Monday, October 22, 2012

Dis 'n' Dat

I am back from my U.K. trip for going on two weeks now, and really very pleased to be home. I am also pleased finally to be just about over my jet lag. I guess I have been lucky in the past with transatlantic trips; this year was the first time I had to deal with jet lag. Up until now, I have always felt, in a silly superior sort of way, that jet lag was for the weaker members of the species. I was wrong. I now know that it is real, and that it can be a bloody pain. Tired and sleepy very early in the evening – 8 p.m. in Ottawa is 1a.m. in London – and coming wide awake at 3 a.m. in my Ottawa bed, which is 8 a.m. on the other side of the Atlantic. But now I am more or less back on what I laughingly call my "schedule"; sleeping better, and less semi-comatose during the normal waking hours.

The trip was a great success. A week at a comfortable flat in London on Shaftesbury Avenue, at the intersection with Charing Cross. From our flat's window, we could look out on the marquee of the Palace Theatre, where the stage remake of Singin' In The Rain was playing; and with all those wonderfully colorful umbrellas to help us greet the new day - which was often overcast, and sometimes - appropriately - rainy:


A central location, our flat, within easy walking distance to all sorts of neat places. Like the Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, Covent Garden, Trafalgar Square and the two big galleries, The National and The National Portrait. And just as important, the TKTS booth in Leicester Square where we trooped down each morning to scan the available theatre tickets for the night's entertainment. And, yes, SITR was one of the shows we took in. We didn't have great seats - nosebleed territory, really - but the show was very good. And in one number, Moses Supposes, it was rather better than the original, in tone, if not in technical execution. Who, after all, could hope to match Donald O'Connor and Gene Kelly's dancing? Well, no one, really.

And speaking of dancing, our first theatre outing had us attending Top Hat, another stage remake of a classic film. Here I can report that the stage show was as entertaining as the original film. I didn't miss Ginger Rogers much (I liked Summer Stralllen better), although I did miss Fred Astaire. How could I not? Tom Chambers is a great dancer, and a better singer than Astaire, but he isn't Freddie, and that's a fact. But the production was brilliant, the dancing fabulous. In some ways - hard to believe - the stage show was an improvement on the original.

Top Hat the Musical


With all there is to see and do in London, it's almost possible to forget that one is supposed to be working hard on one's fourth Inspector Stride novel. I had planned to bring my laptop with me, but it's a weighty and somewhat antiquated IBM Thinkpad, and in the end I left it home. And I am glad that I did. There was no real point in the two weeks when I felt like sitting down to write. Too much to do and see. The IBM would have been just so much ballast.

Thinking about writing is another matter, of course. That always happened when we turned out the light each night. And happened again when I woke up in the middle of the night. Every night. As in, where is this fourth book - tentatively titled Birthright, and involving a brutal murder in the St. John's of 1948, and a long flashback narrative to Stride's time in Cuba during his rum-running days in 1933 - really going? Is it in fact going anywhere? I have been wrestling with this book, in various forms, for more years now than I like to acknowledge. The thought has occurred, more than once, that I should return it to the famous back burner - way in the back - and start all over with an entirely new book. But there are situations and characters in the problematic book that I do not want to give up on. Not quite yet. How many writers, I wonder, have an albatross like that to contend with? Quite a few - most? - I think.

But not, apparently, James Patterson. In the middle of all my agonising about Birthright, and its dodgy prospects for completion, I read in a recent issue of the Globe And Mail, a piece on Patterson that starts off with these two sentences: "James Patterson must be slowing down. Between now and year's end, he's only releasing eight novels. Three will come humming off Patterson's Alex Cross asssembly line, adding to the 17 he has already printed in the best-selling series."

James Patterson's total estimated sales of books in all the genres he works in are 150 million. That, btw, places him well behind Agatha Christie's 4 billion, more than sprinting distance behind Jackie Collins's 250 million, and Robert Ludlum's 290 million. None of that, though, is likely to cause Patterson any great amount of anxiety; not while he can stretch out by the 75-foot pool at his five-bedroom, $17 million beachfront cottage in Palm Beach, Florida.

Patterson claims that he doesn't take himself very seriously. He writes, so he says, because it's really just play for him. And to the inevitable question about when he might retire - he is at the magic age of 65 - he simply replies that one does not retire from "play". And good for him.

Even if I didn't try to write anything - other than the occasional email - while I was in the U.K., the alphabetic albatross was never far away. If not actually hanging around my neck, then close by, peeking around a corner of an ancient building in London, lurking behind a bush on the Thames Trail, or mingling with the thousands of sheep we encountered on our hikes in the Cotswolds.

On our last day in the Cotswolds sojourn, we rode a bus to Stow-on-the-Wold - and, yes, the name is hyphenated - and there I did my usual. That is, I headed for the nearest bookstore. I did buy a number of books on the trip. Some I bought in Oxford, at Blackwell's - you cannot go into Oxford without going to Blackwell's, after all; and others elsewhere. A visit to Portobello Road saw me come away with two posters on Beatrix Potter Books - The Tailor Of Gioucester, and The Tale of Samuel Whiskers:

   The Tailor of Gloucester


               The Tale of Samuel Whiskers                        

Both of them suitable for framing. That meant, of course, that I had to buy the books also. Which I did. Also, in Stow-on-the-Wold, I picked up a used Penguin paperback, Character Parts, by John Mortimer. It's a collection of interviews that Mortimer did back in 1986. Mortimer, in addition to all his other skills, literary and legal both, was a great interviewer. Great in that he allowed his subject to hold forth, uninhibited, and then added in the essential other bits that fleshed out the character he was speaking with.

John Mortimer, of course, was a brillliant man, a polymath in a sense. He was a successful barrister, a playwright of renown, a novelist and a screenwriter. During the war, he worked with the government's Crown Film Unit; a job that gave him the story-plot for his first novel, Charade. (Which has nothing, btw, to do with the wonderful Cary Grant-Audrey Hepburn film from 1963.) One of Mortimer's greatest achievements was his 1981 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited for Granada Television; a series I own, and have watched at least a dozen times. (And not, heaven forbid, to be confused with the godawful film version from 2008.)

Another of Mortimer's great achievements is his famous Rumpole series. The stories are gathered in six collections. The Rumpole television series, starring the inimitable Leo McKern, was likewise a great success.


Mention of this series, takes me back, however circuitously, to the matter of mystery and crime fiction - loosely defined. One of Mortimer's interviews in the aforementioned Characters, was with Ruth Rendell.

Like the Globe piece on James Patterson, the opening sentences of the Rendell interview caught my attention. Forcefully.

"When it comes to murder and kindred atrocities there is no doubt that women lead the field," Mortimer wrote. "Patricia Highsmith, almost in love with a charming and amoral crook, P.D. James, mistress of forensic detail, and Ruth Rendell divide the field. Unlike their predecessors in the Agatha Christie school of detection, their murders are not bloodless crossword puzzles or parlour games....The nature of evil is, for the present generation of women sleuths, a serious business. They not only have the key to the morgue but are not afraid to venture into the criminal's skull."

Ruth Rendell adds a number of cogent points to Mortimer's observations, partly in her response to the inevitable question: "How do you meet anyone like (the) characters (in your novels)?"

"I walk about, and I watch people. I've got to know some strange characters from all the rooming-houses in London. There are quite a lot of them, friends and relatives of people I met in the late sixties. A great deal of crime writing isn't about crime. It's about people leading ordinary lives. Writing isn't a puzzle, but it's about suspense, keeping going with little moments of uncertainty."

Mortimer finishes his interview with an observation that will please all here at Type M, and anyone anywhere who takes his/her writing seriously:

"If it weren't for a ridiculous literary snobbery about 'crime writing' Ruth Rendell would be acclaimed as one of our most important novelists. She fearlessly inhabits her own disturbing world, writing incessantly and walking. "

And amen to that.

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