Sunday 12 January 1997
English Settlement by D J Taylor, Vintage pounds 6.99. Publishers like to be able to blurb their literary titles as thrillers but the snail-crawl plot of this one, extra-modishly tagged a "financial thriller", surely falls foul of the Trade Descriptions Act. Fiction can always thrill by its piercing wit and startling characterisation, but Taylor falls short here too. Aiming to cut a section through London at the moment when Thatcher passed the baton to Major, it is narrated by Scott Marshall, a freebooting American management consultant. As he researches a makeover for a porn-king's Fourth Division football club, Scott passes page after page after page of judgement on the English - their class hang-ups, sexual repressions, hypocrisy and perfidy. The satire is predictable, the voice and vocabulary unbelievable. Words like "otiose", "transpires" and "inchoate" are as anglo as a St Michael label, and if they really tripped this easily off young Scott's tongue, he'd be no rhinestone-cowboy accountant.
A User's Guide to the Millennium: Essays & Reviews by J G Ballard, Flamingo pounds 6.99. This collection shows Ballard's engagement with films, visual art, comic books, sex, sf, war - he has little apparent interest in theatre, music and poetry. J G is an expert at creative referencing: Warhol, "the Disney of the amphetamine age"; Hockney, a 20th-century Alma-Tadema; Naked Lunch "the Lenny Bruce Show rewritten by Dr Goebbels ..." I admire, too, the witty imagery: Hockney's photo collages like looking "through the eyes of a concussed bumblebee" and William Burroughs "a hit-man for the Apocalypse". Like any good reviewer he pinpoints the telling detail - in a biography of Presley noting that Elvis was a natural blond; of Dali that he once delivered a lecture in a diving suit; and, in a review of Mein Kampf, that alongside fussy old Chamberlain and Petain, Hitler still seems a modern figure: "The psycho- path never dates." But the most satisfying, poised and moving piece was written for the 50th VJ Day anniversary, in which Ballard returns to the Shanghai internment camp where much of his boyhood was spent.
The Heart of India by Mark Tully, Penguin pounds 6.99. For 30 years we listened to Mark Tully's voice reporting on the affairs of his native India on BBC Radio. Tully was able to evoke a petty village incident in a remote province or a disaster of Bhopal proportions with equal authority and in remarkably concise terms. In this collection of nine pieces he is concerned with the former of these two aspects of the sub-continent. Originally conceived as reportage, Tully eventually decided to fictionalise his stories of the little and unconsidered peoples of India. They are very good stories, too, often with the sly, ironic humour of folk tales. One concerns the agonies of a farmer's barren wife; another the confusion that education can bring to young women; a third the rivalry of two Untouchable brothers; a fourth a revenge killing. As the title implies, Tully is saying - and Gandhi would have agreed - "here, among the poor, is the vital centre of my country". And you can believe him, partly because you discern that calm, engaged voice coming through the prose.
Rajiv Gandhi and Rama's Kingdom by Ved Mehta, Yale pounds 9.95. By coincidence, Mark Tully is not the only veteran reporter of the Indian scene to have a collection out in paperback. These New Yorker-length news essays, less down-home than Tully, concentrate largely on the soap opera of New Delhi's high politics, the ins and outs of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty which ruled independent India for most of the first 40 years of its existence. A continental empire, ruthlessly centralised on Delhi, India is like the Soviet Union in many respects (Mehta even has an essay entitled "Rajiv's Perestroika") but there are also aspects that resemble the Mogul courts of old, not least in the combination of pride and corruption displayed by the ruling elite, which Mehta actually calls a democratic monarchy. He is an extremely readable commentator, whether telling the story of Mrs Gandhi's falling out with her daughter-in-law, the rise of Rajiv, the assassinations of two Gandhis or the very different destructions of the Bhopal chemical factory and the Ayodhyah mosque. Invisible Crying Tree by Tom Shannon and Christopher Morgan, Black Swan pounds 6.99. These letters between Morgan, a farmer, and Shannon, serving life for murder, resulted from a penfriend scheme that aimed to give lifers a "window on the world". It opens a window for us into prison life - the cardphone economy, the drugs and hooch, the everyday anxieties and priorities which circumscribe and fill a prisoner's days and nights. Read this book and you will never again think that life inside is null. Prison is a place of constant tension, with the need to be always alert to the many dangers and opportunities which hourly present themselves to the body or the mind. Shannon's letters, convincingly authentic, are therefore priceless documents of life under sentence of life, as eloquent in their own unassuming, misspelt, illiterate way as Oscar Wilde himself.
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