Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray


Vanity Fair has been described as the best novel about Waterloo ever written, but it actually tells the stories of Becky Sharpe and Amelia Sedley, two young women who, in the opening chapter, find themselves graduating together from Miss Pinkerton’s school, and whose paths intertwine in the years that follow. They do both find themselves in Brussels during the Battle of Waterloo, and that battle does take place during the novel, but this is a story about the seamy side of the British Empire, and not about the glorious and warlike so-called heroes who built it. In fact the men of Empire, with the exception of Major Dobbin, are portrayed throughout as weak and foolish, corrupt, lascivious, fat and stupid. And even good old Dobbin – the best of the bunch – well his name speaks volumes.

The school “graduation” of Becky and Amelia epitomises the themes of the novel. Wealthy Amelia is given a signed copy of Johnson’s dictionary by the domineering and selfish headteacher, who snobbishly claims a close acquaintance with Johnson himself. Penniless Becky is denied a copy: in Vanity Fair money and status are all, and she has neither. But the soft hearted sister of the headteacher relents, cannot be so cruel, and passes a copy of the dictionary to Becky through the coach window as they are about to depart. Becky opens the book briefly, then disdainfully throws it down onto the lawn: a shocking and rebellious act that sets the tone for her character. Becky dismisses Amelia’s concerns about upsetting Miss Pinkerton, shouting, Vive la France! Vive l’Empereur! Vive Bonaparte!

Yes – Becky is a villain, and a cold hearted one at that. But this little scene provides a significant context. She lives in a society that thinks itself a whole lot better than her, but is in fact stamped through with corruption, like Blackpool through a stick of rock. Thackeray invites us to take an alternative perspective on Becky: how else is the penniless daughter of an emigré French artist to make her way in society? Who will help her to find a husband, help her to find respectability and security? Amelia will have support from her family, will “come out” in due course, and meet the right people, but Becky will need to fight every inch of the way. So whilst she is a scurrilous, shockingly immoral character, she has no other choice. Thackeray makes this clear at the beginning of the novel, in a way that challenges Victorian orthodoxy – the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly and ordered their estate . (From the hymn All things bright and beautiful, Published in 1848, a year after this novel.)

However, for most of the novel Thackeray adopts a more conventional moral approach. In the later stages he presents Becky both through her actions, and through the vivid use of reptilian imagery, as an out and out villain. Nevertheless, her final acts, which Thackeray allows to pass without comment, show compassion and common sense, though not hypocrisy, and she leaves immediately for Bath and Cheltenham, dens of evil and vice.

Becky’s ascent through Georgian society is typical of the picaresque novel, and offers an amusing and effective condemnation of the Britain of the time. She dallies with Amelia’s brother Jos, fat cowardly and lazy, but rich as Croesus on the proceeds of the Raj. He disappoints – too cowardly to seize his opportunity and Becky moves on to the Crawleys, members of the minor nobility who she takes for all she can. She marries into the family, but they snobbishly disinherit her husband, and ignore her. The poverty that results from this plagues Becky and her husband Rawdon, though Thackeray does not show much sympathy. Becky’s dalliances with rich men are at first ignored by Rawdon, the colonel, who is led like a sheep. In the end he disowns her at the moment when she has finally gained him an office in the Empire – a sinecure in the West Indies with a fat salary. She is left alone, and escapes to Europe where she becomes a member of the louche set that hang around foreign spa resorts, gambling. She is at her happiest here – a true Bohemian, as Thackeray says.

Meanwhile life for the Sedleys – the nouveau riche – is not easy. Bankrupted by losses consequent to Napoleon’s return from Elba, Amelia’s father is reduced to poverty, and she becomes the victim of the kind of snobbery that affected Becky in the opening chapter. But Amelia is a romantic idealist, worshipping her dead husband George, even though he is not worthy of such adoration. When Amelia and Becky meet again in Europe the truth is revealed.

Thackeray was an admirer of Henry Fielding and there are clear similarities between Tom Jones and Becky: they are both outsiders, though Tom is mostly an innocent victim of circumstance and his own weaknesses, whilst Becky is the arch manipulator. Thackeray’s narrative voice is also similar to Fielding’s – full of interjections, ironical comments and intimate asides to the reader. There is a vast array of characters, though many are caricatures: the whole novel is introduced as a puppet show in the opening chapter with descriptions that are reminiscent of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, and the novel has that kind of vitality and variety. It’s easy to think that PG Wodehouse might have drawn on some of the elements of Vanity Fair for his own novels.

Vanity Fair – a cultural icon, and a long read, but well worth it if you are determined and interested.


Aberystwyth Mon Amour – Malcolm Pryce


Aberystwyth Mon Amour is a light hearted pastiche of the Philip Marlowe novels written by Raymond Chandler – The Big Sleep and so on.  It’s set in Aberystwyth, a remote town on the west coast of Wales, and replaces Chandler’s mafia with the druids, and his hard liquor with ice cream cornets and ninety nines!

It’s quite a feat to transpose the culture and mood of the Los Angeles criminal underworld to a small Welsh coastal town and make everything somehow fit – so there are all kinds of odd quirks and to some extent unacceptable plot elements to Aberystwyth Mon Amour.  Nevertheless it does work in many ways even though, or maybe because, the whole premise is so ridiculous. I have just put the book down, but don’t ask me to explain the plot.  Well, I’ll try.

Myfanwy, the gorgeous Welsh night club dancer approaches Louie Knight, private detective, to ask his help finding her missing cousin, George the Boot.  During his investigations he discovers a plan to re-colonise the Welsh Atlantis – the sunken city in the Irish sea off the coast of Wales.  Various bullying and corrupt Welsh school teachers are building an arc and selling tickets.  They have a history with our heroic detective.  It involves cross country runs and forged parental notes – and a death.  The work of Brainbocs, an incredibly intelligent Welsh schoolboy, is a key to the plot.

There is a hunchback dwarf who is very protective of the workings of a town hall clock.   There is the historical misadventure of the Welsh Vietnam – the abortive attempt to conquer Patagonia – the accompanying war crimes and the war veterans gathered in groups as down-and-outs on the beaches of Aberystwyth.  There is Bianca, the tart with a heart, and Iola Jones the museum manager and missing person.  There’s Eeyore, Louie’s father – the man who sells donkey rides on the beach.  And there’s Brainboc – and how will they float the arc? That is the real burning issue!

Well you kind of get the picture?  It’s a ridiculous load of nonsense with a pretty complicated plot that’s really subservient to Malcolm Pryce’s often witty and usually entertaining pastiche of the stereotypes of film noir and the verbal tics of Raymond Chandler’s hard-bitten prose.  There are times when its so inventively weird that it’s completely bonkers.  And lots of it is Welsh of course – stove pipe hats and other sorry Welsh costumes are involved along with all the paraphernalia of British sea side holidays – sticky rock and bad weather.

I have to admit to having had this book on my bookshelf once years ago and not being able to get past chapter one.  I gave it to a charity bookshop but a friend recently recommended it, and lent me his copy.  Maybe it was mine coming back?  He’s a keen second hand book reader!

In any case it was a lot better than I’d originally feared though I did skim the last twenty or so pages as it was no longer gripping me, and most of the jokes had been played out by then.

Number 11 – Jonathan Coe


Number 11 by Jonathan Coe is a satire about modern Britain.  It tells a series of stories that are linked by the characters of two girls who first holiday in Beverley at the beginning of the century.  Each section is connected in some way to the number 11, and each focuses on a different aspect of modern Britain.

The book opens in Beverley, where her grandparents live, with a seminal moment for Rachel, the narrator.  It is the Iraq war, and she hears about the death in mysterious circumstances of Dr David Kelly, the UN weapons inspector.  This is the first death Rachel has experienced, a loss of innocence and a first engagement with the dirty business of politics.

Later Rachel returns to Beverley with her friend Alison.  She meets the mysterious Birdwoman – a frightening and intimidating personage living in isolation at the end of a country lane.  Rachel finds out that appearances can be deceptive.  Next we move to Birmingham and to Alison’s mother, a singer with limited success, who is invited to appear on I’m a Celebrity Get me Out of Here.  After that a university lecturer attempts to rediscover his childhood innocence by tracking down a film that was broadcast one day in the 1970s.  The next section focuses on a literary prize and a short detective story.  Finally Alison becomes an au-pair, or home educator for one of the very wealthy families redeveloping Chelsea by excavating huge basements for home cinema complexes and games rooms.

There we are – a sort of episodic novel, though the episodes are only very loosely tied to the two main characters – Alison and Rachel.  So we have Alison’s mother as the focus for one story, Rachel’s English tutor’s husband as the focus of another.  At each change of narrative we move further and further into the world of modern Britain, from the poverty of working people in austerity Britain, to the elite world of Arts prizes and unearned wealth.

In a way Number 11 is really a series of short stories with quite tenuous links between them.  I’m not usually a fan of the short story genre I have to say, but this book does work.  The narrative voice is simple and clear, and each story holds the interest of the reader, though the more fanciful concluding episode was my least favourite.

Coe’s targets are fairly clear – people trafficking is in there, the hypocrisy of the media and  the dishonesty of media portrayals; reality TV, the cruelty of the press and the ruthlessness with which press barons and vested interests pursue their own ends; the immense chasm that has opened up between the very wealthy few and most of the rest of us.  All of these receive their fair share of scorn.

This is not a book that made me laugh out loud, though I did smile on more than one occasion.  It is an easy read, a fairly light hearted account, yet with some serious points.  One of the characters is distinguished by a philosophical dislike of comedians and of satire: he criticises satire because it allows us feel good by making us laugh at evil, but allows us to get away with doing nothing about it: as if laughing itself was the cathartic experience that removed all need for more direct emotional expression.  I kind of get that idea, and feel the same about this book.  I enjoyed it, but what should I do now?




Tepper Isn’t Going Out – Calvin Trillin


Tepper Isn’t Going Out – a novel.  Perhaps novella would be a better word?  Or satire?  This is a very short book by humorist Calvin Trillin, who was awarded the Thurber Prize for American Humour in 2013 at the age of 78.

I’ve read Thurber – he invented Walter Mitty, and this novel is similar.  It’s lightweight, lighthearted and quite fun.  At times it made me laugh out loud.  It’s a great holiday book – short chapters for those brief holiday reading moments, and that short holiday concentration.

On the other hand it’s also limited – the characters aren’t really developed, at times they’re ciphers, they’re mostly caricatures – but that’s what to expect from this kind of book.

Murray Tepper likes to park, in fact he likes to sit in his parked car and read the newspaper, much to the annoyance of the fellow New Yorkers who can’t find a parking spot. He listens to passers-by, chats, gives out advice, becomes a minor celebrity.  We meet his family, briefly and amusingly.

The mayor is a stickler for rules, and somewhat irrational. He isn’t happy with Tepper’s parking habits.  There are some quite amusing sections in the mayor’s office; it’s a brief exploration of some of the absurdities of the American political system.

Eventually there are crowds seeking Murray’s advice – there might be disturbances.  The mayor decides to act.  Lawyers descend attempting to clear Murray off the streets.  It becomes a question of freedom of speech, of freedom of association. There are court cases.

I found this book after scouring my bookshelf for more unread books – still on my economy drive.  Surprisingly I’d never noticed this before tucked between two larger tomes.  I’m fairly glad I found it.  It made me smile.

GoodReads Review

The Little World of Don Camillo – Giovanni Guareschi


The Little World of Don Camillo is set in the Po valley after the end of WW2 – about 1948 – but these short stories are all fables and have a broader relevance.

Don Camillo is a Catholic priest and former resistance fighter – though he’s a man of peace now – the days in the resistance are well behind him.  He’s a powerfully built man with strong arms and a temper to match.  His rival is Peppone, the communist mayor of the village, and Don Camillo’s equal physically. The two pose and fight like rutting stags.

The Po valley is a magical place where rural pastimes continue unabated and the world of the city and the twentieth century don’t intrude.  In the real world it’s the time of the Marshall Plan, American financial aid given to Europe to promote American policies, and Stalin also has his eyes on Italy.  This battle of political ideas is fought in microcosm in the valley, where Peppone, the communist mayor sells the party newspaper, L’Unita, and Don Camillo quietly confides in Jesus, to whom he speaks every day in the parish church.

In the end this book isn’t about politics.  Its values go much deeper, and Peppone and Don Camillo have more than they realise to unite them.  When family love, and death, and illness intrude into the lives of the villagers both characters are called on to intervene. They find common cause and a common humanity in the face of suffering and crisis. When Peppone’s son is ill he brings candles to the church, but can’t bring himself to acknowledge his dependence on God.  Out of love, Don Camillo borrows money to buy candles and light them for Peppone.

Guareschi claims that the Jesus on the cross in this story is really his own conscience.  He portrays Don Camillo as a completely human character, ever in need of the guiding hand of that conscience.  Much of the humour in the book comes from the clash between Don Camillo’s religious ideals and his very human weaknesses and behaviour.

The situations faced by Don Camillo,  Peppone and all the other characters in the book are so very human and universal that we can easily empathise with them.  Guareschi has a light and humorous touch, finding the bright gems of human feeling amidst the debris of everyday life, and reminding us that too often dogma and pride can get in the way of truth and light.

I first read these stories many years ago – I must have been about 12 at the time.  I loved them then because they were simple, funny, entertaining.  The short story isn’t a genre I really like, but here all the stories are linked by a common theme and by recurring characters.  It’s not a book that’s easily available in a hard copy – I downloaded from Kindle for about £5.  Well worth it.  There are more volumes available, and I expect I’ll read them soon.

The Little World of Don Camillo is quite well known, and was made into a television programme.  Here is a link to it on Youtube, with English audio.  The stories were originally published in an Italian satirical magazine called Candido.  Apparently it had a monarchist stance!!  The monarchy is only mentioned in one of these stories.  As I said, its values go beyond politics.

The Little World of Don Camillo – Youtube

Slipless in Settle – Harry Pearson

Cricket - a Pastoral Idyll
Cricket – a Pastoral Idyll

This is a cricket book for northerners.  That pretty much makes me the ideal audience.  I’m also a sucker for witty cultural allusions, so Slipless in Settle makes it in there along with All Quiet on the Preston Front.  Both Preston and Settle are fairly inconsequential provincial towns in the North of England – in Lancashire and Yorkshire respectively – and linking them with glamorous Hollywood movies  or dramatic historical events creates an amusing kind of bathos that I can’t help but like.

If you’re not sure,  slip is a fielding position in the traditional English sport of cricket. That’s all you need to know about cricket except it’s a game that mystifies foreigners and typifies some essence of Englishness with its combination of grass stained whites, sandwich teas and freezing summer days.

Harry Pearson set out to spend his summer watching cricket played in the local leagues of the North of England, and each chapter focuses on one Saturday’s expedition to do just that.   Pearson ranges widely, but follows pretty much the same format for each chapter. He describes the journey, the towns and villages, the people he meets, and the cricketing history of each club he watches, mentioning local delicacies such as jam doughnuts or Manchester tarts, and summarising each match.

Pearson is incredibly well informed about cricket history, and chooses amusing anecdotes and interesting characters as well as including an impressive range of statistics about the players and clubs.  I have to admit I did laugh out loud on several occasions, and my wife enjoyed the jokes too when I shared them with her.  However, they are pretty corny – you have been warned.

All in all I liked this book which was an easy read, though I did find it annoying when during the match summaries Pearson played havoc with the language, mixing past and present tenses in quite an arbitrary way, and thus breaking some of my most cherished rules of grammar!!

Jamie Oliver’s Recipe for a Manchester Tart

River Cottage Recipe for a Manchester Tart

A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole

Ignatius Reilly
Ignatius Reilly

A Confederacy of Dunces is a Penguin Classic, first published in the early eighties in the USA, when it won the Pulitzer prize for fiction, but written in the sixties or seventies. It’s definitely of its time.  Ignatius Reilly is a huge and controversial character in more ways than one.  Today he would be accused of homophobia, and a character eccentric in this way would have the pc buffs frothing at the mouth.

The author apparently committed suicide when the manuscript of this novel was rejected by various publishers, and it was only after his death that his mother found a publisher and vindicated her son’s talent.  The relationship between Ignatius and his mother in the novel reflects this ambiguity – the depth of love and the possibility of alienation.

In the introduction the hero is compared to Falstaff.  He is a vast gargantuan character, at odds with the modern world and in tune with Boethius, the classical philosopher.  I often criticise novels which lack character delineation and depth, where the focus is purely on action, but even for me this book is slow and lacking in narrative drive.  The characters are types or caricatures delineated in great detail but lacking psychological realism: they are more surreal than real.

In places the novel did drag, but I liked the ending which, typical of a kind of American novel of the time focuses on movement and change: it was one of the few exciting parts. Otherwise the characters are interesting, and parts are funny.

This book has its devotees – just check out the link below, but in the end I was glad to finish and look forward to some more conventional entertainment in the next choice.

Powell’s Review