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

Sunday, 28 April 2019

"The Cherry Orchard" by Anton Chekhov

At the start of the story Lyubov Andreievna returns to her Russian estate after an absence of six years (she fled with her lover to Paris after the death of her husband and son). The estate is heavily burdened with debt and is due to be sold at auction if the family cannot raise sufficient money to pay. Lopakhin, formerly a peasant on the estate but now a rich merchant, advises her to chop down the trees in the cherry orchard and lease the land for holiday homes; this will earn enough to pay the debts. But LA is hopeless with money and it seems that the estate is doomed.

This symbolises the decadence and decay of old Russia and the rise of new money which threatens the values and way of life of the old (symbolised by the cherry orchard). Many of the characters are unable to change: no character arcs here.

Besides LA and Lopakhin, the other characters include:
  • Varya, 24, who is the adopted daughter of LA, who has been acting as housekeeper during LA’s absence; she would like to be a nun.
  • Gayev who is LA’s brother. He is addicted to billiards. At moments of stress he fantasises about the shot he is about to play. This 'dialogue tic' makes him ridiculous. 
  • A 'love triangle' of accident-prone estate clerk Yepikhodov who, at the start of the play, is engaged to servant Dunyasha who, in her turn, has a crush on young manservant Yasha who has been in Paris with LA and longs to dump Dunyasha and go back to Paris. Yasha is a very insolent servant who laughs at the antics of the family, especially Gayev; I suppose he represents the perceived insolence of young Russians but at the end of the play he is still a servant begging LA to take him back to paris.
  • Peter Trofimov is a “perpetual student” who was originally hired as tutor to Grisha, since drowned, and since then has hung around the estate dreaming of the coming revolution; he has infected Anya, LA's daughter, with his ideas and she adores him although he claims that their relationship is "beyond love".
  • Charlotta Ivanovna who is Anya’s governess. It is believed that Lopakhin fancies her but when he tries to kiss her hand she says: “If I let you kiss my hand, you’ll want the elbow next, then the shoulder…” (This, of course, is exactly what he wants in terms of increasing his mercantile empire.) Charlotta is the orphan of a circus family and entertains the family with card tricks and ventriloquism.
  • Boris Simeonov-Pishchik is a neighbouring landowner who repeatedly tries to borrow money to pay the interest on his debts. It seems at the start of the play that he is yet another aristocrat doomed to bankruptcy.
  • And finally there is the 87 year old manservant Firs who was born in serfdom and chunters on about the good old days. He is going deaf and the others think he is becoming senile. He is a metaphor for old Russia.
Act One starts with this stage description: “A room which is still called the ‘nursery’. One of the doors leads to Anya’s room. Dawn; it will soon be sunrise. It is May and the cherry trees are in bloom, but out in the orchard it is cold, with a morning frost. The windows of the room are shut.” Thus we have the pathetic fallacies of the trees in bloom but vulnerable to the frost. The fact the at the room is ‘still’ called the nursery symbolises the infantile behaviour of the aristocrats. The shut windows symbolise their refusal to let the reality come into their world.

Great lines:
  • “If a great many remedies are prescribed for some disease, that means the disease is incurable.”
  • “Everyone loves you, respects you… but dear Uncle, you mustn’t say things, just keep your mouth shut.”
  • “The huge majority of the intelligentsia I know seek nothing, do nothing and aren’t yet capable of hard work. They call themselves intelligentsia, but they’re rude to servants, they treat peasants like animals, they are poor students, they read nothing seriously, they don’t do a thing, they just talk about science, they understand little about art. They’re all serious, they all have stern expressions, they all only talk about what is significant, they talk philosophy, but meanwhile in front of their eyes the workers eat disgusting food, sleep without pillows, thirty or forty to a room, everywhere fleas, stench, damp, immorality… And of course all our fine conversations are just to divert our own and others’ attention. Show me where we have the crèches, which are talked of so much and so often, where are the reading rooms?”
  • “The ownership of living souls has formed all of you, those who lived before and those who are living now, so that your mother, you, your uncle, no longer notice that you are living in debt, at others’ expense, at the expense of those people whom you don’t let in further than your front hall…”
  • “You’re boldly solving all the important questions, but tell me, my dear, isn’t that because you are young, because you haven’t had time to suffer as a result of a single one of your questions? You look ahead boldly, and isn’t that because you don’t see and don’t expect anything terrifying, as life is still hidden from your young eyes?”
  • “Once you’re one of the pack, if you can’t bark then you’ve got to wag your tail.”
April 2019

Saturday, 27 April 2019

"Lud-in-the-Mist" by Hope Mirrlees

This is a fairy tale. It is a rewrite of the clash between the Apollonian, here represented as the solid merchant-burghers of the town and the Dionysian wildness of fairy. 

In particular, the stolid town of Lud is losing its children to fairy fruit: one mouthful and they are addicted, and it turns them into wild dreamers. The Lud yeomanry cannot stop the smuggling in of this banned and dreaded commodity.

This is so like the war on drugs that I thought the book was very modern; it was written in 1926 and the author was a friend of Virginia Woolf (author of The Waves, To the Lighthouse, and Mrs Dalloway) and and an influence on T S Eliot! I suppose that explains the lack of modern technology and the stuffy Englishness of so many of the characters: they reminded by of the Hobbits in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings; when Luke travels as servant to and protector of young Ranulph it reminded me very much of Sam Gamgee with Frodo in The Lord of the Rings

The plot concerns the attack on Lud by the fairy-fruit smuggling baddies. It includes a journey into fairyland, a place from which no traveller returns, by a very prosaic Orpheus seeking his Eurydice.

Some of the plot is particularly daft and seems to have been made up on the spot. For example, Nat and Ambrose find a secret passage (thanks to Nat's wife having tapped on a bit of panelling and heard a hollow sound) and enter the cellars where fairy fruit is hidden only to find, when they return, that there is no evidence of fairy fruit ever having been there. This is a more or less pointless exercise.

On the other hand it has some remarkable observations and descriptions:

  • Description of the town: “It had flat brick houses - not the mere carapace of human beings, but ancient living creatures, renewing and modifying themselves with each generation under their changeless antique roofs. It had old arches, framing delicate landscapes that one could walk into, ... and little open squares where comic baroque statues of dead citizens held levees attended by birds and lovers and insects and children.” (C 1)
  • “Let a thing be but a sort of punctual surprise ... let it be delicate, painted and gratuitous, hinting that the creator is solely preoccupied with aesthetic considerations, and combines disparate objects simply because they look so well together, and that thing will admirably fill the role of a flower.” (C 1)
  • “You should regard each meeting with a friend as a sitting he is only giving you for a portrait - a portrait that, probably, when you or he die, will still be unfinished.” (C 1)
  • “Leisure, that fissure in the solid masonry of works and days in which take seed a myriad curious little flowers - good cookery, and shining mahogany, and a fashion in dress that, like the baroque bust, is fantastic through sheer wittiness, and porcelain shepherdesses, and the humours ,and endless jokes - in fact, the toys, material and spiritual, of civilisation.” (C 2)
  • Spring: “Everywhere, steadily, invisibly, the trees’ winter foliage of white sky or amethyst grey dusk was turning to green and gold.” (C 3)
  • “He looked upon him more as an heirloom than as a son.” (C 3)
  • “That sense of emptiness, that drawing in of the senses ... so that the physical world vanishes, and you yourself at once swell out to fill its place, and at the same time shrink to a millionth part of your former bulk, turning into a mere organ of suffering without thought and without emotions.” (C 3)
  • “We are not yet civilised enough for exogamy; and, when anything seriously goes wrong, married couples are apt to lay all the blame at its door.” (C 3)
  • “This incorrigible optimist about facts was the same man who walked in daily terror of the unknown. But perhaps the one state of mind was the outcome of the other.” (C 4)
  • “Have you ever noticed a little child of three or four walking hand in hand with its father through the streets? It is almost as if the two were walking in time to perfectly different tunes.” (C 4)
  • “His own way to a sick man is what grass is to a sick dog.” (C 5)
  • “The nymph whom all travellers pursue and none has ever yet caught - the white high-road.” (C 5)
  • “Like a pair of gigantic golden compasses with which a demiurge is measuring chaos.” (C 6)
  • “Professor Wisp, shouting directions the while, wound himself in and out among them, as if they were so many beads, and he the string on which they were threaded.” (C 6)
  • “Restoring to what she was pleased to call her mind its normal condition, namely that of a kettle that contains just enough water to simmer comfortably over a low fire.” (C 8)
  • “Nasty things have a way of not always staying at the bottom, you know - stir the pond and they rise to the top.” (C 8)
  • “It was as if the future were a treacly adhesive fluid that had been spilt all over the present.” (C 9)
  • “The red-roofed houses scattered about the side of the hill looked as if they were crowding helter-skelter to the harbour, eager to turn ships themselves and sail away - a flock of clumsy ducks on a lake of swans.” (C 10)
  • “The belfries seemed to be standing on tiptoe behind the houses - like tall serving lads, who, unbeknown to their masters, have succeeded in squeezing themselves into the family group.” (C 10)
  • “One day he himself would be a prisoner, confined between the walls of other people's memory.” (C 22)
  • “Sea-dogs are like other dogs and bark at what they're not used to.” (C 29)

Well written fantasy. April 2019; 264 pages

Thursday, 25 April 2019

"The Biographer's Tale" by A S Byatt

On a whim, Phineas Gilbert Nanson, a post-graduate research student decides to abandon how work on post0structural literary criticism and begin working for Professor Ormerod Goode on a biography of a biographer called Scholes Destry-Scholes whose masterwork was a biography of Victorian polymath Elmer Bole. In the course of his researches he discovers that SDS's notes towards biographies of Carl Linnaeus, Francis Galton and Henrik Ibsen include deliberate distortions. He spends some time trying to classify a box of index cards and another of photographs at the home of SDS's grand-niece Vera Alphage with whom he has an affair. He also meets bee ecologist Fulla Biefield and works for travel agents Erik and Christophe, fending off the advances of sex tourist Maurice Bossey.

Bonkers names and a bonkers plot. It seemed that Byatt was, perhaps like Brecht, trying to tell me not to take any of this seriously. And yet like Phineas trying to build a narrative from the muddle of SDS's notes I tried to make some sense out of this. I speculated that SDS would turn out to be Ormerod Goode who had written a hoax biography of an eminent Victorian and was not hoaxing his PhD student to research it. But that would require a conventional plot that actually led somewhere. I then wondered whether the whole thing was en elaborate post-structuralist joke and that the point is that there is no coherence to our lives so why do novelists attempt to build a coherent narrative about coherent characters (“I suspect that much of what we stigmatise as irresolution is due to our Self being by no means one and indivisible.” ; p 224; a remark that made me think of Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse) There was something in this, I felt, given that this was an analogy with the activities of a number of the characters: Phineas himself, Fulla, trying to understand ecosysterms, and the travel agents specialising in constructing tours that collected together the a number of places connected only by the thread of their clients' whim. So I decided that this was, essentially, a novel 'about' the idea that we discover or construct or impose patterns within the randomness of real facts (if there are such things) and that the journey of Phineas from post-structuralist to travel agent cum beetle researcher was a journey from the chaos of the Maelstrom to the chaos of the Maelstrom interpreted as meaning. As Phineas tells us: 

  • “One of the reasons I had given up post-structuralist thought was the disagreeable amount of imposing that went on in it. You decided what you're looking for, and then duly found it ... This was made worse by the fact that the deconstructionists and others paid lip-service to the idea that they must not impose - they even went so far as half-believing they must not find, either. And yet they discovered the same structures, the same velleities, the same evasions quite routinely in the most disparate texts.” (p 144)

(I had to look up velleity. It is a whim or a desire not sufficiently strong to lead one to actually do something.)

Byatt being Byatt she writes beautifully, if somewhat obscurely at times. Here are some of her great lines:

  • “I know a dirty window is an ancient, well-worn trope for intellectual dissatisfaction and scholarly blindness.” (p 2)
  • “In the late afternoon gloom he was like some demonic owl hooting de profundis.” (p 6)
  • “I often feel that the tableland of sanity, on which most of us dwell, is small in area, with unfenced precipices on every side, over any one of which we may fall.” (p 60)
  • “He even conducted a statistical survey of the longevity of those (queens, princes, bishops) regularly prayed for in churches, to see if the force of prayer improved their life expectancy. It did not.” (p 71)
  • “He had constructed himself to be looked at. Famous men walk behind, or inside, a simplified mask, constructed from inside and outside simultaneously.” (p 79)
  • “Most people die without ever having lived. Luckily for them, they don't realise it.” (p 85)
  • “The true literary fanatic, the primeval reader, is looking for anything but a mirror - for an escape route, for an expanding horizon, for receding starscapes, for unimaginable monstrosities and incomprehensible (strictly) beauties.” (p 100)
  • “Aimless is the wrong word. I had too many aims, towards all points of the compass.” (p 104)
  • “This creature was living, and will be dead, a photograph says, according to Barthes.” (p 140)
  • “The horror of Mirrors is nothing to the horror of photographs.” (p 140)
  • “I began to think in a mad way that a biography was a kind of snuff movie.” (p 190)
  • “We as yet understand nothing of the way in which our conscious cells are related to the separate lives of the billions of cells of which the body of each of us is composed. We only know that the cells form a vast nation, some members of which are always dying and others growing to supply their places and that the continual sequence of these multitudes of little lives has its outcome in the large and conscious life of the man as a whole. Our part in the universe may possibly in some distant way be analogous to that of the cells in an organised body, and our personalities maybe the transient but essential elements of an immortal and cosmic mind.” (p 225)
  • “Accuracy is not the strong point of artists. They think as much of shadows as of substances.” (p 227)

April 2019; 260 pages

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

"A kid for two farthings" by Wolf Mankowitz

Set in the East End of London. While his mum does piece work making hats, Joe, too young for school, is looked after by Mr Kandinsky who, helped by Shmule, sews trousers in the basement. When Joe's pet, a day-old chick, dies, he goes into the market to buy a unicorn. The unicorn is crooked, and very sickly, but unicorns have the power to grant wishes.

  • Joe wants his father to come back from Africa.
  • Mr Kandinsky wants a steam trouser press.
  • Shmule wants to be a body-building champion but needs to earn money through professional wrestling against fighters who frighten him.
  • Sonia wants Shmule to buy her a diamond ring which is why Shmule is wrestling.

Will dreams come true?

A charming story told from the perspective of a little boy and full of wonderful characterisations and superbly caught dialogue.

Some great lines:

  • "Life is all dreams - dreams and work. That's all it is." (C 1)
  • "'For how long?' she said, 'how long is anyone pretty?'" (C 1)
  • "Naturally small animals only have small lives and naturally they lose them more easily." (C 1)
  • "Everybody needs a name, otherwise how can they know who they are?" (C 4)
  • "They only talked to themselves, mumbling all the time, sometimes having arguments alone." (C 4)
  • "One of the things about games is that unless you keep adding to them and working out new ideas, they get dull - not the games really, but you get dull in the games, and then they seem dull."(C 7)
  • "Once the evening comes, what does it matter how bright or dull the day has been?" (C 9)

A beautifully told novella from the author of Make me an Offer. April 2019; 97 pages

This was made into a film directed by Carol Reed and starring such luminaries as David Kossof playing Mr Kandinsky and Diana Dors playing Sonia. Wolf Mankowitz is perhaps better known for his contribution to the world of films: he is the man Apart from going to Downing College Cambridge (where I followed twenty years later) Wolf Mankowitz is the man who introduced Cubby Broccoli to Harry Saltzman which led to the James Bond films; having written the screenplay for Dr No, Wolf thought it was not good enough so asked that his name be removed from the screen credits.

Monday, 22 April 2019

"Make me an offer" by Wolf Mankowitz

Apart from going to Downing College Cambridge (where I followed twenty years later) Wolf Mankowitz is the man who introduced Cubby Broccoli to Harry Saltzman which led to the James Bond films; having written the screenplay for Dr No, Wolf thought it was not good enough so asked that his name be removed from the screen credits. He also wrote A kid for two farthings which was made into a film directed by Carol Reed and starring such luminaries as David Kossof playing Mr Kandinsky and Diana Dors playing Sonia.

This novella tells the story of an antique dealer who specialises in ceramics having loved the Portland Vase in the British Museum when he was a boy. He has learned how to buy and sell from his father who is a market trader. The narrator-protagonist goes to a stately home whose contents (including the panelling and even the lead from the roof) are due to be auctioned off; he discovers that the room full of Wedgwood is actually full of copies but that the lodge contains some very valuable pieces which were stolen some years before. But the auction trade has many opportunities for a wide boy to make a few bob and our hero has a number of tricks up his sleeve as he shucks and jives his way to some profitable deals.

What immediately attracted me to this little book is the command Monowitz has as he weaves language and plot and character together. He sees all life as a metaphor for dealing. For example, at the start of chapter two he describes how his baby, having been grumpy, gets a bottle: "His smile was full of satisfaction and triumph. He'd pulled it off once again, and was getting to feel infallible. I knew how he felt. I felt the same way when I managed to run something at auction." In chapter eleven he metaphorises death as bankruptcy: "It wanted just another bad winter or a really bad deal to put him out of business."

There is another nice moment of metaphor when he has just discovered that the Wedgwood he has been considering buying is fake and one of his many dodgy business associates ends up being fooled by purchasing counterfeit dollars. This ramps up the tension when the hero actually buys the Wedgwood, knowing it to be fake, on behalf of others; you are never quite sure whether he is playing them or they are playing him. As he says: "You can't be too sure. You can't be too careful. You can be too clever. You can't be clever enough. It's a bad lookout." (C 6)

In addition to this he starts off with the line "As far as I know it started when I was about eleven" which just makes you want to read on and then he suggests that an exhibit in the British Museum moves. I was hooked from page two.

But the best of the book is that he is describing some wonderfully seedy characters in the dog eat god of the antiques trade. It's very Del Boy.

There are a lot of great lines for such a little book:

  • "The air was deep blue and very solid, and I thought suddenly that the vase was solid night carved with figures of pure light." (C1)
  • "I reached out and put my hand on my wife's thigh. It was warm and I wanted to go to sleep again with my hand there, but she jerked away suddenly, as if I was a roadsweeper trying to feel the brush texture in one of the paintings at Wildenstein's." (C3)
  • "When you walk around in the middle of the night it takes a while before you can really say you're thinking about anything particular." (C3)
  • "It's a funny game, this dealing. Nothing's worth anything until you sell it, and then it's worth whatever you can get for it." (C3)
  • "If you want to be unpleasant about it, dealing is sordid, and the dealer is a whore. But you won't pretend that whoring isn't hard work or that it doesn't supply a need. We don't have to be in love with the customer. We just have to take him upstairs." (C3)
  • "I'm no better, nor fundamentally different from the girl trading on Birdcage Walk on a wet Saturday evening. When things are bad my standards and my prices go down." (C3)
  • "Two smiles were fished out from the bottom of their spleens by a couple of American friends. They put them back quickly to save wear and tear." (C 6)
  • "I mused on the idiocy of a life which tosses you money when you don't work for it, and a bellyful of promises when you do." (C6)
  • "My stomach was self-supporting at the moment and I wanted to make some small contribution." (C7)
  • "He loved trees but only when they were chopped down." (C7)
  • "It's got a nice atmosphere of decay - and I love the way the herbaceous border's gone tropical and the trees haven't been pruned and the bushes haven't had a haircut in years." (C9)
  • "Her expression meant nothing. It was just a dish cover and no one could say what she had on the dish." (C 10)
  • "He couldn't think of more than one thing at a time, and thinking about that one little thing took up all the breath and blood and life he had left in him." (C 11)
  • "The dealer was like the ring master in a dream circus ... Who knew better than he that nothing is given, that everything passes, the woods decay? He was the ultimately human being." (C 11)

A delightful bijou offering. April 2019; 85 pages

Sunday, 21 April 2019

"A Thing in Disguise" by Kate Colquhon

This is a biography of Joseph Paxton, one of the remarkable men of the Victorian age. He was born in 1803, the seventh son and ninth and last child of a farm labourer who died when he was six. Yet this lad, born in rural poverty during the Napoleonic wars, a young boy during the Luddite riots and at the time of the Peterloo massacre, during the early days of the industrial revolution when there was great rural and urban poverty, went on to become one of the most celebrated men in England and a knight of the realm. It must have helped that he was a workaholic. But it is a remarkable story.

Strangely, the tale intersects with many aspects of my own life. My father told me about seeing, when he was a boy, Crystal Palace burn down; as a young boy I remember being taken to the park that was left after the Palace burned and seeing the famous model dinosaurs. Paxton was born in Milton Bryant, near Woburn, in Bedfordshire where I live. I tried to learn the violin in Turnham Green. At one stage he bought the orchid collection of the vicar of Kimbolton, a post later filled by the step-father of my wife's first husband. One of his collectors collected plants from Sylhet; I am proud to be friendly with many Sylhetis. He designed Shepperton Park near where I grew up.

He was originally a gardener. He learned his trade in Battlesden Park near Woburn and then completed his horticultual education in the gardens of the Horticultural Society adjoining Chsiwick House in Turnham Green. The owner of Chiswick House was the Duke of Devonshire; he had a private gate into this gardens. At some time he met Paxton there and offered him the job of Head Gardener at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, one of the country's foremost stately homes. Paxton was 23.

Paxton fully lived up to this formidable promotion, spending vast sums of the Duke's money on creating splendid gardens at Chatsworth. Gardening was in its competitive heyday with plant collectors scouring the globe. Paxton's special triumph was cultivating the first flowering water lily in England.  But he had already begun to branch out. He created England's first municipal park in Birkenhead. He became a specualtor and a shareholder in a number of railway companies and began to advise the government on the royal gardens. He founded and edited some gardening magazines and later became one of the founders of the Daily News, originally edited by Charles Dickens. Late in life he became an MP.  But he is most remembered as the man who designed the Crystal Palace (basically an enormous greenhouse) for the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park (it was later moved to Sydenham where it burned in the 1930s).

This is a biography of a most remarkable man. He had boundless energy and the ability (or the arrogance) to turn his hand to so many different ventures. I did feel sorry for the wife he left at home when his career began to explode into the limelight. He should be better known.

April 2019; 253 pages

Saturday, 20 April 2019

"One on one" by Craig Brown

This is a great book! It is built on the seven steps premise, the idea that you can link yourself to anyone in the world in just seven steps (this is also known as the small world phenomenon: it is a meme started by an experiment by the psychologist Stanley Milgram as explained in Small World by Mark Buchanan). Except Craig Brown (I knew him at school so that's one step right there) links Adolf Hitler with Adolf Hitler through 101 encounters. Thus, Adolf  was knocked down by John Scott-Ellis who, at another time, met Rudyard Kipling who had once met Mark Twain who sometime later encountered Helen Keller who worked with Martha Graham who taught Madonna who ... and so it goes on until Charlie Chaplin plays tennis against Groucho Marx who meets T S Eliot who reads poetry to The Quuen Mother who discusses kitchens with the Duchess of Windsor who met Adolf Hitler. It goes back in time as far as Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky and Madonna is perhaps the most contemporary; it covers writers and royals, painters and poets and politicians, actors and dancers and rock stars, a couple of religious gurus and a philosopher. I loved it.

It is all extensively researched and cited. To compound the bonkers brilliance of this game, each encounter is written in 1001 words (I don't know whether the many extensive footnotes are counted).

Celebrities, or at least this selection of them, are almost uniformly eccentric to the point of lunacy. Sex comes up time and again. It seems to me that to be anyone in the celebrity world you have to have sex with at least seven other celebrities.

Many of the most quotable moments belong to other people so I have tried to select my favourite bits from what Craig has written:

  • "Gurdjieff ... was the most earthy of men, enjoying huge three-course meals, washed down with Armagnac, while his followers made do with bowls of thin soup. ... he often didn't bother to use the lavatory, preferring to defecate willy-nilly. ... He was a stranger to celibacy." P L Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, was one of his devotees!
  • "Jack Kerouac ... collapsed while watching The Galloping Gourmet on television, then died in hospital of cirrhosis of the liver."
  • "Traditionally, members of the royal family are granted a special licence as entertainers. Their efforts at sparkling, however dim, are greeted with enthusiasm; their repartee, however pedestrian, sets tables aroar; their musical forays, however painful, are hailed as delightful. This conspiracy of sycophancy has, over the years, led one or two of them to gain an inflated notion of their own talents."
  • "When his father first warned him that he was spending too much, Elvis tried to calm him down by buying him a Mercedes."
  • "When the Book of the Month club asks him to change the title [of The Catcher in the Rye], Salinger explains that Holden Caulfield won't agree to it."
  • "Now aged forty-nine, penniless and plump, Isadora Duncan has seen better days. ... Dorothy Parker nicknames her 'Duncan Disorderly'."
  • "She has always been prone to rage, and her progress around the world has been marked by the splinters of hotel furniture."

This book is incredibly clever and great fun. I loved it.

April 2019; 332 pages

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

"Brief lives" by Anita Brookner

A devastatingly sad book, told from the point of view of an old lady, a childless widow, about getting old. Fay's reminiscences are triggered by the death of an old acquaintance, Julia, with whose life Fay's intersected.

Julia is a wonderful character: an ex-actress, hugely manipulative but adored by her small group of devotees. Not one of them appears to be enjoying life. They are all purposeless, without dreams, without love, perhaps without hope, as they grow older. In the end age defeats even Julia.

This is a book about the old. The young are kept very much in the sidelines, although there is a meal at a restaurant near the end where the three old ladies watch the antics of the couples courting over their meals. But the men die young while the old linger. Thus we meet old ladies slowly declining again and again. There are many reflections on growing old:
  • “Maybe the virtue of growing older is that one is more stoical; one accepts the burden of life, knowing that the alternative is simply death, non-existence, non-feeling.” (C2)
  • “Growing old is so meaningless when there are no young people to watch.” (C4)
  • “She was now utterly indifferent to her surroundings, did not notice those sad odours, had become an old lady who wore thick stockings and wide shoes, she who had been so fastidious, so critical, so elegant in her modest way.” (C7)
Chapter one is by way of being a prologue, framing the reminiscences. The story goes back to the start in chapter two. 

There are regular hooks interposed in the story to tell you that something terrible is about to happen. This starts in the first paragraph of chapter one: “I never liked her, nor did she like me; strange, then, how we managed to keep up a sort of friendship for so long.” It continues throughout:
  • “But I was never destined for a happy ending, although I was so very happy at the beginning.” (C 2)
  • “I only learnt this much later, and even now I have to learn the lesson every day.” (C2)
  • "For a moment or two I sat in horror, knowing that love had gone and would never return.” (C6)
  • “Growing up means growing away, and everyone is eager to begin the work. It is only half way that one begins to look back, and by then it is already too late.” (C 11)
  • “It was as if from that moment on the she decided to take me seriously, at no cost to herself. The cost, she determined, would be all mine.” (C13) 
There are some wonderful pathetic fallacies and metaphors:
  • “I remember being dazzled by the many cut glass mirrors and decanters in her tiny over-furnished sitting-room, but not too dazzled to notice a fine bloom of dust. Vinnie herself had something of the same glitter and dustiness.” (C3)
  • “When I went into the kitchen with the food I took over, I could smell stale dusters and dishcloths, hear the tap dripping into the new red plastic basin I had bought her, see that the clock had stopped, that she had not replaced last year's calendar, which still showed September, under a reproduction of Canaletto's Warwick Castle.” (C7)
  • “A powdery tear, like a very small pearl, made its way down her cheek, leaving no identifiable trace behind.” (C12)
More brilliant lines:
  • “Widowhood does not exactly increase the number of things one has to talk about.” (C1)
  • “She lived on omelettes and whisky, maintaining that she liked neither, and appeared none the worse for it.” (C1)
  • “Father was too amiable to feel desire: what he wanted was an easy life, without challenges or impossible dreams” (C2)
  • “It is inherent in the organism to want to endure for as long as possible, even for ever, so that one becomes willing to take on all the mishaps, all the tragedies, if they are the price to be paid.” (C2)
  • “Now I see that it is sometimes necessary to meet withdrawal with withdrawal, dismissal with dismissal.” (C4)
  • “The sight of an abandoned plate containing a biscuit from which a minute bite had been taken, as if by a child, and which my mother had felt unable to finish, affected me inordinately. ... It was her last meal.” (C7)
  • “I had not known in that it is not necessary to marry every man one loves. I know it now. Now I realize that it is marriage which is the great temptation for a woman, and that one can, and perhaps should, resist it.” (C7)
  • “It was my duty now to be obscure and self-sufficient, as befits all widows.” (C8)
  • “Adultery is not noble. Adulterous lovers are not allowed to be star-crossed. Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary are not really heroines. Even when there is real love, authentic love, it is not the sort in which one rejoices.” (C9)
  • “That night I began a long training in duplicity, in calculation, in almost continuous discomfort, but also in confidence and expectation and effectiveness.” (C9)
  • “She had no idea of what made a book good or bad but judged it by the actions it contained in the first and last chapters.” ( C10)
  • “So solipsistic was Julia that it would not occur to her to wonder what he did when he was not with her.” (C 11)
  • “There is no appropriate attitude for a bereaved mistress, although she is spared the Job's comforters who attend the wife. The best thing she can do, or if not the best then certainly the most expedient, is to turn into one such comforter herself, aware of the hypocrisy involved, finding some relief in the savage alienation she feels.” (C12)
  • “Rage is better than grief, especially when no atonement is possible.” (C12)
  • “Why did she, without doing anything for anyone, inspire such devotion, while humbler, clumsier people like myself seemed doomed to do without?” (C12)
  • “Respectability is as much as can be hoped for; there is no woman so respectable as the one who has rediscovered virtue.” (C12)
  • “She was like one of those very early martyrs who cheerfully embraced their doom in the Colosseum without ever tasting the alternative.” (C12)
  • “I was free now, free of encumbrances, free of hope, that greatest of all encumbrances.” (C15)
  • “The old law, the commandment to go forth and multiply, was still the best, the only one that could stand the test of time. But for those who had not obeyed the commandment, or had mismanaged it, there was little on offer.” (C16)
At the end Fay, once a singer, remembers the songs she sung when she was young: “Though the words are affirmative the melodies are in a minor key, and sadder than they know. I could not sing them now. I know too much of this cruel world to sing them with the touching faith of yesterday.” (C17)


This is a beautifully written book but it is so depressing.

Anita Brookner has also written:

  • Hotel du Lac which won the Booker Prize in 1984 which I found brilliant
  • Family and Other Friends which is another book in which lives are viewed but the narrator in this book is impersonal, an outsider looking at the family photograph album

April 2019; 217 pages

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

"As You Like It" by William Shakespeare

Not one of William's best. There is even a suggestion that the title reflects the fact that it was written to please the groundlings: As You Like It.

I read it. Then I saw it broadcast live from the RSC on Wednesday 17th April at the Vue Cinema in Bedford. The production transformed my view of the play.

First of all, the RSC included audience participation. They took 'As You Like It' seriously. They suggested that this is the play more than any other in which Shakespeare breaks down the fourth wall. I'm not 100% sure what this means. Does this mean that the actor speaks directly to the audience? Because if that is the case then one might suggest that every soliloquy in Shakespeare is a fourth wall destruction. Or do they mean that the actor interacts with the audience which implies that the audience itself has an input? Certainly in this production the actors, from time to time, jumped off the stage, they distributed Orlando's poems to members of the audience, then collected them again, Orlando even invited four members of the audience up on to the stage to act as trees on which he could hang the letters of the word ROSALIND. But this is not the same as interaction. Interaction implies that some input from an audience member might have the power to alter what is happening on the stage. This never happened. Might it? One of the features that distinguishes drama as entertainment from, for example, sport as entertainment is that in drama every moment is scripted and preordained whereas in sport no one can be certain what is going to happen next. Perhaps this is why sport has mass appeal and my beloved theatre is a minority art form nowadays.

So I don't really understand this fourth wall business. But how was it that the RSC production transformed what I thought was a rather silly play, with some obscure Shakespearean jokes and far too many minor characters, into nearly three hours of enjoyment?

One of the things that an actor does is to take words and add physicality. Time and again the RSC company added their bodies to transform the script. Here are a few examples:

  • Humour I had thought obscure and difficult became bawdy jokes. For example, there is one bit where Touchstone (played as a wonderfully seedy Rod Stewart) is teasing Corin about whether the countryside or the court is better and Corin tells him that courtiers are better because they have hands perfumed with civet rather than hands filthied from touching sheep and Touchstone makes a joke which depends on the audience knowing that civet comes from the anal glands of cats and it worked!
  • LeBeau (played superbly by Emily Johnstone), a courtier who supervises the wrestling match became a short lady in a tight skirt and high heels that tilted every time that she walked on the grass wrestling ring. Her timing was perfect and her gestures and facial movements enhanced the comedy. 
  • When Touchstone (superbly played by Sandy Grierson) goes into the country with Rosalind and Celia he is the one to take a suitcase on wheels (which enables him to climb down to the stage with the suitcase dangling from his foot!). 
  • Another clever moment was the wooing of Audrey by Touchstone; Audrey was played as a deaf character and Touchstone required William to sign for him which meant that when he calls Audrey a slattern he tries, unsuccessfully, to stop the signing. When Celia hides on stage she covers herself with her skirts creating a sort of brown mound which gets sat on. Rosalind hid by dropping off the stage into the stalls.
  • Anthony Byrne playing a chillingly evil Duke Frederick went from gracious ruler to cold-blooded tyrant in a breath with a pause and a twist of his face. Leo Wan achieved the same effect as Oliver. (Neither actor had the same opportunities when they played nice people, which suggests that either Shakespeare is really best at villains or that I prefer wicked characters.)
The question has to be asked whether Shakespeare himself was sufficiently wonderful a dramatist that he knew that his words would be interpreted in such a way. Harold Pinter's stage directions are detailed and exact: he tells the actor precisely how to play the scene. Shakespeare, on the other hand, has sparse stage directions (as was the fashion of his time). Was this deliberate? Was he giving his actors freedom to interpret his words how they wished to? Is it this (which clearly actors relish) that has given him longevity?

It is my belief that Shakespeare was a playwright who wrote for the company he knew (and with which he acted) and that therefore the paucity of stage directions is partly due to the fact that the plays were created together with the cast. As You Like It is actually a key piece of evidence for this theory. It has been suggested by James Shapiro ('1599') that the clown who played Falstaff left the Globe company after Merry Wives and before Henry V, which is why Falstaff does not appear in Henry V (we learn of his off stage death) and that the new clown was a very different character for whom Shakespeare wrote the part of Touchstone and subsequent comic parts. This supports the idea of Shakespeare as a jobbing playwright who worked with a company of actors, rather than an amateur such as Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford.

The likely dating of the play shows that it was written at a very interesting moment in the canon. The Oxford Schools Shakespeare edition edited by Roma Gill with additional material by Judith Kneen (1977) dates it to 1599 (part of the evidence for this is Phoebe's lines in Act Three Scene 6 (lines 80-81): “Dead shepherd, now I find thy saw of might:/ ‘Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?’” when she quotes Marlowe and by describing him as dead it is taken to be a reference to the fact that Marlowe is already dead which happened in 1593; also in AYLI (3.3) Touchstone says that "When a man’s verses cannot be understood ... it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room" which is sometimes taken to be a reference that Marlowe was supposedly stabbed after a quarrel about a bar bill) shortly after Merry Wives of Windsor and Much Ado About Nothing and during the hiatus between Henry IV part 2 and Henry V.

There were some wonderful performances.  Beside those already mentioned, Sophie Khan Levy played Celia, a part that really hasn't much meat, beautifully. David Ajao was a great Orlando who recruited audience members to act as trees so he could hang his lobe letters. Rosalind and Touchstone really made the most of Shakespeare's laughing at the poor quality of these poems. But the absolute star of the show was Lucy Phelps as Rosalind. She could change in an instant from Rosalind to Ganymede, she was able to communicate with the audience by more changes of her features which enabled her to provide a sort of commentary on the play, she was able to rush through some of Shakespeare's lines at breakneck speed and still keep the sense, she was superb.

The part of Rosalind, the girl who disguises herself as a boy who pretends to be a girl is a wonderfully strong female part and the part of Jaques, the melancholy man, is also brilliant. These are definite pluses for the play.

On the other hand, despite Jaques having the famous "All the world's a stage" speech, there are fewer quotable quotes than Shakespeare's normal quotient. This might be because there is a lot less poetry in this play; a surprisingly large number of the lines are in prose.

I would have advised Will on some cuts to improve this play. For example, in Act Five Scene 1 Touchstone and Audrey meet William who wants to marry Audrey; Touchstone teases him and William departs. There is almost no point to this scene. Remove it! Furthermore, in a desperately contrived ending, the good news that the bad Duke has had a change of heart and is retiring in favour of the good Duke is brought on by a new character called Jacques who is the apparently long-lost middle brother of Oliver and Orlando and absolutely no relation to Jaques. Get rid of him. Find someone else to break this news if you really can't find a more satisfactory resolution to the play. Or if you can't do that rename him. Essentially this play suffers from too many characters and too much plot and too little thoughtful development of character. At the end there are four happy marriages made, mostly between people who have fallen in love at first sight.

And how on earth is anyone to believe that Rosalind can get away with pretending to be a boy to her father or (repeatedly) to the man who loves her and who even woos Rosalind as a boy pretending to be his girlfriend Rosalind. It's bonkers. Disbelief seriously suspended.

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in Shakespeare's Workmanship states that “The opening act of As You Like It abounds in small carelessness of detail. Rosalind is taller than Celia in one passage, shorter in another.”

But there's a wrestling match and there are a lot of songs. The sort of play with plenty of spectacle which makes actors happy: they love to show off and sing and dance. And the RSC managed to turn an overcast play with a bonkers plot into fun entertainment which , after all, is what it's all about.

The overabundance of detail my be due to Shakespeare's source material. In The Genius of Shakespeare, Jonathan Bate points out that Rosalynd, a 1590 novella by Thomas Lodge, was the model for As You Like It. “It begins with the legacy of a gentleman to his three sons and the ill-treatment of the youngest at the hands of the eldest. The latter plans to do away with his brother by having him killed in a bout with a supposedly invincible wrestler at court; amazingly, though, the youth wins the wrestling match and in doing so attracts the eye of Rosalynd, daughter of the rightful king who has been forced into exile by a usurper. Further schemes against the hero, Rosader, force him to leave home; he goes to the forest of Arden, in company with his faithful retainer, Adam Spencer,; there he meets up with the exiled king and his courtiers.Meanwhile, Rosalynd is banished. Alinda, the daughter of the usurping king, determines to go with her. Since two women travelling alone would be vulnerable, the tall Rosalynd dresses as a boy and pretends to be Alinda’s page; they call themselves Ganymede and Aliena. In the forest they encounter an old shepherd and a young man, the latter complaining about his unrequited love for a shepherdess named Phoebe. The princesses in disguise give financial help to the shepherds; the court-in-exile gives civil welcome to young Rosader and hungry old Adam. The princesses meet up with Rosader, who has been busy writing love poems in praise of Rosalynd. Ganymede pretends to be Rosalynd, so that Rosader can rehearse his wooing of the real Rosalynd ...” (p 141) It is clear that As You Like It was an adaptation of Rosalynd. However, Shakespeare adds the clown Touchstone and the melancholic Jacques, who are probably the keystone characters of the play. (p 142)

Shakespeare's thesis is that love at first sight is lasting and that the life of simple rustics is so much better than the life at court; that bad thoughts can be healed by nature: “... Are not these woods/ More free from peril than the envious court?” (2.1.3-4). Classic romantic pap. I'm surprised that either Rosalind or Jaques will stand for it.

The Oxford School Shakespeare edition of the play states that there are three themes introduced in the first scene of the first Act, one of which is "the envy that is provoked by goodness". You could say that As You Like It was another exploration by Sahkespeare of jealousy, a theme developed more fully in King Lear and The Winter's Tale.

But it does have some good quotes:
  • “Hereafter, in a better world from this,/ I shall desire more love and knowledge of you.” (1.2.258-9)
  • “Treason is not inherited, my lord.” (1.3.56)
  • “Sweet are the uses of adversity.” (2.1.12)
  • “I can suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs.” (2.5.11)
  • “If he, compact of jars, grow musical,/ We shall have shortly discord in the spheres.” (2.7.5-6)
  • “ And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,/ And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot,/ And thereby hangs a tale.” (2.7.26 - 28)
  • “Do you know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak.” (3.3.225)
  • “Time travels in diverse paces with diverse persons.” (3.3.280)
  • “Love is merely a madness and, I tell you, deserves as well a dark-house and a whip as mad men do.” (3.3.359)
  • “A traveller! By my faith, you have great reason to be sad. I fear you have sold your own lands to see other men's.” (4.1.20- 21)
  • “Men have died from time to time - and worms have eaten them - but not for love.” (4.1.92 - 93)
April 2019

Other Shakespeare plays reviewed in this blog:

Monday, 15 April 2019

"Poetics" by Aristotle

This is the 1996 Penguin edition translated and introduced by Malcolm Heath. The erudition and common sense of Heath's translation contribute enormously to the understanding of a work which was probably not polished for publication, appearing more like lecture notes than a completed textbook, and is consequently sometimes obscure.

But it is enormously readable. Aristotle sets out his ideas of how to write a great poem, concentrating particularly on tragedy. It is supposed that his work on comedy has been lost.

Key concept within this work are those of:
  • mimesis: which many translate as representation but Heath translates as imitation
  • catharsis: Heath spends some time discussing the concept of catharsis (xxxviii - xl) “Aristotle does not think that emotions are bad things in themselves” but it is their appropriateness that may make them bad. “If I am paralyzed with fear at the sight of a mouse, my fear is inappropriate and excessive; that is a sign of cowardice. But if I sit nonchalantly in the path of an oncoming steam-roller, then my lack of fear is equally inappropriate and excessive; that is a sign of recklessness.” This implies that catharsis is not getting rid of emotion but ensuring the correct amount of emotion. “Why should this be pleasurable? ... When you are thirsty, satisfying your thirst is pleasurable; when someone has trodden on your toe, it is nice to feel the throbbing die away.” In the BBC Radio 4 'In Our Time' programme about the Poetics Angie Hobbs makes the point that catharsis can’t involve “the complete purgation of pity and fear” because “in the Ethics pity and fear are important human emotions, they perform crucial functions, we need them for survival and for social harmony with our neighbours.” so that  “The crucial thing is to feel them in the right way, at the right time, to the right extent, in relation to the right objects.”
  • hamartia. “The Greek word hamartia covers making a mistake or getting something wrong in the most general sense.” but it clearly does not mean for Aristotle a moral flaw.
Fundamentally, Aristotle believes that poetry is an attempt to imitate or represent something about the world using language and rhythm. He recognises that a perfect imitation may not be ideal: he points out that “Good portrait-painters ... paint people as they are, but make them better looking" and Heath suggests that this is one way to bridge the gap between the tragedy being about particular people and the writer trying to say something universal. But this definition of poetry as an attempt to imitate means that tragedy is better than epic because tragedy uses drama rather than narration (although Aristotle acknowledges that part of Homer's greatness was that he used drama within epic) and as Heath suggests (xvii) "the likeness is greater if the words of those involved in the action are presented directly rather than being mediated by a narrator.” 

Aristotle gives a brief history of tragedy: 
  • “The number of actors was increased from one to two by Aeschylus, who also reduced the choral parts and made the spoken word play the leading role; the third actor and scenepainting were introduced by Sophocles.” (3.3)
  • “They used tetrameter at first because the composition was satyric in manner and more akin to dance. But when speech was introduced nature itself found the appropriate form of verse, iambic being the verse-form closest to speech.” (3.3)
For Aristotle the most important thing was the well-constructed plot. This was because:
“There could not be a tragedy without action, but there could be one without character.”

Aristotle offers guidelines as to what a good plot looks like:
  • It has a bounded time: "so far as possible to keep within a single day, or not to exceed it by much.” (3.5)
  • It aims to effect "through pity and fear the catharsis of such emotions.” (4.1)
  • “The most important devices by which tragedy sways emotion are parts of the plot, ie reversals and recognitions.”
  • It is complete and has “a beginning, a middle and an end.” (5.1) thus there is closure
  • The events in the plot should be causally connected. This is important in giving poetry its claim on universality:“Poetry is concerned with particular sequences of events; but the connection between those events means that they instantiate universal structures.” (xxvii). Aristotle “believes that there is an intimate connection between the cohesion of the plot and the emotional impact at which tragedy aims.” (xlix) Crucially, the connections should be 'necessary or probably': “Poets construct the plot on the basis of probabilities ... the reason for this is that what is possible is plausible.” (5.5) 
  • There should be a reversal in which there is a change of fortune that causes astonishment; nevertheless it too should have a probable causal connection. "Even chance events are found most astonishing when they appear to have happened as if for a purpose.” (6.1) 
  • The change of fortune must evoke fear and pity. This means that the ideal subject of the tragedy is "the sort of person who is not outstanding in moral excellence or justice; on the other hand, the change to bad fortune which he undergoes is not due to any moral defect or depravity, but to an error of some kind.”(7.2) This is because “Decent men should not be seen undergoing a change from good fortune to bad fortune - this does not evoke fear or pity, but disgust. Nor should depraved people be seen undergoing a change from bad fortune to good fortune ... Nor again should a very wicked person fall from good fortune to bad fortune.” (7.2)
  • “Resolutions of plots should also come about from the plot itself, and not by means of a theatrical device.” (8.1)
  • In the BBC Radio 4 'In Our Time' programme about the Poetics, Stephen Halliwell states that “Aristotle doesn’t like reversal and recognition just for their shock value” but because “they show the limits of human agency”
This book contains some great insights, either from Aristotle (Chapter numbers in Arabic numerals) or from Heath (page numbers in Roman numerals)
  • “In general, an ability to do something well does not depend on, nor does understanding necessarily imply an ability to do it well.” (x)
  • “Good portrait-painters ... paint people as they are, but make them better looking"
  • “An imitation need not be a straightforward copy ... nor need an imitation be a likeness of an object which actually exists ... indeed, the events in a poem do not even have to conform to the basic structure of reality.” 
  • "Understanding is extremely pleasant, not just for philosophers but for others too in the same way, despite their limited capacity for it.” (3.1)
  • "As Aristotle observes, in an athletic competition the prize is not awarded to the athlete in the best condition, but to the one who actually comes first.”
  • “Spectacle is attractive, but it is very inartistic and is least germane to the art of poetry. For the effect of tragedy is not dependent on performance and actors; also, the art of the property-manager has more relevance to the production of visual effects than does that of the poets.” (4.4)
  • “One of the most fundamental principles of ancient Greek ethics ... was ‘help your friends, harm your enemies’.” (xxxiii)
  • “The essence of a riddle is that it states facts by means of a combination of impossibilities; this ... is possible using metaphor.” (9.4)
  • “The end of imitation is attained in shorter length; what is more concentrated is more pleasant than what is watered down by being extended in time.” (12.2)
Suprisingly easy to read; a classic work. April 2019

In the BBC Radio 4 'In Our Time' programme about the Poetics they also make the point that Aristotle only mentions the first of the three unities of plot, of time and of space and that the other two comes from an influential commentary on the Poetics by Ludovico Castelvetro published in Italian in the 1500s. 

Friday, 12 April 2019

"In a Dark Wood" by Amanda Craig

The book opens as an unemployed actor watches his home being packed up my removal men: his wife has had an affair and left him, taking his two children. He is in the depths of depression, bitter and cruel. He rescues a book of fairy stories written and illustrated by his mother who committed suicide when he was six years old. These stories will take him (and his young son Cosmo) on a quest to America to discover his mother's family and the truth about why she killed herself.

It is remarkable in that it has an unlikeable narrator and protagonist. It's a tough gig to persuade the reader to empathise with such a character and during the first few chapters I was finding the story a little contrived. I thought the characters weren't 'normal' people (an actor, wife a writer, father a famous columnist, mother an illustrator, best friend a consultant psychotherapist) ; that there were too many one-liners showing wit but not character (though I later realised that they did show character); that the long extracts of fairy-story were a contrivance to push the tale along.

But I recognised that the plot was of the classic 'Three Act' structure:
  • the first quarter (first act) ends with a long fairy story and the narrator setting off on his quest; 
  • the second quarter (first half of the second act) ends almost exactly with a revelation about the narrator's substitute mother figure which sends him off on his quest to the US;; 
  • in the third quarter (second half of third act) the narrator starts to become excited and extravagant; it ends with him falling in love with his cousin; 
  • the fourth quarter (third act) resolves the issues; 
  • the dramatic tension rises and falls very carefully within each act.
What is perhaps more interesting is that the character development is also within this structure and that the very features I found difficult about the protagonist at the start, the features I felt needed developing, were the features that would be under attack. So I had developed some sort of empathy with the protagonist despite myself. Clever.
Some great lines:

  • "A biography in books, this is why some people scan your shelves, in the manner of a Roman seer gazing at the entrails." (C1)
  • "Packers were entombing our furniture, wadding it in transparent, silvery bubbles." (C1)
  • "They were all so hesitant, these Cinderellas of the mating game, it was difficult to see them as predatory." (C1)
  • "At the eleventh hour before the biological clock struck midnight it was not myself they wanted so much as any half-decent heterosexual husband." (C1)
  • "My first reaction when she left me was a kind of elation." (C1)
  • "If you've been with the same person for most of your adult life, you can't help feeling curious. All those girls you haven't slept with, the parties you haven't gone to, the offers you've turned down." (C1)
  • "Everyone who was still single came trailing a history of romantic disappointment." (C1)
  • "You're like all men, struck dumb by testosterone." (C2)
  • "Everyone needs a story, a part to play to avoid the realisation that life is without significance." (C2)
  • "If you read fairy-tales carefully, you'll notice they are mostly about people who aren't heroes. They don't have special powers, or gifts. Often they are despised as stupid. They are bullied, beaten up, robbed, starved. But they find they are stronger than their misfortunes." (C2)
  • "In my experience, it is always the most selfish and cold-hearted of people who become mawkish over felines. I suspect it is because they instinctively recognise a nature even more unpleasant than their own." (C7)
  • "Children are closer to lunatics or animals than human beings." (C7)
  • "The one freedom every journalist will passionately defend is freedom of speech, otherwise known as the freedom to be cruel about other people." (C9)
  • "The Frog Prince who knows he's really a frog, no matter how many times he's kissed." (C10)
  • "The asymmetry of nightmare." (C12)
  • "I would never get used to the way other people look out of children's faces, as though we ourselves are only peep-holes for the past." (C19)
  • "Like all small boys, he was a natural fascist, deeply impressed by uniforms and guns." (C21)
  • "I was alive as I had never been before. I could hear every tiny leaf as it rustled on the tree, the calls of birds, the creak of wood, the humming of the great steel fridge that contained all the canapes." (C22)
  • "Unfair, unfair, that's what children cry. It takes such a long time to comprehend that fairness never happens except by the most improbable chance, that you are almost always going to be disappointed." (C24)
  • "The rules of law are an adult response to an essentially unfair universe." (C 24)

A well-crafted book with an interesting choice of narrator and a clever plot.

April 2019; 276 pages

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

"How art made the world" by Nigel Spivey

This wasn't in the least what I expected. I was expecting a book about how art developed. Instead I got what it says on the cover, a book about how art has affected the world. Spivey isn't even an art historian but a classics scholar. I must read titles more carefully!

So, for example, Spivey claims that the Creative Explosion of the Upper Paleolithic c40k - 10k ago “marks the ascent of a particular biological species, Homo sapiens.” (C2) In Europe such art comes to an end c12,000 years ago. Spivey speculates that art shifted to decoration of megaliths such as those found at Uruk In modern Turkey and wonders whether the creation of this art with the need to feed many people may have been responsible for agriculture. (C2)

He suggests that the typical images in cave paintings may reflect shamanic practices: “the thousands of Bushman images ... are best explained as ‘shamanic’: derived directly from the hallucinatory experiences of shamans while in an altered state of consciousness. There are, to begin with, clear signs that physiological effects of the trance dance are depicted: figures doubled up with abdominal spasms; figures with red lines (blood) streaming from their noses. The marked elongation of many figures may reflect the reported sensation of being stretched." (C2) Some stone age cave paintings show regular patterns of dots such as migraine sufferers might see: “It is a common symptom of an altered state of consciousness: the sensation of brightness, often framed in kaleidoscopic patterns” including spider’s webs and honeycombs. (C3)

He is particularly interesting when it comes to considering the psychology of art. He suggests that images are typically distorted rather than drawn from nature and that the distortions reflect the idealisation of the object. This is something that he calls peak shift:
  • “Michelangelo painted ... huge-shouldered hulks, colossal types that would dwarf even the extreme bodybuilders of today ... it is highly unlikely that any of his models even approximated such broad proportions ... Michelangelo would also stretch his figures beyond normal length.” (C3) 
  • “One of the problems posed by the Venus of Willendorf is that she looks conspicuously obese as a time when it was undoubtedly rare or difficult for any individual to build up stores of fat.” (C3) 
  • “No one, however athletic, will ever look this way. The division between the upper and the lower body has been emphasized by raising the edge of the so-called iliac crest, a band of muscle and ligament most men failed to find on themselves. At the front of the body this contour may not be anatomically impossible, but its continuation around the back is so powerful as to strain belief. The suspicion dawns that what matters here is not faithfulness to reality, but geometric symmetry. An implausibly deep groove runs up the centre of the chest. The length of the legs has been extended to match the length of the upper body. The muscles of the back are tense and over-defined. And as for the channel of the vertebrae - not only is it deeper than would ever be seen on an ordinary mortal, but it descends into the cleft of the buttocks with no interruption from a coccyx, the bone at the base of the spine that helps us to sit down.” (C3)
He then looks at art as a way of telling tales and wonders whether literature influenced art. He points out that Egyptian painters depicted people without emotion whereas classical Greek sculpture shows empathy and he wonders whether this was because “The illusionism of Greek art was rooted in the illusionism of their storytelling style.” (C4) “What Homer did with a story was unparalleled in any previous literature. Effectively, he anticipated Aristotle's principle of suspending disbelief.” (C4)

He also looks at landscape art, at the relationship between art and power, at art in the service of religion and at art and death.

Other points of interest:
  • Egyptian artists used a grid pattern to draw people: “ figures shall be 19 squares tall ... two squares are allowed for the face ... the pupil of the eye should be placed in one square of the central axis ... ten squares are allowed from the neck to the knees, and six from the knees to the soles of the feet ... the feet shall be two and a half squares in length” (C3)
  • “The earliest Greek efforts at the full-sized male figures seem to copy from Egypt the striding left leg, and the clenched fists held at the side. There are differences, of course, the most obvious being the Greek preference for nudity.” (C3)
  • Chiastic balance (aka contrapposto): “If one knee was low and relaxed, then a rise and tautness must be caused across the axis of the opposing hips and legs.” (C3)
  • “We speak of ‘virgin’ territory, as if the position of cultivation of land by human beings were an act of coupling or rape.” (C5)
  • “The Amazon ... is densely clustered with species of fruit, nut and edible palm trees planted there by humans several thousands of years ago.” (C5)
  • “Consider the operations of power that affect us on a daily basis - the tax bills, the traffic wardens, the signs that say ‘Keep off the Grass’.” (C6)
  • Alexander’s image: “A dense mane of hair swept back from a broad and slightly frowning brow; intense, liqueous eyes; and the muscles of the neck always setting the royal head at an angle, as if gazing heavenwards ... It was rumoured that he made his mane more leonine by sprinkling it with gold dust.” (C6)
  • Marcus Aurelius felt that marble “was no more than a ‘callous excrescence of the earth’; gold and silver were merely dust and sediment, the purple dye of his imperial cloak was simply organic matter squeezed from some mollusc.” (C6)
  • “William James (1842 - 1910) reduced the varieties of religious experience to ... ‘an uneasiness’; then we attempt to resolve that uneasiness.” (C7)
  • “One of the ancient Greek words for a statue is agalma, which can be translated as ‘something that gives pleasure to a deity’. The ‘jealous god’ of Moses took offence at a golden calf that was set up on an altar in the Sinai desert; by contrast, any deity of the Greeks would have been delighted. As one Greek philosopher reasoned, ‘the Greek manner of honouring the gods recruits whatever is most beautiful on earth, whether in terms of raw materials, human shape or artistic precision’. Marble was deemed a finer material than clay, wood or limestone. Bronze may have been considered better than marble; but the greatest esteem was undoubtedly reserved for amber, ebony, ivory and gold.” (C7)
  • “Xenophanes wanted people to recognise the partisan nature of their anthropomorphic customs. ‘If horses or oxen or lions had hands,’ he noted, ‘or the power to paint and make the works of art that humans make, then horses would paint or carve their gods in horse-like forms, and oxen theirs in ox-like forms, and so with each, according to kind.’ Similarly,Ethiopians had deities with Ethiopian characteristics, and the Thracians made theirs Thracian-looking: logically, Xenophanes implied, how could such local or ‘ethnicized’ deities be conceived to wield absolute power?” (C7)
  • “Many Christian basilicas were built within or upon old Classical temples - therefore with a longitudinal axis pointing east, towards the rising sun (which is what ‘orientation’ literally implies).” C7)
  • “Orthodox churches were fitted with a screen to separate the altar from the nave: whether the screen was a low barrier or a high wall, it served as a hanging space for icons, and was known as an iconostasis (icon stop).” (C7)
  • Pope Gregory the Great said that ‘paintings are books for the uneducated’ (C7)
  • “Compunction ...means a pricking of the flesh, a mingled feeling of discomfort, pathos and remorse ... it is the Christian conscience.” (C7)
  • “In Kandinsky's yearning for an art unimpeded by objects we may sense the disdain of an Indian holy man for material things.” (C7)
It might not have been what I was expecting but it was well-written and there were plenty of serendipitous discoveries.

April 2019; 280 pages

This is one of a selection of books I am reading to help me understand more about art. Others reviewed on this blog include:

Sunday, 7 April 2019

"Grief is a thing with feathers" by Max Porter

Told in a sort of mix between prose and poetry, from the point of view of the Dad and the Boys (and the Crow), this highly unusual book chronicles what happens to a man and his sons after their wife and mother dies. The grieving process is interrupted by Crow, conjured by the man's obsession with Ted Hughes. Crow is there not until the end of grieving, because grieving never dies, but until the end of hopelessness.

It is a very short book but I read it in just over a single sitting (it would have been a single sitting if I hadn't been interrupted to drive back home from Peterborough).

This is a lyrical evocation of grief and coping, when life must go on but sadness endures.

Great lines:
Part One

  • "I was becoming expert in the behaviour of orbiting grievers." 
  • "Being in the epicentre grants a curiously anthropological awareness of everybody else: the overwhelmeds, the affectedly lackadaisicals, the nothing so fars. the overstayers, the new best friends of hers, of mine, of the boys. The people I still have no fucking idea who they were." 
  • "The whole place was heavy mourning, every surface dead Mum, every crayon, tractor, coat, welly, covered in a film of grief. Down the dead Mum stairs ... down to Daddy's recently Mum-and-Dad's bedroom." 

Part Two:

  • "Many people said 'You need time', when what we needed was washing powder, nit shampoo, football stickers, batteries, bows, arrows, bows, arrows. ... Many people said 'You need time', when what I needed was Shakespeare, Ibn 'Arabi, Shostakovich, Howlin' Wolf."
  • "Some of the time we tell the truth. It's our way of being nice to Dad." 
  • "the village sitting neatly in the cupped hand of the valley."
  • "Once upon a time there was a demon who fed on grief. The delicious aroma of raw shock and unexpected loss came wafting form the doors and windows of a widower's sad home."
  • "There is an area of the kitchen work surface where I lean while the boys eat Weetabix. It is a little way along from the area of the kitchen work surface where my wife used to lean."
  • "If you haven't observed human children after serious quantities of sugar you must. It raises and deranges them, hilariously, for an hour or so, and then they slump. It is uncannily like blood-drunk fox cubs."

Part Three:

  • "We abused him and mocked him because it seemed to remind him of our Mum."
  • "Grief ... is the fabric of selfhood."
  • "He had the perpetual look and demanour of someone floating, turning in the beer-gold light of evening and being surprised by the enduring warmth. A rolled-over shoulder half-squint half-smile. Caught baffled by the perplexing slow-release of sadness for ever and ever and ever."

A beautiful book.

April 2019; 114 pages

Friday, 5 April 2019

"Only killers and thieves" by Paul Howarth

Fourteen year old Tommy and his elder brother Billy live with Mum and Dad and sister Mary in drought-struck Queensland on a cattle farm in 1885. When tragedy strikes the boys set out for revenge. "But three plus three makes six ... It doesn't take it back to none."

This is a book so vividly described that I could taste the grit between my teeth and feel the sun beat down upon my back, my throat was parched with Tommy's. When rain comes there;s's too much of it and I could feel the chafing of the sodden clothes. The scenes of killing nauseate.

The story followed almost perfectly the Three Act Structure. In the first quarter of the book the scene is set; the initiating tragedy is almost exactly at the 25% mark. The second quarter concerns their first steps towards injustice and the loss of the brothers' innocence. The third quarter rises to a crescendo with the act which ought to make redemption impossible and the final quarter contains the consequences.

The antagonist is a devil with the wonderfully ambiguous name of Noone. He tempts and leads the boys to sell their souls and then he is the instrument of punishment. This is a classic work of evil and temptation, of sin and redemption, of weakness and strength, and it is masquerading as a thriller.

This is savage and it's brilliant. It can be hard to read but it is even harder not to.


  • "If they were dogs they'd have been called mongrels. Australian was a whole new breed."
  • "It was the same sensation as when they'd first met: the feel of him tiptoeing down Tommy's spine."
  • "Tommy spent a long time wondering what she was thinking, then he realised that he could not understand. Her thoughts were not his thoughts."
My wonderful wife bought me a subscription to Books and Beer; each month I receive a crime book and some cans of beer. The other titles I have received so far are:
  • 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
  • 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 by Paul Burston

This is a superb piece of writing. March 2019; 400 pages

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

"Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey: A biography" by Alberto Manguel

I look for two things in a non-fiction book. First, that I should learn something from it. This shouldn't be a high hurdle since I tend to read to expand my knowledge. However, I learn more from some books that others. My second criterion is that it should be readable by which I mean that I should keep wanting to turn the pages,

This book passed both these tests although perhaps not quite as spectacularly on either criterion as The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson which I found both addictive and fascinating.

Most of the book is not about Homer's Iliad and Odyssey but about the effect of these works on subsequent centuries. Thus Manguel discusses Virgil, Dante, Alexander Pope (who despite not knowing Greek produced a best-selling translation by reading other translations; Gibbon said his version had ‘every merit except that of likeness to the original'; C12), Joyce, and folklore:

  • “Virgil ‘did not understand the fundamental principle in Homer’s world, that poetry belongs to the defeated and the dead.” (C4)
  • “The model for Dante’s Commedia is a composite of many sources, from Homer ( via Virtgil) to Arabic accounts of Muhammad's journey to the other world, the Mi’raj; one version of the latter was translated into Castilian by order of Alfonso X, and then into Latin, French and Italian, the last of which Dante probably read.” (C8)
  • Icelandic saga “Story of Egill One-Hand” influenced by Ulysses and Polyphemus and later became Jack and the Beanstalk. (C7)
He also recounts how a village in war-torn Colombia wanted to retain their library copy of the Iliad. “They explained that Homer’s story reflected their own: it told of a war-torn country in which mad gods mix with men and women who never know exactly what the fighting is about, or when they will be happy, or why they will be killed.” (Introduction)

But he also spends some time talking about the originals. He supports the idea that Homer may have come from Chios: “The language of the poems is mainly Ionic, spoken by the early Greeks who settled on the west coast of Asia Minor and the adjacent islands, including Chios; although it may have been the conventional language of epic poetry.” (C2) But he also supports the idea that the Odyssey may have had a Semitic origin: “Homer calls Circe’s island both Nesos Kirkes and Aiaia. Aiaia means nothing in Greek but in Hebrew it means ‘Island of the She-Hawk’, which in Greek translates as Nesos Kirkes.” (C19) He also tells us that there were once believed to be six other epic poems written about the Trojan war from which only a few quotations now survive: Cypria: prequel: Judgement of Paris; Aithopis: death of Hector to death of Achilles; Little Iliad: from here to up to the Wooden Horse; Ilion Persis: the sack of Troy; Nostoi: the Returns of Menelaus, Agamemnon, Ajax and Neoptolemos; Telegony: the further adventures of Odysseus (C6). Furthermore there were two (forged) eyewitness accounts, one from the Greek side by Dictys of Crete of which a fragment was “discovered in 1899 on at the back of an income tax return for the year 206 AD.” (C6) and another by the Trojan Dares the Phrygian which, after extensive rewriting by Benoit de Saint-Maure in 1165 led to the tale of Troilus and Cressida covered by Chaucer, Caxton and Shakespeare (C6).

Manguel in particular focuses on the Homeric account of the Underworld. His suggestion that it was a sort of retirement home was shockingly brilliant:

  • “Homer had described a place without graded categories, an Underworld in which souls wonder about, incorporeal and listless, like the inmates of a retirement home, some still suffering from regret for what they have done or left undone on earth ... Homer’s dead are never pleased to be where they are. ‘No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!’ says the ghost of Achilles when he sees him. ‘By God, I’d rather slave on earth for another man ... than rule down here over all the breathless dead’.”
  • “Homer’s ghastly picture of the dead as a confused mingling of sexes and ages, occupations and social classes, extends across many hundreds of future years and will eventually take on its most recognizable shape towards the middle of the fourteenth century in the danse macabre.”
Other insights in this fascinating book:

  • “Two of our oldest metaphors tell us that all life is a battle and that all life is a journey” (Introduction)
  • “The invention of lower case cursive allowed scribes to produce more copies at a lower cost, since fewer pages were needed to hold a given text.” (C6)
  • “Translation of foreign literature into Arabic can be said to have begun in the mid-eighth century during the rule of the celebrated Abbasid caliph al-Mansur.” (C7)
  • “Several of Ulysses’ adventures surface in the stories of Sindbad the Sailor.” (C7)
  • “Petrarch kept, with devotional care, a Greek manuscript of Homer which he didn't know how to read.” (C8)
  • “To the opposition's argument that God had punished humankind with a plurality of tongues after Babel ... Schade answered with the notion that God is a polyglot ... and the angels and saints, being our intercessors, are also polyglots by necessity.” (C10)
  • In Spain ignorance of Greek meant that Spaniards had to learn Homer through Latin translations: “When Miguel de Unamuno was given the chair of Greek at the University of Salamanca in 1891, it was pointed out that the celebrated intellectual had no Greek. Juan Valera, chairman of the committee that selected him, explained: ‘’None of the other candidates knows Greek, so we selected the one most like to know it’.” (C10)
  • “It was Aristotle, according to Plutarch, prepared the edition of the Iliad that Alexander [the Great] kept ‘with his dagger under his pillow’.” (C12)
  • “Many poets work in this way: constructing a poem from prose jottings of ideas and observations.” (C12)
  • “Pope is not aiming for verisimilitude; rather a natural artificiality punctuated by cadenced rhymes, composing verses with a repetitive beat not unlike today's rap.” (C12)
  • “‘The concept of a definitive text,’ wrote Jorge Luis Borges in 1932, ‘belongs either to religion or weariness’.” (C12)
  • “Unlike an ordinary metaphor that catches qualities in one object which it ascribes to another, thereby creating a new literary space in which what is said and what is implied intermingle and increase, the epic simile places side by side two different actions that don't blend but remain visually separate, one colouring or qualifying the other.” (C13)
  • “Philosophers in Vico’s age offered two conflicting theories of knowledge: the first was based on evidence and argument ... while the second centred on introspection and thought ... Vico offered a third possibility: the imagination, and independent power of the mind that he called fantasia.” (C 14)
  • In Book 2 Iliad Homer “stops his narrative and invokes the Muses. Partly this is a literary device that became codified in the Middle Ages as excusatio propter infirmitatem (‘an apology for one's own shortcomings’); partly, it is a way of lending verisimilitude to the telling by shifting responsibility: ‘It is not I who says this, but something greater than I, and therefore it must be true’.” (C14)
  • “In the Iliad, Achilles defines the battle as ‘fighting other soldiers to win their wives as prizes’.” (C15)
  • “At the core of ancient Greek culture, is a living tension between, on the one hand, a tendency towards order and individual fulfilment (which Nietzsche called ‘ Apollonian’) and, on the other, violence and destructive rapture (‘Dionysian’).” (C16)
  • “In the Underworld, the soothsayer Tiresias announces not what will be but what may be: the possibilities of the foreseeable future are always more than one and the outcome depends on the hero's choice.” (C19)
  • “We see ourselves as better than our ancestors, savages of the Bronze Age who, though they wrought fine cups and bangles and sang beautiful songs, massacred each other in horrible wars, possessed slaves and raped women, ate without forks and conceived gods who threw thunderbolts.” (C22)

So Manguel definitely passed the first test: I learned loads. I reasd it in two days flat which means he passed the second test as well.

March 2019; 237 pages