Archive for July, 2017

The anally-retentive reader…

July 31, 2017

I’ve kept a reading log for about 45 years now: I just log the date I finish reading a book and its title. I bought a very large and sturdy ledger in a sale about that long ago, and it’s served me well. So I can quite easily survey what I’ve read over the years and how much I’ve been reading – or not. And in pencil, I also note inside the back cover of each book, the date I finished reading it, which means I can always know how long it is since I read a particular book, how many times I’ve read it, or indeed if I’ve ever read it.

It’s not a lot of information, but I’ve found it interesting to note that I’m reading far less in my retirement than I originally expected to: partly, I’ve taken on board longer and more demanding books, I think, and also I have a raft of other things to occupy my time. I’d had bright ideas like spending a year re-reading Shakespeare, or a year reading science fiction, and never even got started on either of those projects. And I’ve also been astonished, when coming back to some of my old favourites, by just how long had elapsed since I last read them…

I’ve also kept an accessions register of all my books ever since I was at secondary school, which at some point when I had the spare time, got developed into a database; now I can quite easily check whether I have a particular book before I end up uselessly buying it for a second time… and I can do all the usual database things with my list of books, by author and subject-matter and so on. Dry and dull but useful, especially as I can also take a slimmed down version of it with me on my smartphone. I suppose it is also useful for insurance purposes, if anyone ever decided to steal a ton of books, or anything worse were to happen…

No doubt someone with a more statistical bent than I have might glean all sorts of useful and interesting information that I’ve never suspected; until I decide to build a second database of all the books I’ve read – some 3000 or so since my school days – that information will just lie dormant. But for the minimal amount of effort it’s taken over the years, I do commend the kind of record-keeping I’ve outlined, to serious readers out there, as a mine of useful information in all sorts of ways.

On recommendations

July 30, 2017

Do you ever get the feeling you don’t have enough time to read? Surely not…

I found myself reflecting on this because I realised how few of friends’/acquaintances’ suggestions and recommendations of books I should read I actually follow through, and also realised it hadn’t always been like this. So a brief check through my reading journal (which I’ll write about tomorrow) showed that, since the start of last year I’ve read two books recommended by my wife, two recommended by friends (and one of these books I didn’t really enjoy) and one recommended by my mother (we often swap travel writing, which we both enjoy) – out of a total of almost a hundred books read. Any other choices have been books waiting on my shelves, books suggested by others I’ve read, or have been suggested by book reviews in the press.

Back in my school and student days, when I suppose I was beginning to read seriously, friends and colleagues recommended books all the time and I devoured their suggestions; we swapped books all the time and discussed them, often at length; at university we studied them. And one of the inevitable results of that has been the development of ever more refined (picky?) personal tastes and preferences: in my sixties, I know what I like, and I’m far more reluctant to stray out of familiar paths… That initial, enthusiastic swapping, talking and recommending fostered and encouraged the growth of my own likes and dislikes: no logic, rhyme or reason to it, and it’s what got me to where I am today: why else did I reject the study of history at school, and classics at university, and go on to read English and French Literature, later on specialising in twentieth century literature and science fiction?

I suppose this is inevitable, and we could say much the same about musical tastes, choices about travelling, even work: we get to know ourselves, or construct ourselves perhaps, and settle into …ruts.

If you’ve read a few of my posts you’ll know the mix: some fiction, usually European, often translated, some science fiction, detective fiction, a lot of travel writing, some history. There’s a lot that’s missing, and that I see other bloggers who I follow, writing about – women’s writing, poetry, modern British or American fiction for starters. Pressed for an answer as to why I don’t read very much of those kinds of writing, the simple answer is ‘I don’t have the time’; it’s not an answer I’m that happy with, and there’s a stick-in-the-mud there somewhere. The only new genre I’ve taken on board in the last twenty years is travel writing, and that has been a marvellous discovery, thought-provoking and enriching.

My friends don’t recommend boring stuff; quite often a recommendation is a response to my talking about something I’ve read recently or an interest that we share, and yet it’s only occasionally that I’ll actually take up a suggestion. I have so many books I know I’ll never get around to re-reading (which helps with the occasional clear-out), so many books waiting to read, and increasingly there are books I know I would like to read but will never get around to, so I don’t bother buying them…

Making sense of it all…

July 29, 2017

I occasionally have moments of existential doubt about all the reading I do; I realise I could be spending large chunks of my life doing something else – though I have no real idea what – and I realise that one day all the carefully garnered knowledge and developed opinions will be no more than fading and ultimately extinguished electrical impulses in a no longer-existing brain… which is, I suppose, the ultimate fate of all human existence. Angst-inducing, nonetheless.

So what is it all for?

I’m a pretty fortunate human being, comfortable and retired, living in a peaceful part of the world at the moment. And I see all sorts of mayhem going on all around me, from the obscenity of warfare such as in Yemen and Syria, to the effects both current and feared of our species’ wrecking of the planet’s climate and environment; I see the rank stupidity of politicians and businessmen the world over, and the manipulation of ordinary people by selfish elites pursuing power and money. In short, something verging on dystopia.

I also look around and see marvels of human achievement: the exploration of space and the landings on the moon are my favourite examples, along with the achievements of writers like Shakespeare, the music of Bach and the paintings of Turner. I see the stunning beauty of the planet. And I find myself thinking, how have we managed to make such a pig’s ear of so much? does it always and inevitable have to be like this? Is this what the Fall was about – knowledge of good and evil?

And this is where my reading seems to come in: I’m trying to understand how we have, over time, sold our souls to the pursuit of money, riches, material goods; how we have allowed small cliques to take power, take possession of resources, oppress and kill others. And at the same time we have praised sages, wise men and religious leaders who have exhorted us to do the opposite, and not done it…

If we ignore the past, we are condemned to repeat it, said someone once. That’s it for the factual side of things. Now for the imagination:

Writers of fiction imagine things. They imagine and describe people, their world, their behaviours. And they help us to understand why people behave in the ways they do as individuals. Maybe we end up wiser at the end of a novel or a play. Writers of science fiction, and utopian fiction, go even further: they attempt to imagine and to bring to life how things might possibly be different, better.

Very often, they merely imagine the blissful future state, however, but are not able to imagine the transition from now to then, from our present to their future. Sometimes their future may seem rather dubious: who would want to live in Huxley‘s Brave New World? (Answer: quite a few of my sixth form students, at various times in the past…) Sometimes writers do try to move us from now to the future, and the way there is not smooth, is sometimes bloody.

And how do we know we will like that future? and if we do, how would we ensure it stayed like that? Given that there are so many different kinds of people, what do we do with those that don’t fit, or don’t want to fit? In Huxley’s world, the lucky ones were exiled to an island and closely supervised to see that they did not contaminate the rest of the utopia with any mischief. In Marge Piercy‘s Woman on the Edge of Time, misfits were put to death…

So I’m doing all this reading and thinking in order to try and work out how the world might be better in future, how the human race might live peaceably with itself and the rest of the species we share a planet with… in a future I’m not going to be a part of. But, it seems to me, it’s in the nature of human beings to want to think, explore, invent, discover, and through my reading I’m merely taking part in that enterprise; through this blog I’m sometimes sharing where I’ve got to with my journey; I don’t expect to make any earth-shattering discoveries, but I can remain hopeful. Is that enough? If I hadn’t done all the reading I’ve done over the last fifty years or so, I’m sure I’d have quite a few spare years, but I wouldn’t be me, and would I do anything more useful with that time?

To be continued, I suspect…

Johannes Fried: The Middle Ages

July 27, 2017

I’m starting this post with a really major gripe, that a major academic press should publish a book like this, that has been so poorly edited and so sloppily proof-read. In places it reads as if it’s been translated using google translate, with infelicities of expression and poor syntax making it at times almost incomprehensible; there are errors in some Latin expressions and in a couple of places, proof-reading annotations have been erroneously left in the final text… good grief!

The book itself is a difficult read: there’s such a huge sweep of time and material to cover that it seems impossible to corral it all coherently, and the author has to keep doubling back on himself, picking up threads he dropped for a while. And there are so many names, of tin-pot local rulers in the Europe of those times. Fried’s focus is mainly on France, Germany and Italy – or the areas that comprise those nations today – and in some ways that’s understandable, as the core of the story was there, and the rest of the continent was peripheral.

And yet – it’s really good. It challenged me, and the picture I’d had of the Middle Ages, almost through my entire reading life. It is a revisionist approach, countering the perceived idea of those times as a swamp of ignorance and barbarity that was finally and thankfully swept aside by the flowering of the Renaissance, followed by the Enlightenment.

The major calamity or disruption to civilisation was the collapse of the Roman Empire: after that, the story is one of people and principalities attempting to pick up the pieces and stick something back together again, a tale of warlords and would-be aristocrats learning how to build and maintain countries, defining the nature of kingship and its relationship to those being ruled, against a backdrop of the Church and the Papacy also flexing its muscles and trying to assume ever more power, as well as defining itself in increasingly secular terms. You can certainly see, by the end of the book, where the impulses for the Reformation came from: the corruption of the Church was truly scandalous.

The scale of the task of recovering from a collapse of civilisation is vast: Fried shows us how much had to be rediscovered and re-invented (and was – the idea that all learning vanished until the Renaissance is clearly untrue). Even the capacities of language itself were limited, as the universal language had disappeared…

A great deal of work clearly went on: monastic orders were founded and texts were preserved, even if then lost again or not understood; cities developed and the necessary apparatus of law painfully developed to allow trade and the slow evolution of what would become capitalism, and Europe itself; the old religious attitudes to money (root of all evil) and interest (sinful) were gradually reinterpreted as everyone came to see how essential both were to progress…

Equally, Fried shows us the beginnings of the growth of reason, the gulf opening up between it and faith, which I had again always associated with the Renaissance and Enlightenment: ways of thinking evolved and you can see the gradual development of the European mind; the task of defending religion (specifically the Catholic Church) against the onslaughts of reason was already a challenging task towards the end of these times.

The picture of the Middle Ages as an obscurantist epoch is ultimately, Fried demonstrates, a product of the Enlightenment rather than a truth about those times. The quest for knowledge was pursued vigorously and moved towards the era of exploration and contact with the world outside Europe; even though a great deal of geographical knowledge from earlier times did in fact still exist, it was not easily accessible or directly usable, and this helped keep the brakes on discovery.

Fried’s overall sweep is masterly, through such an enormous amount of material: over the course of the book he does manage to draw together the vital strands and show how they came together over time; the thematic chapters were for me far more interesting than the endless iteration of names of princelings throughout Europe. He shows us the gradual development which ultimately led to the coherence of Europe as a place and an idea, the centre of a particular civilisation which, for better or worse, we are all part of…

On Jane Austen

July 18, 2017

It’s two hundred years today – 18 July – since she died. I’ve visited the house she lived in at Chawton, places in Bath where she lived and stayed and went to balls, I’ve stood outside the house where she died in Winchester and stood by her memorial in the cathedral and mused. What is is about her that is so attractive, and so important?

I managed to avoid her at school – but then, at a boys’ boarding school, that wasn’t hard. No-one ever suggested reading her. So my first encounter with a writer that I had vague notions of being romantic and dull came in my first year at university, where we were faced with Mansfield Park. Not the easiest start… and yet, I really liked it. Perhaps because it’s more complex, with a wider range of characters and locations, a heroine who’s a prig, political issues: I don’t know, but it was a good one to begin with: I went on to read all the other novels, and have been coming back to them regularly, ever since. And once I was drawn into the many subtleties of her written style, I began to realise just how clever she was.

Looked at baldly, there’s not a lot there: a few families in a village or small town. Intrigues which lead up to the heroine getting Mr Right. Happy ever after. Things that seem quite bizarre to a twenty-first century reader: Emma Woodhouse marrying the man who played with her on his knee when she was a baby? Fanny Price marrying the man she has grown up with for over ten years? Marianne Dashwood ending up with Colonel Brandon, who is twice her age? And then there’s what’s not said – slavery, warfare, enclosures…

My two favourite novels are Persuasion and Mansfield Park, so I’ll concentrate on them, and try and explain why Austen is so brilliant, at least to me…

Mansfield Park has a wonderful range of characters. There’s the vile Mrs Norris, who makes Fanny’s life hell, penny-pinches, and who bears some responsibility for Maria’s final disaster; the wonderfully laid-back and air-headed Lady Bertram who is so horizontal she even manages to forget her lap-dog’s gender; the ridiculously rich and brain-dead Mr Rushworth; the exciting and attractive – almost Satanic – Crawford pair, and the wonderful Portsmouth family that Fanny is eventually so toe-curlingly ashamed of. Issues are raised: the Bertram family money comes from plantations in the West Indies; the changing English countryside with its many ‘improvements’ reflects the enclosures of the time and the gradual and inevitable move from an agricultural to an industrial society, and Fanny is wistful about what is being lost; the Portsmouth scenes are set in the nation’s largest naval port against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. Austen knew what was going on, but she wasn’t writing War and Peace, or Middlemarch

The Napoleonic Wars are even more obvious in Persuasion: they’re the whole background to Wentworth’s success and the reason he’s a suitable match for Anne Elliot eight years after their first parting; there is poverty in Mrs Smith, Anne’s friend, her background and where she lives: Sir Walter is horrified by Westgate Buildings as an address…

Jane Austen wrote about the world she knew, as a woman and of her times. Never in her novels do men converse apart from women: she had no idea what they might speak of. But she knew, and her life story shows, that a woman’s position depended on finding a (suitable) man, and early enough, to ensure her future security. The novels are full of women who have found men and suffer for it; Charlotte Lucas’ sad tale exemplifies that sort of an ending. Austen leads her heroines along difficult paths before they eventually end up with men who love them – a relative novelty in those days – and who therefore do have a chance of living happily ever after. And in none of her novels is the denouement as powerful as at the end of Persuasion, where the love and desire is evident and the heroine acts – in so far as she is able – to secure her happiness.

Just because the novels are not realistic – and I’ve written often about the slipperiness of that word – does not mean that real questions are not confronted and explored in the novels. And there’s fantasy and wish-fulfilment, too. Readers who have revisited the novels repeatedly (and there are many of you out there, I’m sure) will recognise Austen’s amazing command of, and facility with the English language, as well as her wit, her irony, her ability to make you stop short at an opinion or idea to wonder and re-read ‘who’s speaking there?’ Ah, the shifting sands of authorial (un)reliability…

Like Shakespeare, for me Jane Austen is a writer for all time: she observes closely and sharply, yet creates a cosy world which we perhaps unconsciously aspire to, and she places striving for love and personal happiness at the heart of the world, with which we cannot disagree.

James Blish: A Case of Conscience

July 15, 2017

51pvowfQhAL._AC_US218_ (1)Occasionally a senior moment – or too many books – leads me to buy a book I already have in my library. Something recently prompted me to read this, so it duly went onto my list of books to look for. But a nagging thought sent me to my database, and, lo and behold, I already had a copy, last read over thirty years ago…

It’s an interesting novel from almost sixty years ago. Contact has been made, and humans have visited, intelligent life on another planet. As always, the scientific details of how FTL flight works have to be vaguely explained, the reader has to be blinded with science; what our world is like in the year 2049 has to be guessed at, and the longer that elapses since the novel was written, the more outlandish it seems: humans still recording messages and data on tape?

The moral dilemma at the centre of the novel is faced by a Jesuit priest, who is a biologist and one of the first four humans to visit the planet Lithia with a remit from the UN to recommend what the nature of human interaction with the inhabitants should be. Unfortunately, the technologically advanced Lithians are incapable of anti-social acts and behaviour; they are good because it is logical and natural to them to behave thus. And they have no religion or concept of God. From our Jesuit’s perspective therefore, they must be a creation of the evil one (because it removes the necessity of God from the picture) – Satan – to test the human race; by making such a judgement he falls into the Manichaean heresy, allowing creative power to the forces of evil, and must face the consequences of this. His recommendation, that the planet be quarantined forever from contact with humans, seems logical to us nowadays, but he is out-manoeuvred by those who would exploit its resources, with ultimately disastrous consequences.

All sorts of complex issues are raised in this novel, including that of whether the hero’s moral judgements are inevitably flawed because limited by his own earthly perspective. Sadly, I feel Blish loses focus in the later parts of the novel, where a Lithian is raised on Earth and causes chaos and mayhem through the contradictions between his Lithian heritage and its interaction with flawed (fallen?) humanity: it’s harder to see what the writer intends us to focus on, unless it is the complexity of any interaction with an alien species. Where are the possible points of contact and understanding? For me, the theological strand was the only really interesting one, the moral, cultural and social questions being rather more run-of-the-mill.

Well worth a read: I’m not aware of much good quality, thought-provoking SF from the fifties, but this one certainly woke me up.

Ellis Peters: Brother Cadfael

July 12, 2017

I’ve long been partial to these mediaeval tales, and a recent trip to a charity shop brought me a good deal closer to completing my collection, with three more novels. I like detective stories, I’m interested in mediaeval history and monasticism and have grown to love Shrewsbury and Shropshire over the years. Also, in the Abbey church today is Wilfred Owen’s monument. So, what’s not to like, as they say?

Ellis Peters (a pseudonym) was well-versed in place and time, as well as the daily life of Benedictine monasteries; though I don’t go looking for errors, I have not yet come across any. And, in the genre of the detective story, she does extremely well.

To begin with, her hero (?) Brother Cadfael, is no ordinary monk, called to a life of prayer and contemplation from an early age, and knowing nothing else: his was a mature vocation, after adventures in the Crusades, full experience of worldly life which we gradually learn about through the cycle of novels. Eventually we learn of his loves in the East, and that he has a son. As the abbey’s herbalist, he needs to be out and about collecting what he needs to make his remedies, and this allows him to pursue his investigations. He’s a very sharp observer, and his past gives him a broad knowledge and understanding of human behaviour that many of his fellow monks lack.

The formula for successful detective stories often requires a sidekick – a Watson to every Holmes. Ellis Peters develops, over the course of the novels, an interesting tweak: once the old Shropshire sheriff is succeeded by his deputy, a true friendship and effective working relationship develops between the religious and the secular, as Cadfael and Hugh Berengar work together to unravel a range of mysteries.

Obviously crime is a key element of such fiction, but the kinds of crime are not the same through the whole genre: in mediaeval times murder, revenge, theft and concealed identity dominate; financial and sexual crime, blackmail and the like, which are more prevalent in recent times, are pretty much absent. And in an age where the rule of law is not firmly established in the same way it is now, it is much easier for criminals to flee and escape justice completely: the relative lawlessness and foreign jurisdiction of Wales are literally on the doorstep; the English crown and government is by no means secure in the mid-twelfth century, either… Like Holmes, who can be his own moral compass as a consulting detective and allow someone to avoid the strict penalty of the law if he feels it justified, so Cadfael too chooses at times not to reveal facts others have not managed to notice; his moral judgements are between himself and his confessor.

Atmosphere and continuity are further aspects of success in the genre: consider Conan Doyle’s masterly evocation of Victorian London, the largest metropolis on the planet at the time, ultra-modern, at the heart of a huge world empire and yet concealing much darkness, poverty and evil, or Raymond Chandler’s wealthy, sexy and sleazy California or Colin Dexter’s Oxford. Peters’ evocation of a mediaeval city, its religious and secular sides and its hinterland, is masterly, convincing and detailed; it builds up through the series of twenty-one books, and is often supplemented by carefully-drawn maps. We come to know the abbey in detail; the personnel change, as they would over a period of about ten years covered by all the stories; relationships and interactions develop over time just as does that between Holmes and Watson over the fifty-six stories of that canon.

Compared with other detectives and other times, I often feel there is not a lot of actual detection in these stories – the sciences that would support this in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are obviously undeveloped – although a sense of mystery is sustained, solution of the mystery follows in the usual way by not letting the reader in on everything that the detective has observed or deduced until the very end, and often all is cleared up through a forced confession by the guilty party. The pace is leisurely, couleur locale is paramount, the characters are interesting: Ellis Peters is a full member of the club of master detective story writers. Easy and enjoyable reading.

On honour, duty, loyalty and patriotism

July 9, 2017

I’ve been thinking about these topics as a result of the previous book I read, about Major-General Sosabowski’s loyalty to his country, and where it got him. I’ve never felt in the least bit patriotic, shocking as this may sound, and I’m aware that some of this lack of feeling may come from being neither fish nor fowl, half-English and half-Polish. But somewhere I’ve always agreed with Johnson’s adage that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Looking rather more seriously at the issue, I have always found it almost impossible to understand why men marched to their deaths in the Great War in the way they did. I have stood at various places on the former western front, where the British climbed out into no-man’s-land on the first day of the battle of the Somme and looked into the distance at the crest of the hill some hundreds of yards away where the Germans were entrenched, and thought, my God how could anyone bring themselves to do that? And, when teaching the A level English Literature paper on Literature and the First World War, students and I would agree that we could not behave like that now, we would not be prepared to die like that…

Writers and poets of the time were clearly doing what they felt to be their duty, including rebels like Sassoon who threw his medals into the Mersey and brought much opprobrium on himself by writing in protest against the way the war was being conducted. He felt loyalty and a duty of care to the men under his command, as did Wilfred Owen, who also protested against incompetent leadership in his poems, and who ultimately gave his life.

I’ve also wondered about what creates and fosters a sense of loyalty to one’s country. Shakespeare creates a marvellous picture of ‘this sceptred isle’ in the famous speech in Richard II, and I agree that England is a beautiful country that is very fortunately situated… but to die for? And because we are an island, unconquered for nearly a thousand years, we do not perhaps understand what happens in the thoughts of others. French casualties in the Great War were horrendous, and a huge proportion of the deaths came in the first months of the war as the French strove desperately to drive the marauding German invaders from their country. I can see that men like Sosabowski felt great loyalty to their nation which, having only regained independence in 1918 after over a century of non-existence, was snuffed out a mere twenty years later by the combined treachery of Nazis and Soviets, and why thousands of men like my father volunteered for the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade that Sosabowski set up in order to train men for the liberation of Warsaw (which never happened). And having read his book, I am now clearer about the enormous sense of betrayal all those men felt as a result of Churchill’s machinations after Arnhem and in the closing months of the war.

Similarly, it’s quite clear the sense of pride in their country, in the motherland, in defending their socialist homeland, that the millions of Soviet men and women who died in the Great Patriotic War felt, even in spite of the horrors of Stalinism which they had also lived through. Reading novels like Vassily Grossman’s epic Life and Fate, or the last part of Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat trilogy, Dust and Ashes, is incredibly moving, and, for me, a learning experience about the meaning of loyalty and patriotism. And Svetlana Alexievich’s book of Soviet women at war was even more powerful, because true…

Sadly, I have to say that very little about the current nation of England (or Great Britain, or the United Kingdom) makes me feel proud, other than our National Health Service, which the current government is doing its best to wreck. And throughout the Cold War I was aware that any conflict with the Warsaw Pact would mean that ‘my’ country would be attacking the country where half my family lived, while ‘their’ country would be trying to kill us… I wasn’t looking forward to the consequences of being a conscientious objector, but mentally prepared myself. And then I discovered that I would have been a ‘security risk’ because of my family on the ‘other side’ and thus probably not liable to service anyway.

Somewhere on the other side of the scales, before I get too serious, I have to put Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, the story of a congenital idiot who volunteers to do his patriotic duty at the start of the Great War, for the Austro-Hungarian Empire… one of only two humorous books I know of about war (Catch-22 is the other) and remind myself that, like the Irishman asked for directions, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here. In other words, like Johnson, we ought to be stepping back from the issues of patriotism, loyalty and duty to ask ourselves why we got into the mess in the first place, and aren’t there rather better ways of dealing with our problems?

Beware those who offer you easy answers (especially if their names begin with ‘T’)!

Stanisław Sosabowski: Freely I served

July 8, 2017

51+Vj24M6CL._AC_US218_I’m not one for reading memoirs of military men, but I made an exception for this one. Major-General Stanisław Sosabowski was the founder and commanding officer of the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade, in which my father served, in the medical company, and took part in the Battle of Arnhem in September 1944. I’ve been doing some family history research, which is quite difficult given his life story, and it was time to fill in a couple of pieces of the jigsaw.

Sosabowski tells his own story: from humble beginnings in Austro-Hungarian Galicia to a military career during the Great War and also in the Polish Second Republic. He took part in the September 1939 campaign against the Nazi invaders and helped in the defence of Warsaw. Almost immediately after the Polish defeat, he became involved in the resistance, which eventually became the Home Army; he was soon sent on a mission to Rumania, and laconically records that, after that departure from Poland, he never saw his homeland again.

It’s things like that which bring home to me the sadness and bitterness of refugees, which we cannot understand from our positions of comfort and security. My father never saw his parents again after he was called up in August 1939, but he was fortunate and adventurous enough eventually to make the journey to the Belorussian SSR and revisit when he was born and grew up.

Sosabowski, because of his involvement with the underground, came via France to the UK; Polish forces at that time were based in Scotland and he had the idea of founding a parachute brigade which would eventually be able to take a lead part in the liberation of Warsaw. One of life’s great bitternesses was that when the call eventually came for help on August 1st 1944, the British would not allow the Poles to go…

Sosabowski succeeded in building up and training a highly professional organisation, which was not under Allied command but responsible to the Polish Government-in-exile in London; the British Army coveted the brigade and spent much time and effort manoeuvring to get it under its control. Eventually the Polish Government allowed the brigade to be used in the wider European theatre of war, and it saw action in the disastrous and ill-planned Arnhem action. There are detailed accounts of a horrendous battle over several days, and Sosabowski analyses the reasons for the debacle from his point of view: what he says seems to make clear sense to this non-expert reader…

He acknowledges himself that throughout his army career he was rather an awkward customer and always spoke his mind; this did not go down well with the British, especially when he was right! And because the time was one of greater scheming and politicking among the Allied powers, Sosabowski’s dismissal from his command was engineered by the British government and armed forces. One gets the impression of a very shabby episode, with various people scurrying to cover their own backs, in the context of a wider sell-out of the Polish nation, for whom Britain had originally gone to war in the first place. The book was a decent read and I felt rather better informed about times my father chose not to speak of.

On perspectives (2)

July 5, 2017

Isidore of Seville wrote what is generally acknowledge to have been the world’s first encyclopaedia in the seventh century CE; he is now the patron saint of the internet (!). Athanasius Kircher, in the seventeenth century, may have been the last human to have known everything that was known; today we have the web, billions of pages of… what? I’ve never forgotten a librarian friend describing the internet as an enormous library, with all the books thrown in a heap on the floor.

It’s clearly an aspect of growing older, but I do find myself thinking that there isn’t enough time to read all the things I want to read, to understand all the stuff I want to understand, to visit all the places I want to visit: I find myself mentally deferring things until my next existence…

So, how does one cope with the vastness of the world and its possibilities? The easy way is gradually to retreat into one’s own personal bubble, a relatively narrow, restricted world, and stay in it. It’s the Brexit world to me, for want of a better image. And not only is this an easy choice, it’s also often an unconscious choice. Or one can try to engage with the world in some of its vastness, and attempt to comprehend it in various ways: I read about it, talk to people about it, travel and read about the travels of others.

What sense can one person make of the world? Here one runs into the dangers of moral relativism: let’s try and be as open-minded as possible, accepting that there are very different societies with very different behaviours, morals, customs which we are not part of, therefore let’s not be judgemental… and suddenly we may find ourselves silently condoning genital mutilation or stoning people to death for adultery and other such enormities. By what right and criteria do we allow ourselves then to pass judgements on, to evaluate others’ behaviours? Somewhere way back in my studies of renaissance French literature I remember an adage from someone, which I found wise then and still do now: anything which brings pleasure and does no harm to others, should be allowed. And yet the terms are somewhat elusive, even here… At least this takes us beyond the narrowness of ‘what I like’ and ‘what I understand’.

I do find the world a very challenging place; I know it’s the only place I have to live, though there have been times when I’ve fantasised about moving to the depths of Siberia or somewhere else where I might avoid the rest of the species. I’m astonished at some of the amazing things we have done – such as the exploration of the world and outer space, and travelling to the moon – and some of the geniuses that have emerged from humanity – Bach and Shakespeare to mention my favourite examples – but in my darker moments I do feel that we really are not a very intelligent species, and perhaps do not deserve to survive. Then, when I remember a book like Olaf Stapledon‘s brilliant Last and First Men, which takes humanity several billion years into the future, I sorrow at the vanishing of our achievements in the mists of time, a true Ozymandias moment.

I think I like challenges (moderate ones, at least), and I do like learning new things. The older I get, the less I realise I really know, and I suspect that this is a function of age. The world, and the understanding of it, is a quest that has to go on forever, for me personally at least.

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