a tragedy in miniature: short fiction by stig dagerman

In culling my library over the weekend I came across an old issue of the once-great Grand Street, which had a somewhat fresher translation of Stig Dagerman’s short story “To Kill A Child” than the one in my old Quartet Encounters collection of his short stories, The Games of NightOne of Sweden’s most respected writers of the 1940s and 50s, Dagerman (October 5, 1923 – November 5, 1954) published his first novel when he was just 22 years old. His continual themes were fear and terror, guilt and loneliness. Toward the end of his life Dagerman, like so many other writers in the 1950s, railed against the onset of the dreary mono-culture:  

I believe that man’s natural enemy is the mega-organization because it robs him of the vital necessity to feel responsible for his fellow-man, it restricts his possibilities to show solidarity and love and instead turns him into an agent of power, that for the moment may be directed against others, but ultimately is directed against himself.

 —from Dagerman’s “Do We Believe In Man?” (1950)

By the time Dagerman was 26, he’d published six books and written four full-length plays. He married the actress Anita Bjork, (she appeared in Ingmar Bergman’s “Secrets of Women).” But then Dagerman practically stopped writing, and committed suicide in 1954, at the age of 31.

In his introduction to The Games of Night, Dagerman biographer Michael Meyer states that:

Like his masters Strindberg and Kafka, he photographed his small, split world with a vivid and faithful clarity, and sometimes one is haunted by a secret and uneasy suspicion that his private vision, like Strindberg’s and Kafka’s, may in fact be nearer the truth of things than those visions of the great humanists, such as Tolstoy and Balzac, which people call universal.

Graham Greene observed that “Dagerman wrote with beautiful objectivity. Instead of emotive phrases, he uses a choice of facts, like bricks, to construct an emotion.”

In his famous “To Kill A Child,” Dagerman creates an atmosphere and setting which conveys the irrevocable nature of personal tragedy. Three narrative spaces are laid out within the initial omniscient view of all three villages. The reader is alternated between the first and third, and then between the second and third. Just as the story steps through three spaces, so too do its inhabitants.  The couple in the car are moving towards the child who is moving; his parents are stationary. It is the car and child that will collide, at the foreordained crisis point in the third village. But the reader, like the characters, cannot do anything other than move forward until the inevitable occurs . . .

In 2003, a Swedish film director, Alexander Skarsgård, along with Björne Larsson, made a short film of To Kill a Child, (Att döda ett Barn), which may be viewed here:


Apparently the film was extremely well-received when it made its international premier at the Tribeca Film Festival. (Narration in Swedish, or some such North Germanic language). 













To Kill A Child

By Stig Dagerman

It’s a peaceful day as sunlight settles onto the fields of the plain. Soon bells will be ringing, because today is Sunday. Between fields of rye, two children have just come upon a footpath that they have never taken before, and in the three villages along the plain, windowpanes glisten in the sun. Men shave before mirrors propped on kitchen tables, women hum as they slice up cinnamon bread for the morning meal, and children sit on kitchen floors, buttoning the fronts of their shirts. This is the pleasant morning of an evil day, because on this day a child will be killed in the third village by a cheerful man. Yet the child still sits on the kitchen floor, buttoning his shirt. And the man who is still shaving talks of the day ahead, of their rowing trip down the creek. And still humming, the woman places the freshly cut bread on a blue plate.

No shadows pass over the kitchen, and yet even now the man who will kill the child stands near a red gas pump in the first village. He’s a cheerful man, looking through the viewfinder of his camera, framing a shot of a small blue car and a young woman who stands beside it, laughing. As the woman laughs and the man snaps the charming picture, the attendant screws their gas cap on tightly. He tells them it looks like a good day for a drive. The woman gets into the car, and the man who will kill the child pulls out his wallet. He tells the attendant they’re driving to the sea. He says when they reach the sea they’ll rent a boat and row far, far out. Through her open window, the woman in the front seat hears his words. She settles back and closes her eyes. And with her eyes closed she sees the sea and the man sitting beside her in a boat. He’s not an evil man, he’s carefree and cheerful. Before he climbs into the car, he stands for a moment in front of the grille, which gleams in the sun, and he enjoys the mixed aroma of gasoline and lilacs. No shadows fall over the car, and its shiny bumper has no dents, nor is it red with blood.

 But just as the man in the first village climbs into his car and slams the door shut, and as he is reaching down to pull out the choke, the woman in the third village opens her kitchen cupboard and finds that she has no sugar. The child, who has finished buttoning his shirt and has tied his shoes, kneels on a couch and sees the stream winding between the alders, pictures the black rowboat pulled up into the tall grass of the bank. The man who will lose his child has finished shaving and is just now closing his portable mirror. Coffee cups, cinnamon bread, cream, and flies each have a place on the table. Only the sugar is missing. And so the mother tells her child to run over to the Larssons’ to borrow a little. As the child opens the door, the man calls after him, urging him to hurry, because the boat lies waiting for them on the bank of the creek, and today they will row much, much further than they ever have before. Running through the yard, the child can think of nothing else but the stream and the boat and the fish that jump from the water. And no one whispers to the child that he has only eight minutes to live and that the boat will lie where it is today and for many days to come.

It isn’t far to the Larssons’. It’s only across the road. And just as the child is crossing that road, the small blue car is speeding through the second village. It’s a tiny village, with humble red houses and newly awakened people who sit in their kitchens with raised coffee cups. They look out over their hedges and see the car rush past, a large cloud of dust rising behind it. The car moves fast, and from behind the steering wheel, the man catches glimpses of apple trees and newly tarred telephone poles slipping past like gray shadows. Summer breathes through their open windows, and as they rush out of the second village their car hugs the road, riding safely, surely, in the middle. They are alone on this road — so far. It’s a peaceful thing, to drive completely alone on a broad road. And as they move out onto the open plain, that feeling of peace settles deeper. The man is strong and contented, and with his right elbow he can feel the woman’s body. He’s not a bad man. He’s in a hurry to get to the sea. He wouldn’t hurt even the simplest creature, and yet, still, he will soon kill a child. As they rush on toward the third village, the woman again shuts her eyes, pretending those eyes will not open again until they can look on the sea. In time with the car’s gentle swaying, she dreams about the calm, lapping tide, the peaceful, mirrored surface of the sea.

Because life is constructed in such a merciless fashion, even one minute before a cheerful man kills a child he can still feel entirely at ease, and only one minute before a woman screams out in horror she can close her eyes and dream of the sea, and during the last minute of that child’s life his parents can sit in a kitchen waiting for sugar, talking casually about the child’s white teeth and the rowing trip they have planned, and that child himself can close a gate and begin to cross a road, holding in his right hand a few cubes of sugar wrapped up in white paper, and for the whole of that minute he can see nothing but a clear stream with big fish and a wide-bottomed boat with silent oars.

Afterward, everything is too late. Afterward, there is a blue car stopped sideways in the road, and a screaming woman takes her hand from her mouth, and it’s dark with blood. Afterward, a man opens a car door and tries to stand on his legs, even though he has a pit of horror within him. Afterward, a few sugar cubes are strewn meaninglessly about in the blood and gravel, and a child lies motionless on its stomach, its face pressed heavily against the road. Afterward, two pale people, who have not yet had their coffee, come running through a gate to see a sight in the road they will never forget. Because it’s not true that time heals all wounds. Time does not heal the wounds of a killed child, and it heals very poorly the pain of a mother who forgot to buy sugar and who sent her childacross the road to borrow some. And it heals just as poorly the anguish of a once-cheerful man who has killed a child.

Because the man who has killed a child does not go to the sea. The man who has killed a child drives home slowly, in silence. And beside him sits a mute woman with a bandaged hand. And as they drive back through the villages, they do not see even one friendly face — all shadows, everywhere, are very dark. And when they part, it is in the deepest silence. And the man who has killed a child knows that this silence is his enemy, and that he will need years of his life to conquer it by crying out that it wasn’t his fault. But he also knows that this is a lie. And in the fitful dreams of his nights he will try instead to gain back just a single minute of his life, to somehow make that single minute different.

But life is so merciless to the man who has killed a child that everything afterward is too late.

—translated by Steven Hartman, with Lo Dagerman, in Grand Street, No. 42 (1992)





graham greene’s “the blue film”

"The Blue Film" is a tale of a married couple on holiday in Thailand (then Siam) in the early 1950s. Mrs. Carter complains that the holiday is tedious, and urges her husband to take her to ‘Spots’. Mr Carter and his wife decide to view the some "French films."
 The first film is unattractive, but the second has "some charm." Slowly Mr Carter realizes that the film is familiar to him…

Cover Image

“The Blue Film”

By Graham Greene




"Other people enjoy themselves," Mrs. Carter said.


"Well," her husband replied, "we’ve seen—"


"The reclining Buddha, the emerald Buddha, the floating markets," Mrs. Carter said. "We have dinner and go home to bed."


"Last night we went to Chez Eve…."


"If you weren’t with me," Mrs. Carter said, "you’d find… you know what I mean—Spots."


It was true, Carter thought, eyeing his wife over the coffee cups: her slave bangles chinked in time with her coffee spoon: she had reached an age when the satisfied woman is at her most beautiful, but the lines of discontent had formed. When he looked at her neck he was reminded of how difficult it was to unstring a turkey. Is it my fault, he wondered, or hers–or was it the fault of her birth, some glandular deficiency, some inherited characteristic? It was sad how when one was young, one so often mistook the signs of frigidity for a kind of distinction.


"You promised we’d smoke opium," Mrs. Carter said.


"Not here, darling. In Saigon. Here it’s ‘not done’ to smoke."


"How conventional you are."


"There’d be only the dirtiest of coolie places. You’d be conspicuous. They’d stare at you." He played his winning card. "There’d be cockroaches."


"I should be taken to plenty of Spots if I wasn’t with a husband."


He tried hopefully, "The Japanese strip teasers…" but she had heard all about them.


"Ugly women in brassiéres," she said. His irritation rose. He thought of the money he had spent to take his wife with him and to ease his conscience—he had been away too often without her—but there is no company more cheerless than that of a woman who is not desired. He tried to drink his coffee calmly: he wanted to bite the edge of the cup.


"You’ve spilt your coffee," Mrs. Carter said.


"I’m sorry." He got up abruptly and said, "All right. I’ll fix something. Stay here." He leant across the table. "You’d better not be shocked," he said. "You’ve asked for it."


"I don’t think I’m usually the one who is shocked," Mrs. Carter said with a thin smile.


Carter left the hotel and walked up towards the New Road. A boy hung at his side and said, "Young girl?"


"I’ve got a woman of my own," Carter said gloomily.




"No, thanks."


"French films?"


Carter paused. "How much?"


They stood and haggled awhile at the corner of the drab street. What with the taxi, the guide, the films, it was going to cost the best part of eight pounds, but it was worth it, Carter thought, if it closed her mouth forever from demanding "Spots." He went back to fetch Mrs. Carter.


They drove a long way and came to a halt by a bridge over a canal, a dingy lane overcast with indeterminate smells. The guide said, "Follow me."


Mrs. Carter put a hand on Carter’s arm. "Is it safe?" she asked.


"How would I know?" he said, stiffening under her hand.


They walked about fifty unlighted yards and halted by a bamboo fence. The guide knocked several times. When they were admitted it was to a tiny earth-floored yard and a wooden hut. Something—presumably human—was humped in the dark under a mosquito-net. The owner showed them into a tiny stuffy room with two hard chairs and a portrait of the King. The screen was about the size of a folio volume.


The first film was peculiarly unattractive and showed the rejuvenation of an elderly man at the hands of two blonde masseuses. From the women’s hairdressing the film must have been made in the late twenties. Carter and his wife sat in mutual embarrassment as the film whirled and clicked to a stop.


"Not a very good one," Carter said, as though he were a connoisseur.


"So that’s what they call a blue film," Mrs. Carter said. "Ugly and not exciting."


A second film started.


There was very little story in this. A young man -one couldn’t see his face because of the period soft hat -picked up a girl in the street (her cloche hat extinguished her like a meat-cover) and accompanied her to her room. The actors were young: there was some charm and excitement in the picture. Carter thought, when the girl took off her hat, I know that face, and a memory that had been buried for more than a quarter of a century moved. A doll over a telephone, a pin-up girl of the period over the double bed. The girl undressed, folding her clothes very neatly: she leant over to adjust the bed, exposing herself to the camera’s eye and to the young man: he kept his head turned from the camera. Afterwards, she helped him in turn to take off his clothes. It was only then he remembered—that particular playfulness confirmed by the birthmark on the man’s shoulder.


Mrs. Carter shifted on her chair. "I wonder how they find the actors," she said hoarsely.


"A prostitute," he said. "It’s a bit raw, isn’t it? Wouldn’t you like to leave?" he urged her, waiting for the man to turn his head. The girl knelt on the bed and held the youth around the waist—she couldn’t have been more than twenty. No; he made a calculation: twenty-one.


"We’ll stay," Mrs. Carter said. "We’ve paid." She laid a dry hot hand on his knee.


"I’m sure we could find a better place than this."




The young man lay on his back and the girl for a moment left him. Briefly, as though by accident, he looked at the camera. Mrs. Carter’s hand shook on his knee. "Good God," she said, "it’s you."


"It was me," Carter said, "thirty years ago." The girl was climbing back onto the bed.


"It’s revolting," Mrs. Carter said.


"I don’t remember it as revolting," Carter replied.


"I suppose you went and gloated, both of you."


"No, I never saw it."


"Why did you do it? I can’t look at you. It’s shameful."


"I asked you to come away."


"Did they pay you?"


"They paid her. Fifty pounds. She needed the money badly."


"And you had your fun for nothing?"




"I’d never have married you if I’d known. Never."


"That was a long time afterwards."


"You still haven’t said why. Haven’t you any excuse?" She stopped. He knew she was watching, leaning forward, caught up herself in the heat of that climax more than a quarter of a century old.


Carter said, "It was the only way I could help her. She’d never acted in one before. She wanted a friend."


"A friend," Mrs. Carter said.


"I loved her."


"You couldn’t love a tart."


"Oh yes, you can. Make no mistake about that."


"You queued for her, I suppose."


"You put it too crudely," Carter said.


"What happened to her?"


"She disappeared. They always disappear."


The girl leant over the young man’s body and put out the light. It was the end of the film. "I have new ones coming next week," the Siamese said, bowing deeply. They followed their guide back down the dark lane to the taxi.


In the taxi Mrs. Carter said, "What was her name?"


"I don’t remember." A lie was easiest.


As they turned into the New Road she broke her bitter silence again. "How could you have brought yourself…? It’s so degrading. Suppose someone you knew—in business—recognized you."


"People don’t talk about seeing things like that. Anyway, I wasn’t in business in those days."


"Did it never worry you?"


"I don’t believe I have thought of it once in thirty years."


"How long did you know her?"


"Twelve months, perhaps."


"She must look pretty awful by now if she’s alive. After all, she was common even then."


"I thought she looked lovely," Carter said.


They went upstairs in silence. He went straight to the bathroom and locked the door. The mosquitoes gathered around the lamp and the great jar of water. As he undressed he caught glimpses of himself in the small mirror; thirty years had not been kind: he felt his thickness and his middle-age. He thought, I hope to God she’s dead. Please, God, he said, let her be dead. When I go back in there, the insults will start again.


But when he returned Mrs. Carter was standing by the mirror. She had partly undressed. Her thin bare legs reminded him of a heron waiting for fish. She came and put her arms round him: a slave bangle joggled against his shoulder. She said, "I’d forgotten how nice you looked."


"I’m sorry. One changes."


"I didn’t mean that. I like you as you are."


She was dry and hot and implacable in her desire. "Go on," she said, "go on," and then she screamed like an angry and hurt bird. Afterwards she said, "It’s years since that happened," and continued to talk for what seemed a long half hour excitedly at his side. Carter lay in the dark silent, with a feeling of loneliness and guilt. It seemed to him that he had betrayed that night the only woman he loved.



telegraph’s strange list of the 20 best travel books of all time

"Newby . . . recounts a mountain-side encounter with the adventurer Wilfred Thesiger: We started to blow up our air-beds. ‘God, you must be a couple of pansies,’ said Thesiger.’ "

Cover Image








Seeking to escape the trivialities of London’s high-fashion scene, Eric Newby went on a mountain-climbing trip to north-eastern Afghanistan’s remote Hindu Kush:

The view was colossal. Below us on every side mountain surged away it seemed forever; we looked down on glaciers and snow-covered peaks that perhaps no one has ever seen before, except from the air.


An unorthodox selection from the Telegraph of “the 20 best travel books of all time”:

1.On the Road by Jack Kerouac

2. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee

3. Naples ‘44 by Norman Lewis

4. Coasting by Jonathan Raban

5. Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

6. Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson

7. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

8. The Beach by Alex Garland

9. The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux

10. The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron

11. Venice by Jan Morris

12. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

13. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

14. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

15. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby

16. Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger

17. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

18. Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene

19. The Journals of Captain Cook

20. Among the Russians by Colin Thubron


On the Road by Jack Kerouac

This book should come with a health warning aimed particularly at those in their formative years: proceed with caution, you may never be able to settle in one place again. And you might take up hitch-hiking. On The Road features a series of trips made by Kerouac and his Beat Generation friends across America in the years after the Second World War. Through the eyes of narrator Sal Paradise (Kerouac himself) the reader is transported from New York to Denver to San Francisco and LA. Along the way there’s jazz, poetry and drugs. And there’s Dean Moriarty, whose incredible thirst for life (and women) gives the book its extraordinary momentum. “The only people in life for me are the mad ones… the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles,” says Sal of his explosive travelling companion. And with those words, a thousand trips were launched…

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee

Laurie Lee’s lyrical account of his voyages as a young man in the 1930s is a masterpiece in English travel writing. Lee, who also wrote Cider with Rosie, describes his departure from a sleepy part of the Cotswolds, to London then Spain, armed with little more than an adventurous spirit and a violin. Exhilarating, whimsical and poetic, it captures a fascinating moment in time.

Naples ’44 by Norman Lewis

Lewis arrived in war-torn Naples as an intelligence officer in 1944, ostensibly employed by the army to liaise with the locals. The year-long diary he kept is a sublime portrait of the city and its people; a starving population that has devoured all the tropical fish in the aquarium; a place where respectable women have been driven to prostitution; where he meets an extraordinary collection of characters such as the gynaecologist who "specializes in the restoration of lost virginity" and the widowed housewife who times her British lover against the clock. "Were I given the chance to be born again," writes Lewis, "Italy would be the country of my choice."

Coasting by Jonathan Raban

Coasting tells the story of the author’s 4,000-mile journey around Britain in a 32-foot ketch, using only a compass for navigation. The story, like the voyage, digresses into personal memories, while the book is a metaphor for Raban’s own life. "For years I coasted from job to job, place to place, person to person. At the first hint of adverse weather I hauled up my anchor and moved on with the tide," he said.

Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

In 1960 John Steinbeck and his gregarious French poodle Charley set out in a converted pick up truck to tour the USA. The result is Travels with Charley: In Search of America, an absorbing and beautifully written account of the landscapes and people he encounters along the way. His bleak evocation of events and attitudes in the deep south reveal just how much America has changed in the past 49 years.

Notes From a Small Island
by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson’s farewell journey across the length and breadth of Britain is delivered with a combination of irreverent humour and touching nostalgia, while offering insights into our modern society. The list of Britain’s more bizarre place names and Bryson’s unerring antipathy towards some of the country’s less glamourous outposts are particularly amusing.

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

Part political history, part autobiography, part travelogue, George Orwell’s description of the role he played in the Spanish Civil War gives one of the most vivid English-language accounts of Barcelona at that turbulent time. It also proved agonisingly prophetic. After a being hit by a bullet (of which Orwell gives a searing account), the author returns home, where he says the inhabitants are “sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs”. The book was first published in 1938.

The Beach by Alex Garland

Alex Garland’s tale of a British backpackers’ search for paradise on earth – and the novel’s subsequent film adaptation – helped inspire a generation of gap year students to head to the Far East and is symbolic of the all-consuming escapism that travel can provide.

The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux’s first and arguably finest book, The Great Railway Bazaar recounts a four-month journey through Europe, Asia and the Middle East. An essential for any enthusiast of train travel, the book features some of the world’s greatest lines, including the Trans-Siberian and India’s Grand Trunk Express.

The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron

The Road to Oxiana, written in the form of a diary, is considered by many to be the first example of great modern travel writing (indeed some even describe it as the Ulysses of travel writing). Its subject matter is a journey made by the author in 1933/34 through the Middle East via Beirut, Jerusalem, Baghdad, and Teheran to Oxiana – the country of the Oxus, the ancient name for the river Amu Darya which forms part of the border between Afghanistan and what was then the Soviet Union. The book is a gripping, humorous account of Byron’s adventures, of the people he met along the way and of the architectural treasures of a region now only visited by the most intrepid of Western travellers.

Venice by Jan Morris

Few novels get under the skin of a city as well as Jan Morris’s Venice. The book offers a wealth of information on the city’s past and contains exquisite description. "Venice is a cheek-by-jowl, back-of-the-hand, under-the-counter, higgledy-piggledy, anecdotal city, and she is rich in piquant wrinkled things, like an assortment of bric-a-brac in the house of a wayward connoisseur, or parasites on an oyster-shell," writes Morris.

In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

Described as a "little masterpiece of travel, history, and adventure", In Patagonia charts a six-month journey made by Bruce Chatwin in 1972 from the Rio Negro to the world’s southernmost city, Ushuaia.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Widely thought to be one of Hemingway’s finest novels, The Sun Also Rises portrays the colourful ebb and flow of group of mainly 1920s American expatriates as they immerse themselves in the lives and loves of Paris and Spain. It is perhaps most memorable for the pulsating bull-fighting sequences set in Pamplona. It may also change your perception of the word ‘utilise’ forever.

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees.” From the first page of Arundhati Roy’s atmospheric and Booker Award-winning novel, The God of Small Things, you are immersed in the heat, the sounds and the colours of the southern Indian state of Kerala.

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby

With humour, Newby describes an ill-thought-out attempt to scale one of Afghanistan’s most challenging peaks. His inexperience gets the better of him, but readers of the much-loved book are recompensed with a hillarious segment that recounts a mountain-side encounter with the adventurer Wilfred Thesiger: "We started to blow up our air-beds. ‘God, you must be a couple of pansies,’ said Thesiger."

Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger

Published in 1959, Thesiger’s account of a dangerous journey through the Arabian deserts has met with condsiderable critical acclaim since. Over the course of five years, the early explorer recorded the lives of the remote tribes he met in an often hostile land. His tales of hardships, unlikely friends and an age now passed have a timeless appeal for all travellers.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

Surreal, sharp and consistently funny, Hunter S. Thompson’s "Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream" follows Raoul Duke and his attorney Dr Gonzo on a drug-addled trip to Las Vegas. The novel is said to owe its origins to two genuine journeys to Sin City made by Hunter S. Thompson while covering stories for Rolling Stone magazine.

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene

Few authors give as succinct and evocative a sense of place as Graham Greene, who also wrote several straight travelogues. In the fictional Our Man in Havana, the hapless central character James Wormold becomes embroiled in a web of intrigue and espionage over which he has little control. Seen by many as a satire on the Bautista regime that preceded Fidel Castro, this manages to be both a spoof and a reflection of Cuba as it used to be.

The Journals of Captain Cook

Captain James Cook went far, far beyond his humble origins in north Yorkshire to become, arguably, the most innovative and forward-thinking of all the many explorers of the 18th century. He also kept a vivid first-hand record of his ground-breaking voyages, in which he describes new territory in the southern hemisphere, and gives colourful accounts of his time in the islands of the Pacific. This is still in publication – and an original copy of the journals can be seen in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery in the British Library in London.

Among the Russians by Colin Thubron

Colin Thubron’s contribution to the travel writing genre over the last 40 years can only be described as immense. “Among the Russians” is a vivid account of a journey he made by car from St Petersburg (then Leningrad) and the Baltic States south to Georgia and Armenia towards the end of the Brezhnev era. It brilliantly portrays the lives of ordinary Russians trapped in what was then still a very harsh Communist regime, but the characters delineated can easily be recognised in the Russia of today. Thubron’s writings on communist China, Siberia, and, more recently, the Silk Road, are equally compelling.

from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/artsandculture/travelbooks/4932008/The-20-best-travel-books-of-all-time.html


graham greene, brighton rock and the art of prose: bringing to light the life hidden in the ordinary


In discussing Brighton Rock, the place, and Brighton Rock, the Graham Greene novel, Alison Macleod offered the following thoughts on the art of prosewith passing nods to Katherine Mansfield and James Joyce: "The life of the story hums in its very things…":


I love Greene’s unflinching eye for detail, for the painfully real glimpses of the harshness of life, as in the boy mob­ster Pinkie’s very fleeting memory of the girl at school who, pregnant, waited for a train that was seven minutes late, with her head on the line. I love the way that everything in Pinkie’s world is marked by a grimy grandeur. ‘The sun slid off the sea and like a cuttle fish shot into the sky the stain of agonies and endurances.’ I can think of few novels that are as physical, as thrillingly palpable. All writers need to draw on our senses to make us feel as if we are experiencing the story ‘live’ but, here, Greene casts an absolute spell—the spell all fiction writers want to cast. We walk into his rooms and smell stale beer or cooked cabbage or the perfume of pomade on hair. Ida Arnold’s big, breasty and giving body is as solid a presence as Pinky’s narrow, bony shoulders under the cheap suit, his bitten thumb nail and the twitch in his cheek. The tide sucks darkly at the piles of the piers. The night is ‘a wet mouth’ at the window of a forlorn pub as Pinkie contemplates the murder of Rose.


The life of the story hums in its very things, things which energize the story with an unstoppable force of their own: the bottle of vitriol—acid—waiting from the start in Pinkie’s pocket, waiting to escape its bottle; the embroidered crowns on a pair of hotel chairs, the memory of which repeatedly taunts Pinkie with an awareness of everything he’ll never achieve; the raw, disposable razor blade taped to his thumb under his glove, ready to ‘carve’ a traitor’s face; the cheap gramophone record waiting for the ear of the gullible, loving Rose—on it, Pinkie’s secret declaration of loathing for her.


Katherine Mansfield once wrote that she felt ‘an infinite delight and value in detail—not for the sake of detail, but for the life in the life of it.’ Here these appar­ently ordinary things actually release the life of the story in an inevitable expres­sion of their own ‘thingi-ness’ (or in what James Joyce called ‘the revelation of the what-ness of the thing’). It’s a deeply sat­isfying experience for the reader, to feel a sense of fate—of unavoidable meaning—even, right there, in the inanimate matter of the characters’ world.


And it’s a strange, larger-than-life life that gets released in Brighton Rock.


Mystery isn’t only of the murderous variety. The poloneys and the bogies, the totsies and the narks, the geezers and the buers, are all inseparable from a spirit as other-worldly as they are worldly, from a sense of mystery that would seem out of place in this sharply realist story if Greene hadn’t made it so tangible: ‘The car lurched back on to the main road; [Pinkie] turned the bonnet to Brighton. An enormous emotion beat on him; it was like something trying to get in; the pressure of gigantic wings against the glass. Dona nobis pacem… If the glass broke, if the beast—whatever it was—got in, God knows what he would do. He had a huge sense of havoc…’


—Alison Macleod, “Brighton Rock,” Five Dials, No. 2

closing time: graham greene’s vision of the ruins of the west

Graham Greene’s ‘‘The Destructors’’ was first published in two parts in Picture Post on July 24 and 31, 1954. Later that year, it appeared in Greene’s collection Twenty-One Stories. Greene himself stated that he was completely satisfied with it, and in fact had never written anything better.



The Destructors
By Graham Greene

It was on the eve of August Bank Holiday that the latest recruit became the leader of the Wormsley Common Gang. No one was surprised except Mike, but Mike at the age of nine was surprised by everything. ‘If you don’t shut your mouth,’ somebody once said to him, ‘you’ll get a frog down it.’ After that Mike kept his teeth tightly clamped except when the surprise was too great.

The new recruit had been with the gang since the beginning of the summer holidays, and there were possibilities about his brooding silence that all recognized. He never wasted a word even to tell his name until that was required of him by the rules. When he said ‘Trevor’ it was a statement of fact, not as it would have been with the others a statement of shame or defiance. Nor did anyone laugh except Mike, who finding himself without support and meeting the dark gaze of the newcomer opened his mouth and was quiet again. There was every reason why T., as he was afterwards referred to, should have been an object of mockery – there was his name (and they substituted the initial because otherwise they had no excuse not to laugh at it), the fact that his father, a former architect and present clerk, had ‘come down in the world’ and that his mother considered herself better than the neighbours. What but an odd quality of danger, of the unpredictable, established him in the gang without any ignoble ceremony of initiation?

The gang met every morning in an impromptu car-park, the site of the last bomb of the first blitz. The leader, who was known as Blackie, claimed to have heard it fall, and no one was precise enough in his dates to point out that he would have been one year old and fast asleep on the down platform of Wormsley Common Underground Station. On one side of the car-park leant the first occupied house, No. 3, of the shattered Northwood Terrace – literally leant, for it had suffered from the blast of the bomb and the side walls were supported on wooden struts. A smaller bomb and incendiaries had fallen beyond, so that the house stuck up like a jagged tooth and carried on the further wall relics of its neighbour, a dado, the remains of a fireplace. T., whose words were almost confined to voting ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to the plan of operations proposed each day by Blackie, once startled the whole gang by saying broodingly, ‘Wren built that house, father says.’

‘Who’s Wren?’

‘The man who built St Paul’s.’

‘Who cares?’ Blackie said. ‘It’s only Old Misery’s.’

Old Misery – whose real name was Thomas – had once been a builder and decorator. He lived alone in the crippled house, doing for himself: once a week you could see him coming back across the common with bread and vegetables, and once as the boys played in the car-park he put his head over the smashed wall of his garden and looked at them.

‘Been to the lav,’ one of the boys said, for it was common knowledge that since the bombs fell something had gone wrong with the pipes of the house and Old Misery was too mean to spend money on the property. He could do the redecorating himself at cost price, but he had never learnt plumbing. The lav was a wooden shed at the bottom of the narrow garden with a star-shaped hole in the door: it had escaped the blast which had smashed the house next door and sucked out the window-frames of No. 3.

The next time the gang became aware of Mr Thomas was more surprising. Blackie, Mike and a thin yellow boy, who for some reason was called by his surname Summers, met him on the common coming back from the market. Mr Thomas stopped them. He said glumly, ‘You belong to the lot that play in the car-park?’

Mike was about to answer when Blackie stopped him. As the leader he had responsibilities. ‘Suppose we are?’ he said ambiguously.

‘I got some chocolates,’ Mr Thomas said. ‘Don’t like ’em myself. Here you are. Not enough to go round, I don’t suppose. There never is,’ he added with sombre conviction. He handed over three packets of Smarties.

The gang was puzzled and perturbed by this action and tried to explain it away. ‘Bet someone dropped them and he picked ’em up,’ somebody suggested.

‘Pinched ’em and then got in a bleeding funk,’ another thought aloud.

‘It’s a bribe,’ Summers said. ‘He wants us to stop bouncing balls on his wall.’

‘We’ll show him we don’t take bribes,’ Blackie said, and they sacrificed the whole morning to the game of bouncing that only Mike was young enough to enjoy. There was no sign from Mr Thomas.

Next day T. astonished them all. He was late at the rendezvous, and the voting for that day’s exploit took place without him. At Blackie’s suggestion the gang was to disperse in pairs, take buses at random and see how many free rides could be snatched from unwary conductors (the operation was to be carried out in pairs to avoid cheating). They were drawing lots for their companions when T. arrived.

‘Where you been, T.?’ Blackie asked. ‘You can’t vote now. You know the rules.’

‘I’ve been there,’ T. said. He looked at the ground, as though he had thoughts to hide.


‘At Old Misery’s.’ Mike’s mouth opened and then hurriedly closed again with a click. He had remembered the frog.

‘At Old Misery’s?’ Blackie said. There was nothing in the rules against it, but he had a sensation that T. was treading on dangerous ground. He asked hopefully, ‘Did you break in?’ ‘No. I rang the bell.’

‘And what did you say?’

‘I said I wanted to see his house.’ ‘What did he do?’

‘He showed it me:’ ‘Pinch anything?’ ‘No.’

‘What did you do it for then?’

The gang had gathered round: it was as though an impromptu court were about to form and try some case of deviation. T. said, ‘It’s a beautiful house,’ and still watching the ground, meeting no one’s eyes, he licked his lips first one way, then the other.

‘What do you mean, a beautiful house?’ Blackie asked with scorn.

‘It’s got a staircase two hundred years old like a corkscrew. Nothing holds it up.’

‘What do you mean, nothing holds it up. Does it float?’ ‘It’s to do with opposite forces, Old Misery said.’ ‘What else?’

‘There’s panelling.’ ‘Like in the Blue Boar?’ ‘Two hundred years old.’

‘Is Old Misery two hundred years old?’

Mike laughed suddenly and then was quiet again. The meeting was in a serious mood. For the first time since T. had strolled into the car-park on the first day of the holidays his position was in danger. It only needed a single use of his real name and the gang would be at his heels.

‘What did you do it for?’ Blackie asked. He was just, he had no jealousy, he was anxious to retain T. in the gang if he could. It was the word ‘beautiful’ that worried him – that belonged to a class world that you could still see parodied at the Wormsley Common Empire by a man wearing a top hat and a monocle, with a haw-haw accent. He was tempted to say, ‘My dear Trevor, old chap,’ and unleash his hell hounds. ‘If you’d broken in,’ he said sadly – that indeed would have been an exploit worthy of the gang.

‘This was better,’ T. said. ‘I found out things.’ He continued to stare at his feet, not meeting anybody’s eye, as though he were absorbed in some dream he was unwilling – or ashamed to share.

‘What things?’

‘Old Misery’s going to be away all tomorrow and Bank Holiday.’

Blackie said with relief, ‘You mean we could break in?’ ‘And pinch things?’ somebody asked.

Blackie said, ‘Nobody’s going to pinch things. Breaking in that’s good enough, isn’t it? We don’t want any court stuff.’

‘I don’t want to pinch anything,’ T. said. ‘I’ve got a better idea.’

‘What is it?’

T. raised eyes, as grey and disturbed as the drab August day. ‘We’ll pull it down,’ he said. ‘We’ll destroy it.’

Blackie gave a single hoot of laughter and then, like Mike, fell quiet, daunted by the serious implacable gaze. ‘What’d the police be doing all the time?’ he said.

‘They’d never know. We’d do it from inside. I’ve found a way in.’ He said with a sort of intensity, ‘We’d be like worms, don’t you see, in an apple. When we came out again there’d be nothing there, no staircase, no panels, nothing but just walls, and then we’d make the walls fall down – somehow.’

‘We’d go to jug,’ Blackie said.

‘Who’s to prove? and anyway we wouldn’t have pinched anything.’ He added without the smallest flicker of glee, ‘There wouldn’t be anything to pinch after we’d finished.’

‘I’ve never heard of going to prison for breaking things,’ Summers said.

‘There wouldn’t be time,’ Blackie said. ‘I’ve seen housebreakers at work.’

‘There are twelve of us,’ T. said. ‘We’d organize.! ‘None of us know how…’

‘I know,’ T. said. He looked across at Blackie. ‘Have you got a better plan?’

‘Today,’ Mike said tactlessly, ‘we’re pinching free rides. . ." ‘Free rides,’ T. said. ‘Kid stuff. You can stand down, Blackie, if you’d rather . . .’

‘The gang’s got to vote.’ ‘Put it up then.’

Blackie said uneasily, ‘It’s proposed that tomorrow and Monday we destroy Old Misery’s house.’

‘Here, here,’ said a fat boy called Joe. ‘Who’s in favour?’

T. said, ‘It’s carried.’

‘How do we start?’ Summers asked.

‘He’ll tell you,’ Blackie said. It was the end of his leadership. He went away to the back of the car-park and began to kick a stone, dribbling it this way and that. There was only one old Morris in the park, for few cars were left there except lorries: without an attendant there was no safety. He took a flying kick at the car and scraped a little paint off the rear mudguard. Beyond, paying no more attention to him than to a stranger, the gang had gathered round T.; Blackie was dimly aware of the fickleness of favour. He thought of going home, of never returning, of letting them all discover the hollowness of TA leadership, but suppose after all what T. proposed was possible nothing like it had ever been done before. The fame of the Wormsley Common car-park gang would surely reach around London. There would be headlines in the papers. Even the grown-up gangs who ran the betting at the all-in wrestling and the barrow-boys would hear with respect of how Old Misery’s house had been destroyed. Driven by the pure, simple and altruistic ambition of fame for the gang, Blackie came back to where T. stood in the shadow of Old Misery’s wall.

T. was giving his orders with decision: it was as though this plan had been with him all his life, pondered through the seasons, now in his fifteenth year crystallized with the pain of puberty. ‘You,’ he said to Mike, ‘bring some big nails, the biggest you can find, and a hammer. Anybody who can, better bring a hammer and a screwdriver. We’ll need plenty of them. Chisels too. We can’t have too many chisels. Can anybody bring a saw?’

‘I can,’ Mike said.

‘Not a child’s saw,’ T. said. ‘A real saw.’

Blackie realized he had raised his hand like any ordinary member of the gang.

‘Right, you bring one, Blackie. But now there’s a difficulty. We want a hacksaw.’

‘What’s a hacksaw?’ someone asked.

‘You can get ’em at Woolworth’s,’ Summers said.

The fat boy called Joe said gloomily, ‘I knew it would end in a collection.’

‘I’ll get one myself,’ T. said. ‘I don’t want your money. But I can’t buy a sledge-hammer.’

Blackie said, ‘They are working on No. 15. I know where they’ll leave their stuff for Bank Holiday.’

‘Then that’s all,’ T. said. ‘We meet here at nine sharp.’ ‘I’ve got to go to church,’ Mike said.

‘Come over the wall and whistle. We’ll let you in.’


On Sunday morning all were punctual except Blackie, even Mike. Mike had a stroke of luck. His mother felt ill, his father was tired after Saturday night, and he was told to go to church alone with many warnings of what would happen if he strayed. Blackie had difficulty in smuggling out the saw, and then in finding the sledge-hammer at the back of No. 15. He approached the house from a lane at the rear of the garden, for fear of the policeman’s beat along the main road. The tired evergreens kept off a stormy sun: another wet Bank Holiday was being prepared over the Atlantic, beginning in swirls of dust under the trees. Blackie climbed the wall into Misery’s garden.

There was no sign of anybody anywhere. The lav stood like a tomb in a neglected graveyard. The curtains were drawn. The house slept. Blackie lumbered nearer with the saw and the sledge-hammer. Perhaps after all nobody had turned up: the plan had been a wild invention: they had woken wiser. But when he came close to the back door he could hear a confusion of sound hardly louder than a hive in swarm: a clickety-clack, a bang bang, a scraping, a creaking, a sudden painful crack. He thought: it’s true; and whistled.

They opened the back door to him and he came in. He had at once the impression of organization, very different from the old happy-go-lucky ways under his leadership. For a while he wandered up and down stairs looking for T. Nobody addressed him: he had a sense of great urgency, and already he could begin to see the plan. The interior of the house was being carefully demolished without touching the walls. Summers with hammer and chisel was ripping out the skirting-boards in the ground floor dining-room: he had already smashed the panels of the door. In the same room Joe was heaving up the parquet blocks, exposing the soft wood floorboards over the cellar. Coils of wire came out of the damaged skirting and Mike sat; happily on the floor clipping the wires.

On the curved stairs two of the gang were working hard with an inadequate child’s saw on the banisters – when they saw Blackie’s big saw they signalled for it wordlessly. When he next saw them a quarter of the banisters had been dropped into the hall. He found T. at last in the bathroom – he sat moodily in the least cared-for room in the house, listening to the sounds coming up from below.

‘You’ve really done it,’ Blackie said with awe. ‘What’s going to happen?’

‘We’ve only just begun,’ T. said. He looked at the sledgehammer and gave his instructions. ‘You stay here and break the , bath and the wash-basin. Don’t bother about the pipes. They come later.’

Mike appeared at the door. ‘I’ve finished the wires, T.,’ he said.

‘Good. You’ve just got to go wandering round now. The kitchen’s in the basement. Smash all the china and glass and bottles you can lay hold of. Don’t turn on the taps – we don’t want a flood – yet. Then go into all the rooms and turn out the drawers. If they are locked get one of the others to break them open. Tear up any papers you find and smash all the ornaments. Better take a carving knife with you from the kitchen. The’ bedroom’s opposite here. Open the pillows and tear up the sheets. That’s enough for the moment. And you, Blackie, when you’ve finished in here crack the plaster in the passage up with your sledge-hammer.’

‘What are you going to do?’ Blackie asked. ‘I’m looking for something special,’ T. said.

It was nearly lunch-time before Blackie had finished and went in search of T. Chaos had advanced. The kitchen was a shambles of broken glass and china. The dining-room was stripped of parquet, the skirting was up, the door had been taken off its hinges, and the destroyers had moved up a floor. Streaks of light came in through the closed shutters where they worked with the seriou
ness of creators – and destruction after all is a form of creation. A kind of imagination had seen this house as it had now become.

Mike said, ‘I’ve got to go home for dinner.’

‘Who else?’ T. asked, but all the others on one excuse or another had brought provisions with them.

They squatted in the ruins of the room and swapped unwanted sandwiches. Half an hour for lunch and they were at work again. By the time Mike returned they were on the top floor, and by six the superficial damage was completed. The doors were all off, all the skirtings raised, the furniture pillaged and ripped and smashed – no one could have slept in the house except on a bed of broken plaster. T. gave his orders – eight o’clock next morning, and to escape notice they climbed singly over the garden wall; into the car-park. Only Blackie and T. were left: the light had nearly gone, and when they touched a switch, nothing worked – Mike had done his job thoroughly.

‘Did you find anything special?’ Blackie asked.

T. nodded. ‘Come over here,’ he said, ‘and look.’ Out of both pockets he drew bundles of pound notes. ‘Old Misery’s savings,’ he said. ‘Mike ripped out the mattress, but he missed them.’

‘What are you going to do? Share them?’

‘We aren’t thieves,’ T. said. ‘Nobody’s going to steal anything from this house. I kept these for you and me – a celebration.’ He knelt down on the floor and counted them out – there were seventy in all. ‘We’ll burn them,’ he said, ‘one by one,’ and taking it in turns they held a note upwards and lit the top corner, so that the flame burnt slowly towards their fingers. The grey ash floated above them and fell on their heads like age. ‘I’d like to see Old Misery’s face when we are through,’ T. a said.

‘You hate him a lot?’ Blackie asked.

‘Of course I don’t hate him,’ T. said. ‘There’d be no fun if I hated him.’ The last burning note illuminated his brooding face. ‘All this hate and love,’ he said, ‘it’s soft, it’s hooey. There’s only things, Blackie,’ and he looked round the room crowded with the unfamiliar shadows of half things, broken things, former things. ‘I’ll race you home, Blackie,’ he said.


Next morning the serious destruction started. Two were missing – Mike and another boy whose parents were off to Southend and Brighton in spite of the slow warm drops that had begun to fall and the rumble of thunder in the estuary like the first guns of the old blitz. ‘We’ve got to hurry,’ T. said.

Summers was restive. ‘Haven’t we done enough?’ he asked. -, ‘I’ve been given a _bob for slot machines. This is like work.’ ‘We’ve hardly started,’ T. said. ‘Why, there’s all the floors

left, and the stairs. We haven’t taken out a single window. You voted like the others. We are going to destroy this house. There; won’t be anything left when we’ve finished.’

They began again on the first floor picking up the top floorboards next the outer wall, leaving the joists exposed. Then they sawed through the joists and retreated into the hall, as what was left of the floor heeled and sank. They had learnt with practice, and the second floor collapsed more easily. By the evening an odd exhilaration seized them as they looked down the great hollow of the house. They ran risks and made mistakes: when they thought of the windows it was too late to reach’ them. ‘Cor,’ Joe said, and dropped a penny down into the, dry rubble-filled well. It cracked and span amongst the broken glass.

‘Why did we start this?’ Summers asked with astonishment; T. was already on the ground, digging at the rubble, clearing a space along the outer wall. ‘Turn on the taps,’ he said. ‘It’s too dark for anyone to see now, and in the morning it won’t matter.’ The water overtook them on the stairs and fell through the floorless rooms.

It was then they heard Mike’s whistle at the back. ‘Something’s wrong,’ Blackie said. They could hear his urgent breathing as they unlocked the door.

‘The bogies?’ Summers asked.

‘Old Misery,’ Mike said. ‘He’s on his way,’ he said with pride. ‘But why?’ T. said. ‘He told me …’ He protested with the fury of the child he had never been, ‘It isn’t fair.’

‘He was down at Southend,’ Mike said, ‘and he was on the train coming back. Said it was too cold and wet.’ He paused and gazed at the water. ‘My, you’ve had a storm here. Is the roof leaking?’

‘How long will he be?’

‘Five minutes. I gave Ma the slip and ran.’

‘We better clear,’ Summers said. ‘We’ve done enough, anyway.’

‘Oh no, we haven’t. Anybody could do this – ‘ ‘this’ was the shattered hollowed house with nothing left but the walls. Yet walls could be preserved. Facades were valuable. They could build inside again more beautifully than before. This could again be a home. He said angrily, ‘We’ve got to finish. Don’t move. Let me think.’

‘There’s no time,’ a boy said.

‘There’s got to be a way,’ T. said. ‘We couldn’t have got this far…’

‘We’ve done a lot,’ Blackie said.

‘No. No, we haven’t. Somebody watch the front’ ‘We can’t do any more.’

‘He may come in at the back.’

‘Watch the back too.’ T. began to plead. ‘Just give me a minute and I’ll fix it. I swear I’ll fix it.’ But his authority had gone with his ambiguity. He was only one of the gang. ‘Please,’ he said.

‘Please,’ Summers mimicked him, and then suddenly struck home with the fatal name. ‘Run along home, Trevor.’

T. stood with his back to the rubble like a boxer knocked groggy against the ropes. He had no words as his dreams shook and slid. Then Blackie acted before the gang had time to laugh, pushing Summers backward. ‘I’ll watch the front, T.,’ he said, and cautiously he opened the shutters of the hall. The grey wet common stretched ahead, and the lamps gleamed in the puddles. ‘Someone’s coming, T. No, it’s not him. What’s your plan, T.?’

‘Tell Mike to go out to the lav and hide close beside it. When he hears me whistle he’s got to count ten and start to shout.’ ‘Shout what?’

‘Oh, "Help", anything.’

‘You hear; Mike,’ Blackie said. He was the leader again. He took a quick look between the shutters. ‘He’s coming, T.’ ‘Quick, Mike. The lav. Stay here, Blackie, all of you; till I yell.’

‘Where are you going, T.?’

‘Don’t worry. I’ll see to this. I said I would, didn’t I?’

Old Misery came limping off the common. He had mud on his shoes and he stopped to scrape them on the pavement’s edge. He didn’t want to soil his house, which stood jagged and dark between the bomb-sites, saved so narrowly, as he believed, from destruction. Even the fan-light had been left unbroken by the bomb’s blast. Somewhere somebody whistled. Old Misery looked sharply round. He didn’t trust whistles. A child was shouting: it seemed to come from his own garden. Then a boy ran into the road from the car-park. ‘Mr Thomas,’ he called, ‘Mr Thomas.’

‘What is it?’

‘I’m terribly sorry, Mr Thomas. One of us got taken short, and we thought you wouldn’t mind, and now he can’t get out.’ ‘What do you mean, boy?’

‘He’s got stuck in your lav.’

‘He’d no business … Haven’t I seen you before?’ ‘You showed me your house.’

‘So I did. So I did. That doesn’t give you the right to…

‘Do hurry, Mr Thomas. He’ll suffocate.’

‘Nonsense. He can’t suffocate. Wait till I put my bag in.’ ‘I’ll carry your bag.’

‘Oh no, you don’t. I carry my own.’ ‘This way, Mr Thomas.’

‘I can’t get in the garden that way. I’ve got to go through the house.’

‘But you can get in the garden this way, Mr Thomas. We often do.’

‘You often do?’ He followed the boy with a scandalized fascination. ‘When? What right …?’

‘Do you see … ? the wall’s low.’

‘I’m not going to climb walls into my own garden. It’s absurd.’

‘This is how we do it. One foot here, one foot there, and over.’ The boy’s face peered down, an arm shot out, and Mr Thomas found his bag taken and deposited on the other side of the wall.

‘Give me back my bag,’ Mr Thomas said. From the loo a boy yelled and yelled. ‘I’ll call the police.’

‘Your bag’s all right, Mr Thomas. Look. One foot there. On your right. Now just above. To your left.’ Mr Thomas climbed over his own garden wall. ‘Here’s your bag, Mr Thomas.’

‘I’ll have the wall built up,’ Mr Thomas said, ‘I’ll not have you boys coming over here, using my loo.’ He stumbled on the path, but the boy caught his elbow and supported him. ‘Thank you, thank you, my boy,’ he murmured automatically. Somebody shouted again through the dark. ‘I’m coming, I’m coming,’ Mr Thomas called. He said to the boy beside him, ‘I’m not unreasonable. Been a boy myself. As long as things are done regular. I don’t mind you playing round the place Saturday mornings. Sometimes I like company. Only it’s got to be regular. One of you asks leave and I say Yes. Sometimes I’ll say No. Won’t feel like it. And you come in at the front door and out at the back. No garden walls.’

‘Do get him out, Mr Thomas.’

‘He won’t come to any harm in my loo,’ Mr Thomas said, stumbling slowly down the garden. ‘Oh, my rheumatics,’ h said. ‘Always get ’em on Bank Holiday. I’ve got to be careful. There’s loose stones here. Give me your hand. Do you know what my horoscope said yesterday? "Abstain from any dealings in first half of week. Danger of serious crash." That might be on this path,’ Mr Thomas said. ‘They speak in parables and double meanings.’ He paused at the door of the loo. ‘What’s the matter in there?’ he called. There was no reply.

‘Perhaps he’s fainted,’ the boy said.

‘Not in my loo. Here, you, come out,’ Mr Thomas said, and giving a great jerk at the door he nearly fell on his back when it swung easily open. A hand first supported him and then pushed him hard. His head hit the opposite wall and he sat heavily down. His bag hit his feet. A hand whipped the key out of the lock and the door slammed. ‘Let me out,’ he called, and heard the key turn in the lock. ‘A serious crash,’ he thought, and felt dithery and confused and old.

A voice spoke to him softly through the star-shaped hole in the door. ‘Don’t worry, Mr Thomas,’ it said, ‘we won’t hurt you, not if you stay quiet.’

Mr Thomas put his head between his hands and pondered. He had noticed that there was only one lorry in the car-park, and he felt certain that the driver would not come for it before the morning. Nobody could hear him from the road in front and the lane at the back was seldom used. Anyone who passed there would be hurrying home and would not pause for what they would certainly take to be drunken cries. And if he did call ‘Help’, who, on a lonely Bank Holiday evening, would have the courage to investigate? Mr Thomas sat on the loo and pondered with the wisdom of age.

After a while it seemed to him that there were sounds in the silence – they were faint and came from the direction of his house. He stood up and peered through the ventilation-hole – between the cracks in one of the shutters he saw a light, not the light of a lamp, but the wavering light that a candle might give. Then he thought he heard the sound of hammering and scraping and chipping. He thought of burglars – perhaps they had employed the boy as a scout, but why should burglars engage in what sounded more and more like a stealthy form of carpentry? Mr Thomas let out an experimental yell, but nobody answered. The noise could not even have reached his enemies.


Mike had gone home to bed, but the rest stayed. The question of leadership no longer concerned the gang. With nails, chisels, screwdrivers, anything that was sharp and penetrating, they moved around the inner walls worrying at the mortar between the bricks. They started too high, and it was Blackie who hit on the damp course and realized the work could be halved if they weakened the joints immediately above. It was a long, tiring, unamusing job, but at last it was finished. The gutted house stood there balanced on a few inches of mortar between the clamp course and the bricks.

There remained the most dangerous task of all, out in the open at the edge of the bomb-site. Summers was sent to watch the road for passers-by, and Mr Thomas, sitting on the loo, heard clearly now the sound of sawing. It no longer came from the house, and that a little reassured him. He felt less concerned. Perhaps the other noises too had no significance.

A voice spoke to him through the hole. ‘Mr Thomas.’ ‘Let me out,’ Mr Thomas said sternly.

‘Here’s a blanket,’ the voice said, and a long grey sausage was worked through the hole and fell in swathes over Mr Thomas’s head.

‘There’s nothing personal,’ the voice said. ‘We want you to be comfortable tonight.’

‘Tonight,’ Mr Thomas repeated incredulously.

‘Catch,’ the voice said. ‘Penny buns – we’ve buttered them, and sausage-rolls. We don’t want you to starve, Mr Thomas.’ Mr Thomas pleaded desperately. ‘A joke’s a joke, boy. Let me out and I won’t say a thing. I’ve got rheumatics. I got to sleep comfortable.’

‘You wouldn’t be comfortable, not in your house, you wouldn’t. Not now.’

‘What do you mean, boy?’ But the footsteps receded. There was only the silence of night: no sound of sawing. Mr Thomas tried one more yell, but he was daunted and rebuked by the silence – a long way off an owl hooted and made away again on its muffled flight through the soundless world.

At seven next morning the driver came to fetch his lorry. He climbed into the seat and tried to start the engine. He was vaguely aware of a voice shouting, but it didn’t concern him. At last the engine responded and he backed the lorry until it, touched the great wooden shore that supported Mr Thomas’s house. That way he could drive right out and down the street without reversing. The lorry moved forward, was momentarily checked as though something were pulling it from behind, and then went on to the sound of a long rumbling crash. The driver was astonished to see bricks bouncing ahead of him, while stones hit the roof of his cab. He put on his brakes. When he climbed out the whole landscape had suddenly altered. There was no house beside the car-park, only a hill of rubble. He went round and examined the back of his lorry for damage, and found a rope tied there that was still twisted at the other end round part of a wooden strut.

The driver again became aware of somebody shouting. It came from the wooden erection which was the nearest thing to a house in that desolation of broken brick. The driver climbed the smashed wall and unlocked the door. Mr Thomas came out of the loo. He was wearing a grey blanket to which flakes of pastry adhered. He gave a sobbing cry. ‘My house,’ he said. ‘Where’s my house?’

‘Search me,’ the driver said. His eye lit on the remains of a bath and what had once been a dresser and he began to laugh. There wasn’t anything left anywhere.

‘How dare you laugh,’ Mr Thomas said. ‘It was my house My house.’

‘I’m sorry,’ the driver said, making heroic efforts, but when he remembered the sudden check of his lorry, the crash of bricks falling, he became convulsed again. One moment the house had stood there with such dignity between the bomb-sites like a man in a top hat, and then, bang, crash, there wasn’t anything left – not anything. He said, ‘I’m sorry. I can’t help it, Mr Thomas. There’s nothing personal, but you got to admit it’s funny.’

written 1954

milestone in american pulps: no orchids for miss blandish, by englishman james hadley chase

A close friend of Graham Greene, an author of over 80 books, James Hadley Chase (real name René Brabazon Raymond) was perhaps the first non-American to really capitalize on the lucrative pulp potential of the American criminal mythos.
Chase’s first novel, No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1939) was written by the former door-to-door encyclopedia salesman in a scant six weekends, with the help of a dictionary of American slang, reference books on the American underworld, and the wholesale lifting of the plot of William Faulkner’s Sanctuary.

Chase was motivated by money, hoping to cash in on the popularity American hard-boiled crime fiction in the U.K. The book became a bestseller and while Raymond Chandlerderided No Orchids for Miss Blandish as "
half-cent pulp writing at its worst," George Orwell observed "it is not, as one might expect, the product of an illiterate hack, but a brilliant piece of writing, with hardly a wasted word or a jarring note anywhere." But Orwell’s acute political antennae left him with the impression that the novel was "a day dream appropriate to a totalitarian age."  

The improbable plot of the novel provided in part the inspiration for Raymond Queneau’s 1947 novel, On est toujours trop bon avec les femmes (We Always Treat Women Too Well). Indeed, at a critical part in the story, the father of the kidnapped girl—the eponymous Miss Blandish—refuses to take her back from her captors with the judgment "Better dead than deflowered." No wonder Orwell famously began his review of Chase’s book with the warning "Now for a header into the cesspool."
Here’s opening section of the first chapter:



IT BEGAN on a summer afternoon in July, a month of intense heat, rainless skies and scorching, dust-laden winds.

At the junction of the Fort Scott and Nevada roads that cuts Highway 54, the trunk road from Pittsburgh to Kansas City, there stands a gas station and lunchroom bar: a shabby wooden structure with one gas pump, run by an elderly widower and his fat blonde daughter.
A dusty Lincoln pulled up by the lunchroom a few minutes after one o’clock. There were two men in the car: one of them was asleep.
The driver, Bailey, a short thickset man with a fleshy, brutal face, restless, uneasy black eyes and a thin white scar along the side of his jaw, got out of the car. His dusty, shabby suit was threadbare. His dirty shirt was frayed at the cuffs. He felt bad. He had been drinking heavily the previous night and the heat bothered him.
He paused to look at his sleeping companion, Old Sam, then shrugging, he went into the lunchroom, leaving Old Sam to snore in the car.
The blonde leaning over the counter smiled at him. She had big white teeth that reminded Bailey of piano keys. She was too fat to interest him. He didn’t return her smile.
“Hello, mister,” she said brightly. “Phew! Isn’t it hot? I didn’t sleep a wink last night.”
“Scotch,” Bailey said curtly. He pushed his hat to the back of his head and mopped his face with a filthy handkerchief.
She put a bottle of whiskey and a glass on the counter.
“You should have beer,” she said, shaking her blonde curls at him. “Whiskey’s no good to anyone in this heat.”
“Give your mouth a rest,” Bailey said.
He carried the bottle and the glass to a table in a corner and sat down.
The blonde grimaced, then she picked up a paperback and with an indifferent shrug, she began to read.
Bailey gave himself a long drink, then he leaned back in his chair. He was worried about money. If Riley couldn’t dream up something fast, he thought, we’ll have to bust a bank. He scowled uneasily. He didn’t want to do that. There were too many Feds around for safety. He looked through the window at Old Sam, sleeping in the car. Bailey sneered at the sleeping man. Apart from being able to drive a car, he was useless, Bailey thought. He’s too old for this racket. All he thinks about is where his next meal is coming from and sleeping. It’s up to Riley or me to scratch up some money somehow—but how?
The whiskey made him hungry.
“Ham and eggs and hurry it up,” he called to the blonde.
“Doesn’t he want any?” the blonde asked, pointing through the window at Old Sam.
“Does he look like it?” Bailey said. “Hurry it up! I’m hungry.”
He saw through the window a dusty Ford pull up and a fat, elderly man get out.
Heinie! Bailey said to himself. What’s he doing here?
The fat man waddled into the lunchroom and waved to Bailey.
“Hi, pal,” he said. “Long time no see. How are you?”
“Lousy,” Bailey grunted. “This heat’s killing me.”
Heinie came over. He pulled out a chair and sat down. He was a leg man for a society rag that ran blackmail on the side. He was always picking up scraps of information, and often, for a consideration, he passed on any useful tips that might lead to a robbery to the small gangs operating around Kansas City.
“You can say that again,” Heinie said, sniffing at the ham cooking. “I was out at Joplin last night covering a lousy wedding. I was nearly fried. Imagine having a wedding night in heat like this!” Seeing Bailey wasn’t listening, he asked, “How’s tricks? You look kinda low.”
“I haven’t had a break in weeks,” Bailey said, dropping his cigarette butt on the floor. “Even the goddamn horses are running against me.”
“You want a hot tip?” Heinie asked. He leaned forward, lowering his voice. “Pontiac is a cinch.”
Bailey sneered.
“Pontiac? That nag’s a fugitive from a merry-go-round.”
“You’re wrong,” Heinie said. “They spent ten thousand bucks on that horse and it looks good.”
“I’d look good if anyone spent all that dough on me,” Bailey snarled.
The blonde came over with his plate of ham and eggs. Heinie sniffed at it as she put the plate on the table.
“Same for me, beautiful,” he said, “and a beer.”
She slapped away his exploring hand, smiled at him and went back to the counter.
“That’s the kind of woman I like—value for money,” Heinie said, looking after her. “Two rolled into one.”
“I’ve got to get some dough, Heinie,” Bailey said, his mouth full of food. “Any ideas?”
“Not a thing. If I do hear I’ll let you know, but right now there’s nothing your weight. I’ve got a big job tonight. I’m covering the Blandish shindig. It’s only for twenty bucks, but the drinks will be free.”
“Blandish? Who’s he?”
“Where have you been living?” Heinie asked in disgust. “Blandish is one of the richest guys in the state. They say he’s worth a hundred million.”
Bailey speared the yolk of his egg with his fork.
“And I’m worth five bucks!” he said savagely. “That’s life! What’s he in the news for?”
“Not him: his daughter. Have you ever seen her? What a dish? I’d give ten years of my life for a roll in the hay with her.”
Bailey wasn’t interested.
“I know these rich girls. They don’t know what they’re here for.”
“I bet she does,” Heinie said and sighed. “Her old man’s throwing a party for her: it’s her twenty-fourth birthday—just the right age. He’s giving her the family diamonds.” He rolled his eyes. “What a necklace! They say it’s worth fifty grand.”
The blonde came over with his meal. She was careful to keep out of his reach. When she had gone, Heinie pulled up his chair and started to eat noisily. Bailey had finished. He sat back and began to pick his teeth with a match. He was thinking: fifty grand! I wonder if there’s a chance of grabbing that necklace? I wonder if Riley would have the nerve to make a try for it?
“Where’s the party—at her house?”
“That’s right,” Heinie said, shoveling food into his mouth. “Then she and her boy friend, Jerry MacGowan, are going on to the Golden Slipper.”
“With the necklace?” Bailey asked casually.
“I bet once she puts it on, she’ll never take it off.”
“But you’re not sure?”
“She’ll be wearing it all right. The press will be there.”
“What time will she be at the roadhouse?”
“Around midnight.” Heinie paused, his fork near his mouth. “What’s on your mind?”
“Nothing.” Bailey looked at him, his fleshy face expressionless. “She and this guy, MacGowan? No one else?”
“No.” Heinie suddenly laid down his fork. His fat face was worried. “Now look, don’t go getting any ideas about the necklace. You’d start something you couldn’t finish. I’m telling you. Riley and you aren’t big enough to handle a job like that. You be patient. I’ll find something you can handle, but not the Blandish necklace.”
Bailey grinned at him. Heinie thought he looked like a wolf.
“Don’t get excited,” he said, “I know what I can and can’t handle.” He stood up. “I guess I’ll be moving. Don’t forget: if anything comes up, let me know. So long, pal.”
“You’re in a hurry all of a sudden, aren’t you?” Heinie said, frowning up at Bailey.
“I want to get off before Old Sam wakes up. I’m not buying him another meal as long as I live. So long.”
He went over to the blonde and paid his check, then he walked over to the Lincoln. The heat hit him like a clenched fist. After the whiskey it made him feel a little dizzy. He got in the car and paused to light a cigarette, his mind busy.
Once the word got around about the necklace, he was thinking, every little gangster in the district would sit up and wonder. Would Riley have the nerve to grab it?
He nudged Old Sam awake.
“Come on!” he said roughly. “What the hell’s the matter with you? Don’t you do anything but sleep these days?”
Old Sam, tall, wiry and pushing sixty, blinked as he slowly straightened up.
“Are we going to eat?” he asked hopefully.
“I’ve eaten,” Bailey said and set the car moving.
“How about me?”
“Go ahead if you’ve got any dough. I’m not paying,” Bailey snarled.
Old Sam sighed. He tightened his belt and pushed his greasy, battered hat over his long, red nose.
“What’s gone wrong with this outfit, Bailey?” he asked mournfully. “We never have any money now. One time we were doing all right; now nothing. Know what I think? I think Riley spends too much time in the sack with that broad of his. He isn’t concentrating on business.”
Bailey slowed the car and pulled up outside a drugstore.
“Give your mouth a rest,” he said and getting out of the car, he walked into the drugstore. He shut himself in a telephone booth. He dialed, and after a long wait, Riley came on the line.
Bailey could hear the radio blaring and Anna singing at the top of her voice. He started to tell Riley what he had learned from Heinie, but gave up.
“You can’t hear what I’m saying, can you?” he bawled. “Can’t you stop that goddamn noise?”
Riley seemed half dead. Bailey had left him in bed with Anna. He was surprised he even bothered to answer the telephone.
“Hang on,” Riley said.
The music stopped, then Anna began to shout angrily. Bailey heard Riley bellow something and then the sound of a loud smack, Bailey shook his head, breathing hard down his nose. Riley and Anna fought all day. They drove him nuts when he was with them.
Riley came back to the telephone.
“Listen, Frankie,” Bailey pleaded. “I’m roasting alive in this goddamn booth. Will you listen? This is important”
Riley began to beef about the heat at his end.
“I know: I know.” Bailey snarled. “Will you listen? We’ve got the chance of grabbing a necklace worth fifty grand. The Blandish girl will be wearing the necklace tonight. She’s going to the Golden Slipper with her boy friend— just the two of them. I got the word from Heinie. It’s the McCoy. What do you say?”
“How much?”
“Fifty grand. Blandish—the millionaire. How about it?”
Riley seemed to come alive all of a sudden.
“What are you waiting there for? Come on back!” he said excitedly. “This is something we got to talk about. Come on back!”
“I’m on my way,” Bailey said and hung up. He paused to light a cigarette. His hands were shaking with excitement Riley wasn’t as yellow as he thought, he said to himself. If we handle this right, we’re in the money!
He walked with quick strides back to the Lincoln.
Old Sam looked at him sleepily.
“Wake up, stupid,” Bailey said. “Things are cooking.”