About Me

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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Thursday, 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:

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

"Florence Nightingale" by Cecil Woodham-Smith

 This is a biography of the woman who made nursing respectable, principally with her service in the Crimean War.

She was born into a wealthy family. Her mother was one of ten children of William Smith, a progressive MP, whose rich merchant father Samuel Smith "had come to the assistance of Flora Macdonald [the Jacobite who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape after being defeated at Culloden] when she was a penniless prisoner in the Tower [of London] ... To show his sympathy with the sturggle of the American colonists for freedom in the War of Independence he had relinquished his title to a large part of the city of Savannah." (C 1) Florence's mother's sisters included Anne who lived in "Waverley Abbey near Farnham, the house which gave Scott the title for the Waverley novels" (C 1) and Joanna who married into the Bonham Carter family which has long been important in British public life; the actress Helena Bonham Carter is a descendant.

Such a background gave Florence an entree in the British social scene and invaluable contacts with influential people. It was knowing Sidney Herbert, the Secretary at War in 1852, which got her the Crimea gig. As a teenager she knew Lord Palmerston. and his son-in-law Lord Ashley who, as Lord Shaftesbury became known for his philanthropy and was commemorated by the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus. At 22 she stayed at Chatsworth with the Duke of Devonshire; the entertainments being arranged by Joseph Paxton (the head gardener who later desinged the Crystal Palace and whose biography is reviewed here). At 24 she met Julia Ward Howe, author of the Battle Hymn of the American Republic. In 1852 (aged 32) she was friends with Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot. (C 5) It was a turbulent time for foreign travel. In 1848 the Nightingale family had to leave Rome as Garibaldi was arriving to defend it against foreign troops. (C 4)

However, her family background proved a huge disadvantage in pursuing her nursing vocation. Nursing was immensely unrespectable. Hospitals were for the poor, were overcrowded, smelly and filthy and nurses were notoriously immoral: one head nurse told FN that "she had never known a nurse who was not drunken, and there was immoral conduct practised in the very wards", including prostitution. (C 4). Even fourteen of the nurses that FN would select to go to the Crimea were described as being "of no particular religion unless the worship of Bacchus should be revived." (C 7) Little wonder that there was family opposition to FN's choice of career.

But the opposition was intense. FN's sister Parthenope was immensely jealous of her. Florence was younger, prettier and more intelligent. Parthenope and their mother Fanny were manipulative and controlling, demanding FN stay with them, throwing hysterical fits which required FN to stay at home and look after them whenever FN tried to go somewhere to learn about nursing. At the age of 17, FN was called by God; at 25 she realised she was called to be a nurse but it was a further eight years before she finally left home to pursue her career. And FN was one of the strongest-minded women possible! She wrote "Women don't consider themselves as human beings at all. There is absolutely no God, no country, no duty to them at all, except family ... I know nothing like the petty grinding tyranny of a good English family." (C 5)

Her father wasn't much help to her. "As long as he had books and conversation he was indifferent to other pleasures" (C 1) although later in the family battle he sided with her and corresponded with her through his club so that her letters to him wouldn't have to be read out by his wife at the breakfast table.

She was a bit weird. "As a very young child she had an obsession that she was not like other people. She was a monster. That was her secret, which might at any moment be found out." (C 1)

She certainly ended up a monster. Her dysfunctional relationship with illness distorted her relationships. The examples of her mother and her sister, using illness to get their own way, was one she learned to follow. Because she was prepared to sacrifice herself, working long hours (such as 6AM to 11PM) she expected others to do the same and she was angrily intolerant of those who couldn't.  People died under her yoke because she drove them on, refusing to accept that they were really ill: "She regarded bad health as her personal monopoly." (C 16) "What she felt, what she endured, must be unique. No illness was to be compared with her illness, no self-sacrifice was to be compared to her self-sacrifice; no grief could rival her grief." (C 16)  Thus she told the mortally ill Sidney Herbert that his symptoms were "fancies" (C 13) By insisting he kept working she "forced him to sign his own death warrant." (C 16) When he finally resigned she was bitter and contemptuous and "cut herself off from him" (C 16). When Aunt Mai returned to her (ill) husband after looking after FN for three years, FN "did not forgive Aunt Mai for nearly twenty years." (C 16) Much later she realised; "she said she felt like a vampire who had sucked Sidney Herbert's ... blood." (C 19) But even in old age, when she went back to her family, she criticised her sister for making a song and dance about her health: "In fact her sister was suffering from the first symptoms of the arthritis which is  a few years turned her into a helpless cripple." (C 22) FN was not the world's most empathetic nurse!

Another aspect of this strange attitude towards illness was the way she felt it ennobled. "Suffering lifts its victim above normal values. While suffering endures, there is neither good nor bad, valuable nor invaluable, enemy nor friend." (C 20)

Part of the problem was that "she refused to consider what had been done, only what had not" (C 19); she was a perfectionist.

One of the ways she kept working despite ill-healthy was by the "new-fangled operation of putting opium under the skin which relieves one for twenty-four hours - but does not improve the vivacity or serenity of one's intellect". (C 19)

Was she a lesbian?(Does it matter?) When she was young she conceived a 'passion' for a friend; in order to keep close to the friend she encouraged the friend's brother to the point where he proposed and was rejected; the family were very angry. She enjoyed close relationships with other women but rejected all the proposals of marriage she had from men. At the end of the day she probably died a virgin. But was this because she was a lesbian or because she had a call from God?

The problems in the Crimea started with government cuts. "There were departments which during forty years of economy had been cut down nearer and still nearer the bone." The British Army Medical Service had 12 clerks in its office. (C 8) Another problem was the inflexible administration: nothing could be done without an order: "In January 1855, when the army before Sebastopol was being ravaged by scurvy, a shipload of cabbages was thrown into the harbour at Balaclava on the ground that it was not consigned to anyone." (C 9) "Even the horses which had taken part in the Charge of the Light Brigade had starved to death." (C 9)

A large part of the problem was the attitude of the senior officers (who were aristocrats and gentlemen) to the ordinary soldier (who were poor people). FN was firmly on the side of the ordinary soldier. "It has been said by officers," she pointed out, "that there are three causes which make a soldier enlist, viz. being out of work, in a state of intoxication, or, jilted by his sweetheart." Did this mean that they should therefore encourage "more poverty, more drink, more faithless sweethearts"?

  • Money was not the motive for the common soldier. "The supreme loyalty which made a man give his life for his comrade, the courage which enabled him to advance steadily under fire, were displayed by men who were paid a shilling a day."(C 11)
  • "She found that a great many of the men could neither read nor write, and she asked if she might engage a schoolmaster. This was absolutely refused. 'You are spoiling the brutes', Lord William Paulet told her." (C 11)

But in the end FN's work nursing did little to prevent the death rate in the hospitals rising. The most effective action was taken by a Sanitary Commission consisting of Dr John Sutherland, Sir Robert Rawlinson, a civil engineer, and Dr Milroy. They investigated the water supply and the sewers, limewashed the walls, killed vermin and destroyed the furniture that harboured rats (C 9). In the three months after their work the mortality rate fell from 14.5% to 5.2% (C 10) It had been 73% in six months at one stage. (C 12)

Once the Crimea was over FN worked tirelessly to improve public health, especially in the army and in India. She found that the death rates in barracks was greater than the neighbouring civilian district: five times as much in St Pancras and Knightsbridge; this despite the fact that the soldiers "were all young strong men who had been subjected to a medical examination to guarantee their physical fitness. ...soldiers are certainly killed by these neglects ... as if they were drawn up on Salisbury Plain and shot" (C 13)

Other fascinating moments:

  • One of the nurses in the Crimea was Miss Polidori, sister to Byron's doctor John Polidori, who wrote The Vampyre, and aunt to the poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. (C 8)
  • One lady wrote to ask for a job: "I have had a passion for soldiers all my life and now wish to get my bread by it." (C 12)
  • Sidney Herbert's motto was "It takes two to make a quarrel and I won't be one." (C 13)

A fascinating portrait of a monster. It has certainly changed my understanding of the 'lady with the lamp'. She may have achieved great things but the people around her suffered tremendously and she never really acknowledged the sacrifices of anyone but herself; she was monstrously egocentric.

November 2019; 435 pages

Biographies of other Victorians:

  • A Thing in Disguise: by Kate Colquhon: Joseph Paxton, the gardener who designed the Crystal Palace
  • Stanley: Henry Morton Stanley, the psychopath who discovered Dr Livingstone: if I thought Nightingale was an unpleasant woman Stanley was far, far more horrible (although he had the excuse of a terrible childhood); both these two shared the characteristic of never believing another person could be ill and always thinking others hypochondriacs.
  • Dickens by Peter Ackroyd
  • Wilkie Collins by Peter Ackroyd

Friday, 15 November 2019

"Madame de Pompadour" by Nancy Mitford

After the death of the great King, beautiful Versailles, fatal for France, lay empty seven years while fresh air blew through its golden rooms, blowing away sorcery and bigotry which hung about the walls like a miasma, blowing away the old century and blowing in the new.” (C 1)

Thus begins this biography of the principal mistress of Louis XV of France, a lady who was a focus of the court of Versailles for twenty years, her 'reign' lasting until her death at the end of the Seven Years War. As a young girl her father was the steward of the Duverney brothers, the Court financiers. At some stage he had to flee abroad to escape a financial scandal. Her mother soon found a ‘protector’ (another rich financier) who became Jeanne’s step-father; when her real father returned the three parents lived together amicably. Even before becoming the first commoner to become maĆ®tresse-en-titre Jeanne-Antionette Poisson was friends with some of the leading philosophes of France including Voltaire, a life-long friend. Late in her life she met the Comte St Germain, the charlatan who claimed to have an elixir which was the secret to eternal life.

As often in such books, it is the throwaway details that fascinate me. Here are some:

  • The Palace of Versailles was ‘open house’: “When, at the beginning of the Revolution, a furious mob was known to be approaching, the guards tried to shut the gates in vain, a hundred years of rust having soldered them to their hinges.” (C 1)
  • The lever and the coucher were formal ceremonies; he never slept in his state bedroom. Everybody knew quite well that he had often been up and working for hours before the lever - lighting his own fire sometimes so as not to wake the servants.” (C 1)
  • As for the courtiers ... They could do nothing, not even go to Paris for the day, or be inoculated against smallpox, ... without his [the King's] express permission. Their privileges were enormous and their power non-existent.” (C 1)
  • On their wedding night he [Louis XV] gave her [his new Queen] a proof of his love seven times.
  • The Duc and Duchesse de Chartres “were so fond of making love that they could hardly bear to take any time off; when they dined out they generally asked for the use of hostess’s bed during the course of the meal.” (C 3)
  • Everybody could tell a Court lady from a Parisian by her walk, a sort of gliding run, with very fast, tiny steps so that she looked like a mechanical doll, wheels instead of feet under her panniers.” (C 4)
  • Her three curtseys were impeccable, and masterly was the kick with which she got her train out of the way so that she could walk backwards.” (C 5)
  • Voltaire had a room in Versailles and asked that the public privies at the bottom of the staircase should have doors fitted to them. (C 5)
  • Madame de Pompadour ... had the rare capacity of understanding a creative artist; she saw that underneath the grimaces, the pushfulness, the frantic giggles, the pretensions and follies of man like Voltaire lay an inferno of uncertainty and sensibility.” (C 5)
  • The Comte de Charolais was a ripsnorting oddity; he dressed like a gamekeeper and ordered his coachman to run over any monks he might see on the road.” (C 5)
  • The first boy was born, with one pain, in about ten minutes; very inconvenient as it was absolutely vital that they should be witnesses of the birth. tThe doctor, who was sleeping in the Dauphine’s room, told her she must hold everything, while the Dauphin rushed out in his nightshirt to find somebody. ‘Well then hurry up’, she said, ‘it's kicking me’. A sleepy Swiss guard was very much surprised when the Dauphin seized him by the arm, said: ‘Quick, go in there and see my wife having a baby’, and went on to look for one more witness.” (C 9)
  • Madame de Pompadour excelled at an art which the majority of human beings thoroughly despise because it is unprofitable and ephemeral: the art of living.” (C 10)
  • Jansenism proper had practically died out under the persecutions of Louis XIV. The plough had been driven over the ruins of Port Royal, the inhabitants of its graveyard been dug up, hacked into suitable joints and removed to some spot where was no danger that they would attract pilgrims.” (C 15)
  • One church door contain the graffiti: “By order of the King, God is forbidden to perform miracles on this spot.” (C 15)
  • After the Duc de Richelieu took Minorca from the English with a brilliant assault on the fort at Mahon his chef discovered that there was no butter or cream on the island and had to create a sauce using only eggs and oil: the Mahonaise. (C 16)
  • An empire is like a tree’, said Montesquieu, ‘if the branches spread too far they drain the sap from the trunk’.” (C 18)
  • The Encyclopedie called Canada “a country inhabited by bears, beavers and barbarians, and covered, eight months of the year, with snow.” (C 18)
  • The Comte St Germain ... has been accused, by French writers, of belonging to the English intelligence service and of being the father of Freemasonry. The English thought he was a Jacobite spy. But his own claim to fame was that he had lived for thousands of years and had known Jesus Christ.” (C 18)

A beautifully written (despite the presence of untranslated French at times, a practice I abhor) and diverting biography of a lady who lived at a fascinating moment in the history of Europe.

Nancy Mitford also wrote The Sun King a biography of Louis XIV, the preceding monarch.

November 2019

Thursday, 14 November 2019

"The Plotters" by Un-Su Kim

Reseng is an assassin. He has been hired to kill an old man. He watches the old man and his dog: "The ferocious mastiff that had once hunted lions had been reduced to a clown."t (On Hospitality); this statement explicitly refers to the dog but it also applies to the old man who was a feared general but is now watering flowers in his garden, an assassin's target. Reseng meets the old man and is invited to stay for a meal. They discuss responsibility for death. If a boar is found in a poacher’s trap, should you kill it to ease its suffering (but take on the responsibility for its death yourself) or let it die? The old man recounts a tale of when he had to execute a boy who had just started eating a potato; would it have mattered had he allowed the boy to finish the potato? Soon Reseng is to permit a target to choose the way in which she will die and this will have consequences.

So begins this unusual book in which political assassination is ordered by Old Racoon from his library, a library in which Reseng, a foundling, grew up. Other venues include the Meat Market, where assassination is traded like a commodity on the stock exchange, a Cat Cafe and  knitting shop. This is a surreal thriller set in Korea.

Some great moments:

  • The old man started watering the flowers. Some received a gulp, some just a sip. He tipped the watering can with great ceremony, as if he was serving them tea. Now and then he did a little shoulder shimmy, as if dancing, and gave a petal a brief caress. He gestured at one of the flowers and chuckled. It looked like they were having a conversation.” (On Hospitality)
  • A man ought to be able to choose a death that gives his life a dignified ending. Only those who truly walk their own path can choose their own death.” (On Hospitality)
  • The older you get, the more you’re supposed to keep your purse strings open and your mouth shut.” (On Hospitality)
  • He grew up in a library crawling with assassins, hired guns, and bounty hunters. Just as a plant grows wherever it sets down roots, so all your life's tragedies spring from wherever you first set your feet.” (Achilles’ Heel)
  • The whole incident had felt as awful as if one of his buddies with a pocket full of sweets had stolen Reseng’s single sweet from his mouth.” (Achilles’ Heel)
  • Life made no sense.Why had Achilles bothered to cover his torso in armour, when he should have predicted his left heel, his one and only mortal weakness? Stupid idiot, even nine-year-olds know better.” (Achilles’ Heel)
  • It didn't matter how high you rose, how invincible your body was, or how firmly you clung to greatness, because all of it could vanish with a tiny, split-second mistake.” (Achilles’ Heel)
  • He was surprisingly cuddly looking for someone who burnt corpses for a living.” (Bear’s pet crematorium)
  • To the plotters, mercenaries and assassins were like disposable batteries. ... An old assassin was like an annoying blister bursting with incriminating information and evidence.” (Bear’s pet crematorium)
  • Kindness starts with having a full larder.” (Bear’s pet crematorium)
  • It doesn't matter whether a cat is white or black as long as it catches mice.” (ascribed to Deng Xioa Ping) (Bear’s pet crematorium)
  • Right above her mouth was a beauty spot that seemed disappointed not to have been born on Marilyn Monroe's face.” (The Doghouse Library)
  • I don't read for any particular reason. it's like you and your TV shows. I just don't know what else to do with my free time.” (Beer week)
  • Pointless compassion and sorrow, endlessly spawning apathy, and pent-up anger that had nowhere to go, swept around like dead leaves in late autumn until self-combusting. The final destination for fallen lives.” (The Meat Market): I love the play on words ‘fallen lives’ straight after ‘dead leaves in late autumn.
  • A home for those who had hit rock bottom so hard that you wished there were a gentle way to say ‘Hey, maybe in your case suicide isn't the worst idea.’” (The Meat Market)
  • The meat market was the most capitalist of the markets, which means that you could buy anything as long as you had the cash. Nothing there was forbidden by law, justice, or morality. That wouldn't fit with capitalist principles.” (The Meat Market)
  • At some point, you have to stop poking your stick around in the dirt and choose a spot to dig a well.” (Mito) This is advice that Reseng gives to Jeongan, a handsome friend with many girlfriends, who responds: “Who cares where you poke as long as it's wet.
  • Basking in the warm afternoon sun, your eyelids the only part of you still moving, like some kind of aging, ailing elephant? Or moving into a nursing home, where the only thing to occupy your time is tedious chit-chat with old people you have absolutely nothing in common with.” (Mito)
  • Life is not a set of sheets. You cannot scrub away your past, your memories, your mistakes, or your regrets. And so you die with them.” (Mito)
  • A virus company facing bankruptcy will ultimately survive not by making the world's greatest vaccine but, rather, the world's worst virus ... there was no better business model than owning both the virus and the vaccine.” (Mito)
  • I can't help picturing God's intestines. The intestines of a God that human beings have never seen and can't imagine. The dirty, smelly, and disgusting things hidden inside the holy, sacred, and divine. Shame hiding behind grace. Ugliness hidden behind beauty.” (Mito)
  • The only thing your stupid Y chromosome is good for is getting hard-ons and flying off the handle.” (Mito)
  • Two centimetres of snow is all it takes to make the dirt and filth underneath beautiful.” (The Door to the Left)
  • If knocking back a can of beer after a hard day's work makes you feel refreshed, rewarded, and relaxed, then a can of beer in the morning is about feeling melancholic, fuzzy-headed, improper, and refusing to act like a responsible adult just because the sun's come up.” (Beer week)

November 2019; 292 pages

This book was one of the 'Books and Beer' subscription which my wonderful wife bought me for Christmas. Other titles include:
  • 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

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

"The train was on time" by Heinrich Boll

A very short novel set in the Second World War. A German soldier boards a train taking him to the Eastern Front. He becomes convinced that he is going to die soon. The train is carrying him towards his fate. Will he escape it?

I think that this is a novel written on two levels. One is the level of myth. It follows a classic mythic structure sometimes called the Hero's Journey (other books in this blog that also have mythic structures include Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt). In this structure, identified by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces and followed consciously by George Lucas when writing the first Star Wars film, the Hero first receives a call which he refuses, he then embarks on a journey, entering a new world, he encounters Guides or Companions who help him find the way, he has opportunities to leave his quest which he may or may not take (these can be seen as trials), and near the climax he descends into the cave. In the case of Boll's book:
  • He is an Outsider:
    • Andreas is a very strange soldier like Boll (who was a pacifist conscripted into the Nazi army) . Andreas’s best friend, Paul, is a chaplain, and Andreas prays a lot (including praying for Jews). Symbolically, Andreas has forgotten to bring his rifle, which he has left propped up in Paul’s room. 
  • At the start of the journey he has the opportunity to Refuse the Call: 
    • ‘Get on?’ asked the soldier, amazed. ‘Why, I might want to hurl myself under the wheels, I might want to desert.”
  • He is on a journey. 
    • Once he boards the train (presumably a metaphor, given that it travels on an undeviating track and you can’t get off until it stops) he realises: “the terrible thing is that I’m going to die … soon!” This word ‘soon’ (“Soon I’m going to die, that’s a certainty that lies between one year and one second”) triggers a process of searching his mind for what bits of the future he can visualise and which bits are a blur, he starts to narrow down the place (and therefore the day and time, he’s on a train whose timetable equates place and time) he believes he is going to die. 
  • He has two Companions, one of whom has a Map. 
    • Andreas meets two other soldiers on the train: a blonde boy and an unshaven sergeant on leave (who, significantly, lends Andreas a map which he uses to help him pinpoint his place of death). These are his Companions on the train. He is the Outsider, brought into contact with the world: “‘That’s right, mate,’ said the blond fellow. ‘Forget your troubles and join the game.’” They persuade him to play cards (another symbol: card games are governed by the random shuffle but once they are started the outcome of the game is largely fixed).
  • These companions offer him a number of opportunities to escape his destiny; he Refuses the first chances but eventually he is persuaded to take the last.
    • I could get out here, go off someplace, any place, on and on, till they caught me and put me up against a wall, and I wouldn’t die between Lvov and Cernauti, I would be shot in some little village in Saxony or die like a dog in a concentration camp. But I’m standing here by the window and I feel as if I were made of lead. I can’t move, I feel paralyzed, this train is part of me and I’m part of the train, this train that has to carry me to my appointed end, and the strange part about it is that I have absolutely no desire to get out here.
    • There are trains going the other way which he has an opportunity to board: “From Lvov we take the civilian express, the courier train, the one that goes direct from Warsaw to Bucharest. It’s a terrific train, I always take it, all you need is to get your pass stamped, and we’ll see to that,’ he guffawed, ‘we’ll see to that, but I’m not letting on how!’
    • Towards the end he is taken by his Companions to a restaurant and then a brothel. I suggest that the brothel is the Descent into the Cave. It is this that gives him the chance to escape his destiny.
But the book also works on a thoroughly mundane level. It is a tale of a German soldier travelling on a troop train to the front. Every detail is kept deliberately mundane (eg “Wherever there are soldiers there’s dirt.”) in order to provide the myth with verisimilitude.

This foreknowledge of death, being supernatural, is asserted: It is also asserted: “To lovers and soldiers, to men marked for death and to those filled with the cosmic force of life, this power is sometimes given.” but the author has to work hard to make the reader believe it and therefore, just as in Kafka, he surrounds the foreknowledge with details that are thoroughly mundane (and at the same time symbolic): “Somewhere in the distance searchlights were raking the sky, like long spectral fingers parting the blue cloak of the night ... those silent, uncannily long, spectral fingers of the searchlights, still groping across the sky. It seemed as if the faces belonging to those fingers must be grinning, eerily grinning, cynically grinning like the faces of usurers and swindlers. ‘We’ll get you,’ said the thin-lipped, gaping mouths belonging to those fingers. ‘We’ll get you, we’ll grope all night long.’ Maybe they were looking for a bedbug, a tiny bug in the cloak of the night, those fingers, and they would find the bug.” 

The prose is everyday and unsensational with a great deal of repetition, not always exact repetition.

Great lines:
  • “Those halting, colourless goodbyes exchanged beside trains on their way to death
  • Soon can mean in one year. Soon is a terrible word. This Soon compresses the future, shrinks it, offers no certainty, no certainty whatever, it stands for absolute uncertainty. Soon is nothing and Soon is a lot. Soon is everything. Soon is death. ... This Soon is like a thunderclap. This little word is like the spark that sets off the thunderstorm, and suddenly, for the thousandth part of a second, the whole world is bright beneath this word.
  • What a pretty girl, he thought: everyone will think she’s ugly, and she’s pretty, she’s beautiful ...”
  • Everything bad comes from those resounding voices; those resounding voices started the war, and those resounding voices regulate the worst war of all, the war at railway stations.
  • How terrible, to have to eat just before one’s death. Soon I’m going to die, yet I still have to eat.
  • It was terrible to look into the drab houses where the slaves were getting ready to march off to their factories. House after house, house after house, and everywhere lived people who suffered, who laughed, people who ate and drank and begat new human beings, people who tomorrow might be dead; the place was teeming with human life.
  • What a laborious, frightful business it was, this killing time, over and over again that little second hand racing invisibly beyond the horizon,"
  • "the silence of those who said nothing, nothing at all, was terrible. It was the silence of those who knew they were all done for.
  • vast gloomy estates where brooding women dreamed of adultery since they had begun to find their blubber-necked husbands repulsive
  • Splendid and gloomy and without lightness, those cities, with bloody pasts and untamed back streets, silent and untamed.
  • Many people are like that, an object suddenly becomes valuable to them because someone else would like to have it.
  • pale, sad eyes the colour of sand dark with rain; unhappy eyes, much that was animal in them and all that was human,”
  • “‘We live on hope,’ Paul had once said. As if one were to say: ‘We live on credit.’ We have no security … nothing”
  • Every turn of the wheels tears a piece off my life,
  • Corpses are heavy … I’m telling you, the bodies of dead men weigh a ton. Corpses are heavier than the whole world”
  • How crazy for the sun to shine like that, Andreas thought, and a dreadful nausea lay like poison in his blood.
  • It’s a terrible thing to maltreat a person because that person seems ugly to you. There are no ugly people.
  • Twelve hours before my death I have to find out that life is beautiful, and it’s too late. I’ve been ungrateful, I’ve denied the existence of human happiness.
  • It’s always a good idea to start with yes. You can always say no later. If you say no right off, your chances of doing business are nil.
  • every death in war is a murder for which someone is responsible.
  • When they have a hangover, all they ever want is sausage.
Beautifully written, carefully structured and thought-provoking.

November 2019; 108 pages

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

Friday, 8 November 2019

"The War of the Worlds" by H G Wells

In this classic science fiction 'invasion' story the Martians land in Surrey and start to terrorise South East England and London. Human weapons are powerless against the Martian heat ray and the Black Smoke (this is, perhaps, a forewarning of the gas attacks of the First World War: “‘The Martians are able to discharge enormous clouds of a black and poisonous vapour by means of rockets.” 1.14). The narrator, a witness to the first spaceship to land and to the first deaths, hides in ruined buildings while learning more and more about the Martians. The rest of the population flees in terror.

The joy of this book is how extraordinary events are grounded in the mundane and the everyday. Thus he talks of real places: Shepperton church tower is destroyed when a Martian war machine stumbles against it, there is chaos at Waterloo station as people attempt to board trains to flee the capital, a spaceship lands on Wimbledon Common. These have a particular attraction for me because I grew up in Sunbury-on-Thames and this is one of the few books (also Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens and  Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome) in which that sleepy little suburb is mentioned: it is where the narrator first witnesses the Black Smoke. So I know many of the places mentioned in the book; they were the background to my uneventful childhood and this makes the terror and excitement of the story even more vivid against this plain backdrop.

  • ‘Are we far from Sunbury?’ I said in a matter-of-fact tone.” (1.13)
  • Towards Sunbury was a dark appearance, as though a conical hill had suddenly come into being there,” (1.15)
  • In Sunbury, and at intervals along the road, were dead bodies lying in contorted attitudes” (2.1)
It is an extraordinarily simple narrative. But it enables Wells to make repeated philosophical points (the narrator writes philosophical papers); reflections upon man's place in the universe. During the course of the story he encounters two characters as counterpoints: first the Curate who is a weak man, whom the narrator scorns; and secondly the Artillery-Man, who is a survivalist but is also weak and whom the narrator soon abandons.

The book has been adapted many times, perhaps the most famous being the Orson Welles radio broadcast which was done in the form of news announcements and, in the early days of radio, allegedly convinced Americans that the world was really being invaded by Martians. Recently, the BBC made a three part adaptation (the third episode was aired on 1st December 2019). This differed enormously from the book to the extent that I gave up watching after the first two episodes. I could understand why they made the changes. Firstly, there are very few female characters in the original; the BBC solved this by making the lead character a feisty and intelligent female and added a back story to do with marital infidelity; her partner 'George' was a new creation. Secondly, the fundamental theme of the original is an alien invasion and this is uncomfortably close to current political issues regarding immigration; the BBC added a heavily environmental theme to counterbalance (and disguise?) this. This also involved huge additions of new story. The religious and socialist propaganda of Wells was omitted. As a result, a classic of its own time was turned into a rather formulaic story of today. It was made predictable (of course the female character is going to be brave and strong and resourceful; all contemporary lead female characters are).

These changes were so enormous that it seemed inappropriate to name it after the Wellsian original. But the original was a best-seller in its day. I dream of a classic being adapted in an authentic manner and the limitations of its time being accepted.

  • The narrator's ideas include:
    • The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit.” (1.1)
    • Strange night! strangest in this, that so soon as dawn had come, I, who had talked with God, crept out of the house like a rat leaving its hiding-place – a creature scarcely larger, an inferior animal, a thing that for any passing whim of our masters might be hunted and killed. Perhaps they also prayed confidently to God.” (2.7)
    • By the toll of a billion deaths, man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers” (2.8)
    • we cannot regard this planet as being fenced in and a secure abiding-place for Man; we can never anticipate the unseen good or evil that may come upon us suddenly out of space.” (2.10)
  • The Curate prompts these thoughts:
    • What good is religion if it collapses at calamity? Think of what earthquakes and floods, wars and volcanoes, have done before to men. Did you think God had exempted Weybridge? … He is not an insurance agent, man.’” (1.13)
    • He would weep for hours together, and I verily believe that to the very end this spoilt child of life thought his weak tears in some way efficacious.” (2.3)
    • There is also a distinct Biblical tinge to: "Beyond were the pillars of fire about Chobham. They became pillars of bloodshot smoke at the first touch of day.” (1.11)
  • The Artilleryman thinks:
    • This isn’t a war, ... It never was a war, any more than there’s war between men and ants.” (2.7)
    • it’s the man that keeps on thinking comes through.” (2.7)
    • They haven’t any spirit in them – no proud dreams and no proud lusts; and a man who hasn’t one or the other – Lord! what is he but funk and precautions?” (2.7)
    • on Sundays – fear of the hereafter. As if hell was built for rabbits.” (2.7)
    • Life is real again, and the useless and cumbersome and mischievous have to die. They ought to die. They ought to be willing to die. It’s a sort of disloyalty, after all, to live and taint the race.” (2.7) Several portions of the narrative reflect on Darwinism and this makes the leap towards Eugenics.
    • dying’s none so dreadful; – it’s the funking makes it bad.” (2.7)

Other great moments:
  • Then, by the light of their own destruction, I saw them staggering and falling, and their supporters turning to run.” (1.5)
  • It came to me that I was upon this dark common, helpless, unprotected and alone. Suddenly like a thing falling upon me from without came – Fear.” (1.5)
  • They must have bolted as blindly as a flock of sheep.” (1.6) Wells regularly emphasises how humans are much like animals with a few pretensions to civilisation.
  • A few minutes before there had only been three real things before me – the immensity of the night and space and nature, my own feebleness and anguish, and the near approach of death.” (1.7)
  • As he talked, things about us came darkly out of the darkness"
  • ‘It’s no kindness to the right sort of wife,’ he said, ‘to make her a widow;’” (1.12) (Presumably it is a kindness to the wrong sort of wife)
  • one could have hung that June morning in a balloon in the blazing blue above London, every northward and eastward road running out of the infinite tangle of streets would have seemed stippled black with the streaming fugitives, each dot a human agony of terror and physical distress.” (1.17) Orson Welles in the Third Man was later to do something similar from a Ferris Wheel.
  • She seemed, poor woman! to imagine that the French and the Martians might prove very similar.” (1.17)
  • They did not eat, much less digest. Instead, they took the fresh living blood of other creatures, and injected it into their own veins. ... The physiological advantages of the practice of injection are undeniable, if one thinks of the tremendous waste of human time and energy occasioned by eating and the digestive process.” (2.2)
  • That night was a beautiful serenity; save for one planet, the moon seemed to have the sky to herself.” (2.3)

It ends on a call for space exploration that is still being made, for example by Elon Musk:
  • Dim and wonderful is the vision I have conjured up in my mind of life spreading slowly from this little seed-bed of the solar system throughout the inanimate vastness of sidereal space.” (2.10)
A fun little novel, easy to read and a great perspective of the future from a world without aeroplanes or motor cars.

HG Wells wrote many books. He is most famous for his science fiction novels such as The Time Machine. He also wrote semi-autobiographical works of social commentary such as Kipps, Tono-Bungay, Love and Mr Lewisham, and The History of Mr Polly

Biographies of HG Wells include:

November 2019