Thursday, 14 May 2015

Ngaio Marsh's Swing, Brother, Swing

Review of Swing Brother Swing, by Ngaio Marsh, for the Past Offences 1949 challenge

Once more, Marsh takes us inside a world, this time high life in London just post war. The haute monde are trying to carry on as if nothing had happened. A new kind of jazz is à la mode and the thing to do is to dine and dance where Breezy Bellairs and his Boys are taking jazz standards, playing them through a couple of times and then turning them into a runway for free improvisation (or “screeching cacophony”, depending on your point of view). It sounds ghastly.

Lord Pastern and Bagott is an eccentric English peer, who has long been separated from his French wife, Cecile. Having sold his country house, he's now living in London. He is prone to fads: after passing through nudism and a transcendental religion whose adherents prayed “in antiphonal screams”, he is now crazy about bebop and yearns to play the drums. He’s a Lord and can do what he likes, as long as he bankrolls Breezy Bellairs.

The cast assembles at his house before his debut – he’s joining in in one number, “Hot Gunner”, which involves a lot of much-discussed silly business including firing a revolver loaded with blanks, and the accordionist – or conductor? – pretending to die and be carried off as the band plays a cod funeral march. Can taste sink any lower? Perhaps – during “Any Umberellas” the Boys twirl parasols, provided by the helpful Lord P&B.

Apart from Lord P&B, at the dinner are:

Cecile, who has returned because despite all irritations she finds life too quiet without him.

Félicité (Fee), her daughter, who has just left a posh school. She is very pretty and talks about nothing but boys. She flirts with any male who crosses her path and talks in a grating mixture of slang and French phrases. (“I was totalement bouleversée!”) She is always having a "crise", "a cause de" something or other.

Breezy Bellairs, a vulgar man with a toothy smile.

Carlos Rivera, the accordionist – engaged to Félicité. He drinks too much and tries to persuade Cecile that he is descended from Argentinian nobility. She frigidly continues to work her petit-point.

Miss Henderson, once Fee’s governess and now a general dogsbody.

Carlisle, Lord P&B’s niece, who shudders as Carlos tries to flirt with her.

Writer Edward Manx, a rather straight young man who is also a cousin.

They all set off for the club, where the musicians take to the stage and the party dances. Lord P&B’s number doesn’t go too badly, but then tragedy strikes....

Of course, Inspector Roderick Alleyn and his wife Troy are at the next table, and Alleyn is summoned backstage to view a corpse. We  leave the aristos and mingle with musicians and club owners. Two doctors turn up and are professionally courteous to each other, examining the body together, each going down on one knee “like simultaneous comedians”. Alleyn summons his team, and sends a young constable home with one of the musicians who’s a bit of a “red”.

"How did you get on with Skelton, Sallis?"

"Well, sir," said Sallis, in a loud public-school voice, "he didn't like me much to begin with. I picked up a search-warrant on the way and he took a very poor view of that. However, we talked sociology for the rest of the journey and I offered to lend him The Yogi and the Commissar, which bent the barriers a little. He's Australian by birth, and I've been out there so that helped to establish a more matey attitude."

The posh party return home to be questioned by the police. Cecile clings to her dignity, helped by her hair-netted coiffure and tight foundation garments. Lord P&B begins to think he has really wanted to be a Sherlock all along. Of course, they’re all under suspicion, as they all had the opportunity to tamper with the supposed murder weapon.

The investigation continues, and the plot takes in the drug trade, plus a high-minded magazine called Harmony and its anonymous Agony Uncle GPF (for “guide, philosopher and friend”). Lord P&B continues to be interfering and obnoxious. Carlisle thinks back to pre-war parties in the house’s now-deserted ballroom, where she danced with Edward... she wonders dejectedly if he is falling for the awful Fee, who tries to “vamp” Inspector Alleyn by sitting on the stairs and looking cute.

Carlisle spent the war in a regular job, and has just returned from abroad to find she no longer quite fits into this milieu. Lord P&B can still afford (and obtain) an old-fashioned staff of servants – a state of affairs that would not continue for long in the coming decades. Marsh treats the staff in her usual way, sending Fox to try and speak French to the chef and the lady’s maid Hortense, who communicates in “complicated gestures”.

Mystery writers must have wondered how they were going to manage without servants to act as comic foils and give vital snippets of information. Christie effortlessly moved with the times and replaced these stock characters with over-sensitive Austrian au pairs and pop-singing, hoover-wielding dailies (Mitzi and Cherry).

The comic servants aren’t, but there’s plenty of incidental humour. Sgt Gibson (a likeable series character) searches the dead man’s flat and is appalled by its purple satin curtains. (“You might call it morve, sir.”) The furniture is green, the walls fawn, and the bedroom is upholstered in black satin. Deceased even wore black satin pyjamas.

Alleyn branches out, interviewing the musicians and trailing Edward’s mysterious unseen employer, the editor of Harmony magazine. Series character Nigel Bathgate, the journalist, helps out. The plot is complex, and the murder method absurdly ingenious – but its exposition is intriguing, rather than irritating, as in some of her other books.

The only flaw is that the more grotesque characters are foregrounded, and the likeable ones (Carlisle and Edward) take a back seat. Oh, and Marsh conveys that Troy is pregnant in the most horribly coy manner.

What’s 1949 about it? The determined effort of the aristocratic and moneyed to carry on as if the war had never happened. (Cecile is a French aristocrat and all her forebears were “de” something, as she reminds us.) Carlisle and Edward, marked by the war but adapting to a new world by getting jobs and living modestly. The musicians mixing uneasily with their posh fans. The communist drummer who thinks Lord P&B is a “parasite” who is being used for his “snob value”. Little do they know that they are about to be swept away by the welfare state and rock’n’roll.

More Marsh here.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Inspirational Quotes about Politics

People talk about 'lefties' but really, it's just ethics. You look after those weaker than you. (@matthaig1 May 9)

Ppl in this country if they vote, they vote for themselves, tho sometimes not even capable of understanding their own situation. (@AgataPyzik)

We do not have to accept the world as we find it. And we have a responsibility to leave our world a better place and never walk by on the other side of injustice. (Ed Miliband)

I wonder how closely ideological obnoxiousness is correlated with personal obnoxiousness. (@BDSixsmith)

Heroic attempts to say "satire is fine just not about the thing I like". (@almurray)

Sometimes it seems like comedy (esp the big names) are a bunch of really sensitive people telling others to stop being sensitive. (@AmyDentata  )

I used to know people like The Sun at school. Who picked on people's looks and mannerisms. Bullies we called them. (@matthaig1)

Suzy was bullied for being ginger: When I asked for help, I was regularly told by adults to repeat the adage “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me”. This was not an effective tool to stop the name-calling, nor was it a strategy that equipped me to deal with the hurt. (Psychologist)

Bullies learn best by being confronted with an unpleasant consequence for their actions. (Harry Webb ‏@websofsubstance)

Cyberbullies always hide behind ‘free speech’ as an excuse, but they forget that free speech cuts both ways. (Alistair Canlin @alcanlin)

Protecting free speech has to mean "enabling marginalized people to speak without abuse" not "letting hate speech & threats flow unchecked". (@anildash)

Free speech doesn't mean we can't call people a knob when they say knobbish things. (‏@EyesSkyward)

“I’m a passionate believer in free speech, but” is the new “I’m not a racist, but”. (Milo Yiannopoulos ‏@Nero)

I hate that "I'm entitled to speak my mind" thing. You are also entitled to be nice... (@ClaireWithAn_I)

Loving our neighbors means we probably shouldn't intentionally antagonize them by having "Draw Muhammad" contests. Just an idea... (‏@benjamincorey)

free speech something or another
(Bonjour Tacos ‏@LeightonNeyland)

Since when did "don't punch people" constitute Political Correctness Gone Mad? (@MitchBenn)

Far more interesting than Clarkson is the number of people willing to defend bullying and violence, provided it's done by a big enough bully. (Aditya Chakrabortty @chakrabortty)

For people that claim to LOVE THE CLARKSON BANTS, they all get quite upset at jokes at his expense. (Sarah M ‏@sazza_jay)

The freedom of expression argument tends to protect cyberbullies. The Psychologist

No one really believes that we have a right to totally free speech, except some idiots on the web who use the phrase to justify anything from death threats down. (Mary Beard)

Oh, is everyone going on about free speech again? Cue lots of angry middle class white people complaining about their right to be obnoxious. (@ParisLees)

"If people didn't get offended so easily I wouldn't have to make 20 sockpuppet accounts to harass all the people that upset me." (@AmyDentata)

Harassment is NEVER 'just a bit of banter'. (Gia Armstrong ‏@GeeArms)

Sarah Vine imbroglio reminds me of the wisdom of my old friend Peter McKay: "Dishing it out and taking it are entirely separate disciplines." (Sam Leith ‏@questingvole)

"People were eventually prosecuted, and for me, the most important thing when the first two came to court was the judge's statement. It was the first time an impartial observer had effectively said, 'No, this is not acceptable behaviour.' It was very validating. (Caroline Criado-Perez, Indy April 2015)

It’s hard to avoid white men ruining it for the rest of us by using atheism as just another platform for a macho power struggle. (Jaya Saxena in Guardian on atheism groups, Jan 2015)

Schrodinger's douchebag: A guy who says offensive things & decides whether he was joking based upon the reaction of people around him. (@SallyStrange)

Apparently, we share 57% of our DNA with a cabbage. Some human beings make me ashamed of the remaining 43%. (Joanne Harris ‏@Joannechocolat)

You’ve got to put your foot down, even if you’re in a minority of one. (Katharine Hamnett, Times March 2015)

If you complain, you’re ‘playing the victim’; if you don’t complain, you are a victim.
(Julia Gillard)

Maybe one good definition of privilege is "assuming everything works for everyone else the way it works for you." (Brienne of Snarth ‏@femme_esq)

Sexism isn't the story of women enduring hardship. It's the story of men creating hardship. Racism is the story of whites creating hardship. We tell these stories in the passive voice, focusing on those affected, saying nothing about the ones committing the harm in the first place. ‏(@AmyDentata)

The entire concept of an "SJW" (social justic warrior) is a Strawman set up to silence people who deal with real issues. (Cmdr. Breanna Still ‏@BreeThePhoenix)

From the 1965 Race Relations Act and the 1970 Equal Pay Act, to the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Race Relations Act 1976, through to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and more recently the Race Relations Amendment Act 2000 and Equality Act 2010. These laws have led to a transformation in people's attitudes. Legislation changes behaviour, and over the years changes the way we think. (Sadiq Khan)

So did it feel like they were all part of a revolution [in the 60s]? “Yes, it absolutely felt like that. People were actually able to bring to an end the war in Vietnam. It felt that we were moving into a new time and a new consciousness. It really seemed the world was changing. There was the idea of rich, poor, black, white: everyone being the same under the skin.” ... It all seems rather bleak. “the big surprise is that the world we made has changed back to the world the way it was before. There is a separation of wealth and we are still at war. Back then we were able to end a war.” (Dorothy Lichtenstein, Times March 2015)

I’ve come to another realisation about race in Britain: it is almost never discussed. [Arguments revolve around] language, not policy or power. (Sathnam Sanghera)

I have little doubt that Ukip supporters will denounce my concerns as those of a narrow, liberal, metropolitan, media elite (though I've sadly never been able to identify the membership secretary of this alluring group in order to send a subscription). (Oliver Kamm in the JC)

They perpetuate the myth that there is an ever more threatening minority demanding special rights from a cowed and pandering nation emasculated by “health and safety gone mad” and "multicultural Britain". (Liverpool Echo on Britain First)

Never underestimate the power, or the venom, of endangered dinosaurs. (KP)

"Mon jardin est plus petit que Rome, mais mon pilum est plus solide que votre sternum!" (Asterix Chez les Bretons)

Parece ser que, no es necesario conocer y entender las cosas para discutir y pontificar sobre ellas. (Terry Lopez ‏@terry_jb Puedes decir eso otra vez, Terry.)

More here, and links to the rest.