About Me

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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. 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. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

"The Reckoning" by Charles Nicholl

On Wednesday 30th Mat 1593, the great Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe was stabbed to death by Ingram Frizer; Robert Poley and Nicholas Skeres were also present. This book is one of many attempts to get at the truth behind this event.

All four of the actors in this scene had links with the Elizabethan espionage world. Marlowe had been given a document by the Privy Council exonerating him when Cambridge had attempted to block his MA on the grounds that he was recruiting students to go to Reims where there was a college turning out Catholics for subversive activities; he later probably worked for Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth's spymaster general who used a sting to gather evidence that Mary Queen of Scots supported the assassination of Elizabeth; Marlowe worked for Walsingham's brother Thomas, who was a diplomat and probably gathered intelligence from abroad. Poley was in and out of prison, sometimes probably as cover for his informing activities, at other times possibly to listen to prisoners, and was involved with Throckmorton and with Babington, Catholic plotters against Elizabeth. Skeres was also involved with the Babington plot. Frizer worked for Thomas Walsingham and also, later, the Earl of Essex. All four would have known one another before the meeting and all four probably, as spies do, mistrusted one another.

And Nicholl's thesis is that this world of espionage was responsible for Marlowe's death. He follows various twists and turns within this secret world but this part of the book is so tortuous that I was quickly confused, largely unimpressed and rather bored. In the end, Nicholl concludes, Marlowe was killed because he was associated with Sir Walter Ralegh, who, having fallen from the Queen's favour, was making a nuisance of himself in Parliament and whom the Earl of Essex wished to put down. I'm just not convinced that Marlowe was murdered for this. The fact that the spies were together for eight hours before the murder, eating and drinking together, makes this scenario unlikely. It is even more unlikely when it becomes clear that Poley worked for Robert Cecil who was an opponent of Essex. Why would Poley collaborate with Frizer, even if it were just to cover the crime up?

Furthermore, Nicholls more or less ignores other avenues. Marlowe was reputedly homosexual (he is reported to have quipped: "All they that love not Tobacco and Boys are fools" but this is by yet another lurker on the sidelines of espionage and may be untrue; this writer also accused him of atheism) but Nicholls avoids this dimension to the extent that 'homosexuality', 'sodomy' and 'buggery' do not appear in the index.

There is also very little discussion of Marlowe's plays. This must have been a major part of his life; despite dying at the age of 29 he wrote the best-selling Tamburlaine the Great parts I and II (which I saw in a production by the Lazarus Theatre Company at the Tristan Bates Theatre on Friday 28th August 2015), the Jew of Malta, Edward II, the Massacre at Paris, and his masterpiece,  Dr Faustus. Marlowe's literary work is chronicled in Shakespeare and Co by Stanley Wells; it also tells about the other playwrights in his life such as Thmoas Kyd, author of The Spanish Tragedy, with whom he shared a room and accusations of atheism.

A great book about the Elizabethan world of espionage is The Watchers by Stephen Alford. A fictionalised version of spying for Walsingham is AEW Mason's Fire Over England, a ripping boys' adventure yarn

The late great Anthony Burgess produced a brilliant fictionalised version of Marlowe's life and death in Dead Man at Deptford. This has all the bits that Nicholl has, and more, fictionalised but told with much more coherence.

The brilliance of this book, like The Lodger, also by Nicholl, about Shakespeare, is the meticulous forensic scrutiny of not just the main protagonist but all the other players in the scene; we find out that Frizer the assassin is buried in Eltham having lived into a presumably peaceful old age. But the price for meticulous detail is sometimes readability and this is better as a sholarly work than a general introduction to the topic.

May 2016; 337 pages

Saturday, 28 May 2016

"Half a pound of tuppenny rice" by David Coubrough

1972. Families, mostly with teenage children, are staying in a posh hotel in Cornwall. A hotel porter is found poisoned. His last words implicate 'him' at the hotel. The police swoop on the fathers, each of whom appears to have secrets which might have made them targets for blackmail. But there is no real evidence and the police case soon becomes cold, even though another guest drowns in the sea after a drunken swim in the company of an unknown man.

Forty years later, Grant, one of the teenage boys at the time and now a solicitor, decides to take up the case, seeking closure, afraid that he might find that his mother, who was having an affair with one of the fathers, might have been implicated in murder. He travels down to Cornwall where he is scared by spooky happenings, including a child-like voice singing "Half a pound of tuppenny rice ..." He persists in his investigation, alienating his wife who feels that she is playing second fiddle to an obsessions and suggests that he moves out. The truth emerges when the person who knows most of the secrets gives him crucial information. At this stage there was a yawning credibility gap; why on earth was someone who was so desperate to conceal what she knew not only not destroy the evidence but go through a strange rigmarole to make Grant aware of it?

In the end, all is revealed, although for me the answers were almost as baffling as the clues and I am still in the dark about things that seemed really important but were left totally unresolved.

This is an ambitious first novel. Its ambition is revealed with a character list of 47 and at least one was missed out. This makes it impossible to adhere to the classic whodunnit formula: there are at least 19 potential suspects if the last word ('him at the hotel') narrow it down. I may be a thicker than average reader but I found it impossible to keep track of that many people. Indeed, the end of the book is much more in the thriller genre than the whodunnit.

More crucially, perhaps, with this sort of cast it is impossible for the author to flesh out the characters in any nuanced way. Instead, you get a few lines describing their backgrounds and mannerisms. He gives plenty of little details. Although he doesn't adhere to the writer's dictum of 'show don't tell' he does follow the rule that you cannot know too much about the peculiarities of your characters. This sometimes gave me the feeling that I was reading the author's character notes. If I had any feeling for the characters it was on a thoroughly superficial level; they tended to be stereotypes. This meant that I really didn't understand the complex motivations behind the mystery. I was left with the feeling that there were a number of loose ends that had not been tied up and that I wasn't really convinced that the characters I did understand would have done the things they did. There was a strong feeling of the author as puppet-master.

An intriguing aspect of this novel is the author's obsession with the music of the early 1970s. I suppose Morse has his Opera and Rebus his obscure rock bands. But music is centre stage in this book. Wherever anyone goes, there is music which, presumably, is always meant to mean something. At the showdown, the music (by Van der Graaf Generator) is used to convey a warning, or so the potentially paranoid investigators believe. As with everything else the level of detail is a little obsessive; twice a Beatles lyric (from Lady Madonna, the Beatles number 1 hit single in March 1968; anyone can do pedantry) is misquoted and corrected.

Despite the fact that two characters each had access to a Colt 45, it could be argued that this novel was closer to real life than most in the genre. There were loose ends, it wasn't always easy to understand why people did the things they did, there were a lot of potential suspects milling about the crime scene and the police ignored most of them. It reminded me of Hill Street Blues. But it is really difficult to bust a genre and a first novel is probably not the place to do it. I am sure this author will produce better work in the future.

May 2016; 287 pages

Friday, 27 May 2016

"The Blank Slate" by Steven Pinker

I don't re read many books but The Blank Slate is so important that I had to read it again after several years.

Steven Pinker, who wrote the phenomenal The Better Angels of Our Nature previously wrote this even better book. In it, he seeks to demolish three sacred cows:
The Blank Slate which holds that our genes have no part in our personalities and it is our environment that makes us who we are. It is the received wisdom of the self-help guru: you can be whoever you want to be, and the mantra of the left. Unfortunately the scientific evidence suggests it is not true.
The Ghost in the Machine which suggests that we have a soul, or a personality, or a consciousness that is somehow separate from our biological physicality. "'John's body' ... presupposes an owner, John, that is somehow separate." (p 10)
The Noble Savage which suggests that we were perfect and innocent before we were expelled from the Garden and that we need to get back to the perfect state of nature.

He doesn't spend a lot of time on the latter two but he uses twin studies and logic to demolish the Blank Slate.  "The mind cannot be a blank slate, because blank slates don't do anything. ... Something has to see a world of objects rather than a kaleidoscope of shimmering pixels." (p 34). It is clear that genes affect how animals behave, why on earth should we believe that the sole influence on human behaviour is 'culture' (which in any case has many remarkable similarities across the world)? "The evidence is overwhelming that every aspect of our mental lives depends entirely on physiological events in the tissues of our brain." (p 41) eg (p 42):
  • Electrical stimulation of brain tissue causes lifelike experiences
  • Brain damage causes loss of some function
  • Brain death = death
There are clearly things about us that are hard-wired; despite many attempts there is no evidence that any gay man has ever been 'cured' of his homosexuality. (p 94)

This leaves a problem. "If the slate of a newborn is not blank, different babies could have different things inscribed on their slates. Individual sexes, classes, or races might differ innately in their talents, abilities, interests, and inclinations ... if groups of people are biologically different, it could be rational to discriminate against the members of some of the groups ... the differences cannot be blamed on discrimination, and that makes it easier to blame the victim and tolerate inequality." Furthermore, eugenics becomes defensible (p 141)

Pinker describes this as the "the 'naturalistic fallacy': the belief that what happens in nature is good." (p 150). He thinks it is dangerous to base a moral code on a scientific fact which may turn out to be incorrect (as Pinker has, with overwhelming evidence, shown that it is). "We should not concede ... that if people do turn out to be different then discrimination, oppression, or genocide would be OK after all" (p 141) he suggests. "The case against bigotry ... is a moral stance that condemns judging an individual according to the average traits of certain groups." (p 145) "All humans can be assumed to have certain traits in common. No one likes being enslaved. No one likes being humiliated. No one likes being treated unfairly." (p 145) "Social Darwinism: the belief that the rich and the poor deserve their status" (p 149) is wrong.

Does this mean that we have no free will, no personal responsibility? Don't blame me, blame my genes (p 176) Again, he thinks it need not. He points out that Daniel Dennett (who wrote the brilliant Consciousness Explained) says that a truly free will would not be deterred by punishment, shame, guilt etc (p 177); in any case the environmentalists might have it that we can evade personal responsibility by blaming our mothers (or our cultures; is the prevalence of female genital mutilation in some cultures morally defensible?). Pinker believes that morality has the practical effect of helping selfish individuals get along in society: from reasons of reciprocity "it pays to insist on a moral code, even if the price is adhering to it oneself." (p 187) In any case, he believes that some aspect of morality, such as fairness, are part of our genetic inheritance. "If we are so constituted that we cannot help but think in moral terms ... then morality is real for us as if it were decreed by the Almighty or written into the cosmos. And so it is with other human values like love, truth, and beauty." (p 193)
This is a truly important book, liberating moral philosophy from a number of blind alleys and allowing a twenty-first century ethical code to emerge.

Not only that, but it is also very well-written and extremely readable. 

May 2016; 434 pages

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

"Life on the Edge" by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden

This book is about Quantum Biology.

The essential thesis of this work is that life is too ordered to have developed by chance from the random fluctuations of thermodynamics. Each living cell requires the coordination of a number of organelles; even the molecules of RNA which might have formed the first replicating molecules are highly complex and ordered. Enzyme processes which are the fundamental processes of life are carefully structured, although the language that this book uses (the enzymes unzip, cut, select etc) tends to prejudice one's thinking towards assigning a purposeness which the enzymes may not possess. Instead of thermodynamics, the authors propose that life requires the more ordered processes of quantum physics.

The two effects they believe are most useful to life are quantum tunnelling and quantum entanglement. Quantum tunnelling makes use of the wave nature of particles; since the particle wave means that the particle is delocalised in space it has a possibility that it is on the far side of an energy barrier so that it can react even when the energetics suggest it won't. The delocalisation also makes possible 'quantum search': instead of randomly trying out one combination after another you can explore all possibilities at the same time.

But the problem with quantum effects is that they are on a very very small scale and that the waviness feature can be disrupted by 'measurement' which in practice means interaction with another particle. Given how busy and crowded and hot the inside of a cell is, it seems surprising that there isn't a permanent state of decoherence. But these authors suggest that the cell uses tricks to ensure coherence for long enough for the necessary actions for life can take place; in one occasion they suggest that this takes place by a synchronising of oscillations within the cell which is the same thing as is suggested by Stephen Strogatz in Sync.

This is a serious scientific book and they provide great evidence for what they are suggesting. But at the end I was unsure how important it all was. There are electrons and protons inside the molecules that make up cells and these very tiny particles inhabit the quantum universe and follow quantum rules. So it is surely inevitable that the chemical reactions that make and are used by enzymes utilise quantum mechanics, after all, chemistry is all about electron transfer. There surely is no dispute about this. I think what they are suggesting is that the fact that quantum physics underpins the chemistry means that the odds on the spontaneous generation of life are much better than they first appear.

OK. It is obviously harder than we first thought to create life. Even the simplest organisms we know have extraordinarily complex internal structures. If it is too difficult to create complex molecules by random reactions then we are left with the possibility that life wasn't generated in the early history of this planet but was either created or arrived from elsewhere (although this still begs the question of how it arose elsewhere). But if quantum effects makes it too easy to create complex molecules than why was life apparently only created once? (These authors seem to suggest that the complex molecules somehow competed and only one life form remained after natural selection had taken place but if it really is that easy to create complex molecules why has this process only happened when the earth was very young?) In the end you have to assume that there is only one type of life that is viable but that it is relatively easy to spontaneously generate this form. After all, astrobiologists tell us that there are very few elements which have the appropriate reactions so that it is almost certain that only carbon-based life forms can exist in this universe.

This was an incredibly well-written book with lots of lovely asides (mostly about the bizarre life histories of the scientists mentioned) and it explains some really difficult stuff superbly well. I am not sure to what extent I was convinced by the thesis but it was great fun reading it.

May 2016; 433 pages

Saturday, 21 May 2016

"The Road to Wigan Pier" by George Orwell

Orwell liked political discourse. His most famous novel, 1984, contains a long extract from a political tract written by the arch enemy of Ing Soc. This book starts with wonderful journalism, describing working class life in the north of England between the two world wars, and ends with several chapters of tedious, probably outdated, politics.

But it starts brilliantly with a description of a filthy tripe shop cum lodging house in which OAPs subsist in shared bedrooms an bread and butter imprinted with the filthy thumbprint of the landlord. Despite receiving a pension, without extra savings an OAP cannot survive on their own. Nor can they live with a son or daughter if that person is unemployed and on the dole because if they do so they will be counted as a lodger and the dole will be reduced to the extent where the whole family will starve. So they have to eke out their sunset years in undignified misery.

The book continues with wonderful descriptions and haunting images of poverty. He describes a slum girl, glimpsed momentarily from a train, whose face wears "the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever seen ... she knew well enough what was happening to her." He uses this image to refute the concept that the lower orders are dumb brutes and don't mind poverty and squalor.

He also admires the "superhuman" coal miners ("The miners' job would be as much beyond my power as it would be to perform on the flying trapeze") with "their noble bodies". But in very hot mines, where it is necessary to go about half-naked, most of the miners have what they call 'buttons down the back' - that is, a permanent scar on each vertebra" from not bending low enough when they are crouching through the tunnels. They are also tattooed: "Every miner has blue scars on his nose and forehead, and will carry them to his death. The coal dust of which the air underground is full enters every cut, and then the skin grows over it and forms a blue stain like tattooing, which in fact it is."

He draws the following lessons:

  • "It is so with all types of manual work; it keeps us alive, and we are oblivious of its existence."
  • Educated bourgeois are no more gifted than anybody else but "have the cheek necessary to a commander."
  • "The price of liberty is not so much eternal vigilance as eternal dirt."

This first part of the book was so well-observed that it was mesmerising, like rubber-necking at the site of a car crash. But he can also turn a phrase:

  • Dismissing conspiracy theories: "What I have seen of our governing classes does not convince me that they have that much intelligence."
  • "Sheffield ... could justly claim to be the ugliest town in the Old World."
  • "the dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of 'progress' like bluebottles to a dead cat."
  • "A Yorkshire man in the South will always take care to let you know that he regards you as an inferior."
  • Of self-made men: "Though he might be narrow-minded, sordid, ignorant, grasping and uncouth ... he knew how to make money."
  • Of the way certain novelists depict women: "every married woman is an angel chained to a satyr."

Cut most of part two with its dreary politics and you will have a wonderfully written book, even more powerful (perhaps because it is journalism rather than fiction but probably because of the vivid description) that Walter Greenwood's Love on the Dole. These books need to be remembered so that Britain never again exploits its people as it did then.

Well worth reading. May 2016; 204 pages

Thursday, 12 May 2016

"The Good person of Szechwan" by Bertolt Brecht

Comprising ten scenes and interludes but not divided into acts, this play is in Brecht's typical style. He wanted to use theatre to stimulate social change so his plays attempt to jolt audiences out of any empathy with the characters towards a more rational analysis of what is going on. To do this he breaks up the action with songs and by having the actors address the audience directly from time to time. In this play he also ends leaving several loose ends and a 'player' adds an epilogue which asks the audience to consider several questions including:
Should the world be changed
Or just the gods?

Three gods visit the province of Szechwan in their quest to find a good person. Wang the (cheating) water-seller does his best to find them lodgings. The only person who will give them a room is Shen Teh, a prostitute. The gods reward her with enough money to but a small tobacco shop. But as soon as she does, poor people emerge to beg from her, blaming her for their misfortune. She falls in love with a wannabe pilot who only tries to sponge off her; even Wang tries to persuade her to perjure herself so he can sue the barber for hurting his hand. She has to call on the services of her cousin Shui Ta who is a much more ruthless businessman to get the bloodsuckers off her back. It is soon revealed that Shui Ta is actually Shen Teh in disguise. This is made explicit at the half way point when, in an interlude in front of the curtain, Shen Teh appears carrying Shui Ta's mask and clothes to sing the "Song of the Defenceless of the Good and the Gods":
Why can't the gods launch a great operation
With bombers and battleships, tanks and destroyers
And rescue the good by a ruthless invasion?
Then maybe the wicked would cease to annoy us.
In some ways this is exactly what Shui Ta is doing. The question then becomes; can Shen Teh still be a good person if she is refusing charity and forcing other people to work for her, sometimes in less than ideal working conditions (this is also a good question in Les Miserables when Jean Valjean is making his fortune as the proprietor of the factory in which Cosette is employed; he might be a good employer compared to the others but he is still profiting from the labour of others).

I like to get emotionally involved with Drama so I find Brecht challenging. But there is no doubt that he poses some serious moral problems in this play. Is it possible to be a good person in this world? And why tobacco?

I saw this play in November 2013 performed by Bedford Modern School's Theatre in Transit featuring Georgina Brand as a god.

May 2016; 109 pages

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

"Campfires in Cyberspace" by David Thornburg

Thornburg wrote about the three types of learning space which become four:
  • Campfire: "informational spaces where we go to get information from experts" eg storytellers, lecturers, preachers (p 51)
  • Watering hole: "where we go to share what we have learned with our peers." (p 51)
  • Cave: "Caves are conceptual spaces where we go to reflect and elaborate in private what we have learned ... environments filled with the tools of creativity that we need to develop and extend our understanding of what we are learning." (p 51)
  • Life: "Unless your learning is applied, it is sterile." (p 53)
This is a tremendously exciting concept. Schools and universities are organised around the Campfire with some element of Watering Hole but usually the Cavemen are left to fend for themselves. We hear a lot about cooperative learning, especially online, which ramps up the idea of the Watering Hole but mostly Cavemen are left to fend for themselves. As a fully paid up Neanderthal I find this challenging.

It was a shame that the rest of the book didn't really live up to the brilliance of the idea. Mostly, it read like propaganda. I hopes to see a much more carefully constructed argument for the three learning spaces but there was very little evidence offered. It didn't help that one of the few authorities cited was Marshall McLuhan and his pronouncements were treated as gospel and unchallenged.

The main part of the book was exploring how the CWCL model could be implemented in online learning. This must have been impressive in 1996 but things have moved on online in 20 years (Google has come to be!). Nevertheless, there are moments when Thornburg is astonishingly prescient.

A book that is very easy to read with some wonderful ideas but little in the way of evidence. 

May 2016; 155 pages

"Patterns of Discovery" by Norwood Russell Hanson

Hanson starts by undermining claims the science is objective by showing that visual illusions prove that "seeing is a 'theory-laden' undertaking" (p 19): two biologists looking at the same slide might disagree as to whether they are seeing an artefact of the staining process or an organelle. He then claims that this undermines the hypothetico-deductive model of science as popularised by (for example) Karl Popper in Conjectures and Refutations. At the same time he disagrees that the creation of a hypothesis is some sort of magical act of creativity:
"The initial suggestion of an hypothesis is very often a reasonable affair. It is not so often affected by intuition, insight, hunches, or other imponderables as biographers or scientists suggest." (p 71)
Unfortunately he seems to be light on the evidence for this point. I would offer the mass of evidence accumulated by Lowes in The Road to Xanadu when explaining the sources of inspiration for Coleridge when writing the Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

He then talks of different types of explanation laying particular stress on the 'abduction' or 'retroduction' of Peirce which Hanson suggests is the same as Aristotle's 'apagogy'.

He also points out that: "some events need less explaining than others" (p 95); as good a justification for Ockam's Razor as I have seen.

He shows how the laws of physics may start out as "empirical generalizations" but they can "graduate to being 'functionally a priori'" (p 98) in the same way that a legal judgement in one case can become a precedent for another.

He suggests that a theory is "an intelligible, systematic, conceptual pattern for the observed data. The value of this pattern lies in its capacity to unite phenomena which, without the theory, are either surprising, anomalies, or wholly unnoticed." (p 121)

In a moment that was stunningly exciting for me he showed why all electrons must be identical: Born showed that the electric field strength inside an electron must rise to a singularity and since only one kind of singularity is possible therefore all electrons must be the same. (p 135)

This short book was an immensely readable (and quaintly old-fashioned, it was written in 1965 and has endearing mannerisms like referring to Heisenberg as "Professor" Heisenberg) journey through a mall portion of the philosophy of science and deserves to be better known. May 2016; 158 pages

Monday, 9 May 2016

"Brooklyn" by Colm Toibin

Eilis, younger daughter of a widowed mother, grows up in a small town in  1950s Dublin. Despitre her intellignece, she can only get a part time job serving in a shop. Father Flood, a priest visiting his home town from Brooklyn, NY, arranges for her to go to New York and for a room and a job to be waiting for her. She realises that Rose, her elder sister, has sacrificed her own future to look after the mother, what with the three boys working in England and all. Eilis proceeds to fall in love in New York; then she is called back to Ireland.

At times this novel read like a documentary. Every last detail is lovingly recorded, from brother Jack's handwriting to seasickness on the Atlantic crossing to how to get through immigration to the nervous Jewish law professor. I found this rather over the top. I understand that the modern dictum is that the author should know every last detail about the characters down to what they carry in their pockets but I am not sure how much it needs to be shared: Shakespeare's stage directions are minimal compared with those in eg Pinter's The Homecoming or Osborne's Look Back in Anger; does this not then leave more for the audience to fill in. Certainly there were an awful lot of details that didn't add to the plot and I didn't think you needed that level of detail to make me know the character of the protagonist.

There were delightful moments: I loved the split in the boarding house between the prim and proper young ladies and those who wanted a good time; and Father Flood was reassuringly practical and empathetic. But the plot as a whole didn't really grip me until the conflict began between the mother who seemed to be manipulating Eilis to force her to stay in Ireland and Eilis missing her fella. This wasn't until the last quarter so the book was a slow burn.

Eilis had a very pedestrian inner life as well. Every dilemma she faced was spelt out clearly. This actually was a brilliant feature of the book because it made you follow her uncertainties. Did she love the boy or not? Even at the end you're not exactly sure but isn't that the way we all are? We weigh up our options (perhaps a little less cold-bloodedly than Eilis) based on our perceptions (which are perhaps a little less clear than Eilis) and we come to a conclusion which we will never know is right or wrong and which we might in any case change later on down the line. This was a tremendous strength of the book.

A carefully constructed jewel.
May 2016; 252 pages

Thursday, 5 May 2016

"The Road to Xanadu" by John Livingston Lowes

Despite the title, the bulk of this book is about the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Lowes seeks to explain where each element of the story came from before it percolated in what he calls the "deep well" of Coleridge's imagination to emerge as classic poetry. This book is a brilliant feat of scholarship: he leaves no stone unturned and every image (so it seems) is traced to its source (and often multiple sources). It is an extraordinarily impressive work, although obsessive, exhaustive but sometimes a little exhausting.

I was interested initially because of my work on liminality but well before the end I was determined to read more of Coleridge, his biography, his criticism, and of course his great poems. This man was so much better than Wordsworth!

Mariner is all book work: he had never been to sea before he write the work. He seems to have been a voracious reader with a prodigious memory: he talks about ocular images which suggest that he had a photographic memory. He was also extreme when he talked: he seems to have subjected his listeners to a stream of consciousness that ranged from subject to subject demonstrating an incredible breadth of knowledge and understanding: he was interested in everything. He would have been an amazing person to have met (but perhaps a bit of a bore and certainly a monopoliser of conversations).

For example, the Ancient Mariner experiences:
The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.

About, about, in reel and rout
The death-fires danced at night;
The water, like a witch's oils,
Burnt green and blue, and white
and Lowes finds the sliminess is a description of Captain Cook, which Coleridge read; the oiliness from voyages of Father Bourzes; the burning from Purchas; the witches from Macbeth (and they go "about, about"); the death-fires from Priestley's Opticks when he describes light from putrescence and Will o' the Wisps in burial grounds; and the crawling things from Frederick Martens accounts of a voyage to Greenland and Spitzbergen!

In another example the poem talks of "snowy clifts" and Lowes tracks down travelogues which talk of cliffs or clefts or even clifts until he finds a Captain Wood who writes of 'snowy clifts'.

Lowe also speculates about the famous Albatross. This, he suggests, is not the huge white bird most people know but the rather smaller black 'albitross' which is mentioned in another travelogue and is of a size where it might be possible to be hung around someone's neck.

Far from being a fantasy, the Ancient Mariner has science woven deep into its fabric. The very journey could be traced on a map; he sails down into the South Atlantic, rounds the Horn, is becalmed in the Doldrums near the Equator, crosses the line twice and circumnavigates the globe.

The Ancient Mariner himself, Lowe shows to be partly based on The Wandering Jew ("the deathless stranger passes still, like night, from land to land") , an old myth and a key part in The Monk which was a best seller as Coleridge was writing the Mariner (pp 225 - 228). But Coleridge also knew the Sicilian's Tale, in which a Franciscan monk holds the guests at a wedding spell-bound (p 229) and mesmerism was in fashion (p 231) and he tried writing with Wordsworth a poem about the Death of Abel and of course Cain is a killer doomed to wander the earth (pp 233 - 235). Don't forget the Flying Dutchman (p 253). All of these influences merged together in Coleridge's mind. There is the scary bit in the poem where male and female demons, Death and Life-in=Death, play dice for the soul of the Mariner and Life-in-Death wins: "For the Mariner's fate at the fall of the dice is the fate of the Wandering Jew - the doom of the undying among the dead." (p 256) Finally, of course, the Mariner is Ulysses (p 262).

Coleridge read and read and read.

Lowes describes the imagination as an "incongruous, chaotic and variegated jumble" (p 4) which waits for "the informing spirit which broods over chaos ... the formlessness out of which eventually form was wrought." (pp 6 - 7); "Chaos precedes cosmos ... surging and potent chaos" (p 12). What Coleridge called the hooks-and-eyes of the memory "will lead us to the very alembic of the creative energy." (p 41). This then is a journey through "chartless tracts" (p 51) which "assumes the existence of what Coleridge called 'the twilight realms of consciousness' [in Biographia Literaria 2: 120]" (p 51); to find the origins we need to disengage "the strands of an extremely complex web" (p 51). "The web of creation, like the skein of life, is of a mingled yarn" (p 60): we separate the threads and lose the integrity of the whole (p 60) And Coleridge talked of the streamy nature of association , which thinking curbs and rudders [Anima Poetae, p46]. But "the difference between art, in whatever sphere, and the chaotic welter of the stream of consciousness lies not in their constituents, but in the presence or absence of imaginative control." (p 85)

Most true it is that I have look'd on truth
Askance and strangely.
Shakespeare Sonnet 110

"The imagination is an assimilating energy. It pierces through dissimilarity to some underlying oneness in which qualities the most remote cohere." (p 105)

"Not only on the fascinating fringes of early maps, but universally, the advancing territory of the known is rimmed and bounded by a dubious borderland in which the unfamiliar and the strange hold momentary sway." (p 105)

"The borderland between the unknown and the known keeps merging on its hither edge with the familiar, at the same that its outer edge is pushing on into the unexplored." (pp 105 - 106)

A dead dog at a distance is said to smell like musk [so scandal viewed from afar isn't too bad; Coleridge's Notebooks]

That which is firme doth flit and fall away,
And that is flitting doth abide and stay.
Spenser Ruines of Rome 3
There are two forces in life: the deliberate and the chance: Epictetus says that one should carefully and skillfully make use of what is thrown ... Outward things are not in my power. To Will is in my power.
Epictetus  The Encheiridion Book 2 Chapter 2

He mentions Setebos, a demon first described by Magellan. In further reading (Coleridge was always looking up his sources!) I have discovered that Setebos, who is also mentioned by Shakespeare in The Tempest and Robert Browning in Caliban Upon Setebos, was one of twelve demons who appeared when a Patagonian 'giant' died.

It seems that every image in the Ancient Mariner has been traced to its source material. Then he does the same with Xanadu, a much shorter poem and one avowedly based on a dream. We learn about the Old Man of the Mountains who allegedly gave his followers hashish and transported them while asleep into a pleasure garden and when they awoke convinced them they had been in Paradise so they would go and murder anyone he asked even at the expense of their own lives and that is why we get the word assassin from hashish. He explains why the damsel with a dulcimer came from Abyssinia, now Ethiopia, where the Nile (a sacred river) was supposed to be sourced near a kingdom called Amhara which might have melded into Mount Abora. And the man with floating hair is taken from a memoir of Speke about an Ethiopian Ras on the warpath.

And Lowe more or less debunks the idea that Coleridge wrote poetry under the influence of opium. The meticulous research that lies behind each of the images of the Mariner (perhaps not so much Xanadu) suggests a tightness of control that drug addicts can rarely achieve. The essence of creativity is the remixing of ideas. We all do it. The difference with a genius is the obsessive research, the intense control and, perhaps, the ability to select the word that encapsulates all the ideas in one extraordinarily vivid image.

This is a superb book. May 2016; 397 pages

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

"Waiting for Godot" by Samuel Beckett

I have read Beckett's short novels and they are so similar to this play: brief glimpses, as through a frosted window, of a tramp who wears a hat, falls down; an unsatisfying end. Beautifully written. Enigmatic.

Vladimir and Estragon (Didi and Gogo) wait by a tree for Godot who, famously, never comes. Pozzo, driving his slave Lucky, comes.

In each Act, Lucky and Pozzo enter and join V and E for a little while. Lucky is Pozzo's slave (although it seems that he obeys Pozzo because he doesn't want Pozzo to get rid of him) and Pozzo drives him with a whip (which Lucky looks after and hands to Pozzo when ordered), kicks and a rope around his neck. In the second act Pozzo is, or pretends to be, blind but his relationship with Lucky hasn't altered.

Lucky has one speech, a nonensical stream of consciousness which lasts over two pages and reminds me of James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake (Beckett was Joyce's secretary while J was writing FW).

In each Act a boy enters towards the end, after L and E have exited, and tells V and E that Godot isn't coming today but will tomorrow. The boy in  the second act claims not to be the boy in the first act; the boy in the first act mentioned he had a brother who looked after the sheep while he looked after the goats (a Biblical reference?).

Mostly, V and E just talk between themselves. Their dialogue is full of broken thoughts. Beckett was brilliant at writing dialogue that mimics everyday speech and yet hints at enigmas which are never explained.
V: Oh, it's not the worst, I know.
E: What?
V: To have thought.
E: Obviously.
V: But we could have done without it.

The first line is Estragon's as he gives up trying to take his boot off: Nothing to be done
and Vladimir replies: I'm beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I've tried to put it from me, saying, Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven't yet tried everything. And I resumed the struggle.
He turns to Estragon and says: There you are again
E: Am I?

Wow! Two speeches yet and we have two philosophies: carrying on in the face of futility, and the uncertainty of existence.

There are allusions to philosophy throughout. For example, when Estragon does the 'tree' Yoga pose he asks "Do you think God sees me?" as Bishop Berkeley famously wondered about a tree when there was no one around.

There are plenty of religious references. On page 3, V says: One of the thieves was saved. It's a reasonable percentage. He then goes on to question why this is the story in just one gospel. They are, of course, by a tree (the cross?) without leaves (in the second act, the next day, the tree has a few leaves, resurrection? or just spring?):
E: What is it?
V: I don't know. A willow.
E: Where are the leaves?
V: It must be dead.
E: No more weeping
Funny but essentially profound. Shortly afterwards they contemplate hanging themselves from the tree.

The Boys mind the sheep and the goats.

There is a great deal of symmetry, although it is often broken and lop-sided. One wonders if Beckett was aware of modern Physics in which symmetry appears almost everywhere but is broken on crucial occasions (for example, there is more matter than anti-matter).

The second act more or less repeats the first act. As one critic put it: "nothing happens twice". Both acts end: Well? Shall we go?Yes, let's go, the first time spoken by E then V, the 2nd by V then E. On neither occasion do they move.

This is one of several moments in the play when the protagonists mirror one another.
V: It hurts?
E: Hurts! He wants to know if it hurts!
V: No one ever suffers but you. I don't count. I'd like to hear what you'd say if you had what I have.
E: It hurts?
V: Hurts! He wants to know if it hurts!
Note the central line of this exchange. Beckett does this regularly, using everyday language to tell us something without being explicit. We know that V has something that hurts. We don't know what. We are teased and tantalised. In this case we assume, from the fact that E immediately points out that V's fly is unbuttoned and the fact that V regularly has to go off to wee that V has a problem with his waterworks. But there are other teases, large and small, where we never find the answer. The largest, of course, being: who is Godot?

On one level, V and E are interchangeable but Vladimir remembers what happened yesterday and Estragon doesn't.

There is a lot of humour. A list of words of abuse they shout at each other starts with Moron and Vermin and ends with then together shouting: Critic. In Act Two, V and E pretend to be happy and E asks: What do we do now, now that we are happy? V of course replies: Wait for Godot.

I think V and E might be in Heaven or Hell or Purgatory; it certainly bears all the hallmarks of eternity!

There is a delightful routine where E inspects boots that have been found; they are his but he thinks they are not:
V: It's elementary. Someone came and took yours and left you his.
E: Why?
V: His were too tight for him, so he took yours.
E: But mine were too tight.
V: For you. Not for him.
Of course, when E tries the boots on they are too big for him.

And when E is trying to escape from the stage but finding all the ways blocked, V suggests that he flees into the auditorium where there is Not a soul in sight! but having surveyed it says: You won't? Well, I can understand that.

What does it all mean?
V: In this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come

It is a master-class in writing dialogue. Real people never talk straightforwardly, they rarely answer one another direct, and yet dialogue has to advance the plot. The fractured dialogue with the enigmatic teases keep the reader interested. I would have liked a whole lot more but I can understand why people might start to feel bored.

May 2016; 87 pages

Books and plays written by Nobel Laureates that I have reviewed in this blog include:

Monday, 2 May 2016

"A Streetcar Named Desire" by Tennessee Williams

This eleven-scene play is set in New Orleans.

Following the loss of the family estate, Belle Reve (beautiful dream), Blanche DuBois comes to stay with her sister, Stella, who lives in a seedy two room New Orleans apartment with ex-WWII officer turned salesman, Stanley Kowalski, an American of Polish descent. There is immediate sexual tension between Blanche and Stanley; at the same time Stanley resents Blanche's superiority and suspects her of trying to cheat him of the proceeds from the sale of Belle Reve; he thinks her jewels are real and he dislikes her sponging off her sister.

There is violence. On poker night, when the men are the studs and shoot the bull and "one-eyed Jacks are wild", Stanley and Stella and Blanche fight over the radio which Stanley breaks, he hits Stella and Blanche, horrified, takes Stella to a neighbour. Later Stella returns to Stanley, telling Blanche that these little spats don't matter: Stella and Stanley are very much in love and, following a scene where Blanche does all she can to run Stanley down, as Stanley eavesdrops, Stella declares her love and, when Stanley enters, embraces him in view of Blanche.

Domestic violence is reiterated when the neighbour's husband fights with her and she flees him; she too goes back to him after a few minutes.

Blanche is setting out to attract Mitch, the only unattached male in the poker group, who lives with his mum, and he is coming to her birthday party, but Stanley has found out about Blanche's past and tells Mitch, an old wartime buddy, so Mitch tells Blanche he doesn't mind fooling around with her but she won't be good enough for his mother. Blanche's history includes an early elopement with a poet whom she later found in bed with another man; her husband shot himself when she told him how he disgusted her. Subsequently she has had casual liaisons while living in a hotel (it sounds as if she is almost a prostitute; when flirting with Mitch she tells him she will be La Dame Aux Camellias, the eponymous courtesan in the Dumas book, and asks him "Voulez vous couchez avec moi ce soir?" but he doesn't understand French) and got sacked from her schoolteacher job after an indiscretion with a seventeen year old boy.

There are some wonderful things about this play. It simmers with sexual tension, especially in the poker scenes; Stasnley keeps taking hius shirt off and the men all wear bright primary colours, including for Stanley silk pyjamas. Williams uses the street life outside the flat to great effect, including a Mexican flower seller calling out "Flores por los muertes" (flowers for the dead) and the noise of a train which emphasises the impending doom. He also uses polka music (first in a minor key, then in a major key) when Blanche is remembering how her husband killed himself; the music is playing in Blanche's mind and signals her growing madness. The incidental music also includes jazz and a blue piano; Williams is using stage directions to underlines the action on the stage.

Stanley and Blanche are wonderful characters and the play is heavy with their class warfare and their sexual tension even though Stella, Blanche's sister, is Stanley's wife and having his baby. There are some stonking lines including Stanley explaining why he isn't polite around women:

  • "I never met a women that didn't know if she was good-looking or not without being told, and some of them give themselves credit for more than they've got."
  • "A shot never does a coke any harm!"
  • "I like to wait on you, Blanche. It makes it seem more like home."
  • "Haven't you ever ridden on that streetcar?" [the one named Desire]
  • "Whoever you are – I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.": Blanche's last line
  • [The final line, spoken by a poker player]: "This game is seven-card stud."

I have just watched (23rd May 2020) the National Theatre Young Vic 2014 production starring Gillian Anderson as Blanche, Ben Foster as Stanley, Vanessa Kirby as Stella and Corey Johnson as Mitch. It was broadcast as part of the NT at Home season in which the NT are streating us to some of their back catalogue during the Coronavirus lockdown. And what a treat this was. Stellar performances from each of the four leads and great support from the rest of the cast. The thing about this play is that it keeps on punching you. Just when you think that must the the climax, it winds up again to an even bigger one.

This must have been a shock when it was first performed on Broadway in December 1947. The depiction of raw working class lives, the resentment of Stanley about being called a Polack, the domestic abuse and the tempestuous marriage between Stanley and Stella, and the gradual descent into madness of Blanche symbolising the descent into chaos of the old Southern plantation way of life must have been a red rag to a bull to most of the USA, recovering from a war, sliding into the Cold War, and developing their nascent consumerist society. The original cast included Jessica Tandy as Blanche, Kim Hunter as Stella, and Karl Malden as Mitch, as well as, famously, Marlon Brando as Stanley (later replaced by Anthony Quinn). The original leads also appeared in the 1951 film version except that Jessica Tandy (who eventually won an Oscar for Driving Miss Daisy) was replaced by Vivien Leigh; the four film leads each won an acting Oscar expect for Brando who only got nominated.