Archive for June, 2016

Europe, war and the imagination

June 29, 2016

It’s a century since the start of the Battle of the Somme this coming Friday, July 1. Before I start this post, honour to the memory of those who died!

I’ve been reflecting on human imagination, and more specifically mine, in the context of the Great War. Obviously many writers, from those who lived through the events and times and wrote in prose and verse – and who didn’t need to use their imaginations because they were there – to those who have written much more recently, and mainly novels, have been able to put words onto the page, which have shown readers over the years the nature and effect of the war, and the havoc it wreaked.

I have been so fascinated by what they wrote, that I taught First World War literature at school for a good number of years, and always with a focus on messages for us as readers today: what might we learn? how might we behave differently? And this fascination has led me, in recent years, to make a number of visits to various battlefields: relatively brief excursions in Flanders, but two lengthier explorations of the Somme, and visits to the Chemin des Dames and the Verdun battlefield, by way of seeing the war from a French perspective.

So I have walked some of the ground. I have seen some of the places where the carnage took place. I have mementos – some fragments of barbed wire from Mametz Wood and a machine-gun cartridge case from the outskirts of Peronne. I’ve walked French and German and British war cemeteries, seen the French memorial at Douaumont and the British one at Thiepval.

2016-04-19 10.41.03 verdun

And I’m still stunned. My imagination is defeated totally by the scale of it all. I’ve stood at the Lochnagar Crater and thought, God, you could get half my street in that! but can’t begin to conceive what it could have been like for a German in the front line when that mine went off. I’ve stood at Thiepval and oriented myself, and thought, how could anyone possibly survive walking that distance gradually uphill towards machine-gun fire? The scale of it all is just too much. And, although one can read about the number of deaths and casualties, it just isn’t possible fully to conceive or make sense of the enormity of it all.

One thing was brought home to me very clearly, with out the need for my imagination. This photo, from a display in one of the museums at Verdun, shows graphically what an exploding shell does; I am no longer surprised by accounts of men being torn to pieces and bodies being unrecognisable…

I think it’s really important for people to visit these places and to remember the past; I’ve noticed that Germans are now also coming to find the graves of their ancestors, and I’ve been very moved by the tributes GCSE History students on school trips have left in a number of war cemeteries, on the graves of combatants from both sides. It’s really important for people to keep on reading the literature from and about those times. This war – and another, perhaps even more horrific in other ways – happened in our, civilised Europe, and until very recently, in living memory, and deliberate efforts to ensure that such things never happen again germinated the European project that Britain managed to reject a few days ago. We have had more than seventy years of peace in Europe, and that’s far longer than any period of time peace before then. Imagination may defeat us, but memory should sustain us.

Pause for thought Friday 1 July 2016, 7.30am.

The Mammoth Book of New Sherlock Holmes Adventures

June 27, 2016

51J94Jk8rVL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve recently started reading some of the many stories featuring Holmes and Watson written by imitators of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I can see the attraction: the original stories are largely good reading, and once you’ve got to the end of them, you crave more, and there aren’t any – unless someone else writes them.

That’s where the problem seems to start: there are plenty of would-be Conan Doyles, who think they can dash off a story, using his ready-made characters; all you need is a suitable mystery. And then, everything goes wrong. For starters, writing in Conan Doyle mode, and late 19th/ early 20th century idiom isn’t that easy: few manage to get the subtleties of the language right, let alone the complex social mores and behaviours of those times. And then, creating a mystery, which becomes a detective story, sowing subtle clues and showing the great detective at work, stringing your reader along with just not quite enough information to allow them to solve it themselves, isn’t so straightforward, either.

I have to say, this collection is pretty dire and I would urge Holmes fans to avoid it; there are only a couple of stories worth your eyeball time, really. I realise some might say I’m just a disgruntled purist nit-picking, but, for a start, the book’s production levels are poor: idiotic uncorrected spelling and punctuation errors abound. Shoddy editing and poor proof-reading have let too many glaring anachronisms through – when does Holmes ever refer to Watson’s ‘service pistol‘? Did any country actually have a broadcast wireless service during the First World War?

Some of the stories are shamelessly derivative of stories in the canon; many are glaringly obviously in their twentieth century language and social interactions, so amateurish in their failure to sustain Victorian manners, mores, behaviour and speech in a supposedly Victorian context, that the Holmes and Watson carefully created by Conan Doyle stick out like the proverbial sore thumbs.

The ideas behind the cases are often interesting, and quite convincing, though the stories themselves can be full of gaping holes. The major difficulty most of the writers are faced with, and fail to overcome, is not one I would have expected, though, and that is, to construct the detection process convincingly enough. When you think about the stories in the canon, what Conan Doyle does is very clever: clues are sown as Holmes investigates; we just don’t get all of them, or are misled slightly. We do see Holmes do actual investigating and detection work, and some of the conclusions he reaches are hinted at. We realise that there is a thinking process going on. But many of these writers don’t manage to do any of that, so you end up with a crime, a visit by Holmes, him solving it and the criminal being caught, and then Holmes explaining absolutely everything to us…

I’ll mention the decent ones: a very good yarn by Michael Moorcock the SF writer, The Adventure of the Dorset Street Lodger, and Barrie Roberts’ The Mystery of the Addleton Curse, which links in nicely with the contemporary work of the Curies into radioactivity; Michael Doyle’s further development of The Musgrave Ritual, one of only two stories in the canon narrated by Holmes, and The Adventure of the Bulgarian Diplomat by Zakaria Erzinclioglu isn’t bad either. Avoid the rest; you have been warned.

Throwing out the encyclopaedias or, accessing information today

June 22, 2016

I used to collect reference books, so that I could easily access information, and have it at my fingertips whenever I needed it. Now they gather dust on my shelves and I’m gradually getting rid of them all. Yes, the internet has rendered most of them obsolete, and I found myself thinking about the enormous change that has taken place in the accessing of information in the last twenty years or so.

I grew up needing to use libraries to find things out – the public library, the library at school; they had the reference books, the encyclopaedias, the directories. Gradually, as I could afford them, and became clearer about what would be useful, I began to acquire my own copies of selected works. I’ve worn out a couple of copies of Chambers English Dictionary, one of the Shorter Oxford, and a couple of editions of the Times Atlas… I have reference books on language, literature, Bach, travel and exploration, to name a few. There is something different about using reference books: as well as searching for specific information, one can enjoy browsing, and one can be side-tracked down interesting back alleys whilst searching. The web doesn’t facilitate this.

Pretty nearly every reference book is supplanted by what’s available online, in a much more up-to-date form – apart from a good atlas: Google Earth is no substitute for a good printed map, though it can, of course, do many things that my trusty atlas can’t.

Now, on my desktop, my laptop, my tablet or my phone, I can find out what I’m looking for in seconds, and the information is (usually) current. Wikipedia is a marvel (who uses the Britannica now? how many people have even heard of what used to be the gold standard in print, hawked to unsuspecting parents by doorstep salesmen for years? Twenty-four, and then thirty-two volumes of high quality knowledge, that you can’t give away now. Not only can I go straight to what I want, but the printed information is enhanced by illustrations, diagrams and filmclips. Instead of trawling through pages of information or a huge index to track down a single nugget, if my search terms are carefully-enough worded, it’s there, instantly. And yet, as I noted earlier, it’s not the same as the physical search through a printed book, where we may serendipitously come across something far more interesting.

I would have said that books were probably better for more detailed information, but I think the web now wins here, too: there are some astonishingly detailed articles, some wonderful, lovingly developed and maintained websites (I’m particularly thinking of the superb Bach Cantatas website) that far surpass weighty printed volumes. And then there are the links, which we take for granted, expect to find, that can take us far beyond the scope of that initial website, in an instant. Knowledge isn’t a walled garden any more: it’s no longer only in this book, if you know the book exists and can get your hands on a copy…

I know I’ve expressed reservations about some aspects of electronic media in previous posts; there are things I do feel very wary of. I am beginning to think there are two internets out there, the trashier social media/ entertainment/ shopping one, and the wonderful world of knowledge which far fewer people are interested in, and which never ceases to amaze me. And there are two attitudes to knowledge, too: I come from a generation where we learned and remembered things, squirrelling facts away on our own personal hard drives and able to recall them when we needed to; today’s younger people, it seems to me, are quite happy not so much to know facts as to know where to find out things if and when they need to; that’s quite a change too, and I don’t think we fully understand the implications of that…

R A Bagnold: Libyan Sands

June 22, 2016

41C2r-8YDZL._AC_US160_I’ve had this book on my ‘wanted’ list for several years, and finally came across a secondhand copy unexpectedly. It’s a classic of desert exploration, and set in my favourite desert, the Sahara.

A groups of British army officers in the late 1920s and early 1930s really do not seem to have much official work to do and appear to be allowed sizeable amounts of time to mount expeditions to explore and map large areas of the desert, in Egypt and the Sudan and towards the Libyan border (Libya being an Italian colony at the time). The group varies in composition over the years and the various expeditions recounted, but Bagnold was always a member.

A particularly fascinating aspect of their travels is that they were the first to explore the Sahara in cars, initially using Fords which they had bought themselves, and when you see some of the photographs of the vehicles, you do wonder how they ever managed with such primitive-seeming transport – we are in days long before the Land Rover and such all-terrain vehicles. So they are not only exploring uncharted terrain, but are also experimenting to see just what cars are capable of achieving in places where there are literally no roads, only sand; they discover the different kinds of sand and how navigable they are, and how to excavate their bogged-down cars, too. They learn how to create fuel and food dumps to allow them to extend the range of their travels; they camp out in the desert; they encounter native tribes; they create real maps of vast areas of desert out of vague sketches, rumours and hearsay.

It’s fascinating, in a low-key sort of way, if you see what I mean, and clearly their logistical skills as army officers stood them in very good stead in terms of making a success of a number of expeditions; they had also been involved in the Middle East during the First World War, so did have some familiarity with and understanding of what they faced.

There are some maps accompanying the text but they are not very well-reproduced, sadly, and are not as helpful as I would have liked in terms of following the various journeys. This often seems to be the case with travel classics that are rediscovered and republished: the high-quality maps that came with the original editions are far too expensive to reproduced and so are either omitted or crudely copied.

When you have read a fair bit about Western explorations of such areas and terrain as I have over a number of years, it’s very gratifying to see the various pieces of the jigsaw coming together over time and place, and the knowledge and description of the area being completed. It’s also useful to remember that this knowledge and discovery is Western, to be seen in terms of control, and for future reference – for example the desert campaigns of the Second World War. The knowledge and understanding of the terrain, the track, trails, oases and what else it contains, of the local inhabitants was something completely different, known for centuries and suited to their very different needs. Nothing is value-neutral.

David Crystal: Spell It Out

June 21, 2016

51p7rzC0mSL._AC_US160_Teaching (or attempting to teach) spelling was part of my job throughout my career, and it was quite important to me to encourage students to be as accurate as possible. I tried to adopt a structured approach to teaching spelling – in fact worked my way through a number of what I thought were structured approaches; I felt that I met with a certain amount of success, and yet, according to David Crystal, I was not going about it the right way. After reading his book, I have to agree with him (mostly)…

I have always been a good speller, never having any real problems with any aspect of it: once I’ve met a word in print, it sticks along with its spelling. I’ve put this down to the way my memory works – maybe photographically for spelling – and the fact that I read a lot (!) This hasn’t always made it easy for me to be sympathetic to those who clearly found it all much more of a struggle, but I did try.

Crystal presents the history of the development of spelling in English, through the varied influences of Latin, Greek, Anglo-Saxon, Norman French, the Great Vowel Shift and a whole host of other factors, including a number of well-intentioned but wrong-headed attempts to reform, to structure and to standardise spelling. We can thus see how the rules and the anomalies and the myriad exceptions came about, and how they cause problems for the unwary and the non-native English speaker. I thought I knew quite a lot about our language and its history, and yet it all came across as much more complicated than I had known. The book – like many others of his – is clear, well-written and explained, and copiously illustrated with examples.

He also makes some suggestions as to how spelling might be better taught and learned, as well as recognising that it’s not a fixed thing, but changing and evolving over time, pointing out that electronic communication and the internet are forces that tend both to standardise and also to allow more rapid evolution of spelling. Context is important for teaching spelling – so all those lists of words in isolation so beloved of English teachers are not that helpful; an understanding of some basic principles of etymology is useful, so clearly a knowledge of Latin would be a help. I’m not holding my breath on this one, but it’s another of those factors that must have helped me, coming, as I did from a generation of students who needed O Level Latin to embark on an arts degree…

If I’d read this book whilst still working, I would have made some major changes to how I went about teaching spelling. It’s a useful book for the interested general reader as well as for teachers, I think.

Robert Lee Hall: Exit Sherlock Holmes

June 21, 2016

51d0C5nHaNL._AC_US160_I’m an incurable Holmes addict. Now that I know the canon thoroughly, I’ve begun to explore the imitators, and there have been plenty of writers who took Conan Doyle’s heroes and wrote stories of their own, extending the characters and the stories with varying degrees of success; I’ve reviewed several in this blog at different times, including Anthony Horowitz’s two novels, and the collection of stories about the rivals of Sherlock Holmes that dates from the 1970s.

Horowitz’s Moriarty takes as its premise the idea that the arch-villain did not perish in the confrontation with Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls; so did this earlier novel. Although Conan Doyle did not originally intend either man to survive the fall, public pressure caused him to resurrect our hero after a number of years, by inventing a semi-plausible escape from death and an account of the intervening years, and if Holmes could have escaped death then surely so might his rival. And, whereas Horowitz focuses on Moriarty alone, to the exclusion of Holmes and Watson (and the great deception of some expectant readers) Robert Lee Hall brings us Holmes, but with a difference.

I’d never have come across this novel or known of its existence if I hadn’t been on holiday; it’s one of those books you come across in a holiday cottage, left for those holidaymakers without their own reading matter (or who’ve finished it all, like yours truly).

Apeing Conan Doyle’s style is difficult for a non-Victorian writer, as we find with Horowitz’s The House of Silk; Lee Hall begins well, quite convincingly, but pretty soon, after he’s got his plot under way, he lets go of careful attention to the style, and it rapidly becomes sub-par twentieth-century prose.

Watson, aware only that Moriarty is on the loose again and that Holmes must vanish because he is in imminent peril, finds himself investigating Holmes’ mysterious past and discovers that Holmes is not really who he seems to be, and that he has deceived Watson many times over the years of their friendship; it’s an attempt at a meta-narrative of Holmes’ life and career, and, lest I spoil the plot for anyone minded to try and track down a copy to read, I shan’t say too much other than mention a link to a writer contemporary of Conan Doyle’s, namely HG Wells, and a sideways glance to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

I’m glad I read it; it was compulsive, kept me engaged to the very end even as I kept finding faults and flaws in the style and language; it was a very interesting tangent to take on Holmes and Watson and their relationship, and, in the end, I could only wish that it had been rather better written.

There is the canon – the sacred texts from the real Watson via Conan Doyle; there are the rivals in similar vein, and there are the imitators. With all that, I think I have a few more years of fun and entertainment to come…

Travels in the Reich 1933-45

June 20, 2016

41H1vwMh-LL._AC_US160_This is a serious, academic book, originally published in German, with a detailed introduction and full critical apparatus, and now available in English; it’s a collection of travel writing, accounts by a number of writers and journalists describing, either briefly or in depth, their experiences, impressions and opinions as they travelled in Nazi Germany. It’s in two sections: travels before the outbreak of the Second World War, and travels after that date.

It’s travel writing then, the kind of writing that I’ve been enjoying for years, but with a difference. Some of the writers travel voluntarily to the Reich, others are sent there, as journalists, reporters, business travellers. Before the war, almost anyone can go – unless for some reason they are persona non grata to the authorities; after the outbreak of the war, clearly some nationalities cannot go; neutrals like the Swiss or the Swedes still can, as can Americans until 1941, and also collaborators from occupied countries.

What’s also different, of course, is the effect of hindsight. Of course, whatever one reads, travel writing included, from years ago, is read through the light of intervening years. But the hindsight involved here is inevitably so much weightier, particularly when we have the impression that a writer is being deceived, or is deceiving her/himself. ‘How could they be so blind?’ we feel, unreasonably.

I was also led to reflect on the difference between history books, accounts of events written some time after, when a bigger picture has emerged and it is perhaps possible to make value judgements, and contemporary accounts of events, perhaps as published in newspapers of the time itself, when events are still unfolding and the final outcome is not yet clear to the participants, though of course we now know everything. There is an immediacy, and an openness, precisely because of that limited or non-existent perspective, without that hindsight which acts as a corrective and which shapes our judgements; if we really want to know how events, times and places felt to those who lived through them, we cannot do better than read contemporary accounts.

Some years ago – the internet is wonderful – I came across scans of newspapers published in Poland as the Germans invaded in September 1939. As the enemy advanced and the destruction and chaos worsened, the newspapers quickly shrank in size, down to two pages, a single side, and by October vanished completely – conquered Slavs did not need to read. This was a perspective I had never thought about; a line in a history book could have told me this happened, but I saw it briefly, much more clearly and effectively, through contemporary eyes.

Some of the pieces in the book are quite chilling. Sometimes we see a writer’s eyes opened as they travel, the scales falling from their eyes as they finally see through what is really happening. Sometimes we see them deluded; sometimes we come across perspectives we haven’t met before. It really is a fascinating collection; the introduction is excellent and most of the pieces are well worth our time and attention.

Henry Fielding: Tom Jones

June 20, 2016

51DKBemKOJL._AC_US160_For a couple of years or so, I’ve felt it was time to revisit Tom Jones, Fielding’s masterpiece and a landmark in the development of the English novel; I saved it up for a holiday, when I knew I wouldn’t be dragged away from it by daily routine and trivia.

I’ve always gone with Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) being the first real novel in English; Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) follows; Fielding is roughly thirty years later, and how far the novel has developed is astonishing. Fielding is constantly interacting with his readers, creating humour, and summing up various aspects of life and the human condition with witty aphorisms: I found myself thinking, ‘surely Jane Austen must have read Fielding?’

There is a real – and very complicated – plot here (someone, I have forgotten who, has called it the most perfect plot in all literature) unlike the linear narrative of Robinson Crusoe or Gulliver’s Travels; we follow characters then leave them and move on to another thread, then come back to it – here is a writer learning how to create suspense, to keep his readers hooked, to develop subplots. He’s also aware of how he is manipulating us, as he lets us into the secrets of an author’s choices, all of which writers eventually came to conceal from their readers under the mask of so-called ‘realism’, or verisimilitude, and it’s only later in the twentieth century that writers come back to this sort of conversation with their readers, and acknowledge openly that fiction is just that, a creation.

Characterisation is also being developed, through description, dialogue and continuity; good and bad characters emerge, likeable and detestable ones too. Stratagems and deception figure quite strongly. And conversation begins to come into its own. Differentiation between direct and reported speech still hasn’t clarified itself fully – and blurring this distinction can sometimes serve narrative purpose, as we eventually see Jane Austen doing to great effect the following century – but we hear characters having real conversations and arguments, and these, too, advance and develop the story in interesting ways.

In other ways, it’s still quite crude: the hero’s progress resembles picaresque narrative much of the time; the plot lines are tenuous at times, as quite early on we realise that the hero and heroine must eventually be allowed to marry; we follow Fielding’s whims through multiple epic Virgilian similes, which amuse slightly but are basically padding. And, it’s almost as if he gets tired of it all as we finally gallop at an incredible pace to the denouement, which smacks a bit too much of the deus ex machina, except that various subtle hints and pointers have actually been very carefully sown and then lost at various points in the story…

Whilst on holiday in Lyme Regis and reading the novel I learned that various aspects of the plot may well derive from Fielding’s own life story, as apparently he tried to seduce and then marry a young woman in that very town (there is a blue plaque on a wall to commemorate (?) him or the failed enterprise).

It’s a wonderful and relatively easy read, I feel; we see a writer working out how to bring his characters to a happy conclusion, and I can forgive Fielding his flaws and verbosity and almost anything else for the sheer brilliance of the character of Squire Western, perhaps the first and certainly one of the best comic characters in the history of the novel…

Gandar Dower: Amateur Adventure

June 20, 2016

51LtNqhagvL._AC_US160_Another of the cerise Penguins, source of some of the earliest travel writing of the twentieth century. It’s a fairly brief and rather pedestrian account, from the early 1930s, of what was apparently the first flight from London to Madras. It was not a direct flight: it involved many legs and stopovers and a rather convoluted route, with organising petrol, visas and permissions in advance being of paramount importance…

Our heroes – for there are two of them in the plane, an accomplished pilot and a rather inexperienced one, one who prefers flying over land and the other who prefers being over the sea – eventually do arrive in India without too many mishaps. The writer rhapsodises about flying over the deserts – quite a lot of desert – and that was good enough for me, and I quickly warmed to his laconic and dry sense of humour. Sadly, there was no map to accompany and track their journey. But, as an insight into the early days of long-distance flight and the difficulties involved, as well as the fragilities of the aircraft, it was illuminating.

How good is Hamlet?

June 1, 2016

Hamlet is probably Shakespeare’s best-known play, most famous play, even. The hero’s role is a target for young actors to play while they are still young enough to convince an audience. The hero is possibly a likeable hero, more so than Othello, Lear, Macbeth or Mark Antony. But I have found myself wondering a number of times whether the play is really Shakespeare’s best

A youthful hero, plus some love interest – depending on how well the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia is hinted at and played. Surely Othello, and Anthony and Cleopatra are in with a chance here?

Shakespeare has a lot of themes up in the air in the play: a man’s duty (or not) to revenge his father’s murder. And yet, perhaps not so relevant today? A corrupt country, full of spies and surveillance. A hero who delays action, who is indecisive – perhaps an idea that many would be able to identify with. A hero with a very complex relationship with his mother, though this is also perhaps less in the foreground since Freud went out of fashion. A play about mental states, instability and madness; a play about acting, pretending and dissembling… Certainly there is a great deal here.

And yet, I find that others of Shakespeare’s major tragedies have even more to say, move me even more deeply. Othello explores sexual jealousy and its consequences; although many of us have perhaps experienced this feeling, we have not responded in like manner. King Lear looks at the duties of children towards their parents and shows us ingratitude. Macbeth explores ambition: if we are ambitious, presumably we have not gone as far as he did, to achieve our goals? Love or infatuation in older age and the messes it can get one into: Antony and Cleopatra.

But those are only ideas, you may object: what about the characters, and their relationships, presented to us on stage? Hamlet and his mother, Hamlet and Ophelia, for me pale before the power of the entanglement of Othello and Iago, his tortured relationship with Desdemona, and the touching closeness between Emilia and Desdemona. I think there’s a closer exploration of relationships between father and children with King Lear and his daughters, and it’s counterpointed by the pairing of Edmund and Edgar. And I find the interplay between Antony and Cleopatra, between Antony and Octavius, between Cleopatra and her women all quite riveting in different ways.

Is it Hamlet’s youth that grips us, the young man with an impossible dilemma, the burden placed on his shoulders that he cannot cope with? Is it just that the play is too familiar that I feel it’s over-rated, that I feel a little jaundiced about it, in comparison with the other plays I’ve mentioned? Is it because I’m older than Hamlet and can no longer relate to his cause?

Feelings at the end of the plays: usually I feel a sense of loss at the end of Hamlet. I feel overwhelmed at the end of Othello, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra. Only Macbeth leaves me uninterested.

I’d be very interested in others’ thoughts on this one. It nags at me, won’t go away and I’m unclear what to think. At the moment my verdict is good, but by no means the best.

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