Word on the Wire

Month: April, 2015


One of my most prized literary possessions is a dictionary of slang. Last week, I tried to find out the origin of ‘Bloody Nora’ and came up empty. Help was at hand through a familiar on-line source, and I quickly discovered that it started out as a Cockney phrase ‘flamin-orror’ that morphed into ‘Flamin’ Nora’ and, finally, the more colourful version, ‘Bloody Norah.’ What the hell does this have to do with anything, you might ask?

Well, it was the phrase that popped out of my mouth unbidden when watching the sequel to the Malaysian sub-titled film ‘The Raid.’ As it turned out ‘flamin’ was rather apposite for one particularly gruesome scene. And, my goodness, I wouldn’t advise you to watch it if you’ve just had your dinner. Talk about paint the town red.

The story, such as it was, involves Rama, a cop going undercover to gain access to a deadly criminal outfit in order to produce names and evidence. Actually, I forgot all this because the violence that quickly erupted superseded the narrative. Now don’t get me wrong, never has 143 minutes flown so quickly. I was utterly mesmerised by the fabulously choreographed fight scenes – why bother with a gun when you have a deft pair of feet and hands? However these were not the only weapons on show. There was a young guy with a ball and what looked like a rounders bat that most have weighed a ton, (all the better to smash someone’s face in) and a woman who was pretty nifty with a pair of claw hammers. (I had a vision of a backroom team sitting in a small office pitching ideas for the most innovative way to bump someone off.) As you might imagine, there was a point where I grabbed a breath and gave thanks for having a relatively sound mind. With so much blood gushing from every orifice on-screen, what might those visual images do to someone of a more vulnerable and impressionable disposition? Not that I’m advocating censorship. It did make me wonder, however, whether graphic violence packs more punch when the story isn’t in one’s native tongue.   Is there an added scary dimension because it seems slightly unfamiliar? I’m not sure…

I’m guessing ‘The Raid 2’ might be considered tame fare for fans of the horror genre, but, bloody Nora, I think this is pretty much as far as I want to go.



What’s the appeal of spy fiction? You’re plunged into an unknowable and alien world in which characters speak another language of codenames and cryptic vocabulary, the old boy network is seen to be alive and kicking, and pace is often tortuously slow.

And yet my superficial description disguises the truth and does the genre a grave disservice for what could be more thrilling than journeying through the world’s clandestine hot spots, being immersed in tradecraft and secret assignations, where the stakes for national security could not be higher, and the slow pace that I referred to is more akin to the building beat you find in a mellow piece of jazz before the saxophonist delivers a blistering solo?

Charles Cumming’s novel, ‘A Colder War,’ ticks all the above boxes in a ‘tell it as it is’ tale of espionage that is bang up to the minute. His main character, disgraced Thomas Kell, a fall guy and witness to an act of extraordinary rendition, is tempted back into the game by the chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, Amelia Levine, when the head of station in Turkey is killed. Both Levine and Kell suspect their man, a serial womaniser, was assassinated and it’s Kell’s task to discover the truth. It’s not long before Kell makes a stunning discovery: a traitor is in their midst.

You are left in no doubt that Cumming knows his stuff, which is unsurprising as MI6 approached him for recruitment in 1995. The novel is jam-packed with tradecraft.   Thomas Kell is no ‘techno-spook’. He’s that strange, complex alchemy of circumspection, cold detachment and ultra competitiveness that carve him out as the classic spy, yet he’s also flesh and blood and a man of concealed passion.

A ‘mole’ in the camp has overtones of Le Carre’s ‘Tinker, Tailor…’ and the occasionally bleak tone more reminiscent of the very best of Gerald Seymour’s spy thrillers. But Cumming’s novel is no pale imitation. Rich with memorable characters, the story oozes style and authenticity. The scene in which a surveillance team spring into action is superb, as is the ‘take-down’ in (where else?) Odessa.

Necessary attributes for an effective spy are empathy and a firm grasp of human psychology. They’re also key skills for a writer. Cumming has both in spades. Certain to satisfy seasoned spy readers while attracting new converts to the genre, ‘A Colder War’ is truly in a league of its own. Fabulous.

A Colder War is published by Harper Collins.


Although the thirst for crime and murder remains undiminished, we’re not very good at talking about the inevitable: death. Perhaps our obsession with ‘yoof’ culture, coupled with the almost religious fervour we apply to beating the ageing process, makes us resistant. These are a couple of reasons why I tuned into the Reith lectures this year. In it, the wonderfully compassionate Dr Atul Gawande explored the whole notion of dying a ‘good death’. Little did I appreciate that it would stand me in good stead for reading James Hannah’s breathtakingly beautiful debut novel.
Ivo is forty years of age and dying of kidney failure. His nurse, Sheila, suggests that he keeps his overactive mind absorbed by playing the A-Z game. Ivo must think of a part of the body for each letter of the alphabet and craft a little story to illustrate it. Through this, we learn of Ivo’s troubled life.
Superficially, a hospice has to rate as one of the most unlikely settings for a story and yet it feels absolutely the right place for it’s only in our final hours that we understand that wealth and ‘things’, even achievements and experiences, matter less than the people we love. Sadly, we also realise regrets and the things we didn’t do and wished we had.
In less skilled hands – and I had to pinch myself to remind me that this is a debut – the novel could have been a self-indulgent misery memoir. But A-Z is nothing of the sort. Intimate, intense, compellingly honest, and at times, funny, Ivo’s story could belong to any one of us. It’s a rare person who can look back on a life in which the right path was always taken.
Through Hannah’s lyrical, sensitive and poetic prose, he reduces Ivo’s world to the bare essentials of existence. Everything is more simple and vivid, whether it’s the birds playing in the trees, or the sound of a door clicking shut. Ivo is sometimes fearful, but it’s not the all-enveloping terror that one might imagine in his situation. Without being in the least religious, there is a genuine sense of spirit and mind triumphing over body. And, yes, forgiveness and absolution lie at the heart of the story.
I can weep buckets watching a film. I can number the times I’ve cried reading a book on one hand, but my goodness, this had me reaching for the Kleenex. Honestly, read it. Rarely will a novel change your life. This one just might.

‘The A-Z Of You and Me’ is published by Doubleday, an imprint of Transworld Publishers.
A to Z of you and me


It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Cillian Murphy, especially in his role as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders, which explains why my thoughtful other half bought me a couple of earlier films in which Murphy had taken a lead role. We watched one of them last week, ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’.
Directed by Ken Loach, and set in Ireland in 1920, the film depicts the struggle of two brothers against the ‘Black and Tans’, a violent military unit sent by the British government to crush Ireland’s bid for independence. By God, crush they did.
I’m so accustomed to seeing Brits portrayed as ‘good guys’ and Irish with Republican or Loyalist views as terrorists that the story grabbed my attention from the first frame. The story rings with the grim truth that violence begets violence. How else could a decent man, Damien, (Cillian Murphy) a doctor, abandon a promising career, and ultimately the love of his life, for the cause in which he believes and that would inevitably put him on a collision course with his brother, Teddy?
An intriguing aspect of the film is that Teddy (Padraic Delaney) starts out as the radical, who subverts his peaceful and law-abiding brother, only to fall in with a diplomatic solution offered by the British later. By this time, Damien has already seen and done too much. There is a pivotal point in the film when he is forced to shoot a young informer. It’s a gut-wrenching moment that pretty much destroys him.
If I had one criticism, a bit of judicious cutting and the inclusion of more scenes on camera to convey the disintegrating relationship between the two brothers and the tumble into sectarianism would have strengthened the storyline. I longed to see more clearly Teddy’s gradual change from radical to peacemaker and Damien’s ‘my way, or the high way’. This thought provoking, compelling and memorable film could have been a truly great one. Nevertheless it’s one to treasure, catch it if you can.