Amin Maalouf: Adrift

January 21, 2021

         It’s not often I read a book and end up thinking, everyone really needs to read this! But this is one of those rarities, the reflections of a wise and thoughtful Lebanese writer and novelist on the current state of the world, and why it’s in such a dreadful mess. He professes to be haunted by the image of our species heading ineluctably for shipwreck. And, a rarity, the book has been translated from French into English.

There are plenty of pundits who offer relatively superficial and partisan analyses of the world’s woes: Maalouf isn’t one of those. He begins modestly reflecting on his origins and family background, at some length: they are Lebanese, with historical connections with Egypt, and so his exploration is firmly anchored in how the problems of the Middle East, and of Islamic nations, are at the heart of so much that has gone wrong, a microcosm of the world’s greater problems.

It is false to think that the homogeneity of nations is a good thing: Spain became weaker after expelling Muslims and Jews after 1492, France became weaker after the expulsion of the Huguenots in 1685. Often the benefits of minority groups to a nation are only perceived when they have gone. I obviously thought of Brexit here!

The failure and collapse of communism as an ideal has helped move the world into its current disastrous state. Communism didn’t just appeal to the working class but also to minorities as a way of transcending divisions; briefly, Jews Christians and Muslims worked alongside each other in communist movements worldwide. A liberating space, an inspirational space has disappeared. And Maalouf weeps no tears for Stalin, Mao or any of the other tyrants: the failure of dirigiste state ‘socialism’ tarnished anything and everything vaguely resembling it, allowing conservative forces to invalidate social democracy and the welfare state too.

The Six Day War of 1967 had a devastating effect on the Arab world from which it has never recovered, and allowed political Islam to come to the fore. Equally, victory in that war has been a trap for Israel. Maalouf then notes the calamitous effects of the oil price rises of the 1970s, which were a direct response by Arab nations to the debacle of the 1973 war, in which the USA had supported Israel.

In his more general analysis, Maalouf sees 1979 as a turning point: the year conservatism declared itself revolutionary, with the election of Thatcher in the UK, followed by that of Reagan in the US the following year: the only option for the left was to try and hang onto what it had painfully won over the decades. At that time, Khomeiny also came to power in Iran, Deng Xiao Ping took the reins in China and changed its political and economic direction, and the Catholic Church elected John Paul II as Pope. And the USA let the genie of radical Islam out of the bottle by deliberately drawing the Soviet Union into the quagmire of Afghanistan… Maalouf points out that until then, the Muslim world had been gradually moving in a progressive and tolerant direction, towards modernity and laicisation; the West wrecked all this. Conservatism has moved openly hand-in-hand with the perfidious forces of nationalism and racism.

And as the purpose of the Reagan/Thatcher revolution was a massive attack on state power, the work of states as unifying forces was seriously harmed; suspicion of big government has fed into our inability to tackle issues such as the climate emergency in our own time. Maalouf knows that the state can, and must have a role in creating and fostering social cohesion. Instead, widening social divides have been accepted, and public authorities are now mistrusted by many. It’s hard to do justice to the depth of his reflection, which is that of a lifetime, and his knowledge of history, and the interactions between nations.

Maalouf articulates, far better than I’ve ever been able to, a good number of the thoughts and ideas I’ve worked out about the state of the planet over the years. He has written the most profound, reasoned and intelligent analysis and commentary on our times that I’ve ever read; he does not proffer any simplistic solutions beyond helping understand where we have gone adrift, and sadly, he admits to a great pessimism about our future…


Hippy days are here again…

January 17, 2021

   Most of Richard Brautigan’s novels have been sitting, slowly decaying, on my bookshelves since the mid 1970s when I had a phase of reading them. I’ve often wondered about them and finally decided to renew my acquaintance with them, which was a most perplexing experience: if I’d bought them all and read them all, some a couple of times, why had they lain there so long undisturbed? I read some bizarre stuff back then in my full-on hippy days, a phase of my life that I’ve never rejected or dismissed, but which I have certainly moved on from long since…

There is something dream-like, druggy, in Brautigan’s writing, and in his completely off-the-wall imagination too, which temporarily attracts and delights, but never lasts long, never attaches; it’s eminently readable – when there’s enough plot to carry you along – and equally eminently forgettable. The characters and settings are fantastical; I’ve wondered about magic realism, but I don’t think any of the texts are substantial enough to be classed in that genre. Many of his characters are misfits, failures in different ways

Willard and his Bowling Trophies is a weird yarn, with several mostly disconnected plots and inoffensive but largely uninteresting characters. The Hawkline Monster (A Gothic Western) was better in that the plot gripped me, and I enjoyed the characters and the poetical language too. I had great expectations of Dreaming of Babylon which was billed as a private eye novel and ought to have been reminiscent of Chandler or Hammett, but was in the end basically plain silly, apart from the caricature hard cop character. I re-read Trout Fishing in America, and A Confederate General from Big Sur too, but a couple of days later I couldn’t tell you a thing about either of them. The one exception, really, was The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966, which gripped me rather more. The premise of a mysterious library which accepts and archives any book anyone has written and cares to deposit was interesting enough, and the rather sad, misfit character who finds himself in charge had some substance; hooked up with a new partner unexpectedly, and in the pre-Roe vs Wade days needing to head to Mexico for the inevitable termination brought in a more serious strand which Brautigan developed with some sensitivity as well as beauty…

     Brautigan can do decent poetical language in prose, with the occasional delightfully striking simile or metaphor, and witty turn of phrase, but this isn’t enough to sustain entire books. I kept reading hoping for something more substantial, and most of the time was disappointed by the sameness of it all.

Is this really how we thought, and what we enjoyed way back then? Obviously there was a lesson for me about how our tastes change over time, whilst our memories of something are tinged by those nostalgic spectacles. Brautigan briefly took me back to the 1970s and I could reminisce about the joy of visions, images, the surreal in the everyday; he writes about the joy of carefree sex, although very much in a seventies masculine way… there are things in his writing that I didn’t expect to see in print in those days. Mostly druggy, hallucinatory eye-candy, though, and ultimately eminently forgettable. I wonder if anyone reads his books nowadays?


Simon Palfrey: Doing Shakespeare

January 17, 2021

     Here’s a book which I acquired shortly before I retired from teaching and finally got around to reading. But I couldn’t really deduce the who the target audience was meant to be. Not school students, perhaps undergraduates, maybe English teachers quite early on in their career? I tried really hard to engage with it, but found myself frequently skimming rather than reading intently, as I gained the impression that here was someone trying hard to teach his grandmother to suck eggs. And I recognise that to find it over-thought and over-explained was more than a tad unfair…

Palfrey writes from the perspective of a reader of Shakespeare, rather than a watcher of the plays, and tries to make the case for that approach: I can accept that far more people may read him rather than enjoy the plays in the theatre, but we live in an age where recorded performances of many kinds are now readily available. From his premise flows the argument that the reader can, and does, focus more closely on Shakespeare’s use of language, and an insistence on the reader focusing in more depth on how the playwright uses words; I can’t argue with this last point. But writing a general work on how to read Shakespeare more closely does not seem to work very well, and I frequently had the impression of a man trying to nail jelly to a wall.

As the book progresses, the clarity of the author’s focus on the details of how Shakespeare uses language so effectively does develop usefully, supporting the obvious point that in the pace, flow and audience involvement in a performance of a play so much will inevitably be missed. And there is the important idea that a Shakespearean audience would have listened differently from ourselves nowadays, and have tuned in to a great deal more of the vast range of wordplay and wit; it’s useful to be reminded of this and have it exemplified. But four pages to unpick the ranges of meaning in one line from Macbeth is over the top, I feel.

Palfrey is constantly shifting between what I found to be revelatory insights, and the blindingly obvious; in the end, what he’s on about is the multiplicities of meaning available in Shakespeare’s plays, which I knew already. And so I come back to my original two points: who is the book for, and my unfairness in this piece.

I earned my bread and butter teaching Shakespeare in schools for the best part of 30 years, and found that it was possible to awaken students to the variety of Shakespeare’s language and its intensity, and some of the levels and shades of meaning, but that this was always in the context of studying the totality of a single play, reading it several times, and watching it in the theatre or failing that, in a recorded performance. It was a strange exercise, rather like removing the layers of an onion, in the sense that the better they knew and understood a play, the more the students would be tuning into its language along with so many other facets.

Perhaps it’s the attempt to show all of this, using so many of the plays, in one book, that I found most frustrating.


First World War poetry: some help for students

January 14, 2021

I’ve noticed that a great number of people are looking up what I’ve written about First World War poems, and deducing that many of them are students who are preparing these poems for exams or assessments.

Do you need to write an essay about poetry? Here are some ideas to think about, and get you started. They are based on an idea of mine which I used when teaching, called the staircase. It only has three steps, and the idea is that the higher you get up the staircase, the more credit an examiner is likely to give you.

Step one: What is the poet saying?

This is the bottom step, the easiest to do, the one that will get you some marks but not move you very far up the mark scheme. It’s like understanding the plot of a novel. What is the poem about? What happens in the poem? What is the story of the poem, if you like. You are showing that you understand. Bear in mind that you will get very little credit merely for telling the story, unless that’s all the question asks you to do. If you do need to re-tell what goes on in the poem, other than perhaps a brief account at the start of an essay, make sure that you do this for a reason, connected with a part of the question you are answering.

Step two: How does the poet say it?

Now you are getting on to the second step, the real stuff. It is a poem, after all, not a novel or a play, and you are beginning to recognise this and explore detail, in particular acknowledging the poet as an artist or a creator who has set out to do something specific. You are thinking about how it all works, considering the tricks of the poet’s trade as they craft and create their poem.

You will be looking at form, at structure, at language. You will be finding various poetic techniques. The form is a poem, simple as that, although you may also recognise it’s a particular kind of poem, a sonnet for instance. Structure may involve looking at what kind of sonnet it is and how the different parts work, or it may be about looking at what happens as the poet moves through different verses in her/his poem: do they move on through different aspects of their subject?

You may notice rhyme, rhythm, metre. If you read the poem aloud (in your head, in the exam room!) does it move slowly, or quickly? This is the pace of the poem: does it make a difference to how you feel? What might the poet be wanting to do? Look for other poetic techniques. Are words repeated? Is there assonance, onomatopoeia anywhere? What effect do these techniques have? Notice pauses: are they in the middle of a line? At the end? Do the lines run on (enjambment)? What difference do these techniques make?

Again, you won’t get much credit for technique-spotting on its own: you need to say what the poet achieves by using the things you have noticed. Do not worry if you don’t have time to mention everything; there may well be too much. Go for what seems particularly effective to you.

Step three: How well does the poet say it?

This is the hardest part, the top step: your personal response to the poem and the poet’s (hard) work. Remember that there is no law that says you have to like a poem, to like every poem. But whether you like it or you don’t, you do need to try and explain why…

Go into detail. Say what you like and don’t like; explain why; give evidence – a short quotation – that shows the examiner what you’re on about. Don’t be afraid of you reactions to a poem: the examiner likes this part, and there are marks to be gained for a well thought-out and expressed opinion.

More thoughts

Do you need to compare two poems? In that case, your plan – you did write one, didn’t you? – should have the notes on both poems side-by-side so that you can look to move easily between the two poems when you need to, back and forth. A comparison isn’t writing about one poem, then writing about the second and then writing a sentence or two about both of them. It’s trying to consider them both at the same time, alongside each other. It means looking for similarities and differences between them.

Quotations

There isn’t a right number to include. Quotations are evidence, to support your comments, your analysis, your opinions. Ideally they are short, and frequent. You should not be copying in three or four lines of a poem when your point actually refers to three or four words: that’s time wasted that isn’t gaining you marks.

The end

I’m sure I haven’t actually said anything that teachers haven’t already told you. I’ve put it all down on paper, in one place, for you to read and think about, maybe in different words from your teacher. Sometimes that unfamiliar voice helps. Good luck!

If you have found this useful, you can find other posts about different aspects of poetry and literature by using the search box. If you want context or background information on the First World War, look under the ‘Pages’ heading on the left.


Josef Sadil: The Moon and the Planets

January 7, 2021

     I have been interested in astronomy for most of my life, going back to my childhood days in the primary school playground where my best friend and I devised adventures involving travel through space; we both hoped that we might one day be the first men on the moon… today I’m a retired teacher and when I last had news of my friend he was a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church. I can remember the early probes to the Moon, Mars and Venus mentioned in this book, and the excitement with which we looked forward to the grainy monochrome photos in the newspapers.

I must have been ten or so when this book turned up as a Christmas present from my father. It’s a production from Czechoslovakia, translated into English. I was fascinated by the pictures, which in those remote days were painted artists’ impressions – in colour! – of scenes of what the planets might look like, and they set my childish imagination on fire. Now, more than half a century later we know so much more about the solar system, and of course astronauts have been to the moon; in this book the trip is merely ‘projected’ – as are flights to Mars in the 1980s! It really is a reflection of the excitement and intensity of space exploration in the 1960s, in the years leading up to the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969.

I went back to it, wondering whether the time had finally come to part with a relic. Clearly it’s a museum-piece: far more is known now, far more planetary satellites have been discovered, and the dearth of information about the outer gas giants Uranus and Neptune, or the (non)planet Pluto is rather a shock. What I got was a clear picture of how science progresses by advancing hypotheses and checking them out against increasing amounts of information and evidence as these are gathered. And even more, a renewal of my sense of awe and wonder at this aspect of our human search for knowledge about our universe, a search which is inevitably politically neutral, and which benefits and enriches us all. It’s this idea that, because it’s there we want to know about it, that renews my shrinking faith in the worth of our species…


Andreas Eschbach: The Hair-Carpet Weavers

January 5, 2021

    SF can be pretty weird at times; this is one of the weirdest books I’ve come across in quite a while. Men on a backward planet spend a lifetime weaving a single carpet out of the hair of their wives, in tribute to an Emperor on a distant planet… they have no idea what happens to the carpets, which are regularly bought up and collected by an interplanetary spaceship, it’s just what they have always done, for many centuries. And yet, there is a rumour, brutally suppressed, that the Emperor has been overthrown.

There are so many ways of reading this novel, which in someways, initially at least, is more of a collection of stories linked to a common theme, rather like Keith RobertsPavane. Is it an allegory about religion, unquestioning belief, blind worship and blind obedience? The empire of worlds and planets is incredibly vast, certainly dwarfing Ursula Le Guin’s Ekumen or Isaac Asimov’s Federation. So vast, in fact, that the planet we read about is in a forgotten corner of the universe, only recently rediscovered by the central administration, that has replaced the deposed Emperor, and discovered that there are thousands of planets weaving the hair-carpets…

Then there is the notion that the primitiveness of the planet stems from the traces of a nuclear war some tens of thousands of years ago, traces of which are still detectable. What might happen to humanity and civilisation in such a case?

It’s a slow-moving and often lyrical read, full of surprises, very well-written. The last Emperor, who had lived for tens of thousands of years, had become bored, and engineered his own deposition: was this an attempt to defeat entropy? Certainly his successors have their work cut out to discover what was going on across the immeasurable interplanetary wastes, and all the planets and societies have to come to terms with the new circumstances and work out how they are going to continue, or survive, how the Empire can rebuild itself…

I really enjoyed this. For a good while I’ve felt quite jaundiced about SF generally, and its drift into fantasy and pure escapism – I know I generalise terribly here and that actually I’ve just lost touch with the genre as I’ve grown older – but this has renewed my interest. It’s a novel that is mind-boggling in a good way, and at the same time thought-provoking and philosophical; highly recommended!


Richard Holloway: Stories We Tell Ourselves

January 2, 2021

     I’m not sure what it was that prompted me, last year, to read Richard Holloway’s autobiography, Leaving Alexandria, which tells the story of how a Scottish episcopalian, who rose to become Bishop of Edinburgh and then Primus of Scotland, eventually found himself unable to believe in God any longer, and consequently laid down those high offices. But I found his story, and his thinkings on all sorts of questions, both very thought-provoking and also very helpful.

This, his latest book, is basically his exploration of God as a human construct, and the stories we have told ourselves since the dawn of ages, about a higher being, and our need for one: the idea that we construct God in our own image, rather than the biblical trope of God creating Man in His image (upper-case deliberate there).

Holloway writes about the flawed nature of us humans, and our therefore necessarily flawed knowledge and understanding of what we ‘know’. There is no easy answer to the question of existence or non-existence of a deity, no universal or all-encompassing answer, especially one that any group or organisation has a right to force on others. Equally, there are dangers in accepting or welcoming the ready-made, neat answers of others as solutions to our, or the world’s problems. At this point I felt I was reading a book which offered nothing new, other than a great deal of common sense, all gathered together in one place, satisfying enough. But it got better.

He struck a chord with me when he referred in some depth to a book I remember from many years ago as an important insight into the world of my youth, Theodore Roszak’s The Making of A Counterculture, and I wished I’d retained my copy to refer back to it.

Clarity is here: Holloway’s disagreement is with the organised, structured, regulating church rather than the religious or spiritual impulses within us, and he is honest enough to admit that someone like himself, steeped lifelong in religion, as it were, even when he works his way to a clearer understanding such as the one he is presenting us in this book, nevertheless is drawn to what he knew and what used to sustain him… He writes of a ‘general tendency in subsequent generations to over-define and concretise the original revelation’, and suggests that ‘gods always fail: they are us absolutised, enlarged with our own worst nightmares’.

In the later chapters, he moves on to considering a world in which a supposedly loving God allows so much suffering, which he rightly thinks poses a major ethical problem for any believer who thinks. He then comes on to consider what sense can be made of Jesus, and his life and teaching, nowadays. He outlines his own position, which he links back to earlier philosophers, and particularly to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which is that we ought to act ‘etsi deus non daretur’ – as if there were no God: to strive to be good and do the good that religion enjoins us to anyway, out of a love for our fellow- creatures. I found a powerful and intriguing link there with Philip Pullman’s conclusion to the His Dark Materials trilogy: that it’s up to us to build the Republic of Heaven ourselves, here on earth.

After Leaving Alexandria, it was astonishing just to read an account of this man’s spiritual journey, a very personal affair at one level, offered to all: here is someone who thinks, and reflects, continually; the quest never ends. As I mentioned earlier, at one level there’s a lot of the pretty obvious to many here, but to accompany someone working it all out for himself, as I strive regularly to do myself, I found very liberating: here was someone who spoke to my condition.

I was very tempted to go straight back to the beginning and start a re-read immediately, but thought better of the impulse, and decided it would be helpful to wait a little while. But return I shall.


2020: My Year of Reading

December 29, 2020

No need to remind you what a weird year it has been. When lockdown arrived, naturally someone like me thought, “Well, OK, time to hunker down and get on with lots of reading..” Only it didn’t turn out that way. I found myself dithering a great deal, unable to choose what to settle down with. So I ended up reading quite a lot of magazines, and articles I’d saved offline on all kinds of different topics, tidying up my reading loose-ends if you like, but also, I increasingly felt, frittering away useful reading time. Overall this year I have actually completed slightly fewer books than usual. And the tidying up of my library, and the weeding out and disposing of many books that I know I’m never going to open again, has proceeded apace and some 250+ books have made their way to benefit Amnesty International at some point in the future. I think I’m now down to only 1700 or so books now!

You may not be surprised that I went back to Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which I taught once, many years ago; nothing new there, so I didn’t bother with revisiting CamusLa Peste

When I did manage to settle on a book, I found I did quite a bit of re-reading – Sherlock Holmes, Hermann Hesse, Josef Skvorecky, science fiction. I have read 51 books this year, and acquired 25 new ones. After some reflection I have decided I’d like to spend some of 2021 re-reading some of my favourite classics. We’ll see how far I manage to get with that one… but it is somehow comforting to return to a book I have previously enjoyed a number of times. It’s a sort of anchor in a very turbulent world.

Blog report:

Once again, my posts analysing various poems of or about the Great War have been the most visited. A logical deduction is that the poetry appears on examination specifications in various countries and students are perhaps tuning in for some insight, or else coming across the blog in search engine results and opening it by mistake. I do wish I got more feedback from visitors, and once again record my gratitude to those readers who take the time to like my posts and to occasionally comment or engage in discussion.

Other popular posts this year have included (again) Theodore Kröger’s The Forgotten Village, and Alexandra David-Neel’s With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet.

This year’s awards:

My biggest disappointment of the year: re-reading Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine, of which I’d carried positive recollections for quite a few years. It palled, it dragged, it was simplistic and it went on the ‘I don’t need to read this ever again’ pile. Ditto Harry Harrison’s A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!

The weirdest book I’ve read this year is definitely the Strugatsky brothers’ One Billion Years to the End of the World.

The best novel of 2020: re-reading Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, which never fails to disappoint in its poignant picture of a long-vanished age.

The best new novel of 2020: not awarded this year as I haven’t read any new novels!

The best non-fiction book of 2020: after a fair amount of hesitation, I decided on Alberto Angela’s Pompeii, which I’d wanted to read for quite a while, after really enjoying another book of his on daily life in the Roman Empire. His formula for telling the story of those dreadful days in 79CE worked really well, and sent me back to the catalogue from the major British Museum exhibition a few years back, the closest I’ve actually got to Pompeii itself (unless you count passing through a train station just south of Naples – Ercolano – many years ago and realising ‘hey, that was Herculaneum!’)

My book of the year award goes to a book I ought to have read years ago, Adam Mickiewicz’s Polish national epic poem Pan Tadeusz, which was a gentle and lyrical revelation and took me closer to my Polish roots.

Travel book of the year: in a year when not a lot of travelling could be done, reading about travelling was a substitute. A review sent me to Sophy RobertsThe Lost Pianos of Siberia, which was a surprisingly thoughtful, interesting and well-written variation on history and travel in Siberia. And I’ve read a good deal of that.

Special mention – because there isn’t really a category for it: Yuri Slezkine’s doorstopper of a book about the inhabitants of a building which housed the ruling elites of the Soviet Union over many years: The House of Government. If you’re interested in a deeper insight into the machinery of how the country worked and its ruling classes, this is the one. It felt like an obligation, but it was worth the effort.

Here’s to 2021: may it be a better year for everyone in every way, and may we all get lots of good reading done!


Arkady & Boris Strugatsky: One Billion Years to the End of the World

December 28, 2020

   Soviet science fiction has been quite hard to come by, in my experience, largely because little of it was translated. Apart from the astonishing Andromeda by Ivan Yefremov, the only other writers I know are the Strugatsky brothers, Arkady and Boris. I’ve read quite a few of their novels, and they are seriously weird. But this one took me right back to the warped-ness of the druggiest of Philip Dick’s novels…

A group of scientists who are friends or colleagues, are researching in various abstruse fields, and experience a series of bizarre and inexplicable events, which they attempt to make sense of; someone or something is warping their sense of reality, and it seems to be that the universe is defending itself against a species – human beings – who are in danger of becoming too clever for their own good, and whose findings may eventually threaten the stability of the universe at some future point. So they need to be put off, discouraged.

The universe attempts to convince them they are insane; it attempts to frighten them into giving up their research, and apparently succeed in the case of all but one of them, who remains determined. We have, after all, a billion years before the universe runs out of time, in which to continue to try and outwit whatever is blocking us…

At least, I think that’s what it was all about. A good read, a relatively quick read, certainly a thought-provoking and rather unnerving one!


Noel Barber: Trans-siberian

December 26, 2020

This is an account of a journey on the Transsiberian Railway in the winter of 1939, so a few months before the outbreak of the Second World War. The writer and his wife begin their journey in Dairen, part of Japanese-occupied China, formerly the Russian city of Port Arthur, and now the city of Dalian. The casual anti-Japanese racism is quite shocking to this contemporary reader. Here is a white Westerner whose nose is put seriously out-of-joint, because of the way the Japanese clearly behave in a way that makes it clear they are the racially superior and more powerful ones. Of course, the Japanese treatment of China and the Chinese was abominable at this time; equally, everyone seemed to be anticipating war between Japan and the Soviet Union, a revenge re-play for the debacle of 1905…

I’ve always found old travel books fascinating, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the actual travelling requires a real effort, unlike so much of today’s travel. Then, there are the writers’ impressions of the places through which they pass, and the often very interesting casual encounters they have as they progress. All of these aspects combine to give a much clearer picture of a past era than you can necessarily derive from a history book.

What was particularly interesting about this book was that although the journey was made in 1939, the book wasn’t published until 1942, when we are in the middle of the Second World War, and the Soviet Union is one of our allies. Throughout, I was looking at the book as part of the propaganda effort to paint Stalin and the Soviets in an acceptable light, and how this was quite subtly done. The whole account of the journey and the places the writer sees and visits is interspersed with comments that update the reader to the current war and our ally’s efforts.

Stalin is very much in the background; we don’t get much more than references to the ubiquitous portraits garnishing public buildings. There is one slightly shocking reference to awkward social elements being ‘liquidated’. What is foregrounded is the military preparedness of the country, its massive industrial capabilities, large amounts of which are beyond the Ural mountains and therefore out of the reach of Germany. Much of the heavy industry can easily be converted to the war effort. And their troops are well-trained, well-prepared for action. A fair amount of this flies in the face of what we now know: Stalin’s refusal to believe the blindingly obvious German preparations for invasion and the country’s consequent chaos when war did finally break out, and the rush to move as much industry and production away from the German advance…

The idealism and the patriotism of the Soviet people is played up, as is women’s major contribution to the economy; there is much praise for the massive and rapid industrialisation and general modernisation of the country in the previous decade, and the master-minding of this is attributed to Stalin’s foresight. The picture of the genuine idealism of many Russians, especially the young, is borne out by later stories of their heroism and their suffering during the Great Patriotic War. As propaganda, such aspects are carefully presented, and the writer is also clear to admit what he doesn’t get to see, what he is not allowed to see, what he isn’t told, and the questions which those he meets are unable to answer…

All-in-all this was a fascinating glimpse into a long-vanished world, and also a reminder of the genuine idealism of many as they strove to build a new and better society. Everyone knows of the excesses, abuses and mass repressions and murders of the Stalinist era; no-one can or should make any excuses or apologies for them, and yet the desire of, and commitment to, a different and better world, by so many ordinary people, should not have been lost…


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