NO WORRIES

“Don’t you dare spit in my masks!”

Arrendell Antoine’s stern command cracked out over the water like a verbal whip. There was a short pause before there came the collective gulp of five people swallowing their own saliva.

We were bobbing in Arrendell’s small boat, ready to slip into the soupy-warm sea just off the west coast of Grenada. When I had hired Arrendell at the small cove just around the headland, I had anticipated the usual Caribbean laissez-faire attitude to the whole business of snorkelling. Instead, it appeared I had rented the local Health & Safety Officer.

“Every mask and snorkel has been carefully disinfected,” he went on. “I don’t need you spitting in them.”

I smiled at my son. He didn’t smile back. “I’m not sure I can do this,” he said quietly.

“Do what?”

“Go in the water.”

Oh, great. Another hundred bucks up the spout.

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Another busy day on Grand Anse beach, Grenada

I don’t know when phobias became fashionable among young people, but they seem to be having a moment. My three children (now young adults I guess – well, all old enough to drink) pitched up earlier this year for the family holiday sporting one each. The middle child had developed a fear of flying; the eldest daughter had packed her kabourophobia – fear of crabs – which stemmed from being surrounded by snappy claws one night on a beach in Jamaica, and the lad had acquired a new-found thalassophobia, fear of the ocean, caused by an unspecified trauma while on holiday in Croatia.

So what better holiday to choose for those neuroses than Grenada, which involves a) a ten hour-plus flight that includes a double drop – i.e. an extra take off and landing as you call at another island; b) a beach where the crabs line the road, like some crustacean version of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and c) a must-see attraction that involves snorkelling from a boat in open water. Something, I think you’ll agree, for everyone.

In fairness, this holiday was not meant to be an exercise in confronting fears, but one in democracy, as, in the annual family vote of where to go, a return trip to the Caribbean won hands down. And, adding a personal note to the verdict, Grenada was the only one of the region’s large islands I hadn’t visited, possibly because its chief selling point – the Spice Island – left me underwhelmed. I know where spices come from – the Continental Stores in NW5. And a little nutmeg, I find, goes a long way. I had no desire to succumb to endless plantation tours. But Grenada certainly had its advocates among my more well-travelled friends and as it was bound to have by default my favourite triple whammy – warm seas, white beaches and dark rum – I was sure there would be compensations, even if I did end up learning more about mace that I have ever wanted.

So, despite everything stacked against it, how did Grenada, by journey’s end, become the family’s favourite-ever Caribbean destination?

Well, it had a lot to do with the driving. Having braved the highways of St Lucia in the aftermath of a hurricane and crossed Jamaica’s mountains at night, if I have a Caribbean phobia, it’s the roads. But those on Grenada are in good nick, even if the signposting beyond the vicinity of the cute capital St George’s leaves something to be desired (at one point I was convinced the River Antoine rum distillery was the Grenadian equivalent of Brigadoon, although we found it eventually). And the standard of driving is good, apart from the local buses, which execute emergency stops to pick up/drop off passengers without warning – on roundabouts a speciality. And I am certain that without a car I wouldn’t have made it to La Sagesse Bay.

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La Sagesse

This spot on the south coast is home to a single secluded hotel, which has a giant wooden verandah overlooking a perfect horseshoe of a bay, fringed with palms. True, the sand is not as white as Grand Anse, the most famous, and most touristed, beach of the island – La Sagesse’s sand is more demerara than caster – but it has the magical feel of a secret spot, albeit one with lunch and beers – and a shower – on tap. It is the sort of place you can while away the best part of a day doing very little.

The other reason to have a car is the island’s waterfalls. There seems to sort of primal urge among we tourists to hike to waterfalls and swim in their pools and there are plenty of opportunities to do so on Grenada, with Annandale Falls near St George’s being the most popular. But on days when a cruise ship or two is in town, both it and Concord Falls (actually three separate falls, the second, a 45-minute hike, worth the effort) do get overwhelmed and waterfalls are one of the few places you’ll get hustled, normally by a young man offering to dive into the pool from the cliff top for a few dollars. A car enables you to pick your time for a pool dip, outside peak cruise ship hours (either early or later in the day), although I can’t guarantee there won’t be some would-be daredevil skulking around.

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Concord Falls

For something less favoured by the cruisers, try Seven Sisters/St Margaret’s off the twisty roads in the heavily forested centre of the island. This series of cascades is a thirty-minute hike from the road, through bush, banana and bamboo (and, yes, nutmeg), across sometime slippery terrain, and you might want to hire a guide (we paid a local just under a fiver, which I thought a bargain for taking five not always sure-footed people, but apparently was over-the-odds). They might not be the most spectacular falls you’ll see in terms of height, but they are very pretty, rarely as crowded as the others and the pools are large and satisfyingly, buttock-clenchingly cold when you take a dip.

Talking of money, there is no escaping the fact that our jittery pound has meant prices, with the East Caribbean Dollar tied to the US Dollar, can seem somewhat punitive when you have five people in tow (“That’s an expensive crew you haul around with you,” one restaurant manager said to me, far from helpfully). We were staying in a villa at the smart, Mediterranean-like Mount Cinnamon on Grand Anse Bay that came with cooking facilities, which proved a budgeting boon. There is a half-decent supermarket a short walk down a crab-hole-lined road and cooking one meal most days helped keep the final bill down. That and avoiding the high-end restaurants such as La Luna and the Beach House, which are best suited to couples anyway.

Mount Cinnamon also features Savvy’s, one of the best beach bars on the island, on an uncrowded section of sand, with good and reasonably priced lunchtime food, as well as kayaks, paddleboards and Hobie Cats for guests. One of the mysteries of Grenada, however, is why so many places retreat from the water’s edge come sundown – Savvy’s, the Aquarium restaurant and The Calabash all wind down their excellent beach bars at twilight and shift the action to more formal areas. Mount Cinnamon only really utilises Savvy’s after dark once a week, on Fridays, when there is a beach barbecue and bonfire.

Which is why this family often found itself walking home along Grand Anse after dark from Coconuts or Umbrellas bar/restaurants (which is, unlike some other Caribbean beaches I could name, a perfectly safe thing to do). Umbrellas in particular is a great place to people watch, catering to a rich mix of locals, holidaymakers and expats and serving the most lethal triple-rum cocktails: more a karate chop than a mere punch. Those midnight walks, incidentally, finally helped cure my oldest daughter’s kabourophobia. A couple of Umbrella’s drink specials and crabs hold no fear: you wouldn’t feel the pinch anyway.

That still left the challenge of open water and us bobbing about in Arrendell’s boat over the island’s premier aquatic attraction: the Underwater Sculpture Park.

The swish way to reach this collection of sunken statues is by using Savvy’s Sailing Adventures (sailingsavvy.com), which utilises a sleek, traditional sloop to take you from St George’s, round the headland to Mollinaire Bay where the seafloor sculptures are located. The drawback is that there is a six-person minimum charge at sixty-five US dollars a pop for a half day, which made a bill of £300 (that does include juices, beers, snacks and rum) for five.

So the car came in handy again. We drove to Dragon Bay, a few miles north of St George’s, and negotiated a deal with Arrendell Antoine for an hour-long trip/snorkel to the site, which is in the next bay south. We settled on a hundred US (about £77) for the five of us, including masks and snorkel hire. Not the cheapest of options, perhaps, but Arrendell turned out to be highly professional – not only did he assiduously disinfect his masks, he had third party insurance and gave a rigourous safety briefing. He is also chairman of the association that looks after those displaced from the Marine Protected Area – he used to be a spear-fisherman before it was banned.

Sensing my son’s nervousness, Arrendell slipped into the water first and helped him in, making sure the mask was fitted correctly and that he was relaxed before allowing him to look down. It is fair to say once you see the Anthony Gormley-like figures with their sparkling encrustation of coral and attendant fish, any anxiety is replaced by wonder. In truth they are in fairly shallow water and you don’t have to be brave to kick down and swim among these artificial reefs.

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The most famous of the sculptures is Vicissitudes, a ring of youthful figures (all cast from local children) holding hands that manages to be both charming and creepy at the same time, although perhaps not as much as People Lying In The Sand, sixteen female forms on the seabed, all cast from the same Grenadian woman, looking freshly poleaxed. I was drawn to The Lost Correspondent, a lone figure working at his typewriter, studiously oblivious to the colourful shoals trying to distract him from his work. I can’t imagine why.

All the above, and many others, are by British artist Jason deCaires Taylor, who originated the park in 2006, but it is still being added to (and, where need be, repaired), with works such as The Ameridindian Petroglyphs, fourteen concrete sculptures based on carvings on the island, and the arms-raised-to-heaven Christ Of The Deep, both by local Troy Lewis.

The Sculpture Park was, without doubt, a highlight of the trip, although we found ourselves wondering on the flight home quite why we had enjoyed Grenada so much. I decided that our competition between the major Caribbean islands was a little like a heptathlon, with Grenada the athlete that might not win gold at every event, but will score consistently enough to take the medal overall. So St Lucia might have more rugged topography, Jamaica the gold-medal nightlife, Barbados better top-end dining, Antigua a larger tally of classic beaches, but Grenada does more than well enough in every category to stand on top of the podium. It is the best all-rounder of the Caribbean. And I still don’t know how they grow all that nutmeg.

 

DETAILS

Just Grenada (01373 814214, justgrenada.co.uk) has seven nights in one of the new Mount Cinnamon Suites from £1,395 per person, including flights, transfers and full breakfast each day. These new suites don’t have cooking facilities: a week in a Hacienda suite with kitchen is from £1,695pp. It also has a week at the tucked-away La Sagesse is from £995pp, including flights and transfers. Car hire and excursions through Caribbean Horizons (001 473 444 1550, caribbeanhorizons.com).

 

 

DRIVING MR. BRANDON

Full disclosure: I could probably tell a version of most of the stories in actor Michael Brandon’s new Edinburgh Festival show, Off-Ramps. And some more besides. Not as well as he does, admittedly, but I got the whole Brandon life story – out of sequence –  while driving him around the UK back in 2007.

I had written the narration for a piece called dZf, a reworking of the Magic Flute, which featured all-original music by trumpeter and composer Guy Barker. Michael had the perfect voice for the relocation of the opera’s action to New York (that’s him under Guy’s pointing finger below). A tour had been arranged. I wanted to go on the road with the band. Why? Asked my wife. You’ve done all the work.

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       Why? Because I wanted an excuse to go on the road with a band. But that sounded a bit like a writer’s mid-life crisis (plenty of writers want to be rock stars – I give you the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers – although few want to swim in the jazz pool). Then Michael broke his leg. And couldn’t drive between gigs. He needed a chauffeur, so I volunteered for the job. I was going on the road – just not with the band. This turned out to be a very good thing.

       The dZf shows were great fun, but the drives were hilarious. Michael regaled me with (sometimes unrepeatable) tales about Hollywood actors, rock stars and Goodfellas. All told in that inimitable, gravelly Brooklyn accent.

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I thought then that the stories deserved a wider audience and was pleased to hear that he had hooked up with  Olivier-award winning writer, performer and director Guy Masterson to do just that.  Together they have managed to condense tales from that two-week road trip to just over an hour, running from Michael’s childhood and up to his marriage to his Dempsey & Makepeace co-star Glynis Barber.

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And, having seen the first run-through of the show, it’s just as warm, engaging, funny and sometimes scabrous as I recall. I miss some of the stories he shared with me – along with his Kirk Douglas impression –  but something had to give and it’s as close as you’ll get to having him in the passenger seat, with a leg in plaster, turning to you and saying: “Did I tell you about the time …?” But you’ll have to see the show to hear the full story. It’s worth it.

Off-Ramps runs Aug 3-13 and 15-27 at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh. Tickets:

https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/michael-brandon-off-ramps

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A (YOUNGER) LOVE SUPREME

Returning home from a gig last Sunday I felt like Roy Batty in Blade Runner as I tried to explain it to my family. “I’ve seen things I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Evan Parker on fire off the shoulder of Binker Golding. I’ve watched women dancing to abstract jazz near the Rio Dalston.”

God those G&Ts were strong.

I had just been to see Binker + Moses, a freeform sax and drum duo who were launching their album Journey to the Mountain of Forever (I blame Alice Coltrane) with a blistering show. What struck me, apart from the sonic assault in the second half of circular-breathing maestro Evan Parker and sparky trumpeter Byron Wallen, was the demographic of the audience. Under 30, tattooed, bearded, pierced and with a very healthy smattering of women. Who danced.

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Now I have spent the past two months going to gigs, researching an article for a new magazine due to launch in the autumn, and I should be used to this, but the youthful make-up of current jazz audiences still takes me aback. I have been to a lot of jazz concerts over the past three or four decades, and I have watched the audiences (mostly) grow old with me. I am also very used to the “Oh, I don’t like jazz” jibe from fellow music lovers. But the Binker + Moses crowd were young and hip and clearly didn’t have a problem with the J word, even in this sometimes aurally challenging manifestation. There is an excellent right-on-the-money review of the event from the Evening Standard’s critic Jane Cornwell here: https://tinyurl.com/y99vyvc2 or here: http://janecornwell.com.

I saw a similar thing earlier this year at the re-invigorated Jazz Café (www.jazzcafelondon.com) when I witnessed the wonderfully fluid saxophonist Nubya Garcia launch her own album (see playlist, below). She is steeped in the music of Coltrane, Henderson, Shorter and Sanders but with her own distinctive touch, especially on the Caribbean- and African- flavoured numbers (she loves Fela Kuti and Dudu Pukwana) which led to a further outbreak of dancing at the Jazz Cafe. But then again, that’s where it started. It’s easy to forget that before it headed out to the far flung reaches of the musical universe, jazz was for dancing. So maybe it’s simply going back to its roots.

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A few weeks after the show I discussed the phenomenon of the new jazz audience at length with Nubya, an interview which will form part of the longer piece I am writing, but it all comes down to a generation where the barriers between club/dance music and jazz have been thoroughly dismantled. Of which more anon. As for the “I don’t like jazz” sneer, Nubya had a word of advice: “Go and see it live.” And I’d add go and see this new wave in small clubs while you still can.

Is this a passing fad? Will fickle youth move on? Maybe, but there are a couple things about jazz: one is that it a very broad church, one that can take in both Radio 2 fave Gregory Porter and Gilles Peterson playing Albert Ayler on 6 Music. And secondly, once it has its claws into you, it doesn’t let go.

Many of the proponents of this new jazz, including Nubya, Moses Boyd, Ashley Henry, Daniel Casimir, Henry Wu and Theon Cross,were in one band or another at the Love Supreme Festival just gone (www.lovesupremefestival.com). No doubt they’ll be back next year.  Or sign up for the (free) Jazz Re:freshed Festival at the Southbank on Sunday August 6 (https://tinyurl.com/ycql4pfo) which features many of the key players. Nubya Garcia meanwhile storms the jazz citadel of Soho by co-headlining at Ronnie Scott’s (www.ronniescotts.co.uk) on August 15, sharing the bill with grime DJ turned jazzer Alfa Mist. Or check out the Jazz Re:freshed website for what is happening on Thursday Nights at the Mau Mau Bar in Portobello Road (www.jazzrefreshed.com).

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Recently I was back at the Jazz Café to see Miles Mosley, the bassist for Kamasi Washington and Kendrick Lamar, who had again brought out a young, mixed crowd to the venue. I had heard his album Uprising, which was recorded at the same mammoth (170 tunes?) session that produced Washington’s chart-busting The Epic. There is a typically cogent review here by John L. Walters: http://www.londonjazznews.com/2017/06/cd-review-miles-mosley-uprising.html.

Now, I enjoyed the album but to me it was just a little too polite compared to the raucous sprawl of The Epic. Live, however was a different matter. The sound was rawer, with a keen dose of JBs-style funk from the brass duo, wah-wah arco bass solos, soulful (and sometime, to my ears, Lenny Kravitz-ish) vocals and a whole tackle box full of hooks. Miles Mosley is an engaging and charismatic performer, who can get an audience waving their hands in the air like, indeed, they just don’t care and indulging in a hearty call-and-response. On stage, it is obvious where the “As if Hendrix played bass with Prince” line came from. He even did Hendrix’s If 6 Was 9, which was recorded fifty years ago this year (Sgt Pepper wasn’t the only game in London town in ’67). To top it all, his mucker Kamasi eased himself on stage (wasn’t he hot in all that clobber and woolly hat?) and gave us a typically scorching solo.

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One thing. What’s with the gladiator arm-armour, Miles?

Miles Mosley and the West Coast Get Down will be back at as part of the London Jazz Festival in the autumn (http://efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk) when they play the Islington Assembly Room on Sunday November 1.

Meanwhile, here is a quick primer or recent new jazz albums for your listening pleasure:

 

Nubya Garcia – Nubya’s 5ive (Jazz:Refreshed)

Yussuf Kamaal – Black Focus (Brownswood)

Sons of Kemet – Lest We forget What We Came Here To Do (Naim Jazz Records)

The Comet is Coming – Channel the Spirits (Leaf)

Ashley Henry Trio- 5ive (Jazz Re:freshed)

Poppy Ajudha – Love Falls Down/Piece of Mind (Soundcloud)

Puma Blue – Swum Baby (Soundcloud)

Tenderlonius- On Flute (22a)

Binker & Moses – Journey to the Mountain of Forever (Gearbox Records)

Richard Spaven ft. Jordan Rakei – The Self (Fine Line Records)

Maisha – Welcome to a New Welcome (Jazz Re:freshed/Bandcamp; free download)

United Vibrations – The Myth of the Golden Ratio (Ubiquity)

MICHAEL BOND’S TRAVELS

Five years ago I interviewed Michael Bond, who died today aged 91, at his lovely house in Little Venice where he lived  with his wife Sue. It was one of my favourite interviews, like stepping into Paddington’s world, as he talked, over tea and biscuits, about travel and holidays. This is it.

 

A lot of my father went into Paddington. Much more than me. He was unfailingly correct and polite. I will give you an example. Every year when I was growing up we went to the Isle of Wight for our holidays. The same place, Sandown, and the same boarding house, run by Mr and Mrs Gates. Very nice people but, well, let’s say they ran a tight ship. Out of the house by 9.30, no exceptions, not back before 5.30. We would go down to the beach and I’d build sandcastles with my metal bucket and spade and my father would paddle. Always paddle, never go in, because he needed to keep his hat on. Why? In case he met anyone he knew, so he could raise it. If he saw someone and didn’t have a hat on.. well, that was unthinkable – he would be mortified. So, no swimming.

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I suppose the love of my life when it comes to travel has been France. I first saw it when traveling down to Egypt with the army, just after the war. We went through France by train to catch the troop ship. Captured German carriages with no windows, and bridges held together with rope that you had t cross very, very slowly. But the locals welcomed us wherever we stopped, even though they insisted on trying to cook roast beef- they thought that was all we’d eat.

I went back with a girlfriend soon after leaving the army. I remember she had to promise her grandmother there would be no panky panky. All I can say is, she was true to her word. But I still remember the meal in Dinard, when we turned up at a little café and the proprietress told us lunch was over. She saw the look on my faced and promised to rustle something up. It was a baguette, a plate of ham and a bottle of red wine. What more do you need? I knew then that France was the place for me. There is something about the French that live life with a capital ‘L’. I always have the feeling we British are very much lower case.

When Paddington became a TV series and we were doing The Herbs, with Parsley the Lion, I used to go down to MIPP every year in Cannes with my friend and producer Graham Clutterbuck. Lovely man, but a terrible driver. One year we went in separate cars and I was waiting in line for the ferry I heard a terrible crash from behind. I knew it was Graham. Then heard: ‘Terribly sorry, old chap.. if you’ll just ring my secretary..’.

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But I enjoyed those trips – we would plan it so we could drive down by the back roads, stopping off at Michelin-star restaurants. Driving was a pleasure then – even with Graham at the wheel. You never saw another car for miles, which was always something of a relief. And we’d make detours just to find a particular dish, such as a highly rated Grand Marnier Soufflé. Although on that occasion the starter was an artichoke. We’d never had an artichoke before and ended up eating the lot, leaves and all. By the time the soufflé arrived, we were feeling rather poorly.

About twenty-five years ago my French agent asked me if I had an unfilled dream. Yes, I said, I’d quite like a little place in Paris. Ah-ha, he said, you are in luck, I know this apartment in Montmartre that will come free soon. So I ended up renting this small place and it’s been marvelous. I go there to write, to get away from the phone. I began my eighteenth Monsieur Pamplemousse novel there recently. It is interesting to move away from Paddington but it’s also an excuse to go and eat wherever Monsieur Pamplemousse, who is a gourmet, dines around the country.

Paddington has taken me all over the world, America, Australia, New Zealand. When we first turned up in Australia I was walking down the street and four chaps in a car pulled up at the kerbside. One of them wound the window down and shouted ‘Go home you Pommie bastard!’ How did they know? I wondered. Was it the umbrella? That night I saw my son had left his shoes outside to be cleaned and I put a note in them ‘Clean them yourself, you Pommie bastard’ and popped them back inside. At breakfast he said: ‘Dad, you’ll never guess what happened….’ In fact, the people of Australia and New Zealand were wonderful to us, but book tours are exhausting – two weeks or three weeks of answering the same question: ‘How did you come up with Paddington..?’

When I wrote that first story in the late 1950s, I chose Peru as his home country because it was the remotest place I could think of. Who went to Peru? Now, my postman has been. But I haven’t. I was meant to go about ten years ago with Stephen Fry for a documentary, which I was looking forward to. Travelling with Stephen is no hardship. But I had a terrible reaction to the jabs and the doctor said I couldn’t travel. But Stephen went, and he ate some oysters from the Bay of Lima and got terribly sick. Well, I know I would have had some too, so perhaps it’s just as well. So, no, never been to Peru and now I doubt I ever shall.

ACTION PACKED

Does the name Johnny Fedora mean anything to you? What about Philip McAlpine? Gerald Otley? David Audley? No? Well, they were all heroes of action/spy thrillers produced in the sixties and seventies written by, respectively, Desmond Cory (a pseudonym), Adam Diment (an author who apparently vanished from the face of the earth), Martin Waddell and Anthony Price.

      I was reminded of these and many other players in the world of thrillers while reading Mike Ripley’s hugely enjoyable (especially if you recall any of the names from the first go-round) Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, a survey of British thrillers “from Casino Royale to The Eagle Has Landed” and the social and political landscape that produced them.

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      My own personal favourite of the many authors covered is Gavin Lyall, whose best two novels, The Most Dangerous Game and Midnight Plus One, are featured within. Lyall specialised in shabby, careworn, often burnt-out cases who are forced to dig deep and remember the hero they had once been. As Ripley points out, The Most Dangerous Game features a most unusual setting, up on the Finnish-Russian border, and Midnight Plus One a car chase where a Citroen DS is fatally holed in a gunfight.

      “The car had been stabbed in its hydraulic heart: the fluid – the life blood – that powered the steering, brakes, gear-change, was dripping away from the main tank.”

      Bloody French cars – always over-complicated.

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Steve McQueen was rumoured to have optioned MPO to play Harvey, the alcoholic American gunman (not a great combination). I checked and Sony does own the rights. And no, they wouldn’t let me have a go at a screenplay. It’s a fine, tightly plotted book, although, as with many novels mentioned in Mike Ripley’s roundup, the sexual politics have not worn well.

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By coincidence, my own homage to Lyall appears in the new R J Bailey thriller (I am one half of RJB),  Nobody Gets Hurt, in that Sam Wylde, the series’ hero, has to go on the run in a Facel Vega (as once owned by Ringo Starr), which is beautiful but as lethal as a bleeding Citroen DS.

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Sam Wylde, who can jump start a car that has no battery… but don’t try at home

Nobody Gets Hurt (p/b to follow)  is out as an e-book in August (and available on NetGalley for advanced reading now. https://s2.netgalley.com/catalog/book/114770

 

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang by Mike Ripley is published by HarperCollins (£20)

THE LONG DROP

I don’t normally review books on this blog because that’s not what I do. But I’ll make an exception for Howard Linskey’s Hunting The Hangman, not just because it is a cracking read, but because its genesis struck a chord with me.

In 1994 I read a sentence in a motor racing report in the Guardian that said: “..and the Monaco circuit is much the same as it was in 1929, when Englishman Grover-Williams (who went on to became a Special Operations Executive saboteur in France during WW2) won the inaugural event.” Hold the phone. A Bugatti-driving Grand Prix champion joined SOE’s F Section? Not only that, I quickly discovered, so did two others, Robert Benoist and Jean-Pierre Wimille. There’s a book there, I thought.

Indeed there was, but, for various reasons (including access to the then still-sealed SOE files), it proved difficult to write. Early One Morning didn’t get published until eight years later, by which time I had already produced three US-set thrillers.

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Howard Linskey’s novel has had an even lengthier gestation. His equivalent of that sentence about Grover-Williams was catching the second half of a documentary on the History Channel about the assassination of Hitler’s heir apparent, the ruthless Reinhard Heydrich, in Prague by an SOE-trained Czech hit team. Fascinated, he began researching everything he could find on subject. That was in 2000. Seventeen years later, and after six well-received, hardboiled northeastern noir books (No Name Lane, The Search, The Damage etc. – also well worth seeking out), his novel about Operation Anthropoid (as the mission was christened) has finally seen the light of day. Makes mine look like speed publishing.

In fact, I always felt fortunate that Early One Morning wasn’t my first novel. It meant I could get some rookie mistakes out of the way in the first three thrillers, which didn’t trouble the bestseller charts – something writers rarely get a chance to do these days, it being perform or die with the majority of publishers. Early One Morning turned out to be, and remains, my most successful novel in terms of sales.

I don’t remember Howard Linskey making any rookie mistakes in his first book, The Drop, but again the delay might have been fortuitous, in that by his own admission the early version he produced was a mix of fact and fiction that he was uncomfortable with. The Hunting the Hangman of today is meticulously researched and firmly based, as they say, on actual events.

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Having written about WW2 organisations such as SOE, MI9 and MI19 myself, and seen a couple of movies about Operation Anthropoid, and the terrible retributions in its aftermath, I thought I knew the story well. But, in fact, Howard uses his novelist’s skills to really flesh out not only the monstrous Heydrich, but also the assassins, who are far from the usual bland action-hero stereotypes. There’s bravery, of course, in the tale, but also terrible treachery and cruelty. Historical fiction like this isn’t easy to pull off – cleaving to the facts and the real-life characters while creating novel-like suspense. Howard Linskey has pulled it off. It’s been a long time coming, but Hunting The Hangman was worth the wait.

 

THE FALLS GUY

 

Last Thursday was an important day in the calendar for fans of Sherlock Holmes. After its winter closure, the funicular to the Reichenbach Falls re-opened. Yes, the place where, in 1893, in one of the most cold and calculated acts of detecticide in literature, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sent his Sherlock Holmes tumbling into the abyss, locked in fatal combat with Professor Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime, is easily accessible again. The location of the death plunge really does exist, although it often comes as a surprise to some people that Holmes isn’t real, yet the Reichenbach Falls are.

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Given that, until recently, I lived in a road in North London famous for its once-resident serial killer, I am not much given to Murder Tourism. Yet there we were, standing next to the site of one of the most notorious homicides of the late 19th century.

In truth, it is a rather lovely spot to send someone to their doom. Sitting above the town of Meiringen in the Swiss Bernese Oberland, reached by its seasonal funicular railway or a steep, winding path, the Reichenbach Falls cascade in a series of cataracts before spinning through the air for their final free descent, twisting through a hole in the rock halfway down, like liquid cotton threading through the eye of needle, and then plunging into an ice-blue pool at the base.

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With a total drop of 250 metres, the falls are dramatic, certainly, but don’t come expecting the Niagara-like flow as seen in the Robert Downey Jr Holmes movie, or even the tumult as described by Conan Doyle, which, before they went through that fissure in the rock, passed through the rapids of a writer’s imagination. It is not “a dreadful cauldron of swirling water and seething foam” from whence no bodies could ever be recovered. And although there is a ledge claiming to mark the exact spot of the momentous struggle between the good and evil geniuses, in actuality the site Conan Doyle had in mind was much closer to the rushing water than the current photo-opportunity. However, the path has become dangerous over the years and, understandably, the local tourist board don’t want too many literal re-enactments of the death plunge.

Yet, all that aside, standing on the bridge at the top, looking down the narrow gorge of “coal-black rocks”, there is something haunting about the falls, the feeling that this beautiful and apparently benign chute is capable of a fatal capriciousness. The waters can, as Watson says, “turn a man giddy with their constant whirl and clamour ”. It isn’t difficult to see why Doyle took Sir Henry Lunn’s advice and chose it as the ideal spot to unburden himself of his over-popular detective, although public pressure meant a resurrection a decade later. And he shows no sign of dying again any time soon.

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Even if you are not one of the pilgrims convinced that Holmes was real, there is much to recommend this part of Switzerland, not least the spectacular mountains that ACD loved so much. Having visited with his first wife (as part of her TB cure), the author became a vocal ambassador for the country – arguably his tale of skiing from Davos to Arosa in The Strand magazine in 1894 kick started the whole British Alpine skiing movement.

If you have a Swiss Travel Pass (swisstravelsystem.co.uk; three days from £170), which covers the majority of train and boat services you can easily get to Meiringen and the falls from anywhere in the Bernese Oberland. You could reach Meiringen by using train only, but it would be a shame to miss out on the alternate ferry crossing over the startlingly green Lake Brienz, the hue caused by the cryophilic algae that thrive in the glacial waters. What will impress during the hour-long voyage is the sheer number of lesser-known waterfalls that punch out of the sides of the flanking mountains, as if the whole range is weeping silvery flumes. Many are strikingly lovely, but, thanks to a Scottish writer with a sick wife, none will ever have the resonance of the “tremendous abyss from which the spray rolls up like smoke from a burning house” that is the Reichenbach Falls.

 

Further information: Switzerland Tourism (00800 100 200 30, MySwitzerland.com). Thomson Lakes & Mountain (020 8939 0740, thomsonlakes.co.uk) has various packages to the Bernese Oberland.