Thursday, 24 April 2014

Flight by Elephant by Andrew Martin

Flight by Elephant is the true account of the evacuation of around 200 refugees at the fall of Burma in 1942 to the Japanese. Burma was of course a British colony at the time when thousands of civilians working in tea plantations, on railways, in civil service positions, were forced to flee. Many escaped by boat and plane, but when airfields were under threat from Japanese bombers, those remaining had to head for the hills, literally - the rugged, jungle clad and insect infested hills of the north in an attempt to cross over to Assam in India.
    One party, led by Sir John Rowland, Chief Railway Commissioner of Burma, planned an evacuation via the Chaukan Pass, infamous for being difficult with its river gorges and rugged terrain, and impossible during monsoon season, which was just about to start. Among their party were people who were neither fit nor young, including a pregnant woman, the native wife of maverick colonial administrator, Edward Rossiter, and their six-month old son.
    But the book begins in the middle, with the brave struggle of two of the group, Millar and Leyden and an elephant tracker, who manage the tricky crossing of several massive rivers, one or two in full flow, and who manage to alert the need for a rescue party.
    And it seems obvious to all that the man for the job is Gyles Mackrell. Mackrell is a tea planter in his fifties, but as a decorated veteran of the Royal Flying Corps, he is a tough nut and better still has experience with elephants. The story of how Mackrell organises the rescue, hampered now by a monsoon in full swing, the terrible illnesses encountered, the leeches and mosquitoes, is fascinating reading. That the last of the party were not brought out until 20th August, Mackrell disobeying orders to see the rescue out, is a testament to his determination and endurance, as well as to the mahout guides and porters that made the rescue possible.
    Martin has pieced together the story from the diaries of those involved, but has also filled in many details that help it to make sense: from the political situation in Burma at the time, to the different native tribes that lived in the region, the tell-tale signs of malaria and beri-beri, the best way to deal with a plague of leeches (salt works a treat if you have it). Then there are the characters of Sir John, Rossiter, and Mackrell, et al, who are all vividly brought to life. Mackrell is the hero of the day in many respects, but thanks to his diary keeping we know of Sir John through his own words and his gung-ho, British turn of phrase - his 'Commando' advance party, for instance, are  a 'dashed stout crowd'.
    I am a big fan of Andrew Martin's railway detective series of novels, so I already knew how he can make events come to life on the page with his lively, chatty prose. And he does the same here, making this tale of heroism against the odds a complete page turner. I couldn't put it down.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Black Faces, White Faces by Jane Gardam

I came across this collection of short stories in a second-hand shop and what a joy! First published in 1975, Black Faces, White Faces is a book of interconnected stories about mostly English people on holiday in Jamaica. There's a law conference on, so many of the guests are lawyers, silks and even judges - and their wives - and there's a fair bit of kicking up of heels and disturbing desires that don't usually surface in the cooler English climate.
    Each story follows the point of view of a character, who we may meet again from another character's point of view, and as usual there's Gardam's dry wit and gift for the telling phrase. There's a huge span in age among the guests represented here.  At one end of the scale is the young Egerton lad, whose story, 'The Best Day of My Easter Holidays', is a school exercise that sharply captures the oddity of the English on holiday in an exotic location.
    Chaperoned by Jolly Jackson, their guide, the Egertons are taken on a lightning fast tour of the island, interrupted with car crashes and tropical storms. It throws up the racial unease that exists as well as the disparity between the wealthy tourists in luxury accommodation and the poorest islanders and their shanty-town existence. Of course the boy's teacher doesn't believe a word of it.
    At the other end of the scale is 'Something to Tell the Girls', where two ancient school teachers go on an outing where they naively rub shoulders with the rougher Jamaican elements and are rescued in part by friendly locals but also by their inability to notice they are in trouble.
    There is a honeymoon story that could be a bit Mills and Boon if it weren't for the couple's names (Boofy and Pussy!) and the droll style of the writing - particularly the appreciative comments from the old Jamaican hired to rake the sand at the hotel beach. There's a mildly creepy ghost story and a glimpse of a long-ago murder that has put a kind of hex on the beach after dark.
    As usual it is the details that make people seem so ridiculous out of their usual environment - the little preoccupations with things like raffia dinner mats, and very English clothing that isn't suitable in the heat. Many characters aren't very happy, in spite of the luxury accommodation - even the gorgeous Mrs Santamarina from Bolivia, or the newly titled Lady Fletcher.
    It's a collection of contrasts, with some interesting themes that are handled with great humanity and a light touch that lets the humour and irony shine through. And all the more readable for that. If there were more stories like this, I could happily read nothing but short stories and it is no surprise that this collection won prizes - the David Higham Prize for Fiction and the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize.

Friday, 18 April 2014

The Gardens of the Dead by William Brodrick

William Brodrick, once a monk turned barrister, writes the Father Anselm mystery series, about a barrister turned monk - a vocation that inspires people to unburden themselves, often with the kind of problems neither the law nor medical science can help with. Anselm lives at a monastery called Larkswood, where seated on a bench overlooking the river, these unburdenings often take place.
    The Gardens of the Dead takes Anselm back to his days as a barrister, when former colleague, Elizabeth Glendinning, turns up with a box of Milk Tray. She hands him an envelope containing a key and an address and asks Anselm to use them if she should die - which she does three weeks later.
    In doing so, Elizabeth has asked Anselm to take up where she left off to put things right regarding a brief they had worked on together over ten years before. They were defending Graham Riley, accused of luring runaway girls straight off the train to his house and then forcing them into prostitution to pay off arrears in rent.
    He's a small-time, mean little criminal, but George at the half-way house is onto him. However under examination in court, George is thrown by a question from Anselm that stirs up an event from his past. He finds he is unable to go through with his testimony against Riley. Then a year or two later, George's son is mysteriously killed and George's life is never the same. His marriage falls apart and he becomes homeless himself and is still living rough when Elizabeth finds him. Together they work on a plan to bring Riley to justice. The plan is starting to come to fruition when Elizabeth dies.
    Only seconds before Elizabeth's death of a heart condition, she makes a phone call to the police inspector who likewise has never forgotten the case. Her dying words were: Leave it to Anselm.  What follows is a sequence of events that eventually lead Anselm from one clue to another and a means to put things right.
    Anselm is the perfect investigator for a story about truth and justice, past deceptions and retribution. He has all the wisdom and kindliness to deal with those who are damaged by the past, even old Riley, plus a personal discomfort over what happened in court all those years ago. But this is also George's story, and his tenuous existence on the streets makes fascinating reading. He's a likeable man, and a record keeper - writing down his life in a series of notebooks - a way to deal with memory loss due to a beating by young thugs.
    Brodrick writes a very rich and powerful story, the best kind of mystery, and conjures up two completely different worlds - the hard life of London's docklands, petty criminals and homeless and the secluded monks who live simply and close to nature. It makes for an atmospheric read but one that leaves you a lot to think about, a bit P D James perhaps in this respect.

Friday, 11 April 2014

The Liar's Daughter by Laurie Graham

Laurie Graham's latest novel whets the reader's curiosity about Admiral Nelson's relationship with Mrs Hamilton, and their daughter, Horatia Thompson. But we learn about it only obliquely, through Nan Prunty McKeever, the liar's daughter of the title.
    Nan has been brought up to believe she is Horatio Nelson's daughter, the product of a fling on board the Victory not long before Nelson's famous Battle of Trafalgar - the battle Nelson won so decisively for England, while losing his life. How her mother, Ruby, came to be on board may seem hard to believe, but dressed as a boy, and apprenticed to a sail-maker, it could just about be possible.
    On the other hand, while bringing Nan up in Portsmouth and running an alehouse, Ruby tends to drink too much and tell stories, which get more elaborate as she goes on. The truth is anyone's guess.
    When Ruby drinks away the profits, Nan's future looks more and more tenuous but fortunately she is rescued by a benevolent teacher, and eventually gains work in a dispensary. Here she meets and marries a doctor, and has the chance to start a family of her own. But she can never let go of the fact that she might be Nelson's daughter.
    The novel tracks Nan's attempts to trace the story around her birth, visiting the Greenwich home for retired sailors where she interviews veterans who served on the Victory, and meeting Mrs Horatia Ward - Nelson and Emma Hamilton's actual daughter who would rather not acknowledge the fact. The irony of this is just a part of the rich vein of humour that runs through the book, mainly due to the brilliant characterisation and 'tell it like it is' narration.
    And Graham has obviously done a load of research too, because she recreates the atmosphere of the time, the events at Trafalgar, diseases and changing medical treatments, and the years that pass through to the middle 1800s. Soon another war takes place, a war that will involve Nan's daughter, Pru, a determined and sensible young woman who joins a nursing contingent heading for the Crimea. The conditions here are described in all their grisly glory, but there is still a lot of very human drama, and the friendships she makes lead to plenty of banter and comical moments.
    Graham makes some interesting digs at the more refined nurses connected with Florence Nightingale and Pru's Crimea sojourn makes what appears to be an interesting diversion from the main thrust of the story - the parentage of Nan. And a welcome diversion it is, as Nan's obsession can make her look ridiculous at times. But with a clever twist of plotting, the two story threads come together in a very satisfying ending.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Death on a Branch Line by Andrew Martin

Death on a Branch Line is the fifth in Martin's Jim Stringer, railway detective series, plunging the reader into York railway station in the midst of the heatwave of 1911.  Stringer is under pressure to find a hotel for the weekend - he's promised the wife a sojourn in Scarborough - but they're all booked out. Then several incidents occur that interrupt his efforts, including the arrival of a police guard which is taking a convicted murderer to the prison where he is to be hanged the following Monday.
    The condemned man, who is said to have murdered his father, makes a plea to Stringer: to visit his family home and prevent another death - his brother's. So instead of Scarborough, Jim takes Mrs Stringer to the tiny village of Adenwold, where half the population is on an outing to the seaside, and there's the feel of a deserted Western town awaiting a showdown.
    In a race against time, Jim tries to find out if there are any other motives for the murder of local landowner, Sir George Lambert, a vigorous hunter and shooter, who didn't get on with either of his two sons. Was Sir George's relationship with the condemned man's governess an important factor? And who are the two men that John Lambert fears so much and what can be the significance of all those railway timetables he's got in his cottage?
    Among the characters that invite the reader's curiosity are the oddball station master who is immersed in a table-top recreation of a Sudanese battle; the cheeky, layabout signalman and the Handley family who run the Angel, the inn where the Stringers spend the weekend.  The landlord is unhappy because he isn't making enough money and he'd rather be a farmer; his wife is upset over the impending execution of Hugh Lambert and their son Mervyn is particularly taciturn for reasons we will only learn about later on.
      Death on a Branch Line doesn't have Stringer charging about the countryside, jumping on and off trains and dodging villains as in previous books I've read in the series. But that doesn't mean it's slow. There is the constant tension of time ticking away until Hugh Lambert's final morning which is oddly contrasted with the heavy midsummer feeling of a town where nothing happens.
    The novel is also leavened with dollops of North of England humour which is largely due to the dry tone of Stringer's narration and his constant little battles to prove his worth to his Chief, a cigar smoking veteran soldier who is oddly spry considering his age and shape. Mrs Stringer gets plenty of opportunity to add her views, particularly to do with women's rights and in the background there is the sense of the approaching war. It's a light, fun read on the one hand, but the book is all the more interesting for the way it conjures up a very believable feel for its time and place.