Some theatre memories, you say? Why not! December 1986 to November 1987

With the return of live theatre looking further and further away let’s immerse ourselves in these memories. A couple of concerts here too, but, as I have the programmes, I might as well include them!

  1. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – Royalty Theatre, London, 23rd December 1986

We’re used to seeing Joseph come round every couple of years or so nowadays, but I think back in ’86 a London production was quite a rarity. The Tomorrow People’s Mike Holoway starred as Joseph in this brash and bright little production, which we remember enjoying but in comparison with all the big shows we’d seen throughout the year, it was perhaps slightly underwhelming. I’d like to be able to say more about this production, but I’d be making it up. The Royalty, if you’re wondering, is now the Peacock.

  1. Carmen – English National Opera at the London Coliseum, London, 3rd January 1987

Miss Duncansby’s first exposure to the world of opera. You can’t go wrong with Carmen – wasn’t it Stephen Sondheim who described it as the best ever musical? This was a heavily criticised production that the purists loathed, as it brought the famous cigarette girl kicking and screaming into the twentieth century, with a translation by Anthony Burgess. Carmen was sung by Sally Burgess, Don José was John Treleaven, Micaela was Rosamund Illing and Escamillo David Arnold. We really enjoyed it, and were patronised by the pompous asses around us for doing so.

  1. The Maintenance Man – Comedy Theatre, London, 14th February 1987

This was the most self-indulgent Valentine’s Day celebration ever, with Miss D and I going to the Equatorial Restaurant for lunch (a Singaporean place that was a favourite, sadly long gone) and the Paradiso e Inferno on the Strand for dinner (now replaced by a similar Italian restaurant) and fitting in The Maintenance Man (so to speak) for its first house in between. A comedy by Richard Harris, best known for his TV writing, it starred John Alderton, Gwen Taylor and Susan Penhaligon.

Divorced Bob can’t stay away from his ex-wife’s house, much to the annoyance of his new girlfriend. I remember it being very bittersweet (much more bitter than sweet) and without that many laughs. This performance was right at the end of the run. No wonder we remember the meals more that day.

  1. Dr Evadne Hinge and Dame Hilda Bracket in The Arkley Barnet Show – Comedy Theatre, London, 24th March 1987

Filling the gap left by The Maintenance Man, the “Dear Ladies” launched themselves on the Comedy for a short season with their Arkley Barnet Show, an excuse for some wonderful Hinge and Bracket shenanigans, which if you loved, you loved, and if you hated, you hated. I loved them. Their act managed to mix the historical and the modern in a really clever way. I remember at the time that fear of AIDS was everywhere, and many much-loved performers were sadly losing their lives to it. This prompted Dr Evadne to modernise the old song A little of what you fancy does you good into A little of what you fancy kills you off. Sharp intakes of breath all round, as you can imagine – but devilishly brilliant.

  1. When I Was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout – Whitehall Theatre, London, 2nd April 1987

We saw this with our friends Mike, Lin and Barbara, and I remember we were very late leaving the restaurant beforehand so we had to run to make the curtain up, and thus sat there panting and sweaty for the first half hour, which is never a great start to a show. The play had won Sharman Macdonald the Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright, and I remember it going down with the audience very well, but not much else.

It’s very much a young woman’s play, involving understanding relationships, disappointing parents and struggling to discover yourself. Maybe it didn’t speak much to me? Not sure. Mrs C can’t remember anything about it either. Fabulous cast though; Sheila Reid, Julie Walters, Geraldine James, John Gordon Sinclair.

  1. The Mystery of Edwin Drood – Savoy Theatre, London, 18th May 1987

Tipping a wink to a touring production of A Chorus Line that we saw in April for my birthday, at the Apollo Theatre Oxford, and starring Caroline O’Connor as Cassie (and with a young Ruthie Henshall as Maggie), our next London show was The Mystery of Edwin Drood, to which we also brought the Dowager Mrs C, and she really enjoyed it. A moderate success in New York but a flop over here, Rupert Holmes’ inventive and interactive musical, took Dickens’ unfinished novel and challenged the audience to solve the murder. Notable for the star billing given to comedy legend Ernie Wise as the Chairman, the production also boasted such talents as Lulu as Princess Puffer, Julia Hills as a cross-dressing Edwin Drood, David Burt as John Jasper and Martin Wimbush as my namesake, the Reverend Crisparkle. This should have been a hit, and I’m still not quite sure why it wasn’t, but it only lasted ten weeks.

  1. Kiss Me Kate – Royal Shakespeare Company at the Old Vic, London, June 1987

Another of the Dowager Mrs C’s favourite shows, we took her to see this RSC production, which I think was played heavily for laughs with a relatively straightforward production by Adrian Noble. By far the best thing about it was Nichola McAuliffe’s fantastically tempestuous Lilli, almost matched by Paul Jones’ smarmy Fred. Interesting to note that Tim Flavin and Cyril Nri appear in the cast, in relatively minor roles. Thoroughly enjoyable, but there again it would have to be a bad production of Kiss Me Kate that wasn’t thoroughly enjoyable.

  1. Three Men on a Horse – National Theatre Company at the Vaudeville Theatre, London, 3rd October 1987

This highly successful production, directed by Jonathan Lynn, had transferred from the Cottesloe earlier in the year. John Cecil Holm and George Abbott’s comedy premiered in 1935 and concerns a mild-mannered chap who discovers he has a supernatural gift of picking the winning horse, provided he doesn’t watch the race. A fantastic cast was headed by Geoffrey Hutchings, and also included Toyah Willcox, Ken Stott, Desmond Barritt, Cyril Shaps, Alison Fiske and Nicholas le Prevost. Extremely funny and it deserved its success.

  1. The Spinners – Civic Centre, Aylesbury, 6th November 1987

Miss D (as she still was) was very keen to see the Spinners as they had been part of her childhood, being a Liverpudlian who grew up in Australia – the connection couldn’t be stronger. I knew nothing about them, apart from the fact they tended to have late night shows on BBC TV when there wasn’t anything much else to watch. I think you had to be a real fan to enjoy this show – and there were plenty of those in the audience.

  1. Incantation – Civic Centre, Aylesbury, 10th November 1987

We were both huge fans of Incantation, the group that arose from the band that played the music for Ballet Rambert’s Ghost Dances, and who had a number of hits with their Pan Pipes of the Andes style. Incantation took their music very seriously and did much research on the streets of Cuzco to achieve truly authentic performance quality, as their line-up consisted of three Brits and three Chileans at the time. Timeless music, brilliantly performed.

Lockdown Armchair Travel – Poland – Gdansk, Warsaw and Krakow, July 2009

Welcome to another trip down memory lane from the days when we used to explore the world (still hoping they come back eventually!) P is for many places including Poland, and a twelve day visit in July 2009, flying into Gdansk for three days, then taking the train to Warsaw for four days, and another train to Krakow for five days, before flying home. A fantastic experience, and one we thoroughly recommend. So what do you think of, when you think of Poland? Maybe this:

TyskieTyskie, like Guinness, tastes so different in its home country. On draught, it’s probably the most refreshing lager-style beer I’ve ever tasted. And if wining and dining is your thing, you probably couldn’t do better than visit Gdansk – especially the wining part, as it’s a true party town. The central area around the River Motlawa is dedicated to having fun – and we loved it.

RiverThose boats are primarily designed to serve you beer, and they do it really well.

party boatAn interesting feature of the downtown river is its medieval port crane, looming majestically out over the water.

Outside the party area, it’s a beautiful smallish city, with attractive buildings and architecture

Gdanskwith beautiful churches like St Bridget’s

St Bridget's Churchand St Mary’s

St Mary'sSt Mary'sGdansk is of course also noted for its shipyard, and as being the birthplace of the Solidarity Movement.

SolidarityIt’s a major tourist sight in its own right

ShipyardWith some very striking civic art

Solidarity was probably the first thread coming loose in dismantling the Iron Curtain, and I love this Polski Fiat making a break for the West

A little out of town is the Westerplatte memorial park, the site of the first battle between Polish and German forces that heralded the start of the Second World War.

Again there are lots of impressive monuments

On the day we were there, they were still looking for unexploded mines!

Moving on to Warsaw. A stately and attractive place, full of wide spaces, elegant architecture and fascinating statues

It’s mixed with plenty of monuments from the modern era too, like the Monument to the 1944 Uprising

and the Monument to those Fallen and Murdered in the East

Other sights include the President’s Palace

The Lazienki Palace

with its beautiful gardens, remarkably peaceful in the pouring rain, as we experienced that afternoon!

There’s a very attractive Old Town

And now to Krakow, which felt like a much more compact, and picturesque city, reminiscent of a mini-Prague, with a great cafe culture, chocolate-box architecture and a thoroughly relaxed vibe.

St Mary’s Church is stunning

As is, in a different way, the Jagiellonian University

A river boat excursion on the Vistula shows you a few sights from a distance

Krakow is well placed for a few other out of town visits. The Salt mines at Wielicka are out of this world! Extraordinary carvings that take your breath away.

We also took a “Crazy Commie” tour around the suburb of Nowa Huta, in a Trabant; a tour that’s designed to give you an insight into what living here under Communism might have been like, including a typical Nowa Huta apartment:

With inspirational art

And if you were one of the fortunate, important party members, an exclusive restaurant from which to observe how well your Communism is going amongst your peers.

Another sight, close to Krakow, is Auschwitz. It may seem bizarre, or just wrong, for it to be considered a tourist sight. But a visit to Auschwitz is an unforgettable opportunity to bear witness to the horrors of what happened, so relatively few years ago. It’s a sombre place. No one takes selfies. No birds sing. There may be quite a few people there, but all you hear is silence; no one talks until they’re on the way home. I’m attaching a couple of photos, not to be insensitive or sensationalist, but simply to look the atrocity in the face and vow that it must never happen again.

When you return to your comfortable hotel room at the end of the day, you really feel like celebrating life – every minute you have is a victory.

So, to round off, here’s a few of Poland’s quirkier sights.

…and one of the oddest photos of me ever taken!

Thanks for joining me on this little tour of Poland! Hopefully we can all go travelling again soon.

 

 

The Agatha Christie Challenge – 4.50 from Paddington (1957)

4.50 From PaddingtonIn which Mrs McGillicuddy witnesses a murder from her train window as another train overtakes and she sees the back of a man strangling a woman. However, no murders or missing women have been reported. Is this the result of her overactive imagination? Her friend Miss Marple doesn’t think so, and engages the bright young cook and housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow to do some snooping. With Lucy’s help, and the professional expertise of Detective Inspector Craddock, Miss Marple gets to the bottom of it all eventually! As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to reveal whodunit – although there are a few plot spoilers I’m afraid!

Agatha ChristieThis is one of Christie’s comparatively rare books that contains no dedication. It was first published in the UK in five abridged instalments in John Bull magazine in October and November 1957, and in the US in thirty-six instalments in the Chicago Tribune from October to December 1957, under the title Eyewitness to Death. With that same title, an abridged version of the novel was also published in the 28 December 1957 issue of the Star Weekly Complete Novel, a Toronto newspaper supplement. The full book was first published the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in November 1957 under the title What Mrs McGillicuddy Saw, and in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 4th November 1957 as 4.50 from Paddington, a complete year since the publication of her previous book, Dead Man’s Folly. The UK version was to be titled 4.54 from Paddington until the last minute, when the title and text references were changed to 4.50 from Paddington. This change was not communicated to Dodd Mead until after the book was being printed, so in that edition the text references to the time show 4:54 rather than 4:50.

Margaret RutherfordAs with After the Funeral, this book was the basis for one of the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple films; the first in the series, Murder She Said. Much of the original plotline survived into the film, although Miss Marple plays a much more active part than in the book, as she basically assumes the Lucy Eyelesbarrow role.

Paddington Station4.50 from Paddington is a very enjoyable read, with some excellent aspects to it, plus a couple of downsides. It plunges straight into the main story, with Mrs McGillicuddy witnessing the murder on the third page. No faffing around with endless heavy exposition before getting to the meat, which is always a delight for the reader. Christie writes fluidly, amusingly and with some great quirky descriptions, and also creates a few terrific cameo characters. On the downside, some of the suspects aren’t very well drawn, and personally I kept on mixing up the brothers Cedric, Alfred and Harold so that I couldn’t work out what their particular personality traits are. There’s also a ridiculous coincidence set up, which, whilst thoroughly entertaining (it actually takes your breath away when you read the sentence in question) really takes preposterousness to a new dimension. Nevertheless, you forgive Christie because you’re totally enjoying the reading experience. Christie uses her short chapter structure to its fullest benefit, to build momentum and suspense, and give the impression that she’s keeping you up to date with what’s happening in every area of the story.

top-secretWith only a few pages to go, you realise that so many of the story’s secrets are still to be revealed, so you’re really kept on the edge of your seat towards the end. Primarily, we don’t discover who it was who was murdered on the 4.50 from Paddington until three pages before the end; and that’s unavoidable, because, in order for the crime to make sense, you have to know who the murderer is first. Some critics feel this is a downside, as the reader is unable to stretch their own little grey cells to any meaningful extent. Personally, however, I see it as a strength. It’s amazingly skilful that Christie manages to keep those secrets right to the very end!

Joan HicksonAlthough Miss Marple takes a very back seat in this book, by sending in Lucy to do her work for her, you nevertheless still get the sense that her presence is never too far away. She’s very active in the early stages as she encourages Mrs McGillicuddy not to give up her belief that she has genuinely seen a murder. Miss Marple achieves what she can, considering her age and infirmity, and then hands the real work over to Lucy. However, every time that Miss Marple does play a prominent part in the story, you feel you learn a little more about her. Much of the book’s energy stems from the juxtaposition of tradition versus modernity. Tradition is chiefly seen in the thoughts and characteristics of Miss Marple, and the head of the family at Rutherford Hall, Luther Crackenthorpe. I’ll touch on the modernity aspects later in this blog, but let’s think a little more about the fluffy, pink Jane Marple – a sweet little old lady with the mind of a razor.

GardenerWhen we first meet her, she’s surprisingly antagonistic and difficult. She’s always derived a great deal of joy from her garden, but not at the moment. “The garden is not looking at all as it should […] Doctor Haydock has absolutely forbidden me to do any stooping or kneeling – and really, what can you do if you don’t stoop or kneel? There’s old Edwards, of course, – but so opinionated. And all this jobbing gets them into bad habits, lots of cups of tea and so much pottering – not any real work.” She’s not only frustrated by the fact that she can’t tend the garden herself as she used to, she’s also got her claws into her own gardener – opinionated, full of bad habits, lazy. This is not a contented Miss Marple; she’s annoyed, restricted, and thoroughly critical of others. Miss Marple’s traditional stance is also emphasised at the end of the book when she and Craddock both agree that the perpetrator of the crimes deserves to be hanged. None of this mentally unstable nonsense; an eye for an eye is what’s required here.

Victorian GentlemanShe does continue to be very anti-feminist with her general outlook on woman’s place in society. It’s a respectable place, but not too ambitious. “Women have a lot of sense, you know, when it comes to money matters. Not high finance, of course. No woman can hope to understand that, my dear father said.” She’s deferential to “gentlemen”; “”so many gentlemen in the house, coming and going,” mused Miss Marple. When Miss Marple uttered the word “gentlemen” she always gave it its full Victorian flavour – an echo from an era actually before her own time. You were conscious at once of dashing full-blooded (and probably whiskered) males, sometimes wicked, but always gallant.”

PoisonThat paragraph is one of a couple where Christie’s voice comes in and speaks to the reader directly, which is a refreshing narration technique for us to enjoy. I love how, with no prompting, Christie describes Miss Marple’s current maid as “the grim Florence”. More significantly, (and slight spoiler alert!), when Lucy is explaining to Bryan about how the curry might have been poisoned, and tries to convince him that she had nothing to do with it, Christie’s voice comes in again: “Nobody could have tampered with the curry. She had made it – alone in the kitchen, and brought it to table, and the only person who could have tampered with it was one of the five people who sat down to the meal.” And that’s slightly disingenuous of her!

police inspectorSo not only do we get to know a bit more about Miss Marple’s character we also meet Inspector Bacon and Sergeant Weatherall, and get reacquainted with Inspector Craddock. Christie doesn’t spend too much time rounding out the character of Bacon; he’s the local Inspector, “a big solid man – his expression was that of one utterly disgusted with humanity.” Weatherall provides an occasionally comic presence; Christie describes him as “a man who lived in a state of dark suspicion of all and sundry” – which is probably not a bad thing for a police sergeant.

Craddock and MarpleCraddock, however, is a more complicated soul. We met him before when he led the detection in A Murder is Announced. In that book, he revealed the rather unusual characteristics of being able to recognise his own faults and prejudices. He is surprisingly self-aware; scrupulously honest, diligent in his work. In 4.50 from Paddington, he is the Inspector brought in from Scotland Yard. Christie describes him as having “a pleasant manner […] Nobody could make a better show of presenting a very small portion of the truth and implying that it was the whole truth than Inspector Craddock.” He’s delighted to be working with Miss Marple again; and she’s delighted too, and not only because he’s Sir Henry Clithering’s godson, but because she knows he’s a sensible, but also suggestable, detective. She tells Lucy about how they first met; “a case in the country. Near Medenham Spa.” That is indeed A Murder is Announced. He respects her insight, occasionally gently teasing her for having a mind unlike most other fluffy pink old ladies. Craddock’s self-awareness becomes more acute towards the end of the book, when he feels guilty about not having prevented further deaths. “The fact remains that I’ve made the most ghastly mess of things all along the line […] The Chief Constable down here calls in Scotland Yard, and what do they get? They get me making a prize ass of myself!” However, it’s this conversation with Miss Marple that finally gets his brain working in the right direction, so his self-doubt proves to be useful and constructive after all.

BracknellNow we’ll look at some of the references in this book, starting, as usual, with the locations. There’s a good mixture of real and make-believe places. Of prime importance in the early stages of the book are the stations through which the 4.50 from Paddington passes. Brackhampton, Milchester, Waverton, Carvil Junction, Roxeter, Chadmouth, Vanequay; other trains stop at Haling Broadway, Barwell Heath and Market Basing. The 5.00 Welsh Express goes to Cardiff, Newport and Swansea. Well, there’s no doubting the reality of those places. Milchester appears in A Murder is Announced, Market Basing (which one presumes is based on Basingstoke) appears in Crooked House, Dumb Witness and The Secret of Chimneys (amongst others). Brackhampton is presumably Bracknell in disguise.

Cadena CafeOtherwise, locations in London sound highly realistic; Harold has tea at Russell’s in Jermyn Street, (no such tea room, but Russell and Bromley shoe shop is in Jermyn Street), dines at Caterer’s Hall (doesn’t exist), lives at 43 Cardigan Gardens (also doesn’t exist). In Brackhampton, Emma has lunch at the Cadena Café, which was a well-established chain of cafes bought out by Tesco in 1965, shops at Greenford’s and Lyall and Swift’s, (neither of which I can identify) Boots, (obvious) and has tea at the Shamrock Tea Rooms (plenty of those around). Martine Crackenthorpe gives her address as 126 Elvers Crescent, N10. N10 is the Muswell Hill area of London, but there’s no Elvers Crescent. The compact that is found is said to have been sold by shops in the Rue de Rivoli in Paris – that’s a pretty exclusive and real address.

A Horses TaleAnd now for the other references. Miss Marple tells Craddock that her method of thought was based on Mark Twain: “the boy who found the horse. He just imagined where he would go if he were a horse and he went there and there was the horse.” I’m pretty sure that’s A Horse’s Tale, published in 1907. Harold drives a Humber Hawk; that was a Hillman style car that was manufactured from 1945 to 1967. Miss Marple raises the question of tontine; the definition of which I lift shamelessly from Wikipedia: “an investment plan for raising capital, devised in the 17th century and relatively widespread in the 18th and 19th centuries. It enables subscribers to share the risk of living a long life by combining features of a group annuity with a kind of mortality lottery. Each subscriber pays an agreed sum into the fund and thereafter receives a periodical payout. As members die, their payout entitlements devolve to the other participants, and so the value of each continuing payout increases. On the death of the last member, the scheme is wound up.”

Cowboy filmCedric advises that on the afternoon of December 20th he saw a film, Rowenna of the Range. He describes it as a corker of a western, but I’m afraid it’s fresh out of Christie’s imagination, so don’t IMDB it. I think Mrs Stanwich, the woman who poisoned and killed her own child, whose case Miss Marple recollects, is also fictional. And when Craddock asks Dr Morris about cases where people were poisoned without a doctor realising it, mentioning “the Greenbarrow case, Mrs Reney, Charles Leeds, three people in the Westbury family”, I believe these are all fictional too.

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. Most unusually, sums of money are not mentioned in this book. There’s the question of the Crackenthorpe inheritance, but no sum is actually cited. The only mention of a sum I noticed was when Mrs McGillicuddy gives a railway porter a shilling as a tip. Today that would be worth 84p. Not overly generous.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for 4.50 from Paddington:

Publication Details: 1957. My copy is a Fontana paperback, sixth impression, dated May 1967, with a price of 3/6 on the front cover. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows the sarcophagus in the background, with the compact, some fur from a collar and some foliage, neatly and fairly encapsulating a few vital elements of the plot.

How many pages until the first death: 3. There are few things more rewarding than a whodunit where the crime appears so early in the book. You know there’s no waiting around, no lengthy expositions, just the opportunity to dive straight in and solve it!

Funny lines out of context: Regrettably none that I could see.

Memorable characters:

Although some of the characters aren’t very well drawn, there are plenty that are. Lucy Eyelesbarrow is one of Christie’s strong young women, full of gumption and derring-do, a trusty pair of hands into which to entrust a lot of the leg work in solving the crime. At first you get a slight sense of disappointment that Lucy is rather artificially parachuted into the story, rather than having any real organic connection to it, but that quickly passes as she gains importance in the first half of the book. The obvious attraction that Cedric and Alfred feel for her is amusingly described, and the very gentle dalliance between her and Bryan is also rather charming.

Elsewhere, Luther Crackenthorpe also stands out because of his irascibility and belligerence, but you can see the heart within the man, and his approaches to Lucy are also amusing. You can never really decide to what extent he’s shamming his ill health or if the Doctors are right and he is needs lots of rest. Mme Joliet features briefly but entertainingly; “a brisk business-like Frenchwoman with a shrewd eye, a small moustache and a good deal of adipose tissue.” And young Alexander’s fresh-faced and exceedingly proper prep school keenness is amusingly and lovingly drawn. It’s not surprising that they made more out of that role for the film Murder She Said.

Christie the Poison expert:

Dr Quimper underplays the possibility that Crackenthorpe may have been the victim of arsenic poisoning, and there are discussions about how you can introduce arsenic gradually into a diet without anyone realising. And there was arsenic in the curry. Aconite is also used in this book – the first time that Christie employs this poison in her novels. Better known as wolf’s bane, this was the poison that was used in ancient Greece, where a javelin or dart would be dipped in the substance to make it even more lethal when piercing skin. Used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, and also for its attractive floral appearance, it’s extremely effective as a poison.

Class/social issues of the time:

By far and away the biggest social theme of this book is people’s concerns and suspicions about modern progress, juxtaposed with good old-fashioned practices. Take, for example, the new developments in a 1957 kitchen. When Bryan helps Lucy prepare dinner, he’s impressed by the modern oven. Different ingredients have been merrily cooking away, apparently with no human help. “Have all these things been fizzling away in here while we’ve been at the inquest? Supposing they’d been all burnt up.” “Most improbable,” replies Lucy, “there’s a regulating number on the oven.” “Kind of electric brain, eh what?” admires Bryan, whose exposure to modern cooking methods are limited to putting “a steak under the grill or open a tin of soup. I’ve got one of those little electric whatnots in my flat.”

Miss Marple, perhaps unexpectedly, recognises the benefits of modern domestic progress. She accepts her nephew Raymond describing her as having a mind like a sink, “but, as I always told him, sinks are necessary domestic equipment and actually very hygienic.” Harold’s wife, Lady Alice, is less progressive. “I read in the paper the other day […] of forty people in a hotel going down with food poisoning at the same time. All this refrigeration is dangerous, I think. People keep things too long in them.”

It’s not just kitchen developments that rear their head. Miss Marple and Craddock are both suspicious of the modern tendency towards explaining (or excusing) criminal behaviour from a mental health perspective. Old Doctor Morris, too, when asked by Craddock why Crackenthorpe dislikes his sons, replies “you’ll have to go to one of these new-fashioned psychiatrists to find that out.”

Another major bugbear amongst the characters – especially Luther Crackenthorpe – is high taxation. I’m not sure if this was a hangover from the war, or whether Christie’s own tax bill that year was preposterous, but there’s hardly an opportunity missed to criticise the high levels of taxation at the time. Emma says of her father, “he has a very large income and doesn’t actually spend a quarter of it – or used not to until these days of high income tax.” Dr Morris agrees: “it is the root, too, of his parsimony, I think. I should say that he’s managed to save a considerable sum out of his large income – mostly, of course, before taxation rose to its present giddy heights.” Even Miss Marple stirs his anger on the subject in a conversation also with Cedric; “”punctuality and economy. Those are my watchwords.” “Very necessary, I’m sure,” said Miss Marple, “especially in these times with taxation and everything.” Mr Crackenthorpe snorted. “Taxation! Don’t talk to me of those robbers. A miserable pauper – that’s what I am. And it’s going to get worse, not better. You wait, my boy,” he addressed Cedric, “when you get this place ten to one the Socialists will have it off you and turn it into a Welfare Centre or something.” High taxation is even given as one of the motives for the crime (but I don’t want to give away too much!)

A Christie wouldn’t be a Christie if it didn’t have a little gentle xenophobia, and in this book, it’s reserved for the French. Describing someone or something as French, is taken as a cue to roll your eyes, shrug your shoulders, and say, “oh, well, the French….” as if that explains everything that’s wrong with the world.

Classic denouement:  No. Even though Miss Marple sets up a revelation of who the murderer is in front of a large crowd of witnesses, it all happens so quickly and suddenly that you couldn’t possibly describe it as classic. You haven’t got the time mentally to prepare yourself for what’s about to happen. Nevertheless, it’s still very entertaining and enjoyable.

Happy ending? Yes. The final discussions between Miss Marple and Inspector Craddock are light-hearted and friendly, and they concentrate on who might engage Lucy in the matrimonial stakes. Craddock doesn’t know who might become Lucy’s significant other, but Miss Marple is certain. Interestingly, in Christie’s original notes, she made it clear that she felt it would be Cedric. But I don’t think that’s how it will work out!

Did the story ring true? As mentioned earlier, there’s one massive coincidence without which a vital piece of evidence would never have been revealed. It’s a fantastic and thoroughly enjoyable surprise too, but the reader might think the coincidence is just a step too far. Personally, I forgive Christie for it, and therefore I think that, on the whole, the story just about holds together.

Overall satisfaction rating: For me, the good sides outweigh the downsides, and the twists are entertaining enough to warrant a 9/10.

Ordeal by InnocenceThanks for reading my blog of 4.50 from Paddington, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Ordeal by Innocence, a mystery novel that includes neither Poirot nor Marple, nor any of Christie’s other long-term detectives. Nothing about this book springs into my mind, so it’s either totally forgettable or my brain has sprung a leak. I guess we’ll find out! As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it as soon as I can. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

Happy New Year!

Happy New YearFirst, gentle reader, let me be among the last (probably) to wish you a happy new year – and, my word, we don’t half need one. I hope you’re doing as well as can be expected under these trying circumstances, Covid-dodging on a daily basis, crossing every digit available for your turn for the vaccine to come as soon as possible.

 

StageIt’s thin pickings for a theatre blogger at the moment; not only because the theatres are all closed, but also because, try as I might, I find it hard to get enthusiastic about live streaming theatre. I know, I know, my bad. I thought I would take to it like a duck to water; instead, I’ve taken to it like Boris Johnson to the truth. It tends to remind me more of what we’re all missing, rather than having something that’s worth it in itself. And I know it’s worth it, and I definitely implore you to keep downloading and streaming, because the industry needs it. Please forgive me if I simply can’t bring myself to do it too.

 

Agatha ChristieOne difference (for me) from Lockdown 1.0 to Lockdown 3.0 – I feel more fired up about reading. Last March and April I couldn’t have cared less for the written word. Today I feel it ought to play more of a part in my daily rituals. So I shall definitely be continuing with my Agatha Christie and Paul Berna Challenges, and, on a less regular basis, the James Bond Challenge (they’re a lot of work and take a long time to write!) I’ll also try to keep up with my nostalgic theatre memories and my lockdown travel reminiscences. As for going back to the theatre, I feel as though it will be unlikely for me until I’ve had both doses of my vaccine and given them the statutory three weeks to bed in. With current progress, I hope that means I’ll be in time for next Christmas’s pantos!

 

Paul BernaI knew there was something else I wanted to tell you. There’ll be no Chrisparkle Awards this January. There doesn’t seem a lot of point hiring the costumes and the television cameras etc to celebrate 10 weeks’ worth of live entertainment (not that it isn’t worth celebrating, but I’m sure you get my drift). With any luck the Awards will return this time next year. Or this time in two years’ time. Who knows.

 

James BondStay safe everyone. Look after your minds as well as your bodies. We can all feel somewhat fragile at the moment – there’s no shame in that. My appreciation for the emergency services and the NHS is off the scale; may all the people who work there safely and successfully keep us all well whilst remaining fit and healthy themselves. We’ll get through it all, I’m sure.

The Paul Berna Challenge – The Mystery of the Cross-Eyed Man (1958)

Mystery of the Cross Eyed ManIn which we meet 14-year-old Daniel Quint, who, with his little brother Manou, and Manou’s pet guinea-pig Patapon, has to follow his grandfather’s detailed instructions on how to get from his school in Besançon via Paris to the family villa, the Villa Etchola, in Chiberta, near Biarritz. However, when grandfather’s plans start to go astray, will Daniel and Manou make it safely to meet up with the rest of the family?

 

The Mystery of the Cross-Eyed Man was first published in 1958 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title Les Pèlerins de Chiberta, which translates literally as The Pilgrims of Chiberta, with illustrations by Barry Wilkinson. Wilkinson was an experienced artist who worked on the children’s TV programmes Rainbow and Jackanory, as well as illustrating the book Alfred Hitchcock’s Ghostly Gallery in 1966. He lived from 1923 to 2007, and there is a blue plaque commemorating him outside his house in Compton Avenue, Brighton. As “The Mystery of the Cross-Eyed Man”, the book was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1965, and by Puffin Books in 1968. Like the previous Puffin editions, it was translated by John Buchanan-Brown. My own copy of the book is the second Puffin edition, reprinted in 1977, bearing the price 50p. This edition has a cover illustration by Michael Charlton, another prolific illustrator of children’s books, who lived from 1923 to 2008.

 

A very different tone is set at the beginning of this book, from those Berna books we’ve already read. The ruffian gangs of Gaby and Charloun, and the working-class Frederick of Magpie Corner have been replaced by the much more refined Daniel and Manou, exquisitely presented and immaculately dressed and behaved, in a fine hotel dining room, able to hold their own with their innate class. Are we going to take to these privileged young chaps in the same way that we take the earlier gang members to our hearts? It’s a risk, but Berna is a master at the art of understanding how boys’ minds work; and that’s the same whether they’re ragamuffins or private schoolboys. We very quickly take them into our affections, admire their bravery and insight, their kindness and generosity, and despise those who take advantage of them. The family is rich enough to have access to a villa, and the boys are distinctly posh, but attractively so, rather than irritatingly so. We never want them to suffer or be discriminated against for their wealth. And if anyone tries to do them down, we hope they get their just desserts!

 

In the cafePerhaps the most interesting aspect to the book is Daniel’s strong fraternal feelings towards little Manou. He’s prepared to be both mother and father to the boy, feed him, care for him, make sure he’s safe and comfortable before thinking about his own interests. He lets him sleep whilst he, Daniel, stays alert and awake; he protects him from bad news whilst allowing himself to worry about what to do next. “In Daniel’s mind had been the ghastly fear of having Manou torn away from him. He could imagine him all on his own, cut off from the warmth and love of his family which until now had always been his and which from now on Daniel alone must provide.”

 

When they later meet up with Steve and Benny, two boys who have a pretty similar relationship to Daniel and Manou, who are even wealthier, but are in a pickle distinctly of their own making, this goes to emphasise the book’s message of kindness and family protection, but not in a serious, po-faced manner. The four boys have a great deal of fun together and see in each other fellow human beings facing the same difficulties and decisions. They become one family unit themselves, never seeking to outdo or outwit the other. They make a charming and reassuring friendship group, positive role models for the young reader.

 

Absent for much of the book, though with his presence often felt, is the boys’ grandfather, known for his “movement orders” – precise instructions that have to be followed to the letter. It’s a bit of a family joke, but in fact, Grandfather is a complete control freak! But he means well, and is very kindly, and it says a lot that, despite every single plan going wrong in this book, the family still feel the need to cover up the mistakes and conceal the truth from the old man. As Berna reflects, when Manou doesn’t tell the truth about the flowers, “it wasn’t so very big a sin to have told this small lie. It was better than upsetting a good old man who cared so very much for his family. How could you blame him for wanting to arrange a family reunion as a celebration of his long life and his happy marriage…” Grandfather’s insistence on precision rubs off on Daniel. One of the first things we learn about Daniel is how he sticks ruthlessly to time; for instance: “at ten twenty-five he gave his hair one last flick” before heading out at the appointed hour of 10:30.

 

FranceThe frontispiece for the book includes a map of France and details the journey that the boys make from Paris to Chiberta. Unlike all other Berna books so far, this one is characterised by the accuracy and reality of all the places covered in their story. Often Berna suggests a real place by giving it a fictitious name that’s similar. But in this book, all the places are genuine. Not only the places; directions, forests, train tracks that split, even cafés and streets are all true. This helps give the book a sense of being something of a travelogue. If you wanted to, you too could follow the boys’ intrepid journey. Avenue Marceau, Rue Quincampois, Les Halles, Rue St Martin, Rue de Bretagne in Paris are all real; on the journey to Chiberta, so are Pranzac, where the lorry crashes, Angouleme, Barbezieux, Labouheyre, Morcenx, Dax, and of course, Bayonne, Biarritz and Chiberta itself. There’s an almost “On The Road” feel to the night-time lorry journey with Peyrol, and the various odd characters that the boys encounter on their route south almost feel like it’s a kind of autobiographical journey. You can bet your bottom dollar that Berna covered that route himself.

 

The title of the book rather misrepresents the actual content of the book. The Cross-Eyed Man of the title isn’t really the source of a mystery – we know it’s the Interpol superintendent, Barboton, and it doesn’t take much guesswork to realise he’s on the track of the boys because there’s going to be a reward. Manou squints whenever he sees him, which today you might think is a little cruel to be taking the mickey out of someone for an affliction that isn’t their fault. But then, that’s often the case in a Berna book, and to be fair, children can be cruel! When he’s eventually confronted by Uncle Jérôme, he’s treated pretty harshly; but then, he doesn’t help himself either. But the actions of Barboton are of limited interest in comparison with the adventure that the boys – and as a result, we – enjoy. Berna’s original title, the Pilgrims of Chiberta, sums up the story much more accurately, and emphasises the long cross-country journey our heroes undertake, like a children’s picaresque novel as Daniel and Manou survive from scrape to scrape in different parts of the country.

 

Mind the GooseThere are a few moments of comedy in the book – largely slapstick and physical humour – primarily, the journey in the car with the young driver who’s just passed his test and can’t wait to take his car out on the road as fast as possible; and the fête at Labouheyre, where people skim up a greasy pole only to be pecked at by an angry goose. But both those moments of comedy highlight a slightly uncomfortable difference between what’s acceptable today and what worked well in 1958. The wacky driver casts care to the wind and hurtles through birds and animals without a thought for their wellbeing – and the kids find it hysterically funny. The goose is tied with its feet together suspended at the top of the pole in an experience that it must have found terrifying and painful – no wonder the poor thing kept on nipping at people’s ankles. Even the scene at the end of the book, where the residents of the Villa Etchola turn on the stray cats and basically terrorise them into leaving the garden, feels pretty distasteful today.

 

There are a few other signs of the times, which are interesting to note. Whenever Daniel tried to place a telephone call it always involved the operator, and limited time to speak, and weak connections, which seems so extraordinary in our days of easy communication. The manager at the Hotel is shocked at the slow transmission of a telegram – he’d be shocked to know they no longer exist! The story is also set against a surprise strike by the train drivers; France has a long history of strikes and in 1958 things would have been just as volatile in the employment sector as they are today.

 

If the book lacks anything, in comparison with Berna’s previous books, it’s a sense of gang mentality and loyalty. The two sets of boys hardly constitute a gang, although they do work together in a similar way to Gaby and Charloun’s teams. But there are interesting observations and behaviour patterns that come to the fore, particularly towards the end of the book; for instance, Steve’s anxiety at seeing his father again, and Daniel’s disagreement with what Steve and Benny did, by running off and scaring their parents.

 

I was very interested by Daniel’s experience of being conned into buying false tickets for the train. Precisely the same thing happened to me when I went to Paris for a brief holiday in 1985. Look bewildered at a train station and some helpful chap will always come along and “help you” with the ticket buying – pocketing the full amount and giving you a worthless ticket in return. It’s obviously a Parisien thing. Apart from that, the book doesn’t have too many serious moments or themes that it tries to examine. It’s really just a fun adventure to get from Paris to Chiberta with hardly any money and no parental advice!

 

Here’s my chapter by chapter synopsis of the book. If you haven’t read the book yet and don’t want to see any spoilers, here’s where you have to stop reading!

 

Daniel and Manou in the hotelChapter One – Grandfather Issues Movement Orders. We discover the smartly presented Daniel and well-behaved Manou dining at the Hotel Régina. Their presence gently amuses the other restaurateurs and their waiter gently teases them with his top-quality service. He’s even happy to provide Manou’s pet guinea-pig Patapon with some fresh lettuce leaves. We find out that the boys are waiting to be joined by other members of their family over the next few days.

Daniel re-reads his grandfather’s detailed instructions which they have clearly followed to the letter. After dinner, Daniel and Manou retire to bed, and Manou insists on Daniel giving him a bedtime story – something Grandfather Quint had predicted would be necessary. Unfortunately, it emerges that the grandparents are themselves delayed owing to having to stay behind for a medical appointment. Still, it won’t be a problem that the children will have to check in by themselves, just for one night. Surely? Anyway, Daniel has his instructions on how to meet up with his parents the next day, at the Gare St Lazare.

 

Daniel and Manou at the stationChapter Two – Telephone Alarm. As planned, the boys get up at the appointed hour, and, nicely presented as ever, make their way to the Gare St. Lazare to meet the boat train from Le Havre. It was whilst talking to the florist from whom they bought a bunch of Parma violets to give to their mother that they discover that a sudden rail strike had been called. No trains were going out; a few were coming in.

In the absence of solid information, Daniel decided that their best course was to stay put and see if the train arrived. But come lunchtime they were hungry and took a taxi back to the Régina for a meal. They met the manager and he had good news for them. “The Passengers from the Armoric left Le Havre at eleven o’clock by road […] the first coaches should reach Paris at about three or four this afternoon.” Reassured, they ate, bought extra flowers (Manou had lost the violets) and awaited the arrival of their parents. But by five, they still hadn’t turned up. M. Hébert, the manager, was confused but was sure that there must be a sensible reason and he promised that Daniel and Manou would be well looked after whilst they were at the hotel.

To distract themselves, they went for a walk along the Seine. They returned to the hotel at dinner – still no parents. And whilst at dinner, Daniel overheard one of the waiters refer to them as “the orphans” which really upset him. Daniel decides he must ring his grandfather even though it will be late. But when he finally gets through to their hotel, he hears the news that they have checked out and taken the Strasbourg-Ventimiglia Express, as Uncle Jules and his family had been involved in a car accident. Nevertheless Grandfather had emphasised his decision that Daniel and Manou (and their parents) should stay in Paris and wait for further instructions. However, without their parents, Daniel can only panic.

 

Daniel and Manou getting pappedChapter Three – The Two Telegrams. The next morning, sure enough a telegram arrives for Daniel’s father from his grandfather – but he reads it anyway – confirming that Jules and Elvisa were slightly hurt in a crash, but their children are fine. His instructions are for the family to continue to Chiberta, and that Grandfather will join them in four or five days’ time. Daniel determines to step up to the mark and ensure that he and Manou get to Chiberta safely – although Hébert begs him not to spend too much time on the streets.

Whilst talking to a policeman at the station – and lying about being on their own in Paris – a young man spots the two boys, and after a quick hello and a flash of a camera light darts up the stairs and away. Daniel thinks nothing of it. Thinking on his feet, he goes to the Shipping Line offices and asks the clerk to confirm that his parents did actually take the Armoric to Le Havre. Daniel is mortified to discover that they disembarked in Southampton the day before instead. The shipping clerk suggests that Daniel leaves his address so that they can contact him if they hear anything more about his parents. “Quite unsuspecting, Daniel willingly told him.”

At the hotel another telegram awaits Daniel – although it was meant for his grandfather. It was from his father, saying that they won’t be able to come to Paris as planned and will meet them in Chiberta, they will fly direct to Biarritz. The news upsets Manou, making Daniel’s job even more difficult. Nevertheless, he convinces Hébert that it will be safe for him to let them go to Biarritz by a replacement coach service.

Meanwhile, the shipping clerk has seen a photo of the boys in the Europe-Soir newspaper. The comment reveals that one of the boys might be “Benny”. The clerk rings Interpol, where Inspector Barboton is very interested in the news. It’s clear that Daniel and Manou have been mistaken for another pair of kids, named Jackson-Villars, that might be in trouble with the law…

 

Daniel and Manou waiting for a liftChapter Four – The Cross-Eyed Man. Barboton arrives at the hotel and it is revealed that he has an “appalling squint”. He asks the hall porter if the Quint children are in the hotel and, after receiving a financial bribe, the porter tells them that they’ve gone to catch a coach. Barboton hot-foots it and espies the boys looking around, trying to find where to buy the tickets. A friendly chap approaches the boys and sells them the tickets, and then places them in a VIP queue. But when they get to the front, they discover that they’ve been conned. The 60 francs paid for tickets that are worthless.

They explain what’s happened to a policeman, who takes them to the local superintendent. The brusque, impatient man dismisses them curtly and they have to hang around in a temporary Reception Centre. Manou’s always on the look out for Barboton, and whenever he sees him, he squints back at him, much to the latter’s embarrassment.

A couple of fellow travellers tell Daniel about the lorry drivers up at Place Beaubourg near Les Halles who are giving people lifts across the country in their lorries – probably won’t take any payment either. When the cops are distracted by some other people, Daniel and Manou make a break for it – much to the superintendent’s fury. He too believes them to be the Jackson-Villars children.

 

In Place BeaubourgChapter Five – Place Beaubourg.  It’s only when Daniel and Manou eventually ask a newspaper vendor where Place Beaubourg is that they discover it’s a made up name for where the lorry drivers all park up their vehicles. No wonder they couldn’t find it! When they get there the couple they met earlier directed them to the Café Charlot, where the lorry drivers get given their jobs. Daniel speaks to Madame Julie, whilst Manou entertains the lorry drivers with a performance from Patapon.

A few police turn up and unexpectedly ask a few questions of the drivers, and peer under a few tarpaulins. It’s obvious that they are looking for the boys, believing them to be the Jackson-Villars family. Madame Julie shows them the article in the Europe-Soir. Steve and Benny Jackson-Villars had run away from their wealthy home in Chantilly. Everyone is on the lookout for them. Daniel and Manou have been caught up in an unfortunate case of mistaken identity. Julie suggests they tell the police that, but Daniel thinks that’s a guarantee that he and Manou will be split up.

The locals treat the brothers well and they have a good meal, and all Daniel’s attempts to pay are rebuffed. Eventually they meet an elderly driver, Peyrol, who is prepared to take them as far as Bordeaux in his lorry, Theophilus. He challenges them to deny they are the Jackson-Villars boys, but it turns out that Peyrol knows Grandfather Quint from business deals way back when. Shortly they set off into the night, and just as they’re leaving, the lorry lights flash on a prowler – and it’s the cross-eyed man.

 

The CrashChapter Six – The Crash.  Peyrol drives to the Thomasson Works at Bagneaux to collect the load. Then, with Manou asleep and Daniel fighting tiredness, they hit the road south towards Tours. Peyrol notices the sharp beam from the vehicle who’s been behind him ever since they left Bagneaux. He stops, and the yellow beams of a taxi drive past. Then they set up for an all-nighter via Orleans and Chatellerault. At a police stop, the officers find the boys but Peyrol says they’re his nephews. Back on the road, Peyrol is being followed again. This time he makes a sudden devious move off the road and the taxi behind him drives on. But it’s clearly becoming a problem.

Come morning, and there’s another, fuller roadblock. Another driver advises Peyrol to get rid of his passengers and suggests an alternative route via Angouleme. Daniel feels guilty and offers to get out of the truck, but Peyrol is having none of it, enjoying the adventure himself. Driving through the night and into the morning and all is going well until… there’s something wrong with the lorry. The brakes are failing. They’re going faster and losing control. Then….crash!

The lorry is on its side and its passengers and driver crawl out. Relatively unharmed, but the same can’t be said for Theophilus. Chassis split in two, axles broken, bonnet squashed, tyres blown. The local police will be there soon, so Peyrol suggests – orders, in fact – that the boys walk on to Angouleme and try to catch a coach there.

 

Daniel's had enoughChapter Seven – The Bone-Shaker. Walking into Pranzac, the boys chance upon some ladies waiting at a bus stop. The bus from Montbron was coming in, they squeezed on board and left for Angouleme. Daniel goes off to find information about future coaches and when he comes back he is horrified to find that the Cross-eyed man is standing next to Manou. Daniel charges at him with a rugby tackle. Shocked, the man protests but Daniel is furious. “You keep away from us! […] If I find you hanging around again, I promise you’ll be sorry for it!”

The boys find a pleasant, quiet spot and finish off the rest of Peyrol’s sandwiches. An older teenager appears, exhausted, from a long bike ride. Daniel offers him some lemonade, and after a brief chat, the teenager says they can have his bike – as his behind’s too red raw! So now the boys have an old bone-shaker of a bike. They prepare it as best as they can for the long cycle ahead.

Twenty miles later, beyond Barbezieux, and they’re really struggling, but they make a game of it and push themselves as much as they can. By the time they reach Bordeaux in the evening, the bike is in several pieces – but it got them there! After some free and very rustic soup, they spent the night sleeping in some straw.

 

Meeting Steve and BennyChapter Eight – Bastille Day. Fireworks wake the boys up, and Daniel realises it’s Bastille Day. A quick wash in the river, then it’s on to a café for morning chocolate and a phone call through to the Villa Etchola in the hope of catching either an uncle or the housekeeper. But there’s no reply.  The Cross-Eyed Man is still there though, watching them, much to the boys’ irritation.

And then, in an instant, the two storylines cross over as Daniel overhears two other boys talking. They start to chat together and then he realises… “You wouldn’t be the Jackson-Villars boys, would you?” Shortly they’re all howling with laughter as Daniel explains how everyone thinks they are Steve and Benny, and Steve explains why he and his brother are on the run – as a protest against how the family is going to be divided up once their parents separate – Steve and his father will be in New York, while Benny and his mother will be in some other far flung location.

Daniel suggests Steve and Benny accompany Manou and him to Chiberta. After all, the police are looking for two boys, not four. Daniel sends a telegram to Steve and Benny’s parents on their behalf, apologising for running away and emphasising how much they love them. Then they blow Steve’s remaining 20 francs on lunch – still under the watchful eyes of the Cross-Eyed Man.

After lunch they continue to walk towards Bayonne, and eventually they strike it lucky with a man who will give all four boys a lift in his car. He’s a young man, and it looks like this is his first car – and his first passengers, so he’s very excited at the prospect of the journey. However, he’s just passed his test – having failed ten times before. Is this going to be the car journey from Hell?

 

Dangerous DrivingChapter Nine – The Empty Train.  It is for Daniel! The others shriek with excitement as the young driver breaks the speed limit and barely notices the road at all. Daniel does appreciate the way the miles to Bayonne are getting shorter though! And the local wildlife had better beware as the driver doesn’t care about them either. Naturally, the car ends up hitting a bank and dislodging a headlight. Back on the road, terrifying cows, and then one of the tyres blows. Back on the road, the driver wrecks a music and dance festival and is finally – FINALLY! – stopped by two police officers, who issue him with a summons.

Unsurprisingly, the car needs to cool down. Undeterred, the driver does his best to get it started again – and then realises he needs the boys to push him into a jump start. It’s so successful that the car roars off – leaving the boys (with their luggage, fortunately) behind. The car might have got them to Chiberta – but they also might have died in the process.

They walk as far as Labouheyre, a market town which is en fête for Bastille Day and the boys join in all the sideshows and races. One of the stalls features a greasy pole but if you climb to the top you can claim one of the food prizes. Daniel has his eye on the ham, but the second person to attempt the climb gets there and chooses that prize. Steve decides to have a go. One of the prizes at the top is a live goose who likes to peck at anyone who gets close – and that’s precisely what happens to Steve, and down he comes, without a prize. Daniel, however, wins the day with his attempt, bringing down the pole as well as the dazed goose. But what to do with the bird? A restaurateur suggests swapping it for a meal for four in his restaurant. Done! And for their bed that night, Manou spots an empty train in its sidings. The boys all get in and spread out amongst the first-class compartments. Unexpected luxury!

 

Uncle JeromeChapter Ten – Blast-off.  Daniel wakes up from a funny dream where all his family are journeying to Chiberta on an exclusive train. But what does he see when he wakes up? The train they slept on is moving! Whilst they were sleeping it was brought into service. What are they going to do when the ticket collector asks for their tickets? They decide to keep the blinds down and hope not to be noticed. It turns out that they weren’t the only stowaways, and a number of people get off the train when it stops a mile or so from Bayonne – including the Cross Eyed Man!

They’ve got just enough coins to get the bus to Chiberta. Thrilled finally to arrive there, they make their way to the Villa Etchola. There’s no one else there yet, but Mme Bégou the housekeeper spots them and invites the boys in for some breakfast. Later on, whilst the boys are relaxing in the garden, the cross-eyed man makes another appearance. Daniel can’t take any more of this. But before he causes a scene, Steve shows him an article in the local paper that Mme Bégou left behind. The reward for finding the Jackson-Villars boys is now fifty thousand francs. Daniel decides to telegram Steve and Benny’s parents so that no one else can claim the reward.

The first family member to arrive is Uncle Jérôme, who decided to stay with friends in Bordeaux. When the boys explain their adventure to him he is most impressed. And now he also has to think what to do about the cross-eyed snooper, Barboton. He gets out his elephant gun in order to fire a warning shot. But first he gives Barboton the chance to move on. Barboton feigns deafness – but he hears the gunshot all right! And quick as a flash he’s on his bike and dashes off.

Next to arrive, just before dinner, are Pascal and Lucy. During the evening they reveal that Jules and his family are perfectly well. But how to deal with Grandfather, who will be mortified to discover that his movement orders came to nothing? Pascal and Lucy also don’t want him to know about their night in London! Daniel says that he won’t keep the fifty thousand francs, but wants to give it to the one person who suffered as a result of helping them – M. Peyrol.

In the gardenChapter Eleven – Happy Days. All’s well at the Villa Etchola as the family have some childish fun in their new environment. A telegram announces the arrival of Steve and Benny’s father by air that evening. This makes Steve anxious.

Taxis from the station bring Granny and Grandfather, Jules and Elvisa, and their two children. Grandfather insists on knowing that all his instructions were followed meticulously, and the whole family dutifully lies to him in agreement! Grandfather wants to know who Steve and Benny are – and they tell him they are schoolfriends of Daniel. Some wild cats break into the garden in the hope of eating Patapon but the family scare them off – Jérôme with his gun, the others with a hose of soaking water.

When the Jackson-Villars arrive, Grandfather recognises Steve and Benny’s mother, an attractive woman who used to be a film star. The father presents Daniel with the cheque, which he accepts on behalf of Peyrol. Jackson-Villars asks Daniel if he thinks Steve and Benny did the right thing by running away. ““No”, Daniel replied, unprompted. “I think children have better ways of making their protest just as strongly. It was bad luck Steve chose the worst way he possibly could. You can blame his Irish blood. It makes him do things on the spur of the moment.””

The book ends with Grandfather agreeing the purchase of three bottles of fine champagne to celebrate. And he suggests writing out a movement order to get them. “”No!” his three sons yelled with one voice, raising imploring arms to heaven.”

To sum up; The Mystery of the Cross-Eyed Man is an exciting, humorous adventure story that demonstrates care for younger family members and the ability of boys to become friends unexpectedly. As is often the case with Berna, there are few slightly worrying aspects – specifically cruelty or callousness to animals being a source of humour; but it is a product of its time. It’s a light, fun book to read, pacey and exciting. I am, though, still perplexed at how Daniel proposes to get the money to Peyrol – I don’t think they exchanged addresses, and Facebook didn’t exist in those days! If you’ve read the book – or are re-reading it now, I’d love to know what you think about it, so please add a comment below. Paul Berna’s next book was Le Champion, which has never been translated into English. After that came La Grande Alerte, translated into English as Flood Warning. I remember this as being a gripping and sometimes frightening adventure. I look forward to re-reading it and sharing my thoughts about it in a few weeks.

Let’s have some more theatre memories! June to December 1986

As Tier 3 grows into Tier 4, and the new Covid variant spreads like wildfire and the UK is shut into quarantine, let’s remember some better times!

  1. Chess – Prince Edward Theatre, London, 24th June 1986

Miss Duncansby and I were both looking forward to seeing Chess so much, because we were already in awe of the album – and the show was a total triumph. Designed by Robin Wagner to a truly grand effect, everything about it was marvellous. Elaine Paige was riveting as Florence, Murray Head a fantastically irritating Trumper, and Tommy Korberg an immensely dignified Anatoly. We bought the souvenir brochure, we bought the T-shirts, we bought the VHS of the hit singles; we bought the concept. A real ten-out-of-tenner. Those front stalls seats were £18.50 each, the most I’d ever spent on a theatre ticket at the time. I sure knew how to show a girl a good time.

  1. Time – Dominion Theatre, London, 28th June 1986

And from the sublime to the ridiculous. Miss D was always a big fan of Cliff Richard, as was one of my colleagues at the time and her brother, so the four of us went to see this overblown monstrosity by Dave Clark – he of the “Five”. A science fiction musical; and – for obvious reasons – it didn’t spawn a succession of future musicals following that genre. There’s no doubt that Cliff was very good; as was the hologram of Sir Laurence Olivier, hovering, God-like, over the top of the stage. But everything else about it was absolutely dire. Looking through the cast list I see great names such as Jeff Shankley and Dawn Hope. Our friends loved it. We hated it. For ages the joke went “I see Cliff Richard is doing Time in the West End – for crimes against musical theatre”.

  1. Les Miserables – Palace Theatre, London, 10th July 1986

Moving past taking Miss D to see Noises Off at the Savoy, which I had already seen but insisted that she saw too (we both loved it, but it was a hot night and I was wearing a really nice tie which I took off and then left behind, never to be seen again), our next show was another big one – Boublil and Schönberg’s immense Les Miserables, which has never really gone away since it opened. We had some problems with this production – we sat in the front row of the Dress Circle which, although it was top price, always has been a desperately uncomfortable place to be, with infinitesimally tiny leg room. Plus, I had really painful gout that night which made the whole thing rather trying. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the show, but Miss D didn’t. On reflection I think we were both too young to appreciate it fully, and it was quite a few decades before we saw it again! The strong cast included Roger Allam as Javert, Alun Armstrong as Thenardier, David Burt as Enjolras, Peter Polycarpou as Prouvaire, Frances Ruffelle as Eponine, Dave Willetts as Brujon and the original Jean Valjean himself, Colm Wilkinson.