Saturday, November 20, 2010


The proposer had been drawn to reading “The Mask of Dimitrios” by Eric Ambler through seeing the 1944 film version. The film starred Sydney Greenstreet (perfect as Peters) and, less plausibly, Peter Lorre as the hero Latimer.

Latimer was perhaps intended to be relatively insignificant by Ambler, and other Ambler books similarly had anti-heroes. Ambler disliked the swashbuckling heroes of John Buchan thrillers, and had intended his first novel “The Dark Frontier” to be a satire on this type of thriller. Nobody had noticed, and the book was taken at face value and was successful. He thus joined a number of other novelists – Fielding and Austen being other examples – whose first work was a satire of current fashion.

Eric Ambler (1908-1998) came from a theatrical family. Despite training in engineering, he soon turned to writing. After selling film rights to supplement the proceeds of his novels, he moved to France to continue writing, possessing only a suitcase and a bank account. He married there in 1937. The outbreak of war saw him serve initially in an anti-aircraft battery protecting Churchill, and then in a film unit. After the war he was attracted to writing film scripts in Holywood, and did not resume writing novels until 1951.

In becoming a writer in Hollywood after the war he followed a road also followed by Fitzgerald and Chandler, which may have helped their bank balances but not their output as novelists. We noted that – generally – the artistic plaudits for great films went firstly to the director and secondly to the actors. The writer’s role was supporting, and was often highly frustrating for them as they lost control of their screenplay. Some exceptional film-makers were both scriptwriter and director, but there were examples (such as Dennis Potter) where allowing the scriptwriter to act also as director was notably unsuccessful.

Unfortunately there was nowadays only limited interest in Ambler. Five of his early books were considered to be classic thrillers, and “The Mask of Dimitrios” (1939 - originally named “A Coffin for Dimitrios”) was the best known of these. It was much applauded from the outset, and the film rights had earned Ambler 20,000 dollars. For the proposer it was a fascinating book, and a superb example of thriller writing. Both the dialogues and the descriptions (which could be savoured more on a second reading) were brilliant. Other thrillers he had read by Ambler were constructed in a similar way, but less rich in texture and detail.

The Group had much enjoyed the book. It was well crafted and well researched, and you could pick it up and read it straight through or read it in segments with equal pleasure. Some of the issues – such as his account of drug crime and the effect of different drugs – were surprisingly modern in feel. It provided a fine tour of Europe, despite the remarkable fact that Ambler had not visited the Balkans at the time of writing. He picked up his information through a Turkish expatriate group he met in the South of France, and through reading.

The quality of Ambler’s prose came in for particular praise. It was taut and sparse, but capable of poetic rhythm and of evoking a scene, a character or a situation through a few telling details. Again such prose had a modern feel to it.

The book was essentially a thriller. We were not persuaded by the view in Mazower’s introduction to the Penguin Classic edition that the book was a manifesto for a new kind of crime novel, intended to blow up the vicarage whodunit. That was more the objective of Hammett and Chandler.

Some found the structure, with a series of interviews about the past of Dimitrios, lacked real tension and “page-turner” quality” until it emerged that Dimitrios was not in fact dead. Even if that had been predictable, Ambler generated great fear and tension in the last section of the book.

Others did find it a page-turner from the beginning, and were reminded of the structure of Citizen Kane with a picture of the central character emerging slowly through a series of people commenting on him. This was not the only time Orson Welles was to feature in our discussion, as the atmosphere of the book reminded some of “The Third Man”, and Welles did indeed direct the film version of another of Ambler’s books. Both Greene and Le CarrĂ©, noted one, had acknowledged Ambler’s influence, although he felt Ambler was perhaps not in their class.

Another note of reservation concerned the “hero” Latimer, writer of conventional detective stories and wanting, like Ambler himself, to do his writing abroad. The plot device of having him decide to explore the past of a real criminal, and criss-crossing Europe to do so, was implausible. Ambler, in the opening passage of the book, was careful to distance himself from his antihero “The choice of Latimer [as an instrument of Providence] could only have been made by an idiot” and he was probably satirising himself to some extent.

Latimer is priggishly old-fashioned. He is not interested in money or women, with his only vice being an interest in drink – provided it is French and expensive. An amusing example of his priggishness was his judgement on La Prevenza:

“Her figure was full but good and she held herself well; her dress was probably expensive….Yet she remained, unmistakably and irrevocably, a slattern.”

Mr Peters comments: “I have read one of your books. It terrified me. There was about it an atmosphere of intolerance, of prejudice, of ferocious moral rectitude that I found quite unnerving…”

However, suggested one, was not Latimer’s “ferocious moral rectitude” in deliberate counterpoint to the moral chaos that Ambler is depicting on the European continent? Ambler shows Europe lurching from the First World War (and its chaotic aftermath – such as the Greco-Turkish War of 1919–1922) into the next European War. The Balkans teem with all sorts of peoples. For this reader, that sense of Europe in turmoil and the sense of impending war was the most intriguing aspect of the book.

“Nonsense” returned another “it’s simply a thriller written in the thirties!”

But didn’t the writer try to identify Dimitrios specifically with the collapse of the moral order in Europe, with ruthless greed and increasing aggression? Dimitrios’ criminal career as exposed in the book runs from 1922 to 1939, embracing theft, murder, spying, drugs, white slavery, financial chicanery, political assassination and possibly military provocation. He is thus the embodiment of everything that has gone wrong in Europe in the inter-war period.

Latimer reflects towards the end of the book:

“But it was useless trying to explain [Dimitrios] in terms of Good and Evil. They were no more than baroque abstractions. Good Business and Bad Business were the elements of the new theology. Dimitrios was not evil. He was logical and consistent; as logical and consistent in the European jungle as the poison gas called Lewisite and the shattered bodies of children killed in the bombardment of an open town. The logic of Michelangelo’s David, Beethoven’s quartets and Einstein’s physics had been replaced by that of the Stock Exchange Year Book and Hitler’s Mein Kampf…”

And the book ends on a similar note with Marukakis reflecting from Bulgaria on recent border incidents created by agents provocateurs:

“Special sorts of conditions must exist for the creation of the special sort of criminal that [Dimitrios] typified…all I know is that while might is right, while chaos and anarchy masquerade as order and enlightenment, those conditions will prevail……My latest information is that war will not break out until the spring, so there will be time for some skiing…”

And wasn’t it the case that genre novels of this kind tend to be at their best, and of most literary value, when struggling to escape the bounds of their genre?

“Hmmm…..well, we can at least agree that the Second World War was essentially a continuation of the First World War, which never really finished…”

The proposer, who had had the advantage of reading Ambler’s autobiography, shed some further light. Ambler had taken unusual care in writing this novel, and other novels of his revealed a particular concern about Germany’s aggression. His brother had married a German, and had had to prove his Aryan purity before being allowed into Germany. Ambler was also a “Communist Fellow Traveller” at this stage, and particularly critical of the role of international finance, where he thought Germany played a dangerous role.

And what of Mr Peters? For some he was the best character in the book. He was richly amusing with his endless self-justification, for example claiming the Great One had seen it fit to make him a criminal. However, one reader was certain that Mr Peters would turn out to be Dimitrios. There were clues that suggested he was Dimitrios, and indeed he would surely have made a better Dimitrios!

(Your correspondent was thoroughly confused. Firstly, it was suggested this straightforward thriller was some sort of morality tract, and now that Mr Peters was Dimitrios).

“Err…” … “So who killed Mr Peters???” (I essayed to clarify matters. But on they sailed, ignoring this razor-sharp intervention …)

“No”, asserted another, “I quickly rejected the hint that Mr Peters might be Dimitrios, because he obviously didn’t have the seductive brown eyes attributed to Dimitrios…” (still confused, because weren’t the eyes of Dimitrios meant to look like those of a doctor about to do something unpleasant to you? I looked cautiously at our medical representative) …But the author was unfairly misleading at the outset in implying that the first dead body was Dimitrios, as opposed to the second dead body ….

These notes are getting too difficult to make much sense out of. Reader, you perhaps think that these discussions follow a neat logical order and that your correspondent merely has to act as amanuensis. To disabuse you of this misunderstanding, and demonstrate the Herculean task your intrepid reporter fearlessly tackles each month, here is an accurate fragment from my verbatim notes prior to processing, a little piece of literary archaeology:

“Ambler’s description of the little-known Greco-Turkish war was gripping ……My uncle was on a boat at the time of the Greco-Turkish war, and tried to separate an Egyptian from his harem……the German definition of nationality by blood not residence is the source of problems…..EU resolves? …..So did Communism - no, not voluntary……any need for aircraft carriers or tanks?.....what about the Russian solution of inflatable tanks?.….off to Argentina, staying in the Belgrano hotel..…a friend’s son picked up all his girlfriends bar one from tango clubs…..all about agreeing to dance by sign language from the back…...not unlike Edinburgh Union dances…..what does “Belgrano” mean?.....beautiful grain….. or beautiful pimple…..did I tell you the one about my water treatment at the hands of two square-headed women in Bulgaria?… Aberdonian headmaster said you should select a woman based on the price of the drink she is holding (go for the cheapest!)… should have heard what my mother got up to in Warrender baths……young Scots are all sounding their “S”s as “Sh”s, it’s the Sean Connery factor..…yes, some of the novel did remind me of a James Bond novel…..”


The surreal quality of the discussion was further emphasised on the way home when the taxi driver claimed just to have been made an Emeritus Professor. Shurely shome mistake?

Winter had arrived early on the highest slopes of Edinburgh as the host introduced “No Way Down” (2010). He had bought the book because attracted by the tag “An ‘Into Thin Air’ for the new century”, and felt it would to provide a change for the Group by offering a new book on a new subject.

The author Graham Bowley was – as noted on the dust jacket – a journalist for the New York Times. More surprising was that he was a financial journalist. He continued to write financial/economic articles, together with a smattering of mountaineering pieces. As Bowley acknowledged in his preface, he had no prior interest in mountaineering before being drawn into writing first an article and then a book about K2. His subject was the 1 August 2008 tragedy where eleven of the world’s top climbers had died.

The Group had much enjoyed the book. Bowley told a gripping and dramatic story. The drama was enhanced by the use of dialogue and of a time sequence for the successive “scenes”. The reader was drawn on by wondering which of the climbers would live and which would die. The sense of impending tragedy was heightened by the symbolism of the yak’s throat being slit and his head stuck outside the tent, plus the superstitions of the porters, eager to propitiate the gods of the mountain and avoid bad luck.

Because Bowley did not have a mountaineering background, and had not been present at the events, the book did not reach the literary heights of some mountaineering classics. The group particularly favoured Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” (about the 1996 Everest disaster), Joe Simpson’s “Touching the Void” (cutting the rope in the Andes) and Heinreich Harrer’s “The White Spider” (about the north face of Eiger).

However, simply because Bowley did not have such a background, he was able to give a dispassionate account of the human failings of organisation and personality which had contributed to the tragedy, in a way that a passionate mountaineer could not. That made the book both unusual and valuable.

Bowley, however – unlike Krakauer - was not able to give great insight into what motivated people to climb. He makes some attempt at the end of his “Epilogue”:

“K2 was terrifically beautiful…yet…why had they come? Why had I come? For me their story possessed an archetypal force…basic and timeless…They had confronted their mortality, immediately and up close. Some had even come back to K2 after serious injury in earlier years attracted like flies to the light to some deeper meaning about themselves, human experience, and human achievement…Some had emerged from the ordeal; others had perished. All had burned brightly in their lives…”

This passage tries hard but is conventional, vague and unconvincing. We suspected that Bowley’s real views were better recorded in his earlier statement:

“The truth was that climbing attracted strong characters, egos, oddballs, and they rubbed up against one another”

and in his summation “K2 had required from them heroism and selflessness and responsibility. It had also laid bare fatal flaws and staggering errors”.

So what did we think motivated such climbers? Some suggested that risk-taking was a normal aspect of human life - even in crossing the road. High-risk mountaineering was simply at the far end of this scale, exciting and fuelled by testosterone. Males were normally the risk-takers, but that monopoly was going in today’s society.

Others felt that K2 mountaineering was in a category all by itself. The pleasures of normal hill-walking were obvious enough, at least to people living in Scotland. The adrenalin rush of extreme rock-climbing could also be comprehended, even if few of us were attracted to it. However, tackling K2 – an activity with a one in four mortality rate – was something quite different, more akin to Russian roulette.

Was it fuelled by a compulsion to find value in one’s life by being part of a tiny group of high achieving heroes? Only 277 people had successfully climbed K2 so far. So was it a craving for status, even if only in the climbing community? If so, it must have been quite a blow to arrive on K2 in 2008 and find over twenty other climbers trying to reach the top on the same day (or trying to “summit”, in the ugly neologism picked up by Bowley).

One of the attractions of the book was that Bowley rightly resisted the temptation to be judgemental in his writing, given the scope for adding to the grief of the bereaved. He was convincing in arguing that a kind of “groupthink” had taken over and allowed them collectively to make the error of pressing on to the summit too late in the day. Similarly he was not dogmatic in trying to resolve some of the riddles of exactly who had done what in the descent, noting that he had expected to establish a clear narrative but instead found himself “in some post-modern fractured tale”.

Occasionally, however, Bowley’s cloven hoof of judgement peeped out from under his toga of objectivity. The South Koreans did not get a very good press, suggested one reader, who suspected Bowley bought into the view that their large-scale nationalistic expedition was one of the root causes of the tragedy. Comparatively little effort had gone into recording the Koreans’ perspective or differentiating them as individuals, although that might reflect cost constraints. That Bowley did not think too much of the Dutchman Van Rooijen was also not very hard to work out, felt another. He thought it confirmed by the superbly deadpan comment that – Bowley having crossed the Atlantic to record the Dutchman’s viewpoint – Van Rooijen then sold rather than gave him a copy of his book.

By contrast, one member felt that Gerard McDonnell was eulogised to an extent that seemed implausible, which perhaps reflected American sentimentality about the Irish. And, felt another, it was perhaps surprising that Cecilie Skog attracted praise for being pretty but no comment for pressing single-mindedly on to the summit despite having been instrumental in precipitating the first death.

There were clearly difficult moral judgements that the climbers had to make about the extent to which they were willing to compromise their own safety – and their own chance of “summiting” - by trying to help others. It was perhaps unsurprising that some, having got this far, were very ruthless, and remarkable that others were altruistic to the point of losing their own life. However, the fact that we felt equipped to venture judgments that the author did not was a tribute to the extent his story had brought the individuals alive (and to our presumption).

The mistakes made by some of the climbers in terms of not taking basic survival kit such as a GPS or sufficient oxygen bottles to accommodate a delay (there were porters to carry them) struck us as extraordinary. Given the odds of dying on K2, you would need to be a reckless risk-taker to undertake the climb, and perhaps that trait - that conviction of your own immortality - would inevitably be associated with a degree of carelessness and lack of realism about safety requirements.

It was a savage irony, noted one member, that effective co-operation between individuals and groups was at a premium in the situation they faced. Yet the type of ego-driven personality attracted to such a climb was liable to be the least adept at such co-operative activity. It was perhaps surprising that the groups had achieved even their initial degree of agreement.

In the book we discussed in May (Haidt’s “Happiness Hypothesis) the author observed that obtaining a long sought goal does not give more than temporary happiness. Soon it is on to the next goal, and making the journey gives more happiness than reaching the destination.

The truth of this was demonstrated in the compulsion that the K2 climbers felt to set out to risk their lives again, despite the horrors they had encountered on 1 August 2008. Thus Cecilie Skog was ice-climbing in the Rockies sixteen weeks after the death of her husband on K2. And Go Mi-sun, the star-climber in the South Korean team (and also female), died a year later on another mountain in northern Pakistan.

Sobering stuff, noted your correspondent. Meanwhile he observed a bottle of Ledaig malt from Tobermory being steadily drained by a fellow member, who claimed to be using it as a cold remedy.

Hmmm….he must have been born on the same day as me…..

It was the annual outing to Portie again. Your assiduous correspondent arrived to find the early arrivers in full flow on the topic of why there might be astragals on one side of the house and not the other (answers on a postcard) and sampling a fine Bourgeuil - Les Cent BoisselĂ©es 2003 (just send us a crate if you feel so inclined. Or two…).

Moving on to introducing “To Kill a Mockingbird”, the proposer said that he had been encouraged to read it by his wife and daughters, and had bought the 50th anniversary edition. However, he had subsequently found a copy given to him for his 21st birthday, and thought, but could not be certain, that he had read it in the past! The book linked with last month’s “The Color of Water” in its examination of race relations, and had received a fair degree of recent attention because of the 50th anniversary and because of Rich Hall’s programme “The Dirty South”.

Harper Lee (1926- ) was born Nelle Harper Lee in Monroeville, Alabama. She was the daughter of a civil lawyer, who had on one occasion defended two negros in a murder trial and lost. Her sister Alice was a lawyer. Harper herself had studied some law at university, but did not like it. She found little in common with her fellow female students. She spent a summer at Oxford, but dropped out of her law studies on return, feeling that she wanted to be a writer. She struggled in New York for some years, working as a reservations clerk.

However, she had made friends with the composer Michael Martin Brown and his wife, and they made her the remarkable Xmas present in 1956 of a year’s wages to allow her to concentrate on writing, and also helped to find her an agent. This allowed her to finish the manuscript by 1959, and the book was published in July 1960. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, and was adapted into the Oscar-winning film starring Gregory Peck in 1962. Lee described the film as “one of the best translations of a book to film ever made”. Peck’s grandson was named after her, and she remains close to Peck’s family.

When a child her next door neighbours were the aunt and uncle of Truman Capote, and he spent a lot of time there. Capote became her best friend, and the character of Dill in her book was modelled on him. One of them was gifted a Remington typewriter, and they wrote stories together. There were not many other examples in literary history of two such major writers being childhood friends.

She renewed her friendship with Capote when she went to work in New York. In Capote’s first novel “Other Voices, Other Rooms” (1948) there is a tomboy girl character, based on Harper Lee. Capote also said that in the first draft of his novel he had a character who, like Boo Radley, was a neighbour who left things in trees. This character, according to Capote, was based on a real life figure from their childhood.

After completing her novel, Lee helped Capote with writing “In Cold Blood”. She was one of two people that the book was dedicated to, but she was hurt that no recognition was given to the part she had played in contributing to the book. Despite that, their friendship continued to the end of Capote’s life. But while he revelled in the limelight, she shunned it.

Despite carrying out some work on a second novel and on a non-fiction book, Lee had not published another book, and continued to live a quiet private life in New York and Monroeville.

The group were unanimous in their praise of their book. One survey had judged this was the best novel of the last century. While not perhaps going that far, we agreed this was a true classic - beautifully written, and also enjoyable despite its disconcerting subject matter. Her wry humour and good use of dialect also illuminated the novel with a warm tone. And what a brilliant title she had chosen.

The main theme was of course race, but it was by no means the only theme. Another was that of a child coming to terms with the realities of the adult world. Also explored was the issue of how Atticus brought up his children as a single parent. And more broadly Lee was portraying the breadth of society in a small rural town in the South.

The device of telling the story through the eyes of a six year old (even if one who seems knowing beyond her years) was brilliantly successful. It allowed a portrait to emerge of Atticus as a hero - a man of great integrity - with little sentimentality, as it also depicted his foibles from a child’s perspective. An interesting comment on Atticus from Rich Hall was that in reality he probably would have been lynched in the South of the fifties.

The device of using the child narrator also effectively conveyed the view that racism was learnt from culture and not innate, and that children start with a sense of fair play. One of us remembered being brought up in a village where half the children were gypsies, and thinking nothing of playing with them all the time.

Another attractive feature of the novel was that Lee showed a capacity to understand why people in her small town behaved as they did. She was unreserved in condemning racism, but she showed the capacity for empathy of the great novelist in appreciating how it evolved.

However, there was no ambiguity about her moral judgements:

“As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t forget it – whenever a white man does that to a Blackman, no matter who he is, or how a fine family he comes from, that white man is trash.”

Part of the force of that statement by Atticus comes from taking the phrase “white trash” and turning it from its normal derogatory connotations of poverty and class into a term of moral judgement.

(Well indeed, I ventured, didn’t the Country and Western song also play on the meaning of “trash” in the line “I like my women just a little on the trashy side”? Alas this scintillating piece of linguistic criticism was left withering on the vine…).

Although, continued another, there was a degree of inconsistency in Atticus insisting that Jem should have to face a trial but not Boo Radley.

What about the structure of the novel? The line of plot certainly misled some, as they had feared a rather sentimental court victory for Atticus in defence of his black client, Tom Robinson, and that realism of the court outcome was appropriate. An early comment from a publisher had been that the draft book was more a collection of short stories than a novel, and one member felt that there was still an element of truth in this, in particular in not integrating the Boo Radley sub-plot with the themes of the rest of the novel. On the other hand, suggested one, the Boo Radley story also showed how it is possible to make quite unrealistic assumptions about other people.

We were greatly intrigued by the fact that Harper Lee had only published one book, and had dropped unpublished her subsequent efforts. Why should that be? Was she one of those writers who only really had one book in her, such as Margaret Mitchell? Or did she recognise that she was one of those writers whose first book was always going to be the best (in which class we identified various writers ranging from Salinger to Colin Currie)?

Or was she simply too much of a perfectionist? After all in 1958 she had thrown five years of work on “To Kill a Mockingbird” into the snow until a call from her editor persuaded her to rescue the manuscript. And perhaps if she had published other less good novels set in New York she would have lost the identification with the South that was central to her persona as a writer. Indeed, speculated one (who claimed to have been a model for a character in a play), once someone was identified as a writer they might find people were unwilling to open up in front of them, which would limit their raw material.

In any event, we hoped that she had not destroyed all her other manuscripts or left instructions for them to be destroyed on her death. But we feared she would have.

Lee had wanted to be the “Jane Austen of the South”, and she had succeeded very well in this ambition. There were also strong echoes of Mark Twain in the novel. But despite these nineteenth century echoes, the approach to racial issues was surprisingly modern for a book published in 1960. It had to be remembered that the book was written before JFK had come to power, and before Martin Luther King had made his “I have a dream” speech. The book’s depiction of racism and of sex could when necessary be brutally realistic in its language.

The book was also prescient. Thus Atticus said:

“There’s nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance. Don’t fool yourselves – it’s all adding up, and one of these days we’re going to pay the bill for it. I hope it’s not in your children’s time.”

Was this, I ventured, a simple black and white tale?

When those who had fallen off their chairs recovered from this minor faux pas, the view was that, at its heart, the book was indeed a kind of fable, which might help to account for its appeal to younger readers. However, there were elements of complexity too, such as in the character of Miss Maudie.

Would the book have had any success in changing attitudes to racism? Probably not, we feared, with adult readers whose attitudes had already been formed, but it must be a powerful force for good with young readers, and was therefore a popular pedagogic tool.

And were we being complacent in assuming we were all non-racists now? Some claimed everybody had a degree of racism within them. Or was that simply the thought police, and there was no satisfying them?

Well at least, we congratulated ourselves, we weren’t in the racist category of the Airdrie fan who turned up at matches in Nazi uniform, thereby attracting the first ASBO issued to a football fan in the UK.

But steady on, riposted one, whose sympathies perhaps lay with the Diamonds, it’s not as if the whole club is like that! It’s not as if Airdrie United F.C. are putting pictures of the Wehrmacht on the front of their Matchday Programme!

Oh, indeed not…