22 January 2013

the final days of steam

Lately I have been riding a wave of nostalgia. This should come as no surprise, bearing in mind my preference for looking to the past rather than the future. I believe I am in a minority there but a sizeable minority. After all, how glorious it is to bask in the warm glow of happy memories and uncomplicated times. Our brains cleverly filter the not so good and the plain awful leaving a sense that life used to be better.
In particular I have been wallowing in The Rank Organisation’s “Look at Life” series of documentary ‘shorts’ from the nineteen fifties and sixties. That bastion of the British film industry Rank, which blossomed from unlikely roots in flour milling, produced and distributed its own films and screened them in its own cinemas to fill slots between features. There is a store of some five hundred of these miniature ten-minute classics covering technology, culture, sport, transport and innovation, a showcase for all that was great about Great Britain.
Sixty years ago the Second World War was a very recent memory, there was unemployment, often poor sanitation, no central heating, and life was devoid of the luxuries we take for granted today. So, yes, life was harsh. But what shines through in these films is an indomitable spirit and an optimism which seems to have vanished from Britain today.
The narrator’s excitement when describing the launch of a new hovercraft on the Solent, or the introduction of Motorail, a miraculous new system for transporting cars on trains, is infectious. Progress happened because of decisive action. Plans were laid quickly but mostly carefully. This was all long before the arrival of decision by committee, when even the simplest idea becomes bogged down in endless enquiries and feasibility studies. It was an age of confidence and hopefulness. However it would not last.
Chill winds began to stir with publication of the first Beeching Report in 1963. Doctor Beeching took an axe to the British Railway system, hacking off four thousand miles of line and earmarking for closure, one third of the country’s seven thousand stations. This came at a time when the railways were already struggling to consolidate in a new era of diesel and electrification.
That brings me neatly though not consequently to the demise of the steam locomotive, still in the 1950s a technological wonder. In the glory days of steam entire families found jobs for life and shiny-faced schoolboys scampered along platforms clutching notebooks and pencils to record their sightings. Trains clanked into stations puffing and hissing like massive lungs while others streaked through non-stop whistle screaming and smoke flattened to its back. There is something elemental about steam power, the production of staggering forces of locomotion from the simple fusion of fire and water.
But all too quickly steam trains had become dinosaurs with their reliance on coal. Soot blackened hulks were shunted to the scrapyard like huge, gentle beasts to the slaughter. Steam trains continued to run on the Southern Railway, my own neck of the woods, until June 1967 when the final steam locomotive puffed out of Waterloo on its way to Weymouth. I am delighted that far-sighted souls have preserved the very best examples for posterity allowing ninety tons of steel and iron to thunder across countryside at one hundred miles per hour, steam and smoke billowing in its wake.
Now, back to my Look at Life!

07 January 2013

from the sublime to the ridiculous

The Tin Roof Blowdown *****
James Lee Burke (2007)

Set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Burke shows a different side to his beloved Southern Louisiana where now in New Orleans the majestic avenues of live oaks can only be navigated by boat; sanitation is crippled; and policing is sorely tested in a wave of lawlessness.

The plot sensitively handles rape, murder and deceit all spun into Burke’s customary and intricately woven web. The characters are rich and credible and as ever, the audio book is beautifully voiced by star narrator Will Patton. Larger than life Private Eye and bail bond agent Clete Purcel threatens to overshadow the more contemplative protagonist, Detective Dave Robicheaux but this unique pairing and their good-natured sparring are beacons of hope amid the flooding. Burke’s descriptions of the apocalyptic devastation are both tender and brutal. He manages to find natural beauty even in the face of catastrophe.

Action switches between Robicheaux’s home town of New Iberia to the west and New Orleans to the east. New Iberia was spared the wrath of Katrina and scenes there provide much needed respite from the horror. Burke tackles the tense issue of a white girl gang raped by a group of black youths. The shocking effect on the girl and her family exposes grim relationships and echoes the physical and emotional damage caused by the storm.

In an additional layer of tension, Robicheaux’s adopted daughter is stalked by an eerie character and the case becomes personal, culminating in one of Burke’s most gripping finales.

Bones Are Forever **
Kathy Reichs (2012)

An unappetising plot in which people who get in the way of a proposed new diamond mine and the ongoing rights to its profits mysteriously turn up dead. Apart from the vaguely interesting setting of Yellowknife and points even further north, there is nothing refreshing in this instalment.

Here are the perennial problems. Reichs’ disdain for the conventions of written English is intrusive: improper grammar, incomplete sentences, bullet points, seemingly random punctuation and made-up words. She probably thinks these come off as chic and trendy, and used sparingly they can convey a mood but when the book is drenched in examples it becomes tiresome.

The characters are stereotypes, each with a predictable flaw; the cliff-hangers are juvenile and the pace breathless; the dialogue is quite contrived North American slang; the heroine ludicrously takes over Police investigations. But it’s the made-up language that turns me off most. The following are routinely used as verbs (and I’ve added their objects where it might help): pocket-jammed (hands), palm-slapped (gear stick), palm-smacked (forehead), foot-hooked (chair leg), thumb-hooked (belt), finger-hooked (air quotes), chin-cocked, arm-wrapped, finger-wrapped, chest-crossed, eye-rolled, and numerous others.

I’ve listened to eight audio books in Kathy Reich’s Temperance Brennan series. All have come free from the library. I wouldn’t pay for one. I know what makes me listen to another even though I clearly find the experience mostly frustrating. Firstly it’s the choice of Linda Emond for narrator. Although she must feel queasy at giving voice to certain phrases, her exquisite diction and mastery of accents go some way towards saving the day. Secondly, it’s the compelling nature of the forensic details, the chilling work of the Pathologist. Doubtless Kathy Reichs is a world class Forensic Pathologist and her skills will always be in great demand. As to writing, she should stick to screenplays and an advisory role on Bones.