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 December 2019

"The New Men" by C P Snow

This is a novel set during the second world war. The narrator, Lewis Eliot (whom I believe is the narrator of a number of C P Snow's novels) works in Whitehall for a committee overseeing the development of the atom bomb; his brother Martin is one of the scientists developing the bomb. The issues surrounding the development of weapons of mass destruction are explored: some of the scientists protest against their work being used to kill and seek ways of preventing the use of the bomb although they are equally aware of the need to have the bomb before the enemy; some of the scientists decide to pass their work onto the Russians as a way of maintaining a balance of power, they are detected and jailed for betraying official secrets; their is a real sense of the shock and moral outrage at the use of the bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

One particular point of personal interest was that my dad did wartime scientific research although he was working on the development of airborne radar which helped to keep UK citizens safe from Luftwaffe bombing raids (by helping RAF fighter pilots shoot down bombers). With his work my dad probably helped defend the UK more than the average soldier but dad's work was unrecognised whereas soldiers love their medals. So the idea in this book of the little community of scientists, hidden in the English countryside, working away on critical research and yet somehow isolated from the actual military events, resonated with me.

There is a huge culture clash between the scientists and the politicians. The politicians think in terms of official secrets, betrayals and traitors, of giving comfort to the enemy. The views of the scientists are summarised by Martin: “Martin was a secretive man; but keeping scientific secrets ... was to him a piece of evil, even if a necessary evil. In war you had to do it, but you could not pretend to like it. Science was done in the open, that was a reason why is had conquered; if it dwindled away into little secret groups hoarding their results away from each other, it would become no better than a set of recipes, and within a generation would have lost all its ideals and half its efficacy.” (C 19) The politicians think of winning the war; it is the scientists who are appalled by Hiroshima.

One of the things that C P Snow is particularly good at reflections. The relationship between the two brothers, the civil servant Lewis and the scientist Martin, in which Lewis argues Martin into doing things he doesn't want to do, is reflected in the way Lewis tries to control his younger brother in the matter of Martin's marriage; the instability of the wartime marriages among the scientific community reflects the uncertainties of the moral questions being discussed.

But there are much smaller reflections:

  • The two brothers are discussing Martin's proposed wife and Martin admits that he cares for the woman. In the fireplace: “The coals fell suddenly, leaving a bright and fragile hollow in which the sparks stood still as fireflies.” (C 1)
  • At yet another discussion between the brothers they walk through a park where a game of cricket is taking place: “At three successive balls the batsman made a scooping shot, and gave a catch which went in a gentle curve, very softly, to point; the first catch was seriously and solemnly missed. So was the second. So was the third.” (C 27) This reflects the way Lewis repeatedly fails to catch on as his brother tries to open up to him.

Great moments:

  • He did not take refuge, as society evened itself out, in a fantastic and comic snobbery.” (C 10)
  • I used to think scientists were supermen. But they're not supermen, are they? Some of them are brilliant, I grant you that. But between you and me ... a good many of them are like garage hands.” (C 10)
  • Has there ever been a weapon that someone did not want to let off?” (C 10)
  • The engineers ... the people who make the hardware, who used existing knowledge to make something go, were, in nine cases out of ten, conservatives in politics, acceptant of any regime in which they found themselves, interested in making their machine work, indifferent to long-term social guesses. Whereas the physicists, whose whole intellectual life was spent in seeking new truths, found it uncongenial to stop seeking when they had a look at society. They were rebellious, questioning, protestant, curious for the future and unable to resist shaping it.” (C 25)
  • The chief virtue of this promising new age ... is that from here on we needn’t pretend to be better than anyone else.” (C 26)
  • I had not yet seen a woman, or a man either, who had lived a life of sexual adventure, give it up without a bitter pang that the last door have clanged to.” (C 30)
  • In those that I had seen die, the bitterest thought was what they had left undone.” (C 33)
  • I could not recall of those who had known more than their share of the erotic life, one who, when the end came, did not think that his time had been tolerably well spent.” (C 33)

An enjoyable read. December 2019; 236 pages

Friday, 27 December 2019

"Carrie's War" by Nina Bawden

A newly-widowed mother, on holiday with her children, revisits the Welsh village to which she was evacuated during the war, and tells her children the story of what happened there. "After all, what happened wasn't my fault, couldn't have been, it just didn't make sense ... I did a dreadful thing, the worst thing of my life ... and nothing can change it." (C 1). A thus, with the frame narrative providing the hood, we can flashback and develop the story at leisure, and learn about the characters: Carrie, aged twelve, and her younger brother Nick and their hosts mean Mr Evans who keeps the shop and his down-trodden sister Auntie Lou; and the other lot she discovers at the farm: Hepzibah Green and the idiot Mister Johnny and the boy they are hosting: bookish Albert Sandwich.

This is a classic tale about the misunderstandings of a child. A simple narrative with great characters (Albert's role is as truth teller and wise man at the age of 14) and a carefully constructed plot:

  • Use of the frame to provide a hook and thus allow more time for early character building
  • Discovery of the farmhouse with Hepzibah and Mister Johnny and Albert just after the quarter mark
  • Albert kisses Carrie at almost exactly half way. Almost immediately Carrie's relationship with Mr Evans changes and Auntie Lou develops a love interest.
  • Carrie says the wrong thing just before the three-quarters mark, which is when the Will goes missing (or does it?)
  • Carrie does the bad thing in the middle of the last quarter. But the final twist in the framed story has still to come.

Some great moments.

  • "It was her nature to look on the bright side. If she found herself in Hell ... she'd just say, 'Well, at least we'll be warm'." (C 2)
  • "I would hate to be ordinary" (C 7)
  • "Rich people's charity can be a cold business." (C 8)

A wonderfgul read. December 2019; 192 pages

Thursday, 26 December 2019

"Found" by Erin Kinsley

A boy, Evan, is abducted on the way home from school. A police hunt begins. Months pass.

Then the boy, still alive, is discovered in the boot of a car at a petrol station. Traumatised by his experiences he becomes an elective mute.

The book follows his journey, struggling with his memories on a Yorkshire farm with his grandparents (one of whom has serious cancer), and at the same time follows the police investigation, made more urgent when another boy is taken.

It is a brilliant concept and a real page-turned; I raced through it in an evening and a morning session. I was a little sceptical about the use of elective mutism: it seemed a little like a plot device so that Evan's evidence, which helps to solve the case, can't be realised until the book is nearing its climax. The police procedural aspect is also slowed down by resource constraints so that some leads that at the end seem obvious are not followed up. But the account of Evan's rehabilitation and his life with his grandparents, both of whom are undergoing the mundane tragedies associated with old age, is realistic and humane and, near the end, brought a tear to my eye.

Plot turning points: spoiler alert

  • Almost exactly half way through the book is a big turning point when Evan's mother who, since his abduction and even after his recovery has been going downhill, decides to stop drinking, clean the house and sort herself out.
  • Evan's recovery is at 19%. This is perhaps a little early. He is articulate when he tells the police his name and asks for his mother to come and get him. It is afterwards that he turns mute (and this is later explained by telling us that he can't talk about the paedophile abuse he suffered to his parents)
  • Evan's grandmother dies (which triggers the beginning of his speaking again) almost exactly at the two-thirds mark. The second kidnap happens almost immediately afterwards.

Great lines:

  • "I'm every woman's type, I am. Loaded with charm, like a pizza with every kind of topping."
  • "A picture of innocence whose innocence is lost."

December 2019; 369 pages

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

"In the Office of Constable" by Sir Robert Mark

Sir Robert Mark was Commissioner of London's Metropolitan Police between 1972 and 1977. Notable events during his tenure included the attempted kidnapping of Princess Anne, the Balcombe Street siege in which three IRA terrorists were eventually captured and the Spaghetti House siege which was an armed robbery gone wrong. Mark was responsible for a reform of the Met, in particular the CID, to root out what was then almost endemic corruption. On a less positive note, he was in charge when a clash between left wing protesters and the National Front led to mounted police charging the left wing protesters and the subsequent death of a protester; Mark notes the incident but points out that the police were exonerated in Lord Scarman's subsequent report (although Scarman notes the unlikely possibility that the death was caused by a police truncheon). He was also Commissioner during the Grunwick dispute when he authorised the deployment of the paramilitary Special Patrol Group against the strikers who were mostly East Asian women whose average weekly pay was less than 40% the national average. His views might best be described as right-wing:

  • "The disgraceful behaviour of left-wing extremists at Red Lion Square, at Grunwick ..." (C 19)
  • "the Shrewsbury pickets had committed the worst of all crimes, worse even than murder, the attempt to achieve an industrial or political objective by criminal violence." (C 12) Two trades unionists, one of whom was Ricky Tomlinson who subsequently became known as an actor, were convicted of 'conspiracy to intimidate' under the Conspiracy Act of 1875 and imprisoned; their offence had been to organise 'flying' pickets to try to prevent non-unionised workers from accessing a building site during an industrial dispute.
  • "We would not let any legal niceties prevent us from dealing with terrorism" (C 13)
  • "Stupid people always present much greater problems than the intelligent because they are always so unpredictable." (C 14)
  • "The raising of the school leaving age ... with its consequence increase in truancy was followed by a significant increase in burglaries and auto-crime in Inner London." (C 15)
  • He feels that women police officers are "an expensive investment, because on average, they serve under four years before leaving, usually on marriage." (C 17)
  • "The English judicial system ... is, in reality, effective only for dealing with the compliant, the weak, the stupid, the illiterate and the spontaneous wrongdoers" (C 20)
  • "the ghettoes of London, created by the idealist and the inept." (C 24)
  • "Police have suffered many casualties in trying to cope with crime and vandalism by black youngsters." (C 24)

He established A10 in Scotland Yard to investigate cases of corruption amongst the Met officers but he resigned over a law which set up external scrutiny of police misconduct. He doesn't appear to understand, despite quoting, Juvenal's 'Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?': who guards the guards themselves? His main argument is that lay people (unless they were part of the 'establishment') would be incompetent to judge police: "If they were non-establishment figures ... they would not, in assessing police misconduct ... know their backside from their elbow." (C 16) But if it is foolish to trust the guards to guards the guards it is little better to expect them to be guarded adequately by their rugby-playing cronies.

He attacks the jury system on the same basis: that jurors might not be as well-educated as he would like: "If the one person in the criminal justice process most fitted by education, training and experience to decide the issue, namely the judge, is to be denied that right, how much more illogical is it to confer it upon any one of twelve random jurymen, least fitted by deafness, stupidity, prejudice, or one of a hundred other reasons to do so?" (C 22) But the jury system was designed so that the ordinary people had a say in the administration of justice precisely as a safeguard against the narrowness of opinion that characterises the judgement of any one group even if they have been trained to judge.

He is writing before the creation of the Crown Prosecution Service and he defends the then right of the police to initiate prosecutions: "there is no conceivable justification for adding to their [lawyers] discretion ion the pursuance or conduct of prosecutions the right to decide whether to prosecute or not. That right is presently exercised by the police on behalf of the people." (C 22) The problem is that the police could prosecute even when there was little chance of a conviction. But then, Mark seems to regard acquittals as a failure to convict, as if anyone presented to trial by the police must necessarily be guilty. Thus, when 29 out of 82 people are acquitted after an expensive trail following the Notting Hill Carnival "the proceedings were a fitting comment on the remoteness of the stipendiary magistracy" rather than suggesting that the police had put forward innocent people for trial (C 17) While he was in Leicester he discovered that 39% of those tried for crimes of violence were acquitted which he describes as "extraordinary"; he concludes that the justice system was a failure (rather than the police). Acquittal, for Mark, means "forensic trickery" or corrupt lawyers, never inefficient or possible corrupt policemen.

He was, of course, writing at a time of increased terrorism in Britain. We today feel threatened by terrorism; in 1976 "in London alone there had been 182 explosive devices and 11 shootings." In England and Wales "58 people had been killed". We seem to have forgotten Irish terrorism.

He has a tendency to use sentence fragments, for example: "Came the great day when the survivors were packed with their kit into a three-tonner en route for Sandhurst." (C 3)

Some other memorable moments:

  • "A poor old woman in a virtually furniture-less hovel In Bradford ... had starved to death. There was one stale crust, a little sour milk, no fire and bare floorboards." (C 2)
  • "In Manchester birds and plant life required a real talent for survival." (C 3)
  • "It seemed to me wrong in principle that the ability to park in the centre of a city on highways ... should depend on the ability to pay." (C 5)
  • "Courts are inclined to generosity in handing out public money, especially if the recipients are lawyers." (C 10)
  • "It is a quirk of human nature that jurymen faced with the choice between a pornographer and a do-gooder will usually choose the former. There is nothing less appealing to the ordinary mortal than unattractive virtue." (C 13)
  • "Though we were deeply concerned about the safety of the hostages I did not consider for one moment that they were not expendable. I felt ... that human life was of little importance when balanced against the principle that violence must not be allowed to succeed." (C 14)
  • "Crime ... monopolizes much ... of what laughingly passes for literature." (C 19)
  • "The police are therefore very much on their own in attempting to preserve order in an increasingly turbulent society in which socialist philosophy has changed from raising the standards of the poor and deprived to reducing the standards of the wealthy, the skilled and the deserving." (C 19)

Memoirs are always flawed by the fact that it is difficult to structure reality in the way a novelist can. But this one is also marred by the self-congratulatory smugness and the inability to see anyone else's point of view.

December 2019; 311 pages

Another memoir from a high-ranking policeman: Not for the Faint-Hearted by John Stevens

Saturday, 21 December 2019

"Strumpet City" by James Plunkett

The story of some interlinked lives in Dublin in the years before the First World War. There are rich people such as Mr Bradshaw who own gerry-built tenements, and his well-meaning but ineffectual wife, and their friend Mr Yearling, an employer who sympathises with the poor workers. There are the priests: Father O'Connor, blinded by his faith to the material hunger of his parishioners (to the extent of kidnapping children who are being sent by their parents to Liverpool so they don't starve to prevent them being sent into Protestant homes), Father Gilchrist, his poor-sympathising superior who is sinking into alcoholism, and Father O'Sullivan who does modest good. And there are the legions of the poor: Mary who loses her job as maid to the Bradshaws and becomes the wife of Fitz, a foundry worker, who is best friend to Pat who has fallen in love with good-hearted prostitute Lily; there are the others who live in their tenement: Hennesey who can never hold down a job but fathers a growing brood on his anxious wife; Rashers, beggar and busker, who lives in the basement with his dog Rusty; and Mulhall, a man so vigorous you can never imagine him going sick.

The theme of the book is the battle between the workers, striking for better wages, and the employers, determined to resist them. The backdrop is poverty and hunger. There are good people and there are bad people. Tragedies happen and there is happiness. The key of a good book is whether I wanted to read to the end to find out what happened ... and I did. The key to a good book is whether it contains moments that make you sit back and reflect upon the world ... and it did (they are below). But it sometimes felt a bit worthy and a bit preachy; there was no question who was right and who was wrong.

Great moments:
BOOK ONE 1907–1909
Chapter 1
  • Mrs. Bradshaw, in her efforts to stifle a scream, continued to pour strong tea over the tablecloth for some seconds.
  • Almost from birth she had shaped his mind to regard life as a trivial moment which had slipped by mistake through the sieve of eternity, a scrap of absurdity which would glow for a little while before it was snatched back into eternity again.
  • She thought, a little wistfully, that a touch of human weakness in her husband would have been nice, her husband who was so good but at times so meticulous, at times so grumpy with rectitude.
  • The rockets made a playground of the sky.
Chapter 2
  • ‘The poor are generally regarded as being more religious than the rich,’ Yearling continued, ‘but of course that isn’t true. They are simply more impressionable and have less to lose.’”
Chapter 3
  • In this country the ones that don’t fight are not worth your attention and the ones that do bring nothing but heartbreak.
Chapter 4
  • Miss Gilchrist’s partial paralysis remained, until in the end Mr. Bradshaw made up his mind. Her removal to the workhouse upset Mrs. Bradshaw for several months.”
Chapter 6
  • To get married. To sleep in the sweat of one bed and deposit in due time a few more animal faces among the dirt and the dilapidation.
Chapter 9
  • But he had come to see that the security itself was a mirage; people he did not know and would never meet decided its extent and continuance for reasons that suited only themselves. He and the others did not count.”

BOOK TWO 1910–1912
Chapter 1

  • You were never so destitute that the only piece of property you ever owned was your poor body.
Chapter 4
  • I’m a Catholic. I don’t want to be made ashamed of my Church.
  • The poorer and hungrier they were, the less fitted to stand up against weather. The poorer and the hungrier, the more often they had to face it.
  • That was one good thing about religion. No one owned it. No one could put a wall around it and lock the gate on you.
Chapter 5
  • Horses, when you worked with them for a long time, he thought, were like any other working mate. Some were lazy and forgetful, some had good humours and bad, some were inexhaustible and patient and long suffering, pulling loads without flinching until the great heart inside them burst.
  • But you couldn’t stop them using machinery. Machinery meant more profit, and profit was the beginning and the end of everything. Roads and bridges and buildings would be reduced to rubble wherever they impeded profit. Men would be laid off and children would go hungry. For the sake of the machines families would know want.
  • There is no such thing as companionship ... when it comes to coping with the melancholy intimations of Anno Domini.”
Chapter 6
  • the gardens of the well-to-do he despised as so many useless acres of multi-coloured vegetation.”
  • When you were destitute nothing lucky ever happened. The more you were in want, the more you’d go without ... if it was raining soup, you’d have nothing but a fork.
Chapter 7
  • The great thing was not to be clever but to have Faith."

BOOK THREE 1913–1914 
Chapter 6
  • Socialism, as a very eminent Jesuit has clearly shown, is the worst enemy of the working man. It uproots his confidence in hierarchical order. It preaches discontent. It makes him covetous of the property of his social superiors, and impatient with the trials and obligations of his own station in life.
Chapter 8
  • There was a time when he had intended to grow a beard because it seemed a pity not to give expression to one’s total potentiality.
Chapter 9
  • Poverty, he had noticed before, had its own peculiar smell. A man’s station could be judged by what the body exhaled. Expensive odours of brandy and cigars; sour odours of those who nourished nature with condensed milk and tea.
Chapter 11
  • the cupped depression worn in the granite flag at the entrance gate by countless churchgoing feet.

December 2019

Irish fiction reviewed in this blog:

  • Strumpet City by James Plunkett: a book about the poor in Dublin in the early 20th Century
  • Teacher Man by Frank McCourt: the sequel to Angela's Ashes: an Irish exile in New York
  • Dubliners by James Joyce: the classic short stories
  • Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgworth: a classic first published in 1800
  • Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle: a boy grows up in Ireland
  • The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan: set in the recession of the early 21st Century

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

"Stanley: The making of an African Explorer" by Frank McLynn

This is a partial biography of the man who became Sir Henry Morton Stanley which ends after his crossing of Africa from East coast to West coast, a journey that took him 999 days.

When I was a boy, I read a book called something like "With Stanley up the Congo." wehich was a boy's own adventure story type of book which I (being a boy who enjoyed tales of derring do) loved; I was unaware at the time of all the problems involved in colonialism. I thought of Stanley as a British Hero. McLynn's book has certainly changed this idea.

It is an amazing and revelatory book. Stanley was a horrid man. He had a strange relationship with sex. He told appalling lies. He drove his men to death: the first five white men who accompanied him on his explorations all died en route; countless Africans also died. He fought his way across Africa in battle after battle. He epitomised the worst excesses of colonialist racism.

And on a personal level, Stanley's fame in England was such that my grandfather was named after him.

Stanley was born John Rowlands on 28th January 1841 although he was buried with a birth date of 10th June 1840 and he believed for a long time that he had been born in 1843. He was the eldest son of Elizabeth Parry who had four children out of wedlock; he was born in  Wales and spent some of his young life in a cottage in the grounds of Denbigh Castle; being an unwanted burden on his family he was taken to the local workhouse (following the death of his grandfather, with whom he was living, he was fostered by a couple who, when Stanley's family refused to continue paying for his upkeep, betrayed Stanley's trust by telling him they were taking him to his Aunt's) when he was six.

McLynn suggests that the workhouse was responsible for Stanley's subsequent dysfunctional sexuality: "The workhouse system was ... a breeding ground of promiscuity, vice and perversion. ... Among the workhouse 'clientele' were prostitutes giving birth of recovering from venereal disease, young girls learning the tricks of the trade from their elder sisters, sodomites and other perverts. The children slept two to a bed, invariably an older with the younger, so that the already depraved corrupted the young.  ... We may therefore conjecture that Stanley was at the very least sexually assaulted and manhandled even if he was probably not ... the victim of actual homosexual rape." (C 1)

At the workhouse, Stanley was taught  by James Francis. In his adult writings, Stanley characterised Francis as a sadistic monster and tells of an incident when, rather than face a beating, he thrashed the schoolmaster before escaping from the workhouse with a fellow pupil. This incident appears to be made up; the workhouse records show no 'escape' at this time; it is possible that Stanley borrowed the story from Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens. Furthermore, McLynn suggests that Francis favoured Stanley, praising him, buying him cakes, putting him forward for prizes and trying to reconcile him with his mother. He also put Stanley "in charge of discipline during his absence; Stanley ... would thrash enthusiastically any pupil who stepped out of line." (C 1) This portrayal of his teacher seems to be one of Stanley's many misleading statements and outright lies.

Following his troubled childhood, he went to sea as a cabin boy and was brutally beaten which led to him leaving the ship in America. Here he met, a lived with, a childless couple called Stanley; he soon fell out with them. More untruths occur when he describes the death of his adopted father  as if he had been there; he records this in his diary: "To lie to the world is one thing; to lie to oneself in the privacy of one's diary argues for serious neurosis." (C 2)

He then enlisted in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War and was captured and spent some time in an appalling prisoner of war camp from which he escaped by the expedient of enlisting in the Union army; he was almost immediately discharged because he was ill. After a period as a merchant seaman he re-enlisted with the Union Navy where he met 15-year-old Lewis Noe; the pair deserted together; he proposed they should make money by Stanley enlisting Noe in another regiment and collecting the bounty, then Noe would desert and they could repeat the operation. Perhaps fortunately the Civil War was over soon after that idea.

He then took Noe to Turkey. The idea was to travel to Persia, pick up the precious stones that littered the ground there, and bring them back to America for sale. But when they arrived in Turkey, Stanley 'tested' the now 17 year old Noe by making him steal from local villages as they travelled. Then, in a forest clearing, he tied Noe up and whipped him in a sado-masochistic frenzy. He then decided to use Noe as bait. He persuaded an Arab that Noe was a girl available for sex; then Stanley attacked the Arab intending to steal his horse but the Arab fought back and, with his friends, hunted Stanley and Noe down. Having captured their prisoners, Noe was then buggered by three men that night while Stanley, also tied up, watched. He claimed to be shocked but one wonders whether he enjoyed it. Somehow Stanley not only got out of the scrape he was in but had the Arab whose horse he had tried to steal arrested and punished. (C 3)

He became famous for his exploration of Africa but it was exploration red in tooth and claw: his journey down the Congo river to the sea was day after day of bloodshed; he shot his way through tribe after tribe who attempted to prevent him 'invading' (as they must have seen it) their territory.

Sexually Stanley appears to have had problems with women whom he either idolised as Madonnas or demonised as whores; “A total loving relationship with a woman, including sexual intercourse, was the ultimate horror.” (C 4). He was probably homosexual: “It was characteristic of all Stanley’s travels that he needed a young male as companion, protege and amanuensis.” (C 4) He certainly seemed to enjoy flogging other men as described above and in a number of incidents when he beat black servants, even, in one case, one who was suffering at the time from smallpox (C 7)

He was a pathological liar. “There was always method in Stanley's madness, as he made a point of lying about his private life to the public (who could verify his public life) and about his public life to private individuals who lacked the intellectual sophistication to falsify his tall tales.” (C 5)

He was a horrific leader. He treated the sick with contempt. “Although Stanley would always call a halt if he was dangerously ill ... he showed no such consideration for anyone else. If another white man fell ill, Stanley immediately rationalized the inconvenience as ‘malingering’.” (C 6) He abandoned his very ill second in command on his first expedition at a village and left him without medicines. The man died. (C 6) Furthermore: “It was beyond Stanley ever to admit that any of his lieutenants had done well.” (C 6) In these respects he seems remarkably like that other Victorian hero Florence Nightingale who worked some of her devoted followers to death, never understanding how anyone, except herself, could be ill

Here are three quotes from Stanley's own writings which seem to express his inability to put himself in the place of anyone else:

  • I am afraid that I could not yield my life to every Tom, Dick and Harry who chose to demand it. The waste of good material for bad would strike me as wrong.” (C 8)
  • The woodenheaded world needs mastering.” (C 8)
  • Six shots and four deaths were sufficient to quiet the mocking.” (C 15)

There are some other remarkable characters outlined in this book:

  • Stanley’s newspaper boss, James Gordon Bennett, “spent his younger years in an ambience of fantastic wealth, surrounded by sycophants, but without adequate parenting.” (C 5) He ran the New York Herald. “Much of the Herald’s success was based on its ‘Personal Column’ advertisements - a guide to every prostitute in New York able to publicise her wares and in particular to the brothels of Bleaker Street and Sixth Avenue.” (C 5)
  • Livingstone's status as missionary and explorer was shaky. As a missionary he had made a single (later lapsed) convert and as an explorer his only undisputed discovery was Lake Bangweulu.” (C 8)

One of the things which this book made me realise is the extent to which Africa was not a dark continent. It was well known by the Arabs who conducted an extensive trade with the Africans of the interior, although much of the trade involved slaves. I hadn't realised how huge the Arab slave trade of the time was. There was organisation and towns and technologies. There was even a spa town where sick people bathed in hot pools. In the early 1870s Arab trader Tippu Tip “had a commercial and political empire based on slavery and the ivory trade ... it was said that through the ivory trade he could convert an initial capital of $3 into $1,000.” (C 15)

McLynn can certainly write purple prose: “The expedition began to pick its way through 20-foot high undergrowth, fed by a feculent humus of fallen branches and rotten leaves. They marched in permanent twilight, soggy with dew under a fuliginous forest canopy, floundering through ditches formed by rivulets.” (C 16)

Other great moments:

  • The more one lives for action alone, the less is one capable of discrimination about which actions are valuable; hence the near-mania of the Alexanders, Napoleons, Caesars, and Cromwells.” (C 2)
  • As with many people like Stanley, who habitually inhabit the twilight area between sanity and madness, the possibility of failure imparted renewed strength.” (C 6)
  • The myth of the ‘superman’, increasingly required by the exigencies of imperialism, seemed, on Stanley’s fallacious reading, to require the stiffest of stiff upper lips.” (C 8)

An incredible book which paints a picture of hero as psychopath. December 2019; 330 pages

Other books about exploration that are reviewed in this blog:

Thursday, 12 December 2019

"Bohemia in London" by Arthur Ransome

Ransome is the author who later became famous as the writer of the Swallows and Amazons series of children's books (including Swallowdale, reviewed in this blog). This book was first published in 1907, written when Ransome was a very young man who had just left his family to rent a single 'sordid room in Chelsea' (to quote Sally Bowles in Cabaret), to mingle with writers and painters and sculptors and poets, most of them also young, penniless, and hungry. Ransome later went on to become a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian in Russia during the Soviet revolution who married the secretary of Trotsky; the children';s books came after all of that!

Bohemia in London is a charming collection of anecdotes about Ransome's contemporaries (mostly anonymous) and the famous artists and writers who lived in London in the past, such as Dr Johnson, Richard Steele, and John Keats. As the introduction says: "I wanted to write a book that would make real on paper the strange, tense, joyful and despairing, hopeful and sordid life that is lived in London by young artists and writers." I think he succeeds.

Great moments:
  • Of all kinds of bondage, vagabondage was the most cruel and the hardest from which to escape.” (Introductory Chapter)
  • Give a fool a proselyte, and he will be ten times happier than a sage without one.” (A Chelsea Evening)
  • The whole world was a pageant to him, with himself a central figure.” (A Chelsea Evening)
  • And so the talk goes on, like the talk of puppets, she just passing the time, trying to keep interested and real without moving out of her pose; he slashing in the rough work, bringing head, neck, shoulders, the turn of the waist, the fold of the skirt, into their places on the canvas.” (In the Studios)
  • Artist’s models are not hampered, like the painters themselves, by knowing too much, and at the same time they are not ignorant as the ordinary picture buyer is ignorant.” (In the Studios)
  • The people who buy in ordinary shops are so disheartening. There is no spirit about them, no enthusiasm.” (Book-shops of Bohemia)
  • They are buying books for other people, not to read themselves. The books they buy are doomed, Christmas or birthday presents, to lie about on drawing-room tables. I am sorry for those people, but I am sorrier for the books.” (Book-shops of Bohemia)
  • Walking the pavement with the air prescribed by the best of drill sergeants, ‘as if one side of the street belonged to him, and he expected the other shortly’.” (Old and New Fleet Street)
  • It is in its way rather fun to be suddenly an authority on subjects of which you knew nothing till you sat down to write about them. And it is very good practice in journalism - though it is always easier to write when you are ignorant then when you know too much.” (Ways and Means)
  • No one is content to live as life has made them and as they are.” (Old and New Hampstead)
  • A sculptor and painter girl fell in love with each other and, as they had neither money nor prospect of getting any, had nothing to wait for, and so got married at once.” (A Wedding in Bohemia)

December 2019; 284 pages

An more objective account of Ransome's life is given in Arthur Ransom and Capt Flint's Trunk by Christine Hardyment

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

"The Hunting Party" by Lucy Foley

A West Highland lodge where nine old friends (and a couple from Iceland, and the manager and the gamekeeper) are celebrating New Year is cut off from the outside world ... and one of the guests is found dead.

Very Agatha Christie. But the twist is that we don't know the identity of the murder victim until almost the end. The story is narrated by three of the female guests and the female manager and (the only male voice) the gamekeeper but it is narrated in the present tense so that any one of them (or one of the others) could be either victim or killer; the tension is kept up by swapping the time backwards and forwards from before the murder to after so that we can know almost immediately that someone is dead but still be in the dark about whom or how.

But the four part structure doesn't seem to hold particularly well for this book. True, we discover exactly one quarter of the way through the book that the body that was discovered tight at the start looks like it was deliberately killed but this isn't much of a surprise; this is a murder mystery and the genre demands deliberate death. We are kept guessing for a long time whether the victim is male or female, I first discovered gender at 44%. The half way mark passes without a great reveal. We move into the endgame at 83% and the death is re-enacted at 94%, which is more or less the same point as we discover the identity of the victim, but the 75% turning point reveals, if anything, something about one of the characters that I had guessed quite a long time before.

In some ways the bulk of the book consists of a fairly systematic exploration of the suspects. Not all the suspects are greatly explored and, playing the genre game, one assumes that the underplayed characters cannot be murderers. Of course all of them have secrets:

  • Doug the gamekeeper and Heather the manager have issues which is why they are working in such a lonely and isolated place.
  • Miranda and Julien are the golden couple but he is a banker doing something dodgy and she is a bitch to everyone
  • Mark was best friends with Julien at Oxford and had a massive crush on Miranda; he is now married to newcomer to the group Emma, the organiser.
  • Nick and Bo are the gay couple; Miranda outed Nick to his parents at Oxford
  • Giles and Samira are the couple who have just had a baby; Samira was the sporty pushy one at Oxford
  • Katie is the singleton, working all hours in her city lawyer job; she has always been Miranda's 'project' and has lived her life in Miranda's shadow.
It is certainly a page turner and the end ramps up the action from murder mystery to thriller but I wasn't convinced by the denouement. Perhaps that's just sour grapes because I didn't see it coming.

Some great moments:

  • "In the times we live in we are all stalkers."
  • "New Year's Eve. The loneliest night of the year, even if you're with people.  ... There's always that worry that you're maybe not having quite as much of a good time as you could be."
  • "How little it takes, I think, just some shadows, really, to make ourselves unknown to each other."
  • "Wow. Alcohol always makes me think deep thoughts."
December 2019 388 pages

This book was one of the 'Books and Beer' subscription which my wonderful wife bought me for Christmas. Other titles include:
The Plotters by Un-Su-Kim: a post-modern thriller set in the assassination business in Korea
Ask a Policeman by the Detection Club
Most Wanted by Robert Craik: a fast-paced thriller set in California
The Devil's Dice by Roz Watkins: a whodunnit set in the English Peak District
Only Killers and Thieves by Paul Howarth: a stunning tale of crime and revenge, of temptation and sin, of evil and redemption set in 1880s Queensland and as gritty as only the Australian Outback can get.
Snap by Belinda Bauer: a brilliant story about a young lad who, having become a burglar in order to survive, discovers his mother's killer.
Resurrection Bay by Emma Viskic: a murder mystery set in Australia in which the PI is deaf
The Mongolian Conspiracy by Rafael Bernal: classic Chandleresque Mexican noir
The Closer I Get, a thriller in which an author is stalked by an obsessive fan.
Homegrown Hero by Khurrum Rahman, an up-to-date thriller about fundamentalist terrorism set in Hounslow, West London

Monday, 9 December 2019

"The Incredible Mile" by Harold Elvin

In 1968 Mr Elvin decided to travel from St Pancras to Euston, mostly by rail, via Newcastle, Bergen, Stockholm, Helsinki, Moscow, Irkutsk, Nakhoda (near Vladivostok), Ulan Bator, Taskkent, Samarkand, Sochi, Odessa, Istanbul and Paris. This is a travelogue about his experiences, mostly aboard the trans-Siberian express.

He has a fascinating way of writing with many more sentence fragments than usual. For example, "I went with a driver so mad for speed and so uninterested in pot-holes, chickens, sheep, barriers like road repairs, that my only excuse for remaining alive is that I must be a cat." (C 76) This misses out an 'and' in the list which makes it sound more clipped and urgent. This can be quite poetic (and occasionally irritating).

More urgency is added by the device of using 93 chapters (on average each chapter is less than three pages long).

On the other hand, I wanted more. Much of what he writes about are his experiences with the people aboard the train and in the towns he gets to. I wanted more, much more, about the places he visited. This book is a taster to an incredible journey but I wanted the main course ... and spuds.

There are some wonderful moments:

  • "Instead of signals, at hundreds of points down the line, were the frailest little women with sad little flags." (C 16)
  • "We finished the last of the toilet paper at Omsk. After that it was each man for himself." (C 16)
  • "All seemed convinced that the communist countries were a bastion of goodness surrounded by a sinister war-mongering ferment of degradation against which a constant alert was needed." (C 36)
  • The Tsatangs of NW Mongolia herd white reindeer and build tents just like the Lapps
  • "Most countries have come in from the out-of-doors, got snug in houses and created an art which is part of the snugness. Chopin is drawing-room matter, not steppe and desert matter." (C 49)

There are some brilliant descriptions:

  • "The man so thin he'd have to try twice to make a shadow" (C 3)
  • "We were a blood cell running down an artery, our train down our railway track was the one live contact all these lands had with the outer world." (C 5)
  • "The festers that men create by beauty spots." (C 17)
  • "A croaky voice as if a frog with a cold lodged in her throat." (C 26)
  • "For the irreligious ... these churches were living theatres at their richest." (C 35)
  • "Our waitress has an early-Bardot walk. She was seventeen. Where her top lip joined her lower lip were two wells the breadth of sixpences out of which smiles radiated in ever-increasing circles across her face lighting up anyone's spirit who happened to be noticing. Her smiles' timetable was two per minute. Any suitor must have only one ambition: to keep that time-table up to scratch." (C 39)
  • "A man, looking as if he had been poured into his clothes and someone had forgotten to say 'when'" (C 86)

There are some great sayings:

  • "All girls are good, so where do the horrible wives come from?" (C 7)
  • "In the city the man is master. In the country the land is master." (C 12)
  • "It is a law that what an individual or a public asserts for itself can usually be taken as the opposite. Whoever heard of a generous man saying he was generous, or a brave man acclaiming his bravery: yet the mean and the coward do nothing else." (C 27)
  • "Anything faster than walking is an insult to the territory you pass over." (C 41)
  • "How can a man with a full stomach pass judgement on a hungry thief?" (C 69)
  • "Like trying to smuggle day in past a rooster." (C 86)
  • "As worn out an an old woodpecker in a petrified forest." (C 86)

A fascinating journey at a fascinating moment in Cold War history; while the author is in Siberia the Russians tanks entered Czechoslovakia.

December 2019; 255 pages

Other great travel books in this blog:

Travelling in Britain:

And others:

My parents were members of the Readers Union Book Club. They must have had a great person to choose the books. This is one of the many I have enjoyed and reviewed in this blog. Here is a list:

  • Life with Ionides by Margaret Lane: about a man catching snakes in East Africa
  • The Golden Isthmus: the history of Panama from its discovery by Europeans
  • The Incredible Mile by Harold Elvin: the travelogue of a journey on the Trans Siberian express
  • A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble: the memoir of a Colonial Officer on the Gilbert and Ellice Islands
  • Invasion 1940 by Peter Fleming: an account of Britain's unpreparedness and preparation for a Nazi invasion
  • Bus Stop Symi by William Travis: three years lived on the sometimes less than idyllic Greek island of Symi
  • A Memoir of the Bobotes by Joyce Cary: a memoir of time spent in the Balkan Wars (before the First World War)
  • The Great Trek by Oliver Ransford: a history of the formation of the Orange Free State and Transvaal by Boer farmers trekking from the Cape Colony

Friday, 6 December 2019

"King Charles II" by Antonia Fraser

They say that biographers fall in love with their subjects. Antonia Fraser seems to be one of many ladies to have fallen for the charms of King Charles II.

I can understand how the similarities have promoted the affection:
  • Antonia Fraser is pro-royalty; she herself believes she is entitled to be called 'Lady' Antonia Fraser because she is the daughter of a hereditary earl. 
  • Antonia Fraser is a Roman Catholic and Charles allegedly became a Catholic on his deathbed
But the biographer's bias shows. She appears to believe that Charles was an astute political operator whose reign brought blessings on his realm. I think Charles was lucky to become King after eighteen years of civil war and republicanism, when the republican government was in chaos after the death of Cromwell so that consequently people were frightened of a return to civil war. He had a long honeymoon period as a result of this but as his reign went on things started going wrong. For example, five years after he was restored there was the Great Plague, the year after brought both the Great Fire of London and the disastrous Anglo-Dutch naval war. And then the mask of the Merry Monarch started to slip:
  • He called Parliament regularly in order to squeeze taxes from them to fund his extravagant court and his wars; when they sought legislation he regularly prorogued parliament to prevent this happening.
  • Printers and publishers were pilloried and penalized for producing dissenting opinions. (C 25)
  • He tried to ensure that the judiciary were Tory and insisted that they held their posts not, as before, until they did something to forfeit them, but at the royal pleasure. “By the end of 1683 eleven judges had been removed - at the King's wish.” (C 25)
  • Members of Parliament who disagreed with him were, sometimes, locked up in the Tower. There was a debate about whether the King’s prorogation of Parliament had exceeded the limits so that Parliament was automatically dissolved (which would require a General Election before a new Parliament could be called. “The King was furious.” The leaders of the opposition were imprisoned in the Tower. (C 21) 
  • He tried to gerrymander Parliament. At the time MPs were selected by chartered cities and boroughs. He found pretexts to withdraw a number of charters of places that returned MPs he didn't like and amended the charters so that the appointment of corporation officials was subject to a veto from the King; since these were the people who selected the MPs he was effectively trying to 'stack' parliament. “The excuse for giving for calling in the charter of York had at least a nice period touch to it. The Lord Mayor was said to have refused a mountebank permission to erect a stage, although the fellow had been recommended by the King himself.” (C 25) “The varied popular reaction was less important than the fact that the warrants on the new charters all contained the vital clause which gave the King a veto over the election of the officers. Suitable Tory figures locally would see to it that equally suitable Tory figures were returned to Westminster.” (C 25)
  • He ruled for long periods without Parliament. Since he was therefore unable to raise extra taxes he made a secret treaty with the King of France (Louis XIV) who paid him secret subsidies. He therefore became an English King in the pay of a French one (and this secretly so that the public, Parliament and indeed most of his ministers, never found out). One would have thought this would have been an impeachable offence in any other person but Antonia Fraser never censures Charles. 
AF chronicles all these things but seems content with them. It seems that an autocratic ruler is OK with her provided that he is charming (and, of course, with the true royal blood running in his veins).

For example, in 1673, Charles indulges in that typical gesture of autocrats, a display of military might. 
When he drew up the army at Blackheath in the autumn of 1673, it was a gesture widely interpreted as menacing towards the capital. But no evidence has ever been found that Charles II intended to parody in such a way the actions (and mistakes) of his predecessor Cromwell.” (C 20) Although AF acknowledges that it was "widely interpreted as menacing" she acquits Charles of any such intent and at the same time manages to smear Cromwell who, if he was an autocrat, had at least achieved his position through merit rather than by virtue of his parents.

As with so many histories and biographies I was enchanted by some of the details:
  • Charles was so dark he was nicknamed The Black Boy, a name still commemorated in English pub signs. (C 1)
  • At the Battle of Edgehill the young princes Charles and James “were left in the charge of Dr William Harvey, the famous physician” (C 2)
  • When Charles was in exile in France, it was the time of the Fronde “from the stone bearing sling” rebellion (C 4)
  • In France the Peace of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years War was swiftly followed by the Fronde rebellion: “The granary of this particular peace contained within it the seeds of popular dissidence” (C 5)
  • Attempting to escape England, Charles missed one boat because the captain was locked in his bedroom by his wife who suspected he was having an affair. (C 8)
  • The word yacht comes from the Dutch jaght schip (hunt ship). (C 11) 
  • When Charles's new bride, Portuguese Catherine of Braganza, arrived in England “one of her first actions was to ask for a cup of tea ... tea drinking had been known in England before this date but it was extremely rare.” (C 13)
  • The ‘CABAL’ of Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley and Lauderdale gained power after the downfall of Hyde. (C 16)
  • In November 1670 the Dublin Gazette actually ceased to appear on the wonderful - for Ireland - grounds that ‘there was no news’.” (C 19)
  • When the king had a fever he was cured by “by ‘the Jesuit’s powder’, actually an early form of quinine imported from the South American bark cinchona.” (C 23)
Other memorable moments:
  • Less admirable attributes may take root in the wintry soil of adversity. These include the ability to mislead or trick” (C 6)
  • Having lit a candle to the devil, King Charles II could not expect other lights to shine as well.” (C 6)
  • The Scots were probably not a people it was immediately possible to love, if you had been nurtured in the courts of England and France.” (C 6)
  • The Duke of Buckingham “sulked in the most childish and public manner ... refusing to change his linen in protest.” (C 7)
  • Frances Stewart could claim to have possessed the heart, as opposed to that more frequently bestowed gift, the body of King Charles II.” (C 15)
  • The General Election of 1679 was “marked by such heavy drinking on all sides that ‘Sober Societies’ were later formed in towns - an interesting example of locking the stable door after the horse has fully refreshed itself.” (C 22)
  • The Duke of Monmouth: “He could not ... conceive of a course of action or an opinion without wishing to give it immediate expression. ... he was one of nature's roosters and could not emulate a mole to save his life.” (C 22)
  • As Buckingham rightly observed, a King is supposed to be the Father of his People, and Charles II was certainly the father of a good many of them.” (C 24)
  • In 1682 the Duke of York was “shipwrecked off Yarmouth with much loss of life, although as James himself rather callously remarked, no one ‘of quality’ was drowned. ... It was his entourage who beat off the desperate ‘lesser’ passengers with their swords.” (C 25)

An interesting biography of a monarch but rather spoiled by the biographer's obvious bias. Charles II was a charming man who, probably because the English were still scarred from the Civil War, managed to preserve his throne despite his absolutist policies. His brother lasted only three years following the same direction before being overthrown and replaced with the first monarch who ruled with Parliament, rather than despite them. 

December 2019, 469 pages

Also written by Antonia Fraser:

Thursday, 28 November 2019

"A Pattern of Islands" by Arthur Grimble

A charming memoir by a man who became a cadet colonial officer for the Gilbert and Ellice Islands in early 1914. Pacific Islands, happy fishermen, sun, sea and surf: this is a memoir of a time in paradise. Of course, even paradise has its problems. Grimble's first post is on Ocean Island (now called Banaba Island in the Republic of Kiribati) which had become the centre of the phosphate mining industry; Grimble sees the actions of the nationalised company who mined virtually the entire island as wholly benevolent although there have been lawsuits from subsequently displaced Islanders and Grimble's account is therefore an unaware apologia for colonialism.

However, the tone of the memoir suggests that Grimble himself was a benevolent District Commisioner who became thoroughly enamoured of the islanders and was even adopted into one of their clans. The whole book is gentle and lyrical and the stories told suggest that, for all its faults, paradise was never far away.

But let us not be too cynical. It is clear that Grimble, for all his blindnesses, saw more than others before him had seen. The first paragraph introduces a gently self-mocking theme: “The cult of the great god Jingo was as yet far from dead. Most English households of the day took it for granted that nobody could be always right, or ever quite right, except an Englishman. The Almighty was beyond doubt Anglo-Saxon ... Dominion over palm and pine ... was the heaven-conferred privilege of the Bulldog Breed. Kipling had said so.” Grimble is doing the best he can, and he is probably aware that it is never quite good enough.

He starts as a cadet, which his boss in London defines thus: "A cadet washes bottles for those who are themselves merely junior bottle-washers." (C 1)

There are ghost stories, one involving communication by voices on the wind bearing news that is only afterwards checked and discovered to be correct, the other involving a walk on the road to heaven along which the ghosts walk in which Grimble encounters a traveller who turns out to be a man who has just died. There are stories of the sea: we learn the native way of killing a shark (a bit like the method of a matador) and their way of catching octopuses which involves human bait, a role which Grimble is persuaded to undertake. There is witchcraft (Grimble is cursed and becomes seriuously ill) and warfare (over land rights) and bravery (when a Roman Catholic priest braves lethal ocean currents to canoe to a neighbouring island to adminster Last Rites to a dying colleague). There is a king who shoots islanders from the palm trees because it amuses him to see how they sprawl on the way down and there is a gone-native trader-cum-administrator who knew Robert Louis Stevenson.

Hauntingly beautiful, wise, compassionate and softly humorous. One nice thing about the islanders is that they have many versions of the creation story and recognise that each version belongs to the teller. When Grimble’s wife added antenatal classes to the women’s gaol the number of expectant mothers convicted in the courts rose dramatically. “The ailing expectant mothers, surrounded by constantly renewed draughts of those interested and willing helpers, ailed so luxuriously that it was difficult to get rid of them, even when they ceased altogether to ail.” (C 9)

Great moments:
  • Pacific cockroaches eat feet ... the thick skin on the sole is insensitive, and the victim feels nothing until they have gnawed that down to the quick.” (Prologue)
  • The ... kinship that springs from the immutable constancy of man's need to share laughter and friendship, poetry and love in common. A man may travel a long road, and suffer much loneliness, before he makes that discovery. Some, groping along dark byways, never have the good fortune to stumble upon it.” (Prologue)
  • The accountant had to go on sick leave. According to him, the anxiety of having me near his books had a lot to do with his condition.” (C 1)
  • A chief of chiefs ... is recognised by his shape. He is fleshy from head to foot. But his greatest flesh is his middle; when he sits, he is based like a mountain upon his sitting-place; when he stands, he swells out in the middle, before and behind, like a porpoise.” (C 6)
  • Anaesthetics? ... I had six grand men to hold him down. You can't allow too many gymnastics in an operation like that.” (C 9)
November 2019; 245 pages.

Other memoirs reviewed in this blog include (in order of how much I enjoyed them, favourites first):

  • Memoir of the Bobotes: by Joyce Cary: a brilliantly written memoir of the author's time as a medical officer during the Balkan Wars (pre World War I): the writer became a novelist and his craft shows; full of humour and keen observation
  • My Family and Other Animals (and the sequels) by Gerald Durrell: Beautiful descriptions and hilarious accounts of an eccentric family living on the Greek Island of Corfu between WWI and WWII
  • A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble: a well-written, frequently humourous account of Pacific paradise
  • Bus Stop Symi by William Travis: the account of three years spent on the remote and at the time unspoilt Greek island of Symi: well-written, charming and amusing
  • Surprised by Joy by C S Lewis: an account of the famous author's life, mostly from the perspective of his Christianity: beautifully written
  • A Death in the Family by Karl-Ove Knausgard: the first volume of a series in which the author, in the guise of writing novels, portrays real people with real names: the writing is brilliant
  • Beautiful People by Simon Doonan: The story of a young gay man: well-written with moments of marvellous humour
  • Teacher Man by Frank McCourt: the third volume in the series that started with Angela's Ashes
  • The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice by Polly Coles: a reasonably well-written account of a year spent living in Venice
  • A Detail on the Burma Front by Winifred Beaumont: a nurse's story from one of the theatres of World War II: more compassion and humour: reasonably well-written
  • Whatever Happened to Margo: Margaret Durrell's account of running a boarding house in Bournemouth: sometimes muddled but often funny
  • Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two by Maggie Smith-Bendell: an interesting and reasonably well-written account of a Romani Gypsy childhood
  • Not for the faint-hearted by John Stevens: the autobiography of a senior police officer; probably best for those most interested in this sort of story
  • Forty Years Catching Smugglers by Malcolm Nelson: the memoirs of a senior customs officer; probably best for those most interested in this sort of story

My parents were members of the Readers Union Book Club. They must have had a great person to choose the books. This is one of the many I have enjoyed and reviewed in this blog. Here is a list:

  • Life with Ionides by Margaret Lane: about a man catching snakes in East Africa
  • The Golden Isthmus: the history of Panama from its discovery by Europeans
  • The Incredible Mile by Harold Elvin: the travelogue of a journey on the Trans Siberian express
  • A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble: the memoir of a Colonial Officer on the Gilbert and Ellice Islands
  • Invasion 1940 by Peter Fleming: an account of Britain's unpreparedness and preparation for a Nazi invasion
  • Bus Stop Symi by William Travis: three years lived on the sometimes less than idyllic Greek island of Symi
  • A Memoir of the Bobotes by Joyce Cary: a memoir of time spent in the Balkan Wars (before the First World War)
  • The Great Trek by Oliver Ransford: a history of the formation of the Orange Free State and Transvaal by Boer farmers trekking from the Cape Colony

Monday, 25 November 2019

"The Golden Isthmus" by David Howarth

This brilliant book, written back in 1966, traces the history of the Panama isthmus from the first arrival of European (Spanish) explorers in 1502.  It is well-written and divides the story up into episodes which are exciting in very different ways. It starts with the Spaniards arriving and attacking the welcoming Indians. The second chapter tells the fascinating life of Vasco Balboa, the first European to cross the isthmus and see the Pacific (NOT 'stout Cortes', Keats got it wrong). Balboa started as a stowaway escaping his debts and ended up being strangled for treason in the centre of the city he founded (after being arrested by Pizarro). His is a remarkable story but I cannot find an English biography; if there is one someone please let me know so I can read it.

The Spanish established El Camino Real, the Royal Road, across the isthmus to transport the treasure they found in Bolivia and Chile back to Spain. It “was a mean, muddy track that joined the oceans, winding up and down among the hills, about 50 miles in length and 9 feet wide at its widest - Just enough for leading mules to pass each other, brushing the Virgin jungle on either side. ... it was the most important thoroughfare in the Spanish Empire” (C3 The Elizabethans 1572)The third chapter describes the attack of Sir Francis Drake on the Spanish settlements and the fourth describes the attacks of the buccaneers led by Sir Henry Morgan.

The Scots then decide to found a colony in Darien ... and bankrupt their home country by their incredible ... and often fatal ... ineptitude.

There are then a number of attempts to create a transport crossing of the isthmus. The first is a railroad ... which kills thousands of labourers as they carve their way through the jungle. De Lesseps of Suez fame attempts to build a French canal but fails, killing tens of thousands (“Two out of every three Frenchmen who went to the isthmus died there.” C8 The French Canal 1879 - 1888)  and almost bankrupting France in so doing. Finally the Americans manage to put a canal across, although the treaty which awards them quasi-sovereign rights (which they negotiated with a trickster purporting to represent the new government of Panama which had only just seceded from Colombia) has been a source of conflict with Panama.

Finally it ends with a discussion of a plan to blast a new canal through the isthmus using nuclear explosives ... which might have seemed a realistic idea in 1966.

There is brilliant writing:
  • The struggle for life is shown in every twist of the plants which grope and cling and thrust themselves up to the light. Everywhere are those which have failed or are clearly doomed to fail, to die and rot and feed the roots of those which have succeeded. The value you put on your own spark of life seems exaggerated. You know that if you have to lie down and die, the jungle would almost instantly convert you into humus. On the spot that you chose, it would grow just a fraction taller, and you would have fulfilled your natural function.” (C2 The Way Across 1513) It was worth reading the book for that paragraph alone!!

  • Meekness was a quality so long forgotten that they did not know it when they saw it, but called it cowardice.” (C1 The Spanish Explorers 1502)
  • Like any treasure-seeker or prospector who finds his hoard, Spain lost the will to seek, and became obsessed with the fear of rivals coming to rob her.” (C3 The Elizabethans 1572)
  • Their only laws were self-interest and plunder, their only pride was in raggedness and filth, and their only authentic custom was to wear breeches stiff with the blood of the animals they have killed. Like many men who history makes into heroes, they must have been intolerably smelly.”(C4 The Buccaneers 1670)
  • It was only optimists who succeeded; pessimists were never anything but idle spectators.” (C8 The French Canal 1879 - 1888) 
  • He might have been one of those men who like to be henpecked, because it is the only way they can show their love.” (C9 The Revolution 1903)
  • Never ... is often too long a word.” (C11 The American Canal 1904 - 1914)
  • A colonising power has no right to gratitude for the benefits it brings to a colony, any more than parents have a right to it for feeding and housing their children.” (C12 The Republic 1914 - 1966)

Other great moments:
  • Darien has not always been deserted. It is only within the last hundred years, since the interests of mankind were concentrated on the route of the present canal, that Darien has been left alone to return to its primitive kind of peace. Before that, centuries of turbulent history flowed across it. Here, on this coast and in this jungle, abominable crimes were committed in the name of Christianity, and dreadful cruelties in the greed for gold.” (C1 The Spanish Explorers 1502)
  • Of the ninety-eight hands [in the crew of Columbus on his fourth voyage], more than half were boys between twelve and eighteen years old, which was thought a good age for adventure.” (C1 The Spanish Explorers 1502)
  •  “Four months they had been in the jungle, and most of them, at one time or another, had been left behind sick or wounded and cared for by the Indians. Yet all of them returned alive to Santa Maria. It was an amazing achievement.” (C2 The Way Across 1513)
  • As the column struggled back across the mountains, it was carrying such a load of gold that it could not carry food enough to feed itself.” (C2 The Way Across 1513) 
  • Courtiers still in the finery they had worn in Spain fell down in the streets of the village and died of starvation.” (C2 The Way Across 1513)
  • No one has ever computed the enormous wealth that came over this muddy track. All the gold that was seized from the Incas crossed it, all the pearls of the Pacific, all the silver from the vast mines of Bolivia. For the silver, an estimate exists: between 1546 and 1600, twenty million kilograms. ...To the successive kings of Spain, the riches seemed to promise world-wide power and dominion. But on the contrary, all they did was disrupt the economy of Europe ... Three times in the second half of the sixteenth century, the king was bankrupt.”  (C3 The Elizabethans 1572)
  • The Spanish commander, seeing such an invincible pirate fleet, agreed to surrender, but asked Morgan to save his face by attacking him with blank ammunition. A noisy battle was fought, with powder but no shot on either side.”(C4 The Buccaneers 1670)
  • It was implicit in the Scottish Parliament Act [for the Darien company] but if the company was a success, the prophet would be Scotland’s, but if it got into trouble the English Navy would have to get it out.” (C5 The Scottish Colony 1698 - 1700)
  • Fifty labourers had been brought from Carthagena, and all of them died or deserted for the gold trail, where they could earn more money and live in comparative comfort. Fifty more were imported, and so it went on: there was only room for fifty on the brig, but each time the labour force died out it was replenished.” (C7 The Railroad 1848 - 1855)
  • They wore their veils simply to avoid the annoyance of mosquitoes. They noticed also that men who wore veils were less subject to fever than those who did not. But they concluded that the veils kept out some of the miasma, the pestilential vapour of the swamps.”(C7 The Railroad 1848 - 1855)
  • The company went into liquidation. Eight years of grinding labour, perhaps twenty thousand deaths, twelve hundred million francs - and it was over.” (C8 The French Canal 1879 - 1888) 
  • Feelings were running so high that the government was outvoted and forced to resign on the trivial question of whether the Baron’s body should be exhumed.” (C8 The French Canal 1879 - 1888) 
  • An even shadier person called Dr Cornelius Herz, who had fled the country and taken refuge, too ill to be extradited, in a hotel in Bournemouth.” (C8 The French Canal 1879 - 1888) 
  • The parasites of malaria was seen in the blood of patients, each inhabiting a red corpuscle, by a French doctor in 1880. Italians in the next few years connected the periodic fevers of malaria patients with the periodic reproductions of the parasites already in the blood. ... the parasites reproduce asexually in their human hosts, but in the walls of the stomachs of mosquitoes they developed a form of sexual reproduction.” (C11 The American Canal 1904 - 1914)

I adored this book. It was so interesting so many times. I don't know if Mr Howarth wrote anything else, please tell me if he has.

November 2019; 269 pages

My parents were members of the Readers Union Book Club. They must have had a great person to choose the books. This is one of the many I have enjoyed and reviewed in this blog. Here is a list:

  • Life with Ionides by Margaret Lane: about a man catching snakes in East Africa
  • The Golden Isthmus: the history of Panama from its discovery by Europeans
  • The Incredible Mile by Harold Elvin: the travelogue of a journey on the Trans Siberian express
  • A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble: the memoir of a Colonial Officer on the Gilbert and Ellice Islands
  • Invasion 1940 by Peter Fleming: an account of Britain's unpreparedness and preparation for a Nazi invasion
  • Bus Stop Symi by William Travis: three years lived on the sometimes less than idyllic Greek island of Symi
  • A Memoir of the Bobotes by Joyce Cary: a memoir of time spent in the Balkan Wars (before the First World War)
  • The Great Trek by Oliver Ransford: a history of the formation of the Orange Free State and Transvaal by Boer farmers trekking from the Cape Colony
Books reviewed in this blog which have the word 'Golden' in their title include:

Friday, 22 November 2019

"Elizabeth and Essex" by Lytton Strachey

A double biography of Elizabeth I of England and her favourite Robert Devereux the Earl of Essex. The relationship of Queen and subject was complicated by a clear fascination for the ageing Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, for this handsome dashing young man (she was nearly thirty years older than him); he took the liberties which she allowed him and allowed himself to become more arrogant and headstrong with predictably disastrous consequences. The end came when Essex and his supporters, having persuaded (by paying forty shillings) Shakespeare's theatre company to stage a production of Richard II, play in which a monarch is overthrown, marched from Essex House down the Strand to the City of London in an attempt to stage a coup.

Strachey's portrait of their stormy relationship had clear resonances with the TV drama I have just finished watching, Gold Digger, in which a penniless young man meets an older and wealthy woman and proceeds to woo her while her friends and family look on horrified.

Some of the subject matter is also covered by Daphne Du Maurier in Golden Lads, her double biography of Anthony and Francis Bacon. Anthony worked for the Earl of Essex while Francis was on the prosecution team at the trial of Essex for treason.

This book was written in 1928 by Lytton Strachey, known for other works such as Eminent Victorians. Given its date of publication it does not have the rigour we associate with modern biography and is essentially a narrative, told with verve and style.

Several fascinating facts, among them that the Bodleian Library was founded with books seized by the Earl of Essex from the library of Spanish Bishop Jerome Osorius in a raid on the Portuguese town of Faro, (C 8)

Some classic moments:

  • Human beings, no doubt, would cease to be human beings unless they were inconsistent.” (C 2)
  • The inconsistency of the Elizabethans exceeds the limit limited to man. ... who can reconstruct those iron-nerved beings who passed with rapture from some divine madrigal sung to a lute by a bewitching boy in a tavern to the spectacle of mauled dogs tearing a bear to pieces?” (C 2)
  • Francis Bacon has been described more than once with the crude vigour of antithesis; but in truth such methods are singularly inappropriate in his most unusual case.” (C 5)
  • Life in this world is full of pitfalls: it is dangerous to be foolish, and it is also dangerous to be intelligent” (C 5)
  • It is probably always disastrous not to be a poet.” (C 5)
  • So, in ecstasy and in torment, in absurdity and in greatness, happy, miserable, horrible, and holy, King Philip went off, off to meet the Trinity.” (C 10)
  • Why should the heir of the ancient aristocracy of England bow down before the descendant of some Bishop’s butler in Wales?” (C 11)
  • Who or what were these people, with their mantles and their nakedness, their long locks of hair hanging over their faces, their wild battle-cries and gruesome wailings, their kerns and their gallowglas, their jesters and their bards? Who were their ancestors? Scythians? Or Spaniards? Ot Gauls? What state of society was this, where chiefs jostled with gypsies, where ragged women lay all day long laughing in the hedgerows, where ragged men gambled away among each other their very rags ... where wizards flew on whirlwinds, and rats were rhymed into dissolution?” (C 12) The people in question were the Irish. Wonderfully obscure, especially that last clause!

November 2019; 180 pages

Thursday, 21 November 2019

"Timon of Athens" by William Shakespeare

On Wednesday 20th November 2019 I braved the cold to go to Milton Keynes CineWorld to see Timon of Athens in a live broadcast from the RSC. As usual, I read the play first.

The Introduction to the Penguin edition that I read asserts that Timon was written by Shakespeare in collaboration with Thomas Middleton: “Many scholars now share the opinion that Timon of Athens is the product of collaboration between Shakespeare and Middleton (who specifically wrote A1 S2 and A3 S 1-5) "Middleton would have been no stranger to Timon of Athens’ interest in the relationship between money and morality. As a writer of city satires he was well versed in the depiction of avaricious societies, and commercially driven characters resembling Timon’s flattering lords would become common characters in some of his later works such as ... The Changeling (1622), ... written in collaboration with William Rowley. Middleton is believed to be responsible for the characterization of Flavius, the faithful steward, who injects moments of warmth and optimism into a play that is principally pessimistic in tone.

The story in brief
Timon is not one of Shakespeare's better known plays. The title character is a rich Athenian who spends his days feasting his friends and, with unlimited generosity, giving them expensive presents and lending them money. When his funds run out he then applies to his friends for loans and they all reject him, protesting that they would if they could but finding a variety of excuses to wheedle out of it. He invites them to a final feast where he serves stones and water both of which he flings at his guests. Then he storms off into the forest.

He spends a lot of time cursing the Athenians. These are some of Shakespeare's most inventive curses although they lead to some rather wearisome speeches. Then, digging for roots to eat, he finds gold.

Of course that attracts robbers, poets and painters seeking sponsors, and the senators of Athens seeking someone to fund their army to defend them against Alcibiades whom, in their pride and anger, they exiled.

So it's all about hubris.

There is a lot of foreshadowing. In the first scene the Poet suggests that when it all goes wrong, his dependants  will "let him fall down/ Not one accompanying his declining foot." In act one scene 2 Apemantus says "what a number of men eats Timon and he sees 'em not".

The character of Timon
Kathryn Hunter said in an interview before that Titus believed in friendship and that was a noble thing in which to believe. Alternatively, the Penguin Shakespeare asks "has his overspending become an addiction fuelled by vanity and egotism?" For me there did seem a dysfunctional element to Timon's generosity and refusal to consider where the money was coming from which leads me towards the second interpretation. But then why does Timon, in the woods, blame his friends when the fool was himself? Apemantus blames Timon and suggests he has been "undone" by his love of flattery: "Thou gavest thine ears, like tapsters that bade welcome/ To knaves and all approachers." (A4S3) In the end, of course, Timon spends money that is not his, having borrowed it from others, and his downfall must create problems for them, as well as for his newly unemployed servants (one of whom he has promised to pay a dowry so that he can marry his girlfriend; preseumably this doesn't happen).

The Penguin Shakespeare suggests that Timon's behaviour was paralleled in that of James I who inherited debt from Elizabeth I and increased it rapidly by spending extravagantly on favourites.

Best actors in the RSC 2019 production? 
Kathryn Hunter, starring as Titus, endeavoured to downplay the madness at the end, trying to inject humour; Patrick Drury made the very-much-supporting role of Flavius critical. Nia Gwynne, as a Welsh Apemantus, managed to make philosophical critique plausible. Anton Cross was a very funny thief.

The Plot: (clearly a spoiler alert)

Act One
Scene 1

The first scene is long by Shakesperian standards. Our usual scene setting citizens are a poet, a painter, a jeweller and a merchant. They are competing for Lord Timon’s patronage. He is top dog but there is a hint that all his flattering followers will abandon him the moment he loses fortune’s favour. Apemantus, very cynical philosopher, attempts a counterbalance to the cult of the blessed and wise and generous Timon.
"All those which were his fellows but of late –
Some better than his value – on the moment
Follow his strides, his lobbies fill with tendance,
Rain sacrificial whisperings in his ear,
Make sacred even his stirrup, and through him
Drink the free air.”
Scene 2
The second scene is a feast with a dance. Afterwards Timon gives loads of gifts to his guests. But the servant knows that the coffers are empty. The philosopher is also at the feast eating roots and drinking water. He is the only one no to flatter Timon.

Timon gives money to get a friend out of debtor’s prison and refuses repayment because:

Act Two
Scene 1

This is where it all starts to go wrong. A senator sends his servant to Timon to ask Timon to repay the money he owes the senator.
Scene 2
Flavius, Timon’s steward, persuades Timon that he is bankrupt. Timon at first blames Flavius: why didn’t you tell me. F says he did his best to tell Timon.

Timon sends messages to friends asking for loans but most of them Flavius has already tried  “I am wealthy in my friends.” says Timon. He will soon discover how wrong he is.

Act Three
Act Three principally consists of Timon’s servants going to ask his friends for help and the friends coming up with a variety of excuses for why they can’t (which means they won’t).
In the RSC 2019 production the first three scenes of this act were put together and the reactions of the three Atnhenians were interspersed; this worked excellently.
Scene 1
Timon's servant goes to Lucullus whom Timon paid to get out of debtors prison (but since then Lucullus has come into an inheritance and is rich). But L says T is extravagant and this is no time to lend money and asks the servant Flavius to tell T he (F) hasn't seen him (L).
Scene 2
Another servant asks Lucius to lend T money but Lucius says he is presently hard up and can't . Strangers as a chorus discuss ingratitude.
Scene 3
A third Athenian also refuses on the grounds that he is insulted not to have been asked first.
Scene 4
The servants of Timon’s creditors present to him their bills (although they know their masters have not paid for gifts from Timon). Timon can’t pay but invites his creditors to one last feast.
Scene 5
Alcibiades is meeting the senate to plead for mercy for a fellow soldier convicted of manslaughter. This leads to an altercation following which the senators banish Alcibiades.

This was substantially changed in the RSC 2019 version. Presumably the director realised that modern audiences haven't heard of Alcibiades, the brilliant beautiful but treacherous Athenian playboy and general who wanted to have sex with Socrates and raised armies with the Spartans against Athens (while sleeping with the King of Sparta's wife). So Alcibiades instead became a leader of protestors who eventually violently overthrow the Athenian state.

The Introduction to the Penguin edition points out that “Timon of Athens is unusual among Shakespeare’s works because it contains numerous loose ends and inconsistencies of detail. Some characters lack names, and others appear then disappear without trace. The play’s sub-plot, which follows the fortunes of a banished soldier, Alcibiades, has struck many readers as underdeveloped and structurally strange."

Scene 6
Timon’s feast.
All the guests are expecting yummy food and presents. But when the dishes are uncovered they are seen to be full of warm water and stones.

Timon goes into long curses:
“You knot of mouth-friends!
Live loathed and long,
Most smiling, smooth, detested parasites”

He pelts his guests with the stones and throws the water over them.

This is the obvious place for the interval and the RSC took the opportunity.

Act Four
Scene 1

Timon in the forest is still cursing:
grant, as Timon grows, his hate may grow
To the whole race of mankind, high and low. Amen.
Scene 2
Flavius, Timon’s steward gives money to Timon’s still loyal though now unemployed servants: “Thus part we rich in sorrow, parting poor.
Flavius resolves to serve Timon still: “Whilst I have gold I’ll be his steward still.
Scene 3
Timon is still cursing: “Destruction fang mankind.”
He digs in the forest earth to find roots to eat ... and he discovers gold: “What is here? Gold? Yellow, glittering, precious gold?
But he realises that gold is cursed.

“I am Misanthropos, and hate mankind.”

He meets Alcibiades who has raised an army to attack Athens and, spurning the gold (“I cannot eat it”) he gives some of the gold to Alcibiades:
There’s gold to pay thy soldiers.
Make large confusion; and, thy fury spent,
Confounded be thyself.

He also offers gold to two prostitutes who are following the army, hoping that they will spread syphilis:
Down with the nose,
Down with it flat, take the bridge quite away

Apemantus. the cynic philosopher, finds Timon and, in an interesting distinction, advises him that his cursing is not philosophy but madness born of anger:
Thou’dst courtier be again
Wert thou not beggar.

Some thieves, having heard of Timon’s gold, come to rob him; he makes a speech saying everyone and everything are thieves.

Flavius comes and protests that he only wants to serve his master:
Methinks thou art more honest now than wise.
For by oppressing and betraying me
Thou mightst have sooner got another service;
For many so arrive at second masters
Upon their first lord’s neck

Act Five
Scene 1
Poet and painter enter at the start of the last act as they introduced the first. They have heard of the gold and think Timon faked his own ruin to test his friends. They find Timon still cursing.

Other scenes
The senators are desperate for help from Timon as the army of Alcibiades approaches. They send to him but he refuses them.
Alcibiades offers the defeated city fair terms.

Timon is dead.

Great lines:
“there’s none
Can truly say he gives, if he receives.” (A1 S2)

“Feast-won, fast-lost” (A2 S2)

“Every man has his fault, and honesty is his.” (A3 S1)

“who is man that is not angry?” (A3 S5)

“His days are foul and his drink dangerous.” (A3 S5)

“Lust and liberty
Creep in the minds and marrows of our youth” (A 4 S1)

"Who would not wish to be from wealth exempt
Since riches point to misery and contempt?" (A4 S2)

“This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions, bless th’accursed,
Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves,
And give them title, knee, and approbation,
With senators on the bench.” (A4 S3)

“What a god’s gold,
That he is worshipped in a baser temple
Than where swine feed!” (A5 S1)

November 2019

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

Other plays reviewed in this blog include: