Archive for September, 2013

Out of Print…and into the ether?

September 22, 2013

People who know me know I read a lot. I love books, especially the printed kind. But I am not a luddite, and technology had brought new possibilities to my reading.

I bought a NOOK a year ago. I havered for ages about getting an e-reader, and couldn’t stomach being in hock to Amazon or being stuck with something with as daft a name as k*ndle. I don’t buy books for my NOOK. I discovered that a lot of the old books – especially travel-writing – that I could only buy at exorbitant secondhand or reprint prices (and don’t get me started on the quality of POD reprints) – are actually available free as pdf or epub files, having been digitised and made available on sites like the Internet Archive or Project Gutenberg. So I can download and read them free. If only it were that simple! I’ve discovered that anything digitised by g**gle has a fair chance of being garbled somewhere along the way, and has rarely been checked. Texts in older fonts don’t seem to scan well and are therefore riddled with errors and hard to read. Anything with footnotes is a nightmare, because these end up all over the place, and in the same size print and font as the body text, so often I don’t know where the hell I am.

I decided that these issues might be overcome on an e-reader with a larger screen – like A4 size? – but I don’t see anyone making one of those. And reading on a PC or a laptop is a pain because the page is the wrong shape. If anyone has any suggestions, I’m ready for them. But I’m persevering with my NOOK, and enjoying the free books.

Another thing I’ve discovered is audiobooks. Where the hell has this guy been? But free audiobooks, courtesy of the amazing Librivox website: there are now thousands of books available, read by volunteers, for download. And, if you speak French, there’s now a francophone equivalent site online. You can download files in various formats, and what originally got me interested was that I could burn the mp3 versions to CD and play them in the car on the way to work, or on other solitary long journeys.

Because they’re recorded by volunteers, they’re of variable quality. Some are, quite frankly, poor, but most of the ones I’ve listened to have been good to excellent – fantastic versions of many of Mark Twain’s books, for example, a brilliant version of The Wind in the Willows, a full version of St Augustine’s City of God, and lots more. Most are read by Americans, as the site is originally a US venture. Also, they only record out-of-copyright texts, which basically means pre-1923 US publication. And there’s a Librivox explanation recorded in at the start of each chapter: clearly one of the purposes of this is to put off rip-off merchants who might try to sell the recordings commercially. I think it’s a fantastic idea and I wish them every success. When I have time I intend to put a little back by volunteering to record for them.

Edmund Blunden: Undertones of War

September 20, 2013

51H9+zbjGiL._AA160_I brought this with me to re-read as I tour the Somme battlefields. It’s a memoir by someone who served, and it has become clearer to me just how different a memoir is from a fictional exploration of events. For instance, Blunden saw many horrific sights; he mentions them and you can see how he is affected, though he doesn’t write about them in detail (undertones…), whereas Faulks (to take a novelist as an example) wasn’t at the front, but researched his material very carefully. And Faulks offers us graphic description of death, maiming, injury…

Partly I think Blunden’s sometimes laconic descriptions are to spare himself as much as his readers, yet that also feels like a simplistic and patronising response. Somehow the weariness of war, and the meaninglessness of it all, are enhanced by his hands-off approach. And yet I feel him there, at the Somme, and at Ypres, losing friends and colleagues in the blinking of an eye, and accepting (?) moving on because survival is paramount.

I still find this the best of the war memoirs, preferring it to Graves and Sassoon. I like the way he uses language to describe what is around him, what he sees and the attitudes of others: he is an excellent observer who leaves the commentating to his reader. The picture of war as chaos and confusion in all directions, with no idea what is really going on, certainly no sense of one side or the other ‘winning’, is sobering; he is surrounded by pointless movement, by death and destruction, and so, through his words, are we.

He is aware that he owes his survival (many times) to chance. And we gained from this, for Blunden edited what was for years the definitive edition of Wilfred Owen‘s poems.

Wilfred Owen

September 19, 2013

the cellarDSC_0154Today I carried out the last duty I’d set myself as an English teacher (ret’d) when I finally visited Owen’s grave. It’s in a godforsaken village in northeastern France – Ors, on the Sambre Canal, where he was killed a week before the end of the First World War as he and his men attempted to build a bridge across the canal. He is buried in a military annexe in the local communal cemetery; all bar one of the men buried there were killed on the same day; there are two VCs among them. It’s all very ordinary, just like the dozens of other war cemeteries in this part of France. I looked at the canal: how you’d build a bridge across it under gunfire beats me. Pat Barker imagines it graphically in the final volume of her trilogy, The Ghost Road.

A couple of miles away is the Maison Forestiere, which is the house from the cellar of which Owen wrote his last letter to his mother. It’s been turned into what I can best call a poetry installation: painted white, inside in darkness Owen’s poems are projected onto glass panels and read aloud (some of them) by Kenneth Branagh. Some have been translated into French and read aloud, too: finally French readers are meeting Owen’s poems and France realises that she has one of England’s greatest twentieth-century poets buried here.

Listening to the poems was moving; there were the usual well-known ones, some early fragments and some I hadn’t met before. The translations into French were interesting: sometimes the translator had succeeded in capturing some of the alliteration, assonance and especially half-rhyme that characterise Owen’s greatest work (Exposure, Strange Meeting) but very often s/he hadn’t, for it was impossible, and somehow this underlined for me just how good his poetry is.

The cellar is empty, cleaned out and is the same space where Owen wrote his last letter: you can sit there and hear it, in English and French, and be still with your thoughts.

It’s a fitting memorial, I felt, and worth a detour, as Michelin puts it. There are details on the tourism website of Le Cateau Cambresis, the nearest large town.

Ha-Joon Chang: 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism

September 12, 2013

This Korean economist is increasingly in the public prints with his analysis of events, and his book was well worth the read. Yes, it’s a bit rushed, even breathless at times, but it’s neatly structured (most of the time) and the arguments develop clearly; I found his line convincing.

He’s unapologetically a capitalist, so there are no revolutionary suggestions or manifestos here. What he does is demolish, brick by brick, the arguments in favour of free markets that have taken over the world and done so much damage over the last thirty years or so. He adopts an almost catechetical approach: there is the ‘what they tell you’, followed by the ‘what they don’t tell you’, and then detailed analysis and evidence to back up his position.

What is most astonishing is how many pups we have been sold, how many times we have been conned and lied to over the past generation, how much we have had the mantra ‘there is no alternative’ dinned into us by the free market hegemons. Quite honestly, I never felt that the free market ‘worked’ (in favour of most people), but to see it pulled to pieces by a respected economist is an awakening. Nor am I particularly in favour of his approach which would take us back to the ‘acceptable face of capitalism’; I dream of someone finally putting together a twenty-first century Marx-style analysis that might convince enough people that things can be done completely differently…

For me, the two most enlightening ‘things’ of his 23 were the chapters on Africa and education. For most of my life Africa has been regarded and discussed as an almost irretrievable basket-case, and we are shown that this is both untrue and far from inevitable. Equally, the current explosion of higher education in Britain, and the West generally, is exposed for the sham that it is in a lot of cases: education in specific fields does not lead to better jobs, achievement or wealth, but education (small ‘e’) as an old-fashioned liberal idea is one of the cornerstones of a civilised society. Would that Mr Arrogant (aka Gove) would read that chapter.

So, some serious yet accessible analysis here: a much-needed breath of fresh air about our world, that will be ignored by those in power… no change there, then.

Colin Fletcher: The Man Who Walked Through Time

September 9, 2013

415pX05b7xL._AA160_A curious find in a local secondhand bookshop, this is the account of a man who decided to walk the length of the Grand Canyon within the eponymous National Park. It’s a Tardis-like journey as, although on the (extremely detailed) map it looks very short, it’s actually far, far longer because of the meanderings of the river and the diversions and other wanderings necessary to avoid obstacles. It took him several weeks, particularly as he stopped for days in some places just to contemplate his surroundings. He did this about fifty years ago, and was the first person to do it. It’s a fascinating time-capsule, as he recognises the changes humans will inflict on the canyon, compared with the incredibly slow changes due to nature and geological time, over millions of years. ¬†As it’s a solitary journey, he finds himself reflecting deeply on time and the world and the interconnectedness of all things, and he struck me as an ecologist before his time, if that makes sense. He discovers as much about himself as he does about the Grand Canyon.

The place itself comes across as stunningly beautiful (there are lots of black and white photographs) and amazingly desolate and isolated, and our insignificance as a species is highlighted by the physical and chronological scale.

Michael Asher: A Desert Dies

September 5, 2013

This is one of the saddest books I’ve read in a long time. I’m old enough to remember the news stories about famine in the Sudan from the 1980s, and Asher tells the inside story with real people: this got through to me in a completely different way from the awful TV pictures.

Asher spent years living in and learning about the Sudan, its desert tribes and their way of life and customs, and he participates fully in their travels, describing in detail, and with sensitivity and sympathy, but, more importantly, without romanticising the desert people; though he can understand and take part, he knows he can never be one of them.

But he does also explain very clearly how the desert nomad way of life inevitably came to an end. Technology and change impinges on everywhere in the end, and the climate is also merciless: I finally understand what it means when ‘the rains fail’, and how people can be reduced to destitution and worse. A complex ecosystem that enabled people to live in some of the harshest conditions on the planet disintegrates in a few years and can never be put back together: this is the tragedy that Asher participates in and enables the reader to feel, as peoples’ pride, dignity, and eventually lives are lost.

As I’ve read his three books about the desert (not in chronological order) Asher has gone up in my estimation – for what that’s worth – and I really do think that he is on a par with Thesiger and other, earlier desert explorers.

Ella Maillart: The Land of the Sherpas

September 4, 2013

I have added another to my collection of books by the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart: this one has long been out of print, (although it seems to have re-appeared as one of these mysterious ‘print-on-demand’ books, which in my experience are often garbled and uncorrected scans, minus maps and illustrations) but it’s a decent ex-library copy and has all the photographs.

Maillart travelled in Nepal in the early 1950s, and her brief account is rather sketchy, and she is less involved in her journey and with the people she travels with, compared with some of her earlier adventures. But she seems to be describing a now completely vanished world, even though it’s a mere sixty years ago, one of the few places on the planet not yet fully opened up to the West, and to tourists – Everest has only just been climbed for the first time. The sense of somewhere now gone for ever comes across even more strikingly in her collection of photographs. There are more pages of these than of text, all taken with her Leica, in black and white, and so have that aged quality about them which colour does not have.

Not one of her best books, but like a trip in a time-capsule, and worth it just for that. Until I came across Michael Asher (see some of my earlier posts) I’d have classed her as the last great traveller of the twentieth century…

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