Many people are suggesting good books to read during these difficult locked-down times, so I thought I’d chip in my tuppence worth and briefly describe two humdingers which I have recently enjoyed. As I get older, I seem to read more and more primarily novels, but both of the books I’d like to recommend are non-fiction, and both, in different ways, overlap with my Leo Moran series of detective stories. By the way, the third in the Leo series, The Mystery of the Strange Piper, is due out this year!
First up is The Empress of Ireland, an account by the late screenwriter and Fleet Street journalist Christopher Robbins of his friendship with the film director Brian Desmond Hurst. Brian was a colossus of London life in the middle twentieth century. He directed my favourite version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (Scrooge, 1951; the one that starred Alastair Sim). Anyway, Christopher was introduced to Brian in the early 1970s when the director would hold court to a bevy of friends and acolytes at his Belgravia apartment. Christopher was enrolled to write a movie script about the events which led up to the birth of Christ. The project, one feels, was destined never to get off the ground. Perhaps it wasn’t meant to. Perhaps it was conceived by Brian merely for his own amusement, but at least it allowed a friendship to blossom and adventures to unfold. This funny book takes us from London to Tangier to Ireland to Malta. People were evidently drawn to Brian, and there wasn’t anyone worth knowing who he didn’t know, everyone from Noel Coward to Louis Mountbatten to Russian émigré and suspected double agent Baroness Moura Budberg. John Ford counted him as a close personal friend. I like to incorporate cultivated, good-living, larger-than-life characters in the Leo Moran books and I loved this ultimately tender rendering of this largely forgotten, eccentric, magnificent man and indeed a lost version of London. Brian was a singular person of complexity and contradictions, oscillating between magnanimity and freeloading, warm-heartedness and brusqueness, vanity and deep religious devotion. He was an unashamed homosexual – in the days when to be such was hazardous, yet a devout Catholic. Brian’s existence might seem sumptuous and rarified – trite, even – until you read of his humble Belfast beginnings and the loss of his younger brother, let alone until you read about his experiences at the killing ground of Gallipoli.
The second tome I’d like to humbly commend is JA Baker’s The Peregrine (1967). It is regarded as one of the greatest nature books of the twentieth century, although I admit I had never heard of it until I was gifted it. It is beyond nature writing; it reads almost like a novel as it relates the eternal deadly drama of the wild world. Yet it does so in prose so rich and vivid and inventive and lyrical as to resemble poetry. It details one person’s obsession, the peregrine falcon, yet it also includes many other birds and animals of that predator’s universe. The stage is a modest valley in rural Essex, yet Baker transfigures this landscape and even the drabbest of its feral inhabitants with his extraordinary descriptions. Even details such as the particular flight pattern of an individual hawk are worthy of pause, yet the text never feels verbose, nothing is wasted. In fact, the narrative is always compelling so you have to consciously slow your reading because you don’t want to rush it, you want to savour every delicious morsel. Baker was evidently a man confident in his mastery of the craft, able to push the boundaries of observational writing. And his expertise on the behaviours and instincts of these remarkable creatures is deeply impressive. I like to incorporate scenes of nature in my Leo Moran novels, but I can only doff my cap to Baker’s genius. The book is presented as a journal spanning a single winter, although in fact, for impact, Baker distilled several winters’ worth of observations into one. Memorable passages include the description of the death of a partridge from the perspective of both hawk and prey, and a sudden woodland encounter between author and tawny owl (the helmeted face was pale white, ascetic, half-human, bitter and withdrawn). If writing can be transcendental, then try this telling of a peregrine’s aerial duel with a skylark for size:
Their rapid, shifting, dancing motion had been so deft and graceful that it was difficult to believe that hunger was the cause of it and death the end. The killing that follows the hunting flight of hawks comes with a shocking force, as though the hawk had suddenly gone mad and killed the thing it loved. The striving of birds to kill, or to save themselves from death, is beautiful to see. The greater the beauty the more terrible the death.
Baker, who passed away in 1987, was writing at a time when persecution but especially chemical pollutants were destroying this species in Britain. He thought he was witnessing the end of its days, but happily the peregrine was saved. His masterpiece should be a torch handed down to future generations.