18.2.15

Pilgrim

When a book has a quote on the cover that proclaims it as “the only thriller you need to read this year”, you may think that’s hyperbole but sooner or later you might be interested in finding out what all the fuss is about. Especially if you’ve seen quite a few people reading it on the Tube.

The thriller in question is I am Pilgrim, the debut novel by journalist and screenwriter Terry Hayes. Be warned, though – once you get started on this, you won’t want to put it down. It’s smart, complex and very compelling.

The story begins at a murder scene in New York. The narrator is the Pilgrim of the title, a man of many aliases who used to work for an ultra-secret US intelligence department – he was, of course, their best agent – but left after 9/11. Since then, he wrote a highly-regarded book on forensic pathology (published under a false name) and has used his fieldcraft to disappear under a false identity and move to Paris in a doomed attempt to leave the secret world behind him and try to lead something approaching a normal life. However, he gets tracked down by a determined NYPD homicide cop who has been inspired by his book – which is how Pilgrim ends up helping to investigate a murder in which the killer appears to have drawn inspiration from said book to create a situation where the police can’t even identify the victim, let alone the killer. Subsequently, the US government comes back into his life – as well as a suicide that may not be all it seems in Turkey, there’s a big terrorist plot against America, but they don’t know who’s behind it, where the plot is being hatched or what form the attack will take. Only Pilgrim can figure this out.

Running alongside this are some flashbacks in which we get to see how Pilgrim became involved in, and later disillusioned with, the secret world. We also get to see another series of flashbacks that track the life of the novel’s antagonist, a character known only as the Saracen – a Saudi boy who witnesses his father’s beheading, became disillusioned with his mother’s tentative embracing of Western values and went off to fight the Russians in Afghanistan. Having thus become a Muslim fundamentalist, he went on to become a doctor in Beirut but, having adopting a false identity, he is himself nigh-on untraceable. From this position, he sets about planning a spectacular act of bio-terrorism on US soil – without so much as setting foot in the country itself.

This parallel plot device is similar to the cat-and-mouse layout of Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, which follows both the titular assassin and the detective who’s on his trail until they finally meet at the novel’s climax. This is somewhat appropriate, for The Day of the Jackal, first published in 1971, was in many senses the first modern thriller (the first thriller having been John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, first published a century ago and never out of print since).

I am Pilgrim is, at 896 pages, a long book but this gives Hayes the chance to go deep into the characters of both Pilgrim and the Saracen. We get the extensive back-stories of both men – the adopted, Harvard-educated spook who’s more than capable of getting information out of Swiss bankers and bumping off just about anyone if required to do so but has a vulnerable side when it comes to the subject of his foster-parents, and the radicalised Islamist who will stop at nothing (in one memorably gruesome scene, he even removes someone’s eyes so that he can beat the iris-recognition software in a top-secret Damascus laboratory) in his quest to bring the mighty USA to its knees. At times, the book’s fast-paced plot, spectacular set-pieces and array of locations feel like it should be a movie (which I don’t doubt it will be at some point), which is in a sense appropriate as Hayes’s background is in movie screenwriting.


All in all, those commuters who were engrossed in this novel really were onto something. I am Pilgrim is definitely worth a read.

6.2.15

Coventry Cathedral

A few months ago, I visited Coventry on business. At first glance it was a very uninspiring place – the city centre is a textbook example of the sort of dull, unimaginative post-war planning that involved a lot of concrete, resulting in what was apparently one of the first large-scale pedestrianised shopping precincts in Europe.

The reason for this is that in November 1940, Coventry was flattened by the Luftwaffe. Over 4000 houses, three-quarters of the city’s industrial plants and the city’s old medieval heart were destroyed, and of the buildings that were left standing afterwards most were deemed so unsafe that they had to be knocked down.

All that was left of the fourteenth-century cathedral was a roofless shell and the spire.



When the city was rebuilt, it was decided that the remains of the cathedral should be preserved as a permanent memorial, with a new, modern cathedral being built next door.


I somehow managed to get to Coventry early for my meeting, so I decided to take a look around the cathedral. The old one, that is. Open to the elements, it has the feel of an old castle courtyard. Where the altar once stood is a wooden cross; the wood is from two of the old roof timbers, found amid the ruins (having fallen in the shape of a cross) not long after the bombing; the words “Father Forgive” are inscribed on the sanctuary wall behind. A memorial to those who died on the Home Front during the war is nearby. Forgiveness and reconciliation were key themes in the rebuilding.


I don’t know of many war memorials that commemorate the sacrifices made on the Home Front, but I will say this: A visit to the bombed-out shell of Coventry Cathedral is a sobering reminder of the realities of war, and as memorials go it is both beautiful and breathtaking.

Some time later, when I had a lunch break, I returned to the cathedral and turned my attention to the one part of the old structure that’s still standing – the spire. At 295 feet, it’s the tallest structure in the city (and indeed the third-tallest cathedral spire in England, after Salisbury and Norwich), and it’s open to the public.


Now I cannot resist the chance to climb a tower at the best of times. For £2:50, I got to climb to the top for a view over Coventry – including such sights as the university, the ring road and, somewhere in the distance, Birmingham. Another cathedral visited, another tower climbed.




Elsewhere in the city, there wasn’t really much to see. That said, Coventry city centre does have a statue of a naked woman on horseback.



This commemorates Lady Godiva, the wife of an eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon nobleman who ruled these parts. Legend has it that when he was obliged to raise taxes, Godiva made him promise that he wouldn’t if she rode naked through the city. He called her bluff, but she wasn’t bluffing – riding naked through the city is, apparently, exactly what she did. Out of respect (she had, after all, just saved them from a tax hike), the townspeople averted their eyes as she rode past – all except an apprentice who became the original Peeping Tom.

14.1.15

They really got me

Musicals don’t tend to be my cup of tea, although there are exceptions. Sunny Afternoon, featuring the music of The Kinks, is such an exception.

I’m biased of course; I happen to be of the opinion that The Kinks are one of the greatest bands ever to have existed, and that their lead singer-songwriter, Ray Davies, is some sort of genius. I’m pretty sure that there’s more to this than the North London factor.

They were highly innovative, for example – the distinctive intro to ‘You Really Got Me’ was the first use of distortion sound (see below), and when they moved away from  hard-driving rock, Ray Davies developed a flair for social commentary (as seen in ‘A Well Respected Man’ and ‘Dead End Street’ – for which they shot the promotion film, a precursor to the modern-day music video, in Kentish Town), a decrying of increased urbanisation (‘Village Green’ and the subsequent album The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation  Society), a sense of British post-imperial malaise (the album Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire)) and the startlingly modern (‘Lola’). Their influence has resonated down the years; ‘You Really Got Me’ was particularly influential on heavy metal and punk rock, while The Jam (who covered ‘David Watts’), Blur and Oasis all cited them as a major influence. More recently, their music has been used in films like Hot Fuzz and The Darjeeling Limited and, a couple of years ago, Ray Davies released an album called See My Friends in which he had re-recorded a number of old Kinks tracks with various artists.

That said, one does get the distinct impression that they boys from Muswell Hill have been overlooked in favour of the likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones; no doubt the mid-Sixties ban on playing in the USA at the height of the British Invasion is a factor here, but even the band’s on-stage squabbling – Dave Davies getting knocked out by Mick Avory during a gig, anyone? – seems, when seen through the prism of history, to pale in comparison to the bust-ups of Mick ’n’ Keef, to say nothing of the trail of on-and-off-stage destruction left by the likes of Keith Moon.

Last year, someone (presumably inspired by musicals based on the works of, among others, Queen and Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons) had the idea of putting together band’s songs in a musical; this premiered in Hampstead (not far from where the Davies brothers grew up) before transferring to the West End.

The plot – I believe that in musicals, the technical term for this is ‘book’ – was about the band’s formation and how they – particularly Ray and Dave – dealt with fame and money-grubbing hangers-on. The story of how Dave (who was only 17 when the band made it big) sliced open the speaker-cone of his amplifier and then plugged it into another amp to get the distortion sound for the guitar track of ‘You Really Got Me’ (just one of the band’s many ground-breaking innovations) is retold, as is the band’s hedonistic rock ’n’ roll lifestyle (including the on-stage fights) and their getting banned from playing in America.

As well as the famous songs – ‘You Really Got Me’, ‘Waterloo Sunset’, ‘Lola’ and (or course) ‘Sunny Afternoon’ (accompanied by shameless Union Jack-waving) were all present and correct, as were social commentary tracks like ‘Dedicated Follower Of Fashion’, ‘A Well Respected Man’ and ‘Dead End Street’ – lesser-known tracks like ‘This Strange Effect’ and ‘This Time Tomorrow’ were also woven into the plot. None of them felt like they’d been crow-barred into it, which is the feeling one gets with some musicals. The decision to sing the somewhat fragile ‘Days’ without instrumental accompaniment was a bold one that paid off, while the last twenty or so minutes felt like a particularly raucous gig (as the best ones should be, of course), with the audience singing along and thoroughly enjoying themselves.

During the interval, Dad wondered out loud whether anyone else in the theatre had actually seen The Kinks live, as he did a couple of times at the Wembley Arena back in the day. “Wimbledon Palais,” quipped a man standing near us; this exchange led to a discussion about the relative merits of Something Else and the Kwyet Kinks EP. No-one minded; in fact, several passers-by looked like they wanted to join in.


It was that sort of evening.

11.12.14

Fulham away

If you make a habit of going to football matches over a period of many years, you will note that there are some games (quite a few of them, in fact) that do not linger in the memory. You know you went to them (perhaps because you’ve kept the programme or the ticket), but you can’t for the life of you say with much certainty what happened, or even who played. All those damp nil-nil draws and scratchy defeats have a habit of merging into one over time.

Surely this phenomenon is not confined to Watford fans alone.

Then there are the games that stick in the memory. These tend, in my experience, to be either away games, big games (cup semi-finals, etc) or the ones where something truly memorable happened on the pitch.

Away games can be memorable because of the journey there, and the fact that they offer a chance to visit parts of the country you otherwise wouldn’t go to; in my particular case, the cities of Birmingham, Cardiff and Sheffield are places that I have only been to for football-watching reasons. They’re also memorable because, well, away fans always seem to be having more fun. There are less of them, so they feel obliged to make more noise.

The famous games, of course, are the ones where you remember most of the action (usually, but not always, because your team not only wins, but wins well) and can, years later, be proud to say “I was there”.

Sometimes a game sticks in the memory because it is both a famous result and an away fixture.

Last week, I went to such a game.

Earlier this season, Dad and I agreed that we’d go to an away game. The options were, for the sake of convenience, quickly reduced to the London clubs in the Championship. Of these, I ruled out Brentford and Milwall on the grounds that I’ve already been to those two. Charlton Athletic was ruled out because, by the time we’d agreed to do an away game, that one had already taken place. That left Fulham, to be held on the first Saturday in December. Or, after Sky Sports had decided to televise it, the first Friday evening in December.

To be honest, I was not optimistic. Fulham, so I learned from the BBC Sport website, had a pretty good home record and, having previously seen a very lacklustre Watford get beaten at home by Derby County, I reckoned we’d do well to get a consolation goal.

Our journey to Craven Cottage was by Tube. As we got nearer to our destination, we started to notice more and more people who were clearly heading in the same direction; a couple of lads in Fulham tracksuit tops who took note of me in my yellow, black and red scarf and paid me no further attention; as we alighted at Putney Bridge, one of them commented to the other about the large number of Watford fans who’d evidently turned out for the game. As the relative silence of a large number of people filing through a Tube station was broken by a chant of “YOU ’ORRRRNS!”, it was fairly obvious who was going to be the louder contingent.

We made it into the ground a minute or so before kick-off; unusual for us, but such is the price of a second pint in the pub before heading out to the game (thankfully, the designated away stand, the Putney End, is the one closest to the afore-mentioned Tube station). Already, the away contingent was in the mood for a party. Whatever else happened, we were going to do our best to enjoy ourselves.

The usual chants of lacklustre home support are always a popular away fan target; the Fulham contingent, among whom empty seats were conspicuous, were the target of such ditties as “You’re supposed to be at home” (to the tune of ‘Bread of Heaven’) and “Your ground’s too big for you” (to the tune of the Italian national anthem).

Located right next to the River, Craven Cottage has something of an old-fashioned air, what with the triangular gable atop the Johnny Haynes Stand (itself one of the oldest remaining stands in the League) and the continued presence of what looks like an actual cottage in one of the corners – it’s called the Cottage Pavilion and houses the players’ changing rooms. A reminder of how football grounds used to be as so many of them – Vicarage Road included – continue to be redeveloped.


But never mind what was happening in the stands, or even the aesthetic quality of said stands; what about on the pitch? Contrary to my expectations, Watford were all over the home team. Three corners in the first ten minutes – surely it was only a matter of time before we scored?

Things happened quickly from thereon after – football matches can be like that, long and drawn out if dull, over too quickly if exciting. Watford score from an Almen Abdi free kick, and minutes later we got a penalty when Matej Vydra was bundled over by their goalie – who got sent off for his troubles. Captain  Troy Deeney scored from the spot, and Watford were 2-0 up within the first 20 minutes. We away fans changed our tune, the tune of the Beach Boys’ 1966 hit ‘Sloop John  B’ in fact:
                We’re winning away,
                We’re winning awa-a-ay,
                How shit must you be?
                We’re winning away!

Watford remained in firm control, with Deeney getting a second. He’s had quite the career, what with having done time for affray before becoming the first Watford player since Luther Blissett back in the Eighties to score more than 20 goals in two consecutive seasons (he was our Player of the Season for 2013-14).

As the players trooped off, Dad and I realised that we hadn’t made use of our seats; like everyone else in the away end, we’d been on our feet for the whole half. We’d be on our feet for the whole of the second half too. The last time I stood for an entire game, it was due to terracing.

For the second half, Watford were attacking in the direction of the away end and a mere five minutes passed before the goal of the night – Abdi again, the man who originally came to Vicarage Road on loan from our sister-club Udinese, with a stunning shot from outside the box. The (substitute) goalie didn’t even move. 4-0. Dreamland. Especially if you’re away from home.

Watford remained on top, with chances from Deeney and Fernando Forestieri (another one from Udinese!) going begging. Fulham had the odd shot on goal but their hearts weren’t in it.

Towards the end, the chants in the Putney End became more varied and took on a decidedly retro quality as we extolled the virtues of Elton John’s Taylor-made army, Luther (no surname required), Steve Palmer (who, so we used to allege, only smoked marijuana), Micah Hyde (he was here, he was there, he was every-f***ing-where) and Tommy Smith (he got the ball, he scored them all). All the while, the team were stringing together moves of over a dozen passes before an utterly demoralised home team. How long ago that Derby game seemed now!

Then, after the fourth official had announced how many extra minutes would be played, the passes moved forward, and suddenly Deeney was through with only the goalie to beat. He didn’t mess around, and the Putney End erupted once again. If you want to know what that sounded like, you can listen here.

On the walk back from a truly memorable evening (much more memorable than the last 5-0 game I attended!), I found that ninety-odd minutes of continuous shouting had given me a sore throat – something that hasn’t happened in a footballing context for quite some time. I had also thoroughly enjoyed myself – and it’s not every game for which a Watford fan can say that. Away games: I should go to these more often.

4.12.14

P.D. James

Authors have a habit of living on through their works long after they’ve died. The likes of Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming (to say nothing of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, etc) still adorn the shelves of bookshops the world over, acquiring new readers long after their literary output has ceased. Like their living counterparts, some are defined by the genre in which they wrote, others less so.

P.D. James, who died last week at the age of 94, will be best remembered for her crime novels but she was always more than a crime writer. To her, it was perfectly possible to write good fiction that happened to come under the heading of ‘crime’. There are people who look down on crime writers and indeed crime fiction as a genre (those people don’t know what they’re missing, if you ask me), but from a literary perspective one really couldn’t look down on a writer as erudite as P.D. James.

Indeed, some of her books – always a treat to read – transcended the murder mystery genre; Innocent Blood dealt with a girl who finds out that her parents were murderers (James was not the sort of author to neglect looking at what effect the act of murder would have on ordinary people caught up in the story), while The Children of Men is best described as dystopian science-fiction.

But it was her other interests as well that made her more than a crime writer. P.D. James, who worked for the NHS and later the Home Office for many years, was also a Booker Prize judge (hardly a position one would usually associate with a crime novelist), a BBC governor and a Tory peer (she sat in the House of Lords as Baroness James of Holland Park). Five years ago she grilled the Director-General of the BBC on the Today programme, and earlier this year she was one of 200 public figures who signed a letter to the Guardian opposing Scottish independence. She was also a committed Anglican, which explains the church-related theme running through several of her works, and not just relating to her principal detective being the son of a rector – for example, the two bodies (one an MP, the other a tramp) at the start of A Taste for Death are found in a church vestry, while Death in Holy Orders is mainly set in a theological college in rural East Anglia – a location also used for Devices and Desires (the title of which was derived from a passage in the Book of Common Prayer; James, apparently, was rather put out when hardly anyone picked up on this after the book’s publication).

Similarly, her main protagonist, Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard, was somehow more than just a detective – he was also a published poet and, being a cerebral type, was often compared to Inspector Morse (and like Morse’s creator, Colin Dexter, P.D. James was never a one-novel-a-year author; her 19-novel output was spread between 1962 and 2011).

P.D. James always had a lot to say in her books about human experiences – even minor characters had interesting backgrounds, and to her mysteries were all about clues rather than coincidences. There was a great quote from her in an article in the Globe & Mail written just after her death by a reporter who’d interviewed her on more than one occasion, and it sums up her approach not just to her novels but to life in general: “The underlying message [of mysteries] is that no matter how difficult problems are in life – in your own life or in the life of a country or society – in the end they can always be solved, not by divine intervention or good luck, but by human intelligence, human courage, human perseverance.”