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Graham Coster

Graham Coster was Assistant Editor of Granta until last year. He now teaches English at Cambridge University and is working on a novel.

Through the Grinder

Graham Coster, 8 February 1996

‘Are you making a trip here to write a book?’ inquires the manager as Paul Theroux books into a hotel in Corsica, 136 pages into his latest travel narrative. ‘I don’t know,’ replies the author. ‘It was the truth,’ he adds as an aside. ‘It was too early in my Mediterranean journey for me to tell whether it might be a book.’ From this most assiduous of travel-writers it is an unaccustomed admission. Theroux always finishes his journeys; always writes everything up. Completing the course, accomplishing the marathon challenge, is the point of the exercise.

Sir Norman Foster’s Favourite Building

Graham Coster, 11 March 1993

‘Four million rivets flying in close formation’: thus RAF folklore on its Shackleton early-warning patrol planes. Aircraft development has been so closely analogous to the century’s historical, political and cultural changes that individual designs have often in retrospect assumed a symbolic weight out of all proportion to then contemporary technological success. The Short Stirling, the first of the RAF’s World War Two heavy bombers, stands as an aerial metaphor of Britain’s half-cock response in the mid Thirties to the Nazi war threat. The Air Ministry thought that all new aircraft should be compact enough to tit into the RAF’s existing hangars, so the Short Stirling was built with wings that were too short to provide an adequate degree of lift; which meant that the undercarriage had to be extended to a flimsy height to give the wings enough rake to get the bomber off the ground; which meant that if Stirling crews weren’t shot out of the sky over Europe they were all too often killed back at their home airfield when the undercarriage gave way on landing. When the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richard talks dismissively about ‘Brabazon bands’ he is alluding to an ill-fated post-war British airliner. A rock band can be beautiful to look at, sound as sleek and smooth as you like, the gnarled Richard is saying, but these days you can’t just rumble endlessly along the runway: you’ve got to get airborne fast and with a great roar. The American B-52 is now for ever pigeon-holed as the sinister visual emblem of car pet-bombing: a sooty pencil-plane excreting strings of bombs like rabbit-droppings.

Over the top

Graham Coster, 22 October 1992

Gallipoli has not lent itself to literature. The First World War on the Western Front has furnished a body of poetry, prose fiction and memoir so substantial, and so distinguished, as to equip any O-Level English student with at least an adequate historical knowledge of the campaign. But even if it were true, as Geoffrey Moorhouse claims, that ‘no battle or campaign fought between 1914 and 1918 has ever been remembered quite so tenaciously as the ill-fated Allied expedition to the Dardanelles,’ this would not be the result of any literary work. Rupert Brooke, setting out to fight at Gallipoli, died before he ever got there. One of Siegfried Sassoon’s brothers was killed in action there, but Sassoon himself went to France. Sir Compton Mackenzie’s Gallipoli Memories (1929) hardly ranks alongside Goodbye to all that. By default, the rare representations of the campaign in popular culture are elevated into distorting prominence, and it is almost certain, as a result, that most of us know even less about the Gallipoli campaign than we think. Those, like me, whose awareness of the disaster is limited to Peter Weir’s Gallipoli will have fallen for the biggest myth of all: that Gallipoli was primarily an Antipodean tragedy. In fact, as Hell’s Foundations soon makes clear, Britain lost 21,000 men there – twice as many as Australia and New Zealand put together.’

Evils and Novels

Graham Coster, 25 June 1992

As Penguin rescues the novels of Angus Wilson from out-of-print obscurity, here is an excuse to recall the argument of his most important work of literary criticism, the essay ‘Evil in the English Novel’. ‘For some time,’ he wrote in the Listener back in 1962, ‘I have been concerned about what is happening to the contemporary English novel … I have been led to suppose that one of the troubles is that we are too much concerned with right and wrong, and not enough with evil.’ Contemporaneous with Wilson’s new canonisation is the showing in London of Merchant-Ivory’s film adaptation of E.M Forster’s Howard’s End, and a new novel from Ian McEwan. To a reader of First Love, Last Rites or In Between the Sheets it will seem an odd conjunction. Nevertheless, it is to Wilson’s implicit prescription that McEwan’s novels seem increasingly to answer, and in Black Dogs both the manner in which evil enters and determines his story, and the landscape he creates to summon and accommodate it, look soberly Forsterian.

Uncle Vester’s Nephew

Graham Coster, 27 February 1992

A few years ago I met Elvis Presley’s Uncle Vester. Cross the road from Graceland, Elvis’s smallish mansion in Memphis, and you enter the large museum-and-souvenirs complex where you can view his private plane, his collection of police badges and all those swirling, sequined efforts he used to garb himself in for a Las Vegas show, and then go and buy yourself an Elvis alarm clock. In a booth in one of the many trinket shops sits the affable Uncle, ready to autograph for you a copy of his Vester Presley Cookbook, a collation of favourite Presley family recipes, and impart to anyone who cares to stop and be buttonholed his memories of his celebrated late nephew.

Rainbows

Graham Coster, 12 September 1991

Had the Pentagon, back in the late Sixties, accepted Boeing’s tender for a massive new cargo aircraft for the United States Air Force, David Lodge would not have been able to write Paradise News. Instead, however, Lockheed got the contract, and Boeing were left with a redundant set of blueprints for the biggest furniture van never built. To save all that development money going to waste, they came up with a blindingly simple solution: fill it with seats, and call it an airliner. Thus was the Boeing 747 born, and now David Lodge has written what may, in socio-historical terms, be the first post-Jumbo Jet novel. Just as Wordsworth and Ruskin in the last century predicted and fulminated against the social implications of the new railways’ capacity for moving hordes of people into somewhere like the Lake District, so a newer mass translation of the populace is behind Paradise News: nowadays the wide-bodied jet enables hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of us all of a sudden to be the other side of the world, and Lodge to beam a whole plane-load of people to Hawaii for a fortnight.

Badoompa-doompa-doompa-doom

Graham Coster, 10 January 1991

Everyone is agreed: it is the drummer who is most important. ‘No group is any better than its drummer,’ the Rolling Stones’ late piano player Ian Stewart tells A.E. Hotchner. ‘Drummers are the heart of a group,’ confirms Noel Redding of the Jimi Hendrix Experience: ‘a good one is worth his weight in gold.’ And here is the Sex Pistols’ Glen Matlock on drummer Paul Cook: ‘that steady rhythm of his was the whole backbone of the Pistols’ sound.’ Then you have the singer, the showman – who probably does the lyrics too; and the lead guitarist, who probably comes up with the music; not forgetting the manager, even, without whom there would he no gigs, hotel rooms or backstage Jack Daniels on the contract rider.’

Trips

Graham Coster, 26 July 1990

‘I did not particularly like travel books,’ explains the rancorous writer-narrator in Paul Theroux’s recent novel My Secret History: ‘the form had fatal insufficiencies. It was usually geography, and potted history, and a kind of lifeless boasting about how far the writer had gone and what he ate.’ It’s a scattershot complaint, but well made all the same. You don’t want to read a travel book which presses upon you, perversely, how much time the author has spent sitting in a chair reading – in which the principal journey has been made by fingers flicking through a library’s card index. Nor should travel writing approximate to an Anneka Rice challenge, celebrating the fulfilment of an absurd logistical ultimatum through can-do heartiness and a wide-eyed winning smile; nor should it feel like having someone else’s endless holiday snaps forced on you with the tacit smugness of ‘I’ve been there, and you haven’t!’’

Diary: Crop Circles

Graham Coster, 28 September 1989

Apart from me and the man who talked about elves, everyone on the bus to Cheesefoot Head seemed pretty sensible. There was the London stringer for the big provincial daily; the girl from the local paper; the woman doing syndicated interviews for hospital radio; the man from Farmer’s Weekly and the woman from Crops magazine (Organ of the Seed-Growing Trade), and the man with the very large attaché case from a Japanese TV station.

Story: ‘The Marabar Caves’

Graham Coster, 29 September 1988

Faking it is no good.

If you need caves, and there are no caves – if you’re shooting A Passage to India you need caves – then you need dynamite. If you need grass on the battlefield – in Heaven’s Gate there was to be grass on the battlefield, and at Kalispell, Montana there was no grass – then you need a comprehensive under-battlefield irrigation system.

Spivsville

Jonathan Bate, 27 July 1989

In Book Two of Disraeli’s Sybil, or The Two Nations the hero meets two strangers in the ruins of an abbey. One of them claims that the monasteries represented the only authentic communities...

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