PAW 12 – The Comforters (1911) by Muriel Spark

The Comforters by Muriel Spark; Penguin Paperback 1911; 1963 edition, illustration by Terrence Greer

The Comforters by Muriel Spark; Penguin Paperback 1911; 1963 edition, illustration by Terrence Greer

The Comforters was Muriel Spark’s first book and it is instantly impressive, if meandering, inscrutable, and autobiographical in a delusional, surreal sort of way– like much of Spark’s best work.

The central plot is a sort of Ealing Comedy jewel heist, involving some unlikely characters just like an Ealing Comedy, and a young author, Caroline, who becomes entangled in their affairs. However, the interior character of the author is where most of the drama happens, since she is fairly delusional (or is she?) in a harmless way that people in one of the comfortable British classes were thought of. Caroline’s boyfriend Laurence would probably be the lead character in any other book written by a male author, and here he serves as a catalyst to many of the interactions in the book. There is also the literally larger-than-life Mrs Hogg, who is reminiscent of G K Chesterton’s Sunday in The Man Who Was Thursday. In the same way as that character she embodies a kind of cosmic inscrutability, yet she certainly has her flaws and bears feet of clay.

Spark, like Chesterton and Greene, was a Catholic writer who manages to combine the playful imagination and experimentalism of the former with the sharp insight into human nature of the latter. And of course all three, being Catholics, were well at home with mystery and philosophical tension.

Spark apparently had experience with hallucinogens in the form of dexedrine which was used as a dieting aid in the Fifties. She wrote the book and lent it to friend and author Alan Barnsley who passed it on to Evelyn Waugh (another fine Catholic novelist) and he sent it to Macmillan who published it that same year.

It’s not the first book of Spark’s that I would recommend someone to read (that would be Loitering With Intent), but if you are a fan of Muriel Spark, it would be a mistake to give this hard-to-find volume a pass.


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PAW 11 – The Incredulity of Father Brown (1069) by G K Chesterton

The Incredulity of Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton; Penguin Paperback 1069; 1963 edition; Cover by Romek Marber

The Incredulity of Father Brown
by G. K. Chesterton; Penguin Paperback 1069; 1963 edition; Cover by Romek Marber

The Incredulity of Father Brown is the third collection of short mysteries by G K Chesterton about that character. It is also, perhaps interestingly, the first collection of stories about the Catholic priest written when Chesterton was, himself, a Catholic.

Not that this would seem to have any bearing on the stories themselves — they are still delightfully and masterfully written. Just about all of them hinge on a sudden revelation of plain-thinking, or common sense. No matter how grand or twisted the obfuscation of the mystery is, Brown is able to deftly wave it away and let everyone see the actual situation for what it is.

To say more would  give away the individual stories themselves. Personal favourites in this volume were “The Arrow of Heaven”, “The Oracle of the Dog”, and “The Doom of the Darnaways”, this last of which is a very moody and gothic mystery with shades of Poe in the atmosphere. Chesterton heaps layer upon layer of superstition, spiritualism, and science. At its philosophical climax, there is as serious discussion about suicide. And Brown is in the middle of it, the pure rationalist. This is my favourite passage from that story, and one of my all times from Chesterton:

‘I’m uncommonly keen on daylight,’ answered Father Brown, ‘especially in this dingy business; and photography has the virtue of depending on daylight. And if you don’t know that I would grind all the Gothic arches in the world to powder to save the sanity of a single human soul, you don’t know so much about my religion as you think you do.’

This perfectly states not only Brown’s, but Chaterton’s level-headedness when it comes to religion and philosophy. True philosophy and religion are a help to mankind, not a hindrance, at that is where the joy of worship resides — a worship which Chesterton has applied to the mystery genre.


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Virgin Media Calling (1)

I haven’t heard from EE & T-Mobile since that last conversation I had, but luckily Virgin Media has stepped into the gap. Today I spoke to Anthony:

Anthony: Hello, sir, I’m calling for Ross Law…? Low…? Lowhead?

Me: Yes?

Anthony: Hello, this is Anthony from Virgin Media, how are we today?

Me: Hi, Anthony. Where’s Napoleon? He spoke to me yesterday.

Anthony: You talked to someone yesterday? And what was the result of that call?

Me: He offered me a £5 SIM card.

Anthony: That’s right, and I can see here that you didn’t complete the process yet. Sir, in order to access your account, I need you to answer a few security questions, for data protection purposes. First, can you tell me the first and third characters from your password, please?

Me: First and third…? No. I can tell you the second and fourth, but not the first and third.

Anthony: Ha ha. You can tell me the whole password if you like. Or just the first and third characters.

Me: No. Who can remember all that stuff?

Anthony: That’s fine, sir. In that case I will ask you a few more transactions, for data protection purposes. What is your date of birth? Continue reading

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PAW 10 – A Plague of Demons (2698) by Keith Laumer

A Plague of Demons by Keith Laumer; Penguin Paperback (2698); 1965 edition

A Plague of Demons by Keith Laumer; Penguin Paperback (2698); 1965 edition; cover by Alan Aldridge

Full disclosure: I bought A Plague of Demons by Keith Laumer purely for the cover. I haven’t heard of the book before, or its author, but I’m an admirer of the legendary Alan Aldridge who designed the cover for this book and the rest in the series, and on the back of these he was made Art Director at Penguin, in 1965. I decided to read it this week because it’s been a while since I’ve dipped in to some vintage SF.

There is an Edgar Allan Poe story called The Man Who Was Used Up, in which an army officer has had so much of himself replaced – arms, legs, nose, various organs – that he is far less organic material than manufactured material. This is probably the earliest instance of the transhuman in literature, although he does also pop up in other places, such as Darth Vader in Star Wars, or the titular Robocop. But rarely is the process shown so descriptively or comprehensively, happening by degrees as it does in A Plague of Demons by Keith Laumer. But although Bravis loses his body, we are not shown that he loses his humanity – at least, he does not suffer from it.

I was impressed by A Plague of Demons, and it is a shame that it is not more remembered, but the fact is that it isn’t that well written. The prose is workman, a little stodgy, and now a little dated. It takes too long to get to the really imaginative part of the book, and that section ends too quickly. Also, the villains are generally without purpose and there is a contradiction in the fact that they harvest from earth, but have not subjugated it in one thousand years. I ended up enjoying it very much, however, and I’m very glad I got to meet Aethelbert, the tank that speaks Anglo-Saxon.


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How I Stopped 02070604512

Over the last month I’ve received over twleve calls from 02070604512 — who are call marketers, purportedly from EE and T-Mobile (who I am signed with for my phone) trying to get me to switch to them for land-line and broadband services as well. At first these calls were once a week, but at the end they were ringing me several times a day. At first I listened politely and explained I didn’t want to switch, but they kept calling. Then I tried ignoring them but they WOULD NOT STOP CALLING. Then I realised that I was being presented with a creative opportunity here and so I decided to have a little fun. The next time 02070604512 called, I gave this a try:

*Phone rings*

Call Marketer: Goo–

Me: Good evening, you’re through to Ross Lawhead. Just to make you aware, this call is being recorded for training and monitoring purposes. Can I take your name please?

Call Marketer: I…

*Line goes dead.*

I’ve worked in a call center before, and I know that these guys are just trying to make the best of what is one of the worst jobs in the world. So the trick with these is not to abuse or make fun of them, but just to throw them off kilter a little. The next day I got two more calls from 02070604512, the first while I was at work, the second just before dinner:

Call Marketer: Hello, I’m calling from EE and T-Mobile for Ross Lawhead, is he available?

Me: That’s me. Would you mind telling me your name?

Call Marketer: My name is Christine.

Me: Hi, Christine. I’m glad you called because I’m very excited to be able to offer you cheaper broadband today. Would you be interested in that?

Christine: …Maybe…?

Me: Can I ask how much you currently pay for your broadband?

Christine: Nothing. It’s free.

Me: Free? Can I have free wifi too?

Christine: Yes… if you come down South Africa.

Me: South Africa? My phone said you were calling from London. So how come your wifi is free?

Christine: I stay with my sister.

Me: So if I come down to South Africa and stay with you and your sister, you’re saying I can use your wifi?

Christine: Sure. Maybe.

Me: But why don’t you let me give you cheap broadband so that you don’t have to borrow from your sister? I have a very exciting deal I can offer you.

Christine: …. [long silence]….

Me: I know you’re still there. I know that you’ve only muted your microphone. Christine…

Christine: Quite honestly I don’t use wifi very much because I work a lot.

Me: Ah. I understand, I work a lot too. I’ll tell you what, I’ll stop trying to offer you cheap broadband over the phone, okay?

Christine: …okay.

Me: Okay, thanks Christine.

Christine: …goodbye.

Me: ‘Bye, Christine.

I wasn’t prepared for how well this stratagem worked. It’s now been six days and I haven’t received any more calls from 02070604512. Which is a shame, because I had a lot more ideas to share with them. For instance, the next time they call, I think they’ll be surprised at how little I’m suddenly paying for broadband — just pence, really! I want to see if I can get them to beat it…

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