Sunday, 28 August 2011

"The Swoop" by P.G. Wodehouse (note correct use of apostrophe)

I blogged recently about The Riddle of the Sands, Erskine Childers's attempt to awaken the British people to the threat of unexpected invasion by those villainous huns, a work for which the British government was so grateful that they subsequently executed him. I think I mentioned that it spawned a whole genre which has subsequently become known as invasion literature, perhaps the best known of which, apart from The Riddle of the Sands was The Invasion of 1910, written ostensibly by William Le Quex, but with Lord Roberts ("Bobs") as an uncredited co-author and Lord Northcliffe as a financial backer.

It is probably this book which Michael Palin set out to spoof in his Ripping Yarns series in the episode entitled Whinfrey's Last Case in which he has a whole Cornish fishing village populated by German soldiers intent on starting the First World War two years early, and the British army gravely incapacitated by a lack of key munitions such as spoons and trestle tables.

However, this set me thinking about a much earlier spoof, written by P.G. Wodehouse, called The Swoop, or How Clarence Saved England which sees England invaded secretly by nine different foreign armies simultaneously (Wodehouse has the news reported thus: Surrey 147 for 8. German Army landed in Essex this afternoon). Trusty Clarence saves England armed only with a hockey stick, dressed in a Baden-Powell outfit and assisted by boy scouts who limber up for the fray by practising morris dancing. Questions are naturally asked in Parliament. One MP asks why, since the Government has already let so many undesirable aliens into the country, a few more really make that much difference.

This early Wodehouse work is much neglected. Do find and read it if you can.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

"The Riddle of the Sands" by Erskine Childers

Alas, The Riddle of the Sands comes across as rather dated today, reading for all the world like John Buchan or Dornford Yates. Yet it was one of the most influential works of fiction ever published, fuelling public support in Britain for the Great Naval Race which preceded the First World War.

Our two plucky lads Carruthers and Davies take their yacht around the sandbanks of Friesland on a sailing holiday, only to discover dastardly prepations on the part of "a foreign power" as all the best thrillers of the day used to say. The story itself is well written and there is all sorts of nautical detail to please the Arthur Ransome and Patrick O'Brien fans out there.

Childers himself came to a sticky end, of course. Always a believer is some form of Irish Home Rule, he finally converted to the cause of full independence and joined Sinn Fein. Yet he was never really accepted by his new bedfellows, being seen as a renegade Englishman. When the Treaty split Irishmen down the middle, Childers sided with the anti-treaty de Valera, was captured by forces loyal to the late Michael Collins, and executed, famously asking to shake the hand of every member of the firing squad. His young son, also called Erskine Childers, and a former pupil of my old school, became President of Ireland in 1973 shortly before his death the following year.

This is such an important book that probably everybody should read it. It is a cracking story.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

"The Mind's Eye" by Hakan Nesser

After my disappointment with Ernesto Mallo, it is heartening to be able to report a much more enjoyable experience with Hakan Nesser, suggested by the lovely people at Hampstead Books.

Chief Inspector Van Veeteren is a chess-playing, toothpick-chewing detective who hankers after leaving the police to work in a an antiquarian bookshop. Thus we encounter the familiar, but still effective sub-plot of the detective constantly trying to resign, and his chief constantly trying to thwart him.

The plot of the book is an intriguing one. A man awakens from a drunken slumber to discover his wife murdered in the bathroom. Unable to remember anything about what has happened, he is unsurprisingly the chief suspect and is promptly arrested.

Actually the denouement is signalled a long way out and so is not exactly surprising, but the book is very well written and is in my view the equal of either Nesbo or Mankell. My only complaint is that Pan have for some reason chosen to publish them in English in the wrong order, just as Viking did with Fred Vargas's Adamsberg books, which led to some very strange results. Why do publishers do this? It seems both illogical and unnecessary.