Skios by Michael Frayn

This is the only novel I’ve read by Frayn which has somewhat disappointed me and I think I know why. It isn’t a novel. It’s a play, or more likely, it’s a screen play.

One of the very finest things Frayn does (and that is high praise indeed) is frantic farce. He does Fawlty Towers better than John Cleese did it. The human disposition for disaster is something he explores hilariously in Noises Off and again in Clockwise. Not for the first or last time I rue the ignorant critical reception this movie got. It made A Fish Called Wanda look like the made-for-Americans-trash it was and yet Clockwise was panned. After the hit and miss – if nonetheless cult – way in which Fawlty Towers just managed to fill up 30 minutes at a time, Clockwise did this hilariously for a sustained movie. That is truly amazing.

And this is what Skios is. I kept reminding myself as I read it ‘It’s a movie, it’s a movie, it’s a hysterically funny farce of a movie’. Well. I hope it becomes such, I imagine it deserves to be and that it is the millieu in which it will work.

Am I being too critical? Or too generous? I could stand corrected on either count.


Bad Show: The Quiz, The Cough, The Millionaire Major by Bob Woffinden, James Plaskett

I came upon this book via an internet post by GM Plaskett which discussed the case of the infamous coughing Major on the British version of ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’. He suggested, based on his own experience of the show and his watching of the video of the Major’s episodes, that Charles Ingram was innocent. It’s important to give the Major a name, since he has gone through that experience of being turned into a non-person partly by taking his name from him.

I was immediately hooked. As a bridge player I’d followed stories of cheating in bridge and done some investigation of my own, not only into the contemporary game of bridge, but also its predecessor whist, and earlier card and dice games. The story sounded very similar to ones I’d looked at, a person found guilty, but was the evidence enough? The authors kindly organised to send me a copy of the book and I devoured it.

That was a couple of years ago and I’ve been sitting on it since, because….I wasn’t sure what I really thought. Reading the book, it is clear that there has been a miscarriage of justice from a legal point of view. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that based on the arguments and evidence presented by investigative journalist Bob Woffinden and Plaskett. And yet, as I read, even though I felt that the case for innocence was compelling, I nonetheless wasn’t convinced that this constituted the facts of the matter.

I looked at video on Youtube which shows Ingram in action, and I felt more doubtful. Unfortunately there isn’t undoctored video available as I understand it, and I’m watching it as somebody who knows what they are supposed to see. Scarcely ideal.

Still, it made me think back to some of the old cheating scandals in bridge. Often the story would be similar to this games show one, involving accusations of coughing or sniffing, or foot tapping or some such signalling to illegally convey information.

A common argument by those accusing others of cheating was a sense of feeling at the table that something was wrong. My own opinion, in the absence of proper proof of a system of cheating, was that there needed to be bridge evidence, and that this was sorely missing. Often hands were interpreted as evidence of cheating when other interpretations of what took place, more innocent ones, were possible, but not considered. I was, as a consequence, entirely intolerant of the idea that a bad sniff combined with a surprising outcome in the cards, was sufficient to convict a person.

We do, after all, live under a system of innocent until proven guilty. And yet, reading this book makes me feel some sympathy for those who don’t want due process, even though I disagree with them.

This book is a fascinating account of the legal side of what happened, how Ingram was convicted in court and the obvious unfairness of the process. It is equally an eye-opener on how the TV quiz system works. It is anything but fair to the people trying to get onto it, making its profits from this process. One can see how it becomes a situation of ‘us vs them’, where depending on your point of view, ‘us’ is the TV show trying to stop people colluding to get onto it or it is the innocent public doing what they can to avoid the horrendous phone bills which mount up as they try to qualify for the show. The book indicates that the show even advertised that it was still possible to ring in to try to get spots when in fact the selection for the series in question must have closed. Not a good look from the show and no surprises that people felt that they were up against a powerful force which they had to beat.

I wonder how often straightforward cheating might start from such a relatively moral position? Beginning with a sense of conviction that one is only realigning the stars and gradually, believing in one’s own moral position, forgetting altogether what is right and wrong. And is it what happened in this case?

As I write, a play of the whole sorry affair is showing in London’s West End: Quiz. It’s closing in a week or so, unfortunately, as I would have gone to see it in July. The play involves the audience, they are given keypads to register how they feel at the half way point after watching the prosecution case, and then again at the end after the defence. Interestingly it is at least generally the case that the audience changes its mind from guilty to innocent. Isn’t this how justice should work?

It prompted Chris Tarrant to write a piece exhorting prospective show goers not to believe what is dished up to them – that Ingram’s innocence is in doubt. You may think that the arguments presented in the article are overwhelming, but please do read the book and see a balanced discussion by two men who know what they are talking about!


Fine Just the Way it is by Annie E Proulx

I’m such a lazy person. Too often I write really quite the best reviews in the world in my head – and that’s enough for me. I move on. They never see the light of day.

I read this at the same time as I read my first book of Alice Munro stories and my first inclination was to write something where something of a shadow cast over Munro would be to the benefit of Proulx, a writer who has never disappointed me and I’ve read all of them. Checking, I see that I’m talking about early 2014 – over four years ago, and this book by Proulx has been sitting in my queue, waiting for a mention and she’s coming out now, courtesy of my spring clean.

When I wrote about Munro’s Dear Life collection, I make comparisons with Lessing and Tyler and left Proulx right out of it. I no longer really recall why. I also rarely have a good memory for books these days past a short period post reading it. But I’m left with an impression that I was happy to read it even though I thought better of the comparison I’d intended to make with Munro. I will just make the comment now, however, that I suspect Proulx is the more rounded writer, able to go from long, to short, to somewhere in between (thinking there of Brokeback Mountain).

At any rate, both these writers are like Anne Tyler, old slippers that one keeps putting on, one opens to the first page, the first lines and yes…..there we are again….

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

Almost three years ago I wrote on GR about this book:

Whilst I attempt to get my own thoughts in order, for those curious about this book, I strongly recommend reading both Nandakishore’s review and Whitaker’s here.

The fact that the reviews are so very different in content, attitude, the lot surely has something to do with the book.

More later.

But I simply couldn’t think of anything good to say. I’ve discovered, however, that I have company, I’m not the only person in the world who has an aversion for this book. Discovering that has given me the strength to move on without feeling like it must be my fault or that I should be feeling guilty. As much as I loved Museum of Innocence, I dislike this.

There, I’ve said it. And do go to the reviews referenced above to read erudite discussions of this book.

Heretic by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

The premise of this book is so obvious that it is alarming to think we need a book to present its case. Why is it, Ali asks, that nice white people* are against Islamic dissidents?  (*expression I adopted after reading Stuff White People Like)

Shortly after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, Asra Noumani, a Muslim reformer, spoke out against what she calls the ‘honour brigade’ – an organised international cabal hell-bent on silencing debate on Islam.

The shameful thing is that this campaign is effective in the West. Western liberals now seem to collude against critical thought and debate. I never cease to be amazed by the fact that non-Muslims who consider themselves liberals – including feminists and advocates of gay rights – are so readily persuaded by these crass means to take the Islamists’ side against Muslim and non-Muslim critics.

and later….

In short, we who have the luxury of living in the West have an obligation to stand up for liberal principles. Multiculturalism should not mean that we tolerate another culture’s intolerance. If we do in fact support diversity, women’s rights, and gay rights, then we cannot in good conscience give Islam a free pass on the grounds of multicultural sensitivity. And we need to say unambiguously  to Muslims living in the West: if you want to live in our societies, to share in their material benefits, then you need to accept that our freedoms are not optional. They are the foundation of our way of life; of our civilisation – a civilisation that learned, slowly and painfully, not to burn heretics but to honour them.

The more I think about this situation, and think of females I know who consider themselves to be radical feminists lining up to take shots (do I mean that figuratively?) at Ali and others whose lives are threatened every day for urging Islamic reform, I come to my conclusion that anti-racism is the last bastion of sexism. To be seen as anti-racist is the only important mark of being a nice white person left. By defining concern about the plight of women under Islam to be this invented propaganda word ‘Islamophobia’, it has been straightforwardly established that women don’t count at all. And even females who call themselves ‘feminist’ are terrified of this accusation of being an ‘Islamophobic’.

I read Heretic just after it first came out on the recommendation of a friend and I am still uncertain what to say about it. Her message is important and one understands her bewilderment at being reviled and even prevented from speaking in universities. I wonder if universities were ever places of safety for free speech or if I’ve lived in fantasy land. They certainly aren’t any more.

I commend it to the reader for the rationality of its central thesis. Of course Islam needs a Reformation. What a pity those who argue the case are vilified the world over, both within the Islamic world and by nice white people.

Having said that, the book itself is a bit of a mess. It could have done with less haste and a good editor to help its structure and the way it goes about delivering its message. Passion may be enough for a blog post or a review, but for a book of this type? I criticise other pop nonfiction for not being rigorous, so why not this book too?

Maybe because the issues are not just important but of the moment. The content of this book is living around us every day right now. Most recently in Australia, Pauline Hanson, the much pilloried politician came to Parliament in full burka. Politics makes for strange bedfellows. It inspired a speech by Conservative politician Senator Brandis who attacked Hanson for mocking Islam by her behaviour. Supposedly he was close to tears. And this brought him into an unusual orbit: that of the love and warmth of nice white people who detest the Conservatives as a rule.

If you want to follow the details of this:

Pauline Hanson wears burka to Question Time in the Senate, slammed by George Brandis

Burkas are political symbols not Islamic ones, Muslim scholar says

Pauline Hanson’s stunt was a mere distraction from the national vote on same sex marriage. This led to the article on ABC: Same-sex marriage: Why have Muslims been so quiet in the debate?

Every now and then I visit London and go into a bit of a frenzy in an English bookshop – such a rare treat. This time, having spotted Heretic I bought that and three more by Ali. In retrospect, one would have been sufficient. However, I am curious to see if any of the others improve on the rough and ready sense of this one. I’ll be disappointed if they don’t.

We, the Accused by Ernest Raymond

I was given this, along with CS Forester’s early novel Payment Deferred, by Kate McCallum, author of checklists of mystery fiction, published by Copperfield Press. I’ve had my periods of reading vast amounts of the stuff, but not for years of late. Nonetheless, with such a well-informed recommendation, and the books handed to me, I was not going to say no!

Neither of these is a mystery. They are both early examples of sitting behind the shoulder of the murderer, following developments as he does. And partly because of the books’ titles, but also because of the period in which they were written, one knows in broad terms, how they will end. No murderer would have escaped his fate back then. A price had to be paid.

In fact, in the case of We, the Accused, we watch everything, it’s something of a police procedural. It’s incredibly detailed with striking and awful descriptions of what happens after the police get onto it. The chase, the trial, the period of three weeks before he hangs. But it is equally detailed in its description of scenery, neighbours, childhood – the lot. Overall I don’t think Raymond is a good enough writer to do this justice, but, he does it well enough. After a slight irritation early on as yet another tangent started, I got into the zone and found it hard to put down. He’s at his weakest when he is in the shoes of the female and as these are critical points – her agreeing to sex, her deciding to accept that he has murdered and still love him, her salvation at the end – I find none of these convincing. Indeed, the ending involving the stranger who saves her is plain silly.

The bottom line in both of these is that although the murderers knew what they had to do to get away with it, they weren’t able to – they weren’t psychopaths and both their humanness and their humanity let them down.

I might add that my own prejudice is in favour of minimalist, so of the two books, I prefer Payment Deferred. Nonetheless, as Kate urged me, I urge anybody reading this and interested in this sort of writing to pick both of these up, you won’t regret it.