Saturday 7 April 2012

An Evening at The TV Book Club (Channel 4 / More4, 2012)

I've never really been one for clubs. Not clubs in the over-imbibing-and-shuffling-about-to-loud-music sense – those I'm fine with: I've spent a substantial proportion of my life in those, and even made a living writing about them for eight years. No, I mean clubs as in the ones you join – like, say, after-school clubs (I did briefly flirt with a nascent comics club at school, but it was frowned upon by the teachers and never made it past its inaugural meeting), or organisations like the Cubs and the Scouts and the Brownies and the Guides (I was a Cub for a year; my mother made me go; the only badge I succeeded in attaining was the one you get for turning up each week – not by choice, obviously – and on a weekend camping trip I managed to get lost orienteering), or gentlemen's clubs (never been recommended for one, don't ever expect to be). Or, indeed, book clubs.

Book clubs have been big news for a while now, with groups of passionate readers gathering in coffee shops and pubs and living rooms up and down the land in order to discuss the finer points of plot, character and theme in their favourite novels – or, based on the evidence of a friend of mine, to simply get drunk on wine and shout at one another. Given the non-joining tendencies outlined above, you'll be unsurprised to learn that book clubs have largely passed me by – I'm far happier pontificating at extreme length in splendid isolation in the magnificent gated community that is Existential Ennui – but even I haven't failed to notice the leap to television of book clubs, with Oprah, Richard and Judy and, latterly, Channel 4 and More4's The TV Book Club. So when I was contacted out of the blue by the publicity team behind The TV Book Club, asking if I'd like to attend a recording of the show, I was at least (very) dimly aware of what they were on about.

Naturally, being, as I am, a misanthropic shut-in – and having barely watched the show – it was touch-and-go as to whether or not I'd accept the invitation. But I had nothing better to do on the Thursday evening in question (ingrate? Moi?), and I figured it'd give me the chance to take the afternoon off work and plunder the secondhand bookshops of Cecil Court before heading to the recording, so having bought a stack of first editions, I trotted along to Cactus Studios in Kennington at the appointed time.

Cactus Studios, it turns out, is also where ultimate weekend loafer programme Saturday Kitchen is filmed – on the same stage as The TV Book Club, natch – and as befits its name its swish, stark foyer is populated by a tasteful selection of cacti. It was also populated on this occasion by a handful of other books bloggers, all of whom had accepted similar invitations to mine, all of whom were seemingly avid viewers of the show, and at least one of whom had read all ten of the novels under discussion in this latest series – whereas I had read none (although I do have a first edition of S. J. Watson's Before I Go to Sleep still waiting to be cracked).

One thing I became acutely aware of over the course of the evening was how bloody weird Existential Ennui is in comparison to most books blogs. I mean, in the circle of blogs with which EE intersects and interacts – Olman's Fifty, Book Glutton, Pretty Sinister Books, Pattinase, The Rap Sheet and so forth – Existential Ennui isn't especially atypical: a little on the verbose side, and probably still idiosyncratic, but at least concerned with similar subjects, i.e. old genre books. But compared to the vast majority of books blogs, which generally concentrate on reviewing new fiction and are courted by publishers and invited to blogging events and parties – blogs which, in other words, perambulate along gaily on the publishing publicity treadmill – Existential Ennui is decidedly odd.

If this was evident from the polite chat in the foyer, it became even more glaringly obvious in the Green Room before the recording, where all of the bloggers stood round in a ring and were invited by the publicity team to describe their blogs. My explanation of EE's modus operandi – "It's mostly about classic spy fiction and crime fiction, some reviews but more book collecting, cover art, that kind of thing" – was met by mystified stares, but thankfully I was spared further fumbling explication when a production assistant arrived to usher us into the studio.

The show we were about to watch was the final one in the series, and would be dealing with the tenth book in the run, Alexander Maksik's You Deserve Nothing, a Camus-indebted, Paris-set novel about an illicit affair, which is about as far from Existential Ennui's abiding concerns as you could get, although it does, perhaps, shed light on how my invitation came about: I suspect someone at The TV Book Club's publicity team googled "existential fiction" in their search for suitable bloggers and ended up at my door. But if my presence was somewhat incongruous, the special guest on the show was equally so: Blur bass-player-turned-organic farmer Alex James, who, while ostensibly there to talk about Maksik's novel, was actually there to plug his new cheese-making memoir.

James was joined by regular guests the actresses Caroline Quentin and Laila Rouass and the comedian Rory McGrath (the photos illustrating this posts are from a previous series if you're wondering where McGrath and Alex James are), and the discussion was lively and entertaining, although the between-takes chat was, for me, more diverting: McGrath and James debating their favourite cheeses; Quentin ruminating on her ideal farm and finding common ground with McGrath in banjo-playing. There were the expected and amusingly sweary "fluffs", including one eruption of "balls, arse" from Quentin, followed by a beseechment to the watching bloggers to "please don't report that" (oops). Quentin also noticed "someone sitting in the audience tweeting", which was actually me scribbling in my notebook, something which, again, marked me out from the crowd (nobody else appeared to be taking notes).

Unlike a lot of television recordings, which often go on for hours, The TV Book Club is a tightly run ship, and it only took around half an hour before we reached the pick-ups, one of which required James to nod silently while Rouass intoned "The Sister Brothers is a good read", Caroline Quentin sympathising with James afterwards that it's "not much fun being on the arse end of a sentence". Shortly after that Quentin was afflicted by the giggles whilst attempting to deliver a line, and had to hand it over to McGrath, who promptly buggered it up himself, accompanied by a hearty "oh fuck".

And then we were done, and after Quentin and Rouass were both presented with bunches of flowers to mark the end of the series (none for McGrath or James, sadly), we all retired back to the Green Room, where wine and beer was made available and some of the more earnest bloggers went into an intense-looking group huddle. I got chatting instead to a nice man named Will, who handles the graphics at Cactus and who, it transpired, is also in a New Order tribute band. Needless to say, I was the last blogger to leave, suitably "refreshed" and clutching my goody bag of signed paperback copies of some of the books covered in the series. I'm still not sure what to do with them, to be honest. Perhaps I'll run a competition and give them away.

But anyway: it was a thoroughly pleasant evening, and though I'm still of the belief that my invitation was the result of a minor misunderstanding, it was lovely to be asked, and I'd like to thank Tommy and all at MEC for extending the invite. And should you wish to watch the show I attended, it'll be on More4 on Sunday night (8 April) at 7.20pm.

Next on Existential Ennui: Jeremy Duns and Paul Dark...

Thursday 5 April 2012

Book Review: Killy, by Donald E. Westlake (Random House, 1963 / T. V. Boardman, 1964)

(NB: A version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.)

Slight change of plan here: I had intended to post a Westlake Score this week, but I've decided to hold off on that for the moment – partly because on a whim I actually started reading the Westlake Score in question, and so I might as well delay blogging about it until I've finished it, at which point I'll be able to review it as well as drone on drearily about its scarcity (which, depending on your point of view, could either be a good thing or a bad thing); partly because it fits in with a series of posts I have planned, and I'm not quite ready to begin that series yet; but also because I realised there's another Westlake novel I've yet to review, one which I read ages ago but for some reason never posted anything substantial about: Killy.

It was whilst I was assembling my new, permanent Existential Ennui page, Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s (which is off to a cracking start, having been linked to via tweets by Alexis Petridis of The Guardian and writer Margaret Atwood) that I realised I hadn't yet reviewed Killy. First published in the US in 1963, it didn't make its debut in the UK until the following year, when T. V. Boardman published it as part of their American Bloodhound Mystery line (no. 454), under one of the best dustjackets Boardman's in-house designer, Denis McLoughlin, ever created for a Westlake novel. Indeed, legend has it that that's actually McLoughlin himself on the front cover you can see above – which is possibly why the Boardman edition is so scarce: there are currently no copies of it for sale online.

Killy was Donald E. Westlake's fourth novel under his own name, and is the first-person account of one Paul Standish, a trainee at the American Alliance of Machinists and Skilled Trades union (an organisation which, in one of Westlake's self-referential nods, also merits a mention in the later Richard Stark/Parker novel Butcher's Moon). Paul is wet behind the ears but eager to learn, so when a junior executive named Walter Killy takes Paul under his wing, Paul is more than happy to follow Killy's lead. Killy takes Paul to the small town of Wittburg to assess an application from the workers at the McIntyre Shoe Co. plant to join the AAMST, but when the pair get to Wittburg they encounter a decidedly frosty reception: they're arrested, assaulted, and accused of shooting and killing Charles Hamilton – the McIntyre worker who invited them to the town.

Before the story's done there'll be another corpse lying alongside Hamilton in the Wittburg morgue, but despite its murder mystery trappings, Killy is less a whodunnit than a portrait of corruption and double-dealing. Paul soon learns that the affable Killy is a seasoned operator, working for his own benefit and advancement as much as, if not more than, the union's, and happy to take another person's credit – i.e., Paul's – if it suits his purposes. Indeed, the picture Westlake paints of unionism isn't especially flattering – rife with self-interest and run by hard-nosed types more than ready and willing to mix it up if needs be.

The ultimate corruption, however, is of Paul himself. At the outset of the story he's naive and square, but he's a fast learner, and his eventual "revenge" on Killy is as cold-hearted as the actions of any other of the colourful characters who populate the novel. Of all those participants, it's George, the union "protector" – who calls Paul his "little friend" – who is the one player who understands just what Paul is capable of – and just how far and high he'll eventually go in the union.

Westlake's position as an acknowledged master of crime fiction often obscures the fact that many of his books are only crime fiction by decree. Like his near-contemporary, Ross Thomas – who also wove politics and its attendant corruption into what were ostensibly crime and spy thrillers (see The Porkchoppers for a similarly scathing take on unionism, but also The Fools in Town Are on Our Side, Chinaman's Chance and many other tales of wholesale corruption) – Westlake was as interested in the failings and foibles of ordinary folk as he was in the mechanics and intricacies of truck heists or bank jobs (or bloodbaths). As a protagonist, Paul Standish may not be the most memorable of Westlake's creations... but as a person – as a weak, ambitious, all too-human man – he's probably more true to life than the more exotic likes of Parker or Grofield or Dortmunder. In that sense, then, while less exciting than others of Westlake's novels, Killy is perhaps more representative of urban America in the early 1960s – and, no doubt, can still tell us much today.

Coming up next on Existential Ennui: over the Bank Holiday weekend I'm hoping to post something about my recent visit to Channel 4's The TV Book Club, but after that... it's the return of Paul Dark...

Wednesday 4 April 2012

New Additions to Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s

Well I must say the response to my new Existential Ennui permanent page, Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s, has been fair overwhelming. The link I tweeted to the gallery last week was retweeted to buggery – thank you to everyone who took the trouble to RT, especially Alexis Petridis (of The Guardian) and Margaret Atwood (yes, that Margaret Atwood) – with the net result that the page has received well over a thousand hits (er, make that 1,500... no, wait: 2,000... oh I give up) already. But it is, as I mentioned, an ongoing project, and so I'm pleased to announce nine new additions – some of them dustjackets by designers who are already part of the gallery – witness the Donald Green cover above – others by designers who heretofore haven't been, and still others that are brand new to Existential Ennui – bringing the total number of jackets currently on display up to thirty.

The above cover for C. S. Forester's The General may indicate that there are also a number of non-genre jackets in this batch, but that shouldn't, however, be taken as evidence that I've run out of crime or spy fiction wrappers to introduce to the gallery: I'm still mulling further additions from my collection, plus there are a number of books I'm keeping in reserve until I find the time to blog about them properly. (There are some nice surprises in store for regular readers, and I'd rather not spoil them.) There are also a handful of jackets which I've re-photographed from their original appearances on Existential Ennui (these are the lengths I go to for you, dear reader; I hope you're grateful). See if you can spot the new additions.

Coming up next here on the main blog I'll have a Violent World of Parker cross-post: a review of an early Donald E. Westlake novel, the dustjacket of which features in the Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s gallery...

Tuesday 3 April 2012

Exclusive First Look at New Titan Books Covers for Three Helen MacInnes Novels: Above Suspicion, Assignment in Brittany and Pray for a Brave Heart

Here's a little Existential Ennui exclusive for you, concerning a spy fiction author who I revealed in January would be returning to print this year: "Queen of Spy Writers", Helen MacInnes. Titan Books, who'll be reissuing MacInnes's backlist beginning in June, have sent me the covers for the initial three MacInnes novels they'll be republishing: Assignment in Brittany (pub date 12 Jun; first published 1942), Pray for a Brave Heart (pub date 12 June; first published 1955) and MacInnes's debut novel, Above Suspicion (pub date 12 July; first published 1941). (Those are all UK pub dates, by the way; the books will be arriving January and March 2013 in the States.)

I'm told the quotes may change for the final versions, but other than that, these are the covers you'll be seeing on the web and in bookshops before too long. They were designed by one of Titan's in-house designers, Julia Lloyd, and they are, to my mind, suitably and pleasingly gritty. Incidentally, while there aren't too many decent reviews of Helen MacInnes's novels available online at present – although I'm sure that'll change once Titan's reissues hit – I did stumble across this thoughtful review of Above Suspicion on the In Which I Read Vintage Novels blog. I also found a couple of interesting overviews of MacInnes's life and career – one at the A Woman Reading blog, the other at the Helensburgh Heritage Trust website.

Anyway: onwards. And for my next post, I'll be staying with the attractive book cover design, as I unveil some new additions to my Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s page...

Monday 2 April 2012

Felt: a Photographic History of the Band (First Third Books, 2012)

Let's begin the working week with some meandering musings on music.

It's probably true to say that the bands who've meant the most to me over the years have been the more obscure ones. Oh there are very well known bands that I've fallen for too: The Smiths, The Stone Roses, Crowded House; a few others. But it's the "lesser" lights that I've loved the most – bands that rarely, if ever, troubled the Top 40; bands whose gigs attracted crowds numbering in the hundreds rather than the thousands; bands who nevertheless commanded devoted followings who would buy every single seven inch and twelve inch and album (this is pre-the download era, you understand, when formats such as "seven inch" and "twelve inch" and even "albums" were still prevalent), without question, seeing merit in even the duffest of tracks and most incidental of B-sides. Bands like McCarthy, Kitchens of Distinction... and Felt.

Felt, if you've never heard of them – and it's a fairly safe bet that you haven't – were an English guitar band active throughout the 1980s. Ostensibly they were what's usually referred to as an "indie" band, but that only goes partway towards describing their music. Sure, most of their records – ten LPs (not counting compilations) and a dozen or so singles – were of a jangly guitar nature, but they also released an album comprised of instrumental tracks in varied styles (Let the Snakes Crinkle Their Heads to Death, Creation Records, 1986); an album with two extended keyboard instrumentals on the B-side (The Pictorial Jackson Review, Creation, 1988; the A-side consisted of short guitar pop songs recorded on 8-track); and a cocktail jazz album (Train Above the City, Creation, 1988).

So they were an unusually experimental and ambitious (musically, anyway) band – much of that ambition coming from founder, songwriter and lead vocalist Lawrence (Hayward, although his surname is rarely used). But that wasn't why I loved them (well, not entirely): I loved them for their very British take on the pop song; for the way those songs – "Penelope Tree", "Primitive Painters" and their defining (to my mind) moment, "Ballad of the Band" – frequently boasted passages of soaring beauty – delicately picked, dazzlingly lovely melodies and cascading guitar and keyboard lines; for Lawrence's quivering, half-sung, half-spoken vocals and poetic, often brutally honest lyrics; and for their carefully, artfully constructed air of mystique.

All of which is why my curiosity was piqued when I heard about this:

Felt, published by First Third Books in a limited, numbered, A4-size cloth-bound hardback edition of 1,000, all signed by Lawrence.

It's a handsomely produced collection of photographs of the band – some promotional, some personal – presented in roughly chronological order, with commentary by Lawrence. The photos are splendid enough taken on their own, but Lawrence's deadpan captions lend the enterprise a sublime absurdity, as he details his efforts to keep order in the ranks (despairing at the alcohol-fuelled antics of certain band-members; enforcing a "no smiling" policy during photo shoots and ensuring there were no double-chins in pictures by shouting "d-c, d-c!" before the shutter clicked) and retain absolute control over how Felt were perceived (not always successfully, it must be said).

Occasionally these endeavours verge on the hysterical: Lawrence eulogises the band's "neat, groomed, yet still tough" look in one set of fey pictures, and when asked to participate in a book about Creation Records is astounded by the lack of interest by other artists in the "crucial decision" of which photos should appear in the book, leading to, for them, "dire visual representation". But mostly his captions demonstrate an admirable (and largely thankless) commitment to Felt as a concept and an ideal – a commitment which helps to explain why the band were so special, and why they're still held in such high regard by fans of a certain age. Although, as ever with music, it's often simpler to let the songs speak for themselves:

Felt is still available from First Third, priced £39 plus p&p, although if you'd like to get hold of a copy, I'd advise you to get your skates on: my one is number 637, which means there are probably only a couple of hundred left now. Better yet, if you're unfamiliar with Felt and are intrigued by the YouTube clips above, Cherry Red Records have most of their albums available on CD. 

Addendum: Felt – which is to say Lawrence – had a knack for coming up with evocative song titles, but it occurs to me that one in particular has come to embody my exploration of twentieth century authors over the past few years...