Saturday 19 February 2011

Martin Amis, Children's Fiction, and We Are All Guilty by Kingsley Amis (Reinhardt First Edition, 1991)

True to form, waiting for me at home when I got back last night was the book I originally intended to blog about when I wrote that post on Martin Amis's London Fields and the kerfuffle caused by Amis's comments about children's fiction, and which I was complaining still hadn't turned up by yesterday lunchtime, whining ingrate that I am. And it's this:

A UK hardback first edition of We Are All Guilty by Kingsley Amis, published by Reinhardt Books in 1991, with a front cover illustration by Derek Brazell. It's Amis Senior's one and only novel – or rather, novella; it's around 90 pages – aimed at younger readers – and as you've no doubt guessed by now, the half-arsed point I was going to make originally was that while Amis M. may never write a children's book, Amis K. most definitely did.  

We Are All Guilty is the story of seventeen-year-old London lad Clive Rayner, who breaks into a warehouse with his mate for a laugh and then has to deal with the consequences of a night watchman getting badly injured during the episode. It was written towards the end of Amis's life – he died in 1995 – and in Clive revisits a character Amis originally created for a 1970s television play (I don't know which one).

Trouble is, if I wanted to hold up a children's story as a refutation of Martin Amis's remarks, We Are All Guilty probably wouldn't be the best example. Indeed, as James Wolcott notes in this recent Vanity Fair post on the novella, it may even be the root of Amis Junior's problem (if he even has one) with kid lit. As an experiment it's intriguing, but it's not a great piece of fiction. The dialogue is clunky and outdated – Amis's take on how 1990s teenagers spoke is rather tin-eared – and the overall tone is more akin to a well-meaning 1970s TV drama – which, considering that's where it originated, shouldn't be so surprising. It's certainly conceivable, as Wolcott suggests, that Martin wasn't terribly impressed by it and that that reaction consequently coloured his view of children's fiction.

And yet... there's something about the story that's oddly compelling. Clive is beset on all sides by people trying to forgive him: his parents, the police, the local vicar, even the man whose life he nearly ended. But Clive isn't seeking forgiveness. He knows he done wrong, and he wants to pay for his crime, to be punished. Wolcott identifies this as evidence of Amis's indignation at what he perceived as Britain's liberal nanny state, noting the story's "satirical" nature. It's an interesting notion, and it hews to the received wisdom of Amis's right-leaning politics by this juncture, but I think he's barking up the wrong tree, chiefly because it conveniently ignores the fact that the book must have been written not long after Section 28 was enacted and around the time of the Poll Tax Riots, when Britain felt anything but liberal.

But Wolcott is also overlooking who the book was aimed at. Kids always prefer to read about characters who are older than they themselves are, so We Are All Guilty was – still is, for all I know – read by children younger than Clive, I guess from ages twelve to fifteen. As such, it possibly provided some food for thought. Clive may be a bit hackneyed as a character and sometimes speak as if written by an essentially middle class pensioner, but his confusion and unfocused anger come across quite well. I can see how a younger reader could connect with Clive. And there are no easy answers in the novel either, making it a good topic of discussion for students.

Which is exactly what it has become for one university professor, although perhaps not in the way Amis envisaged. In January this year, We Are All Guilty was published in a translated Persian edition in Iran. The translator of the novella, Professor Ali Arabani Dan of Islamic Azad University, was quoted as saying: "We Are All Guilty is the story of a young man who undergoes decadence due to his economical and family problems, but finally find a new hopeful world in the light of religious instructions... I have been teaching this book for years in original English in my classes, but then I decided to translate it into Persian to make its universally religious content available for the use of our youth."

Which, considering Amis was a confirmed atheist who wrote a number of times about his antipathy towards God – see the essay "On Christ's Nature" in What Became of Jane Austen?, or the novels The Anti-Death League and The Green Man, both of which take issue with the Almighty – is rather ironic. Although, to return to my original point, I suppose it is proof that even a not particularly great piece of children's fiction can still possess a certain power.

Anyway. Onwards. And coming next, as I promised yesterday, it's Bleeck Week...

Friday 18 February 2011

Coming Soon on Existential Ennui...

Well, that book I mentioned yesterday still hasn't turned up – if it makes an appearance over the weekend perhaps I'll blog about it then – so instead, I thought I'd post a preview of forthcoming stuff on Existential Ennui, accompanied by a selection of teaser images. Quite how much interest any of this will be to those unfortunate enough to still be following this blog is anyone's guess, but I think I can cautiously state that next week's posts in particular will find favour with at least a couple of regular readers...

So, coming soon on Existential Ennui, there'll be a handful of posts on crime writer Mark Billingham, featuring a decidedly tardy review of his debut, Sleephead; I'll have reviews and spotlights on the likes of Kate Atkinson, Francis Clifford and Gavin Lyall; there'll be a run of SF- and fantasy-themed posts on James Blish and Michael Moorcock (the Lewes branch of Oxfam came up trumps there); and we'll see the return to Existential Ennui of an author much admired round these parts: political/espionage/thriller writer Ross Thomas, with a number of very scarce UK first editions.

On top of all that, we'll also have another week dedicated to spy fiction, this time featuring a signed edition of an unusual espionage novel; a piece of publishing paraphernalia accompanying another novel; a little-seen book about spy fiction from the 1950s; hopefully a review of a fairly recent (which, on this blog, can mean anything from the last ten years) espionage thriller; and possibly one or two other things too. And names to watch out for in that week include: Alexander Cordell, Jeremy Duns, Mark Gatiss, Graham Greene and Joseph Hone.

But before all that, next week Existential Ennui will be focusing exclusively on an author who I've already mentioned – except in this instance, the focus will be on his alter ego. Yes, next week is Bleeck Week, with a run of posts on the five Philip St. Ives novels written by Ross Thomas under the pseudonym Oliver Bleeck. I'll have a review of the debut Bleeck, The Brass Go-Between; I'll have some extremely rare UK firsts of the books, including one very surprising edition; and we'll see the return of a cover photographer who continues to confound and intrigue me in equal measures – and who I reckon we've now established had a rather more famous parallel career as a Page Three snapper: Beverley le Barrow.

See you then.

Thursday 17 February 2011

Lewes Book Bargain: London Fields by Martin Amis (Jonathan Cape First Edition), and That Brain Injury Remark

You might have noticed there was a bit of a kerfuffle last week over remarks made by Martin Amis during the first episode of Sebastian Faulks's BBC2 programme Faulks on Fiction. In an aside, Amis said, "When people ask me if I've ever thought of writing a children's book, I say, 'If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children's book, but otherwise...' The idea of being conscious of who you're directing the story to is anathema to me, because, in my view, fiction is freedom, and any restraints on that are intolerable." He then added, back on the subject of his character John Self from Money: "I would never write about someone that forced me to write at a lower register than what I can write at."

Almost a week later – presumably the time it takes these days for reporters to catch up on telly programmes on BBC iPlayer and rouse themselves enough to go and canvas opinion and hopefully whip up a bit of controv, the idle bastards – The Guardian ran a story about the "anger and offence" Amis's remarks had caused, featuring rebuttals from a number of dissenting children's authors. Predictably, shortly after that the twittersphere and blogosphere threw a collective hissy fit and began loudly condemning Amis and all his works, and permutations of the 'story', such as it is, have been running ever since (google "Martin Amis brain injury" – stop sniggering at the back – and you'll see what I mean).

I mention all this not to add my own voice to the hysterical din – I actually watched the programme in question and the slight smile that plays around Amis's lips and eyes as he formulates the sentence tells you much of what you need to know; plus I can see what he was getting at (it's his opinion on his own writing, after all), and parts of the quote have been taken out of context anyway – but with the intention of showing a book today that could be seen as something of a riposte to his statement. Unfortunately, that book hasn't turned up in the post yet, which has scuppered my plan somewhat. So instead, here's a Lewes Book Bargain, a novel by Amis which I bought in the Lewes Oxfam shop recently:

A UK hardback first edition/first impression of London Fields, published by Jonathan Cape in 1989. It's in nice condition, and as you can see from the £2.99 price sticker on the back, it cost rather less than you'd ordinarily have to pay for a true first. The only problem is... I can't remember if I've read the bloody thing or not. I have read Amis's early novels – The Rachel Papers, Dead Babies, Success, Other People, Money – and flicking through London Fields, parts of it do seem familiar to me. But if I have read it, I can't for the life of me recall a damn thing about it. What's more, upon further reflection, I can't recall anything about any of the other Amis M. books I've read either, with the possible exception of Money, and even there it's only a vague and lingering impression of John Self.

I'm not sure what conclusions I should draw from this. Is it a case of failing memory? I don't think so, because I can vividly recall many of the other books I read around the same late-'80s/early-'90s period. Is it something to do with the relative strength of Amis's storytelling? Or maybe I merely imagined I read those Amis novels when in fact I did no such thing, a sort of retroactive literary-fying of my admittedly genre-centric reading past (a literary retcon, if you will)? Who the hell knows. I suppose I'll just have to start reading London Fields again and see if anything jogs my memory. And if the book I originally intended to write about today turns up, perhaps in the next post I can make the point I was originally intending to make. Although I'm uncertain now I had much of a point to begin with. Hurm.

Wednesday 16 February 2011

Brighton Bookshop Bargain: The Sleeper by Eric Clark (Hodder & Stoughton First Edition, Raymond Hawkey Cover Design)

It's the third and final post in this short series on books wot I have bought recently wot have covers on them designed by that there Raymond Hawkey. And today it's the turn of a novel I bought for three quid in Colin Page Antiquarian Books in Brighton, one of that seaside city's best bookshops (despite it having, according to The Book Guide, a storeroom and an annexe that I've never even got a sniff of):

That's a UK hardback first edition of The Sleeper, an espionage novel by Eric Clark, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1979. The photograph on the front of the dustjacket was taken by Peter Williams, directed of course by the aforementioned Mr. Hawkey; the same team also created the jacket for the 1980 first edition of Gavin Lyall's The Secret Servant, which I reviewed a while back. (The back cover author photo, by the way, is by Jerry Bauer.) But take a look at that Colt revolver on the front. Could that be the same gun (lit differently) as seen on the jacket for the 1976 first edition of Len Deighton's Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy, which I blogged about yesterday? And could it even be the same pistol that graces the cover of the 1972 Coronet paperback of Richard Stark's Deadly Edge, which kicked off this run of Raymond Hawkey posts? Is it possible that Raymond Hawkey wheeled out the same props for different book cover studio sessions?

What do we reckon?

Hawkey also designed the jacket for the 1978 Hodder first edition of Clark's debut, Black Gambit, a novel about a Russian dissident scientist and an American prisoner inside for murder and the connection between them, which Jack Higgins reckoned "can only be compared to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold". At least, that is, according to my ever-handy copy of Spy Fiction: A Connoisseur's Guide (not to mention Mr. Clark's own website). Clark is also an investigative journalist, a parallel career which informs his fiction, as he told Spy Fiction: A Connoisseur's Guide's authors, Donald McCormick and Katy Fletcher, noting there was "material I'd collected as a journalist about spies and spying which I couldn't use except as fiction." He's written ten books to date, a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, his latest being an expose of the toy industry.

The Sleeper is about a dormant spy named James Fenn, a "one-time hero of the Hungarian uprising of '56," according to the jacket flap blurb, "ex-Fleet Street journalist, now comfortably ensconced on the Mediterranean island of Gozo, his enlistment to the Soviet cause almost forgotten. As one spy-master looking looking at his file, looking at his file, was to remark: 'Inactive? This sleeper's not just dormant. He's dead.' Not truly dead, of course: only who remembered him now? Who cared? And the awkward answer was that some people cared very much. For Fenn's careful cover had been blown. And when that happens who is to tell when a sleeper is activated by the wrong side." Sounds good to me.

Tuesday 15 February 2011

Sydenham Score: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy by Len Deighton (Jonathan Cape First Edition, Raymond Hawkey Cover Design)

For this second of three posts on books with covers designed by Raymond Hawkey, we turn to a novel I picked up on a recent sojourn to Sydenham in South London, near where my folks live:

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy was first published in hardback by Jonathan Cape in 1976. I bought this rather nice copy in the Kirkdale Bookshop, over the road from Sydenham Station; should you ever find yourself in those insalubrious parts, it's well worth popping in (to the bookshop, not to Sydenham Station – unless of course you're intending on getting the hell out of Sydenham, in which case, you would have both my sympathy and my understanding). New books are displayed in the front half of the shop, and then towards the back and down in the basement is a sizable selection of second hand fare, with a couple of bookcases-worth of modern firsts and an impressive stock of books on cricket, gardening, history, cinema, theatre, and so forth. The prices are very reasonable too.

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy may or may not be an entry in Len Deighton's first-person series starring the unnamed British spy subsequently monikered Harry Palmer in the films adapted from the novels. Even the main Len Deighton website can't make up its mind whether it is or not, which only goes to highlight the problem of not naming your lead character. Apparently if you've read the previous books in the series – from 1962's The Ipcress File to 1967's An Expensive Place to Die, although there's also some doubt over whether it's the same unnamed spy in that last one – you'll be able to draw your own conclusions as to whether Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy is part of that run. But since I haven't, it's not a poser I need to trouble myself with particularly.

Raymond Hawkey designed the jackets for many of Deighton's novels, working with different photographers to achieve his vision. Props such as a gun or a skull would be placed in intriguing and suggestive arrangements, and then type incorporated with the finished photo. The photographer on Twinkle, Twinkle was Adrian Flowers, who was a key figure at influential illustration agency Artist Partners; aside from photographing book covers he also took pictures for this article on "A Day in the Life of Len Deighton", which was penned by Deighton himself.

Deighton and Hawkey were contemporaries at the Royal College of Art in the 1950s; Hawkey was employed to design the jacket for Deighton's debut, The Ipcress File, at Deighton's request, and Deighton was a designer himself before he found success as a writer, creating covers for UK editions of Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1956) and a 1960 Penguin cover for Iris Murdoch's Under the Net, among others. For his part Hawkey also wrote, producing four well-received thrillers: Wild Card (1974), Side-Effect (1979), It (1983) and End Stage (1988). And as we'll see in the third and final post on him, he also created covers for spy novels by other writers – seemingly reusing props in the process...

Monday 14 February 2011

Westlake Score: Deadly Edge by Richard Stark (UK Coronet Paperback First Edition, Raymond Hawkey Cover Design)

Remarkably, it's been two months since I last had a Westlake Score to show you, so let's start the working week with a book which, on this most lovey-dovey of days (it's Valentine's Day, in case you hadn't noticed), could not only be classed as perhaps the most romantic of all of Donald 'Richard Stark' Westlake's Parker novels, but also kicks off a short run of posts on legendary cover designer Raymond Hawkey:

Seen here is the UK first edition of Deadly Edge, the thirteenth Parker novel, published by Coronet/Hodder Fawcett in paperback in 1972 (originally published in the US in hardcover by Random House in 1971). The reason it's romantic – or at least as romantic as any Parker gets, which is to say, not at all – is because it details an assault by a couple of psychos on Parker's squeeze, Claire, and Parker's subsequent reckoning with them. So it's kind of a 'Parker defends his woman' deal, as I outlined in this review.

The cover is one of Hawkey's 'bullet hole' designs, with a silver card outer cover and a paper inner cover:

Almost all of the original run of Parker novels (the exception being Butcher's Moon) had Hawkey bullet hole covers at one time or another on the Coronet printings of the books – sometimes on the second or even third printing, as on Point Blank and The Rare Coin Score, and sometimes on the first printing, as with Deadly Edge. I picked this copy up on eBay for a fiver, because once again it hadn't been listed as the UK first edition of the novel, which it is.

Steve Holland has a gallery of almost all the Hawkey bullet hole covers on his blog, along with an obituary for the designer, who died last year. But Hawkey's cover for Deadly Edge is a little different to the rest of the bullet hole designs:

All of the other Hawkey Parker covers show the title of the book through the bullet hole, whereas Deadly Edge shows a photograph of a hand holding a pistol, with the title printed on the silver outer cover. No idea why this is so, but it's an interesting anomaly.

Any road up, for the next post in this short Raymond Hawkey series, I'll have one of his designs for a Len Deighton novel, the dustjackets for whose books are what originally made Hawkey's name...