About Me

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I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019 and I am now properly retired and trying to write a novel. 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

Monday, 10 August 2020

"Demian" by Hermann Hesse

This slim volume (110 pages in my paperback version) was originally published pseudonymously and purported to be the autobiography of a young lad; it was an instant success. At first sight it has similarities with Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther, it is very much in the Bildungsroman tradition, but this is not the self-obsessed self-tortures of a man in love; Demian is a novel of ideas about those who are outsiders in society.

There is a short prologue in which the narrator tries to explain what is this autobiography will be all about. It has a sort of dedicatory preface: “All I really wanted was to try and live the life that was spontaneously welling up within me. Why was that so very difficult?” (Prologue). He warns about the limitations of autobiography: “When authors write novels, they usually act as if they were God and could completely survey and comprehend some person’s history and present it as if God were telling it to Himself, totally unveiled, in its essence at all points. I can't, any more than those authors can.” (Prologue) Finally, he warns: “My story isn't pleasant, it's not sweet and harmonious like the invented stories; it tastes of folly and bewilderment, of madness and dream, like the life of all people who no longer want to lie to themselves.” (Prologue) Then we can start. 

As a boy, the narrator Emil Sinclair recognises that there are two worlds: "the world of a warm glow, clarity and cleanliness; gentle, friendly speech, washed hands, clean clothes, and proper behaviour ... This was the world to adhere to if one's life was to be bright and pure, lovely and well-ordered ... The other world ... was altogether different, smelled different, spoke differently, made different promises and demands. In this second world ... there was a motley flow of uncanny, tempting, frightening, puzzling things, things like slaughterhouse and jail, drunks and bickering women, cows giving birth, horses collapsing, stories of burglaries, killings, suicides.” (Ch 1) Following a juvenile misdemeanour (in fact a pretended one) Sinclair falls victim to blackmail from another schoolboy; Demian rescues him from this. Demian becomes the Guide to Sinclair's Hero on a Journey, but Demian is a guide who starts by challenging conventional ideas of religion and morality. He explains that the Christian God represents "goodness, nobility, the Father, beauty and also loftiness, sentimentality - all fine! But the world is made up of other things, too. And all that is simply ascribed to the Devil, and this whole part of the world, an entire half, is swept under the table and buried in silence"; his solution is to "create some new god, who would also include the Devil within himself, one in whose presence we wouldn't have to shut our eyes when the most natural things in the world take place.” (Ch 3) This is what Sinclair has been waiting to hear and it enables him to go to boarding school where he becomes a drunkard on the point of expulsion; a classic Refusal of the Call. Later he reconnects with Demian and with other characters, such as Pistorius the organist who seeks salvation in ancient mysticism. Finally Sinclair begins his journey to the light. Demian's last visit to him is in the nature, perhaps, of a ghost.

Demian, with Siddartha and Steppenwolf, is the first of a three novels which Colin Wilson in The Outsider considers to be Hesse's exploration of the theme of the outsider. Demian has recognised Sinclair as a fellow who is marked with the ‘mark of Cain’. He explains that the story about Cain is the wrong way round, made up to explain the mark: “They said that fellows with that mark were weird, and so they were. People with courage and character always seem weird to other people.” (Ch 3)

Wilson wasn't too keen on the ending of Demian which he describes as 'airy-fairy' and I can see what he means: it lacks the raw punch of the first few chapters. But the first few chapters are bloody good.

There are some super description in which Hesse uses a comparison entirely unlike any I have heard before and yet spot on:

  • It was as if the wall clock and the table, the Bible and the mirror, the bookshelf and the pictures on the wall were saying goodbye to me.” (Ch 1)
  • He bore and behaved himself like a prince in disguise in the midst farmboys, making every effort to resemble them.” (Ch 2)
  • He didn't look at all like a schoolboy doing an assignment, but like a scholar pursuing his own research.” (Ch 2)
  • The world around me was like a clearance sale of shopworn merchandise, insipid and unappealing.” (Ch 4)
  • A new pot to cook his ideas in.” (Ch 6)
  • Scholarship ... a weary search amid the ruins of worlds gone by.” (Ch 6)
  • I stood at a street corner listening; from two taverns the ritual performed jollity of youth emerged into the night. Everywhere a sense of community, everywhere a squatting together, everywhere is shuffling off of destiny and an escape into the warm togetherness of the herd!” (Ch 7)

Great moments of truth:

  • The part of the story that took place among the wicked and the lost was by far the more appealing, and if one were free to state and admit it, it was sometimes actually a downright shame that the prodigal repented and was found again.” (Ch 1)
  • There were secrets I could much sooner share with the coarsest street boys than with my sisters.” (Ch 1)
  • It was my own business to cope with myself and find my own path, and I conducted my business badly, just as most children do who have been well brought up.” (Ch 3)
  • Very many ... for the rest of their life cling painfully to the irretrievable past, to the dream of the lost paradise [childhood], which is the worst and most murderous of all dreams.” (Ch 3)
  • Whoever wishes to be born destroy a world.” (Ch 5)
  • I like music very much, I think, because it's so unconcerned with morality.” (Ch 5)
  • I've always derived nothing but suffering from morality.” (Ch 5)
  • You certainly don't consider all the bipeds running around the street to be human beings merely because they walk upright and carry their young for nine months?” (Ch 5)
  • You shouldn't compare yourself with others; and if nature has made you a bat, you shouldn't try to turn yourself into an ostrich.” (Ch 6)
  • I didn't exist to write poetry, to preach sermons, to paint pictures; neither I know anyone else existed for that purpose. All of that merely happened to a person along the way. Everyone had only one true vocation: to find himself.” (Ch 6)

Fantastic writing from a Nobel laureate. August 2020; 110 pages

Saturday, 8 August 2020

"Tyrell" by Coe Booth

Tyrell is a fifteen-year-old black lad living in New York with his ten-year-old brother and his moms; his father is in prison and the family, homeless, have been sent to a cockroach infested motel with other homeless families. He earns money using NY Metro season tickets which he uses to swipe commuters through the station gates in return for a dollar. He is an intriguing mix of toxic masculinity (aggression and a 24-7 sex drive; "Guys gotta act stronger and tougher when females is watching them." C 13) and 'new man' protection: if he has to kill someone to protect his girl, he reflects, he will just have to go to jail. He wants to earn enough money to get his family into an apartment; the only way he can do this quasi-legally is by setting up a rap party using his pop's DJ equipment. This is a 'lets do the show right here' story set in a context of squalor, homelessness, petty crime and hunger.

He has a great and seemingly authentic voice, there is a lot of verisimilitude and there is a great plot with some fine characters. It has been perfectly st up for a sequel; I suspect there will be a series.

A lot of the book is focussed on food. Tyrell never talks about his hunger but he chronicles every meal, from the one at the church where he has to sit through a two-hour service first to the ten dollar breakfast at McDonalds (two egg-McMuffin meals) and all the times he is invited to share someone's food and wolfs it down:
  • "Troy keep eating and eating like someone gonna take the food away if he don’t eat everything in, like, five minutes." (C 7)
  • "I’m eating so fast, I ain’t even picking my head up in between bites." (C 7)
  • "I ain’t thinking ‘bout no cigarette. I don’t want nothing to spoil the taste of that food in my mouth." (C 8)
  • "And what’s messed up is that I’m really hungry too. Starving. I need this food." (C 27)

There are moments when the hopelessness of homelessness is perfectly captured:
  • "I gotta do something. I wanna go somewhere, but I don’t got nowhere to go." (C 4)

But Tyrell also rages against the impotence of people like his mother who refuse to take responsibility for picking themselves up off the floor:
  • "Everyone on this bus got some excuse for why they here. None of it is they fault." (C 3)
  • "I’m tired of the way she act, like everyone s’posed to do everything for her all the time. Even if she don’t do nothing. Even when my pops was home, she never did nothing for herself. She just sat ‘round expecting him to do everything for her and buy her things. No matter how he got them." (C 4)
Other great moments:
  • "I never really believed in God ‘cause I knew if there was a God he wouldn’t never take my pops away from me. And my pops always taught me not to depend on nobody but myself." (C 8)
  • "I leave that store with a little over a dollar. Damn, I need to make some money soon." (C 8)
  • "Here we ain’t got no kitchen table to sit at, so we gotta work on the bed, which really don’t cut it." (C 9)
  • "That ain’t who I am. Shit, my pops ain’t raise me to be no pussy." (C 11)
  • "That woman was on me like white on rice, let me tell you." (C 11)
  • "I never used to hate snow, but when you ain’t got no warm coat or boots, snow ain’t cool. Not only that, but I ain’t got no other sneakers to put on, so I’ma be stuck in these all fuckin’ day." (C 13)
  • "If my brother can have some fun while we in this situation, I’ma let him. He don’t deserve to be at Bennett. He should be outside with a good coat and boots playing in the snow, so why I’ma stop him from having a good time?" (C 13)
  • "Life is so fucked up for Troy right now. Someone need to let him win sometime." (C 13)
  • "Just ‘cause she hooked up with a lot of guys don’t mean she wasn’t being used by them." (C 16)
  • "Females don’t know how hard it is sleeping with them when you ain’t doing nothing. Shit ain’t right. My whole body was hurting to get with her." (C 17)
  • "Teachers took one look at me and started putting me in programs for at-risk kids, then at-risk boys, then at-risk teenagers. Personally, I ain’t never knew what the fuck I was s’posed to be at risk of, except growing up Black" (C 17)
  • "Cal has a pops so bad, he make my pops look like one of them TV fathers." (C 19)
  • "Last time they let him out, you shoulda seen him, walking around in clothes from, like, fifteen years ago, trying to pick up young girls with his old-ass self.” (C 19)
  • "Cal a happy drunk, but I’m like one of them sorry-ass drunks you see crying on theyself on the train." (C 19)
  • "My opinion, weed ain’t nothing compared to alcohol. They made the wrong thing legal." (C 21)
  • "My school wasn’t nothing like this. It was more like a prison, you ask me. We had to go through metal detectors just to get in, and if them alarms went off, we had to go to another room to get searched again with one of them hand wands like they use at the airport. And no matter what you had on you, they would say it was a weapon and take it away from you, even when you was bringing it for school. Shit like compasses for geometry and them little staplers wasn’t allowed in my school. Even rulers. Like we was gonna file them down and make knives outta them or something. The whole thing never made no sense to me. They was s’posed to be getting us ready for college, not a life behind bars." (C 23)
  • "Damn. She giving me handouts. I mean, I know she being nice and everything, but all I feel is embarrassed." (C 27)
  • "I don’t know why, but females always think they know what guys need. Like we too dumb to run our own life or something." (C 28)
  • "And the truth is, when you pay nothin’, you get nothin’." (C 29)
  • I need your father,” she say, and she look kinda lost too. “I can’t do it by myself no more. I need him.” (C 31)
A super young adult book from the other side of the tracks.

August 2020

Thursday, 6 August 2020

"The Magnificent Century" by Thomas B Costain

This history covers the reign of Henry III of England (1216 - 1272), son and heir of King John, father of Edward I. This was a pivotal reign known primarily for the rebellion of Simon de Montfort in his attempts to establish the first English Parliament to which Commoners were called. 

The book is the middle volume in The Pageant of England trilogy. These books were initially written in 1951 and therefore provide a broad sweep of narrative history with little questioning (it repeats the claim that “An Italian named Salvenus de Armat invented spectacles in 1280”; Chap 31 although wikipedia suggests that this claim is untrue: "there was no member of the Armati family with that name" at the time) and no reference to sources although it is clear that the author is widely read. The prejudices and perspectives of 1951 are clearly visible! I am sure that the histories we write will be viewed disdainfully by the historians of 2090; our own obsessions distorting our perspective on the past.

Nevertheless this is a cracking read and I learned lots. The thirteenth century was filled with great characters such as Hubert de Burgh, William Marshall, Robert Grosseteste, Simon de Montfort, Eustace the Monk (a pirate) and many more. It starts in the middle of a civil war and in invasion of England by Prince Louis, son of the French King, it involves another civil war and the capture of the king at Lewes who then becomes a puppet until his son escapes from captivity and destroys the rebel army at Evesham. There is incident aplenty, lots of baddies and a few goodies. 

Some great moments:
  • Blanche, wife of Prince Louis demanded of King Philip Augustus of France money for her husband to continue fighting “if he remained obdurate, she would raise the money by pawning her own children.” (Chapter 2)
  • This lumbering, lute-twanging, looby age” (Chapter 26)
  • A live cardinal could do more for you than a dead pope.” (Chapter 28)
  • Those of high station lived in dank stone castles and those of low degree in mean hovels without chimney or window. They clothed their body in dun shoddiness and deemed a man a meacock who wore an embroidered band on his tunic.” (Chapter 29) I thought meacock was a misprint for peacock. I should have known that a meacock is "An uxorious, effeminate, or spiritless man; 
A meek man who dotes on his wife, or is henpecked." according to wiktionary

Very enjoyable. August 2020; 370 pages

Other books in the series include

Sunday, 2 August 2020

"Ape and Essence" by Aldous Huxley

In the frame narrative, on the day Gandhi is assassinated, a script-writer and the narrator discover a film script in a movie studio; when they seek out the writer they find that he has died. The second part of the book is his script. Some of it is sententious nonsense. The rest is a science fiction story in which an explorer from New Zealand, the only country to escape nuclear destruction in the Third World War, discovers the post-holocaust society in Los Angeles. Gamma rays have made all but a despised minority 'on heat' only for a five week window every year; those males who are permanently randy are castrated. The Belial-worshipping society is communist-authoritarian and babies born with more than the usual number of disabilities (thanks to gamma rays) are killed as infants just before the next round of copulation.

It is, in short, another chilling dystopia from the author of Brave New World.

The frame narrative (Tallis) seems unnecessary, introducing the scriptwriter impoverished by his womanising and the narrator who sees the world in terms of scenes as painted by old masters. This section was a little wordy: "For all their silken softness, the folds of every garment would have the inevitability and definitiveness of syllogisms carved in prophyry, and throughout the whole we should feel the presence of Plato's God, for ever mathematizing chaos into the order and beauty of art." (Tallis).

When the script began my heart sank: there were elements of pomposity and poetry that got in the way of what is an uncomplicated science fiction story that could have graced any B-movie lucky enough to have escaped the censor. Then, in the middle, the crux of the book revolves around an arch-priest explaining the tents of his devil-worship: that the devil is in all of us as clearly evidenced by the way mankind repeatedly self-destructs.

It is the message of the book, rather than the magic of its story-telling, that makes this a worthwhile read. In a few short pages Huxley-the-prophet predicts environmental catastrophe and consequent nuclear holocaust resulting from greed and breeding (all excerpts from 'Script')

  • "If a machine is fool-proof, it must also be skill-proof, talent-proof, inspiration-proof. Your money back if the product should be faulty and twice your money back if you can find in it the smallest trace of genius or individuality.
  • "Immortal souls ... lodged in bodies that grow progressively sicklier, scabbier, scrubbier, year after year.
  • "Even without the atomic bomb, Belial could have achieved all His purposes. A little more slowly, perhaps, but just as surely, men would have destroyed themselves by destroying the world they lived in."
  • "Those wretched slaves of wheels and ledgers began to congratulate themselves on being the Conquerors of Nature ... In actual fact, of course, they had merely upset the equilibrium of Nature and were about to suffer the consequences.
  • "Progress - the theory that you can get something for nothing; the theory that you can gain in one field without paying for your gain in another; the theory that you alone understand the meaning of history ... the theory that Utopia lies just ahead."
  • "Since ideal ends justify the most abominable means, it is your privilege and duty to rob, swindle, torture, enslave and murder all those who, in your opinion (which is, by definition, infallible), obstruct the onward march to the earthly paradise.

The title comes from a passage (cited at the start of the Script section of this novel) in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure when Isabella begs the sexual hypocrite Antonio for the life of her brother, sentenced to death for the crime of premaritally impregnating his fiance:
But man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d;
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven,
As make the angels weep.

Great moments:

  • "Ptolemy was perfectly right: the centre of the universe is here, not there." (Tallis)
  • "Doesn't every schoolboy know it? Ends are ape-chosen; only the means are man's." (Tallis)
  • "Girls. not as they lamentably are, but as the idealists of the brassiere industry proclaim that they ought to be." (Tallis)
  • "What she was, unfortunately, was a bit of a bitch. And that bit had grown larger with the passage of the years." (Tallis)
  • "Tragedy is the farce that involves our sympathies; farce, the tragedy that happens to outsiders." (Script)
  • "From the second century onwards no orthodox Christian believed that a man could be possessed by God. He could only be possessed by the Devil." (Script)
  • "Unconditional surrender ... how many millions of children forced to be thieves or prostituting themselves for bars of chocolate?" (Script)
  • "If you want social solidarity, you've got to have either an external enemy or an oppressed minority." (Script)

Other books by Aldous Huxley include:

  • The Doors of Perception about his experiences with psychoactive drugs which made him a hero to the hippies of the sixties and provided the name for the sixties rock band The Doors.
  • Time Must Have a Stop: novelised philosophy of a rather pretentious adolescent

Saturday, 1 August 2020

"Tales of the Greek Heroes" by Roger Lancelyn Green

This is one of the books that I read when I was young, together with the Tale of Troy and the Saga of Asgard by the same author, that made me adore old myths (and must be at least partly responsible for my atheism, for if these colourful stories are untrue why should the rather less colourful stories from the Bible be true?).

Reading the book again as a much older reader I realise the skill that went into telling for children these often complex, frequently bloodthirsty, and from time to time sexy myths. The author can do little with the multiply sinful story of Oedipus except to say "Then Oedipus ruled well and wisely at Thebes, until a curse fell upon the land because of crimes which he had committed unintentionally, and he wandered away as a blind beggar" (C 8; surely the most Mrs Grundyish summary of parricide and incest in the whole of literature). However, normally he simplifies the sometimes contradictory accounts and produces a sanitised but exciting boys' own adventure story. We have the early stories of Zeus and Cronos, of Prometheus, and of the great flood. The central part of the book deals with the labours of Hercules. Finally we learn about Jason and the Argonauts and the Battle with the Giants.

First published in 1958 but still very readable.

A more grown up version of these stories is provided by Stephen Fry with Mythos and Heroes.

Friday, 31 July 2020

"The Little Friend" by Donna Tartt

By the author of The Secret History and The Goldfinch

As usual, Tartt starts her book with a tremendous hook: in The Secret History it is a murder and in The Goldfinch it is a terrorist bomb explosion in an art gallery. In this book it is the death of eight-year-old Robin, found hanging from the branch of a tree in the yard.

Twelve years on Robin's mother is still living in the same house but her bereavement has turned her in to a shadow, sleeping all day. Harriet, who was a baby when Robin died, and her slightly older sister who was four and refuses to talk about that day, are cared for by the black housekeeper, Ira. On the basis of Ira talking about the no-good families in town, Harriet decides that Robin was killed by Danny Ratliff and sets out to exact her revenge.

This is a tremendous loss-of-innocence story, set in the lush greenery and abandoned places of Mississippi, with a side-cast of serpents, preachers, pool hustlers, great aunts, baptists and drug dealers. The dysfunctional Ratliff family, strung out on the drugs they are manufacturing, psychotic and hallucinating, vicious and violent dirty and and clever and pathetic, living in poverty and squalor, is a most tremendous creation.

It is a big book (555 pages in my paperback edition) and a very slow build. But the recreation of a tortured paradise, the landscape and the characters, is a tremendous achievement and well worth the perseverance. This is the recreation of the world of To Kill a Mockingbird complete with the inbuilt racism and the educated whites and the poor whites and the little girl fleeing from the people she imagines are her persecutors. But the world of Harriet is no rural idyll of childhood. Tartt's Mississippi is a dreadful place.

There's a lot of death in the book.

This is a book that overwhelms you with the powers of its detailed descriptions, not a book you can judge by a few quotes. However:

  • "The screen door slammed shut. Robin ran outside, shrieking with laughter at a joke his grandmother had told him (Why was the letter damp? Because it had postage due), jumping down the steps two at a time." (Prologue)
  • "'Life goes on'. It was one of Edie's favourite sayings. It was a lie." (Prologue)
  • "When the Cleves chose to agree on some subjective matter it became - automatically and quite irrevocably - the truth, without any of them being aware of the collective alchemy which had made it so." (C1, The Dead Cat)
  • "Her dill pickles - far from being the culinary favourite she believed them - were inedible, and that the demand for them from neighbours and family was due to their strange efficacy as a herbicide." (C1, The Dead Cat)
  • "Jesus tells us not to lie, but that doesn't mean we have to be rude to our hostess." (C1, The Dead Cat)
  • "She did not care for children's books in which the children grew up, as what 'growing up' entailed (in life as in books) was a swift and inexplicable dwindling of character." (C3 The Pool Hall)
  • "If it's miracles everywhere, what's the point?" (C3 The Pool Hall)
  • "Knowing that it [puberty] was inevitable ('just a natural part of grwoing up') was no better than knowing that someday she would die." (C6 The Funeral)
  • "A despairing glassline shiver ran down Danny's neck as he sped past the funeral home. Airy methamphetamine clarity gliddered over him in nine hundred directions simultaneously." (C6 The Funeral)
  • "She thought of the pirate Israel Hands, floating in the blood-warm waters off the Hispaniola" (C6 The Funeral)


July 2020; 555 pages

Tuesday, 28 July 2020

"God in the Dock" by C S Lewis

A set of thirteen sermons and essays by  CS Lewis in which he explains his position on a variety of tenets of the Christian faith, including whether the church should allow 'priestesses' (no) and whether a man has the right to happiness (no).

Having previously enjoyed Lewis's theological writings, I was very disappointed by this one. When defending the idea of Christianity he doesn't really ever understand the objection that it might be all a made-up myth; often he depends his point of view by presupposing the truth of Christianity. He has a weak argument from ontology when he argues in favour of belief in miracles: "even to think and act in the natural world we have to assume something beyond it” (Miracles)

He seems endlessly sceptical when it comes to historical assertions and endlessly gullible when it comes to scriptural ones: “When the Old Testament says that Sennacherib’s Invasion was stopped by angels, and Herodotus says it was stopped by a lot of mice who came and ate up all the bowstrings of his army, an open-minded man will be on the side of the angels ... there is nothing intrinsically unlikely in the existence of angels ... but mice just don’t do these things.” (Miracles). He accuses science of being dogmatic because it extrapolates observations beyond what has been observed; this is how he refutes the second law of thermodynamics, a refutation needed by him in order to justify the resurrection (surely dogmatism involves asserting things against all other evidence).

He uses the oft-repeated idea that if science cannot explain everything (as it admits) therefore his dogma MUST be true to fill the gap: “It is certainly a possible supposition that behind this mystery some mighty will and life is at work. If so, so any contrast between his acts and the laws of nature is out of the question. It is his act alone that gives the laws any events to apply to.” (The Laws of Nature) It is breathtaking how he can move from identifying a hole to filling it with "out of the question" in consecutive sentences.
  • The laws of nature explain everything except the source of events ... how there came to be space and time and matter at all.” (The Laws of Nature)
  • Either the stream of events had a beginning or it had not. If it had, then we are faced with something like creation.” (The Laws of Nature)
He is clever about reconciling Free Will with the doctrine of an omnipotent God: we have free will because God, in his wisdom, for purposes we cannot understand, permits us to have free will even though he needn't (and presumably even though his omniscience allows him to see where our exercise of freedom will end): “God has made it a rule for Himself that He won't alter people's character by Force ... He has really and truly limited his power. Sometimes we wonder why He has done so, or even wish that He hadn’t. But apparently He thinks it worth doing. He would rather have a world of free beings, with all its risks, than a world of people who did right like machines because they couldn't do anything else.

In this book he does not tackle the Problem of Evil (how a supposedly omnipotent and good God can allow innocent people to suffer. In some ways, he embraces evil. He tells us that the Christian concept of the Incarnation (God came to earth in the body of a man) "lights up nature’s pattern of death and rebirth; and secondly, her selectiveness; and thirdly, her vicariousness.” (Death and Rebirth) This implies that he approves of 'selectiveness' (which he suggests is the antithesis of democracy, or egalitarianism: “I cannot conceive how one would get through the boredom of a world in which you never met anyone more clever, or more beautiful, or stronger than yourself.”; Death and Rebirth) and 'vicariousness': “one person profiting by the earnings of another person ... is the very centre of Christianity.” (Death and Rebirth). These doctrines may seem fine when you are an Oxford don in the Senior Common Room; they may seem less wonderful if you are poor and suffering. Inequality and capitalism are the way God has made the world.

He can be even more right wing. For me, the essence of being a good citizen is getting along with others and assisting those who are less fortunate than oneself. Not for CSL: “The vital elements of citizenship - loyalty, the consecration of secular life, the hierarchical principle, splendour, ceremony, continuity.” (Myth Became Fact).

He is a traditionalist in the church: “To cut ourselves off from the Christian past and to widen the divisions between ourselves and other churches by establishing an order of priestesses in our midst, would be an almost wanton degree of imprudence.” (Priestesses in the Church?)

He is dismissive of other religions: "We all know about Adonis, and the stories of the rest of those rather tedious people” although he accepts that non-Christians can live a good life ... if they cannot believe in Christianity. But being good is not that important: “Mere morality is not the end of life.” (Man or Rabbit)

Some wonderful or interesting moments:

  • The interpretation of experience depends on preconceptions.” (Miracles)
  • It is a great step forward to realize ... that even if all external things went right, real happiness would still depend on the character of the people you have to live with.” (The Trouble with X)
  • You also have a fatal flaw in your character. ... It is no good passing this over with some vague, general admission such as ‘Of course I know I have my faults’. It is important to realise that there is some really fatal flaw in you: something which gives the others just that same feeling of despair which their flaws give you. And it is almost certainly something you don't know about ... You say ‘I admit I drank too much last Saturday’; but everyone else knows that you are habitual drunkard.” (The Trouble with X)
  • As the state grows more like a hive or an ant-hill it needs an increasing number of workers who can be treated as neuters.” (Priestesses in the Church?)
  • A right is “a claim guaranteed me by the laws, and correlative to an obligation on someone else's part.” (We have no right to Happiness)
I was very disappointed by this book for two reasons. Firstly, I find the the arguments advanced in favour of Christianity being true unconvincing. Secondly, I think that the version of Christianity outlined by CSL is fundamentally intolerant of other faiths (especially atheism, which he repeatedly confuses with Materialism), authoritarian and inegalitarian.

It isn't a difficult book to read: each short essay is a few pages and they could be read on their own. He is able to convey his views clearly and concisely. But other books are better.

CS Lewis was also the author of: these books reviewed in this blog:
Of course he wrote the Narnia children's books as well.

July 2020; 108 pages

Thursday, 23 July 2020

"English Passengers" by Matthew Kneale

Manxman Captain Kewley has built himself a sailing ship with a secret hold for contraband goods. But his first attempt at smuggling goes badly awry: to save himself he must carry three Enmglishmen: a Reverend, a Doctor and a Botanist, to Tasmania where the reverend believes they will discover the Garden of Eden. The voyage is marked by the Captain and his crew repeatedly getting into scrapes and escaping by the skin of their teeth.

When they reach Tasmania they hire as native guide an old man who was born as a result of a rape: his father was an escaped convict and his mother was an aboriginal woman. From his life story we discover the chilling true story of how the Tasmanian aborigines were exterminated; from his father's story we learn about the treatment of the convicts. The book is a compendium of human inhumanity.

The story is told through the testimonies of each of the witnesses, including but not limited to the main characters.Each character has a distinguishable voice and, although this technique fragments the narrative, the plot remains clear. In the end, though, the author seems to have rejected a conventional structure for the book in favour of a picaresque. Although, in the end, each character receives a resolution and often one involving poetic justice, the path to that resolution twists and turns, defying expectations.

This book has superb characterisations and drops you right into the scene and confronts you with the horror and the pity of colonialism at its rawest.

There are some delightful moments:

  • "As the wise man says, Choose you lies like you choose your wife, with care." (C 1)
  • "London dimly glinting in the distance through its own dust." (C 1)
  • "Smash a man to pieces and he will look much the same, regardless of his skin or manner of speech." (C 2)
  • "As any fool will tell you, there's near and there's near, and the two are different as pigs and parakeets." (C 3)
  • "That had seemed clear enough at the time, but then directions usually do when you're still months and miles off from needing them." (C 3)
  • "It's a fact that what seems light as daisies for a minute becomes heavy as rocks when you're hauling it mile after mile." (C 6)
  • "Sheppard who was doing the cherubs ... wasn't much skilled at them ... and they never looked like flying babies so much as fat boys with something nasty flapping on their backs." (C 8)
  • "It is hard, though, to get lovings in a dying place." (C 10)
  • "It is hard to choose dying. Dying chooses you." (C 10)
  • "My surprise would be fresh as last month's herring." (C 14)

July 2020; 458 pages

Saturday, 18 July 2020

"Living with the Gods" by Neil MacGregor

Neil Macgregor is an ex-director of the British Museum and so he starts many of the narratives in this book about the religious experience with an artefact. For example, the first chapter begins with the Lion Man, a 40,000 year old sculpture of a man with the head of a mountain lion carved from mammoth ivory during the Ice Age and found in a European cave. From these artefacts MacGregor draws out ideas although the sceptic in me rather thinks that the ideas were there and he found the artefacts to illustrate them.

There were some brilliant facts in this book but I found the overall structure confusing: the parts are entitled Our Part in the Pattern, Believing Together, Theatres of Faith, The Power of Images, One God or Many, and Powers Earthly and Divine. It was as if I was wandering through the galleries of a museum, each one with such a title. It just seemed a strange way of categorising aspects of the religious experience and consequently I found it rather rambling. Perhaps, as he suggests in  chapter 22, I am a closet monotheist.

His thesis is that religion is a universal human experience which is manifested in all sorts of religion. I dare say he is right. But to say that the religious experience is an inherent part of the human psyche is not to say that it is good. Hate and greed and lust are inherent parts of the human psyche. In fact, time and again, MacGregor shows how religion has been interpreted or devised or manipulated to serve the needs of those seeking power over others. For example, in chapter 10 MacGregor celebrates the power of communal singing and then reminds us that “Every totalitarian regime has used marching, singing and synchronized movement - many people acting as one - to rouse participants and spectators alike to a confident conviction of shared purpose.” (C 10) Many organised religions in history have behaved in the same way as totalitarian regimes, claiming a monopoly on truth and exerting a monopoly on power.

One of the interesting discussions is that between monotheism and polytheism. Islam, Christianity and Judaism are three monotheisms, each claiming a monopoly of truth. The result has often been conflict. There are other major religions, such as Hinduism, which are polytheistic. Even nominally monotheistic Sikhism in syncretic. MacGregor suggests that monotheism has assisted Science, since “If there is a single will, a single intellect that created and sustains the universe, then everything must ultimately be organized on coherent, comprehensible principles.” (C 22) However, he points out that the Romans built a long-lasting multi-faith empire by adopting other people's gods: "If you honour other people's gods, you acknowledge them, and the people who worship them, as a legitimate part of your community.” (C 21) He also quotes Mary Beard as saying that “One of the big advantages of having lots of gods is that you can have more or fewer as you decide.” (C 21) and he tells the original flood story (Noah's tale is an adaptation of what was them a widespread middle-eastern myth about Gilgamesh) which involves “a group of dysfunctional insomniac gods" who decide to drown the noisy humans keeping them awake and are thwarted when a single god rescues a single human: "The problem with the gods in assembly is that they often have beer to drink, and therefore their discussions are not always thought out properly.” In the end they decide to create death to control the human population. “They saw that their decision to unleash the flood had been a wrong one, which a dissenter had put right, allowing them to change their collective mind. It is a model of governance that is possible only if you have many gods, and only if they are, and know themselves to be, fallible.” In contrast, “In the Book of Genesis, Noah is saved because Noah alone is righteous. Those who drown are wicked: the victims are to blame for their own suffering.

Sometimes, Neil MacGregor uses other commentators in a way that shows the origins of this book in a series of radio broadcasts. So, for example, Eamon Duffy says: “In thirteenth and fourteenth century Europe there is a new kind of spiritual interiority, not just in religion but in love poetry too. People become more interested in what we would now call human psychology. This brings with it an emphasis on the emotional element in religion, cultivated particularly by the Franciscan order but also on people like Saint Anselm and the Cistercians. That approach to faith moves out into the lay world, where people explore a wider range of emotions in their religious experience. This is the beginning of the age of the Christmas carol, for example, when you think tenderly about the baby in the crib. There is none of that in the first millennium. And, in the same way, you think sorrowfully about the sufferings of the god-man on the cross. Images like this become a spiritual tool, helping people to come to their senses about what life is for.” (C 19) This linked very much to what I had just discovered about the context in which early Renaissance art operated, according to Andrew Graham-Dixon in Caravaggio.

There are many, many wonderful moments in this compendious book:

  • Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord, who requires of his followers truth, good thoughts, good words and good deeds: the consequence will be a just society.” (C 2)
  • Zoroastrian priests take and combine different kinds of fire, from the hearths of bakers and metal-workers, priests and warriors, and so on: in all, fires from fourteen sectors of the community, combined and purified, until the whole of society is emblematically brought together in one shared flame. But to achieve the sacred fire, two further fires are needed. First, from a cremation pyre, so that the dead are joined to the living in reverence of Ahura Mazda; and lastly lightning, fire from the sky, binding earth to heaven.” (C 2)
  • "The water of baptism serves as the door through which every Christian enters not just the faith but the whole Christian community, past, present and future.” (C 3)
  • The British monarchy to this day uses Jordan water for royal baptisms.” (C 3)
  • "South is the direction of death.” (C 3)
  • In English to this day we refer to mid-winter as ‘the dead of winter’ and for most of history that was no mere poetic conceit, but a lethal reality. ...European mortality rates increased substantially in the winter months.” (C 4)
  • How do the living stay in touch with the dead? Do they need our help? Or is it we who need their help? And, if so, how do we ask for it? Are the dead and the living bound, for a while at least, in a network of reciprocal obligations?” (C 5)
  • In England 500 years ago, the dead were major employers.” (C 5)
  • Every [Roman Catholic] altar - even a portable altar-stone should contain within it the relics of a saint, ideally a martyr who died bearing witness to the faith.” (C 5)
  • The Muisca used the ‘lost wax’ method to cast gold figues which they then cast into Lake Guativa during El Dorado ceremonies. “In order to have waxes with varying degrees of malleability, which would allow them to achieve the greatest possible precision in modelling, they kept several different varieties of bees.” (C 12)
  • At festival time, our ordinary lives, our everyday schedules, our plans for the future - all these are put to one side. In their place, for a few short, intense hours or days, we think about - and indeed come to feel - much larger patterns of life which contain us, but which also stretch far beyond us. And because each festival is a re-enactment of all its predecessors, we come to a powerful appreciation that life, both communitarian and cosmic, is not a lonely, one-act story with a beginning and an end, but a grand  dramatic cycle, whose end - if it has one - lies beyond our own lifetime.” (C 15)
  • The interesting thing is that this idea of the virgin really relates less to the idea of being sexually chaste than to the idea of being single and powerful, which is more the essence of the classical Greek or Roman idea of the virgo. The word is actually related to vir - the Latin for a man, a strong man - as well as to virtus, the word for virtue.” (C 16)
  • It is a major conservation hazard of Russian icons that they are on occasion kissed into extinction.” (C 17)
  • Saint Luke's account of Christ's birth seems to report a historical event which occurred when Caesar Augustus ordered a census. Neither ox nor ass, however, appears in the Gospel. Hundreds of years earlier the Hebrew prophet Isaiah had foretold that those animals would one day recognise the future master of Israel the Messiah.” (C 18)

July 2020; 470 pages

Lots of brilliant illustrations

Also see Alain de Botton's Religion for Atheists

Tuesday, 14 July 2020

"The Girl in the Red Coat" by Kate Hamer

Carmel is a precocious eight-year old living with her mum Beth. She tends to wander off. One day she disappears; she has been abducted by a strange man who believes she has a gift for faith healing and takes her to the US.

The narrative alternates between Beth's tale of how she comes to term with the guilt of losing a child and Carmel's strange life on the run with the man who says he is her grandfather.

I was a bit confused. It was a strange book. I had expected an intense, claustrophobic tale of child abduction but the time scale of this book spread the emotion; the main interest went to Carmel's strange itinerant life in the US. At the end I had many questions left unanswered: what happened to Mercy? Is the author telling us that Beth really does have supernatural powers? I read it quickly but much of the time I was skim-reading so I may have missed some details. In the end I wondered whether the abduction and the weird place in Wales was necessary to a tale which seemed to want to be about faith healing. It was as if the author was trying to tell a lot of stories and they weren't fully integrated.

And what was all that Wizard of Oz stuff?

And why does the blurb on the back say that Carmel Wakefield has gone missing when the character's name is Carmel Wakeford?

There were some delightful bits:

  • "Where are fairies and writers now when you need them?" (C 12)
  • "I got the sense of the earth opening up and releasing something that should have stayed compressed: the smell of mud; a deadly mustard gas seeping about the room." (C 16) 
  • "He was angry now, like men are when there's no action to be taken." (C 16)
  • "I'd gone back to tobacco with one swift and easy motion and it had welcomed me, through its smoky lips." (C 17)
  • "Children are like the zombies I once saw in a film at Dad's. We have to do as we're told and obey like our brains have got eaten." (C 25) I'm not convinced that even precocious eight-year olds watch zombie films with their parents.
  • "He looks down at the ground like he wants to kill it." (C 33)

July 2020; 375 pages


  • A more straightforward thriller about the abduction of a child is Found by Erin Kinsley
  • A fascinating tale of the abusive abduction of a child by her father is Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

Sunday, 12 July 2020

"The Golden Strangers" by Henry Treece

Not so much a historical novel as a prehistorical novel, The Golden Strangers are Bronze Age men arriving in England to take the land from the Stone Age black haired men. There are slaves and magic and sacrifices to the gods because the Earth Mother needs blood for the barley to grow. There are wolf hunts and cattle raids; fisherfolk, hunters, pastoralists and farmers, there are jealous women and aggressive men. This is sword and sorcery but told with vivid detail and sadomasochistic relish. It is poetic and violent and weird.

When I was a kid I read Henry Treece's Viking books: Horned Helmet; and the trilogy Viking Dawn, the Road to Miklagard, and Viking Sunset. I also read his book about the arrival of the Roamns to Britain, Legions of the Eagle, and his book about the Children's Crusade, The Children's Crusade. I was a fan! I never knew about his adult novels. Or his poetry. He was a very prolific man.

Some great moments from this novel:

  • "This was the place of the long silence, where the most important of the People of the Hill went, to lie in their rows,back into the womb of Earth Mother, painted with bright red ochre to represent the blood of birth." (C 1)
  • "I speak in a hurry, like a man with a she-bear scratching his backside." (C 15)
  • "They were as contented as warriors could be ... They lived in the present; it was unwise to do anything else." (C 16)
  • "'Men will never forget us, my comrades'. ... Men were saying such things all the time on a war journey, but of course, men did forget them, quite soon after they had fallen; for in wartime a warrior must not keep on remembering his dead friends, how they looked, what they said, or he would lose his own courage and soon be dead and grinning like them." (C 16) That last image, in which 'grinning' sticks out as being so wrong in the context of death, until it conjures up the image of a skull, is brilliant. 
  • "Do not trust what a dog tells you. They are born liars" (C 24)
  • "A sad little song of the Hunters, as dark as the bramble-fruit, as bitter as the crab-apple, and almost as old as the chalk hills." (C 24) The last sentence is a whole part is a way of summarising the atmosphere of the book.

July 2020; 210 pages

Saturday, 11 July 2020

"Caravaggio" by Andrew Graham-Dixon

This biography of the artist Michelangelo Merisi (1571 - 1610), known as Caravaggio from the town outside Milan where he was born, is subtitled 'A Life Sacred and Profane'. "Caravaggio's life is like his art, a series of lightning flashes in the darkest of nights" (p 3). As well as being a painter of startling originality and huge later influence he was repeatedly in trouble with the law for fighting in the streets; his murder of a man (probably during a duel) led to a capital conviction and his fleeing from Rome, eventually to Malta where he was soon again in trouble with the authorities requiring him to break out of jail in Valletta. So there was no shortage of incident during his 38 years and AGD tells a rattling good yarn. However, this is about a painter and the art was the most important thing in Caravaggio's life, and AGD describes and explains the masterpieces in a way that enhanced my appreciation of this fabulous artist. These masterpieces are illustrated by a surprisingly large number of high quality colour plates and it is not the fault of the book that Caravaggio's extremely tenebristic style makes it difficult to see many of the details described.

AGD attempts to explain C's style by describing the context of the world in which he grew up. Milan, a city notorious for pimps, prostitutes, thieves and violence, was in thrall to Archbishop Borromeo, a priest of a Savanorolan bent, who used the confessional to operate a hierocratic police state. He encouraged the practice of 'composition' recently made popular by Jesuit leader St Ignatius Loyola (revived from methods employed by St Francis of Assissi) which aimed to get believers to “visualize Christ's sufferings ... as if you were actually present at the very time ... you should regard yourself as if you had our Lord suffering before your very eyes, and that he was present to receive your prayers.” (p 32) Thus art was an aid to devotion. AGD suggests that these practices had led to the development of realism in early Renaissance art: "artists competed with each other to create convincing illusions of actual presence, developing new techniques such as mathematically calculated perspective to paint ever more convincing images of the life and sufferings of Christ. Painters made their pictures as realistic as they could in order to assist worshippers in their own acts of mental picture-building.” (33)

In particular Borromeo encouraged the practice of 'sacred mountains' which were places where pilgrims could go and encounter crib-like Biblical scenes in which usually terracotta figures were arranged in theatrically-set groupings. “The most skilfully carved and painted of the figures have a shocking actuality about them. This is not art that seeks to idealize nor generalize life; it is art that aspires to the condition of a simulacrum of life itself.” (p 39) “The way in which he [Caraviaggio] paints the wrinkled faces and bodies of his protagonists has its exact parallel in the wizened physiognomies conjured from clay by the masters of terracotta sculpture” (p 40)

Descriptions of Caravaggio's art include:

  • "Caravaggio's life is like his art, a series of lightning flashes in the darkest of nights" (p 3)
  • His use of light and shade was so original that it gave painters nothing less than a new grammar and vocabulary.” (p 41)
  • The painter’s intense sensuality ... his feel for the flesh and blood of the human body and ... hius sensitivity to the suggestions implicit in the least exchange of glances.” (p 42)
  • an art of paroxysm and abandonment, filled with images of turmoil in dark places.” (p 52)
  • Tintoretto's brooding, monumental religious canvases, full of dramatic contrasts of light and dark - lightning strikes of supernatural illumination that shiver like spiritual electricity - are the only late sixteenth-century Italian paintings to prophesy elements of Caravaggio's own mature style.” (65)
  • Caravaggio is not merely the painter of rogues, crooks and the enchantresses of the street. He is the painter as vagabond.” (110)
  • Caravaggio seems to have had almost no interest in theories of art.” (118)
  • The transience of nature is linked to precariousness. Entropy and the fear of falling are connected in Caravaggio's mind.” (135)
  • Whomsoever the Medusa looks at, she freezes, preserving them forever in a single, charged instant of being. From the flux of life she takes a moment and makes it last for all time. That is what Caravaggio’s art does too.” (159)
  • In these later paintings he used a dark ground and worked from dark to light, a technique that he may have seen for the first time in the art of Tintoretto. It suited him in a number of ways. A dark ground enabled him to focus only on the essentials of the scene, as he imagined it. Dark paint creates an illusion of deep shadow around the principal forms and therefore also does away with the need to paint background detail.” (184)
  • Caravaggio’s habitual impatience is manifest too in his frequent practice of working wet-in-wet rather than waiting for each layer of oil paint to dry. He was unique among the painters of his time in making no preparatory drawing for his pictures, preferring to block out his compositions directly on the primed canvas. Having posed his models, he often marked the exact positions of heads and other contours by making light incisions in the base layer of paint ... No other artists of his time used such incisions.” (185)
  • Bellori said: “he never showed any of his figures in open daylight, but instead found a way to place them in the darkness of a closed room, placing a lamp high so that the light would fall straight down, revealing the principal part of the body and leaving the rest in shadow so as to produce a powerful contrast of light and dark.” (186)
  • Caravaggio's dark and monumental oil paintings would certainly have looked extremely Venetian in the chapel of a Roman church in 1600, because only in Venice, where dampness and humidity discouraged fresco painting, was it common to see such large works of religious art carried out in oil on canvas.” (204)
  • God is light, so he announces his presence among men in the elusive forms of a shadowplay. The innkeeper cannot see it, it but by standing where he does he casts a shadow on the wall that gives Christ a dark but unmistakable halo.” (223)
  • Earlier artists had often envisaged the portrayal as a chaotic crowd scene, confusing the eye with a multitude of soldiers and panicking disciples. Caravaggio’s new technique of emphatic chiaroscuro was the perfect editing device for avoiding such unnecessary complications. He uses it here as a ruthless means of exclusion, spotlighting the figures at the very centre of the drama ... In his interpretation, the whole story becomes an elemental conflict between good and evil, innocence and malignity.” (229)
  • Michelangelo's prophets are nobly idealized figures, decorously draped, but Caravaggio’s Matthew is an ordinary, imperfect human being in working clothes that leave his arms and legs bare ... a simple man stunned by the directness of his revelation.” (236)
  • Many of the technical departures of the artist’s later work are related to his circumstances: he stops painting from models, in all but a few cases, because he has no time to find them or money to pay them, and he paints quickly because he has to move on.” (331)
  • Placing such emphasis on the proximity of one man's body to another is Caravaggio’s way of heightening the horror of the scene. Torture is a misbegotten form of physical intimacy.” (346)
  • The snapshot immediacy of the image, with its extremely innovative effects of cropping and occlusion, is suggestive of alienation and abandonment.” (538)
  • He painted as if the rich and the powerful were his enemies, as if he really did believe that the meek deserved to inherit the earth.” (438)
  • Pier Paolo Pasolini ... was profoundly influenced by Caravaggio’s sense of light, by his narrative directness, and by his casting of poor and ordinary working people in leading roles.” (441)

Other great moments:

  • Nowhere was the misogynistic cult of celibacy stronger than in Lombardy. It did not necessarily entail sexual abstinence, merely a refusal to be yoked to any single woman.” (p 16)
  • While Bacchus symbolises inspiration, he also stands for disorder, anarchy, an unruly surrender to the senses. He is passion, opposed to the reason embodied by Apollo.” (84)
  • Counter-Reformation Rome was a city in which all manner of thieves, rogues and scoundrels thronged. Their presence was a symptom of social crisis. Recurrent plague not only destroyed lives, but ravaged economies in the cities and states where it struck.” (100)
  • Aristotle's distinction between tragedy and comedy ... held that tragedy should focus on the actions of the elite - kings and princes - while comedy should concern itself with the behaviour of those at the very bottom of the social heap.” (107) This comes from Aristotle's Poetics.
  • The polyphonic and monodic modes are at opposite ends of music’s emotional spectrum. Polyphony subsumes the individual voice within a choral harmony, reflecting the desire to conjure up an essentially otherworldly sound, such as the singing of the angelic host. Words are hard to distinguish in the layers of polyphonic singing. Syntax dissolves and sense is sacrificed for an effect of transcendence. By contrast, monody puts precise meaning and specific human emotions at the heart of music. The single melodic line, the solo voice, is easily understood ... It might be said that while polyphony aspires to heaven, monody expresses man.” (128)
  • According to the Neoplatonic thought of the Renaissance, classical myth was alive with shadowy anticipations of Christian truth. The legend of Dionysus, who died to be reborn, was regarded as a pagan prophecy of the coming of Christ.” (155)
  • The centre of the city was dark. Overshadowed by unbroken lines of tall buildings, its congested lanes and alleys were rarely penetrated by direct sunlight. Despite the sunshine of southern Italy, most daily life took place in deep shadow, in a form of civic space not unlike the bottom of a well.” (338)

As I think you can see, I thoroughly enjoyed this brilliant book.

July 2020; 444 pages

Sunday, 5 July 2020

"Exchange" by Paul Magrs

Simon's mum and dad are dead; he lives with his gran Winnie and his granddad Ray. He and his gran are great readers; one day they discover the The Great Big Book Exchange, a second-hand bookshop with a difference, run by Terrance who has plastic hands and Goth teenager Kelly. Will Ray and Winnie split up after a lifetime of friction? Will Simon and Kelly find love? And will the planned reunion between Winnie and her childhood friend best-selling novelist Ada be an unmitigated disaster?

A coming-of-age story told with unusual realism and sensitivity.

It has a neat construction: some spoilers in this analysis
Part One: Introductions

  • Simon and gran discover the Exchange at about 10%
  • Just before 20% we get the first mention of gran's childhood friend, the best-selling author; at the same time granddad becomes angry about gran's reading. 
  • We are introduced to Kelly just before 25%

Part Two: Rising tensions: Gran and granddad start to argue; Simon starts to go off the rails with Kelly

  • At 35% Kelly comes to tea
  • At 40% Simon and Kelly bunk off school to have a day in town. Simon has discovered grandad has a stash of glamour magazines. Grandad and gran are starting to argue and Simon suspects that gran might be falling for the man who runs the Exchange. 
  • At 50% gran and granddad have a major argument. 

Part Three: The hero is coerced into doing something bad; it has a bad consequence

  • Kelly proposes taking gran to meet Ada at about 60% and funding the cost by stealing granddad's glamour magazines.
  • The theft takes place at about 70%
  • Granddad burns the books in the house at the 75% mark

Part Four: Resolutions

  • After a brilliantly crafted literary lunch in which the tension keeps rising - will Ada and Winnie actually get on when they meet? - the actual meeting takes place at about 87%
  • But now, granddad, unwell, goes out in the snow to search for gran while gran goes off with her new friend: this keeps the tension going till the 95% mark.
  • And then the epilogue in which not all is resolved.
One niggle: I did feel that granddad's story wasn't quite resolved.

Some great moments:

  • "He found he didn't want to take up much space." (C 1)
  • "I just drift along ... collecting this stuff together. Any old stuff. No judgement, no value. No real choosing." (C 2)
  • "I'll never have enough time to read all the books I want to." (C 2)
  • "Honest? Straightforward? You can't even lie straight in your bed at night." (C 9)
  • "He thought about how precarious his memory was. Real things could be lost for ever. He would forget. Inevitably, he would forget all kinds of things." (C 9)
  • "Change was something that simply happened to you. You yourself didn't make change happen. Instead you were at its mercy. ... Change could pick you up; it could pick up everyone and everything in your life and it could wantonly destroy and randomise every factor. It could dump your whole life down again, altered out of all recognition." (C 11)

July 2020; 295 pages

Friday, 3 July 2020

"Blonde Roots" by Bernardine Evaristo

I am rather at a loss to understand how I should judge this book. It is not a novel in the sense that the works of Dickens or Conrad or Chinua Achebe are novels. Rather, it seems to be an extended satirical rant. I don't really know a comic novel quite like it.

Essentially, it is a story about slavery in a world where Africa is the dominant culture whose wealth is based on the labours of European slaves (this is presented as satire but there really were raids by North Africans to capture Europeans from European coastal regions including Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, England, and even Iceland). The protagonist is a whyte woman slave who seeks to escape cruel bondage.

In books in which a fundamentally different world to our own is to be described, such as in most science fiction, the author is obliged to do what is called 'world building'. This means that time and writing must be spent describing the world. This can get in the way of developing the characters or progressing the narrative. Margaret Atwood, in The Handmaid's Tale, builds the world of Gilead by drip-feeding us with information do that we are not faced with too much too soon. I felt that in this book, there was more world-building than there needed to be and that this was at the expense of developing the characters. The author had a lot of fun depicting the whyte europanes as cabbage-eating peasants ("We were taught how to cook: cabbage soup, cabbage pie, fried cabbage, pickled cabbage, skillet cabbage, scalloped cabbage, cabbage and turnip bake, cabbage and potato casserole, cabbage and spinach cake"; 1.2) living in a northern serfdom and emphasising their backwardness compared to the cultural and technological superiority of the Aphrikans. She had a lot of fun describing the Aphrikan capital of Londolo and all its constituent parts: Kanada Wadi, Dartfor City, "the arsenal town of Wool Wi Che, famous for manufacturing the finwest spears, shields, crossbows, poison darts, muskets and cannons in the world." However, I found the humour rather heavy handed, perhaps because the same joke was repeated again and again.

The characters, as befits a satire rather than a novel, were fundamentally stereotypes. The vast majority of the blak characters were evil: as slave owners and the wives and sons and daughters of slave owners they were viciously selfish, greedy and lustful and violent, and unredeemed by any suggestion of good. By contrast, most of the whyte characters were slaves and the salt of the earth.

The narrator of sections one and three, the protagonist Doris Scagglethorpe, was from peasant stock who had been enslaved. The descriptions of the slave voyage was terrible, the conditions in which she lived were awful, she has been raped and abused ... and yet she didn't seem angry or bitter. Early in the book she complains that her Mistress insists she wears her hair in the 'Ambossan' fashion: "My long blonde hair was threaded through with wire and put into plaited hoops all over my head. I wanted to protest that we whytes just didn't have the bone structure to carry it off." (1.1) Bone structure? This woman who has been abducted and enslaved and raped and abused worries about bone structure. She sounds more like a sulky teenager than an angry woman. Much of the book is energised by outrage but then you find moments of bathos, such as when the rag dolls are modelled after Aphrikan ideals of beauty which "was so bad for our self-esteem" (1.1) When reading a novel one has to suspend one's disbelief and these were moments when, for me, that suspension was made difficult.

I suppose that my fundamental problem was that this is a novel about slavery. Slavery is like the Jewish holocaust of the Second World War. They are huge topics. Unbelievably horrible things happened to people; the people doing these things were unbelievably evil. Except that they were normal people, people who, within the context of their societies, were respectable. To tackle that subject in a novel is extraordinarily difficult. A traditional, character driven novel would explore these issues in depth.  There would be room for moral ambiguity (because humans are defined by moral ambiguity). Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which not explicitly about slavery, was an attempt to do this. (There is one moment when she appears to quote from Heart of Darkness: "What can I say, Dear Reader, but the horror, the horror ..." (2.4; as a further clue to the identification, the chapter is entitled Heart of Greyness).

Blonde Roots is not a traditional character driven novel. It seeks to mine humour from slavery. That is a hard challenge and risks trivialising the horror. So Blonde Roots tries to remind you of all the awful things that happened during slavery. My problem was that because I found the characters stereotypical and because the protagonist was upset at the trivialities leaving little room for her to be outraged, I did not invest in the characters and so, ultimately, I did not care about their terrible experiences as profoundly as I should have done.

There were moments when I worried about the editing:

  • "Our shack was constructed out of corrugated iron which was boiling in summer nights." (1.1): It must have been hot if the iron boiled!
  • "When I asked for chilli pepper to spice it all up, my gracious host retorted that his palette could no longer take it." (2.5); palette should be palate.

There are some wonderful moments:

  • "Dreams and disappointment were inseparable bedfellows." (1.1)
  • "Such was the demand for sugar, the price of a sweet tooth was a toothless smile. Such was the demand for coffee, the price of caffeine was addiction, heart palpitations, osteoporosis and general irritability. The price of rum was chronic liver disease, alcoholism and permanent memory loss. The cost of tobacco was cancer, stained teeth and emphysema." (1.1)
  • "In this life there were 'fairy-tale castles' and 'peasant shit-houses', and wasn't it a pity not to have a choice." (1.2)
  • "I could see he needed a drink now because he kept twitching ... as if flies were landing on different parts of his anatomy." (1.4)
  • "Their eyes were flint in the act of ignition." (1.6)
  • "The humid air draped itself languorously over the surface of my lungs so that I could barely breathe." (3.4)
  • "Real men were so damned sexy women got wet just looking at dat fine-lookin hunk-a-beef ova dere. Women cried, fought, poisoned, even killed over them, but when their real men let them down, they complained about having to put up with dat bastard filandara and dere iz no good man in-a dis place. But the good men - not tall enough, broad enough, well-endowed, sexy, handome, confident, cocky, muscular or sweet-talking enough - weren't real men so they didn't count." (3.6)
  • "I had put my childhood in its rightful place, as history to be revisited but not relived." (3.7)

If you want a book to chronicle the effect of colonialism on African society then read the trilogy of novels starting with Things Fall Aparand continuing with No Longer at Ease and Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe. Each one is a great book. If you want a book in which white and black swap places read Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman (but don't watch the TV version which castrated itself by changing the ending). Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi is another book about slavery. Sins of the Fathers by James Pope-Hennessey is a slightly old-fashioned history of the slave trade.

July 2020; 261 pages

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

"Death on a Shetland Isle" by Marsali Taylor

Number seven in the Shetland Sailing Mysteries starring Cass Lynch. This is another voyage of the tall ship Sorlandet on which Cass is in charge of a Watch made principally of trainees. A new officer enlists ... and Cass recognises him immediately as Alain, an ex-boyfriend who went overboard in the Atlantic years ago. But he has a new identity and appears not to recognise Cass. There are some other trainees who cause concern to Cass; as the voyage progresses strange things begin to happen. Then, when they land on Fetlar for an international hnefatafl (Viking chess) competition, one of the trainees disappears. Gavin, Cass's detective boyfriend, takes charge of the search. Has someone died? (Of course they have, this is a murder mystery and the title has already given this away.) Whodunnit? And will the ex-boyfriend drive a wedge between Cass and Gavin?

This book is a little slower-paced compared to the others; she is moving away from straight detective fiction and making room for more Shetland tourist information. But this book is even better than the others for the lyrical beauty of some of the descriptions. For example:

  • "This was what I was made for: this great sweep of water all around me, with the wind gentle on my skin, the ship creaking, the water curling under her forefoot and pulling away along her sides in a long V of foam." (C 2)
  • "It was dark outside, but the crescent moon made a white pathway on the shifting water.
  • The sails were ghostly in the sliver of moonlight, their ropes a forest of darker black against the glinting sea." (C 4)
  • "The sun shone on the scrubbed decks, drying the last corner pools of water, and on the creamy sails, bleaching them to cloud-white. On land, it was harvest time, with rectangles of lime-yellow standing out in the green sweep of hill, either combed with the dulled green of drying hay, or dotted with black plastic bales like a giant’s chequer pieces waiting to be moved. The rumble of machinery drifted towards us: a shining green tractor trailing a whirl of gulls." (C 5)

Other bits I loved:
  • "The blue watch scurried for their jackets, and mine drittled to their places on deck." (C 3)
  • "The taxi air freshener (pine forest) overlaid his natural smell of Imperial Leather soap." (C 6)
  • "I’m not taking fashion hints from any man who thinks cabbage green is a colour." (C 8)
  • "If they’re speaking about you, they’re leaving someone else alone." (C 17)

The other brilliant books in this series, in order, include:

Great fun. June 2020

Sunday, 28 June 2020

"The Historian" by Elizabeth Kostova

This is a weighty tome of 700 pages. The narrator is an elderly woman, recalling events when she was a teenage girl. She discovers a strange book and her father, a diplomat, takes her to different cities and slowly tells her the story of how he found his mysterious book and how his dissertation supervisor had discovered his mysterious book. It's all to do with Dracula still being undead.

This is a silly novel with a B-movie plot and sometimes B-movie prose: "Helen held the cross right over his nose, and he began to sob again. 'My master', he whimpered." (C 21). It involves ancient orders of Turks fighting against Dracula since the 1450s, haning on their knowledge to their eldest sons. Dracula's own 'Order of the Dragon' seeks to recruit mostly historians and librarians by biting them. The whole thing is laughable.

It is made worse by the pace. At some stage Kostova must have encountered William Empson's advice in Seven Types of Ambiguity: “A dramatic situation is always heightened by breaking off the dialogue to look out of the window, especially if some kind of Pathetic Fallacy is to be observed outside." (p 19) A brilliant example of this is deployed by Harlan Coben in Gone for Good when a revelation is just about to be made in a diner and the waitress comes and takes the order, slowly. But these tension-heighteners are meant to last a few paragraphs at most. Kostova spins out her thin story by ensuring that every nugget of information is surrounded by irrelevance. Her characters travel across Europe and everywhere they go they eat and drink and take in the historical sights. Perhaps these activities add verisimilitude (much needed in a horror story, especially one as unconvincing as this) but the net result was that the book became a travelogue, more about sight seeing and restaurant reviews than Dracula.

The narrative therefore creeps (and not in a creepy way). This could have been written in half the words or fewer (though the paucity of the story-telling might then have been exposed.

Is it just me? Other reviewers loved it. The Sunday Telegraph is quoted as saying "Told with a compelling intensity" which was the direct opposite of my experience. The Observer states that "Kostova is a whiz at storytelling and narrative pace"; not for me. In Aspects of the Novel, EM Forster states that “Long books, when read, are usually overpraised, because the reader wishes to convince others and himself that he has not wasted his time.” (p 165). I felt that I wasted my time.

There are great moments:

  • "skilled with a feather duster and clumsy with teenagers" (C 1)
  • "My father's library had probably once been a sitting room, but he sat down only to read, and he considered a large library more important than a large living room." (C 1)
  • "My father hated planes, which he said took the travel out of traveling." (C 1)
  • "His English was ferocious and sure, strong, loud." (C 5)
  • "His feet in their pathetically worn socks twitched and were still." (C 53)

I feel guilty about putting this book into a charity shop. It needs to be buried with a stake through its heart. June 2020; 700 long pages.

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

"In the Footsteps of Orpheus" by R F Paget

This books was written in 1967 about amateur archaeologist's Paget's own excavations of tunnels at Baiae, near Naples. He concludes that these are the tunnels on which Vergil based the visit to the underworld of Aeneas in book 6 of the Aeneid. Certainly Aeneas is said to have visited Cuma, to visit the Sibyl there, and Lake Avernus; both of these locations are enormously close to Baiae. Peget concludes that the tunnels he excavated were used in Orphic rites in which a suppliant was led to an underground river (identified as the Styx) fed by thermal springs.

It's a fascinating theory marred, as so often in the work of non-academics, by fleshing out facts with flights of fancy. Thus towards the end Paget reconstructs a suppliants journey from the account of a ceremony at another Oracle, as if it applied to these tunnels. Leaps of faith include:

  • "we and everyone that we have taken down the Oracle, has immediately recognised the Entrance to Tartarus, the River Styx and the Gates of Ivory and of Horn, just as they were described by Vergil" (p 159)
  • The speech of Anchises proves the Vergil was a devout Orphic.” (p 157)
  • We just knew we were sitting on the banks of the River Styx. We both drank some of the water, and found it was potable." (p 114)

One of the most serious flaws is that he uses Homer Odyssey as if it recounted a real voyage by a real man and further assumes that it is evidence of Odysseus visiting Baiae in his voyage to the Underworld. Paget ignores or is unaware of the body of work that places the land of the dead in Homer outside the Pillars of Hercules, ie in the Atlantic rather than the Mediterranean (eg Ulysses Found by Ernle Bradford). He assumes that the Perpetual Mist of which Homer speaks is in fact fumes from the volcanically active region around Naples. He then goes on to use this purported voyage as a dating reference.

Another flaw with Paget's book is that he tends to divorce the archaeology, with its measurements and angles and careful descriptions, with the interpretation. I would have liked to have seen the evidence for each Vergilian reference to be linked with the archaeological evidence.

These weaknesses perhaps explain why Paget's discoveries, which should have been historic, are more or less unknown.

The thesis in this book needs to be treated with extreme caution , but it is full of fascinating ideas.

June 2020; 199 pages

Also read:

Monday, 22 June 2020

"The Year of the Stranger" by Allan Campbell McLean

When I was a little lad, Allan Campbell McLean's young adult stories set in Skye were among my favourite novels: these were The Hill of the Red Fox and The Master of Morgana. These had contemporary settings. The Year of the Stranger is set in 1877.

Callum Og is, like so many of ACM's young heroes, fatherless. He is being brought up by his strict Kirk Elder uncle and his strict, humourless mother, his elder sister is a maid in the Factor's Lodge. The folk of this Skye village live on the seashore after being evicted from their glen which the Factor turned over to sheep. So their life is poor and hard. This is the context for a story of magic and transformation.

Half-way through the book a poor tinker is strapped to heavy yoke in the crucifix position and sent out of the village. Callum finds him dead in the quarry. But when he takes the adults to the scene, the tinker has disappeared, leaving his cross. Shortly after this, ACM gives us the image of a boat beached on the sand: "It always came fresh to me the sight of the old schooner lying beached on her side, her black, dripping flanks exposed, helpless as a stranded whale. And I always got the foolish notion that she was slowly dying as the sea left her. Not that it was all that foolish a notion, because you could see her coming back to life as the sea returned, her timbers groaning loud as she shifted with the incoming tide; and it was as if she breathed again as she finally came clear of the shore and floated free." (C 11) This is a beautiful metaphor for death and rebirth, tangled with the sea and the ebb and flow of life, and promising freedom at the end.

Immediately after crucifixion, death and resurrection, a stranger comes to the village with a musical pipe (is he the pied piper?) and a monkey. He charms the children of the town and uses them to build a fish trap on the shore. A heavy harvest of fish are taken. Very biblical. But when the stranger invites the local tinkers to share the feast, the townsfolk refuse and throw stones at the tinkers.

This is a story of a call, a refusal of the call, and the bitter retribution that it brings.

It is wonderful.

I adore the way that ACM makes you hear the Gaelic speech patterns:

  • "I am telling you, boy, you should be down on your knees quaking and trembling at the thought of the everlasting fire that awaits the the wicked. What a bed is theirs to lie on; no straw to ease their bones, but fire; no friends, but furies; no sun to mark the passage o' time, but darkness - fire eternal, always burning, never dying away. Who can endure everlasting flame, boy?" (C 3)
  • "You would need to chain him to a wall - and a strong wall at that - to keep him away from the kirk on the Sabbath." (C 3)
  • "Mr Ferguson's heavy studded shoes and Mata's bare feet, unprotected among the clattering tackets of the well shod, padding silent as the tread of a cat." (C 3)
  • "She was sleeping, the same one, sleeping like a dead thing." (C 5)
  • "There were more than Mata with ears fit to hear the grass growing." (C 5)
  • "He had questions ... that would have drawn sweat through the thick hide of a donkey." (C 6)
  • "That was the way it was with us after the night of the storm ... I mind well when we first saw the sun again." (C 10)
  • "He would say that there is always a place for the right shaped stone, and that you had to build that way, not taking the first stone that came to hand, and trying to make it fit - that would put the wall out of true, and it would not endure." (C 13)
  • "It seemed to me that we were not just building a fish trap. With every stone that went into the wall of the cairidh, we seemed to be weaving a web that bound us ever closer to the living world" (C 14)
  • "We will have a great fishing, I know it." (C 14) This echoes the great catch that the disciples had when fishing on the Sea of Galilee
  • "The turf dyke at the bottom of the crofts was the boundary between the believers and the unbelievers, although, in truth, my own belief was ebbing as fast as the tide." (C 14)
  • "It is great how old men do not like to be beat, always making out that nothing can compare to the great days of their youth." (C 14)
  • "But the moment I was into the water, the flood was greedy for my legs." (C 16)

Beautifully written. June 2020; 192 pages

Saturday, 20 June 2020

"Dragon Slayer" by Rosemary Sutcliff

This is a retelling of the story of Beowulf, "for children of ten years and over." It is a short book, as befits the original, and the story is beautifully told. I was intrigued that the author makes no concessions in terms of language. She makes assumptions that the reader will be able to understand, for example, that a 'targe' is a shield. Furthermore, she deigns to dispense with adjectives and adverbs, so that her prose is as rich as poetry. Perhaps this is only possibly in a short form such as this - perhaps that is how poets get away with it - but the result is a simple tale, told with beauty.

Here is an example:
"In single file, for the track was too narrow to walk abreast, Beowulf and his comrades followed the old Warden on his horse up from the head of the fjord,a grey mailed serpent of men, the forged rings of their battle-sarks ringing as they moved. On the crest of the ridge where the wind-shaped trees fell back, the track changed abruptly into a paved road, and there they checked, with the sea wind humming against their mailed shoulders. Behind them was the way home, the fjord running out between its nesses to the open sea, and the war-boat lying like a basking seal among the brown sea-wrack and the drift-wood on the high tide line." (C 2)
In this paragraph we have a multiplicity of words that a ten year old might encounter for the first time: fjord and battle-sark and nesses and sea-wrack. We have long sentences with multiple parts. We have the wonderful word-play of rings and ringing anmd the super description of the trees as wind-shaped and the wind as humming. It offers no concessions and it achieves beauty.

Also interesting is the pacing of the story. There is a brief introduction, explaining the peril, and then the hero sets off on his journey. But the meat of the story, the battles against the troll-ogre Grendel and his Dam, is quite early on. In the final story, the battle between the old Beowulf and the fire-dragon, the pace is more leisurely. Once the author knows she has hooked her audience, she can take her time to weave her charms to hold them spell-bound.

Other memorable moments:

  • "Before even a King makes merry, it is as well that he should know who may hear the laughter in the dark outside." (C 1)
  • "The years went by and the years went by, bringing as they passed great changes ... Fifty times the wild geese flew south in the autumn, fifty times the birch buds quickened in the spring." (C 8) Showing the intelligent use of repetition; also, I think, synecdoche.
  • "Heat played over its scales so that they changed colour, green and blue and gold, as the colours play on a sword-blade heated for tempering." (C 9): A metaphor belonging perfectly to the context of this story.
  • "For ten days they laboured, building it high and strong for the love that they had borne him, and on the tenth day the great howe of piled stones stood finished, notching the sky." (C 9) I love 'notching'

A superb introduction; now I want to re-read the original.

June 2020; 108 pages

Friday, 19 June 2020

"Royal William" by Doris Leslie

This is a fictionalised biography of King William IV. The third of George III's sons, William served from the age of thirteen as a midshipman in the Royal Navy; he was in New York during the American Revolution (George Washington planned to kidnap him) and her served as a captain under Nelson, attending Nelson's wedding. After leaving the sea he settled down at Bushy House near Teddington with actress Dora Jordan by whom he fathered ten illegitimate children. During the regency and after the death of the Prince Regent's daughter, William married Princess Adelaide in an attempt to father a legitimate heir. George III's second son died during the reign of George IV so when he died William became King. Since he failed to father a legitimate child, on his death the throne passed to Victoria, the daughter of George III's fourth son.

Queen Adelaide sounds interesting. Her dad was a genuinely reform-minded German sovereign: "He permitted entire freedom of the press ... He interested himself in education. He founded schools. He was a connoisseur of art and something of a poet. He invited Schiller and Paul Richter to his table." (3.1) She wanted to be a painter. Judging from the number of Queen Adelaide pubs in Britain she became extraordinarily popular in Britain; she was even a devoted step-mother to her husband's illegitimate children.

Doris Leslie's book is divided into three parts: Sailor, Squire and King. She sees William IV as a real man of the people and the first democratic monarch. In her eyes he lived his life teleologically: his everyday experiences as a midshipman (including a night in gaol after a brawl in Gibraltar) and his everyday experiences as a squire and father fashioned his behaviour as King ... even though he resisted the Great Reform Bill to the point at which the London mob attacked his carriage and wounded him with a stone.

The book has been thoroughly researched and then fictionalised. This can be comic. Dora Jordan never loses her cod-Irish brogue and there are some scenes of melodrama. It is of its time (1940); no doubt our own drama documentaries will seem stilted and forced in another fifty years.

While Claire Tomalin in Mrs Jordan's Profession has made Dora Jordan a superwoman, talented and hardworking who combines a successful career with motherhood of a large family, accepting the shadow world of being a royal mistress, Doris Leslie makes her into rather a scheming bitch who is finally jettisoned by her caring prince when he discovers evidence that she has been having an affair with one of his brothers.

Doris Leslie also falls for the incorrect notion that the ballad The Lass of Richmond Hill was written about George III's morganatic wife Mrs Fitzherbert.

She also suggests that the ageing William had tinnitus. (3.3)

She quote Macauley as saying: "I only know two ways in which society can be governed - by public opinion or - the sword." (3.3)

Great moments:

  • "The secrets of the alcove ... had revealed their mysteries to many younger than himself, but the tree of knowledge that is free to all of Adam's sons was denied to the son of the King. Only his Eden lacked an Eve where Eves were plentiful. At the entrance to those luscious groves stood gentlemen whose orders were as adamant as any flaming sword." (1.2)
  • "The Queen's middle-aged ladies-in-waiting were as handsome as a row of turnips and as dull." (1.3)
  • "In that underworld, as far removed from the palaces as Hell from Heaven, there where hunger stalked and man did not so much exist as he fermented in his rags and his starved flesh." (1.5)
  • "Byron had loosened an outburst of revolt in 'Manfred', and the men of the workers were learning to read. ... Very soon all men would read. There was talk of education for the masses." (3.1)
  • "What did this democracy portend? A state controlled by working men who had not only learned to read, but to think for themselves." (3.1)

Fun as fiction, not to be taken as history. June 2020; 373 pages