Archive for August, 2016

National Geographic

August 30, 2016

I read magazines as well as books: not very many of them as it’s getting harder to find anything really satisfying or stimulating nowadays. I’ve just given up on National Geographic, which I’ve subscribed to for the last five years or so. The final straw was its acquisition by Rupert Murdoch’s empire of evil, but it had begun to pall before that news.

When I was much younger, coming across the occasional copy was a real treat: the magazine was quite serious, old-fashioned-looking, even, and was renowned for its cartography, often including high-quality maps in issues, as well as for its stunning photography. And, as I recall, it was mainly about the physical world – it was the journal of the National Geographical Society, after all. It’s rather different now. Over the past couple of years, the emphasis seems to have shifted more towards creatures – cuddly animals, and especially sea creatures (I’m actually totally fed up with all the articles about sharks, whales and dolphins) – and also towards more scientific subjects, biological in particular. And since Mr Murdoch bought it, its stance on climate and environmental issues does seem to have been sidelined somewhat, to say the least; I had been quite impressed by its serious and committed approach to such issues.

Then there’s the tendency that I’ve noticed in so many periodicals, to assume readers have the attention-span of a wasp: lots of short articles with pretty pictures, lacking any real content but filling up a lot of space. Yes, there are still serious, lengthy and in-depth features each month, but even these can seem rather lightweight once you wade through the pictures.

And it was this last point that got me thinking, and provoked this post, really: photography and our response to images has changed over the last decade or so. Whereas specialist photographers used to produce portfolios of very high-quality images, of places, buildings, objects and creatures that many of us might never get to see, today anyone can do this. I know I exaggerate here, but in the wealthy West many people now carry high-quality cameras in their smartphones and snap away wherever they happen to be and post their pictures on social media, so nothing seems quite as special or as stunning any more, and I suspect the only thing that might really wow us would be to go to the place itself. There are so many very good travel documentaries on television as well, meaning that what quality photography can do in a serious magazine has also been undermined…

So my impression is that a magazine such as National Geographic has rather less of a purpose or a niche than it used to have, and that it seems to be dumbing itself down as it seeks to retain a place in the magazine market, which is a shame.

Heiko A Oberman: Luther

August 30, 2016

517E2TV6GBL._AC_US200_I should probably give up on reading religious history, because I never seem to achieve the clarity I’m looking for. It will be 500 years next year since Martin Luther’s famous 95 theses started the Reformation, splitting western Christendom irreparably and in England leading to cultural vandalism of an order that parallels that wrought in other lands by ISIS and the Taliban in more recent years.

So, what am I looking to find out? What Luther and associates actually disagreed with Rome about, in theological terms, the question of justification and righteousness, and whether by faith alone or by good works too. The well-known stuff about the horrendous abuses and immoralities of the mediaeval church is easier to take on board.

This book clearly demonstrates how religious reform and politics were inextricably tied up with the evolution and development of the modern nation-state, which I’d deduced after a fashion, but never been fully clear about: across the whole of Europe, people were seeking independence from Rome’s interference, the spiritual trying to usurp the temporal, and what’s more, some attempting to do this whilst remaining Catholic, while others moved definitively away from the church. It’s very detailed and probing in its survey of what is known of Luther’s life and the development of his thought and theology, and presents new knowledge and insights: the theological wranglings remain incredibly difficult to follow, even for someone who has read quite a bit in this field, both history and theology. He catalogues the wider ramifications of events, and debunks a good number of long-held myths, too. It was news to me how much of a millenarian Luther was, as well as how increasingly anti-Jewish he became.

And the nit-picking… how many angels can you fit on the head of a pin? The more I read, the more I’m astonished at the twisting and perverting of what we think was the original basis of Christianity: the heresies, the councils, the definitions, the religious bureaucracy, the torturing and killing of those who dared to question or disagree… it does seem utterly bonkers. In a few days I shall be visiting some of the Cathar sites in southern France. They were a Christian sect annihilated by the Church in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, with a Catholic bishop famously instructing troops to kill everyone in a captured town without distinguishing between heretics and true believers, on the grounds that “God will recognise his own”…

What the reformers were not interested in doing was going back to the origins, the church of the earliest days of Christianity: too many vested interests involved there. It all does seem, sadly, to have been as much about grabbing temporal power and wealth, at least for those not actually inventing the new theologies. An interesting, and difficult book.

On reading – or not reading – fantasy (continued)

August 27, 2016

51-r1hfIqeL._AC_US174_And then I remembered Philip Pullman, and Philip Reeve and Jorge Luis Borges, and therefore needed to think a bit more…

The Northern Lights trilogy is surely fantasy – it’s certainly not science fiction in any extrapolative sense that I know, and yet it’s also anchored in our reality, in the sense that it’s set in a parallel universe (or even several of these) resembling our own but different in key ideas, too. So there is an Oxford University that’s not quite like the one a couple of hundred miles from here, and the idea that humans can have souls that are creatures and physically visible is intriguing, fascinating even, but definitely not within the realms of the possible or probable. Philip Reeve’s rapacious mobile cities are a marvellous setting for his novels. And Borges’ imagination is utterly out of this world, flights of fantasy and imagination that are vertiginous, bizarre, thought-provoking… and lightyears from reality. The Library of Babel contains every book that has been and could be written in its myriad rooms, and, thanks to a computer programmer with an imagination, can actually be visited here.


So, I’m at least partly back with my choices and my prejudices here, having been used to looking down on fantasy as being less serious than real science fiction, or any other form of literature. Having had my fill of Tolkien at a very early age and never having felt moved to bother with Harry Potter (cue gasps from various directions) I’ve sidelined a whole genre. Just like I’ve sidelined various other kinds of writing which you haven’t read me blogging about, and about which I’m now old enough to use the feeble excuse ‘I don’t have the eyeball time for that…’

More seriously, now. The Name of the Wind was slow to start and took a long while to get into, but once I did, I found myself enjoying it much more than I expected to. Most of the novel is actually ‘backstory’, its narration rather crudely contrived, but well-told and engaging; when the real story occasionally intrudes, it’s much cruder and less interesting. It was a good yarn, escapist, with some interesting characters, encounters, rivalries and so forth. I wanted to know what happened, so plot drew me inexorably to the end. What the book didn’t do – couldn’t do? – and what I think left me ultimately unsatisfied, was to make me think. Because the characters and their adventures, entertaining as they were, didn’t really matter to me. There are clearly intended to be several more very long volumes in a series, but I was not convinced that the writer fully knew how he intended to develop or conclude his story.

To try and flesh this judgement out further, I’ll draw a comparison with The Northern Lights. The idea of, the possibility of parallel universes I find fascinating: how might they be just oh so slightly different from our own? The idea of sin or evil being seen as physical matter in the ‘dust’ and its link to the ideas of innocence and experience in the Blakean sense nags away at me each time I re-read. To be able to shift from one universe to another. The idea that organised religion is some overt conspiracy to enslave the mind and spirit, that we may perhaps seek to free ourselves from. I know I oversimplify grossly here, but these are exciting ideas to wrangle with, and Pullman draws me in, interests me, makes me really care about all his characters, and leaves me gutted as the hero and heroine part forever… this is fantasy of another order. And I cannot get away from the feeling that it’s because Pullman’s novels are somehow connected to and anchored in our world even while not being of it, that engages me so deeply…

On not reading fantasy

August 26, 2016

I’m not really a reader of fantasy. I devoured Lord of the Rings forty years ago; it took me two days while I had ‘flu, and I’ve never been tempted to go back to it. I really enjoyed Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy (back when it was only a trilogy) but again, haven’t been tempted to revisit. I’ve just read Patrick RothfussThe Name of the Wind which was recommended and lent to me. It got me thinking: what have I got against fantasy?

As stories, they’re fine – they draw you along, you want to know what’s going to happen. The characters are inevitably interesting, because they bear little resemblance to reality: you never know what you’re going to get, and verisimilitude isn’t high on the list of fantasy writers. Although they can be a bit thin or wooden at times, if truth be told. It’s a similarity fantasy shares with science-fiction: characterisation has never been a strongpoint. Places and settings are interesting, too, though for some reason almost inevitably mediaeval. A setting in some imaginary, yet at the same time recognisable past, helps sustain an air of mystery – those days are so long ago that not everything can be known…a time of potions and poisons and spells and superstitions. However, because the world is so different from our own, alien if you like, many things about it require lengthy explanations, just as various elements of utopias do; this explaining can be interestingly or tiresomely done.

Ultimately, I think that it’s the lack of any anchor in reality as I know it that lessens my interest. This may seem strange given my penchant for SF, which I’ve blogged about before, but it bears thinking about. Science fiction does have links to our actual existing world. It may connect on the technological level, but moving us a few years into the future. It may speculate, or extrapolate from current events and issues, considering possible futures for us and our world. It may even attempt to visualise a utopia, and how such a state may be attained.

Fantasy allows itself a much freer rein: there will be a world, which in some ways bears a physical resemblance to our own, in that it will have human beings of a sort, though perhaps endowed with powers which do not exist on our world; it will have families, houses, towns and villages just as we do, and flora and fauna, though again these may or may not be the ones we know: they can be invented quite freely just for difference’ sake… Inevitably there will be conflicts, though conducted with weapons we may not recognise, and against all kinds of unrecognisable foes. Because the world is mediaeval, heroes (of the ancient kind) are possible.

Is there something wrong with me, that I cannot or do not want to cope with so many unknowns? Or is it, more likely, just force of habit, reading patterns developed and honed over a lifetime, that have no place for fantasy in the same way that they have no room for Mills and Boon? Perhaps I cannot empathise sufficiently with characters and situations too far from my own experience. I do need to care in some way about the people in the stories I read, and for that to happen, there need to be some connections with me and my world. Perhaps I’m saying that for me, reading serves a different purpose?

I can’t claim that I don’t like my literature to be escapist, when I can immerse myself in detective fiction, or science fiction. And yet, I don’t choose to read fantasy. What is going on?

To be continued…

People of the Book (2)

August 21, 2016

I’ve read the Bible several times; basically, the Old Testament is the Jewish scriptures, the ‘old dispensation’ that was superseded by the advent of Christ. It’s a curious hotch-potch of very different things, and is also pretty violent in places. I have always liked the stories I first came across when very young, the stories that, sadly, children do not seem to meet any more at school, from the five books of Moses: Adam and Eve and all the subsequent tales, Noah, Joseph and his brothers, Moses and lots more. And if you wonder why children should meet these stories, it’s because they are part of our cultural heritage and historical past: though we may no longer be a Christian country, those beliefs and stories have inescapably shaped our world, and we need to know them.

But then, there’s the strangeness of Leviticus, with all the minutiae of Jewish ritual observances, and all the marauding and battles and infighting in the books of Samuel and Kings and elsewhere, which I find very tedious and tiresome and not very edifying at all.

The prophets I find weird, basically, full of gloom, warnings and threats, admonishing wayward people in a very similar manner to some of the rather hectoring passages in the Qur’an; basically telling people that if you don’t do what you are told, you will meet a sticky end. Thus have people been oppressed by religion through the ages…

For me, the best parts of the Old Testament are the various Wisdom books, which are confusingly known by a variety of different names, and some of which are also excluded from the Old Testament by Protestants and Anglicans, and labelled apocryphal, whatever that bizarre judgement and appellation might actually mean. But certain of the books, such as Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus are philosophical, reflective and capable of speaking to us across many centuries; the Psalms are often beautiful, poetic although somewhat repetitive: when I studied the poetry of Walt Whitman at university, I learned that his poetry is modelled on the Hebrew poetic style, which involves repetition which isn’t quite repetition: something is changed, modified and perhaps extended as part of the repeating, so that there is a gradual, accretive effect. It can be tiresome, but when it works it is quite beautiful, in a way totally unlike our Western styles of versification.

In some ways I find it curious the way that the New Testament is tagged onto the end of the Old. I know it’s meant to be the fulfilment of many of the earlier prophecies, an extension or replacement for what went before, and so we need to know what there was before. There is such a difference in tone and also in structure. There are five narrative books – the Gospels and Acts, then all the epistles to the new churches, then the weirdness of the Revelation, and that’s it. And by and large it’s free from violence and warfare, apart from the Revelation.

Raised a Catholic, I know the gospels pretty well, at least in terms of the stories. Coming back to them many years later, I notice how they have different foci: one presents Jesus as a worker of wonders and miracles, another emphasises his teachings and preachings, another reminds us as often as he can how Jesus is fulfilling all those Old Testament prophecies. So we get several different portraits of the man. There is overlap and difference, and, if one digs into detail in the way Geza Vermes does, for instance, then there are also plenty of contradictions and inconsistencies. And yet, there is clearly a very powerful story, of a thinker who offered a different way of living, and of looking at the world and life, a teacher with something revolutionary to say to people, who offered hope then and for many continues to do so now… and then there is the story of what happened after his death. I have to say that I cannot believe in a virgin birth or a resurrection from the dead, but that lack of belief does not diminish for me the power of the ideas and the message.

Unravelling the truth about what really happened is very difficult because so little was written, and a long time after the events; we have no way of knowing what was suppressed or destroyed. Clearly his followers thought his message was worth keeping alive; when we get onto St Paul and his epistles, I do begin to wonder: here’s an interloper almost, someone who wasn’t there and who never knew Jesus and yet who issues all sorts of edicts and instructions, who interprets and glosses, for his own purposes; I’ve always been uneasy with almost all he wrote, and that’s without looking at the misogyny. And the Revelation is just seriously bonkers; for my money it makes most of Hunter S Thompson’s wilder ravings seem positively normal and balanced… All in all the Bible is a curious book to place at the centre of a religion; I find the Catholic balance between scripture and tradition, or the Quaker one between scripture and the workings of the Spirit rather more convincing and comforting…

People of the Book (1)

August 20, 2016

Quite a few years ago I came across the lovely concept of ‘the people of the book’, which is a term Muslims use to identify a commonality between themselves, Jews and Christians: we all share a belief in a single God and have communication from that God in scriptural writings which form a central place in our religions; furthermore, those scriptures share many stories and events. This would not be difficult, given that those faiths all arose and developed in the same area of the world. But the concept is an important one, and it has affected the ways in which Islam has responded to, and treated its ‘fellow religions’.

Islam seems generally, in the past, to have been pretty tolerant to the two other faiths. Clearly they weren’t regarded as equal to Islam, and Christians and Jews in Muslim territory were usually subject to various regulations and restrictions, and had to pay an extra tax, but were then allowed to get on with their lives and practise their faith relatively undisturbed. Christians do not ever seem to have been that tolerant, behaving rather with the belief that anyone who didn’t adhere to a particular flavour of it was damned, and needed forcibly to be converted so they could be ‘saved’, whatever that might mean…

A consequence of the Catholic reconquista of Spain in 1492 – the final re-conquest of all the territory from Muslims who had ruled large tracts of Spain for the previous seven centuries – was the forced conversion or expulsion of Muslims and Jews from the newly recovered country. In my lifetime, as a young Catholic, prayers were regularly said ‘for the conversion of the Jews’…

I have been interested in the Qur’an as scripture sacred to a faith for many years. When I was a child, a workmate of my father’s, a recent immigrant from Pakistan, visited us and brought his copy to our house to show us; I was fascinated by the veneration with which he treated the holy book, and its physical beauty. In my later years I have read an English version of it – I found it difficult, because of the repetitive style. I’ve also listened to a recording of an English version a couple of times, which was much easier and more interesting – it is a book designed to be recited, after all.

Many of the stories we are perhaps familiar with from the Bible are also to be found in the Qur’an: the emphasis or the details may be slightly different as may the names, but they are shared, as they would be, coming from the same part of the world and the same peoples. Mary the mother of Jesus is mentioned far more times here than in the New Testament.

It is a very repetitive book, as one might expect from a book intended to be memorised and recited; it is very exhortatory, the voice of God telling his people to do this or do that or else face the consequences, and those consequences are often dire. In my recollection it’s no more or less violent than the Old Testament, and I did have the strong impression that the strictness and the threats were tempered with mercy offered to anyone who sought or deserved it: Allah is the Beneficent and the Merciful. And just as so much of the Christian scripture is open to multiple interpretation, it’s clear from the modern Muslim world that their scripture is just as open…

For Muslims, Jesus is a prophet to be revered along with other prophets; he died but did not come back to life. And Muhammad is the last in the line of the prophets, and his revelation, revealed from God, is on a par with that of the other prophets, but perhaps has added significance because it is the last one.

Being a teacher: from idealism to responsibility

August 14, 2016

I remember that when I decided to train as a teacher, it was because of my love of reading and literature, and a desire to pass this on to others, to share my enjoyment. It now seems rather naive and idealistic, but it sustained me through training, teaching practice, and ultimately a career which was very satisfying and which I would not have exchanged for any other.

I always wanted to encourage students to think for themselves, to discuss, to argue, to disagree, and come to logical conclusions. I wanted them to enjoy my subject, as well as to learn how to read critically, write accurately, and express themselves in public. I hoped to foster a spirit of independence; I wanted students to use their minds and intellects; I wanted to challenge them, and – just as important – to be challenged by them. I often succeeded in this last aim, and it was one of the things that kept me on my toes, as I strove to remain one step ahead…tiring but very rewarding.

I also worked with trainee teachers and new teachers, and saw many have problems establishing the right rapport with pupils and students, who actually don’t want their teacher to be their friend or equal. I also initially had some problems with striking the balance between familiarity and distance, but I also understood that I was an expert who had knowledge to offer and impart. Students need to know that there are clear boundaries, and what these are, before any good relationship between them and a teacher is possible; once the parameters of that relationship are clear, then a relaxed atmosphere for real learning and discussion will be established. I could and did erupt with great fury if certain limits were transgressed, and never did feel guilty about this (it was a rare occurrence); the point is that if the class were clear about why that happened, once the incident was over we could all heave a sigh of relief and get back to where we had been before. This also led me to realise that it’s really important for a teacher – who is the grown-up in the classroom after all – not to bear grudges or hold resentment or dislike of a student, who must be allowed the possibility of starting over again.

In a classroom, everyone should respect everyone else; in a discussion, all have a right to express an opinion and not to be mocked or shouted down by anyone. And if an unacceptable opinion was voiced – racist, sexist or whatever – then it should not go unchallenged, yet the challenge must clearly be to the idea not the person. It’s easy to say this; clearly I achieved some of it by being a male with a loud voice and the initial power of authority, but that’s not the basis for a sustained and healthy learning situation; I think I usually managed to make it clear that I objected to an idea rather than the student.

I believed it was always important to be honest and truthful – although there were questions which I felt were off-limits (usually personal ones – again, I have the right to a private life without being too precious about it, and “that’s none of your business” isn’t really a helpful line here) and this meant that there could be no censorship in my classroom. I would explain that we could discuss any subject that came up, as long as the class was capable of approaching it sensibly, with an appropriate level of maturity and sensitivity. And they almost always were; if not, we moved briskly on. And so, many topics were explored in my classroom that I knew other colleagues would not touch, that produced raised eyebrows if mentioned in the staffroom. If given a safe setting, year nine pupils were perfectly capable of discussing homosexuality, drug use, abortion, race or any other hot potato quite rationally and sensibly.

I suppose I never really attempted to conceal my left-wing views; given what I said in the previous paragraph, it would have been difficult. Equally, I knew I had a responsibility not to propagandise or indoctrinate. I often used to play devil’s advocate in order to broaden the scope of a discussion or range of views; if asked my opinion I would explain it clearly and then invite questions, comments, challenges; I would often state that “other views are available”. Only once do I recall being taken to task by a parent who felt that I was pushing my views onto a class because I had criticised a certain Margaret Thatcher. We had a lengthy and interesting exchange of views, and I think she accepted what I was trying to do, in the end.

I accepted that students didn’t have to like me, and some didn’t; they didn’t have to enjoy reading, and quite a lot didn’t; they didn’t have to like my subject, though many did, and I will admit to many moments of disappointment when English wasn’t on a student’s list to continue into the sixth form, but students have career choices to make and they would always continue to read, anyway…

It’s only with the passage of time, as my career drew to a close, that I gradually came to realise what an immense responsibility I had. It took quite a number of years before I realised that I had garnered a wealth of knowledge and experience about relating to and dealing with awkward teenagers, whereas parents were meeting issues for the first time as their offspring hit the teens, and that they often sought advice. It became trickier when I saw, from a student’s perspective, unhelpful things parents were saying and doing; nevertheless it was often possible to advise them, at the same time as telling them I’d deny ever saying it if challenged by their parents…

In my previous post I mentioned that my teachers were ‘characters’; I think there’s something eccentric in most good teachers. I’m sure my former students would have much to say on this topic; I’m aware that I sneezed extremely loudly, and that I had a good line in seventeenth century verbal abuse…

A teacher’s teachers…

August 13, 2016

In some of my recent posts I’ve been reflecting on the five years since I left the teaching profession, and on my career. Sometimes, a comment from a reader has made me wish I was still in the classroom, by indirectly reminding me of something I used to enjoy, or felt I did quite well. And, as a consequence, I’ve ended up thinking about my own education and my teachers, some of whom clearly must have had an influence on the teacher I went on to become.

For a year at primary school we had Mrs Dixon as class teacher. Her husband was in the RAF so they had travelled widely, and she used to tell us tales of the different countries where they had lived. You can bet I was curious and very interested. Somewhere, in a dusty box, I think I still have a small pebble she brought me back from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

My secondary schooling was rather non-standard. I passed the 11+ and went to grammar school, but only for two years. As a good young Catholic my parish priest had marked me down as a potential priest (!) so I was despatched at diocesan expense to a junior seminary where I enjoyed an education of very variable quality, but in rather small classes, and came under the influence of three teachers who I still remember very vividly.

George (his actual name was Bernard Shaw!) was aloof and patrician, regarding us students as peasants hardly worthy of the crumbs he threw our way. But he succeeded with me at Latin and Ancient History, because he saw I liked the subjects and had some aptitude. However, it was his love of J S Bach, his cello and organ-playing that impressed me. He refused to play us any of his collection of Bach’s cantatas, because we would not appreciate them; the cello we heard because his study window was open when he played; the organ he played in the school chapel, and he couldn’t resist playing the good stuff. End of term was always ‘Nun danket’: Now thank we all our God. With fervour from him and us.

J.O, our French teacher, was a wonder. A member of a minor religious order, and from the Basque country originally, he spoke English (curiously), French, German, Spanish, Basque, Italian, Latin, Classical Greek, and was learning Russian, which he used to enjoy trying out on my father. He taught us French using textbooks from French schools – so no English explanations – and there were endless and repetitive grammar drills. But, most amazingly in those days, because it wasn’t generally done, he had us speaking the language regularly and worked very hard on our pronunciation. When we were in the sixth form, he’d record the news off French radio and use that as the basis for our lesson. He helped set me up with a pen friend and thus I got my first two visits to France. In short, he convinced me that French was a language to be spoken first of all, and that I could speak it. And I could: I set off to university to read French as part of my joint honours degree.

Joe, my English teacher, was young, recently ordained, sporting longish hair for a priest. He made Chaucer and Shakespeare work for me, another two languages I could access, if you like. At A level, he was wonderful. He chose – from the relatively limited selection – texts he liked and could enthuse about. Again, we benefitted from the teaching group being very small: he asked questions and you couldn’t hide, you had to think: later I came to realise how important this was. He questioned very well: open-ended questions, encouraging us to explore. And he knew the importance of what is now called ‘wider reading’. He encouraged us to read anything and everything; he had a huge and eclectic library from which he would lend us anything, sometimes what we chose and sometimes things he felt we ‘ought’ to read. To be handed Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn at the age of seventeen by a Catholic priest seems curious, to say the least, but what it taught me was that the teacher and the classroom shouldn’t censor anything.

All these teachers were very definitely individuals, characters who weren’t ashamed to be themselves, and let their students see them, warts and all. I left school with a love of reading which I’ve never lost, an enthusiasm for languages which sustains me now, and great curiosity about the world. I didn’t, however, go off to become a priest, but that’s another story.

The end of the world

August 12, 2016

Mary Shelley’s The Last Man is, I suggested in my last piece, possibly the first disaster novel. I found myself wondering why it should appear at that particular moment, why she should come to consider the prospect of something more powerful than humankind bringing our species to its end.41VpTTxE6aL._AC_US160_

H G Wells did something similar when he faced the world with Martians in The War of the Worlds; humanity was saved not by our efforts or powers but by microbes. M P Shiel considered the destruction of the human race in The Purple Cloud near the beginning of the twentieth century. But it’s only really since the invention and first use of nuclear weapons that the apocalyptic novel has come into its own.51qfsKHY-yL._AC_US160_51gGBhD5N6L._AC_US160_

And Shelley’s novel is different in another way: she kills off all of humanity bar one: Verney is the last man and has the two final chapters of the book to try and begin to come to terms with this; even Shiel’s hero, if my memory serves me correctly, eventually finds a companion, of the opposite sex, too, so that all can begin again. But to be the last one? Of course, never to be certain, too, for in the vastness of the world how could a single man ever check the entire rest of the planet to be sure? Why would one waste time and sanity searching?

There is a power and an attractiveness in the concept, surely, as Shelley realises, for every reader can and surely will substitute her/himself for the hapless hero of her novel: what would we do in the circumstances? Where would we go? Would we travel or settle? How might we retain our sanity? At the end of the novel, Verney sets off in his little boat to circumnavigate the Mediterranean, clinging for safety to the coastline, hoping against hope that he might meet someone…

When I was teaching, there was a novel (written for teenage readers) by Robert O’Brien called Z for Zachariah, about a young girl who is perhaps the only survivor of a nuclear and biological war which destroys the USA, apart from her small valley with its own isolated microclimate which protects her from fallout and the rest: she must survive on her own, and the focus is on the practicalities of this, a factor which occurs not at all to Mary Shelley: everything in her novel is there for the taking… In class we would explore for a while the logistics of survival – water, food, clothing, shelter, health and sanity, and whether it would all be worthwhile; we had some very interesting discussions; no two classes ever reacted in the same way, and there were many interesting and creative responses to the end of O’Brien’s novel.51YZEEACBYL._AC_US160_

There is wonderful material for fantasy in the idea that one could have the whole world to oneself: choice of house or home, country; one could go anywhere and help oneself to anything one needed, indulging oneself materially, at least. One could go on an orgy of destruction as did Shiel’s hero… and one would have, in the end, to face the same question as did Defoe’s isolated hero with only a small island for his home: what is the point of it all? Defoe’s hero turns to his God for help and reads his Bible – which of course he rescued from the wreck – nowadays we, I think, are probably more likely to revel in playing God in such circumstances…

Mary Shelley: The Last Man

August 12, 2016

41VpTTxE6aL._AC_US160_I think this is the fourth time I’ve read or listened to this strangely compelling novel. It’s so much better than Frankenstein, more leisurely paced, with more ideas and more complex characters, though still painfully overblown in the romantic strain in places. But what fascinates me most is that, as far as I’m aware, it’s the first ‘end of the world as we know it’ novel in history. (Do correct me if you know different!)

The Last Man is set in the closing decades of our current century, and ranges widely through different and challenging ideas: the future of England and how it is to be ruled, and its eventually becoming a republic when the heir to the throne steps down (though Parliament eventually votes him Lord Protector), and then the gradual disappearance of humanity with the world ravaged by seven successive years of bubonic plague.

The central characters are a group of friends centred around the ex-royal family of England and their associates; there are also various intermarriages and children, and we follow their lives, happinesses and ultimate fates over quite a lengthy period of time, which allows Shelley to develop real characters, feelings and attitudes.

As with any attempt to see far into the future, she too has problems, particularly with technology. She was looking two hundred and fifty years into the future, and yet cannot conceive of the world itself as radically different politically from her own time, so Greece’s attempts to achieve independence from the Ottoman Empire still figure prominently in the 2050s, while we hear very little of ‘the Americas’, and a love of Italy still looms large, as it did in the late eighteenth century. England is pictured as a relatively prosperous, if not semi-utopian land, and yet Shelley cannot conceive of any kind of industrial or technological progress, which surprises me, since she imagined Frankenstein’s experiments and achievements: travel is still largely by horse (when people actually need to travel), although apparently there are some Montgolfier balloon-type airships for use when speed is required, or in case of emergency. Otherwise we might well still be in 1800… England is not an industrial nation – nowhere is.

But, of course, it’s not hard science she’s interested in here, in contrast to Frankenstein; she is considering humanity under threat from an unseen enemy – plague. Medicine does not seem to have made any advances in the intervening centuries either, so the disease sweeps all before it, and all that it’s possible to do is manage the catastrophe and the depopulation. There are episodes of great heroism and also cowardice as the inevitable end approaches; the last band of 1500 English people set off for better climes in Europe, but give way to rivalries and are beset by religious mania; eventually we come to focus on the last four survivors, and then finally there is one, all alone.

I make it seem rather banal, describing it baldly thus, whereas Shelley does make us care about her characters and their fates, and does get us thinking about humanity’s reaction to total calamity; it is a compelling tale, and even the overwritten, hectically gushing and romantic sections where our emotions are wrung out in search of a response, do not diminish the overall effect of what is a rather neglected classic. Verney, the last man, writes his farewell to the world at the turn of the year 2100 at the top of the dome of St Peter’s in Rome, and then sets off into his unknown. Powerful stuff.

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