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Archive for February, 2011

William Gerhardie

Amid the considerable and deserved publicity for the recent Channel 4 TV adaptation of William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, Boyd himself took the opportunity to restate the importance to the novel’s inspiration of William Gerhardie, who apparently provided the key model for Boyd’s fictional ‘Logan Mountstuart’. As Boyd told the Guardian, ‘Gerhardie published his last book in 1940 but he died in 1977, so there were 37 years of silence, which is actually what I think is interesting…’
Finds has been pleased to bring back a great swathe of Gerhardie’s titles – Futility, Doom, The Polyglots, Resurrection, Of Mortal Love, Pretty Creatures, My Wife’s the Least of It, Pending Heaven, Memoirs of Satan (written with Brian Lunn), God’s Fifth Column: A Biography of the Age 1890-1940, and Memoirs of a Polyglot (his autobiography). You can find them all listed and available for order here.
Michael Holroyd wrote the following handsome appreciation for the Guardian at the time of Finds’ launch in 2008:

William Gerhardie was a writer of great talent and originality whose books need to be rediscovered by each new generation of readers. “For those of my generation,” wrote Graham Greene, “Gerhardie was the most important new novelist to appear in our young life.” Greene’s contemporaries were reading the brilliant Futility, a novel on Russian themes first published in 1922, which draws on Gerhardie’s own wartime experiences. This, his first novel, was taken up in England by Katherine Mansfield (who found a publisher for Gerhardie) and also by Edith Wharton, who wrote an enthusiastic preface to the American edition. The book was a hugh critical success in both countries and Gerhardie was hailed as “the English Chekhov”.
Many readers, however, were to consider his masterpiece to be his second novel, The Polyglots (1925), which contains a multitude of tragicomic characters who are encountered by a young man while travelling on a military mission in the Far East. “The humour of life, the poetry of death, the release of the spirit – these things Gerhardie describes as no prose writer has done before him,” wrote the novelist Olivia Manning.
Perhaps his oddest, most extraordinary novel was Doom (1928). Part satire, part social comedy, part science fiction, and containing an unforgettable portrait of the newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook under the name Lord Ottercove, it is a novel of the 20s that foreshadows the atomic age. It became Evelyn Waugh’s favourite Gerhardie novel. “I had talent,” Waugh wrote, “he had genius”…

I have recently and happily been reading Memoirs of Satan, a work in which any sane man or woman should delight, and I would like to draw your attention to this wonderful little appreciation from the Futurian War Digest, a sci-fi/fantasy fanzine published in Leeds during the Second World War by J. Michael Rosenblum, who evidently kept a certain community of readers going during exceptionally difficult circumstances. All numbers of the ‘zine are available online for perusal, I only draw your attention to this from Issue 13 (Vol. 2, Number 1), dated October 1941:

‘The Memoirs of Satan’ collated by William Gerhardie and Brian Lunn, (Cassell & Co 1932) is a surprising sort of book altogether. According to this, Satan was a collaborator of God, chosen to look after this earth because of his free and independent spirit. Mankind is due to an infatuation of his for a primitive she-ape, and he continually bemoans the fact that he did not choose a more sensible animal, such as the whale, to half endow with his divine nature. Due to his failure with this planet, Satan is finally punished by the All-Highest with the withdrawal of his immortality, and he dies, leaving the notes of his eon-long existence in a Bloomsbury hotel…

Now, don’t tell me you’re not intrigued…

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Here at Finds Towers, as we celebrate our February reissue of Secret Classrooms: An Untold Story of the Cold War by Geoffrey Elliot and Harold Shukman, we have been delighted to receive a communiqué from one of Faber’s foremost authors, Michael Frayn, who himself plays a part in Secret Classrooms’ remarkable narrative. Michael writes:

Getting the British to speak other languages is about as hard as persuading pigs to fly. Getting some five thousand of us airborne in Russian during our National Service was a spectacular feat of mass levitation. This book is the story of how it was done…

One could hardly read that much and not wish to know more… Michael Leapman, by way of his original review of Secret Classrooms for the Independent, takes up the story:

As tension in Europe rose in the late 1940s, the authorities came to realise that hardly anyone in Britain could speak the language of our potential enemies. How could we engage in sophisticated spy missions if we had nobody who could read the names of the stations on the Moscow Metro? And if it did come to war, how could we interrogate those prisoners unsporting enough not to speak English? The answer lay in National Service… Why not cream off the brainiest [conscripts], especially those with an aptitude for languages, and subject them to an intensive programme aimed at making them fluent in Russian in little more than a year? A joint services school for linguists (JSSL) was established in Coulsdon, in Surrey. It moved to Bodmin, in Cornwall, and finally to Crail, in East Fife. When word of the scheme reached students, they were quick to recognise that this would be a “cushy number” compared with confronting the Queen’s enemies in Malaya, Cyprus, Kenya or Suez…

The JSSL kursanty was a remarkable cohort, and JSSL alumni – among them Sir Peter Hall, Alan Bennett, Sir Martin Gilbert, D. M. Thomas, and the aforementioned Michael Frayn, who edited the school magazine Samovar – seem to look back on the experience with considerable affection. Geoffrey Elliot and Harold Shukman have their own tales to tell, of course, and when I asked them both to reflect on what the JSSL experience had meant to them in their subsequent lives and careers, they were kind enough to provide me with the following reminiscences:

HAROLD SHUKMAN: “In 1954, having recently graduated as an interpreter from the RAF Russian Course, I was a first-year student at Nottingham University and, for reasons never revealed to me, I was elected by the student body to join a delegation – the first since the war – to visit the Soviet Union. All 20 British universities – minus Oxford and Cambridge which were not affiliated to the NUS at the time – sent a delegate, and as the sole Russian speaker I was made the interpreter. Our hosts were the Anti-Fascist Committee for Soviet Youth and our purpose was to learn about Soviet higher education. We still had rationing in the UK, but it seemed to us that the Russians had too little in their food shops even to ration. Yet we were feasted three times a day, with chilled caviar even at breakfast and huge suppers after the nightly opera, ballet, concert or (perhaps for me alone) Chekhov play at the Arts Theatre. Stalin had been dead only a year and Westerners, apart from diplomats, were hardly ever seen in Russia. Wherever we went, as soon as I was heard to utter a word in Russian, a crowd would surround me and gawk. Thanks to JSSL.”

GEOFFREY ELLIOT: “‘Old men forget’ – names, car keys, shopping lists. But much of the Russian drummed into me in those Secret Classrooms is still hard-wired in my memory. I used the language for a while as a translator and Reuters radio monitor, my dial set to Radio Moscow, from which in 1962 I snatched the first news that Khrushchev had ordered his missile-laden ships to turn back from Cuba. Later on, as a banker, I found numbers more important than languages, and yet visiting Siberia in 2004 I surprised myself (and the journalist in question) by giving a long interview in Russian to a Yakutsk newspaper about life in Bermuda. At The Wallace Collection last year I got talking to a trio of Russian football commentators, over to report a Chelsea match. (Hard to imagine a visiting Sky Sports contingent touring the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow with the same informed enthusiasm). ‘You speak good Russian’, one of them told me, ‘but your vocabulary and accent are like an émigré who has been out of the country for 30 years.’ I took it as a compliment, not to me but to the discipline and passion of those who taught us half a century ago.”

Secret Classrooms, quite rightly hailed by the Spectator as ‘vivacious’ and ‘highly entertaining’ is available for order here.

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Andrew Roberts

Andrew RobertsSalisbury: Victorian Titan ‘is as learned, accessible and well-shaped a biography as I’ve read. Roberts is a rare historian, with an eye for the human detail and for contemporary relevance.’ So wrote Brenda Maddox in selecting her books of the year for the Guardian back in 2000. Salisbury earned Roberts the Wolfson History Prize and the James Stern Silver Pen Award for Non-Fiction. Faber Finds is delighted to be restoring the book to print and it will very shortly be available for order here.
It was, the Spectator noted, ‘a massive work based on blood, sweat and hard labour in one of the biggest modern political archives’ (namely the Salisbury collections at Hatfield House, Hertfordshire.) In a 2009 Evening Standard interview Roberts told Sebastian Shakespeare that he considers Salisbury to be his very best work – yet he also lamented, ‘I have met every single person who has read the book. It didn’t sell more than a couple of thousand…’
That’s still a respectable sale for a heavyweight historical tome; nonetheless Roberts had a right to feel somewhat short-changed. Shouldn’t one expect greater currency for a clearly definitive study of a three-time Prime Minister who presided over the height of British imperial pomp? But then Robert’s subject posed a challenge to readers, without a doubt. A good few reviewers of the time pointed to how ‘unfamiliar’ and ‘unfashionable’ is Salisbury next to, say, Gladstone or Disraeli. Roberts dedicated Salisbury to another ‘Thrice- elected illiberal Tory’, Margaret Thatcher, which will have tickled one demographic but turned off another. But ‘illiberal’ is the word for this patrician Tory, and we know Salisbury best for his imperishable formulations of a conservative mindset. ‘Whatever happens will be for the worse,’ he wrote in 1887, ‘and therefore it is in our interest that as little should happen as possible.’ He further advised a niece of his that the ‘use of Conservatism’ was to ‘delay changes until they became harmless’.
The Spectator is where you would look to take the temperature of contemporary conservative opinion, and its 1999 review of Roberts’ book by Jane Ridley was firmly impressed:

Roberts succeeds triumphantly in his purpose, which is to restore Salisbury to the centre of the political stage. Roberts makes no secret of his sympathy for his subject, and he writes a readable, fluent narrative. This is an affectionate, admiring, detailed portrait of a neglected giant.

One of the aspects of the work that most interested Ridley, and should interest any of us today, is Roberts’ consideration of Salisbury’s complex feelings towards the Empire. As Ridley wrote:

Roberts makes strong claims for Salisbury’s foreign policy. He argues that Salisbury was not a splendid isolationist but a practitioner of non-alignment, intent on keeping Britain out of continental involvement and avoiding major wars. Had he been around in 1914, Roberts suggests, he might have kept the country out of the first world war, now increasingly seen as an avoidable catastrophe…

Roberts himself gives a fascinating and detailed account of Salisbury’s philosophy of empire for History Today here. And if any further enticement were needed to pick up this outstanding volume, i.e. if you hope for a work that is delicious as well as good for you, then consider the view of Piers Brendon in the Independent:

This is an outstanding achievement: fluent, weighty in the Victorian mode, sympathetic but not uncritical, often hilarious… Salisbury tricycles around Hatfield with a footman standing behind him, allows his grandchildren to rootle through his beard, wishes he were a cat so that he need not change his coat, throws cushions at sparking electric lights, murmurs “Bulgaria” when he misses a shot at billiards. Seldom has such an important study been such splendid entertainment…

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Almost 20 years ago,” [Gerald Jacobs wrote in 2003], “a man called to see me with a story. It was the compelling, tragic and terrifying account of the early years of his own life and he wanted me to write it with a view to publication…
That man was Nicholas Hammer, born Miklos Hammer in Budapest in 1920. For a brief and terrible time in his young life he went by the name of ‘Peter Howard’ – the name of a dead man. His story was one of abysmal suffering, exceptional spirit and extraordinary survival. He and Gerald Jacobs worked together on its telling in book-form for four years, and the resultant work, Sacred Games, was first published in 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. In 2011 Faber Finds is proud to be make Sacred Games available to readers once more.
Ian Thomson’s original review from the Independent is worth quoting at length:

This is a record of hideous times, and of a mind that refused to succumb to them. Miklos Hammer, a Hungarian Jew, was deported to Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau; his determination to beat his tormentors is a parable of uncorrupted men… Superbly told by Gerald Jacobs, Hammer’s story is a triumph over tragedy in Hitler’s war against the Jews… Amid the abundant literature of atrocity which this century has produced, Sacred Games is exemplary. Miklos Hammer’s tribulations are narrated without the prurient tenor of so much Holocaust writing (Jerzy Kozinski’s The Painted Bird and Sophie’s Choice by William Styron, for example, often verged on the sentimental, pornographic, or downright kitsch); Gerald Jacobs records the enormity of human loss with a detached calm and appropriate sympathy.

Nicholas Hammer died in London on 23 October 2003 and Gerald Jacobs wrote his obituary notice for the Independent. Therein he set down this powerfully moving personal anecdote:

In 1986, I accompanied Nicholas Hammer on his first and only return to the sites of Auschwitz and Birkenau. He showed me the block in which he had been housed. It was not part of the camp open for exhibition and, as he stepped over the small barrier around it, a uniformed Polish woman attendant rushed over making stern, windscreen-wiper-like gestures of prohibition with an index finger. Hammer stopped her short with a gesture of his own: he rolled up his shirtsleeve to reveal the number tattooed on his arm. He was not going to be stopped. Neither was he going to be stopped from recording the events he had witnessed there four decades earlier.

Sacred Games is highly recommended, and available to order here.

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The horrible assault suffered by CBS News reporter Lara Logan at the hands of a mob of men in Tahrir Square, Cairo, last week served a disturbing reminder of the dangers faced by frontline newsgatherers in the midst of tumultuous/violent events. It further reminded us, very depressingly, of the sorts of “stupendously inappropriate and wrong and offensive” things that routinely get said (and more so in the Blog/Tweet era) when commentators give themselves the right to pass judgement on the victims of such offences. (The quote in that last sentence is from a fulmination by Slate blogger Tom Scocca against the ugliest comments made regarding the Lara Logan incident.)
Anne Sebba can be considered an authoritative guide to unpicking the tangle of thorns around this issue, since she is both a former Reuters correspondent and the author of the excellent Battling For News, a history of women reporters which we are very pleased to have reissued in Finds. Anne has set down her thoughts on the Logan assault and reporting thereof, in a post (‘Don’t Blame the Women’) at her blog.
Further reading? Slate‘s Jessica Grose directs us to this Columbia Journalism Review article by Judith Matloff which paints a grim picture of how routine is the sexual threat faced by female reporters working in tough places; and which further produces some evidence to suggest that many newswomen fear to report an incident lest it become a professional ‘issue’: as Matloff summarises, “The shame runs so deep—and the fear of being pulled off an assignment, especially in a time of shrinking budgets, is so strong—that no one wants intimate violations to resound in a newsroom.”
Elsewhere: an echo of Anne Sebba’s argument against the gendered double standard often applied to working parents can be found here in this New York Times blogpost by Lisa Belkin, who makes the stirring case that ‘yes, having children does make you more aware of the dangers of the world. But exposing dangers and righting wrongs are why most journalists do their jobs.’

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English Heritage hereby confirms the thankful news:

The unsung hero of twentieth century fiction is honoured. The novelist and playwright Patrick Hamilton (1904-1962), has been commemorated with an English Heritage blue plaque in celebration of his life and contribution to literature. The plaque was installed at 2 Burlington Gardens, Chiswick, W4 on Saturday (12th February).

I understand the plaque’s installation is something of a personal triumph for Nick Robinson, Vintage Sales Manager, who campaigned for it over a good many years. So a big bravo for that effort.
As previously reported, Faber Finds has been hopeful for some time of returning certain rare Hamiltons to print, and I think that as of today I can safely report that Twopence Coloured and Impromptu in Moribundia will be reissued in Finds this coming July. If we could do it tomorrow we surely would… But this is certainly something for all of us to look forward to, and Hamilton fans should be reassured that Monday Morning will follow in Finds just as soon as is practically possible.
Patrick Hamilton is a ‘writer’s writer’ in many respects, and also one of whom we must say, in a bittersweet way, that both his life and work have to be considered with a nod to both the creative and the destructive powers of alcohol. As such I’d argue that the most finessing appreciations of Hamilton one can read are those written by fellow novelists, and ideally novelists who also have passed a certain number of hours “in the ambers”, as whisky-drinkers would say. So I heartily recommend to you this Guardian piece by Dan Rhodes, who says of Hamilton that “he wrote some of the best fiction, and far and away the best pub fiction, I’ve come across”

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Please allow us to introduce you to – or, better, reacquaint you with – the remarkable writer whom C.P. Snow called ‘our best reporter of the East End’, whom the poet Richard Church hailed as ‘a sort of Proust of the Whitechapel Road’
Willy Goldman (1910-2009) was remembered for a Guardian obituary by the Oxford English Professor Valentine Cunningham as:

“an outstanding member of the small group of “proletarian” writers encouraged into existence in the 1930s by left-wing literary operators. East End My Cradle, Goldman’s hard-eyed autobiographical vignettes of immigrant East End Jewish life – impoverished, tough, in thrall to the sweat-shop boss and perennial fluctuations in the garment trade – is a classic. First published in 1940 by Faber & Faber with the blessing of TS Eliot, it has, rightly, kept coming back into print.”

Well, Faber Finds is very pleased and proud to now welcome East End My Cradle: Portrait of an Environment onto its list: the book is available to order as of this month. There is little need for us to spell out its virtues when we are in a position to reproduce below just a selection of the glowing tributes it has received during its published life.

‘Mr. Goldman’s book [is] one of the most remarkable pictures of poor life that even these last dozen proletarian-conscious years have produced.’ The Listener

‘This descriptive story of Jewish working class life is equally notable as a human document and for its outstanding literary qualities.’ Jewish Chronicle

‘This is an autobiography in the realistic tradition of Gissing’s novels and the late J. A. R. Cairns’s Drab Street Glory, though Gissing wrote as an exile from another class and Cairns as a sympathetic magistrate, whereas Mr. Goldman was born to the life he describes so convincingly.’ John O’London’s Weekly

‘Mr Goldman writes like a master – he is vivid and most moving.’ J. D. Mallon, The Spectator

‘The great virtue of his writing is in his power of detachment in expression.’ Sunday Times

‘He can be as sad as lovers on tenement stairs and as gay as a bus or a barrowload of oranges… There is enough experience and feeling here for many books…’ Graham Bell, New Statesman & Nation

‘A part of London which has tempted many writers here gets justice. Its sordid glamour and strange character are boldly paraded. The fights and the fun at a slum school, the merciless grip of the sweat-shop, the struggle to be free to rise above it all, are excellently done.’ ‘J.V.’, Daily Herald

‘[East End My Cradle] is unusually objective and is lightened by a spirit of tolerance and a keen and veracious power of observation.’ Times Literary Supplement

”A Youthful Idyll’ [which forms a chapter of the book]… is a work of genius.’ Roy Fenton, Tribune

‘What makes Mr. Goldman’s picture remarkable is not only its vivid and living drawing, but the fact that humour, rather than bitterness, is its prevailing note… a fine and moving chapter called ‘A Youthful Idyll’… with slight alterations might survive as a short story as poignant as anything of Gorky…’ H E Bates, Books of the Month

‘The story of Minka [in ‘A Youthful Idyll’], torn by consumption, suffering an eternity in one short youthful life, is told with a quiet pathos and sincerity unrivalled in modern English writing.’ ‘R.C.’, University College Magazine

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