Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household / Holloway by Robert Macfarlane, Stanley Donwood & Dan Richards

imagesQE914CC6untitled Two books, both set largely in Dorset. Set, in fact, around a very specific area of God’s county: Chideock, on the A35. Chideock has a special place in my heart: one dark night I picked up a speed camera fine on the main road there. It was infuriating, the epitome of legislation with no regard for justice: a steep hill into the village, no way really of going under about 40mph, a new camera positioned right at the bottom of the incline as the 30mph speed limit begins. In short, for the local authority, ker-ching!! Three points and your money, thankyou. Anyway, about three years later, I received a letter informing me that my fine had been rescinded and my money refunded. The reasons for this were obscure: as a native English speaker I tried three times to understand before giving up. Something to do with the positioning of the camera? Perhaps. The narrator (unnamed) of Rogue Male would have reached for his hunting rifle long, long before that letter arrived in search of his own sort of wild justice. He is a rich toff who, sometime in the 1930s, before World War Two breaks out, stalks Hitler at one of the Fuhrer’s country retreat’s. (Actually, Hitler is never named either, but for various reasons we know it’s him. And not just because of this edition’s over-specific cover). Anyway, he wants to see if he could get ‘the great man’ in his sights, for the sport of it. Actually, we find, that may not be strictly true: he might have a very good personal reason for wanting him dead. And whatever you think about extra-judicial killing, Hitler probably had it coming. But our hero is caught by the Nazis, who interrogate and then try to off him by staging a cliff fall. Because of the sensational plot, he’s easy to underestimate but Geoffrey Household is a really good writer: the narrator’s pain and disorientation after he is tortured by, and then narrowly escapes from, his captors, is well rendered. ‘I fainted again. It was luxury, almost sin.’ Escaping to England he realises his pursuers are not going to stop. There is a murder on the track at Holborn tube station – we’ve all sometimes felt like that on the Piccadilly Line – intricately described. The brief horror of the killing (‘his scream and the hideous, because domestic, sound of sizzling’) is cleverly heightened by a thrilling build-up full of stalking, doubling-backs and explanation of the machinations of the Aldwych shuttle (now defunct, one of London’s ghost stations). ‘It was self-defence,’ the narrator/killer insists. ‘Perhaps he was only as frightened of me as I was of him.’ He knows he needs to go underground – as in, properly underground – and has a place in mind: ‘A half-moon of low rabbit-cropped hills’ in Marshwood Vale – the area around Chideock, in other words. It’s a pleasantly quixotic book: the Nazi agent Quive-Smith (probably not his real name, but that’s spies for you) who eventually tracks the narrator to his lair really signs his own death warrant because he slaughters a domestic cat. The last straw. He ends up with a metal bolt through his head, killed instantly. ‘He looked…as if someone had screwed a ring into his forehead.’ A warning for would-be cat murderers everywhere. On holiday for a week in Dorset, reading Rogue Male provided the ideal opportunity to give Robert Macfarlane another go. Household’s narrator says of his hiding place: ‘The deep sandstone cutting, its hedges grown together at the top, is still there.’ In Holloway, Macfarlane and his friend Roger Deakin think they can find it: an intriguing literary quest. ‘Roger & I set out from the village of North Chideock to find Household’s Holloway,’ Macfarlane writes. All goes well for a couple of pages and then…dead end: ‘The directions of finding had been encrypted by Household.’ Oh, arse. Perhaps Macfarlane was just not trying hard enough: Holloway is 36 pages long (for £9.99!), so just about qualifies as an essay. Actually, perhaps that’s the way to read Macfarlane, a chapter at a time, with plenty of breaks in between. As with The Old Ways, Stanley Donwood’s spare illustrations are wonderful. On the final page he has fun with a line drawing of a tandem (which has some significance in Rogue Male) and under it the words: QUIVE-SMITH. It’s a pleasing way to finish.

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