Wednesday, 29 December 2010

The rest is noise, by Alex Ross

If you want to know more about Twentieth Century classical music, read ‘The rest is noise’. This book has already won widespread plaudits, including being the winner of the Guardian First Book award 2008. It is a chunky tome – you need strong wrists to read in bed! The main text ends on page 591, to be followed by about 100 pages of notes, recommended listening and a good index.

Ross has an astonishing breadth of knowledge, conveyed with clarity, so his is a very educational book. The classical music of the last century contains many streams and reputedly difficult pieces that make us wary. This fractured, controversial and confusing musical landscape needs a guide, a Virgil to lead us through hell, and Ross is that man. He is a likeable, positive and enthusiastic companion, and will surely lead you to listen to more of the music he recommends, as I have done under his influence.

Ross does not treat music in isolation, but sets it in a vivid context of the history of the times. Politics, war, literature, philosophy and so forth influence music, just as music influences other spheres of our society. He is most enlightening on the birth of modernism before the first world war, the negative impact of the Nazis, the terror under Stalin, the cultural battles of the cold war and so on. By reading this book, you should have a better overview of many themes of 20th century history.

The definition of ‘classical’ music is deeply difficult in the 20th Century, but the author has a clear idea of what is the serious music that he wants to tell us about. He is catholic and eclectic in his tastes, with no trace of snobbery. He acknowledges and enthuses about the influences of music hall, jazz, blues, folk music, bebop, rock, electronic music and so on, as well as explaining how serious music influenced and informed them, in turn. As he wisely says in his epilogue: “Music history is too often treated as a kind of Mercator projection of the globe, a flat image representing a landscape that is in reality borderless and continuous”.

The story opens with the dramatic and distinct impacts of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, while showing their connections back to Wagner and Debussy and so on. He explicates the revolutionary newness of Schoenberg, Stravinsky and their followers. The galvanic effect of the rule-breaking dissonances, atonality, rhythms and other innovations of that era can be appreciated from his narrative. However, none of us in this age can participate in the shock to audiences at, for instance, ‘Salome’ in 1906 or ‘The rite of spring’ in 1913, because our ears are already so attuned to the full range of modern styles and techniques. The audiences of a hundred years ago would have been purely soaked in what you could call the (first) Viennese school of classical music, and so more easily shocked.

Excitement to the ear comes from when the composer violates the established rules, gives us what we had not predicted. This is nothing new – Mozart famously wrote a ‘dissonnance’ quartet and revolutionised the subject matter of Opera with ‘Figaro’. Artists like Schoenberg could enjoy the fight to break through conventions, and achieve fame / notoriety within intellectual circles. The musical history of the twentieth century could be (simplistically) described as successive waves of breaking convention, even insulting the audience, until you reach the extreme techniques of Boulez, Stockhausen, Cage, Birtwhistle et al. However, the problem is a reductio ad boredom. When all the rules are broken, or there are no rules, then the excitement of breaking the rules disappears, leaving a sort of nothingness.

I reflected that the exciting iconoclasm occurring in music was mirrored in parallel events in painting (think of Picasso), poetry (for example Thomas Eliot), architecture (such as Frank Lloyd Wright) or even science (obviously, Einstein). There is an astonishing sense of the zeitgeist flowing in the same direction. Ross does not stray off his own patch; these are my own observations. Here again, free form poetry can be seen to tend towards boredom, compared with the admirable felicity of expressions within tight conventions, such as Alexander Pope.

Ironically, composers were just as much seeking to tie themselves within new rules, such as ‘12 tone’ or ‘total serialism’ or matrix compositions. Ross is not dogmatic or disparaging of many of these movements – he seems to find merit and interest in nearly everything. Naturally, with so much to choose from, he concentrates his writing on what he personally likes. He admits that he cannot cover all composers in any depth, and makes bold selections. For instance, he devotes many pages to Benjamin Britten, asking us to enjoy the analysis of the one British artist as representative of many other worthy artists from the same country.

One can argue about who you would like to see included in this tome – and each special plea would make the book longer and heavier. Clearly Ross had to draw the line somewhere. Well, I personally would have liked more coverage of Alexander Scriabin, Edward Elgar and Nicholas Maw. Possibly they do not fit the themes or the chapter headings, but they produced individual works that must surely rank as supreme achievements of the century, namely and respectively ‘The poem of Ecstasy’, ‘Cello concerto’ and ‘Odyssey’.

I like the way Ross pauses from the broad narrative to describe individual pieces in detail, such as Strauss’s ‘Salome’, Shostakovich’s ‘Fifth symphony’, Ellington’s ‘Black, brown and beige’, Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the end of time’ or ‘ Berg’s ‘Lulu’. These are high quality sleeve notes and engender a hunger to listen to the music. I responded by buying CDs of some of the pieces, and made enjoyable discoveries. Illustrating the point I made earlier about the modern ear being already attuned to the revolutionary techniques, I found Schoenberg’s ‘5 pieces for orchestra’ and Webern’s ‘6 pieces for orchestra’ very worthwhile – not shocking. Certainly one should not treat this music as background music – it deserves attention – but that applies to all serious music.

He has many arresting turns of phrase and witty thoughts; for example: “Cocteau and Poulenc were enjoying a one-night stand with a dark-skinned form, and they had no intention of striking up a conversation with it the following day.” He comes up with connections, facts and interpretations that are enlightening, whether it is pointing out the high proportion of gay artists, the influences of Jazz (and the influences on Jazz) or the brilliant description of minimalist music (Reich etc) being like driving along the interstate highways of America.

Read this book for education, enjoyment and elevation. If you have patches of knowledge of Twentieth Century music (as I do), Ross will tie them together for you, give them more resonance and encourage you to listen to more. He would be someone I would like to join for a fortnight’s journey on the trans-Siberian express (with an ipod to listen to the music samples as we went along). I feel a long and rewarding journey has been completed by reading this book through.

Thanks to my brother, who gave ‘The rest is noise’ to me as a birthday present, and who is way ahead of me in his knowledge of music.

Bad Thoughts, by Jamie Whyte

Jamie Whyte is a London-based philosopher from New Zealand, who has branched out of lecturing in ivory towers and become involved in assisting banks and other companies in thinking correctly. There can hardly be a more important issue that avoiding ‘Bad thoughts’ – by which he means lines of thinking that are incorrect, not morally ‘bad’.

The last sentence of the book expounds his message well: “Separating intellectual from moral seriousness is harder than those who are intellectually frivolous may care to admit’.

His book is a crusade against intellectual frivolity, and an appeal for logic and seriousness. He exposes many ways in which we are falsely persuaded, and gives many current examples (at least current from when the book was published in 2003). He is not exposing persuasion techniques as Cialdini does in his excellent book ‘Influence’. He analyses how we can be fooled by false authority, prejudice, empty words, logical inconsistency, begging the questions, misleading use of statistics and so forth.

It is a short (152 pages) book, pithy and well-argued. I liked the subtly large font and well-spaced layout that made it easy to read. I enjoyed his style and commended his logical arguments, realising much sloppiness and over-tolerance in my own approach to debates. One can see that he is correct.

Whyte is particularly persistent in destroying religious arguments, using relentless logic, a process which is quite amusing. His personal sceptical / atheistic views on these matters comes through clearly.

However, would you want to be on the Trans-Siberian express with this man for two weeks? That is a test I mentally apply to authors, and the answer in this case is not an emphatic yes. He is clearly very intelligent and has a wide range of interests – so he would be a lively companion. During those two weeks together we might be able to bring my woolly and contradictory views into some sort of logical order. However, his belief in logic and science seems to have its limitations. The self-contradictory statements of logic discovered by Goedel, and the irresolvable moral dilemmas highlighted by Baggini are beyond the scope of this book, and possibly his philosophical sphere. There seems to be a hard edge to his analysis of things, which is excellent, but might not make him a comfortable and agreeable companion in a railway carriage.

Einstein, by Jeremy Bernstein

This book is part of the Fontana ‘Modern Masters’ series, published in 1973, which I purchased in 1979, whilst at Oxford. I picked it off my dusty shelves to read again, after a recent discussion with my nephew, who is studying Physics at University. This series was a high-minded (and largely successful) attempt to profile some of the most prominent thinkers of the 20th century, and to explain succinctly their contribution to their field.

For a layman who recognises the importance of science, this is a book I recommend you read – if you can still find it! It covers a wide range of science in an engaging way.

This volume gives us a good idea of Einstein the man, and valiantly explicates his contributions to the big ideas of relativity, gravitation, cosmology, electro-magnetism and quantum theory. Bernstein (a well-known American researcher, teacher and writer of physics) avoids the mathematics, but I had to realise that one cannot truly understand these concepts without the mathematics. I do not have the inclination, the time or possibly the sheet intelligence to understand the mathematics, so a volume like this is as close as I am ever going to come to understanding these difficult, counter-intuitive concepts.

It is interesting to learn that Einstein was relatively weak on mathematics (pun intended), and Bernstein spends time trying to understand how Einstein came up with his ideas – his thought processes. In common with many of the great physicists of that era, Einstein employed thought experiments and logic to arrive at many of his theories. His paper on the special theory of relativity (1905) has virtually no equations in it. Ultimately, Bernstein says that Einstein had a deep intuition about the truth, ahead of the empirical evidence, which strikes one as essentially unscientific in method:

“Results seemed to materialise out of ‘thin air’ rather than out of long chains of elaborate calculation. Moreover, Einstein was continuously ahead of the experimental confirmations that eventually established his predictions, or, perhaps more accurately, he was able, because of his intuition about general principles, to sort out experimental results he felt must be correct from the rest, which he more or less ignored.”

This is a lucid exposition of the great advances in science, and I was able to grasp the ideas as they came by on the page, but I have to confess they slipped from my grasp, like slippery eels slithering back into the murky water. I lost the chain of logic, and found it difficult to accept the conclusions that seem to militate against our everyday common-sense understanding of the world. The same happened with my multiple readings of ‘A brief history of time’ by Stephen Hawkings.

For instance, in Newton’s laws a force applied to an object without resistance (such as ion propulsion on a space ship) will continue to accelerate infinitely. However that would mean it would eventually exceed the speed of light. Why the speed of light is a constant, and an apparently impassable barrier, is one of those concepts that somehow still eludes me – something to do with the ever-increasing mass of the object. I tend to think of the Einsteinian universe as curved: the acceleration of the spaceship is curved, light curves around the sun, even space itself is curved. One has to abandon the idea of a Platonic, fixed reality.

Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann

This is a celebrated short story / novella of 77 pages, the more celebrated since the luscious Visconti film of the book. Some breathless commentators have described ‘Death in Venice’ as the greatest short story of the 20th Century. Visconti filmed in the same Hotel des Bains on the Lido where most of the action takes place. This is the same hotel in which Thomas Mann himself stayed prior to writing his story in 1911. ‘Death in Venice’ has a large autobiographical element.

The title is a marketing coup in itself, since it promises high drama in the romantic setting of one of the most beautiful cities in the world. In fact, we are given no visual descriptions of the city of Venice at all, and it is described in disparaging and negative terms throughout. The city is fetid, smelly and diseased with Cholera. The wandering alleys cause the protagonist dizziness and thirst. The canals all look confusingly the same to him.

So no romance or beauty derived from the city itself. Instead we are given an old German writer’s infatuation with a young Polish boy, who is staying with his family at the same hotel on the Lido. Aschenbach admires the beauty of the boy (though the beauty is marred by a set of bad teeth), and becomes obsessed with him. He stares at him on the beach and in the dining room, and resorts to following the family around the city. He lingers outside the boy’s bedroom door and longs to touch him and talk to him. This portrayal of paedophilia and homosexuality is so frank and startling that it contributed to the fame (or infamy) of the story.

Aschenbach’s obsession with the boy is described as aesthetic at first, using many similes and imagery from Greek mythology. But it soon degenerates into undisguised lust, and the destructive sexual urges are brilliantly described in a “fearful dream” of a Bacchanalian frenzy. “The unhappy man woke from this dream shattered, unhinged, powerless in the demon’s grip. He no longer avoided men’s eyes nor cared whether he exposed himself to suspicion.” The demonic passion leads to a comic scene where he has his hair dyed and his face rouged to make himself more attractive to the young boy, and he is rewarded by lingering glances from the boy. He also makes the self-destructive decision to stay in Venice, although he knows about the Cholera epidemic.

In the story Aschenbach dies in his deck chair, staring at the young boy on the beach. Is he a tragic victim to Cholera, or does he die happy in the moment of his supreme aesthetic appreciation of pure beauty? To the reader, it is a fitting close to the story. At least he does not physically corrupt the boy, and we do not care that he dies. Aschenbach evokes no sympathy in the reader. He is an unattractive, prickly, proud, even absurd character. There is no attractive depth to his character.

He is described in as thinking very abstract, bloodless thoughts: “he beguiled the long tedious meal with abstract, even with transcendent matters: he pondered the mysterious harmony that must come to subsist between the individual human being and the universal law…”. Is this an ironic contrast to the Bacchanalian passion in his blood that blots out his pure artistic thoughts, or is Mann trying to make us respect his high intelligence? I fear Mann is sharing in these ponderous, universal thoughts (well expressed in his long novel ‘The Magic Mountain’).

It is disturbing how close Aschenbach is to Thomas Mann himself. They are both famous writers from Munich, both holidaying in Venice, both of whom encountered a pretty boy on the beach. The fictional author is described as writing works which Mann planned to write. Mann admitted to sexual disturbances and confusions, and clearly had a strong homosexual thread in his character. So we wonder if Mann is expressing his personal emotions. I think he clearly is. This is disgusting, but Mann redeems himself to some extent by satirising the protagonist (and hence himself) to some extent. Yet this is mixed with powerful, solemn, high-flown language, and we wonder if Mann is being serious or ironic. It is difficult to judge for a non-German speaker like myself, forced to read in an English translation (by H. T. Lowe-Porter). To me the last few pages read like Mann’s personal confessional credo of the confluence of beauty and eros. Aesthetics are just a flimsy cover of the cultured classes, an excuse for passions lurking beneath.

Personally I am not prescriptive about people’s personal sexual predilections, as long as they are confined to consenting adults in private, and strongly draw the line at paedophilia. One of the sub-texts of the story disturbs me more is the Germanic attitude towards the Italians as a bunch of unreliable rascals and crooks. It is hard to say that this is only Aschenbach’s attitude, given the close identity between the two characters. For instance, the refers to the “predatory commercial spirit of the fallen queen of the seas”. The main attack is on the city authorities for denying and hiding the evidence of ‘pestilence’ in the city, being “actuated by fear of being out of pocket”.

The cholera is important to the plot and the symbolism of the story, but no balance is given to the sunny and friendly side of the Italian character, nor even a word of acknowledgement of their stupendous achievements in arts and sciences. The predatory commercial spirit is alive and well in Venice, as I can vouch from recent experience, but I still love the city and admire its people. We seem to be facing some rather unpleasant racial and cultural attitudes in Mann’s story and Mann himself.

I can’t rate this as a supremely great work, and think it has been boosted beyond its stand-alone merits – in other words, regard for Mann’s other works may have caused people to look at this story with too much favour. I would suggest Somerset Maugham as an exponent of the short story worth investigating, and I would put forward Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ as a better work than this.

The year of the flood, by Margaret Atwood

I attended the London launch event of this book on 2nd September 2009, and found it rather odd and stilted, with actors reading out passages in a church. Given my great respect for the author (who was present at the launch – a small, sprightly, grey-haired lady), having read two of her works previously – ‘The blind assassin’ and ‘Oryx and Crake’ – I then bought this handsome hard-back book. I like its bright green inner covers and bookmark. Books do furnish a room.

The content is more equivocal. Margaret Atwood is delving further into the terrifying dystopia given us in ‘Oryx and Crake’. The further detail is fascinating and worthwhile. The author picks up on contemporary news stories, and distorts or extrapolates them into a plausible future, with a vividness that exceeds most science fiction writers. While reading the book, I heard a TV news story about scientists growing meat in a laboratory, and that is the sort of thing she puts into her stories, taking them to their logical and sickening conclusion.

‘Sickening’ is a good word to describe the future world she paints for us. ‘The flood’ referred to in the title is a viral epidemic that kills most people in the world – again echoing contemporary news stories about Swine Flu, SARS, Ebola and such. For the sake of future readers, I will not reveal the specific cause of this epidemic, but it is part of Margaret Atwood’s evident antipathy to large, powerful, selfish corporations.

She has a violent imagination. Death and physical violence are ubiquitous in her imagined world. It is curious to see her fascination with the abuse of women’s bodies. Women are also among the strongest characters in her books, but not uniquely.

She has an exemplary vocabulary and range of interests. She used the word ‘spandrel’, and I had to look it up in my Chambers 1972 edition dictionary, where it gave the definition “the space between the curve of an arch and the enclosing mouldings, string-course, or the like”. This did not appear to make sense in the context of referring to hair. A Wikipedia search revealed that the term had a specific biological evolutionary meaning, from a 1979 article by Gould and Lewontin, referring to characteristics that were strictly unnecessary by-products of adaptive selection. So I could see that Atwood is smart and widely read – not that I doubted it.

But I say the content is equivocal, because it does not bear comparison with ‘Oryx and Crake’. It has a confusing chronology, and a story line that sags so much that I put the book down to read another for a couple of weeks. But I persisted to the end, and wondered if I had been fully rewarded. How much extra had I gained, compared with reading the first book?

The story mentions characters from ‘Oryx and Crake’, filling in more biographical detail and bringing us to the same geographical point where ‘snowman’ lives, but no clear climax. Clearly mankind has ruined itself and the planet. The message is clear, but the strange religion of ‘God’s gardeners’ is obviously not sufficient and seems to be satirised – the tone was very unstable for me.

Is Margaret Atwood working towards a trilogy? Maybe not, Margaret; leave it at that.

Stone Virgin, by Barry Unsworth

I rate Barry Unsworth highly, and have done so ever since he was recognised with the Booker Prize in 1992, for his book ‘Sacred Hunger’ – a book I would recommend reading, together with much of his other works. This book, ‘Stone virgin’, is brilliant, and I have just read it again for the third time, prompted by a holiday in Venice. I could understand the geography of Venice described in the book much better, with it fresh in my memory, and the pocket map of the city from my hotel beside me. Unsworth obviously knows the place, its people, its history and its culture very well, and can convey the atmosphere skilfully.

The stone virgin referred to in the title is a statue of the Madonna, which seems to shine with a mysterious light and affects the people around it. The figure was carved in the fifteenth century, and the circumstances of its modelling form the first story thread, including love, sex and a death. The book shifts to the twentieth century, telling the multi-layered story of it being restored, also including love, adultery and a death. An ‘interlude’ from the eighteenth century is inserted, which is highly comic, telling a story of seduction and adultery, which explains how the statue came to be placed on the front of a particular church, ending in the death of its narrator.

Time and history are complexly layered, with almost occult influences across the years. Each of the three main stories echoes and reflects the others. Phrases and human actions are repeated down the centuries. The past invades and even seems to control the present. “All things are in threes”, as it says on the final page. For instance much of the narrative is carried by first-person accounts by the three main protagonists, in their different centuries, one writing letters of appeal against his unjust condemnation to death, one writing his Casanova-style memoirs and one writing a diary. There is much food for philosophical thought in this complex book, but lightened with the author’s sense of humour and sensitivity to beauty.

However the most dominant impression of this book is its sensuality. It dwells on bodies, mainly female, made of stone and of flesh. There is a pervading sense of arousal and sexuality in all three ages, with ardent, but strangely false, physical passion, vividly described. There is betrayal and intrigue in all the love stories, but I should not give away the surprising twists and turns of the stories. Unsworth has written here one of the most erotic books I have read, but elevated to a high literary plane by his rich, intelligent, sophisticated sensibility.

Azincourt, by Bernard Cornwell

Cornwell has used a tried-and-tested formula for many of his books, which I have previously encountered in his ‘Sharpe’ books. He chooses a common man as his hero (in this case Nick Hook), has him fight heroically and victoriously in every major battle in his time (Harfleur and Agincourt), makes him a master of his weapons (principally his longbow, but also handy with his poleaxe), gives him a beautiful love interest (Melisande), sets up a strong, arrogant enemy (the French noble Lanferelle, who also happens to be Melisande’s father – such subtle plotting!) and adds extra spice in having enemies on his own side (the wicked Perrill brothers and Sir Martin).

It is a successful formula, tugging the reader on to turn the pages, at the expense of important household chores. However the transparent artifice, and the inherently unlikely nature of all the events that happen to one man dented my opinion of this book. It is as if Hook, the archer, has his own special angel hovering over him – the author, who miraculously makes every strike against the hero a slap or glancing blow, and nearly every strike of the hero a bulls-eye with arrow or poleaxe.

You have to admire Cornwell’s ingenuity of side-stepping and overcoming the massive reputation of Shakespeare’s ‘Henry V’ (which incidentally does not mention the English archers once). He subtly incorporates all the Shakespearean highlights, such as the attack on the breach at Harfleur, the ‘Saint Crispin’ speech and the King’s midnight fraternising with the troops on the eve of the battle.

This is a gory book. The author goes out of his way to emphasise the horror of war more than any other of his books I have read. There are numerous descriptions of brains splattering, blood gurgling, guts slithering, eyes being pierced and so forth. He lays it on thick, garnished with some very choice earthy language. I guess it has to be done, to convey the reality of Medieval Warfare and the massacre of the remarkable battle of Agincourt.

His hatred of priests in the hierarchy of power is evident. Most priests (but not all) are portrayed as lustful, power-mad, gluttonous, sadistic and hypocritical in this book. Cornwell raises the intellectual level of the book by pondering on the contradictions and confusions of religion, with both sides praying and believing that God is on their side. Their’s is a harsh and vengeful God, wanting heretics to be burned at the stake and mass slaughter to take place to support a King’s rightful claim to a throne.

Cornwall uses the narrative device of the hero hearing the voices of Saint Crispin and Saint Crispinian in his head. This lets us glimpse a slightly deeper psychological depth and complexity, but not much more. Don’t pick up this book for subtle or complex insights into human nature.

Democracy kills, by Humphrey Hawksley

This is a relatively new book, published in 2009. It encapsulates the travels and thoughts of the BBC’s international reporter, Humphrey Hawksley, who happens to be a personal friend. Frankly, I had not been fully aware of the many exotic and dangerous places he had been to, until I read this highly interesting book. I now appreciate his essential modesty and bravery.

Hawksley covers an impressively wide range of topics and situations, retelling many of his assignments over the past 20 years. In this book he describes places and people in Ivory Coast, Iraq, Kuwait, Dubai, India, Argentina, Bolivia, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, China, Philippines, Bosnia, Kosovo, Estonia, Russia, Cuba, Hong Kong and Taiwan, to name but some of the most memorable. He includes much dialogue – presumably transcribed from re-running the tapes of his many TV interviews – because this book is an extended conversation about the state of the modern world. Some of the questions Hawksley puts in his own mouth sound stilted, as if he had somewhat edited the dialogue for the purposes of the book – but no matter. The quotations from his interviewees are accurate – I presume and hope.

I would say this is an important book, and would recommend it to others. He covers issues of vital importance to the troubled world we live in and its future. It makes you think (which is always a good thing), and the way the book is written carries you along with urgency and variety. Hawksley is a campaigning journalist, and he wants the world to change, because he has confronted so many terrible things, reflecting the inhumanity of man to man. But the admirable thing is that he does not start from an ivory-tower theory or set of convictions, as the terrible political leaders such as Lenin or Mao did, or as the Bush cabinet did or as the IMF idiots did. He works in a vivid empirical fashion, showing us the front line of poverty, slavery, orphans, insurgents, street-people, shanty dwellers and so forth.

Furthermore he circles around the issues, probing them, asking many questions, listening, watching, searching, confronting the complacent ivory-tower people in power and even trying to help the pathetic individual cases he comes across. He tries to find a school for a boy in Morocco; he tries to get hospital help for a poor family in Bolivia; etc. He sympathises with the underdog and can appreciate why people turn to terrorism, without approving it.

There is so much to say about this rich book, so let us select the issues of slavery – yes slavery – on cocoa farms in West Africa and the economic collapse of Argentina.

The effective economic slavery of Children (and Adults) on remote cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast described in the first chapter is a powerful, moving account. Personally, I found it penetrated my brain (and heart) better than the TV documentary on the same subject he made a couple of years ago; or, possibly, the reinforcement of the written word to the previously seen images had a cumulative effect. It was depressing for me, and engendered bitter reflections on the appalling inequalities and injustices underlying the apparently smooth, civilized surface of our life. It also sparked feelings of anger, and consequently a wish to effect change. One of the things that need changing is the ‘Washington Consensus’.

The ‘Washington Consensus’ refers to the nexus of free-market ideas centred in Washington at places like the World Bank, the IMF and the US government. They are appalling theorisers, working from fundamentalist ideas. In my corner of the financial markets, where I worked (on and off) from 1982 to 1994, I was always suspicious and somewhat contemptuous of these ‘bureaucrat bankers’ with plush jobs, flying around the world first class. That attitude has been nuanced but also reinforced by contact with some of these ‘Supranational’ institutions since – for instance, I went to the capital of the Ivory Coast myself in 1997, and worked at the African Development Bank for two weeks. I think many of their ideas are wrong, and destructive in the wrong context.

Those fundamentalist free-market ideas are muddled, contradictory and even hypocritical, as exemplified by the Argentine economic debacle, described in the fourth chapter. Actually, the ideas are probably hostage to previous events, the aims of their sponsors (Western Governments) and organisational inertia. How can they insist that a poor African country throws open its markets, while subsidies and tariffs protect farmers and industries in the EU, USA, Japan etc..? How can they have the sheer stupidity to apply the free market philosophy of a New York dealing room to an impoverished cocoa farmer, with only one buyer, who arrives from time to time down the pot-holed roads of the Ivory Coast jungle? How can they advocate free markets in one context, yet insist that Argentina fix its currency to the US Dollar? Not only is it bad thinking, but it is bad ethics.

Someone (or rather, a large group of people) need to agitate for change, and I congratulate Hawksley on throwing a little light on this specific situation. As a hasty first ‘wish list’ for West Africa I would suggest:
- Certification of cocoa origin on consumer products;
- Pressure on food companies to devote time, money etc to bettering the lives of farmers at the root of their supply chain, involving medical facilities, schools and water services in villages in West Africa;
- Direct investment in improving the supply chain, such as metalled roads and intermediate storage facilities;
- Abolition of import duties on processed cocoa products into developed countries, so that the producers can move along the value chain.

With regards Argentina, Hawksley’s heart is in the right place, but he admits himself that his grasp of economics is somewhat shaky. He gets confused, as exemplified by this sentence (page 188): “Argentine goods had become too expensive for foreign buyers and imports, such as insulin, had become unaffordable.” It is impossible for a foreign exchange rate to simultaneously cause exports AND imports to be expensive at the same time. The context of this sentence does not redeem his faulty logic either.

What happened was that the Dollar parity policy suggested by the IMF caused exports to be priced out of world markets (they could not even export beef!), and so imports were cheap at the time. The balance of payments gap caused the parity exchange rate to snap, and in the newly free market in 2001 the Peso fell precipitously. That caused imports to become 3x or 4x more expensive, but rescued the exporters, who went on to have an export boom due to the cheap goods they could then offer the outside world. It is errors like this that slightly hold back the effect of the main message, and I would be happy to give the author any advice on these matters.

Now we come to the issue of the title. This was, apparently, imposed by the marketing people at the publishers, or at least, a misleading shortening of a longer, more nuanced title. ‘Democracy kills’ is the sort of startling title that would cause you to pick up the book in a bookshop, but it does a grave disservice to the balanced views of the author. Hawksley clearly thinks democracy itself is a good thing, as he makes clear in the text. However he is very against the fundamentalist approach of imposing democracy in a hurried and insensitive way. He understands how institutions need to be built up over time, even decades to provide a fruitful soil for democracy.

For me personally, the book has rubbed away some of my shallow thinking about democracy being generally a ‘good thing’ in all circumstances. I now appreciate how it is not even the most important thing. Health care provision, good schools, freedom to trade, the rule of law, the restraint of ethnic hatreds and so forth are all part of a complex web, and arguably more important than the largely symbolic opportunity to put a mark on a ballot paper. I can’t say I have a better template, but maybe single templates are just a reflection of a simplistic way of thinking. Hawksley is complex and wise and properly provisional about his conclusions.

Man and Gods, by Rex Warner

Rex Warner was an Oxford-educated classical scholar, translator, novelist and poet, who know W.H. Auden and held interesting jobs such as Director of the British Institute in Athens. He published this work in 1950, and I was given it as a school prize in the Summer Term of 1970; it has the sticker on the inside cover, with the headmaster’s signature. Hence it is nostalgic for me to re-read it.

The stories of Greek mythology are part of our Western cultural heritage. Think of the well-known stories of Icarus, Phaethon, Orpheus, Midas, Heracles, Oedipus and Antigone, all of which have inspired subsequent poems, plays, paintings, operas and so forth. Rex Warner tells the stories in a straightforward style, that often reflects a close translation of the original stories in Ovid. I cross-referenced with my edition of Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’, translated by Mary Innes, and found they were very close in many places. So the author has not allowed himself much license to retell and augment the stories – which may be just as well. His style is crisp, fresh, business-like and easy to read. You could not have a clearer, more concise version of the key Greek myths, which should be part of the mental furniture of any educated Western person.

Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard

I saw this play in the 1990s, but it largely faded from my memory. I had the impression of it being a difficult, entertaining and serious play. I went to see it again on 3rd August 2009, with a friend. Being right up ‘with the Gods’, the acoustic was slightly impaired and the stuffiness further befuddled my intellect. I could grasp that it was an excellent and even important piece of work, though I confessed to my friend that the full message eluded me. He wisely commented that Stoppard would be disappointed if we did grasp it all.

Since then, I have bought a copy and read it. Unlike many plays, the reading was clearer than the staged version – though the sequence of seeing the play on the stage first doubtless influences that opinion. It is so packed with clever, fizzy ideas that it is difficult to understand them from the fast, witty dialogue. On the page, one can slow down and turn back. It is a play to be highly recommended, a towering intellectual achievement, maybe (probably) a rung above ‘Copenhagen’ by Michael Frayn.

To summarise the plot of the play would take many paragraphs, and would possibly spoil it for those who have not seen or read it. Instead, it is fruitful to highlight the theme of Time.

‘Arcadia’ opens with a scene from 1809, as you can tell from the dress and language. So we are shifted back in time by 200 years. The very first line of the play, from a curious, intelligent, na├»ve girl called Thomasina to her tutor raises a laugh from the audience: “Septimus, what is carnal embrace?” This leads into the comic, slightly farcical, country-house drama that Stoppard loves – as in ‘The real inspector Hound’. The entangled relationships and attractions are a thick thread in the tapestry of the story, running in parallel between the early 19th Century and modern times.

‘Attraction’ is a word used with care, because one of the topics they talk about is Newtonian physics and his laws of gravity. Newton’s model of the universe opens the possibility of everything being deterministic, but that is upset in human life by the life force of sex – “the attraction which Newton left out”. The human race moves forward in time and survives, thanks to sexual attraction. But in the long run we are all doomed, because of entropy, which will cause everything in the universe to “cease and grow cold”.

Time and entropy are the same thing, or at least are deeply threaded with each other. Entropy’s arrow is what makes us feel time. Thomasina understands the profound implications of entropy, destroying the neat, symmetrical world of Newtonian Physics her tutor had been teaching her: “Newton’s equations go forwards and backwards, they do not care which way. But the heat equation care very much, it goes only one way. That is the reason Mr Noakes’s engine cannot give us the power to drive Mr Noakes’s engine.”

We see time operating before our eyes on the stage, as characters from the 20th Century erupt into the same room. Now we meet ambitious academics exploring the past at Sidley Park in their various ways. One is studying the shooting records to understand the chaos-theory patterns behind the grouse population. One is writing a book about the landscape gardening and the influence of the Romantic imagination. One is researching the life of Lord Byron, hoping to come up with a scandalous, dramatic event that will make his name when published.

Time plays tricks on these searchers after truth, in that the evidence left is insufficient and misleading. Or, rather, the way they look at things causes them to bend the evidence. The University Don, Bernard, is particularly self-deluding in his eagerness to achieve fame. He convinces himself that he has found evidence of Lord Byron killing a man in a duel and fleeing the country as a result. We, the audience, already know he is barking up the wrong tree, because we have just seen the events and letters of 1809. So Bernard is not really a searcher after truth, but forms a self-serving theory first, and then imposes that theory on the evidence. He sees what he wants to see.

Time plays tricks on the earlier generation too. Thomasina Coverley also discovers the mathematics of chaos, blowing apart the neat Euclidian geometry of trianges, squares etc, with infinitely branching shapes, such as we see in nature around us – trees, for instance. The later mathematician, Valentine, has a laptop computer in which he can produce the ‘Coverley set’ – a renamed Mandelbrot set, I presume. The cruelty of time is that Thomasina (and, later, Septimus in years of scribbed mathmatics) does not have the computing power to pursue her new mathematics. She lives in the wrong age.

As Valentine says “There wasn’t enough time. There weren’t enough pencils! (He flourishes Thomasina’s lesson book.) This took her I don’t know how many days and she hasn’t scratched the paintwork. Now she’d only have to press a button over and over. Iteration. A few minutes. And what I’ve done in a couple of months, with only a pencil the calculations would take me the rest of my life to do again – thousands of pages – tens of thousands! And so boring!”

The characters from the two ages, Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, take turns on the stage, with wonderful comic interactions, a supremely clever country house farce, where the two sets of characters do not talk directly with each other. However the earlier set is being observed, not only by the audience, but also by the other set of characters. The later set of characters is also silently being mocked by the earlier set, for getting their interpretations so wrong.

Towards the end, Stoppard boldly brings both ages on to the stage at the same time. The two eras end up both waltzing around the room. This is wonderful symbolism, bringing to mind the attraction of the sexes, the orbits of the planets, the whirl of atoms, the mathematics of chaos, the comedy and melancholy of human relationships….

The Penguin book of the Renaissance, by J.H. Plumb (ed.)

£1.85 this paperback cost, when I purchased it in 1979, inspired by a trip to Italy. I wanted to learn more about the multi-faceted advances we now know at the Renaissance, having visited Florence, Venice, Milan and Padua. I then read several chapters of interest and found it was useful background to my degree studies. Later, in homage to this great era of learning, I ambitiously called my training company ‘Renaissance Training’.

This year, I picked it off the shelves again, having created the following thought experiment: I never buy another book in my life and rely solely on the existing contents of my bookshelves. I read all 17 chapters, and found it rewarding, since it brought together disparate and half-remembered bits of knowledge. I also had more experience of visiting Italy, seeing paintings and reading books about this era to build on.

Edited by the historian, Professor Plumb, it is a series of essays on different aspects, people and places in the Renaissance. The book is not a complete survey of the Renaissance – that would be impossible anyway – and it leaves certain aspects, such as the advance of mathematics, virtually untouched. However, the breadth of its coverage can be gathered from the titles of the essays:
• Introduction
• The dawn of the Renaissance
• The Prince and the state
• Machiavelli
• The arts
• The young Michelangelo
• Florence: Cradle of Humanism
• Lorenzo de Medici
• Milan: City of strife
• Leonardo da Vinci
• Rome: splendour and papacy
• Pope Pius II
• Venice: the golden years
• Doge Francesco Foscari
• The images of man (about Aretino and Castiglione)
• Federico da Montefeltro
• The spread of the Renaissance

Professor Plumb wrote ten of the essays himself, while the others came from famous writers such as Kenneth Clark, H.R. Trevor-Roper and J. Bronowski. He does an excellent job of tying together the potentially disparate essays into a whole; he must have given specific detailed guidance to the other writers, so good are the connections between the chapters. Profiling the four leading cities of the Renaissance is a highly successful move that forms a bonding cross-section across the other themes. As an introductory text for understanding the Renaissance and its achievements, this book is to be highly recommended.

From the riches of this book, I pick out the Bronowski chapter on Leonardo da Vinci for deeper comment. Leonardo was a failure. He was a man of immense, almost incomprehensible genius. Yet he completed so few of his projects. Admittedly, ‘The Mona Lisa’ remains as one of the most celebrated paintings in the world, yet the sum total of his completed works is pitiful compared with what he could have achieved, with more focus. Bronowski speculates that he was not put under enough commercial pressure to get things done, but was indulged for twenty years by the Duke of Milan, and his talents diverted into fripperies, such as ingenious displays for the frequent pageants the Duke liked to arrange.

When we think of Leonardo, we think of his sketches and notebooks, crammed with ideas and studies of endless variety. Leonardo had a burning curiosity, and he was given freedom of time and from monetary necessity by the Duke to follow every path that his polymathic genius led him, whether it was the flight mechanism of birds, the flow of water, the anatomy of man, engines of war, new painting techniques and so forth.

Late in his life, Leonardo apparently deeply regretted his dilettantism (if that is an appropriate word!) and lack of application. He once wrote: “O Time, thou that consumest all things! O envious age, thou destroyest all things and devourest all things with the hard teeth of the years, little by little, in slow death!”

However, Bronowski asserts Leonardo’s ultimate greatness and revolutionary thought by asserting three supreme achievements:

1) He pioneered modern scientific method through his “absorbed interest in the structure and mechanism of nature”, contrasting with the medieval “magical view” of casting spells and seeking miracles to get nature to “function in a way contrary to her own laws”. Leonardo perceived that, on the contrary, nature is only commanded when we understand her and enter into her processes.

2) He saw that the structure of nature reveals her processes. So he searched diligently for the strict mechanism by which living things move and act, instead of appealing in a lazy way to vital forces and spirits. In other words, he was empirical and scientific.

3) He understood that science is not a parade of grand theories of the kind that, say, Thomas Aquinas propounded, where the detail was not thought important, and discrepancies between theory and fact are shrugged off. Instead, he elevated the detail so that it became the crucial test of a scientific theory. By carrying out detailed studies, he was able to demonstrate how Aristotle, Galen, Aquinas etc were wrong.

Bronowski ascribes the last point to Leonardo’s training as a painter, for whom the precise shape of a flower or a waterfall is all important. This put him “at the opposite pole from the theorising scientists of his own age”. This interesting conjunction of art and science is a valuable nugget buried in this book, and Bronowski claims that Leonardo was the artist “who is the true pioneer of science as we practise it.”

Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett

This play tends to divide opinion. Some think it a load of boring, pretentious rot, while others venerate it as a masterpiece of modern literature. I tend to think the latter, but sometimes teeter over to the other side.

There have been several iterations reading ‘Waiting for Godot’ since school, and the latest preceded seeing it on the stage at the Haymarket Theatre on 31st July 2009. It was a brilliant production, with world-renowned actors Ian McKellen, Ronald Pickup, Simon Callow and Patrick Stewart. I found it profound and emotional.

The set coloured and illuminated in black, grey and white. It looks like a post-war bomb site. Indeed it is an extension of the theatre, with a burnt ceiling and ruined audience boxes. On the stage is a bare tree, a central emblematic focus, suggesting the power of nature, the cross, gallows and anything you care to read into it.

The play was written in late 1948, in French, and first performed in France. This is reflected in references to the Eiffel Tower, the Rhone, the Pyrenees and so forth. The chronology is clear: Estragon and Vladimir refer to their youth in the ‘Nineties’. That would be the 1890s. So they are aged approximately 58 to 68 in 1948. Pozzo also refers to having been with Lucky for ‘nearly sixty years’. So they are of a similar age, or even older.

‘Godot’ is a play about old men; no women featuring on stage or even in the dialogue. These old men are thinking about death, even hastening it by suicide (but not in a serious way). They are thinking about memory, or, rather, trying desperately to remember things with little success. They cannot even be clear about what happened yesterday. They have the mental maladies of old men. Without clear and stable memories, they are losing their sense of self. They torment themselves with time.

This drives Pozzo mad. Following Vladimir’s question “Dumb! Since when?”, he bursts out furiously: “Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day like any other day, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then its night once more.”

This passage illustrates Beckett’s richly stocked literary mind. It echoes the Book of Ecclesiastes in the bible, at least in my mind: “A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing….”

There are echoes of Shakespeare reverberating behind the simple words and scenes. ‘King Lear’ comes to mind, with its wretches on the heath, as Estragon climbs out of his ditch at the beginning of each act. When Pozzo comes back blind on a short rope behind Lucky, one surely thinks of Gloucester in ‘King Lear’. One also thinks of ‘Macbeth’ in his despair and nihilism before his death meditating on “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps out this petty pace from day to day”. The four bodies lying on the floor suggest the corpses that litter the stage at the end of ‘Hamlet’ – except all these are alive. Indeed there is a play within a play, as in ‘Hamlet’, when Vladimir and Pozzo “play at Pozzo and Lucky”.

There can little doubt that Beckett was deeply influenced by the work of TS Eliot. ‘Waiting for Godot’ is almost a staged version of parts of ‘The hollow men’.
“We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw, Alas!”
One could mention the influence of James Joyce – whom Beckett personally worked with in Paris – but the main point is the richness inherent in the play.

Actually the most obvious influence is Charlie Chaplin. Here are two tramps, with tattered clothes and bowler hats. They do clownish and vaudeville things, particularly in this production, singing songs, dancing, doing a hat-exchange routine, pulling turnips from their pockets, forgetting their flies are open and dropping their trousers. They describe the audience as a ‘bog’. All this Chaplinesque clownery makes the play entertaining, and far from solemn and miserable. Indeed they strike a match against the darkness of time.

There are no answers in this play, only confused questions. There is no God (or at least no Godot), only a deep humanity. There is nowhere to go, just filling in the time here.

What will their lives amount to? Will they be remembered? Can they even remember themselves? Will Godot ever turn up, and will they recognise him when, or if, he does appear? They struggle to make an impression on the universe. A boy appears at the end of each act with a message that Godot will definitely come tomorrow (‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’), but the boy has no memory of yesterday’s message, or even if it was the same boy. Vladimir (Patrick Stewart) tries to send a message to Godot (God) and to make an impression on the boy: “Tell him… tell him you saw me and that… that you saw me. You’re sure you saw me, you won’t come and tell me tomorrow that you never saw me!”

Lucky is the most enigmatic and emblematic character in the play. He is a slave – a Caliban burdened with heavy bag, folding stool, picnic basket and a greatcoat, with a long rope around his neck. He is oppressed but not depressed – he seems to dwell mentally in another world – yet seems eager to please Pozzo. He is mute for the whole play, except for one extraordinary soliloquy, when he is ordered to ‘think’. It is a pseudo-academic declamation, but peppered with crude references, such as ‘Fartov and Belcher’. The verbal diarrhoea is deeply sonorous, turning meaningless words into a magnificent music. Perhaps he is the archetypal author, Beckett himself.

Many have interpreted and attempted to interpret this strange play, and I will go no further. However I (re-)learnt that plays in particular can be difficult read on the page, but they often come alive on the stage. Seeing and hearing this production, I would affirm this as a masterpiece of modern literature.

With the perspective of this play on my mind, I saw its themes outside the theatre. I arrived early and waited outside the Haymarket theatre. Many people were standing around waiting. They drew their counterparts closer with text and mobile phone calls. I wondered who they were waiting for. Who were they waiting for? How long would they wait? I saw many meetings and could understand what they were waiting for – their companions to see a play about waiting.

In the streets afterwards there were also figures from the play. There were tramps. There were drunks. There were people arm in arm and holding each other up. There was a man in a wheelchair. There were some chicken bones on the pavement.

The Age of Elegance, by Arthur Bryant

This yellowing hardback belongs to my father, and I borrowed it from him. He owns a series of Arthur Bryant history books, who was a popular historian just after the Second World War. Arthur Bryant’s star has faded badly since, and questions have been raised about his scholarship and his personal political views. He was not an academic historian, unearthing facts from original documents, but he was a synthesiser of others works, relying on his own eloquence and interpretation to appeal to his readers. Indeed he is a good writer – clear and colourful, perhaps even florid. Some critics have accused him of plagiarism – at least in his books on Pepys.

In this book he covers the period 1812 – 1822. This seemingly limited time span covers some important events, crucial to the history of this nation, including the invasion of France by Wellington’s army, the peace-making conferences, the battle of Waterloo, the industrial revolution and the political battles between George IV and his wife Caroline. This decade saw the United Kingdom become the undisputed leading world power. Bryant’s expositions of the Peninsular War battles and Waterloo are excellent.

Apart from the war narrative, he devotes some limited space to analysing the social and economic developments of the United Kingdom, but not in enough depth. He likes to spend pages eulogising how wonderful our country was, especially compared with the war-ravaged Continental countries. England (mainly) is full of well-fed happy honest yeomen, whereas places like France are full of down-trodden hungry peasants and bad inns. Bryant lays this on thick, with eulogistic patriotic prose that is too sickly at times. This, frankly, was the appeal of Bryant in the war and post-war years, when patriotic films and books were encouraged by the government, and the British people basked in self-congratulation as a result of being on the winning side. The descriptions of tables groaning with luscious English food must have been an attractive fantasy for those still on rations in 1950, when this book was published.

To support his case, Bryant cites many authors in his notes and bibliography, which gives it a scholarly aura, but careful tracking of his sources shows he relies on a limited stack of books for his evidence, particularly ‘Romany Rye’ by George Borrow, and a travel journal of a Frenchman called Louis Simond; (this latter book has been digitised and can be viewed on Simond’s account is most interesting, and coming from a foreigner adds weight to Bryant’s portrait. But there is something tendentious and distorted about what Bryant is saying. Was our country such a paradise at that time? This goes against much of modern, self-abnegating histories that focus on the miseries of the industrial revolution.

To be fair, Bryant balances his account of a prosperous England with criticisms of the selfishness of mill-owners, the economic plight of mill workers, the vicious economic swings from boom to bust, the cruel laissez-faire philosophy of the ruling classes, the self-indulgence of the dandies of the aristocracy and so on. He writes from the viewpoint of 1950, when the state was expanding its economic and welfare role, and he apparently wishes that the governments of 1812 – 1822 were doing the same.

I wonder if Bryant has a point, though. He is a useful antidote to the self-abnegating histories that have dominated in recent decades. He argues that for considerable sections of society this was indeed a (brief) golden age, before the wheel of industrialisation swept across the whole fabric of society in the 19th Century. Britain was undoubtedly the richest and most prosperous country in Europe at that time. It won the Napoleonic wars by financing every army that fought against France. It produced the steel, the guns, the buttons, the uniforms and so on for most of the allied armies. It also had the most advanced agricultural techniques, born of a century of innovation with stock, seeds and methods. It had nearly all the world’s steam engines. It had the best roads and the fastest coaches.

I compared his account of the huge political squabble between George IV and his estranged Queen Caroline with the account of the same affair in Paul Johnson’s ‘A history of the English people’. This illustrates how Bryant’s approach is the lesser of the two. Johnson is far more provocative, critical and objective, as he teases out much more fundamental theories about English history.

Shakespeare, by Bill Bryson

This is a short biography of William Shakespeare, where Bill Bryson tries to apply his wit and intelligence to saying something new. His wit and intelligence are evident, and this is as good a stab at an impossible task as you are ever likely to find.

Frankly a biography of Shakespeare is not possible. All the incontrovertible facts can be written on one page. The rest is speculation and interpretation of sketchy evidence. All ‘biographers’ of Shakespeare have to pad out with historical background, and Bryson does this vividly.

Shakespeare remains an enigmatic and mysterious person, and the gulf between the bare facts of his life and the magnificence of the literary works ascribed to him can only be filled by appeals to the word ‘genius’. Bryson manfully tries to make sense of it all, and firmly takes sides against those who question the claim that the ‘Stratford man’ wrote those plays and poems. Indeed, he devotes a whole chapter to refuting the other ‘claimants’, to boost his book by a further 15 pages. At least he does not fall into the trap of ascribing words said in the plays as expressing Shakespeare’s personal views.

The curious case of Benjamin Button, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

This volume contains seven short stories, published by Scott Fitzgerald from 1920 to 1932 in the USA. Like all his writings, they document his age, and so have a historical / social interest. In addition, they concisely demonstrate his skill as a writer, and his imagination.

Scott Fitzgerald lets his fantasy go quite wild in these stories, the most famous being ‘The curious case of Benjamin Button’, thanks to a 2009 (?) film based on this story. It is an intriguing idea of a man born old, who becomes progressively younger throughout his life. The author carries out this difficult conceit with skill and humour. The film diverges from the short story, with many extraneous additional material, but captures the ‘youthing’ of the main character with clever use of make up on Brad Pitt. The reversal of time’s arrow allows the author to bump up against all the practical problems this causes, extracting the comic potential to the full.

These stories all have a thread of craziness and inversion about them. For instance, I liked the story called ‘Head and shoulders’ where a brilliant shy Princeton Scholar becomes a trapeze artist, and the girl who persuades him out of the cloister of academia becomes a famous writer. They swap roles, so to speak.

Monday, 15 February 2010

'The pig that wants to be eaten' by Julian Baggini

A book of a 100 ‘thought experiments’ to provoke us into thinking – thinking about moral and philosophical issues. Each chapter presents a story, often developed from the ideas of a famous philosopher such as Plato, Descartes, Berkeley, Rawls or from more populist authors such as Philip Dick and Douglas Adams. Baggini then discussed the issue raised in a few paragraphs, so that each chapter is exactly 3 pages long and the book 300 pages long.

I first met Julian Baginni at a ‘Sea of Faith’ conference – or rather I heard a talk of his on ‘Selfhood’, without talking to him personally. His lecture was entertaining and approachable, yet touched on profound issues. So I was inclined to buy one of his (several) books when browsing in a bookshop a few months ago.

The format of the book encourages you to pick it up and put it down at short intervals, while one digests the individual chapters. At first I thought it slightly lightweight. Some of the thought experiments did not quite work for me – maybe I chafed against the necessary restrictions and unreality of artificial, fanciful ‘thought experiment’ situations. I could see that some raised important and tricky issues, but then felt unsatisfied by the mere few paragraphs that Baggini used to cover the issue, leaving many things unresolved. I even put the book down for a few weeks (though that is a common thing I do, since I often read 10- 15 books in parallel).

When I picked it up again, and ploughed along through the second half, I found familiar issues returning with a fresh perspective, and further commentary. I started to follow the connections to other chapters he suggests, and re-read earlier ones. I started to make notes on the book. Themes started to emerge from the mist. Baggini deliberately jumbles up the themes – but ultimately you realise that they are all related. So the book gained depth and weight, as I read backwards and forwards. I became more and more interested, and appreciated his self-restraint in limiting his commentary in each chapter. Instead a more resonant meta-commentary was emerging. I realised the author is an eternal questioner and is forever prising apart our ‘rationality’ our ‘morality’ our ‘common sense’. He does not propose evangelical solutions, but leaves a huge, sparkling scepticism hanging in the air, like stars in the night sky.

As an example, thought experiment #89 is titled ‘Kill and let die’. Here a man at a junction box knows a runaway train is going to kill 20 men in a tunnel, but he can divert the train to another track where he knows for certain it will kill only 5 men. What should he do? The Benthamite philosophy of the greatest good for the greatest number would dictate he flicks the switch to kill only the 5 men, rather than let the 20 men die. Doing nothing causes the greater harm, but flicking the switch requires an act on his part which is tantamount to choosing to kill the 5 men on the other track.

The thought experiment rules require that we introduce no excuses about uncertainty or a third way; by remorselessly focusing on this dilemma it forces us to decide and clarify our fuzzy, contradictory thoughts. So Baggini is charmingly slamming us up against a brick wall with a loaded gun to our heads, and forcing us to think, to work things out for ourselves.

John Vernon

'Thatcher and sons' by Simon Jenkins

In a bookshop my hand hovered over a copy of ‘Atlas shrugged’ which had been strongly recommended to me by a friend, but I veered away, put off by the ponderous size of the book; instead I picked up this book, since it seemed to have tangential relevance to the same themes. I wanted to learn more and think more about ‘Thatcherism’, a political movement which has dominated my adult life. I would say from the start that I have tended to view ‘Thatcherism’ with overall approval, though tempered with reservations and criticisms.

Simon Jenkins is well placed to give a detailed and insightful narrative of the whole movement (if that is the right word), and the level of detail is astonishing. He sweeps from the early 1970s, when the UK was struggling politically and economically, through to the accession of Gordon Brown to power – though the book came out before the current financial crisis. His amusing and persuasive argument is that the dominant political philosophy in this country is unbroken from Thatcher to Brown – hence the title and the cover picture of Thatcher walking along, with eager pupils – Major, Blair and Brown – scurrying after.

He explains vividly the origins of Thatcher’s political views, giving due weight to other key figures, such as Geoffrey Howe, Nigel Lawson and Keith Joseph. Surprisingly he portrays Thatcher herself as a timid and reluctant ‘Thatcherite’ up to her second election victory in 1983. Quite rightly, he points out the many gaps between her stirring, stern rhetoric and what she actually did.

The first revolution that Jenkins identifies is the traditionally understood drive to change the UK fundamentally by privatisation, increasing entrepreneurial incentives, reducing the overweening power of the unions and so forth. Many interesting details and trenchant opinions are embedded in this account, many critical. He points out the self-serving untruths in Thatcher’s autobiography along the way – such as her later assertion that she always believed in a strong defence policy, whereas the truth is that her government had plans for swingeing cuts in defence just before the Falklands war (including selling one of our aircraft carriers to Argentina!).

The second revolution he identifies is far less positive – the massive centralisation of power and increase in bureaucracy that she initiated. Here her central contradiction becomes starkly clear: she believed in revolutionising the state by giving power back to individuals, but because she thought so many organs of government were incompetent and tainted with socialism – especially local government – she then proceeded to gather more power into her hands in order to effect the changes she wanted to see. She could not let go and be true to her theoretical beliefs. She felt she was the only one who saw things correctly, and knew how to change them.

Jenkins’ detailed account of how power was centralised in the Treasury and the number 10 cabinet office – something that went into overdrive under John Major – provides many facts and views of which I had not been fully aware. The argument of continuity of policy under the Labour party government is convincing. The drive for more central control then led to a myriad of ‘targets’ and endless reforms. The increasing waste and incompetence of central government, especially under Gordon Brown’s treasury and John Prescott’s various roles, are bitterly savaged.

By the end of the book, we have a hideously compelling picture of the modern ‘Leviathan’ which hunkers over our lives today, with a bloated public sector, gross waste of resources, infantile targets, endless inspections/ audits/reviews and higher taxes. Jenkins then brings out his proposal for a third revolution, which is to devolve more power to local government. He makes useful comparisons with the structures of local power in many of our European neighbours. He is generally approving of Scottish and Welsh devolution, and sees great potential in the very local structure of civic involvement, down to parishes and town councils. He likes the idea of city Mayors. It is a call to the revival of local democracy and civic pride.

John Vernon

'The logic of life' by Tim Harford

This is one of that genre of books that makes Economics popular and ‘sexy’. He works for the Financial Times and has presented BBC television series, and so clearly has the communication skills. He broadly succeeds in his aim of explaining many social and even historical oddities in terms of underlying economic logic. He his persuasive, and the economic logic is persuasive.

It is not revolutionary – many of the things he explains are well known (at least to me), but he explains them exceptionally well, providing many fresh insights and facts. He expounds rational behaviour coming up with less than optimal results, with vivid and gritty examples. He demonstrates how (micro-)economics has become much more practical and science-based in recent years, explaining academic work in easy to understand ways. The economics profession has finally embraced the need to meet scientific standards of experimental testing. The ingenious ways in which they achieve this are worth learning about.

At business school, I found Mico-economics interesting and explanative, but Macro-economics hopelessly boring and of little practical use. Macro-economics tries to explain the workings of an endlessly complex mechanism with over-simplified models, and cannot be subjected to scientific tests. I used to assert that Economics cannot be graced with the name of a science, but certainly some micro-economists have achieved scientific status – as well as becoming popular.

I enjoyed the book and would include it in a list of recommended books on economics.

John Vernon

'Collapse', by Jared Diamond

‘Collapse’ is sub-titled ‘How societies choose to fail or survive’. This reflects his ultimate message, where he gives an optimistic message about how society can save itself from a global collapse, tipped over by the multiple environmental catastrophes that accelerate abound us. It is also a wake-up call: our human society can survive only if it perceives the threats and changes its actions. If we go on as we are, however, our society will collapse, possibly quite soon and possibly catastrophically.

It is a chunky book, running to 560 pages and crammed with impressive detail. The author is a polymath, having had three distinct careers as a physiologist, a zoologlist and an environmental historian. Apparently he is learning his twelfth language. So evidently clever and wide-ranging his he that one reviewer has amusingly commented “ ‘Jared Diamond’ is suspected of actually being the pseudonym for a committee of experts.” So we are in good hands.

Diamond looks are case studies of where societies have failed in the past, drawing on all historical, archaeological and ecological sources. These are Easter Island, Pitcairn Island, Henderson Island, Anasazi native Americans, the Mayan civilizations and the Greenland Viking settlements. These were clearly catastrophes and left nothing or only a fragment of its population behind, with their artefacts and buildings for scientists to dig up. The causes are various and the individual stories different, but common threads are identified in a systematic and wholly convincing way. The common thread can be summarised as environmental degradation (caused or speeded up by human activity), and the failure of people to adapt to the changes or to prevent them.

These stories are somewhat comforting, like what the Japanese call ‘a fire on the other side of the river’. We can shake our head at the wrong-headedness and the limited technology they had, assuming that we are above and beyond all that. They are also relatively small and exotic stories. However, Diamond shows how they did the best in the circumstances, within their mind-set. The limitations of their cultural mind-set are especially keenly felt in the case of the Norse Vikings eking out and increasingly desperate existence in two settlements in Western Greenland. While they died out, starving to death in poignant, isolated circumstances, the native Inuit were going about their business around them with success, surviving the colder climate with superior technology (e.g. kayaks) and adaptability.

Maybe to cheer us up, the author throws in a few examples of historical success, including the maintenance of their environment by the Papua New Guineans and the reforestation of Japan in the Tokugawa era. This is only one chapter, but enlightening.

Then he moves on to describe modern societies which have/are collapsed/collapsing. His case studies are Rwanda, Haiti, China and Australia. The genocide in Rwanda is clearly linked to the extreme overpopulation of this land and the extreme tensions arising from the need to have enough resources to survive. Haiti is just about the world’s worst basket-case (maybe Somalia runs it close), and its desperately poor society is described as surviving on the edge, limping along with international aid. More than 95% of the land has been deforested and the soil is degrading rapidly with every rainstorm and hurricane.

China is necessarily described in broad brush terms, but the scale and variety of the environmental problems there are deeply depressing: climate change, sandstorms, desertification, soil erosion, salinisation, water shortages, floods, sediment discharge, acid rain, smog, chemical pollution of water, air and soil, wetland destruction, over-fishing, loss of native species, infestation by alien species, importation of garbage and so forth.

Australia? Yes, he points out that Australia is the first world country with the most severe environmental degradation. Nearly all the problems listed for China are present in Australia, if not proportionally worse. Australia is one of the driest countries in the world, with some of the least robust soils. The problems have been exacerbated by government policies over the decades, for instance requiring leasehold farmers to clear native vegetation as a condition of their lease. As it happens, my National Geographic magazine for this month also had an extensive article on the drying and salinisation of the Murray/Darling basin, so Diamond’s assertions are powerfully corroborated.

Diamond describes the country’s renewable resources as being ‘mined’ – i.e. extracted at such a fast rate that they will never recover to their former level. Most stunning of all, the author cites an environmentalist’s estimate that Australia can only sustain a long-term population of 8 million people. That puts paid to some politicians’ dreams of a 50 million population, and, given that the present population is 20 million, one can envisage some catastrophic and pitiful shrinkage of the number of people left alive.

He by no means predicts an immediate collapse, and he is keen to demonstrate that policies and attitudes are already changing. However he does not need to spell it out – having just read about the complete deforestation of Easter Island, the reader can make the obvious connections, but on a much larger scale.

John Vernon

'The Consolations of philosophy' by Alain de Botton

I enjoy de Botton’s books for their breadth of reading and thinking, in which he applies philosophy to everyday life. I have also read his ‘Status anxiety’, which is somewhat more original.

This book is a commentary and summary of the thoughts of six great philosophers, with a pleasantly quirky individualism from the author intruding. In addition to giving us the essence of their philosophies, he outlines what is known of their lives. The heavy sprinkling of illustrations is entertaining, and relevant to the text. The six are:
Socrates - Consolation for unpopularity
Epicurus - Consolation for not having enough money
Seneca - Consolation for frustration
Montaigne - Consolation for inadequacy
Schopenhauer - Consolation for a broken heart
Nietzsche - Consolation for difficulties

This is not high-falutin’ exegesis of difficult philosophy, but neither it is condescending or simplistic. The author strikes the right note (to my mind), with humour and sagacity. If you want a quick “bluffers guide” to these philosophers, I would recommend this book. De Botton himself has clearly done a deal of research to write these essays. He quotes extensively from the works, annotating the source of every single quotation from an astonishing wide range of books. He has done a lot of digesting for us. He has also travelled to several relevant sites, such as Montaigne’s famous circular library.

I learned much from this book. For instance, I knew virtually nothing of Schopenhauer, but now I can place him in the history of thought. I read some Nietzsche at university, but could not grasp the overall point of what he was trying to say – now I think I have grasped the theme. It also inspired me to pick up another book which I have had on my shelves for 30 years – a Penguin edition selection of Montaigne’s essays. He is probably the most worthwhile of this six to pursue further.

John Vernon

'Nemesis' by Max Hastings

This is a history book about the 1944-45 defeat of Japan. It is a pair with his book about the end of the war in the European theatre called ‘Armageddon’, which I am now keen to read.

It is a chunky book, exhaustively researched, chock full of personal anecdotes from diaries, letters and interviews. This makes the book vivid, and different from a conventional academic account.

Hastings is a veritable Virgil, leading us through the hell of those two years. The awfulness of the deeds done on both sides are not shunned, and this gives the book a grim fascination. How much worse can it get?

His choice of how much space to devote to each episode is slightly quirky, yet seems right. For instance, he deals with the events of dropping the two atomic bombs in only a few paragraphs, and includes no personal accounts of those episodes. However, he devotes many pages to discussing the decision-making (or lack of) that went on prior to dropping these new weapons. He exhaustively rehearses all the pro and con arguments about using the atom bombs, and gives his own forthright opinion – basically, necessary. Also he had previously spent many pages describing in detail the fire-bombing of Japanese cities that preceded (and followed) the atom bombs, from both American and Japanese points of view. The horror of any kind of mass bombing is fully depicted by several Japanese accounts from Tokyo.

It is very informative, and I learned much: the detail of the Burma campaign, the detail of the Leyte campaign, the actions of the Chinese armies and politicians, the obstructiveness and selfishness of Australian port workers, the totally ineffectual role of the Royal Navy in assisting the Americans in the Pacific, the horrible actions of the Japanese on the Philippines the final Russian invasion of Manchuria and so forth.

Hastings particularly has it in for General MacArthur. He assassinates his character, only saying at the end that he redeemed himself by his rule of Japan after the war. Hastings describes his massive ego, self-promotion and frequent military mistakes. He clearly thinks MacArthur was a liability in war and cost many lives, not just American but also Philippine.

Hastings brings moral judgement to every episode, and sees a futility in most of the military events. He judges the most effective part of winning the war to have been the submarine service sinking Japanese ships and blockading the home islands.

John Vernon

'Silence' ('Chinmoku') by Shusaku Endo

This is a Japanese novel, translated by William Johnston, written by a famous writer, who was baptised into the Catholic religion. Endo has been aptly described as a Japanese Graham Greene.

The book is about the futile efforts of Portuguese missionaries to sustain the Christian communities in Japan after the official policy of suppression of Christianity was in full swing. It follows the personal experience of one particular priest and his personal suffering and the suffering he inadvertently causes to those to whom he ministers. He and they are tortured and urged to apostatise. Gruesome tortures are described in detail.

The book is fascinating and important for several reasons. It illuminates the mixing and clash of cultures, which was an immense chasm of difference in the 16th Century between feudal, isolationist Japan and the expansionist, energetic West. The macro historical picture explains events in terms of winning trade routes, wealth and influence. However Endo concentrates on the amazing personal bravery and sacrifices made my individual priests. In the end the protagonist has no personal possessions, wearing lice-ridden peasant clothes and eating whatever he was given.

The ‘silence’ referenced in the title is very profound. The priest prays to God and hopes for some tangible improvement in the lives of his flock, but there is no response from God. There is a complete silence, which undermines the faith and sanity of the priest. God seems completely indifferent, even harsh and absurd. (The book was published in 1966 in the midst of the Western theatre’s obsession with absurd drama, of which he was well aware). Like Graham Greene’s priest in ‘The power and the glory’, the priest is admirable, but their efforts appear ultimately futile. Greene ekes out a little salvation, but Endo chooses a sad, tragic, deflating ending with no salvation.

John Vernon

Sunday, 31 January 2010

'Global warming', by Mark Maslin

This pocket-sized book is from the extensive series of ‘very short introductions’ by Oxford University Press. It was very useful to read on trains. It is a solid reference book, with plenty of guides to further reading and study. It was perfect for my purpose – to become an informed amateur on the subject.

It explains the science and the politics of the science very fluently. It is calm and objective, but firmly putting down doubts and canards about whether global warming is actually happening and whether or not humans are a prime cause of the current phase of warming. The conclusions are clear, but still cast in an admirable Popperian humility and willingness to go on searching for truth and facing difficult facts.

Buried in it are some appallingly depressing facts. For instance, the worst case scenario of the IPCC for carbon dioxide emissions in the 21st Century is already being exceeded by a large margin and accelerating. The consensus modelled predictions for consequent temperature rise in by 2100 are around 6 degrees. The impacts of this scenario in terms of weather patterns, sea level, ocean acidity, fresh water scarcity, crop yields, disease, biodiversity and human population are so bad that the author simply writes ‘Don’t go there’ – having described the probable outcomes of lower temperature changes.

He tries to inject a positive note at the end by describing solutions and his personal vision of a new urban environment. But, frankly, these ideas seem like pissing in the wind, compared with the possible changes to our sustaining environment soberly examined in the book.

John Vernon

'Ghost', by Robert Harris

This a classic ‘airport novel’ – one you can pick up on impulse and read quickly. It certainly draws you in. Having read all Harris’s previous novels, I found this an ‘outlier’, less erudite and researched than the others, but still distinctively marked with his style of writing and plotting.

I read this quickly, compulsively turning the pages, mainly as I lay on a futon on the floor in Japan, suffering from jet lag. A post airport novel!

This book is boldly modelled on Tony Blair and his wife, and is very contemporary. It was obviously a money-making distraction from his promise to write more books about Cicero (see earlier review on ‘Imperium’). It is a great story, and I recommend it. However I sadly sense Harris being nudged by commercial realities, rather than following where his heart lies in historical fiction. (Ironically, after only a few years, this book may plausibly be classified as historical fiction!) Perhaps that is why he includes some acid portraits of publishers and book agents.

John Vernon

'Red Die - A Dorset Mystery', by Roger Norman

This is another beautifully produced book by The Sundial Press, and their first by a living author. It still fits their West Country theme, the action of the novel being tightly focused around the Dorset locality of Cerne Abbas, Minterne, Middlemarsh, Duntish and Buckland. The book is a hymn of love to the Dorset countryside, and imbues it with mystery and magic. There are a few imaginary locations mixed in with the real.

The story is set during the first world war, centred around a deserting soldier, Jack Yeoman, who has escaped from the horrors and madness of the trenches to his home base in Dorset. The story draws in a number of vividly drawn characters, who react to Jack’s situation and views in different ways. For me the highlight of the book is when most of them are drawn together in the homely warmth of the ‘Duntish Rings’ tavern for the night. They have sharp differences of opinion, but some of them are prepared to change their minds. Different aspects of English society are delineated (or rather a rural English society that has now passed).

The book has a rich tapestry of themes, touching on abstract ideas such as fate, chance, class, duty, conscience, magic, evil and loyalty. It also has concrete sensuous themes such as herbal potions, food, rain, mud, horses and so on. These intertwine physical and spiritual dimensions that are very Powysian in ethos. I had a strong feeling that the description of Louis Yeoman’s book-lined cottage was a direct depiction of the later life of John Cowper Powys.

The ‘Red die’ of the title is a reference to one of two dice that Jack carries with him to help him make decisions. Do the dice have magic powers? Do they have a Philip Pullmanesque ability to foretell and guide human actions? These issues are discussed at several points, but rightly not concluded. For me the correct attitude is summed up by the phrase in the book “Expect everything; predict nothing” – I hope I quoted that correctly.

Do not look for the mystery to be resolved. I found the end to be hurried and unsatisfactory (like ‘A Mill on the Floss’). Obscurely I felt the role of the mysterious ‘priest’ had not been fully thought through or integrated. I think the book could have benefited from greater length and exposition. I could not finally grasp the author’s intention in writing the book, and was left baffled by the last chapter.

John Vernon

Saturday, 30 January 2010

'Irrationality', by Stuart Sutherland

This book was given to me as a birthday present by a friend (Peter Hart). It seemed quite apposite amidst the collapse of the world’s financial system in October. It is written by a Professor of psychology, and so has solid academic background, but it is written in an easy non-specialist style.

He shows us through over 200 page of densely packed argument how often we humans fall short of rational behaviour and decision-making. It is quite sobering. In the end one realises that the ideal of pure rational thinking occupies a very small portion of our thought. This has profound consequences, since disciplines such as Economics are built on the premise of rational behaviour. We also tend to think of ourselves as rational, and this book proves that we often are not. We tend to see the foibles of others more readily than our own, but the mirror held up by this book should make us humble. Try doing the many tests he gives in the book to show your own failures of rational thinking.

Sutherland sets a very strict high bar for rational thinking. Failures to evaluate mathematical and probabilistic calculations are failures of rational thinking. He is correct. You can’t argue against it. But he seems to be defining rationality in a daunting way. Sometimes I find I can’t fully agree with his harsh logic, since he does not always take into account the human dimension, where many of our decisions are performed in non-laboratory situations.

The implications are vitally important. He shows how doctors, researchers, generals, civil servants, politicians and businessmen make less than optimal decisions. These have disastrous consequences on companies, society and even human life. The teaching of rational thinking should be a higher priority in our education system.

A thought-provoking book and one I intend to re-read. However my main complaint about the book is its severe essay style. It should be broken up with sub-headings for easier reference. Also the answers should be physically removed from the questions – say on to the next page. Often he gives the answer in the very next sentence, within the same paragraph. So the eye cannot dwell on the question, and can easily slip down to the answer, preventing one from thinking through the problem at leisure.

'Impossible loves', by Don Cupitt

This is a slim, rich volume by the influential religious writer and philosopher, Don Cupitt. ‘Theologian’ would be the wrong word, since he does not believe in ‘God’. He is a lapsed Christian, yet remains obsessed with many of the traditional Christian concerns, as he himself ruefully admits. This book is mainly about the ‘impossible loves’ which dominate our human lives, such as love for the Dead and love for a God we no longer believe in. He is very harsh on himself and brutally frank with us, pointing out how illogical and pointless are many of these loves, but he shows himself and us that they are necessary and fundamental to our make up.

He sets himself a big target: “attempting a re-invention of religious thought as such”. He makes some startling declarations, such as “It has become obvious that not one of the major religious traditions can survive in its present form”. This is the voice of a Cambridge academic, and is hardly a statement that would win any agreement from a US Evangelical or a Saudi Wahhabist cleric!

Cupitt’s brutal honesty, if one can agree with it, leaves life stripped down to a very stark and almost nihilistic world view. He makes one face the illogicalities and contradictions in many of our moral and ethical views in a world without God. He points out how we retreat into an ‘entertainment culture’ fostered by TV and other modern media, which is the true opium of the modern masses. This makes one realise how easy it is to be sucked into the entertainments of modern life that fill in our empty lives, filling up time and distracting us from the difficult religious and social problems that crowd around us.

But Cupitt completely fails to build any alternative system. He strips away our illusions, and only in the last few pages attempts to build an alternative. I wondered what this could be, given the few pages left in the book. In the end, I think he just gives up. I would expect several hundred pages of his finest writing and thoughts, building up a system of a ‘religion’ that is “a way of seeking to become reconciled to, and at ease with, life in general and one’s own life in particular”. Instead we are left with a few notes and doodles, encapsulated into simple and simplistic precepts.

I think the book proves that ‘religion’ without a ‘God’ is a nonsense.

'The land of England', by Dorothy Hartley

This is a detailed description of English Country life and customs ‘through the ages’ – but concentrating on the civilization that emerged in the late Anglo-Saxon period up to what was finally destroyed by the industrial and agricultural revolutions of the 19th and 20th Centuries. The author wrote many books on this theme, and had an unrivalled knowledge of country life. She was best known for her classic and comprehensive book ‘Food in England’. Her knowledge is truly miraculous – you would think she could only know what she knew by living in a Medieval village all her life!

I love this book – for the depth of the knowledge Ms Harley displays, for the many wonderful drawings she did herself and above all for the sheer quality of her writing. She writes with passion, vividness and clarity. I found this on my father’s bookshelf and he kindly gave it to me.

Here are a few snippets of the hundreds of things she describes: types of grass in the pasture, winter fodder for cattle and sheep, making hedges and fences, ploughing methods, selecting and protecting seeds, cattle rearing, making cream, butter and cheese, sheep dogs, shepherd crooks, shepherd’s music, weeding, fertilising, sowing, harvesting, threshing, shearing, measuring wool, weaving, dyeing, lanolin, tallow, scythes, haystacks, making ropes, bee keeping, milling, bread-making, beer-making, basket-making, timber cutting, wood turning, charcoal making, thatching, swine keeping, slaughtering, droving, saddlery, smithy work, leather tanning, window-making, farmer’s feast days, coins, markets, trade, bread-making, pickling, cooking, medicines, herbs, candles and torches.

As a modern, urban man, I realise my almost total ignorance in how to look after myself and my environment. These peasants had so much knowledge and practical ability, passed down from generation to generation, in self-sufficient village units. They were generalists, and yet better at any of the single activities listed above than I am. Could I make a willow basket? Could I kill a pig and use every part of it productively? It makes one humble and conscious how totally dependent we have become on the complex industrial society in which we live.

I have to admire the skill and mastery of basic technology that our ancestors have – knowledge that we have almost completely lost, due to the fundamental break from the land caused by the industrial revolution. It overthrows ideas of progress and any idea that we are superior to our ancestors. It also reminds us that the basic cloth of history was woven by ordinary men and women, who were tough, resourceful and self-reliant. Ms Hartley puts us fleetingly back in touch with that past, reminding us of the ultimate importance of the land for the survival of all of us.

The knowledge that these peasant societies carried was, in some ways, superior to the ‘scientific’ knowledge of our modern society. Co-incidentally to writing this review, I have been reading about environmental degradation caused recently by farming and logging practices: the salinisation of soils, the poisoning of rivers by artificial fertilizer run-off, the erosion of land and polluting of rivers caused by clear logging, the increased fuel-load per acreage caused by over-zealous fire-fighting policies and so forth. The scale of these environmental disasters is threatening our ability to feed ourselves. Of course we cannot go back to Medieval practices wholesale – but there must be lessons to learn.

Friday, 29 January 2010

'Unclay', by Theodore Powys

This is probably the major novel of T.F. Powys, one of the talented family of Powys brothers, who were all writers, but it is not widely known. Theodore can simplistically be characterised as the gloomy hermit in the family, contrasting with the joie-de-vivre evident in Llewellyn Powys. His world is very religious, without appearing to believe in any conventional Christian theology. His world is thoroughly rural – the author hid himself in the Dorset countryside, and became less and less willing to meet people, as he became older.

This book is set in a rural village, drawing deeply on East Chaldon, where he lived for many years. This creates a hermetically sealed world, where Powys can develop an intense and allegorical ethos. It is a world with traditional, even feudal, relationships, laced with extraordinary suppressed violence and strange sexual relationships. This is by no means a cosy English village. Violence breaks through in the brutal beating of a dog, in what amounts to a domestic rape scene.

However – and this is hard to explain – it is also a deeply comic novel. Powys comes alive in writing about the innocent clergyman Mr Hayhoe and the local squire Lord Bullman, as well as the villagers with their strange obsessions – like the woman who thinks she is a camel and the man who thinks nut trees will defend him from love. The main character of the book is Death himself – John Death, dressed in smart clothes and frequently carrying a scythe, who gets the job as the local gravedigger! Death is a direct allegorical character, and it is daring of an author to write so directly, to give his positive message that death is a release from the pains of life.

The clergyman Mr Hayhoe meets Mr Death in a country lane scratching his head looking for something he has lost. Ludicrously, Mr Hayhoe wonders if he is an insurance agent, but he flashes darkness from his eyes and causes a “curious feeling of cold dread”. Mr Death has lost a vital parchment which God has given him with orders to kill two people in the village – but Powys uses the curious and evocative word “unclay” for his task of relieving people from the sad pains and burdens of life and love.

Mr Death decides to stay in the village for a while and the book is built around his time there, until the climactic ending. After the energy of being introduced to the many quirky characters of the village, and the boldness of this narrative of Death, as well as the stimulation from Powys’s direct, bald yet florid writing style, I confess that the book sagged in the middle for me. There is no strong central story to drive forward the reader, and I found the book meandered too much and got stuck in too much aphoristic statement making. It took me many weeks to read through this book, and I felt reluctant to pick it up again at times, feeling it was too heavy and that I was possibly too stupid to understand the book’s purpose. However I was eventually rewarded, when the pace speeded up again and the high comic spirit returned to create a great ending to the book.

One of the characters of the book is the authorial voice. This voice makes many comments and statements that take one aback, or seem to hover between madness and profundity, or between simple beauty and banality. These aphoristic comments are not entertaining like Oscar Wilde, but have a heavy, individualistic, pessimistic tone. I clearly detected Theodore Powys’ character directly in this authorial voice.

In one short section in chapter 49 the author suddenly and touchingly uses the personal possessive: “Was it a mere chance that a yellow leaf, driven before the wind, lifted up and blown here and there along the lanes, until at last a wilder gust, or a swirl of eddies, carried the leaf into my room and placed it upon the paper beside my pen? Has the leaf a known purpose? Does it come to ease me of my care, or has it come to say that it loves me? What is it that takes a man, as well as a leaf, out of his path, and bids him follow a road that he has not intended to travel?”

This unintended path leads us to one of the climactic scenes of the book: Dodder churchyard, with Death about to strike a naked girl with his scythe. Two men happen to take a walk to the churchyard and come upon the scene just in time. Death desists saying “Love is as strong as death, and it is not given to me now to dispute a man’s right to a mortal girl. My time will come. He, under Whom I have my dominion and my power, is a dark star. Who can escape Him? I thought to have enjoyed Susie and to have forsaken for ever the hard task that has been laid upon me, and I almost attained to that freedom.”

It is hard to wring a consistent metaphysic from Powys’s utterances. But you realise he is not being deep and serious, but actually deeply and darkly comic. This is illustrated a few paragraphs down when Death talks about literature. Of all the books in English literature to choose from, he cites ‘The Watsons’ (by Jane Austen), which is a quirky Powysian choice, the reading of which “can give a greater happiness than a whole night with a Helen or Lais”. I think Powys is joking with us, in an eccentric, sardonic fashion. My conviction that he is tongue-in-cheek in the midst of this dramatic churchyard scene is confirmed by another strange comment of death’s, referring to God: “If only my Master had been educated at Benet College in Cambridge instead of in Palestine, perhaps He might have thought a little differently about prose writers. But as it is, He always preferred a short story to a novel, viewing a parable and a short story as the same thing.”

So my two messages about this difficult book are 1) persist to the end, if you have the courage to start reading it, and 2) view it as a comic novel through and through, if you want to understand the author’s purpose in writing it.