Ed Reardon is the star of ‘Ed Reardon’s Week’ which, from time to time, gets the odd half hour on Radio 4. Back in 2005 his adventures were transformed into a book (also Ed Reardon’s Week) which I have somehow only now got round to reading.
Reardon is a brilliant comic character, though sadly unaware of how funny he is. His first novel, Who Would Fardels Bear? was a great literary success. As a fan of the radio series, I know that Reardon was tipped as a young man to watch in a Sunday magazine feature back in the 1960s. Sadly, despite penning one episode of Tenko, his career has since then failed to flourish and he has been reduced to ghost-writing for celebrity cooks, sportsmen, and, for all I know, Victoria Beckham (although he is far too professional to admit the last one).
His divorce exhausted whatever funds he may have acquired from his early success and he is now reduced to living in a flat over a hairdressing salon where he is becoming increasingly bitter about a world that has rejected his genius in favour of (in his view) the inane wittering of 12-year-old television executives.
Reardon’s persona allows the authors to express their trenchant views on everything from the state of modern publishing through the inadequacies of the railway system to the doubtful joys of living in Berkhamsted (“the fastest-growing property market in Europe”). The writers are thus able to enjoy the privilege offered to court jesters, through the ages: saying politically incorrect things to poke fun at the modern world, whilst simultaneously insisting that these aren’t their views, just those of the appalling old dinosaur, Reardon. It’s great fun, though, like most satire, increasingly difficult to keep up as the idiocies of the life today overtake anything that the writers’ imagination can produce.
Back in 2005 when the world was young and London buses had yet to tell you to hold on because they were “about to move” thirty seconds after they had already done so, Reardon’s acerbic comments were still simultaneously wildly exaggerated and bang on point. If you have ever enjoyed anything with “Grumpy Old” in the title, you’ll love Ed Reardon, the archetypal grumpy late middle-aged man.
For writers (and I believe that some of the people who read this blog may be writers) it is Reardon’s continual struggles to produce anything remotely worthwhile and to persuade his publishers to give him an advance on his latest idea that particularly resonates. Reardon’s orgies of self-pity are in part justified by the success of his friend Jaz Milvane who, having adapted Who Would Fardels Bear Into an appallingly saccharine Hollywood movie, has gone on to massive commercial success.
The characters of Ed and Jaz are stolen from George Gissing’s 1891 classic New Grub Street, which pokes less fun at the institutions of the day but concentrates its withering fire on publishing. Edmund is a genuine literary genius, but his books are not commercially successful. Jasper, on the other hand, is an appalling hack who turns out rubbish that he knows to be rubbish but which is carefully crafted to meet the market. Ed, inevitably, faces increasingly desperate hardship and literary obscurity, while Jasper grows rich and successful.
The modern Reardon is not averse to writing for the market either – he’s just not very good at it. He resents readers, publishers and, most of all, his terrible agent who long ago lost interest in him and who has now fobbed him off on Ping, a young woman whose Oxford education has left her, in Reardon’s view, unfitted for literary life, but who somehow seems richer, more assured and more successful than him.
The book could be a miserable wallow in grumpiness and self-pity (the original New Grub Street definitely veers in that direction), but, unlike Gissing’s novel, this is unremittingly funny, whether detailing Ed’s efforts to earn ten pounds by taking part in identity parades (“ the experience might furnish me with useful research material”) or his disastrous attempts at speed dating. But for writing friends, there is a particularly poignant humour in his increasingly desperate attempts to produce what his publishers demand.
“Basically the brief is: celeb cats and dogs grumbling about their owners. What does the Downing Street moggy really think about Cheri Blair?”
“Just cats and dogs?” I asked, out of politeness.
“No – rabbits, hamsters, whatever. You’re the author. Could even be a fun chapter by an Aussie insect about what it’s like to be eaten by Janet Street-Porter. It’s so you.”
Ed Reardon’s Week also avoids the tragic ending of New Grub Street. Ed [spoiler alert] does not die in a garret. Strictly speaking, if the authors were models of artistic integrity, he would. But his survival ensures that Radio 4 listeners will be able to laugh at him another day. And, until the next series, there’s always this book to keep us amused.
Lately I’ve been writing about events in the run up to the Irish Rebellion of 1798, so when I saw a biography of Roger Casement on a free promotion on Amazon, I “bought” it. The events of the Easter Rising of 1916 clearly followed on from the failed revolt of 1798 and had many similar details. I thought it would be interesting to read the life of somebody so intimately concerned with the 1916 uprising and compare their life with, for example, the life of Wolfe Tone, the famous 18th century Irish Nationalist (and incidental character in my book).
The end of Casement’s life did have remarkable similarities to Wolfe Tone’s. Like Tone, he was born a Protestant. He, too, quit Ireland to live in a country at war with Britain in the hope of persuading Britain’s enemies to assist a rising of the Irish. Like Tone, he was received sympathetically and there were many indications that assistance would be forthcoming, but, like Tone, he discovered that, in the end, Britain’s enemies saw Ireland as unworthy of any significant military effort. Like Tone, he saw the rising against the British as doomed to failure and, again like Tone, he placed himself in a position where his capture, and ultimate death, was almost a certainty, preferring to die in Ireland than live on in exile. (Sadly, Casement was executed in England and for many years his body lay in Pentonville, until it was returned to Ireland, where he was reburied as a national hero.)
Casement’s earlier life, though, could not have been more unlike Tone’s. He was born in Ulster, but after he had left school his uncle got him a job in Liverpool with a shipping line. He persuaded the company to let him go on a trip to Africa and was so impressed with what he saw that he decided he must return. When he was just 20 he started working for Stanley. This was the start of an involvement with Congo that was to define much of his life. At the time, Leopold of the Belgians was exploiting the Congo natives to harvest rubber from the jungle. The natives were treated as slaves and frequently abused and tortured. Casement believed that the European countries had a duty to develop the economy of Africa in the interests of the local people and started campaigning against Leopold’s cruelties.
That one sentence summary of Casement’s activities in the Congo grossly simplifies what is the theme of about the first third of the book. Casement’s activities in the Congo were often the stuff of “Boys Own” adventures and Inglis’s writing style carries you with it like any historical thriller, despite occasional jolts because of what seem to be typographical errors. These can be confusing, as (as with any biography) Inglis uses a lot of quotations from contemporary reports, letters to or from Casement, etc and these are frequently not set off from the main text, so that you can read a paragraph without realising that this is no longer Inglis, but somebody completely different. This does lead to a certain amount of doubling back, which can take you out of what would otherwise be a gripping story. Even so, I belted through the account of Casement in the Congo and felt that, by the end, I knew much more about a particularly shameful episode of Western colonialism than I ever had before. I can just remember from my childhood the horrific legacy of Belgian rule in the Congo working itself out in wars and revolts, the echoes of which resonate down to the present day. This is the first time, though, that I have ever known how these problems started and this, on its own, would make the book worth reading.
Casement’s success in improving the lot of the Congo natives led him to attempt a similar intervention on behalf of the natives of Putumayo in the Amazon who were being similarly exploited by the Peruvians. He was less successful this time, largely because of a failure by the Foreign Office to pursue the matter with any vigour. Even so, his adventures in the Amazon are, again, nothing if not an exciting read.
Throughout Casement’s adventures there is what, in a novel, would be a subplot about his promiscuous homosexuality. So outrageous that they are at times genuinely comical, Casement’s sexual adventures were not funny at a time when homosexuality was illegal. Casement himself saw his sexual predilections as a personal failing and the stress of living with this secret may have contributed to what Inglis suggests was quite severe mental illness later in his life. The publication of some of the more torrid parts of his diaries after his death go some way to accounting for the fact that Casement’s considerable achievements are not as well known in England as they should be.
Of course, the fact that Casement was hanged as a traitor has also damaged his reputation. The homosexuality does seem to have been a significant factor, though, as by today’s standards he was definitely a freedom fighter up there with Nelson Mandela. If you think this must be an exaggeration, I can only suggest you read some of the fulsome praise of his character produced by supporters at the time. His behaviour was certainly no more treacherous (and arguably much less so) than, say, that of Gerry Adams, a man who England seemed quite capable of doing business with.
It was Casement’s involvement with the Easter Rising that drew me to the book, but in the end it was the least interesting part of it. There is an enormous amount of detail on the infighting between the various Republican parties that bedevilled the movement for Irish independence and continues to wreak havoc in the North. For those of us sitting comfortably distant in London, the detail of who is on whose side when becomes almost incomprehensible. Interestingly, in another parallel with Tone’s life, Casement spent much of his energy is trying to bring the squabbling factions together.
Casement’s adventures in Germany are a sad tale of growing disillusionment. Having read Tone’s account of life in France, there are, again, strong parallels. In the end, Casement realised that the Germans would not provide military support to any uprising and that an attempt at a coup against England was doomed. He returned to Ireland hoping to prevent an action that he knew would kill many Nationalists without any prospect of victory. Ironically, his return was used by the English as evidence of his involvement in the uprising and he was hanged. It’s a desperately unhappy end to a remarkable life.
Inglis’s biography verges on the hagiographic at times. Unfortunately, he feels the need to quote extensively from Casement’s poetry. Casement was not a great poet and these outbreaks of versification do not improve the book. Frankly, I’m not sure it’s improved by all the quotes from Yeats either, but Yeats’s skills as a poet are more generally acknowledged. Overall, though, this is a surprisingly readable account of the life of a sadly underrated man who deserves the recognition in England that he does get across the Irish Sea.
Shaun Lewis’s book takes us into the world of submarines in World War I. We are all familiar with stories of the horror of the infantry and artillery battles of that conflict and the world of battleships and destroyers is also something we are dimly aware of. People my age, brought up on Biggles, have some notion of what it must have been like to fly in those flimsy biplanes. But this is the first time I have read a book about submarine warfare back then. I didn’t even realise that there had been extensive use of submarines during World War I.
Lewis has served as a submariner and writes authoritatively about life below the sea. Much of the action of the book is based on real engagements and you get a definite sense of what it must have been like in the claustrophobic atmosphere of a submarine submerged on active service. A visit to the Submarine Museum at Portsmouth (I do recommend it) gives you the chance to see inside a late 20th century submarine. Life there must have been crowded and not particularly pleasant, but conditions were luxurious compared with those faced by the sailors at the beginning of the century. The story takes us through different classes of submarines, starting with those used for patrolling Britain’s home waters which, as they were at sea for only three days at a time, had no crew accommodation at all. The men slept on the floor and if, as often happened, the floor was covered in vomit, then they slept in that.
By the end of the story, our hero is commanding an E class submarine which offers more space, although the men often seem to sleep at their posts. This particular submarine is operating in support of the Gallipoli campaign and spends days submerged in the sea of Marmara. Fortunately for the crew, it has to surface regularly to replenish its batteries by running its diesel motors and these breaks provide the men with their only opportunities to breathe fresh air and bathe. Conditions would seem grim even without the constant danger from enemy mines and naval artillery.
I mentioned “our hero”, and that is what he is. Richard Miller, despite his idiosyncrasies (his Christianity verges on the fanatical and he is a teetotaller, in a service where alcohol is almost a required social lubricant) is not a fully realised character. This doesn’t worry me as I am more interested in the detail of submarine warfare than the personality of the captain, but it may worry others. My feeling is that books like this, plot driven and quite concerned with historical detail, are not the best place to be overly concerned about character, but I have had many comments that my hero, James Burke, would benefit from more fleshing out and I suspect Lewis will face the same sort of criticism.
Miller’s romance with his “kissing cousin” is, similarly, not explored in any great depth. She is defined in terms of her support for the suffragist movement, which gives Lewis the opportunity to provide a fair amount of analysis of the political background to the fight for the vote. He approaches this rather as he approaches the details of the submarines, with a workmanlike methodical take which is much more interested in the politics than Elizabeth Miller’s personality. Again, I am sure that there are people who will criticise this, but I welcomed the chance to learn more about a movement which is more often praised in generalities than analysed in terms of the various factions and their interplay with the established political parties.
The sense of distance that I sometimes felt from the characters was reinforced by a slightly stilted dialogue. This may, though, reflect the way that people spoke during the First World War. Not being quite that old, I can’t say. At the beginning of the book I found it quite irritating, but by the end it seemed completely natural. I think it is a deliberate effect, if only because when Lewis is reporting the conversation of sailors rather than “officers and gentlemen” the language flows much more naturally. This does mean that Miller’s drunken, abusive commander, Thomas Mullan, comes over as one of the most believable characters in the book. He is also the most psychologically complex and I only wish we could have seen more of him.
The Custom of the Trade is an easy book to read. The prose is unpretentious and there is enough action to hold your attention through the technical detail. I enjoyed it, both as a novel and as a way to learn more about an area of conflict I was previously almost completely ignorant of. I would recommend it to anybody who enjoys stories of military history.