The Points of View Challenge – Travel is so Broadening – Sinclair Lewis

Sinclair Lewis

Sinclair Lewis (1885 – 1951)

American novelist (Main Street, Babbitt, Elmer Gantry), playwright, poet and short story writer, awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930

Travel is so Broadening, originally published as Part V of the novel The Man Who Knew Coolidge, 1938

Available to read online here (start at page 202 of the document)

The second story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny Dramatic Monologue. Here’s more of their description of this narrative style: “This kind of monologue, too, has a counterpart in the theatre, whenever one character takes over the stage and talks for a long time uninterruptedly. Some such speeches provide information about what has taken place offstage or permit the character to explain himself, reveal himself, or betray himself.”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!

 

Travel is so Broadening

 

The Man Who Knew CoolidgeLowell Schmaltz collars George Babbitt and his wife after an enjoyable dinner, and takes it upon himself to give advice about the best way to drive to Yellowstone, considering his own extensive, personal experience of long-distance driving. Schmaltz, however, is easily distracted from his main task, and, revelling in the sound of his own voice, forces a range of opinions on his listeners, including the life and times of his brother-in-law Lafayette, the singing talent of his daughter Delmerine, buying a pair of pumps in Chicago, descriptions of typical eateries to be found en route, the rights and wrongs of thumbing a lift, and so on and so on and so on. At the end of his monologue, he realises he hasn’t told the couple half of what he had intended, so it will have to save for another time – although there’s always time for him to squeeze in just one more thing before he goes…

Strictly speaking, this is not a short story in itself, but an extract from the larger book, The Man who knew Coolidge. If one reads the book from the beginning, one will already have encountered the narrator, Mr Lowell Schmaltz, as well as having heard about a couple of the people to whom he refers – his wife Mame, his daughter Delmerine, and some of the places in his life – his hometown of Fall River, Massachusetts, and the fictional city Zenith in the fictional state of Winnemac.

It’s an amusing account of a pompous know-it-all who loves to hold court and never gives anyone else the remotest chance of having their say. We all know people like that, and Schmaltz is a very recognizable character without ever becoming a caricature; although Lewis, the writer, manages to get his own word in when he breaks off from Schmaltz’s narration to explain: “here, by request of the publishers, are omitted thirty-seven other articles recommended by Mr Schmaltz. – EDITOR”.

Its main purpose is to divert the reader with imagining what this dreadful bore would be like in real life, but to today’s audience it also gives a little insight into the early days of driving in America. Even an experienced driver like Schmaltz wasn’t able to drive more than 298 miles in one day – which makes you realise he must have travelled at some speed in the times before freeways! We also get a good understanding of the kind of man Mr Schmaltz is, which doesn’t require much room for anything too deep. Although it’s an enjoyable read, you’re also aware that, deep down, it’s fairly inconsequential, and you don’t need to read too much into it. If there is one lesson to be learned from it, it would be beware of getting cornered by the likes of Mr Schmaltz!

The next story sounds as though it might have a little more gravitas – A Novel in Nine Letters by Fyodor Dostoevsky. In my younger days I read The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment, but I’ve never read any of his short stories, so this should be interesting! This is also the first of the three stories in the anthology that have been categorised as Letter Narration.

It’s been a while – here are some more theatre and dance memories! December 2007 to March 2008

  1. The Country Wife – Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, 29th December 2007

A great cast assembled to do justice to William Wycherley’s terrific Restoration Comedy, with Toby Stephens as Horner, Patricia Hodge as Lady Fidget, David Haig as Pinchwife, and Janet Brown as Old Lady Squeamish. Directed by Jonathan Kent, it provided a lot of seasonal fun!

  1. The Seagull – Royal Shakespeare Company at the New London Theatre, London, 1st January 2008

Something of a challenge to go and see Chekhov on New Year’s Day, and there’s no doubt about it, there was definitely a lethargic feel to the audience, if not the performers. In fact the most memorable thing about this show was seeing Simon Callow in the front row nodding off all the way through. Trevor Nunn’s production had a super cast, with Frances Barber as Arkadina and Ian McKellen as Sorin.

  1. King Lear – Royal Shakespeare Company at the New London Theatre, London, 12th January 2008

Largely the same company that performed The Seagull were also in King Lear, with Ian McKellen as Lear, Frances Barber as Goneril, William Gaunt as Gloucester, and Sylvester McCoy inspired casting as the Fool – and a very down-at-heel, sad fool he was too. Sir Ian went all exhibitionist, taking literally all his clothes off on the blasted heath (“every inch a King” went the reviews at the time) – the best memory of this show however was holding a door open for Joanna Lumley during the interval and she gave me the most beaming smile in gratitude.

  1. Henri Oguike Dance Company – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 12th February 2008

Moving past a production of Godspell at Dunstable’s Grove Theatre, to which we took our nieces as a treat, our next show was the Spring Season show by Henri Oguike Dance Company, and for some reason it’s the only time we’ve seen this company perform. They had six different programmes for their tour – we saw Programme A, which comprised of Little Red, to the music of Vivaldi, then Touching All and All Around, Oguike’s latest pieces at the time and finally Green in Blue, a collaboration with saxophonist Iain Ballamy. All the dances were choreographed by Oguike. I remember it being very enjoyable.

 

  1. Othello – Donmar Warehouse, London, 16th February 2008

A rare trip (for us) to the Donmar, to see Michael Grandage’s production of Othello, with just about as stellar a cast as you could imagine. Chiwetel Ejiofor played Othello, with Ewan McGregor as Iago, Edward Bennett as Roderigo, Tom Hiddleston as Cassio and James Laurenson taking on both Brabantio and Gratiano. It was every bit as good as you might have hoped.

  1. Rafta, Rafta – Milton Keynes Theatre, 29th February 2008

Notable for being the first time I’d been to the theatre on a February 29th (the only other time was in 2020) – this was the National Theatre’s touring production of Ayub Khan-Din’s Rafta Rafta. Wikipedia helpfully tells us this is a comic tale of close-knit Indian family life in England; useful because I cannot remember a thing about it apart from the fact that I enjoyed it.

  1. Never Forget – Milton Keynes Theatre, 7th March 2008

This new musical based on the songs of Take That was written by Danny Brocklehurst, Guy Jones and Ed Curtis, and had four very talented performers playing the four lads whose group echoes Take That without being Take That. I remember it having an absolutely woeful book, which was a shame because this could have worked well – but it really didn’t, despite the efforts of Dean Chisnall, Craige Els, Tim Driesen and Eaton James. It only came to life at the finale when they abandoned all pretence and did a fifteen-minute medley of Take That songs. If they had done that for the rest of the show it would have been brilliant.

  1. I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change – Westside Theatre Upstairs, New York City, 25th March 2008

We went to New York to celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary, and whilst there we saw three shows. The first was this brilliant revue that has been playing off-Broadway for yonks. Extremely funny and insightful, full of great tunes and superb performances.

  1. A Chorus Line – Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, New York City, 26th March 2008

Targeted specifically for the exact date of our twentieth anniversary, I had always wanted to see A Chorus Line on Broadway, because it’s my favourite show and where could there be a more perfect place to see it? This was the same revitalised production that would come to the London Palladium five years later. At the end of the show I bought as much merchandise as I could, including a signed poster which hangs on my wall above my computer! And how was the show? Absolutely perfect.

  1. Curtains – Al Hirschfeld Theatre, New York City, 28th March 2008

For our final Broadway show, we followed the local recommendations and saw Kander and Ebb’s Curtains, which had never been seen in the UK (indeed, not until a few years ago). It starred Frasier’s David Hyde Pierce as the detective, Lieutenant Cioffi, and Debra Monk as Carmen. It was alright, but we just couldn’t really get on with it; and Mr Hyde Pierce just phoned it in. On reflection, the UK production with Jason Manford as Cioffi was quite a lot better.

Review – Bach and Sons, Bridge Theatre, London, 11th August 2021

Bach and SonsThere can be few more delightful places to experience a sunny matinee in London than the beautiful setting of the Bridge Theatre, with Tower Bridge majestically overlooking its front lawn, its wide public spaces inside and a degree (degree, mind) of social distancing in the auditorium. To be honest, I was expecting more, but it was one of those times when you must trust to double vaccinations and a good tight mask. Fortunately, all the other theatregoers abided by the mask instruction pretty much 100%, which was very reassuring.

Too much for young CarlBach and Sons is a new play by Nina Raine and takes that redoubtable composer Johann Sebastian Bach and examines his family relationships, primarily with his two oldest sons, Wilhelm and Carl, his wife Maria Barbara, her sister and housekeeper Katharina, and soprano Anna, who steps into the breach on more than one occasion and in more than one way. The play concentrates heavily on Bach Senior’s conservatism both musically and in faith, which shows itself in his obsession with musical counterpoint – even though, as the years pass, this style loses relevance and becomes outmoded. Remember how our parents hated whatever constituted the popular music of our youth? It was ever thus.

Bach and SonsThe play is at its best when it explores the dynamic between Johann Sebastian, Carl Philipp Emanuel, and Wilhelm Friedemann. Bach clearly favours his older son, which confuses and upsets the younger Carl, and it’s a rift that increases throughout their lives. Wilhelm has more natural talent but lacks the discipline to make the most of it. Carl has a strong technical understanding of writing music but lacks the je ne sais quoi (or, I guess, in this case, Ich weiß nicht) to make his writing soar. But with application, he gains preferment from the rather sinister King Frederick the Great, whilst Wilhelm drinks himself into oblivion and Johann Sebastian slips down the greasy pole of recognition as he can’t stop being tetchy with important people. There is a reconciliation at the end though; and of course, today, the music of J S Bach is still everywhere in the classical music world, whereas you might have to look a bit harder to find the C P E Bach.

Bach prefers WilliHowever, it is a rather slow and stodgy play and at times I had to fight to keep those eyes open. The music metaphors become rather heavy and laden, and occasionally you wonder if the whole thing isn’t straying into Private Eye’s Pseud’s Corner. From the moment you see all the characters together there’s never any doubt that Bach would go off with Anna sooner or later; and whilst that is a statement of historical fact, for the purposes of the play it might have been more effective if it came as a surprise. Overall, one gets the impression that the play is just rather light and on the shallow side. Deeper writing might have mined more drama out of the storyline; we need to feel more involved with the characters and not just bear witness to what goes on. The audience knows that time is passing throughout the course of the play, but it’s very hard to tell exactly how much, because for the first three-quarters of the play none of the characters ages at all; all we can do is find out how old brother Gottfried is, and then work it back. It’s only when you see Johann Sebastian shuffle on stage wearing an old cardie that you realise that he’s now officially old.

AnnaGrey piano keyboards are suspended over the stage like several swords of Damocles, and smaller stages roll in and out from the wings to suggest all the different locations of the story. I don’t know what was wrong with the moving platform that brought the Christmas Tree on stage; it sounded like it was being rolled over bubble wrap with all the popping noises it made; some WD40 needed there, I reckon. The “live” playing of the instruments works extremely well, with specially recorded sequences for the production. You’d never know that Bastian wasn’t actually playing that harpsichord or that C P E wasn’t wowing us with his Cello Concerto.

Anna and BastianThe cast is led by the safe pair of hands that is Simon Russell Beale as J S Bach, and he is perfectly cast for the role; he presents the composer as neither ogre nor caricature, but as a very believable portrayal of a sometime irascible and flawed man who sacrifices others’ happiness on the altar of his own favouritism. To be honest, this is easy pickings for Sir Simon; he could probably do this role with one hand tied behind his back (although perhaps not the harpsichord scenes). If the writing had been bolder, I’m sure he would have revealed more about the man. Samuel Blenkin and Douggie McMeekin are both excellent as brothers Carl and Wilhelm, realistically portraying both brotherly closeness and distant annoyance.

Frederick on the flutePravessh Rana gives an unsettling performance as Frederick the Great, creepily giving vent to the character’s latent and predatory homosexuality, with conversations full of veiled threats which reminded me of John Hurt’s batty but terrifying Caligula in TV’s I Claudius. It is perhaps surprising that Nina Raine hasn’t made more of the female characters in the play, but Pandora Colin, Racheal Ofori and Ruth Lass make the most of what limited dramatic intensity the writing provides them. I was, however, impressively disturbed by the scene where Ms Ofori’s Anna dwells on the children she has lost as she walks around J S’s piano, obsessively drumming its surface with her fingers.

C P E on the CelloThere are a few telling lines – I loved Bach’s description of one of his musicians as multi-talentless for example – and a few excellent scenes – Bach attending Frederick’s court and subjecting himself to the humiliation of the King’s mentally sadistic pleasure is one. I can’t help but feel though that this is not as good a play as it ought to be, but this is cunningly disguised by a highly competent and professional production. Excellent performances bring it to life to provide a very enjoyable two and a half hours!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

3-starsThree-sy does it!

The Points of View Challenge – The Lady’s Maid – Katherine Mansfield

 

Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield (1888 – 1923)

New Zealand born poet and short story writer, associated with the Bloomsbury Group of writers

The Lady’s Maid, originally published in The Garden Party, 1922

Available to read online here

Here’s the first story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification Dramatic Monologue by Moffett and McElheny. This is how they start the description of this narrative style: “Now we overhear somebody speaking aloud to another person. He has a particular reason for telling a particular story to his particular audience, and his speech, as in real conversation, is spontaneous and unrehearsed. We can tell where he is and to whom he is talking from references he makes in his monologue.”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!

 

The Lady’s Maid

 

Katherine Mansfield TheGardenPartyMy Lady has a guest staying overnight, and there’s a nice cup of tea left over, so the lady’s maid (Ellen) thought the guest might appreciate it, if she wasn’t asleep yet. The guest gratefully accepts the tea and asks the maid a number of polite questions (that we don’t read) and the maid responds with polite and disarming honesty. During the conversation we discover that the maid dealt with my lady’s mother when she passed away after a stroke; that she chose to leave her own cruel and uncaring family at the age of thirteen to become a junior maid in this same household; and that at one stage she considered marriage to a man named Harry, but my lady couldn’t hide how devastated she would be if Ellen left – and so Harry was dumped.

It’s an elegant tale of complete, self-denying loyalty; part admirable in its honour, part horrific in its self-sacrifice. It’s very convincingly written; when I was reading it, Ellen’s voice came to me as though it were Jean Marsh’s Rose from TV’s Upstairs Downstairs. It’s harder to discern the nature of the unseen character in the conversation; one can only assume she doesn’t know My Lady that well, otherwise she would probably already have known the details that Ellen tells her. You sense that Ellen welcomes the opportunity to open up and tell her story; although she shies away from considering what might happen in the future. She’s content in the here and now and that’s the main thing. Any regrets are pushed right to the back of her mind.

The dramatic monologue style invites you to make sense of a conversation even though you only hear one side of it. It’s a little like a jigsaw puzzle, occasionally you have to piece together the questions from the replies. But it lends itself to exploring the narrator’s thought processes in a gradual and thoughtful way. Very short, but very enjoyable.

The next story in the anthology is Travel is so Broadening, by Sinclair Lewis. I know nothing of him, so have no idea what to expect!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Third Girl (1966)

Third GirlIn which Hercule Poirot’s breakfast is disturbed by the arrival of a young lady who confesses that she might have committed a murder – but, then again, she might not! With Poirot’s curiosity piqued, he decides to find out more about this strange confession – but when the girl goes to ground, what can he usefully find out? Fortunately, Mrs Oliver knows the family, and she assists by trailing suspects around London – until she herself is attacked! Will Poirot discover whether a murder has been committed, and if so, by whom? Of course he will! And, as usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

DedicationThe book is dedicated “to Nora Blackborow.” She was the secretary of Edmund Clark, Christie’s Literary Agent, and, apparently, she was the first point of contact for permission to use Christie’s works. Third Girl was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in November 1966, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company the following year. A condensed version of the novel was published in the US in April 1967 in Redbook Magazine.

TwiggyAfter a very intriguing and entertaining start, the reader’s disbelief in this book stacks up quickly, with a highly unlikely preponderance of coincidences that simply make it hard to accept. Important clues aren’t dropped unassumingly with her usual flair, but heavily telegraphed, so that even if you don’t quite get what they mean, you certainly know that they are clues. Whilst it is diverting to see Poirot and Mrs Oliver caught up in the seedier side of trendy London 60s life, with drug taking, louche arty tastes and can’t tell the boys from the girls fashions, a lot of the book feels very ploddy. Whilst we, as always, admire Poirot for his ability to think a solution through from the bare bones of the evidence, Christie spends an inordinate amount of time sifting through his little grey cells, without much in the way of action taking place. It also feels quite repetitive, with Mrs Oliver twice ringing him up to disturb his thoughts, almost Groundhog Day-style, but neither time does this achieve anything except to irritate Poirot. Christie also uses the device of Poirot employing Mr Goby (whom we’ve seen before in The Mystery of the Blue Train and After the Funeral), as a rather easy, shorthand way of cutting corners with her writing, in order to come up with a lot of evidence without Poirot having to do any work. In the final analysis, although the crime itself is ingenious, it lacks credibility, and the loose ends get tied up far too easily for my liking.

Talking to each otherAnd that’s all a shame, because there’s plenty in the book to enjoy, including the return of many regular characters, some fascinating new ones, and a few genuinely exciting scenes. Unusually, Poirot takes centre stage in this book right from the start, where we find him winding up his magnum opus – an analysis of the great writers of detective fiction – a work in which he was deeply involved in his last appearance, The Clocks. Third Girl doesn’t really tell us anything new about Poirot, but it underlines a few aspects of his personality that we’ve noted before. His ability to gain people’s confidence comes in very useful with Norma Restarick – “for some reason, Poirot had always been a person it was easy to talk to” – and Mary Restarick – “Poirot had the capacity to attract confidences. It was as though when people were talking to him they hardly realised who it was they were talking to.” Poirot has always been quick to admire a well turned-out woman, but even quicker to show dismay at a poorly turned-out one. Poirot’s first meeting with Norma: “anyone of Poirot’s age and generation would have had only one desire. To drop the girl into a bath as soon as possible. He had often felt this same reaction walking along the streets. There were hundreds of girls looking exactly the same. They all looked dirty.”

Old ManBut Norma really hits Poirot in his weakest spot – his age. Poirot was an old man at the time of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, so he’s an exceedingly old man now. Rather cleverly, Christie does not pass judgement on Poirot’s age when we first meet him in this book – she leaves that to Norma. “You’re too old. Nobody told me you were so old.  I really don’t want to be rude but – there it is. You’re too old. I’m really very sorry.” This observation knocks Poirot’s self-esteem back by what feels like several decades. Later that day he gives Mrs Oliver an outpouring of self-pity, culminating in the simple, but devastated, “it wounded me.” Later, when he is failing to make sense of everything he has found out about the case, he returns to an unexpected self-doubt. ““Perhaps I am too old,” said Hercule Poirot, at the bottom depths of despair.”

Frustrated writerAnd what of Mrs Oliver, the character that Christie invented to bring herself closer into her own books? She seems to have progressed into a less sympathetic direction than before. Whereas in the past we might have seen her struggling to write, or being eccentric with her fondness for apples, here those aspects have given way to a short temper and even an element of hatred. She sends off her latest book to her publishers whilst scolding herself for its shortcomings. ““I hope you like it! I don’t. It think it’s lousy! […] You just wait and see,” said Mrs Oliver vengefully.” And when she’s chasing Poirot up for news of developments in the case, she is appallingly impatient. ““What are you doing? What have you done? […] Is that all? {…] What progress have you made? […] Really, M. Poirot, you really must take a grip on yourself […] What about that woman who threw herself out of a window. Haven’t you got anything out of that? […] Well? […] Really!” At a loss for further comment, Mrs Oliver rang off.”

Union JackGeorge is still his incomparable self, and Miss Lemon is possibly even more po-faced than usual, with her rigorous attention to administration. “She asked no questions and she displayed no curiosity. She did not tell Poirot how she would occupy her time whilst he was away. She did not need to tell him. She always knew what she was going to do and she was always right in what she did.” On the one occasion Poirot asks her opinion – of the young lady Sonia who accompanied Sir Roderick – her first reaction was merely to answer “foreign”; when pressed, she explains “I always say that it’s better to know where you are when you are employing someone, and buy British.” Miss Lemon is obviously an early Brexiteer. Other repeat characters appear in the form of the aforementioned Mr Goby, who has an inability to look Poirot in the eye, Chief Inspector Neele (merely Inspector Neele when he took charge of the case in A Pocket Full of Rye) and Dr Stillingfleet, that rather gung ho and outspoken psychiatrist who featured in The Dream in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and in Sad Cypress. Amusingly, when Poirot is bluffing with Sir Roderick, to make him think they were old colleagues, Poirot lets drop his acquaintanceship with Colonel Race (Cards on the Table, Death on the Nile, Sparkling Cyanide and The Man in the Brown Suit) and M. Giraud (The Murder on the Links). An unusual number of Christie cross-references pepper this story!

Mermaid TheatreLike Christie’s previous book, At Bertram’s Hotel, this is a very London-centric book, with just occasional references to the Restarick family home in the village of Long Basing – presumably this is somewhere close to Market Basing, which appears as a location in many Christie books. Otherwise, the action of the book takes place either at Poirot’s flat in London, the flat at 67 Borodene Mansions where the three girls live (an invention of Christie’s) or in the murky back streets of London where Mrs Oliver attempts to trail David Baker. When she phones Poirot to say she has spotted Norma and Baker, she says she is somewhere between St. Paul’s and the Mermaid Theatre – Calthorpe Street. There is a Calthorpe Street in London, but it’s not in that locale – it’s off Gray’s Inn Road. The Mermaid Theatre – alas, now a mere conference centre – was located at Puddle Dock, Blackfriars.

Bohemian girlThere are only a few other references to consider; Mrs Oliver recalls a string of song quotes when she’s trying to remember Norma’s name. “Thora? Speak to me, Thora […] Myra? Oh Myra my love is all for thee […] I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls. Norma?” One by one: that’s a 1905 song by Fred Weatherly and Stephen Adams called Thora; the Myra song appears to be a complete invention; and the last is an aria from Balfe’s 1843 opera The Bohemian Girl. Ten points if you knew that!

MontgomerySir Roderick also does some name-dropping when it comes to famous war folk who have been writing their memoirs; Montgomery, Alanbrooke, Auchinleck and Moran. Again, one by one: Bernard Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein (we all know him); Field Marshal Alan Brooke; Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck, Supreme Commander India and Pakistan 1947-8; and I haven’t a clue who Moran is!

M'NaughtenStillingfleet refers to the M’Naughten Act – this is a ruling concerning a plea of insanity in a criminal case, and I refer you to those wise people at Wikipedia, who describe it thus: “every man is to be presumed to be sane, and … that to establish a defence on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong”.

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. There’s only one in this book – the sum of £5, which is given by Miss Reece-Holland to Mr Goby’s informant to help him forget about the presence of blood in the courtyard. Today that would be worth £65. Quite a generous tip!

 

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Third Girl:

 

Publication Details: 1966. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, fourth impression, published in October 1970, bearing the price on the back cover of 5/- (25p). The cover illustration, presumably by Tom Adams, shows the loose house numbers 6 and 7, together with a hand holding a bloodied dagger, surrounded by peacock feathers. All very appropriate, but not quite giving the game away.

How many pages until the first death: Slightly difficult to answer, as there is the report of a death which may, or may not be part of the crime (the reader must decide at the time), which is given after 46 pages. Otherwise, the first obvious murder doesn’t take place until page 159, which is a long wait.

Funny lines out of context: These seem to come less and less regularly as Christie got older and the times grew more modern – so none.

Memorable characters: As I have written quite often recently, most of the characters are not particularly interesting or well-drawn. Amongst the very minor characters, she created a couple of amusing battle-axes in the form of Miss Battersby, the principal at Norma’s school, and Miss Jacobs, who lives in one of the neighbouring flats and discovers a gruesome sight. Apart from these, the character of David Baker is interesting in that he is what Mrs Oliver refers to as the peacock, because of his fine clothes and strutting air; a young man in the Dedicated Follower of Fashion style. The reader can play with his appearance in their mind’s eye and make this character as fanciful and foppish as they like. But the interest in him is only skin-deep (or, clothing-deep).

Christie the Poison expert: Poison doesn’t play a massive role in this book, but there is a suggestion that Mrs Restarick might be receiving a regular slow dose of arsenic, and one of the unexpected things that Norma found hidden in her own desk drawer was a bottle of weed killer.

Class/social issues of the time:

It’s very much a book of its time, with a lot of descriptions of swinging sixties’ lifestyles, fashions, drug taking and so on. As I mentioned earlier, David Baker is often referred to as a beautiful young man, but it’s not meant to be complimentary. “”Beautiful?” said Mrs Oliver, “I don’t know that I like beautiful young men.” “Girls do,” said Poirot. “Yes, you’re quite right. They like beautiful young men. I don’t mean good-looking young men or smart-looking young men or well-dressed or well washed looking young men. I mean they either like young men looking as though they were just going on in a Restoration comedy, or else very dirty young men looking as though they were just going to take some awful tramp’s job.””

It’s not just the personal clothing fashions that are criticised; I like the way Christie takes a side-swipe at the gaudy wallpaper of the day. “As for the wallpaper… “these cherries – they are new?” he waved a teaspoon. It was, he felt, rather like being in a cherry orchard. “Are there too many of them, do you think?” said Mrs Oliver. “So hard to tell beforehand with wallpaper. Do you think my old one was better?” Poirot cast his mind back dimly to what he seemed to remember as large quantities of bright coloured tropical birds in a forest. He felt inclined to remark, plus ça change, plus c’est le meme chose, but restrained himself.”

The respectable/authority types are very critical and surprised by all the drug taking. But even the younger ones are in two minds about it. Frances was at Basil’s party: “Basil would make us try some new pills – Emerald Dreams. I don’t think it’s really worth trying all these silly things.” Stillingfleet remarks how Norma is “full of drugs. I’d say she’d been taking purple hearts, and dream bombs, and probably LSD”. Neele’s observation about Baker is that “he’s one of the usual mob. Riff-raff – go about in gangs and break up night clubs. Live on purple hearts – heroin – coke – girls go mad about them.”

There’s a recurrence of the more recent theme that mental illness might be an inherited factor, and much is made of inquiring into Norma’s past and parentage to see if there could be any links. There’s a long conversation between Norma and Stillingfleet about suicide that today you might suggest warrants a trigger warning.

Elsewhere, there is an interesting observation about how the elderly are prejudiced against the young – which probably largely stems from condemnation of the “permissive society” and the hippie clothing and lifestyle that the older generation just couldn’t understand. There’s a little combination of xenophobia and homophobia from Sir Roderick, describing Poirot as “a thorough frog […], you know, mincing and dancing…”. And Restarick reveals himself as no true feminist when he describes his wife as “as good as a man in some ways.”

Classic denouement:  It’s an unconventional denouement, in that it grows organically out of what appears to be some quite routine questioning of the witness, Miss Jacobs. You wouldn’t necessarily know that Poirot had planned it. Although, knowing him, he probably did.

Happy ending? Yes, but it feels extremely artificial and forced.

Did the story ring true? No. Again, this book relies too heavily on coincidences. The first is that Mrs Oliver should have chanced upon Norma Restarick because friends took her over there for drinks. Without that chance meeting there would have been no book. The next is that she should, amazingly, discover her and David in a café when they were trying to track her down. In all the cafes, in all the cities, she should just walk into the same one. Wow. The third is that the nature of the crime involved a degree of impersonation. That’s not the first time that Christie has pulled this trick in one of her books. But never has the amount of impersonation carried on for such a long time. It simply stretches credibility too far.

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s a shame that the book starts so promisingly, with an intriguing character presenting an intriguing case, but then it quickly turns into a Hunt the Lady game, which kind of goes nowhere, and gets quite dull in parts. It’s lifted by the revelation of fairly extraordinary and creative crime activity; but which also quickly palls when you realise how unlikely it is. I’m not sure I can give this more than a 6/10, I’m afraid.

Endless NightThanks for reading my blog of Third Girl, 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 her next book, Endless Night, of which I have no recollection at all apart from remembering it being around in the house at the time that my father died – either I or my mother must have been reading it at the time – and so I always associate the book with personal sadness. I’m not actually sure I’ve read it since then, so I’m looking forward to putting that right, and hopefully eradicating sad memories. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Points of View Challenge – This is my Living Room – Tom McAfee

Tom McAfee (1928 – 1982)

Poet, short story writer, novelist and Lecturer in English at the University of Missouri

This is my Living Room, originally published in Poems and Stories, 1966

Available to read online here (Scroll down to Page 105)

The second story in the book to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny Interior Monologue. To continue their description of this narrative style: “If the speaker is reacting to his immediate surroundings, his interior monologue will tell the story of what is going on around him. If his thoughts are memories, his soliloquy will review some past events associated with something in the present. If he is mainly reflecting, his train of thought does not record a present or recall a past story – it is the story itself.” Makes sense to me.

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!

 

This is my Living Room

 

We’re in Pine Springs, a small town near Birmingham (presumably Alabama), and our host – for want of a better word – is a right charmer (also for want of a better word) who’s married to Rosie, whom he wouldn’t change but doesn’t tell her that, and with two daughters Ellen and Martha, whose virtue he watches like a hawk. When Ellen started trying to wear make-up, he took her out of school; he’s expecting her to turn into a Birmingham whore, despite his subscription to Christian Living.

McAfee gives us a detailed insight into the working of our narrator’s brain, even though it’s a place we’d really rather not go. He’s proud of his guns, and he insists that Rosie can shoot too – even though she doesn’t like it and gets scared. Still, some firm slaps around the face makes her see sense. He’s also proud of his store that he opens up at 7am every day; in fact he prefers it to his home. After his wife has died and his daughters have moved out, he’s going to sell the house and live in the store. It has everything he needs; food, fencing, nails and guns.

Some of his customers don’t always play fair with him. Sam Coates owed him twenty dollars for fencing. Wouldn’t pay until he stuck his .22 in Sam’s face whilst milking his cows. He paid. Old Ezmo too; he wouldn’t pay for his bread, and didn’t respond to our storekeeper’s demands. So when he heard Ezmo outside one night, “I was ready for him. I triggered my 12 gauge and got him square in the face.” He insisted that Rosie took a good look at the dead and bloodied body. “See what this world is coming to. You see that knife he had. I held Rosie’s hand and made her stand there till Ellen Jean could get Sheriff Claine.” Still, tomorrow’s Saturday. Get to bed early. Rosie starts to cry. It wouldn’t be like her if she didn’t cry.

In five rigidly structured pages, McAfee reveals this abomination of a man; violent, racist, ruthless, selfish, complacent and (allegedly) Christian. His confiding style lures the reader in and almost makes us complicit in his beliefs and actions simply by reading and accepting what we’ve read. You know the kind of guy – he assumes that you have the same attitudes that he has, just because you’ve agreed to talk with him. Our storekeeper drifts through his narrative, brooking no resistance from anyone with whom he comes into contact, not even the sheriff; he’s made sure the sheriff knows that he’s aware of the lawman’s involvement in an illicit still, so he’s got no fears there. He doesn’t think twice about assassinating Old Ezmo; he probably feels he’s doing the local community a favour.

It’s an uncomfortable read, but a superbly crafted piece of work. Removed from the second edition of Points of View, doubtless because of its abhorrent use of the N word and general offensiveness, it still stands out as an insight into moral ugliness, within a family and community powerless to stop him.

The next story in the book comes under the narrative style heading of Dramatic Monologue, and it’s The Lady’s Maid by Katherine Mansfield.  I’ve never read anything by Mansfield, so I’m looking forward to reading that next.

Review – Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 3rd August 2021

PriscillaThis production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert at the Royal and Derngate has been the best part of two years in the expectation, with tickets going on sale late summer of 2019, for an original run in April 2020, and finally coming to fruition in August 2021. The tour actually started in September 2019 in Dartford but then had to be postponed in March last year due to the dreaded Covid. Patience is a virtue, they say; but all good things are worth waiting for. And was this show one of them? On the whole, yes. Certainly, this was the first time that most of the good burghers of Northampton had a chance to let their hair down in a theatre and just allow themselves to enjoy a good night out, and they took it with open arms. There was no doubting the sense of release and feelgood fun around the place. It’s been a long time, for example, since I’ve seen perhaps ten or more people from further back in the stalls come to the front of the auditorium just to watch the orchestra perform the play-out at the end, as if they’d never seen one before; I’m assuming – perhaps they hadn’t.

However, this didn’t feel like an ordinary night at the theatre for us, and that might be a reason why I didn’t quite enjoy the show as much as I’d hoped. We’d already been to see ten productions since restrictions were lifted in England, but each of them had been with a socially-distanced audience. Now, for the first time since March 2020, we would be sat next to, behind and in front of real people. And, I must confess gentle reader, thirty minutes before curtain-up I still hadn’t decided if it was worth the risk. Nevertheless, with our faces swaddled in super strength FFP3 masks, which we didn’t remove the entire time we were there, we plucked up the courage to go. And I’m very glad we did – if for no other reason, it broke the back of the fear, because once we were in situ we both felt more or less safe. I would estimate at least 95% of the audience decided in favour of going maskless, so the law of averages tells you that COVID19 will have been doing some swarming around that auditorium last night; we’re just trusting to the double-vaccination and the industrial quality masks.

I’m sure you know the plot; drag queen Tick (Mitzi Mitosis) has avoided his responsibilities as a father and never met his six year old son Benji – but his mother runs a club in Alice Springs and insists that he brings a travelling show to perform at the club so that he and Benji can finally meet. Gathering his old supporting cast of Bernadette Bassenger and Felicia Jollygoodfellow, they take the slow road from Sydney using a battered old bus that they name Priscilla. Via a series of vehicle breakdowns, homophobic attacks, tourist encounters and an understanding mechanic, they finally make their way to The Alice just in time to perform. All this to a soundtrack of unforgettable 70s and 80s disco hits.

One of the repercussions of the pandemic is that the uncertainty of whether a production is going to go ahead or not meant that there were no programmes available for the performance – not even online, which I think is a bit of a swizz. The only way you can find out about the show is by visiting its own website and even then, there isn’t a list of the musical numbers, no name or bio given to the child actor playing Benji, nor details of the writers, and so on. Can’t help but feel the creative team get a bit short-changed by that. But then, it occurred to me that Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a bit like Priscilla, Parable of the Pandemic. Out of work stage performers go on a long and arduous journey before they can finally perform together again. And the show is all about the journey – rather like the last 18 months has been for us all.

I understand that this production of the show is a slightly pared-down version of the original, and I’m not sure that the tweaks have done it any favours. I know comparisons are odious, but we saw the touring production in 2014 at Milton Keynes and my memory of it was that it was funny, glamorous, full of pathos, joyous and – in short – fab. Despite the best efforts of a very talented cast, seven years later, this show strikes me as falling short in all those aspects. The nuanced wit that I remember (with a couple of laugh out loud exceptions) now seems rather crude and obvious; the glamour felt artificial; the pathos was either laid on with a trowel or underwhelming; and there didn’t seem to be much joy at all. The stand-out scenes were those where the homophobia was at its most prominent, with the aggressive pub landlady in Broken Hill, and where Adam/Felicia got beaten up in Coober Pedy; the vicious realism of both situations impacted us all with its horror and injustice.

Probably resulting from the uncertainties of Covid, overall it wasn’t quite as polished a performance as I would have expected, with a couple of the performers occasionally vague as to where they should be standing, the odd timing issue with the orchestra, and a scene that should have been a truly heartfelt moment suffering from sound issues.

Nevertheless, it’s still a very good show, with loads to recommend it. The ensemble cast are excellent, with terrific dancing to Tom Jackson-Greaves’ energetic and expressive choreography; Mr J-G’s experience working with Matthew Bourne in many of his New Adventures productions comes across in many Bourne-like choreographic twists. The ensemble are convincing in both their guises as showgirls and cowboys, which is an achievement all by itself. The three Divas, Claudia Kariuki, Rosie Glossop and Aiesha Pease, who pepper the show with their vocal dynamism, have great stage presence and brilliant voices; it’s such a shame that they’re required so frequently to stand in positions that obstructs our view of them. Talking of which, the big Ayers Rock scene at the end of the show was ruined by the same awkward staging; our three hero/heroines achieving their goals after the most gruelling journey, celebrating in song, only to have their fantastic costumes obscured from the waist down by some corrugated iron. What were they thinking?

Gracie Lai gives a couple of scene-stealing performances as the unpredictable Cynthia (although as time goes on, I feel that Asian stereotype characterisation is beginning to feel slightly dodgy). In the leading roles, Nick Hayes is suitably irrepressible as the bitchy but vulnerable Adam/Felicia, and Edwin Ray brings all his song and dance experience to the central role of Tick. But for me by far the most impressive performance came from Miles Western, who cut just the right amount of elegance as Bernadette, a wounded character slowly finding her feet and a voice of reason against a choir of chaos.

The tour carries on all the way through to November in Glasgow, pandemic permitting. With so much commitment and talent you really hope it comes off for them. Certainly, there’ll be no shortage of audiences supporting them on their way!

4-starsFour they’re (Felicia) Jollygoodfellows!

The Paul Berna Challenge – The Mystery of Saint-Salgue (1962)

Mystery of Saint SalgueIn which we make one final visit to the world of Gaby, Marion, Zidore and the other members of the Hundred Million Francs gang; adults now – some of them at least – off on a camping holiday in the South of France in Gaby’s Citroen van. But what is the mystery of the village of Saint-Salgue, and why are they being followed?

La Piste du SouvenirThe Mystery of Saint-Salgue was first published in 1962 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title La Piste du Souvenir, which translates literally as The Trail of Remembrance, with illustrations by Robert Broomfield. As “The Mystery of Saint-Salgue”, the book was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1963, and translated, as usual, by John Buchanan-Brown. My own copy of the book is the Bodley Head first edition, bearing the price 13s 6d. A quick check online suggests there are a few copies of this book available to buy at the moment – scattered around the world, mainly!

Paul BernaThis, sadly, is the last book by Berna to feature Gaby and his gang, but when you read it through to the end, and you discover its highly unusual and lifechanging ending, it’s appropriate that this is where we leave our friends to get on with their future. For the most part, it’s a very plot-driven book, with many exciting turns and surprises, full of action, and with a very feelgood ending. Perhaps the ending is a little too far-fetched to appreciate fully; then again, who is to say that such an event couldn’t happen? I’ll have to leave you to read it and discover it for yourself.

Despite its busy plot, there is still space for Berna to explore the developing characters of the gang members. Gaby is already a man; he still has his anger management issues, confronting Charley for not resorting to violence against the villains when they are captured. ““Your non-violence is all wrong! […] by behaving like this you will let them think they are immune to punishment and that’s just encouragement to crooks like them. Now, I see things in a slightly different light”. And he lifted an imperious boot to the seat of Grondin’s shorts…” When their vehicle gets vandalised, his instant reaction is to fly into a fury and kick one of Marion’s dogs – even though the dog was obviously not responsible for the damage. Berna describes Gaby as speaking with a “patronising bite” when mocking Fernand’s father, “Daddy Douin”. And when it comes to the big rescue mission at the end, Gaby’s plan is to use their vehicle as a battering ram. It doesn’t matter that Zidore has spent ages lavishing care on its appearance; Gaby wants to use it with brutal force. He still commands respect within the gang, and you still want to be best friends with him, but I do worry about his future welfare!

Zidore, on the other hand, has turned into a true mechanic; proud of his hard work, always generous with his time and his skill – for example, the way he repairs the Rambler without even being asked. It’s while working with the oil that Berna teases us with the fact that his oil-blackened moustache makes him look ten years older. That impresses on the reader that he too is now a man – and a thoroughly decent one.

In some respects, Fernand takes more centre stage in this book as Berna reveals more of his sensitivity and introvert nature. Although we occasionally see how he’s still besotted with Marion, their relationship doesn’t seem to have moved on at all, and in fact Marion’s role in this book is merely occasionally to make financial decisions and take care of the dogs – although the final scene in the book shows Marion reassuring Fernand that it is ok to make his own decisions and occasionally tell a judicious white lie. It may be that Fernand’s development has been held back by his relationship with his father and also the sense of “not-belonging”, which is at the heart of the story.

The only other person to get more of Berna’s attention than usual is Criquet Lariqué. Fernand describes him as “the cleverest of us all” as he quietly goes about playing a supporting role within the gang. For the first time, Berna addresses Criquet Lariqué’s racial background. When Betty asks where he was born, Zidore steps in: “here of course! […] in our suburb. Criquet’s as French as the rest of us. The colour of his skin makes no difference.” Nevertheless, we feel the boy’s anguish at the end when he fears he will be the only member of the gang who will not fit into everyone’s future, agonising about being from Timbuctoo. As always, the gang is very protective and inclusive, and his fears are unfounded – but his sensitivities to the issue and consequent insecurity are very obvious.

As always, Berna is at his best when he conveys that sense of unity and loyalty that you get from being a member of a gang. No matter their age or ability, everyone is equal, everyone contributes. When the gang members introduce themselves to their Canadian neighbours on the first night of their holiday, each of them explains their role within the group: Gaby, the captain and steersman, Zidore the mechanic, Fernand the navigator-quartermaster, Juan in charge of tent pitching, Tatave head cook, Bonbon his bus boy, Criquet, head waiter, and Berthe and Mélie laundry-maids (Gaby is not a strong feminist). Only Marion refuses to play this game, because of her distrust for anyone new; but Gaby explains she’s in charge of the dogs.

However, for the first time the book touches upon that feeling when a member of the group might be acting on their own agenda, secretively keeping things from the rest of the gang and possibly not working in the gang’s best interests. That suggestion of disunity and disloyalty from within the gang feels quite shocking. Gaby knows his team well enough to conclude who that person might be. “A rebellious lock of hair fell across Fernand’s half-closed eyes. He was wide awake now and could feel the injustice of nine pairs of accusing eyes turning on him. Even Marion, his beloved Marion, was cold and hostile.” But although he has been keeping a major secret from the gang, Fernand has not been working against their best interests – far from it, as it turns out at the end. Nevertheless, you feel Fernand has to work hard to regain the gang’s respect.

Also for the first time, the English title of the novel is more appropriate than the original French! The Mystery of Saint-Salgue completely sums up the entire book, as it’s not until the final pages that we discover what and where Saint-Salgue is and, even then, how its mystery will affect the gang members for the rest of their lives. La Piste du Souvenir – The Trail of Remembrance – is a very abstract title that perhaps emphasises more the journey to get to Saint-Salgue rather than the destination’s significance.

As Berna often likes to do, the book starts with a map, revealing that pretty much everywhere in this book is based on real places. La Goulaine caravan camp, where the story starts, is near Varenne-Saint-Germain, east of Moulins. Sologne is a region and Salbris is a real town between Orleans and Bourges. The village of Estivareilles exists, and although there isn’t a Chapon d’Or, there is a Lion d’Or, with a bar that looks out on to the main road, just as Berna describes. I’m sure you could recreate the journey taken by Calamity Jane the van even today. Talking of which, why are they now calling their vehicle “Calamity Jane”, when in Gaby and the New Money Fraud, they had decided to call it the “Uphill Struggle”? That’s an inconsistency that really bothers me!

There’s another aspect to this book that doesn’t feel quite right. Although the English version is by Berna’s usual translator John Buchanan-Brown, the accuracy of the English idiom doesn’t always seem up to his usual standards. For example, right at the beginning, Charley is staring at the night sky and the narration notes that his gaze falls upon the constellation Cassiope. However, in English we know that as Cassiopeia. In another example, at the beginning of the chapter “The Forest Perilous”, Berna writes: “the moonbeams slanted down to illumine the whole camp.” Illumine is the direct French word, not illuminate as it would be in English. There were a few instances where I felt the language wasn’t spot on, which is very unusual for these books. Maybe the proofreading was carried out too quickly, or Mr Buchanan-Brown didn’t have his mind on the job!

A few other thoughts came to mind whilst reading this book. Grondin’s constant attempts to stop the progress of the gang and the Canadians reminded me of Wile E Coyote’s perpetual attempts to stop the Road Runner. And I love how all Marion’s dogs have human intelligence! They’re really add-on members of the group, with Dick and Plouc in particular playing a significant role in this story. And I thought it was curious that they called the living space at the back of the van “The Bridal Suite”. That suggests an activity that otherwise is certainly not present in the interactions of the gang members, no matter how much Fernand is in love with Marion.

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!

 

Chapter One – The Midnight Prowler. As Manitoban holidaymaker Charley Ricou looks out at night from his caravan at La Goulaine, he is amused at the sight of “a sort of red-painted Noah’s Ark on wobbly wheels” that has parked up next to him. The vehicle had arrived earlier that evening, with its cargo of seven boys, three girls and “eleven hairy hounds”, whom the caretaker had said couldn’t stay in the main camp site but could be housed on the sand by the river. Charley, with his wife Betty, had already met the gang that evening, where the gang members all introduced themselves to their new neighbours, and had shared a spot of supper together.

Charley had explained that he and his wife, Betty, come from Saint-Salgue in Manitoba, but it must have been named after an original French town. They want to discover the French Saint-Salgue, but where is it? The gang members are minded to accompany the couple on their quest, although no firm decisions are made. But Charley is disturbed by the appearance late at night of one Grondin, whom he and his wife had met at Houlgate. Grondin was noseying around the gang’s vehicle but didn’t steal anything. Charley is suspicious. “If you ask me he’s worked some dirty deal on those kids”, says Charley to Betty. “He must be mad. How can they worry him?” she replies. “Maybe they’re in the deal, too!” responds Charley, enigmatically.

 

Chapter Two – The Police Station at Salbris. The gang take to the road, planning a journey to the Forest of Tronçais, south of Bourges. But Bonbon has noticed something odd – the dogs are all growling at the luggage, and indeed yellow dog Dick had bitten into the side of one of the cases to reveal a transistor radio. How did it get there? Marion suggests they keep it somewhere safe and discreet and Zidore offers to look after it.

Two policemen on motorbikes roar past and signal for Gaby to stop driving. Satisfied they’ve got the right vehicle, the cops tell Gaby they’ve been ordered to escort them to the police station. Is it something to do with the transistor? They arrive in Salbris and are told to give up their ID papers. They are told that one of their neighbours at the caravan camp has had a transistor set stolen and suspect the gang. If they find the transistor while searching Calamity Jane, they’re in trouble!

Fernand and Marion watch a man leaning against a new Citroen Shooting-Brake, watching the police search with fascination. They’re convinced he’s the man who planted the transistor – but they’ve never seen him before. The police find the set – but Fernand tries to convince the police that it’s theirs. The man at the Citroen (who is indeed the accuser) tells the police the precise brand and colour of his transistor – but everyone gets a shock when the superintendent calls out “it isn’t yours […] someone’s been pulling your leg.”

Fernand gets the bright idea that the police should search the Citroen now, to see if the man actually does have his own set. The policeman agrees and gives the Citroen a major search. And, lo and behold, he finds the transistor, exactly as the man had described. The policeman is furious, insists on seeing the man’s papers, and threatens a full security check. Marion, in the meantime, requests a full apology from the man – Grondin.

It turns out that Fernand and Charley had a quick conversation that morning, where Charley said he saw Grondin place the transistor in their luggage, but afterwards Charley took it out again and put it back in Grondin’s vehicle, and then placed another transistor in their van as a present. Fernand goes on to explain that Charley isn’t just an ordinary tourist. “I think he’s backed by a lot of money as the agent of a Canadian Aid Committee that plans to buy up undeveloped land. But a horde of speculators are in the game already and his arrival threatens to upset all their plans.” But why didn’t he tell them sooner? Because Charley asked him not to.

They stop for a fantastic lunch prepared by Tatave. Steak, chips, cider; some of the gang swim “in the cool green waters of the Sauldre”; “every now and then a kingfisher would flash blue over the stream. There was not a cloud in the blue sky and the countryside sweltered in the summer heat.” Idyllic. But then as they talk after lunch about the odd behaviour of Grondin and the Canadians, none of it makes sense. What was the last thing they agreed? To meet the Canadians at Saint-Salgue. “”Well that’s what is so odd,” Fernand said with a slight smile. “I’ve been through my guide books with a toothcomb, but there just isn’t a French village of that name.””

 

Chapter Three – Zidore Carries his Cross. When they get back to Calamity Jane, they see that she has been vandalised – “Four flat tyres, cut and slashed to the rims, their luggage scattered on the grass and the windscreen smashed in pieces.” Zidore weeps in despair, Fernand is white and speechless, and Gaby gives vent to his famous anger, kicking one of Marion’s dogs, Barnaby, in the rump. The gang will have to cut corners to afford all the repair work or shorten their holiday – and no one wants to do that. They decide to jack up the van, take the wheels off and roll them into Salbris. The old lady at the nearby farm has reported seeing a man in a green car – maybe he was responsible for the damage. Once the wheels are off, Gaby stays behind with the girls and the van, and Zidore, Fernand, Tatave and Juan take the wheels into town. There they meet the police superintendent and tell him their tale of woe. He directs them to Vierzon and gives the name of someone who will be able to help them there.

Criquet goes off to play in the countryside, but he is disturbed by the arrival of a green car. The man asks to look at the red van and Criquet takes him back to the rest of the gang, who explain what happened. Marion accuses the man of being involved. But the man says  that he “saw a Citroen shooting brake emerge from this track. I knew the driver as a petty crook and I also knew that wherever he goes he is up to something underhand […]  I came upon the wreck of your van. It looked all too like his handywork to me, so I was off at top speed in the hope of catching him on the Vierzon road […] Grondin is one of the names he uses. But as far as I’m concerned the driver of the Citroen is one of Sobeco’s strong arm men”. He explains that Sobeco is a construction company that buys land and property and resells it at a profit. “At present we can’t even begin a major construction project without fear of interference from these sharks.” The man, Coppet, offers to pay for their tyres and suggests they change course and go to a camping site on the Atlantic coast for free. But Marion smells a rat and they refuse his generosity.

Shortly afterwards, a police escort brings Zidore, the boys and five freshly re-tread tyres. They put them on, return the blocks they had borrowed from the old lady, who says she has killed a couple of fowls for their dinner tonight. They decide to drive on and keep a permanent watch on the vehicle night and day – but unknown to them, Coppet follows them discreetly in his green Jaguar.

 

Chapter Four – The Forest Perilous. Camped up overnight at the Forest of Tronçais, Fernand and Juan awaken. They walk silently into the forest and agree that it was the sound of a car door shutting that woke them up. Dick the dog takes the lead in investigating where the sound came from. Eventually they see Grondin and his car talking to another man in a white Peugeot. They overheard the men’s conversation. “If those ten kids hadn’t introduced themselves one after the other I should have kept on the track of the Rambler and never given the others a thought. But the name of one of them hit me like a ton of bricks. I dashed for the telephone to check his identity. Ten minutes later I’d got it. His father was one of the people who spoiled our plans and it couldn’t have been an accident that the son was in the camp. I guessed at once he was in league with the Canadians.” It’s obvious that the men think the gang are still stuck in Salbris with an immobilised vehicle. “Anyway one day’s delay will put them out of the running in the unlikely event of their still being in the race. The day after tomorrow, between ten in the morning and midday three candles will be lit at Saint-Salgue. It’s in the bag. There’s no need to worry, the third candle will be for Sobeco.”

It’s also obvious that they’re planning for an accident to befall the Canadians, having tinkered with the brakes to send their Rambler off the top of a hill, with Charley and Betty ending up in hospital if they’re lucky. During their conversation they make it clear where the Canadians are pitched up overnight. Then the two men make elaborate plans to meet the next day at the village of Estivareilles. Grondin gets back in his car, turns on the lights and Fernand and Juan are captured like startled rabbits in the beam. Fortunately Grondin doesn’t recognise the boys and they pretend to be poaching rabbits. To add to the mayhem, Dick the dog lunges at and bites the other man, Punch. They try to catch the boys, but they escape. When they get back to the cars, they find their tyres slashed. Punch: “our expenses will cover the damage. The gang in the van have returned the compliment, and now we know where we stand with those little devils.” Curiously someone has written a Greek letter Sigma on the windscreen with their finger.

Dick signposts the way as the boys head back to camp, with the message that they have to get moving as soon as possible. The most important thing is to warn Charley and Betty before they use the brakes of the Rambler. They decide to leave the camp standing to fool their watchers into thinking that they were still asleep. But when they get to the Rond-point du Chevreuil, there’s no one there. Criquet finds a half-smoked cigarette end of the foreign brand that Charley smoked, so they must only recently have left. But which direction should they take?

 

Chapter Five – Charley Puts his Cards on the Table.  Meanwhile, Charley and Betty had started off at least an hour earlier. Charley says he was surprised not to see the gang at Tronçais, because Fernand had said they would be there. He’s concerned that they might have got into trouble with Grondin. Just as Betty starts to freewheel down a large slope, they hear the clamour of a tooting horn behind – and it’s the gang. With amazing skill, Gaby pulls in front of the Rambler, and, as the Rambler has no brake power, it quickly hits the back of Calamity Jane. Gaby slows down and goes down the gears and eventually both vehicles come to a halt at a corner. “The horse without a head gave us some nasty moments but never anything like this. Did you see the ravine? We were lucky not to power-dive a couple of hundred feet to the bottom.”

Whilst breakfast is prepared, Zidore slips under the Rambler and repairs the damage caused by Grondin, replacing the missing bolt and filling the brakes with six pints of oil. They hold a council of war to decide what to do next. Juan mentions that the men from Sobeco talked about some ceremony near Murat. “”But we’ve never had the slightest intention of heading in that direction!” Gaby protested […] “You’re a bunch of brazen liars,” Charley laughed. “Or else one of you decided to work on his own and then alter course half-way, without the rest of you. You hadn’t yet tumbled to it, but the other people had and when they did you were in real danger. As these crooks are the same bunch who have been watching and following my wife and me the obvious conclusion is that your undercover man is involved in the same business as we are.” His charge burst like a bomb.”

Charley has got it right – and Fernand confesses that his father has asked him to give a man called Mézeran, who lives in Peyrelade, some “family papers”. When Gaby mocks him, out of suppressed fury, Fernand explains how he grew up alongside his father’s sadness at not having roots in Louvigny; and Fernand feels the same. They agree to meet at the same spot – Saint-Salgue. Gaby says it doesn’t exist, but Charley replies, enigmatically:” it does exist, you know […] if you’d only tell yourselves it was the cause of all the trouble, Saint-Salgue would seem much more real.” Marion overcomes her own natural distrust to agree to meeting there, and they all agree on the route. But it’s when Charley shows Fernand a map of where to go, he notes that the name Mézeran appears on the bottom of the sketch map. “Fortunately he drooping forelock hid his expression of amazement. “Seen everything?” Charley asked him with odd emphasis. “Everything,” Fernand replied, his voice level.” Marion sends the dogs Dick and Plouc off with the Ricous to help look after them.

It’s when Grondin and Punch (real name Schutz) are having sandwiches at the Chapon d’Or that M. Coppet pulls up in his green Jaguar. Grondin recognises him as the director of Sigma. Coppet makes a call to Paris and speaks to “the Great White Chief”. It’s clear from his conversation that Ricou and Sobeco are racing for the same destination, as Ricou “is the prime mover of this scheme to adopt Saint-Salgue and nothing but philanthropy is behind it […]  as the allies of the Canadians […] these crazy youngsters are helping us, even though they don’t know it.” Coppet promises that he will be the first to reach Saint-Salgue.

 

Chapter Six – The Man from Peyrelade.  Charley, Betty, Dick and Plouc enjoy an uneventful and scenic drive south. Arriving at their destination: “To one side they could see what looked like an immense stadium, darkened by the first evening shadows. Its upper limits were ringed by the cones of extinct volcanoes smoothed or turreted by the weather; then the meadows swept down in giddying slopes to a thickly wooded plateau. Through the tree tops, they could see the tip of a mountain lake at the bottom of this huge punch-bowl.” An old man is there to greet them – Mézeran. It’s clear there is a family connection. The old man invites them to his farmhouse for some food and an overnight. But Charley says they are waiting for their friends. Instead, Mézeran gets in the Rambler with Charley and Betty, whilst the dogs remain behind, but with Charley’s gloves for scent purposes.

When the gang arrive, they are perplexed that the Rambler isn’t there. Fernand suggests it would be a good place to spend a week, but Tatave grumbles that it would be too far from buying food provisions. Marion notices Charley’s gloves and is also surprised at how silent the dogs are. They encounter an old man, who says that no one has been around for ages – but Marion knows he is lying. He introduces himself as Mézeran and asks for Fernand’s papers. But Fernand refuses, because he realises this man is an impostor! Fernand: “the old mayor is over eighty and gets about in a wheelchair. That I do know… where’s yours?” Realising he’s lost this battle, the old man walks off. “It would have been hard to have forced a confession out of the old rogue, and the gang never allowed violence except in self-defence.”

Marion gets the dogs to follow the scent of the gloves to find the Canadians. Barnaby leads off, and they follow in the van. Barnaby takes them down a deserted lane full of potholes and hairpin bends. It takes them down to a magnificent lake, but they could almost have driven in, so close is it to the road. But had someone got there first? “Ten or twelve yards from the shore the water was barely clear enough to make out the blue and white of the Rambler, but an inch or two of the caravan roof was still above the surface and bubbles of escaping air broke the water around the two submerged vehicles.”

 

Chapter Seven – The Cleverest of Them All. Earlier, Dick wasn’t in the Rambler, but could follow its scent easily. He saw it headed for the lake although couldn’t see who was driving. He yapped his distress and recognised Grondin, having jumped out of the car, watching his handiwork as the Rambert started to submerge. The man tries to chuck a stone at Dick, but the dog is too quick and attacks him, so that he ends up with a gashed cheek. Plouc joins Dick and together they watch a farm building where Grondin, Schutz and Delmas (who had been the fake Mézeran) were talking.

Charley and Betty, meanwhile, were locked in a windowless attic above the barn. Charley was furious at having been duped by Delmas. They stare through a crack between the floorboards and see Dick and Plouc watching the building. Grondin sees the dogs at the same time and takes aim with his gun – but the dogs are more than a match for him. And now, someone else appears; not Delmas, whom Charley was expecting, but another man in a smart suit. He hides in the undergrowth whilst the three conspirators return and formulate their plans.

Juan had been in the lake and had satisfied himself that there was no one in the submerged vehicles. Gaby suggests that Juan tries to unhitch the caravan and then they could drag both vehicles out of the water with the aid of Calamity Jane. Fernand joins Juan as they tie rope around the back of the caravan. Incredibly, they return the caravan to dry land, Zidore secures its brakes and tells Marion and the girls to mop it out. The car is a much harder task, but eventually they succeed in dredging it up. They decide to stay the night by the lake but to have Calamity Jane ready to go at a moment’s notice.

Meanwhile, Criquet appears to be playing with a stick in the water – but he’s not playing. “I’m measuring the water. It’s running away awful fast.” And Fernand could see that the level of the water was going down. ““Measure away, little Criquet,” Fernand murmured as he turned on his heel. “You’re really the cleverest of us all.””

Marion leaves with Juan, Zidore and Fernand. When they get to the crossroads, Marion and Zidore stay, and Juan and Fernand go on with the dogs. Eventually they near the lake and see the big wooden barn. They overhear the voices of Grondin and Schutz, and sneaking a look through the cracks of the door, see the old man who pretended to be Mézeran. As the three men bed down for the night, something soft and silky lands on the back of Fernand’s shoulders – Betty’s scarf.

 

Chapter Eight – We Belong to Saint-Salgue. Coppet watches Criquet’s fascination with the descending water level and explains that the sluice gates of the dam have opened, and the water will flood down to the River Lot and then the Garonne, the Gironde and finally the Atlantic. But this will be the last time this happens, as the next day they will blow up the big wall that kept the water in place. Berthe is not impressed, but Coppet explains: “Men can make mistakes when they undertake a major project […] They do so more often through aiming too low than from aiming too high. A little over thirty years ago when a hydro-electric company built the dam at La Douze they only expected to supply the immediate locality with light and power […]  for the last six hours the water you’ve been watching run away has poured down the gorges to swell a lake six times larger than this one was – over twenty miles long! You can get very excited about all the wonderful things being done today but it’s just as wonderful to get rid of something that’s grown useless before it’s too late.”

Whilst Coppet is charming some of the younger gang, Gaby, Marion, Fernand and Zidore get in Calamity Jane with the dogs and head off to rescue Charley and Betty. Gaby’s solution is to charge down the building with the vehicle. “The old ark’ll go through that door like a knife through butter. Your sleepers won’t have time to turn over in bed”. “Thought of yourself?” Juan murmured in the background. Gaby pulled his little checked cap down even more firmly. “Pah! I’ll only risk a bruise or two.” […] Fernand quietly remarked, “what about Calamity Jane? “Oh, she’s bound to be smashed up,” Gaby answered carelelessly, “but not really concertina-ed”. Zidore’s face went white.” Nevertheless they agree to Gaby’s plan; the walls get smashed in, the dogs attack the villains, Gaby and Zidore tool up for a fight, and Juan and Fernand rush upstairs to free the Canadians. But Charley is soft-spoken and polite to the three men, much to the furious Gaby’s annoyance, who is spoiling for a fight.

They all meet for a celebratory coffee and snacks by the lake, although Tatave points out that Coppet is still there, promising the earth. He’s going to turn the punchbowl into a holiday centre for winter skiing. But as they watch the water recede, something magical happens. The hidden village of Saint-Salgue slowly reappears. First the church spire, then the roofs, then the rest of the buildings. Will the old inhabitants be able to come back to the village? ““That depends.” Monsieur Coppet laughed. “At sunrise this morning the Central Electricity Authority will auction the village lands their predecessors acquired thirty years ago. If they want to, those who suffered compulsory purchase in 1928 can invoke a clause in that sale which guarantees them the prior right to repurchase their properties. Will they be there?  That’s the big question.”” Charley assures them that the finance will be there to afford the buy back.

Gaby reflects on their journey. Although they had intended to go on a Mediterranean beach holiday, “something stronger than the sea drew us here”. Everyone agrees. But it’s Fernand who drops the bombshell. “You’ll want to know why this particular spot rather than any other attracted you, and what holds you to this forgotten place. I’m going to tell you! It’ll come as a shock, but you’ve got to believe me, as you believed what Monsieur Coppet’s just told you […] WE ALL BELONG TO SAINT-SALGUE! […] our parents were all old inhabitants of the drowned village […] twelve left peacefully on the first notification that they had to go […] the hard core was left, young men determined to hold their hard-won land, their hopes or rather the bonds between a man and his birthplace. There were eight of them and these were their names […]Henri Babin, Paul Fabert, Lucien Joye, Maurice Loche, Baptiste Gédéon, Patrice Lourvrier, Constant Douin (my own father) and Django Lespagnol, a gipsy who had settled in the village […] the eight swore they’d stick together. A few days later the train which took them into exile deposited them in a gloomy Parisian suburb.” But Criquet Lariqué feels left out because his parents were not one of the eight. Gaby assures him that Mézeran will make him an honorary citizen of Saint-Salgue.

The auction ceremony takes place – and there’s only one bidder! Charley hands over his cheque, and Saint-Salgue is restored to its former inhabitants. Criquet receives the Freedom of the City. Fernand has just one task left; to find the house that his father lived in and see if an old watch is still hanging in the place where he left it. It is. It needs very careful cleaning, but it could be restored to life. They’ll need to pretend to M. Douin that it instantly went like a dream. “Fernand hesitated. “I’ve never told him a lie in my life.” He sighed and stared at his feet. “Just this once you can, “ said Marion. “He won’t be taken in, but he’ll smile like he used to do and the road to Saint-Salgue will open in front of him once again.””

 

The Clue of the Black CatTo sum up; this is definitely the end of the road for Gaby and his gang. Over the course of four books, we’ve seen them grow from playing in poverty-stricken streets with the horse without a head (which gets a name check in this book), through to owning a vehicle and taking it on holidays. The mystery of Saint-Salgue ends with the suggestion that the future is rosy for these characters; Berna has engineered it so that they will always remain friends, and indeed live in the same environment, although it may not necessarily be Louvigny! It’s an enjoyable and action-packed read; its unusual end might feel far-fetched or just a huge reward for the way they’ve entertained us over the years. 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. Next up in the Paul Berna Challenge is something special. His next book was Le Témoignage du chat noir, translated into English as The Clue of the Black Cat. Not only is this my favourite Paul Berna book, but it’s also probably my favourite children’s story of all time, and I can’t wait to re-read it and share my thoughts about it in a few weeks.

The Points of View Challenge – But the One on the Right – Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker (1893 – 1967)

Poet, satirist, wit, critic, essayist and notable exponent of wisecracks.

But the One on the Right, originally published in The New Yorker magazine, 19th October 1929

Available to read online here (search for page 86 of the document)

Given the style classification Interior Monologue by Moffett and McElheny: “In these first two stories somebody is speaking to himself, thinking. We merely overhear his thoughts. These stories are the equivalent of soliloquies in a theatre, except that a character thinking alone on stage would have to talk aloud so that the audience could hear his thoughts. Reading these stories is like listening to a soliloquy.” More on what makes an interior monologue when we come to the other short story listed under this category!

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!

 

But the One on the Right

 

So short, it’s barely a story, more like a fictional article! Dorothy Parker is invited to dinner by a hostess; she clearly knows no one there and is seated next to a boring man on her left. He’s polite, answers her small talk directly, but with no sense of creativity or interest; and her brain gives a running commentary on the occasion. She’s stuck with the one on the left, but the one on the right is being engaged by another lady who bagsied him first, and, despite his attractive shoulders, Dorothy decides to play fair and not try to muscle in on the conversation. At the end, the man on the right reveals that he too finds the whole experience exasperating and surprises Dorothy with an inventive chat-up line.

If ever you’ve been invited to dinner with the intention of getting people who don’t know each other to get to know one another, you know how ghastly the experience can be. And Dorothy Parker nicely conveys that cliff edge of politeness and boredom, of doing what the host expects of you rather than doing what you really want to do. We can all appreciate the disaster that a dull dining partner can provide. It’s a fun twist at the end, when the man on the right is found to be having an equally awful time, and the two of them plan a getaway which might lead on to something more interesting.

Messrs Moffett and McElheny must have decided they wanted an extremely light hors d’oeuvre to start this anthology, and Dorothy Parker is always a reliably witty entertainer with her yarns and bon mots. “I should have stayed at home for dinner. I could have had something on a tray. The head of John the Baptist or something.” I love the phrase vin triste, (not sure if it was an invention of Parker’s but I’d never heard it before) which superbly describes what happens when you have too much of the former and it inevitably descends into the latter. Times change if Chablis was considered a rotten wine, as it is in this story; it’s rather classy nowadays. And I also enjoyed her few literary moments; saying that red wine gave her The Red Badge of Courage (Stephen Crane) or referring to the boring man on the left as “Boy Thoreau” – in an ironic nod to Henry Thoreau’s dense and packed narrative style.

Much as Dorothy Parker might have enjoyed (or endured) a wafer thin starter to her meal, so can we regard this four-page amuse bouche as a precursor to some more meaty fayre to come. The next short story in the book, and the other to be classified as an interior monologue, is This is my Living Room by Tom McAfee. I think this will be a very different kettle of fish.

The Points of View Challenge – 41 Short Stories

No, nothing to do with an old BBC programme where you praised their efforts to the sky (Well done the BBC, another winner!) but a book of short stories that’s been hanging around my bookshelves for over forty years. Let me explain…

Back in 1979 I saw the musical of Flowers for Algernon, and it really impressed me – even though it didn’t last long, it still remains one of the top ten shows I’ve ever seen. It was based on Daniel Keyes’ short story of the same name, and I decided I had to track it down and read it. In those pre-Internet days it was harder to find a short story in an anthology without having a clue as to who might have published it. But, as luck would have it, I found it an American book called Points of View, edited by James Moffett and Kenneth R McElheny. Moffett (1929–1996) was an American teacher of English, author, and theorist of the teaching and learning of language arts and especially writing – so says Wikipedia, anyway. McElheny – who doesn’t get a Wikipedia entry of his own, alas – taught Creative Writing at the Arlington School, Belmont, Mass. at the time of publication, and had also taught at the Phillips Exeter Academy, as did Mr Moffett, which is presumably where their collaboration began. But I’m guessing here.

Anyway, I bought the book, read the story, put the book on the bookshelf and never looked at it again – until recently. It turns out that this anthology has quite a good reputation for being a) an assortment of excellent short stories and b) for being arranged in an unusual manner. They are listed by their narrative styles. So, for example, the first two stories are listed as Interior Monologue; then there are two under Dramatic Monologue, three under Letter Narration, two under Diary Narration, etc, etc and etc. There are actually forty-one short stories in this book, listed under eleven different narrative styles.

It was published in 1966, but a second edition appeared in 1995 with a revised selection of stories. Thirteen of the original 1966 selection made it into the revised edition, alongside thirty-one new choices. I only have the first edition, so my Points of View Challenge is to read – and write about – each of the forty-one stories lurking within its pages. And, if it goes well, who knows, I might buy the second edition too. Both books are very easily available on the Internet through the usual second hand sources, if you’d like to get a copy and read them along with me. I should add though, that all the writers are very well known and, with a couple of exceptions, you could easily find each of these stories in other collections. Even more convenient, most of these stories are available to read on the Internet, and I’ll provide an online link to the text in each blogpost wherever I can. That means we can all read them together!

The first story in the book – under the heading of Interior Monologue – is Dorothy Parker’s But the One on the Right. I’m going to give that a read and then write up my thoughts – probably tomorrow. Hope you find this an interesting challenge too!