Monday, 18 April 2016

The Dark Philosophers

Title: The Dark Philosophers

Author: Gwyn Thomas

Year of publication: 1946, Library of Wales edition 2005

Back cover blurb: 'Sex, murder and devastating black humour mark these three novellas from the 1940s.  In Oscar, the narrator of death and exploitation fails to fend off the evil that envelopes him.  In Simeon, the abuse of sexual and family power ends with violent death, and in The Dark Philosophers itself, the grimly humorous philosophers gather in an Italian cafĂ© in the Terraces to tell the dark tale of revenge that they engineer.'

Status: Completed

Reading reveals: Welsh author Gwyn Thomas was once well known, speaking on BBC radio with some regularity.  A high media profile did not guarantee posterity, however (take note, Will Self), and not even a TV drama of his life starring Anthony Hopkins could save him from a slide into near-obscurity.
   I've always imagined the Welsh valleys to generally be places of God-bothering tedium, so the version presented here is quite a surprise.  For a start, everyone is quite horny.  Also, everyone is forced into hard compromises just to stop themselves from sinking under at a time of high unemployment and poverty.  Often, these two things intersect.
   The first story, Oscar, is about a man who owns a mountain and the man who looks after the man who owns the mountain.  It's a disturbing tale of precisely what money will buy you when you've got some and no one else around has.  It's a gruesome portrayal of a man's bestial state, and worth checking out.
   The Dark Philosophers itself, despite being the work that defined Thomas, is possibly the one here that has aged the least well.  The philosophers themselves, three only-occasionally employed clientele of an Italian coffee shop, have a wit so cynical it wears you down after a while, and their half-love of their own poverty is one step away from Python's Four Yorkshiremen.  Some scenes seem to exist only to present them with easy targets, and their willingness to step over anybody in order to make a political point betrays them as being as monstrous in their own way as the capitalism they rail against.
   Up a hill again for the final story, Simeon, where a farmer turns to incest with his daughters in their remote cottage.  It's quite creepy, like a children's story that goes very wrong, and also well worth your while.

Random paragraph: '"In any case," I muttered, "I don't give a damn.  Mountains, tips, Oscar, Danny, Hannah, work and pain, living and dying, it all looks terribly odd to me."'


Thursday, 28 January 2016

Live Now, Pay Later

Title: Live Now, Pay Later

Author: Jack Trevor Story

Year of publication: 1963

Back cover blurb: 'Live Now, Pay Later is not quite of this world, and certainly not of the next: it belongs to the world of the 'never-never,' somewhere on the outer fringe of that provincial England which Kingsley Amis and John Braine have shown us with almost shocking frankness.
   In Jack Trevor Story's provincial town - fast in the grip of Hire Purchase but living it up with brittle gallantry - we are shot into a convulsive existence of rapid results, devious politics, easy women, and easy payments.  Somehow, though reluctantly, you have to hand it to the feckless Albert, prince of tally-boys, whatever squeezes he puts on the housewives.  As they surrender to his promiscuous glamour, they seem to be caught up in a sorry serial where there's always another thrilling instalment next week.  All except for Treasure: after eighteen months she had had enough.
   You're bound to laugh at the clipped and bawdy dialogue of this social merry-go-round.  But you'll wince at the cutting edge of this brilliant writing.'

Status: Completed

Reading reveals: Jack Trevor Story is best known for writing the novel The Trouble With Harry, made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock, and for being the inspiration for Jim Henson's '80s TV series The Storytrevor.  Here, he explores the social menace of Hire Purchase, infecting the working classes with the promise of living beyond their means.
   It begins tremendously well, with the salesman and debt collector protagonist sleazing and furtively shagging his way around town as one did before the sixties properly happened.  As it goes on, however, Story spreads his net too widely, and our attention is directed towards the business meetings of estate agents and the like, and the opportunity for an immersive character study is lost.  Towards the end, the kitchen sink grimness of abortion, rape and the like sits uneasily with an increasingly comic plot, and a ridiculously unlikely accidental death pretty much threw me out of the book completely.  You're left with the impression of a quite old-fashioned English comic novel being awkwardly dressed in new-fangled kitchen sink clothes, which is a shame, because the early chapters pack a powerful punch.  The film version does very well on IMDB though, so maybe that irons it all out a bit.

Random paragraph: 'From this Mr Callendar had reasoned there was more to Arnold than appeared on the surface; men who picked their nose in public were often underprivileged in some ghastly, unwholesome way.  Later his faith was justified when he had learned that Arnold had once worked for a shady second-hand car dealer who had been handling stolen cars when the police caught up with him; it was to Arnold's immense credit, in Mr Callendar's opinion, that the car dealer and all his staff had gone to prison with the single exception of Arnold, against whom, apparently, there had been no evidence.  Or at least, no believable evidence in the face of Arnold's steadfast denials.