First, a disclaimer. I’m not an Agatha Christie obsessive. I’m not some sort of superfan or zealot or literary Jihadist.
But I have actually read her. And I know a thing or two about English society in the interwar years.
I’ve always been interested in why her books (or, more latterly, adaptations of her books) have always been so popular.
I think I know bits of the answer. Enough to roll my eyes when I read a glib hatchet job, like the one Andy Martin served up recently on the Independent website. I’ll link to it below if you’re interested.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read this article. It has been regurgitated with monotonous regularity since Christie’s death in the mid 1970s – and of course many of its classic elements were set in stone early on, with the publication in 1979 of Colin Watson’s Snobbery With Violence. The most egregious recent example was Andrew Marr’s cringe-making attempt to skewer the topic in his series on successful fiction genres, Sleuths, Spies and Sorcerers.
It’s a curious phenomenon. Because of course no-one who’s actually ever engaged with any of Christie’s books would feel comfortable with the regurgitation process.
And I suppose I’m curious as to why they’re so devoid of curiosity.
Actually, they’re almost militant about this. Martin apparently bases much of his thesis on the shoot-from-the-hip views of one of his mates, who he quotes as saying: “I’ve never read a single Christie and I’m not planning to either… You don’t need to read any of the books.”
I expect Andy Martin would be astonished to learn that Christie didn’t write many classic country house mysteries. In fact, you could argue (though I can hear the snorts of derision as I write this) none at all. He might also be amused to discover that the Poirot of the books was (comically) obsessed with money. And anyone who thinks the inter-war years were a “Golden Age of orthodoxy, conformism and shockability” needs their head examining. That or a library ticket.
But of course this isn’t really about books or criticism or aesthetics.
For weekend iconoclasts, Christie is seen, perhaps quite rightly, as a low risk target – and dishing it to her as the laureate of petite-bourgeois, reactionary tastes is a handy way for academia’s nearly-men to prove their class war credentials.
The real story is a good deal more complicated than that. As a whole host of cultural critics have pointed out, Christie and a handful of fellow post-Great War writers were actually charting the rise of a new class, one that (whatever Martin and his editors at the Independent would have you believe) has continued to grow and evolve.
Martin argues that the middle classes have all but disappeared. Well, perhaps. But the next time he’s in Cambridge, girding his loins for a spot of teaching, he should actually look around him.
And he might care to make use of one of the college libraries. There a whole other critical universe out there. Since the 1930s, clever and creative and interesting people have had insightful things to say about the whodunit in general and Christie in particular. Addicts of the genre like, for instance, W H Auden.
There’s also a strand of French literary criticism arguing that Christie is one of the least acknowledged progenitors of meta-fiction. You know: the murder is a red herring; the gig is really all about a narrator (the detective) spinning a narrative out of other people’s stories.
But then, as one of my mates, a former polytechnic lecturer, puts it: “I’ve never read a single work of French literary criticism and I’m not planning to either… You don’t need to.”
Waldorf was surely right to question their thinking when it came to the whole question of “point-of-view.” When they’d talked blithely about “pictures” they’d somehow imagined that highly stylised graphic posters would magically appear and make themselves known to the whole wide world. Posters like the Art Deco ones the P&O liner company produced. Big blocks of bold colour. The Parthenon, say, in pale grey against a lime green or yellow or blushing pink sky. Background hints of a town somewhere in the twilight. And above, the Lindbergh plane, in silhouette, pitched at a rakish angle. Done well, this sort of image might have a subtle power, conveying a notion of glamour and modernity but also the feeling that an aeroplane could be seen as the harbinger of a new version of history.
A simple yet powerful message: The aeroplane, if you let it, would create more ruins. A world of ruins.
But of course no such posters would magically appear and make themselves known to the world.
All they had with them was a little lightweight camera and a few rolls of black and white film.
Details, details. What mattered most, surely, was Charles talking to the press. After all, a Charles Lindbergh quote was worth a thousand pictures.
Tellingly, though, the fact that they hated the press was another small detail they’d sort of overlooked. When they landed in Italy, having flown rather daringly right over the Alps, they were met at the aerodrome by a handful of reporters. It was hardly a mob; but almost by instinct now they pushed through without saying a word and they contrived to escape further attention by having their car pull up to a side entrance. They were tired, they were hungry; the press could wait another day.
And yet, when they returned to the airfield the next morning, to begin in earnest the first official leg of the expedition, there was no-one there. Not a soul. Not a single reporter. Not a single flashbulb.
But Rome was a hotspot compared to further afield. Carthage, for instance. A hazy afternoon, they weren’t even sure they’d flown over the right ruins; but when they landed at the new airstrip outside Tunis, there wasn’t a single person to meet them. Not even any ground crew. One hangar and two single-storey buildings whose windows hadn’t even been fitted with glass yet. All deserted. Luckily one of the telephones was connected. “Pronto! Pronto? Prego? Francaise? S’il vous plais, Embassy, Etats Unis?”
So it went. They criss-crossed the Mediterranean in search of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The thing was, though, that with every day that passed, their sense of mission seemed to drain away. They were aware this was happening, of course they were; and they did their very best, their damnedest, to keep the flame alive. Yet it was also true that some sort of enchantment was working upon them. A mythical power. Or, who knew, perhaps even some sort of primeval force.
Each day, as they took off on a new leg, with a new target ahead, they were more easily distracted. They were more easily intoxicated by beauty. It was almost as it they had become initiated, without quite knowing how or why, as disciples of a new aesthetic. First thing, not long after dawn, they’d take off into a perfect sky and were soon reabsorbed into a dreamy blue-and-purple world. The blue of the sky was darkest directly above, becoming paler towards the horizon; the purple of the mountains was deepest, brownest, along crinkled coastlines, shading out into distant mauve; and everywhere beneath them, the seas were a deep purply blue. From right up under the ceiling of the sky they could barely make out any sign of human activity below them, save, here and there, for the faintest threads of white left in the wake of sailing ships. An overpowering sense, from up here, that the Mediterranean was just one great puddle at the centre of an ancient world. But no sense at all of the ruins of that world.
And yet, though they drifted, though they gathered wool, they never wholly forgot what they were about…
Anne Morrow Lindbergh, on a wind-blown rock out in the Atlantic Ocean somewhere off Africa, looks back at Tingmissartoq and at Charles
The book came together rapidly now. And, day by day, as it grew in size, it grew, more importantly, in mastery too. Its engine no longer sputtered, it generated real thrust and an ever-more-evident potential to roar.
She’d acquired, from who knew where, almost out of the ether, a startling array of writerly tricks. Games with time, with visual perspective, with psychological perspective. Tricks of the light, tricks of the mind.
And she’d made the inspired decision not to begin, after a suitable explanatory preamble, right at Bathurst. Instead, she began her narrative on Santiago, one of the islands in the Cape Verde archipelago. Santiago had been their real-world stepping stone before Bathurst; but she now saw its potential as a psychological prelude too. They’d found Santiago a disturbing, unsettling place. Now she latched onto the eldritch nature of their brief time there, using this as a harbinger of things to come. And rendering the experience of Santiago into words on a page taught Anne the deftest of tricks when it came to collapsing the very-very large into the very-very small. Entire worlds in a grain of sand.
It allowed her to strike up a metaphysical relationship with the elements too. The sea, the sky, a gale-force wind, hot and dry.
Because they’d been misled about Santiago. They’d been told it was a French seaplane station: and indeed, there was every evidence that, once upon a time, it had been earmarked as an important base for French transatlantic aviation. But at some point in the 1930s it had been semi-abandoned. Buildings crumbled, equipment rusted. Three of the base’s crew remained, perhaps forgotten by Paris, forsaken, human accounting errors still drawing meagre pay and rations.
It was a fly-blown, diseased outpost, a plague ship. They’d all had fever. Or would contract it soon. But it seemed a dysfunctional community in other ways too, a darkness simmering below the surface. Each minute she was there, Anne was glad she would not have the time to discover more. Perhaps if they’d stumbled upon some monstrous secret they’d never have been allowed to leave.
The station boss, his wife and the radio operator lived in a bungalow near the top of a steep hill overlooking the bay. A dusty, crumbly hill like a cinder spoil-heap. As Anne took off up the hill she looked back to see Charles in a row boat, pulling hard into the gale, heading out into the bay where Tingmissartoq was at anchor.
Closes her eyes, climbs further up the hill. She looks back… and Charles is still rowing hard into the wind and it is as if he has made no progress at all. She climbs some more, looks back, and he is still pulling hard, but still nowhere near reaching the plane.
Time does that sometimes. You walk forwards but sometimes you cannot help but look back. Or sometimes you walk forwards but everything around you stands still. And sometimes the effects are magnified, intensified, on a wind-blown rock out in the Atlantic Ocean somewhere off Africa.
And another odd thing about Santiago was that, when she began reliving it, writing it, her general mood, already darkening, became darker still. She was conscious now of a festering anger. An anger and a pessimism. Even odder was the fact that she was almost certain that some of this anger was directed not towards Charles but towards Harold. It was almost as if she now openly resented him. For befriending her, for helping her, for giving her the use of Long Barn, for encouraging her, for being, when all was said and done, right about Bathurst.
… So off he flew to the land, more or less, where Stanley had met Livingstone. And he was hugely grateful in the end because the whole business proved wonderful for the soul. He found Africa stunningly beautiful. The approach to the airfield near Kampala, for instance, was particularly awe-inspiring. The strip was situated right by a lake; and from high above, circling to begin a descent, it looked for all the world as if this lake was edged in a coral necklace; and then, turning into a final approach, this necklace shattered, dissolved, fragmented, as thousands upon thousands of flamingos took to the air.
Day after day, there were further wonders to behold; and Harold drank them in.
The very air itself, he could have breathed it for a thousand days. Everything was clear and clean. Every experience seemed etched in peculiar sharpness. It was like Switzerland without the snow, hyper-real, more than vital. Even his allotted task, its endless meetings with uninspired and uninspiring colonial bureaucrats, seemed terribly stimulating. It was almost a shame to have to come home.
But come home he did to the last dregs of a filthy English winter.
And there was no mistaking the new mood. Edward VIII had gone and in his place as King, his brother, formerly The Duke of York. The Queen at his side, Elizabeth, was the mischievous little Scotch lady Harold had, in recent memory, failed to recognise at a cocktails reception. Yes, that Elizabeth, the twinkly-eyed pixie he’d attempted to shock to the very core of her being by taking her to a Sodom and Gomorrah show in Berlin less than ten years ago. O-ho! She had him now on toast if it pleased her. She could retain him as her poor fool.
Indeed, one of Harold’s first public acts on his return was a visit to Buckingham Palace. The new King and Queen, still feeling their way, threw a party for the Great and Good: and Harold, though insisting he qualified on neither count, was invited. He did his best to maintain a low profile and somehow blend in with the furniture; but all evening the Queen insisted on bringing people over to him, introducing him to friend and foe alike as “the pinkest of my courtiers.”
By which of course she meant his politics: his election as a National Labour member for one thing, his liberal views for another. She was teasing, naturally, and he didn’t much mind. In any case, the word “pink” now made him think of a coral necklace shattering into countless flamingo fragments, rising into the clear air above an African lake.
Extract from Book Seven of the 2016 draft of Flying Over Ruins
Extraordinary to see a sympathetic obituary of Nicholas Sand in a mainstream British news outlet. Once upon a time he was public enemy number one. OK, maybe not number one. Or even two. But certainly in the top one hundred or so.
It’s made me rather curious to get hold of a copy of The Sunshine Makers. I hope it tells us lots about his exotic life and times.
Sand was deluded of course. Dangerously so. But in hugely interesting ways.
He’s the sort of person we absolutely should know more about. His, not to put too fine a point upon it, whole milieu. And I think I’ve always assumed that one day I’d see the publication of the Compleat Book of LSD. The drug, after all, was a prime factor in a revolution, more social than cultural and more perceptual than either, that began in the 1960s and petered out towards the end of the 80s.
And yet insightful writing about this is surprisingly thin on the ground. Yes, there’s lots of anecdotal stuff about wacky happenings in the late 60s; and screeds of hagiographical material about psychedelic music.
But no-one’s ever really got to the heart of the subject: LSD as a movement, as an ideology, as a sociological phenomenon. For instance, LSD’s impact on Silicon Valley (personnel, product, business culture), a notion alluded to in the obit I’ve reproduced below, is surely worth exploring.
LSD’s power to alter the way we see the world (even if we’ve never taken it) is far more important than, say, the impact of the recreational use of opium on the early 19th Century Romantic movement, which in any case had a relatively small influence within society as a whole.
And yet I own at least two versions of, in effect, The Compleat Book of Opium. And there is less interest generally in (to use a crude shorthand) LSD Culture than there is in Ecstasy Culture or Heroin Culture.
The reason for this disparity is, I’d argue, easy to pin down – the LSD era produced few compelling narratives. Interesting as his Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is, Wolfe doesn’t really cut it. Kesey is a banal writer. Hunter S Thompson was a prize clown. And in any case, their perspectives were terribly narrow and ultimately parochial.
Huxley was more on the money, clearly, especially where the inner journey is concerned; but I’d always assumed that someone would come along and tell me, for I am terribly curious, about the bigger picture.
Yet the people best placed to tell that story, people like Sand, tended to be anti-literate, both by design and inclination. I’ll bet he didn’t keep a journal worth publishing. Yet in some respects he was one of the most important figures of the 20th Century. He helped mould its final three decades.
The participants are muted. And publishers have been, seemingly, reluctant to pull at whatever meagre threads they are offered. I’ve seen this in action myself, albeit at one remove.
At least two writers have attempted to sell the story of the spring and summer of 1978, when Edinburgh became the LSD capital of the world.
The only major flaw in Operation Julie in 1977 was the failure of its officers to realise that the Richard Kemp’s empire had a Scottish outpost, with manufacture and distribution centred on an isolated cottage near East Linton.
It was never raided… and to cut a long story short, several hundred thousand tabs, possibly millions, eventually made their way onto the Edinburgh streets at knockdown prices.
This (and what followed) was one of the oddest chapters in the whole history of the city, yet you will struggle to find any mention of this online or in print. Both of the writers who attempted to tackle this promising subject made the mistake of attracting initial interest from Canongate Books which, no doubt confused by the double vision it began suffering, dithered chronically – and both books were shunted off onto the too-difficult-to-take-any-further pile just prior, ironically enough, to the publication of Trainspotting.
I think I’ve recorded elsewhere my fitful attempts to find out what happened to the manuscripts.
Nicholas Sand would have known all about Edinburgh’s LSD Galore story. But with his passing, the odds on it ever seeing the light of day are further diminished.
And he must have known a hundred stories like it from around the counter-culture world. There are a thousand questions someone should have asked him while there was till time.
Do these stories matter? And if they never make it into print, will they somehow survive as oral history?
Here’s hoping. One way or another, via forensic archaeology if not from the horse’s mouth, we’re bound, ultimately, to discover the intimate truths of our lives and times. Aren’t we?
Letters page. Being an acknowledgement, in passing, that an alphabet learned by heart will be lost by reason
Two more postcards. My mailbag bulgeth. Truly.
Firstly, a fretfully plaintive note from a middle-manager in a marketing department who has been invited (I can hear his snort of contempt as he pens this word) to attend a day-long communications course.
He asks: Can you really learn to write better?
Well, let me say, I’m more than happy to respond.
In this instance, I’m very much at one with Ogden Nash.
If you want to write better, you must first be able to write good – which will open up to you the prospect, in the fullness of time, of writing best.
Secondly, a missive from my very dear friend Anna Davis, chief financial officer of Curtis Brown Creative, the world’s only agent-led writing school.
She asks: “Can a novel-writing course teach you to write a bestseller?”
No, Anna, it can not. Sorry to have to break this to you.
It goes without saying, though, that you must absolutely refrain from sharing this insight with any of your prospective customers.
I hope this has helped.
Hereinafter, lovingly reproduced for whomsoever it may concern, the scherzo to The Last of the Mohicans, Book Five of Flying Over Ruins
That August, it snowed neither in Berlin nor in Guernica nor in Warsaw nor in Rotterdam nor in Caen nor in Coventry.
Actually, that’s a lie. It snowed in Berlin.
There was an industrial accident. An explosion at a factory in the Siemensstadt area of the city, followed by a ferocious fire. A plume rose and was carried towards the stadium at the Reichssportfeld.
It snowed briefly on spectators watching the athletics there. Smuts of soot, like tiny feathers, black cygnet or dark eiderdown, fell. As they fell they rocked gently. The effect was soothing. Eerie but soothing.
There was a susurrus of whispering in the crowd. Murmurings. Then pockets of laughter.
Then the wind changed and the moment passed.
Someone made a winning attempt in the long jump final.
In Guernica and Caen and Warsaw and Coventry and Rotterdam, it didn’t snow until later.
But in some of those cases not all that much later.
In answer to a recent inquiry… Yes, by and large, I tend to keep Edwardian-era Foreign Office hours.
This is not because I believe, as one of my earliest editors did, that early to bed, early to rise is a dictum solely for “the little people.” She wasn’t Irish, by the way. She wasn’t talking about leprechauns. Or, indeed, Sir Martin Sorrell. Not directly at any rate.
She subsequently became, albeit briefly, a Conservative Member of Parliament. Which suited her down to the ground, because in the House you’re not expected to clock on until 2pm.
But anyway. The Edwardian Foreign Office. No-one of any seniority, in that august institution during that Golden Era, arrived at his desk before 11am, the hour at which communiques from far-flung fields would begin arriving from that morning’s Dover packet.
I cannot pretend to argue that this has any relevance to my own particular circumstances. I can only assume that I must have absorbed this morsel at some point in my dim and distant past… and found the notion extremely pleasing.
Well. There you have it. The copula in action. Some things just are: and they may be said to have attained that status in their own sweet way.
But wait. There’s more. Another correspondent asks… Am I a fan of leaning in? Yes. Naturellement! But I am also comfortable with leaning back. And occasionally sideways. Sometimes I even have to lie down.
I hope this helps to clarify matters.
“90% of my digital advertising spend is wasted. The problem is I don’t know which 90%” – digital marketing consultant, Alasdair Douglas Reid
Oh! I seem to have put the whole article into the headline. Damn. I hate it when that happens.
Lots of Robert Pirsig obituaries this week. A greater number, across a more diverse range of outlets, than you’d expect for the death of a mere writer.
The publication in 1974 of his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in some respects marked the point at which (to borrow a Dodie Smith notion) the so-called counterculture captured the castle.
It turned out to be a short lived stay. Shorter than most people remember. Or would like to believe.
But still. The book straddled audiences as deftly as it straddled genres. It was a big seller in the sorts of alternative bookshops that offered a heady mix of pornography, Marxism, vegan cook books and psychobabble self-help manuals alongside its Picador display stands; yet by the end of the decade it had made its way onto the reading lists of Eng Lit modules exploring the 20th Century after-currents of Romanticism.
Forget much of the zeitgeist stuff in the obits. Yes, the book was a success because Zen Buddhism was modish and motorcycles were still cool. But of equal importance was its compelling structural elegance.
Indeed, there were those on the intellectual wing of the book publishing business (mainly in the US but also, somewhat insipidly, on this side of the Atlantic too) who also believed that Pirsig had stumbled onto a magical recipe.
Take a first person narrative, a testament of sorts, ideally a quest – but disguise its true nature by clothing it in more abstract intellectual pursuits and the riding of choice hobby horses. It’s a form of misdirection, but a remarkably potent one.
Some of our more precious novelists attempted to absorb its lessons – Flaubert’s Parrot springs to mind – but never quite made it up to the mark. Sincerity, as they say, is incredibly hard to fake.
And in fact it turned out that Pirsig couldn’t repeat the trick himself. I’m almost certain I read, or tried to read, Lila… but I can remember not a single word of it.
The lessons, though, are still there to be learned. And well-written high-concept books will surely return. At their best they can be hugely rewarding for the reader. The sort of reader who likes his or her art multi-layered in ways that current templates (as policed by a dreary UEA diaspora) just can’t accommodate.
These days, if you pitched a point-counterpoint narrative even remotely resembling Zen, you’d get one of those witheringly-ghastly wall-eyed agent’s notes.
A day will eventually dawn, though.
As, indeed, it must.