Archive for September, 2020

Horace Smith: Ozymandias

September 28, 2020

Dedicated to all my former sixth form students of English Literature.

In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:—
“I am great OZYMANDIAS,” saith the stone,
“The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
The wonders of my hand.”— The City’s gone,—
Naught but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.

We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

I was astonished recently when something sent me to the wikipedia article on Ozymandias, and I learned that there was another version of the poem, for Shelley and Horace Smith had had a friendly competition to write a poem on the subject. Shelley’s survives and is well-known; this student and teacher of English Lit for half a century had not heard of Smith’s poem. I refer you to the excellent article for texts of both poems side-by-side and decent contextual background, too. I’m not going to write a detailed crit of Smith’s effort: you can do that for yourself. I just wanted to share the discovery.

The ‘leg’ somehow wrecks the poem for me – twice. It’s the sound of the word, its shortness coupled with the short, open vowel that just screams incongruity with the subject-matter.

Alliteration (sandy silence – the sibilants suggesting sand shifting in the desert wind, just as in the closing lines of Shelley’s poem) and assonance (the long vowel sounds at the end of the first three lines, the mournful ‘o’) create atmosphere and romantic sensation in Smith’s poem, just as Shelley does. But, I don’t think it’s just the familiarity of Shelley’s poem that makes it so much better: I do think he does so much more with all the poetic devices he brings in to play.

The sestet redeems Smith’s poem, though, by bringing in a perspective that Shelley doesn’t: the fact that this oblivion may affect the world and time to which we belong. The image of a huge, forgotten fragment of London creates a shock for the contemporary reader, striking a chord like that much later moment towards the end of Planet of the Apes. The alliteration of the ‘w’ sounds, repetition of ‘wonder’, use of the antiquated and biblical ‘wilderness’ create an atmosphere of desolation; London in the past tense ‘stood’, and the sense of abandonment conjured up by the ‘wolf’ are rather effective, I find. Smith has a ‘Hunter’ rather than Shelley’s ‘traveller’ but this character is equally effective, perhaps more so in the sense of a more primitive being, not understanding what he finds. And ‘annihilated’ works well in that final line, too.

Here’s a piece I wrote earlier.

On curiosity

September 21, 2020

Yes, aphoristically it killed the cat, but I’ve always been a curious type; I notice things and want to know more, to ask questions and get answers. Why? For the sheer satisfaction of knowing, I think. And throughout my life I’ve always been a little surprised that not everyone is like me: there are so many people who just appear to plod on through life without ever wanting or needing to know why…

There are things I’ve always been interested in, and found relatively straightforward: reading and languages in particular. They helped turn me into a bit of a traveller, one that couldn’t help but be curious about all those different places, their habits, behaviours and customs, their food and drink…

Equally, I’ve always enjoyed talking about and discussing all sorts of subjects, arguing at times, too, although less of that as I’ve grown older and perhaps more reflective and more accepting of differences – or better at avoiding people with whom I’m not going to get on. As a student, many evenings and nights were spent ranging widely as we attempted to set the world to rights, far into the early hours.

There have been times when I surprised myself by doing something rather more adventurous, moving out of my comfort zone, as it were. Learning to drive was something I affected not to be interested in for a good while, but while still in my hippy days I decided I would learn; it was not easy or straightforward, but it was worthwhile and at the moment I have the confidence to take myself off on solo road trips all over Europe, visiting places I would otherwise never be able to get to.

I was dismissive of computers and IT as well, until they began to creep into the teaching profession, at which point I was incredibly fortunate in having a self-taught head of IT as a mentor in school; she encouraged me and assisted me in so many different ways, and I developed abilities and competences and explored far more widely than I needed to, and discovered I actually enjoyed playing with computers and the internet. I ended up teaching myself to use linux pretty competently when I got too frustrated with Windows… and was an IT volunteer at my local library for a while after I had retired from teaching. And I managed successfully, at the end of a telephone, to keep my mother of eighty-plus years happily online for a good few years: she got a lot of pleasure from the internet, too.

I never expected to become as interested in gardening as I now am. I started collecting and caring for houseplants as a student, moved on to cacti, and when we were finally able to afford homes with gardens, found calm and relaxation and satisfaction in weeding and tending the garden, fruit bushes and trees especially.

What is the point of it all? In the end I have a limited number of years on the planet, and will not be able to do everything I want to do, travel everywhere I’d like to see, or read everything I’d like to read, so I have grown used to making choices. And I have realised that curiosity has opened new doors at various points in my life, and given me new opportunities. I know that the incredibly complex bundle of biology and electricity that makes me tick will stop at some point, but until then I’ll chase whatever catches my eye. Asking ever more questions is the way to go, along with realising that there are no easy answers…

Sanmao: Stories of the Sahara

September 21, 2020

91Xc988sUGL._AC_UL320_      This book came with three strong recommendations – from a fellow blogger, from a former student, and the very fact that it had ‘Sahara’ in the title: I’ll go for anything that’s about deserts.

It was very different from what I’d expected. Sanmao was a young Taiwanese woman in a relationship with a Spanish man (eventually married to him) working in the phosphate mines which were the mainstay of the economy of what was the Spanish Sahara in the 1970s. She was fascinated by deserts and wanted to live in one, and these stories are about various aspects of their lives in the colony, in the years running up to the independence struggle and eventual annexation by Morocco. So there’s not a lot of actual travel in the Sahara, but a lot of detail about life there.

Sanmao observes and records just how different life is for the Sahrawi people from that of relatively wealthy and educated Westerners. She feels great sympathy with their difficult lives (especially the lives of the women), respecting local customs and behaviour and tending to remain silent at times when they behave in ways which appal her: there is a sensitivity to a culture of which she is not a part and which she is conscious she may not fully understand. She shares her misgivings with her readers.

At times she seems quite laconic in her attitude, necessarily distant in so many ways from the people she lives among, yet though the series of stories we do sense he involvement with them, a bond and an empathy with people. Though not overtly feminist, she stands up for the Sahrawi women in ways in which she can, attempting to set up a school for them, and, of course, as a woman herself she is granted insights into local life, culture and traditions which no man could access. There are times when both she and her husband seem incredibly naive in their approach to the world of the desert and its people. I got a sense of just how different a culture and a place can be from what one is used to…

The stories are short chapters, often merely tantalising glimpses of a different world. Sanmao’s love of the desert is a simple one. And yet, she is also capable of very powerful and moving accounts, particularly later on, when insurgency and warfare directly impinge on her life and on the people she is closest to. The violence and brutality are horrifying and she is unable to help or save any of her three local friends. And the narrative of her encounter with slavery was truly shocking. For her it was a cultural shock which she did not really understand and clearly could not accept, and the power of the writing came from the very powerlessness she experienced in that situation.

It was a surprise that such a different and moving relation of encounters with the Sahara and its people had taken so long to be translated into English, and I do hope it’s widely read: I certainly recommend it.

Georges Duhamel: Civilisation

September 7, 2020

I encountered Duhamel the novelist when studying French at A Level: Confession de Minuit I remember vaguely as a short tale of a strange misanthropic fellow who gradually fell out with everyone and everything, and became a recluse… I’m sure I paraphrase badly from a memory nearly half a century old. I had not know until relatively recently of Duhamel’s service as an ambulance and first aid orderly in the First World War, and his accounts of his experiences.

The title is clearly ironic, as he reflects on where the marvels of our Western civilisation, of which we are so proud, have finally brought us: the trenches of the Somme. He was a Frenchman, his country invaded and parts of it occupied; his angle and viewpoint are thus quite different from accounts by British writers and combatants. Nonetheless, he maintains a distance as he observes, describes and occasionally comments. He writes in detail, with a reflective tone, passing judgement from time to time. As a stretcher-bearer he sees all aspects of the death and the mutilation of young and old.

One overwhelming impression is of the mechanisation of warfare, and the sheer masses of everything – men, horses, equipment, munitions – involved, gathered, marshalled and then distributed ready for destruction: a sense of utter derangement and insanity emerges from these descriptions.

He describes deaths at great length, clearly deeply affected by what he saw, including a close friendship which develops, with a man he knows is doomed to die, but who himself does not know. It is quite heart-breaking…

How is this book different from all the others I’ve read or listened to about this conflict? Here, warfare – the fighting itself – is almost a mere detail. These are the philosophical reflections of an educated, intelligent and sensitive man, involved against his will and deeply aware of the insanity and obscenity of it all as he conveys it lucidly to his readers, and we are shocked and disturbed when we pause to reflect on what he has been telling us.

Here is a catalogue of gruesome episodes and encounters, related with great humanity, detailed descriptions of the torments of the wounded and the dying, and in these accounts they are humanised, they are individuals with stories, and no longer the telephone numbers of the vast casualty lists. Duhamel sums up his message in a powerful final and reflective chapter called ‘Civilisation’.

It’s short; it was an eye-opener to this seasoned reader of Great War literature; it’s available free in English from the Internet Archive.

Benedict Allen: The Skeleton Coast

September 7, 2020

Although I’ve read quite widely about travellers in many deserts, accounts of the Kalahari are few and far between and hard to come by, but this companion book to a BBC series from 1997 turned up; I’ve read one or two things previously by Benedict Allen and enjoyed them, as well as his door-stopper of an anthology of exploration. My father had told me about the Kalahari when I was a boy, and I know that his journey from Siberia to this country had included several months necessary rest and recuperation from starvation and illness in South Africa, but I don’t know whether he ever got to see the actual desert.

First thing: the map is excellent and means pretty much every step of his journey along the coast of Namibia by camel can be followed on it. The diary form works well, too, bringing a sense of immediacy as well as emphasising the hardship; yes, you know he’s going to survive because he writes the book in the end, but you share the journey quite intimately.

Allen conveys the weirdness of the place in good, atmospheric descriptions, which are accompanied by some amazing photographs. There is a sense of a place lost in time, which is emphasised by all the settlements which have been abandoned to the desert. The journey he proposed to undertake was a serious challenge, even at the end of the twentieth century, and many doubted that it could actually be done.

So what you get through his daily entries is a gripping, straightforward account of a very difficult journey, his enjoyment and endurance, and the feeling that he is a part of the place through which he travels. In some ways his manner and approach remind me of the travels of Michael Asher, which you can find reviewed elsewhere in this blog. His determination is important, and the sense that he feels part of the places through which he travels comes over effectively, though he is not travelling as a seeker in the same sense as someone like Ella Maillart, for instance. He enjoys the advantages and privileges of being a relatively wealthy and sponsored Westerner, but these do not intrude, are not flaunted or obvious; here is a real traveller.

In the end, another explorer of whom I felt envious: much as I’d love to do something like that myself, I know I’m not the sort of person who could; I admire anyone who can.

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