1p Review: Ice Cold in Alex by Christopher Landon

This highly entertaining 1p review comes from guest Mike Petty…

Unlike other Saturday-afternoon staples like The Dam Busters and Reach for the Sky, the film of Ice Cold in Alex is based on a novel. I simply can’t remember if I’ve read it before, so comprehensively has it been elbowed out of my consciousness by the film. I know I owned it, though; it formed part of my collection of Pan war books along with forgotten efforts like Two Eggs on My Plate and The White Rabbit.

The reason I know I owned it is that I used to gaze for hours at the photograph on the back cover (above), which featured Sylvia Syms spilling tremendously out of her khaki shirt, untrammelled it would seem by brassiere (nursing officers for the use of), gazing wantonly down at a rather corpse-like (and spookily peroxided) John Mills for all the world as if she’s planning to suckle him. The image had a powerful effect on an impressionable 12-year-old; in fact I’m not sure I’ve ever got over it. If I had read the book I would have searched in vain for the scene it portrayed, because it’s nowhere to be found. In fact, the unsettling thing about reading (or rereading) this book now is that the John Mills character isn’t even the love interest. The relationship that develops (the highs of which are related in a manner that is coy in the extreme) is between Diana the nurse and RSM Pugh, the stolid, dependable non-com whose wife was killed in the blitz on Plymouth. That, I hardly need remind anybody, is Harry Andrews, who as far as I can remember was never a love interest either before or since.

Anyway, the current edition (available for a penny here) features a glass of lager on the front and a sand dune on the back, nowhere near as exciting. The lager, of course, is what Captain Anson promises himself when he and his unlikely crew have flogged their ambulance across the desert to Alexandria, having overcome oil leaks, water leaks, quicksands, stray German patrols, hostile Arabs, sand dunes  – and his own alcoholism. And that, ultimately, is what the novel is about: Anson and his demons.  

He just about keeps going in Tobruk, as Jerry gets closer and the shells fall, on nerves and whisky. So the order to transport two stranded nurses to safety in Alex (where ‘they serve it ice-cold’) is a blessing, not even much disguised. The other nurse is rather quickly killed by a stray bullet in an encounter with a German patrol (something of a relief all round since she has been in a permanent  state of hysterics ever since the trip began), but her still-warm body serves to convince a kindly German that Continue reading

The London Library – Paradise In St James’s Square

I was going to devote this week’s cupboard to singing the praises of the London Library, but then I read this – so you should go and read it too, and then come back here.


That seems to me the perfect introduction to the library – concise, informative, and suitably awestruck – and I couldn’t have put it better myself. (I might have added a paragraph about the glorious “Science & Miscellaneous” shelfmark – the emphasis being on the miscellaneous, alphabetically arranged.) Like Peter Berthoud, I am aghast that I spent half a century living in London before joining. How did I cope?

Anyway, praises having been sung, I thought I would illustrate just one of the great benefits of the library. Once a book is acquired and placed on the open shelves, it damn well stays there, available for borrowing. Nobody decides a book is no longer relevant, or out of fashion, or due for retirement to some distant storage facility. I have borrowed books where the most recent date stamp is from fifty or more years ago.

Recently, I took out a brand new book, Phil Baker’s biography Austin Osman Spare : The Life And Legend Of London’s Lost Artist (Strange Attractor Press, 2011). As I pointed out over at Hooting Yard, one of its chief pleasures is its plethora of anecdotes and allusions and asides. One reference that caught my attention was this:

One of Spare’s most articulate and vociferous young friends was the somewhat eccentric Oswell Blakeston (1907-85; born Henry Hasslacher, he apparently coined the name Oswell from his admiration for Osbert Sitwell). Blakeston was an art critic, prolific writer – poetry, crime fiction, cookery books, peculiar camp novels – and experimental film maker who was a friend of Dylan Thomas. His tastes were summed up by his partner, Max Chapman, as “a quick eye for the bizarre and the outrageous”.

I had never heard of Oswell Blakeston, and a quick check of the Wikipedia told me that, as I suspected, he is now entirely out of print – words which, for the London Library member, hold no terrors. A couple of days later I emerged into St James’s Square clutching a couple of his novels (never previously borrowed at all, it would seem) and Sun At Midnight, a 1958 record of his travels in Finland (last borrowed in 1999).

And what a discovery! Here is the blurb in the frontispiece of Fingers (Gaberbocchus, 1964):

Another unclassifiable book! In a sense it’s a murder story, in a sense it’s a love story, in a sense it’s a comedy, and then it’s a tragedy… But perhaps it doesn’t make sense at all?

From the moment Arthur turned his back on the gas works, things started to go mysteriously wrong. A priest wanted to paint the stars, a young man in a vegetable shop said unforgiveable things, a musician longed for the days when a dwarf rode in a lift, a schoolboy tried blackmail, Ruth was given a warning by a fortune teller about a mysterious egg… until finally Arthur’s world was shattered by a revolting crime and Inspector Johns wanted to know just what was the relationship between Arthur and Fingers.

It adds that the Evening Standard (!) praised Blakeston’s “gloriously exuberant writing”.

Of course, I could have hunted high and low for secondhand copies of his books – and will probably do so – but the London Library has them sitting on the shelves, just waiting for the eager and curious borrower. And for Oswell Blakeston, read thousands of other names of forgotten and neglected writers and books, whatever piques your interest from a passing mention, a stray reference .

In the Acknowledgements in another of his biographies (of Dennis Wheatley), Phil Baker notes his debt to “the irreplaceable London Library (in the words of Borges, ‘I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library’)”. It is, and you will find it in St James’s Square.


Inappropriate language

Mr Slang explains why finds one particular word to be the most offensive in the English language…

Occasionally, when I toss some new offering onto the great heap of the unsold that is publishing (for if every birth is a death postponed, so are mint and shiny first editions merely the sad and dusty mounds of the remainder shops in waiting), I am interviewed. Once this was achieved by lengthy rail treks to some broadcasting outpost in a provincial city or, when favoured by the budget, tours in a hired car; now, and for many years, it is ‘down the line’ via a small BBC studio in B.H. or even on the phone or more recently the podcast.

The nature of these interviews is irrelevant but they tend to offer a unifying factor: ‘What,’ asks the young person (for they are all young these days) ‘is your favourite slang word?’ Determinedly, consistently, some might suggest priggishly, and undoubtedly cussedly, I refuse to answer this question. There was a time when I threw them Nebuchadnezzar, a little-known Victorian synonym for the penis, based on one of those elaborate period puns, surely not invented in the street but sniggered into existence in some don’s cloistered lair, that plays on the Babylonian’s fondness for grass, which is green and the contemporary slang use of greens to mean sexual intercourse. This palled. At least it did for me. So I prefer to warn the producer that there are some levels of self-abasement to which even I will not stoop, and could they kindly strike the offending question from their clipboard.

What never happens, but that for which I yearn, is that they ask me which might be the words that, far from applauding, I would have stricken from public speech. I have a list. None of them are slang, every one to me is vile. Let me name them: Continue reading

Invictus Redivivus

Nige examines a 19th Century poem that has experienced a sudden revival in popularity, having been cited as an inspiration by both Nelson Mandela and, um, Gordon Brown…

My father’s taste in poetry was that of an upright Edwardian. He had a personal anthology of poems of moral uplift and patriotic heroism which he delighted in reciting while shaving. Vitai Lampada was of course a favourite, as were The Revenge (‘Sink me the ship, Master Gunner – sink her, split her in twain! Fall into the hands of God, not into the hands of Spain!’), The Loss of the Birkenhead and Horatius at the Bridge (‘even the ranks of Tuscany could scarce forbear to cheer’).

These kind of poems were still to be found in the older anthologies of my childhood, but were soon to fade away… Or were they? The sudden vogue of W.E. Henley’s Invictus suggests some at least of these poems have a long afterlife and are liable to flare into renewed vigour and popularity even now. Invictus gave its name to the 2009 Clint Eastwood film about Nelson Mandela, just as the poem, on a scrap of paper, gave strength to the prisoner Mandela.

John McCain claimed the poem as a source of personal inspiration – as did (gawd help us) Gordon Brown. Why is this? It is a very effective poem of its type, technically well done, full of memorable phrases, with a message that I suspect bordered on the subversive when it was published (1875) since it proclaimed man free from God (gods now plural and dubious), in control of his own destiny and fearing no afterlife or judgment.

Now, however, it is one that stiffens the sinews of the individualist captain of his soul, at best in a way that will strengthen a good man (Mandela), at worst as a kind of archaic equivalent of My Way (Gordon Brown). Either way, it seems it’s back. For a while.

InvictusWilliam Ernest Henley, 1875

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Hatred in Lord of the Rings

Elberry considers what JRR Tolkien’s masterpiece can teach us about an all-too human emotion.

Tolkien’s vision of evil is subtle and extensive. He is not content with black riders and Balrogs and orcs, these dramatic but thoroughly inhuman enemies; there is also the all-too familiar and all-too human emotion of hatred, a passion both petty and intense. The two exemplary haters are Denethor and Saruman.

Saruman the White, head of the White Council and later traitor, seems to have resented Gandalf the Grey from the start; this eventually matures into hatred. Denethor, Steward of Gondor, has two sons: Boromir (a kind of amiable oaf) and Faramir (amiable and sharp). Denethor cherishes Boromir but consistently treats Faramir with scorn and a strange resentment. And yet, as it is said, of the two sons Faramir is most like the father.

These hatreds are complex, as is usually the case in real life. Naturally, both Saruman and Denethor hate what they cannot control, even though neither Gandalf nor Faramir oppose or even inconvenience them. Here is Saruman, having summoned Gandalf to Orthanc:

‘So you have come, Gandalf,’ he said to me gravely; but in his eyes there seemed to be a white light, as if a cold laughter was in his heart.

‘Yes, I have come,’ I said. ‘I have come for your aid, Saruman the White.’ And that title seemed to anger him.

‘Have you indeed, Gandalf the Grey!’ he scoffed. ‘For aid? It has seldom been heard of that Gandalf the Grey sought for aid, one so cunning and so wise, wandering about the lands, and concerning himself in every business, whether it belongs to him or not.’

And here is Denethor with his son, as Faramir relates his perils:

‘The rest of my company I sent south to strengthen the garrison at the fords of Osgiliath. I hope that I have not done ill?’ He looked at his father.

‘Ill?’ cried Denethor, and his eyes flashed suddenly. ‘Why do you ask? The men were under your command. Or do you ask for my judgement on all your deeds? Your bearing is lowly in my presence, yet it is long now since you turned from your own way at my counsel. See, you have spoken skilfully, as ever; but I, have I not seen your eye fixed on Mithrandir, seeking whether you said well or too much? He has long had your heart in his keeping.’

The tone of inexhaustible bitterness will be familiar to those who have endured ill company, whether at home or work or elsewhere.

And both Saruman and Denethor have Continue reading

Cornwall in the Chesapeake

The Dabbler’s ex-pat American correspondent discovers a corner of the USA that is forever Elizabethan England…

When I spotted the couple across the room in a crowded Washington D.C. cocktail party I had the weird sensation of stepping back in time. They were arranged in a pose typical of classic portrait painting, she sitting in a high-backed chair, he leaning nonchalantly at her side. He could have stepped out of an Elizabethan miniature; a slim young man with dark curly hair and a neat pointed beard very like Nicholas Hillard’s 1577 self-portrait. His embroidered waistcoat added to the effect, a stark contrast with the dull business- casual uniform of the other male guests.

She seemed to come from a somewhat later period. Instead of stiff Elizabethan attire she wore a low-cut cotton dress voluminously gathered and draped in the style seen so often in seventeenth century English portraits. She had porcelain pale skin and the kind of heavy features also seen in those portraits, a characteristic English look that is handsome rather than pretty or beautiful. But in that assembly of women clad in the ubiquitous pant suits or little black dresses she glowed like an exotic beauty. You could not help your eyes being drawn to this extraordinary pair and, indeed, a crowd had gathered around them as though they were holding court.

I, too, was drawn into their orbit, curious to know where they were from. Surely they must be English, I speculated, though even in England their style would set them apart. Maybe they are visiting Shakespearean actors who didn’t have time to change out of costume before coming to the party? As I drifted close enough to overhear the conversation I congratulated myself on recognizing my fellow exiles. They definitely spoke with English accents, and I could clearly distinguish a West Country burr. As I listened further I became confident they were from Cornwall. So confident that when I was able to join in the conversation I didn’t ask them where they were from, but asked directly if they were from Cornwall. Smugly, I waited to be congratulated for my discerning ear. But “No” the young man replied, “We’re from Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay. You’re right in a way though, our ancestors came over from Cornwall.”

As I learned the fascinating history of Tangier Island, the unusual appearance and sound of the Cornish couple, as I thought of them, was explained. They really had stepped straight out of the seventeenth century, because Continue reading

The Dabbler’s Round Blogworld Quiz #24

This week’s devilishly fiendish Round Blogworld Quiz question (see the previous ones and their solutions here) has been set by expert solver Adelephant. As usual, find the link between these cryptic clues. A point for each item you get, and an imaginary cream bun of regal proportions if you get them all. If you get the link straight off, please don’t give it away too early!

What connects Jane Eyre’s inheritance to: the place where Churchill, Wells and Lord Palmerston socialised. An English novelist named Henry, accidentally baptised Edward. The French insurance company Groupama. And Gossard House?

Clues will be given as necessary, and the solution will appear later.

Film Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Brit praises Thomas Alfredson’s new adaptation of the Le Carre classic…

A Saturday night visit to the ring-road multiplex is not, in the normal course of things, an activity of particular cultural sophistication. Grown-ups in JD sportsgear (i.e.oversized romper suits) toddle open-mouthed from the shouty, flashy blast of the foyer into the shouty, flashy blast of whatever lowest common denominator superhero brain-mush Hollywood has lately focus-grouped into being. The gargantuan cardboard tubs of fizzy pop and popcorn seem designed to dwarf the punters who clutch them into feeling eight years old again. And of course at eight years old you’ll uncomplainingly watch any sort of rubbish, won’t you?

Imagine my surprise then, when upon entering theatre 13 of the local Vue mega-cinema this weekend I found not only an old-fashioned trolley dolly, but one whose wares included… wait for it…. booze! I looked, and looked again. A series of passing men halted in comedy double-takes and peered with suspicion then growing wonder. Could it really be true? Yes, said the trolley person, Vue had gained a license that week to serve alcohol during films. Okay, the ‘bar’ consisted of a few bottles of Stella, WKD and some Aussie plonk, but, as with the talking dog, it’s not so much the content as the fact that they can do it at all that impresses.

So it’s fair to say that as I settled back in my seat and sipped my plonk I was predisposed to look kindly on the new adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Being a Le Carre fan (a Smiley fan really, not so much the more recent novels) I had had my doubts, partly because I worried that the constraints of a two-hour movie would squeeze the subtleties out of the thing, and partly because I already knew whodunit (in case you don’t, I won’t spoil it in this review). But in fact it is a quite brilliantly executed film.

Director Thomas Alfredson – a Swede – has an uncanny understanding of the novel’s dour Englishness. The evocation of 1970s London is wholly immersive: this is not so much the Cold War as the Cold Dank Drizzly War. Everything is brown, paisley, mildewed. “Do NOT Disconnect” is written in marker pen on the wallpaper next to a primitive computer. It’s all in the details. When the government man scrapes Continue reading

Sherry – the opposite of a modern wine

The Dabbler’s wine correspondent Henry Jeffreys finds it’s never too early to open a bottle of sherry…

Sherry is the very opposite of a modern wine – it’s not fruity, it’s not made from a well-known grape variety and worst of all for the accountants who run most of the larger wine companies, it can’t be sold straight after vintage.

Producing good sherry relies on holding large stocks of maturing wine, as in most cases sherry is a blend of different vintages (most but not quite all – a tiny amount of vintage sherry is produced). Wines are blended in a solera, which is best thought of as a series of barrels where wine for bottling is taken out of the oldest barrel, this is then topped up by wine from the next oldest and so on until the youngest barrel which is topped up with the new vintage. In this way the sherry you buy in the shops contains minute quantities of extremely old wines.

The idea is to have a consistent product made to a house style, like champagne. In fact, the two drinks bear a striking resemblance to each other; both are branded blends that are generally made by large corporations because they are expensive to produce. The difference is that whilst champagne is fashionable and even the worst can sell at an inflated price, sherry is not and, whatever the quality, is generally available for less than £10 a bottle.

So with sherry we have a wine made an expensive way but, due to a quirk of fashion or history, not expensive to buy. This is very sad for Jerezanos but extremely good for the impecunious connoisseur. The two most widely available brands – La Gitana and Tio Pepe – offer fine wine at an everyday price. They are also versatile. Serve them very cold and they go with almost everything, and also with nothing: Martin, the manager in my Oddbins days in Leeds, never used to miss his 11am sherry sharpener.

Sherry doesn’t really do it for today’s wine geeks either – it isn’t made by horny-handed sons of the earth on a particular patch of soil. The producers don’t bleat about biodynamics, organics, holistic pest-management or sustainability. Instead, it is made in large quantities by global drinks giants from a blend of vineyards and sold as a brand.

These giants are companies with roots going back to the 17th century. But change is starting to creep in. Perhaps taking a leaf out of the Continue reading