Reading time…

March 23, 2020

I’m not ill. And being officially classed as ‘elderly’ we are self-isolating at the moment. When I’m ill, I have lots of time on my hands, and this means lots of reading time. Isolation is also offering a lot of reading time, so I have been taking stock of what will be occupying my eyeballs over the coming months.

There’s comfort-reading: revisiting the familiar old favourites for the nth time – and why not? Jane Austen never pales, so I feel a Mansfield Park coming on. And detective fiction too: let’s re-read all of Sherlock Holmes, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie too. It’s easy to hoover the stuff up, and comforting in times of stress.

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There’s a different kind of re-reading which is currently calling to me, a re-visiting of books I’ve wanted to go back to for a while, and for various reasons. Last year was a great year for new fiction for me, and having devoured the new Margaret Atwood and Philip Pullman quite quickly, it really is time for a more thoughtful and considered read of The Testaments and The Secret Commonwealth, without the lure of plot-line urging me on. Such writers deserve reflection.

I’ve wanted to re-read Umberto Eco’s Baudolino again, and I now have a copy of it in English, so I can see how good it is compared with the French version I have, bought because it appeared a full year before the English one. Addicts can’t wait that long. Incidentally, did you know that there are apparently some differences between the English and French versions of The Name of the Rose? I have been wondering if life is too short to try and discover what they are…

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I have also taken down Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March from the shelf again. It is truly a wonderful book, with an ending so powerful I am regularly drawn to re-read the book just for the experience of that ending. And I have strong memories of another, utterly different novel which I have also added to the re-read pile, Neal Stephenson’s doorstop Cryptonomicon, all about ciphers and code-breaking.

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Finally, there are the treats which I’ve not read yet, of which I have great hopes and high expectations. There are a couple of history books, Christopher Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World, and Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World. And the doorstopper to beat them all – The House on the Embankment, by Yuri Slezkine, a tale of life in the upper echelons of Moscow society in Soviet times, that comes in at a shade under 1100 pages. And, having been shocked by the power of Vassily Grossman’s newly published Stalingrad last summer, I was intrigued to find a novel on the same subject but from German perspective, Heinrich Gerlach’s Breakout at Stalingrad.

And I must overlook travel writers, of course, so I hope to reread the four volumes of the travels of the great Ibn Battutah, who travelled longer and further than Marco Polo in mediaeval times.

I shall, of course, report on my reading during isolation. And do not be surprised if read completely different books…


Daniel Defoe: A Journal of the Plague Year

March 19, 2020

41kh7MYOOaL._AC_UY218_ML3_    Defoe was born in 1660; the Plague Year was 1665, so this purported account is clearly a very clever fabrication by a master journalist who has some claim to being the first real English novelist.

From the outset his account is presented as a ‘journal’ – so a truthful account by someone who was there and observed and lived though those times; verisimilitude is assumed, and a wealth of local details and knowledge of London establishes the tone of a historical account. There are dates, street-names, figures from the contemporary Bills of Mortality, and stories presented as truthful because acquired from others who were also there at the time.

The scene is established with general historical details in the opening section, after which the narrator introduces himself and his work, and insinuates himself into the historical narrative. It’s clear that Defoe’s is a clever construction, as there is much here that would be commonly available and accurate information, into which he can weave various ‘fictional’ elements that obviously may have some basis in truth… “as I was informed” is a frequently used tag in this narrative.

There are tales of horror and shocking behaviour as well as tales of selflessness and even heroism on the part of some: here is Defoe the journalist with an eighteenth-century eye for good copy.

There are a number of lengthy digressions from the factual narrative, which give more depth and colour but must either be completely fictional, or elaborations based on tales which circulated at the time. It’s interesting to see the early attempts at presentation of dialogue in these early days of the novel: it’s actually set out as if it were a drama script.

Re-reading (after over 30 years) at this particular moment, I was obviously going to notice comparisons with our own day, and these leapt off the page from the beginning: the fake news and concealment of the situation when it began – as seems initially to have been what happened in Wuhan in China – and the rich running away from danger, with rip-off merchants and rogues homing in for a quick buck wherever opportunity offered itself. Defoe details the massive economic consequences to London (and England) of the plague outbreak, something that we are equally focused on at the present. And people can be ill and contagious without exhibiting symptoms: contagion is passed on by the apparently healthy. In the seventeenth century, it was not known that fleas were the plague vector, although there are some hints at the concept of bugs or bacteria when theories about the ‘miasma’ or corrupt air are outlined…

It’s a difficult read, because Defoe is working his way to a narrative style which was only fully to flower much later in the eighteenth century: the overall feel of the work is rambling, disorganised and repetitive: there is no real sense of structure, and there are no chapter divisions. But the main downside for the contemporary reader is the almost complete lack of variation in tone, which leaves the reader feeling tired, and also inclined to skip over tedious sections of narrative: there is nothing to ‘grip’ in the sense of plot development. The lengthy section devoted to the three men of Wapping and their travels about the outer London area are probably the most interesting and closest to what a twenty-first century reader expects from a narrative.


Plague in literature

March 17, 2020

Way back in the seventies, I vaguely recall reading a novel called The Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton, a competently-written thriller among lots of other similarly well-written ones of the time, which depicted humanity threatened by a deadly virus. I remember nothing else about it, and it has vanished as so many other best-sellers do over time.

51wnFk+aO6L._AC_UY218_ML3_    As a student I also remember reading a rather better novel by Albert CamusLa Peste, or The Plague. Set in Oran, in the then French colony of Algeria, in the 1940s during an outbreak of the plague, it focused on the life and work of a doctor in the beleaguered city, and the psychology and behaviour of a population subjected to such a threat. Humans do not generally come out well in those circumstances; Rieux does his human best.

41kh7MYOOaL._AC_UY218_ML3_    I can remember teaching Daniel Defoe’s novel (note that, novel) A Journal of the Plague Year, which recalls the dreaded year 1665 in London. Again, people behave very badly, very selfishly, and irrationally in the circumstances; in those days there was almost no knowledge of how disease originated or spread, so the effects of the outbreak – almost an annual occurrence but far more devastating in that particular year are particularly horrible.

Defoe’s book is interesting on a number of counts. It is a work of fiction, written by a man who was only a small child in the actual year of the plague outbreak, yet it is presented as a diary account by someone who lived through the events of that year in London, with all sorts of details to emphasise its verisimilitude. Defoe was a journalist by profession, and so knew how to use and present his source material to great effect, and yet this book also has a claim to be one of the very first novels written in the English language.

51w+CUWfm2L._AC_UY218_ML3_    And finally, a novel with which I’m a little more familiar, from having read or listened to the audiobook rather more recently, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, set in England in the 21st century, when the world is devastated by an illness which clears the planet of its human inhabitants. Here is another novel with disease – or rather, the effects of disease – at its centre, but in the romantic vein in which she writes, Shelley is actually far more interested in the picture of a gradually emptying land and its exploration and traversing by a shrinking band of the nation’s elite. It’s as limited a work of science fiction as is her more famous Frankenstein in terms of detailed imagination of the future (although her vision of England as a republic has a certain charm), but absolutely marvellous in the way it can draw the reader into the solipsistic vein of imagining her/himself as the sole survivor of the species with the entire world as their oyster…

Apocalyptic literature is a genre mainly from the second half of the twentieth century onwards, although writers have tended to imagine humanity wiping itself out through warfare rather than being taken unawares by a disease it cannot cure or master.

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I’m wondering whether to revisit Camus or Defoe at the moment…have gone with Defoe.


Tibor Fischer: Under the Frog

March 13, 2020

51WPGWJEK9L._AC_UY218_ML3_    I’m not sure what made me return to this novel again – the fourth reading in thirty years – but it may have been part of my urge to clear out some books. It was Fischer’s first novel, set in post-war Hungary, in communist times. The author’s roots are Hungarian, so he’s obviously very familiar with places and history.

There was a lengthy phase in my reading, before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Eastern Europe’s attempts at socialism, when I read very widely in the literature of that region, in an attempt fully to understand the complexities, bizarreness and suffering of daily life there. Fiction set in those places and times always had a completely different premise from anything written in the West: Brechtian alienation sets in from the first page. You are in a world where freedom of movement is curtailed, there are shortages of all kinds of basic necessities, you need to be careful to whom you talk and what you say to them, and truth is in short supply…

Fischer, born and raised in England and writing in the early ‘90s, did not have to be careful, unlike those who wrote earlier and from behind the Iron Curtain. His characters living in the late 1940s and early 1950s – peak Stalinism – are therefore quite openly mocking of the system and its intentions among themselves. Other writers had to be much more cautious and coded.

It’s a black comedy based around the members of a young men’s basketball team. Nominally they have jobs but aren’t expected to actually work, so their lives centre around beating the system, chasing females, training and playing the game. The attitudes of the characters, and their antics, remind me a good deal of the persona of Danny Smiricky adopted by Josef Skvorecky in a number of his novels: it’s largely about how to be human, and have a decent life and some fun under totalitarianism…

There are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments in the novel, and I’d forgotten just how inventive Eastern European languages are in their obscenities and profanities, and general ability to abuse. If pushed, I’d be clear it’s a boys’ book, especially in terms of how the sexual escapades are viewed and presented, but that’s not the reason I like such novels: it is the local colour, the presentation of life in such a weird and surreal universe that hooks me. Having visited Eastern Europe a number of times in that era, everything rings true.

Although it’s a very funny novel, there are many sad and poignant moments of realisation about the meaning of life and what it presents you with, as well as the choices you have to make. The lightness of the novel disappears as we reach the key year of 1956 and the Hungarian uprising against the Stalinist regime. The action is far darker and more serious, tragic at times, although Fischer still works in that edgy and black Eastern European humour that I’m quite familiar with myself. I thought I’d re-read and part with this novel, but it was far better than I remembered it, and I think it will be staying on my shelves.


Sophy Roberts: The Lost Pianos of Siberia

February 29, 2020

81onguNJfRL._AC_UY218_ML3_    I don’t often get to the end of a book and find myself thinking, “What a lovely book!” But with this one, I did. And I’m quite particular in my choice of travel-writing nowadays, and tend to avoid ‘easy’ travel; you can’t call Siberia ‘easy’.

Sophy Roberts’ tale is a bizarre one, of tracking musical history, and more specifically pianos, in Siberia. So weird that the Russian authorities at times think she’s either a little cracked, or else using her quest as cover for something else – she could be a spy. I found the very idea that a piano could survive a nineteenth century journey to Siberia astonishing in itself (Roberts travels to places where there are still no roads today), before even coming to consider how it would fare long-term in the climate, with its extremes of temperature and humidity. And there was clearly a great demand for culture and music among the thousands of people exiled there, for various crimes under the Tsars.

What comes across most powerfully in the book is her developing love for the place and its people: she travels widely, meets a great variety of Siberians, not all of them musical, and is drawn in by the size and the diversity of the region, its vastness and its bleakness. I imagine – never having been there myself – that this must happen to most Westerners who travel there. Her fascination matches mine, and her atmospheric language creates vivid pictures; she describes very sensitively the sadnesses of so many of the people she met there, and who shared their stories with her.

In the end, what unifies the book is her rambling quest for a suitable piano for a gifted Mongolian pianist: it’s a cross between a detective story and a history of Russia and Siberia with a focus on the musical and cultural side of things, a bizarre but quite gripping idea, which eventually reaches a successful outcome.

Given my fussiness, I must mention that the book is very well-produced and illustrated, and supplied with helpful maps, a rarity nowadays, but which allowed me to dig out my well-worn Road Atlas of the USSR, and my large atlas of the Soviet Union in order to track her travels more closely. The bibliography is also extremely helpful. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I asked for this book as a birthday present, but I’m really glad I did.


Zoran Nikolic: The Atlas of Unusual Borders

February 17, 2020

71fgJcLE8kL._AC_UY218_ML3_    Some of my regular readers will already know of my fascination with maps and atlases; if you don’t then a quick search of the blog will convince you. Here is an at the same time fascinating and utterly bonkers selection of weird borders between nations, their origins (when known) and how they have developed, and also why such anomalies haven’t been ironed out.

Despite the crucial nature of borders to the entire premise of the book, on the maps they are not always clearly enough labelled or demarcated for the reader to be able to follow the author’s explanations; the maps are somewhat stylised, and a better use of colours would have helped, I feel. Most of the enclaves and exclaves are very small, so the maps necessarily lack helpful context for one to orient oneself. A smaller cut-out map with the larger surrounding area, perhaps?

I can’t finish this post without a reference to Brexit, I’m afraid. For an entire adult life, travelling through Europe, I have pretty much been able to ignore borders; on a train you often don’t know when you leave a country, while on a road a different country is marked by the same kind of sign that tells you you have arrived in a different town or village. Now I am going to have to get used to borders again.

It was clear while reading the book that in many of the places Nikolic cites, the EU means that the significance of the borders he shows and the differences they demarcated are diminishing, if not vanishing; his examples remain as historical weirdnesses and nothing more. The EU is about co-operation across boundaries, making life simpler, sharing resources, spaces and languages. The UK has withdrawn from all this and it’s very sad…


Bill Bryson: The Body

February 16, 2020

817GAJ7nY1L._AC_UY218_ML3_    Bill Bryson writes well, which is one of the reasons I have enjoyed most of his books. There is a fluent style to his prose, which manages to be highly informative, entertaining and occasionally humorous as well as highly readable. He knocks spots off the dull, mid-Atlantic ramblings of many contemporary peers.

This book is popular science: let’s not pretend anything else. But what works so well for me is his infectious sense of wonder as he makes the incredibly dry and scientific details – I’m no scientist – accessible and comprehensible to the non-expert. All this is fascinating and eminently forgettable, too, and I suppose this is an aspect of the popular science format. But the formula is good enough to make the reader pause and reflect many times.

Along with the sense of wonder comes a feeling of humility too: it had me going back to the creationists’ explanation for such marvellous complexity – God – briefly, until I jolted myself back to reality and acknowledged that time and evolution did the job… he had me laughing out loud when he commented that he didn’t imagine any fundamentalist woman in labour praising God for the absolutely marvellous job he’d done in making the birth canal the perfect size.

Bryson makes his way round all the components of the average human being, presenting us with a selective mixture of facts and how we came to learn them. He surveys current research and knowledge, as well as outlining the huge number of things which we still don’t know or understand about how the body functions, and can’t manage to do artificially in a laboratory.

I learned (and forgot) lots, but what struck me most was the importance of the discovery of cooking in the remote past of our early ancestors, allowing far more efficient use of calories, less time eating, and helping lead eventually to the larger brain which has allowed us to get where we are today – even if that isn’t a particularly wonderful place.

Bryson is quite shocking, too, when he considers modern medicine in terms of over-treatment of ailments, the profiteering of drug companies, and the awful record of our beloved NHS in terms of cancer treatments. There is a reminder for us all that medicine may have worked wonders in so many ways, but it is still very much not an exact science: it doesn’t have all the answers, even though so many of us think it does…


Not the news

February 13, 2020

The_Times_04_09_39_460    I know I’m not the only person who’s concerned about what’s tritely labelled ‘fake news’. I’ve tried to think through what is actually going on, from the perspective of someone who’s kept himself well-informed over a lifetime.

My interaction with news dates from my earliest years. We took the Daily Mail at home, and listened to the news on the BBC Home Service. That was what was available all those years ago. My earliest memories are of my parents’ anxious faces as they listened to the news of the Cuban missile crisis, their shock at President Kennedy’s assassination, which came in a newsflash just as we children were being sent off to bed, and the news of the death of Pope John XXIII.

I was fascinated by other newspapers and regularly took myself off to the reading room of Stamford Public Library to leaf through the Times and the Daily Telegraph, and take in The Christian Science Monitor (which arrived there daily) and India News. At boarding school we read the Times and the Guardian, and the latter soon became my lifelong newspaper of choice. And when we finally got a television at home, we watched the news.

The thing was, in those days you couldn’t really avoid the news. Most households took a daily paper, often two on Sundays: we took the Sunday Pictorial (which eventually became the Sunday Mirror) and the News of the World, until our mother vetoed it because of its salaciousness. If you paid money for a newspaper, you read it, or much of it, and were consequently reasonably informed. If you listened to the wireless (I love that word!) you got the news whenever it came along. And there were regular news bulletins on the TV, too.

Now, think through what has changed. There are so many TV and radio channels where there are no news bulletins. There are enough TV and radio channels for enough people to avoid the news completely, and if you consume your music through apps like Spotify, there’s no news, just like there’s none on Netflix and other streaming TV channels.

The internet has massacred the printed newspaper: papers like the Mirror, Sun, Daily Express that used to sell four or five million copies a day now sell a tenth of that number. People do not read newspapers, by and large. News has migrated to the internet, and most people’s expectations are that it will be free. I do not pay £2.20 a day for a printed newspaper any more, and haven’t done for years. Some newspapers have paywalls; I don’t bother. So even though I have a wealth of free news available to me, somehow I am less informed, because I don’t read everything in that day’s Guardian – I don’t even know the totality of what’s in it. I skim, superficially, like a wasp – because it’s free, it has less value, less significance. Interestingly, the printed news and analysis I pay 5.40€ per month for in Le Monde Diplomatique, I still read from cover-to-cover.

News has become more trivial, more personality focused. Is this perhaps the result of the changes I’ve outlined above? I think the two phenomena are linked. I’ll listen to radio news in the car while I’m driving, for as long as I can bear it, but I don’t bother with television news any more.

So, I consider myself pretty well-informed, and yet I’m clear that I graze the news. I’ll also admit this is partly an age thing: I’ve seen a lot of it before, and I know that my opinions and actions aren’t really going to make any difference in what’s left of my lifetime. What about the millions who avoid the news almost entirely?

Newspapers have no obligation to be objective, and so news and commentary or opinion pieces have long been jumbled together. The terrestrial TV stations in the UK are by law obliged to be politically balanced or impartial. Social media can do what it likes, and we know where that has taken us: anyone can post anything they like, pretty much, truth or lies, and nobody can do much about it. For all their hand-wringing pieties, the US giants of social media don’t really have a clue what goes on on their platforms, nor do they care as long as the bucks continue to pour in.

Somewhere it seems to me that all of this ought to matter deeply, to concern all of us if participating in a democracy means anything to us. And yet, apart from a relatively small number, it really doesn’t. And there are plenty of people, organisations and companies who will do very well indeed as democracy dies. It’s not that I think that as a society we used to be well-informed, just that now I feel we are much less informed, and also much more susceptible to ignorance and disinformation. And that cannot end well. Nor do I have a realistic solution to offer.


Tom Holland: Dominion

February 12, 2020

91jqczH5FaL._AC_UY218_ML3_    This is a very thought-provoking and demanding read. There is an interesting trend in recent history-writing to not merely regurgitate, repeat, or go over the same ground again in the same way, but to seek new angles and perspectives on old material; sometimes this can be perverse and gratuitous, but it’s often enlightening how it can suggest connections not previously made, and explore a different narrative. It seems obvious to me that such enterprises cannot and should not exclude or over-write conventional histories, but that they do offer illuminating possibilities…

Holland sets out to show how Christ and Christianity shaped and made the West, and allowed the West to shape the world in its image; in some ways this ties in with what I’ve always known as ‘cultural Christianity’. Initially he surveys different Middle Eastern peoples and their gods, and their attempts to explain the cosmos and find a sense of order and meaning; there is the gradual evolution of the idea of evil being in the world because of people ‘disobeying’ the gods. For the Jews, this explained their plight, and in addition it was all the fault of a woman…

Holland also enlightens us on the complex development of the Hebrew Bible, and it was helpful to be reminded of how monotheism itself took time to evolve: there are numerous references to a multiplicity of gods in the Old Testament.

When we get to New Testament times, the revolutionary nature of Jesus’ message was underlined by Paul, and it is at times mind-boggling to see unpicked and laid out clearly the gradual development and articulation of a Christian theology over time. It was certainly not a coherent totality from the outset as some would like us to think.

Although Holland attempts a flowing narrative of the development of specifically Christian thought and practice, I didn’t find it completely coherent, particularly in the way he develops a particular strand thoroughly in a chapter and then leaps ahead to a completely different starting-point for his next chapter. This disjointed effect was initially quite annoying and had the effect of negating the sense of continuity he wanted to show.

We see clearly how the new religion was quite rapidly militarised and identified with secular power, which was a major factor in the unification of Europe over the centuries. As time passes we see the monumental struggle between royalty and papacy, the increasing corruption of the Church, the separation of church and state, the institution of clerical celibacy, and the crystallisation of the idea of sacred and profane. Where everything becomes totally warped and light-years away from the original, simple message of Jesus is, of course, in the way that religious power came to fear and then to seek ruthlessly to extirpate all possible signs of disagreement, independent thought or unorthodoxy, under the label of heresy.

Holland also shows how the religious regulation of marriage was about controlling sexual appetites and expecting men to be monogamous as well as women; this was to lead to individual ‘rights’ moving to the foreground, as well as creating the modern concept of the family. Here his analysis is newer and more interesting, I think. The labelling of same-sex pleasure as sinful and evil is a specifically Christian development, too.

Luther’s challenges reflected the angry mood of the times across Europe, and ushered in the mood of individualism in questions of religion, salvation, interpretation of the Bible, and these anarchist tendencies are shown leading to everything flying apart; certainly the contrast between the highly centralised Roman Catholic Church and the plethora of different Protestant churches and sects reflects this. Secular power eagerly colluded in the inevitable transfer of authority from church to state; Luther was driven to compromises very quickly, and we are in the transitional state which eventually, after much warfare and slaughter was to lead to the toleration of the individual’s right to worship where, when and how they pleased; from these originally religious beginnings was to flow the concept of ‘human’ rights as espoused in the French and American revolutions.

In the wider world, as the dynamism of Christianity led Europe to colonise large tracts of the world, it saw other belief systems as replicas of its own, and so non-Christians were made to identify with ‘a’ religion: thus Holland sees Judaism and Hinduism, for instance, as externally imposed categories. Ultimately the narrative takes us to the development of international law, another Western concept which, as we can see, is not necessarily accepted by all peoples (nor by the USA when it doesn’t suit!).

As we move closer to our times, Holland shows how Marx’ communism goes back to the early Christian communities’ sharing of goods and property, how the Nazis’ anti-Jewish ideology was spawned by Christianity, and how the roots of the messages of Martin Luther King, the Beatles and the summer of love may all be traced back to such earlier roots. The other important point he emphasises is the fragmentation of Christianity into liberal and evangelical camps, both of which lay claim to authority from two millennia ago. I have still not thought through his interesting parallel between Protestantism as a fundamentalist approach to faith, and Muslim fundamentalism…

Holland’s narrative of how all these developments ultimately flow from Europe’s Christian history is convincing to me, but I am not a professional historian, so I would be interested to hear historians’ take on his book. I find myself wondering where the tipping point was, at which the Christian West had so much the upper had that it was able to more or less shape the entire world, in terms of conquest, empire and industrial revolution. Equally, what might have prevented it, and would that have been a good or bad thing? There is an imperialism in the West seeing its values and beliefs as universal, its way of looking at the world as the only valid one and expecting all cultures to worship at its altar. Christianity comes across as an enigma, a hydra, and the roots of the Western control of the entire world…


On annihilation

February 1, 2020

A recent death in the family has inevitably had me reflecting on endings, disappearances, and what happens next. And while I have a faith and a spiritual life of sorts, I cannot think that there will be anything to come hereafter, in which I may have any connection to, knowledge or comprehension of this life which I have been enjoying for so long.

Many writers have imagined annihilation on a global scale, especially since 1945 and the first use of nuclear weapons. Think Walter Miller’s superb A Canticle For Leibowitz. Others have imagined environmental disaster, or disease on a pandemic scale. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man is my favourite example here. But these writers envisage some survivor(s), rather than the complete disappearance of humanity. Rarely have writers contemplated or explored the idea of annihilation itself.

81m4LsvGXVL._AC_UL320_ML3_    71DcF-BqxUL._AC_UY218_ML3_    There are two literary works – very different from each other – which have chimed in with my thoughts. One is Eugene Ionesco’s masterpiece Le Roi Se Meurt (The King Dies) which I have mentioned a number of times. The king has to die, as must we all, and his time has come, yet he cannot accept the inevitable: he rages against it, even as his kingdom, in pathetic fallacy, disintegrates around him. His two queens assist him: the younger and more beautiful young one urging him to resist, supporting his denial (of the obvious) while the elder strives to get her husband to accept the inevitable. Death cannot be resisted. Amid his mental struggles, the king wants someone to teach him how to die, and is told – in a bleak sentence which has stayed with me for half a century, “Everyone is the first person to die!” For me, there is the profundity of great wisdom and great art in that bald sentence, so terrible when fully contemplated. And in this play, no afterlife is on offer.

The second text which spoke to me is a science fiction novel from the 1940s, Olaf Stapledon’s neglected Last And First Men. It’s a difficult, painful and strangely dull read at times, as well as an absolutely astonishing work of the imagination: Stapledon takes us on a whirlwind imagined history of humanity through (I think) eight very different incarnations of the human species over a period of several billion years, and its existence on several of our solar system’s planets. And as the years whizz by on the clocks of the Time Traveller’s craft in HG Wells’ novel up until the moment of the death of the sun, Stapledon’s journey takes us just as far into the future, but what shocks most is how quickly our own time, the people, places, countries and world we know are left behind in the mists of time. Gone and forgotten forever are all the marvels of our era, the Bachs and the Shakespeares and the Einsteins, gone are the cathedrals and the wonders of the world, ground to dust over millennia by time and geology: how long will the slightest traces of any of our world and our (feeble) achievements be recognisable? Shelley’s Ozymandias comes to mind: ‘Look on my works, ye might, and despair.’

The sense of annihilation is the total vanishing, the utter evanescence of anything connected with us on the scale of the universe, our utter insignificance. And when I contemplate that on an individual or personal level, my mind fails me, quite honestly. For how long will anyone have a memory of me, or my deeds? So then, I’m faced with the question: what is the point? And faced with that insignificance, all I can imagine is to try and live well and care for those close to me and dear to me, to enjoy myself, and do good where I can for as long as I’m able. I came across an old Arab proverb many years ago: “One day, you will only be a story: make sure yours is a good one.” That speaks to my condition.


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