Mr Norris Changes Trains

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Sometimes it is hard not to judge a book by its cover. That is just what I did when picking up Christopher Isherwood’s book Mr Norris Changes Trains. The luxurious sleeve, together with the author’s reputation as the writer of A Single Man, was enough to buy it. But there is also has a hint of the ridiculous, something entirely in keeping with its contents. 

Based loosely upon Isherwood’s own experiences and exploits in the Weimar Republic as the Nazis steadily rose to power, it focuses upon the character of Arthur Norris, an importer/exporter of delightful contradictions. He is a gentleman, a swindler, a masochist, a communist, a master of deception forever fooling himself. His behaviour is observed through the impeccable vacuum of narrator William Bradshaw (Isherwood’s middle names).

Isherwood reduces Bradshaw’s character to that of helpless but not hapless onlooker, slipping into the background to allow Norris sufficient space to flourish in this most intriguing of settings. Through a series of lightly played scenarios, the combination of sexual freedom and political intrigue in Berlin is deftly explored. Hackneyed commies and closeted government officials give rise to plenty of comedic set ups, which Isherwood delights in exploring for comic effect. Boozy nights out are sketched with Cabaret grotesques and light-hearted capers. Much is made of Norris’ distinctive bedroom tastes and silly wig. 

His politics are given even lighter shadings. While he speaks at communist meetings and often pops abroad to do Party work, the severity of the situation is never addressed. Communists appear a little bloodied and brown shirts begin appearing more regularly.  However, the backdrop of Germany’s wider upheaval is played with the same wry smirk as Mr Norris’ own mysterious travails. Isherwood walks a tightrope between reportage and yarn, leaving the reader feeling the meatier material got cut. Bradshaw himself appears asexual and, though he dabbles with translation for the communists, apolitical. 

More menacing than the Nazis is an unsavoury character named Schmidt, formerly in Norris’ employ. He blackmails Norris into taking one risk too many – but even his threat is dismissed in comic fashion by the landlady. Tension and danger are never properly established, so appreciation of the extremity of the situation is sadly lacking. The book started life as part of a wider, more substantial novel to be called The Lost. Mr Norris was torn from that narrative and placed solo; that move leaves him as the punchline of a joke only Isherwood knows.

There are wryly observed asides aplenty; bawdy scenes in which to revel in Isherwood’s stylish prose. But you feel he is always holding out on you. Like its protagonist, Mr Norris Changes Trains is ever the charmer, but falls short of really delivering. Mind the gaps.

Ladybird’s Olympic legacy

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While we dissect how wonderful London 2012 was from the chilly vantage point of January, there are no doubt many publishers licking their chapped lips. To accompany the multitudes of promotional, commemorative collections hastily slug on the shelves are the blockbuster autobiographies of the all-conquering athletes. Jess Ennis, Bradley Wiggins, Ben Ainslie and Tom Daley are among those quick out of the blocks to share their stories, filling many a stocking. None of them are likely to rival their sporting triumphs in their lists of achievements.

But are these hastily cobbled books really a bad thing? Not everybody gets into reading by devouring Tolkien, hiding a torch under their duvet to finish the last chapter of Harry Potter or cuddling up to The Gruffalo. Sometimes a decidedly shoddy book can have a huge impact, such as the one discovered in my parents’ loft last month when retrieving the Christmas decorations.

It was 1996. A mobile library pulled up outside my primary school. I climbed its three steps casually and entered the van with little anticipation of what treasure I would find within.

It wasn’t even a story, let alone a novel. Just 53 pages long. Ladybird’s Olympic 96 book, complete with a “fantastic foldout of Atlanta”. Fantastic indeed. Inside I learned, in one paragraph, of the genius of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics. I discovered that Atlanta is the state capital of Georgia. I found out the yachting events would be held at the Yachting Marina, which seemed very apt. WHATIZIT, the exquisitely named official mascot of the 1996 Olympic Games, was eager to supply all manner of juicy information.

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Further inside were single pages devoted to each Olympic sport, with descriptions of the discipline and its leading lights, plus – crucially – space within which to name the winner of each event. I filled them in with religious fervour. I recorded Yelena Nicolayeva’s victory in the 10 kilometre walk; I jotted down Balasz Kiss’s hammer win for Hungary; my pen was on the verge of running out as L Flessel triumphed in the individual foil fencing.

Aged nine, my parents didn’t allow me to watch most of these events take place live and even yours truly may have flagged during the weightlifting qualification rounds. Many of the winners’ names were furiously scribbled via Teletext. The long names of Ukraine’s medalling gymnasts proved too fast for my hand, resulting in several laps around the information retrieval service’s infuriating scrolling system.

Nevertheless, judiciously jotting the Olympic results down left an impression greater than the heroics of the standout athletes in Atlantic – even Michael Johnson achieving the 200m/400m double. The book ingrained a passion for sports stats that has since thrived in football, cricket and baseball, as well as a love of books. The next time the mobile library came around, I checked out The Hobbit, amongst others and was soon well on the way to filling my first bookshelves.

You could look up who won all of those 1996 Olympic medals on Wikipedia in about eight seconds now. But tracing their names with my finger in the old Ladybird hardback, their glories come to life far more vividly than on a laptop screen. There will be many legacies of London 2012. Let’s hope one of them, by hook or by crook or by terrible Tom Daley memoir, is somebody getting into books.