Trumpet by Jackie Kay

Picador, 1998, 280 p.

Kay is mainly a poet but has published three novels, of which this was the second.

Trumpet cover

Trumpet starts in the aftermath of the death of famous jazz trumpeter Joss Moody. His wife, Millicent, has travelled to Torr, a remote Scottish location, to escape press attention following the revelation of the couple’s secret. The story is told from various viewpoints starting with Millicent’s memories of their relationship. We are with the doctor who examines the body, see their adopted son Colman’s reaction to the news, the sensitive registrar’s concern for the proprieties, the indecision of the funeral director who prepares the corpse, the glee of the journalist, Sophie Stones, who interviews Colman for a projected book, are given a feel for Joss’s engrossment in the music, shown the memories of Moody’s drummer who will not hear a word said against him, of the cleaner who “did” for the Moodys, and finally meet Joss’s elderly mother, whose ongoing existence he had kept from his family.

As the book goes on we return intermittently to Millicent’s, Colman’s and Sophie’s viewpoints, charting Colman’s journey from initial disbelief to a gradual coming to terms with his upbringing.

There are several aperçus (not that you have to agree with all of them,) “Sex is always better if you argue before,” “Loss isn’t an absence after all. It is a presence,” “When the love of your life dies, the problem is not that some part of you dies too, which it does, but that some part of you is still alive,” and lots of Scotticisms to savour; tattie scones, square sausage, Irn Bru (as irn bru), shortbread, black bun, chapping the door and the wonderful to see in a literary context, “His brain is mince.” (Mince = rubbish or useless.)

I confess not to have read any of Kay’s poetry but her ability as a novelist is without question.

Pedant’s corner:
In Millicent’s narratives – windowscreen for windscreen, reeking havoc, grizzly for grisly, Greyfriars bobby (Bobby,) asterix for asterisk – but these may be the character’s spelling choices. What may be a continuity error, “I’ve never locked the door and I’m not starting now,” where a few pages before on arrival at Torr she had locked the door can be attributed to Millie’s disorientation.
Similarly in Colman’s viewpoint we had mowed for mown, regigged for rejigged and Barr’s irn bru. It’s a proper noun, so Irn Bru.
“There has been some sympathetic murmurings.” (have) “Something about the eyes that draw you.” The subject of the verb here is “something” not “eyes.” That would be something draws you, then.
The registrar office should have been a register one – and capitalised – and were there branches of Menzies in London railway stations back in the day?
Twice we had ass for arse and twice asshole for arsehole and there was the strange construction, “She sat put with the girl.”

Great Tapestry of Scotland and Edinburgh’s Art Deco Heritage 10: TSB Bank London Road

A couple of weeks ago, mostly on the good lady’s volition, we travelled to see the Great Tapestry of Scotland which was on show at the Scottish Parliament building. Its exhibition there finishes sometime in September and it will eventually end up in Melrose when the new rail line to the borders is complete.

It’s quite an impressive collection – of embroidery rather than tapestry but Hey-ho – of over 100 panels stitched by volunteers from round Scotland each one illustrating a piece of Scottish history.

I may get round to posting other views of the panels but this one featured Dumbarton Rock, which in 870 AD (or 870 CE if you prefer) fell to the Vikings:-

on the way back to where we’d parked I captured the building below on pixels. I’d passed it many times before in the car but never stopped near enough by. It’s the TSB bank in East Norton Place (London Road) Edinburgh.

The pillars on the corners are good. The street sign on the bank also says East Norton Place. From the other side the pillars are again stand outs. The style of the number 30 is nicely deco too.

Shore Coal

Many Fife coastlines bear the marks of past coal mining. A ribbon of coal particles can be found on Kirkcaldy and Burntisland beaches, whether washed there from mines or eroded from rocks I don’t know..

At Lower Largo the deposits are larger. Here are some seen through the shore barrier.

And these are lumps.

The industrial landscape of Methil can be seen from Lower Largo beach, wind turbines, oil rigs and all.

Friday On My Mind 100: Rag Mama Rag

This song gained the Band their highest UK chart placing, a no 16 compared to the no 21 The Weight achieved.

The Band: Rag Mama Rag

Triton from Voyager 2

This is via Astronomy Picture of the Day, 26//8/14.

Neptune’s largest moon Triton.

The movie has been stitched together from still pictures taken by Voyager 2 on its fly past.

The Voyager missions must have been Nasa’s most successful unmanned investigations of the Solar System.

Apparently the green colour of the moon is real.

Hibernian 3-2 Dumbarton

Scottish League Cup, Round 2, Easter Road Stadium, 26/8/14.

A case of might have been. Two-nil up with less than fifteen minutes to go you would expect not to lose; but of course we did.

The first half I thought Hibs looked sharper and more threatening but apparently we had more possession (from Boghead Ranter – about halfway down the page.) They seemed to have more space but we held them off. That is a hellish green they have for a shirt though, not Hibs-like at all.

Garry Fleming had a good game but against opponents like this his limitations were highlighted. His strengths through, particularly effort and putting himself about gave their defenders problems. Colin Nish looked more up for it than usual and came onto a game. I thought Scott Taggart was good at centre half – in the first half anyway. In the second our defence was too far away from the Dumbarton support to be sure of anything about it.

The second half was a bit different. We suddenly had a period of domination and got the goal, Scott Agnew’s corner headed back across goal by Nish and Mitch Megginson reacting quickly to hook the ball in on the volley.

The second followed another Agnew corner, again knocked back and Garry Fleming’s tenacity (He was fouled but we weren’t going to get a penalty) meant the ball rebounded to Mark Gilhaney who hit it. The ball ricocheted off at least two Hibs defenders before just crossing the line.here was some confusion for a second or two before the ref – or perhaps the linesman – gave it.

Curiously at that point – at least 25 minutes to go – some Hibs fans decided to leave!

In retrospect that goal came too early. If we had gone two up later it might have killed them. As it was they had a long time in which to come back. Nish’s substitution (by Jordan Kirkpatrick) may have been the turning point. Suddenly our one tactic for getting the ball out had gone and we were pressed back more and more. In addition we began to look tired, especially Garry Fleming whose own substitution was about ten minutes too late.

When they scored it only invited more pressure but unbelievably the second was more or less a carbon copy of the first; a cross headed in by the impressive but all but unmarked El Alagui. I don’t remember seeing a striker as good as him all last season. Ater that there was only going to be one winner – and I didn’t want it to be in extra time. One small mercy then.

Three goals lost in less than twelve minutes isn’t good, even if we were tiring against a full time team. But when we had a go at them they looked vulnerable and we showed we can score.

However, we’re losing at least three goals a game; no matter whom we play and no matter the centre back pairing.

This is beginning to look like an amalgam of the 2010-11 and 2012 -13 seasons. And beginning to feel horribly like a relegation season. Things need to change soon.

Rust Never Sleeps

About a month ago we went for a walk along the beach at Lower Largo in Fife. Old railway sleepers held together by well-rusted iron struts form a barrier to help shore up the … err.. shore.

There is the semblance of a face on the second sleeper from right here.

The texture of the rusted supports was interesting.

In this one the iron has almost reverted back to ore. It looks very like samples of haematite I have seen.

HHhH by Laurent Binet

Vintage, 2013, unpaginated. Translated from the French HHhH (© Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle 2009) by Sam Taylor.

 HHhH cover

HHhH is a strange book, claiming to be a novel, but which is also a historical account of Operation Anthropoid, the British-backed mission to assassinate the head of both the Gestapo and the SD and architect of the Nazis “Final Solution” to what they called “the Jewish Problem,” Reinhard(t) Heydrich, (he removed the final “t” of his forename to make it sound harder) in Prague in 1942. The narrator makes much of his attempts to be true to his characters’ actual lives, saying he will eschew invention of dialogue where possible, commenting on occasions where he does so. He asserts his heroes are the assassins, Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš (one Czech, one Slovak at the insistence of President-in-exile Beneš) and other members of the resistance, yet they and the assassination itself take up only a small portion of the novel which is really the story of Heydrich’s life and an examination of the insanities of the Nazi belief system and organisation. Along the way we delve deep into the roots of the Czech-German dispute – in mediæval times a Bohemian king invited miners from Germany to exploit the silver deposits found in his kingdom – we digress into the origins of the Reformation in the Hussite heresy and, solely because Heydrich visited Ukraine, the heroism of the Ukrainian footballers who took on the previously undefeated Luftwaffe team with ten men and despite being warned to lose at half-time, triumphed 5-1. A few days later they also won the return against a team bolstered by “professional” players from Berlin. [I put that “professional” in quotes because I’m sure I read somewhere else – probably in Inverting the Pyramid - that the pre-war German game was amateur and the Nazis believed only amateur sport was true sport. Professional football only developed in Germany after the war.] The Ukrainians also won the hastily arranged return match and all but three players, who escaped in the confusion of a pitch invasion at the end, were executed.

The narrator mentions the many books and films featuring Heydrich and/or the assassination which he has sought out or encountered – mainly to emphasise their historical inaccuracies – and puts in a good word for Conspiracy where Kenneth Branagh portrayed Heydrich at the Wannsee Conference but scorns most other representations. Despite his apparently encyclopædic knowledge of Heydrich’s afterlife in book and film he makes no mention of the only other I have seen bar Conspiracy, a film called Operation: Daybreak starring Anthony Andrews as Gabčík, but he does dwell on the novel on which the film was based, Seven Men at Daybreak by Alan Burgess.

The first person narration is a piece of authorial trickery. We are invited to believe it is by Binet himself but the narrator does his military service teaching French at an academy in Slovakia, Prague is the city he loves most in the world, yet the author is French – HHhH won the first-novel Prix Goncourt in 2010 – and the constant references to his attempts to establish facts (for example he dithers over whether Heydrich’s Mercedes was black or green; his memory has it as black but the museum exhibit he saw may have been a substitute, an otherwise reliable book has it as green) subtly undermine reliability. In a sly aside he mentions that – contrary to the perennial defence trotted out by ex-Nazis to defray blame for their actions – Heydrich was not averse to disobeying orders when the opportunity to be lenient was available. Heydrich was never lenient.

It seems Heydrich was also supremely arrogant, usually travelling round Prague with no escort, a fact which troubled Albert Speer on his visit to the city and to whom Heydrich says in the novel, “Why should my Czechs shoot me?” Heydrich had previously been shot down on the Eastern Front after a reckless chase of a Soviet plane in an attempt to make himself a war hero, causing great apprehension in Berlin till he got himself back to German lines. Hitler banned any further such adventures. Yet Heydrich didn’t learn. His only companion on the day of the assassination was his driver. After his death the book has Hitler berating his carelessness, saying, “Men as important as Heydrich should always know that they are like targets at a fairground.”

Except for those parts dealing with the narrator’s research and primary readers’ comments the book is for the most part written in the historic present. (John Humphrys would not like it, then.) Its unusual title is from the German Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich (Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.) The original title Operation Anthropoid was apparently “too SF” – !!!! – “too Robert Ludlum.”

The climax of the German hunt for the assassins and their comrades, fruitless until they were betrayed by a fellow parachutist for the reward of twenty thousand crowns, is dealt with in a few pages. Of course, there are no eye witness accounts of the final moments in the crypt at the church of Saints Cyril and Methodius, as the group held out till their ammunition was about to be exhausted and killed themselves with their last bullets.

The narrator quotes George Sand – “Struggle against those who tell you: ‘Work hard to live badly’” – which he says is “not an invitation to digress – it’s a demand.” One of the Nazis is stated as thinking, “Scapegoats at all costs – that could be the Reich’s motto.”

Notwithstanding the lack of tension – surely any interested reader will already know the outcome – and the digressive nature of the treatment the book is immensely readable. It’s easy to see why it won the praise it has received.

The translation was excellent (except for its unfortunate forays into USian – ass for arse, jerked off.)

New Aircraft Carrier

We were along the Fife coast a fortnight or so ago; at Limekilns where there is a good view of Rosyth Dockyard and the Forth Bridges.

Currently fitting out at the dockyard is the new Royal Navy aircraft carrier – the one there won’t be any planes for once it is completed. Both bridges are in the background.

Camera Obscura by Lavie Tidhar

Angry Robot, 2011, 379 p.

 Camera Obscura cover

Camera Obscura is the second of Tidhar’s tales of The Bookman Histories. Whether it is desirable I can’t say as I’ve not read the previous volume but familiarity with the first is not necessary as this book did stand alone. Yet how to classify this blend of steampunk, altered history, murder mystery and SF? Best not to, perhaps. Let it all wash over you in an overwhelming wave.

Milady de Winter, once Cleopatra, The Ferocious Dahomey Amazon in Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth, sometime wife of a late English Lord, now works for the Quiet Council, a group of machines which rules in Paris. Across the channel Queen Victoria is on the throne – but she is a lizard, one of the set of creatures awakened by Amerigo Vespucci when he ventured over the Atlantic to Caliban’s island. As a result, in this universe inhabitants of the New World are referred to as Vespuccians.

As the above perhaps indicates, various homages are made in the course of this tale. We encounter Viktor, a scientist who experiments on dead bodies, Edison players which operate using perforated discs, a representative of the Empire of Chung Kuo, Mycroft Holmes (an agent for British intelligence,) Citizen Sade – who likes to inflict pain, Sitting Bull, Buffalo Bill; the list is almost endless. We hear, too, of a man named Moreau, off to carry on his work on a Pacific island. There was even the sentence, “A man came through the door with a gun,” but that was inserted only to subvert the cliché it implies. Earlier it had reminded me the film of The Maltese Falcon. At a ball Viktor utters a line that reads as if it could have come out of Treasure Island. “The dead don’t dance, and they seldom drink,” begs to be followed with, “Yo, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum.”

The first section of the book is entitled Murder in the Rue Morgue and at this point it looks as if we are going to be reading a steampunk (secret) police procedural. The starting point is misleading though, as the murder story morphs into a different kind of tale. There is the sense that Tidhar is packing too many allusions and references into his novel, at the expense of a tighter story. Not that the journey isn’t enjoyable just that the focus becomes diffuse, though pointers to the resolution are distributed throughout.

It all builds to a climax set four years after the Paris Exposition Universelle, at The World’s Vespuccian Exposition in Chicago – Ferris Wheel and all. Compare The World’s Columbian Exposition (a World’s Fair whose buildings became known as The White City) of which there are some pictures here.

While Tidhar can write there really is too much going on here for the characters to grow and develop – but that is, I’m sure, deliberate. Read it for the adventure story, for the references and allusions. For its brio.

Pedant’s corner: Except for the one occasion where automata appeared the word automatons is used as a plural throughout the book. Milady at one point has “another death on her hand.” (Hand, singular. This was before she lost one of the relevant appendages and it was replaced with a Gatling gun.) “Apart for them” was used for “apart from them,” and in “as if she and the jade have come to some sort of understanding” (have should be had) – plus a “sank” for sunk.

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