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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (cremum sorbitatis)

hairy pewter and the detention of doom

On several occasions I’ve been asked about the odd spelling and lack of capitalisation in the title of this book review column. I’ve never made any secret about the reasons for it – it’s all the fault of one Nigel Molesworth, a pupil at St. Custard’s skool and the "author" of four books about skool life – Down with Skool!, How to be Topp, Whizz for Atomms and Back in the Jug Agane.

The actual author of these books was one Geoffrey Willans, but nobody ever remembers that. Nigel has made them his very own. They are comedy classics. Every member of my generation grew up with them and has been unduly influenced by them.

The titles of the books give an indication of Nigel’s somewhat eccentric grasp on the niceties of English orthography and the body of the text only reinforces that first impression. Once you hav red them you will never agane be abul to spel eny English words proplee.  Hence, of course, wot i red on my hols, the traditional title of the very first essay that the eng master requires you to rite on the first day of the first term after the long summer break.

The books build on (and satirise) a British tradition of children's books set at boarding schools. Elements of the genre (for want of a better word) can be traced back to the mid eighteenth century but the general theme was firmly set in stone in 1857 with the publication of Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes. As far as I can tell, Hughes’ novel has remained constantly in print ever since it first appeared – an enviably long print run.

The predictable plots of school stories always revolve around friendship, honour and loyalty between the pupils. There are always scary teachers to avoid, bullies to defeat, secrets to search out and far too many sports events to attend. I remember one school story I read in my youth which was set in a brand new school and the very first intake of pupils to arrive at it were charged with deciding how the school should manage its sporting prowess. The pupils spent much of the book debating ad nauseam whether the school should implement a tradition of playing rugby or playing soccer during the winter months. Clearly they couldn’t do both, each being the antithesis of the other. There was, of course, no debate at all about summer games. It was simply taken for granted that they would play cricket in the summer. To play anything else would obviously be sacrilegious. Perhaps fortunately, time has removed both the title and the author of that particular book from my memory...

The hugely popular The Fifth Form at St. Dominic's by Talbot Baines Reed appeared in 1887. P. G. Wodehouse began his writing career with school stories, most notably his Wryken novels, the first of which was published in 1909. As the twentieth century advanced, we got several long series’ of school novels such as Frank Richards’ Billy Bunter stories, Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings novels, Enid Blyton’s Naughtiest Girls stories and a seemingly never ending stream of books by the amazingly prolific Angela Brazil (Wikipedia lists an incredible 62 school novels in her bibliography!). By the mid 1950s the genre was so well defined and so well known that it was ripe, perhaps over-ripe, for satire. Enter Nigel Molesworth…

St Custard's is a terribly dysfunctional prep school ruled with an iron fist by the Headmaster GRIMES (Nigel is terrified of him and always refers to him in capital letters). Sigismund Arbuthnot is the mad maths master, and he frequently appears as Molesworth's nemesis in his daydreams. Maths masters, as any fule kno, do not stop at arith and algy they include geom and to do this they hav a huge wooden compass with chalk in the end for the blakboard. The chalk make a friteful noise. The english master teaches a lot of peotry which Nigel doesn’t approve of. He feels strongly that reading peoms is for gurls. The French master cannot keep order. Whenever a french master apere in the doorway it is a signal for a hale of ink pots rubers chalk and stink bombs poo gosh!

Molesworth’s fellow pupils include Grabber, the head boy and winner of the mrs joyful prize for rafia work. Then there is Peason, Molesworth's grate frend and constant companion on his (imaginary) interplanetary adventures. Given Nigel’s somewhat arbitrary relationship with reeding and riting, I’ve always suspected that Peason’s given name was actually Pearson – I’ve known several Pearsons in my time, but I’ve never once met anybody called Peason. Other pupils include the very bullied Fotherington-Tomas who is the school sissy (he sa hullo sky, hullo clouds, hullo sun). And let us not forget Molesworth 2, Nigel's annoying younger brother.

I’ve known and loved Nigel’s novels for more than fifty years and recently I’ve been listening to a BBC audiobook of the stories read by the magnificent Griff Rhys Jones. He does an absolutely wonderful job, and I recommend this audiobook very highly. But I quickly discovered that listening to Nigel’s immortal words is nowhere near as much fun as reading them on the printed page. No matter how carefully he enunciates, Griff Rhys Jones always renders phrases such as "as any fule kno" into "as any fool know". It simply can’t be helped – that’s how the words are pronounced no matter how you spell them and therefore that is how they sound when they arrive in your ears. As any fule kno. As a consequence the audiobook sounds as if the speeling chucker has been interfering between the page and the microphone and a whole dimension of humour is missing. Please, please, I beg you, read the printed books before you listen to the audiobook. If you don’t, you will miss out on some of the most important aspects of Nigel’s philosophy.

Amusingly, Nigel’s phrase "as any fule kno" has actually entered the language and can often be found in stories reported in the mainstream British press – without explanation of course because obviously no explanation is needed. As any fule kno. The phrase was even used used by J. K. Rowling in an essay she wrote about her own schooldays. And she, of course, is single handedly responsible for resurrecting the, by then moribund, school story genre with her Harry Potter novels.

As an aside, it was always perfectly clear to all of us Old St. Custardians that J. K. Rowling was a huge fan of Nigel’s deathless prose. We knew it as soon as we read her very first novel because Nigel, in his books, makes mention of a Latin pla called The Hogwarts which the lat master forces him to reed. Also the headmaster of Porridge Court (St. Custard’s great rival skool) is himself called Hoggwart. Coincidence? There is no such thing as coincidence.

Chiz chiz.

For many years now, Mark Billingham has been writing a series of detective novels starring one Tom Thorne. I must confess I’ve found them increasingly difficult to read, each blurs into the other in my mind and each contains set pieces that grow more than a little tedious as you encounter them yet again. I think it’s possible that even Mark Billingham was starting to feel this way because he’s recently published The Last Dance, the first volume in what will clearly be a whole new series starring a whole new detective called Declan Miller who lives and works in Blackpool. Somebody has to live and work in Blackpool I suppose. The tone is much lighter than that of the Tom Thorne novels, though the material is equally grim.

The story opens with two murders – an up and coming gangster and an IT consultant have both been shot to death in adjacent hotel bedrooms. The same gun was used to kill each of them. There is no obvious connection between the two people, so why were they killed? And who killed them? Declan, who has just returned to work after taking compassionate leave following the tragic death of his wife, is assigned to investigate the case. He is also assigned a new partner called Sara Xiu who he immediately nicknames Posh on the grounds that her surname is pronounced "Jus" which sounds just like the posh gravy you find described in menus presented to you in high class restaurants. Sara, who has no sense of humour whatsoever, rather resents being thought of as posh gravy, but there’s not much she can do about it. Posh she will remain.

The two detectives are polar opposites. Declan rides a putt-putting moped, loves ballroom dancing, taking care of, and playing with, his pet rats, strumming gentle tunes on his guitar and discussing the details of the cases he is investigating with the ghost of his dead wife. Sara, on the other hand, rides a grossly over-powered sod-you growling Yamaha motor bike and goes to heavy metal thrash clubs where she picks up total strangers and takes them home for casual sex. Declan reacts to everything that happens in his life with sarcastic quips and witty repartee. Sara, on the gripping hand, wouldn’t recognise or comprehend a joke even if she was formally introduced to it and presented with its autobiography. Consequently she understands almost nothing that Declan says to her. Despite these differences they make a good team and they quickly develop a mutual respect which stands them in very good stead as they try to work out just why the two men were shot. The answer, when they finally find it, is grimly shocking.

I absolutely loved this book. It is simultaneously both very funny and very dark. Declan and Sara are fascinating people who really came alive in my head as the story progressed. I’m greatly looking forward to the next book in the series – it is very clear that there will be a next book. Although Declan and Sara do solve the case that opens the story, there is an over-riding story arc which is not resolved. Clearly there is a lot more still to come.

Stephen Leather’s new novel Triggers introduces us to Marianne, a ruthless assassin. She first comes to the attention of the authorities (or, more accurately, to the attention of a clandestine wing of those authorities) when she kills a high ranking Russian oligarch that they themselves were about to put away. They immediately recruit her to their ranks and soon she is killing to order on their behalf. As part of her recruitment process we learn that Marianne’s motives for killing are not political or ideological. She has simply been seeking out and, one by one. eliminating a group of men who had each raped her when she was a child. These are revenge killings, pure and simple. But honing her skills on these men has turned her into an invaluable asset to the shadowy organisation she now finds herself working for.

It very quickly becomes clear to the reader (though not to the other people involved in the story) that Marianne is a lot more than she seems to be at first glance. She suffers from what these days is called Multiple Personality Disorder. Many different people live in her body and each of them has a different skill. Jasmine is a singer, Sophie is a vicious and inventive killer, well versed in martial arts. Jim is a gymnast, a parkour expert. Bill is a talented hacker. Woody controls them all, bringing each personality to the front and giving it control of the body as the situation demands.

The Marianne that Stephen Leather describes in the novel put me in mind of a non-fiction book I read many years ago called The Minds of Billy Milligan. It was written by Daniel Keyes (he of Flowers For Algernon fame). I actually bought the book by mistake, thinking it would be another novel by Keyes, but it turned out to be an account of Keyes’ own clinical interaction with a real sufferer from Multiple Personality Disorder, the eponymous Billy Milligan himself. It was an absorbing and at times quite disturbing read and I’ve never forgotten it. I have no idea whether or not Stephen Leather has read that book but Marianne is so completely Billy Milligan in terms of both how her various personalities take control of the body and of how different they are from each other, each having their own talents and specialities, that I found her to be completely convincing. Stephen Leather has accurately captured and portrayed the complexities of the disorder that afflicts Marianne and that, of course, adds to the verisimilitude of his novel. I found myself believing whole heartedly in Marianne. And that’s half the battle of writing a convincing novel, of course.

There are quite a lot of surprises in the plot as the story winds its bloodthirsty way to a breathtaking twist at the end. Despite the twist, it really isn’t a spoiler and knowing what the twist is would actually be beneficial if you chose to read the book a second time. When the twist comes, you find yourself nodding your head – it’s a surprise, but you immediately realise that all the clues had been cleverly presented to you in the body of the book. You just hadn’t realised it until they all snuck up on you at once. There’s something quite inevitable about it. So once you know this, a re-read would add an extra dimension of enjoyment as you chortle at what you find hidden in plain sight. And that too makes this a clever and convincing novel.

It’s a potboiler of course, but it’s an unusually good one.

Lawrence Block is 85 years old. He’s been writing and publishing novels since he was a teenager and he’s still going strong today. I own130 of his books, and I very much doubt that my collection is complete. His best books are almost certainly the long series of novels that he wrote about a (kind of) private detective called Matthew Scudder. Indeed there is a general consensus that the Scudder novel When the Sacred Ginmill Closes is the very best book that he ever wrote, and he’s written a lot of very good books...

His latest is called The Autobiography of Matthew Scudder and it gives us exactly what it says on the tin. In the book Scudder tells us the story of his life. He informs us of details that Block never knew about and therefore never included in his novels, and he takes great delight in pointing out where Block sometimes stretched the truth a little bit (sometimes quite a lot) for the sake of the drama. It’s all an utterly delightful literary joke and I loved every word of it.

But clearly if you’ve never read any of Block’s Scudder novels I can’t think of any reason at all why you’d ever want to read this fictional autobiography "written" by and about a person you’ve never heard of, a person who doesn’t even exist. So, if you haven’t already done so, I suggest that you go and read all the Scudder novels – there are only twenty of them so it won’t take you very long – and then come back and read this rather odd twenty-first addition to the canon. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

Wolf – The Lives of Jack London is a biography of Jack London written by James Haley. Before reading it, I knew about Jack London’s life in outline – a potted biography often appeared on the dust jackets of his novels – but I knew very few of the details. James Haley’s masterful biography filled these details in beautifully. The book is everything a good biography ought to be, warts and all. I recommend it highly.

These days Jack London is an almost forgotten author. Only his short novels The Call of the Wild and White Fang are generally remembered and they are usually considered to be children’s fiction, though there is much more to them than just that. The rest of his very voluminous output is seldom seen now, and I think that’s a pity because he really did write a lot of extremely good stories. I’m particularly fond of The Star Rover, which I’ve read at least half a dozen times. It tells the story of a man held in San Quentin State Prison. His jailers try to break his spirit by torturing him with a canvas strait-jacket which can be laced tightly so as to compress the whole body causing agonising pain. The prisoner evades the torture by entering a trance state, during which he he is able to walk among the stars and experience portions of past lives across many different ages and many different cultures. It’s a fascinating story.

In his heyday, Jack London’s literary output made him both a very rich man and an international celebrity. He died in 1916 and over the years that followed his reputation slowly declined.

London was born in San Francisco in 1876. When he was thirteen years old he started piece work in a canning factory. Two years later he'd managed to save enough money to buy a small boat, from which he sold fresh vegetables to the ships anchored in San Francisco Bay. He upgraded his boat  to a sloop which he called Razzle Dazzle and with it he became an oyster pirate, raiding the tidal oyster beds and (mostly) avoiding the attentions of the California Fish Patrol which guarded them. Ironically, he eventually gave up his life of crime and joined the California Fish Patrol! Later he signed up to work on a ship bound for the Bering Sea to hunt seals. On returning to America he worked in a jute mill, travelled the rails as a hobo, was thrown into and out of prison because of his political activities, went prospecting for gold in the Yukon, and took a job as a stoker on a steamship. He was always a voracious reader (he practically lived in his local library when he wasn’t at sea) and eventually he settled down to study philosophy and politics at the University of California. Amazingly he did all of that before he was twenty-one! No experience is wasted, of course, and all these adventures later appeared in his novels. No wonder he was so prolific and so rich, he had a lot of good material to draw on.

In 1907 he built a boat called Snark on which he and his wife sailed around the Pacific, eventually ending up in Australia. His very popular non-fiction book The Cruise of the Snark tells of his adventures on this trip. The voyage also provided him with a lot of material which he used in his later novels.

Jack London was an avowed socialist and his political beliefs never wavered. Unfortunately he was so passionate about his socialism that it tended to overflow into his stories and some of his novels are overly didactic as a result. The Iron Heel is particularly prone to this, as the title probably suggests.

I was amazed to learn from Haley’s book that there actually was a flourishing socialism movement in America in the early twentieth century. It had a large and influential voice in contemporary American political discourse. London himself was a member of the Socialist Labor Party and campaigned tirelessly on their behalf. I wonder what happened to the movement? There seems to be no remaining trace of it at all in the politics of present day America. Perhaps it was a casualty of Joe McCarthy’s witch hunt campaigns in the 1950s? Certainly, as Haley informs us, the MaCarthy committee did actually black list Jack London and his books despite the fact that London himself had been dead for more than forty years by then. This may be another reason why his novels have fallen out of favour. Vindictiveness, it seems, knows no bounds…

Everybody knows that Tutankhamen was about nineteen years old when he died. But nobody is really sure exactly how he died. Many theories have been put forward over the years. One possibly over-melodramatic theory is that somebody deliberately killed him. In The Murder of Tutankhamen Bob Brier carefully examines the evidence in favour of this idea.

Murder can only be properly understood when both motive and opportunity align to point the finger at the probable killer. In order to understand what might have motivated the killer of a King it is necessary first to understand the social and political mood of the times. Only then can we decide who might have had a reason for removing the young Pharaoh from his throne. Consequently a large part of Bob Brier’s book talks in detail about the political organisation of Egypt under the eighteenth dynasty, of which Tutankhamen was the last living scion. Clearly if he died without issue the door to the establishment of another Pharaonic dynasty would be opened. That’s certainly a powerful motive…

Much of Bob Brier’s discussion about Egypt’s social and political history was already familiar to me, largely from reading other books by Bob Brier. He’s a great believer in re-using material. But that’s not a criticism, quite the reverse in fact. He’s so gifted at explaining these kinds of things, so clever at simplifying complex ideas that it was an enormous pleasure to refresh my memory of the details.

Once he has set the scene, he goes on to talk about what has been discovered from several modern forensic analyses of Tutankhamen’s mummy. This too is quite fascinating because in order to understand the forensic results it is first necessary to understand the mummification process itself. Brier really goes to town on this – no gory detail is left unexamined. He himself is a world expert on mummification – he has actually mummified a human corpse using the documented techniques of the Egyptian mummification technicians. He tells us all about every step of it with enormous glee. This experience clearly puts him in a unique position to analyse the forensic results.

Putting these two aspects together, Bob Brier is able to make a very good case to suggest that the boy king was murdered and he is able to point the finger at two major suspects, each of whom had both the motive and the opportunity to carry out the crime.

So was Tutankhamen actually murdered? The evidence is certainly very strong but it is, on occasion, ambiguous. So much so that I would not be at all surprised to find a Bob Brier book called The Accidental Death of Tutankhamen on the shelves some time in the next few years. But in the mean time we have this absolutely superb murder book to enjoy.

Geoffrey Willans / Griff Rhys Jones Molesworth BBC
Mark Billingham The Last Dance Hachette
Stephen Leather Triggers Kindle
Lawrence Block The Autobiography of Matthew Scudder LB Productions
James Haley Wolf – The Lives of Jack London Basic Books
Bob Brier The Murder of Tutankhamen Putnam
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