Balancing Acts

Christopher Fowler

New evidence shows that human beings were already standing on their own two feet seven million years ago. So it would seem I'm going in the reverse direction, for I'm now barely able to stand up some days. The neurological damage to my lower limbs, my weight-loss and general unwellness suggest that I will have to finally curtail my travelling. (I know, I photograph as my usual picture of health. As one friend said, 'Who don't you look more sick?' I couldn't just lay around all day feeling sorry for myself. The Husband came up with a remedy; 'Let's haul you to a beach and you can dive into high surf and I'll pull you out when you're tired.' After all, this is the man who can who can turn any light summer stroll into a death march. We once nipped out in flip-flops and accidentally walked to the next city. It was a yellow flag day. The breakers were smashing against the rocks. Where once I would have hurled myself in with abandon, I was now terrified. But I did it, and later I did it again with more confidence. When I got home I coughed until I was bloody. Had it been a good idea? A very painful one, but on balance, yes. What else did I do on my summer holiday? I spent much of it in bed with a cold but at least I was able to catch up with my dynamic friend Joanna, who trots off to help refugees in the Ukraine instead of just sticking blue and yellow flags on her Facebook page. I'm blessed to have such extraordinary, inspirational people in my life. Now I'm home. In a couple of weeks I start palliative care and will hopefully get some advice about managing various issues. Until then - I'm reading! 

Balancing The Books

One forgotten gem, published by Valancourt, is Edwin Greenwood's 'The Deadly Dowager' (1934), a revenge tale that plays out like a warped version of 'Kind Hearts and Coronets'. I had avoided it for an age because the cover made it appear cartoonish. Valancourt is very good at rediscovering rarities and has some real treats in its lists. We know who's about to do it in 'The Deadly Dowager' but it really doesn't matter because there's a lot going on. The narrative has some terrific aperçus which are almost thrown away; 'Eton is for being bred, not for being educated.' After a while I started highlighting them. One last plug for Frankie Boyle's 'Meantime', whose off-his-face detective seems too laid back to solve anything. The narrative occasionally slips into a stand-up routine (as is the habit of stand-ups who try fiction) but it's still a genuinely hilarious read. I have my hands on two old rarities, in one case very rare indeed. Richard Hughes, he of 'A High Wind in Jamaica', a novel which still has the power to shock, wrote other less successful books, virtually all of which have vanished. One, 'The Fox in the Attic', intriguingly subtitled 'The Human Predicament One', sits on my desk waiting to be read. The other, kindly photocopied by a reader, is purportedly by a relative. We can't find the connection, but I remember Jeffrey Dell's name bandied about a lot as a child. 'Nobody Ordered Wolves' is a kind of Adventures in the Screen Trade set in 1930s Britain, a true story by a writer who was also a pretty good director (I have a couple of his charming films). Here's his opening scene, the departure of Brighton's legendary train, bearing executives back to London from the coast at the end of the weekend. Does anyone have the patience for this kind of writing now? I'm trying to balance the reading of older books with new novels but the popular fiction that seems to excite readers now does nothing for me. Stephen King has a ubiquitous new fantasy novel out, the synopsis of which may be at fault because it suggests that nothing new has happened in the genre over the last hundred years. Every single page of 'Nobody Ordered Wolves' and 'The Deadly Dowager' holds something cherishable. Is it a crime to deliver works which are so entertaining? Frankie Boyle gets it, albeit in a more scatological way. The books which were slightly disreputable when I was young now seem incredibly erudite and convoluted in their sentence structure, and I love them for it. Perhaps modern popular fiction is reaching an end. I suppose it could simplify further; 'Big Man Kill Monster'. At the end of our lives, which books will we remember most? The careful classics of 19th century literature or the wild tales that first entered our young hearts?


Joel (not verified) Thu, 08/09/2022 - 18:29

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

very glad you jumped in the water. i remember a few books from my teens. my first series, "dragonriders of pern". those were the first ones i purchased myself. helped me escape my population 3,000, little desert town. and i was off. nowadays, i love to laugh and cry, and if i can do it all with one book, that is my desire. "palliative care", such a soft, sounding phrase. it makes me sigh. no real strong emotions, just a release of breath. glad you aren't alone. a friend died of stage 4 pancreatic cancer a couple of days ago. left behind a husband and two newly adopted little boys. he was surrounded by love and family, and it seems like you are also surrounded by lots of love. and how lucky that is

Roger (not verified) Thu, 08/09/2022 - 20:14

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I'll see about ‘The Deadly Dowager’, but at the moment I'm getting rid of books to move... The original of ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ - 'Israel Rank' by Roy Horniman - is very different, but very good. He also wrote a sort of 'Kind Hearts'-lite, 'Lord Cammarleigh's Secret', where the hero blackmails his way to a seat in the Commons, a private income and marriage to Lord Cammarleigh's niece.

Both 'The Fox in the Attic' and its successor, 'The Wooden Shepherdess', are still in print in NYRB editions and are fine novels.

Roger (not verified) Thu, 08/09/2022 - 20:20

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Forgot to say: ‘Nobody Ordered Wolves’ could definitely do with re-issuing. It's good enough, rare enough and in demand - there's a cinematic website named after it. I had a 1940s paperback copy which fell to pieces as I read it and the only replacement I could find would have needed a mortgage to buy it - not a London, mortgage, true, but still a mortgage.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Fri, 09/09/2022 - 00:02

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Definitely looking up The Deadly Dowager.
I just finished Nictophobia and am thinking back to your comment about your books not being impossible. That is as close as you are likely to come to impossibility or so one would hope.
I hope palliative care is available at home for you and wish you all the best during this next phase of your life.

Will Highfield (not verified) Fri, 09/09/2022 - 10:27

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Now that I am older and retired I find myself more likely to be carried away on the wings of prose.- a lot like when I was introduced to "Look Homeward Angel" as a student. The difference is that I now read in a comfortable chair and then I was sprawled on broad lawns of green grass. The fiction takes me places I have never visited. I enjoy your books for their descriptions of London and the inner lives of your detectives.

I want to shout out to those of you who have read Tony Hillerman. I was lucky to have lived in Arizona during my high school years, so I have visited some of those canyonlands, malpaise, desert, and ruins. He does a terrific job of putting you in those arid places.

Hazel Jackson (not verified) Fri, 09/09/2022 - 11:11

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Have you read London Clay by Tom Chivers? If not I can certainly recommend. Pyschogeography of this type can be very rewarding in summoning the resonances of a place which this book does very successfully for London's hidden history of geology and rivers.

Christopher Fowler Fri, 09/09/2022 - 11:38

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thanks all for the book recommendations. I have London Clay but haven't started it - it looks a tad dry. Thanks Roger for tracking down the others!

Wayne Mook (not verified) Sun, 11/09/2022 - 04:57

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I've picked up a kindle version of The Deadly Dowager, looks good, thanks for the tip. A High Wind in Jamaica is excellent, what would you do to survive? A knowing and at time warm book that has more callousness than Lord of the Flies but none of the dislike of children. I remember being given a copy of Lord of the Flies at school and thinking someone must really hate children, and for a teacher to hand it to us always made me feel that person was in the wrong job, or at least was badly bullied at school.


Helen+Martin (not verified) Mon, 12/09/2022 - 18:52

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

A High Wind in Jamaica was recommended to me by my Mother and when I did read it I was quite startled since the ending didn't seem to be her sort of thing at all but perhaps she was even more down to earth than I'd thought.