighbours being solved without using force themselves.

The five short stories that make up the book are as follows:

The Psychohistorians – This was written specifically for the book and serves as an introduction to the series, it is the only part where Hari Seldon is actually alive and tries to explain what psycho-history is so that it makes more sense in the stories that follow.

The Encyclopedists (Originally published in May 1942 as Foundation) – Fifty years after the settlement of Terminus and their first crisis as one of the surrounding star systems tries to take over what is still a planet dedicated to the production of the Encyclopedia Galactica. The aggressors plan is thwarted by the young mayor Salvor Hardin and a hologram of Hari Seldon reveals that all is not what it seems on Terminus.

The Mayors (Originally published in June 1942 as Bridle and Saddle) – Thirty more years have passed and Hardin is still mayor of Terminus and again faces aggression from a neighbouring star system although this time a far more powerful one. The Foundation have used the intervening years however to spread atomic power to the surrounding systems but kept the technical details as to how it works to themselves hiding the methods behind a mystical religious belief system where only the priests have access to the controls.

The Traders (Originally published in October 1944 as The Wedge) – Another 55 years have passed and the religious cult behind atomics has slightly waned as traders have started to take over the spreading of the Foundations power in their corner of the Galaxy. This is a fairly simple tale of one trader going a bit too far but getting away with it and is sort of a fill in tale written after The Big and the Little to explain the leap between that and Bridle and Saddle.

The Merchant Princes (Originally published in August 1944 as The Big and the Little) – Twenty years after The Traders so 155 years after The Psychohistorians this introduces Master Trader Hober Mallow who is sent on a mission to investigate unusually technically advanced equipment in the planetary republic of Korell. It turns out that the Galactic Empire is not quite as dead as expected.

The immense popularity of the books in the 1960’s and 70’s can be gauged by the list of reprints, and remember this is just the UK paperback edition.

I suspect that Asimov is no longer as popular as he was but the Apple TV series should hopefully put that right and bring to the fore a writer who was producing what must now be called Young Adult fiction decades before that term was even invented.