Monthly Archives: September 2014

Our Man in Havana

Our Man in Havana – Graham Greene. Cover by Derek Birdsall, 1975.

Our Man in HavanaGraham Greene divided his books into “serious fiction” and “entertainments”. Our Man in Havana is one of the entertainments, and is probably the funniest.

Greene served with MI6 during the Second World War and worked in the department dealing with the Iberian Peninsula. One of the German’s agents in Portugal, “Garbo”, was a double agent who pretended to control a ring of agents all over England. To support his story he invented troop movements and operations from maps and standard military references. It seems that Garbo became the inspiration for Greene’s protagonist, the reluctant secret agent James Wormold.

The novel was published before the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 but aspects of the plot anticipate the crisis in which the US and the Soviet Union came alarmingly close to nuclear war.

I visited Cuba in 2007 with my eldest son who was then 17. Will was keen to see the Bay of Pigs, scene of the failed invasion of  Cuba by a CIA-sponsored paramilitary group, and to smoke the largest cigar he could get his hands on. Our plan was to travel independently, avoiding the big, “all-in” resorts. We wanted to use the network of cases particulates,  rooms in private homes that the government had recently allowed Cubans to rent to tourists.

Cuban Bliss

Cuban Bliss

Raised on stories from the Cold War we both believed that most of what characterized Cuba in the first decade of the 21st century – crumbling buildings, old American cars, food shortages – was  the result of the US trade embargo that followed the 1962 Crisis. We were unaware that much of what we would experience – including the casas particulares – stemmed from a much more recent event in world history. The dissolution of the Soviet Union led to the período especial, the economic crisis that followed the withdrawal of Soviet  subsidies. We didn’t realise how bad the  resultant hardship had been until we met the Cuban people who welcomed us into their homes.

Although most ordinary Cubans avoided starvation, persistent hunger was a daily experience. People ate anything they could find.  Someone told us that many of the animals in the Havana zoo “disappeared” and domestic cats became sources of protein rather than affection. A taxi driver enquired how old Will was. He had a daughter the same age “but”, he asked me, “how could we bring any more children into the world when there was no food to give them?”

Malnutrition caused epidemics, but it had positive effects too. The período especial radically transformed the Cuban economy and led to the introduction of sustainable agriculture,  less reliance on motor transport and the strengthening of the National Health System; Cuba’s average life expectancy is now close to that of the US.

However, in 2007, Will and I discovered that it was still much easier to buy an expensive cigar than fresh vegetables in Havana’s markets.

The Great Gatsby

The Great GatsbyF. Scott Fitzgerald, Penguin Fiction, 1950

This Penguin edition of The Great Gatsby was published in 1950; around the time that it became accepted as a great work of literature. The book is one of the few blockbuster titles in The Perfect Library and is widely considered to be a literary classic.

The term blockbuster first appeared in the American press a few years earlier to describe large aerial bombs capable of destroying an entire city block. It soon became the label for any very commercially successful play or film and has subsequently been applied to other forms of entertainment including novels and computer games.

In the US The Great Gatsby became a part of the High School curriculum in the 1950s and it has been filmed six times: first as a silent movie; most recently in 2013 when Baz Luhrmann raised the sexual tension, added a hip-hop soundtrack and filmed Gatsby’s sumptuous parties in 3D.

It wasn’t always that way. When it was published in 1925, Gatsby received mixed reviews and initial sales were modest. Fitzgerald died in 1940, believing that he was a failure and his work had been forgotten. That might well have been the case if his last minute attempt to change the title of the book to Trimalchio in West Egg had been accepted by his publisher; and if a group of publishing executives had not created the Council on Books in Wartime (CBW).

The CBW was a US organization founded by booksellers, publishers, librarians, authors, and “others” in the spring of 1942 to channel the use of books as “weapons in the war of ideas”. It aimed to influence the thinking of the American people about the war through the promotion of books; by building and maintaining the will to win, exposing the true nature of the enemy, disseminating technical information, clarifying war aims and, finally, by providing relaxation and inspiration. The Council co-operated with the  Office of War Information and other agencies but, officially, the US government did not fund it. A similar scheme, funded by a fictional department of the British Secret Service, lies at the heart of the plot of Ian McEwan’s novel, Sweet Tooth.

I don’t know why the CBW chose The Great Gatsby. The only one of their criteria that it came close to meeting was to provide relaxation and inspiration. However, 155,000 copies of the book were distributed to American soldiers between 1942 and 1945. How many of these were actually read? Who knows?

Other Great American Novelists who wrote cautionary tales about living the American Dream saw action in World War II. I like to think that a CBW edition of Gatsby might have nestled in Salinger’s pack as he crawled through the Normandy hedgerows; or sustained Vonnegut as he sheltered in his abattoir outside Dresden; or flew with Heller on bombing missions over Italy. The alternative is that the paperbacks met a terrible fate in field latrines across Europe and the Pacific.

Flames in the Sky

Pierre Clostermann, 1952.  Cover by Abram Games, 1958

Flames in the SkyFlames in the Sky (Feu du Ciel) is a collection of air combat stories from the Second World War, written from both the Allied and Axis points of view. Its author was a genuine fighter ace who joined the Free French Air Force in Britain in March 1942.

Clostermann originally planned a major history of the war in the air. However, in order, “to do justice to the courage and idealism” of those whose stories he told he chose just nine episodes. Each story focuses on an individual pilot on or a single operation, starting with the Allied attack on the Maastricht bridges in 1939. Reviewer G.T. Greenfield described his writing style as “ vivid, terse, and illuminated by the kind of personal insight which only someone who was himself an outstanding fighter pilot could know”.

Clostermann certainly knew what he was writing about. He flew 432 operational missions during the war, mainly in Spitfires.

After the war he described his experiences in The Big Show (Le Grand Cirque). One of the first post-war fighter pilot memoirs, it sold over two and a half million copies and was described by the novelist William Faulkner as “ the finest aviation book to come out of World War II”. Clostermann also had a successful political career as a member of the French National Assembly between 1946 and 1969. In 1956, four years after Flames in the Sky was published, he re-enlisted in the French Air Force to fly ground attack missions during the Algerian War.

It’s rare to see a Penguin book cover featuring the name of both the author and the designer. The bold cover design of Flames in the Sky is the work of Abram Games who was responsible for some of the most memorable graphic images of mid-20th century Britain. Games was a war hero of a very different kind. As an Official War Artist he designed over 100 posters urging Britons to do everything from join the army to grow their own vegetables.

2011EV3169_festival_britain_posterAfter the war he won the competition to create the symbol for the 1951 Festival of Britain. The Festival was organised by the British government to promote a sense of recovery in Britain. For many Britons Games’ image of Britannia festooned with red, white and blue bunting was the most evocative of the Festival and its ‘can do’ spirit. Games claimed that the famous  bunting was inspired by watching his wife Marianne pegging out washing on a line in the garden after the Festival Committee had asked for his original version of the logo to be made more festive.

Games was one of a small number of artists commissioned to design full colour covers for Penguin between 1957 and 1959. All of his cover designs are instantly recognizable by their striking colours and beautifully integrated typography. He was also an industrial designer and invented the Cona vacuum coffee maker.

A Clockwork Orange

Anthony Burgess, 1962.  Cover by David Pelham, 1968

A Clockwork Orange A Clockwork Orange is by some way Anthony Burgess’s best-known work. It was first published in 1962 and became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic following the release of Stanley Kubrick’s film in 1971.

The novel received a positive critical response but Burgess repeatedly tried to distance himself from it. He claimed it was an unimportant book which he had written in just three weeks. This was probably because its bestseller status overshadowed his other – and better – writing; and partly because he didn’t like Kubrick’s claim on his work. The film was rated “X” in both the UK and the US and was criticized for its graphic violence. As a result both the film and the book were boycotted in the US. Two years after its release, Kubrick took the film out of circulation in Britain following accusations that it inspired copycat rapes and other violent acts.

A Clockwork Orange is set in a future English society with a culture of extreme youth violence. Burgess claimed that his inspiration was the beating inflicted on his wife by a gang of drunken American servicemen stationed in England during World War II. The book’s 15-year-old protagonist Alex narrates his violent exploits and the authorities’ attempts to reform him.

It was originally written in three parts, each with seven chapters. However, for nearly 20 years two, quite different, versions were on sale. The final chapter was omitted from editions published in the US prior to 1986. In the introduction to the updated American text – which included the missing 21st chapter – Burgess explains why. When he first took the book to an American publisher he was told that readers would never go for the final chapter in which Alex recognizes the error of his ways and resolves to turn his life around. Burgess reluctantly agreed but considered this version of his novel to be “badly flawed”. Kubrick’s film adaptation is based on the early American edition of the book, without the final chapter.

Alex’s narrative is delivered in a language created by Burgess.  Nadsat is a mix of modified Russian and other Slavic terms, British rhyming slang and words which Burgess made up. He had a lot of fun with Nadsat. My favourite is horrowshow;  Nadsat  for “excellent”. It looks like an English word but comes  from the Russian word for “good”,  khorosho.

Burgess was often asked to explain the novel’s title. He usually answered that it was based on a common cockney expression, “as queer as a clockwork orange”. However, there is no record of this phrase being used before 1962. On the other hand, nadsat does have a meaning; it is the suffix for Russian numerals from 11 to 19, an almost exact linguistic parallel to the English teen. Clever, eh?

The wide-eyed image of Alex on David Pelham’s cover design reflects the teenager’s appetite for amphetamines  – and the aversion therapy which he receives in prison.


Raymond Williams, Pelican, 1962. Cover design by Carole Ingham, 1982.

CommunicationsCommunications is an analysis of the mass media – mainly newspapers, radio and television – that were available when the book was first published in 1962.

Williams, a Welshman and a Marxist, was a respected and influential writer on politics, culture, media and literature. Despite his reputation, Communications was not well received by the critics when it was first published in 1962,  nor when it was updated in 1976.

However, I’m interested by some of the thinking in Communications. I like Williams’ comparison of the way that the mass media were organized in the UK and the US. In the UK the media were initially  highly centralized; both radio and television began as part of an independent, but government-sponsored organization, the BBC. Commercial stations were only introduced later under pressure from businesses wanting to exploit the broadcast media. In the US all forms of the media were predominantly regional and a commercial model for radio and television dominated from the start. Public broadcasting never had the presence or the influence in the US that the BBC has had in the UK. These differences are still there more than 50 years after the publication of Communications.

Williams’ central argument in Communications is that mass media, and the way that their content is delivered, lies at the heart of democracy. He distinguishes between four types of mass media system: Authoritarian (the North Korean Central News Agency); Paternalistic (the BBC); Commercial (most TV and radio stations in the US); and, finally, Democratic. There are many other examples of the first three categories but, in 1962, Williams could find no examples of a genuinely democratic mass media system; a system that would be open to many different perspectives but not necessarily dependent on public funding or advertising. Williams imagined a system based on independent producers each judged solely by their peers.

Reviewers, including the novelist Kingsley Amis, met the idea of a democratic media system with hostility. The curmudgeonly Amis dismissed it as, “Martians bearing bursaries.” The two writers were born within a year of each other but Williams died relatively young in 1988. Amis lived until 1995, the year when the last restrictions on the use of the Internet were removed. Since then the Internet has had a revolutionary impact on mass media including the delivery of radio, TV and newspaper content and communication by e-mail, messaging, video calls and via forums, blogs and social networking sites. I would like to hear Williams and Amis debating the idea of a democratic mass media today. Williams… one-nil!

Sadly, in spite of the power of the Internet, I can find only one reference to Carole Ingham’s magnificently minimalist design for the cover of the 1982 Pelican edition of Communications. It comes from an advertisement for a second-hand copy of the paperback:

Cover design by Carole Ingham. I expect it took a lot of work!”

I wonder if whoever wrote that had read the book?

Soft Fruit Growing

Soft Fruit GrowingRaymond Bush, 1942. Penguin Handbook No 1, 1945.

Soft Fruit Growing was first published as the third of Raymond Bush’s “Fruit Growing Trilogy”. The other titles were Tree Fruit Growing Volume 1: Apples and Volume II: Pears, Quinces and Stone Fruits. The three books were originally among the 10 Penguin Specials published in 1942 but migrated to form part of the new Penguin Handbook series when it  was launched in 1945.

Soft Fruit Growing became the first of the Penguin Handbooks, a series which eventually included 700 titles, all carrying the green barred cover design of the original Specials. The Handbooks, particularly the gardening and cookery titles, were popular in a post-war Britain still coping with wartime austerity, including food rationing. Who knows how popular Penguin Handbook No. 1 could have become if Penguin had used Bush’s full title: Soft Fruit Growing for the Amateur: What to Plant and How to Prune and Manure. With a Chapter on Nuts, one on Mushrooms, and another on Composting ? Bush’s definition of “soft fruit” was, clearly,  very broad.

“Fruit can be grown almost anywhere”, claimed Bush, “if you are prepared to take the trouble. However, quite often the most intelligent and ardent gardener can go wrong simply because the trouble he takes is ill-directed”.

Bush approached his subject methodically and the general questions of aspect, soil, nursery material and planting procedures are reviewed first. There follows a detailed discussion of  various soft fruits. His range is wide and ambitious. Besides the familiar blackberries, currants, gooseberries, raspberries and strawberries, Bush discusses fruit which must have seemed very exotic to the post-war amateur gardener in Britain;  figs, grapes, mulberries, cranberries, barberries, melons and passion fruit. Bush also delivered on the promise of the book’s full title and included chapters on manuring, the use of the compost heap, and the need for, and practice of, spraying. In those days spraying fruit was a hazardous occupation, involving the use of a lead arsenic preparation before the relatively safe DDT became widely available.

Stephen Hayes is a prolific blogger on handbooks for fruit growers, especially those which deal with apples. He describes Bush’s style as “very down to earth” and “trenchant”. Bush was not afraid to advocate tough love and suggested that when faced with an orchard in which cropping levels have fallen, the grower should consider cutting down every other tree.

That sort of no-nonsense, practical advice would have made him an excellent candidate for the panel on the BBC’s Gardener’s Question Time, the long running radio show in which amateur gardeners put questions to a panel of experts. The show was first broadcast in 1947 as How Does Your Garden Grow butsadly, I can find no record of Raymond Bush taking part. However, he would certainly be a member of my all-time GQT fantasy panel, taking his place alongside Pippa Greenwood and Bob Flowerdew, all under the jovial chairmanship of Clay Jones.

Siamese White

Siamese WhiteMaurice Collis,  Penguin Adventure & Travel, 1940.

Whenever I cut the deck of postcards and revealed Siamese White the title of this book intrigued me. Was the subject a breed of cat? A butterfly or an artists’ pigment? Maybe it was the story of  a beautiful courtesan, the product of a mixed race liaison? All were plausible, but all quite wrong. Siamese White was a man –  an Englishman from Bath. During the reign of James II he was appointed as a mandarin by the King of Siam and Maurice Collis’s book is his story.

Siam adopted its modern name, Thailand, in 1939. Many in Thailand argue that the modernizing reforms of the Thai government allowed the country to avoid the colonial wars which devastated its neighbours in the third quarter of the 20th century. However,  the diplomatic skills of Siamese monarchs in the 19th and early 20th centuries also had an important role in allowing Siam, and later Thailand,  to escape European colonisation.

Formal British relations with Thailand began in 1612, when the East India Company ship The Globe arrived in Siam carrying a present and a letter from King James I for the Siamese monarch. The present must have been a good one; in return, the fledgling English East-Indian Company was given a piece of ground upon which to construct a warehouse.

Samuel White sailed for Madras in 1675 in the services of the East India Company. By that time the Company had developed into an enormously powerful corporation which controlled the British government’s interests in Asia. White was a merchant adventurer of the most roguish kind and moved on to Mergui, an important Siamese trade centre. The principal scenes of Siamese White are set there, where Collis spent some years as a member of the Indian Civil Service. White administered the port on behalf of the Siamese state and, typical of British administrators of the time, it seems clear that he used his position to considerable personal gain

Collis based the book on two original sources. One of these was the Davenport Papers, a collection of documents written by Francis Davenport, also of the East India Company. Davenport’s criticism of White went well beyond accusations of misuse of power. He was taken prisoner by White and accused him of piracy and – perhaps even more heinous in the eyes of the East India Company – of damaging the Company’s reputation in Asia.

White continued to argue his innocence until he died in 1689. Touchingly, his case was taken up by his brother George, on behalf of White’s daughters. George was nothing if not thorough. His pamphlet refuting Davenport’s accusations was the second of Collis’s sources. It could not have had a more comprehensive title, “Reflections on a Scandalous Paper Entitled the Answer to the East India Company to the two Printed Papers of Samuel White Together with the true Character of Francis Davenport the said Company Historiographer”.

Shame on you Mr Davenport!

Kiss Kiss

Kiss KissRoald Dahl, 1960. Cover by Derek Birdsall, 1970.

Kiss Kiss is a collection of eleven short stories, first published in book format in 1960. In most of the stories the horror is subtle and the deaths or other unpleasant outcomes can only be inferred.

I won’t try to give a synopsis of the plot of any of the stories. That, according to the Urban Dictionary, would be a massive spoiler. The UD also reveals that “spoiler” has become a verb which can be used in two ways: 1) to ruin any piece of entertainment by revealing information about the plot eg “please don’t spoiler the last episode of Breaking Bad for me!” ; 2) to protect entertainment being ruined by obscuring such information  eg “I spoilered my post about yesterday’s  Archers Omnibus because I know you haven’t heard it yet”. In Urbanspeak I have verbized the word and spolilered this article to protect those who have not yet read Dahl’s stories.

Dahl was a master storyteller, expert at peeling back the skin of life to reveal the hidden, the inappropriate and, above all, the unexpected. Many of the stories from Kiss Kiss – along with stories from Dahl’s other collections, Tales of the Unexpected and Someone Like You – were dramatized and appeared as early episodes of the Anglia TV series, Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, first aired in 1979. Despite its low budget the series featured guest appearances from British film and stage stars including John Gielgud, John Mills, Joan Collins and Derek Jacobi. Dahl introduced all of his own stories, giving short monologues explaining what inspired him to write them. However, fewer and fewer of Dahl’s stories appeared and the show was cancelled in 1988, after the ninth series, following criticism that the episodes were beginning to decline in quality.

For many people who grew up in the UK in the early 80’s the title Tales of the Unexpected evokes the opening titles: a Bond-film pastiche of tarot cards, a revolver and – we assume – a naked woman dancing behind flickering flames. The titles were accompanied by Ron Grainger’s sinister fairground theme music which, as You Tube user David Byrne puts it, “still scares the shit out of me!”

In 1980, comedian Peter Cook starred in a TV spoof entitled Tales of the Much as We Expected. Cook, as Dahl, explained why he dropped the “n” in Ronald and the sketch ends with the fireplace spreading over the screen.

The cover of the 1970 Penguin edition of Kiss Kiss was designed by John Birdsall about whom one design critic wrote, “just the type on his Penguin covers of the 1960s and 70s, for example, is brilliantly graphic, with or without illustration”. The cover of Kiss Kiss is no exception and it became the inspiration for the doodles on many a school exercise book in the early 70’s.

Cakes and Ale

Cakes & AleW. Somerset Maugham, Penguin Fiction, 1948.

William Somerset Maugham has fallen thoroughly out of literary fashion but, at the height of his fame, he outsold his  contemporaries including Joseph Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson and James Joyce. His semi-autobiographical novel, Of Human Bondage published in 1917, has never been out of print but Maugham himself admitted that he lacked imagination; his only other well-known novels, the Moon and Sixpence and Cakes and Ale,  were both based on historical figures.

In Cakes and Ale, Maugham’s central character, the famous novelist Edward Driffield, was a thinly disguised portrait of Thomas Hardy. However, the damage inflicted on Hardy’s legacy was as nothing to the hatchet job Maugham did on the reputation of his friend and fellow novelist Hugh Walpole, barely disguised as the obnoxious Alroy Kear. Walpole was one of the first to read the novel. After returning home from the theatre, he wrote in his diary: “Half-dressed sitting on my bed, picked up idly Maugham’s Cakes and Ale. Read on with increasing horror. Unmistakable portrait of myself. Never slept.”

Maugham’s private life was, to say the least, unorthodox. As a young man he had “many” homosexual liaisons but nevertheless married Syrie Wellcome,  the daughter of Thomas Barnado, founder of the Barnado’s Children’s’ Homes. Despite his marriage, the sexually predatory Maugham continued to swing like a sailor’s hammock in a gale. He had so many affairs, with both sexes, that one of his companions described him as the most sexually voracious man he had ever known.

Between the wars,  Maugham joined the expatriates who lived on the stretch of coast between Nice and Monaco and held court at his mansion in Cap Ferrat. There were stories of nude bathing parties, drugs, lashings of champagne and nightly seductions of the local boys. Almost everyone who visited was shocked by his decadence. However, it seems that few establishment figures refused an invitation: T.S. Eliot, H.G Wells, Rudyard Kipling, The Duchess of Windsor and Winston Churchill all visited Maugham in the South of France and expressed their horror at what they encountered there. Old age and the Mediterranean sun were not kind to Maugham and Noel Coward waspishly referred to him as, “The Lizard of Oz”.

In the 20’s Maugham’s reputation came to the attention of Scotland Yard who warned his older brother,  a High Court judge. Maugham ignored the warning and was eventually rewarded with the offer of a knighthood for services to literature. He turned it down, hoping for an Order of Merit.

In 2009 a biography by Selina Hastings stripped away the establishment veneer that had protected Maugham over the years and revealed him  as a rapacious and unbridled sex tourist of the most unpleasant kind. The Daily Mail asked, “was this the most debauched man of the 20th century?” Based on the revelations in Hastings’ book it seems like a reasonable question.

If you  Google “Cakes and Ale” today  the top entry is a holiday park in Suffolk.

Busman’s Honeymoon

Busman's HoneymoonDorothy L. Sayers, Penguin Crime, 1963. Cover by Romeck Marber.

Busman’s Honeymoon is a  novel  by Dorothy L. Sayers,  first published in 1937. It was the last of her books to feature Lord Peter Wimsey, the “Posh Sleuth”. Wimsey was the archetypal British gentleman detective; a bon viveur who solved mysteries, usually murders, for his own amusement.

Of course the novel has nothing to do with busmen. A “busman’s holiday” is a holiday spent by a bus driver travelling on a bus; by association, anyone who spends his holiday doing his normal job is taking a “busman’s holiday”.

Wimsey and Harriet Vane marry and take their honeymoon at an old farmhouse.  The honeymoon is intended as a break from his usual routine of solving crimes and hers of writing about them. It turns into a murder investigation when the seller of the house is found dead at the bottom of the cellar steps with severe head injuries.

The price on the cover is 5/-, or 5 shillings. This tells us that it was published before 1971, the introduction of decimal currency in the UK. Forty three years later I still know people who begin a sentence with “In old money that’s…”  This is often followed by a casually racist or homophobic remark. The back of the post card tells us that this Penguin Crime edition was published in 1963. In those days racism in the UK was far from casual.

The Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963 arose from the refusal of the Bristol Omnibus Company  to employ black or Asian bus crews. This was particularly ironic in Bristol, a city built on the profits from the African slave trade, where there was widespread racial discrimination in housing and employment against “coloureds”. The policy was also common in other British cities. Led by youth worker Paul Stephenson and the West Indian Development Council, Bristolians refused to use the company’s buses for four months until the company backed down and overturned its racist policy.

Reviews of Busman’s Honeymoon were not overly enthusiastic: “Not near the top of her form, but remarkable as a treatment of the newly wedded and bedded pair of eccentrics … plenty of garnishing for an indifferent murder, even if we weren’t also given an idea of Lord Peter’s sexual tastes and powers under trying circumstances.”

The figure at the bottom of the cellar steps on Romek Marber’s cover is Noakes the previous owner of the house: a miser, a blackmailer and the owner of “hideous furniture”.

In 2014 the average price of a best-selling eBook has recently risen to $7.45 (£4.35) from $6.88 (£4.02). That’s 4 pounds, 7 shillings in old money. The rise was blamed on the publication by Penguin Random House of a set of five Game of Thrones eBook titles by George R.R. Martin. There is considerably more sex and violence in one page of a Game of Thrones novel than in the whole of  Busman’s Honeymoon.