Peter Whitfield: Travel – A Literary History

January 18, 2018

51qmqSUU-+L._AC_US218_This was a well-produced book, from the Bodleian Library press (it’s nice to be able to say such a thing nowadays) and Peter Whitfield writes well as he surveys the territory of travel writing over the centuries. It does take a particular skill to know the range and scope of the territory, and then to select and summarise, to compare and comment, keeping everything under control. And there has to be an excellent bibliography – which there is. I have some gripes, which I’ll get on to later. But the book is a must for any serious reader of travel literature as a pointer to where to look next, what one may have missed and so on.

As I have often noticed, Whitfield also sees a progression over time in what has been done and then written about; heroism initially, then exploration; more recently travel and finally, in our day when there are no real unknowns, tourism and mass tourism. Similarly, written accounts have developed in scope, but also moved closer to being guidebooks.

I was pleased to encounter mentions of many writers I’d already read and enjoyed, as well as a few that I shall now be looking out for; a certain amount of downloading of historical texts from Project Gutenberg as well as the Internet Archive took place as I was reading. I also find travel writing eminently listenable-to as I’m driving, hearing about others’ travels as I’m on my own, far more modest trips.

One of the main things Whitfield notices and illustrates is the gradual relinquishing over time – though not probably fully until the last century – of the Westerner’s sense of superiority to the people he meets and the places he visits (for most of the travellers cited are male) and the realisation that the traveller is the foreigner in the lands he visits, rather than the inhabitants. Perhaps this may now seem rather obvious to us, but so much historical, religious and cultural baggage had to be abandoned before the penny dropped, as it were.

From the eighteenth century onwards, travel became more clearly the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. Many of the least satisfactory accounts come from the nineteenth century, where the colonialist outlook is so much in the foreground, but once that era fades, in the twentieth century we are back with the learning traveller again.

However, curiously, as he approaches modern times, Whitfield’s vision seems to narrow rather, and he often focuses more on novelists and writers of fiction than travellers themselves, a side-track which, though occasionally enlightening, I found got in the way and led to gaps, and omissions of travellers I expected to encounter; his travellers became rather more exclusively British, too. I know one has to set boundaries somewhere, but again I found some choices more than a little curious. Things improved as we moved further into the twentieth century and writers such as Wilfred Thesiger, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Jan Morris received their due.

In sum: not an easy task by any means; a very useful survey and helpful bibliography, and I’d have liked a few more non-British travellers included.

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Newspapers: do they have a point any more?

January 15, 2018

Today my newspaper of choice, which I’ve read daily for nearly half a century – The Guardian – became a tabloid. It looks okay, but no longer has anything which makes it stand out from any of the other dailies. The short-lived bold Berliner experiment ran out of steam and money: no-one could have foreseen how rapidly so many people would give up print for online news… and I found myself thinking: is there any real point to newspapers any more?

Once, newspapers were the only news; first radio and then TV scooped them. And now the internet offers instant updates. Once newspapers offered news; now they try to offer everything: a whole range of features, opinion, columnists trying to be funny, cookery, lifestyle, advice on relationships. Once newspapers had relatively few pages and were readable on the day of publication in a reasonable space of time; now there are pages to plough through. Once the Sunday paper was a treat to gorge on.

I only occasionally buy a print Guardian at a weekend, and when I do, it’s frustrating, because I’ve read half of it before, at different times during the week: online articles aren’t attached to particular days, and the overall effect is to make it even less likely I’ll bother with print. And I suspect I only look at about a quarter of what appears online, anyway.

I could never have imagined life without my daily dose of print, and yet, here I am, reading the paper online every morning – no more cold and wet trips to the corner newsagent. It comes rather cheaper, of course, and this is an issue for all newspapers: where’s the money? The Guardian seems, slowly, to be finding its way with a subscription and donation model, helped by the web broadening its world readership. And I grind my teeth about the random and irrelevant US and Australian stories. But they get some cash from me because I love the online crossword app.

The Times disappeared behind a paywall, but I won’t give money to Murdoch on principle, end of story. The Daily Telegraph, which I used regularly to look at to see what the enemy was up to, has developed a ‘premium’ (ie give us money) label for an ever-increasing number of its stories, and this has led to a bastardisation of good journalism, in that most stories now begin with a couple of paragraphs of knitted words that tell you nothing, in order to tempt you to stump up money to read the real article just as it disappears behind the paywall… ha ha, fooling no-one there… On the other hand, I do have access to far more titles, whereas I only ever bought one print newspaper a day.

As I grow older I regularly have to remind myself that I’m not the regular or average punter that most newspapers (or shops, for that matter) actually want; I’m on the margins, looking for something that doesn’t really exist. When I began reading newspapers, I wanted (and found) the news reported clearly, fully and intelligently, and some detailed and thoughtful analysis to develop my understanding of issues. That’s pretty rare now, particularly the analysis, for which I’ve gone to a French publication, Le Monde Diplomatique (there is an English edition) for the last twenty years. English newspapers are full of rent-a-scribe columnists paid by the yard to pontificate, to provoke or to try and be funny, none of which is terribly useful in terms of trying to understand an increasingly mad world.

I can’t see print newspapers existing for much longer; I can see them shrinking to weekly publications focused on analysis rather than news, although I suspect the ‘infotainment’ angle will still dominate. There will be far fewer of them. Someone will eventually sort out how to make micropayments work, I hope.

The thing that depresses me more than anything is the large number of people I see picking up and paying for the Daily Mail, imagining they are buying a proper newspaper, rather than a nasty, right-wing propaganda-sheet. It says something about the very sad state of this country at the moment.


Frank Richards: Old Soldiers Never Die

January 14, 2018

Certainly one of the most interesting memoirs from the Great War I’ve read so far, because of the different perspective: this one isn’t by a well-spoken, articulate and reflective officer, but by a private, a Welsh miner who gets on with what is expected of him, without thinking too much about it. He grumbles a good deal, certainly, but the most astonishing thing is he survives the entire war, a large part of it as a signaller, which was one of the most dangerous jobs of all. A reservist, he returns to the ranks the morning after war is declared, serves in Flanders and on the Somme, and is there at the Armistice…

So here we have a genuine, working-class voice, straight-spoken and calling a spade a spade. He passes judgements on many of the officers he encounters, most of which seem accurate; he doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and this probably contributed to his survival. The book, however, is rather chaotic at times, and often slides into a vaguely connected series of anecdotes, often wryly humorous, and certainly painting a picture of the total chaos in the early days of the war. The book abounds in rather annoying typos, some of which may be due to the writer’s level of education, but it could certainly have done with a better editor and proof-reader.

Richards is often in the very thick of the action in different places on the front. His tone is rather even, unvaried, which can make for some monotony in places, but it’s his perspective that ultimately makes it a successful and worthwhile read: his outlook may be narrower that that of other memoirs from the likes of Graves and Sassoon (both of whom he obviously met whilst at the front, for he name-drops them along with many other officers he encounters) but it feels genuinely true-to-life. He’s not a philosopher, he doesn’t really reflect on things, but he is very touching in the way he accepts the deaths of many pals in his stride: there’s a genuine affection and comradeship that comes across along with the fatalism.

As the war progresses, between the lines the utter charnel-house of trench warfare emerges clearly, and I could understand precisely why the strategy wasn’t repeated in the next war, and hasn’t been since. Richards is highly critical of the recruiting and lack of proper training given to conscripts in the later stages of the war – they really do come across as mere cannon-fodder – as well as the increasing numbers of men who sought cushy numbers behind the lines; he understands fully why they would, and we can sense the unfairness he feels as a man doing a decent job and accepting of the likelihood of death at any instant…

Overall, this was a man I warmed to as the book progressed, and I was outraged by the disgraceful treatment of real soldiers in terms of disability payments and pensions once the conflict was over; no surprises there, really, as that always seems to be the way that powerful states treat those who have fought and suffered in their armed forces.

If you only read one account of time in the trenches this year, I’d suggest it ought to be this one.


Diarmaid MacCulloch: All Things Made New

January 10, 2018

51EaEVd-aYL._AC_US218_I think the blurb on this book is deliberately somewhat vague and misleading; the book isn’t a book so much as a collection of diverse essays and book reviews MacCulloch has written over quite a period of time, all linked in some way by Reformation themes. Having said that – and shame on Penguin Books for their marketing – it is a very good collection of pieces, as one would expect from the author.

His introduction is challenging, and reminds us of his magisterial scope, taking in Luther‘s profound pessimism about human beings and his seeing their salvation as completely dependent on God (I can’t help seeing such a god as a kind of gigantic, slightly sadistic, computer-game player), underlining the profound religious differences that exist between the United States and Europe, which are not usually understood or taken into account, and reminding us that during sixteenth century, if toleration existed, it was in Eastern Europe – Poland and Romania – rather than in the West… He never shies away from pointing out clearly the contradictions, contortions and illogicalities of both Protestant and Catholic beliefs.

There are sections on the Reformation generally, but a good deal of the book is taken up with the English Reformation more specifically. I didn’t know, for instance, that one of the primary financial motives behind the dissolution and destruction of our monasteries was to raise cash to build coastal fortifications against a possible French invasion. One of the lengthier and most interesting chapters explores and charts the complexities of the characters, beliefs and infighting during the reign of Henry VIII which ultimately permitted a successful reformation in this country, along with the attendant cultural vandalism. MacCulloch is also fascinating on the development of the Book of Common Prayer.

I particularly liked his description of the ‘theological schizophrenia’ of the Church of England… the more I read, the more confusing and confused the entire establishment and development of the English Church appears, and MacCulloch does nothing to dissipate this impression. He tackles the inaccurate, falsified and plain biased accounts of the English Reformation over the years, and also provides an interesting and helpful survey of a range of historians of the Reformation from various perspectives.

The book concludes with two rather long and to be honest, slightly tiresome essays, one on Hooker and the other on a forger of documents who deceived historians for over a century; though I was expecting (and enjoyed) an academic book, these two pieces seemed just a bit too specialised, really.

A useful read if you are seriously into history and religion; a good read because anything by MacCulloch has been, so far, in my experience.


Bernard Adams: Nothing of Importance

January 4, 2018

51yxyb3Bv0L._AC_US218_A couple of months ago I finally watched a documentary on poets and writers of the Great War which I’d recorded a couple of years ago (!). And, despite having taught the literature of that time to sixth-formers for many years, several writers who I’d never come across were mentioned. Tracking down texts wasn’t difficult and I’m catching up on some literature of those times.

What far better-know title does Nothing of Importance remind you of? Bernard Adams‘ book is nothing like the great Erich Maria Remarque‘s masterpiece, though. Whereas Remarque’s novel gives the lie to its title, being full of violence, mayhem and chaos, much of Adams’ memoir is of what comes across as a very quiet time at the front. He spent time first in Flanders, before being transferred to the Somme for the four months leading up to the great July 1916 offensive.

What struck me first of all was how ordinary he made it all seem: his matter-of-fact tone meant that nothing surprised him, nothing really shocked or horrified him. Shelling, squalor, the occasional death or wound, everything quite easily became normal, routine. And although he is aware of this, it doesn’t move him much.

He’s very good at explaining all sorts of technical details to the ordinary reader through careful pencil diagrams which pepper the text, and his maps also clarify a lot of the details of the safeties and dangers of being in the trenches; his approach made issues of topography a good deal clearer to me. He was absolutely fascinating on mines and countermines, and I realised where some of the more recent writers like Sebastian Faulks might have got some of the knowledge they used in their fictions.

There are blow-by-blow accounts of things like patrols into no man’s land which again fascinate because a century later a reader finds it hard to imagine the fine details. We share his exhilaration, even though we also find ourselves asking, ‘yes, but what, exactly, was the point of that?’ And because, although we know exactly where he is on the front lines, his experiences are not linked to the greater sweep of the war itself, are in isolation, really, it’s impossible to understand the significance of anything that he sees or does… It’s clear he was regarded as an effective and efficient soldier and officer, by his men, his peers and his superiors.

The book, and his tone, become a good deal more serious, though, when a number of his fellow officers are killed: the suddenness and meaninglessness of it hits him hard, and is thereby so much more powerful in its effect on the reader. The real horrors do seem to begin to shake his sanity, though the language of a century ago conceals this somewhat. He is pleased to receive a ‘blighty’ wound towards the end of June 1916, when everyone can see that something big is in the offing; we experience his shock, and as he gradually convalesces, his anti-war sentiments come out more strongly. He’s not outspoken in a Sassoon sort of way, but comes over more as a decent sort who can make points effectively.

He obviously wrote his book while convalescing, for after recuperation he went back to the front, and was killed there in 1917. It’s a good read, because very much of its time, and is available as a free download on the Internet Archive website.


Stefan Zweig: Montaigne

January 1, 2018

The more I find out about Stefan Zweig, the more he interests me. A curious character, a relic of the Austro-Hungarian Empire out of time and place, but not in the same way as his contemporary Joseph Roth… an essayist, biographer, story-teller and novelist so distraught at the way Europe turned in the 1930s that he eventually took his own life, in exile in Brazil. He’s little-known or read in England, much better known in Europe.

This little book on Montaigne reflects its author, who, late in life came to know and love the sixteenth century French writer and philosopher as a kindred spirit, one who loved intellectual liberty and personal liberty and strove to hold on to it in incredibly difficult times, one who valued his mind and what it allowed him to do… a paean to a certain kind of human being in rather short supply in both centuries.

I’m sure there’s nothing new in the book, in terms of biographical detail, for Zweig takes us through Montaigne’s life and career after a fashion, his years of public life, personal retreat from the world, travels and so on. He recognises a kindred spirit, evaluates his achievement and pays tribute to him.

I love the idea of the ‘pensée vagabonde’ (roaming thought) which he attributes to Montaigne; in some ways, I’m sure both men speak to my condition… It’s an enjoyable little book for anyone who has read and enjoyed Montaigne’s Essays.


Who controls my brain?

January 1, 2018

I’ve been wondering whether the ways I read have changed with the advent of the internet, and reading onscreen and online. I’ve always been a fast reader, and able to speed-read when I need to; I followed a speed-reading course while I was at school at the urging of a teacher, and have never regretted it; it meant that as a student I was able quickly to scan and if necessary skim-read large amounts of text and pinpoint and extract what I needed for my purposes. This was obviously incredibly helpful when doing research. I’ve also been able to skim-read newspapers and magazines, glancing to see what it was worth spending eye-ball time on.

But I have the feeling that things have changed radically now, because of the ubiquitous hyperlink – the ability to click on a link in an e-text and instantaneously be somewhere else, relevant or not. It’s possible to come back, of course, but we don’t always – or even often do that: what is this particular possibility doing to my reading?

Glancing at a newspaper or magazine in the olden days, one’s eyes could always be caught by a headline: one might be drawn in. And headlines were crafted to attract the reader, but not in the same way as today’s clickbait seeks to entrap, because a click means a possible ad-opportunity and therefore fractions of a penny for someone. Once I’d paid for my old print newspaper, that was it; a good advert might sell me something, but otherwise there was no more money to be made until I bought it again the next day…

Clickbait is like a honey-trap, a bottomless pit if one is not careful; it seems to encourage and develop the butterfly mind to devour small gobbets of text and pictures, and most web-pages are designed with this in mind… reading lengthy articles can actually be quite tricky, and as for saving them for future reference, well. I know there are tools like Pocket, but even these try and ‘recommend’ things an algorithm imagines I might like.

Am I gradually being trained to be increasingly superficial in my reading? I know I can exert control, I can choose what I read, but there’s another issue, it seems to me, as well: information overload. Such an enormous array of information is now at my fingertips, via a search-box. I can find out about anything I like. And, of course, I can be interested in far more things than I used to be, if I choose to… but far more superficially.

Let me illustrate. When I researched science fiction, some thirty-five years or so ago, I had my topic. Initially, I read a scholarly text or two, scanned relevant periodicals in the field, and built a reading list, and then I had physically to visit libraries, hunt down books via catalogues, order them, perhaps consult them in situ; I had to make notes on paper, longhand, painstakingly, and collate them… Did I manage to find and read everything of significance in my field? I don’t think so. Today I could literally swamp myself in material, without ever leaving my study. And would this have done me any good? I don’t think so. It would have taken much longer to wade through all the material; who can say whether I would have discriminated adequately between the dross and the worthwhile? Would I have finished before the research grants ran out?

I produced – in the interaction between my brain and the materials I had access to, a thesis which passed muster. True, with a computer, the typescript might well have had fewer typos in it. But…

Don’t get me wrong, I love the internet and the access to information about all sorts of things I come across, that I couldn’t have looked up without major effort thirty years ago. So then, I didn’t bother, just got on with my life. Today, I just have a niggling awareness that things may be going on that I’m not completely clear about and not completely happy about, because I think my brain may be being manipulated. Am I paranoid, or what?


2017: my year of reading

December 30, 2017

Time for my annual look back over the year that’s almost over: my big blue book tells me that I’ve managed to acquire 37 more books this year, and that I’ve read 63 thus far. It doesn’t tell me how many I’ve disposed of, however. Both totals are slightly up on the previous year, I note, which shows I haven’t managed to curb my book-buying habits as much as I’d hoped or intended.

A major achievement this year was finally getting to the end of my reading of Montaigne‘s essays, which I had begun a couple of years back, and paused several times. It has been very comforting to share the mind of someone so thoughtful, knowledgeable and humane. In a way, I see him as an inspiration when I write, and strive to pull my scattered thoughts together: someone to look up to, most certainly. Since there are so many essays and I can’t see myself ever re-reading them all, I have carefully noted which were my favourites.

My awards for 2017:

Most disappointing read: Kim Stanley Robinson‘s Red Mars. I’d had great hopes of this and the rest of the series, having put it off for quite a few years, but it was a let-down when I eventually got to it, and I can’t see I’ll be bothering with the rest of them.

No award this year for Weirdest Book. I have come across no real weirdness this year.

61f7iyJLzGL._AC_US218_A necessary distinction in the fiction category: Best New Novel is Philip Pullman‘s La Belle Sauvage, of course, and you can read my review here and see why. I’m hoping that the next book in the series will appear in 2018, since he’s actually finished writing it, and hopefully the final one not too long after that. It’s nice having something to look forward to. The distinction was to allow me to list Ursula Le Guin‘s Malafrena as a Best Novel, because it was another one I’d held off reading for a long time, and this time was well worth the wait, a brilliant, moving and carefully-crafted historical novel from a writer who I love as a writer of SF.

51hWEeFhq1L._AC_US218_Several books get mentions in the non-fiction category this year. Erika Mann‘s collection of stories When the Lights Go Out is so rooted in the reality of daily life in Germany as the Nazi grip tightened that I’d hesitate to class it as fiction, though it technically is. It’s chilling in its ordinariness, its smallness and yet the inescapability of the evil. Richard Byrd‘s Alone, a travel book, is about his several months alone in winter at an isolated weather station in Antarctica. What was so powerful and mesmerising about it was the way he accidentally gave himself severe carbon monoxide poisoning quite early on in his stay, and his incredible struggle to survive. knowing that the source of heat he depends on for survival, will also kill him.

51BZSRipcpL._AC_US218_But, Book of the Year in any category goes to Svetlana Alexievich‘s stunning The Unwomanly Face of War, truly a masterpiece. It’s gruellingly difficult to read – you need a really strong stomach – and it’s a powerful antidote to any attempts at apologetics for German behaviour in the Second World War. It should be compulsory reading for anyone who thinks that war is any sort of answer to any of our problems.

Resolutions: I have a lot more history to read this coming year, and I’ve had much pleasure from returning to my old collection of SF, so I hope to continue with some of that, too. And I’ve decided that instead of buying books when I fancy, I will compile a list of books I covet each month and at the end of that month, award myself one from that list. Wish me luck! (By the way, that’s new books only…)


James E Gunn: The Listeners

December 29, 2017

51ZnpgDj6xL._AC_US218_I last read this one in 1979! So, having completely forgotten it for so long, I wasn’t expecting much; how wrong I was. It’s a masterly series of linked short stories set in a project scanning the universe for communications from other civilisations, other intelligent species. The lives and work of the various characters are interwoven with thoughts and reflections on the possibilities inherent in there either being other life-forms somewhere else or on our species being alone; Gunn imagines contact is eventually made and also succeeds in making us care about his main characters and their work, in an astonishingly powerful and quite erudite novel.

I’ve come across no other novels or stories by Gunn in my life of reading SF, so I looked him up; still alive in his nineties, apparently, and this particular novel a runner-up for a major award when it was published. Although life elsewhere is a standard trope of SF, the long and painstaking search for it, and philosophical implications are not. The novel was published in 1972, and this was the time when people like Carl Sagan were setting up the SETI project.

The communication Gunn imagines from intelligent life in the Capella star-system strongly resembles the drawings and coded information we sent out from Earth on the Voyager spacecraft five years later in 1977. To me, science and research has always been a double-edged sword; to be sure, we advance the sum of human knowledge and understanding, and this is a good thing, but so much that is discovered can be and has been perverted to evil ends, either in the development of weapons of mass destruction, or tools that enhance our lives whilst wrecking our environment. Against this background, I’ve always felt that the exploration of space and the search for life elsewhere is one of the best things that we do, one of the most useful things on which we can expend time and resources; I’ve never felt it to be a waste of money, given the obscene size of the ‘defence’ budgets of so-called civilised nations… And, when I find myself reflecting on the fact that I won’t be around for ever, one of the things I realise I would really like to be around for would be when we finally contact other intelligences, or when we get to Mars. I still rate humans landing on the Moon as the greatest event of my lifetime.

So, once contact is made, humans panic and fear. Will aliens invade and enslave us? Politicians’ first instinct is to suppress news, and to refuse to respond to the message; calmness eventually prevails and a reply is sent, but ninety years are needed for our message to reach its destination and a reply to come back, and here we are faced with a different issue – our attention-span. The SETI project in the novel was threatened with closure, having existed for 50 years without making any contact; 90 years for a reply to come back is beyond a human life-span, let alone any politician or manager’s working life. How does anyone cope, how do you sustain the necessary infrastructure for long enough to receive and respond? Our short lives and the nature of capitalism make us short-termists par excellence…

Gunn’s novel, which I’m sure has been long forgotten about by everyone except compilers of SF reference books, is another example of what the genre is best at: making us think. What if? I’d love to know…


John Wyndham: The Day of the Triffids

December 29, 2017

41XXnBs1XZL._AC_US218_This – probably the best-known of Wyndham‘s novels – was turned into a film with an abysmal ending at some point in the 1960s, when black and white films were still being made. As a novel, it works well because of its first-person narrative. A puzzling start, with the narrator in hospital surrounded by everyone else blinded by a super-bright comet, is followed by a lengthy and tedious but necessary flashback as the history and origins of the triffids is outlined, along with some rather crude Cold War propaganda and attitudes, which later turn out to be rather more prescient than it initially seemed: were the triffids a sinister product of biological and genetic manipulation in a laboratory somewhere, and were the bright lights which blinded everyone another sinister Cold War weapon which went off by accident?…. we are in the hands of a read science-fiction writer here, no doubt.

Triffids are deadly, mobile and carnivorous plants which can communicate with each other; without sight, humans are doomed, so here we are in disaster-novel territory, though not one quite so appallingly horrifying as Jose Saramago‘s Blindness, a novel which I honestly don’t think I could face reading again…

Wyndham’s characters and their attitudes are seriously dated now – the novel was published in 1951 – but his plot is plausible, even convincing in its development once the premise of the triffids is accepted. Changes to people’s behaviour and morals would be necessary if the species were to survive and regenerate after the collapse of civilisation, and many novels of this era consider this problem from a number of angles – think Walter Miller‘s A Canticle for Leibowitz, or George Stewart‘s Earth Abides. These are real questions, though framed in 1950s terms. We are inevitably soon in survival of the fittest territory; various attempts at group survival fail, in London and in the countryside, particularly ones run along millenarist, Christian fundamentalist lines. Among many of the survivors a curious hope in the Americans coming to the rescue is seen…

There can be no satisfactory ending to such a novel, of course, only a glimpse of hope and optimism, which is where Wyndham perhaps differs from other writers of the time and genre who are rather more pessimistic; a settlement on an island large enough to be self-sufficient, and from which the deadly plants can be eliminated, is possibly a start.


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