From Kim Philby to Brian Clough

Another three books from the stash have just bitten the dust:

Tim Powers – Declare

I’ve read Powers before, but not for quite a while and my memory of that is somewhat hazy, so I came to this book without any particular expectations. I used to be a huge fan of SF and fantasy, but the genres seem to have disappeared up their own arses of late – fortunately ‘Declare’ doesn’t disappoint.

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A strange blend of 1960s Cold War spy thriller (think le Carre) and updated Dennis Wheatley occult potboiler with a very slight hint of Indiana Jones, ‘Declare’ has a very original plot. Double agent Kim Philby seems a strange figure to have as one of the main characters, but his presence is essential to the plot and, as the author explains in the afterword, the novel is an attempt to tie together many of the documented events of his life with Powers’ central premise – that Arabian djinns (genies) exist and have a great influence over human affairs. Philby’s fate and the existence of a particular ‘guardian’ djinn are entwined in the continuation of the USSR as a major communist power. Powers’ novel explores this relationship and the attempts that are made by the UK and US to bring about the collapse of communism by attacking the djinn.

Having very little prior knowledge of spying operations over the periods of World War II and the Cold War was no barrier to my enjoyment of the novel. In fact, it really piqued my interest and made me want to read more about the subject.

As for the supernatural element, Powers avoids the usual ‘monster’ rubbish and has the djinns forming organically from their surroundings. Their aversion to and preference for certain geometric and mineral/chemical conditions is portrayed in a highly original way.

One small minus point – Philby’s stuttering got very tedious after a while, making his words difficult to read. It may have been realistic but it really got rather annoying.

Highly recommended – well-written and offering a totally new slant on the occult thriller.

Scott G Mariani – Uprising

I’m a sucker (geddit?) for vampire stories but this one sucks, unfortunately.

I suppose that if vampires were around today and wanted to operate undercover in order to establish some sort of stable co-existence with human beings in the 21st century then an organization like the VIA (Vampire Intelligence Agency – I shit thee not) might be set up, but I personally found the concept – not to mention the TLA – laughable.

Yes, vampires can be credibly updated and turned into characters with whom the audience can sympathise (or even empathise) – and I’m not including romantic Goth crap like ‘Twilight’ and its many clones. Authors like Mick Farren, Stephen King, Jasper Kent and Charlie Huston have shown that vampires can be portrayed in an highly effective way without resorting to stereotypes or clumsy attempts to bring them into modern day life.

The characters are crudely drawn and although Mariani is attempting to take his writing out of the sub-Da Vinci Code plots that have featured in his past novels, he hasn’t improved as an author. Still, for all that, another ultimately unsatisfying but readable book for those desiring a non-taxing vampire novel. And that’s the problem – with few exceptions (Twilight!), any vampire novel is a good vampire novel…

Ian Mortimer – The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England

I’m also partial to a bit of history and the Medieval period is one of the more interesting aspects for me. Mortimer attempts to make you imagine what it’s actually like to live in England in the Middle Ages and covers all aspects of everyday life, from how you dealt with going to the toilet, through having an anal fistula operated on, to what would happen if you stole a chicken. It seems well-researched and it held my interest throughout.

I really liked the way he portrayed Medieval life in all its sometimes squalid glory, but tried not to judge it in terms of how much we’ve progressed today. People then did the best they could with the sometimes limited resources available. Yes, hygiene was sometimes lacking, but with no scientific theory of germs people still tried to keep themselves and their surroundings as clean as they could. Under the circumstances they seemed to do very well.

It’s one of those books that sometimes makes you want to pause and ask those around you, ‘Did you know that…?’ as the many fascinating facts emerge through the course of the book. Resist the impulse though, it’s bloody annoying…

In summary,a very laudable attempt to make history interesting, without dumbing it down. Plus it’s real history, and not some lunatic fringe attempt to pass off personal theory as documented fact – an all too common practice today with books revealing amazing and hitherto unknown revelations such as Jesus is actually buried in a secret chamber under the Sphinx and other half-baked fuckery.  

Bonus review:

The Damned United – not the David Peace book, which I must read now – but the film (BBC2 – BBC Films season) of the book; the story of Brian Clough’s 44 days as manager at Leeds United and the events leading up to and just after it. Michael Sheen was brilliant as Clough with just enough ‘Cloughisms’ and Middlesbrough accent to bring the character across, but without making him into some sort of cartoon or cheap impression.

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I found the character despicable and admirable in equal measure and it was easy to see why he polarised opinion during his life. Ultimately, however, I found myself rooting for Clough, who might have lacked ‘people skills’ but knew what he wanted and – as long as Peter Taylor was with him – knew how to get it, with everyone who went along with him ultimately winning.

Although the film mainly dealt with a trough in Clough’s career – between the twin triumphs of Derby and Notts Forest – you still saw what made him great but also what made him fallible. Essentially, it was his inability to compromise, even when he knew bloody well that what he was going to say or do wasn’t going to make life any easier for himself, let alone everybody else.

Stunning stuff with a great cast, a stand out performance from Sheen and well worth repeat viewings.

Incidentally, ‘Damned’ was followed by a documentary about Clough’s career which not only expanded on Peace’s original story, but also served as confirmation that the film was actually very fair towards Clough.

The best manager England never had?

Well, thinking about English football post-1966, the only person who actually got the job (sort of) and who might have had the charisma, skill and drive to put England back on the road to success was Terry Venables. However, Clough, if chosen after Revie, would have been able to bring far more of these qualities to bear on the job. And when you compare him to the people who actually got the job whilst he was at the height of his powers…

It’s a no-brainer – Clough should have been England manager.

But only with Taylor as his number two…

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