Daily Archives: January 6, 2014

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee (Penguin, £8.99)

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie LeeI first bought this book for 30p in the early 1970s, in my imagination wanting to be like the bloke on the right, rather than the trampish bloke on the left. (Given that the book was written about the years starting 1934, the modern design perhaps uses poetic licence.) Yes, As I Walked Out… was one of those books young people used to read about going on the road, in Lee’s case by foot, armed only with a bedroll, and a violin to earn his crust by busking. He first walks from his village outside of Stroud to London, taking the long road, where he works on a building site for a year before heading to Spain, where he spends a further year. There he wanders from village to village, town to town seeking out the poor quarters only ragged people know (thanks, Paul Simon), which in Spain in the 1930s was most of the country. Somehow he gets by on lumps of rock-hard goat’s cheese, the occasional fig and too much rough wine, served by even rougher people happy for him to share their poor homes or taverns for the equivalent of pennies. The occasional woman takes him into her bed, while other locals give other assistance. The book is lyrical, but not romantic – how could it be when faced with the squalid lives lived by landless peasants, day labourers and fishermen. The shakedown mattresses he is given are alive with bedbugs, washing is cold water troughs in the open and there is an undercurrent of despair and violence.

As the book moves towards its end Lee begins to see that the peasants and poor people of Andalucia think there might be another way to live. The church in the village where he is staying is burnt out… The author is tasked with taking a message about grenades. The Civil War starts, and the book ends suddenly with Lee rescued by a ship picking up stranded Britons.

Rereading this book after a few decades I am perhaps aware that Lee might have embellished his story (there was an argument about the accuracy of his later Civil War memoir), but it is still a good read, and good background reading on the day-to-day lives of the people of Spain in the 1930s.

Ross Bradshaw

Ghost Writer by Andy Croft (Five Leaves, £7.99)

The narrative of Andy Croft’s verse-novel is basically Hamlet relocated from Elsinore to a dingy flat and playing out against a backdrop of left-wing politics and the Spanish civil war instead of the wasp’s nest of court intrigue. Oh, and written in Pushkin sonnets as opposed to the iambic pentameter. But apart from that, we’re definitely in Hamlet territory as reluctant hero Tod Prince (geddit?) struggles against the nefarious machinations of Claud King (geddit? part two), tries to romance the headstrong Fee (geddit? part three) and deals with unwanted ghostly visitations.

Tod’s a down-on-his-luck writer who hopes his long-gestating biography of 1930s poet Rex Dedman – who, as his name would suggest, is now deceased – will be a critical and financial success. Claud, publisher and rival for the affections of Rex’s wife Trudi, is working on his own memoir and tries to coerce Tod into a version of events designed to bolster his revisionist take on Rex’s life and smooth over a particularly gnarly secret that both men were party to back when they were fighting to protect Spain from Franco’s fascism.

Different stories emerge as first Rex then Trudi visit Tod from beyond the grave, with each character’s version of events taking on a different colouration (think Rashomon conflated with Land and Freedom) but amidst the deceptions, betrayals and bed-hopping, who’s telling the truth and how is Tod meant to arrive at a definitive narrative?

Ghost Writer is an absolute tour de force. By turns a mystery, a love story, a ghost story, a war-time thriller, a political treatise and a satire on the literati, Croft covers more ground in 140 sonnets than most novelists could manage in a 600-page door-stopper. The fact that he keeps the whole thing ticking along so wittily and so readably is the clincher.

Neil Fulwood
See below for Neil Fulwood’s review of Andy Croft’s later book 1948

Stoner by John Williams (Vintage, £8.99)

By now, the story of this novel is as well known as the novel itself (see http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/dec/13/stoner-john-williams-julian-barnes) and Private Eye has commented about the way the book has been promoted by Waterstones and a bunch of mates. So maybe it is not such a word of mouth sensation as first thought… But it was a non-Waterstones bookseller who gave me a copy months ago, saying that I’d like this, and not to worry about the title being Stoner, it was unrelated to my hippie past.
So, this is a novel about an obscure American academic’s career, first published in the 1960s to small attention, which hung round Vintage for ten years not selling well, went into the limbo that is Print on Demand, then came back to life and has now sold squillions, and is all over the front table at Waterstones (and Five Leaves). But is it any good?
I think it is, but with qualifications. The shy and awkward William Stoner is from a hardcrabble family, who goes to study agriculture, falls in love with literature and spends his whole career at the same college as a student and a teacher of literature. Along the way he finds a wife who makes his life a misery, is made miserable by a secret relationship with one of his students (more on this in a bit) and is bullied at work by a disabled supervisor because he did not give a pass to a disabled student who his supervisor favoured. And the daughter he loved turns to drink. Sounds pretty awful then. On this basis the book sounds like a cross between JM Coetzee’s Disgrace and Philip Roth’s The Human Stain with a bit of David Mamet’s Oleanna thrown in. But it is a slow build and while Stoner is persecuted it is clear that his relationship with his grad student is loving and only fell apart because of the mores of the era (but still.. the book is being boosted by a lot of late middle aged men connected with academia…). Stoner fights back against the bullying, but subtly, and his boss does not speak to him for twenty years and even then is still trying to get him out of the college.
Hmm. I don’t think I’m convincing anyone in any direction here. Maybe just read it. Let me know what you think.

Ross Bradshaw