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The Third Man?

July 14th, 2010 by Peter

You may notice that there are two books on the shelves of your local bookstore (unless your bookseller has good taste in which case there may remain only one) entitled The Third Man. To avoid any confusion as to which you should read I thought I would publish a brief guide here on my blog. In one book the protagonist is a vile, egomaniacal sleaze who will do anything and tread on anyone to serve his own purpose save his own skin, the other protagonist is black marketer Harry Lime.

Yes, Peter Mandelson, the man who revels in the nickname ‘The Prince of Darkness’, has decided to call his memoir The Third Man. Quite what the late, great, Graham Greene – a man we must recall who won the Jerusalem Prize for his commitment to the freedom of the individual in society – would think of a man like Mr. Mandelson appropriating the title of his screenplay and novella is hard to say but I don’t think he’d universally approve of it; perhaps, of course, Greene would realise that Mr. Mandelson’s career so accurately holds a harsh light to the realities and immoralities of modern politics that it will do far more than a roman-a-clef could ever manage.

Greene’s novella was written while writing the screenplay for the film, arguably one of the greatest films of all time, and while Harry Lime may be a murderer and a racketeer he’s far more likeable as a character than the leering prince of darkness presented by  Mr. Mandelson. Greene is a fantastic writer and his style is great to read.

In an ideal world I’d love to see a facebook campaign get the Graham Greene novel to top the bestseller lists instead of the memoir but, logically speaking, while its easy to get people to buy a 79p song to get it to chart it’s somewhat more difficult to do the same with a £7.99 book. Still, this summer I encourage everyone who considers Mandelson’s memoirs to pick up a copy of The Third Man by Graham Greene instead.

The Sound of Silence…

July 11th, 2010 by Peter

It’s been a little quiet on the blog front of late. For this I blame the fact that I’ve been really rather busy editing The Blue Rose of Vitebsk; those who know me will know that editing is probably life’s most painful experience. There are three drafts knocking about these parts that I started but never finished however I can’t find much relevance presently in Orlando Figes, Anti-semitism or the whole death of the novel debate so I suspect they will remain unfinished. Instead I shall break through the silence and leave a picture of a few of the books I’m looking forward to reading, which I picked up recently at The Keel Row Bookstore.  Also on my to-read pile is Mad Dogs and Englishmen by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, which promises to be a really good read. (I mean, it didn’t actually promise – my books do not talk to me. That would be somewhat eccentric.)

Laconically speaking…

June 5th, 2010 by Peter

I find it interesting to hear the roots and origins of words – language is an amazing thing and the way names of people and places enter the lexicon is fascinating. How people exclaimed when google became a verb and yet for hundreds of years names have became so synonymous with actions or characteristics that they become verbs or adjectives.

I remember in a short story many years ago having, in unforgivable ignorance, used the word ‘quisling’ as an insult only to later learn of Vidkun Quisling and realise that this fabulous insult had only became such thanks to the treachery of that one man. Unless he was a prophet my seventeenth century courtier had no business at all using it.

Another word that’s original meaning had passed me by is laconic; named after the people of Laconia or, to you and I, the Spartans. It was the flair for the concise put down of a militant Greek tribe over two and a half millennia ago that gave us the word. The short pithy humour was no later romantic invention, in fact even Plato observed it at the time.

I think my favourite of the many famous Spartan retorts is that given to Philip II of Macedon who sent the ultimatum:

“You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.”

The Spartan reply was simple and to the point.


I don’t know who was working at international relations for Sparta that day but that is classy; to manage to sum up your meaning in one word is good but to do so in such style that it is itself a living demonstration of it – that is Spartan. And for the record Philip didn’t. All of this is before we even get to King Leonidas who, not content with immortality on the field of battle, endeavoured to be a laconic wit too. Thermopylae was his stage for the kind of classic lines that tell you all you need to know of the three hundred without the need for any over-stylised Hollywood gore fest. (Now is not the place for my opinion on excessive violence as a substitute for good narrative in modern film.)

Anyway, this appealed to my love of history and my love of words so I had to share it.

The power of words…

May 25th, 2010 by Peter

The Observer | Books | Hans Fallada’s anti-Nazi classic becomes surprise UK bestseller

There is an interesting article on the Guardian website from Sunday’s observer about the high sales of Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin. It’s great to see a classic book like this selling so well but what makes it an important work is not sales figures, it’s not it’s recent translation into English after sixty years of relative unknownness in the English world, it’s the fact that this book packs such power.

Hans Fallada did not have the benefit of hindsight, of dozens of history books to pore over and find out exactly what went on in the third Reich; Hans Fallada lived through it first hand. The books power is in the fact that it proves the truth of history, it makes it so real and immediate. This is harder than it may sound – the historical novelist has the advantage of looking back from a safe distance and knowing how history has settled upon things, being able to research many different views and look at facts that were obscured at the time. The writer who tackles the events of their day does not have that luxury, they must right what they know and what they saw and what they felt. This book forms a testimony to the evil of the Reich, it stands as damning evidence in support of later historical assessments.

It would be a liar who said this book was pretty; it would be a liar who said Nazi Germany was pretty. But what this book represented for me was something else – it was human dignity in appalling circumstances. The story is of Otto and Anna Quangel who respond to the death of their son at war by writing propaganda postcards and distributing them around Berlin. It is their act of rebellion against the state. This small act envelopes many other characters as the book explores the nature of the security state; we see people showing both dignity and humanity and also those who choose the other path and behave in an evil way. The book raises the question of whether this act of defiance achieved anything in real terms but beyond that it raises the question of whether it’s a duty as a human being to defy evil even when your act of defiance is not changing things. This brought to mind a quote by Major-General Henning von Tresckow, one of the plotters in the von Stauffenberg coup attempt:

“What matters now is no longer the practical purpose of the coup, but to prove to the world and for the records of history that the men of the resistance dared to take the decisive step. Compared to this objective, nothing else is of consequence.”

We remember von Stauffenberg, von Tresckow, Martin Niemoller, etc, because they in one way or another had the courage and conviction to stand up to evil. Alone in Berlin shows us that evil but in those characters who are willing to stand up to it it shows the redemptive power of those who refuse to lie down and accept evil but will stand up and be counted whatever the cost.  The Quangels, in this book, take a small step and resist in the only way they know how. The book is a well paced and very well written. It’s well written, it’s horrifying, it’s inspiring; I’m glad to see that it is also popular.

J.G Farrell…

May 23rd, 2010 by Peter

It’s sometimes asked of writers – or aspiring writers – who they most admire as a writer or whose style they particularly like. I’ve thought about this from time to time and one writer who I personally find amazingly adept and skillful was J.G Farrell. He has appeared once more in the newsprint of the literary press this past month both for the publication of his letters and for winning the Lost Booker Prize with Troubles. (This was awarded due to a change in the qualification requirements creating an effective gap of one year, 1970, where books were not judged for the prize.)

I am a relative newcomer to Farrell having first read him last year when I found a rather lovely edition of The Siege of Krishnapur, itself also a Booker prize winner in 1973. The amazing thing about Farrell is the way he could meld so many elements together in his work; one moment you are aghast at the events in the siege ridden town and the next you’re laughing at the humour of another situation, one moment you despair at the events and the next you marvel at them. It strikes me that in his style Farrell captures life itself. Life is never all exciting nor all boring, it is never all happy nor all sad, all serious nor all funny; life is a mixture of many emotions and it is here that both the human condition and Farrell’s writing triumph. People can, in the most awful of situations, find solace in humour. It’s the final triumph over adversity when you can laugh at it. In Farrell’s work we see both the serious and the funny; we fear for the life of the collector at the same time as laughing at some other turn of events in the besieged residence. We see violence and love, fear and hope. It’s the skillful ability to apply to all ends of the spectrum the same adept skill with words.

In the Empire trilogy we are given a picture of the decline of empire that neither entirely condemns nor venerates; it observes both sides and it sees the idiosyncrasies of many of the circumstances thrown up by empire. He can make it so apparent that it is all a question of viewpoint and have the reader hoping for one resolution while at the same time understanding why others would hope for a different one. He brings wit, balance and great word skill to a defining era in our history and I hope that the publicity generated by the Lost Booker Prize will make many more people discover his work.


May 19th, 2010 by Peter

After 199 days; 82,231 words; countless trips to the Lit and Phil and more cups of hot chocolate than I’d care to admit to I finally have a completed first draft and a draft cover design too. (Because I am a design geek and I can’t have one without the other.) I cannot say how much of a relief it has been to finish the first draft; I have a nice new red pen at the ready for the editing process to begin in earnest.

The working title of the novel is The Blue Rose of Vitebsk, though I have also considered 1812: A Novel and Ekaterina. I may yet plump for something different altogether but The Blue Rose of Vitebsk is the favourite at the moment because I like the old fashioned feel of it as a title.  The novel is set during Napoleon’s doomed invasion of Russia in 1812.

The paintings on the cover are Édouard Detaille’s Cossacks Attacking a squad of the Gardes d’honneur and Battle of Borodino by Peter von Hess.

Voting for change…

May 5th, 2010 by Peter

I was born and raised in South Shields; for the uninitiated it’s an old industrial town on the North East coast of England, at the south of the mouth of the river tyne. (Historically it was the site of the Arbeia roman settlement, garrisoned by Gaulish Auxilleries and Asturian Cavalry. It was Royalist in the Civil War, bombed in the Second World War and it’s from here that John Simpson Kirkpatrick – hero of Galipoli – hails.) The town has changed a lot since I was growing up here and not in good ways. The town centre is a shadow of it’s former self and King Street seems to be becoming worse and worse. Significant unemployment has not been addressed. In short it feels as though the town has been put out to pasture by it’s elected representatives and is left in a state of neglect. It has been failed by it’s politicians on both a national and a local level.

This election is a straight two way choice for the people of South Shields between the Conservatives and Labour; the Liberal Democrat has been notable only by his absence. I don’t want to dwell on the national issues of the past thirteen years, we all know them. I want to look at the town. Why has business declined? Why has retail declined? Why are jobs in education being cut? Why has unemployment not been addressed?

I’ve been paying attention to this campaign and have a pile of campaign literature on the table. The Conservative candidate, Karen Allen, has consistently canvassed on local issues. She has talked about the town centre, talked about jobs, talked about the need for good local representation and talked about change. Karen has been a regular on King Street meeting the public and has spent a lot of time canvassing around the constituency. David Miliband has not mentioned his constituency on his blog recently at all, he doesn’t even mention it in his about me text and he has spent most of this campaign away from the town trying to get plenty of support for his own leadership bid once Gordon Brown steps aside. The constituency has been, as always, largely ignored. The campaign literature from the Labour party has consisted of attack ads, smears and lies. To David Miliband this constituency is not his home, it does not matter, it’s just the place he uses to get elected to seek higher office. Karen Allen was born here, attended Harton Comprehensive; she knows local issues because she is local.

The South Shields constituency has a somewhat dubious claim to fame in being the only constituency in the country never to have returned a Conservtaive MP. People will tell you that it always has to be this way, that no party other than Labour can win here. That is not true. People in this constituency are showing a desire for change. Labour no longer represents the people of this town, it has taken the trust given to it by the electorate and abused it. Failure should not be rewarded. I have asked Mr. Miliband in a comment on his blog why he does not engage on local issues and why he has not put in the effort on a local campaign. This comment has not yet been authorised or answered. (I will update this post accordingly if he answers my questions.)

This May 6th I’ll be voting for Karen Allen, the only candidate that can offer this town the change that it needs. The fact that she is the only candidate to have ran a concentrated campaign on local issues while the man who claims to represent the town is off touring the country speaks volumes of where their respective priorities lie. If you have a vote in this constituency I’d encourage you to make it count for change too and cast it for Karen Allen.

Web links:

Karen Allen’s Blog.
David Miliband’s Blog.

The Schoolmaster, The Corsican and The Conspiracy Theorist…

May 1st, 2010 by Peter

Marshal Michel Ney

I was doing a little research for my present novel yesterday into Marshal Ney, just the usual stuff, and like all bad researchers I started with Wikipedia. I find it’s handy for getting an overview and then you can follow references and citations and links to verify facts and dig a little deeper. It was while reading that I stumbled across this gem:

One of the more colorful legends of Ney that grew up after his execution was that he had managed to escape to the United States. Proponents of this theory argue that Ney had Masonic  ties, including to the Duke of Wellington, who helped him fake his execution and flee abroad. According to this account, the soldiers in the firing squad put blood packets over his heart and then shot blanks at the Marshal. He was then smuggled to the United States and continued his life as a school teacher.

A man called Peter Stuart Ney arrived in the United States in 1816, and later taught school in North and South Carolina, including at Davidson College, where he designed the school seal still in use. He died in 1846, reportedly after uttering the final words, “Bessières is dead; the Old Guard is dead; now, please, let me die.” On his gravestone in Cleveland, North Carolina, at Third Creek Presbyterian Church on Third Creek Church Road, one will find the words “soldier of the French Revolution under Napoleon Bonaparte.”

Now, I’m not one of these people who goes around believing Elvis lives with JFK and two aliens in a rest home in area 51. (Princess Anastasia is the maid, I think.) Conspiracy theories have been around for many years and they’re generally so bizarre and stupid that they’re not worth a moment of your time. Let’s face it people only think Elvis lives because his fans had a hard time with the fact that their ‘king’ died on a toilet. This one, however, I rather enjoyed.

I don’t believe this to be true but then isn’t that the thing with theories? If you suspend your disbelief just slightly and open up your imagination a little then they’re not too much of a stretch. There is something wonderful about the idea that the man Buonoparte dubbed ‘the bravest of the brave’, the man who fought tooth and nail as the rearguard on the retreat from Moscow in 1812, could end his days teaching students in Carolina while vaguely thinking of past glory.

Of course the real evidence is that he was tried for treason and on December 7th 1815 he was to be found in the Luxembourg Garden, Paris, refusing to wear a blindfold, and uttering the words: “Soldiers, when I give the command to fire, fire straight at my heart. Wait for the order. It will be my last to you. I protest against my condemnation. I have fought a hundred battles for France, and not one against her … Soldiers, Fire!” And somehow, that seems like quite an exit in itself.

A Translator’s Tale

April 29th, 2010 by Peter

There’s a very interesting piece on the Guardian website about translators being often overlooked. I’ve often wondered this myself, particularly when reading Tolstoy or Pushkin. Can I say I’ve ever really read Tolstoy? I’ve actually read Louise and Aylmer Maude. As a non-Russian speaker (Okay, I can manage “Hello, my name is Peter, how are you?” but then I get terribly lost and end up at “Goodbye” startlingly quickly.) how am I to know what a person’s writing style is like when it was written in another language with different grammatic conventions, nuances and styles. The work of the translator is to bring all those together in a translation that is both accurate to the original text but also faithful to the spirit of the work. I can’t even begin to imagine how such a feat is achieved. It’s impossible to under estimate how much we owe to good translation.

Literary to a tee?

April 3rd, 2010 by Peter

Los Angeles Times | Books | Literary T-shirts

There’s an interesting post on the Los Angeles Times book blog today about literary tee-shirts. My favourites come from Out of Print who do tees of classic book covers. I particularly like Moby Dick and 1984.  They’re $28 each and some of the proceeds from each shirt go towards helping literacy in Africa.

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