books

Very Good, Jeeves by PG Wodehouse

Everyman Wodehouse 1
Table of Everyman Wodehouse editions at Waterstones, Piccadilly

Just over a year ago, I thought that I’d read some Jeeves and Wooster stories set in and around Christmas. Looking around, it seemed that Very Good, Jeeves was my best bet. It included Jeeves and the Yuletide Spirit – a Christmas story if ever there was one surely? 

Now for the past few years, I’ve been vaguely collecting the Everyman PG Wodehouse novels. I probably have a dozen or so, with the notion that I’d like to get a complete set at some point. So, it was an Everyman edition I was after. 

The obvious place to look was Amazon. Yes – local bookshops exist, but they’re not necessarily going to have copies of Everyman editions of Wodehouse. Amazon didn’t have any in stock, but claimed it could get one for me.  

In my experience Amazon tends to give longer lead times for titles that it doesn’t have in stock than is strictly necessary – underpromise and overdeliver. Publishers seem to give Amazon preferential treatment, and so I was confident that I should get the book reasonably quickly. 

A few weeks passed, and we were getting close to Christmas. I still didn’t have the title, but I knew how to remedy that. I headed down to Piccadilly where there were two likely shops that would help me. First up was Hatchards. These days it’s owned by Waterstones, but it maintains its own very distinct presence despite there being a very large Waterstones just a 100m further along Piccadilly. 

When the most recent Le Carré novel, A Legacy of Spies, was published, it was to Hatchards I went in search of a signed copy. I wasn’t alone in that hope, as a gentleman at the counter was asking that very question.  

“No, we don’t have any signed stock at the moment. But we may get some. He does come in here fairly regularly, and he always signs books when he’s in.” 

(In fact, I managed to snag a signed copy from Foyles.) 

Anyway, Hatchards tends to carry a good quantity of the Everyman Wodehouse editions, but when I searched the shelves I found just about every title except Very Good, Jeeves. No matter, I would check the large Waterstones just along the way. It too carries a significant number of Wodehouse novels – I’m sure they sell well to tourists amongst others. However, again I was out of luck. 

I gave up on being able to read the book for Christmas. Certainly, I could easily have obtained a paperback edition. But I wanted a hardback. My search would prevail. 

Christmas 2017 came and went, and on a regular basis, an email would drop into my inbox from Amazon assuring me that they were still trying to get hold of it, but that they hadn’t yet. They pointed me towards the paperback edition, but my order stayed live. They weren’t cancelling it. 

By now, I was just curious to see if they ever came through. 

Then, before Christmas this year, I happened to be close to Hatchards again. So, I popped in on a wet Saturday and wandered to the table and shelves where they keep their Everyman Wodehouses and wouldn’t you know it? There was a stack of copies of Very Good, Jeeves! I bought a copy and promptly cancelled my 13-month-old order with Amazon. 

Over Christmas I finally read it. The first thing to say is that although there are two Christmas-set stories in the book – itself a collection of short stories – they’re only very loosely set at that time of the year.  

But, as always, it’s laugh-out-loud funny. The running thread throughout the book is that Bertie is trying to get his own back after Tuppy bet him one evening at the Drones Club, that he couldn’t swing across their pool using rings. However, the final ring had been kept out of reach and Bertie had ruined a very good dinner suit as a result.  

To be honest, I’m not even sure why I’m providing that much “plot” information. It’s a Jeeves and Wooster book. You know exactly what you’re getting unless you’ve never read or seen a Jeeves and Wooster book. 

As a side note, having finished the book, I fancied re-watching some of the Fry and Laurie TV series. I happen to own DVDs of the full collection, but I was away from home at the time, with family for Christmas. No matter. Even if it cost me a few quid, I would rent or buy digital copies. 

It seemed unlikely, but I thought I would first check streaming services to which I already subscribed. But it seems that Netflix has not sprung for much 1980s ITV programming. I looked at Amazon, thinking that at least I’d be able to buy digital copies there even if it wasn’t available as a “Prime” series. But it wasn’t. Indeed, although two of the four series of the programme seemed to have once been available, a note informed me that, “Our agreements with the content provider don’t allow purchases of this title at this time.” 

Hmm. 

I checked over on Google Play, but there was no sign of it. Finally, I headed to the service that seems to maintain the fullest library – iTunes. I’d have to watch on my iPad, but not matter. However, even there, I was out of luck. 

Even the ITV Hub, where I knew that I would at least have to put up with dozens of adverts, was unable to help me.  

Incidentally, if you do fancy the DVDs, they’re a snip at just £79.99 on Amazon! I’m sure my set cost less than £20 a few years ago. 

In essence, this is another case of a TV series being essentially unavailable anywhere. I simply don’t understand why it at least isn’t available for sale. I had ready money to buy episodes and the rights owners simply won’t take my cash. 

I’ve moaned before about this situation with regard to even quite recent films. As HMV totters and DVD players begin to become a thing of the past (we are fortunate that BluRay and HD BluRay players are backwards compatable), it seems that we continue to enter a film and TV dark age

For what it’s worth, on my return home I did indeed dust off my old DVDs and rewatched the first series, which happily still stand up. Several stories from Very Good, Jeeves feature in reworked forms in that first series. Look out too for Highclere “Downton Abbey” Castle doubling as Totleigh Towers. 

The series could do with a bit of restoration. I believe the series was shot on 16mm film, but it was then transferred to U-matic tape where the editing probably took place. If the original prints or negatives exist, to properly restore it would perhaps require someone to re-edit the right takes from the filmed elements and painstakingly rebuild it, layering in sounds and colour grading it all. A lot of effort, but it could look fabulous! Sadly, with a lot of ITV/Granada programmes, even if the programmes are restored, they don’t bother releasing them in their new state in the UK. See also, Brideshead Revisited, The Jewel in the Crown, and the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series. 

It would be lovely to think that the reason you can’t buy episodes today is because these restored editions are just around the corner. Sadly, that’s a pipe-dream. 

The Everyman books, however, are marvellous! 

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Bookshelves of Everyman Wodehouse editions at Hatchards, Piccadilly

Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

Suffolk Winter 2013-20
Suffolk fens near Blythburgh

A superb gothic horror set in the wild fens of Suffolk.

I first came across Michelle Paver with her excellent ghost story Dark Matter, set amidst an arctic expedition in 1939. She followed that with Thin Air, another great ghost story, but this time set in the Himalayas in the 1930s, following the route of a previous expedition earlier in the century.

Now we have Wakenhyrst, a village amidst the fens at the turn of the century, where some unpleasant events have left long and deep scars. The book begins in mid-sixties, with a PhD student attempting to make contact with Maud Sterne. Would she be able to help her with her study of a painting known as the Wakenhyrst Doom?

This painting is to become the crux of the story we about to learn about. We go back in time to 1906 and the Stearne household who live in Wake’s End adjacent to one of the fens. The father of the house, Edmund Stearne, is a monster. He forces his wife to bear child after child, with so many being still-born or barely surviving birth. He lays down strict rules all about the house, including the requirement that he basically never interact with his own children (those who make it alive). “Father” is always about his studies, while young Maud is treated with general disdain as a female.

What changes things is his discovery at the local church, St Guthlaf’s, of a hidden painting representing the Last Day of Judgement. Painted on planks and then whitewashed over in the sixteenth century to protect worshippers’ eyes from the licentious behaviour depicted as sending you to hell, it is this painting’s discovery that sends things spiralling out of control. And there are things from the past that in due course will be uncovered.

To say more would be unfair, but the attention to detail is wonderful. You feel that you’re living and breathing in the old house, sitting on the edge of the fens with the sounds and smells that would bring.

The rural life is captured beautifully, with the poor labourers who make ends meet and need the employment of rich landowners like Stearne. Paver gives us some beautiful descriptions of things like eel-babbing and starling murmations.

But it also captures a madness that comes from an obsessional attempt to understand both the painting and studies into the lives of other obsessives.

Everything beautifully comes together in this well-told tale.

I couldn’t put it down and can’t recommend this book highly enough!

Wakenhyrst is published by Head of Zeus on 4 April 2019. Thank you to the publishers and Netgalley for my advance reader copy.

Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Have you ever wondered what life was like in a band in seventies? Then this is the novel for you. 

I am something of a sucker for books, films and TV series set in the music industry. From Almost Famous (which perhaps is closest in vibe to this novel), to Vinyl and the little seen Roadies, I’m fascinated by a life that I’ve never especially wanted to be part of. This novel ticks all those boxes. 

Daisy Jones & The Six tells the stories of Daisy Jones, an aspiring songwriter, and Billy Dunne, the lead singer of The Six. Told in a first-person style, we learn how the singer songwriter and rock band came together, produced one of the best-selling albums of the period, and then broke up (This is not a spoiler incidentally, as it’s revealed right at the start). 

The novel reads like one of those oral histories that you might read in music magazines like Rolling Stone, cutting back and forth between the relevant protagonists as we follow their lives and experiences.  

Daisy is the daughter of distantly wealthy parents who never seem too worried that their teenage daughter is hanging out on Sunset Strip, becoming the coolest person around, drinking, taking drugs and having sex with whoever she likes.  

Meanwhile, across the country, Billy Dunne is forming a band with his brother Graham amongst others, and trying to make it in the music industry – starting with smaller clubs before eventually getting signed to Runner Records and having some demons to face. 

The novel tells how these two paths collide, and the impact it has on both their lives personal and professional lives.  

These might not be real lives, but they feel real, and that’s what’s important. All the way through this novel you feel that Taylor Jenkins Reid knows about the scene at the time. At the very least, she has spoken to people who understand it. I don’t know who Daisy might be based on, but you can certainly believe that there was a wild child like her, living in a cottage at the Chateau Marmont, and hanging out with all the names of the day. 

You also know that LA was the epicentre of a certain type of music of the time, and that bands did indeed feel the need to move there to develop their careers. 

The structure of the novel means that initially it can be little hard to differentiate the characters – they are all giving interviews to an unseen narrator. But everyone here is their own person, and you begin to wish that you could listen to the songs and hear that music that’s being talked about (In fact, you can read the lyrics from many of their songs in the novel’s appendix). 

One slight complaint I have about the book’s structure is that it requires that all the characters have fantastic recollection of the period. Yes, there are some entertaining “unreliable narrator” moments, when two characters remember a key conversation very differently, but considering the sheer quantities of drink and drugs that were being consumed, word perfect recall of some of these conversations is a little bit of a stretch at times. But it’s hard to work around that given the structure’s constraints. If this were a documentary feature, then those gaps might be filled in with clips from the era, but a novel doesn’t have that luxury. 

It’s very entertaining how the novel has to carefully weave between real people from the period and people who might have been around at the time. A venue in LA is real, a presenter of Saturday Night Live isn’t.  

I thoroughly enjoyed this fictional representation of the rise and fall of a band plying their trade in the late seventies. The book is more about relationships of the protagonists than the minutiae of how the industry actually works. But you kind of wish you could have been there. 

Daisy Jones & The Six is published by Random House on 7 March 2019.  Thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for my advanced reader copy. 

For the Missing by Lina Bengtsdotter

The search for a missing girl in rural Sweden forms the backdrop to this intelligent crime story from Lina Bengtsdotter. A teenager, Anabelle, has not returned home from a wild party in a down-at-heel town in deepest Sweden. DI Charline “Charlie” Lager and her colleague Anders have been sent to investigate.

Nearly everyone involved in this procedural is troubled. We first meet Charlie recovering from a monumental hangover and one-night stand. But that’s as nothing to the goings on in Gullspång, where the town’s teenagers are drinking nearly as much as their parents, everyone reliant on the local paper mill for a living, and under-age sex and drugs are very much on the cards.

Inevitably the police initially get nowhere, but not everyone is being as helpful as they might. At the same time, Charlie is facing up to the face that she’s returning to the town of her childhood – somewhere she hoped she would never return to again.

Everywhere you turn in this novel, there are ghosts of what happened before, and it probably wasn’t pretty.

The book moves along quite nicely, and it has a structure that sends the reader forwards and backwards in time as we learn what really happened. I found the book highly readable, with it portraying a depressing picture of a part of the Swedish countryside that I found convincing.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher Orion, for an ARC. For the Missing is published on 13 December.

Where the Truth Lies by M J Lee

Ten years ago, a junior detective accidentally captures “The Beast of Manchester.” In the present day a series of dead prostitutes in turning up on the streets of Manchester. Is there a relation between the two in this pacey police thriller?

Now a Detective Inspector, Ridpath is recovering from treatment to cancer and has been given the task of working as an officer for coroner’s court. This should be an easier route back into full-time detective work, but things don’t quite go as easily as planned. When an exhumation of the body of one of the Beast’s victims reveals an empty coffin, things are turned upside down.

This first in a new series of books is set in and around Manchester, and we get a good flavour of the area: snarled up traffic on the Oxford Road; the emptiness of Media City. Being set in the world of the coroner’s court is unusual and creates a point of difference from other police series.

The book is real page-turner, with short punchy chapters jumping between Ridpath, another young detective, DS Clark, and the evil doers. The story is fast paced, never standing still for more than a few moments. Ridpath’s recovery from cancer is omnipresent, but it’s his wife who is more worried about it than him. And the police world around the story feels authentic.

This isn’t a book for the squeamish, but it rattles along and it reaches a very satisfying conclusion.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher Canelo. Where the Truth Lies is out now.

She Lies in Wait by Gytha Lodge

In 1983, seven teenagers go into the wood and only six come out. Thirty years later, a body is found and DCI Sheens instantly realises it must be Aurora, the teenager who disappeared all those years ago, but who was never found.

Aided by his small team, including the novice DC Hanson, we revisit the characters thirty years on. Did one of them do it? Are they covering up for one another?

Set in and around Southampton and the New Forest, this is a page-turner, with the narrative flipping backwards and forward between 1983 and the present day, as we learn more about the teens and their lives and friendships from the time.

The dynamic between Sheens and Hanson is interesting and unusual. Is Sheens, who went to school with the victim, covering something up himself? The distrusting Hanson has some issues her life too.

Gytha Lodge has created a story with some all-too relevant themes, with characters who exhibit some of the complexities and contradictions that people do have.

Overall, an intriguing tale, that kept me gripped until the end.

Thanks to NetGalley and Penguin UK for my ARC. She Lies in Wait is published on 21 March 2019, but is available now on Kindle.

Fear by Bob Woodward and The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis

Like many political watchers, I’ve been equally appalled and yet addicted to watching what is going on currently in US politics.

Right now there’s the dismal spectacle of Brett Kavanaugh being elected onto the US Supreme Court despite a number of serious accusations being made against him, few of which are truly being taken seriously. In the meantime, there’s Trump mocking the accuser at a rally (and then denying it despite all evidence to the contrary).

These two books, in their own separate ways, describe in some detail the ineptness of the Trump administration, the lack of focus and the general 

Bob Woodward’s Fear is currently riding high in the bestseller lists and for good reason. Woodward has written about presidents all the way back to Nixon, but this feels more urgent than probably any of those other titles. He has a very measured tone, rarely inserting his own authorial voice into the narrative he’s telling. Instead, he relies on first hand testimony of many people, usually speaking anonymously.

Woodward’s narrative is direct and steady. He paints Trump in a similar light to others – notably Michael Woolf in Fire and Fury earlier this year – in that Trump is like a toddler in the way he can be distracted and then completely forget about something. The book opens with an official simply lifting a letter that would start a trade war with South Korea and jeopardise US military intelligence in the region. Once the letter has gone (and Trump does love signing things), the President forgets about it. At least until someone else brings it up – perhaps either on Fox News, to which he’s addicted and gets much of his information, or from someone like Peter Navarro, an economist for whom, almost uniquely, trade is considered bad. 

The book repeatedly explores the lack of a basic understanding of how modern businesses are driven, how having a trade deficit with a country isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and just really simple things like how modern supply chains work. Trump, as we know, is obsessed with things like steel production, and has started a trade war with China that has almost instantly required the government to bail out farmers who have been hit by tit-for-tat tariffs.

The tone all the way through the book is measured and never breathless. And that just makes it all the more vital. 

Meanwhile the always very readable Michael Lewis has The Fifth Risk, which examines the workings of the US government following the Trump victory. He zooms in on a handful of departments, digging into the background stories of some of the people who work there, and explaining what the departments do, and why their work is often vital but undervalued. 

On more that one occasion, he relates stories of people who were being loaned government money without realising that it the government that was lending the money, as the money is often distributed via local banks. 

There are horrifying stories of the Trump’s dreadful transition team, coming into the various departments weeks or months after the election, rather than the next day, not being interested in what those departments actually did, and generally being very unsuited to the roles. 

It seems that another failing of US government is the level to which so many jobs are political appointees. Trump has been singularly bad at filling these vacancies, and when he does, they’re often people who have no interest in the subject at hand. Sometimes this is because they genuinely don’t know what the department does! You would think a quick search of Wikipedia might be in order before you enter the building.

In the meantime, these apparatchiks wander around getting government employees to stop using the term climate change.

Perhaps worse are people who do know what the department does, but in whose outside interests, a level of dismantling works in their favour. A case in point is Barry Myers, chief executive of AccuWeather, the private weather provider. Trump nominated him to oversee the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who run the US National Weather Service. AccuWeather uses data paid for and provided by the National Weather Service to bolster its forecasts. Yet it has fought hard to prevent the US Government widely publishing that weather themselves. There is no National Weather Service app, and that is no coincidence. AccuWeather’s app is very popular and delivers significant advertising revenue. Myers has fought hard to prevent that data being made widely available despite the fact that he personally benefits.

The books is full of stories like this. Lewis finds people who are working in the government sector, often for less money than they could earn elsewhere, because they believe they have a civic duty. How much is all of this going to be undone by Trump? Time will only tell. 

This was another book that was clearly published in a rush, and as such, it perhaps doesn’t hang together as much as some of his other books. And yet, the subject matter is probably much more important than that of his other books. Lasting damage could be done to millions of Americans by the actions of a few.

What both books make really clear is that there are a lot of people with no experience, no knowledge, and no wish to actually learn anything new. Being informed is somehow not a good trait within this administration. 

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Love is Blind by William Boyd

A new William Boyd novel is always to be welcomed, and as with the superb Sweet Caress from 2015, Boyd has returned to a familiar “whole life” novel. (A recent Guardian piece by Boyd explores that challenges of this form, and notes how relatively few novels of this type there are).

Love is Blind tells the story of Brodie Moncur, the son of a fire and brimstone Scottish clergyman, who takes up the trade of piano tuner for a piano building business in Edinburgh. Soon enough Brodie moves on to a late 19th century Paris where the young, free and single man attempts to support the growth of the piano business by sponsoring performers to use their pianos.

In this way he runs into the ‘Irish Liszt’, John Kilbarron and his business partner brother Malachi. He also meets the Russian opera singer Lika. And so begins a tale that wanders across turn of the century Europe and further beyond. 

Whole life novels like this need to condense a lot into a few pages, meaning that the plot tends to move along apace. Yet, we still need to time to get a feeling for the place and the period that we’re in. Boyd does this comfortably – his siblings trapped in the family home with their overbearing father ruling the roost; Edinburgh, Paris and Nice as the horse seems to be slowly beginning to make way for the motor car; and the high society of ‘Piter’ – St Petersburg.

The narrative keeps moving forward, and the characters feel real enough – big and bold though they may be at times. While perhaps not quite as strong as Sweet Caress which was a remarkable novel presenting us with photographs ‘taken’ by its protagonist, I was nonetheless entranced by this and when the end was reached, could have stayed on for much more.

Reading this also made me realise that I really do need to return to The New Confessions, Boyd’s 1987 novel that I first read around that time. My paperback edition is around somewhere…

Prior to reading Love is Blind, I finally caught up with Boyd’s recent collection of short stories, The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth. While some characters are shared between stories, these are a series of mostly unrelated contemporary tales. I especially enjoyed the epistolary story of letters from an increasingly exasperated producer attempting to get a film off the ground. The story of the title is more of a novella, and is easily the best of the bunch as we follow Bethany through her early life and loves, and a series of jobs largely organised by her mother. The final story has the best hook, yet is perhaps the weakest and seems to stop a little too abruptly. But the short story seems to be a neglected medium – fit only for 15 minute slots on Radio 4, and to pad out seasonal editions of broadsheet newspapers when popular crime writers are commissioned to pen a festive whodunit. You won’t spend long on these tales, but they’re fun while you’re there.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

As I got stuck into this astonishing story about a Silicon Valley company that was going to change medicine forever, but didn’t, I was instantly thinking, “Someone really needs to make a film about this!”

Well, it turns out they are, with Jennifer Lawrence slated to play Elizabeth Holmes, the CEO of Theranos, the company this book looks at in forensic detail.

But let’s take a step back. I think lots of people will be well aware of the Theranos story, it’s rise and fall. But many more may not be. While the company’s CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, became very famous in Silicon Valley, I’m not sure that was true more widely, and certainly not beyond US shores.

Theranos was a unicorn company; a startup that quickly became valued at over $1B. Their big idea was that they had a machine that allowed people to have blood tests, using just a finger pin-prick’s worth of blood. From that, many tests – upwards of 200 – could be run. This would revolutionise medicine. People who needed to, could closely monitor their blood. Diseases would be caught early. The machine would be so portable that it be used in placed regular lab tests couldn’t, like military front lines.

The major problem was that the machine didn’t really work. Building medical kit takes lots of R&D, and lots of time. But Theranos was not willing to wait. It was rushing to market, trying to sell machines to clients before the technology was ready. Meanwhile Holmes herself became famous, adopting the traits of her hero Steve Jobs, and getting cover stories on some of the biggest magazines following Silicon Valley.

Behind the scenes, as John Carreyrou reveals in this fascinating book, things were not great. There was a massive turnover of staff in the laboratories where they were trying to make things work. If you raised problems with management, you would be considered the problem, and you’d probably get fired.

It ended up cultivating a company of yes men. Sunny Balwani, the company’s number two for many years, was a particular tyrant. He had a temper on him, and had a trigger finger when it came to firing people. More problemmatical was his lack of technical understanding of what they were trying to do. He was also in a relationship with Holmes, something they tried to keep secret.

Carreyrou, who broke the story in the Wall Street Journal, tells the story behind the story fantastically well. It’s almost like a thriller that you can’t put down. Theranos was obsessed with secrecy; partly because they didn’t want competitors to learn what they were doing, and partly because they didn’t want others to know how badly they were doing it. Employees were served with draconian non-disclosure agreements and legal threats when they left, and when it began to emerge that some people were talking to Carreyrou, Theranos hired the most aggressive lawyer they could. They intimidated those speaking out, and almost certainly putting lots of people under constant surveillance.

Meanwhile Theranos had managed to gather together an astonishingly high-profile board that included Henry Kissinger and George Schultz. Holmes seemed to have an ability to wow these people with her drive and determination. In one of the sadder aspects of the story, when Schultz’s own grandson, who did some work for the company, saw it’s true colours, he was unable to persuade his grandfather. Schultz senior was more willing to believe Holmes than he was his own kin.

Holmes even managed to get $125m out of Rupert Murdoch – his biggest single personal investment. Entertainingly, when Holmes realised that Theranos was being investigated by the Wall Street Journal (proprietor R Murdoch), she tried to persuade Murdoch to intervene. To his credit, he would not. He ended up losing all $125m.

This is a story of secrets and lies. But it’s also a story of some of the gung-ho Silicon Valley attitude being adopted in sphere where there are real world dangers. If your blood tests aren’t accurate then you run the real risk of either not having something diagnosed, or believing that you are healthier than you truly are. It’s one thing if some software like an app doesn’t work straight away – that can be fixed later, or patched. You might just end up with annoyed customers. But health is different. I do wonder sometimes, if we face similar issues with self-driving cars. It’ll be one to watch.

Highly recommended, and I can’t wait for the film!

The Lost City of Z

I first heard about Percy Fawcett back in the late eighties when a friend told me about him. We’d both read Redmond O’Hanlon’s Into the Heart of Borneo detailing his trip with James Fenton, and I think that In Trouble Again, in which O’Hanlon heads into Amazonia, had just come out. Indeed extracts may have been published in Granta which I certainly read at the time.

Fawcett, as described to me by my friend, sounded like a remarkable chap, spending years exploring the jungle, coming across all manner of travails, from dangerous beasts both great and small, to wild local Indian tribes and an inhospitable terrain.

I made a mental note to track down the book he’d written, Exploration Fawcett, and a few years later I came across a copy published in the Century Traveller imprint with an introduction by Robin Hanbury-Tenison. But the book looked like it may be heavy going, and despite my interest, it was always on my, “I must get around to reading that…” list.

In 2009 I heard about David Grann’s book, The Lost City of Z, seeing him interviewed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. While it’s clear that there has been much literature – indeed an entire industry – about Fawcett over the years, this was perhaps the most mainstream title to date. I picked up a copy.

But I still wanted to read Fawcett’s own book (actually edited by his son Brian) first. So Gann’s title too joined the book pile.

In due course I heard that James Gray was making a film of the book. From time to time you’d hear a little more about it until finally its release was imminent. And so, nearly thirty years after I’d first heard about Fawcett, I read Exploration Fawcett.

It’s a fascinating story detailing briefly Fawcett’s early life in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Ireland as a British Army officer, before he was chosen to carry out some work for the Royal Geographical Society, delineating the borders of Bolivia and Brazil. At the time there was a “gold rush” in rubber production deep in the forests of the Amazon, and knowing which country you were in was suddenly important.

Fawcett’s book begins with some detailed stories he’d picked up over the years, relating to stories that the first Europeans heard about mystical cities of gold. Although the book then leaves these behind, it’s always clear that they remain in the background of Fawcett’s thoughts, as his ideas about the Amazon’s native tribes change into something less Victorian. They are not necessarily “savages”.

Fawcett went on a number of expeditions over a period of nearly 20 years, funding them in different ways, and Exploration Fawcett has a useful map (curiously, neither Gann’s book, nor the film including any maps, which is a shame because they’re really helpful). It’s clear that this part of the world was a real wild west in those early years of the twentieth century, with all sorts of individuals and groups making a fortune from the “black gold” that was rubber. This was the money that ended up building a remarkable opera house in Manaus, the Brazilian city within the Amazon rainforest. Marble was transported from Italy and the building of it must have been a gargantuan task. In due course, rubber trees were grown in Asia, and the bottom dropped out of the market, meaning an end to the rubber economy deep in the inhospitable Amazon.

It is always remarkable that no matter how deep into the jungle, Fawcett was always running into random Europeans who were trading in rubber or otherwise just existing in this remote part of the world. Eveyln Waugh would pick on precisely this, for his novel A Handful of Dust, his protagonist Tony Last becoming a virtual prisoner of Mr Todd, deep in the jungle, where he’s forced to read Dickens novels out loud!

Waugh aside, Fawcett would have quite an impact on popular culture of the time. He knew Conan Doyle, and claims with some justification that The Lost World was based on some plateaus that Fawcett had himself reported seeing. He also knew H Rider Haggard, author of the Quartermain and She novels.

The outbreak of World War I meant that Fawcett had to return to Britain, and onwards to France where he served with bravery throughout the war. Notably he was there are the Somme where so many lost their lives. Like so many others, the war left him a changed man.

Now money for expeditions was harder to come by, and Fawcett felt almost imprisoned living back in Britain. He would eventually move his family to Jamaica, while he returned to Brazil to raise more funds.

Finally, he raised money in the US from a consortium of newspapers and a Rockefeller, allowing him to return to the jungle for the expedition he really wanted to do – and find the city he had named only “Z”.

David Gann’s book essentially retells the story that Fawcett’s younger son Brian had previously edited together in Exploration Fawcett, but adds lots of colour and context. In particular, Fawcett could be very damning of people he didn’t get on with, and Gann is able to fill out those parts of the story. I’m not even sure that Fawcett mentioned his wife by name in his book, while a particularly despised person is simply called the “botanist.”

There’s also the wider picture of what else was happening at the time. In 1911, the American Hiram Bingham discovered (or at least was shown) Machu Picchu, proving that there were indeed still undiscovered cities in South America. And another American, Alexander Rice, was able to lead enormously well funded expeditions into the Amazon, taking shortwave radios and even a plane with him. While Fawcett might not have approved of those methods, taking vast numbers into the rainforest, sometimes leading to massive losses of life, he was probably a bit jealous too.

“Amateur” explorers like Fawcett were slowly becoming a thing of the past, as professionals with anthropologists and archaeologists becoming more important.

Reading Fawcett’s own account, you couldn’t help thinking of his wife, at home bringing up his children, and not seeing her husband for years at a time. Gann tells us that she did a lot of marketing for him, keeping his fame alive.

Which all brings us to the film of The Lost City of Z.

While Gann’s book is retelling of Fawcett’s life, it also details Gann’s own trip to the Amazon. But the film is very much a period dramatisation of his life, with Charlie Hunnam as Fawcett. We open in Ireland where Fawcett is generally frustrated at life in the army, at a time when “getting on” was still very dependent upon your family. Sienna Miller plays Nina, his wife, with his first child already on the scene.

He wins a position mapping the Bolivian/Brazilian border and brings with him across the Atlantic, a man he has recruited via a newspaper advertisement – Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson). They travel to South America, and begin their surveying work amidst a beautiful landscape, Colombia doubling as the various Amazonian jungles.

Guided by some jungle finds, and stories he’s told, Fawcett begins to develop his theory of a civilisation that was far more advanced, and much less primitive than was widely thought at the time. His party is always small, and the jungle vicious with men dying along the way.

Writer and director James Foley does not present a glamourous Amazonian adventure – you can feel the sweat, the heat, and and most of all, the insects. There are perils to be had everywhere, although while everyone else was suffering, Fawcett seems to have had a fairly charmed existence, never coming down with anything major.

The film details three of his expeditions, although in reality there were seven. But there is only so much that you can fit into a two hour film. Foley does take liberties with the story, Costin becoming a constant companion when in fact, different people travelled with Fawcett at different times.

For story purposes, it’s perhaps understandable that Raleigh Rimell, best friend of Fawcett’s son Jack, was excluded from the story, but I think it’s an omission too far. Only three of them went on that final expedition, and while the father/son relationship is one of the arcs of the film, it’s over-simplification, and Rimell should have been included.

There’s a great turn by Angus Macfadyen as James Murray – the “botanist.” He almost causes catastrophe when he refuses to do as Fawcett says, and becomes a serious drain on resources.

And the standout sequence, is that in which Fawcett’s party come under fire from the arrows of an Amazonian tribe, with Fawcett refusing to return fire with their guns – instead using an accordion as part of his peace process! This is all as he recorded it in his book.

While overall I thought the film told the story superbly, sometimes it felt to me that for filmic purposes exaggeration had to be made. The relationship of Fawcett with, in particular, his oldest son Jack never quite rang true to me in the film. And while his wife must have been long suffering, their relationship in the film just feels slightly off.

Perhaps the sequences I got on with the least were those back in London, where the members of the Royal Geographic Society were almost caricatures of a certain type of disbelieving Victorian gentleman. While Fawcett wasn’t altogether believed, he was well supported by the RGS over the years, and this was indeed a time of remarkable exploits. All their gruff behaviour just felt over-egged.

I said at the start, that my copy of Exploration Fawcett had an introduction by Robin Hanbury-Tenison. While he clearly admires Fawcett greatly, he does admonish him for being a teller of tall tales at times. For example, Fawcett relates killing an anaconda that was 60 feet in length, yet the largest anacondas regularly grow to around 17 feet, with the largest ever seen being 33 feet. That would make Fawcett’s twice as large again!

Fawcett also regularly regaled readers with tales he’d heard told by others, when in truth he couldn’t really verify them.

And Fawcett had some serious fantasies about Atlantis, as well as spiritualism, the latter indeed being popular at the time. No less a figure as Arthur Conan Doyle himself was a believer.

Gann’s book never addresses the idea that Fawcett may have exaggerated a little, and neither then, does Gray’s film. That shouldn’t undermine what Fawcett clearly did do, but sometimes the stories do need tempering.

The Lost City of Z was shot on film, and you can tell. The colour pallette of this film is not overly saturated, and while the Amazon is green, it doesn’t glow orange or “pop” in the way so many would grade their image to look. It’s a more washed out tone, that’s in keeping with the grime and dirt of an expedition.

It’s an absolutely fascinating tale, of someone I think relatively few really know about. There’s a through-line from Fawcett’s life, to the adventure novels of Conan Doyle and Haggard, which in turn lead to action heroes like Indiana Jones. We’re more familiar with Scott, Stanley, Livingstone and Shackleton. It’s definitely time for Fawcett’s moment in the spotlight. This is a film that’s really well worth seeing.