Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Colonel’s Last Wicket by G V Rama Rao

The Colonel’s Last Wicket by G V Rama Rao is a delightful novel that uses scenarios and technicalities drawn from cricket to add poignancy to a gentle but moving story.

This is not a book about cricket. It’s a book about people, about their development, their motivation and their identity. At the plot’s core are Colonel Seth and Raju, the former a retired, decorated Indian Army officer. He is a widower, proud of his successful daughters, but still suffers a little when he contemplates what might have been. Despite his medals, he was never promoted to the highest rank; his beloved wife died; he never had a son. And he never achieved the distinction of playing first class cricket. 

Raju’s life has been a thoroughly different story, however. He is an orphan, living a life of poverty in a poor area. Of dubious parentage, even his peers and playmates regard him with some disdain. But Colonel Seth sees talent and potential in Raju when, by chance, he watches the boy playing a makeshift game of cricket in the stubble of a rice field. Seth takes Raju under his wing, encourages him and strives to bring his talent to fruition.

The book’s subtlety lies in how G V Rama Rao uses different aspects of cricket as metaphors to illustrate the nature of the boy’s and the Colonel’s struggles in their joint quest. There are plans to be made, risks to be taken, gambits to be played. The boy becomes a good cricketer, but not the top notch star his early potential promised. Like Colonel Seth, it seems, he is destined to achieve some, but not lasting recognition, a status perceived as merely “also ran”.

As the boy matures, the Colonel uses a variety of motivational tactics to stimulate his achievement. All of them work. All of them also fail, since they do not include permanence in their successes. When Raju meets the privileged and beautiful Usha, his adolescent male sensibilities respond, but again the positive effects she generates are manifest only when she is nearby. When she is not in attendance, Raju’s downside undoes all the good work. 

In contrast, Ramu, Raju’s friend and fellow protégé succeeds with apparent ease. He has a wealthy, comfortable background in contrast to Raju’s lowly origins and caste. Indeed Ramu seems starred with instant success. Raju, on the other hand, always has to do things the hard way and, despite his obvious talent, keeps missing out on the glory. G V Rama Rao skilfully and subtly uses this scenario to make simple but enduring comments about Indian society, considering religion, caste, class, commercialism, social change, honesty and identity. He identifies corruption, back-biting, recalcitrance and worse, all viewed through an apparent filter of relationships within the game of cricket, but all with far-reaching, society-wide significance. 

And so The Colonels’ Last Wicket is far more than a cricketing book. Through cricket metaphors it addresses some fundamental and serious issues relating to societal relationships and re-definitions. India has changed. Its cricket has changed, and these processes are accelerating. The Colonel’s Last Wicket suggests that its author is not totally trusting or appreciative of this change, but equally we are ultimately left in no doubt about the depths of his optimism, for ultimately it is the relationship between Colonel Seth and Raju, his ward, which endures. 


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Willie The Actor by David Barry

At one level Willie The Actor by David Barry is a crime novel in which a ruthless criminal commits bank robberies. On another it achieves the feel of dramatised documentary, for its eponymous anti-hero, William Sutton, is not fictitious and lived a real life. David Barry introduces us to Willy in 1923 and we bid him farewell in 1976. And it’s a farewell that is fonder than the reader might have been expected at the outset. 

Willie The Actor is not a “who dunnit” in any sense, because at no point in the book are we left in any doubt about who is perpetrating the robberies. We even have an insider’s description of his crimes, a rationale and a plan for their execution. It’s Willie, of course, who is behind them. They are his claim to fame, a fame that the novel fills out. 

Willie, or William, or Bill – however we meet him – did not commit one of the robberies, however, and that one proves to be a particularly important one for him and his future. In this case we find him falsely accused and wrongly convicted. He was innocent and yet he was positively and definitively identified by a string of eye-witnesses. A touch of irony here. Willie The Actor is not even very good at being a criminal. Yes, he succeeds in the short-term and money passes through his hands. But then he always fails, in that he usually gets caught. Bill Sutton’s first forays into armed robbery are facilitated by rented outfits by means of which an accomplice impersonates various forms of officialdom. To cover their rental of this gear, the pair establish a bogus theatre school, an operation that obviously needs to rent costumes on a regular basis. Hence Bill Sutton is labelled with his nickname, Willie The Actor, in media reports of his antics. 

But still, he is a criminal. He mixes with some unsavoury sorts, hoodlums, gangsters, extortionists, racketeers. Many of these acquaintances, partners or employers think nothing of shooting to get their own way. They maim, kill and deform human obstacles that even threaten to bar their path. But not Willie. He is different. He is an almost honourable thief who might threaten violence but never uses it. He even displays a gentility, a compassion which eventually allows him to go straight for a number of years, holding down a poorly paid job in a care home for the elderly. David Barry’s portrayal of this enigmatic character is subtle in that his criminal is always on the brink of achieving a respectability for which, we sense, he yearns. He is capable of love, whereas his partners in crime often exploit and oppress their women. He could have become a devoted and loyal father, but circumstances apparently require him to take a different route. 

And, perhaps most enigmatically of all, he might even have aspired to academic achievement, as evidenced by his life-long love of literature. But it is not to be. In the end Willie is both debt-free and penniless. He has harmed no-one directly, but also perpetrated serious criminal acts. He has realised none of his talents, but has achieved undeniable infamy. And eventually he aspires to the humdrum commonplace of the ordinary, a luxury his apparent need to rob has previously always denied him. David Barry conveys this complexity with a true lightness of touch. We never really get to know William Sutton, however. This is not a criticism of the book, because we are left with the impression that neither did anyone else.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Heather Blazing by Colm Toibin

The Heather Blazing by Colm Toibin is a deeply emotional, deeply moving book. It’s the story of Eamon Redmond, a complex man, grown on tender roots, influential friends, a keen intellect and a tangible distance between himself and those whom he loves. The book is set in three parts, each of which dips in and out of time. 

We are with Eamon as a child in the small Wexford seaside villages he forever regards as home. Coastal erosion changes them over time and provides, in itself, a metaphor of aging, both of the individual and the community. Eamon’s schoolteacher father is a significant figure, both locally as a renowned teacher, and nationally as a result of what he accomplished in his youth in the furtherance of Irish independence and political development. Eamon’s mother died when he was young, an act for which, perhaps, he could never forgive her. 

We also see Eamon as an adolescent, hormones abuzz, becoming aware of adulthood, a physical, intellectual and, for him, a political transformation. But it is also a time when his father’s illness complicates his life. Throughout, we are never sure whether Eamon’s perception of such difficulty remains primarily selfish, driven by self-interest. If we are honest, none of us knows how that equation works out. 

We are with Eamon when he meets Carmel, his future and only wife. They share a political commitment and a life together. And they have two children. Naimh becomes pregnant at a crucial time. Donal is successful in his own way, but perhaps inherited his father’s distance in relationships. And then there’s another time and another Eamon, the professional, the legal Eamon. At first he practices law, but later, at a relatively early age, he accepts a politically-driven appointment to the judiciary. He has powerful sponsors, but also toys a little with the idea that he is being kicked upstairs. The moment, however, is his, no matter how dubious the source of the patronage. 

And then there are the cases that he has to judge, cases that impact in their own way upon the substance of his own life, his own family, whatever that might be, however the entity might be defined. It remains a substance that is perceived mainly by others, it seems, as he enacts his training and judges other people’s experience according to rules he has dutifully learned so that he might apply them dispassionately. 

So Colm Toibin mixes these time frames and circumstances in each of the book’s three sections. We are also presented with some intellectual arguments arising from the substance of the judge’s daily routine, issues with which he must grapple in his assessment of competing interests. Eventually he must address the dichotomy of terrorism versus political action, a definition that, years ago, might have left his own father on this side or that, if ever he had been identified. Eamon’s friends, in hindsight, might not have been the most worthy or honest sponsors, and so, again only with hindsight, we might question his judgment. But the pursuance of interests, like life, itself, is a process, and a process that The Heather Blazing describes in its richness and illusory permanence. 

As the Wexford coast erodes, Eamon ages, changes, succeeds, fails, loves and loves again, all in his own way. He engages us, and yet we, like the trusting, thoughtful Carmel, his wife, we never really know him, and we never really understand why we feel that way. If only he knew himself. A quite beautiful book. Life goes on. 

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai

In her novel, Fasting, Feasting, Anita Desai eventually accomplishes what many writers attempt and then fail to achieve. She uses light touch, simple language, uncomplicated structure, but at the same time addresses some very big issues and makes a point.

Uma and Arun are children of Mamapapa, the apparently indivisible common identity that parents present. These parents, however, are not at all alike. Mama is protective, perhaps selfish, and not a little indolent. Papa is a parsimonious control freak who locks away the telephone because someone might use it. But they are at least together. Their relationship has survived, despite the long wait for a son, and their disappointment at his disability.

Uma and Arun also have a sister, Aruna. She is bright and pretty, but in her own way she is also disabled, because she is a woman. Arun’s disability is visible, but Aruna’s exists because of the her society’s preconceptions about women.

Uma is not pretty, nor is she academic. She wears thick glasses and has fits. And so in the middle class society the family inhabits, Uma can pursue only two possible roles. Either she can be married off, or she can become a labourer, a near slave for the family. The former, of course, is the same as the latter. Only the location is different. For Uma marriage doesn’t happen. It does, but it fails before it starts, since the groom was already married and merely wanted to collect another dowry. The arranged marriages of both Uma’s sister and her cousin also fail. Initially well starred, both end tragically.

The first part of Fasting, Feasting suggests a domestic drama, a faintly comic family trying to cope with their own cultural minority status within India’s vastness. It takes awhile for the tragic elements of the story to surface. But when they do, they also disappoint, because only the two disabled characters, Uma and Arun, eventually display any honesty or compassion, everyone else being merely selfish, even those who kill themselves to end the pain. For women, it seems, even achievement is nothing but an asset to assist their trade. When offered a place at Oxford, a girl’s duty precludes acceptance and necessity frames the letter as evidence of her greater eligibility. So what seemed to be a pleasant family tale of the idiosyncrasies of culture becomes a tragedy, and a tragedy for all women. Ugly, unmemorable Uma is the only apparent survivor, and that only because she is not even a competitor. She exists on the scraps of life she is allowed.

But what of Arun, the disabled boy? Well he is quite a bright lad. He goes to university in the USA, and to an institution with status in Massachusetts. But what is he to do in the holidays when the college is closed? We can’t afford to bring his all the way home, concludes parsimonious Papa.

So Arun lodges with the Pattons, an all-American nuclear family, an American Dream of sorts, mum, dad, two kids, one of each. But Dad is a laconic type. A beer from the fridge keeps him quiet. The son has all kinds of ambitions, and yet none that are realistic. Mom is an emotional wreck. She years for something in her confusion, but has not idea what it might be. And her daughter is bulimic. Happy families.

So through Arun’s eyes, and to some extent as a result of his culturally challenging presence, Anita Desai presents a picture of middle class American life that is utterly dysfunctional. But it is again the women who are most deeply affected. Mom does all the shopping and cooking to feed the unappreciative men and the daughter who cannot eat. She fantasises about Arun’s cultural authenticity, sees in him qualities for which she yearns. The daughter is a complete head case. She is fat wanting to be thin, eating to fast, stuffing sweets until she vomits, perhaps a slave to a male-generated concept of female perfection. And Arun witnesses all of this. Eventually, in his deformity, he is the only presence that is not self-obsessed.

The title is important. Fasting, Feasting presents apparent opposites, two contrasting, if imbalanced scenarios, India and the USA. It offers two deformed observers, Uma and Arun. It unpicks two contrasting cultures and finds that women are slaves in both. The opposites are thus ultimately similar, hardly opposed.

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Fasting, Feasting

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

July’s People by Nadine Gordimer

In July’s People Nadine Gordimer presents a scenario laden with fears. Written in 1981, the book presents a South Africa afflicted by near-worst case Cold War disintegration. With rumoured external support, the urban black population has instigated a revolution of sorts, transforming the cities into war zones. No longer “nice” places to be, they are no longer home for decent white liberals like Bam and Maureen and their youngsters.

Twenty-five years on, it is this aspect of July’s people that grates. The scenario now seems horribly and, perhaps, naively, simplistic, improbable. At the time, people saw things differently, from a perspective that is difficult to communicate to anyone who did not live in through the Cold War.

But then this is an unimportant point. We do not criticize Orwell for the passing of 1984 without Big Brother. Neither do we regard Huxley’s current lack of either Bravery or Novelty as a restriction on the relevance of his book to our world. Similarly, the scenario of Margaret Attwood’s Handmaid’s Tale makes the novel both possible and successful, but its likelihood is no more probable as a result of this well-conceived fiction.

So Nadine Gordimer’s scenario, once accommodated, can be taken as a given, an imagined premise upon which the free-standing substance of the story both develops and succeeds, and then this becomes a strength of the book, not a weakness.

Bam and Maureen, long-time employers of a “houseboy” called July, decide on flight. They pack what little they can in the bakkie – a go-anywhere, basic truck of local manufacture, and set off, mother, father, their two boys, and July, their “boy” to seek safety. Bam bought the truck for bush trips, weekends when they might commune with nature in a limited, controlled way, protected from the harsher demands of Mother Nature by the maintained proximity of a retreat to urban protection.

But now the laden truck is driving into new territory. The city is uninhabitable and the journey to July’s rural home area is potentially one way. And so the white-black, black-white relationships of employment, protection, patronage, reliance and condescension are reversed - or at least questioned. And so the liberal white family must come to terms with the precarious necessity of rural poverty. They discover things in themselves that a sophisticated city gloss has hidden or suppressed. They realize how dependent they have been upon status, a commodity not valued in a fundamentally more cooperative way of living.

July’s People is presented from Maureen’s perspective. She is thirty-nine, a fundamentally confident, though constantly doubting, forceful mother and wife. As the book progresses, she tries to preserve the memory of the family’s former life as a way of protecting herself and her brood from the threats of new unknowns. Their “boy”, July, is generous, kind, but also pragmatic, and realizes he must make sacrifices on their behalf.

July’s People is ultimately enigmatic. It remains undermined to a degree by the hindsight-rendered unlikeliness of its scenario. Its most powerful statement is the way in which the sensibilities of the urban sophisticates are questioned by mere natural necessity. It is a short book, but feels much bigger, much more of a statement as a result of Nadine Gordimer’s pithy, abrasive style.

Just as the rural poor find a use for everything, Nadine Gordimer wastes not a single phrase or even word, and neither does she consume more than she needs. The book’s prose is economical in the extreme, the language sometimes pricking like the thorn bush described. It remains a moving book about culture and social identity, despite the unlikeliness of its setting.

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July's People

Friday, February 15, 2008


I need urgent advice and assistance. Please read the following in the context of my previous reports over the last fortnight, especially the details of my visit to P... last week. I have transcribed my tapes verbatim, omitting items of little or no substance. What follows is as accurate a rendition as I can manage, given the shortage of time. Some spellings and local names may not be wholly accurate. My sessions with Father Peter all took place in Room 258 of the Mount Gardenia Hospital. I have indicated in parenthetic comment the source of interruptions or other events that caused either remark or pause from either myself or Father Peter. I, of course, am AG throughout.


I started the recorder as we exchanged greetings.

AG: So, Father Peter, I’ve found you at last.
Peter: Alison! Hello there, Miss Grady. I didn’t expect… How did you find out I was here?
AG: I was in the agency office when the news came down from the north. There’s been nothing in the press yet, One of the relief officials arrived from the camp at M.... He said you would be here in Mount Gardenia. They didn’t seem to know you at the main reception, but when I said the man with shrapnel wounds, they told me to check Room 258.
Peter: What else did the man from the camp say? Did he know what happened last Friday? Who else was hurt?
AG: He only had news about you, because you were transferred via the camp, I think. Please tell me what happened, Peter.
Peter: We had obviously been targeted. They used helicopters. The convent wasn’t touched - only the church and the buildings along the road.
AG: Those were the places where the displaced people were staying?
Peter: Yes, that’s right. I was told that some of them were killed.

We were both silent for a while. I remember not knowing how to proceed. I could neither confirm nor deny.

Peter: When was it that you visited us?
AG: It was just last week, on Friday. I arrived at around eleven thirty. We left Colombo at eight and landed at the military airfield at nine. It took two hours to get to you because we were going through the blockade.
Peter: I remember that you left around four.
AG: That’s right.

A nurse came in and addressed Peter directly, cutting across me. She asked whether he was comfortable. She started in English, but then continued in Sinhalese. I remember Peter nodding towards me – as best he could, given the fact that he was connected to a battery of machines and bottles and had very restricted movement. In any case, it seemed that he had no movement at all in the lower half of his body, which was protected from the weight of the bedding by a tent frame. The nurse fussed a little at his pillow, checked his drip and then left. I remember looking around the room and noticing for the first time that his was not the only bed and that I was not the only visitor. Though the room was small, there clearly was another bed behind the curtains beyond Father Peter. The drapes that ran from floor to ceiling. They stretched across something rigid at one point as they turned the corner. I assumed this was a chair back and, indeed, its position moved just a little when the nurse squeezed her way past, having satisfied herself that all Father Peter’s inputs were in place and working. So there was someone sitting on the chair by the other bed when I arrived.

Peter: Where were we?
AG: I left at around four on Friday afternoon. It was already going dark by the time I reached the airfield and it was after eight before we landed back in Colombo. We had to wait for the plane to come back from where it had gone after dropping us off that morning. The officer who made the trip north with me was also going back.
Peter: Miss Grady, please don’t think in any way that I am suggesting that you may be responsible…
AG: Did I tell him about my visit? Yes, I did. But all I said was that I was visiting you on behalf of the relief service…
Peter: Did you mention the displaced people?
AG: Only to confirm that anyone who was displaced by the fighting might need humanitarian assistance. I said nothing about where they might be from, where they might be or how many there were. I spoke only in the most general terms.

I remember how quiet Peter became. The tape ran on for over a minute before either of us spoke again. The chair by the other bed nudged back against the curtain a little. I pointed towards it and asked Peter without speaking if he knew who was there. He shrugged, as best he could.

Peter: I arrived on Sunday, but I came into this room late last night. I was sedated. When I woke this morning, that’s all I could see. It hasn’t changed.

For some reason both of us began to whisper. I have had to interpolate the words in some of the following exchanges because we spoke so quietly the tape did not pick them up. I believe my memory of what was said remained clear.

AG: So how do we handle this?
Peter: I have nothing to hide. Have you?

I shook my head, thinking how futile a gesture it was. I thought I had been careful with my words the previous Friday and yet, perhaps, someone had read into them whatever they had wanted to hear.

AG: Please tell me what happened.
Peter: At around seven on Saturday morning we heard helicopters. It’s quiet around P..., as you know, so we heard them when they were still a long way off. I went outside to see where they were heading. The current operation started over a month ago, so we have grown used to going outside to watch the comings and goings. Since the displaced people arrived, I have had regular conversations with several of the men about exactly what and where was being targeted.
AG: So Saturday morning was nothing special.
Peter: No. Quite ordinary, at least to begin with. There were six of us – all men – standing near the store house at the back of the shops. There’s some raised ground there at the side from where you can get a better view.
AG: Was it the men who had their bunks inside the store house? Were they the ones who were interested in what the military were up to?
Peter: One or two of them were there…
AG: When I visited on Friday, the whole store house area was deserted. There were six bunks inside, but there was no-one around. In the other buildings – the ones occupied by the families – there were clear signs of life. Had those men cleared out because of my visit? Who are they?
Peter: Who were they…?
AG: I’m sorry…
Peter: As I told you last Friday, all I can relate to you is what I am told myself. The people came from two villages in the line of fire. The military gave them one hour to leave their houses. They all arrived at my church with only the things they could carry. They had walked ten miles or so. And that was a month ago. I can hardly claim to have got to know them in the last month, but I at least know something about them. All I can tell you is what they told me. The families were clearly travelling as groups, but the single men seemed to keep apart, apart from the families and apart from one another. The families immediately negotiated shelter in the shops. As you know there is no commerce any more in our area so those shops have not been in business for some time. But the families wanted the single men to be separate, and the men, themselves, also seemed to want to stay apart. So they offered to build themselves bunks in the store house at the back. None of the men were related to any of the families. I was told later that they were employed as labourers. They used to sleep in shacks set apart in the paddies. They never even went to the village. Also, they were originally plantation people…
AG: So they had to be segregated from the rest? Not quite clean enough, not quite pure enough to rub shoulders with the real thing?
Peter: Now you are being judgmental. It’s the way things are…
AG: (interrupting) Please go on. I’m sorry. Please tell me what happened.
Peter: Well the story is short and simple. We heard the helicopters and went out to watch. We started to chat and speculate about which way they would go. It was only a minute or so later when we realised that they were heading directly for us. I can’t remember who ran first. I can’t even remember if anyone ran. By the time we were ready to admit that they were heading our way it seemed almost too late to move. I remember thinking that they might fly straight over us on their way to somewhere beyond, but then that wasn’t at all likely. There’s not much past us in that direction, only a few mangroves and sandbanks before you get to the sea. I don’t remember much more. Only that there was a lot of smoke for a while – and then I couldn’t stand. It was a while before I felt any pain – and then it was unbearable. I must have passed out. I can remember someone with a syringe. The person said something, but I couldn’t hear. And then it was Sunday evening and I was in the camp at M.... I recognized the French doctor as soon as I saw him He told me I was going to be air-lifted to Colombo immediately. I still don’t know what happened to any of the others. The military on the plane told me that people had been killed. One said six, another ten. The pain had gone. I couldn’t feel anything, but my hearing was starting to return. I arrived here late on Sunday and then went under after another injection. I woke up yesterday evening and have been here in this bed ever since. I have not moved. I felt a little bit better this morning when the doctor came to see me. He said I have shrapnel in my lower legs and some small pieces in my back. They have removed what they can. He said that the MSF doctor in the camp saved my feet. Without him I would now be a double amputee. I still may be, because I can neither see nor feel anything below the waist. And I can’t move.
AG: How long will you be in here?
Peter: I asked the doctor this morning. He says it is too soon to judge how long things will take. But for a start he says that I’ll have to stay here for a month. They have to change the dressings twice a day. And then they say we’ll have to wait and see. It took me a while for his words, “We hope you will be able to walk again” to sink in. I have had a day to get used to the idea and it’s still hard to know what it really means.

Peter paused here and looked again towards the other bed on his right. Nothing stirred behind the curtains. He then turned back towards me.

Peter: So how did you know I was here?
AG: I was at a meeting of the relief agency all day yesterday. I heard news of the operation in your area early yesterday morning and it was around midday when some people arrived from M.... They had been travelling for a full day. They came straight into the meeting because they knew we were discussing how to get relief supplies up to the north. The first thing they did was tell us what happened to you. But they didn’t know where you were. It took most of yesterday evening on the telephone to find you. And then I was told that you could not take visitors until the afternoon because you were in surgery. No-one seemed to recognize your name…
Peter: That’s because they would have used my other name…

I didn’t pursue this at the time. I now wish I had done. Peter William clearly had another name, perhaps a Tamil name, by which he is also, perhaps more commonly known. His baptismal name, it seems, is for external use only.

Peter: … and of course he came in yesterday…

He nodded vaguely towards the curtain.

It was just at that moment that the curtains moved for the first time. There was a clear swish on the tape as the runners slid on their track. The complete silence that Peter and I maintained was a reflection of our surprise at what was revealed. And it was a while before I realised that, from his fixed position, Peter could not see everything that I could. Peter would have seen the policeman, but not the patient in his bed. The policeman was the occupant of the chair near the foot of the bed. What threw me was the fact that he also had a tape recorder. It was on the bed next to where he sat, alongside an open spiral-bound notebook on top of which lay a pen. The young man in the bed seemed to be unconscious, his head lolling to one side at a strange angle.
The policeman studied me. He studied my tape recorder. I must have done the same to him. It seemed like an age at the time, but my tape revealed that it was just a few seconds before the curtain swished closed.

I looked at Peter, who quizzically returned my gaze. He sensed my apprehension, because he said nothing. I did not know what to do. I feared the worst, though I had no idea what that might be.

I remember leaning over towards Peter and whispering. I told him what I had seen, words that did not register on my recording, though the tape was still running. I can recall sensing an irony in my willingness to confide in a man whose acquaintance I had shared for only a few hours in total.

My mind was suddenly full of imagined fears. The policeman was recording us, I concluded. We had already mentioned Father Peter’s “other” name. There was clearly a lot I didn’t know, didn’t understand, or alternatively there was much from which I was deliberately excluded. Peter’s lack of reaction could have been resignation. It could have been simply “so what?” Or it could have been expectation. I started to get up.

Peter: What’s the problem, Miss Grady?
AG: I thought I might go and ask someone about…
Peter: We have nothing to hide. What’s the problem?

Then the nurse reappeared. She carried a metal tray in which some small bottles rattled. She immediately registered my concern. I must have looked at her, across to the other bed and back again. She paused. Then Peter spoke, craning his neck forwards as far as he could. The words are there on the tape but I can’t transcribe them because they are in Sinhalese. Perhaps Peter merely asked who was in the next bed. The nurse answered at length and went behind the curtain.

Peter: It’s a man with gunshot wounds. He is in a coma. He has been shot by the police, having been caught dealing drugs on the street. He tried to run away, but the officers were armed and they shot him. They hope he will be able to talk if he comes round. She says he was admitted in the middle of the night, but obviously I must have been heavily sedated at the time.

Peter and I listened to various noises that followed. It was an injection being administered, with an associated rattle of glass and cellophane, breaking of seals and clanking of enamel that seemed to last an age. The noises are all clearly recorded on my tape, which means that anything we had said could be on the policeman’s tape. The nurse reappeared. As the policeman held the curtain aside for her, they exchanged a few words.

Peter: So we are both full of metal?
Nurse: You are, but he has two pieces, whereas you have many. Unfortunately for him, his pieces are big and in places where we can’t take them out.

She then left the room.

Peter: She asked if the man had said anything. The policeman answered, “Not a word.” There probably isn’t much more you can accomplish by staying here, Miss Grady. But I would like to ask you a favour. Could you…

At this point there was a growling and a muttering from behind the curtain. The policeman’s chair moved. The voice was almost liquid, as if passing through oil.

Peter: Could you get a message back up to M... for me? I want someone to go back to P... and take some pictures. I need to see what damage has been done. I think the agency truck is scheduled to go up there tomorrow or maybe Thursday. Can you ask someone to arrange a camera for whoever will visit? We need pictures of the damage and also of any injured people who are still there.
AG: I’ll certainly do that. Whom should I ask?

The tape now has several long guttural sounds from the next bed. They are not intelligible, I think, but they go on for several seconds, during which time both Peter and myself instinctively try to listen. I cannot tell if Peter understood anything, but he certainly seemed to register something. I recall inviting him to tell me, but he ignored my request.

AG: So whom should I ask?
Peter was still listening.

Peter: Alicia will know. The woman who runs the office. Try her. And also can you check if there is any mail for me at the office? I am expecting some letters. If you are planning to visit me tomorrow, could you bring them here?
AG: I’ll try. I have a meeting there at nine. Perhaps I could get here by twelve?
Peter: That will be fine. And please can you phone Alicia this evening to ask her about the trip to the north? Please don’t leave it until tomorrow.

I switched off the tape at this point before I said my goodbyes and left.


Room 258 was jammed with people when I arrived just after twelve thirty. Peter was completely surrounded. There was a pair of nurses, one either side of the bed-head. They had clearly just manoeuvred him into a semi-upright position with the assistance of several pillows under his shoulders. A doctor stood to the side. He asked me to wait until he had finished his examination. As I stood in the corridor outside, I could see past the group around Peter’s bed to the policemen beyond. The curtains around the other bed were fully open. I could see the young man clearly this time. His head was bandaged and an apparent multiplicity of tubes and cables connected him to various bottles and machines. Two uniformed officers stood slightly apart at the foot of the bed, whilst two men in plain clothes stood on either side of the young man. One held a microphone near the boy’s face while the other bent low over the bed and occasionally spoke. The boy appeared to be conscious, but only just. He was clearly responding to the prompts, however, and whenever he spoke, the questioning plain clothes man repeated his words so that the boy could confirm with a nod and also so that one of the uniformed officers could take notes.

I watched this scene for ten minutes or more. Peter’s doctor was checking all of the wounds on his feet and lower legs. His right foot in particular seemed to be very badly damaged. But I was distracted throughout by what seemed to be happening beyond Peter’s group. It seemed that the interrogator was deliberately trying to hurt the boy, who started to cry out. Neither the nurses nor the doctor paid any attention to this, however, so I thought no more of it at the time. Only now has its incongruity full registered. A nurse noticed my interest. She told me that the boy was a drug dealer and did not deserve my sympathy. She said that this was the first time he had regained consciousness and the police were keen to learn what he knew.

When the doctor finished examining Peter I was allowed into the room. I greeted Peter and placed my recorder in the recess near the top of the side table, to Peter’s left. I remember thinking that the interrogating policeman might object to its presence, but he did not seem to be interested. Or maybe he just did not notice it.

AG: So what did the doctor say?
Peter: He seemed to be pleased with the operation. He thinks that there are still many small bits of shrapnel in my right foot, but my left foot is probably clear. They did an X-ray before the operation, but they want to operate again. He said he would have to consult a colleague, but he thought they might have to wait a couple of weeks for everything to settle down before making a decision.

It was obvious that Peter was much stronger. The previous day’s conversation had not been punctuated by the head rocking that is so characteristic of the region. Today, almost every phrase Peter said was accompanied by a virtuoso performance from the neck up. It seemed like he was trying to write the words with his nose. I nodded towards the policemen.

AG: It’s a bit dramatic…
Peter (quietly): They have been questioning him for an hour. The boy is incoherent. They are feeding him with statements and sometimes he makes a noise. They then tell one another that he has confirmed what they have said.
AG: I spoke with people in the office this morning. Your story is now in the newspapers. It appeared only today. Basically all the reports have reproduced a press release from the military. They say that the church compound in P... was bombed because it had been occupied by guerrillas and that they had taken you and the nuns hostage. They regret the fact that you were hurt in the attack and cite that as proof that the guerrillas were using you as a human shield. They claim to have killed all of the guerrillas.
Peter: What about the families?

There was a pause in our conversation here. As Peter asked his question, a doctor came into the room. He was polite but forceful with the plain clothes men. He was clearly saying that the boy needed rest. They argued for a while, during which time we were silent. Just as they finally agreed to leave, a nurse came in with a tray and gave the boy another injection. Three of the policemen then did leave, but one uniformed man stayed. They left the tape recorder with him.

AG: They should move you out of this room.
Peter: Human shield? What are they talking about?
AG: At least they have not accused you of harbouring the rebels.
Peter: What they say in the papers and what they say to one another are quite different things. Take nothing for granted, Miss Grady. Do you know what happened to the other people?
AG: No-one knows. At least no-one is saying. There is currently no communication open with P..., not even with the convent.
Peter: Did the reports say anything about the military moving in to the area?
AG: No. They only mentioned the air strike.

Another nurse appeared. She spoke to Peter.

Nurse: We want you to have another X-ray. The doctors need to know how much shrapnel is left. We can do it now that the tissues have had some time to settle down after the operation. They think you are well enough to move.
Peter: When?
Nurse: We will come for you in a few minutes.

As the nurse left, she cast a glance towards the other bed. In the short time that she had been in the room, much had changed. Possibly as a result of the injection the boy had been given, possibly because he had drifted into semi-consciousness, he began to rant. He started making strange noises, half-singing, half-speaking. Sometimes they were high pitched and shouted. Sometimes they were barely audible, merely mumbled.

The policeman scribbled away madly on his pad. He repeatedly pushed the tape recorder closer, or pulled it back, depending on the volume of the boy’s utterance. I couldn’t understand anything. Presumably it was Sinhalese, but Peter’s reaction suggested that it might have been Tamil. He seemed surprised, but said nothing.

Peter: Well, I suppose that’s progress. I hope they are not going to operate again before I have had some more time to recover. I feel very weak.
AG: But you don’t seem to be in pain…
Peter: That’s because of the medication. I can’t feel a thing. I’ve also had nothing to eat…
AG: That’s a point. Shall I go and get you something?
Peter: That would be wonderful. Please do.
AG: There’s a shop just over the road. I’ll go and get you some snacks.

I was away for longer than I had planned. It ought to have taken only a few minutes, but the shop was full and there was an argument about money. Both of the shop’s proprietors were involved and all other activity seemed to be suspended until the problem was solved. It was over half an hour before I returned to Peter’s room. I knew immediately there was a problem. Peter had gone. His bed, presumably with him still in it, had been wheeled out of the room. I assumed he’d gone for the X-ray. The man was still ranting. There was an absolute torrent of words flowing from him, but still he seemed only barely conscious. Though the curtains around his bed were now completely drawn back, he offered no acknowledgement whatsoever of my entrance. But the policeman had also gone. Earlier he had been so careful to write and record every word that was uttered, so diligent in checking his recording level for every sound the poor man made. And now there was this torrent of words and yet the policeman had left, taking his tape recorder with him. It didn’t make sense. I found a nurse – not easy, since the ward seemed deserted and I had to go right through to the end of the corridor – and asked what had happened to Peter. She had to ask two others before one clearly senior nurse confirmed that he had gone for his X-ray. She estimated that he might be back in half an hour or so.

I decided to go back across the road for a cup of tea. When I returned, about an hour later, Peter’s bed was back in the room, but it was empty. The man was still ranting and there was still no policeman. There was, at least, a nurse in the corridor. But she said that she had only just come on duty and could tell me nothing. I went down to the main reception and asked if they knew where Peter was. They said they had no idea, a response which I found strange, to say the least. I asked them to check the patient record of the occupant of Room 258 and they gave me one name only, the name of the drug dealer, I assumed, because it clearly wasn’t Peter’s name.

By the time I got back to Room 258, the nurse was re-making Peter’s bed. I asked again where he was and she also said she had only just started her shift. She speculated that he might have been transferred. I asked to where and she merely shrugged her shoulders.

I was about to set off again when I noticed that I had left my tape recorder on Peter’s side table. I had placed it there when I first entered the room. I had set it running to record our conversation and it had been recording ever since. I went across to retrieve it. When I turned it off, the nurse clearly registered the click. She was about to say something, but I left the room immediately, not giving her a chance to speak, dropping the recorder in my bag. I went back to the main office where I tried to explain who I was and whom I was trying to contact. They claimed to have no knowledge of a priest with shrapnel wounds having been admitted.

I must have stayed with them for fifteen minutes or so. Then I decided my only course of action was to find the nurse who had told him about the X-ray. Even if she was no longer on duty, I decided my best bet was to talk to the ones upstairs who had replaced her.

I went back upstairs and along the corridor to Room 258. There was still no sign of Peter and, strangely, no sign of anyone else either, no policemen, not even nurses. The place was deserted. I took the opportunity to go behind the service counter that separated the nurses’ work area from the rest of the foyer. I looked around a little, thinking I might be able to see a paper, a register or roster with Peter’s name.

And then all hell broke loose. The swing doors flung open and two men ran along the corridor away from me. Instinctively, I crouched down behind the counter, but I could still tell what happened. I heard a door open and close and then several muffled shots. I then heard the men leave, their haste leaving the doors swinging back and forth several times. Barely twenty seconds had elapsed between their entrance and exit.

I stayed behind the counter for several minutes. No one appeared. I stood up and checked the corridor and lift area before going down to Room 258. The man, obviously, was dead. I didn’t go close. There was no need. The top of the bed was just a mass of blood. But still there was no-one around.

I hurried back to the ground floor. I paused only to tell a nurse on reception what had happened. She looked shocked and told me to wait, but I was already on my way out of the hospital’s main entrance. I went back to the reception desk and spoke to the nurse and a colleague she had called over. They looked sincerely shocked. They didn’t believe what I was saying. They told people in the office behind and someone went upstairs to check. He returned less than a minute later in a highly agitated state.

And then I was taken by surprise. Without warning, three other people approached. I expected to be told to wait until the police arrived. I was, after all, a witness. But they led me immediately out into the street and told me very clearly to go. I now presume that they knew nothing about my tape.

So I left, quickly. I came straight back to the hotel and immediately set about transcribing the tapes of my conversations with Peter. When I turned on the television for the evening news, there was a report of an “incident” in Mount Gardenia hospital. It said that a man had entered the hospital and shot dead two patients in a room on an upper floor. Two patients… The incident, said the report, was thought to be related to crime, specifically drug dealing.

A later report in the same bulletin was what prompted me to seek immediate assistance and guidance. It claimed that our partner agency in Colombo, and my personal contacts, no less, were being investigated. They stand accused, said the report, of channelling funds to the rebels in the north.


I am currently in the Stanley Gardens Hotel in room 176. I have a tape recording lasting more than ninety minutes of the drug dealer’s ranting, not a word of which I can understand, and I was a witness to his death. I saw the murderers. And I think they saw me. And according to the news, Peter was also shot dead by the same men, an assertion I know to be false. I believe my main contacts are in custody. I await directions from head office, which I hope to receive via the same route that I send these notes. Please advise.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Emperor by Colin Thubron

Emperor by Colin Thubron is a mightily ambitious novel. It describes the conversion to Christianity of the emperor Constantine the Great, the circumstances of which are unknown. But this was an event that changed human history. This single event elevated Christianity, previously a minority sect amongst many, to the status of official religion of the Roman Empire. Thus it became the religion of a continent, a status it has never lost.

What is so original about Colin Thubron’s book, however, is its form. The novel is constructed as if it were a sheaf of documents by different authors. The entries are arranged by date, but are constructed as if assembled from a jumble of material stuffed at random by an incompetent clerk into a satchel that was then lost. The author thus assumes many voices, many forms, many perspectives.

Constantine has embarked upon the final phase of his conquest of Rome to establish himself the undisputed leader of the empire. He was in York when his father died and Maxentius, his wife’s brother, usurped the throne. Constantine must therefore raise an army and conquer his way to power all the way from the north of England to the imperial capital. Emperor takes us from the boundaries of Verona to the outskirts of Rome, the progress described via the jottings of several characters.

Constantine’s own journal is the centre-piece. In it the emperor muses on military tactics and the progress of war. But we also discover a sensitive, emotional character often preoccupied with significance deeper than the mundane. The letters and jottings of Fausta, Constantine’s wife and sister of the pretender Maxentius, show how little those involved are able to express or trust their own feelings. Constantine is besotted with her, but she always demands a distance. We are never completely sure of her motives – or loyalties, for that matter.

Synesius, Constantine’s secretary, has seen it all before. His often witty musings offer both context and interpretation. Hosius, Bishop of Cordoba, is the Christian voice that travels with Constantine’s army. His reactions to events are always fundamentally different from what the other characters expect or predict. And there are other minor characters, lesser voices that add further detail and different perspectives.

One of the book’s great achievements is its highly effective portrayal of the pan-European character of Constantine’s alliance and its consequent religious diversity. It seems that there was a real free market in Gods at the time and we quickly feel the need for a unifying cultural and ideological force to match the political and military presence of Constantine. And so the Emperor’s personal needs and pragmatic concerns suddenly coincide and the charismatic presence of Hosius assists.

Overall I felt that Emperor did not quite achieve the ambition of its inspiration, however. In the end the originality of the form became a limitation, constricting the author’s ability to convey both background and context. The story he told was considerably bigger than the form could sustain and so the climax was unsatisfactory. As criticisms go, however, it’s a very small one.

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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Life At The Top by John Braine

After recently re-reading John Braine’s Room at the Top, I went On Chesil Beach, courtesy of Ian McEwan. Without doubt the latter is a masterpiece, whereas the former seems to be a little too reliant on its contemporary setting, its social mores, its finely tuned appreciation of social class to be considered more than “of its time”. Concatenating the two books, however, has made me think a little more about the underpinning thesis of Ian McEwan’s book, that the early 1960s remained an age when sexuality was not discussed, dealt with or even experienced in the more open, liberal manner of just a decade later. In the context of Ian McEwan’s setting and for his characters, this was undoubtedly the case. Memories of John Braine’s 1950s, however, remind me that there might have been room for a different reading.

And so I approached a re-discovery of Braine’s Life At The Top with more than just an interest in the narrative. Of course the book is a sequel, an attempt to recreate the success that had eluded its author in the intervening years. But it is based in the early 1960s, precisely the time when Ian McEwan’s fumbling lovers marry.

Life At The Top is ten years on from its germ. Joe Lampton and Susan are married and have two children. Joe is also firmly ensconced in his father-in-law’s firm, has made a moderate success of his career and, certainly relative to others around Warley, has plenty of money. But as those for whom success seems to be a given, it is necessary to be reminded that, “It’s one thing to get there, and quite another thing to stay there”. And so it is with Joe Lampton. He becomes a councilor – a Tory one at that – and all seems to be made. But then, but then… he’s still our Joe. He still likes his pint, though now it’s more likely to be a scotch, and perhaps Susan is still as naïve as she was a decade before – naïve, that is, until she decides what she wants.

So, obviously, in Life At The Top Joe and Susan’s life together turns sour, even a little bitter. But John Braine’s plot and style always keep the process above soap opera, where character only exists to fuel plot. In some ways, the pair of novels, Room and Life At The Top, is a loose allegory of the experience of the author, himself. In Room he’s an upstart successfully staking his claim, but at a cost in terms of pigeon-holing and confinement to a genre. In Life he’s a known success and is clawing on to its retention.

But after finishing the book two points stand out. The first is a reminder of the apparent sexual liberty enjoyed by its characters. Not only Joe, but also Susan and eventually Norah, not to mention the ailing Mark, are apparently free-loaders. Only Mark’s wife seems to possess the frigidity, perhaps aridity, that Ian McEwan seems to associate with the era. I can remember when Life At The Top was a much watched film. It was seen as racy, even a bit risqué, but not because of what it portrayed, only that it was portrayed. It wasn’t the content that shocked; it was the fact that the content was made public.

On the other hand, if John Braine’s mission had been purely to shock, then the ultimate morality of the outcome would be incongruous at best. Life At The Top is the kind of novel where what happens is crucial, so to reveal the finishing point would detract from the experience of reading the book. Suffice it to say that, in its own way, Life At The Top becomes an affirmation of a given set of values, even if those who want to live by them do not always live up to them.

So I return again to On Chesil Beach and conclude that there may be a greater element of social class – or even stereotype – involved in Ian McEwan’s reading of the mores of that age. A shortcoming it might be, but it detracts in no way whatsoever from the quality of the book. The imagined rules applied to those described, despite the fact that, as John Braine’s Life At The Top reminds us, they might not actually have been rules and certainly didn’t apply to everyone, especially the imagined.

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Life at the Top

Monday, February 4, 2008

Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge

At first glance Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge suggests it might be quite a light book, an easy read, a period piece set in the mid-nineteenth century. This would be wrong. Master Georgie is no safe tale of country house manners, of marriages imagined by confined, embroidering young women. Beryl Bainbridge’s Master Georgie is anything but a tale of such saccharine gentility.

Master Georgie is a surgeon and photographer, and the book is cast in six plates – photographic plates, not chapters. Death figures throughout. From start to finish morbidity crashes into the lives of the book’s characters. We begin with Mr Moody, dead in a brothel bed, his host of minutes before in shock. Later we move to the Crimean War, where the carnage is graphic, extensive and apparently random. And even then individuals find their own personal ways of adding insult and injury to the suffering.

The book uses multiple points of view. We see things Master Georgie’s way. Myrtle, an orphan he takes in, adds her perspective. The fussy geologist, Dr Potter, imprints his own version of reality. And still there are less than explained undercurrents, undeclared motives which affect them all. Thus, overall, Master Georgie is a complex and ambitious novel. Though it is set in a major war, the backdrop is never allowed to dominate. The characters experience the consequences of conflict and register their reactions, but we are never led by the nose trough the history or the geography of the setting.

But we also never really get to know these people. Myrtle, perhaps, has the strongest presence. She has a slightly jaundiced, certainly pragmatic approach to life. But even she finds the privations of wartime tough. Why the characters of Master Georgie are all so keen to offer themselves as support for the war effort is an aspect of the book that never fully revealed itself. And ultimately this was my criticism of Beryl Bainbridge’s book. While the overall experience was both rewarding and not a little shocking, I found there was insufficient delineation between the characters and their differing motives. The beauty of the prose, however, more than made up for any shortcoming. The language created the mixed world of mid-nineteenth century politeness and juxtaposed this with the visceral vulgarities of soldiering and the general struggle of life. This rendered Master Georgie a complex, moving and quite beautiful book.

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Master Georgie