30 October, 2014

Thanks John And Charlie - For The Great Pleasure You Have Given.

A week or so ago Guardian journalist George Monbiot posed the question “What should we call the age in which we live”? Other ages have had names given to them – the stone age, iron age, Elizabethan age, the renaissance.......and so on. So what is our age? Monbiot elected for the age of loneliness  since we live in an increasingly individualistic society where many live their lives through the virtual world rather than with ”real” people. Of course, the digital age was favoured by many correspondents to the Guardian as was the internet age, whilst someone else suggested the obesity age! Having given this some thought my choice would be "the excess age" for it seems to me that we live in a world characterised by excess.

When you've had every other thrill why not try this -
if your life is so hollow and this is the
best you can think of to brighten it
Wherever we look in the western world we see excess: huge wealth alongside great poverty, an excess of violence and sex on our TV screens and from Hollywood, media reporting that makes headlines of great wealth, poverty, violence and the rest. In the past few weeks we have almost become used to the beheading of people flashing up on the internet, our children look to a future employment as one which is based upon celebrity status or wealth rather than public service or professional or personal satisfaction seeing this as the gateway to the materialistic and excessive life style they crave, and our city centre streets are crowded with youngsters enjoying drinking and party going as if there is no tomorrow. Increasingly people want to live on a high – in yesterday morning’s Guardian there was a picture of a young Chinese couple having their wedding photographs taken as they cling to the side of a mountain – an ordinary wedding pic clearly wasn’t enough for them! And also on the marriage theme, and in the UK especially, our young people marry but no longer do the men simply wear their best suit but hire “penguin suits” and wear cravats – a sort of fancy dress costume for the occasion. They do not wear this attire in “normal” life and will probably not wear it again until they re-marry! And the bride will pay a large fortune on a wedding dress – the whole occasion costing eye watering amounts of money and all as a show of tasteless excess.  No one, it seems to me today wants the ordinary and everyday. We all want to go that little bit further – be even more wealthy, drink as little more, indulge ourselves little more (can there be a more telling phrase about our society than "retail therapy"!), we want to see something a little more violent or gruesome  or explicit than the last thing we saw at the cinema, be a little bit larger than life, to have one even greater “thrill” – run a  marathon, surf in a dangerously rough sea or  drink an excessive amount as part of a “dare” (as in the   “necknominate” craze where youngsters drink excessive amounts – with often tragic results - on the feeble pretext of supporting a charity). The list is endless.  In short we are increasingly binging on excess and what is perceived as “excitement”. We can’t get enough of it – and like all drugs it has got a hold and like all drugs we want more and more of it and to be “thrilled” and on an ever increasing high to keep us satisfied. If you want any "proof" of that fact consider an item in this week's news:an item about the film industry. The industry is complaining that the long hot summer has hit box office takings and a spokesman for the industry added to this by suggesting that "films are not exciting enough" - in other words, the public want more and more high end thrills and excitement (however one defines excitement). The article went on to list the top ten box office successes this year amongst them The Lego Movie, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Guardians of the Galaxy, X-Men, How to Train Your Dragon, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Amazing Spiderman and Transformers........ . They were all films (with only two exceptions) based upon high tech fantasy worlds populated with "unreal" people, creatures or aliens and through all of them ran some sort of undercurrent of excess and extreme excitement. It seems that a huge section of the public no longer wants tales of real people living real lives in real places - they want fantasy and excess.  There is little doubt, the public need more and more of the "fantasy excitement" drug to get them away from, the reality of their humdrum everyday lives and to keep them interested in a film or story -  the ordinary and the honest and the everyday reality is no longer enough.
Couldn't have put it better myself.  But hey, it'll
be good.....another high I can tick off 

I mention this by way of an introduction. It seems to me that nowhere are the excesses of modern life more visible and maybe influential than in the world of film, TV and books. We live in an age of mass entertainment and instant access to the media be it Hollywood’s latest blockbuster or a clip on YouTube – and wherever one looks the  boundaries are being pushed. Many may argue that this is a “good thing” – indeed it is difficult to argue against it, it is the nature of art that boundaries are pushed. But in doing so it also legitimises and makes what was once a “no no” seem acceptable. As the old song goes “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking now heaven knows anything goes” – so very true.   But what is also true is that too often violence, sex, foul language, high end “excitement” and modern technology is a substitute for a decent story line.

A few months ago Pat and I watched DVDs of the  1980’s BBC adaption of the John Le Carre “Smiley” spy stories – “Tinker Tailor, Soldier Spy” and “Smiley’s People” . The complex story lines were developed with high quality and sustained dialogue – just as in the books – with no use of foul language, excessive violence, clever technology or unnecessary sex to “spice them up” and make them more attractive. Modern viewers, I believe, would find them “boring”. Spies were portrayed as rather boring "ordinary people" - civil servants doing a complicated and complex job but still "everyday". I can’t conceive that if the BBC re-did the series that it would be the same today: every spy would tote a gun, every fight would be a blood bath, scenes would “zip” from one to another, the first five minutes of each programme would be spent doing a re-cap on the last episode (clearly, if one judges how modern serials on TV are introduced with excessive flash backs to the previous episode one can only assume that most of the population suffer from amnesia – or are simply not very bright!), every kiss would develop into a turgid sexploit, the urbane George Smiley would punctuate every sentence with expletives and every “baddy” would die spouting very visual blood, guts and gore. But Le Carre, as with any good writer, does not need this – the quality is in the story. The great tales of the world do not need it – their value is in the tale itself.

And so I come to the subject of this blog – the writings of John Harvey.
John Harvey - master of the police procedural novel
but more importantly master observer of people and places

John Harvey is a well established and award winning author of many years standing who writes on a number of things – jazz, poetry but above all crime. In particular he has written a series of books based in Nottingham, my home of almost fifty years, about one particular fictional  detective - Charlie Resnick. I came to John Harvey about  seven or eight years ago when an elderly friend  loaned  me a copy of one of his books. I was recovering from a stay in the Queens Medical Centre cardiac unit having been diagnosed with heart failure. From the moment that I received this book I was hooked and since then have devoured all Harvey’s work.  It has not only been a succession of jolly good reads but has so often sustained me when I have been “laid out” with my “dodgy ticker”!

I could praise many things about Harvey’s work – the story lines, the utterly believable characters, the attention to detail, the police procedural element – all of which are, in my view, top class. But for me it is the absolutely accurate and sympathetic  picture of Nottingham, Nottinghamshire and their people that take the prize.  He  does not write about glamour and high end excitement but rather about real life  and real people  and real places with all their aspirations, problems, hopes, fears, oddities, passions and failures. His tales are of people and places (mostly Nottingham) “warts and all.” 

The last Resnick novel - and what a
cracker
As one reads a Harvey novel one is transported by the everyday. The long suffering and ironic Notts County football fans, the Nottingham pub and club scene, the street life, the city centre hub and the “lively” night life, the Goose Fair site and its environs are all painted with such clarity, awareness and understanding that with each book that I read I find that I am there, a silent observer from the sidelines. I am  with the fans as they make their way down London Road after the game or I might be sitting in the Broadway cinema with Resnick – one of his haunts – indeed Pat and I sat in that cinema yesterday afternoon to watch a live screening from the National Theatre of the Greek tragedy “Medea” by Euripdes!. Maybe Resnick was the man sitting along the row from us  so real has this fictional character become for me! In one of the first books that I read Harvey wrote of a school in Sneinton  (a district of Nottingham) and as I read that description   I knew immediately which school it probably was – William Booth. My wife worked there in the school office. When Pat read it she “recognised” the mums that Harvey  described standing at the end of the school drive! In another tale he described the laundry in Lady Bay – I used to teach at Lady Bay school and a good friend was the manager of the laundry so I knew that his  description of the employee standing outside enjoying a cigarette was entirely accurate. I felt as if I was again there, witnessing that same event as I had done so many times when I looked out of my classroom window into the street leading down to the laundry! And in the last day or two I have read of Resnick sitting in a  Market Square coffee bar wistfully reflecting on the new style Nottingham Market Square – tasteless and utterly devoid of interest. One of the grandest civic squares in the midlands  has been destroyed and turned  into a concrete wasteland by modern designers and developers! Resnick’s comments about the new Squarecould have been my own – we  would have been two grumpy old men sitting on a bench together! And finally, as I lay in bed reading last night I read of another fictional detective in his tales, Catherine Njoroge, sitting in a coffee bar in Central Avenue, West Bridgford watching children file past the West Bridgford library – just as I had done so many times. When I taught at Lady Bay (over 40 years ago)  I often took the children for a library  visit or when I took the boys for their weekly game of football (our school didn’t have a playing field) to the adjoining park – I could have been that teacher that Harvey described walking with their class down the road!  All so very accurate and carefully observed. I could give so many other examples  of the manner in which Harvey has captured the people, the places and the very  heart and soul of Nottingham.
One of the many Resnick tales
I have enjoyed

No one – including, I suspect, John Harvey – would describe his writing or his tales as “great literature”. I’m sure that Harvey does not see himself as a modern day Charles Dickens, Jane Austen or John Steinbeck. But like all those great authors he shares their ability for the acute observation, for the feel of a person or place and for making the ordinary and everyday sound important. Dickens, Austen or Steinbeck did not write of the great earth shattering events they wrote of ordinary people in caught up the situations of their time and Harvey does the same. Dickens, Austen and Steinbeck (and others of their ilk) wrote of ordinary people of their circle and their society and in doing so not only left us great and memorable stories but stories and characters that reflected their age and in thus, a valuable perspective on that age and its people. Harvey, too, does that - anyone reading his Resnick novels in a hundred years time will know something of what it was like to live and work in a midland's town of the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries. To be fair - Harvey is not alone in this, another of my favourite authors is Graham Hurley who writes a similar series of crime fiction based in Portsmouth and the south west of England - all very ordinary and everyday - and accurate. Hurley is very good - he is not, however, John Harvey who is supreme.

For many modern day readers this might be “boring” – the ordinary and everyday to many is boring. In John Harvey’s work there is little or no high end excitement, excess, foul language is used only when appropriate, violence is part of the tales but it is included in an appropriate way – not simply to titillate. Harvey’s tales are equal to anything written by other popular crime writers of the day: Mark Billingham, Stewart MacBride or the hugely popular Ian Rankin. But whereas Rankin’s books (for example) are populated by violent and unpleasant characters – both police and criminal -  Harvey’s are populated by ordinary people of the sort I might meet in the street or sit next to in the cinema. Whereas Rankin’s famous detective John Rebus is a hard drinking thug Harvey’s Charlie Resnick is “Mr Everyman”. Whereas authors like Rankin, MacBride or Billingham often populate their books with arch villains, detailed violence and complex plots Harvey’s villains, victims and characters are the ordinary man and woman caught up in particular situations – in short, they are in the context of the everyday. For example in the book I have just finished which concerns the finding of the remains of a body thirty years after a murder eventually turns out to be the result of an opportunist situation which had occurred in the miners’ strike of that time. There was a murderer, a villain, but it was almost a “there but for the grace of God  go I” situation – we can all be heroes or indeed we can all be villains. And that is the essence (for me at least) of John Harvey – he tells of situations that might actually happen to anyone – the everyday incident that turns into a crime, the wayward youth who in the wrong set of circumstances spirals into a deadly situation or the colleague of Resnick who is killed not by some arch villain intent on police murder but by a drunken youth in a shop doorway - it is the everyday nature of life with all its misfortunes and opportunities for good or ill.

One of the best civic squares in the midlands - now destroyed
much to Resnick's (and my) disgust
Harvey’s police operate in the real world – they are utterly believable and the crimes they are faced with are utterly believable too. They make mistakes, they make bad decisions, they live the lives of you and me, they are not erstwhile Sherlock Holmes types making great conceptual leaps to solve the crime.  High tech and TV style  bravado and break throughs rarely  happen – it is all very pedestrian, There is no fast moving "CSI" type investigations, no "cold case" teams, no forensic scientists making amazing discoveries to identify the killer.  In Harvey, the policeman might fall over while giving chase, there is little or no flashing blue lights and high speed car chases, and Resnick spends much of his day interviewing the ordinary person – the stall holder in one of Nottingham’s markets or  the bar man in  “The Bell” or “Yates’ Wine Lodge” – two of Resnick’s favourite Nottingham pubs. And every place described by Harvey is totally accurate both in appearance and atmosphere. He has got into the heart, mind and soul of Nottingham and its people. Nottingham and the English East Midlands are not places of glamour or great wealth or great fashion. They are places of  the ordinary and the commonplace. They do not have the brilliance of Morse’s Oxford, the glamour of London or the hard drinking atmosphere of Rebus’ Glasgow. Nottingham and its environs are places of the normal, the ordinary and  the unexciting – places of stoic people getting on with their life, not winning any prizes or having any great expectations or  pretensions. And into this ordinary background Resnick fits completely – an ordinary man of the local ordinary  people and for the local ordinary people.
The new Market Square -  a bland and barren wasteland. A
blot on the city centre landscape.

If you crave high end excitement, a gun battle on every page, a bit of explicit sex plus dollops of foul language and casual violence to litter your story then don’t read John Harvey. But if you want a well crafted tale, populated with real people in real places which will leave you in the end feeling satisfied with the  outcome and, importantly, will have given you a snapshot of life in a big English city and the way its people behave, then you might just enjoy him.

And at night, after a day interviewing, following up leads and walking the streets of Nottingham  Resnick returns home to his cats and his empty house – and his jazz. I am not a great jazz enthusiast myself but the passion with which Harvey includes references to jazz and how Charlie Resnick turns to his old vinyls or CDs as a support in times of stress and as a  relaxing pleasure I can relate to. My passion is Bach – and I behave just as Charlie does with my old Bach vinyls and CDs – they are my support in difficult times and my pleasure when I am feeling good.  Sadly, Harvey tells us that his latest book, and the one that I have just finished, will be the final Resnick tale. I’ll miss old Charlie – he has, over the last few years, become a good friend. Had we ever met I could have been friends with him, he could have convinced me of the wonderful world of jazz – and I might just have converted him to Bach. But each time I visit the Broadway Cinema, or pass Notts County’s ground or drive past the Goose Fair site or walk past the Bell Pub or the Lincolnshire Poacher or I cross the Market Square or pass the Polish Club or walk through the Victoria Market I will think of Charlie Resnick and look out for him – he’s sure to be there somewhere! And whatever, I will have many fond memories of nights spent reading of his exploits, listening to his woes, agreeing with his grumbles and of course, watching him finally catch the villain.

Just a few of the Resnick takes
For me there  is no greater pleasure than a quiet night in with Resnick and with Bach playing in the background. I sit there, feet up and know all is well with the world and that the streets of Nottingham are safe in the care of Charlie Resnick and his friends! Thanks Charlie – and thanks John Harvey for all the pleasure.


2 comments:

  1. You're so right - I'm just re-reading them all myself, before I allow myself to read the final story and say goodbye to Charlie. I'm on Cold in Hand now, and it hits me as hard as it did the first time round, because John Harvey makes you believe utterly in the characters, and care about them. Thanks for a lovely and fitting farewell tribute to John and Charlie!

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  2. Wonderful tribute to the talented John Harvey and his creation. The books are just as you describe them: literate and wise in the ways of real people and the lives they lead. They move you and keep you interested. These things could possibly happen--and they often do. His are complex tales of the nature of man and of the heart, of loneliness and of taking risks, of crossing the fine line into bad behavior or of trying to do the right thing. A detective, and a writer, to be missed.

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