Books! Books! Books!



Do non-readers ever truly understand readers? I suspect not. Last night we happy few were ensconced in Heffers, one of the nation’s most delightful bookshops, talking about the crime genre.

But newly returned from Cambridge, my head is still filled with Harry Potter. I did not personally enjoy the two volumes I read but I understand what a wonderful service JK Rowling has done for children everywhere. The Potter images are created largely by the films, and now the ridiculously pretty streets of Cambridge are coloured by those images, for better or worse. Cambridge means bookshops, cloisters, bicycles, the Cam and less of a noticeable divide between new and old – you’d have to be blind not to see the divisions in Oxford, although Oxford has the Ashmolean, for which I can forgive anything.


It’s also book season, when the most books get published. I’m already into Philip Pullman’s ‘The Secret Commonwealth’, technically the fifth His Dark Materials volume, which grows away from childhood things to darker territory. I can also recommend the books of my fellow authors in Cambridge, Kate Rhodes for her terrifically evocative Scilly Isles-set thrillers, Nicola Upson’s smoothly pleasurable and gently subversive Josephine Tey mysteries, and Barry Forshaw’s Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide, which leads the reader through the confusion crime novels and points out the gems. I’m also on Oscar de Muriel’s fourth outing for Frey and McGray, Loch of the Dead, a series of clever puzzlers that keep getting better.

Having now received my author copies of ‘England’s Finest’, featuring twelve new missing cases from the files of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, next week I’ll be giving away  12 signed copies – one for every case – by leaving clues on Twitter. They will, I’m afraid, all be in central London, purely for logistical reasons, but I’ll make sure they’re fairly distributed. Keep watching, happy reading and remember: being alone with a book always beats being in a crowd without one.

31 comments on “Books! Books! Books!”

  1. Christine says:

    Just out of curiosity, have you ever been in Hay-on-Wye?

  2. admin says:

    No, you have to be invited to the festival – the organisers are also responsible for the Bookers cock-up this year – and they’re celebrity-obsessed so many of us don’t get a look-in. I’ve been meaning to go just to buy books but it’s tricky to reach by public transport (I don’t own a car).

  3. Peter Tromans says:

    Half a century ago, Fitzbillies was run by two old ladies who made the most wonderful cakes. Their Chelsea buns were dripping in syrup – I’ve never encountered the like anywhere else. I assume the photo of the shop is staged as academic dress is effectively reserved for degree ceremonies (when the individuals would also wear the appropriate hood) and, even then, the mortar boards are optional (and not usual). There used to be a rule that for university exams, candidates had to be respectably dressed or wear an academic gown. One young female took the opportunity to distract others by interpreting the rule literally and wore an undergraduate gown.

    As for the difference between Oxford and Cambridge, visually Oxford, in spite of its inclination to the arts and the education of incompetent prime ministers, is a Midlands industrial town as well as a southern academic one. Bookshops, yes, Heffer’s is nice, but Blackwell’s in Oxford is outstanding, the best bookshop in the world. Both towns are losing their small, traditional shops through high rent and commercial rates. For punting and the view from the river, the Cam wins hands down. Oxford does seem to be the capital city of fictional murder. Perhaps B&M might make a visit to Cambridge to even the balance?

    Hay-on-Wye certainly has a lot of bookshops and it’s well worth a visit away from the festival. We were in Lisbon last week – LOML though it a safer option than Barcelona. There are two impressive bookshops: Bertrand, founded in 1732 claims to be (one of) the oldest in Portugal and the world; and, across Rua Garrett from it, Da Costa, which has an impressive second-hand book collection and a large cannon.

  4. Jo W says:

    Leaving your books around central London,eh? Wot a swizz, I’m away to the south coast next week, but I’ll play along at solving the clues on twitter.
    By the way Christopher, will you be signing any copies for sale at FP? That will give me a good excuse for another visit to that and of course,the Angel

  5. Nick says:

    I’ve read the first two Frey & McGrey books, and thoroughly enjoyed them. That Mr (or should that be Sr) de Muriel is a good find!

  6. Mike Shipman says:

    Hi, I’ve recently retired and now have the time and headspace to read books.
    Going to the library each month to choose 5 or 6 books is a great pastime, as is the reading of 5hem of course. I Enjoy “whodunnit “ type crime so go to that section in my local library. I don’t know the authors so pick up something around 300 or so pages(my aged head can cope with that length) have a quick read of the fly leaf to see what the book is about and if it seems interesting, that comes home with me.
    This week I found an author named Christopher Fowler and being an ex Londoner liked the sound of Bryant and May (used to use their matches when I smoked) and have quickly gone through Strange Tide and The Invisible codeand just about to start Hall of Mirrors.
    Thankyou Mr Fowler for creating very entertaining stories, and thankyou public libraries for being there.

  7. Debra Matheney says:

    Reading ‘Sorry for the Dead” right now. Upson’s series has been entertaining and provocative. The latest Peter Robinson was a bit of a slog. Enjoyed Deborah Crombie’s latest. This is a great season for new mysteries as the day ends earlier and the nihts become colder.

  8. eggsy says:

    Welcome to the club, Mike!

    On my way home this week past the skate park, I saw three yoofs – one as you would expect keeping the makers of Germolene in business, one sitting back enjoying the sun (or recovering from a twisted ankle), the third READING a paperback.
    I was so buoyed up by this I managed to overlook the fact he had Bent The Cover Back…..
    Obviously, in fear of being shivved, I was unable to ascertain what was being read.
    *scene: A&E
    “No, literary dispute”

  9. Ian Luck says:

    The late, great Bill Hicks was in a diner once, drinking coffee and reading a book after a show. The waitress came over to refill his coffee, and asked him:
    “What are you reading for?”
    This puzzled Hicks, who said he’d been asked what he was reading, but never what are you reading FOR.
    The waitress asked him the question again, and Hicks, not very tolerant of the terminally stupid, replied:
    “Probably so I don’t have to be a f*#?!%g waitress.”
    He says he drank up quickly and left, as he reckoned it was the sort of place where some guy would stand up and say, in a menacing tone:
    “Well, it looks like we got ourselves a reader…”

  10. Christine says:

    Christopher, I thought you use zipcar now as it has a space close to you.

  11. Brooke says:

    Re: Blackwell’s Oxford, I vote with Peter T: Might amend to best bookshop in world where English is primary language.

  12. Ian Mason says:

    I was thinking of Bill Hicks while reading yesterday’s post and comments around the “social-data analysts”. I suspect that, were he still alive, Bill’s advice to them would be the same as his advice to people in marketing and advertising…

  13. John Howard says:

    Hi Mike, I second eggsy’s welcome to the Christopher Fowler club. I found my way into the world many years ago in a similar way whist wandering through my local bookshop looking for something new to fill the shelves. May I say that all of his writing is worth a read not just the B & M books. ( ‘Cos he’s far too modest to say so himself ).

    As for the Ashmolean, whenever i’m in the vicinity of Oxford I can always find a reason to stop for a coffee & a bum and a drop in there just to glance at the Alfred jewel. Just a small piece of exquisitness.

  14. Ian Luck says:

    John – is that a new hipster thing, now? A large Americano and a Gentleman Of the Road to go? Do they write your name on the cup, or the Tramp?
    ‘Godot’s Coffee. A drink, and the Derro of your choice. £3.65’
    DISCLAIMER: There’s a good chance that you’ll wait for ages, and neither will turn up.

  15. Helen Martin says:

    Ian, I had far too much couth to comment on that typo.

  16. Brian Evans says:

    I have been to Hay twice. Once some years ago by car with partner, and then the year before last by myself by public transport. We have a car but I don’t and never did wish to learn to drive. I spent a few days in the rather pleasant Abergavenny which still has a railway station. I went to Hay by bus. It has gone considerably downhill since my last visit and many of the bookshops are bookshops no more. On the other hand it feels like a real town again. The reason for going was to take pics of the former cinema which is just about the biggest bookshop in town.

    Another cinema turned bookshop is in Llangollen. Huge stock but hideously over-priced as I told them when I marched out in a marked manner a few weeks ago. The former architecturally splendid railway station in Alnwick Northumberland is the best second hand bookshop I have been to. It is one of the biggest in the country, fantastic, and actually had a large queue at the check-out. The one in Rochester is also good-it claims to be the biggest in the England. Also, a visit to Carnforth is worth the journey as they have a good one there. You can lunch in the “Brief Encounter” station café. Carnforth never lets you forget the film was made in the town.

    BTW, if going to Hay, don’t stay at the “Great Western Hotel” next to the station!!

    To re-jig a very good joke told a while back on here by Mr F, and now for his benefit, Uxbridge is probably the nearest tube station for Hay.

  17. Brian Evans says:

    “BTW, if going to Hay, don’t stay at the “Great Western Hotel” next to the station!!” Oo-er, I mean the Great Western Hotel in Abergavenny. Sorry Hay! There may be one there as it was on the railway years ago.

  18. Ian Luck says:

    If I recall correctly, the ‘King’ of Hay-On-Wye (who I saw in a book about eccentrics, which had a picture of him wearing a cardboard crown, and holding an old ballcock as an Orb), died recently.

  19. snowy says:

    “Carnforth never lets you forget the film was made in the town.”

    Except it wasn’t… If the scene does not feature actors plus ‘yer actual train’ it isn’t Carnforth, [there are rumours that the rest of the train footage was a second unit shoot/stock footage from Watford Junction and not Carnforth].

    Of the rest, what isn’t a studio int/ext set was filmed within 10 miles of Denham, [apart from a bit of Lake District and Regents Park ‘Pond’.]

    But that is the magic of Cinema!

  20. Helen Martin says:

    Snowy, destroying a son’s faith in his father!

  21. Brian Evans says:

    Never the less, Carnforth would like you to think it was made in the town

    Snowy, I have checked on IMDB and most of the locations were filmed around Beaconsfield as it was made in nearby Denham Studios. However, most of the railway footage was made around Carnforth. At one time in the film you can see the railway signage showing the local destinations. Victoria Wood did a joke about it which included the line “Why did she keep going to North Yorkshire to change her library books?”

    Of course, the café was a studio mock-up, but the actual station one is now a “Brief Encounter” experience. There is also a museum dedicated to the film and this goes into a lot of detail about the filming on the station, including the trouble lighting the night time scenes. The museum was opened a few years ago by Margaret Barton who played Beryl, Joyce Carey’s assistant in the film. She is the only person still alive who was in the picture .

    Quite a lot has been written about the film and its Carnforth connection, including by Noel Coward in, I think, his diaries.

    For its day, the picture was a bit of an oddity. It seems frozen in time. Leslie Halliwell (the late prolific reactionary film buff who never seemed to actually like a film made after about 1945) says in his book, “Halliwells 100”, that the screenplay has it set in 1939 but there is no mention of the time in the film. This could probably be due to the play it was based on (Still Life) being pre-war. However, the is no mention of the war in the film or the rationing of the time, or of any war service done by Alec, the Trevor Howard character. Also, Halliwell makes the point that “What we see is pure Weybridge yet the trains run on steam and not suburban electricity.” Also, refreshingly for a film of the time written by a man, it is totally seen from the woman’s point of view.

    I do rather like Carnforth. It is a dreary little town but for an out and proud “anorak” such as me it has a triple whammy-the station with its museum, the very good second hand book emporium, and a model railway shop on one of the station platforms.

  22. snowy says:

    Well they had to do something there once they no longer made steel and the bottom fell out of the knicker industry.

    The film is very Coward, nothing happens twice* but in a terribly, terribly precise manner. [Additional scenes were added by other writers copying Cowards style.]

    There have been attempts to have the original one-act play reconsidered as a highly coded reference to life pre-Wolfenden Report, but it seems a very long stretch.

    [* She doesn’t even get her suspenders twanged and the Anna Karenina tribute act is a complete wash-out.]

  23. Brian Evans says:

    Snowy-you are a rotter! knickers indeed.

    Have you read the BFI film classics by Richard Dyer? This does mention the pre-Wolfenden gay theory about the film. It was seen by the gay community to have a relevant secret love element, in the same way that Doris Day sang “Secret Love” in “Calamity Jane” a few years later. I do think there is more than an element of truth in the theory.

    Whilst Coward is a very clever writer, too may of his comedy characters have a clipped delivery and mode of speaking. I love “Blithe Spirit”, but have to admit that most of the dialogue that comes out of the character’s mouths are the sayings of people who have had a few seconds to think of a witty reply, rather than sounding spontaneous.

    I suppose you know that a rough cut of the finished “Brief Encounter” picture was shown by David Lean in Rochester while he was filming “Oliver Twist” It was shown in a cinema in a working-class area and the makers became quite despondent when the audience got impatient and shouted out things like “get on with it mate and just give her one”. The film opened to poor reviews and was not especially popular. It was merciless lampooned in the 1960s as a dated relic by Hugh Paddick and Betty Marsden on a regular basis in “Round the Horne” It is surprising that it is now regarded as a classic.

  24. admin says:

    The ‘gay coding’ of Brief Encounter has often been explored and is fairly obvious when you look at the author’s background. Apparently Celia Johnson asked David Lean if they could shoot the big clinch between her and Trevor quickly because she had to return a library book. The film gained popularity on rerelease after it was one of the first films to be shown on television.
    The delightful film ‘The Celluloid Closet’ by Vito Russo, based on his book, won an Oscar and explores coding in movies, including Gore Vidal hilariously discussing Stephen Boyd and Charlton Heston’s bromance in ‘Ben-Hur’.

  25. snowy says:

    Apologies for breaking it down into sections, [if I don’t I’ll lose my place and wander off into odd side roads… again].

    “Have you read the BFI film classics by Richard Dyer?”

    I’ve not read the book, despite it coming from a source that numbers among its authors another occasional commentator here-abouts. [But discussions about the film crop up with the inevitable regularity once matched only by finding a lone green crisp in your bag. It must be a staple of one of the TV channels on the bottom of the EPG that peolple stumble over when they are sick of watching people fiddle about with food.]

    “This does mention the pre-Wolfenden gay theory about the film. It was seen by the gay community to have a relevant secret love element… I do think there is more than an element of truth in the theory.”

    It is seductive as an interpretation, but that is all it is – an interpreptation, by people that are looking for a very specific set of ‘hidden’ clues. This makes them very liable to confirmation bias.

    [I can’t find a text of the original one-act play to check, but I have a feeling that the film cuts out a lot of the original contrast between the repressed suburban middle-class and the free working class characters; which are reduced to mere comic relief in the film.]

    If it was very specifically coded, I would have expected the author to have stated as such, [I doubt he could have ever resisted blowing the secret, if secret there was!]

    “Whilst Coward is a very clever writer, too may of his comedy characters have a clipped delivery and mode of speaking….”

    That touches on the big problem with Coward revivals, the long shadow of the author. Coward had many talents, but acting wasn’t one of them. [If you thought Olivier’s performances had a bit of a whiff of cured pork leg about them, Coward is at best Lidl’s Spiced Pork Loaf inna Tin.]

    Directors want to have every line delivered as if every character was being played by Coward, [his ego would have loved it, but as an author/director he must be spinning in his box!] The comedies particularly, he would have seen and played Shaw and others in rep, he can’t have been unaware of what was happening in Cinema, why modern interpretations of the texts persist with this strange delivery is a mystery to me.

    “It was merciless lampooned in the 1960s as a dated relic…”

    It seems to flip-flop, when it came out it seemed to hark back to a time before the war when things were simple and look forward to a future in which life would be simple again, [they weren’t and never would be for most people because their lives had been irrevocably changed]. Critically lauded, but audience reaction was decidedly average.

    By the 50s it was rather dated, in the 60s it was ridiculously twee, [nothing is quite as hilariously naff to each generation as things that your parents liked]. But as Director David Lean’s stock has risen, for his later work; views on it have been revised.

    To me it’s a ‘potboiler’ of a film with some interesting technical bits, but I’d not re-watch it for the story.

  26. snowy says:

    Basing an interpretation on which way the author swung is ‘unsound’ logic.

    Just because an author is gay it doesn’t mean each and every text they produce will make reference to it.

    [Despite being full of sailors, ‘In Which We Serve’ is notably short of man-on-man action!]

  27. Brian Evans says:

    “Just because an author is gay it doesn’t mean each and every text they produce will make reference to it.” I can’t work out how to do italics on here!

    That’s true. Take Rattigan’s “Separate Tables” with the Major who is caught groping women in cinemas. He wrote a gay version when the character was caught in a gay cruising area. The censors of the time weren’t happy so he changed it to women. The play is about tolerance as the character is living in a residential hotel. It is a play that in a way seems stronger when played today, and has a complete reversal of tolerance. Today, most people wouldn’t bat an eyelid if they were living with a gay man, but to be living with a man who stalks women seems and is much more unpleasant now than it was seen to be when the play was written. Some years ago I saw the gay version done at the Kings Head in Islington and the word “homosexual” was not used. He was referred to as a “man of a certain persuasion”. The most interesting thing to come out of it that the “Mcguffin” was irrelevant-it didn’t matter what the man had done, the play was about the tolerance or intolerance of the people he was surrounded by. Of course, at the moment, that sort of thing is displayed horrendously due to Brexit which is bringing hatred and intolerance out into the open, in just the same way that Trump is using the same hateful “divide and rule” tactics

    “Still life” is actually a one act play the lasts for about 65 minutes. It was performed with two other one act plays to make a theatrical evening called “Tonight at 8.30” The working-class characters are also mere comic relief in just the same way as the film.

    I have seen “Blithe Spirit” several times and directed an amateur production once .The biggest aspect that separates amateurs from pros is the lack of pace that often has to be endured in amateur productions. Therefore my main job was to try and get the dialogue being spoken at a cracking pace rather than imitating the style of the “Master” Esp as there is so much of it!

    I’m glad I’m not alone in thinking Olivier to being an old ham. His filmed “Othello” should have got an award for the best comedy performance of the year. The fact that he was blacked up made it even more hilarious. It kept looking as though he was about to break into song with “California Here I Come”

    Mr F-all the London Season stuff pales into insignificance with turning on of the Southport Christmas illuminations in a few weeks. I wish!

  28. Ian Luck says:

    Just finished Martin Edwards novel ‘Gallows Court’. What a brilliant, twisty-turny book. Started it at ten o clock last night, and couldn’t put the damn thing down until I finished it at three this morning.

  29. snowy says:

    By a strange coincidence, I’m currently enjoying one of Mr Edwards picks in the British Library Crime Series ‘Quick Curtain’ by Alan Melville. [Written in the period Coward was knocking out ‘Still Life’.]

    An actor, Mr. Brandon Baker, who is really much too old to play the ‘juvenile lead’, but who has amassed a large and very loyal following among his lady fans is shot mid-performance. Much to the irritation of the Producer – Mr. Douglas B. Douglas, his mood is not improved when the critics review the performance.

    From Chapter 3:

    Mr Douglas’s latest venture, before it came to its timely end, was another musical comedy in which both music and comedy were conspicuous by their absence. The only trace of commendable acting came from Miss Eve Turner as Coletta, but as this transpired to be not acting but actuality, it is perhaps over-generous to do more than mention the fact that Miss Turner can shriek. Miss Astle wore a succession of charming frocks and showed how simple it is for a musical-comedy heroine to take a high C if the brass in the orchestra are sufficiently intelligent to blow very hard at the right time.

    A great deal could be said about Mr. Brandon Baker’s performance as Jack, but since there is a particularly restricting proverb concerning speaking ill of the dead. I will merely mention that the last thing Mr. Baker did was the best thing Mr. Baker did. The chorus were well-trained, over-worked and under-dressed, and I have no doubt that after a decent length of time has been allowed to lapse Mr. Douglas will have the temerity to restage Blue Music and that it will probably run for two years. Unfortunately, even in these stirring and unsettled times one cannot count on a murder at every first night…

  30. Ian Luck says:

    That’s wonderful. I’ll have to seek it out. Thank you.

  31. Ian Luck says:

    The very best lampoon of Noel Coward, has to be that by Eric Idle, in ‘Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life’. He performs ‘The Penis Song’, which, if I remember rightly, has a subtitle that says something like: ‘Not the Noel Coward Song’.

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