28 August 2009

Time Out

The Low & I Holiday Book
by F. W. Thomas and Low (of the "Star") 1926

This is a comic-format book but with perfect binding instead of the usual saddle stitch. The paper covers are nicked and frayed around the edges but they are still attached, even though the spine strip is almost completely missing. A nice pictorial cover designed in fine style by David Low shows the joint authors under a radiant Art Deco sun about to be engulfed by a wave that might have been drawn by Hokusai. The colour may have faded, but this must once have been a tasty morsel on the station news stands as the crowds bustled their way to beach, pier and promenade.

First thing on a random opening is a full-page, cartoon-based jest in which a group of prim young ladies at Brighton are driven to mad depravity by a bit of chintz and a few balloons - Like this:

The front bits show that this is a genuine product of Fleet Street, or at least of its tabloid tributary Bouverie Street. It's published by The Daily News, a popular rag which counted Charles Dickens as one of its first editors, and Low was working for the Star when he drew the cartoons that appear in the book. A boxed note on the reverse of the title page makes it clear that this is a compilation of stories and cartoons previously published in both of those papers.

Leafthrough. This is a lucky dip of jolly caricatures scattered among assorted paragraphs of wit and little boxes containing spoof verses. There's a strong whiff of the great unwashed of a bygone age being let off the leash from the unimaginable drudge of their daily lives and going slightly (but not subversively) mad as a consequence.
There are people who despise second-hand books precisely on the basis that they have been used by other people. While I'm no more keen than anyone else on dried bogies, unaccountable stains or flattened insects as markers of a book's intimacy with its previous owners, I am a big fan of old bus tickets, shop receipts, doodles and the like that often reveal themselves between well-thumbed pages. This copy of The Holiday Book has several pencil doodles in the margins that are passing imitations of Low's style. It would be nice to think they were the idle beachtime sketches of a factory worker from Preston with a bit of talent and a hankering for the life of a newspaper cartoonist.

Looking into it.
There's nothing I would like to do
So much as lie and shirk,
And think of all the rest of you
Perspiring at your work.
If life were only loafing,
In idle, sweet content,
It would be very nice indeed -
But who would pay the rent?
This book was published in the year of the General Strike. The TUC's call for action in May 1926 was provoked by the attrocious pay and working conditions of Britain's miners, but the strike might have been avoided if negotiations between the unions and the Government hadn't been brought to an abrupt end at the very last minute. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin walked out of the talks on learning that printers at the Daily Mail were refusing to produce the next day's edition because it contained an editorial describing the strike as a "revolutionary move". Baldwin puffed himself up into a righteous bluster about freedom of the press, but it seems to me he should have been reassured by the printers' action.

Much to the disgust of their continental counterparts, British working people have never, en masse, been revolutionary. Instead there's a conservative love of continuity, a mistrust of political extremists and intellectuals, and a cheerful resignation under the dead weight of life's realities. That's been enough over the centuries to form the TUC and set up the NHS, but the Queen is still on her throne and a loathsome class of charlatans and robbers is still slurping at the trough.

So are humour and holidays tools of the oppressor, keeping the masses in their place by allowing a little steam to be let off every now and then? It's true that innuendo, for example, is a way of acknowledging the magnificent filthiness of our urges without letting them upset society by rudely exposing themselves; and that the ruling classes could go on having their snouts tweaked by the little man all day without giving up a single privilege.

But humour is all about frames of reference and you get the feeling in this book that Low, Thomas and the proprietors of the Daily News are reflecting the lives of their readers. The pictures and tales of charabang trips, bawling children, lobster sunbathers and people falling off boats must have chimed with the experiences of the crowds turning up to Brighton or Blackpool for their annual two weeks off. And, just like on a real holiday, the workaday world that occupied the other 50 weeks of the year is never far away in the book, either being mocked for having been left behind or being dreaded for its inevitable return.

It's arguable that this working class worldview has shaped some of the best strands of British humour, from music hall to Hancock to Morecambe by way of Ealing and Merton. It is by turns cosy, surreal, tragic and very funny.

David Low was in fact a New Zealander who moved to London at the age of 28 to take up an offer to work on the moderately left-leaning Star. With a mixture of the outsider's fresh perspective and the caricaturist's sharp eye, he seems to have quickly got a handle on the essential elements of British life. There's a lot of keen observation in these sketchy drawings, many of which seem to be peopled with characters from Donald McGill's saucy seaside postcards, although Low's faces are much more individual.

At the time of this book's publication, Low was already on his way to becoming one of the great political caricaturists. The initial invitation to join the
Star had come about because of the success of his 1918 book of cartoons of then Prime Minister of Australia, William Hughes. And the year after publication of the Holiday Book, he agreed to join the conservative London Evening Standard on the understanding that his work would not be subject to any editorial interference.

Unlike the workers who would have chuckled along with this as they lounged by the sea, Low could live with the kind of self-determination that might have been the envy of our doodler from Preston. But as Europe moved ever closer to another war, even Low had to compromise. Beaverbrook, his employer at the
Standard, was inclined to appeasement and began to get the jitters as Low's savage belittling of Hitler and the Nazi hierarchy started to draw increasingly virulent complaints from the Germans. The final straw was a strip cartoon entitled 'Hit and Muss' that enraged Hitler so much that Low was ordered to tone down or stop his lampooning of the fuehrer and Mussolini. With a nicely insubordinate bit of quick thinking, he agreed to stop the strip and promptly replaced it with one about a new, composite dictator called Muzzler. It was never going to bring the fascists to their knees, but it ensured that he remained an effective irritant. So much so that he was high on the Gestapo's official list of people they would do away with if they ever managed to occupy this soggy isle.

16 July 2009

One Small Step...

10:56:20PM 7/20/69 CBS News 1970

This is a weighty, large, almost square-format book bound in moody black boards with an extraordinary dustjacket that is embossed with crater-like depressions. There is a small colour photograph stuck on it that is a TV screen-shot of an astronaut standing clumsily in full cosmic regalia next to an unruffled stars and stripes. The title is printed in black along the spine of the dustjacket. It is also impressed into the texture of the black boards so that it gleams into legibility when the book is tilted to the light. It is a mysteriously precise title that echoes the truncated chatter of Mission Control during the launch of Apollo 11. It describes - literally - the moment that a human first set foot on another planet.

First thing on a random opening is a page of the italicised text that represents transcripts of broadcast interviews and commentary. The participants here are discussing the significance of the previous day's lunar landing and they include a theologian, a psychiatrist and the author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. They are anchored by someone you'd always want in a debate who is denoted simply by the name 'Reasoner'. This was Harry Reasoner who was famous as the co-host of the influential (and still running) news show 60 Minutes. And it's Reasoner who has the stand-out thought on this page when he says, presumably in reponse to some concern of the theologian, that "when we got there we found no tablets of Moses, or anything. We left a tablet signed by pesident Nixon". The transcript must be slightly less than verbatim as it doesn't spell out any spluttering or outright belly laughs at this point from the other speakers.

Leafthrough. Among the many mind-boggling features of the Apollo missions is the sheer organisation that went into them. Like great cathedrals and blockbuster movies, they were the outcomes of a million details. The CBS coverage of the occasion went to the very limits of broadcasting technology at the time and was similarly reliant on everyone from the tea boy to the star anchor man doing their bit. Leafing through, it's clear that this is, in its own way, an organisational triumph. It's less a book than a publishing project. Organised along the chronology of the event itself, it is really well designed and beautifully laid out. It's a very fine thing.

The front bits. Opening the book reveals that the inner flap of the embossed dustjacket reaches back inside the front board almost as far as the spine. After a free end paper that is made of black card is a page that simply states that the dustjacket represents areas of the lunar surface, including the Sea of Tranquility, where the astronauts walked. There follows a double-page spread on high-quality grey cartridge stock with a diagram of the route taken by Apollo 11 on its way to the moon. (Any instinct to check the equivalent pages at the back of the book is rewarded with a very similar diagram showing the route home.) And then there is the magnificently sparse title page with the figures, dots and letters sitting in dense black type above a subtitle in smaller, softer, italicised script - The historic conquest of the moon as reported to the American people by CBS News over the CBS Television Network. There's a restrained gravitas and understated pride about the thing that is really quite impressive. You can almost hear the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey rising to a crescendo as the pages turn.

Looking into it. It often takes an anniversary to remind us how blase we can become about extraordinary events. 40 years on from that one small step, I'm glibly sitting at home rattling out my thoughts about this and that on a 7-year old machine that I bought from an ordinary shop. It packs the kind of computing punch that I imagine, back in 1969, would have required a couple of high school gyms housing rows of cabinets stuffed with reel-to-reel tape machines attended by people in lab coats. But those people were no fools and the technology they were witnessing in action would have seemed to them every bit as miraculous as nanobots or the human genome do to us.

If by some hiatus in the order of things an iPhone had landed in Harry Reasoner's lap that day he would probably have turned it over in his hands and said something like, "it's the future, but not as I imagined it". The future for many in the post-war generations of the 50s and 60s, as they followed the epic tussle between Soyuz and Apollo, was on a grand scale. They would destroy the Earth under a mushroom cloud or they would take a shiny rocket and go and live on the stars. They might even do both.

Partly because it tells the story of how the story was told, rather than simply telling the story itself, this book has a real immediacy. In mixing a detailed and absorbing account of the mechanics and logistics of getting the event broadcast to America and the world with lots of transcripts of on-air dialogue, it re-generates the excitement, emotion and vital philosophical conjecture that ran through the whole event.

CBS had placed reporters all over the world, from Disneyland to Vietnam, who filed reaction and comment back to New York and Florida. As a television spectacle, the moon mission was as drawn out as a test match with long periods where nothing much was happening. And though this inevitably led to quite a bit of waffle and hyperbole from those reporters, there was also quite a bit of pondering on the meaning of what America was doing. The reporter in Disneyland was moved to the sentimental observation after the launch that the gaudy little tin rockets on the roundabouts were taking the children further in their imaginations than Buzz Aldrin and his crew could ever hope to go in Apollo 11. Another worried that, once printed by human boot, the moon would be stripped of nearly all its mystery and romance.

In some ways, the coverage could be seen as a way of America showing off and milking the applause while sticking its middle finger up at Brezhnev. But there was an acknowledgement of Russian achievements - Walter Cronkite reported that medals commemorating Vladimir Komarov and Yuri Gagarin were to be left on the moon, and an attempt to broadcast a dialogue between an American and a Soviet scientist from a Polar base was only cut short by a crackling disintegration of the signal.

Nor was any attempt made to hide or belittle the many dissenting voices. Although civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy, who led a march of his Poor People's Campaign to the launch site, told a reporter that he found the spectacle awe inspiring, he insisted that the money could have been better spent fighting poverty. Similar concerns were aired by Gloria Steinem in an interview with Cronkite, and in New York a mobile reporter was told by revellers at a soul festival that the money should have been spent in Harlem.

In fact, the debate about priorities was a constant motif throughout the coverage and CBS would not have got away with ignoring it. Apollo 11 was the culmination of a space project that had gobbled up public funds faster than a failing bank. The debate over whether it was worth it had been slugged out over the previous couple of years by politicians and writers, including Kurt Vonnegut who, only months before the launch, had written a magazine article laying into Arthur C. Clarke's almost unequivocal support for the programme. They were brought together to discuss their views during the coverage and, from the extracts in the book, it's a pretty even contest.

For Clarke, the Apollo mission was 'a down payment on the future of mankind'. In the years since 1969, plenty of further instalments have been paid and we've had Hubble and the Space Station to show for it. The economic roller-coaster and other claims on our attention (climate change looming into the picture for one) have meant that Vice President Agnew's confident insistence at the time of the moon landing that we would have set foot on Mars by the end of his century has proved way wide of the mark.

We may have become jaded with the moon landing and all its imagery, consigning it to the know-nothing past for its blurred pictures, retro fashions and the clunky monitors at Mission Control. But what those astronauts actually did still takes some imagining. If it were happening right now, I'm sure I wouldn't be the only one sending a text along the lines of "OMG - they're wlkng around on the mn ffs".

5 July 2009

Public Enemies

Pretty Boy, Baby Face - I Love You
by Lew Louderback 1969

This is a scruffy, standard format paperback with a cut-out from an old black and white photo of a young lady from the 1930s pasted onto a white, but yellowing, background. She is striking a beligerent pose with a gun and a cigar and she seems to back up what the cover blurb promises for the inside: 'Hick boys and girls...from the hard-luck hills...the carnage of death in their trail'. Phew!

First thing on a random opening is a small section of photos. Actually, it's not such a random opening in this case as the heavier gloss pages of the photo section always fall open first, with all the predictability of a loaded dice. The pictures have the grainy urgency of newspaper work and feature the key players of the Public Enemy era. Hoover, Dillinger, Ma Barker - some of them startled by a popping flashgun, others riddled and dead on a slab. It's a gruesome but uncomfortably fascinating little gallery.

Leafthrough: any leafing through this book is always interrupted by the photos in the middle (see above), the rest being pulp-quality pages that have turned a nicotine pale brown. It's the sort of paper that the ink bleeds into leaving blotchy strings of letters. The chapters are short and efficiently titled and it looks like a book that you could get through in about a couple of hours.

Looking into it. Pretty Boy, Baby Face – I Love You exists in a more approachably titled edition called The Bad Ones. Oddly enough, the author’s name also exists in another form. For Lew Louderback, far from being a position in American football that involves a lot of shouting, was also known to write under the house pseudonym Nick Carter.

Louderback’s book was first published in 1968, a year after Faye Dunnaway and Warren Beatty had shot to stardom in Bonnie and Clyde, the first film to use blood squibs to give a sickeningly real approximation of what bullets actually do to people. The book was released to feed the huge appetite that the film provoked for stories of America’s Public Enemy Era; that period of the 1930s when the modern FBI and a host of criminal legends were born.

The writing style is as clipped and rapid as Machine Gun Kelly’s Tommy gun. It packs in an incredible amount of detail and runs through the set piece hold-ups and shoot-outs with all the panache of Clyde Barrow executing one of his famed getaway U-turns.

From Robin Hood to Ronnie Biggs, the law-abiding masses have been fascinated by the lives of those who have lived outside the law. Louderback himself shows a real relish in retelling the stories of the great public enemies, sketching their lives with a kind of analytical empathy that can’t help but reveal his particular favourites.

Many of the characters of the era had their own heroes and were acutely aware of the exploits of the gunslingers of some half a century earlier; the Billy the kids and the Doc Hollidays. But where the Western outlaws exploited the fragile civilization of newly settled land, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson and the Barker boys burnt out brief and violent lives in a world made lawless by economic meltdown.

The crops failed in the dustbowl and the queues swelled outside the soup kitchens. But stories of Kathryn Kelly, covered in fox fur and Chanel originals, on the lam in her 16-cylinder roadster with her allegedly dangerous husband by her side were a welcome diversion. And the entertainment value was only enhanced by the antics of J Edgar Hoover and his bumbling G-Men.

Where today's keepers of public safety are regularly bamboozled by Sun hacks getting jobs as royal food testers, Hoover's men were always finding themselves turning up too late, netting small fry in expensively mounted trawling operations and, on a few, tragic occasions, shredding innocent citizens with badly researched bursts of gunfire.

The G-Men were on a hiding to nothing with a battered and desperate public who would have voted John Dillinger mayor of Chicago given half a chance. Dillinger was a particular favourite for his pure showmanship and the perception, credited by Louderback, that he never actually killed anyone. At one point, a petition was raised suggesting that Dillinger, on the run and Hoover's Public Rat Number One, should be granted a pardon if he gave himself up. "Many of the financial institutions of the States," it said, "have just as criminally robbed our citizens without any effort being made to punish the perpetrators."

Dillinger's escape from custody as he awaited trial after being triumphantly captured and sent to Crown Point, Indiana, threw Hoover into apoplexies. While he waited, Dillinger sat whittling away at an old washboard, making good his escape from Crown Point's new "escape-proof" unit with the aid of the wooden gun he had fashioned from it.

Inevitably, the outlaw gave way to the mobster, the small gang to the Organization, and Hoover and his men had new priorities. But it was a measure of just how irritating the Public Enemies had been to the authorities that J Edgar himself had insisted on being personally involved in the capture of the last of the Rats.

The arrest of Alvin Karpis, kidnapper, extortionist and bank robber, by a group of Feds led by Hoover gained the FBI the kind of headlines they had dreamed of ever since their inception.

But the public knew, then as now, what they wanted from their enemies. There is nothing quite like the humiliation of authority to put a smile on the workaday world. No matter how manfully Hoover and his men were portrayed in the papers, in the grocery store and on the street you would hear another side.

"Put the cuffs on him boys" J Edgar apparently said as he leapt onto the speeding running board of Karpis' getaway car. His men, who had scrambled on behind him, looked blankly at one another, patted their empty pockets and then started to take off their neck ties and use them to tie the rat's hands.

Above: Pretty Boy Floyd - or is it David Brent after another hard day at the office?

1 April 2009

Watching the Detectives

The Master Book of Detection and Disguise by Alfred C. Grosse 1936

This is a small paperback that's been squashed and rumpled and probably dropped in a puddle some time in the last 73 years. The front cover shows a distinguished-looking man peering down a microscope in an eerily lit forensic lab with a couple of serious bottles looming in the background. I assume this is ex-detective Grosse himself. The back cover and spine are entirely blank so that if you should leave it face down on a coffee table it can easily be mistaken for a small exercise book.

First thing on a random opening
is a page of italicised text with a subheading towards the bottom indicating that 'Ten General Hints on Disguise' are to follow. I have to turn the page to find out what those hints are.

Number 2 suggests that a little brilliantine or pomade can change the arch of the eyebrows and that a pair of scissors and a good rubbing with a hairbrush will also help. Number 4 advises that a fig pushed underneath the palate will make the voice deeper and thicker, while at number 3 we learn that the same fruit pushed into your cheeks will give a fuller face. At number 7 is the old trick of putting a pebble in one shoe to give a natural limp or, for the more adventurous, a pebble in both shoes so that 'your walk will be even more different from what it usually is'. Round off with number 9 by applying a little black greasepaint to one of your front teeth and hey presto! A fat-faced, gap-toothed, fig-voiced toff who hobbles and has curiously disfigured eyebrows. Should blend in nicely.

The first section of the book consists of seven chapters looking at such things as 'How a Detective Works', 'Finger-Prints', 'Detectives in Disguise' and 'Clues'. At the back is a selection of four-minute mysteries and photo-crimes as well as '7 Tests for Junior Detectives' and a hilarious little catalogue of sleuth-related merchandise. The budget production values of the book are evidenced by the fact that the 'photo-crime' puzzles do not feature any photos, being sets of comic strip drawings instead.

Front bits. Published in 1936 by Quaker Oats Ltd of Southall, this little book was almost certainly a freebie given away in return for tokens collected from cereal packets. The reverse of the title page states that Quaker Oats is 'The Empire's Breakfast Cereal' and shows the famous logo of the jolly Quaker man carrying a box of oats in one hand and a scroll of paper with the word 'Pure' on it in the other.

Looking into it. The 1930s was an era of classic British crime fiction. Readers who were impatient for the next Agatha Christie could bide their time with the equally satisfying Dorothy L Sayers or by revisiting the familiar exploits of Father Brown. These novels and stories all relied on uniquely gifted amateurs to right wrongs that left Scotland Yard's finest scratching their heads.

But there was then, as now, an appetite for true crime stories and a curiosity as to the workings of the real police force. This was met partly by the regular publication of memoirs from retired Detective Inspectors who, as if to dismiss the almost supernaturally intuitive amateurs of fiction, took pains to emphasise the prosaic nature of their work and the value of dogged persistence.

Grosse's little book, which states that it is aimed at 'young people (and their parents)', seems torn between the two positions. Partly because of his audience, he wants to make it as glamorous as possible. But he tempers the anecdotes of criminals collared through the single, brilliantly seen clue with a healthy portion of Quaker work ethic. In fact, this is almost as much a moral tract as a bit of entertainment.

The foreword is quite explicit on this, saying that the book is intended to show 'not only that crime does not pay, but that courage honesty and clean living always bring their own reward.' In between the thrilling accounts of pickpockets, conmen and cat-burglars, the ex-Detective Inspector regularly reinforces the message. His list of things to be done to become a good detective, for example, includes having courage, being honest, washing your hands before meals and having a bath at least twice a week.

Meanwhile, down on the moral low ground, is an army of unsavoury characters who are so self-evidently criminal that it's hard to know why you'd need a detective to catch them. Take pickpockets. They are all, apparently, 'undersized, timorous-looking men, all more or less well dressed, and with a strange partiality for shoes with pointed toes.' And this partiality as to footwear is an invaluable aid to anyone wanting to round up other types of criminal because, we are told, 'all crooks have this liking'.

The policeman's lot was made even happier by the fact that most of the criminals seem to have been half-wits. Grosse's reminiscences of his time at the Yard are littered with characters who probably needed help rather than prison. The burglar who was banged up after having been caught because he liked to fold the housewife's tea towels before leaving the scene of his crime and then went out and did the same thing again as soon as he was released was obviously an obsessive-compulsive sort. And what can we make of the pickpocket who never varied his routine of dressing up as a schoolboy (presumably without the pointy shoes) so that he could start scraps at home time and empty the pockets of the crowds who gathered to watch?

These unfortunates were no match for the inexorable efficiency and moral certainty of the trained detective whose noble calling was deemed a worthy ambition for the young people (and their parents) reading this book. Helpfully, the back section provides some fun opportunities for them to see if they might have what it takes to become the bane of the underworld, and there's even a small selection of useful equipment that can be had by redeeming more tokens from the oats packet.

Having a go at these, I have discovered that I definitely don't have the qualities needed to become a top detective. In my defence, though, I would point out that the puzzles themselves are, disappointingly, a bit crap. For example, the mark on the villain's sleeve in a 'photo' story about the theft of a necklace during a seance just looks like a dodgy bit of printing, though it's a clue that might have worked if they'd actually used photographs. As for working out that the hustlers who con a Scottish businessman on a visit to London by phoning his daughter and getting her to wire money to someone pretending to be her father - well how was anyone supposed to know he even had a daughter?

It's just a shame that the offers for bits of essential detective kit in exchange for tokens have long-since closed. Now I'll never be able to mask my lack of investigative acumen behind a bewildering array of gadgets and accessories such as the 'Seebackroscope' (which allows you to see behind yourself without turning your head), the Chinaman's eyes (which are what they sound like and would probably get you arrested for being racially offensive, or robustly punched for the same reason) or the Finger Print and Autograph Album (in which to collect the autographs and, yes, the fingerprints of celebrities).

The whole thing comes across as the product of a more innocent age. But let's not forget that the generation who would have been the target of this book went on to become the senior officers of the police forces of the 1970s and the hardened villains that they chased. If I ever find one of those fingerprint albums, the first celebrity on my list will be that bloke that played Gene Hunt in Life on Mars.

15 January 2009

Empire Building for Boys

The Frontier Fort by W.H.G. Kingston c.1880

This is one of those blocky little hardbacks that are not as heavy as you expect them to be because their pages are made of a cheap, yellowing paper stock that, despite being quite thick, feels as though it has been bulked out with air - a bit like a rice cake. The cover has a faded picture of a small house by a lake that doesn't immediately bring forts or frontiers to mind. There's quite a lot of gilt in the design and down the spine and I imagine that this was quite a gleaming, attractive thing when it was first in the bookshops.

First thing on a random opening is a page of text - a segment of the narrative arrived at in the way that randomly forward-winding a video of a film you've never seen will land you in the middle of a story you're not yet a part of. There appears to be a character called Old Sass and a hump-backed Indian called Greensnake. Something has happened at the fort that necessitates the removal of the bodies of some Indians and 'other signs of strife' so that the 'young ladies' can be ushered in and placed under the charge of a Mrs. Mackintosh 'whose maternal feelings had been severely tried by their absence'.

Leafthrough. The typeface is nice and clear and each chapter begins with a decorated capital letter and a neat little motif at the top of the page. There are two or three full-page illustrations showing animated scenes of danger - a Native American, feathers flying, making a lusty grab for a Victorian lady riding side-saddle on a horse, and a pack of voracious wolves leaping on a chap with a gun.

The front bits. The title page gives the book's subtitle as Stirring Times in the North-West Territory of British America. It seems the story has passed a kind of approval process initiated by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) who published it 'under the direction of the Committee of General Literature and Education'. The SPCK published a huge number of books in the second half of the 19th century, including a lot of adventure fiction for boys and girls. All of these tales would have had to have shown this or a similar committee that they would serve to point up virtues such as temperance, obedience, courage and chastity.

Looking into it. Given the publishers, I was fairly certain that this would not be an early cowboys and Indians story complete with cussing, gambling, feisty women, rough whisky and spittoons. The subtitle and the pompous, strangely effete white youth in the frontispiece picture confirmed this - the setting after all was not the Wild West but somewhere called British America.

Unlike the upstart United States to the south, this land was not to be civilized by ill-mannered ruffians shooting each others' lights out against a backdrop of flatpack store fronts. If he had ever read them, Kingston had obviously not taken the slightest influence from Ned Buntline's immensly popular dime novels featuring Buffalo Bill, or any of the similar material that was hitting the bookstalls of America in the late 19th century, laying down the foundations of the classic Western in the process.

In British America, it seems, civilization was nurtured through the establishment of lots of self-enclosed trading forts each one of which housed a microcosm of English society. Our hero, Reginald Loraine, is a 'young Englishman of good fortune and family' who is diverted from his journey to Fort Edmonton on the news that Fort Duncan to the south-west is being pestered by the local Blackfeet tribe. From him down, there are descending strata, including Allen Keith who shares Loraine's 'tastes and mental qualities' but has no money, and some jovial working class types who are either Scottish or Irish. A pinch of the exotic is added with the half-breed scout Greensnake.

At Fort Duncan, Captain Mackintosh is holding out with his two daughters (Sybil and Effie) against the advances of the sneaky (and randy) chief Mysticoose. Loraine journeys with his party through electrical storms, horse-stealing heathens, grizzly bears and packs of wolves to bring relief to Fort Duncan and express his finer (not at all randy) feelings to Sybil.

Like many a good Victorian yarn, the book ends with an incredible coincidence. This one concerns Sybil's birth. It turns out that she had been adopted many years before in the snowy Northern Territories by the good-natured (but merely captain) Mackintosh. Her true origins were, of course, much more refined and it turns out that there's a stately home waiting for her and her new husband Loraine back in England.

Kingston, who spent much of his youth in Portugal with his merchant father, started writing adventure stories in the 1850s. He churned out over 130 titles including With Axe and Rifle, Snow-Shoes and Canoes, Manco the Peruvian Chief and How Britain Rules the Waves. They were immensely popular and produced to a formula that mixed thrilling encounters in untamed places with the message of Empire and civilization as the Victorians understood it. I suspect that these stories were almost interchangeable - so much so that the cover on Frontier Fort looks as though it were originally designed for another of his titles, The Log House by the Lake.

The Frontier Fort is as much a vehicle as an entertainment. It conveys the message that Britain's global pre-eminence was achieved through indomitable rectitude and Christian righteousness. With its sequence of perilous encounters, its thrilling moments and its reassuring conclusion, this was probably a good read for an Edwardian boy. And though it was no match for the Good Book itself, there's a sense that the frontier in both is that same frightening space between salvation and presumed heathen despair.