About Me

My photo
I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 22 July 2018

"Next World Novella" by Matthias Politycki

A sinologist goes into his study to find his wife lying dead, apparently from a stroke. Just before she died she was editing a short story he had written years ago and he tries to understand her annotations. She believes his tale was autobiographical and confessional and as he reads on he discovers her perspective on him, their marriage, and death. At first he bemoans the one-sidedness of the discussion: “To be dead, he thought, means above all that you can't answer questions, you can't clear things up, you can't get things straight and see that you may have misunderstood them” (p 70) Later he comes to realise that it is he who has misunderstood. “Being dead, he thought, means first and foremost that you can't apologize, can't forgive and be reconciled, there's nothing left to be forgiven, only to be forgotten. Or rather there's nothing to be forgotten, only forgiven.” (p 128). And, right at the end, there is the hint of a second chance.

A carefully constructed story, with moments of perfect prose.

Some great lines:
  • From the far end of his room autumn sunlight came flooding in, bathing everything in a golden or russet glow - the chaise-longue in the corner was a patch of melting colour. They'd have to open a window to let all that light out later.” (p 7)
  • Checking the way his hair lay over his bald patch, stroking the back of his head, he told himself that he was a happy man.” (p 7) 
  • He didn't want to live forever in any case, he added defiantly; there was an end to everything, even a sausage had two ends.
  • She'd already done ‘everything she could’ to make sure her family could manage, everything - do you know what that means? I'd rather not imagine it in any detail. Without sometimes fleecing one or another of the men pursuing her tenaciously, without going off with some of the takings now and then, she couldn't have coped.” (p 111)
  • Wasn't life nothing but betrayal? And, even more, being betrayed?” (p 126)
  • The sun lay on the parquet and made it shine. Schlepp closed his eyes. He would have to open a window to let all that happiness out again later.” (last line)
July 2018; 138 pages

Saturday, 21 July 2018

"The Rivals" by Richard Brinsley Sheridan

A classic play set in bodice-ripping Bath.

Lydia Languish is a young girl who is addicted to romantic novels. Even though she stands to lose the vast bulk of her fortune if she marries against her aunts wishes, she is determined to pursue a romantic elopement with a poor soldier such as young Ensign Beverley. Little does she know that the Ensign is actually an officer, Captain Jack Absolute, who, knowing of Lydia's perverse predilections, has disguised himself as the poor ensign. But, in a twist, Jack's father and Lydia's aunt have decided that he is the suitable match for Lydia. He thus becomes his own rival: “My father wants to force me to marry the very girl I am plotting to run away with!

At the same time Lydia's friend Julia is engaged to Jack's friend Faulkland but they have been parted and the eternally self-doubting Faulkland, hearing reports that Julia has laughed and sang and even danced while they were apart, has decided that she does not love him after all. But his attempts to test her are clumsy and leave the pair of them cross with one another.

A comedy of crossed lovers and confused identities.

There are some wonderful characters:

  • The eternally morose Faulkland who, whatever happens, will reframe it as casting doubt on Julia's love for him.
  • Jack's dad who, hypocritically since he himself married Jack's mother for love, threatens that Jack must marry whatever woman Sir A chooses, although "she shall have a hump in each shoulder; she shall be as crooked as the Crescent; her one eye shall roll ... she shall have the skin of a mummy ... Yet I’ll make you ogle her all day and sit up all night to write sonnets on her beauty.” If Jack disobeys “don’t enter the same hemisphere as me, don’t dare to breathe the same air, or use the same light with me; but get an atmosphere and sun of your own ... I’ll disown you, I’ll disinherit you, I’ll unget you! And damn me, if I’ll ever call you Jack again!” He is wonderfully angry old man. Then, when Jack says he will do as his father asks, he is again angry: “When I ran away with your mother, I would not have touched anything old or ugly to gain an empire.
  • Bob Acres, a very rustic old man who, fancying himself a suitor for Lydia, challenges 'Ensign Beverley' to a duel but when he gets to the duelling ground becomes farcically cowardly.
  • Mrs Malaprop whose continual use of the wrong word has earned her a place in the dictionary as the progenitor of Malapropisms. My favourites included:
    • you will promise to forget this fellow! to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory.” 
    •  “few gentlemen, nowadays, know how to value the ineffectual qualities in a woman. ... he is the very pineapple of politeness.
    • "a nice derangement of epitaphs.” 
    • She’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.

Other great lines:
  • You thought, miss! I don't know any business you have to think at all: thought does not become a young woman.
  • Our memories are independent of our wills. It is not so easy to forget.” 
  • Had I a thousand daughters, by heavens, I'd as soon have them taught the black art as their alphabet ... A circulating library in a town is as an evergreen tree of diabolical knowledge.” 
  • The fortune is saddled with a wife ... If you have the estate, you must take it with the livestock in it
  • Damned double-barrelled swords and cut-and-thrust pistols
  • Are you my son or not? / I am not quite clear myself but I’ll endeavour to recollect.

Wonderful characters, a brilliant plot and some fabulous word-play make this a classic comedy. 

July 2018

Friday, 20 July 2018

"Destined to Feel" by Indigo Bloome

In this erotic thriller, the sequel to Destined to Play, Alexa (Dr Alexandra Blake) flies to London to be reunited with her lover, controlling Jeremy Quinn. As she leaves the airport she is abducted by sinister forces. What plot for world domination is being hatched and will Alexa ever escape from the clutches of XSade?

Interspersed with the thriller plot are episodes f explicit erotic sex either remembered between Alexa and Jeremy or new.

Some good lines:
  • Once you become a mother it is as if you have a god-given right to share your experience and knowledge with newer less practised mothers who you feel are in desperate and urgent need of your extensive fountain of knowledge. ... we share our all-encompassing sage advice to both enhance our own ego (and reinforce to ourselves that we are on the correct parenting path)” (p 5)
  • When it comes to women, statements are far more effective than questions; that way, they don't have to give themselves permission.... If they say nothing, you have told them what will happen. They can always say no, but never seem to” (p 41) 
  • Then nothingness blankets my brain like a snuffer putting out a candle’s flame.” (p 170)
July 2018; 323 pages

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

"Ways of seeing" by John Berger

This is one of the classic texts of art appreciation suggesting that the oil painting tradition in European post-Renaissance art is an attempt by an elite to maintain the sense that the values established in the early development of capitalism of class power based on monetary wealth should be respected. Thus, he suggests that the development of perspective represents the artist suggesting that the viewer's is the correct perception. The nude, almost always female of course, invariably gazes towards the viewer and this, Berger suggests, is because the viewer possesses both the painting and, in some way, the body of the model.

Berger then argues that the ubiquitous advertising image is often based on oil painting convention and represents an attempt to control the viewer by proposing a future in which the viewer is glamorous and envied.

This is a brilliantly thought provoking book.


  • Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak. But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world ... Each evening we see the sun set. we know that the Earth is turning away from it.” (p 7)
  • We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice.” (p 8)
  • We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.” (p 9)
How paintings differ from photographs and film

  • Every time we look at a photograph, we are aware ... of the photographer selecting that sight from an infinity of other possible sights.” (p 10)
  • The camera isolated momentary appearances and in so doing destroyed the idea that images were timeless ... The camera showed that the notion of time passing was inseparable from the experience of the visual. ... What you saw depended upon where you were when.” (p 18)
  • A film unfolds in time and painting does not.” (p 26)

Berger points out that oil paintings is a form of painting that developed in Europe during the Renaissance and that a series of conventions has developed around it.

  • When an image is presented as a work of art the way people look at it is affected by a whole series of learnt assumptions ... beauty, truth, genius, civilization, form, status, taste, etc” (p 11)
  • The art of the past is being mystified because a privileged minority is striving to invent a history which can retrospectively justify the role of the ruling classes.” (p 11)
  • The compositional unity of a painting contributes fundamentally to the power of its image.” (p 13)
  • The convention of perspective, which is unique to European art and which was first established in the early Renaissance ... makes the single eye the centre of the visible world. Everything convergys onto the eye as to the vanishing point of infinity. The visible world is arranged for the spectator as the universe was once thought to be arranged for God.” (p 16)
  • Reproductions are still used to bolster the illusion ... that art, with its unique undiminished authority, justifies most other forms of authority, that art makes inequality seem noble and hierarchies seem thrilling.” (p 29)

One of the primary conventions is that of the nude (the vast majority being of women):

  • In western art nudes are essentially passive, often reclining, usually submissive and looking at the spectator. (p 52) “In other non European traditions - in Indian art, Persian art, African art, Pre-Columbian art - nakedness is never supine in this way. ... it is likely to show active sexual love as between two people, the woman as active as the man.” (p 53) 
  • The way of seeing ‘a nude’ is not necessarily confined to art: there are also nude photographs, nude poses, new gestures. what is true is that the nude is always conventionalized - and the authority for it's conventions derives from a certain tradition of art.” (p 47)
  • To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude ... Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display. To be naked is to be without disguise. To be on display is to have the surface of one's own skin, the hairs of one's own body, turned into a disguise which, in that situation, can never be discarded. The nude is condemned to never being naked. Nudity is a form of dress.” (p 54)
  • A nude “is made to appeal to his [the viewer, the ‘owner’ of the painting] sexuality. It has nothing to do with her sexuality ...In the European tradition generally, the convention of not painting the hair on a woman's body helps towards the same end. Hair is associated with sexual power, with passion.”
  • It is true that sometimes painting include a male lover. But the woman's attention is very really directed towards him. Often she looks away from him or she looks out of the picture towards the one who considers himself her true lover - the spectator-owner.” (p 56)
  • Almost all post-Renaissance European sexual imagery is frontal ... because the sexual protagonist is the spectator-owner looking at it.” (p 56)

In modern life the most ubiquitous images are 'publicity' images. The purpose of publicity is to make us desire a future state; the images shown are those to which we are supposed to aspire. “The interminable present of meaningless working hours is ‘balanced’ by a dreamt future in which ... the passive worker becomes the active consumer.” (p 149)

  • Publicity principally addressed to the working class tends to promise a personal transformation through the function of the particular product it is selling (Cinderella); middle-class publicity promises a transformation of relationships through a general atmosphere created by an ensemble of products (The Enchanted Palace).” (p 145)
  • Within publicity, choices are offered between this cream or that cream ... but publicity as a system only makes a single proposal. It proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more. This more, it proposes, will make us in some way richer - even though we will be poorer by having spent our money.” (p 131)
  • Publicity works by making us envy other people. It makes us wish to be transformed into the envied ones. “Being envied is a solitary form of reassurance. It depends precisely upon not sharing your experience with those who envy you. ... It is this which explains the absent, unfocused look of so many glamour images.” (p 133)
  • The power of the glamorous resides in their supposed happiness” (p 133

Oil paintings and publicity have many similarities including: “The gestures of models ,,, and mythological figures. The romantic use of nature ... to create a place where innocence can be refound. The exotic and nostalgic attraction of the Mediterranean. The poses taken up to denote stereotypes of women: serene mother (madonna), free-wheeling secretary (actress, King’s mistress), perfect hostess (spectator-owner’s wife), sex-object (Venus, nymph surprised) ... The special sexual emphasis given to women’s legs. The gestures and embraces of lovers, arranged frontally for the benefit of the spectator. The sea, offering a new life. The physical stance of men conveying wealth and virility. The treatment of distance by perspective - offering mystery. The equation of drinking and success. The man as knight (horseman) become motorist.” (p 138)

Both oil paintings and publicity tend to distinguish between images of men and women. This is to do with cultural differences in male and female 'presence':

  • A man’s presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies. I the promise is large and credible his presence is striking. If it is small or incredible, he is found to have little presence. The promised power may be moral, physical, temperamental, economic, social, sexual - but its object is always exterior to the man.” (p 45) 
  • A woman's presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her. Her presence is manifest in her gestures, voice, opinions, expressions, clothes, chosen surroundings, taste ... presence for a woman is so intrinsic to her person that men tend to think of it as an almost physical emanation, a kind of heat or smell or aura.” (p 46)
  • To be born of woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women has developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space. But this has been at the cost of a woman's self being split into two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisioning herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually ... She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance what is normally thought of as the success of their life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another. Men survey women before treating them. Consequently how a woman appears to a man can determine how she will be treated. To acquire some control of this process, women must contain it and interiorize it.” (p 46)
  • Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women that also the relation of women to themselves.” (p 47)

Other interesting  comments:

  • The past is never there waiting to be discovered, to be recognized for exactly what it is. History always constitutes the relation between a present and its past.” (p 11)
  • When metaphysical symbols are introduced ... their symbolism is usually made unconvincing or unnatural by the unequivocal, static materialism of the painting-method.” (p 91)
  • The great artist is a man whose life-time is consumed by struggle: partly against material circumstances, partly against incomprehension, partly against himself. Her is imagined as a kind of Jacob wrestling with an Angel.” (p 110)

What I didn't like about this book was the typeface (mostly bold which I found tiring) and the poor quality of the illustrations.

An extraordinarily interesting book. It was written in 1972 and one suspects the anti-capitalist Berger would be even more appalled or intrigued by the images in our modern rampantly capitalist world. What would he make of the images on the internet, both the stylistic conventions of the selfie and of  those pictures posted on social media and the stylistic conventions of internet pornography. Several doctoral theses available here!

July 2017; 154 pages

Saturday, 14 July 2018

"The Darkening Age" by Catherine Nixey

The prevailing perspective is that the glories of the Roman Empire were destroyed by the Barbarian invasions and that learning during the European Dark Ages was kept alive by monks in their scriptoria. Nixey radically revises this thesis. She shows that fanatical Christians destroyed a largely tolerant Roman culture and that Christianity was, to a large extent, responsible for the darkness.

First, she suggests that Roman persecution of Christians was largely a myth. In three centuries there were thirteen years of persecution:
  • Roman Emperors wanted obedience, not martyrs.” (p 78) 
  • Trajan tells Pliny "these people must not be hunted out.” (p 73) 
  • As the early Christian author Origen admitted, the numbers of martyrs were few enough to be easily countable.” (p 61) 
  • It is now thought that fewer than ten martyrdom tales from the early Church can be considered reliable.” (p 62) 
  • The Romans did not seek to wipe Christianity out. iI they had, they would almost certainly have succeeded.” (p 62) 
  • In this world today, there are over two billion Christians. there is not one single, true ‘pagan’.” (p 100)

In fact, it was the other way around. After centuries of tolerance, “From almost the very first year that a Christian emperor has ruled in Rome in AD 312, liberties had begun to be eroded.” (p xxvii - xxix) and within fifty years there were laws banning paganism. 

Many authors acknowledge that there were iconoclasts. “Classical statues were knocked from their plinths, defaced, defiled and torn limb from limb. Temples were razed to their foundations and burned to the ground.” (p xxxi) But they seem to excuse them. “In modern Histories those carrying out and encouraging the attacks [against heathen shrines] are really describe as violent, or vicious, or thuggish: they are merely ‘zealous’, ‘pious’, ‘enthusiastic’ or, at worst, ‘overzealous’.” (p 115)

People were also attacked, often by gangs of marauding monks: “Monks - anonymous, rootless, untraceable - were able to commit atrocities with near impunity.” (p 215) People were mutilated. “Eyes of the erring were gouged out because those who couldn't see the true religion were ‘blind’ anyway. Another Bishop was seized, his hands chopped off and his tongue, which had preached falsehoods, cut out.” (p 223) This could be excused. Citing Deuteronomy the learned Doctor of the Church St Jerome suggested that “a Christian might take the defeated prisoner, enjoy them, rape them - so long as they mutilated them first.” (p 164) The parabalani were “de facto militaries of the faithful” who threatened violence and killed the philosopher Hypatia (p 127) Even this was excused. Fanaticism perverts morality. “Murder committed for the sake of God, argued one writer, was not a crime but actually ‘a prayer’.” (p 222) Justice was rare. “Courtrooms in the east of the empire with disrupted by sinister groups of dark-clad, psalm-chanting monks.” (p 225) Judges fled.

Christianity has a reputation for condemning slavery but even this was perverted by the early church.“When one bishop advised slaves to desert their masters and become ascetics, the church was appalled and promptly excommunicated him.” (p 204)

As for sex. “Male homosexuality was outlawed.” (p xxxiii) “It would be well over a thousand years before Western civilisation could come to see homosexuality as anything other than a perversion.” (p 196) It seems to use that we live in a uniquely tolerant time; one wonders and worries that a cultural pendulum will swing back in the future. But this book suggests that it is perhaps the last millenniium and a half that has been the aberration and that what is 'unnatural' is not gay sex but the intolerance that leads to its condemnation.

Culturally perhaps the most damaging consequence of Christian fanaticism was the destruction of ancient writings. “It has been estimated that less than ten per cent of all classical literature has survived into the modern era ... It is estimated that only one hundredth of all Latin literature remains.” (p 166) In an age when manual copying was the only way to preserve ancient texts then simply ignoring an author could consign their work to obliteration. But worse was done. A shortage of parchment led to overwriting: “Palimpsests - manuscripts in which one manuscript has been scraped (psao) again (palin)” repeatedly show Christian texts overwriting classical texts." (p xxxii). And, of course, books were burnt.

Christians distrusted knowledge “To a proto-empiricist like Galen ... intellectual progress depended on the freedom to ask, question, doubt and above all, to experiment. In Galen’s world, only the ill-educated believed things without reason. To show something, one did not merely declare it to be so. One proved it, with demonstration. To do otherwise was for Galen the method of an idiot. It was the method of a Christian.” (p 30) 

There were reasons why Christians hated pagan learning. First of all, it was sexually frank:
  • The famously learned St Jerome, himself an inveterate reader, weighed in advising against ‘adultery of the tongue’.” (p 141)
  • Marcus Aurelius, with queasy precision, described sexual intercourse as ‘the friction of a piece of gut and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of some mucus’.” (p 142) 
  • Catullus (Carmen 16) says “I will bugger you and I will fuck your mouths.” (p 141)
  • Martial’s Epigram 1.90 describes lesbianism as “rubbing cunts together ... to counterfeit the thrusting of a male.” (p 141)
  • In the Greco-Roman pantheon, not only did brother fight against brother but, worse, brother sometimes did quite unmentionable things with sister. Or with anyone else they could get their hands on.” (p 143)

Perhaps, worse, classical learning challenged Christian ideas. This was made worse because “it was painfully obvious to educated Christians that the intellectual achievements of the ‘insane’ pagans were vastly superior to their own.” (p 150):
  • Roman intellectuals had a version of evolution: “The distinct species of animals were explained by a form of proto-Darwinism ... Nature put forth many species. those that had useful characteristics ... survived, thrived and reproduced.” (p 36) 
  • Ovid’s Metamorphoses ... opened with a version of the Creation myth that was so similar to the biblical one that it could hardly fail to make an interested reader question the supposed unique truth of Genesis. ... Where the biblical Creation begins with an earth that is ‘without form’, Ovid’s poem begins with a ‘rough, unordered mass of things’. ... a god appears and ‘rent asunder land from sky, and sea from land’ before instructing the seas to form and the ‘plains to stretch out’.” (p 39)
Philosophy actually dared to challenge religious beliefs, including Christianity:
  • The works of Greek and Roman philosophy were full of punchy one-liners poking fun at religion.” (p 143)
  • Celsus points out that the crucifixion was seen by many but the resurrection by very few. (p 35)
  • Celsus asked why did Jesus prefer sinners? “What evil is it not to have sinned?” (p 35)
  • Why did God wait so long to send Jesus? Porphyry asked: “what has become of the men who lived in the many centuries before Christ came? ... [Why] did He who is called the Saviour withhold Himself for so many centuries of the world?” (p 47)

The non-Christians urged tolerance and freedom of thought. Pliny the Elder wrote that “God ... is one mortal helping another.” (p 44) Symmachus (a pagan) said: “We see the same stars, the sky is shared by all, the same world surrounds us. What does it matter what wisdom a person uses to seek for the truth?” (p 121) But this didn't duit the narrow-minded Christians. “Heretics were intellectual therefore intellectuals were, if not heretical, then certainly suspect.” (p 148)
Other fascinating asides:
  • The feast of the Liberalia was on 17th March ... at which Roman citizens celebrated a boys first ejaculation” (p 177)
  • Young men didn't go to the baths with their fathers for fear of the uexpected erection; even for liberal Romans, it seems that seeing one's son's hard-on was felt to be a bit much.” (p 194)
  • Is it not true that we are dead and only seem to live ... or are we alive and is life dead?” (Palladas; p 169)
  • Hypatia was “devoted to the life of the mind rather than of the flesh and remained a virgin. ... it is said that one of her students fell in love with her ... Hypatia responded briskly. She brought some of her sanitary towels and threw them before him.” (p 127)
  • Hypatia's father, Theon, wrote commentaries on Euclid that “were so authoritative that they form the foundation of modern editions of his texts.” (p 130)
  • Demons stalk through the pages of Augustine's City of God.” (p 14). 
  • One consequence of the concept of demons was that wicked thoughts were the fault of the demon not the man ... the monkish id is laid bare as monks confessed to being tormented by visions of naked women” (p 17) 
  • Temples to the old gods served as centres of demonic activity. Here they settled in swarms, gorging on the sacrifices made by Romans to their gods. Creep into a temple late at night and you would hear petrifying things: corpses that seemed to speak.” (p 19)
  • Those who criticized Christianity, warned the Christian apologist Tertullian, were not speaking with a free mind ... because they were under the control of Satan and his footsoldiers.” (p 21)
  • Strepitus mundi, the ‘roar of the world’” was “the sound of Christianity pouring, as unstoppable as a tide, across towns, countries and continents” (p 23)
This is a fascinating book which authoritatively challenges a fundamental trope of western history. Coming at a time when western Europe is appalled at the cultural vandalism being wrought by groups such as the Taliban, and ISIS it is a timely reminder that suppression of art and culture and thought and learning is not a trait of one particular religion but seems to be a consequence of people believing that there is only one God.

A must-read. July 2011; 247 pages

Monday, 9 July 2018

"Birds, Beasts and Relatives" by Gerald Durrell

This is the sequel to My Family and Other Animals and it contains the stories that were left out of the first volume but which can nevertheless be very funny. Thus we learn of the wedding and accouchment of Katerina, Gerry going fishing with a convicted murderer and catching cuttlefish with love, Corfiot justice as arranged by Spiro, Margo's spiritualist diet, gay Sven and his accordion, Max and Donald, the wonderfully lecherous Captain Creech, the recluse Countess who argues with her servant, and the gypsy with the talking head and the dancing bear. I laughed out loud on several occasions.

Every chapter is introduced with passages of beautiful description. There is lots of interesting natural history. But, as before, the stars are the wonderfully bonkers members of the Durrell family:

  • Larry has a brilliant line in acerbity: 
    • The entire population of the British Isles seems to do absolutely nothing from one year’s end to another except shuffle around in small circles sneezing voluptuously into each other's faces ... a sort of merry-go-round of reinfection.” (p 314)
    • "I am not going to be turned into an early Christian martyr at my time of life." (p 531)
  • Margo merges and mangles proverbs: 
    • "There's many a slip without a stitch." (p 427)
    • "There are no bricks without fire." (p 446)

Some of the wonderful moments:
  • "'You mean he's a philatelist?' said Larry at length. 'No, no, Master Larrys,' said Spiro. 'He's not one of them. He's a married man and he's got two children.'" (p 426)
  • "Andreas was a gay, kind-hearted, exuberant boy who inevitably managed to do the wrong things. They said of him in the village that he would ride a donkey backwards if he could." (p 462)He tries to fish with a stick of dynamite but after he lights the fuse the fish swim away so he rows after them still holding the dynamite ...
  • "It smelt as strongly of garlic as a peasant bus on market day." (p 464)
  • "Half-asleep and still bee-drowsy from the liquor I had consumed." (p 494)
  • "'Strumpets! How lovely! Donald, we have strumpets for tea'. 'Crumpets,' corrected Donald. 'They're scones,' said Mother. 'I remember a strumpet in Montevideo', said Captain Creech. 'Marvellous bitch. Kept the whole ship entertained for two days. They don't breed them with stamina like that nowadays.'" (p 510)
  • "limericks of such biological complexity that, fortunately, Mother could not understand them." (p 511)
  • "'I'm a bit too old to have babies,' said Captain Creech. The padre's wife choked. 'But', he went on with satisfaction, 'I have a lot of fun trying'." (p 511)
  • "Two hedgehogs, drunks as lords on the fallen and semi-fermented grapes they had eaten from under the vines, staggering in circles, snapping at each other belligerently, uttering high-pitched  screams and hiccups." (p 522)
  • "The grapes ... looked like the jade eggs of some strange sea-monster." (p 540)
  • "As the wine fermented in their brown bellies, the barrels gurgled and squeaked and growled at each other like an angry mob." (p 546)

Beautiful descriptions, wonderful characterisations, hilarious comedy. July 2018

Saturday, 7 July 2018

"No more parades" by Ford Madox Ford

The second book of the Parade's End Tetralogy. At the end of the last book, Some Do Not ... the hero, Christopher Tietjens, heir to a country estate, a complete know all, fiendishly intelligent and yet the cuckold of a wife he won't divorce even though he is platonically in love with Valentine Wannop because it wouldn't be proper, is sent to the British world war one army in France. This book takes place in two days while he is an officer who prepares troops for the front line (his medical classification will not permit him to go to the front).

In this book we explore the parallels between CT and Jesus Christ at the same time as having a detailed commentary on the chaos of organisation that is the military in a war and an examination of the public school system of morality.

In Part One, mostly told as a stream of consciousness from CT's point of view and thus allowing confusions to creep in to the narrative (for example CT initially thinks that Captain McKechne is called Captain Mackenzie), CT is performing miracles of multitasking, issuing orders, helping men to write their wills, calming half-mad senior officers and even writing a sonnet to order in three minutes. Then a messenger whom he refused leave (woman trouble, a theme which reflects CT's own and which is repeated for many of the other soldiers) is killed in an air raid in front of him. Although he realises that 09Morgan would have survived had he sent him home, CT washes the blood from his hands.

The stream of consciousness technique enables FMF to show the chaos and confusion around Tietjens and to impress upon us how overworked he is and how easy it is for him, even someone as brilliant as he is, to make a mistake. This also means that the reader is (probably) aware before Tietjens that the woman waiting at the gate is Tietjens’ own wife (whom he supposes to be in England, causing scandals). This revelation is voiced by the staff officer

Great lines in Part One:

  • Men you worried over there. Each man a man with a backbone, knees, breeches, braces, a rifle, a home, passions, fornications, drunks, pals, some scheme of the universe, corns, inherited diseases, a greengrocer’s business, a milk walk, a paper stall, brats, a slut of a wife.
  • That place was meant for the quiet and orderly preparation of meat for the shambles.
  • pack a million and a half of men into and round that small town was like baiting a trap for rats with a great chunk of rotten meat.
  • These immense sacrifices, this ocean of mental sufferings, were all undergone to further the private vanities of men who amidst these hugenesses of landscapes and forces appeared pygmies!
  • The red viscousness welled across the floor; you sometimes so see fresh water bubbling up in sand. It astonished Tietjens to see that a human body could be so lavish of blood.
  • He hoped he would not get his hands all over blood, because blood is very sticky. It makes your fingers stick together impotently.
  • Why did they shoot them at dawn? To rub it in that they were never going to see another sunrise. But they drugged the fellows so that they wouldn’t know the sun if they saw it: all roped in a chair . .. It was really the worse for the firing party.
  • Captain Mackenzie in the light of a fantastically brilliant hurricane lamp appeared to be bathing dejectedly in a surf of coiling papers spread on the table before him.
  • English people of good position consider that the basis of all marital unions or disunions is the maxim: No scenes.
  • He would, literally, rather be dead than an open book.
  • The lady, Mrs Tietjens, was certainly without mitigation a whore.
  • On the Somme, in the summer, when stand-to had been at four in the morning, you would come out of your dug-out and survey, with a complete outfit of pessimistic thoughts, a dim, grey, repulsive landscape over a dull and much too thin parapet. There would be repellent posts, altogether too fragile entanglements of barbed wire, broken wheels, detritus, coils of mist over the positions of revolting Germans. Grey stillness; grey horrors, in front, and behind amongst the civilian populations! And clear, hard outlines to every thought . . . Then your batman brought you a cup of tea with a little—quite a little—rum in it. In three of four minutes the whole world changed beneath your eyes. The wire aprons became jolly efficient protections that your skill had devised and for which you might thank God; the broken wheels were convenient landmarks for raiding at night in No Man’s Land. You had to confess that, when you had re-erected that parapet, after it had last been jammed in, your company had made a pretty good job of it. And, even as far as the Germans were concerned, you were there to kill the swine; but you didn’t feel that the thought of them would make you sick beforehand . . . You were, in fact, a changed man. With a mind of a different specific gravity. You could not even tell that the roseate touches of dawn on the mists were not really the effects of rum .” A wonderful description of the effects of alcohol on how one views the world.
  • I remember the thoughts I thought and the thoughts I gave her credit for thinking. But perhaps she did not think them.” A clever way of underlining the unreliability of all narration.
  • Nothing but the infernal cruelty of their interview of the morning could have forced him to the pitch of sexual excitement that would make him make a proposal of illicit intercourse to a young lady to whom hitherto he had spoken not even one word of affection. ... And without doubt Sylvia had known what she was doing. The whole morning; at intervals, like a person directing the whiplash to a cruel spot of pain, reiteratedly, she had gone on and on. She had accused him of having Valentine Wannop for his mistress. She had accused him of having Valentine Wannop for his mistress. She had accused him of having Valentine Wannop for his mistress” The effective use of repetition.
  • That was the right of the Seigneur in a world of Other Ranks.
  • All those millions were the play-things of ants busy in the miles of corridors beneath the domes and spires that rise up over the central heart of our comity.
  • a line of ghosts that were tents, silent and austere in the moon’s very shadowy light
  • getting cattle into condition for the slaughter-house ... But it’s better to go to heaven with your skin shining and master of your limbs than as a hulking lout.

Part Two is described from the point of view of Sylvia (Mrs) Tietjens again starting from a third person and then zooming in to her stream of consciousness to the point where I got muddled about what she said to herself and what she said aloud.

Sylvia is sitting in a hotel lounge with Perowne, the man who brought her to France and the man with whom she ran away to France with years ago when she first left Tietjens. She realises that Perowne is no sort of man. Compared to Tietjens no man seems worth having: “almost always taking up with a man was like reading a book you had read when you had forgotten that you had read it. ... You knew the opening, you were already bored by the middle, and, especially, you knew the end”. But this is a problem, Because he infuriates her. He is so good. She is like the woman taken in adultery and she thinks: “And women taken in adultery . . . All of them . . . Like . . . You know Who . . . That is his model . . . ’ She said to herself: ‘Curse him! . . . I hope he likes it . . . You’d think the only thing he thinks about is the beastly duck he’s wolfing down.’ . . . And then aloud: ‘They used to say: “He saved others; himself he could not save . . .

Later, having a meal with CT and a sergeant-major, she starts to compare Tietjens to Jesus more explicitly. Tietjens is omniscient, the soul of charity, refuses to condemn anyone, lives chastely (after his early marriage and even though he wants to sleep with Valentine), annoys the powers that be but helps everyone and is adored. However, when Sylvia compares her CT to JC the sergeant-major demurs: “‘Ma’am,’ he said, we couldn’t say exactly that of the captain . . . For I fancy it was said of our Redeemer . . . But we ‘ave said that if ever there was a poor bloke the captain could ‘elp, ‘elp ’im ‘e would . . . Yet the unit was always getting ‘ellish strafe from headquarters . . .” Yet somehow, ‘getting strafe from headquarters’ (annoying the established church?) makes CT seem even more Christ-like. And when When Sylvia, mainly from mischief, tells the General that her husband is a socialist, she makes explicit comparisons. “‘He desires,’ Sylvia said, and she had no idea when she said it, ‘to model himself upon our Lord . . . ’ The general leant back in the sofa. He said almost indulgently: ‘Who’s that . . . our Lord?‘ Sylvia said: ‘Upon our Lord Jesus Christ . . . ’ He sprang to his feet as if she had stabbed him with a hatpin. ‘Our . . . ’ he exclaimed. ‘Good God! . . . I always knew he had a screw loose . . . But . . . ’ He said briskly: ‘Give all his goods to the poor! . . . But He wasn’t a . . . Not a Socialist! What was it He said: Render unto Caesar . . . It wouldn’t be necessary to drum Him out of the Army’

Sylvia hates him for being perfect and yet, as predicted by the Irish priest who was her confessor and is now in heaven, she is desperately and passionately in love with Tietjens (because he is inaccessible to her).

Lines I loved in Part Two

  • an immense castle that hung over crags, above a western sea, much as a bird-cage hangs from a window of a high tenement building
  • Do you know the only time the King must salute a private soldier and the private takes no notice? . . . When ‘e’s dead . . . ’
  • These horrors, these infinities of pain, this atrocious condition of the world had been brought about in order that men should indulge themselves in orgies of promiscuity . . . That in the end was at the bottom of male honour, of male virtue, observance of treaties, upholding of the flag . . . An immense warlock’s carnival of appetites, lusts, ebrieties

Part Three

The morning after. Tietjens is under arrest back at camp. The reason (as with all FMF narratives) slowly emerges from a muddle of statements. Last night he was in his wife’s room when Perowne came in wearing his dressing gown; he mistook him for room service and violently ejected him; Perowne made loud moan and woke General O’Hara who came to see what the fuss was about and was also pushed out of the room. Tietjens is thus under arrest for striking a superior officer.

Parallels with Jesus recur, for example when Tietjens says: “And then: ‘Oh, yes! I forgive . . . It’s painful . . . You probably don’t know what you are doing.

The final chapter is a dialogue between Tietjens and General Campion (his godfather; wow, another parallel) in which the General acts rather like Pontius Pilate, desperately trying to find a way to help CT but in the end only coming up with the idea of sending him to a front-line regiment, despite his medical exemption, where he will probably be killed during the next German push. The General is, in effect, condemning CT to suffering and death and, kind man that he is, is desperately trying to get CT to help him find a way out of this. But CT refuses to take an easy option.

Lines I loved in Part Three:

  • The beastliness of human nature is always pretty normal. We lie and betray and are wanting in imagination and deceive ourselves, always, at about the same rate. In peace and in war!”
  • “enormous bodies of men . . . Seven to ten million . . . All moving towards places towards which they desperately don’t want to go. Desperately! Every one of them is desperately afraid. But they go on.
  • What the hell is language for? We go round and round.
  • all men will go to hell over three things: alcohol, money . . . and sex. This fellow apparently hadn’t. Better for him if he had!

A stunning book about war and a clever allegory about Jesus. July 2018

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Upstate" by James Wood

Loaned to me by my friend Veronica, author of Alric of Bedanford.

It starts with Alan, a property developer whose company is on the brink of collapse, visiting his mother in the old people's home he can soon no longer afford:

  • He made his way through two huffing fire doors, which bottled a weekend’s stale yeast.” (p 1)
  • It was all pretty good, or as good as can be when one’s whole life has been reduced to souvenirs of selfhood.” (p 4)
But his main problem is the need to travel to Saratoga Springs in New York State where his daughter, Van(essa) who teaches philosophy and has a new, younger, boyfriend, Josh, seems to be on the brink of relapsing into the depression that has haunted her life. He flies to New York Ciry where he meets record producer daughter Helen who is considering leaving her company because she sees that the music industry is on the brink of collapse. So all the characters are contemplating the dissolution of the life that has so far given them some semblance of meaning. As Van points out, observing an old man long since retired who lives on his own since his wife has died as he sips his soup: “He was simply feeding a body, so is it could continue. For what? Well, to continue living alone for a little longer, so that he can eat more soup.” (p 223)

Pathetic fallacy abounds. The town is in the grip of winter and snow is all around. At the end the promise of Spring will lead to Vanessa feeling "her body unclenching" (p 232); there seems to be some sense that the family will pull together to help one another through the struggles. And yet most of the book has images of despair:

  • the widower's musty celibacy.” (p 9)
  • You swallow the universe like a pill, but then you piss it out too, it passes out of you, along with everything else important.” (p 67)
  • If he got rid of desire, as his book on zen Buddhism suggested, what would be left of him? Not a self, as he understood it. A driverless train” (p 75)
  • those atrocious villages in the Cotswolds, where nothing has changed in six hundred years and the genteel inhabitants live like cupboarded gnomes of history, in tiny thatched cottages.” (p 88)
  • “the dirty smoky grey mesh of the air, the defeated food and weak heaters, the dripping toilets full of old yellow bus tickets.” (p 88)
  • they wanted more money and jobs so that the smoky underlit impotent monotony of things could continue just the same as before.” (p 88) 
  • a teenage boy whose feet have outgrown his socks.” (p 95)

There are also some observations and advice about life in general:
  • for kids nowadays the past ... was nothing more than the tree that fell in the forest when you weren't there.” (p 33)
  • even if you can see three moves ahead, act as if you can't: the oil of duplicity that greases the social machine.” (p 98)
  • You should always back your car into the drive, because the journey out is more important than the return.” (p 116)
  • We shouldn't worry too much about the Absurd ... because if under the eye of eternity nothing matters, then under the eye of eternity the Absurd doesn't matter, either.” (p 169) (referencing Camus, the Myth of Sisyphus)

But in the end it comes down to the fact that, “For some people ... happiness is like all the other things you take for granted - inner-ear balance, say, or the regular thump of my heart, or my ability to sleep at night.” (p 202) If this automatic happiness malfunctions, then “Despair was like a sea. It threshed restlessly, just out of sight, always there: the deep enemy of human flourishing, inching away at its borders.” (p 176) On the other hand, Alan the father, to whom the daughters attribute this miraculous ability to be automatically happy, protests: “I’m not buoyant like a boat is, without any effort. I'm buoyant like a human being is. I have to work at it the whole time, or I'll sink in the water.” (p 103) 

A nicely observed and written book about the important philosophical question about the meaning of life and its impact on our ability to be happy.

July 2018; 233 pages