Tuesday, 27 September 2016

As a devotee of Sherlock Holmes and his many rivals - Conan Doyle was not the only writer of detective short stories in late Victorian England - I was interested to pick up a copy of Cavan Scott's The Patchwork Devil.

This is a full length novel, set in the aftermath of the Great War, which sees Holmes having left Baker Street, and enjoying semi-retirement as a bee keeper on the South Downs.

Of course,  during a brief stay in London with his companion Dr Watson, now living in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, with his second wife, the pair get quickly drawn into yet another seemingly unfathomable mystery.

Following the discovery of a severed hand on the banks of the River Thames, the two find themselves up against a government conspiracy, involving Holmes' brother, Mycroft, that leads them to the most horrific of discoveries.

This is clearly not the pen of Conan Doyle, but a cracking story it surely is. I simply could not put the book down.

One of the joys of Conan Doyle's stories for me is the descriptions he gave us of individual buildings, streets, and districts in London. He placed Holmes and Watson perfectly in what was the actual London landscape of the day, and as one with a passion for the history of late-Victorian/Edwardian London that always added a great deal for me.

Scott of course would not have seen those sights with his own eyes, unlike Conan Doyle. Although some of the places mentioned in the original stories can easily be found and recognised, Scott's descriptions of some of the better known areas suffice.

The dialogue between Holmes and Watson is absolutely spot on. Of the course the two men are now a little older, and both a little grumpier, but the humour remains and this is one of the strongest points of the book.

The story itself is first rate. As the plot develops, we see the influence of another great writer of the period, Mary Shelley, enter into the storyline. I will say no more about the plot - read it yourselves!

Cavan Scott: The Patchwork Devil (Titan Books, London (2014) isbn: 9781783297146.)

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Roberta Kray: The Debt

I recently picked up a copy of The Debt, by Roberta Kray. Modern crime novels don't particularly interest me, so it was an unusual choice. To be honest it was the name of the author that initially caught my attention - Roberta is the widow of Reggie Kray, who along with his twin brother Ronnie, was one of the most feared gangland bosses in London's history.

The plot centres around Johnny Frank, released from jail after serving 18 years for murdering a fellow criminal following a Hatton Garden diamond heist.

The story is one one of bitterness and revenge set against attempts to recover the stolen jewels.
Johnny Frank is a superbly crafted character. Cold, methodical, violent, but with an underlying empathy which, whilst it exists, is rarely acted upon. I was reminded of Ralph Fiennes portrayal of 'Harry' in the movie In Bruges, the physical description even matches.

Indeed, all of the main characters are strong, and most lose such sympathy as the reader may instinctively have for any fellow human being very quickly.

The story is told in the first person, with the narrator alternating chapter by chapter between Frank himself and Simone Buckley, the daughter-in-law of Jim Buckley, a former associate of Frank, against who the released murderer bares a deep grudge.

The plot unfolds fast, with many twists and turns. Seemingly every character has their secrets and their ulterior motives. There are the inevitable romantic undertones throughout, which I find distracting, if not irritating, but that is not a criticism of Mrs Kray's style of writing, it is about my own personal tastes.

I subconsciously nodded agreement at Frank's comments about how the East End had changed during the 18 years he had been in prison, although a real life East Ender would have had a lot more to say on the subject for certain.

The book is a good read - the fact that I found time to read it from cover to cover over the course of just two very busy days says something.

The Debt, Roberta Kray (Robinson, London, 2006) isbn 9781-1-84529-212-6

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Israel Zangwill: A Study. Maurice Wohlgelernter

Of course this is not so much a book about London, as it is a biography of a London-based writer. But given Zangwill's importance in chronicling life in the late-Victorian Jewish ghetto Wohlgelernter's 1964 biography Israel Zangwill: A Study deserves our attention.

I actually picked up a first edition of this book at the Ivory Ape, an antiquarian bookshop in the centre of Brussels.

This was the first full-length study of Zangwill's works, and probably remains the definitive source for students and fans alike. The beauty of the book lies in the authors understanding of Zangwill's affinity with his subjects. Zangwill, for all his brilliance, was a true child of the ghetto, and was neither able nor desirous of leaving behind the people amongst who was born in the Whitechapel slums.

Maurice Wohlgelernter, Israel Zangwill: A Study, Columbia University Press (1964).

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

The King of Schnorrers: Israel Zangwill

Although it is a name that has largely disappeared - although I did hear it recently in Columbia Road flower market - the Schnorrer, or beggar, was very much a part of London life at the time of the Jewish ghetto. Zangwill, although an educated and successful writer, could never leave the subject of the ghetto, nor could he emotionally disassociate himself from it. The ghetto gave him inspiration, and was the subject of his greatest works.

The King of Schorrers, first published in 1894, tells the story of Manasseh Bueno Barzillai Azevedo da Costa, a proud and resorceful Sephardic Jew with a very confident view of his place in the world. An irrascible rogue, Zangwill places his beggar in late-18th century London, which he describes so brilliantly that the book has is only entertaining, but also has historic value. The city is real, the social settings are real, and the fictional Manasseh strides like a lord through it all.

When it was first published the book took London by storm. Zangwill never made the same impact as his contemporaries and friends, such as H.G. Wells and Jerome K. Jerome, but his work remains amongst the best social commentary of its time. Manasseh was possibly the Arthur Daley or Del Trotter of his day, and this book (which is available through Amazon) is one of the most under-rated of English classics. 10/10

Isreal Zangwill The King of Schorrers (2003 edition) Dover Publications

Sunday, 29 November 2009

A Child of the Jago: Arthur Morrison

The tragic story of the doomed Dick Perrot, a young denizen of Morrison's "Jago" - a fictionalised account of life in the Old Nichol - was first published in 1896. The characters may be fictional, any student of the subject will instantly recognise the surroundings, and indeed many of the individuals and events that pass through the story.

Brutal, nihilistic, but a superb representation of life in London's late-Victorian slums.

The setting is discussed in more academic detail in Sarah Wise's "The Blackest Streets".

The book is available through Amazon: buy a copy, then sit and read it in Dirty Dick's pub, near Liverpool St station. Almost untouched by the passage of time, Dirty Dick's was hugely popular with those residents of the Old Nichol at the time the book was written: It was also the scene of one of the most brutal gangland fights of the day, when Arthur Harding vanquished his arch-rival, the pimp and hooligan Darky the Coon. Darky went on to win a chest-full of medals in the trenches, and Albert was to become onr of the last survivors of the Old Nichol.

Learn more about Arthur, and hear his voice here:   http://www.bishopsgate.org.uk/content.asp?CategoryID=1196

Arthur Morrison: A Child of the Jago (1995 edition) Academy Chicago publishers

Friday, 30 October 2009

London's Docklands: Fiona Rule

This book is well researched and well written. However, it fails to do its subject justice, as it is really a narrative - a time line of the history of London, which becomes ever more focussed on London's Docks as it progresses.

Beginning with Roman London, historically the book is faultless, and it fills in a lot of the gaps that most people seem to have about the Anglo-Saxon period of our history. But it is only towards the end, when we come to the early Victorian period that the pages come to life. By the end of the 19th century, more personal recollections begin to enter into the tale, and with this genre of book, these are always the most captivating of the details. The role of the workers in shaping the future of the docks is covered particularly well, and the reasons for the eventual decline of the docks is discussed without falling into the political bias that too often blights such discussion.

The book is subtitled A history of the lost quarter, and Rule has successfully placed the Docklands in its own space, albeit one that is, spatially speaking, in a constant state of flux. 7/10

Fiona Rule, London's Docklands, Ian Allen (2009).

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Sarah Wise: The Blackest Streets.

Historically accurate, and highly evocative of life in late-Victorian London. The subject of the book - the ghetto made up of thirty or so streets in Bethnal Green known collectively as the 'Old Nicholl' - comes to life in this book. Indeed, such is the nature of the East End, that whilst to Old Nichol was demolished more than a century ago, many readers will instantly recognise parts of neighbouring streets and lanes that Ms Wise describes in such detail. People come and go, but Brick Lane for example never really changes. May it always be so!

The squalor and suffering, the cold acceptance of a miserable life and an early death, all are discussed. Of particular interest is the discussion of infant mortality amongst the lower working classes, and Ms.Wise's questioning of why these wretched people were so readily accused by society of inflicting death on their offspring. The numbers, she suggests, do not support what was accepted as fact at the time.

There is inevitibly something voyeuristic about such books, and this one does shock as well as fascinate. That, however, does not detract from the educational value of the work.

To make the most of this book, I would strongly advise first reading Arthur Morrison's "A Child of the Jago" (1896), which was effectively a fictionalised account of life in the Nichol, but one which features cameo appearences from a number of real life characters. Indeed, one of the greatest forgotten heroes of social reform, "Father" Anthony Osbourne Jay, of Holy Trinity, is immortalised as "Father Sturt" by Morrison. The latter book is small and easy to read, and it will give the reader a familiarity with the subject.

Likewise, I would always advise anybody interested in the history of the Jewish ghetto in Whitechapel, which lay just across the Bethnal Green Road, to read Isreal Zangwill's "Children of the Ghetto" (1892). Dramatisation was often used as a means of making social points in the period in question, and Morrison and Zangwill are required reading for anybody interested in social reform.

There seems to be a renewed interest in the history of the East End at present, and this book capitalises on that. It is clearly meticulously researched, well illustrated, and of high educational value.  8/10

Sarah Wise. The Blackest Streets, Bodley Head (2008)
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