Crazy Pavements by Beverley Nichols
Knowing that Karen and Simon are both fans of Beverley Nichols, it was about time I read one of his books – I picked this one up a couple of years ago, so it was ideal to go into my 20 Books of Summer pile. Nichols was a prolific writer: novels, plays, poems, non-fiction – especially gardening and travel, in his long career, which began with his first novel in 1920.
Crazy Pavements was published in 1927 and is a novel about London’s ‘Bright Young People’ (BYP) and Nichols was part of that group himself. This novel predates the classic BYP novel Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh by a few years, and is said to have been an influence on Waugh. (Sadly, I can’t comment as I haven’t read Vile Bodies – something to remedy).
Our hero/antihero is a young man called Brian Elme, a gossip columnist for a tabloid newspaper. An orphan, but hired for his schoolboy connection to a peer subject to a scandal. That single source used up, he now makes up most of his column reckoning that his targets will never read it.
To you, perhaps, the ‘Gossip’ writer is something mean, and slightly comic. To me, he is one of the world’s greatest tragedies. I am sick at heart for these lingerers in the outer courts of Society, with their brave gentility, their ears pricked for some wearisome trifle about some wearisome woman. There are exceptions, of course. […] But they are the exceptions. The majority consist of young men like Brian, with a single dress-shirt, and a crying hunger to get out of the whole thing.
Why, then, did Brian adopt this ignoble profession? For the same reason as any other mental or physical prostitute. He had to live.
[…] hunger had prompted him to lie, and to invent, as we have already observed. He had been inventing for nearly two years.
When Lady Julia Creasey (a favourite of Brian’s) does read one of his little paragraphs, and complains, he is sent to apologise to save his job.
She sees a handsome, young man before her and decides to adopt him into her crowd. He, naturally, falls for her and he will do anything to make her love him too. Brian is soon introduced to her circle which includes Sir William Motley, a boorish drunk who crafts grotesque masks caricaturing Society people, and the obviously gay Maurice Cheyne and Anne Hardcastle – a cougar who’s had too much plastic surgery. None of them are portrayed very sympathetically. Lady Julia is particularly bored by it all, so Brian becomes a plaything for them. He is introduced to all their bad habits, and soon finds himself alienating his one true friend, his flatmate Walter who is in love with him. There is one memorable party given by Julia’s friend Tanagra Guest – a fancy dress party to which everyone must come dressed as a child – and act as one!
His invitation was written on children’s note-paper with pink woolly lambs at the top, and said:
‘Dear Brian, will you please come to my party on the fourteenth? Yours affectionately, Tanagra.’ And in the bottom right-hand corner was written, ‘Please tell your nurse to call for you at 4 a.m.’
Had Society always done this sort of thing? He asked himself this question, as he stood, clad in shorts, socks, a tight-fitting jersey and sallor hat, prior to setting out.
Brian becomes so good at playing their game, he comes into danger of outplaying them, until Anne Hardcastle blackmails Julia into giving him to her just as Julia was beginning to feel something for him. Brian must escape their clutches or drown in this hedonistic world.
I liked Nichol’s knowing narrator’s style – witty and waspish when addressing the reader, which helped to defuse the unpleasantness which would otherwise pervade this story. Not having read Vile Bodies, or Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray which I’m told was an influence, I can only compare this novel with Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time series, the first three volumes of which are set during the 1920s (click here). Nichols is easier to read than Powell; Crazy Pavements is much darker and with its gay subtext, has some serious underlying themes that Powell glosses over. I’m glad to have read this book and would happily read more by this interesting author. (8/10)
Source: Own Copy. Beverley Nichols, Crazy Pavement (1927) Valancourt Books, US, paperback, 220 pages. BUY from Amazon UK, affiliate link.
The Translation of the Bones by Francesca Kay
There is something fascinating about the Catholic faith, especially to the uninitiated. This book, Kay’s second novel published in 2011, did remind me of the excellent, recent TV series Broken, written by Jimmy McGovern which starred Sean Bean as the troubled priest of a church and the community of worshippers he tries to help. The similarity resides in Kay’s depiction of the church’s community with a similar spread of life circumstances.
The Church of the Sacred Heart is a small Catholic church in Battersea. As the novel begins, it is approaching Lent. Father Diamond is busy in the sacristy, MP’s wife Stella is arranging the flowers, busybody Mrs Armitage is sorting out the hymnbooks, and Mary-Margaret O’Reilly is standing on the side-chapel’s altar cleaning the figure of Christ on the crucifix above with olive oil cream she’d bought especially:
On the narrow altar she struggled back to her feet, feeling a little giddy, The tiled floor beneath her suddenly seemed a long way down. By accident she knocked the plastic bowl, spilling the remaining foam. She tore the seal off the green pot, opened it and scooped up some of the ointment with her fingers. With endless love and reverence she stroked His sacred head. There were scabs where the thorns were rammed right through the scalp. She felt warmth against her hand. When she lifted it from His wounds she saw that it was red.
She faints, falls and knocks herself out – ending up in hospital. Mary-Margaret, who has learning difficulties, is extremely devout and believes she has witnessed a miracle. When her story gets out, the church has a problem on its hands. Father Diamond, who is normally the second in charge at this church has to deal with the hordes on his own. He shrouds the statues for Lent and locks the doors. Mary-Margaret believes that the statue will talk to her again when the shroud comes off.
Meanwhile, everyone else also has their own crises of confidence to deal with. Father Diamond struggles with his faith and if he’s really cut out to be a priest; Stella can’t wait for her young son to come home from boarding school, Mrs Armitage likewise awaits the return of her son from Afghanistan, and Fidelma, Mary-Margaret’s mother, imprisoned in their high-rise flat by her condition, remembers her childhood with the nuns back in Ireland and the boy she loved. All of them are lonely, isolated in their worries, their faith helps them to continue, but everyone’s faith will be tested by subsequent events…
The Translation of the Bones is a thoughtful novel. Although not a long story, it takes its time building up the picture of the parishioners in this mixed community. The key characters at first may appear to tick all the cliche tick boxes you might expect, but, as in Broken, they are given space to come alive and make us feel for them. It is also inevitable that this novel will be a test of faith, but Kay understands how to handle this sympathetically. At around 220 pages in hardback, there is no wastage, Kay’s writing is concise and insightful. This short novel was a pleasure to read. (8.5/10)
Source: Own copy. Francesca Kay, The Translation of the Bones (2011) W&N, paperback, 240 pages. BUY from Amazon UK (affiliate link).