What I’ve Been Reading

Remember how I resolved to spend more time reading books and blogging about them in 2020? Hmm, that’s worked out well, hasn’t it? Other people may have spent lockdown reading War and Peace or the collected works of Anthony Powell or teaching themselves Italian so they could fully appreciate the original manuscript of Machiavelli’s The Prince, but I’ve been getting up each morning to go to Day Job, then coming home and collapsing. I work as a hospital administrator in a large, busy public hospital — a job that is stressful and underappreciated at the best of times, and these are not the best of times. I should note that I work with some lovely people dedicated to the well-being of their patients and colleagues, and that Australia has so far, through a combination of luck and good governance, avoided the terrible rates of infection, sickness and death that other countries have experienced during the pandemic. I also know how lucky I am to have a job, when so many others are now unemployed. But I’m still tired and stressed and I don’t feel much like reading long, complex books. Also, my library has closed down, so I’ve mostly been re-reading old favourites from my bookshelves. However, I have read a few new-to-me books that I liked.

'The Secret Place' by Tana FrenchI read The Secret Place by Tana French way back in February, in the Before Times, and I enjoyed it very much. It’s a suspenseful murder mystery, cleverly plotted with some surprising twists, but along the way, it thoughtfully explores some interesting themes through vivid, authentic characters. The narration alternates between four Dublin schoolgirls and a young, ambitious detective who is investigating a murder in the grounds of their posh boarding school. The intense friendships between the girls felt true to me, although their fate is rather depressing. There is also a supernatural element that didn’t work so well for me. I don’t want to get into spoilery details, but the girls experience something occult and then there’s an outbreak of ghost-sightings in the wider school community. Mass hysteria in a school is believable, but what actually happens in the book isn’t. It’s possible that the author is critiquing Irish superstition and I’m missing some important context. Anyway, this was a riveting read and if my library ever re-opens, I’d like to borrow more of Tana French’s Murder Squad books.

'The Crown' by Robert LaceyI also liked The Crown: Political Scandal, Personal Struggle And The Years That Define Elizabeth II, 1956-1977 by Robert Lacey, which provides a good summary of the actual historical events portrayed in the TV series, The Crown. The author of this book was the historical consultant for the series and he sets out which parts of the script actually happened (or occurred in a less dramatic manner than portrayed on screen). I gave up on the TV series at the end of the first season because the historical inaccuracies were driving me up the wall and I found Prince Philip and Matt Smith deeply irritating, but as Robert Lacey points out, “drama is not the same as documentary”. I would have liked more photos of real events, but there’s a good index and bibliography and I learned some interesting things. For example, did you know that Lord Mountbatten, Prince Philip’s uncle, unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the democratically elected Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1968 and replace him with an unelected ‘Government of National Unity’, headed by Mountbatten himself?

'The Queen' by A.N. WilsonAs a companion read, I picked up The Queen, an eccentric extended essay by A. N. Wilson, a novelist and popular historian who doesn’t let facts get in the way of his opinions (apparently he wrote a scientifically-illiterate biography of Charles Darwin that argued against the theory of evolution). In this book, Wilson asserts that although Queen Elizabeth II is badly educated and dull, her steadiness and respect for tradition have been good for Britain, so hereditary monarchy is a logical and beneficial system of government. He thinks Prince Philip is basically a good egg and that his notorious gaffes are simply due to his tragic childhood; that Princess Anne would make a much better regent than Prince Charles, but at least poor Charles is earnest and well-meaning; and that Prince Andrew and the other young royals are beneath contempt (and this was published in 2016, before the depths of Andrew’s depravity were public knowledge). I can’t say I learned a lot about the British royals, but this was a quick, entertaining read.

'Ghost Wall' by Sarah MossHowever, the best book I’ve read recently was Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. This is an intense, deeply affecting novella in which a history professor, his three students and Bill, a local expert in living off the land, spend a week emulating the lives of Iron Age hunter-gatherers in the north of England. Seventeen-year-old Silvie is dragged along on the field trip by her father Bill, along with Silvie’s long-suffering mother. Bill is a bigot and a bully, tyrannising his wife and daughter, controlling every aspect of their lives, keeping them in line with vicious verbal and physical abuse. He’s not a cartoon villain, though — we see glimpses of his pride in Silvie, it’s clear he’s hard-working and intelligent, and his frustration with his working-class life becomes more understandable when we see how patronising the professor and his students are. But there are no excuses for how Bill and the other men start to behave during the field trip and the tension ratchets up to nearly unbearable levels. I should warn you, this book is really grim in parts, but there’s a hopeful ending. I saw this as a powerful book about domestic violence, but I’ve since read reviews that discuss it in the context of Brexit and the rise of the far right in Britain, and that makes sense, too. It’s about how men use their own versions of British history, which may or may not be based on fact, to justify their oppression of less powerful people. It’s also really beautifully written, despite the dark, confronting themes.

I also read False Value, the latest Rivers of London novel by Ben Aaronovitch, and I’m sorry to say that I found it disappointing and I won’t be continuing to read that series. I’ll do a separate blog post about that if anyone’s interested.

What I Read During My Holidays

Yes, my holidays ended a fortnight ago and I’m only now getting around to blogging about the books I read.

'Lady in Waiting' by Anne GlenconnerLady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown by Anne Glenconner was exactly what the title suggests — a memoir of Princess Margaret’s lady-in-waiting, who was married to Colin Tennant, one of those badly-behaved rich aristocrats who enjoyed hanging out with celebrities. Tennant had numerous affairs, enjoyed bullying his family, delighted in eccentric behaviour such as pulling off his own underwear and eating it, and spent most of his time throwing enormous ‘uncontrollable’ tantrums in public (yet, oddly enough, he was able to restrain himself in the presence of people more powerful than he was, such as the Queen). Lady Anne coped with his abuse by travelling the world with Princess Margaret and finding a boyfriend of her own. Meanwhile their eldest children were left in the care of various sadistic and incompetent nannies, then sent off to boarding school. Unsurprisingly, their eldest son developed mental health problems. He was a heroin addict by the age of 16, was disinherited by his father, then died of hepatitis. Their second son, unexpectedly finding himself the heir to the family title, dutifully got married and produced a son, then came out as gay, left his wife and died of AIDS. Meanwhile, their third son had been nearly killed in an accident caused by his reckless behaviour and spent years in rehabilitation re-learning how to walk and talk. (There were also twin girls, who were ignored because they were female.) I spent the book alternately despising Anne for being a doormat and feeling desperately sorry for her. It’s a fascinating, appalling look at some very privileged, very repressed British people. Mitford fans will adore this.

'The Weekend' by Charlotte WoodI’d wanted to read The Weekend by Charlotte Wood ever since I heard her speak about the process of writing it a few years ago. This is an engrossing novel about three older women who gather to clear out their dead friend’s holiday house at Christmas. There are a lot of sharp, funny observations about friendship, men, families and ageing, although there’s not much compassion in the author’s gaze. I expected to find the characters unlikeable, which they were, but they were always interesting enough to keep my attention. I can’t say the women and their experiences are ‘typical’ — one is a celebrity chef, one a famous actress and the other a ‘public intellectual’ whose books are international bestsellers. The characters all live in modern-day Sydney and yet everyone in the novel is white and middle-class (with the exception of a young priest who briefly appears at the end and is “Filipino, Wendy thought”). I also never quite understood why the characters remained friends when they seemed to dislike each other so much. However, my main issue with this book was the final chapter, which veers so wildly into melodrama and cliché that it seemed to have been tacked on from an entirely different novel. Book clubs will love this, because there’s so much to discuss.

'The Wych Elm' by Tana FrenchMy favourite holiday read was definitely The Wych Elm by Tana French, a crime thriller with a literary bent that reminded me of the novels Ruth Rendell used to write under her ‘Barbara Vine’ pseudonym. The twists of the murder mystery plot kept me turning the pages eagerly, but this was also an intelligent exploration of privilege, identity and memory. Golden boy Toby is handsome, clever and rich, with a loving, stable family and a devoted, beautiful girlfriend. He begins by saying “I always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person”, but his life changes in an instant when he’s the victim of a violent home invasion. Physically and psychologically damaged, he goes to stay with his dying uncle in the family mansion. And then a body is discovered inside an elm tree in the garden and Toby gradually learns just how privileged his previous life had been… Some fans of this author have complained that this was too slow and a disappointment compared to her earlier crime series set in Dublin. I haven’t read her previous books, but I thought Toby’s rambling, repetitious narration was characteristic of someone recovering from a traumatic brain injury and I tore through the nearly 500 pages in two days. It was a grim read at times, but a satisfying one and I’m keen to read more of this author’s work now. (I was also filled with horrified admiration for someone who could dream up the notion of a dead body in a tree until I discovered that this actually happened and the real-life mystery of Bella in the Wych Elm remains unsolved.)

Finally, two books that ended up being not what I expected or what I really wanted to read, but that’s not the fault of these authors, who have both written thoughtful, well-researched historical novels.

'The Fountains of Silence' by Ruta SepetysThe Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys sounded as though it would be exactly my cup of tea — a novel set in Fascist Spain in the 1950s. The story involves the ‘stolen children’, the tens of thousands of babies stolen from Republican families and other ‘enemies of Spain’, who were sent to orphanages and then adopted by the Spanish political elite and rich foreigners. Ana, from a poor and traumatised Republican family, is working at a hotel in 1957 when she meets Daniel, aspiring photojournalist and son of a Texan oil tycoon. A forbidden romance blossoms, but Daniel doesn’t understand just how repressive, corrupt and dangerous Franco’s regime is. The author’s research is thorough and wide-ranging, the setting is fascinating and I learned a lot about post-war Spain. However, I found the story too soap-opera-ish for my tastes, involving a lot of amazing coincidences and clunky dialogue. I think I would have preferred to read non-fiction about this subject, but I’m sure a lot of readers will find this novel engrossing.

'Exposure' by Helen DunmoreExposure by Helen Dunmore was also very well-researched. Set in England in 1960, the book jacket suggests it’s a fast-paced thriller about Cold War spies. It’s actually an extremely slow-moving account of a British civil servant accused of espionage and the effect of this scandal on his German-born wife and their three young children. There is a lot of fascinating detail about the grimness of English life and while none of the characters are particularly warm or likeable, they are carefully portrayed. It was just a bit of a slog to get through, because nothing very exciting happened until the final chapter. In fact, it ends just where I thought it should have started. I would probably have enjoyed this more if I’d begun the book with more realistic expectations. Note to publishers: write accurate blurbs on your book jackets!

My Favourite Books of 2019

This year, I was in a reading slump and a writing slump (and a general dealing-with-life slump), so I finished reading only 31 new books. I did a lot of comfort reading of old favourites and I spent many hours online reading newspapers and journal articles and blog posts, trying to make some sense of the chaotic world we live in. I also got sucked into the toxic garbage fire that is Twitter. There are some good things about Twitter, but I’m not finding it very educational, entertaining or conducive to good mental health at the moment, especially since the recent ‘improvements’ that cause strangers’ tweets to keep appearing randomly in my Twitter feed. I might delete my Twitter account or I might work out a more constructive way of using it in 2020. But here are my favourite books from this year:

Adult Fiction

'Normal People' by Sally RooneyThis year, I failed to finish reading a number of novels that had received a great deal of hype. It is possible there’s something wrong with my literary tastes, but I feel life is just too short to waste a lot of time ploughing through pretentious waffle about uninteresting characters and situations. I did enjoy the latest Rivers of London novel from Ben Aaronovitch, Lies Sleeping, but I was underwhelmed by his new novella, The October Man. One book that did live up to the hype was Sally Rooney’s Normal People, although I do understand the criticisms of it and I think I am now done with novels about writers. Writers do not tend to live fascinating lives. Please, novelists, from now on, write about characters who do something else for a living.

Non-Fiction

I read a lot of 1960s non-fiction as research for the book I am currently trying (and failing) to write, but I can’t count any of them as 2019 favourites because they were re-reads. I did enjoy A Good School: Life at a Girls’ Grammar School in the 1950s by Mary Evans, which included some amusing commentary on the ridiculousness of school regulations and the ingenuity of school girls in getting around these rules. I am not sure I can truly call Growing Up Queer in Australia, edited by Benjamin Law, a favourite book, but I found it to be far more interesting and wide-ranging than I expected. I have issues with the term ‘queer’ and I was bothered by the apparent misogyny and ignorance of a few of the contributors, but I finished the book feeling that I had a much greater understanding of and empathy with younger Australians who identify themselves as living under the LGBTQ+ umbrella. And surely that’s why we read non-fiction – to walk in someone else’s shoes for a while.

Graphic Novels

'Skim' by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian TamakiI really liked Skim, a graphic novel set in Canada in 1993, written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki. I presume it’s at least a bit autobiographical, because it feels so authentic. Teenage Kim is having a fairly bad year. She breaks her arm after tripping over her own home-made Wiccan altar; she falls disastrously in love with a female teacher with boundary issues; she sneers at her racist Mean Girl classmates; she observes her parents’ unhappy relationship with dismay; she grows apart from her best friend and makes a new unexpected friend. Despite the depressing themes, it’s often very funny and the art works very well with the story.

Children’s Books

'El Deafo' by Cece BellI read some great books aimed at middle graders. El Deafo by Cece Bell was an entertaining, endearing graphic memoir about a girl with acquired hearing loss growing up in 1970s America. Cece has problems that most children will relate to (finding and keeping friends, dealing with mean teachers and bullying classmates, having a crush on a boy in her neighbourhood) but she’s also the only child in her school who uses a Phonic Ear — which turns out to give her super powers. The author includes a helpful note at the end, explaining the different forms of communication used by people who have hearing impairments or are Deaf and explaining that she now views her deafness not as a disability but “an occasional nuisance, and oddly enough, as a gift: I can turn off the sound of the world any time I want.”

I also enjoyed The Terrible Two Get Worse by Mac Barnett, Jory John and Kevin Cornell, sequel to The Terrible Two. This time, the pranksters plot to oust their terrible school principal, but find his replacement is even worse. There are plenty of jokes, an inventive plot and fabulous illustrations, alongside some surprisingly sophisticated references (to Occam’s razor and Chekhov’s gun, among others).

'Catch a Falling Star' by Meg McKinlayCatch a Falling Star by Meg McKinlay was a warm-hearted, gentle exploration of grief, set in rural Western Australia in 1979. Twelve-year-old Frankie is busy looking after her eccentric little brother Newt while her widowed mother works overtime as a nurse. Frankie’s father died in a plane crash several years before, just as Skylab was launched into the atmosphere. Now Skylab is about to plummet back to Earth and Newt is acting very strangely — and Frankie is the only one able to figure out what’s going on. The child characters are realistic and endearing and the historical research is thoughtfully incorporated into the story. And yes, books set in 1979 are now regarded as historical fiction. I feel so old.

'Wed Wabbit' by Lissa EvansFinally, I absolutely loved Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans. Ten-year-old Fidge finds herself stuck in a surreal world that bears a twisted resemblance to her little sister’s favourite book, ‘The Land of the Wimbley Woos’. With the dubious assistance of a plastic carrot on wheels that dispenses psychological advice, a giant purple elephant with a passion for community theatre, and her awful cousin Graham, Fidge must solve a series of clues to rescue the Wimbley Woos from an evil dictator and return to the real world. There’s plenty of fast-paced adventure, hilarious jokes and a great deal of heart, with an emotionally satisfying conclusion. As with Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz books, some of the satire may be more amusing to adults than to child readers; on the other hand, there’s a recurring joke involving the word ‘fart’ that made me laugh like a drain every time, so I’m probably not the best person to discuss levels of sophistication in text-based humour. My only issue was that the map in the front of the book didn’t seem to bear much resemblance to Fidge’s travels in Wimbley Land so was rather confusing, although that could be part of the joke.

I am hoping next year will be a more successful year for me in terms of reading and writing books. Here is the pile of books I brought home from the library for holiday reading:

Holiday Reading 2019

I’ve also noted that Girls Gone By are publishing another of Antonia Forest’s Marlow books early next year, although they’ve decided to skip Book Seven, The Ready-Made Family and go straight to Book Eight, The Cricket Term. WHAT IS THIS NONSENSE, GIRLS GONE BY? I’M TRYING TO READ THEM IN THE CORRECT SEQUENCE. Although of course, I’ve ordered The Cricket Term.

Thank you to everyone who visited Memoranda this year. Happy Christmas to everyone celebrating it and happy end-of-December to everyone else!

‘The Thuggery Affair’, Part Seven

Chapter Thirteen: The Flyaway

Patrick and Jukie race off in the stolen car, heading for Ireland where the Boss Man has a hideout. Patrick feels a “mounting exhilaration at the sheer speed” and is amused by Jukie’s attempts to blackmail Patrick into helping him. Jukie wants Patrick to tell the police that Kinky’s death was an accident. Supposedly Patrick will go along with this to stop his father’s reputation being damaged by his son’s involvement in drugs and knifings.

Poor Jukie. He hasn’t realised Mr Merrick is a “strictly amateur” politician who has no interest in being Prime Minister:

“You mean he doesn’t need it. He’s got it all already.”

Patrick is gracious enough to admit that’s true and Jukie says Patrick reminds him of Jukie’s grandparents, who “dig the integrity rave”. Jukie then reveals his sad story – the illegitimate child of a teenage mother, his father abandoning them, then his mother getting killed when he was a baby, brought up by his grandparents who physically abused him and didn’t give him much money. Patrick claims to understand about the lack of money:

“Because there are plenty of people at school with a sight more pocket money than my pa would dream of handing me. It can be very crushing sometimes.”

Jukie, understandably, is furious:

“You got cars ’n hosses ’n butlers ’n a rafty great house ’n loot stacked in the vaults […] ’n I’m starting fr’m scratch.”

But Patrick is “convinced he really did know how it could be”. Honestly, are we meant to feel sorry for Patrick only having “a middle-aged Rolls” for transport?

They pull up at a garage for petrol, where Patrick goes to the toilet, after promising not to escape. (Why does Jukie care whether he escapes or not? He could just drive off.) Patrick doesn’t alert the garage attendant or phone the police, but he does write a message on the dusty glass window. Make up your mind, Patrick! Are you helping Jukie or not?! Meanwhile Jukie has used his “best Culver” voice to convince the attendant they’re just a couple of posh boys who’ve borrowed their uncle’s car.

So the boys drive off and we hear more of the Jukie Clark autobiography. He stole his grandparents’ money to buy clothes, his grandfather beat him up and burnt the clothes, so Jukie embarked on a life of petty crime. He was caught by the police due to his grandfather’s tipoff, then his grandfather refused to take him back and Jukie was sent off to an Approved School. It was a “highly civilized cage” and Jukie was a model pupil for a month, except the Top Brass required not just shallow obedience to rules but true repentance. And Jukie did not want to humble himself before God and repent, so he escaped and thereby damned himself. The sermon is not quite that explicit, but it’s there.

While this is going on, Patrick is reaching into Jukie’s pocket for cigarettes and lighting them and sticking them between Jukie’s lips and staring into Jukie’s eyes. I take back what I said earlier about there being no Patrick/Jukie sexual tension.

Anyway, by an AMAZING COINCIDENCE, after Jukie fled the school, he ended up outside the Culver place just as Maudie had put an ad in the paper for a pigeon helper, and as he was so eager and cheap, Maudie organised for more troubled boys to work for her (“top-class social do-good ’n likewise practically free labour”). Then Espresso’s Da arranged for Jukie to meet the Boss Man and the drug smuggling started.

At this point, Marlene Dietrich comes on the radio singing Where Have All The Flowers Gone? and Jukie is panic-stricken when he realises Kinky is actually dead. There’s a lot of “mutual, exasperated incomprehension” between the two boys as Patrick gives a confusing explanation of the Catholic rituals of death and whether the absence of a priest and holy oil means Kinky is destined for eternal hellfire. Patrick is feeling a bit guilty about being responsible for the knife being at the scene, which made me sympathise with Jukie’s exasperation, because honestly, how could Kinky’s death possibly be Patrick’s moral responsibility? There’s also a bit of theological discussion about how to live their lives if they’re all going to get blown up by the H bomb any moment now.

Chapter Fourteen: The Homing Instinct

Jukie is having second thoughts about going to Ireland, because maybe the Boss Man will either lose him in a bog or hand him over to the police. There’s no way Jukie wants to spend twelve years in prison, but he can’t go to his grandparents. Patrick comes up with the idea of Jukie leaving on the drug-smuggling boat. It means they have to send a signal by six o’clock, then Jukie will hide out in the Merrick’s priest room. Patrick will have to pretend Jukie dropped him off and then drove on to Liverpool, but although Patrick is willing to help a murderer evade the law, he refuses to tell an outright lie to the police. Jukie is justifiably baffled.

“But for why? Like man, it’s not logical.”

Jukie has some baffling notions of his own. Although he’s an atheist, he thinks the afterlife could consist of whatever an individual believed in life. He pulls up at a phone booth and tells Patrick to ring a priest and find out exactly how to save Kinky’s Catholic soul. Patrick usually laughs at “do-it-yourself theology” like this (Patrick, stop being so smug, ALL theology is made up by humans), but he agrees to try. But then Jukie, remembering Patrick left a message at the garage and is not entirely on Jukie’s side, stops him.

“…I never trust no one. Mind Herbert, I don’t expect no one to be so simple as to trust me neither.”

I think they both need some sleep. Which they are forced to have, because Jukie is getting a migraine and can’t drive. Then they oversleep, argue about whether it’s Patrick’s fault, speed off into the sunrise and reach a roadblock at Culverstone Bridge, with Tom Catchpole blocking their way. Jukie puts his foot down, Patrick tries to reason with him, realises Jukie won’t stop and grabs the wheel. There is a very dramatic car crash. Jukie dies in flames. Patrick is thrown clear of the car and is unharmed. Oh, what a surprise.

Poor Mr Merrick. As if it wasn’t bad enough for him when Patrick fell off that cliff and nearly died. Patrick blatantly takes advantage of the situation to tell his father that Regina is back, then he gives the Inspector a mostly true account of events. He has no moral problem with lying that Jukie was going to turn himself in and swerved the car to avoid Tom. This is supposedly for the sake of Jukie’s grandparents. Then Patrick and Peter catch up with events. Espresso has spilled the beans (the coffee beans, get it?) and it turns out the Boss Man was actually Espresso’s Da and that Maudie was in on the whole thing, but Jukie didn’t know about any of this. Poor Jukie, betrayed even by his Thugs. Also, the remaining Thugs got into a vicious fight before they’d even left Culverstone, although I’m not sure if they’re dead or just badly wounded. Also, Mrs Marlow called the priest when she saw Kinky’s rosary beads so Kinky’s soul is saved. Mrs Marlow was “rather moved” by the ritual. She’s not going to convert to Catholicism, is she?

Oh, and Patrick remembers the drugs he’d hidden from the Thugs and shows Peter:

“Even the police weren’t likely to want it now.”

WHAT?! It’s evidence! So, the boys keep the drugs? After all the trouble they went to bring down the evil drug dealers? What are they going to do with it, throw a coke-fuelled party?

I suppose if they sell it to their school mates, they can buy Ann a new bike.

THE END.

Well, that was a lot better than I expected. I mean, the plot was absolutely ludicrous, but the story rocketed along and there were some genuinely interesting bits, especially the relationship between Patrick and Jukie at the end. I enjoyed Lawrie and Peter’s chapters and if this had been the first Marlow book I’d read, I’d probably conclude that Patrick was a fascinating and sympathetic character. I didn’t even miss Nicola – I can see that it wouldn’t have worked to have a brave, sensible character like her in this story. Mind you, I’d have quite happily read a book about Nicola and Miranda wandering around London having deep and meaningful conversations…

I’d hoped the next book would be a school book, but it’s The Ready Made Family.

You might also be interested in reading:

The Thuggery Affair, Part One
The Thuggery Affair, Part Two
The Thuggery Affair, Part Three
The Thuggery Affair, Part Four
The Thuggery Affair, Part Five
The Thuggery Affair, Part Six

‘The Thuggery Affair’, Part Six

Chapter Eleven: The Dovecote at Monk’s Culvery

Patrick is on his way to Monk’s Culvery, via the secret priest tunnel. Presumably the Culver family were also Catholics in the “penal times”, allied with the Merricks, hence the tunnel and the monk reference in the estate’s name. And did you know that “culver” means dove (“Middle English from Old English culufre from Vulgar Latin columbra from Latin columbula, diminutive of columba, dove”)? So Maudie Culver comes from a long line of pigeon people.

Patrick feels “bold and gay” to be trespassing and possibly stealing pigeons, but “the cause was irreproachable”. Still, he can’t help hearing in his head Patrick Shaw-Stewart’s poem about Gallipoli:

“I saw a man this morning
Who did not wish to die:
I ask, and cannot answer,
If otherwise wish I.”

Just to make things even more dangerous, Patrick’s brought with him a throwing knife owned by his dodgy eighteenth-century cousin. Hmm, and we already know that a corpse (or possibly just a badly-wounded person) is going to appear soon on the storeroom floor…

Patrick very courageously climbs the high Dovecote wall (it’s a good thing Peter didn’t take on this task) and manages to break in through a tiny door. He climbs down to the floor and unfortunately falls asleep, which is not surprising given he was up before dawn. Also unfortunately, his watch has stopped working (“as it invariably did when he forgot to wind it”) so who knows how long he stays asleep. When he wakes, he doesn’t find any drugs, but does find a number of Scandaroons, who are most unhappy about a stranger messing around in their house.

Meanwhile, in the storeroom attached to the pigeon lofts, Jukie is talking with Espresso, the Thug’s “premier flutter propagator”, who is feeding a chick half-cooked egg from his own mouth, ugh. Espresso has “skin the colour of milky coffee” because his father, a pigeon expert, is from the Persian Gulf. Jukie mentions he’s grateful that Espresso’s Da put the Thuggery in contact with the Boss Man, allowing them all to make money from drug smuggling, but Espresso says that no, Jukie and the pigeons at Monk’s Culvery were the way his Da “eased in with the Boss Man” and the “big loot”. This is a disquieting surprise to Jukie. I should mention that Espresso appears to be hiding something from Jukie, but he does seem like a nice kid, as far as the Thugs go.

Then Skidskid arrives. He was supposed to be watching Patrick’s house but got spooked by mysteriously moving trees, “woody weirdies ’n they don’t shift while you’re watchin”. Jukie tells him to stay off the drugs. (Clearly none of them is familiar with Macbeth. Jukie, your reign is almost over.) Jukie also explains to the others how the Boss Man put two of his addicted thugs in the “boneyard” – just in case the threat of violence isn’t menacing enough in this chapter.

The Thuggery realise, via a nifty electronic landing-board indicator, that someone or something is disturbing the pigeons in the Dovecote. And as they go to investigate, they’re met by Kinky and friends with their own tale of woe. The Thuggery, thoroughly alarmed, run on towards the Dovecote. Watch out, Patrick!

Chapter Twelve: “Who Do Not Wish To Die”

Ominous chapter titling here. Jukie enters the Dovecote alone and Patrick does pretty well in hand-to-hand combat with him, even managing to grab the harness and drug capsule Jukie had just taken from a pigeon. Patrick bolts out the door and only gets caught because he trips and The Thuggery catch up. Jukie stops them stomping Patrick to death (“We need him conscious cause we need to quiz him”) and they march him back to the storeroom. Patrick does manage to conceal the drugs in his waistband and lie about this convincingly and the Thuggery waste some time trying to find the drug capsule in the dusk.

They also take Patrick’s knife off him and “Patrick thought it had probably not found itself in such congenial company since Cousin Ambrose was turned off at Tyburn”. (I only know the significance of Tyburn due to The Hanging Tree. Thanks, Peter!) Jukie starts to offer his captive a cigarette, but then decides Patrick is too square to smoke:

“You wouldn’t, do you, noddy-boy?”
“No,” agreed Patrick. In fact, he did, occasionally, depending on whom he was with. But this time he wasn’t sure he might not be being offered reefers.”

Ooh, Patrick, you’re so cool! “Depending on whom he was with”! Does he even have any friends, let alone smoking friends? He does know what a reefer is, maybe from eavesdropping at the coffee shop. Although I just looked it up and Reefer Madness came out in 1936, so I suppose the term had been around quite a while by the mid-sixties:

They also have a very disturbing conversation about Lawrie while waiting for Red Ted aka Rigid to return. Apparently Rigid is a ladies’ man:

“…mebbe he’ll give the chicklet a real live whirl. If she’s willin’ of course. ’N then again mebbe even if she’s not.”

They’re talking about raping a thirteen-year-old girl there. Patrick is horrified for a moment:

“Then it occurred to him that even Lawrie would hardly be fool enough to let herself be picked up by a Thug; and even if she hadn’t sense enough she’d still be too scared.”

Firstly, Lawrie was foolish enough and secondly, the Thugs don’t care about consent so it wouldn’t matter how scared she was, and thirdly, she’s a very naïve child, years under the age of consent. This is horrible to read, made bearable only because we know that Lawrie is safe.

Then Rigid returns with the news that Lawrie escaped him and is at the police station. When they ask Patrick what she could have told them, he “politely, insufferably” explains she would have showed them the pigeon, harness and “more truly than he supposed”, the drug capsule.

Panic among The Thuggery! Kinky leads the others in rebellion against Jukie. Jukie will stay to loose the birds the next morning; the others will flee, taking their share of the loot. But Kinky wants Maudie’s share as well, which Jukie refuses to give him, and Mr Luke reveals Kinky’s plan to overthrow Jukie as Top Boy. In the mayhem, Jukie flings Patrick’s knife at Kinky’s back and Kinky collapses. Patrick is the first to reach him:

“[Patrick’s] hand found an inexplicable thing to do. It went into his pocket and found his rosary … He put the rosary into Kinky’s hand and Kinky grasped it and his hand together … Patrick swallowed, crossed himself and stayed beside him, crouching.”

The others drag Kinky’s body into the storeroom, realise he’s dead and freak out. They rush off on their motorbikes, while Jukie takes the time to remove Kinky’s money from his wallet (“He can’t never use it”) and leads Patrick out to the garage to his own beloved motorbike. Sadly for Jukie, it’s been “most exquisitely taken apart”, then put back together, with the nuts thrown in the compost heap, according to a note the Thugs have left him. (What, they managed to disassemble and re-assemble a motorbike in five minutes?) So Jukie steals Maudie’s car and tells Patrick to get in.

AND PATRICK GETS IN THE CAR.

Why? Jukie doesn’t have time to coax or force him into the car. All Patrick has to do is walk away, then call the police or wait for them to arrive. But no, Patrick gets in the car with the drug-dealer he’s been trying to bring to justice, due to a “maverick sense of sympathy”. Or due to Antonia Forest wanting Patrick and Jukie to have a deep and meaningful conversation before Jukie’s inevitable demise.

Oh, it also turns out Espresso has stayed to let the pigeons free the next morning and he disobeys Jukie’s order to get in the car. So at least Espresso will be around when the police arrive and hopefully he’ll explain whatever secret he’s been concealing.

Next: The Flyaway

‘The Thuggery Affair’, Part Five

Chapter Nine: Character Part

While Peter is racing around the countryside being shot at, Lawrie is on the train to Colebridge, dressed as a hot chick but being very Lawrie:

“…she liked to have active adult males as her travelling companions, not because they were more entertaining but because if there were an accident they would naturally devote themselves to seeing that Lawrie, being women and children, was rescued first.”

Lawrie might soon need rescuing because Red Ted, one of The Thuggery, is in her carriage. But it seems he doesn’t recognise her due to her dishy appearance. In fact, he’s showing off for her benefit and she’s flattered. Lawrie joins him in some minor rebellion against a couple of old folk and is pleased when the woman calls her a “painted little piece”.

Kate has noted that I should pay attention to the songs, so I will report here that Red Ted’s transistor radio is now playing Marching through Madrid – so at this moment, Peter’s bike is being steamrollered in the tar. Possibly it’s also a nod towards the travelling Lawrie is currently doing (and that Peter is not going to be doing on his bike). Then comes You’ll Never Walk Alone (be brave, Lawrie) and Another Spring (Lawrie is no spring chicken, she says she’s fifteen and a half! But she’s only thirteen, right? If Ginty turned fifteen in January, no more than two months earlier, the twins must be thirteen and Peter is fourteen.) Then as the train stops, it’s P.S. I Love You and Red Ted makes his move with this very romantic line:

“What’s new, slicklet chicklet? Do we rove to the caff and have ourselves a ball?”

How could any girl resist? Lawrie, now using her future-professional-actress name Sophia Lawrence, accompanies Red Ted to a coffee bar where she gazes with contempt at the amateurish make-up of some of the other chicks and feels “blissfully, shiveringly happy” at being part of Red Ted’s gang. Then she and Red Ted go off to the cinema. (Song: She Loves You, Yeah Yeah Yeah – well, yes, she does.)

But it’s that scary science fiction film, and Red Ted murmurs, “You chuffed I made Jukie make you my watch this noon ’n night?” and Lawrie suddenly remembers he’s a Thug and she’s meant to be taking the pigeon to the police. It does seem completely in character for her to have got so caught up in playing a role that she forgets reality. And her acting skills do come in handy – she convinces him she’s only going to the loo and (after a brief panic attack in the cubicle) escapes by breaking through a window and dropping into an alley. Where she’s picked up by the police.

Somehow, things always work out for Lawrie, no matter how ridiculously she behaves.

Chapter Ten: Telling the Tale

This is just like the time Lawrie got caught without her bus fare in The Marlows and the Traitor. The police see a “scruffily dressed girl” and refuse to believe she’s Lawrence Marlow, the respectable daughter of a navy captain. She certainly doesn’t help herself by giving her stage name and being smeared in make-up, but surely she sounds exactly like what she is, an upper-middle class girl from a posh boarding school. Admittedly, the pigeon story is a bit far-fetched and she has lost the drug capsule, but she does have an actual pigeon with suspicious harness and a cigarette packet with a written threat. For a moment, it seems the Inspector will be able to verify her identity from the library books, but the librarian reports that the books were borrowed by “D. Gates” of Westbridge, not a Marlow of Trennels Old Farm. It’s Doris the maid (why are her books at Trennels?), but Lawrie does her usual bursting-into-tears thing and can’t explain properly.

Fortunately, Mrs Marlow happens to phone the police station right then, looking for her missing daughter, and she and Peter soon turn up to say exactly what Lawrie has said:

“The only difference was, [the Inspector] obviously believed Peter.”

It is sadly often the case, even now, that authority figures pay more attention to a male speaker than a female speaker. Even when the female speaker is a lot more coherent than Lawrie.

The problem is that Patrick seems to have disappeared. The Inspector decides to send the Marlows home and get the Culverstone sergeant to investigate further, but just as the Marlows are leaving, there’s another phone call. Miss Culver’s housekeeper’s daughter has found a boy’s body in the storeroom under a rug! They’re too frightened to look at his face and don’t even know if he’s dead, but he’s clutching a rosary with the initials P.M.A.M.! And Peter identifies this as belonging to “Patrick Michael Anthony Mary”!

I don’t know what’s more ridiculous, that the two women at the Culver place can’t even look at the boy (what if he’s bleeding to death and needs urgent first aid?) or that one of Patrick’s names is Mary. (It can’t be, can it? Is the ‘Mary’ just a reminder on the rosary to pray to Mary Mother of God?)

I don’t think the body is Patrick. I think it’s a Thug. I don’t know why he’s got Patrick’s rosary, though. Maybe he ripped it from Patrick while they were fighting.

Then another significant song comes on the radio: There’s a Hole in My Bucket. Which prompts Peter to look in Lawrie’s mackintosh pocket, which has a big hole in it, which means the drug capsule has fallen into the lining of her mackintosh (along with a lot of other things Lawrie has lost). Finally, the police have their evidence!

Peter, by the way, calls Lawrie a “prehistoric aborigine” when he discovers this. Nice one, Peter, you’ve managed to be sexist, classist and racist in one book.

Next: The Dovecote at Monks’ Culvery

‘The Thuggery Affair’, Part Four

Chapter Seven: The Costume for the Part

Lawrie and Peter walk home to have “dinner” (wouldn’t the Marlows be posh enough to call it “lunch”?) and the children again fail to inform Rowan, Ann or Mrs Marlow about all the criminal activity going on. Lawrie then dawdles about, re-doing her make-up, in the hope she’ll miss the train to Colebridge. She probably looks a bit like this (the Before, not the After):

Mrs Marlow is not impressed and tells Lawrie she’s not going anywhere until she scrubs off all that face paint and puts on her nice skirt and coat:

“I won’t have people supposing I’d let a child of mine run around looking as you do at this moment. Now do as I say.”

Mrs Marlow is in a very grumpy mood in this book. Perhaps she’s fed up with being left in the country to raise half-a-dozen children while her husband’s sailing around the world. (Maybe she’s afraid he has “a half-hitch in every port”?)

Meanwhile Ann has discovered Peter has packed the wrong library books to take to Colebridge Library (which is their cover story) and is fussing about repacking the books in Karen’s old music case. (Which also contains a dead and decaying pigeon, which isn’t even in a waterproof bag, ugh.) But Peter and Lawrie manage to escape, complete with pigeon and scandalous make-up, and talk loudly about their fake plans all the way to the station, for the benefit of the spying Thuggery. Lawrie just makes it onto the train, looking, she hopes, like a “James Bond kookie” and Peter goes off to be a decoy.

Chapter Eight: Old Man Kangaroo

I wasn’t familiar with Old Man Kangaroo, but it’s one of Kipling’s Just So stories, about how a kangaroo was chased by a dingo for a whole day. Anyway, Peter plans to ride his bike around the countryside, leading the Thuggery on a merry dance, but they’ve stolen his bike. Without much thought, he takes Ann’s magnificent new bike. He soon finds that three of the Thugs have accidentally-on-purpose thrown his bike into a newly-tarred road in front of a steamroller. Matt Carter, leader of the road gang, makes the Thugs try to extract the bike from the tar, ruining their fancy Ted clothes. The Thugs are temporarily powerless because “Matt Carter and his gang were nine, all larger and stronger than the Thuggery and all armed with pickaxes, spades and sledge-hammers”.

Peter then loudly announces to Matt that he’s found something, which he’s taking to Miss Culver. This is the start of a genuinely exciting, if somewhat implausible, chase scene. Soon the Thugs are shooting at Peter (“Anyone’d think they wanted to kill him!”), so he abandons Ann’s bike and hides in a ditch. The wimpiest Thug, Mr Luke, aka Yeller Feller, actually finds Peter but lets him escape.

Then Peter overhears a disquieting conversation between Kinky, Siberia and Mr Luke while Kinky destroys poor Ann’s bike. Kinky is planning to kill Peter by drowning him in the gravel pit pool, which will help Kinky’s campaign to overthrow Jukie as Number One Boy. Mr Luke is not happy about this, but is battered into submission by the others. Peter climbs through a disgusting drain into a stream and wades all the way to the sea, where he left his canoe. He plans to paddle back home, but he’s overturned by that pesky hidden tree root and then the Thuggery re-appear, still shooting at him. (Are they carrying about some sort of automatic rifle? Wouldn’t that be a bit conspicuous? They don’t seem to need to stop to reload their ammunition. Also, no one else seems to notice all the gunfire. Rural Dorset is a lot more like the Wild West than I ever imagined.)

Peter manages to dive underwater and swim to the opposite bank but the Thugs catch up. The Thugs are still firing what is now called “the air gun” (which apparently can kill people: “Air weapon injuries commonly involve teenage boys”). Then Kinky has the great idea of climbing along the top of the lock gate to reach Peter – but Peter opens the gate! And Kinky and his gun fall into the water! And Kinky can’t swim! And then Siberia falls in, trying to rescue him! Ha ha ha.

The Thuggery are indignant that Peter isn’t being more helpful (“It’s yore fault ’e’s there!”) but he does give them a few hints before sauntering off towards Trennels, wondering how he’ll ever be able to afford to buy Ann a new bike. Unfortunately, he’s not home yet and oh no, the Thuggery have dragged themselves out of the river and they want revenge.

Peter is being really brave here. He’s also too exhausted to run away, but when he sees the Thugs with their flick knives in the lane, he prepares to sacrifice himself to save Patrick, “in the traditions of the service”. But just as he prepares to go down fighting, Matt Carter and his steamroller Sarah come to the rescue:

“They an’ their knives an’ their three to one! Nuthin’ but dirty Teds, the pack of ’em! Sarah an’ you an’ me’ll show ’em! An’ they don’t jump out of the way we’ll flatten ’em!”

Hooray for Peter! Peter wins! Yeller Feller, “made bold by the passing of danger”, yells a vague threat about “tomorrow”:

“But of course, once in every lifetime, tomorrow never comes.”

Next: Character Part

‘The Thuggery Affair’, Part Three

If you’re interested, here are some Hep Cat teenagers in a coffee bar. They are not actually Thugs, though.

Chapter Five – A Brush with the Enemy

Peter and Lawrie go home to breakfast. Lawrie is dispirited by the idea that she’s not dishy, so she gets out her theatrical make-up. Peter is startled by the transformation of his little sister into a coffee-bar Jezebel, but the rest of the family politely ignore her (although Lawrie hopes that she’s shocked innocent, pious Ann). There’s a bit of a family argument over whether they should go to the cinema in Colebridge and we learn that the choice is The Magnificent Ambersons at the Regal, which they’ve all seen, or Cobweb! at the Majestic. Cobweb! “could only be science fiction” and Lawrie is scared by “monster tentacles”, so that’s out. Ann plans to collect nature samples for a Guiding project and Rowan is scranleting at Cold Comfort Farm. (There have always been Marlows at Trennels! Poor Rowan. But Ann’s the only one who’s sympathetic about the way Rowan’s life is turning out.) Lawrie doesn’t really want to get involved in Peter and Patrick’s pigeon plan, so says she’ll just stay at home, but her mother snaps:

“You surely aren’t going to spend the whole week-end moping round the house just because Nicky’s staying with Miranda?”

As Lawrie thinks, it’s NOT FAIR. But she obediently trails after Peter and Patrick as they take the pigeon to the local policeman, Tom Catchpole. (No one thinks to tell Mrs Marlow, the only parent around, about the drug-smuggling pigeon. But I suppose it’d be a very short book if they told her and she called the police and the mystery was solved.) Unfortunately, The Thuggery are trailing the children, so they come up with the plan that they’ll give the pigeon evidence to Lawrie and she’ll ride off on Peter’s bike if they get jumped; meanwhile, Patrick and Peter will talk loudly about going to Colebridge when they’re in the village shop and Patrick will pretend he just wants to ask Tom about a lost watch.

The Thuggery, who travel with a loud transistor radio playing with-it music such as Cliff Richard and The Shadows, chuck a cigarette packet at Lawrie, mimic Patrick’s posh accent and stand about looking menacing in front of Tom’s house. But Tom isn’t there – he’s been lured away by a fire in St Mary’s Church. Oh no! Of course, the children don’t leave a message with Tom’s wife or stash the evidence with her, because that would be sensible. On the way back, the Thuggery taunt them with enigmatic phrases:

“Have a drag, herbert!”
“Belshazzar it, herbert!”

This is not enigmatic to Peter, who (unlike Lawrie) was paying attention in Sunday School. So was I, so I know that Belshazzar was the son of Nebuchadnezzar and his death was foretold by mysterious writing appearing on the wall during a feast. I’m not convinced the Thugs would know that, but I guess there’s going to be a warning on a wall somewhere. As Patrick says,

“But why write on the wall? Wouldn’t paper be easier?”

Peter explains the Thuggery are “hairy characters” and “Natural born Piltdowners”, but “not actually dangerous”. (If they’re not dangerous, this is going to be a fairly boring thriller, so I assume this is Peter being clueless about other people, yet again. Also ‘Piltdown Man’ was revealed to be a fake in 1953, so does Peter mean the Thugs are frauds or that they’re primitive humans?)

Then there’s a discussion about whether Maudie Culver is part of the drug-smuggling. Jukie claimed she was “digging the integrity racket”, but Jukie’s a known liar. Patrick says that when he and Jon visited her pigeon lofts, she complained about not winning pigeon trophies because she refused to cheat, which suggests she is honest. But there was also a local scandal when a pigeon clock was tampered with to help her win a pigeon race, except the cheating was discovered and blamed on the Thuggery. Then Miss Culver ostentatiously banned herself from racing for a year. Patrick says it reminds him of:

“Those super-pious types at Mass who cross themselves each time they genuflect and say their rosaries very very slowly with their eyes half-shut. And bet your life they’ve got an old age pensioner doing the garden and they’re paying him a bob an hour if he’s lucky.”

I think he means Maudie would never break the law and wants everyone to know it, but she’s lacking in human compassion. Except she’s employing underprivileged boys when no one else in the village would give them a second chance (assuming they have criminal histories as minors). However, Peter thinks she might have planned the clock-cheating and then when she got caught, she did the self-penalty to cover up her guilt.

I find it hard to believe Maudie Culver is the brains behind a drug-smuggling racket, but her tirade at Peter certainly shows she’s unpleasant and possibly a bit deranged.

Chapter Six: Communications Cut

When the three children arrive at Patrick’s house, they find The Thuggery have trashed the stables and scrawled “HAVA DRAG” all over the walls. Patrick doesn’t reveal the true culprits to Sellars, the Merricks’ groom, because Sellars is “much too ancient to risk involving him”. Antonia Forest does some foreshadowing here by saying Sellars, a “wiry hard-as-nails sixty-year-old” is outraged by this when he hears about it a week later. And however old he is, a rural working man has to be tougher than Patrick and Peter.

Peter realises that HAVA DRAG means “smoke a cigarette” and Lawrie fishes the Thug’s cigarette packet out of the bin. In it, a Thug has written a violent threat to Patrick’s “daddy-o” in London. This all seems a very round-about way of threatening someone and even if the London drug gang are hardened professional criminals, there’s a big difference between them slashing one another with razors and actually murdering a Tory MP.

And while I’m on the subject, I don’t think transporting drugs by pigeon is a very clever idea. Firstly, a single pigeon can only carry a very small amount. Secondly, carrier pigeons often get lost or attacked by birds of prey or shot by boys like Peter or found by the wrong person. This is starting to sound even more ridiculous than the post-war Nazi spies in The Marlows and the Traitor.

Peter now reveals himself to be a pigeon expert, because his friend Selby’s Belgian grandfather keeps prize pigeons and by an AMAZING COINCIDENCE, Peter happens to know that the dead pigeon is a Scandaroon, which is good at flying over water. So the criminals are bringing the drugs from the Continent by boat and using the Culver Scandaroons to avoid Customs officials. Except Patrick has been to the Culver lofts and swears he never saw any Scandaroons there.

At this point, Patrick decides to phone his father (FINALLY), but the phone isn’t working. In fact, all the phones in the district have been cut off, which they find out when Rowan arrives to ask to use the phone because some louts have mutilated the poor Marlow cows. She drives off to get the vet. They should have told Rowan about The Thuggery and the pigeon! She’s a responsible adult (or near-adult).

And then the children discover they’ve lost the drug capsule. Peter put it in Lawrie’s pocket without telling her and now it’s gone. So they have no evidence of wrong-doing to show the police – EXCEPT FOR THE TRASHED STABLES AND THE WRITTEN CIGARETTE PACKET THREAT AND THEIR THREE EYEWITNESS ACCOUNTS OF THE CAPSULE BEING ATTACHED TO THE HARNESS AND OF JUKIE THREATENING REGINA. But apparently, the only way they can tell the police is if they find a capsule-carrying Scandaroon at the Culver place.

At this point, Patrick remembers his great-aunt Eulalia has written a detailed description of the Culver dovecote, a huge weird building separate to the pigeon loft. By an AMAZING COINCIDENCE, Eulalia published it privately and sent it only to her family members and there’s a copy in the room where they’re sitting. It’s a very long description. (An illustration would have been nice here, original publishers of this book.) Also by AMAZING COINCIDENCE, there’s a secret tunnel that leads from the secret priest’s room to the Culver place, so Patrick can sneak off and find a Scandaroon in the dovecote without any Thugs seeing him. Meanwhile, Lawrie will take the pigeon and harness to Colebridge police station and Peter will distract The Thuggery by looking for the lost capsule and leading them in a merry but futile chase.

Hmm. A plan that depends on Lawrie being sensible and brave does not seem like a very good plan to me.

Next: The Costume for the Part

‘The Thuggery Affair’, Part Two

Chapter Three: A Gentleman of the Fancy

As they walk back to Patrick’s house, Peter notices they’re being trailed by Jukie. “Don’t look now,” he tells Lawrie, “who immediately did, in all directions”. Oh, Lawrie. But they get back safely and Patrick fusses around with Regina. Peter sensibly points out that Regina was released for a reason, but Patrick says it’s all sorted now – he’ll just write to the British Falconry Society and find a full-time falconer to keep her during term-time in London. Yet somehow Patrick couldn’t have done this six months ago. Antonia Forest is just making this up as she goes along, isn’t she?

Patrick also realises he needs Regina’s bells, which he gave to Nicola, but Lawrie is scandalised by the idea that anyone should take them from Nicola’s special private box without Nicola’s permission:

“Patrick saw he was up against one of those family taboos which, as an only child, struck him as both infantile and incomprehensible.”

But I’m with Lawrie. If you come from a family with eight siblings, the small bits of privacy you possess have to be respected by everyone. Patrick has never had to share anything, so he doesn’t understand this. But Peter, “who should have known better”, says he’ll take the bells from Nicola’s box and take the blame. However, Peter has something more important on his mind. He asks to see the dead pigeon Regina is still gnawing on, looks at the ring on its leg, is about to say something … when Jukie struts in.

(Before I go on with the plot, I have to say I love the vivid little bits of descriptions, such as Bucket “comfortably spatchcocked under the table”! Can’t you see that image exactly in your mind?)

Anyway, Jukie demands to see the dead pigeon, Peter tosses it at him, Jukie fumbles and misses, and there’s a bit of macho posturing between the three boys while Lawrie is ignored, to her resentment. Jukie retrieves the pigeon’s leg ring and claims it’s from Red Rocket, a champion flyer, so Patrick’s “daddy-o” will have to pay lots of compensation. This is disputed by Peter, who says the pigeon was a blue chequer, and Patrick, also sceptical, makes sure he reminds Jukie that it’s Miss Culver’s pigeon, not Jukie’s. Jukie walks off, not quite as comfortably as he entered, and Peter drops his bombshell. There was another dead pigeon which he scooped up in his mackintosh and “this one’s the one with the message”!

Dramatic chapter end there. Also, I assume the title of this chapter is making fun of the notion that a boy like Jukie could ever be a gentleman. There’s a bit where Lawrie is wondering about his accent and realising he’s “true north country” and “sham Yankee” with a bit of imitating Miss Culver.

Chapter Four: “…Poor Airy Post”

The poor dead pigeon is wearing a little leather harness attached to a capsule. They discuss whether they should take it straight to the police or MI5 and Patrick is surprised that “spies should be the very first thing you think of” and even more surprised when he sees the meaningful looks the Marlows exchange. Interesting. Because only a couple of months ago, Peter had apparently repressed all memory of the time he was kidnapped by a spy. Patrick also points out that it’s extremely unlikely Maudie Culver is passing information to the Communists because she’s such a “blot-blue Tory” and what information would she have anyway?

Unfortunately, while they’re debating this, Jukie sneaks back in. (Bucket is too busy being a spatchcock to be much of a guard dog.) Jukie tries to scam them into paying him, not Miss Culver. He’ll swap the leg rings for an ‘inferior’ pigeon in the loft, Patrick’s daddy-o won’t have to pay hundreds of pounds compensation and Patrick can give Jukie some money in return. This doesn’t work because firstly, Patrick has no motivation to lie to his father (and Patrick doesn’t even have to say out loud that a hundred pounds is nothing to a rich MP). Secondly, Peter is unexpectedly knowledgeable about pigeons and explains you can’t swap pigeon rings on grown birds.

But then Jukie sees the pigeon with the harness:

“Plainly, he knew only too well what it was: plainly also, this was an attempt to get bird and harness into his hands: only, if he were to preserve the fiction that it wasn’t a Culver bird, he couldn’t be too insistent.”

As Patrick refuses to hand the pigeon over, Jukie is forced to retreat without it, but he leaves with the threat that if they go to the police, his thugs will come round and dig Regina’s eyes out. Peter and Lawrie are suitably intimidated but “Patrick’s face could have been used as a model for a mask labelled murder”. Jukie gives Patrick a look of “surprised respect” and scoots off.

Now, I know Patrick’s confidence comes from his class and wealth, but I’m on Patrick’s side here. Anyone who threatens to mutilate an animal deserves murderous looks and more.

Patrick obviously can’t leave Regina in the hawk-house so he takes her into the house and hides her in a very cool secret room that was used to hide priests in the “penal times”. Peter is a bit annoyed that Patrick had always denied any “Secret of the Moated Pile”, but Patrick explains that when they were young, he really did believe that Catholics were under siege and that Protestant Marlows couldn’t be trusted. Even though a priest was turning up at their house every Sunday to say Mass:

“Every Sunday I thought this would be the day for the brutal soldiery to burst in the front door.”

Honestly, where did he get this from? I can’t imagine his father would have encouraged this sort of thinking. Maybe Mrs Merrick? She doesn’t seem super-Catholic, though.

The children then decide to open the pigeon’s capsule, even though Patrick is sure it’ll just say something like “Dear Jukie Meet Me At The Palais 7:30 Saturday Your Ever-Loving Chick Sandra.” This leads to an exchange about their own love lives.

Patrick asks Peter, “And what do you make do with? A half-hitch in every port?”

WHAT does this mean? The Navy’s famous for male homosexuality, but I’m not sure that fits here and surely they wouldn’t talk about that in front of Lawrie? Peter denies he has any social life and says Patrick, at day school in London, has “more chances than the rest of us … Surely you date the chicks?”

Lawrie and Peter are teasing him, thinking this is unlikely. Why? He’s fifteen (or sixteen now?) and supposed to be good-looking, although admittedly, his social skills aren’t very good. I don’t know what dating norms were for public school boys in London then. Do we know which school he attends? I am imagining Westminster, but maybe he goes to a Catholic school. Anyway, Patrick blushes, thinking of Ginty, then flippantly says, “A different chick every night of the week, actually” and changes the subject to the capsule.

Which turns out to contain a mysterious white powder! It’s bicarb of soda, which the pigeons carry about in case they have a sudden stomach upset! (Okay, that bit made me laugh out loud.) No, maybe it’s arsenic or strychnine or a secret Kremlin explosive or … or cocaine! Which Lawrie actually tastes, because she’s an idiot. Peter is reluctant to go to the police because they “mustn’t sneak”, but Patrick says drug-smuggling is “worse than most murders”:

“Really, it is a kind of physical blackmail, isn’t it? You chat people into taking the stuff, you make them so dependent on it they have the heebie jeebies if they can’t get it and then you make them pay the earth to keep getting it.”

I think he’s got most of his information from reading Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. Then he has another revelation – Jukie’s name doesn’t come from “jukebox”, as they’d thought, but “junkie”. As Patrick solemnly explains to the others, “Junkie – in their language – means drug addict.” Okay, I laughed out loud at that bit, too. So far most of the slang has been barely recognisable to me, but the one word that I do know – because it’s now part of everyday language – is the word that Patrick and Antonia Forest carefully explain to us.

By the way, Patrick understands Ted-speak because he regularly visits a London coffee-bar which is always “crammed with the kiddoes and the chicks yapping away and being with it like mad.” The image of Patrick trying to look like a cool cat in a café is also pretty funny to me.

Anyway, they decide to take the capsule to their local policeman, Tom Catchpole, in order to be nice to him and also because his young wife is “dishy” and a “smasher”. Way to go with the sexual objectification of women, Peter and Patrick.

Next: A Brush with the Enemy

‘The Thuggery Affair’ by Antonia Forest

This is the sixth book in Antonia Forest’s series about the Marlow family. I’ve really enjoyed most of them so far, especially the school books, but all I know about this one is that it involves drug-smuggling pigeons, thugs who speak incomprehensible slang and no Nicola. It sounds like some bizarre children’s version of A Clockwork Orange and the cover is even worse than that of Peter’s Room. In other words, I have very low expectations for this book, but it could be an interesting failure. We shall see.

'The Thuggery Affair' by Antonia Forest

Chapter One: “There’s a Hole in your Boatie”

This chapter begins with a half-page sentence to rival Henry James – eight commas, two semi-colons, one colon, five em-dashes, one set of parenthesised comments, and by my count, eighteen clauses. Antonia Forest seems to be declaring up front that if a child reader can’t cope with an enormously complicated info-dump of a sentence on the first page, that reader might as well give up now. I think it’s meant to show Lawrie’s tangled thought processes, but this could have been demonstrated just as effectively by adding about ten full-stops.

Anyway, we learn that it’s half-term (so, February? March?) and Lawrie, Peter and Patrick are trying out the canoe that the boys built at Christmas after all the Gondalling. Nicola is staying with Miranda in London and Ginty is visiting her grandmother in Paris. Lawrie is sulking about being abandoned by her twin, although when Nicola quite reasonably points out that she wouldn’t object if Lawrie had gone off with Tim, Lawrie says, “But that’s diff’rent.”

Lawrie is such a brat, but I can’t help laughing at her melodramatics. A couple of pages into the chapter, she’s weeping to herself as she imagines being the heroine of BOATING TRAGEDY IN HOGGART’S LOCK (“Mrs Marlow, mother of eight, said with tears in her eyes: “I am prostrated with grief. Lawrie was my favourite child…”).

Lawrie’s fantasy isn’t so far-fetched, because the canoe is rapidly filling with water, nearly crashes into a hidden tree root and ends up sinking when they reach the sea. They are also hours too late to see the ducks fly overhead and Peter is annoyed because he wanted to shoot some fowl. (I can’t believe no one has confiscated his rifle yet! He killed Jael with that rifle! Patrick is being a lot more forgiving than I would have been.) Peter is also doing his very irritating regional dialect thing. At least he refrains from shooting one of a pair of swans. (Isn’t shooting swans illegal in England because they belong to the Queen? Or is that only on the Thames?) The boys drag the canoe out of the mud and leave it on the promontory, then they all start squelching their way home.

Oh, the other thing is that Patrick reveals he’s home alone, with his parents still in London. He only made a fuss about coming to the country because he thought his sort-of-girlfriend Ginty would be at Trennels. Because they clearly don’t write to one another or phone or communicate in any effective way. So I guess their romance hasn’t progressed much since Christmas.

Chapter Two: “Two Pigeons Flying High”

As they walk home, they encounter A Thuggery of Teds, seven juvenile delinquents led by a boy called Jukie. For some reason, the Thuggery are employed by Miss Culver, a tweedy, church-going local woman, to look after her prize pigeons. Neither Patrick nor his parents can stand Miss Culver. It’s unusual for tolerant Mr Merrick to take a dislike to anyone, but

“…he says she stands four-square and looks him straight in the eye and talks to him man-to-man and it frightens him to death. And ma says she’s a natural-born bully.”

Miss Culver also had the nerve to tell poor dead Cousin Jon (before he died, obviously) that he should get rid of his hawks, because they preyed on her pigeons. Plus, her pigeons are “horrible little freaks” who’ve been overbred with “so much wattle on their bills they can’t see to fly”. But before the children can discuss this further, a flock of pigeons flies overhead, Peter tries to shoot one and Patrick suddenly intervenes because he realises there’s also a falcon in the air. And it’s Regina! The falcon he was forced to release six months ago because he couldn’t take her to London with him! And dear old Bucket recognises her, “his tail fluttering in ecstatic welcome”. Awww!

Unfortunately, Miss Culver turns up and tries to shoot Regina because the falcon has just killed and started eating one of the Culver pigeons. Patrick stands in her way and Peter raises his own gun, with “the situation … rapidly becoming stark, staring bonkers”. Fortunately, Miss Culver realises she’s pointing her gun at the only son of the local MP:

“It would have been one thing apparently, thought Patrick hilariously, for Gunslinger Culver to pepper a peasant but quite another to murder a Merrick…”

She calms down a little, gives him a warning about keeping his hawks away from her birds, and is about to walk off when Peter characteristically puts his foot in it. She explodes with rage:

“He was incredulous; he was fascinated; the hope grew that perhaps she would end her – was tirade the word? – by flinging down her glove and challenging him to a duel.”

Lawrie thinks it’s most “funny-peculiar” for a grown-up to behave like this when grown-ups are supposed to stop fights, not start them. Although I’m not sure how respectable Miss Culver can really be when she employs the Thuggery? I think we’re meant to be suspicious of her from the start, based on her “grotesque” physical appearance. Mind you, in previous books, Antonia Forest has heartily disapproved of women who wear fashionable clothes and make-up, so female characters can’t really win in this world, whatever they do.

Anyway, it’s nice that Regina’s back. She flies onto Patrick’s fist and they head for home, Patrick’s eyes “blazing with triumph and pleasure”.

You might also be interested in reading:

The Thuggery Affair, Part Two
The Thuggery Affair, Part Three
The Thuggery Affair, Part Four
The Thuggery Affair, Part Five
The Thuggery Affair, Part Six
The Thuggery Affair, Part Seven

‘Autumn Term’ by Antonia Forest
‘The Marlows and the Traitor’ by Antonia Forest
‘Falconer’s Lure’ by Antonia Forest
‘End of Term’ by Antonia Forest
‘Peter’s Room’ by Antonia Forest