Tag Archives: Brighton Rock

Novels of English towns and counties

From time to time I like to write a post that links books by titles or themes or in some other way. Today the link is English towns and counties. Place is so important in novels. Think of that imagined place: Narnia, although I should point out that Totnes is twinned with Narnia. And think of the significance of a real location, such as Dartmoor in The Hound of the Baskervilles  by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Except, of course, that it is not a version of Dartmoor that you will find on the maps.

Cities and counties have great significance in English literature. Here is my random selection, with links to reviews on Bookword where they exist.

Devon and the oldest book of all

Let us start with the oldest book of all, in Devon. The Exeter Book has survived a thousand years, not always cared for, and not always intelligible. It is now in the Exeter Cathedral Library and Archives collection, and can be seen on monthly open days. 

Written in Old English some time between 960 and 990 the Exeter Book originally had 131 parchment leaves, but the first eight pages are now lost. The text was written by one person, in miniscule Old English, and with some runes included. It contains 96 riddles and some longer poems. A few of the poems have Christian connections, but the collection is largely secular, despite its long connection with the Cathedral. But why it was compiled, and for whom remain mysteries. Read more here.

More history from Devon can be found in The Recent Past  by James Ravilious. It is a book of photographs of the recent past taken in rural North Devon. James Ravilious was a photographer whose commission was to document the North Devon area for the Beaford Arts Centre (today Beaford Arts). He began in 1972 and continued for 17 years to photograph the rural neighbourhood where he lived. There are 75 images in this large format book. It is beautifully produced and smells as good art books should. The photographs are all given James Ravilious’s titles, locations and dates and notes have been added by his wife Robin, which add to the pleasure of the viewing. You can read more about it here.

A county that does not exist

For her massive account of local community matters in the inter-war years Winifred Holtby invented a county, the missing South Riding. When I was young there were three Ridings of Yorkshire: North East and West. I often wondered about the missing South Riding. In Winifred Holtby’s novel Alderman Mrs Beddows took her place in the series on older women in fiction. She was the focus of the post I wrote about this novel. But the 500+ pages are about many more of the people in the community she serves. The beautiful countryside which Winifred Holtby knew so well is also a feature of this novel. 

More Yorkshire can be found in God’s Own Country  by Ross Raisin. The story is set in more recent times, and is a dark tale of under-privilege and rural neglect. It sets rural against urban, middle class life against  poverty, and shows us something of the challenge of the Yorkshire Moors. You can read the whole post here.

From Essex

In 2016 The Essex Serpent  by Sarah Perry won a great many prizes. I thought the cover was brilliant, although it has been copied a great deal since. The story is set in London and Essex in the 1890s. New knowledge is battling with older traditions and myths and this made for an excellent story, much enjoyed in reading groups. It was often described as gothic. My review can be read here.

A Classic about a town on the South Coast

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene is one of the most read of my posts on Bookword. It has a famous first line: 

Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.

The novel considers the different beliefs of its protagonists. But above all it is a thriller, set on a public holiday between the wars in a town recognisable today. Here’s a link to the full post.

Brighton Beach on Whitsun, 31 May 2009. By David Hawgood of Geography Project via Wiki Commons.

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Rereading books

Do you reread books? My lovely friend Eileen suggested this topic was a good one for Bookword blog. I thought she was right and with a little arm-twisting she agreed to contribute this post. We benefit from her research skills and her colourful use of pseudonyms. And she has referred to lots of great books – read or reread them!

Eileen writes about rereading books

Ladder of Years, by my favourite author Anne Tyler, was serialized on Radio 4 a few weeks ago and I thought ‘I must reread that’. I have read all her books, some more than once, and The Accidental Tourist many times. Do you have a favourite author or book that you come back to again and again? I wondered if other people are similarly addicted so I asked Caroline if she would write a blog about it. She replied ‘Why don’t you!’ (Note to self: Be careful what you ask for.)

177 Therese R coverThe book I read compulsively is Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola. I first read it when I was 20, found myself reading it again at 30, and then kept going. You probably know the story – two lovers plagued by guilt – gripping stuff!

My next most often reread book is To kill a Mockingbird – such fantastic story telling and powerful themes. I’m not keen on stories from a child’s perspective but this one’s amazing. Have you seen the film adaptation staring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch? Fabulous.

177 Atticus FinchI also admit to rereading: Madame Bovary, Cold Comfort Farm, Gone with the Wind, Jane Eyre, Jude the Obscure and Far from the Madding Crowd – well anything by Hardy. And I’m planning to read H is for Hawk again soon. It’s such an exquisitely written book. Do read it if you haven’t.

In order to understand my predilection for rereading I asked 12 of my friends to consider the novels they have reread, why they do it and what they gain. I loved their enthusiastic responses and reminders of some excellent stuff.

You might want to consider your own responses before reading on? If so, Dear Reader, look away now!

The Survey results

It turns out that none of my friends reread books as often as me. Indigo was a bit indignant: ‘I have never reread a book. I don’t have the time and there are so many other books I want to read’. Would that be your reaction? About six of my 12 buddies agreed to some extent including Marigold: ‘I always feel I don’t read enough and feel like I’m wasting time if each read isn’t new’. But she often rereads poetry and short stories such as those by Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Muriel Spark and Ali Smith. And she added: ‘I have reread The Summer Book a good few times – I find it subtle, delightful and fresh each time’.116ToveJanssonSignature

Violet told me she has only ever reread one book. If you were going to pick just one which one would it be? For Violet it was Pride and Prejudice, which she would happily read again:

I read it once at school as a set text with no appreciation, watched the various films and then reread it a couple of years ago. That brought both enjoyment and a deeper appreciation of Jane Austen’s craft. The opening sentence is a total triumph and she manages to maintain her skill throughout the book.

She surprised me by saying that when she has greatly enjoyed a book she rarely reads a second one by the same author: ‘… that may seem odd. Perhaps I feel it sets the bar too high’.

The prospect of disappointment was also on Carmine’s mind: ‘If I really enjoyed something, I don’t want to read it again in case I don’t enjoy it as much’. Magenta agrees especially after her experience of rereading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian Quartet:

I picked up the first book, Justine, and it seemed so dated.  I am definitely not the 18 year old that read it in the 1960s. It just didn’t speak to me as it had done. I did not finish the first volume never mind the four. I would rather leave the good memories.

People of a certain age, like me and my mates, like to reread to gain new perspectives on books read in their youth. Carmine spoke about this in her reply saying there was bound to be things she’d missed in the first reading. The example she gave was I Know why the Caged Bird Sings. Yes, I agree. That is worth another look.

Ebony loved reading the following eclectic mix in her teens: Hundred Years of Solitude, Death in Venice and On the Road. These had made a real impression and she wondered if they still would.

Rereading them reminded me of ways of thinking and of expressing ideas that struck a chord. These books shaped my thinking and I was curious to see if I still thought they were relevant and inspiring. They were, which was reassuring.

Blanche reread Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady for a similar reason. When she first read it in 1978 she found there was much that related to her feelings: ‘Rereading was a different experience as I was not identifying with the character and so appreciated it in a new way’. Sapphire mentioned the need to reread a book straight away in order to grasp its meaning: ‘As soon as I finished The Sound and the Fury I reread it. I understood it the second time!’

Exploring far off countries and cultures was important. Jade had reread three particular books that gave her insights into places she liked or wanted to visit – A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute, Cache Lake Country by John Rowlands and Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee.

Ruby spoke about her passion for Barbara Kingsolver’s books, rereading to psych herself up for travelling. I savoured her reply:177 poisonwood B

I bought and read The Poisonwood Bible voraciously when it was first published in Blog.doc paperback in 1999, because I’m a big fan and am always impatient for her next book. I reread it before my trip to Mali in 2007, to get me in the mood for Africa. (OK, so Mali is in West Africa and The Congo is in Central Africa, but there are commonalities: we’d be travelling by pinasse on the Niger River, the women wear similar combinations of brightly coloured cottons as body and head wraps, carry their babies on their backs, sell similar goods in the markets, etc. Both countries struggle with poverty and instability.) More recently, I read it for the third time just prior to seeing Barbara Kingsolver discussing the book with John Mullan, and I now have my copy signed! It’s not an enjoyable reread but I valued and savoured it more.

And for those who write themselves there is another purpose for rereading. I was intrigued by Marigold’s comments about The Accidental Tourist. She saw somewhere that it’s the perfect structure for a novel: ‘I started reading it with an eye on the structure and just ended up enjoying the minutiae’. Caroline’s research for her blog inspires her to reread. Her recent posts include: What Katy Did, Brighton Rock, A Passage to India and Love, Again. Another writer, Sapphire, says she studies high quality novels in great detail, reexamining each paragraph and sentence to appreciate good construction.

177 I capturedLoving the style, or the lifestyle depicted in particular books came up. Scarlet said she had reread Perfume by Patrick Susskind and Memoirs of a Geisha. She likes both because they’re visceral and experiential and she becomes completely immersed. And Jade said she had reread I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith as she loved the lifestyle portrayed.

If you belong to a book club you might reread novels to prepare for the discussion as Caroline, Blanche and Magenta do. Caroline has recently reread The Awakening by Kate Chopin because someone mentioned it in a book group and so she wanted to look closely at that again. She returns to a book in order to read more carefully rather than relying on memory. She reads so much and so quickly that she doesn’t keep the story in her head for long. Blanche enjoys being a member of a book club to get her rereading. She still sees novels as a holiday luxury, despite retirement, filling her life with ‘doing’ things. Recognise that pattern? I do.

And, of course, new technology has an influence. Magenta says she now mainly reads on a Kindle and has a tendency to read quickly, almost skimming the book:

I don’t take it in fully on the first reading, so I often read a second time and then get a lot more out of it. I do that particularly with books that we are going to discuss in our book group. So that is a very pragmatic use of rereading that is done immediately rather than after a long gap.

Comfort reading – ah yes! Carmine said: ‘Another reason is to be taken to a place I know is OK and comfortable, when I don’t want to be challenged, like reading Alexander McCall’s books when I want something interesting but light’. And ‘for therapy’ Caroline reads Pride and Prejudice and Catch-22.

Last was rereading by mistake – starting a novel and then remembering it had been read before.

So, do you ever reread books?

  • to be intellectually stimulated – to gain new perspectives or insights or shape your thinking
  • for emotional reasons – to immerse yourself in the warmth of the familiar, the joy of meeting old friends or the feeling a character, style or place can inspire
  • to develop your own creative skills – to study the beauty of the language, structure and plot for ideas for your own writing …
  • … or do you think rereading is a complete waste of time. Do let us know.


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Buying Books or In praise of the Independent Bookshop

Reading books, the whole blog is about books. Organising books, I’ve blogged about that too. And about decluttering books. And about publishing our own book. But I haven’t yet blogged about buying books. So here goes.

Second Hand Bookshops

166 Mr WestonI love exploring these. I get tempted by the old orange penguin books (which must be why I have got two copies of Mr Weston’s Good Wine by TF Powys. Some people would argue that you can’t have too many copies of Mr Weston’s Good Wine. And indeed it is a very intriguing and original book.) I love picking up copies of books I should have read but have passed me by, or even books that I read from the library and now want my own copy.

I like the idea that other people have read them, although I recently came across a reference to baking books from Boots Circulating Library in the oven to remove ‘other people’s germs’. And sometimes I find bookmarks between the pages, or pencil notes in the margins indicating someone else’s interest.

Occasionally I buy second hand books on-line, but this is not as enjoyable as browsing through the shelves of the local Oxfam shop. The chief attraction of second hand books is the serendipity, finding that book. I found several novels by Elizabeth Bowen in this way, and my copy of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock was (to coin a quite dreadful phrase) pre-read. It also means I sometimes obtain a copy of a book I think I really should have, only to get it home and find I went through the same process about 3 months previously. There is the second copy already on the shelves!

I make contributions to these second hand bookstores as well. It’s part of helping books go round.


166 Perseph bppkshop intHow bookshops have changed. For a start there are fewer of them (fewer than 1000 independent shops in the UK). So it is a rare treat now to come across an independent book shop, reflecting the individuality of the owner. Perhaps a cat lives among the shelves, or a dog guards the till. There may be a jug of flowers on the table. A chair invites you to linger, perhaps by an open fire. A local author has signed five copies of his book and they are waiting to be bought, by the till. There are maps and local walks, railway histories, an intriguing selection of fiction and that category called gift books.

The second thing that’s changed is the pricing. Who pays full price for books these days? It seems that books are marketed like pork pies or crumpets, as if one book is the same as any other. The principal idea is BOGOFF (Buy one and get one for free). And you can buy them in supermarkets along with your pork pies and crumpets. Chain bookshops blast you with offers, or the apparent attraction of being newly published, or that they are recommended by the staff. This last I do find interesting, although rarely decisive.

And then, of course, there is Amazon. Loved that they made it possible to buy any book, and quickly. Hate that Amazon is taking over the world. I don’t believe that Amazon acts in the best interests of authors, publishers or readers.

When I buy on-line I go first to Hive, still discounted, still free postage and in some mysterious way, supporting local independent bookshops.

But my ideal book buying experience is without stress. The shop feels domestic, cosy but full of possibilities. The shelves are interesting, inviting, categories easy to find, and the staff knowledgeable and opinionated. It is an independent bookshop.

In 2014 Dulwich Books was awarded the title Independent Bookshop of the year in the Bookseller Awards, Children’s Bookseller of the Year was The Edinburgh Bookshop.

Persephone Book Shop, Lambs Conduit Street, London

Persephone Books window

Persephone Books window

Last week I visited a bookshop that I love. Persephone Books sell their own books, those lovely dovegrey volumes by (mainly) women, books that need publishing. Books such as these, reviewed on this blog:

They are objects of aesthetic pleasure, chosen with great good taste. And they offer 3 for £30, or £12 each. This week I bought

  • The Happy Tree by Rosalind Murray
  • A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the diary of Virginia Woolf
  • No Surrender by Constance Maud

166 Perseph bkshelvesThe pleasure of buying new books is enhanced by the domestic feel of the interior, the wooden furniture, cushions and fabric for sale (echoing Persephone’s trademark end papers and bookmarks, chosen from fabric designs contemporaneous with the contents of the book).

On the day I am there, as on previous occasions, office activities (such as receiving orders, enquiries about the Persephone Biennial Catalogue, payment issues) go on in the back of the shop.

Visiting Persephone Books reminds me of the importance of independent publishers, of the pleasures of buying books in nice shops and that I am not alone in wanting to go on visiting bookshops. (You can order their books online through the website as well as signing up for the daily Persephone Post, a visual treat).

Visiting Persephone Books reminds me that I am part of a community of readers.

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Publishing our book, Reading, Reviews, Virginia Woolf

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

162 BR orange p coverLobby Lud, the man from the News Chronicle was a perpetual disappointment in my youth. If you spotted Lobby Lud, you were supposed to strike him on the shoulder with a copy of the News Chronicle and say, ‘You are Lobby Lud and I claim my £5’. But he never appeared in my home town in South Wales and on the occasion he came to Newport we did not. The paper ceased publication in October 1960 when my chance disappeared for ever.

Why read this novel?

I picked up Brighton Rock from my TBR pile because I needed a thin book to read on the train. It was on the pile as a classic to re-read. I was immediately rewarded with the brilliant opening paragraph of the novel.

Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him. With his inky fingers and his bitten nails, his manner cynical and nervous, anybody could tell he didn’t belong – belong to the early summer sun, the cool Whitsun wind off the seam the holiday crowd. They came in by train from Victoria every five minutes, rocked down Queen’s Road standing on the tops of the little local trams, stepped off in bewildered multitudes into fresh and glittering air: the new silver paint sparkled on the piers, the cream houses ran away into the west like a pale Victorian water-colour; a race in miniature motors, a band playing, flower gardens in bloom below the front, an aeroplane advertising something or the health in pale vanishing clouds across the sky. (5)

This opening paragraph is acclaimed for setting up the novel’s violence, tension, and the place and time of its events. The first sentence is apparently contradicted by the picture of Brighton on a Whitsun holiday. But we know at once that Hale is doomed.

Brighton Beach on Whitsun, 31 May 2009. By David Hawgood of Geography Project via Wiki Commons.

Brighton Beach on Whitsun, 31 May 2009. By David Hawgood of Geography Project via Wiki Commons.

I am working on the revision of the first draft of my novel. So I read the most acclaimed novels with attention. Graham Greene was one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century and this is one of several of his novels classed as classics.

There is one major novelistic problem for me in Brighton Rock. For this story to work we have to believe in several unlikely aspects of the characters. We have to believe that, knowing his life was in danger Hale would not try to escape; that Pinkie, only 17 years old, would go as far as he does; that Ida really cares enough about a man she barely knew to pursue the truth and put her own life in danger; that Rose is as innocent, stupid and gullible as she acts. None of these are givens, but there would be no story without them.

The story

162 BR filmWe are in the late 1930s. You may be visualising the Boulting Brothers 1947 film, which starred Richard Attenborough as Pinkie and Hermione Badderly as Ida Arnold. (The more recent film has not made a big impression.) That rather pasty face, with its scar and huge eyes, a baby face with the eyes of a mean old man, this is the Pinkie of the novel and 1947 film.

Good and evil were themes in the air in the late ‘30s and through the 40s, the time of the Second World War. And they are themes for all times. Graham Greene was a Roman Catholic and embraced these themes. The orthodox Roman church is not the hero of this novel. Rather it is the wholesome goodness of Ida Arnold, (almost a tart with a heart of gold). Pinkie’s evil is set against Ida’s humanity.

Lobby Lud lives on in Killey Kibber, aka Fred Hale, a journalist with the Messenger, in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. He is in Brighton to leave his cards (finders could claim 10/-) and be ready to be challenged by a member of the public.

Pinkie, the Boy, is 17 and trying to assert himself as the leader of a violent gang in Brighton by stepping into the shoes of Kite, slashed in the waiting room at St Pancras station in London. Pinkie organises Hale’s murder, because the journalist exposed gangs in Brighton and is on Killey Kibber duty in Brighton that Whitsun holiday. Pinkie is conscious that if caught he will not hang because he is a minor. But the gang do not lay the false trail according to his directions and in putting this right he meets 16-year old waitress Rose. She is a potential witness and Pinkie has to marry her so that she will not be able to testify against him. But he becomes so revolted by the idea of being tied to her he plans her murder as well.

Brighton West Pier October 2009. By Lars Olsson via Wiki Commons

Brighton West Pier October 2009. By Lars Olsson via Wiki Commons

As the story progresses Pinkie finds that the more violent he becomes, the more he compromises himself with everyone, including of course his God. Meanwhile his hold on his gang diminishes in the face of his rival Mr Corleoni. Evil will get its just desserts.

Ida Arnold, who likes a good time, was friendly with Hale, and she suspects foul play and injustice when she finds he has died. She sets out to find the truth which brings her into conflict with Pinkie. She also tries to rescue Rose but the girl has never received any attention before and is determined to do what Pinkie wants.

Why do we care?

Of course we want Pinkie’s plans to fail. But we also have some sympathy for Pinkie and Rose, they are young and naïve and come from impoverished backgrounds. Pinkie has no concept of any one else’s experiences and feelings. Consequently, he is very dangerous. Although Pinkie is evil, he experiences fear and frustration as his plans unravel. For example when he is tricked and cut at the races.

The poverty of Rose’s parent’s house and of her upbringing are stark. This is the scene when Pinkie goes to get permission for their marriage from her father.

There was only one door and a staircase matted with old newspapers. On the bottom step between the mud marks stared up the tawny child face of Violet Crow violated and buried under the West Pier in 1936. He opened the door and there beside the black kitchen stove with cold dead charcoal on the floor sat the parents. They had a mood on : a small thin elderly man, his face marked deeply with the hieroglyphics of pain and patience and suspicion : the woman middle-aged, stupid, vindictive. The dishes hadn’t been washed and the stove hadn’t been lit.

‘They got a mood,’ Rose said aloud to him. ‘They wouldn’t let me do a thing. Not even light the fire. I like a clean house, honest I do. Ours wouldn’t be like this.’

‘Look here, Mr -.’ The Boy said.

‘Wilson,’ Rose said.

‘Wilson. I want to marry Rose. It seems as she’s so young I got to get your permission.’

They wouldn’t answer him. They treasured their mood as if it was a bright piece of china only they possessed : something they could show to neighbours as ‘mine’. (141-2)

The childish mood persists until Pinkie offers 15 guineas for Rose. It is accepted. Poverty, violence, inadequacy, ignorance, mean-spiritedness – all these in so few lines.

Following the civil ceremony they wander at a loss around Brighton until they return to Pinkie’s lodgings. Finally he graduates in the last human shame (sexual consummation of the marriage) and now he believes he could face anyone. Both young people have been raised as ‘Romans’ and because their marriage is not solemnised in church, they are aware they have committed a mortal sin. Now they are lost they go on to plan more mortal sins.

The references to the church are to not to everyone’s taste, but this novel is an excellent thriller and raises important questions relevant to all beliefs and all times.

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (1938) Penguin pp247 (Page references are to the 1977 Penguin edition).

How do you react to this classic? Is it a book you would re-read?

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