FFB: Porterhouse Blue – Tom Sharpe

porterhouse_blue_bookI have been thinking about academic novels lately because I am — much as I swore never to do so — working on a roman à clef called Hire Idiots (the topic of which ought to be abundantly clear). I taught Lucky Jim in my senior seminar and enjoyed my students’ reactions to it. I’ve been thinking of re-reading Waugh’s Decline and Fall, but I can’t seem to find it. I’m not sure it’s even possible to write satire anymore as reality outstrips it, but now that I’ve started I want to finish.

I had not read Tom Sharpe’s novel of a fictional college at Cambridge. He’s probably best known for the Wilt novels. There’s no Jim Dixon or Paul Pennyfeather to fasten our sympathies to in this novel: everybody is kind of awful in a cringingly realistic way. There is the poor post graduate student Zipser who commands our pity if not sympathy, but alas, he exits the story rather early on. There are some great comedic scenes.

What’s fun about this book is the horrible way the petty politics quickly ascend to the heights of absurdity as the new Master of Porterhouse arrives and intends to make big changes. In the cyclical nature of politics (which I suppose ought to give us some hope at the moment) this 1974 novel gives us a college of hidebound tradition faced with the liberalising force of a reformer. Sharpe makes all the partisans ridiculous, but not without sympathy. The bullying Master is bullied by his wife (women are either harpies or sexpots if they appear at all, alas), the deaf Chaplain is mostly kind, the put-upon Bursar leaps from frying pan to fire, and the snobby porter has been grossly misused.

Anyone who has been in academia (or academia adjacent) will appreciate the humour here — especially when the score-settling tv host who’s also an alum arrives. Sharpe’s humour mostly rests in good and bad intentions going madly awry. I’ve got the mini-series based on it to watch when I get the time. Some quotes:

‘As far as the College Council is concerned I think that the best policy will be one of…er…amiable inertia.’

‘There’s nothing like prevarication,’ the Dean agreed, ‘I have yet to meet a liberal who can withstand the attrition of prolonged discussion of the inessentials.’ [ouch]

With the experience of hundreds of hours in committees behind him, the Master anticipated the arguments that would be raised against him by the Fellows…It was precisely on such divisions of opinion that he thrived. The original issue would get lost in argument and he would emerge as the arbiter between divided factions.

But first he needed an ally. He ran through the Fellows in search of a weak link.

‘We shall muddy the issue until it is uncertain…If there must be dirt let there be lots of it.’

‘Trouble with you academic wallahs,’ said Sir Cathcart finally…,’is you take things too seriously.’ [cringe]

‘In my opinion genius is by definition a capacity to jump the whole process of taking infinite pains, but then as I say, nobody listens to me.’

There was something perverse about English political attitudes that defeated logic.

His had been an intellectual decision founded on his conviction that if a little knowledge was a dangerous thing, a lot was lethal.

See all the neglected books over at Patti Abbott’s place.

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Alibi Bound

alibiI head out today to fly to Venice, where Renato Bratkovič will meet me to drive me to Slovenia for the Alibi Crime Conference where I will be one of the featured writers. I’m really looking forward to it: I’ve never been to Venice or to Slovenia so that’s exciting. Everyone seemed to have a grand time at the first conference last year. I’m sure I will post pictures or commentary as I go along though perhaps not as much as usual. Check my Twitter feed (which appears in the right hand column of this blog) or Facebook if you’re there. Of course I’ll write up my adventures when I return. Maybe I’ll run into a certain Venetian Lion…

I’m very happy to see HOW TO BE DULL getting out there in the world. It’s the antidote to our too ‘interesting’ times. Thanks Beverly Bambury for sharing the photo (and check out her publicity business!

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Review: Radio Girls

9780749020682RADIO GIRLS
Sarah-Jane Stratford

The Great War is over, and change is in the air, in this novel that brings to life the exciting days of early British radio …and one woman who finds her voice while working alongside the brilliant women and men of the BBC London, 1926.

‘If we have the sense to give [broadcasting] freedom and intelligent direction, if we save it from exploitation by vested interests of money or power, its influence may even redress the balance in favour of the individual.’

Hilda Matheson, Broadcasting (1933)

Did you know talk radio was started by a woman? Did you know she wrote a handbook for radio broadcasting in 1933? And was also an agent of MI5? And worked with Lawrence of Arabia and Lady Astor? Does it sound like too much to pack into a novel? Are you now shouting aloud, ‘Why has no one told me about this amazing woman before!’ because I certainly was. Hilda Matheson was a pioneer, a visionary, spy, writer, insightful revolutionary, lover of Vita Sackville-West — well, it’s all gilding the lily a bit. If she hadn’t existed, you’d have wanted to invent her.

In this novel Stratford does a very wise thing: she looks at Matheson through the eyes of a young Canadian-American expat whose life is transformed by working with her. In so doing she gets to use all the fun of a novel (adventure, romance, intrigue, friendships) to show the glories of the beginning of the institution that is the BBC. It was once full of women who were over time systematically driven out. As I’m also immersed in early electronic pioneers Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram, it’s easy to see how women keep getting nudged out of history by neglect because men are trumpeted for genius and women are loathed for it.

Stratford’s protagonist, Canadian-American Maisie Musgrove, is gauche and a bit overwrought at first, but this allows us to see the peculiarly British system that makes up the BBC. It’s one that has the latitude to offer opportunities to women — when everyone thinks it will fail — and then squeeze them out casually once the power of the institution becomes clear.

Musgrove’s transformation is gradual and affecting. Though desperate for a job, any job, at the start she soon comes to realise the power of sound and voice. She begins to listen to the people on the trams, the click of heels on lino, and appreciates the artistry but also the science behind the broadcasts. When an emergency requires use of the old 2LO transmitter, Hilda introduces Maisie to its intricacies and she’s captivated by its magic ‘but it wasn’t magic. It was better. This was the result of endless questions, the search for answers.’

The pace is breezy: I read two-thirds of it in one evening, but there’s a lot of history and information here too. In the lead up to the second world war, there are a lot of people who want to commandeer the power of the new medium and very real intrigues went on behind the scenes. Matheson’s determination to keep the plurality of voices represented is something, alas, the BBC seems to have lost.

I appreciated the author’s note at the end and just ordered Kate Murphy’s Behind the Wireless: An Early History of Women at the BBC which Stratford recommends. The book is out in the US too (though the cover isn’t as pretty, as usual). A very fun read that’s also chock full of interesting history.

Back to Scotland

Dundee Dragon

Grades are in, things are done, or sorted or packed away until autumn in New York and I am on my way back to Dundee today. My bags are full of electronics, cables, books, folders, notebooks and, where there’s room, clothes. Many projects to work on, but there will be fun and reading, too. When did reading become such a precious luxury?

As always the journey is a bit circuitous because both Hudson and Dundee are a bit off the beaten track. I’m slightly concerned because the airline is already begging for volunteers to rebook longest leg. Supposedly I have my seat confirmed but travel is always such an ordeal these days. Fingers crossed it will all go as smoothly as planned and I will arrive before the kids get out of school tomorrow.

Albacon 2016 This Weekend

2016-01-13 14.33.21I will be making an appearance at Albacon this weekend, the local speculative fiction conference. Say hello if you’re around. I can’t promise dragons but I have two panels on Friday at 2 and at 3:

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and one on Sunday at 11:

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See the complete schedule here.

I’ll finally get to hang around with Debi whom I haven’t seen since World Fantasy because we’re both so busy. I do believe she’s planned a high tea. I’ll try to remember to bring some books. I’ve got the last few ‘I’m Pledging Sigma Tau Nu’ badges for Satan’s Sorority, so grab one if you can.

Out Now: Chastity Flame eBook Boxset

Chastity_Flame_boxset_500

CHASTITY FLAME ADVENTURES BOX SET

Price: $5.99

This box set includes:

Chastity Flame, #1
Move over James Bond!

Chastity Flame works for a nameless organization. You won’t hear about the work she does either. She loves her job as a secret government operative. She foils criminal masterminds, travels the world, and finds new lovers in every city. Saving the world is hard work but will she risk the security of her country for some really wild sex . . . and the possibility of love?

Lush Situation, #2
Chastity Flame is back and hotter than ever. She’s sworn off meeting her irresistible colleague Damien, but how long can they really stay apart? Maybe a broken heart will make it easier to bury herself in work – and kick a few asses.

A Cut-Throat Business, #3
There’s a killer loose in London, protected in high places. Chastity Flame needs to look in the places the police can’t—or won’t—while a rogue colleague dogs her steps, looking for the key to secrets in her past. Can she find the killer before his blood lust rises again? And how will she cope with the most dangerous mission—moving in with her boyfriend, Damien.

Chastity_Flame_boxset_by_KALaity-500Fabulous original cover design by SL Johnson Images!

Making Magic Respectable

Like many folks here, I am greatly enjoying Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. It’s a terrific fantasy series: I can’t tell you how well it adapts Susanna Clarke’s novel as I haven’t read it yet (so many books, so many of them to write!) but the author seems pleased. The next episode appears to focus on Arabella Strange (Charlotte Riley) so it ought to be very interesting indeed.

Norrell’s obsession, if you don’t know, is to bring back English magic and make it ‘respectable’ (the contrast to his aims has been embodied by the street magician Vinculus, played with great vigour by Paul Kaye). Of course a big part of my interest in the show has been to see how they portray magic, given my own interests in the history of magic.

Even among medievalists, magic has only slowly become a ‘respectable’ sort of topic. Tolkien was one of the first scholars to insist that the fantastic elements in Beowulf were as worthy of study as the linguistic, where dull people had insisted its only charms lay. Societas Magica has done much to bring respectability to the study, following the fascinating history from earliest antiquity up to the present and sharing syllabuses from many different courses. They haven’t quite got Picatrix on everyone’s lips, but they’re working on it.

I’ll be teaching a course on women and witchcraft this autumn. It will be interesting to see what expectations the students bring. One of the aspects of that history we’ll be looking at is how magic moved from being a humble practise to becoming a formal art. I suppose in some ways you could compare it to famous big name chefs taking over simple peasant dishes. Simple charms to protect travelers, reduce illness or restore a field (things I write about in Rook Chant) are very different from the elaborate rituals that learned clerics used to summon demons. But in the late Middle Ages, these two very different strands became intertwined — and by the early Modern era they exploded in the infamous witch hunts.

I write about some of this practical magic in my History Witch column; perhaps I should share some examples here. Just to be respectable.

Rook Chant at Amazon UK