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

Thursday, 27 December 2018

"Sins of the fathers" by James Pope-Hennessey

A history of the slave trade with rather more vivid description than most.

If the title were not clear enough, the first chapter makes the author's position plain, describing slavery as "that vast complex of international crime by which, in four centuries, a total of fifteen million men, women and children of African blood were delivered into transatlantic slavery, under conditions so hideous that another nine million are estimated to have died during crossing.” (C 1) This is not academic history. This is the position of the prosecution. Swiftly he dismisses the economic argument: that the British transatlantic slave trade came into being because of the labour requirements of the agriculture being developed in the New World and ended because the sugar islands were no longer so important to the British economy. He also denounces the position that the slave trade was a marginal activity: "a trade in which so many Europeans and Africans indulged for centuries cannot have been run exclusively by money-maniacs and pocket sadists." (C 1) In essence the purpose of this book is to know who to blame.

But I found the moral analysis of the blame too narrow and naive. I propose that slavery is wrong and that the transatlantic slave-trade was a particularly nasty form of slavery involving other great moral wrongs such as kidnapping, false imprisonment, torture, mutilation and murder. But from this I would go on to say that, with the exception of the slaves who were victims, all the participants in the slave trade bear some moral guilt. Pope-Hennesey seems to disagree. He excuses the Africans who kidnapped the slaves in the first place and then sold them to the slave-trade captains. He quotes an ex-slave as saying ‘If there were no buyers there would be no sellers’ and comments "that is the crux of the matter, and the final word that can be said on African ‘guilt’.”(C 10.1) Such a point of view is also used to excuse prostitutes, redefining them as 'sex workers' and instead to attach moral blame to their clients. But if this is then extended to the drug industry we are presumably blaming the addicts and excusing the dealers. It seems to me that the African slavers may be less guilty than the slave captains and the plantation owners but they cannot be entirely excused.

Similarly, Pope-Hennesey acknowledges the existence of slavery among the Anglo-Saxons (abolished in England by the Normans although the serfdom with which it was replaced was not much better) and endemic in some African societies but seems to consider these as innocent variants. Whilst I agree that the transatlantic slave-trade offered extreme horrors and extreme immoralities I don't think one can consider any form of slavery as morally acceptable. Furthermore, Pope-Hennesey does not mention the slave trade that existed during the middle ages in the Indian Ocean, possibly involving up to twenty-two million slaves, and the more than one million Europeans captured by Barbary pirates between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. If we start believing that slavery was a one-off moral horror it may make us complacent when we need to be morally alert to any erosion of the freedom of individuals.

This aside, Pope-Hennessey has provided some wonderful descriptions of horrors and many fascinating facts:
Just as the colour black was, for most Europeans, connected with night, witches and the Powers of Darkness, so, to many Africans, white was often of the colour of devils, and the semaring of the face with white clay was calculated to inspire terror.” (C 3.4)
Many of the plants associated with Africa (eg maize, yams, and coconut palms) were in fact plants from the New World or the Indian Ocean imported during this period. This was partly because the slave traders built gardens around their forts: “To have strange and inadequate, often repulsive, food added to the other health hazards of a lethal climate was asking too much." (C 4.1)
The reason it took so long for the Europeans to find West Africa was that “mariners would not venture beyond Cape Bojador, for fear that they and their ships would plunge over the edge of the world-platform into oblivion.” (C 4.2) I’m not sure this is true. The accepted view was that the world was round (and sailors were always prepared to sail beyond the horizon) but that the temperatures as you progressed south became too hot for wooden ships and humans to bear.
The word ‘fetish’ derives from the Portuguese ‘fetiços’, images; the word ‘ju-ju’ is from the French word ‘joux’, toys (C 5.2)
You might buy a parcel of youths and girls in the market at Bridgetown, Barbados, or Charleston, Carolina, but you could never really be sure what exact quantity of hatred, hostility and magic you were carting back to the slave-barracks of your comfortable Palladian home.” (C 5.2)
The Oba of Benin was “so heavily sheathed in polished gold that when he rose to his feet he had to be propped up by two slaves, who likewise operated his arms for him when he wished to gesticulate.” (C 5.3)
Portugal retained their fort at Whydah until it was annexed by Dahomey in 1961. “The Portuguese representative at Whydahr burned his motor-car in front of the fort as a protest, whereupon Dahomey issued a celebration postage-stamp showing the charred wreckage of the Citroen.” (C 5.3 fn)
Slaves were branded by their owners: SPG denoted slaves of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (C 6.1)
To work on ships which often were merely floating coffins - the ships taking slaves to Rio de Janeiro were in fact called tumbeiros from the Portuguese for tomb - was at once brutalizing and nauseous.” (C 7.1)
The primitive, rickety basis of gracious living in the West Indian Islands required a cohort of house-slaves” (C8.3)
The first line of defence for any vanquished or occupied nation, as for any camp of war-prisoners, is calculated cunning and deceit.” (C 8.4)
The African concept of style was influenced by the slave-trading ships:
the upper floor of any two-storied Efik house is still called a ‘dek’.” (C 12.2)
King Pepple would sometimes sport a pair of scarlet leather boots which seemed too small for him and which caused him to topple over when he was drunk.” (C 13.3)
Negro proverbs” include “‘If you knock de nose de eye cry’ ... ‘as de ole crow fly, so de young one do too’.” (C 13.1)
Slave girls were inevitably raped. Some slave traders “were thought to have literally worn themselves away copulating in the night dews on the coast.” (C 13.3)

December 2018; 280 pages

Saturday, 22 December 2018

"The Merry Wives of Windsor" by William Shakespeare

Not so much a comedy as a farce with a couple of interlocking plots.

Sir John Falstaff wishes to seduce either Mistress (Mrs) Page or Mistress Ford but they compare the love letters they have been sent and decide to trick him. Each time he meets Mistress Ford her husband happens to turn up and the cowardly Sir John has to escape in some humiliating way.

Slender, and Doctor Caius, and Fenton all want to marry Anne Page. Page, Anne's father, wants her to marry Slender, and Mistress Page favours the Doctor.

I saw an RSC production of this play at the Barbican Theatre on 22nd December 2018 (matinee). It starred David Troughton as Sir John Falstaff; he was excellent in the part. I saw him last year as an excellent Gloucester in King Lear. He was joined by a host of wonderful talents. Charlotte Josephine had a lovely cameo as Bardolph; I saw her last month as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. Katy Brittain made a hilarious Hostess of the Garter Inn although most of her comedy was physcial as I found it sometimes difficult to follow her quick-fire delivery. Josh Finan was a brilliant Nym (he had also been great as Benvolio in R&J). Mistresses Ford and Page were played as a couple of Essex girls (Merry Wives of Dagenham perhaps?) and were brilliant in their roles; Rebecca Lacey as Mistress Page was a dead ringer for Sybil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers. Nima Taleghani was a great Robin. This was an adaptation that ditched some of Shakespeare's untranslatable word play in favour of some wonderful physical comedy and some great updates: in particular the laundry basket became a wheelie bin. I had gone to the theatre expecting little from a play that is not one of Shakespeare's best and was bowled over by the adaptation. It extended to all the little business and small parts being brought to life. For example, when Ford disguised himself as Brook (Vince Leigh was great) he became a Russian, complete with an 'I love Putin' suitcase sticker and a theme song whenever he arrived. The Welshman got the audience to sing a line from Bread of Heaven. And the lads who were assigned to dispose of the wheelie bin discussed the job in an Eastern European language before agreeing to do it. Oh my goodness, this was an exceptional day at the theatre.

The play itself isn't so easy. There are too many characters. It was difficult to see why one needs Justice Shallow or Dr Hugh Evans or why Slender needs a servant. The first thing that Falstaff does is to get rid of Bardolph, Pistol and Nym but that could have been done (if needed) in a speech rather than having yet more actors on the stage. The plots are more or less done one by one: thus, the mix-up over where the duel is to be held happens first and then there is the main business with the three humiliations of Falstaff and then the matter of Anne Page's marriage is tacked on to the end. In the RSC production it was noticeable that the character of Fenton is kept almost completely separate from the other characters.

Shakespeare also throws in a scene in which the schoolteacher/ parson quizzes one of his pupils (sensibly cut by the RSC) and a reference to counterfeit Germans and a Duke which I don't really understand.

But hey, it is Shakespeare. There are some great lines:
  • If I be drunk, I'll be drunk with those that have the fear of God, and not with drunken knaves.
  • I will marry her, sir, at your request; but if there be no great love in the beginning, yet heaven may decrease it upon better acquaintance, when we are married and have more occasion to know one another; I hope upon familiarity will grow more contempt.”
  • I do mean to make love to Ford's wife; I spy entertainment in her; she discourses, she carves, she gives the leer of invitation
  • She did so course o'er my exteriors with such a greedy intention that the appetite of her eye did seem to scorch me up like a burning-glass.
  • O, what a world of vile ill-favor'd faults
  • Looks handsome in three hundred pounds a-year!”
  • You may know by my size that I have a kind of alacrity in sinking ... my belly's as cold as if I had swallowed snowballs
  • Mistress Ford! I have had ford enough; I was thrown into the ford; I have my belly full of ford.
  • O powerful love! that, in some respects, makes a beast a man, in some other, a man a beast. ... When gods have hot backs, what shall poor men do?
December 2018;

Other Shakespeare plays reviewed in this blog include (productions mentioned in parentheses; RSC = Royal Shakespeare Company; NT = National Theatre):

Thursday, 20 December 2018

"The Sunday Philosophy Club" by Alexander McCall Smith

Set in the same genteel and refined Edinburgh as the 44 Scotland Street stories (including Espresso tales and The world according to Bertie), Isabel Dalhousie is a gentlewoman with her own house and a housekeeper. Following a failed marriage and childless, she edits a philosophical review; otherwise she is a lady of leisure. At a night out listening to the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra she witnesses a young man fall from the Gods to his death in the Stalls. Or was he pushed? The stage is set for a gentle exploration of applied ethics, in particular whether and when one should tell a lie.

There is just enough plot to keep the pages turning but the main delight of this book lies in the intriguing insights of Ms Dalhousie. Here are just some of them:
  • She always felt inhibited from any act suggesting a lack of concentration or, worse still, of seriousness.” (C 1)
  • Something terrible happened and people began to shake. It was the reminder that frightened them; the reminder of just how close to the edge we are in life, always, at every moment.” (C 1)
  • You loved another, and this made you so vulnerable; just an inch or so too close to the edge and your world would change.” (C 2)
  • You had to be aware of human weakness, of course, because it simply was, but to revel in it seems to her to be voyeurism.” (C 2)
  • Do past wrongs seem less wrong to us simply because they are less vivid?” (C 3)
  • Why, she wondered, should anyone actually want a hunk, when nonhunks were so much more interesting?” (C 4)
  • Only the very immature and the very stupid are impressed by the depraved.” (C 5)
  • Respectability was such an effort though, and there were bars and clubs where people might go and behave as they really wanted to behave, but did not dare so publicly.” (C 5)
  • How arid it must be to be a man; how constrained; what a whole world of emotion, and sympathy, they must lack; like living in a desert.” (C 7)
  • I have bags of failings. Same as anybody else. Bags.” (C 13)
  • Good manners depended on paying moral attention to others; it required one to treat them with complete seriousness, to understand their feelings and their needs. Some people, the selfish, had no inclination to do this ... They were impatient with those who they thought did not count: the old, the inarticulate, the disadvantaged.” (C 14)
  • She was turned into a different station from most people and the tuning dial was broken.” (C 14)
  • Camus was right: the ultimate philosophical question was suicide. If there was no truth, then there was no meaning, and our life was Sisyphean. And if life was Sisyphean, thenn what point in continuing with it?” (C 17)
  • The gulls were considered a pest in the neighbourhood - large, mewing birds that swooped down on those who came too close to their nesting places - but we humans built too, and left cement and stones and litter, and were as aggressively territorial.” (C 21)
  • Why was it wrong to drop litter? Was it purely an aesthetic objection, based on the notion that the superficial pollution of the environment was unattractive? Or was the aesthetic impact linked to some notion of the distress which others felt in the face of litter? If that was the case, then we might even have a duty to look attractive to others, in order to minimise their distress.” (C 21)
  • In a world of need, it was wrong to be anything other than thin. Until everybody was in a position to consume a surfeit of calories, then nobody should carry extra weight. The fat with therefore not entitled to be what they were .” (C 21)
  • People give themselves away every five seconds. Watch the movement of eyes. It says absolutely everything you need to know.” (C 23)
Some challenging ideas!

I also very much enjoyed the next book in this series: Friends, Lovers, Chocolate.

December 2018; 281 pages

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

"Two middle-aged ladies in Andalusia" by Penelope Chetwode

Nowadays a tale of someone's holiday might be broadcast if the someone was a celebrity and TV schedules needed filling. In 1961 it seems that John Betjeman's wife counted as a celebrity and that therefore she could have her travelogue published.

She is one of the middle-aged ladies, the other being her horse. She embarks on a riding tour in the rugged mountains of Andalusia north of Granada. Her passions are the countryside, which must be beautiful, and the Catholic church: she attends at least one Mass every day. Almost every page was filled with her approval of Catholicism. She hates the Spanish communists because they gutted churches and she approvingly quotes a Franco fan (because Franco allegedly "never took a big decision without spending the night in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament" (Nov 27). She believes that the poor Spanish children she sees are happier and will be happier than the mass-educated relatively less poor English children back home: "Will our girls make such efficient and therefore contented wives and mothers as their Spanish counterparts who to-day can not only read and write ... but have a good knowledge of Christian doctrine and can sew and wash and iron quite beautifully?" (Dec 1). The modern world, in her eyes, is bad and the old ways almost inevitably better and decidedly more beautiful. All in all this book suggests a tremendous sense of complacent entitlement; she is almost the epitome of the benevolent (in their own minds) and patronising feudal lord.

The book is chiefly interesting for its depiction of rural life in Franco's Spain:

  • "He was a day labourer: yesterday no man had hired him but to-day somebody had." (Nov 6)
  • "When you are still in the elementary stages of learning a language your only hope is to talk yourself, to prevent people talking to you, as they are sure to introduce tenses with which you are not yet familiar." (Nov 8)
  • "Two huge pigs ... nosed me so lovingly, so trustingly, and soon their great intestines would be lying in heaps in the kitchen waiting to be filled with pudding mixture" (Nov 20)
  • "An oddly assorted mixed grill with little bits of tough steak, lumps of pork fat, three fired fresh sardines, a grilled thrush and some chips, all on the same plate." (Nov 20)

December 2018; 153 pages

Other great travel books in this blog:
Travelling in Britain:
And others:

Sunday, 16 December 2018

"Love and Mr Lewisham" by H G Wells

We first encounter Mr Lewisham as a teacher in a second-rate school. He has plans. He will learn and pass his degree and then he will become rich and famous. But he falls in love and this disrupts his ambitions. The passages after his marriage in which he and his new wife struggle to make ends meet, resulting in bitterness and marital rows, and the blighting of his dreams, are beautifully written. The culmination of their discord is a chapter which is as exciting as anything written nowadays. And the reflections on life, bitter and tender, were spot-on.

In chapter twenty-three, about two-thirds of the way through, some of HG's socialist theories are voiced ... but cleverly HG puts them into the mouth of a rogue and a bounder. HG is particularly good at interspersing the theory with half-comments and actions from the listener. Equally he is brilliant at noticing the hesitations and indecisions which signal a dilemma when a character is approaching a decision. He is capable of describing great emotions without resorting to melodrama simply be using the observation of little details to underline the essential everyday ordinariness of his hero. Great writing!

H G Wells is famous for his science fiction novels but this novel demonstrates how good he was at writing about life.

Some great quotes:
  • An unusual sense of the greyness of a teacher's life, of the greyness indeed of the life of all studious souls came, and went in his mind ... He heard the familiar mingled noises of the playground drifting in on him through the open schoolroom door.” (C 1)
  • There are no such things as spirits, mediums were humbugs, and he was here to prove that sole remaining Gospel.” (C 11) 
  • Honesty is essentially an anarchistic and disintegrating force in society ...Lies are the mortar that bind the savage individual man into the social masonry.” (C 23) 
  • There's truths you have to grow into.” (C 23)
  • What is clothing? The concealment of essential facts.” (C 23)
  • On the earth somewhere poor devils are toiling to get in meat and corn and wine. He is clothed in the lives of bent and thwarted weavers, his way is lit by phossy jaw, he eats from lead glazed crockery - all his ways are paved with the lives of men.” (C 23)
  • What a mess we have made of things! was his new motif. What a mess!” (C 27)
  • It is almost as if Life had played me a trick - promised so much - given so little!” (C 32)
  • Two pieces fell outside the basket. He stooped, picked them up, and put them carefully with their fellows.” (C 32; last lines)
Wells also wrote:

There is a biography of HG Wells reviewed here.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

"The Essex Serpent" by Sarah Perry

As recently widowed Cora Seaborne and her strange son Francis travel to Essex, strange things begin to happen around the Blackwater and so many loves are destined to be unfulfilled. A sort of Gothic novel set in Victorian times.

Some great lines

  • "He wants to feel the wind's edge strop itself sharp on his skin" (New Year's Eve)
  • "Time was ... lost by those who wished the past was present and loathed by those who wished the present past." (January#1)
  • "On Charing Cross Road time exchanged its chariot for buses and cabs in urgent fleets, and in the wards of Barts and of the Royal Borough pain made hours of minutes." (January#1)
  • "Memory unfurled like smoke from a blown candle" (January#1)
  • "Sometimes I think we must be walking on shoals of bodies without realising it and all the earth's a graveyard." (March #1)
  • "He took his Sunday duties as seriously as if he'd taken instruction at the burning bush." (March#2)
  • "A diamond which broke the light and threw it against the wall." (March#2)
  • "Is a dreadful liar bad at lying or good at it?" (May#4)
  • "She'll grow out of hope, as everyone eventually does" (September#1)
  • "The fear of the crowd came then to Will, with the taste of a copper penny placed on his tongue" (September#3) (the same metaphor is used later)
  • "It was simply an animal, as they all were; and was dead, as they all would be." (September#3)
  • "To live at all is to be bruised." (September#3)
  • "If you want to insist on your faith  you ought at least to concede it's a strange business and very little to do with well-ironed cassocks and the order of service." (September#5)
  • "If love were an archer someone had put out its eyes, and it went stumbling about, blindly letting loose its arrows, never meeting its mark." (September#6)
  • "There's enthusiasm in Parliament, but what counts for enthusiasm in the Commons would look very like laziness elsewhere." (September#10)

December 2018; 417 pages

Monday, 10 December 2018

"The Unspeakable Skipton" by Pamela Hansford Johnson

Hansford Johnson was a prolific novelist who wrote 27 novels between 1935 and 1981 as well as collaborating on two detective novels, writing eight plays and a book of poetry, translating Anouilh, and writing a memoir, a work of sociology and several critical works. She was a friend of Dylan Thomas and her second husband was C P Snow.

The Unspeakable Skipton is about a dirt-poor novelist living in Bruges. He relies on an allowance from a cousin and from the occasional cheque from his publisher. He resents both of these and writes vitriolic letters of abuse which causes them, unsurprisingly, to cut him off. Otherwise he makes a living by ripping off tourists. He is a pimp and a fraud.

This is a great story and a wonderful character study of the artist as an obsessive and it has some woderful characters. But what really excited me were the magnificent descriptions:
  • The sun has begun to set ... in a moment the quay would shine like a square opal in all the marvellous colours known to man and, better yet, with marvelous colours to which no man had yet fitted a name.” (C 1)
  • A miraculous evening. The sky broke like an egg into full sunset and the water caught fire.” (C 1)
  • "The swans glimmered in the rustic dust like washing left out all night.” (C 2)
  • She went into her usual jelly-dance of silent laughter” (C 2)
  • It was Sunday morning and all the bells were rocking the bright sky about, boxing its ears with their glorious hands.” (C 4)
  • Tantrums of rain burst across the Grand’ Place, wild winds, stiffened by the sea, scolded the café blinds and slapped the skirts of the women over their legs.” (C 5)
  • The trees had been lichened with frost.” (C 7)
  • A side street looking like a crack in the wall between two tattered hotels.” (C 10)
  • He subsided into his own bulk as a pig does when it sits down.” (C 11)
With writing as good as this, one wonders why Hansford Johnson never because as well known as some of her contemporaries.

  • Other great lines:
  • “It was disgusting to have the naked toes rubbing together, the sweat rolling between into grey crumbs.” (C 1)
  • There was nothing except smell to indicate the various income levels through which he passed, since the whole staircase was shabby; but the first floor smelled of dust and biscuits, the second of stewing steak and cheese and the first of ether and flowers.” (C 2)
  • Unlike his fat friend, he looked not made for pleasure, but for disillusionments of an amusing nature.” (C 3)
  • He walked slowly across the square, feeling their eyes, like four pairs of prongs, upon his retreating form.” (C 3)
  • His thoughts running round like mice on a treadmill.” (C 4)
  • To work on this book was perhaps the greatest pleasure Daniel had ever known. When he did so he was not a man but a god, improving not only upon a beautiful earthly creation, but upon a creation already divine.” (C 4)
  • He was joyful, knowing genius in himself, burning tall and steady as a candle flame on a windless night.” (C 4)
  • The Flemish masters introduce, behind the figure of the Madonna, perhaps through a small window, little scenes of domestic life.” (C 6)
  • Doubt stirred like a centipede, one foot and then another: slowly.” (C 8)
  • You can't accuse Duncan of not respecting women ... he has respected at least four since we came here.” (C 19)
  • If my friend Flavio had any sense he would relax and let himself go to seed; because really there is nothing so young as seed.” (C 22)
  • In the old days, before God had settled upon a policy of temperateness and detachment, lightning would have wriggled from His hand to strike the blasphemer down.” (C 23)
  • Not that I am accusing you ... of being dirty minded. Where no mind exists, it Is impossible for there to be either dirt or cleanliness.”(C 24)
  • He despised Dante, a little, for his lack of enterprise in leaving so many of the less-advertised sins unaccounted for.” (C 27)

December 2018'196 pages

Saturday, 8 December 2018

"The Camden Town Murder Mystery" by David Barrat

An exhaustive account of the murder of a prostitute, Emily Dimmock, in Camden Town in 1906. It seems unlikely that the author has left an stone unturned. Nevertheless, he cannot conclusively name the culprit. The most likely suspect seems to have been Robert Wood, a young man who had been seen consorting with Emily and whose postcard arranging a rendezvous with Emily on the night she was killed was found in her flat. Wood's subsequent behaviour was to lie repeatedly and to attempt to manufacture an alibi. However, amid much public celebration, Wood was acquitted at his trial. No one else was ever charged.

This book is an incredibly full account of every detail surrounding the murder, including that Camden Town was named a former Attorney General who lived at Camden Place in Chislehurst, that Emily once worked as a chamber maid at the Swan Hotel in Bedford, that one of the witnesses at the trial was an extraordinarily dodgy character who specialised in arson insurance claims when living in New Zealand and who dies in Australia as the result of an explosion whilst setting up another arson-based insurance fraud. Lots of really interesting stuff. Unfortunately the author's habit of chasing down every alley and revealing every detail left me reeling. It was difficult enough given that Emily associated with many dodgy men (she worked as a prostitute) and so there was a plethora of suspects but I found it very difficult to see any sort of Wood for the multiplicity of trees.

December 2018; 313 pages (of small print)

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

"Torch" by Cheryl Strayed

In the first chapter a woman is told that she has incurable cancer; she will be dead within the year. The next two chapters in which she attempts to tell her kids, who are reacting like kids react to their mother, the teenage adolescent boy with surly anger and the college student girl with the expectation that all this will just be her mother manipulating her, are truly hard to read because you know how awful these utterly normal kids will feel when they realise that their mum is not for ever. Brilliantly realistic.

And then she dies and it continues, chapter after chapter, as these three bereaved people, husband/ step-father, daughter and son, muddle through mistake after mistake on their tragic journey through grief to acceptance. Life needs to be lived and if they haven't forgotten her they have to move on, mostly by fucking other people in a instinctive if primitive response to replace death with birth.

Chapter after chapter was so hard to read. Everything was so mundane, so everyday, so utterly in your face brutally real, and I had to go on, like Bruce and Claire and Joshua, because you have to go on to find out what they next day brings, even though you dread what it might reveal. Even though you are shouting at the character 'don't do that' you know they will and they are the better person for it.

Here is a moment in which reality intrudes into authorness. Joshua is being asked by a counsellor how he feels: “He felt sleepy and hungry and he yearned for a cigarette, but he thought it unwise to mention any of those things.” (C 15) This book so ups reality!

Unbelievably good.

A few, a sparse selection, of the wonderful moments:

  • She ached. As if her spine were a zipper and someone had come up behind her and unzipped it and pushed his hands into her organs and squeezed, as if they were butter or dough, or grapes to be smashed for wine.” (C 1)
  • junk mail, addressed to him in computer-generated cursive handwriting, a trick disguised as something real.” (C 4)
  • The three of them had the same hair. Not blond, not brown, but something in between: the faded yellow of grass where an animal had slept.” (C 5)
  • she had to weed the garden that she’d planted.” (C 5)
  • Slowly, stingily, she forgave them without their knowing about it.” (C 5)
  • It was the exact size of the hole in the solar eclipse paper plate, a pin of light through which the entire sun could radiate, so bright it would blind you if you looked.” (C 5)
  • She saw her parents in their most distilled form, being precisely who they’d always been. The people who sent her garbage in the mail. The people who made her cry each Sunday. The people who would gladly give their lives to save hers.” (C 5)
  • She felt numb and stuffed and fuzzy, weightless and yet weighted. As if her veins had been filled with wet feathers.” (C 5)
  • He’d been bullied, throughout his childhood and adolescence, to tell her whether she was fat, whether she should get highlights in her hair, whether her butt seemed hideously large, or her thighs too squat. Whatever he said, she never believed him or took his advice; she simply presented the same questions to him all over again the next time.” (C 6)
  • ‘It isn’t that I am against faith,’ she said warily. ‘I’m against the thinking that says that humans are shameful and bad’.” (C 7)
  • He wondered if it were possible to add up all the people he’d thanked over the course of his entire life, whether that sum would be equal to the number of people he thanked on the one day that his wife’s body was to be sealed in a wooden box, shoved into an incinerator, and burned, at an extremely high temperature, to ashes.” (C 8)
  • He thought of his mother, of parts of her he had never thought about before, of her lungs and her brain, her heart and her hands.” (C 10)
  • She couldn’t see David anymore in the light that she’d seen him before, and she didn’t know whether this new way of seeing him had been distorted by her grief or unveiled by it. Whether her life with him was fraudulent or the best thing she had."
  • "She came to see that her grief did not have an end, or if it did, she would not be delivered there. Grief was not a road or a river or a sea but a world, and she would have to live there now.” (C 11)
  • Claire wondered about her youth. This was it, she supposed, and it seemed that it would go on and on and on. It wasn’t a pleasant thought. It was like walking across a desert without a hat.” (C 11)
  • he would stop loving her. Of course he would. How easy it was not to love her.” (C 11)
  • He’d heard it already, all around town, without actually having to hear the words. So soon, so soon, like an inane bird swooping over his head, calling to him everywhere he went.” (C 15)
  • He wanted to promise her something, to say that things would go back to the way they were, or that they would be different than they had become, but he loved her too much to lie and needed her too little to make it true.” (C 15)
  • each night he would allow himself to cry, but only for thirty seconds.” (C 16)
  • She was suddenly giddy with the foreignness of being here, which collided with an almost surreal familiarity.” (C 17)
December 2018;

Saturday, 1 December 2018

"Don't let go" by Harlan Coben

Written in the present tense, this thriller has a no-holds-barred cop-investigator solving a crime that seems to link to the death of his twin brother fifteen years earlier. The tension builds up to the half-way point when the whodunnit element starts to give way to thriller writing. There's plenty of raw violence involved. And of course, there are always several twists at the end.

But Coben is the king of the one-liners:

  • "Daisy wore a clingy black dress with a neckline so deep it could tutor philosophy." First line of the book! Great start.
  • "She could feel the eyes of the male patrons crawling down her bare legs like earthworms." Still on the first page.
  • "The mark peered into the class of whiskey in front of him as though he were a gypsy with a crystal ball." We're on the second page now. The image is easily available.
  • "Money can't buy you happiness ... but if you handle it right, money buys you freedom and time, and those are a lot more tangible than happiness." (C 7) Not sure you can describe either freedom or time as tangible but you get the idea
  • "The food is 'farm to table', though when you order eggs, I'm not sure what other route they'd go." (C 7)
  • "This is one of the moments when words would be like an appendix - superfluous or harmful." (C 9)
  • "I can't unring that bell." (C 14)
December 2018; 347 pages

Other Coben books reviewed in this blog:

Thursday, 29 November 2018

"The Great Divorce" by C S Lewis

This is a thought-provoking book on how to be a good Christian written in a very readable and entertaining manner. It is written by the great C S Lewis who also write:
Works of Science Fiction (or as he might have called it scientifiction) which are Christian allegories:

The Narnia books for children (which are also Christian allegories):

  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
  • Prince Caspian
  • The Magician's Nephew
  • The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
  • The Horse and His Boy
  • The Silver Chair
  • The Last Battle
Mediaeval literary criticism (the day job):
CSL imagines a bus trip from the dreary and lonely town of Hell through the sky into Heaven. And he imagines all the excuses the inhabitants of Hell make either not to get on the bus in the first place or to return to Hell after their journey.

His thesis is that in order to enter and stay in Heaven you have got to relinquish your self-centredness. As he says in the Preface: “You cannot take all luggage with you on all journeys”

Some people use excuses not to get on the bus:
  • A moment later two young people ... also left us arm in arm. They were both so trousered, slender, giggly and falsetto that I could be sure of the sex of neither, but it was clear that each for the moment preferred the other to the chance of a place in the bus.”
  • Others don’t like the company on the bus.
  • Some don’t think there will be room for them.
The newcomers in Heaven are Ghosts. They are greeted by the more substantial Angels who try to persuade them to stay. The Ghosts who can’t be persuaded include:
  • Those who insist on their rights and don’t want Charity.
  • Those who insist on their own opinions if they feel justified in them. 
  • Those who think that their lives would be improved if the Management changed the system: “What would you say if you went to a hotel where the eggs were all bad; and when you complained to the Boss, instead of apologising and changing his dairyman, he just told you that if you tried you’d get to like the bad eggs in time?
  • Those who are too ashamed to be seen in the company of angels.
  • Artists who are too in love with Art: “If you are interested in the country only for the sake of painting it, you'll never learn to see the country"
  • Mothers who love too fiercely.
  • Those who try to make others sorry for them and use this to manipulate others: “Pity was meant to be a spur that drives joy to help misery. But it can be used the wrong way round. It can be used for a kind of blackmailing. Those who choose misery can hold joy up to ransom by pity.”

The problem is that this means it is very hard to get into Heaven and CSL is worried by this: “If these Solid People were as benevolent as I had heard one of two of them claim to be, they might have done something to help the inhabitants of the Town - something more than meeting them on the plain ... How if this whole trip were allowed the Ghosts merely to mock them?” One answer offered is that “The sane would do no good if they made themselves mad to help madmen.” Another is that the great spirits of the blessed are just too large to squeeze into the narrow and cramped confines of Hell. I'm not sure that either truly address the question.

To enter Heaven CSL says we have to lose our self-centredness:
  • The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words ‘Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven’. ... There is always something they prefer to joy ... Achilles’ wrath and Coriolanus’ grandeur, Revenge and Injured Merit and Self-Respect and Tragic Greatness and Proper Pride.
  • Did ye never know a collector of books that with all his first editions and signed copies had lost the power to read them?
  • No natural feelings are high or low, holy or unholy, in themselves. They are all holy when God’s hand is on the rein. They all go bad when they set up on their own and make themselves into false gods.” 
  • There is but one good; that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to Him and bad when it turns from Him. And the higher and mightier it is in the natural order, the more demoniac it will be if it rebels. It's not out of bad mice or bad fleas you make demons, but out of bad archangels."
  • The false religion of lust is baser than the false religion of mother-love or patriotism or art: but lust is less likely to be made into a religion.
  • What we called love down there was mostly the craving to be loved.” 

Other great aphorisms include:
  • To travel hopefully is better than to arrive.” with the answer “If that were true, and known to be true, how could anyone travel hopefully? There would be nothing to hope for"
  • "Thirst was made for water; inquiry for truth. What you now call the free play of inquiry has neither more nor less to do with the ends for which intelligence was given you than masturbation has to do with marriage.
  • Jesus ... was a comparatively young man when he died. He would have outgrown some of his earlier views, you know, if he’d lived. As he might have done, with a little more tact and patience.
  • "Light itself was your first love: you loved paint only as a means of telling about light.

But one of the best things about a C S Lewis book are the brilliant descriptions:
  • Time seemed to have paused on that dismal moment when only a few shops have lit up and it is not yet dark enough for their windows to look cheering.
  • My attention was caught by my fellow passengers ... Now that they were in the light, they were transparent ... They were in fact ghosts: man-shaped stains on the brightness of that air.
  • One gets glimpses, even in our country, of that which is ageless - heavy thought in the face of an infant, and frolic childhood in that of a very old man.”
  • The bus was full of light. It was cruel light. I shrank from the faces and forms by which I was surrounded. They were all fixed faces, full not of possibilities but of impossibilities, some gaunt, some bloated, some glaring with idiotic ferocity, some drowned beyond recovery in dreams; but all, in one way or another, distorted and faded. One had a feeling that they might fall to pieces at any moment if the light grew much stronger. Then - there was a mirror on the end wall of the bus - I caught sight of my own.” 
  • If a corpse already liquid with decay had arisen from the coffin, smeared its gums with lipstick, and attempted a flirtation, the result could not have been more appalling.
Biographies about C S Lewis reviewed in this blog include:
November 2018; 118 pages

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

"A Question of Blood" by Ian Rankin

Detective Inspector John Rebus is in hospital with a pair of has a pair of bandaged hands when his sidekick Detective Sergeant Siobhan Clarke tells him that a criminal with whom Rebus had been seen drinking the night before has been burned to death and that two schoolboys have been shot to death in the common room of their public school. These cases both look open and closed: Rebus was on the scene and has scalded (or were they burned) hands; and there is an ex-SAS soldier gunman with the two dead boys who shot himself. But as Rebus and Clarke seek for the gunman's motive, as usual, all is never quite as it seems in the world of Edinburgh crime.

Another classic outing for one of the better detective series.

In fact there is a moment when Rankin transcends his genre. John Rebus goes to Alan Renshaw, the bereaved parent of one of the boys in the school shooting, who happens to be his cousin. He finds him in the loft, playing with his dead son's discarded racing car track. The two men play with the kit for a while until reminiscence gives way to anger. This scene provides one of the very best  portraits of the grief of a bereaved parent that I have read.

The many bits of business possible for a character with heavily bandaged hands is a master-class for novelists. Lighting a cigarette and lifting a glass to his mouth (favourite occupations for Rebus) offer original descriptions; wearing gloves elicits 'fascist' comments; Rebus needs Clarke to drive for him.

Rankin is also particularly good at providing a new twist on sayings. Many of these are too diffuse to quote but they offer an original way of viewing the character.

  • "Patience: the one thing he had no time for." (C 1)
  • "The woman was not cooking with a full set of saucepans." (C 13)
  • "The kettle's trailing the pot one-nil at half-time." (C 14)

Other interesting quotes:

  • "Inside, the flat was musty. There was a fug which could have been bottled as eau de Bachelor." (C 3)
  • "What was he watching for? Because it satisfied the voyeur in him? He'd always enjoyed surveillances for the same reason: glimpses into secret lives." (C 16)

A great addition to the Rebus corpus. I also recommend:

November 2018; 440 pages

Monday, 26 November 2018

"Ulysses Found" by Ernle Bradford

Based on a lifetime of sailing the Mediterranean in a small boat, this book locates the places in Homer's Odyssey. Homer often gives precise sailing instructions and detailed descriptions of harbours (the exception is the clearly mythical voyage to the land of the dead) and Bradford uses these to trace the voyage. Sometimes Bradford agrees with classical sources (almost everyone locates Scylla and Charybdis in the Messina strait between Sicily and Italy) and sometimes he disagrees but in every case he has excellent reasons for his identification. Of course, this all assumes that Homer was working with a sailor or sailors or at least with their log books, even when, as Bradford admits, citing the lack of any encounters with other voyagers in the Odyssey, the Greeks of Homer's time never adventured into the Western Mediterranean.

This is a brilliant, fascinating, well argued and convincing book and the meat of the argument is perfectly spiced with anecdotes about the author's own adventures.

The route that Bradford suggests makes sense both in terms of directions, times and likely speeds, and the descriptions of land. In short, Bradford suggests Ulysses travelled north from Troy to raid the Thracian coast near Mount Ismaro. He was then driven by a storm to the Island of Djerba off the Libyan coast, the Land of the Lotus Eaters. He then travelled north to the land of the Cyclopes in SE Sicily, north to Ustica (the Island of Aeoleus) and again north to Bonifacio on southern Corsica, the Land of the Laestrygonians. He then travelled east to Circe's island (actually a headland) on the Italian coast north of Naples. After Circe he travelled west through the r (to the Land of the Dead) and then back to Circe. Leaving her again he went via the Isles of the Sirens (just south of the Sorrento peninsula) through the Messian straits (Scylla and Charybdis) to Taormina in Sicily where grazed the Cattle of the Sun. He spent years on Calypsos island (Malta) before finally travelling home via Corfu (the Land of the Phaeacians).

I've created a series of maps for this which can be found here

Fascinating bits:

  • Odysseus means ‘son of wrath’. But Ulysses derives from Olysseus which comes from O Lukos, ‘the wolf’
  • When young U is wounded in the thigh by a boar in a hunting accident. “This wounding in the thigh seems to equate him with a number of eastern gods, Tammuz, Adonis, and Cretan Zeus, all of whom were wounded and killed by a boar. These stories all stem from a Phoenician source.” 
  • The rudder, as we know it today, was a north European invention, and probably originated in the Baltic. This axled, hinged rudder was still considered something of a modern invention when used in the caravels of Henry the Navigator in the early 15th century. It was unknown in the classical world.
  • Odyssey ca C12 BC: “ the Cretan, or Minoan, seapower had collapsed before invaders from the north ... the Phoenicians had not yet founded their colonies on the North African coast.
  • Polyphemus has ‘eyebrows’ in the Odyssey: “It is not till later times that he becomes monophthalmic.
  • Garlic itself has long been associated with magical properties ... s late as the 14th century ... we find that garlic was reputed to neutralize the lodestone, thus putting the magnetic compass out of action.
  • Comparatively few rivers of any size flow into the Mediterranean, and it loses by evaporation two-thirds more than it receives from its rivers. This steady loss is made good by an inflow of water from the Atlantic.” This will allow U to drift back to the Med after visiting the ‘land of the dead’.
  • The two mountains which face each other across the Strait were called ‘The Pillars of Melkarth’ by the Phoenicians. They took their name from the twin pillars of the great temple of Melkarth in the city of Tyre. ... Melkarth was not only a sea god in Phoenician mythology, he was also Lord of the Underworld, and it was between the pillars of the Strait of Gibraltar that he was believed to dwell.” which is why C sent U to Gibraltar to go into the Underworld.
  • Baltic Amber was being imported overland into prehistoric Greece centuries before the Homeric period.
  • It was the Phoenicians who first gave the island its name, Maleth or Malet - the Shelter, Haven, or Hiding Place ... the word ‘Calypso’ in Greek means ‘hidden’ or ‘hider’, and the Homeric words for Calypso’s isle, Neesos Kalupsous, can best be translated in English as ‘The Island of the Hiding Place’.
  • The Maltese archipelago was inhabited many centuries before the basin of the Mediterranean was flooded.

Great quotes
  • I do not think that anything is lost by attempting to find a skeleton - however magnificent the cupboard that hides it.
  • Ulysses was the shopkeeper with his thumb on the scales, and an eye for the girls, handy with a knife in a dark alley, and at the same time in some strange fashion or other, capable of honesty - or was it of great consistency? - over most of the major issues.” 
  • When men return from war it is their record as fighting men which usually determines their immediate position in society. Inevitably within a short time the standards of judgement change, so that often the war hero turns out to be a peace-time failure.”
  • In Trapani I have felt history as heavy as a plush curtain. ... One's own life is seen as no more than a minute drop of resin oozing from the trunk of some giant tree.
  • Places are little in themselves, you must earn them by your voyage.

A wonderful voyage.

November 2018; 221 pages

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

"The Wench is Dead" by Colin Dexter

Morse is in hospital with a stomach ulcer. For over a week! I suspect that he would have been seen in A & E and sent home with some tablets nowadays. Whilst there, putty in the hands of alternately  strict and beautiful nurses, he reads about a murder case of the 1800s and begins to suspect that the original verdict is incorrect. Aided by the indefatigable Sergeant Lewis and a visiting librarian he begins to put together the evidence that will unravel the mystery.

Fascinating from its account of how much leisure illness afforded us in the 1980s, Dexter successfully pads out a slimline murder mystery.

"There is a sadness which invariably and mysteriously accompanies the conclusion of any journey ... a presage of the last journey we all must take." (C 29)

A Morse book. The series started with Last Bus to Woodstock.

This book won the Gold Dagger from the Crime Writers' Association in 1989. Other winners include:

  • The Dry in 2017
  • Dodgers in 2016
  • The Spy who came in from the Cold in 1963

November 2018; 134 pages

Sunday, 18 November 2018

"Last Bus to Woodstock" by Colin Dexter

The very first Inspector Morse mystery, written in 1975.  It also introduces his sidekick, Sergeant Lewis. Set in the days when men, particularly Oxford dons, thought nothing of driving to a country pub for a few drinks, a spot of misogynist conversation, some casual sex with compliant barmaids or secretaries (who are apparently always up for it), and then driving back home and when you had to go to a cinema or back street newsagent to access pornography, this concerns a girl who, having hitch-hiked to Woodstock, is found with the skull smashed in in a pub car park. Although it depends too much on coincidence piled on coincidence for my taste, it is full of misdirection and there are some nice moments in which the author delays the reveal just a little bit longer.

Some great lines:

  • "Her pride and poverty semi-detached was still her real home." (Prelude)
  • "As I get older I must confess to the greater appreciation of two things in life - natural beauty and the delights of the belly." (C 11)
  • "There was something, too, about the hands of people who worked with metal: a sort of ingrained griminess, however patiently they were scrubbed." (C 22)

November 2018; 182 pages

Saturday, 17 November 2018

"Romeo and Juliet" by William Shakespeare

The classic love story about "star-cross'd lovers".

It is interesting that there is a prologue in the form of a sonnet which gives the plot away and that the Chorus delivers another sonnet prologue to Act Two but then the prologue's cease. This is a bit like the 'play within a play' idea in The Taming of the Shrew which Shakespeare also seems to have forgotten half way through. 

There is also a lot of word play and other stuff going on. The Nurse is a very garrulous figure of fun. Romeo's mates, Mercutio and Benvolio, do a lot of stag-talk (eg “Draw thy tool ... My naked weapon is out”). And the servants regularly come in with some comedy. Either Shakespeare needed fillers to pad out his rather simple story or he realised that the audience would want some gagging going on before the denouement.

Romeo Montague, pining with unrequited love for Rosalind, intercepts an invitation to a feast she will be present at ... but it is hosted by his family's sworn enemies, the Capulets. Going hidden to the feast he sees and falls in love with thirteen year old Juliet Capulet and she with him. Later that night, in the famous balcony scene, they pledge their love to one another and arrange a meeting at the holy cell of Friar Lawrence to get married.

But after they are married Romeo gets involved in a street brawl and kills Juliet's cousin Tybalt. This gets him banished from the city. Meanwhile, Juliet;s parents have made plans for her to marry Paris.

Romeo steals into Juliet's bedroom to consummate his marriage before fleeing to Mantua.

Friar Lawrence now gives Juliet a potion so she can feign death rather than marry Paris. The Friar's plan is for Romeo to come to the vault, disinter Juliet, and take her to Mantua. But the Friar's letter is dismayed and Romeo only hears that Juliet has died.

Romeo returns to Verona. Entering the vault he drinks poison to be with his wife. She then awakens, sees him dead, and stabs herself with his dagger.

November 2018

Other Shakespeare plays reviewed in this blog include (productions mentioned in parentheses; RSC = Royal Shakespeare Company; NT = National Theatre):

Friday, 16 November 2018

"Deja Dead" by Kathy Reichs

A serial killer is loose in Montreal. Pathologist Temperance Brennan decides the cops aren't working hard enough so conducts a few investigations on her own.

The strength of this otherwise predictable yarn lies in the detailed descriptions of, for example, the saw marks on the bones of a dissected corpse. For me, however, there was simply too much detail. Two pages on the different sorts of saws and their teeth? I skipped a lot of that. I guess I wasn't the target audience. We're all different.

In chapter 38 there seems to be a confusion between impotence (the inability to get an erection) with infertility (“goodbye spermatogenesis” as the detective says. This wouldn't matter ... except in a book which sells itself on medical detail.

There were some nice descriptions:
  • We sure aren't sitting any speed records clipping this worm.” (C 8)
  • Probably makes him harder than a math final.” (C 12)
  • His fingers felt cold and limp, like carrots kept too long in a cooler bin.” (C 16)
  • The little bastard’s about to blow a vocal chord. You don't get over there pretty quick he's going to circle right up his own asshole.” (C 17)
  • Two black kids ... wore ... pants big enough to have a nuclear family.” (C 35)

But I felt that “His eyes looked cold and hard, like some Mesozoic mammal.” (C 41) was meaningless. Does anyone know what the eyes of Mesozoic mammals (the very first mammals in the fossil record) looked like? And even if scientists do, I don't. 

But my most serious objection to this all-too-putdownable doorstopper was the stupidity of the main character. Even after discovering that she is personally being stalked by the serial killer, even after her best friend has been murdered, even after the killer has left a human head on her lawn, she still evades her police protection detail to go swanning about in Montreal's red light district. Even after finding that said killer has taken an interest in her daughter she fails to alert the police when she discovers her daughter's backpack outside her front door but can't find or in any way contact her daughter. Instead she goes into her house and waits for the serial killer to come and murder her. There comes a point when I refuse to suspend by disbelief any further.

November 2018; 509 pages

Thursday, 15 November 2018

"The Peterloo Massacre" by Joyce Marlow

On 16th August 1819 there was a mass meeting held at St Peter's Fields in Manchester protesting against the starvation wages being paid to cotton spinners and particularly weavers, and against the old system of Parliamentary representation which meant that Manchester, then the second largest city in England, had no MP. The meeting was addressed by Henry Hunt, a famous Radical. The Mancunian authorities were nervous that the crowd were going to attempt a revolution so they read the Riot Act and decided to arrest Hunt. The size of the crowd, tens of thousands, meant that they felt the police, mostly consisting of volunteer Special Constables recruited for the occasion, would be unable to accomplish the arrest and the dispersal of the crowd so the magistrates requested military back up. The Manchester  and Salford Yeoman Cavalry, a company of part-time amateur soldiers, were in readiness, having sharpened their sabres when recruited to attend the meeting. They had also been fortifying their nerves with spirits and were drunk. They charged the crowd resulting in at least a dozen deaths from trampling and sabre wounds and several hundred injuries. Since this happened four years after the Battle of Waterloo it became known as the Peter Loo, or Peter-Loo, or Peterloo Massacre. The right-wing reactionary Tory government of Prime Minister Lord Liverpool proceeded to refuse demands for an inquiry, to exonerate the panicking magistrates (promoting one of them) and to praise the over-reacting and murderous Yeomanry. They even prosecuted the Radicals who had been there and jailed a number of them. The Radical movement collapsed afterwards. However, it may be that the memory of Peterloo helped bring about the parliamentary reforms starting with the Reform Bill of 1832.

This is a well-written book. The first half is concerned with the situation before the Massacre: the economic condition of the weavers and spinners during the early Industrial Revolution, and the development of radical and Radical thought. The archaic methods of governing Manchester, a market borough owned by the Lord of the Manor who appointed the BoroughReeve, the Court of Leet, and the two Constables (while attempting to sell his manorial rights for £90,000), contributed to a magistracy that was out of touch with the people and prone to panic. The actual Massacre takes only a couple of chapters; after all, it happened quickly. The truly shocking aftermath of government reaction takes the rest of the book. Despite the fact that the gory bits are dealt with swiftly, this is a fascinating read.

A slice of working class history that deserves to be better known. November 2018; 208 pages

Friday, 9 November 2018

"The Loney" by Andrew Michael Hurley

The Loney is a bleak place on the Cumbrian coast where the tides can roar in and drown the unsuspecting. And in an isolated farmhouse three couples, two children and their parish priest arrive for a Catholic retreat with the ambition of effecting a miraculous cure for one of the boys who is mute. But their belief in God is challenged by mysterious things that begin to happen and by sinister men who seem to want to chase them away. And what is happening in the old house on the island that the tides cut off.

The Sunday Times called it an "excursion into terror". I wasn't in the least terrified. The most interesting part of the book is the character of the narrator's mother who is an obssessive compulsive religious; for whom religion is ritual and every ritual has to be performed correctly in every detail if there is to be any chance that God will perform a miracle and cure her mute, retarded son. In this she battles everyone including the gentle forgiving parish priest who is, in her eyes, no adequate replacement for the cruel disciplinarian he replaced. This is a novel in which religion is dissected: the narrow cruelties of small-minded ritualists versus forgiving generosity; the derelict customs of the sterile good versus the evil fecundity of magic.

The book is beautifully written. The descriptions are lovely and the evocation of the landscape masterful. The characters are depicted perfectly. But the plot is a textbook in hinting. Who are the sinister local men and what do they want? Why has a room in the house been sealed off and what is in it? Who is the very pregnant schoolgirl in the Daimler? Why is there a gun under the floorboards? And how did Father Wilfred die?

Some wonderful moments:

  • "The emerging springtime, that, when it came, was hardly a spring at all ... more the soggy afterbirth of winter." (C 2)
  • "I'd never seen a man be so unkind to his own body." (C 2)
  • "Pity is the only thing a drunk has in abundance." (C 2)
  • "The specious grin of a teacher who wishes to punish and befriend in equal measure and ends up doing neither."(C 3)
  • "All along the beach ... the sea had left its offerings like a cat trying to curry favour with its owner."(C 8)
  • "It was an albino with eyes that looked as if they had been marinated in blood." (C 10)
  • "Hell was a place ruled by the logic of children." (C 12)
  • "He was the type that, given a different time and place, would have joined the Hitler Youth like a shot or been on the front row at a public hanging." (C 14)
  • "Death was a poor draughtsman and had rendered his likeness just a little off-centre, giving him the look of someone who was almost familiar but lacking the something that made him so." (C 23)
  • "Praying's like tuning a radio ... You have to be on the right frequency, otherwise all God hears is static." (C 23)

A perfectly structured book with great characterisation and an evocative setting. A page-turner. November 2018; 360 pages

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

"The Woman in the Dunes" by Kobo Abe

This is a Kafkaesque novel. In prose suited to an impartial report this book tells of a teacher whose hobby is entomology. Seeking beetles he comes to a weird sand-bound village near the sea. He spends the night in a house at the bottom of the sand-pit ... and awakes to find he is trapped, condemned to labour digging sand out of the hole he is in. Of course he tries to escape ...

It seems to be a metaphor for life, in which we try to deny the necessities but time sweeps our dreams away and buries them.

This is not a page-turner although, like Kafka, it is very easy to read. It is wonderful because of its profound, though troubling, insight into the human condition, such as:
  • Punishment inflicted ... would mean that a crime had been paid for.” (C 7)
  • "Defeat begins with the fear that one has lost." (C 18)
  • "Time cannot be spurred on like a horse. But it is not quite so slow as a pushcart." (C 19)
  • Obligation is a man's passport among his fellow men” (C 19)
  • Life is a bound diary, and one first page is plenty for one book.” (C 19)
  • More than iron doors, more than walls, it is the tiny peephole that really makes the prisoner feel locked in.” (C 21)
  • One could not do without repetition in life, like the beating of the heart, but it was also true that the beating of the heart was not all there was to life.” (C 24)
  • Even flies won't come if you don't advertise.” (C 24)
  • It's an infernal punishment precisely because nothing happens.” (C 25)
  • What was the use of individuality when one was on the point of death?” (C 26)
  • Three days a beggar, always a beggar they say.” (C 28)
  • The fish you don't catch is always the biggest.” (C 28)
  • Patience itself was not necessarily defeat. Rather, defeat really began when patience was thought to be defeat.” (C 28)
As well insight he has some grotesquely original descriptions. I don't think I'll ever forget the boiled gristle or the taste of ear wax:
  • The man answered her with eyes in which time had ceased to run.” (C 20)
  • A strong smell like boiled gristle surrounded her.” (C 20)
  • He had dozed off for a moment, rolling over in the sweat and secretions which smelled like rancid fish oil.” (C 21)
  • His vocal cords were shredded like strands of dried squid” (C 21)
  • Maybe even a human being could sing such a song ... If tongs were driven into his nose and slimy blood stopped up his ears ... if his teeth were broken one by one with hammer blows, and splinters jammed into his urethra ... if a vulva were cut away and sewn onto his eyelids.” (C 22)
  • There was nothing that tasted so good as one's own ear wax ... it was better than real cheese.” (C 24)
  • Suddenly a sorrow the colour of dawn welled up in him.” (C 27) 
And there are other great quotes:
  • The village, resembling a cross-section of a beehive, lay sprawled over the dunes. Or rather the dunes lay sprawled over the village. Either way, it was a disturbing and unsettling landscape.” (C2)
  • Things with form were empty when placed beside sand. The only certain factor was its movement; sand was the antithesis of all form.” (C 6)
  • It was like to trying to float a house in the sea by brushing the water aside. You floated a ship on water in accordance with the properties of water.” (C 6) 
  • Rarely will you meet anyone so jealous as a teacher. Year after year students tumble along like the waters of a river. They flow away, and only the teacher is left behind, like some deeply buried rock at the bottom of the current. Although he may tell others of his hopes, he doesn't dream of them himself.” (C 11)
  • It only happened in novels or movies that summer was filled with dazzling sun. What existed in reality were humble, small town Sundays ... ... little scenes everyone has seen in the corner of some trolley ... people's pathetic jealousy and impatience with others’ happiness.” (C 14)
  • Why did places where animals live have such an unpleasant smell? Wouldn't it be fine if there were animals that smelled like flowers!” (C 24)
In the end, there is a sense of defeat: “They might as well lick each other's wounds. but they would lick forever, and the wounds would never heal, and in the end their tongues would be worn away.” (C 27)

Very thought-provoking. November 2018; 240 pages

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

"H. G. Wells" by Lovat Dickson

This is a biography of the writer of science fiction novels such as The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, and The Invisible Man, of 'serious' novels such as Kipps, The History of Mr Polly, and Love and Mr Lewisham, of a History of the world and many, many more books. Starting life as the son of ex-servants (told of in Tono-Bungay), failing to impress as a draper's apprentice, a chemist's apprentice, and a draper's apprentice (again), then failing as a teacher because his cousin the headmaster had "forged the necessary references and documents to obtain the position", enduring grinding poverty as a student, he became a lifelong socialist. Wells sparred with George Bernard Shaw and the Webbs before leaving the Fabians; later he interviewed both Lenin and Stalin. The private life of Dickson's "lusty, whoring, meat-eating, tubby hero" was scandalous, leaving his first wife to run away with the woman who became his second, then engineering a marriage that left him free to have affairs (he wasn't the only one: children's novelist Edith Nesbit lived among many children fathered by her husband - and their mothers), including fathering novelist and historian Anthony West on his long-standing lover, author Rebecca West (who wrote The Return of the Solider). Novels reflecting his advocacy of free love proved rather difficult even for a world famous author to publish in the years before the First World War. This book makes the point that we sometimes see the First World War as the watershed, after which the old order could no longer stand, but change was occurring before then. "Antagonisms between classes, between generations, even between the sexes, were expressing themselves in strikes and lockouts, in lack of sympathy between social classes, in women's struggle for emancipation, in political uncertainties. A new order was evolving, making the young impatient to inherit their destiny, and the old grimly reluctant to yield up authority." (C 12)

He was incredibly influential. "Test him for prophetic accuracy at any point, and he is nearly always right." (C 19). One book, The World Set Free, with its prediction of atomic warfare written in 1913, so horrified Leo Szilard that when he sought to patent his idea of a nuclear chain reaction he assigned the patent to the British Admiralty in order that it might be kept secret.

Yet somehow this biography failed to enthrall me. It virtually ignored some of his most famous works, such as The Invisible Man, concentrating instead on charting the development of his ideas in some of his later works. I was sometimes confused by the chronology. There were moments when episodes in the books were linked with real life experiences, and it is clear that Wells frequently turned friends and acquaintances (and enemies) into characters, but I still wanted more about the writing and less about the life. Perhaps I am being unrealistic. Perhaps I should read a literary evaluation rather than a biography.

Some more great lines:

  • "if an angel were to appear on earth, somebody would be sure to shoot it." (C 5)
  • "Jealousy and possessiveness are the natural accompaniment of any love affair" (C 6)
  • "the heaven Wells dreamed of in 1900 bears a distinct resemblance to the 1984 hell imagined half a century later by George Orwell." (C 7)
  • "The Christian Christ is too fine for him; he had no petty weaknesses." (C 9)
  • "He saw all the scandal as emanating from the Old Gang in the Fabian Society - not surprisingly, since he had succeeded in seducing the daughters of two of its most eminent members" (C 11)
  • "part of the price for such a misdemeanour has to be paid by those who have not drunk the wine and eaten the cake." (C 11)
  • "Self-sacrifice is a dream and self-restraint a delusion." (C 11)
  • "He was not powerless against the surge of sex so much as seeking it ... as a sensual release to a mind overburdened by thought." (C 12)
  • "Popular newspapers inclined the popular mind to the persuasion that just outside their humdrum lives drama impended." (C13) Panem et circenses I suppose.
  • "Sex had got out of the pages of daring novels and into the bed of the common man" (C 16)
  • "It was a poor time for prophets, since all of them must be Cassandras." (C 18)

October 2018; 317 pages

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

"Acts of Undressing" by Barbara Brownie

This is a fascinating book about something we do every day which can be regarded as extreme: taking our clothes off. The author covers (or should that be uncovers) public changing places; striptease and burlesque; clothes designed to reveal such as slashed jeans, skirts with slits and fishnet stockings; the sounds of zippers, poppers and Velcro; streaking, mooning and flashing; St Francis of Assissi (!); undressing as protest; denuding for dominance; sociofugal places; abandoned clothes as territorial markers; shoefiti and pseudocide.

Absolutely fascinating and easy to read.

Great quotes:
  • The human body is born naked, but moments after birth the body is clothed and begins a lifelong cycle of dressing and undressing.
  • The institutionalization and ubiquity of the nude body have prompted striptease performers to seek new means of delaying gratification, and so in contemporary burlesque the focus of performance is the undressing, not the nudity that results.”
  • The burlesque striptease is ... intermittent: punctuated by the removal of each part of the costume. There is typically a pause for celebration between each removal, as the audience is given time to appreciate the sight of the freshly unveiled area of skin or costume.
  • Fasteners cry out to be unfastened. They provide visual cues to how a garment may be removed from the body
  • As had been so well illustrated in Brave New World, the zipper’s sexual connotations arose largely because of the speed and ease at which it permits disrobing.”
  • "Zips, poppers and Velcro all have distinctive sounds ... Some kinds of fastenings make sounds only during unfastening: poppers can be significantly louder when unpopped than when popped, and Velcro is virtually silent when stuck together but generates clearly audible sound when pulled apart. Consequently, the sound of fastenings is more readily associated with undressing than with dressing.
  • Flashing, mooning and streaking straddle the fluid line that separates erotic and hostile gestures.
  • In Dunedin’s annual nude rugby game ... ‘reverse streaking’ occurs in which clothed spectators run onto the pitch.
  • The sporting arena is, and always has been, a venue for thinly veiled eroticism ... the sports spectator’s gaze is both respectful and erotic. Spectators’ viewing habits are based partly on the perceived sexual attractiveness of particular athletes, even when an athlete is not explicitly a subject of his or her erotic fantasies.
  • Sports practices have always straddled the boundary between athleticism and eroticism, and ancient civilizations ‘acknowledged and celebrated the erotic element in sports’.
  • In a sports setting, clothing has special value as an indicator of team brand loyalty. Sports fans are visibly marked tribes, and clothing is an essential part of the expression of one’s fandom ...The removal of clothes in this context therefore acts in part to neutralize the streaker.
  • "Nakedness has been imposed (through persuasion and force) to reinforce the perception of natives as primitives. Among European and American slave traders, nakedness was imposed to keep perceived savages in their place, as a sign of their status as chattel.
  • For those at the very top of human hierarchy, denuding is a means of stripping signs of power and status, as when regalia are torn from those condemned to execution
  • Class differentiation [is] ... one of the driving forces of fashion”.
  • ‘sociofugal’ spaces, such as libraries, in which ‘people typically try to avoid one another’. ... users accept and reinforce their isolation by marking a large territory around their immediate location. This may involve placing coats and scarfs on neighboring chairs
  • One anonymous caller ... describes tossed shoes that once belonged to gang members who have been shot dead. He describes a local ritual of removing the shoes from a fellow gang member’s feet before the police arrive to claim the body.
  • Graffiti frequently appears in apparently inaccessible spaces is evidence of ‘spatial conquest’.
  • ‘Place hackers’—urban daredevils whose aim is to reach the most inaccessible locations they can find ... There is an element of skill in accessing an apparently inaccessible site, which attracts admiration (or envy) from fellow artists and audiences.
  • ‘The conquest of territory ... is always an act performed for an audience.’ There is a primary audience who directly view the act of territorial marking, and secondary audience who learn of an individual’s presence by observing the marker afterward.
October 2018;

Sunday, 28 October 2018

"Macbeth" by William Shakespeare

The Scottish play. One of the very best. Witches tell Macbeth he will be king. His wife encourages him to assassinate King Duncan and assume the throne. One murder engenders more until the forces of retribution assemble outside the castle.

I hope to see this play on Saturday 12th January at the Barbican in an RSC production. I have previously seen a youth production which was marred by the fact that nearly every line was shouted. There is a lot of dark in Macbeth and a lot of drama; it is perhaps the most unremitting of Shakespeare's plays with only a single comic pause; even Hamlet lets up more than this intense play. But for that very reason the actors have to vary to tone. Evil can be shouty but perhaps a whispered evil is more scary, especially when it acts as contrast.

Macbeth is a play with many themes. It was first performed in 1606 at Hampton Court in front of King James who was descended from Banquo. It was a few months after the Gunpowder Plot so the idea of treason was very topical. There are a couple of references to 'equivocation' in Macbeth, most notably in Act 2 Scene 3. Equivocation was practised by some Roman Catholic priests (who were banned persons in Shakespeare's time) because their vows would not permit them to tell a lie to the authorities but they could say things that were true if you interpreted them correctly. Thus, for example, the prophecies made by the witches in Act Four Scene One are equivocal; they are taken by Macbeth to mean that he cannot be killed but in fact outline the circumstances of his downfall. Since the trial of Father Garnet which brought equivocation to the attention of the Jacobean public was in the Spring of 1606 it would seem that Macbeth was almost certainly written after this time. These poses problems for those who believe that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, wrote Shakespeare's plays since he died in 1604.

Macbeth is full of motifs which play to the idea of equivocation, or saying one thing when the other is true. For example, in the very first scene, the dramatic opening of three witches on a blasted heath, they talk about losing and winning (they will meet again "when the battle's lost and won"), a theme continued in the last line of scene 2 when King Duncan says “What he [Cawdor] hath lost, noble Macbeth hath won.”; and they say that "fair is foul and foul is fair" which is repeated in Macbeth's first line (A1S3): “So foul and fair a day I have not seen”. Shakespeare repeatedly uses irony to underscore this point about equivocation: Macbeth is called 'noble', his wife is called 'gentle'; we will see these are very far from the truth.

The story is that Macbeth meets three witches who prophesy that he will become King. When the King comes to stay in Macbeth's castle, M, urged on by his wife, Lady M, assassinates the King. The King's sons flee and Macbeth becomes King. But “To be thus is nothing; /But to be safely thus.” To secure his crown Macbeth must murder his friend Banquo and those who are suspicious of how he attained the throne, killing Macduff's wife and children when he is unable to capture Macduff. Eventually, the forces of opposition lead an army against him and he goes down fighting.

This play has some wonderful dramatic moments, such as the witches, and in the very centre of the play the ghost of Banquo, seen only by Macbeth. It has Lady Macbeth sleep-walking, maddened by her conscience. It only has one comic moment which occurs immediately after the assassination of Duncan. It also has some profound and some heart-rending meditations on betrayal, murder, and death.
  • Prophecy:
    • If you can look into the seeds of time/ And say which grain will grow and which will not, /Speak then to me” 
  • Fate:
    • If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me/ Without my stir.
  • Ambition:
    • "I fear thy nature, /It is too full o’th’milk of human kindness /To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great, /Art not without ambition, but without /The illness should attend it."
  • Wicked womanhood:
    • "Come, you spirits /That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, /And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full /Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood; /Stop up the access and passage to remorse, /That no compunctious visitings of nature/ Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between /The effect and it! Come to my woman's breasts, /And take my milk for gall"
    • "I have given suck, and know /How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me: /I would, while it was smiling in my face, /Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums, /And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you /Have done to this."
  • Uncertainty:
    • "If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well /It were done quickly: if the assassination /Could trammel up the consequence, and catch /With his surcease success; that but this blow / Might be the be-all and the end-all here, /But here, upon this bank and shoal of time, /We'd jump the life to come."
  • Insomnia (as a result of a guilty conscience):
    • "Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more! /Macbeth does murder sleep', the innocent sleep, /Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care, / The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath, /Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course, /Chief nourisher in life's feast .../Glamis hath murder'd sleep, and therefore Cawdor /Shall sleep no more; Macbeth shall sleep no more."
  • Life and death:
    • To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, /Creeps in this petty pace from day to day /To the last syllable of recorded time, /And all our yesterdays have lighted fools /The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! /Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage /And then is heard no more: it is a tale /Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, /Signifying nothing.”
Professor Sir Jonathan Bate in a Gresham College Lecture originally delivered 27th March 2019 at the Museum of London points out that “in classical literature, ghosts have three main functions: to call for vengeance if they have been murdered, to warn society of bad times to come, and to demand proper burial, without which they cannot proceed into the underworld. ... Shakespeare’s development of the figure of the ghost is to combine what could be described as the classical nemesis and augury functions – the ghost as sign that the downfall of the murderer is nigh or that something is rotten in the state – with a modern conscience function, the idea that the apparition is a figment of the guilty imagination of the person who thinks they see it.” He then suggests that in Macbeth the nemesis function is provided by the witches while the auguries come from the strange things happening in the natural world.

Arthur Quiller-Couch in Shakespeare's Workmanship suggests that the biggest problem facing Macbeth's author was that “Tragedy demands some sympathy with the fortunes of its hero.”. That this is achieved in Macbeth is shown by the fact that the ghost of Banquo appears to Macbeth alone (and the audience). Furthermore, as Aristotle pointed out in his Poetics, the proper subject for tragedy has to be a good man who goes wrong through weakness. But Macbeth goes spectacularly wrong along every dimension. He is a soldier who betrays his general, a subject who betrays his king, a host who murders his guest, a gift-receiver who betrays the trusting giver, a strong man who murders the defenceless. Q-C compares him to Milton's Satan who says “Evil, be thou my good”, which is a version of “Fair is foul, and foul is fair. The only way in which the audience can understand the multiply evil Macbeth is if they feel that he is somehow not in his right mind. For Elizabethan audiences madness was unlovely (they punished lunatics) but they believed that witches could enchant. This is the reason for the witches.

Q-C also suggests that Shakespeare “has deliberately flattened down every other character to throw up Macbeth and Lady Macbeth into high relief.” The only other character of interest is that of Banquo who acts as "a peaceful focus radiating the calm of moral solution throughout all the difficulties and disasters of surrounding fate; a vital centre, which, like that of a great wheel, has little motion in itself, but which at once transmits and controls the fierce revolution of the circumference.” Shakespeare often used such a character: Horatio in Hamlet and Kent in King Lear are other examples. This is why Shakespeare changes history to ensure the Banquo does not take part in Duncan's assassination and this is why Macbeth has Banquo killed: not because B is a danger to him but because B acts as a reproach.

Finally, Q-C suggests that Macbeth is like a Greek tragedy: “Though it is full of blood and images of blood, the important blood-shedding is hidden, removed from the spectator’s sight ... Duncan is murdered off the stage; Lady Macbeth dies off the stage; Macbeth makes his final exit fighting, to be killed off the stage.

October 2018

Other Shakespeare plays reviewed in this blog include (productions mentioned in parentheses; RSC = Royal Shakespeare Company; NT = National Theatre):