The Hunchback Rides Again

There are all sorts of aspects of the Notre Dame fire which are fascinating. As well as being a tragedy, it shows how some tragedies are worse than others, for instance. No one died, and within days money was pouring in from all over the world to rebuild it. Monsieur Macron, facing a difficult election soon must have thanked his lucky stars.
    Conspiracy theorists please form an orderly queue.
    And what, you may ask, of other governments’ responses to such horrors? What about that fire in London last year? People died, you may remember. A hideous number of them. Large sums of money were also contributed to a fund for the bereaved and the homeless. Many of them are still homeless. Many of them still hover on the shores of destitution.
     Victor Hugo wrote an amazing novel about the cathedral, which like many of his works was so enormous that many of us found it hard to finish. (As did he, in fact. His publishers had to grovel on their metaphorical knees to get him to finally deliver the late, late manuscript.) His original title made no reference to the poor destitute creature Quasi Modo, found abandoned outside the cathedral and whose life became intertwined with it, but it was due to him that the book finally became a world property – on the back of Hollywood, natch.
    And now, Hugo’s great classic is selling like hot cakes again in France. Nowt like publicity, is there? In which spirit I might refer you to my own ‘version’ and translation, which i did for Walker Books, and which was illustrated by David Hughes. His pictures were so amazing, and uncompromising, that many people seemed to think they should not have appeared in what was seen (by the English) as a children’s/young adults’ book.
It’s still available, and I still think it’s one of my better works (not least for the illustrations!). You can always Google it…

Off to Sea Once More….

The Sea Officer Bentley Thrillers: A naval fiction box set

In the words of the fine old song, ‘We’re Off to Sea Once More.’

Or to put it another way, my four 18th century sea books about the troubled young officer William Bentley have just been brought out as a box set by Endeavour Press. Which means that for a ridiculously low price (eight quid I think, without being arsed to actually check) you can follow his adventures from a greenhorn to a captain, from a virgin to a haunted sexual being, from a believer in the nobility of his calling and the British Navy to a man of complex crises.

Like many young men – children? – of his era he was lucky enough to be turfed out of house and home to live with several hundred men in a floating murder-machine, trained and moulded by older officers who ranged from geniuses to psychopaths, turned into heroes or corpses for the greater good and glory of the noblest and most self-satisfied country the world had probably ever known.

It was indeed a signal privilege to fight and die for England. To forge the greatest and bloodiest empire of modern times. To set the guidelines for the way Pax Britannica came to be seen by the world today.

William Bentley, a Hampshire boy, was lucky enough to have an uncle, Daniel Swift, who would take him on his frigate Welfare as a midshipman. Swift was a natural teacher, with a view of the men and officers under his command that everyone admired. Until they tasted, and endured, it.

Men like Jesse Broad, a seaman and a smuggler, ripe to be pressed, and destined to be hated by his savage captain. His natural nobility was a magnet to the young midshipman – and a red rag to the bull that was Daniel Swift. The ending of the first book – A Fine Boy for Killing – is agreed by many critics to be truly horrific.

It also sets the scene for the long rise to maturity of Sea Officer Bentley, and his fight for some sort of honourable survival. The survival and honour, also, of the woman he is born to love. Deborah – Deb – the Portsmouth slavey, the seagoing whore, the Spithead Nymph.

The books are too bleak for some, but I can’t help that, can I? I started writing them as a alternative to the gung-ho delights of the great books of the tradition, and as my stories developed, my view grew bleaker. I do mean great, however. Hornblower was my first love, Aubrey when he came along.

They stirred my blood, I read them passionately. But I somehow felt I owed it the poor sods who actually did our bloody work for us that we should maybe taste the blood as well. Nelson came home pickled in brandy, and Emma Hamilton, who had to sell her body for the first time at fourteen or so, died a penniless alcoholic in France. Their daughter was acknowledged as Nelson’s only in her name, Horatia.

To us British, some forms of honour are more important than others, aren’t they?

Art and populism

Here’s a sign of the times, and a worry. What with Michael Jackson, that American film-maker (supply names ad lib) and all the other people who think little boys are there to be fucked and fondled (and girls as well), coupled with the rise of populism, people like The Donald, and the trend for dismissing anything you don’t like as Fake News, truth, art, et cetera, are on shaky grounds indeed. Today I read that Lolita is now in the firing line, which is horrifying.
If you haven’t read it, hard luck. I picked up on it when I was seventeen or so, and decided it was a howling masterpiece. I’ve never changed my mind. It tells the story of a paedophile called Humbert Humbert, who falls in love/lust with a girl of twelve. As you’d expect from Nabokov the prose is nothing short of wonderful, and his characterisation is complex and disturbing. For the ‘hero’, the story is a tragedy. For Lolita – well, it’s hard to say. Which I think is the point.
It’s a deeply serious novel, about a deeply serious subject. And titillating, I do assure you, it is not. Fast forward to today. Here’s a digest of today’s piece in the Bookseller.

‘Jonathan Cape’s Dan Franklin has said he wouldn’t be able to publish  Lolita – about a man’s obsession with a 12-year-old girl – were he to be offered it today, because of the #MeToo phenomenon and changing attitudes among a younger generation.
‘Quoted by Rachel Johnson in a Spectator article, Franklin told the publication: “You can organise outrage at the drop of a hat. If Lolita was offered to me today, I’d never be able to get it past the acquisition team — a committee of 30-year-olds, who’d say, ‘If you publish this book we will all resign.’
‘Johnson’s piece references trigger warnings in universities for material with sensitive content and the use of morality clauses in publishing contracts, describing publishing as having “a massive attack of wokeness”.
‘Also quoted is literary agent Natasha Fairweather of Rogers, Coleridge and White, who commented: “The real story is about what is happening in the world of young adult publishing, where the mood is becoming so militant that you are no longer allowed to write from the perspective of anyone other than yourself. Amelie Wen Zhao withdrew her book from publication with a Twitter post that read like a Stalin-era apology.”
‘Zhao asked her publisher, Random House’s Delacorte imprint in the US, to delay publication of her YA debut following criticism online of a slave auction scene.
Meanwhile Curtis Brown chair Jonathan Lloyd was quoted on the furore surrounding writer Dan Mallory, the author of thriller The Woman in the Window (HarperCollins), accused in a very lengthy New Yorker article of fabricating his past and lying about having cancer. Lloyd told the Spectator: “We all knew he had fantasies. Does the fact that he might be a bipolar fabulist detract from his abilities to write a novel? Not in the least.”‘

So that appears to be it. Never mind the quality, feel the width. How would Voltaire have got on, do you think? Or DH Lawrence? Or practically every serious writer there’s ever been? The business, surely, is to examine, to reveal, to investigate – to show human beings and their foibles – however vile. Upset the reader, if you must – because you MUST.

I’m using this last sentence as a joke, honestly: ‘It’s political correctness gone mad.’