The Alphabet of Vietnam

Here is a review of my novel The Alphabet of Vietnam from someone who was there and whose comments I therefore have immense respect for:

“This book really got to me. I am a veteran, I fought in Vietnam in 1970 and 1971 with the Australian Army and in Cambodia in 1972 with FANK against the NVA and the KR. Chamberlain has touched on something here that very few people have the slightest idea about. The darkness in us all that the combat experience can somehow turn into something that can consume us. It can turn us into something less than human, it’s a kind of rage and its call is siren to say the least. The mix of fear, power, adrenaline, hatred and despair is a volatile one and once a person is in its clutches it can be very difficult indeed to get out. I know, because although I did ultimately manage to claw my way out, it really did nearly have me, it nearly took me for good or worse and I did much under its influence that I relive sometimes, those incidents seem surreal as though I read about them once or saw them on tv, but no it was me or at least the person I once was.

I could truly identify with Joe and Wash, I was often repulsed by them but there was much in them that is in me and it has seen the light of day-and that is truly frightening. I guess more of Joe than Wash but believe me I have known plenty who just like Wash went down that road, seeking the combat context which allowed them to dance with that particular devil. I was truly on the way to being one of them.

This is not an easy book to read but it is an extraordinary piece of work.”

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The Lost Cosmonaut

Daniel Kalder was a Scot in his late 20s when he set out on  the travels – the four journeys that make up his book The Lost Cosmanaut. Faber and Faber did him proud for this is a paperback with a cover – the kind of cover that hardbacks get. And I think it was because of this cover that I decided this was likely to be a book of quality and so well worth the £1 I paid for it. As with all my book purchases the one person who most deserves to be rewarded is the person who misses out. I hope he is doing better on Kindle.

Anyway…

Daniel decided he would go to the Russian republics that while being in Europe are not places that attract tourists – they are places that the copywriter of his dust jacket (very likely to be Mr Kalder himself) refers to as “The republics that tourism forgot.” The reasons tourists don’t go there is that they are sad, benighted places. But the main reason is that we don’t know they are there: places such as Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Mari El and Udmurtia.

Kalder calls his visits there ‘anti-tourism’. In fact, by the time he gets to Udmurtia he is very tempted by the idea of never leaving his very bleak hotel bedroom.

And being a Scot he is sour and dour. He enjoys the bleakness of it. It mirrors to him the bleakness of his own soul. And this is not, as you may have guessed, a normal travelogue. We are informed as much about the author’s own inner mental states as we are the places he visits, he tells us his imaginings, as if they were facts. At one point he throws in the ‘fact’ that he had run out of money in the middle of a sex realignment operation. He is the kind of man who in a pub will throw in a false fact, an objectionable observation, simply to get a reaction. But the world he has chosen to travel through and be a witness of is bleakness to the nth degree. Towards the end of the book he makes the point that we act as if we matter (despite the shortness of life and the insignificance of our works “All your struggling, your striving, gone – puff – like a fart in a sock.” (great image – the slight leavings of a temporary pong) – “And I think that’s the problem the denizens of these lost zones have, why their condition is more severe than ours. They don’t see their lives reflected in the media, in stories, in the books they read or study They don’t have the illusion of connectedness to the hum, the throb, the buzz of the modern world…They are merely forgotten footnotes…They are already forgotten, already not seen…”

Despite the bleakness, the nothingness of the landscapes – physical, cultural, personal – that he traveled through I managed to hang on to the end – which is something I say about increasingly few books 

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Getting back into the swing of things with Poe Ballantine

It is about three months since I last posted some great words. And yet, yesterday, I had a visitor who read three pages (before getting bored?). That’s OK. I’m a glass half full kind of guy. Three pages he managed! Brilliant. My general blog-slackworthiness is not due to the fact that I am not reading second hand books. I am. Lots. It’s just that I half read them and then move on to something new. I have in short been extremely busy. I am preparing loads of books for Kindle – books that have been in the bottom drawer since time began. And lucky me, my new tenant turns out to be a whizz at putting together a book cover image so today we knocked out nine and there’s another three to go. Pretty exciting. But the real reason I am writing this post late into the night is that I have rediscovered the delights of the essay. Somewhere along the way (and I am not quite sure where or when) I picked up the 2006 Best American Essays selected by Lauren Slater (whoever she might be). Now backstory: I was put on to this series by a journalist friend many moons ago and for years I would buy and read the book and always it would be a selection of extremely wonderful, jealousy-inducing essays by people who had far too much time and intelligence on their hands.(Bastards!). But then, one year, I fell out of love with it. There was a general sense that it was becoming politically correct. Don’t get me wrong – no anthology was ever completely bereft of genius. But, you know, maybe it was me, growing older, growing more flatulent in my mind-set. Well, all I can say is that I have just read a sentence or two that on their own repaid the measly sum I paid for this volume. These sentences were written by one Poe Ballantine.

Unlike me, Poe Ballantine has a paragraph on Wikipedia and I am going to quote it in full and hope that the creaters of Wikipedia will forgive me my presumption:

“Poe Ballantine (born 1955 in Denver, Colorado) is a fiction and nonfiction writer known for his novels and especially his essays, many of which appear in The Sun. His second novel, Decline of the Lawrence Welk Empire, won Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year. The odd jobs, eccentric characters, boarding houses, buses, and beer that populate Ballantine’s work often draw comparisons to the life and work of Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac.

One of Ballantine’s short stories, The Blue Devils of Blue River Avenue, was included in Best American Short Stories 1998 and one of his essays, 501 Minutes to Christ, appeared in Best American Essays 2006.

He lives in Chadron, Nebraska with his wife Christina and their son Thomas Francisco.”

Isn’t that fantastic? And yes it was his bleak essay 501 Minutes to Christ that I read and wept. For him? For myself? Not real tears but my heart seeped with understanding and fellow feeling. Here are the sentences he wrote that tornadoed into my psyche:

“I think to myself: I’m thirty-six years old and rotting in front of a television set. The electrons that bomb that cathode-ray tube are crumbling the cartilage of my soul…”

Read that last sentence again – and again. That sentence is a lesson in writing all by itself. Thank you Poe for writing it.

I am also pleased that the dark-haired girl of his dreams was found.

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Greenmantle – What a load of old tosh! – and Rogue Male – still has what it takes

Greenmantle was published in 1916. This was the second of John Buchan’s novels and features the character Richard Hannay who was the hero of the better known TheThirty-Nine Steps. I decided to re-read it (I had read it once when I was twelve but absolutely nothing of the story had stayed with me) and it succeeded in doing what Arthur Hailey’s book. Detective, (another book that I started recently but ended up hurling into the discard box) completely failed to do – namely catching the reader’s interest and dragging him/her into the very heart of the narrative. (The only thing I did remembered was what I took to be a bit of racial stereotyping – Buchan’s use of the word Portugoose). Well, this is a book of mad derring-do and although it dragged me into the tale I have to say that this was a big mistake. The story completely fails to make sense in the way that the novels of Hammond Innes (where have they gone to?) and Neville Shute (now being accorded some belated distinction I see) managed. There is no true structure to the book. It is a case of one damn thing happening after another – and people coming and going with tiresome predictability -and then miraculously the necessary answers that unlock the supposed mystery are provided to the people charged with solving it. And then a character – who should have been the centre of the book (In some way like Ryder Haggard’s Prester John (Now there was a great steaming virile read)) – flits around and then takes off and then…well, what exactly? All very unsatisfactory.

But before that – clearly I am on a nostalgia trip – I re-read Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household. Whereas one is set in the heart of the First World War, the latter book is planted firmly in the year 1938-39. This is a book that does not hurtle madly from one set – and very random – situation to another. On the contrary, this is a book that slowly and inexorably (lovely word that) constricts like a boa around its victim – and the hero (and reader) is the victim. And this is a lovely book too for the psychological journey that the hero takes as he realises why he was led to do what he did, resulting in him finding himself in this constricting predicament.

Both these books share the feature that their heroes are stinking rich, upper class, jolly good fellows and all that. Greenmantle is a classic story that seems to have been arrived at by the writer dashing off a tale. It really should have been turned inside out and rewritten – but that would have taken a far greater writer than Buchan ever was (and yet that tale might still be written today, perhaps). I’m afraid you’ll have to read the book to find out what I’m talking about and it really isn’t worth the effort.

Meanwhile the books pile up, M gets more and more irritated with the mess and I feel more and more irritated that I cannot somehow read them all in parallel at great speed. Ah! If only!

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Me! Me! Me Tarzan. You! You! You idiot!

Yes, the ‘me’ word raises its ugly head again but before I get into that I need to address a particular supermarket whose name may or may not be Waitrose (I may or may not be talking about the branch on Western Road, Brighton). Can we imagine this discussion taking place?

Customer (holding mislabelled food item: This is not cod, it is salmon

Shop Person: Well, maybe you’re just being fussy. Salmon, cod, what does it matter? They’re both fish.

No. This conversation would not happen in a million years. The Supermarket chain would make a big point of knowing the difference between a cod and a salmon.

But then it goes and promotes itself to its customers with these statements (I paraphrase)

The Supermarket chain (which may or may not be Waitrose):

is champiuoning British sourced food

is treading lightly on the environment

is responsible sourcing

is…”

We don’t need to go any further. Adverb, adjective, what’s the difference? They’re both just words.

No! No! No!

And what about the ‘me’, ‘I’ thing? Tarzan said “Me Tarzan” because he was an uneducated jungle creature and this is clearly indicated by the words he chooses to express himself, which he wouldn’t have said if he had gone to Eton as originally intended.

Who today would say: “Me went to the football match”? Nobody.

But who would say: “Me and Jack went to the football match.”? Hmmm? This is what just about everyone under 30 says. One day Jack won’t go and then it will be just me.

So me now going to stop being old fart. Me going to have a drink.

I too!

Oh don’t be silly!

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You know how it is…

Or maybe you don’t (know how it is, I mean). I have voices in my head. That’s right and it explains my theory of sanity being merely a form of controlled insanity – or if it doesn’t actually explain it, it certainly is in conformity with it. Anyway…these voices (or is it the same one?) often decides to engage me in conversation at three in the morning when I have drifted to consciousness and I am wondering if I really need to get up to have a pee (the answer is always ‘yes’) and then the voice suggests to me that that sentence that I wrote six months ago could contain an error – or that sentence I wrote just yesterday. Who needs editors when you have critical voices in the head? As it happens it was a sentence I wrote just yesterday in this blog. That sentence that was wrong was this one: “blahblahblah brought me face to face with Aritha van Herk and her book The Pig Pen.” But her book wasn’t called The Pig Pen as I clearly remembered. It was called The Tent Peg. How do Pig Pens get transmogrified into Tent Pegs – the answer (the only answer I can come up with) is that both are short and have clear sexual whatsits (under-tones, overtones, in-between-tones). Tent pegs are like other pegs and as the Vietnamese poet Ho Xuan Hu’ong so aptly said in her poem about the games of springtime: “When you take the peg out, it leaves behind an empty hole” – well, of course she didn’t exactly say that – she glossed that thought in her own language. [You will find this and other of her poems glossed by me into English in my book The Alphabet of Vietnam  But what about pig pens? A lady of my acquaintance and I (note the order: Not: “Me and this lady I know…) were playing that marvellous game “Bullshit”. One person asks a question and the other person answers with a true story or a lie. What follows is a rigorous interrogation and at the end of it a decision has to be made. Is the story true or false? In this case the lady in question said that she had had an affair with a big Fijian (affair is probably not quite the right word) and that they had wallowed with each other in a pig pen. I said ‘bullshit’ and she admitted it was a lie (but I think we both knew she was telling the truth!) – so Tent pegs and Pig Pens? What’s the difference?

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Let’s hear it for the blurb writer

Apologies – to the three people who actually follow this blog – for the long silence. I have been dwelling in that intellectual desert, Hong Kong. Now some people will criticise that statement on the grounds that there is probably a great deal of intellectual endeavor going on in that place – just that it is taking place in another language. Quite right too. I consider the wrist slapped. So I will fall back on the existential, only-talking-from-my-own-extremely-limited-personal-perspective, position.

Now, for those who don’t know me, I used to live in Hong Kong and I have many connections to the place – I was brought up there, lived many happy years there, married there, founded charities there, wrote books there, brought up 2 children there, walked along hillside tracks there and all in all treasure these memories. But this time I went back after 5 years and …felt completely disconnected from the place. The words that come to mind are remorseless and relentless. There is a constant battle with surging humanity – a lot of it mainland in origin. Believe me there are going to be ructions in Hong Kong – serious ructions (in the form of demonstrations, even riots) – so it will be a long time before I go back. The great thing about the trip was falling into old conversations frictionlessly with old friends as if I had been away a week rather than 5 years. So it was an extraordinary pleasure for me – on my return – to stand in the street not far from here and savour the solitude of the place. This is something you can never feel in Hong Kong. There is nowhere you can escape to – nowhere urban – where you can feel so wonderfully alone. I’m sure that will pall but it was a great pleasure.

A pleasure too to browse the book racks again. I discovered a new writer – Walker Percy, a Louisiana doctor turned novelist. There were four of his books in the racks (the good thing about this second hand world is that collections sometimes stay together) – here we had the leavings from the table of someone who had once enjoyed Walker Percy. I bought two of the books on the grounds that they might be good (to buy all four smacked too much of an investment). However, 100 pages into the first of these books – The Thanatos Syndrome – I was excited enough to rush out to get the other two – but then the second half of the book did not quite live up to the promise of the first – was it a thriller, a social commentary or black humour or what? Anyway, he writes well,and thoughtfully, about the Louisiana folk heritage – and he’s Catholic so we can’t ever quite escape the philosophical excursions into the murky swamps of guilt and sin. He was certainly well reviewed as a leading American writer (who wasn’t that well known) – Here is the Amazon summary bio:

Walker Percy (1916-1990) was one of the most prominent American writers of the twentieth century. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, he was the oldest of three brothers in an established Southern family that contained both a Civil War hero and a U.S. senator. Acclaimed for his poetic style and moving depictions of the alienation of modern American culture, Percy was the bestselling author of six fiction titles–including the classic novel The Moviegoer (1961), winner of the National Book Award–and fifteen works of nonfiction. In 2005, Time magazine named The Moviegoer one of the best English-language books published since 1923.

OK. So I should have known about him, I guess – and so it is a pleasure to make his acquaintance even if I have done so rather tardily.

The point is I could never in a million years bump into a second hand copy of any novel by Walker Percy in the cultural desert of Hong Kong (though some people see it as more of a cultural dessert!)

And then another book rack on another day brought me face to face with Aritha van Herk and her book The Pig Pen. I see from a brief excursion into the ethernet that van Herk is a contemporary Canadian author. I have to say that a novel with the title The Pig Pen doesn’t excite the intellectually questiing juices and I left the book there. This was despite a sub-title that pulled out all the stops: “One woman. Nine men. The wilderness.” – the back cover talked of passions bubbling to the surface and the book ending in a loud climax. 

I think the blurb writer was Ms van Herk herself – it often is the author who has to do this job – and that she was having a joke. I hadn’t realised – it was a post-modernist joke – and that she was probably laughing as loud as I was. I was screeching with laughter. One day I must buy the book.

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