Terry Hayes (2013) I Am Pilgrim.

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I am not a pilgrim. I am pillock. I read 84 pages, or section one, of  700 pages. I didn’t stick with it to find out how former FBI agent Jude Garret published in-house, as a  front for the FBI, a book that he didn’t expect anyone to read about forensics; how this related to the pathology of crime and how what goes around comes around. A feeling I know well. But guess what? On page one, someone has read that book by Jude Garret, and it’s a woman. Jude knows enough about crime scenes that he can shock his friend NYPD homicide detective Lieutenant Ben Bradley and separate the dross from the drossets.  Then he goes backwards in time to being a poor-little rich kid, with no real friends and an interest in recreational drug use. But he turns out to be a natural. The Tiger Woods of FBI work. He quickly works out his mentor that runs the London desk is double crossing the Yankie Doodle. He’s selling secrets to the Russians. Young Tiger soon takes care of business. But when the FBI bring him home it’s not all tickertape and roses. They isolate him and grill him big time. But he doesn’t go pissing in the woods. He hangs in there. That gets him the highest award in the service, a phone call from the President. Hey Tiger, you did good.

Quick change, then Tigers in charge of the London office. But it’s not all shopping at Harrods and drinking lukewarm tea. Somebody stinks and Tiger decided to find out who. He needs to bend the rules a bit. Kidnap a bank executive’s daughter and have her scream ‘Please daddy’, on the phone. That gets him the information he needs to root out the rat and save the service. He gives the go-ahead for a hit team to kill Christos Nikolade in Santorini, but it’s nothing personal, but that’s not the way some would see it. There’s a failed covert op in Bodrun. Even a Buddhist monk travelling down the river with him looking into  his soul and saying ‘easy Tiger’. Jude Garret need not quit being Jude Garret, because that’s not his real name.

Nobody is really sure who he is or whom he’s working for and that’s the most dangerous way to be. Tiger knows that more than most. So when his rich parents conveniently die and leave him with a bigger pension pot than Tony Blair he know someone’s out to get him. He’s got an escape hatch in his house and when he slides down the pole and escapes like Batman, he expects the bullet or the noose, but it’s the NYPD let loose and a meeting with his old friend and new friend Ben Bradlely.  But it’s not just Tiger needs to get back onside and into the game, the Twin Towers meant the US had been damaged and shamed. It hadn’t happened, not on his watch, but he felt responsible anyway, especially with those traitorous French not showing respect and laughing at the television loop of planes crashing into the building. Tiger admits that he feels like shooting them. But he doesn’t of course. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but if he doesn’t like it, he’ll shove it.   Tiger will make those that…

Terry Hayes is a former screenwriter. I read that in the blurb. The pages whir and something happens in every chapter. It’s a book I left lying for a few weeks and picked up. And another few chapters whizz by. I guess I’ll wait for the blockbuster film – and I’ll not watch that either. Nothing personal. We just like what we like.

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Dunblane: Our Story, BBC 2, 9pm.

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I was up at my sister Phyllis’s house 13th March 1996. That’s twenty years ago. I was a young thirty-three with a full head of hair and a ready laugh, now I’m a baldy, miserable old cunt, so nothings really changed, but I remember that day because it was Dunblane. News coverage was running on loop, but it was the same picture of parents rushing towards the school, knowing like us that something terrible had happened. I’m not an emotional guy. I can watch the Twin Towers falling and hardly blink. But here was something that choked me up. The thought of those five-year old kids fired up at life and the games to come in a gym hall, babies, in three minutes, being picked off and shot by a gunman, crawls inside you and makes you want to weep. Worse, those parents and the abyss they faced. Knowing and not knowing. When even the winners in life’s lottery were the losers.

We can put a face to the killer Thomas Hamilton, but it was never about him and his distorted view of the world. It was what he had done. ‘Evil has visited us,’ said Ron Taylor, the headmaster of Dunblane. And here he is on film twenty years later. His view unchanged. He wrote it all down, a box he doesn’t want to open. The casualties were known then as now. Sixteen pupils in a primary one class and their teacher, Gwen Mayor.

Debbie Mayor, Gwen’s daughter, was in London at the time. Her mother was forty-three remembered for her death, rather that her life. Here Gwen tells the camera how she knew and didn’t know. How the pieces began to fit together, that yes, it was her mum, and she was dead. Gwen was another causality. The media focus was not on her mum, who had a life, but the children whose life’s were just beginning.

Amy Hutchison was a survivor. She was shot by Thomas Hamilton, but survived as did a little boy also shot who played dead. His parents appeared on this programme. The parents of a little girl murdered also contributed, as did the sister she never knew, filmed doing a poetry rap in Edinburgh. Life goes on, but there’s a gap where it should have been.

What are the lessons we have learned? That is a more difficult question. I can’t answer. But I can make some observations. Since then our society has become meaner, more ready to condemn, less willing to offer a helping hand. Evil can’t be put in a box. Nor can it be taken out of us. It can be nurtured and given the right conditions –of fear and backbiting—it  will prevail.  It takes a village to raise a child. Dunblane suffered more than most. But our fuck-you, I’m-doing- all- right society is a hothouse for extremism in which people are expendable and seen as things. A society Thomas Hamilton would feel more at home in. Perhaps I shouldn’t be saying that, just letting be will be.

Anne Rice (2007) Called Out of Darkness. A Spiritual Confession.

Anne Rice, as most people know, is a novelist. Her bestselling work includes her first novel, Interview with the Vampire. This is the only novel of hers which I’ve read. It made her who she is. Gave her financial freedom. The blurb on the cover tells the reader that she has written twenty-eight novels. I’ve a dim memory of trying to read another one of these, but quickly put it down. I could run my finger down the list, but honestly I wouldn’t be able to tell you which one it was. And this is a book about honesty. That’s the one trait I look for in a writer. This is an honest book, with many of the milestone cognizable to me. Well, that’s if you exclude the smiling face of Anne Rice on the inside of the back cover. It’s tagged ‘Anne Rice as a young girl’. Ahem. Ahem. A gentleman never says what age a lady looks.

I paid ten pence for this book. I’ll let you decide whether it was worth the money. I’ve shortened it considerably and put it into poetic form for ease of digestion. If you read beyond this you owe me five pence.

Fool’s crown in my hand

Haunts this barren land

Yet here we stand

Wait at the bus stop of fate

Why is it always running late?

On this our first date

Then you shut the gate

Mankind can always wait

 

Nervous and narrow are the streets

Nervous and narrow are my feet

My way of seeing –into infinity

Old-school can sometime be cruel

In the milieu which we grew

We don’t seem to meet

I seek God in geography.

 

Pray, what today?

Crows the beggars of my youth

As a shroud

In the heart there’s a start

Grace breaks free

God was

God is – liberty.

 

Capricious spirit lies and wails

Torn away Veronica’s veil

A secret voice whispers

-pray

My daughter, my son, my one

Voice of conscience

Voice of doom

Belong in separate rooms

Do you believe?

I sigh

There’s no reason why

But if the music of violin sings

I’m full of broken strings

If Giotto and Rembrandt

Speak of God

I give a little nod

In a mausoleum of clay figurines

God’s words seem obscene

If there’s universal love

Let’s be clear

Every day is new year

 

Get up- go- before it’s too late

Wait and see if He’ll come to me

Miracle of love complete

Over there – take a seat

For the strong and free

That’s the truth of youth

 

Morton 25/1. What price Ronnie?

The front page of the Sunday Mail, ‘Bring on the Celtic’. This is from Lee Wallace, the Rangers defender after scoring the fourth goal in the defeat of Dundee. Let me remind you this is Dundee’s first team. Five first team regulars were rested in the midweek draw with Celtic at Parkhead. We all know how that usually goes. The away team sits in. Yes, they did that here. As did Hearts who won. Aberdeen who won. Inverness who should have won. Partick Thistle who should have got a draw. And any number of European opposition with budgets from a tenth to a hundredth that of Celtic whose players match them stride for stride and don’t look any worse off than their better-paid counterparts. Who, for example, without prior knowledge would have been able to pick out which was the midfielder whom just over a season ago was playing for Clydebank juniors and was now playing for Hamilton, and which was the Celtic and Scotland captain? Certainly, not me. The other old canard that doesn’t stand up was the opposition keeper kept them in it and was man of the match. Seriously? When was the last time that happened? The East Kilbride keeper had a decent enough game. A 2-0 defeat to the Scottish Premier League champions, and a team with aspirations of Europe, well, let me put that into context. Celtic’s conqueror’s Molde had eight knocked past them at the Bernabeau.  Dundee’s reserve team in midweek got a draw and should have won. The Dundee defender missing an open goal from three yards in the last few minutes of the game (similar to the miss by an Inverness defender –there’s a pattern here). Morton are a good price at 25/1. Celtic will play Rangers a minimum of four times next season. I wouldn’t put my house (but maybe my van) on us winning those ties as I would have last year, or any of the previous years. Celtic are going backwards. Rangers follow, follow. Fuck off for now, but I hope I don’t have to eat my words. Ronnie, c’mon, what’s the score with Celtic? A double? Fuck off too. Win the league. Fuck off. Don’t win the league. Fuck off. Get us into the Champions League. Stay and all is forgiven and forgotten. But lose to Rangers. Do not pass Go. Do not…

John Lanchester (2007) Family Romance: A Memoir.

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This is a triptych of father, mother, son and ghosts of life. And his parents die in that order. Father, Bill, first, unexpectedly of a heart attack not long after retiring from banking. Then mother, Julie, unravelled by strokes until there was nothing left. This is where the story begins and ends, because it allows John, their only son to bind himself closer, and find out more about their earlier life. His life too comes under scrutiny, but it is also a meditation on truth and lies, and how we construct the characters we become and how they inhabit our own lives.

Lanchester suggests that ‘very few things in life are a revelation’, but his mother’s secret life, the longest and most compelling part of the book, must have come as a shock. He comes to the conclusion that if his mother ‘had not lied, I would never have been born’. In other words if it hadn’t happened, he couldn’t have made it up.

‘Julie Lanchester, who died on 6th August 1998, aged 77 years’ had shaved ten years off her age. Her father Bill when he got engaged and married her (she was already pregnant with son John) believed most of his life until his death at 57 that his wife Julie was ten years younger than she was. That when he married her, she was thirty-years old and not forty. Bill, as an only child, with knowledge of all that entailed, wanted to go on to have lots more little Lanchesters; something she also wanted. John, their only child, later found out his mother had suffered four miscarriages. But suffering was something Julie was practiced in.

Bill had no reason to disbelieve that his wife’s name Julie was also a lie. She was born Julia Gunnigan was born on 5th December 1920 in Lurgan, Ireland. Her father Pat was a subsistence farmer and her mother Molly (Mary) was the wife of a subsistence farmer with the family wed to the land. This was most graphically shown at the age of sixteen when Julia, a postulant nun, returned home from Sister of The Good Shepherd (made infamous by Peter Mullan, The Magdalene Sisters) to convalesce and decided not to go back or take her final vows. Her father and mother punished her by ignoring her and sending her to Coventry, but until an Uncle found her an escape route, she remained in the religious garb of the novitiate. Part of the reason for this was economical. She had by that time five other younger sisters. Four of whom also became nuns. And there was literally no money, but they could scrape enough to eat. But there seemed also to be something of the branding of the one that disgraced the family, the equivalent of Hester Pyrnne in The Scarlett Letter.  And this experience John believed helped mark his mother for life. But perhaps more surprising is after a man she was engaged to in a sanatorium died of tuberculosis, which she also contracted whilst working there as a nurse, at the age of twenty-six, she joined another order of nuns, the Presentation Sisters in nearby Lurgan. She took the name Sister Eucharia and after taking holy orders was able to get herself sent to Madras in India, which she ran as head teacher of a Catholic school attended by the up-and-coming classes in that region.

John knew nothing of this part of his mother’s life, and was surprised to discover he had Catholic relations. But he comes to the conclusion: ‘some of the most important things that can happen to people can happen before they are born.’ This sounds decidedly to me like the importance of money and wealth and good connections – something Lanchester went to write extensively about for example How to Speak Money, and his recent television drama series on BBC 1 based on his book Capital. His father was a living example, a man who found his work boring and repetitive, but like many other ‘found it impossible to give up money’ and the need for financial security, ‘where money is concerned, [there’s] no such thing as enough’, something he’d learned from his own father.  The boarding school John was sent to as a ten-year old, before taking a First at Oxford in English, was decidedly Anglo-Protestant. But Julia/Julie his mother had an almost preternatural way of hiding things she didn’t want to talk about or confront. ‘Julie wanted to be her own crypt’. And his father Bill, although an international banker, travelling the world, also didn’t like confrontation. In many ways they were made for each other.

Julia Immaculata Gunnigan became Bridget Teresa Julia Gunnigan, or on her passport B.T.J Gunnigan before her marriage by applying for her younger sister Dilly’s birth certificate and getting an Irish passport issued in her new name. This is very John Le Carre, where I think I first read about this trick. But then after marriage B.T.J Gunnigan become B.T.J. Lanchester. Julia/Julie felt she had to cut all ties with her family in case this lie became revealed. But B.T.J. Lanchester’s ability to compartmentalise her life had other costs. As Count Pierre Bezukhov comes to conclude in War and Peace, in order to be happy we must have the ability to imagine happiness, John’s mother had the ability to imagine she was not there and her son noted this absence whilst she was present. ‘Ways in which as a child my mother wasn’t fully present’.

The psychic cost was something he became familiar with. After his mother and father’s death he suffered from panic attacks. But that’s too bland a description. ‘I couldn’t breathe, let alone see straight or think straight. I felt as if my mind broke. I wasn’t just going to die, I had disintegrated.’

The remaining death in the family was his mother Julie/Julia’s career as a writer. She had published a short story ‘Minding Mother Margaret’, about a young nun taking care of an older nun that is nearing death, which was broadcast by BBC radio, and the story is reproduced in her son’s book. But Julie/Julia had published it under the pseudonym Shivaun Cunnigham. But after marriage Julie covered her tracks so effectively that she never alluded to that time and never wrote again. Her son mourns that great loss. In the words of Virginia Woolf, she had the time and the space, a room of her own, but as keeper of a secret identity left no wiggle room. John Lanchaster, of course, was their reason for being and he has successfully picked up that baton. ‘Language is an intimate betrayal.’