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on 22 April 2013
With Bedford Park, Bryan Appleyard has created an extraordinary blend of crime thriller, evocative period piece, philosophical musings on will and intention, and in the process has created a novel of poetic richness. He has stuffed it full of exotic, larger-than-life characters, some real and some fictional. It is an ambitious book, posing many big questions, and is chock-full of allusions, references and recurring themes which are expertly handled. Journalism, and truth - even whether there is such a thing, or if it matters - form the backdrop to the activities in the London suburb.

An American, Cal Kidd, comes to London and immediately meets the exuberant Brian Binks in an ABC coffee shop. Following Binks's particularly gruesome murder, Cal gets drawn into the strange world of Bedford Park and its weird and colourful characters. He meets Oscar Wilde and Yeats, falls in love with Maud Gonne, gets punched by Ezra Pound, notating all carefully in ninety notebooks; Cal is a man who prefers writing to engaging with the world. Crucially, he remakes contact with Frank Harris, who he'd last seen in America, many years before. Ironically, Frank, the newspaper editor, prefers deeds to words, his self-will and sexual lust firing himself into action. The story charts Frank's decline and Cal's inevitable destiny, interwoven with evocative set-pieces.

The many themes - water, wetness and ice; fire and its effects, both literal and symbolic, windows, child prostitution, secrets, even the significance of looking at something from above or below - are handled and developed with great subtlety, like leitmotifs. Water plays a crucial role: the book begins and ends on water, characters are compared to it, as if flowing, connecting. London is 'a woman with wet shoes and glorious eyes lighting up her wet pale face'. Lips are dry, made wet; the book itself leads ultimately to 'death by water'.

The book is haunted by a mechanistic, inhuman view of life, voiced by Frank: "Everything is connected and nothing matters." The idea of will, and intention, whether we can ignite our real selves with a 'fire inside', or whether our destinies are merely carried along by watery forces flowing beyond our control, is a dominant theme of the book, as is the question of our natures, and whether we can choose to go against them. Appleyard suggests that we can, but, "the cost may be higher than you bargained for".

Bedford Park is beautifully written, and both Appleyard's descriptive power, and his sensitivity for capturing the feeling of a moment, are one of the revelations of this hugely enjoyable book. His erudition and the range of references and symbols he employs never intrude or disrupt the pace of the storytelling, which kept me glued to the screen. Highly recommended.
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on 17 April 2013
From the dabbler.co.uk

First, of course, I must declare an interest: Appleyard and I go way back - two score years and more, man and boy. But I can declare, hand on heart, that if Bedford Park had come my way anonymously or from any other source, I would have hugely enjoyed it. It is, among other things, a great read - and one that doesn't leave you (me anyway) with that let-down, so-what feeling one gets at the end of so much contemporary fiction. Bedford Park, though, is only contemporary in the sense of having been written now. It is a novel of the `Edwardian' era, that high point of English, of European, of western culture, before the continent stumbled into a war that destroyed all the brightest hopes of civilisation - and it inhabits that period so completely that it could almost have been written then.

I share Appleyard's fascination with this lost golden age and its bright stars, so I was delighted to find many of them in the pages of his novel. Here are Yeats and Maud Gonne, Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad, the monstrous Frank Harris, the great journalist William Stead. And here is the mad, enchanted dream suburb of Bedford Park in West London, where these figures come and go - and beyond it the great Metropolis, the World City of its age, London, where the modern world is taking shape at bewildering speed, in bewildering forms. And, beyond that, the novel ranges as far as Chicago, and out to sea on a great ocean liner...

But (as the name suggests) the heart of Bedford Park is in that strange, hilarious suburb, that would-be Earthly Paradise of artists and intellectuals, idealists and lovers of beauty - the Saffron Park of Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday. Chesterton does not appear in person in the novel (though the `hero', Calhoun Kidd, takes his name from a Chesterton story) - but his genial spirit suffuses the entire venture. It is written with gusto, with brio - you could almost call it a romp - and it is in parts very funny; it had me laughing aloud many times. Bedford Park is also packed with well hidden allusions and quotations (by no means all of them Edwardian), and that too is part of the fun.

For myself, I could have done without the murder mystery element in the plot, but I'm probably an atypical reader in not being too fussed about narrative; there was already enough there for me in the great succession of set pieces featuring a cast of extraordinary people, some invented, some historical, some both. Bedford Park is a lively, convincing and entertaining portrait of a time and a place, created in the spirit of that time and place. Despite the darkness of some of its content, it is actually cheering - and of how much contemporary fiction can you say that? Chesterton himself would, I think, approve.
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on 16 July 2013
A good and surprising book; surprising not so much for its prose or intelligence - which one would expect from Appleyard's essays and articles - as for its command of tone and character. It is told through the eyes of a young American in London, in the golden age just before the Great War, but isn't a typical Bildungsroman: if anything, I would say it's about London in the 1890s & 1900s, and hence European civilisation at its highpoint of confidence & incipient decay.

It's quite a feat to project our 21st C ideas into a historical novel, without coming off grandiose & didactic. The book is, I feel, best read through the lens of our current preoccupations: science & technology & culture. I can see imprints of Appleyard's non-fiction here - aliens (contact with the non-material in seances), medical progress & the quest for immortality, and journalism itself (the mesmerising & gruesome Frank Harris). There are also numerous allusions & paraphrases & borrowings from writers such as Ezra Pound, TS Eliot, Wittgenstein, GK Chesterton - I'm assured that I missed several; here, for example, is his borrowing from Pound:

"I watched her small, taut, determined form being absorbed into the darkness of the crowd, the pale faces like petals, and unexpectedly felt that I had lost something."

These borrowings are remarkable for fitting so discreetly into the novel: they appear not as idle homage or theft, but as if the American narrator is seeing & recording both the surface & deep energies of European civilisation before the War, and as it were picking up moments of vision & wordplay from poets & philosophers (as did Eliot in The Waste Land). There's a camera-like sense to the novel, so it seems the outsider is acutely sensitive not merely to the expected phenomena, but to all that would move the great writers & minds of the period - for example, he falls in love with Yeats' unrequited love, Maud Gonne, as if he cannot help but respond to that which stirs the poet.

This all sounds quite dry and academic but all these matters are submerged enough to escape notice. It's a novel, not journalism.
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on 21 June 2014
A fascinating tale that brings to life the early days of the first garden suburb and some of the characters of late 19th century London - in particular the lascivious Frank Harris, Maud Gonne, WB Yeats and the Russian anarchist Serge Stepniak. Using Bedford Park - which John Betjeman once described as probably the most significant suburb in the western world - for his background, Appleyard paints a compelling picture of the aesthetic community yet reflects the excitement of its radical architecture and plan. I had hoped for larger roles for the estate's developer Jonathan Carr and the curious American cleric Moncure Conway (founder of the Conway Hall) - mysterious characters who I would have enjoyed seeing through Appleyard's pyschoanalytical eye. It is a dark story and in its relationship of architecture, place and history I was frequently reminded of Ackroyd's Hawksmoor as I read this enjoyable yarn.
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on 3 March 2015
I enjoy and admire the articles I have read by Bryan Appleyard, so was very pleased to see this new novel by him out last year. His usual preoccupations (architecture and popular science) provide an interesting basis for it. A number of real, historical, people wander through it, playing supporting roles. But what, oh what, is it all about? There is a rite of passage (which lasts an entire adult life). There is a foreigner's-eye view of London in general and the, apparently real, Bedford Park in particular. There is a violent death. There is some sex and a little love (not hand in hand). And there is an epilogue which cries out to be a prologue. I have to say I found it to be plot-free. This is unfortunate, as I do like a novel to have a plot. I know there are many readers of fiction for whom plot is inessential. To you I recommend this book.
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on 13 January 2015
I read this as I live not far from the suburb of the title. About half way through I could stand it no more. It was going nowhere as a novel. It failed to hold my attention. No more Appleyard for me.
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on 18 April 2013
Having enjoyed many of Appleyard's newspaper articles, I thought I'd try his novel. I was blown away. I'd expected it to be well-written. But in addition, I found fascinating characters, an historically plausible milieu, and an engaging plot. I thought it was great: highly recommended.
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on 10 August 2014
I am half way through and not enjoying this book at all!!
I must have missed something that everyone else has enjoyed but I find it dull and pretentious. Sorry Mr. Apple yard! That said I may return to it in a different frame of mind, start again and enjoy it but for now it's at the bottom of the reading pile
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on 22 September 2014
Not so wonderful
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on 9 July 2013
I was able to reveiw this book before purchase. The book did not disapoint. Delivered direct to my Kindle in seconds.
Great!
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